“Fair Nottamun Town”: Mystical and Alchemical Symbolism in an Appalachian Folk Song
Excerpted from Folk Metaphysics: Mystical Meanings in Traditional Folk Songs and Spirituals by Charles Upton
One of the trademarks of traditional Appalachian folk singer Jean Ritchie is a song called “Fair Nottamun Town,” which passed to her through her family. (Bob Dylan used the same tune for his song “Masters of War.”) She tells how she and her sisters, as children, used to sit in the evenings on the porch of their farmhouse near the town of Hazard in Perry County, Kentucky, and try to untangle its meaning. In later years, on a trip to England, she learned that “Nottamun Town” is a version of the English mummer-song “Nottingham Town,” and that the song has a taboo on it: whoever figures out its meaning will lose all of his or her luck.
The text of Jean Ritchie’s version is as follows:
In fair Nottamun Town, not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town
I rode a gray horse, a mule roany mare
Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down her back
Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down her back
There wa’nt a hair on her be’what was coal black
She stood so still she threw me to the dirt
She tore-a my hide and bruis-ed my shirt
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain.
Met the King and the Queen and a company more
A-ridin’ behind and a-marchin’ before
Come a stark-nekkid drummer a-beatin’ a drum
With his hands in his bosom come marchin’ along
They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay
They talked all the while, not a word did they say
I bought me a quart to keep gladness away
And to stifle the dust, for it rained the whole day
Set down on a hard, hot cold-frozen stone
Ten-thousand stood around me, yet I’uz alone
Took my hat in my hands for to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.
The mummers were costumed actors who participated in midwinter festivals in ancient and medieval Europe, largely in pantomime, though songs also formed part of the performance. In the Middle Ages they performed at Christmas; the tradition of the Christmas mummers in England was revived in perhaps the 18th century. Their plays included such motifs as the duel, death-and-resurrection, and the triumph of St. George over the dragon. The word “mummer,” though derived from the Greek word for “mask,” is the likely origin of the English word “mum”; to “keep mum” means “to act like a mummer, a mime”—though the word “mime” comes from the Greek mimesis, “imitation; art”, which is related to the Sanskrit maya, the magical or dramatic power by which the Absolute manifests Itself as the universe. The universe, like a mask, both veils and reveals the mystery of the Absolute Reality. The symbolism found in “Nottamun Town” also suggests that the mummers, at one point in their history, may have had some relation to the tradition of Christian Hermeticism.
It is interesting, however, that the first two lines of stanza five, perfectly accurate in their context and entirely at one with the genius of the song, were written by Jean Ritchie herself (she tells me), following a vision she had, while walking in the woods, of the procession that appears in that stanza—proving that the ancient but always-new lore of the Primordial Tradition is transmitted by inspiration as well as memory, even if the one inspired is not entirely certain about, or necessarily even interested in, the intellectual meaning of the gift he or she has been given. So René Guénon’s idea that the folk act as no more than a passive receptacle for metaphysical ideas received and transmitted by the esoteric sages must clearly be supplemented by the understanding that “the Spirit bloweth where it listeth,” that artists working consciously within folk traditions can sometimes be inspired by the same Source that the sage himself also acknowledges and serves; no-one can put their copyright on Wisdom, or their brand on Truth.
In traditional cultures, silence, like any essential human gesture, is not neutral. It indicates not simply the subjective desire not to speak, but the objective presence of a “mystery,” an initiatory secret; the Greek word for “mystery,” mysterion, is closely related to the verb myo, which means “to shut the mouth”, to “keep mum.” And to judge from “Nottamun Town,” the silence of the mummers was symbolic in precisely this sense, indicating that they were the transmitters, perhaps at one time the conscious transmitters, of mystical or alchemical lore in cryptic form.
In any fully traditional culture there is always a give-and-take between initiatory mysteries on the one hand and popular religion and/or folklore on the other, whether or not this exchange is mediated by an established “church.” To take only one example, the Hindu Mahabharata may be viewed either as a mass of folklore which has collected around the core of a sophisticated literary epic, consciously designed to transmit a mystical doctrine in the guise of a semi-historical legend, or as a consciously-composed mystical epic which has drawn upon a mass of mystical and/or historical folklore for its raw material. This ambiguity and tension between the two poles of aristocratic literature and folk legend is expressed in the epic itself through the figure of the sage Vyasa, who is at once the poet who composed the Mahabharata and a character appearing within it. And this two-way flow of lore between the folk and the literati seems to have taken place in the mummer-tradition as well, where established poets would compose libretti for mummer-plays based on folk material—literary ballads which, after a generation or two, might themselves be transformed into folk songs.
