For reasons too complicated to go into here, when I lived in Wem I didn’t have a washing machine. So I checked out the local laundry, and then, seeing its worth and not wanting to burden the Earth with unnecessary white goods, began using it regularly. The man who ran it was a charming Turkish chap, with whom I became friends. One of the things which was made apparent to me during our various conversations was the difference in attitude to children between the Turks and the British.
In Turkey, children are cherished. In my opinion, in Britain – speaking in general of course – cherished is not the right word to use. What is, then? Tolerated? Managed? Directed? Ignored? I’m aware that this is controversial territory, so I’m going to repeat: I’m talking generalities here. But when I considered the Victorian attitude to children, my case was clearer. In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy therefore I wanted to work with this historical attitude to children.
My first child creation for the novels was the League Of Ignored Children. In Victorian times children without families could be looked after by orphanages, or by ragged schools, institutions for destitute children which were charitable organisations. Such schools were usually in working class districts. Another alternative was the workhouse: children of poor families lived there. In all cases, life was harsh. Conditions were sometimes appalling. In my novels however I wanted to create an institution run by children for their own benefit. The League Of Ignored Children exists in a part-demolished building next to a foundry, which keeps them warm in the cold months (they refer to it as their “Winter Palace”). However, children being children, and in particular boys being boys, there is a hierarchical structure with leaders, just as in the adult world. This allowed me to explore my chosen theme of selfishness and its relation to male culture and society in general.
The League Of Ignored Children for me epitomises the exigencies of Victorian societies. Alas, I think some of those exigencies still exist. You only have to watch the news to see that in Britain, and in other nations too. We fail children so often.
I researched the darker side of childhood with the aid of Sarah Seaton’s Childhood & Death In Victorian England. Monique – the main character of the trilogy – is a keen reader of the local newspaper, and she relates some of the tragedies: Poor Ruth Sampson, killed by her father, who smashed her against the hearthstone. But he was not guilty, because drink sent him insane. Emily Holland, murdered by a mechanic up north. And only five years ago, Florence Albery, killed in a river by her own mother. Well, at least she had a mother, but what good did it do her? When all men can do is accumulate for their own benefit, no wonder the small and the weak are victims. And: This land doesn’t like children. It doesn’t see our value, it doesn’t see our potential. It’s irritated by us. It would rather we didn’t exist so it could get along with more important business. We are ignored. We’re all ignored children… What are we except a nuisance? People are too busy with their own lives to have a thought for ours. And all the time they ruin us, by leaving us on the streets, by exploiting us, by restricting us…
I suppose this is a rather depressing view. Many children have marvellous childhoods, and grow up to be stable, sane adults. But when others do not because of the corruption and blindness of the modern state – ruled by men, not women – it is perhaps no surprise that tragedies continue to happen.
How different the British attitude to children would be if women were in charge, not men.
The Elemenpals is aimed specifically at infants, young children and early readers. It’s written in such a way that children too young to read independently can be read to and so that children who are beginning to read independently can manage with little help but still with adult supervision. I wanted the book to encourage family bonding time through shared reading experiences.
I know you’ve done a lot of studying of child development. How does that relate to your writing?
I’m currently working towards becoming a developmental psychologist and am particularly interested in neuro-developmental psychology and the way that children’s brain development affects, and is affected by, their behaviours, their personalities, their development of their sense of self and autonomy. The books were my way of empowering my own children to form a connection with nature and to explore their own narratives and self expression through finding parallels in nature and the elemental cycle and perception. I also wanted to include some neurominority characters who actually reflected my children’s experiences as most autistic characters in books only reflect the “classically autistic” narrative and none of my children relate with that at all as it’s such a narrow view. So Menme, the Spirit Imp, is non-verbal and, as you can see in the book, speaks with gestures, facial expression, body language and hand movements. This isn’t an obvious thing, it’s not a plot point. Menme just is and fits into the story authentically and organically and it was really important to me to do that well. As an autistic writer, I feel it’s part of my duty to include those narratives ethically.
Is this a Pagan book? the elemental aspect certainly suggests that it is? would it work for non-Pagans, could it get into schools under the radar?
