Gather a handful of pagans or storytellers round a hearth around Yule and thoughts are likely to turn to that most enigmatic and powerful of initiatory myths – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, linking as it does a story of the Yule season with the characters of Arthur’s court in a story of chivalry, magic, temptation, transformation and self-discovery. The story is, no doubt, well known to both magicians and storytellers and cannot be easily summarised – all the more so as the very richness of the story, and in particular its best-known version, are such that any number of interpretations are possible.
Sir Gawain the Green KnightThe story starts with the invasion of King Arthur’s court at New Year by the terrifying and mysterious figure of the Green Knight who lays down a challenge to the assembled court, the challenge being that a volunteer must strike off the Green Knight’s head with his axe but must present himself for a return blow a year hence. Only Gawain has the courage to meet the challenge and he strikes off the Green Knight’s head with a single blow, only to have the Green Knight pick up his head, mount his horse and ride out of the court.
At the beginning of the following winter, therefore, Gawain rides from Arthur’s court to keep the appointment; he rides for some weeks through the dying winter landscape until, just before Christmas, he emerges from the desolate, frozen and still forest and comes upon a castle in the wasteland. There he is welcomed by Sir Bertilak and his wife and entertained until the morning of the appointment, his host having assured him that the place set for the meeting, the Green Chapel, is close by.
The rest of this article by Rowan, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1995, can be read on the White Dragon website.
Sir Gawain, The Green Knight and the Otherworld Journey
The last state pagan religion in Europe was Mithraism. The worship of Mithras, the Invincible Sun god was practised all over the Roman Empire, including the British Isles. The Temples in London and along Hadrian Wall can still be seen today as well some remains in Wales and York. There is no written formal documentation of the Western style of Mithraic Mysteries, the Roman ‘Cult of Mithras’. The underground Temples and their paintings, statues and few anti-pagan documents by early Christian are all that remain.
Mithra/Mitra is the prototype to Roman Mithras to whom there are several hymns in Hindu and Zoroastrian holy texts. This gives us some insight into the energy of this deity before it became fused with the great mass of Graeco-Roman magical ideas. The evolution of this deity from god of the green land, wild pastures and the solar light to one of that Invincible Sun god, who moves the cosmos by slaying constellation Taurus, has been the subject of much interest to historians and magicians.
The rest of this article by Payam Nabarz, which was published in White Dragon at Lughnasa 1999, can be read on the White Dragon website.
Mithras and Mithraism
For centuries the corvids, ravens and crows in particular (Corvus corax is the Latin name for the common raven and corvus corone for the carrion and hooded crows), have had a special place in the mythology of various cultures. In modern times this fascination has barely diminished. From Edgar Allen Poe’s literary classic to the film of James O’Barr’s cult graphic novel “The Crow”, these birds still exert a powerful hold over the psyche of a significant fraction of the population. The Goths who paint their faces with white make-up and the weekend warriors who expect Raven to take them to the Otherworld to meet the dead do not see the same animal as the farmers who set up decoys in order to shoot large numbers of them every year in late spring. This is, howe ver, typical of a creature that presents a paradox wherever one looks.
Corvids are sociable birds. They tend to form social groups, and this can be seen particularly in the case of rooks, which stay in their flocks all year round. Ravens, the largest of the family, reaching as much as 3 feet from beak to tail, form groups as juveniles, pairing off into lifelong monogamous and extremely territorial relationships at around the age of three. The courtship can involve such fun and games as synchronised snow sliding, and, of course, the synchronised flight test. The corvids can be found all over the world, and are the largest of the passiformae, or songbirds. The common raven is widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, and the adaptability and intelligence of this family has made it extremely successful.
The rest of this article by Samantha Fleming, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1998, can be read on the White Dragon website.
Unkindnesses and Murders : Crow and Raven
The Yew, Taxus baccata , is an ancient tree species that has survived since before the Ice Age and as such as been revered and used by humankind throughout the ages. All races of the Northern Hemisphere, especially the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans and the North American Indians, have a right and powerful understanding of this unusual and remarkable tree. Because of its longevity and its unique way of growing new trunks from within the original root bole, it has now been estimated that some English Yews are as much as 4,000 years old, their presence spanning ages of time and history. No wonder the Yew is associated with immortality, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life, rebirth, transformation and access to the Otherworld and our ancestors.
There are about 10 different species of Yew in the northern temperate zones of Asia, Asia Minor, India, Europe, North Africa and North America. They are all thought to have descended from Paleotaxus rediviva , which was found imprinted on a Triassic era fossils laid down more than 200,000,000 years ago. Recently, more fossils of the Yew have been found from the Jurassic era, 140,000,000 years ago. So the Yew has managed to survive the great climatic changes of our planet, adapting and finding ways to live longer than most species alive today. According to pollen counts taken from peat bogs of Europe, the Yew trees grew in greater abundance at the time of the Ice Age than they do now. As the glaciers receded northwards, the great forests of Europe contained up to 80% of Yew trees, and since these times have been in continuous decline.
