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December 2015

Now Rest Ye Merry Gentlefolk

In the woods

Happy Holidays from all of us at Bumblehill!

Here's one of the wackiest (and most pagan) versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" I've ever come across, from the inimitable Annie Lennox...along with some greenery from the woods, a trio of Yule-tide bunnies, and a prayer for a day of rest.

May your holidays be joyous, but also restful and restorative.

Winter greenery

Decorating the livingroom

"We who have lost our sense and our senses -- our touch, our smell, our vision of who we are; we who frantically force and press all things, without rest for body or spirit, hurting our earth and injuring ourselves: we call a halt.

"We want to rest. We need to rest and allow the earth to rest. We need to reflect and rediscover the mystery that lives in us, that is the ground of every unique expression of life, the source of the fascination that calls all things to communion.

"We declare a Sabbath, a space of quiet: for simply being and letting be; for recovering the great, forgotten truths; for learning how to live again."

- from "Only One Earth" (The U.N. Environment Program)

A holiday card for Myth & Moor readers

The Bumblehill Studio is closed for the winter holidays. Myth & Moor will return on Monday, January 4.

From the archives: A Winter's Tale

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

Today the hound and I are deep into our holiday preparations, so I've pulled a post from the archives for you on seasonal traditions and folklore. It originally appeared on December 23rd last year...

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

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

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

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

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

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhain have passed. In previous centuries, throughout the countryside families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand.

In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

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

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world.

Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

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

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

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

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

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

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

Wandering the labyrinth: monsters and magic

Portrait of a Man by Bartolomeo Veneto

From "The Dance of the Labyrinth" by mythologist & novelist Ari Berk:

"Labyrinths are tricky things: dark avenues and turns, lots of footwork, occasional monsters or may-poles, complex riddles to be solved, and all these to be dealt with before the long walk back out again. Even the meaning of the word is the subject of much confusion, so before entering the labyrinth, it might be best to define Drumcarbit Rock Art, Donegalour terms. Even now, most people think that labyrinths and mazes are the same thing. Not quite so, though the words are often thought to be synonymous. Following the principles set out by Hermann Kern in his exception book Through the Labyrinth...we learn that a true labyrinth is a structure or design whose path can assume numerous forms, but cannot intersect itself. No choices for the traveler. You must enter and exit in the same place. Also, your path will fold back on itself, changing direction frequently, and will fill the entire space within its boundaries, moving you temptingly past the center and then away again before leading you, eventually, to the center. Anything else is a maze. Now that we've established the difference, you needn't worry too much about it. Positively all the best people (folks like Herodotus and Diodorus) have confused the two, so you're in good company. Why, during the Renaissance, labyrinths (and often mazes as well) were called Jardin de Daedalus, and referred merely to any problem that required a quest towards a unique solution. For the composer Alexander Agricola, his 'secret labyrinth; represented his remarkable and unorthodox treatment of hexachordal modulation. Thus, anyone who sets a complex task for himself -- any artist, architect, philosopher, or poet -- enters the labyrinth each time they seek a visionary solution. In this way, many have thought that it is the problem posed, its affect on the mind that is significant, not the actual shape of the structure that represents the process of solution.

Early Irish maze carving & Cretan maze design

Cretan floor tile design

"Etymology is little help for the word's history is still in dispute," Ari continues. "Most frequently, the definitions referred to will include 'labyrinthos = house of the double headed ax (labrys) = palace of Knossos on Crete, but this has proven untenable'  (Kern:25).  So let us turn to literature. The first (likely) reference to the term 'labyrinth' suggests that it signifies a notable (perhaps stone) structure or defined area. On a clay tablet found at Knossos is a Linear B script dating to ca. 1400 BCE which has been translated to read: 'One jar of honey to all the gods, one jar of honey to the Mistress of the Labyrinth' (Kern:25). Now we are faced with more mysteries. Who is the 'Mistress of the Labyrinth'? A goddess? Ariadne? Does it truly relate to a structure, or perhaps to something marked out along the ground standing in the open air, like a ritual space? Kern suggests that the most that may be said is that it refers to something of stone. Again, just as we glimpse the center, we are forced back out the margins. But among the stones is a good place to look for labyrinths, indeed, carved labyrinths are not uncommon among petroglyphs across the world.

Rock carving near Tintagel, Cornwall, and a 15th century illuminated manuscript

"Early evidence of labyrinths can be found as carved pictographs throughout Spain, in Ireland, near Tintagel in England, Syria, Romania, Egypt, Pompeii, Turkey, and Morocco. In Cornwall and northwest Spain some speculate they were associated with Bronze Age tin mining (Kern:67). In such places, they may have stood as a statement regarding the miners' view of themselves relative to the land. As miners, they descended into the womb of the earth, thus the labyrinth might have symbolized the path of their journey, and their hopes for a successful return. But on this interpretation, the stones themselves will neither confirm nor deny.

