This time of the year is one of transition, but moving so slowly that it can feel as though we are caught in a spell of darkness – both in the sense of a ‘phase’ and of ‘magic spell’. Is this really the turning point of the year? It seems as if we are suspended, despite the thrust of New Year celebrations. As I’ve written previously, older cultures honoured this ‘time out’, the Twelve Days of Christmas, when work should cease, the gods themselves take a rest and the veil between the worlds is thin. In the old Irish tradition, ‘the gates of heaven are open.’
But the standstill of the year at mid-winter also poses practical issues. Our three new young chickens are enduring what are basically 15 hour nights, from the time they instinctively return to their perches at dusk soon after 4pm, to the first lightening of the sky and cry of the gulls from the river at about 7.15 – exactly the time that I’m writing this! So I’ll break off to go and open up, and make sure they have plenty of feed to peck at to restore their strength.
Just before I go, I’ll post a link below to a traditional song which has a bittersweet quality, and captures the mood of longing, wistfulness and hope which I feel is the essence of this time:
For the night is long And the day is grey The old year is fading The new comes our way.
We know by the moon That we are not too soon And we know by the sky That we are not too high We know by the stars That we are not too far And we know by the ground That we are within sound.
The blog that I’ve prepared below talks about another kind of New Year renewal, one that occurred for me around twenty years ago, but which has stayed with me as an occasion to cherish.
Renewal at New Year
It was the eve of the Millennium. Everyone else was celebrating, but I was languishing at home, ignoring the festivities as best I could. My city exploded with fireworks, fizz and general rejoicing, while I huddled deep inside my spacious house. My husband and I had recently split up and my two grown-up children now had their own lives. I felt very alone – I usually had two Maine Coon cats for company, but tonight they hid themselves in the deepest part of the basement, terrified by the noise. While the rest of the world was celebrating, I switched off my phone, detached myself from the world, and retreated to a very solitary place in my soul. Although harrowing, I realised too that it was a turning point, and from here on I needed to find a way to live positively in my home.
The house would be mine for another two years, until it had to be sold. I had agreed to this, so that we could divide up the assets, so for this period I needed it to be more than an empty shell. Right now, it felt like a place of pain and loss, but our family had spent thirteen happy years there. It had been full of friends, too, and a sanctuary for kindred spirits, with whom we’d talked on deep matters way into the night. And it was my creative hub – I’d written some of my best books there. But now, after our break-up, I felt that the atmosphere was tainted. Could I recover the joy and richness that this home had given us? Enough, at least, to begin my new life in the shell of the old?
A few days later, once the frenzy of the Millennium had died down, I came up with a plan. I knew both from my work with women’s groups and from my training in ritual, that it’s possible to make significant changes in the atmosphere of a space or a building. You can clear the space of recent clouds or conflicts. And with conscious input, you can make a sad place sing, or turn a decaying mood into a beam of hope. The home wouldn’t be again as it was – I had to accept that – but although we can’t ever turn the clock back, we can make it tick cheerfully again.
My network of women friends has always been hugely important to me, and I wanted to engage them in this task. Together, I believed we could dispel any lingering traces of unpleasantness and fill the house with laughter again. This was to be a celebration, an evocation, and a renewal. I invited about a dozen women to spend the evening with me, and indeed the whole night too if they wished. The purpose was serious, but hey, we were going to have fun too!
Women have their own way of using their collective bond to lift spirits and achieve a positive effect. As I’ve written about archetype of the Lady of Light, in my book The Circle of Nine:
“Just being with other women and doing practical, even frivolous, things can be enormously helpful. …Going round the stores, trying on clothes and rummaging through cosmetics in some ways recalls the “gatherer” women in tribal societies. These innocent and apparently light-hearted activities can be of genuine help in releasing a woman from her struggles with individual problems, and bringing renewal through the light that her sisters generate.”
For the first part of the evening, we chatted, laughed, ate, and drank sparkling wine. Not everyone was well acquainted, but I’d chosen women who all shared a devotion to something more profound, and who could honour the spiritual in our lives. When I felt the energy was sufficiently high, and the mood was warm, I asked if the group would purify and bless the house for me. They knew my situation, and were willing to help. I asked them to organise it for me; it was very important that I should step back and relinquish control, in order to truly benefit from the occasion. They must bring light and energy into the house in their own way.
The main purpose, I explained, was to re-awaken all the happiness and good which had been in this home. This in itself would probably be enough to disperse any clouds of negativity. (If the house had had a very unhappy or troubled past, it might have needed a different and deeper kind of ritual. But it had been a happy home for us, and indeed for the family who was there when we bought it.) I would give thanks for this, and then, with the spirit of the house hopefully free and cleansed, I could dwell there with relative peace of mind. After the sale, I could step forward freely into a new life, and whoever lived there next could enjoy a friendly atmosphere.
It was a large house, on several floors, and I suggested that they go through the house however they pleased, as long as they visited each part of it, including the cellars and the attic! Candles and incense were available, bells and bowls, or whatever they wanted, could be used. I reminded them of the useful technique, of striking two stones against each other so as to banish any lingering shadows. They set off like a gaggle of giggling pilgrims. I could have trailed in their wake, but it was a huge relief to leave the process to them.
They rose to the challenge wonderfully. I never discovered every detail, but my abiding memory is of a group of women carrying candles emerging from an upstairs room in a glorious wave of light, laughter, and love. Though they laughed, they were solemn; though they were not formal they brought words of meaning, and true compassion into the house.
I mark that evening as the turnaround point. It was the time when I began to love my home again without being so attached to it, and to feel that I might in due course step away from it without regret. Perhaps this was the night when I learned the immense significance of female friendship.
That was just over twenty years ago, and life has indeed moved on. I sold the Bristol house, moved to Bath, met my second husband Robert on a cruise and started a new life together. Since then, we’ve lived in Gloucestershire and now reside near Exeter in Devon. The family has re-configured, and I now have two lovely granddaughters and an amicable relationship with my ex. Sometimes when you can’t see beyond the clouds of the present moment, it’s worth just entrusting yourself to a future which you can’t envisage, but will come in its own way and in its own time. I regard those seven years which I subsequently spent living alone as very useful, and a good foundation for beginning again in a new partnership.
It’s still the Spooky Month, so I’ll continue on this theme by braving the spirits of Dartmoor. In Topsham, our local town, ghosts seem few and select. On Dartmoor, however, you can encounter one at practically every bend in the road or on each granite tor. In fact there are many, many different types of ghosts on Dartmoor, from black dogs to ghostly hunters, from hairy hands to phantom monks and invisible drivers (who run you over). So I will just pick out a few stories to share with you here.
I became intrigued by Kitty Jay years ago, when I heard her story on a TV feature about Dartmoor. Kitty, we were told, was a young girl who died tragically after being crossed in love. The grave where her unquiet spirit hovers lies beyond parish boundaries, but it is always tended by unknown hands. Offerings of fresh flowers, and sometimes food or trinkets are placed there regularly. Could this really be so?
Then, when we moved to this area, I finally managed to visit Kitty Jay’s Grave, and to check out the story for myself.
Kitty Jay, according to the tale, was a farm girl of humble origins who fell in love with a young man of higher class. He professed to love her in return, seduced her, and then abandoned her. Kitty committed suicide in despair. And because she took her own life- it was considered both a crime and a sin – she could not be interred in a churchyard, and so was buried here, at an old crossroads near Hound Tor.
