The sídhe and the sìth

Looking into the Fairy Hill by Alan Lee

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, which I highly recommend seeking out. In the following passage, Marsden is en route from the northern tip of Ireland to the wild west coast of Scotland. He writes:

"The north and west of Ireland and the west of Scotland share a similar history, language, and ethnicity....Comparable too is the geology. The 'Dalradian Supergroup' is not a Glaswegian rock band but a band of rock, 'a metasedimentary and igneous rock succession that was deposited on the eastern margin of Laurentia between the late Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian'. Right. It makes up a large part of the defining features of both Ireland and western Scotland, the same mountains, the same high sea-cliffs, the same curiosities (Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Fingal's Cave off Mull), the same peaks and open moor, the same islets and reefs, the same sense of a primal clash between rock and ocean. And it is that backdrop -- the gritty topography, the fractured shoreline, that has helped sustain the coastline's metaphysics, helped generate the wilder projections of outsiders and inhabitants alike, phantom islands from beyond its headlands, otherworlds from beneath its turf.

"In Ireland, they are sídhe, in Scotland, sìth -- each is pronounced the same: 'shee'. The fairy population share a folk DNA, as the human ones do. The definition of the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell covers them both: 'The Fairies, according to the Scoto-Celtic belief, are a race of beings, the counterparts of mankind in person, occupations and pleasures, but unsubstantial and unreal, ordinarily invisible, noiseless in their motions, and having their dwellings underground, in hills and green mounds of rock or earth.'

Fairies by Alan Lee

"In a piece published in the Scots Observer in 1899, W.B. Yeats noted how prevalent the 'fairy belief' remained in both countries. Over the years, though, the sídhe and the sìth had diverged. The Irish once, he claimed, were much better, or at least rather nicer: 'For their gay and graceful doings you must go to Ireland, for their deeds of terror to Scotland.' He cited the Scottish tale of a child cutting turf. The child is struggling, until a hand is pushed up out of the bog with a sharp knife. The child's brothers respond by slicing off the hand with the knife. Yeats claimed that would never happen in Ireland, where 'there is something of timid affection between men and spirits'. In Scotland, he claimed, an innate mistrust existed of that unseen world: 'You have made the Darkness your enemy...you have discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all before the magistrate.'

Fairy Woman by Alan Lee"As for the islands, the western coast of Scotland frays into many more actual islands than that of Ireland, but fewer imaginary ones. One tale that is found, though, in several versions in the Hebrides begins with a man in boat, lost in a fog. He comes across an unknown island, and landing on it, he meets a woman. He stays with her, they have children. After many years on the island, he goes back to his former life. One day when he is old and blind, the man is brought a fish that no one can identify. Fingering it, he recognizes its shape. He asks to be taken out to the waters where it was caught, and there is the island. He is put ashore, and he and the island disappear.

"It is a simple and beautiful story, and one that challenge's Yeats's partisan point. Many aspects of fairy belief do not stand up to any kind of literal scrutiny: little people living in holes in the ground, stealing the substance of people, or changing them into animals. But behind them lies a more persistent thought -- common not just to the closely related fairies of Ireland and Scotland but to belief worldwide: that other versions of our own life exist. They could be in the past, in the future, or in the never-never. They might be over the horizon, or on an imaginary island. But at one time or another, we will go looking for them. Perhaps we're always looking. "

The Scribe by Alan Lee

The art today is by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee, recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration among many other honours. Some of the images above are from his classic book Faeries (with Brian Froud), and other drawings are from Alan's private collection. To learn more about the wider range of his exquisite work, go here.

The Fairy Court by Alan Lee

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The artwork is by Alan Lee. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Further reading: For more information on fairy lore, "Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature" and "Tales of Fairy Changelings."


Wild empathy

Walking with Tilly

In yesterday's post, Scott Russell Sanders discussed the act of empathy with animals, and others unlike ourselves, in relation to shamanic shape-shifting: as a means of "reaching out in imagination to a fellow creatures."  Reflecting on this has led me back to Jay Griffith's essay "Forests of the Mind" (2012), on the power of metaphor in shamanism and art. She writes:

"[Shape-shifting] is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a 'slanted, metaphoric truth' ....

"Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.

Walking 2

Walking 3

"Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to 'imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it.' One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: 'I am the Amazon.' We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

Walking 4

Walking 5

"Shape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, 'Swan,' French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.

Walking 6

Walking 7

Walking 8

"'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in 'The Second Elegy.'

"In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream."

Walking 9

Meadow flowers

Walking 10

I recommend reading Griffith's essay in full, as well as her splendid book Wild: An Elemental Journey -- an exploration of "wildness" and "wilderness" in nature, culture, myth, and art.

Walking 11

Words: The quoted passage by Jay Griffiths above is from "Forests of the Mind" (Aeon Magazine, 12 October, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Dark Sweet: New & Selected Poems by Linda Hogan (Coffeehouse Press, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. 

Pictures: An afternoon walk and a visit with some of our neighbours in the Devon hills.


Somewhere over the rainbow...

Chagford rainbow 1

Rainbows are proliferating in Chagford, as in many other parts of the world as well. Primarily drawn by children, they are a means of spreading cheer during the global pandemic, of expressing gratitude to our health workers, and of reaching out to friends and neighbours when social restrictions keep us physically apart.

The rainbow response to Covid-19 was begin by a group of mothers in northern Italy and then quickly spread to other virus-stricken nations, helping children to deal with all the stresses and changes that a medical lock-down has brought to their lives. In the UK, much of the rainbow art is addressed to our National Health Service, valiantly struggling to keep up with pandemic's demands despite years of underfunding (and may that finally change). The NHS was already associated with rainbow symbology due to the Rainbow Badge initiative begun last summer, affirming support for the LGBT community in hospitals all across Britain. The rainbow badges worn by health service staff now have double meaning, both of them poignant.

Here in Chagford, our days of pandemic lock-down have been brightened by two young artists who live down our road, creators of the gorgeous rainbow drawings pictured in this post. This wonderful artwork makes me smile every time I go past on my walks with Tilly -- and thus the rainbows are doing exactly what they're intended to do: lifting spirits, and reminding us that even in Covid-19 isolation we are still a community.

