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September 2013

Tunes for a Monday Morning

We're in Spain today,  with three groups who interpret Ibérica's oldest musical traditions in wonderful ways...

Above, "María Ramo de Palma / La Zorra" and "El Vapor" by Coetus, from Barcelona, filmed last year for the Concert Privats series. This Spanish percussion orchestra specializes in instruments that are "little or not known at all, which over time have been used to accompany songs, ballads, processions, festivals and dances in the Iberian Peninsula (tambourines, rods, jars, mortars, pans, drums, kettledrums, rustic drums, etc.), creating a proprietary and innovative language inspired by traditional rhythms and dialogues with the voice."

Below, "La cantiga del fuego," a Sephardic song performed by Ana Alcaide and her band in Huesca (in the north-east of the country). Alcaide is a musican, composer, and music historian from Madrid, now based in Toledo. FolkWorld describes her work as "a fusion between the Nordic sonorities of the nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle), the Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) music, and the traditional sounds from several places around the Mediterranean Sea." For more information, there's a good interview with Alcaide here.

And third, on a somewhat different note:

"Nueva vida" by Ojos de Brujo, from Barcelona, whose thoroughly addictive music combines flamenco and gyspy jazz with hiphop. The last time they appeared on this blog was back in 2010, and that's way too long.

Undine by Arthur Rackham

by Mary BarnardDrawing by Alan Lee

At supper time an ondine’s narrow feet
made dark tracks on the hearth.
Like the heart of a yellow fruit was the fire’s heat,
but they rubbed together quite blue with the cold.
The sandy hem of her skirt dripped on the floor.
She sat there with a silvered cedar knot
for a low stool; and I sat opposite,
my lips and eyelids hot
in the heat of the fire. Piling on dry bark,
seeing that no steam went up from her dark dress,
I felt uneasiness
as though firm sand had shifted under my feet
in the wash of a wave.

I brought her soup from the stove and she would not eat,
but sat there crying her cold tears,
her blue lips quivering with cold and grief.
She blamed me for a thief,
saying that I had burned a piece of wood
the tide washed up. And I said, No,
the tide had washed it out again; and even so,
a piece of sodden wood was not so rare
as polished agate stones or ambergris.

She stood and wrung her hair
so that the water made a sudden splash
on the round rug by the door. I saw her go
across the little footbridge to the beach.
After, I threw the knot on the hot coals.
It fell apart and burned with a white flash,
a crackling roar in the chimney and dark smoke.
I beat it out with a poker
in the soft ash.

Now I am frightened on the shore at night,
Drawing by Alan Leeand all the phosphorescent swells that rise
come towards me with the threat of her dark eyes
with a cold firelight in them;
and crooked driftwood writhes
in dry sand when I pass.

Should she return and bring her sisters with her,
the withdrawing tide
would leave a long pool in my bed.
There would be nothing more of me this side
the melting foamline of the latest wave.

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The images above: two paintings for "Undine" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and two drawings by Alan Lee. Barnard's poem, based on ondine/undine folklore, comes from the 1935 issue of Poetry magazine; all rights reserved by the Barnard estate.

Into the Woods, 38: When Stories Take Flight

The Wicked Witch of the Oeuf by Ione Rucquoi

Birds have been creatures of the mythic imagination since the very earliest times. Various birds, from eagles to starlings, serve as messengers to the gods in stories the world over, carrying blessings to humankind and prayers up to the heavens. They lead shamans into the Spirit World and dead souls to the Realm Beyond; they follow heroes on quests, uncover secrets, give warning and shrewd council.

The movements, cries and migratory patterns of birds have been studied as oracles. In Celtic lands, ravens were domesticated as divinatory birds, although eagles, geese and the humble wren also had their prophetic The Seven Ravens by Arthur Rackhampowers. In Norse myth, the two ravens of Odin flew throughout the world each dawn, then perched on the raven-god's shoulder to whisper news into his ears. A dove with the power of human speech sat in the branches of the sacred oak grove at Zeus's oracle at Dodona; a woodpecker was the oracular bird in groves sacred to Mars.

According to various Siberian tribes, the eagle was the very first shaman, sent to humankind by the gods to heal sickness and suffering. Frustrated that human beings could not understand its speech or ways, the bird mated with a human woman, and she soon gave birth to a child from whom all shamans are now descended. In a mystic cloak of bird feathers, the shaman chants, drums and prays him- or herself into a trance. The soul takes flight, soaring into the spirit world beyond our everyday perception. (Great care must be taken in this exercise, lest the wing-borne soul forgets its way back home.)

From Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert

Shadow Play by Susan Seddon Boulet

Likewise, the shamans of Finland call upon their eagle ancestors to lead them into the spirit realms and bring them safely back again. Shamans, like eagles, are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to cross between the human world and the realm of the gods, the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. Despite the healing powers this gives them (the "medicine" of their bird ancestry), men and women in shamanic roles were often seen as frightening figures, half-mad by any ordinary measure, poised between co-existent worlds, fully present in none. The Buriats of Siberia traced their lineage back to an eagle and a swan, honoring the ancestral swan-mother with migration ceremonies each autumn and spring. To harm a swan, or even mishandle swan feathers, could cause illness or death; likewise, to harm a woman could bring the wrath of the swans upon men.

The Children of Lir by John Duncan

A swan-maiden was the mother of Cuchulain, hero of Ireland's Ulster cycle, and thus the warrior had a geas (taboo) against killing these sacred birds.  In "The Children of Lir," one of the Three Great Sorrows of Irish mythology, the four children of the lord of the sea are transformed into wild Wild Swans by Milo Winterswans by the magic of a jealous step-mother. Neither Lir himself nor all the great magicians of the Tuatha De Danann can mitigate the power of the curse, and the four are condemned to spend three hundred years on Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years on the Mull of Cantyre, and a final three hundred years off the stormy coast of Mayo. During this time, the Children of Lir retain the use of human speech, and the swans are famed throughout the land for the beauty of their song. The curse is ended when a princess of the South is wed to Lairgren, king of Connacht in the North. The swan-shapes fall away at last, but now they resume their human shapes as four withered and ancient souls. They soon die, and are buried together in a single grave by the edge of the sea. For many centuries, Irishmen would not harm a swan because of this sad story -- and country folk still say that a dying swan sings a song of eerie beauty, recalling the music of the Children of Lir...and echoing the ancient Greek belief that a swan sings sweetly once in a lifetime (ie: a "swan song"), in the moments before it dies. (More swan tales can be found here and here.)

The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

The Tuatha De Danaan, the fairy race of old Ireland, were known to appear in the shape of white birds, their necks adorned with gold and silver chains; alternately, they also took human shape, wearing magical Hank by Carson Elliscloaks of feathers. The Celtic islands of immortality had orchards thick with birds and bees, where beautiful fairy women lived in houses thatched with bright bird feathers.

Crows and ravens are also birds omnipresent in myth and folklore. The crow, commonly portrayed as a trickster or thief, was considered an ominous portent -- and yet crows were also sacred to Apollo in Graeco-Roman myth; to Varuna, guardian of the sacred order in Vedic myth; and to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun-goddess of old Japan. The ancestral spirits of the Maratha in India resided in crows; in Egypt a pair of crows symbolized conjugal felicity. In the Aboriginal lore of Australia and the myths of many North American tribes, Raven appears as a dual-natured Trickster and Creator God, credited with bringing fire, light, sexuality, song, dance, and life itself to humankind.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

In Celtic lore, the raven belonged to Morrigan, the Irish war goddess -- as well as to Bran the Blessed in the great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion. Tradition has it that Bran's severed head is buried under the Tower of London. A ceremonial Raven Master still keeps watch over the birds of the Tower; an old custom says that if Bran's birds ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffeneger

Woman with Raven by Pablo Picasso

The owl is a bird credited with more malevolence than any other, even though its reputation for wisdom goes back to our earliest myths. In Greece, the owl (sacred to both Athena and Demeter) was revered as a prescient creature -- yet also feared, for its call or sudden appearance could foretell a death. Lilith, Adam's wife before Eve (banished for her lack of submissiveness) was associated with owls and depicted with wings or taloned feet.

