Myths & Magic Portals

by Lisa Agnew

‘Take me through a portal of the imagination.’ Are these the words of a song that used to be popular? If not, then they should be, for they possess an alluring resonance. Portals, in all their manifestations, have been floating about the human psyche for millennia.

The ancients knew a thing or two about them. To be a hero in the classic Greek sense, one had to have a direct knowledge of magic portals. The Oracle at Delphi, because of its otherworldly origin (it is said to have originally been a meteorite), was utilised for centuries as a link to the gods of the pantheon and their associated mysteries.

Portals, most usually given the ‘magic’ appellation, are those eerie places, seldom visited, seemingly known to an elite few, more often than not stumbled upon by some unsuspecting individual, yet forever sought after within the realms of literature.

Popular Portals

Examples include Alice in Wonderland‘s rabbit hole (although we can never be sure whether she just dreamed the entire thing), which is, of course, a psychic portal. Wardrobes are perennial favourites, from The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to Monsters, Inc. Portals, then, are often ordinary things — paintings, photos, television images — anything that offers a door to a world just beyond our own. Mirrors are particularly good, as we can even see the reverse universe on the other side of the glass.

Darker examples hark straight back to mediaeval, pagan, and other mythologies so old we have retained only the vaguest memories — places like megalithic stone circles; fairy rings (be they stone or mushroom or merely impressions in the ground); fairy mounds, which are usually early burial chambers covered by earth and grass; or holes, usually quite deep (as in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — the chasm into which Gandalf the Grey fell, transcending death to become Gandalf the White).

The female body is an analogy of the portal, which it becomes for all of us when newborn. In the Eastern Orthodox Religion, the Mother of God is called ‘Portal Forever Shut’, referring to her giving birth to God the Word but remaining Ever Virgin.

Likewise, bodies of water, with their associations of life and death, are the home of mermaids and other fantastic creatures, making water a gateway to the world beyond life. That is why voyages to the realm of the Dead are often watery ones: the River Styx, the journey to the island of Avalon, the departures to Tolkien’s Grey Havens.

The magic portal is everywhere and anywhere — the grain of sand lying on the beach which contains another complete universe, the world on a dust speck in Horton Hears a Who, the lonely stand of trees near the edge of the park, the dark and derelict alleyway that no one ever seems to use. These are the updated mythical locales of the portal.

Folklore absolutely swarms with portals. Thomas Rhymer is perhaps the most well-known user of a fairy portal. Thomas and Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman derive, ultimately, from English and Continental folklore via stories such as ‘Childe Roland’, where the protagonist enters a portal to Elfland on a quest to save his sister. J.K. Rowling used the supernatural idea nicely with her ‘Platform 9 3/4’, which transcended the physical world just beyond the sight of mere ‘Muggles’.

Authors Through the Looking Glass

Even the writers of fairy stories have been known to enter the portals of their imaginations via the use of ‘magic’ substances such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, opiates, and other drugs. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and a myriad of other successful ‘portal’ writers relied upon drugs to embellish their creative juices. This is obviously fraught with danger. These writers might be compared to modern equivalents of the shaman/holy man, using transcendental skills to visit other planes of experience, and hallucinogens to transport themselves to places far removed from their ordinary experience.

Likewise, movies have delved into the minds of others (Being John Malkovich, The Cell, etc.), catapulting us, via a staggering variety of portals, most usually technological, into the future or the past.

Technological Portals

The parallel universes suggested by quantum physics have been seized by science fiction and cross-genre writers. Dr Who, the not-quite-omnipotent alien sent to help mankind during his period of exile, used the technology of his species, housed conveniently within the transdimensional Tardis. Black holes have become a favourite means of travel in the genre and, as with Star Trek’s matter transmitter, the stuff of fiction may one day become reality.

Computers, virtual reality, and the Internet also loom large in the modern imagination as doorways to alternate realities. In several movies, children are sucked into the world of the computer game.

The Other Side of Childhood

In fact, children are often the recipients of travel offered by portals, most likely because they are more willing to suspend their disbelief. They cope with the intricacies of this new world on the same level as the problems of their native one. Along more adult lines, The Matrix explores the ease with which a veneer of normalcy is drawn across our eyes. Having supposedly left the uncertainties of childhood behind, we can be duped by the facade of everyday life.

Our species seems to have a deep-seated wish to escape our day-to-day monotony. Clever writers tap directly into that desire for those willing to make the journey. As one form of myth becomes almost extinct, perhaps chased to the brink of our world by an influx of rationality, other forms are constructed so that Dr Who, Neo, Aslan, Gandalf, Harry Potter, and others are the new flag bearers for the continuing parade of mythological beings marching with us from the kindergarten of our own prehistory.

Unexplored Realms

There are a myriad of creatively untapped worlds out there. The more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. Cosmology, quantum physics, computer science, psychology, even our own physiology is being expanded upon in ways that were inconceivable less than fifty years ago.

With so few unexplored portions of our planet remaining, we can still escape to the other side.

A Small Tale

Here is a little portal tale, told to the author in the form of a paradoxical joke:

A British scientist discovered a means by which he could send small objects back in time. He decided that he could best utilise his discovery by sending a camera, primed to take a photograph as soon as it arrived. He chose Neolithic Britain, keen on discovering the true reason behind the construction of Stonehenge.

The camera image showed absolutely nothing — no stones, no altar, no clue whatsoever. So the scientist sent the camera further back in time, beyond the Palaeolithic Age. Again, the photo showed nothing. Perplexed and annoyed, the scientist sent the camera much further back this time, and lo!, it captured an image. Excited, the scientist gazed at the photo in awe. The image was that of a face — a half ape, half human-like being staring in fright into the lens, caught unaware by the light of the flash. There was the scientist’s answer. The God That Flashed Ire had been visiting His people from the earliest days. After many, many years of visitation, the Neolithic inhabitants had built the great temple of Stonehenge upon the very spot, and waited evermore for God’s grateful return.

Therein lies the paradox of the portal.

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