The book is definitely based on Pagan beliefs and folklore but it’s the sort of folklore and belief that society has carried with it, protecting their Pagan heritage whether they knew it or not. The archetypes of Mother Earth, elemental beings and deities of sacred life such as rivers and trees are things that modern and Abrahamic beliefs could never quite quash and they’re the main theme of the book. I’d love for them to get into schools. Every aspect of them has been written with empowering children in their development at the forefront. My biggest dream for them would be to see them in schools. I’ve already written some classes that would work with the UK curriculum that could accompany them but that’s just how my mind works, I’m not sure they’ll ever be used.
Can you talk a bit more about what representation, or the lack of it means for children? How it impacts on them…
One of the most oppressed groups on this planet is children. Most adults believe that children should obey, shouldn’t “talk back” and don’t allow them any voice or autonomy. Our education system is designed to spit out conformists on a conveyer belt and punish any form of individuality from what they wear, to how they speak, even as far as policing their facial expressions which are mostly involuntary. It’s a mental health crisis waiting to happen! Except it is happening already. We are the product of that education system, we adults. The problem is that many of us perpetuate it and take agency away from children from the moment they’re born. Giving children some control over some aspects of their lives is extremely beneficial, teaching and empowering consent, emotion development, conscientiousness and more. How can we teach our young girls that their body is their own and that no one has the right to touch them without their consent on the one hand and then force them to wear what we say on the other? How can we teach our young boys that when a girl says no she means no if we do the same to them? For that matter, how do we teach boys that their own body is theirs and no one can touch them without their permission? Giving children agency and representation on how that agency can work in various settings is the only way to give them this power effectively.
How did you find your illustrator?
I’m not sure how Adam and I connected. Totally by accident, probably. We both have a love of wordplay and respectful debate and discourse so it was likely that we had a mutual friend and ended up chatting that way. But one day he saw that I’d written a children’s book and as he’s a published children’s author himself, we were discussing writing for children, one thing led to another and I had myself an illustrator who really understood my vision of what I wanted to convey in my books. The fun and whimsy of the characters, the fluctuating moods to expose children to as many emotional possibilities as we could, which is extremely beneficial for their emotion development and expression. Adam is incredibly talented, as a writer and performer, as well as an artist, and he understands my mind in a way that I feel is a must for people creating together in this way. The books are as much his hard work as mine but I know he’d argue with that.
I imagine that all children know – at least if they have access to the rest of the natural world – that animals and birds, plant and trees all speak to them. It seems both normal and natural, and just the way the world is. How different our lives, and our relationship with the more-than-human, would be if that was a quality, an enchantment, that routinely continued into adulthood.
As a very young child, I used to leave out ‘potions’ of pulverised rosehips, herbs and rainwater in acorn cups for ‘the fairies’, whom I knew lived in plants and trees. Sometimes I would see a glimpse of a woodmouse, or a bird, who’d sipped my brew – and that was OK too; in fact it was magical (considering the delight I feel, even as an adult when birds come to the doorstep without fear, not much has changed there).
I remember when I first learned to speak Cedar. My cousins in Cornwall had a ‘home field’ on their farm where the orphaned lambs would be, needing bottle-feeding several times a day. In between, we would climb onto a long horizontal limb of the Cedar tree in the field. One day, up there on my own aged about five, I heard the tree whispering, and realised that I could understand its language.
Around the same time, I used to climb up into one of the pair of cherry trees either side of our home front gate, and delightedly knew as I faded into the canopy that no one could see me for blossom.
That was probably the beginning of my lifelong relationship with trees. However, there was a more significant event as an adult. I worked part-time for Kindred Spirit magazine back in the 90s, and one of my briefs was to conduct a transatlantic phone interview with shaman Eliot Cowan, who had just written Plant Spirit Medicine. I knew about shamanic practice and plant medicine; had read my Carlos Castaneda; had experimented with psychotropic plants; had even written a book on subjects that included such things from my own practice. But something subtly shifted for me after that interview.
Not long afterwards I booked myself a week’s solo retreat in a tiny cottage near Cornwall’s coast. The cottage was in woodland, and within the shelter of a triple earthwork, complete with its own Iron Age fogou. I’d come specifically to work with trees, and to do a week’s writing. I imagined I would connect with the magical Rowan and the ethereal Silver Birch (sometimes known as the ‘poet’s tree’). I’d dumped my luggage and headed off down through the woodland towards the sea. I knew the area well, and was confident that I would find Birch and Rowan close by – and I did.
