Exploring the Kingdom Under the Sea

My storytelling journey started truly when I became a father.

I knew that surrounding my daughter with stories would resource her well. Steiner, Einstein and other knowledgeable types seemed to agree about the merit of fairy tales and the development of children. Old folk tales and myths carry essential gifts of imagination and meaning, easily given, that I wished to offer her.

Classic qualities show up in the old tales such as:

Resourcefulness, quick wits, appreciation of the natural world, navigating darkness, love, loss and yearning, the possibility of magic, the power of the crone’s advice.

They help with our sense making.

Other motifs, so gnarled, wizened, and mossy, that our logical minds can barely grasp them also show up. Stimulating a wild, ancient delight, and offering us what our modern domestic lives cannot. A nourishment of mind and soul occurs if we track the right tales and treat them with respect.

As a father, sharing stories created shared quality time, mutual joy and entertainment. In a small way it was sacred. It was practical too, an efficient way of blending creative work with family life.

I’m biased, but I’m proud of how Eala has turned out thus far. I know stories have helped foster her creativity, quick-wit, humour, articulation, and empathy. To tell stories is to be human and these tales have served each of us well over the years.

Along with nature connection, stories form the core part of my parenting, as well as the youth and community work I deliver. Both invite wonder, connection, curiosity, timelessness, imagination, truth seeking, contemplation, and the need to pay attention.

The most nature-connected cultures place storytelling at the heart of village life. To my mind the best storytellers have a strong natural understanding too. We live in times where each are urgent tonics amidst the complex crises of the 21st century.

Where we give our attention is important.

The oldest, arrogant sibling whom ignores the subtle signs and quieter voices, seldom does well in stories. They tend to get beheaded, eaten by the monster or turned to stone. Likewise, fail to pay attention in the wild and your chances of being cold, lost, damp, or injured are high. Each are training grounds for life challenges.

We walk into danger when our senses are dull or gaze long in the wrong direction. When we mistake noise for meaningful information, volume for value. When our ears aren’t tuned to the subtle patterns and poetics of life we miss the magic entirely.

Lacking awareness we are more vulnerable to witch, wolf, tyrant, and ghoul. These ancient archetypal predators show up today in the marketplace, cyberspace and city streets in various guises. The classical imagery is changed yet relevant. Much of the human experience is timeless, only the furnishings change.

Stories and nature connection sharpen our perception and sense of belonging. They strengthen our root system in the essential soil of being human, engaging practical and soulful aspects of the living world. We tune our ear to grandmother’s knowledge to balance the Tiktok trend flashing before our eyes.

Without this foundation we are more vulnerable to life’s storms.

Photo by Tusik Only on Unsplash

At home, we have been rapt on many an eve as I peddle familiar tales, or test out new ones on my own adoring audience of one.

We fended off screens with narrative folk magic.

We travelled to the Tundra and met the Arctic sea goddess, nibbled fruits from magical trees in equatorial Africa, found the treasure in our garden having walked to London Bridge and back.

We laughed at monkey outfoxing crocodile and raven outfoxing himself.

We followed fox trails, tuned our ear to the voice of the birds, and rode upon the back of the great bear. We even dared to outwit the ‘nameless one’ on occasion and shared celebratory feasts from several magical pots that always gave cake before salad.

We barely scratched the surface of the surviving folk imagination and knowledge, yet our mythical boots are well worn. It’s been a beautiful, meandering journey together.

However, she has just turned 12 and all is changing. The veil between the realms of childhood innocence and adult complexity becomes more permeable each day. Transparent as spider silk and soon to be blown away entirely by the inevitable winds of change.

Steiner marked it as a key age of transition, and it’s clear that she is no longer the little child familiar to me, and never will be again. Transition is afoot, the adult world alive with allure and gravity. In a swift six months she has gone up to high school, discovered makeup and the delight of Costa frappuccinos. She self travels on the bus, sleeps as late as she is allowed, and certainly doesn’t want a bed time story from her dad.

As she changes so does our relationship. Loss is a part of this transition, as is renewal and opportunity. It is as it should be. Soon she will cast a feather from the window and follow in the direction of her fortune. She’ll walk that path alone, or at least with someone who’s not me. Someone cooler, more hip and contemporary, who spends less time talking about faerie lore and the habitat of otters. This time, crossing the threshold, is precious.