For thousands of years, crossroads have been considered magical, liminal places, associated with restless spirits. In Greek times they were ruled by the god Hermes, who, as one of the old texts says: ‘I Hermes stand here at the crossroads by the wind beaten orchard, near the hoary grey coast; and I keep a resting place for weary men.’ But as time went on, crossroads seemed to lose the sense of sanctuary and their protective deity, and became places for the outcasts of society, including those who would not find rest after death. In medieval and later times, gallows were often erected at crossroads, considered suitable places for the wicked and the ungodly to end their lives. Here they would be bereft of protection from gods or men, with the four winds blowing over them, condemned to lie forever between this world and the next. Hence crossroads are not only considered to be haunted, but they are also places where spirits can be conjured up.
However, in all versions of the story, our Kitty was a good and gentle girl, wronged by the cruelty of a man and the harsh code of society. And she continues to be commemorated thus. The strange thing about Jay’s Grave (as it is labelled on the map) is that it is truly almost always covered with offerings. Passing it many times now, I can vouch for the fact that it is nearly always adorned with flowers, trinkets, coins and the like. Some people say these are brought each night by the pixies, but that if you stay up in the dark to see them at work, you will be terrorised by a huge hooded figure, who rises up to drive you away.
Whatever the truth about a sad farm girl who was abandoned by her lover – there seems to be good evidence that a skeleton was indeed found here – it is still a kind of mysterious shrine, as the offerings show. The story still touches our hearts. It also touched that of the writer John Galsworthy, who wrote a novel called The Apple Tree based on the tale of Kitty Jay. Galsworthy loved Dartmoor, and spent much time in the area. More of that later…
And likewise, local bard Seth Lakeman has written a song about her:
Poor Kitty Jay
Such a beauty cast away
This silent prayer
It should paint some peace
On her grave
Something broke her sleep
Poor Kitty Jay
Such a beauty thrown away
So young and fair
Now she's turned to dust
Terror broke her sleep
Never guessed unto her cold end
Called the Devil her only friend
Never guessed it with his bare hands
Called the Devil the mark of man
You can listen to it here, as recorded in the magical setting of the outdoor Minack Theatre in Cornwall.
Could there be a link between the popularity of this song and the increase in daily offerings? No, surely not – it is the pixies are competing to show their concern, of course!
The Curious Custom of ‘Singing the Body’, and the tradition of The Old Lych Way
Meldon Pool is a flooded limestone quarry on Dartmoor near Okehampton. Here a tragic death occurred in 1936, when someone fell into its murky waters and drowned. (Swimming is prohibited here today.) But when his body could not be found, the mourners became desperate to recover their loved one and give him a Christian burial. Tim Sandles, of Legendary Dartmoor, tells us that the eerie custom of ‘singing the body’ was therefore employed: ‘This was where prayers and hymns were sung at the edge of any water where a body had gone missing. The old custom of singing the dead involved assembling at the place of a drowning, and singing hymns and psalms near the water in the hope that the body would emerge for burial.’ Thus, it was hoped that ‘the sacred words would be attracted by the lost soul who was thus released from limbo. ‘Accordingly, a choir from nearby Okehampton assembled at the pool and duly chanted hymns and offered prayers. Although there was no immediate result, within the week the body was found floating in the pool. This occasion is the last officially recorded instance of this tradition on Dartmoor.’
Another old custom associated with death on Dartmoor was the carrying of the coffin many miles along ‘the old Lych Way’ to Lydford in order to comply with parish regulations.Those who had died in remote parts of Dartmoor had There is a sinister pathway that winds its sombre way across the northern wastes of Dartmoor, it is known as the ‘Way of the Dead’, the ‘Corpse Way‘, or the Lych Way. Its roots are firmly set deep in the days when every person on the moor was expected to attend their church for services and burials. That may not seem any different to the rest of the country in medieval times, except for some of them it involved a trudge of about 12 miles and in bad weather this would increase to roughly 17 miles. Legendary Dartmoor has the full explanation.
This song about The Old Lych Way, performed by our local folk heroes ‘Show of Hands’, was written by our talented Topsham neighbour Chris Hoban.
The Restless Ghost of Manaton
And now to a more personal account. I was asked by an old friend, who does not wish to be identified, whether I could find out anything about Wingstone Manor Farm in Manaton on Dartmoor, to discover if it might be haunted? She had lived there as a child, and was regularly spooked by a shadow of a man which would pass through her bedroom at night.
I searched what records I could find, chiefly from the newspapers of the day, and accounts of Dartmoor legends. And I found this one:
FATAL ACCIDENT TO A MANATON FARMER.
On Wednesday evening, fatal accident, the details of which have yet to explained, occurred to Mr Endacott, of Wingstone Farm, Manaton. It appears that on Wednesday he drove into Newton Market as usual, and late in the afternoon started to return home… A short distance out of Newton on the Bovey Road, Mr Endacott by some means collided with a trap driven by Miss Kerslake, of Teigngrace. Both were thrown out, though, apparently, without being injured. After some delay Miss Kerslake re-started, little the worse for the adventure. The shafts of his trap having snapped off, Mr Endacott borrowed a saddle and bridle, and started to ride home, leaving his trap in a field adjoining the scene of the accident. On reaching Bovey he made a short stay at one of the hotels. When he left Bovey it was dark, and not long after he was discovered lying in the road between Bovey and Manaton, having either been thrown or fallen off his horse. He was conveyed home at once. Medical was called in, but he died from his injuries early on Thursday. PC. Ashby took Mr Endacott’s name and address after the accident, with the intention of summoning him for furious riding …An inquest will held. (East & South Devon Advertiser – 5th December 1896)
So could the troubling shadow be that of Farmer Endacott, never quite able to leave his former home after coming to an abrupt and inebriated end? But then, on delving a little further, I wondered about another former and more famous occupant of the farmhouse…
Above – Galsworthy and his favoured retreat of Wingstone Manor
From the Western Morning News, 25th October 1929, when as it seems, the Endacott family itself was still in residence: As Devonians are well aware, Mr. John Galsworthy lived at Manaton, on the edge of Dartmoor, for a considerable number of years, occupying two rooms in a pleasant farmhouse, and playing cricket in his hours of leisure with the village team. Last Saturday, when a small party of us visited Wingstone Farm, his landlady, Mrs. Endacott, very proudly showed us his sitting-room, pointing out with particular reverence his favourite chair which he always sat when writing. “That’s the one on the left of the fireside,” she almost whispered, indicating a roomy, black basket work armchair with a low seat, high back, and plentiful cushions. Seventeen years he lived here, and still comes back for visits. He used to say that he liked the view.”
Perhaps Mr Galsworthy continued his visits, even after his death in 1933?
The Witches and the Hunter – the story of Bowerman’s Nose
Anyone who visits the strange granite outcrop known as Bowerman’s Nose cannot fail to be impressed by the huge ‘head’ which seems to loom up above the hillside. (That’s the one at the top of this blog.) Locals know that this is Bowerman the Hunter, who was turned into stone along with his pack of dogs – the loose stones around him – when he tried to defy a local pack of witches. The story goes that there were many witches on Dartmoor, and that covens were rife. Bowerman chose to defy their power, but in the end, one witch was able to turn herself into a hare to lure him to his doom. Bowerman hunted the hare until it ran straight into the assembled coven, a trap set by the witches to ensnare him and put him under their spell forever. You can read full and imaginative versions of the tale at Legendary Dartmoor. and Dartmoor – Learning.
