Opening the Door: The Threshold in Myth and Modern Day

Photo by FlutterSpeed

In the early days, humans faced the world’s uncertainties with dread. The unknown wilderness was frightening. Unmapped seas clung to the coasts. Ominous mountains towered over their fields. Dark forests sprang up on the edges of their villages. So humans clutched relentlessly at their farming, their laws, and their boundaries.

Natural borders were always in transition–rivers overflowed their banks, and trees and weeds soon overtook any unattended field. These transition places became a sort of “no-man’s land”, being neither one place or another. Early man knew that if real man-made boundaries were not set and kept, that chaos and the underworld would infringe upon his country.

Photo by FlutterSpeed
Photo by FlutterSpeed

Therefore man began defining the space in which he lived. In medieval times, countries were separated into shires, towns, castle lands, and then into fenced farms. And to keep these boundaries set, throughout Europe a tradition arose called “Beating the Bounds”. All the borders of local space were whipped annually with a twig of hazel.

In addition to “beating the bounds”, landmarks were placed at the edges of villages to ensure that children and adults did not wander into uncharted territory. A stake, a rock or a special tree became a warning to visitors to stay within the safe confines of the town. Over time, however, these territories shrank and the landmark took on new significance. It slowly became associated with the unknown world beyond it and not the village it protected. The rock, beam, or threshold, came to symbolize the crossing over into the strange and mystical underworld.

Though man has extensively explored today’s world, the threshold still holds unconscious significance in the modern mind.  Phrases such as “at death’s door”, “the doorway to the future”, “pay at the door”, and “Heaven’s gate” are commonplace. Some rituals are still performed at doorways. Brides in America are carried over the threshold on their wedding night. Many cultures such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Muslims, have traditions of taking off your shoes to enter a house. In Scotland and North England, doors are opened to aid the passing of the dying or in Indonesia, to ease childbirth.

Science even backs up the otherness of the threshold by dubbing a neurological phenomenon the “doorway effect” to describe when you go into a room meaning to do something but your brain resets at the doorway. You’re left in a new room and with no idea why you’ve ventured in there.

Thresholds  are the places of change, of knowledge gained and given, of growth and maturity. They separate the realms of evil and good, profane and  sacred, and in the doorway of a home, the familial and external worlds.  We’re never quite certain what might lurk beyond that door.


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Aidee Ladnier

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