Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Ancient History and Living Mystery of Wassailing ~

Crook Morris & Friends Wassailing The Damson Tree 2015 ~

On the bitter cold and frost of a January morning, small groups of people muffled against the chill, proceeded up the country lanes of Lyth valley into the damson orchard. Some in silence, others with as much noise as they could muster, to chase away the evil spirits. One carried the three handled Wassailing bowl filled with a steaming brew of mulled beer or cider, the steam mingling with the cloudy breath of the participants. Carols were sung, the tree and orchard blessed........

This is the traditional folk custom of Wassailing fruit trees - a ceremony intended to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and the first fertility festival of the folk calendar. The word wassail derives from the Old English / Anglo Saxon words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously 'be healthy' or 'be whole' - both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase 'hale and hearty'. Thus Wassailing likely predates the Norman conquest in 1066. This is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season's crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.

The most common date for this custom to take place is the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve, ie 5th January, just at the end of the midwinter period when the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms. In some cases, however the ceremony takes places a little later on 17th January, depending on whether the celebrants prefer to follow the old or new calendar. This first fertility ceremony of the year marks a return to human 'normality' after the dark and dangerous days of midwinter -  The ceremony takes place a couple of weeks before Imbolc, the festival which for modern pagans is generally as being the first fertility festival of the year.

The singing of carols at the Wassail can be traced back to the pagan tradition of carol singing from before the advent of Christianity. The word carol is derived from the Greek word 'choraulein' which meant a dance accompanied by the playing of flutes. Such dancing—usually done in ring form—was very popular in ancient times among the Greek and Roman people. The Romans brought the custom and its name to Britain.

In medieval England 'carol' meant a ring-dance accompanied by singing. The dancers would form a circle and, joining their hands, walk in rhythmic dance-step while keeping the form of the circle (as our children still do in their "ring-around-a-rosy" game). Chaucer describes such a ring-dance in his Romaunt of the Rose, using the word "carol" for the dance itself. He pictures himself approaching a group of dancing young ladies, and one of them "ful curteisly" calls him:

    "What do ye there, beau sire?" quod she;
    "Come neer, and if it lyke yow
    To dauncen, daunceth with us now."
    And I, withoute tarying,
    Wente into the caroling.

Gradually the meaning of "carol" changed, and the word was applied to the song itself. As carols were already an established custom, early Christians made the shrewd decision to integrate Christian songs into the tradition rather than ban the singing. Before singing christian carols in public became popular, there were official carolers called 'Waits'. Waits were people sanctioned by the local officials to sing carols on Christmas Eve and collect money for the poor.
There was a short interruption in 1647, when the puritans came to power after the English Civil War. The puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, disapproved of the celebration of Christmas. There was even a fine of up to five shillings for anyone caught singing Christmas carols. When King Charles II came back to the throne in 1660, the public singing of Christmas carols was permitted again.

Wassailing falls into two distinct categories:   
The House-Visiting Wassail and the Orchard-Visiting Wassail. 

The House-Visiting Wassail, caroling by another name, is the practice of people going door-to-door singing Christmas carols.It was a chance for peasants to get some much needed charity from their feudal lords. This singing for money developed in a custom involving traveling musicians who would visit wealthy homes, singing in the hope of receiving money food or gifts in return.

 Wassail, oh wassail all over the town
The cup it is white, the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the beer of the best barley  

There appear to have been other British customs involving the Wassail bowl including carrying the bowl of hot spiced ale or cider from door to door in a community by a group of young people. Householders who were visited were expected to give a little money to the wassailers who either then gave the donor a drink from the bowl or drank to the health of the donor and his family and household. In other cases, the Wassailers engaged in a series of challenges or riddles with the householder and sought to gain entry to the house by wit or persuasion. If they succeeded then they were given food and money.

The Orchard-Wassail is the ancient custom of visiting orchards in England, reciting incantations and singing carols to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in an orchard, being serenaded with traditional "wake up" type of chants, rhymes  and sung carols, alternating with speeches by the group's leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year.

Wassaile the trees that they may beare
You many a plum and many a pear
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you do give them wassailing.

The custom may include the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, and shotguns are sometimes fired up into the branches. Again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches.

Finally pieces of toasted bread soaked in the prepared drink are thrust up into forks in the branches or hollows in the tree and left there as offerings, whether to the tree or to the robins. The remainder of the drink is generally sloshed around and over the trunk of the tree, though in some places part of it may also be ceremonially drunk by the participants.