Here I am, demonstrating the sizeof the mighty Bowerman and his Nose
But I wonder about this story? Who is really the villain, who the victim? Whose side are you actually on? That of Bowerman a mighty man of power and status, hunting the defenceless hare, or the witches who may have been local ‘wise women’ and healers? Women’s secret gatherings were often feared for no good reason, and their knowledge of natural magic reviled. Of course, the witches could have been malevolent hags, ready to curse and enslave, and Bowerman could be a brave protector of the people. Well, it’s only a story….Maybe the ambivalence is part of the fascination of old legends, told in different ways at different times. I’ll leave you to choose!
The Fearsome Pig and the Phantom Piglets
To finish, I return to the story of the Phantom Piglets, who I first wrote about in ‘Us Wants to go to Widecombe Fair’. This is truly a Dartmoor special. Here’s the tale again:
‘From Merripit Hill, near Warren House Inn, a phantom sow may sometimes be seen setting out with her littler of hungry little phantom piglets on a journey to Cator Gate near Widecombe. Here, it is rumoured, there lies a succulent dead horse. The procession trots over the mist-enshrouded moor – the little pigs squeak ‘Starvin’, starvin’, starvin’.’ To which the old sow grunts encouragingly: ‘Dead ‘oss, Cator Gate; dead ‘oss, Cator Gate.’ They arrive too late – there’s nothing left. Sadly, they trek homewards, the piglets wailing disconsolately: ‘Skin and bones, skin and bones.’ to which their mother philosophically replies, ‘Let ‘un lie, let ‘un lie.’ By this time they have become so thin after their long trek that they dissolve into mist-wraiths, never getting back to their home ground. Nevertheless, there they all are, ready to set out again from Merripit Hill on the next occasion.’ (as told to Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon by Miss Theo Brown)
My husband and I shall soon be spending an autumnal weekend on Dartmoor in this area, and I will of course be out searching the hills and horizon for any signs of the Ghostly Pigs. The wild and lonely countryside around the places mentioned lends itself to legends of frightful fiends, so who knows what other spectral beasts I might encounter? Don’t forget the Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sherlock Holmes, based on real stories of a giant phantom hound – and of course there is the Old Grey Mare herself, who we also met in the Widecombe Fair blog.
Read more about women’s magic and legendary archetypes in my study of feminine mythology
Discover the intricacies of Dartmoor at ‘Dartmoor 365’, a walker’s guide to each of the 365+ square miles in the Dartmoor National Park
For a taste of nature spirits, demons and wise witches and wizards from another culture, try my book ‘Russian Magic’, based on years of visiting rural Russia and learning its customs.
A haunted bookshop, a headless guard, and a ‘house that dreams’
Topsham isn’t one of the most spooky places in Devon, but nevertheless, we can hold our own at Halloween, with a select array of ghostly visitations and ghastly happenings.
The Ghosts in the Bookshop
The Topsham Bookshop is a paradise for book browsers and a much-loved landmark in the town. As the website describes it: ‘The Topsham Bookshop is housed on three floors of a beautiful 17th century building in Topsham, an ancient port on the River Exe. Lily Neal, the owner and manager, aims to provide a special atmosphere in which book lovers with varied interests will feel at home.’
But is there more to this ‘special atmosphere’ than meets the eye? As a very ancient building, it would be surprising if it didn’t have some ‘history’. A while ago, as I was having my hair trimmed in a local salon, my hairdresser began to describe how she’d lived for a while in the flat above the bookshop, and had experienced strange goings on. She was convinced that it was haunted. I didn’t investigate any further, though, until I received an email out of the blue from a Mrs Margaret Green. Back in 1968, when she and her husband were first married, they too had lived in this flat. The shop was at the time known as ‘Homecraft’, selling homeware, and run by a Mrs Price. Here’s what Margaret told me:
‘This flat was haunted. We had been there a couple of weeks, and went to bed one evening, only to be woken with a sounds of chains being dragged across the floor. My husband got out of bed and went up into the attic, but there was nothing there. Another evening, we got home from work, and Mrs Price was just locking the shop up to go home. We locked our front door, made our evening meal, and then sat down to watch the TV. We went to bed as usual, but in the morning when we got up to go to work, we found that Mrs price’s shop was all unlocked, her cellar was open, and our front door was open. We had to shut the doors to the shop, lock our front door, and go to Mrs Price to let her know what had happened. She started to laugh and said, “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you – it’s only our ghosts!’ We never ever saw him or them, but we certainly knew that he or them were around, Such happy days living there.’
So I’ve now asked Lily, the present day bookseller, what she knows about such goings on. She tells me that several of her customers have reported feeling a presence, or having a strong sense that the building is haunted. A few refuse to walk down into the cellar area, as the feeling is too strong for their liking. One is convinced that someone died down there. But perhaps Margaret’s Green’s ‘happy ghosts’ are the more prevalent? When I asked her for permission to use this story, she answered: ‘I am so pleased to hear that your hairdresser had told you a story about feeling something strange. I would be pleased for you to use our memories of what we experienced whilst living in the flat. It was such a homely little flat, and we very much enjoyed living there.’
Here’s a Halloween invitation: Visit Lily’s bookshop, browse, buy a tome or two, and see what you can feel in these surroundings. And you can always write and let me know! Maybe there will be more to say about the Topsham Bookshop Ghosts.
The Headless Train Guard
And now for a ghastly event in Topsham – it may send shivers down your spine. You have been warned.
Have you ever encountered a headless train guard? Have you ever seen blood trickling down your carriage window when travelling on our delightful local train service to Exmouth? No? Well, that might just happen, if the spirit released by a dreadful accident in 1875 still rises to haunt us on the track. And if so, then please ask him to tell you the true story of his demise. Because there’s a mystery hanging over it….
A ‘Fatal Accident on The Exmouth Line’
On a summer’s evening in June 1875, a railway worker called George Richards boarded the last train of the day from Exeter to Exmouth. He was designated as a ‘spare guard’ for the trip, and shared the guard’s carriage with another guard and two porters, all presumably finishing their shifts and in a good humour to be going home. We may also infer, although any influence of alcohol was always denied, that they were a touch merry as a consequence. Then George suddenly left the carriage, saying he’d be back in a few minutes.
Now, it seems there were no corridors in the train, so that ‘leaving the carriage’ meant climbing onto the roof and crawling along to the carriage he intended to enter. But his escapade did not go well. ‘On arriving at Topsham, the attention of one of the porters was called by a first-class passenger, in a compartment some two or three carriages removed from the guard’s van, to the fact that blood was running down the side of the carriage in which he was seated,’ reported the Exeter Flying Post ghoulishly on Wednesday 16 June 1875. ‘A search was made for the cause, and on the top of the carriage the unfortunate guard was found. quite dead, with the back of his head smashed in and his neck broken.’ He had been crushed when the train passed under a railway bridge.’
But what on earth was the guard doing on top of the carriages in the first place? What had his intentions been? The Coroner’s Court was held in the Lord Nelson pub in Topsham, and newspaper reporters flocked to hear the story in all its gory detail. What state was the guard in? asked the coroner. ‘The deceased appeared very jolly and talkative,’ said porter Thomas May, but hastened to affirm that he was sober. But then May dropped a bombshell: ‘He said he was going to see a young female.’ The Coroner was incensed. He assumed that May’s witness testimony was invalid, and lashed into him. The reporter eagerly jotted it down word for word: ‘Now, look here man, you have taken an oath, and that is a very serious matter. Beware speaking what is not the truth, and you seem to be giving your evidence as if this were not a very serious matter. This man has come to his death by some means, and I should wish you to be a little more cautious in the way which you give your testimony. He must have told you what he was out of the van to do. Witness—He said he was going out to see a female. The Coroner—Are those the words he used? He must have given you some reason for his going out beyond what you say? Witness said the deceased’s last words were that he was going out of the carriage for immoral purpose (statement which caused a sensation among the jury).
