Tilly the Yuletide Elf and I wish you a merry Christmas, blessed Yule, and wonderful winter holidays. We'll be back on Monday, January 5th.
"Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home."
''In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.'' - William Blake
Wherever you enjoy these dark days best -- among books, outdoors, curled up in your quilts, drinking single-malt whiskey in front of the hearth-fire -- I wish you warmth, tranquility, strength, and the ancient blessings of the light returning.
The lovely illustrations above are by Chris Dunn, who lives and works in Wiltshire. To see more of his art, please go here.
Wind and water, feather and stone, green grass, white cloud, black fur, red tongue, the panting of the the breath and the pounding of the heart and the winding of the path we’re traveling on, these are the things I’m grateful for, this hill, these prints of hoof and paw, of fairy footsteps in mud and moss, for the hard climb up and the bounding back down, for labor, for ease, for persistence, for joy, for all these things and more besides:
for birds and bees and beetles and brambles and the last blackberries in bracken and thorn, for the scent of time and the taste of age, and the brittle brown leaves snapping underfoot, for the spirits that dance in mist and smoke and the ancestors in our blood and bones, for the mystery that some call God but that I call rain and thistle and fossil and crow, and love, of course, I am thankful for love, and light, laughter, delight, desire, but also for loss and grief (those patient teachers), dark nights, new moons, bright stars,
for sleep, for dreams, for waking at the witching hour in a bed that’s safe and warm, for the ticking of the clock, and the creaking of the walls, and the hush that comes just before the dawn, and my dear one’s breath rising and falling and a little dog snoring by the kitchen hearth, and the house that holds us, the life that molds us, the children, the friends, the neighbors, the village, the hill that shelters us in its palm and the land that roots us in place and time, for all this and more I am awestruck, I am dumbstruck, I am grateful, and I am giving thanks.
In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.
Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts.
In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday still widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.
According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."
In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.
When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.
Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & Art, Lewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:
"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."
Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.
On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.
The art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud); all rights reserved by the artist. Go here to see more of his work.
Here in the UK, it's the last day of a long holiday weekend marking the end of summer, and already there is a chill in the air, a presage of the turning seasons. Wherever in the world you are -- whether it's the end of summer or the end of winter -- and whether the movement through nature's cycles makes for dramatic or subtle change -- we stand on the threshold "betwixt and between," poised between the old season and the new.
The old hedge-witches of the Devon countryside would tell you that this is a time for letting go of old troubles, old animosities, and out-dated ideas that no longer serve; it's also a time of renewal, revitalization, and travelling new paths in the days ahead. Carry acorns in your pocket for luck; yarrow for resilience; rosemary for protection of the spirit. Give the first blackberries back to the land, the first splash of cider to the apple trees. Leave milk out for the Good Folk, or a dram of whiskey, or a plate of beans. As we begin new jobs, new terms at school, new works of art or any other endeavors, we are counselled to take a moment on the threshold, pausing between the old and new to honour the magic of the in-between. Leave flowers or feathers, a poem or a prayer....
And then keep on walking.
The art above is by my friend and neighbour Brian Froud. All rights reserved by the artist.
Today, some songs to welcome in the May....
Above: "Hal-An-Tow" sung by the hugely influential English folk group The Watersons, from Yorkshire. This performance was filmed for the BBC documentary Travelling for a Living (1965). The song appeared on The Waterson's album Frost and Fire (1965), where A.L. Lloyd wrote on the liner notes:
"The green calendar of spring has many songs, dances, and shows, particularly around the opening days of May. Here and there are clear traces of old cults and superstitions (well-dressing against droughts, etc.) but generally their original meaning is lost. So the customs are transformed into ritual spectacles, festivities, distractions, opportunities for a good time, such as the old May Games that once comprised four sections: the election and procession of the May king and queen: a sword or Morris dance of disguised men; a hobby horse dance; a Robin Hood play. The Hal-an-Tow song was sung for the procession that ushered in the summer."
Below: "The Night Before May Day" by Lisa Knapp, a London-based folk musician who has long been interested in the traditional songs of the season. I recommend her fine album Till April is Dead: A Garland of May, which is deeply folkloric, as well as her five-track release, Hunt the Hare: A Branch of May.
Above: "Hail! Hail! the First of May" performed by Jackie Oates, a folksinger and fiddle/viola player from Staffordshire. The song appeared on her lovely album The Spyglass and the Herringbone (2015).
Below: "May the Kindness," recorded by Oates on an earlier album, Hyperboreans (2009).