She is no longer a captive audience of one.

She knows her own mind, and if I want to direct her towards enriching life experience rather than the impulse of the market, astute advertising and peers, it’ll take effort, guile and grace.

Teens have a special resonance with the Trickster; the charming outcast present in all robust mythological cosmologies.

Creativity, subversion, a will for disorder, chaos and consequence, carefree indulgence, insatiable appetite, constant motion or lying in bed all day. Trickster is the master of change, and is said in some cultures to have created the world itself, or at least stolen back the Sun. The world is certainly a duller place without them. Too static, stoic, constipated to truly reflect reality.

Tricksters were the characters crucified first by the missionaries. Cast out in association with the devil for being too rambunctious and feral, too indulgent in primal instinct and desire, in the face of pious order. More hot body than cool mind and thoroughly improper. The detachment from physicality and natural instinct has been a long and systematic process. Witch burning came later. It was pretty thorough. Only echoes of the old ways survived the flames.

As such we may not welcome Tricksters acquaintance at first, and sure, be wary of them. Keep your senses sharp and anticipate occasional carnage, yet they play a vital role in a healthy culture. Change is uncomfortable but inevitable. Results are not always predictable or desired, but there’s a chaotic order to be respected and a grace to be found in its discordant rhythms. Meet Trickster through story first, it’s safer that way.

Coyote, Loki, Raven, Hermes, Anansi, Fox, Tortoise, Hare, enter this house of the holy, may your tales delight, inspire and challenge us.

But I digress in this storyteller’s wandering. Back to the sea kingdom.

image by jesse-schoff on Unsplash

This age of change (conspiring with the urge to escape the dark Scottish winter) lead us to the Maltese islands in the southern Mediterranean sea. We sought the sun, shared adventure, and to explore the kingdom under the sea through scuba diving…with a frappuccino or two thrown into the bargain!

As I previously searched for stories, I now look for activities that invoke wonder, weave threads of connection with the natural world, and provide the appropriate edge for a pre-teen. Potential hobbies that can outlast our shared experience, stretch our awareness, and even inspire life choices. I’m casting breadcrumbs in the hope they trail back to a place of belonging in the natural mystery of life. 

Also, with the trickster being alive and well in me, I fancied a little midwinter indulgence. Warmth, rest, and someone else to cook my dinner sounded a good way to spend the first week in January, a time when Scotland is notoriously cold, grey, miserable and hungover.

Scuba diving was a slightly random impulse, but a treasured discovery.

Having gone through the rudimentary training, we squeezed into our wetsuits, masks and air tanks. Ready for submersion we lowered ourselves down into the clear blue-green water in the straits between Malta and Gyozo and pulled on bright pink flippers. The waves were gentle and the rocks coated with tiny remnants of shell, like finely grained sandpaper. It was a sunny January day and we had the bay to ourselves.

We knelt in the shallow waters and when lowering my face underwater, seeing clearly and breathing easily, it felt like activating some strangely common magic. To access this watery realm so familiar from above as a wet, wide expanse of blue-grey, and see the subterranean living complexity was awe inspiring. I was rapt before I had even seen a fish.

The next moment was more humbling as the waves rolled in and I found myself tumbling over onto my back like a disorientated turtle, long legs and pink flippers in the air, flapping around gracelessly and trying to get vertical again. My dignity robbed in a second. My daughter laughed so hard that her mask flooded with water and she had to come to surface again. OK, this was new and a bit of an edge experience. Slowly we got moving and explored the underwater world.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Firstly I was amazed at how many fish there were. Some shuffling in shoals, others brightly patterned as if painted images from an ayahuasquero’s dreaming, others huge and alone, lurking by great underwater shafts of rock.

We saw an eel gasping in ritualistic defence of its rocky burrow, an octopus curled in an indistinguishable form and other curiosities. Soon, underwater swimming felt familiar, although touching the bottom felt unnerving and there were deep dark caverns where I definitely didn’t want to swim. The image of the eel occasionally haunted me. It was small but looked tenacious.

