Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Storyteller panel and photos from Westcountry Festival 2012

Places going fast: this and Prophet weekend the ONLY school events till spring 2013

Sex, Sustenance and Salvation: The Wild Man and Woman

(thanks to Richard Beaumont for photographs. Slange)

In the medieval era, we begin to find literary accounts of hairy men and women living outside the village – often tremendously strong, with animal and elemental attributes – as cunning as fox, fierce as a bear, swift as the wind. The women carried pendulous breasts that they slung over their shoulders, the men had vast beards; both were often entirely covered with hair.

As Hayden White points out (White 1972 :25) these shaggy characters live surprisingly close to our own world, just over the hill, in a forest, by a deep pool everyone knows but dares not visit. They are not entirely remote. The distant desert or far off mountain is the place of the more emphatically malignant being – the monster.

These wild people are known for a loose erotic nature, they are not bound by the labour-heavy, chapel-spun existence of the villagers. The wild man and woman are not regarded as consciously being sinful or wicked, rather innocent, their lifestyle is all they have ever known.

To the medieval villager, most clung pretty rigidly to what has been called the three securities:

Sex (enjoyed and given reign within the sanctity of marriage)
Sustenance (you will be provided for within the structures of social, political and economic institutions.)
Salvation (through the church)

From the distant tree-line, the wild couple see this and will have none of it. Stability is not high on the hairy one’s agenda. One day they feast to excess on a haunch of venison, the next it is watercress and rainwater. There is no call to the plough, no cold pew on a Sunday, no combing of little Jed’s tresses. They live just out of earshot of the crowing cockerel, make love in the sun heavy meadow, crawl belly down through the long grass to wrestle the musty stag. They are not blessed by the dainty water of the priest, their manners not pruned for the neighbours. There is no insurance, no after-life, no restraint – at least a restraint that the villagers can detect. To notch up the outrage still further, they are not even regarded as responsible parents. Legend persists that babies drop from the vulva of the wild women onto the forest floor. If the little one survives life in the darkening wood then so be it, if not, so be it.

But they are not Barbarians; they are not bringing apocalypse with them, all will not be put to the sword. They are not the three-eyed giant of the resolute desert. They are not quite evil, even to the thin interpretation of the villagers.

The relationship between village and forest is porous, with the wild ones as unruly mediators, transgressors. They whisk away the occasional sheep or chicken, can outfox the red faced gamekeeper, carry off well fed little children into the emerald boughs. Anything unexplained becomes explained by blaming them. To the villager, everything beyond the tree line is subject to their imaginations. Orgiastic scenes, pagan rituals, the free pillaging of the king's deer, it could all be going on just over the hill. And the exhausted washer-woman, on her way home to thin-lipped Elias and his rough hands, wonders just who is the better off. Not something to repeat at chapel, but she wonders.

So we detect in the locality of the wild people, and their nature furiously imagined by the villagers, a fairly straightforward case of suppression having to have an outlet: if we’re all being good subjects then somebody, or something near, is doing things we barely admit we may love to do. They’re taking a walk on the wild side. All the natural impulses that are being repressed in the village rise like agitated bees and descend onto the frolicking meadows and sweet grass copses. So the wild men and women from this way are still working within the function of the community, they are not utterly other, they are being a good scapegoat.

This is a very simplistic picture of the wild man and woman, ladled heavy with an incomplete christianity. Around the 12th Century, something very interesting happens, the picture becomes an image – it deepens, develops nuance. Folk lore around this time begins to shift emphasis. These seemingly base creatures start to become associated with a certain ethical ground. They start to become wise. They come to represent the preservation of animals, and a strand of knowledge that can only be found beyond the gatekeepers gaze. They are seen as connected to seasonal turns, weather patterns, protecting denizens, genius loki - they are keepers of an earthy magic.

By this time, agricultural advances had begun the slow taming of the vast European forests, the human hand was forging a new shape onto a previously nature dictated landscape. This shape would effect the psyche as well as the soil and silvery waters. It could be that this handling diffused the intense fears that many felt about travel into wilderness. It could also be that it coincided with a revival of classical, Aristotelianism thought, or could be a peasant reaction to heavy handed evangelising, but from this point onwards the wild couple start to grow in sophistication. Within time they will transmute into the ‘noble savage’, a kind of variant of the Robin Hood theme that is there to act as a kind of leafy reminder to civilisation about what they could be losing. So the wild couple become almost eden-esque rather than licentious. Of course neither is the real picture - inherent paradoxes within wildness make it cumbersome for use as a societal polemic.

