Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Encountering Fairy: Time With the 'Other Crowd'

This week an excerpt from from my far-but-upcoming book 'The Bird-Spirit King: Myth as Migration, a Wild Land Dreaming'. This is a section from a commentary on an old Dartmoor story about a mid-wife being called into a storm to help birth a fairy child.

Looking forward to telling stories and sharing ideas this Friday night in Point Reyes (check Point Reyes Books for details) - an evening in the local Presbyterian church begins at 7. Also a happy return to the folks at Numina in Santa Rosa early next month (see above). Time is flying over here in the sunshine state. It was great to collaborate with Coleman last week - and plenty of time to talk poetry, gossip, music and the state of the nation (not clear at 2am in a Palo Alto hotel room). We are cooking ideas for the future.....Anyway, onwards....

ps- We have just 4 places left for this years UK School of Myth year course - get in touch with Tina today at for the high adventure.

Night as Invitation, Night as Taboo
Faerie culture in Britain – that is the belief in supernatural beings who inhabit eerie recesses of the countryside – has remained strong for many thousands of years. Although in modernity these stories seem to be whimsical - a kind of metaphor for the poet’s imagination - it wasn’t always this way. As recently as the 19th Century, hair raising accounts of encounters on lonely lanes with such entities were common place. For a recent account of such beings, read Malidome Some’s “Of Water and the Spirit”; a startling account of initiation within the Dagara people of West Africa. It quickly becomes apparent that to tribal cultures world wide (and in pockets of English rural life) that there are windows to immense energies that have been knocking around on the earth for as long as we have. It’s a crowded scene.

Earlier in this book, we addressed the notion of Gaston Bachelard that inside every house there is a hut, hidden in the consciousness of the dweller. Houses are thick with memory: teeming constructs of family time, rarely named loneliness, felt securities, reveries that grow more pronounced, habitual, by the stability of the surroundings. Our house can help us forget about fascism, or starving Ethiopians, or birds falling stone dead out of the sky. We clunk around down below in the cellar of reflection, our memories often dry of emotion but the scenes still vivid. Or we wander the circular stairs at night, with candle and nightcap, to our celestial dream tower. Fairy tales tell us that in such a tower - which lives within us - is a tiny old women, ancient, who weaves on a spindle by moonlight. All little girls understand this. But these dream ascensions or sooty cellar reveries are familiar, daily. It is quite another thing to have the courage to suddenly open the door to the bright rain and the fairy rider.

The Fay Ones, Seelie Court, Gentry, Other Crowd, whatever name we give them, arouse many different opinions about what they could be. Some claim them as the dead walking, some a kind of earthed angel, others, spurred on by Puritanism, claimed they can only be demonic in origin - but probably the widest claim is that they are an independent energy that has abided in and around the natural world for as long as anyone can remember. Within any community there will often be one or more sensitives who appear to have some contact with them.

Victorian drawings of quaint little creatures with wings do not always prepare people for either the wider folklore, or indeed the experience, of meeting one of these beings. Seneca Indian medicine men and Tungus shamans take that realm extremely seriously. Indeed, their doctoring skills are often reliant on bartering and assistance from those very areas.

Certain types of vision quests are specifically designed to make direct contact with the elemental powers. The results of which can be hair raising and intensely testing. Unless it seemed entirely appropriate, this is not normally the focus of a wilderness fast, in fact could seem something of a distraction. Spook has its unhelpful glamour.

Humans are not the only ones with song-lines. In Ireland, an old cottage may have a corner knocked out if it is thought to interfere with one of the fairy procession lines. It’s simply not worth the ensuing trouble.Folk lore insists they will nip babies away and place changelings in the cot, leave gold that is worthless, draw you into endless revelry whilst you gradually lose your senses. But much of this is village talk, not forest wisdom, and comes not necessarily from those with direct experience.

Our story begins at night. Night always carries its liminal invitation. Edge become blurred, routes home we swore we knew blind in the daylight, suddenly lead our feet some other way. Many of us have experienced this up on the moor. We remember that night used to be regarded as the ending of clock time altogether – it was another kind of thing completely. A time for storytelling, a time for ritual, a time when the spirits took full advantage of those blurred edges and created all sorts of mischief. To wander alone at night in Tuscan culture indicated you were either a sorcerer or a prostitute.