Maze at Bla Jungfrun island, Sweden

"This idea is perhaps strengthened by a carved labyrinth in Sardinia adorning the roof of an underground chamber tomb dating to the second half of the third millennium BCE. Like most labyrinth petroglyphs, it is of the Cretan seven-circuit type. There is speculation about the date of the carving, though Kern thinks the tomb and carved labyrinth are from the same period. Such tombs are used repeatedly, so it may be possible that the petroglyph may have been carved later as a re-emphasis of the significance of the site. Either way, it is reminiscent of the carved spirals seen on such ancient tombs of Newgrange in Ireland (where the sun enters and leaves the tombs at the time of the winter solstice) and may invoke similar metaphors regarding descent and emergence, though the labyrinth symbolizes not the path of the sun, but that of the spirits of the dead who likewise journeyed for a time in the Underworld before returning to the sunlit lands."

Hawaian prayer maze and Japanese bamboo labyrinth

"Even the physical image of a labyrinth was though to hold power," Ari notes a little later in the essay. "In India, numerous amulets, drawings and manuscript paintings depict Cretan-type labyrinths as apotropaic charms and spells which can assist with particular physical ailments. In manuscripts from northwestern India, tantric drawings of labyrinths are used as charms to ease the labor and birthing process, thus emphasizing the labyrinth's wide-spread symbolic association with transition and birth/rebirth. In a related use, they could function as protective threshold magic. They would be formed from white powder on the ground, a meter from the door of the house (Kern:289). Such labyrinths protect the house from evil spirits by invoking the labyrinth as symbolic fortress. The drawing is not protected and is soon worn away, but the power of the image does not reside in the image itself, but in the act of forming it on the earth, in the physical act of using the body to trace it out. The image is a reminder, a place-holder, for the magic inherent in the action."

Turf maze near Dalby, North Yorkshire

Grass mazes

Troy Town Maze, St Agnes, Scilly Isles

"One of the most enduring physical forms of the labyrinth is the Troy Town. These are formed from stones, lain out upon the ground, always in the form of a Cretan labyrinth. Because they are made of stones and there are usually no related monuments, they are very difficult to date. Found primarily in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Baltic coast, extant places name and church frescoes suggest their previous presence in Denmark, but none now exist there. The traditions associated with them exist now primarily in folklore. Some believe -- due to their frequent placement near the coastlines -- that they are related to fishing magic, and would have the effect of bringing in more fish, but whether fishermen had to walk or dance the labyrinth to bring this about is not known."

Labyrinth, Chatres

Some medieval (and modern) churches incorporate labyrinth patterns in their design for the purpose of meditative or devotional walking. One of the best known is the beautiful labyrinth at the heart of Chartres Cathedral in France. "These are pilgrim paths," says Ari, "and whatever is found in their center is between the traveler and their god. What more needs to be said? If you would know more, get thee to Chartres."

Chatres Cathedral, France

Labyrinth at Holy Cross Church, Frankfurt am Main-Bornheim

When it comes to modern labyrinths and mazes, perhaps the most magical of them all is in Labyrinth, the classic fantasy film by Jim Henson and my Chagford neighbor Brian Froud:


"Labyrinth is haunted by a thousand wizened creatures," writes Ari, "some gifted with wisdom, some with superb comic timing, others merely with uncontrollable flatulence. A curious twist on labyrinth tales, in this film a young woman must journey into the labyrinth to find her baby brother (played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Toby Froud) who has been stolen by the goblin king (played by David Bowie). As it turns out, the baby is not the only thing she must retrieve from the maze, and so Labyrinth movieafter many harrowing adventures, she returns home, brother in arms, having learned 1) that maturity is not such a bad thing, and that 2) it is very naughty to chase after rock stars, even if they can do nifty juggling tricks with their crystal balls.

"Numerous modern writers have taken a turn on the labyrinth's path. In her Mythopoeic Award-winning novel The Innamorati, Midori Snyder assembles a rich cast of characters (artists, actors, merchants, soldiers, thieves, prostitutes, and priests) in a marvelously imagined landscape inspired by Renaissance Italy. Their stories come together in the maze that lies at the heart of this enchanted tale. Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein has her main character, Molly Travers, working in San Francisco when she learns that she is descended from a 19th-century vaudeville and magic troupe. Further revelations include a relationship with an arcane Order of the Labyrinth. The King Must Die by Mary Renault is a well-informed and creative adaptation of the Theseus myth that includes Minoan Bull Leaping. In The Maze by Monica Hughes, a young girl is given a curious box adorned with a maze that leads to otherworldly adventures. "

Octagonal Jubilee Maze at Symonds Yat

Midori Snyder and Patricia McKillip

I second Ari's book recommendations and would add: Patricia McKillip's Od Magic, a deeply magical novel with a labyrinth at its heart; Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, with its underground maze in the Earthsea archipelago; and the wizardly maze in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

To learn more more about mazes and labyrinths, I suggest reading Ari's essay in full. You'll find it here.

