Word of the Week: Liminality

Liminality (from the Latin limen, meaning ‘a threshold’ – Wikipedia) denotes a state that is betwixt or between, a transition, border or threshold between different states of being, places or times. It is the middle ground between one thing and another, a place of limbo having qualities of both but being identified with neither. A liminal place has more likelihood of hosting a supernatural event, or it can provide the optimum conditions for an act of magic to propagate successfully, especially if the act is performed at a liminal time. Examples of liminal places include caves, bogs, springs, rivers, coastlines, fords, marshes, passes, mountaintops and, importantly, boundaries. Liminality is a boundary condition.

mountaintops – between the earth and the sky.

If you have ever stood on a peat bog gazing into the inky blackness of a watery pool, you will understand the concept of liminality. The pull is strong, and the urge to throw oneself into the apparently bottomless pool can be hard to resist. You can instinctively understand why the Celts regarded these black mirrors as portals to the Underworld, and why they felt compelled to make sacrificial offerings of weapons or treasure to them. Liminal boundaries seem to exude this sort of attraction; the subconscious urge to throw oneself off a cliff or other high place, to dive into the sea from a moving ship, to climb a high mountain, the fascination with staring into a fire – these are all examples of liminal effects. We are connecting with the Spiritus Mundi – the collective unconscious at these moments. Consciously we are barely aware of it of course – that’s why we use the term subliminal for these kinds of stimuli, influences that are below our normal threshold of awareness.

The cave – entrance to the Underworld

Caves are another good example of liminal places; they are a transitional zone extending into the Underworld itself, the very womb of the Goddess. It is no surprise that the Neolithic shamans painted their ochre figures on cave walls to communicate with the Ancestors and the spirits of the animals they hunted. It is easy to picture the paintings coming to life and the spirits emerging from the rock face in the flickering torchlight.

In human experience, liminal life events would include the period between first menstruation and first sexual experience, between graduation and first job, engagement and marriage, conception and birth and of course the ultimate liminal event, death. We feel a need to mark these transitions with ritual observations and community ceremonies, each of which further imprints the moment in time upon our collective memories.

A railway line, a motorway, a national border or even a wall dividing two communities in a town or city can all be seen as liminal places. Their strength or power will depend on how long the artefact has been there and the effect it has had on the people either side of it. For instance, the Berlin Wall had a huge liminal presence and the collective psycho-spiritual and emotional release when it came down was enormous. No-man’s land, airports and hotels (for travellers, not those working there), disputed territories, and of course, crossroads are all liminal areas. The tale of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, is a classic example of liminality. If you are a fan of the Narnia books, even a wardrobe can become a liminal place for you.

Liminal times are typically twilight and dawn, the zones between darkness and sunlight; and also midnight, as well as seasonal dates such as Hogmanay, the solstices and equinoxes, and the cross-quarter days of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Acts of magic performed at these times are thought to be more effective as the energies of the time, being in a state of flux between one time and the next, are more amenable to manipulation and control. In the classical parlance, ‘the Veil is thin’ at these times.

Between earth and sky at Lewes fire festival.

Beltane,the start of summer in the Celtic year when the land is at its most fertile, was traditionally the time when the herds were moved up into the hills and the fires of the community were extinguished and ‘rebooted’ by lighting them from a central flame, the Bel- or need-fire, which would have been kindled by hand using a fire drill or perhaps a burning glass. It’s one of the major turning points of the year, the other being Samhain when the Wheel turns towards the dark once again. At these between-times, often the normal mores and customs of society were set aside to allow change to manifest (in the case of Beltane, this often involved fertility rituals and indiscriminate coupling in the woods – in fact in some places, such as the Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival, I’m sure this still goes on!).

But the essential concept here is the need to induce change, either in ourselves or in our community, and harnessing the most favourable energies of time and space in order to do just that. Typically the magician or shaman will align their magic with the qualities of the time and/or place concerned; for example spells of creation or fecundity are traditionally performed at the Full Moon, whereas spells of decrease or banishment are performed during the dark of the Moon. We make our New Year resolutions and carry out our ‘first foot’ rituals each Hogmanay to close the door on the old year and set a new paradigm for ourselves in the year ahead. In essence, we are grasping the essential qualities of both sides of the liminal boundary and, by our act of Will, weaving them together.

Perhaps this explains why we still have so much strife in the world over disputed territories and borders. In our modern societies, we no longer have shamans in positions of power that can perceive and implement the unifying template that will knit both sides of the liminal divide together and make them whole. Until that equanimous meta-pattern is found, both sides must continue their struggle towards unity and harmony.

Grahame Gardner
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2 thoughts on “Word of the Week: Liminality

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