Wren Day, a related tradition, may also be carried out at this Wassail ceremony, although it was traditionaly celebrated on 26 December, St. Stephen's Day. The wren traditionally symbolised winter and the robin summer. The tradition consists of "hunting" a fake wren, and putting it on top of a decorated pole or in a garlanded box to symbolise the death of winter and then taken from door to door. The crowds of mummers or strawboys celebrate the wren (pr wran) by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing and, accompanied by traditional céilí music bands, parade through the towns and villages. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys.
At each house this song was sung an the occupants asked to pay to see the dead wren with the words “Please to see the King.”

Here I am happy to say a symbolic wren was used and inplace of killing the good folk bowed to wish  the Wren King well in his passing.

From Somerset comes a most powerful rhyme for calling blessings down on beasts and crops:
Good luck to the hoof and horn
Good luck to the flock and fleece
Good luck to the growers of corn
With blessings of plenty and peace.


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Freedom of Speech vs Religion

Homage 'Without Words'

7th January 2015 the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo tweeted a cartoon of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. 'Best wishes and good health' the caption read. Minutes after the tweet was published, three armed and masked gunmen stormed the paper's offices and opened fire, killing ten of its staff and two police officers. Susequently in related attacks a further three people were killed. 

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks however, a number of other instances of censorship and terrorism against artists, authors and citizens are being brought to a wider public awareness. 
In this light my homage is for both the dead, and for freedom of speech itself - threatened on this ocassion and so many more. 

Reporters without Borders said of the Paris March in homage to the victims of the attacks and in defence of freedom of speech, that it was "appalled by the presence of leaders from countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted such as Egypt (ranked 159th out of 180 countries in RWB's press freedom index), Russia (148th), Turkey (154th) and United Arab Emirates (118th)."
"We must demonstrate our solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting all the world’s other Charlies," RWB Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said.''

For centuries freedom of speech and religion have experienced conflict, free speech often trampled in the name of protecting religious sensibilities, whether through self-censorship or legislation that censors.

Whilst history also offers many examples of religious freedom being repressed, both free expression and religious freedom need protection from those who would meddle with them, the rule of law in a democratic pluralistic society. 

Over 200 years ago, the United States’ founding fathers grouped together freedom of worship and freedom of speech. The US Constitution’s First Amendment, adopted in 1791, made sure that the Congress couldn’t pass laws establishing religions or prohibiting their free exercise, or abridging freedom of speech, press and assembly.

More recently, both religion and free expression were offered protection by The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which outlines an individual’s right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the freedom to change religion or beliefs. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Clearly, sporadically explosive conflicts arrise when words or images offensive to believers of one faith or another spark a violent response. In todays modern, superconnected and hyper-fast world, means a video uploaded in California can lead to riots, in Cairo for example, within minutes of release.. 

Before the web, British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie’s 'blasphemous' 1988 novel 'The Satanic Verses' sparked protests and earned its author a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who called upon Muslims to assassinate the novelist, his publishers, and anyone else associated with the book. The Japanese translator of the Satanic Verses was killed, and Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot and wounded, leading some to think twice about publishing works potentially 'offensive to Islam'.

These fears were renewed after the 2005 decision of Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which were protested about in riots worldwide, largely initiated as a result of agitation by Danish clerics.
The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about the life of Muhammad’s wife Aisha was due to be published by Random House in the US in 2008, but it was pulled when an academic warned the publishers of a possible violent backlash to the novel. After the UK-based publisher Gibson Square decided to take on the novel, Islamic extremists attempted to firebomb the home of the company’s chief executive. More recently, ex-Muslim and author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook Alom Shaha wrote that initially, staff at Biteback publishing had reservations about releasing his book in the UK. Upon being presented with the book, one staff member’s reaction was, “we can’t publish this, we’ll get firebombed”.

Protecting religious sensitivities at price of free expression;
In 2007, the UK introduced the offence of 'incitement to religious hatred' which was made more wide-ranging by covering not just Christianity but all religions.
One of the most pernicious means by which restrictions on free speech have grown tighter has been through the use of incitement laws, both incitement to hatred and incitement to violence and murder. In some cases, as in the outlawing of incitement to religious hatred through the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, the law is being used to censor genuine debate. In other cases, incitement law is being used to shut down protest, as in the convictions of Muslim protestors Mizanur Rahman and Umran Javed for inciting racial hatred and ‘soliciting murder’ during a rally in London against the publications of the Danish Muhammed cartoons. Over the past decade, the government has used the law both to expand the notion of ‘hatred’ and broaden the meaning of ‘incitement’. Much of what is deemed ‘hatred’ today is in fact the giving of offence. 

BUT should’t the giving of offence (and essentially the right to be dissagreed with) be viewed as a normal and acceptable part of plural and deocratic society?

