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The Ecstasy Of Alchemists: Time, Magic and our Old Arrangement with the Wild

Course dates: 
Monday, 3 April, 2017 to Thursday, 13 April, 2017

With Martin Shaw and Carla Stang

Throughout history we hear it; from Amazonia to the Arthurian tales: that an essential part of becoming human requires a wedding to the earth itself.

Though diverse in expression, an essential part of the message is this: to be threaded into the nervous system of jungle, dream, myth, forest and ancestral confirmation before societal demands of work and family take primacy. Such primary grounding shaped us, informed us of the firmament we stood upon, illuminated the story we were actually in. 

In 2017 we appear to have largely fallen out of such an arrangement. And we appear to be in a new kind of story. So, we ask: what exactly does this story serve? Does it come as vision or hallucination?

Throughout our time together, Carla Stang and Martin Shaw will be weaving three areas into our enquiry. 

  1. Cosmology and stories from the Mehinaku of the Amazon.
  2. Folklore and myth from eastern Europe and beyond.
  3. The role of the alchemist as purveyor of an economy of secrets: from the garden of Eden to the present day. 

These three elements will bring us closer to the rigorous education of the earth. To, as the poets say, “think in ways we’ve never thought before”. From amazonia to fairy tale we will explore cosmologies, stories, initiations and concepts of the soul that are startling and vivid: that in their very otherness are saying something deeply needed for the condition of our times. As they reveal something of our old arrangement with the wild, they reveal an earth that is nourishing, dark, vital and bristling with intelligence. A place of grace and danger, of true education.


Carla Stang

Carla received her first degree at the University of Sydney and was awarded the Frank Bell Memorial Prize for Anthropology for her studies there. In 2005, she completed her Ph.D. in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Since then she has held the position of Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and Associate Researcher at the University of Sydney. Carla’s work explores events of consciousness in different cultures, in particular those of ordinary reality, mysticism, ritual and the experience of landscape. Most of this research has focussed on the Tungus people of Siberia, and the Mehinaku Indians of the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon. Based on her fieldwork with the Mehinaku Carla wrote a book called “A Walk to the River in Amazonia” (Berghahn Press 2011).


Martin Shaw 

Martin is a mythologist, writer and teacher of wilderness rites-of-passage. Author of the Mythteller trilogy (A Branch From The Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower and Scatterlings), he founded the Oral Tradition course at Stanford University, and has contributed to Desmond Tutu’s leadership programme at Templeton college Oxford. Recent collaborations have included “Lost Gods” with Mark Rylance and Paul Kingsnorth. Director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the UK, he lectures internationally and has a long standing interest in the folklore and cosmology of Tungus and Yakut culture. Much of his thinking comes from four years living in a black tent on a succession of English hills, exploring remaining pockets of British wilderness.

We will also trace something of the journey of the alchemist, from roots in Jewish, Greek, Arabic and Egyptian thought and mystical practice. In the lives and ideas of these practitioners we start to glimpse a subterranean underpinning to what we so glibly call “the West”. We will quite naturally find associations with our wider explorations and in this very dialogue between domestic and wild. For many centuries alchemists have carried secret knowledge about how to live, to deepen; to make, in part, a “magnum opus” of our own lives. It may be time for those secrets to step closer. In alchemical motifs we track the maturation of the psyche, in a similar fashion to the hunter trailing deer tracks through the forest.

Throughout the week we make a continued emphasis on taking the imaginal seriously. 

Respectfully handled, these three ingredients lean us usefully into the crucible of our own lives, will create something unexpected, may just help us glimpse a story we would be honoured to be part of. A story that will require study, wonder and more than we will sometimes wish to give. 

“I love you because you knew what was real. I love you because you knew what to pay reverence to and what to obey. You were on fire with the wisdom that came from something greater than your own personality and were able to bow in reverence and obedience to these greater forces. To this I will always claim my love.”

- Elie Wiesel on the ancient Hasidic masters


“When we win it’s with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us….

Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows, by being beaten, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.”

- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Man Watching

This two week intensive is a module on our Ecology and Spirituality postgraduate programme, also open to external participants as a short course, allowing for a rich community of experience, sharing and conversation.


£ 1 435.00
Course fees include all meals, field trips, materials and all teaching sessions. The programme will run from Monday to Friday afternoon, and includes ten nights private accommodation and all vegetarian meals from the first lunchtime you arrive through until the lunchtime before your departure. This course is expected to be held at The Elmhirst Programme, part of Schumacher College at Dartington Hall Estate.