Posts Tagged ‘Frazer’

Faery Folk Envisioned, Britain’s Numinous Mystics Restored.

My Review of Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions In Early Modern British Witchcraft And Magic by Emma Wilby.

This book is a remarkable and in-depth academic study of early modern English cunning-folk and witches involvement with Familiar Spirits such as Tewhit, Greedigut, Vinegar Tom, Jack Robin and Wag At The Wa, with boggles and puckles, hob gobblins, hell waines and firedrakes. Wilby proposes that early-modern witches and cunning-folk had relationships with spiritual beings similar to those of shaman in other traditional societies, such as finding stolen items, curing illnesses or causing it and providing all sorts of advice as needed.
Whilst ”Most people today would consider themselves to have little or no knowledge about early modern familiars.  In reality, however, the basic dynamics of the relationship between a cunning woman or witch, and her spirit ally, is easily recognizable to all of us, being encapsulated in narrative themes running through traditional folk tales and myths from throughout the world. Classics such as Rumpelstiltskin, Puss in Boots, the Frog Prince and so on, are representative…These fairy stories and myths originate from the same reservoir of folk belief as the descriptions of familiar-encounters given by the cunning folk and witches in early modern Britain.”

 Written in three main sections, the first summarizes the animistic popular world view of early modern Britain. Presenting the illiterate or semi-literate common people as uneducated in the Christian orthodoxy and regarding the earlier ‘unintelligible’ Latin Catholic rituals and later Christian religious practices as ancillary to their folk beliefs, living cheek to jowl beside and within a world populated with very real spirits of various origin, influence and intent. Drawing on Christian heresy trial accounts as well as popular folk accounts Wilby then describes these spirit-allies and their differences between those identified with ‘witches – the demon familiars, and those who assisted ‘cunning folk’- the fairy familiars.

The quality of faery nature is well expressed in this popular rhyme which recorded in 19thC is likely to be much older;
”Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf, I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca’ me fairy, I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gin guid neibour ye ca’ me; Then guid neibor I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht, I’ll be you freend baith day and nicht.”
The rhyme implies that the definition of the faery was dependent upon the actions of their human allies. In other words, the human could choose to employ the same fairy to good or evil ends, and it was the moral position of the spirit’s user rather than that of the spirit itself which determined the latter’s moral status at any given time.” Many comments recorded in Emma’s study of the confessions of cunning folk convicted of witchcraft suggest that this ambiguous amorality of the familiar spirit may have been standard. The familiars remained cooperative provided their ‘contract’ was honored – that their human partner would provide respect, or food and shelter, or in some cases promise of the soul…

In the second part of the book the argument is presented that most previous studies of cunning folk and witchcraft in Britain have tended to prioritize the social role, of healing, divination etc, over any thorough examination of the relationship between the practitioner and their fairy familiar or spirit guide.
Here the author draws compelling parallels between traditional shamanism as practiced in North America, Central Asia and Siberia, with the British practitioners experience as revealed through the evidence of both witch-trials and folk accounts. ”The relationship between shamans and their spirits is like the relationship between cunning folk or witches and their familiars…”  although they could indeed represent themselves as a man or woman, or an animal such as a dog, stereotypical cat, raven or toad, they also could be entirely immaterial and perceived only in the ‘flight’ to the other and inner realms of trance states.
The ambiguity remains consistent however wherever the spirits may be based as the author quotes Ronald Hutton historian’s notes that ”among traditional Siberian cultures some spirits were regarded with ‘respect, affection, solicitude’ while others were seen as ‘groups of efficient but untrustworthy thugs….and would punish with death any human master or mistress who shirked the duties of the shamanic vocation”. That witches generally first encountered a familiar or demon spirit during a pivotal moment of extreme stress, they may have for example family members may have fallen seriously sick – which happened often in earlier times, or they may have lost a farm animal to illness – which could lead to ruin or even death in a poor agricultural farming society. Wilby compares these pressures and threats to the sort of preparation to encounter a guiding spirit that shaman in traditional societies undertake – fasting, depriving themselves of sleep, and creating other physical extremes.
Wilby also argues that the concept of traveling to a sabbat is often seen to be the Christian interrogating authorities interpretation of the witch accompanying a fairy into fairyland, where they may learn magical such as how to use medicinal plants to heal, however this interpretation of the evidence as biased by elite intervention may not necessarily be correct due to the peoples own obfuscation of any clear boundaries between the folk faith and Christian church orthodoxy as it was(n’t) understood.

In the final section of the book Wilby considers whether the evidence suggests that peoples encounter experiences were primarily visionary and trance derived via a number of diverse methods, or alternately more paraphsyical than psycho-spiritual in nature and presents Paracelsus claim for the latter that ”Everyone may educate and regulate his imagination so as to come thereby into contact with spirits, and be taught by them”….This view in no way negates the reality of Familiar and Faery spirits, but rather places their existence in the shamanic realm of trance and ecstasy, the trance is not necessarily of the ”all fall down…”variety.
That similar beliefs may have also existed on a popular level are suggested by Robert Kirk’s claim ( author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies) that perception of a spirit will continue so long as the seer can keep their eye steady without twinkling. Thus relatively ordinary activities could mask powerful contemplative techniques which developed a sustained ‘monotonous focus’ in which state the hidden realms all around us may be perceived. Employing ‘monotonous focus’ and ‘psychic destabilization’ like the shaman, the common and unlettered folk – women, children and poor men, were capable then of skills as intimated by the sixteenth century German magician Cornellius Agrippa. In support of such views and highlighting the similarities between early modern cunning folk and witches and the encounter experiences of Siberian and Native American shamans, she references Mircea Eliade’s claim (author Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy and much more) that shamanism is at root a psychological tendency rather than a religious belief…”we see no reason for regarding is as the result of a specific historical movement…as produced by a certain form of civilization. Rather, we would consider it fundamental in the human condition”. Despite the Victorian, early twentieth century and even relatively recent historiographical tendency to ‘pathologize’ and thereby dismiss as unimportant the visionary dimension of the familiar encounter, as boastings and ravings of the half crazy, and strange, mad outpourings, nightmares and collective fantasies, of mental illness and schizophrenia, Wilby points out that since the 1950’s advances in psychology, ethnography and comparative religion have rendered such simplistic diagnosis untenable. That ”magical cures of cunning folk were effective on many levels…that charms prayers and ritual were effective in curing psychosomatic aspects…divinitary techniques may have led the client to subconsciously reveal their wishes or suspicions…” Earlier and reductionist views such as those of Sir James Frazer who held that tribal magico-religious belief systems were (merely) an amalgamation of cause and effect magical technologies designed to meet basic survival needs, have been eloquently dismissed by subsequent academics such as the prominent scholar of religion Ninia Smart ”Frazer’s theory neglects the perception of the numinous…” It has become clear that the range of potentially healthy states of consciousness is considerably broader than previously imagined, that there is more to the experience of spirits and faeries than self delusion and misrepresentation, here we discover genuine spiritual experiences of envisioned guides and sacred beings.
To conclude her study ”because there has been little attempt to analyze the ‘fantasies’ of cunning folk and witches in relation to visionary experience as it is found in magical belief systems and religions throughout the world including Christianity…” Wilby examines a variety of comparative religious perspectives and their similarities with the narrative encounters of early modern cunning folk and witches. Despite their acknowledged moral ambiguity – they are not characterized by any Christian anti worldly ‘moral purity’ of action or intent but display the full range of human motivations, their widespread theatricality such as dressing in dark gowns or carrying ominous stave’s ”carved with heads like those of satyrs” and their use of deception, the cunning folk and witch visionaries are portrayed as Britain’s ‘unrecognized mystics’ who experienced spiritual revelations of a higher dimension. In this context Wilby’s assessment of Christianity and other religions suppression of unorthodox spiritual perception and practice (outside of their own orthodox canon of wise men, miracles, healing powers and prophecies ) is seen to be about the Church and State avoiding loss of authority and of maintaining a monopoly over all things psychic and spiritual – at any cost. This position was contrary to the common folk belief that magical practitioners skills sprung from a divine origin ”It is a gift which God hath given her…(by virtue of this gift, she) doth more good in one yeere then all these Scripture men will doe so long as they live.” Indeed, after the Reformation, cunning folk even took on the role previously played by the Catholic Saints and had been compared to Christ himself. The author also portrays the similarities between Christian (and Old Testament) mystics and their visionary relationships with Angels and Christ, and the cunning folk and shaman envisioned encounters, that essentially derive from the same numinous origins and are clothed in the imaginal furnishings of the ‘seer’ and their psycho-spiritual and cultural environment. In our modern world with the decline of Christianity and contrasting rise of interest in many ancient traditions and folk beliefs, it is indeed fascinating to see how ”a mysticism unsupported by societal organizations and which was upheld by no sacred buildings, no visible iconography, no sacred books, no formalized doctrine or cosmology and no institutionalized ritual…how such formless and invisible constructs could have challenged the Christian Church for the hearts and minds of ordinary people”, yet they have done so and the invisible faery spirits of folk legends, faery tales and the cunning folk-witch encounter narratives, are revealed to be within reach once again.

Wilby’s hypothesis then is that the fairy encounter narratives of cunning folk and witches recorded in the early modern witch trials evidence a surviving trend of folk beliefs extending unbroken from a pre christian shamanic world view. Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, 2006, the author makes an overwhelming case for the long term existence of an ancient British-Shamanic tradition. She also re-configures our understanding of witches and cunning folk as animist shamans embedded in local communities. This is an iconoclastic reversal of modern academic opinion that witches experience of spirits and their attested narratives were either the product of mental illness or more likely perhaps an enforced or contrived collusion between the often illiterate prisoner and their elite and educated religious inquisitor. That magical practitioners across the length and breadth of Britain had stood up in courtrooms and ” ‘persisted in telling long and involved stories about faries’ despite the fact that in doing so they often knowingly condemned themselves to death” demonstrates in a definite way as could be possible the conviction, integrity and respect with which the cunning folk regarded their familiar spirits.

Emma Wilby’s book is a remarkable, timely and novel way of looking at them (Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits ), and one of the most courageous yet attempted. (Ronald Hutton, University of Bristol)
Fascinating and well researched … a genuine contribution to what is known about cunning folk and lays very solid foundations for future work on the subject. (Brian Hoggard, White Dragon)
Emma Wilby s conclusions and her explanation of how she drew them, laid down here in the commendable modern academic tendency towards plain English that has moved away from the previous generations overly complex sentence structure, is worth its weight in gold. (Ian Read, Runa).

Anyone with a genuine interest in Faeries and Spirits, Cunning Folk and Witches, Shamanism and Native British Spirituality both early-modern and contemporary, should turn off their electricity for a while, take a long tiring walk in the forests, hills and glades – or a series of them,
and then by candle bright some magic night
should read this book with deep delight,
the end.
(Celestial Elf).
If Faerie spirit thou wouldst see, look inside the air and be, 
beyond the realm of earthly need, 
the magic of divinity ~
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The Triumph Of The Moon; A Review ~

Intrigued by Ronald Hutton’s assertion that “Wicca” (meaning the wiseones) is the first all British religion given to the world, I approached his book The Triumph of the Moon as my first serious study of Wicca and Witchcraft with an objective attitude and without any preconceived perspectives on the matter. As anyone who has read any Hutton will already know, his books are academic, copiously referenced and invariably not a light read.

 

Art by Alexis Mackenzie

Of The Origins of Modern Perspectives 
On Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism In Britain;
Restricting his research to Great Britain, the book opens with an exploration of prevailing attitudes towards Paganism in the late 19th – early 20thC, asserting that Wiccan belief and practice owe much to the scholars, novelists and poets who resurrected Pan and the Goddess in the Victorian and Edwardian culture, and identifying the four key perspectives of the period;
First, a belief that all Pagans, both of European prehistory and of contemporary tribal peoples represented a religious expression of humanity’s ignorance and savagery.
Second, that derived from the religion and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Pagans were noble and admirable people but essentially remained inferior to Christianity in their ethics and spiritual values.
Third, that some writers considered Paganism superior to Christianity, being a life affirming and joyous alternative approach to religion which respects all of nature and seeks to integrate our lives with it.
Fourth, that a number of thinkers, writers and poets with connections to the Romantic movement such as Shelley, Leigh Hunt and Thomas Love Peacock, considered Paganism a remnant of a great universal religion of the distant past, elements of which were to be found in all the major religions practice by civilized humanity, from which contemporary NeoPaganism is descended.

Hutton then explored in greater depth the various strands of Romantic literary Paganism, the Frazerian Anthropology, Folklorism, Freemasonry, Theosophy, the revival of Ritual Magic and of Ceremonial magic, Thelema, and Woodcraft Chivalry, among others.
I found his research into the varieties of ‘Cunning Folk’ and other groups including ‘The Toadmen’ (still around in 1938) and a Masonic styled secret society called ‘The Horseman’s Word’ in the 19th century to be particularly enjoyable and informative reading.
To introduce them briefly, the ‘Cunning Folk’ were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic active from at least the fifteenth up until the early twentieth century who practiced folk magic – also known as “low magic” – although often combined this with elements of “high” or ceremonial magic. In earlier times, the witch’s power to harm people, livestock, and crops was greatly feared: for this reason country people consulted with the ‘Cunning Men’ and ‘Wise Women’ who had the power to negate their spells with counter-magic.  Cunning-folk practitioners were also consulted for love spells, to find lost property or missing persons, exorcise ghosts and banish evil spirits.
Ronald Hutton suggests that the ‘Cunning Craft’, rather than dying out, had changed character by being subsequently absorbed into other magical currents.
The decline of the cunning craft in Britain was not however indicative of other European nations: in Italy for example, cunning practitioners continued operating right into the early twenty-first century.

Nevertheless, the author portrays that through the increasing interest in ancient Paganism and survival of traditional magical practices like charms during the 19thC, there came about in the 20thC what amounts to a new religion.

Laurie Lipton. The Black Sun

Of The Rise of Modern Wicca, 
Witchcraft and Paganism in Britain;
The second half of this book traces in greater depth the modern history of that new religion, of Paganism and Wicca, with particular focus on Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions of Wicca and examines the personalities involved in launching modern pagan witchcraft, including Gerald Gardner, Sanders, Valiente, the Crowthers, Pickingill and others.
Hutton says that Wicca was introduced by Gerald Gardener in the mid to late 1950’s shortly after Britain repealed their anti-witchcraft laws. Gardener had claimed that he became acquainted with a group of Rosicrucian actors who introduced him to an ancient surviving craft and that Dorothy Clutterbuck, their priestess, initiated him into their coven.
However, Hutton also argues that Wicca’s origins go well beyond Gardener claiming that Gardener was influenced not only by Ancient Hinduism following his period of civil service in India, but also a diverse collection of sources including 17th and 18th century fraternal organizations, 19th century esoteric societies including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis  and Freemasonry from whom he borrowed Wicca’s ritual structure, initiations, handshakes and passwords. The author makes clear that Gardener also derived inspiration and some practices from the Occultist Aleister Crowley and Romantic literary authors including Yeats, Frazer and Graves as well as the Back-To-Nature movement.

Despite Gardener’s claimed introduction to an older craft group – which Hutton points out is contested, and because of Gardener’s own subsequent gathering of sources and resources such as The Book Of Shadows, his forming of Covens and publicizing of his new organization, Gardener is nevertheless portrayed as the founding father of modern Wicca.
Whilst this early NeoPaganism may appear a socially or politically subversive movement, particularly because of its secrecy and the reversal of cultural norms such as that some aspects of ritual were to be carried out naked, the point is made that at this stage the movement was not of a socially minded reactionary nature at all. Several of its founding figures were deeply conservative (and politically Conservative), and their quarrel was not with social and economic status quo, but rather against the unnaturalness and destruction of traditional patterns of life and societies deep involvement with nature that characterized the rising industrial modernity.

On the one hand then Hutton appears to make the argument that early modern Pagan Witchcraft did not stem from any unbroken lines of succession and does not represent a survival of ancient forms of indigenous religious practice, but equivocally he also states that various forms of earlier practice such as the Cunning Craft, Wise Women and others had been subsumed and evolved into the new forms of neo Paganism and Wicca…



Of the Modern World View 
& American Feminist  Remodeling of Paganism and Wicca;
Moving on to consider the more recent developments in Wicca and Paganism, Hutton presents the modern world phenomenon of Witchcraft and of Paganism as having developed in Great Britain and been exported to USA where they were taken up by feminist pagans who massively popularized the concepts as well as imbued them with a more socialistic communal minded orientation. After this socialization the author says  a “new and improved” Wicca made the jump back across the pond to England in the early 1980’s, that Paganism and Wicca have returned with greater prominence and popularity to Great Britain in large part via the books of such authors as Starhawk, Z. Budapest and others who have provided a number of self initiation and guide books for the growing number of solitary practitioners or hedge witches. Hutton portrays then the development of an essentially a politically conservative religious movement evolving into a liberal/progressive movement prioritization feminist issues, promoting a progressive social policy, and advocating self-help/group therapies. The author rounds out his voluminous research with an interesting personal account of what in his view the principle precepts of modern Paganism and Wicca entail.

 

Of the Authors Conjectural Conclusions 
And Their Ultimate Uncertainty;
Despite the apparent academic objectivity of Ronald Hutton’s research which I have thoroughly enjoyed in a number of his studies, I found in this work an ambivalence and lack of clear resolution on a number of occasions. Mr Hutton seems to present an evidence based case as far as it would go and then implies the ensuing conjecture without the definitive evidence for the the implied conclusions, a practice which he points out in others as imaginative if academically erroneous. I find myself further intrigued by such deft footwork from an academic author and because of these misgivings I have looked about for other reviewers opinions. Of the many such reviews that I found among those who were not too overwhelmed, like myself, by all the cross references and closely written and basically bewildering panoramic scope of fine details, some appear to see the wood through the trees, claiming that the authors main pitch in this work, that Wicca and NeoPaganism do not carry any unbroken lineage to antiquity, are partisan perspectives that the author has impelled his evidence to support. These views of Ronald Hutton as expressed in The Triumph Of The Moon have then provoked a certain amount of debate from both sides of the camp so to speak. In response to such perspectives, Hutton frequently hints that there is more to this story, but states that without definitive evidence we cannot be sure and then proceeds present to his own conjectured conclusion almost as a definitive orthodoxy.

 

 

Of The Debate over Authorial Objectivity in 
The Triumph Of The Moon;
For a balanced review of The Triumph Of The Moon,  I have include a few quotes here from a well argued case against Ronald Hutton’s conjecture that there is no ancient lineage of Witchcraft or Paganism in Britain, from the author of the website ‘e g r e g o r e s‘ under the title of
The Recantations of Ronald Hutton;
”In Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton triumphantly claimed that the whole notion of the Old Religion had been “swept away” by a “tidal wave” of research…Hutton had spent a decade studying the question of the relationship between modern Paganism and ancient forms of religion…Hutton had reached the conclusion that no such relationship existed whatsoever, and that no one could be taken seriously who believed otherwise, explicitly including anyone who so much as “suggest[ed] that there might be some truth” in the notion of the Old Religion.
The only problem was that the whole time Hutton had, now by his own admission, been systematically ignoring “certain types of ancient religion” which just so happened to be precisely the ones which most “closely resembled [modern] Paganism, had certainly influenced it, and had certain linear connections with it”! And why did he ignore the one place he should have been looking all along? Because it was “in every sense marginal to my own preoccupations.”
Hutton was by his own admission preoccupied then with his own proposition that “the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name.”

 

 

In Conclusion;
As I have previously held no particular view over the ancient lineage claims for Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism in Great Britain, and their authenticity or lack thereof, and because I have followed a largely intuitive path similar perhaps to that of a Hedge-Druid in my relative independence of groups and traditions as regards my own awareness of Pagan and nature reverencing issues and of what I shall term Supernature and its apprehension in daily life, I have found this volume to be informative, enjoyable and unexpectedly provocative. That there ensues some degree of partisan prejudice was almost to be expected, as the wider public may still hold various oppositional perspectives based on an until recently dominant Christian cultural ideology and its ensuing misinformation against Paganism and Witchcraft in particular. That such views should apparently inform an objective academic in his choice of how to handle his subject matter is not a question that I am well enough equipped to consider. I would surmise however by saying that I have learned a lot by reading this work, both within the tome itself and further by becoming aware of sensible and informed dissent without.

For all of these reasons I recommend this study to any who would consider the origins and developments of Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism in modern Britain today, with the caveat that there may indeed be more to this story than meets the eye or is presented here.

So Mote It Be ~

From Community To Individual and Back Again; On The Seasonal Festival ~

Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of The Sun, A Review;

                                                                        
At the outset I had hoped for a more ‘traditionally’ pagan account of the ancient seasonal festivals, their origins and meanings.
I was initially surprised and eventually delighted to find however that although this work is more of an Academic compote of facts and dates and included ongoing assessment of earlier authors often unfounded but sometimes inspirational conjecture than I had anticipated (of Sir James Frazer et al) nevertheless this is a very enjoyable, remarkably researched and admirably objective book-collection of essays.

That much of this morass concerns the developments and impacts of constantly changing traditions due to Christian Reformation and Counter Reformation (certainly comedic at this distance in time), the ongoing process a seminal crucible (reminding me of both grail and cauldron) proved revealing, as the general view of folk traditions and their origins seems to usually favor the more arcane sources, this book by contrast documents only definite evidence, largely that of written records, of church, kirk and council across the land.

Toasting The Yule Log

With a nod to the Scandinavian Yuil, as well as the Roman Kalendae, we embark on an exploration of the traditions of Christmastide, the Twelve Days, the Rites of Celebration, Purification and of Charity which included the remarkable Clementing, Elementing and Souling, even Thomasing, Gooding, Mumping and Corning (as well as more) regional begging customs, by which means the poor would recant rhymes for contribution of food for a feast of their own.
 

A Heaving

Similar appeals for reward included the Hocktide ‘heaving’ at Easter, in which gangs of men assaulted women for favor and groups of women also pursued and caught men for same, at its best a raising up on a lifted chair as proxy ‘Lord’ to commemorate the ascent of Easter, the surrogate released upon a reward of money or a kiss, at its worst a mere grasping by hands and throwing upwards as an occasion for assault and robbery.
The ongoing exposition of numerous social customs of this kind, both dazzle the mind with their quantity, as well as provides a clear insight into how poverty was communally accepted, dealt with by innovative appeals to the community at large and that these were often ‘sanctioned’ by inclusion of some short Christian phrase in the introductory verse or chant.

Medieval Carolers Singing

The author traces the development of such customs and portrays their eventual descent into more high spirited, reckless and even angry demands for assistance that could be met with threats and violence if not accepted.
Once national schools were established and later a more centralized protection for the poor was introduced, such earlier community traditions dissipated further, demonstrating the authors argument throughout this book of the movement from a community sharing seasonal rituals and traditions including those aspects of display that were geared to earn rewards, to the de-socialization of such community into a society characterized by its more insular and private approach to seasons and their festivals or traditions.

A Solitary Witch

The Christianization of earlier traditions also has its place in this book, as for example the feast marking the end of winter and start of the summer months ahead at February 1st, Imbolc (the etymology of its name relating to ewes milk and thus new life) initially dedicated to the Irish goddess Brigid, but who was later morphed into the Christian St Bride.
This is an important theme of both this book and of the mythological psycho-social developments of these Isles. Most surprisingly the often claimed genesis or inception of many Christian traditions in the pre Christian, infact seems to have increasingly worked in reverse. As religious conflicts in the land over changing orthodoxies developed, the Catholic tradition with its wealth of near magical rituals was vigorously being uprooted from the public and community sphere of practice by the ascent of the puritan Protestant, the ensuing personal spiritual void resulted in many cases in the earlier magical Catholic rituals being carried on privately at home and eventually (d)evolving into allegedly ancient ‘survivalist’ ‘folk-traditions’. Conversely, some of the Christianized traditions do appear to have had earlier sources such as the Rogationtide and Pentecost processions, at which time the people marched en mass around the crop fields, singing hymns at chosen stop points as the church ministers blessed the crops.

Beating The Bounds

The book does feature ancient  tradition where evidence has supported this, such as for example the affirmation of the Beltane as an accepted fire festival in certain regions of Northern Europe and the outlaying regions of the British Isles (unlike the later Samhain, for which evidence of a major ‘Celtic’ fire festival is less apparent). With greater detail due to the weight of evidence available however, Hutton explores the cultural progress towards our more modern current perspectives, for example plotting the development of the ‘May‘ (which unsurprisingly did have ancient antecedents in the delight of Spring returned) as people initially adorned self and home with garlands and greenery, which in time became a tradition of young women selling garlands, later children took over this role, and in their turn both to manage the unruly and the revenue these were eventually taken over by schools and local institutions. By contrast, the Mummers Plays with their essentially Christian derived themes of battle, death and resurrection, were more officially sanctioned groups from the outset and had less to do with earlier pre Christian traditions.