The mystical truth which is realized in the sage is virtual in the folk. If the folk are the field, the sage is the fruit of the tree which grows in the center of it, a fruit which, even as it takes its place in the eternal domain of God’s attributes, also cyclically returns to the field from which it grew, via its seed, to propagate wisdom. The folk correspond to the Aristotelian materia, that which receives the imprint of forms, and the sage to forma, that which shapes or “informs” the material which allows it to appear. And the tree corresponds to Tradition in the sense employed by French metaphysician René Guénon: that body of spiritual Truth, lying at the core of every religious revelation and a great deal of folklore and mythology, which has always been known by the “gnostics” of the race since it is eternal in relation to human time, representing as it does the eternal design or prototype of Humanity itself. A traditional culture permeated by half-understood mystical lore on the folk level is a fertile matrix for the full development of the gnostic, the sagacious individual, who, by means of his darshan, his willingness to allow himself to be contemplated as a representative of spiritual Truth, returns the seed of wisdom to the folk who venerate him. Such a sage may also compose tales, ballads, riddles, plays, proverbs and dances impregnated with mystical lore rendered into cryptic form, which can be subconsciously assimilated by the folk without breaking the seal of the mysteries. A great deal of Sufi lore, for example, has been transmitted in this way. And if mystical truths may be shown to ordinary people in dreams—who will be unable to consciously understand and assimilate these truths in the absence of a traditional hermeneutic and a mystagogue who can employ it, unless God wills otherwise—then we can also say that there is a constant two-way communication between the enlightened sage and the people via the subtle realm, or between God and the people via the sage—a communication which, however, only the sage is fully conscious of. The voice of the people may be the Voice of God—vox populi vox Dei—but only the sage can hear what, precisely, this Voice is saying.
“Fair Nottamun Town,” by every indication, is a rendition of the stations of the spiritual Path—seven of them, in this version—in largely alchemical symbolism. The action takes place in an uncanny realm which is neither heaven, nor hell, nor this world, but a kind of Limbo. It is not, however, the Limbo of lost souls, but rather a “liminal” realm of spiritual potentials, similar in some ways to the Celtic otherworld, or the alam al-mithal of Sufism, the world where symbols appear as living beings—the intermediary or psychic plane. The initiation depicted relates primarily to the lesser or alchemical mysteries, whose field of action is precisely the psychic realm. If the greater or pneumatic mysteries pertain to the union of the human soul with God, the lesser mysteries, as we have seen above, have to do with the acquisition of a soul that can properly be called human. The path of this alchemy leads away from the subhuman periphery of the psyche and toward its human center, the primordial or Adamic state, where the soul is vertically intersected by the axis mundi, the ray of Spirit—a center which, in both Sufism and Eastern Orthodox Christian Hesychasm—is called the “Heart.” It is from this point alone that the mystical ascent toward union with the Divine can begin: “None come to the Father,” said Christ, the second Adam, “but through me.” Nonetheless, the stations the mystical ascent are always prefigured, or reflected, on the psychic level, otherwise of the soul would have no access to Spirit, and the Way would be blocked. Therefore my exegesis will sometimes apply more to the psychic plane, sometimes more to the Spiritual.
“Nottamun” or “Nottingham” Town is the place of “naughting,” the town where we travel to become “not.” It thus corresponds with the Sufi fana, or self-annihilation. It is the town of the dead—not necessarily the physically dead, but those who are dead in this life—who, in the words of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) have “died before they are made to die.” As Omar Khayyam said, “Dawn is breaking and the caravan/ Starts for the Dawn of Nothing —O make haste!” But it is also, on the negative side, the land of those who are dead to the Spirit, the living dead who make up sense-bound “normal” humanity, now seen as they really are from the vantage point of that other world: hylic (material) man as witnessed from a psychic and potentially pneumatic standpoint.
Each of the seven stations of the spiritual Path is rendered, in “Nottamun Town,” as a polar opposition, whose synthesis opens the door to the next level. The seven are: High and Low; Masculine and Feminine; Young and Old; Inner and Outer; Wet and Dry; Hot and Cold; Life and Death. The synthesis of High and Low—Spirit and matter, or Source and manifestation—posits the psyche. The synthesis of the Masculine and Feminine poles of the psyche posits the inner world as opposed to the outer, the inner world where Youth and Age are one because time is transcended. The synthesis of Inner and Outer worlds posits the Heart, the vessel where Wet and Dry—feeling and thought—can unite. The synthesis of Wet and Dry posits the level of the Philosopher’s Stone, where the will is tempered and submitted to God. The synthesis of Hot and Cold—of total intent and radical detachment—completes this tempering, and posits the final synthesis, that of Life and Death, where Reality is identified with neither this world nor the next, but with the eternal present which both includes them and transcends them.
