Sunday, December 28, 2008


And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
— Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”

One hundred years after Alice’s bad trip in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Jefferson Airplane cooked up their psychedelic classic “White Rabbit”. The song is an acidic tribute to altered consciousness, equal parts prescription and cautionary tale, named for the anxious being Alice glimpses in the opening paragraphs of Carroll’s book:

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the
day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of
making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and
picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

Alice’s condition is familiar to most writers: sure, it’s pleasing to string words together, but getting started can be real trouble. Sometimes a freaky rabbit has to intervene. In Alice’s case, as almost everyone knows, the intervention of the White Rabbit sends the girl’s sleepy mind on a lunatic journey. “Down the Rabbit Hole”, the title of Carroll’s first chapter, has become synonymous with radical departures of thought and experience, as in the 1999 film The Matrix, where a drastically revised perception of reality is expressed as “tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

As a representative of wild inspiration, it’s tempting to induct the White Rabbit into the Writer’s Pantheon. But he’s preoccupied by a pocketwatch, not a writing desk, and besides, another Rabbit takes precedence in our literary assembly, thanks to an image on Mayan pottery that predates Alice by at least 1000 years. A vase discovered in northern Guatemala depicts a scribe, a familiar and pervasive figure in Mayan culture, though in this case the depiction has no known counterpart in surviving Mayan art: the scribe is an anthropomorphic Rabbit, dutifully taking notes as a court’s chaotic business is transacted around him, including, it seems, a human sacrifice. The artefact probably is a funerary vase (folks with stronger stomachs have speculated the vessel was used for drinking chocolate) and the scene likely is a legendary depiction of the underworld (we’re down the rabbit hole again), a realm where the scribe clearly maintained a lofty and highly ritualized position as a mediator between the bloodthirsty transactions of humanity and the inconceivable business of the gods.

Generally the scribe in Mayan art was depicted in human form, and the primary scribe-deities were Itzamna (the creator god, inventor of writing), or Pauahtuns (an individual or group of gods associated with scribes and artisans), or a pair of anthropomorphic howler monkeys (gods of the Mayan arts, including writing and sculpting). These members of the Writer’s Pantheon will be given reverent attention in due course. As for our scribe-Rabbit, his potential to inspire tangents of creativity is supported by the characteristics of rabbit or hare divinities of other cultures, where this creature often serves as a trickster, a prolific creator, a bringer of luck, a messenger, and, in the case of the Aztec’s four-hundred rabbit gods, a figure of drunken revelry.

However, this party animal obviously has a dark side. Let’s not forget the moral of Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare: “A naturally gifted man, through lack of application, is often beaten by a plodder.” Beware of pride and procrastination, you harebrained writers! A number of cultures associate rabbits and hares with the moon, vacillation, and fear, and as is the case with the White Rabbit and his Mayan counterpart, dreadful access to the underworld. In one of my favourite books, Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), there is a wonderfully surreal scene in which Pinocchio stubbornly refuses to take his medicine, at which point four ink-black rabbits arrive, carrying a coffin, ready to transport the puppet to his grave. Pinocchio is horrified into taking his medicine, and the frustrated rabbits grumble about making their trip for nothing, though they imply they’ll have other opportunities to return and complete their grim business. Another favourite is David Lynch’s Rabbits (2002), a series of short films featuring “a nameless city deluged by a continuous rain [where] three rabbits live with a fearful mystery”. Later incorporated into Lynch’s feature film Inland Empire (2006), these anthropomorphic rabbits seem to be incarnations of doomed souls, struggling to recall (or perhaps to forget) how they ended up in such a miserable and transformed condition.

So is Rabbit good news or bad news for writers? If you’re looking for unrestrained creativity, enigmatic individuality, or obscure and eccentric tunnels into perception and expression, then say your prayers, because this is your patron. Proper invocation includes a dose of Jefferson Airplane. But keep in mind: Rabbit may lead you down routes that become curiouser and curiouser. Expect the unexpected, otherwise you risk losing your head. Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know.


“About the Rabbit” Anthrobytes Consulting (accessed 28 December 2008)

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll” Project Gutenberg (accessed 22 December 2008)

“The Construction of the Codex In Classic- and Postclassic-Period Maya Civilization” Thomas J. Tobin. (accessed 28 December 2008)

Dictionary of Symbolism. Hans Biedermann. Trans. James Hulbert. New York: Facts On File, 1992.

Fables of Aesop. Translated by S. A. Handford. London: Penguin Books, 1964.

