In the Forest of Stories

Child Reading

Leshy Forest illustrations by Rima Staines

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's archives. This one, from summer 2013, relates to our discussions this week on fairy forests and the power of stories....

"At the beginning of my life was a forest," says Francis Spufford (in his charming memoir, The Child That Books Built). He means an actual forest (an 18th century park, turned wild, close to his parents' house), but also the metaphorical forest at the beginning of fiction, a forest made of stories:

"This one spread forever. Its canopy of branches covered the land, covered every form of the land, whether the ground beneath jagged or rolled. The forest went on. Up in its living roof birds flitted through greeness and bright air, but down between the trunks of the many trees there were shadows, there was dark. When you walked this forest, your feet made rustling sounds, but the noises you made yourself were not the only noises, oh no. Twigs snapped; breezes brought snatches of what might be voices. Lumpings and crashings in the undergrowth marked the passages of heavy things far off, or suddenly nearby.

The Castle in the Forest by Su Blackwell

"This was a populated wood. All wild creature lived here, dangerous or benign, according to their natures. And all the other travelers you had heard of were in the wood too, at this very moment: kings and knights, youngest sons and third daughters, simpletons and outlaws, a small girl whose bright hood flickered between the pine trees like a scarlet beacon...

Little Red Riding Hood by Su Blackwell

"...and a wolf moving on a different vector to intercept her at the cottage, purposefully arrowing through thickets, leaving a track of disturbance behind him as an alpha particle does when it streaks across a cloud chamber....

Grandmother's House in the Forest by Su Blackwell

The Secret Garden by Su Blackwell

"These people, these dangers, were not far away, but you would never meet them. The adventures could never intersect, although they shared the forest; although they would be joined in time by more, and still more, wayfarers, the more elaborated beings who came from the more elaborate worlds of privately read story, rather than the primitives of fairy tale. Mole from Wind in the Willows would pelt in hunted panic through a nighttime tract of the forest, whose bare boughs jutted 'like a black reef in some still Mole, Ratty, and Otter by E.H. Shepardsouthern sea.' Through twisted foliage would creep Wart, in The Sword and the Stone, past pale-eyed predators and baby dragons hissing under the stones, to his first sight of Merlyn swearing at a bucket. But each traveled separately, because it was the nature of the forest that you were alone in it. It was the place in which by definition you had no companions, and no resources except your uncertain self. It was the Wild, were relationship ceases, where connection is suspended."

There would be encounters in the forest, Spufford adds, for the solitary nature of a young hero's journey is spiritual and emotional, not literal. "Eventually the state that the whole wood represented [for you, the reader/traveler] would be embodied. One of those rustlings would become a footfall, would become a meeting, and you stepped forward to it as best you could. You could no more avoid the encounters of the wood -- all significant, all in their way tests -- than you could cross it on a neat dependable path. It existed to cause changes, and it had no pattern you could take hold of in the hope of evading change. You never went out the same as you went in."

Fairy Tales by Mary L. Gow

In the pages of Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, the brilliant fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar notes:

"The journey as a master trope for the reading experience becomes evident in our use of the term armchair traveler, as well as in a wide range of velvety reports about the reading experience. 'Most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words, and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually traveling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place that I hardly dared glimpse on the secret last page of the book,' Alberto Manguel reports in his history of reading. The novelist Katie Roiphe describes a similar sense of kinetic exhileration while reading during recovery from a childhood bout of pneumonia: 'I broke open the books the chased the words. It was a breathless activity like running.'"

A Child's Garden of Verses illustrated by Jessica Wilcox Smith

But it is deeply paradoxical, Tatar points out, "that a practice involving nothing but sitting still and staring at black marks on a white page is pitched as travel with the added benefit of powerful sensory stimulation. Reading is often said to open up alternate world superior to the one inhabited by the reader, producing an improbable rush of life.

