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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Organic wine: Keeping it real

April, it turns out for all you imbibers out there, is Real Wine Month. Although the naïve among us may be thinking at this point, “well, isn’t all wine real?” it appears that some of it these days is more so than others.

 

So just what is Real Wine then, I hear you ask? First and foremost, it has to be organically produced – according to industry body the Soil Association, this means “lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment”.

 

And this approach, although scarcely ubiquitous, is definitely garnering respectable levels of sales since it started first appearing in supermarkets in the late 1990s. As a result, Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, valued the UK’s organic wine market at about £12 million last year, while the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2016 indicated that organic’s share of the total UK food and drink sector was a respectable 1.4%.

 

So far, so good, particularly in a world where more and more people are interested in the provenance of their victuals and are keen to reduce the amount of chemicals smothering them at every turn of the production process.

 

But an interesting subset of the organic market is the lesser-known biodynamic movement. Started by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it aims to ensure that farms and vineyards are based on balanced ecosystems in order to “renew the vitality of the earth, the integrity of our food, and the health and wholeness of our communities”.

 

This means that, in the words of the UK’s Biodynamic Association, which was set up in 1929, these sites must become self-contained living organisms “with a healthy balance of animals (livestock), crops and wild plants”. But they also have to be ecologically, socially and economically sustainable in order to warrant using the internationally recognised but fiercely difficult-to-obtain Demeter Certification Mark, which covers both production and processing activities.

 

Biodynamics is not just of this earthly plane, however – it also has a spiritual element. As the Association points out: “It is founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and the human being”, which means that “the farm, its crops and the farmer becomes more attuned to local seasonal and broader celestial cycles and rhythms”.

 

To this end, an astronomical calendar based on the moon’s sidereal cycle is used to determine auspicious times to plant, cultivate and harvest. The soil must also be treated with special herb-based preparations. For example, compost is made from six medicinal plants including oak bark, which has to be stored in a mature cow, sheep, pig or horse’s head as this is said to act as a catalyst for fermentation.

 

Keeping it real

 

While such ideas may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the approach does undoubtedly seem to work. For example, my Beloved has developed an unfortunate intolerance to sulphites, which have traditionally been used as preservatives during the wine-making process.

 

Give him a regular glass of something and, by next morning, his poor lips will have swollen up like he’s just had a load of botox. But pass him a glass of pure biodynamic loveliness and everything’s fine and dandy. It may cost that little bit extra but it has to be worth it to lose that rather unflattering trout-pout look.

 

And he’s not the only one being won over. While Marks & Spencer already stocks a handful of such wines, Waitrose apparently sells more than 20 different biodynamic varieties and growing.

 

Even more intriguingly, both supermarkets also apparently arrange their wine-tasting sessions around “good” and “bad” days in the biodynamic calendar as they swear you can taste the difference.

 

So despite the fact that yields based on this approach are significantly lower than more traditional methods – 25 to 30 hectare litres per hectare compared with the usual 40 – interest is growing, especially among vineyards in the Loire Valley, Alsace and part of the Languedoc in France as well as in Penedes, which is south of Barcelona in Spain.

 

The final, and even more rarified, category of vino to fall under the banner of Real Wine, meanwhile, is natural wine. Although there is no official definition for or certification of this approach, it basically means producing your wine with minimum intervention, which includes picking all of your grapes by hand. You also can’t go around sticking little added extras into the mix such as sulphites, sugar or external flavouring from oak barrels, and you’re not allowed to take things away either, for example by filtration.

 

While there are a number of natural wine associations in central Europe and countries such as France, Italy, Spain, the most likely place to get a sip of the stuff is at events like The Real Wine Fair, which is taking place from 17 to 18 April at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, London.

 

But you never know, you might also be able to find it on the wine list or catalogue of one of the 200 or so restaurants, bars and independent retailers also taking part in the Real Wine Month festivities. Our very own Joseph Barnes Wines here in Saffron Walden, in fact, hosted a most enjoyable wine-tasting event last Saturday night – and much biodynamic merriment was had by all. Cos one of the secrets to success really is about keeping it real. Always.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

British myths and magic: Looking beyond the everyday

One of the interesting things about a solstice, whether you’re talking about winter or summer, is that it’s the only time in the entire year when the sun appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for three consecutive days.

 

If you happen to know any Latin though, the name itself is a bit of a giveaway because ‘sol’ means sun and ‘sistere’ means standing still.

 

But at the time of the Winter Solstice – which of course is around now – what it all meant to our forebears was that the great cosmic wheel of the year, known as ‘Iul’ or Yule in Anglo-Saxon, stopped turning briefly as one cycle of the sun ended and a new one began. It also meant that people were forbidden from turning their physical wheels either, whether that be cartwheels or butter churns, until the sun had returned.