Cantebury Maze & The Labyrinth

Labyrinth drawing by Sebastian ErikssonWords: The text above comes from "The Dance of the Labyrinth" by Ari Berk (published in Realms of Fantasy & The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004). Pictures: Art & photography identification and credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the author and artists.

Wandering the labyrinth: arrival and return

Deer Park 1

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perserverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.

"In this it is the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many and offers no center, so that the wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. In a labyrinth you're lost in that you don't know the twists and turns, but if you follow them you get there; and then you reverse your course.

Deer Park 2

Deer Park 3

"The end journey of a labyrinth is not the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return after the pilgrimage, the adventure. The unpraised edged and margins matter too, because its not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence. Ariadne gives Theseus a spool of thread to help him escape the labyrinth in Crete (which must have been a maze by our modern definitions). You unspool the thread on the journey to the center. Then you rewind to escape.

"In this folding up of great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in a book as a single thread around a spool...imagine they could be unwound, that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also traveling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding.

Deer Park 4

"All stories have this form, but fairy tales are often particularly labyrinthlike. Something happens, and as to get from the periphery to the center of a labyrinth you twist and turn, turn away from the center, journey to the farthest reaches before you can reach your destination, so in a fairy tale you are interrupted, cursed, cast out, bereft, and in order to get back to the place you're in, have to go back of the north wind or the top of a glass mountain. The route is rarely direct, and it often ends in a return to the beginning point."

Deer Park 5

Solnit also notes:

"Anatomists long ago named the windings of the inner ear, whose channels provide both hearing and balance, the labyrinth. The name suggests that if the labyrinth is the passage through which sound enters the mind, then we ourselves bodily enter labyrinths as though we were sounds on the way to being heard by some great unknown presence. To walk this path is to be heard, and to be heard is a great desire of a majority of us, but to be heard by whom, by what? To be a sound traveling toward the mind -- is that another way to imagine this path, this journey, the unwinding of this thread?

Deer Park 6

Deer Park 7

"To be heard literally is to have the vibrations of the air travel through the labyrinth of the listener's ear to the mind, but more must unfold in that darkness. You choose to hear what corresponds to your desire, needs, and interests, and there are dangers in a world that corresponds too well, with curating your life into a mirror that reflects only the comfortable and familiar, and dangers in the opposite direction. Listen carefully.

Deer Park 8

"To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It's not passive but active, this listening. It's as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. To empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it. To enter into, we say, as though another person's life was also a place you could travel to.

"Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they're purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones."

Deer Park 9

The photographs were taken last month during a walk in our local Deer Park with Tilly and my mother-in-law. The sculpture at the end of the beech avenue is by Peter Randall-Page, who lives nearby. The patterns in the stones are neither labyrinths nor mazes but evocative of both, and so seem appropriate today. Follow the link to see more of Peter's beautiful work.

Deer Park 10The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine (April, 1959). All rights reserved by the authors.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today's music is in honor of winter and the season's holidays: Winter Solstice, Yule, Christmas, Hanukka, or whatever else you celebrate at this time of year.

Most of the songs today are from singer/songwriter Kate Rubsy, who has recorded three albums of the Christmas carols she grew up with in the north of England. In the video above, she discusses the carols and sings "Sweet Bells" (a Yorkshire variant of "While Shepards Watched") on the BBC programme Songs of Praise, 2010. Below is her rendition of "Serving Girl's Holiday," recorded for her Sweet Bells album in 2008. (There's no official video for the song, so this a fan video.)

Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool pagan myself, I do love these old Christmas songs. Other recommended albums of the season: To Drive the Cold Winter Away and A Midwinter Night's Dream by Loreena McKennitt, Tapestry of Carols by Maddy Prior & the Carnival Band,  Gabriel's Greeting: Medieval Christmas Music by Stevie Wishart & Sinfonye, and Emily Smith's new album Songs for Christmas. But to get back to Kate Rusby:

Below, "Little Jack Frost," written by Rusby, from her 2005 album The Girl Who Couldn't Fly. (Again, there's no official video or good concert footage, so this is another fan video.)

Above, a newly released video of Rusby and her band performing "Winter Wonderland," the 1930s Christmas classic by Bernard & Smith. The song appears on Rusby's third Christmas album, The Frost is All Over (2015). I love this...and oh, how I wish it was snowing right now!

And one more today, below: Louis Armstrong's famous version of the same song, along with video roughly filmed on a cheap little camera six winters ago, recording 5-month-old Tilly's amazed first encounter with snow....

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone.

Black dog in a white landscape

Photograph: Tilly by the path to the Commons during the snow storms of 2010. (This year, alas, it's rain, rain, rain.)