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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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 !!!

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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.

Dyfrig: Merlin, Demons and Ergyng

shaman-fastener

According to the Christian stories, Merlin’s mother lay with a demon, an otherworldly spirit, who fathered him upon her.

The word demon has largely been dumbed down to mean something evil and out to get us, but it has far older and deeper meanings than that. In modern parlance, it can mean expert, genius, wizard and ace as well; in older terms it comes from the word daemon which means inspiration and muse as well as spirit and even demigod. I’m tempted to misquote Life of Brian … “What have the Christians ever done for us?” … well, a whole lot of bad misinformation for a start! Talk about political spin-doctors! And all to rubbish our old ways and traditions and knowing out of existence, but they’ve not succeeded.

Lying with a demon/daemon is a wonderful thing, known to all old ones throughout the world and the issue of intercourse with otherworld was deeply respected, honoured, revered and valued for most of our human time. This is the fatherless child and Merlin is such a one. Being born of both worlds, spirit and human, enables Merlin (and all the fatherless children through history) to walk between worlds, always in contact with both matter and spirit at the same time. Their stories turn up all over the place and one of those places is the ancient British kingdom where I live. Here Merlin is known as Dyfrig of Ergyng.

I didn’t know this story before we came to live here. I was looking for a place to live, quiet, no near neighbours or roads, its own water and a big garden where I could grow food and help wildlife. Several times, I thought I’d found it but each time I thought I’d got it all together somebody moved the ends and it all fell apart! So, I got a bit cross and then, eventually, started doing the intelligent thing … calling otherworld for help. Immediately, my feet (and the car) began to go in a different direction, an advert for what looked like the ideal place fell into my lap, I came and looked, and fell in love with it. We moved in a month later.

I still knew little about the place but once we’d unpacked most of the boxes I went for a wander around the city of Hereford, our local town. I love maps so my feet took me to the local map shop and while I was ferreting about looking for large-scale walking maps of the area a book fell on my head – literally! I picked it up and the title grabbed me, Arthurian Links with Herefordshire by Mary Andere. Of course, I bought it immediately and began reading it as soon as I got home. Wow! Now all that moving of ends and frustrating my previous plans began to make sense, where I now lived was an ancient spot where Merlin had one of his birthing places. He’d been pushing and shoving to get me here all that time I’d not been listening but, at last, I was here, where he wanted me to be.

Merlin has been with me all my life, since I was a wee kiddie and Dad first told me the stories and introduced me, but Dad had never told me this story, perhaps he’d never known it although there are strong family connections here.

And the story? Well, here it is …

Dyfrig was the son of Princess Efrddyl the daughter of King Peibio Clafrog of Ergyng. A quick aside on pronunciation – you pronounce Dyfrig as Duvrig. You say Efrddyl as Avrthil, but I usually shorten it to Avril. Peibio Clafrog is peebeeo clavrog and clafrog means leprous. So … one day, Peibio came home from the wars and, as is the Celtic custom, Efrddyl washed and combed his hair and beard. As she was doing this he saw that she was heavily pregnant. ‘Who is the father?’ he demanded, ‘I cannot tell,’ she replied. He asked her again, and then a third time, and every time Efrddyl would not tell. So Peibio had her taken down to the River Wye and thrown in to drown, but the river pushed her gently back to the shore. Again Peibio threw her into the river and again the river sent her back again, and a third time she was thrown in but the Wye would not take her but gave her back to her father.

wye-with-swans

Defeated by the river Peibio now had a great pyre built to see what fire would do. He set his daughter upon the bonfire to be burned to death, set light to it and went back to his home on the hill.

The next morning, he sent a servant down to the pyre to see the ashes. The servant took one look and ran straight back. ‘My lord! My lord!’ he panted breathlessly, ‘you must come, yourself, at once.’ So Peibio followed the servant down to the remains of the pyre by the river and there he found his daughter, sat upon a tall standing stone, nursing her new-born son. The place is now called Chilstone which is a contraction of Child’s Stone.

Peibio was dumbfounded. His daughter climbed down from the stone and showed him his grandson. The child reached up to touch his grandfather’s cheek and straightway the leprosy was gone. Needless to say, Peibio was even more astonished, and delighted, for a new-born child that could do such a healing was well worth rearing, whoever his father might have been.

Peibio ceded the whole of the land around Madley (as it’s now called) to Dyfrig. It was then called Ynys Efrddyl, the island of Efrddyl and she was guardian to the waters, priestess of the sacred well and of the river, for water is the lifeblood of the land. Women of that time, who were born into her position as daughter of the ruler, were usually the goddess’ representative. The river Wye, which flows just down in the valley below here, is the mother-water of Ergyng. This story is so much part of the old, ancient, magic, the coming together of fire and water. Efrddyl’s ordeal is an initiation, a rite of passage, a threshold for both her and her son. They go through water and fire in order for him to be born. His name, Dyfrig, means “water baby” for indeed he is.

The story goes on …

wye-faerie-path

Dyfrig became a very wise and well-known teacher and set up his first school down river from Madley, Ynys Effrddyl, at a place called Hentland. They say he was there seven years until the dream came upon him, the dream of a beautiful woman, dressed all in white and with long golden hair. She told him to leave the Hentland and go up-river until he came to the place where a white sow was suckling her piglings, and there to found a second and greater school. Dyfrig did this thing.

