Tag Archives: folklore

The Knowing

The things that get passed down through our family lines, the stories, and demons, the things that are part of us because we’re playing out historical dramas, have been a fascination of mine for a long time. How we break free from all that, or work with it, or make peace with it… There’s a modern tendency to see ourselves as self-made people, products of now, of our immediate environments and education, and not to go poking into how generations of experience might have had a hand in shaping us. Yet here in the UK, land ownership still owes a lot to the Norman invasion. Inequality has deep roots.

Stories pass down family lines. Obvious ones are anecdotal or about descent and history. Less obvious ones just say things like ‘that’s not for the likes of us.’ In singing families, songs pass down through generations as well, and tradition bearers of this sort have done a lot to keep folk alive. I don’t have that depth of ancestry – my grandmother came to folk during the sixties folk revival, but I do have songs I learned from her singing them, and with luck a grandchild or great grandchild of mine will be able to feel that they have a musical lineage.

There aren’t many authors I’ve run into who explore the magical possibilities of music – Charles De Lint, obviously. I guess part of it is that the character breaking away from roots and tradition seems more inherently exciting than the character who is steeped in or reconnecting with their family traditions. Dramatic change is the stuff of conventional fiction, especially speculative fiction. Deep rootedness seems at odds with that.

These are some of the many thoughts sparked by reading Kevan Manwaring’s The Knowing. It’s a speculative novel deeply rooted in faerie folklore and traditional stories. The central character, Janey, comes from a line of women who are song bearers, and the magical power of song is critical to her journey. Drawing on the tales of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, and on the curious history of Robert Kirk, and on the folklore in the landscape of both Scotland and the Smoky Mountains, this is a story with deep roots. It’s also a story set very much in the here and now, full of unexpected turns and twists.

For most of human history, song and storytelling have been intrinsic to our lives. It’s only really post industrialisation than the majority of us have been uprooted from our traditions and encouraged to accept mass produced entertainment instead. What used to be a shared culture has been replaced by economic ventures. But, I also see these same modes of communication being used to reclaim tradition and breathe new life into it. With a background in storytelling, Kevan is well placed to bring old enchantment into the world in new forms. It’s not the means of delivery that matters most, but what it is that we have to deliver.

Find The Knowing here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-Fantasy-Kevan-Manwaring-ebook/dp/B06XKKFGFV/


Elder folklore

Elder trees have some really interesting folklore associated with them. They’re often thought of as a witch’s tree, and it is generally considered very bad luck to burn them. For Pagans, the bad luck aspect is often understood in terms of the aforementioned witches, or a sense that this is a goddess tree.

What happens when you burn elder? (I do these dangerous things so you don‘t have to!)

It’s not something I’ve ever done deliberately. However, I’ve been involved with enough community bonfires, where cut elder has been thrown in. I also lived on a boat for a couple of years, and we often burned foraged wood in the woodstove. Wood cut to keep the towpath clear was often just left where it fell, and many an impoverished boater has got through the winter a bit more easily thanks to this, but I digress.

Most of the wood foraging fell to my other half, who is American. He’s come to British tree recognition late in life, and so elder would get into the firewood pile.

Elder doesn’t burn easily. If there’s a small amount of elder in a big fire, you can get it to burn. If there’s a fair amount of elder in a very small fire, there’s every chance your fire will go out.

The conclusion I draw is that the superstition is largely correct, in that if what you’ve got to burn is elder, you’re stuffed – it’s very unlucky to be stuck with elder to burn.

 

Image taken from the Woodland Trust website – find out more about elder trees here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/elder/


Folklore, myth and new writing

All three of the titles in this set of reviews have a really interesting relationship with folklore and mythology.

Coal House, W.S. Barton I came to quite by chance through a Twitter conversation. It’s a really creepy ghost story, with high levels of tension but not a lot of gore. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one evening. I can definitely recommend it. A haunting landscape, and a great plot. The folklore role in this is really interesting. A couple buy an empty house on impulse. Then the local people start being weird at them, but no one wants to talk about it. There’s some dark and troubled folklore associated with the house, but people seem reluctant to take it too seriously, until the deaths start again… everything anyone needed to know was there in the local folklore all along, but people coming in from further afield, and people not wanting to seem superstitious keep that valuable information out of the mix for too long. Given how well, and how long important information can survive in oral tradition, there’s something very pleasing about the way spooky tales do tend to validate the folklore while the people who sneer tend to be eaten first.

