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 simly 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 a 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 synchornicity, 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.
Do you celebrate Epona's Day - or Eponalia, as some people call it? Are you thinking about celebrating it for the first time this year? Here are some ideas for December the 18th, or for any day that you would like to honour Epona, whether you're new to this, or a regular devotee.
There is a single reference to December 18th as the Feast of Epona on an early calendar in Guidizollo, in Northern Italy. We don't know whether this day was observed widely in the Roman (or Celtic) world as a day for Epona, or whether it was a local custom. However, many modern Pagans have adopted this as Epona's special day, so it is a new tradition now.
If you have an altar or shrine to Epona, today is the day to show respect. Clean and tidy it, and the room it is in. Perhaps choose live roses to decorate it, or offer a rose scented candle or rose incense. My ponies used to love to eat wild rose hips at this time of year, and so sometimes I use those on my Epona altar, too.
I always mark the day in some special way, but my practice might vary depending on the weather, my energy level, and my ability to spend time with horses. So I thought I'd share a few of my devotional practices here, so that you can pick and choose. All of these things can be done at any time, as a way to honour Epona and help do Her work, but they are especially appropriate on Her special day.
Spend time honouring Epona.
If you have your horses at home, perhaps it's time to think about a small Epona shrine in your barn or storage area. I used to have mine on a wall in my feed room. I didn't keep my horses in the barn, but the feed prep. area was a place I went daily, and the shrine reminded me to think of my time there as sacred. As a bonus, I think it really encouraged me to keep my feed room clean and tidy. I sensed disapproval when it wasn't!
If you already have an altar or shrine to Epona, wherever it is, today is the day to show respect. Clean and tidy it, and the room it is in. Perhaps choose live roses to decorate it, or offer a rose scented candle or rose incense. Rose hips are nice, too. My ponies used to love to eat the wild ones at this time of year.
Say a prayer.
There are many devotional prayers to Epona on the internet that you can use, or you can write one yourself. You might also like this prayer, which I adapted from an old Gaelic charm to protect cattle. I used to say it every evening at sunset when I turned my horses out onto their night-time grazing. Sometimes I still say it, for all the horses everywhere.
Pastures smooth, long and spreading,
Grassy meads beneath your feet.
Epona's friendship to bring you home
To the field of the fountains,
Field of the fountains.
Closed be every pit to you,
Smooth be every knoll to you,
Cosy every height to you.
Oh, the care of all the band,
To protect you and to strengthen you.
Think more about horse welfare. Give to a horse charity.
Please excuse this digression on horse charities and horse welfare, but Epona is a protector of horses, and I believe that this is highly relevant. There are many charities that help horses. You may already have your favourite. Make sure you do research about the charity you choose. How much of your money actually goes where you want it to go? The bigger the charity, the more likely it is that a lot of money is going to pay someone a big salary, so check! I am drawn to charities that help wild and feral horse populations stay in nature where they belong, but other charities need help, too.
I would like to talk about the pitfalls I see with horse charities. This is only my opinion. You can take it or leave it! Most horse rescue organisations are overstretched. Only a few are in the business of keeping horses under great conditions on their own land for the rest of the horses' lives. The rest depend on re-homing the horses, either by giving them to adopters for a fee, or by fostering them out. The quality of the homes they choose for this varies, so satisfy yourself that their homing requirements include humane treatment of the horse both in how it is kept and how it is used for riding, etc. Many horses find themselves in a downward spiral of re-homing, abuse or neglect. Don't support charities which contribute to that.
Horses need more than food, water, shelter and medical attention. They need to be able to carry out their natural behaviours of free movement (like in a pasture) and natural grazing (health permitting). They need to be with other horses. Ideally, they need access to these things all day, every day. If they are used for something like riding or human therapy, they need for this to happen in a way which causes them the absolute minimum of mental and physical stress possible.
Sadly, not all "rescued" horses go to good facilities to begin with. Some rescues keep horses in small pens or stables most or all of the time. In my opinion, that's no life for any horse, but it is particularly stressful for horses who have been "wild" or had regular turnout in a pasture previously.
Saving horses from "meat men" and "kill buyers" also seems like a generous act, but please read this article and think about the implications before you make up your mind.
Spend time with your horses - on their terms!
If you do have horses, how can you make their day better? If you ride a lot, the answer might be to give them a day off. But whatever you do, let it be their day. Don't "pamper" them by grooming their tangled manes if they don't really enjoy that, or take them on a long "pleasure" ride if they aren't fit enough. Far better to give them a scratch in that one place that's always itchy, or chop an apple into their feed. I used to take my horses out in hand to browse on plants they didn't have access to in their pastures. In Britain at this time of year they might have eaten gorse, rose hips, or things like nettles and thistles which had been tenderized by the frost.
Make life better for your horse.
We all try, I know! But is there something you could change, large or small, that would make your horse's life better? More turnout? More appropriate feed? What about the right to have a choice about the activities you ask them to be a part of? The right to say "no".
Or maybe your horse needs you to change in some way. If you ride do you need to be fitter? Lighter? More balanced? Or maybe you need to learn some relaxation techniques, so that when you're around your horses they don't have to suffer your bad moods. Maybe you need to learn to control your temper better. (I'm not judging. That one was huge for me, back in the day.) Whatever you come up with, this is a great way to honour Epona, and your horses.
Be a willing servant.
Caring for horses is hard work. Most of us do that work in a hurry, or in anger or frustration some of the time. Let this day be different. Think about how each task on your list of chores helps your horse. Owning horses is such a privilege. Deep down we know that, but it's easy to forget - especially in the winter. Give yourself enough time to get your work done right today, and do a great job. Then give yourself a pat on the back. Follow that with a nice hot (or alcoholic, if you prefer) drink to celebrate your relationship with your horse. Maybe pour a bit of it out as a libation to Epona.
What not to do.
Do not offer any food or treats to horses that are not in your care. Although they are strong and sturdy, some horses suffer from invisible illnesses and allergies, just like people do. Some are on special diets for special reasons. If you have a bunch of extra apples or carrots, or something else you'd like to give to horses in your neighbourhood, find the owner and ask. Or leave them somewhere the owner will find them, with a note. I used to love finding bags of windfall apples left by my gate, and I appreciated being able to decide how many to feed at a time!
Also, do not mess with anyone's horses, in any way, without their full permission. Depending on where you are, you may be breaking the law, but more importantly, you could frighten the horse, cause it to injure itself, or be injured yourself. It's just good manners. There is nothing worse than coming home from work and having your neighbour phone you to say, "I saw someone in your field today, messing with your horses." Believe me, it's right up there with someone coming into your garden and messing with your kids. People love their horses, and these things worry them. If they see you approaching their horses, they may get angry with you. That's mostly because they are worried. You do not have the right to approach a random horse because you want to feel some equine energy! If you want to spend time with horses, you can volunteer somewhere, and they will give you a shovel. (Which is another way you can honour Epona, if you don't have horses of your own!).
Have a lovely day!
A couple of things I read recently came together in my mind and inspired me to write this story. I hope you enjoy its mysteries as much as I enjoyed writing it. It seems to fit the season.
There's a wild black mare living somewhere up on the common grazing. She stays at the fringes of the herds. Some say she's their queen. No one has really tried to catch her. I don't think they will. She's uncanny.
One old boy said he saw her and she ran right into a deep reedy pool. Went in head first, he said. And never came up. The next day, old Joe saw her come up suddenly out of the river by the pack horse bridge. Forty miles away.
They know her by a white streak in her tail. You only see it when the wind's just so, or she's swishing it at flies.
No. No one has tried to catch her and I really hope they never try. Humans are awfully clever. They can be bloody minded when they want something. It doesn't bear thinking about.
I followed her for awhile. Not to catch her or to try to gentle her, but because she kept whispering to me. In my morning dreams I'd hear her. Just as I was waking. But I couldn't make out words. How did I know it was her? I just knew. And I would pull on my breeks and grab a bit of bread in my hand to eat later and run up into the hills trying to catch sight of her.
There was no pattern to it. One time I saw her in Joe's herd. Just grazing in among his mares, she was.
She saw me. She held my gaze for what felt like hours but I knew that when I finally had to move she would run. And she did.
I thought she'd go off over the tops but she headed straight through the valley following the river. She was so swift my eye could hardly follow her. Then I heard a lot of splashing
I went back the next day, and the next. There wasn't a pony in sight.
The whispering in my head got louder. It started in the evening, too, when I was sitting trying to relax.
But there were no words to it. Just that sound - a horse's breath, the sound of a swishing tail. But there was a kind of meaning behind the sound. I just couldn't make it out and it was driving me insane. I wanted to hear it clearer, or closer. I was sure there was meaning there. That she had some message for me. Some wisdom or maybe some request.
Autumn came. I was lean as a brush handle from walking the valleys and the tops and I saw her regularly. But I couldn't get close
I swear she had a special smell about her. Like gorse and like roses. I'd stay downwind of her and the smell was almost overwhelming some days. She watched me. Oh, yes! She watched me. And I watched her.
Her mane was long. Long and tangled. It hung in ropes, dragging the ground when she grazed. Her nostrils were soft and flaring. Her back and rump were curved like the back of a beautiful woman.
I decided to stop going out up the valley. It was cold. I realised that I was unkempt. Maybe a little deranged. I cleaned my house and mended my clothes, I went to the shops, I raked the leaves, and went to the pub and played darts. The dreams stopped.
One morning I woke up to someone rattling hard at my door latch. I opened the door just in time to see her. To see her skid to a halt on the stone path like she was headed straight for my door. When she saw me opening the door she spooked. She wheeled ‘round on her back legs and pelted up the road whinnying. I stood dumbfounded, then thought If she was running toward the door, who rattled the latch?
I paced the floor for an hour, drank tea. I shoved bread in my pocket. The frost had burned off by mid-morning. It was almost hot. I wandered the footpaths, scenting the air
Finally I saw her. She was across the valley, two thirds of the way up. She had a different look about her. She was by herself, she looked calm. She was up among patches of black scree. But she was blacker yet in the sunlight
It didn't seem that she saw me as I made my way over tussocks and around boulders. I would have to come down and then up the other side to reach her. It never occurred to me to be furtive. Maybe something had changed. I didn't expect her to run now.
It was hard, getting up the south side of the valley. I followed a sheep path, hoping to cut around the hill toward her. Suddenly the mist came down the way it does. It was a cold mist, but I had been sweating. I remember that. Then I was disoriented. The mist will do that to you. Just come down and blind you. I could make out some boulders and started carefully toward them to sit down and wait things out. It would probably lift again.
