I can't remember exactly when I first saw a bluebell wood - but I remember where. It was in the woods near Bridgend on Islay, which remains one of my favourite woods anywhere. I was on holiday there, and I remember booking for the same time the following year, but the spring had come earlier that year, and the bluebells were finished when we visited.
Bluebells - Peace comes unexpectedly. Pleasure and delight. Enchantment surrounds you.
My best bluebell memory, though, is years later. I was riding Iona, my Fell Pony, on an estate near Edinburgh. I was doing some off-path exploring, and I'm sure we were not where we were supposed to be, according to the estate rules. We had followed a sketchy path through the grass and worked our way down a rather steep bank. The sight that unfolded was totally unexpected as we came into a stand of trees. There was a sort of dell, and the bluebells were so thick and bright that at first I thought the burn had flooded and that I was looking at standing water. Both Iona and I found the view mesmerising. I always wonder what is really going through a pony's mind at a time like this.
We stood and looked for awhile, then made our way down into the midst of it. That cliche, a carpet of bluebells, couldn't have been more true. In among them, they were still just as thick, and their light scent hung in the air. Both of us seemed to relax and let go of some tension we had unthinkingly been carrying. Iona gave a big sigh, and I knew she just wanted to stay there. We did, for a long time, and then explored the area, which was thick with blue in every direction. I noticed how the colour was almost indigo in deep shade, but a bright sky blue in the sun. We must have stayed there for hours before we finally tore ourselves away.
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, also known as the English Bluebell, is the plant I'm writing about here. It is also very common in Scotland.
Campanula rotundifolia, or Harebell, is sometimes known as the "Scottish Bluebell". It is a plant of open heath and grassland.
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Bluebells have many associations with fairies in folklore. Tales vary, with some being harmless fun and others more sinister. When this card comes up in a reading, it refers to a feeling of peace and enchantment. This may be a restful and healing experience, or something with a slightly unhealthy edge to it - as in escapism or the feeling of being unable to return to everyday life and get back into the swing of things. We all need times of pleasant daydreaming and rest, but there are times when we have to be careful not to become lost in them.
Barley is vitally important in the history of mankind, especially in Britain and Ireland, right up to the present. The familiar seasonal cycle of ploughing, planting and harvesting is deeply imbedded in our culture. It is truly a collaboration between gods (or God, or nature) and men. Humans first began to cultivate grain, and then to become dependent on it, at a time when they had little back-up. Tribes or villages were so scattered that the hope of rescue or charity in the case of a failed crop was unlikely, so it's no wonder that an elaborate folklore grew up around the rituals of cultivating grain.
When farm work was done largely by hand and at a slower pace, and harvesting grain involved whole communities, there were many traditions associated with things like ploughing the first furrow, cutting the last sheaf of grain, harvest celebrations, etc. Sun Gods, harvest queens, corn dollies and many others have all figured in man's relationship with Barley cultivation. These customs originated at a time when a poor harvest could result in hardship, or even starvation, for a community.
A fruitful collaboration between gods and men. The rewards of sacrifice.
A gift may be used for good or ill,
but the gift itself is good.
Whether we see "sacrifice" as describing a direct gift offered to these powers, or as the sacrifice of our efforts and good intentions, there is an innate human belief in cause and effect on a plane beyond the concrete and tangible. Hence, Barley is steeped in the most elemental folklore and mythology - representing birth/death, male/female, fertility and sacrifice. The Saxons even had a god called Beowa, who seems to have personified Barley. The old folksong called John Barleycorn describes the process of planting, harvesting and threshing grain as if the Barley were human. Most versions contain a reference to man's dependence on Barley either economically, or his dependence on drink. However, a further interpretation of the lyrics is that it describes ritual sacrifice, or the killing and resurrection of Christ/Osiris/Odin/Lugh.
With its many uses - food for man and beast, straw for bedding and thatch, brewing and distilling. Barley is a great gift to mankind. However, alcohol can be a mixed blessing, depending on whether it is simply enjoyed or misused or becomes addictive. Like almost everything that can have a dark side in addiction, the problem isn't the gift (or substance) but whether we continue to relate to it in a balanced way.
