Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats

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.’

Cats are frequently depicted pursuing rats and mice in medieval illustrations, probably partly because it allows for a lively portrayal, but also indicating their chief function in society

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.’

Cats aim to please with a choice kill, even when their owner is distracted – in this case by music. But some cats may even be musicians themselves!

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.

A cat plays with her mistress’s spindle; monks and nuns were sometimes allowed to keep cats for company and, most probably, for play.

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.

Illustrations
All the medieval illustrations in this post are taken from Cats in Medieval Manuscripts by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (British Library, 2011)
(Fair use claim: I purchased a new copy of this delightful book, and use the images with the intention of encouraging others to acquire it.)
Photographs of Exeter Cathedral © Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in reading about the cats of Topsham in Hidden Topsham Part Three

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.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

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.
An excellent version of this song, performed by Passamezzo

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!

A Twelfth Night Cake

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 …

Fortune-telling with candles floating in a bowl, Russian-style

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.

A Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

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.

Masquerading is part of the fun as Russians celebrate the New Year season in the village of Kohlui. This picture was taken on my visit there, and the one below shows a camp fire we enjoyed with local friends, also as part of their midwinter tradition. (I’m the one on the left.)

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).

A goose was once the most popular bird to eat over the Christmas period; here’s my husband’s offering from a few years ago

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.

Themes of killing and rebirth are often woven comically into Mumming plays

‘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.)

An illustration by Robert Seymour of a Twelfth Night house party, in centuries gone by

The Cake!

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

  1. Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
  10. While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
  11. 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.
  12. 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!)
  13. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
  14. Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
  15. 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
  16. 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.
  17. Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
The same recipe in my own cookery book. The photo gives a better idea of how luxurious the candied fruit might look, and also adds flaked almonds

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!

You may also be interested in:

Summer is a-Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home

Topsham Celebrates

A Glimpse of the Tarot – Part Four

A Journey through the Winter Darkness

As we travel through the darkest weeks of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, my next few posts aim to celebrate the different aspects of darkness and of night. I begin with another trio of Tarot cards, where two of the three images are associated with nighttime. Then I’ll follow with ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, traditionally both a resting and a feasting time during the longest nights. After that comes the story of an Irish monk writing a poem at night while watching his cat hunt for mice. Finally, we’ll emerge via the The Feast of Fools, a look both at this custom and at the Fool card in the Tarot. Darkness has its own rewards, as I hope to show. It can be a time to reach deep within the soul. It can also be a fruitful time for creative activity, for dreaming up new ideas and writing more freely. At the end of this very strange year, 2020, my wish is for us all to find both rest and inspiration during these weeks.

Today’s cards are: The Hermit, The Emperor, and The Moon

Before starting this series of Tarot posts, I shuffled the cards, then drew them in trios, sight unseen. I enjoy the freshness of seeing them in new, unplanned combinations. Considering them in trios stimulates insights, as each brings something forth from the others. A triad of cards is in itself can describe a situation or a relationship, and as such can form the basis for a very simple Tarot reading, as I explained in Tarot Triumphs.

Images above by Robert Lee-Wade as line drawings for Tarot Triumphs

The Hermit
At this time of winter, and in a year of pandemic when many of us may be in some form of lockdown, the Hermit shows us a way to go with his lantern. He takes us on an inward journey, shedding a light which aids us even when the darkness of midwinter surrounds us for many hours of the day. A Hermit was traditionally set apart from society, and certainly gave up any claim on wealth or status. But in fact he was not entirely solitary, as he was often considered to be a sage, someone to go to for good advice. He could be trusted because he didn’t have any worldly interests. (There were female hermits and anchoresses too, though as the card is male and space is short here, I’ll use the masculine pronoun.) His hermitage may have been remote, but those in search of counsel would often beat a path to its entrance. Or sometimes it was deliberately set up at a spot where travellers could readily consult him on their journeys, for instance at a crossroads, or by a ford.

