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've always loved the Uffington white horse. It was an important messagenger to me from Epona, a very long time ago, along with several of the more modern chalk horses which grace Wiltshire, where I spent a fair bit of time in the 1980s. At that time, I didn't know the history of any of these horses, or understand the vast difference in age between Oxfordshire's Uffington horse and the others. I certainly wasn't consciously devoted to Epona at that time, or involved with horses, either. But there is something about travelling down the road in a car, or on a bus, and suddenly you are looking at a large white horse in the landscape. Often it's distant and mysterious, occasionally up close and imposing. It just does something to me.
The Uffington Horse is about 3,000 years old. Britain's chalk hill figures are/were created by cutting away the upper layer of sod and soil and then are usually filled in with chalk rubble to make them uniformly white. This has to be renewed fairly regularly, or the sod will simply re-grow and the figure will disappear. It's possible that for every hill figure we see, there are many more which are lost forever, because if it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said for maintaining a hill figure. Someone has to care enough to organise people to keep the figure looking good, and a lot more someones have to be willing to put in the hours to actually do the work. This makes the existence of the Uffington horse an amazing feat of continuity, if nothing else. Until sometime in the 19th century a fair was held during the scouring of the horse.
No one is sure who made the Uffington horse, or why. At over 300 metres long, it is too big to be appreciated from up close, but can be seen clearly from the other side of the valley, and from the air. It might be the symbol of a Bronze Age Celtic tribe, or devotional art to a deity (Epona, Rhiannon, and Bel/Beli Mawr have all been suggested). There are vaguely similar stylised horses on Celtic coins and in other Celtic art from the Iron Age, like the Silchester horse. If you look closely at these, you can get a sense of how the lower part of the face of the Uffington horse might have ended up so beak-like. There is evidence that the horse has changed shape and position quite a bit over time.
The Silchester Horse. Iron Age artifact.
However, it's not the history I want to talk about, but the motivation that people have felt to keep it alive for so long, and since the 18th century, to start placing other horses in the landscape. And when I say in the landscape, that's what I mean. To carve something directly into a hillside seems more imposing, to me, than just putting up a statue of a horse -- even a large one. As soon as one makes a realistic statue of something, it has a different impact on the psyche, I think, than something which is stylised and carved directly into the landscape, or which becomes a new feature of the landscape, like the 21st century Kelpies, in Scotland, or Sultan the Pit Pony, in Wales.
Another horse that intrigues me is The Black Horse of Bush Howe, in Cumbria. Whether it is wholly or partially a natural patch of black scree is among its mysteries, but there is folk memory of school children "trimming" it, to help keep its shape in the 1930s and 40s, and before that of local farmers setting aside a day to do the same. If that's the case, then people were either accepting of its shape being only vaguely horse-like, or it has deteriorated. I love this part of the world, which is home to semi-feral herds of Fell Ponies. Reading about the Bush Howe horse was part of the inspiration for my story The Wild Mare.
As I was thinking about this article, and wondering what to write, I was looking through images of some of these horse figures, and decided to post a few on facebook. It was just a few images and a couple of sentences of text, but it got huge attention. I wonder what people find so exciting, but it excites me, too, and I'm thrilled to see so many really beautiful and excellent new horses appearing.
(Click photos to enlarge.)
In another piece of synchronicity, some friends were discussing Sultan this week, and wondering whether such places would appeal as new places of pilgrimage - especially to devotees of the horse goddesses. One or two people felt that they lacked meaning because there is no devotional intent behind their creation. Personally, I disagree. First, because I don't think devotional intent is limited to religious or Pagan devotion. Many people feel a kind of devotion to horses as an idea of beauty and wildness, or alternatively as allies of humans in ventures like agriculture, war or coal mining. They want to offer homage and thanks for what horses gave, and gave up, to do this. (I personally think this is a bit like thanking slaves, but we won't go down that road any further today.)
