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Posts tagged ‘pagan’

Unkindnesses and Murders : Crow and Raven

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

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The Yew : Sacred Tree of Transformation and Rebirth

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

Samhain and pagan platitudes

Some years ago, by one of those strange coincidences, I had just finished typesetting Tony Roe’s article on psychopomps for the Samhain 2006 edition of WD and headed off to Sainsbury’s. Driving towards town I became stuck behind a column of slow-moving vehicles in the inside lane of the dual carriageway. Since the outside lane was empty it didn’t seem likely that there had been an accident so I cautiously pulled out and overtook the column. As I came over the brow of the hill I realised I’d been following a funeral cortege, which should have been obvious from the start. Reaching the front of the procession I saw that it was being headed by a horse-drawn hearse: two black horses with black plumes on their heads drawing a black, glass-sided hearse with three entirely black-clad undertakers, complete with shiny toppers, on the box of the hearse.

I have lived in Redditch for over 20 years but this was the only time I had seen this horse-drawn hearse, and very impressive it was too. Indeed, seeing any funeral procession in the town is fairly rare – I suspect many of the townsfolk put their dead out for the binmen rather than squander their booze and bingo money on life’s non-essentials.

Now one of the things which drives me completely bonkers is the annual outpouring on mailing lists and discussion forums (and for that matter in magazines) of the standard pre-Samhain platitude about “the veil between the worlds being thinnest at this time of year”, and variations upon this sentiment, and seeing the hearse that October reminded me that this Season of Platitudes would soon be upon us once again.

I’ve referred to it as a platitude and no doubt that will offend some but I do so because to refer to one particular moment in the year as somehow uniquely dangerous in terms of interaction with the other worlds suggests to me a profound and ultimately thoughtless ignorance of the wider folklore of the British Isles (including Ireland) on the part of the platituder.

It irritates me all the more because almost inevitably the individual who at any other time of year throws his or her (but almost certainly her) hands up in horror at the mere mention of necromancy, which they will tell you is evil and dangerous and has absolutely no place in paganism or wicca, is precisely the same individual who at Hallowe’en or Samhain will blithely set an extra place at the dinner table and “summon the ancestors” or do little rituals in an attempt to contact her deceased grandmother to find out where Granny left that book of spells and rituals that she must have had hidden somewhere. No joined up thinking there then.

As Ronald Hutton has pointed out (Stations of the Sun, p362) the original association of Samhain with supernatual goings on seems to derive from early Medieval Ireland and that this was later carried to Scotland by Irish migrants. Additonally he suggests that the idea of supernatural happenings and fairy gatherings at Samhain may simply echo the gatherings and festivities going on in the real world at that time of year. He also points out that the earliest Welsh literature ascribes this period of supernatural danger to Beltane and to a lesser extent to New Year but is silent about the period around Samhain. We cannot, therefore, even say that this idea of Samhain as a supremely dangerous period is pan-Celtic so to subscribe to the popular belief is to accept one very particular view to the exclusion of all others.

So much for the Celtic world – what about the Germanic one? Germanic tradition and folklore has its own very specific season of supernatural danger – the intercalary period necessary each year to align the lunar and solar calendars, which since the arrival of Christianity at least has fallen between Christmas and New Year. In many respects these few days, between the ending of one lunar month and the 5 or 6 days which must elapse before the beginning of the next if the two astronomical years are not to get out of sync, represent more truly a “time between times” than Samhain. It is during these days and nights that the Wild Hunt, the spirits of the dead led by Odin, Herne, Gwyn ap Nudd or, indeed, Edric and Goda, was most commonly thought to ride, arriving howling on the storm with its yelping hounds to snatch up the souls of the dead and those unwary living foolish enough to be out and abroad when they shouldn’t be. Yet I would hazard a guess that very few of the pagans who make such a fuss about their ancestors and the weirdness of Samhain, and make offerings to the fairies then, ever bother to take magical and protective precautions during the dark and ominous intercalary days – or leave out a stirrup cup for the Wild Hunt.

