As the year enters the second week of the second month it seems that life is returning to the barren earth and our thoughts inevitably turn to birth, renewal and love.

snowdrops in late winter

If you were asked to name the most famous lovers of history or literature, most of you would answer Romeo and Juliet . Shakespeare’s tragic lovers have inspired films, books, musicals and plays for generations, but where did Shakespeare’s own inspiration for this story come from ?

As is often the case with Shakespeare he drew his inspiration from the Greco-Roman mythic tales of gods, demi-gods and heroes. Before we sighed for Romeo and Juliet the Greeks and Romans cried with Pyramus and Thisbe.

Pyramus and Thisbe lived in the ancient city of Babylon, where the hanging gardens hung. They lived in adjoining palaces in the centre of the city and should have grown up as friends but they were the children of feuding families and were thus forbidden to speak or to play with each other. The feud lay in the far distant past and no one in the two families could remember the cause but still the feud was kept alive by resentment and bitterness.

Inevitably , as is the case often with forbidden fruit, they became attracted to each other and devised a secret way of communicating, through a chink in the wall between their two gardens. The chink was too small for them to touch but just large enough for them to whisper their love and their longing. The restraints on their love grew too much to bear and they decided to slip away from their guards and to meet by moonlight at the tomb of King Ninus .

Thisbe arrived first, disguised with a veil , but encountered a wild lion dripping with blood from a recent kill and fled in terror letting her veil fall to the ground as she ran. Pyramus arrived soon after and was horrified to find on the ground only a blood streaked veil, assuming the worst he plunged his sword into his breast crying out for his lost love and the cruelty of fate. Thisbe returned to find her dying lover, clutched him to her breast and in turn, bewailing fate and the cruelty of the gods, fell on Pyramus’ sword.

Thus the tragedy weaves its inevitable path and we sigh for the waste of young life and love brought down by the inexplicable hatred of feuding families. The tale is redeemed a little as the families on finding their poor sad children forget their feud and bury them together in the shade of a mulberry tree, which turns its berries purple for them in perpetual mourning.( Fry 2017).

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe can be found in Metamorphoses a work by the Roman writer Ovid. Ovid himself has a sad story to tell, he was born in 43BC , educated in Rome and despite being skilled in the law and rhetoric chose to specialize in love poetry. By AD8 he was a prominent literary figure in Roman society but was suddenly and inexplicably banished by Augustus to the provincial backwater of Tomis far away on the shores of the Black Sea. He lived out his days in this dismal unfriendly town finally dying there in AD17 but during his exile continued to write his glorious love poetry. He had devoted his career to the poetic rendering of love and its effects , celebrating the human experiences in all its variations.

Ovid Roman poet

Our own poet Shakespeare was also a great explorer of love in all its variations and wrote of its effects in many forms. Pyramus and Thisbe our tragic lovers, in addition to being the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet appear in a playlet within the magnificent comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream;  where their story is played out by the ‘hard-handed men‘ of Athens at the wedding celebrations of Theseus and Hippolyte. Hard-handed meaning simple working men , here we have Quince the carpenter, Bottom the weaver, Flute the bellows mender, Snug the joiner, Snout the tinker and Starveling the tailor, all trying rather clumsily to play the delicate lovers and their entourage of lions, walls and moons.

The simple working men should have given us farce and we should belly- laugh at their absurdity but instead they are strangely poignant and compelling in their retelling of the tragic tale. Following after the night of midsummer madness between Bottom and the Fairy Queen Titania the little playlet continues to weave a magic spell. There is little so heart stirringly poignant than little Thisbe, played by Flute wearing a ridiculous wig and using a farcical falsetto voice, clutching Pyramus to her bosom and crying:

What dead my dove?

O Pyramus arise!

Speak, Speak. Quite dumb?

Dead,dead? A tomb must cover thy sweet eyes.

These lily lips.

This cherry nose.

These yellow cowslip cheeks. are gone, are gone!

Shakespeare a Midsummer Night’s Dream
Thisbe dies as played by Sam Rockwell

Thus Thisbe ends Adieu, Adieu Adieu.

