Tea and musings around liminality

Yesterday I sat at a table lit by the golden light of the late spring sun, enjoying the feel of a soft breeze contradicting the warmth of sunlight on my skin while the glorious sound of birdsong gently caressing my ears in the café at the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre. On the table was a lovely pot of tea and a home-made fairy cake (small ‘cupcake’) topped with vanilla buttercream icing and my journal-sketchbook into which I would be recording my thoughts and observations. This was a treat after picking up a batch of mugs that I’ve had printed with a piece of my artwork and a short greeting for my lovely year 11 class who are leaving on Thursday. That will be a day filled with tears and joy, a liminal moment for the pupils as they stand on the threshold of the next phase of their life. The leavers’ assembly being an opportunity to mark this transition point, a liminal point, with celebration, with laughter and with the memories of experiences.

The view from the window was of the neglected graveyard attached to St Peter’s Church which falls away towards the valley bottom as the café abuts the eastern edge of the graveyard and I realised that I was sat at a liminal place, but not one of one phase of life to another. This liminal place marks the boundary between the living and those who have passed out of this earthly existence.

As I realised this, a pair of magpies flitted from tree to tree, their tails twitching as they settled on branches, and sunlight on their plumage revealing the iridescent purples, blues and greens that are so often missed. A solitary cabbage white butterfly careened from plant to plant, it’s pale colour standing out against the brown tangles of brambles and the bright greens of spring growth, signs of life surrounding the memorials of those long dead.

Magpies are associated with bad omens, and one such superstition is that if you see a single magpie on the way to church then death is close (myth-making at blogspot). Considering that many churches have a graveyard around them or close to them, then that is quite true! I love magpies and the other members of the corvidae family of fine feathery friends, despite their gloomy reputations.

As one thought bounced to another, I realised that I too, was at a liminal point in my life as I continue to work on unravelling the tangles of the past through journaling, meditation, self-hypnosis, gratitude and pennies-dropped-epiphanies as I’m becoming more aware of the inner critics and their continual sussuration of negative messages about me. I’m learning how to dis-empower them, little by little, and I may be approaching a turning point for myself in how I view myself and what my beliefs are.

The grave markers were splotched with lichen and algae, patterns reminding me of growths of penicillin on laboratory agar plates or stale and mouldy bread. Tumbled tangled brambles wrapping round them, seemingly pulling them down, down, down into the ground, the Earth reclaiming what had been taken from it, and with it the memories of those long passed. Despite the pull of time and neglect, the taller columns and headstones bravely rose above the tangles, holding their heads up high in the sunshine, proud of their leprous appearance, suggesting age and longevity, that they remember even if the living no longer do.

Others, however, seemed to be surrendering to the gradual depredations of time. Their sharp leaning stance, the first phase in laying down, showing an acceptance of their fate. No one alive who remembers them, who cares for them enough to tend to the memorial of a life once lived. The connections between the present generation and the past generations fading and weakening with time as symbolised by the tumble-down state of the gravestones. This was reflected in the laughter and chatter of the living enjoying beverages and vittles in the bright, warm, life-giving sunshine. The proximity to the necropolis and it’s visible symbols of death, funerary rites, and grief having no effect upon the high spirits of the living.

Perhaps that is because a wall, a visible boundary separates the activities of the living from the area of the dead. If we were to dine and party on their graves, perhaps we may feel differently, irreverent perhaps; an attitude maybe not unique to our own culture or time. I saw this video about dining with the dead in Georgia on the BBC news website earlier this week, and an example of how different cultures approach death and the places of the dead and how rigid and solid the boundary between us, the living, and our deceased friends and family are.

Death is, essentially, a great leveller; the great and the good lie alongside the poor and meek. Only the memorials tell us who is who,and only a skilled osteologist would be able to tell which was which were their skeletons disinterred and separated from any clothing, jewellery or other funerary offerings that they were interred with. To most of humanity they would be the remains of people, equal in death as they were not in life. Given enough time, all return to the Earth, return to what we were created from, very few leaving traces that will last for centuries, millennia or the aeons of time.