Group of Mummers

                                                                     

Raising The May Pole

Despite growing religious and institutional involvement in previously communal activities and traditions, the populace applied themselves with great enthusiasm to any occasion of social bonding, often at some cost to the societies they lived in (other than merely of money or means) such as the many community Maypoles stolen by rival villages and towns resulting in pitched battles between the two, the anarchic Saturnalia of Misrule as witnessed at the Shrovetide street ‘foot-ball’ games played across whole towns which could involve thousands of people and provided an occasion for licensed misrule resulting in damage to property and individual (although less violent than the serious riot and rebellion which was reserved for the Summer games as a time more suited for battle on the streets or field).

 The Church Ales or festivals also developed their Abbots of Unreason and a myriad practices of inversion and nonsense (Samuel Butler now we know where your inspiration came from).
 Charting how an apparently arcane ‘folk tradition’ once also considered a surviving pagan fertility rite had originated in high social circles of the Royal Courts and devolved into the rural communities, Hutton’s’ research into the Morris dancers is fascinating for its explanation of how we may create ‘new’ ancient traditions.

Modern Jack in The Green, Hastings

Perhaps my favorite exposition in this work is that of the origins and evolution of The Jack in the Green, identified as a ‘survival’ of an ancient pagan fertility rite by the Frazerite Lady Raglan of the Folklore society in 1939, established on her view linking the dancing Green-Man in May day processions with the foliage faces on church walls. This was a lineage unresolved till 1979 Roy Judges study revealed the true origins to be somewhat less arcane, and linked them to a more traditional social ritual evolved as so many traditional customs of display were, to celebrate the new season with a display deigned to garner reward.
To explain, during the17thC, London milkmaids danced the streets on May Day with their pails covered in flowers which symbolized the Springs new growth and so presented the promise of new grass for the cattle thus promising fresh milk, cream and butter. These displays earned them money as reward and therefore can be seen to serve a double purpose, of advertising their wares, as well a gathering much needed financial support after a lengthy winter without much income. They later left the pails for lighter wooden frames similarly covered in flowers and greenery, and later still were imitated in their greenery attired frames and street dancing display by the London Chimney sweeps whose claim for sympathy at this time was based on the end of winter cold meaning no more fires or work for them till next fall.

May Day Jack In The Green

Hutton surmises this work with a number of provocative and insightful observations, for example that the notion of a distinctive ‘Celtic’ ritual year with four festivals at the quarter days and an opening at Samhain, is a scholastic construction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which should now be considerably revised or even abandoned altogether.
Whilst the debt to a medieval, magical Catholicism seems to be growing apparent in my reading of serious studies of the origin of neo-pagan traditions, Hutton’s final words over the changing Christian influence upon the traditional festivals of the year are revelatory.
He establishes that soon as the system of salvation through ritual was scrapped at the Reformation, the merry making began to be regarded as a liability by the social and religious elites….thus the
evolution of a religious ideology …(had) produced a society imbued with a general taste for ceremony and acted as a means to endorsement of secular festivity.
In other words, Merry England was inspired by the fires of hell

Finally that ‘the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain patterns on the calendar customs’, to celebrate spring, to make merry in summer and draw close at fall, despite government and mass media atomization of community, seems a fair conclusion.
Overall this book suggests to me that whilst certain traditions may not have an established ancient provenance, nevertheless because people are increasingly applying such meanings to the seasons cycles as an inherent pagan response to nature itself, we may now be seeing a further reversal of the community oriented neglect of seasonal festivals and a resurgence of a more nature based community oriented society at large.

Not a book for the exclusively poetic or mythologically minded, but if read in the objective manner with which it is presented, this book provides a wealth of insight and understanding into the seasonal festivities as they have evolved in these British Isles and the influence they bear on modern pagan perspectives, Recommended.


Happy Reading,  
Celestial Elf ~

The Lammas Wickerman


The Druids Oath;
We swear by Peace and Love to stand, heart to heart and hand in hand,
Mark, Oh Spirit, and hear us now, confirming this our sacred vow!

Lammas;
The mighty wheel of the year has turned upon us once more,
And I give thanks for the bountiful harvest.

All hail the Sun, whose golden rays have bestowed magic
upon the growing fruits of our lands.
All hail the Sun, He has ripened our fields
And blessed us by grain without number.
This joyous time is the first harvest of Lammas!
So All hail the great Sun And He will come again.

