Thursday, 26 April 2012


Good reading can be hard to find.

I want to write a little this week about the launch of a new magazine - EARTHLINES - from Two Ravens Press, up, up on the far western coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. This extremely elegant mag is dedicated to what the founders, Sharon Blackie and David Knowles, call 'ecoliterature', something with a few more feathered possibilities than the tamer 'nature writing'. Well, the first issue lives up to its promise, and gallops past some - an exclusive interview with WILD author Jay Griffiths, poetry from Alastair McIntosh, a fine story and emotive illustrations from Dartmoor's own Tom Hirons and Rima Staines, and a gutsy and intelligent piece from Blackie on 'Listening to the Land's Dreaming'. And for all you painters, photographers and wider artists - this is a true mythography, it's beautiful, sometimes startling to look at it. So bravo and huzzah for the first issue. To my amazement, a digital subscription is but 11 pounds for four copies over a year. So lets get behind this excitement and sign up! Check it out at:

I found an interview from a couple of years ago that i did, and hadn't seen since. It's interesting how many ideas spoken here got developed into Lightning Tree.

I am pleased to announce that the book has just won the Nautilus prize for Literature, over in the U.S., which i think will be announced officially next month.

Q: What would the mythic imagination have to tell us about our current ecological crisis?

An image I have been having recently is that underneath the soil and arrowheads, the countries of the world are really huge,dreaming animals. Maybe the hysteria around climate change-although very real-is too mental, too heady, and we need to take our attention downwards, back to the murmurs these animals may be sending us. It's like we collectively need to put our ear to the earth and get quiet. Quietness like that will always invoke images, because it is always a stimulant to imagination. The power of the image carries a different kind of impact to just a written idea. The eco-conference at Copenhagen recently would have benefited from storytellers from each country attending and sharing culturally specific stories, so the animals underneath the countries had achance for the image-language to speak for them. I think these animals have quite different characters and desires.

I am making a very rash leap here-that certain ancient stories somehow offered a voice for non-human energies that also exist on (or are) the planet. I am appalled at the idea that myth is merely the neurosis of mankind trying to work out its place in the universe. That completely neglects the porosity of mythic intelligence-that no dialogue of consciousness exists past the ends of our fingertips. That is the world of Alexander Pope-and what has got us into this predicament in the first place.

So a great quietening would be useful. At this moment it is snowing outside. Snow is a great opportunity to slow footfall, to walk deliberately -it's a muffled, pregnant universe. Liminal in its way, and open to unusual associations. So winter could be a step towards catching the images coming up through earth. Walk alone more, pay attention to dusk, make work at the very edge of your understanding. Remember you are loved. Allow yourself to feel complicated and slightly magical. Many of our artists are no longer attuned to that process, so its down to all of us, from any walk of life, to be receptive to the edge of imagination that rubs against open meadows and the flank of the leopard.

I feel that we are expecting a straight line of thought to accommodate the very multi-dimensional process that climate change offers: that we are actually animals with vast souls, and to be divorced from that fact creates such acute dislocation we are capable of creating lunatic damage to our very home. This is more than a need for a manipulation of science to 'save us', this also involves a difficult opening in our own psyche. We need to take account, we need to grieve, and we need to muster courage. It's a time to wake up-no one else can quite offer what you have.
We also need to reclaim time. It seems to have a harsh, worried, pulse to many people. It is vital to reach back through it to a community of ancestors. I don't mean some vague concept but in the work of vitalising folks down the centuries. It is a travesty for us to claim personal impoverishment when we are connected to the legacy of Emily Dickinson, Taliesin, Vaughn Williams, Mirabai, Black Elk, Wolfram Von Eschenbach, John Coltrane or Georgia O'Keefe. Find a specific soul- teacher from history and follow their lead. Our perception of personal community should move back into history rather than trying to squeeze it into the literal constantly. This will also broaden and deepen time around us, and in the same moment makes us more genuinely present. Their work will actually give us a sense of spaciousness.

So, in all of this anxiety is actually huge opportunity.

Q: So what would this opportunity look like?

I think this is an opportunity to develop some manners. Manners to the earth, stars, and animal powers. We could describe any real movement back to an accord with the earth as 'dark chivalry'. Its darkness is twofold:

It carries the sobriety of living through hard times and crafting deeper, more authentic beauty. By using the word 'dark' it acknowledges the intelligence of night, soil, depth, hidden places. It is a mode of being that one grows towards, that has deep roots in the ground of ones experience. Where do you hold your own night intelligence?