In White’s essay “The Forms of Wildness” he makes an important distinction between the words primitivism and the word archaism that I want to layout here:

Primitivism: the raising up of any group as yet unbroken to civilisational discipline.

Archaism: the idealisation of real or legendary remote ancestors.

The latter of the two is the more popular, the more constant. It can appeal to both the conservative minded and the ecstatic Winstanleys of this world. It is a harking back, a nostalgia, for a time before time almost, when the world was simply less corrupt. We see this as a constant in both political agendas and the creation of new cults. It pulls on an impulse that many feel - once upon a time life wasn’t so complicated. In a conservative society it can mask revolution as reformation, a reaching back to a golden age, rather than a complete kicking over of the feasting table.

The first is more complicated. It is similar in the sense of its amplification of old world values, but it also suggests that this lost world can still be found amongst the corruption of modernity. It is not about a superior form of human being from some misty era, but an unshackling of ways of being that have become too unwieldy to carry any longer. In short, we have gone down the wrong road. Nature people, past and present, represent a wisdom that we desperately need. The views of nature within the two are very different; for archaism think of Dante’s vico – the terrible mutable forest, or the ‘dark wood’ of Lucretius. It’s all about life feasting on life, claws, steaming entrails, treacherous paths shrouded in mist, vast moving shadows. It’s a macho scene, and only those adept at conflict will survive. It’s heroic. It is viewing wilderness through village eyes, as epic but treacherous.

The primitivist brings more serenity with it, more of the lovers' garden. It is the move from the rapacious screw in a lighting storm to Persian poetry read together under a Linden tree. As White reminds us, this is the place where the virgin tames the unicorn, when the wild couple step forward as wise teachers, not enemies of culture.

By the time of Han Sach’s Lament of the Wild Man about the Unfaithful World (1530) this secondary position is gaining strength. The wild man is occupying the kind of conscience-pricking eco role of the head dressed Native American on a modern day greeting card. Sach’s text encourages a wild learning, that those bogged down by city life would do well to recharge their inner-nobility, to take to the green wood, to see the world afresh. The old association with virility is never quite lost either. From Sachs, it is only fifty years till a true flowering of European primitivism in Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals. By 1719 some of these notions go viral in Daniel Defoe’s The Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe - a book that radiates the charm of a bucolic existence to a citified England.

The two images of the wild couple have never quite been reconciled. If civilisation is elevated from nature, then they are still lecherous, ignorant beast-people; if you draw inspiration from the living world then they are visual clues to wholeness, to spontaneity, to true stewarding of the land. In the former corner stands Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre, waving their gloves in the other is Rosseau and Debuffet.

It appears that once we feel safe, settled, then we quite enjoy a sense of the wild. Once wilderness is not quite the threat it once was, then roll out the sentiment. But when we are truly buffeted by the society changing radicalness of Gerrard Winstanley, or by living cheek to jowl with the dark eyed gypsies, then there is often a reversion to hatred and suspicion. We don’t like change, and a part of being alive to wildness is change. When the wild is no longer wholly in the hands of the romantic poets and forest rangers, when it is up close and personal, then we wonder if much has changed these last few thousand years. To tolerate, even embrace, otherness is a very sophisticated idea. But it’s an idea, despite the upsets and abuse, that has made England the country it is today. We are a swarming nest of immigrants.

It may be that this very changeable notion of wilderness has helped contribute to the climatic change we see today. Wilderness is never more celebrated than by people who live in cities and rarely visit. Its titillation is fed by its absence.

Unfortunately, many who do make it to the wild have a very different agenda – consumption. Change is certainly on the agenda now, real, life altering change. And tied up with that, with all of this, is the notion of an animate earth. That has been a tireless message from all indigenous cultures. That doesn’t mean that they get everything right, doesn’t mean we should all live in yurts and eat carrots and peas, but it points towards a profound, and hopefully fairly rapid, re-orientation to the notion of earth as teacher – because it is certainly calling the shots now.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Robin Williamson in conversation in our tent 2010


Sky is blue, and in my immediate view on the table is 1,000 Mythteller intensive flyers, one enormous African rams horn (for blowing at lively festivals), five imported copies of 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree', one packet of Lavazza coffee, a hip flask of dark rum, and a seeming mountain of goat, sheep, deer skins piled up as my transportable bed for the next 5 days: yes, it's the Westcountry Storytelling Festival - begins tomorrow.

