Ancient feasts and festivals still living on

It’s amazing how many remnants of ancient festivals and feasts still remain as part of the UK’s cultural life and mores – somewhat altered over the years perhaps, sometimes almost unrecognisably so, but there nonetheless.

 

As many of these events, particularly those of an agricultural bent, have their origins in the cycles of nature though, I guess it’s not entirely surprising that they’ve clung on, often by their fingertips. While most of us, sadly, have lost touch with the land, we’re hopefully not too far removed from her just yet to recognise her ancient ways and understand their significance, albeit superficially.

 

And as if to prove the point, the church at Thaxted, a picturesque little town not far from my home base of Saffron Walden in north Essex, held a traditional service dating back to medieval times a couple of Sundays ago to celebrate the start of the agricultural year. Called ‘Plough Sunday’, it’s always held on the Sunday after the Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on 6 January.

 

Plough Sunday
Plough Sunday

In medieval times, the festivities consisted of the whole village bringing its sole ploughshare into church for a clerical blessing. But by Victorian times, when the tradition was revived, many farmers owned their own ploughs and so a representative one was chosen to stand in for the rest. Modern day tractors, meanwhile, are generally seen to outside – for obvious reasons.

 

But although the implements may have changed, the ceremony itself is still about praying for a good growing season and successful harvest, and is often accompanied by other rural customs such as Morris dancing. After the blessing, the plough was traditionally hauled through the village by a procession of people led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ – a young boy dressed up as a woman – who collected money from anyone they met and stopped at as many pubs as possible along the route in order to commandeer a drink.

 

And ‘Betsy’, it seems, is linked to a cross-dressing tradition relating to Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night marked the end of a medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and finished at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Anyway, the following day was Plough Monday, the first day back at work for farming folk after the Christmas break. But Plough Sunday wasn’t the only agricultural church feast on the annual celebratory calendar.

 

Rogation days

 

Next on the list were Rogation days – the major one being held on 25 April and the minor ones on the Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. Rogation apparently comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask – in this case farmers asking God to protect their crops.

 

Interestingly though, it is thought that the origins of the major rogation day go back as far as Roman times. It was then that the feast of Robigalia was held and a dog sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, a god whose job it was to protect the corn from nasty diseases.

 

The minor days, on the other hand, were introduced in AD 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in south-eastern France, before being officially adopted by the Catholic Church. First arriving on British shores in the 12th or 13th century, they were originally supposed to be days of quiet fasting and abstinence to prepare for the Ascension – although they later appeared to descend into raucous days of drunken revelry, much to the Church’s displeasure.

 

Mamertus
Mamertus

Farmers also took the opportunity to have their crops blessed once again, while another popular ceremony involved “beating the bounds”. Here parishioners indulged themselves in yet another procession, but this time around the boundaries of the parish.

 

Led by the priest, his church warden and the choirboys, they prayed for the parish to be protected over the coming year – a habit derived from the Roman festival apparently, which saw revellers walking to an out-of-town grove of trees to perform sacred rites.

 

Anyway, the next big feast of the agricultural church year is Lammas, the first traditional harvest festival of the year. Although of equally pagan bent, Lammas has much more of a Celtic flavour and took place on 1 August.

 

The word ‘Lammas’ itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘half-mas’ or ‘loaf-mass’ to represent the loaf of bread made from the new crop of wheat, which began to be harvested at that time. But the festival was originally known as Lughnasadh in Ireland at least after Lugh, the Sun King and god of Light. In England, he was also known as John Barleycorn, the harvest god and living spirit of the grain.

 

The idea was that as the corn was cut down, so was John Barleycorn. By sacrificing himself, the community would devour him in the form of bread and live on. But because his essence was in the seeds, he was reborn the following year as a new crop, the first and last sheaf of which were considered vital.

 

Harvest festivals

 

As a result, the first sheaf was always ceremonially cut at dawn and baked into the Harvest Bread, which was shared by the community in thanks. The last sheaf, which was treated with equal respect, was made into corn dollies and carried to the village.

