This is the front garden of my neighbour’s house, in Leytonstone, London.
Her choice of decoration is full of historical – and mythological – resonances.
She is an Irish Catholic grandmother (the Virgin Mary is, of course, a bit of a giveaway), and actually the interior of her house is even more richly decorated.
The imagery and symbolism of the garden has depths my neighbour is probably not aware of – but then all art has depths that the artist is unaware of. (I often only realize what a story I’ve written is “about” long afterwards.)
I have always believed in the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious – that there is a level of our minds that is shared – and that folk memories persist despite all the superficial changes to society. Culture runs deep.
Robert Graves’ wonderful, crazy book The White Goddess, is a hymn to the old belief in a Triple Goddess who is virgin, mother and crone – ruling sex, birth and death – all at once. This three-faced, or three-bodied, goddess was both a Celtic and Greek figure – and echoes remain in Christianity (the Three Marys).
In my neighbour’s garden there are three main figures – a Greek goddess, the Virgin Mary, and a prancing white horse – as well as a wishing well, all set among white stones.
The meaning of symbols slides about, so that pinning them down exactly is impossible, but the two human figures are clearly two faces of the Triple Goddess, and the white mare is the Celtic horse goddess, whose most famous representation is the Uffington Horse, cut into the white chalk hillside.
There is a still a taboo on eating horsemeat in Britain and Ireland that is a folk-memory of a time when the horse was sacred.
White itself represents innocence and virginity as well as the pallor and emptiness of death. Symbols soar above logic or rationality and have the strange power of embodying polar opposites. Water, like white, can be birth and death, the beginning and the end, at once.
And each of the three figures can represent sex or birth or death… but that’s how symbolism works – like dreams – where identity is fluid and the beautiful and horrifying can be two sides of the same coin.
Wells, springs and rivers in Britain, obvious symbols of mysterious unfailing fertility, were held sacred in the Bronze Age, and the beliefs persisted despite the waves of invaders, the Celts and Romans and Angles and Saxons, and the arrival of Christianity. White stones would have been used to decorated such places, just as my neighbour uses them in her garden.
And just as the power of water is both life and death at once, so nature worship is always double-edged: water spirits were feared as well as worshipped.
These beliefs survived in local fairytales until the Industrial Revolution broke the close connection between people and nature.
The fairy spirit who ruled the River Tees was called Peg Powler, and there were other female river demons with wonderful names, like Nelly Long Arms, and Jenny Greenteeth, who would pull the unwary underwater. (They had a particular fondness for children.)
Tossing coins in a wishing well, or fountain, is a memory of the tradition of offering weapons and other riches to the spirits of the waters – just as Excalibur was returned to the lake in the Arthur legend, when a mysterious, white-clad arm emerges to catch the sword and pull it down into the murky depths.
To me, my neighbour’s garden is a hymn to her ancestors.
Grandmothers, traditionally, were magical figures because they know all about sex and birth and death – they have a shamanic insight into sacred mysteries, and they had a duty in the tribe to keep ancient beliefs and practices alive.
My neighbour’s house is a drably utilitarian modern bungalow, without character or ornament – but she has made it home by dipping into the collective unconscious and conjuring stories and gods from her people’s past.