A Dartmoor Beltane

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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

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...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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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

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

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And Rowan...

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And Susie...

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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.

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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.

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Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...

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....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.

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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.

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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

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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.


Beltane, Chagford 2016

It's been such a busy weekend (a least for someone recently confined to bed) that I'm resting up from the holidays and won't be back to Myth & Moor until tomorrow. But here's a preview of what's to come: photos from our May Day / Beltane celebration, which was magical and merry and deeply folkloric. More anon.

Beltane, Chagford 2016

For drumming winter awayPhotographs by David Wyatt, me, & David again.


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.


The Hedgespoken Winter Raffle

It's the last day of the Hedgespoken Winter Raffle, and the last day to help this fine project by purchasing a raffle ticket, and/or by spreading the word. Six good reasons for supporting Hedgespoken:

1. It is an insanely cool project.
2. Everyone involved has been working insanely hard to get it off the ground.
3. Mythic Arts & Folk Arts aren't often supported by traditional Arts Funding sources, so it's up to
    those of us who love them & believe in them to support them in whatever ways we can.
4. My husband Howard is involved with making the Folk Theatre part of Hedgespoken happen, and
    it's going to be magical indeed.
5. For only £1 you might end up owning an original Rima Staines painting, or a handworked
    Smicklegrin leather mask.
6. Rima Staines & Tom Hirons are Good Folks (did you know they first met through their
    involvement with The Journal of Mythic Arts?)...so let's get this truck on the road.

For more information on the project go to the Hedgespoken website.
For updates on the project see the video above (from December), and the Hedgespoken blog.
The very beginnings of the project are here...and my gracious, how far they've come!

Hedgespoken-by-starlight-fi


Christopher LeithSuch Stuff As Dreams
Are Made On: A Tribute to Christopher Leith

by Howard Gayton
with Terri Windling

Last week, I heard the sad news that Christopher Leith, a master of puppet theatre in Britain, had died from the complications of motor neurone disease, which he developed in 2013. In addition to his many other accomplishments, Christopher was the Artistic Director at the Little Angel theatre in London, where I worked regularly in the 1990s and developed many of my own ideas about the art of puppetry due to his mentorship, and so I want to share some thoughts on the life and art of this puppet master. I'm primarily a dramatist, however, not an essayist, so in order to give readers a proper idea of Chris' remarkable work, I asked my wife, who is an essayist, to help me put this piece together.

Christopher's deep obsession with puppets went right back to his childhood. "The family didn't approve," he told Chandra Masoliver in a recent interview; "my stepfather said I was 'playing with dolls.' Retrospectively, I think I was creating a world I could control, but as I reached my teens, puppeteering changed from being a need to being a vocation." He studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Arts in London, acting at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and apprenticed in puppet design and manipulation under John & Lyndie Wright of London's Little Angel Theatre.

Nzua puppet by Christopher LeithIn addition to his long association with the Little Angel, Chris' work with puppets was so extensive that I can only touch on a few highlights here. He played many different roles in his work: he designed and carved puppets; he wrote, directed, and performed in numerous puppet productions; he taught and mentored younger puppeteers; and he worked in film (with Jim Henson, Lotte Reiniger, Disney Studios, and others), although theatre remained his first love. He was Resident Puppeteer for the National Theatre, and worked with many other companies, large and small, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the London Palladium and Polka Theatre. His puppets, sculptures and drawings have been exhibited at the National Theatre, the British Museum, the V&A Museum and other venues. Chris also loved music: he trained in Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry, and performed regularly with the Schola Gregoriana. To learn more, go here (and scroll down the page) for a time-line of his career.

Chris Leith

Chris came into my life when I was a young puppeteer & director -- discouraged by the difficult dynamics of one of my earliest jobs in the field and considering giving up puppetry altogether. He brought me into the Little Angel team and re-ignited my love for the form. "There is a spirit in every object that has magic in it," Christopher Howard Gayton at the Little Angel Theatreliked to say. "A puppet is like a little nest where the spirits can come down, enjoy being and dance there. Puppets have no free will, a puppet comes to life when it is picked up and it dies when it is put down again...like an empty shell. Puppets exist in a state which is both alive and dead at the same moment…that’s why puppetry is the most beguiling of all the theatre arts; and the best puppeteers are the ones who let the audience dream in the strongest way."