Above: "May Morning Dew" performed by Scottish folksinger Siobhan Miller, with Kris Drever, Innes White, Megan Henderson, John Lowrie, and Euan Burton. The song appears on her gorgeous new album, All is Not Forgotten (2020).
Below: "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses" (also known as "When I Roved Out") performed by Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (2015). Their most recent album is Seedlings All (2018).
Above: "May Song" by the Oxfordshire folk band Magpie Lane, from their album Jack-in the Green: English Songs and Tunes (1998).
For the folklore of maypoles, Jack-in-the-Green, and other May Day traditions, go here.
Happy May Day, everyone. Alas, out here in Devon and Cornwall all the usual May Day festivities have been cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. There's no Obby Oss on the streets of Padstow, no Border Morris dancers bringing the sun up on Dartmoor, no maypoles, no lusty Jack-in-the-Greens. How will the seasons turn without them?
Tilly and I had our own private ceremony this morning, blessing the green in our own quiet way -- and we send that blessing from Dartmoor to each of you. Up the May!
The images above are from previous May Days: Howard dancing the Obby Oss down the high street of Chagford, with a Jack-in-Green close behind; and dancing the willow frame of the Jack around a Beltane fire. (To see more photos, go here.)
The art below is from village neighbours: Moor Maiden by Virginia Lee and two Green Women by Brian Froud. Despite the lockdown and physical distancing, we are still a community. We are dancing in spirit.
As Easter approaches, here's a bit of seasonal folklore....
The symbol of our village is three hares in a circle, their interlinked ears forming a perfect triangle -- an imge found in roof boss carvings in seventeen Devon churches, including ours. Known locally as the Tinner Rabbits, the design was widely believed to be based on an old alchemical symbol for tin, representing the historic importance of tin mining on Dartmoor nearby -- until a group of local artists and historians created the Three Hares Project to investigate the symbol’s history. To their surprise, they discovered that the design’s famous tin association is actually a dubious one, deriving from a misunderstanding of an alchemical illustration published in the early 17th century. In fact, the symbol is much older and farther ranging than early folklorists suspected. It is, the Three Hares Project reports, "an extraordinary and ancient archetype, stretching across diverse religions and cultures, many centuries and many thousands of miles. It is part of the shared medieval heritage of Europe and Asia (Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism) yet still inspires creative work among contemporary artists."
The earliest known examples of the design can be found in Buddhist cave temples in China (581-618 CE); from there it spread all along the Silk Road, through the Middle East, through Hungary and Poland to Germany, Switzerland, and the British Isles. Though now associated with the Holy Trinity in Christian iconography, the original, pre-Christian meaning of the Three Hares design has yet to be discovered, but we can glimpse possible interpretations by examining the wealth of world mythology and folklore involving rabbits and hares. In numerous traditions, these animals were archetypal symbols of women, femininity, female deities, and women's hedgerow magic, associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. If we dig a little deeper into their stories, we find that they are also contradictory, paradoxical creatures: symbols of both cleverness and foolishness, of femininity and androgyny, of cowardice and courage, of rampant sexuality and virginal purity. In some lands, Hare is the messenger of the Great Goddess, moving by moonlight between the human world and the realm of the gods; in other lands he is a god himself, wily deceiver and sacred world creator rolled into one.
The association of rabbits, hares, and the moon can be found in numerous cultures the world over -- ranging from Japan to Mexico, from Indonesia to the British Isles. Whereas in Western folklore we refer to the "Man in the Moon," the "Hare (or Rabbit) in the Moon" is a more familiar image in other societies. In China, for example, the Hare in the Moon is depicted with a mortar and pestle in which he mixes the elixir of immortality; he is the messenger of a female moon deity and the guardian of all wild animals. In Chinese folklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon's light (without the need of impregnation by the male), or by crossing water by moonlight, or licking moonlight from a male hare’s fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin.
In Egyptian myth, hares were also closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders -- not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the female is believed to be the goddess Unut (or Wenet), while the male is most likely a representation of Osiris (also called Wepuat or Un-nefer), who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare.