Chagford rainbow 2

Chagford rainbow 3

Chagford rainbow 4

In myth and folklore, the symbolism of rainbows shimmers with elusive enchantment. Mysterious and ephemeral, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, rainbows in stories around the globe are magical pathways to Somewhere Else: the spirit world, the Faerie realm, the lands of the dead or the palaces of the gods.

Rhinemaidens by Arthur Rackham

In Norse myth, Eddic Bifröst is a rainbow bridge built by the gods themselves, leading to their home in Asgard. Heimdallr, with his Gjallarhorn ("yelling horn") stands guard at the place where the flaming rainbow bridge meet the clouds. Its heat is what keeps the frost giants out -- but at Ragnarök the tri-coloured flames will cool, and the bridge into Asgard will stand open.

In Greek myth, the rainbow is personified as Iris, daughter of Thaumus (an ocean god) and Electra (a sea nymph), married to Zephyrus (god of the west wind). Iris prefigured Hermes in her role as the messenger of the gods, moving swiftly and easily between the mortal, immortal, and deathly realms. She has golden wings, which light the way on her passages through the underworld, and a coat of many colours, with which she creates the rainbows she travels on. Accordingly, the sight of a rainbow tells you that Iris is passing by. 

Rainbow Nymph by Arthur Rackham and Rainbow Fairy by Willy Pogany

The "rainbow serpent" is a sacred figure in disparate cultures around the world, from the indigenous peoples of North and South America to equatorial Africa, Australia, Malaysia, and ancient Persia. In Arabian tales, various gods, djinns, and culture heroes carry bows or swords made of the rainbow's colours; in Siberian lore, all rainbows belong to the thunder god, forming his hunting bow; while in Slavonic myth, rainbows make up the tri-coloured belt of the Mother Goddess (or, later, the Virgin Mary).

The Rainbow Serpent  a design from Aboriginal rock art

In Irish folklore, following a rainbow to its end leads to a pot of faery gold, while here in Devon it leads into Faerie itself -- but this is rarely depicted as a wise journey for a mortal man or woman to make. Leave it to the hares, who are quick enough to carry the Faerie Queen's messages on an unreliable road made of magic, raindrops, and light. Or, if you must travel over the rainbow and into the Good Folks' realm, be sure to carry salt or hawthorn berries in your pocket to bring you back home again.

Waterfall by Brian Froud

In addition to traditional stories and legends, we all have our own personal lore and symbolism, accumulated throughout lives. Rainbows are part of my own mythic iconography, and this is the tale:

When I was 15, I sat in despair one day in a creaky old bus that was winding its way through central Mexico (that's another story), trying to decide if I truly believed in God. Not necessarily God with a big white beard looking down from a Biblical heaven, but some kind of sacred spirit above, beneath, and within all things. I'd aways had a deep, instinctive faith, even as a small child, in a sacred dimension to life, a Mystery I didn't need to fully define in order to know it, feel it, experience it. But recent gruelling events had shaken my faith and closed that connection.

I realize that sitting and railing at God is a perfect cliche of teenage angst -- but that doesn't make the experience any less urgent at age 15, and I was in a dark place. "Okay," I said, throwing the gauntlet down to whatever out there might be listening, "if there is something more than this, then prove it. Just prove it. Or I quit."  The bus turned a corner on the narrow, dusty road, and a gasp went up from the people around me. Above us, a rainbow arched through a bright blue, cloudless, rainless desert sky.

Rainbows have been special to me ever since. I know the scientific explanation, of course, water and air and angles of sunlight and all that. But to me, they are always a message. They say: "The universe is a Mystery and you're part of it."

And sometimes that's all I need to hear; that's all the answer I need, no matter what the prayer.

Rainbow over Chagford

Rainbow heart

The rainbow drawings on our road were photographed by Lunar Hine (editorial assistant here at the Bumblehill Studio) -- all except for the fourth photograph, which was taken by Claire-Shauna Saunders. I'm grateful to both of them for allowing me to use their pictures.

Lunar's daughters are the street artists -- and I'm grateful to them as well, for creating such beauty in troubled times, and sharing it with all of us.

The illustrations, in order, are: Rhinemaidens (under the rainbow bridge to Asgard) and a rainbow nymph by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). A rainbow fairy by Willy Pogany (1882-1955). The Rainbow Serpent in a design from Aboriginal artwork (artist unknown). And a rainbow image of our local Dartmoor trolls by Brian Froud -- who knows them better than anyone. 


The folklore of rabbits & hares

Three Hares by Jackie Morris

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  Three Hares by Brian Froud 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  Nature in Art by Eleanor Ludgateassociated 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 Mockingbird and the Hare by Kelly Louise Judd

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 Wishing on a Blue Moon by Karen Davisfolklore, 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.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Brown Hare, Suffolk, photographed by Michael Rae

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 Thumper (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froudgoddess 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 by Danielle Barlow

Easter Rabbits by Mr. Finch

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.)

Hare sculpture by Beth Cavener StichterCesaer 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.

Cottontail sculpture by Mark Rossi

Desert jackrabbit (Wikipedia photograph)

My drawing of a desert bunny girl with prayer feathers

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.

Mimbres Rabbits by Pablita Velarde  Santa Clara Pueblo

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.

Boxing Hares (from The Independent)

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.

The March Hareby John Tenniel

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 Moon Rabbit netsuke by Eiichi  circa 19th centuryof 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.

Hare by Charles Robinson

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
Country Bunny by Marjorie Hackwritten 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.)

More of my bunny girls

Peter's Bedroom and The Math Lesson by Chris Dunn

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.

Rabbit study by Beatrix Potter

The Robbit's Christmas Party by Beatrix Potter

The March Hare from Alice in Wonderland

Hare by Albrecht Durer the Younger

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 Path of Breadcrumbs & Stones

Another Night Journey by Jeanie Tomanek

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a fourth post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I'd like to honour the work of American painter Jeanie Tomanek, along with all women who find their voice and power later in life....