In paying my tribute to this kind and gentle man, I'd like to describe the very first exercise he taught me, for it has stuck with me over all these years and proven to be instrumental in my personal approach to puppetry. The exercise is ridiculously simple on the surface, but has great depths of meaning and philosophy beneath:

We begin by sitting in stillness. I ask you, the student, to simply sit and look at your puppet. (Chris often used an old doll-like puppet; when I teach, I use an old bit of cloth.)

Puppets for 3 Stages of LazarusDon't touch the puppet, not yet. Centre yourself by concentrating on your breath, and then make a connection with the puppet through your eyes alone. Now use your imagination to make an energetic connection to the puppet through your lower energy centre, just below your navel -- what the Taoists call the Dan Tien. And then, when you're ready, when the moment feels right, move your hand gently to rest on the puppet. “The first moment of connection is special,” I remember Chris saying. “It is when you are giving the puppet life.”

After touching the puppet, allow the rise and fall of your breathing to transfer into it. This is what moves the puppet into motion, the sacred connection between puppet and puppeteer. “Each time you make that contact with the puppet,” Chris would remind us, “you are giving life.”

And there it is, at the heart of this simple, powerful exercise: the Creation Myth.

In the beginning, the Gods took a handful of moist clay and crafted a human form. They breathed life into it through its nostrils and gave it consciousness....

Art doesn't get much more profound than this: the creation of life. The creation of the world.

3 Stages for Lazarus, Christopher Leith

"Now," Chris would say at the end of the exercise, "center yourselves once again, and when it feels right, slowly withdraw your hand from the puppet...." For of course, the puppets we infuse with our breath and consciousness become inert again when the story is done. You’ve brought the puppet to life, allowed it to explore its world, but now that life has to be taken back. If the giving of life is a powerfully mythic moment, the ending of it is perhaps even more so. The circle has completed itself.

The power of Chris' exercise was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I used it to teach a small group of puppeteers I was working with for the first time. One of the puppeteers had suffered a miscarriage not long before, and the symbolic gesture of giving life to her puppet...and then withdrawing it...moved her deeply. I was reminded, once again, that working with puppets is not a frivolous thing, for puppets (like masks) touch our consciousness on a deep archetypal level.

Puppets by Christopher Leith (2nd photograph by Manuel Vasquez)

A willing "suspension of disbelief" is an integral part of all forms of theatre, but this is multiplied ten-fold with puppetry. Whether you are using a beautifully crafted puppet, a rough knock-about one, or simply a piece of cloth or lump of wood, the audience will see it as a real-life character if it's manipulated by a skilled puppeteer: a character conveying all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in the human condition. The Christopher Leith, 3 Stages for Lazarus rehearsal, 2015audience laughs at a puppet's foolishness, and is brought to tears by its struggles. Through the carefully crafted illusion that brings puppets to life, children are transported to a magical, mythical realm...and adults are turned into children again, submersed in the Otherworld of make believe.

Although Chris began showing symptoms of motor neurone diesease in 2013, he continued to work with puppets in whatever ways his failing strength allowed: he could no longer carve, or manipulate the puppets, but he still directed, taught, championed the art form wherever and whenever he could, and served as Patron of The Curious School of Puppetry. Guy Dartnell has been organising the effort to archive and document Chris' work. (There's a Facebook page for updates on this.) And Chris' final production, 3 Stages for Lazarus, is scheduled to debut at the Suspense Festival at the Little Angel next week.

Go here to read about the production in an article by Chandra Masoliver. And go here to see a fascinating interview filmed earlier this year by Guy Dartnell. Chris discusses puppetry, carving, his final projects, and living with motor neurone disease, interspersed with clips  from his 'Beowulf' (1971), and a glimpse of his puppetry workshop.

In the short video below (filmed four months ago), Christopher's last puppet is brought to life:

"The back of Lazarus was the last piece of carving I ever did," Chris said. "To see it coming to life in this way is magical; it’s beautiful. I started working on Lazarus in 2010, well before any signs of motor neurone disease. I heard the words ‘fixed and cannot move’ in a song; that’s how puppets are -- and are not. Lazarus is about the fragility of life."

