Tuesday, 31 December 2013

last day of 2013: locking up the hut

"No One Can Ignore Their Destiny"


Get yourself to the Wood Sisters winter storytelling festival in Devon this first of february: the link above will do it. Some fantastic storytellers - a feast - a great hoard of nutty and brilliant performers. I have it on good authority that women outnumber men at least two to one in this country as storytellers now, and some great examples of the art form are gathering here. Gentleman take notes.

Tom Crane is also a name to watch (under 18's storyteller of the year), Spindle Wayfarer is my absolute favorite teller of ghost stories, rocking up from the south-east is Abbie Palache with her antler-tipped tales, and many lucid and gifted yarn-spinners from the westcountry. Wish i could attend - bless the Wood Sisters and long may they do their work.

Alas we leave on the train for London in just a few hours - so 'APPY NEW YEAR.

Here's some Lorca translation from the Hut. Stephan Harding comes round and sings them in Spanish with guitar and wine. We weep and think about smoking cigars. He then gives them a very literal spanish-english translation. I then get my hooves in and hand them back. We then get out a dictionary and figure out what we can get away with. So here's just a few raw lines continuing this honouring of the feminine. And below that is something from the old country.

OK - see you on the other side. X

Manana (Morning) p. 118
7th August 1918 (Fuente Vaqueros, Granada)
To Fernando Marchesi

Waters song
can’t die.

It’s erotic sap
guttering the fields,
It’s the blood of poets
who’s souls get tangled
in the paths of nature.

Harmonies spill
from her welling crag,
sweet rhythms
she abandons
to us.

In the bright morning
the hearth smokes,
and its plumes are arms
groping upwards in the mist.

..In the rosiness of
a forever morning
she is mist:

moons honey
flowing from
buried stars.

Christ should have told us
to turn in our fears tonight -
all our pain and meaness -
to her who rises to the sky
wrapped in sheaths of white.

No one can ignore
their destiny.
It's the water
in which we drench
our souls.

Grief gifts us wings,
there is nothing to compare
to its holy shores.

Deirdre Remembers a Scottish Glen
Irish, unknown, possibly fourteenth century

Glen of my body's feeding:
crested breast of loveliest wheat,
glen of the thrusting lorn-horn cattle,
firm among the trysting bees.

Wild with cuckoo, thrush and blackbird,
and the frisky hind below the oak thick ridge.
Green roof that covered a thousand foxes,
glen of wild garlic and watercress,
and scarlet berried rowan.
And badgers, delirious with sleep,
heaped fat in dens next to their burrowed young.

Glen sentried with blue-eyed hawks,
greenwood laced with sloe, apple, blackberry,
tight-crammed amid ridge and pointed peaks.

My glen of the star-tangled yews,
where hares would lope in the easy dew.
It is a ringing pain to remember all this brightness.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Friday, 27 December 2013

Crick Crack Club

aha: the bus to the airport..

final weekend of the 2013 year course

goodbye 2013: stories/animals/frontiers

Well how goes it with you?

the last of the relatives are heading home to Norfolk, the oven is filled with cold meats and a dizzying array of present wrappers, piles of books, bags of coal and bottles of rubied ale fill the house. Martin Simpsons beautiful "Vagrant Stanzas" record is the sound of the holidays here at Tregonning House. it's been a blessed year for work: collaborations with David Abrams and Coleman Barks, the poetry work with Tony Hoagland, play writing with Peter Oswald, working with Dr. Helen Geake on Time Team's Dig Village: where archeology meets mythology, becoming visiting fellow at Schumacher college and the delight of moving into the Shepherds Hut (find master craftsman Duncan Passmore to build you one), a wonderful year course with lively brilliant people, and just now receiving the proofs for the early 2014 release of SNOWY TOWER. Ole! Allah! and amen.

Don't worry - there were also all the usual nightmares, distractions, hold ups, and sheer exhaustions that gets us kissing the hem of Saturns cloak. Here's a brief one from the work with Tony:

Scottish-Gaelic; traditional folk charm

I kneel and pluck
the smooth yarrow

to spell-make,
to intrigue the stars to me.

Give elegance to my figure.
Subtract a little from the hips.

May my voice carry cheer,
like the yellowed sun,

may my lips be succulent, full and red,
like the juice of strawberries.

I shall be an island
in the blue-black waves,

a wooded hill on the land,
a sturdy ash staff when my heart is weak.

And just to be clear:

I shall wound every man,
but no man shall wound me.

The Shaw-Patterson tribe move en-masse, in just a few days, to winter in Northern California - Point Reyes Station - where i will be leading the Oral Tradition course at Stanford university from early january. About forty minutes below San Francisco. Class is full with waiting list i'm afraid. So bags are being packed and sartorial choices abound in what we will and won't cart along with us. My avalanche of tweeds will not be needed in Palo Alto i suspect.

I've had many emails from west coast friends bemoaning the lack of weekend intensives this time round - i'm looking for more space on this trip for family and personal study i'm afraid. But - look out for the launch of SNOWY TOWER in early march - and a day and evening event affiliated with Point Reyes Books. Looking forward very much to seeing old and new friends. More as i have it. There is also rumor of me joining forces with pultizer prize winning poet Robert Hass and others to pay tribute to the mighty Seamus Heaney on St. Patricks day - again - more as i have it.

Our SOM 2014 year course has a growing waiting list: don't be afraid to get in touch. For those signed up expect the reading list in the next week. It's going to be a grand tenth year.

There's a job offer too: we have received major funding for the play version of Parzival to be held here in Devon next summer. We need a producer - if you have the experience and passion - then please get in touch with the below right away: the interviews are next month.


In apology for my tardiness of entries in December here is a long piece that rambles and growls. I'm sympathetic that out of it's wider context it may seem a little elastic, but hope you can find some moments to rub up against here and there.

Wishing you the very best kind of New Year that you could possibly have.

A Protean Era

On a whiskered lion’s shape,/ a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar;/ then sousing water; then a tall green tree.
Homer on the God Proteus

With the revival of the storytelling tradition, and a simultaneous focus on the bio-regional, it seems appropriate to recognise that local folklore can be just as nourishing as a plate of fresh vegetables from the garden or a haunch of venison from a nearby forest. It is a form of soul food. Just as the farmers markets are growing happily against the onslaught of the supermarket, and allotments have waiting lists for the first time in a generation, I am suggesting that the vitality of localised myth can be just as crucial to the health of our own inner-ecosystem. In this next section I will move between both the gains involved in this immediate, local knowledge, and acknowledging the wider pantheon of story that is now readily available. It may be a frustration that I will not promote one entirely over the other, but I hope that as we go my thoughts will become clear.

Story orientates: and not just to the geographical landscape but to wider, eternal concerns: concerns of the soul. It’s for this reason we sense the resonance of a Russian epic right down in the gut, we laugh out loud at the bawdy intelligence of a wolverine tale from Labrador, despite having been raised in a different time and space. I would call that nomadic recognition – past the cultural flavours and directly to the energy that lives behind it. It’s the power of a truly vital image; we are shot clean of everyday reference and abide in an almost electrical refreshment, that, for a moment, hangs above specific fields of cultural association. However, for most there has not always been such a wide field of reference.

Many human groups throughout history, have, for the most part, enjoyed a land specific relationship to the stories they tell. Oral culture has almost always been inherently local. Of course, a certain amount of cultural diffusion can be present, but it's often waywardly pulled into the local over time. This generation spanning, steady telling I would call slow ground. It’s a localised cosmos that roots you steady in it. It confirms you, your thinking, your rituals and your tribe; establishes place, and reveals with a slow drip drip drip, the mythic energies you stand upon. There is a social memory around those stories that we rarely have anymore.

This slow ground is becoming rapidly fragmented in what many call a Protean age. Proteus is a shape-shifting god of the sea – mutable, able to swiftly change position. With the hammering barrage of information that we daily face, a kind of mimic of the nomadic leap becomes far more common parley than this slow ground. This endless changing of ground is more rooted in confusion than some mercurial brilliance. I have referred to it as “the addiction to severance”. The message is to expect the unpredictable and inconstant. We multi-task to the last, digesting intestinal-wrecking amounts of stress in the bargain. The TV show, jerkily cutting from camera to camera, illustrates this malaise in a way we all understand. It seems to be revealing some great restlessness of spirit, way down inside.

The Commons of the Imagination
A major factor of nomadic recognition within storytelling – this experience of unknown but somehow emotionally recognised image - is then the move back to slow ground, to enable it to be rooted in the repetitive discipline of crafting and telling the story: the performative. It re-finds its ground by the labour of telling – it grows roots. It cannot entirely replace the origination point of the story, but stories are living beings, origination points are a birthing, but not always an ending of it. Slowly the story becomes settled visually in the inner-landscape of the teller and the listeners. That settling will be wherever you apply some long term focus. The inner landscape will not be the same for everyone.

