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Two Worlds and In-between: Exploring the Liminal Space

By Julian Vayne

Originally published at Lughnasa 2002

The liminal realm is central in esoteric symbolism, the word itself is drawn from Latin limen , meaning a 'boundary or threshold'. The figure of the witch or shaman occupies this realm. The gender of the shaman may be ambiguous, the witch may symbolically live on the boundary between the civilisation of the village and the unknown darkness of the wild wood.

The liminal makes repeated appearances in magic. For example, traditionally magical rituals are conducted within a circle. The circle itself may be drawn upon the earth or simply made, by an act of 'organised imagination', [i] perhaps by drawing a blade through the air. Whatever way it is formed, the magic circle has three main functions. Firstly, it prevents hostile spirits from disrupting the magician's work. Secondly, it forms a sealed area within which magical energy (of the type desired) can be built up, in somewhat the same manner as charging an electrical battery. Thirdly, the circle exists, as Wiccan ritual expresses it 'in this place that is not a place, in this time that is not a time, between the realm of humans and of the gods'. In other words the circle is a liminal place; it partakes of both worlds but exists ('plays') between them. The magician can therefore explore and affect both worlds, by having a foot in both camps but remaining bound by the rules of neither sphere.

In the same way a ritual may be designed to take place at an 'in-betweenness' time. Midnight is the classic witching hour, in that it is between one day and the next. Some witches I know use dawn or dusk for just the same reason; that the world is shifting from darkness to light (or vice versa). Other times of 'transgressive' power include the eight Sabbats. A brief skim over the folklore of these times yields and wealth of liminal symbolism. Especially at May Eve, Midsummer and Halloween in particular the door to the Otherworld is ajar and communication with the fairy folk, the shadows of the future and the shades of the dead is possible.

Rituals that seek to enter the liminal state may include acts of initiation, of passing through symbolic doors [ii] or of invoking the help of spirits who are 'guardians of the portals' [iii] . The symbolism of the shaman 'making the crossing' or 'walking between the worlds' [iv] is exceedingly complex, rich and pervasive. (Whether we are considering the offerings left for Hecate at the crossroads, the reversal of symbolic or social roles within traditional Wicca, [v] or the use of the 'special attitude' by contemporary magicians i.e. that 'the gods' are both real and imaginary at the same time). [vi] In all these cases the aim is to consciously enter the liminal sphere, to 'go between', and thereby be free to alter one's awareness, to learn new perspectives, to understand better, and perhaps change both inner and outer universes.

Threshold, liminal states are also vital in terms of trance work in magick. It is something of an axiom these days that in order to successfully do magick (and I am including both 'results magick' spells in this as well as participation in primarily celebratory rites) one needs to be able to enter an altered state of consciousness. Such states are sometimes imagined as being of a special type but this may be something of a misnomer. Actually these sates are liminal states in that they exist between 'normal' states if awareness of activity. They are not things in themselves as much as they are peculiar mixtures of what are often thought of as mutually incompatible states of being.

For example, the 'hypnotic state' that one falls into when in a pathworking trance is very difficult (in terms of psychological experimentation) to describe as being of a distinct type in and of itself. When looked at closely there is no specific characteristics of brain activity, behaviour or whatever that define the hypnotic state. Rather the hypnotic state represents a unusual mixture of behaviours and internal states that we do not usually think of as going together. It is this unusual mixture that makes us say that so-and-so was in trance.

Let me give you an example.

Say you go into a ritual where you are going (for whatever reason) to invoke the goddess Sekhmet into yourself. You would probably try to alter your 'normal' state of awareness by techniques such as verbal invocation, dance, drumming, drugs etc etc. The resulting 'trance' might consist of your prowling round the circle, growling and delivering inspired oracular talk to others in your circle. Alternatively you might fall to the ground, shaking uncontrollably as the power of the goddess fills you up and then slide into an amazing inward reverie in which Sekhmet takes you on an inner journey.

In both cases the behaviours (moving like a cat, growling, extemporising poetry or shaking and dreaming) are not in themselves special states totally outside of your 'normal' repertoire. The difference is simply the context, perhaps the degree of intensity in which they happen in the ritual space and their coincidence with one another.