Star Maiden puppet by Christopher Leith
Prospero:


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

Chris, wherever you are now, in the circle of life and death, thank you. You'll never be forgotten.

Christopher Leith

About the author of this Guest Post: Howard Gayton is a puppeteer, a dramatist (specializing in mask theatre), and a tutor at the Curious School of Puppetry.

Picture credits: Identification of the photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The third photo is of Howard at the Little Angel in the 1990s; all the rest are of Christopher and his puppets, and come primarily from the 3 Stages for Lazarus Facebook page, set up by Guy Dartnell to honor Chris' work, and the V&A Museum Collections site.  All rights to the quotes, photographs & videos above reserved by their creators , the V&A, and the Christopher Leith estate.


The enclosure of wild time

May Day in Chagford

May Day in ChagfordPictures above & below from Chagford's Jack in the Green procession on May Day, 2015

Just as Commons land creates a physical border between private property and wilderness (discussed here yesterday), traditional carnivals, festivals, and folk pageants create a metaphorical border between the measured clock-time of ordinary life and the "wild time" of the mythic realm. But this cultural Commons has also been effected by Britain's history of Enclosures, as Jay Griffiths explains in the following passage from her book Pip, Pip, a cultural study of time:

"In Britain there were once hundreds of carnivals: blessing-of-the-mead days; hare-pie-scrambling days and cake-and-ale ceremonies; there were Hobby Horse Days and Horn Dance Days, with their pagan hunting associations and symbolic suggestions of fertility rites; there were Well-Dressing days, Cock-Squoiling days (or 'throwing-at-cocks'); there were Doling days and days for 'beating the bounds' of the parish; wassailing the apple trees and playing duck-apple at Halloween; burning the clavie (tar barrel) at new year or 'Hallooing Largesse' (where, in East Anglia, the Lord of the Harvest traditionally led a troup of people to serenade householders, seeking money), all colored the course of the year. Some of these are pre-Christian; some are medieval or later. Many of them have survived in some form -- often as 'just' a children's game.

May Day in Chagford

"At Somerset's Punkie Night, at the end of October, children made punkies (lanterns) out of mangel-wurzels (a large kind of beet) and went knocking on people's doors for money or candles. This was one of the many ancient mischief nights of the year, when children played up gleefully, changing shop signs or taking gates May Day in Chagfordoff hinges:

Give us a light, give us a light.
If you don't you'll get a fright
...

is the children's refrain; an ancient threat this, playing a trick if you're not treated. Guisers (children disguising themselves at Halloween) in Scotland sang:

If ye dinnae let us in,
We will bash yer windies in.

"Whuppity Scooorie in Lanark is a festival, believed to have survived from pagan times, during which as much noise as possible was made to scare off evil spirits and protect crops; latterly it is acted out by children who, started by a peal of bells, swing paper balls at each other and scramble for pennies. Up-Helly-Aa is a Shetland Isles festival, dating back to Viking times, when a thirty-foot model Viking ship, complete with banners, shields and a bow of a dragon's head, is taken down to the sea by torchlight, then the torches are flung in and it blazes across the water, representing the dead heroes sent to Valhalla in a burning ship. Garland Day at Abbotsbury in Dorset is a ceremony to bless the fishing boats at the opening of the mackerel fishing season which had strong hints of pagan sacrifice in its thousand-year history, though now it is, like so many other festivals, just a children's game."

May Day in Chagford

Processing past the church yard copy

May Day in Chagford

"Many festivals chime with the seasons of the agricultural year and of the natural world," notes Griffiths, "the life and death cycle of vegetation as, for example, the Obby Oss on May Day at Padstow in Cornwall, where the Oss dances, dies, resurrects, and dances again. There are festivals marking the death of winter, or bringing in the summer, there are cyclic (and sacrificial) nature-festivals for the corn spirit wherever corn is grown."

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"Festival time, traditionally, binds communities together, knitting them to their land, each area tootling its own festive tune, accented with dialect voices specific to certain places and describing a 'vernacular time.' Thus one area's festival calendar could have been different from the calendar of a neighboring locale. Festival-time could further delineate not only the physical geography but also the economic geography of an area, protecting rights of access or land-use, particularly -- in the past -- in such customs as the 'beating of the bounds' of a parish or village."