“Great Rabbit / Hare” (accessed 22 December 2008)

“Rabbit” Wikipedia (accessed 22 December 2008)

“Rabbits (film)” Wikipedia (accessed 28 December 2008)

“The Rabbit Scribe” (accessed 28 December 2008)

“The similarities between the ‘Rabbit-Gods’ The Great Hare, the Jade Rabbit and Wn” History of Rabbit Gods (accessed 21 December 2008)

“White Rabbit (song)” Wikipedia (accessed 24 December 2008)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saint Francis de Sales

Direction of Intention

My God, I give you this day.
I offer you, now,
all of the good that I shall do
and I promise to accept,
for love of you,
all of the difficulty that I shall meet.
Help me to conduct myself
during this day
in a manner pleasing to you.

Every year at Christmas, the men in my family receive a calendar from Auntie Terry. Specifically, we receive a Catholic calendar—an impassioned, illustrated, and edifying twelve-month guide to religious practice and patrons, every day annotated with the liturgies, sorrows, and luminous mysteries of the Catholic year. I assume the calendars are distributed only to the men because our souls are most in jeopardy, and perhaps our routine needs, such as figuring out what day it is, might somehow be the catalyst for our spiritual salvation.

Usually the calendar hangs dutifully, but inconspicuously, in a bedroom. My father’s calendar inevitably hangs in my parents’ bedroom, and in my home the tradition continues. However, the 2008 calendar from Terry—my favourite aunt by the way—was of a quality that earned it a place on the kitchen wall, as it featured Renaissance paintings and illuminated texts, rather than the usual flat pastel-coloured images of martyrs, nuns, and rows of smiling children sitting in front of massive Catholic computers. When I opened the calendar in January 2008—during the time I had started to compile the Writer’s Pantheon—I discovered the grand portrait for that month was Saint Francis de Sales, the 24th of January being his feast day. (A feast day is a day sacred to a particular saint, and the Catholic year offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of feast days. January 24, for example, is the feast day of at least a dozen other saints aside from de Sales, including the exotic but spiritually nourishing St. Thyrsus, St. Projectus, and St. Exuperantius.)

The calendar informed me that de Sales is the “Patron of the Catholic Press,” and checking against my list of literary divinities, I found he was indeed present among the heavenly body I’d observed so far, with additional claims as a patron of authors, journalists, and others involved in the craft of language. For example, he developed his own sign language to convey his teachings to the hearing impaired; consequently he also serves as patron saint of the deaf. I took de Sales’ inaugural place in Terry’s calendar as a divine signal that he should be my second illustration, in particular as my residual Catholic guilt compelled me to follow my work on Titivillus with a more godly figure. (Conversely, with the New Year looming as I write, de Sales and company are about to be replaced on the kitchen wall by The Witches Calendar. My apologies, Auntie Terry.)

Francis de Sales earned his status as a literary patron and, according to Pope Pius IX, “The Master and Restorer of Sacred Eloquence”, thanks to his prolific writings, including sermons, letters, and prayers (such as “Direction of Intention” above), for championing spiritual literacy in his writings on the proper contemplation of books, and in particular for using the press actively to defend and advance his faith. His most renowned work is Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), a book that confirms the necessity of a literary muse, even for a saint: the text was inspired by Louise de Charmoisy, whom he called Philothea, or “Lover of God”. (For her charms, Madame de Charmoisy receives honorary membership in the Writer’s Pantheon.)

Saint Francis de Sales maintains a vital and prolific influence in the spiritual and professional endeavours of contemporary Catholic writers. He continues to be invoked to support the efforts of individual writers (the book Saintly Support: A Prayer For Every Problem [2003] includes a plea to de Sales for dedication, inspiration, ideas, and intercession with God “as I attempt to bring the written word to the world”), and he has served as the catalyst for institutions such as the International Commission of Salesian Studies (established to “disseminate on a global scale information dealing with salesian thoughts, work and studies”). When G.K. Chesterton and colleagues founded the Catholic Writers Guild of England and Wales in 1931, de Sales was chosen as their patron, and although the saint is not associated explicitly with the American Catholic Writers Guild, that organization’s prayer, excerpted here, is a good point of departure if you are looking for Saint de Sales’ divine intervention in your work:

Guide our minds, our hearts, our hands,as we write, speak, illustrate –help our words to live in union with the Word.