I heard her breathing and whispering to me. Then I slipped on the wet scree. I slid helplessly but harmlessly down. Thirty or forty feet, I suppose. I was cursing to myself under my breath. Shit! Shit! I didn't know where I was. I couldn't see where I was. My hip was a little bruised and one side of my body was wet where I lay now on wet grass, not daring to move.
The whispering came again. She could have been right beside me but I heard no hooves. She was comforting me, I thought. I felt comforted.
The mist did lift. I knew I needed to go home. I was cold and wet. I picked my way down and made it to the road by dusk.
I built up the fire, fell into a hot bath and a warm bed. I watched the mare birth her twins and get them on their feet. They suckled while I listened to the mare's breathing.
I woke up late and a bit sore. I sorted the fire and tidied up. I went to the pub and had a big lunch and two pints. It was cold and spitting rain when I came out. Already getting dark.
I tried to have a normal evening. Read a book about local wildflowers. I woke up in my chair by the fire, gave up and went to bed.
I dreamt that it snowed, and there was a lot of noise outside the house. In the morning I went out and there were horse tracks everywhere. All over the garden and in the road. There was thick snow stuck to the sides of the house, and there were horse tracks in the snow on the walls of the house. Probably on the roof, too, for all I knew.
I woke up and looked out the window. It had snowed. I rushed out into the garden searching everywhere for the tracks. I looked in the road and behind the garden walls. There were no tracks.
I went back into the house shivering. I noticed that I was pacing and wringing my hands. I wanted to weep. When I was young I had been deeply and desperately in love. This feeling was similar. And similar, too, to the feeling I had when I was jilted a few months later.
I paced the house, took another bath, went to bed early. The next day I felt better. Life became bearable. The feelings fell away and the dreams stopped.
I went out to the valley a few times. Stayed on the footpaths. Never saw any horses. I tried not to do too much thinking.
I dreamed I was by the Hippocrene Spring where a sleek gray colt recited nature poetry to me. I had never heard such beauty. Birds and flowers, water and trees seemed to flow from his mouth. He flew up toward the sun on Pegasus wings. And for a moment I sat on those powerful shoulders.
I understood why all this was happening. We are all made of stardust. Something to do with meteors and scree. And the wild black mare and I got mixed up together with that black mineral. We both got a dose of it from the same source. And that explained it in the dream. And for a few moments after I awoke it made sense, but then of course. It didn't
I saw Joe in my dreams. He was a boy of fifteen. He was breaking the black mare in to drive. She looked about three years old and she wasn't ready. Joe was hesitant and she stood frozen. He looked at her bridle. He went into the barn. She stood frozen. He took the bridle off. And she relaxed.
What was he doing? Working blinkers onto the bridle. He put it back on her. She stiffened. But he told her to walk on she panicked and rushed between the old stone gateposts breaking the light harness and skidding down the road.
It snowed again. My dreams were filled with snow and the image of the wild mare. Emerging over and over from the river by the packhorse bridge. And a startled Joe, old (as he is now) looking in wonder as she disappears across the hills.
I see the stone gateposts through his eyes. I see his finger reach down and touch the rusty bolt that protrudes from one post, where some tail hairs are caught. There is blood on the bolt and on his finger. An old man's finger.
My dreams are filled with snow. The wild mare is made of water. Snow is water. It's no wonder she can get everywhere. She is in the snow. She is in the water and the black scree. And so am I.
Then spring comes. It comes early. By the end of March grass is outstripping the wildflowers. The morning whispering is starting again. It wakes me, then I lie in bed savouring it. Sometimes I think I can smell the gorse. And the roses.
Not long after Easter I go into the valley one morning with a new idea. A light, damp mist clings to everything. I simply stand by the water. I stand and wait. Calling her in my mind, with my spirit.
She comes and stands right beside me. I stand frozen. I realise how afraid she is of humans. How much this is costing her. Ideas form like her words in my mind.
Tears stream down my face. For what can I do? How can I help her? I try to ask her this but I am standing alone with the sun coming out and the fading smell of roses.
On Friday night I see Joe in the pub. I casually mention seeing the wild mare a couple of times recently.
Joe looks at his hands. He looks out the window.
"I heard she might be yours, Joe. I wonder whether she'd be for sale at all..."
Joe stands frozen. Something in the way he looks makes me feel pity.
"No one knows who that black devil belongs to! Who told you that?"
He's got me cornered there. I tell him I must have misunderstood and offer to buy him a drink, but he makes some excuse and leaves.
I lose a few games of darts and start walking home. Halfway up my road I see her. In the dark, at first I think she's walking toward me. But she is walking away.
I feel completely lost. I don't know what to do. At home I build up the fire but I'm in a blind rage. I fling the poker across the room, break three mugs and throw books against the wall.
Out on the hill, in the night it's lashing rain. The mare is looking for her lost foal. The twin tries to keep up with the mare's frantic movements, but it's cold and tired. She doesn't respond to its little whinnies. She is obsessed with finding the lost one.
There is a flash of lightning. The sodden foal spooks and takes off, running through the dark. It slips on the wet scree. It's dark and the storm is noisy. I can't see anything. In the morning I wake up feeling drained.
Kelpie Weather by Skye-Fyre
I try to make sense of it all. I am tired of this. It's all just blind alleys. It's things I can do nothing about. The pieces of the story don't quite fit, no matter how I try to put them together.
I don't know what a wild mare and foal need. Probably other mares to watch the foal while the mother sleeps. I can't live out on the hills. People would be rounding me up, never mind the mare!