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"The beating of the bounds, or processioning, as Bob Bushaway says in By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1880, 'provided the community with a mental map of the parish...which was the collective memory of the community.' These festivals tied a society to its past, its land and its rights to that land. But, as Bushaway shows, these customs disappeared, up and down the country, as a result of one thing: enclosures."

May Day in Chagford

"Pre-enclosure," Griffiths continues, "other customs concerned with common land, with the rights of gleaning, wood-gathering or access, were vigorously upheld. Cheese-rolling ceremonies, for instance, used festival-time to mark such rights; when the access was denied, so was the festival At Shapwick Marsh at Sturminster Marshall, a 'feast of Sillabub' was held. It was joint-stock merry-making,' so one person might bring the milk of one cow, another the milk of three, while yet another might bring the wine. With the 1845 enclosure, this custom disappeared and many other festivals of commons were outlawed.

May Day in Chagfod

May Day i Chagford"Before enclosures, festivals were vigorously convivial, as numerous chronicles show; they were off-license times, drunken, licentious and rude, ranging from mid-summer ales to apple-tree wassailing, from autumn mead-mowing to May Day liaisons. And the Victorian middle-classes hated it. Just as land was literally fenced off and enclosed, so the spirit of carnival-time was metaphorically enclosed, repressed and fenced in by Victorian morality: no drinking, no bawdiness, no sex. The common -- very vulgar -- character of festival was increasingly outlawed and fenced off from the commoners and turned over to the land-owning middle classes in the form of the queasy, fluttery remains of Victorian festival...The lewd and the loud were disallowed. The acts and the spirit of enclosure tried to suppress the broad, unenclosed, unfettered, unbounded exuberance of the vulgar at large."

The Jack, the Piper, and the Obby Oss

The photograph in the first half of this post come from last spring's May Day procession here in Chagford -- where a group of us, led by folk musician & scholar Andy Letcher, are working to revive this old folkloric tradition. That's Andy on the bagpipes, Jason of England as the Jack-in-the-Green, Suzi Crockford as the Queen of May, and my husband Howard as the Obby Oss. The photographs are by Ashley Wengraf, Ian Atherton, Ruth Olley, and Simon Blackbourn. (Run your cursor over the images for picture descriptions and credits.)

May Day in Chagford

"Few festivals are more flamboyantly vulgar than May Day or Beltane," says Griffiths. "One pagan festival which the disapproving church did not -- could not -- colonize, it kept its raw smell of sexual license and its populist grass roots appeal....Beltane was celebrated with huge bonfires, the Lord and the Queen of May (who, in the Middle Ages, was often a man dressed as a woman) and Spring was personified by the Green Man -- the May Day in ChagfordWild Man or Jack-in- the-Green. Dressed in leaves, he carried a huge horn. (Enough said.) The Maypole, the phallic pole planted in mother earth, was the key symbol of the day.

"Then came the Puritans, sniffing the rank sexuality, decrying the Maypole as 'this stinking idol'; and in 1644 the Long Parliament banned all Maypoles. They also objected to the social reversal of carnival [men dressed as women, fools as kings, etc.]; to the Puritans, an attack on the status quo was almost as disgusting as sex. After the Restoration, England's most famous Maypole was erected in London's Strand in 1661; a stonking hundred and thirty feet high, all streamers and garlands, making people wild with delight, it stood for over fifty merry years. But Isaac Newton put a stop to it. In 1717, he bought the Maypole to use as a post for a telescope to penetrate the darkness of the night. In the 19th century, the Victorians infantalized May Day, making it a children's festival to emphasize innocence, of all things.

"But the festival of Beltane and the whole spirit of carnival is robust. Coming from the earth itself, it erupts, whether puritans and politicians like it or not. In rural areas, you can still find Beltane celebrated, complete with Green Men, Maypoles, and Fools."

More information on the history of May Day can be found in this previous post.

