I've been kicking this idea around for a month or two, and the more I thought about it the more excited I felt about doing it. Everything you need to know about the course is over on the Celtic Myths and Deities page. The course starts on November 24th. Come join me!
As a few of my readers might know, this Monday, the 9th of September is Wakes Monday, an old workingmen’s’ holiday not much observed anymore. However, in the village of Abbot’s Bromley, an ancient custom will take place as it has for maybe 700 years. The Abbot’s Bromley horn dancers will make a ten-mile tour of the village and its surroundings, stopping to dance at many points along the way. They will carry heavy sets of reindeer antlers nearly a thousand years old. This is one of the more magnificent and controversial of English folk customs, because everyone has a different idea about its origins and meaning.
There is something about antlers that gets people quite stirred up, and brings out the theories, and I’m not just talking about Abbot’s Bromley. There are other instances of people doing interesting things with antlers, and it’s a natural function of the human mind to try to connect them all, whether they should be connected or not. I suppose there is a “gullible” path of labelling everything as ancient and magical, and a “scientific” path of debunking everything unless there is a stack of peer reviewed evidence. This post is neither. It’s more of a jumble of ideas. Lay the cards out. Make your own spread. Draw your own conclusions, or just ponder on the wonder of things.
For example, there’s the so-called Sorcerer figure from the cave of the Trois Freres in France. This 15,000-year-old cave painting, has spawned many theories and disputes, not least concerning the accuracy of the first sketches of the figure compared to what is actually on the cave wall. Whether it represents a belief in shapeshifting, a shamanic figure, a character from a long-lost myth, or a disguised hunter is an open question. It does seem to be a partially human figure with antlers, though.
You may have seen some sensational reports from sites like Ancient Origins (not a good source of information, in my opinion) stating that the modified deer skulls found at Star Carr, in Yorkshire, are “masks, with carved eye-holes”. These articles are usually accompanied by a suitably angled photo of the headdress to make this look believable, and a mystery-invoking headline. Actually, one of the few things archaeologists are sure about is that these wonderful objects are not masks, and the drilled holes are to allow them to be tied to the head, or perhaps to a cap of some kind worn on the head. The reason this is known is by the way material on the inside of the skulls has been removed to allow them to sit on a human head.
Star Carr antler frontlet
The people who made these antler frontlets were Mesolithic hunter gatherers who lived about 11.000 years ago. They seem to have returned to Star Carr annually to hunt and fish, with red deer being their preferred quarry. The purpose of the frontlets is not fully understood. Were they used in sympathetic “shamanic” rituals to call the deer or to speak to deer deities or spirits? Were they used as a hunting disguise? Or was it some combination of these things?
Whatever it was, the practice must have been widespread. Similar antler frontlets have been found at several sites in what is now Germany. Siberian shamans also sometimes wear antlers in their work, and there are traditional deer dances in many Native American cultures as well. I remember seeing these done in Southern Colorado, or maybe New Mexico, when I was a child. The dancers would have been from the Hopi or Zuni nations, I think, but I’m no longer sure. It was late at night, I was small and sleepy, but I remember that it was magical.
The antler headdresses found at Star Carr are from the Mesolithic period, but interesting things were going on with people and deer in Europe in the Neolithic, too. As the ice retreated and people began to recolonize northern Scotland, and its islands, from further south in Europe, they brought red deer with them. In boats! Genetic studies done a few years ago comparing ancient DNA from these deer to their modern counterparts on islands which they couldn’t have reached by swimming (or crossing ice or land or anything like that) shows that the deer on Orkney and the Isle of Lewis did not come from mainland Scotland, or even from nearby Scandinavia, but were brought from southern and central Europe (possibly Iberia).
This raises a lot of questions. Were the deer tame? If not, how did they get them into boats? How big were the boats? Whatever the answers, deer haplogroups may prove to be an important piece of the puzzle concerning human migrations, and this information gives us a lot to think about as far as the importance of deer to our European ancestors.
Jumping forward now to the 6th century AD, we know that people in Europe were still (or again) dressing up as animals, this time, much to the annoyance of the early church. The Council of Auxerre (circa 578 AD) states that “It is forbidden to masquerade as a bull-calf or stag on the first of January.” And there was another, similar edict about 100 years later. Again, exactly what was going on isn’t clear, and there is no reason to believe that it was “shamanic”. One theory is that is was simply a part of traditional midwinter revels, which involved a great deal of merrymaking and dressing up, and in which the idea of reversal was important. This was a kind of role reversal in which kings might behave as servants and paupers as nobility. When the ordinary rules of society were not only suspended, but meant to be flaunted, and this included dressing up as animals and in other disguises – perhaps the better to avoid being called out later by the clergy or other offended parties.