In Greco-Roman myth, the hare represented romantic love, lust, abundance, and fercundity. Pliny the Elder recommended the meat of the hare as a cure for sterility, and wrote that a meal of hare enhanced sexual attraction for a period of nine days. Hares were associated with the Artemis, goddess of wild places and the hunt, and newborn hares were not to be killed but left to her protection. Rabbits were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and marriage -- for rabbits had “the gift of Aphrodite” (fertility) in great abundance. In Greece, the gift of a rabbit was a common love token from a man to his male or female lover. In Rome, the gift of a rabbit was intended to help a barren wife conceive. Carvings of rabbits eating grapes and figs appear on both Greek and Roman tombs, where they symbolize the transformative cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
In Teutonic myth, the earth and sky goddess Holda, leader of the Wild Hunt, was followed by a procession of hares bearing torches. Although she descended into a witch-like figure and boogeyman of children’s tales, she was once revered as a beautiful, powerful goddess in charge of weather phenomena. Freyja, the headstrong Norse goddess of love, sensuality, and women’s mysteries, was also served by hare attendants. She traveled with a sacred hare and boar in a chariot drawn by cats. Kaltes, the shape-shifting moon goddess of western Siberia, liked to roam the hills in the form of a hare, and was sometimes pictured in human shape wearing a headdress with hare’s ears. Eostre, the goddess of the moon, fertility, and spring in Anglo–Saxon myth, was often depicted with a hare’s head or ears, and with a white hare standing in attendance. This magical white hare laid brightly colored eggs which were given out to children during spring fertility festivals -- an ancient tradition that survives in the form of the Easter Bunny today.
Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess also associated with the moon, and with mythic stories of death, redemption, and resurrection during the turning of winter to spring. Eostre, too, was a shape-shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each full moon; all hares were sacred to her, and acted as her messengers. ((I should mention that our understanding of the Ostara/Eostre myth is controversial, with mythologists divided between those who believe she was and was not a major figure in the British Isles.)
Cesaer recorded that rabbits and hares were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes. In Ireland, it was said that eating a hare was like eating one’s own grandmother -- perhaps due to the sacred connection between hares and various goddesses, warrior queens, and female faeries, or else due to the belief that old "wise women" could shape-shift into hares by moonlight. The Celts used rabbits and hares for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries.
As Christianity took hold across Europe, hares and rabbits, so firmly associated with the Goddess, came to be seen in a less favorable light -- viewed suspiciously as the familiars of witches, or as witches themselves in animal form. Numerous folk tales tell of men led astray by hares who are really witches in disguise, or of old women revealed as witches when they are wounded in their animal shape. In one well-known story from Dartmoor, a mighty hunter named Bowerman disturbed a coven of witches practicing their rites, and so one young witch determined to take revenge upon the man. She shape-shifted into a hare, led Bowerman through a deadly bog, then turned the hunter and his hounds into piles of stones, which can still be seen today. (The stone formations are known by the names Hound Tor and Bowerman’s Nose.) "Demonic" hares and rabbits are found on cathedral carvings and in other forms of Christian sacred art...but we also find the opposite: the pagan Three Hares symbol (mentioned above) representing the Holy Trinity, and unblemished white rabbits symbolizing purity, piety, and the Holy Virgin.
Among the many different Native American story traditions, Trickster tales featuring Coyote or Raven tend to be best known to non-Native audiences, but there are also a large number of tales that feature a trickster Rabbit or Hare, particularly among the Algonquin-speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodland tribes.
Nanabozho (or Manabozho) the Great Hare, for instance, is a powerful figure found in the tales of the Algonquin, Fox, Menoimini, Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Winnebago tribes. In some stories, Nanabozho is a revered culture hero -- creator of the earth, benefactor of humankind, the bringer of light and fire, and teacher of sacred rituals. In other tales he’s a clown, a thief, a lecher, or a cunning predator -- an ambivalent, amoral figure dancing on the line between right and wrong. In Potawatomi myth, Wabosso is the Great White Hare (and the younger brother of Nanabozho) who travels north to become the greatest of magicians among the supernaturals. The Utes tell the story of Ta-vwots, the Little Rabbit, who shatters the sun and destroys the world, all of which must be created again; and an Omaha rabbit brings the sun down to earth while trying to catch his own shadow. The Cherokee, the Creek, the Biloxi and other tribes tell humorous stories of a mischievous Rabbit who is cousin to Br’er Rabbit and Compair Lapin, outwitting foes and puncturing the pride of friends with his clownish antics.
The jackalope legends of the American Southwest are stories of a more recent vintage, consisting of purported sightings of rabbits or hares with horns like antelopes. The legend may have been brought to North American by German immigrants, derived from the Raurackl (or horned rabbit) of the German folklore tradition.