"'From that first moment in the schoolroom at Chatres,' C.S. Lewis recalls in contemplating the role of books in his life, 'my secret imaginative life began to be so important and so distinct from my outer life that I almost have to tell two separate stories.' It was in that imaginative world  that the author of The Chronicles of Narnia felt 'stabs of joy' so keen that they rivaled any feelings attending real-life experience."

Five Little Pigs by Elizabeth Shippen Green

Jungle Tales by James Jebusa Shannon

There is a point for most bookish children when the choice of reading material becomes private and deeply personal; when adult attempts to guide or share the reading journey are no longer always welcome. From the bedside tales of our youngest years we progress to reading with a parent or teacher's help, and then on to reading all by ourselves. Books become our private treasures, solitary journeys into wondrous places that adults (except that magical creature called an Author) would surely not understand...or so we think, as each succesive generation discovers the vast Forest of Stories anew.

And indeed, some adults don't understand. Many children tagged as "bookworms" endure a tedious amount of teasing (or worse) from non-readers, as if a passion for print is odd, effete, perhaps even slightly unsavory. "When I was a boy,"the novelist/playwright/critic Robertson Davies once wrote, "many patronizing adults assured me that there was nothing I liked better than to 'curl up with a book.' I despised them. I have never curled." 

Carl Larrson's painting of his son reading

"Each time a child opens a book," writes Lois Lowry, "he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

Boy Reading by Normal Rocwell and The Book by Gina Litherland

"Books may be the only true magic," says  Alice Hoffman.

And indeed they are true magic.

Little Red by Jackie Morris

Tilly dreaming of fairy talesPictures above: A photograph from Transition Voice magazine; Leshy Forest illustrations by Rima Staines; four book sculptures by  Su Blackwell (working with discarded texts); "Mole, Ratty, and Otter" by E.H. Shepard (1879-1976); "Fairy Tales" by Mary L. Gow (1851-1929);  "The Fairy Book" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935); "Five Little Pigs" by Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954); "Jungle Tales" by James J. Shannon (1862-1923); "My Son Reading" by Carl Larrson (1853-1991) ; a book sculpture by Kerry Miller (working with discarded texts); "Boy Reading" by Norman Rockwell (1884-1978); "The Book" by Gina Litherland; "Little Red" by Jackie Morris; and Tilly dreaming of fairy tales.


By the Light of the Moon and Stars

John Bauer

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's extensive archives. This one, from summer 2013, is a compilation of paintings and drawings on the theme of Night (re-posted today with additional art). There is beauty, mystery, and magic to be found in darkness...and during dark times.

"The world rests in the night," writes John O'Donohue. "Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Night-time is womb-time. Our souls come out to play...." 

Remedios Varo

"Sometimes, when you're deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself, which is why they don't carry a distaff. They're not Fates, or anything terrible; they don't affect the lives of men; all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grown on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest."  - Mary Stewart (The Moonspinners)

Presently by Jeanie Tomanek

Catherine Hyde

"Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. A wool blanket."  - Margaret Atwood (A Handmaid's Tale)

Edmund Dulac

Virginia Lee

Titania Sleeping by Arthur Rackham

Adrienne Segur

"Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbes and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime."  - Brassaï

The Fisherman Stops to Listen (from ''The Nightingale'') by Edmund Dulac.jpg

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

"The message of the lullaby is that it’s okay to dim the eyes for a time, to lose sight of yourself as you sleep and as you grow: if you drift, it says, you’ll drift ashore: if you fall, you will fall into place."  - Kevin Brockmeier ("These Hands")

Vladislav Erko

Kelly Louise Judd

"Anything seems possible at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep."  - David Almond (My Name is Mina)

Charles Vess

Arthur Rackham

"Night is a time of rigor, but also of mercy. There are truths which one can see only when it’s dark."  - Isaac Bashevis Singer (Teibele And Her Demon)

Marianna And the Whippets by David Wyatt

"Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it.

"Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today's civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day."   -  Henry Beston (The Outermost House)

The Hidden Pool by Flora McLachlan

Look, as the day slows towards the space
that draws it into dusk: rising became
upstanding, standing a laying down, and then
that which accepts its lying blurs to darkness.

Mountains rest, outgloried be the stars -
but even there, time’s transition glimmers.
Ah, nightly refuged in my wild heart,
roofless, the imperishable lingers.

- Rainer Maria Rilke (Uncollected Poems: 1912-1922, translation by Susan Ranson & Marielle Sutherland)

Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

Catherine Hyde

"This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away."  - J.R.R. Tolkien (The Return of the King)

Flora McLachlan

Inga Moore

Julia Gukova

The illustrations above are : "Trolls" by John Bauer (1882-1918), "Celestial Pablum" by Remedios Varo (1908-1963), "Presently" by Jeanie Tomanek, "The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep" by Catherine Hyde, "The Arabian Nights: Descent" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a drawing from the "Inner Seasons" series by Virginia Lee, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Rackham (1887-1969), "Kip the Enchanted Cat" by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981),  "The Nightingale: The Fisherman Stops to Listsen" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Murmur of Pearls" by Gina Litherland, "The Tin Soldier: The Dog Carries the Princess on His Back" by Vladislav Erko, "Companions to the Moon" by Charles Vess, "A Midsummer Night's Dream: Oberon and Titania" by Arthur Rackham (1887-1969), "Forest Sleep" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Marianna and the Whippets" by David Wyatt, "The Hidden Pool" by Flora McLachlan, "Eclipse" by Jeanie Tomanek, "Crossing the River" by Catherine Hyde, "Starfall" by Flora McLachlan, "The Wind and the Willows" by Inga Moore, and "The Legendary Unicorn" by Julia Gukova. All rights to the imagery and text above are reserved by the artists and authors.


From the archives: Stories that matter

The Wild Swans by Nadezhda Illarionova

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's archives. This one, from winter 2015, relates to themes we've been discussing here: fairy tales, the writing craft, and creating work of value in a fractured world.

Writing advice from Louise Erdrich:

"Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life."

The Wild Swans by by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Grace Paley:

"The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write."

The Little Mermaid by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Socrates said, 'The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.' He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

"A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper."

Thumbelina by by Nadezhda Illarionova

The art above and below is by the Russian painter and designer Nadezhda Illarionova, based in Moscow. She has illustrated tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault, and Mother Goose...but these books, alas, are not yet available in English-language editions.

Thumbelina by Nadezhda Illarionova

Looking at Illarionova's wondrous work, I'm reminded of these words by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”

Donkeyskin by Nadezhda IllarionovaThe illustrations by Nadezhda Illarionova are: A Meeting in the Woods (The Wild Swans), Picking Nettles (The Wild Swans), The Fickle Prince (The Little Mermaid), Mole and Mouse (Thumbelina), The Child Was Shivering (Thumbelina), and Donkeyskin. All rights to the art and text above are reserved by the artist and writers.


Telling the story

Toshiyuki Enoki

Beginning this week, Fridays are my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's archives. I have nine-years-worth of them after all, having started this blog in 2008 -- so some of them may be unfamiliar to you, depending on when you joined us here. New posts will published Monday to Thursday (with Mondays, as always, dedicated to music); then Friday's archival post will relate to themes that have emerged during the week. This week: an excerpt from a long poem on the subject of women writers and storytellers. The post first appeared in 2014, and is reprinted today with additional art.

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki
I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins
and the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going,
telling
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.


- Ursula K. Le Guin

(from "The Writer On, and At, Her Work)

Toshiyuki Enoki

The magical art in this post is by painter and illustrator Toshiyuki Enoki. Born in Tokyo in 1961, he was trained in traditional Japanese painting, lacquer painting, and western painting techniques. Please go here to see more of his work.