In many indigenous cultures darkness is seen as another kind of light- a light that requires a new way of seeing. The Mongolians actually denote beauty with the word dark.

So to see a situation with new eyes, to carry the whiskery genius of our own lives elegantly, and to create new expressions of dynamic gratitude to existence engenders a chivalrous attitude-that you serve something higher than just the grubbiness of personal ambition. The Troubadours of the 12th century had a feeling for this, as do some Trickster stories from tribal cultures. The Troubadours bring amor, rather than just eros or agape-both slightly impersonal in their way. They bring a kind of heart intoxication. This whole thing is about a big old love affair.

The whole atmosphere of the Troubadours was clear that at the back of your head lives an ecstatic man or woman. To wake them up requires a courtship-both to them and out into the world. A courtship with walled gardens, rare flowers, and love of both eloquence and solitude. This is part of that chivalry-and also opening up to the possibility that to have influence in this world you can also be connected to goodness.

Dark Chivalry is something that would originate from a Culture of Wildness. As soon as you separate the word 'culture' from the image of wildness you begin the process of dislocation, that you are no longer 'making-soul' with the land itself. Here's a quote:

"Culture…had meant, primarily, 'the tending of natural growth', and then, by analogy,a process of human training. But this latter use, which had usually been a culture of something, was changed, in the nineteenth century, to culture as such, a thing in itself." ----Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, (The Hogarth Press, 1958) p.xvi

We could think about what constitutes culture, and the return to the use of a culture 'of'…its current, rather monolithic status, in the face of ecological issues, appears shaky to say the least. This assumption of culture or wildness (wildness is not chaos), has created a legacy we see daily writ large all around us. We could say that we have seen the Culture of Wildness in some very ancient tribal initiations. It would be interesting to look at the root meanings of the words.
An association of the etymology of the word 'culture' is colere, which means 'to till'. To till is to dig, to sweat, to make contact with the texture of soil, root, and worm; it is this move downwards again, towards the subterranean. Its seeks relationship to the information of earth- through a certain labour and discipline- that ultimately flourishes into clear wine for the wider community.

The etymology of the word 'wild' includes associations of 'astray, bewildered, confused' which indicates its very genius lies next to vulnerability and the bereft. It is a culture of inclusiveness, and suddenly the Gods are everywhere; implicit in conversation, symptoms of illness, fetish, relationship-we start to possess a vision-language of the deity that stands behind the impulse. In this way we start to understand the reasons why we do crazy things-personally and societally.

I would say that earth is relaying a lot of information right now, and not all of it is accessible with statistics and logic. I believe it is a call to the prophetic within us-a big word. The pastoral-creative work designed to appeal and comfort mass-civilisation, completely lacks the receptivity for the task.

However, without a process similar to the one I am describing it would be very difficult to engender the psychic readiness required. To be clear: to function in their deepest vocation, the storyteller-or artist-or cunning man or woman should stand in the ground of prophetic image, a scarecrow of words, pushed by the invisible winds.

I am working on a big essay to deepen all these associations, and the Westcountry School of Myth and Story is a place where we try to embody this kind of work.

So if countries are dreaming animals we need at least fifteen storytellers, artists and musicians at any serious ecological conference, and fifteen women and men fasting in the surrounding wildlife-opening to the wild land dreaming. If you combine this with the radical intelligence of many climate-groups you begin to get a relationship between the tacit and the explicit, the rational and the intuitive. This level of attention to listening and beauty is a dark chivalry, something birthed from a culture of wildness. That in itself creates an expression of art that is prophetic and open to the Mysteries to speak through. Simple!

Antonio Machado says, "We make the road by walking" and he's right.

It's time to walk.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Nomadic Story

An Iranian Green Wood?

In anticipation of tonights show with Caroline Casey on Robin Hood (10:00pm UK time, 14:00 west coast U.S.), i am including some wild ideas about possible - and i do say possible- roots or instigators for two of the greatest streams of Western story - the Arthurian and the Greenwood cycles. I'm not waving a bible around saying 'this is IT!', but it's fun to entertain. If you would like to listen in live or later on archive, just go to:

A Scythian Camelot
Before we get too sentimental about some numinous, pure, original breed of Englander, it is worth addressing a very controversial idea, one that goes to the very centre of English mythology – the Arthurian cycle.

