Thursday, 30 June 2011

Imps and Beardies

barefoot fishing bliss (with new pal Jonas)

Finally home for awhile.

Around 4.30 am two mornings ago i finally paid the cab driver and crawled into my own bed after a nifty 18 hr journey involving..drum roll please.. one speed boat, 3 coaches, three trains, two flights and a final taxi through the devon lanes as dawn broke. Found out the driver went to the same primary school as me, just 20 years before.

I was just back from Norway with Coleman Barks and Lisa Starr, having fun at the Festival of Silence outside Oslo, and then a couple of days on a remote but utterly wonderful island retreat. Fish roasting over open fires, wine, chocolate and hrs and hrs of sea waves and poetic talk. Both Coleman and Lisa read like Lions. We made the most of our time together - Myself and Barks 'liberated' a bottle of Apple Brandy and sat up in the weird half light of a norwegian 3am discussing Wordsworth, John Lee Hooker and a certain kind of Norwegian snail i had found - enormous. I guess you had to be there. I liked the Norwegians though didn't stay long enough to detect the 'Viking' spirit as such, these folk seemed more like the groovy objectors to pillaging that opted out. Played with some of the musicians often associated with the ECM record label - holy moley those cats can burrrn.

So it's ALISTAIR MCINTOSH and myself next wens- (scroll down for details) at the chicken shed, behind Schumacher College, Dartington, and then the final weekend of the Year Programme that weekend after. The tues after that i open for the one and only, main man, folk legend MARTIN CARTHY (alongside Katheryn Williams, Green Garside, Mike Heron and Robyn Hitchcock) at the Eden Project in Cornwall before sprinting back the next night for an evening of storytelling in Mortonhampstead up on Dartmoor.

So just a little note today, self explanatory....

Books that Choose Their Owners
It’s early autumn and I’m in Uptown in Minneapolis, in the American mid-west. Unusually I have an afternoon to spare and am in a favourite bookshop. On a high shelf I spot a book of African myths and folktales.

I reach up to pick it out, but it’s so high it proves difficult. A tiny little volume to its left keeps jutting out instead, trying to attract my attention. I repeatedly push it back in again and grope for the larger book. Finally, almost like an act of defiance, it pops right off the shelf and I catch it. I peer onto its cover. ‘Folk Tales of Devon’ by V. Day Sharman. The cover photo is of a local Devon Blacksmith’s forge from the late 1940’s. My father as a child played by it endlessly, often when he should have been at school. The photo also leads up a lane to a house (just out of eyeline) my family longed to buy. The very world of story and poetry was opened up to me by a dawn walk with my father through that very photo’s scene thirty five years ago. And now, in the land of Cowboy and Indians, Macdonalds and John Coltrane this book had literally leapt into my lap. I pay the man and hurry to my lodgings.

Stories are not repertoire, or glued to the heavy ink of the page. They are promiscuous beings that occasionally elect a particular woman or man to speak through. If they pick you – even in the afternoon in a mid-west bookstore – it’s wise to tell them when they want to be told.

Martin Shaw copyright 2011

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

BARDIC SECRET: Nearing cut off date for application

Reseeding Language: The Panegyric Tongue

Well, no sooner have the bags been unpacked from my grandmothers funeral and before that the U.S. trip i find myself refilling them for a trip to Norway to teach alongside Coleman Barks and Lisa Starr at the Festival of Silence this weekend, just outside Oslo. The mechanics of this meant obtaining a day turn around passport from the office in Peterborough, up near my parents. Hand over the dosh and a a four hour wait. Still, thats it done now for the next ten years.

So here is something of an enticer for the 'Entering the Bardic Secret' retreat in August (see above). There are always exceptions to what i write below, but the main points are worth considering i think - in general it's a call for a kind of freshening up of the word Bard really (especially that it applies to both genders (and passing adders and learned sparrows) - the thought that it's a kind of mens club is appalling to me, even if thats what history has pathetically attempted from time to time). I know this freshening process is already underway in certain bardic orders and huzzah and kudos for that. There is a cut off date approaching with this retreat - july 15th, so apply now or forever hold your peace. If you haven't worked with me before i will require a letter stating your intention in undertaking it and previous experience. Contact today.

