Thursday, 11 December 2014

last call for 2014: alongside MARK RYLANCE this Sunday, Northcott theatre, Exeter.

ten years

Well, the tenth year of lively scholars left the rambling confines of our Dartmoor HQ four days ago now, and i still feel like i've been shot out of a old time ships cannon and into some strange, warm-muddied slumberous swamp. Exhausted. Exhausted in a very bespoke, ritually acute, rather fine kind of way. I'd be highly suspicious if i didn't. We call it The Bite, and its just part of the down payment for something real arriving in the fluctuating polemics of our own lives.

I started teaching from the fluttering doorway of my black tent eleven years ago this coming January - tho' had ten years of working with the wilderness vigil afore that. At that point i was more in the diviner and ceremonialist line of work; it was over the next few years that i cottoned onto the extraordinary notion that the mead-hall of my tongue was a place where some of the energies i served could find a landing strip out into the spluttering confines of the early 21st century. I confess to not being always a good steward of that realisation, but the aspiration holds firm.

I rouse my hide in a few hours to teach at Schumacher College this afternoon on creating a Culture of Conviviality, and i'm very honoured to be performing alongside Mark Rylance and others this sunday at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. For those of you that may have been wintering on Mars these last ten years, Mark is the finest stage actor of his generation - by several well leapt roe-buck leagues. Tickets are not cheap for this event, but it will be something to witness.

I think this will be the last entry for 2014. I just want to create feasts, coax the fire and uncork a really good red.

There's lots of coming down the chute in terms of gatherings and teaching in 2015 - i'll put it all up next time. What will i be (re) reading over Christmas? Well, in no particular order or year of release: Memory and Landscape by Simon Schama, An Endless Trace by Christopher Bamford, Night and Horses and the Desert by Robert Irwin, The Islandman by Tomas O Crohan, Confession of an Irish Rebel by Brendan Behan, The Wake by my friend and colleague Paul Kingsnorth, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Romanticism and Esoteric Tradition by Paul Davies, Kiviug by Kira Van Deusen. I can't give a list of highlights for 2014 because there've been so many, so diverse in nature and so outrageous it may come off like bragging. So i won't. Lots of utterly normal stuff transpired too.

But before you or i start claiming to much ancientness in our creaking bones, let's go back a little to where maybe one place the stories come from. I wish you well as we enter winter, and hope you claim some time to rest, dream, and nourish.

Slange to all.


I am in my writing hut now. Very late summer, the cusp. There is a good natured wind-shake of the frame every few minutes, tottering on its wheels. I can hear the drone of the last harvesting going on in a nearby field, but today the winds dictates primacy, ushering in the change from corn-time to dying time.

Somewhere the Holly King is sharpening his blade for his soon-come meeting with the Oak King, and his long wintering reign.

But i’m not in the hut. I open up the wood burner, chuck in the kindling, settle under my furs and step out of my usualness.

A fire is a road to
pre-historic mind.

Into the immensities of deep time.
Flames make nonsense crumble and we are gone:

We are 4,600 million years ago.
In vast space itself, where we
hang in the firm claws
of the Hawk of the Well,

Earth is a humming chunk of rock, thrashed by meteorites and hurtling comets, a sublime attack, laden with gifts we cannot yet see.

Story churns and gargles
bellows its dramas.

Already the mythos: without chaos there will be no eros - no succulent, vital, devouring, troublesome life. Earth absorbs the carving, accommodating the rupture. But this dance is but a parade of minnows when a vast planet collides like a drunk at a wedding with this baby planet. Their great impact causes both a melting heat and shards of debris to hurl out into the inky blackness - shards that over time twist and bind into the elegant breast of the moon.

Snow Palace.
Dream Guardian.
Vast White Belly
Tide Keeper.

Our scrying shifts to 500 million years. The rocky animals that are continents, blissful in their solitudes for so long, come to seek a herding warmth, and start a slow cluster together, though the proud cloak of vegetation is still to spread their bony shoulders. The continents share gossip in the way that they do. Shallow seas hold life in its gurgling waters: sea scorpion, well-armoured trilobite, starfish. The thin waters are not like ink but luminous with sun, a glowing churn.

Salty Ale of Scales
The Glittering Beginning
The Sewing Needle of the Moon.

250 million years. We behold one vast stretch of land now, it’s face lush and hairy with plant deities. The continent confidently stretches its wing span from both high latitudes of the equator; the horsetail stretches its roots into succulent swamp, palm trees catch the breeze, as dragonflies claims residence to the hot air. Scaled beings - amphibians - lay their eggs in crusts of river beach.

Verdent Lushness
Grey Ladies of the Bank
Sweet Flurry of the Dragons Wings
Damn Handsome Rock

100 million. Time of snapping jaw and the belly-scrape-of-the sandy places, the broad and wide ranging dinosaur. Round their claws scuttle a red sea of termites, and skirting their shoulders those great survivors, the dragon fly. The continents continue their archaic shoulder rub,and their vivid dreaming continues - the moon-milk of the earths braided
intelligence, behooving us its intricate and delighted diversity, crowned with silver and white clouds, a-flower with elk and butterfly, whittle-tipped mountains of snow, brown leafed copse and urging flanks of red sand.

Deep time. Old time.

Boulder slow, loosened underworld immensity, grinding forever chords of glacial singing, bedazzled green-sizzle of the jungle rump summer lands. We are the bone pile, the swan road, the bitter dark berries in the belly of the wolf.

And on.

And on.

And somewhere, just a minute ago really, something opened its eyes that looked a little like your or I. And what we heard were the stories. The ancestors were diligent in this regard. Dragon fly would not hesitate to grace us with its buzzing saga of the wind road, bear would dictate the terms of how we padded the snowy forest. These are the stories our bodies were tuned for, that still grind quietly away in our bones as we peer at the computer screen.

And for a long long time we listened.

As the rain slapped the moss-strewn roof of an orkney shelter we listened, as the dream-rattle of the cicada poured through the dark we listened, as our lungs ripped a blood-flurry in our chest as we leapt over boulder and decaying brush pursued by boar, still we listened.

We listened to the Old Time, and knew our brief, majestic, terrible
place in it. We were just the latest in a long, long line of storytellers.

Come Ice-Giants, and Eight Legged Horses, come Blodeuwedd of the
Flowers, come Fenryr, Cinderbiter, Bertilak, Gringolet, Ossian, Scathach, Gwynn Ap Nudd. The land shudders and births you, like the sea erupts lava that becomes mountains, forests, graves. Come Psyche.

Come Goemagog, Wayland Smithy, Rhiannon of the Mares, Chaw Gully Raven, Robin of Loxley and all the laughing boys of the Greenwood.

Let your names be called, as precious as meat.

And one day, just a moment ago, an old woman came from her place at the edge of the village, her ears replete with listening, a mouth of fresh-cut meadow flowers, and told us to light the kindling.

Once it was dark, and the little ones were drifting under the antelope robes, the strange one loped forward into the light of the flames and stood in front of the village.

She says:

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time.

So she says.

And she tell us the story of ourselves back to ourselves.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Has anyone seen the boy?

I've had so many enquiries about the above gathering if felt useful to give a few words about how i came to think about teaching it. An over night decision of about twenty years.

Back in the last century:
the timber heaved with orange slashes of flame then crashed down around the rocks. All afternoon a small band of us had laboured under uncertain Welsh skies to build a substantial fire, substantial enough to heat to a red glow the rocks required for entry into the sweat-house later that day. The house is small structure, close to the ground, just enough to squeeze in about twenty five folks, made from hazel, its roof at about chest height. It’s heavily covered, to block out any light. At its centre is a small fire pit. The real hot spot is opposite the door. It’s a place of singing, prayers, story and healing.

So the fire is cooking the rocks good - “cherry reds” is what the medicine man wants - and it looks like he’s going to get them. Our small crew are blearily proud of ourselves and then stop short. The sky is changing. This is not the usual uncertain scudding of a British sky, this is a coal black entourage of alpha-clouds, ready to sluice emphatically our blaze. We won’t stand a chance against this billowing ensemble of soon-to-chuck rain-gods. I see the first drop drip from the slightly out-sized trilby rim of a startled work mate. “Bugger”.

Through the dusking comes the old man. Plaits to his waist, a head taller than anyone, immeasurably ancient, from some other place, Turtle Island. Everybody stiffens and throws themselves more fervently into the work of keeping the flames in excitement. There’s the first peal of thunder.

Old man pulls me away from the fire a moment and glances up through the strangely glittering light. “Have you told them a story yet?” he croaks in that otherworldly badlands drawl. I don’t understand. Who? The crew? I haven’t told stories since i was a kid. “Sorry grandpa, what do you mean?” I think i blushed as i spoke, wriggling with ignorance.

