Froggy Goes a Courting

Origins of folksongs. Just listening to a BBC4 programme about Cecil B Sharpe and there was a lovely Appalachian rendition of Froggy Goes a Courting, they said it’s “just a children’s song” and also that it’s a nursery rhyme. Oh my no! Most nursery rhymes began life as political songs and Froggy’s yet another. It’s very old, read it’s history here …

According to Albert Jack in his book “Pop Goes the Weasel, The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes” (pp. 33–37, copyright 2008), the earliest known version of the song was published in 1549 as “The Frog Came to the Myl Dur” in Robert Wedderburn’s “Complaynt of Scotland”. He states that in 1547 the Scottish Queen Consort, Mary of Guise, under attack from Henry VIII, sought to marry her daughter Princess Mary (later Mary Queen of Scots), “Mrs. Mouse” to the 3 year old French Prince Louis, the “frog”.

The song resurfaced a few years later, with changes, when another French (frog) wooing caused concern—that of the Duke of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth I in 1579. Elizabeth even nicknamed Anjou, her favourite suitor, “the frog”.

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Brisingamen

A taster from the novel I’m currently writing …

Brisingamen

The thirteen golden moons shone out in her memory. Where were they, what had her mad red-haired brother done with them? She lay back in the bed trying to remember. No, it wasn’t him, it was the three Jotun women, they had taken it back, taken it away. He’d brought everyone gifts, lovely dwarf-made jewels that glittered and sparkled with their own light but, as ever, he’d forgotten her. Who needed a brother like that? Well, she would teach him, show him, she would have something even more lovely than anything he had brought the others, she would have the thirteen golden moons. Each of the moons was a different shade of gold, red, orange yellow, even a greenish gold, and the patterns that ran through the gold suggested each moon, wolf moon, snow moon, hunter’s moon, and all. Yes, she would find it and bring it and wear it. She would show them all.

The cats drew her chariot out from the stronghold in the pre-dawn glow. Huge they were, striped black on the long red-brown fur, their fangs gleaming, satisfied growls told they were pleased to be out. They raced across the land.

She went everywhere, all across the nine lands but no-one knew anything, no-one would help her, none had seen the Jotun women in an age. Until, one day, she came across a boy herding his goats on the hillside. He was brave although so small, he stood with his big wolf-friend between her cats and the frightened goats. ‘No!’ he shouted, before the chariot had hardly stopped. ‘No! You shall not have them. My goats are not for you.’

She climbed down from the chariot, laughing at his pugnacity. ‘We do not want your goats,’ she told him. ‘They’re weak and stringy, no food for warriors there. But …’ and now she came up close to him, ‘maybe you have seen, maybe you know.’ She bent towards him so he could smell the lovely perfume of her skin. ‘Have you seen the Jotun women? Do you know where they went?’

The boy shivered slightly and his wolf-friend gave a low growl in the back of his throat. ‘I … I …. m-maybe the dwarves will know,’ he managed at last.

‘What dwarves,’ she snapped, taking hold of his chin and forcing him to look up into her eyes. ‘Tell me of these dwarves.’ And she thrust the boy backward so he sat down abruptly. The wolf growled again. It was odd, she thought, but somehow the wolf reminded her of her brother, perhaps it was the red fur.

The boy got his breath back and struggled to his feet. He didn’t like this woman, she was cruel. ‘The dwarves the other side of the mountain, yonder.’ He pointed away across the valley to a huge peak that stood up like a wolf’s tooth.

Now, suddenly, she was satisfied, she knew in her bones that was the place. One long finger stroked the boy’s cheek softly then she reached into her pouch and drew forth a gold coin, tossed it to him.

She leapt into the chariot and immediately the cats set off, flying across the valley, galloping along a stretch of gossamer cloud that made a road through the sky. The boy stood watching. Neither he nor the wold would touch the gold.

The other side of the mountain was very different. No longer softly green with deep oak forests cladding its side, now it was harsh, stark, bare rocks, empty streambeds long dried up, and a great, dark hole in its flank that seemed to suck up all the light. She left the cats to guard the chariot and went warily into the cave-mouth on foot.

Just as it seemed she would no longer be able to see the light from the cave mouth she heard the footsteps coming. A soft plap-plap-plap, like leather slapping on stone, not like men’s feet at all. Light flickered around a corner ahead of her, reddish with the black tinge of smoke, and she could smell it. She mustered her courage and stood up straight and still. The plapping sound grew louder, it sounded as if there were many and a many of them, and then there they were in front of her. Dwarves indeed, but not like the red-skinned dwarves of home nor their black-haired cousins, these were white, pallid, flabby with huge bulging pale eyes that reminded her of dead fish.

‘What is it, lady? What is it you want?’ The first of them stopped in front of her, too close for comfort but well close enough for her to smell him, and he was very obviously male. The end of his organ began to twitch, to stand up to look at her from its single eye. A glance showed her it was the same with all of them. She pressed the image of a steel rod down her back bone and stood straighter still. ‘I’m told that you know the whereabouts of the three Jotun women,’ she said imperiously.

A chuckle began in the leader’s throat, spread amongst his comrades. ‘The Jotun women, is it? And what would the likes of you be wanting with them?’ he replied.

‘Do not argue with me, wretched earthlings,’ she said loudly. ‘Tell me where they are.’ But her voice cracked slightly, giving the lie to her authority.

The chuckle ran through the dwarves again, deeper this time. A hungry interest gleamed in their pale eyes which looked her up and down, undressing her. ‘Why yes, lady. We know the Jotun women. They are friends of ours.’ He paused, glanced at his companions. ‘But if you would like to find them then it will cost you. We always give information, or anything else, but always for fair trade.’

‘What …?’ she managed.

‘Why that you will come with us, spend seven nights with us, that you will give us the joy of your company.’

She was not fooled. She knew what they wanted, but the thirteen moons shone bright in her mind’s eye. She wanted them. ‘I will come,’ she said.

For seven nights she pleasured them, doing whatever they asked. All the time, she held the vision of the thirteen moons fixed inside her head so she hardly noticed what she was doing. On the seventh night, the leader told her where she could find the Jotun women. He led her back to the cave-mouth, holding her soft white hand all the way and, as they first began to see the gleam of light from the outside world he demanded one final kiss. She gave it, trying not think about the way his long, tube-like tongue searched her mouth.

The cats purred and licked her as if she was their kitten. She allowed them to wash the stink of the dwarves from her skin, then she climbed back into the chariot and pointed the way. They flew again, the cats galloping on shreds of cloud-road high in the sky until they came to the mountain. Strange it was, as she looked at it with her sith-sight she could see that it was upside-down, as if it had been tumbled over when the jostling land-plates knocked against each other back in the mists of pre-time. And then she saw them. So huge they were that it seemed the rocks that made the top of the mountain moved, but they were not rocks, they were the Jotun women. One after the other they stood up, watched the chariot fly towards them. There was a flat space where the cats landed the chariot and she stepped down.

