Long ago – but still happening now – and far away (well relatively speaking!) the ancient practice of Cow Drumming began in the wilds of Exmoor. This is a modern-day example. You can see just how much appreciated it is by the locals …
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”.
Images by unknown artist
Land Song Series © Elen Sentier 2017 all rights reserved
Today the sun moves on
Three days he has stood still
Rising at the same point on the horizon
While the two kings wrestle
Oak has been the guardian
Caring for the Lady
Since the Sun-Return of Midwinter
Now it changes
Now Holly wins the match
Becomes her lord
Now he holds her
Guards her as the sun’s arc drops
Lower and lower
Less and less light
From now until Midwinter
Now is harvest
Now the lady gives us her bounty
The hay and corn
The fruits of the forest and garden
All the goodness grown in her belly
Holly King gives us the gifts from his lady
Holds her in his arms as the sun’s arc goes down
Takes her down into the darkness
Oak King sleeps now under the sod
Ready to wrestle
Show he is worthy
At the next turning of the year
Image:the eternal struggle by arwensgrace
Land Song Series © Elen Sentier 2017 all rights reserved
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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.
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 …
#FolkloreThursday #MondayBlogs @ElenSentier
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.
Says it all for me …
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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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 …
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.
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 …
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.