Although the experience can be very deep, we are beholding different locations, geographies, visual triggers. The image-net is wider. James Hillman talks about “the return to Greece” not as a physical journey to the Mediterranean, but as a revival of pantheistic consciousness. That is the trade for the learning of these stories.

They enter a cross-culture commons of the imagination. A commons as a place of universal commingling. They abide not on a local hill or green jawed gully (except for a very few listeners) but have ended up in the wide, rainbow’ed vista of collective information. From this commons many apprentice storytellers wander excitedly through, gathering a bulb of Hungarian folklore here, a herb or two from Tibet over there.

Of course, this all seems like a snapshot of much that is wrong with modern life. That the specific and vital becomes the generic and jumbled.

As Tom Waits says: “A song needs an address”. We en-soul something by naming it, a detail anchors it in more than a floating intelligence. By taking the original localised references out of the story, have we somehow robbed it of its soul? Yes and no - I cannot go along with that entirely. I would suggest that what is needed within this collective information is a greater connection to ones own roots. To do away with the rainbow’ed, new age picture of everything as a blend, and more the image of a sea port, or desert meeting place, or crossroad’s inn, where cultures and travellers swap stories, recipes, opinions, songs - and all leave deepened by the exchange, but also confirmed in their own ground.

My concern within myth is that the commons is overwhelming the local – we end up with storytellers floating several feet above their own ground, constantly enthralled with the exotic, wider picture.

A Frontier is not a Border
The writer David Anthony (Anthony 2007 :102) reminds us of the difference between the notion of border and the notion of frontier. A border lacks the charge and excitement of a frontier – it is nothing special, just a thin, officious mark between two areas of geography – usually halting a flow of movement. But a frontier; that feels edgier, richer, dynamic; more of the crossroads' tavern, less of the bored official flicking through your passport.

In the centuries before large states, frontiers were generally ephemeral, fluid; there was usually an ebb and flow of bodies in and out. Titles like Teuton, Pict or Celt, were often transitory, umbrella terms for smaller, ethnic groups that would have found this larger, almost national identity untenable. For reasons of negotiation, it may have been politically expedient for local tribes to team up whilst in negotiation over territory with outside agents, but it generally took a matter that pressing to enforce it. Once that matter was settled, individual concerns and identity took precedent.

A frontier also did away with the sharp edges of one language crashing uncomfortably into another. There was usually a gradient of language – porous connecting points – and intergrading local dialects. You could bluff your way through. It is only with the creation of the nation-state that aggressive and pronounced ethno-linguistic borders start to appear – in Europe it really increases with the late Eighteenth Century arrival of the French Revolution. Borders with the least amount of human traffic have the most pronounced linguistic difference. Frontiers are also biologically mutable, not normally a defining indication of gene pool – people transgress all kinds of line when it comes to mating. Of course, there are always exceptions, and a frontier is more crucial as a statement than a constant geography – we only have to think of the Celt/Anglo-Saxon frontier dance across Britain in the years 400 – 700.

Despite this, Anthony evokes what he calls ‘robust frontiers’. Welsh to English for example, has remained strong for over a thousand years. And the Celtic Bretons are sitting on fifteen hundred years of difference to the wider French – clear in diet, art, music, and philosophy. There comes a subtle but tangible moment when identity becomes tied up with not being like those others over the hill, and the intriguing give and take of a frontier sharpens up into the spear bristled wall of the boundary.

But what of the midnight crossings, these bribers, these exotics - the migrators? Anthony lists war, failure of crop, religious intolerance, even the ancient favouring of the oldest sibling (leaving the youngers to leave the den and go wandering for fortune) as incentives. These are all pushes from the nest. Pulls, lures and intoxicants include the perennial hope of the west, or north, or south, or east, that things will be better someplace else. Following a dream. Messages from loved ones who have gone before will encourage the packing of the tent, the slow wagon trail out into the conifer forests and the bandit strewn path between settlements. Often the lures would seem woefully different to the finally- arrived-at reality. There are typically two migratory paths: leapfrogging and chain.

Leapfrogging is a heads down, determined slog through any number of different regions until you arrive at the land of milk and honey – the area most highly rated, the place that got you and your family up and moving in the first place. You could pass through any number of flowered meadows and verdant oases, but will not make deep camp until you get to your destination. Chain migration is more to do with following an established route, it may not be the most abundant, the most overflowing with opportunity, but it’s the safest possibility in an extremely risky enterprise. So, one goes for a tunnel vision glory, the other, some kind of thin assurance of a safe reception.

Mythtelling in its essence is frontier work; a triadic, bustling confluence of story, teller and listener. When it is entirely scripted it becomes a boundary – maybe an ornate, delicate, grand boundary – but a boundary none the less. The porosity, the give and take, is lost. Mythtelling favours not the leapfrogging or the chain, but wanders; open-eyed and meandering through every scene that presents itself. It has an idea of the final destination, and certain watering holes along the way, but the lushness of the bridle-path hedges, or the far distant lope of the mountain lion, are a constantly unfolding wonder. So it is clear to see how diffusion could and did occur in the movement of stories from one place to another. Even in the ‘robust borders’ of Wales and England, stories, like undercover lovers, sneak through and take root in another language, imagination, and yes, culture. There will be no immediate switch to entirely new ways of thinking but a kind of residual hinterland, a testing period, whilst the story goes ‘smokes way’ – snaky – through the fireside tellings and storyteller gossip, into the hearts and psyches of a new group. The firmer the move from tribal ground into civilised states, the harder this becomes.

The Turning: Migrational Changes to Animal and Myth
We know that snow geese are wintering up to 200 miles further north these days, purple finches trouncing even that with a 400-mile hike from their normal nesting areas. The ruby-throated hummingbird is moving from southeast to central Alaska in this resolute move northward. An Audubon Society study recently released, reveals that an astonishing half of 305 bird species in North America – a lively assortment of owls, robins, chickadees and more, are all wintering 35 miles further north than they did 40 years ago.

Urban developments and deforestation all have a part to play, but the sheer variety and scale of these new migrations are bringing many to the inevitable conclusion of climate change. Milder winters mean less shivering for the birds, less hard nights to get through, fewer calories to have to gather. But there is confusion - cranes wintering in Germany rather than their long established southerly flights to Spain or Portugal. This is a risky strategy – to remain in a climate that could suddenly turn freezing, by which point the migration is equally hazardous.

Some birds, like the pied flycatcher, are altering the timing of their migrations in an effort to keep up with the changes. The problem is that the animals and plants that are waiting at the other end of the long flight are in a different state to the old familiar patterning – a state not conducive for the hungry beaks of their nestlings. The siberian crane is facing a 70 per cent decline of its tundra habitat. These wetland migratory birds are down to just 3,000 in number, the last of the grand, ancient tribe. Their attempted migrations between the Arctic and the Yangtze river is facing a myriad of bedfuddlements.

The world is a-slither, a-crawling, ascending to higher latitudes as it gets hotter. The moths on Borneo’s Mount Kinbalu have gone from a steady rise of 43 ft per decade to a staggering 475. After a hiatus of almost 75 years, mosquito born dengue fever has made a re-appearance in the United States. Fish once seen as southern and exotic, like the red mullet and the anchovy, have been caught on the coast of England’s North Sea.

So the animal’s myth-lines are in a wild state of flux, re-invention and flat out disaster. No one knows how this is going to pan out. What we do have is exotic creatures arriving in new and sometimes hostile destinations; ancient fly patterns trashed in desperate mimics of new weather fronts that cannot be predicted. Nests of chicks born in a land that still sleeps, briar unbudded, soil frozen.

There was a time when the mythteller held their hinge position well; between what was resolutely of the people, the village, and what was to be received from the land's own echo location, this was in turn fed back into the ritual life of the tribe and this wider, feathered elucidation kept all locked in it.

Frontiers extended out from the mythteller towards a wider communion of speech: an embodied, primary gestural language that drew in the hummingbird and the profound slowness of how a granite tor thinks. The mythteller would grasp the excitable body language between aligned animals and old friends; what bubbles up in rapid nods and trills, or the twelve tyne antler thrust in defiance of a new threat. They were expert in the endlessly varied plateaux of communication. The verbal greetings were often secondary to the twitch of a shoulder, or the rapid change in a bird's wing speed. To communicate a story well, this all had to be understood and integrated.

