The Dial (Third Series)/Volume 75/A Biographical Fragment

A Biographical Fragment
by William Butler Yeats



WHEN lecturing in England the other day, I met a man learned in Cretan and other East Mediterranean antiquities. He spoke of some passage where I had suggested a memory of the race, as distinct from individual memory, and we went on from one thing to another until I had told of the dreams and visions described in the following pages. I said I had intended to put them into The Trembling of the Veil, but had been afraid of making that book seem fantastic, of losing human interest; but he said: "Oh, no, you must write it all out, it may be important," and he began to tell me things about ancient tree worship that seemed to interpret my experiences. I said: "I will write a new chapter for The Trembling of the Veil and you will read it and tell me where I can find all those things about tree worship."


When in my twenty-second year I had finished The Wanderings of Usheen my style seemed too elaborate, too ornamental and I thought for some weeks of sleeping upon a board. Had I been anywhere but at Sligo where 1 was afraid of my grandfather and grandmother, I would have made the attempt. When I had finished Rosa Alchemika for the Savoy, I had a return of the old trouble and went to consult a friend who under the influence or my cabbalistic symbols could pass into a condition between meditation and trance. A certain symbolic personality who called herself, if I remember rightly, Megarithma, said that I must live near water and avoid woods "because they concentrate the solar ray." I believed that this enigmatic sentence came from my own demon, my own buried self, speaking through my friend's mind. "Solar" according to all that I learnt from Macgregor meant elaborate, full of artifice, rich, all that resembles the work of a goldsmith, whereas "water" meant "lunar" and "lunar" all that is simple, popular, traditional, emotional. But why should woods concentrate the solar ray? I did not understand why, nor do I now, and I decided to reject that part of the message as an error. I accepted the rest without difficulty for after The Wanderings of Usheen, I had simplified my style by filling my imagination with country stories.[1] My friends believed that the dark portion of the mind—the subconscious—had an incalculable power even over events. To influence events or one's own mind, one had to draw the attention of that dark portion, to turn it, as it were, into a new direction. Macgregor described how as a boy he had drawn over and over some event that he longed for; and called those drawings an instinctive magic. But for the most part one repeated certain names and drew or imagined certain symbolic forms which had acquired a precise meaning and not only to the dark portion of one's own mind, but to the mind of the race. I decided to repeat the names associated with the moon in the cabbalistic tree of life. The divine name, the name of the angelic order, the name of the planetary sphere, and so on, and probably, though my memory is not clear upon the point, to draw certain geometrical forms. As Arthur Symons and I were about to stay with Mr Edward Martyn at Tullyra Castle, in Galway, I decided that it was there I must make my invocation of the moon. I made it night after night just before I went to bed and after many nights—eight or nine perhaps—I saw between sleeping and waking as in a kinematograph, a galloping centaur and a moment later a naked woman of incredible beauty, standing upon a pedestal and shooting an arrow at a star. I still remember the tint of that marvellous flesh which makes all human flesh seem unhealthy, and remember that others who have seen such forms have remembered the same characteristic. Next morning before breakfast, Arthur Symons took me out on to the lawn to recite a scrap of verse, the only verse he had ever written to a dream. He had dreamt the night before of a woman of great beauty, but she was clothed and had not a bow and arrow. When he got back to London, he found awaiting him a story sent to the Savoy by Fiona MacLeod and called, I think, The Archer. Someone in the story had a vision of a woman shooting an arrow into the sky and later of an arrow shot at a faun that pierced the faun's body and remained, the faun's heart torn out and clinging to it, embedded in a tree. Some weeks later I too was in London and found among Macgregor's pupils a woman whose little child had come running in from the garden, perhaps at the time of my vision, perhaps a little later, calling out "Oh, mother, I have seen a woman shooting an arrow into the sky and I am afraid that she has killed God." I have somewhere among my papers a letter[2] from a very old friend describing how her little cousin—perhaps a few months later—dreamed of a man who shot at a star with a gun and that the star fell down, but "I do not" the child said "think it minded dying because it was so very old," and that presently she saw the star lying in a cradle. Had some great event taken place in some world where myth is reality and had we seen some portion of it? One of my fellow-students quoted a Greek saying "Myths are the activities of the demons" or had we but seen in the memory of the race something believed thousands of years ago, or had somebody—I myself perhaps—but dreamed a fantastic dream which had come to those others by transference of thought? I came to no conclusion, but I was sure there was some symbolic meaning could I but find it. I went to my friend who had spoken to Megarithma and she went once more into her trance-like meditation and heard but a single unexplained sentence: "There were three that saw, three will attain a wisdom older than the serpent, but the child will die." Did this refer to myself, to Arthur Symons, to Fiona MacLeod, to the child who feared that the archer had killed God? I thought not, for Symons had no deep interest in the subject and there was the second child to account for. It was probably some new detail of the myth or an interpretation of its meaning. There was a London coroner in those days, learned in the Cabbala, whom I had once known though we had not met for some years. I called upon him and told all that I had set down here. He opened a drawer and took out of it two water-coloured paintings by a clumsy painter who had no object but a symbolical record, one was of a centaur, the other of a woman standing upon a stone pedestal and shooting her arrow at what seemed a star. He asked me to look carefully at the star and I saw that it was a little golden heart. He said: "You have hit upon things that you can never have read of in any book, these symbols belong to a part of the Christian Cabbala"—perhaps this was not his exact term—"it has never been published. The centaur is the elemental spirit and the woman the divine spirit of the path Samec and the golden heart is the central point upon the cabbalistic tree of life and corresponds to the Sephiroth Tipereth." I was full of excitement for now at last I began to understand. The "tree of life" is a geometrical figure made up of ten circles or spheres called Sephiroth joined by straight lines. Once men must have thought of it as like some great tree covered maybe with fruit and foliage, but at some period, in the thirteenth century perhaps, touched by the mathematical genius of Arabia in all likelihood, it had lost its natural form. The Sephiroth Tipereth, attributed to the sun, is joined to the Sephiroth Yesod, attributed to the moon, by a straight line called the path Samec, and this line is attributed to the constellation Sagittarius. He would not or could not tell me more, but when I repeated what I had heard to one of my fellow-students, yachtsman, yacht-designer, and Cabbalist, he said: "Now you know what was meant by a wisdom older than the serpent." He reminded me that the cabbalistic tree has a green serpent winding through it which represents the winding path of nature or of instinct and that the path Samec is part of the long straight line that goes up through the centre of the tree and that it was interpreted as the path of "deliberate effort." The three who saw must, he said, be those who could attain to wisdom by the study of magic for that was "deliberate effort." I remember that I quoted Balzac's description of the straight line as the line of man, but he could not throw light on the other symbols except that the shot arrow must symbolize effort, nor did I get any further light.