He points upwards to the dark wings of the air. “Them beings. That’s what they’re here for. Charm ‘em. Barter for us.” With that he hurled some language into the fast coming night. Elegant language, a storied tongue, using the currency of his jaw to claim relationship to raindrops, weather patterns, and the old and secretive desire of a darkening sky to be held for a moment in the fragility of the human imagination. I’d never seen an adult doing anything remotely like it. I just did not know such a thing existed. It touched me deeper than all of Shakespeare.

Then he stopped. “You come from here. You have to continue. Keep talking to them.” He turned, kneeled and inspected the antlers we would soon be carrying the rocks in with. Oh no. So i squinted upwards to the assembled gallery of deities and began. It was pitiful, bereft of any remote shred of courtship, just my stumbling pony of words, making it quite clear that any significant vocabulary i possessed had long since been shuffled off to the abattoir. It was kind of heartbreaking. Lots of un-earned confidence with nothing beneath it. I mean zero. All hat and no cows.


For a couple of weeks i travelled on and off with the old man - nothing special - just part of his loosey-goosey ensemble. Lots of carrying water, chopping wood, building sweat-houses, witnessing ceremonies so archaic, so vivid, so extraordinary it was like watching a cave painting peel itself off the wall, and dance in vivid colour right through the soul-black dark of the sweat-house. No metaphor here, not a jot.

So my time is up. The old man is going back across the waters and i’m carrying my sore little heart back to the rinky-dink caravan that i called home. Its gently mooted by a few that i could save pennies, cross the pond, and properly apprentice. As you can probably imagine, that’s a dizzying proposition. Like getting airlifted out of hell
into a place where real live human beings exist and remember the old arrangement we used to have with the earth. The old man’s people need a response, so i take a few hours to go mull in a nearby copse, after we’ve prepared the final sweat.

I'm just struck dumb with it all. Can’t go. Just can’t. Want to. Want to so bad my shoulders are shaking as i make the decision and my throat is hurting with all the tears i can’t quite get out. I come from somewhere else. This place. The country we used to call Clas Merdin - Merlins Enclosure, goddamit, to bring in the big speech - Albion. I can’t go the road of the Red Man, it’s simply not mine. My bones stay here.

It’s getting dark again, and the old man comes through the glimmer to hear what’s what. I tell him. He’s not happy or sad or anything, he just is. Final words; “keep talking to your bush-friends, and don’t expect your teachers to be human”. That night he sang the old songs in the lodge and i felt very foolish. I never saw him again.


I didn’t expect it to be nearly twenty years of labour before i would be prepared to talk about some of what transpired publicly. Hints of it are in the books - four years in a black tent, indeed continuing to talk to my “bush-friends”, and learning the elaborate courtship required to just attempt to carry stories in such a manner where this lively, heart-sore kind of elegant magic that the old man demonstrated could, just for a moment, appear in a way that felt authentic to someone from here.

Living in a circle, bent by weather, stewarding grief, apprehending the powers that still stalk the old fields and gullies of this gorgeous island, wearing my mistakes like a gaudy cloak, it’s exacting.

You probably remember: in the nineties everyone wanted to be a shaman, now they all want to be farmers. This is a very good trade in my opinion. Immeasurably more healthy, more real, visceral and properly more spiritual. I can’t stress enough the wisdom in losing our seduction to be the one wielding the rattle. (other than little babies of course, which is a scary analogy for the west).

Shaman is a word that has been ripe for hallucinatory levels of personal inflation, tyrannical behaviour, and a lot of nonsense. We try it on like a hat in a junk shop. At the same time there seems to be a little protein on the bone, areas of mystery left to the term that can prove useful in a strip-lit, sound bited world. They are kind of hard to pin down. Maybe with everyone now knee deep in kale and sacred grains we can have a slightly more useful conversation.

My own work has not entertained the paraphernalia of shamanism too much, but the shard that cut me so deep is this vitality and generosity of language. That thing that happened as we peered up to a story-starved thunder being and began to use the dusty old language of praise. That's the shard that will go with me into the ground.

Cautions: Stories that have this kind of currency come with a price-tag: they are not one-size fits all, they claim you not the other way round, and to speak them prematurely is rash to put it mildly. I’m still fifteen years into the courtship of some of them and have not yet uttered a word. So there’s a little apprehension about even shimming the word storyteller and shaman into the same many acred corral.

But in a time when many storytellers pride themselves at being “professional” or “performance” storytellers, it feels salient to remember the older arrangement that tellers used to have, and the skill (i.e. labour, time and discernment) required to steward such a position without recourse to too much hubris and premature flowerings. Swimming and drowning can look like the same thing from a distance.

So i’ll be teaching as much about Dylan Thomas and Lorca as i will be Black Elk. What’s at the centre of it is a lot of love, study, and a great lintel of language under which us and our kids and their kids may grow.

Ok, that’s the disclaimer.

WHEN WORDS WERE LIKE MAGIC: The Shaman and the Storyteller

Sat Feb 7th, Dartington Village Hall, Devon. £50 to book email:

From the bardic schools to contemporary Turkic storytellers, there has long been an understanding that speech elegantly crafted has the capacity to “drink down the moon”, and in doing so revives culture, steals fire from the gods. Language, with its capacity to bless or curse, is magical currency: words are alive.

The tradition of the storyteller has almost always faced in two-directions; to both the village and the forest. They are a hinge. This edge position has jostled up against such vocations as a hedge woman, cunning man or even the shaman. We will court the words and images such characters used, and see where they hide out in fairy tales and tribal stories. Why do this? to rub up once again to the warm flank of antlered language, to track the immense distance such energies have hoofed
to get to our flowered tongue.

Over a day, myth-teller and author Martin Shaw will use story, rumination, humour and that high art - conversation - to open up the power of words. Witnessing Inuit incantations to the brilliance of Dylan Thomas we will ask: if mythology is the heart of ecology, then how can we use story to bring an animistic universe right into the very centre of our times? Expect electrifying myth, troublesome ideas and a widened palette. Speech is how we taste our ancestors.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wild Land Dreaming: Dartmoor July/Sept 2015

men of the moor being gleefully goaded by the wild women of the woods - Prophets writing weekend.

on the road

post-progress poetics

** News of a five day Mythteller intensive on Cortes Island (Hollyhock) on Canadas west coast May 22-27th 2015 coming soon - **

It would appear that we in Devon are peering balefully over our goat skins and embroidered covers at the handover between Autumn and Winter; the denizens of the Oak are laying their cloak at the feet of the victorious gods of the Holly. I love this time of year so much. Hard to get me from the fireside. Here's a few smoky lines of Lorca, straight from the shepherds hut where Stephan Harding and i continue our twilight translations; Stephan provides flamenco guitar and the linguistic rigour, i provide wine and wayward thoughts.

No one could comprehend
the perfume of the
dark magnolia of your belly,

No one knew you martyred
Love’s hummingbird amongst
your teeth.

A thousand little Persian horses slept
on the moonlit square of your brow,
Whilst i, for four nights stayed close
to your waist, great enemy of the snow.

It's been a busy few weeks. Some richly rewarding gatherings in Lewes and London, and then onto a weeks teaching: "Myths At The Edge of the Fire: The Initiation of Eloquence", three hours break, and then a weekend teaching with Paul Kingsnorth, "Prophets of Rock and Wave" (thanks to Jini Reddy for photo) - a raised glass to the hundreds of new allies that showed up to these lively happenings. I don't forget you. I will be telling the startling, deep-frieghted and dark eyed Yakut love story of "The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman" at Bridport Arts Centre in Dorset this Friday. The last few weeks have seen some disappointed folk on the night, so please get tickets in advance.

So in all these road miles, I imagine the beginning of 2015 as the blessed, shadowed, antler-curve of the moon rather than its fat bellied fullness, as i craft final love notes on the cave painting which will be my next book. The below is from it - i think a fledgling version wobbled out onto the page here about a year ago.


When we grope back far enough we hear the clinking bells and animal croon of a vast migratory journey. Way back, through the blue smoke. Press your ear to the mud and you will hear them.

From Africa, the Caucasus, the steppes, we hear the creak of the great wagons, the lively yip of reindeer song, the crackle of the fire. Movement has been one key display of our temperament. And not always on the run, not always adrift in ghosts and oppression, but often styled with tremendous elegance.

In the remote burial cairns of high Dartmoor, beads originating from the Baltics have been found. A sign of great veneration. Four thousand years old. So migration and especially trade have often been at the heart of even what we regard as intrinsically local.

We know that many nomads travel for pasture (the word comes from the Greek nomas - meaning the search for pasture), they are usually rooted in the wealth of the word herd - the fed bellies of the animals in turn dictate happiness to the wanderers. The sustenance of the four legged ones is a homing device for the tribe, a humbling incentive.

