Pomp and Pantomime

lord mayor

On the 29th September a new lord Mayor of London will be elected by the Aldermen of the city and take office amidst  all the traditional  pomp and ceremony that London is so renowned for.  The Lord Mayoral office is an ancient role dating back to the reign of Richard the Lionheart and his brother bad King John.  It was  King John who in 1215 shortly after agreeing to  The Magna Carta gave the barons of London the right to choose their own mayor, with the attendant right to lend their king as much money as possible !

The election of the Lord Mayor is followed six weeks  later by the resplendent Lord Mayors’ show  when floats of all shapes and sizes, together with marching bands, dancers and all types of strange vehicles process through the city. This procession has a historical  purpose , it is enacted in order to accompany The Lord Mayor on his (or her) journey to The Royal Courts of Justice where the declaration of office is made and witnessed. Once upon a time the procession would have been waterborne as depicted in this famous picture by Canaletto  and thus the floats would truly have been floating .canaletto.jpg

But why , you may be asking yourselves is a blogger  about myths writing about an office of state such as the lord Mayor of London. Simply this dear reader, one of our most cherished children’s pantomime stories owes its origins to an actual Lord Mayor of London ,  this of course was  the infamous Dick Whittington. For a devotee of myths and legends this one is fascinating because the process of transformation from reality into  mythic tale is actually visible in the historical records, a very rare eventuality.

The pantomime story goes something like this :- Dick Whittington, a poor orphan from the country comes to London, where he believes the streets are paved with gold,  to seek his fortune. He finds work in the kitchens of a rich merchant but he is badly treated by the cook and runs away  home again. On his way back to the country he pauses a while on Highgate Hill where he hears the bells ring out ………

                  Turn again  Whittington thrice Mayor of London

So he turns and goes back to the kitchens whereupon he finds that his cat ( did I mention the cat!)  has been sold for an enormous sum of money to the King of the Barbary Coast. The cat was apparently an excellent rat catcher and the Barbary Coast had been experiencing a plague of them !  This then makes our hero  Dick a very rich man and he consequently marries the merchant’s daughter Alice, becomes very successful,   eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London and they all live happily ever after.

Oh yes they did……dick Whittington panto.jpg

Oh no they didn’t’ …….

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a lovely story and one that we have all grown up with, but what is the reality behind the myth, was there truly a poor orphan country boy   who rose to become the Lord Mayor of London ?

Londoners certainly think so because on the very spot where Dick allegedly heard the famous bells they have placed   an ancient stone marker, surrounded by stout iron railings and accompanied by a chubby cat, as a monument to their legendary Mayor.Whittington-Stone-Highgate-large  It is generally believed that Dick was born Richard Whittington, son of a country squire Sir William Whittington in the county of Gloucestershire round about the 1350s. Neither poor nor an orphan then but a younger son and younger sons had a need to find their fortunes as small estates were not divided but passed to the eldest son solely. He was probably sent to London rather than coming as a runaway and was apprenticed to a rich merchant Sir Ivo Fitzwarren , rather than working in his kitchens. Sir Ivo did indeed have a daughter called Alice and it was probably not the done thing for the daughter of the house to marry a poor apprentice boy. However, Richard was a very good apprentice and became a very successful trader in valuable textiles such as silk and velvet , impressing his future father in law and winning the hand of the lovely Alice.

As Richard’s career as a mercer progressed he came to the notice of the King , partly because the monarchy as usual was heavily in debt to the merchants of London. This king was Richard II and he chose our Dick to be his mayor in 1390, a solid historical fact. Dick was subsequently re-elected as Mayor another three times and thus the legend was born.

Dick became a very wealthy man and gradually included money lending amongst his activities, he had many distinguished clients including, John of Gaunt and his brother the Duke of Gloucester as well as King Richard II. The historical records indicate that Richard Whittington, as a master mercer, sourced the exquisite materials required for the weddings of Henry IV’s daughters Blanche and Philippa. He later financed the military ambitions of the most famous Lancastrian King  Henry V himself and was thus instrumental in bringing about the success of the English at the battle of Agincourt (Hatfield 2015).

Richard Whittington used his wealth not only to further the ambitions of the monarchy but also to bring relief to his fellow Londoners, he was very much a Bill Gates of the medieval world. He financed a ward for unmarried mothers at St. Thomas’ hospital, had a public lavatory built by the side of the Thames with no less than  64 seats for the gentlemen and 64 seats for the ladies, a sight to behold I am sure! This deed alone must have ensured  his legendary status!!

The list of his charitable endowments goes on and on :- drinking fountains; repairs to Newgate prison; almshouses; libraries; repairs to St. Bartholomew’s hospital; the building of St. Michael Paternoster church; as well as a total of  £7000 bequeathed to charity in his will. He was a great public servant, serving as mayor of London in 1397, 1406 and 1407 ,  becoming an M.P.  in 1416 as well as serving many times as a magistrate and a judge .   He really cared for the people of his city even thinking of the overworked little apprentice boys by passing a law prohibiting the washing of animal skins in the Thames; because many young boys had died of hypothermia or drowned in the strong  river currents. You begin to see why the people of London took him to their hearts and raised him to legendary status in the years after his death ( Hatfield 2015).

We know little about Richard Whittington’s private life except that he was married to Alice Fitzwarren and that they lived together in a sizable property in Paternoster Row near to the  St Michael Paternoster  church that he had endowed. Richard died childless in 1423 leaving the vast majority of his wealth to charitable causes. But he did not die in the realms of myth and legend, his perfect fairy story of a life,  that took him from rags to riches just like Cinderella,  made him the stuff of legend , this together with his caring nature and charitable deeds  turned him into the Robin Hood of London storytellers  and the perfect subject for a pantomime.