Some people find their creative passion early, while for others it comes more slowly, revealing itself only over time as their lives unfold. In our youth–obsessed culture, it can be disquieting for those whose Muse requires maturity -- and yet sometimes an artist's vision is so remarkable and unique that it seems to need years to germinate slowly, fully, preparing itself deep in the psyche...and then suddenly blossoming with astounding power.

Seed by Jeanie Tomanek

Coming to ones artistic vocation later in life is more common than many people realize, and can enrich ones work with qualities impossible to achieve at any younger an age.

The great Japanese artist Hokusai once commented that it was only with age that he really understood how to draw:

"By the age of fifty I had published numberless drawings, but I am displeased with all I have produced before the age of seventy. It is at seventy–three that I have begun to understand the form and the true nature of birds, of fishes, of plants and so forth. Consequently, by the time I get to eighty, I shall have made much progress; at ninety, I shall get to the essence of things; at a hundred, I shall certainly come to a superior, indefinable position; and at the age of a hundred and ten, every point, every line, shall be alive. And I leave it to those who shall live as I have

The American painter Jeanie Tomanek, whose work I love, is a fine example of an artist who found her true creative "voice" with maturity.

Old Dog's Dream by Jeanie Tomanek

Born in Batavia, New York, in 1949, Jeanie grew up in the rolling pasturelands of the Genesee Valley. She drew and painted all of her life, but she took these skills for granted and created art only infrequently while working at (and hating) "real jobs" in accounting, real estate, and other fields.

In 1969 she married her husband, Dennis, in Cleveland, Ohio. They had one daughter, Mara, and moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1983. For many years, Jeanie used poetry as her primary creative outlet, publishing in a variety of literary journals. Yet still she knew she hadn't yet found her true path and her soul's vocation.

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

"In 1999," she tells me, "after searching for many years for that creative thing that would be my passion, I started drawing again and eventually realized it was painting that I was supposed to do all along. By 2001, I'd escaped corporate life and was painting full time, developing my style and voice. My 'little baldies' started emerging on the canvas, telling whatever stories they needed to tell. I began to show my work in places such as the Atlanta Artist's Center, The Atlanta College of Art, and Trinity Gallery. People said my paintings spoke to them -- which is something I still find hard to believe.

Moon of the Long Nights & Kindling by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

"As I made the transition from the business world into a full-time painter's life, I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron -- a book that changed the way I thought about my creativity.

"Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés also had a huge influence on me. It was there that I first read the Handless Maiden folktale, which echoed the quest I was on to discover what I was meant to do. The tale is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization, and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. I suppose most women can find elements of their own lives in the Handless Maiden's story.

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

"As part of my quest to become artist, I even decided to change my name. I was born Shirley Jeanne Robinson, but had been called Jeanie by my family as a child. In order to go forward as a new person, I wanted to reclaim what that child used to be. Imagine how hard it was to get everyone who had known me as Shirley in my adult life to now start calling me Jeanie -- including my husband!

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Thoreau's Pumpkin by Jeanie Tomanek

"I paint to explore the significance of ideas, memories, events, feelings, dreams and images that seem to demand my closer attention. Some of the themes I investigate emerge first in the poems I write. Literature, folktales, and myths often inspire my exploration of the feminine archetype. My figures often bear the scars and imperfections, that, to me, characterize the struggle to become.

Care and Feeding by Jeanie Tomanek

Wingspan by Jeanie Tomanek

Multitudes by Jeanie Tomanek

Paintings by Jeanie Tomanek

"In my work I use oils, acrylic, pencil and thin glazes to create a multi-layered surface that may be scratched through, written on, collaged, or painted over to reveal and excavate the images that feel right for the work. In reclaiming and reconstructing areas of the canvas, the process of painting becomes analogous to having a second chance at your life, this time a little closer to the heart’s desire."

My Familiar

You can see more of Jeanie's artwork on her website; at the Greyhouse Art Studio; in her luminous book, Everywoman Art;  and in a video, The Art of Jeanie Tomanek, accompanied by the music of Arvo Pärt. You'll find an interview with the artist here, and visit to her studio here.

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek; all rights reserved by the artist. The title of each painting can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Jane Yolen: The Everyday-ness of Writing

Jane Yolen

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a third post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I've focused on one of our greatest writers of contemporary mythic fiction....

For many years Jane Yolen's friends have theorized that she is the possessor of a magical stop-watch: an eldritch device formed of spells and runes with which she can stop the motion of time. One click of the watch and the world comes to a stop; we all stand frozen between one breath and the next; all of us, that is, except for Jane, the Master of the Watch, creating secret hours in pockets of time that seem like mere minutes to us. How else, friends ask, is it humanly possible that Jane gets so much done?

Once Upon a Time by Jane YolenShe has published close to four hundred books. She has edited, inspired or supported the publication of many more. She has written for comics and animation. She had a book turned into a Showtime film. She teaches and lectures. She sings ballads, tells stories, and is an authority on folklore and fairy tales. She's won the Caldecott Medal, two Christopher Medals, the Regina Medal, the Kerlan Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Skylark Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, among numerous other honors. She was on the Board of Directors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, president of S.F.W.A. for two years, and a founding member of the Western New England Storytellers Guild, the Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild, and the Bay State Writers Guild. She has a BA from Smith College, an MA from the University of Massachusetts, and six honorary doctorate degrees. She's the mother of three, grandmother of six, and good friend to more than I can possibly count. She lives in two countries, and her books are known the world over. She writes (and shares) a poem every day. So if she doesn't possess a magical stop-watch, then how on earth does she do it?

Sister Light Sister Dark by Jane YolenHaving known Jane for over thirty years now, I know the real answer to that question. She works, and she works, and she keeps on working. Steadily and hard, but also with joy. "I love writing," she says simply. "There are a lot of writers who hate writing. They love having written, but they hate writing. They feel like they’re bleeding onto the page, and I think that’s an awfully messy way to write."