Numbering still some forty million worldwide, some travel to collect wild herbs, whilst others - like the Lohar blacksmiths of India - are craftworkers and travel to trade. It was nomads - the Mongols - who gave birth to the largest land empire we have ever seen. Under the unification of Genghis Khan, the land of these nomadic tribes stretched the great flank of Asia. It was nomads who carried the banner of Islam across North Africa, Spain and Iran in the early Seventh Century. In early books of the bible they are claimed as god's children, it is the city folk who are outcasts. They have made a substantial hoof print on what we think history is. Intense pragmatism, intricate social networks, and an often dazzling degree of weaponry ride alongside.

It’s too loose a connection to claim them as hunter-gatherers: they are not. They have entered the business of movement, of proximity to and cultivation of herd. They clack with their staff directing the migrations, not just following the chomping amble of the animals. There is a tangible back and forth between the desires of both. Venkatesh Rao (Rao 2011 p.35), claims their bounty as the invention of the wheel, falconry, leather craft, rope-making, even sewing (from the construction of hide tents with needles of bone and gut strings). If mobility is the pressing issue it’s likely a nomad designed it.

We could ask; what does local mean to a nomad? Proximity to a fireside or dwelling under a ragged canopy of stars, cradled in the soft fur of the desert grasses? They seem to represent a modern aspiration - a perception of the wider earth itself as home. But still they maintain their song-lines; their passage is still deliberate, often worn into an ancestral groove under their hooves, paws and feet.


When nomads claim the rich soil of farmers, we often locate a growing change in their thinking. What George Monbiot calls “a belief in progress” Transformation and salvation become an arrow cutting through the previous hard-wrought perception of the cyclic seasonal world - loss and gain, abundance and scarcity. So where once was the spiral, now exists the gleaming road of future security. The crops are dry stored, nature's grip is to be overcome. We get to dictate some terms. The greater purchase we have over nature’s whimsy, the better.

Professor Greg Retallack claims that differing soils dictate the religious emphasis of the people who work them. Whilst collecting samples from ancient Greek temples, he observed that thinner soil existed where nomadic herders worshipped Artemis and Apollo, but as it gets capable of supporting a robust farming life, the gods in the mix are Demeter and Dionysus, deities of harvest and the vine. It becomes less about hunting more about planting. The gods do not just exist in lofty Olympus, but wander the fields in the evening light. They reflect the intricate concerns of the local, maybe they guide those concerns.

The nineteenth century writer, Thorstein Veblen (Veblen, New York:MacMillan, 1899), makes a distinction between two different kinds of pastoral nomad: lower and higher barbarian stages (barbarian is high praise in Veblens eyes). the lower stay pretty much to the lifestyle i’ve described, whilst the high gradually become civilisation’s whilst maintaining an eyeball in the direction of their roots - an example being large herds of animals maintained for sport rather than sustenance. They in turn get deeply settled, forgetful and comfortable, till nomads from the edges charge in, kick over the applecart and claim dominion. Then over time they make exactly the same moves towards surety as their predecessors.

Venkatesh claims that one on one, the nomad displays more innovation, street smarts and flat out aggression than any civilised person, but en-masse, the porridge-thick, comfort-sucking horde will almost always win the battle. The Mono trumps the feudal.

Traditional nomads rarely worshipped much local in the way we understand it, rather they hurled their praise up at the vast tent of the sky. The sky enclosed all. The Mongols loyally offered libation to vast Tengri, god of the air. Everything under its great sway was related. But, as we see, this old view is impacted with the knowledge of life’s inherent fragility, the seasonal patterning of what is stripped away, and the green buds of spring's recovery.

We have in large part inherited “the belief in progress”, and now stand in the debris of its consequence. Maybe we are on the verge of becoming a post-progress society. There’s enormous relief in that.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Monday, 3 November 2014

the big one: year course dates 2015

year course dates and more coming

Just to let you know that the dates for the year course 2015 have come out, and also news of an exciting collaboration for next spring - long planned and desired. We have more stand alone events coming for the winter, so stay tuned. x

YEAR COURSE DATES FOR 2015 - Book now to secure a place.

April 24-26
June 19-21st
July 24th-26th
October 2-4th
December 4-6th

Ted Hughes and the myth world

with Hugh Lupton and Martin Shaw
May 1-3rd, 2015, Dartmoor, £240 residential.
To book places email:

A weekend delving into the myths that inform the poetry of Ted Hughes, and walking the landscape that inspired him. We will gather on Dartmoor to explore the fundament of Hughes’s imagination. With oral storytelling, ancient poetry, and the visceral wilds of the moor, this will be an essential gathering for all lovers of Hughes, myth, and nature.

** Hugh Lupton is one of Britains leading storytellers, and author of many books, including; “The Ballad of John Clare”. He co-founded the influential Company of Storytellers in 1985, and has gained a reputation for bringing the revival of the oral tradition to audiences all over the world.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

with tony hoagland, NY

on the road

Hello friends - back from a whistle-stop time in New York teaching and meeting. Many friends made, not forgotten, seeds planted for future work. I had a birthday too, thank you for your ribald and touching notes.

Next week i'm on the road again: looking forward to bringing ideas and stories to Zu studios in Lewes on November 4th, and then the Crick Crack club in London on November 5th. LINKS:

here's a couple of ideas i will be working into at Lewes : with story, poetry and good old fashioned wild speculation. I am aware that this is just a brief sketch, but you'll just have to come see us to find out more.


What if the family you were born into, the place you live, the body you steward, the artfulness of your day - what if all were of great significance? More than some exotic, faraway life that you are meant to be having. Not obviously heroic and individuated. What if they were the essential tuning from which to steward your life? What if you accepted your place in the difficulty of your family as having a sacred design, and that patch of street outside your window as requiring tending, the drooping skin under your chin as the soulfully elected terrain of your descent into the true depths of the lived experience? Sounds ghastly. But this is not to suggest martyrdom, but rather to attend to its depths.

From Platonic sources and confirmed in much hermetic material, there is an insistence that we do not float in some arbitrary sea of circumstance, but that the strange ordinariness of our surroundings is the very ground we were always searching for. And that this ground is not telling us we can be “anything we want”, but that we maybe required to be something quite specific. Destiny and fate fight for the scraps under our table, which is often piled with junk. This grounding does not exclude great voyages and abrupt changes of fortune, does not exclude fighting tooth and nail for a life you regard as significant, but is insistent on attending to the immediacies of our body, family, land and artistry. These four modes can provide sacred parameters, like a magicians circle.

1. The Bone-House
Growing down and accepting the stoop of gravity and decay that comes with aging. We settle into our body and the enormity of its passage through our time. Plastic surgery is usually a form of lying.

2. The Parental Bow
The reluctant admission that you abide in the same strange tree as your wider family, with its young buds, sturdy roots and many rotted branches.

3. Rooted and Tasked
The anchoring into a specific landscape by the uses of custom, duty, obligation. You don’t own the land – the land owns you.

4. Circumstance and Display
Giving back just what circumstances gave you by a full, creative declaration of attachment to the world. The very impossibility of repayment dictates true humanity.

Here’s a second image:

Your Abandoned Twin

On the day you were born, minutes before you arrived, your mother had another child. It slithered out from between her thighs, and its dark shape was not pleasing to those gathered. Someone gathered up the hairy little bundle, opened a window and threw it out into the roughness of this world. All present knew that this must never be spoken of.

The ancients knew about this wild twin, this companion, and that when you signed up for your arrival here, this very being was the one that would whisper its mantra of remembering into your ear, to re-orientate you to the shape you had elected to grow into. So the assembled acted out the part of aborting that very twin. After all, if they didn’t, how would you begin the adventure of trying to find them?

The twin sometimes takes up residence in a piece of music, woods at bottom of your garden, a muttered phrase from a London tramp, or a dreaming-wind that alights just moments before you wake up - reminding you of your pre-birth settlement, to accomplish yourself in some display of attachment to the sobriety of living in this world.

Alignment with the lost twin is what Blake had, and is the root of our capacity to behold. In this light, the “local” - where we find ourselves - is more than a fluke. Egypt, chakras and Ayahuasca smoothies may have to wait, we have a garden and some growing to deal with, there are rowdy kids in the town that could do with a trip to the wild. James Hillman’s beautiful image of this is of a tree upside down: its roots in the heavens, intermingled with star constellations and succulent darkness, but its branches descending deep into the fertile stuff of earth. The stuff of earth is specific, named, imaged - without it our own tree will get no purchase in the mud of living. He reminds us of the direction a child’s head is heading at birth: down.

Relationship to the wild twin creates a firm grasp on what James Joyce called “aesthetic arrest”. In other words, the images, scents, emotions, colours, appetites that deeply touch us; the full sensual range. Not the stuff we got trained to like en-masse, but the thrum of cello, lift of lap-wing, or slug of dark beer curling round your mouth. Loyalty to the road of the senses is what marks out the ground of the artist.