Young ( or even old) love when forbidden by family, class, culture, religion forms the backbone of some of our most celebrated literary triumphs over the centuries. From Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Cathy and Heathcliff, through to Marius and Cosette. The words of Colonel Brandon , as played by the inimitable and sadly missed Alan Rickman, in Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility spring to mind;-

the cruelty , the impolitic cruelty of dividing or attempting to divide , two young people, long attached to each other is terrible

Jane Austin. Sense and sensibility

As Jane Austin knew herself only too well.

Love , laugh and weep with all the world’s lovers this week and eat chocolate…………………

lots of chocolate!!

  • References:

Bate J. (Ed) 2008 Shakespeare. A Midsummer Nights ~Dream

Fry S 2017 Mythos

Johnson C (Ed) 2012 J Austin Sense and Sensibility

Martin C (Ed) 2010 Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Goodbye Persephone



It is the time of the Autumn Equinox and our days and nights will be of equal length for a short period;  but very soon the night time hours will lengthen and days will be short as the time arrives for Persephonepersephoneee to descend the dark, dark steps into the underworld and join Hades for the long winter months.

As she does so , her mother Demeter,  sorrows and withdraws into her grieving time. As goddess of fertility , when she is unhappy fertility fades, the flowers cease to bloom, leaves fall from the trees, darkness is upon the land and we enter the grip of winter cold.

In Greek mythology, Persephone was Demeter’s only child and so beautiful was she that her mother and her father Zeus, kept her hidden from the eyes of would-be suitors, intending that she would be forever chaste like Athena and Artemis. This was not to be however, Hades lord of the underworld and brother to Zeus had laid eyes on her and desired her for his bride. He beseeched his brother for her hand which created quite a dilemma for Zeus lord of the Olympian gods. On  the one hand he wanted to please his brother and give him his desired bride but on the other he knew that Demeter would be  furious and when Demeter was angry all the earth would suffer!    So Zeus did……………….

..……………..                 nothing !

He sat on the fence neither accepting nor refusing Hades’ request just prevaricating and blustering, not a  very Lord of the Gods   thing to do.

Unfortunately Hades was not known for his patience, exasperated he took affairs into his own hands, after all Zeus had not said no,  so one morning when Persephone was gamboling about in the meadow, as she was wont to do , he merely opened a chasm in the earth  at her feet and pulled  her down , the earth closed up again so quickly that no-one was the wiser for quite a while.  hadesDemeter was desolate , the earth was plunged into famine and desert as she roamed the world weeping and beseeching everyone she met for news of her missing daughter. Poor little humans, ever the playthings of the gods,  endured starvation as their crops and their animals died, they cried out to Zeus and the other Olympians to save them, but no-one knew where Persephone was . Demeter_mourning_Persephone_1906







Until one day Helios the Titan lord of the sun, who drove Apollo’s sun chariot across the  sky every day , spoke up. No-one had thought to ask him,  up in the sky in his chariot he saw everything that took place on the earth and he told of Hades abduction. Helios

Demeter demanded that Zeus order Hades to return her daughter and of course Zeus went down into the underworld to do her bidding. There is a principle of ancient standing in the underworld that anyone who has partaken of food or drink within the realm of Hades must return  . Persephone had not eaten since her capture except for one lapse… six pomegranate seeds, which you would have thought did not really count, but they sealed her fate . Zeus decreed that she must return to  the underworld for six months of every year . Thus she spends the six months of spring and  summer at her mother’s side helping the flowers and fruits to blossom and the six months of autumn and winter at her husband’s court ruling as the Queen of the Underworld.

Persephone’s time in the Underworld doesn’t appear to be one of total sorrow. The Greek myths show her as a loving consort for Hades and a wise Queen of her underworld realm. Her name occurs many times in the stories,  as heroes descend into the underworld searching for wives or fulfilling perilous tasks it is often from Persephone that they seek aide and advice.


So winter is on the way and it will be time for Persephone to snuggle up with three-headed  Cerberus and  the rather gorgeous Adonis who became her lover …( life wasn’t all bad! ) fill the flasks with nectar and ambrosia and settle down for a cozy hibernation in the halls of Hades.

We will see her again at the spring equinox when she will return to fill the earth with blossom and plenty.







Fry.S. (2018) Mythos. Penguin

Souli S. (1995) Greek Mythology. Toubi publications.