The only thing I can think would be to bring the mare down and put her in my back garden for a few months. But people would notice. A mare like that wouldn't like it there. I’m don’t even know whether it’s legal. Then I laugh at myself. I'd never catch her!
The dreams are all I know for a fortnight. The whispering in my head is strong and I feel like a ghost.
Twice I go up the valley. I stand by the river but she doesn't come. I start leaving the side gate open.
On May eve I decide to walk up the valley. I still have several hours of daylight left. I see Joe's herd right away. Their bellies are big. It's as if they know he'll bring them in soon. Almost as if they're waiting for it. She's not with them.
I wonder to myself whether she's real at all. I try to count the number of times I've seen her. But it's hard to separate which times were dreams. Maybe they were all dreams.
Twice I think I see her up near the tops. Both times it’s a patch of scree.
That night I dream of the storm again. A wet lifeless foal slides grotesquely down a patch of scree.
Impossibly far. Hundreds of feet. Nose first, it slides and slides. Like some kind of birth.
In the morning I wake up to rain and sleet lashing the windows. It's quite bright. It won't last. I sit drinking coffee. Feeling depressed. Again, I try to make sense of this.
If Joe misused a horse when he was a boy, that horse would be more than sixty years old. Horses don't live that long. It never occurs to me that what I dreamt might never have happened.
By lunchtime the sun has come out but I still feel miserable. I do the washing up but I'm still going 'round and 'round with the wild mare. What if she is some kind of ghost? Or kelpie? Is she the ghost of the mare? Or one of her twins? The more obvious answer is that I've gone mad.
I have a vague idea to take a walk up the valley, but I procrastinate. About four o'clock I hear Joe's herd clattering down the road. Joe, his wife and his brother and a young couple I don't know are driving them over to the farm.
As soon as they're away I slip out and head up the valley. I don't really expect to see her. She's probably miles away today with that going on.
I head straight down to the river. Across the packhorse bridge and up the south side I make for the scree and boulders where I fell that day. I sit down in the sun.
Tell me what to do I whisper
The side gate is open
You can slip in and shelter behind the garden wall
I sit for a long time trying to remember the scent of gorse and of roses.
Sometimes at night I think I hear her walk under my window.
You can now buy a slightly updated version of this story, along with some of my poems about horses, in this chapbook.
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"
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Lessons from selkies and horse whisperers
Exploring meaning in the Mabinogi's second branch.
In this story we meet some noble Welsh characters. There is the giant King Bran, who is also called Bendigeidfran or "Bran the Blessed", the High King of The Island of the Mighty (Britain). Bran, Branwen and Manawydan, are the children of Llyr, and their mother is Penarddun, the daughter of Beli. Penarddun also has twin sons, whose father is Euroswydd. Nisien is introduced as being a peacemaker within the family, while Efnisien is the opposite - a troublemaker.
Matholwch, King of Ireland arrives on the coast of Wales, bringing 13 ships full of men and horses. He asks Bran for Branwen's hand in marriage. This is agreed, and the marriage feast takes place. This short excerpt from the Jones and Jones translation takes up the action, which I prefer not to have to paraphrase...
Every time I read this passage I mourn.
However, let's finish the tale:
Naturally, at this point in the story Matholwch is offended and angry, but Bran manages to patch things up with gifts and apologies. However, as the story unfolds we find that the repercussions from Efnisien's actions have barely begun.
Back in Ireland, Branwen bears a son, called Gwern, but resentment against the Welsh over the mutilation of the horses resurfaces, and in retaliation Matholwch forces Branwen to live as a mistreated kitchen slave. When she manages to send to Wales for help, Bran raises a huge army and invades Ireland.
Seeing himself greatly outnumbered, Matholwch swears to give Gwern sovereignty over Ireland in order to make peace. Bran says this isn't enough, so the Irish offer to build a giant feasting hall, large enough to accommodate him. This is accepted, but turns out to be a trap. The Irish warriors are lying in wait, hiding in supposed flour sacks. Efnisien systematically crushes their skulls with his bare hands, unknown to Matholwch.
At the feast, Efnisien throws Branwen's child, Gwern, into the fire, killing him. More fighting ensues, with great losses on both sides. Efnisien dies by breaking a magical cauldron, Branwen dies of a broken heart, and Bran is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. In the end, only seven of Bran's army return alive, including Manawydan, Taliesin, and Pryderi - the son of Rhiannon.
This is a very brief synopsis, but I have tried to mention everything, and add nothing. Whether one looks at my short re-telling, or the story as it stands in the second branch, every event, every nuance is open to many interpretations. That is the nature of myth, and I can only tell you what I am thinking at the moment.
Horses, the land. queens and sovereignty are closely bound together in the Mabinogi, and to some extent in Irish texts, too. Exactly how this thinking evolved through time is impossible to say. I suspect that it runs all the way back to a time when humans developed some kind of spiritual or magical relationship with horses as prey. This evolved as horses were gradually domesticated first for meat, and then were both ennobled and enslaved for warfare and heavy work.
Humans are adaptable and innovate, but paradoxically their societies are remarkably resistant to change. If the wild, swift and free horses who were hunted for food were venerated in some meaningful way, how did people feel about taking that freedom away? What stories did they create to make this acceptable, and who within these societies was driving these changes? Was the mare already a kind of earth mother deity? Did the changing status of the domesticated mare mirror, or alter the balance of power between male and female in human society?