Dick Whittington is the only popular pantomime based on a real life person but as we have seen the reality and the myth intermixed to become a perfect fairy tale for the theatre, a  pantomime story that took a mere 400 years in the making.

British pantomime has developed from various sources into the rather strange uniquely British art-form that it is today;  containing girls dressed as boys ! men dressed as women! a great deal of  rather risqué innuendo,  some infantile slapstick  and much singing and  dancing always leading to a happy ever after ending !

Where on earth did it all begin?

We can trace the origins of pantomime back to the Romans’ Fabulae Attelanae , these were rustic, earthy, improvised farces beloved of the plebs and first performed in the countryside of the Campania in southern Italy . They  used stereotypical characters  such as the simpleton and the old fool and the plots were handed down orally from generation to generation until being set down as a literary form in the first century B.C   (Lathan 2004). These traditional farces remained as part of rural life for many centuries   , gradually developing into the Commedia dell’Arte of the 16th Century whose most renowned character, Harlequin,   harlequinwe still see popping up today . Here we really see the background for our pantomimes, The Commedia had many components, acrobats, clowning, dance, music, slapstick, farce and of course always a love story. The performers wore half-masks and standardized costumes so that the audience would always recognize them .  Harlequin in his diamond patterned tunic and tights is immediately recognizable so the audience always knew how his story would progress . He was and is the subversive servant who manipulates the story and creates satire and humour , one of the ordinary folk  himself but he always manages to out-maneuver the unsuspecting and slightly brainless rich boys, much to the audiences’ delight.

The Commedia spread through France where it intermixed with ballet-pantomimes or dance mimes and these   in turn spread to England and became quite the rage in 17th century London. England after The Restoration of the Monarchy was a very ribald place, there was a taste for low-brow entertainment such as carnival, circus and pantomime , a need to be rude and risqué after the austere years of Cromwell and the puritan restraints. Into this atmosphere came The Italian Night Scenes, as the Commedia productions were known, they were called Italian but used English settings such as an Inn or a Fair and the central character was always Harlequin . They were   performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields  to begin with,  but soon their popularity grew  and they spread all around the country. After these beginnings the genre developed its peculiarly British trappings by adding some burlesque and later some music-hall influences.

Pantomime was always meant to be rude and risqué and what better way to do this then to have the steamy cross-dressing innuendos that we still love today. The pantomime dames have their origins in the literary theatre of Shakespearean England  where women actors were banned and all female parts had to be played by men.  It was quite a commonplace affair in 16th century England for a man to play an old lady therefore and  Pantomime just took this a bit further by turning a straightforward female role into a pantomime dame       panto dame with all its attendant humour and burlesque.

Principal boys , who are always girls dressed as boys, come from this era of ribaldry and risqué as well. Women were banned on stage until 1660 and then suddenly they were permitted to dance, to sing, to act , to be admired. What better way to bring in the audiences than to have a very pretty girl, dressed as a boy in a short tunic and breeches, slapping her thighs and showing off her legs, a sure winner for the theatre impresarios.

Later when music hall was at its height , an obvious move would be to cast a popular music hall singer, such as Marie LLoyd, as  principal boy in a pantomime, that way the audience could appreciate both her lovely voice and her lovely figure!!

prin-boy.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

The legendary story of Dick Whittington is therefore a wonderful mix of fact and fiction as indeed are all good legends. He was Lord Mayor of London thrice  and he did marry Alice the daughter of the rich merchant who employed him after he came to London to seek his fortune. His father though was not a pauper and Dick was not an orphan when he was sent to London just a younger son with limited prospects. Whether or not he heard Bow Bells ring out Turn again Whittington is hard to say , probably not , but there is a stone marker stating very clearly that here is the definite spot where it happened so who are we to doubt that it did!!

He did not possess a cat as far as any records show , there is some conjecture that there might be a cat name associated with one of his ships, a Catt, and this would make sense as his fortune came from shipping fine silks and may therefore be a metaphor for his ship coming in . Another theory is the engraving by Robert Elstrache which is a portrait of Richard Whittington originally with his hand resting on a skull , allegedly an unpopular image which was consequently substituted for a cat .cat

skull

Certainly the cat adds wondrously to the fairy tale elements of the story , lending it an Eastern flavor and giving us the marvelous character of King Rat to add to the atmosphere of the pantomime. We all love to hiss and shout at the evil wrong-doers in the pantomimes and watch the principal boy and girl outdo their evil intentions.

So well done to Richard Whittington for being truly the stuff of legends and well done to Londoners for preserving his spirit and turning him into a source of fun and pleasure for all generations to enjoy. He would have appreciated that I feel.

 

 

 

References :-

Hatfield. E. ( 2015)  London’s Lord Mayors. 800 years of Shaping the City.

Lathan.P. ( 2004)  It’s Behind You. 

 

 

 

Dancing at Lughnasa

dancing at lughnasaLughnasa ( or Lughnasadh) was a summer festival marking the beginning of the last quarter of the Celtic or more specifically the Irish year. The Irish year was divided into quarters, each marked by a festival, so we have the great feasts of Samhain ,  on November 1st , Imbolc on February 1st , Beltane on May 1st   and Lughnasa which  was celebrated around the 1st of August but the party could last for two weeks either side if it really got going !  In this system , rather than marking the solstices and equinoxes  the festival dates fell in the interspaces between thus in the centre of each quarter ( Puhvel 1987).  Lughnasa  is the last of the four feasts outlined in the Tochmarc Emire  one  of the Ulster Cycle  of early medieval  Irish literature ( Hutton 1996),  where it is listed as Bron Trogain  or earth’s sorrowing in Autumn ; Autumn began on the 1st of August in medieval Britain. Hutton points out that other contemporary sources referred to this feast as Lughnasadh, Lugnasa or Lughnasa , the festival of the god Lugh , one of the most important of pre-Christian Irish deities.