The first written mention of the horn dance at Abbot’s Bromley is in 1686, although the hobby horse which is also part of the dance, is mentioned in 1532. Many in Abbot’s Bromley, itself, say that it was performed at the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226. The antlers, themselves, have been studied and carbon dated to the 11th century, and originate from domestic (castrated) reindeer – which were probably not a feature in any part of Britain at that time. However, the story goes – the dancers will be out on Monday!
Further reading and viewing
One interpretation of Star Carr (documentary clip)
Thoughts about the antler frontlets (documentary clip)
The cult of the deer and "Shamans" in Deer hunting society - Nataliia Mykhailova
Colonization of the Scottish islands via long-distance Neolithic transport of red deer (Cervus elaphus) - David W. G. Stanton, Jacqueline A. Mulville and Michael W. Bruford
Becoming deer. Corporeal transformations at Star Carr - Chantal Conneller
Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance Short documentary
The Stations of the Sun – Ronald Hutton – Oxford University Press 1997 – discussion of Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance p90-91
Holding the World in Balance – Terri Windling – wonderful blog post about deer dancers all over the world, illustrated with amazing photos.
Imagery of water horses and kelpies is popular these days. Most of it features creatures with sharp teeth and evil glowing eyes, maybe with a skull head inspired by completely unrelated folk traditions. However, most folklore describes them as beautiful horses, capable of enticing people onto their backs because of their fine appearance.
The first time I read a story about a water horse was on a trip to Islay. I had checked an old volume of folktales out of the library in Edinburgh to take with me for holiday reading. I wish I could find that particular volume, or that specific story again, but I don't remember the author or title of the book.
There is something electrifying and shocking the first time you read or hear a water horse story, that never quite leaves you. There are many, many stories of the each uisge (water horse) in these old collections, and as best I remember it, the one I'm thinking of ran like this:
Some lasses had gone to the summer sheiling with the cattle. One evening they saw a magnificent black horse wearing a saddle and bridle richly decorated with silver. He was prancing up and down the shore of the loch. One girl, in particular, was fascinated, but her friends convinced her to stay away from it. However, the horse was persistent, appearing tame and friendly, and seeming to invite them to ride. Finally, the lass mounted up, and of course found that she was stuck fast to the beast. He took her into the loch and drowned her.
Water horse folklore is common all over the British Isles and Scandinavia, with each area having its own beliefs about the details of the creature, and its own style of story. I've written here previously about the Shetland njuggle, and there is more than a whiff of water horse about my story The Wild Mare, which features in the chapbook you can see toward the bottom of this page.
The poem below is inspired by another common variant of the story, also from the Scottish highlands, in which the horse shapeshifts into an attractive man who courts a girl. As they are sitting cuddled together, he dozes off and she notices some clue as to his real identity - hooves for feet, or sand in his hair. In some versions she manages to cut away the part of her apron where his head lies, and so make her escape. In others, she isn't so lucky. But what if she is just too lovesick to do that?
The form of the poem hints a little at the style of both Scottish ballads and Gaelic songs. My head is always full of those, like this one, whose title in English would be "Maids of the Sheiling". Don't let the Gaelic put you off, there's a translation below the video.
I published this poem on my Patreon page back in April. That's always a good place to check for new pieces of writing, including poems.
Here by the Sheiling, Here by the Loch
My ears are keen, my breath is warm
A chapbook collection containing the short story The Wild Mare, plus four poems which share the theme of horses.
Size 8.5" x 5.5"
I’m hardly the first person to honour Macha at Lughnasadh, but the reasons behind that might not be clear to everyone. First, honouring Macha does not mean that I am rejecting the tradition of honouring Lugh and Tailtiu at this time. I think Lughnasadh has room for all of them, and more deities, besides, if you want to bring them in.
According to old Irish texts, Lughnasadh was instituted by the god Lugh to honour his foster mother, Tailtiu, who died clearing land for agriculture. The agricultural aspect, particularly harvesting grain, would make sense for a festival at this time of year. Lughnasadh/Lammas was a time of important agricultural fairs all over Britain and Ireland until the mid-20th century. Once the grain was harvested, rents had to be paid, agricultural workers might look for a new position, marriage bargains were often struck, and people were looking for a bit of fun, too.
