Friday, 26 December 2008

Montol and the Lord of Misrule

In this article, Alex Langstone looks at some of the folk traditions surrounding Christmas and the New Year, and links them to ancient esoteric mystical practises in Britain and Europe both in the past and very much in the here and now.

Montol and the Lord of Misrule
by Alex Langstone

The Christmas traditions we are used to today are largely the invention of Victorian society and early 20th century advertising! Before this time, Christmas was only observed in church, and much of the pagan mid-winter traditions that have become mainstream today, were largely forgotten. In Yorkshire, Wales, Cumbria, and Cornwall, however there were Chistmas and mid-winter folk-traditions stretching back hundreds of years, with many traditional folk-carols, music and rural traditions connected with the birth of Christ and the winter solstice now being revived. In Cornwall some Christmas church services now include the ancient traditional carols, and at the recently revived Montol festival in Penzance, a special choir has been formed to sing these Cornish folk carols.

In Yorkshire, many pubs now encourage the singing of folk carols at Christmas, and in South Wales the festival was known as Y Gwyliau, and would often be the only prolonged holiday in the year when most of Wales made merry to commemorate the end of the year and looked forward to the next one with all agricultural work grinding to a halt for this much anticipated season.

Native evergreens have been collected for decorating the home during the Gwyliau for thousands of years. Ivy, holly, yew and mistletoe have a mystical ability to produce fruit in the depths of winter and were a symbol of the eternal cycle of life on earth.

One of the most celebrated and terrifying sights to travel around the narrow alley ways and winding roads of South Wales was the Mari Lwyd. A horse's head, festooned by a white sheet, ribbons and bells with its jaws set in a trap to make that all important snapping; the Mari Lwyd is an integral and mythical part of the Welsh Christmas and New Year festivities.

Mari Lwyd (Welsh Y Fari Lwyd) translates as the Grey Mare and the horse is a highly significant animal or symbol in the mythology of Britain. Carried around Wales by wassail-singing groups of men, Mari Lwyd was an extremely popular figure in parts of south and north east Wales during the last century although the tradition has slowly died out and is today only performed in small pockets of Glamorgan.

The ritual of the Mari Lwyd begins with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd choir, travelling door-to-door soliciting both permission to sing and to gain entry into the houses of the towns and villages. Ale and Cider would be given as gifts, and gradually the whole event would become a community merry-making party! A similar tradition can be found at Aberconwy, in North Wales, where Penglog, (Welsh language: head or skull) assumes a similar role.

Bucca Dhu and Penglaz, Montol 2008

In Cumbria, the St Bees Traditional Mummers have recently revived Mumming and Guising around the pubs of St Bees on Christmas Eve and in Cambridgeshire the East Anglian folk-tradition of Molly Dancing at Christmas and the New Year is once again popular!

Montol hag Nadelik

In Penzance, Cornwall the ancient traditional festivities have been revived as the Montol Festival. Montol is a Cornish word meaning Winter Solstice, and many ancient customs of Nadelik (Cornish language Christmas) have been incorpoated into the modern festival.

Christmas as celebrated by the Cornish prior to the Victorian era had much of the elements we see in the modern Montol. In particular the singing of Carol's (Christmas folk songs as opposed to Christmas Hymns), the lighting of the Mock or Cornish Yule log and its chalking or carving with a stick man symbolic of what has been lost, and is still to come. The candle dance and 'Obby 'Oss also form a central part of the festivities.

Guisers and Musicians in a Chapel Street Hostelry (Photo: Sarah Jenner)

Many from the diverse communities of Penzance come together for this celebration of balance and harmony. It is both a mystical and religious celebration, combining the pagan folk-traditions of old, with the traditional Cornish Christmas observance of the Virgin Birth. This truly is a time of year where old customs and religious observance become entwined and entangled,and Montol is a perfect example of this

Penglaz, the Penzance town 'Oss leads the torchlit candle dance, and Carols are sung up on the Iron Age hillfort above the town, aound the Solstice beacon fire. School children make lanterns, and many folk dress up in traditional guise of mock formal, topsy-turvy or mock tatters. This years festival included Mummers, ghost story telling, guise dancing and the iconic Penglaz, the Night Mare 'Oss of the old ways...

I mentioned in my article The Solstice Goddess of Penzance, about the links we can find between the iconic image of Penglaz and Robert Graves' classic folk-prose-epic The White Goddess, and the sovereignty of the land. Penglaz, as the Goddess of the Dark Winter truly comes alive at this fantastic festival.

The Lord of Misrule and the Christmas Fool
As part of the masking tradition a Lord of Misrule would have been chosen to oversee the revels. He is also known as The Abbot of Unreason. Traditonally selected by the local community by some sort of lottery or game of chance, in many places this Lord would have been accompanied by other "mock" officials, such as the Mock Mayor, as happened at this years Montol festivities in Penzance, where Tony 'Mock' Blair, the towns official Mock Mayor was in attendance alongside the real Mayor and Mayoress and other dignitaries.

The figure of the Lord of Misrule is an ancient archetype, often refered to as the Christmas Fool , and he officiated over the great inbetweenness. The time of chaotic revery at Chistmas and New Year is the perfect in-between-time of the modern age, and so perfectly lends itself to this primordial archetype. He is often seen as the Horned God Capricorn, and he who turns the universe upside-down and bends time unexpectedly! Within this chasm of chaos, infinite possibilities briefly emerge and the modern concept of making new year resolutions maybe an ancient echo of this ritual of new possiblitites and fresh ideas! The Lord of Misrule was prelavent in the Roman rites of Saturnalia, which pre-dated the Christmas feast in ancient times. This feast held many similarities to the revived festivities in Britain today, including all social norms and constraints being cast away, whilst crowds gathered in the streets by the feiry braziers glowing warmly in the winter air. In 15th century France the Christmas Fool wore Asses ears, and was identified with Saturn.

