Magic Turnips

When I was working in Havana a Cuban friend took me to see a Palero – a priest of Las Reglas de Congo, the religion first practiced by slaves brought to Cuba from the Congo basin in Africa. To cut a long story short I was taken to a wooden shack filled with ritual objects, including many animal skulls, where we all drank a little rum spiced with gunpowder and a human finger bone. As the guest of honour I was then asked to hold a chicken while it had its head cut off. Having gathered the chicken’s blood in a bowl the priest and his acolyte subsequently drank it. I declined on the grounds that I was vegetarian which was not true then, although it is now.

This, my first encounter with the practice of magic, was an intriguing and powerful experience. My childhood love of fairy tales, revisited through the delight of reading to my own daughter, had already given me an abiding fascination for folk lore, myth and legend. Since my encounter with that unfortunate chicken my interest has extended to include elemental magic, astrology, tarot, the I Ching, mysticism, and other topics which tend to be lumped under the banner of ‘New Age’ although, in reality, they are age old.

Amongst my favourite childhood stories was a Russian tale about a gang of gleefully anarchic children who, by stealing an old peasant’s turnips, eventually rescue him from his horrible wife. In this story there is an enchanted tablecloth and a goat which sneezes gold coins. Fairy tales often combine the mundane (turnips, goats, porridge, pumpkins) with the magical. Everything under the sun, they suggest, has enchantment for those who have eyes to see. In this they are wise, for everything – in the natural world at least – is miraculous, even the humble turnip that grows from its tiny seed.

We humans can be spectacularly creative ourselves, of course. We can also be wantonly destructive and cruel, a darkness which fairy stories explore through their tales of cannibalism, imprisonment, forced marriage and murder. In the post-industrial ‘developed’ world homo sapiens has not lost the Colonial habit of thinking modernity is synonymous with progress. Fairy stories, folk lore, magic and other expressions of the ‘wisdom tradition’ that once lived in every culture are dismissed as superstitious nonsense fit only for children, anthropologists and ‘old wives.’  As rapacious industrialisation despoils the planet we are just beginning to realise that our brave new technological world and the comforts it provides has been bought at a high price, imperilling us, our Earthly environment, and all the creatures we share it with.

Like the magician’s apprentice we have unleashed a force we are not wise enough to handle. Everything has become too big: our cities, our banks, our bureaucracies and, above all, our corporations. Instead of transparent government and privacy for the individual we are moving to a place of secret government and unfettered surveillance. The structures and institutions we have created seem to have developed a life of their own, like some alien species which is now competing with us for survival. We are like little children lost in a world of unimaginably huge giants, fighting amongst ourselves for the crumbs dropped from our masters’ table.

The humble, the dispossessed and the orphaned, the simpletons and scapegoats who are so often the heroines and heroes of fairy stories often find themselves pitched against just such insurmountable odds. The good news is that the corrupt, the greedy and the tyrannical are always bought to account while the generous and fair minded – with the help of a little cunning – prevail. Miracles, the tales teach us, are possible but the ultimate riddle of the happy ending is always the same: the key to our salvation – if it exists – will be found not in our brains but in our hearts.