I can't help feeling that Celtic stories carry some coded message for us. A distant echo, if you like, of how humans came to terms with or even excused, their changing relationship to nature. Did we change an association between the horse and the earth mother into an association between the horse and our new ideas about owning them, and holding territory for them to graze on?
These gradual adaptations must have brought spiritual or religious adjustments with them. Perhaps during times of change there was a sense that humans might be transgressing natural/sacred laws, or at least that they must be careful to continue to show respect for what had been sacred under the old system. The need to conflate the sacred earth and the sacred feminine (equine and human) and with the holding of territory would have been a philosophical balancing act. One which introduced the need for a more concrete idea of sovereignty.
So how is this echoed in the Mabinogi? In the first branch we have the well-known story of Rhiannon, who is more insulted than abused. Pwyll, although rather inept, makes some attempt to show respect for her, and things are resolved to bring about a happy ending to the story.
When we come to the second branch things shift. While there is a similar tale of the mistreatment of a woman who should be an honoured bringer of sovereignty, she is no longer directly associated with horses. The suffering of these divine queens following their marriages is bad enough, but pales in comparison to Efnisien's mutilation of the horses and the catastrophic events that follow. In the first branch, the insults to the sovereignty bringer, Rhiannon, are the result of Pwyll's foolishness, and while painful for her, impact only her. Efnisien's actions, however, are cruel and show a deep disregard for the sovereign earth mother in the form of Matholwch's horses. It is no wonder that the destruction which follows is also on a different scale.
Although the narration of the Mabinogi concentrates on the insult to Matholwch, and the rendering useless of his horses, this emphasis probably has its roots in legal preoccupations and Christian theology. However, the visceral and highly specific description of Efnisien's crime carries a deep sense of wrongdoing against nature and beauty. Perhaps this hearkens back to an atavistic taboo from our earliest beliefs. The pain and terror inflicted on these horses is an immediate shock to anyone who hears the story. Perhaps we should look into this wound, rather than turning away to focus on the romantic tragedy of Branwen.
It's as if the second branch is saying to us, "Listen. I don't think you fully comprehend the importance of the lesson of the first branch. Let me show you again, more vividly. Let me remind you that there are limits." Efnisien has overstepped the limits of both intention and severity. In the first branch, Rhiannon upbraids Pwyll for unfairly spurring his horse, a crime that shrinks in comparison to Efnisien's bloody rampage.
It is no wonder that none of the characters in this story are able to fix things. Neither sweet Branwen with her tame starling, nor two kings alternating between war and placation, nor Efnision's last minute attempts at heroism can alter the outcome. Men, horses, kings, heirs and kingdoms, the precious cauldron of rebirth and the divine queen herself are lost. At this time in history when those in power seem to have lost all sense of the sacredness of nature, but are leading us to destruction while they squabble over riches and insults, this is a story we need to revisit.
I am not familiar with Kate Fitzpatrick's work. I suspect that she has her own following, and that this book might be more meaningful to them than it was to me. From the book we learn that she has led many workshops on themes of Celtic spirituality and women's empowerment. She plays the fiddle, she is trained in Gestalt work, is a shamanic practitioner, and a regular attendee of various conferences and gatherings. Although she includes a certain amount of autobiographical material in the book, memories from her childhood in Northern Ireland, a few scenes from her adult life, most of this is enigmatic, and somehow leaves me unsure as to how deeply I can trust her to be candid. She offers beautiful, vivid descriptions of different places she has lived, for example, but is vague about how she made a living while in those places. What she doesn't say, or why she doesn't feel comfortable saying it, makes me just a little uneasy. This may not be central to the book, but why does she choose not to mention it, when she often includes other trivial information like what she was wearing?
Trusting the author is important in a book like Macha's Twins because the content is so subjective. Much of the narrative tells of the mystical visions, mostly of Macha, that Fitzpatrick had over a period of years from the early 1990s until 2015. I am always open to things like this. Open to the possibility of the gods and spirits speaking to us. Being open minded also means being open to the possibility that these things are not always genuine, even when we think they are. Making sense of one's own mystical visions and spiritual revelations is challenging enough. Making sense of another person's gnosis is even trickier. Rational thought helps, but so does feel. My feeling here is that the author was keeping something about herself hidden, not in a self-effacing way, or an "I'm a private person" way, but rather that she was being a bit coy about certain aspects of her life. Uncomfortable in her own skin? Afraid of being laughed at? Maybe it's nothing. It bothered me.
The overall theme of the book is that Macha encourages the author to tell Her story, to become involved in work to help heal the land, the people, the old wounds, and especially the women, of Northern Ireland, both from Macha's mythic curse on the men of Ulster, and from the more recent troubles of the 20th century. I found Fitzpatrick's description of her first vision of Macha electrifying. Many other things also ring true, such as this early description of Macha: "Macha was, and still is, The Horse Goddess because her female spirit was akin to that of an unbroken horse. Wild, free and strong. She could run fast and never become prey to the dominant male power of the day."
Other things in the book ring true for me because I have experienced them. Twice the author talks about horses moving in patterns, and this having a kind of mystical aspect. Once she is describing movements required during a conventional riding lesson, the other time she is describing a vision of riders of the Tuatha De Danann. From my years in Parelli Natural Horesemanship, I know how circles, figures of eight and cloverleaf patterns can become like a ceremony, or a form of meditation for both horse and human. I had long put that knowledge aside, because I also know that just that type of work is frequently unpleasant for horses, even unintentionally abusive. However, it's interesting to see someone else noticing the same thing.