The image of the Holy Fool liberates us all from the profane and mundane, and esoterically he is the Lord of the Night who sows the seeds of the future, whilst sailing upon the Ship of Fools across the landscape of our deepest dreams and desires.

In Cornwall the Lord of Misrule is known as Bucca Dhu, the dark face of the twin faced God of the Year. In Wales he is known as Pwca, and in Cumbria and Yorkshire he is the Boggart.


Montol 2008
This years festival climaxed on Satuday 20th December, after a week of mask making, Christmas late night markets, ghost stories and Mummers plays. The evenings festivities kicked off at St John's Hall at 6pm, where many school children had gathered with the beautiful lanterns they had made. Many people were in traditional guise costume, and the Turkey Rhubarb Band led the procession with traditional music of the Geese or Guise Dancers. The fire procession made its way up to the ancient Lescudjack Hill Fort above the town, where the children created a circle of lanterns around the Solstice beacon, which was set in the centre of the Iron Age Hill Fort. The Master of Ceremonies then said a few words, reminding us that it was the shortest day of the year, the Eve of the feast of St Thomas and that the ancient hill fort we were now occupying was fully in use at the time a child was born away in a manger! Here the Turkey Rhubarb band continued to play their traditional mysterious tunes, whilst Mock Tatters Guise Dancers from the Druid Grove of Bega danced their own peculiar Solstice Dance! The Lord of Misrule then danced around the circle before lighting the Solstice Beacon. The Montol Choir then took centre stage, led by Rev. Julyan Drew. The crowd was in for a treat, as many traditional Cornish Carols (Curls Kernewek) were sung into the sacred night.

Later in the evening Guise Dancing took place in Chapel Street, before the torchlit procession, led by the Golowan band, took shape from the Exchange gallery. As the torch bearers, musicians and guise dancers snaked their way down this historic district of old Penzance; Penglaz, the dark skeletal 'Obby 'Oss of Midwinter joined the magical prosession, led in a mystical trance-dance by Her teazer the androgynous spirit of winter's darkness Bucca Dhu.

Penglaz led us all to the final ceremony of the night. On the Sacred Headland, close to the docks, by the ancient shoreline; the Chalking of the Mock ritual was re-enacted. A serpent dance then weaved its way around the Winter Solstice fire, as Penglaz and Bucca Dhu mysteriously dissapeared into the primeval chaotic darkness of the longest night of the year.


References

Masks of Misrule by Nigel Jackson
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
www.penglaz.co.uk
Druid Grove of Bega: Winter Solstice Gallery

Photos
Montol Lescudjack Beacon
Y Fari Lwyd
Bucca Dhu and Penglaz
Guise Dancers and Musicians (Credit: Sarah Jenner)
Penglaz is teased by Bucca Dhu!
Lord of the Night entranced by Penglaz (Credit: Sarah Jenner)
Chalking the Mock

With grateful thanks to the organisers of this fantastic community festival, without whom, Penzance would surely be a lesser place to be! Contact them here www.montol.co.uk

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Stop the Destruction of the Sacred Heart of Penzance!

The town of Penzance lies at the far south-western edge of Cornwall, overlooking the beautiful and unique Mount's Bay, where the last vestiges of the English Channel melds with the wild Atlantic Ocean. The town's name means holy headland or sacred head, and is traced from the Cornish language Pen Sans. One of the oldest parts of Penzance lies at the sandy beach adjacent to Battery Rocks. It was along this shore on the holy headland where Dark Age Celtic hermits and settlers arrived from Brittany and Ireland. St Buriana, St Gulval, St Paul Aurelian and St Madern are all localised Celtic saints, and it is easy to imagine them landing at this beach in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Sandy Cove, Penzance

Gradually a fishing community was established and the site of an 11th century chapel was discovered where St Anthony's gardens lie, just a few yards from the beach. It was here that the remains of a Celtic cross of late antiquity was discovered. This can now be seen in nearby St Mary's churchyard, at the top of the ancient low-lying cliffs of this holy headland. St Mary's is an 1830's Victorian rebuild, built on the site of a medieval Church. From St Mary's church, the oldest street in the town leads away from the headland towards the modern shopping centre. Chapel Street takes its name from the ancient Celtic chapel by the beach, neither from the Victorian St Mary's nor the neo-classical Wesleyan Chapel, both of which now sit along this old road of beginnings.

Remains of Dark Age cross

It is difficult to understand then, why this ancient sacred heart of the town is about to be completely destroyed. The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company in association with Halcrow Group Limited and Cornwall County Council are developing a project to build over the beach and battery rocks, completely destroying what remains of the ancient sacred headland where Penzance was born. This is one of the towns last pieces of wild shoreline, most of which has been destroyed over the last couple of hundred years of "development". Dolphins and Seals are regularly seen here, and the rock-pools are full of life, with anemones, fish and crabs. The view from this small beach is unsurpassable! St Michael's Mount with the Lizard peninsular stretching out behind is a wildlife paradise. It is difficult to believe that this project is even being considered, as back in the 1950s over half of the existing harbour was filled in to make a car park. This car park remains as a constant reminder of idiotic planning!

The plan now is to build a combined passenger and freight ferry terminal to service the Isles of Scilly, along with another car park and numerous buildings and warehouses. The present Lighthouse pier will be extended, and the beach and rocky headland will be obliterated in the name of so-called "modern progress". So in the 1950s one side of the historic port was ruined, and now in 2008, the proposal is to completely obliterate the other side of the historic harbour and docks at Penzance.