Frontiers also burst into spirit communication; the invisible world. Hair raising vigils in the cave depths of a Welsh mountain brought back authentic, prophetic information to the tribal stories – of fairy, and numinous, magical bartering that utilised all the rapid fire eloquence one had – ensuring that mythtelling was more than just a market square theatre.

These changes in weather we are facing, these disappearing animal pathways, would have found their way quickly into the heart of the wider stories around the campfire.

Just as fairytales and myth are moving rapidly into a new commons of the imagination, so too are the animal powers splashing, hovering, padding, and winging their way desperately into previously uncharted areas of the earth, wrenched from the home ground. Even as I write this, out there in the dark and the wild stretches, these migrations are occurring constantly in their thousands. As we sit in front of our flat screens, read our newspapers and sip our cappuccinos, it may be just some kind of background noise at the edge of our thinking. For now.

What are the new stories that these migrations and desperations will engender to the animals? Who has the receptivity, the furred ear, to absorb and include those emerging myths in the wider frame of stories that humans carry like precious cargo? Without that coming together, then things will fragment with every greater speed.

What these chaotic times are inducing is rapid move back to frontier consciousness; the indigo bunting will pay no regard to passport control. But land it must. And negotiate new policies, bartering, and opportunity; familiarise itself to new stories. All these migratory animals are having a vast education in emerging mythologies; their own constants, their Olympians, are but drizzle over the vastness of the grey oceans they fly over. Tundra is becoming forest, all is new. Jungle is becoming prairie.

It could be that stories are being forced to move from their old geographical habitations because they have something important to say about this wider crisis. As the crane settles in a new and unfamiliar German forest as snow falls, so a Seneca shaman story is told in the tentative surroundings of a Plymouth pub. I believe the two emerging migrations are connected. They are speaking over the frontier divides – crow to myth to waterfall to folktale. Both need tuned ears.

What they have to say will not arrive as statistical data, but images that tug on the heart of the listener, that are sufficiently weighty and straight-up-startling to share new light on many coming storms. And a light that is suffused with the eternal, that ‘time before time’, rather than just the strained, stressed-out strip light of the now.

It is not enough to say that we ‘must’ create stories to narrate what is happening to the earth. It is less creating, more listening. Ideas like the literary movement Dark Mountain project have energy to them – especially to then go out and fast on a dark mountain to get a sense of what the mountain is thinking. That’s very literal but has its charm. The gifts of writers are secondary to the surrendering of that gift to the primary experience of these mythic echoes. If we merely use them to back up our fevered imaginings, then we are still experiencing the psyche within us, rather than us within the wider, wilder psyche. We still watch from the city gates.

Remember Holderlin:

I’m sick of you hypocrites babbling about gods!…
As for you gods, be calm! You are decorations in their poems
(Holderlin 1980 :39)

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Monday, 2 December 2013

the move to deep winter

Well - late summer it ain't. Although caught in the visually staggering tendrils of a late autumn, it seems clear the Devon had rolled into winter. How's it with you?

Here's a winter story that's very local to me - Scoriton - where my little kiddie was born - and the story and commentary both come from my a-long-ways ahead before release book "The Bird-Spirit King: myth as migration, a wild land dreaming".

Hey - some new oral-archives (including this story) over at:


and the message from Tina that we have two places left before the Year Course is entirely filled. Check the course page at


to squeeze into the feasting hall...


Father loaded the burner with a sleeper log of ash and gazed ruefully over at his son, peering through the window. The winter night was a blue-black cloak, and snow covered the granite soil. It was utterly still. Turning from the frozen pane, the boy asked his father if he knew a winter story. The man scratched his thick dark beard and spoke up.

“Well, my father says, and his father Silas before him, that if you visited the cattle-shed at midnight on Christmas Eve, you would see a holy thing. They would sit utterly quiet in the shadows and wait. Sure enough, on the chimes of midnight from the church bell, the oxen sunk to their knees in honour of their little Saviour King. Every year this happened, it seems hard to remember things like that these days.” With that, father took a slurp of strong tea, ruffled the lad's hair and wandered out of the room down to the kitchen. The light from the lantern was low, the air thick with the scent of pine. Well, Christmas Eve was come and gone, it was twelfth night tonight, and the walk to the cattle shed would have to wait another year.

He tried to sleep, maybe he drifted in and out for an hour or two. Before too long he found himself peering through another window, dragged from the bed, wrapped in a heavy blanket, hypnotised by the night. Who knows how long he sat there, the bone-white moon light patterning the rowan trees, the grasses glittering knife-sharp.

Suddenly he saw a flash of lantern and the creak of the kitchen door opening, and a small procession emerging from the entrance. Father led, his dark mop and broad shoulders still visible in the mottled darkness. Behind him a group of men and sons walked in a line. They seemed to be heading to the apple orchard. The boy strained as far as he could to take in the scene.

In the centre of the orchard the group formed a circle. The men joined hands, as if part of a children's game. All laughing stopped, the smokers hacking ceased. Suddenly, as one, they started to sing. It was like a single voice, melodius and deep, like a great river. It was as if the boy had known the words his whole life, and he found tears pricked his eyes.

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence you mayst bud, and whenst thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enough,
Hats full, caps full,
Baskets, bushels, sacks full,
And my pockets full too, and my pockets full too!

Father produced a heavy jug of cider, and it was passed from mouth to eager mouth. Fingers gripped the cold handle as it circled. Three times the jug moved round the small group of men.

As the boy stared down, rapt by the unfolding, it seemed he stepped out of normal time altogether. No clock could measure what happened down there. It seemed that behind the fathers and sons stood others. Fathers beyond fathers. And beyond them all the old ones of Dartmoor. The Chaw Gully Raven watched from the black frozen branches, and bright Brutus, and a woman in the shadows with a bow and arrow. And it seemed, as the men drank, that their wassail, their song, was caught by the seeds within future summering apples, breeding life.

The moon stood resolute behind scudding cloud, the stars threw out their frost light. When the small orchard was properly glowing with praise, the procession made its way back towards the warmth of the kitchen window. As their feet crunched the grass, the boy padded down the stairs and peered through the keyhole. He spied husbands cuddling wives, he heard laughter, and his nose caught the scent of a heavily seasoned, roasted chicken being lifted heavy onto a large oak table. He saw a fiddle being tuned on his grandmother's lap. Jugs were taken from shelves and filled with rough cider. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was till that moment.

Suddenly, as if sensing he was there, the door was flung open and he gazed fully at the candlelit scene. There were smiles and ruddy cheeks, and the boy was scooped up and passed from lap to lap before resting on his aunt's. A plate of steaming chicken and roast potatoes were placed in front of him. The music and laughter of that night would be with him always.

And around this Scoriton farmhouse lay the moor; that bruised land that holds its thinking in starling and trembling foal, its deep quarries of sacred language, that is in turn a sullen thunder and then as delicate as the otters ripple on calm water. As they feast, it dreams its mighty dreams.

(small excerpt of commentary...)

And what of our Scoriton tale? Is there not something in all of us, peering out from the window on a twelfth night asking to be told a story? What were the first awakenings that opened our hearts? It’s a story of framed images; of the father and son in the pine-scented room, of a peering through the window at the ancient wassailing, of being lifted into the eternal cheer and goodwill of that midnight feast. The longing of the boy for the eerie, the ghostly divine, is accomplished with a supernatural beauty at the window scene, and then that very awe is brought into the robustly human concerns of food, drink, music and laughter.

Is the father, the chief wassailer, not like one of those old oral mythtellers, using the power of sound to praise and barter relationship with the elemental powers of seed, root and flower? Despite the Industrial Revolution, the motorcars that would within decades be weaving their way up the lanes onto the high moor, the promise of electricity that would soon arrive, this old magic-ing practice was still being invoked on a freezing January night. Like the animal call words, the shepherds of the old speech, the bard in the blackened chamber gripping tight to his talking-rock, there is a world of arcane sympathies that are not entirely diminished.When we are so quick to damn the possibility of animistic traditions and emerging’s right here in England, we lose sight of something unutterably important.

It is easier to simply order online some glossy three volume set of a distant culture's mythology than entertain the oblique notion that a constant, living myth could be slipping like a pike through reeds under our very noses. To entertain that reality would require more personal work, more visioning, more getting buffeted by hard weather.

In the end, we are all children now, we are all perched at a window, wondering at this great scene. In this regard, in the perpetual sentiment of this book. I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life trying to deepen my experience of this thread and its implications. It is less about how we choose to craft a book, poem, ritual about the wild, and more about how the wild chooses to craft us.

