Death CardNun path

The Path of Death – Nun

Tarot card 13. Tree path 14.

Joining Sephiroth 6 (Tiphereth) and 7 (Netzach).

‘Fate Playing’, ‘The Badlands’, ‘The Table’, ‘Life after Death’.

© Ann Skea

Whilst The Hanged Man represents a sacrifice and a complete relinquishment and overturning of everything in the journeyer’s former life, his Tarot trump and Path (Mem) also mark the completion of one part of the journey and a pause – an involuntary suspension – before the Initiate can move on. The upper Paths of the Tree – all those Paths leading to Initiation at Tiphereth – have been completed and their lessons, which dealt with the manifest, rational, conscious aspects of the individual’s being, should have been learned. Now, the Initiate is immersed in the chaotic Mother-waters of Mem, in which all life begins and ends, and which are the dark waters of the unconscious, the instinct, and the Soul. In order to proceed on the journey, the Initiate must first find a way through these waters.

So, although the next tarot Trump is Death, the next Path on the Cabbalistic Tree is known as the Path of Nun: the Path of the Fish, which is “the symbol of life beneath the waters; of life travelling through the waters” (Crowley, BOT 99); of fertility; and of Osiris, Venus/Aphrodite, Isis and Hermes/Mercury.

The Path of Nun joins Tiphereth (Sephira 6) to Netzach (Sephira 7). It is the Path of re-evaluation, of loss of the conscious world and immersion in unconscious world of instinct, intuition and feeling. On this Path, the Harmony and Balance of Tiphereth is essential if the Victory and Eternity of Netzach and all its powers of 7 are to be successfully attained. And 7 is immensely powerful on this Path. It is the number of Venus/Aphrodite and, because 14 (7 + 7) is the Cabbalistic number of the Path of Nun, her powers, here, are doubly potent. A second Cabbalistic number associated with this Path is 50, which in numerology is 7 x 7 = 49 (‘The Mystic Number of Venus’) plus the Divine energy of 1. The fiftieth ‘Gate of Understanding’ (or ‘Door of Light’) which marks the end of the Cabbalistic journey is accessible from this Path of Nun1. So, 7 represents the possibility of completion. The energies of 7, however, become operative only when conditions are right to establish a new order. And at different stages of the Cabbalistic journey, these energies vibrate according to the preparedness of the Initiate and the particular World (Atziluthic, Briatic etc.) in which the Initiate is journeying.

The Tarot number for this Path is 13, which is the number of the newly Initiated and is also a number of completion. And the Tarot card for this Path is ‘Death’. On the Tradition Tarot cards, Death is shown as a skeleton with a scythe, surrounded by a chaos of blackness in which lie bones, limbs and heads, but also, green, sprouting plants. Death, as these plants signify, is not an end: it is “the apex of one curve of the snake of Life” (Crowley BOT 258), and in all occult quests it is a step on the journey to rebirth. For Cabbalists, as for the Alchemist and the Shaman, the skeleton symbolizes the death of the physical body – the death of that which is mortal and finite – in order to attain knowledge of the immortal. This ‘death’ is like the shamanic flight to the Otherworld (which, for Jung, represented the journey into the human subconscious) after which the Initiate is reborn from “boneseed” to a higher order of existence. For the Alchemist, it begins the putrefaction and chaos from which cleansed spiritual gold will rise.

Death, therefore, is not an end, but a necessary step on the way to rebirth. Yet, between death and rebirth, the spirit must enter the chaos of unconsciousness which is variously called the Otherworld, Hell, the Void, the Bardo or, in the Greek mythology on which many Tarot symbols are based, the River of Acheron. So, in some texts, the figure on this Path is not Death but Charon, the Ferryman who will take the shade of the deceased to the Underworld. And always, in occult belief, the bodiless spirit requires a ferryman or guide in order to make this journey successfully. The Shaman has his or her spirit-guides; Dante had the poet, Vergil; the Alchemist and the Cabbalist have Hermes/Mercury (whose energies are powerfully expressed through the number 7) in one of his many disguises.

