Decoding Dedalus: God Becomes Featherbed Mountain

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and  break it down line by line.

The line below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on page p. 50 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the line that begins “God becomes…” and ends “…featherbed mountain.”

God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. 

This sentence is a riddle for us, Stephen’s phantom students.

Early in “Proteus,” Stephen thinks, “Signature of all things I am here to read,” and as the episode closes, Stephen is still deciphering these signatures. All of the items in this list are, at least theoretically, signs that might appear to Stephen on the seashore. The question is, can we (or Stephen) interpret these signs? This sentence shows a progression of concepts shifting and metamorphosing into one another, staying true to the slippery, protean nature of the shore. Where does the land end and the sea begin? It’s all a matter of perspective depending on ever-changing and overlapping forms – the sand, the water, the tides that join them, all existing on a continuum, nacheinander and nebeneinander. 

How does God transform into a featherbed mountain, anyway?

Stuart Gilbert pointed out that this sentence mimics a kabalistic maxim of metempsychosis: “a stone becomes a plant, a plant an animal, an animal a man, a man a spirit, and a spirit a god.” Since we know Joyce had a fleeting interest in theosophy, there’s a chance he remembered this statement and placed it here to prime the reader for Molly and Leopold’s discussion of metempsychosis in the next episode, “Calypso.” As we’ve discussed, ideas of reincarnation and gradual transformation are scattered throughout the text of “Proteus,” so it’s no surprise to find it referenced here once more in the closing paragraphs. 

In theosophical belief, all things are as united in matter and spirit, and thus all things become signs of the presence of God. Imagine a stoner friend dramatically asserting, “We’re like, ALL ONE, man!” Something as simple as a common stone holds the potential to become a god, but the boundaries of that potential are hazy since they exist on a continuum and not as discrete packets of information. As these forms shift into one another, each will also retain memories and signatures of their previous, simpler forms. God’s signature is thus present, even if it requires many stages of transformation for a stone to become recognizably godlike. Or for God to become recognizably feathery and mountainous. 

Stephen is already toying with the idea of one form containing multitudes  – his conception of a drowned man lost in Dublin Bay nine days past is broad enough to include the forms of Alonso’s father in The Tempest, Stephen’s own father Simon, Lycidas, a porpoise, a bag of gas and many more. The image of the drowned man and the featherbed mountain sentence both represent the “sea changes” Stephen is conceptualizing.

If we accept this progression of forms, we must also consider whether it is a linear or circular progression. If you apply a linear view, you might feel, like Richard Ellmann, that this sentence represents the degeneration of God, showing how “all life sinks in the wet sand like Stephen’s boots.” It could also be interpreted as a democratization of God, as J. Mitchell Morse does, showing God evolving into ever more human forms, from “incomprehensible and fearsome” as He is in the Old Testament, to so human and civilized in our current era that He requires creature comforts like a featherbed. 

A cyclical chain of transformation complicates matters a bit since a cycle doesn’t require a state of completion. This means that the featherbed mountain holds a potential for divinity. It means also that no one state is the progenitor or progeny, all states are simultaneously children and parents, and since they proceed from and into one another, they are all consubstantial (it’s ALL CONNECTED, man!). As the cyclical view is more in tune with views of reincarnation held by theosophy, various Eastern traditions and the cyclical Viconian view of history, it’s the one that I prefer. Ellmann later concedes, in light of the first six episodes of Ulysses, “‘God descending becomes flesh becomes food, is eaten, becomes faeces, then becomes food becomes flesh becomes man ascending.’ That is, the obverse of God’s descent into matter is matter’s ascent towards at least provisional divinity.”

In any case, it’s worth taking this sentence apart word by word because there’s so much packed in each term.

God becomes man…

God becoming man is the Incarnation, God the Father becoming God the Son in the form of Jesus Christ. Stephen has already spent a notable chunk of his morning contemplating the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, consubstantiality and heresies surrounding these foundational Christian doctrines. He is particularly concerned with ideas of paternity and how “consubstantial” he is with his own father, Simon, the man with his voice and his eyes. Ultimately, Stephen seeks freedom from his father through his art and hopes to avoid metaphorically drowning in the same water.

God becomes man becomes fish…


Have you ever wondered why some Christians stick fish decals on their cars? The fish symbol is called an “ichthys,” which is the Greek word for “fish,” as well as an acronym for the Greek phrase “Iesous CHristos THeou[h] Yios Sauter” meaning “Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour.” Early Christians used ichthys as a secret byword during an era when Christians were persecuted by the Romans. There are many references in the Gospels linking Jesus to fish, such as referring to him as a “fisher of men.” This fish can also symbolize life and water, which might seem a bit at odds with a passage in Ulysses so firmly entrenched in death and decay. 