With the dwarves, she had towered over them, now the Jotuns towered over her. They were like part of the mountain themselves. ‘I want the necklace,’ she shouted up to them before her courage melted away. ‘I want the thirteen moons.’

‘No, you don’t,’ the smallest of the three told her. It was like being spoken to by thunder.

‘But I do!’ she shouted back, amazed that they would deny her.

‘No, you don’t’ repeated the second one.

She stamped her foot, too angry now to be frightened of their hugeness. ‘I do,’ she cried, ‘I do! I do!’

‘No,’ said the largest and eldest of the women. ‘You don’t. Wait,’ she held up her hand, ‘and listen. The thirteen moons are not for such as you. They must hang in the sky, giving time and seasons for all life. They are not a bauble for you to wear.’

‘But I want them,’ she cried, tears of frustration falling down her cheeks. ‘And you are wearing them, so they don’t have to hang in the sky. That’s a lie!’

‘I wear them now, because you have come. This is a turning point, a threshold. If you succeed in your demand then the power of the moons will be changed. And you do not know them, if you did you would not want them, not any more than I do. You would leave them be. To take them from their purpose brings only sorrow and despair.’

For just a moment, that stopped her. But only a moment. ‘You can give them to me, can’t you?’ She began to sense a cunning in them, they were trying to trap her but she would not be stopped in her purpose. ‘You can. I know it. So give them to me. Now!’

The youngest and smallest tried one last time. ‘If you take them now then the thirteen will give you all the power you want but the price you pay will be despair,’ she said as softly as a gale blowing through pine trees. ‘Go hme now, we beg you. Take on your falcon form and fly home. The cats will follow you but you must fly away now. Go, child, go.’

‘No, I will not. Not without the thirteen moons. Give them to me. Now!’

At that, the golden necklace fell from the eldest giantess’ neck and into her hands. It lay there, tingling, sending fire through her skin, a feeling of aliveness such as she’d never known ran through her. She put it on and leapt back into the chariot.

They flew over mountains and lakes. At every pool, she topped to admire her reflection in the water. She even stopped at little duck-ponds so enamoured of herself was she. But every time, after a few moments of looking at her lovely self in the still water there would come a change. A wave would rise, steep and huge, flowing across the lake, threatening to engulph her, she would leap back into the chariot and back into the sky to escape.

Finally she arrived home. There she found all her family weeping and mourning. She had been gone a hundred years and they had all thought she was dead. Her husband was gone, gone searching for her not long after she had run away. Her daughter stood, grown up now and a woman herself, staring at her mother, staring at the thirteen moons around her neck. Then the girl turned away, went indoors, her weeping ceased and her face hard and ugly with disgust. For a moment she almost tried to follow her daughter but her feet would not move.

Then she leapt back into the chariot and headed for the upside-down mountain. ‘Take it back,’ she pleaded with the Jotun women. ‘Take it back. I don’t want it. The price is too high.’

‘We told you so,’ the youngest said, her voice now like a spring breeze through the oak buds. ‘We did,’ the second joined her. ‘We did, indeed,’ the eldest affirmed. ‘We cannot take it back,’ she went on. ‘You chose your way. You chose for all your kind. Now you must bear it. There is nothing we can do.’

Wearily, she got back into the chariot, headed for home again, not stopping anywhere this time.

The oldest one, the seer of the family, still stood in the courtyard. He watched her land. She went to him. ‘How can I get them back?’ she asked him. ‘How can I undo what I have done? How can I find my husband and my daughter again?’

‘You cannot,’ he told her. ‘From your actions, your husband is now everywhere. Everywhere in all the worlds. He is everywhere you, and we, have not looked, in every place we have left. He is gone from the world of our knowing. Those who seek him shall never find him.”

A single tear tracked down his cheek and flowed onto the necklace. It lodged there, like a diamond.

 

 

 

 

 

Lady & Lord in Herefordshire

In what’s now called the Golden Valley are two little churches, either side of the Dwr river , Turnastone and Vowchurch. When the Normans arrived here sometime after 1066 they misinterpreted this Welsh word dŵr, which means water, for the French d’or meaning golden, and so misnamed our valley. In Vowchurch church, on the north side of the Dwr, are two amazing figures of the Lady and the Lord.

They’re very special; she is a Sheela-na-gig and he is a phallic man but, at some time in the past the bottom parts of these figures were removed presumably due to misinterpretation and prudery.

Their local story is interesting and amusing …

Like most married couples, they didn’t always get on and to make the partnership easier they each lived on their own side of the river. The story also says they were giants (there were giants in this world, as is told all through our legends) so, rather than throwing crockery at each other when they had a row, they threw great rocks.

Now, on the north side of the river is the remains of an ancient standing stone. It’s an upright which seems to grow out of a huge disc-like stone. If you stand on the disk and sense down into the earth you awaken a spiral energy which courses up through you and wakens a sky-spiral with which it mates. The two energies then course through you, like a double helix. This stone is one of Watkins’ originals, from his first studies of ley lines, and he, too, noticed the spiralling. Legend has it that the big disk is a stone the lord threw across the stream at his lady, when he’d got one on. She decided to deal with him, and it, in a very firm manner so she pinned his rock to the ground with her own spear-like one.

To many this may seem sort of backwards. We associate the feminine with the disc and the cup, the womb symbol, and the masculine with the spear, the penis symbol, but think about it. Everything contains both feminine and masculine so it’s really a rather wonderful image that he throws the womb to her then she stabs, and maybe also impregnates, it with the spear.

Sheela-na-gig at Kilpeck

When christianity came to these borderlands where I live I can well believe my ancestors agreeing with their mouths to follow the new religion while, in their hearts, they still held to the old ways. Indeed, my own family followed the old ways, very quietly, for many generations and I know the same happened for many of my friends. So, the old ones built the chrisitian church, and they carved the figures of the lady and the lord but likely then, as now, the chrisitans called them Adam and Eve.

But there they are, in the church, and you can still see (partly from their rather smug expressions) just what they’re about even though the bottom halves of them have been cut off. And the most famous Sheela-na-gig over at Kilpeck is only about twelve miles away.

And then there’s the old story. The god lived on the Turnastone side of the river, said to be so called because he turned the stone; Vowchurch is where the goddess lived and so called because, after christianity, they said she vowed to build a church where the god’s stone fell. It’ll do, it’s good enough for those who don’t wish to recall the old ways. But go and stand on that stone, see what you feel …

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Blackthorn Ceridwen

Blackthorn flowers before the leaves come and may flower as early as Imbolc, especially now climate change and global warming are well underway.

The two British thorn trees, blackthorn and whitethorn (otherwise known as the May Tree and hawthorn) hold the energy of two of our old goddesses, Ceridwen holds blackthorn and Blodeuwedd holds hawthorn, the tree of May. At Imbolc, Ceridwen hands over the cup of winter to Bridey so she can bring in the spring and, for me, the flowering of the blackthorn, coming as it does before the leaves, really holds this feeling. I watch for the blossom in our local hedgerows, and partly with a view to harvesting the sloes come the autumn and winter to make sloe brandy. Sloe brandy is even better than sloe gin for my taste buds.