For Jane, writing is both Art and Craft -- and the craft is built on discipline, practice, and a quality she calls everyday-ness:

"Just as I do my morning exercises to get these old bones moving, I write every day. Every single day. Sometimes it's a chapter, sometimes it's a poem. Sometimes I make lists of things: nouns, verse to revise, ideas for new books, suggestions for stories with my children... Even if I am ill, traveling, caring for a sick husband, running around a convention, walking the Royal Mile -- even then I will manage to write something. Because being a writer means that kind of commitment. It doesn't have to be something for publication (though what does get published is almost always a surprise). It is something to get the brain, the heart, the imagination, and the fingers coordinated, working together. Not strangers but a good team."

Snow in Summer by Jane YolenBorn in 1939, Jane grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her father worked as a journalist, writing columns for the New York newspapers, and her mother (a former social worker) wrote short stories, crossword puzzles and acrostics. "Since both my parents were writers," she says, "I assumed all adults were writers, no matter what other jobs they held." Her parents were also great readers, passing their love of books to Jane and her younger brother, Steven. "I loved the Andrew Lang fairy books," she recalls. "I loved anything Louisa May Alcott wrote. I loved anything Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. I read every horse and dog book that ever existed, every book about King Arthur that ever existed. I love Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, The Back of the North Wind, The Secret Garden, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand...the list goes on and on and on."

Jane started writing at a very young age, but she had other creative interests too: she loved to sing, and she studied dance at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. In her 13th summer, her family moved out of the city to Westport, Connecticut. Jane attended junior and senior high school there, then went on to study literature at Smith Collage in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she returned to New York intending to be a journalist and poet. She soon discovered that journalism didn't suit her, and and turned to editing instead, working her way up from editorial assistant at Gold Medal Books to associate editor at Rutledge (a children's book packager), to Assistant Editor of Children's Books at Knopf.

Owl Moon by Jane YolenMeanwhile, she tried her hand at writing children's books herself (publishing her first at the age of 22), while also participating in the vivid folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.  She lost her heart to David Stemple (a pioneer of the computer science field), married him, sold five more children's books, then left Knopf so that she and David could spend a year traveling in Europe. She was pregnant when they came home again, so they settled in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts. Three children followed (Heidi, Adam, and Jason, all of them now writers themselves), and a steady output of books as astonishing for its quality as its quantity.

Jane writes for both children and adults, moving fluidly between genres and literary forms -- but what ties her work together, as one reviewer has noted, is that "all Yolen's stories and poems are somehow rooted in her sense of family and self. The Emperor and the Kite, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1983 for its intricate papercut illustrations by Ed Young, was based on Yolen’s relationship with her late father, who was an international kite-flying champion. Owl Moon, winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s exquisite watercolors, was inspired by her husband’s interest in birding."

Favorite Folktales by Jane YolenHer passion for folklore and fairy tales is another thread woven throughout her work. In the role of teacher and scholar of children's literature, she eloquently championed the value of traditional tales during years when many teachers, librarians and editors were hostile to such stories. "One of basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion," Jane pointed out. "With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving a new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and intrepid helpers, even incompentent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet. "

Touch Magic by Jane YolenShe also argued for the value of fantasy in the days when that genre, too, was considered suspect by the same brigade of realism-only educators. "In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, " Jane noted; "we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons....A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

When Jane first crossed the line between children's books and adult fantasy (with her Mythopoeic-Award-winning novel The Cards of Grief in 1985), there was no recognized field of Young Adult Fantasy as we know it today. That is not to say that such books didn't exist. They did. They were generally published as children's books (in hardcover editions), or slipped into adult science fiction lists (in paperback) -- for in those distant, pre-Harry-Potter days publishers still did not believe that YA Fantasy could sell enough to be a genre of its own. Jane was one of the writers who refused to accept that the line beween stories for children and stories for adults was quite as impassable as popularly believed, or that stories with teen protagonists could only be read by teens. By crossing that line, by trodding it into dust, she helped to create a space for the Young Adult Fantasy writers who followed after, from J.K. Rowling to Holly Black to William Alexander.

Briar RoseWhen it comes to her role as folklorist and re-teller of fairy tales, so influential has this been to a whole generation of writers and scholars that it is no overstatement to say that the modern resurgence of fairy tale literature rests upon her ground-breaking work as much as it rest on Angela Carter's or Tanith Lee's. Jane's novel Briar Rose is a classic of the form; her folklore compilations are essential reading for scholars in the field; and her essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood is as vital today as it was when the book was first published the early Eighties. Jane has been called the "Hans Christian Andersen of America" by Newsweek and the "modern equivalent of Aesop" by The New York Times...yet she has also had her books censored, denounced, and burned. Perhaps this, too, is proof of their power, for if they were trivial, people wouldn't fear them. They are not. They are deep and true.

I'll end with one more quote from Jane that gets right to heart of the Art and Craft that she has been practicing for all these years:

"I believe that culture begins in the cradle," she says. "Literature is continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work spring full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. Further, I believe that that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity's past, is to have no star map for our future."

Jane and Tilly

The last photograph: Jane and Tilly here at Bumblehill. To learn more about Jane and her books, please visit her website. Related posts (with quotes on folklore, fantasy, and writing from Jame)Stories lean on stories, The eye and the ear are different listeners, On a misty morning in the Devon hills, Tough magic, Words that matter, and Magic at daybreak.


Fateful Women

Three Fates by Jacqueline Morreau

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a second post on the theme of women in myth and folklore....

Artists have always expressed themselves in the metaphoric language of myth -- from the earliest carvings and pottery decorations to Picasso's Minotaur drawings and beyond. Today I'd like to draw attention to one of the best of the women artists working in this vein: painter and printmaker Jacqueline Morreau (1929-2016), who used mythic symbolism to explore psychological and political themes of contemporary life. Born in Wisconsin, Morreau studied and worked in California, France, New York, and Boston before settling London in 1972, where she established herself as a painter, printmaker, educator, curator, and tireless champion of women's art. "Morreau," wrote Catherine Elwes, "had a keen sense of how history affects present social conditions, and the legacy of conflict, religious intolerance and patriarchal oppression were recurrent themes in her work. However, she went beyond protesting against injustice in a social realist style. She devised cultural forms of resistance in her reimaginings of mythological and biblical themes and sought to redefine accepted notions of gendered identity."