In Ireland, Lughnasadh fairs, or óenacha, might also include athletic games or horse racing. Two of the most famous of these fairs were held at Emain Macha, near Armagh, in Ulster, and at Teltown, County Meath. The fair at Teltown (Irish Tailtin) is the one said to have been instituted by Lugh in honour of Tailtiu.
When Lugh was older, Tailtiu is said to have cleared the wood of Caill Chuan, creating a large clover-covered plain, ready for agriculture. This work was so arduous that she died from exhaustion. On her deathbed she asked that Lugh hold a fair with games in her memory, which became Lughnasadh. You can read the passages from the Irish texts which tell this story at this link.
This story is used to explain both the origin of Lughnasadh and the naming of Teltown/Tailtin, but there are two other stories in Irish texts which are uncannily similar. One refers to a shadowy goddess called Carman (or Carmun), in whose honour a fair was held every three years in Leinster, possibly at Carlow. Carman came to Ireland from Greece during the time of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was an evil sorceress, and brought her three equally evil sons, who plundered and pillaged. The Tuatha Dé Danann drove the sons away, keeping Carman as a hostage against further invasion.
According to the Rennes Dindshenchas, “Their mother died of grief here in her hostageship, and she asked the Tuatha Dé Danann to hold her fair at her burial-place, and that the fair and the place should always bear her name. And the Tuatha Dé Danann performed this so
long as they were in Erin.”
At the End of a Harvest Day by Willem Carel Nakken
Which brings us to Macha. While the fair at Teltown was associated with the high kings of Tara, the one at Emain Macha was associated with the Ulaidh, or kings of Ulster. The Dindshenchas associate the naming of Emain Macha with several of the different Machas we know from the Irish texts. First, Macha the wife of Nemed, who had a vision of the sorrow which was to come because of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). This vision causes Macha wife of Nemed to die of sorrow, after Nemed clears twelve plains, the twelfth being Magh Macha (the Plain of Macha), where Emain Macha is located. The story seems to be eating its own tail, since it is the curse of Macha, wife of Cruinniuc, which makes things so difficult for the Ulstermen in the Tain. A curse which is delivered at the fair at Emain Macha.
The story of Macha Mong Ruadh (red-haired Macha), daughter of Aed Ruadh, is also given as a reason for the naming of Emain Macha. This Macha won and held the kingship she inherited from her father, variously killing, marrying, and enslaving those who opposed her rule. It was said that she forced the cousins she enslaved to build Emain Macha.
The video below might help you make sense of these tangled strands.
It should now be easy to see why the goddess Macha has a strong claim to be honoured at Lughnasadh. Her associations with horse racing, with Emain Macha and its fairs, have deep meaning for me. I also feel that the story of Macha, wife of Cruinniuc, provides us with much to think about as far as how we treat the goddesses of sovereignty and the land they represent. Are we showing them respect? Are we treating them well, or using them thoughtlessly?
Another name for Lughnasadh is Brón Trogain, which means something like “sorrow of the earth” and includes implications of the pain of giving birth. In each of these stories I have shared, we see sovereignty goddesses ending their time in pain, sorrow, or bondage. As hostages. As work horses. What is the real message of these tales for us today? I can’t help feeling that we are too quick to apply a story of almost Christ-like sacrifice to these goddesses of the land, who die in pain and grief so that the people can eat. Are we okay with sacrificing women’s sovereignty, nature’s sovereignty, for this? Or should we be reading these myths as cautionary tales?
detail: A Rest in the Fields by Jules Breton
Links to most sources are in the texts, but for further reading on Brón Trogain I recommend these blog posts:
This post is full of unanswered questions. I hope it might start a conversation.
I’ve been living deep in mythology for the past couple of years. I believe the Mabinogi, in particular, holds an important message for us that I hope to share before too long. I feel like this way of looking at myth is a little out of step with what the majority of other Pagan writers have to say.
The psychological approach of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell has primed us to read myth with an eye to self-analysis and personal development. Any story, old or new, can offer us inspiration and self-insight. Even characters in novels and films can influence and motivate us. That’s fine, and characters in myth, whether they are deities or mortals can do the same. But if that’s all we can gain from them, then we don’t really need myths at all, and I think that we do.
I’ve said before that I consider myth to be a deep distillation of human experience, and of our relationship with the gods. As such, it will always be open to individual interpretations. However, that isn’t the same thing as simply mining it for personal meaning or messages, valid as those may be.
We need to remember that we live in groups, in a society. We need to remember that all things are connected. It’s not all about me, and my suffering, and my dreams. It’s not all about my tribe’s happiness and survival. It’s not all about the human race, and its cultural productions and social ills. We need to consider what messages myth has for the greater us, and those of us who study myth need to be fearless in talking openly about what we think those messages are.