Sullivan.KE (1998) Greek Myths and Legends. Flame tree Publications

Midsummer Magic

The Myth Maze

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…

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Icon of Sorrow

On Monday 26th April 1937 the small Basque town of Guernica  was subjected to an unprecedented barrage of horror as German and Italian planes  blanket- bombed the city for three hours , reducing it to a burning fireball. Afterwards  innocent civilians were indiscriminately mowed down   by machine gun fire   as they tried to escape the carnage by fleeing into the hills. Shock waves rippled round the world as  newspapers graphically  reported the event:-

At today when I visited the town, the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. in the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction …..Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective…. the objective of the bombardment was seemingly  the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. ( Steer Times 28.4)

Out of this event would come the most iconic painting of war and suffering ever produced, one that has grown in symbolic meaning in the intervening years and one that is forever in the hearts of those who have suffered unwarranted  destruction at the hands of the powerful warmongers of the 20th century .

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica


Guernica the painting is a great grey abstract, eleven feet high and twenty-five feet long, looming over its audiences like a great classical carving of supernatural proportions. Picasso transferred his imagining of the horrors onto his enormous canvas in only two months working at frenetic speed and finishing his work in time for the Exposition Internationale in Paris 1937 where it was displayed for the first time in the Spanish pavilion.  The reactions were mixed but many stood in front of the painting and felt the suffering as Picasso had intended , one critic wrote :-

Guernica makes one feel the terrible drama of a great people abandoned to medieval tyrants and makes one think about it …

Within the next three years , the imagined reality of Guernica arrived for the rest of Europe as the horrors of total war descended on the continent and town after town were to follow the fate of Guernica, from CoventryJohn-Piper-Coventry-Cathedral-Screen-Prints-After-Oil-Paintings-Exterior-Detail

to Dresden. Those that doubted the depictions in  Picasso’s masterpiece came to realize that he had captured the absolute lived experience of war   in its raw essence.

Why has the painting of Guernica had such a lasting effect?  It does not specifically allude to the bombing of the town itself but uses symbolic meanings that have resonated within the universal human conscience. Fundamentally it is very Spanish, as it should be with the image of the bullfight at centre stage and the inherent  knowledge that the  innocent will suffer and the brave will not necessarily prevail. The horse is contorted with pain and in its death throes , about to collapse upon the corpse of the dead warrior who is clothed in classical attire.  Three women  look on in various stages of  distress and most poignant , to the right a mother with the limp body of her child is overshadowed by the powerful figure of the bull. The mother and child brings to mind so many images of the Madonna and the powerful bull figure has been iconic in ancient art in a variety of forms.  Minotaur_vase

cave painting



Picasso has therefore managed to combine and fuse the power of the  myth of the Minotaur ( half man, half beast ) with the   deep pathos of the Crucifixion and the chaotic violence of the Spanish corrida. He has  in one masterpiece of a painting  modernized myth and  fused  the ancient and modern worlds so that the painting   speaks of the universality of human suffering,   whilst  also being embedded in community.

Guernica has become the  universally iconic image of the destruction of war. Although first shown in Paris 1937 to rather muted reception its imagery has taken hold of the public imagination . It symbolizes for us all the horror of mass slaughter thinly disguised behind the rituals of  ancient warfare and death. As every country has come to  experience the appalling atrocities that mankind is capable of the painting has become synonymous with the suffering of the helpless pawns of  the powerful. For the Japanese it is symbolic of Hiroshima and for the Americans it  has symbolized both Vietnam and the terror attack of 9/11.  The painting has the capacity to speak to us intimately as individuals whilst also maintaining a universality of symbolic meaning for all.pieta!


Picasso has turned terror into an art form that teaches us something, it depicts the essence of suffering but has taken on a life force beyond the reality to symbolize the fight for freedom and peace and the eternal hope that maybe day

…. mankind

…will learn from its mistakes.

It was the last modern painting of major importance to take a political subject puposfully intending to bring about change. From the day of its first showing, Guernica has continued to shock and to enlighten in equal measure  gradually reinventing itself as a mechanism that speaks of reconciliation and the hope for enduring world peace.

That we seem incapable of learning the lessons of history makes the painting even more relevant and iconic today as ever.






Martin. R 2002. Picasso’s War.

Van Hensbergen. G 2004 .Guernica the Biography of a 20th century Icon



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!!








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


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



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  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.






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