Hierophant cardVau path

The Path of the Hierophant – Vau

Tarot card 5. Tree path 6.

Joining Sephiroth 2 (Chokmah) and 4 (Chesed).

‘The Tender Place’, ‘Horoscope’, ‘The Pan’, ‘Blood and Innocence’.

© Ann Skea

The Hierophant is like a lesser, worldly form of The High Priestess. Traditionally (but not necessarily) male, the Hierophant is a channel for the Divine energies, a bridge between the Divine and the Human, a man or woman who has direct access to the Sacred Wisdom and acts as a guide, a mediator, a priestly figure who uses this Wisdom to help balancing the opposing poles of sacred and profane in our world. The hierophantic spark in each of us is that intuitive wisdom which helps us to find a balanced path between orthodox conformity and our inner sense of what is right; between the worldly self and the spiritual self.

The Hierophant’s number in the Tarot is 5, the Pentacle, the number of Mankind. In traditional Tarot cards he is shown as the Pope, seated before the pillars of the Temple, which is the worldly house of the Divine spirit. Equally, he or she may be a prophet, a priest, a magus or a shaman. The Path of the Hierophant lies midway down the Pillar of Mercy and joins Sephira 2, Chokmah (Wisdom) to Sephira 4, Chesed (Mercy). Because of the numbers 2 and 4 (or 2 x 2), there is a strong element of duality and ambivalence to this path. There is also a strong element of sacrifice associated with the Hierophant, since (as the journeyer on this path must learn) this is the path of spiritual growth and to accept the Divine energies and allow them to flow freely through oneself to others is a dangerous and difficult task.

The number of the Hierophant’s path is 6 (the sum of 2 + 4) which is the number of Tiphereth (The Way of Love, Intuition and Divine inner knowledge). And the symbol for this path is two intersecting triangles, making a six-pointed star which appropriately suggests the inter-connection of the Supernal Triangle of 1, 2 and 3 with the worldly energies lower down the Sephirothic Tree. This symbol reflects the Hermetic/Platonic principle “As above, so below” and it is sometimes known as Soloman’s Seal. Soloman, of course, was a hierophant, as were all the other spiritual guides of Biblical, historical and mythological renown.

The astrological sign for the Hierophant’s path is Taurus, the Bull linking it with the Minoan Dionysus, ‘The Bull God’ of sacrifice and rebirth.

The Hebrew letter for this path, Vau (meaning ‘nail’), symbilizes both sacrifice and the steadfast link between the Divine and Mankind. It stands for the created Son, the lesser countenance of the Divine Source. We are all sons and daughters of that Source and fragments of that original Unity, thus we all carry its energies within us. Traditionally, however, the hierophant, prophet or spiritual leader is “called” to their task.

So, as befits the archetypal nature of the Atziluthic World, the first poem on the Path of the Hierophant, ‘The Tender Place’ (BL 12), describes the shamanic call and the dismemberment which precedes shamanic initiation. Surprising as this interpretation may seem, there are many good reasons why it should be so.

True poetry, for Ted, was always a shamanic activity, and the shamanic flight to the spirit world for the healing energies needed in our own world was, for him, “the fundamental poetic event” (Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe, pp. 206-7). He certainly wrote of Sylvia’s poetry in these terms in his essay ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’ (WP 177-90), where he makes it plain that Sylvia’s initial task [like that of any shaman] was to heal her own “deep and incisive inner crisis”. He says, too, that Sylvia had a “bee-line instinct” for what was necessary and that her poetry, up until the birth of Ariel, records that “strange limbo of ‘gestation / regeneration’ which followed her ‘death’ [her first suicide attempt]”. It was a process which Sylvia herself interpreted as her own “drama” of death, gestation and rebirth.

“The Shaman”, writes Mircea Eliade (whose book on shamanism Ted reviewed in 19641), is “above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself”, and the initiation, “the traditional schema [of which] is suffering, death and resurrection”, is ‘equivalent to a cure”2. In ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’, Ted makes it clear that Sylvia’s poetry up until the birth of “the poetic spirit Ariel” was this initiation: that it was “the biology of Ariel, the ontology of Ariel” (WP 178), “a process of self-salvation” and “a resurrection of [Sylvia’s] deepest spiritual vitality” (WP 182).