We could look at what the word bard really means. Bard in the way many people use it, and I have myself, frequently, is a woman or man poetically alive to the mysteries – and having the facility to translate that into some expression of art. As time moves on the historical reality often becomes somewhat different. I will mention a few of those differences, whilst also suggesting that the force of a word should not be bound by its historic content exclusively – it could indeed be re-seeded, wrought anew.

Firstly, over the centuries the working bard sometimes developed into creatures of court, not of the forest, paid to construct verse in a very specific, un-spontaneous, rather laboured form that confirmed the wealth and prestige of the lord, his family and history. In other words, they were on tenure. Secondly, and a crucial point, is that the bards crafted verse of a specific cadence, a cadence they worked very hard to master, but in doing so, completely annihilate their local, regional speech patterns. If you aspire to bio-regionalism this is a disaster – the bardic verse rhythms do not hold the mutterings and wyldish syntax of a specific area. Be it Welsh or Scottish it can be hard to find much difference. It is an elevated language, which has its beauty, but the price is severe. There is a weightlessness, a cutting of the bard from their home ground.

A storyteller friend of mind speculates that the elevated language may have been a way of delivering hard truths in a form that ensured their safety, rather than in their more spontaneous, local tongue. A kind of ritual protection.

Thirdly, the image of the bard as kind of singer is a fiction – these really were not songs. Studying the meter and breaks of the verse it is clear that whilst they were to be accompanied, it would have regarded as rather common to call them songs. Still, that doesn't have to count for a jot now does it?

Fourthly, bardic speech swiftly became frozen speech. It was claimed that you could take a praise poem for a Leinster king of the 8th century, and, given a quick touch up here and there, present it as a 16th century panegyric (Bergin 1912 :206). There are dazzling displays of technique down the centuries, but less inspiration. The ground of image they are permitted to use has been so negotiated it loses much of its joie de vivre.

So are we to rid ourselves of the word ‘bard’ ?, has my rather depressing act of journalism robbed us of the beguiling story that has been wrapped around them these last few hundred years? I don’t think so.

We could claim the name, re-sacrilise it to the porosity of wild intent, ground it again in a hundred yards of dark earth. We could expand the role of the bard to a complete reversal of its previous ambitions – to laden its speech with the inflections and knowledge of a range of country say five miles around where we works and live. This is not to be luddite, but to playfully reclaim the power of the word, rather than academically strike it off the list.

Much is still admirable, from the astounding feats of incantational memory to their retreats in total darkness. A graduated bard would have mastered 60,000 lines (Macalister 1991 :122) of verse. We have an account from as late as the 18th century from Martin’s Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (Martin 1934), “They (the poets) shut their doors and windows for a day’s time, and lie on their backs with a stone upon their belly, and plaids about their eyes being covered as they pump their brains for rhetorical enconium or panegyric; and indeed they furnish such a style in this dark cell that is understood by very few…”

The focus of the bard was the preservation of language, the anchoring of history and wider knowledge of genealogy and heraldry. It seemed they had to cover much inner ground before the emergence into the wider field of court life. At its best it originally offered an emphatic kinship to the earth and a genuinely prophetic undertow. A bard was not orginally a career move, it was not really even about composed poetics; they were a beautifully carved totem of bone and heartbeat that absorbed the lucid curls of inspirations foam and the heat of animistic companionship.

My wondering is just what happened to that inner development when faced with the rigidity of the courtly system?

The greatest poet of Shiraz, Hafez, was a kind of bard, and composed incandescent lines of attack on the hypocrisy of “faking a religious faith” (Lewisohn 2008 :70). He is an exemplary focus on the true bardic spirit and would bear intensive study for any student of wild intelligence.