I knew that trees love to be met, anthropomorphic as that sounds. We seem to have a natural close relationship with trees; indeed, some first nation peoples believe that humans are descended from trees.
However, I hadn’t bargained for the abductive qualities of the Willow – that slender, gentle and tender-seeming tree under which Ophelia permanently floats in her death-song in a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais. So I was taken hostage by a particular Willow in a watery grove of them. Benign though the tree was, it was also extremely insistent, in a way that startled me.
I never made it to the other trees; instead, I spent a rather trippy few hours under Willow’s influence instead, and that journey has continued. (It was only later I learned that Willow has a reputation in folk lore for ‘stalking’ people.) Since then, I’ve become ever more aware of the deep synergy between humans and plants, in particular trees, and it led me to marking the wheel of the year with my version of the Celtic Tree Calendar, and then devising courses, ‘Tongues in Trees’, that would enable me to lead participants into a deeper relationship with the tree family. I’ve been leading these for many years, now, and have more recently offered this course as a one-year online intensive.
I spend part of my year in an ancient mythic forest. Quite apart from everything we now know about the gifts from trees, whether to do with climate change, the hydrological cycles, preventing soil erosion, offering habitat, food, medicines, timber for shelters and fires, and new findings about the immense ‘wood wide web’ that underpins a forest, we have a deep psychic resonance with the idea of the Greenwood, the Wildwood.
There are always two forests: one is the physical wood and forest we encounter ‘out there’. The other is the abiding forest of our imagination: an inner pristine wildwood, an Enchanted Forest, the one we encounter in myths, fairy stories and legends. When I walk into a physical forest, I walk into a liminal place, and a deep, receptive and attentive humming silence, a benign presence. There’s something about entering a forest that is both healing and disorienting (in my forthcoming book I speak a lot about this). In the forest we lose horizons, and perspectives, and enter firstly a green underwater-type world, and secondly a kind of mythic consciousness, as our European fairy tales attest.
I know this particular forest quite well. I arrived in it a few years ago after a particularly traumatic time in my life, knowing that it would offer me some kind of healing, and it did – AFTER tripping me up and breaking my arm so that I had to be still – an almost foreign experience for me. But the biggest shift was my fond idea that I’d write about trees here; but in fact I ended up learning from trees – as it’s said our Druidic ancestors did. That changed the way I wrote my book.
I suppose I will jump right in here with both feet. I could call this post Unpopular Opinions.
I don’t think she was.
There are a few ideas about the Irish goddess Brigit that are popularly accepted as ancient but which appear to be modern in origin, often arising from the unsupported speculations of Victorian thinkers, and which have fallen out of favour among Irish scholars. One is that Saint Brigit is an outgrowth of the goddess, that the cult of the goddess was either absorbed into the saint’s, or the saint was herself a druid who, with her sisters in druidry, was a disciple of the goddess. In this role it is conjectured that she took on the goddess’s name, perhaps as a title. Under pressure from mounting Christianity, say some versions of the story, they converted to that faith but retained their goddess in the traditions and practices that they carried forward in her saintly guise. Thus, the two cults ran seamlessly together.
I have been a devotee of Brigit since the early 1980s. At that time, I didn’t hear that she might have been a druid. But I did absolutely accept that the cult of Saint Brigit had absorbed major aspects of the goddess’s, and that Saint Brigit and her sisters tended a perpetual flame that was not extinguished until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, over a millennium after she lived. That last idea both excited and enraged me – how wonderful to have such a communal veneration, and how terrible to have it destroyed. It was this story that inspired me to start the Daughters of the Flame in 1993, to bring Brigit’s fire back to the world.
Ever since I first met Brigit she has beguiled me. I’ve made a point of reading everything about her that I can in order to expand my understanding and help me deepen my connection with her. So it was with some discomfort that I began to read things which made me question my view of the goddess to whom I was devoted. My concern kicked into high gear with Erynn Rowan Laurie’s fine essay, “Queering the Flame – Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities.” Erynn did the work of digging into the whole idea of Brigit and her flame, in part because of a dispute between different practitioners over whether men should tend it. I will refer to her article again below, but first I want to address the idea of a druid sect being forced to convert in Brigit’s day, and the place of perpetual flames in the Irish landscape.