Rabbits and hares are both good and bad in Trickster tales found all the way from Asia and Africa to North America. In the Panchatantra tales of India, for example, Hare is a wily Trickster whose cleverness and cunning is pitted against Elephant and Lion, while in Tibetan folktales, quick-thinking Hare outwits the ruses of predatory Tiger. In Japan, the fox is the primary Trickster animal, but hares too are clever, tricky characters. Hares in Japanese folktales tend to be crafty, clownish, mischievous figures (usually male) -- as opposed to fox Tricksters (kitsune), who are more seductive, secretive, and dangerous (usually female). In West Africa, many tribal cultures, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Wolof of Senegal, have traditional story cycles about an irrepressible hare Trickster who is equal parts rascal, clown, and culture hero. In one pan-African story, the Moon sends Hare, her divine messenger, down to earth to give mankind the gift of immortality. "Tell them," she says, "that just as the Moon dies and rises again, so shall you." But Hare, in the role of Trickster buffoon, manages to get the message wrong, bestowing mortality instead and bringing death to the human world. The Moon is so angry, she beats Hare with a stick, splitting his nose (as it remains today). It is Hare’s role to lead the dead to the Afterlife in penance for what he’s done.
African hare stories traveled to North America on the slavers’ ships, mixed with rabbit tales of the Cherokee and other tribes, and were transformed into the famous Br’er Rabbit stories of the American South. These stories were passed orally among slaves, for whom Br’er (Brother) Rabbit was a perfect hero, besting more powerful opponents through his superior intelligence and quicker wits. the The Br’er Rabbit stories were
written down and published by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century in a now classic collection narrarated by the fictional Uncle Remus. At the same time that Chandler Harris was recording Br’er Rabbit stories from the African American oral tradition, folklorist Alcee Fortier was setting down the folk tales of the Cajun (French Creole) culture of southern Louisiana -- including delightful stories of a fast-talking rabbit Trickster called Compair Lapin. Like Br’er Rabbit, or the hares of West African lore, Compare Lapin is a rascal who manages to get himself into all kinds of trouble -- and then smoothly finds his way back out again through cleverness and guile. (Bugs Bunny owes more than a little of his character to this folkloric archetype.)
Whether hovering above us in the arms of a moon goddess or carrying messages from the Netherworld below, whether clever or clownish, hero or rascal, whether portent of good tidings or ill, rabbits and hares have leapt through myths, legends, and folk tales all around the world -- forever elusive, refusing to be caught and bound by a single definition. The precise meaning, then, of the ancient Three Hares symbol carved into our village church is bound to be just as elusive and mutable as the myths behind it. It is a goddess symbol, a Trickster symbol, a symbol of the Holy Trinity, a symbol of death, redemption and rebirth…all these and so much more.
Images above: "Three Hares" by Jackie Morris, "Three Hares" by Brian Froud, "Nature in Art" by Eleanor Ludgate, "The Mockingbird and the Hare" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Wishing on a Blue Moon" by Karen Davis, "Girl and Rabbit" photographed by Katerina Plotnikova, "Brown Hare (Suffolk)" photographed by Michael Rae, "Thumper" (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froud, "Eostre" by Danielle Barlow, "Easter Rabbits" by Mr. Finch, "Hare" sculpture by Beth Cavener Stichter, "Desert Cottontail" sculpture by Mark Rossi, Desert Jackrabbit photograph (Wikipedia), my "Desert Bunny Girl with Prayer Feathers" sketch, "Mimbres Rabbits" by Pablita Verlarde (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), "Boxing Hares" photograph (The Independent), "The March Hare, Dormouse, and Mad Hatter" by John Tenniel, "Moon Rabbit" netsuke by Eiichi (Japan, late 19th Century), illustration from "The Tortoise and the Hare" by Charles Robinson, "Country Bunny" by Marjorie Hack, two more of my Bunny Girls, "Peter's Bedroom" and "The Math Lesson" by Chris Dunn, a rabbit study and "The Rabbit's Christmas Party" by Beatrix Potter, the March Hare at "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" by Arthur Rackham, and "Young Hare" by Albrecht Dürer.
Go here for a related post on Witch Hares. According to Devon folklore, our village (Chagford) is rife with them.
The hound and I send love to our Jewish friends beginning Passover celebrations at sundown. Although it's sad that Coronavirus lock-downs and travel bans are preventing so many gatherings of families and friends, we're simply glad you are safe.
These wild daffodils are for you.
Happy Imbolc from Myth & Moor, as the Great Wheel moves from winter to spring and the days slowly grow lighter.
"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," writes Linda Hogan (in The Woman Who Watches Over the World). "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow."