Friday, August 14, 2009

All good things

It's been a fair while, but life has taken over, rather parenthood has. But rest assured there is more to come. In the meantime I am updating Burning the Ashen Faggot, cynically, some woujld say, in time for Christmas... Well, it is about Christmas, and it has only sold 1 copy so far!

Watch this space.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Cat on a hot tin roof

It seems that the devil has taken his centurial holidays once again in Devon. It seems a pensioner woke recently on a winter's morning to find the world covered in a blanket of crisp snow, only to find mysterious footprints in the shape of a cloven hoof forming a trail through her garden. With no obvious signs of an entry point or any suggestion that a wild animal had been in her garden, the pensioner was obviously flummoxed.

However, the footprints could well add to the legend of the Great Devon Mystery - proving that legends can be a part of living history, as well as ancient history. On the morning of February 8, 1885, villagers across a 100-mile swathe of south Devon awoke to find a trail of cloven footprints in the deep lying snow. An escaped pig, or wild boar, you might think, which would be a good guess until the footprints walked up walls and across roofs as if gravity didn't exist. Of course, scientists believe there is a rational explanation for both sets of prints, which there may well be, but until they come up with one - it could well be spring hares, the legend will grow with each re-telling...

Did those feet...

When it comes to legends, or traditions, there can be none bigger, in this day and age, than the whereabouts of the young Jesus. Regardless of your view of religion and divinity, there is no doubting that the later life of this person has in many ways shaped the lives and opinions of a wider proportion of humanity than any other person - whether this was intentional, or entirely down to his own work, will I think never be known.

However, of all the many theories regarding his ministry, his death, his possible resurrection and even the survival of his family, one period of his life his always missing, no matter what history or religion you subscribe to. The bible mentions a prodigal child and then mentions nothing until Jesus starts his ministry as a fully grown man. So where did this remarkable child go?

Did he simply stay in Judea and learn a trade, not troubling any more money lenders, or did he, as some suggest, travel through India and the Orient, learning various forms of mysticism? Or did he, as some legends suggest travel to Britain, possibly with his uncle, mixing with the religious leaders of this island, and possibly others? It might seem far fetched that Jesus would be anywhere other than in the holy land, throughout all of his life, but that part of the world was very much a part of the Roman empire and a centre of trade in the mediterranean, both of which would have had trade and logisitical interests in farther flung countries. So, it is indeed possible that those feet did indeed walk in ancient time...

Anyway, if you wish to learn more about this fascinating possibility - that doesn't rely on hearsay and strange codes - you would do well to pick up a copy of Dennis Price's new book The Missing Years of Jesus, and visit his website at

Find out more:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Romani lore

Life in all its glory is keeping me busy right now, which leaves me little time to update this site. However, there are those glorious times when, without searching for it, you stumble across another fascinating helping of folklore and custom.

On this particular occasion I was sorting through some books and found a couple of book on Gypsies that I had inherited from my grandmother, both written in the early 1970s. I use the term gypsy simply because it is used in the title of each book, and not for any derogatory reason. I certainly learned a lot about Romani culture that I did not know before, and the book I chose to read was definitely sympathetic to the culture, beliefs and rights of travelling peoples. I'm only sorry that it took me the best part of four or five years before I got around to reading it - the other one is now waiting its turn in the pile of unreads.

Anyway, to the point. Among many aspects of history and culture I learnt from the book, there were a couple of interesting points of folklore and tradition that I thought worth sharing. I've no ideas whether the book is still widely available, but I will provide relevant details as I have them, and paraphrase liberally. If you can find the book, it is a very interesting read:

Astrology was invented by three wise men. Two were shepherds and one was a Romani Chal [a tru-blooded Romani man]. That is why Gypsy's have always been important in the world of duckering [fortune telling].
this extract was taken from an interview with Prince Nathaniel Petralengro Lee, in Jeremy Sandford's book Gypsys (Abacus Books, ISBN: 0349131201. 1975 edition).

