Happy Wakes Monday!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Oss Oss!
Today is Wakes Monday. Celebrated in parts of England, mostly the north, and much fallen into disuse now. However, it is still the date of a famous annual fixture in the calendar of traditions - the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This is a sort of morris dance performed by six men carrying reindeer antlers accompanied by several other mumming characters and musicians. No one is sure how old the dance is, but the reindeer antlers they use have been carbon dated to around 1050AD. It is unclear as to whether the dance is this old, or indeed it could be even older, some believe that these are actually replacement antlers. (Did they wear the first set out??) Another theory is that the hobby horse (one of the mumming characters involved) predates the horn dance element, which might have been added later. Yet another possibility is that the dance is a relic of some kind of shamanic rite which might stretch back into pre-history. I like that theory, but that doesn't make it true...
Meanwhile, I have just started reading a recently released book called Elen of the Ways, by Elen Sentier. So far I'm enjoying it. The quality of writing is high, and if the content is as good as I expect, look for a review of it on this blog in due course. Elen of the Ways is a female deer deity. In a typical display of synchronicity, I heard of her for the first time a couple of weeks ago, when someone referred me to a piece by historian Caroline Wise, also entitled Elen of the Ways, which references the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. [Update: Caroline Wise published a book Finding Elen in 2015.]
Here's a nice documentary piece on the dance from BBC 4.
I also wanted to share a video of Thaxted Morris performing a possibly more traditional version of the dance. They dance to the old 19th century tune, which I think is very lovely. Although this tune was in use at Abbots Bromley for nearly a century, it is not as old as the dance, which has traditionally been done to "popular dance tunes of the day".
Finally, here is a link to a third video, not as well photographed as the first two, but rather evocative for being danced in a forest! This is Lord Conyers Morris Men. Like the Thaxted dancers, they appear to be carrying fallow deer antlers. Embedding is disabled on this one, so just click the link.
Happy Wakes Monday!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Oss Oss!
I've had a growing admiration for John Moriarty's ideas over the past year or so. My first introduction to him was via a short video interview with him, during which I constantly found myself nodding in excited agreement with most everything he said. One moment I would either think "Wow! I thought I was the only one who had felt this or noticed that - but he gets it, too." Then, he would say something else and I would be floored by its originality and complete aptness, and it would be an angle on something I had never thought of.
I found some of the ideas in Invoking Ireland much easier to express with these quotes and pictures. You can click them to see larger versions.
So began my occasional reading of an interview here, an obituary there (John Moriarty died in 2007), some small pieces of his writing available on line and so on. His books were a little hard to locate for a price that I felt I could justify, and maybe I was put off by warnings about the obscurity of his prose, too. So I was happy to discover that the Lilliput press had copies of Invoking Ireland - supposedly his most accessible work - on offer for just €7.50 (just under US $10). Even with shipping from Ireland it was a bargain compared to the usual online booksellers like Amazon.
The book has been a joy, and not such heavy going as I had feared. You would find some basic knowledge of Irish mythology useful, it's true, and maybe a smattering of Irish history, as well. However, the worst that could happen is that you may have to detour to Wikipedia to check a few things out, and the book also has a glossary. The first couple of chapters drew me in. The theme of our existence in various realms of reality, how they mesh or exist in parallel - what this means for our shapeshifting nature between human soul and animal soul, is introduced with gentle enticement.
Were there horse cults in ancient Britain? Is there a cohesive thread connecting Macha, Epona and Rhiannon to hobby horses, the Mari Lwyd and the Uffington horse?
Sometimes, many signposts seem to be directing us to a single destination. Yet, when we arrive there, we find it difficult to recognise any landmark as the definitive reality of the place we had intended to go. This may be one of those journeys.
Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.
The Uffington white horse, a chalk hill figure of a horse in Oxfordshire, is around 3,000 years old. Around the same time, somewhat similar horse figures were popular on local coinage. A little later, the worship of the horse goddess Epona was popular in Gaul, and became widely adopted by the Roman Cavalry. The sun god Bel, or Belenos, and sea god Manannan mac Lir also had strong connections with horses. In Welsh mythology, Rhiannon is linked strongly with horses, as is her probably Gaulish cognate Rigantona. In Ireland, the goddess Macha is an important figure, and as late as the 12th century we have Geraldus Cambrensis relating the coronation of an Irish king including the requirement that he mate with a mare.
We bring from Cader Idris
Great light you shall gather,
Mari Lwyd. What does it mean? Mari can be translated as both "mare" and "Mary". "Mare", in turn, as well as meaning a female horse, seems to refer also to creatures of the night, to incubi and to "nightmares". Lwyd means grey (or white or fair) and also pure or holy. A white horse is correctly referred to as "grey" because most white horses are born black or dark grey and their coats lighten with the passing years. (In Christian times white horses and other livestock were often kept by monastic orders as a way to distinguish their animals from those of the laity - who were forbidden from keeping them.) So Mari Lwyd can be interpreted as simply "grey mare" or holy mare, or as Holy (or fair) Mary - and part of the tradition surrounding her is the story that she represents a pregnant mare who was turned out of the Bethlehem stable to make way for Mary the mother of Christ to give birth. Whether this is a cipher for the replacement of the horse cult with Christianity is probably an open question.