Bearing in mind the linguistic restraints, one of the strangest things I ever heard was that, were he alive 1000 years ago, Ted Hughes would have been a Bard. Pardon? Hughes carried the dialectical strain of rural Yorkshire through his poetry his whole life, revelling in it, a boar in dark mud. From this point of view he is absolutely, resolutely, cut from the cloth of the travelling minstrel, ecstatic, Seanchai, Cunning Man, not the tired clichés of a paid up, please the boss, court poet.

....And yet, from the common perception of the Bard as wilderness seer than he fits the bill with a bow wrapped around it. He even took what we could just about regard as a bardic chair when he became Poet Laureate, although the effect that had on his poetry is hotly contested.

When we look at how we generally speak, the bardic perogatives are hardly high on the list. We know we mostly speak a language with the fat trimmed off. If it veers off down esoteric pathways then we are clearly pretentious rather than attempting to hold delicate ideas within a tender net of words. Lets stop awhile here, and stalk the rebel notion of being a mongrel bard, a lucid reclamation of ...

And for the next stage you will have to sign up for the retreat!

Copyright Martin Shaw 2011

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Hoagland, Shaw and some good things.


(Thanks for photo Natalie).

Something on the fox this week.

This entry is dedicated to the life of my grandmother Christine Gibson - a loving, wily, beauty of a woman. Love you gran.
Her funeral is tomorrow, so a long drive to old Lincolnshire awaits - but will be worth it many times over for a celebration of this woman's rich and extremely long life. Back in her beloved Alec's arms, abliss in the bee loud glade. x

Down in Devon, our great Trickster is Fox. I met fox the first time not in the wild, but in the sprawl of south London – it’s first trick. It was about 4.30 in the morning and I was leaving my small shared flat in Brockley to spend a day fasting and walking in Epping Forest, about an hour outside the city. As I turned the key in the lock I heard a slight sound in the dark and there it was. A male fox – a dog, reynard, or tod fox, whatever you wish to call it. Despite growing up in a fair amount of rural splendour I’d never seen one before. It had a glowing brownish red coat, black legs and ears, resplendent tail with a swish of white at its tip. Given the tail as well, it seemed about four foot long. It rotated its ears and sniffed.

There was a good few moments of eyeballing where I tried to take in as much as I could of it’s atmosphere and appearance before it strolled – not bounded – slowly round me and further into the small garden. The walk I was on was preparation for a four day fast, which meant that from that turn in the lock till my dusk return I was in an tacit sort of ritual – that I would experience a flood of information about my life; a sort of prophetic hall of mirrors. To see a wild animal, least of all the fox, within several seconds of it beginning, was quite a moment.

The day was long, bewildering and tiring. I had started to resent the lack of food and my mind was a buzz with conflict, about as far from being ‘at one with nature’ as it is honestly possible to get. I was sheltering under an Elm from sheets of rain, when suddenly, a fox burst from the undergrowth with a still twitching squirrel in it’s mouth, elegantly flashed past and was gone. That woke me up, grounded me, and got me past the twitching squirrel of thoughts that I’d been carrying. I followed the fox trail and got terribly lost, only finding a road some time on. Later that day, in a café in Liverpool Street Station, whilst tearing chunks from a burger and shovelling down fries, I turned over the meetings with town and country fox in my mind. I still am. Over the years fox has been a frequent but distant visitation.

Fox knows about giving dis-information, ask any Devon farmer. When hunted it will deliberately run through a flock of sheep, just to break the flow of its scent to the hounds, creating confusion. When hunting it will hide in a bush and mimic wonderfully the anguished squeal of a rabbit, often bringing out a nursing mother or old buck to see what is happening. Their death usually. Still, rabbits are smart too, so the fox only has a minute or two till they get used to its voice and start to ignore it. Fox plays the same trick imitating baby lambs, with ewes wandering off anxiously towards the sound and the mercy of fox. Up in the Snowdonia valleys I have sat at night sipping coffee on a dry stone wall and heard this eerie game.

Fox is a great storyteller, and good with character roles, as we have just seen. They have a five octave range and up to twelve different sounds to produce when adult. Like the fairy they despise iron – the gamekeepers say they can smell it. If caught in an iron trap, they, unlike a dog, will make no sound of complaint, but steadily gnaw through their own limb rather than be caught. They’re tough that way.

Fox loves spreading rumours about its strength and genius. To this day, locals will claim that when fox kills a goose, it slings it over its back and trots off – impossible but wonderful. Another great storyteller, Shakespeare, recognised kin when he saw it and gives thirty one praises to fox scattered through his work. A very old piece of Devon folklore is the notion that when fox is troubled by fleas he takes a piece of wool in his mouth and starts to step slowly into a stream. The deeper it gets the anxious fleas crawl through the fur and eventually end up on the wool when only its head is above the water. Once all on he drops the wool and is free of the itching.

Fox’s cunning is such that it has a somewhat ambivalent reputation – in the myth-world it frequently steals Coyote’s food, or nips off with the sun, or outwits the wolf. The Japanese love the fox – called Kitsune - and celebrate its intelligence, magical juice and, mythically at least, it’s long life. Really powerful foxes in their stories are in possession of nine resplendent tails. For a fox to become a human all it has to do is place a human skull over it’s own face. One final piece of vital information from the Japanese is this: any woman encountered alone, at dusk, could be a fox.

That explains a lot.

Myth is full of dis-information as a ritual tool – remember that story of Bluebeard? A youngest sister marries a man with a long, flowing, dark blue beard. A powerful man. He has to go travelling and offers her the run of the castle. He encourages feasting, company, cheer, good times. He gives her a heavy ring of keys to each room – but just that one thing. Do not. Under any circumstances. Use the little ornate key that opens the room underneath the castle. Of course she can’t help herself, is magnetised to use it. Inside the locked room she finds a floor awash with blood, and many other old wives of Bluebeard hanging like smoked meat on hooks from the wall.

Remember that childhood of Finn MacColl? He meets Finegas, a hermit waiting by the bank of a river, waiting as it was prophesied that he would catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the Boyne. When eventually he catches it the hermit sets young Finn to roasting it – but just one thing. Do not. Under any circumstances. Eat even the tiniest morsel of the fish. Of course not! The last thing on my mind. Whilst roasting this fish, Finn blisters a thumb on the bubbling skin, brings it to his mouth and absently tastes the fish. In a second he takes on all the knowledge that the Hermit was waiting to receive. But when the Hermits returns he reveals that he deliberately went away for this very moment to occur.

Remember the story of the Handless Maiden? When the maiden’s husband is called to war she sends him the happy news that she has conceived a child. On the way to the battle front the messenger is lulled into a sleep by a dark spirit who contorts the message to it being that she has birthed a changeling – half dog. The King bears up well, sends his love back and to ask for whatever she requires. The message is again distorted; he’s furious and demands the heart and tongue be ripped from the maiden as proof that the woman is dead. From this awful news the maiden and child have to go into hiding, and the King spend seven years wandering the deep forest looking for them.

The key Bluebeard gives his wife opens the door to seeing the hidden horror of her husband, the instruction not to taste the Salmon is to invite the possibility that Finn will, the slandered message of her husband leads to her ultimately growing her own hands back and his wandering in the woods weathers him into an appropriate husband. The dis-information often comes in a way that on an immediate level seems ghastly but on the biggest picture is vital for the wider unfolding of the story.

Mythic dis-information is a very sophisticated way of understanding the human psyche. It understands that we don’t always respond to strict orders, and that the results of our choices are rarely black and white – all three of the above stories hold tremendous paradox within them. Like fox these dis-informers break their scent, pretend to be another kind of animal, story, piece of information. Whether we wander out into the jaws of fox or slink off some other route, within myth, it is always in service for the wider stream of the story and the growth of the individuals within it. It’s rarely all good and rarely all bad.