Sowing and harvesting can also be a metaphor for any kind of creative activity, particularly collaborative work. Even with today's farm machinery, it is unusual for one man to produce a Barley crop alone from start to finish. It requires teamwork. Possibly the many archetypes and superstitions surrounding growing grain, and luck and fertility in general are all based on a fear of failure - at a time in history when this could mean starvation and even death. However, the news has always been mostly good! Remember - the gift is good, the collaboration is a fruitful one. Just like life itself. In a reading, this card often relates to a project of some kind, or to our work and creative endeavours. It points to the need for sharing the effort of this creation with others and with the gods or universal powers that can assist us. It calls on us to consider the concept of sacrifice, too. What can we offer in return for assistance with a successful outcome? It also reminds
us to use the fruits of our labours wisely, and to avoid superficial and dualistic value judgements. Get in touch here, if you'd like a reading.
If you found this subject fascinating and would like to read more, you might find the following two books to be of interest: The Corn King and The Spring Queen
is a novel by Naomi Mitchison. (Quite a big read.) Amazon UK Amazon US The Ballad and the Plough
is a non-fiction work by David Kerr Cameron, which looks at mostly 19th century Scottish farming customs through the filter of songs sung and created by the farm workers of the day. Amazon UK Amazon US
In honour of the Autumn Equinox, my partner, Mark, and I took a trip to Manitou Springs. We have been there a few times, but typical of people who are (sort of) local, we hadn't given the place much thought. It's a small mountain resort with nice boutiques and a good vibe, a fun change from our daily lives. It was only toward the end of our last trip that I noticed the Cheyenne Spring font on the main street, tasted the water, and all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place in my head. "Oh, Manitou Springs!"
So we decided to dedicate our next visit to finding and investigating the springs -- and bringing jars. Although I remembered to take the jars, I forgot my camera, so the gallery of photos below are not mine. They are from other people's blogs and articles, or from the website of the
local Mineral Springs Foundation,
who produce a free brochure, including photos, a map, and an analysis of the mineral content or each spring. They have done good work in renovating and decorating many of the springs around the town, inviting a number of artists and sculptors to design fonts. The result is a great deal of variation in the ambiance of the different springs. Back home in Scotland the "places of interest" seem to be so thick on the ground that you are tripping over them. Lots of wells and springs, ancient monuments and places of natural beauty. To me, it feels very easy to find places that help me to feel close to the gods, to the spirits of nature or people of the past. Yes, the trees and rocks and soil are sacred everywhere, but I feel less resonance here.
I hoped that these springs might be a good place to feel something like that, but I'm not sure. The town of Manitou happened to be rather busy when we visited, with some sort of festival going on. There was a very friendly and slightly crowded atmosphere, which I enjoyed, but it wasn't conducive to quiet moments of spirituality. At each spring we visited we ended up chatting to people. A few were locals, getting water from their favourite spring, and happy to tell us about its benefits. Most were other people "doing the tour", but hardly anyone liked the taste of the water. Except me. I thought some of it was excellent. Each spring varies quite a bit in its mineral make up, but most of them
are naturally carbonated, and have a high mineral content, which I enjoyed. One or two would take some getting used to. Iron Spring, for example is rather salty tasting and with its high iron content, reminded me of the taste of blood. I particularly liked the taste of the water from Wheeler Spring, which was fizzy and refreshing, and has a more traditional style of font, too. It must be the Druid in me, but I found people's jokes and face pulling about the taste of the water a bit frustrating. I find the stuff that comes out of many a household tap completely disgusting. I don't like many mainstream commercial beverages, either. What the earth was offering, via these springs, tasted so much better to me, but people seem to me to have lost their discernment. Too much soda-pop and Miller Lite, I guess. Visiting the springs was just a box to tick, and a funny story about how bad it tasted to be told later. I haven't delved too deeply into the history of Manitou Springs. Manitou means "spirit" in the Algonquin languages.
Spirit both in the sense of what we might call gods and of the spirits that inhabit all things in the animistic sense. Several local plains tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapahoe peoples, held the area as particularly sacred and knew that the waters had healing powers. Because of the high mineral content of the water, some of the springs had formed natural mineral basins which were ideal for bathing. When European explorers found the area they quickly began to develop it as a spa, with great emphasis put on its healing potential and romantic associations with the local tribes. These settlers, too, valued the water, and the beauty of the area, but had rather different ideas about what was sacred. Over the course of the 20th century the "spa" concept gradually gave way to a more general type of commercial tourism. The area has many tourist attractions, including Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods, and the springs at Manitou became a minor sideline which I don't even remember hearing mentioned.
