Today’s cards are The Empress, The Sun and The Devil. In this Tarot post, I’ll focus in particular on the relationship between them, and what it means to interpret a triad of cards.
Images below by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA for Tarot Triumphs. It just so happens that the Devil comes out larger than the others in my photographs!
Every trio of cards presents its own challenge, because taking the symbols in combination is very different from studying each archetype in turn. We need to learn about them individually first, to grasp their essence, but the real magic of the Tarot comes about when we look at the dynamics between a group of cards. Three is the basic minimum for such a relationship; a solo card is a world unto itself, two cards form a polarity – useful, but goes nowhere except back and forth – but three cards immediately form their own connection. It’s rather like putting three guests together at the dinner table, and wondering how they’re going to react to each other. Will the regal Empress tolerate the sunny-natured, but over-exuberant guest on her right? And how will that sardonic-looking businessman on her left tell her what she needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear, that her financial investments are at risk? He won’t get any thanks for it, that’s for sure. You could invent a multitude of stories about such characters, in keeping with the Tarot archetypes. These particular three strike me as being awkward companions – strong-willed, full of drive and energy, and no doubt opinionated. That’s my immediate take on these three guests, but there are many, many more ways in which you can tell the story of each triad of cards that is picked, and the situations they create.
Indeed, if you like writing fiction, the Tarot offers a good stimulus for creating characters and plot lines. Pick between three and seven cards, and see how they appear to combine and interact. An opportunity once came my way to do just that, when I was invited to submit a story based on a combination of five Tarot Trumps, for an anthology published as Tarot Tales. It is usually more fruitful to pick your cards blind, so that you have something of a surprise, which can be more of a stimulus for the imagination. Or if you already have a particular character in mind, choose the card which represents that person best, and then draw the accompanying cards at random. Not all the cards represent human figures, of course, but there’s always a way of imagining a person emerging from the symbol -a gambler from the Wheel of Fortune, a romantic novelist from the Moon, or a recycling expert from Death! They can be as light or as serious as you wish.
Images of the three cards from the French ‘Conver’ pack from around 1760
A three-card reading, as I write in Tarot Triumphs, is a useful starting point for interpreting a real-life situation too. ‘This is a simple, but effective way of reading the Tarot, and a good place to start, if you are a novice. It is also a useful method for any Tarot reader, to give a snapshot reading for an individual, or if you want to obtain a quick take on a situation. Ask the individual to phrase a simple question and invite him or her to pick three cards from a set of Tarot Trumps which you have shuffled. This is also an effective way of getting to know the Tarot Trumps, playing with them in threefold combinations and seeing what that triad suggests to you. As one of my own Tarot instructors said, ‘After all, Tarot is a game!’ (Historically this was true too, and various versions of full Tarot packs, with the four suits included, were used for card games.)
I’ll take the current cards one by one here, then suggest how they might be seen in conjunction with one another.
The Empress represents worldly feminine authority, and she is also a symbol of fertility. In many of the traditional packs, her voluptuous curves hint at pregnancy, so she has a dual role. As the highest female authority in worldly terms, she helps to guard civilisation, and represents the power of the land. But her role as the mother of heirs is also implicit. She is both an earth mother, with the warmth and nurturing that this implies, but also the strict keeper of the hierarchy and of law. Although an Empress as such might seem rather remote from modern life, we do have our female prime ministers and presidents and members of royal families, all of whom have a particular position of authority. And if you take that into domestic life, even a so-called ‘ordinary mother’ usually operates from a mix of maternal love and strong authority. Both are needed and expected, with the important empathic and emotional bond between mother and child, but also the more detached structure she employs, employing rules and routines to govern behaviour and help the child’s development. The Empress, therefore, can be seen as a stern, controlling woman, which is her predominant feature, but she also carries an element of fertility and sexuality.
A woodblock print Empress from the Bologna pack, contrasting with the finely-painted reproduction of the Empress from the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned by nobility.
Unlike the complex, elusive Moon, the Sun shines forth in its simplicity. Its qualities are truth, openness, warmth, and generosity; it could also indicate friendship in a reading, along with trust and personal integrity. Thus the Sun in a prominent position may denote new energy and growth, or the healing of a rift. All in all, it speaks of creativity, love and joy. Every Tarot Trump has its downside though, and the Sun can also signify excessively high spirits reckless enthusiasm, or over-indulgence in pleasure. Too much sun can burn the skin, or even make us ill! Historically, there have been different versions of the card, but the prevalent image is that of two naked children playing innocently under the Sun’s rays. And it may be a very ancient motif, as male twins have been associated with the Sun since the Bronze Age.
We don’t tend to see the devil as a significant force in our lives any more – or at least, we describe malevolent forces in other ways. But let us not assume that this Trump has lost all his significance. Although the Devil in a reading does not for the most part represent evil, it can certainly indicate people or situations that are diminishing our capacity to act, think or feel. The two little devils chained to his plinth have no apparent means of escape. Awareness of this bondage is therefore the first step towards liberation; to have a chance of becoming free, we first need to recognise that we are enslaved. We may need to use intelligence, compassion, or even cunning to release the ties that bind us in an unwelcome way, and to move on. However, sometimes the Devil indicates that this is a situation of very limited choice, and that we have to act from necessity, rather than personal desire. It may be time to ‘do what must be done’ in a difficult situation to stop poison spreading, or to prevent further enchainment. It may be time to blow the whistle, file for bankruptcy, or get the police involved. Unpleasant choices must be made; the Devil must be faced. “Take what you want, and pay the price,” is another relevant saying: the Devil is a reminder of the bill that must be paid.
A gallery of grotesque Devils
Although there are different possible views of the relationship between these three cards, I am drawn to see the Empress as ‘lead’ card here, and the other two as dual aspects of her nature. This is only one of many interpretations, but it does integrate the seemingly opposed forces of her accompanying emblems. The Empress has both sides to her – the warmth and fertility of the sun’s rays, and the often unwelcome, punitive aspect of the devil. She may be gracious and generous, but she is in charge and will wield her power to cut off argument. She can be playful and tender in intimate situations, but is dignified in her outer role as ruler, mother, politician. But I invite you to try other ways of looking at the triad: what happens if the Devil or the Sun is the dominant card? Or if the three form a kind of circuit, where the energy generated courses between them?
In fact, a triad of cards doesn’t always give you a sense of a stable situation, and to anchor this, introducing a fourth card can help, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs (p. 89). A simple four-card reading involves choosing or picking a single card ‘significator’ to start with. It can act as a centre to the triad of the other three cards, or they can be laid out from left to right as past, present and future. With a fourth card, you have more context to work with, and possibly a time frame.
Reading the Tarot is not for everyone, but I hope by going deeper into the symbolism of the Trumps, I can show that they can be carriers of wisdom and generators of creativity, as a fascinating set of archetypes in their own right.
I became intoxicated by poetry in my teenage years. At school, we plunged deep into the Metaphysical Poets, were thrilled by D.H. Lawrence, and learnt to love Wordsworth. I also craved more recent poets untouched by the exam syllabus. I managed to put together enough money to buy paperbacks of poetry with titles such as Beat Poets and Jazz Poems, and by authors such as e.e.cummings and Laurie Lee, and Liverpool Poets like Roger McGough. Diving into these chimed in with our growing sense of the new freedom of the 1960s.
This is, I admit, a prelude to talking about my own poetry. Of course, writing heartfelt poems is what teenagers do, and of course I was influenced by all the above poets, leading to some cringe-making lines. But nevertheless, some of those poems did come good, and two have stories attached to them, which I am about to tell. I still have my ‘Poems’ notebook with its marbled hardback cover and I find I can bear to read most of those written down there. And the earliest poem I have on record is far distant enough to be entertaining – we were instructed at school to write something epic about the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s my effort, aged about twelve – the only thing I’ve ever preserved from my school exercise books.
Those of you who’ve read my blog before may remember how I began writing for Jackie magazine while I was still in the Sixth Form at school. That was in October 1966, and emboldened by this moderate success, I decided to try my luck with poems. Not to Jackie, of course, but to the prestigious ‘Poetry Review’. I’m afraid I don’t remember how or why I came to choose that august publication, but it was certainly a daring move. I had the naivety to give anything a shot, and – I suppose – thought I might as well aim high. My diary of Jan 7th, 1967, records: ‘The other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!)’.
To my astonishment, I had an encouraging letter back from the editor – which, sadly, I haven’t kept – saying he’d like to publish the one called French Boy, for a fee. I think it was around two guineas. And so it was duly included, in Autumn 1967 issue. He also asked if I could send him further poems in future. But, with the carelessness of youth, I didn’t get round to doing that. Life was opening up at a rapid pace – I was at Cambridge university by the time it was published that autumn, and was distracted by a myriad of other exciting possibilities. I even lost or threw out the edition of Poetry Review containing the poem. (Here are a couple of others from around the same era, which I discovered on the internet.)
Fast forward to 2005, when I visited my daughter in Australia, while she and her boyfriend were living in Sydney for a few years. I’d rented a studio flat nearby, but as it wasn’t available for the first few days, I had to look elsewhere for a bed. Two old friends of mine from astrology circles, Derek and Julia Parker, had emigrated to Sydney not long beforehand, and when I contacted them, they said they’d be delighted to put me up for the interim. Julia is an astrologer of repute, and Derek a man of broad literary accomplishments; together they’d written the best-selling ‘The Compleat Astrologer’.
Below: Derek and Julia Parker during my visit to Australia, and their best-selling treatise on astrology
Somehow, during one of our delightful catch-up conversations, I mentioned the Poetry Review and how I’d had a poem published there as a teenager.
‘But I was the editor at the time!’ said Derek.
I had completely forgotten the name of the kind editor but, yes of course – it came back to me now! ‘I don’t suppose you have a copy of that issue, do you? I no longer have mine.’
‘Of course,’ he said, and pulled it down from the shelf.
I took the photocopy he made me, and vowed never to lose sight of it again. Yes, I can criticise it – but it did make the pages of a worthy poetry journal. And how foolish I was not to take that further. I still occasionally write poetry, but the chance to really build it as a craft has passed now.
The poem is one of a group I wrote about a rather miserable French exchange with an uptight family whose holiday home was in an uninteresting area of sand dunes and summer villas, full of moderately wealthy bourgeoisie and their offspring. Appearances and conformity were the rule of the day. The visit inspired a number of complaining poems on my part – which I won’t bore anyone with – and this one was about a lad who was a little too good to be true in appearance, and a little too vain to be likeable.
Zut he said neatly
And opened two rows of white teeth
to grin charmingly.
His slim brown fingers
plucked the strings precisely
and his blond hair
was oh so shiny,
with an enchanting touch,
a casual touch.
The golden Apollo muscles
beneath his blue shirt.
The careful notes
flickered and broke.
because this, too,
was part of the flawless
Poetry Review – Edited by Derek Parker
Vol LVIII, no. 3, Autumn 1967.
The Albert Hall At the same time that I submitted the poem for Derek’s attention, I also sent one off elsewhere. The diary tells the tale – here’s the full entry:
Diary entry forJan 7th 1967 Most extraordinary thing happened today. Yes actually HAPPENED!!! Well the other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!) I was typing some poems out and came across the ‘Folk Club’ one which is rather frivolous to put it mildly. Typed it out then thought I’d better not send it with the rest cos it wasn’t really the same kind of thing. So I sent it off to ‘Sing’, one of the folk song magazines – didn’t even know if it was still in print. Expected it back with a note saying ‘What the hell did you send us this for?’ Well today the phone went for me, and a voice said, ‘This is Eric Winter, Editor of ‘Sing’’. He said how much he liked my poem and said they would print it next issue, and also he showed it to Pete Seeger last night who also liked it, and gave a recital of it at his concert in the Royal Albert Hall! Complete with actions – and apparently the audience loved it! Then E. Winter wanted to know if I’d written any more poems, prose, songs etc and if I’d send him some, and come and see him if I was in London at all. V. Flattering! Great – it’s a big laff, but that’s made my day.
Eh? What? Pete Seeger read out my poem? I had almost forgotten about it, or assumed it was a distorted memory – but the diary doesn’t lie. (Truly, it doesn’t!) Again, I can only blame the casualness of youth. And perhaps an element of not enough self-belief. As I’ve said since to other budding writers, you have to take your achievements seriously. Surprisingly, it is too easy to assume that a success – maybe in a competition, or in getting a story published – was a fluke. That anyone could have done it, and that it doesn’t indicate any real value. But this shrugging off of success is as much of a trap for a writer as is being too conceited about one’s chances. So, please take a lesson from me in this respect. Cherish what you achieve, and build on little successes.
Folk Club (March 1966)
Fred plays the guitar
brrm brrm brrm brrm
and we all say
well done Fred
what was that you played?
and drink our beer.
And Fred says
this song is called and it comes from well
actually I learnt it off a fellah named
sorry if I forget the words I only
worked it out last well here goes –
brrm brrm brrm brrm
clap clap clap
well done Fred
because everyone likes Fred
and we drink more beer
and say o look here comes Clive,
but which Clive is it?
well tonight it is big Clive
and he has had all his long black curls
Well they were an institution
you could laugh or rave or scream
or maybe even tell the time by them
if you tried hard enough.
you please yourself.
but now he looks like a new shorn sheep
well I suppose he is in a way.
brrm brrm brrm brrm
sssh - tell me later.
he’s out of tune and i don’t like his voice and
brrm brrm brrm brrm brrm
ALL JOIN IN THE CHORUS
tOOralay tOOralay tOOralay o!
and haul away Joe
cos we’ll all kill Paddy Doyle for his boots
would you all take your glasses downstairs please.
singing whackfoldedaddyo and we’ll all go together
Brrm brrm brrm.
And no, I didn’t keep a copy of ‘Sing’ magazine where it was published. And no, I didn’t follow up by sending Eric Winter other contributions. Sigh. As I said, please don’t take a lesson from me.
But if you’d like to read one of my more recent offerings, here’s a selection:
This is the fifth post where I take a trio of Tarot cards, bringing us up to 15 cards covered plus the Fool, who featured in his very own post ‘The Fool and his Feast’ on Jan 3rd. In each one, I write both about the character of the individual cards, and also how they might operate together as a triad. Another two to go after this one!
Our cards today are The Pope, The Tower, and Judgement. (Line drawings above are by Robert Lee-Wade, as illustrations in my book Tarot Triumphs.) They do look a tough trio, with a stern-looking priest, a tower struck by lightning, and the dead summoned to judgement. But I hope to give a wider view, and room for thought which goes beyond the conventional interpretations. In this series, I’m honour bound to follow the cards in the sets of three which I drew ‘blind’ at the start of the project – no putting them together in ways which I find personally pleasing! It also gives me something to wrestle with, and I always see something new by placing them in context with one another. I’ll start today by showing how they join forces, and follow by saying more about each one individually.
The Pope, or the High Priest as he is sometimes called, is no. 5 in the traditional sequence of cards. Although he’s depicted as a specific religious leader, it’s important to broaden the definition out to that of a teacher, perhaps a priest as a spiritual teacher, but really any form of teaching and learning. Protestant countries at one stage in history couldn’t abide the notion of a Pope, and changed him to Jupiter in their Tarot packs, but I think the figure of a Pope symbolising spiritual instruction, or wise teaching of any kind, serves the purpose far better. He is something of a giant; his students are pictured as tiny in comparison, which is in keeping with the custom in late medieval times to portray a spiritual master as much larger than his followers.
Above, the Pope in the historic 18th c. Italian Bologna deck, created as a woodblock print for general use, and below in a more lavish set of early Renaissance paintings, commissioned for an aristocratic family. (Known as the French ‘Charles VI’ cards, these are now considered to be Italian, possibly made in Ferrara, in the 15th c.)
The Tarot Pope is thus a giant to his disciples, just as an important teacher (male or female) can loom large in our own lives, remaining a permanent inner signpost to guide us long after direct contact has ceased. Every card in the Tarot has its duality of meanings – there are two ends of the stick, as it were, for each Tarot Trump – and a teacher who fashions our way of thinking can thus also become an obstacle to moving forward, or prevent us from making our own discoveries. So the Pope in a Tarot reading may represent either wise instruction, or rigid expectations and dogma. Likewise, every Tarot card can signify either a presence on the internal or on the external side of life: is the Pope a teacher who is ‘out there’ as a real person in the world, or does he represent your inner values and moral standards as they have been formed? In a reading, it will be important to try and determine this. But as an image, the best way to contemplate him is as a symbol who represents the knowledge which can be imparted through teaching, plus the skill of listening, and the value of formulating what we learn.
In Tarot card no. 16, lightning strikes the tower with a tongue of fire; the walls are breached, men fall from the heights, and stones rattle down to the ground. This dramatic scene gives us a real jolt – the suddenness of the disaster! But is it necessarily a disaster? Or, again, does the Tarot show us two sides of the coin, since being released from the Tower may end a form of imprisonment?
As I researched this image, I realised that it has a rich historical and mythical base, and I became fascinated with the history of tall tower building and related disasters, from the Italian towers of San Gimignano, built in the spirit of competitiveness which sometimes tumbled to the ground, to the lightning strike on York Cathedral, shortly after a controversial archbishop was installed. As we know, lightning is attracted to such tall edifices, and its the power has been both feared and honoured in many different cultures. In Russia, it is the province of both the Slavic thunder god Perun, and of the prophet Elijah.
I didn’t have to go far from home to visit the scene of one dramatic and historic lighting strike. In the church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, on Dartmoor in Devon, four painted boards commemorate just such a catastrophe. One Sunday in 1638, lightning struck the church tower while the people were at prayer. Stones crashed down, fire burnt through the church and congregation. And yet the great marvel was that while some worshippers were badly burned or even killed, others walked away unharmed. Money melted in one man’s purse, but the purse itself wasn’t damaged. Those who made this inscription, a hundred years later, wondered at the workings of God’s mercy and of fate.
Among the rest, a little child which scarce knew good from ill
Was seen to walk amongst the church, and yet preserved still.
The greatest admiration was, that most men should be free
Among so many dangers here, which we did hear and see
The church within so filled was with timber stones and fire
So how might we look at this Tarot card as a tower struck by lightning? The image itself has recognisable sources in medieval illustrations of the sin of ‘Pride’, and the act of a lightning strike as a message of divine retribution for human arrogance, draws on the Bible story of the fall of the Tower of Babel, which was a vain attempt by humans to scale the heights of heaven. It thus was shattered as punishment for their impudence. But the result – a diversity of languages – may not be entirely a bad thing. Creativity may be generated as the prison of old ideas – or an old language – is split open. New cultures, new ways of seeing the world thus arise.
The Tower in a reading can signify an external shock, and perhaps a sudden ‘bolt out of the blue’. Circumstances may change abruptly, and there will be changes. But it may also indicate a sudden inner revelation, a realisation which breaks down old constructs and opens the way to new horizons.
And yet…according to this card, the real transformation comes later, as if emerging from a hectic dream of disaster into a state of new awakening. The 20th card of the Tarot pack depicts the moment when the Angel summons the ‘sleepers’ to rise up and move into a sphere where they gain new life, but a life which is determined to some extent by their previous actions. The call comes, and thus we pass through judgement to a different state of being. Plainly, we have to find interpretations which go beyond the Christian image here, and which can also be applicable to everyday life rather than interpreting the ultimate nature of karma, life and death. It is about the way that such re-awakenings can take place in our own lives, in contexts both great and small.
To expand the interpretation of ‘Judgement’, this is how I rounded off the relevant section in Tarot Triumphs:
‘So, in the context of the Tarot Triumphs, this card shows a stirring and quickening of life. What seemed to be dead is shown to live; what has died is reborn, or is about to be reborn, in another form. We can apply this trumpet call in a reading to anything from a phone call from an old friend, to an unexpected job opportunity, or indeed to a powerful realisation that it’s time to wake up to the real meaning of life. It could indicate an impulse arising, a message or a surprise. But although I have suggested that the waking up is the main focus of the card, nevertheless Judgement does imply another layer of significance within the symbol. Whereas the card of Death suggests the end of a phase, a life, a relationship or whatever else is implied, Judgement points to what comes afterwards. Death hints at new life ahead, but Judgement takes us into the realm of accountability and understanding. After the first awakening come trials and tests. Can the old friendship survive in a new phase of life? How demanding is this new job? What ordeals and possible sacrifices must be faced in order to achieve true inner transformation? The trumpet of the angel promises new life, but the judgement of truth, too.’
While looking for new material for this post, I found myself greatly moved by a piece of music composed for this very scene. ‘The Trumpet shall Sound’ from Handel’s Messiah captures a sense of awe and wonder, especially through the voice of this remarkable singer, Dashon Burton. I already knew the piece well, but had never thought of it in this context before, or heard it performed with such beauty and immediacy. I invite you to take a few minutes out of your busy life to and enjoy it. ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised…’
Time to wake up!