In the sentence prior to the featherbed mountain sentence, Stephen imagines the drowned man at the bottom of the sea, “A quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy titbit, flash through the slits of his buttoned trouserfly.” Ironically, the same spongy titbit that in life ejaculated life-creating semen now nurtures tiny symbols of Christ, giver of everlasting life. The fish then “flash” through the man’s trouserfly, in a pattern and trajectory similar to ejaculation. I hope you weren’t worried this post was becoming too much like Sunday school. 

On top of the Christian symbolism of this passage, Stephen evokes imagery from Hamlet. Two paragraphs after the trouser-fish, he thinks, “My cockle hat and staff and his my sandal shoon,” a line from a ballad sung by Ophelia in Hamlet IV.v., describing a pilgrim. Stephen, with his Latin Quarter hat, ashplant and borrowed boots, is dressed for his own pilgrimage on June sixteenth, positioning himself as the Hamlet figure in his own story of dispossession and father-son strife. In Hamlet IV.iii, two scenes prior to Ophelia’s singing, Hamlet echoes the imagery found in the closing pages of “Proteus”:

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm…. A king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

Just as Christ’s symbol, a fish, might consume the genitals of a dead man to sustain its own life, another man may eat that same to sustain his life, the dead man sustaining the living at a remove, and on and on. To take it one step further, Catholics consume the body of Christ as part of the Mass, and well, the sacred host must also take a predictable path through the GI tract of the faithful, king and beggar alike. Once it does, it may fertilize the earth for plants and worms alike. The cycle continues. 

God become man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose…

Barnacle Geese

A barnacle goose is a common, migratory waterfowl that spends part of its year in Ireland and Britain and then migrates to the Arctic, where it nests and lays eggs. In a previous post, we discussed ancient confusion on the origin of the leopard, and the barnacle goose has a similar mythology surrounding it. Since they rear their young in the Arctic, people living in Ireland and Britain had a real conundrum on their hands – where were all these geese coming from? They showed up in one season, disappeared in another and never seemed to produce any young. Naturally, people concluded that the barnacle goose did not mate or lay eggs like other geese, but rather sprung from barnacles as fully-formed adult geese. Why not?

The origin of the barnacle goose myth and how it ended up in Joyce’s brain is a bit of mystery, but several possible sources include Gerald of Wales (who gets a shout out by the Citizen in “Cyclops”), John Gerard (an Elizabethan botanist who is mentioned three times in Ulysses), and theosophist Friedrich Max Müller (whose book Was Jesus a Sun Myth? appears on a list of “The World’s Twelve Worst Books” in “Circe”). All three men wrote about barnacle geese in one fashion or another, all repeating the barnacle goose myth.

Barnacle geese emerging from barnacles in Topographia Hibernica, by Gerald of Wales

Whether or not the barnacle goose originated from eggs like a normal goose or sprung fully-formed from barnacles raised serious religious questions for the Catholic Church. It used to be forbidden to eat the flesh of warm-blooded creatures on Fridays (nowadays just on Fridays during Lent), which would include all birds. However, if barnacle geese were born from barnacles, Irish bishops felt that this qualified them as “not flesh” and meant they could be eaten on Fridays. Gerald of Wales strongly disagreed, arguing that Adam and Eve were not born of flesh, but were still made of flesh (and you don’t see anyone eating them on Fridays now do you?) As for Friedrich Max Müller, he quoted from a 1629 book by hermeticist Count Michael Maier, who had a lot to say about barnacle geese. Maier believed the barnacle goose to be an analogy for Christ’s origins in both the natural (human mother) and supernatural (godly father). Barnacle geese are formed by a kind of “fish” (the barnacle) and since they don’t mate, it must be God that’s putting them there. Fish becomes barnacle goose.

This all has big implications for Stephen who wants to distance himself from his consubstantial father. The barnacle goose has no carnal father, so becoming a “barnacle goose” allows Stephen to deny his connection to Simon. This could be possible if, like the Irish bishops believe, the goose has a fishy forebear. As such an Irish bird, Stephen can now affirm an earthly mother and a heavenly father, making him more Christlike (as Stephen is often a Christ analogue in Ulysses). The “signature” of a bird-like father is written throughout Ulysses, first and foremost in the name “Dedalus.” The Holy Spirit, the aspect of the Holy Trinity that resulted in the immaculate conception of Jesus, is often depicted as a dove. The Holy Spirit as a bird-father pops up in Mulligan’s blasphemous “Ballad of Joking Jesus” (“My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird.”) and in Leo Taxil’s even more blasphemous La Vie de Jésus (“C’est le pigeon, Joseph.”)

Stephen the augur thinks of one “wild goose” in particular – Kevin Egan, whose son Patrice turned Stephen on to the blasphemies of Taxil. Egan, though, operates as a cautionary tale to Stephen – a failed exile, drowning in absinthe, estranged from family and psychologically still living in Ireland though physically far removed. If a wild goose’s life is so erratic, perhaps it’s better to be a tame goose – exiled comfortably, migrating with a family, perhaps with a Barnacle, a creature famous for its adhesive quality, not likely to let go once it has a hold of you. 