The description of the goddess, Ceridwen in her maiden-mother form and the white sow is one of Ceridwen’s tylwyth beasts (tylwyth means the same sort of thing as totem in our tongue).  The place was called Moch Ros which means “pig moor” – moch means pig and ros means moor, in her honour and it lies down the hill from Caer Ergyng, Peibio’s stronghold. It’s now called Moccas, a contraction of the old name.

Dyfrig remained at Moch Ros for the rest of his life but he did travel a lot as well. I soon found yet another connection with him. I was brought up on Exmoor and I remembered that Porlock church, on the southern bank of the Severn and the northern edge of Exmoor, is dedicated to Dyfrig. He had crossed the river and come to the land where I grew up too.

When Dyfrig grew old he left Moch Ros and go to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) where he died and was buried, as the other stories say Merlin did too. It’s one of the sites for the magic land of West-over-the-Sea, one of the Isles of the Faer, where Merlin took the wounded Arthur after the final battle for him to be healed.

bardsey-island

Christianity conflated Dyfrig into their faith although there is no reason to think he was Christian. According to their story, Dyfrig was Bishop of Ergyng, and, later still, Archbishop of Wales, and to have crowned Arthur as High-King at Caer Fudi which is likely Woodchester, in the Nailsworth Valley, in Gloucestershire. It’s possible he was all these things for this was the time was when Christianity was just beginning to work its way into our culture and there was no heavyweight attempt to convert us, as yet. Christians worked alongside us in those early days and we might have grown well together, perhaps, if it hadn’t been for the Augustine mission in 597AD, some sixty-odd years after Dyfrig’s death. But the old ways continued underground, hidden, coming down through families like my own.

He called and pulled and pushed me to come and live in one of his places. Since he succeeded, since I stopped resisting and thinking I knew best (ha!), I’ve been able to write, able to get the old ways out there again now the time is right for them to come out of the closet. And I love it here, it has all the peace and beauty I wanted and needed for the work.

For me and mine, Dyfrig is the son of the servant of the goddess and an otherworldly father, he is the magical child, one of our Merlin-figures, and I live in his land.

 

Cairns in Britain

From what I know cairns have been built by peoples all over the world for probably hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps as long as humans have been on Planet Earth, after all their not rocket science to build. They are getting well known through the apacheta South American shamanism which is currently popular and the Tibetan cairns which are also well known … but who knows about the cairns all over our own country, Britain, or considers them anything more than modern memorials?

I was born on Dartmoor and brought up on Exmoor from age eight. My dad and relations were country folk and followed our old ways so I learned with mother’s milk too. One of the things I learned about was cairns. Dad and my uncles would take me walking on the moors. You often come to cairns as you’re walking and always they would remind me to pick up a stone as we were coming up to a cairn and must leave a stone, so we did.

But what for, what did we leave a stone for?

Cairns, in Britain, are often on ancient tracks, on hilltops, along ridgeway paths, paths that have been walked by our ancestors for as long as we have been here and current archaeology has found that we ‘ve been here for at least one million years. Those paths may well have been walked all those years. The high tops and the tracks along the ridges are places where the lady, the goddess walks, where she sits, where she is, where you can sense and feel her very strongly if you open yourself up to her.

Britain is well known for stone circles and standing stones but these are Neolithic and that means of the New Stone Age. Neolithic times are very recent even in human history, they run from about 4000 to about 2,500 years ago, a mere spit in time, the time when we began to give up our old hunter-gatherer ways and become farmers. Before the Neolithic we walked the land, travelling from place to place, usually within a terroir (to use the French word for the land) which means region and that takes us to the spirits of place, the guardian spirits of the land who each have their own terroir or region which they are guardian to. The cairns are far older than the stone circles although some have been knocked down and then built up again. Often those knockings-down were done by farmers who felt they were in the way of their “ownership”, they had forgotten the old ways, forgotten the lady … they knocked down her places believing them to be no more than superstition. But they’re not.

So dad taught me to add a stone to the cairns as we passed them, and I still do. And I teach the students who come with me to add a stone too. It’s a form of acknowledgement. You can’t really call it a gift because you take a piece of the goddess’ body, a stone, and give it back to her but, in a way, it is. We take a piece of her and recognise it in our heart and then we put it as part of a cairn that reminds the folk who pass by there that she is there … that She is there. She is our lady, our mother, our teacher, and she is our ancestor too, both body and spirit.

Our bodies, the spacesuits our spirits need to live on Planet Earth, are made from her body. Every atom that makes up us comes from her and it has been all things – raindrop, worm, tree, cat, stone, chicken, fish, ant, butterfly, cloud and river and sea. So those atoms have the knowing of all things and will share that knowing with us if we ask them to – they are our ancestors. When we give a stone to a cairn we are acknowledging all this.

The same goes for spirit too. Every atom, as we know in the old ways, has spirit as well as matter and will share its spirit-knowing with us too. As we add a stone to the cairn we give thanks for this too.

One of our ancient shaman-teachers is called Taliesin (Amergin amongst the Gaels). His song begins, “I am a stag of seven tines” and goes on to sing how he is everything, every rock, tree, animal, drop of water and breath of air. We have many ways of reminding ourselves of this and adding a stone to the cairn as we pass it is one of them.

 

Cairns on Exmoor & Dartmoor