I originally posted this essay on my old website, alexandermichaelcrow.com. At the time of writing this note, this site is still live, but when you read this, it may have been cloned here instead.
I believe the edges of things are far more interesting than their faces. Give me an edge and I’m
I am talking of doorsteps, beaches, births, rivers, and caves. Of deaths, cliffs, borders, paths, and marriages. Crossroads, bridges, piers, dreams, towers, and tombs.
These are the makings of
Ritual and rite encompass liminality — indeed many rely upon it, revolving around such an intersection or boundary. A ceremony is often centred on the movement between one state of being to another — childhood to adulthood, death to the afterlife etc.
A standard die has six faces, each with a number or symbol. We watch and wait for the result — the face which can mean a win or a loss — but the rolling and spinning relies on the edges and corners of the cube. In this aspect, liminality governs chance — but does not control it.
Liminal places and states have always interested me, long before I knew they were called such. I am sure I am not alone in this, children are naturally curious and drawn to these, to push their own boundaries, extend their own edges further into a world they are desperate to learn more about (I wonder at what age withdrawing within familiarity becomes a norm?). Children climb the cliffs, search the beaches, wade the fords. They do not know what draws them to stand on the bridge (or search for the troll beneath), but it is an urge few can withstand.
Today, in the western world, children seem to be encouraged to explore liminality by sitting in front of a television and waiting for the end credits. Or gaining another level in a First Person Shooter. These can be great fun, of course, I’m not a killjoy or an idiot (well, maybe sometimes an idiot), but I cannot help but wonder what they are missing if they have never stuck their head down into a badger sett, followed a stream to its source, or climbed, and maybe fallen from, a tree or wall.
In the shamanism recently practised by, for example, the Evenki (and, perhaps, also that of distant prehistoric communities), different worlds are connected by a tree or pillar, their edges and boundaries crossed by this. It is a powerful symbol, the world tree, the branches and topmost twigs stretching to the realm of the sky, or the heavens, and the roots digging and exploring deep down into the underworld. The idea of passing between these worlds, either physically (Orpheus) or metaphysically (such as the shaman on a spirit quest) is a recurring theme throughout a number of
Our species, no matter the tribal division, still searches for crossing places to the other worlds. We look for ways to the stars, ways to descend deeper into the oceans and far down into the earth’s crust. We try to subdue the edges, straightening rivers, building sea-defences, extending our lives, and scrupulously mapping the planet. Yet we find, time and again, that these refuse to be tamed. Liminality is not fixed, it squirms and wriggles, sometimes in the blink of an eye, sometimes over decades or centuries. We cannot stop death (yet); disease, viruses, and bacteria find a way to corrupt and survive our medical onslaught. Parasites are nearly wiped out, only to resurge and reappear when we least expect them.
We cannot control liminality. We keep trying, but we cannot.
It can be argued that the “religions” (I use this word fully acknowledging its loaded status) of the past, those our hunter-fisher-gatherer ancestors practised, sought not to control or even understand the places between states, but recognised they were special. Recognised they should be treated with care and allowed to remain wild and uncertain.
Perhaps we have lost sight of this in our ordered world?
Perhaps we have spent so long telling ourselves we can tame this world, we have actually started to believe it?
Or perhaps we truly no longer believe in magic?
But there will always be those who do.
And it, and those other places between the