Traces remain in the bones that remain of their lives; hardship, luxury, adversity, ease all leave their marks in the bones. As the flesh decays, as memories fade, so do the individual stories of each person’s life, the stories that make each of us unique. The funeral monuments may tell us about them, there may be hints of their life in written records, but so much about them, such as whether they were kind or cruel, loving or neglectful, are lost.

Gloomy thoughts? Not at all! I like what the we can learn of our ancestors from their funerary rites, from records, from stories still held in the memories of the living, maybe experienced first hand or tales handed down through the generations. It matters not whether they are iron-topped tombs of the magnates of Blaenavon or the ring-barrows of a person from the Bronze Age, or the fossilised remains of our distant relatives. For many, we can only make educated guesses about their life and times, sometimes more educated than others when written records exist.

Of course, the choice of a place for cemeteries is a story in itself. In ancient times where a lot of effort was expended to bury a few in monuments such as cairns, ring barrows, cists, long barrows, then they weren’t just plonked in the nearest available place. The choice of place had meaning, just as the choice of place has meaning to us whether it’s where we go on holiday, where we choose to live and experience life. We choose places that give us meaningful experiences, be they linked to happy or sad times. The same is true when we choose places for funerary rites, whether we choose them ourselves before we die or whether we choose them for our loved ones who have passed away. My father’s cremains were buried beneath a sapling plum tree in a country lane where he used to collect all kinds of fruits and plants to make wine from. A friend’s father’s ashes were sprinkled from a bridge to return to the sea which he loved and sailed while serving in the Navy. Another friend’s father’s ashes are to be buried with his brother, if permission can be gained from her aunt.

If we take time and care to choose an appropriate resting place for the physical remains of our loved ones, I’m sure our ancestors did so too, even though it may not have seemed so to us as in many cases we have no ideas of their beliefs and the practices that stemmed from them. Nor do we know for sure why certain people were accorded such seemingly prestigious and important funerals, whether they were the great and the good or whether their deaths had a different meaning and the funeral a different purpose than commemoration and a reminder of our connections to the people of the past, to our ancestors, to those who have shaped the society we life in at any particular point in history.

I couldn’t help but wonder what stories the land could tell us if we could access it’s memory. I’d love to know what events the stones beneath my feet have witnessed in their long aeons of existence. What lovers’ trysts and promises. What betrayals, joys, toils, griefs. Whose feet have passed over them and what is the story of the lives. I don’t just want to know about the great and the good, people whose lives are most probably fairly well documented. I want to know about the ‘ordinary’ people as well. Everyone has a story to tell, everyone’s life experience is unique to them due to their unique perceptions, beliefs, actions, reactions and personality, and what thoughts and beliefs they had about themselves and others.

Perhaps the land, the position of the cemeteries, their relationship to the use of the land in the past and the present, the stories told about the land, it’s people all serve to keep alive the memory of the ancestors, aiding in remembering their stories and the stories previous generations and in so doing keeping the ancestors alive, in memory, and our connection to them stronger. The scape surrounding the cemetery becomes woven into the stories of the recent ancestors and the myths of the more ancient ancestors, acting as aide-memoires to the tales. Each feature in the land around the cemetery is not devoid of emotion, of meaning, and for each feature these would change as the time of day, the season of the year and the weather changes. We interact with these scapes through the feelings and meanings and the way that we make use of them and that induces a feeling of belonging to them. Ideas such as these are propounded by archaeologists such as George Nash.

I realised then, how much I’d enjoyed writing my thoughts, how going to a different place other than home allowed me the inspiration I needed. It’s also brought up links between things that are occurring in my life at present, and that will help to unravel any tangles knotted by the inner critics in the past.

Calendar change-over eve…

The old to the new

Well, the end of the calendar year, and the astronomical year if the Winter Solstice is seen as the end of one cycle and the start of the next, has come with a pile of revelations from a friend and a series of bangs that have released some inner demons and tears and uncovered an emptiness and knotted-ness in my gut area.

I’m pleased for my friend, don’t get me wrong.  At last they are taking the little yet huge step they need to take to release them from a situation that is untenable for them and into a new phase of their life’s journey.  I wish them happiness and joy and love.  I worry that they are chasing a rainbow, a dream that will not live up to reality, they’ll find the grass isn’t greener, but I know that they’ll find themselves progressing forward in a way they couldn’t where the currently are at.