The second reason that I feel that these new horses make sense as pilgrimage and devotional sites, is that I believe that they must be very appealing to horse deities as potential places for us to go to honour them, and to commune with them. If you put a giant, attention grabbing horse in the landscape, why would a horse deity not find ways to take advantage of it? It fills the eye and it hits people in the pits of their stomachs. It's brought them halfway to something potentially spiritual or devotional already. If those of us who already feel some devotion add our intent to the mix, who knows what the overall effect will be?
Postscript: This evening as I was finishing up this post, I watched a documentary about the making of the Kelpies, and two things struck me. First, the enormous amount of negative environmental impact that went into the making of this installation has to be acknowledged. Scenes of excavation for the foundations, laying of vast amounts of concrete and other use of materials can't be denied, and I don't feel great about that. The second is the huge effort that was put into this project by so many people. And, yes, they were probably all paid handsomely, but years of effort, especially by the artist must be acknowledged. This is the reality of our anthropocentric view of the world. We do some harm, we create something amazing, and we rationalize it.
My ears are keen, my breath is warm
A chapbook collection containing the short story The Wild Mare, plus four poems which share the theme of horses.
Size 8.5" x 5.5"
My early childhood spent playing on the lawn with dogs, and with daydreams, was overseen by tall, swaying elms. I used to lay on my back and looked up to where their crowns almost met, at the always-blue Colorado sky. I knew their trunks as individuals that I can still see. The one nearest the back steps had an inverted V scar that wept sap on its west side. It occasionally shed a limb onto the roof, worrying my father. The one by the swings, with phlox growing under it, was small and slender with bark almost black. My father said it was a different species. For awhile, there was a washing line tied to it. The biggest one grew in the corner by the alley and seemed a giant to me. There were three more along the side of the yard by the street. Neatly spaced and similarly proportioned, they stood like brothers.
Elms ringed the whole house. They were responsible for keeping it cool in summer. In return, we watered our shaggy, eccentric, old-fashioned lawn, and the elms drank, too.
Near the driveway there was an old crone of a mulberry, making it risky to hang out washing or park cars when the berries were in season, because the birds shat a loose profusion of violet emulsion everywhere until the mulberries were gone. We never ate them.
Further out, toward the vegetable garden there were more elms, but they were wild, unkempt, brushy things with crooked branches. I had a tyre on a rope on one big horizontal branch which my father pronounced safe enough. Overlooking our little plum orchard there was a climbable one, although not being an athletic child I never got very high. When my pet turtle died my mother helped me bury it under that tree, in a tin box. Sometime later I secretly dug it up to see what had happened. It was red as rust, like the box. The climbing tree was my witness.
When the plums came ripe at the end of the summer my father and I picked them, filling buckets and baskets and bowls, and stuffing ourselves all day long. It must have been the perfect environment for them, because the only care they got was water. I don't remember anyone making jam or drying them. I think we just ate as many as we possibly could and gave the rest away. The cherries were a different story. I think there were two trees, maybe three. They produced something we called Black Rag cherries. They were seriously sour, which I considered a major disappointment, but my mother would be in a flurry of excitment, because she used them to make cherry pies.
My mother was a legend in her own mind at making cherry pie. We put the cherries through a mechanical cherry pitter which screwed to the kitchen table, and you turned a crank. What didn't go into pies then were frozen for more pies later. I've never liked fruit pie. They say my mother's pastry was first class, but I didn't care for that dry, flaky stuff. Still, it was a few days of diversion and I thanked the gods of the supermarket that we could go there and get some nice sweet cherries that could be eaten fresh, and not wasted in pie.
It was under the wild elms that I used to help my father cut firewood. As well as a good supply of fallen elm branches, he had a collection of massive pieces of cottonwood (the other main local tree) which we would try to split with metal wedges and big hammers. We had hand saws for cutting the elm branches. It was hard going, but I worked my apprenticeship from gathering and breaking kindling to carrying and stacking, taking one end of the two-man saw, through to solo sawing and taking the odd swing at those wedges with the hammer. Usually, we talk about the combined ages of two people working together, but in my father's case, I think you would need to subtract my age from his to really understand the situation. As I grew, and could do more, he was able to subtract my years from his own age, and continue cutting as much wood as he could at fifty, which was his age when I was born. At ten, I could take ten years off his fatigue level. At eighteen I left home, and when I came back for a visit, my father had bought his first chain saw.