Under the womb of teeming night
Records of Mari Lwyd only go back to the 1790s, I'm told. However, since Wales was, at least at one level, a devoutly Christian country at this time, it's unlikely that the Welsh suddenly thought "Let's put a mare's head on a pole and pretend it's a magic horse," in the 1700s without a deeply rooted precedent. The Cornish 'obby 'oss tradition was recorded somewhat earlier, but it is still unlikely that it sprang into being fully formed just before someone thought it was worth writing about. The truth is, we don't know where these things came from, and we probably never will. In both traditions, there are aspects of wildness, of fertility rites, and of playfulness and energy raising activity. Things long associated with horses. Is this how early people perceived their horse deities? Did they dress up as horses to create a closer contact with these deities - to offer them a familiar looking form to inhabit or possess during some kind of ritual? Again - we don't know.
Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari:
What you might feel when you see a horse, or when you see a Mari Lwyd is a very personal thing. There is your primal response, which should always be given its rightful place. You may find the appearance of a skull and a white sheet scary. The snapping jaws may give you nightmares. Of course, many people find themselves frightened by up close contact with a real horse, too! You may also feel awe or reverence - but I guarantee that you will feel something a little out of the ordinary!
O white is the frost on the breath-bleared panes
And what of her snapping jaws? The snapping jaws of the Mari, of the hobby hoss who chases the maidens of Padstow to shrieks of fear and delight. Does this echo the strange beaked mouth of the Uffington horse - so often remarked at as being un-horse-like? Is it an accident that the Mari in her sheet so resembles Mary in her veil and robes? We are in goddess territory here, maybe in shaman territory, too. We are warm in the house, smugly awaiting the opportunity to be open-handed, and we are bone-cold at the window, desperate to gain admission to life inside. Perhaps we are required to know both realities.
Poetic quotes from Ballad of the Mari Lwyd by Vernon Watkins (1906 - 1967)
If you enjoyed this, you might also like Epona's Call.
Generally, I'd be instantly sceptical at the use of the words Celtic and shaman in the same sentence. So I forgive you if you are having the same reaction! However, here is my little story about how these prayer cards came into being.
In the spring of this year, I was feeling particularly frustrated by some aspects of my life. These aspects didn't feel easy to resolve, and at the same time I was having difficulty "accepting the things I cannot change". A perfect recipe for depression, anger, anxiety and sleepless nights. I had all of those things, and on a few occasions, the sleepless nights became real waking nightmares of anxious circular thinking where I even considered that the only way out might be to end it all. No, don't worry, I was a long way from the verge of doing so, but let's just say I can now better understand the hopelessness that can make that decision seem like the best one. That said, I was getting on with my life as best I could the rest of the time - as one does.
On a day, my friend Linda and I decided to visit our local new age fair. My intention was simply to walk around and see who/what I was drawn to. I was aware that I could use some help, and hoped I might get some. Almost immediately I did feel very drawn to a fellow offering Peruvian Shamanic work. He didn't look Peruvian, that's for sure, but there was what I can only describe as a really good vibe coming from him. I eventually headed over and had a session with him. He did some things with my chakras which made absolutely no sense to me, and also suggested that I needed to have some cords cut. Well, I had heard of chakras, and this cord cutting idea before, and he did what he did - which still didn't make a great deal of sense to me, and I didn't really "feel" anything, but I did feel a bit better, perhaps.
After we were done, he gave me a piece of paper with some prayers on it. One was a prayer for cutting cords, another a bedtime prayer. I kept the paper, but somehow, just didn't feel comfortable saying some of the words that were on it. It just wasn't me. However, I was feeling better. Afraid that I was going to slip back into my personal misery again, I decided that I would do what felt right for me, and after a couple of days, I re-wrote the prayers in a way that did feel right for me. It was an interesting process, remembering to do small things (like say these prayers) on a regular basis. I wrote a couple of pieces about this at the time, called Salmon in the Weir and Accepting the Salmon's Gift.
As it turned out, this process was the beginning of my creation of the meditation and prayer cards that I sell in the shop. Having re-written my prayers, I printed them off on the computer and glued them to some pictures I liked. Pictures which embodied the kind of natural beauty that feeds my soul and that symbolises what I am moving toward. I put these on the walls of my bedroom. The cord cutting prayer is by the mirror which I pass every time I go through the bedroom door. The bedtime prayer is above my bedside table, where I will be sure to see it as I'm getting ready for bed. My life has improved a lot, I believe, because I took the time to put those pictures on my wall. I felt inspired enough by them to put in the time (just a few minutes a day) and it has made a difference.
Ever the entrepreneur, it occurred to me that other people might like something like that. It is such a simple thing, but something beautiful, with some beautiful words to say, or (as in the meditation cards) a short, easy, thing to do, makes it so much easier to take action! I have wanted to make cards for those two original prayers for a long time. However, it didn't feel right to do that until I had talked to my shaman friend. I needed to know that he was okay with it. Well, I finally had that opportunity last month, and he was very okay with it. Yesterday, I felt inspired to get the graphic work done, and the results are what you see above. I haven't written the material for the backs, yet, or given much thought to whether I am creating another set of four cards here.
Hmmmmm... that might depend on your feedback. What would you like to see?