The bone-house dictates a beholding, not just thin-lipped seeing of the shape of our lives, whilst loyalty to the wild twin instigates the discipline required to move towards being not just from, but of a place, whenever you arrived there. Discipline was always the dance partner of wildness.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Just out the door to Heathrow, but some news i'm very happy to relay:



3rd to 10th July and 11th to 18th September 2015

(two separate sets of dates)

Led by wilderness teacher and mythologist,
Dr. Martin Shaw

£650 (£200 non-refundable deposit) all enquiries email (places fill quickly)

For just a little while, we ask you to consider trading comfort for shelter. To ask; what does it mean to be dreamt rather than dream, or to be claimed by a place? For some of us, these are yearnings almost painful to contemplate.

The wilderness vigil is something immeasurably ancient, and the way our ancestors tuned their ear to the furry emanations of the living earth.

Here, under the emerald bough of Dartmoor forest, we invite you to seek what they sought. In this place they called Dumnonia, or Defanscir, on the island they used to call Albion, we invite you to walk out of this century

What does that look like?
Four days and nights alone in the forest.
Just like the fairy tales.

Everywhere people are talking about the desperate need for a new story. We suggest that the stories worth attending to arise from the earth itself. We don’t need commentary about the earth, we need disclosures FROM the earth.

The wilderness vigil is a moment when the grinding of your ambitions and your griefs settle into the ground of something far deeper. This is always the place we have gone to mark transition - from one stage of life to another. It can be difficult, wonderful, resolutely un-ecstatic, and absolutely life-changing. Tribal folk have always known it was where you go to die and get born. A place where big questions get asked, things bend their heads to die and green shoots spring up.

Four days to maybe, just for a moment, behold Wild Land Dreaming.

This is not a teaching from a human realm. This is the old bones of the mountain as teacher, the swift raven overhead as guide. This is ancestor time. They can be tough instructors, but hold slow-gold-blessings in their beaks.

These vigils involve a re-calibration of what some of us understand by the words wilderness rites-of-passage. There has, we believe, sometimes been a little to much emphasis on the possible psychological transformation of the participant, and the wilderness itself as simply an encouraging backdrop as they work on their issues.

We join the voices of many before us and say we believe it’s really about the move from the psyche that lives in your chest, to you dwelling within a wider psyche of lapwing, oak root and lightning storm. That’s the big move.

We are out there to hear more than the whirring cogs of our own drama.

That is the journey from dreaming to getting dreamt, getting claimed by a place. It’s usually a slow, sometimes difficult and often mysterious process. Without a long term commitment to stewarding the experience afterwards, it can be hard to grasp quite what transpired. Friends, that's where the work begins. Don't come looking for honey if you don't want to become a bee.

These vigils are the beginning of a long standing engagement from the School of Myth to offer deeply experiential work with the living world. We are really interested in a deepening conversation with a specific stretch of land over a long period of time.

Having long been in love with oral culture we are paying specific attention to the local, rather than an emphasis on the pan-global relevance of the ceremony. This will grow straight out of the dark soil of Dartmoor.

The West Country School has a particular way of approaching the wilderness fast; to develop what has been called “a community of wild ethics.” (Abram) The school places an emphasis on mythological literacy as
a profound medium with which to deepen understanding of what actually transpired out there out the hill.

It sees these forages into the bush as a dialogue with a kind of dreamtime, and such an experience needs subtle handling. What makes this experience so nourishing is in part the holding - the professional support, the telling of your story to trained guides who have both fasted themselves and can assist you in the locating of the deeper story within your experience.

Dr. Martin Shaw has been involved in wilderness rites-of-passage for twenty years, including four years living under canvas. His ancestors have lived in the west country for several hundred years. A mythologist and teacher, he is the author of “Snowy Tower: Parzival and Wet, Black Branch of Language” and the award winning “A Branch From The Lightning Tree”. Director at the Westcountry School of Myth, and visiting fellow of Schumacher college, he has facilitated hundreds of peoples experience into wild nature. His work has been described as
“the wide-sky-waking of a spring dawn”
by Coleman Barks.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

lamps lit in the belly of the castle

"To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. That over the slow recess of time you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form."

Something on the difference between being "from" and being "of" today.

It has been an absolute delight to be in the shepherds hut of late. I write and the wee beastie rocks joyfully with the winds, the roof clatters with the sharp daggers of Devon rain, the fire hoofs up its warmth. Bliss. But i'm packing my crane skin bag and heading for New York. I'll be reading some of my Celtic translations with Tony Hoagland this sunday night at the Bookcourt in Brooklyn, and Monday night i'll be teaching from the story of "Faithful John" at the Proteus Gowanus Gallery (a line or two in the photo above) - i know this will all be googlable for details. Here's a few lines from one of the poems - "Arthurs Hidden Men" - if you like this kind of thing, maybe you'll consider coming along one of the nights.
It's the right kind of year to hear the old stories.

And what of Cai?,
Cai of the strange gifting.

Nine nights and nine days he could lie
under the breathless waters,

a moon-track on the sea bed
Nine nights and nine days he could live
without sleep

When caught by storm,
such was his body's heat,
that a whole circle around him would remain dry.

When frozen in the iron-numb
gullies of Snowdon,
we would gather close
round Cai to dry our kindling.

Great ones, are you safely gathered in?
Let wild fawn
always be at your bow.

Let your white-bronze rings and broaches
glow by the yellow candle

Let the women
with the dark river hair
be your companions.

And I,
with my few wintered logs,
alone and old,

on the snowy hill
with nothing left
but my praise.


One of the most earnest desires i've encountered in recent years is folks wanting to feel an indigenous relationship to the earth. Well, i guess we all know that indigenous is a complicated word. I’ve seen whole gatherings grind to a deathly halt as growingly more red-faced folks try and get clear about what the word could mean. Funnily enough, i’ve never heard anyone who could qualify for the word actually use it. We turn up at the gate of the Crow reservation with our arms open and expect to get a warm reception.

So how do we work with this longing? Maybe let’s dial it down a little. I won’t be using anything so inflammatory as an offer for you suddenly becoming “indigenous” over night, that’s distasteful, but i will gamble a little, throw my hat in ring and say that i think coming “from” somewhere can be highly overrated.

I can’t tell you much about being “from” a place - i meet people who are so “from” a place that they are bigoted, numb and miserable. I also suggest that if you don’t have the bones of loved ones in the ground of that land, then you have no legitimate aboriginal claim for from-ness. Until the wiggling denizens of the soil have a good chew on the composting lump of aunt Agatha or grandpa Terry, then any sense of from-ness is pretty abstract.

I know this stuff can make your head spin. Feel impossible to calibrate, not worth the time, just another paradox. Well i suggest a re-tuning of intention, a slightly more sober directive: to be “of” a place. To labour under a related indebtedness to a stretch of earth that you have not claimed, but has claimed you.

To be of is to hunker down as a servant to the rumination’s of the specific valley, little gritty vegetable patch, or swampy acre of abandoned field that has laid its breath on the back of your neck. Maybe it’s a thin crest of swaying weeds between broken down sheds. As David Abrams extraordinary work reminds us, earth is air too; the myriad of wind tongues, the regal pummelling of the clouds - regardless of being in a city, hamlet or tent on a Norfolk beach. Remember to look up.

To be of, means to listen. To commit to being around, to a robust pragmatism as to what this wider murmuring may require of you. It’s participation not as a conqueror, not in the spirit of devouring, but of relatedness. I think this takes a great deal of practice. It doesn’t mean you never take a life, live on apples and peas, or forget that any stretch of earth holds menace and teeth, just as it does the rippling buds of April. You learn from the grandeur of its shadow as much as the many abundances.

To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. That over the slow recess of time you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form. That your delightful curvature and dialectical brogue is hewn deep, wrought tough, by the diligence of your service to the sensual tangle you find yourself in.

It means not talking about a place but with a place - and that’s not a relationship available indiscriminately, wherever you travel, but something that may claim you once or twice in a life time. It means staying when you don’t feel like staying. Cracking the ice on the water butt, climbing into your mud incrusted boots and walking out into the freezing dark with a bail of hay. It’s very little to do with how you feel, because guess what? feelings change.

Knowing the stories of a place is bending your ear to its neighbourly gossip. One of the ways that i've approached the moors is to get a sense of what's underneath it - so that's what i set out to do.


The cave glows. Like a child loose with glitter, scattering the limestone. I bend my head and enter. There it is. Before my eyes adjust to the dark, i can see luminous hurls of algae flecking the mottled browns and greys of the cave wall. Moon-milk they call it.

I’m inside the south moor, by just a few feet. The Buckfastleigh ridge. Underneath. Underworld. Air is chilled, sour, and as i gingerly move forward into cramped space i can sense the capacity for disorientation. The old man gestures to various sandy lumps and asks us to guess what they may be. Well, i know they are going to be old. Deer scat, possibly bear or even wolf?

