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December 2014

A Winter's Tale

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

A cold wind howls, stripping leaves off of the trees, and the pathways through the hills are laced with frost. It's time to admit that winter is truly here, and it's here to stay. But Howard keeps the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen well fed, so our wind-battered little house at the edge of the village is cozy and warm. Our Solstice decorations are up, and tonight I'll make a second batch of kiffles: the Christmas cookies passed on through generations of women in my mother's Pennsylvania Dutch family.

Mexican Santos on kitchen mantle,
and the Rayburn stove pumping out its warmth.

My personal tradition is to talk to those women as I roll out the kiffle dough and cut, fill, roll, and shape each cookie: to my mother, grandmother, and old great-aunts, all of whom have passed on now...and further back, to the women in the family line that I never knew.

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

Kiffles are a labor-intensive process (as so many of those fine old recipes were), so I have plenty of time to tell the Grandmothers news and stories of the year gone by. This annual ritual centers me in time, place, lineage, and history; it keeps my world turning through the seasons, as all storytelling is said to do. Indeed, in some traditions there are stories that can only be told in the wintertime.

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhaine have passed. In past centuries, throughout the countryside, families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand. In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

In myth cycles to be found around the globe, the death of the year in winter was echoed by the death and rebirth of the Winter King (also called the Sun King, or Year King), a consort of the Great Goddess Fairy Linkmen Carrying Winter Cherries by Arthur Rackham(representing the earth's fertility) in her local guise. The rebirth or resurrection of her consort (representing the sun, sky, or quickening winds) not only brought light back to the world, turning the seasons from winter to spring, but also marked a time of new beginnings, cleansing the soul of sins and sicknesses accumulated in the twelve months passed. Solstice celebrations of the ancient world included the carnival revels of Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24), the Anglo-Saxon vigil of The Night of the Mother to renew the earth's fertility (December 24th), the Yule feasts of the Norse honoring the One-Eyed God and the spirits of the dead (December 25), the Persian Mithric festival called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25th), and the more recent Christian holiday of Christmas, marking the birth of the Lord of Light (December 25th).

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world. Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

Likewise, it is interesting to note that the date chosen for New Year's Day in the Western world is a relatively modern invention. When Julius Caesar revised the Roman calendar in 46 BC, he chose January 1 -- following the riotous celebrations of Saturnalia -- as the official beginning of the year. Early Christians condemned the date as pagan, tied to licentious practices, and much of Europe resisted the Julian calendar until the Strawberries in the Snow by Arthur RackhamGregorian reforms in the 16th century; instead, they celebrated New Year's Day on the 25th of December, the 21st of March, or various other dates. (England first adopted January 1 as New Year's Day in 1752).

The Chinese, Jewish, Wiccan and other calendars use different dates as the start of the year, and do not, of course, count their years from the date of Christ's birth. Yet such is the power of ritual and myth that January 1st is now a potent date to us, a demarcation line drawn between the familiar past and the unknowable future. Whatever calendar you use, the transition from one year into the next is the traditional time to take stock of one's life -- to say goodbye to all that has passed and prepare for a new life ahead.  The Year King is symbolically slain, the sun departs, and the natural world goes dark. Rituals, dances, pageants, and spiritual vigils are enacted in lands around the world to propitiate the sun's return and keep the great wheel of the seasons rolling.

Special foods are eaten on New Year's Day to ensure fertility, luck, wealth, and joy in the year to come: pancakes in France, rice cakes in Ceylon, new grains in India, and cake shaped as boar in Estonia and Sweden, among many others. In my family, we ate the last of those scrumptious kiffles...if they'd managed to last that long. They could not, by tradition, be made again before December of the following year, and so the last bite was always a little sad (and especially delicious). The Christmas tree and decorations were taken down on New Year's Day, and the house was thoroughly cleaned and swept: this was another Pennsylvania Dutch custom, brushing out any bad luck lingering from the year behind, making way for good luck to come.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate. I wish you and yours all the magic of home and hearth, oven and table, and the wild wood beyond. Tilly and I will be back to Myth & Moor's regular Monday-to-Friday schedule on Monday, January 5th...with new stories for a brand new year.