Winter Solstice
Winter Solstice

So each year at the Winter Solstice on 21/22 December when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, thus marking both the shortest day and longest night of the year, what it symbolised to them was the rebirth of the sun. This was a time when the pagan Goddess of old became the Great Mother and gave birth to the new Sun King three days after he had been sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land for another year, in an ongoing cycle of birth, life, death and re-birth.

 

From that point onwards, the Sun King would continue to grow in strength until coming into his full power at Midsummer, the time of the Summer Solstice on 21/22 June, which marks the longest day and shortest night.

 

For in the eyes of our ancestors, the standstill at Solstice time wasn’t just a physical phenomenon – it was also a deeply spiritual one, with those three days (three being a magical number in the ancient Celtic world) being a time to reflect on what had happened during the last 12 months and on what you wanted to happen over the next 12. Good advice for people living in any age really.

 

Pagan remnants

 

Another point, which interestingly still has its echoes in the present day, is that, traditionally, it wasn’t so much the day of the solstice itself that was celebrated. Instead it was the evening before, which was seen as a time of birthing something new. And that tradition is still followed in countries like Germany and Spain to this day, where Christmas Eve is the most important date in the festive season.

 

But there are other pagan remnants still in clear evidence today too. There’s the habit of decorating our houses with holly, ivy, mistletoe, Christmas trees (pine) and even yew, which when taken together, again symbolise the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. There are the customary Yule logs, which were burnt to ensure good luck – even if, these days, most of them are made from chocolate cake rather than oak.

 

And then there are the Christmas wreaths on our doors representing Yule and the wheel of the year. Plus enough feasting, drinking and gift-exchanging to sate us all as, whether knowingly or not, we continue to follow ancient mores that for thousands of years honoured the return of the sun and the circle of life.

Christmas Wreath
Christmas Wreath

An association that I particularly like though is the apparent link between Santa, his reindeer and shamanism. Santa, it seems, isn’t quite the harmless old man that he’s generally made out to be.

 

On the one hand, he is believed to represent the pagan God who is the consort and protector of the Goddess. On the other, his traditional garb of red and white is also said to symbolise fly agaric mushrooms, which were sacred plants to ancient medicine people as they helped inspire hallucinogenic dreams.

 

Because they’re poisonous when fresh, however, the best way to eat them apparently is to get your nearest friendly reindeer to have a munch on them, before drinking down their delicately infused urine. In which case, just like the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh and distributing gifts to children round the world, you’re more than likely to end up doing a bit of journeying yourself, only of the psychedelic variety, in order to come back with the odd insight or two from the spirit world.

 

Following the deer trods

 

Interestingly though, it seems that reindeer are much more important to ancient British culture than most of us might imagine. Thousands of years ago, our hallowed Isles were, as countries like Canada and Russia still are, part of the Boreal forest, the great, endless wood that stretched from one end of the northern hemisphere to the next.

 

And up until about six thousand years ago when agriculture took hold and most of the trees were cut down, there were lots of reindeer in our lands too. Visual evidence still remains, in fact, in the shape of a carving in the Cathole Cave in the Gower, South Wales, which amounts to the oldest rock art in the British Isles.

 

Even more excitingly though, it seems that this image could actually represent our ancient, antlered reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways. While beyond a single herd of about 150 in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland the reindeer may now be gone from our shores, the goddess’ name lingers on attached to springs, wells and place-names up and down the country, ranging from the Ellen river in Cumbria to St Helens in Lancashire – her name was apparently appropriated by the Catholic Church, as was its wont, and ascribed to one of its pantheon of saints.

Reindeer
Reindeer

Anyway, just how do I happen to know all this stuff, you may question? Towards the end of last month, I attended a fascinating one-day workshop by British shaman, Elen Sentier, who was running an introductory session on British Native Shamanism. Although I’d read quite a lot about the practice elsewhere in the world, including anthropologist Carlos Castaneda’s iconic works about studying to be a shaman under Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian from Northern Mexico, I really fancied learning more about our own indigenous variety.

 

And interestingly, it seems, the ancient pagan ways, which Elen calls ‘following the deer trods’, have, in some rural communities at least, never actually gone away – instead they simply went underground. Elen’s dad was a shaman while her mother was a witch, and the community that she grew up in on Exmoor in the 1950s all followed the old ways, bringing their children up to do likewise – she calls them ‘awenyddion’ or spirit keepers.

 

And much of this age-old wisdom is codified still in the folk songs and stories of our ancient land, providing layer upon layer of meaning. But only if you care to see it, of course.