At the time of Saint Brigit, Ireland was very early in its transition from pagan to Christian. She is credited with travelling the country and establishing religious communities, but these were not simply additions to an already flourishing network of Christian monastic houses; they were among the first seen in Ireland. Until this change, women religious stayed with their families while practicing their faith. Though Palladius and others had come to tend the scattered faithful, Christians were few, and there is no evidence of the kind of brutal forced conversions that happened in other areas of Europe. It seems highly unlikely, especially at such an early time, that any druidic or pagan community would have felt such pressure to convert.
We know the Sisters of Saint Brigit tended a perpetual flame. How likely would the Sisters of Goddess Brigit have been to do so?
Classical writers, when speaking of the Celts, nowhere mention the tending of perpetual flames. Considering the importance of the perpetual flame in the rites of the Vestal Virgins in Rome, and the Roman habit of equating or assimilating local deities into their own, it is unlikely that such a practice would have gone unnoticed. But the Romans never reached Ireland. Might such fires have been unique to that land? Most of us will be aware of the large bonfires kindled on three of the four Quarter Days in Ireland. But were there instances of sacred flames tended all year round?
The best known, of course, belongs to Kildare. Saint Brigit lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, yet no mention of a perpetual flame at Kildare appears until the last years of the 12th century. The many Lives, prayers, masses, and so on written about or to her in the centuries between are silent on the topic. One Life, written by Cogitosus, presumably a monk of Kildare in the 7th century, describes her church in detail, but makes no mention of a fire temple or perpetual flame. We first read of Saint Brigit’s perpetual fire in the Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales, more than seven hundred years after Saint Brigit’s birth. He tells us that it had been tended originally by the saint herself and that now, when she has long since gone to heaven, she keeps it lit miraculously on the twentieth day of every cycle.
This is a good time to return to Erynn’s essay. It was there that I learned that Brigit’s monastery in Kildare was not the only Christian establishment in Ireland tending perpetual flames at the time, and that all of the others were tended by monks. (Erynn counted three. I have since learned that there were seven at least.) This information struck me hard, especially when coupled with the very late reporting of Brigit’s fire. It became difficult to avoid the idea that the perpetual flame was both late in origin and Christian, not an ancient holdover from the cult of a goddess. And as Erynn points out, the name itself, Kildare – Cill Dara – is a specifically Christian name, referring to the church (cell, or cill) of the oak (dara). In addition, there is no reference to it in the Dindshenchas, that repository of place names with sacral significance to the pre-Christian Irish. If it had been an important sanctuary for the goddess, she argues, it would be mentioned there.
That there was a goddess named Brigit, or Brig, perhaps several, I do believe. That Saint Brigit was modelled on her, or was her devotee, I sincerely doubt. This is not to say her cult wasn’t influenced by the themes of Irish goddesses, but which ones, and in what way, we don’t know.
Thus, I have had to adapt my own devotion, my own understanding of the goddess I have given my life to. This was not easy at first. Letting go of my original view of her felt threatening, as if my faith was a lie, which I knew it could not be. Over time, I realised that I was losing nothing. Or, in vernacular terms, I wasn’t losing a goddess, I was gaining a saint. The two2 Brigits now live side by side in my awareness. I give to the saint what is the saint’s, and to the goddesses what is theirs.
1 Laurie, Erynn Rowan. “Queering the Flame: Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities,” The Well of Five Streams: Essays on Celtic Paganism. Megalithica Books [Stafford, England] (2015).
This essay is by far the most comprehensive examination of the topic that I have yet seen.
2 – or four, if you count all three goddess sisters, the daughters of the Dagda – and possibly more, if you count other Brigs in the literature, but we aren’t going there…
3 For more on these ideas and the background to support them:
Bitel, Lisa M. Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford University Press (2009).
Harrington, Christina. Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450–1150. Oxford University Press (2002).
4 The poem “Dubthach Versus the Druid” is from Mael Brigde A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars, pg. 163. Moon Books (1 September 2021).
Today’s post is an interview with Pagan author Michael Daoust. I think right now we could all use more cute, warm-hearted and uplifting stuff in our lives, and this is very much what Michael is about – especially creating that kind of warm content for people who may be especially short of it…
Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Hi! First of all, thanks so much for doing this! I really appreciate your time and effort.