Western Times – Wed 16th June 1875
Why was the Coroner so quick to try and refute the evidence? Perhaps because the London and South-Western Railway Company who brought about the enquiry, would have been very concerned to learn that their employees were having ‘immoral’ assignations with passengers? And all the more so when ‘the unfortunate man leaves a young widow and a child about six months old.’ Maybe their reputation was on the line. (pun intended!)
But May would not be swayed from his testimony, though other witnesses were not so bold, and mumbled about Richards saying he was ‘just going out for a minute or two’. All agreed, however, that he was crawling along the carriage roof and met his end at Apple Lane Bridge.
‘The Coroner, in summing up, said the jury had heard how the melancholy affair had happened. It was quite evident that deceased had met with his death by his head coming in contact with the bridge, and the verdict could be no other than accidental death. The jury, after a few minutes’ consultation, returned a unanimous verdict of Accidental Death.’
Searching for the exact location of Apple Lane Bridge, I found that it was apparently near the current Digby and Sowton station, just before Topsham. So when your train next stops there, remember poor George Richards, and speculate about just what he might have been planning to do, in a carriage further along the train. Perhaps don’t even travel on the last train, in the dark, if you are in a sensitive frame of mind…
A Ghost in Paradise?
And let’s end with my impressions – happy ones! – from living in our very own old house in Topsham. ‘Great Paradise Cottage’ was once the central section of a medieval hall house of some stature. We’ve only found rather vague pointers to its origin from local hearsay – ‘a place where the Bishop used to stay’ is one, and ‘previously a medieval grange for corn storage’ is another. Plus, from an archaeologist friend comes a clue that the name ‘Paradise’ is often associated with gardens on old monastic land, so it could have once been owned by an abbey. The fireplace is made of Beer Stone, and is one of only two houses in Topsham known to have Beer Stone in its construction. This honey-coloured, soft stone comes from the caves at Beer, near Sidmouth, which have been quarried since Roman times, and were used in the construction of Exeter Cathedral. Perhaps our slab ‘fell off the back of an ox cart’ when being transported to Exeter? At any rate, the fireplace is late 15th century and the house itself is be older still. In the 17th century, a grand oak staircase was added, along with ceilings and upper floors. However, because of the rather heartless 18th century division of the house into three vertical slices by builder Richard Cridland, some of the Beer Stone was shaved away to accommodate a tiny front door for our central section.
After we had renovated the house and moved in, in 2016, I recorded my impressions of the ancient layers of memory in the house. These were perhaps not so much hauntings, as presences stirring.
Sep 10 2016 This old house tells me its stories at night. In the deep wastes of sleep, where dreams float filmy, like colour washing through the amber waters, I am told what it remembers. Cargo unloading – ships, rough or dilapidated. Some inchoate feeling of – perhaps – a deal in dispute – a ship not arrived. It’s all rough and ready, plainer and simpler that we might portray it today. It’s the feel that tells me – yes, this is in the fabric of memory here.
Dec 22nd 2016 Last night both Robert and I seemed to hear or see things. I woke up in the first part of the night and wondered what Robert was doing out of bed. He appeared to be moving to and fro across the window, as if he was arranging the curtains or something. He seemed to have on a kind of dappled or patterned robe, kind of dressing gown. I asked him what he was doing, and he answered that he wasn’t out of bed – he was in fact lying next to me. Then twice later on in the night, he asked me, ‘What did you say?’ I told him that I hadn’t said anything…My experience felt puzzling but benign. Can it be that we have some kind of ghosts or hauntings here? I’m intrigued by the prospect!
Dec 2017 – How the house loves bunches of holly in jugs! This feels right.
And yes, we’ve filled the house with greenery at Christmases ever since. It seems to come alive, and rejoice when we do this.
So the Topsham spirits I’ve heard about and perhaps encountered seem to be benign ones. Why be alarmed if they are gently living their own lives among us?
Below: Looking forward to Christmas at Great Paradise Cottage
We’re coming up to the Feast of Michaelmas, on Sep 29th. And as I have a couple of stories about St Michael to impart, I’m posting a week ahead of my usual schedule, in time for his feast day.
Note: Part Two of my Christening Mugs Stories will now appear on October 10th
St Michael is one of the four archangels honoured by the Christian church, and in Western spirituality in general. These are Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel. But in early medieval times, and especially in Byzantine culture, Michael was singled out as the head archangel, the one who rides through heaven commanding the armies of God. (Angelogy is complex and many-layered, and I shall just stay with the simple version here!) . Perhaps this command of the heavenly forces is why churches dedicated to St Michael, or St Michael and All Angels, are nearly always built on high ground.
Michael is also famous as a dragon-slayer, which has relevance to the first of my stories. However, the dragon itself is also an ambiguous creature – a symbol of danger and destruction, but also of passion, energy, treasure and transformation. I recommend keeping an open mind about the dragon – but it’s also wise to keep an eye on the dragon too!
“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven” (Rev. 12:7).
The Dragon Churches of Old Radnorshire
Last week, a friend and I went to the Welsh Borders, on the trail of five churches dedicated to St Michael. These particular churches, out of the many in the area named for Michael have a very special function. They keep guard over the very last dragon of Wales: ‘There is a local legend that lies asleep deep in Radnor forest and that long ago the people of this area built four [other sources say five] churches in a circle around the forest. These were dedicated to St Michael, the conqueror of the dragon, to make sure he does not escape. Many believe that if any of these churches is destroyed the dragon will awaken and ravage the countryside once more.’
Overtly, Michael’s job is to protect the population from the rampages of the dragon. But perhaps helps to preserve that last wild spirit of Wales? Some say that these five churches – at Cascob, Cyfnllis, Nant Melan, Discoed and Rhydithon- can be joined up on the map as a pentagram, which is a magical seal of protection.
We visited two of these churches at Cascob (seen above) and Cyfnllis. Like the others in the circle, they have very ancient yews in their churchyards and are built on or near prehistoric mounds. Cascobis still very remote, both peaceful and magical in its atmosphere. And of Cyfnllyis, (below) where the church stands next to the abandoned site of a medieval castle and vill age, author Donald Gregory calls it ‘delectable’ and says: ‘both a historical site of uncommon importance and also an area of outstanding natural charm.’
Does the dragon still live in Radnor Forest? My companion on this journey, Rod Thorn, said that he plans to return and find out! Perhaps I will stay behind, hugging a yew tree and calling on St Michael for protection!
And I think that the archangel and the dragon are a pair, perhaps combining the conflicting passions and aspirations of human existence. In alchemy, you must separate body and soul – a battle ensues, and they are then reunited in a new and wonderful form.
And for celebrating harvest time and the Feast of St Michael on Sep 29th, what better than to bake Struan bread? This is a bread traditionally made in the Western Isles of Scotland, combining different types of harvest grains. The loaf was usually made by the eldest daughter of the household, then carried into the church at Michaelmas to be blessed. It was then laid there to honour relatives and friends who are no longer with us. As Struan recipes are generous enough for three loaves, I expect a couple were kept at home to enjoy there!
The recipe below is one that I first found on the ‘Fresh Loaf’ website , and have adapted it. I’ve since discovered more both about its origins and its revival by Brother Juniper, a lay monk and star baker from California. He’s commemorated in the Brother Juniper Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor by Peter Reinhart, who himself travelled to Scotland in search of more information about the Struan tradition. By then, it had become a folk memory only, but he found an old Gaelic blessing for the Struan, translated by the notable scholar Alexander Carmichael. I’ll quote a few verses from it here:
Each meal beneath my roof [meal = ground grain etc] They will all be mixed together, In the name of God the Son, Who gave them growth.