lughAccording to legend Lugh instigated a series of funeral games in honour of his foster- mother Tailtiu , an agricultural goddess who had collapsed and died after clearing the forests of Bregg, presumably for agriculture. These games were held regularly along the lines of the early Greek Olympic games and would include  horse racing, chariot racing and other games alongside trading and feasting. Lugh was credited with many powers , he was both a formidable warrior and a master magician, much like Odin, he also helped the craft gods to forge their fantastic weapons  and had the power to heal. Under his sponsorship Lughnasa developed into great tribal assemblies complete with fairs, markets, music, story telling as well as the races and it became a traditional time at which to visit people and to arrange marriages. In the Irish sagas Lugh was the father of their greatest hero  Cúchulainn whose tale is the centerpiece of the Tain Bo Cuailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley . This epic legend was recited orally during the 4th and 5th centuries AD and was written down during the 8th or 9th centuries by scribes known as filidh , Irish poet-scholars who specialized in story telling.

cu cuchulainThe Tain is a wonderful  story that gives us  a glimpse into pre-Christian Celtic society where the ruling class were the aristocratic warriors and diplomacy held no place at all ;  respect and power  were gained  by individual fighting prowess and inter-tribal warfare was the order of the day.   Cúchulainn’s father appears to him during one of his great battles as he is laying sick and exhausted, the Tain (  in Zaczek 1996) tells the encounter thus:-

there is a lone man coming towards us …….he is fair and tall and shining. He wears a green mantle ……his tunic is of royal silk and he carries a black shield and a spear with five prongs …..

‘I am Lugh your father from the sidhe and I have come to heal your wounds……’

While Cúchulainn slept Lugh placed the herbs of curing and the charms of healing on his wounds. In this way he recovered his strength without knowing it.

Cattle raids by one tribe on another seem to have been central to Irish society of the time and it seems fitting therefore that much of the Lughnasa festivities that have survived, centre around cattle fairs and trading as a reminder of how important stock-raising was to the Celtic people. Not just to the Celts however as the Anglo-Saxons also had a summer festival on August 1st known as Lammas.

Lammas was an early  harvest feast,  not a thanksgiving for the harvest as a whole but a celebration of the first fruits . The custom was at hlaef-mass or loaf mass to reap the first of the ripe corn and to bake this into a loaf, this would then be consecrated in church that day. Ron Hutton(1996) tells us how in a book of Anglo-Saxon charms it was advised that this loaf be divided into four pieces and then crumbled into the four corners of the barn into which the harvest grain would later come to be stored, thus making it a safe repository free from the evils that might beset grain in storage. Lammas survives as a legal and farming date across much of Germany, France and the UK. As well as an excuse for a celebration it served as a marker for farming activities, sheep were not to be shorn before Lammas and in the weeks before Lammas the weakling lambs were put out to fatten for an early sale. Summer grazing for sheep and cattle would often finish at Lammas and  it  therefore served as a welcome home party for the herders who would return to their families from the summer pastures,  having been away for several weeks with the flocks. Now all hands would be reunited in order to bring in the harvest together and the flocks could be turned out into the fields to eat the stubble before burning.

One notable custom of the early harvest season in many regions is the ritual cutting of sheaves of grain. In some areas the first sheaf was called the Harvest Maiden and the task of cutting this sheaf would be given to a young maiden of the village she would be assisted by a young man who would hold the sheaf as she cut it. The Harvest Maiden was then often formed into a female figure that was dressed and decorated and later honoured at the harvest supper. Other customs tell of the Corn Mother which was made from the harvest at Lughnasa  but laid to rest at for the winter at Samhain only to be taken up again at Imbolc to become the Maiden. In this tradition straws were plucked from the figure and refurnished into the Imbolc corn dolly or maiden aspect of the triple mother goddess, in Gaelic this is called Brideog or the Biddy.

We still have a tradition of corn dollies today, some are just crude representations of a human form but many are extremely intricate knots and woven design that are reminiscent of the ancient Celtic art forms seen on broaches and in the illustrated bibles.

corn maidenThese corn dolly designs are often specific to a particular region such as the Suffolk horseshoe or the Yorkshire spiral but each has talismanic powers and is a little bit of hope for bounty, good luck and future prosperity.

Happy Lughnasa everyone

 

references:_

Hutton R 1996 The Stations of the Sun

Puhvel J 1989  Comparative Mythology.

Zaczek I 1996 Chronicles of the Celts

 

 

 

 

 

Saint Swithun and the pilgrims

St Swithun’s day on the 15th July is a day when we have to seriously keep our fingers crossed for fine weather otherwise the summer will be ruined.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain,

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days twill rain nae mare .

How did this legend arise and what do we know of the man behind the myth ?

Swithun was born around the year 800, the child of noble Anglo-Saxon parents, he soon gained renown for his piety, prudence and learning. Egbert king of the west-Saxons made him his personal priest and committed to his care the education of his son   the young prince Ethelwolf , future king and father of Alfred the great. Ethelwolf set great store by Swithun’s advice when he became king calling him his master and teacher and proposing  him in his elevation to the Bishopric of Winchester in 852. Although noble and well-connected Swithun , according to Butlers Lives of the Saints, was a man of quiet humility and charity, preferring to walk rather than ride and to eat his meagre repasts with the poor and needy rather than to feast with the elite of the land.