About me-> I’m a pagan trans man, happily married to the love of my life. I live with chronic anxiety and PTSD, and am lucky enough to live in the countryside as of two years now! I am an avid gardener, though that doesn’t mean I’m good at it! I’ve always loved fairy tales, and they were my favorite childhood books. All that comes into play with my writing. When I started approaching my writing more as a profession and less as a hobby, I really wanted to represent LGBT+ communities in a positive and happy way. When I started this, I was at an extremely low point, mental health wise. I couldn’t handle reading many books, as I would get too anxious about what would happen next in the story. So, I decided to write fairytale-esque books that would be easy to read when in a bad spot mentally. At the same time I started drawing the TwoLoveBirds, as a way to bring more cheer into my life and to cope with my crippling depression.
How does your Pagan path inform your creative life?
My pagan path comes into play with the importance of the world in my writings. I bring in magic, symbolism, and even more magic in a playful way, which I find echoes the playfulness of nature, and the way that certain areas have certain ‘vibes’ to them. In my fantasy Farfadel writings, the world is what makes the story, as much as the characters. In my TwoLoveBirds writings, nature and setting is equally important.
What is it about fairy tales that attracts you to working with them?
Great question! I never wondered about that, I always thought everyone liked fairy tales! I guess it’s the way that fairy tales seem to say something ‘more’ about life and the world they were constructed in. They tell you how to interact with deities, land spirits, and other people properly. They aren’t just stories, but often lessons as well.
Can you tell us a bit about your two novels? Who are they written for?
So, the first book to be written was ‘A Tale of Two Queens’, then, ‘The Tale of Adelaide and Shadow’, but chronologically, Adelaide’s tale comes first! The Tale of Two Queens was inspired by my wife, and very much guided by her. She often wanted to read more queer romance novels, and they were hard to find! So I imagined these two epic, badass Queens, and threw them into a Sleeping Beauty-esque storyline, and let the chaos unfold. It’s a cute and romantic tale, with no real evil in the story, just miscomprehension and different goals. It’s very playful, and I’ve been told it’s laugh out loud funny and very cheerful to read. I’ve also been told it’s like Terry Pratchett meets Lord of the Rings (what a compliment!).
As for the tale of Adelaide and Shadow, I don’t quite remember how it began, actually. I drew heavily on my experiences as a trans person, and what I would want to see in a novel, as the prince Shadow is trans. I wrote this one mainly for myself, and so it’s a more playful novel, full of silly events and frogs. I drew on the ‘princess and the frog’ stereotype here, and decided to make it even a bit more silly!
I had originally intended these books for adults, and that’s mainly what my audience has been so far, but I’ve been told that they read like middle-grade children’s books. Considering that those are also my favorite genres to read, it makes sense!
How did you get into colouring books?
I had originally started coloring books for my TwoLoveBirds, but kept making sketches and doodles and art for my Farfadel world. I’ve always imagined Farfadel having coloring books, art books, and all sorts of extra fun stuff to go along with the books. So a few months ago I decided to actually sit down and make one!
What’s the relationship between the novels and the colouring books?
The colouring book is based on the world of Farfadel, and not any novel in particular. The fairies play a very important role in both novels, as troublemakers and trouble fixers, and they were so cute and fun to draw that I decided to make the whole colouring book about them! There are no particular characters in the colouring book, it’s more of a glimpse into the ‘feel’ of the fairies of Farfadel, their daily life, and what they are like in the novels. I did try and bring some queerness into the colouring book with two female bodied fairies proposing to each other with a flower, as well as mixing the body shapes with their gendered clothing. It’s subtle, maybe more so with my style of drawing, but I really wanted to make it so that a queer child could see themselves in this book.
I’ve just read Chris Allaun’s fascinating book, Otherworld: Ecstatic Witchcraft for the Spirits of the Land. It’s a great book, and a firm reminder that as an animist, I believe there is a spirit in everything. My animism is not exclusionary. I honour the spirits of the land, or try to, but I am aware of spirits in other things too. My favourite teacup. The pen I scribble my notes with. Even my laptop.