Slova Sova by Rima Staines

In the Middle East, evil spirits took the shape of owls to steal children away -- while in Siberia, tamed owls were kept in the house as protectors of children. In Africa, sorcerers in the shape of owls caused mischief in Troll Witch with Owl by Brian Froudthe night. To the Ainu of Japan, the owl was an unlucky creature -- except for the Eagle Owl, revered as a mediator between humans and the gods. In North America, the symbolism of the owl varied among indigenous tribes. The Pueblo peoples considered them baleful; the Navajo believed them to be the restless, dangerous ghosts of the dead. The Pawnee and Menominee, on the other hand, related to them as protective spirits, and Tohono O'Odham medicine singers used their feathers in healing ceremonies. When we turn to Celtic traditions we find that the owl, though sacred, is an ill omen, prophesying death, illness or the loss of a woman's honor. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, the magician Gwydion takes revenge upon Blodeuwedd (the girl he made out of flowers, who married and then betrayed his son) by turning her into an owl and setting her loose into the world. (I highly recommend two novels inspired by this fascinating myth:Owl Service by Alan Garner and The Island of the Mighty by Evangeline Walton.)

The Decision and The Nightingale by Steven Kenny

The Crane by Steven Kenny

The crane is another bird associated with death in the British Isles. It was one of the shapes assumed by the King of Annwn, the Celtic underworld. To the druids, cranes were portents of treachery, war, evil deeds and evil women...yet the bird enjoyed a better reputation in other lands. It was sacred to Apollo -- a messenger and a honored herald of the spring. The pure white cranes in Chinese lore inhabited the Isles of the Blest, One for Sorrow by Fred Hallrepresenting immortality, prosperity, and happiness. In Japan, the crane was associated with Jorojin, a god of longevity and luck. In the folktales of Russia, Sicily, India and other cultures the crane was the "animal guide" who led the hero on his adventures; and tales about cranes who marry human men can be found throughout the far East.

In Celtic lore, the magpie was a bird associated with fairy revels; with the spread of Christianity, however, this changed to a connection with witches and devils. In Scandinavia, magpies were said to be sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries. In old Norse myth, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was priestess of the magpie clan; the black and white markings of the bird represented sexual union, as well as male and female energies kept in perfect balance. In China the magpie was the Bird of Joy, and two magpies symbolized marital bliss; in Rome, magpies were sacred to Bacchus and a symbol of sensual pleasure. In England, the sighting of magpies is still considered an omen in this common folk rhyme: "One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret that's never been told."

Irish Wren BoysThe wren is another "fairy bird": a portent of fairy encounters, and sometimes a fairy in disguise. The wren was sacred to Celtic druids, and to the Welsh poet-magician Taliesin, thus it was unlucky to kill the wren at any time of year except during the ceremonial "Hunting of the Wren," around the winter solstice. In this curious custom (still practiced in some rural areas of the British Isles and France), "Wren Boys" dress in rag-tag costumes, bang on pots, pans and drums, and walk in procession behind a wren killed and mounted upon a pole decorated with oak leaves and mistletoe. In some areas, Wren Boys also appear on Michaelmas, 12th Night, or St. Stephen's Day carrying a live wren from cottage to cottage (in a small "Wren House" decorated with ribbons), collecting tributes of coins and mugs of beer wherever they stop. The wren is known as the king of the birds, an honorific explained in the following story: All the birds held a parliament and decided that whoever could fly the highest and fastest would be crowned king. The eagle easily outdistanced the others, but the clever wren hid under his wing until the eagle faltered -- then the wren jumped out and flew higher.

Captive's Return by Henry Ryland

The Dove and the Snake (Aesop's Fables) by Heidi Holder

The dove is a bird associated with the Mother Goddesses of many traditions -- symbolizing light, healing powers, and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The dove was sacred to Astarte, Ishtar, Bird of Peace by Sulamith WulfingFreyja, Brighid, and Aphrodite. The bird also represented the external soul, separate from the life of the body -- and thus magicians hid their souls or hearts in the shape of doves. Doves give guidance in fairy tales, where (in contrast with their usual gentle image) they show a marked penchant for bloody retribution. White doves light upon the tree Cinderella has planted upon her mother's grave, transforming rags to riches so she can go to the prince's ball. These are the birds who warn the prince of "blood in the shoe!" when the stepsisters try to fit into the delicate slipper by hacking off their heels and toes. The birds eventually blind the treacherous sisters, pecking out their eyes. Murdered children in several fairy tales reappear as snow-white doves, hovering around the family home until vengeance The Nightingale by H.J. Fordis finally served. Likewise, the white dove in the Scots Border ballad "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" is also a human soul in limbo: a knight cruelly murdered by his mother-in-law. He flies through the forest shedding blood-red tears and telling his story. The woman is eventually burned. (See Delia Sherman's Through a Brazen Mirror and Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer for literary adaptations of this tale.)