Their excitement, fear, trepidation, hope and all the other things their going through has stirred up some ‘stuff’ within me that needs to be worked on and examined, which are, in no particular order:

  • Job and Career – Teaching is no longer healthy for me and though I find pleasure and satisfaction in some areas of the job, increasingly I’m finding it harder and harder to cope with other aspects of it.  I need to look at myself and what I can offer in terms of being an employee and what I need from a workplace in order to feel appreciated, valued, successful and that I am achieving good and truly helping people.  What kind of career I want, I don’t know.  Maybe training as a hypnotherapist will lead me along the way.  However, I do know I need to identify what I’d like to do, and that starts with what I can do and so on.
  • Relationships – I’ve been single for, gosh, thirteen and a half years now.  Along the way I’ve had many experiences placed along the spectrum of good to absolutely goddam awful.  I’ve felt time and time again the hurt of rejection and the blow it delivers to my self-esteem, self-respect and so on, and of course I realise that I expected nothing else.  Well, it’s about time that changed and it’s time for me to learn about relationships…big step for me.  How I do this, I don’t know, but it will start with me looking at myself honestly at the qualities I have, good and not so good, and come to accept and care about myself.
  • Friendships – I have a small number of very good friends, but learning to ask for help and accepting it when it is given is … a big hurdle for me.  I’ve had to be strong and independent for so long, to prove I can do it, that admitting I can’t is a big thing.
  • Creativity – I do not do enough to develop my writing skills and to weave stories.  I doubt my ability to do this.  I fear plagiarising, being unoriginal, being boring or trite.  I fear failure (damn that ultra-perfectionist part of me that doesn’t recognise when something is good enough).  I feel a sense of being overwhelmed when I think about telling a tale.  The result is I do nothing.  I also am lacking inspiration in art, finding myself doing the same kind of thing over and over and over …

The common threads running through all of this involve me learning to love myself by knowing who I am and to accept myself for this, warts and all.  I need to raise my self-esteem, my confidence, to be brave enough to start something.  Above all else, I need to find the courage to be brave enough to share something of myself with others.

To follow tradition or not?

This year, more than at any other time, I’ve found the traditions and the significance of events more puzzling and confusing.

The rational scientist in me recognises that time is a continuous flow, the only markers on time are the ones we place there so that we can agree on when we are talking about and the meaning we attach to those markers is manufactured to satisfy a need for predictable events in our lives, to bring some kind of order to what appears to be an otherwise random and chaotic existence.

Then the more spiritual aspect of me kicks in and says that it’s OK to do this, to mark the various points on the wheel of the year, the various events that we celebrate, the things we give meaning to.  They connect us together, for we are all connected, not just to all other human beings, not just to all life on Earth, but to the very stuff the Earth and, indeed, the Universe is made out of, the energy that constantly flows round and round.

We are not disconnected from the cycles that we can observe on this planet.  We may rationalise that they are caused by scientific laws, that they have no meaning.

However, I’m coming to realise that they do have meaning.  They bring us together and remind us that we are not separate, that what one of us does impacts on the whole, to a greater or lesser degree.  By honouring the traditions we connect to the patterns that are stored in the universal consciousness for humans have been honouring the same observed patterns and events over many, many generations.  It’s a way of honouring our forebears, of connecting to the present day, and of speaking to the future too.

It’s important, however, to decide if the particular traditions or observances fit in with your own philosophy, why you celebrate in the way you do, and to recognise that it is perfectly acceptable to change them as you grow and develop as a person, and not to just follow them blindly because you have always done them.  It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to create traditions of  your own too.

It may be that because I lead a very solitary existence, traditions celebrated by oneself have not really had any particular meaning, or have changed as my spiritual philosophy has grown and developed over the years.  Perhaps it is important that I find which traditions, which celebrations have meaning to me, and develop ways of observing them that lets me understand where they have come from, the meaning they have for me at this time, and how they will impact on the future.

Of course, I’m not sure if all of that made any sense at all!  Sometimes I need to get it out of me by writing and mithering and wittering on.

Lammas

Today is Lammas, a name that derives from the Old-English hlafmaesse, which means ‘loaf-mass’.  August 1st is also known as Lughnasadh or Lughnasa, particularly among the modern Pagan community, and you can find loads about it on the world weird web.

