Not silence but many voices

Sculpture by Girolamo Ciulla

I've posted the following passages before, but they seem well worth a re-visit this week....

From "Art Objects" by Jeanette Winterson:

"I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls 'the ecstasy of the privileged moment. Art, all art, as insight, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it."

Sculpture by Girolamo Ciulla

"We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector's item. Art objects.

"The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die."

Kouros by Girolamo Ciulla

Sculptures by Girolamo Ciulla

"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us."

The Philosopher by Girolamo Ciulla

"Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art.

"If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question 'What has happened to our lives?' "

A good question indeed.

Sculptures by Girolamo Ciulla

Demeter by Girolamo Ciulla

Sculpture by Girolamo Ciulla

The art today is mythic imagery in marble by Sicilian scuptor Girolamo Ciulla. Born and raised in Caltanisetta, western Sicily, he's now based in Pietrasanta, northern Tuscany, which has been an important center for sculptors working in marble for many centuries.

Sicily, a sun-baked island off Italy's southern coast, has its own language, culture, and ancient tradition of myth, folklore, and fairy tales. This heritage informs every aspect of Ciulla's work, says art historian Beatrice Buscaroli, representing "a continuity with a world that reaches us from the cradle of Mediterranean civilization...to which he adds the magic of the Etruscan land of Pietrasanta."

Figure with Ram's Head & Cele with Crocodile by Girolamo Ciulla

Ciulla's sculptures, as Buscaroli describes them, are "made of thousand-year-old certainties, of fruit, of sunlight, of wheat and stone, rain and wind. Of generous and vindictive gods, of women and warriors, billy goats and tortoises, of donkeys and fish.... Ciulla's sculpture is a sculpture that lasts, still anchored today to a thousand-year-old wilfullness dedicated to simplicity and beauty, a sculpture that sparks feelings of lightness and familiarity, faith in faces, in animals, in fruits and objects, because they belong to  everyday life, and at the same time, to a parallel world, evocative and reassuring, and worthy of being remembered."

Sculptures by Girolamo Ciulla

Girolamo Ciulla in his studioThe four passages of text by Jeanette Winterson above are from "Art Objects," published in her essay collection of the same name (Jonathan Cape, 1995). The quote by Beatrice Buscaroli is from "Girolamo Cuilla: Being, Lasting" in Girolamo Ciculla (Albermarle Gallery, London, 2007); the photograph of the artist in his studio is from the same publication. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the authors and artist.


Coming up on Saturday, August 20th:

Poster art by Jeannie Tomanek

This will be my last event for the Widdershins 2016 exhibition: a talk on folklore and myth in healing traditions, woven with storytelling by my husband Howard Gayton, an actor and dramatist. I haven't given this particular talk before -- it's a new piece spurred by some of the things we've discussed here on Myth & Moor, so it would be lovely to see some of you there, if you're in striking distance of Devon.

Faery drawing by Brian FroudGreen Hill is also sponsoring two film showings that you may be interested in: There's an evening devoted to Labyrinth on August 12th, presented with a talk by Widdershins artist Brian Froud, who designed the film. And there's a matinee showing of Willow the following day. Follow the links for more information. 

Tickets for all of these events can be purchased at Green Hill, through the Green Hill website, or by phoning 01647 440775.

The gorgeous painting above is by Jeanie Tomanek. The faery sketch is by Brian Froud.


Once upon a time....

Among the trees

One of the very best books I've read this year is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish, the author of West of the Moon and other excellent works of myth-based fantasy for children.

 HJ FordNow while I might seem biased because Katherine is a family friend (her daughter and ours have been best friends for many years), in truth I am sharply opinionated when it comes to books about folklore and fairy tales; I was mentored in the field by Jane Yolen, after all, which sets the bar pretty damn high. Thus it is no small praise to say that Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is an essential book for practioners of mythic arts: insightful, reliable, packed with information...and thoroughly enchanting.

"As a child I was usually deep in a book," Kath writes in the volume's introduction, "and as often as not, it would be full of fairy tales or myths and legends from around the world. I remember choosing the Norse myths for a school project, retelling and illustrating stories about Thor, Odin and Loki. I read the tales of King Arthur, I read stories from the Arabian Knights. And gradually, I hardly know how, I became aware that grown-ups made distinctions between these, to me, very similar genres. Some were taken more seriously than others. Myths -- especially the 'Greek myths' -- were top of the list and legends came second, while fairy tales were the poor cousins at the bottom. Yet there appeared to be a considerable overlap. Andrew Lang included the story of Perseus and Andromeda in The Blue Fairy Book, under the title 'The Terrible Head.'  And surely he was right. It is a fairy story, about a prince who rescues a princess from a monster....

The wildflower path

Wild apple blossom

"The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once, a 'Greek myth' and a fairytale too: but if we're going to talk about them, broad distinctions can still be made and may still be useful. 

HJ Ford"Here is what I think: a myth seeks to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it. Thus, the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is a religious and poetic exploration of winter and summer, death and rebirth. A legend recounts the deeds of heroes, such as Achilles, Arthur, or Cú Chulainn. A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. Its protagonists may be well-known neighborhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk narratives occur in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. A Cheshire farmer going to market to sell a white mare meets a wizard, not just anywhere, but on Alderley Ledge between Mobberley and Macclesfield. In Dorset, an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching 'from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham.' Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.

The black hound comes

Blue sicklewort

Hound and wildflowers

"Fairy tales can be divided into literary fairy tales, the more-or-less original work of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde (which will not concern me very much in this book), and anonymous traditional tales originally handed down the generations by word of mouth but nowadays usually mediated to us via print. Unlike folk tales, traditional fairy tales are usually set 'far away and long ago' and lack temporal and spatial reference points. They begin like this: 'In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king...' or else, 'A long time ago there was a king who was famed for his wisdom throughout the land...' A hero goes traveling, and 'after he had traveled some days, he came one night to a Giant's house...' We are everywhere or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local."

HJ Ford

White stitchwort

Katherine concludes the book's introduction with the reminder that fairy tales, found all around the world, are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. "They've been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation because they are of the people, by the people, for the people.  The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation, bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy, courage and quick wits -- and by the occasional miracle. The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours. It is ours."

It is indeed.

Oak elder

Fairy tale reflections

Seven Miles of Steel Thistle is available from The Greystones Press, a terrific new publishing venture by Mary Hoffman and Stephen Barber. (Check out their other books too.) You can read Katherine's musings on folklore on her blog, also called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; and learn more about her other books, stories, and essays here.

There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea, says the narrator of an old Irish fairy tale.

With this delightful collection of essays as a guide, the journey is worth every step.

Once upon a time

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine LangrishWords: The passages by Katherine Langrish in the post above and in the picture captions are from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (The Greystones Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The illustrations are by H.J. Ford, from the Fairy Books edited by Andrew Lang.


Widdershins 2016

About the exhibition:

Dartmoor, a landscape steeped in mythic and legend, is home to a large number of artists inspired by mythic themes. The works in this show explore myth, folklore, and faery tales in diverse ways, ranging from earthy to ethereal, sensual to spiritual, and frightening to whimsical...shaped into paintings, sculptures, assemblages, magical clocks, handbound books, and more.

Participating artists:

Alan Lee, Marja Lee, Virginia Lee, Brian & Wendy Froud, David Wyatt, Rima Staines, Danielle Barlow, Angharad Barlow, and me (all from Chagford); Hazel Brown (from Torquay); Pauline Lee (from Ashburton), Neil Wilkinson-Cave (from Moretonhampstead); and Paul Kidby (from Hampshire, but with strong Dartmoor connections).

In addition to the main gallery show, Green Hill will display mythic art and crafts throughout the art centre (by Alexandra Dawe, Leonie Grey, Sally Hinchcliffe, Meg Meg Connolly, and others); and books and prints will be on sale in the Green Hill shop. They've also organized a program of related events to run throughout the summer: workshops, talks, film showings, etc., for both adults and children. Please contact Green Hill Arts, or visit the Calendar section of their website, for more information.

I'll be at at the Meet the Artists evening on August 6th; at a Coffee Morning with three other women artists (Wendy Froud, Marja Lee, and Hazel Brown) on July 11th; and I'm giving talk on August 20th on The Power of Story: Healing & Transformation in Folk & Fairy Tales. Do come if you can.