The road leading to and from this historic area to the immediate west of the present docks is totally inadequate for any increase in traffic, and this project will bring increased freight traffic, which in turn will cause many problems on the narrow roads in the Barbican and harbour areas of the town. The existing Isles of Scilly freight and ferry service is more than adequate, and given the lack of space available to add any kind of development at this historic and much loved Cornish port, I believe the plans should be scrapped.

Snakelocks Anemone, Sandy Cove, Penzance

The Route Partnership Proposal Isles of Scilly Link has come up with the worst possible option for Penzance in spite of hundreds of thousands of pounds being given to Hyder Consulting (UK) and others. The council tax paying residents of Penzance and Cornwall are expected to pay millions of pounds to guarantee the funding from the Department for Transport for this project. It does not remove traffic congestion from Penzance, in fact it will only increase it! They propose a development that is detrimental to Penzance sea front and will destroy the valuable and irreplaceable beach and Battery Rocks. It will ruin the setting of many listed buildings - the Lighthouse Pier, Jubilee Pool, and the Promenade. The war memorial, which sits between the beach and the art deco splendour of Jubilee Pool, will be lost amongst the new buildings, not very respectful to those who lost their lives during two world wars!

So what about the archaeology of the site? As mentioned the remains of a dark age cross was found at this site. If this project goes ahead, any remaining archaeological discoveries will be lost forever. Penzance thrives on the tourist industry, and the people who visit, do so because they are interested in the unique history of the place. If we allow part of the towns history to be destroyed, what will that tell future visitors about us? It is also worth remembering that this beach falls on the so-called St Michael/Beltane Line, a loose alignment of ancient sacred sites spanning the entire length of Southern Britain.

Autumn Equinox Sunrise from Sandy Cove, Penzance

So what can we do?

There is now an online petition courtesy of the Save the Holy Headland group. The petition is to the Secretary of State for the Environment and is requesting the rejection of a proposal put forward by the Route Partnership to build a passenger terminal and warehouses over Sandy Cove! The whole beach and rock pools would be buried under metres of concrete and obliterated forever. This proposal was rejected in 2004 by local people but since then plans have been going through without the townsfolk direct involvement. I know that this project will not affect people outside of Penzance but it is a stand against private companies who believe that their money can buy anything! We cannot simply stand by and do nothing to protect our ancient shoreline. A shoreline littered with the ghosts of dark-age Celtic hermits and the founding souls of this ancient settlement; a place where the sacred landscape and diverse wildlife of the sea meet and merge!

If you feel you could support this cause then please click on the link below and sign the petition.

Sign the online petition now by clicking this link here http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/save-the-holy-headland-penzance

Protest now by writing to the following:

Andrew George MP, Trewella, 18 Mennaye Rd, Penzance TR18 4NG. Tel: 01736 360020 Fax: 01736 332866 www.andrewgeorge.org.uk

Secretary of State for the Environment. The Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR

Keep up to date with the latest developments by subscribing to the online newsletter on this site http://www.pznews.co.uk/pzHarbour.htm

If you are local, visit the beach, take photos of the wildlife and protest, tell people and keep in touch.

STOP PRESS
It was reported in last weeks Cornishman newspaper (20/11/08 ) that due to massive public opposition, the plans have been put on hold whilst further consultation is held with the public!

Let's keep up the pressure by continuing to protest and lets hope for a sensible outcome.

This article first apeared in Heritage Action's Heritage Journal here

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Solstice Goddess of Penzance

In this brand new article, esoteric explorer Alex Langstone reflects upon the ancient Dark Goddess of Penzance and her links to the towns recently revived 'obby 'oss and solstice folk traditions. He explores some of the origins of the poetic myth and he experiences the dream-like qualities of Penglaz: the grizzly-headed-one!

The Solstice Goddess of Penzance
by Alex Langstone

The ancient Goddess of Penzance has a new guise! She was reintroduced to the people of the West Cornwall town during the 1992 revived Golowan festival. Golowan, the Feast of St. John, has, since its rebirth in 1991, become one of Britain's greatest annual folk festivals, a bubbling cauldron of traditions thrown together in glorious chaotic revelry! Pagan Celtic traditions dance along side traditional civic pomp. Christian worship blends with the colourful and iconic street parades of Mazey day, and Penglaz (the grizzly headed 'Obby 'Oss of Penzance) leads the midnight serpent dance in celebration of the newly elected Mock Mayor of the Quay.

The Cornish Fire Festival of Midsummer's Eve is generally acknowledged to stretch back to pre-Christian times. Originating as a festival of fertility and sun worship at the time of the summer solstice it owes its survival, in part to its Christian association with St John's Eve thus the name Golowan (Gol feast, (J)owan John). Its continuation as a living tradition into the 21st century is thanks in part, to the efforts of the Old Cornwall Societies who hold bonfire ceremonies on ancient hill tops the length and breadth of the Duchy on Midsummer's Eve, and also to the dedicated band of Penzance folk who tirelessly promote the festival of Golowan. References to the bonfires and Midsummer celebrations can be found in Bottrel's "Traditions and Hearth side stories of West Cornwall" (published 1870).