Without that submission to mightier powers, we hold the mythic but never the myth. We have a narrative but never a story. In short, we need to let go of the reigns. No matter how inspired the ‘imagined’ re-creation of a Taliesin poem or the like, it remains firmly of ‘the village’, if it does not submit itself to the strange education of wild nature, and the forms of efficacious art that slowly arise from it. Study is good, book knowledge vital, but secondary to this primary form of encounter. And the encounter Is found in the wilderness fast. That is the most visceral element of the bardic experience, but also a part that many would seek to ignore due to the fact that it can often be tough, boring and occasionally terrifying. But take it away and all we have is a kind of re-enactment fair. A theatre set of whimsy that deserves all the criticism it receives.

I take seriously the notion that Arthur is not sleeping, but feathered (Ref to westcountry belief that Arthur resides in a jackdaw)-and what other deities have taken the animal track in this early century?
What divinities hold cathedral in the ribcage and gutsy heart of fox, adder and bat? Does Rhiannon herself wander green Dyfed, as Queen of the Wild Horses, snorting the sweet air of story?, or Gwynn Ap Nudd - King of the Tylwyth Teg, does he submit to the glorious form of the dusking owl as he settles his feathers on Glastonbury Tor?

These beings will get us dreamt before we think of dreaming.

A briared education, the crafting of a discipline, an art, is how that dreaming becomes a wider vehicle into modern living. Dare to be a cultural historian of true things. So I wave the brandy of language in your direction. It’s not one big idea that will save us, no toxic hysteria of conquest or racial purity, not the New Age, but a tough, edifying return to bush soul. Then maybe we will come out of exile, get our last minute invitation to the grand wedding, get scooped up into the warm laps of our wider, feathered, sleek tailed, whiskered, uddered, hooved and furry, scaled and ancient family - maybe, just maybe, feel a glimpse of what could be called home.

Get Dreamt.

copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Monday, 18 November 2013


The sheltering arm of the hut.

Links to Language:

A flurry of links:

One to a telling of archaic Welsh magic and love - "Bloudedd of the Owl-Face" (with a few lines from it below). Whilst at the school we prefer the un-scripted tongue when telling stories orally, these are useful devices for study of the stories deeper implications. I'd really ask you to share this link if you enjoy it - it's a great and rootsy way of getting this information out into the world. A hundred thousand thank you's.


Also a link to a youtube video about the Shepherds Hut i've just take residence of at Schumacher College and the course i will be leading there in 2014: "The Green Teeth of the Earth and the Blue Tent of the Sky: re-awakening the ecological imagination".


Many thanks to the great local craftsman Duncan Passmore for it's creating. Slange.

www.schoolofmyth.com has also had a subtle make over.

A mildly less busy November is giving me some time to work on the Parzival play with Peter Oswald for a Sharpham showing in summer 2014, and also contemplate the great migration over to Norther California for the Stanford residency of the winter quarter. I very much look forward to being back with Jonah and the Stanford Storytelling Project - what a brilliantly far-sighted thing to be established there. Also very much looking forward to seeing my old compadre Lisa Doron - so vital to the School of Myth - and the great sprouting group of artist-tellers leaping out the fertile Californian ground over there.

Reading some great books - will review here soon.

I'll be in London with the Crick Crack clubs story festival on December 14th - before rushing back to Devon to be master of ceremonies at the launch of Satish Kumar's new book that night (details very soon). I'm bringing tabla to that - don't reveal my hand with those arcane drums very often. (maybe for good reason..)


Bloudeuedd of the Owl-Face
Welsh (with Tony Hoagland)

They all knew Llew was handsome.

Llew Llaw Gyffes:
laughing boy, stag proud,
wheat-blond, a lively wit
but gracious to all -
A catch.

Surely one parade of the market square,
one giddy night of dancing
would secure him a wife?


Years before, his own mother
had bent her calm finger in his direction
and swore that he would never take a wife
from any race on this earth.

Oh, he could rut till he was giddy,
grow hair-backed and barking in the May day rituals,
but no deeper union would be his.

He would never truly be rooted to a woman.

With her hex she thinned his lovemaking,
cut the banks of wild flowers to a buzz trim,
drained his forest pool of all its gloaming fishes.

Bait would drag his shallows and no more.

Off you go, lover man.

Llew's uncle, Gwydion, was a witch of repute,
and he observed this crippling with a keen eye.

He saw his sweet nephew
grow thinner with each amorous clamber,

a waning not suited to his years.

Vast Gwydion resolved to help.

With another cunning man, Math,
they looked hard to find cracks
in the old bitch's casting.

“On this earth?" they asked each other;
"What if she was not from this earth?”

With their night intelligence
they packed provisions for a quest - a hunter's kit -
and made for the black hills.

Shuddering in gale, salmon-pinked by sun
they scooped up flowers of the oak, the golden broom,
and the far-laced meadow sweet.

Tumps of wild blossoms,
heaped like a woman’s curves,
until a body was arrayed on the sweet grasses.

A fume-tangle of heavy scent, of delicate buds
and foliaged beauty.

Then they muttered with their stubbled jaws,
cast great arcs of potion liberally over
the sex, the heart, the brain of this leafy thing.

This great ship of flora,
wet-rooted in the underswing of earth,
drawn up into collaboration with freezing blue stars.

Proper magic.

Wild geese in the smoky air
peered down into the changeling, -
a shape alive - shifting in invisible gusts,

- rootsy hips, mooned face,
scalding the wetling grasses.

It was two who went up.
It was three that came down from the hills.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Saturday, 9 November 2013



There are a growing collection of short spoken word pieces here on storytelling/the medieval wildman and women/dartmoor myth-lines and other intriguing areas. They won't be accessible for long - we will continue them as a student resource-but for a little while we are adding them publicly. So please share and enjoy whilst they are there. They are less storytelling itself - more some of the areas around story we are exploring at the school.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Sally Shaw: Sun and Moon (1968)

martin shaw interview

Part of a new interview upcoming for www.schoolofmyth.com

Interview with mythologist and storyteller MARTIN SHAW


Where can myth lead us right now?

From abstract solitude to the inhabiting of a vast, earthly interior. That takes a little explaining. The greatest gift that mythology got in the twentieth century was psychology. Psychology made the numinous energies that radiate through the old stories if not exactly approachable, then relatable. Many people made a home in the chest for the gods, denizens, blue-tailed magpies and magnificent weddings the stories contain. They stepped forward and were able to say; “all this lives in me!”. That is a wonderful move. Without it, not much is going to happen. It’s what Hillman called “felt experience”. This is a great legacy from Jung, Von-Franz, Estes and Bly.

But i think something else is starting to happen. Something that pertains to the almost zeitgeist desire for a rooted or indigenous sense of place. What if we dwelt within the psyche of the story rather than imagined it was all neatly contained within our own heads? What if the stories owned us rather than the other way around? What if myth - in the words of Sean Kane - was “the power of a place speaking?’

Something i have witnessed from working with the wilderness vigil (four days in the wild, fasting) for so long, is that often towards the end of that experience there comes a moment where you feel absolutely, devastatingly, connected to the living world around you. There is no longer some hoarded up, treasury of interiority separate from the rowans and circling hawk. This is not anthropocentric in any way, it is actually a kind of elegant disintegration. Without that moment - which may always just be a glimpse - i don’t think we will get near the sense of what it could be to have an indigenous footing in the world.

One of the huge challenges when teaching is how to present such a profound grinding down of much that we have been elevated to assume into the context of a western educational framework. It doesn’t sound comforting. Well, often it isn’t.

When we claim myth as nothing but a map of our inner-life we reduce it, make a prison of it in our rib-cage. We stay in a rather sad isolation, rather than the sophisticated awakening that we are frisky boars rolling in myths deep and nourishing mud. The delicate flecks of soil that lace the sides of our pen (that is the world) is the art we display from such a calorific experience.

I am saying that in a functioning culture, myth is the dwelling hut for the people, the goats, the gleaming little babies, the old ones crooked and crazy-wise, the heart-broken, the grand stretch of birch trees at the bottom of a Norfolk field. It contains it all. It’s not just a reductionist blue-print for a therapists handle on why you feel so blue.

This is not to deny the interior - much great art has been developed in its amplification. But at what cost? For many of us now, our inner-world has become more real than the real.

So i praise the genius of psychology but i believe there is much gain in myth cutting loose from the corral of human allegory - these are wild horses we are encountering. They have much to disclose.
What makes our little hedge-school in Devon a little unique is that we function out of that awareness. We all dwell together within the interior of the story, just like medieval folk dwelt under the interior of the great lintel of the stars. In this teeth-gnashing anguish we feel about getting closer to the earth, a next step is seeing how you dwell in the wider story, not just how it dwells in you. And that includes things - literal things - rocks, pine cones, hearth-fires. David Abram speaks beautifully to this.

