In the kennel of my mind
My Reynard thoughts pace
Nine steps to the wall
And then retrace
Exit strategy one
Replay the story
Nine steps to the wall
And then retrace
Exit strategy two
Is still unthinkable
A bolted meal
Nine steps to the wall
And then retrace
Exit strategy three
A risky plan
Drink of water
Nine steps to the wall
And then retrace
Nine steps to the wall
And there's a barrier
Exit, exit, exit
Must be somewhere
Nine steps to retrace
This one's called acceptance
In the kennel of my mind
My haggard thoughts pace
Exit, exit, exit
I wrote this poem back in 2015. I was feeling very frustrated a being unable to return to the UK to live, at being trapped in a pretty miserable situation, so it's a pretty miserable poem - but I've always liked the rhythm of it, and so I finally did something with it. Not much has changed.
I am blessed (or cursed) with a big picture mentality. Ecology is the big picture. Ecology is survival or death. I’m not much of a biologist, so I don’t understand the finer points of ecology in the way that an ecologist would. But I was brought up to believe in justice. In ethics. In compassion for others. Sometimes these things seem to be at odds. The thing that is “just” is unkind. What feels compassionate to some is considered unethical by others. Our priorities are clouded both by our emotions and our cultural expectations.
The big picture is a blunt instrument. In the big picture the end really does justify the means. The needs of the individual are no longer paramount. Of course, it’s possible that I lack vision, or imagination. I’m not willing to go bigger than, say, Earth’s current ecosystem. I like giraffes. I want herring to thrive – and aspen groves, and black widow spiders, and all the fungi and grasses – well, you get the picture.
Like most people on the left, I have thought deeply about human rights. Poverty, racism, patriarchy, slavery (which goes by many names) are horrible things to endure. But as the camera pans away from street level and I take a look at the landscape, I see that what one group of humans is doing to another pales on the injustice scale, when we compare it to what humans as a species are doing to other species. We are bringing about loss of habitat, starvation, and extinction on an enormous scale. If we did this to a group of our own species, we might call it genocide. We don’t have a word which describes our systematic destruction of the passenger pigeon or the northern white rhino. We just call it “too late.” “Too bad.” We don’t call it criminal.
This isn’t about changing our diet. Our constant expansion is destroying habitat by the hour. If we believe in social justice for humans, then everyone needs somewhere nice to live, right? And anyway, eight billion humans is always going to be a problem, even if we all live off grid in cob houses, we still eat and shit and take up space.
Okay. That was just the preamble.
It’s 2020 and suddenly no one cares about Brexit or the coming US elections. Whatever little gains or losses of human rights might result from these things is off the table, because some extra humans are going to die this year, and it’s not necessarily going to be those other humans who usually die, like the old, or the poor, or the refugees. This time, it could be us! The camera pans down to street level. Everyone has either gone indoors, or is working to maintain those who have gone indoors; except for the medics, who will attempt to prevent the death of those who catch the virus. Just like that. Everybody falls into step. We have to stop the enormous death threat!
The camera pans out a bit. 250 humans are born every minute on earth. It’s quite possible that 250,000 people will die of COVID 19. It will take us less than a day to replace them. If a million die, it will still take us less than a week. That’s the big picture. It hasn’t even noticeably affected our growth rate. We are in no direct danger, as a species, from this virus, or probably from any virus. As for the danger to other species from out activity, it’s higher – we just don’t know how much higher.
Estimates on species extinction rates for non-humans range from two per year to over 8,000 per year. A good indication of how disinterested we are in knowing the truth.
What if we all stayed indoors for a couple of months so a massive effort could be made to study that question? What if we were all asked to stay indoors for a couple of months in order to save giraffes from going over the extinction cliff? We all know the answer. We wouldn’t do it. So much for ethics.
And as the camera pans away, it becomes painfully obvious that when it comes to self-preservation, and self-replication, you just can’t beat a human! But when it comes to compassion, or justice, for other beings, as a species we are going to do less than nothing.
We aren’t even neutral. Oh, yes, we are so proud that air pollution has dropped while we all took a holiday from driving and flying, but when it comes to all the plastic being used by the medical industry, we are not only fine with that, we are shouting for more to be produced. Just our careless movements around the globe, and the way that animals are involuntarily moved around, is a vector for diseases which devastate plant and animal populations. Our movement is also a vector for invasive species, which do the same.