Cornwall is one of the few places in Britain where the ancient observances of the summer solstice are still honoured as mainstream. As the last glimmers of the setting sun light up the western ocean, shades of light flicker; sacred fire beacons blaze upon hilltops from Carn Brea in the west to Kit Hill on the Devon border. These bonfires are a celebration of the summer with the sun at its strongest. Believed to be Druidic in origin, the ceremony is spoken in Cornish, and climaxes with the Lady of the Flowers casting into the now roaring flames a bunch of summer herbs. Festivals in Cornwall celebrated the Summer Solstice as the wedding of Heaven and Earth. Goddess manifests as Mother Earth and God as Sun King. Bonfires were lit to celebrate the Sun at its height of power and to ask the Sun not to withdraw into winter darkness. Midsummer Eve festivals in the countryside of Cornwall, would have firelight shining from every hill and peak. Dancers adorned in garlands and flowers jumped through the tall flames. This ancient Cornish Summer Bonfire tradition was revived during the 1920's and is still popular today. The spiral is a symbol associated with the Solstices and creation by the patterns of sacred geometry. Ancient dances follow the Sun's movement like a spiral. People joined hands weaving through the streets, winding into a decreasing spiral into the middle then unwinding back out again. The Sun moving from contraction at the centre of the spiral at winter solstice to expansion at Summer Solstice and back again. Midsummer is truly a celebration of the primal creative force of the universe.

In Penzance the week long celebrations of the Golowan festival culminate on Mazey Eve, where the town spills onto the streets in party mood. Fireworks are set off at the sea front, and as midnight approaches, crowds gather by the docks to help the Golowan band entice Penglaz, the grizzly headed 'obby 'oss from her stable with music and dancing! Penglaz then leads the mysterious serpent dance through the ancient streets around the docks. This chaotic Cornish dance runs well into the small hours and as previously stated it centres around the Obby Oss Penglaz, the white faced Mare Goddess of Penzance.

Penglaz is interesting. She shares similarities to other skeletal Obby Oss's called Y Fari Lwyd in Gwent and Mari Lwyd in Shropshire. She is the goddess Mari; the Fruitful One, and the grey mare goddess Rhiannon of Wales. She is many things to many people. To me Penglaz is a Night Mare, Epona of the Celts, Mari Lwyd of the Britons, the Bright Goddess of the Night and the White Goddess of Robert Graves poetic vision. She is also so much more, and the vision can change instantly!

She is both the dark muse and a beacon in the night. She is the White Horse Mother carved upon the hill of the dragon, a totem on the land and a vision from the breath of the serpent. Sacred guardian white horse of Britain, Mare Goddess of sovereignty.

So Penglaz is indeed the Solstice Goddess of Penzance, She who governs death and rebirth, transfiguration and renewal, light from the darkness and darkness from light. She is, by her nature, contradictory and confusing, anarchistic and frightening!

To return the balance of the solstices, the Cornish traditions and folklore of Christmas and midwinter have recently been reintroduced to the town. Penglaz forms a central role within this festival too and the Montol festival is now in its second year, and encourages guise dancing, mummers, traditional Cornish Carols and music. Amid the anarchistic celebrations Penglaz is there, dancing her mysterious and fatalistic spiral dance. Bucca, the strange enigmatic Cornish spirit of the sea and of fertility accompanies Penglaz, teasing and enticing the Grey Headed One to play out her secret and guarded mythology in the dark corners and long shadows of Penzance. At midwinter we have Bucca Dhu, the black spirit who plays with the Mare and midsummer sees Bucca Gwidden, the white spirit teasing our Solstice Goddess from her dark stable or nest, "lined with white horse-hair and the plumage of prophetic birds and littered with the jaw-bones and entrails of poets."


References.

The White Goddess by Robert Graves
The Mabinogion

White Horse of Uffington by Paul Atlas-Saunders
Photographs by Alex Langstone (Summer Penglaz) and Sarah Jenner (Winter Penglaz)
www.penglaz.co.uk
www.folkwales.org.uk/mari.html

This article has also recently been published in the Brigantia 2009 issue of The Mirror of Isis. Click here to view.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Samhain: Remembering the Dead

To counterbalance the ever present negative media-hype of Halloween, and the often hideously corrupted traditions that this modern secular and trashy festival now entails, I have written this piece to allow a glimpse into the true meaning of this ancient and very sacred time of year.

Samhain: Remembering the Dead
Prose and Meditation to Honour our Ancestors
by Alex Langstone

The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Time of remembrance and of honouring the dead. The season when the veil is thin and contact between the great divide can be made. The ancient feast is still celebrated throughout the western world as the secular festival of Halloween, on October 31st. However it is only a distant and very corrupted memory of what this sacred festival is all about. It is interesting to note that in Britain, Remembrance Day on 11 November seems to tie in symbolically with similar themes and the bonfires lit on 5th November to commemorate Guy Fawkes' failed act of terror have without even realising it, become a modern secular continuation of the sacred Samhain fires. The Christianised festivals of All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day are celebrated on the 1st and 2nd November respectively. In the Goidelic Celtic languages of Scottish Gaelic and Irish, Samhain means November, and the entire month resonates with the meaning and symbolism of the ancient festival. In Cornwall the feast was known as Allantide, or Nos Calan Gwaf in Brythonic Celtic Cornish. Penzance particularly had the custom of giving Allan Apples, large red apples to each other on October 31st for good luck and this custom persisted until the late 19th century. Turnip lanterns were made and lit after dark and stories were told about the ancestors and the otherworld of faery folk and enchantment!

Samhain is about remembrance, communication across time and space and especially honouring our ancestors and remembering our deceased loved ones. It is also a transition point in the yearly cycle. Winter is just around the corner, the harvest is complete and longer nights and shorter days are upon us. The sun's power is waning and leaves are falling from the trees. In modern Ireland and Scotland, the name by which Halloween is known in the Gaelic language is still OĆ­che/Oidhche Shamhna, and it is still the custom in some areas to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast, and to tell tales of the ancestors on that night. The of opening a door or window in the west for the beloved dead, who are specifically invited to attend, is central to this ancient custom. Many leave a candle or other light burning in a western window to guide the dead ancestors home. Divination for the coming year is performed, and this is a time for deep communion with God, Spirit or the localised deities of the district, especially those whom folklore mentions as being particularly connected with this festival.

