BY SARA CLETO AND BRITTANY WARMAN
You’ve felt it when you’ve stood at the edge of the ocean, the sand pulling away from your feet with the tide. You’ve felt it at twilight, when the horizon goes pink and electric and then dims as the fireflies light up the sky.
You’ve even felt it each time you open your front door or press your nose to a cold windowpane.
Folklorists use the word liminality to talk about rites of passage and the ambiguity you feel when you’re halfway through them. You don’t have your pre-ritual status anymore, but you haven’t completed the transition to what you’re becoming yet either. Think of the couple halfway through a wedding ceremony—they’re not yet married, but they’re not exactly single anymore. Or think of students midway through their graduation ceremony, before they’ve moved the tassel on their fetching headwear or thrown said headwear high into the air. For that brief time, they’re caught between student and graduate, a metamorphosis in progress. They’re in liminal space.
The concept of liminality has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, but anthropologist Victor Turner is the one who really dialed it in with his essay “Liminality and Communitas.” He says that those in liminal space are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.” They exist, Turner says, in a “realm of pure possibility.”
More broadly, liminality is about thresholds and transformation. It’s when the moment of change crystallizes in the air, in your body, and in the world around you. Certain places—doorways, ruins, staircases, portals—frequently take on an air of the liminal. And liminal spaces are where magic happens.
Gateways between worlds, doorways, ruins, wherever you happen to be standing listening to the chimes of midnight as one day shifts to the next—these are our most potent places of enchantment. Fairyland, a certain enchanted wardrobe, the River Styx … any place that can hold multiple possibilities and aid transformation is a magical, liminal space.
Many of our fairy-tale and mythic heroines are steeped in liminality. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White hover for years in a twilight space that is neither life nor death but a deep and liminal sleep. Persephone, the goddess of spring and queen of the underworld, is able to move between the realms of the living and the dead, between seasons, and between the branches of her family. Persephone’s enduring popularity is, we think, largely due to her liminality. She can be a goth girl in a flower crown, the seed of possibility, a queen of multiple realms, and a way to encompass many, sometimes conflicting, desires.
Revel in the liminal spaces. Find them and linger. Watch the sun set, throw a window wide, make a wish at midnight, and dance in fallen autumn leaves. Read a tale about Persephone and enjoy a stolen nap. It is in these places, these times, where magic is waiting for you.