I sometimes hear people talking about the meaning they find in the story of Rhiannon, in the the Mabinogi. Often, in this type of discussion of deities and myths, they are finding identification with Rhiannon, and some useful motivation that helps them in their daily life.
Of course I am pleased for them, because life is hard and if you can find something that helps you get through it, you are blessed. But in this case, I wonder whether they are necessarily blessed by the goddess Rhiannon, so much as by their own understanding of the story at a rather superficial level. (I’m basing that on how they talk about the story, not on my own assumptions.) It’s not up to me to judge someone else’s experience, but examining their interpretation is still worth doing. Especially if they are leading workshops, or publishing their thoughts.
The vast majority of the stuff which happens to female characters/deities in the Mabinogi (and to a bit lesser extent in Irish myth, too) isn’t good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that women in 21st century developed countries are generally getting a better deal than the heroines/goddesses in these stories. If I felt I needed a figure to emulate, someone to inspire me to be a better person, I could find better models in both fiction and real life. Which brings us back to the question I asked at the start. What is mythology for?
Another question is that if the gods aren’t simply there as archetypes or examples to identify with, what are they doing in the myths at all? Are we to believe that these stories literally played out once upon a time among our gods? I admit that I struggle to believe that. I suspect that if more devotional polytheists gave this some thought, then they would also see some slight dissonance when it comes to this approach.
My best guess is that the deities came first, with certain attributes and associations, and that the myths grew up later, probably developed organically over time by the wise and the powerful, as a method of communicating certain ideas. What better way to get people to listen than to cast the gods in the starring roles of the stories? Does it make sense to first identify with a character in a story who possibly acts very badly, or at the other end of the spectrum, is pretty much a victim, and then to offer devotion to that deity as they are in their myth?
You’ll notice that this essay is riddled with unanswered questions. That’s partly because I’m thinking out loud, and also because I feel we need to question the 20th century, psychological, approach to the gods and their myths. Myths can help us to diagnose current problems, help us illustrate them to others, and help us find solutions. I also believe that reading the myths is one path to knowing the gods.
Both of these endeavours require the reading of myths at a deep level. Reading or hearing them repeatedly, not just once. Reading good translations before we go for the fanciful or romantic re-tellings. Comparing different versions of the same myth, or looking at all the stories about a specific deity. Reading them with the attention and respect due their antiquity. If you are not going to do that, then please listen to the voices of those who do, because they have worked on your behalf. And if you are delving deeply into the myths, please share what you are learning, because people need to hear it.
Hoodeners near St Nicholas-at-Wade, 1905 - H B Collis - Wikimedia Commons
“I became a hoodener just after the First World War – probably 1919. … My uncle Walter Trice was then the jockey, but after the war my father dropped out, my uncle who was three years older than me became the wagoner, and I took his place as the jockey. … I remember the horse throwing me into a pile of biscuit tins at the bakery. He also threw me over the counter at the King’s Head. (We didn’t really enjoy it.) We did it because we needed the money for Christmas. … it used to be worse Christmases then than they are now – used to be snow on the ground and that. And walking back from Minster or Monkton wasn’t a joke, really.”
As my regular readers know, I am deeply interested in customs involving horse disguise, so I was excited when I heard that Kent-based Ozaru Books was bringing out a major work on the Kentish Christmas-horse custom known as hoodening. Along with similar customs like the Mari Lwyd, hoodening has experienced an upswing in recent years, with many groups adapting it to modern sensibilities and giving it new life.
This is not the first book to be written about hoodening. In 1909, Percy Maylam, a solicitor and folklore enthusiast from Canterbury published a small but important book on what appeared to him to be a dying tradition. Early 20th century modes of travel and communication made research on rural customs difficult, and the hooden horses were still a little more active than Maylam realised. Nevertheless, his book “The Hooden Horse: An East Kent Christmas Custom” preserved much information that would have otherwise been lost. Copies were much sought after during the folk revival of the 1950s and beyond, until in 2009 a new edition of Maylem’s original book was published by The History Press, making it available again.
Both instances of the publication of Maylam’s book helped to keep the tradition alive, and to enable revivals, but much material has surfaced about 19th century hoodeners since 1909. George Frampton’s new book “Discordant Comicals” fill in gaps in Maylam’s work and follows the progress of the tradition through the 20th century, and up to the present. As you can imagine, this is no small feat.