Often too, according to Mircea Eliade, it is an inner crisis (usually around the onset of maturity) which reveals a potential shaman: ‘… the religious man”, Eliade writes, ‘is projected into a vital plane that shows him the fundamental data of human existence, that is, solitude, danger, hostility of the surrounding world”. Sylvia, in her journal entries for July 6, 14 and 19, 1953, in The Bell Jar and in her story ‘Tongues of Stone’ (JPBD 267-74), describes her own crisis at the age of 20 in just such terms: she writes of her acute horror at the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, her increasing alienation from and isolation from the surrounding world, and of her own knowledge that something was wrong with her. It was this distress, isolation and knowledge which led her to attempt suicide in 1953. And it was this unsuccessful suicide attempt which she later regarded as the ‘death’ which would bring about the birth of her new creative self.

‘The Tender Place’, however, begins not with Sylvia’s suicide attempt, but with the electric shock treatment which followed it. It is a terrible and frightening version of events which Sylvia herself described in The Bell Jar (p. 117 – 174), in ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ (JPBD 33) and in her poems ‘The Hanging Man’ (SPCP 141-2) and ‘Poem for a Birthday’ (SPCP 136-7). Every one of these descriptions finds echoes in the act of self-wounding and subsequent dismemberment which begins shamanic initiation. And often the spirit which calls the shaman to his or her vocation is, according to Eliade, an ancestor “who takes possession of the initiate”3.

In her poem ‘Daddy’ (SPCP 222-4) Sylvia describes her suicide attempt as an attempt to get back to her father. And in her story, ‘Among the Bubble-bees’ (JPBD 259-66), she draws a thinly disguised autobiographical picture of Otto as a powerful god-like father with whom the child protagonist (clearly Sylvia) learns to laugh at thunder and lightning, singing: “Thor is angry. Thor is angry. Boom, boom, boom! Boom, boom, boom!”. It is the Father God’s “thunderbolt” which crashes into Sylvia’s skull in ‘The Tender Place’ and his “lightnings” which terrify her. And it is Thor’s Oak tree4 from which she is shorn as an oak limb – like “your Daddy’s leg”. All these images find parallels in shamanic lore where, in the initiatory ordeal which follows the shamanic ‘death’, the shaman is dismembered, reduced by demons to “boneseed”, then re-born from the re-animated bones. Thor - the Father God – regularly used his magic hammer, Mjolnir, to re-animate bones. And Thor’s tree, the Oak, which is a sacred and oracular tree in many European and Scandinavian cultures, is like the Cosmic Tree from which the shamanic drum is made5. It is the shaman’s own songs (or poems), made to the music and rhythm of this drum, which create the ecstasy that allows the shaman to fly to the Otherworld for healing energies.

Sylvia, writing her own imaginative account of her shamanic journey in ‘Poem for a Birthday’ (SPCP 131-7), makes the electric shock treatment, “volt upon volt”, part of the reconstruction of herself, rather than a dismemberment. And her rebirth is complete. Ted, in ‘The Tender Place’ however, sees the treatment as wholly destructive: “What went up / Vaporized? Where the lightning rods wept copper / And the nerve threw off its skin / Like a new-born child”6. Sylvia, in this imagery, is left as a conductor of raw energy, dangerously unprotected and with “scorched-earth scars” which were still apparent years later. In the final lines of Ted’s poem, Sylvia’s words are unable to face the light and are still mortally wounded. In this poem, Sylvia’s initiation, her poetic journey (as Ted sees it in his essay), is just beginning. Yet, in spite of her vulnerability (and she seemed, Ted has said, “almost invalid in her lack of inner protection” (WP 182)), she seemed driven to continue7.

Given Ted’s views on the poet as shaman and the seriousness with which he and Sylvia undertook their work, it is clear that both were (in Ted’s view, at least) shamans: both were hierophants. ‘Horoscope’ (BL 64), on the Path of the Hierophant in the pattern-forming world of Briah uses this and the dualistic, ambivalent nature of this Cabbalistic path to convey its meaning.