The Hermit from the Madenie Tarot
Hermit in a painting by Jan Breughel, c. 1600

The Hermit’s lantern represents an inner truth, and in a Tarot reading the card might suggest a wise teacher or counsellor who guides you through dark places. It can also represent the seeker in our own soul, that spark of truth which we all carry within us. The light of the lantern can be hard to discern sometimes, and we may have to go deep into our inner world, retreating from the distractions of daylight, to find it again. Thus for many of us – myself included – the time around the Winter Solstice can be a rewarding opportunity to do this. Although the glitter and dazzle of the Christmas may prevail, there’s still the possibility to drop into quiet solitude, perhaps during the darkness of the long nights. Here, we can ponder, dream, rest, and reconcile the conflicting forces of life. We can shine our Hermit’s lantern into chambers and passageways which we haven’t explored for a while, and they may reveal more in that flickering light than they would under the glare of the sun. All in all, the Hermit can signify wise counsel, point to a personal retreat, or recommend a return to a simple truth.

From the so-called ‘Swiss’ Tarot, a later 19th c. pack which does not entirely follow the traditional set of images, but here remains faithful to that for the Hermit

The Emperor
At first glance, the Hermit and the Emperor seem a long way apart in their meaning. The Emperor represents great power in the world, and the Hermit has renounced the world. Yet they both signify authority, and they both support each other. The Hermit has inner authority, but in order for him to dwell peacefully at the crossroads, for instance, and give advice to travellers, those roads have to be kept safe, and this ideally comes through a well-regulated state. That’s the job of the Emperor, and his realm is that of justice, law and order, and a fairness in dealing with his subjects. A saying of Jesus in the Bible is relevant here: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. We live in a world, which needs order and structure at a mundane level. If that order is kept, then there is the freedom to seek higher things.

The Emperor, from the ‘Charles VI’ Tarot, now thought to be of Italian origin

In the Tarot, of course, all the cards can represent both inner and external forces. A reading in which the Emperor is prominent might be a call to get your life in order, and take charge of it. At a period of rest in midwinter, or at least a time when the normal daily round is suspended for a while, it could be a good moment to check out your routines, and perhaps the infrastructure of your life. Maybe something could be dismantled and re-constructed? Or, in an external sense, the Emperor could be a significant authority figure, perhaps a father figure, who may be either supporting or, on the other hand, confronting you. Does that need attention, perhaps? I’ll say a little more about his place in the trio further on.

A more traditional image of the Emperor, from the Marseilles pack
The Moon in its typical depiction of two dogs baying at the Moon, with two towers framing the background, and a crayfish (possibly derived from a scorpion) in the water below. (Madenie pack)

The Moon is for many of us one of the most fascinating cards of the Tarot Triumphs. It offers dreams, and stirs the imagination, but it can also be the gateway to illusion, awkward moods, and disturbing psychic experiences. The Moon is of course honoured as a symbol, and portrayed mythically in cultures worldwide, as I’ve shown in my post about the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and her Moon meditation. Its representation in the Tarot is unusual, however. Even though there are various possible links to emblems from Babylonian culture, Greek myth, and the mysteries of Mithraism and the Kabbalah, as I’ve explained in my book, it has a unique depiction and an enigmatic presence, which cannot be attributed to a single source. The water and the two towers always remind me of the Arsenale in Venice, and when I visit Venice, I always feel compelled to go there for this very reason. When it comes into view, for a few moments I feel as though I am in the Tarot Moon scene itself.

The Arsenale in Venice, reminiscent of the Tarot Moon image. (From ‘Photohound’)

The Moon is linked with our inner tides of emotion, reverie, dreams and nightmares. It pulls up images from the deep, and can bring confusion as well as a sense of joy at its subtle evocations. It erases the borders between us as individuals, or at least shows how illusory and shifting they are, thus leading us into the realm of psychic experiences. In some contexts, this is ideal: a shared visualisation in a trusted group, for instance, can be so much more powerful and resonant than one done alone. On the other hand, that delicate bond between individuals in a group can easily be damaged by a reckless or even malicious participant, causing pain to its members. Trust can be given, but also undermined here.

The Tarot of Bologna

The Trio – So all in all, the Emperor is needed both for the Hermit and the Moon, to provide a safe framework for their energies. We need order in our lives, and reliable structures. It would be dangerous to swim too long in the moonlit waters, or to rely solely on the light of a single lantern. But where would we be, without that force of imagination? Humans need, quite literally, to dream. And the Emperor may help us to distinguish between the light of the Hermit’s lantern, our own spark of inner truth, and the reveries of the Moon, which wax and wane. Keeping the dynamic of this trio is a tall order, but it can be done.