Anglo-Saxon church records from the ninth century onwards show that that Lammas was the festival of ‘first fruits’ with wheat, corn and bread to celebrate the corn harvest.

The first ripe cereals were reaped and baked into bread which was consecrated at a church upon that day.  A book of Anglo-Saxon charms advised that this holy bread be divided into four pieces, each of which was crumbled in a corner of a barn in order to make it a safe storage-place for the harvest about to arrive there.

Certainly, the arrival of the time when the first harvest could be gathered would have been a natural point for celebration in an agrarian society, and the importance of the first day of August was already so well established by 673 that Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus decreed that the annual synod of the newly established Church in England should be held then.  It seems very likely that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date.

Although not one of the official quarter days, Lammas was a regular day for paying rents, settling debts, and changing jobs and houses.

It’s position in the year also contributed to its key role in the organization of rights to common lands.  Where common or church land was rented out by the half-year, or where common strips of land were apportioned annually, Llamas was often the time that the business was carried out.

Lammas was also a popular day for fairs, for example at Exeter and York, and local feasts and revels, such as at Combe Martin in Devon.  Temporary rules and regulations were in force during the time of a fair, it was important that everyone knew when the fair opened and closed, and impressive civic processions and readings of proclamations were often reported, along with the use of highly visible symbols that were displayed while the fair lasted.

Another name for Lammas is ‘the Gule of August’, and this phrase was in use from at least 1300; it also was in use in Old French and Medieval Latin.  One suggestion is that ‘Gule’ derives from the Welsh ‘gwyl’, or ‘feast’, but it’s not clear why or how Norman English or Old French picked up such a word.  It is more likely that the word is derived from Latin.  For more about this read ‘The Stations of the Sun‘.

References:

  1. The English Year, Steve Roud
  2. Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton

Lammas thoughts

The new wheat of the year and the first loaf baked with it.  Wheat and other cereal crops are one of the western world’s staple foods.  Agriculture, one of the major innovations of the Neolithic peoples, allows us to grow vast quantities to ensure we are all fed, we all have bread to feed our bodies.  How many of us take this for granted?  How many of us pause to consider those in other parts of the world who do not have enough bread to sustain their bodies, bread being an analogy for essential food?

Today is a day, traditionally, to give thanks for the harvest that will feed us, but it would be nice for us to think of those who struggle to find enough food to feed them, whether it be through environmental disasters, societal turmoil, war, or man’s inhumanity to man.  We could also send thoughts to the animals and plants who are suffering as much as mankind, often far more, through natural and man-made disasters and atrocities.

It is a time for community.  In the past, communities would come together to gather the harvests in as quickly as possible so little was spoiled and all was safely stowed away to last through the coming year.  It was a time of hard but necessary work.

This takes us back to the thoughts about those in the world and how the paradigm needs to change to a world community where we help one another to ensure all have enough for a decent life.  Take time today to consider those who do not have enough food or any other necessities of life, and consider making a commitment to donate regularly to charity to help these people, if you don’t already do so.  Of course,  the world community includes not just humans, but all other living things, and the very Earth itself, for without these life would not be possible, would it?

These are the general and worldwide issues that come to mind in connection with Lammas; but what of the more personal, more symbolic messages that come with the first harvest of the year?  What spiritual bread is there?

We all sow symbolic seeds – new beginnings, new projects, new ways of looking at ourselves, new ways to interact with people, and so on.  These seeds will germinate in fertile ground, where we nurture them, and eventually they will bear the fruit of our efforts.  Today is a day when we can look back at the seeds we planted in the spring and see what ‘fruits’ are ripe and ready to be plucked, and which need to be left to grow more before they will mature.

Another meaning is transformation.  Wheat must die for it to give us sustenance and also so that new life can spring again from it when it’s seed is planted in the Earth.  The life of the wheat is sacrificed to make way for new plants in the Spring.

So it is with our lives; we need to ‘sacrifice’ situations, projects, tasks, and so on that have reached their conclusion, let go of those that will not grow or have not germinated, and we need to do this in order to move onward, to allow new things to enter our lives.