Combining these three cards, what is the collective message they bring? Working my way once more through them, I realised that it’s the call to ‘Wake up!’ The teacher figure of the Pope may awaken or re-awaken our thirst for knowledge or spiritual insight. The wake-up call of the Tower splits open our current reality, as the stones come tumbling down. Judgement indicates that instead of permanent sleep, there is the chance of waking to new life. It is a chance that we might have to choose to take, though. All three cards indicate potential security traps, which can hold us back in our present mode of being. I dare say a nice bedroom high up in the Tower with a lovely view would keep many of us happy, and give an illusion of security, until lightning strikes. Shall we take the chance to start on something new, or will we just slavishly try to rebuild the old? As far as Judgement goes, being ‘buried’ in everyday life and its routines might seem a peaceful option, and we might not welcome being aroused to a new world, even by an angel with a trumpet. And while the Pope as a teacher may keep us alert for a while, stimulated by the interest of learning new things, it is all too easy to shut the door on further knowledge because, after all, we know it all already. Don’t we?
Dig down into most spiritual or esoteric teachings, and you will usually find the instruction to ‘awaken’, often hiding in plain sight, as it is in the Christian gospels. ‘And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ Mark 13.37. Many teachers of Tarot see the complete deck as a pathway to awakening and completion, rather than just a fortune-telling game.
We may think of ancestor cults as belonging to earlier forms of society, but this isn’t entirely true. Anyone who starts researching family history knows how finding the ancestors can create what feels like a living connection with those of our blood line who passed away long ago. I should know – I’ve done it! It came as something of a shock to me, but as with other avenues I’ve explored, I eventually decided to put both my research tips and something of my experience into a book. The result is Growing Your Family Tree: Tracing your roots and discovering who you are (Piatkus 2011; e-book with Lume Books 2019)
In order to write the book, I wanted to hear how other people had experienced the family history trail, so I set up a survey. Some wonderful material came up through this, which I’ve quoted liberally in the book, and which I hope to include in a future post for Cherry’s Cache. Also on the agenda is a further post about taking up ‘The Quest’ in family history, making expeditions to explore the terrain where ancestors lived, and hunt for new information.
But for this current post, I’d like to share two experiences which I had, of witnessing what ancestors mean in cultures other than a modern Western one. These are included in my book, but I’m bringing them together here for the first time, and with photographs which tell as much of the story as the words.
Sailing to the far side of the world – Bali and Easter Island
My husband Robert and I used to go on cruises as guest lecturer and artist-in-residence. We made some fascinating voyages, mostly on smaller ships, which allowed us to travel to smaller ports than is possible on giant liners. One of the most extraordinary journeys was to Easter Island, as I’ll recount shortly. First though, I’ll relate how a trip to Bali allowed us to see, quite by chance, a ceremony for drawing back the spirit of an ancestor to dwell in the family home:
From Chapter Two In modern Western culture, it may seem odd to assert that the ancestors can make their presence felt, but in many other cultures it is a natural assumption. Ancestor veneration is, or has been, important in practically any society that we might care to study. African, South American and Aboriginal Australian cultures all have strong beliefs in the significance of the ancestors, and practise customs which acknowledge the part they play in family life. They are variously thought, for instance, to guide their descendants, govern the local landscape and assist in divining the future. In shamanic practice, still found in countries such as Mongolia and Siberia, magician healers enter a trance and depart on a journey to the spirit realms to encounter the ancestors of the villagers, who will then give them counsel for the wellbeing of the community.
Ancestors in such cultures may be seen as deities, spirits or souls of the departed – there is no one definition, and often the boundaries are hazy – but their existence at some level is taken as a given. On the whole, they are not deified in the sense of worship, and therefore scholars nowadays prefer to use the term ‘ancestor veneration’, as this reflects more accurately the broad sweep of customs associated with the ancestors.
When my husband and I visited Bali early in 2010, by great good fortune we hired a taxi driver who was keen to show us some of these customs. He drove us to a temple built into the rocky hillside, known as Goa Lawah. It is a popular venue for funeral ceremonies, and renowned for its colony of sacred bats, which reside in a cave at the back of the temple. Situated at a place where sea and land meet (symbolising the border between the present life and the afterlife, our driver told us), the temple acts as the mediator for the soul that must take its journey from one to the other. The body is first cremated, and then the ashes are placed in a coconut shell and taken down to the shore close by, where they are thrown into the ocean. A line or rope, with up to 2500 ceremonial coins tied to it, is cast into the waters as well, and the mourners cry out for the dead person to return to them as they draw it back to shore again. Two times more, the line is cast and the call goes up for the deceased to come home.
After twelve days have passed, the family members return to the same spot, and collect some kind of object (our driver was vague on this point – perhaps a stone from the shore, or something left over from the ceremony) which they carry reverently back to their home. This object is then placed in the domestic shrine, where it is believed to embody the spirit of the relative, now an honoured ancestor. From this time on, this ancestor will watch over the family, and protect and bless its members.’
It might seem as though Western society is far removed from such practices, but we too have our graveyards, where flowers are renewed, and relatives go to remember their loved ones. On Remembrance Sunday in Britain, we honour the dead of the two World Wars, and in Russia, practically every newly married couple has a photo taken in front of the local war memorial, where the eternal flame burns to commemorate the fallen soldiers. There are traces of interaction with the departed too, in Western customs, such as the feast of Samhain or Halloween in Irish tradition, when food and drink was and perhaps still is left out for the dead. We mark roadside casualties with shrines of flowers and symbolic objects. In Russian Orthodoxy, the first forty days after the death of a person are thought to be a journey during which the soul suffers various trials and temptations before reaching a more blessed state; at the end of these forty days, families may hold a ‘remembering feast’ to honour the departed and the arrival of the soul in heaven.
The mother at the centre of the world
Discovering the part that ancestors can play in human life may come about in unexpected ways. When I visited one of the remotest islands in the world, I had no idea that it would lead me into an intense experience of this kind. Here’s how it happened:
From Chapter Eight It’s 2 March 2008. Mother’s Day in the UK, but we are spending it in the South Pacific, far away from gifts of flowers and chocolates, and restaurants packed with families taking Mum out to lunch. In fact, we are in a completely different civilisation altogether, visiting Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island. Robert and I have been transported here as lecturers on board a cruise ship, and today is our second and final day in this extraordinary place. We catch the tender boat from our ship and ride the fierce waves to the shore. The captain has warned us all that we might not even be able to land, after six days of sailing from the Chilean port of Valparaiso. All in the lap of the gods, he says.
And gods are what they have here. Yesterday, we watched the island emerge from the haze with growing excitement – a rounded volcanic scoop of land dressed in soft greens and greys. We began to make out cliffs and swathes of grassland, then, finally, the first of the giant statues for which the island is famous: the Moai. Nearly a thousand of these stone statues, with their huge heads and staring gaze, are placed around the island, many at the edge of the land, facing inwards towards the people they protect and command. Each face has its own character. When we landed, I made straight for the first Moai I could see, standing on the rim of the harbour, and was seized with a spine-tingling sense of awe as I gazed up at him. In fact, I felt overwhelmed. This was a place I had known of since I was a child, but had never dreamed I might be able to visit. Now we were stepping into its mythical world.
There are still many questions and mysteries surrounding the old culture of Easter Island, but it’s known that the statues were carved between five and eight hundred years ago, and it is thought that they represent the deified male ancestors. Certainly, today’s inhabitants treat them as such, and asked us to respect the Moai by never treading upon the ahu, the sacred stone platforms upon which they are set. On the first day, then, we became acquainted with these ancestors, along with the herds of bright bay horses that roam the island freely, the green-sided volcano with its extraordinary internal lake and the exquisite beaches fringed with palm trees. The island, once stripped of its trees, is back to a better natural balance again, planted also with stately groves of eucalyptus. All through the centuries of change, the Moai have presided as immortals over the landscape.
Now it’s day two of our visit, and we have barely a morning to see whatever else we can of this magical island. Something has tickled my imagination in a guidebook that I browsed on board the ship: a mention of an ancient round stone representing ‘the navel of the world’. Te Pito Te Henua is one of the other names for Easter Island and that in itself means the navel and uterus of the world, so this stone would therefore be the navel of the navel. Robert agrees: we should try to find it.
Friends on board recommended that we seek out the woman taxi driver on the quayside, probably the island’s one and only female cabbie among the ranks of beaming and burly male drivers. We spot her easily, and though they’d mentioned her simply because of her general helpfulness, hiring her cab for the morning turns out to be crucial to what we discover.
‘Ah, so you want to go to the place that we visit for energy,’ she says, when we ask her about the site, for which we have only rough directions. She takes us over to the north coast of the island, veering away from a well-frequented beach (though that, in Easter Island terms, may mean only a handful of people) to turn down an unpaved road which emerges by another small and completely empty beach. Among the rocks above the sea line, a round wall of stones and boulders has been created, about three feet high and eight feet in diameter. Within the circle it encloses, a huge and beautifully smooth ovoid stone has been placed, like a giant egg. Four similar but smaller stones are set around it at regular intervals, forming a square. It has a Celtic feel about it – we could almost be on the West Coast of Ireland or in the Hebrides – but here we are, over two thousand miles from any mainland and over eight thousand away from home.
It is first and foremost a place for women, our driver tells us. She invites me alone to accompany her into the circle, and seats me on one of the smaller stones, encouraging me to place my hands on the great stone egg in front of me. She sits opposite and does likewise. ‘Put your hands on it gently,’ she says. ‘Relax.’
Women of the island have been coming here for hundreds of years, she explains. They come to pray for help, for safe childbirth and even for the delivery of their babies. The stone is the mother, their mother, and the island’s mother. ‘What do you feel?’ she asks me.
I feel as though the stone is not a stone at all, but an egg with the shell stripped away, and the delicate but all-powerful pulse of life moving within its membrane. I sense the women who have laid their hands here, and the ancestral mothers whose spirit is contained within the stone itself. Currents of energy seem to be running up my arms.
I tell her some of this, and she is satisfied. She then steps outside the circle and invites Robert to come and join me. Now I can suggest to him how to sit and place his hands and, rather to his surprise, he too experiences waves of energy.
We leave the enclosure. It’s time to get back to the harbour and board our ship for another six-day voyage, back to the coast of South America. Both of us are reflective after the experience, and feel privileged that one of the islanders trusted us enough to teach us about her sacred site. We first met the father of the island in the myriad forms of male ancestors, but now we have also met its mother – the one stone representing all the female ancestors.
This is a Mother’s Day that I won’t forget.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these descriptions, and please remember that you’re welcome to add comments or recount your experiences too. If you are making a comment on the blog for the first time, this will be submitted to me first to activate it, so it could take a day or two before you see it posted.
‘…There’s whisky in the jar!’ – A tuneful roar of voices giving out the last line of the chorus…a moment’s hush…a thunder of clapping – laughter – chairs scraping on the floor – feet rushing, coming my way, downstairs. I make my way up, cradling my guitar carefully, against the flow. Smell of cigarette smoke, faint wash of stale beer, touch of rough jackets, knobbly jumpers as I push my way up and through into the warm fug of the club room. ‘You singing tonight?’ asks the girl with long dark hair on the door. I nod, a small frisson of fear shooting through my stomach. She nods back, and waves me in: no charge for floor singers. I am in the Holy Ground.