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor (2000), two scholars of folklore and anthropology, have made the case that the core of this tradition is not Celtic, but Iranian.

Scythia was the western segment of the vast “sea of grass” that extended all the way from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Steppes. Everyone in this region spoke a variant of north-eastern Iranian. The academic view is that the changes in dialect were minimal, and that tribal groups were bound in a common culture. They were fierce; unlike the Celts, who were still utilising horse-drawn chariots, they were on horse back, fighting with bow, lance and sword. In a show of equality, women fought alongside. In fact, it was said that there was a marriage law that forbade a girl to marry until she had killed an enemy in battle.
This was the nomad culture of the ancient steppes: the Scythians, the Sarmatians, and then the Alans of later classical times. They adored art engraved with animals, often with great curling manes of gold, and interestingly were often blue-eyed and blond-haired. These steppe Iranians were visually different from how a typical Persian may look.

Part of the idea of Littleton and Malcor is that, as this culture, now almost forgotten, followed migrational patterns to France and England, they carried a kernel of stories with them – their myths.

In the year 175, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurealius sent a contingent of 5,500 Sarmartian cavalry to Britain. They were posted in groups of five hundred along Hadrian’s wall. When their fighting time was done, instead of returning overseas, they settled in a vicus, or veteran’s colony. The post was very near the modern day village of Ribchester, up in Lancashire. Their commander – practically hero worshipped by some of them – was named Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of the VI legion Victrix, who was charged with the defence of northern Britain. There were numerous occasions for the Steppe Iranians to have contact with Europeans during late antiquity, and to permeate the stories that eventually became the fuller, medieval picture.

The theory is that certain key motifs and characters in Scythian mythology fit unusually well with the Arthurian canon. There is a magical cup called the Nartamongae, a grail-like vessel that never runs out of food and drink, and appears at feasts to the most worthy. It is not in the running as the chalice of the last supper (a later add on), but certainly fits with earlier Welsh and wider Celtic images of a cauldron or stone.

There is also Arthur having Excalibur thrown back into a lake by faithful Sir Bedivere; the great Scythian mythical hero Batraz, when stricken with guilt over much destruction, orders his sword also to be thrown into water – this time, the sea. Both henchmen fail to accomplish the task several times, and both heroes know that they are lying because they are aware of magical occurrences that will take place when they do.

For Arthur, it is the hand of the lady of the lake reaching out, for Batraz, it is the waters turning wild and blood red.
Even the beginning of Arthur’s work life – the drawing of the sword from the stone – bears resemblance to the old Scythian motif of a great warrior drawing a sword from the soil. Even the name Lancelot – never perceived as British in the first place - is suggested to be a derivative of Alan of Lot – the Alans being another well travelled Scythian group. It’s intriguing.

Nomads Breed Nomads
The Alans arrive several hundred years later, in the fifth century, and marry into families in France. The Alans are serious business, they carry quite a reputation with them. They love fighting, adore their wagons, and regard it as an embarrassment to ever be caught on foot. Not a good look. Although they carry their heritage proudly, they assimilate well. Ageing was not encouraged, and killing your parents was seen as quite reasonable behaviour if you needed to spread your wings a little. It was a probable Alan, Judikael, who reigned as a West Country king of the Dumnonii in the mid-7th Century. So a Scythian ruled Devon for a time. As consummate horsemen and warriors, the Alans enjoyed all sorts of privileges, continually intermarrying into the next invading force to the point where, when William the Conqueror takes over England, many of the French afforded English estates were in fact Alans – feudal and deadly lords over the conquered English. It is partially these very knights who commissioned the medieval Arthurian romances that then fed back into France, and had such an impact on Troubadour culture and the courtly love ideal. Could it be such a stretch of the imagination that these lordly enthusiasms of the stories were partially a recognition of ancient images surfacing again in their new home?

It is ironic that those very Lords of William helped create a new nomadic culture – not of the steppes, but of the Greenwood – as a reaction against the brutality of their own regime change. As we will see in a later chapter, the image of these particular invaders forged a strong, marginal consciousness in the relegated, on-the-run lords, minstrels and wolfs-heads, who took to the forest to form wild retaliatory strikes against the “Norman yoke” Funny how it all comes around. Up sprung Eadric the Wild, Brumannus, and brave Hereward the Wake, to combat the most recent set of invaders and ignite the oppressed imaginations.