Another recurring experience that I've had, but never heard anyone else describe, is seeing people and events from an earlier time somehow overlaid on an event I'm part of. This goes beyond the realms of a vivid imagination, into some kind of momentary clairvoyance. "I look over at the women of the Centre and see them as queens of Navan Fort. ... I watch the men of the staff team standing and greeting people in various corners of the space. They glow with the quiet dignity of ancient royal hosts. In their confidence, humour and generous welcome to the folk arriving. they are like princes of the Tuatha De Danann." Yes. I've had that sense, just a few times, of people from an earlier time coming to lend their spirits, almost in a sense of overlaying another time, a similar event, similar people or ancestors, to something that is happening in the present.
There is much more in this book that rings true for me, as well as some beautiful descriptions of nature. What I've received from this book, however, could have easily been presented in a much shorter work. I found the author's relentless use of the historical present tense throughout the book to be pretentious and irritating. Nor can I understand why some of the sections presented as poetry weren't presented as prose. I got tired of hearing what people were wearing. There were too many descriptions of Shamanic work, spiritual workshops, and so on, which were too vague to be helpful. So okay, this will never stand up as a piece of literature in my eyes. It felt too long in places, but the good parts were very good.
This book contains some beautiful and inspiring passages. Descriptions of visions of Macha, and of the Tuatha De Danann, that not many would be brave enough to publish, and other visions and knowings that made sticking with this book worth the effort. "The gallop of other horses is thundering on the earth over miles and miles of journey. You can hear the endless prayer of the old women who sit in forests over fires. Old women have been waiting for a spark to hit the soul of men. ... Waiting for the lakes and wells and rivers that have held the tears of women, men and children to be emptied of grief and refilled with the sparkling fresh hope of a new dawn. Old women are waiting for all this as they spit their chewed-up rage and impotence into the fires." There are a number of passages that are deeply touching and ring so very true in this book. I'm glad I made a note of some of my favourites, so that I can return to them in future.
So many people seem to be creating fabulous things these days, and I'm an incurable share-a-holic. I know many of my friends and readers would enjoy this film.
Tom Lloyd's Romany Rai, a film worth watching.
My friends who live in Cumbria are reminding me, via facebook, that it's Appleby Fair week -- this being a great traditional horse fair and gathering of Gypsies and Travellers from far and wide, in a small Cumbrian town. With impeccable timing, award winning film maker Tom Lloyd, who pretty much grew up attending the fair with his father, Walter, has just released a wonderful new film about the fair. I knew Tom's work from a heartbreakingly beautiful series of short films about traditional Fell Pony breeders, Endangered Species - referring not to the ponies, but the breeders, themselves, and their way of life. (Those films are free to watch, by the way.)
Entitled Romany Rai (Romany Gentleman), the film features footage shot at the fair over quite a long period of years, much of it of horses and horsemen, but also featuring some interviews about the travelling life. Being both frank and non-judgemental, the film strikes a tone which mostly sidesteps the usual pitfalls of films about Travellers. We see good, bad and indifferent horsemanship, which is exactly what you would see if you filmed the non-traveller community at a show or out riding. There are some nice interviews, mostly with older members of the community, some of whom express themselves quite eloquently, as well as footage of Walter Lloyd giving his take on Gypsy/Traveller history and his own family's background of generational mutual acceptance with them. If this film occasionally strays into a slightly romantic view of Travelling People, that is probably out of respect for Walter, who died just a few months ago at 93.
Walter Lloyd was well known around Cumbria and among Fell Pony people. The Lloyd family breed ponies under the Hades Hill (Hades rhymes with fades) prefix, and Walter was considered a bit of an eccentric and something of a hippie, locally - both of which were deserved, in the best possible way. What a lot of people didn't realise was just what a renaissance man he was. He held an MA in agriculture from Cambridge, fought in WWII, farmed in Cornwall, Lancashire and Cumbria, worked in civil defense for Rochdale and emergency planning for Manchester, helped organise the safety and emergency side of rock festivals like Glastonbury and The Isle of Wight, taught coppicing and charcoal burning, built bow top living wagons .... well, you get the picture.
During the years I lived in Scotland I met many Scottish Travellers, both through my traditional music work and my time with horses in East Lothian. Speaking of traditional music, there are some nice musical moments in this film, too. I was attracted to it more for the horses than anything, and there are certainly plenty of horses here. I suppose that like Walter Lloyd, there is a side of me which intuitively (or perhaps only romantically) connects Traveller horse-culture to ancient Celtic horse-culture. That connection may or may not be on solid ground, historically. I've read attempts to unravel the question, but not deeply enough to feel satisfied. Also, like Walter, I am simply fascinated by alternative ways of life. During one of the early scenes of the film, we see directly into one gentleman's living wagon while he is being interviewed, and I found myself thinking how nice it would be to move into that, and just melt into the countryside. The truth is, I know that year-round life travelling in a bow top is almost impossible in Britain now, even for people who like cold, wet weather as much as I do.
Romany Rai is available to rent or buy on Vimeo.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like The Garron's Musings.
