Category Archives: Folklore

Samhain and Halloween are related… right?

The following post comes from my attempt at an unpublished book which I never completed. I thought I could use my chapters as blog posts instead. This was originally drafted in 2013, and my writing voice was different from what it is now. I’ve edited where I could, but I didn’t fancy re-writing approx 3000 words.

The wheel turns once more bringing with it the darkness stretched shadows and weakened light. Harvest has ended, the fallen leaves turning to mulch now begin to whiten with the first frosts of the oncoming winter. Depends on the year, the October of 2017 is quite a warm one. There are skeletal trees, but there are many that are golden, orange and red.

Both Halloween and Samhain bring to mind skeletal trees standing aloft the icy mists, dusky evenings and streetlights battling against the otherworldly fog…. although today has blue skies, sunlight and children wandering around in costume on this Saturday afternoon. Saying that, as my train goes through the Peak District and there’s the fog!

For many Modern Pagans, Samhain was, and still is, the festival marking the official end of the summer season and the beginning of winter. To the mainstream consciousness, ‘Hallowe’en’ is something celebrated by children at best and a load of “Mumbo-Jumbo” or “Devil Worship” at worst. Samhain and Halloween, two totally different festivals celebrated at the same time and yet one is the evolution, if not the descendant, of the other.

Samhain by the water?

Samhain, pronounced “sow-en” (as in ‘sow’, rhyming with ‘now’), comes from the Old Irish Sam (summer) and fuin (end) and there appears to be a difference between the Samhain of back then and what Samhain means today.
Dr Ann Ross hypothesises that Samhain was a celebratory festival that took place by a local lake by the tribe or even tribes that came together for this occasion.
Great feasts supposedly took place by the local water source (such as a lake, a well, a river or the sea) giving us a possibility that it may have been seen as honouring the local goddesses. It is known the Celtic people saw the local water source as the embodiment of the goddess, the water was considered her realm. This may have been the time for giving offerings to the local deities. Celtic practice did include giving up the spoils of war such as shields, spears, swords, loot, to the river, probably in thanks for the victory they achieved in battle. This practice also included decapitated heads of the losers of battle being offered to the waters. This would have made sense to a people who saw the soul residing in the head, and considering it was one of Bilé’s duties to usher the souls of the dead back to the Mother Goddess figure, Danu, then summer’s end would have been the perfect time to do so.

According to the old stories, such as ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’, Samhain is described as follows:

Every year the men of Ulster were accustomed to hold festival together;
And the time when they held it was for three days before Samhain, and for
Three days after that day, and upon Samhain itself.

It was a festival of trade, feasting, drinking, boasting and games of skill and combat. These activities are found in accounts and stories of Beltane and Lughnasadh; Samhain follows suit in that regards. Where it doesn’t is its name.
Unlike Beltane and Lughnasadh, Samhain wasn’t named after any specific deity such as Bel or Lugh. In that respect, it is similar to Imbolc in that the name of the festival is descriptive (“Summer End” and Imbolc’s “Ewe’s Milk”), however there is no association with any specific deity. Instead, the stories tell us of deities, monsters, shape-shifters and ‘fairy women’ who come from the mists to terrorise or enchant the local populace:

In ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’ during the Samhain festival, Cuchulainn fails to catch one of the birds that come from the sky and everyone finds beautiful. To prove himself to his wife, Emer, he pursues two other beautiful birds that are held together by a red-gold chain as they fly over a lake. Failing in trying to catch them, Cuchulainn dreams of two women who curse him with a sickness for trying to attack them. Only for one of them to fall in love with him, problem being he already has a wife and the ‘fairy woman’ is married to Manannan Mac Lir, one of the Tuatha De Danaan!

The Dream of Angus’, tells of Angus Og, son of the Dagda, falling in love with a girl he dreams about. On his quest to find her, he discovers she is the daughter of another of the Tuatha De Danaan, Ethal Anbuail. He also finds that she turns into a swan for one year, then a girl the next. So, when he learns she will change into a swan that year at Samhain, he goes to the lake Loch Bél Dracon where he sees lots of swans (150 of them!) with silver and gold chains. He calls out the girl’s name, Caer, and when she comes forward in swan form, Angus turns into a swan also, before singing the song of sleeping as they fly away; beginning their elopement.

The ‘Agallamh na Senórach’ (Colloquy of the Ancients) contains a tale of the hero, Caoilte. Who, with his friends, goes to the Sidhe in order to heal an ailment. They won’t help him unless he kills three ravens that come from the Northern sea that come every Samhain and take three young boys with them.

The Scottish name for Samhain is ‘Samhuinn’, and is used as the setting for the story of ‘The Kelpie’. In this tale, a young shield-bearer called Donall, recounts the act of the Kelpie (sea dwelling creature that can change into either a horse or a handsome young man, either way its enchantment is powerful) taking all the cheiftain’s sons. Donall is sent to look for the one man who may help them, Dall, a blind man who has great wisdom. Dall tells Donall that at the midnight feast of Samhuinn, he shall go to the waters of the sea and pit his magic against the Kelpie to get the sons back. Meanwhile, the Kelpie has seduced Donall’s best friend, Dianaimh, but the spell is broken when she gazes upon the Kelpie’s true slimy, water-horse form. She says she will only go with the Kelpie if she releases the cheiftain’s sons (one of which was her brother). The Kelpie agrees but secretly makes a plan of his own. At the Samhuinn feast, the Kelpie comes and takes Dianaimh’s beautiful cousin into the sea with him. At the same time as this, Dall the Blind has gone to the sea by the castle and works his spell. The Kelpie frees the chieftain’s sons and keeps the vain, selfish girl as a slave in his under-sea kingdom, allowing the mortals to think that Dall’s “magic” was powerful indeed. Now, that’s ‘Trick or treat’ for you!

