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Artwork credit: Vinayak Varma

Heads or Tails, Nothing and Something

Susan Mathews

“There was something before the beginning
back when there was no when–
just chaos and creation.

Nothing and something
coming from each other,
or following.”

Ouroboros, `Pádraig Ó Tuama

Our magazine turned three this month, and given that it is the Chinese year of the Wood Dragon, I thought I would knock on some wood, take some inspiration from dragons and serpents, and see what would emerge from some playing around. This is a year in which I have felt heavier than ever, including on my weighing scale, and needed more play than before, and definitely some exercise. Well, this heaviness is probably a planetary predicament with violence, bigotry, and upheaval at many levels.

For me, showing up for this magazine and our team helps. After a career in public interest law and working in the United Nations as a human rights lawyer—a cog in a giant wheel—I quit it all for this. And it has come, in many ways, at a price. In one shot I upended my own life, took my pension out, and put it into this venture. If I go by social media metrics, I will have to cry myself to sleep. It has not been a roaring success. But given where we started from and where we are, I can only be amazed at the blessings, and yes, the gift that keeps on giving.

For me, this sloughing off is a powerful lesson. Maybe we just need to moult right now and see what comes of it. And let it happen at the rate it needs to happen, so there is no brute force which will work here. We will just have to let the process unfold. Once we have outgrown this skin, and are replenished, we will know what to do.

Most of it has come in the form of my team who I work closely with, and the wonderful collaborators (around 150)—ecologists, poets, artists, historians—we have had a chance to engage with over the last three years. This includes our podcasts The Subverse, Stories from The Subverse, and Arcx. Through personal essays, blogs, comics, films, literary pieces, and more, we have explored and set out on many adventures. Some have paid off, some not, some were aborted at the start or somewhere in between, but for the most part, it has been one hell of a ride.

A Tale of Chance

And now, to my inspirations going forward. It started this January 2024 when I caught a glimpse of Ouroboros, the mythical serpent or dragon. Ouroboros, originally an ancient Egyptian myth, means “he that eats his own tail” in Ancient Greek, and was depicted in mythology as a serpent doing just that. It symbolises infinity, never-ending creation, and destruction.

Ouroboros is really one of those images that find resonance in a range of myths and stories—from the Norse world-serpent Jörmungandr, Buddhist serpent-king Mucalinda, and biblical tales of good and evil to Kundalini energy, Chinese tail-biting snakes, and Jungian speculation.

Talking about Jung, when I saw the Ouroboros (and now I can’t remember exactly where), I then dreamt of it, and as it often happens, it kept appearing everywhere. The poem that is featured at the start of this piece was shared on Instagram by a beloved collaborator, Yuvan Aves. I then decided that Ouroboros would be our anniversary good luck charm and rod of introspection. And when I mention the rod, I am also referring to the twin figure that we find along with the Ouroboros—the caduceus, the staff with two intertwining serpents seen with Asclepius who in Greek mythology is the father of medicine. The image represents the sides of any coin, two opposites moving toward each other. The caduceus is different, but connected to ouroboros imagery.

And this is how I feel now, like Ouroboros, caught up in a nothing and a something, coming from each other or following, to quote from the opening lines of the poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Also, I’m at a point of transition—of swallowing/taking a big gulp, or being swallowed up—which is what got me thinking also of coin tosses and probabilities.

In the tragicomic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, they are flipping coins as the play opens. The coin lands on heads 76 times. As commentators of the play have noted, the laws of probability are suspended, and human will is rendered meaningless. But I think the play by Tom Stoppard is a good lesson in how not to place your fate on a coin toss, and more importantly, acknowledging that life is absurd; we need to revel in the absurd, the random, and the multiple chances we get, and most often squander.

Chance and some degree of randomness have played important roles in taking this magazine this far. Whether it be in taking a chance and asking someone to be on the podcast, or writing or illustrating something for us, it is all a gamble, and we have been lucky for the most part. However, what has really come up heads for us is the stellar team that has come together to do this, and I thank the cosmos for that sprinkle of magic dust.

On the infinity symbolism of Ouroboros, I wish we could go on indefinitely. But the reality is a bit more finite for us, and in some senses urgent as decisions have to be made. After this pause, this milestone and deserved celebration, we will have to think about what’s next. So, there will be number-crunching, hand-wringing, some head banging and back-breaking as we see if we can continue, whether there is a tomorrow in sight, and if some more unpredictable luck and whimsy can take us forward.

A Circular Twist

There are some other aspects related to Ouroboros that I find fascinating. One is that modern cosmologists use it as a visual descriptor of the relationship between quantum and cosmic scales, an alignment of sorts of scale and size. Jeremy Narby writes in The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge that Peruvian shamans who ingest ayahuasca are able to take their consciousness down to a molecular level and state. In that altered state, they later claim that their visions often take on serpentine forms at the level of DNA.

Serpents figure greatly in ayahuasca visionary art, such as those of Pablo Amaringo; intertwined serpents come alive in his painting ‘Ondas De La Ayahuasca’. That was one of the inspirations I had shared with Vinayak Varma, who has created this incredible illustration for us on our anniversary.

In Jungian analysis, the snake, like the bird, crosses easily between the boundaries of conscious and unconscious worlds. It is also the assimilation of the shadow self or the opposite. The term ‘Enantiodromin’ or ‘return to the opposites’ has been depicted in literature and mythology as the sun’s return from the belly of the night, the journey back from the center of the earth, or the poet’s ascent from Dante’s Inferno (See the Cambridge Companion to Jung, 2008).

For me, these were all starting points to this magazine—the ability to think beyond binaries and essentialism, to see the non-dual, to read from the margins, to listen at different frequencies, to perceive other worlds and stories. And Ouroboros is a reminder to that, a reminder to me that this is where it started, and that there is a circular twist to this tale/tail.

Some of those twists are also terribly painful, such as the death of my dear friend Devaki Panini who passed away a few months ago. When I reached out to her in June 2020, after 23 years, she was a lawyer-turned-poet and the author of a book titled Of Bug, Bee, and Beast. She wrote a personal essay on small and often neglected species, and was my first guest on my podcast, The Subverse. So, she took a chance on me, and I took a chance on her, and I like to think she helped me create a little magic.

Now without her, I am not sure how I feel but if I do carry on, some part of that will be for her. Her second book—which she did not publish—is called Trivial Pursuits, and maybe that is a sign to keep up with the pursuit, trivial or not.

In 2023, Atmos, a magazine I admire, published The Overview: Meditations on Nature in a World of Transition, a book by its editor Willow Defebaugh. In one of the chapters, named Sliding Scales, they talk about how polarising snakes are on the creature scale, and also make a reference to Ouroboros. But what really struck me in this piece was the quote at the start by Ram Dass—“You can’t rip the skin off the snake. The snake must moult the skin. That’s the rate it happens.”

For me, these were all starting points to this magazine—the ability to think beyond binaries and essentialism, to see the non-dual, to read from the margins, to listen at different frequencies, to perceive other worlds and stories.

Firstly, the choice of an animal or representation that is often reviled is very much in line with the way Devaki saw the animal world—as all beings linked and equally worthy of respect. In Sliding Scales, Defebaugh refers to ecdysis, the process by which snakes shed their skin. “Roughly once a month, they will rub against something in order to slither out of their skin headfirst and slough it off whole. They do this for a few reasons, including to cast off unwanted parasites, but mainly because they have outgrown their old skin.”

For me, this sloughing off is a powerful lesson. Maybe we just need to moult right now and see what comes of it. And let it happen at the rate it needs to happen, so there is no brute force which will work here. We will just have to let the process unfold. Once we have outgrown this skin, and are replenished, we will know what to do.

It makes sense then to end with the last lines of the poem that started this blog, which is also connected to breath, the subject of our blog on our second anniversary.

“No wonder we need planets
to ground our stories. Axes. Atmospheres.
Stars to spin around.

See? A wheel. A fire, burning on a fire.
An ex and in halation.”

Ouroboros, Pádraig Ó Tuama