Myth Demands Full Occupancy of the Lived Experience

What are the myths we see around us today?

We don’t. What we see for the most part is mimics. We see hero-stories with little mythic resonance. A society continually emphasizing victory and progress is out of touch with myth. Myths emphasis on descent is erotic:
it is the longing of the apple to fall from the quivering branch and be cradled in the dark arms of the soil. Gravity is a secondary issue. It is really the business of desire. I think our access to so many facts is causing us to be in a permanent state of hallucination. We are societally tripping. We have the facts but where on earth has the story gone?

Myths demand full occupancy of the lived experience. Which includes the myriad difficulties and slow-drip struggles that eventually carve out those rare and ordinary creatures we call elders. It requires a full, creative declaration of attachment to the world. That declaration, hewn into language, growing, loving, learning, music - is part of awareness of the impossible debt of gratitude we have for being here at all. The very sensation of the debt is a wonderful grounding in being a full human being. We can’t clear it - which is horrific to most of us good bill payers. Again, this is part of the revelatory nature of the wilderness fast. Who could pay enough for the dawn to rise?

What we teach at the hedge-school is stories with roughage in them. Full fat, bristling with protein, punch drunk with insight. They may be hard to apprehend at first because they don’t always come from a human polemic.

I don’t have students i have pirates - they steal back stories from the bored, inky lines of anthologies and let them occupy the oral-ground of their origination again. Touched by literature for sure, but back out amongst the corn fields and splashing the green waves of the ocean. We are hot on telling stories as a kind of elongated courtship to a place. Oral culture has always been local, and we have that emphasis in our studies - though we take a long route through much myth and culture to get there.

I believe that the stories the west tells itself in private are not good. If you create a societal mantra of speed, growth and shiny teeth, than what lumbers up beside you in the slow hours of night? If there is no seat for the business of death, the currency of longing, seeding the acres for those to come, then those elements regress into a low lying chronic sense of unease, private self-hatred and depression. With such an evangelical upswing in our modern storytelling, the only place for our privacy to go is to whisper that we are bullshit. Now if that darkness was given purchase in our public stories we may find that very shit becomes compost, compost from which wild flowers grow. That’s a swift metaphor, but i think it stands.


Do you have stories designed for working with youth?

First of all i don’t have stories designed for anything. The stories do the designing. Myth means no author, and they are not really about “a long time ago”. Stories are not auditioning for our contemporary concerns - they’ve already earn’t their place at the feast. But I’ve worked with all sorts of young folk for about twenty years so i can say a few things.

One is that to constantly affirm their wonderfulness when they have done nothing to earn it is very damaging to them. Secondly, they need to be presented with a bigger proposition than themselves. Take them to wilderness, get them away for any form of social media, get them to a place where the Lords and Ladies of Death are near, and let them wrestle wind/thunder/dreaming/themselves for a few days or weeks. Every street gang is partially a contemporary attempt to heighten the mortality stakes for young folks, but it’s old news that kids can’t initiate kids - not in the fashion of this big kind of initiation - it requires older people fully tempered in the process. And it’s never parents that offer it to their kids - you are too close. It will malfunction.

We need to know how desperately disappointed the youth are with us. Hoodies are partially about ritual garb - adolescence is a time for looking inwards - but also, tragically, for many there’s not a damn thing to raise their heads too - no sense of appointment, no great task.

Having worked especially with young guys, there’s all sorts of paralysis at work. Y’know, Patriarchy is a result of too little mature masculinity, not too much. It’s a posture of tremendous anxiety.

Young men feel both the weight and shadow of the history of men in the world. The yoke of that guilt is crippling them. It’s also ridiculous. Like blaming modern Germans for the rise of Nazism. Sons are not here to apologize for the sins of their fathers. They should get out there and live. As a wayward feminist myself, this is part of its legacy i don’t see us talking about. Despite how it may seem, when the door closes at night many young men are not doing a victory dance.

There is also a lack of rounded, playful, occasionally fierce stewards of the masculine - role models - to look to. The growing of male into a man is not a given-thing, a sure-fire-bet, it requires crafting and a great deal of exteriorization - men need to see other men modeling equality, passion, up-standingness, generosity, openess to mystery, what to protect and what to let go. These words are not a joke. And generations of both women and men are withering on the vine through lack of this kind of emotional education. We can smell its absence - its loss is in the realm of the senses, it’s an animal thing.

Young girls used to enter the temple of Artemis to learn a cornucopia of secrets before entering relationship with anyone else. They worshipped the spirit of the bear, engaged in intricate rituals, memorized stories, sang songs with their sisters to the moon under the rough fur cloak. Wow. They knew the mythic ground they stood upon.

So i say let the wild be the great educator. A non-human disclosure. But it needs wily old humans at the edge to help sing them back into the village. To then wrap myth like a cloak around the returning initiate. The place they are returning to is far more deadly than four nights on the hill, and stories become a place to both reveal and protect something of their experience out there in the bush. Bush soul is what we need, and then enough real human beings around us to craft that into some kind of significance. Then there is a reason for a praise.

We do this kind of thing about once a year at the school, but we keep the numbers real small.

So what do you teach at the school?

Well, to enter the bone-house really. To show up to your life. To recognize that the treasury of myth is your inheritance, and it is just waiting for the delight of hearing it told again through the word-magic of your speech. Stories re-animate much of what we are told is corpse-cold. It can be a revival- big tent style - for your ancestors! And not just the flesh and blood kind. So we go at myth full tilt - long sessions of telling and commentary on story. This can feel like a huge stretch at first. We place an onus on student investment, study outside of the gatherings, and turning up with gifts of story, elegant jokes, music and family history to warm this fragile thing we are building together. There are no passengers. A crow sits on the shoulder of everyone that rolls in, and we make sure she stays well fed. Make of that what you will.
We always, and i mean always, take the stories back out into the living world. Bardic exercises to keep establishing relatedness between the oral stories and the wider, byre-tangled mythic interior that we are sharing with hedgehogs and the chalky estuaries of Devon. How do we move from a society of taking to a culture of giving is the clearest intention. What part does speech and the edification of the soul play in all that? These are the kind of questions we are asking.

Maybe our greatest sign of health is the faculty working with me at the school now - David Stevenson, Rebeh Furze, Tina Birchill, Tim Russell and Del Saunders. There are like something from the old stories. They cause me some trouble, and rescue me from plenty too.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Wandering Court

Friends - if you enjoy what you read on the blog, then please consider doing us the great courtesy of sharing/liking/sending smoke signals for the news of the tenth anniversary of the year programme. Ideally have a look at our temporary, and none too grand facebook page - soon there will be much more in a vivid tapestry of image on our re-booted website. Link here:


Ten Years of the Programme

Places strictly limited to 20 students. No concessions.


£200 per weekend - email tina.schoolofmyth@yahoo.com for sign up.

A migration through the grandeur of language, mythos and place.

In the old bardic schools, home was less a building of stone, more a grand lintle of speech overhead, a flint-spark of sound, dry in the hand. They rested in the hut of themselves.

When the bards travelled, this wandering court would stand at dusk outside the nights dwelling and pass a poem down the line of their merry pack, stanza by stanza, to demonstrate their agile and storied tongue. In this manner they arrived with a feast.

To celebrate our tenth year of work we will travel also and take a rambling but purposeful route across the stories of Ireland, Siberia, the Caucasus Mountains, Scandinavia, and return, finally, to bed down in our beloved green seat of Dartmoor. Myth is our currency, our study, our passion - mythtelling the most effective vehicle for communicating its genius.

The business of stories
Is not enchantment.

The business of stories
Is not escape.

The business of stories
Is waking up.

April 25-27th
Beginnings - oral culture, the bardic schools of Ireland, myths insistence on daemonic vocation. We hoof the vast acres of Gaelic and Welsh culture, beginning with a telling of the life of Finn Mac Coll, and a reading of the Vita Merlina.

Rather than endless choice, is there a chthonic compulsion to become something quite specific?

June 13-15th
Paradox and the art of growing down into the mud and smoke of life - the movement from the pastoral to the prophetic - experiencing the tempering of consequence. We trail the nomad stories of the Yakut and the Romanian Gypsies.
We will wrap our speech round the un-lettered language of sheep-herders and horse thieves, locate sounds not corralled into dictionaries.

What is the difference between shelter and comfort?

August 1-3rd
Stories from the north. The forging of language from landscape - the primary mnemonic. Wintering out in the longhouse - repetition and the storytellers range. Encountering the occult animal. Anchoring discipline and craft to the longing for epiphany.

What are the stories the West tells itself in private?

Oct 3-5th
Is Camelot Scythian in origin? The move to nobility and service, as the old tales disclose. Speech as wealth, inflation as necessity. How story creates a den for our grandeur, and transmutes it to a gift.