In the mid-sixties, while still at school in Birmingham, I discovered folk song, and fell headlong in love with it. I lived for the nights when I could turn up at folk clubs with a bunch of friends, order a daring half pint of shandy, and wedge ourselves in among the crowd. Then we would settle in for an evening of songs ranging from the bawdy to the tragic, accompanied by guitars, penny whistles, concertinas, dulcimers, spoons, or anything else that came to hand. We didn’t know it then, but many of these old Birmingham pubs only had a short life left before demolition razed them from existence (see my earlier post ‘Finding Brummagem’). Many of those wonderful etched glass panels and wrought iron Victorian tables would soon become a thing of the past. (I see that a single original table can now sell for over a thousand pounds on the internet.) The images below come from an article about a few that escaped demolition and makeovers, which you can read here.
The Folk Song Revival
There was a major folk song revival at the time, following on from the earlier jazz club phase of the 50s and indeed slightly overlapping with it. To put it simply, American folk singers held sway from the 1940s, and ran alongside skiffle, jazz and blues in the 50s, but in the 60s the British and Irish folk traditions rose up in popularity. Key figures such as Ewan McColl, Shirley Collins and Bert Lloyd promoted ‘the voice of the people’, and moved the folk song movement on from the polite drawing room where collectors and composers such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams had left it at the turn of the century. It opened the door to more energetic, earthy performances – and was very good for business in the pubs too.
It also generated a new wave of song-writing in a folk style, as in this famous one, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw your Face‘ by Scotsman Ewan McColl, and sung by American folk singer Peggy Seeger. The pair formed a lasting duo.
Folk music may have hit Soho earlier, as I’ve mentioned in my blog on the Soho Coffee Bar, but for a more general population in the provinces, it was only just beginning in the 1960s. The nation woke up to its heritage, and folk clubs sprang up like mushrooms throughout the land; Birmingham was especially enthusiastic in this respect Anyone could have a go – all you needed to do was to get hold of a guitar, learn a few basic chords, and then you could take it to parties and clubs, and trot out a few songs. Even Youth Hostels and Greek beaches ‘benefited’ from the wandering minstrels of the folk revival. Such music often had a broad base, too. Wherever you went in the world, you were never too far away from someone intoning ‘We Shall Overcome,’ crooning ‘Will ye go, Lassie, go?’ or giving a rendering of Davy Graham’s ‘Angie’. (I hasten to say, I love all of those!) And many performers took it to a much higher level, working hard on their singing and playing. Just as a side note, I think it’s been work in progress to this very day, since the standard of instrumental playing among folk musicians now is phenomenally good, at a level which was only reached by a few exceptional professionals back then.
Here’s a version of the famous ‘Whisky in the Jar’, sung by the Dubliners. As my own photos for this post are all black and white, I’ll spice it up a bit with some music! This recording has some delightful pictures of Irish scenes. And I particularly liked a recent comment: ‘Even in Ukraine me, and my friends love to sing this while we drinking. Cheers to the Ireland and lovely Irish people from far Ukraine!’ Yes, Irish music travels well.
It was the traditional British and Irish music that enchanted me. Even though I began by learning all kinds of songs, I focused more and more on the true traditional repertoire. If I heard a song that took my fancy, I delighted in copying it out into my own notebook. The oral tradition, in the sense of collectors trudging to remote farmhouses in search of a song, was almost past and gone. (I did try it as a teenager, on my pushbike, panting up Shropshire hills with a heavy, low quality tape recorder in a rucksack on my back, but soon gave up.) But we had a way of sharing songs between ourselves, which was in its own way just as exciting. Scribble down the words, and a few chords, and do your best to remember the tune. And if it did come out a little differently, well, that was part of the tradition too. There was still a sense of songs being passed from singer to singer.
I could afford to buy a few songbooks, some of which I still have, including The Penguin Book of Folk Songs, minus its cover and in fragile condition now, and Marrowbones edited by Frank Purslow. A friend’s brother made a guitar for me – most kind of him, and it did work, sort of, but when I managed to scrape enough money together, I bought my own Spanish guitar. I was never very dextrous though, so my instrumental playing, including piano, remained at a basic level. Pages from my own song books here show ‘Bridgwater Fair’ in my handwriting – something I was proud to have dug out of an archive – and in another hand, the sea shanty ‘Sally Free and Easy’, which was often sung by Cyril Tawney. This was followed by ‘The Nightvisiting Song’ which I expect one of the Munstermen wrote out for me (see below). There’s a version of it sung by Luke Kelly on the YouTube link below.
The Birmingham Folk Scene
It’s on record that The Holy Ground Folk Club opened on Saturday April 24th 1965 at 7.45pm at the Cambridge Inn. . And according to my old diaries, I was there with a friend the following week, May 1st. ‘Went to the Holy Ground in the Cambridge Inn. Club itself was pretty good – Bloke with a lute singing May day songs – we both enjoyed him best.‘
Sat May 8 – ‘Later, when it was very full, they said the ladies had got to sit on the gents knees.’ Sat May 15th – ‘…Sang ‘Flowers & weeds’ and ‘The Dear Companion.’ Not too bad. Not v. good though…
Sat May 22 – They had a wild Irishman as the guest singer tonight – Joe Heaney. He said he’d teach me Gaelic, but I don’t think he quite meant what I meant.
The Holy Ground became the favourite venue for a bunch of us to spend a lively Saturday night out. It was run by the Munstermen, who were somewhat similar to the Dubliners, full of energy and good humour, and vibrant playing and singing. There were guest singers such as the incorrigible Joe Heaney, mentioned above, and frequently Diz Disley, who had been more famous as a jazz player, and overlapped with those Soho cafes which I wrote about. There were also regulars such as singer-songwriter Harvey Andrews, and Jon Swift who unusually played a lute, and was the man I mentioned in my diary write-up. I suppose male singers were more prominent at that time, but female ones were certainly present and welcomed. I did a duo act with another schoolfriend for a while – there’s a photo of us practising a little further on.
Other clubs which I gravitated to included the Partisan, the Peanuts and the Camp, all listed in an astonishing compilation here . (If you look at Grey Cock, Precursor you will see my name listed as a regular singer, misspelt as Cherrie Phillips.) The folk clubs were a melting pot at the time of different tastes and interests. However unified our bellowing of Musha rain dum a doo, dum a da, there were diverse views as to whether folk singing was all about having a good time, or should be approached with a missionary zeal and a purist creed. Diversity ran through the audiences too, which were a great mix of younger and older people, and from all backgrounds. It was also an ideal place to meet up with my own friends, and to eye up the slightly older and preferably handsome male folkies there. But, surprisingly, I never really took up with a boyfriend in the folk clubs, though there were a few serious pangs of the heart and more than a few casual kisses. It was mostly about fun and friendships. And I was genuinely serious about the music.
It got to the stage where I was actually getting paid a modest amount to appear in some of the clubs. My diary entry for the Holy Ground of July 17th, 1965, relates: Mick says that in a couple of weeks, instead of one proper guest, they’re going to have John Swift, Peter Moggs and me!! Wow!(getting paid too!)
But one day at school, I was summoned to the head mistress’s office. She was holding up an advertisement – a very tiny advertisement – from the Birmingham Mail. It announced that Cherry Phillips would be singing at the Grotto Club in Deritend. Yes, it did sound a bit dubious.
‘Do your parents know you’re doing this?’ she asked sternly.
‘Yes, they do,’ I told her, which was indeed true. They were rather pleased, as I recall.
She tried another tack. ‘But this – Grotto – club – it’s not in a very nice area of town.’
I shrugged. No it wasn’t, but it was in no way dangerous, and I wasn’t there late at night.
She had one more try. ‘I do know that it’s not illegal for you to be on licensed premises at 16, because I’ve checked the laws. But only if you don’t drink.’
I nodded in what I hoped was a mature and understanding manner.
‘And can you honestly say that you would never get tempted into – drinking alcohol – there? Perhaps if – if a man offered to buy you a drink?’
Now was the time to look shocked and mildly offended. ‘Oh no, Miss Wilkes.’ I added a touch of bewildered innocence to give it greater authenticity.
I was dismissed, under caution, with severe warnings about compromising my homework and academic standards. I calculated that the occasional bitter shandy would harm no one, though my diary records that I did accept the odd extra tipple from MEN.
During this period, I made very good friends among the other singers, some of whom I am back in touch with today:
Pam Bishop – who with her husband Alan Bishop, formed the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, which I’m about to mention. Pam has remained a singer, story-teller and archiver of folk music recordings all her life. See my blog on Black Country Humour for a closer look at their performances of the time.
Laurie Green – who has since led another life as an Anglican bishop, involving much charity work in India, (details here) and who still finds time to sing and play his guitar. He, Doug and Spike had a brilliant trio, with a repertoire of saucy songs and comic monologues. Below are Spike and Laurie performing ‘The Battle of Hastings’ (left) and a song with Doug on banjo (right). Both photos taken by me on club nights. You can hear some of Laurie’s current recordings on his website.
Mick Treacy – There were three Micks in the Munstermen – Mick Hipkiss, Mick Lillis and Mick Treacy, who were all Irish as you might expect. They were the liveliest folk band in town, and could get everyone tapping their feet and singing along with gusto. Mick returned to his old hometown of Mitchelstown and we plan to meet up and reminisce when travel is possible again. He is still playing and performing to great acclaim, as you can see from this recent notice about a concert in Cork (under Spanish Civil War songs).
Doc Rowe – now an esteemed folklorist, who has attended traditional folk customs for more than 50 years now, and created a unique archive of recordings. You can see him with part of his collection in the photo below, and read an interview with Doc here conducted by John Wilks. Doc has supplied marvellous photos of Tar Barrel Rolling for my recent blog Topsham Celebrates. He was one of those I knew as ‘the Devon crowd’; there were always links between the Birmingham folk and the Torquay folk, and visits were paid between the two places. My summer just before going up to university was spent in Devon, working in a hotel kitchen by day, and singing in folk clubs there by night. It’s probably part of the reason I’m living in the county today!
The end of ‘Careless Love’ and the beginning of ‘Strictly Pure’
But my carefree approach to clubs and singing was about to change, when I came across an entirely different type of person:
Charles Parker Charles was a red-haired and radical BBC radio producer. He and folk singer Ewan McColl were responsible for the innovative series of Radio Ballads, which are the stuff of legend today – Singing the Fishing, The Travelling People and The Big Hewer.