One story of his saintly life ( Legg 2011) illustrates his humility and kindliness, apparently seeing that the poor of Winchester had to paddle through a ford in the River Itchen on foot, as best they could each day, to  sell their wares in the city, he decided to build them a bridge. Thus a substantial stone bridge was constructed near the east gate of the city the site of which features a bridge crossing the river to this day. However the story goes on , as he was crossing this bridge one day he encountered an old peasant woman bemoaning the fact that her eggs had been broken on the way to market due to the rough jostling of some monks. They were the old lady’s only source of income and she was quite overcome by her loss. Swithun went to her and collected up the eggs as best he could ……..miraculously as he handed them to her they were each  fully restored to their smooth  and wholesome glory. This miracle is commemorated on the Thomas Carpenter- Turner shrine  set up by the friends of Winchester Cathedral, which has broken eggshells on each of its four candlesticks.

the-site-of-st-swithuns-tomb-in-winchester-cathedral-uk-ah0parSo Swithun definitely was a saintly figure but what of his connection to the weather?  When he died in 862  he was buried in accordance with his dying wishes outside the north wall of the Old Minster in Winchester where he could be among the people and they could access his burial site with ease and the gentle rain could fall upon it.  He rested  at ease here for a hundred years and reportedly many miracles took place as his fame grew and Winchester became a place of popular pilgrimage. But on the 15th July 871  his body was moved from its resting place to a more fitting  shrine inside the Minster.  Lo and behold  the heavens opened and it poured down with rain for forty days bringing the removal of the body to a halt. Back it went into its grave until Edgar the Peaceful , grandson of Alfred the Great, succeeded in the re-enshrinement inside the Minster and this became the point of worship for pilgrims. It is said that over 200 miracles took place within the 10 days after his relocation and that the resident monks became seriously grumpy due to the fact that they had to conduct a thanks giving every time a miracle took place. Legend has it that their grumpiness offended the spirit of Swithun who appeared to them from beyond the grave and gave them a severe telling off ( Boase 1976) !!

Early medieval Winchester was therefore a site of popular pilgrimage, as the  fame of Swithun and his miracles spread far and wide and brought spiritual visitors from many destinations to the city. They would enter the city mainly through the King’s Gate which is still standing today to the south of Winchester Cathedral, the ancient gateway has a small chapel at its centre known as St. Swithun upon Kingsgate which is accessible through a small gate to be found on St. Swithun street, of course. In medieval times it was a common route  for pilgrims to follow the Pilgrim Trail  having  first made worship  to St. Swithun’s shrine in Winchester Cathedral  and thence to Mont St. Michel in Normandy to worship at the shrine of St. Michael . Later however, the fame of Canterbury grew and pilgrims walked instead along the Pilgrim Way which took them from Winchester along a very ancient route , possibly Neolithic,  to the tomb of Thomas a Becket. It is amazing to think that  ancient peoples may have traversed this very route but in the opposite direction from the channel and up to the ancient sacred sites of Avebury and Stonehenge. As the fame of Canterbury grew , Winchester as a pilgrim centre slowly declined and St Swithun sank into obscurity remembered by only a faithful few and when we have a particularly rainy summer!

It is interesting to dwell upon the reasons for a shrine or place of pilgrimage to become enormously popular. Usually is has to do with the association with a holy person and the resulting miracles that have reportedly occurred at their instigation. Pilgrims have in many cases suffered mental or physical ailments that they think the relics of the  holy person will help to ease. This is not peculiar to Christian saints but occurs in many faiths where sacred mystics have alleged healing powers and the faithful want to touch part of the holy person so that the healing power might transfer. Pilgrims do not always journey for self-healing, sometimes they want to express gratitude to God for an act of kindness or for saving them or a member of their family from harm. At other times a pilgrim might travel to a shrine in a state of remorse to say sorry or to do a penance for a terrible wrong they have committed in this case they are asking the holy person to intercede on their behalf with God so that they might be forgiven. Henry II did this in remorse over the murder of Thomas a Becket travelling barefoot to Canterbury in fear for his immortal soul.

Pigrimage doesn’t have to be for a specific purpose, sometimes it is the journey itself that is important. The word pilgrim is derived from the Latin peregrinus , per meaning through and ager meaning field or land, so pilgrimage infers a journey a movement through the land. In fact there doesn’t even have to be a specific destination as the ancient Irish peregrini , early Celtic Christian monks , would climb into their little round boats and set off into the unknown without oars , trusting to the will of God to take them wherever the wind would blow them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit  ( Bucknall 2014). Travelers today follow the road to Compostela in Spain or   the Via Francigena to Rome for many reasons , but in many cases it is the journey itself that is important and not the destination. A chance to reflect apon ones priorities, to find ones own strengths and to just be at one with nature and with the other travelers along the way. For to be a pilgrim is very much about experiencing communitas or fellowship,  to become part of a community and to put earthly pleasures away in the company of others who seek spirituality and guidance. As Chaucer said :-

When April’s fruitful rains descend

and bring the droughts of March to end

Why then folks go on pilgrimages 

and pilgrims yearn for foreign strands

and distant shrines in foreign lands.

Pilgrims to St. James at Compostella wear a scallop shell and those to Rome wear keys for St. Peter who holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven, what then for St. Swithun?.  His symbols are either a bridge or broken eggshells but not often to be seen adorning a pilgrim’s robes.St-SwithunSo there we have it St. Swithun and the pilgrims and it looks like the weather is going to be good tomorrow on St. Swithun’s day so that will mean a very good summer for us all. I am a great believer in that behind every Old Wives Tale, myth or legend lies a small glimmer of truth so I decided to look at weather facts to discern if this particular story has any factual background. There is indeed the tiniest glimmer of sense to the old rhyme. According to the Royal Meteorological Society , the middle of July tends to be around the time that the jet stream settles into a relatively consistent pattern. If the jet stream lies north of the UK throughout the summer R continued high pressure is able to move in bringing warmth and sunshine. If it sinks down to further south of the UK then Arctic air and the Atlantic weather systems are likely to predominate bringing the colder wetter weather.That makes sense……

May you journey with reflection and joy in the warmth of a St. Swithun summer.

 

 

 

 

references:-

Boase W.1976 The Folklore of Hampshire and the I.O.W.