From the stories and tales, we can see the idea of Samhain being close to the Otherworld and the supernatural. If the stories actually contain a truth in the act of having the feast by a lake or the sea, then this is probably because water was seen as not only the realm of the goddess, but of the Otherworld. Usually, in Celtic myth, if water or an earth mound wasn’t the gateway to the Otherworld, then fog was. What is fog if not a form of water vapour? And in autumn and winter, the chill in the air does indeed bring fog and mist…

Apart from being an ideal time for telling stories of heroes, creatures and gods, Samhain must have also been the last great festival before the hardship of winter was to come. The harvest was already gathered and livestock that was surplus would have been killed for the good of the people. This might seem harsh, but back then when there was only a fire to keep away the cold, sustenance as well as shelter were vital for survival. Animals were not killed for the sport of it as much could be gained from its death: Meat to be cooked and salted, bones for tool handles, jewellery, drinking horns, the creatures fat used for candles and cooking with, fur and feathers for cloaks, bedding and clothes against the snow and ice, its skin used for leather for belts, clothes, shoes, shield decorations and armour. To our modern point of view this might seem brutal, but to our ancestors, it was a necessity as in winter, the cold could kill human and animal alike. And if you didn’t have enough grain to feed the excess cattle, better to use the spare animals than leave them to die of hunger and cold.

Bonfires at Blodmonath?

Coincidentally, the Anglo-Saxons shared in a celebration around the same time as Samhain, this was called ‘Blodmonath’ (Literally ‘Blood Month’) and consisted of ceremonially sacrificing the cattle for the purpose of provision and sustenance as given above. This took place in November and involved a ritualised version of animal slaughter and meat salting, with the head being given to the gods. As well the burial of these animal heads at the homestead, the Anglo-Saxons also lit bonfires; something that Modern Pagans have always ascribed to Samhain and the Celts.

Fire was (and is) seen as a deterrent for spirits of all kinds, whether they are the sprites and brownies of the woods and the home or the spirits of the dead.
There is a number of folk customs around Samhain to suggest that fire was important at this time of year. Obviously when at the end of summer and the beginning of winter, fire was a very useful thing to have. Though it is interesting to note that none of the Celtic stories above mention anything about fire playing a prime ritualistic or ceremonial feature.
Folk customs around Great Britain and Ireland are varied at the time of Samhain, not all revolve around fire, but the some do:

In Ireland, a cross made of sticks and straw called a ‘parshell’ was hung outside the entrance of people’s homes. This was meant to keep out the fairies and goblins from wreaking havoc in the homestead.

In Scotland, Sir James Frazer in his ‘The Golden Bough’ writes of a Highland custom with fires called ‘Samhnagan’, involving the burning of ferns and long grass stalks with tar.
Another tradition involves the collection of peat to make a fire for burning the burning of witches…. crikey!

He also writes of the Welsh Calan Gaef (Calends of winter) custom which happens at the same time as Samhain; this is called ‘Coel Coeth’ and involves the burning of a bonfire until it became ash. At this point each family member of the homestead places a white stone with their name attached, before going to bed. Apparently if any went missing, it meant that the individual whose stone disappeared would die before the next Halloween.

The above practices are mainly Halloween customs of the remaining Celtic lands from the past few hundred years. Though not strictly Samhain rites, there is still the element of the supernatural about them.

“Celtic New Year”

It is in Modern Paganism we find the god has now officially died. The Goddess retreats, carrying the new god within her womb until his birth/rebirth at midwinter. In this version, Samhain is seen as the ‘Celtic New Year’ and a time of ancestor worship as Pagans use this time to say farewells to family members who have died in that year or simply get together to honour their ancestors and gods.
The ancestor part of Samhain actually comes from All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Unlike the traditional Samhain connections with the Otherworld, the focus of these Christian festivals is on the dead. The Catholic emphasis was of ensuring the souls of the dead could move on from purgatory to Heaven, often enacted with the burning of fires or straw to help guide the souls of their departed loved ones.
At some point, every culture has a form of recognising the ancestors. For Samhain, is it a kind of “Chicken and Egg” scenario? who venerated their ancestors first? the Pagan Celts? the Christian Britons? Or did the Christians begin honouring their dead because the old associations with the Otherworld and Unearthly beings became seen as something “evil”, or at least ‘Non-Christian?’

And what of the ‘Celtic New Year?’ According to Ronald Hutton in his ‘Stations of the Sun’:

…the philologist Sir John Rhys, who suggested that it (Samhain) had
been the ‘Celtic’ New Year. He had not documented this from early
records, but inferred it from contemporary folklore in Wales and
Ireland, which he felt to be full of Hallowe’en customs associated
with new beginnings.

Hutton also reveals that Frazer expanded on this idea as the ‘Celtic feast of the dead’.
Indeed, in the classical Samhain, there is no mention of the festival having anything to do with the New Year, Celtic or otherwise.
One argument for this could lie in the fact that the Celts counted their days at night and their months on the New Moon (as in the dark phase of the Moon, not the first crescent it is considered now). If this model has been interpreted correctly then it would make sense for the ‘New Year’ to be placed in the beginning of the dark half of the year. Truth is, we don’t really know.