Ted was the expert astrologer, not Sylvia: but Sylvia had resolved to learn. On February 9th, 1958, in a journal entry which is full of the duality of her present, mundane life of teaching and housekeeping in Northampton versus the “litany of dreams, directives and imperatives” through which she wanted to “recreat[e] worlds”, she wrote: “I must meantime this June beginning, learn about planets & horoscopes to be in the proper starred house”. In October and November, 1959, whilst at Yaddo, she bewailed her lack of inspiration and was still planning to “teach myself the Tarot pack, the stars” (SPJ 13 Oct. 1959). And on November 7th, 1959, she wrote: “Ted is weary of my talk of astrology and tarot and wanting to learn, and then not bothering to work on my own”.

Sylvia seemed to take astrology so lightly that once, when Ted suggests an astrological cause for her tightly strung nerves, she treated it as a joke: “Too tired for saving humour… “ (SPJ 13 March 1958). Yet, in the poem, Ted suggests that it was instinctive fear which kept Sylvia from a deeper study of astrology: fear of knowing more clearly what her intuition – which Ted, elsewhere, calls her “internal crystal ball” (WP 184) – already told her.

Sylvia’s view of the stars (“Your stars”, as Ted puts it) was superficial – confined to those visible above her own “prison yard” space on Earth and to the common, limited perception of zodiac signs and witchdoctor mumbo-jumbo about planets and portents8. But what is a witchdoctor but a shaman? Whether he or she is a genuine shaman or a charlatan and trickster is all a matter of degree, a word which (with a capital ‘D’) begins a line at the very heart of ‘Horoscope’. It is this matter of degree, of surface knowledge versus deeper wisdom, which recurs throughout the poem.

There is, for example, great ambivalence in Ted’s reference to Babylonian power-sprach and the Babylonian book, for although Babylon came to refer in a worldly sense to the place of Jewish captivity and persecution, and to be associated with a fallen city, Rome, the Anti-Christ and the Scarlet Woman, the word ‘Babylonian’ is also synonymous with ‘Chaldaean’. The Chaldaeans were expert astronomers and astrologers, prophets, seers, and alchemists (hierophants, in other words) and the first known written texts concerning the influence of the stars on the Earth are attributed to them and are regarded as the basis of modern astrology. The Chaldaean Oracles, reputed to have been written by the Persian prophet Zoroaster9, are fragments of oracular text which have come down to us in Greek translations and which, through Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophy, have become an important part of Western esoteric tradition.

In ‘Horoscope’, lines 16-21, Ted suggests that Sylvia already had direct knowledge of occult things: that she “only had to look” into the face of metaphors she chose from the things around her to see her Fate. The ‘face’ of a metaphor, however, suggests a degree of superficiality. And the phrase, “Only you” (in line 10), is equally ambivalent. At a surface level, it seems to imply that Sylvia did indeed have unique occult skills; or ‘only’ may be taken as a simple, qualifying ‘but’, which absolves her from the need to undertake painstaking astrological calculations. Ted, however, would have made such calculations and with his greater degree of understanding of horoscopes he would have known, for example, that Sylvia’s “ascendant disruptor in Aries” had meanings which were deeper and more serious than “a scarred face”.

Sylvia had only to look in any worldly, superficial, astrology book to find that Uranus, the “Great Disruptor” which appears in her astrological chart in the house of Aries10, would, there, influence “the appearance of the subject [person] as it strikes someone who meets him for the first time”11. And Sylvia did, in fact, have a scarred face as a legacy of her suicide attempt in 1953. Ted, the serious astrologer-hierophant-magician might have seen (and looking back as he wrote this poem certainly would have seen) “under the skin” something to do with Sylvia’s personality, her individuality and her determination, but also (as in the poem) something which combined her clairvoyant intuition with a rebellious impatience of the usual procedures. In retrospect, Ted would have seen the creation of patterns of behaviour within this Cabbalistic World of Briah which drove Sylvia both towards the violent and angry re-creation of self which is heard in the voice of Ariel but also towards self-destruction. So it was not only, as Ted says in the poem, “your father, your mother, or me” who brought Sylvia her Fate but also a deep disturbance within her self.

It should be noted, too, that the degrees of seriousness and the intuitions which this poem describes also involve its reader. If we look only at the face of the poem the deeper level (or degree) of meaning will not be revealed12.