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

Our village is a place where festivals tend to erupt at the drop of a hat, and everyone seems to have well-stocked box of dress-up clothes in their closet. Despite a tiny population (roughly 2500 people, and a whole lot of sheep), Chagford hosts an annual film festival, a music festival, a bi-annual literary festival, a summer carnival, and plenty of other events besides, and kids grow up here thinking it's perfectly ordinary to dance in the streets on a regular basis. Perhaps it's no coincidence that we've also held on to our village Commons, and many here still gather to "beat the bounds," affirming the boundaries of the parish and the timeless ties of community life.

The photographs below are by Simon Blackbourn, taken just last weekend on the final night of the Chagford Film Festival, celebrating Indian film and dance this year. Please visit Simon's website to see more of his beautiful work.

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

12032634_10153726394365774_396044174349548810_oPictures: Many thanks to the photographers who allowed their work to appear here. The black-and-white photos and the Film Festival photos are all by Simon Blackbourn; the May Day photos were taken by various folks. You'll find credits in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them). The photos without credits were snapped on the fly by me, on Suzi Crockford's camera. Words: The passage by Jay Griffiths comes from Pip, Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (Flamingo, 1999), highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above are reserved by their respective creators.


Happy May Day!

Maypole dancing, 1915

Maypole Dance, an art installation by Kristi Malakoff

As with most traditions rooted in our pagan past, folklorists have conflicting views about the origins of the various May Day customs practiced in the British Isles today, containing as they do a mixture of Celtic and Norse influences combined with theatrical flourishes introduced by British antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the Germanic tradition, Walpurgis Night, on April 30th, is a moon festival sacred to the goddess Freya, "Walpurga" being one of her names. The re-dedication of the holiday to "St. Walpurga" was a later Christian addition. Freya is generally known today as the goddess of love and beauty in Norse mythology (as opposed to Freja, goddess of marriage and family), but she was more complex and more interesting than that: not a virgin maiden but a figure representing women's magic, sexuality, and independence -- as well as, in her dark aspect, a patron deity of war and death in battle. She wears a cloak of falcon feathers and the magical gold necklace called Brísingamen, and rides in a chariot pulled by cats, the sacred boar Hildisvíni at her side. Maypole dancing comes down to us from the rites of spring dedicated to Freya, although the pole was originally a living tree representing Yggdrasill, the enormous ash tree that is the great "world tree" of Norse cosmology.

Maypole Dance at Leeds Castle, 1955
(from the National Geographic photo archive)

Maypole Dancers in Wiltshire, 2010

Maypole Dancing in the Square, Chagford, 2012

In the British Isles, Beltane, celebrated on May 1st, is a moon festival that falls midway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Soltice, marking the return of light and summer, the fertility of the land ensured by Illustration by Charles Vess, with May Blossumsthe mating and hand-fasting of the Great Goddess and her consort.  (For many years the Christian church sought to ban May Day festivities because of this "lewd" context as a frank celebration of sexuality and fecundity.) Recorded evidence of Maypole Dancing goes back at least to the 14th century, the texts suggesting the custom was very old even then, although the form of the dance known best today, with decorative children dancing in village squares, owes as much to the romanticism of the Victorians as it does to ancient tradition.

The name "Beltane" derives from Bel, the Celtic god of fire, honored and propitiated with bonfires lit on sacred hills.  Smoke from the fire blessed the fields, animals, and community, and maintained the wary, careful balance between the human and faery realms. "Traditionally," writes Glennie Kindred (in Sacred Celebrations), "all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. This was the Teineigen, the 'need fire.' People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility. Couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. Cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to start their fires anew."

A Jack-in-the-Green in Hastings, East Sussex

May Day customs vary across Britain, but are generally less elaborate than in past times, when entire villages were festooned with greenery and flowers: boughs of rowan, birch, and ivy, and May Blossoms (from hawthorn trees). Beltane ceremonies are on the rise again, but in a few places around the country they have never really stopped -- the 'Obby 'Oss festivities in Cornwall being one well-known example.