Manitou Springs became known for its enormous amusement arcade, cog railway and vast selection of motels. Looking at the photos of Soda Spring, below, in 1870 and the present, I know which I prefer. However, I'm glad that perhaps something of the dignity and original reverence for the springs has been revived by the Mineral Springs Foundation. Water in Colorado is rarely a source of peace. It is generally seen as a scarce commodity, bought and sold for unsustainable agriculture, use by growing cities and for sporting and recreation. The saying "Whisky's for drinking, water's for fighting"
refers to the legal wrangling that is almost always ongoing over water, somewhere in the state. Yet holy wells and holy water have gone unnoticed... Because the town was built around the springs, most of them are along the main street or along major traffic arteries. The atmosphere when we visited this time, while pleasant, wasn't great for, say, a few moments of meditation.
I would like to go back on a weekday in the off season, and see how it is then. If you enjoyed this article, you might also like The Divine Connection of Water and Mother Nepesta.
These photos can all be clicked to enlarge, and the captions link to their original sources, which are often quite interesting in themselves.
The Equinox comes to me today at around 2pm. This morning the alarm woke me before sunrise -- and I actually got up! Maybe I was energised by a trip to a group of sacred springs yesterday. (More in a future blog post on that!) The moon is just a few days past full, and was silver, high in the sky. I went to my grove of trees. I took with me some sage, incense, homemade bread, water I collected from a spring yesterday, a candle, and a copy of this poem - which I wrote a few days ago. As I crossed the pasture, the horses came to say hello.
I felt happy. Summer is not my favourite season and I'm looking forward to the cooler weather ahead. In my mind, the moon, still visible as I walked, although it was now light, represented the coming longer nights, while the sun, not yet quite up, represented the summer we are leaving behind. The pastures, and the wider landscape are a mixture of green and gold. We have been in drought for several years, but it broke in July and has rained quite a bit. July and August are the most common months for rain here, which means that autumn often sees a growth of green grasses and forbs among the already mature and dried-off stands of grass. Maybe that was in my mind as I wrote the poem below. I was really longing for the broad leaf forests of Britain when I wrote it.
My little grove of cottonwood trees are very dear to me. They are huge and gnarled, and there is a lateral irrigation ditch running beside them. My boundary fence, the grove and the ditch are all oriented east-west, with the trees between the ditch and the fence. They actually straddle the property line between my neighbour's land and mine. It makes the space feel all the more liminal...
Green and Gold
Into the forest
Into the half light
Oh, how the trees
Hint at the past
Hint at the coming winter
Light of the forest
Half light of the year
Light through the trees
Leaves on the soil
Spirit of change
Scout the path
Show the way
Force of creation
Giving in love
Balance of seasons
Calm and still
Out of the forest
Over the grasses
Green and gold
Turning to autumn
Calling me home
- Kris Hughes
Looking west to my grove just after sunrise, with the moon hovering above.
Looking east, the sun rises behind this squat old willow.
A view from the grove.
I have more equinox-related posts to share with you, so stay tuned! I'm off to enjoy the day...
Sometimes, it's wise to question whether swimming against the tide is worth it. I'm beginning to think that "the Mabon thing" may be one of those instances. The Autumnal Equinox is nearly here, and my social media world has been filled with references to the day as "Mabon" for several weeks. Many people new to Paganism, and some who are not so new, simply accept that name without thinking. If I were to enter a new culture, I probably wouldn't question the names of the holidays, either. I'd assume that these names had been in use for centuries. However, the fact is that "the Mabon thing" has no venerable history - the practice was begun by Wiccan author Aiden A. Kelly in the 1970s - but why? My research has not yielded an answer to this question, I'm afraid. Anyway, why should we care? Wiccans and Neo-Pagans are forging new territory, right? Surely we can call our holidays by new names.
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Mabon is certainly not a word that Kelly simply coined. It is the name of a Welsh deity/mythological character Mabon ap Modron, which literally means "Son, son of Mother". However, there is nothing in the story of Mabon which has links to autumn or the balance between dark and light, etc. which really justifies relating him to this event. One occasionally sees tortuous attempts by modern writers to draw correspondences, but they always seem to me to be reaching very hard and not really succeeding. However, there is no doubt that the name has caught on in a big way, and I'm not interested in trying to stamp out its use. I would just like to raise awareness, that Mabon is the name of a deity, and hope that if people are going to throw that name around, then perhaps they could at least take a little time to learn who Mabon was and hear his story.
