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 As I wrote the book, I came across a few more historical references to ‘the circle of nine’, but with no internet resources to draw on in those days, and a deadline looming, I couldn’t investigate much further.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
A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot
The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas
In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!
So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.
One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.’ So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!
‘For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).
And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)
The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)
The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.
I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:
THE FOOL In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.
The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.
The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.
And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.
Preparing for Twelfth Night
So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!
Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools: Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001) The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.
This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.
This lovely poem by Thomas Campion, which I’ve frequently sung to the lute with my friend Steve Graham, paints a richly-coloured picture of how people, perhaps in a large household or stately home in the early seventeenth century, would occupy themselves during the dark hours at the turn of the year. And although the celebrations indicated here might be a little more elaborate than in the average household, merry-making, playing games, acting and drinking wine were an honoured part of the general Twelve Days tradition. We’re about to enter these days, which are generally said to start on Christmas Day itself, and perhaps we might extend our own revels right the way through to Twelfth Night itself. More of that later!
One key element of these Twelve Days, is that even though they start after the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, the mornings will continue to get darker until about January 6th. So the finish of the Twelve Days heralds a general return of the light at both ends of the day, rather than just in the evenings which follow the Solstice. This seems to be a little-known fact in today’s society, when our habits are governed by artificial lighting. You can find a readable astronomical explanation of this here.
In many traditional cultures, these twelve days have been considered as time set apart, because of this phenomenon. The ancient gods of the Indian Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days, and the Romans placed the days outside the calendar itself. In Germany, all spinning was prohibited at that time, so as not to offend Frau Perchta, the winter goddess. And in England, as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the reign of the Lord of Misrule, and games where finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day. It was a time of mystery too; the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’
Fortune-telling during the Twelve Days – Indeed, the Twelve Days are a magical time, when the veil between our world and the invisible realm of spirits is said to be very thin. The season has many associated traditions of fortune-telling, mostly to do with predicting events or even the weather for the year ahead. Farming communities were, not unnaturally, obsessed with trying to forecast weather in the days before modern meteorology. Weather lore and keen observation obviously counted for much, but by magical means, they hoped to glimpse further ahead. One divination practice assigns the weather on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to a corresponding month of the year, so rain on Day One stands for a wet January, frost on Day Two for an icy February, and so on. I dare say you would have to make some adjustments though: if it snowed on Day Seven (July), for instance …
For personal fortune-telling, divination rituals could be performed using whatever you had to hand in the home and for the celebrations: candles, nuts and even the family Bible, could help to determine what will happen in the year ahead. If the flame guttered, or the nut cracked on the fire, for instance, this might have a particular meaning and could be interpreted as signs of things to come. One popular custom was to open the family Bible, blindfold, then place your finger seemingly at random on a verse; this is said to give you relevant guidance for the next twelve months More macabre practices involved predicting who would die in the year to come, perhaps by sitting in the churchyard at midnight to see the spirits of the not-yet-dead appear there. Even if we have forgotten most of these Christmas rituals today, trysts with fortune such as pulling crackers and playing board games are still echoes of these customs.
If you are eager to get into the mood of the Twelve Days early, then you can join in with a pre-emptive Russian custom. That’s if you are still an unmarried girl: Dec 13th – The Day of St Andrew the First-Called. Although it was still a long way till Christmas, girls were already trying to read their fortunes. Some knew how to foretell it from tracks in the snow. To do this, they had to get up early in the morning and look for the tracks leading from their porch. Who was it that left them, a man or a bird?…They should not be in any hurry, otherwise they might remove the tracks of someone they were eagerly waiting for.A Russian Folk Calendar– Polina Rozhnova
The Calendar Change
I’ve mentioned that the commonest way to count the Twelve Days of Christmas is to start on Christmas Day itself as number one. But other variations are possible. We have a complex history when it comes to counting dates. In 1752, British folk calendar customs were thrown into disarray for years to come, when the calendar was changed. Those who went to sleep on Wed 2nd September 1752 were forced to accept the next morning that they had progressed overnight to Thurs 14th September. There was an uproar – and it’s said that mobs stormed the streets, shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ No one is quite sure if this is true, but the general public did not take the loss quietly.