More about the book here – http://www.rudlinghouse.com/books/fiction/coal-house-by-w-s-barton/

 

Kadath, Charles Cutting is a graphic novel published by Sloth (Hopeless Maine has moved to this house). Its a tale that both operates within and cunningly subverts the Lovecraftian mythos. I think what’s happening with Lovecraft is a fascinating case study in modern myth making, and Charles has certainly added to the mix. Based on The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, is makes explicit that the main character from Lovecraft’s story is really Lovecraft himself and brings to the fore all the detestable things about the man. It’s no mean feat to make a story viable with a loathsome main character, but it works – not least because it’s visually so appealing. Set mostly in the realms of dream, it shows a dreamworld that seems more like Dunsany than Lovecraft, and is enchanting. Carefully avoiding any spoilers, this is on one level a moral tale about people who obsess about the wrong things, and creative souls who are more enchanted by their own egos than by anything… well… enchanting. A remarkable and gorgeous piece of work, highly recommended.

More about the book here – http://www.slothcomics.co.uk/kadath.html

Invoking Animal Magic, Hearth Moon Rising. This is a book offered as a study text for would-be students of animal magic. I confess I didn’t read it that way, not being someone who is looking for study options at the moment. I read it instead as a fantastic collection of myths, folklore, and personal insights relating to a set of creatures. Hearth Moon Rising has picked out a selection of creatures with particularly rich and magical folklore and explored the differences and similarities in tales from around the world to help the reader connect with these various beings. I especially like the way that there’s no attempt to shoehorn international folklore into single narratives, and that the diversity in stories is kept really visible. The tales are brilliant, and shared with considerable wit, wisdom and insight. It was an absolute joy to read. I suspect it’s a great study course, but if you aren’t looking to practice, it’s well worth having for the stories, and everything you can learn and enjoy in them. As it’s an illustrated book, I recommend getting the paperback – an ebook won’t do the visuals any justice at all.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/invoking-animal-magic


Walking Calendar – Christmas

Seasonal walking is a practical issue as well as a way of connecting with the cycle of the seasons. It’s something I’ve been exploring for a while. One of my personal traditions is to walk to my mother’s house at Christmas, with my husband and son. The first few times we did this, we were walking up from the canal (low, flat ground) into the hills. It wasn’t a charming route – the necessity of crossing a motorway and the scarcity of places to do this meant mostly road walking, although on Christmas morning there’s never much traffic. One year we did this in heavy snow, and had the odd experience of someone passing over us in a hot air balloon!

The last three Christmases, we’ve walked over the hills from Stroud to Dursley, taking in several barrows as we go. On a few occasions, this year included, we’ve done it in less than ideal weather. Last year was exquisite, with light and colours that you don’t often see at any time of year, but especially not the middle of winter. The Severn River tends to be grey, or muddy browns when you look down on her from these hills, but for that one walk, with the fields shining in greens, the river was the kind of blue that children paint rivers. It was unreal in many ways, and wondrous.

This year we had to modify the route, because there’s a small pair of hills we can come in over – again the views on a good day are stunning, and there’s something exciting about finishing the walk with these final hills, separate from the Cotswold edge, taking in the views and coming down into the small town feeling triumphant. However, the hill is steep and in wet weather, too slippery to be faced. We took the lanes, an old holloway, weaving between hills and farms, past the hill that homed a small pox isolation hospital. The ruins of that were still visible when my great grandmother was a child. On maps, the hill bears the bland name of ‘Downham’ but to local people it is Smallpox Hill. In mist it is an eerie place.

We paused to talk to some friendly sheep, saw a retirement home for old horses, and were charmed by a sleeping goat. These are the kinds of experience that you can only have when moving through a landscape at a human pace. We also got cold and wet.

One of the highpoints of the walk for me, came as we were moving over the top of the Cotswold hills in driving wind and heavy rain. It wasn’t easy walking, we were all starting to feel tired by this point and the battering by the elements wasn’t easy to bear. My son expressed his enthusiasm for what we were doing, because it was real; an immediate encounter with the reality of the land and weather. He put it more bluntly but I can’t recall the exact phrasing. It was a moment of pride for me. I don’t want to be at the raw edge of existence all the time, I doubt my son does either, but to be willing to go there, to experience discomfort so as to meet the season and the land – that’s powerful.