Samhain Prose.
Crows crowing, flapping somewhere overhead. The wind cries the ghostly song of the departed. We stand alone in this desolate, yet welcoming place. It is cold, and dusk is laying her blanket over the rolling landscape of sweeping, undulating hills. The naked twisted trees dance in the half-light of a cold autumnal evening, and vicious clouds scud across the menacing sky.

Old ossifying bones lie hidden here. The bone-yard of the ancient ones lie sleeping in this valley, and the ancient mortuary house holds the key to this place. Half buried under four thousand years of mud and stone - but only half-buried, still!
Whispers, half forgotten whispers from the dimming memory of yesteryear. Whispers fade in and out, blending, melding 'twixt the winds playful movement 'neath the trees. We can almost taste the past here! Fleeting and unknowable, but tangible and contradictory. All of this and more. Scattered shards of invisible bone. Ghostly hair, tooth and nail hide here amongst the invisible remains of last years decay. New life sprouts, mushrooming fungus and multi-coloured lichen have successfully colonised this enclosure.

This space, this sacred area of the deceased; the departed ones who haunt another realm, an inaccessible realm of half-fulfilled dreams and visions of poets and painters from across the ages.
Ancient prehistoric lines of power converge here. The shining pathways of the ancestors, corpse roads and coffin paths where we walk with the dead.

It is dark now, and the Yew tree observes all from the darkest corner of this enchanted world. This is the ancient, wise and cunning you!

Tree of departed souls, tree of renewal, guardian tree of graves. The old twisted branches rustling and creaking in the ghostly vale of dreams. Associated with immortali
ty, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life, rebirth, transformation and death.The Yew is considered to be the most potent tree for protection against evil, a means of connecting to your ancestors, a bringer of dreams and otherworld journeys and a symbol of secret ancient magic. In hot weather it gives off a resinous vapour which our ancient far distant ancestors inhaled to gain visions. Yew wood was regarded as especially magical to the Celts, due to its connection with the dead and the ancestors which were deeply respected. Let the lesson of the Yew be observed - welcome travellers!

Samhain Meditation.
You find yourself standing in the corner of a churchyard by a huge ancient Yew tree. Its hollow trunk, gnarled and split with age, appears like a gateway leading us into the night! A crescent moon illuminates the darkened sky and the stars glisten. This is a thin place! Allow yourself to be guided along the shimmering old straight track, from the thousand year old Yew tree and it's surrounding grave-stones we walk along a well defined path. This ancient corpse road follows an even older line of earth energy and it has a purposeful and meaningful destination. An owl screeches and a rustling is heard in the nearby undergrowth. Nocturnal creatures are busy. Old fashioned lanterns light our way towards the hill of the dreaming dead. Ancient standing stones pierce the landscape, and wayside wheel-headed crosses lead us to our enchanted destination.

A fire is burning on a nearby hilltop, a bonefire! The assembly cast the bones of the Samhain feast into the blaze, remembering and honouring around a beacon fire, burning into the nights darkness, lighting a pathway into the dreamtime of the departed. But this is not our destination, we have a date with a more ancient edifice. We continue along the faintly illuminated trackway leading us deeper into the immortal starry velvet night. We walk through ancient woodland, its trees stark against the night. We are heading into Bone Valley. A deeply connected and primitive valley. A place of antiquated trees and antediluvian secrets. Bone Valley will soon divulge our holy destination. The moon's crescent appears once more between the protruding branches, which seem to reach out to the night sky. The clouds have dispersed and bright stars shine like timeworn torches in an antique indigo sky. Soon we arrive at a clearing and we see a stony structure, megaliths protruding from the earth. They are curbing a large oval mound and beyond the stones, through a well worn entrance, we find a gaping black opening leading into a stone chamber. Some of the stones have been carved and round indents cause the surface of one stone to stand out, its quartz veins shining, illuminated by the pale moonlight.We sit within the confines of the barrow's heart. We listen to the silence. We light a solitary candle. We pray for the loving departed.

We emerge from the otherworldly chamber of the neolithic shrine to the dead. It is dawn, and the eastern sky is glowing an iridescent red. The sun is rising, lighting our way home. We follow the pathway back to the source of our deamtime adventure. past the bonefire hill, along the old straight track which leads through the heart of the November woods and the ancient sacred Yew. We take leave of this place, with its needles of stone and its earthy shrines to the dead. We find ourselves in a churchyard, amongst the gravestones, the sun is shining and the crows forever crowing. We are home. We remember!

References and Credits.
November Woods.Tone Poem by Arnold Bax.
Belerion: Ancient Sites of Land's End by Craig Weatherhill
Tregiffian Neolithic Entrance Grave photo by Alex Langstone.
Samhain Yew Portal by Paul Atlas-Saunders

Lelant churchyard wheel headed cross photo by Paul Atlas-Saunders

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Nine Maidens Saved from Fencing and Grazing


Above: Nine Maidens Common and stone circle

"Joy as cattle-grazing plans abandoned" read the headline in The Cornishman, West Cornwall's regional newspaper, of 2nd October 2008.

"Natural England has confirmed that plans to graze and fence the Nine Maidens common have been abandoned" and that the commoners had decided not to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to stock proof the common. The HEATH Project assistant project manager said that "they were disappointed but supported the commoners'' decision. The co-ordinator of Save Penwith Moors said that it was brilliant news "but it remains to be seen what happens with the other areas" and that he hoped their campaign had gone some way towards achieving this result.

Thank you for your support in achieving this excellent result. There is still more to do.