Like fox scenting the iron of the trap, it understands the multiplicity of truth – those snapping jaws are the straight ahead, one answer, get to the point, three step perspective of literalism. The thing to remember is the intention behind it –within these stories it is to lead towards a kind of sacred education, an ending of naivety, a greater capacity for life. It is in service to life. That is key – when dis-information falls out of story, or society falls out of its story, it can become simply deceit.

In much of my twenties, any time spent around the fire with Native elders was rarely spent in the ‘straight talk’ of the West or any kind of elevated ‘spiritual’ language. Any question asked was rebuffed, rebooted, turned on its head, fell into silence, scuffed, cuffed, flew three times round the room and was answered two hours later in an entirely different conversation. They were quite rightly suspicious of straight instruction, something that hadn’t brooded in the psyche a little, rather than just leapt from brain to brain. There would be no wildness present in an answer like that.

To the literal mind, myth itself is a profound form of dis-information. There can be no truth in its images - A hedgehog, standing on a rooster, playing the bagpipes? Try to be serious! But the image, with it’s wayward intelligence distrusts the societal rush to the concrete picture and uses the brilliance of metaphor to disable (at least briefly) the triumph of logic. Logic is not the enemy but a dance partner.

## We need all deposits for Alistair McIntosh and Bardic Secret weekends NOW please! venues to book etc. E-mail today

Martin Shaw copyright 2011

Thursday, 9 June 2011


Woman is Hot Moon Gazing on Water

Hey, two entries in one week - whatever next. Lightning Tree is out by the way, and looking fine - please go direct to

Carrying swiftly on from the horse magic commentary i include something on a character called Condwiramurs. There will be bits and pieces below that may be hard to follow without knowing the story but i think the gist is there. On his travels (and letting horse take the reigns) Parzival comes to a castle besieged - inside it is this formidable women, who will be the love of his life. That's not a phrase you seem to hear much anymore, but in this case it's a fact.

I know god will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that he didn’t trust me so much
Mother Teresa

Soul seems given to retreat, wet feathers, far distant storms, is in love with elegant paintings in shadowed rooms, closing doors on busy parties, eats melancholy as a form of beauty, inward – Spirit far more linear, rousing, specific rather than associative, outward. However, on a direct, emotional level of the story Condwiramurs is showing plenty of spirit too, plenty of heat. No one is entirely one without the other. Rigid definitions of the two lead us straight back to the ego anyway. Although forced into a position of seeming retreat, it has occurred through her refusal to marry for anything but love, to remain resolute amongst pressure and expectation. To a contemporary mind this is admirable, to a 12th century mind it is extraordinary, indicative of an enormous change in cultural perception.

Many musicians, artists and writers have crossed that small bridge to the castle. It is the moment when sparks of talent, blown on by the rigours of repetitive practice, open finally to the great oceans of sound and brilliance we find in Shakespeare, Delius and O’Keefe. It is no coincidence that the castle is found next to the vast open sea. In Russian fairy tales it can be a moment when a young man following a thread lain by a Firebird throughout his life, has to call on briny powers of the sea to search its depths to find the wedding dress of a formidable princess. It is a moment late in Yeats life when all the extraordinary lyricism of his early work slows into a simpler cadence, but with words that are a thousand miles deep.

So when we meet the Maiden of the Castle, the ‘Guide to Love’, our story implies that she calls us to activity, to prove ourselves. They said in medieval times that it was appropriate to only be romantically involved with a man that had proved himself in battle three times. They also say it kept the men active and the women chaste! So what in us has to be defeated? We have examined erotic lethargy for one, but what about a life entranced only to wealth, status, or political expediency? Our own imaginations can fill that out tenfold. But there is cost and there is risk involved in getting near the Maiden of the Castle.