Milk, and eggs, and butter, The good produce of our own flock, There shall be no dearth in our land, Nor in our dwelling.
In the name of Michael of my love, Who bequeathed to us the power, With the blessing of the Lamb, And of his mother.
Reinhart says: ‘Struan is not merely bread – it is bread that represents the essence of bread, which is one of the great analogies of life itself. In our everyday consumption of bread we tend to forget or lose sight of the reality of what bread is. So a bread ritual…dedicated to the archangel of the harvest whose name means “like unto God”, is a way to tune into this deeper reality….Struan, because of its direct descent from a traditional ritualistic practice, still retains a trace of sacramental efficacy.’
Certainly, I’ve made it previously and have got my granddaughters to join in. I may even be just in time to do that this year too!
Struan bread is a mix of harvest grains and flours. Now since both this recipe and the one given by Brother Juniper (which differ slightly from each other)use polenta, ie cornmeal, I doubt that this was what exactly what they used in the Outer Hebrides! It’s not a product of such northern climes. But it was always meant to be made with whtaver harvest produce was gathered in, and varied recipes go with the spirit of the dough, even if we gather most of our ingredients from the shop shelves these days!
I’ve also added metric measurements to the original American cup measurements, which tend to confuse us over here in Britain! And bear in mind that it’s one of those recipes where you need to check it out as you go along, and see whether you need more flour or less water. So hold back on the water, add it a little at a time until you get the right consistency. I currently use a Kitchen Aid to do the kneading, as my wrists aren’t strong, but kneading by hand would indeed be more mindful. If you do use a machine, check early on in the process that it’s mixed properly as there are a lot of different ingredients to blend.
Makes 1 large loaf – double the quantity for 2, which means you’ll have one to freeze. Worthwhile, as it takes effort to assemble all the ingredients and time to prepare the dough. SOAKER 3 tablespoons polenta 30-40gm 3 tablespoons rolled oats 25 gm 2 tablespoons wheat bran 10gm 1/4 cup water 60ml
DOUGH 3 cups unbleached bread flour 380-400gm (You can substitute up to 25% wholemeal if you wish) 3 tablespoons brown sugar 1.5 teaspoons salt 1 tablespoon instant yeast 3 tablespoons cooked brown rice 50gm (Short grain is good but long grain is fine) 1.5 tablespoons honey Half a cup buttermilk (130 ml, or use a little more and reduce water) 3/4 cup water 170ml – Add carefully; you probably won’t need it all
TOPPING 1 tablespoon poppy seeds (If you don’t have poppy seeds, use another seed like sunflower) Mix together the ingredients for the soaker. Cover and allow to soak for at least half an hour or as long as overnight.
METHOD In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then stir in wet ingredients and soaker. Add more flour or water until the dough can be formed into a ball that is neither too dry nor too loose in texture. Try to keep it so that you can still handle the dough, even if it is a little sticky. Knead the ball of dough for 10 to 12 minutes, (8-10 in a food processor with dough mixer) then return it to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and allow the dough to ferment until doubled in size, approximately 60 minutes.
Remove the dough from the bowl, knock it down briefly to take out the air, and put it into a greased bread pan. Sprinkle a little water on top, followed by a dusting of poppy seeds.
Cover the dough in the pan loosely again and allow the loaves to rise until doubled in size again, approximately 40-60 minutes.
Bake these loaves at 180 degrees (356 F) for about 40-45 minutes. (I used a fan oven; you might need to use 190 in a non-fan one.) It will achieve a high bake colour so don’t be tempted to take it out too early. Test in the usual way, by tapping the bottom of the loaf when you think it’s ready to see if it sounds hollow. Reinhart gives a useful suggestion for his recipe, which is that if the top of the loaf is dark but it’s not sounding hollow, take it out of the tin and bake it a little while longer, bearing in mind that it’s likely to finish cooking very quickly this way.
With Phantom Pigs, Fire from Heaven, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all
For such a picturesque little village, nestled quietly in the heart of Dartmoor, Widecombe-in-the-Moor is surprisingly full of drama. Natural disasters (or possibly the wrath of God), and supernatural hauntings add an extra frisson to the cream teas consumed by visitors and the annual fair enjoyed by many.
This is one of my occasional Dartmoor posts. I am not a Dartmoor expert, like photographer Chris Chapman and Tim Sandles of Legendary Dartmoor, but I hope to offer you something lively, original and based on my own experience of visiting the magical moor. My first post on Dartmoor Ponies has drawn readers in, and I hope future ones will do likewise. For today, we are in the area around that very famous village – you’ve probably sung about it, even if you haven’t visited it – none other than Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
To start with the fair – how I am longing for it to return, after the pandemic! Alas, that will not be until 2022. It’s held in mid-September, and is a glorious occasion with Hill Pony competitions, sheep shows, local crafts, folk bands and all kinds of delightful entertainment. Including, of course, Uncle Tom Cobleigh – the most famous ghost of Widecombe!
I expect many of you know the song about Widecombe Fair. Tom Pearce was rash enough to lend his grey mare to a group of merrymakers, heading for Widecombe Fair. Famously, they are Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all –the whole lot jumped up on the grey mare and rode her to the fair. And they didn’t return with her on Friday soon or Saturday noon, as promised. So Tom Pearce rode up a hill and (rather surprisingly) spied his mare ‘making her will’ along with the all of the reckless riders. No one, man or horse, returned alive. But they live on to this day, ‘when the wind whistles cold on the moor of the night’, and ‘Tom Pearce’s old mare doth appear ghastly white’. She comes with ‘rattling bones’ and the ‘skirling groans’ of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
But I am pleased to report that this isn’t quite the end of the story, as Tom Cobleigh, his mates and the mare now appear again every year at the fair! We saw them with our very own eyes when we visited a couple of years ago.
Who was Tom Cobleigh? Keen local folklorists are on the case, and recent research shows that he may indeed have been a local character. At the village of Spreyton, some eighteen miles away just north of Dartmoor, there is indeed a grave to Tom Cobley, d. 1844. Those in the know say this is not the true Tom Cobleigh, but a nephew of the original Tom Cobleigh, who died in 1794 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Could this be a clue to his identity, buried with little trace, after his disgraceful doings? Well, maybe. But there again, it turns out that ‘old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all’ was a popular saying meaning ‘along with everyone else’. Which came first, the man or the saying?
I will leave you to form your own opinion, but at any rate, it’s a great delight to see him and the mare enjoying a comeback at the Fair.
For an authentic and rumbustious rendering of the song ‘Widecombe Fair recorded at Widecombe Fair itself, try this one by well-known local musicians and storytellers Bill Murray & Jim Causeley. You’ll need to forgive some of the audience being out of tune. But the spirit is there!
And for a hilarious competition of Terrier Racing at the Fair (‘Hold your dug, Mother!) look no further than this video.