So I've made it this far without mentioning the dreaded Dutch elm disease. I've always felt that it's unfair to define an entire genus of trees by a disease. Yes, Dutch elm disease has killed countless trees in Europe and North America, but plenty have survived, and people's unwillingness to plant them, or even tolerate them, has also contributed to their absence from the modern landscape. Since the 1920s, programmes in many countries have been working to finding resistant trees in the existing population as well as breeding new varieties with resistance. No elm tree is completely immune to Dutch elm disease, as far as we know, but there are beautiful and resistant varieties available in the US and in Britain.
It's also very likely that although there has been a surge in problems with the disease since the 1920s, it has always existed. Historically, there are reports of what sounds like the disease in the 17th and 19th centuries in England. Looking back much further, we know that there were big declines in elm populations in NW Europe around 4,000 BC and 1,000 BC. The first decline has been blamed on neolithic farmers, who probably were partly responsible, because they cleared land for agriculture, and also coppiced elms for animal feed. However, it appears that some form of the same disease we see today was also partly responsible. Perhaps the disease is in some way cyclical. Maybe it is more prevalent when elm trees become too numerous and crowded in an area. Maybe human activity has played a part, too, by moving the diseased wood around, by overplanting in the historical period (especially the 19th and 20th centuries), not to mention the added stresses that industrialisation and intensive agriculture put on nature.
In the area where I grew up, the Siberian elm (often wrongly called the Chinese elm) has become very common. It is now listed as an invasive species in many parts of the southwestern US, and there is no doubt that is has changed the landscape of plains and semi-desert areas, which are not known for large trees outside of riparian belts. Siberian elms are fast growing and extremely drought resistant, and these are the reasons that they were originally planted for shade around houses and along city streets. These are the same reasons that they are now considered to be invasive. Because they are extremely deep and wide rooted, Siberian elms find enough water to survive where few native trees can. This also means that they cause a lot of problems with underground water pipes, septic systems and the like. Most elms are a bit brittle and tend to shed limbs in storms, and Siberian elms are a bit worse than most. These facts, coupled with the huge number of little seed pods they shed in spring (think pale green snow) have earned them the derisive name of "junk trees". However, especially with climate change making shade and tree respiration more desireable than ever, biologists are beginning to suggest that maybe they are not so bad after all. And that green snow, it turns out, is pretty good in salads.
As a child, it never occurred to me that all this tree politics was going on, and when I did get to hear about it, it made me sad. I'd never doubted that trees were persons. I had relationships with them. Not "I shall now sit down and commune with this tree-being" type relationships, just unselfconscious relationships that happen when you spend a lot of time with another living being. That's still how I feel about trees today, and I still love elms.
He told me that I needed to strengthen my third chakra, and that Rhiannon would help me to do this. Well, I had never given chakras any thought, except one other time when this friend had mentioned them to me. To be honest, I had never given Rhiannon much thought, either. It had been many years since I had read the Mabinogi and probably thought of Rhiannon as more of a character in a story than a goddess. So I resisted a bit, but I thought about how valuable my friend's help had been in the past, and then I "happened" to find the perfect white horse figurine for an altar, and so I read the Mabinogi again . . . That must have been five or six years ago now.
I like having a personal liturgy of prayers that are meaningful and easy to remember. Most of these I have borrowed from somewhere else, then adapted to suit my personal beliefs and needs so that I am completely comfortable with them. I soon found that I had created a prayer to Rhiannon concerning the seven chakras, which I had by that time studied a little. I always start my prayer with a series of epithets, like the ones I've given here, and the prayer goes like this:
Great and Blessed Rhiannon, Mother of Horses, Queen of the Land, Queen of the Starry Fillies, Great Mare of Sovereignty
I'm generally not drawn to "new age" things, but once I understood the basics, the chakra system made sense to me. Of course, it is and isn't a new concept, and this article describes its origins and some of the changes it has undergone in the west better than I ever could. Ultimately, I see it this way. Either we have chakras, or we don't. Either they exist, or they don't. Or perhaps they were always intended to be a metaphor. If they do exist, or indeed, if the metaphor works for you, then your cultural orientation isn't an issue.