The modern Samhain accepts the classic idea of the ‘veil being thin’ between our world and, in this case, the world of the dead. For Modern Pagans it is a night of honouring the ancestors, even saying goodbye to those family members and even pets who had died in the year. There are many ways of doing this, some give out litanies of those who they want to acknowledge, others give offerings of food and drink. Some even honour the Cailleach (Hooded One, or Hag), the Celtic Dark Mother who is seen as the personification of Death and winter. She has been compared with the Crone aspect of the Goddess in the Western Magical Traditions, along with Cerridwen and Hecate.
Because of the associations of ‘between the veil’, Samhain is now recognised as a time for performing divination magic. Of course this varies a lot, whether its using Tarot cards, runes, pendulums, tea-leaves, even simply watching the dancing of the flames of a bonfire. There is often a ritual or prayer to deity, an offering of incense before the divinatory rite is held. The stereotype here is that witches call upon demons or the spirits of the dead to do their bidding. The reality is actually of reverence, not enforced servitude; spirits and deities are invited to come forward and give any advice should they wish to do so. Once the rite is over they are politely dismissed, or invited to stay and enjoy the energy of friendship and joy, leaving in their own time before the night is done.

So, aren’t Samhain and Halloween just the same thing?

The answer is both ‘no’ and ‘yes’. Samhain, in its classical version, as we have explored, was seen as a time when Otherworldy beings would become more active and prevalent, as if the transition from late summer to early winter created a sort of ‘doorway’ for spirits, fey people and even the deities to come and interact with the mortal realm. It wasn’t until the advent of Christianity the focus changed from one of a time of mystery to a time of honouring the dead.
Even then there are two festivals: All Hallows Eve, a festival for honouring the saints of the Roman Catholic pantheon, which in time became abridged to the shortened name ‘Halloween’. The second is All Soul’s Day, where fires used to be lit and prayers sung to guide the souls of everyone who wasn’t a saint out of Purgatory and into Heaven.
The bonfires (which may or may not have come from Pagan practice) were then employed to drive away the spirits and devils that were believed to be active at this time. In this regard, Samhain and Halloween are similar as the focus is on the supernatural and protecting people from it.
I still remember when I used to go to church and was horrified to learn they didn’t “Do Halloween”, but they did burn a bonfire for All Hallow’s Eve with the intention of driving away malignant spirits and demons.
Being a Catholic tradition, Halloween would have been taken in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries with the immigrants from Scotland and Ireland to America where it intermingled with another celebration: Dias De Los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. This is another Catholic practice, although mixed with Native American culture of the Aztecs. They believed the journey to their Underworld was a dangerous one, their gods only letting them pass with bribes. When the Spanish Catholics came, they condensed the two month festival into All Hallows and All Souls. This became Dias De Los Muertos and is celebrated for the spirits of children with candy skulls, toys and gifts. The Adult version honours the deceased with alcohol and tobacco. Both have the motif of skulls and skeletons, possibly stemming from the ‘Danse Macabre’ artwork popular in Europe around the Sixteenth to Eighteenth centuries.
It is quite easy to see how in the America’s, the Latino ‘Day of the Dead’ and the Celtic Halloween became entwined. Both were Christian festivals heavily influenced from native traditions and became festivals in their own right. Within the Twentieth Century, Halloween had become something else: it became a night for costumes and playful horror. By the time it returned to our part of the world, here in Great Britain and Ireland, Halloween became a night for dressing up ourselves as well as our homes. Folk traditions of children dressing up on All Hallows Eve with costumes and masks painted, speaking in silly voices so neighbours had to guess their identity have given way to costumes of ghosts, vampires, witches and now space aliens and pirates!
Even today, Halloween has kept some of the old influences; apple bobbing, for instance, now a game for children was originally a mild form of love divination. Originally, apples were filled with a slip of paper onto which a message would be written such as “Your love will be true” or “He will be handsome yet penniless”. Young ladies would still have to ‘bob’ their heads into the water to retrieve the apple without the use of their hands, however. In fact, a lot of the Halloween superstitions are concerned with young ladies finding out the identities of their future spouses whether gained by peeling an apple skin whole to reveal their true love’s initial, divining what kind of man they will marry by pulling out a cabbage stalk, or even combing one’s hair in front of a mirror at midnight by candle light was said to reveal the face of their future love in the mirror as though standing behind them!

In conclusion…

From (classical) Samhain we gained a time of the supernatural, which then went then became folk traditions of protection and divination. The old stories seem to paint a picture of Samhain being a feast or event taking place by the waters, whereas fire (Christian or not) was also a social hub for people to gather. The Christian element of respecting the dead has now gone full circle, Halloween is about keeping back the monsters. The Modern Samhain draws from a Catholic background with a Celtic flavour, but at the same time has links to traditions that aren’t necessarily Christian. This is why, of all the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year, I would suggest that if Halloween isn’t the descendant of Samhain, then it is certainly its evolution. Whether Modern Pagans like it or not, Samhain today, with its focus on ancestor worship is not the Samhain of the past; with its physical games, tournaments and slaughter of cattle.

Bibliography

http://m.dictionary.com/etymology/samhain?linkid=8uxrdf&srcpage=definition&site=dictwap

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, CARDINAL Edition, Sphere Books, London, 1974.

Peter Berresford Ellis, A Brief History of the Druids, Constable & Robinson Ltd, London, 2002.

Ancient Irish Tales edited by T.P. Cross and C.H. Slover, 1936 used in the book: Celtic Myths, Celtic Legends, R.J. Stewart, BCA, London, 1994.

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths And Legends, Constable & Robinson Ltd, London, reprinted 2002.

Gale R. Owen, Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, Reprinted 1996.

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Re-issued 2001.

Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1993 edition.

David Clarke, Strange South Yorkshire: Myth and Magic in the Valley of the Don, Sigma Leisure, Wilmslow, Chesire, 1994.

Jennifer Cole, Ceremonies of the Seasons, Exploring and Celebrating Nature’s Eternal Cycles, Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd, London, 2007.

Anon. The Complete Book of Fortune: The Secrets of the Past, Present & Future Revealed, Blaketon Hall Ltd, Exeter, 1988.