A couple of weeks after my vision, Lady Gregory whom I had met once in London for a few minutes, drove over to Tullyra and after Symons' return to London, I stayed at her house. When I saw her great woods on the edge of a lake, I remembered the saying about avoiding woods and living near the water. Had this new friend come because of my invocation, or had the saying been but prevision and my invocation no act of will, but prevision also? Were those unintelligible words—"avoid woods because they concentrate the solar ray"—but a dream confusion, an attempt to explain symbolically an actual juxtaposition of wood and water? I could not say nor can I now. I was in poor health. . . .


I sent the foregoing chapter to my learned man, and he has sent me several pages of notes. I will not give his name for I do not think it right to compromise his scholarship by joining it to such an outlawed doctrine as that of the Race Memory.

(1) The Child and the Tree.

On a certain night in Devonshire, farmers and farm-labourers and their wives and children perform a ceremony at the finest apple-tree in the orchard. Punch is poured out at the roots and bread put among the branches and a boy set among the branches "who is either the tree in boy form or the tree in bird form," and the men fire blank charges at him. All dance round the tree singing some such rhyme as this:

"Here's to thee good apple-tree
To bear and blow apples enow," et cetera.[3]

This boy is clearly Balder "who is shot to death by means of a sprig or arrow of mistletoe."