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

Tilly and her new rawhide chewThe paintings above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). I recommend a related article by Derek Johnstone, published in The Conversation: "Why Ghosts Haunt England at Christmas But Steer Clear of America." Also, don't miss "Father Christmas: A New Tale of the North," a perfectly magical story by Charles Vess.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Christmas Morning by Carl Larsson

In honor of the winter holidays, we start with three songs from A Midwinter Night's Dream (2008) by singer-songwriter, harpist, and music scholar Loreena McKennitt, from Ontario, Canada. McKennitt has spent many years exploring the history of Celtic music from its ancient roots along the Silk Road to western Europe, the British Isles, and on to the New World. Her own work draws on the musical traditions of countries all along the way.

In the videos above and directly below, she records the vocal tracks for two of the pieces on the album over music tracks already laid down by McKennitt and her band. The first is a traditional French song, "Noël Nouvelet" (late 15th century); the second is an English folk carol, "The Seven Rejoices of Mary" (collected in the 18th century).

Carl Larsson's Christmas

Above: "Snow," another lovely song from A Midwinter's Night Dream, performed live in 2012. The lyrics are drawn from a poem by Archibald Lampman (the "Canadian Keats," 1961-1899), with music by McKennitt. Caroline Lavelle, a long-time member of McKennitt's touring band, is on cello.

Below: "Sweet Bells," a traditional carol from the north of England, performed by Yorkshire singer-songwriter Kate Rusby, with her husband Damien O'Kane on guitar. Rusby has recorded two fine albums of folk carols: Sweet Bells (2008) and While Mortals Sleep (2011).

Here in England's West Country, too, the "sweet ringing" of the village church bells on Christmas is a lovely thing, even for a dyed-in-the-wool pagan like me. But then, so many Christmas customs are rooted in those of pagan solstice celebrations that we can fairly share the holiday.

Christmas Feast by Carl Larsson

Decorating the Tree by Carl Larsson
Paintings above: "Christmas Morning," "Sled Pulled by Yule Goats," "Brita," "Christmas Feast," and "Decorating the Tree" by Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1854-1919)


All we have...

Tilly in the woods

"We are animal in our blood and in our skin. We were not born for pavements and escalators but for thunder and mud. More. We are animal not only in body but in spirit. Our minds are the minds of wild animals. Artists, who remember their wildness better than most, are animal artists, lifting their heads to sniff a quick wild scent in the air, and they know it unmistakably, they know the tug of wildness to be followed through your life is buckled by that strange and absolute obedience."

 - Jay Giffiths (Wild: An Elemental Journey)

Sentinel

"All we have, it seems to me, is the beauty of art and nature and life, and the love which that beauty inspires." -  Edward Abbey ( The Journey Home)

And that's everything.

Forest floor


Speaking of animals....

The Beastly Bride, edited by Datlow & Windling

Many books for young readers have explored the common childhood desire to run wild with the animals, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are -- but even better  The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kiplingthan dancing with the wolves would be to have the power to become an animal oneself.
T. H. White tapped into this fantasy in his Arthurian classic, The Once and Future King. Here, Merlin educates the young Arthur by transforming him into a badger, a fish, an owl, an ant, etc., and Arthur must learn to live as they live, gaining knowledge, even wisdom, in the process. This isn’t a standard part of the Arthur myth, but White hasn’t made it up from whole cloth either. He’s drawn on a worldwide body of tales even older than Arthur mythos: tales of shape-shifting, therianthropy (animal-human metamorphosis) and shamanic initiation. Animal-human transformation stories can be found in sacred texts, myths, epic romances, and folk tales all around the globe, divided into three (overlapping) types:

First, there are stories of immortal and mortal beings who shape-shift voluntarily, altering their physical form at will for purposes both beneficent and malign. The second kind of story involves characters (usually human) who have their shape The Once and Future King by TH Whitechanged involuntarily—generally as the result of a curse, an enchantment, or a punishment from the gods. The third type of story concerns supernatural beings who are a blend of human and animal; they have the physical and mental attributes of both species and belong fully to neither world. Animal bride and bridegroom stories (in which a human man or woman is married to an animal, or an animal-like monster) can fall under any of these three categories: the animal spouse might be a shape-shifter, or an ordinary mortal under a curse, or a creature of mixed blood from the animal, human, and/or divine realms.