In fair Nottamun Town, not a soul would look up, or down, to show the traveler the Way to where he already is, to Nottamun Town. And so Nottamun is neither heaven above nor hell below, but the psyche, the intermediary plane, the realm of all souls, including the psyche of the traveler, who is thus traveling through, and to, the place where he already is. As Dante says in Purgatorio II:91-92, “….to return again/ to where I am, I journey thus….” The essence of the spiritual Path is to travel to where we already live, to become what we are. In Vedantic terms, tat twam asi: “That [Reality] you [already] are.” “Not a soul, not a soul” is like a chant designed to remind us that the human soul, in the face of God, is nothing, just as the Arabic word for “nothing” is virtually the same as the Hebrew name for the first man: ‘adam. That “the way to fair Nottamun Town” would be shown by looking up and looking down reveals Nottamun as the Jacob’s Ladder, the axis mundi whose symbols include the sacred mountain, the Tree of Life and the human spinal column—the path which connects, but also separates, visible manifestation and invisible Source. That the souls in fact look straight ahead is ambiguous: the sense-bound living dead are blind to the axis mundi, the ray of Spirit which vertically intersects every point and every moment. On the other hand, the spiritual travelers, those who have died before they die, know to keep their hearts fixed on what Sufis call the waqt, the present spiritual moment, remembering God neither by looking up nor by looking down—neither, that is, out of the desire for Paradise nor the fear of Hell. And the forward-looking souls also represent the psychic plane, intermediate between the Spirit above and the material world below.
The establishment of the polarity between High and Low defines the axis mundi as itinerary, and the spiritual Path as vehicle. Zenith is the symbolic point toward which spiritual aspiration is directed and from which the Grace of God descends; among the three gunas—the three modes of prakriti or primal matter in Hindu philosophy—it is sattwa, purity and balance. Nadir symbolizes all that flees from God and resists His grace, but also that aspect of God which is hidden in and by His own manifestation, just as the kundalini or serpent-power, in kundalini-yoga, is hidden at the base of the spine. Among the gunas it is tamas, the mass of egoic impurity which separates us from God, but which is also, paradoxically, the potency or stored power which makes the spiritual journey possible. Ignited by God’s grace, it is the fuel which feeds the fire of its own purification. And the synthesis of High and Low, of sattwa and tamas, is rajas, which in this case is the power of spiritual action, the ability to consciously travel the Path, the psyche in active mode, under the rule of the Spirit above, and able therefore to rule the passive materiality of tamas below.
This power is symbolized by the ambiguous mount of the traveler, which is a synthesis of opposites, simultaneously a horse (that is, a stallion), a mare, and an hermaphroditic mule. Its color is at once gray, red (“roany”), a combination of gray and green, and black. “Horse” represents the masculine power within the soul, “mare” the feminine power, and “mule” the balancing or neutralizing power: in alchemical terms, Sulfur, Quicksilver and Salt. This indicates that the spiritual Path requires both a masculine fighting energy and a feminine receptivity to grace, as well as an ability to transcend all polarities, including this one. The animal as a whole represents the entire psyche with its polarities and oppositions synthesized, full self-knowledge as vehicle for spiritual transformation.
And self-knowledge can never be complete until it includes the body too. The ten-toed steed the traveler rides is the human form, the psycho-physical vehicle that functions as the alchemical vessel, the athanor, in which Sulfur, Quicksilver and Salt are cooked, till they turn into the Alchemical Gold. As human beings we are designed to become that which, in the sight of God, we already are—and the only way we can do this is by traveling on the spiritual Path. It does no good to stand still in what we think we’ve accomplished or solidify as who we think we really are. To stand still on the Path is to be thrown by the mount who is supposed to be carrying us forward, and end up torn, bruised and sitting in the dirt, in dead material conditions cut off from the Spirit, in what is below our full humanity. Our only recourse is to get right back on the horse that threw us and resume our journey, on the ten toes of our own two feet.