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Chasing the Mabon

Big thanks to Teller who asked me ‘So, when are you putting up the blog?’ And a huge thanks to Cthulhudruid who managed to find my original post after it had been accidentally deleted!

Maponus image from Gettyimages

Ah, yes. Autumn! The season of falling leaves, bounties of fruit and vegetation, bird migration and garden spiders coming out to capture unsuspecting prey (shudder). This season also sees the Equinox as the dramatic increase of the dark overtakes the long summer nights. The balance is struck and the wheel turns once again….

Within the usual modern Pagan circles, the Autumnal Equinox has been given a name…. Mabon. Whom or what does this name come from? What the hell is a Mabon anyway?

The short story is that in the 1970’s Aiden Kelly, Wiccan High Priest, came up with the name for the simple fact that he didn’t like that the Autumnal Equinox celebrations didn’t have a grander name. In his own words, please read this.

The long story…..

Mabon is a now shadowy figure, one who once had a cult all of his own stretching from Wales to Lancashire, Northumberland, Cumbria and Scotland. Mabon means ‘Son’ in Welsh and the most familiar version of this is the character of Mabon ap Modron (Son of Mother), from the tale ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen‘.

In the story, the hero Culhwch falls in love with the beautiful Olwen. Which is great, because she loves him too and it turns out that marrying her will lift the curse that was put on him by his jealous step-mother. Problem solved. However, her Dad is Yspaddaden Bencawr, chief giant and realm owning badass. He is so against the idea of the marriage, he sets Culhwch 40 impossible tasks which must be completed. No victory from the young upstart, then no nuptials. Amongst these tasks was one where Culhwch must obtain the comb and shears from behind the ears of the dreaded supernatural boar, Twrch Trwryth. But this could not be done unless he somehow obtained the mardiest dog in the world, Drudwyn. And even then Drudwyn had to be controlled by Mabon ap Modron, a huntsman who must ride the steed Gwyn Dunmane…. and the snag was: “Mabon ap Modron who had been stolen from his home when he was three nights old, and his whereabouts not known…..

Luckily for Culhwch, his uncle Arthur (yes, THAT Arthur) had given him some of his knights as companions who helped accomplish most of the impossible tasks like some adrenaline charged-Redbull fuelled group from Dungeons & Dragons…. but they could not find Mabon ap Modron.

Anywhere.

Like, nowhere.

It was only after Arthur discovering hint about asking the Oldest Animals in the World the heroes stood a chance. So Culhwch’s band sought out the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhendynfre, the Owl of Cam Cwlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and the Salmon of Llyn Lliw, to find Mabon’s location: the fortress of Caerloyw. Even then they have to break him out by force. Skipping to the end; Mabon and another hunter, some wild dude called Cynedyr Wyllt manage to corner Twrch Trwryth and grab the comb (Mabon) and shears (Cynedyr) before the Chief of Otherworldly Boars escapes and runs into the sea, prophesying he and Arthur shall fight at the end of the world…… well, a big rumble between them in the far future anyway.

In one version of the ‘Dream of Rhonabwy‘, Mabon is one of the advisors of Arthur, although this could be a confusion with another, Mabon ap Mellt (Son of Lightening) is described as a huntsman also….. This version hints at either this Mabon was as quick as lightening or was descended from some cthonic sky-god.

Interestingly, the character of Mabon was taken up by Roman occupiers in Britannia. Or perhaps, was taken up by Romanised Celts in the form of Maponus ‘Divine Youth’. Coins and inscriptions show Maponus with his dog (Drudwyn?). It appears that Maponus was equated with Apollo, the god of healing and poetry….. and linked with the bow and arrow, tools of the hunt?

What of Modron? Does the mother give any indication as to who Mabon is? She is of the ‘Washer at the ford’ variety of supernatural women, and is daughter to Afallach, one of the lords of Annwn (Welsh Otherworld), specifically, the ruler of Avalon. If true, then she was a magical being and therefore a woman of Sovereignty (The right to choose and the right to rule) and supposedly bore two sons to Urien Rheged, king of Rheged (supposedly a kingdom in Northern England and Southern Scotland). One of these sons, Owein, plays chess with Arthur in the ‘Dream of Rhonabwy‘…. see how these things always go in cycles?

Bizarrely enough, one of the stanzas of the Graves reads: “The grave in the upland of Nanllau; his story no one knows. Mabon the son of Modron the sincere.” So which is it? Is this the grave of Mabon who was in the quest for Olwen’s hand in marriage? Or was he always a mystery and none knew his details? If so, then why was he so popular? Could it be that Mabon ap Modron was in fact the figure of a mystery tradition? Like a Brythonic version Mythras?

The fact that there are remnants and inscriptions to Mabon/Maponus means there was some kind of reverence to him. What this originally was is sadly lost to time, but things have a very strange way of returning. In Modern Druidry, especially in OBOD, where the role of Mabon is given to the youngest member in the ceremony. When Aiden Kelly chose that name, did he do it because it fitted his aesthetic or was there a whisper from a long forgotten heroic huntsman? Also, how the hell did a babe taken away from his mother’s breast of only three nights old learn to become a hunter in the prison of a fort!? Perhaps….. and this is my interpretation…. perhaps Mabon in the story is meant as a metaphor for the adventurous spirit. He is the youthful part of us that dares to do the impossible once he has broken free of the dark prison of our minds. The Mabon hones it’s skills and when is broken free by bravery and need it can go forward and seize the fierce dog of anger to accomplish great things. For when the sun goes down at the Autumnal Equinox does the night get stronger. And as the nights draw in, it is the perfect time to develop our own skills and look inward until we need to release the adventurous spirit within.