Modron is a shadowy figure, and all we are told is that she gave birth to her son Mabon, but when he was three days old he was taken from "between her and the wall", in other words abducted by some supernatural means. He had been a beautiful and precocious child - obviously one connected with the otherworld. The on
ending of the two names also provides a clue that these are not mere mortals. Eventually, Mabon was found and rescued by Arthur (yes, that Arthur) as part of the fulfillment of a quest. You can read this tale, which is part of the longer story of Culhwch and Olwen
in the Mabinogion. If you find it rather heavy going, you might prefer this gentle re-telling by Alison Lilly: The Tale of Mabon
The history and mystery of hedgerows
Hedges have not always been a part of the landscape. The very earliest hedges were created by neolithic farmers when they cleared woodland for crop fields. Narrow strips were sometimes left to delineate territory, and these became the first hedges through a natural process. There are still remains of some of these strip hedges along parish boundaries in Britain, where they often harbour rare species of flora and fauna.
As the neolithic gave way to the bronze age, farming practices became more elaborate and settlements more permanent, and hedges began to be planted to contain livestock as well as to mark boundaries. By the 12th century the enclosure of land was becoming increasingly formal and legalistic, a process which increased slowly for centuries, and then with much greater force and speed from the mid-18th until the mid-19th century. More and more, hedges were about keeping people and their livestock out, rather than just keeping animals in.
Many of the old hedges we see today are remnants of these periods of land enclosure. Happily, although many miles of hedges have since been removed to make way for agricultural changes and urban development, many miles remain, thanks to land owners who saw no reason to get rid of a good thing – and hedges are a very good thing. Where a post and wire fence may control livestock, it doesn't provide a windbreak for them to shelter behind – nor a habitat for birds and small animals, nor shade, berries, flowers and of course oxygen. While doing their work of separation for the common good, hedges truly support us all in many tangible ways.
A separation of territory or ideas that works for the common good.
A shelter for those in need.
If this card occurs in a reading, it might be pointing to any number of things which limit us in some way, but also provide us with positives. One example might be the way a responsible and loving parent controls their offspring. The parent might say “You have to be home by midnight,” but they also provide both material comforts and other kinds of support. The card might also point to the importance of physical boundaries, such as property boundaries, and of finding the right balance with these, such as allowing rights of way or use on the one hand, and respecting someone's privacy or personal property on the other.
When I lived in Scotland I often enjoyed the bounty of the hedgerows, particularly at bramble picking time. It also gave me elder flowers and berries, hawthorn leaves, rose hips and a few raspberries if I was lucky. The lanes around East Lothian, where I rode my ponies, were lined with hedges, which offered the ponies a chance to select plants as they felt attracted to them. Animals can be very wise about what herbs they need to keep themselves in balance, if they are allowed access to a wide variety. Animals kept in hedged fields also have an increased choice of healthy nibbles.
Hedges that haven't been trimmed for awhile usually yield the best harvest of berries, and so as I picked brambles I was often facing a wall of greenery, fruit and thorns. As I became absorbed in my search, I could have been anywhere, or in any time. It was a meditative task, and one that easily slipped over into the liminal space of edges, for being so absorbed in the hedge/edge I could easily forget the lane at my back and the stubble field in front of me, as the hedge-world became all.
I sometimes see hedges as a sort of portal in time (at least of the imagination). Not only is the act of harvesting fruit or medicine plants a timeless act, but the hedge, with its history of increasingly enclosing and excluding us throughout history, perhaps represents a distantly remembered longing to go back to a greater freedom to roam, to be allowed in to remembered places now forbidden. Yet, at the same time, we reap this bounty because of its existence.
I sometimes feel chronically depressed for long periods, so when I saw this book on a list of review requests I thought "Great, maybe I'll get some free help!" The idea of a self-help book on depression, written from a Pagan/Druid perspective, was intriguing. When I saw that it was by Cat Treadwell
, of whom I think highly, I definitely had to read it.
