Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Raven

The raven or crow is woven into superstition, folklore and myth, much more than any other bird. It has always been closely linked with death: a portent of disaster regarded with superstitious dread. This is because of its colour - associated with death – and also its habit of eating carrion and scavenging on battlefields. For example in Celtic culture, Morrigan, the dread Goddess of war and death, often took the form of a crow, and to see her on the eve of a battle foretold one's certain death.

But the associations of this bird are not all negative. In a time when death was not considered the end, merely a transit from one existence to another, often before rebirth into this world, the raven or crow was linked to divine wisdom. What other bird has such an intimate understanding of the machinations of life and death, the two fundamental factors of existence?

Many great folk-heroes were linked to the raven on account of this. Bran the Blessed was a hero-king of Celtic tradition, and his head was said to be buried under what is now the Tower of London, long a sacred spot, as a safeguard against foreign invasion. Bran, in modern Welsh, still means 'crow' or 'raven.' King Arthur was also linked to the raven. A Cornish superstition forbids harming a raven on account that it may be Arthur. This is perhaps linked to the common superstition that to harm a raven is unlucky.

And further afield Odin, chief of the Norse Gods, had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, meaning 'thought' and 'memory,' who told him everything that was happening in the nine worlds.

The crow was also considered, along with other birds including the swan and goose, to carry the souls of the recently deceased to the next world.

The raven is a symbol of the British soul. Ravens living at the Tower of London are carefully protected, due to a legend dating back to the seventeenth century that if the ravens leave, the kingdom will fall. During the Blitz in 1940, raven numbers were reduced to just one. And remember, this is where the raven-hero Bran's head was buried.

I also have to mention the film The Crow, starring Brandon Lee - another name deriving from 'crow.' This film is based on the surmise that a crow carries the soul to the land of the dead, but if that death was the result of a great wrong, the crow can bring the soul back to put the wrong things right. A strange coincidence: Brandon was tragically killed during the filming process. There is certainly more to this film than at first meets the eye.

And there is more to this bird than meets the eye.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Happy Harvest Home

The first of August is the festival of Lammas, a survival of the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, the mid point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It marks the height of the harvest, the culmination of the yearly cycle for both man and all the natural world.

Lughnasadh is the feast of Lugh, the Celtic version of the Year God or Dying-and-Rising God, the deification of all life which rises and falls in eternal flux. Lughnasadh is the time of his death, the time when plants and all other life dies back in order for their seeds to set, ready for the next cycle to begin: Lugh must die in order to be reborn.

It is linked to a tradition dating far back into English history: that of the Corn Spirit. This is the life force of the crop which  is gradually condensed as harvest progresses. The last sheaf to be reaped, now containing the entirety of the Corn Spirit, was always preserved, never threshed. It was scattered back onto the field in spring, symbolically returning the spirit to the land and opening the way for the God's rebirth. Interestingly, an almost identical custom was followed by the peasants of South Russia, known as 'pleating the beard of Veles,' Veles being the local name for this ancient and universal God.

The Corn Spirit or Dying-and-Rising God appears again as John Barleycorn, the subject of a traditional song which sums up the meaning of Lammas entirely.

There were three men came from the east
Their fortunes there to find
These three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn should die

They buried him in the earth so deep
With clods upon his head
And these three men they did conclude
That Barleycorn was dead

There he lay sleeping beneath the ground
Until rain from the sky did fall
And then John Barleycorn sprung a green leaf
And proved liars of them all