God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. 

“Featherbed mountain” occupies both physical and psychological space in the landscape of Ulysses. In the most literal sense, a goose transforms into a featherbed by being plucked and having its feathers stuffed into this central object of domesticity, a hazard of tame goose life.

South of the city lie the Dublin Mountains, including those visible from the Martello Tower and Sandymount Strand. If you travel over one small mountain called Killakee, you’ll travel through the Featherbed Pass and  the Featherbed Bog before reaching a town in Co. Wicklow called Glencree, as in the “Glencree dinner” remembered throughout the course of Ulysses by the Blooms and their friends. On the homeward journey from this dinner, Molly sat too close to the lascivious Lenehan, who later recounts, in a series of gross innuendoes, looking down Molly’s dress. “Glencree” and “featherbed” appear in tandem in the text throughout the novel, so these two ideas are closely linked. 

The Glencree dinner took place after the death of young Rudy Bloom and the end of the Blooms’ sexual relationship. Though Molly doesn’t reciprocate Lenehan’s lust, the Glencree dinner is remembered as the turning point in the Blooms’ marriage where Molly begins to move towards infidelity. Robert Adams Day described this moment as “her first sexual stimulation since the death of her child and of marital love.”  The Blooms’ featherbed is the site of Molly’s current infidelity with Blazes Boylan, as well as the site of her monologue in “Penelope” in which she recounts in lurid detail her “music lesson” with Boylan, imagines other infidelities (including a hypothetical liaison with Stephen), and speculates about her husband’s indiscretions. 

A tame, domesticated goose finds peril once it has donated its feathers to featherbed mountain, a symbol of infidelity and the dissolution of domestic bliss and stability. Infidelity is a dominant theme in Ulysses, of course, and it was a major paranoia of Joyce’s. Joyce suspected his wife Nora Barnacle of various infidelities, both real and imaginary. It is worth noting that Joyce was overall quite a paranoid and jealous personality, seeing betrayal in many of his friends and family.  Nora’s suspected infidelities made their way into several of Joyce’s works, notably Ulysses and The Dead. Joyce’s (and Bloom’s) “Barnacle” goose may occupy his featherbed, but she still retains her wild aspect. 

Robert Adams Day sees this passage as an indicator that Stephen will be a pivotal player in the future of the Blooms’ relationship. Leopold, trying to help the younger man get ahead in life, tries to entice him into the Blooms’ home as an Italian instructor, resulting in Molly imagining oral sex with Stephen. None of this plays out in the pages of Ulysses, but the blossoming friendship between Stephen and Bloom certainly creates the possibility for this further betrayal and cuckolding of Leopold.  Day sees Stephen’s supplanting of Leopold in this love triangle as the culmination of his transformation into liberated artist laid out by the featherbed mountain sentence, the son supplanting the father. The idea of Stephen betraying Bloom in this way is a bit too grim for me, so I’m hoping that Stephen is able to create his own featherbed mountain, on his own terms, likely far from dear, dirty Dublin.

As a whole, the progression from God to featherbed mountain encompasses the whole of Ulysses, from Buck Mulligan’s blasphemous Mass in “Telemachus” to Molly’s featherbed mountain in the novel’s closing pages. These are the signs that Stephen must learn to read in order to become a mature artist like his real-life counterpart. Stephen is totally alone in these final moments on the shore, and despite all his philosophizing, he is still totally lost. He lacks support from true, meaningful relationships, surrounded instead by mocking blasphemers and distant father figures. The Stephen who tries to go it alone in the darkness gets his ass kicked in front of a brothel. He needs a kind stranger to pick him up, dust him off and push him in the right direction – towards maturity, artistic freedom and a new home, far from Dublin.

Further Reading:

Day, R. (1975). Joyce, Stoom, King Mark: “Glorious Name of Irish Goose”. James Joyce Quarterly, 12(3), 211-250. Retrieved from

Ellmann, R. (1974). Ulysses on the Liffey. London: Faber and Faber. Retrieved from 

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from 

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books. 

Herr, C. (1980). Theosophy, Guilt, and “That Word Known to All Men” in Joyce’s “Ulysses”. James Joyce Quarterly, 18(1), 45-54. Retrieved from 

Mitchell Morse, J. (1974). Proteus. In C. Hart & D. Hayman (eds.), James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical essays (29-50). Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from 

Vitoux, P. (1981). Aristotle, Berkeley, and Newman in “Proteus” and “Finnegans Wake”. James Joyce Quarterly, 18(2), 161-175. Retrieved from 

Ichthys image

Barnacle Goose in Topographia Hibernica by Gerald of Wales



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