‘The Pan’ (BL 121) is the poem on the Path of the Hierophant in the World of Yetzirah. Because it is on this particular path, there is immediately the possibility of ambivalence and duality, and there is also another aspect of the Hebrew letter for this path (Vau) which is apparent in the mingling of past and present on this poem. In Biblical Hebrew, Vau has the function of inverting the apparent tense of the verb: from past to future or from future to past. Also, as a bridge, a channel for Divine energy, it is able “to draw from the future into the past”13.

Yet, the reality of the scene with which this poem begins is mundane and exact in its detail. It is a cluttered, worldly scene, late in an Autumn day, with the “brassy, low, wet Westcountry sun” just visible at the far end of a long street in a strange town at the start of a “strange new life”. Given that Ted’s and Sylvia’s marriage was already seriously troubled at that time, this weak, distant sun seems as metaphorical as it was real. Yet this must have been just what it was like on that September day in 1961when Ted and Sylvia, tired after their long drive from London, arrived in North Tawton with a car full of odds and ends, and a small baby to provide for. So, at first reading, the pan which Ted stopped to buy “to heat milk and baby food” certainly seems to be the pan referred to in the title.

Maenad picture

‘Pan’, however, was a word which had special meaning for Ted and Sylvia in another context, for Pan was the name of the Ouija spirit they had summoned more than once and who had inspired some of their poetry. Pan was the magician - trickster, a soothsaying son of Hermes, but also one of the Pans and Maenads which followed Dionysus / Bacchus – a composite god, derived from many cultures but always a son of the sky god and associated especially with the Orphic Mysteries of shamanic death and rebirth.

Here, in this poem, the young man on the pavement, his arm around a young woman with leopard-claw earings, is both Ted transposed from a future time with his arm around Assia Wevill14, and a Dionysic figure, full of life, whose companion wears the “next-to-nothing” dress and the leopard symbol of a Maenad. Had Sylvia or Ted been clairvoyant at this moment, they would have seen their future. But the Divine energies, here, were weak and distant, their own journey had become material and mechanical (the Morris Traveller a suitable vehicle for this) and they, blindly happy in the car, were unaware of what lay ahead.

‘Blood and Innocence’ (BL 168), in the lowest World of Assiah, offers a grim picture of the sacrificial and demonic aspects of the Hierophant’s path, and of the nine-years of torment Sylvia went through (1953-1962) after her first ‘death’ until the Ariel spirit was born. Once again, this is a description of Sylvia’s shamanic initiation, but this far from the Divine Source she is dangerously exposed to the demons of the Underworld.

The combination of childishness and maturity in the phrase Ted chooses to describe the appearance of the Ariel spirit – “the nine-year-old howl / Come of age” – is important to this poem and it repeats the dichotomies of “Blood and Innocence” and “locusts and honey” with which the poem begins. Blood is a symbol of sacrifice and fertility but it is also an important symbol of initiation (associated both with priesthood and virginity) and birth. It suggests knowledge, both sexual and divine: the opposite of innocence. Locusts and honey, too, represent a dichotomy but here it is two ends of a pathway which are suggested. Both have Biblical associations: locusts with Apollon and one of the woes released from his bottomless pit in The Revelation of Saint John (Rev. 9: 1-12); and honey with enlightenment (I Sam. 14, 24ff.). Both are also associated with Melissa/Hecate/Artemis, the Minoan bee goddess (also a Moon goddess and Great Goddess of Regeneration) and represent the different aspects of her nature: the locusts represent the demons of the Dark of the Moon; the honey, her rewards of rebirth, prophetic utterance and poetry15.

Locusts and honey, of course, are generally remembered as being the food of John the Baptist in the wilderness. John – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Matt. 3) - was a prophet, a bridge between God and the people, a hierophant. But it is significant that in ‘Blood and Innocence’ Sylvia’s torment comes between the locusts and the honey. The poem begins with this statement, goes on to describe her nine-year torment, and ends with the words “Mummy Mummy”, which encompass both a childish cry for mother and the bandage-wrapped body (embalmed in honey) which was the Egyptian and the Orphic vessel for rebirth16.

