Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Ice Moon

The moon of February is known as the Ice Moon or the Chaste Moon. February is the coldest month in the northern hemisphere, as sea temperatures fall and frost and snow prevail.
In February falls the festival of Imbolc, now Christianised to Candlemas. Imbolc is associated with Brigid, the maiden or 'chaste' aspect of the Triple Goddess who became Saint Bridget, whose feast day is celebrated on February 1st.

In February, the earth is in its maiden or purest state, bare earth or virgin snow which will soon harbour myriad life forms as spring arrives.



And even in this coldest month, the earth is already becoming a mother.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Imbolc

The Celtic festival of Imbolc marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was associated with the Goddess Brigid, and in Christian times it became Candlemass or St Bridget's Day, celebrated today on 1st February.

Imbolc, as Welsh speakers will know, means 'in the belly' and it is commonly thought to link to ewes giving birth. This is probably unlikely: although sheep today generally lamb in February, in Iron Age times they would lamb later - March or April - to take advantage of the spring grass and better weather. 
Imbolc is more likely to link to human pregnancy, falling nine months after the fertility festival of Beltaine on 1st May. A lot of babies conceived at Beltaine would be born around this date.

This links to an interesting point. Before modern medical advances, life and death were more intimately connected to the seasons. Infant mortality rates were high and varied greatly throughout the year. The most ideal time for a birth in Celtic Britain - giving the best chance of survival for the newborn - was around 1st February. The worst of the winter hardship and shortage of food was past, spring plants were beginning to shoot, providing valuable nutrients for nursing mothers, and the baby had a good period to develop a strong immune system before the summer heat led to a surge in disease.

Was the Beltaine fertility festival developed specifically for that reason? Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Wolf of Allendale



In 1904, in the town of Allendale in Northumberland, something started attacking the sheep. An escaped wolf was blamed, although the culprit was never conclusively identified.

Farmers started housing their sheep, but still the slaughter continued. A committee was set up to try and hunt it down and a reward offered for its skin, to no avail.
A wolf was then found dead on a railway line and the story was considered finished, until 1971.

The chance discovery of some ancient stone heads, suggested to be Celtic in origin, triggered strange happenings including the appearance of a werewolf-like creature. This was linked to the legend of the wolf of Allendale. The incidents seemed to be attached to the heads and stopped when they were moved.
The heads were eventually taken by a museum for study; their current whereabouts is unknown.

This strange story is the inspiration behind my new novel The Wolf of Allendale. For more information see http://hannah-spencer-author.weebly.com


Friday, 13 January 2017

Unlucky Days


Friday the Thirteenth, the most dreaded date of the calendar. It has darkened our lives since the 19th century: the first known superstitious reference to the date is in 1869, when Gioachino Rossini died on Friday 13th November, the very date he had particularly believed to be so unlucky.

Fear of this day is called paraskevidekatriaphobia: paraskevi being Greek for 'Friday,' and dekatria meaning 'thirteen.' It is estimated that around $900 million USD are lost in business on this day, as people are reluctant to go out, drive, trade or any other potentially risky things. Statistics do actually show a slight increase in road accidents on Friday the 13th, compared to any other Friday, but probably this can be explained by the simple fact that what you expect to happen, often does.

The reasons for this superstition are complex. Friday has always been considered an unlucky day: this is referred to in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century. This possibly stems from the crucifixion of Jesus, which took place on a Friday. Thirteen is the traditional unlucky number. Again this may link to the crucifixion: there were thirteen people at the Last Supper. Thirteen is a discordant number: being prime, it is divisible by no numbers except itself and one, whereas twelve is the traditional number of harmony and completeness. There were twelve apostles, twelve knights of the round table, twelve constellations of the zodiac, and many others. Friday and thirteen combined is therefore a double whammy of bad luck.

Another reason, popularised by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, is the Knights Templar, the organisation linked to so many conspiracy theories which were rounded up en masse and imprisoned or killed on Friday 13th October 1307. This may have led to a belief that this date was cursed.

Whether you believe in it or not, I hope the day passes well for you.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Plough Monday

Plough Monday, falling on the Monday after Twelfth Day or epiphany (6th January), was the traditional start of the farming new year after the twelve days of Christmas revelries were over.

Ploughing the fields after the fallow period of winter, ready for the spring planting was the main focus of the coming month or two.  The care taken and the weather conditions at the time would have a dramatic influence on the quality of the harvest later in the year. As anyone who cultivates plants knows, the seedbed is the most important variable. 'God speed the plough' is commonly found in ballads and on engravings.

The celebration dates to at least the 15th century, and the day was one of feasting, revelry and pageantry, and a plough, decorated with ribbons, was pulled around the village by all the farm lads with pipes and other instruments playing.
Money was usually collected door to door, as on St Thomas' Day and wassailing days, with the threat that non-compliance would result in their garden getting ploughed up!

In some areas, participants would dress as women. In Warwickshire the plough boys and farm girls would race to the nearest furrow and back; the losers lost their share of plum pudding.

Plough Monday was all but forgotten by the beginning of the 19th century, but in the late 20th century it began to receive more interest as old customs were revived. It is celebrated in several places today.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Wassailing

The Wassail is an ancient celebratory custom. The term comes from the Anglo-Saxon for 'good cheer' and refers to a midwinter custom intended to welcome in the new year. It often coincided with St Thomas's Day, 21st December, where the poor would go house to house a-Thomasing or a-gooding: collecting money, clothing or food.
Rather like modern carol singing, wassailers would go from house to house, often the largest ones, singing traditional songs on return for a liberal supply of beer, cider or pennies. This was collected in a bowl, kept by the King of the Wassailers.  In some cases the bowl was used for this purpose for a hundred years or more.

A Warwickshire wassailing song was:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of a map-a-lin tree,
And with our wassailing bowl we drink unto thee. 

Apple  trees are also commonly wassailed in winter to ensure good health the coming year. In some areas it took place on Christmas Eve, others on Twelfth Night (6th January,) or 17th January, which corresponds to Twelfth Night before the calendar alteration in 1752, a fact which reveals the age of the custom.
This wassailing involved pouring cider into the roots (and drinking liberal quantities at the same time) and often placing cider-soaked toast in the branches while singing songs which varied according to area.

As the pagan customs died out, the wassail tradition was transferred to the Christmas season, and is likely the origin of carol singing which is still going strong today.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Oak Moon

The full moon of December is often called the Oak Moon.

 December is the end of the year, when thoughts turn forwards and also back. We automatically consider the New Year as a time for a fresh start.
The oak is symbolic of this. The Celtic words for oak, duir or derw, have the same root as 'door'. And the oak was considered a gateway between lives, worlds, and spiritual stages of life. This is why the tree was sacred to the Druids - 'Druid' itself deriving from the same root.

 The Oak King ruled over the dying year, superseded by the Holly King of the new year. The oak is the last of the deciduous trees to lose its leaves in winter - they hang on well into December - giving another connection to the dying year. The holly is of course evergreen, and symbolises the continuing thread of life throughout the months of death.

 And so life goes on, through the doorway into the new year.