Walking through a landscape with history, folklore and tradition is an opportunity to talk about it, and to pass down knowledge. Walking past Smallpox Hill created time to tell my son the stories of the hill – the history of the hospital, and the mystery of the bumps. There are two large, rectangular constructions on one side of the hill. Local myth has it that these are mass graves from the hospital. The more likely version is that these are mediaeval rabbit warrens. It’s an interesting example of how we make intelligible stories out of landscape features when we don’t know what’s going on.


New Year, New Books

I’ve had a week off, and in that time, I’ve been reading. I thought I’d set the tone for 2016 by kicking off with reviews of the books I’ve read over the last week.

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch. A book exploring myths, legends and folk practice from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, interspersed with ways to do some of the things described. Charming, accessible and very readable, it’s not an academic text but the author seems well read. While I’m no expert on Christmas traditions, where there were overlaps with things I know about, I saw nothing to take issue with. I very much enjoyed the author’s willingness to explore all the gruesome and creepy aspects of the season. If only regular Christmas had more trolls in it, I’d probably find the whole thing far more palatable!

https://www.llewellyn.com/product.php?ean=9780738733340

 

 

The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman. A prequel to the Sandman series, I imagine it would make little sense to a reader who hadn’t already read the other titles. It’s beautifully put together, the art really shows what can be done with a graphic novel when the artist, letterer and colourist have time to lavish care and attention on every page rather than what the usual factory approach delivers. In terms of story, it is odd, clever, sometimes funny, poignant, uncomfortable – in short all I have come to expect from Neil Gaiman. If you like what he does, you will like this one too.

http://www.vertigocomics.com/graphic-novels/the-sandman-overture-deluxe-edition

 

 

The Voice that Thunders – Alan Garner. A collection of essays exploring the process of writing, the writing industry, landscape, history, family, the relationship between books and classrooms, mental health issues, language, dialect… all laced through with stories of people and places. A fascinating read and exactly what I needed at this point in time. If you’re fascinated with Alan Garner and his work, of if any of the above themes are obsessions of yours, then I heartily recommend it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1602869.The_Voice_That_Thunders


Journeys to mythical places

Over the last few days, I have entered the Legendary Middle Studio, and The Potionary. As with all places with mythic aspects, knowing the myths is critically important for appreciating the location. Some places are so striking that they suggest, or attract myths anyway, while others become important through association with events. I’m a big fan of knowing how stories connect with landscape, both old stories, and new ones. However, the reasons for these two locations being important to me are not as famous as they deserve to be.

The Legendary Middle Studio belongs to BBC Radio Shropshire, and every Sunday evening, Genevieve Tudor broadcasts a fabulous two hour folk show from this building. You can listen live, or after the event, online if you are further afield. Most weeks there are live performances, and these take place in the Legendary Middle Studio.

I’ve known Genevieve pretty much my whole life. Nearly five years ago, Tom, the lad and I moved onto a narrow boat. At night, in the darkness of winter it can be a bit lonely out on the canal, and all we had for contact with the rest of humanity was a small wind-up radio. We discovered we could pick up the folk program via BBC Hereford and Worcester, and so it became something of a lifeline. I’d gone from running a weekly club, to having no live folk in my life at all, so it also provided an important sense of connection. For the two years we’ve been in a flat, we’ve continued listening. Seeing the place where it all happens was a really interesting experience.

The Potionary is also in Shropshire, at a much more secret location. It is the space where the Matlock the Hare books and art have been created. I’ve been a big fan of Matlock the Hare for some time, and of the lovely creative duo behind it, so when they said ‘do you want to see The Potionary?’ I of course squealed and said yes. And it was splendid.

Everything happens in a place. We don’t tell history in terms of place location, unless you happen to be at a tourist spot. Myths and folk tales can go either way – some are very specific ‘There was once a farmer from Mobberly way’ and some have an ‘everyman’ quality that means no matter where you tell them, it all occurred just down the road from here and involved the friend of a guy in the pub who told the story teller the tale in the first place.

I think that when we lose the connection between narrative and place, we lose the sense of the place being important. Over the last few days I also saw the ruins of a number of industrial buildings. Some had history boards to explain them, some did not. If it’s just a tumble down old place, it can be left to rot. If we know it was the first, or the biggest, or the most important at one time, if we know it was the centre of working life in a place, or something else like that, the past connects to the living landscape and it becomes easier to feel a sense of connection and significance. Not only does this change a person’s perspective on a landscape, it also shifts how settled that person feels in a place. How real, or unreal the stories are, and no matter how old, or how recent, having stories of place makes a lot of odds.