‘Reading the Cards’, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in:

Glimpses of the Tarot 1

Glimpses of the Tarot 2

Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Topsham Celebrates

Topsham knows how to celebrate! Even though our feasts and festivals couldn’t be the same this year, due to the pandemic, the customs of dressing up the town and dressing up ourselves are firmly embedded in the calendar. We’ll do it again next year, if we can.

This post is based on the Topsham celebrations that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, with a few historical occasions thrown in for good measure. It’s not a comprehensive Topsham Calendar, and it will be more picture-dense and text-light than usual. But I’m including a link to a full account of the illicit Tar Barrel rolling event!

Let’s enjoy some celebrations here virtually, and despite all the restrictions, I’m sure that we’ll still have a festive spirit and display in the town. As I write this, in early November, the town is making itself ready for Christmas as cheerfully as possible. And as I come to make the final tweaks on December 5th, everything is up and twinkling! More photos further on.

Getting the street lights up, and a test switch-on
From a previous Christmas in Topsham

Charter Day
Since 2016, Topsham Charter Day has been held each August, to celebrate the day when King Edward I granted the charter which turned Topsham into a town, back in 1300. (Woe betide anyone who dares refer to it now as ‘a village’!)

On the first of our modern Charter Day celebrations, Charles Courtenay, the current Earl of Devon, arrived by boat from Powderham Castle to receive the charter from ‘the King’. According to the schedule for the festivities:

1.45pm: The king and his entourage and townsfolk will process along Fore Street, lined with “medieval” market stalls, to St Margaret’s Church green. Here, he will present a replica town charter to the present Earl of Devon, Charles Courtenay.

In case of any confusion, the Earl was real, while the king was ably acted by one of our townspeople. You can read the complete order of ceremony here:

The Earl of Devon waiting to receive the charter from ‘the King’, accompanied by junior knights and pirates who sailed with him from Powderham Castle
Jousting in the churchyard
Mustn’t be late for the Charter handover!

The Town Criers’ competition has staunchly remained a popular feature of Charter Day. They arrive from all over the country, to process down the main street in splendid array, then make a speech from the balcony at the Globe Inn, in the old coaching yard. It’s the speech that decides who will be crowned the best Crier in the land.

Charter Day Procession, with the Town Criers marching too

Christmas
Well, Christmas in Topsham wouldn’t be the same without the Carols at the Bridge Inn, which always takes place just before lunchtime on Christmas Day, to the rousing accompaniment of our local celebrated folk group Show of Hands. I hope we can still manage it in some form in 2020.

Carols at the Bridge, the oldest public house in Topsham – squeeze room only! Steve Knightley, Phil Beer, Miranda Sykes and Chris Hoban are regular stars of the band.
Here’s Show of Hands performing inside at the Bridge Inn, as part of their ‘Tour of Topsham’ in 2011

Topsham shop windows are beautifully decorated, house doors likewise.

This was my personal favourite in Topsham, though alas the accountancy firm has left the premises, and it’s now just a fond memory. Skaters that skated, carousel horses that went up and down….
Buying some Christmas cheer on a bicycle made for two

Nello’s Longest Table
Once every two years, in June or July, over two thousand people gather for lunch together in Topsham. The line of tables stretches down Fore St, winds around to the Quayside, then snakes back again alongside the river to Ferry Road. Over 350 tables are laid out, so that families, friends and visitors can feast together, and create one ‘Longest Table’.

This lunch was set up in memory of Nello Ghezzo, a local restaurateur who dreamed of a feast which the whole town could take part in. Nello died in 1999 and in 2008 the first such meal took place, named in his honour. The event is also a fabulous fundraiser. In 2018 the organisers posted on Facebook: We are absolutely delighted to hand over the proceeds from this year’s Nello’s Longest Table and Topsham Food Festival: £2500 to Force Cancer Charity, £2500 to the Brain Tumour Charity (in memory of Geoff), and £1500 to Estuary League of Friends for the new and fabulous Nancy Potter House. We furthermore were able to fund the new Love Topsham web site as well as give a donation to Love Topsham for admin for new Topsham traders initiatives.

Louis Ravenscroft, the former Town Crier, announcing the start of Nello’s Longest Table, 2016

There’s always a rush to secure tables in favourite spots when the booking opens, and the food is generally more banquet than picnic, with delicious creations and exotic specialities.