To take another everyday example. It is possible to walk or drive quiet long distances without being conscious in the sense that we usually mean it. Normally we imagine that we have an autonomous 'I' that guides our lives and that it is only when we are asleep that this sense of 'I' switches off. In fact it is fallacious to talk about 'normal vs. altered' consciousness since, when we look closely at 'normal' states (like Driving) one often finds elements of deeply automatic behaviour that we usually associate only with 'abnormal' or altered awareness.

In a hypnotic trance it is the combination of a high level of concentration (usually on the hypnotists voice) at the same time as a deep state of relaxation that makes the state unusual and makes it possible for things to happen in that state that would not normally be possible (eg, as stage hypnotists do, convince people that the onion they are holding is in-fact an apple and then instruct them to eat it which subjects may do with obvious relish).

So a liminal space is not something that is, necessarily, special in itself it is rather the combination of elements, often of what we normally think of as competing or contradictory elements, that creates a liminal space.

The power of the liminal space is that they have no or markedly fewer rules that normal everyday consciousness. This lack of rules mean that many more things are possible and this included changes in the self and the universe that we typically believe to be impossible.

For example, many years ago I was a at a midsummer ritual in a woodland south of London. We had waited patiently for the dawn around our camp fire and, as the first light started to emerge we drew a magick circle to commence the ceremonial element of our festival.

My job was to call in the spirits of the South and of Fire. When my turn came I walked forward and from the bonfire picked up a burning chunk of wood. Very calmly and I held this aloft and called on the spirits of the fire and of the South to bless our ritual. It was not until much later in the day, when' debriefing' with the other participants that I was informed that the wood I had picked up was not just alight at the end but that it was obviously a glowing coal, by rights I should have been badly burnt. I certainly should not have been able to proclaim a calm and minute or so long invocation.

This brings me to my final point about liminal spaces - their unpredictability. Although in the example above we had used fasting, dance and chanting during the night prior to the circle casting and my human salamander impression I would be loath to go through the same process again in the hope of repeating the experiment. Liminal spaces, trance states are highly unpredictable things. We may try to generate them through the use of ritual technologies (pathworking induction techniques, ritual drama, music etc) and we may have a qualitative and approximate way of getting the result we want. However much magick flows through us and isn't really about what the ego self wants or believes is possible. Whenever one does a ritual there are unfathomable currents of activity deep within the unconscious that will never be identical on two occasions. This is one reason why magick isn't amenable to scientific scrutiny (in the strict sense of the word science) since no ritual can ever be exactly reproduced. [vii]

Although the shaman, the witch, the magickian live in the liminal space they are not ruler of that realm. They can try to coax the power of the betweenness spaces in the direction they desire a wise magus will always bow before the capricious nature of this realm.

The mischievous behaviour of the fairy folk is emblematic of the liminal space and they invite the downfall of those people, puffed out with pride, who claim mastery of the twilight world of the occult.

Perhaps some other Midsummer I will lift coals out of the bonfire to welcome the dawn but I'd rather leave it to the spirit to move me rather than my egocentric desire to prove that I can do so. To do otherwise would be to invite the denizens of the liminal spaces to ensure my fingers get burnt!


[i] This is a term which I feel is more appropriate than the term 'visualisation' which is often used in esoteric literature. See Catherine Summers & Julian Vayne, The Inner Space WorkBook , Capall Bann, 1994.

[ii] For instance that magical gesture of 'The Rending of the Veil', see Magick in Theory and Practice  by Crowley.

[iii] For instance the invocation of Papa Legba (the Voudou god of the crossroads) which must be made at the start of any ritual to 'open up the ways' for the deities to manifest. Equally in western ritual magic the 'guardians of the watchtowers' of each cardinal direction are invoked to protect and empower the magic circle.

[iv] See Phil Hine Walking Between the Worlds - techniques of modern shamanism , Pagan News Publications, 1989.

[v] See Seeds of Magick - Caterine Summers and Julian Vayne, Quantum 1990.

[vi] The suggestion that 'the gods' are both symbolic ideas and also real, objective powers in the universe is one of the most commonly paradoxical views of western occultism. See, amongst others, Gerald J.Schueler Enochian Magic , Llewellyn, 1988.

[vii] See Pharmakon , Julian Vayne 2001 and for more information consult www.liminalspace.co.uk, especially the article 'Why Christopher Robin wouldn't walk on the cracks' - An introduction to the liminality of place and time by Bob Trubshaw - in Edition 1.