Last minute addition for the monday - in the words of organizer, Sue Charman:

"Another Festival highlight: Ben Haggarty and Martin Shaw meet head to head for Chewing the Cud – an open dialogue on the state of storytelling in the UK today on Monday 27th August at the Festival.

It promises to be a rare and wondrous treat as two of the most innovative, passionate and powerful figures in international storytelling are brought together on the same stage.

Ben Haggarty was the co-founder in 1985 with Hugh Lupton and Sally Pomme Clayton of the Company of Storytellers; of Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival in Wales and of the Crick Crack Club in London.

Martin Shaw is the founder of the Westcountry School of Myth; he is visiting professor of Mythology at Stanford University in America this year and has written the award winning book on story " A Branch From The Lightning Tree".

We are delighted to have two such distinguished performers back at the Festival to provoke, inspire and amaze us."

Something from the 'Bird-Spirit King: Myth as Migration, a Wild Land Dreaming" book BELOW, from which i will be teaching from this weekend, as well as telling stories. Can't wait - do hope you will come find us.

Trying to find an old boogie box to play ROOSTER MUSIC (what is rooster music? well, i just invented the term. I'm going to investigate, i think we could all do with more of it: Howlin' Wolf, Small Faces, Mongolian Horse music, Patti Smith, Billie Holliday, James Gang, FREE, Muddy Waters, Burning Spear, Debussy), as we roast our coffee over the fire. Do you listen to Steve Marriot from the Small Faces? Do. Find 'tin soldier' on youtube. It's an over used term, but greatest brit white soul singer ever.

Remember, if you want fantastic sleeping arrangements, ring Francoise on:07753 600618

What is Mythtelling?

I use the word mythtelling (often used in the work of Sean Kane and Robert Bringhurst) rather than storytelling sometimes to indicate that the stories are more than folklore – more than the intelligence of the village figuring their place out in the world. Mythtelling has a wider context, that the stories may come from a rock, cloud or deity. It’s not meant as a form of pretension, but to highlight this less anthropocentric emphasis.

The first road maps of the British isles used to include detailed sketches and information about forests, lakes, rivers and mountains. They were not just negligible blurs between service stations. I would hope that mythtelling re-states that attention within story; that we are not just caught up in the twin-lane highway drama of the human characters, but keeping an eye for the lucid twinkles of raven's eye, or the bright sap on the crust of a rowan tree's bark. To mention it constantly would make it self-conscious, but it will come up occasionally as a gentle re-orientation.

Mythtelling is also about a growing awareness of stories that live in the air, rather than on paper. Books like this one are, I hope, useful conduits out into the world for these seven stories. But mythtelling is to take them and tell them, not in my syntax (even when I tell them it won’t be exactly what is written here) but in the way they wish to be told through you. That doesn’t mean cutting and pasting new scenes into it, but keeping the saying of it fresh and responsive to the moment.

The Winged King
Locals still tell of a story of the creation of much of Dartmoor’s landscape, of a time when King Arthur himself arrived on the moors and took on a malevolent dark spirit that lurked in its forests. Arthur is often said to come from the Royal House of Dumnonia, an ancient kingdom that would have included Devon as its centre. The two furies aimed at each other vast quoits (a kind of heavy ring of iron), brave Arthur solid on Blackystone rock, the spirit up to the north on Hel Tor.

They will tell you that the combat lasted days, weeks, even a month before the sheer strength of Arthur’s arm sent the dark one packing. Extraordinarily, each of the hundreds of quoits hurled back and forth had, at the exact moment they hit the soil, transformed into the great lumps of granite that we know as Tors, in fact the landscape as we know it today was actually forged in the intensity of the fight between Arthur and the foul creature.

What is also said is that from the day he left his body, Arthur’s spirit has entered into a chaw – a local name for a chough (which again is an English jackdaw) – that watches over the whole of Britain, trying to wake its deepest connections to its people, animals, and land mysteries.

That the ancient soveriegn energy of Britain is to be found in the ribcage and beaked intensity of a bird is something we should pay great attention to.