Speaking subjectively, I found much in Facing the Darkness
that I think could be useful, but also much that was painful to think about. Thankfully, this is not a book of twee, inspirational passages or bullet-point presentations guaranteed to "fix" you if you just try hard enough. It's a book which acknowledges how grindingly awful depression is, and then says, "Well, since we're here, let's take a look at what's going on, shall we?" It also is written in such a way as to allow that examination to be deeply personal.
Much of the approach here is one of mindfulness, which is such a buzz word these days. I don't think that the M-word is ever actually used in Facing the Darkness, but the techniques are certainly there. I didn't, personally, find this particularly calming, but I see how it can be useful. The clue is in the book's title - running away isn't enough. Sometimes, reading this book was a bit tough. I don't want to create the feeling that this book is somehow brutal, however. Far from it. It is as gentle as it can be and still be helpful. After all, there is no point in telling someone who is already miserable to just be complacent about it. (That's even less use than pictures of kittens with inspirational quotes added.) No, this book just gently suggests, little and often, that you take a look at how you're feeling, maybe at why, maybe try to understand yourself a little better in small doses. And when it's not a good day to do that, it gives you permission to crawl under the bedclothes, or just sit with a cup of tea.
“Do not be judgemental here. None of this is ‘bad’ (or ‘good’) – it just is. These are your ‘symptoms’. Get to know them, and you can work on changing their effect on you.” is a typical quote from the book.
Interspersed with Cat's writing, are a number of short contributions from Pagans who have struggled with depression. Some of these made very good reading, and I think that it was a fine idea to include them. Everyone who picks this book up will probably find identification with some of these writers.
At just over a hundred pages, Facing the Darkness is quite a manageable length, and is definitely a book to dip into, rather than requiring a cover-to-cover approach. Of course I did read it cover to cover, because of this review, but I think that the way I would get the most out of it is to go back and mark the passages that I know will be helpful when I find myself in a dark place.
If this book has a fault, it might be lack of enough organisation. Although an attempt has been made to set the "exercises", or what I would call "things worth trying when you need a bit of help" apart by using bold print, I found it hard to locate passages I liked when I went back to look for them. Somehow the many short chapters make the book as a whole a little amorphous.
I do think that the best way to use this book is as a kind of first-aid kit. Look it over, mark the bits that you think will help you the most, and keep it somewhere handy. Thank-you, Cat Treadwell, for taking the time to write this!
Exploring what works in my daily meditation
I've been managing to meditate morning and evening most days for the past few weeks. This is a big step up from the meaning well but mostly not getting around to it
regime I'd been on for awhile before that. A big part of that positive change has been due to the latest Deepak Chopra 21 Day Meditation Challenge
. The free downloads aren't available any longer, you'll have to wait for the next one, probably in a couple of months, although you can buy them at the link above.
I listen to quite a few audio guided meditations, but I do find that the ones by Deepak are better than most. So I've been trying to understand why that is. Each meditation consists of the following elements:
- Really well constructed music in the background throughout. A different selection each day. - A short introductory talk from Deepak, introducing some basic ideas for self development or self insight. - Toward the end of this, a "centering thought" is introduced. Usually a short affirmation of some kind. - We are given a Sanskrit mantra and told what it means. There is very little progressive relaxation guidance, just the instruction to close our eyes and "Go within." A bell sounds (singing bowl?) and Deepak repeats the mantra a few times, instructing us to repeat it silently whenever we find our mind getting busy. We are assured that the bell will be rung again in a little while, and are then left with the music to just meditate. -
The bell rings, we are instructed to bring our awareness back, and to gently open our eyes when we are ready. Deepak speaks very briefly, mainly concentrating on repeating the centering thought several times, and encouraging us to remember it throughout our day. I'm finding this an excellent format, not only to have good meditation sessions, but to throw in a bit of self-improvement. I usually find that when the 21 day period is finished, I have an "afterglow" in my meditation for a few days, at least. During the latest series I listened to the meditations twice a day, and the afterglow seems to be lasting longer. Everything here seems to work together to create an easy path, but not a shallow one. I want to talk a little bit about why I think this approach works so well for me, and also about how I can reconstruct some of the best aspects without always putting on headphones every day, etc. Music: As a professional (and opinionated) musician, I sometimes find meditation music problematic. I tend to listen to it, and start analysing it, rather than getting into meditation. Or, I simply don't like it. If it's too structured, I start noticing that. If you don't have these problems, then investing in some suitable music might be a good idea. For me, I know that once I have heard a piece a few times, even if it's rather formless, I will start to know it, and that will probably just distract me. So my conclusion is that if music works for you, great, but you will be fine without it.