The mysterious song of the nightingale has also inspired several classic tales; most famously: "The Nightingale" by Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen and the tragic story of "The Nightingale and the Rose" by England's Oscar Wilde. (I recommend Kara Dalkey's lyrical novel The Nightingale, based on the former.)

The Goose Girl by Rie Cramer & The Heron Girl by Danielle Barlowe

Geese were holy, protected birds in many ancient societies. In Egypt, the great Nile Goose created the world by laying the cosmic egg from which the sun was hatched. The goose was sacred to Isis, Osiris, Horus, Hera, and Aphrodite. In India, the goose -- a solar symbol -- drew the chariot of Vishnu; the wild Tibetan Goosehead Dakinigoose, a vehicle of Brahma, represented the creative principal, learning and eloquence. In Tibet, gooseheaded women can be found among the dakini,  which are volatile female spirits that aid or hinder one's spiritual journey. In Siberia, the goddess Toman shook feathers from her sleeve each spring. They turned into geese, carefully tended and observed by Siberian shamans. Freyja, the goddess of northern Europe who travels the land in a chariot drawn by cats, is sometimes pictured with only one human foot and one foot of a goose or swan -- an image with shamanic significance in various traditions. Berchta, the fierce German goddess (or witch) associated with the Wild Hunt, is also pictured with a single goose foot as she rides upon the backs of storms. Caesar tells us that geese were sacred in Britain, and thus taboo as food -- a custom still existent in certain Gaelic areas today. Goose-girls, talking geese, and the goose who lays golden eggs are all standard ingredients in the folk tales ("Mother Goose" tales) of Europe. The phrase "silly as a goose" is recent; Ovid called them "wiser than the dog."

Mother Goose Rhymes illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Storks by Józef Marian Chełmoński

The stork is another Goddess bird -- sacred to Hera and nursing mothers, which may be why it appears in folklore carrying newborn babies to earth. The pelican is symbolic of women's faith, sacrifice, and maternal devotion -- due to the belief that it feeds its young on the blood of its own breast. Kites and gulls are the souls of dead fisherman returned to haunt the shores -- a tradition limited to the men of the sea, not their daughters or wives. "The women don't come back no more," explained one old English fisherman to folklorist Edward Armstrong. "They've seen trouble enough." The lark, the linnet, the robin, the loon...they, too, have engendered tales of their own, winging their way between heaven and earth in sacred stories, folktales, fairy tales, old rhymes and folkways from around the globe.

The Fates by Gretchen Jacobsen

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

Guided by Sulamith Wulfing

The following prayer comes from the Highlands of Scotland, recorded (in Gaelic) more than one hundred years ago:

The Great Egg by Fidelma Massey

Power of raven be yours,
Power of eagle be yours,
Power of the Fiann.
Power of storm be yours,
Power of moon be yours,
Power of sun.
Power of sea be yours,
Power of land be yours,
Power of heaven.
Goodness of sea be yours,
Goodness of earth be yours,
Goodness of heaven.
Each day be joyous to you,
No day be grievous to you,
Honor and compassion.
Love of each face be yours,
Death on pillow be yours,
And God be with you.

“I pray to the birds," says Terry Tempest Williams (in her gorgeous book Refuge) "because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”

From Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert

The art above: The lead piece is "The Wicked Witch of the Oeuf" by my friend and neighbor Ione Rucquoi. If you're not familiar with her beautiful (and often hard-hitting) work, do visit her website. After that, from top to bottom: "The Seven Ravens" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), a photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert,  "Shadow Play" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), "The Children of Lir" by John Duncan (1866-1945), "The Wild Swans" by Milo Winter (1888-1956); "The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), "Hank" by Carson Ellis, "The Seven Ravens" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Raven Girl" by Audrey Niffenegger, "Woman With Raven" by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973),  "Slova Sova" by Rima Staines, "Troll Witch with Owl" by Brian Froud, "Decision," "The Nightingale," and "The Crane" by Steven Kenny, "One for Sorrow" by Fred Hall (1860-1949), an old photograph of Irish Wren Boys, "Captive's Return" by Henry Ryland (1856-1924), "Aesop's Fables: The Dove and the Snake"  by Heidi Holder, "Bird of Peace" by Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989), "The Nightingale" by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), "The Goose Girl" by Rie Cramer (1887-1997), "The Heron Girl" by Danielle Barlow, a Tibetan Goosehead Dakini, "Mother Goose" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), "Storks Overhead" by Józef Marian Chełmoński (1849-1914), "The Fates" by Gretchen Jacobsen, "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Guided" by Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989), "The Great Egg" by Fidelma Massey, and another photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert.