The guides eyes briefly flair with triumph. Hyena. The hound of Africa seems to have once had residence in cosy old Devon. It doesn’t stop there. In the half light, his hands point out other clusters - not just scat this time but bone. He gives a roll call of the animal remains collected in the cave: rhinoceros, straight-tusked elephant, bison, cave lion.

Seeing his cue, the guide moves into proper storytelling mode, his arms curve up into the moist air and he expands upon the mutable nature of something as seemingly permanent as Dartmoor. That the caves were formed under the immense weight of the Dart river, that the moors themselves were once a vast crust of mountains, that what we consider Dartmoor is merely the gums of the proud grey teeth that jutted towards the sky. That these bone-piles tell us of a once balmy climate where the hippopotamus and wild boar thrived.

Just as my mind scrambles to keep up with this steaming tropical underbelly, the old man delivers his coup-de-grace. Descending just a few more steps into the cave, he turns, and with a grave expression notes; “we are entering a dead zone now, no bones, no life of any kind here”. This is an even older layer, long before curious wolves would have found themselves trapped in this fusty holt. This passage belongs to the river goddess; thick dark with iron and mangansese, a place of the uneasy cold, just as the first cave was curator of warm bones. Almost within arm stretch is the two worlds of ice and heat. The great flowing crush of time, unimaginable pre-history, bears down on my peering skull. I am already dust.

These are tomb-animals: this is not a den but a cemetery of beings that fell or wandered into the small opening and never got out. There are is no human imprint, no owl-man scratched, blown or ochre’d on the rib-curved walls, no wide-eyed boys squatting on fur, no torchlight beckoning us into yet deeper tunnels, just the immense stillness of a realm that never expected our company.

This is a place of deep time intelligence, i recognise it straight away. Why? because i’m a storyteller, and know that the most impactful dimensions of a story are always underneath, chthonic; their creaking bucket carrying us down to the bottom of the pit, where alligator skulls and stored honey reside.

The emotive connections we cannot help but make with myths are rather like the entrance to this cave - a way in - and then our imaginations crash through the yellow bracken, crash down a tumble into the hard cut of limestone and we find ourselves in another world. A realm we may not escape from. Day intelligence; the place of lists, outcomes and schedules is not the deepest home for story. Elevate stories there to often, and they grow pasty, truculent and finally sick. They are not to dance for us like disgruntled bears in a Lithuanian market square.

As i gaze up at the firm, glistening crust of ceiling i see the glittering moon-milk in a new way; as language, and not just human, dripping down through these slurried layers of time back into the keeping of the womb of pre-history.

This is not one of the great initiation pits, those places of unshackling into the dreaming of rock and fur and salt-wave, those places where the tribe that was the hill and the bird and the river carved its manifesto into your fledgling imagination, it is older even than that. My own thinking seems to have run aground, can go no further back, the tart air is sharp clumps of sacred breath. I make my speechless gestures of prayer and leave. As i come blinking out into drizzly grey light, i have just glimpsed a far older, toothier, stranger world. A world turned upside down.

I walk awhile, and surely enter the convivial atmosphere of the river-side Abby Inn, just a short walk from this Underworld and order a pint. Dark beer gathered in, i take my seat on a wooden bench and enjoy its robust settling on my tongue, chewy with plenty of malt. I lose myself watching the rapid scatter of the Dart river over the stones. Despite the knackered chatter of local builders over my shoulder, the aura of the cave still has me, leaves me blurry with questions as i sip the brew.

There’s a lot going on. I can’t quite get a hold back on the world upstairs just yet. I’m sick of things making sense. I thought i knew the moor, but down there, in the brown light flickering on an elephants tooth, i wasn’t so sure. The long departed cave-lion is more indigenous to the moor than i will ever be.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Monday, 6 October 2014

turning our head from the pelt

Once upon a time there was a lonely hunter. One day, exhausted, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.

The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was fox-woman-dreaming, that she had walked clean out of the Otherworld. “I am going to be the woman of this house” she told him.

The hunters life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.

Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent smell. A small price you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect it on his pillow, his clothes, even on his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded once across their small table, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent, was gone.

It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.

I would suggest that we are that hunter, societally and most likely personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature; its sharp, regal, un-domesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrians wall between us and the living world.

Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the fox woman gone. And when she left she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming, and our great success’s have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. Stories that are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. We have lost a lot of house-making skills for how to welcome such stories. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.

I have many friends who have long since fled: I suggest it is because of the stories the West tells itself in private. Because when the taxes have been paid, Siberia has been googled-earthed to the last inch, when the last sinew of oil has been drained from the North sea, i suggest the stories we secretly tell ourselves are little more than nightmares. The Wests esteem is far lower than we expect.

Our bones know the cost of the degree of the speed-magic we are harnessing, our bellies are acid strewn with the price. Hobbling alongside this hero-myth is the terrible Banshee of the Blood Pool, that claims the storytellers chair by our bed when we rest.


Maybe we started turning our head from the scent of pelt early on: in the very origination story of the naming of Britain. When Brutus of Troy arrived in Albion he arrived with a sword, not with a blessing. What he encounters, as have so many western hero myths since, is conflict with Giants. The giants are the people of the deep-history of the island.

Brutus, through force, pushes them to the recesses of the land, to the high places of Dartmoor, to the bony ridge of the lizard of Cornwall. Far from the cultural life of this emerging nation.

Whilst to the wary eyes of the warriors those giants may seem terrible, nothing much is said about their age-old relationship to the land they dwell in. How can Brutus behold that relationship when the sword turns nervously in his hand, and he seeks to claim a prophesied dominion?

And so it is for us, we sweep out these Grendels, these Sidhes and Goemagogs; we hold our bright torch to the back of the cave and claim the One over the Horde.

We don’t have the time to learn the Giant language, so we, in turn, become them. A kind of mimic. What we exile we become.

We got it wrong from the start. Brutus has not been to the Underworld. He is brilliant, but not initiated, he does not know what he is looking at. And so it has gone ever since.

As it happens, in a very remote and rarely mentioned local tale, it is one of those very giants, Blunderbus of Dinger Tor, who, when falling in love with a local girl, Jennie, provides her with the ingredients for one of the greatest attributes to a Devonian feast: Clotted cream. It turns out that relationship to a giant can school us in conviviality after all.

The turn in this thinking for me though, is that he arrives on the advice of a Goddess, Artemis. That there is a divine instruction behind it.

Could it be that Artemis is seeking to open the young leader to initiatory experience, and could it be that initiatory experience can land on an entire people as well as an individual, and could those initiations last thousands of years?

But some of us are trying to re-enter the countries of our birth in a different way. To walk the shores not with a shield but with speech, with seeds rather than slaughter. To open a dimension of this country that is not just Britain but Albion. Not Devon but Dumnonia, or Defenascir, or somewhere else again:

Flank of Wolf Mind,
Confirming Shepherds Staff

Timber-Wains and
the Fulsome Corn

Copper Caved,
Riven by Apples

Blessed Trout -
Glitter Dragon
of the Brown Stream.

I think it’s time we went looking for the Small Gods again.

...Come and explore this story and more from under the paws of the fox-woman at "Myths From The Edge of the Fire: The Eloquence of Initiation", Schumacher College, November 10-14th. Fee: £620

Course fees include accommodation, food, field trips, materials and all teaching sessions.

Contact us

Tel: +44 (0)1803 865934
Fax: +44 (0)1803 866899

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Monday, 29 September 2014

new paintings


We break bread with the dead this week. But before we go too deep:

Three autumn events:

BOOKCOURT bookstore, Brooklyn, New York. Tony Hoagland & Martin Shaw: A Night of Celtic Poetry - Sun Oct 19, 7:00PM tickets at:

CRICK CRACK CLUB, Swedenborg house, London. The Eloquence of a Fairy Tale - talk and telling with Martin Shaw November 5th, 7:00pm tickets at:

BRIDPORT ARTS CENTRE, Bridport, Dorset. The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman Martin Shaw 21st November, 7:30 pm tickets at:

..So, here is a revised version of a truncated piece i put up a few months ago. This character, and a few others like him have become pivotal to the Dartmoor book i've been writing these last few years. As is often the case, when i get close to the end of a book, paintings start to appear too, completely emerged in the stories. It's very useful having a diary like this - i can stick the photos here and know i won't lose them. Expect the year course dates for 2015 next week.


You would see him when my father was a boy – they called him ‘MooRoaMan’. It is very early morning, and there he is, striding briskly in a tattered tweed, gripping a staff. He is on the stomp from his shanty digs high up at Huntingdon Warren on Dartmoor. Through bog and over stream he weaves, eager for the bacon, eggs, buttered toast and hot tea he will wolf down in Buckfastleigh. On his return from the long romp he will be spotted wielding enormous branches for his fire. Berry-bright eyes and a snowy clump of hair sit above that shabby coat, mulched with rain and belted with a cord of rope, his boots so scuffed some say they have become hooves. A piper at the gates of dawn.

