The Hunting of the Snark
~ decoded ~
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‘They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.’
Lewis Carroll’s tale of the Bellman’s search for, and pursuit of, the evasive Snark has surely delighted many. The loquacious yet inept Bellman captains a ship (whose crew includes a Beaver, a Boots and a Billiard-marker) which can in tropical climes find itself snarked...
Most would place this epic hunt of a Snark firmly in the land of make-believe or, rather, nonsense. Yet to do so does Lewis Carroll a huge injustice for, as he maintains in his introduction, he is incapable of writing nonsense. If not nonsense then what is 'The Hunting of the Snark'? It is nothing less than a brilliant example of an ancient, long forgotten storytelling code.
New eyes are needed if the true cunning of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (and perhaps Carroll’s other writings) is to be revealed. These eyes would be aware of a body of knowledge missing from the collective conscience and that this body of knowledge is to do with the stars and the pictures you can see in them. For the moment, though, let’s simply play with the words:
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
The English language is full of ambiguity and as a nation we like nothing better than playing with words. Those who enjoy cryptic crossword puzzles should prick up their ears for ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ is firmly in this category. How can one charm with soap? Easy-peasy when you know soap is slang for flattery. Therefore the Snark was charmed with smiles and flattery. Clearly this is not nonsense for that is precisely what we do.
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
How could a share be intimidating? Depends on the share, naturally. Beating plough-shares into swords is a well know pastime for those seeking to threaten. However, should you be on the railway, far from the farm, then the shares of a locomotive’s snowplough could be very threatening, indeed.
These two examples of word-play provide an insight to another level of The Snark, one of extreme cunning that, in Carroll’s time, could never be safely revealed, for people were still being imprisoned for Blasphemy. ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ blasphemous?! Surely not, it’s just nonsense, isn’t it?
The words are the easy part, for running parallel to the crafty puns is that forgotten body of knowledge, to wit pictures in the stars. And this is where the whole affair takes a dangerous twist, for those star pictures went missing for a reason: the Church didn’t like them.
In a world where no dissent was tolerated one either apparently toed the line or vanished without a trace. Like many before him, including his father, Carroll knew how to work the system and wove his genius within the ranks of the respected. One thing is certain: Carroll knew all about those forgotten star pictures, for no-one would joke with Hyenas returning their stare by accident. Nor could he state, without intimate knowledge of Ursa Major, that the Beaver had often saved the crew from wreck, though none of the sailors knew how (they hadn’t read one of Pliny the Elder’s curious assertions* or chanced upon Sheela-na-gig).
Delving into the world of star pictures is a daunting task. There are no books on the subject; quite the contrary, as most regular astronomy books declare that no such pictures exist. This despite virtually all visible stars carrying ancient names such as: Edasich, the Hyena; Castor, the Beaver and Zaurac, the Boat. Logic suggests these names were given because stargazers saw such pictures in the stars ~ and if they could see them ~ so can we.
The reason we have lost sight of the star pictures has nothing to do with light pollution or T.V. but is, as mentioned before, because the Church didn’t like them or the truth they could tell. Talk of star pictures was silenced for centuries yet every now and then, down through the ages, someone felt the urge to communicate and their message evaded the censors. The anonymous authors of many nursery rhymes** wrapped star pictures up in apparent tomfoolery, while William Blake, with his poem ‘Jerusalem’, succeeded in taking the fight into the heart of enemy territory. If you know how to look star pictures are everywhere, woven into all aspects of our culture. This is hardly surprising as the night sky is like a cosmic T.V. which everyone on the planet can tune into.
Discussing star pictures is pointless, really, for they need seeing, not discussing; the Star Strike app shows how to see them. Suffice to say it is through the pictures that ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ becomes understandable. Take the most unlikely event to occur in that most unlikely of escapades: the snarking of the ship in tropical climes, where the bowsprit, normally at the front of a ship, gets mixed with the rudder which is located at the rear.
Carroll draws our attention to this specific episode in his preface, perhaps because this is one of the easier star pictures to see: the bowsprit and rudder are formed from the same stars. Both are overlapped by a huge crab emerging from constellation Cancer, thus explaining the tropical climes reference, for Cancer is also one of our two tropics.
‘The Hunting of the Snark’, far from innocent nonsense, is a complex and daring romp through the night sky. It is a parody of the Bible mixed with mythology and other star-born oddities:
They pursued it with forks and hope;
Working on Carroll’s riddle provides a juicy treat for problem solvers and this teaser is a gem! To ‘pursue’ requires legs (just as ‘to seek’ requires an eye) and the running fork dashes along with a hasty parenthesis, both fleeing ‘as the dish ran away with the spoon’. The fork, however, is not a dining fork but a trident, found running along the western horizon in constellations Ophiuchus and Serpens. Mini constellation Delphinus in a hasty parenthesis cried “Look! the stars here are easy to read”. So let’s take a peek:
The stars can be lined up in many ways. This flexibility provides creative options for storytellers. A pattern in the stars might elicit the question: ‘What, on Earth, is that?’ and the response: ‘Figure it out’. Carroll really could.
So how might ‘hope’ pursue a Snark? In exactly the same way as the fork. According to the New Testament book of Hebrews ‘hope’ is ‘an anchor’ (with a forerunner), both star pictures running with the trident.
Despite this concerted and strenuous effort the Snark remained elusive, in fact it will never be found. Yet can we hazard a guess as to what Carroll was referring? I think we can, for there are clues.