For photographs from the first Widdershins exhibition in 2013, go here (via Virginia Lee) or here (via Rima Staines).

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee


From the archives: Picking Nettles

Spring is the time to harvest nettles...

Nettle path at the bottom of Nattadon Hill.

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

 

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Urtica dioica: the common nettle or stinging nettle, native to  Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

Nettles with ferns, flowers, and dog.

Harvesting nettles.

Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."

Nettles among the wildflowers.

Nettles, stitchwort, and campion.

Nettle path by an old stone wall.

"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."

Nettles and bluebells

Nettle tips for soup, tonic, and tea.

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."

Nettle basket.

Evening sunlight through the kitchen window.

Bumblehill Nettle Soup

Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Preparing nettle soup.

Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)

Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.

Nettle soup.

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Nettles

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient. 

Courtyard

Soup is served.

And pretty tasty too.

Tilly guards the nettle crop.

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane
The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, & Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: "Swan's Wing" and "The Folklore of Food."


Hedgies

Hedgehog photograph by Alamy

It's Hedgehog Awareness Week, sponsored by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. I adore hedgehogs, so here is some of my favorite pieces of hedgehog art. (The artists are identified in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Hedgehog art

"Artistotle says that hedgehogs can foretell a change of wind," writes mythologist J.C. Cooper, "and accordingly 'shift the outlook of their earth-holes.' Pliny and Aelian go further, maintaining that hedgehogs have two holes, North and South, and block one or the other as the wind changes. Other beliefs were that the animal  uses its spines to take the shock if it falls from a height, also that it collects grapes on its spines by rolling on them, then takes them home for winter storage. Plutarch says he had seen this done, the creature 'looking like a bunch of grapes shuffling along the ground, so thickly covered was the animal with its booty.' The Beastiaries used this belief to illustrate 'finding the True Vine of Christ,' though the act of stealing the grapes was 'the Devil robbing men of their souls' -- in general in Christianity the hedgehog depicted the Evil One and evil-doing.

"In early times the hedgehog was generally a symbol of the Great Mother, but in particular it was the symbol of the Sumerian Ishtar. Irish lore associated the hedgehog with witches who could take its form to suck cows dry. In China it also had a sinister reputation as one of the Five Animals [along with Fox, Weasel, Snake, and Rat, sacred but not to be trifled with]."

Hedgehog art by Rima Staines

Hedgehogs play a more postive role in the fairy tale tradition, where they appear as Animal Guides, Animal Brides/Bridegrooms, and revenants of wise and gentle nature.

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

In Slavic tales in particular, notes Margaryta Golovchenko, hedgehogs are the keepers of knowledge and order and embodiments of magical power:

"The Slovenian duhovin, for instance, is a version of the bewitched child, possessing special abilities and qualities, and appearing with the body of an animal such as a snake, hedgehog, or raven.  And, in the Soviet animated film Ezhik v tumane /Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), Hedgehog is the bridge between the conscious and the dream world, evoking sympathy from the audience as they watch him lost in a thick mist, chasing after the mirage of a white horse in the clouds.

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

"Perhaps the infrequency of hedgehogs in other cultural stories speaks to a unique characteristic of Slavic culture -- the stereotypically cold exterior of the Slavic people gives way to a wise and kind nature. Initially, the hedgehog’s kind personality might seem difficult to find under his intimidating façade. For the persistent reader who takes the time to discover more about him in Slavic tales, however, the hedgehog serves as a reminder that wisdom, kindness, and courage come in various forms."

Hedgehog art

An illustration from Foxwood Tales by Brian Paterson

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

The J.C. Cooper quote is from Symbolic & Mythological Animals (HarperCollins, 1992). The Margaryta Golovchenko quote is from an essay published by Tiny Donkey/The Fairy Tale Review (March, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors & artists.


A Dartmoor Beltane

Beltane 1

Since one of the underlying themes of Myth & Moor pertains to folklore in art and life, the folkloric celebration of winter's end here in Chagford seems right on topic. Last year, we held a public May Day Procession, and a  grand green time was had by all  -- but we haven't yet got enough volunteer organizers to run a public event every year, so the next one is scheduled for 2017. (If you're local, mark your calendars.)