Change is never easy, but it is necessary if we are to grow and realise our potential in all things.  Lammas marks the start of the time when we can savour the fruits of our efforts.  A time when we can experience the sweet taste of success, or the bitter taste of failure.  Either way, Lammas is the time to start to let them go from our lives as it is the first harvest, the start of clearing the land of the crops that have either matured successfully or failed for various reasons.  Lammas is the time to look within ourselves and in our lives to see where this is also the case.

This letting go of what has ended, no matter if it is a success or a failure allows a symbolic death of that which has come to its end.  This is echoed in the increasing period of night that we notice at this time of year.  The nights are drawing in, and while the days are still hot and balmy, there is a feeling of change in the world as we move to the Autumn Equinox.  Yes, nature still flourishes and grows and fruits continue to grow and to ripen, but with the first harvests we begin to see nature coming towards the end of its yearly cycle of growth, the fields being laid bare ready for sowing with new seeds.

For now we can celebrate our successes, learn from our failures, and mourn letting go of what is complete, knowing that as one thing ends something new is on it’s way, just as a bare field means new growth will come in the Spring.

Whatever you consider today, whatever you think about Lammas, enjoy the day!

Words and Art Combined

Earth

Earth © Angela Porter 2011

Watercolours, pen and ink on cartridge paper.  24cm x 18cm.

I completed this picture as a kind of experiment.  A dear friend of mine suggested that instead of filling the curlicues of my current very spiral art with more curlicues and spirals that I should add words instead.  I have lots of ideas of what to do with this, perhaps, eventually.  But this was the first of it’s kind.

I wanted to put together a painting that had words and symbols and images that go with the esoteric element of earth, but the words I chose haven’t quite worked out.  However, I am pleased with the apple/wheat/leaf border and the ivy border too.  I’m also pleased that I left empty space, not because I got fed up of this, but because I felt it was all finished and balanced.

This will be an idea I come back to, that of the four elements I mean.  Words have been important in creating my latest pieces of art.

PF Summer Camp, Late May Bank Holiday Weekend 2011

PF Summer Camp 2011 © Angela Porter 2011Watercolours, metallic watercolours, Zig Art and Graphic pens, Rotring pens with black ink on watercolour paper.  9cm x 18cm.

Last weekend, I gave a talk entitled ‘Death and disposal in the Bronze Age’.  In the talk, I concentrated, it turned out, on how the landscape in which the monuments are set can and other factors such as time of day, season or weather have an effect upon how people experience the site.  I drew on the work of archaeologists such as George Nash and Ann Woodward’s book ‘British Barrows‘ who discuss such things.  I have found it a fascinating, if a little brief study by myself, but I already have books on order for when I have the time to dig deeper into such matters.

I mention this because it may be that the barrows could have acted as ‘mnemonics’ for reciting the history of the clan who were the barrow-wrights.  Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson, in ‘The Folklore of Discworld’ write:

“The landscape is full of stories.”

What I set out to do in this particular painting was to put words in that act as memories of the weekend, especially the ‘bardic circle round the camp fire’ in the evening, where there were songs and stories and friendly banter and chatter.  This is something I have never done, the camp fire thing that is.  I loved it and want to take part in one again.  I may even be able to take my flute and play something, or tell a story; I think the informal and non-judgemental nature of such a gathering would allow me to do this.

I wander off topic here.  The colours and shapes I chose to represent the flow of ideas, talk, music as well as an opening of the mind and an igniting of certain things for me.  I am really quite pleased with how it has turned out, and it was another experiment as I used Zig Art and Graphic Pens to draw the design with; they are water soluble and bled into the watercolour paints.  It has turned out to be a happy accident, as I’m pleased with the colours in places which give an aged feel to the work, kind of like an old, hand coloured etching.  This is how a lot of my work tends to be, but I really want more vibrant colours so that black doesn’t swamp them.

Time

Time 1 © Angela Porter 2011Watercolour, Zig pens and Rotring pens with black ink on cartridge paper.  7.5cm x 15cm.

This was an experiment, again.  I started it last week and left it for a few days to ponder what to do with it.  The colours I had used seemed quite insipid and I wasn’t at all sure where it was going.  The purchase and subsequent playing with the Zig pens a couple of days ago gave me another technique to use in my art, and in this case it’s worked out well, I think.  Things aren’t as irritatingly perfect as my work has been in the past, but I think that adds something to the work.  I like the way the Zig pens add depth and intensity of colour, while being able to be washed out with a damp to wet brush to very subtle shades.  I feel I’m going to love using them in this way!