Ceridwen holds and carries the energy of the dark en-wombing of winter from her feast of Samhain around to Imbolc. She is in her crone-form, the ancient wise woman who can link us with our ancestors and our roots. Like nature does over winter, it’s good if we humans also spend time during this season going back over ourselves, our lives and relationships, to see what needs to die, be left behind, recycled, and what we can bring forward into the new year. I’ve certainly been doing this, a form of early spring-cleaning, and I find it very valuable. It clears my head – too often stuffed with “bright ideas” so there’s no room for inspiration from otherworld to come in! I often find that, once the clear-out is done, real new ideas do poke their heads up out of the ground like the snowdrops, or blossom on the bare branches of my inner blackthorn tree.

Ceridwen is an amazing presence, energy. She’s closely connected with where I live and introduced our local Merlin – we call him Dyfrig – to beginning the teaching school he created just up the Wye valley from me. He was born in my local village, so living here, in his place is inspiring, instructive and generally delightful for me.

I’m going out this afternoon, now the rain’s stopped, to have a look at our local blackthorn hedges … hope they have lots of blossom.

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Bridey’s Flower: a blog for Imbolc

In my end is my beginning … Eliot again, now at Imbolc as at Samhain. And now again, the story ends and the story begins, turning and cycling round the seasons.

Hiding in the bushes beside the clearing where the well stands, I watched. Fingers blue with cold, teeth beginning to chatter, the snow cold and dank, sending its freezing tendrils up through my boots. But I wasn’t going anywhere, not yet. They would come, along with the dusk, and I was going to watch them.

The sun slid down the sky, sometimes hiding his face in the clouds. The cold became bitter then, even the robin’s song would stop for a moment at a time. The blackbirds would hush in the bushes, watching the dying of the light. It must be four o’clock, the dusk was beginning and the sun clipping the horizon, soon to go down into the womb of darkness. I shivered.

‘Have ‘y come to see the snake then, boy?’ The voice cackled, croaked like an old crow. Somehow, despite being near frozen to the spot with both cold and fear, I turned. Back she was, hooded and with beak of a nose on her very like to a crow. The dark cloak covered most all of her bar her face. She cackled again. I watched the black and yellow teeth behind the blue lips and gums. ‘Yere, then,’ and she put out her claws to catch my arm, pull me along with her into the glade.

There was nought I could do, old she might be but she was strong. And, anyway, it was where I wanted to go despite my entrails’ protests, they roiled in my gut like a seething whirlpool. ‘Come ‘y yere, boy. I needs the cup. Will’ee get un for me?’

She let go of me. I was free, I could run. Except I could not. I tried putting a foot away from the well but nothing happened, the foot wouldn’t move. I tried the other way and the foot would go, towards the well. Leaning over the rank, dank breath came up from the depths almost choking me with its bitterness and cold. The rope on the bucket was already skimmed with ice, and the iron handle of the winch burned as I gripped it but I hung on, began winding. The winch creaked and groaned like an old man, or a donkey, as I lowered the bucket down into the dark. On and on it went, the grating sounds of pain, and then there was the sudden splash, the bucket had arrived at the water.

‘Hold un still!’ the old crone said sharply. ‘Wait!’ I clutched the burning iron handle, pulling it to a halt, feeling my hands must be frozen into it, stuck to it, never to come off again. And then I heard it, a soft whooshing noise followed by a brief whinny. The kelpie had come, up out of the depths. Then there was a clunk as something metal was dropped into the bucket. ‘Now! Quick!’ she commanded, ‘afore he climbs aboard! Ye dinna want a see him, laddie, indeedy not!’

I wound the winch the other way, winding the rope back onto the winch. It was heavier work now, fighting gravity, but also it was more than the bucket that I was pulling up, it felt like much more, much more than just a cup.

He came with a roar and a growl, shifting all the while, one moment a pretty black pony, the next a huge writhing serpent breathing fire, and leapt from the bucket straight at me.

‘No!’ she said. Quiet almost but such power. The twisting black shape stopped, hung in the air between the well and me. Its eyes moved, red and with long lashes of black flame, looked at her. She moved past me, came close to it and began to stroke its ears and face. ‘He’s mine,’ she told it, ‘doing my work, fetching my cup. You leave him be.’ Slowly the kelpie transformed, becoming again the pretty black pony. Except his eyes were red. ‘Get my cup,’ she commanded me, and I could move again. Dipping my hand into the bucket, I touched the cold hard thing and drew it out. Dark, black silver so it seemed.

The daylight was all gone now, exchanged for the dimming light of the waning moon, risen high now over the treetops and shining down into the glade. How long had we been there? It seemed only a moment ago that it was dusk, before the old woman came, and now the moon was high and already setting her path down into the west. I shook my head, what did it matter? Time was, time is. I am where I am, and when. And I was holding the cup in my hands.

The moon was lighting a trackway through the trees on the other side of the well and, it seemed, there was flickering movement on the track. I peered at it, a soft chuckle sounded behind me. ‘y can see ‘er then? Can’ee boy?’ I could indeed.

As the old one behind me was dark like a crow so the one coming down the track was bright like a star. Despite she walked the moon-track it was like she made her own light. Somehow I was afeared, I crept backwards towards the well, still holding the cup.

‘Good even, sister’ said the bright one as she came out into the glade. ‘Good even, indeed,’ croaked the old one. They stood there, the dark one in the east, heading west; the bright one in the west and heading east. The kelpie slithered away from the crone and round the edge of the glade to stand opposite me so he now held the north. Step by careful step the two women came towards each other, both of them smiling. The old one stood straighter now and the hood slipped back to show her pale silver hair. The young one looked older, a woman now and not a girl, her black hair shining like a crow’s wing in the moonlight. Together and together so they came, until their fingers touched.

And somehow, I knew what to do. I turned and dipped the cup into the bucket, filled it with water. As I leaned over the well it smelled sweet, like spring flowers, all the rankness gone. Slowly, my hearting beating as if I’d just run a mile, I stepped towards them, holding out the cup. They took it, both together, and gave each other to drink from it, then they turned and held it out to the kelpie. He snorted, then hoof by careful hoof, he stepped towards them. The women dipped their fingers in the water and stroked his ears, down his neck and shoulders, down his back, and then they let him drink.

It was like smoke, white smoke. It began to curl from his nostrils, then his ears, it steamed up from his shoulders and his hooves, all down his back until his tail was a shimmering fall of smoke. And he shrank, down and down into nothingness.

The women went down on their knees beside where he had been. ‘The snake is here,’ said the bright one, ‘just poking his head out of his hole.’