 

Capturing the Harvest Spirit

For many pagans, the harvest season which starts at Lughnasa is the most evocative and powerful time of the year. This is the time when thoughts turn towards the culmination of a year’s work; for our ancestors it represented the culmination of the year’s endeavours in ensuring that they could look forward to enough food to see through the winter – the grain which would provide the following year’s bread and beer, the fruit and meat were laid down and stored for the coming months of scarcity. Today few of us will actually rely on what we grow for ourselves and we are more likely feel satisfaction on a practical level when we see the tangible results of the year’s endeavours in the form of projects coming to fruition – exams passed, for example.

Today we tend to celebrate according to a fixed calendar. The calendar on the wall tells us that such a date is 1st August and the pagan calendar tells us that that date is the beginning of the harvest.

Margaret Killip points out that in the Isle of Man the harvest has always been unpredictable and that it was particularly dependent upon the weather. Many was the time, she suggests, when farmers sat in the pews in church listening to a sermon on the harvest being safely gathered in when the reality of a wet and cold summer meant that the grain crop was still standing, unripened, in the fields weeks after the harvest should have officially begun. It is, perhaps, a measure of just how remote most of us are from the changing seasons that we celebrate the seasons and our harvest when our diaries tell us to and not when the grain is clearly ready for cutting or the apples are ready for picking.

What we seem to have lost is the senstitivity to listen to what the landscape is telling us and the flexibility to actually work with the seasons. If so, we have lost more than we can know.

The rest of this article by Rowan, which was published in White Dragon at Lughnasa 1997, can be read on the White Dragon website.

Capturing the Harvest Spirit

Witchcraft in BBC radio drama

Browsing the BBC Radio 4 schedules today I noticed that the station had recently broadcast a play entitled Ursula and the Boy based on the historical episode of Ursula Kemp who was accused of witchcraft in 1582 and against whom one of the witnesses was her own 8 year old son.

I’ve not yet listened to the play but will try to make time to do so over this weekend.

I’m reminded of an earlier BBC radio play with an historical witchcraft theme – Colin Haydn Evans’s Gaveston which was broadcast originally on 7th June 1993 and then, if memory serves me correctly, on the actual summer solstice in 1994. I was fortunate on the second occasion to record the broadcast for my own personal archive.

Gaveston was based, as one might expect, on Margaret Murray‘s books (I’m very tempted to say novels), The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The Divine King in England. Her thesis was that there was an organised cult of witchcraft in mediaeval and early modern Europe, and that from time to time kings or their appointed substitutes were sacrificed to ensure the health of the realm. She particularly singled out William II, “Rufus”, who died in the New Forest under still unexplained circumstances in 1100, and Piers Gaveston, the youthful favourite of Edward II, as her purported sacrifices.

Now as a piece of drama Gaveston was a jolly decent play – thrilling and atmospheric; but as history, which Murray purported it to be (even if Evans didn’t), it was frankly crap. Even at the time that she published Witch Cult, Murray’s interpretation of history was scorned and ridiculed by academic historians working in the mediaeval and early modern fields, but it did inspire the imagination of Gerald Brosseau Gardner and become the basis of his creation of wicca. When Murray was invited to write the entry on witchcraft for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, her version of history quickly reached the general public and was accordingly accepted by hoi polloi as the last word on the subject. And so it remained until the early 1970s when academic historians began to publish new studies of witchcraft and magic. The first that came to general attention was Keith Thomas‘s Religion and the Decline of Magic in 1973. Through the 1970s and 1980s these new studies appeared, so that by around 1993, when Gaveston was first broadcast, only pagans and the general public still set any store by Murray’s work as history.

What turned the tide for most pagans was the publication during the 1990s of a series of works by Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, culminating in The Triumph of the Moon in 1999. There are, undoubtedly, the pagan equivalent of Flat Earthers who cling to Murray’s work, but they become fewer, and ever more desperate, as the years pass. They may eventually die out of their own accord, but it may yet take a comet to finish them off.

So if you ever get a chance to hear Gaveston, do so. It’s a jolly gripping yarn. But, for gods’ sake, don’t believe a word of it. It’s complete cobblers.