His appearance could spook you. Seen shuffling just within the treeline, he has local folk claiming he is a wild man; that the moors once again has a Wudu-Wasa, a lord of misrule. His stroll through the hamlets has the kiddies burying their head in their mothers fragrant aprons.

Wild man? Wodwo? Has he walked into our time from the very back of the cave? I say opposite: he is walking from our time into limestone dreaming, into granite dreaming, into aurouch dreaming. He had a history we could comprehend. The son of a methodist preacher, he had served time as a popular school teacher, but on retirement turned his head away from a life of civic duty. Went to lodge in a deep remoteness, befriended the rabbit warrens and the hidden trout pools that were once plentiful. Extended his soul to a more natural weight in the world.

When the snow got deep he would look for lodgings in Buckfastleigh, not above advertising in the Western Morning News. In kinder weather, those who visited him described his dwellings as “indescribably derelict” – a kind of two-roomed cave, decorated liberally with the rusting remains of an aircraft that had crashed outside. Still, his fire was merry enough, where he would endlessly place toast onto the glowing peat and deftly remove at just the right moment, or slurp a constant supply of industrial strength, orange tea, thickened with oatmeal. He was known to be immensely strong. Not strong like an athlete filled with steroids, but strong like the bull-wolf, strong like a confluence of mountains.

Not just content with early morning wanders, he often went further at night. He liked low gossip by lantern, and the warm, boozy humour of the barmaid. With bone-white stars just surfacing, he would canter down to the pubs of Ivybridge and South Brent. His scarecrow shape was known in the ale halls, and fondly tolerated. There was absolute silence when he told his stories. When enough rough beer had settled his belly, and with a bag of vinegary chips stuffed deep in a pocket, he would wend his shaggy way home via the disused railway track from Cantrell to Redlake.

Such was his fierce intelligence, such was his desire for company, he would write letters to himself to ensure a visit from the postman, who now visited the lonesome settlement twice a week. We can see the startled expression of the postie leaning on the gate as this fox-stack of a man speaks earnestly about Greek philosophy, or a folk tale, the movement of bats, or gently turning over the meaning of the book of Luke. Although ‘one of the roughs’, those who know him love him, cherish him. He is a slow earth man, his wisdom’s of the region thorough, his relationship to it visceral and immediate.

This man who made his way through life as storyteller – a preacher and a teacher - withdrew into the curly folds of the moors for his final years. But we know he yearned for company, loved it, even as he walks to the back of the cave. He found it with starling and thrush, badger and salmon, wind and bush, but i think it is we too that should go to him, this lonely Wudu-Wasa. We go for ourselves, and for our culture.

For one last telling from Frederick William Symes.
The telling that never was and always is.

As we hike to the wild upland we gather kindling, strong beer, a rabbit from a Scoriton farmer. We stomp a mile of firm track and then into fast rising moorland, that familiar bounce underfoot. The view opens mighty in all directions; for a while we can see the scattered orange glow of distant coastal towns, and then we are enclosed in the brown shoulder of the moor. It is dusk, and the last of the summering heat is leaving the soil. In the half light he will be waiting to meet us, the dead man, ready to walk us clear out of our century. He squats, raggle-taggle, in the shadows of a dry stone wall, his bag and stick with him. The old farm is once again behind him.

We see lingering smoke from the fire, but he’s not taking us inside. He turns and we glance up the hill, to the cairn, the “Heap O’ Sinners”, a place he cherished. The rock in his powerful fists, he waywardly added to the pre-historic mound every time he saw fit. But he urges us on, seems to be looking for something. He halts, gestures, face crumples. He’s found his old chapel.

It’s a rough hold hewn into the bowls of the soil, a potato cave. A place to store the vegetables safe from the winter frosts. There was always gossip in the villages that he had crafted a primal chapel up here.
He produces a few glowing embers of peat from his pocket and places them in the centre of his hand. He settles us by the entrance to his place of prayer. Encouraged to take our ease, we settle our tired backs onto the kitchen strewn lumps of granite.

This Green Knight, Bertilak of the Warren, takes his blade to our necks and loosens us from straight time altogether. The embers glow in his paw, and as we sit huddled, the bull-wolf starts to speak. Underworld tongue. Fifty three years under west-country soil.

I am older than
this body, dust-boned
in the clay of an
Albaston graveyard.

I’m salted with the memory
of a fish that crawled onto mud,
of tracking the hooves of the
elephant, day after day,
across the fragrant jungle of

I have cut the worshipful
throat for Belus,
I sorrowed to my boots
when i smelt the wild fragrance
of Gethsemane.

Roadkill told me things:
the crushed head of a rabbit
whispered The Epic of Gilgamesh
to me on the back lanes from
Hexworthy one night.

Best i ever heard. Masterclass.

I swam London’s
buried rivers:


I broke bread with ghosts
down there.

I have tales for the lonely road,
lost amongst the cabbage fields
of Lincolnshire,
tales to jade an enemy -
tales for love in a hay barn,

tales for rooks
over a Pondsworthy copse-
so sweet it’ll turn their dark capes
to settle by my feet.

Tales that’ll dump
terror in your saddle-bags:
you’ll give me coin and wine
just to halt the bleakness of my words.

Stories told on the
dark hills of Ceredigion,
with burning bushes
and the lord of the fairies
listening in.

When i was finished
I was laid under
the fur of a wolf-skin,
suckled nine-days
on the teat of a rain-bear
to gather my strength.

Know this: there is a storm
coming to this world.

Disappointment so
deep in the guts of us,
that good people
won’t search
when their children
wander into the forest.

Turns the heart
to a lump of coal,
we will sing
our blue-dream
over this dying world
and call it poetry.

Story is all we have left.

The last piece of courtship
to the denizens that flood us
every time we
fight and love and screw.

They are the ones
that make it beautiful.

Speech is how we
taste our ancestors.

He gestures to the entrance and we crawl in. It’s large enough to stretch out; from his embers we can see the scarring where a pick axe dug for tin, there are bat droppings heaped at the back. But our attention is on the man.

He will bind us through the age-old night with his words, throw the bones of sound to clatter on the lime of our old mind, coax a myth-line from pre-history to the very edge of our own brief years, right here in this mud cathedral. MooRoaMan points a finger to the ancient murk and begins:

The generous dead are speaking

Enter the green chapel of language

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


The Eloquence of Initiation

is the title for my first extended course at Schumacher College, November 10-14th (Monday to Friday). For those disappointed to be on the waiting list for my collaboration with Dark Mountain's Paul Kingsnorth the following weekend (Prophets of Rock and Wave), this is a chance to get a side door into some of the action.

Why come?

Well, being as it has been sometime since my i last wrote, i thought i'd try and craft a decent response to that question. To give a sense of what we will be exploring over the week, with the practical stuff at the bottom. Folks from overseas - THIS is the course of mine that i would recommend, due to it's length. You'll get some bang for your buck for sure. I have more news in the next few days of events in New York, London and..Bridport. So, more soon, promise.

Whatever colour of Englishman you scratch
you come to some sort of crow

Ted Hughes

We hear it everywhere these days. Time for a new story. Some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

So, here’s my first moment of rashness: I suggest the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they’re not simple, neat or painless.

No matter how unique we may think our own era, i believe that that these old tales - fairy, folk tales and myths - contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-riven times. And what’s more they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-boggled individual, but have passed through the breath of a countless number of oral storytellers.

Second moment of rashness: the reason for the generational purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just - as is widely purported - the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when the our innate capacity to consume - lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas - was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call Wild Land Dreaming. We met something mighty. We didn’t just dream our carefully individuated thoughts - We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reigns.

Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll their eyes, stomp their boot and vigorously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moments question of a stories origination.

In a time when the earth suffers a rapid infusion of disease by our very hands, could it not be the deepest factor of the stories we need is that they contain not just reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, reflective, troubled being, whilst we erect our shanty-cultures on its great thatch of fur and bone?

It is a great insult to the archaic, majestic cultures of this world to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm, or gazing at corpse and frantically reasoning a supernatural narrative. That implies a base line of anxiety not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship. It places full creative impetus on the human, not the sensate energies that surround and move through them, it shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening, it shuts down that big old word animism. Maybe they knew something we have forgotten.

Two routes towards the cultivation of that very dreaming was through wilderness initiation and, by illumination of the beautiful suffering it engendered, a crafting of it into story to the waiting community. Old village life knew that the quickest way to a deep societal crack up was to negate relationship to what stood outside its gates.

Storytellers weren’t always benign figures, dumping sugary allegories into children's mouths, they were edge characters, prophetic emissaries. More in common with magicians. As loose with the tongue of a wolf as with a twinkly fireside anecdote. As we shall explore later in the book, these initiatory times facing the rustle-roar of the autumn oaks or grey speared salmon, had banged their eloquence up against a wider canopy of sound, some of which was still visible in loamy clumps on the splayed hide of their language.