I came to watch. There was nothing there … but then, yes, there was. The tiniest glimmer of white was pushing its way up out of the black soil, I bent with the women to watch. It was a snowdrop, its white budding head resembling as snake’s head, a tiny snakeling birthing itself out of the ground. Its green body followed until it stood proud and upright, the head opened up, sending the three white sepals outwards and uncovering the three green and white petals, which opened in their turn to show the six golden, pollen-covered stamens.

Suddenly I saw it, the black serpent becomes the white snake who puts his head out of his hole at the turning of the seasons when the Winter crone gives way to the Spring maiden.

I had come to see them, to see the snake put its head out its hole as the signal that spring was come, but I hadn’t expected the kelpie, nor the transformation, nor what the snake would be. I realised the two women had stood up, were looking down at me, kindly-like and smiling. Clumsily, I got to my feet. They gave me the cup, ’Take it back’ they said, ‘put it back. We won’t need it again for a year.’ It was different now, the silver shining and the darkness too. I took it back to the well, dropped it into the bucket and let the bucket down again into the water. When I drew it up this time it was light, easy, only some water in it. I was thirsty, so I drank. I turned in time to see the women kiss and, as they did so, the moonlight shifted and became a dazzling, sparkling whirlwind that encompassed them both and took them out of my sight.

The moon was sinking fast now, little light coming between the branches. I scurried back down the path to the village like a rabbit with the fox after it, but nothing was chasing me but my own fears. A candle stood still in the window, and no-one had yet barred the door. I slipped inside, the warmth hitting me, pulled off coat and boots and went to sit in the ashes of the fire.

It was done … the end had happened and the beginning had come, as ever it does, turn on turn of the wheel. The crone had given the cup of winter to the maiden of spring; the dark kelpie had transformed into the white snake and had put his head out of its hole to tell us all that spring was here. Bridey’s flower had come, yet again.

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Bridey’s Worm

Driving up to Cheshire last week we knew the moles had woken up, molehills everywhere, yards and yards and yards of them, in every field and even along the grass at the edges of the road. Well, it is that time of year! Moles wake up soon after the light begins to grow, after sun-return. Even more importantly, worms wake up too and, as moles eat worms, the two naturally go together. The molehills are signs of the worm-larders the moles build.

And it is that time of year, in fact it’s just about Imbolc. This is Bridey’s feast, the goddess Brigid – she, the goddess, was Christianized as “Saint” Brigid. At Imbolc, we make Bridey crosses and a doll-figure of her, called a Brídeóg, which we parade from house-to-house so she can visit everyone’s home. She’s greeted with a bed and folk leave her food and drink, and clothing is left outside the house for her to bless as she’s a protector of homes and livestock; her tylwyth (what you might know better as “totem”) is the white cow. Holy wells visited and dressed, and it is a time for divination, for asking what the future holds as well as what the Earth needs from us at this time.

Nowadays, many people celebrate on 1 February, but in older times our day began and ended at sunset – as the sun passed down into the dark – so celebrations begin on Imbolc Eve, the 31 January. Timing might likely be more fluid too, based around the actual seasonal changes as well as the astronomical ones, and far less concerned with man-made-calendar dates. Imbolc is linked with the onset of lambing which, in the days when we still followed the seasons, might vary by as much as two weeks either side of 1 February. It’s also linked to the blooming of the blackthorn, Ceridwen’s tree, which signifies her transformation from crone back to maiden, the cycles of the year, and it’s also when Ceridwen gathers her firewood for the remains of the winter. If she chooses that the winter shall last a good while longer then she makes sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. But if Imbolc is a day of foul weather it means the she is asleep, not gathering firewood, so the winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where my granny came from, Ceridwen is known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh, who takes the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak. This always reminds me of the ravens who are doing their courtship in January; the male will bring new twigs to refurbish their nest (they mate for life) to show the female he still loves her and is a good provider.

One of the Imbolc stories I love is of Bridey’s Worm. It was, indeed still is, a sign of how the weather will be for the spring. We watch to see if serpents (or badgers) come out of their winter resting places; this may be a forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day, and for the same reasons as us. This Scottish Gaelic poem gives the idea …

Thig an nathair as an toll

Là donn Brìde,

Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd

Air leac an làir.

The serpent will come from the hole

On the brown Day of Bríde,

Though there should be three feet of snow

On the flat surface of the ground.

So what might this serpent be? Post-Norman literature tends to try to make us think of dragons but our ancestors were very practical folk, and very connected to the Earth and her rhythms – which brings us back to the Gentleman in Black Velvet, Mr Mole. Worms are a form of “serpent”, tiny serpents unless you happen to live on the planet Dune! That trip up to Cheshire told us very firmly that the worms were out and about again, and that the moles know it. Look at that poem, “the serpent will come from the hole on the brown Day of Bride”, and brown says “soil/earth” to me, especially looking at the molehills. It’s worth noting that a major component of a badger’s diet is earthworms so they, too, will be watching for them, sensing for them. The badgers will wake and come out of their setts when there is food for them, to maintain their energy, once the worms are hatched and moving again. And the worms won’t come until the soil is warm enough and there is sufficient light-energy from the sun.

When the ground gets really cold, and when it freezes, some worms (depending on their species) lay eggs and then die as the ground becomes too cold for them. Others burrow very deep, some as much as six feet under, and survive there through the cold spell. Either way, as the soil begins to warm, as the sun shines for longer each day after sun-return, the worms know when it’s warm enough either for the eggs to hatch or for them to burrow back up to the surface. And when they hatch or re-emerge they “come from the hole”, and the moles know it too, hence the molehills which are worm-larders.

So many of our old traditions show us how to live successfully with our Mother Earth and they are so worthwhile knowing. Yes, it’s good to celebrate the Mother in all her forms of which Bridey is one, but our old ways here in Britain are “and/and” – we don’t do this or that, we do this and that! So, we celebrate Bridey with our gifts and food and beds and, at the same time, we celebrate her by being very observant, by watching for the molehills, watching to see how the soil is warming up and how the worms are working. That helps us know when to plough and sow to get a good harvest.

As followers of the old ways, we don’t try to “manage” nature, or force her into working how we want her to with crazy chemicals and horrible deep ploughing which wrecks all the “threads”, the mycorrhiza who carry food and information between the plants. No, we watch the land around us, we watch the stars above us, we watch how the moon turns and we “work with”, we do not try to control.

So go watch the molehills, learn from them … much more fun than your X-box !!!

#MondayBlogs #FolkloreThursday #folklore

 

 

3 Kings Night

Big day for us here today, with lots of biodynamics to do. We’ve spent the past 11 days stirring Prep 500 (horn manure) each day … one day for each month of the coming year … and today is the final day. And today, we also stir the 3 Kings Prep. That’s made from gold, frankincense and myrrh, usually homeopathic gold, i.e. the energy of gold rather than the real stuff, but the herbs myrrh and frankincense are the real thing. Making it, as you can imagine, surrounds you in the most heavenly scent.