 

Here they were given ribbons and clothes and transformed into corn maidens following a good harvest or old crones after a bad one. They would be kept above the hearth in people’s home to ensure a good crop the next year, when they were ploughed into the first furrow of the new spring season.

 

Apparently started by the Anglo-Saxons, the custom was based on the belief that the last sheaf held the spirit of the corn. So it was sacrificed, along with a hare (considered a creature of Eostre, the goddess of Spring and rebirth after whom Easter is named. Her symbol was a hare and she apparently turned into one at each full moon) that had been hiding in the crop somewhere. As time went on, the sacrificing stopped though and little hares were made out of straw instead, before morphing over time into the aforementioned corn dollies.

 

Eostre's hare
Eostre’s hare

Anyway, last but not least is the second Harvest festival of the year (the third being Samhain on 31 October), which is held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon – the full one that occurs around the time of the autumn equinox on 22 or 23 September. Also known as Michaelmas due to the cult of St Michael the Archangel (the one who fought against Lucifer and his evil band of angels), which took hold during the 5th century, it is associated with the start of autumn.

 

But because Michaelmas is the time that darker nights and cold days begin, its celebration was about invoking the Archangel’s protection over the months to come, darkness being associated with the growing strength of negative forces.

 

Sometimes also called “Goose Day”, it was traditional to eat a well-fattened bird fed on the stubble from the newly-harvested fields in order to protect against penury over the year ahead. Goose fairs were common too and, in fact, Nottingham still holds one each year in early October.

 

But in Protestant households at least, the custom of Michaelmas mostly came to an end when King Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church, and the feast duly morphed into Harvest Festival. Here people went to church to sing hymns and give thanks, taking baskets of fruit and veg from their farms and gardens, which were then given to the poor.

 

And so, as truly amazing as it may seem, many of these ancient customs have remained with us throughout the centuries, somewhat altered over the years maybe, but carried with us nonetheless.

 

 

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Poppies: Lest we forget

It’s amazing just how much symbolism can be attached to plants without most us even being particularly aware of it.

 

Take the poppy, for instance. The first thing that springs to mind for many of us, particularly around Remembrance Day on 11 November, is the little paper flower sold by The Royal British Legion on street corners. The charity’s aim in selling it is to raise money to look after serving and ex-servicemen and women plus dependents in need of financial and other support – an activity that it’s been involved in since 1921.

 

But while the poppy may be a motif that we all know, it wasn’t actually the UK that first appropriated it as an emblem of remembrance/the fallen, hope/rebirth, war/death (delete as applicable). It was in fact one Moina Michael, a US-based professor at the University of Georgia who began making and selling a silk version of the flowers after war had ended in 1918 to raise money for wounded armed forces’ veterans.

 

She had read and been moved by the now famous First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, after it was printed anonymously in the UK’s Punch magazine and reprinted around the world. Although up for debate, it is most commonly held that McCrae wrote the work on losing a friend in Ypres in Belgium while tending to the sick, after seeing a carpet of beautiful corn poppies growing in the churned mud of combat-scarred fields.

Poppy field
Poppy field

As apt coincidence would have it, blood red poppies were one of the few plants resilient enough to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields, representing in the process nature’s endless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. And so these simple but poignant flowers came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by those who perished in what US President Woodrow Wilson had idealistically named the “war to end all wars” – as well as the seemingly endless conflicts that have, unfortunately, followed since.

 

Funnily enough though, despite being such a poignant emblem for many Brits, the now iconic red poppy that was assigned its meaning by a Canadian and marketed by an American, was actually first brought to our shores via a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. She had worked with Moina Michael in the US and persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, to adopt the flower as the organisation’s symbol – which on recognising its fundraising potential, he duly did.

 

But that is not to say the poppy hasn’t been without its critics. While for some the flower is all about family memories and the sacrifice of venerated ancestors, for others it is a symbol of death and support for war, of British nationalism, of oppression, abuse and atonement still to be made.