On this Path of Nun, in the Atziluthic World of Archetypes, Ted’s poem ‘Fate Playing’ (BL 31-2) is full of chaos and emotion. Sylvia is stranded in a strange environment in which there are rivers of people, seas of tears, and love “forty-nine times magnified”. And into this chaos comes a Mercurial taxi-driver, “like a small god”, who ferries Sylvia in his “chariot” between a bus-station and a railway station, both of which represent the end and the beginning of journeys. The situation is suitably Foolish, as befits Sylvia’s first encounter with the emotion-charged chaos of Nun, and Ted’s poem is full of exaggeration. But so, too, (as is clear from her letter to her mother (SPLH 16 Oct. 1955)) was Sylviavs reaction to an unpredictable, but hardly irredeemable, situation.

Having arranged to meet Ted at King’s Cross Station, Sylvia decided to take an earlier train and meet his coach at Victoria Coach Station. Her letter to Ted, informing him of this change of plan, did not reach him in time. And he, too, changed the plan by getting off the coach as it passed near King’s Cross Station, so that he could meet the train he thought Sylvia would be on. Sylvia, when Ted did not get off the coach at Victoria as expected, was distraught. In floods of tears and a turmoil of emotion, she took a taxi to King’s Cross and found Ted waiting for her on the platform there. Both she and Ted describe her dreadful agitation and the rapture of their meeting. Sylvia wrote that “everything began to shine, and the taxi-driver sprouted wings”: and in Ted’s poem, he saw her “agitation” dissolve into “molten” tears of joy and “knew what it was / To be a miracle”. Such was the power of love!

Ted’s whole poem is governed by Mercurial energies. A mischievous “goblin” trickster spoils Sylvia’s careful plans and drops her at “eight in the evening” (a time governed by the transformative, serpentine number of Mercury’s caduceus) amidst a “kaleidoscope” of unrecognizable shapes, colours and sounds. Sylvia’s own energies are Mercurial, and range through the whole spectrum of emotions: panic, despair, fear, sorrow, determination, relief and ecstasy. And the taxi-driver in both her and Ted’s account is a small god – a winged cupid, who brings the lovers together. The energies of Tiphereth and Netzach, at each end of this Path of Nun, typically bring about a situation in which “the apparently indestructible vessel of ego hits an iceberg of circumstances and begins to founder”, (Low, Notes on Cabbala 102), and Ted’s poem demonstrates just this situation. Sylvia’s ego was fragile. Once before, in Paris, Sylvia had arrived expecting to meet a lover (Sassoon) who failed to turn up, and this must have been one of the “precedents” which, Ted says, “tripped” her expectations. But this time, in London, love “forty-nine times magnified” allowed Sylvia to triumph, and Triumph is one of the things made possible by the energies of Netzach.

There is also an inevitability about events on the Path of Nun: Death and destiny are controlled by the Fates and are an inevitable part of Nature’s cycles; and one of the Cabbalistic meditations for this path is “Joined to Nature”. So, Ted and Sylvia see the happy resolution of their situation as “an omen”, and the tears which “splashed over” Ted like a drought-breaking “cloudburst” are a baptism which will bring new fertility to the “whole cracked earth” and to all its life-forms. They also mark the start a new, natural (in the sense of instinctive, spiritual and emotional), shared journey.