For myself, I might try some ocean sounds or the sounds of a dawn chorus of birds in a broadleaf forest - or just silence! The Introduction: This is an area I really like. Once you've listened to a few of Deepak's meditations, this little routine begins to set the mood, probably in the same way that lighting a candle, or incense, or some other little pre-meditation ritual does. That's a good reminder to do something to set the scene, if it helps. However, I think that there is great use in the little "homily" for other reasons. It's such a habit for me to put on a meditation audio and immediately close my eyes. However, early on in my experience with these meditations, I had a stroke of intuition that somehow, listening to this part while
looking around my usual environment helped me to fix the ideas in that space, so that these are not just ideas I think about when I'm meditating, but ideas I will carry out into my life. Also, as the routine of relaxing in preparation to meditate gets ingrained, one is listening to these messages in a relaxed and receptive state. Meditation: I find the mantras useful, although the only one I remember without prompting is So Hum (I am).
Even more, though, I like being given the relatively long space provided to just meditate without being fed imagery or instructions. I enjoy fully guided work, too, but I don't find that a steady diet of it gives me all I need. The bell to begin and end also provides a cue that becomes familiar, comforting and evocative of the desired state. Finishing up: Deepak is very good at bringing us back gently and not too fast. The repetition of the centering thought at this point is interesting. I'm sure that the mind is particularly receptive to suggestions while in a highly relaxed state. As long as one is aware of this, there is potential to use it for good.
I can see the importance of thinking about something good and positive once I have ended my meditation session. What I am currently trying to do on my own, the past few days, is simply to have a little talk with myself as I'm getting ready to meditate. I do my best to be gentle and non-judgemental. Right now I'd like to be more active physically, so I just remind myself of all the benefits of that, and talk about how good it would feel, etc. My centering thought has been "I prefer to be active." I think that I am seeing some benefit from this. I'm not sure how long I will find it beneficial to continue with the same idea, but I'll keep going with it for a bit, and I'm already seeing some concrete changes in how I spend my time.
When I feel like I want a change, I'll find something else to focus on for awhile. I'd love to hear about your meditation practice. What works for you? Do you try new things, or keep it consistent? If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The music of what moves you about meditating on the spirits of nature.
Today is Wakes Monday
. Celebrated in parts of England, mostly the north, and much fallen into disuse now. However, it is still the date of a famous annual fixture in the calendar of traditions - the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance
. This is a sort of morris dance performed by six men carrying reindeer antlers accompanied by several other mumming characters and musicians. No one is sure how old the dance is, but the reindeer antlers they use have been carbon dated to around 1050AD. It is unclear as to whether the dance is this old, or indeed it could be even older, some believe that these are actually replacement
antlers. (Did they wear the first set out??) Another theory is that the hobby horse (one of the mumming characters involved) predates the horn dance element, which might have been added later. Yet another possibility is that the dance is a relic of some kind of shamanic rite which might stretch back into pre-history. I like that theory, but that doesn't make it true...
Meanwhile, I have just started reading a recently released book called Elen of the Ways
, by Elen Sentier. So far I'm enjoying it. The quality of writing is high, and if the content is as good as I expect, look for a review of it on this blog in due course. Elen of the Ways is a female deer deity. In a typical display of synchronicity, I heard of her for the first time a couple of weeks ago, when someone referred me to a piece by historian Caroline Wise, also entitled Elen of the Ways
, which references the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.
Here's a nice documentary piece on the dance from BBC 4.
I also wanted to share a video of Thaxted Morris performing a possibly more traditional version of the dance. They dance to the old 19th century tune, which I think is very lovely. Although this tune was in use at Abbots Bromley for nearly a century, it is not as old as the dance, which has traditionally been done to "popular dance tunes of the day".