A pavlova for our family table, produced by my daughter Jess

Dressing up may be either to a theme or on the whim of the individual groups. The second Longest Table in 2010 reported: Tables were decorated beautifully with colourful cloths, china, table decorations, flowers and even chandeliers. Others had based themselves on a theme – there was a Mexican table complete with sombreros and giant moustaches, a Sicilian men (and women) in black table, a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a gardening table, walkers’ table, and more.

An American themed year, which also featured some fierce looking American Indians

As the day goes on, groups mingle, children play games (racing each other around the churchyard is a favourite) and wine flows freely. We missed it happening this year, in 2020! Here’s hoping we can go ahead in 2021.

And what celebrations happened in days of old? The Museum archives tell a tale or two.

VE Day party, Topsham 1945
Coronation street party, Monmouth Avenue 1953
Topsham traders dress Victorian in 1984, occasion unknown – unless you can tell us?

(With thanks to Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum for supplying these images.)

Other festivals pop up throughout the summer, like various Music Festivals, Beer and Bacon, ‘Secret Gardens’ (which I’ve written about here…). Plus ‘Jazz in the Garden’, a Dog Show, and a Flower and Produce Competition. I’m sure I’ve missed some out! Ah, yes, the Food Festival at the Quayside, which produced an excellent talk on salmon fishing from Ed Williams-Hawkes, and a demonstration of making the acclaimed ‘Smokie’ dish which used to be the top favourite at the Globe Inn. Here’s how a member of the Hodges family who ran the Globe explains it:

The Topsham Smokie
Basically it’s smoked haddock poached in milk with bay leaves. Make some lovely white sauce – you can put some cheese in there & use some of the milk that has poached the fish. Mix up the fish, white sauce and stir in some mashed potato. Put in a pot, top with tasty grated cheddar cheese and bake xxx simples !!!

From Liz Hodges of Route Two Bikes – formerly landlady of the Globe

Demonstrated by a chef from the Globe Inn, who hasn’t forgotten how to make this scrumptious dish.

Guy Fawkes Night
But what about November 5th? There may be a mega-display at the Rugby Club most years, but individual fireworks are a matter of past glory, according to long-term resident Roy Wheeler. Recording his memories back in 1988, he remembered how, decades earlier, the local lads would pitch a firework battle on Chapel Platt, just outside the Methodist Church.

One thing I remember vividly was fifth of November, firework time. A chap used to keep what is Meg’s Restaurant now was a man called Gilders – we used to call Putty Gilders – and he used to sell everything. And we used to buy our fireworks there and then it was a case of ‘Top Town’ versus ‘Bottom of the Town’. The bottom of the town boys used to come up to there and we used to come down to this side and we used to throw fireworks at each other. It was a battle-royal. That was always something to look forward to! Ha ha ha ha! But yes, this was always a very busy spot and it wasn’t so long ago that the City Council in their wisdom, or otherwise, planted a tree there. Thought it would enhance the beauty but it didn’t last very long. The Topsham people weren’t going to have that. They weren’t going to have their Platt desecrated. Hee hee! So, the tree was knocked over. (Account supplied by Topsham Museum)

Still earlier, in the 19th century, there was a rip-roaring tradition of celebrating Bonfire Night in Topsham and Exeter, with processions, battles and exotic guys. This account reveals that a recreation of the Armada provided plenty of entertainment for Topsham folk:

Western Times – Saturday 08 November 1890
Had the weather been favourable no doubt the carnival held on Thursday by Young Topsham” would have surpassed any previous attempt. But unfortunately rain fell heavily and a strong wind blew continually during the night. The procession did not start until close upon eight o’clock. The order was follows:—The local band, banner, Topsham guys, Young Exeter, the local fire brigade, Captain on horse, back, Committee, Topsham Cyclist Guys, tar barrel brigade, and a representation of the Armada fleet, under the command of Ally Sloper.” The latter was the most striking feature of the carnival. After the procession had broken up, the two model ships, representing the British and Spanish fleets, were formed for action the ” battlefield” in Fore-street, and after a warm encounter the Spanish vessel was ” bombarded “by Roman candles. A large number of excellent rockets were let off, and the celebration, which was witnessed by a large number of persons, including many from Exeter, continued up to a late hour.