Then last spring I got a drum, and began using it at my full moon rituals. That is blossoming into something very special, and I believe very healing for me, in which I find myself singing and sometimes dancing. In September, something new happened, and I was shown how to drum the chakras, which I believe is a much more vibrant and effective approach for me, and sometimes leads on to other bits and pieces of self-healing. Sometimes I also hear the voice of Macha and Epona joining in, encouraging me to heal myself. That is something I have been needing to hear.
As with any ritual, saying this prayer is more effective if I put energy and intent into it. I am prone to lapse on anything like this. I call it my "daily practice" - well, it is when I'm doing it! However, every day that I do it adds up to a bit of strength and depth that helps carry me through the lapses. And if I'm a bit short on energy and intent? I think it helps keep the pilot light lit. There is a spark of energy and intent even when I mumble the words with my mind half on other things. It is easier, by far, to light the furnace when the pilot light is working, just as it is easier to build a fire from a live spark than it is to begin by rubbing a couple of damp sticks together.
The other day I was meditating, and I wondered about Rhiannon's healing connection, and I heard Her speaking to me. "I am not as different from Bride as you might think. After all, I love the land and the little healing springs." In my mind's eye I saw the muzzle of a white horse, drinking from the smallest of springs.
It's starting. Can you feel it? The light has already changed so obviously here in Oregon. Something is waking up in me. I am not usually depressed around MIdwinter. I love the dark and the long nights, and don't mind being alone at this time like some people do. But I have been deeply depressed recently.
Yesterday morning was not the first day I noticed the change in the light, but it was the first morning that it broke through my gloom and touched me in some physical way. Got through my skin. As often happens around Imbolc, a new poem for Brigid came to me.
Yes, Imbolc is coming. We think of snowdrops, and increasing light, of Brigid and the Cailleach. Some consider it a time of ascendency for the Rowan tree. I have been wanting to share a little something about this poem, called "Song" by Seamus Heaney for awhile now.
I love this for many reasons. Each mention of tree and flower seems to bring the spirit of that plant to me. The red berried rowan which has associations with witchcraft and protection, the alder which so often has its feet in the water, the rushes, the immortelles - which is another name for Helichrysum, those little button-like flowers that dry so beautifully. Then there is birdsong and "mud flowers" and dialect. It's a lot in eight lines! And the music of what happens. What about that? Well, it's referencing this:
So now you know. It's a bit Zen, isn't it? I find myself so frustrated by what is happening in our world. But I can only do what is given to me to do. Sometimes I have to accept that I am caught up in events much greater than myself, events not of my making. In the story, Stephens goes on the say that Fionn loved what happened and "would not evade it by the swerve of a hair". We spend a lot of time thinking about how to evade what might happen, not stopping to think that our energy is better spent dealing with whatever is before us. That we are better off responding to life with all the strength and beauty we can muster. That was always Fionn's way.
As the season of Imbolc comes, and Brigid walks the land, I always feel Her fiery inspiration. There is work to do.
I have recently created a chapbook of some of my other poems about Brigid and the Cailleach, written over the years. This little book is a handy size to use in rituals and devotional work.
Poems for the Season of Imbolc
I've had a small core of readers for years, and believe me, you are very close to my heart. However, I want to reach more people, and recently that has begun to happen. But why? I don't think that my writing has improved dramatically, but I am probably better at writing titles and choosing lead pictures, which is essential for social media (okay, facebook, because I can't be bothered to expand beyond it). Having a second blogging platform on Patheos has also boosted the Go Deeper blog. I will try to keep both blogs going, because I like to cover a wider array of topics and share poetry and things that don't feel like a good fit on Patheos.
Interestingly, my two most popular posts this year are my two most recent ones. I really hope that's the start of a trend! These were Ideas for Celebrating Epona’s Day, here, and Why You Should Be Wary of Celtic Facts on Patheos. I really poured my heart and soul into the Epona piece, and although it’s aimed at one day of the year, most of the content is applicable any time.