The Beastly Bride is an anthology of original stories and poems (for teen readers and up) inspired by animal transformation legends from around the world, retold and reimagined by Christopher Barzak, Peter Beagle, Jeffrey Ford, Gregory Frost, Hiromi Gotto, Ellen Kushner, Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Delia Sherman, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen and many other fine writers. The charming cover art and interior decorations are by the always-wonderful Charles Vess.

"Animal" is defined rather loosely here, for in addition to stories of bears, cats, rats, deer, and other four-footed creatures there are also birds, fish, seals, a fire salamander, a yeti’s child...and yes, a beastly bride or two.

"Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way."  - John Muir

So true.

If there's a shawl lying on the floor, even if it's for photography purposes, I claim it as mine

Beastly Bride cover art by Charles Vess This volume was published as the fourth installment of our Mythic Fiction anthology series for Young Adult readers, each book dedicated to a different aspect of world mythology: The Green Man: Tales of the Mythic Forest, The Faery Reel: Tales of the Twilight Realm, The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, and The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People. It's available in hardcover and ebook format from Viking Children's Books. 


"Into the Woods" series, 43: The Folklore of Rabbits & Hares

Three Hares by Jackie Morris

The symbol of our village is three hares in a circle, their interlinked ears forming a perfect triangle -- an imge found in roof boss carvings in seventeen Devon churches, including ours. Known locally as the Tinner Rabbits, the design was widely believed to be based on an old alchemical symbol for tin, representing the historic  Three Hares by Brian Froud importance of tin mining on Dartmoor nearby -- until a group of local artists and historians created the Three Hares Project to investigate the symbol’s history. To their surprise, they discovered that the design’s famous tin association is actually a dubious one, deriving from a misunderstanding of an alchemical illustration published in the early 17th century. In fact, the symbol is much older and farther ranging than early folklorists suspected. It is, the Three Hares Project reports, "an extraordinary and ancient archetype, stretching across diverse religions and cultures, many centuries and many thousands of miles. It is part of the shared medieval heritage of Europe and Asia (Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism) yet still inspires creative work among contemporary artists."

The earliest known examples of the design can be found in Buddhist cave temples in China (581-618 CE); from there it spread all along the Silk Road, through the Middle East, through Hungary and Poland to Germany, Switzerland, and the British Isles. Though now  Nature in Art by Eleanor Ludgateassociated with the Holy Trinity in Christian iconography, the original, pre-Christian meaning of the Three Hares design has yet to be discovered, but we can glimpse possible interpretations by examining the wealth of world mythology and folklore involving rabbits and hares. In numerous traditions, these animals were archetypal symbols of women, femininity, female deities, and women's hedgerow magic, associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. If we dig a little deeper into their stories, we find that they are also contradictory, paradoxical creatures: symbols of both cleverness and foolishness, of femininity and androgyny, of cowardice and courage, of rampant sexuality and virginal purity. In some lands, Hare is the messenger of the Great Goddess, moving by moonlight between the human world and the realm of the gods; in other lands he is a god himself, wily deceiver and sacred world creator rolled into one.

The Mockingbird and the Hare by Kelly Louise Judd

The association of rabbits, hares, and the moon can be found in numerous cultures the world over -- ranging from Japan to Mexico, from Indonesia to the British Isles. Whereas in Western folklore we refer to the "Man in the Moon," the "Hare (or Rabbit) in the Moon" is a more familiar image in other societies. In China, for example, the Hare in the Moon is depicted with a mortar and pestle in which he mixes the elixir of immortality; he is the messenger of a female moon deity and the guardian of all wild animals. In Chinese Wishing on a Blue Moon by Karen Davisfolklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon's light (without the need of impregnation by the male), or by crossing water by moonlight, or licking moonlight from a male hare’s fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin.