First; let us slip into the past, to when Carroll was alive and well. There was, at that time, a great interest in hunting for archaeological evidence that would authenticate the Bible (nothing ever showed up, unless it was a medieval fake). Hence the hunt.
Second; in his preface Carroll spends some time expounding the mixing up of two words to create another.
Third; the Baker. An interesting fellow whose first language is Hebrew spoken in an antediluvian tone. He left 42 boxes of clean clothes on the beach. He was (spoiler alert…..) the only one to see a Snark. Yet it is him wagging his head that intrigues for I have read of wagging heads in only one other book... (Matthew 27:39)
Combine these three and maybe what the Bellman and his crew were seeking transforms from an elusive Snark into the illusive Noah’s Ark.
There were plenty of attempts to locate this holy relic and false alarms occasionally sounded, but nothing ship-shaped ever came of them, just a load of bunkum or, perhaps, Boojum.
42: the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything?
Popular belief has the animals entering the Ark two by two, but what most forget (or never knew) is that the clean animals were supposed to enter in multiples of seven (Genesis 7:2). They didn’t, apparently, as the boarding passes show that only ‘two by two’ animals boarded the Ark. The clean ones were, seemingly, left on the beach.
‘The Hunting of the Snark’ contains cyphers that still need decoding. One interesting lead I read is that the Jubjub bird may have derived from the Book of Jubilees, which features an angel. The cooking of a Jubjub is done in a way so as to preserve its symmetrical shape, which has echoes of Blake’s ‘Tyger, Tyger’ and, therefore, Ursa Major, itself a site of perpetual passion (stars named in Ursa Major provide 'the thigh' and 'insertion point' of a wide open beaver, while the 'the loins' of an uncircumcised Philistine will never require Viagra).
Curiouser and curiouser…
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Bankers beware the Bandersnatch!
Original artwork from 'The Hunting of the Snark'
© Mervyn Peake Estate.
Check out this video to see the Hyena and how the stories of old were crafted:
Star pictures hold the key to exposing the brilliance of Carroll’s work. Few will know of them but the app Star Strike endeavours to re-ignite interest in their forgotten world and turn nonsense on its head.
Below are further examples found in ‘The Hunting of the Snark’.
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care. Solidifying the abstract is key to finding the star pictures involved. Care is not something you can easily draw, but another word for care is aegis, which happens to be the shield of Zeus. This and the thimble are large bright images based around Orion. Both feature an eye for seeking. The thimble includes part of Ursa Major, like the bellman’s huge bell, but with a finger inside.
The Billiard-marker might have won more than his share… ...the lion’s share. The Billiard-marker is found within the Lion of Judah/Ra.
The taste of Snark is meagre and hollow, but crisp: like a coat that is rather too tight at the waist, with a flavour of Will-o-the-wisp. This references John the Baptist who ate locusts, the meagre and Eve who ate an apple, the crisp. Constellation Leo provides the munching mouth and the rather too tight coat. Will-o-the-wisp is the Milky Way and is tasted by the mouth of Cassiopeia (which also has honey flowing from the lips, thence the soap).
To joke with Hyenas returning their stare requires the face of God, who winked at the sinners (see video). Obviously there's a practical joke of universal proportions here, as also spotted by Herman Melville (from his Hyena chapter in ‘Moby-Dick’).
“Steer to starboard, but keep her head larboard!” might appear impossible but since the term starboard originates in the stars (few know this) and is based on the Star of Stars (a.k.a the Star of Bethlehem) we can work it out.
The troubled helmsman is doubting Thomas (the conjoined Twin) in Gemini; he is always caught in two minds. An oarsman in Auriga shows the direction of travel and the Star is on his left (on the helmsman’s right), while to the oarsman's right - the helmsman’s left or larboard - lies Perseus. 'Her head' refers specifically to 'her toilet area', head being the nautical term for toilet. Pliny again***, with another rather explicit image, one that François Boucher drew our attention to in his 'Leda and the Swan' painting of 1740.
The Bellman (Cosmic Dwarf) handles a huge bell which occupies one third of the night sky, reaching from Ursa Major to Orion. See him ringing this when Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon.
Like a crossword puzzle Carroll's clues need ruminating on. One can be stuck for ages on a word or sentence before a little something falls into place and all is revealed.
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A note on Pliny the Elder by his nephew: 'Does it surprise you that a busy man found time to finish so many volumes... He used to begin study at night... before daybreak he would go to Vespasian - for he too was a night worker...' Place this beside Pangur Ban the cat, whose master sought words at night, and you can see that, once upon a time, in a land far far away, the night was big business.
* *** Pliny's curious observations include: a woman can calm a storm at sea by exposing her 'beaver' (her private parts (found in Ursa Major)) and should she, at a certain time of the month, pass between two men one will live (Cassiopeia/Rejoice) and the other die (Auriga/...and when they were down, they were down...). Perseus provides the graphic details which, when combined with the image of a huge mouth, present some very bizarre myth as recounted in Denis Diderot's 'Les Bijoux Indiscrets'.
** 'Its raining, its pouring, the old man is snoring.' is pertinent here for Noah, that old soak, translates as 'Rest' (old man or ancient man are oft used to denote Biblical characters). 'Jack Sprat could eat no fat' alludes directly to Isaiah 1:11, Jack Sprat being a term for a Dwarf and Dwarves were seen as divine by some cultures. See the Cosmic Dwarf in the Star Strike app.