 

So it isn’t to everyone’s taste – despite the pressure to conform and wear one, particularly among those in the public eye. This scenario has led to widespread claims of “poppy fascism”, something you’d have thought was the last thing our late warriors would have wanted.

 

Political symbol?

 

So given the mixed feelings about the emblem, which like everything else these days seems to split the country, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the poppy, which has been classed as a political symbol by international football association FIFA, has been banned for use on the pitch.

 

The matter so incensed the English and Scottish football associations though that they chose to defy the ruling. Sending their teams out wearing black armbands embellished with the forbidden image on Armistice (Remembrance or Poppy) Day anyway, they vowed to contest the likely fine.

 

But it’s a testament to just how important these everyday symbols unconsciously are to all of us that, even in today’s prosaic age, wearing an apparently harmless flower can still cause so much angst. Interestingly though, the symbolic meaning of poppies has changed little throughout the ages. Often associated with ephemeral pleasures, sleep and oblivion, they have also been emblematic of new life and bloodshed since Ancient Egypt.

 

One of the most popular garden plants of the time along with cornflowers and mandrakes, in a culture that held to the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below” (because everything is interconnected, what you do as an individual will affect the heavenly spheres too and vice versa), they were also used in funereal tributes to the dead who, after a suitable rest, would be resurrected in the next life.

Demeter
Demeter

But the poppy was no less symbolic in Ancient Greece. At that time, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, had her beautiful daughter Persephone stolen by Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, while out gathering flowers. Demeter, who was grief-stricken, searched for her daughter in vain, but as her unhappiness mounted, the crops began to suffer.

 

So to ease her pain and help lull her to sleep, poppies started growing at her feet. In fact, the Greek name for the flower to this day is still ‘nepenthes’, which means ‘potent destroyer of grief’.

 

While Demeter slept, Zeus, god of the sky and king of the gods living on Mount Olympus, visited Hades and persuaded him to allow Persephone to return to earth from the underworld for two thirds of the year. During that time, she would live with her mother, who would make the fields fertile again. But on going back to the underworld at the end of summer, the earth would grow cold and barren again reflecting Demeter’s winter grief.

 

So in this way, poppies came to be associated with regeneration, activity after sleep and the renewal of life, while their abundant seed heads represented fertility and the gift of life. Which is all very apt really – whether you celebrate Poppy Day or not.

 

 

Halloween trick-or-treating: Who’s fault is it anyway?

It’s always struck me as a pretty shrewd move on the part of Nature to try and compensate for bringing an end to bright, summer warmth and inflicting chilly autumn darkness on us all by putting on an amazing display of colour.

 

It’s certainly one way to limit the moaning from people such as myself anyway as we brace ourselves for the latest round of hibernal horrors. But after a particularly warm September and October, the trees have been late to turn this year, although some pretty yellows and the odd splash of red are finally starting to make their presence felt.

 

Autumn trees
Autumn trees

So a blog carried in the latest newsletter from the Woodland Trust, a conservation charity of which I’m a member, explaining not only why the leaves of deciduous trees change colour, but also why some autumns provide better spectacles than others, struck me as rather timely.

 

In a nutshell, leaves have three pigments consisting of chlorophyll, which is green; carotenes, which are yellow and orange, and anthocyanins, which are red, pink and purple. As the days become shorter, chlorophyll production slows down and eventually stops, which allows the yellows and oranges to become visible for the first time.

 

A layer of corky cells then form across the base of the leaf stalk in preparation for shedding, which restricts the movement of sugars back to the main part of the tree. After becoming concentrated in the leaf, these sugars eventually convert into anthocyanins, giving it a more red-y hue.

 

As to what influences the variety and intensity of these autumn colours, on the other hand, that’s apparently determined by the weather conditions. Cloudy and rainy autumn days tend to lead to a more muted palette. But a combination of sunny days, cold, rather than freezing, nights, and dry weather, especially if we’ve been lucky enough to have a dry summer too, are the secret to a breath-taking show.