Spirit and the nature of good and evil
Everybody has a good spirit and an evil spirit. It's in our minds. Spirit is in our mind and actions are controlled by the spirit. A Romany Chal is not afraid to die, because they believe that the life we are living is a dream and that the real life starts when we're dead, when the spirit leaves the body.
this extract was taken from an interview with Prince Nathaniel Petralengro Lee, in Jeremy Sandford's book Gypsys (Abacus Books, ISBN: 0349131201. 1975 edition).

Find out more:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Imbolc Oimelc Bride and Biddy

So, to February and to kick things off there is the 'old' Celtic festival of Imbolc, or Oimelc, or whichever of the many spellings you wish to go for, which falls on the 1st of the month (although in times past the date would most probably have been flexible). Imbolc is also known as Bride's Day, or St Brigit's Day and marks the time when ewes began to lactate, which may also link it to Bride's role as a fertility goddess. Imbolc was/is one of the set festivals of the Celtic year, the celebrations of which would mark different stages in the lives of a people inherently closer to the natual rhythms and cycles of the land they lived in and depended upon. This cycle of festivals gave the year and lives of the people a rhythm that is hard to understand in these modern times - especially when many farms have two lambing seasons in a year!

There are many customs and traditions associated with Bride - also known as Brigid and Biddy, among other variations. In the Hebrides there was a tradition that any lost sheep, or those not brought down from the hills before bad weather hit, would be saved by Old Biddy. Indeed both Bride and Biddy were seen as protectors of flocks and herds. And in her association with the Cailleach and Anu, we can see her as part of the great triple goddess cycle. She is, therefore, perfectly placed for her role as goddess of livestock and fertility. Indeed, in many parts of the country she is associated with corn dollies, kern baby's and in some places sheafs of oats dressed up as women, welcomed into the home as the emodiment of the fertility goddess.

Whole volumes could be dedicated to the goddess Bride and her many personifications - including the Christian adaptation St Brigit (or Brigid), and also to the customs and traditions of Imbolc, but for now, being pushed for time, I will have to leave you with links to follow:

Find out more here:

Straw Bear

If at first you don't succeed...

The Straw Bear festival is held at Whittlesea in Cambridgeshire each year on the Tuesday following Plough Monday. Resurrected about 30 years ago, the festival can be dated to at least the 19th century and quite possibly much earlier. In short, a man of the locality dons a suit made of straw, weighing as much as five stone (!) and parades around the town accompanied by dances - molly dances, and sword dances, and a times, mummer's plays. The following day after more music and dance, the costume is burnt. All in all, it is said to be a festive and fun, family day out (a day and a bit if you include the burning on the following day).

There are many links to other traditions and customs that were, perhaps, more widespread across the UK, not least the practice of guising, or dressing up in animals costumes. It is not to hard to see the connection between the donning of the straw costume (including its association with a bear) and Plough Monday. The person bearing the costume being the embodiment of the spirit of the crops being grown over the coming months. Once again the time of year lends itself to a seasonal celebration that unites the community in doing what they can to ensure for a good harvest and better times ahead - or even the survival of the community itself.

If we could find more proof of an ancient heritage of the Straw Bear, it would also not be too much of a stretch of the imagine to see the straw costume, the emodiment of the crops and the ritual burning to be a more pagan version of PLough Monday, both of which would be hoping for the same outcomes. Indeed, a plough forms part of the procession these days.

The ritual burning, and the fact that it is still darkest, coldest winter, would also suggest that the festival is celebrating the end of the old year, and the beginning of the loosening of winter's grip on the land. We are burning the old straw, forgetting the old year; from now on all efforts and strength are to be focused on the year ahead.

For those willing to engage in detailed study of Sir James Frazier's The Golden Bough, there may be resonance with much contained in his magnus opus. That, however, dear reader, is something for you to pursue!

It should also be noted that part of the procession involves knocking on doors and asking for money, and presumably in centuries past, for alms of all sorts. For some this is the essence of the festival, a village community coming together in the lean winter months to ask for help and to support each other. It is hard to see, for modern eyes, why an extravagant and weighty straw costume would be needed - but then those long winter nights weren't filled with Eastenders and reality TV shows...

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Haxey Hood Game & Straw Bears pt 2

Now for the Straw Bears...