You might be thinking, “What’s she doing, doing a christianny thing? Thought she was a pagan through-n-through!” Well, I am indeed pagan, of the land …  but this is not a christianny thing. Like just about everything they do, they nicked it from us … sigh! … just changed the names and the stories to fit their way. Everyone who could get it has been using gold, frankincense and myrrh since time out of mind, they are indeed special and one of our old British stories tells us why. You can read my version of it HERE, it’s the old, old story of the roebuck in the thicket and the battle of the trees.

It tells about Gwydion and his brother, Amatheon who brought us the 3 basic needs of agriculture … the lapwing brings the starlight-fire in her crystal egg, the roebuck brings the ancestral bones, and the bitch-dog brings us the clay which binds the energies of the Earth (bone) and the Sun (crystal) together, and also enables them to be used by all the plants and animals. Deep stuff in a wee little story, but so it always in the old ways, and the old ways of all traditions not just ours here in Britain. As ever, in our old ways, we work with the Earth and the Sun, weaving their energies together to make good. It works scientifically too, read about it, especially the use of clay, in my Gardening with the Moon & Stars.

Now, gold, frankincense and myrrh represent those three basic needs of agriculture too, and take them to another energetic level. Let’s have a look at some correlations …

Silica Clay Calcium
Frankincense Gold Myrrh
Potential Manifestation Ancestors
Upperworld Middleworld Lowerworld
Maiden Mother Crone
Power Love Wisdom

In biodynamics, we use silica, clay and calcium through the preparations, most of us do this with relevant stirrings each month and through how we make our compost. I find it quite lovely and amazing how I connect with the 3 worlds, the 3 faces of the goddess, with the world of potential and the world of the ancestors, as well as middleworld where I live and work. And that goes for all the biodynamic folk I know.

The same happens, but up several orders of magnitude, when I stir and spray the 3 Kings prep, so today (6th Jan 2017) is going to be a full, exciting and slightly overwhelming day! I’ll be connecting to all those things in the table above. It’s like journeying but you don’t go off in a trance. You’re awake and aware all the time … with one foot in thisworld where you’re stirring preps and then walking round the garden with a bucket and wallpaper brush, sprinkling the stuff on your land. But, at the same time as you’re stirring and walking and sprinkling, you have the other foot firmly in otherworld, indeed across the worlds, in company with Arianrhod and her spinning tower, the place of potential, in upperworld and, at the same time with Ceridwen in lowerworld, drinking from her cauldron of wisdom. Woof! You have to hang onto your hat! But wow, is it fun, exciting, glorious and completely magical! Oh yes! No way would I miss out on this!

Putting the 3 Kings on the garden (or your farm or whatever your land is) does things to help the energy spirits of your land. The little ones of the soil and roots who we call gnomes love it, it sparks things like the mycorrhiza as well as the worms, bugs, insects and all the things that make the soil fertile for the plants. The leaf-spirits, who we call ondines as they have so much to do with water, get a lovely jolt from it and begin to make themselves ready for the changes coming at Imbolc. In their turn, the flower-spirits who we call sylphs also get a buzz, and they will be ready to give us Bridey’s flower, the snowdrop, for our Imbolc celebrations. And the fruit spirits, fire spirits, who we call salamanders also get all stirred up so they’re ready for the coming changes of springtime.

holding the 3 fires

Yup, it’s a big day, lots happening, lots to do. And I hope I’ll have enough energy to get off to our local wassail at an orchard about half an hour away come 6pm tonight. The wassail is all part of it, it celebrates the Apple Tree Queen, the goddess’ representative in the orchard and, as I live in a cider-producing county that’s quite important! The wassail uses the 4 elements too – the tree growing from the soil, the mulled cider for the water elementals, the cider-soaked toast hung on the tree for the robins – the air elementals, and fire in the torches we carry to the orchard, and the 13 fires for the 13 moon-months we light around the old tree.

Oh yes, it’s all there … hidden, unless you want and are ready to know. And it’s fun too, we sing, the Morris side dances, they do the mummers play which, at its roots, is about the bringing together of darkness and light who are the ultimate goddess and god. The play is also very funny and rude, we all heckle and shout like mad, joining in. and then, when it’s over, we go back into the pub for a sing. Our old ways are deep, but they’re also full of laughter and joy, and they can involve anyone, at any stage of their development along their path. Our ways are inclusive, not exclusive. And although we’re deadly serious about what we do, we’re not solemn and po-faced!

So, here I go, getting up, getting breakfast, and stirring, stirring, stirring, followed by a lovely walk round the garden, feeling all the little ones, the elementals, touching and breathing on my face and hands. Waling between worlds.

And then off, to have a whale of a time with a couple of hundred laughing people, from babes in arms to grandmothers like me. Oh yes, this is certainly the life …

 

 

 

 

Ancient Calendars

Today is what we modern folk call new year’s eve but that is such a new invention, indeed the Gregorian calendar which we currently use dates from 1582, a mere 435 years ago! The idea of counting from January to December we bought from the Romans some 2000 years ago, so even that is not really old. These calendars work to somewhat jiggled solar rhythms, not the easiest to work out, whereas our ancestors worked with lunar rhythms, the rhythms of the moon which are far more obvious; and they don’t require adjusting for leap years either!

We found the oldest lunar calendars, along with the earliest (as yet) known constellations in the cave art found in France and Germany. The people of the late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures were no mean mathematicians, they understood mathematical sets, and the interplay between the moon’s annual cycle, the ecliptic, the solstices, and the seasonal changes that all these helped to show and produce.

 The earliest calendar we’ve found so far in our archaeological explorations – from  34,000-odd years ago in the Aurignacian Culture of Europe – shows that we were very much aware of the stars, the patterns they make and their movements … and what these could mean for us in our lives. Back in 1964 Alexander Marshack began exploring these ideas and continued until the early 1990s. He published breakthrough research which documented the mathematical and astronomical knowledge of the Late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures of Europe. Marshack deciphered sets of marks – sets of crescents or lines – carved into animal bones, and sometime on the walls of caves, as records of the lunar cycle. The folk who made them were very skilled and able to carefully control the thickness of the lines so that those who read them (like Marshack, 34,000 years later) would be able to see the correlation with lunar phases. The sets of markings were often laid out in serpentine patterns, suggesting snakes perhaps, or streams and rivers.

Our ancestors carved these lunar calendars on small pieces of stone, bone or antler. Such things would be very portable, lightweight and easy to carry in one’s pouch as one moved about one’s range according to the seasons and migrations. Many animals, like reindeer, are wise enough to go up into the high pastures during the hot summer when they would otherwise be tormented by flies, and then move back down into the warmer valleys and forests for the winter. Our ancestors would follow them.

They hunted horses, bison, mammoth, auroch and ibex, and would watch the hunting behaviour of cave bear and cave lion, learning from these master predators. And all thes animals can be found in the constellations they drew on the cave walls and in the calendars.