Catholic Fire: St. Francis de Sales (accessed 18 December 2008)

Catholic Online (accessed 20 December 2008)

The Catholic Writers Guild (American) (accessed 18 December 2008)

Francis de Sales (accessed 18 December 2008)

An Introduction to the Devout Life (accessed 20 December 2008)

International Commission on Salesian Studies (accessed 18 December 2008)

The Keys: The Catholic Writers Guild of England and Wales (accessed 18 December 2008)

The Saints Among Us 2008. Calendar published by Kellmark Corporation (JRK Line), 2007.


Go your way, a devil way, go your way all!
I bless you with my left hand: foul you befall!
Come again, I warn, as soon as I you call
— Titivillus, in Mankind

In my earliest glimpse of the Writer’s Pantheon, when a few of the eternal powers loomed in the forecourt and a host of unfamiliar divinities emerged in majestic procession from the vague chambers beyond, I was compelled to pay my first respects to one of the minor courtiers, the demon Titivillus. I enrolled this medieval imp almost immediately, and illustrated him before all the others, as he seemed to embody the anxieties, eccentricities, and sheer ingenuity of the writer’s diabolic craft.

I first encountered Titivillus during a blissful year spent reading for comprehensive exams. I now repress the results of my exam in early English drama, but I remember the reading list with great affection--- the heroic misanthropy, the divine vengeance, the innumerable daggers, the thundering iambs. I was introduced to Titivillus in the fifteenth-century morality play, Mankind. In the play, Titivillus does his best to undermine the moral progress of Mankind, the drama’s symbolic protagonist. But unlike other medieval demons, Titivillus wasn’t into pitchforking and soul-swallowing. Instead he’d prefer to irritate Mankind to hell with frivolous whispering:

I am here again to make this fellow irk.
Whist! Peace! I shall go to his ear and tittle therein.

Titivillus is the lord of superfluous language and delinquent letters. As “the patron demon of scribes” he lurked in monasteries filling his sack with the scribes’ errors, an occupation he would carry on following the invention of the printing press. When he wasn’t collecting typos, he was monitoring the pious, gathering into his bag any words they stumbled over during prayer, or jotting down irreverent whispers among the congregation.

As a pilferer of words and a muse of misprints, Titivillus has been venerated by practitioners of the literary arts since the thirteenth century, and has kin around the globe. There are typographic demons in Sweden (Tryckfelsnisse), Denmark (Sætternissen), Norway (Trykkleif), Finland (Painovirhepaholainen), Poland (Chochlik Drukarski), Hungary (A nyomda ördöge), Spain (Gazapos), Germany (Druckfehlerteufelchen), and probably anywhere else with words as hard to spell as Painovirhepaholainen and Druckfehlerteufelchen.

My own respect for this spirit is rooted in my life-long struggle with typography. I used to blame heredity for my dreadful spelling and my persistent typographical errors, but I now know I have been bedevilled by the ancient spell (or the misspell) of Titivillus. I’ve filled his sack a thousand times over.

Though he’s likely to do more harm than good, it occurred to me there may be some profit in striking a bargain with Titivillus. I came up with the following Invocation, to be uttered by writers who would beseech the demon to gather up their typos:

Come, Titivillus
While this coarse page teems with sin
I summon thee

Observe this unlawful contract
Take a thousand corruptions in your black canvas
But leave the sentence divine

Titivillus may be a lesser member of the Pantheon, and he’s certainly a risky spirit for writers to invoke, but he’s a wonderful emblem of the scope of literary faith: even spelling errors have a presiding divinity.


G.A. Lester. Three Late Medieval Morality Plays. London: A&C Black, 1990 (New Mermaids).

“Titivillus” Wikipedia (accessed 20 December 2008)

“Titivillus – the Typo Demon.” BBC h2g2 (accessed 20 December 2008)

“Typographical Personification” Wikipedia (accessed 20 December 2008)

“Who is Titivillus” (Titivillus Editorial Services) (accessed 20 December 2008)


Writers, I conclude from study and personal acquaintance, are irreverent, intemperate, and generally sacrilegious by nature. Don’t deny it. Whether you’re creating life—characters so real that they inhabit a place in the reader’s consciousness next to fond memories of flesh-and-blood family members—or whether you’re stoking the dark fires of cynicism, iconoclasm, and melancholy, you writers really are a heretical lot. Sure, you have lofty cultural and civic ideals of the kind Percy Shelley alluded to in his declaration: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Then again, Shelley uttered marriage vows the same year he wrote “The Necessity of Atheism” and abandoned his pregnant wife to elope with a teenager who would later write Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, that brilliant book about stealing God’s fire. I know what you’re all about, you monstrous writers.