Legg P. 2011. Winchester you can see

Bucknall H 2014 . Like a Tramp like a Pilgrim

Butler A 1845 Lives of the Saints

 

 

 

Midsummer Magic

Midsummer already, the longest day of the year  on 21st June  when daylight lasts well into the late evening and the air is languorous with hazy heat and the sweet smells of honeysuckle and  rose . The image most Britons  have  in their minds on this day is that of  the festivities at Stonehenge when the dawn lights the stone and the Druids perform their ancient rituals.summer-solstice-sunrise-at-the-stonehenge-e1466179913316A truly magical sight that we associate with the Druids but that predates them many centuries being centred in the Neolithic love of megastructures variously aligned with astral happenings, that include  Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in the Orkneys.

Midsummer eve is a night of magic one of the two spirit nights, ysbrysdnos of Welsh tradition that include Halloween and Midsummer eve, these are the nights when supernatural powers are afoot and we can make contact with our ancestors. Midsummer is celebrated in many cultures; in northern Europe the ceremonies are characterised by rituals  that imitate the behaviour of the sun such as the lighting of bonfires , the rolling of fiery wheels downhill or dancing in circles. Fiery wheels are rolled down hills to mirror the heat of  the sun at its peak and then  descending and fading into the gloom of winter to come , often the ceremonies include the dowsing of the flames in a river or lake  at the bottom of the hill . We hold hands and dance in circles to celebrate the joy of the sun’s life-giving rays and to reflect the circle of its motion and the circle of life that it promotes.

Magic is in the air on midsummer eve as perfectly captured by Shakespeare in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  here the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania play tricks on each other, lead poor Bottom the weaver very willingly astray and totally mix up the love lives of  four  young Athenians . All is magic, mystery, lust and illusion a perfect midsummer night. Fairies and midsummer go hand in hand ,  they also dance in circles  on ancient hillsides and are a faint trace of the ancient pagan gods and goddesses of streams and mountains. Over almost all the Indo-European area we  can find  belief in   super-natural beings who dwell in the wild  natural places such as streams, trees and mountains and who can be tricky or benevolent depending on how we humans treat them.  The Indian beings  are Apsaras, they love to sing, dance and play and are very beautiful but be careful  because they confuse us  poor humans, we become bewildered in their presence , befuddled wits are a common occurrence when encountering fairy folk of all kinds. Away with the fairies in fact, which explains my behaviour quite often!

The ancient Greeks had  sea-nymphs or Nereids , nymphs of the trees Dryads, and nymphs of springs and streams or Naiads , they were mainly friendly and bountiful with their gifts but could sometimes carry off children, spell-bind  a handsome youth that took  their fancy  or befuddle the minds of passing humans . These nymph ladies were often the mothers of heroes such as Achilles   and can make an appearance   in the heroic legends where they often lead a willing hero astray for a while,  as in the case of Odysseus and Calypso.

Entrapment is a peculiarly fairy-like pastime , Titania entraps Bottom for a night of passion, Odysseus lingers with Calypso for years while poor Penelope waits grieving at home and  in  the medieval ballad Tam Lin  the hero is spell-bound for seven years by the Queen of the fairies  until he manages to escape by passing his shapeshifting tests. On the surface these tales seem cruel and selfish on the part of the fairy folk but usually the entrapped gains something from their ordeal , often in the form of knowledge or courage, healing of the spirit or just pure wonder as is the case for Bottom.

the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste , his tongue to conceive , nor his heart to report , what my dream was.

titania and bottom

As with Bottom’s metamorphosis into an Ass , fairy magic quite often takes a shape-shifting form, this together with the power of flight and the ability to become invisible gives them their glamour . They can cast a net of wonder over us poor humans so that we are unable to see them or pinpoint their location, this fairy power of illusion is known as pishogue in the Irish language and we still use the term spell-bound to describe an event that suspends our ability to function and keeps us transfixed in pure wonderment. Shapeshifting has always featured as part of the tool-kit of sorcerers ,shamans and indeed Greek, Celtic  and Roman gods; it features in the sagas of Odin , the exploits of Zeus and of course the tales of Merlin and king Arthur.

For  Shamanistic societies , shape shifting created new types of beings that could exert new types of power and go where humans themselves could not. The wolf, the wild boar , the eagle could all use powers inaccessible to the ordinary human and hence were able to transcend the boundaries of human life and enter the spirit worlds . In their guise, mankind could also cross physical boundaries and enter the spirit worlds in order to communicate with the ancestors and to gain knowledge. We can  catch a glimpse of this animistic shamanism in the art of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.celtic artHere strange animal shapes mix and merge, fusing into each other in intricate patterns and circles. Although this animal metamorphosis was condemned as demonic by the medieval Christian church it has ironically been for ever preserved in the wonderful Celtic -Anglo- Saxon artistic fusions of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures were conscious of presences other than themselves who inhabited the otherworld  and the wild places of the lands and seas, these have passed into popular folklore as fairy-folk. The fairies have kings and queens of which Gwyn ap Nudd of the Welsh tradition is maybe the oldest incarnation, he was immortal and lord of Annwfn the underworld , he went abroad with a pack of white hounds with red ears at his side. The Irish call their fairy folk the sidhe (pronounced shee) , they often dwell in the ancient tumuli such as Newgrange and are associated with the Tuatha De Danann the glorious people who were Erin’s last occupants before the Milesian ancestors of the present Gaels took over the land. The sidhe also like to live in or near certain trees such as ancient lonely  hawthorns, these fairy trees are still venerated in Ireland  and people are loth to harm or cut them fearing bad luck even going so far as to re route  roads rather than damage them,   as happened in 1999 with the main road from Limerick to Galway .