It is worth noting, too, the interesting discrepancy between Ted’s version of events in ‘Fate Playing’ and the account which Sylvia gives in her letter to her mother. Ted’s version is simpler. He describes his journey to King’s Cross as calm and “unperturbed”. And he describes his whole journey as being by train which, although late, arrives at the exact moment that Sylvia irrupts (the paronomasia with ‘erupts’ adds to the violence of Sylvia’s sudden appearance) onto the platform. Thus, Ted reinforces the sense of inevitability about that meeting and the suggestion that Fate (as in the title of this poem) was responsible for its occurrence and its timing. The discrepancy also emphasizes the difference between Ted’s and Sylvia’s life-journeys up to that time. The period of suspension and sacrifice in Ted’s life was described in ‘Fidelity’ (BL 28). The more chaotic hiatus in Sylvia’s journey is described in ‘Fate Playing’ where, finally, their separate and different paths are united by the baptism of tears. Now, they would begin their shared journey of the spirit. And so conjoined were they that in ‘The Owl’ (BL 33), which immediately follows ‘Fate Playing’ in the Birthday Letters sequence, Ted describes seeing his world (of Nature) anew, through Sylvia’s eyes.

By July 1959, however, Sylvia and Ted were again in the process of moving between two worlds. They had left Boston and by the end of December they would be in England. Meanwhile, they travelled literally and metaphorically – in body and in spirit – through unknown territory. And this time there was no jolly, small god to ferry Sylvia swiftly across the divide; and no excess of Childish – Foolish emotion and love to carry her through. Instead, she and Ted, just a little older and a little wiser, were searching for their own Way through the place where they believed Sylvia’s true Self had gone to ground. Now, on the Path of Death in the World of Briah, they set out (again literally and metaphorically) across the American ‘Badlands’ in a borrowed car.

The Badlands, in the poem which is the Birthday Letters poem on this particular Path (BL 82 - 86), are a sun-scorched wasteland, a “Hell” of “smouldering bitumen”, where the earth itself is like a “disembowelled" body, a place of “perpetual sacrifice” in which thorny plants push, like “loose teeth” and “bone”, through the “charred” crust. Ted’s imagery vividly recreates the black, bone-strewn earth on which the skeleton dances in the Traditional Tarot card of Death. And, as on this card, there are also small signs of life: a snake; a “lone tree”, to which Ted turned as if for comfort but which “gave none”; and, at the moment when the land was darkest, most frightening, “most inimical”, there was suddenly a mouse, bursting with Mercurial energy, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to protect two “dewdrops” of eyes which were the only suggestion of fresh, life-giving water in this terrible place.

All of Ted’s imagery in the poem suggests the fierce, destructive power of the sun and an imbalance in the eternal cycles of Nature in which sun alternates with moon, light follows darkness, destruction is followed by new life. In our own interpretation of the world, in myth, religion and psychology, we often see these cycles in terms of Manichean conflict where black is opposed to white, hell is opposed to heaven, and the non-rational, subjective, subconscious aspects of our being are suppressed in favour of the rational, objective and conscious. This, in Ted’s view, and in the view of Cabbalists, Alchemists, and other spiritual questers, is a false, unbalanced and potentially dangerous view of the world. Ted wrote about it at length in his two essays entitled ‘Myth and Education’2; it is an underlying theme in all his work and it is one of the themes in this poem.

Foremost in this poem, is Sylvia’s own struggle to find her true Self, which began when that Self was driven “underground, into moonland” by the explosive effects of actual solar, nuclear and electrical events on her mind and body3. So, this journey through the Badlands is a spiritual quest, and it begins and ends in the presence of “the timeless one” of Nature – the snake – the guide. In pre-dawn darkness, under stone, beside water, and heralded by the laughter of a loon (which in Under the North Star is “hatched from the moon”4), on the threshold of their journey, Ted finds a snake whose colours, significantly, alternate black and white. He is reminded of the coiled spirals carved on the lintel stone at New Grainge (Boyne, Ireland), a prehistoric tumulus which is the womb of Graine, the Great Mother; the place where the bones of her consort, Dagda, lay; and the place where their son, the Love-god Aenghus, was born. The snake appears again in the poem as the yellow, sluggish river Missouri. But it emerges in all its power at the end of the poem where, as the sun goes down and its power drains away, Ted and Sylvia become aware of something “like ectoplasm” oozing like a huge snake from the dark clefts of the earth. They experience it as something primitive, unknown, and terrifying, something which feels “evil” but which is “maybe” the earth, maybe themselves, maybe life itself. It is as if their own dark energies are being drawn by the emptiness into this silent “afterlife” landscape of death: as if terrifyingly, life is emerging into this world through them.