Guest Blog: Water Fairies

By Nukiuk

 

Cool grey and green lichen covered stones surround the small pool which reflects the sky above, a small slash disturbs the crystal clear waters and a coin drifts down to join hundreds of others, each representing some wish, each a desire. For hundreds, even thousands of years people have cast votives into this well as an exchange to aid in their hopes. Such wells dot the Celtic landscape, and are perhaps some of the last remnants of the first religion of the Celtic lands.

Down the hill a ways the river bends and flowing water saturates the ground allowing the trees to grow a little thicker as they seem to stretch just a little ways out into the farms. Once these trees would have been decorated with cloth in the spring, offerings for the fairies of the water which lived within the river. For water fairies were the most important of all fairies among the Celts according to Briggs. Such fairies granted wishes and fertility, they aided in the growth of crops and kept people safe for thousands of years. When Julius Caesar was planning to invade the Celts he received reports that they primarily worshipped water fairies. Further among the Irish Danu, the mother goddess of the Tuatha De Dannan was associated with rivers. Among the Gauls Deo Matrona who was associated with the river Marne was the “Mother Goddess.”

It should come as no surprise then that Arthur’s greatest sword, the one which would not only help him keep his kingdom in tact but which also would not break was given to him by a water fairy. It was after all the water fairies which were people’s protection and comfort. In one tale a woman is forced to flee her home as she was tormented by horned witches. Eventually she collapses, weeping beside a well. It is here by the water that a voice speaks to her giving her the knowledge of how to rid her home of her tormentors. Such stories are typical of water fairies, which, being shy beings tend to avoid being seen by humans. Even so they do sometimes appear, most often in the form of an animal.

The Grimm Brother’s fairy tale of “Little Brier Rose” begins with a Queen and King who want a child and water fairy who grants them that wish.

“One day while the queen was sitting in her bath, a crab crept out of the water onto the ground and said, “Your wish will soon be fulfilled, and you will bring a daughter into the world.” And that is what happened.”

There are two pieces of knowledge we gain from the water fairy in the tale of “Little Brier Rose;” the first is that such fairies often take on animal form. In the Scottish fairy tale of “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree” the water fairy which acts as an oracle appears as a trout. Other fee’s and water fairies appear in the form of giant eels. As I argued in Water Spirits as Fairies the tales of the Loch Ness Monster likely come from the tales of water fairies in eel/serpent form. Indeed the first written encounter with one of these creatures is of a Christian Missionary trying to banish it, not as a physical being but as a spiritual one.

The continuation of this tradition in “Brier Rose” with the appearance of the crab shows us that water fairies were important to people up into the 19th Century. Indeed in the other version of Sleeping Beauty the King and Queen actively go out to the sacred wells in order to gain a child.

The fact that the water fairy gave the King and Queen of “Sleeping Beauty” a child is interesting because water fairies can to some extent see the future. In other words the water fairy in the story of sleeping beauty was the only active being in the story, she was the one who set the story into motion, so it was she who could be said to be the author of the tale. The water fairy was most likely assigned this role in the story not just because she was the provider of fertility, but because fairies are lovers of art and beauty. Sometimes this means that humans, and the story of humanity are their art.

There are a few important things to bear in mind about water fairies, first is that they are lovers of the journey of the state betwixt and between one and another. In one tale a Welsh farmer falls in love with a water fairy and offers her some cooked bread but she claims it’s too hard, so he offers her some dough and she says it’s not done enough so he offers her some half cooked bread and she accepts this gift.

One must keep this in mind both when giving gifts too and receiving wisdom from water fairies, because while they seek to aid humans they never give a full answer, the picture they give humans is unclear so that the humans will have to take the journey on their own. It is only through the journey after all that a person is able to gain true knowledge and appreciation. This is the realm of water fairies to provide both knowledge and fertility.

As with all things done by the fairy in Celtic tradition continuing to work with water fairies wasn’t always so simple. They are after all enigmatic creatures, for they will providing water to drink and aid in the growing of fields but will also bring floods. This is why people worked so hard to develop and maintain a relationship with water fairies. Often travelling in procession every spring to the sacred waters, singing and praising it. Further they offered the water fairies gifts, most often of cloth but also of more valuable goods, for a relationship with water fairies as with all fairies is one built upon a bond which humans must foster.

 

Nukiuk is a folklorist who has been studying Eurasia’s folk religions and fairies, you can learn more about this at http://zeluna.net/.

To see the references for this article visit http://fairies.zeluna.net/p/resources.html.