The fairy traditions of the Celtic and Germanic peoples are tantalisingly present in the stories of our most famous hero, Arthur. Here we have enchantresses and sorcerors of the black arts a-plenty who often posses unearthly beauty and the ability to enthrall or spell-bind the bravest of knights. Most notorious is the fairy half-sister of Arthur, his tormentor and nemesis Morgana Le Fay, the epitome of an evil fairy. She was not always so very bad however,  literature has rather blackened her name over time; she first appeared in the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, as a healer without a hint of evil in her ways. She enters the story as the leader of the nine holy women who dwelt in Avalon and who came to tend to Arthur after his defeat and mortal-wounding  at the terrible battle of Camlann that brought his kingdom to an end. It was a century later at the hands of the Cistercian Monks in their Prose Lancelot ,  also called the Vulgate Cycle, that her reputation was turned irretrievably bad.The Cistercians considered it blasphemous to attribute healing powers to a woman who was not a member of a religious order and they set out to  make Morgana’s character look much blacker by throwing demonic possession, adultery and even incest into the storyline. It is thus  as we know and love her today as she provides the blueprint for  many  fairy villains from Hans Christian Andersen’s  snow queen through to Narnia’s white witch

burnejones_morgana

and Disney’s Sea hag. As we have seen though Morgana’s dark side is not totally the work of the Cistercians, she also draws upon the ancient pagan queens and goddesses who throughout the pre-Christian world were attributed with supernatural powers and who have left their faint echoes in  our fairy-folk stories.

There is a further link between Morgana, fairy-folk and midsummer night magic. The Romans celebrated the cult of Fortuna on midsummers day , she was the goddess of fortune and fate ,  the personification of luck in the Roman pantheon. As such  she could bring good or bad luck to humans depending on the devotions of the humans and her own capricious nature, much like the fairies and the nymphs we have already encountered. Her symbol was the wheel of fortune and therefore on midsummer eve we are not just thanking the sun for its bounty but also wishing and hoping for the goddesses of fate and fortune to smile upon us and our harvests. Morgana too is an echo of the  ancient  goddess of fate  that  appears in  many languages as a Fata Morgana or mirage that lures men to their deaths in the sea or in the desert, she is a nymph  like Calypso or Circe or Lorelei  that can enthrall or lead astray the unwary and probably  lustful men! In classical mythology Night and Darkness have three daughters who are known as the fates, they represent birth life and death, as does  traditional European folk lore where the three fates  appear on the last day of a persons life and lead them to the next world just as Morgana appears to the dying Arthur with her sister queens  and leads him to Avalon.

Be careful then on midsummer’s eve, magic will be afoot, be respectful to the nymphs and fairies, dance but do not mock , be very careful who your fancy alights upon unless you wish to be spellbound for many years ; there will be compensations, they  will be very fair and the time will pass quickly and if lady luck is on your side they may shower you with bounty or………………….. beautiful children!!

Good fortune to us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. George and the Dragons

St. George , patron saint of England is celebrated on 23rd April. He seems a strange choice for English folk being of Syrian origin and born of a Greek father and a Syrian mother. He was a Roman soldier and was martyred for his Christianity in 303 AD at a time in the Roman world when Christians were being viciously persecuted. It was much later,  in the medieval period, that he became a much loved  figure of romance, rescuing princesses  and fighting dragons, an  archetypal  Arthurian chivalric knight in fact.

Saint George vs the Dragon

He featured as one of Jacobus de Voragine’s most popular   Golden Legends, compiled around 1260 AD  and a ”best seller” second only to the Bible as printed  by Caxton in 1483. As for the dragons , it was the great Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges who noted that most cultures created stories about dragons and  monsters for their heroes to slay. He believed that psychologically , socially and creatively we all need dragons to fight and consequently we all need dragon slayers to fight our battles for us . The reasons that a civilisation or individual chooses one monster or hero over another can reveal much about  the character  of   that culture or person.

George can be seen in action during the folk dramas known as mummers’ plays which take place across Britain, usually at Christmas,  but sometimes at Easter, and are very loosely based on the legend of St. George.

otterbourne-mummers-hampshire-uk-december-homer-sykes-bxg22a
Mummers at Otter borne in Hampshire just after Christmas 2014

 

The plays were originally mimed , hence mummers, and all the players were in disguise and hence known as Guisers. The main characters usually included, in addition to St. George, a Captain Slasher, the King of Egypt, a Turkish knight, a doctor and several soldiers who challenge St George and come to  sticky ends only to be revived by the doctor! The meaning of all this is just a bit hazey but seems to imply the death of the old  year and the need to encourage the resurgence of the  young  and vigorous new year. Links here to St. George’s commemoration date on 23rd April when the new growth is bursting though in the countryside and we see  all sorts of green-man type ceremonies taking place, England’s green and pleasant land says thank you to its patron saint for returning the flowers and the crops.

So George our hero is a quintessential Arthurian romantic knight  chivalrous but tough with connotations of ancient vegetation gods who fight off the dark days of winter to help the resurgent green men to flourish?

Does this also explain our dragons ? There is a very common mythological motif of the serpent or dragon who guards a  spring or some other desirable object and thus prevents access to it.  Ancient texts of India, Greece and Scandinavia, speak of the thunder-gods whose thunderstorms released torrents of water to feed the parched land, having struggled with the monsters that blocked the flows. We can read of Zeus and Typhaon the hundred headed serpent , recounted by Hesiod in his Theogeny ,  or Apollo killing the python at Delphi to release the spring waters, Thor wounding  the Mithgard serpent and later Hercules taking on the Hydra as one of his herculean tasks.

In Lithuania Perkunas’ first spring thunderclap is said to ‘unlock the earth’ from its frozen winter state whilst in ancient Greece the Hydra’s heads were said to be prolific water springs that kept bursting forth and flooding the land until Hercules tamed the flows.