In Egyptian myth, hares were also closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders -- not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the female is believed to be the goddess Unut (or Wenet), while the male is most likely a representation of Osiris (also called Wepuat or Un-nefer), who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Brown Hare, Suffolk, photographed by Michael Rae

In Greco-Roman myth, the hare represented romantic love, lust, abundance, and fercundity. Pliny the Elder recommended the meat of the hare as a cure for sterility, and wrote that a meal of hare enhanced sexual attraction for a period of nine days. Hares were associated with the Artemis, goddess of wild places and the hunt, and newborn hares were not to be killed but left to her protection. Rabbits were sacred to Aphrodite, the Thumper (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froudgoddess of love, beauty, and marriage -- for rabbits had “the gift of Aphrodite” (fertility) in great abundance. In Greece, the gift of a rabbit was a common love token from a man to his male or female lover. In Rome, the gift of a rabbit was intended to help a barren wife conceive. Carvings of rabbits eating grapes and figs appear on both Greek and Roman tombs, where they symbolize the transformative cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

In Teutonic myth, the earth and sky goddess Holda, leader of the Wild Hunt, was followed by a procession of hares bearing torches. Although she descended into a witch-like figure and boogeyman of children’s tales, she was once revered as a beautiful, powerful goddess in charge of weather phenomena. Freyja, the headstrong Norse goddess of love, sensuality, and women’s mysteries, was also served by hare attendants. She traveled with a sacred hare and boar in a chariot drawn by cats. Kaltes, the shape-shifting moon goddess of western Siberia, liked to roam the hills in the form of a hare, and was sometimes pictured in human shape wearing a headdress with hare’s ears. Eostre, the goddess of the moon, fertility, and spring in Anglo–Saxon myth, was often depicted with a hare’s head or ears, and with a white hare standing in attendance. This magical white hare laid brightly colored eggs which were given out to children during spring fertility festivals -- an ancient tradition that survives in the form of the Easter Bunny today.

Eostre by Danielle Barlow

Easter Rabbits by Mr. Finch

Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess also associated with the moon, and with mythic stories of death, redemption, and resurrection during the turning of winter to spring. Eostre, too, was a shape-shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each full moon; all hares were sacred to her, and acted as her messengers. ((I should mention that our understanding of the Ostara/Eostre myth is controversial, with mythologists divided between those who believe she was and was not a major figure in the British Isles.)

Hare sculpture by Beth Cavener StichterCesaer recorded that rabbits and hares were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes. In Ireland, it was said that eating a hare was like eating one’s own grandmother -- perhaps due to the sacred connection between hares and various goddesses, warrior queens, and female faeries, or else due to the belief that old "wise women" could shape-shift into hares by moonlight. The Celts used rabbits and hares for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries.

As Christianity took hold across Europe, hares and rabbits, so firmly associated with the Goddess, came to be seen in a less favorable light -- viewed suspiciously as the familiars of witches, or as witches themselves in animal form. Numerous folk tales tell of men led astray by hares who are really witches in disguise, or of old women revealed as witches when they are wounded in their animal shape. In one well-known story from Dartmoor, a mighty hunter named Bowerman disturbed a coven of witches practicing their rites, and so one young witch determined to take revenge upon the man. She shape-shifted into a hare, led Bowerman through a deadly bog, then turned the hunter and his hounds into piles of stones, which can still be seen today. (The stone formations are known by the names Hound Tor and Bowerman’s Nose.) "Demonic" hares and rabbits are found on cathedral carvings and in other forms of Christian sacred art...but we also find the opposite: the pagan Three Hares symbol (mentioned above) representing the Holy Trinity, and unblemished white rabbits symbolizing purity, piety, and the Holy Virgin.

Desert cottontail sculpture by Mark Rossi

Desert Jackrabbit (Wikipedia photograph)

Bunny Girl with Prayer Feathers by Terri Windling

Among the many different Native American story traditions, Trickster tales featuring Coyote or Raven tend to be best known to non-Native audiences, but there are also a large number of tales that feature a trickster Rabbit or Hare, particularly among the Algonquin-speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodland Mimbres Rabbits by Pablita Verlarde, Santa Clara Pueblotribes.

Nanabozho (or Manabozho) the Great Hare, for instance, is a powerful figure found in the tales of the Algonquin, Fox, Menoimini, Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Winnebago tribes. In some stories, Nanabozho is a revered culture hero -- creator of the earth, benefactor of humankind, the bringer of light and fire, and teacher of sacred rituals. In other tales he’s a clown, a thief, a lecher, or a cunning predator -- an ambivalent, amoral figure dancing on the line between right and wrong. In Potawatomi myth, Wabosso is the Great White Hare (and the younger brother of Nanabozho) who travels north to become the greatest of magicians among the supernaturals. The Utes tell the story of Ta-vwots, the Little Rabbit, who shatters the sun and destroys the world, all of which must be created again; and an Omaha rabbit brings the sun down to earth while trying to catch his own shadow. The Cherokee, the Creek, the Biloxi and other tribes tell humorous stories of a mischievous Rabbit who is cousin to Br’er Rabbit and Compair Lapin, outwitting foes and puncturing the pride of friends with his clownish antics.