Frampton has been active on the folk scene for decades as a participant, organiser, and author, so the reader is in confident hands. I didn’t find this an easy book to read from cover to cover but it will be a gold mine for researchers and enthusiasts and is extremely well indexed. It is also liberally illustrated with both modern and historical photos, which helps to keep you entertained if you prefer to just leaf through and look for interesting bits. And there are plenty of interesting bits!
“Discordant Comicals” re-hashes Maylam’s work extensively, quoting long passages. Maylam’s writing was clear, and not overly florid, but otherwise all you would expect of an English solicitor writing in 1907. I’m not sure whether it’s intentional, but Frampton’s own writing style has a similar voice, so I found it useful that all the quotes are set off with indentations and coloured type, otherwise I think I would have had to constantly ask myself whether I was reading a quote or the author’s narrative.
As in many books on calendar customs, Frampton chooses to organise the material geographically, working his way around the area of east Kent that is hoodening’s natural home. Some maps would have been useful here, because I’m sure I’m not the only reader whose Kentish geography is sketchy, and I’m sure there will be interest in this book outside of Kent, because it is rich in new material.
One thing which gives the book depth is the extensive information about the hoodeners of St Nicholas-at-Wade, which has perhaps the most tenacious and best documented hooden horse tradition in Kent. Several lengthy interviews with Tom West and other members of the Trice family help to bring the tradition to life and get the reader into the heads of the performers, and away from the names and dates.
Hoodening is a living tradition, and therefore in a constant state of change. Like many similar customs it has passed from the casual, matter-of-fact hands of the working class, to the much more self-conscious hands of mostly middle-class professionals whose motivations are different from those of their predecessors. This book provides a fascinating look at how that came about, and how it has both altered the tradition and preserved it for new generations.
One morning last week I decided to do a candle meditation, instead of my usual "eyes shut" style. No sooner had I begun to gaze at the flame than I received this message/download or whatever name you want to give it. When it came to an end, I wondered whether I would be able to recall it to write it down, but that also seemed to be fairly easy. I am thinking about maybe recording it as an audio, later on. Let me know if you think that would be a good idea!
Cailleach by Ashley Bryner
As my regular readers know, I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about Bride and The Cailleach in Scotland. Over the years I have learned just how rich and varied the material we have about cailleachs is, but the more I read, the more I come to the conclusion that no folklorist has really made sense of things, and it isn't something that you can do justice to in a blog post, no matter how many citations you might include.
The modern Pagan practice of talking about "The Cailleach" as if she is one entity is prone to reduce her to a sort of archetype. (Archetypes aren't my favourite approach to spirituality and I consider them something of an insult to deity.) When I started looking at what both early and modern folklorists have to say about her, not to mention modern Pagan writers, I decided that attempting an overview would be a tangled mess I don't have the patience for. One that enough writers have either struggled with or glossed over. However, I have provided a plethora of links, both in the text and at the end, in case you want to explore further.
If Celtic mythology is fragmented and confusing, folklore is even trickier. One reason it challenges us in these times is that by its nature folklore is more localised. People have always moved around, but the scale, frequency and distance are all increasing too fast for highly localised folklore to keep up. And cailleachs tend to belong to specific points in the landscape. Does that mean that cailleachs are an endangered species? I don't know. I don't think so, but I don't claim to understand their seeming resilience, and I am uncomfortable with the idea that human belief has the power to change the essence of the gods/not gods. All I can say is that perception of cailleachs/The Cailleach is certainly changing. Where a few centuries ago she was a character who was generally respected but dreaded, she seems to be moving inexorably toward something a little more benevolent. That's easy to believe, from the comfort of a 21st century lifestyle, where winter storms are no longer a threat to life or livelihood, but I think it's a long way from the truth.
The Paps for Jura from Islay - Brian Turner - Geograph
My first encounter with The Cailleach was in folklore concerning The Island of Jura collected by Iain Og Ile (The folklorist John Francis Campbell of Islay). These, and the stories of The Cailleach washing her plaid in the Corryvreckin whirlpool off the coast of Jura were of special interest to me because I used to frequently visit Islay, which is very close to Jura, and from which one constantly sees The Paps of Jura. Then of course there were stories of The Cailleach and Bride, so elaborately told by D. A. Mackenzie, but very likely not an original piece of folklore in the form he published. Over time I came to know more folklore connecting cailleachs to deer, the weather, creation of the landscape, and so on. I came later to know about the Irish folklore of cailleachs, and it's fascinating, too.
Most people today first encounter cailleachs on the internet. A picture of a winter hag, a well or badly written blog post, and a general assumption that all cailleachs are just facets of The Cailleach. It is in the landscape that you will find her. Or Her. The one, the many. Perhaps that is cailleach nature - to be in many landscapes. To be there whether you recognise her or not.
