The Lexicon - Hierophant

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Word: Hierophant

Definition: (n) 1. A priest in ancient Greece; specif: the chief priest of the Eleusinian mysteries

2a. Expositor

2b. Advocate

Origin: LL. hierophania, fr. Gk hierophantēs, fr. hieros + phainein to show --- more at FANCY

Source: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In the film a hierophant of ancient times holds a small community in thrall. He dispenses cruelty to the men and abuses the women. One woman opposed him. To show his power and to punish her, the hierophant casts a spell. The woman crosses a stream. She takes a step and her foot comes down in the moon's reflection. She is caught in the stream; she cannot move from the moon's reflection. The hierophant comes and beats her where she stands helpless. Still she cannot move. Left alone, she asks a wood of birch trees to help her. As the hierophant passes through the wood, he becomes caught in the tangle of birch trees; they bind him and pierce him. He cannot move and eventually dies. The woman is released from the moon's reflection. Moon/Wood contains very little speech and what there is is incomprehensible. The woman and the hierophant speak their own language which has nothing to do with ours. The true language of Moon/Water is simple, stark imagery: moon, darkness, water, trees. (115)

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is a trim novel, 245 pages in length, yet it contains infinity.

The title character (not his real name, but one mockingly bestowed by the man he calls The Other) lives inside a vast House, so expansive as to seem endlessly unfolding with new Halls full of marble statuary, grand staircases, and doorways into the as-yet-unknown. The bottom floor contains an ocean, the tides of which Piranesi observes and chronicles with scientific precision. The upper floor opens onto sky and cloud and starshine, which he frames into constellations of his own design. "The Beauty of the House," he tells us, "is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite."

This description of one of the surviving films of Sylvia D'Agostino does in a few sentences much of the same work of the whole novel: someone is trapped, perhaps due to a spell-casting of sorts. Freedom might be in reach, but it is complex and fraught with violence and the upheaval of things once held dear. Holding all these elements in place is the hierophant. A totally new word to me, hierophant is one that made enough sense in context to move on without trouble. Once I looked it up, however, I was again dazzled by the way a single word can bring an entire piece into greater focus. Without it, I still deeply enjoyed the novel and its teasing corridors of knowledge and mystery. With it, I feel like Piranesi, standing before an expanse of space, newly unfolding where before there was nothing.


I love when words demonstrate their history in this way, one form passing a baton to the next, year over year. In this case, I was taken aback by the reference to FANCY. I had not (though I should have) considered that today's 'fancy' has shared roots with 'phantom' and 'phantasmagoric' possibly because fancy seems so ordinary a word, tainted perhaps by a country twang (and by Reba McIntyre's 1990 song, which lives rent-free in my head for all time). Phantasm and its ilk, however, have a magical, other-worldliness to them conjuring images of ghost and hauntings. All of these words tread the same ground as 'fantasy," of course, and Piranesi is an excellent example of what I want to call Fantastic Realism.


Thinking I might be inventing this term, I looked it up. Some sources want to conflate it with Magical Realism, a genre I love but would not use to describe Piranesi. Others rightly point researchers to the world of visual art. A brief definition explains Fantastic Realism as the product of a group of artists in mid-century Vienna, whose work was grounded in realism but includes expressions of "religious or esoteric symbolism." Looking more closely, I find waves of overlapping ideas, perhaps best summed up with this passage from one of the original artists of Fantastic Realism, Ernst Fuchs:

Things that you could not see in the normal world always pursued me. I always occupied myself with a kind of painting that renders pictures other people see in dreams or hallucinations. I could pass the barrier of this world of inner pictures even in awakeness and normal condition. The change from the world of dreams or phantasy into the world of in reality visible pictures for me was constantly possible. My themes where from the beginning on religious or mythological so that the contents of my pictures of surrealistic or phantastic character can be found in nearly all stages of my work.

This passage (found on the English translation side of Fuch's website) explores many of the themes of Piranesi, and its use of 'phantastic' takes me back to the start of my journey: hierophant: hiero - sacred + phan... - to show, and then there's the link back to FANCY, which includes this definition:

(n) an image or representation of something formed in the mind.

Susanna Clarke notes the dangers of the hierophant, the one who can cast a spell and entrap, even in the beauty of the moon's reflection. But Susanna Clarke -- it must be said -- is also the hierophant herself, rendering us immobile in the face of beauty and mystery, battering us with truths as we stand helpless. Having finished the book, I can't help but wonder if the woman, once freed from the spell, ever returns to that stream, dipping her foot in the moonlight, wishing she could return.

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