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki EnokiThe poem excerpted above, and in the picture captions, is from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg (Virago Press, 1992); it also appears in Le Guin's collection  The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, 2004). I recommend seeking it out to read in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.


From the archives: The Folklore of Winter

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

I'm too ill to write new posts this week, so I am re-publishing seasonal pieces from the archives. This one was originally posted in December 2014, with additional art this time around:

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...carried now to England and passed on to our daughter, who may one day pass it to children of her own.

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

My personal tradition is to talk to those women of the past generations 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 Samhain have passed. In previous 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.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

The Snow Queen by Charles Robinson

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.

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate, full of all the magic of home and hearth, oven and table, and the wild wood beyond.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur RackhamThe paintings above are by three great artists of the Golden Age of Book illustration: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), and Charles Robinson (1870-1937). You'll find titles in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 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.


From the archives: The Folklore of Food

Christmas Evening by Carl Larrson

I'm too ill to write new posts this week, so I am re-publishing seasonal pieces from the archives in case you missed them the first time around. This one is for all of you preparing feasts for the winter holidays:

In her gorgeous essay "In Praise of the Cooks," Midori Snyder combines a memoir of her father (a fine French cook) with an exploration of the alchemy of the kitchen:

"The very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters," she writes. "They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells -- some secret, some written in books annotated Faeries in the kitchen by Wendy Froudwith splashes of grease and broth. For years after my father's death, I was convinced I could take his stained, handwritten recipes, dip them in hot water, and there would be enough residue of the dish on those pages to create consommé. Master cooks are alchemists, turning the lead of a gnarled root vegetable into the whipped froth of a purée, hazelnuts into digestive liqueur, a secret combination of spices and chilies into a mole paste that burns and soothes at the same time. From a bin brimming with hundreds of choices they can sense the ripe cantaloupe, the juicy peach and the blueberries that have lingered long enough on the bush to become sweet. I am in awe of their skill, their secret knowledge, the inexplicable way I can follow my father's recipe and not have it taste anything like his, missing that one secret ingredient, those whispered spells that transformed his dish into something sublime."

Ari Berk focuses on lore of milk, bread, and honey in his delicious essay "On Simple Things":

Troll with Bread by Wendy Froud"I am living in Devon, England at the moment," he begins, "in a medieval barn on the edge of the Dartmoor. In the small of hours of the night, in such a house, the mind rambles backwards and forwards in time, imagining the daily routines, the days and nights, the bread and butter, of the people that have lived here and used this place over the last six hundred years. A barn is a building of necessary things, of basics, life's staples about which much custom, curiosity and belief have formed; a place where a bowl of milk or a bit of bread is justly left for the little gods who watch over the farm and its immediate vicinity, but nowhere much farther than that. In the lore of offerings and sacrifice, the high rites of the gods and common custom of house fairies share a wide frontier. In studying such beliefs, we may discern that the humblest of offerings is indeed a sacred thing.

"So here is the lore of The Basics, three foods that remain effective indicators of the land's condition. If these are unspoiled, and readily available, all with the land and the people living on it is well. Here are three foods ancient and primal: one given, one found, one formed. Milk, honey and bread."

(I highly recommend reading Midori and Ari's pieces in full.)

Honeycomb and Bread by Wendy Froud

Sketch of Chocolate Pot & Whisk, mid 1660s

My friend Thomas Hine, who ran the Westcountry Folklore blog (until we lost him in 2012), passed on this bit of local lore, recorded in 1888:

"A belief was long current in Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps still lingers both there and in other remote parts of the country, that at midnight, on Christmas Eve, the cattle in their stalls fall down on their knees in adoration of the infant Saviour, in the same manner as the legend reports them to have done in the stable at Bethlehem. Bees were also said to sing in their hives at the same time, and bread baked on Christmas Eve, it was averred, never became mouldy. All nature was thus supposed to unite in celebrating the birth of Christ, and partake in the general joy which the anniversary of the Nativity inspired."