Part of a storytellers very apprenticeship was to be caught up in a vaster scrum of interaction, not just attempting to squat a-top the denizens of the woods. To this day, wilderness fasting disables our capacity to devour in the way the west seems so found of: in the most wonderful way i can describe, we get devoured.

The big, unpalatable issue is the fact that these kind of initiations have always involved submission. For a while you are not the sole master of your destiny, but in the unruly presence of something vaster. You may have to get used to spending a little time on one knee. May have to bend your head.

Without a degree of submission, healing, ironically, cannot enter. It is not us in our remote, individuated state that engenders true health, but soberly labouring towards a purpose and stance in the world that is far more than our own ambitions, even our fervent desire to “feel better”.

So, i claim that the stories are here. And they include all these difficult conditions. That’s the price tag. This is not in anyway to claim redundancy to modern literature, but simply to hold up the notion of living myth.

So the stories are here, but are we?

I think we are losing the capacity to behold them. We see them for sure - our eyes swiftly scan the glow of computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on. It is not hard then to suggest that we are fundamentally askew in our approach: we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering. Our so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it. When we see something we have stayed pretty firmly in devouring mode, when we behold it, we are in a lively conversation.

But these stories i speak of are not being brought slowly into our bodies, wrought deep by oral repetition. We have lost a lot of the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story. When we can’t do this, the most chaotic mimics claim invasion.


Around half way through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and fairy tales re-gained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium to understand the workings of their own psychological lives. By the development of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches huts became the most astonishing language with which to apprehend much of what seemed to lurk underneath their everyday encounters and decision making. It granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the often fragile shape of their years.

What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas, that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on “out there”. Us and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the centre of the action. This is not an indigenous perspective on the purpose of story.

When the Grimms and others collected their folktales they effectively reported back the skeletons of the stories, the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing from the tale. Ironically, this stripped back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories - a kind of “everywhere and nowhere” style.

Now whilst it’s certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in a entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the bog lands and granite outcrops of its new home. It would shake down its feathers, shape-leap a little, or go quiet and would soon cease to be told. No teller worth their salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough, the vital organs would be the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert it now abided in. This was a protracted courtship to the story itself.

Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human questions that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. These are details that may seem unimportant when only seeking to poke around your childhood memories in a therapists office, but they start to fall woefully short when this older awareness as story as hinge between village and forest is reignited - the absence becomes acute, the tale flat and anthropocentric.

I don’t think we have the stories, these stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs and generosities. Psyche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments, but we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up-close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories.
re-hydrate the language, scatter dialectical inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We’re unlocking the cage.

MYTHS FROM THE EDGE OF THE FIRE: The Eloquence of Initiation

10 to 14 November, 2014

With Martin Shaw
Guest contribution from Paul Kingsnorth

The great old stories always did something more than just soothe a troubled brow.

They were provocative, mysterious, wild and deep. They insisted on a relationship between people and place, animal and dream. They were often introduced as a counterbalance to wilderness initiations designed to enable the skills of someone aspiring to be a true human being: a noble task, and not easy.

The cry for new stories, stories that apprehend the challenges of our time, has never been so strident as it is now. Over the week we will work with the notion that the stories we need now arrived, perfectly on time, about five thousand years ago. And that these stories could be central to the major conversations of our time: the re-building of culture, the ecological imagination, the capacity for paradox.

We ask:
How can the storyteller deepen these great issues? We explore the role as well as the stories.
How could we bring a wider understanding of myth into our own lives?
What is this ancient alignment between land and tale?
Man-booker nominated author, and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth will offer a session giving a contemporary enquiry into these questions.

This is an experiential course. Alongside the exploration of the stories (fairy, folk and Gaelic), you will have the experience of learning to tell some of them yourself, whilst also deepening those tales by time in the brooding woods and mossy grandeur of a Devon autumn. You will see how, for thousands of years, myth-tellers served as a hinge between the pastoral function of the village, and the prophetic energies of the forest. For the first time at Schumacher College, Martin will provide practices that have been used by the Bardic culture of Britain and Ireland for many thousands of years.

This course is for …
Thinkers, makers, academics, poets, ecologists, farmers, storytellers in the broadest sense of the word. It will be in turns playful and intense, challenging and soulful, bringing to bear two decades of Martin’s work with wilderness rites-of-passage and myth.

Fee: £620

Course fees include accommodation, food, field trips, materials and all teaching sessions.

Contact us

Tel: +44 (0)1803 865934
Fax: +44 (0)1803 866899

copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Robin Williamson Tickets 29/30 August

Tickets for Robin Williamson can now be paid for through Paypal.


Wednesday, 9 July 2014

robin williamson Aug 29th/30th Ashburton, Devon - a celebration of his stories.


First post in an age, i know, i know. Parzival play has taken over everything - it begins its short run at Sharpham House in Devon next week, tickets available here:

Tickets selling FAST, so please don't delay.

Here's a link to a short video about SNOWY TOWER, filmed at my writing hut just a couple of weeks ago:

## ROBIN WILLIAMSON FANS APRL 29/30TH 29/30th August. A very special two night run with master storyteller and founder of the Incredible String Band, Robin Williamson - "STORIES AND THEIR MAKING": Over the years, many of the stories Robin tells have matured with him and become lifelong friends. Many people have requested Robin to capture and make available again his favourite stories, first recorded on cassettes in the eighties and now out of print. Robin will be recording for a two night run at the Quaker Meeting house in Ashburton.


£10 PER night, different stories per night

Ok, i think i owe it to all of us to have something COMPLETELY un-Parzival related this week. It's a section from the new book i'm working on, and concerns a meeting with yourself and character called Henry Hastings - a man from west country history.


Only you know where you’ll be when it happens. Drifting through a wednesday counting emails in the office, bent over kale at the allotment, gearing up for the school run dash through the rain.

Today is different. Today little Jacob, Nessie and Ruby will wait by the gates. You’ve gone somewhere else. Something beckoned, called you by your name, bundled you into a large black car. No one looked up from their desk. You don’t quite know where you are going, but by god you have to go. Now. You travel some distance, but finally, the car - which is now a carriage - has stopped.

As your feet descend to the earth, the driver mutters that you are a guest of Henry Hastings himself, the great Wudu-Wasa of the west country of England. Wild man. One of the last. A royal keeper of the forest. You can’t help but look around, i mean he sounds so grand. Are there ornate turrets, crimson carpets, a table crammed with dainties? Servants attending to your every need? Not so much.

A greeting chamber had been carved into the hollow of an oak. And striding towards you is a man dressed entirely in green broadcloth. Squat and muscled, glint in his eye, cheek as red as a spanked arse, he beckons that you enter the heart of the tree with him. It is here he takes your measure.

If the stink of the city is not too much with you, he leads you further into his maze. Past the stacked woodsheds, fishponds and deer thick copses to his home. The man has a reputation, like a lusty tree-spirit, or woodland-khan, every female for twenty miles has sought him out.

Hasting’s great hall seems to have long reneged on the notion of outside and inside. In the high sconces of the walls you behold both falcon and hawk, roosting like emperors. The floor is thick with both their droppings and a scattering of hunting dogs - shuddering with terriers, hounds, spaniels. Peering through the smoke you see the upper end of the room converted into a hanging wall of fox and polecat pelts, two seasons thick.

You hold your courage and advance, finding great litters of cats pawing for their masters plate, avoiding the long white wand he thrashes in their direction. But friend: by god you eat. Fresh oysters from Poole, woodcock, hare and venison - steaming on the plate or groaning tight within pastry. When you try to match him drink to drink, you find yourself sipping beer flavoured with rosemary, or wine strong with gillyflower.

Hastings great treat is to bellow at his servants; “Bastards and cuckoldry knaves”. They know his rhythms, his temperament, and grin broadly. What pleasure to allow fully volley to the tongue. If you require further feeding he will shuffle into a smoky corner where lies a disused pulpit. Reaching into its un-consecrated depths he may produce an apple pie - long baked, plump and sweet, thick crusted. If meat’s still pressing he will procure chunks of gammon or even a chine of deep cured beef.

The one that peers at us curiously over dinner - this Enkidu, this Rooster, this Woodwo, lived a full century in his time, as the gentry fall like minnows around him. His hall is a strange Arcadia, the man a Lord of Misrule. His tapestries candle-flicker like cave paintings. You settle by the fire.

No one has ever told you stories like he tells you stories.

Speech so sweet and broad that starlings nestle in his vowels, with the moon craning her elegant neck to catch just a whisper of his antlered language. Your heart hurts, and your throat is tight like when you ran fast as a kid. Please, god, don’t ever stop your telling, we’ve done for - all of us - if you do. And then suddenly it is over: you are outside - bundled up and under the stars, awaiting your carriage back to polite society.