I first saw Charles eating cornflakes at breakfast during the Keele Folk Festival, where I had persuaded my parents to let me go for the weekend. It was long before huge and noisy festivals were invented, and was a concentrated, well-programmed series of workshops, talks and performances by the likes of A. L. Lloyd, Anne Briggs and even Arlo Guthrie, who was in his late teens at the time, but already a very able musician following in the footsteps of his father, Woody. I took against Charles, however, when I overheard him criticising the ‘warm bath of sentimentality’, which he claimed that many folk singers were immersed in. How dare he! I was having a really good time, thank you.
But a little later that year, I grudgingly admitted that Charles might have a point. He ran a weekly folk song workshop in Birmingham, hosted by Pam and Alan Bishop, and I trotted along to this to learn from my elders and betters. This workshop was formally known as the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, though it mostly took place in the Bishops’ living room in Mosely. Charles cared intensely about the music and the voices, songs and lives of the people he recorded – the Radio Ballads were innovative because they allowed working people and those on the margins of society to speak for themselves, something rare at the time. As I came to know him better, I developed a great respect for him, even if I didn’t always agree with what he said. His passion was genuine. He wanted everything to have the same veracity; he would tell you if your song moved him to tears, or if it just reeked of artificiality. Charles and Ewan were intensely political, but whereas Ewan was too dogmatic for my taste, Charles was imaginative and compassionate.
Sometimes a group of us met at the Parkers’ flat in Harborne, where he would pull down piles of books off his shelves to make a point, complaining that he needed to have a mild incapacitating illness in order to read everything he wanted to. He would hand out copies he didn’t need any more – I still have his Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial English, J-Z. (It’s a great book, and recently I sourced A-I to make up the pair!) I invited him to my wedding a few years later, and he gave us a signed set of the Radio Ballad records as a gift, which of course I have kept, though with nothing to play vinyl on these days. I was saddened to read of his early death not so long after that. A trust has been set up in his name, to keep the spirit of his work alive.
You can listen to an excellent account of his life and work here
Field work at last!
The photo you see here is one that has only come to light recently. In July 1967, when it was taken, I was doing a post A-Levels project on folk song collecting. The tradition wasn’t quite dead, even in industrial Birmingham, and in the old Jewellery Quarter, Charles introduced me to Mrs Cecilia Costello. She was the child of Irish immigrants, but had grown up as a Brummie in hard circumstances in the old back-to-back streets of houses.
She adored her repertoire of songs and stories, and had already been discovered and recorded in 1951 by earlier collectors.
Her very beautiful version of the ‘Grey Cock’ appears in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. (You can now hear the original recording of her song on YouTube below). But she had since been forgotten, and presumed dead. And it was only when some public mention was made of ‘the late Cecilia Costello’ in the late 60s, that she re-surfaced and declared herself still fully alive. In her humble terraced home, she sang and talked, while we listened and recorded. Later, I was allowed to ‘borrow’ (strictly against the BBC rules, I gathered!) some of Charles’s equipment and I went on a visit of my own to record her stories and music. (There is now a collection of all the Costello recordings which I acquired a couple of years ago, and I can hear my laugh on it in one or two places. Mine was very minor input, however, and Rod Stradling took on most of the hard work of collating and editing all the recordings later on.) These are obtainable at present via this link.
At some point in my sessions with Charles, this photo and the one above must have been taken. I had no knowledge of it until it was used at a recent Charles Parker Study Day as their background image for the conference. Apparently the question was going round: ‘Who is that woman?’ Only one person in the audience knew. And that’s how I came to have it, very late in the day, thanks to Doc Rowe!
I have never forgotten Cecilia Costello or Charles. In fact, I would say that they have helped to shape my approach as a writer. I learned how powerful the voice of an individual human being can be, to sing songs, conjure up the past, and convey messages from the heart. I put much of what I learned, indirectly, into my book, ‘Your Life, Your Story’, and included a dedication to Charles Parker.
Singing has remained a part of my life, and I went on to train as an early and Baroque music singer in my twenties, performing as a concert singer in my thirties, and as a chorus member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields a little later. My love of folk music remains, though, I still prick up my ears like an old war horse, when I hear those Irish choruses!
We, who come among the dead as far
as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
maidens, lovely in our dancing,
in bright loveliness of folded
woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
of ivory, shine, brilliant
to the dead eye as forgotten daylight
(7th c. BCE Greek Papyrus, from Dances for Flute and Thunder, transl.Brooks Haxton)
The Nine Ladies
The idea of a group of nine women or maidens who perform healing, dancing, or magical ceremonies is very ancient – much more ancient than we might imagine. It has served as a kind of template for what we could call ‘women’s votive groups’ in both a historical and an archetypal sense. The poem above is from Greece, in the 7th century BCE, describing how nine female spirits dance their way through the realms of the dead to the Goddess. Move forward a thousand years or so to the British myth of nine sisters or priestesses who conveyed the dying King Arthur to the otherworld of Avalon, add in the classical Nine Muses along the way, and we begin to see a story here, of nine women engaged on sacred tasks.
I knew about this template in historical terms to some extent when I first wrote The Circle of Nine, back in the 1980s. The book was conceived as a response to the groups that I and other women were involved in at the time, using a schema of nine feminine archetypes to understand the role they played in our own lives. We called it ‘Nine Ladies’, taking the name from the stone circle in Derbyshire, which we had visited on several occasions. As I wrote the book, I came across a few more historical references to ‘the circle of nine’, but with no internet resources to draw on in those days, and a deadline looming, I couldn’t investigate much further. Then, three years ago, came the opportunity to re-write the book and dig deeper into research. What I found astonished me. I learnt that ‘the Company of Nine’, as I prefer to call it in the broader context, seems to be the fundamental template for women engaged in a votive or sacred task. It’s widespread in time and space, found from Africa to Russia, and from around 10,000 BCE until the present era.
This has been an exciting discovery, and in this post my aim here is to give a brief view of this wide range of groups of nine women. (You’ll find a fuller version in my book, where I’ve dedicated the opening chapter to the Company of Nine.) Overall, there is a range both of those who had a historical reality, as well as those existing in myth, folklore, or are symbolised within the contours of the landscape. Each group seems to have a specific task or function, whether of divination or healing, serving a saint or goddess, or even simply dancing for joy. Their job is often to help others, work magic, or see into the realms of the future.
I would say that this symbolic grouping of women has a particular significance which is still relevant today. And its age-old form has a kind of life of its own. Since The Circle of Nine was first published I’ve been contacted by individual women who’ve discovered the book in a mysterious way, sometimes through dreams or omens. They, and others, have since created their own imaginative take on the Nine, ranging from organising drama courses around the nine archetypes, to making perfumes for the essence of each one. This is not, I’m convinced, just because of the book I’ve written, but because the book taps into something ancient that lives on in the female psyche. And I am just another mouthpiece for this.
Above is the most recent edition of my book published in 2018 by Weiser. Below left, the first edition which came out in 1988 in a series called Compass of Mind which I devised for Batsford, with a cover by Gila Zur. Below right is the second edition in 1991 with Penguin Arkana. Re-writing the text for this new version, I realised that although much had changed for women, the Circle of the Nine archetypes remains a constant in our lives.
So now to some examples of the ‘Company of Nine’:
The Nine Priestesses of Sena
A very fine example of a ‘company of nine’ was recorded by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He reported that a group of nine priestesses lived on an island called Sena, lying off the coast of Brittany – possibly the one known today as the Ile de Sein situated in what is known as the Bay of the Dead, and thought of as a portal to the ‘otherworld’. Here, the women tended the oracle of a Gallic god, and were ‘endowed with singular powers’. Navigators visited the priestesses seeking guidance, wanting to know their destiny, and asking to them to charm the winds and seas to give the mariners a safe passage. These women were also renowned for their ability to shape-shift into different animal forms, and to heal serious wounds and diseases.
The priestesses of Sena seem to have had a historical basis, and similar groups appear in medieval times, where accounts relate how companies of nine women travelled around Scandinavia, acting as seeresses. One such ‘volva’ or spae-queen is described in an Icelandic saga from Greenland; in the saga, a colourful description is given of her visit to a remote village, where she dresses in special robes, and utters her predictions from a throne specially erected for the occasion. Her forecasts relate to weather, health, and future marriages within the community. Legends of the nine abound too; in Brittany, nine witches or spirits are said to inhabit the mountain of Dol. Such myths spread out geographically – St Samson, a dragon-slaying saint from Wales, is said to have had an encounter there with a magical wild woman, the last survivor of a company of nine sisters living in a wood.
Nine Stones in the Landscape
The British landscape too bears many traces of the nine, as with the case of the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, which I mentioned earlier. Nine Maidens, Nine Sisters or Nine Ladies appear many times over on UK maps as the names of stone circles, stone rows, and wells. According to one study, for example, there are at least six circles in Cornwall called Nine Maidens or Nine Stones. Many of the stone circles bearing the name of ‘nine’ carry legends about nine girls being turned into stone because they danced there at a prohibited time, such as on Sunday. But, although they may be frozen into stone, they can still come to life again. It’s said that if you enter the Nine Maidens circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, at midday, and let the world go still around you, the nine maidens will start their dance again…
Often the name retains the number nine even when the actual number of stones is entirely different. Nine is stubbornly adhered to in the naming or folklore of such a site. Of the six Cornish circles named for the Nine Maidens, apparently only one has nine stones and it’s doubtful that this was the case originally! Arguments by scholars that ‘nine’ is a misunderstanding of the original name have fallen on deaf ears. William Bottrell, the nineteenth century Cornish folklorist, said: ‘You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.’
Nine does indeed have magical connotations, and it’s likely that in terms of women, the Company of Nine stems from the widespread and ancient idea of the triple goddess, a feminine trinity of cosmic forces. This has often been related to the phases of the moon, and to the phases of a woman’s life as maiden, mother and crone.
Although the tradition of the company of nine women may be ancient, it’s important to emphasise that it was not necessarily associated with these stone alignments when they were first built, some 4000 years ago. It’s more likely, in my view, that the nine were attributed to these places later on, still in ancient times but after the original purpose of the megaliths was forgotten, at which point the stone circles and rows could well have served as ritual places for a different mythology. But perhaps this mythology itself was seeded even before the stone circles were built. There is one really early image of the nine, which could push the timeline right back to between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. This is a cave painting from Catalonia, which depicts nine women dancing round a male with an erect phallus. Perhaps the dance of the nine maidens was one of the very earliest of rituals.