Animism and Technology
I think it’s very common to dismiss the possibility that things which aren’t “natural” are somehow excluded from animism. But natural is a strange word when we think about humanity. If we mean natural to means the state of things before humans got involved, then most areas of woodland are not natural – yet plenty of people feel a connection to them. Most fields and meadows aren’t truly natural, yet they veritably hum with life, from the tiniest aphid to the great, surging seas of grass.
To turn this idea on its head, everything is natural at some point. The keys I’m tapping on are made of plastic, which at some point was oil, which at some point was probably prehistoric trees or animals. It’s not too hyperbolic to say I’m tapping on dinosaur bones.
So, My Laptop Then…
How can such a beast be so ornery if not imbued with its own spirit? It’s not new, far from it, but it’s not ancient either. Yet it works to its own purpose, rarely caring what mine is. Sometimes it loads up immediately, bold and ready to face whatever tasks I input into it. Other days it is slow, sluggish, yet I can swear that nothing is different. I close the needless tabs and check the task manager; this technological beast is being contrary, and nothing will convince me otherwise.
At other times, it mirrors my moods. If I have brain fog, am I simply projecting that my laptop seems a little slower, a little less responsive? I guess its easy to say that I’m just seeing what I want to see; a reflection of myself in the technology I use most.
It would be easy, if it was just me. It is, most definitely, not. Others borrow my laptop, particularly for educational or social purposes. As the person who makes money with their brain and fingertips, I do own the best laptop in the house – and so it is frequently co-opted by the rest of the family.
Guess what. They tell me, that on days when I am feeling slow or moody, that the laptop seems to be just as cranky and uncooperative. As if the laptop has some kind of empathy; a connection we have forged through spending so, so much time together.
Fanciful? Perhaps. But I take note of my experiences, and I don’t ever discount my more outlandish conclusions, especially when they form an intrinsic part of the way I believe things work. So, the laptop is always placed gently, folded with a soothing, reassuring pat, and spoken to with respect. Except, of course, on the days when we are both decidedly low on resource and functionality.
When Nimue suggested that I write something about the living tradition for this blog, I wasn’t sure what I would come up with. However, the kaleidoscope that is social media has provided me with an answer.
If you haven’t been living under a rock the past few weeks, then you may have heard something about sea shanties on TikTok. You’ve likely heard a song called The Wellerman. I’m an old person who likes folk music, but I barely understood what TikTok was until this happened. And what’s a Wellerman? A guy who delivers supplies to a whaling ship in 19th century New Zealand, it turns out.
What happened on TikTok? A young chap from Airdrie, in Scotland, called Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing an old whaling ballad. It went viral in a way that is particularly TikTok as other singers, and then instrumentalists, dubbed in their own parts, creating a moment of rare beauty. There are a few mixes floating around now, but this one will give you the idea.
As a music scene, TikTok seems to be a place where currently isolated young people are congregating to try to share a bit of themselves, their talent, and trying to look good in the process. There’s a certain emphasis on image that I find a little uncomfortable, but that’s not limited to TikTok, or a particular age group. Lockdown has created a whole new layer of virtual self-curation for everyone.
This was the second or third shanty that Evans had posted, but he hasn’t really been promoting himself as a folk singer. He’s been singing pop covers, and few things of his own, and taking requests for months. Some of that has been folk music, in the broadest sense of the word.
I’m not here to review Evans’ singing, but his solo performance of The Wellerman is really good. I just listened to various recordings of shanty groups and folk groups’ doing this song over the past few decades, and Nathan’s solo has a depth and power that the others miss. He’s obviously enjoying the song and singing it a cappella except for beating out the rhythm with his hand on the table is perfect. So far, so good.
But it’s what happened next that is so great. People began posting mixes of the song with their own voices dubbed in duets with Evans’ original. That’s hardly unique on TikTok, but the quality and blending of some of these duets, which quickly became a choir, is amazing.
This had been building for a while. Sea shanties have been a thing on the internet since, maybe, September. This massed choir project of “Leave Her Johnny”, organised by shanty group The Longest Johns had over 500 submissions.
To my mind, this isn’t just an example of living tradition because a folk song happens to be involved, although that obviously helps. As other folk nerds have pointed out, The Wellerman isn’t exactly a shanty, but a closely related song-type – a whaling ballad. However, it’s sung here with a shanty feel. A shanty being a work song, which sailors once sang to keep themselves in rhythm when doing work like hoisting sails. With Evans’ fist banging rhythm and the song’s great chorus this works well.