Ross Champion, HEATH Project Manager, was quoted in The Cornishman of 25th September that: “Change is a no-no in West Penwith and some people will do their hardest to make sure things stay the same. But if there’s a common consensus and people don’t want it, we’re not going to go ahead and just do it.”

So please now write or email to Natural England expressing your opposition: Photo (right) from the protest walk on 21st September.

With thanks to Ian Cooke, Save Penwith Moors coordinator for the information. To view the latest see here

Ross Champion HEATH Project Manager

Natural England

Pydar House

Pydar Street

Truro

Cornwall TR1 1XU

Email: ross.champion@naturalengland.org.uk


Wednesday, 1 October 2008

"Castlerigg" featured on Megalithic Poems

Written Within View of Castlerigg Stone Circle has been featured on the Megalithic Poems website. See here and here.

Megalithic Poems is an anthology on the theme of the megalithic structures of Britain, Ireland and the European Continent: structures found at places like Avebury, Stonehenge, Newgrange and Carnac.

Don't forget to check out Lucifer Bridge for all the latest poetry updates.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

The Ingatestone Campaign

A report by Essex correspondant Littlestone

This report was first published on the Heritage Action website, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. Please also see the authors own Megalithic Poems site, which we can highly recommend.


The town of Ingatestone (Ging ad Petram - the 'parcel of land by the stone') in Essex takes its name from a Saxon settlement of 430 acres which originally supported a dozen or so inhabitants belonging to the Gigingas - the 'Giga's people'. The Saxon name for the settlement was Ing-atte-Stone (Ing at the Stone). It is likely that a Saxon church predated the small Norman one built there sometime between 1080-1100. The Saxon church may in turn have occupied the site of a former stone circle as a sarsen (a hard silicified sandstone of a type also used at Avebury and Stonehenge) was found in the north wall of the church during building work for the organ chamber there in 1905. This stone has since been relocated to the south side of the church.

One of the eight Ingatestone stones now on the
south side of Ingatestone church. Photo credit: Littlestone

There is evidence that some Christianised sites in Britain and Ireland have been in continuous use as sacred meeting places from before the Roman occupation. Such sites may have started with people meeting in groves, or close to springs, ponds and other water courses. The remains of a stone circle, either near or actually beneath the church itself, are sometimes found at such sites. Often an Anglo-Saxon, and then a Norman church, were built on t
he older pre-Christian site: Alphamstone and Broomfield churches in Essex and Alton Priors and Pewsey churches in Wiltshire appear to be examples of this continuity. The north wall (the oldest part of the Church of St Edmund and St Mary at Ingatestone) is constructed largely of broken puddingstones, although there are also several quite large dressed stones in the buttress between the north wall and the tower. The puddingstones in the north wall of Ingatestone church are interspersed in places with layers of Roman tiles.

The astonishing puddingstone wall (Norman) on the north side of Ingatestone Church.
Did the puddingstones once form part of the circle here? Photo credit: Littlestone


In the south wall of Broomfield church there is a similar pattern of flint nodules interspersed with Roman tiles, as well as a few small broken puddingstones and one single, very impressive, puddingstone which protrudes from the base of the south wall. It has been suggested that the sarsen now on the south side of Ingatestone church, and the two sarsens on either side of Fryerning Lane in Ingatestone High Street, once belonged to a single standing stone.

One of two sarsens at the entrance to Fryerning Lane. Photo credit: Littlestone

Whether or not the 'stone' in the name Ingatestone derives from a single stone, or several stones, is unclear. To complicate matters further the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names gives the origin of the name Ingatestone as, "One of a group of places so called, this one distinguished by reference to a Roman milestone." Were the first Saxon settlers at Ingatestone referring to one (or more) pre-Roman standing stones on the knoll now occupied by the church or to a single Roman milestone? A cursory examination of the sarsen in the churchyard, and the two sarsens at the entrance to Fryerning Lane, suggests they may actually be three discrete stones. The Freyering Lane stones seem to have been at their present location from at least the early 1930s - ie some twenty years after the stone embedded in the north wall of the church was discovered in 1905. If it can be shown that the Fryerning Lane stones have been at their present location since before 1905 however this would indicate that the sarsens are indeed three separate stones. This may be important; there are five other much smaller stones on Ingatestone High Street (making a total of eight so far accounted for) and these might have once formed part of an Ingatestone stone circle. Together with the broken puddingstones in the north wall of the church this could indicate that a stone circle of considerable size and variety once stood on the knoll now occupied by the church.

While the smaller stones, some painted white and now scattered along Ingatestone High Street, might not yet be considered important enough to return to the Ingatestone churchyard there are good reasons, on grounds of conservation and heritage, for returning the two large Fryerning Lane stones to their likely place of origin on the church knoll.

A campaign is underway to achieve this aim and emails of support should be sent to Ingatestone and Fryerning Parish Council at office@ingatestone-fryerningpc.gov.uk or to Heritage Action at info@heritageaction.org

For details of Littlestones interesting research at Broomfield, Essex, please click here

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Save Nine Maidens Common

I recently received correspondence from local author Ian Cooke about a scheme proposed by Natural England's HEATH project to fence off parts of the Penwith Moors in West Cornwall in readiness to graze cattle. In imminent danger is Nine Maidens Common. I visited the site today and here is my humble opinion on the sorry saga.