The rest of this article by Glennie Kindred, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1997, can be read on the White Dragon website.
The Yew : Sacred Tree of Transformation and Rebirth
The vampire has long been a source of morbid fascination, particularly for authors of gothic fiction. Although The Vampyre – Polidori’s uninspired pilfering of an unfinished tale by Lord Byron in 1819 – sparked a hugely popular revival in vampire literature that eventually led, in 1897, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and its subsequent exhaustive film adaptation), vampire fiction can be traced back as far as classical Greece.
Many attempts to explain the vampire myth have been cursed by the difficulty in separating the genuine folklore from the lurid fiction it inspired; Stoker, for example, seems to have added several qualities to the vampire which were subsequently adopted into the literature as genuine – such as the idea that a vampire has no reflection. Some researchers have plumped for psychological interpretations of the vampire, others have suggested rare blood diseases (such as Dr Dolphin’s porphyria hypothesis), but all are flawed and inspired more by the fictional vampire than his folkloric archetype.
The ‘vampires’ exhumed and dispatched throughout eastern and central Europe during the middle ages are not really the subject of this discussion. Paul Barber (1) studies these cases in some detail, and shows how corpses can be expected to appear in the ‘vampiric’ condition – bloated, with blood at the mouth. Such outbreaks are undoubtedly largely brought about by the plague, which was also a factor behind the witch hunts.
The rest of this article by Liam Rogers, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1997, can be read on the White Dragon website.
Exhuming the Vampire
The sleep of reason produces monsters; inversions, caricatures of what we know to be right and sensible. Sometimes the fancies of the night seem more substantial than the sober thoughts of daytime. The dreams of a folklorist are especially subject to this kind of inversion. Consider two magazine pieces published by that Victorian litterateur, Grant Allen of Haslemere. One is a serious contribution to folklore scholarship, while the other is its dark parody. But the night-time version is far more revealing. It says a great deal about the mind of its author; but it also tells us something about a hidden strand in twentieth-century paganism.
Novelist, freethinker and evolutionary theorist, Allen was much in tune with the spirit of his times, and had mastered an easy style which could be turned to most themes. In a piece for the Cornhill Magazine he addressed the subject of fairies. It was very curious that the English peasantry should believe with such tenacity in creatures who did not exist; at least, as far as he was concerned they did not exist. What could have inspired the idea of fairies? They were a little people, who used flint arrowheads and dreaded iron. That suggested Stone Age man, about whom so much had recently been discovered. They were to be met with in grassy hillocks, the ancient burial mounds of that people. So fairies were the ghosts of Neolithic man, dimly remembered and feared by subsequent races. QED, thought Grant Allen, or at least the rational side of him did.
The rest of this article by Jeremy Harte, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1998, can be read on the White Dragon website.
Dark Green – Some Disturbing Thoughts about Faeries
It was around the 5th century that a synod was called to bring Britain’s Celtic Christian Church into line with Rome. In Britain the church owed as much to Druidry (and by inference, paganism) as it did to Christianity. Rome was not pleased with our Isles and many hitherto honoured Gods and Goddesses were either Canonised – like Bridget – or, became the butt-end of nasty folklore, such as Wayland, Freya and Cerridwen. Much the same happened to our sacred sites. The most popular sprouted churches. The less popular, sprouted scary legends.
The oral traditions suffered much the same fate as god/desses and sacred sites and, though scribed in Medieval times, they were given a 5th/6th century back-drop. The tales were, of course, much older than either of these times and were probably of Druidic origin. (Perhaps coming from an age before Druids were called Druids – though this is pure speculation.) The Arthuriad, the Matter of Britain, was part of those oral traditions. It is possible that the Arthur of the 5th/6th century was no more than an inspired creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as some people claim. Maybe all that so-called history was just a re-telling of bardic tales, a modernisation of old stories, as authors such as Mary Stewart, Parke Godwin, Marion Bradley and Guy Gavriel Kay have done in our age.
Of course Arthur could have been a tribal leader or Roman soldier who lived in, or around, the 5/6th centuries. Who become the Ard-Ri (High King) of our Isles. Who did heroic deeds. Who married a Queen, had a sorceress sister and was advised by a wizard. He may even be the one who built Tintagel. And maybe not.
The rest of this article by Kate Westwood, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1997, can be read on the White Dragon website.
“Save Seven, None Returned” : Arthur, Kinship and Kingship