The Phantom Piglets
Ghostly pigs are surely unusual, but Dartmoor rarely disappoints; it offers a brooding tale of these and once again, the focus is on the Widecombe area. Here’s the tale as I first read it in one of my books on Dartmoor folklore:
‘From Merripit Hill, near Warren House Inn, a phantom sow may sometimes be seen setting out with her littler of hungry little phantom piglets on a journey to Cator Gate near Widecombe. Here, it is rumoured, there lies a succulent dead horse. The procession trots over the mist-enshrouded moor – the little pigs squeak ‘Starvin’, starvin’, starvin’.’ To which the old sow grunts encouragingly: ‘Dead ‘oss, Cator Gate; dead ‘oss, Cator Gate.’ They arrive too late – there’s nothing left. Sadly they trek homewards, the piglets wailing disconsolately: ‘Skin and bones, skin and bones.’ to which their mother philosophically replies, ‘Let ‘un lie, let ‘un lie.’ By this time they have become so thin after their long trek that they dissolve into mist-wraiths, never getting back to their home ground. Nevertheless, there they all are, ready to set out again from Merripit Hill on the next occasion.’
(As told to Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon by Miss Theo Brown. I apologise for not quoting the author of the book, as I’m still searching my books to find where I copied it from!)
This is truly spooky, and I can imagine looking up to the high moors and Tors from Widecombe, and seeing little whisps of mist curl around the hill tops. Are the piglets coming again? Are they starving? Will they, perhaps, see us as a tasty meal? Ferocious piglets may be lesser known among the terrors of Dartmoor than the Hound of the Baskervilles, but perhaps they are more deadly.
The Lightning Strike
And then we have the curious case of the church tower struck by lightning. This inscription is painted across four boards in Widecombe Church, recording a catastrophe from 1638, when lightning struck the church tower. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, when people were singing in the church; the strike split open the tower, showered the congregation with debris, and burnt some worshippers alive, while leaving others completely untouched. This, as you might imagine, became a focus for villagers to ponder upon the mysteries of God’s judgement and, indeed, his mercy. The account itself dates from 1786, and was made by the churchwardens Peter and Sylvester Mann, who created a kind of epic poem out of the event. Here are two of the panels and I’ll quote some extracts below.
In sixteen hundred thirty eight, October twenty first,
On the Lord’s day at afternoon, when people were addrest;
To their devotion in this church while singing here they were,
A Psalm distrusting nothing of the danger then so near;
A crack of lightning suddenly, with thunder hail and fire.
Fell on the church and tower here, and ran into the choir;
A sulferous smell came with it, and the tower strangely rent,
The stones abroad into the air, with violence were sent…
One man was struck dead, two wounded so they died few hours after -
No father could think on his son, or mother mind her daughter
One man was scorcht so that he lived but fourteen days and died
Whose clothes were very little burnt, but many were beside.
Were wounded, scorched and stupefied in that so strange a storm…
One man had money in his purse, which melted was in part,
A key likewise which hung thereto, and yet the purse no hurt…
One man there was sat on the bier, which stood fast by the wall,
The bier was torn with stones that fell, he had no harm at all…
Among the rest a little child which scarce knew good from ill,
Was seen to walk amongst the church, and yet preserved still:
The wit of man could not cast down so much from off the steeple,
Upon the church’s roof, and not destroy much of the people;
But he who rules both air and fire, and other forces all,
Hath us preserved bless be his name, in that most dreadful fall…
Remember who hath you preserved, ascribe unto his glory:
The preservation of your lives, who might have lost your breath,
When others did if mercy had not stept twixt you and death.
Below is the well-loved Rugglestone Inn, on the outskirts of the village, where I am sure many a tall Widecombe tale has been recounted over a pint or three.
All photos are copyright Cherry Gilchrist except Cator Rocks from Dartefacts, the ‘Commons’ picture of the village name sign, and historic artwork by Pamela Colman Smith (see forthcoming post The Pixie of Bude: Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist).
The egg is a universal symbol of life. It appears in various creation myths, representing the start of the universe itself. In ancient Greek cosmology, the ‘Orphic egg’ is considered to be the source of life, and is often depicted with a serpent wound around it. From the egg hatches the primordial deity, the golden-winged Phanes, who in turn creates a pantheon of gods.
As one account says: The Cosmic Egg is one of the most prominent icons in world mythology. It can be found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Polynesian and many other creation stories. In almost all cases, this embryonic motif emerges out of darkness, floating upon the waters of chaos. Within this egg typically resides a divine being who literally creates himself from nothing… This creator then goes on to form the material universe.
In Russian folklore, eggs also represent time itself. One traditional custom celebrates the turning of the year by visualising the coming year as twelve nests, representing the twelve months, all sitting in the branches of a mighty oak tree. Each nest has four eggs in it, and each egg will hatch seven chicks, thus creating the weeks in the month, and the days in the week. (This doesn’t quite add up to the full number of days in the year, but never mind!) Decorated eggs, both natural and crafted, are particularly popular in Russia and also in the Ukraine, not only for Easter, but all year round.
I have always had a personal attachment to eggs. I have kept hens, and nothing beats the pleasure of reaching your hand into a nest of straw and gently clasping the warm egg laid there that morning. I love eating them – though they have to be ‘just right’ – no sloppy whites! Perhaps there’s something powerful about the potential of an egg to be perfect, fresh and tasty to eat, or to be repellent through its undercooked sliminess, let alone when it’s gone bad and stinks. Even those home laid hen’s eggs could sometimes deliver a nasty shock if they’d been hidden away in the nest for too long!
I’ve also kept Russian decorative eggs from the period when I was importing Russian crafts. I prefer the simple shapes, rather than the elaborate, Faberge-style ones, because the primordial shape of the egg is perfection itself.
The Story to Come
In my occasional alchemy blogs I draw from my book Everyday Alchemy, but I also like to introduce stories that haven’t been told before, as I did in the previous one (Alchemy and the Trickster), recounting how I met a current-day Hermes in Amsterdam.The next extract I’m adapting from the book already contains a personal story, however, which also dates from my student years, and which precedes that meeting in Amsterdam.
When I post these passages from my book, I aim to refresh them with new observations and experiences, so they may be somewhat different here to the form in which they first appeared, and perhaps appeal to a wider range of readers. For those who would like to follow this further, the book contains practical suggestions as a guide to working with alchemical principles in everyday life (but not in a laboratory!). Although Everyday Alchemy is currently out of print, copies can still be found, and I hope that it will be republished at some point.
This extract is adapted from: ‘Cracking the Egg’, Chapter One, Everyday Alchemy (Please note: all copyright retained by Cherry Gilchrist, author.)
This is the moment. You hold the sword in your hand, ready to pierce the egg that stands before you. It is the perfect egg, and the perfect moment to do the deed. Now is your chance to strike.
But it is terrifying to commit yourself to this moment. It is much easier to linger in the past or dream of the future. And the egg is beautiful as it is. If the sword doesn’t strike cleanly, you might shatter the shell and damage the precious embryo of life inside it. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?
It is your choice, of course. The sword carries your intention, and you must decide whether you will use it to break open the alchemical egg and initiate the process of transformation. The egg may look perfect, but it is as yet undeveloped. From the moment of opening the egg, you must begin the work of developing the raw material it contains through every stage of change until it becomes alchemical gold. The egg will certainly perish if its potential is not released, so the choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. The gold you aspire to, on the other hand, is incorruptible. It is a symbol for enlightenment, the Elixir of Life, the realisation of Life beyond life, the Sun behind the sun. It is a place of safety for the human spirit, and an entry point into the divine world.
The moment of impending change is frightening. The act of splitting the egg open will catapult the alchemist into an unknown world; from this moment on, he will be changed. He will have to leave his old life behind. On his face we can read apprehension, and even a hint of terror. But he knows that even though he trembles on the brink, he has to go forward. This chance may only come once in a lifetime. (The emblem depicts a male alchemist; traditionally, there were also many female alchemists, although it was a difficult activity for a woman with children and household responsibilities to take up, as it required many hours or days of solitude.)