So what of March 25th as Latha na Caillich (Day of the Cailleach)? This date has been important as The Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day since at least medieval times, and was even used as the first day of the legal/taxation year for several centuries in England. It is an English "quarter day", but not a Scottish one. However, it is very close to the Vernal Equinox, no matter what religion or government you recognise, and this is generally a time of heavy spring storms in coastal Britain and Ireland. If the battle between winter and spring seems to begin in February, with a mixture of warmer days and harsh storms, the the final blow-out of the equinoctial gales of late March is the end. A few days after the actual date of the equinox usually sees more settled weather, and this is probably how Lady Day came to be Latha na Caillich.
You only have to read my poem Cailleach Rant to know that I feel great admiration and respect for her. And so I will honour her today, even though I'm not entirely sure that it is particularly traditional to do so. Like others, I have a tendency to conflate different cailleach stories and to honour a figure who was traditionally only feared. In Scotland, she has always been a personification of winter storms, and perhaps now that we have stupidly overheated our world we realise that we need her. I question, though, whether she has much interest in the desires of humanity. Before you paint her as a mother goddess, know this: She has always been a misanthrope. A guardian of deer and boar, of high, wild places, a fighter for wildness, a lover of stone and ice. We could use her on our side, indeed, but we would need to be on Hers, first.
Some of these are also linked in the text above, but it seemed better to repeat them here.
Latha na Caillich A discussion of this day as a holiday from Brian Walsh
La na Caillich An in-depth look at the day from the excellent Tairis site, with many citations
Fools, Cuckoos, The Lady and The Devil - another discussion of La na Caillich, this time from Scott Richardson-Read, including citations
Cailleach folklore in John Francis Campbell's Popular Tales from the West Highlands, including the story of MacPhie and the Cailleach, set on Jura
Beira, Queen of Winter - D A Mackenzie's possibly fanciful telling of the story of Bride, Angus and The Cailleach
Bride and the Cailleach - a good exploration of their possible relationship, with many citations, at Tairis
The Cailleach, or Hag of Winter - a very interesting collection of cailleach stories from folklorist Stuart McHardy
Cailleach Beinn na Bric - translation of a Gaelic poem concerning the Cailleach, interesting for the concepts it contains. You may need to scroll up one page for the introduction.
The Book of the Cailleach - this is a scholarly review of Gearóid Ó Crualaoich's book of the same name by folklorist John Shaw. Included because it provides an interesting discussion on Cailleach folklore in Ireland
The Witch of Jura - a brief telling of the MacPhie legend
Coming of the Cailleach in the British Isles - a mixed bag of information from Rachel Patterson
I've always loved the Uffington white horse. It was an important messagenger to me from Epona, a very long time ago, along with several of the more modern chalk horses which grace Wiltshire, where I spent a fair bit of time in the 1980s. At that time, I didn't know the history of any of these horses, or understand the vast difference in age between Oxfordshire's Uffington horse and the others. I certainly wasn't consciously devoted to Epona at that time, or involved with horses, either. But there is something about travelling down the road in a car, or on a bus, and suddenly you are looking at a large white horse in the landscape. Often it's distant and mysterious, occasionally up close and imposing. It just does something to me.
The Uffington Horse is about 3,000 years old. Britain's chalk hill figures are/were created by cutting away the upper layer of sod and soil and then are usually filled in with chalk rubble to make them uniformly white. This has to be renewed fairly regularly, or the sod will simply re-grow and the figure will disappear. It's possible that for every hill figure we see, there are many more which are lost forever, because if it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said for maintaining a hill figure. Someone has to care enough to organise people to keep the figure looking good, and a lot more someones have to be willing to put in the hours to actually do the work. This makes the existence of the Uffington horse an amazing feat of continuity, if nothing else. Until sometime in the 19th century a fair was held during the scouring of the horse.
No one is sure who made the Uffington horse, or why. At over 300 metres long, it is too big to be appreciated from up close, but can be seen clearly from the other side of the valley, and from the air. It might be the symbol of a Bronze Age Celtic tribe, or devotional art to a deity (Epona, Rhiannon, and Bel/Beli Mawr have all been suggested). There are vaguely similar stylised horses on Celtic coins and in other Celtic art from the Iron Age, like the Silchester horse. If you look closely at these, you can get a sense of how the lower part of the face of the Uffington horse might have ended up so beak-like. There is evidence that the horse has changed shape and position quite a bit over time.
The Silchester Horse. Iron Age artifact.