Padstow Old Oss - Wikimedia Commons
Padstow, May Day, and the spirit of the Oss
Over the past couple of months I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking about things like morris dancing and mumming, and particularly the traditions that involve some kind of horse disguise. I've written before about the Mari Lwyd, a winter custom from Wales, but I am equally fascinated with the May Day hobby horses at Padstow, in Cornwall.
Much verbiage has already been devoted to the origins of the Padstow horse tradition. Like all these customs, the trail of evidence leads us back a few centuries, then the undergrowth closes in and the trail is lost. As far as written records go, hobby horses are first recorded in England in the 15th century as part of court entertainments, and the Padstow custom is first mentioned in 1803, but the wording of this record indicates that the custom is older, just not how much older.
There is always a danger in assuming that written records can tell us everything, just as there is a danger in arranging the past to suit our fantasies. The Padstow May Day celebrations have been subjected to both these approaches, and pretty much everything in between. In the first half of the 20th century, folklorists concluded that the goings on at Padstow were the remnants of a "primitive" fertility rite. As the script of the fascinating, if somewhat cheesy, 1953 documentary "Oss Oss, Wee Oss" says at one point, "I can't say whether it's Druidic or Neolithic, but you gotta admit, this Padstow horse dance is pretty terrific!" (And so it is!)
We have Sir James Frazier and his proto-neo-Pagan blockbuster The Golden Bough to thank for these conclusions. Frazier's thesis was that all early religions were centered around fertility and the worship and sacrifice of kings, in one form or another. Like so many people who hit on a good theory, he began to see evidence of it in unlikely places, and by the time The Golden Bough was into its third edition, and he had calmed down a little, many less critical thinkers had applied his theory to anything and everything.
As early 20th century enthusiasts began to collect and classify the many "eccentric" local customs that existed, they became fascinated by them in their own right, but also began to see evidence of Frazier's theories in them. It is important to say that Frazier's ideas had some basis in fact and reasonable conjecture, and that these early folk enthusiasts were probably right in their perceptions of some customs. What they lacked, was proof, because proof is hard to come by. Customs of the common people were little remarked on during most of history, except when they had a brush with either the church or the legal system. However, early folklorists didn't have to worry too much about written evidence. Their theories weren't really of much interest to the general public, or most of academia, because folklore is a tiny minority interest in the grand scheme of things. For the "folk" having their customs studied, however, the folklorists and their ideas were significant.
Padstow's May Day customs are particularly robust and unusual. The hobby horses, or more correctly obby osses, to give them their Padstonian name, are so stylized as to be hardly recognizable as horses, until you relate them to the hoop type shown in a couple of old pictures, and still used by the Abbott's Bromley Horn Dancers. The celebrations have both their "reverent" side - in the singing of the night song, and their "wild" side, in the dancing, drinking and horsing around through the streets on Padstow during the day. There are mysterious death and rebirth elements in the dance, too.
Padstow Oss and teaser
Yet, it seems that the people of Padstow weren't thinking about any of this until the folklorists turned up. It's hard to understand, now, exactly what they were thinking. It was just part of life in Padstow. They didn't ask "why?". Their big day was a point of local pride, with a bit of superstition thrown in. It was very much the people's day to have fun and carry on a tradition. Over the recent centuries there were a few complaints about drunkenness and damage to property, but the tradition continued. Even during the Great War, when life was so hard and manpower so limited, the oss came out and danced. So it must have come as a bit of a surprise when it was explained to the folk of Padstow that what they were doing was the survival of a very ancient fertility ritual.
There's nothing like a bit of notoriety, though, to get the juices flowing. It's hard to get a clear sense of all the effects that being studied might have on a folk custom, but it's bound to introduce a new element of self-consciousness. The fact that it was deemed "ancient" was definitely a point of pride, and easy to believe since no one could remember a May Day without it. The fertility part was hard to argue with, since it was widely held that any woman caught under the skirts of the horse would soon fall pregnant, or "be married within the year" as people coyly put it back then. As for the Pagan part, well, it probably caused a bit of consternation in some quarters, but mostly just added to the mystique of the thing.
Then, of course, there was the tourism. Oft filmed by the BBC and Pathe news reels, the attention of the folklorists brought more and more curious onlookers to Padstow as the 20th century rolled on, all come to experience the "Pagan rite". In the 21st, this has reached such a pitch that there is barely space for the osses to dance in Padstow's narrow streets. This will probably reach a tipping point before too long, and the tradition will either change shape or they will decide to keep the crowds away somehow.
Padstow's May Day tradition, however old it is, has always been changing. I have been reading some of the main commentators, and I find it amusing to see them so puzzled by the differing reports of observers from different years. They seem so terribly surprised that things are different from one year to the next. The teaser (the person who partners the horse in the dance) is a man dressed as a woman! Wait, the teaser is a man! Now the teaser is a woman! These early folklorists have difficulty with the people of Padstow casually changing things from year to year to suit themselves, and sometimes even tell them they're doing it wrong. If anything, I suspect that the interest of folklorists may have slowed the rate of change in the actual singing and dancing, even though it is partly responsible for the level of outside interest. When you make people aware that they are upholding an ancient tradition, and they know that the world is watching, it is bound to have an effect on that tradition, and one likely effect is a desire to preserve it.