Boxing Hares (from The Independent)

The jackalope legends of the American Southwest are stories of a more recent vintage, consisting of purported sightings of rabbits or hares with horns like antelopes. The legend may have been brought to North American by German immigrants, derived from the Raurackl (or horned rabbit) of the German folklore tradition.

The March Hare by John Tenniel

Rabbits and hares are both good and bad in Trickster tales found all the way from Asia and Africa to North America. In the Panchatantra tales of India, for example, Hare is a wily Trickster whose cleverness and cunning is pitted against Elephant and Lion, while in Tibetan folktales, quick-thinking Hare outwits the ruses Moon Rabbit netsuke by Eiichi, circa-late 19th Centuryof predatory Tiger. In Japan, the fox is the primary Trickster animal, but hares too are clever, tricky characters. Hares in Japanese folktales tend to be crafty, clownish, mischievous figures (usually male) -- as opposed to fox Tricksters (kitsune), who are more seductive, secretive, and dangerous (usually female). In West Africa, many tribal cultures, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Wolof of Senegal, have traditional story cycles about an irrepressible hare Trickster who is equal parts rascal, clown, and culture hero. In one pan-African story, the Moon sends Hare, her divine messenger, down to earth to give mankind the gift of immortality. "Tell them," she says, "that just as the Moon dies and rises again, so shall you." But Hare, in the role of Trickster buffoon, manages to get the message wrong, bestowing mortality instead and bringing death to the human world. The Moon is so angry, she beats Hare with a stick, splitting his nose (as it remains today). It is Hare’s role to lead the dead to the Afterlife in penance for what he’s done.

Hare by Charles Robinson

African hare stories traveled to North America on the slavers’ ships, mixed with rabbit tales of the Cherokee and other tribes, and were transformed into the famous Br’er Rabbit stories of the American South. These stories were passed orally among slaves, for whom Br’er (Brother) Rabbit was a perfect hero, besting more powerful opponents through his superior intelligence and quicker wits. the The Br’er Rabbit stories were Country Bunny by Marjorie Hackwritten down and published by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century in a now classic collection narrarated by the fictional Uncle Remus. At the same time that Chandler Harris was recording Br’er Rabbit stories from the African American oral tradition, folklorist Alcee Fortier was setting down the folk tales of the Cajun (French Creole) culture of southern Louisiana -- including delightful stories of a fast-talking rabbit Trickster called Compair Lapin. Like Br’er Rabbit, or the hares of West African lore, Compare Lapin is a rascal who manages to get himself into all kinds of trouble -- and then smoothly finds his way back out again through cleverness and guile. (Bugs Bunny owes more than a little of his character to this folkloric archetype.)

More of my bunny girls

Whether hovering above us in the arms of a moon goddess or carrying messages from the Netherworld below, whether clever or clownish, hero or rascal, whether portent of good tidings or ill, rabbits and hares have leapt through myths, legends, and folk tales all around the world -- forever elusive, refusing to be caught and bound by a single definition. The precise meaning, then, of the ancient Three Hares symbol carved into our village church is bound to be just as elusive and mutable as the myths behind it. It is a goddess symbol, a Trickster symbol, a symbol of the Holy Trinity, a symbol of death, redemption and rebirth…all these and so much more.