The Divided Self by Jacqueline MorreauThe image on the right, "The Divided Self," is one of Morreau's metaphoric self portraits, while the etching above depicts the dreaded Three Fates of classical myth. These women spin and measure out the life threads of mortals and immortals alike: Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis determines its length, and Antropos cuts it off when life is at its end. According to Hesiod, all was Darkness at the beginning, all was void and nothingness, until the cosmos stirred and Chaos split from Darkness, containing the potential for life within it. In the very moment of that separation, the Three Fates emerged from the depths of Chaos. They are primal, powerful female divinities that do not bow to any god, holding sway over every living creature, for better or for ill. (As a sidenote, it's interesting to know that the earliest fairies of Europe were related to the Fates -- they were known as Fateful Women, from the Latin word fatare, meaning “to enchant,” and they appeared when a child was born, to bless or curse their destiny.) Three more of Morreau's Fate images are below: Fate as a Potter, Fate with Roller, and the three fates doing their endless, timeless work Under the Sea.

Fate as Potter & Fate with Roller by Jacqueline Morreau

Under the Sea Three Fates by Jacqueline Morreau

The Greek tale of Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche in the Roman version) is another story that stirred Morreau's imagination, providing rich symbols for expressing ideas about sexuality and identity. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Aphrodite is filled with jealousy. She orders Eros (the god of Love) to harm the girl -- but he falls in love with her instead, and arranges for Psyche to be safely carried away to a distant palace. Each night, under the cover of darkness, a tender lover comes to Psyche's bed. She does not know that this is Eros, and she's not allowed to see his face. Although she's surrounded by mysteries, Psyche is happy for a time…until she grows homesick and Eros allows her sisters to visit her.

Disclosing Eros by Jaqueline Morreau

The sisters, believing Psyche is dead, are amazed to find her living in splendor. Jealous of her now, the sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster -- for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed -- but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. “Is this how you repay my love,” Eros cries, “with a knife to cut off my head?” The ground trembles and the god and the palace disappear from Psyche's sight.

Psyche Awake, Eros Asleep by Jacqueline Morreau

Pregnant now with Eros's child, Psyche bravely sets off to search for him and eventually comes before Aphrodite, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Aphrodite is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Eros, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds. In the end, Zeus intervenes, soothes Aphrodite, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Eros and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.

On the Beach Eros & Psyche by Jacqueline Morreau

Morreau's various works based on the Persephone story are examinations of conflicted relationships: between men and women, between mothers and daughters, between the powerful and the powerless, between the forces of life and death.

Below is a charcoal study for Hades in her hard-hititng triptych, Persephone: A Season in Hell, along with the first painting in the triptych, "Rape and Abduction."

Hades & The Abduction of Persephone by Jacqueline Morreau

She also turned her sharp gaze on the stories of women in Biblical myth, capturing potent moments of transformation, for good or ill. In the drawing below, Lot's wife is about to make the fateful step that will turn her to salt. In "Paradise Now" (depicted below in two different mediums), Eve and Adam stand with apple in hand. The whole of earth is the Garden, they seem to suggest. Or it could and should be.

Lot's Wife Leaving by Jacqueline Morreau

An early version of Paradise Now by Jacqueline Morreau

Paradise Now (Adam & Eve) by Jacqueline Morreau

Like Käthe Kollwitz, Morreau was an overtly political painter, best known for powerful imagery responding to social injustice and the horrors of war (from the Children's Crusade to World War II to the contemporary Middle East) -- yet she also made art that celebrated life, such as her sensual, luminous series of paintings depicting bed sheets, water, and swimmers in the sea. In one interview, she was asked about these dual strands in her body of work:

"Perhaps this represents the basic conflict in my life," she answered, "which I have tried to express in the subject matter, delving into the dark and celebrating the light. I was born into the knowledge of evil in the 1930s, which no one of my generation could escape. That shadow often oppresses me; at the same time, I have had a love affair with nature, which sustains me. I see the world as full of intricacies, complexities and wonders and surprises, yet in spite of that, most things are constant. Because of the legacy of violence, most art of the 20th century focuses on the dark, the distorted, the ugly, and has found strength there. However, that has meant that the light, the beautiful and the joyful are seen as weak. In fact, it is much harder to depict such feelings.

"As I grow older, I'm much more interested in the light."

The Swelling Sea by Jacqueline Morreau

Girls in Water by Jacqueline Morreau

Words: The Jane Yolen poem in the picture captions is reprinted from The Journal of Mythic Arts; all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: All rights to the paintings, prints, and drawings above reserved by the Jacqueline Morreau estate. Personal note: I had the great fortune of meeting the artist back in the 1990s, when a mutual friend took me to Jacqueline's house in London for a studio visit and tea. I own and treasure one of her etchings: the Three Fates, pictured at the top of this post. She was an inspiring and remarkable woman. To see more of her work, go here.


On change, loss, and myths of death & rebirth

The Green Woman by Terri Windling

It's "Brexit Day" and I am grieving. My British husband and daughter are losing their European citizenship, my EU-born neighbours are feeling anxious and unsettled in their own homes...and if that wasn't enough, my next door neighbour is cutting down a cherry tree that I have long watched and loved from my bedroom window -- a tree has kept me good company during days and months when illness has confined me to bed, hanging over the fence between our properties bright with blossoms and birds. The tree is diseased, they say, and it must come down. In just a few hours my arboreal friend will be gone. There is loss, loss everywhere I look, and grief, and the winter seems endless.

I find myself thinking of myths of death and rebirth; of seasons and cycles and the great wheel of change -- and so I'm revisiting this essay I wrote back in 2015, after a year that held another big loss: the closing down of the Arts Retreat where I'd once lived in the Arizona desert, closing the last chapter of my American life. Life changes, we change, the seasons turn...and Myth and Story guides us through it all....