May Day Jack-in-the-GreenHere in Chagford, we're reviving May Day folk customs with a traditional Jack in the Green procession, complete with a 'Obby 'Oss of our own, and I'll share photos of the day with you when I return to Myth & Moor next week. In the meantime, you can read about the Jack in the Green and other woodland myths in my previous post on "Wild Folklore," and about other Beltane rites across Britain in an informative article published in the Telegraph. Also, have a look at ‘Tis the Season to Be Blooming, a charming collection of spring festival photographs from National Geographic's archives, and film clips of Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss celebration in 1930 and 1951. And be sure to light a fire tonight (a bonfire is best, but a candle will work too) in order to bless the months ahead, protect you from faery mischief, and connect you with the folkloric past that we all share, no matter what our ethnic background.

Below, Beltane Border Morris, a local Morris troupe, performing their annual May Day sunrise dance on Dartmoor, on the crossroads by Haytor (this one was recorded two years ago); and "Beltane Fire Dance" performed by musician and Celtic music scholar Loreena McKennitt.

Beltane Border Morris

The imagery above: Maypole Dancing in 1915, a Maypole Dance art installation by Kristi Malakoff, Maypole Dancing at Leeds Castle in 1955, Maypole Dancing in Wiltshire in 2010, Maypole Dancing in Chagford Square in 2012, the God & Goddess of the Green by Charles Vess, May Blossom, and a Jack in the Green in East Sussex, the Chagford Jack in the Green procession, with art by Virginia Lee. Below: a Beltane Bonfire in Chagford in 2012, photographed by the late, much-missed West Country folklorist Thomas Hine.

Beltane Bonfire, Chagford, 2012


Hurrah!

A fair trio of vagabonds

Let's raise a toast to Rima Staines & Tom Hirons for concluding a successful crowd-funding campaign in which they raised £30,816 for Hedgespoken, their Mythic-Arts-on-wheels project.  Well done! You can keep abreast of their news and follow the building process through the Hedgespoken blog and Facebook page.

That's Howard in the picture above, along with drum-maker Suzi Crockford (whose lovely shamanic blog I hope you all know) and woodworker extraordinaire Eric Hodges, on the Hedgespoken film day. If you somehow managed to miss it all this past month, go here to read what the project is all about, watch the film, and see my other photos from the film day.

Hedgespoken sketch by Rima Staines


Roll up! Roll up!

(Watch in full screen mode for best effect.)

Last night was the great unveiling of the crowdfunding campaign for Hedgespoken: a magical new project created by artists/writers/performers Rima Staines and Tom Hirons.

A few weeks ago, they called for a Vagabond Tribe of friends and neighbors to gather 'round: raggle-taggle musicians and circus magicians; gypsy dancers, moonspinners, and fortune tellers; jugglers and clowns and children and crows; a faery harpist and gentle fey folk who arrived riding ribbon-bedecked ponies.

While we ate, drank, and made merry, filmmaker Annabel Allison gentle but firmly corralled us into the footage that would be used for Tom & Rima's Indiegogo campaign: music, dance, songs and laughter to summon the Little Gods of Luck, Travel, Coin, and Story. If the magic has worked, then you shall find yourself entirely unable to resist supporting their magnificent scheme for a Mythic Arts centre on wheels.

Vagabond 1

Vagabond 2

"With its drop-down stage, fancy awning and proscenium arch," Tom & Rima say, "Hedgespoken will serve as a stage wherever it goes. Whether it’s us telling tales and making mischief with handmade puppet shows, or it’s other actors, musicians or sword-swallowers using the stage-space as part of a Hedgespoken Travelling Show, our aim is to spread a little old magic by doing what we love.

"Hedgespoken has the wherewithal to act as a mini-theatre, a cabaret stage or acoustic music venue, anywhere. Perhaps your village green, or that disused urban space, wayside or park – Hedgespoken arrives, makes magic, plants seeds of imagination, and then leaves, in the tradition of wandering bards, travelling storytellers and itinerant puppet theatres and circuses that are so much part of our heritage."

Hedgespoken painting by Rima

Vagabond 3

Howard and I participated on the beautiful day of filming near Stone Lane Gardens, during which I snapped the photos here....

Vagabond 4

Vagabond 5

Vagabond 6

Vagabond 7

Vagabond 8a

Vagabond

Vagabond 9

Vagabond 10

Vagabond 11

Vagabond 12

Vagabond 13

Vagabond 14

Vagabond 15

Vagabond 16

Vagabond 17

Truck plan, side view

Vagabond 18

To help all this become reality, please put on your best motley clothes and head over to the brand new Hedgespoken website ... where you can learn more about what makes it so special, and how to contribute to the dream.