And mythologist William G. Doty notes the following in his review of Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food by Tamra Andrews:

The oldest surviving English cookbook"Swearing by onions? And leeks? Well, these were one of the earliest types of plants cultivated. Symbolism includes the (to some) offensive scents, as well as the pearl-in-the-oyster concept of enfolding major significances down theah. In fact, for the Druids and ancient Egyptians, each layer of the root represented a layer of the known-worlds, and one swore oaths with one's right hand on one, considered as a token of eternity. Today I'm most fond of slowly simmered leeks with anchovy dressing.

"Garlic had its problems because of its strong aromas: in Zoroastrian myth, the god of light, Ahura Mazda, smelled delightful, but his evil counterpart, Ahriman smelled like a garlic bulb, 'putrid and rotten.' Poor onion relatives, they have often been thought of negatively in mythological terms, considered polluting in more than one culture. Certainly apotropaic (averting evil), as I recall from my childhood in New Mexico, where during winter months, children sometimes appeared in classrooms with a large clove strung on a string around the neck.

"Ginger, on the other hand, was considered the herb of paradise, and was cultivated in the Far East since antiquity as something that brought one close to the deities, and used to flavor meats, oils, tea, and wine. It was linked with the solar fire, as was cinnamon, and it was one of the key ingredients of magical practices, including love-lore."

17th century sugar pie recipe

Paradise Now by Jacqueline Morreau

Apples, in world-wide mythic traditions, are a symbol of immortality, of knowledge, and of love in its various guises: spiritual, sexual, and romantic. They were used in Norse fertility spells (being sacred to the goddess Frigga), and in British hedgerow magic for seeking of knowledge or making love charms. The folk custom of "bobbing for apples" on Samhain/All Hallow's Eve is believed to have derived from a Druidic ritual for divination. Grain represents youth, springtime, and rebirth; and wine (called "the blood of the grape") has been a symbol of ecstasy and communion going back at least to the rites of Dionysus. In Japan, the god Inari is credited with the creation of rice, appearing there as an old man with two rice bundles sometime around 800 BC. In China, rice was placed in the mouths of the dead and sacrificed to the ancestors. Leftover rice could not be discarded, for it was sacred to the Chinese god of thunder.

There are numerous mythic taboos concerning food, such as the ancient belief that visitors to the realm of the gods or of the dead must not partake of food or drink if they ever hope to go home again. In Greek myth, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (goddess of the seedgrain and the fruitfulness of earth) is rescued from the underworld where's she been imprisoned by Hades, the Lord of Death — but she has eaten several fateful Goblin Fruit by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
an illustration for ''Goblin Market'' by his sister, Christina Rosettipomegranate seeds and so must return to dwell with him for a third (or a half) of every year. Similar stories can be found in myths and legends from around the world, such as a Finnish tale from The Kalevala in which Väinämöinen journeys to the land of the dead in search of the words for a magical spell. He is able to return home only because he refuses to drink a tankard of beer. In British fairy stories and ballads, human visitors to the fairy realm are warned they must not touch food or drink -- for those who do are trapped in Faerie forever, or else sent home again only to waste away and die, pining for another taste. Many are the legends of taboo foods eaten with dire consequences, ranging from forbidden fruits sacred to various gods to certain delicacies (such as rowanberries) that belong exclusively to the fairies. The most famous of these tales, of course, is the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Biblical scholars are divided on whether or not this fruit was actually an apple.)

Trickster tales often involve food -- forbidden and otherwise -- for Trickster is a figure of prodigious appetites. In some such stories, Coyote or Anansi or B'rer Rabbit or Loki makes use of his wits and wiles in order to obtain a nice full belly; in others, Trickster is undone by the enormity of his greed and ends the story with his hunger unmitigated.