Thinking of Maidens of the Castle, woman holding a clear value structure quite independent of external pressure we could mention Simone De Beauvoir, Catherine the Great, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Eleanor of Aquitane, Emily Dickinson, Rosa Parks, Emmeline Parkhurst, Maria Montessori. These women are great columns of energy radiating sideways into culture. Without Joan of Arc following the source of this energy through celestial voices and then leading France to victory, then King Charles VII would never have lain his recumbent arse on the throne. I think of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who, as young women threw herself into the horrific aftermath of world war two by helping not only concentration camp victims but Germans piece together a new for themselves, and go onto write the seminal “On Death and Dying”, or the Empress Theodora, labouring with heart and soul to make Constantinople a city of elegance and women’s rights – closing down forced prostitution and engendering equality for women in the divorce courts. These are real women, sweat and blood, conflicted, brilliant, not caught in the stained glass of a troubadours adoration or the dismissal of the secular.

In the 14th century, Padmini, the princess of Chittor, lead her courtly ladies to suicide rather than surrender to the king of Delhi. Two hundred years later Chittor was besieged again, this time to the Mughal emperor Akbar. Hugely outnumbered, the men surged out of the castle to certain death, whilst again the noble women took their own lives by leaping onto a fire rather than submit. The most renowned of all is the Rani of Jhansi, a 19th century freedom fighter. As a child she studied archery, self-defence and horsemanship. When her husband died and the British announced their intention to dissolve the state and deny her sons right to inherit, she threw herself in with the resistance. She became a terrifying but beautiful figurehead for the movement. She led from the front and women started to join up as warriors. When finally outnumbered by the British, she, in keeping with her sisters in history, refused entirely to surrender and died on the ramparts of a fort near Gwalior. The British were forced to remark on her as “remarkable for her beauty, cleverness and persistence.”

There is nothing passive about Condwiramurs. She has a hand in the soil as well as the stars. She is more than a vehicle for heavenly devotions, she’s right in and amongst it, thrashing out the kind of life that she actually wants to live. She is also smart enough to reach into that part of herself that is ready to go out and take on her enemies in combat, an energy that in this story is called Parzival. We remember in the old Norwegian fairy tale ‘Valemon and the Wild Third Daughter’, the third daughter depends on the masculine strength of the Bear to break from her parents castle, but later in the story his life is saved by the feminine strength she provides to break him from enchantment. All of this is going on inside us all the time.

One of the most magical images from a true ‘Maiden of the Castle’ is from ‘The Handless Maiden’

The young woman’s father, a struggling miller, makes an ill informed deal with a predatory spirit over his daughters soul. When the Dark Man comes to collect, the young woman puts on a white dress and surrounds herself in a circle of white chalk. He can’t get near here. Next time round, the chalk and dress is refused her, and she grows filthy, defiled by the dirt of the world. But as he approaches she begins to weep – the kind of tears you or I weep probably only a few times in our whole lifetime. A grief comes out that seems to connect us to the grief of the oceans, the moon, the tides and the private sadness of the owl. The tears are leaping spirits of protection that clean her body as they course down it, and again the predator is foiled, her grief is such he can’t get near here.

This business of a predatory spirit in the psyche is not to be underestimated, that as we have already seen, is in the task of denying life, growth, the unruly festoons of brilliance that emerge from these castle maidens. Both women seen to have access to a vast reserve of feminine strength that is connected to ritual practices undergone thousands of years before they were born. As mythic beings they see the pinpricks of the eternal everywhere, and with this in mind, they show us how to behave. How can the maiden know of the chalk and the dress and the tears, where can that come from but some deep place unbidded?

To be near the Guide to Love is also to commit to a courtship rather than instant gratification. Remember the three nights together before consummation? There is an ancient idea that within you lives an ecstatic man or woman, and to wake them (and in doing so open those imaginative tracks to the God’s and Goddess’s of romantic and erotic love) requires certain internal energies to rise up and mingle with each other before our physical bodies do. This way the myth-world that stands behind you and the myth-world that stands behind your beloved get a chance to get a good look at each other before jumping into the realm of earthly delights. A particular alignment takes place. It creates a room for imagination, for speculation, for longing and desire. This mirrors the very beginning of our story, with Herzaloyde gazing out from her tower.