How does true generosity reveal its hand?

Dec 5th - 7th
Apprenticing to a five mile radius of story, land, herb and song. The labour of becoming a cultural historian of place. Myths that migrate, stories of slow ground. Facing the luminous ordinary as mythic territory.

How does a tired road become a song-line?

Bard-Come-A-Fire: Vita Merlina

On the first weekend we will be working through a new translation i have been making of the Vita Merlina - so here's a few lines as a teaser.


Unflinching with truth.
Ordering a firm house in the roar of court.

Son of an incubus -

he still claims residence
to some inner animal.

And he is friend
to the Old-Man-in-the-Fur-Coat - the bear.

He has gathered red berries by the cold stream,
He has pressed his mind
through gorse and hemlock.

To the men his outer-being is calm :
but inside it rattles with knowing,
a ripping hail, a speech-blizzard carving up
the skull of his woken-ness.

Double-tongued is he:
faithful enquirer to
the wolf’s epiphany
and the politics of the long-house.


Merlin awild.

He swims out past the bay of human affection.

Now no summering lament .
He enters wood with vigor,

drives his body to a blue shape sculpted by wind.
Survives on crusts of frozen moss.

He does not miss the law-court,
or the jokes of the marketplace.

One night, death-bringing cold sweeps away all cloud.

A good hawk, Merlin perches in his nest,
observing all the courses of the stars.

They remind him of his old life he has given up.

He was married once, then abandoned her:
Gwendolen, the long suffering,

when he took the forest for his home;
for this life sharpened on the sparks of muddy ecstasy.

It was the way the planets glittered that told him
of his wife’s new love.

This night, that old story has a new chapter.

Venus - I read your frosted message in the dark;
As faithfully you follow down your consort sun.
My beak snaps at your heels with wonder.

“I see another ray, that arcs from you,
The ray that splits lovers:
Gwendolen has bed-knowledge of another.

And the stars tell me of a wedding.”

The man gazes up
at the yellow breast of the moon
and remembers.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

looking back - a years highlight: having fun with Coleman Barks

Time Teams Dig Village: Dunster

Dig Village/ A Birthday/ Scythian Speculation

One of my new translations (with Tony Hoagland)- to commemorate reaching the ancient peaks of 42 years this coming Thursday.

The Turn in the Road
Welsh, From traditional verse; seventeenth century

Past forty,
a man can carry

the flush
of a tree in leaf,

and shoulder a
quiver of speech.

He can laugh quietly
over his scars

as he strides
the years.

But the sound of
a vault being opened,

Lets the
crow settle

on the soft acres
of his face.


I finally have a moment in what is proving a heinously busy month to get into my study and scrawl down a few thoughts. Just had a great weekend with a new project from the Time Team folk - Dig Village. (Time Time is massively influential British TV show on archeology). Dig Village - the clues is in the name really.

They go digging for archeology - i go digging for story. There was great fellowship/beer/mud/wild speculation/a chilly and magnificent church/ and proper finds emerging from the soil - with a tithe-barn of local folk to hear the story of their place told back to them on the Sunday night. This was the moment i gathered the fragments of folk-lore and straight out fact from around the small town of Dunster (a grateful nod to the wonderful Helen Geake for providing some historical anchor points). High stakes poker really - when relatives of characters in the stories could well have been beadily eyeing me in the candle-lit gloom of an autumn night. Many of the stories details only landed in my lap in the hours leading up to the telling.

This all felt like a little triumph for the oral tradition - rescuing the stories from documents and getting them spoken out into the resonating air of the place itself. Imagine if every village in the country had their storytellers (who used to be cultural and speculative historians of a sort) rescuing their stories and folk-lore back out of the records and hearing them settle back into the hearts of the local folk? Get to it! What a great way to elegantly deepen the current revival of storytelling. More on that thought as it develops.

Later that night i stood out in the rain and gave a little single-malt to the grasses by the open test pits. Gazing down into those crow-dark underworld holes, and then up at the resolute and moon-brooding Dunster castle, history had slyly crept into my shoulder-bag of stories.

It was great also to meet some amazingly resilient diggers putting in the hours. My little daughter only has respect for the ones clutching trowels on the TV show. Stories she hears everyday round the woodburner. They were like something from the old tales themselves...

So in honour of where history/archeology/folklore bang into each other - here is a repeat of a post i think i out up last year.

A Scythian Camelot

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor (2000), two scholars of folklore and anthropology, have made the case that the core of the Arthurian 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. Wow.

This was the nomad culture of the ancient steppes: the Scythians, the Sarmatians, and then later the Alans of classical times. They adored art engraved with animals, often with great curling manes of gold, and were often blue-eyed and blond-haired. These steppe Iranians were visually different from how a typical Persian may look.

Part of the theory 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 – 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 their servants 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 at least.

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. 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.

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 invaders forged a strong, marginal consciousness in the relegated, on-the-run lords, minstrels and wolfs-heads, who took to the forest to form inventive 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. Doomed of course - but we all love a hopeless cause.

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, England was a trembling bell in the wake of the Normans.

So we have this theory that the roots of the Arthurian canon (stories seen as the embodiment of the best of English mythology), derives from ancient folktales of the foreign conquerors, from way back when.

The Greenwood rebellion it invokes, although never a revolution, instates what I later (in essay) call a 'leaf bowed morality’, something that I believe that Arthur and the whole courtly system have been 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 perfectly. Who owns the story? The people of the Caucasus mountains? The medieval scholar? The dreamy child in love with the romances? Where did it begin, where does it end, and where do we stamp copyright? Such it is with empire thinking.

If we go all the way back to the ancient world, to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak.
Lewis Hyde (Hyde 2010 :19)

To an exclusively written society, the long reach of the Arthurian stories can seem bewildering if one is trying to anchor a living tradition down to the authorship of specific individuals. Of course there are beloved signposts; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Ecshenbach, Malory. But to nail it down seems tricky, when the origination and destination points of the story are wonderfully shrouded in the mysterious. Everyone is working out of someone else. And who’s to say that the story is not ‘working’ them?

This is not always a popular idea for a modern society focused on the notion of the entirely original, brilliant summoner of new ideas. And, in the old way of thinking, even if there was no historical precedent, then it is likely the ‘new’ notion is a divine wind emerging rather than thrashed out in the mind, entirely without supernatural assistance. That would be seen as a very unsophisticated idea.

Hyde, a man who has worked deeply into thoughts around originality and ownership, reminds us of this quote from Goethe.

Everything I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, peoples of intelligence and dunces…I have often reaped what others have sowed. My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.
(Hyde 2010 177-78)

So where is the copyright? Are we to be like Benjamin Franklin, refusing a patent on his wood stove as he understood it to be a collective, the bringing to fruition of many individual's ideas; or more contemporary - battling it out in the law courts for the merest shred of personal innovation? Of course, part of the genius of both Goethe and Franklin is the assembling of these others ideas into a cohesive whole; that alone blows open the distinction between ‘I’ and the ‘many’. Both points of view are served within one individual, and make art.

Within the storytelling traditions, a certain sense of handed downess is actually a sign of authenticity, it is to be admired, sought after, it indicates roots. It could be that in the second half of an individual’s life, a natural balancing between influence and instinct arises and contributes to a convincing sense of mythtelling. But I wouldn’t be too eager to point out where that dividing line is: it pulses in and out like a heartbeart.

The Arthurian story is too big, too well travelled, too deep, too robust, to have irate steppe Iranians claiming it back for the Caucasus. Elvis has long since left the building. And in the same way, Celtic scholars will have to suck on that same lemon as long atrophied ideas about the tradition’s routes suddenly leap thousands of miles to the east. This is a commons of the imagination. The claims of diffusion through Europe, or even Jung’s rather exhausted collective unconscious are but milky teats hanging on the magical belly of the stories as they amble through the known and unknown worlds.

It is difficult to begin without borrowing.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


dear friends from the Minnesotan backwoods

laphroaig quarter cask: a marvel

grand tents and bare shoulders: the gypsies


April 25-27th
June 13th-15th
Aug 1-3rd
Oct 3-5th
Dec 5-7th

Contact Tina at Tina.schoolofmyth@yahoo.com today for the details of what will be our most inventive and wildest dive/year course yet. We also have just a few places left for the right-about-to happen PARZIVAL weekend too - a telling that takes two and a half days, and embossed with troubadour, Islamic, and medieval english history arising as we saddlebag our trusty Andalusian ponies up the dark ridged and blue-snowed heaven that is this story. C'mon, reach for the kitbag and join us. Last ever telling before the book comes out, and this little secret we have been brewing in the distillery of our imagination for half-a-decade becomes a secret no more.

some slight teaser from the upcoming Snowy Tower (Parzival) book - as the land turns to waste...