So in this gathering of Devonian lore, this treasury of story, this call to olde England, this animistic nostalgia to create good meat for our children’s future bellies, I call on the feathered and sweet black wings of Arthur’s spirit to come again, with power – to the neuted hamlets of the rich, to towns drunk on Friday's pay-packet violence, to the travellers camp dotted bleak on coastal roads, to the golden house of fallen politics on the scat-black Thames.

Arthur is not sleeping in a hill, but a-roaming the lanes, blessing the ruts in a lonely Norfolk field, flying hard over the glitter of London, rustling the spook-trees of the Forest of Dean, endlessly nesting above any market square worth the name. He is looking for you. This longing of Arthur’s has sometimes been called The Hope of the West

Make no mistake, the bird-spirit of the true king of Britain is still abroad.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Friday, 17 August 2012


I'm sipping coffee in the my old, tiny bedroom at my parents house in Lincolnshire. The Thin Lizzy posters have gone, not a hint of Ramones or ZZ Top records stashed by the ancient record player. In fact, it's now my mums painting studio, with just enough room for a few stashed blankets and cushions.

In a few hours me and la fam set off for the Dark Mountain Festival in Hampshire. A radical literature lot, i would recommend checking them out on-line and even buying the books of ideas they produce. It's completely sold out this year, but i will report back on anything that may be up our mythic alley.

I am very excited to announce the MYTHTELLER weekend - brand new - October 12th/14th 2012. For the first time at the school we are focusing on the role of the mythteller as well as the story, and enabling participants to take away with them foundational stones towards mythtelling. Wether you are an experienced storyteller or just have a great love of story, then this is for you - it will be deep, focused work.

Cherry picked ideas and challenges from all three of the Mythteller trilogy books will worked through. Both esoteric and practical, expect (alongside the stories) - the inner-ecosytem of the mythteller/ story as being not repertoire/ myths that migrate, myths of the local/ learning by image not by script/ some history: bardic schools/medieval dream poetry/the Cunning Man and Woman of the westcountry and the use of metaphor as a kind of magical practice. The expectation is to take this information and work with it - no passengers please.

This is work i have been building up to for the best part of twenty years - expect more investment required as a participant, more preparatory study and homework. The year course will NOT begin till early summer 2013, so this, and the 'Prophets of Rock and Wave' weekend (scroll down for that), are the ONLY chances to catch the School in the next nine months. The reasons for that i will reveal soon.

Sign up and details, please email Tina at:


“When everyone speaks so rationally,
it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear”

Joseph Beuys

A weekend with mythologist and author Martin Shaw
Blytheswood Hostel, Steps Bridges, Dartmoor

We have all have a sense of the storyteller as entertainer, but what do we know of the vocations deeper calling? In many oral cultures, the teller is a kind of cultural historian of place. The teller is a hinge between the pastoral and the prophetic, logos and mythos, village and forest.

How could we re-vision such a figure?

Over this weekend, Dr. Shaw offers stories both nomadic and local;
sagas through to folktale, packed with intelligence. Participants will be encouraged to both learn and explore the stories, whilst developing tools to deepen their own study of myth. The weekend will also involve time in the green tangles of Dartmoor, getting a sense of emergent stories from the living world.

In fireside retreat, we will experience five foundational steps to mythtelling, and a journey through the orality of ancient storytelling, to the bardic schools and medieval dream poetry. This is not a passive experience; each participant will leave will a quiver full of stories, fiery language and clear thinking on how to broaden their experience of both myth and its telling.

If you are in the UK and don't have tickets yet, then get yerself over TO (drumroll...)

## Not camping? Great accommodation available in Ashburton for the festival: ring Francois on 07753 600618


The festival will take place from Friday 24th to Monday 27th August 2012 (Bank Holiday Weekend) at Embercombe near Exeter.

Tickets: £85 (Adult) £35 (Child) Concessions & reductions for family groups.

Free camping & lots of accommodation options to hire.

Welcome to a magical, intimate, sustainable festival in the stunning setting of Embercombe’s fifty acres of broad-leaf woodland and wild-flower meadows overlooking Dartmoor and Haldon Forest. World class storytelling and live music, poetry, puppetry, circus show, giant puppets and entertainment for every age group, including babes in arms and older festival goers. Plus deep, dark, edgy tales and songs that explore our roots in this land and in story.