Bonfire nights were an excuse for lynching unpopular members of society in earlier centuries in Exeter, as described in this article , and as Todd Gray also records in his book ‘Not One of Us

Indeed, it wasn’t all fun and happy outcomes:

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 13 November 1847
Accidents. —Since Friday last, upwards of 27 individuals, who have received serious injury from accidents, have been taken into the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Of these accidents 18 or 19 were occasioned by the unexpected explosion of rockets and other fireworks in the hands, or near the persons, of the sufferers; one of whom, a lad, was brought from Topsham, so injured the lower part of his person, that life is despaired of. Another young person had his skull fractured by a kick, or a blow from a bludgeon, as he was engaged with others in the fun of rolling tar-barrel.”

All photos of Ottery Tar Barrels here are supplied by kind permission of folkorist Doc Rowe, who has attended the occasion and numerous other folk customs for many years

Did someone say Tar Barrel?
What’s that about? – surely the only Tar Barrel Rolling round here is in Ottery St Mary? But no – Topsham used to have its own tradition of Tar Barrels, until it was made illegal in the town, probably in the early 19th century. As a sport it can be thrilling, but the dangers are obvious, and especially so in narrow streets with old timber-framed cottages.

And in 1847, the Rev. Frederick Isop Cocke,, assistant curate of Topsham, was convicted of Unlawfully Rolling a Tar Barrel. The Rev. Cocke appealed – he had only been doing his duty, he said, and trying to keep the barrel away from the crowd. In January 1848 he was acquitted. ‘Decision of the Bench was received with loud cheering outside the court.’ Western Times – Saturday 08 January 1848 – you can read the whole story here:

But be warned, if you decide to persue this account, that the ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘No I didn’t’, ‘Yes you did,’ runs to over 3000 words . Nevertheless, it’s a mine of information about local people and the streets of Topsham at the time. The story proved immensely popular around the country, and appeared in briefer versions in various provincial newspapers. After all, a parson with a flaming tar barrel, who ends up in court, makes a good story!

Finally, I’ll end with a custom which has only recently been introduced, but which is based on a very old tradition which certainly took place in the area, if not in the town itself. This is the now annual Wassail. Wassails are usually held in January, an old farming custom intended to drive evil spirits out of the orchards and produce a healthy crop of apples. (Very important in cider making districts!)

Topsham’s Wassail is now going strong, with songs especially written by Adrian Wynn, and a merry band of folk club followers, children and townspeople. We gather at Matthews Hall, serenade the apple tree there……, then move onto Victoria Road and a noble old apple tree in a garden there, thought to be a survivor of a former cider orchard. Further stops occur at other venerable apple trees, including the Old Vicarage, and the procession eventually celebrates the final tree at the Allotments . To make the magic work, a robin must be placed in the branches, and a piece of bread dipped in cider then stuck in the tree itself. Possibly a few cups of cider and slices of apple cake may also be consumed en route. And perhaps I should mention that we’re usually accompanied by a farmer with his shotgun; traditional Wassails aren’t complete without a loud blasts fired through the branches, to send the devils packing! You can see him lurking with gun at the ready in the picture on the right.

Topsham Wassail
In the orchard dark we muster,
North wind whistles through the North wood Tree;
Prosper Greasy, Soldier prosper,
In our orchard and soils of old,
Gather Topsham, sing and rattle,
We’ll bring cider back to thee!
Gather round and old Tom Putt
Will flow and fill our wassail bowl.

Adrian Wynn

Hanging the robin in the tree and placing some bread soaked in cider in the branches is of course essential for a proper Wassail. Children are usually keen to help.

Christmas 2020 – So here we are, in the run-up to Christmas, with shop windows beautifully decorated, lights twinkling and everything as normal and cheerful as it can be in this extraordinary and difficult year. As a small town with a busy High Street (actually called Fore Street!) it has a particular sense of community and the feeling that everyone is doing their best to create the spirit of Christmas here. I’m thankful to be living in Topsham!

You may also be interested in:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Doc Rowe, for his stunning photographs of the Ottery Tar Barrels

Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum, for photos of historic Topsham celebrations and the memories of Roy Wheeler

All other photographs by Cherry Gilchrist, with thanks to Love Topsham for help both in the town with masterminding various projects, such as the Christmas lights and other festivities, and for supporting this blog.