In order to keep the thread of the ritual aspect of May Day unbroken during this inbetween year, a few of us gathered in a quieter way to call the Jack and the Obby Oss in from the wild -- marking the end of winter with pipe and drum, poetry and prayers, with mischief, mead, and merriment. Here is a taste of the day: a story in pictures, folklore come to life.

Beltane 2

The Obby Oss emerges from the trees, to be welcomed and smudged, or blessed, by the smoke of white sage......and then the whole gathering is smudged as the Oss enters our circle.

Beltane 2

Beltane 3

Beltane 4

The piper plays, a drumbeat sounds, and three women in green (representing the goddess of spring in her triple aspect: crone, maiden, and mother) lead a simple Beltane ceremony, addressing the human and more-than-human communities that share the land. I won't go into the ceremony itself, for mythic things are also private things in this and many other sacred traditions -- but it involves gratitude for life, re-balancing oneself with the rhythms of the natural world, music, and laughter. Always laughter -- for as the Hopi in Arizona say, no ceremony can properly begin until somebody has laughed. Joy and ribaldry are a part of life too.

Beltane 5

Beltane 6

Beltane 7

The ceremony is simply, short, and includes everyone in the gathering, from the youngest, strapped to her mother's back, to the oldest of a family in which three generations are present.  Then the Piper breaks the circle...

Beltane 8

...leading the way over a stream...and through a gate...

Beltane 9

...and up the slope of a field full of sheep. Lambs frolic on the hill, or chase their mothers bleating for drinks of milk, reminders of spring's fertility, new life, and new beginnings.

Beltane 10

Beltane 11

The Obby Oss leaps and frolics too,  jaws a-clacking and bells a-jingling. The sheep and lambs give him wide berth. Sometimes he's a frightening creature, and sometimes comical and rather endearing.

Beltane 12

Beltane 13

We crest the hill and turn on to a village street, the pipes leading the way. The street is quiet and only a few come to their doors to watch the Oss dance by, spreading the "luck of the May" from house to house with every jingling step. At the outskirts of the village is an old stone barn. The Horned Man stops, opens the door, and the raggle-taggle parade goes through...and out another door into a field, where the Beltane fire stands ready.

Beltane 14

But first, before the evening festivities begin, the ceremony must be properly closed off: with prayers,  the ritual passing of the mead, and the formal thanking of the Oss. He disappears into the trees and won't be seen again until next year.

Beltane 15

Beltane 15b

And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.

Beltane 16

Beltane 17

Now the merry-making begins! Shared food is spread over tables decorated with jars of flowers from the woods. Beer, wine, and homemade mead flow freely (May Eve is a drunken affair by long tradition), while friends and neighbors catch up on village news, children play on an outdoor trampoline, dogs chase balls through the grass and stormclouds threaten but never break.

Howard returns from the Otherworld where he'd been transformed into the spirit of the Oss. He is wide-eyed, exhausted and sweat-soaked, his faced still blackened by masking chalk; the transition takes time, and while he's in it, he's a creature of the In-Between.

Beltane 18

The willow frame worn by the Jack in the Green sits empty by the fire, crowned with leaves. Last year a frame like this, worn by our Jack, was entirely covered in greenery, then burned in the fire at the end of the event. This year, the frame acquires its greenery and flowers bit by bit. All are invited to decorate the Jack; all are invited to be the Jack. A bare winter wreath hangs on the frame, and each of us ties scrolls of paper to it with green ribbon and string, containing all the things we wish to leave behind as the old season turns into the new. The wreath will be burned at the tail end of the night, and all our old troubles with it.

Beltane 19

A group of drummers gathers by the fire to play for all who dare to dance the Jack. Howard is one of those drummers but he's also eager to to dance the Jack himself -- so he passes the drum, enters the frame, lifts it up (it's heavy!), and tap-dances his way around the fire like a leafy Fred Astaire.

Beltane 20

Beltane 21

Jason removes his horns to have a go. He was the Jack for the public parade last year, strong enough to carry the frame with ease...