Save Nine Maidens Common
A report by Alex Langstone

Nine Maidens (Boskednan) Stone Circle

Nine Maidens Common and other areas of significant archaeological importance are under threat from the Natural England HEATH project. The project has plans to manage the wild moorland of Penwith in West Cornwall. Whilst I have absolutely no objection to the management of the moors (they do need managing, otherwise they will become bracken and gorse thickets!) I am concerned that by putting up fencing and allowing cattle to graze areas such as the Nine Maidens common will be detrimental to the sensitive nature of the landscape. Cattle cannot eat much bracken, and as bracken is the main problem on the moors, I do not really understand why we need any more grazing than we already have? Land management by bracken clearing is one of the things that the HEATH project are already successfully implementing through education and the need to clear with traditional methods using machinery, hand tools and people.

The Land's End peninsula is world famous for its archaeology and beauty; and whilst it is, and should remain, a working landscape, we need to strike a balance between the needs to
the land, the needs of farmers and the needs of tourism. The HEATH project is a well meant project, and in some areas cattle grazing is a good idea. But, cattle around ancient sites of significant cultural importance can create muddy quagmires on open moorland. Damage to the stones and the fabric of these ancient monuments can be substantial when cattle are allowed to graze amongst them. Erecting fences with points of access through gates, will create damage and erosion to the landscape by funnelling people into small areas of entry. Cattle also congregate at these entry points, which can only make the problem worse. Nine maidens common does not need any grazing. I visited the site today, and it is well managed enough already. It is one of the most popular areas of open moorland in Penwith, with acess to such famous sites as the Men an Tol, Nine Maidens stone circle, Men Scryfa and Carn Galva. Plus loads of other bronze age barrows and standing stones, not well known, but equally important. Other areas such as Mulfra Common and Lanyon are also being considered for grazing. It is important to note that the Nine Maidens Common is a registered common, and as such, needs the permission of the Secretary of State for Environment before any changes can occur.

Most importantly, Nine Maidens Common contains some of the finest and most interesting prehistoric sites in Southern Britain. Boskednan stone circle (marked on OS map as Nine Maidens, pictured above) is partly ruinous, but retains enough to be a dominating presence on the moor. When first viewed from the footpath, it stands out prominently almost on the top of the highest ridge. Eleven stones remain of the original twenty-two, one of which is remarkably tall for the stone circles of the region, standing at 2 metres. Other stones range from 1 to 1.3 metres in height. A slightly later round barrow touches the south side and can be clearly seen. About 40 metres north- north-west of the circle can be seen the remaining stump of an outlying menhir, and further to the north are the remains of three round barrows, one of which still has its large retaining stones, (pictured below) though the earthen mound has long since departed the scene! All in all this is a superb Bronze Age archaeological landscape, which needs to be protected and preserved.

In conclusion land management is vital to the conservation of our moors and heaths,
but not by cattle grazing at the more sensitive archaeological sites please!

A dedicated website has been set up by local author Ian Cooke, please visit and sign the petition, write to local MP, Andrew George, write to the Secretary of State for Environment, The Rt. Hon. Hilary Benn MP, and above all, tell people about this. It is vital we all have our viewpoint put forward before it is too late.
www.savepenwithmoors.com

You can also contact the HEATH project and
visit their website www.theheathproject.org.uk
Point of contact; Joe Oliver, partnership manager.
Email: joe.oliver@naturale
ngland.org.uk.

Or write to:
The HEATH Project, Natural England, Pydar House, Pydar Street, Truro, TR1 1XU, tel 01872 245045
Andrew George MP, Trewella, 18 Mayne Rd, Penzance TR18 4NG.
Secretary of State for the Environment. The Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR

Remains of round barrow on Nine Maidens common pointing towards Carn Galva

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Penwith Moors Debate


The Penwith Moors, home to one of the greatest concentrations of ancient sites in Britain is under debate. Should some areas of moorland be fenced off to allow grazing with cattle? Or should it be left as it is - as open moorland?

I will write more about this soon, when I have gathered all the facts and re-visited some of the sites affected. In the meantime see the following links for further information. Let me know what you think.

Save Penwith Moors
HEATH Project

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Poetry News


The Aira Force Faeries poem has been published in the Lughnasadh 2008 issue of The Mirror of Isis, under it's regular Poet's Corner feature. The magazine is an official online journal of The Fellowship of Isis edited by Linda Iles. The Mirror of Isis seeks to actively promote the work of FOI members around the world. Now in its third year, you can view the current issue here.

The Aira Force Faeries can be viewed here

Monday, 7 July 2008

Glimpsing the Green Man of England

A Wander Through the Proverbial Thicket in Search of the Foliate Face of the Wild Wood!
by Alex Langstone

This article focuses on some of the lesser known green men carvings in England, along with curious anecdotal information on some of the locations. The article is partly based on the excellent series of articles that folklore expert Ian Dawson published in Albion's Sacred Heritage (ASH Magazine) during the 1980s.

Whether you define the Green Man as an archaic god, the pantheistic face of nature, the Spirit of the wild wood, the green face of re-birth or an arcane folk-inspired pub-name, he is all around us. Peering down from the rooftops of the great Gothic Cathedrals, from the corbels of the country parish church, from brightly-painted old English pub signs to the ancient heart of the gnarled and twisted oak trees of our woodlands. His face is there, spewing the foliage of the forest from within, from every orifice it emerges: eyes, ears, nostrils and the mouth, it is as though the foliate face of the green man is actually part of the tree itself!

For here we go on a journey, a journey to visit some of the more obscure and unusual Green men carvings around England. We start in the west, and in Devonshire where one of the most sublime foliate faces is to be found at the Sampford Courtney parish church of St. Andrew. This sacred building was rebuilt in the mid 15th century and the carving dates to this period. It shows a lovely bearded benign face spewing leaves from his mouth. Some commentators have likened the face to Christ, and it does have those classic features of Christian iconography to a certain degree, as you can see from the image (left). The church has other interesting carvings including the tinner's rabbits, and the sow and piglets, along with two other green men.