In their farming communities, even into the 20th Century, the world of clock and minute time was a distant notion. Time was dictated by the village bell, heard in the distant fields; at noon for lunch, or a ringing the hour before sundown to bring all home to the hearthfire. To linger would have been “Chi va di notte cerca la morte - who goes out at night looks for death”. Although the family would often leave for work at different times, as darkness arrived the group would almost always be placed around the table for supper. This ‘hinge’ time, with its strange texture, would be met by the dishing out of food, drink and general conversation. When night's grip became inescapable, the desire for human companionship became even more pronounced with the veglia, the gathering by the fire, the telling of stories, the singing of songs, the setting of riddles. Whilst family cleaned the dishes and emptied the table, the grandmother would be flattered and coaxed into telling a story, even though mildly protesting at first. This is good protocol as all storytellers like to be asked. As the folklorist Alessandro Falassi reminds us, no one wants a reputation as the kind of storyteller who “needs a coin to start, and ten to stop” - that moment when an invitation becomes an imposition.

But the whole ritual of the busyness of table, the pleading with the elderly storyteller, the stoking of the fire, the collective settling for the tale, all were partially protective devices, familiar and loved rhythms, to ward off the swift shadowing of the corn field, the stables, the courtyard. Out just beyond the farm were sometimes abandoned fields or pig pens in disrepair; these were soon seen to have fallen into the atmosphere of the forest and also not to be lingered in.

The whole situation with darkness was much edgier than we often imagine. There was not the whole hearted exorcism of the dark that a strip light offers; the storytelling time by lantern or candle was dappled, shaded, a back and forth. The real brightness was to be held in the liveliness of the table and the warmth of the assembled group. There were still dark corners. Whether in Tuscon or a village off the Norwich Road, occasionally an eye would nervously go to the chimney – an entry point for witches. Often the hearth fire was loaded with secret magic devices to keep such beings out, the story being such a device. The hearth and the scene I described, seen in variety all over the world, was truly an axis-mundi for the small group surrounding it.

An opening into the otherly dimensions of darkness began when I was little more than a child. At around thirteen, I made my way home down a small path next to a stagnant stream, overhung occasionally by willow trees. The name of this old pathway was Melancholy Walk. At night it was not a walk I enjoyed, but I was keen to visit my friend Oliver Hibble whose family lived at the end of it. This night was particularly dark. As I walked I looked firmly ahead at the first distant street lamp and clearly remember singing songs under my breath to keep my nerves at bay.

I had just reached the part where willows overhung the path and dangled into the still, brown waters of the stream. The wet branches blocked out the distant light. What I remember next was a kind of low gurgling laugh right in both my ears, and then being lifted by my shoulders several inches – so I was on the balls of my feet. The grip was crazy strong. I knew for certain there was no one else on that desolate path. I shot forward faster than I have ever run, was instantly out of the grip of whatever it was, past that first street light, up the cobbled hill, past St. Gilbert's primary school, past the Green Man pub, like a streak of lightning up the narrow alley that led onto Radcliffe road and up to home. Oddly, I don’t think I spoke to them about it at the time. I just couldn’t bear it. To speak it was to incant it all over again. To keep making it real.

At that young age I became aware that things occasionally happened when the day darkened. The movement from imaginings into a genuine psychic experience is very real, very tangible, for those who experience it. It didn’t feel like something was out there, there was something out there, and I got nailed by it. It is an odd strand of Western arrogance to believe that everything ‘unnatural’ that occurs is somehow a psychological response to some shift in the mind, as if that was the centre of all consciousness.

It is an illuminating detail that the Faerie requires a human midwife. We hear from many cultures the idea that the Otherworld is as interested in us as we are in it, and we detect something of that here - that we have a skill that is of use to them. And what a skill: to guide a being from the watery realm of the belly out into spluttering life. We often pray for a celestial or divine intervention, could it be that we occupy the dreams and concerns of the gods, spirits and devas? Do we have something to offer them? Are we a dream of the gods?

So this is a sweet scene of the traffic going the other way. Rather than the image of the artist suddenly lifted by magical inspiration (the source of which could be a spirit) and birthing a great play or painting, we see a woman helping one of these otherly beings birth a most precious arrival, a faerie baby.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

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