We saw great chasms and cliffs under the sea. The fish didn’t seem to care that we were there. Every so often the guide would come back and wave me along, I was so lost in fascination I couldn’t keep up.

We saw it all in silence, but for the sound of our breathing bubbles. There is a quiet grace in that watery realm. A stillness amidst the eternal ebb and flow.

The gleaming majesty helped me understand the idea of a ‘kingdom under the sea’. I’ve always felt Neptune or Poseidon to be particularly regal, refined yet powerful, as well as wrathful when crossed. This glimpse into their world and it all made sense. This place was sovereign and magnificent.

Mannannan, or Honi the seaweed god, are Celtic variations of deities of the deep sea. One thing I was surprised to see in the Maltese waters was the absence of seaweed. In Scotland there are great kelp forests under the water. No wonder we have a seaweed god, yet there was no such deity in ancient Greek mythology. Local mythology is interwoven with local ecology. They are codependent and synergistic.

Ah hour passed in an instant. We were lead back to the site of my tumbling turtle impression, kicked off our flippers and climbed onto dry land.

We were praised on how naturally we took to the water, although it was also mentioned that I kept drifting off rather than following the guide. “I could see you getting lost in your own story under there” she told me. I was oblivious, although in time Eala told me how she kept looking back and seeing me sinking to the bottom of the sea bed staring at an urchin, or spinning around up at the surface rather than following the group.

In a world of wonders its hard to pay attention to other humans rather than strange sea creatures and rock formations. In response they said that I looked like some strange sea creature myself. My moustache protruding from my diving hat with a ginger underwater sheen. I supposedly looked like some kind of unusual giant otter. Eala said it was hard not to laugh whenever she saw me…it seems my destiny to amuse, without even trying!

Primarily this was a father and daughter adventure, but secondly I’m curious how it can affect my storytelling. I often filter experiences through a storyteller’s perspective. To experience something is to be able to tell of it more convincingly. I will often travel to a landscape where a story is set to get a feel for the place, the ecology, the mood, the sound-scape. Imagination fuels the telling of story, yet our imagination is furnished by experience.

I hadn’t considered getting closer to the world of the selkie though.

Photo by keith-luke on Unsplash

In Scotland there are many fantastic tales, told as if true, of the seal folk, or selkies. They are one of our favourite supernatural beings. It’s a strong belief, surviving amongst some of the older island folk. The selkie are compassionate, strange, enchanting and beautiful. They can never settle on land even if married and busy raising hybrid children. The call back to the sea overrides any mortal love on land.

There are also legends of the Lochlannach, the ‘people from under the waves’ and great enemies of Scotland…one of their witches is accused of burning down the best of our forests many centuries ago. The ‘Blue Men’ of the Minch are a sailor’s scourge between the mainland and Hebridean islands. In Orkney, tales of the Finn Folk are favoured. Each of these tales and their associated mythos comes a little closer as I glimpse these underwater realms.

In reality, one hour underwater is like dipping a toe in the ocean, it’s a tiny experience of the deep blue, when some people submerge daily. Yet surely something in me has changed. I sit back home at a desk in a grey Scottish valley and hear a distant whisper. The eternal call of the sea, pulling always at the selkie heart. I dream of the wealth of Poseidon.

Maybe Eala does too? Or maybe she just thought the fish looked cool and it was fun watching her dad flap around like a clumsy mustelid. It was a gorgeous thing to share either way.

I’m hopeful that this leads to more adventure. That we come back to warm waters to dive together, or she explores on her own as she journeys into adulthood. She’s got a knack for it I think. I hope that it resources her in some way and her appreciation of the ocean grows.

For me, I already feel how it has harnessed my understanding of stories set in watery realms. It’s time to dig out some of those old selkie tales and see how this experience can shine a little more light on the beautiful kingdoms under the sea.

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4 thoughts on “Exploring the Kingdom Under the Sea

  1. Wonderful Dougie- a great read!
    I’ve always believed you have your children to let them go . That’s scary and takes courage, love, generosity and understanding .

    Like

  2. Really enjoyed your piece, hope one day to hear your stories in person! What a dream to have a dad like you Dougie. I’m sure she will hold on to all the treasure you have gifted her along the way.

    Like

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