And now all about us as days do shorten,
We stand ready for the dark time ahead.
With corn stored in abundance against the cold darkness of winter
We face the bleak hardship without any dread.
So mote it be!



Lammas c. The Bard Of Ely, 2011. Poems Narrated by The Bard of Ely.
Welsh Translation kindly provided by Gareth Owen
Rheolwr y Theatr(Manager) Theatr y Pafiliwn/Pavilion Theatre, Rhyl.
Grateful thanks to The Bard of Ely for use of his song I AM (feat Ed Drury).

Lammas, also called Lughnasadh (Loo-Nah-Sah) in commemoration of The Celtic Sun God Lugh, occurs at the beginning of the harvest season, in the Northern Hemisphere 1st August, in the Southern February 1st.
The word Lammas itself derives from the Old English celebration of loaf mass, harvesting the first grains which by nightfall made the first loaves of the season. As the grain is cut, some is stored to create new life in the spring. To harvest before Lammas could only be because the previous year’s harvest had run out, a serious problem in agricultural communities, hence thanks for a harvest on time.

Lugh, also known as the patron of Bards and Magicians, came to be associated with grain in Celtic mythology because Tailtiu his foster mother died from exhaustion after clearing the great forest so the people could cultivate the lands. Before she died she told them that her son Lugh, the Sun King, would pour his spirit into the grain to sustain them over the long fruitless winters. People honor Her gift and the crops with a day of thanksgiving for the harvest, a harvest festival.

Grain has been associated by many cultures with the mystery of death and rebirth for centuries, celebrated by deities such as the Sumerian grain god Tammuz.
In English folklore, the folksong representing John Barleycorn as the crop of barley, corresponds to the same cyclic nature of planting, growing, harvesting, death and rebirth.
Sir James Frazer cites this tale of John Barleycorn In The Golden Bough as proof that there was a Pagan cult in England that worshiped a god of vegetation, who was then sacrificed to bring fertility to the fields.
It is tempting to see in this tradition echoes of human sacrifice as portrayed in The Wickerman film (1973), but that is not really what this time is about.
Whilst there was a Celtic ritual of dressing the last sheaf of corn to be harvested in fine clothes, or weaving it into a wicker-like man or woman, it was believed that the Sun ‘s spirit was trapped in the grain and needed to be set free by fire and so the effigy was burned. This tradition is thought by many to have been the origin of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices, along with Julius Caesar’s politically motivated accounts.

In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest is called ‘the Maiden’, and must be cut by the youngest female in attendance.
In other regions a corn dolly is made of plaited straw from this sheaf, carried to a place of honor at the celebrations and kept until the following spring for good luck.



The Bard of Ely is an eco-warrior, poet, author, Arthurian Druid, master of herblore, singer-songwriter, techno-folk fusion pioneer, actor and performer originally from Cardiff, Wales.

In medieval Gaelic and Welsh society a Bard was a professional poet, employed to compose eulogies for his Lord. In the Viking courts of Scandinavia and Iceland their counterparts were called Skalds.
The Bardic poets were often accorded nearly divine rank and had a freedom of movement to cross political borders denied even Kings, because the magic of their poems and chants was believed to hold the power to topple Gods or conjure whole nations out of thin air.
Just as Druidic mythology points to knowledge as the key to self awareness, which is symbolized by certain holy-places of great importance, these mythic ‘places’ may be both inaccessible but also not inaccessible at the same time, it requires a leap of faith to find them and that leap of faith is expressed in the Bard’s poetic proclamation.

In the tradition of Welsh Bards such as Aneirin and Taliesin, The Bard of Ely shares his skills as Principal Bard of the Loyal Arthurian Warband Druidic Order (Stonehenge) and Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri (Avebury), as well as across the wide reaching area of his creative and spiritual mission.
In 2002 and 03, The Bard of Ely was both compere for the Avalon Stage at Glastonbury Festival and played there, as well as appearing at the Green Man Festival. He has also collaborated with Crum (keyboard for Hawkwind) who has remixed a number of The Bard’s songs. The Bard of Ely’s albums are available from DMMG Records and at iTunes.
As a writer He has authored Herbs of the Northern Shaman and written widely, including for Permaculture and Feed Your Brain magazines, and collaborated with CJ Stone for Prediction and the NFOP magazine. You can find about more about The Bard of Ely at his Blog.


Bright Blessings to you ~
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