Rabbit study by Beatrix Potter

The Rabbit's Christmas Party by Beatrix Potter

The March Hare from Alice in Wonderland

Hare by Albrecht Durer the YoungerImages above: "Three Hares" by Jackie Morris, "Three Hares" by Brian Froud, "Nature in Art" by Eleanor Ludgate, "The Mockingbird and the Hare" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Wishing on a Blue Moon" by Karen Davis, "Girl and Rabbit" photographed by Katerina Plotnikova, "Brown Hare (Suffolk)" photographed by Michael Rae, "Thumper" (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froud, "Eostre" by Danielle Barlow, "Easter Rabbits" by Mr. Finch, "Hare" sculpture by Beth Cavener Stichter, "Desert Cottontail" sculpture by Mark Rossi, Desert Jackrabbit photograph (Wikipedia), my "Desert Bunny Girl with Prayer Feathers" sketch, "Mimbres Rabbits" by Pablita Verlarde (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), "Boxing Hares" photograph (The Independent), "The March Hare, Dormouse, and Mad Hatter" by John Tenniel, "Moon Rabbit" netsuke by Eiichi (Japan, late 19th Century), illustration from "The Tortoise and the Hare" by Charles Robinson, "Country Bunny" by Marjorie Hack, two more of my Bunny Girls, a rabbit study and "The Rabbit's Christmas Party" by Beatrix Potter, the March Hare at "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" by Arthur Rackham, and "Young Hare" by Albrecht Dürer.


"Into the Woods" series, 42: The Folklore of Sheep

The Royal Ram by Adrienne Segur

Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy, photographed by Elspeth Kinneir

Sheep, like goats, are associated with Christmas in folk tales told across northern Europe and the British Isles. On Christmas eve, these tales report, all sheep face east, bow three times, and are gifted with the power of speech from the stroke of midnight until the rise of the sun. This holy ritual cannot take place under the gaze of human beings, but provided the sheep are unobserved and unaware, their conversations can be Head of a Ewe, Sumerian, Protoliterate period (c 3500–3000 BC)overheard. In some accounts, the sheep sing hymns; in others, they foretell events of the year to come; and in some they gossip, praising or bemoaning the conditions in which they live. A grumbling sheep, mind you, is a cause for worry, because sheep are especially beloved and protected by Mother Mary in the folklore tradition, and a black mark is lodged in the heavenly accounts against farmers or shepherds who treat them ill.

Going back to myths older than Christianity: Duttur was the Sumerian pastoral goddess associated with ewes, milk, and arts of the dairy; she was the mother of Tammuz: the shepherd god of rebirth, fertility, and new growth in spring. Likewise, the ram-headed Khnum in Egyptian myth was a god of rebirth and pastoral regeneration. As one of the oldest of Egyptian deities, he also the god of creation,  forming human bodies in clay on a potter's wheel and placing them inside their mother' wombs. In Greek myth, Aristaios (son of Apollo and Cyrene) was the god of shepherds and beekeepers. The island of Ceos was the center of his cult (though he is also associated with the founding of Thebes), where his followers practiced "weather magic" and were renown for their fine herds and dairy skills.

In Irish myth, Brigid (the goddess of poetry and husbandry, among other things) was the owner of Cirb, a castrated ram (or wether) who was king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland -- including the seven famous magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These sheep, it was said, could produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman, and child the world over.

Dartmoor Sheep by Helen Mason

The "lamb of god" -- representing innocence, purity, and sacrifice for the greater good -- is a symbol found in all three of the major Abrahamic religions and especially in Christianity, where it's been widely represented all forms of Christian art and iconography. By contrast, lambs play little part in either Buddhist or Hindu lore, though the bold and virile ram appears in Asian myth in a variety of ways. A ram was present at the birth of Buddha, is a symbol of the passing year in Tibet, and is sacred (like the goat) to Agni, the Vedic god of fire, in the Hindu pantheon. Agni's ram is a symbol of sacrifice, but not a physical sacrifice of the animal itself; rather, of personal sacrifice in the form of spiritual practice and devotion.

Those born in the Chinese Year of the Sheep are said to be especially sensitive, creative, empathetic, and anxious; while those born under the sign of Aries the Ram in Western astrology are daring, lusty, quick-witted and honest, but also rather obstinate.

Lambs on Dartmoor, photographed by Helen Mason

Little Miss Muffet by Kate Greenaway

Dartmoor Lamb, photographed by Helen Mason

In Bulgaria, and other parts of eastern Europe, rams are said to be beyond the reach of evil; thus their image became a totem used to keep bad luck and illness at bay through carvings found on household utensils, domestic buildings, stables, and barns.