I'm biased, I confess, because I love Rima and Tom, and also because my husband has done puppet work with them and is likely to be involved with their theatre-on-wheels in the future. But biased or not, Hedgespoken is an extraordinary project, created by extraordinarily lovely people ... so I hope that all you Mythic Art fans out there will dig deep to contribute if you're able. Or, conversely, if your pockets are empty, please give Tom & Rima your blessing and help them by spreading the word.

Even Tilly is doing her bit.

Vagabonds at home

Puppet by RimaMore photos here on the Hedgespoken blog.


Guest Post: Mythic Theatre in Devon

Parzival at Sharpham House

Parzival
 Parzival
 
at Sharpham House

reviewed by Howard Gayton


On arrival at Sharpham, the marshals help you to park and find your way to the "holding field," with its beautiful views across the River Dart. As the audience sits admiring the landscape, a faint sound of drumming comes from the woods below; not awful ‘"let’s bang on a djembe" drumming, but rhythmical, pulsing, and fun. There is something interesting and enticing happening down there in the trees. Immediately you know that real care and thought has gone into this promenade performance: you will be in safe hands during a journey both physical and metaphysical into the forest and on the quest for the Grail.

For promenade performance to succeed, it needs a skillful guide. In this show, the task falls to the artful storyteller, Martin Shaw. Throughout the evening, he entertains, guides, informs, and cajoles the audience -- throwing in funny, throw-away contemporary references every now and then, while also drawing pertinent parallels between the world of myth (in which the audience finds itself) and our own times, our own lives.

The flow of the show -- both physically, in the movement from the forest to the court and then to the castle, and in the narrative -- is superbly handled. This is achieved by a combination of well-executed elements: the stunning grounds of Sharpham used in perfect combination with the narrative; the masked ushers and the ever-present story-teller guiding us on; musicians and drummers keeping us connected to the play as we move through the trees; and skillful stage management moving actors and props unobtrusively from scene to scene.

Sharpham House, Dartington

Sharpham itself provides magnificent spaces for the performance, with just the right addition of scenography and lighting where needed. These are never intrusive; and, as with all the elements of this production, handled with great sensitivity to both the story and the land.

Each scene is played out in a different part of the estate by a wonderful ensemble cast who are clearly enjoying themselves. The acting is good: physical, funny, moving, and committed. Lines are delivered well, and are audible. (Too many outdoor productions suffer from inaudible dialogue.) There are lovely touches of characterization and well delivered humour. My own speciality is mask theatre, so I feel justified in singling out one particularly fine actor in this regard. Mask work is woefully bad in many productions, but Helen Aldrich inhabited her mask brilliantly, with the right physicality to support it. This adds yet another layer of myth and magic to an already magical show.

Parzival

As well as the show's professional cast there is also a company of community members who play the masked guides. Dressed in black with blue sashes, they subtly move the audience forward and create temporary performance areas. They also play in some scenes themselves -- which they do with gusto and, as with the main cast, a good sense of ensemble.

The production's music is just right: from the incredible drumming that greets the audience in the first forest glade to the incidental music -- subtle, humorous, and evocative by turns -- played on a variety of strange looking instruments.

It is a precious thing to find theatre that entertains and transports; that, for a few hours, brings you into a mythical world. Theatre strives to make the intangible mystery of the human condition tangible, if only for a brief moment. Parzival achieves this ... and then, as with all good theatre, the ephemeral nature of the form asserts itself. The glimpse of the "intangible made tangible" slips once again beyond our grasp ... like the Grail of the story.

Directed by Matthew (Harry) Burton, Parzival shows the powerful nature of what theatre can and should be, when all of its elements -- story, performance, use of space, lighting, music and production -- work seamlessly together. It's running at Sharpham House until Sunday, July 20th. If you like theatre, if you like myth, and particularly if you like the combination of the two, then hurry to get one of the last tickets for this inspiring, thought-provoking show.



For those of you too far away to see the play, I recommend seeking out Martin Shaw's excellent books, and the West Country School of Myth.  - T.W.