Sources:

The Isles of the Many Gods, David Rankine & Sorita D’Este. Avalonia, London, 2007.

The Mabinogion, a new translation by Sioned Davies, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.

The Keys to Avalon, the True Location of Arthur’s Kingdom Revealed, Steve Blake & Scott Lloyd, Element Books Limited, Dorset, 2000.

Gestation | The Druid’s Well

http://thedruidswell.com/2015/12/11/gestation/

Seeming as my ‘Masculine Principle in Paganism’ is proving to take longer than I anticipated to translate from my mind, I read this post from my friend Catriona at the druidswell blog. And it’s glorious!

It offers a refreshing version of the Cerridwen and Taliesin story in a realistic and angry way.  No fluffy bollocks here! Enjoy…..

The Corieltauvi- Their myths and legends

Was the title of my slot for the Society of Ley Hunters conference, here in Attenborough, Notts, Friday 18th Sept, 2015.

The Grove of the Corieltauvi were asked if we would be willing to send a speaker to discuss any of the ancient stories of the original tribes who lived here (here being Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire).  So me being the gobby type agreed.  I misunderstood at first, I originally thought they wanted me to talk about solstice alignments throughout the landscape.  I know bugger all about Ley Lines and solstice alignments (it’s all angles an ting innit bruv?) but thankfully it turned out they wanted me to talk about the above subject.  Ah. Right.  That’s ok then.

The Admin was especially keen for me to tell the story of Bran and Branwen.  Sure, no problem!

…. Hang on!

Art by Brett Breckon
Art by Brett Breckon

What’s a Welsh tale about a giant got to do with the East Midlands? I’ll explain in a moment.

I arrived at Attenborough’s Nature reserve and paid my respects to the Lady of the Lake on the way (it appears as long as there is water, She will be there- another subject for another post!) and found my way into the very beginning of Bob Trubshaw’s talk about the Queens of the Valleys.  An interesting talk on historic locations and I even learned what a staple was (it’s a wooden pole with intricate carvings used by the Anglo-Saxons before stone crosses became popular; pronounced “Stapple”).  Trubshaw confessed he hadn’t even approached half of his subject by the end of his talk and had overestimated the amount of information he was going to use.

Next up was local historian, author and folklorist Frank Earp speaking about the landscape of Nottingham, especially the Hemlock Stone and the Cat Stone.  The problem with the Cat Stone is its gone! It was there up until the 1940s but now is nowhere to be seen on the landscape.  And it’s not as if you could just lift it up, the thing was about four ton!  Earp also managed to fill in for Peter Liddle who sadly couldn’t make the day.

Then there was me telling the tale of Bran the Blessed, or to use his real name: Bendigeidfran.  Of the thirteen ships that came from Ireland, his half-brother, Efnysien, cocking everything up on purpose.  Of Branwen’s insult, the armies of Britain coming to Ireland to get her back.  Of Gwern’s demise by Efnysien and how he destroys the Cauldron of Regeneration.  Of Bendigeidfran’s wounding and the ‘Assembly of the Head’ ending with its burial White Hill in London.

So what has it got to do with the people of the Corieltauvi? In one word: Lir. The God of the sea.

The tale I used was from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.  The first few names we are introduced to: Bendigeidfran, Manawydan, Branwen are all children of Lir.  Lir, or Leir lent his name to Leir-Cestre, now known as Leicester.  Leicester was known in Roman times as Ratae Coritanorum

Local legend has it that Leir was buried in a vault under the River Soar.  This was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth and is thought not to tell of the burial of a King Leir, but contain fragments of the deity, Leir.  This is all written more elegently in this article by Leicester historian and folklorist Charles Bilson here.  But if you want the short version, its this: Monmouth wrote of a King Leir, which inspired Shakespeare to write King Lear.  There was no real King called Leir, but there was the deity called Leir who was cognate with the Irish Lir.  Builders found a temple dedicated to Janus by the River Soar.  The Soar was called the Legra back in the Domesday Book and earlier records go on to show the Legra was originally called… Leir!  If this is all true then that means the Coritani/Corieltauvi had Leir as one of their gods.

So, telling the story of Bendigeidfran turned out to be a good call. I also went into detail about:

Beheading: And peoples of this land believed the soul resided in the head.

Branwen: The possibility of her being a goddess of generosity and communication (she taught a starling how to speak during her imprisonment, she also advised her brother on how to compensate Matholhwch for the insult suffered.  And she also interpreted the ‘Extraordinary news’ seen by the Pig herders.  If not a goddess then she certainly was a supernatural being, seeming she was the daughter of a god.

Cauldron of Regeneration:
Cauldron’s in old mythology usually have magical powers.  The Daghda’s never runs out of food.  Manannan Mac Lir’s (an Irish reference!) boils up food after four thruths have been told around it.  The one in this tale brings the dead back to life but without the power of speech.

I would love to have gone in to more detail, Branwen and Sovereignty, for instance.  Or the idea of the rectangular house being used as a trap, something that is often repeated in the Irish tales.

There aren’t any tales or legends of the Corieltauvi/Coritani people left behind.  But I did go into some of the folklore of the region which may have had links, even if the original stories and meanings have been forgotten.

I told what I knew of Black Annis, a Cailleach type figure based in the Dane Hills of Leicester.  Folk tales have her with a blue face, sharp claws and drank the blood of children.  A belief that was so instilled into the local mentality that cottages were built with a low window so she couldn’t get hold of any new born babes.  I don’t want to go into too much detail as I want to write a post on her, but I wonder if she was actually a local goddess that became demonised by the Church.