There is much more of the story still to uncover, but my guess is that the nine maidens played a part in an early magical and perhaps shamanic type of religion, allied to the elements and the spirits of nature. It probably arose in pre-historic times, spreading to different parts of the globe and remaining in folk memory. Traces of it can still be found, where these old practices are still honoured in wilder parts of the world. It remains alive, in different forms, because it does correspond well with female roles, abilities and energies. Here’s a present-day shaman’s song from Mongolia, describing the ‘Nine Sisters’ as they dance between heaven and earth:
We play on the rays of the sun
We ride on the rays of the moon
We rise into the heavens
We descend onto the hills
…Nine young ones danced
They met a glowing mother
Three times in the ritual
We will dance the ancient dance
All nine will dance together!
And don't forget that we still have 'Nine Ladies dancing' in the traditional song, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'! How many of us previously suspected that this might have such a deep-rooted origin?
My book The Circle of Nine is chiefly about a schema of the nine archetypes, which again has its roots in tradition but has been freshly set up and described for women in modern times. In this schema there are three Queens, three Ladies and three Mothers. Each has her own identity, hence Queen of Beauty, Queen of Night, Queen of the Earth; Lady of Light, Lady of the Hearth, Lady of the Dance; Great Mother, Just Mother and Weaving Mother. This was a schema I inherited, rather than invented, but I have interpreted each one with observations from life and from many years of working with ‘Circle of Nine’ groups.
This post is a revised and newly illustrated version of one originally published on the ‘Singinghead’ blog in July 2018.
The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Stuart McHardy, (Luath Press Ltd, 2003) Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats, Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz, (Inner Traditions, 2015) “The Stone Circles of Cornwall”, B. C. Spooner, Folkore (Vol 64, Dec 1953), pp. 484-487
This is the 42nd post I’ve written for Cherry’s Cache. The site was launched in April with three posts already in place, and new posts have gone up at weekly intervals since. So, I’ve been kept busy through lockdown and through a very mixed year – a year of challenges for all of us.
The idea had been brewing for a while; my author’s website had an intermittent blog, but I felt it was time to strike out again in a more purposeful way. I also needed to get my teeth into a project which wasn’t writing a book every two years, which I’ve been doing for a long time now. It wasn’t the right moment either in terms of my own ideas or the publishing market for that. But I needed to write, all the same!
And then an email popped up in my inbox, a notification from The Gentle Author, of Spitalfields Life blog, that he was preparing to give his last ever courses on blog writing. I’ve long been a subscriber to the G.A.’s blog, which is an incredible compendium of articles about London life, so I decided that this was my one and only chance. I signed up for the advanced course in early March, for those who already had experience of blogging and writing. I felt it would hone my skills and perhaps help me to discover a format for the new blog.
It was a magical weekend, staying in an old weaver’s house in Spitalfields, right opposite the Hawksmoor church. A small but committed group of us gathered to talk about our aspirations, and to check out ways of presenting material, designing a website and keeping ourselves on track with the writing. I’m bound by group confidentiality not to discuss exactly what we did, or said, but I’m proud to include give links below to some of the blogs that others are writing, with their kind permission.
The weekend was intensified for me because of the sense of a looming crisis, as the Covid virus epidemic gathered pace. There were no actual restrictions in place then; the general advice was to be cautious, but the crowds I saw gathering in and around Spitalfields pubs in the evenings made a mockery of that. I made a few careful expeditions. A friend and I visited the Dennis Severs house by candlelight on the Friday evening before the course – magical! And I spent a blissful early Sunday morning rediscovering my (very) old haunts of Sclater and Cheshire Street, at the end of Brick Lane, where I had once ‘fossicked’ for vintage clothes for my shop Tigerlily. (We’re talking Cambridge, 1970s, here.) I plan to write something more about Tigerlily later on.
Below: Signs of the old rag markets in the Cheshire St area. I spent some time reminiscing with the stall holder on the left, who remembers coming down to his Dad’s stall there when he was a boy. From the bookstall I bought a copy of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ – an ironic touch in the situation.
But I decided to cut short my visit after the course, as it was plain matters were getting worse, and I had to get back to Devon by train. I cancelled a follow-on stay with my son in Stockwell, and a planned visit to the Tate, and left the course a couple of hours early. As I jumped on the train at Paddington, I felt as though I was fleeing before a tidal wave.
However, I had reaped huge benefits from the course. I pounced on a suggestion from The Gentle Author, that I should celebrate the diversity of my writing – I’ve never fitted easily into one category – and tend to write about a variety of subjects that fascinate me, and which I research enthusiastically. On the journey home, the name ‘Cherry’s Cache’ came to me, and I also jotted down a wealth of topics that I might cover. In the weeks that followed, with the friendly but ‘remote’ help of designer Jason, who handles the Spitalfields Life website, I became the possessor of a smart new website. The G. A. had advised me not to try and do it myself – time wasted, for a writer, he said! And although I had already learnt how to construct a basic site through one of the blogging platforms, Jason’s work gave me something far more sophisticated and user-friendly than I would have been able to create.
So here I am. I decided to put up one post a week, and I aim to hold to that until the 12 month year is up, in April. Then I may slow it down a little, perhapsposting once every two weeks. Although it’s exciting and stimulating, getting a weekly blog into place, it’s also a great deal of work! I enjoy research enormously, and probably for that very reason, it always takes me further than I expect into new areas. Some blogs, like those on Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar and cinematographer Walter Lassally require a considerable amount of background preparation, and I try and ensure that the facts are as solid as I can make them. Others I revisit from existing material, but I nearly always want to re-craft blogs or articles which I’ve written before. So my aim is that everything on this site, whether written from scratch or discovered in my ‘trove’, has a freshness to it, and a guarantee that I’ve put my spirit and energy into it.
With that aim of refreshing the spirit, for any and all of us, I made a decision at the start that I wouldn’t usually reflect current events in my posts. I’d like some of the stories to be relevant in the future, not tied to the circumstances in which I wrote them. Also, I reckoned that readers were getting enough of the news and the prevailing pandemic anxieties, and that it would be better to tackle topics which could interest and cheer people. My Gentle Author coach was kind enough to say: ‘I am so pleased that you are writing your blog, these things take on a greater meaning when people are searching hungrily for stories beyond the news.’ Indeed. And it’s not my task to write as an activist, or agitate for particular kinds of change – others do that better. Once, I was asked in a visualisation exercise what my job was, I spontaneously replied, ‘I bring the fire from the mountain.’ Make of that what you will.
For these 42 posts, I’ve written a staggering 90,835 words, give or take a thousand or two. I am staggered because this is actually longer than any book I’ve ever written. Perhaps I shall be able to turn these posts into a book one day?
Some of the many images which I compiled for the last nine months of posts. I find that creating and choosing pictures is incredibly rewarding; I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of images and text, as in slide lectures, which I gave for many years as a NADFAS (Arts Society) speaker.
The game’s not over yet. I hope I can continue at least for another year, even if with fewer posts. And here’s a big THANK YOU for reading my posts, and for subscribing to the email list, if that’s how you get the alerts. There have been some lovely comments. I quote a few here as they help motivate me to keep going!
Hi Cherry – It wouldn’t be Sunday with your blog. Many thanks! (KC) Love your cache writings. (JP) I really enjoyed this. What a fascinating and profound experience. (MC responding to On ‘Meeting the Shaman’)) Absolutely fascinating Cherry! I love your researched and interesting blogs.(JW) I just loved all your Russian content – especially the red corner etc. Thank you! (BM) Hope you can keep up your Cache which I have been enjoying very much. Laughed out loud at the masterly Sign collection, and enjoyed another journey to Topsham. You write so entertainingly! (LO)
The adventure continues! Happy New Year again – please keep reading, and do share the link with anyone who might enjoy Cherry’s Cache.
Cosmo, a cat of Hidden Topsham Do you remember Cosmo, the ‘six dinner Sid’ cat of Topsham? He’s still around, as you can see from a more recent photograph. One morning, I found him lurking on the corner of Monmouth Street, standing guard over something. As I got closer, I could see that it was a dead fish. And moreover, it wasn’t something washed up on the riverbank, but a splendid fancy koi-carp type of fish, with elegant wavy fins. Or it had been. Oh, Cosmo! Did you go fishing in someone’s pond? Or should we give you the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that a passing heron dropped its catch right in your path? It’s possible, after all. Just.
Golden Quinces– I used the last of this year’s crop of quinces to make Quince Chutney. Chutney needs to be left for 4-6 weeks before it’s ready to eat, to reduce the vinegariness and meld the flavours. We’ve now just tried the first pot, and it’s pretty good! It has quite a tart flavour, but rounded out in a lovely Christmassy spice way. The Quince jelly, which was ready to eat straight away is superb. Last year, I don’t think I boiled it long enough and the resulting jelly was light both in colour and texture. This year’s is much stronger in both senses, and especially delicious eaten with soft cheese on an oatcake!
Venetia, the Woman who named Pluto – The Stats which I can look up for this website are a fascinating collection of information as to whereabouts in the world readers come from, what links they’ve clicked, and what pages they’ve looked at. My post on Venetia Phair was published back in October, describing how I met Venetia, and the story of how she named a newly-discovered planet back in 1930. This week, the post suddenly had 24 hits from China. Was it a class of Chinese students learning about space exploration? I will probably never know.
And the final update – the Twelfth Night cake!
In my post about The Twelve Days of Christmas I gave a Spanish recipe for a Twelfth Night cake/loaf celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings at the Christian festival of Epiphany and what used to be ‘party night’ in the last of the Twelve Days. It’s in a circular shape, rather like the crown of one of the kings. I felt that I was duty bound to have a go at making it, so this morning, shortly after 6am I got cracking, like a good baker. It is a kind of enriched dough, rather like a brioche, and needs up to 3 hours proving in two stages. I nearly gave up at the first hurdle, when I realised that the 25gm of yeast must refer to fresh yeast, which I didn’t have, and the method described might not suit the small packets of instant yeast which most of us use these days. However, I did have a tin of granular yeast (bought during the lockdown when nothing else was available) and I decided to try that. And I’m happy to say that it worked! I’d already stocked up with some candied fruit, the best I could find locally. But because it’s baked on the outside of the loaf rather than in the dough, it gets very hard, and in future I’d only use the softest types, like glace cherries.
At 10am I wondered if I could finish it in time before a Zoom call with friends at 11. But I wasn’t going to stint on the decorating – I placed 12 cherries for the 12 months of the year, and added various artistic touches with glace citron peel. (Yes I know, I’m not a potential Bake-Off winner.) It was out of the over before 11, and when it had cooled a little, I brought it upstairs to show my friends triumphantly. Robert and I tried it at lunch – it’s quite like brioche as I mentioned, or an old-fashioned sweet bun, with a delicate flavour of orange and lemon rind (grated into the dough) and a touch of brandy. I ate my slice with a little quince jelly. Then a couple of hours later, I wrapped several chunks in silver foil and took them to friends in the town, so that they could share in what I hope is Twelfth Night good luck for the year ahead. Here’s the cake, from its dough ring stage to the finished ‘crown’. By the time you read this, I will have also added a few notes to the recipe that I posted earlier.