Germanic and Celtic heroes also slay the dragons , Sigurd wins the fair Brynhild by rescuing her from a dragon  , Finn MacCool fights many  serpent-like monsters rather like Hercules, but it is the dragons themselves that loom largest in the Celtic tales. The Arthurian legend that gives us George’s romantic image also provides us with the most famous dragon of the British isles, the red dragon Symbol of Wales. Early in the legend of Arthur we meet Merlin as just a boy, albeit a very talented boy, he informs Vortigern of the reason for his persistently collapsing castle , two dragons are fighting deep below. The symbolic incarnation of the Anglo-Saxon v Ancient British conflict, a white dragon and a red one. The red dragon has henceforward became the symbol of Wales being paraded proudly on their flag.

welsh flag

 

In dark- age Briton therefore we meet Anglo- Saxon heroes who  slayed dragons, the heraldic animals of the occupied Celtic British people with whom they were in conflict for many centuries.

Perhaps the most renowned of Anglo-Saxon heroes is Beowulf who defeated Grendel and thereby became leader of his people , in his dotage after many years of heroic daring do,  Beowulf meets the fire breathing dragon and defeats it  as his final act of  heroism. The epic poem Beowulf gives us an insight into the hero culture of the Germanic tribes, this is an exert from Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation from Anglo-Saxon.

For fifty years I ruled this nation . No King of any neighbouring clan would dare face me with troops, none had the power to intimidate me. I took what came , cared for and stood by things in my keeping, never fermented quarrels, never swore to a lie. All this consoles me doomed as I am and sickening for death, because of my right ways.

Beowulf has slain the dragon but is himself dying from his wounds, he has ruled his people for fifty years and they have been free of conflict because his reputation as a hero has kept other contenders at bay. Now he is dying and his people will face war and hardship once again. The reality of life for the northern early medieval tribes was brutally simple, tribes without a notorious warrior king were open to attack. The winning of a heroic reputation  by a tribal leader would protect their people , whilst the hero lived none would quarrel   but death would bring eager vultures to pick the bones of the bereft tribe.

Heroes needed to fight dragons both to release needed resources but also to build a reputation that would act as an intangible force , a marketing brand of notoriety to keep likely attackers from trying their luck.

So why St. George?

He was elevated to patron saint status by Edward the Third (1312-1377) , a seriously warmongering monarch of the Plantagenet line. St. George had become legendary as a protector of soldiers during the crusades  both because  of his career as a  soldier  himself and also because of his remarkably courageous martyrdom . As a rallying  cry during the 100 years war against France (instigated by Edward) , known to us best  in Shakespeares’  Henry the 5th, ……. cry God for Harry, England and St. George,  had both reputation and sanctity on its side. George as a patron saint is free of trappings , he is not local like St Thomas a Becket or linked to any profession or English legend so in effect had no axe to grind.  George’s  dragon fighting depictions  can be transposed by medieval minds  to form the earthly manifestation  of the archangel  St. Michael ,also often depicted fighting a dragon, making him a doubly valorous and protective symbol.

st michaelSt. Michael.

England certainly needed a hero , notwithstanding a hundred years of war with France it also had to contend with the  appearance of  the black plague in 1348 , any superhuman intercession with the angels and God would be most welcome at the time. George’s grim beginnings as a patron saint perhaps explain why we have no party or day off work to celebrate him. The 23rd of April is allegedly the date of his martyrdom ,which in itself was a pretty grim affair and no pretence for a party,  but poor old George also has the reformation , the seesawing from Protestant to Catholic of the Tudor dynasty, plus good old  Oliver Cromwell,  to contend with.  All these historica  party- poopers combined  to put the muckers on any excuse for a good old knees-up  for the English.

Still , fighting dragons,   as Borges intimated can be an individual affair so each of us can feel free to slay our own personal dragons on St. Georges day just tilt at your own windmills and rescue your own maidens whatever and  wherever they might be.

Eat cake. drink ale, dance around a bit, preferably with bells on  and pick some flowers .

Happy St. George’s Day to all.

 

 

APRIL FOOLS

April has begun with the traditional fooling around that is April Fool’s day but why is April a good time to be foolish and play tricks on each other?

We have passed the Spring Equinox and now the days are lengthening, day is winning the battle over night and summer is winning the battle over winter, Persephone has returned from the underworld and  it is a time of resurrection and renewal as well as fertility and rebirth. April is also ‘the cruelest month’ as TS Eliot recalled, although the spring is bringing beauty in the form of flowers and sunshine it can also be harsh  in the form of April showers and strong winds that can batter those new leaves and tear the fragile blossoms from the delicate flowers. It is a time when we have to give up our cosy fires and warm fleeces and venture forth to take up new challenges casting our clouts before us as we go.  The saying ne’re cast a clout till may be out refers to the taking off of the winter layers as the may blossom or hawthorn starts to appear on the bushes towards the middle of April.

We humans therefore have to cope with many changes at this time of year and mythologically this has been personified by using a tricky story-myth to illustrate the problems. Mythological tricksters, of which there are many , help to bring about change often enabling this by taking on a disguise of some sort and thus masquerading in order to make someone look foolish. They also personified illness and misfortune and were thus a means by which to explain the  inexplicable , pagan people could blame the loss of a child or the onset of an illness on the harmful spirits or tricky demons that lived among them. Shakespeare’s Puckpuck is one of these,  here he is being very tricky in a Midsummer night’s Dream .

And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In very likeness of a roasted crab

and when she drinks , against her lips I bob

and on her withered dewlap pour the ale .

The wisest aunt telling the saddest tale

Sometimes for a three foot stool  mistakes me,

then slip I from her bum, down topples she….