Until Marshack’s work, many archeologists believed the sets of marks he chose to study were nothing but the aimless doodles of bored toolmakers – a usual misconception from people who preferred to believe they were superior to the ancestors who they call “savages”. Marshack uncovered the intuitive discovery of mathematical sets and the application of those sets to the construction of a calendar: our ancestors were much more in tune with both themselves and the whole of the world, and the cosmos, in which they lived than we are today. Nowadays everyone is encouraged to only work with their brain and all our other functions gradually atrophy from neglect – something we need to change. We understand, at least partially, that all animal activities (including our own as we, too, are animals) are dependent on time and the seasons. We get all hifalutin about it with regard to what we call objective physics, without realising we need an and/and approach that includes our animal-human awareness and our consciousness. Our ancestors had this. They recognised that there are phases of the moon and seasons of the year that can be counted, and that should be counted because they are important. That is profound, and we need to adjust our own preconceptions to include it.

 

Basic material source: http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/featured/oldest-lunar-calendar/15204

 

 

Wren Boys – the Hunting of the Wren

The Wren Boys are an old tradition and so is the Hunting of the Wren. Its later forms, in Ireland, included catching a wren, sometimes keeping it alive and parading it round the village and at others killing it – not stuff we’d want to do nowadays. But what is the wren about, and why now, the day after sun-return and the first of the 12 days of the season?

The wren is the king of birds. The old story of how he got to be this tells of the contest between the birds to see who could fly highest. The eagle believed he had won until, all of a sudden, the little wren who had hidden in his feathers flew up beyond him when he had reached as high as he could go, and so the wren took the title of king of birds. This story shows a lot about how we, in the old ways of Britain, viewed the needs of kingship, i.e. guardian to the goddess. The wren is a trickster, he gains his height with the aid, albeit unknowing, of another bird, and this trickster-ability is such a good trait for one’s guardian! The king wren thinks on his feet and his wings, he dances into a new situation and big problems don’t faze him … just what the goddess needs!

Like kings and guardians all over the world in ancient traditions, he dies at the end of his term and is reborn; so many of our stories show this in different ways. And this is like the sun who dies on the longest night and then stands still, by appearing to rise at the same point on the horizon for three days, before moving on again. Does this death, followed by three days’ standstill (in the tomb?) ring any more modern bells for you? Perhaps you can see how modern religions took our old ways and converted them for themselves?

So, the wren king dies, is buried in the earth, and rises again. The celebration is about the death and rebirth of the sun, sun-return, as the sun begins to move on again after the 3-day standstill of the solstice. In olden times, we worked with a moon calendar, the 13 moons of the year, which fits altogether better with nature – working with nature, sowing, planting, cultivating and harvesting – than does our modern calendar.

So, after the Long Night and the 3-day standstill, we celebrate the rebirth of the new sun, the sun that will bring life to us for the coming year. The Sun is the companion and guardian, life-giver, to the Earth – as indeed it is in modern physics – he is the king and so the guardian of the goddess for us in the old ways of Britain, and indeed in much of Europe.

We used to celebrate this in one of the villages where I grew up in SW Britain sixty-odd years ago, but no live wren was captured or killed. We collected wren-feathers through the year, especially in spring when some got killed naturally, and built our own tylwyth (totem is a word you’ll likely know better) wren. The tylwyth is the spirit of the wren, the overlighting spirit that enlivens all little wrens, and it’s also the spirit of the wren king. We embodied this spirit when we women and girls made our tylwyth. We were the representatives of the goddess and so built the form for our guardian.

Wren dancing – Isle of Mann

Our village feast began with a lament for the death of the Sun, as the sun goes down into the earth for the final time of his year – remember, we celebrated the new year according to the astronomy, the longest night, not according to the modern calendar. This was a mummers’ style play of hunting the tylwyth wren, followed by the burying of the wren, and finally its rebirth when it was put proudly on top a pole decorated with ivy – the wren’s plant – and coloured ribbons. The mummers were the Wren Boys, which included the men as well as the boys of the village; they were all dressed up in masks and tatters, motley-coloured clothing similar to what Border Morris dancers wear. Musicians from the village would play and sing, and there would be a wake in somebody’s house or the village hall, sharing food, telling stories, singing and dancing. It could get fairly wild and lots of tricks got played on everyone, taking the idea from how the wren got to be king of birds in the first place.

Then, in the morning after sun return, 26th December, the Wren Boys, all dressed up again but just the boys this time, took the Wren King around the village and stopped at each house to sing his song.

Little wren is the man,
About him there’s a stir,
There’s a story upon him everywhere.

He was captured, the rascal,
Last night with rejoicings
In a snug pretty chamber
With his brothers thirteen. (13 moons)

He was placed ’neath a shroud
On a fair motley bier,
Ribbons all-coloured
Are tied all around him,
Ribbons all twisted
In place of his mane.

Thou shalt have dinner of apples and flour
That came from the orchard this morn of St. Stephen,
Thou shalt have dinner of green leaves of bay
That came from the garden so early this morning,
Thou shalt have dinner on shining white stones
That came from the brook after evening supper.

O fair little mistress, give heed to our plaint!
Young children are we, let us into your house,
O come to us quick or we’ll all run away!

 

They asked for money from each house which usually went to the village school to pay for extras or to help those who were very poor.

It’s an old, old custom, found in various forms in Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Mann and Scotland, as well as in Brittany and other parts of France, all places of the Celtic-speaking peoples even if many of them have forgotten the old tongue. It would be good if it was revived again around Britain.

Irish Wren Boys

Night of the Mothers

It’s old, old, old. It’s the eve of sun-return, the 24th of December, that the Christians now call Christmas eve. It’s the night the mothers come together to rebirth the sun.

I was thirteen when I could first go. At Samhain, the October gone, I had shed my first blood, so now was able to be a mother and could join them all in the old place by her grave on top of the hill. She’d been a guardian of the well; my aunt was guardian now and the well itself was in the wall between her garden and ours. I knew it well. I knew her grave too, covered over now by the old Norman church that stood like a young cathedral on the hilltop at the centre of the village. But her grave was older than the church by a thousand years, more so the stories told for her name was Iwerydd and that name goes back to the Bronze Age, and further back even into the mists of time.

‘Hurry!’ Vera, my stepmother, called from the bottom of the stairs. I tied the blue scarf around my hair all in a rush. ‘Hurry!’ she called again and I half tumbled down the stairs, near tripping over the cat who was determined to get there before me. Woofah wanted to come too but Dad called him back to sit with him by the old Rayburn. Dogs, even tall black wolf-dogs, like men, were not wanted in the darkness of this night. ‘See you for breakfast, Joe,’ Vera called to him as she pushed me out of the door ahead of her. ‘Right you are,’ he called back to us.