So, in this World of Briah where the creative energies begin to form patterns for the future, the emptiness and chaos of Nun is experienced as a Hell which is exactly comparable to the Hell of barren infertility about which Sylvia wrote in her last journal entry before she and Ted began their journey across America. “Everything has gone barren”, she wrote (SPJ 20 June 1959), in an agony of despair at the physical and imaginative infertility which was turning her whole world to “Ash. Ash and more ash”. Ted describes her in the poem as wounded in both body and spirit: “signed and empty”. But the journey which they take, and the lesson which they learn as they cross the Badlands, is not just that such infertility is the result of an imbalance, but that they have within themselves natural energies which will inevitably surface in an attempt to heal the wound.

In his two essays, ‘Myth and Education’, Ted wrote at length of our need to acknowledge and learn about these energies of our inner world, and of our need to balance them with the objective, rational, energies on which we have been taught to rely too much. He wrote of our imagination as “the faculty which embraces both worlds simultaneously” (WP 150) and he wrote, too, of the danger of ignoring or suppressing the inner world and of the sickness and “probably fatal accidents” this is likely to cause5.

Of particular relevance to ‘The Badlands’ is Ted’s suggestion that the inner world is “indescribable, impenetrable and invisible” (WP 144), a place which affects our whole life but which is so strange to us that it has become the “place of demons”, a “vast absence” or “emptiness”. “If we do manage to catch a glimpse of our inner selves”, he wrote, “we recognize it with horror – it is an animal crawling and decomposing in a hell.” (WP 149). This is exactly the experience which Ted describes at the end of ‘The Badlands’ as he and Sylvia feel the ectoplasmic, terrifying, snake-like “something” welling up in the darkness: and Sylvia calls it “evil”, “real evil”. But Sylvia does glimpse the truth. When she suggests that “Maybe it’s the life/ In us / Frightening the earth, and Frightening us”. Ted’s line breaks, here, set “in us” by itself in the penultimate line of the poem, emphasizing the importance of this perception and including all of us within its scope.

But the lesson of the Path of Nun for Ted and Sylvia is more personal. Ted believed that imagination has the power to link our inner and outer worlds, he also believed that true poets and story-tellers have traditionally used this power to help others: that they (as he suggested to Ekbert Faas6) take imaginative shamanic flights to the Otherworld to bring back some healing energies needed in this world. Now, in the final line of ‘The Badlands’, he and Sylvia – both of them imaginative poets and story-tellers who have experienced Hell and have felt the devouring-creating energies of the Uroborus within themselves – are united with the earth (with Nature) and share its energies. This, frightening connection, on this particular Path, offers hope (if they learn to understand and use their powers correctly) not just of Endurance, Victory, and personal renewal, but also that they may learn to channel some of these healing energies in our world. But as Ted noted, “One thing to find a guide / Another to follow him”.

In ‘The Rag Rug’ (BL 135) on the Path of the Hanged Man, the snake was an important symbol of creativity. That poem describes how Ted, like a snake-charmer, helped Sylvia to unearth her deep creative energies and how he dreamed, too, of a great golden serpent which overturned their world and shook awake the snake which would end their “Eden”. Now, in ‘The Table’ (BL 138-9), the poem which directly follows ‘The Rag Rug’ and which lies on the Path of Death in the World of Yetzirah, Ted and Sylvia approach Netzach (Sephira 7) for the third time in their Cabbalistic journey. The energies of 7 on this Path are three times magnified: and 777 (the grand scale of 7) is a number which Crowley describes as “a dangerous tool”; one which represents “the flaming sword which drove Man out of Eden”; a number whose power is only available to those in whom the snake of “Kundalini energy”, the energy of “the female magical soul” has been awakened (Crowley, 777, 49).