Puck , also known as Robin Goodfellow appears in many folktales of trickery throughout medieval Britain, he is a hobgoblin one of the faery fraternity but other tricksters come from a much more elevated status, that of the gods. Hermes, Eros, Loki were all tricksters in their way. Hermes( Mercury)  the messenger of the gods , was lord of boundaries and hence change , a master of deception and revered as the god of thieves , originally thought to be a snake god,  which fits his slippery and mercurial nature. Eros (Cupid) god of love ,tricked many a fair maid with his arrows  , he was a wild boy showing no respect for age or status, flying around on his golden wings shooting arrows at random and wantonly setting hearts on fire , just the thing for a crazy April fools day romance.

Loki,  Norse god of fire and chaos

lokiseen here played by the lovely Tom Hiddleston in the film Thor, was the supreme trickster. He managed to bring about the death of Baldur the beautiful summer god  by tricking the blind god Hodur into firing an arrow made of mistletoe at the beautiful boy. Mistletoe was the only thing in the whole of creation that had not promised not to hurt the young god. The gods of Asgard , home of the Norse gods amused themselves by hurling sticks and stones at Baldur and watching them bounce from his body unscathed . Only mistletoe was his nemesis , the little plant had been considered too weak and lowly to need to take the vow of protection demanded of all things by Baldur’s mother Frigga . Hence Baldur the summer god died at the hands of a winter fruit and change was upon the gods of Asgard taking them one step closer to their eventual demise at Ragnarok.

The trickiest trick of all time in the mythological world has to be  that played by Odysseus on the Trojans , the supreme practical joke  that was  The Trojan horse  .

trojan-horse-2 The unsuspecting Trojans pulled the horse into Troy only to be surprised later by a belly-full of Greek soldiers who unfortunately for Troy very much got the last laugh. Odysseus was not a god but a hero , or was he ? Tricksters tend not to be as respected and admired as the heroes,  Odysseus was not hero- worshipped like Achilles , Hermes was not  respected like Apollo and Loki was not revered like Thor. Tricksters were all cunning and crafty, they lived by their wits and not their brawn and hence were considered less manly and just a bit untrustworthy , certainly not noble and self-sacrificing like the archetypal heroes. They also tended to cross-dress quite a bit, putting on female garb in order to fool someone and  often transforming themselves into beasts of various kinds, not the actions of a manly hero at all!

But we have digressed into trickery in general and left April far behind. Why April in particular? Because it is a month of cruelty and change but also a time to party and masquerade and a time when the thoughts of all young things turn to love and fertility.    Disguise and masquerade help to make a party go with a swing as identities are hidden and social restrictions disappear within the protection afforded by the masks, allowing   naughty goings-on to naughtily go on!

All of these elements were contained in the ancient Roman party that was Hilaria, Roman laughing day,   this took place just after the spring equinox and lasted several days until the beginning of the New Year,  which was then April 1st.   Hilaria celebrated the resurrection  of the god Attis and his return to  Cybele  the mother goddess ( mother earth), there were games of all kinds including masquerades and those in disguise would play tricks on the unsuspecting.  Attis was fundamentally a vegetation god and thus represented the fruits of the earth which die in winter and are reborn in the spring. Cybele’s cult had elements of orgiastic rites , these had originated in the mountains of Anatolia but had then spread through the Greek and into the Roman worlds influencing the revels  connected with Dionysus and Bacchus.

Scotland has a  fools days known as Gowkie day for the gowk or cuckoo symbol used, the use of this symbol suggests a fool or cuckold and has intimations of sexual licence drawing on the pagan past. Today the day is much more likely to   entail the  pinning of  a sign to someone’s back   such as ‘kick me ‘ and watching the poor fool be abused by all and sundry .The use of the gowk or cuckoo symbol is perfect for both the day of foolish pranks and for the time of year. Cuckoos are summer visitors to Britain and the female is the laziest of mothers, she lays her eggs in the nests of poor unsuspecting pipits or warblers and thus fools the little birds into bringing up her offspring. It reflects the cruelty of the month as the cuckoo baby is often much bigger than her foster siblings and will edge them out of the nest where they will be unfed and die , while the cuckoo babies  will grow fat and flourish exhausting their foster parents. The cuckoo is a herald of spring arriving in late March and laying her eggs in April thus creating

the ultimate of  April Fools jokesCuckoo

Mad as a March Hare

It is March 20th we have reached the spring Equinox and the year is turning to the season of fertility and abundance. What myths and sayings spring to mind?   The first saying  to come to my mind is mad as a March hare  but why are they mad  and why are they particularly mad in March?

boxing haresNot as you might think the aggressive males fighting to win the females’ favours but both male and female  brown hares boxing  for each others attentions , well done the girls ! Because the hares are generally quite secretive animals and hard to spot in the landscape, this March behaviour seems particularly mad as they come out of hiding and box openly in the fields.  The males and females size each other up and have a mad box to see if they are a good match,  then the hares that have the best scrap apparently  stay together…   lovely !     Bit like EastEnders really!

Mythically the hare was venerated by the ancient British ( Celtic) and Germanic peoples . In one classical account, Boudicca is said to have used a hare in a divination ritual in order to determine the outcome of a forthcoming battle whilst in Celtic artwork the hare can often be seen  being carried by hunters . Hares have been  symbols of good luck  for centuries,  hares’ tails, until quite recently were  often worn as good luck mascots whilst ancient Britons were said to have   often set them  loose just before a battle in order to bring about a favourable outcome.

Hares often come out onto the hillsides under the light of a full moon and can be seen apparently gazing at the moon quite transfixed, the ancient Germanic and Celtic peoples

therefore connected hares with their moon godssaxon god of moon notice the pixie/ hares  ears ! These continue to be seen in modern depictions of pixies and are particularly noticeable in the Celtic traditions of leprechauns and of course the Cornish pixie.

He really is a little moon-god isn’t he ?cornish pixie