From here we venture to the pretty Somerset village of Spaxton, where in the centre of the village lies a newer chapel once famous for the Victorian cult of the Agapemone based on the vision of Rev.Harry Prince, an Anglican priest, who left his church as he believed that the holy spirit had taken residence within his very own body. Here he built a religious community including a chapel. It was here that the defrocked Rev. Henry Prince set up his community of "soul brides" inside the perimeter of a 12 foot high wall and ferocious guard dogs. This community was remarkably successful in its time. Though they did court the expected "moral outrage" from the popular press, but many of the locals grew fond of their village cult, and some of the older villagers still remember some of the cult members.


Spaxton is nestled upon the edge of the stunning Quantock Hills, overlooking the shimmering Bristol Channel, St Margaret's dates from the 13th century and has three green men, two on the font and one of a bench end (right and below). It is a very peaceful spot, and the superb views across the rolling countryside of west Somerset are breathtaking. The nearby village of Enmore has it's own virtually unknown green man in the parish church carved on a pillar in the north aisle.

Moving further west to the parish church at Launcells in North Cornwall, which can trace its heritage back to the 11th century and has a dedication to St Swithin (originally St Andrew). This beautiful perpendicular style church sits in a peaceful valley by the Upper Tamar river not far from Bude. It is a lovely location and a nicely cared for holy well can be seen close by which reputedly never runs dry. It's water, by tradition, was a salve for eye ailments. Inside the church one of the celebrated 15th century bench ends depicts a green man, with leaves issuing from his forehead, and vines with berries from his mouth. Presumably he is the ancient spirit of this peaceful river valley? (pictured left)

Moving now from the west to the far east of England, and to a land very different from the west country. This landscape is of the East Saxons, virtually nothing visible remains of any earlier Celtic settlement, and the ancient Celtic kingdom of Trinovante. But an Anglo-Celtic 7th century chapel does still exist at Bradwell-on-Sea, and glimpses of Celtic mythology blend with Saxon and Viking legends and myths, to form a heady mix of folklore and secret Witchcraft traditions that live on to this day in the more remote spots along the lonely coast or deep within the gently rolling and wooded rural countryside. In this part of England there are many virtually unknown green men carvings, which may hold clues to the ancient past, when the landscape was dense woodland. Essex folklore researcher Ian Dawson has done much work on cataloging these eastern foliate faces in his excellent series published in ASH Magazine in the 1980s and early 1990s.

One of Ian's greatest discoveries was during a visit to St John the Baptist church at the Thames-side village of Mucking. The former parish church has been in private hand for many years now, but Ian was lucky enough to view the inside whilst the builders were there during the spring of 1989. What Ian found was truly remarkable. He was searching for a green man carving he had read about. Situated on the south side of the chancel, which dates to 1216, on a central pillar is a stone carved green man spewing branches from his mouth. Immediately opposite him, on the other side of the pillar among the foliage is an exquisite carving of a green lady/moon goddess, with a lunar crescent upon her head and horseshoe supporting her chin. Her head is surrounded by a perfect circle which appears thicker on the right hand side as you view her; looking like a shining crescent of the waxing moon! I sincerely hope that these unique carvings have survived in these intervening years, and I understand that the church is still a private dwelling.
Dave Hunt's drawing of the Goddess and the Green Man of Mucking, Essex

From Mucking and the lonely marshes of the Thames estuary we travel north towards the low rolling chalk hills of rural north-west Essex. Here the ancient settlement of Thaxted nestles in the unspoilt countryside. The town is justly proud and famous for it's Morris Dancing folk tradition, revived in 1911 by Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted. During the summer months dancing regularly takes place around the town, some of which truly seems to evoke the spirit of the green man. The annual Thaxted Morris Ring meeting is held on the first Saturday after the Spring bank holiday and includes many traditional dances including the magical twilight Horn Dance.

English composer, folk-song collector and mystic Gustav Holst lived here between 1917 and 1925, and he played much music in the very spacious and lavishly carved hilltop church of St John the Baptist, among the many green men peering down from above. Holst became good friends with Thaxted's controversial socialist and folklore collecting vicar of the time Conrad Noel and the two men would have often discussed the folklore and traditions of the district, along with socialism and mysticism, interests which they both shared. I am sure they would have been aware of the green man as a potent glyph of English mythology, peeking out at them from around the church!

The first of these Thaxted green men can be seen in the north transept. Behind the organ is a richly carved panel where four green men can be seen. On the opposite side of the building on another carved panel can be seen another green man. Another foliate face can be seen on a boss high up at the west end of the nave roof (right). Moving to the the exterior of the sacred building and inside the south porch there is a beautiful green man with great clusters of leaves sprouting from his mouth and head and further along the south wall high up near the guttering another foliate face can be seen on a panel (above left), along with other carvings of Celtic style heads and animal motifs, including a boar and a hare. Thaxted and her church are truly remarkable places to visit with mystery and magic around every conceivable corner!

Thaxted Morris Horn Dance 2007

There is an annual Green Man festival at Clun in south Shropshire, as well as many other folk festivals held across the country, many honouring the green man in some way or another! I will publish more photographs and descriptions on the hidden foliate faces of the forest at a later date, so click back soon!

References.
ASH Magazine No. 4 Summer 1989. "Paganism in Essex Churches" by Ian Dawson.
ASH Magazine No.16 Summer 1993. "Paganism in Essex Churches by Ian Dawson.
Drawing of Sampford Courtney Green Man by Paul Atlas-Saunders
Drawings of Mucking Green Man and Lady by Dave Hunt
Photography copyright Alex Langstone, except Mucking Green Man/Lady by Ian Dawson
Thaxted Morris
Clun Green Man Festival