But I admit: I used to steal God’s fire too. I wrote a poem or two in my day. I invented people and made them speak and act and love and die in prose. I have blasphemed against grammar, syntax, and punctuation in the spirit of creativity. I was a writer, once.

And then I grew up, and became a responsible member of society, with ironed shirts and numerous ties, and my literary inclination was channelled into reports, memoranda, and tactful email. In time, grieving the loss of creative blasphemy, I became preoccupied with the nature of literary inspiration. I became something like that desperate Chorus in the first lines of Shakespeare’s Henry V, aching for divine intervention:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention ...

Brooding over the absence of my own fiery muse, I began to wonder: why is it that you godless writers so often appeal to divine powers for assistance? Shakespeare can steal fire with the best of them, and yet he’s ready to negotiate his pyrotechnics through a heavenly subcontractor. Homer too: “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles...” and Virgil: “O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate...” and of course Milton’s muse helps him conjure up an inspiring Satan, and Dante calls on a host of muses to make sure he gets the description of Hell just right.

Obviously these guys are on to something. Is the muse actually the source of literary inspiration, breathing angelic language into the writer’s ear? Or does this language have to be retrieved by the supernatural intermediary from an even higher power—from God herself, or from the divine library, or perhaps from a celestial liquor cabinet? If this is the case, the writer is simply an outlet for supernatural powers as they make their presence felt in the world.

On the other hand, there’s every possibility that the writer is his own supernatural power: Shakespeare’s lines sizzle all on their own, even as he calls for more fuel to be poured on his fire. And if the writer is the source of their own enchantment, why bother invoking fickle gods when a kindred spirit can guide your pen? Writers can be muses too, as when Dante enlists Virgil to conduct the tour of the Inferno.

Almost enlightened by this contemplation of the fiery muse, I soon recognized that the only way I’d recover my lost literary calling would be to sort things out with the supernatural powers. I had to locate, summon, venerate and/or bargain with a suitable creative spirit, and then I’d be back among the unholy tribe of faithful scribblers.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. My initial very casual research on divine beings associated with the craft of writing led to a few inevitable figures: gods such as Thoth and Ganesha, the nine Greek muses (eight of whom are tasked with inspiring specific literary genres), a flock of angels, a congregation of patron saints, a demon or two, and a rabbit.

A rabbit? What’s with the rabbit?

A supernatural rabbit scribe makes an appearance on a 1500-year old Mayan vase held by the Princeton University Art Museum. Apparently monkey scribes were fairly common in Mayan iconography, and this divine rabbit-writer is a mysterious exception. There’s also some confusion over whether the vase itself was a funerary urn, or whether people used it for drinking chocolate. No doubt the Mayans were more discerning.

The rabbit scribe joined a short but eclectic list of about a dozen deities from Europe, Africa, and Asia. I added the names of some of the writers who have become literary deities in their own right: Shakespeare, Homer, and a few of their fellow muse-invokers. Very quickly I was struck by the range of cultures, faiths, traditions, and continents represented on my little list, and I was inspired to keep rummaging. Within a couple of days I had a list of forty or fifty names; within a couple of weeks the list had grown to over one-hundred, a veritable pantheon of literary inspiration. I learned that the heavens, the abyss and all the ethereal and earthy domains in between are inhabited by figures sacred to writers. On the list are gods who first taught humans to write, divinities who dole out poetic talent, invisible guardians who watch over scribes and scholars, martyrs who ascended to preside over literary arts in the afterlife, deified human beings invoked as muses, mythic creatures that inspired the invention of alphabets, demonic beings for writers to guard against, and of course monkeys, rabbits, snakes, and flying horses.

Seized with madness in the presence of this assembled pantheon, I had a vision of myself as the devoted servant of these supernatural powers and of my fellow writers alike. If I could compile a coherent index to the Writer’s Pantheon, and reverently craft an amulet of sorts dedicated to each deity, and also provide writers with modest guidance concerning the attributes and means of invoking their deity of choice, I could put an end to writer’s block for countless scribbling souls and usher in an unparalleled age of literary expression and productivity.

In short, my aim is to ensure other writers don’t end up like me, searching in vain for that muse of fire and grovelling for job-work as a scribe in the court of the Writer’s Pantheon. If you’re in need of literary inspiration, I hope you’ll discover your muse in the Pantheon, and that you’ll be able to transact your vile business with ease and actually write something beautiful, and wise, and profane, and permanent.