In their lairs in the woods and waste places...they laid a thousand secret ambushes and traps for the Normans.
Flowers of History, thirteenth century chronicle

The arrival of William was a great class leveller – everyone was in trouble. Even twenty years after his arrival, there was a trail of decimated villages and homesteads in the line marking his march to London. Soon there were only two English names in the Domesday survey as tenants- in-chief of the King. There was Ailric of Marsh Gibbon, gripping his land ‘at rent, heavily and wretchedly’, and Warwickshire Hereward, now in service to the charming sounding Ogier the Breton. It was an unbelievably brutal period, the land and its occupants had trauma reign down again and again.

So we have this bizarre notion of the roots of the Arthurian story, a story seen as the embodiment of the best of English mythology, as being the national stories of the alien conquerors, from way back when.

The Greenwood rebellion it invokes, although never a revolution, instates what I later call a ‘leaf bowed morality’, something that I believe that Arthur and the whole courtly system would be greatly sympathetic to; that the margins hold a clarity of ethics that call account to the indulgences and atrophies of the centre. Where else is it that the Knights of the Round Table ride again and again, for spiritual and ethical refreshment? The two strands of Arthurian and Hood are in no way opposed, but mystically entwined in western mythology. So, it could be argued, that Scythian culture is behind the two most vibrant threads of English story!

Scythia holds some of the most powerful myths that we in the west have encountered. It is right and probable that research should be done to investigate the mythic migratory routes, and that this canon of Arthurian stories and the Iranian images be amongst them.

This is an exciting development. Or at least it will be, until they figure out that the Scythian stories originate in Africa, or North Korea, and then it all begins again.

A story's origins is not its end. It rolls around like a sow in mud, and picks up fragrant lumps of cultured soil and toddles on, drunk and frisky. We find Russian fairy tales in New Mexico, or is it the other way around? The Arthurian romances, Nart sagas, Peublo love stories, keep unfolding, every time we gather round a fire and the mythteller begins.

This healthy tugging at what we presume is established facts has a tricksterish goodness to it – this emerging Scythian Camelot illustrates the collective commons of story perfectly. Who owns the story? The people of the Caucasus mountains? The medieval scholar? The dreamy child in love with the romances? Such it is with empire thinking.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Now that's a dinner date: Hillman and Barks at the Great Mother Conference 2009.

A little on Cundrie - the great Hag of the Woods in Parzival this week. This should prove a goodly bit of prep both for folks coming to this weekend's telling up on Dartmoor (scroll down for details), and the long and deep telling that we will be swimming about in at this years Great Mother Conference, from June 2nd and all week over in Maine, U.S. More on that soon - it's going to be greeeeat.

The scene is a celebration for Parzival surrounded by admirers, when Cundrie emerges from the tree line and truly shames him for his failure to 'ask the question' and relieve the Fisher King. The chivalric notion of shame is complicated, and deserves a review in the light of most modern people's desire to live a life entirely free of it. So, hope to see you either by the fireside this weekend, or in the main hall 'Innisfree' by the lake this June.

The Horror, The Horror

Nothing wakes us up like menace - menace refreshes.
Tony Hoagland

Cundrie's arrival is not pretty for Parzival. Carrying three soul messages from Jeschute, Sigurne, and the image in the snow, he is just starting to relax at Arthur’s table. Then she arrives. The terrible hag. She has a message for the reptile brain, the gnashing crocodile at the back of our head, that ancient fight or flight survival part.

Certain pieces of information can only land with sufficient emphasis publicly. Think of sentencing. The strike of the hammer, the wig and gown, the peering faces from the public gallery – all are ritual devices designed in part to alert the psyche of the accused that something major has just gone down. This ritual devising is certainly all in place here, Parzival is receiving every nightmare-ish shade of dressing down you could possibly imagine. Is this a travesty? An outrage? Or has the boy, as Gurnemanz warned, “lost his sense of shame”?

You have just accepted the Oscar and the husband is found to be having an affair, you pick up the first class degree and the next day your dissertation is found to be a plaguerism. The precariousness of life’s acclaims always seems to carry the threat that some terrible fiend will ride in past the firelight and spill the story on a horrifying secret.