Hand in hand, we went down the path and out the gate onto the old trackway that led up across the hill, down into the valley and up onto the moorland beyond. We weren’t going near so far tonight but the track took us quickly to the gate in the east wall of the churchyard. As ever, the gate groaned on its hinges as we pushed it open. ‘Did you remember the oil?’ Vera asked me. I pulled the oil can out of my coat pocket and bent to drip some on the iron hinges. We pushed the gate again and this time it was quiet, content now it had been fed. We stepped under the huge chestnut tree beside the path and I felt a nut clinging to my shoe like a crab with its claws. I stooped again and pulled it off, putting it in my pocket. Vera chuckled, watching me, ‘Bringing a snack for the Lady?’ ‘Mmm,’ I muttered.

Down the path we went to turn up under the arching avenue of plane trees, up to the south door. In the porch was a gaggle of women pulling off their boots in exchange for soft slippers and extra socks, twittering together softly like a family of sparrows sharing the gossip of the evening. They greeted Vera, ‘The girl’s come then?’. She nodded, smiling. ‘Welcome, Elen,’ they told me softly, ‘You’re very welcome.’ Vera gave me a candle and my aunt lit it for me along with all the others, a twinkling procession of women and girls, a dozen strong, made its way through the big oaken door into the church and up to the side chapel. We took hassocks and cushions and sheepskins to seat ourselves comfy in a circle by Iwerydd’s grave.

Something soft and black twined my legs, then climbed into my lap, began to purr. My black cat had come. I held him close, and looked up at the others. ‘It’s OK,’ my aunt said. ‘Didn’t think he’d let you come alone. He’s welcome too, even if he is a male, at least he’s a cat.’

We settled together, our candles standing on the stone floor, a bottle of birch wine and a basket of sweet chestnuts in the middle. I took the chestnut out of my pocket and added it to the basket.

One of the women got out clap-sticks, another had a hand-drum, others had stones to clap together and two had homemade rattles. Susan, my friend from school, and I took out our whistles. My aunt had her old pot-drum, a skin stretched over a big clay pot, and began to tap it, humming softly the while, and one by one we joined her. There was no set tune, we each felt into the rhythm, into my aunt’s energy, and came together. Tweeniepuss’s purr sounded like a throbbing drone under it all. Sometimes the singing was strong and deep, loud and joyous, others it was soft and plaintiff. Susan and I played our pipes, and sometimes we put them down and hummed or sang. The singing would grow, then die away to a silence as deep and rich as honey. Then the humming would begin again and the sound pulse and grow, to fade away into whispers that chased each other round the stone columns and up amongst the rafters.
On and on, through the night, we sang and kept silence, sang and kept silence. Sometimes we drifted into daydreams, seeing colours and pictures, and folk as faer and as wyrd as any in the Victorian fairy painters’ pictures. And then, there came the first glimmer of colour shining down through the stained glass of the east window, painting the stone floor with light. Stronger grew the colours, and the light.

There was a knocking at the door. Strong male voices called, ‘May we come in?’ followed by a sharp, deep bark. ‘Come in, come in, and welcome,’ Called my aunt, and we all joined her. The men came in, and the dogs. Dad let Woofah off the leash and he skidded up the stone floor to bump into my back and lick my ears. My aunt’s collie was there too, and my uncle, and my boyfriend John from next door, and everyone’s husband and father, lover and brother, and all the animals too. Tweeniepuss sat up in my lap and did his best to look offended but everyone knew he was only pretending.

We made space for the men and animals in the circle, giving the men our candles, low and near guttering now but still alight. My aunt opened the birch wine and passed it round, followed by the chestnuts, while the men blew out the candles saying, ‘Praise to the Lady, and the water, and creation unfinished as the sun moves on again.’

Then the men opened the baskets they’d brought, and the scents were divine, eggs and bacon, fruit and porridge, hot toast dripping with butter and homemade marmalade and jams, tea and coffee. So we feasted, bringing home the joy of sun-return.

Midwinter: Telling the Bees

This lovely little piece comes from Save the Bees Australia. “At least twice in our short history #honeybees have attended their #beekeepers#funerals. In 1934, when Sam Rogers died in Shropshire, England, his bees paid their farewell at his graveside funeral. They landed on a nearby tombstone and as soon as he was buried they departed. When John Zepka of Berkshire Hills near Adams, Mass. died on April 27, 1956, thousands of his bees clustered inside the tent at the open grave site to pay their respect to the beekeeper who never wore any protective gear. As his coffin was lowered into the earth, the bees left the tent and returned to their hive on Zepka’s farm.”

I remember this. My Uncle Perce kept bees. I saw him lots of times carrying an armful of bees, a clump of bees who had swarmed, back from a tree to give them a home in one of his hives. He wore no protective clothing, bees were crawling on his arms and head and neck, and a few would still be flying and so would follow him home; the ones in his arms would be purring, all buzzing together and he would be humming to them.

When Uncle Perce died we had a ceremony by the hives. Like they say in this post, the new head of the house – in this case my Aunt Ida – knocked gently on each one of the hives to get the bees attention, and then she told them that Uncle Perce was dead and asked them if they wanted their hives to go to another neighbour who also kept bees. And she used the old song …

Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say!
Your Master, poor soul, has passed away.
His sorrowful wife begs of you to stay,
Gathering honey for many a day.
Bees in the garden, hear what I say!

We all knew you must always tell the bees what’s happening in your – and their – home and life. If you didn’t they would leave you, and that often presaged more calamities for the household, and also for the next person who was to look after the hive. As the post says, trust, honour and respect are important between species and, when you practise them, they evolve into a collective consciousness between and across all species. The old ones who taught me as a child, in the village, all knew this and Aunt Ida was one of those, she was guardian to the village’s sacred well.

I have bee-keeping friends now who also, hold and cuddle their bees. And they talk to them, and not just when somebody dies! Midwinter is one of the times when they talk with the bees. It’s a big festival, after all it’s the shortest days of the year and the time when the sun is lowest in the sky. It’s also the time when the sun turns around, changes its path and its arc begins, again, to rise higher and higher each day in the sky. On 21st December the sun begins its standstill – that’s what the word solstice means, standstill – and then, for 3 days, the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, it appears to rise at the same point on the horizon each day. Finally, on the 25th, it moves, rising at a new point on the horizon and turning its arc upwards again, so bringing more light to us each day.

We always use those standstill days and one of the things we do is talk to the bees, tell them how it’s been for us over the past year and ask them how it’s been for them. The past year? Yes, indeed, for us Midwinter is the turning of the year, and Sun-Return (what we call the 25th December) is the real new year. After all, 1st Jan is just a government concoction, for the convenience of business, and has nothing to do with the reality of the stars and the Earth or real cosmic time. So we follow the stars, the time the sun gives us, and our Earth, in their dance through the heavens. And the new year, the turning of the sun, is a very good time to go back over all that has happened in the past year, learning and giving thanks.