Sea shanties once had an important purpose. Not only did they keep the sailors in a work rhythm, but they helped them to keep going, and stay heartened, under difficult conditions. Under a different kind of difficult conditions this winter, these songs have found another purpose – reminding people how great it is to sing together – in rhythm, in harmony, in making the whole a little bit better with your own contribution. Hopefully, this is teaching us a valuable lesson for when we can sing together again. That’s the living tradition I’m hoping for, anyway.
I originally wrote this as an Instagram post that came into my mind while out for a walk the other day. I use my walking time in the morning to chat with myself (yes, sometimes out loud) and to sort out my feelings. I recognized that my energy had been vacillating between joy and sorrow, and to be even more specific, extreme joy and anxious sadness.
Up and down, up and down.
It used to worry me that I wasn’t ‘okay.’ I worried that since I wasn’t always happy, I was doing something wrong. But on that walk, I remembered what a spiritual teacher of mine said: emotions are like the weather.
My energy waxes and wanes.
When moving toward the new moon
I am fresh, new, open
I find opportunities
For a few days
I get tired, sluggish, unmotivated
I need to be still, to have space, to breathe more deeply
As I move from new to full
My energy expands
I am creative and wilder
I build, arrange, and share
I have bundles of energy
And sleepless nights
I then move into anxiety
And wanting to do all the things
Before the shadow grows
It is a brave thing
A serious thing
To ride the waves
Of being human
And the stories I assign
And the feelings
That just want validation
Or a good cry
And a wide laugh
This business of being
Invites me along
I invite you to track your emotions, your weather patterns, and just see them for what they are. Moments. Hours. Days. Weeks. But always passing. Always shifting to something else.
And thank goodness. This business of being human certainly offers its share of pain, though I also know (and remember) that delight will not be far behind.
Irisanya Moon is an author of four books: “Pagan Portals: Reclaiming Witchcraft,” “Pagan Portals: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love & Beauty & Initiation,” “Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Health & Well-being,” and the upcoming “Pagan Portals: Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger of the Godds.” She is also a blogger at Patheos Pagan and teacher and priestess in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft.
Fiction inspired by folklore has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Folklore and folk tales have always been a fruitful lode for fantasy writers but through the novels of writers like Sarah Perry and Joanne Harris it’s become both more literary and more mainstream.
I’m the author of the Spellworker Chronicles which are contemporary fantasy novels inspired by folklore. Beltane grew out of the folklore of Glastonbury and Storm Witch was inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. There are challenges in taking folklore as your starting point especially if you’re translating it to a contemporary setting. Some things don’t shift forward as well as others. Orkney has stories of trows, fairylike creatures who are not blessed in the looks department, who have a habit of tempting human into their world. In writing Storm Witch I couldn’t find a use for the trows, even though there’s some great stories about them. I had to accept that they didn’t fit with the world I was creating.
I was more interested in the tales that people told about the pre-historic sites on the islands. There’s a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it bleeds archaeology. Orkney’s World Heritage Site comprises the key sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The dig at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed a Neolithic temple complex which has overthrown much accepted thinking about the period. It’s exciting stuff if you’re interested in pre-history and the lives of the people who built such fascinating but enigmatic monuments.
It’s believed that folk tales grew up around pre-historic sites as a way for subsequent inhabitants to understand the landscape they’d inherited. I’m from Yorkshire and there’s a great example of that in the Devil’s Arrows, three standing stones just off the A1 at Boroughbridge. According to legend these were thrown by the Devil from a nearby hill. He was aiming for the next town of Aldborough but the stones fell short and landed near Boroughbridge instead. Similarly, there’s the Devil’s Chair at Avebury. According to folklore if you wish to speak to Old Nick you need to run round it a hundred times widdershins after which he’ll appear to you. It’s not hard to imagine that for a God-fearing population the Devil must have been a handy way of interpreting these inexplicable monoliths.