I have never seen such an obsession with a single topic over such a sustained period by so many people as I’ve seen with this virus. Human skill and motivation, when it comes to short term survival, is absolutely ruthless. We will destroy our economy to make sure that Aunt Bertha doesn’t get sick. We will close the pubs and restaurants and shops because it may allow us to avoid death. But we will hold a hotly contested referendum in order to decide whether we should charge people for a plastic bag. Plastic is killing millions. Just not millions of humans.
Having watched this new world roll out before the panning camera, I can’t help but wonder: What if we told people that it could be deadly to have babies for the next couple of years? Well, I’m sure there’d be a ruckus, but I suspect most would comply – you know – to avoid risking death. But that’s a ridiculous thought experiment. Or is it?
What happened to this blog? Where is the spiritual angle? Okay –
The bad news is that there isn’t some overarching “Mother Nature” figure, some sentient “Universe” who is just waiting to teach the silly humans a lesson. We hear that one every time there’s a bit of rough weather or a volcano erupts. This is no different. Do you seriously think, that if any beneficent being had the power to “teach humans a lesson” that they would have waited until we got so far with wrecking things?
If your kid is careless and spills paint on the carpet, you tell them off. If they burn a hole in the carpet, they are probably in big trouble. You don’t wait until the whole damn neighourhood is on fire. Unless you actually are powerless to stop them.
As for what I think my gods and goddesses are saying to me, they’re invested in the ecosystem we know, not the rocks under it. Some of them tell me not to give up yet. Fight to save what we understand as the natural world. That’s why I’m writing this.
I've been working fairly intensely with a body of stories about Manannán mac Lir which are sometimes called O'Donnell's Kern. More folklore than mythology, this kind of story about Manannán has always fascinated me. People call them "trickster tales", but that category has always felt a bit too offhand for my liking. I might call them teaching tales, because there is surely a lesson in them, and that lesson is an important one in Celtic culture: that of hospitality.
You can read the stories for yourself. They are in Lady Gregory's Gods and Fighting Men under the heading "Manannán at Play", and in Standish O'Grady's Silva Gadelica as "O'Donnell's Kern". A wonderful, and quite different version from Islay turns up in J. F. Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands as "The Slim, Swarthy Champion." As if that isn't enough, I'm currently working on a retelling of them on my YouTube channel. [Update: Here's the video.]
As usual, I have fallen in love with my subject, and as sometimes happens, that led to a poem. It's full of obscure references to the tales, but I will leave you to hunt them down for yourself. You don't even need to leave the comfort of your seat. All those books I mentioned, above, are in the public domain and kicking around on the internet.
Perhaps I should offer a prize to anyone who would care to unravel it all in the comments. Couple of free chapbooks, anyone?
Bonnyclabber and Crab Apples
I who was hunting with fair Fionn
I who received tribute on Barrule
I who cast off my shimmering cloak
Going about the raths and duns
Paddling from Man to Kintyre
And from Kintyre to green Islay
Rathlin to the seat of Red Hugh
The bodach went seeking crowdie
Hospitality without pride
I never looked for prominence
My tongue was sweet and learned
The voice of my harp beguiling
The son of the earl knew the sweet
The Mac an Iarla knew the sour
From high Knock Áine I vanished
I was a rainstorm on a plain
A healer to the MacEochaid|
A cattle raider in Sligo
Until I came to O’Kelly
Twenty marks I got for their taunts
And lulled them into their slumber
With the puddle water leaking
From my shoes I walked to Leinster
Tired I was seeking a mead cup
Their clanging strings offended me
The bloody day they had of me
Bonnyclabber and crab apples
The feast of Manannán mac Lir
Old gods like Bel, or Belenos, who may or may not be Beli Mawr, have no story left at all. It sounds like a good bet to honour Him at Beltane, but that is only a guess. Like Don, and Lir, and Anu, there is nothing remaining of their stories. They are merely the first in lists. A distant point of origin. So how is it that we can still sometimes feel them?