My Fellow Bloggers
Last, but most definitely not least, I’d like to point you to some of the fascinating blogs by other members of our Spitalfields Life blogging course. Please take a look! The diversity of what we write is fascinating.
From left to right: Carolyn Skelton, Jo Rogers (in earlier years!), Bertie the Bear, and Shula Rich
Carolyn Skelton: ‘A London Family is the story of my quest to find out more about the elusive paternal side of my family. It starts with my job as an ‘heir hunter’ in London in the 1980s and describes how an old photograph found in a wallet years later sent me on a search which encompasses two hundred years of social history…’ https://alondonfamily.com
Bob Ball: Mindfully Bertie – These are tales told from the viewpoint of a bear – well, not just any bear, but Bertie! ‘My blog Mindfully Bertie has, over four years, carried me through bereavement to being told in Spitalfields that I am “ a proper writer”.’ www.mindfullybertie.org.uk
Amanda Root: The Coastal Pilgrim – ‘This is a blog about one woman, surrounded by an interested and helpful community, starting a seaweed farm, which may or may not morph into a social enterprise and which is hopefully going to get us all eating more seaweed!’ https://thecoastalpilgrim.com/
Jo Rogers: – ‘Huguenot Jo is a blog exploring the effect of Huguenot ancestry on Jo’s family, with a lineage going back to the 1680s. It looks at the historical context of Huguenot persecution, and the contribution of these French refugees to the societies which took them in. ‘www.huguenotjo.co.uk
Shula Rich:Natural Beauty Brains – ‘I wanted my blog to reflect that I’m many things and egged on by the tuts of ‘you can’t do that’ put everything I do together. Lease advice – natural beauty brains – waking beauty.’ https://www.naturalbeautybrains.org/
Linda :Letters from Linda – Letters of life, snippets and snapshots, a history. Linda says: ‘So far I’ve started to write about my family and some of the mementos I’ve collected in my flat that give me happy memories.’ http://lettersfromlinda.com/
Images from ‘The Coastal Pilgrim’ (left) and ‘Letters from Linda’ (right)
If you’d like to get in touch, on the ‘About’ page you will find a ‘Contact’ link which you can click on to bring up a Contact Form. A message from there will reach me by email. Or else visit http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk and select the Contact tab there.
A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot
The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas
In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!
So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.
One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.’ So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!
‘For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).
And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)
The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)
The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.
I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:
THE FOOL In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.
The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.
The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.
And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.
Preparing for Twelfth Night
So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!
Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools: Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001) The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006
As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere progress through the darkest days of the year, we may perhaps find ourselves more affected by the power of poetry. Words resonate when we’re not so distracted by bright light and busy lives outside. And there’s long been a tradition for writers, scholars and mystics to seek inspiration in the middle of the night. The medieval mystical Kabbalistic texts compiled in the book known as the Zohar emphasise that at midnight, God enters the Garden of Eden, and at this point the trees sing, and the angels can be heard. Those seeking ‘a whisper from the school of knowledge’ should arise from their beds at midnight, to pray and study. (We have to assume that they went to bed a lot earlier than we tend to do nowadays!)
An ancient Irish poem is set in just this context, that of a monk writing and studying in the depths of night. It comes from the 9th century, and although the monk was Irish, he was at that time located in a monastery named Reichnau, in what is present-day Austria. At this period, the Irish, especially the monks and scholars, were great travellers, and also often had to move abroad to escape Viking raids in theire homeland.
As the fame of Irish scholarship grew, Irish teachers and thinkers were also invited to join centres of learning at schools established in royal and aristocratic courts and large monasteries, so that by the ninth century, the German monk and scholar, Walafrid Strabo remarked: ‘The Irish nation, with whom the custom of travelling into foreign parts has now become almost second nature’ Book of Kells ‘Future Learn’ course, Trinity College, Dublin
This monk’s notebook shows that he was working on a variety of classical and theological texts, but the poem itself is about his relationship with his cat, Pangur Ban. Both have particular tasks to perform at night; both find their ‘bliss’ in these, whether writing or catching mice. ‘Ban’ means ‘white, and ‘Pangur’ means ‘fuller’, in the sense of part of the process of making and cleaning cloth. So the best guess is that he had a cat with soft white fur. And indeed, a good number of the medieval illustrations of cats show ones which are white in colour.
There were also ginger cats, preferred by the Vikings, often taken on board ship; their descendants are still found around the Mediterranean, and DNA proves their Scandinavian origin. Spotted cats, tabbies, grey and black ones were also prevalent.
Pangur Ban is a touching, intimate poem that astonished me when I came across it a few years ago, and this small miracle still tugs at my heart strings. I’m guessing the anonymous monk would be astonished too, to see how much his verses are valued over a thousand years later. W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney have both produced striking translations from the Irish, and Samuel Barber has set it to music (see link below). But I prefer this simple, poignant version by Robin Flower.
The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
'Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
You can hear the first verse spoken in the ancient Irish in this recording.
And the Samuel Barber song, titled ‘The Monk and his Cat’, is performed beautifully here by Barbara Bonney.
Cats in ancient Ireland I first met Pangur Ban and became hooked on Old Irish Cats in a ‘Future Learn’ course on the Book of Kells, which is kept at Trinity College, Dublin. (You can read the relevant section and it’s free to join the rolling course.) . Here I learned that cats were valued in early medieval Ireland, not just as treasured companions, but as useful members of the household. They were accorded legal status: ‘Domestic cats were a high-status possession, owned principally by the elite. Such was their value, that there was an entire set of laws, the Catslechtae (‘cat-sections’) outlining the fines attached to the stealing, injuring or killing a person’s cat. Penalties differed according to the talents of the cat in question. For example, a cat was worth three cows if able to purr and keep its owner’s house, grain store and kiln free of mice, but only half that if was just good at purring.’
This is a description of some of the categories of cat enshrined in old Irish law: Ameone is ‘a mighty cat that mews’. Aicrúipnei is also a ‘mighty cat’. but ‘by virtue of its paw’. Ie, a good swiper of rodents. It is ‘a cat of barn and mill and drying-kiln, which is guarding all three’. Breonei is a female cat who purrs and protects – or may utter ‘an inarticulate cry’, and her value is greater if her purring is loud. Meone is ‘a pantry cat’, catching mice and rats which might steal the food. Her value seems high at two cows, if she’s good at her job. Otherwise, one cow. Abaircne is said to be ‘a cat for women’, ‘a strong one brought from the ship of Bresal Brecc in which are white-breasted black cats.’ Folum ‘is a cat who herds, who is kept with the cows in the enclosure.’ Last but not least, we have Rincne, ‘a children’s cat’, thus described because ‘it torments the small children, or the children torment it.’
Medieval Cats Cats were also appreciated in mainland Britain, and it’s known that a number of monks and ‘anchoresses’ (a type of female hermit) were sometimes permitted to have a cat as a companion. There were also stern warnings that they should not get too attached to the animal! (I am sure that this was ignored, even if an appearance of indifference was kept up.) Although there were some very cruel customs in earlier society involving cats, which I won’t go into here, it’s clear that in general, cats were not only useful members of the household in catching rats and mice, but provided companionship and solace to their human keepers.
Just occasionally, cats were paid a salary! In Exeter Cathedral today, one of the most popular features for visitors to spy is the medieval cat hole, as you can see below. This is in the door leading to the works of the famous astronomical clock; its ropes would have been greased, and the grease would have attracted vermin. Hence it was important that the Cathedral Cat should be able to hunt them down inside the clock chamber. Cathedral records show that from 1305 – 1467 the cat and its keeper received payment of around a penny a week, chiefly to provide good food for the cat.
Returning to the poem, and my theme of darkness in current posts, it’s definitely one for our midwinter nights. And it reveals that the writer and the hunter are not so far apart: In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his. So, Pangur Ban – and in my case Zaq and Cassie – we each have our tasks to perform, and I will try to accept the next live mouse that you deposit at my feet. As you can see, my cats take a lively interest in my work.
December 28th – A note to everyone:There’s been a marvellous response to this post – thank you all so much for reading this! Comments have been coming in, and are welcome, but please bear in mind that I have to read and ‘approve’ these first, if you are new to this site, so it can take a few hours.
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.
This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.
This lovely poem by Thomas Campion, which I’ve frequently sung to the lute with my friend Steve Graham, paints a richly-coloured picture of how people, perhaps in a large household or stately home in the early seventeenth century, would occupy themselves during the dark hours at the turn of the year. And although the celebrations indicated here might be a little more elaborate than in the average household, merry-making, playing games, acting and drinking wine were an honoured part of the general Twelve Days tradition. We’re about to enter these days, which are generally said to start on Christmas Day itself, and perhaps we might extend our own revels right the way through to Twelfth Night itself. More of that later!
One key element of these Twelve Days, is that even though they start after the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, the mornings will continue to get darker until about January 6th. So the finish of the Twelve Days heralds a general return of the light at both ends of the day, rather than just in the evenings which follow the Solstice. This seems to be a little-known fact in today’s society, when our habits are governed by artificial lighting. You can find a readable astronomical explanation of this here.
In many traditional cultures, these twelve days have been considered as time set apart, because of this phenomenon. The ancient gods of the Indian Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days, and the Romans placed the days outside the calendar itself. In Germany, all spinning was prohibited at that time, so as not to offend Frau Perchta, the winter goddess. And in England, as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the reign of the Lord of Misrule, and games where finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day. It was a time of mystery too; the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’
Fortune-telling during the Twelve Days – Indeed, the Twelve Days are a magical time, when the veil between our world and the invisible realm of spirits is said to be very thin. The season has many associated traditions of fortune-telling, mostly to do with predicting events or even the weather for the year ahead. Farming communities were, not unnaturally, obsessed with trying to forecast weather in the days before modern meteorology. Weather lore and keen observation obviously counted for much, but by magical means, they hoped to glimpse further ahead. One divination practice assigns the weather on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to a corresponding month of the year, so rain on Day One stands for a wet January, frost on Day Two for an icy February, and so on. I dare say you would have to make some adjustments though: if it snowed on Day Seven (July), for instance …
For personal fortune-telling, divination rituals could be performed using whatever you had to hand in the home and for the celebrations: candles, nuts and even the family Bible, could help to determine what will happen in the year ahead. If the flame guttered, or the nut cracked on the fire, for instance, this might have a particular meaning and could be interpreted as signs of things to come. One popular custom was to open the family Bible, blindfold, then place your finger seemingly at random on a verse; this is said to give you relevant guidance for the next twelve months More macabre practices involved predicting who would die in the year to come, perhaps by sitting in the churchyard at midnight to see the spirits of the not-yet-dead appear there. Even if we have forgotten most of these Christmas rituals today, trysts with fortune such as pulling crackers and playing board games are still echoes of these customs.