Certainly, this should be the state of those who have reached this stage of the Cabbalistic journey. By now, too, each quester should have learned of the particular guides, rituals and methods which will aid and protect them as they move between their inner and outer worlds on this path.

In ‘The Table’, Sylvia has clearly reached this state of preparedness and skill, but the poem suggests that she uses her powers for divination and conjuring, rather than for healing. In 1961, Ted did make Sylvia a table from a piece of wood which she described to her mother as “a great plank” (SPLH 5 Sept. 1961). Whether or not this table had any magical purpose at that time is impossible to know, but in this poem it has great magical significance. To begin with, Ted tells us that it was made of Elm: a coffin-timber which, traditionally, makes a strong, protective vessel in which the corpse may journey from the watery chaos “of earth” to the shores of the Underworld.

Elm wood, however, is associated with rebirth as well as death. The Elm is a door between our world and the Underworld, and through it, in both directions, move elves, sprites and other spirits. And the first Elm grove, it is said, sprang into existence in response to the love song which Orpheus played for Euridice when he returned alone from the Underworld. So, Ted’s elm table, with its Orphic associations, was intended to be a desk on which Sylvia set down the product of her inspiration: but it also came to serve a more sinister and dangerous function.

In notes which Ted wrote in 1998 to two German translators of Birthday Letters, he explained that the Elm tree, all over Europe, is “the tree at the door of the underworld, a death tree”. In the same notes, he described Sylvia’s Ariel voice arriving “with a bang” in her poem, ‘Elm’; and he said that this was the poem in which “the mythos of her father emerged fully into her work, bringing its own great problem with it7. This, Ted wrote, was what ‘The Table’, was all about. And, indeed, his poem links Sylvia’s Ariel voice with inspiration, words, table, magic, death and destruction.

Table picture

Tables, too, have their own magical and occult significance as tools on which symbols and words are ritually inscribed. In the Heptarchic, planetary magic of John Dee, the Holy Table was the means by which the angelic powers, symbolized by the sigils inscribed on it, were brought together with the magician8. And in Freemasonry, still, three “tracing boards” or “tables” display symbols associated with particular stages or “degrees” of the Mason’s craft. On the tracing board for the “third degree”, is inscribed a skeleton (or skull and bones) either in or on a coffin. Special words of occult power may be inscribed on this board; and also shown is a curtained doorway at which one curtain is drawn back to reveal an enthroned figure in the place beyond. Such images and symbols and their meanings show clear parallels with the Path of Death (Nun) in the third of the Cabbalistic Worlds; and with the imagery of Ted’s poem.

At her elm desk, Sylvia, with Ariel’s help, conjured the Daddy of her “whole” subconscious memory: not necessarily her father’s true spirit, but a blue-eyed German “cuckoo” – an impersonator who took over both her life and Ted’s, and distorted her vision to such an extent that she began to see him as Ted.

Ted did not understand what was happening. He was “deafened”, he says, by this “German” which was outside his own “wavelengths” and which blocked his own intuitive powers and cut him off from reality. And again, as well as conveying the foreign-ness and un-germane9 nature of what was happening to him, there are association with occult magic in the word ‘German’. Germany, in the sixteenth-century was the place where all kinds of occult magic were fostered. It attracted NeoPlatonists, cabbalists, alchemists and magicians such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, John Dee and Edward Kelly, and many others whose works were well known to Ted and (perhaps to a lesser degree) to Sylvia. The language of these magicians was often deliberately arcane: a secret language of sigils and signs, recognizable only to those who used them.

The language which Sylvia divined “in the elm” was unique to her. And the spirit of Daddy, which she called up “in broad daylight” with the words she found and inscribed at her desk, was incomprehensible to Ted. After Sylvia’s death, without her energies and her “cursing and imploring” words, the code she used became “scrambled” and the magic no longer worked. So the “sigils” and the stains she left behind on her desk became powerless fragments of the words she “engraved” there, and their significance, now, is lost on the “peanut-crunchers” (those who have made Sylvia their idol and for whom any object associated with her is a “curio”, an amusement) who come only to “stare”.