The cell phone starts to pulse madly in your pocket, you know you’ve missed parents evening for sure. You’ll have to Skype the headmaster. But that’s not the reason you find yourself biting back tears, blinking in the dark. The oak door is pulled slowly shut on the scene: the pipe smoke, yipping dogs, larders of ale, tables thick with hawk’s hoods, fishing poles, dice and cards.

As the ale claims residence to your tongue, as your belly groans with beef, you stand in the dark and you wonder:

which of us is really the richer?

and how has this tragedy come about?

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Monday, 12 May 2014

Grimms: The Two Brothers

Dark Mountain collaboration + Hillman and Fairy Tales

Busy, busy, busy. I'm sure you know that feeling. Very overrated. We successfully launched the year course: 33 of us braved weather and story up on the moors. Passion, intensity and fellowship. It seemed i was just wiping the mud from my boots when i was hauled off to London to finish the script for the play of PARZIVAL, and then a day of auditions. It seems the team is assembling. Exciting times.

Lots of house-work. Great, undulating acres of the stuff. Turns out the walls of our dartmoor home are Russian wood split by tundra villages of the 19th century and weaved with lime and horsehair. That explains a lot. Workshops a-coming (at bottom of this entry). Music being played at home is courtesy of Martin Simpson, Little Richard, Bessie Smith and Charles Mingus. Lots of roasts, red wine and preparing for this weekends jump into the work of Jim Hillman and the genius of the fairy tale. At the low low price of just £45.

Some rough notes on a wider essay on the move from orality to literature, useful ground for anyone that works with voice i think.

The Intimacy of Reading
With the medieval era, reading becomes elevated to an art form - an energy all of its own - not just accompanying a primary orality. In the monastic tradition, text was originally read out loud to increase meditative intimacy to the words. The early monastic communities sought engagement, not manipulation, of the text. It glowed to their eyes. Through reading out loud, the syntax rooted itself in the memory, thereby increasing its moral potency to the scholar. However, even as far back as the second century there had been concern that reliance on the skill of memory recall compromised associative thought in the moment. This memory resource was the birth of rhetoric, of planning in advance what you are going to say.

Plato speaks of the esoteric skill of creative recall and exoteric skill of learning a written text by heart. It creates argue-mental structure and planned stressed metaphors. Ivan Illich beautifully tracks this progression in his book on Hugh of St Victor; “In the Vineyard of the Text”. To Illich the book contains sounding pages: the line is scooped up into the mouth and given voice, understanding deepens by literature taking occupancy of the breath, “When we read we harvest - we pick berries from the lines” (Illich). Hugh worked out of a monastic community where reading was paramount to the absorption of wisdom and wisdom was a being - Christ. So to seek wisdom was to seek Christ. What Hugh sought to amplify was not memory but his own consciousness.

Most medieval documents were untitled; you cited the first and last line - the incipit and its explicit. Whatever constituted the first line became the title in the way we would understand it.

However, fifty years after Hugh the move from the auditory to silence has begun, and with it an increased level of authorship. Hugh gives us an oral record, but from then on in writing becomes a launching point for the development of the writers thoughts. As Illich reminds us; Hughes spoke to his students - 100 years later Thomas Aquinas lectured to them. Hughes students read his utterances, Thomas’s read his compositions.

By the fourteenth century this level of exegesis was procuring such complexity from lecturers that we see visual aids being created to assist in their apprehension of the teaching. Copyists would write out the lectures outline, soon it was commonly understood that to understand the argument you needed the text in front of you.

This is enormous move - these inky undulations are no longer to assist sounding patterns but are elevated to a symbolic tapestry for imaginative development. A cathedral of language can now be carefully erected, constructed and deconstructed, no longer the mud-huts and fragile erections of the spontaneous documented. There is a whole construction crew moving out of the ink onto the page.

It is also worth remembering that originally there was no break between words - hence the necessity of reading out loud. When paragraphs appear, and space around the words, there seemed even less imperative to read them out loud. They are no longer a herd: fur-flanked and jostled together, but easier to isolate, to corral. The tongue could move through the minute gaps between beasts, discern differences in species, temperament, scent, intensity. In this way, orality offered surprising disclosures to the reader. You experienced the text with a wider holism, a wider sensual range. But by now, your ears and my ears were not tuning to a shared thought, it was the individual eye that was now the primary receiver.

Kindly Reclyning
Medieval man/woman was not generally an ecstatic or dreamer but an organizer. not a wanderer but a codifier - a builder of systems. They loved to separate out, to arrange, to tidy almost to the point of cosmological claustrophobia. Drinking deeply of the eras love of systems and general bookishness, they created a single complex and harmonious model of the universe. This cosmos is a great and finely ordered multiplicity, C.S. Lewis claiming it as a classical rather than gothic sublimity. As a model it was not totally abandoned till the end of the seventeenth century. Lewis claims the model as vertiginous:

“looking out at the night sky with modern eyes is looking out over a sea that fades away into mist - or looking about one in a trackless forest - trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic and theirs was classical.This explains why all sense of the pathless/the baffling and the utterly alien - is so markedly different from medieval poetry when it leads us - so often - into the sky.”

And it was into the sky that the people viewed their impulse systems writ-large. The spheres transmitted what was called influences - the planets effected our psychology, our plants, our minerals. With their night-literacy they saw and were confirmed by what they beheld above them. They were contained and in relation.

Even theologians claimed that the influence of the spheres was unquestioned - but rallied against 1. lucrative astrology 2. astrological determinism - something that excludes free will; ‘the wise man can over-rule the stars’. 3. Anything that encouraged worship of the planets. We locate a kind of Christian nod to animism at work - and not for the first time. The mythological commingled with the celestial with the divine naming of the spheres: Saturn, Pluto and the roaming hoard.

Where as now we stare out incontinent with awe at the unimaginable miles above us, Lewis persists that to the medieval model you would have felt that you were looking in, your inner-fates scattered above you.

This ordered cosmos understood it needed its areas of ambiguity, and mystery to complement the whole, otherwise we were bolted down too tight. So surviving from the pagan imagination came the Fairy, the Long-Livers, the Gentry, the Benji, to keep a door - albeit a small one - to an otherworld that was not just celestial. This small nod to porosity blessedly allows many stories to crawl though.

(further reading: Lewis, "The Discarded Image", Illich, "In the Vineyard of the Text")


The Disguises of the Heart and the Soul of the World:
Image, Hillman, and the Road of Story

16 & 17 May 2014

With Martin Shaw and John Gouldthorpe

The ancients knew something that we’ve forgotten. That such a thing as a world-soul exists, and a key to its relationship is through apprehension of beauty. Fidelity to images that rouse our heart has been a powerful road to breaking open the often numbing strains of modern living. But when we say heart what do we mean? Poetic associations of the heart reveal a nuanced and educated state. Can thought dwell there?

Through story, discussion, and the challenging work of psychologist James Hillman, we will explore relationship to heart, the experience of beauty and an animate earth. Martin Shaw will be telling the lengthiest and most complex of the Grimm’s brothers tales – “The Two Brothers”, from the Friday evening to the close, whilst John Gouldthorpe will be our guide through some of the intricate revelations of Hillman.

This will be a lively and concentrated gathering, with Shaw and Gouldthorpe providing a way of seeing in which to apprehend our relationship to ourselves and a wider world.

£45 contact schumacher college for places.

Prophets of Rock and Wave - led by Martin Shaw and Paul Kingsnorth.

November 14th -16th November, Dartmoor. For the third year, we’re offering this popular writing and wilderness retreat, on the wilds of Dartmoor.

Whilst promising the Earth, civilisation divorces us from it. But the stories our civilisation tells about itself are now unravelling. The intensity of that unravelling propels us into even greater disconnection from the wild. The Dark Mountain Project and the Westcountry School of Myth and Story are collaborating for this unique writing, myth-making and wilderness workshop in the winter of 2014. It will pose a simple question: can we stand outside the wires and lights of modern living and, however briefly, re-forge a visceral engagement with the intelligence of the wild? Can we look at the human story, as it were, from outside?

Over a weekend spent in remote cabins, around fires and in the woods, we will explore what it means to un-civilise our writing and our selves. We will seek the place beyond the solitary intellect, where rather than dreaming we get dreamt. We will look to the creation of stories, poems, narratives and worldviews that are startling in their freshness, by walking beyond the usual dustbowls of the civilised world. Weather patterns, badger trails, and deep pools of water will serve as teachers. Bring your dancing shoes. And waterproofs.

The course is led by Martin Shaw, Director of the Westcountry School of Myth and Story (, and Paul Kingsnorth, Director of the Dark Mountain project ( The weekend will combine writing workshops and exercises with moorland walks and fireside explorations. It will be active, outdoors and full of surprises. There will be no wifi connection or urban comforts.

The cost for the weekend is £200. No experience necessary – just enthusiasm. To reserve your place or find out more, email

copyright Martin Shaw 2014