Green and gray symbolize youth and old age, spontaneity and wisdom, those aspects of God represented in the Bible by “behold, I make all things new” versus “I am Jehovah: I have not changed.” Together they indicate, on the psycho-physical level, a synthesis of Innocence and Experience, of an ancient, saturnine wisdom with that youthful responsiveness to the quality of the moment which is wisdom’s application. On another level, the gray mane and tail of the horse represent the outer world of material forms, subject to death and decay, and the “green stripe” on the horse’s back the inner world of eternal life, where the green of moldering corpses is the doorway to the green fields of Paradise. (The same double symbolism of the color green, as life on the one hand and death’s door to greater life on the other, appears in the green-skinned Osiris as judge of the dead.) The “green stripe” is also the axis mundi projected horizontally on the plane of time, resulting in a synthesis between goal-oriented spiritual aspiration and the sense of Divine Truth as already fully present in the eternal Now.
Red and black symbolize the tantric polarity between Shakti, dynamic potentiality, and Shiva, motionless act: the red of manifestation and activity vs. the black of the Formless Absolute. In the Taoist T’ai Chi (yin/yang sign), black (or dark blue) is the color of Yang and Heaven, red the color of Yin and Earth. [For a more detailed treatment of this tantric/alchemical polarity, see Titus Burckhardt’s Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul.]
Where the first polarity, between High and Low, is vertical, the second, Masculine and Feminine, is horizontal; so now the cross appears. As the polar union of High and Low invokes the polar union of Masculine and Feminine, or right and left—in which the polar union of Youth and Age is virtual, since sexual union is related to time and generation, while the transcendence of sexual polarity is also the transcendence of time, given that in the Kingdom of Heaven they “neither marry nor are given in marriage” [Mt. 22:30]—so the second and third unions invoke a fourth, that of Inner and Outer, the axis of which is “behind and before,” thus describing the three-dimensional cross explained in such detail by René Guénon in The Symbolism of the Cross.
The King and Queen, a common symbol in alchemical iconography, represent Sulfur and Quicksilver, Spirit and soul—or, on the purely spiritual level, the union of Shiva and Shakti, the Divine Subject as absolute Witness and the Divine Object as universal manifestation in the mode of power. The union of Subject and Object posits the spiritual Center, another symbol of which is the Heart, which is the “center in the midst of conditions,” just as the King and Queen are in the center of “a company more.” Those “before” have the King and Queen behind them, out of their field of vision, as their unconscious motivating force, and are proceeding on foot; these are the psychics (referring not to people who read minds and tell fortunes, but to those whose understanding is limited to the psychological level)—the religious exoterics. Those “behind” the King and Queen have them in plain view, and are aristocratically mounted, symbolizing their transcendence of and control over their lower selves; these are the esoterics, the gnostics or pneumatics. And on another level, the King and the Queen are the Grace and Wisdom of God that simply carry us along, the hidden power that moves behind all the hard, trudging work of being good.
The dynamic polarity which empowers the spiritual journey now flows not between the poles of receptivity and action, but between esoteric and exoteric, that which is hidden and that which is revealed, both of which are shown as necessary to the process. The “stark nekkid drummer” represents the outer revelation of a hidden reality, since the purpose of the drum is to command attention, to proclaim something, while nakedness, in spiritual iconography (the Buddhist, for example), represents that which is beyond form. The drummer has “his hands in his bosom”, that is, inside his shirt; but since he isn’t wearing a shirt, the implication is that his hands are literally inside his chest, which identifies the beaten drum with the beating heart. (This identification of drum and heart is explicit, for example, in certain Native American tribes, where the two-beat line, “BOM-bom, BOM-bom,” represents the heartbeat of the earth.)
The division between inner and outer establishes the athenor, the alchemical vessel, in which the transmutation of the soul takes place in secret, in a “hermetically sealed” space. To say that the King’s and Queen’s company “talked all the while, not a word did they say” indicates that the process is a mystery, something that takes place under seal of silence, like that of the mummers. It is not to be spoken of; and yet something within the traveler hears and is informed by the teaching emanating from the silence itself. Just as the profane mind literally can’t stop talking but never really says anything, so the transmission of esoteric mysteries is given either in silence, or by indirect, allusive speech which is “foolishness to the wise” of this world.
In the athenor, the polar union of Wet and Dry can take place, this being, in alchemical terms, specifically the marriage of dissolving (as opposed to coagulating) Quicksilver and fixing (as opposed to volatilizing) Sulfur [cf. Burckhardt’s Alchemy]. [NOTE: Quicksilver and Sulfur, as symbols for the soul and the Spirit, each express themselves in two opposing forms. The soul alternately contracts and expands, freezes and melts; the Spirit enters this world to express Itself in form, then departs again from the world of form, and by so doing annihilates it.] On the psychic level, this is the union between feeling and thought; on the level of Spirit, it is the union between Love and Knowledge, between bhaktic energy and jñanic understanding, producing what St. Augustine called “sober inebriation”, as in the line “I bought me a quart [of ale] to drive gladness away”. Here both excessive spiritual intoxication (the rain) and excessive intellectual dryness (the dust) are overcome, producing the state the Sufis call “drunk within and sober without”: “They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay.”