However, it's not the history I want to talk about, but the motivation that people have felt to keep it alive for so long, and since the 18th century, to start placing other horses in the landscape. And when I say in the landscape, that's what I mean. To carve something directly into a hillside seems more imposing, to me, than just putting up a statue of a horse -- even a large one. As soon as one makes a realistic statue of something, it has a different impact on the psyche, I think, than something which is stylised and carved directly into the landscape, or which becomes a new feature of the landscape, like the 21st century Kelpies, in Scotland, or Sultan the Pit Pony, in Wales.
Another horse that intrigues me is The Black Horse of Bush Howe, in Cumbria. Whether it is wholly or partially a natural patch of black scree is among its mysteries, but there is folk memory of school children "trimming" it, to help keep its shape in the 1930s and 40s, and before that of local farmers setting aside a day to do the same. If that's the case, then people were either accepting of its shape being only vaguely horse-like, or it has deteriorated. I love this part of the world, which is home to semi-feral herds of Fell Ponies. Reading about the Bush Howe horse was part of the inspiration for my story The Wild Mare.
As I was thinking about this article, and wondering what to write, I was looking through images of some of these horse figures, and decided to post a few on facebook. It was just a few images and a couple of sentences of text, but it got huge attention. I wonder what people find so exciting, but it excites me, too, and I'm thrilled to see so many really beautiful and excellent new horses appearing.
(Click photos to enlarge.)
In another piece of synchronicity, some friends were discussing Sultan this week, and wondering whether such places would appeal as new places of pilgrimage - especially to devotees of the horse goddesses. One or two people felt that they lacked meaning because there is no devotional intent behind their creation. Personally, I disagree. First, because I don't think devotional intent is limited to religious or Pagan devotion. Many people feel a kind of devotion to horses as an idea of beauty and wildness, or alternatively as allies of humans in ventures like agriculture, war or coal mining. They want to offer homage and thanks for what horses gave, and gave up, to do this. (I personally think this is a bit like thanking slaves, but we won't go down that road any further today.)
The second reason that I feel that these new horses make sense as pilgrimage and devotional sites, is that I believe that they must be very appealing to horse deities as potential places for us to go to honour them, and to commune with them. If you put a giant, attention grabbing horse in the landscape, why would a horse deity not find ways to take advantage of it? It fills the eye and it hits people in the pits of their stomachs. It's brought them halfway to something potentially spiritual or devotional already. If those of us who already feel some devotion add our intent to the mix, who knows what the overall effect will be?
Postscript: This evening as I was finishing up this post, I watched a documentary about the making of the Kelpies, and two things struck me. First, the enormous amount of negative environmental impact that went into the making of this installation has to be acknowledged. Scenes of excavation for the foundations, laying of vast amounts of concrete and other use of materials can't be denied, and I don't feel great about that. The second is the huge effort that was put into this project by so many people. And, yes, they were probably all paid handsomely, but years of effort, especially by the artist must be acknowledged. This is the reality of our anthropocentric view of the world. We do some harm, we create something amazing, and we rationalize it.
My ears are keen, my breath is warm
A chapbook collection containing the short story The Wild Mare, plus four poems which share the theme of horses.
Size 8.5" x 5.5"
My early childhood spent playing on the lawn with dogs, and with daydreams, was overseen by tall, swaying elms. I used to lay on my back and looked up to where their crowns almost met, at the always-blue Colorado sky. I knew their trunks as individuals that I can still see. The one nearest the back steps had an inverted V scar that wept sap on its west side. It occasionally shed a limb onto the roof, worrying my father. The one by the swings, with phlox growing under it, was small and slender with bark almost black. My father said it was a different species. For awhile, there was a washing line tied to it. The biggest one grew in the corner by the alley and seemed a giant to me. There were three more along the side of the yard by the street. Neatly spaced and similarly proportioned, they stood like brothers.
Elms ringed the whole house. They were responsible for keeping it cool in summer. In return, we watered our shaggy, eccentric, old-fashioned lawn, and the elms drank, too.
Near the driveway there was an old crone of a mulberry, making it risky to hang out washing or park cars when the berries were in season, because the birds shat a loose profusion of violet emulsion everywhere until the mulberries were gone. We never ate them.
Further out, toward the vegetable garden there were more elms, but they were wild, unkempt, brushy things with crooked branches. I had a tyre on a rope on one big horizontal branch which my father pronounced safe enough. Overlooking our little plum orchard there was a climbable one, although not being an athletic child I never got very high. When my pet turtle died my mother helped me bury it under that tree, in a tin box. Sometime later I secretly dug it up to see what had happened. It was red as rust, like the box. The climbing tree was my witness.