It’s where magic and folklore intersect that I find the questions arise for the writer. The folk tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray (one of the northern islands of the Orkney archipelago) is a mixture of fact and folklore. It involves a girl who was believed to be able to control the weather and call up storms. You can read my retelling of the story on my website but the key elements are that Janet had an unusual ability to read the weather which results in the other islanders ostracizing her. Then when a ship was blown onto the rocks in a storm, she rowed out and brought it safely to harbour. Unlike Grace Darling three hundred years later, it was felt that only through witchcraft could a woman have achieved this. Janet was tried and convicted as a witch.
There were two question which interested me most about this story. The first was what if Janet could actually do what she was accused of? From that grew the character of Rachel Sinclair who has the power to manipulate the weather but is unable to control her abilities. As the Spellworker Chronicles have spellworkers (which are extremely powerful witches) and druids the book imagines the possibilities of this form of magic in the real world setting of the Orkney archipelago.
The second was, how do you cope when your whole world falls apart? In the story Janet loses her sweetheart, loses her place in her community and is tried and convicted for witchcraft. As this is a folk tale we don’t find out what that does to Janet and how she puts her life back together but in Storm Witch I could look at that. The two female main characters are living with the repercussions of trauma and have to decide how that affects the way they interact with the world.
Of course, when Janet was alive in the seventeenth century the belief in magic was much more prevalent in society. In the same way as the Devil was thought responsible for standing stones, witchcraft was the go-to explanation for an unusually powerful or intuitive woman. There’s always a choice for the writer as to whether they accept the magical which comes with the folklore. Personally (and there’s a potential spoiler coming) I was hugely disappointed in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent as, in the end, it didn’t. As I’m writing fantasy I can explore these questions and let them play out in the world of druids and spellworkers that I’ve created.
Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire but loves to travel especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places. Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending.
Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and teaches creative writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She’s also a book whisperer (like a book doctor but more holistic), mentor to aspiring writers and runs an online mindful writing group.
When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet. She occasionally blogs at www.alyswest.com, intermittently tweets at @alyswestyork and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer. She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter. To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’.
You will no doubt be familiar with the Band Aid and Live Aid rock/pop concerts of the past, but I think we need new concerts under the banner of Ocean Aid.
Plastic pollution is everywhere these days and it is becoming widely known that it is killing marine life, including whales, turtles, seals and seabirds that swallow it mistaking it for food, or by getting tangled up in the material. Many people think of this planet as Mother Earth, and whilst this is a wonderful description of our home world, I think we should be referring to all the seas combined as “Mother Ocean.” Science has told us that early life started there, and life on this planet depends on the health of the oceans.
I have a song entitled Where Does All The Plastic Go?. It was produced by Jayce Lewis, and is included on my album Songs of the Now and Then. Many famous musicians and singers, including Mick Jagger, Cerys Matthews, Brian May, Chrissie Hynde and Kanye West, have spoken out about plastic pollution but I am leading the way with songs about the subject. Just think if stars like this could be persuaded to take part in a massive Ocean Aid concert in a stadium somewhere!
With the ongoing pandemic causing lockdowns and restrictions, many musicians famous and not so famous, have taken to performing concerts online using livestreaming via Facebook, Zoom and other options. This got me thinking that Ocean Aid concerts could be organised like this, and the more of them the better. Small ones can help inspire the world of music and the media to take enough notice so that a massive concert could be organized, a concert that would attract the internationally famous celebrities. Because plastic pollution is a worldwide problem, the concerts can take place worldwide.
It is not just the threat of plastic waste that is endangering oceanic life. Overfishing, acidification, seabed mining, military testing, nuclear waste dumping, coral bleaching, agricultural run-off causing dead zones, and climate change, are all taking a heavy toll too. Ocean Aid concerts could raise awareness about these problems as well. There are organisations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, already doing what they can to help save the seas and the life in them. Funds raised by the concerts can go to charitable environmental organisations like this.
As a singer-songwriter I realised that one way I could take action and spread the word was by using music to help me, and after writing my song about plastic pollution I came up with this Ocean Aid idea. Raising awareness about Mother Ocean is my main focus this year. Please think about helping me make Ocean Aid concerts a reality. If you are a musician, think about organising Ocean Aid gigs, if you are not a musician but want to help, you can do so by spreading the word and reaching out to anyone you know that could make Ocean Aid a dream that becomes a reality. Let’s do what we can to help our Mother Ocean!