If you are eager to get into the mood of the Twelve Days early, then you can join in with a pre-emptive Russian custom. That’s if you are still an unmarried girl: Dec 13th – The Day of St Andrew the First-Called. Although it was still a long way till Christmas, girls were already trying to read their fortunes. Some knew how to foretell it from tracks in the snow. To do this, they had to get up early in the morning and look for the tracks leading from their porch. Who was it that left them, a man or a bird?…They should not be in any hurry, otherwise they might remove the tracks of someone they were eagerly waiting for.A Russian Folk Calendar– Polina Rozhnova
The Calendar Change
I’ve mentioned that the commonest way to count the Twelve Days of Christmas is to start on Christmas Day itself as number one. But other variations are possible. We have a complex history when it comes to counting dates. In 1752, British folk calendar customs were thrown into disarray for years to come, when the calendar was changed. Those who went to sleep on Wed 2nd September 1752 were forced to accept the next morning that they had progressed overnight to Thurs 14th September. There was an uproar – and it’s said that mobs stormed the streets, shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ No one is quite sure if this is true, but the general public did not take the loss quietly.
The calendar had finally been changed because it had become significantly out of alignment with the astronomical calendar. Christmas had drifted from its original position, closely following the winter solstice, to a date which is now the equivalent of January 6th. The reason for this is that a year, (a complete orbit of the earth around the sun) is not exactly 365 days long. It is in fact 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. So the calendar needed re-setting, and a new method had to be implemented for interspersing extra days, which we now know as the leap year system.
However, even after the calendar was changed, some people clung on to their habit of celebrating Christmas on what is now January 6th. In fact, those especially keen on merry-making could celebrate right through from new-style Christmas Eve on December 25th, to Old Twelfth Night on January 17th – 18th. This is not unknown in Russia today, where the Orthodox Church uses the old calendar, and secular society the modern one. There are reputed to be some seriously partying Russians who begin merry-making on December 24th and only let up around Jan 18th.
And which date is which?
There is still scope for confusion, though. A calendar sounds a nice simple affair, designed to make life easier for all of us. But scrape the surface, and you will find a chasm of uncertainty beneath. Is today’s Twelfth Night the evening before January 6th, i.e. the night of Jan 5th, or is it on Jan 6th itself? A calendar expert speaks: ‘In earlier times, ‘Twelfth Night’ meant 5 January, i.e. the Eve of the Twelfth Day, in the same way as Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day. But nowadays most people regard ‘Twelfth Night’ as meaning the evening of Twelfth Day (6 January).’ (The English Year – Steve Roud).
Then you seemingly have the complication of New Year, interrupting the Twelve Days, and declaring a new beginning before we’ve even finished celebrating these twelve. In previous centuries, New Year’s Eve and Jan 1st weren’t given such prominence, but included in the general range of customs and festivities celebrated over the Twelve Days. New Year on January 1st was a bureaucratic Roman invention, and wasn’t considered very important until Queen Victoria’s reign. In my view, that’s where things have gone wrong! I prefer the natural progression of the twelve days and the return of the light to mark out the time, rather than an artificially chosen date for a forced celebration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like staying up late? Perhaps, too, in an industrial world more pressure is now applied to get back to work after January 1st; in rural societies, this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate and rest for twelve days because they couldn’t usefully work on the land at that time.
The Marshfield Mummers, aka ‘The Old Time Paper Boys’ usually perform every Boxing Day in the village of Marshfield just north of Bath. Sadly, it’s cancelled for 2021 because of the coronavirus – ‘for the first time since 1944’. I enjoyed this performance some years back, and these are some of the photos I took at the time.
‘A partridge in a pear tree’ A post about the Twelve Days wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the famous song, with unusual gifts given on each successive day. Just as a reminder, the standard version (there are indeed variants) goes: A partridge in a pear tree – Two turtle doves – Three French hens – Four calling birds – Five gold rings – Six geese a-laying – Seven swans a-swimming – Eight ladies milking – Nine ladies dancing – Ten lords a-leaping – Eleven pipers piping – Twelve drummers drumming.
Much effort has been made to delve into the symbolic meanings of these gifts. There are pagan versions, Christian versions, conspiracy theory versions, folkloric versions – you may take your pick. I have my own take on the ‘nine ladies dancing’, as I’ve written a whole book about the significance of ‘nine ladies’, as emblems and archetypes of women’s lives. And the concept of ‘the company of nine women’ goes back to prehistoric times. (The Circle of Nine). Take a look at this blog on January 17th, when I’m devoting a whole post to this theme!
Others have turned the words of the song into comedy, as did John Julius Norwich. The correspondence between a young lady and her over-zealous lover, who delivers these gifts, may not be so amusing once you’ve heard it performed at several Christmas concerts in a row! However, I’ve warmed to this unusual version from Ireland, although is there an element of cross-dressing here too?
If it’s novelty you’re after with the Twelve Days song, you can also find Covid versions, a Boris Johnson version and other subversive attempts to spice up an old favourite. (I’ll let you discover those yourselves on YouTube).
Twelfth Night, marking the final day, used to be a major celebration in the British Isles with parties and games. The Twelfth Night cake was the centrepiece of the occasion. This was baked with little charms or tokens in it, such as a bean, a clove or a coin, for guests to discover in their slices. As mentioned earlier, sometimes they were required to act out the role their charm signified for the rest of the evening, according to a pre-determined list ranked from Knave to King and Queen. It was finale to Christmas of merry-making, which included pageants and plays for those in the higher ranks of society. Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is thought to have been written for that purpose, and it contains the kind of uproarious comedy, topsy-turvy accidents of chance, and switches of identity which were in keeping with Twelfth Night games. There’s an excellent account of the Tudor Christmas, which put all the emphasis on those twelve days, and their associated customs, saints’ days, and food offerings, recorded by Lucy Worsley for the BBC. In the UK, you can catch it on iplayer for a couple of weeks longer, or find it on You Tube. (NB The link I put up when this post was launched has now been removed from You Tube, but perhaps it will be posted again.)
I’d like to spread the net wider than just the UK, so let’s have a look at a Spanish custom of making a special Twelfth Night ‘King’ bread. Within the complexities of the Twelve Days is, of course, the Christian Epiphany on Jan 6th, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the stable where Jesus was born.
This description comes from The Spruce Eats . I discovered that the recipe given on this website is almost identical to the one in my book Bread: A complete guide by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter, which I’ve had as a staple cookery book for years. I’ve streamlined the two versions here, which luckily agree almost entirely on quantities and method. However – COOK’S ALERT WARNING! – I haven’t actually made this recipe yet. I hope to do so this year, but please join me in the experiment, rather than take it as Cherry’s-Cache-tested. BUT – now I have made it! Please see ‘Checking in for the New Year’, posted on Jan 10th. I’m adding a few tips below, in italics.
Twelfth Night Bread, from The Spruce Eats Roscon de Reyes is a traditional dessert, served the night before or the morning of Reyes or Epiphany on Jan. 6. Dia de Reyes or simply Reyes is the day when children in Spain receive gifts from the Reyes Magos–Wise Men or Magi—the three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts. Instead of gifts from Santa Claus, the children receive them from the Reyes Magos. It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party, but if you find the bean, you pay for the cake. In the last half of the 20th century, filling the roscon with whipped cream or a thick custard became popular. Today about a third of the roscones sold in Spain are filled. If you want to fill yours, use a bread knife to slice the bread in half horizontally and carefully remove the top. Next, squeeze in the whipped cream or filling you’ve chosen and carefully replace the top. Keep refrigerated until serving if filled with cream or custard.
Ingredients 450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached flour ½ teaspoon salt 25gm/ 1 oz active dry yeast I don’t think this is correct – 25gm would be for fresh yeast. The proportion of fresh to dried is 3:1, so I used 8 gm granular yeast, which rose perfectly well, but probably a 7gm packet of instant yeast would be fine 140 ml/ scant 2/3 cup mixed lukewarm milk & water 75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp butter 75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp caster sugar Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (alternative quantity 2tsp) Finely grated rind of 1 orange (alternative quantity 2tsp) 2 large eggs 1 tbsp brandy 1 tbsp water (orange water also recommended – or I used 1tbsp fresh orange juice) 1 egg white (lightly beaten) for glazing 2 cups candied and glace fruit (eg assorted figs, oranges, lemons, mangos or cherries, chopped or left in large pieces. You’ll need the soft sugared kind as in glace cherries or mixed candied peel) As it bakes on the outside of the loaf, choose the softest kind. It might also be possible to mix in some chopped candied peel into the dough, the kind sold for cake-making. Flaked almonds for sprinkling on top
How to Make It
Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
In a small mixing bowl, stir and dissolve the dry yeast in the lukewarm milk mixed with the lukewarm water. NB if using instant packet yeast, you won’t need to do this
Once dissolved, pour the dissolved yeast into the centre of the flour. Stir in just enough flour from around the sides of the bowl to make a thick batter.
With your hand, grab about a teaspoon of the flour from the side of the bowl and sprinkle it over the top of the batter.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place, away from any draft. Allow batter to turn spongy, about 15 minutes.
In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Add grated orange and lemon rinds, eggs, brandy and water to the flour mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough.
Beat or hand mix the flour mixture until it is elastic and smooth. Gradually beat in the reserved butter-sugar mixture and mix until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl oiled cling-film or damp tea towel.
Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
Once the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap and knock down the dough. Lightly flour a clean counter or cutting board and place dough on it.
Knead for 2 to 3 minutes. You can incorporate any Twelfth Night charms, figures, beans etc at this point. (Consider the impact on people’s teeth, though!)
Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
Carefully place the dough seam down onto the prepared baking sheet and connect the ends together, forming a ring. (You can also hide a bean or a small foil-wrapped, ceramic figurine at this stage, too). Cover again. Leave in a warm place until doublde in size. This will take about 1 to 1 ½ hours
Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 F/ 180 C. Brush the top of the dough ring with lightly beaten egg white, and Decorate the ring with the candied fruit pieces. Push them into the dough slightly so that they do not fall off. Sprinkle with almond flakes.
Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
Midwinter Darkness And so to close this account, I’ll just slip in a reminder that my current series of posts are about different forms of celebrating the time of year, not just with dazzling lights and feasts, but also about relishing the darkness of the days and the long nights. These allow us to rest, to ponder, to warm ourselves with memories. Put another log on the fire, dim the lights, and sink into the dark womb of the year!