A winter's day in the hills of Dartmoor


Winter

The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw


Van Wyk Louw's poem "Winter" has become a touchstone for me during the dark part of the year, for it reminds me not to measure my days by action and accomplishment only; it reminds me that life is also "served by rest," and that winter is the natural time for retreat, hibernation, and introspection. I seem to need a lot of rest these days -- ostensibly because I am healing from an illness, but my spirit is in need of rest and healing too: of time in the dark, in the underworld of the psyche. It is winter. It is not yet time to bloom.

One year ago I was in Arizona closing down the Endicott West Arts Retreat, which was my last and longest home in the desert. The closing of E-West was anticipated, planned for, and accomplished in the best possible way -- and yet I mourned its lost, and I've continued to mourn with each new season of the passing year. In folk wisdom it is said that the sharpest phase of grief must be weathered for a full year and a day, and I find this prescript strangely accurate, as though loss must be carried through all four seasons before its weight begins to lighten and life goes on.

 winter day in the desert

I didn't, however, expect to be quite so rattled that E-West had come to its end. "It's just a life change," I tell myself firmly, exasperated by the strength and persistence of the feeling. "You wanted to move to Devon full-time. For heaven's sake, no one has died."  

But, in fact, someone has died: the person I used to be in Arizona. My desert self. My younger self, who seems so different than the woman I am now, for she was physically stronger and thus quicker, bolder, In Arizona, 1990smore intrepid in adventure than I am today...if also less wise, less tempered, less steady: the gifts of age and experience. That young woman is inside of me, of course, but I am not her; I will never be her again; and packing up my last home in the desert brought me face to face with this "little death."

For many months I have carried the weight of loss like stones in the lining of my pocket -- stones rubbed smooth by handling -- finding comfort in their feel, their rattling sound, their familiarity. But eventually we must empty out our pockets, for life is full of these "little deaths" and if grief is left to accumulate, then the garment of our soul becomes threadbare, misshapen, and our spirit just as heavy as the stones. Death, as myth constantly reminds us, is not an end point but a station one passes through as life turns on the Great Wheel of renewal: each self (representing the stages of our lives) dies so that the next one can be born; death and birth, endlessly repeated. We can't move forward (with our lives, our art) without these endings, these little deaths, these acts of letting go, which create the space for new ideas and fresh momentum.

Saint Francis holding stones

In the mythological calendar, the passage from winter into spring is the perfect time for giving stones back to the earth. The Corn King/Year King/Winter King has died, and will be re-born with the greening of the hills: a virile young consort for the Goddess, his seed ensuring the land's fecundity...until he, too, withers with the dying of the year and emerges again next spring.

This ancient theme of an agricultural king who dies and regenerates each year is reflected in the traditional British folksong of John Barleycorn:

          
There was three men come out of the West

Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John's sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They've left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he's grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man . . .

(Read the full lyrics and hear the song here. )


Mythic scholars have linked John Barleycorn to Beowa (the Anglo-Saxon god of barley, grain, and agricultural), and to Byggvir (the Norse god of barley, grain, and the art of milling),  for similar stories of sacrifical death and resurrection are associated with all three figures.

Persephone by Virginia Lee

Persephone by Virginia Lee

One of the best known stories of death and re-birth is the Greek myth of Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility, and patroness of marriage. (Demeter's name derives from "spelt mother," spelt being an early form of wheat.) When Persephone is abducted to the Underworld by Hades (god of the dead), her mother's grief causes the seasons to stop, love-making to cease, and all living things to fail to grow...until Zeus intervenes and Persephone is returned, but only for six months of each year. The girl has eaten pomegranate seeds in Hell, binding her to Hades in the autumn and winter. Each spring, she returns to her mother, and the greening of the earth begins anew. 

The veneration of Demeter, Persephone, and the cosmic cycle of death and re-birth was at the core of the Eleusinion Mysteries, whose initiatory rites took place each year just as the crops were sown. Beginning in an old cemetery in Athens, the participants walked in procession all the way to Eleusis, stopping at certain places along the route to shout obscenities. (This was in honor of Iambe, an old woman who's earthy stories had made Demeter laugh during her season of sorrow.) In Eleusis, the initiates fasted for a day (as Demeter did during her period of grief), then broke their fast with a special medicinal brew of barley water and mint. Little is known about the final rituals as the participants (sometimes several thousands of them) gathered together in the sect's great hall, for it was strictly forbidden for such sacred things to be spoken of in public.

Demeter Mourning Persephone by  Evelyn De Morgan

Demeter, often pictured wearing a wreath of wheat or corn, has much in common with Selu, the Corn Mother of the Cherokee Nation, also associated with agriculture, fertility, and the sanctity of marriage. When her grandsons break a strict taboo and spy on Selu's mysteries, she tells them she will have to leave them and die -- but that even in death she will look after them, provided they restore the harmony they have broken by performing certain rituals. "Clear a circle of land in front of the house," she says. "Take my body and drag it seven time around the circle. Then you must keep watch all night and see what happens."

The boys follow their grandmother's instructions, and from the places where Selu's blood speckles the ground comes the very first crop of corn, a sacred food which is still an important staple of the People today. In some versions of the story, however, the lazy boys clear only a small piece of land, and drag Selu's body only twice around the circle, which is why corn doesn't grow everywhere and we must work hard to cultivate it.

Selu sculpture by Raymond Moose on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina

Many carnival celebrations around the world are rooted in older pagan rites honoring the passage from winter to spring:  anarchic, riotous affairs in which laughter and satire are given a social outlet and a sacred context. Alan Weisman described carnaval as it's still practiced in the villages of northern Spain:

"In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido: introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval. Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from 'carne va'—'there goes the meat.') Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox -- resurrection of the pagan sun god."

This, notes Alan, is the  one time of year when authority figures are ignored, or mocked, and the people reign. "Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and -- most prized of all -- fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again."

(To read Alan's full article, go here.)

Spanish Carnaval

Photograph by David Bacon

Re-enactment of the mythic cycle of death and re-birth can still be found in many sacred traditions, from the ritual practices of Siberian shamans to the Easter pageants of Christianity. In the Border region of southern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and European American cultures all come together, the Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme) tribe contain a fascinating mix of religious traditions (similar to those of the Mayo and other tribes of northern Mexico).