 

As a final, little aside though, the reason that trees shed their leaves anyway is to enable them to preserve moisture in their trunk and branches, which stops them from drying out and dying. Being without leaves also moves them into a state of dormancy, which means they need less energy to remain alive during the cold and dark winter months – a state of being that I can completely relate to as it’s not hugely different from my own during the dread winter season.

 

Anyway, at least we’ve got spooky spiders, gurning, glowing Jack O’Lanterns and sticky, frosted spider webs everywhere to cheer us up in anticipation of Halloween at the end of October. I can’t ever remember people making a particularly big deal of it when we were kids though – Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night always seemed to take precedence really with its firework displays and “penny-for-the-guy” money-making schemes.

 

But lately, possibly due to the ongoing influence of US culture on all of our lives, you can’t seem to budge nowadays for small ghouls and vampires trick or treating on your doorstep. As to why they do it, it’s actually quite interesting, being derived from a much older tradition than you might think.

 

Trick-or-treating

 

The habit appears to have started with the Celts and their communal celebration of the Feast of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’ as in cow) on 1 November, which was also the first day of their New Year. The word ‘Samhain’ itself is derived from the Gaelic word ‘Samhraidhreadh’, which means ‘summer’s end’. But it was also the name of the Celtic god of the dead who, on his feast day, would call together all the souls of the wicked that had died during the year.

 

The Feast itself, meanwhile, was a harvest festival to mark the gathering in of the summer crops, but also symbolised the start of winter and the season of coldness, darkness and death. The Celts always celebrated their events the evening before, which meant that 31 October was the big night – and a time when the veil between the world of the living and the supernatural Otherworld was believed to be thin.

Trick or treating
Trick or treating

As a result, malevolent spirits and the dead were able to roam the earth, where they took pleasure in playing tricks on people. So in order to protect themselves, the Celts lit massive bonfires of sacred oak branches (oak being the sacred tree of their priestly class, the Druids) on hilltops in order to frighten the spirits away.

 

As an act of appeasement, the Druids also left them good things to eat, but disguised themselves as spirits at the same time so that the real ones would mistake them for being their own kind. Hence the tradition of dressing up as scary creatures and going around asking for sweet treats – a custom that morphed in the Middle Ages into children, and sometimes poor adults, dressing up in costume and going from door-to-door at Hallowmas, as it was known then, begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers.

 

This activity, known as “souling”, was often rewarded with a Soul Cake. A small, round, sweet confection flavoured with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and raisins and often with a cross marked out on top, it represented a soul being freed from Purgatory after the cake was eaten.

 

By the late 18th and early 19th century, souling had again transformed itself into ‘guising‘. Again children dressed up and begged for things like cakes, apples or money, but rather than offer prayers in return, they would tell jokes, sing songs, play an instrument or recite a poem.

 

And it was this practice that is believed to have been brought to the US by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, before changing its shape again during the 1920s and 1930s to become the “trick-or-treating” phenomenon we all know so well today. I can’t say that I’d particularly noticed that the custom had wended its way back home again until at least the 1990s or so, but it certainly seems to have taken root now.

 

So next time you feel inclined to have a whinge about American cultural imperialism or turn your lights off and refuse to answer the door to yet more “bloody kids”, just remember that we don’t have a leg to stand on really as it’s all our fault anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

Peregrine-spotting at Norwich Cathedral

My Beloved’s favourite birds are peregrines – and for a man who loves raptors of all descriptions as much as he does, that’s quite a statement.

 

So he was delighted when we got to see a couple of them in all their unadulterated glory the other weekend. While these lovely, majestic birds once nested predominantly on mountains and coastal cliff ledges, they can now also be found dwelling in urban edifices of all kinds – including cathedrals such as Norwich, which is where we spotted them on our little jaunt there.