Back at Go Deeper, another popular post was Halloween is Pagan, Trick-or-Treat is Traditional. Yes/No/Maybe in which I stirred the pot a bit regarding the tackiness of Halloween in the US, vs the mid-20th century traditions surrounding bonfire night in the UK.
In Contemplating Lughnasadh I explored Lammas fairs and the myth of Tailtiu clearing the land for agriculture. As some of you know, I feel that we should be putting wild nature at the centre of our concerns, and that the neo-Pagan wheel of the year, with its emphasis on agricultural cycles, creates a bit of a conflict. This is something I expect to write more about in the future.
In October I was haunted by the tale of The Wild Mare. It came to me in instalments over a few mornings while I was still in bed, almost in the same way that much of the story itself unfolds in the main character’s dreams. I hardly feel that I can claim credit for this one. I wrote it down, but I have no sense of having composed it. I hope there will be more like it, but who knows? You can now buy it in print, along with some poems on a horsey theme, in chapbook form.
My personal favourites
I only write about things I love, and there are a few posts that I especially wish had been read more widely. If you have time, check some of these out. If you find one you love, perhaps you will share it.
The Blackface Sheep Speaks is a post that sits close to my heart. I believe that my oracle cards have a lot to teach us, and this one is among my favourites from this year. The overarching spirit of the card felt very close when I was writing this one.
The Evil That Efnisien Did explores an episode from the Mabinogi that had been bothering me for some time. The answers I came up with in some ways dovetail with what I wrote in the Lughnasadh piece mentioned above.
Back in January I was preparing to do a talk and a ritual for Imbolc. Reasearch for the talk inspired me to write Cailleach Rant, a prose poem that is also available in print now, along with some of my older poems about Imbolc.
In Making Friends with Celtic Mythology I offered what I hope is some useful advice to readers who aren’t sure how to approach this awfully big subject of study. I see a lot of questions about this on social media. Here are a few answers.
On Patheos I also have a couple of favourites. One is Mabon is a God, in which I try to explain that I don’t mind people honouring Mabon at the Autumnal Equinox, but why I do object to them using His name as the name for the day. The other is Moon Drum, in which I describe the events of a particularly potent full moon ritual.
Have a wonderful new year, dear readers!
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 review of The Assembly of the Severed Head by Hugh Lupton
One of the best things about The Assembly of the Severed Head is the way it places the first transcription of these tales in a meaningful context. Lupton has obviously taken quite a bit of care with this aspect of the work, and set his story up to show that while Christian influence on this event must have been considerable, it is unlikely that the project of collecting these stories in writing was merely an attempt by Christians to suppress pre-Christian ideas. Modern readers agonise a great deal about this question, and I suspect that the picture Lupton paints of a "middle ground" scenario is as close as we will ever get to the reality of what happened. Because of this, I think this book might help readers who are struggling to understand the context in which early Celtic texts came into being. Yes, it's a work of fiction, but it paints a picture which could easily be close to the truth.
The premise of the book is that Cian Brydydd Mawr, the last great bard of Gwynedd, is dying, and that the stories he knows must be recorded in writing or lost. Arrangements are made for a monastic scribe to write the tales down, but the old bard insists that he must have a suitable audience, and so a lay brother, a widow with a struggling farm, and a young lad also attend each storytelling session, over a period of many months, until the work is accomplished.
Thus, Hugh Lupton cleverly sets the scene for a background discussion of 13th century events and attitudes, as well as introducing a set of fictional characters and their stories, which are interspersed with Cian's telling of the tales from the Mabinogi. The author does a good job of balancing his sub-plots with the mythological material, while firmly placing the myths centre stage. It is during the telling of the stories that Lupton's ability as a poet and storyteller shines. Here he is especially confident and fluent, as in these passages from the opening of the tale of Branwen.