There is also intense concentration in his expression. The perfect egg could be ruined by one careless slip with the sword. So his act of bravery must be carried out as precisely and skilfully as possible.
Setting out on the Path
Alchemy is about change. Each of us changes – life itself does that to us. Age, environment and experience affect us, altering our appearance and our outlook. Hopefully, we all finish our lives a little wiser than we started. But the work of alchemy makes different demands. It is for those who consciously seek change on a bigger scale – not change for change’s sake, but for the growth of the spirit.
Alchemists have always said that there is a right moment to start the ‘great work’, and to initiate the alchemical process, sometimes according to astrology, or the lunar cycle. But perhaps more critical is the time that precedes that, the moment of choice, which is shown here. This can be triggered by a key event. In the 16th century, a young man called Jakob Boehme had a mysterious encounter. One day, he was at work as a humble apprentice in a shoe shop, when a stranger appeared in the doorway. His eyes were burning with an unearthly light, and he said: ‘Jakob, thou art little, but shalt be great, and become another man, such a one as at whom the world shall wonder.’ From that day, Boehme became aware of his destiny, and went on to become a famous alchemist and mystic.
Below: Jacob Boehme and his own version of the ‘cosmic egg’ – ‘The Philosophical Sphere, or the Wonder Eye of Eternity’
Even though such a dramatic revelation may happen rarely, perhaps on this occasion from an angelic messenger, similar experiences can happen even in ordinary meetings with normal people. Someone may speak a few words that strike us with great power, and which become our imperative, spurring us to take a different direction. Or a seemingly unrelated event may also bring us to that moment of change.
A Road Trip in Mexico
In 1968, when I was student of nineteen, my boyfriend and I headed off to America for the summer. We reached the West Coast, hung out in San Francisco (as you did, the year after the Summer of Love), and decided to drive down through Mexico in an old camper van. One morning, after a showery night, we were heading through the hills in central Mexico towards a little town called Zacatecas. Chris was driving, as I hadn’t passed my test at that time. The surface was slippery and suddenly, as we were rounding a bend, the car skidded and veered towards the edge of the road. Below us was an almost sheer drop down a high earth cliff. I watched the whole process happen with great clarity – there was no room for fear – and I remember thinking quite calmly: ‘This is the last thought that I shall ever have. What a shame.’ Then the van plunged over the edge, and I fell with it into a kind of grey limbo. I ‘woke up’ after it had rolled over and over and came to rest at the bottom of the cliff. Miraculously, the two of us in it were almost unhurt, apart from bruises and minor cuts, and a bristling mass of cactus spines in my legs. But nothing was ever the same again.
For several weeks prior to the accident, I had sensed that something very frightening was about to happen, though I had no idea what. I felt that my world – my egg – was about to burst open. I would wake up at night in distress from nightmares, and yet I couldn’t say what they were about. And after the accident, there was no blissful state of relief that I was still alive. In fact, we lived through a horrible period; to begin with, when we climbed back up to the road, no one would stop to help us although we were visibly bleeding. When kind strangers finally took us to hospital, we were treated and released within a few days, but then we had to live in the little mountain town for weeks while they sorted out our insurance claim. It turned out that the drunken official who’d issued them at the border hadn’t actually signed our papers. The police who’d eventually attended the scene of the accident had stolen not only a camera but also our travellers’ cheques. Thus, while this was being sorted – they eventually handed the camera back, but the travellers’ cheques involved a lengthy replacement process – our money ran out, and we had to sleep in a hut where rats ran across the floor. At night, I began to indulge in a fantasy that we had really died, and that now we were trapped in some kind of curious and unpleasant otherworld.
By day, everything began to polarise into the good and the bad. There were kind people who helped us, fed us, and acted like Good Samaritans. There were also corrupt officials and those too callous to help. And the terror of the accident haunted me, as it did for months to come.
But – and here is the promise of gold among the dross – this event brought me to the most important choice of my life. I had come close to death, and I had to face up to this. It had haunted me, as it probably did many of my generation, with the threat of nuclear war in our early teens. The threat was indeed very real, and my sense of a dark, terrifying void beyond life wouldn’t go away. Now I couldn’t shelve the ‘big questions’ any more, about life and death and my own place on this planet. Back in the UK, I began attending a meditation class (you can find details of this here), and soon afterwards I found the line of study that I have followed since, based in the Western Hermetic and Cabbalistic tradition. The accident had shattered my world, but it brought new hope and a new way forward.
The Egg Breaks Open
When the moment is seized, and the egg broken open – either by your own agency, or by powers seemingly from outside – there is a real shift in life. It is like becoming a driver instead of a passenger. Your range of options increases – where to go, what speed to travel at, and what to see along the way. Of course, there are different dangers and responsibilities too, when you take charge of a fast and potentially lethal vehicle.
Alchemy itself is often described as the speeding up of a natural process. Alchemy accelerates the work of nature, and traditional alchemists often put themselves at serious risk in their laboratories, where explosions and escape of poisonous gases were common. You may be relieved to hear that I’m not recommending any dangerous laboratory experiments! (Which are, in any case, entirely outside my area of expertise.) However, even as an ‘everyday alchemist’, working on the material of your own life, you may discover highly charged areas of energy in your own being. This is still work that has to be handled with care and skill. And as the alchemists themselves have said, it also needs discipline, hard work and patience. Meditation, for instance, requires a regular habit of taking time out and dropping immediate concerns.
If you choose to take such a path, the alchemical view is that you’re speeding up the process of spiritual evolution and perhaps taking it further than would normally happen over a lifetime. In terms of gold itself, the alchemists believed that all matter is slowly evolving into gold, and that the chosen ‘work’, whether in a spiritual or material sense, is to do with conscious acceleration of that development.
The Story of the King’s Son
This sense of purpose and destiny is embodied in an ancient and beautiful Gnostic poem called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory. (It is sometimes also known as Hymn of the Pearl.) It tells the story of a king’s son, whose parents send him on a quest to find a precious pearl hidden in the depths of the earth. The King’s son leaves his heavenly palace, and descends to this world. Here, he forgets his true origins and the task which he has to perform. He goes to live in the land of Egypt, which is a symbol for the dark land of sleep, and indulging of base desires. (Egypt is also, incidentally, a metaphor for the ‘black earth’, the primal material of alchemy, and alchemy itself may have originated in Egypt.)
His royal parents wait for him, but he doesn’t return. So they compose a letter to him, and send it in the form of an eagle, the ‘king-bird’ and divine messenger.
‘It flew and alighted beside me And turned into speech altogether At its voice and at the sound of its wings I awoke and arose from my deep sleep. The eagle speaks the message to the drowsy prince: ‘Up and arise from thy sleep… Remember that thou art a King’s son… Think of the Pearl For which thou didst journey to Egypt.’
So the son remembers who he is, and what he has to do. He finds the pearl, and begins the journey home. As he finally approaches his parents’ palace, he sees the Robe of Glory spread out before him, the garment of light that he is destined to wear. He accepts his true birthright.
This allegory declares that we are all royal sons and daughters, who have forgotten our heritage. Every one of us has a chance to awaken to the message of the eagle, and remember the mission we are on. Such a message is not found exclusively in ancient texts, but also closer to our time, for instance in ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ by Wordsworth:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come…
But we become so immersed in both the cares and the delights of everyday life that we lose sight of our real destiny, and it takes a conscious choice to fulfil it. We are given fresh chances; the message comes, often in an unexpected form, but we have to awaken to it, and choose to act. The pearl will lie forgotten in the depths of the earth, unless we remember to look for it.