We recall in the Siberian story of ‘The Deer Maiden’, the moon himself falls in love with a ‘far distant lady’ who tends her fathers herd of reindeer out on the tundra. An elaborate dance occurs between the two of them until finally the moon gifts the young women twelve different names for its phases, names that inform and edify the tribe that she comes from. Had he just swooped down and whisked her off none of those names would have been revealed – there would have been no gift. Ecstatic and soulful art is created from the burning ground of the courtship.

Longing is placing emphasis on time and waiting. In my work as a wilderness rites-of-passage guide longing carries us both towards the initiatory mountain and sustains us on the return. Its very intangibility is a kind of preservative. A preservative in the sense that it stays, slightly from our view, it quickens our arts, sharpens our eye, but stays just beyond our grasp. The many images of pursuit of a white deer in myth are illustration of this very engagement - the ‘questing beast’ of the forests of Camelot. In the Arthurian stories, Camelot, an image of order, society and chivalry, always has an eye for what lies beyond its grasp - that could be the ‘Lady of the Fountain’, or a hundred different quests. There is an understanding that we need to range out past familial borders. Of course, the deepest understanding is that the ‘Lady of the Fountain’ - the source of bountiful renewal lives inside us - but that complex inner journey is mapped out through the outer tapestry of the stories. The detail of Condwiramurs wearing her hair up even though the marriage is not yet consummated is very lovely. It deflects the eyes of the world whilst the inner-marriage prepares itself. Like Campbell’s suggestion “be a tiger disguised as a goat!”, it has some privacy to it.

Martin Shaw copyright 2011

Monday, 6 June 2011

GREAT MOTHER CONFERENCE 2009 (just left 2011)


So here i am, scurried up in a corner of a highschool in Vermont, waiting for a ride to the airport and iron bird home. My boots are scuffed, hair awry and i am hiding under my scarf trying to avoid any more chat. A delightful day though telling stories and doing ritual out in the forest with many wonderful students.

Something simple today - just some adoration and thoughts around the horse. In the wider essay it comes from a moment when Parzival lets his horse take the reigns when approaching the castle of Condwiramurs - his 'guide to love'. Ok, i need to be scooped up in a sweet grass smelling blanket and flown home by gentle swans with a pina colada hidden in their many feathers. I throw golden apples gently to all my friends in turtle island, especially two elves.

.....The horse within myth is often regarded as some seasoned energy that we ride throughout our life; not entirely wild, not entirely domestic. It is the horse that preserves life, our life, in the face of many adversities. It maybe appropriate at some other time to ride the back of a wolf (a different force again), but it is the horse that navigates the wild trails of young adulthood. With its associations of the field and stable the horse also holds a sense of something inherited through the village, the family, the mentor. A wisdom that has been diffused through the steady gaze of many folks over a long span of time.

So the horse leads him to a castle owned by a woman besieged. What does it look like for a horse to take the reigns in our life? Maybe we are less controlling, less manic, more open to the opportunity of the day. Rather than charging from meeting to meeting we take a slower road, a less visible, more rambling route. We visit ruined chapels in France, grind our own coffee beans, make a point of always catching the dusk. This is the beginning of a more interior journey for Parzival.

And what of the beast he rides? It is hard to conjure an animal with a more profound relationship to humans. They have been at the forefront of tribal expansions, the steady plough of the soil, a gift fit for a Queen. They come at a price: hard to break in – but once achieved can become an ally for life.