King dies picture

From the start of the poem Sylvia is associated with the torment and the sacrifice of self required of saints and hierophants: with John the Baptist and with St Anthony of Padua, tormented by devils before becoming a charismatic preacher – a channel for God’s word. “Only the devil can eat the devil out”, Sylvia wrote in ‘Witchburning’ (SPCP 135-6), and she may well have been familiar with the fourteenth-century picture by the Limbourg brothers of ‘Saint Anthony attacked by Devils’17. It shows Saint Anthony in a coffin being attacked by a black, winged devil, a lion and a large lizard – all Biblical demons. Ted would certainly have recognised that the picture also closely resembles a common alchemical image of death and rebirth in which the coffined king/father/body is being destroyed in order to release the son/soul. Sylvia’s attack by devils in ‘Blood and Innocence’, however, does not release her soul: it shatters it.

After her shock treatment ‘death’, Sylvia’s rebirth was self-made. She was reborn, as in the poem, “Not of mother’s blood nor of Christ’s” but through her own determination and effort. A Frankenstein monster, a mask, a “semblable”, fabricated like her own creature in ‘The Applicant’ (SPCP 221-2) and “matricidal”18 she may have been, but self was still very much present. So, the devils returned and “the doll” was sacrificed.

Again, Sylvia willingly subjected herself to the torments. Ted writes, in ‘Sylvia Plath and Her Journals’ (WP 182), of “her unique blend of courage and vulnerability” and of the way she faced “what was wrong with herself”, “dragged it out into examination” and remade it. This rebirth was pinpointed by Ted as the first emergence of the Ariel spirit in Sylvia’s poem ‘Stones’ (SPCP 136-7), but her rebirth there was into an “after hell”, “a quarry of silences” where she sucked “at the paps of darkness”. This was a rebirth in the wrong dimension, a rebirth into the darkness of the Underworld where, prompted again by demons, she unearthed her dead father and was possessed by the dark energies of Thor. Her Ariel poetry drums with what in ‘Blood and Innocence’ is called Thor’s “hoof-like thunder”, suggesting the cloven-hoofed, Devilish aspect of this nature. His “hammer-dance” anger and his “gutturals” are there in her poetry, too, especially in ‘Daddy’ (SPCP 222-4) and ‘Lady Lazarus’ (SPCP 244-7). And Sylvia’s own howl and her own avengement for the “twenty-year forsaken / Sobs of Germania-” fill poems like ‘Mary’s Song’ (SPCP 257) and ‘Getting There’ (SPCP 247-9).

In ‘Blood and Innocence’, the demons take all this and still there is no salvation, no enlightenment: only the “gilded theatre” of the world; the emptiness which Sylvia expresses in many of her last poems; and a ‘self’ like the fragile, “soul-animal” she so beautifully describes in ‘Balloons’ (SPCP 271-2).

Nameless faces, Mummy, Daddy- these are all that is left for Sylvia in the emptyness at the end of the poem. But the repeated “Mummy”, “Daddy”, in the last lines seem to echo the cries of her and Ted’s children. Their children are the potential healing, the sugar – “its crystals a little poultice” – which she wrote of in one of her last poems, ‘Kindness’ (SPCP 269-70). And these children, perhaps, are the honey which Ted wraps into Mummy bandages at the end of this poem and which, in their innocence and in the blood-line which they inherit, offer a different sort of rebirth.


1. Hughes, T. ‘Regeneration’, The Listener, 29 October 1964

2. Eliade, M. Shamanism, Princeton University Press, 1972. p. 27.

3. Eliade, M. Op.cit. pp. 22, 82.

4. The oak was sacred to many sky gods and their daughters and sons, including Zeus and Athena, Jupiter and Minerva, Helios and Circe, Dionysus, Herne (who was the British Hermes/Pan), and the Celtic Dagda and Brigid/Brigantia (who was also the goddess of poetic inspiration). The oak was also commonly regarded as a magical doorway to the mystic realms (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, Thorsons, London, 1996. pp. 176-82).

5. Samoyed shamans are carried by spirit guides to an island on which grows “The Tree of the Lord of the Earth”. The Lord calls to the shaman: “My branch has just fallen; take it and make a drum of it that will serve you all your life” (Eliade, M. Op.cit. p. 40).