Crushing religious freedom?
Other European countries have had their own free speech versus religion battle when a push towards bans on the veil or niqab began, infringing on choices of Muslim women. France’s controversial ban on the niqab went into effect last year. Offenders must pay a 150 € fine or take French citizenship classes. There have been similar discussions in the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Belgium. Such bans are not restricted to Europe — in 2010 Syria banned face veils from university campuses. From 1998 – 2010, Turkey banned headscarves from university campuses. In fact, Turkey has a much wider ban on headscarves in public buildings, a ban the government faces difficulties overturning though it would like to. Just as troubling — countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have strict dress codes for women that visitors must comply with as well.

Both enforced secularism and enforced religiosity constitute a form of censorship; the key word being 'enforced' as opposed to 'free'. Whether it is tackling enforced religion, religious offence, hatred and incitement to violence, or enforced secularism, only a constructive approach to free speech can genuinely guarantee freedom of conscience and belief, whether in one god, many or none.

My thanks to 'Index - the Voice of Free Expression' source for this article and to Reporters without Borders.

à bientôt

Thursday, 1 January 2015

An Imaginative biography, in the third person, past tense.

Into a diverse lineage of iconoclasts and free thinkers, Celestial Elf was born in this life at-least, on the island of Jersey just off western France, apparently under the protectorate of the United Kingdom for reasons best known to Her Royal Majesty's Cartographers and historians of Empire.

Elf's father - a human man with powerful nature-al leanings, had held a post in the Merchant Navy and was therefore seldom seen by his family other than by written word in his fantastic letters from the frozen polar wastes or further afield, however his passion for a drink of hot seal fat or lumpy lard soup was not met with a warm welcome. He was nevertheless a remarkable wood carver, a prodigious poet and a speculative philosopher. Elf's mother, also human but with a potency of spirit seldom seen this side of the beyond,  had a proclivity for romantic painting, classical music and psychology which she practiced on her clients over a number of years. She also had a great love of both travelling and esoteric spirituality, which were fulfilled in her great voyage to an ashram in India where she spent a number of years in meditation.

Amongst the other characters peopling his restless imagination, Elf's great great grandfather was, in one timeline, a renowned Russian gentleman and author whose criticism of the orthodox religion of his day and liberal views, saw him dismissed from the Ministry of Education, which paradoxically freed him to persue his literary career. Elf's great great grandmother, by contrast, was a Mongolian 'princess' (although I have my doubts), renowned for her excellent boots and for smoking her pipe as she rode bareback across the Russian Steepes - maybe that was just another of the many tales he had been told to as a child when the days were dark and the nights were longer.

Dakinis by by Soyolmaa Davaakhuu - Ulaan Bataar

Growing up in Englands rural idylls, Elf developed a love of country ways through his adventures in the farms, forests and fells, as well as from tales that sometimes crept and sometimes burst out of dusty old tomes overflowing with medieval Giants, Roman ghosts at ancient wells and the casting of somewhat supernatural spells. He learned to ride both cattle and horseback, to tickle trout from the river, to avoid adders, ensnare lizards (without their tales dropping off !!), to capture frogs for frog races and to dance through fields of burning stubble - all very serious undertakings.
He also attended schools in such locations until he was seventeen, after which a one year spell at Art College, followed by a Degree in Arts and Humanities under the honourable Master Griffin, concluded his formal education.

In the formless fullness of time and of the time between time and indeed IN both the beyond and the after time, he married the delightful daughter of a chief engineer from Cumbria, with whom he had care of two children - the marriage happy and lasting. Elf and Elfwife continued to travel throughout England, from the undiscovered South to the unimaginable North and all the postindustrio-wilder lands between.
These voyages disclosed diverse dialects and timeworn traditions which in their lively execution provoked much admiration and provided even more inspiration.

After his afforementioned natural schooling (as well as attendance at the day centres for human offspring), Elf had followed a chequered profession as a merchant, culminating in the wine trade where he became a manager in some capacity, until ensuing but unrelated health issues made their objections inescapable. He conjectured that his health downturn followed the accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station which released deadly radioactive particles into the atmosphere, many of which traveled into Western Europe - but what can be done.
Subsequently he developed an ideal of social commitment and contributed as much time as energy allowed to the Celestial Advisory Board. Always a voracious reader of both books as well as natures omens of stars and winds, rivers and reeds, birds and bees and many more than these - Elf took the opportunity of reduced health to continue his self-education. Increasingly these studies, along with field observations, developed into an awareness of natures very fine balance and the tragic consequences of destroying the environments ecosystems to feed business' extrodinary ethic of perpetual growth from finite resources...