"Sheep breeding," writers Dr. Vihra Baeva, "has always been the main source of livelihood in the Bulgarian lands. That is why, in traditional culture, shepherds are held in high esteem and a large flock of sheep is sung praise of as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The bells on the sheep’s necks, called chan or hlopka, which chime in harmony also give a sense of pride. Christmas carols express wishes that the flock may yagni (derived from the word for lamb) but also blizni (twin-lambs). They sing of fine-wool sheep, horn-twisting rams and white-faced lambs. The animal described as vaklo is especially prized -- i.e. animals that are white with dark rings around the eyes. That is why a pretty lass, who by and large would have black eyes is compared to a lamb that is vaklo, gentle and loved."

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Edmund Caldwell

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Paula Rego, 1989

In the folklore of the British countryside, black sheep were largely considered lucky creatures -- in contrast to European lore where exactly the opposite was true, from which we get idioms like "the black sheep of the family" and the black sheep of children's rhymes and fairy tales.

The phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is of Biblical origin (from The Gospel of Matthew), but can also be found in Aesop's Fables. "Two shakes of a lamb's tail," meaning to do something quickly, appears to have come from early settlers in either America or New Zealand (depending on which source you consult), popularized by Richard Barham’s book Ingoldsby Legends (1840). It's believed to have derived from way that high-spirited lambs wag their tails while feeding.

Illustration from Baa by David Macaulay

There are many different theories on where the idea of counting sheep in order to fall asleep comes from, but one of the most interesting is that it's rooted in the old Celtic dialects, used by shepherds to count their sheep long after general use of these dialects had disappeared. This repetition of numbers, chanted in an ancient language in a sing-song manner, was said to send children into peaceful slumber as their elders watched over the herds.

Sheep Studies by Henry Moore

Sheep etching by Henry Moore

Henry Moore's sketchbook

Training Day by David Wyatt

The fairy folk of Brittinay, Wales, and here in the West Country keep flocks of fairy sheep (and cattle), and are said to steal the sheep of local farmers in order to replenish their stock.  Various charms, herbs, and rituals can be used to keep straying sheep safe from fairy hands. In some accounts, fairy sheep are diminutive in size, while in others they resemble ordinary animals except for the strange color of their eyes. Sheep who appear on Dartmoor roads at night and disappear in the blink of an eye are ones who belong to piskie folk, and woe betide any who harm them.

Sheep Watcher

Watched Sheep

Our own dramatic sheep encounter occurred early one morning several years ago, when Tilly began barking frantically and our daughter went outside to investigate. A few moments later she was back again, dumbfounded. "There's a sheep in our back garden," she reported.

Our visitor turned out to be a young ram (as we discovered by a clear view of his tackle from below)  -- a handsome fellow who was not best pleased to find himself in this unfamiliar terrain, far from his herd. He had wandered down from the Commons, through the woods, over a stream, past the garden gate, up a few stairs and onto the porch of Howard's office cabin...where the animal snorted, snuffled, pawed the ground and eyed us in great alarm. Howard was called, Tilly kept on barking, and the ram got more and more agitated while we tried to figure out how on earth to get him off the porch and back into the woods. This being the 21st century, Howard turned to the internet for advice on "how move a ram," and we learned we should herd him slowly, slowly, with plenty of space between him and us. Otherwise the poor fellow would panic and bolt and end up heaven knew where.

We must have been a fine sight that morning, all of us in our pyjamas still, Tilly dancing excitedly at our feet, while we guided the ram off the porch...down its stairs...through a break in the hedge...past my studio...through the woodland gate...and over the stream behind it. Finally, our visitor disappeared into the trees with a flash of his hooves, heading towards the hills and home.

If I hadn't snapped the picture below, I would wonder if I'd dreamt it all....

The Ram on Howard's Porch

Our visitorImages above: Adrienne Segur's illustration for Madame D'Aulnoy's classic fairy tale "The Royal Ram"; "Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy" photographed by Elspeth Kinneirn (National Geographic);  "Head of a Ewe," a Sumerian sculpture from the Protoliterate period (c 3500–3000 BC); three photographs of sheep and lambs here on Dartmoor by Helen Mason; "Little Miss Muffet and Her Sheep" by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901); "Baa Baa Black Sheep" by Edmund Caldwell (1880); "Baa Baa Black Sheep" by Paula Rego (1989); an illustration from "Baaa" by David Macauley; sheep studies and sketchbook by Henry Moore (1898-1986); "Training Day" by David Wyatt; Tilly watching sheep in a nearby farmer's field; and the ram on Howard's cabin porch.