The adage ‘Time heals all wounds’ is, of course, not entirely true.  There are some wounds that never heal, unless it’s the final journey to whatever awaits us after this earthly existence.  I do think the words are particularly pertinent to me at this point in my personal progress.  I have been having counselling for a number of years now to help me heal the emotional wounds of the past and the damage it has done to my self-image.  It’s a long, slow process it seems.  I often feel guilty for talking so long, to be going round and round in circles, and there have been moments when we almost believed it was time for me to cut loose, then something happens to knock me back a few steps.  As I’ve been told, you can’t heal the damage done over 40-something years overnight, it takes time to undo the learned concepts and to replace them with new ones.  I am getting there, though, even though some days, or weeks, I feel I’m back to where I was.   Art helps me to relax, de-stress to bring joy into my life, and it’s a great re-balancer for me.  I am so grateful I have discovered this gift, and that I have people who encourage me to explore new ways, as I’m still not able to be self-motivating or to find the inspiration that sometimes I lack.

Flowers, folklore and folk-medicine

Our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old –
Excellent herbs to ease their pain –
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris and Elecampane –
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you –
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars –
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in a division it goes –
(Every herb had a planet bespoke) –
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead –
Most of their teaching was quite untrue –
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door –
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore –
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

If it be certain, as Galen says –
And sage Hippocrates holds as much –
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

Rudyard Kipling


Yes, there were some dreadful examples of medicine in days long ago, yet there were also many examples of folk-medicine that did work and that we use today.

For example research in biomedical Egyptology shows that many were effective and that some 67% of the cures recorded in various papyri complied with the 1973 Edition of the British Pharmaceutical Codex. They used honey, a natural antibiotic, to dress wounds and treat throat irritations, for instance, and aloe vera was used to treat blisters, burns, ulcers and skin diseases. They also used mouldy bread to treat infections; one of the moulds that grows on bread is penicillin!

There are many more examples of cures that worked and the active ingredients are used in modern medicine. Indeed, there is a branch of science called ethnobotany or ethnopharmacology that studies folk-medicines with the hope of finding new and active ingredients to treat the plethora of diseases still suffered by humanity.

Regardless of whether they worked or not, reading and researching about the uses of plants and other materials in folk medicine as well as the theories our fathers of old had about illness is something that I find fascinating, when I have the time to dig and delve into it. I find lots of interesting tales about where the names of plants come from, so I learn more about etymology, history, folklore, legend and myth. I get to look at photographs and illustrations of the plants used, so widening my knowledge and experience of art and so inspiring me to create my own. One day, the tales may even help to inspire me to do my own creative writing, maybe poetry, about all the wonderful lore that surrounds our most familiar plants, crystals, rocks, horseshoes, and so on.

Mistletoe and Ivy

Well, as I’d done some notes about holly previously I thought it would be a good idea to complete the trio of plants most associated with Yuletide/Christmas/Winter festivities.

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

Early antiquaries thought all types of Christmas foliage came from that used by the Romans at Saturnalia, which was a festival that originated in Greece.  However, once mistletoe became especially popular, the more picturesque theory of Druidic origin gained ground.  Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) recorded the following about mistletoe:

The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia oak … Mistletoe is, however, rather seldom found on Valonia oak, and when it is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the Moon (for which these [Gallic] trips constitutes the beginning of the months and years) … Hailing the Moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things’, they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.  A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.  Then finally they kill the victims, praying to God to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it.  They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.

Steve Roud in ‘Oxford Dictionary of Plant-lore’ comments that ‘largely as a result of this passage, more nonsense has been written about mistletoe than any other British plant’.  It is responsible for more disinformation in British folklore than almost any other.   Whatever its merits in itself, it has been repeated over and over and has been used for many flights of fancy about Druids and the ancient origins of our customs and beliefs.