The Bear and the Bees by Walter Crane

There are numerous mythological stories (and concurrent spiritual beliefs) involving the ritual "eating of the god" -- ranging from the ritualized consumption of the flesh of Bear, Deer, and other animal gods -- to feasting on the gods that dwell in the first harvest of grain or corn -- to the Christian sacrament of communion, partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ. (See Louise Martin's book Food for Thought for a provocative exploration of this subject.) Some myths are teaching tales intended to inculcate a proper attitude of respect and gratitude for the gift of food taken from the flesh of another living creature. There are many tales of this sort in the Celtic, Aboriginal, and Native American traditions, and also among the Ainu of Japan.  The Three Bears by L. Leslie Brooke"In the Ainu world," notes Gary Snyder (in The Practice of the Wild), "a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."

The Corn Muse by Donna Howell-SicklesIn addition to ritual feasting, abstaining from food is an important practice in various mythic and spiritual traditions around the world. In vision-quest ceremonies found from North America to Siberia, periods of fasting in the wilderness serve to break down the barriers between the human world and the spirit realm, allowing the quester or shamanic initiate to speak directly to the spirits or Gods. In ancient Ireland, "fasting against" a person was a legal procedure through which the faster could compel the person fasted against to grant a petition or pay a debt; we can still see remnants of this tradition in the hunger strikes of political prisoners today.  "Black Fasts" were believed to have the power to cast spells of misfortune, disease, and even death. In a famous English court case of 1538, a woman was convicted of causing a man to break his neck through the power of her fast. Food had power in the old mythic tradition...

And food still has power in sacred tales and practices found all around the world today. Navajo poet Luci Tapahanso, for example, offers the following words of advice rooted in her people's traditional ways: "Think about good things when preparing meals. It is much more than physical nourishment. The way the cook (or cooks) thinks and feels become a part of the meal. Food that is prepared with careful thought, contentment, and good memories tastes so good and nurtures the mind and spirit, as well as the body. Once my mother chased me out of the kitchen because it is disheartening to think of eating something cooked by an angry person." 

Tseping ny Roxanne Swentzell

For books about food myth, lore, history, and customs worldwide, I recommend the Tama Andrews book mentioned above (Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food) and The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser. Are there any others that you'd like to add? Book suggestions welcome, as are other bits of food lore and your own experience with "the magic of food."

Likewise, what works of mythic fiction or art do you think use food lore & myth particularly well? My own favorites: Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, The Stars Dispose and The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner (cooking magic in Renaissance Italy!), The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, and The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar. If we expand the list to include herbalism and hedgerow medicines, I'll add The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce. I'm also charmed by the notable obsession with food to be found in the excellent collection of Italian Folktales edited by Italo Calvino.

A 15th century herbalThe picture at the top of the post is by Swedish painter & designer Carl Larsson (1853-1919), depicting his family's Christmas Eve celebration. The faery and troll sculptures are by my friend Wendy Froud (a splendid cook herself), photographed by her son, Toby. The other images, listed in order,  are: a chocolate pot and whisk sketch on a 17th century manuscript, the oldest surviving English cookbook (late 14th century),  a 17th century recipe for sugar pie, "Paradise Now" by Jacqueline Morreau, "Goblin Fruit" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) - for his sister Christina's poem Goblin Market, "The Bear and the Bees" (from Aesop's Fables) by Walter Crane (1845-1915), "The Three Bears" by L. Leslie Brooke (1862-1940), "The Corn Muse" by Texas "cowgirl artist" Donna Howell-Sickles, ""Tse-ping" by Native American sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (from the Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), and a 15th century herbal. The recipe manuscripts come from the Wellcome Library's digital collection of 16th-19th century medicinal and culinary recipes. The Luci Taphanso quote above comes from her lovely collection of tales and poems Sáanni Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. This post first appeared in December, 2014.


From the archives: The Folklore of Sheep

The Royal Ram by Adrienne Segur

Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy, photographed by Elspeth Kinneir

This post first appeared in December, 2014. It's re-published today with additional art...

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.

Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger

Girl With Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

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.