In the old English tradition of wassail, the festival will sing the land awake with story, song and spoken word and the storytellers will take us to marvellous, mysterious and macabre places we have never been before…

“At their heart myths are psycho-active, they do to a person what a dream usually does….. When you engage with story consciously then you open a door in your waking life for a great torrent of insight to come through.”
Martin Shaw

Visit the Red Tent, the Mythic Tent, the Pirate Platform, the Talk Tent, the Juno Tent, the biodynamic TasteGarden, Centrefire, the Grand Yurt, the Den, the O1, the Dragon’s Circle or spend a day in the Greenwood hearing tales of Sherwood and wild women of the woods around camp-fires under the stars. 100 artists in 20 venues over 4 days. 30 different workshops, 30 music sessions, plus talks and tours.

All outdoor venues have a wet weather contingency so the music and stories will be rocking whatever the weather. The camping field is quiet (but gently sloping!)and everything stops at 11pm. Dogs on leads are welcome. If the festival is not sold out by August (it was last time) – we will offer a limited number of day tickets. Watch the website for details.

See shire horses ploughing, watch threshing & try your hand at scything & bread-baking, take part in crafts, activities, survival skills, archery, film-making and song-writing. Eat wild stew and fabulous organic food from Embercombe’s own land and the Food Groove.

Embercombe’s founder Mac, an international TEDx speaker, will be telling stories and talking about Embercombe and its work and there’s a chance to try out several of the Embercombe programmes from Stone Soup to The Journey.

Top European Storyteller Jan Blake returns by popular demand as do UK masters Ben Haggarty and Nick Hennessey. Holly McNish will perform the poetry that won her the UK Grand Slam. Mythologist Martin Shaw will be there with his pirate crew in the Mythic Tent, Young Storytellers of the Year, Banterous Potential, are featured alongside Frankie Armstrong; Caitlin Matthews; Rachel Rose Reid; Jo Blake Cave; Usifu Jalloh; Clive Fairweather; Spindle Wayfarer and a host of international, UK and local teller, musicians, poets and other artists.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Myths with Meaning: Minneapolis Sept 2012


Well, i'm sure it seems as if i have been talking about it forever, but 'SNOWY TOWER: Parzival and the wet, black branch of language' has zipped across the atlantic to White Cloud Press and will emerge, blinking in spring 2013. The last few weeks saw the poetics of the thing go up a notch - with the ideas in place, i could really get dreamt by the wider mood.

So, here is some of the prose-poem it has, in places, become. Sleep - the first section is from Parzival's time dreaming in the woods. Love - is when he is transfixed by three drops of blood in the snow, and longs for his wife. Battle - is when he faces his Magpie Brother on the field of combat. I like his guts. None of that will make much sense if you don't know the story i realise.

Only a handful of tickets left for next weeks Dark Mountain Festival - i'm talking about 'gambling with the knuckle-bones of wolves' if you can make it.



He is a subterranean diver, splendid in the lions blood of his dreaming.

In dark blue armor, he strides the skull of the whale
as indigo language spurts from its blow hole.

He muscles the seas green teeth, caught in Viking ecstasies,
iron-bright words gurgle the grey shale.

He is sharp-eagled in the twigged nests a-top Yggdrasil.
He befriends the moon; he guzzles its blond honey, hears its furry speech.

Alone in a Northern forest
he suckles the dark teat of a rain-bear

In his dream croft, antlered thoughts
hang like animal hides from smoky rafters

And everywhere the snow falls


The lover surges from the warriors breastplate
The old, bird-dreaming of his youth returns

His blood cooks like red branches under blue skin
His longing is sharp like an Irish knife

for the Bright Daughter
Sea white foam is her arm

Curly heaven between her hips
Deep rooted in the soil of her goodness

She rides the whale-road of his soul
Calls up the dark storm in his heart

Grass does not bend under such a foot


If my life be short may my fame be great!
Let herds of bear surround me

Give my sword the death-screech of the owl
My very fists rain-daggers from the hills of Ceredigion

My mouth tusked and blood-drunk
my skill a leap of smoke, mud and darkness

causing a hard slip to my beautiful enemy

Like Brave Tyr
I place my hand in the wolf’s mouth

I will not count cost
but shake the frame of all that comes for me

loosen my sly magics, my immaculate damage

I am a storm-line


I suck on the pap of life

and will be a good butcher

to those that come to wrench me from it

Copyright Martin Shaw/White Cloud Press 2012