6. A creature newborn from a sloughed skin is a common shamanic image, based on magical beliefs associated with metamorphosis.

7. In ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’, Ted describes the process as having a “weird autonomy”, as if her poetry was “a secret crucible, or rather a womb, an almost biological process – and just as much beyond her manipulative interference. And like a pregnancy selfish with her resources” (WP 180-1).

8. Colin Low comments that Chokmah (Sephira 2)“is the sphere of the Mazlot, the Zodiac, and in the cosmology of the ancients, the containing power of the stars” (e-mail to AS, 12 Oct. 20001). This offers another, Cabbalistic, interpretation of “Your stars – the guards / Of your prison yard, their zodiac.”.

9. Joseph Cambell, in The Masks of God (Penguin, 1979. p 7) notes that Zoroaster was a prophet of mystical rebirth and regeneration whose dates “have been variously placed between c. 1200 and c. 550 B.C.”.

10. Neil Spencer, broadcaster, journalist and author of True as the Stars Above (Gollancz, London, 2000) has provided me with the astrological information on which this discussion is based. Sylvia Plath’s horoscope, drawn by John Etherington, appears in Apollon: The Journal of Psychological Astrology, Issue 2, April 1999. (p. 64) but Olwyn Hughes, who is a very competent astrologer, says that both Ted’s and Sylvia’s charts in this article are based on incorrect birth times (Letter to AS, 27 April 2000). Etherington based his chart for Sylvia on information given by editor Karen Kuckil in The Journals of Sylvia Plath (p. 3). Sylvia’s mother, however, in the introduction to Letters Home wrote that Otto, “at a luncheon that day”, told colleagues that he hoped his next child would be a son. This throws some doubt on the birth time of 14.10, unless Otto and his colleagues were having a late lunch. Regardless, of this, at any time between 00.00 and 14.10 on 27 October, 1932, Uranus would have been in the house of Aries in Sylvia’s chart.

11. From a lavishly illustrated, short, coffee-table style book by David Christie-Murray entitled The Practical Astrologer: All you need to know to construct birth charts, cast horoscopes and discover what the stars have to reveal (Australian Book Centre, Queensland, 1998. p. 100).

12. The word ‘hierophant’ is, itself, from a Greek word meaning ‘revelation’.

13. In a discission of the Torah and the mystical significance of the Hebrew letters, the power of Vau to draw the future into the past is associated with the power of “Teshuvah (‘repentance’ and ‘returning to G-d’) from love” to mitigate one’s past transgressions (VAU).

14. In ‘Folktale’ (THSP 309), Ted associates Assia with the leopard of Ein Gedi. The leopard (or panther) is a symbol of Dionysus, and Ein Gedi has Biblical and Cabbalistic associations with dionysic passion. In legend it was the oasis where Kind David hid in a cave with Bat-Sheba, and in the Songs of Soloman the beloved “… is unto me as a cluster of camphire / In the vineyards of En-gedi” (1, 14).

15. Taurus is the astrological sign for this path and the Minoan Dionysus, ‘The Bull God’, is associated with Melissa and with spiritual rebirth. Porphyry wrote: “the moon… they called Melissa [‘bee’], because… bees are begotten of bulls. And souls that pass to earth are bull-begotten”. Baring and Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Viking, 1999. pp. 117-9).

16. Like the “Mummy-cloths” of Sylvia’s poem, ‘Facelift’ (SPCP 155-6) from which a new being would emerge. Ted notes say that this poem describes “the experience of an acquaintance, requisitioned for the poet’s myth of self-renewal” (SPCP 219).

17. Held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. There is another version by Grunwald in the Museum Unterlinden, Berlin, which really doeas show St Anthony on a bad day. It was used in Man and His Symbols (Ed. Jung, Aldus, 1964. p.48) to illustrate an article by Jung on dreams and the subconscious.

18. She describes her matricidal feelings in her journals (SPJ 12 Dec. 1985) and, very much as Ted describes them in the poem, in her story ‘Tongues of Stone’ (JPBD p.271) and The Bell Jar (p. 101).

Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2001. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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