I found myself distracted, while reading this book, by my own need to keep tabs on how closely the suthor was following the original myths. If you are deeply familiar with the four branches of the Mabinogi, I suspect that you will find yourself doing the same, and like me, you will find that Lupton is very faithful to the original. I am pleased about that, and the re-telling here is deft and the language beautiful. I would very much enjoy hearing Hugh Lupton tell these stories live.
Mabinogi enthusiasts will enjoy this book, but it would be a perfect gift for someone who enjoys good historical or fantasy fiction, especially if you are trying to spark their interest in The Mabinogi. If you are approaching the four branches for the first time, for study or devotional reasons, I would recommend one of the many excellent translations of these tales instead. However, I think for the general reader who simply likes mythology, or who likes books set in early Britain this book is ideal.
Final analysis. If you are looking for a good read and an easy introduction to The Mabinogi, this is the perfect choice.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like Of Oracles, Wonder and Inspiration which also features some masterly re-telling of myth.
This Samhain-tide kind of passed me by. I wasn't in the mood for dumb suppers or rituals or much of anything. I am currently struggling with homesickness on a monumental scale, as I know so many of my ancestors must have done. I've written before about how I feel about my own shadowy lineage. Family trees and DNA are all very well, but for me, "my ancestors" are so much more. Genealogies may be linear, but I am not so sure that time is.
Figures I have looked up to as old men when I was in my thirties and forties are gone now. Poets and tradition bearers, musicians... People close to me have gone, too, several before their time. This is the state of getting older. It's part of the preparation, I suppose.
The past has always had a grip on me. I'm sure it makes me difficult to be with at times . . . but, there! Do you never feel it? How time and place spiral together, holding . . . something, in a particular curve of the land, a particular street at sunset. There's many an Irish jig and reel named after the "humours" of a place. "The Humours of Tulla", "The Humours of Limerick" etc. I love this old word, which describes something like the mood of a place. The word comes, originally, from a Latin root describing dampness or fluids. (There is a whole medical system based on the humours, or fluids, of the body.) This in turn makes me think of the old saying for knowing something intuitively: "I feel it in my waters."
Time sits, I sometimes think, like a moving column of vapour, about any given place. The things that happened there, what was thought or felt, all spirals like some kind of blind spring. The past is immanent, if only imperfectly reachable. I have lived in places where I could sense what the land felt in its waters. Sometimes, it's almost an ecstatic practice. Occasionally, it is excruciating. But I digress.
This poem is echoes of times, places and people who have passed. Some well remembered, others only sensed. They now merge and don't merge, spiraling in those columns of vapourous memory above their places. Even the well-remembered past can only live partially in our memories. So much of it belongs to place.
Lost in Time
My elders are becoming my ancestors now.
It doesn't happen all at once, or on the day they die.
They first must be purified like silver in the fire
A process which is not painful, but necessary.
Slowly they move from the tumbled houses,
Determinedly they step from the photograph pages
To build anew that which was lost,
That which was gained, but could not be held.
Dreamily they drift from their country upbringings
And their suburban upbringings among the roses.
Drift toward halls of learning and drinking establishments,
Smoke filled back rooms of pubs where poets rant.
They drift toward the beaches to collect the seaweed
And toward the moors to cut the peats.
They crack shells and hunt deer
And journey by horseback or coracle.
They sing in folk clubs and work in banks,
Emigrate to Canada or move down south.
They drink too much and rest too little
And then they are gone.
And there's me, always late to the party,
The last to hear today's news.
Nosing around in the past I miss the big event,
But unearth some old treasure.
When I look up, I find my elders have all left.
I shake my head in wonder. Was it always thus?
One day you look around, they've left you the house.
You walk the corridors, you try the beds.
Aeons and aeons pass, I am becoming the elder,
I am becoming the child.
I drift toward my elders, I follow the stream of their poesy,
A strong stream, through the hills of memory.