Finally, here is a link to a third video, not as well photographed as the first two, but rather evocative for being danced in a forest! This is Lord Conyers Morris Men
. Like the Thaxted dancers, they appear to be carrying fallow deer antlers. Embedding is disabled on this one, so just click the link. Happy Wakes Monday! ____________________ Elen of the Ways, by Elen Santier is currently available for Kindle for just 99 cents. (I don't know for how long )
Exploring the Shetland Pony card from several angles
Preface As some of my readers know, I have been experimenting with readings on relationships with animals. In one of the first readings I did, the Beach card came up. The Beach is one of several cards which describes a "thin place" or a liminal space where two entities converge. In Celtic spirituality, such places are particularly magical or prone to "supernatural" happenings. As I considered this reading I realised that there are points in human-animal relations that have this powerful, liminal quality, and that both animals and humans may experience this. I am talking about something different than simply sharing love or affection, companionship and mutual support. I think these experiences draw their power from the essential differences between the human and the animal involved. While the opportunity for such moments may always be there, many of us don't experience them, or only rarely, although part of our attraction to animals may be that we recognise the potential for them at a deep level.
I once did a reading for someone who was constantly plagued by feelings of both anger and anxiety. This card was central to her reading. It turned out that her husband was somewhat verbally abusive, but what she found most hurtful was that he never took her seriously, no matter what she did or said, he'd consider it childish or silly. The Shetland Pony is a card of the misunderstood, of the one not taken seriously. Frequently the response is to avoid eye contact and just put up with things, or to find an outlet in rebellion.
As I see the Shetland Pony card - someone is not treated with dignity. (Enough, in itself, to create some anger....) There are some things that certain people will probably never understand or be able to take seriously. If you are the pony you will probably find a way around this, enough to get by in the situation, without giving up everything! However, you may find that you are constantly nagged or teased by friends or family because of your interests or tastes. Writing this, I have a little twinge of guilt, as I know I've been on the "dishing out" end of this, as well as the receiving. Sometimes these things are about scoring points, other times just a failure to take others seriously. Patronising is a word that comes to mind!
This failure to understand, and to think we know best, carries over into impatience when we find that the other person has dug their heels in over "something silly". But we're all afraid of something silly! I know people who would rather jump out of a plane than give a speech in public and others who would prefer to have a tooth pulled than learn to use a computer. Just as we might see someone's refusal to do something as stubborn, when they are really afraid, so we may make the same misjudgement about ourselves. Then we come up with phrases like "It's just the way I am, " or "No way am I doing that, it's stupid!" because these positions feel less threatening than simply saying, "I'm scared. You'd have to be really patient with me for me to even try that."
This is the obvious and "top layer" meaning of the card. It's the one I would probably focus on when it comes up in someone's reading. However, I knew there was more to this card, and for days, I have caught glimpses of it and wrestled with it, but there were missing pieces. I hope that I have found, if not all the missing pieces, at least enough of them to show us the way...
Water horse, liminal horse.
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In the Shetland Islands, there is a creature called the njuggle (or njogle - there are lots of variations.) This creature is part of folklore, and until recently, part of folk belief. The njuggle (pronounces nyuggle) is essentially a supernatural Shetland pony, who is associated with bodies of water such as lochs and streams. It seems that many bodies of water in Shetland have one. One habit of njuggles is to prance and parade up and down the banks of their home water, often beautifully saddled and bridled, enticing some hapless human to mount them. As soon as this occurs, they plunge into the water with their rider and give them a good dooking, or in some sinister versions they drown and even devour their victim. Most Shetland njuggles are more the playful type, though.
Some readers will recognise the Scottish/Irish Kelpie, or "water horse", in this description. (Forget the whole 2007 movie of the same title - just forget it. We're talking about someone's traditional beliefs here, not about Hollywood.) There are certainly parallels all over Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, where such creatures are sometimes called the nøk, or nyk, etc. Etymologists tell us that this may well be the origin of referring to the devil as "Auld Nick" as well as possibly relating to sea gods like the Celtic god Nechtan, and even Neptune (who created the horse, in some myths). Horses and water are frequently linked in both myth and folklore. I've also noticed that if you remove the letter N from the names Nechtan and Neptune, it is possible to see the relationship of both words to early word roots denoting the horse including the Latin equos/equus, the Greek hippos, and the Gaulish epos. These roots gave us words like Epona, pony, and the Gaelic word for horse: each.
Back in Shetland, another common prank of the njuggle was to inhabit the space under mill wheels and stop the wheel when it took their fancy. Maybe they were jealous, as the tails of some njuggles were said to be like wheels, which they used to propel themselves through the water. Or maybe they simply wanted to halt the wheels of "progress" which would eventually drive them into a kind of extinction. In these cases, they could be scared away with fire, like so many of the things we once feared.