Hounds call from the lonely copse,
The old womans hair is frail under the silver comb.
The gravediggers spade is bright with use,
no beards are wet with ale.

The wattle-hut is cold,
and broken open to the roaming candles of the stars.
All dream of honey-bread, a hearth fire,
a ploughing harvest of fish and corn.
The rain is grey and steady.

And the arrival of Parzival's beloved, Condwiramurs...

Ah, the moon.
A gold-scattered track in the young mans den.
He a shivering lamb
at the warm stable of her becoming.

But she wants a Lion.

Breast tight with desire,
Lusty peaks, not yet
for the quiet sucking
of a child.

In this place of bone-light
and sickle-fire, our
Lady of the Waves
harps her music, snow-naked
with power
into the boys ear.

And the final arrival at the Grail Castle...

Praise to the bright girdle of the land,
its seal-proud coast,
and cold blue crest of stars,
zodiac dazzling.

Pull close to the shepherds milky dreaming,
his grove a-hum, dingle-hot,
with the woodlarks wanton speech.

Buckle our knees to the glinting pool
and to dusky light, to beehives,
and cairns of badgers,
delirious with sleep.

Praise to the Maymed Kynge,
Praise to the Healed King,
Praise to the Holy Maker
of all things.

And this week something on west country gypsies.

The People of the Roads

It was 1505 when a genuine nomadic consciousness arrived in Britain in the shape of “exotically attired Egyptians” (Simpson 1865). Any brief fascination with the gypsies turned cold when Edward VI ordered all gypsies living in Britain to be rounded up and branded with a V for ‘vagabond’ on their chest, and then thrown into slavery for two years. Children were seized at an Englishman’s discretion and put into service to save them from an environment of ‘rogues and beggars’. For a culture that had travelled through Byzantium and Greece, through the Ukraine and Spain, from Persia and Transylvania, this was a savage but not entirely unfamiliar welcome to a certain type of English temperament.

The gypsies brought plenty of spook with them. The reading of hands, the sallow skin, narrow headed lurchers, the wagons, the rouged cheek and dark plait, the bare-knuckle etiquette, not to mention “tigress eyes”, according to Henry Williamson in his Life in a Devon Village. Gypsies soon became the largest migratory group of travellers in the west country.

They became kings and queens of fairs and revels: Stow, Bampton and Bridgewater all had fairs that featured the grand tents and wild fiddle tunes of the travelling Roma. For the men, coats were long and black, with plush, brightly coloured waistcoats, velvet knee-breeches and brogues. Come the evening, the women turned the volume up still further, with amber feathers tucked into turbans, white satin dresses, bare shoulders covered by multi-coloured shawls. Bottles were uncorked, howls thrown at the moon, and the gutsy dancing ached the feet but thrilled the soul.

As long as the gypsies remained as travelling exotics, as symbols of a kind of freedom that many secretly covet, then they enjoyed an uneasy peace. Problems would deepen with a kind of quasi-settling on the edges of town – due to agricultural depression from the 1880s – which meant it was more efficient to stay put in desperate times. The glamour fades a little when the occasional chicken gets stolen, or wallet relieved of its bragging owner. You start to notice the tattered edges on the edge of those grand tents. Everyone loves a scapegoat, and who better than those dark-eyed, strange-tongued travellers at the edge of town?

To be gypsy was to watch your myths travel ahead five paces of you wherever you want. A strong look. It could fill the tent on a Saturday night's dancing, get young women paying over the odds to have their cards read on matters of love, but it could also have you picking your teeth out of the cobbles, it could have your children pulled right from your grasp. The open road was like a plump vein to them, a trail full of nourishing blood, but also a duende vocation, carrying sorrow and pride alongside, a mottled, magpied glory of hard earned eloquence. Maps were not used, rather a nomadic homing instinct, looking for the old resting places, Dannal’s Basin in the Mendips, or Ember Pond further west. To the locals it was hard to make out a pattern to the wandering, but they had their own kind of song-lines, their own way of getting where they needed to get to. Much of the movement was seasonal, and to do with hop picking, fruit picking, and onto the horse fairs.

The language is delicious, an honour to have it spoken in England or enjoyed on the page:

Wusto-mengresky tem Wrestler’s country, Devonshire
Lil-engresky gav Book fellows' town, Oxford
Rokrengreskey gav Talking fellows' town, Norwich
Mi-develskey gav My God’s town, Canterbury

I spent the latter half of my twenties fairly frequently around travelling people. My tent was originally situated near a stopping off point for travellers coming down from areas of Wales and into England. This could be as simple as a horse drawn cart arriving, almost silently, at dusk, or waking up to find a vast array of trucks, children and hastily erected benders filling the lane in the early dawn light. Within hours the music would begin, the relentless thump of techno rather than the lilt of the fiddle, and frequently a kind of chaos that was not edifying. This was nothing to do with “back to the land” it was a kind of truck life, an occasionally nightmarish mirror to the very straight laced environment of the Cotwolds they saw stretched out in front of them. They kind of suited each other. With each hot headed police clash, both sides lumbered out for battle, each needing the other in some way. This was not Roma culture, not Irish traveller, but a kind of dilapidated council estate on wheels.

That sounds harsh, but anyone who has been in close contact with this element of the travelling community knows the truth of what I’m writing.

For every quiet and reasonably sober traveller that came through, these occasional terror-hoards were the ones who would amp up the locals, pitch up for battle and leave a bad atmosphere for years to come.

When a society rejects something, it invites it to turn ugly. If the concept of people living under canvas, or on the road, is utterly unacceptable, then myth tells us it will regress - what was once beautifully wild turns savage. This is what I am describing. Any culture worthy of the name positions initiations, fayres, art, music, as conduits between the margins and the centre. This is an old truth. It is a way of handling and being edified by wildness, but keeping the kids safe and healthy. It is mediation of the spontaneous, the unexpected, the liminal, back into the place of the village. Living in a time like this, is it any surprise we get the viking masses at the Roman gates ready to play out this scene again and again?

It is too easy to label the earlier descriptions of Roma as nostalgia. It is more than that. It is a recognition. It is a longing. They are beset by just as many issues as the English, but they have been emblematic, mythically tuned to represent a certain kind of openness to un-shackled freedom.

The gypsies came to this country at an auspicious time, partially to remind us of something that we were in danger of losing. This kind of grotesque mimic that I have just described makes me wonder whether it has now gone. Gypsies have been a vivid mirror of otherness in this country for over four hundred years, and our resolute failure to engage reasonably with them has helped create this cartoon-junkie on wheels caricature that this small, but noisy set of travellers represent. They’re us, we made them.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Friday, 20 September 2013

It's Autumn. Let's read, eat and take walks.

Due to many thousands of miles in airplanes and much teaching it's been a few weeks since i last got to the blog. A fond mention to the Minnesota Mens Conference, up in the Northern woods. Always a delight to experience that kind of genial fellowship, and to witness a great revival of enthusiasm and investment from the men present. After seven years service i'm stepping down from the leadership - primarily for a break - but know i'll see all your irascible faces again. Maybe sooner than you'd like! It's a great conference with a splendid future.

So here's a few lines from the life of Finn MacCool i'm working on, and then a larger piece on the bardic schools to make up for my tardy absence.

Finn on his way to Tara:

It was Samhain.
The land combed red and bronze-gold.
Air sharp with frost,
the crunch of leafy humus under foot.

Time of autumn beef and red ale,
the silver canopy of the rain,
a thick cloak with bronze clasp.
A fire that holds embers all night.

Time for the bard to tune his harp,
for spitted ox, a keg,
blue fingers as kindling is gathered,
a friendly hound, a bed.

Finn as a Boy

Finn alone.

Became a great listener,
curled in the yellow gaze
of lonely sunshine,
ear bent to the

Thousand voiced wind.
Competitor to the reed-croak
of the jackdaw,
his raw speech warbled its twigged praise.

Rough skinned from thickets,
and sharp tufts of nettle,
knees blue from long hours
padding the watery trails of the otter.

A lover of the briar
and the quiet croft,
low-shaken apple trees
and the sap of the alder.

Flakes of snow
had crowned his blond curls,
as he perched
ever-long by the icy pool.

He had shivered through seasons,

Had plowed his little ship
through the flowered singing
of the grove, over the tips of
the slim, white branches that crested his house.

The house of many doors.
Many escapes.

His amiable gaze
would settle on whatever
beast made it through
the rough hedge of his walls.

The solemn horse,
the cow of rich-milk,
the spider on the leaf,
the lightning-swift fly.