Nevertheless, although emptied of Sylvia’s magic, Ted would have been superstitiously aware of the dangers the table still posed to him. It is an old superstition that any object holding someone’s body fluids may be used by a magician or witch to harm that person. So, in the final lines of the poem Ted ensured that the elm table-top was submerged in the salt waters of “the Atlantic” and “scoured” free of any traces of his own bodily fluids and of all the energies which he (at that time misguidedly) had invested in it. After such literal and poetic cleansing it would be again “simply a board”.

The final poem on the path of Death, in the dark World of Assiah, is ‘Life after Death’ (BL 182-3). It is a poem full of pain, grief and torment and yet it is full of beauty. Death took Sylvia, body and soul, into the Otherworld; and it overturned the world of her loved-ones, too. The hard bones and the wounds from Death’s scythe, the agonizing pain of separation, and the chaos of the afterlife, affected them all.

Sylvia already knew all about this sort of life after death from the death of her father. Now, she was truly experiencing Death’s Otherworld. So what could Ted tell her about life after death that she did not already know?


And nothing is exactly what this poem is about: the emptiness of loss, the chaos of raw emotion, the silence of the Void, and the closed circle of eternity – of the tail-eating snake Uroborus which symbolizes nature’s endless cycles of death and rebirth. This is the “Power of Nature” which is represented by the Mystical number of Netzach in this World of Assiah where 7 is now four times magnified (7 + 7 + 7 + 7 = 28). And Nature’s power can be seen in the things which Sylvia’s children inherited from her: the epicanthic fold and the jewel-like eyes of her son; and the terrible wound of childhood loss which she passes (in this poem) to her daughter.

It is as if the spirits of Ted and the children were so bound up with Sylvia’s spirit, that Death took them all into the Void; and the pain of separation was most nakedly seen in the youngest, where life was still almost wholly made up of instinct and emotion. But the spirits of all three were still tethered to bodies which “day by day” still ate and slept and grew. Ted describes his own spirit, in the careful ambiguity of the words “dropped from life”, as both suspended from life and suspended by life. He fed the baby, dressed and comforted his daughter, but was merely “awake in” his body and responding automatically to their needs.

The thread which ties the spirit to the body is immensely strong. It is the silver thread of Ecclesiastes (12:6) which is broken by death; the thread woven by the Greek Fates, which can only be cut by Atropos, the terrible goddess of the Old Moon, daughter of Night. It is also the soft, almost unbreakable thread with which the Norse gods tethered the Chaos of Nature, in the form of the great wolf, Fenrir, who was born of the Hag, Hel. No ordinary chain could hold him. Only one made of the essences of Nature: “the miaul of a cat, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the tendons of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird”10.

So, the spirits of the wolves of the world, the offspring of Fenrir, are tethered by Nature to their bodies of fur and flesh and they howl for eternity11 and for their lost freedom. And so, in Ted’s poem, it is the wolves in the zoo, their spirits tethered by Nature and their bodies caged by Man, who share the life after death of Sylvia’s loved-ones. All through the wintry moon-months of February and March they sang. And the three humans, each tethered to their own body, each in their separate “cots”, were comforted by this shared music of mourning, which wrapped around them and wove them back into the web of Nature.

Ted weaves the sad, beautiful, healing music of the wolves into five lines near the end of his poem. There, he and the children are united with Sylvia under blankets of snow.

And, in the final five lines, Ted describes how his body, but not his spirit, sank into a folk-tale of wolves and forest, orphaned babes and a dead mother. It is an old tale, woven from patterns of life which were for generations so common to the peoples of Europe that we easily recognize its images and become part of the story12.