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.

Lambs on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

Little Miss Muffet and Her Sheep by Kate Greenaway

Hans Ole Braseh painting and an Edwardian postcard

By contrast, lambs play little part in either Buddhist or Hindu lore, though the old 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.

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.

Chinese ram carving, 17th/18th century

Painting by Akitaka Ito

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Edmund Caldwell

 

"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 Paula Rego

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.

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

Sheep Studies by Henry Moore

''Archie Parkhouse Leading His Sheep by James Ravilious

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.

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.

Tilly spying on sheep

Sheep being spied upon

Strayed Sheep by Pre-Raphaelite painter William Homan Hunt

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 Victoria was back again, dumbfounded. "There's a sheep in our back garden," she reported.

Our visitor turned out to be a young ram (a fact 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 over Nattadon Hill and through the woods, across a stream, past a garden gate, through a gap in the hedge and then up some stairs onto the porch of the Howard's studio cabin  -- where he snorted and snuffled, while Tilly barked in hysterics but didn't go close. (Good dog.)

The ram on the cabin porch

Howard was called, stumbled out half-awake, and the poor ram grew more and more agitated as we discussed how on earth to get him off the darn porch and back to his herd. 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 might 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 at our feet, while we slowly guided our  visitor down the cabin's stairs...through the break in the hedge...past my studio...through the gate behind it...over the stream...and into the woods. The young ram, finding his bearings as last,  disappeared through trees with a flash of his hooves -- heading to the open hillside beyond, where the rest of his herd was waiting.

If I hadn't snapped the picture above, I'd be wondering now if we'd dreamt the whole thing.

Shep guarding the sheep by Beatrix Potter

Ewes Watching Shooting Stars by Mary Newcomb

Information on each of the paintings, drawings, and photographs above can be found in the picture captures. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


From the archives: The Folklore of Goats

''So much to see!'' by photographer Adrienne Elliot

I'm still too ill to write new posts, so I'm going to re-publish some seasonal pieces from the Myth & Moor archives. This one comes from December, 2014:

In myths all around the world the goat is associated with wilderness. The Greco-Roman gods who inhabited the forest depths and remote mountaintops roamed the backlands with goat companions, and appeared in the Pan, a sculpture by Wendy Froudform of goat-men themselves: Pan, Silvanus, Faunus, Bacchus, Dionysis, goat lovers all. Female goats were sacred to Artemis/Diana, goddess of female independence and the hunt, and goat milk was a common offering with which to honor or propitiate her.

In Sumerian myth, goats belonged to Marduk, the ancient god of magic and patron deity of Babylon, and were regarded as potent, uncanny beings due to this association.  Agni, the Vedic god of fire, rides a chariot pulled by goats in some Hindu tales; as does Thor, the god of thunder, strength, and virility in Scandinavian myth. Thor's goats, called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, are slaughtered and feasted on each night, but when their bones are carefully gathered together these magical goats return to life.

The Yule Goat, found across northern Europe, is a straw figure traditionally made from the very last sheaf of grain to be harvested each year. It can range in size from tiny to huge, and has magical properties. The custom is pagan in origin, but has been become attached to A Swedish Yule Goat, 1917Christmas lore in a number of northern countries: Father Christmas is sometimes pictured as riding on the back of a goat in Scandinavia, for example, and "going Yule goat" refers to the custom of carolling or wassailing. In some regions, a man dressed as a goat accompanies the singers as they go from house to house; he is a Trickster figure, playing pranks on households not sufficiently hospitable. In other traditions, the Yule Goat is a gentle, invisible spirit who watches to make sure the winter rituals are correctly carried out, or a figure who, like Santa Claus today, distributes presents to children.

Yule Goat by John Bauer

Yule Goat in Gefle, Sweden, 2009

The Krampus is a relative of the Yule Goat, but he is far less benign. Known largely in Alpine regions, he's a hairy, frightening beast-man with the horns and hooves of a goat, wearing rattles and bells around his waist. He distributes gifts to good children and drags the naughty ones off into the forest.