Private spiritual rituals practiced in the months between Christmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminate in a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ's Passion, blending ancient Yaqui mystical  beliefs with 17th-century Spanish Catholicism. The "three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are Yaqui Deer Dancerguarded in an open-sided church by hymn-singing women, matachins (a dance society of men and boys), pahkola dancers (a kind of holy clown), and the deer dancer -- an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion of the woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos, dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, strings of rattles, and painted wooden swords.

These dark figures march and dance around the church for many days and nights...and eventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bells ring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers. The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march...and then attack once more. Again they're driven back. On the third attack they are overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers. They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned on a huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safety of the church -- a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forces of good.

The deer and pahkola dancers have been incorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe's pre-Christian past. They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the borders between the human world of the Baptised Ones, the modern Yaqui, to the flower world of the ancestors, a magical people called the Surem.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

When we look at traditional folktales, it's striking how many address the subject of loss. A sizeable number of tales begin with the loss of a parent, a sibling, a fortune, a home, or an identity -- and rarely does that which is missing return, intact and unchanged, at the end of the story. Instead, loss is the catalyst that leads to transformation. 

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie TomanekThe older versions of fairy tales were unflinching in their portrayal of calamity: kings abruptly beggared, queens dying young, children orphaned, cursed, and disowned. In The Handless Maiden, the heroine's hands are cut off at the wrist by her own father. The subsequent story of her journey through the world, rendered nearly helpless by her loss and yet still possessed of kindness and courage, speaks to everyone who has ever felt the wound of a loved one's betrayal. In The Seven Ravens, retold by the Brothers Grimm, seven princes lose their humanity due to their father's carelessness. Salvation comes from their young sister, who bravely suffers a loss of her own: she must cut off her little finger to make the key to unlock their prison. Beauty gives up her home and future to save her father from a beast; Cinderella is transformed by the loss of her mother from a coddled daughter to a kitchen drudge, until the simple loss of a shoe transforms her again and she becomes a princess. Sleeping Beauty loses one hundred years of life; her parents lose a precious daughter as the vines grow high and her bedchamber is shrouded in roses and silence.

These were tales, in their older forms, meant for adult audiences, not the nursery; and in some of them, the depiction of grief and loss is sharp and brutal. This is particularly true of the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which were beloved by adult readers across Europe in Andersen's lifetime. Here, unlike Disneyfied fairy tales today, we're never assured of a happy ending; here, the Little Mermaid is forgotten by her prince, the Brave Tin Soldier melts in the stove, and the Little Matchgirl dies alone, frozen by the breath of winter.

Though children also experience grief (and sometimes love the saddest of tales), the subject of loss as a literary theme becomes more and more resonant as we age -- as the passing years bring with them the inevitable loss of friends and family members; of homes and jobs; of innocence; of wild lands lost to development and memories lost to the ravages of time; of the many things we cling to, mourn in passing, and learn to live without.

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing.

"To live in this world," advised poet Mary Oliver, "you must learn to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Like myth, the great fantasy tales of our day have much to tell us about "loving what is mortal" and then letting it go. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for example, and Ursula Le Guin's early "Earthsea" books, revolve around the adventures of young heroes -- but loss, change, and the impact of life's "little deaths" are also major themes. (In "Earthsea," the aging of the heroes is beautifully explored as the series progresses.)

Ellen Kushner -- who entered the fantasy field, like me, as a young writer/editor in the 1980s -- has pointed out that our generation of fantasists is now middle-aged or beyond. "Our concerns are different now," she muses. "If we stick to writing fantasy, what are we going to do? Traditionally, there's been the coming-of-age novel, and the quest novel, which is the finding of self. We're past the early stages of that. Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever? I don't think so. Tolkien's books are not juvenile. The Lord of the Rings is about losing things you've loved, which is a very middle-aged concern. Frodo's quest is a middle-aged man's quest, to lose something and to give something up, which, as you age, is what you start to realize is going to happen to you. Part of the rest of your life is learning to give things up."

The Scribe by Alan Lee

Learning to give things up.... 

I'm thinking now of my last night at Endicott West, saying goodbye to a place that had held so much of my life and so many of my dreams. I'd wanted to let it go lovingly, gracefully, and I was surprised by just how hard that was. The ghost of my younger self stood beside me, growing thinner, paler, more insubstantial with every moment that passed.

My partners and I lit one last blaze in the campfire circle beneath the stars, and thanked the spirits in the old tribal way: with sage, cedar, and the desert tobacco that I'd grown and cured on that beautiful land. Then we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and reminisced about the days of building the Retreat, acknowledging all the blessing we'd received there, all the blessing we'd carry on from it. This is what I wanted to take back home to Devon: this good fellowship and these good memories, not the stony weight of loss and grief for a phase of life that had reached its natural end. But of course we don't control these things. Grief comes when it will, and takes the time it takes, and there's no short-cut to moving through it. Grief must be honored. It's the heart's clear measure of the value of what we've loved, and what we've lost.

Endicott West fire circle at dawn.

Mesquite kindling, reading to be lit

"In my own worst seasons," wrote our former E-West neighbor Barbara Kingsolver (in her essay collection High Tide in Tucson), "I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.''

Stones

Well, I've not been in "despair" exactly, I've just been feeling a little bit...off. Blame it on poor health. Blame it on the weather, which is wet and cold, unlike the winters of the desert. Blame it on exhaustion; I've been carrying these stones for a full year and a day, and it's time to put them down.

Here in Devon, it's been a long grey winter...but every now and then the sun breaks through. I put on muddy boots, whistle for the dog, and we squelch our way through hills that glimmer "in the rustling wet" (to quote Van Wyk Louw's poem) like the saturated colors of a watercolor painting.  These colors remind me that grief will pass. Winter will pass. The months, the seasons, the Great Wheel will turn. I have re-learned joy many times before, and I am simply doing it one more time. The land that is now my home lifts and sustains me.

And spring is coming.

Woodland snow.

The first wild daffodil shoots in the woods.

Pictures: The Green Woman painting at the top of the post is one of mine. The other image are credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them. All rights reserved by the artists.