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
Size 8.5" x 5.5"
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Lessons from selkies and horse whisperers
"Among objections to Hallowe’en, as now constituted, are these: it is too commercialised; it is American; trick-or-treat encourages child gangsterism; trick-or-treat endangers children; the whole thing undermines Guy Fawkes day; it is Satanic. " - Christopher Howse, The Telegraph, 2010
The British press have had a new Halloween theme for the past eight or ten years, which involves lamenting the Americanisation of the holiday, and the loss of Guy Fawkes night traditions in its wake. Someone brought this up on a Pagan discussion group recently, and I was amused to see a stream of grumpy responses from US Pagans, stating that the Brit obviously didn't realise that Halloween was Celtic. American Pagans were surprisingly unwilling to accept that the Halloween that is being exported back to Britain has taken British traditions (which are a mixture of Pagan and Christian) and turned them into something tacky and alien.
Samhain (which means summer's end) was an important festival in the Celtic calendar. It marks the time when livestock were brought down from upland summer grazing to be cared for near people's dwellings. Driving cattle through the smoke of Samhain bonfires was a common act of purification or protection. Like Beltane, when the cattle were let out again, it was considered to be a liminal time when otherworldly beings were likely to be about. There are numerous references to meetings, feasting, divination and games at this time in Irish mythology and in history. There are also many customs in Ireland and Britain that may be survivals of pre-Christian Samhain traditions, but most of that is very difficult to prove. The idea that Samhain is "the Celtic new year" is really a neoPagan one, taken, like so many things from Sir James Frazer's writing.
In the 11th century, All Souls' Day began to be celebrated on November 2nd, tacked onto All Saints' Day (or All Hallows, which gives Halloween its name) on November 1st. All Souls' had originally been celebrated in the early spring, and may have been moved to its current date because people were venerating their ancestors at Samhain, but that's another thing that we have no historical evidence for. What is likely, though, is that much of the stuff about ghosts and ghouls is linked to the Christian holiday, which was deeply concerned with the question of purgatory and aiding lost souls. Bonfires, which were already popular at this time of year, became connected in people's minds with lighting the way for the departed, and perhaps warding off unwelcome wandering spirits.
There is another complications to the story of Halloween and Samhain, which is Guy Fawkes. On November 5th, 1605 a group of Catholic dissidents tried to blow up the houses of parliament in order to replace the Protestant monarchy with a Catholic one. The plot was foiled and national celebrations were called for. By 1607 cities and towns throughout Britain were sponsoring public bonfires with drinking, fireworks, and entertainment for the masses to celebrate this new national holiday. Since the date was so close to Samhain/Halloween, and also involved a bonfire and a party, this holiday, which had strong patriotic and Protestant overtones, largely overshadowed and replaced what came before, especially where earlier traditions had died out. The party was back on, and had been re-branded.
Entertainments of The Dark Time
If Samhain is summer's end, then it must be winter's beginning. For those on farms, as most of our ancestors were a century or two ago, this meant a complete change. Livestock brought in-by for feeding and safekeeping required many chores be done during the increasing hours of darkness. Anyone who has had to make the trip from house to outbuildings on cold dark nights knows it can be a bit creepy. At the same time, people used to spending most of their waking hours out of doors, suddenly found themselves facing long, boring evenings inside. It's no wonder that a rich and varied set of entertainments grew up to fill the long winter evenings. Some of these customs feel like they could be pre-Christian survivals, but, as usual, this can't be proved or disproved. Many of these traditions are now quite localised, and others probably died out unrecorded.
These customs include mumming plays, which might include a hobby horse, and other animal disguises like a bull or a tup (ram) perhaps with a short play or a song. In Kent the 'Ooden 'Oss (Hooden Horse) appears around Midwinter, and in parts of Wales the Mari Lwyd (a white hobby horse) makes an appearance, usually between Christmas and Twelfth Night. In the English counties bordering Wales, Wassailing takes place. In Ireland, the Lair Bhan, a white horse similar to the Mari Lwyd, came out at Halloween, and on December 26th the tradition of wren boys was widespread. Shortly after Twelfth Night came Plough Monday, when groups of agricultural workers would carry a plough from place to place, threatening to plough up farmyards or the entrances to stately homes, if they weren't given what they asked. Plough Monday also involved men dressing as women, and dancing.
