Over thick and over thin, till we come to Hegmore's Inn.
--Shropshire Charm to Cross the Hedge
Oot and Aboot:
Fern Gazing, Eyeing Apples and Inducing the Trance
In Chapter Ten of Emma Wilby's book "Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits" she gives a brief illustration of what would appear to be a decidedly simple technique for inducing the trance. Part of this technique involves that same sort of monotonous focus that we have discussed previously as it relates to spinning and also tracing patterns in stone. The actions involved in this technique are less involved with the physical and much more so with the subtle art of a type of deep contemplation. I'll share the description given of this 17th century technique by an English clergyman as Emma shared it and then add my own comments afterwards.
"It was my happe that since I undertooke the Ministerie, to question an ignorant soule, (whom by undoubted report I had known to have been seduced by a teacher of unhallowed arts to make a dangerous experiment) what he saw, or heard, when he watcht the falling of the Ferne-seed at an unseasonable and suspitious houre. Why (quoth he) (fearing (as his brief reply occasioned me to conjecture) lest I should press unto him to tell before company, what he had voluntarily confessed unto a friend in secret, about some fourteene years before) doe you thinke that the devill hath ought to do with that good seed? No: it is in the keeping of the King of Fayries, and it I know will do me no harme, although I should watch it again."
This account of a popular invocatory ritual as Emma classifies it, mentions that the man merely needed to sit and watch the "falling of the Ferne-seed", this deceptively simplistic act took place in an hour that did not seem suitable to the Minister so we can deduct that it was probably close to midnight or thereabouts -- midnight being a most propitious hour to see and avail oneself of communication with spirits. What Emma doesn't go into is the associated lore of the Fern itself, which bears additional attentions as it relates to this practice for the art of inducing the trance.
A quick scan through the Oxford dictionary of Folklore by Simpson and Roud informs us that during Elizabethan times, the seed of the Fern was only thought to be visible around midnight on Midsummer Eve. The companion/counterpart holiday of St. Mark's Eve was known as the Devil's Harvest as the Fern was thought to blossom, bud and seed all between the hours of midnight and one in the morning, anyone who managed to catch any of the seeds between two pewter plates at that time would become as wise as the devil.
This associated lore makes us aware that what the gentleman in the previous description was actually doing was stilling his mind and focusing his entire intent upon the fern plant, whether the fern actually bore seed is not the important aspect here, what needs to be noted is that while in his state of solitude it was in the act of continuous gazing upon the fern that he was able to commit his attention solely to the purpose of seeking out those altered states of consciousness. This then allowed him communion with his fetch spirit (or familiar) for whatever purposes he warranted, be it simple companionship or the need of specific information.
While externally he would have appeared to have a very modest and mundane countenance with minimal physical actions (quite unlike the ecstatic drumming and dancing also used by shamans to generate such states), inwardly he would have been in the midst of an enthusiastic and profound visionary experience. A key component to this type of activity is noted in the folkloric revelation that the fern was thought to seed only during Midsummer, in this we can take note of the time frame needed for such a deep type of meditation, one that would allow for that altered perception to arise could take quite a while (long enough for Fern to seed) to prove to be truly effective.
I am also reminded of the big rock, little rock exercise that Holger Kalweit writes about in his book Dreamtime and Inner Space. In order to achieve the same sort of trance state shaman initiates would rub or scrape a small rock against a larger rock, working up a subtle rhythm that served much the same purpose. This constant and single attention to this lonely task would eventually allow for the trance to overcome the shaman for whatever purposes he desired, again, information seeking, companionship and such are the prime motivators for the entreaty of such states.
Like many others, I initially had difficulty in being able to generate such trance states. I found it a hard and difficult task to still my mind and shut down the daily chatter of noise and external influences. Each time my mind wandered I lost hope that I would ever be able to achieve what I desired. What I found was that it was a combination of trying and not trying and the parallel I wish to draw upon is one that involves those stereogram pictures that proved to be so popular a few years ago. You know, the ones that hide a specific image within a hidden landscape of random colors and shapes, much like the static on a television.
I tried for months and months to see those hidden vistas and at one point thought it was an elaborate prank that those who swore they could see such images, the dancing faeries and jousting knights buried amid all that colorful noise actually did. I was sure they were all pulling my leg and that there was nothing behind all those vibrant dots and squiggles. Finally, one day, I just sat there, gazing away, just as if I were looking at a beautiful green fern and waiting for it to seed, I was not looking too intently and yet I was also looking intently when it happened, the form and shape of something else began to appear and as it filled in I was overcome with excitement and right away I lost my concentration, the hidden image faded and it took some trying to get it to re-emerge...but eventually it did.
This is the same sort of detailed and very focused concentration that a person needs to utilize when seeking out these transpersonal states. Daniel Schulke gives an example of a similar type of technique in his book the Viridarium Umbris. In Chapter 22, The Green Hieroglyphick, he gives instruction for a specific technique, the Praxis Sylva, called the Apple of the Eye in which the gaze is focused upon an apple rather than a seeding Fern. The functions of this and the Fern-seed rite overlap in that this practice teaches one to see with more than just the eyes. This exercise trains you to still your mind and to think in ways that do not involve language or words. Daniel writes that when viewing the apple; do not let your mind interpret what you see by the word "apple". Look at the apple, gaze intently upon the apple and be diligent while your eyes tire, water, resist and fight to look elsewhere. Do not use familiar terms that allow you to describe the apple in a normal traditional fashion. The practice of such techniques will, after time allow you to "hold firmly the reigns of the mind".
So if there are some of you out there who haven't quite mastered the art of the trance yet, perhaps the information shared here will encourage you to continue your seeking out of these altered stated and you will be able to continue your practice with a renewed vigor.
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