Because of its Druid and pagan associations, mistletoe is traditionally banned from churches, according to the very influential John Brand in 1849.  However, recent research has shown he was wrong, at least for some regions such as Staffordshire where churchwardens’ accounts record repeated purchases of mistletoe.  In 1648 is first listed among the many evergreens decking churches and homes at Christmas by Herrick in Hesperides, no 893.   From the Middle Ages on, the use of holly and ivy in this way has been well recorded.

Mistletoe became important in the late 18th century as part, and soon to be the most valued part, of the elaborate kissing boughs/bushes that were hung up in farmhouses and kitchens, of which kissing under the mistletoe was first recorded in 1813.  There were rules as to when it must be taken down, which varied regionally.  Why mistletoe was included was never recorded, and why kissing beneath it became popular is never fully explained, though it is commonly attributed to it being a Druidic/pagan fertility plant.  This has been stated again and again that it has become ‘The Truth’ as opposed to ‘the truth’.

‘Pliny was writing about the Gauls, not the Brits.  We do now know where or from whom he got his information about the Druids.  Classical authors, however reliable they may be in other respects, are at their most unreliable when describing foreign people, their lands and their beliefs.  There is no hint anywhere else to support Pliny’s report.  There is no other mention of the sacred nature of mistletoe in Britain until antiquarians began reading and believing Pliny’s report some 1500 years later.  Even if Pliny’s report was accurate, there is no evidence that the practice was continued into historical times or had any influence on later lore.  Modern mistletoe beliefs are reported almost exclusively from England, and not the Celtic areas where was are told the Druidic traditions continue to have resonance.’ (4)

Nordic Mistletoe Myths

There may be a link to ancient Nordic myths too.  Mistletoe, apparently, was the plant of peace in Scandinavian countries and if enemies met beneath it, they would lay their arms down and keep a truce until the next day.  Perhaps it was this ancient Norse custom that led to the one of kissing beneath the mistletoe?

This tradition, however, went hand in hand with the story of  the death and resurrection of Baldur, one of the most intriguing of the Norse myths, and perhaps it is this that is the start of the tradition of mistletoe as a ‘kissing plant’.

Baldur’s mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur.  However, Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant — and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this.  Always the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear made from mistletoe.  This god was Hoder, who was Baldur’s blind brother.  Loki guided Hoder’s hand, and Baldur’s heart was pierced by the spear.  The death of Baldur, a vegetation deity in the Norse myths, brought winter to the world, although the gods did eventually restore Baldur to life, but not before Frigga’s tears had become the white berries of the mistletoe.   After this, Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world.  Happily complying with Frigga’s wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur’s resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.Mistletoe etymology

While the romantic traditions woven around mistletoe give us a feeling that the plant is all dreamy and lovey-dovey, it’s interesting to ponder the etymology of ‘mistletoe’.  The second century Anglo-Saxon name for it was misteltan, with  mistel meaning dung and tan meaning twig.  It was believed at that time that the plant grew directly from the birds’ dung rather than the seed that passed through its digestive system.

Kissing and love

  • When a kiss is exchanged beneath the mistletoe, a berry should be removed.  Once all the berries have gone, no more kissing that year!
  • If an unmarried woman is not kissed beneath the mistletoe, she will not marry in the coming year.
  • If a couple in love kiss under the mistletoe, it is considered a promise to marry.

After Christmas is over …

  • Mistletoe should always be kept until the Christmas following.  It is believed around the Chudleigh district that it will stop the house from being struck by lightning.  At Ottery they say it will ensure that the house will never be without bread.
  • A piece of mistletoe must be kept to be burned under the Shrove Tuesday pancakes.
  • A piece of mistletoe must be kept from one year to the next because while mistletoe stays in the house love also stays.
  • A sprig kept hanging on the beam until next Christmas will keep the witches out/keep evil spirits way/goblins away.

My own mistletoe tradition

I must admit that I keep a bunch of mistletoe hanging in my front room at home.  I change it, usually, on the Winter Solstice, burning the old out doors.  I use a blowtorch to set fire to the old bunch and it burns fantastically well!  I make sure I stand upwind of the fumes too.