 

In fact, for a few weeks now, we’ve actually been watching a pair of chicks grow, develop and get fluffier via a webcam strategically placed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, which is based in nearby Fakenham of thoroughbred horseracing fame. The chicks belong to a couple of peregrines, which incidentally mate for life, but first took up residence in 2011 on the Cathedral spire using a special platform put up by the Trust a knee-wobbling 75 metres above the ground.

 

Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral
Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral

And like similar breeding programmes elsewhere, the move seems to have been very successful. Which is just as well really seeing as last century, peregrines actually became an endangered species, with numbers falling to only 400 or so breeding pairs.

 

The population had initially started declining about 100 years ago during World War I when lots were killed off to stop them attacking carrier pigeons bringing home important intelligence from the front. Despite the fact that they don’t tend to munch on game birds such as pheasant or grouse much, preferring more medium-sized prey such pigeons and doves, peregrines were also a favourite target of gamekeepers too.

 

But the worst offenders of all were farmers using organo-chlorine pesticides, and especially the now infamous DDT, from the 1950s until it was banned in the 1980s. The problem was that the chemicals caused the shells of the birds’ eggs to thin, which meant that fewer survived through to the hatching stage. And when you have a situation where between 70% and 80% of all fledged youngsters die in their first year anyway, it’s not hard to see how disastrous such environmental pollution was to the peregrines’ wellbeing.

 

But populations have now recovered to such an extent that there are a much healthier 1,500 pairs across the UK, a scenario helped at least in part by the birds’ highly protected status. And so they should be – not only are these magnificent creatures our largest native falcon, but they are also intimately tied into our history due to their important role in the art of falconry.

 

Bird of choice

 

Although falconry is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating the activity to approximately 2000 BC, it was apparently introduced to Europe around AD400 when the Huns and Alans invaded from the East. By 875AD, falconry was widely practised in Saxon England, but following the Norman conquest in 1066 it was restricted to the upper classes, and peasants could find themselves hanged for keeping hawks, which does seem a bit harsh.

 

While yeomen were assigned the privilege of using short-winged birds such as goshawks and sparrowhawks to hunt for food, it was only the King and his nobles who were allowed to own long-winged falcons such as peregrines and merlins.

 

But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that falconry really took off as a sport, becoming a veritable status symbol among the nobility. They trained their raptors to hunt small prey such as rabbits and other birds and, as the activity did not involve face-to-face encounters with potentially dangerous creatures such as boar and stags, women were allowed to play too.

 

Interestingly though, it was peregrines with their keen intellect that became their birds of choice. Being relatively small, they are also relatively light to hold on the fist and particularly graceful in the air. They are also the fastest bird on the planet.

Peregine diving
Peregine diving

Attacking their prey by making spectacularly accurate dives of more than 200 miles per hour, peregrines opt to break its bones and knock it out of the sky rather than sully their talons in a bloody fight to the death, thus sanitising the whole macabre process.

 

What all of this means in a symbolic sense though is that falcons in general, and peregrines in particular, are all about focus. So if you believe in auguries and a peregrine comes into your sights, they are apparently reminding you to concentrate on your desires and goals, and do whatever it takes to realise them. To do so successfully, however, you’ll need to act in as methodical and strategic a fashion as any self-respecting peregrine would when out on a hunting trip.

 

But these beautiful birds also represent a visionary power that, if tuned into, can help you solve on-going dilemmas, or even discover your life’s purpose. And as such, their appearance implies a time of transition and change and the need to rise above your current situation.

 

So next time you happen to spot a peregrine, it might repay you to ponder on just what it is they’re trying to tell you. It certainly can’t do any harm anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving our sacred trees: Oak, ash and hawthorn

I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.

 

The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.

 

But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.

 

The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.

 

While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.

 

Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.

 

Ash tree
Ash tree

So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.

 

The tree of life

 

But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.

 

According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).

 

In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”

 

In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.

 

Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

 

But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

 

So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.

 

Oak tree
Oak tree

Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.

 

Aboreal trinity

 

But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.

 

But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.

 

Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.

 

The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.

 

If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.

 

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.