The last story I told was that of Yallery Brown and how young Tom found this impish creature underneath a ‘Tiddy Stone’ in Lincolnshire.  It’s one of my favourite tales to tell and even though I admitted it is not a left over tale from the Corieltauvi folk, it is still a warning about interfering with things that should really be left alone.  That being said, I did end it by saying to Frank Earp that if Nottingham’s Cat Stone was indeed moved and the warnings of moving such stones, large or small, are true; then whoever moved it must have suffered deep shit.  Earp nodded in agreement.

The day ended with a fascinating talk by Peter Knight in showing the similarities of symbols in both Christianity and Paganism.  And believe you me, there’s a lot.

Wassail!

My friend, Missy Dragon, informed me that the Allotment group of St Ann’s were going to miss out their wassailing because the usual fellow wasn’t there. 

So, in the way of daring me to do it, she asked if I’d be up for it.  What’s this? A British tradition being left out? Not on my watch meladdio!

So I managed to, very last minute, book the day off and get in contact with the organiser for the Children’s Activity Day.  She sent me an email with the wassailing song they normally do:

The Wassail Song

Old Apple tree we wassail the
And hope that thou wilt bear
For the Gods do know where we shall be
Come apples another year
To bloom well and to bear well
So merry let us be
Let everyone take off their hat and shout to the Old Apple Tree.

Spoken:
Old Apple tree we wassail thee
And hope that thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stair.

THREE CHEERS FOR THE OLD APPLE TREE:

Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

Erm, did you just say song? I don’t sing, shiiiiiiittttt! So I did my research and found the melody on YouTube:

Wassail – three cheers for the apple tree: http://youtu.be/eFF6ozduQ1A

For those not familiar, Wassailing  comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘Waes-Hael’ or ‘Good Health’.  The practices of it vary from place to place, county to county as does any of its songs.  It is normally practiced in January, in some places, 12th Night.

The one I got involved in had us sing the song, pour Apple juice on the roots, put toast onto the branches via my lovely ‘Toast Maidens’ and make lots of noise with pots and pans.  Yes, very good fun, but what’s it all for? Quite simply: to make the fruit trees give a good yield.
The pouring of juice (traditionally ale or cider with eggs in it, but it was a children’s event, so I used Apple juice instead) gives back nutrients into the ground.  The toast is to encourage birds to come to the tree, so that they’ll stay around and in spring spread the pollen with their wings and droppings, encouraging pollenation and growth. The noise allows the sound vibrations to go into the wood and somehow encourages the branches to become more productive.  At least, that’s as I understand it. I could have got this totally wrong however.

Other versions involve pissing and whacking the tree with sticks, some are done with a fire, the varients go on.

It was a sunny if cold day, but the small crowd of children and parents that followed seemed to enjoy it as we went to the Apple trees and caused lots of noise and joyful hullabaloo.  I only had time to learn the song on the way there, so I was very grateful for my friend, B. Turning up and lending her singing voice.  We all ended up singing the song to the tune of ‘ Oh Christmas Tree…‘ Because we made a joke about it, so we made it so.  We changed the lyrics to incorporate pear and cherry trees until we ran out of toast.  Then I told the local story, recorded by local storyteller Pete Castle, called the Watercress Girl.  This involved a young girl being hired by a witch to clean her house, but the girl ends up stealing from the witch (why? Why would she do that? Was she stupid?) And gets the fruit tree orchard in the Witch’s garden to lie to the witch so she could get away.  I thought it highly appropriate.

For my very first public Wassailing, I’d say it went well, I even got praised for it, but the real praise goes to Missy Dragon for telling me about this event in the first place.  Also to B. And her partner, for my Morris friends for coming along, the folks at STAA and the people who wanted to join in and of course to Pete Castle for the tale he put in his book.

If you fancy making traditional Wassailing drinkies, here’s the link:

http://nourishedkitchen.com/traditional-wassail-recipe/

And Pete Castle’s brilliant book is:

Nottinghamshire Folk Tales, The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2012 p.62.

Mischief and Misrule

Ah yes, here we are!
That time of year where (for the fortunate) family gather together to exchange gifts and share in feasting and drinking.

For some this is a time of family, for quite a lot it is the celebration of a certain individual who was said to be born at this time.

For the Pagan community it is a time where friends and family gather, the feasting still takes place (not to mention the usual tired arguments about Christmas vs. Yuletide); although quite a few of these are celebrating either the Winter Solstice, the birth of Mithras or even Modranacht.  Or even none of the above.

In British folk tradition, there is the concept of Misrule at Yuletide.  Folklore says there are spirits roaming about and causing trouble during the Twelve Days.  Even the early Church had Fool Bishops ruling the land for one day in Christmas.
By Yuletide I don’t just mean the Pagan observances of the Midwinter Solstice.
Yuletide, in its classical sense, meant any of the celebrations or observances taking place from the beginning of Martinmas (11th November) to Candlemas, the 1st February.  Chances are this was an effort by the Church to allow the populous to keep their original winter customs spanning from Samhain to Midwinter then to Imbolc.

And during this time a lot of the folk customs, though having possibly Pagan origins were in fact practiced by people who were Christian.  Here’s a few:

*The Old Oss (Horse)

Old Horse
The Black Pig Border Morris version of ‘Old Oss’ http://www.blackpigborder.co.uk/home.htm

And its variations have the comedic if sad sacrifice of a horse that has gone past its prime.  It can be traced back to medieval times where the in the 7th Century, Theodore of Tarsus once declared:

If any of one on the Kalends of January walks as a stag or as a little old woman, that is to say if they change themselves into the likeness of wild animals, or clothe themselves in the skins of cattle and wear the heads of beasts, they shall do penance for three years: for this is devilish.” (David Clarke, Strange South Yorkshire: Myth and Magic in the valley of the Don, Sigma Press, Cheshire, 1994, p.77).