Even in folk-tales, however, the mother’s corpse, as in the very last line of Ted’s poem, remains a harsh, unchangeable fact. So, in fiftieth line13 of this last poem on this Path of Death (Nun), the Gates of Understanding have led both Ted and Sylvia to the eternal and ineluctable presence of Death. And to the understanding that we are all, indeed, Joined to Nature.


1. Each of the seven Sephiroth which lie below the Supernal Triangle of Sephira 1, 2 and 3, contains a reflection of the whole lower Tree (Sephiroth 1 to 4). So, the number 49 represents all the energies of the lower Tree, and the forty-nine levels of Wisdom which, if correctly learned and used will allow the Initiate to penetrate the Veil of Binah and become One with the Divine Source. Through the powers of 7, therefore, the Initiate may emergence from chaos into order and complete the Cabbalistic journey.

2. ‘Myth and Education’, Children’s Literature in Education, March 1970, 1 :55 -70. ‘Myth and Education’, Writers, Critics, and Children, Heinemann, 1976 - republished in Winter Pollen, Faber, 1994 (pp. 136 -153). These two essays are quite different, although the theme is the same.

3. The use of Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, were events which caused Sylvia great distress and helped to precipitate the suicidal despair which resulted in her own subjection to the “lightning” of electric shock therapy.

4. Ted Hughes, ‘The Loon’, Under The North Star, Faber, 1981.

5. Given the events in Manhattan on 11 Sept. 2001, it is tempting to see the dream which Ted describes in ‘The Badlands’ as prophetic but he, I think, would have seen this act of terrorism as a symptom of our sickness, not as Nature’s attempt to redress a material/spiritual imbalance, however real that may be. ‘The Badlands’, however, does deal with the spoiling of “Planetary America” by excessive worship of the sun, of rationality and of materialism. “The moonland” has gone underground, and the old Indian who is linked with the mighty force of Nature at the end of the poem seems to represent a people who once lived in harmony with the land but who now exist only in memory and vision.

6. Faas, UU 206.

7. Letter from Ted Hughes to “Andrea and Robert”, dated 16 June 1998. Ted sent a copy of this letter to Keith Sagar and this is currently amongst the Hughes / Sagar correspondence held by the British Library. I quote from my own copy of this letter.

8. The exact dimensions of Dee’s table were dictated to his scryer, Edward Kelly, by the angelic spirit, Nalvage. The angels Nalvage and Gabriel also dictated the ‘table’, or matrix, of 49 squares (7 x 7) containing the names of the 49 angelic powers or “voices” which they described as “the natural keys, to open...the Gates of Understanding”. (Fenton (Ed.), The Diaries of John Dee, Day Books, Oxfordshire, 1998. p. 118). And, as Ted tells us in ‘Fairy Tale’ (BL 159) forty-nine was also Sylvia’s “magic number”.

9. ‘German’ and ‘germane’ were once interchangeable words.

10. Graves, New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hamlyn, 1959. p. 226).

11. One of the few poems which Ted wrote in the months after Sylvia’s death was ‘The Howling of Wolves’ (Wodwo 178). In it he writes that the wolf “is living for the earth” and, so, “must feed its fur”. The poem takes its title from one of William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’: “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man”.

12. It is not surprising that Ted should have thought of his situation in terms of a folk-tale. In a letter which he wrote to a friend shortly after Sylvia’s death he talked of the way he had become an actor in the dramas other people invented for him. Some, for example, expected him to die of remorse: others that he should live on as curator of Sylvia’s shrine. Life, he wrote, had become complicated and tricky.

13. The grouping of lines in ‘Life after Death’ reflects all the important Cabbalistic numbers associated with the Path of Nun: 2, which reflects the dichotomies of Life/Death, Inner/Outer, Body/Spirit; 12 and 10 both of which signify the completion of a cycle; 4, which is the number of the elements of chaos from which all things are made; 5, the number of Mankind, the number from which the two paths (outer and inner) open; and 50, the number of the Path of Nun and the number of the Gates of Understanding.

Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2003. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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