Even at this stage we suspect that Cundrie is in service to some enormous spiritual power. This implies that her scold is part of the arsenal of the prophet – the truth teller. It is worth remembering that scold is an old word for poet – from the Norse, Skald. So is he receiving a kind of grim poetry? She was certainly inventive with her castigation – the ‘feathered hook’ line was a new one in the medieval world. It’s interesting that most of the truly prophetic words in the old testament come as poetry not prose. Her dismembering comes not with the swings of a two-headed axe, but the icy stab of a thin blade, expertly placed on his most delicate regions.

In the old Irish courts, the satire of the bard could make a king sicken, birds fall from the sky, the ocean retrace its steps to avoid an encounter. Words were deadly. But still, is there something thrilling in “negative capability”, as Tony Hoagland puts it (Hoagland 2006 :193). We remember Rumi – “pray for a harsh instructor”.

Hard advice is often heard with dismay, but rarely forgotten. If the individual is robust then they can maybe learn something, but if already conflicted then it can weaken to the point of inertia.

Cundrie is about standards, the upwards gaze, the pilgrim's walk, the tiger’s wrath, slipping through the eye of the needle. She doesn’t want us fat at table scoffing the calorific delights of a neighbour's praise. That could lead to a heart attack. She wants us out amongst the wet trees of longing, following the shaggy trails of god.

There is a link between standard keeping and our earlier associations between the elder and the younger. We love to laugh at the image of the furious old woman or man bemoaning that “things aren’t what they used to be”. But behind the false teeth, filmy eyes and wayward bladder control can be a deadly sharp observer of falling quality in ethics, art, commerce. They too carry bristles, tusks, piggy red eyes, hair sprouting from ears tuned to an older signal. We ignore them and a great passageway of communication gets lost, for behind them – where they will soon be headed – stand the ancestors. Malidoma Some talks about the growing irritations of the elders of the Dagara, as one foot starts to place itself in spirit time. They are seeing through Cundrie's eyes, at the slow turn of the daily procession, and grow tetchy. They let their hygiene go, get grubby like soil and watch life with an eerie and fierce perspective.

The body's truths are writ large as it groans, wheezes, and generally descends to the dark earth. Cosmetic surgery spreads its mis-truths; eyes cranked, forehead uncreased and bloated, trying to encrypt the message of eternal youth over the boney eruptions of age. Cundrie's appearance places herself in the lineage of decay, the ugly and also animals - the lion, the monkey, the bear. The most active, visceral representative of the Grail we have met is a changeling, a woman drenched in hair, but who speaks three languages and wears a hat from London. We have a dazzling mix of style and marginality as the very representative of this highest spiritual value system.

A shape-shift is a form of metaphor – a diverging moment when one word carries multiple associations, wrenches itself from the straight road of enquiry and up into multi-layered expansions of image. Genius has arisen from the margins whilst holding the fiercest soul values. This is an enormous moment in the story. She seems to carry more energy than everyone else at the feast combined.

Let us consider for a minute. This is not the “far distant lady” of the troubadours, no lances are bring splintered for her love, no eyes scouting for the heart. She is the cynocephalic hag of the forest. She is the crossroads apparition, the midnight collision on the lonely road with a white-faced Banshee. She is not a delicate vision peering down from a medieval tower. The image of the feminine as gateway to the divine has just morphed into a murder of ravens, the bent prophecies of the lonely willow, the mad sow protecting her shitty nest. But does she speak in some bark-tongued screech of the woods? No, she is a holder of certain archaic boundaries, she is a mistress of accountability.

My own grandfather, Alec Gibson, was a headmaster of a small private school, strict Baptist, and held what we could call Cundrian values. My own father as a young pupil, less so. A good buddy of his was prone to clambering on top of the teacher's staff room, filling his face with chocolate and then vomiting down the window. Alec must have been thrilled when a wedding ensued between his daughter and the friend of our erstwhile projectile climber. But, as my father has aged, he too carries a bristle or two. Usually a fairly benign, encouraging sort, he has the look of a starved hawk on a worm when it comes to certain, very specific areas. A flaccid sentence of prose, a fluffed drum rudiment, a rash biblical analogy, and suddenly there stands Cundrie behind him, nostrils flared, eyes filled with holy terror. I admire this in him, and have passed through that particular fire on more than one occasion.

But his emphasis is specific not general. Many of us are passive in all sorts of areas until some unsuspecting loafer waddles into our field of expertise and the watchman is roused. We all have a Cundrie trigger somewhere. Cundrie is also about
discrimination, of elevated, hard language, as speech as a form of combat.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012