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...
TWELFTH NIGHT WASSAIL
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.
copyright Martin Shaw 2013
Posted by School of Myth at 10:17