The Celts were an essentially nomadic people and so particularly venerated the horse. Even as recently as the last century there was the Crying of the Mare ceremony in Herefordshire (Welsh border), and there is still the Mari Lwyd ceremony in Glamorgan. At the first of these, reapers left a small patch of corn in the field and shaped it roughly into a horse. The reapers then tried to cut the horse by artfully aiming their sickles at it. The greatest and most accurate of the reapers sat in a place of honour opposite his master at the harvest feast. The skill of the reapers arm, the spirit of the corn and the magic of the horse were all held in ceremony.

The Mari Lwyd involves a kind of jovial shape-shifting. A group of wassailers – singers of magical songs, would move through a hamlet or village and amongst them was a man who’s face was covered by the mask of a horse. It was wise when confronted by this archaic scene to load them up with red beer and good bread.They can still be found.

Horses are also to do with sound and movement. Under the floor of a seventeenth century house in Bungay in Suffolk, forty horse-skulls were found, incisors resting on oak or stone. The reason – acoustics. The skulls gave the dancing feet a greater resonance, lyricism, power. A true British contemporary nomadic culture, the Gypsies, had a ban on eating horse meat – it would seem to evoke madness. In the 19th century the Gypsies used them to check their owners were really dead. A servant would lead the horse to the side of the grave for several days and call the deceased three times by their name and ask them to come to dinner. Any good man would have been up and out of the soil in a second.

In hidden parts of Scotland there would be secretive gatherings of the Horseman’s Society – a horse cult who would certainly have been branded witches if made public. As an initiate you were led blindfolded to an alter – usually a bag of corn–by two initiated men. Lain upon the alter would be bread and whisky, and standing behind them would be the head-horseman, the equine magician. They were lead a tricky path while blind which served two symbolic purposes – one that it showed the ups and downs of a man’s life, and two that it was the contrary process of a young horses training; if you did not obey instructions then you would feel pain – the magic fell apart if the ritual was not accurate. The made a long and poetic oath to the society, culminating in these words:

And if I fail in any of these obligations that I go under at this time or hereafter, I ask to my heart’s wish and desire that my throat may be cut ear to ear with a horseman’s knife, my body torn to pieces between two wild horses and blown by the four winds of heaven to the uttermost parts of the earth; my heart torn from my left breast and its blood wrung out and buried in the sands of the sea-shore.
(Evans 1966 :231)

At a certain point the initiate would be given what is called the Horseman’s Word. It is tempting to presume that this was some word that could be whispered into the horse’s ear for a result of instant compliance. But here is the twist.

The word is never revealed to the horse.

The word was, in Evan’s words, “lived rather than used”. It was a binding psychic anchor that reached back through many remote cultures to the primordial root of magic and trust that abided with humans and horse. It was not about dominion but relationship, kinship, totem, earth magic, seasonal incantation. It was a carrying of magical privacy.

The horse also holds relationship to some fierce and proud feminine Goddess’s : Epona, Artemis, Diana, Hecuba, Hegate. People have lived and died for these names I so casually list.

The old ploughman lived with their beasts, the Clydesdale, the Percheron, the Haflinger, the Chestnuts, the Gypsy Cobs, often sleeping in the bothy above the stables. Their dreams and the horses formed a tangle. Many of these men carried the ability to ‘Jade’ a horse. You had to be careful with this as if viewed you quickly would be branded a horse-witch. It was the gift to stop a horse completely in its tracks – to seemingly paralyse it. Jading was to do with a particular odour the horse detected, which you then subtly invoked if you wanted it to halt, or twisted its head skilfully away from the scent if you wanted it to move. Done well, to the astonished observer it seemed miraculous. So we see a little of the Trickster in the Horseman’s bag.

In our story Jading is the last thing on the boy’s mind. He follows its pace. After a time we have the strange image of the blustery bridge and Parzival leading his horse across due to its nerves. This is an initiatory opening, and its entry points are often narrow and require some humility – hence getting off your horse. This place of the heart, of romantic and erotic love, is under siege. In the lives of many today, what is placing our hearts under siege?

Copyright Martin Shaw 2011