Pixyled writes more about the Owd Loss here: http://traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com/2013/12/31/custom-revived-poor-owd-oss/ he is also the photographer of the image I used, thanks Pixy!

*The Mummers Play

Doctor
The Black Pigs performing the ‘Selston Mummers Play’ for the W.I. 2012.

And even the Plough Plays have the theme of good overcoming evil (white knight vs black knight) only for good to get a grilling from evils mother.  Think of it as an ancestor to the Pantomime.

*Morris Dancing

Black Pig Border Morris at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham, 2013.
Black Pig Border Morris at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham, 2013.

Has as many variations as it does origins although Border Morris (sticks, painted faces) began as a winter time activity.

What they all share (despite being resurrected into the public consciousness by Cecil Sharp) is that they all contain an element of mischief and chaos.  Border Morris has lots of shouting and hollering as well as the black face said to scare away evil spirits (another aspect of Yuletide, now only enacted with traditions like opening all windows and doors at New Year’s in order to release all the present year’s bad luck.  Be sure to close them gently… lest you run the risk of trapping any passing spirits in your home!).  The Old Oss involves dressing up as a beast, something banned around the 7th century, obviously our ancestors didn’t care for it and carried on, ban be damned!  The Mummers and Plough plays are bawdy comedy stories involving men dressed as women, quack doctors with ridiculous cures for death.  Usually the character of Beelzebub turns up at the end to take money from anyone to give them a reason to buy beer.

These were originally done throughout Winter, but it was Cecil Sharp who brought them back for Boxing Day.

Practical jokes on our neighbours were also popular… possibly a reason why there is the practice of putting coins into the Christmas pudding, which then became a sort of divination.

I’m normally playing St. George or the Doctor characters in the Mummers Plays I’m involved with, so this years Solstice was the first for a while where I’ll not be in costume.

However, to keep within the spirit of Misrule, I’d like to leave this little bit of writing to give an image in your mind:

The children gaped on in horror as they looked at Father Christmas laying flaccid on the now snapped Christmas tree.  He reeked of sherry and his beard was soaked in mince pie vomit, the stench of which crept along as he breathed heavily.
  “Are- are you alright, Father Christmas?” Tommy asked warily.
Father Christmas rolled his bloodshot eyes at young Tommy and tried to pull at his magic bin liner, not quite managing to reach it.
Cynthia slowly walked forward to the magic bin liner and passed it gently to the exhausted man. 
  “Giveitfugginhere!” Father Christmas mumbled, grasping the black polythene in his trembling hand.  He quickly thrust one gloved hand inside and pulled out…. a fist. Which slowly revealed one digit facing the two children, before he collapsed and fell asleep.
  Cynthia walked back to Tommy shaking her head.
  Tommy hugged his little sister and told her  “Never mind, we’ll make him some coffee and phone Mrs. Christmas.
  The little girl looked up with a hopeful glint in her eyes. “Yes! And maybe next year someone else will have to be the last house on Christmas Eve…”

Mischief managed!

Deep Questions pt. 2: Do you worship Gods?

 

Image from NASA
Image from NASA

Okay, this is going to be a big one.  We’re going to go nice and deep.  So go and put your kettle on and make your self a tea, coffee or hot chocolate and get yourself ready.

This is the second installment of what was supposed to be a three part series which was taken from a conversation between me and my Pagan friends from Newark, Heidi, Helen and The Nathans.
You can read part one here.  This entire post explores some of the themes we discussed.  The question of deity came up in the Grove I belong to, which you can find here.

The title question didn’t come up exactly like that, but the conversation went in the direction of talking about the gods and were Druids priests?
As for the priest thing, I think that’s debatable as the accounts we draw on for classical Druidry were written by Greek and Roman writers going on third hand information in trying to explain a totally different culture by their own standards.

Do I worship gods? Yes. I regularly give offerings and light a candle when I feel the desire to do so.  There’s no point in doing ritual if it feels like a chore now, is here?

And it all depends on what you mean by god.

Still got that hot drink? You might want to consider something stronger, beer or whisky helps….

I don’t believe the gods are cloud dwelling, toga wearing bearded individuals who play games of fate with our lives for sport.
Neither do I believe that the gods are space aliens from another world/dimension and that magic was only a science our ancients didn’t understand…. although I do find the case of the Dogon tribe in Africa very interesting indeed.

I have written before of my fascination with the Tuatha De Danaan and I am inclined to believe they were once real people who either were one of the most famous Celtic tribes of all time, or they were exceptional in their own individual spheres.  Are they creator gods? No.  Although in their pantheon, they brought light to the Isle of Destiny and the world was here before they were.

I have discovered that my form of belief falls within what is called Animism, where you believe all things have a spirit.  An essence, spark of the divine: Prana, chi, numina, nwyfre, soul whatever you want to call it.  And it is this essence that is eternal.  I have a hypothesis that goes:

Every thing has a spark of creation in it. Whether it be animal, vegetable, mineral, water or a star.  Just because we see the world differently from a tree, or a dolphin or a mouse, it doesn’t mean they don’t have their own ways of life and form of consciousness.  This spark/divine essence/thing is what remains when our physical body dies.  Now, say that someone dies and they were exceptional in some way.  The rest of the community that individual served need help with something our dead person was very, very good at.  So they call upon the essence of that individual to help them… and it works.  It works so well that for generations that particular spirit becomes regarded as an ancestor.  Further generations down the line and that ancestor becomes deified.  They become a god.
Say, for some reason, other people now call upon this deity, and it catches on.  Then for other reasons, the practice stops and the deity becomes forgotten… What happens here? Does it die? Does it go around inspiring people? Or does it roam existence until someone some when finds information about that deity and wants to begin practice all over again?  And should there be someone to give it reverence or worship, does that mean the person or persons giving to it add something of themselves to it?
We see this happen with the Saints, it happens in Native American cultures when they revere a household totem, of which there are two types.  One is a personal totem which acts as a sort of good luck charm, the other is a family totem that cannot be bartered or lent or sold.  But it can become adopted by the whole tribe as a Godhead as it is added to the rote of ancestors.  In short, gods can be made.