I don’t keep bees, not in hives, but my garden is extremely bee-friendly and lots of wild bees and bumble bees come every year. They make nests in the ground, in hollows in the trees, and holes in the old stone walls, all sorts of places, so one of the things I do for Midwinter is to go round to these holes and talk with the bees who use them. Many are asleep now, the queens waiting for the rising arcs of the sun to bring the flowers and the pollen back so they can breed and feed their young again. But they hear me in their sleep, in their dreams …

 artwork Rima Staines Rima Staines of Hedgespoken and taken the from the album by the band Telling the Bees

#sacred #bee #frequency#mystery #savethebees #beethecure 

 

 

 

 

The Firewood Rhyme – Anon

An old log-rhyme for Midwinter, more of our old floklore …

Logs to Burn, Logs to burn, Logs to burn,
Logs to save the coal a turn,
Here’s a word to make you wise,
When you hear the woodman’s cries.

Never heed his usual tale,
That he has good logs for sale,
But read these lines and really learn,
The proper kind of logs to burn.

Oak logs will warm you well,
If they’re old and dry.
Larch logs of pine will smell,
But the sparks will fly.

Beech logs for Christmas time,
Yew logs heat well.
“Scotch” logs it is a crime,
For anyone to sell.
Birch logs will burn too fast,
Chestnut scarce at all.
Hawthorn logs are good to last,
If you cut them in the fall.

Holly logs will burn like wax,
You should burn them green,
Elm logs like smouldering flax,
No flame to be seen.

Pear logs and apple logs,
They will scent your room,
Cherry logs across the dogs,
Smell like flowers in bloom

But ash logs, all smooth and grey,
Burn them green or old;
Buy up all that come your way,
They’re worth their weight in gold.

Fire Wood – Wisdom of the Ages

Pandy Inn, Dorestone

Dad taught me this poem when I was a kid, never forgotten, and very good advice. Part of our old folklore & magic.

Poem by Cilia Congrave 1930

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ’tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold.

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But Ash green or Ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But Ash wet or Ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

 

 

Arthur’s Stone

I live near one of the places called Arthur’s Stone. It’s on one of the long ridges that run roughly northwest/southeast along the ancient glacial tracts that swept this region of what is now Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches. In the last glacial the glaciers didn’t go any further south than about Bristol so this is part of the southern edge of the glaciated lands. Arthur’s Stone is what the archaeologists call a Neolithic chambered tomb, or dolmen, dating from 5,700– 4,700 years ago. The ridge it sits on looks down into the Golden Valley on the southwest side and the Wye Valley on the northeast. A mile or two back east along the ridge from Arthur’s Stone are the 6000+ years old “Halls of the Dead” … they’re older than Stonehenge! I’ll talk about them in another post but it helps to show just how old and how complex, cultured and refined was the pre-farming civilisation hereabouts.

But Arthur’s Stone is an incredible place in itself. The stones were originally buried within a mound which was aligned north-south. The mound was about 25 metres long with an east-facing entrance and a south-facing false portal. The mound is now gone and the capstone broken with a large section fallen into the chamber and blocking the original entrance passageway. To the north, there was once a cup-marked stone called the Quoit Stone but you can’t see it clearly any more, and folk now call a stone to the south the Quoit Stone although it isn’t and doesn’t have the cup-marks.vagina-and-womb

The huge capstone that’s said to weigh more than 25 tonnes and rested on nine uprights. The entrance passage is curved, about 4.6 metres long, and was roofed to less than one metre high so you had to crawl down it. The whole stone structure was enclosed in large earth banks, and post holes that were found at the edge of the banks which suggest some sort of post-circle enclosed it as well. As usual, few bones or burial remains were found in this big structure.

arthurs-stone-1-2008When I first visited it, sixteen-odd years ago, I was very much struck by the shape, and the entrance passage. In fact, it reminded me of the vagina, leading to the womb. Here is a photo I took from the entrance passage going into the stone chamber.

What could it have been for? Why did our ancestors build it? Why are so few bones found?

I sat there, sensing into it, feeling the place, and wondering. The womb-image stayed, got stronger. I decided to try crawling into it down the passage. Although it obviously wasn’t dark as it would have been there was still a strong feeling of being enclosed. I’m claustrophobic and although there was no stone and earth roof over me I still had to keep feeling my breathing in order not to panic. Indeed, I got a sense that I would smash my head on stone if I tried to stand up. It was as though I was no longer in my own 21st century time.

I got to the end of the passage, where I would originally have been entering the chamber, and my progress was blocked by the fallen piece of capstone but I was determined I was going to get in by crawling. I had to crawl out to the right and then squidge myself in over the top of the fallen capstone and then I lay there, panting. The sound of my breathing seemed to echo off the stone above and around me. I shut my eyes and just listened to it. The stone was cold under my back and my hands felt its rough smoothness, the chamber felt bigger than I’d thought when I was looking from outside.

I lay still. To my shut eyes it seemed to get darker until it was pitchy black, and all around me I could hear breathing.

The sound slowed, and it also en-huged, it wasn’t just me breathing, something far, far bigger was breathing along with me. “Who?” I whispered and that seemed to echo round me too. There were no words to answer me but I got the sense that the big breathing that wasn’t me began to chuckle softly. Pictures began in my head … a cauldron, a woman stirring it, first she was old and grey and cobwebbed then young and slender with golden hair, she morphed between the two. Then the shadows behind her moved, like tree branches, but no, not that, they were antlers. Somehow, in the darkness, I saw a human face crested with huge wide antlers, eagle’s eyes stared at me without blinking, golden coloured, and he smiled. The words birth and death swam though my mind. The cauldron of birth and rebirth, and the guardian and keeper of souls who guides us home. Ceridwen and Gwyn ap Nudd.

arthurs-stone-sunset-1-nov-2008I don’t know how long I lay there, dreaming and daydreaming. I was otherwhere for that time, and it was a time out of time. But soon or late I realised I was only listening to my own breathing again, the hugeness had gone, I was lying on a stone under another stone with the low winter sunset peering in at me from across Hay Bluff. I crawled out again, stood up and looked into the sunset.

Sitting and thinking over a drink of water it thought that was what we used this place for, and other places like it. We would crawl back into the womb, listen there for the Old Ones to speak and show us things, and then crawl out, back into everyday life. Yes, there may well have been bones there, ancestral bones of the spirit-keepers of our people perhaps, there to remind us who we are and what we’re doing in that ancient place.

Stories go that up to the mid-19th century, we used to hold celebrations  at the stone and dance there. Maybe, one day, we’ll do that again. I work there now, and take my students there to crawl in and lie on the stone, speak with the Old Ones. It’s interesting how often they feel they must speak their name before they go in and, as they come out, they find they’re given a new name. That concept comes in so many of our old songs and stories, that no one who enters the wood, enchanted forest or wherever, comes out as they went in.

A Europe-wide, perhaps worldwide, concept is that you go into one of these places, like what we call sensory deprivation chambers, and come out again dead, mad or enlightened! I’ll leave you to judge which of those happened with me 🙂

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