Krampus figures photographed by Charles Fregere

Oldgoatshome

The symbolism attached to goats varies a great deal around the world. In some places, they represent gentleness, endurance, spiritual purity, and sacrifice; in others, independence, lust, virility, fertility, The Gidleigh Goat by David Wyattcreative vigor, and stubbornness. Those born in the Chinese year of the goat are said to be shy, creative, and prone to perfectionism, while in Persian myth, goats symbolize leadership, forcefulness, and strength. This range reflects the nature of goat themselves. Though they were among the earliest of animals to be domesticated by humankind, they are also among the quickest to return to a feral state when opportunity arises.

In old stories ranging from Aesop's Fables to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, goats are cannier than sheep (think, for example, of the clever Three Billy Goats Gruff), and though they're generally not full Trickster characters, they tend to retain an edge of Trickster's wiliness and wildness. Even in more recent stories for children -- such as Heidi, the classic by Johanna Spyri (which I adored as a child) -- they represent our connection to nature and life lived in tune with nature's cycles...carrying the echo of goat-legged Pan wherever they roam the mountains, and wherever we follow. 

Heidi and the Goats by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Goat sketch by Diego Rivera

"From sunrise to sunset, I was in the forest, sometimes far from the house, with my goat who watched me as a mother does a child," wrote Mexican painter Diego Rivera (in My Art, My Life). "All the animals in the forest became my friends, even dangerous and poisonous ones. Thanks to my goat-mother and my Indian nurse, I have always enjoyed the trust of animals -- a precious gift. I still love animals infinitely more than human beings."

Girls Combing the Beads of Goats by Richard Doyle

Katrina PlotnikovaImagery above: goats photographed by Adrienne Elliot, a sculpture of Pan by Wendy Froud, a Swedish Yule Goat photographed in 1917,  "Yule Goat" by John Bauer (1882-1918),  a straw Yule Goat in Sweden (2009), a photograph of Krumpus figures by Charles Fregere (from his brilliant Wilder Mann series), "Old Goats Home" by David Wyatt (initial sketch for a painting), "The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt (Gidleigh is a village close to Chagford), "Heidi and the Goats" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), a goat sketch by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), "Girls Combing the Beards of Goats" by Richard Doyle (1834-1883), and a goat image from the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova.


Following the bear

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Lucy Campbell

This post was first published in the winter of 2014, re-posted today with additional art.

While thinking about the value of taking periodic retreats from the online world, I was reminded of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about the symbology of bears...so I searched through her interviews (published in A Voice in the Wilderness) until I found the right passage. For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Hibernation by Susan Seddon BouletIn Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to sleep for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Bear Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Frederick Richardson

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Līga Kļaviņa

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Pictures: The lovely bear art above is by Lucy Campbell (Scotland), Jackie Morris (Wales), Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997; UK, Brazil & US),  Gene Tobey (1945-2006, US),  Frederick Richardson (1862-1937, US), Līga Kļaviņa (Latvia), and Marc Simont (1915-2013; France & US). Titles can be found in the picture captions.

Words: The passages quotes above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the artists and authors.


From the archives: Beauty, grace, and morning mist

Tilly on the rocks

"The beauty of the world...has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.''  - Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own)

Tilly on the Rocks

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
  - Buckminster Fuller

Tilly on the Rocks

"You can have the other words –- chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it."  - Mary Oliver (Winter Hours)

Tilly on the Rocks

I know nothing, except what everyone knows -
If there when Grace dances, I should dance.

- W.H. Auden ("Whitsunday in Kirchstentten," Collected Poems)

Tilly on the Rocks

As Tilly and I climb through the morning mist and dawn breaks over Nattadon Hill, I am grateful for beauty. Determined to fight fiercely. Attempting to live gently. Striving, always, for grace.