When most people say ‘god’ they mean a creatrix being that creates all things and knows everything about everyone in all space and time.  When they say ‘gods’ they mean beings who are beyond mortal.  I classify gods, ghosts, spirits, otherworldly beings, elementals, demons, dervishes, spirits of place, etc as Non Physical Beings, NPB’s for short.
This is because I believe that if you go with the above as a form of consciousness, then that means they are not limited to any one particular physical form or shape.  They can choose a myriad of forms with which to approach us, or in some cases (if not all), it depends on our own perception filters on how we see them.  I also believe that there are NPBs that have been around for a very long time and occasionally helped our ancestors in some way, whether through inspiration, advice or intervention.  I believe that some of these beings even became the Godhead for certain peoples and societies.

Do gods control us?  On the contrary, my own personal take is that fate is pretty much a sealed deal: you’re born and you die.  Destiny, however is what happens in the middle and it is up to us to make it work.  Its like we have a certain line we follow in life that, if we do follow it, can result in our highest potential being fulfilled (which goes onto our spirit being given the chance to grow).  I believe the gods, or at least other NPB’s who give a shit about us want to help us keep on this course, whatever it is, and in helping us achieve this, help themselves.

So, this brings me on to the models I discussed with the Newark gang…

1:  All Gods are real-
Yep, all gods, deities, spirits, anything out there that is an NPB is in fact real.
Brighid is a conscious entity that is fully aware of who and what she is, and even helps us out.  She inspires us with poetry, creative endeavour, prophecy and helps midwives make the right choices.  Odin disguises himself as many different people to interact with our world (Midgard).  There are land spirits wrecking strange havoc in your house, we call them poltergeists now, just say you’re really sorry and offer them milk.  Jehova/Yahweh is simply the God of Israel, not of everything and his word has been rewritten that many times, no one remembers what he was really on about.  Spirits of the wind actually do dance, creating wind eddies,Fire is alive and well and watches you! Its ALL true.

2: Spirit is all-
Similar to above, but everything is simply spirit in other forms.  Spirit is the underlying thing that binds all living (and dead) beings.  Think of the Force from ‘Star Wars’. It flows through us and around us as well as beyond us.  It is by tapping into spirit that NPBs have knowledge of past, present and future as well as having some telepathic knowledge about us.  Nothing dies, it only transforms.  There are spirits of all kinds, spirits of people, animals, plants, the planet, the winds, water.  Even ‘gods’ are spirits.

3: We ARE The Gods-
A very interesting idea coming from books on Chaos Magic.  This goes on the premise that we are in fact our own gods.  All that magic you’ve cast, spells been made, those signs of synchronicity that lead you to things are all your own doing.  Any NPB that is personal to us is a manifestation of our own self made into an interactive form.  So yes, Anubis IS probably talking to you because YOU created him!
The NPB is a sort of avatar if you will.  In short, we are more awesome than we dare to imagine!

4: It’s all crap-
There does remain the possibility that everything I’ve described above is totally, utterly, absolutely rubbish.  There are no gods, there are no spirits or magic, things don’t happen for our benefit and it is all just coincidence coupled with a desire to believe.
We are born, we die and that’s it.  The universe is not a self-exploring entity and we are a nanosecond blip in the infinite cosmos.  How gloomy and boring is that?

I’m sure there are more models and possibilities, but if I wanted to examine this subject in more detail, that would mean turning this essay into a book.

My belief is a mixture of models 2 and 3.  I believe that everything has a spirit or essence, that spirits don’t all have physical forms and that there are conscious entities alive and active in our world apart from us and other creatures of the world. I believe that we can create our own interface entities that have the potential to become NPB’s of their own consciousness and become individual beings.
I believe that there are independent NPB’s that actually want to help us.  But why?  Is it because they feed on our belief and off us? Or is it because, like us, they were once actual people who became deified and evolved in someway. And through helping us by showing us how to access our own potential and increasing the potency of our own spirit we can become like they are… our spirits evolve? (Y’know… like pokemon!)

I’m nearly finished, I promise! So, as you sit there with the last mouthful in your drinking vessel waiting for you, I’ll finish on this note:

Last Monday I received a message from my friend, Dianara.  She is a Priestess of Diana and she had a message from the Morrigan for me: ‘Everything is for your own good, stop complaining and get out of there…
Okay…. I get that this whole year has been about change.  And yes I agree that whatever I have or am still going through is indeed for my benefit.  Complaining? I probably was and didn’t realise it.  As for getting out of there, me and Dianara talked and she felt that it was more of a bad place I was in, a sadness or bad mental state.  This is where the message hit home.  For a couple of weeks I was indeed sad.  Things had made me question my actions and second guess myself.  I hadn’t told Dianara what had been bothering me before the message and I hadn’t given any sign of Les Booky Farce of my sadness, so how did Dianara know? Because the Morrigan, my Great Queen, my assigned deity from the Tuatha De Danaan whether she be a deity, an ancestor, a construct or whatever she is told my friend a message for me.  Which is exactly what I think the Morrigan would say: ‘Quit yer bitchin’ and chin up, it’ll be worth it!
And so to my sadness I say two words: No More.
Thanks for the message, Dianara and thanks Morrigan for the kick up the ass.

This is why I believe. How about you?