By the 1970s, a new, more serious kind of folklorist had arrived on the scene. One who didn't want to get laughed out of their university department for asserting anything they couldn't prove. They made it known that there was no evidence for ancent origins in the obby oss dance, and that without evidence there is nothing except wishful thinking. Word of this did get 'round the Padstow locals, and not wishing to appear ignorant they accepted it on most levels, but have never completely let go of the Pagan fertility rite theory. A cynic might point out the immense revenue from tourism that comes their way, and that probably plays a part, but I think there is also both an element of pride, and an element of doubt that the folklorists' second opinion is any more correct than the first.
The scientific approach to folk customs has its merits. It's rarely helpful to believe things that aren't true. On the other hand, the romantic, or we might call it intuitive, approach has its merits, too. Especially on the ground, where the folk customs actually happen. In the early 20th century, when most Padstonians would have been regular church goers, they, for some reason, chose to embrace the news that their tradition was "Pagan" and just get on with the business of continuing it. I can't help wondering what chord that news might have struck with them at the time. What did they sense about their own, familiar tradition that they didn't necessarily say? More conjecture. I won't go there.
I know what I feel, as a romantic, intuitive, but fairly level-headed Pagan, when I see the Padstow osses. I see a little piece of the cult of The Great Mare come to life. I don't need to believe that the tradition is unbroken, or that the people of Padstow are secretly all Pagans, to feel that. I believe that a tradition like this carries an energy of its own. One that is far more than the sum of its parts, or even the intention of its participants. For whatever reason, and in whatever way, the people of Padstow help create that energy, and at their best, they channel an energy that wells up from their Cornish souls, and from the ground under their feet, on May Day.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like It's Wakes Monday!
This poem describes a dream I had maybe seven or eight years ago. It was so full of wonder that I've remembered it quite vividly, although I don't begin to understand its meaning. Recently, a friend who did a Shamanic journey on my behalf urged me to begin working with the goddess Rhiannon. In doing so, I've become convinced that this dream was a gift from Her.
Shetland ponies, water horses and oracle cards.
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.
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.
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.
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 -
Liminality - 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.
Black Pony - A relationship may be frustrating for both parties. What appears wild and untameable should sometimes be left so. Tact and great patience will be required to avoid loss of dignity. When an oracle card has a meaning or definition that long, you know you are looking at some deep layers of complexity. (I will also add a disclaimer here, for those who know me, that this card doesn't refer to either of the flesh-and-blood black ponies I happen to own, so if you know them, or stories about them, don't muddy the waters by adding them to the pot.)
In other cases, they discover that they don't have enough time for the horse, are not physically fit enough to cope with some aspects of horse ownership, the costs mount up far beyond the budget, there are problems over pastures and stables and places to ride, not to mention the many mysterious and expensive injuries and ailments that can trouble horses. You'd wonder why anyone would ever want to own a horse at all, but they are so beautiful, so seductive and iconic. They are enormous fun to ride when things are going well. Like other domestic animals, there are also plenty who are "in trouble" and need rescuing in one way or another, and that is a very strong pull for some people - especially when horses are so, well, you know - beautiful and iconic, etc. etc. On the flip side, in most cases where the human isn't coping with having a horse, their horse is not having a great time, either. It may suffer from neglect or even abuse (there are a thousand kinds of unintentional neglect or abuse which befall horses) or may be afraid of the owner, or very confused about what it is being asked to do. It may simply be dying of boredom...
You may be getting an inkling of how all of this can be a metaphor for projects, and even relationships, that we find ourselves drawn to. I've mostly talked about the negative aspects of having a horse, here, but of course there are many potential positives, too, for both horses and humans. A successful horse/human partnership is a wonderful thing, where both parties are getting what they need, feel a strong sense of purpose, have fun, and find their lives enhanced. They are both happier and healthier as a result.
None of us has perfect judgement, and there is no universal formula for making right decisions. Many projects we look at are fairly safe bets. Either it's pretty obvious that we can get the job done, or it's something where nobody will get hurt if we don't. Then there is wild horse taming. If you're going to try that, I suggest that you take a long look at your skills and other resources. A long honest look. A long, well-researched, honest look. Then I suggest you take a long look at who might get hurt, and please don't forget the horse, or yourself, or your family - and I'm not just talking about physical injury here. Emotional and even spiritual damage is very real.
One great natural horseman, Pat Parelli, has a very useful list, called "The Seven Keys to Success". The list is his, the comments in brackets are my own.
I've found this to be a pretty good guide for getting things done in life, and a pretty good way to assess what I can do, and what I might be wise to leave alone. Even if you don't use this exact criteria, this is the type of thinking that the Black Pony card is urging you to apply to this crazy thing you're considering. There is no doubt that sometimes being strong on Attitude or Time can compensate for a lack of Support or Knowledge, etc. However, if you are in doubt about whether to go into something big, that doubt alone is a little warning flag, isn't it? Few of us naturally assess our abilities accurately. We either believe that we can do anything we are passionate about (or can afford, or that we can fake it a little, or whatever) or we are the type to have low expectations of ourselves, when we could actually do more than we realise. Either way, an honest inventory of what is needed and what we actually have, is going to get us closer to the truth.
What about following your heart? Fair question! I am actually a great believer in following your heart. Remember that this post is really about the Black Pony oracle card, and its meaning. So if you see this card in a reading, then I believe it is definitely directing you to consider the question from these practical angles. Even then, passion is definitely an aspect of "attitude" and is worth including in the calculations!
The story of The Wild Mare in the chapbook, below, tells a mystical tale of humans and horses trying to connect across the gulf of interspecies misunderstanging. It also contains a group of poems covering a range of experiences with horses.
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"
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