His loneliness was a strange bliss.

The green sway
of the hawks bough,
the mottled oak shadow,
the star-proud lintel of night.

The Great Plough Tail and the Circle of Gwydion:
The Ancient Bardic Schools

The great bardic schools of Ireland were an extraordinary bridge between orality and literature. For a start, they were run by lay people not clerics. Although flourishing for a time alongside monastic institutions their roots went deeper, already being regarded as utterly ancient by the time of St Patrick.

The business of the schools was mainly: history, law, language, literature. The history would have been that of their own country, as was the law, language and literature. Running quite opposed to the rest of Europe and its clinging onto Roman law – by now a rotting corpse in a foreign land – they encouraged and repeatedly polished the diction of their own tongue, till it was truly an art form. Speculation remains on the sympathetic teaching of Greek and Latin too – possibly with the arrival of Gallic scholars in Ireland in the 5th Century, in flight from the barbarian invasions.

Night and darkness generally was an ally in the schools. Students would be given a subject at the very edge of their abilities – perhaps something on Concord, Quartans, Termination, Syllables and Union –
each subject with its own obtuse set of inner-instruction. The student would be separated from the group and take to his bed, turning the conundrum around and around in his head. The next day too, they stayed in darkness until, at a specific point, lights were brought in and they then, and only then, committed it to writing. It had to take root in the brain and be retained there orally before the hand moved ink across the parchment. They then gave a kind of presentation to the master-poet who chided, advised or approved, before they finally got to shuffle off and eat something.

In the fertile darkness, surely we see a remnant of some druidic practice. A turning within, a reliance on the old oral stability of mental mnemonic to hold the images in place. A shutting down of any secular distraction into the totality of knowledge that lies underneath the apparently innocent task. The bardic secret. A grappling of poetry’s hazels in the ebony cloak of privacy. It is easy to imagine the young student drifting in and out of dreaming as they allowed the task to become luminous, far past book smarts and into the terrain of inner-awakening. This was an entrenched practice, a constant resource and discipline. In an institution that gradually become far more domestic and court orientated (poetry for the approval of nobles) I would suggest these nocturnal journeys kept intact an older, wilder route back to the experiential and mystical origins of bardic practice. Night was a gateway to inner-wildness, inner-spaciousness.

The school was not so much about a geography or grand house (often a hut or home) but focused around the charisma and knowledge of the Ollamh, the big man, chief-poet. Their influence radiated out in all four directions, and when they circuited Ireland amongst kings and nobles, the school, for all intents and purposes, went too. They were intellectually fierce, opinionated and full of the pomp their status conferred. On visiting a dignitary, it was not unheard of for an Ollamh to remind their host of their own standing as being like a kind of king or bishop (Corkery 1998 :32). The word bard was actually used for a lower rank of untrained poet, the word they all aspired to was to be a fili. A bard in Ireland was more raggle-taggle; a wandering jongleur, teller of tales, maybe, heaven forbid, a singer of songs. There were heavy fines incurred for trained students tarting their gifts in such a way. This naughty underbelly of performing rogues became known as ‘bad fellows’ when they wandered England, or filous in France.

However, payment for the more noble strand could prove difficult too, even with the amount of praise they rained down on their employee's head. If they arrived en masse, they brought with them an enormous cauldron entitled ‘The Pot of Avarice’. With this they grandly emphasised the need for payment in gold and silver, or, at the very least,food. This cauldron was made of pure silver, and supported on the points of nine spears. There they would stand at the entrance to the compound. We can see them now, dusk settling, chill in the air, the great cauldron glowing silver in the gloom, the line of poets standing in the mist. They would pass a poem down the line, man by man, stanza by stanza, to demonstrate their recall and honed poetic tongue. A brisk encouragement for praise, a bed, or payment.

Over in Wales, and preserved or rediscovered or made up, by Iolo Morgannwg (or Edward Williams, Welsh antiquarian – 1747-1826), we hear of a bardic astronomy: constellations of stars with names like:

The Circle of Gwydion
The Grove of Blodeuwedd
The Hen Eagle’s Nest
The White Fork
The Woodland Boar
The Conjunction of a Hundred Circles

This is all thrilling material, especially when aligned with Morgannwg’s revealing of the bardic dividing of the seasons, ancient chronologies and descriptions of poetic trials. It is less thrilling when we realise that The Barddas, from where this language arises, is certainly a forgery, a fake, either by Morgannwg or texts he studied, that were themselves bogus. It is less thrilling when we realise that he was actually doing jail time in a Welsh prison when he started to gather the fragmentary materials from which his heady imaginings created the above, and more.

But this is far from just a calculated attempt to deceive. Indeed, he and another forger, James Macpherson (the ‘Ossian’ poems) did more to preserve some notion of the bards than anyone since possibly the Middle Ages. Who knows what was going on in their heads when they wrote this down, certainly much creativity and imagination. The trouble comes when the artist tries to place the effervescent results of their producing into a space and time that is not authentic. No matter how much we hunger for union and fullness in these old fragments, a devised ‘whole’ such as Iolo attempts to provide, tends to a fictitious atmosphere – for obvious reasons.

Many of the serious controversies in Robert Graves' “The White Goddess”, come from him taking Morganwg’s utterings as inherited knowledge. A lively poetic sensibility works at a different tempo to the kind of snail-paced scholarship required if you are to produce game-changing statements about goddesses within European mythology. In a strange way “The White Goddess” has continued a tradition of historically wobbly, but conceptually vigorous ideas that that could include this brief ‘holding of the flame’ by Morganwg and Macpherson. Later in this book I will include at least one other character that seems to be part of this on-going imaginal tradition.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, when composing his History of the Kings of Britain, claims to have come into the keeping (or loan from the Archbishop of Oxford) of a book in ‘the British language’ (probably Welsh) that gave extensive details of major figures from Brutus to Cadwallader. It is from this document that he supposedly mines all kinds of facts and detail – although again, there is a great speculation that the book never existed and was a device for Monmouth’s florid imagination to run riot. We begin to detect a pattern.

These days both men – Macpherson and Morgannwg - would probably have happy careers as writers of fantasy, or even be regarded as ‘channellers’, and make a living that way. When something beautiful has been lost, but a residual consciousness remains, we will accept even a mimic of that beauty. What makes the work of Iolo really complicated is that he did copy some authentic documents that are now lost, which means, like any great lie, there are hidden fragments of the real within it.

I suspect that what many of us long for in the figure of the bard is not the courtly reciter of the post-Norman world, but the older, more mystical, nature-connected figure of the primordial earth, a world that by its very nature is, as Robin Williamson says, made of the ‘quality of mist and starlight’; something profoundly druidic, magical, but also hard to access in modern times. This very figure was already being promoted rather clumsily by 14th and 15th Century bards in an attempt to stop a steady decline in interest of the form. Some academics insist that their speculation is the root of what we now regard as ‘fact’ about this earlier stage.

For anyone interested in orality, literature, and the wildness inherent in both, the later bardic world is problematic. One, for its frozen quality – wildness and creativity grow steadily more absent after its chief concern becomes the history of court and nobles. We get far less of an ecstatic nature stream pouring through the compositions (this is why we get so excited about Taliesin, although he is another figure under fierce debate) and more stodgy praise of dignitaries, whilst shaking the money tin for another round of drinks. Poetry is rarely vital when tenured.

Secondly, their diminishing of local dialect in favour of a unified, unwavering tongue is absolutely at loggerheads with the bio-regional flavour of this book. We need more burrs and rasps in language, not less. It may have been necessary at the time to create a clear Gaelic art form that was internationally recognised, but that time is not this time. The regional voice reveals trails back to the soil. We could go down to the specific – to dirt, twigs, streams, family roots, geographic understanding, the spontaneous and natural, than up and general – honouring wealth, status, stilted poetry, the status quo. We need to take our praise back to the natural world, not offering it to the ‘land’ owner.

We have been cut from our home ground so many times we eventually find ourselves ‘out of our mind’ – our thinking extending out into silvery lakes, jaguar teeth and dandelions – not just caught in the skull.

Whilst we honour the early stories of reciting by memory 60,000 lines of verse, and the practice of darkness as a way towards luminous awakening, as well as the love of language and also its use as dark speech – a form of verbal combat, it would be appropriate to return to an original source of the bardic inspiration, the land. When we get caught up entirely in the recreation of flowing robes, badly played harps, and forged histories, it all starts to feel like a clumsy theatre, and surely we are missing the point. Still, the word bard has vitality to it, energy, it’s still potent, and so could respond to a re-visioning with the move back to forest consciousness, moor consciousness, ocean consciousness at its centre.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013