Remembering The Asbestos Virgin
A few days ago I was reading about asbestos. I don’t know why. I was curious. I knew it was dangerous but I didn’t know it was almost magic. I had no idea asbestos wicks could hold flames five times as long as standard wicks. I didn’t know that before it came to line the walls of our old homes, it had grown—like a plant almost, like bark made out of hair—in threads that Marco Polo was told were the fine-fibers from the backs of salamanders, mythically impervious to fire.
In the ancient world it was often associated with magic and mortality. Callimachus is said to have built a golden lamp, the asbestos lychnis, which only needed refilled with oil once each year because it's wick would never burn. Pliny the Elder described asbestos as "a kind of… 'live' linen." He goes to write:
I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile.
Eventually—I don't know where; I can't remember the source.—I came across a mention of a woman who wore asbestos robes, a ghostly figure, and a kind of nymph. The Asbestos Virgin was said to be sexually frigid. Blake describes Nymphs like her as those who "cannot consume in man's consummation, Northrop Frye says "inflammable and aroused but entirely igniting." She was a spirit who lived in oracular caves and waterfalls causing the infrequent men who saw her to succumb into a state of nympholepsy. In Greek these men were called Nympholeptoi which in Latin became Lemphati, meaning "distracted/beside oneself." Their obsession flowed through their bodies like their lymphatic systems but there is tragic imbalance in that alleged romance. While the Lemphati pursue the objects of their desire, the nymphs flee back to their caves.
In Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance, Jay Macpherson writes that it is always "nymphs [who] flee or are pursued in pastoral contexts." I'm not sure what the difference is but I'm thinking of Joyelle McSweeney's Necropastoral. He writes that "the nymph embodies an idyllic view of nature, a view of nature which man can commune."
Where some hear "commune" others feel "consumed."
"She is," Macpherson writes, "in her best, or Egeria, capacity 'the sympathy of nature incarnated.' That reflection can be shattered or have sinister import and the Nymph becomes either pathetic or enslaving." She "indicates the fragility and even the danger of associated idyllic states."
But to a contemporary audience the Asbestos Virgin—if she exists in written history and not just my faulty memory— should not be conceived as pathetic or enslaving. Instead the toxicity of her robe should mark her as an honorable memory not meant to be mixed with ordinary ashes. We should see her as a woman who maddens but does not flee, who ignites but is not ignited.