I can't believe, despite regularly saving, this has just lost my longest posting. Gutted. Straw Bears will have to wait...

Find out more:

The Haxey Hood Game & Straw Bears pt1

Back with a bang, and back with a double whallop of localised custom. Both the Haxey Hood Game and the Straw Bears - that are associated with Plough Monday - are local customs that may well be variants of once more common customs. In the case of the Haxey Hood Game, the 'rules' of the game follow many of the early forms of 'football', played between villages, or even between two halves of a village, and in the case of the Straw Bear, there are links to many of the guising or mumming festivals that are still prevalent, or are being reintroduced up and down the country. Now, for some details:

The Haxey Hood Game
Like most customs the origins of this 'tussle' are clouded in the mists of time. However, the general story is that the Lady de Mowbray, some 700+ years ago, dropped her hood (or veil) while out riding in a strong wind. Local farm labourers rushed to return the hood, upon which the grateful Lady bestowed the honourary title of Lord of the Hood on the particular returnee. The following year, it is said, the lady installed the return of the hood as an annual fixture that has developed into the modern 'game'

So, to the present day. The game is played between two North Lincolnshire villages - Haxey itself, and Westwoodside on Twelfth Night (January 6). Contestants, otherwise known as Boggins, represent one of four local hostelries, and attempt to 'sway' the hood (now a long leather cylinder) that way. The game is ended when the hood is presented to the landlord of one of the four inns. The game is overseen by the Lord of the Hood and the Chief Boggin, and is started by the Fool (the farm labourer who did not return the original hood to the hatless Lady), who is dressed colourfully with rags sewn to a blazer. Before he throws the hood into the air from the location where the original hood was first picked up, a small fire is lit behind him in order to 'smoke the fool'!

It is interesting that this particular custom appears on Twelfth Night - old Christmas Day, and is associated with feasts and merriment. As we saw with the customs associated with Christmas and the New Year, this sort of custom, associated as it is with rewards and feasting in the depths of winter, may all be associated with attemtps to welcome back the sun and the spring, to lift spirits and to focus people's minds on something other than the hard toil of daily life.

Like many other customs, the Haxey Hood Game, also contains within its custom and ceremony many aspects of other seasonal customs and traditions. Games such as this, if you call it football, or a tussle, or as in some places 'uppies an doonies', usually occur between neighbouring villages, or within a village that is seperated by a natural boundary, such as a river. They also involve most able-bodied villagers. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to see a folk-memory of the assertion of boundary rights behind some aspect of the Hood game - perhaps a more energetic version of the Beating of the Bounds?! Maybe not.

In this day and age, when our calendar customs are largely limited to Christmas, Easter, a summer holiday, and the various bank holidays, it makes you appreciate just why there seemed to be so many occassions for celebration and communal gathering in the period right up until, really the post WWII period, when many of these, or similar customs died out.

Of course, many of these old customs and traditions were seasonal celebrations based on a rural cycle of living that most of us have lost touch with.

It should also be noted the game, and the villages take place in the Isle of Axholme, a raised area of land formerly surrounded by rivers, streams and bogs. In fact, some attribute the origins of the leather hood with those apparently found on the heads of sacrificial bog vicitims found in the area - though I make no claim as to the validity of this piece of information!

Find out more here:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New year blues

A combination of a long Christmas break and a dodgy boiler have slowed things down here, but I have much to write when I can get the time... in particular, I want to write about the Haxey Hood Game...

For those with questioning minds

For those of you, like me, who believe that it is the job of historians and archaeologists to constantly question, analyze and re-evaluate their subject matter with each new discovery, or each new lead, to not simply submit to current all-pervasive theories, but to have independent thoughts and to follow their hunches, to not be afraid to think out loud, and to not be afraid of standing up for their ideas, then you will be doing yourselves a great favouer by visiting the Eternal Idol website - Run by Dennis Price, the site has at its centre the vast Stonehenge landscape, but does not stop there, and certainly does not contend itself with sitting on its laurels or merely repeating and accepting long-held beliefs. If you value the power of thought, of free discussion and of holding a real passion for investigation, then please visit the website.