To “set down on a hard, hot, cold-frozen stone” is to sit, like the Buddha, on the “adamantine spot”, the diamond-hard point of spiritual stability, beyond all fluctuation. This is the penultimate station of the spiritual Path, here represented as the union of Hot and Cold—in alchemical terms, the marriage of volatilizing Sulfur and coagulating Quicksilver. As the marriage of Wet and Dry is the union of Love and Knowledge, so the marriage of Hot and Cold is the union of the human will with God’s will, and of the human intellect with God’s impassiveness. In the Zen phrase, “though my heart is on fire, my eyes are as cold as dead ashes.” The restless psychic substance finally comes to rest on, and as, the Philosophers’ Stone. Sitting on that Stone, the traveler is once again at “the center in the midst of conditions,” the point of radical detachment from the relative world. Here that center of detachment is fully established, not merely vis-a-vis the “company”of the psyche, but in relation to the totality of manifest existence, the Buddhist/Taoist “ten-thousand things”: “Ten thousand stood around me, yet I ‘uz alone.” In Sufi terms, this is called “solitude in company”, a solitude which is ultimately that of the transcendent Deity Himself. At one end of the spectrum, it represents the total detachment from this world of the realized contemplative; at the other, the truth that the God within us, the atman, the Divine Witness, sees and knows all phenomena as Himself.
From this fixed point, the final polarity, that of Life and Death, or existence and annihilation, is established and resolved. “Took my hat in my hands for to keep my head warm” sounds like another paradox, like the naked drummer with his hands inside his shirt or the ale which produces sobriety instead of drunkenness. But really it is more straightforward: the traveler is actually holding in his hands his own severed head. In Sufi symbolism, to be beheaded means that the power of the headstrong ego is broken, that one has passed into fana, or annihilation in God; in light of this, we may perhaps gain insight into those other headless yet still living figures in myth and folklore, like Washington Irving’s “Headless Horseman”, or the Green Knight of the medieval romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by the Poet of the Pearl. In Sufism, fana, annihilation in God, is always paired with baqa, subsistence in God; to be beheaded and still live is to be annihilated in one’s selfhood while subsisting in God as one of His Energies or Names.
More precisely, to hold one’s severed head in one’s hands is to witness the entirety of cerebral consciousness—the ratio of the scholastic philosophers—from the deeper standpoint of cardiac conscious, which the scholastics termed Intellectus. It is to realize the station of jñana, the direct knowledge of God by means of God’s own self-knowledge, in which the psycho-physical self is now the object—“he”—and the subject is the Divine Self within us—“I”. In the words of Meister Eckhart relating to this station, “My truest ‘I’ is God.”
To say “Ten-thousand got drownded that never was born” is, in terms of the outer appearance of things, the Buddhist doctrine of sangsara, the vision of all sentient beings coming into formal existence and leaving it again without attaining second birth, without once catching a glimpse of their own true nature. This is how the world must look to the enlightened sage, when viewed through the eye of compassion. On the level of inner meaning, however, it evokes the re-absorption of all manifest existence into its transcendent Principle. The annihilation-and-subsistence of the individual, the microcosm —drowning being a Sufi symbol of union with the Absolute—leads to the dissolution and restoration-in-God of the universe, the macrocosm. This is the vision of (in Frithjof Schuon’s term) “maya-in-divinis,” which is both the knowledge that the Unity of God’s Essence contains the seeds of the ten-thousand things, and the understanding that the things which make up manifest existence have never fundamentally departed from that Essence, that the entire pageant of universal manifestation, from the standpoint of Reality, never took place. In Buddhist terms, “sangsara is Nirvana”; “all beings are enlightened from the beginning”; “from the beginning, not a thing is.”
But what of the taboo that’s laid on the song, that whoever understands it will lose all his or her luck? Clearly this threat is there to divert the idle curiosity of those who have not received the inner call to approach God on the path of Knowledge, and to warn them of the very real and destructive consequences of prying into the esoteric mysteries on the basis of curiosity or worldly ambition. These others, however, to whom that call is more commanding than the fear of any earthly misfortune, will ultimately realize that the “luck” they have lost is nothing but the regime of fate, the chains of karma. To those in whom the Eye of the Heart is open, there is no longer any such thing as good fortune or misfortune on the plane of conditions, only the actions of God, which are manifestations in space and time of His attributes, and signs of His Presence.