Lugh, who was once Lugos in Gaul and Iberia, but it is in Ireland that His story is so rich. Hero, foster-son. Son of both the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians. Lugh, who killed his own grandfather in battle. The many-skilled one, leader of a skilled people. He returned to father Cú Chulainn in a dream, and returned again to confirm the sovereignty of Conn of the Hundred Battles. Or so they say. He may somehow be Lleu. Their stories are different but nothing is impossible here.
Nothing is impossible and nothing is forgotten, as they say. It’s just a bit kaleidoscopic. Fragmenting and re-forming into beautiful, light shattered images, which your soul immediately recognises, while your mind rebels at the strangeness, and you reach out for something solid to hold onto.
These were the first deities I knew, and they were hard to know, partly because I had no point of reference. No sense of how or where to read their stories or not-stories, I went forward, mostly blindly, for years. It’s a wonder I didn’t lose interest completely, but even the thread of their names, an occasional sense of their presence was something.
They are woven gently through the landscape of their homelands. Don’t only look for them in the stone circles and under dolmens – you can find them all over. Go to any path that follows running water. Between two hills with beautiful curves, or in a hazel copse. Tread the same path repeatedly, and the very energy raised by your footsteps will awaken them. Or so it was for me.
These are the gods who went into the hollow hills. They receded into the very atoms of the hollows of nature. They are in the here-not-here. They are right beside you.
Tumulus de Poulguen, Brittany
And their stories are a thread along which they travel. Along which so much is communicated, is transmitted. A thread along which they feel their way toward us – into our time, and along which we find our way through the dark to Them. When we speak their names and tell their stories – when we think about them, they glow a little brighter, become more solidly here. They have more agency in our world again.
I began to find their stories. Mostly the tangled web of Irish stories, and from this emerged Manannán mac Lir, the beautiful, wise, generous god of the sea. He may be named for the Isle of Man or the island may be named for Him. He must, somehow, be one with Manawydan fab Llyr – son of Beli Mawr, second husband of Rhiannon. It’s just that we don’t know how they are one.
Do not enter the realm of the Celtic gods if you want black and white answers. There are no certainties here. They are mist. They are sunbeams. They will not get their stories straight in order to reassure you. It’s all hide and seek through a maze of texts, manuscripts, and recensions. Genealogies that go in circles, and cognates that don’t quite work. Ducks that don’t walk like ducks, and swans that may be princesses.
Don’t get me wrong. Scholarship is rewarding here. Just temper it with patience, and with mysticism. Allow imagination. Give it all time. You can’t know it quickly, no matter how high an achiever you think you are.
The next I encountered was Epona. Having been shepherded along for years by the three or four I’ve mentioned, I was playing it pretty casual. Epona began to show up, letting me know this was real. Glorious Epona, horse goddess.
When I was pointed to Rhiannon, I knew they were not the same. Rhiannon, who they say, linguistically, might once have been Rigantona, if there ever was a Rigantona. And Teyron – who may have been Tigernonos. But Rhiannon and Teyrnon are enough, surely? But, oh, the Mabinogi! I have learned so much, keeping that under my pillow – a copy in every room of my house.
So much makes sense now. I can almost lay the cards out straight sometimes. Almost. I think back to that encounter I had with Mabon. I get in touch with Maponos. “Divine sons of divine mothers,” they say to me in slightly out-of-synch stereo. I’m fine with that. I’ve been under the earth, seen the prison. I understand the healing there, and the importance of setting it free.
I hear from Macha. Macha of the many Machas. Queens, warrior women, land goddesses – swift, shining ones. Macha of the triple Morrigan (although exactly which three of the four …). Macha, horse goddess, who is not Rhiannon, who is not Epona. I see them travelling together more and more, these days. Herd mothers. Mare mothers. Horse queens.
Macha is looking over my shoulder. Reminding me that we have things to do. Mabon wants us to unblock the healing springs. To unblock the dammed up door to the gods. The door of myth. There is help, and healing, and wisdom behind that door!
There is always more. Ogmios. Who, they say, linguistically, cannot quite have become Ogma. God of poetry and eloquence. God of strength and writing, and a sunny countenance. He leads his followers by silver chains from his golden tongue to their enchanted ears. They follow him willingly, as I follow this misty path – preferring beauty to logic, every time.
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.