Beltane 22

Jason heading around the fire, Pig (he dog) behind him

...but women too are dancing this year. Here's Sarah, dancing with joy...

Beltane 23

And Rowan...

Beltane 23b

And Susie...

Beltane 24

Beltane 24b

And even Susie's daughter. Too small to lift the frame by herself, but fiercely independent, she sits inside the Jack for a spell and then crawls out, satisfied.

Beltane 25

Andy, our piper, takes a turn, and when he's halfway around the fire he brings his wife, Nomi, and their child into the Jack and the three of them dance together.

Beltane 26

Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...

Beltane 27

....and then his daughter Virginia does as well. One by one, throughout the evening, everyone who wants to dance the Jack takes part, helped into the frame by Sarah and Ruth, spurred on by the drumbeat and our cheers.

Beltane 28

Beltane 29

I'm still convalescing from a serious illness, and I know I cannot lift the Jack; I content myself with watching and cheering, though I really want to dance. Howard can tell (he knows me well), so he pulls me up to take a turn. "We'll do it together," he says. "I'll be your strength."  And so I dance too.

Beltane 30

Beltane 31

And now the story must end, for although the celebration carried long into the night, I didn't last much past dusk, and those starlight tales are not mine to tell.

Today, the sun is bright and it's warm at last. It finally feels like spring. Did we really drum up this glorious weather? Magic isn't as direct as that. Magic is the warmth that binds friends, neighbors, and the living earth together...and that's the luck of the May.

Beltane revellers, human and canine

Beltane 33

Hawthorn tree in bloom


        Drumming Winter Away
         by Jane Yolen

        Boom, da-boom
         the brrr of the year,
         the burring of skin
         stretched ear to ear.
         The grin of spring,
         the ground of spite,
         the rise of fern,
         the shortened night.

         The well-ruled month,
         the lengthened day,
         less time for sleep
         more time for play.
         The pearling buds,
         the shafts of green,
         the fuzz on trees,
         as twigs all preen.

        The waft of perfume
         in the air,
May blossoms on the hawthorn         the warp and weft
         of spring weave there.
         Boom, da-boom,
         we beat the drum
         for spring to come.
         For spring to come.

 

Beltane 34The photographs here were taken by David Wyatt, Susie Violette, Jason of England, Suzi Crockford (the hawthorn tree) and me. The poem by Jane Yolen is copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.


Up the May!

Leaf Mask by Brian Froud

Happy May Day and Beltane, celebrating the turn of the Great Wheel to the greening of the year. The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the lambs are leaping, the frogs are spawning, the ponies are foaling on Meldon Hill, and the Jack of the Green is dancing at the crossroads to bless us with the land's fertility....

Piper & Obby Oss

May Day Procession

Last May we held a traditional May Day Procession here in Chagford, complete with Jack in the Green, Obby Oss, piper, drums, green men/women/children and a deer man or two: the requisite blending of the sacred and the rude. The next Procession is planned for 2017, and we hope it The Obby Osse dances past the hardware store, with the Jack in the Green close behindwill be even rowdier than the first -- but for the year inbetween, it's a quiet affair: just a few friends gathered in a field to maintain the rite's continuity. Perhaps Jack will come to join us all the same: toasting the land and re-affirming the bonds of our human, and more-than-human, community.

Go here for the legends and lore behind the Maying; go here for photographs from our Jack Procession last year (with a post about folk pageants and "wild time"); and go here for a video of Beltane Border Morris up on Dartmoor at sunrise this morning, dancing the day and the season in, as these good folks do every year.

Then fill your house with May flowers (hawthorn tree blossoms); hang primroses over your doors and your cows; and down a toast to the Jack of the Green, and to the wild deep within us. Up the May!  

The trees are budding

Dartmoor pony & foal by Carol Amos

Andy Letcher, May Day 2015

Frogs in the studio pond

"The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May."   - Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte D'Arthur)

Beltane Border MorrisThe Green Woman drawing above is by Brian Froud. The first photo was taken by Ashley Wengraf; the third and sixth by Ruth Olly; the pony & foal by Lillian Todd-Jones; the last photo (of Beltane Border Morris dancing on the moor early this morning) by Andy Letcher. The others are mine. Run your cursor over the images to see the picture captions.