Sylvia Plath And The Occult

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It’s legend that when Ted Hughes left her, Sylvia Plath took his left-behind notes and manuscripts, along with fingernail clippings and other debris she found on his desk, and burned them in a ritual fire. From the ashes, a scrap of paper with the name “Assia” written on it, landed on Sylvia’s foot. 

At various points in her writing Plath made references to tarot, Ouija, crystal balls, and astrology. It was Ted, in fact, who had introduced Sylvia to the occult. She found it to be “magnificent fun … more fun than a movie,” but Ted was more impressed with her seeming abilities, saying that “her gifts … were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them.” The two of them used a homemade ouija board to contact ‘Pan,’ their otherworldly muse, with a tipped over brandy glass as a planchette. Ted Hughes remarked of their spirit that “usually his communications were gloomy and macabre, though not without wit.” Sylvia wrote of Pan in her poem “Ouija”:  

It is a chilly god, a god of shades,

Rises to the glass from his black fathoms.

At the window, those unborn, those undone

Assemble with the frail paleness of moths,


The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger.

The old god dribbles, in return, his words.

Hughes often wrote of his meeting with Sylvia as being fateful: “That day the solar system married us / Whether we knew it or not,” he writes in Birthday Letters. In interviews he said that the two of them had a “telepathic union.” Their relationship was violent and passionate from the start, when Ted emerged from the party they had met at with his face bleeding; Sylvia had bitten his cheek in response to him stealing her earrings. They were unarguably drawn to each other. Hughes read their horoscopes, believed in things beyond them. Plath took some more convincing. Belief in the beyond didn’t come easily to her, but learning did. Though Ted was the more familiar, Sylvia quickly overtook him. She excelled -- as she did in everything. 

Sylvia’s diaries note her wish to learn and get better at reading tarot. Hughes had given her a deck as a birthday present in 1956, and she had visions of them as literary fortune-tellers -- Hughes divining by astrology, and Plath with her cards and crystal balls. Published in Ariel, Plath later wrote “The Hanging Man” about her experiences with Electro-Convulsive Therapy, a treatment which left her unable to read and speak for some time afterward, and of which she was terrified of having to ever undergo again. With the added layer of some tarot knowledge, though, it is the waiting which is really striking -- the idea that the ECT was a step before enlightenment.

Many of her Occult-infused writings appear like this, with layers of intricacy laid over her poems, offering another angle; a different depth. 

Hughes claimed that “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board” was almost a transcript of a conversation he and Plath had with their personal guide; that Sybil and Leroy were thinly veiled alter-personas of the two of them. “Dialogue” was also, according to her letters, the first poem Plath had written in six months. She never showed the poem, and it was unpublished until her Collected Poems. She wrote to her mother that it was “supposed to sound just like conversation … both dramatic and philosophical.” The conversation goes back and forth as the querents try to decipher whether Pan is a true god or not, the “chilly god” of Plath’s earlier poem, or a figment of their imagination. Unnerved, Sybil and Leroy agree to smash the glass into the fireplace, destroying their link to Pan, and ending the game. Sybil is haunted by the whole affair, not only their interactions, but also the act of smashing the glass. 

Those glass bits in the grate strike me chill: 

As if I’d half-believed in him, and he 

Being not you, not I, nor us at all, 

Must have been wholly someone else.

She cannot come back for what she has found to be true. At the end of the poem, the couple hope to find themselves “two real people … in a real room.”

Hughes writes, again in Birthday Letters, that it was “always bad news from the Ouija board.” He was aware, as both Plath’s letters and Hughes’ own notes recount, that she was also trying to contact her father through the Ouija board:

… “spirits” would regularly arrive with instructions for her from one Prince Otto, who was said to be a great power in the underworld. When she pressed for a more personal communication, she would be told the Price Otto could not speak to her directly because he was under orders from the Colossus. 

(from “Sylvia Plath and her Journals”)

In her journals, Plath ponders the Ouija board’s messages for her; how many of them are her own subconscious, and how many are genuine communications from her father. As time went on, she began to give more credence to the latter. The Colossus, then, becomes a central theme for Plath’s writing. Indeed, it is the title of the only collection of her poetry published before her death in 1963, though not without much deliberation. In its titular poem, she writes:

Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,

Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.

Thirty years now I have labored

To dredge the silt from your throat.

I am none the wiser.

“Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other” hearkens back to Pan, once again, and with the addition of Ted’s notes, Sylvia’s poetry comes together once again; a constant conversation with another world.