At the liminal point between land and water there is a field of energy which at once repels and attracts - where we fear and yet desire to enter the wildness of the water, to give up control of the wildness in us to a greater wildness. The Irish mystic writer, John Moriarty, talked in an interview, about this need for wildness ~
"We shape the earth to suit ourselves. We plough it and we knock it and we shape it and we re-shape it. Dolphins were land animals once, and they went down into the sea. They said to the ocean, "Well, shape me to suit you." And now -- the Lord save us, I was in a house in Connemara sometime recently, and I saw a dolphin bone. The curve of it was as beautiful as any couple of bars of Mozart's music. It was so beautiful! I've no bone in my body that is shaped to the earth like that.
"So they said, "Shape us to suit you". We went the opposite way, We shape the earth to suit us - and that's going to fail. Unless there's wildness around you, something terrible happens to the wildness inside of you. And if the wildness inside of you dies. I think you're finished."
For some reason horses offer us a way to make this connection, but not by harnessing and forcing them into our control. Not by "knocking and shaping and re-shaping" them. It is only when we find a way to merge our wildness with theirs, or have the merger thrust upon us, that it actually does us any good. Still, this involves some danger. Swimming or putting a small boat out into wild water, riding a horse galloping out of control, both must be similar on the scale of dangerous things to do. There is always vulnerability in liminal experiences. The danger of getting stuck "in limbo", of not finding our way back...of somehow falling through the cracks of our own experience.
Modern people, I think, lack the liminal experiences which were once achieved through ritual, through feeling themselves a part of nature, through rites of passage and though belief in the supernatural. Yet these are things we long for. How and whether modern people manage to recover this part of life may just be the defining questions of our survival, and whether, if we survive, we thrive or we languish. Yet, simply having a liminal experience may not be enough if we don't have points of reference for it. In "traditional" cultures, points of reference were marked by the rituals and prescriptions surrounding various life events, both the pivotal and the routine. They gave an assurance of success to the experience, if not a guarantee. Many folk beliefs, and their associated tales, offer advice as to how to avoid unwanted outcomes within liminal experiences or how to deal with them if they overtake us, and many heroic myths have grown up around dealing with such things.
Much has been written in the past twenty years about our spiritual connections with horses. Throughout human history they have been repeatedly raised as icons of something wild, free, powerful and supernatural. Perhaps only the sea, itself, shares a similar place in our deepest ideas of power and mystery. In northwest Europe, early peoples tended to gravitate to the coastline. Much of the land was boggy, steep or heavily wooded, making travel by sea much easier than by land, and the sea shore provided a bounty. The little primitive horses were probably only interesting as an occasional source of red meat. The sea was everything.
As populations grew and moved slowly inland, and farming and land travel became more important, so did the horse and its many uses. Yet most horses remained essentially wild animals, with many more being "owned" than were ever tamed, and this is still the case today with most of the mountain and moorland breeds of the British Isles, where many are still allowed to breed in semi-wild conditions and only some are tamed. As this shift was made, and men turned more toward the land and less toward the sea, perhaps the horse both replaced, and became mixed with, the sea as the ultimate symbol of unknowable power and wildness. Spiritually, the horse led us back toward the water, and toward our wildness.
The small ponies of Shetland, a land hovering in its own liminal position between Scotland and Scandinavia, are the closest horses we have to the first horses to walk the earth. They are shaped to the earth, and not so much by the hand of man, as most animals we call domestic. As such, I think they are truly an ideal symbol of our longing toward our own inner wildness and a guide into the waters of liminal experience.
Today, the njuggle is often thought of as a story for children. Which may be to say "Something thought to be childish is entirely misunderstood..." More on the ideas in this post -
- This article
contains more than you ever wanted to know about the concept of liminaltiy, which I didn't explain very thoroughly. Njuggles
- My thanks to Adam Grydehøj's paper "The Dead Began to Speak"
for insight into the etymology of njuggles, as well as some great insights into folklore studies. (p 139 for njuggles, nøks, etc.) And thanks to Adam for agreeing to make the entire text available on the internet. The John Moriarty interview link
Radio Essay on Britain's wild ponies _________________________________________________ If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Beach, a series of posts exploring liminal space through myth, or Rambles with the Mari Lwyd, about horse traditions in British culture.