This essay, written in January 2015, is dedicated to Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman, dear friends and co-founders of the Endicott West Retreat. In the years since then, the property has changed hands twice and is now owned by good friends, who have opened it up as a B& and Retreat themselves. You'll find more info here.


The stories that come out of silence

Spitits of the Great Hunt by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Although I've loved the previous books by Scottish poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of her latest essay collection, Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez. 

Her essay "In Quinhagak," for example, tells the story of Jamie's summer on an archaeological dig in a Yup'ik village on the Bering Sea. Towards the end of the summer, she joins a colleague for an afternoon of bird-watching:

Sedna by Abraham Anghik Ruben"We chose to sit quietly, and in a short space of time, maybe twenty minutes of looking out over the landscape, I realised my eyes were adjusting, my vision was sharpening....We looked at the land, and at a pond where Melia had noticed a number of different ducks and waterfowl; it was these she wanted to watch. Grebes and shovellers with little parties of chicks setting sail across the blue water. Sometimes, a rare and beautiful Aleutian tern flew in. I was happy just to sit quietly in the company of someone who also enjoyed spells of quietude.

"After thirty minutes or so, I could see colours better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.

"A quiet meditation. Melia sat some yards away, half turned to look southward, occasionally lifting her binoculars, naming a bird she saw. My hearing sharpened too: after forty-five minutes I could distinguish the different sounds the breeze made in the various grasses. A little bird nearby made a buzzing noise, like a small electrical fault. The ripple of pondside reeds, the light on distant mountains. Then an owl appeared, labouring toward us with a fat lemming drooping from its claws. It landed silently fifty yards away, watching us. We hoped it was feeding the young one we'd disturbed. Its cat-like owl eyes stared at us through the long grass-stems.

"We watched the tundra, but the tundra, they say, is watchful too. The people say, 'It's like something's looking at you.'

Gathering of Spirits by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Shaman Beckoning Sedna & Sedna Transformed by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Biography by Abraham Anghik Ruben

"There are stories of disappearance and reappearance out on the tundra.

"Was it John [a Yup'ik colleague on the dig] who told the story of the two men out on the tundra in fog? The fog was so low, just above their heads. But a hole appeared in the fog and from the hole they could hear laughter and merriment. 'Give me a leg up,' said one of the men. 'I want to see what's happening.' 'Okay, but you must reach for me in turn, and pull me up too,' said the other. So the first man entered the world above the cloud, but at that moment the hole closed and the bank of fog moved on, and the first man was never seen again.

"The story of another man, who got lost on the tundra and was given up, but who walked back into the village years later, wearing the very same clothes.

"The story of the little spirit woman appearing to a lost hunter, with a drum, dancing to the beat of her drum. She was on a hillock. 'But I knew I mustn't follow her. I knew I mustn't....'

"The story of the rain-cloud. The woman was out collecting berries and had stayed too long, become a bit exposed and sunstroked. 'But,' she said, 'a little cloud came, right above my head and let down rain, it filled the leaves with rain for me to drink. How grateful I was to that cloud!'

Sedna with Children & Into Greenland Waters by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Eaglets by Abraham Anghik Ruben

"After an hour, my senses were still clarifying. Perhaps it would never stop.

"Now a loon was passing overhead, against the bright clouds, with a long thin fish trailing from its beak.

"Then Melia saw cranes. She called my attention and together we watched seven or eight sandhill cranes flying in, flying low, then land one by one, and begin to stalk through the grass on long legs.

"By then the grasses were so vibrant I could almost taste them. This, after only an hour of attention. What would a year be like, a lifetime, a thousand years? How attuned a person, a whole people, could become.

"Who can say which story is 'true' and which not, when the tellers' senses are so acute?"

Who indeed?

I highly recommend Surfacing, a book that is quietly exquisite.

Passage of Spirits by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Psssage of Spirits 2 Abraham Anghik Ruben

Passage of Spirits 3 by Abraham Anghik Ruben

The art in this post is by Inuit sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben, who was born in a camp south of Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories. His great-grandparents, noted shamans Apakark and Kagun, came from the Bering Sea region of Alaska. Until the age of eight he lived with his family on the land, migrating with the changing patterns of the seasons; and then, like so many of his generation, he was sent away to a white-run boarding school -- the trauma of which he has subsequently explored in some of his most powerful pieces of art. After studying at the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska, Ruben established an art career exploring the stories, myths, and traditions of his ancestors in sculpture, prints, and drawings. Today, his art is exhibited and collected across the United States and Canada. 

"The Inuit believed in the existence of the Soul in all living things," he says. "The concept of reincarnation was central to family and community beliefs. As a vigorous group of Arctic people, the Inuit came from west to east in wave after wave of nomadic bands in search of new land and game. With the re-curved Asiatic bow and toggle harpoon they hunted sea and land mammals. They traveled by kayak and umiak in summer and by dog team in winter. The Inuit Shaman acted as mediator between the world of man, animals, and the spirit world. He was the keeper of Inuit stories, myths and legends, the repository of knowledge of the land and the secret worlds. 

"As a storyteller, I have sought to bring life to these ancient voices from a time when northern people held a reverence for the land and for all living things therein that provided sustenance and survival."

Migration: Umiak with Spirit Figures by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

The passage quoted above is from Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.


Coming up this month....


Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

This event kicks off the new "Book Talk & Tea" series, sponsored  by The Friends of Chagford Library and curated by Susan Harley. These monthly events will feature Sunday afternoon talks by a range of fine authors and book artists. There will be tea, cakes, books to browse and buy...so please if you're anywhere near Devon please come join us in support of books, community, the power of stories, and the importance of rural libraries.

In this talk, I'll discuss the importance of adapting ancient tales for modern times, and how such stories can help us navigate the many challenges we face today. While ecologists speak of "re-wilding" the land, I believe in also "re-storying" the land, reclaiming the tales that connect us to natural world and re-shaping them for a modern age.

When: Sunday, 26 January, at 3 pm

Where: Jubilee Hall, Chagford

Tickets £5, available from Sally's Newsagents in Chagford Square, or online here.

The beautiful art above is by Jeanie Tomanek.