Guardians of the landscape

A classically-inspired Dantean Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hell in British Library, Yates Thompson 36

One way to recognise an otherworldly space is to look for its guardians. The garden of Eden is guarded by a cherub with a flashing sword. Tartarus enlists Cerberus to protect its enclosure. Dante’s infernal City of Dis is guarded by unyielding devils. Faraway worlds are not out of reach, but inaccessible without a special arrangement with their guardians.

The landscape of the protected otherworldly space is populated with hybrids rather than with fully heavenly creatures. That is because such spaces are not completely disconnected from the earthly realm. Thy stand at the edge, at the bottom, at the top of our world, links of kinship and cosmic ancestry join them to the known, visible world. They may be penetrated, visited, witnessed, so hybridity is the best expression of this interface. The hybrids protect by virtue of their belonging to the two classes of beings, the earthly and the heavenly. Their hybridity guarantees their ability to communicate with members of all worlds.

The loss of sacred spaces in the secular age signals the loss of hybrids, of guardians of protected landscapes, of special admittance tickets to worlds outside our own. The Sibyl is gone, so is Cerberus, not to mention the cherub’s flaming sword. One result of this recent process has been the emergence of the open space, indeterminate but free. This space doesn’t need guardians anymore because its protection is no longer required, having been swallowed up by the vortices of secularisation. The hybrids standing between the worlds have been sacked from their jobs as the gardens, the underworlds and the spheres have been absorbed into the domesticated plains of the modern universe, rationalised yet deserted.

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