Why do I do this?  Well, it’s become a tradition for me at this time of year.  It symbolises the protection around my home that exists to keep bad away – maybe not ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, but to keep people of ill intent out, to neutralise any ill intent sent my way, to create an environment of peace and harmony and love.  It seems to work … perhaps simply because it is a physical symbol of my intent to have such an environment around me, a safe environment to retire to when the world outside is just too much to cope with and I need quiet time to rest and recuperate.  Burning the old symbolises letting go of the past years’ troubles and worries and upsets and so on, and the fire purifies the darker elements that the mistletoe has symbolically soaked up, returning them to the light.

Whether you believe it or not, it works for me!

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Considered by some to be unlucky to have in the house at any time other than Christmas.

Ivy leaves formed the poets crown in ancient times, as well as the wreath of Bacchus, to whom the plant was dedicated most probably because leaves of ivy were bound around the forehead to prevent intoxication.

    Greek priests presented a wreath of ivy to newly-weds as a symbol of fidelity.

      English taverns used to display a sign of an ivy bush over their doors to advertise the excellence of the liquor served within – ‘Good wine needs no bush’.

        References

        1. Steve Roud, ‘Oxford Dictionary of Plant-lore’
        2. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, ‘ A Dictionary of English Folklore’
        3. Ronald Hutton ‘The Stations of the Sun’
        4. Steve Roud, ‘Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland’
        5. The Mistletoe Pages
        6. Norse Myths and Mistletoe at About.com
        7. The Truth vs. the truth – an old Wyrdsmithing blog engry
        8. BBC’s h2g2 website

        Winter Solstice 2010

        All the very best of the Winter Solstice greetings and wishes to all!

        The exact point of Solstice is at 23:38 UTC, which is when the Sun enters Capricorn.   In the Northern Hemisphere, this marks the longest night and also the gradual returning of light to the world as the days gradually lengthen once again.

        What makes this year’s Winter Solstice extra special is that there is a Lunar Eclipse fall on the same day, for the first time since 1638.  Sadly, it was not possible for me to view the Lunar eclipse as the skies were cloudy here, and no doubt the hills would have obscured my view of the Moon in any case.

        In my immediate environment, in the Northern Hemisphere, nature is in it’s annual dormancy and the return of the light from this day on is a reason enough to celebrate the continuation of nature’s seasonal cycle.  With the snow still covering the ground, life having slowed down due to the freeze here in the UK, there’s an even bigger sense of the big sleep of nature.

        The Winter Solstice had, no doubt, great significance to prehistoric people, no doubt linked to the uncertainty of seeing life through the harsh winter months.  Evidence for this remains in the apparent alignments of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites such as Stonehenge (Winter Solstice 2010 at Stonehenge) in England and Newgrange (Winter Solstice at Newgrange 2010) in Ireland to astronomical events such as the Winter Solstice.  The lives of these people depended very much upon the seasons and weather and it must have been important for them to mark the cycles of the seasons in some way, just as we do still.

        The Feast of Yule was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia.  At this time of year, fires were lit to symbolise the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning Sun.  A Yule log was brought in and burned in the hearth in honour of the god Thor.  A piece of the log was kept to act as both a good luck token for the year and to act as kindling from which the next year’s Yule log was lit.  Ashes from the log were also collected to be spread on the fields to ensure a good harvest that year.

        There are many festivals coinciding with the Winter Solstice around the world, as can be easily read about on the web – see for instance Wikipedia.

        How will I be spending the day?  Well, not as I would in years past.  Normally, I’d replace my bundle of mistletoe at dawn, burning last year’s old bunch.   This will have to wait for a day or two until I can get out and about!   The mistletoe hung in the home acts as a protection against negative thoughts and deeds.  Burning it releases and purifies that which it has absorbed over the year.  Part of the day will be spent in meditation/quiet thought/reflection on the past year and particularly upon the progress I have made in achieving goals in life and giving thanks for all those people and circumstances which have aided me in my progress, whether they realised it or not, and whether I realised it or not at the time! Sometimes, the people and situations that vex us most are responsible for the greatest progress in our personal development.

        How will you spend the day?

        1. Guardian – Article about the coincidence of Solstice and the Lunar Eclipse
        2. National Geographic – Article about the coincidence of the Solstice and the Lunar Eclipse
        3. Winter Solstice at Time and Date.com
        4. December Solstice Traditions at Time and Date.com
        5. Winter Solstice on Wikipedia
        6. Yule on the BBC website