Laurie Lipton - Splendor Solis -The Black Sun

Although Elf had always had a powerful interest in the alternately grotesque and bizarre turns of human knowledge - of comparative theology, psychology and existential philosophy, he was less 'spiritual' and more folkloric than many of his contemporaries, preferring the axiom 'To live at all is miracle enough'. As such he was happy to be considered a Heathen or Pagan, because in these traditions he found a more direct engagement with the forces of life and the beyond of life. Elf's poetry and animations therefore intended to convey a deep compassion for the natural world, its symbiotic communitarian structure and the rich tapestry of drama enacted through its ever turning cycles, the great wheel of life.

Thus was born the beginning.....

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Floki In the Temple

On the mystery of Spiritual Awareness ~

I am a harmonious one,
A clear singer seeing,
I am the greeness of the growing earth,
blue depth of sky, a spirit with the freeing,
I am a wielder of the words that beget worlds,
A dancing that is advancing, a myth for the time being,
I am the unseen, a serpent of the air,
A dragon distributing keys to the temples of meaning,
I am the birds and the soul of the bees,
Ever sacred trees, paths to the stars and beyond all of these,
I am the speaker concealed in the heart
And I am to be found before riddle of minds start.

c.Celestial Elf 2014

Narrated in the voice of 'Floki', this animated poem descibes the perspective of being in tune with the inner self of thought and memory, balanced with the outer self of nature and cosmos. Acting then as a spiritual compass or sun stone, it is a poetic device by which to orient to the divinity within and as such serves as a very powerful blessing.

In the television series Vikings, Floki
Is a boat builder and incorrigible trickster, who also happens to be Ragnar Lothbrok's eccentric and closest friend. Committed to helping Ragnar sail west, he secretly designs and builds a new generation of Viking longboats for their voyage across the ocean westward.

He also does seem to embody many characteristics of his nearly namesake Loki.
While treated as a nominal member of the Aesir tribe of gods in the Eddas and Sagas, Loki occupies a highly ambivalent and ultimately solitary position amongst the gods, giants, and the other classes of invisible beings that populate the traditional spirituality of the Norse and other Germanic peoples.

Our Floki character appears to be based on  
Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson...

Flóki Vilgerðarson 
9thC Common Era, was the first Norseman to deliberately sail to Iceland. His story is documented in the Landnámabók manuscript. He heard good news of a new land to the west, then known as Garðarshólmi.
He wanted to settle in this new land and so he took his family and livestock with him.
From Western Norway he set sail to the Shetland Islands where it is said his daughter drowned. He continued his journey and landed in the Faroe Islands where another of his daughters was wed. There he took three ravens to help him find his way to Iceland, and thus, he was nicknamed Raven-Floki (Norse and Icelandic; Hrafna-Flóki) and he is commonly remembered by that name.

Three Ravens Print by Dona Reed

Loki and moral ambiguity;
Loki, famously ambivalent, is perhaps best known for his malevolent role in The Death of Baldur.
We may wonder why the Scandinavians had such an apparently wicked god in their mythology at all?
Loki features so prominently in the tales of Norse mythology because these tales explore the inner meanings of the physical realm that we still inhabit.  In earlier times the Northern peoples did not share the conceptions of  absolute moral 'good' or 'evil' that have been employed to various ends since the rise of christian dominated societies. Some values and actions were appropriate for some people and situations; others were inappropriate for those same people and situations but might be appropriate for other people and other situations.

This was not however the dangerous free-for-all of moral relativism that it sounds. In traditional Germanic society, a person who occupied a particular social role and was a devotee of that role’s corresponding god or goddess could rightly be held to the standard of conduct appropriate for that role and its divinity. Thus, while most Viking Age men were held to the standards of honor and manliness exemplified by such figures as Tyr, Thor, or Freyr, for example, not everyone was necessarily held to these standards.
Devotees of Odin, for example, followed a path of ecstatic and creative self-actualization that often seemed fickle, ruthless, irresponsible, and even shameful by the standards of, say, a man of Thor.

Thus Loki cannot fairly be considered an example of moral 'evil'. Instead, he’s an example of one of the countless, often opposing and contradictory principles and meanings of which life consists. Wether they accept it or not, many people appear to share the flexible and self interested mindset as exemplified by Loki. It is inevitable however that in an informed and conscious Pantheisitic, animistic,perspective which accepts both light and dark as parts of a unified whole, even (f)Loki's irreverence itself is a spiritual perspective and ultimately worthy of respect.

Grateful thanks to my source for this research;
Dan McCoy - Norse Mythology for Smart People./Loki

 Ásáheil og Vána!
May the Blessing of Aesir and Vanir
Ever Be With You!