For more bird lore, I recommend: Secret Language of Birds by Adele Nozedar, The Language of the Birds edited by David M. Guss, The Healing Wisdom of Birds by Lesley Morrison, The Folklore of Birds by Edward A. Armstrong, and Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore by E. Ingersoll.

We are story-attentive beings

On an autumn day

“I used to feel guilty about spending morning hours working on a book; about fleeing to the brook in the afternoon. It took several summers of being totally frazzled by September to make me realize that this was a false guilt. I'm much more use to family and friends when I'm not physically and spiritually depleted than when I spend my energies as though they were unlimited. They are not. The time at the typewriter and the time at the brook refresh me and put me into a more workable perspective.”  -  Madeleine L'Engle (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother)


Autumn color

Admit that once you have got up
Little Wildrose by H.J. Fordfrom your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story...

- David Whyte (from "Mameen")

"Do not let writing be a special event; let it be a normal part of your day. It is normal. We are all storytellers and story-attentive beings."  - Brian Doyle's dad

Reading in the woodsIllustration above: "Little Wildrose" by H.J. Ford (1860-1941)

The capacity for astonishment

The village on a clear September day.

A quiet morning. The sky has cleared at last and Tilly is filled with joy. After a week of illness, she's well again and our morning walks through the hills resume.

Crunchings and munchings behind us.

But wait. What's this? Behind her, something is crashing and splashing through the undergrowth, moving up the stream bed in the shadow of the trees.

A friend? A foe? A monster? Tilly stands alert. Will barking be required?

A gentle apparition appears.

Ah, but it's only a shy young calf, as surprised by us as we are by her.

What say you, calf? Shall we be friends?

Tilly throws me a glance over her shoulder, tail wagging briskly. A friend! What fun!

Uh oh...

She trots up the stony bank eagerly... 

Retreat! Retreat!

...and then backs up fast, for the calf is not alone.

There are monsters coming...

A whole herd of cows is climbing upstream, scrambling up the rocks of the waterfall like enormous mountain goats, pushed up the slope by a big black bull. He is moving them from one field to another...and we are in the way.

and they're heading our way!

"Bark, bark, bark!" cries Tilly, excited. Monsters! Monsters! Run quick as you can!

I grab my book, my thermos, my jacket, and follow behind her, laughing as I run.

Run! Run! Run like the wind!

We run the entire length of the field, the cows and the bull bellowing  behind...and flop in the grass by the field's rusty gate, hearts racing and grinning like fools. I settle back against an ancient oak, my book in hand, fresh coffee in my cup. Tilly sits close, ears cocked, alert and on guard. Just in case there are any more monsters.

Whew! That was close! But valor has triumphed.

She's perfectly happy. The cows and the bull had startled her, astonished her, and perhaps even frightened her a little, but it was all part of a good morning's adventure. (She'll be hoping for cows in the waterfall now when we walk this way again.)

I'd like to be more like Tilly myself, when life throws up unexpected things and bulls emerge to block the path ahead. Far better to be astonished than anxious; far better to move in new directions than stand there frozen by dismay. As Mary Oliver says in her exquisite poem titled "When Death Comes":

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms....

I want to say that I walked through life with rapt attention, like the eager, clear-eyed little creature at my side.

My work here is done.

I'm reminded of these words from graphic designer Milton Glaser on value of astonishment:

"If you can sustain your interest in what you’re doing, you’re an extremely fortunate person. What you see very frequently in people’s professional lives, and perhaps in their emotional life as well, is that they lose interest in the third act. You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and, sometimes, defensive. And you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment -- and that’s a great loss, because the world is a very astonishing place. What I feel fortunate about is that I’m still astonished, that things still amaze me. And I think that that’s the great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears, where you basically have to admit you never fully learn it."

The lesson for today: Be astonished.

The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication.'' - Cyril Connolly