When the plums came ripe at the end of the summer my father and I picked them, filling buckets and baskets and bowls, and stuffing ourselves all day long. It must have been the perfect environment for them, because the only care they got was water. I don't remember anyone making jam or drying them. I think we just ate as many as we possibly could and gave the rest away. The cherries were a different story. I think there were two trees, maybe three. They produced something we called Black Rag cherries. They were seriously sour, which I considered a major disappointment, but my mother would be in a flurry of excitment, because she used them to make cherry pies.
My mother was a legend in her own mind at making cherry pie. We put the cherries through a mechanical cherry pitter which screwed to the kitchen table, and you turned a crank. What didn't go into pies then were frozen for more pies later. I've never liked fruit pie. They say my mother's pastry was first class, but I didn't care for that dry, flaky stuff. Still, it was a few days of diversion and I thanked the gods of the supermarket that we could go there and get some nice sweet cherries that could be eaten fresh, and not wasted in pie.
It was under the wild elms that I used to help my father cut firewood. As well as a good supply of fallen elm branches, he had a collection of massive pieces of cottonwood (the other main local tree) which we would try to split with metal wedges and big hammers. We had hand saws for cutting the elm branches. It was hard going, but I worked my apprenticeship from gathering and breaking kindling to carrying and stacking, taking one end of the two-man saw, through to solo sawing and taking the odd swing at those wedges with the hammer. Usually, we talk about the combined ages of two people working together, but in my father's case, I think you would need to subtract my age from his to really understand the situation. As I grew, and could do more, he was able to subtract my years from his own age, and continue cutting as much wood as he could at fifty, which was his age when I was born. At ten, I could take ten years off his fatigue level. At eighteen I left home, and when I came back for a visit, my father had bought his first chain saw.
So I've made it this far without mentioning the dreaded Dutch elm disease. I've always felt that it's unfair to define an entire genus of trees by a disease. Yes, Dutch elm disease has killed countless trees in Europe and North America, but plenty have survived, and people's unwillingness to plant them, or even tolerate them, has also contributed to their absence from the modern landscape. Since the 1920s, programmes in many countries have been working to finding resistant trees in the existing population as well as breeding new varieties with resistance. No elm tree is completely immune to Dutch elm disease, as far as we know, but there are beautiful and resistant varieties available in the US and in Britain.
It's also very likely that although there has been a surge in problems with the disease since the 1920s, it has always existed. Historically, there are reports of what sounds like the disease in the 17th and 19th centuries in England. Looking back much further, we know that there were big declines in elm populations in NW Europe around 4,000 BC and 1,000 BC. The first decline has been blamed on neolithic farmers, who probably were partly responsible, because they cleared land for agriculture, and also coppiced elms for animal feed. However, it appears that some form of the same disease we see today was also partly responsible. Perhaps the disease is in some way cyclical. Maybe it is more prevalent when elm trees become too numerous and crowded in an area. Maybe human activity has played a part, too, by moving the diseased wood around, by overplanting in the historical period (especially the 19th and 20th centuries), not to mention the added stresses that industrialisation and intensive agriculture put on nature.
In the area where I grew up, the Siberian elm (often wrongly called the Chinese elm) has become very common. It is now listed as an invasive species in many parts of the southwestern US, and there is no doubt that is has changed the landscape of plains and semi-desert areas, which are not known for large trees outside of riparian belts. Siberian elms are fast growing and extremely drought resistant, and these are the reasons that they were originally planted for shade around houses and along city streets. These are the same reasons that they are now considered to be invasive. Because they are extremely deep and wide rooted, Siberian elms find enough water to survive where few native trees can. This also means that they cause a lot of problems with underground water pipes, septic systems and the like. Most elms are a bit brittle and tend to shed limbs in storms, and Siberian elms are a bit worse than most. These facts, coupled with the huge number of little seed pods they shed in spring (think pale green snow) have earned them the derisive name of "junk trees". However, especially with climate change making shade and tree respiration more desireable than ever, biologists are beginning to suggest that maybe they are not so bad after all. And that green snow, it turns out, is pretty good in salads.
As a child, it never occurred to me that all this tree politics was going on, and when I did get to hear about it, it made me sad. I'd never doubted that trees were persons. I had relationships with them. Not "I shall now sit down and commune with this tree-being" type relationships, just unselfconscious relationships that happen when you spend a lot of time with another living being. That's still how I feel about trees today, and I still love elms.
What does Mabon mean?