In my vision the star is shot by an arrow from a bow, and in one of the child's dreams which I have described, God is shot with an arrow, while in another child's dream a star is shot with a gun. "Balder is the tree embodied. His name tells us that. Recent philology has said that the name means or is related to apple-tree, abbal; apfal, et cetera. But that is not true enough. When the first decipherment of Cretan pictographs is published, it will be seen that his name goes back to the Cretan Apollo, who in old Cretan belief was a tree god." It is plain, too, that he is that "child hidden on the scented Dikton near Mount Ida" (Phaen: 32 ff.) of Aratus' lines "When those lines are read in the light of the deciphered old Cretan inscriptions" and that part of his significance is solar. He was believed to be born and grown up in a year (Aratus; Callimachus: Zeus 55 ff., et cetera) and to die once more. Orpheus made much use of these facts. (Lobeck: Aglaophamas, I, 552 f.)

I had used Hebrew names connected with the symbolic Tree and the star at which the arrow was shot seems to have symbolized a Sephirah attributed to the Sun, and my invocation had for its object the killing or overcoming in some way of a "solar influence."

(2) The Woman who shot the Arrow.

She was, it seems, the Mother-Goddess whose representative priestess shot the arrow at the Child, whose sacrificial death symbolized the death and resurrection of the Tree-spirit or Apollo. She is pictured upon certain Cretan coins of the fifth century B. C. as a slightly draped beautiful woman sitting in the heart of a branching tree. (G. F. Hill: A Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins, page 163.) She goes back to the very earliest form of the religion of Crete, and is, it seems probable, the Tree as Mother killing the Tree as Son. But she is also Artemis, and there is a beautiful vase at Naples (Reinach: Repertoire des Vases Peints Grecs, I, 379, 1) which shows her archaic image upon a tall pillar, with a strung bow in her left hand and some object too small for my eyes to decipher in her right.

(3) The Heart torn out.

A Father of the Church, Firmicus Maternus, in his book "On the errors of the Profane Religion" turns the Myth of the Child slain and reborn into a story of murder and adultery. The Cretan Jupiter "made an image of his son in gypsum and placed the Boy's heart . . . in that part of the figure where the curve of the chest was to be seen." It had been kept by his sister, Minerva—and a Temple was made to contain the image. There were festivals and noisy processions that followed "a basket in which the sister had hidden the heart." "It may be conjectured perhaps," writes my learned man, "that images were made with a chest cavity to contain the heart of the sacrificed."

(4) The Star.

"The Star goes right back to the Cretan Mother-Goddess. The latter Greek form of it was Asterios or Asterion. The latter, for example, is said to be Jupiter's son by Idaia" (Pausanias, II, 31, 1). "This star name did not mean in its primary use any particular star. It appears to have meant the Starry Heavens. . . . Zeus-Asterios is a late Gortynian (Cretan) collocation (Johannes Malala: Chronicle Five). In the earlier thought of Crete her deified kings bore the same name Asterion or Asterios (e. g. Bacchylides; frag. 47 and Diodorus IV, 60).

(5) The Centaur.

There is a fragment of a very early Greek pot showing two roughly drawn centaurs with long thin legs, one of the centaurs touching with his hand a tree which has long leaves and what seems to be a round fruit. Above the centaurs, but apparently separate from the tree, a bird perches on a twig. (Salzmann Necropole de Camires, Plate XXXIX.)

(6) Sagitta.

"About the third century B. C., we find Apollo is closely linked with Sagitta." I find in a book upon Astrology published this year "Sagittarius. The symbol is an arrow shot into the unknown. It is a Sign of Initiation and Re-birth." (A Student's Text-book of Astrology by Vivian E. Robson, page 178.)

  1. The stories of my Celtic Twilight. The learned man wishes me to point out that nothing there could have suggested the visions or dreams described in the chapter.—W. B. Y.
  2. This letter is not now within my reach, for my papers are stored till our Irish civil war is finished.—W. B. Y.
  3. Transactions of the Devonshire Association 1876, Whitcombe: Bygone Days in Cornwall.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1939, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.