All of these traditions have a common theme of disguise and going from house to house, (or public house) offering entertainment in return for food, drink or money. In most cases these traditions were carried out mostly by adult working-class men, perhaps accompanied by boys. Sometimes children imitated the adult entertainments with their own versions.
Although many of these traditions have a fixed date near Midwinter, it wasn't unusual to see some of them making a sort of practice appearance around Samhain. Some customs may have originally belonged to Samhain/Halloween and later shifted to the Christmas and New Year period because people were more inclined to be generous then. To say that any one of these traditions is the origin of trick-or-treating is to miss the point of how widespread it was.
Guy Fawkes, meanwhile, developed its own set of traditions over the years, built on the general love of disguise, fire and mayhem during the dark time. Eventually the patriotic and anti-Catholic overtones were mostly lost. Children often did much of the collecting of fuel for the bonfire, and when I lived in working-class neighbourhoods in Edinburgh, this included pallets and broken household furniture like chairs and wardrobes. Towering stacks were built in the week or so leading up to Bonfire Night, and guarded so that rival fire builders didn't steal what had been collected. A few children still made a Guy out of old clothes stuffed with straw or paper, maybe put on masks or old sheets, and went 'round collecting "a penny for the Guy", for which they were expected to sing a song or something. The Guy was ritually thrown onto the fire and burned. The money might be spent on fireworks or treats.
Some of the traditions I've just talked about definitely had an element of threat about them. Mari Lwyd parties were sometimes feared, as much as welcomed, because they would cause havoc once admitted to the house. Equally, once men and boys were disguised, out after dark, and possibly full of ale, they might see an opportunity to frighten people or get their own back on an unpopular employer or teacher.
In Catholic Britain and Ireland, and parts of the Hebrides, people continued to celebrate All Hallows with fires, feasting, and divination, and children or labourers went from house to house collecting food or money, often in disguise, through the 20th century. In other areas, Halloween was considered a very minor day on the calendar, associated with a bit of spookiness. Turnip lanterns also became popular late in the nineteenth century, probably introduced from Ireland.
The Irish, if fact, seem to have been the main source of modern Halloween traditions. The massive influx of Irish immigrants to the US in the mid nineteenth century, brought traditions like disguise in elaborate costumes, turnip/pumpkin lanterns, and going door to door to the US, where it slowly spread to the rest of the population and became associated increasingly with children, until by the 1930s it became more like what we know today. By the time of my own childhood in the early 1960s, American Halloween had become the festival of plastic tat, nylon costumes and cheap chocolate overload that we see today - although I'm sure parents probably invested less time and money in it than they are expected to do now.
In the past twenty years, American Halloween has been relentlessly exported back to Britain. The massive Guy Fawkes bonfires are still popular, but the kids going 'round asking for "a penny for the Guy" and doing their wee songs, and giving you black looks if you don't hand over at least a couple of quid, has almost disappeared. All that has been overshadowed by store-bought costumes and trick or treating for sweets. (The corporations win again!) I'm sorry to see it go because, in its way, I think it was a much more "Pagan" holiday than American Halloween will ever be. It belonged to real, working class people. The ones whose ancestors got called pagans by the sneering Romans and the disapproving Christian clergy in earlier times. It was home made. Made from a random mixture of ancient customs, poorly understood politics and stuff kids scrounged up to make it happen, usually without their parents' help. It was an indigenous custom people did, not one they purchased.
So am I proud to celebrate the biggest holiday in the Pagan calendar? Meh! I stopped celebrating Christmas before I even figured out I was a Pagan, because I couldn't stand the commercialism, and the general orgy of stress and spending. My feelings about modern Halloween are much the same. I'm puzzled at how people belonging to a set of beliefs which supposedly values Mother Nature so highly, can buy so much plastic junk, disposible party ware and other things that have no hope of being recycled, and say they are celebrating Paganism. And if that doesn't describe you, then I'm not talking about you, so don't get offended.
I am indebted to Pagan historian Ronald Hutton for providing a detailed and factual account of how Samhain traditions evolved over the centuries, and for separating fact from fiction, in his book The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. I relied heavily on pages 360-407 to fact-check this post.
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