(End of extract from Everyday Alchemy. )
To round off this post, I’ll include the exercise which immediately follows this extract in the chapter. You never know, you might like to try it!
Following the Thread What turning points can you identify in your own life? Review a crucial event in your life. Remember, as clearly as you can, what happened in terms of the outer sequence of action. You may feel emotional about this, but although you should acknowledge your emotions, it’s important that they don’t cloud the story.
Put the event in context: what led up to it? Follow the thread back from the event itself. Try not to judge the reasons and causes, but rather see what comes to mind.
Then follow the thread forward. What changed as a result? Try and see it as a story, almost as though somebody else was telling it.
Write down what you have discovered. Repeat this exercise over the next few days, and see if any of your perceptions change.
Who doesn’t love to see a pony in the wild? Each time I visit Dartmoor I keep an eye out for these ponies which roam the moorland freely, often in small herds. All the photos here are ones that I’ve taken over the years, as opportunities arise. The ponies are very hardy, and like all British native ponies, know how to seek shelter and where to find a windbreak by an old wall or line of trees. Although they appear completely wild, all of them do in fact have owners. Each year, ‘drifts’ take place, a gathering process involving horse riders, vehicles and helpers on foot, who round up the ponies from the moor and drive them into holding pens. Here they are checked over to make sure they are in good health, and some are selected to be sold off. They are sure-footed, make reliable riding ponies, and have been used by farmers, children, shepherds and even postmen for generations.
Ponies have in fact roamed on Dartmoor since prehistoric times, and probably the breed standard as laid down today is akin to the type which was originally found on the moor, as is the case with Exmoor ponies. The main difference between Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies is that the Exmoor breed is sturdier, and has a characteristic ‘mealy’, ie pale or white, muzzle. Dartmoor ponies are commonly thought of as brown or bay, but other colours are ‘permitted’ – black, grey, chestnut or roan.
I started riding when I was eight years old, and became very keen very quickly! My parents were able to let me have a riding lesson once a week, but couldn’t afford to keep a pony, so for years I helped out at riding stables to earn myself ‘free rides’. I’ve always had a great affection for British native ponies, which are full of character, clever, and sturdy, but I quickly grew too tall to ride them any more. When I lived on Exmoor I was able to fulfil my dream of owning a horse, and we took on a half-Exmoor pony too, an old, lovable rogue called Eccles. His method of escaping from the field was simply to lean his considerable weight on the fence until it gave way. On the whole, native ponies are more wily than their elegant Thoroughbred relatives.
Although the Dartmoor breed is limited to ponies of around 12.2hh (each ‘hand’ measures four inches, in old money), another, larger type is recognised as the ‘Dartmoor Hill Pony‘. ‘A Dartmoor Hill Pony is one bred on the commons of Dartmoor by a registered commoner, whose sire and dam run on the said commons. This ensures that the sire has been inspected and approved by the Dartmoor commoners council as a suitable stallion to run on the commons.’ They have their own special class at the annual Widecombe Fair.
Strictly speaking, no ‘coloured’ ponies – ie mixed colours, such as black and white (piebald), or brown and white (skewbald) – are recognised as true Dartmoor ponies. (Coloured ponies in general are especially favoured and considered lucky by Romanies and travellers.) However, quite a number can be seen on the moor.
And these tiny ponies below may be the kind which were originally bred from a Shetland pony-Dartmoor cross, as working pit ponies for the mines (tin, copper and iron). As for the Shetland pony as a breed, it may look very cuddly, but is known for its stubborn and often snappy nature. It doesn’t make an ideal child’s pony, despite its appealing appearance.
It’s always a delight to come across ponies on the moor or even ambling through a village. But it’s worth noting that although they are are not completely wild, they are not tame either, and shouldn’t be encouraged to hang around car parks and picnic spots for titbits. It’s a danger to the ponies themselves to wander on the roads, and they can become greedy and bad-tempered if given so-called ‘treats’, which may in any case do their digestions harm. Dartmoor ponies get all they need from the moorland grazing.
Some final photos follow, from the different hills and commons of Dartmoor.
Although I’ve officially given up riding now, I was delighted to take the opportunity to ride out on Dartmoor – though not on a Dartmoor pony! Thanks to Helen Newton for the chance to ride Kavi on several occasions, ambling through the village of Lustleigh, and fording the river at the ancient Hisley Bridge .
You may also be interested in:
Dartmoor 365 –a Facebook group based on the book by John Hayward which explores every square mile of the Dartmoor National Park. This is where people share their experiences and photos of visiting the individual squares. In ‘normal’ times, we have an annual cream tea meet-up as well! Pictured here is Rob Hayward, son of the Dartmoor 365 author, who along with the Facebook group’s founder Anthony Francis-Jones, keeps the book updated.
Chris Chapman, photographer has been living and filming on Dartmoor for about forty years, and his film ‘Wild River, Cold Stone’ pays homage to this unique landscape and way of life. You can watch the trailer in the clip below. He is also co-author of The Three Hares: A Curiosity worth Regarding, the only comprehensive study of the Three Hares motif which turns up along the way from the Silk Road to Dartmoor churches. (A topic which I hope to tackle in a future post!)
From the start of lockdown in March 2020 until the end of July, I walked a two mile circuit around Topsham very early almost every morning. I set out usually before 7.0 and sometimes as soon as 5.30am, when it was light enough to see my way. It was a spontaneous urge to be up and out before the day got busy, and the pathways too crowded for social distancing.
The images and reflections which follow are my personal experience of this, as homage to the great beauty of the area, and as keepsakes from what we will surely look back on as a very strange time. They are just what I chose to photograph on my walks, rather than a comprehensive diary, and are not arranged here in date order. I hope you will enjoy this excursion through dawn scenery and the curiosities of lockdown Topsham.
My usual route took me along the River Exe from Ferry Road to the quayside, then up the Strand with its historic, Dutch-styled houses to the Goat Walk, a narrow path which runs above the river bed. At the end of this spit of land, I would turn into the two community-owned fields to have a taste of the countryside, before continuing down Bowling Green Lane, with the bird reserve in the marshes on the right.
From the end of the Lane, a sharp uphill turn led to the top of Monmouth Street, and back down to the quayside. There I often walked home past the shops on Fore Street to reach our own front door.
The images below show the emergence of spring and into early summer in the Bowling Green Lane area
Sometimes I had a change, walking first through the town and out again past the Bridge Inn, crossing the River Clyst towards Darts Farm, but turning off first on the track back to Topsham.
All this time, I marvelled at the changing seasons, with the first green of spring, and the growth of flowers and leaves into summer. I noticed the light changing too, as dawn grew later.
I did not set out to keep a record of lockdown, but I always took a phone or camera with me, and snapped what was beautiful or interesting, which means I do have some images directly related to the lockdown itself, which include those taken out and about in the town later in the day.
There was a camaraderie about those walks. We were a scattered band of people who loved the peace and freshness of the early morning, and who wanted to beat the risk of finding ourselves in crowded places later in the day. Some faces were familiar, others new to me. I often exchanged greetings with our friend who takes weather photos for the BBC, and with another who plays the church organ, and I also became acquainted with a lady who always walks when she comes off night duty at an emergency call centre. Although the circumstances were harsh, there was something very special about those walks, and about the changing beauty of the scene. The weather was exceptionally good during those few months; bird song was crystal clear, roads were quiet, air unpolluted.
From August, everything changed, both with the easing of restrictions and my own circumstances. The early walks came to an end. Perhaps I will begin them again this spring – but this time I hope it will be on the basis of wanting to do so, rather than from the pressures of lockdown.
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.
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