The calendar had finally been changed because it had become significantly out of alignment with the astronomical calendar. Christmas had drifted from its original position, closely following the winter solstice, to a date which is now the equivalent of January 6th. The reason for this is that a year, (a complete orbit of the earth around the sun) is not exactly 365 days long. It is in fact 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. So the calendar needed re-setting, and a new method had to be implemented for interspersing extra days, which we now know as the leap year system.
However, even after the calendar was changed, some people clung on to their habit of celebrating Christmas on what is now January 6th. In fact, those especially keen on merry-making could celebrate right through from new-style Christmas Eve on December 25th, to Old Twelfth Night on January 17th – 18th. This is not unknown in Russia today, where the Orthodox Church uses the old calendar, and secular society the modern one. There are reputed to be some seriously partying Russians who begin merry-making on December 24th and only let up around Jan 18th.
And which date is which?
There is still scope for confusion, though. A calendar sounds a nice simple affair, designed to make life easier for all of us. But scrape the surface, and you will find a chasm of uncertainty beneath. Is today’s Twelfth Night the evening before January 6th, i.e. the night of Jan 5th, or is it on Jan 6th itself? A calendar expert speaks: ‘In earlier times, ‘Twelfth Night’ meant 5 January, i.e. the Eve of the Twelfth Day, in the same way as Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day. But nowadays most people regard ‘Twelfth Night’ as meaning the evening of Twelfth Day (6 January).’ (The English Year – Steve Roud).
Then you seemingly have the complication of New Year, interrupting the Twelve Days, and declaring a new beginning before we’ve even finished celebrating these twelve. In previous centuries, New Year’s Eve and Jan 1st weren’t given such prominence, but included in the general range of customs and festivities celebrated over the Twelve Days. New Year on January 1st was a bureaucratic Roman invention, and wasn’t considered very important until Queen Victoria’s reign. In my view, that’s where things have gone wrong! I prefer the natural progression of the twelve days and the return of the light to mark out the time, rather than an artificially chosen date for a forced celebration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like staying up late? Perhaps, too, in an industrial world more pressure is now applied to get back to work after January 1st; in rural societies, this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate and rest for twelve days because they couldn’t usefully work on the land at that time.
The Marshfield Mummers, aka ‘The Old Time Paper Boys’ usually perform every Boxing Day in the village of Marshfield just north of Bath. Sadly, it’s cancelled for 2021 because of the coronavirus – ‘for the first time since 1944’. I enjoyed this performance some years back, and these are some of the photos I took at the time.
‘A partridge in a pear tree’ A post about the Twelve Days wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the famous song, with unusual gifts given on each successive day. Just as a reminder, the standard version (there are indeed variants) goes: A partridge in a pear tree – Two turtle doves – Three French hens – Four calling birds – Five gold rings – Six geese a-laying – Seven swans a-swimming – Eight ladies milking – Nine ladies dancing – Ten lords a-leaping – Eleven pipers piping – Twelve drummers drumming.
Much effort has been made to delve into the symbolic meanings of these gifts. There are pagan versions, Christian versions, conspiracy theory versions, folkloric versions – you may take your pick. I have my own take on the ‘nine ladies dancing’, as I’ve written a whole book about the significance of ‘nine ladies’, as emblems and archetypes of women’s lives. And the concept of ‘the company of nine women’ goes back to prehistoric times. (The Circle of Nine). Take a look at this blog on January 17th, when I’m devoting a whole post to this theme!
Others have turned the words of the song into comedy, as did John Julius Norwich. The correspondence between a young lady and her over-zealous lover, who delivers these gifts, may not be so amusing once you’ve heard it performed at several Christmas concerts in a row! However, I’ve warmed to this unusual version from Ireland, although is there an element of cross-dressing here too?
If it’s novelty you’re after with the Twelve Days song, you can also find Covid versions, a Boris Johnson version and other subversive attempts to spice up an old favourite. (I’ll let you discover those yourselves on YouTube).
Twelfth Night, marking the final day, used to be a major celebration in the British Isles with parties and games. The Twelfth Night cake was the centrepiece of the occasion. This was baked with little charms or tokens in it, such as a bean, a clove or a coin, for guests to discover in their slices. As mentioned earlier, sometimes they were required to act out the role their charm signified for the rest of the evening, according to a pre-determined list ranked from Knave to King and Queen. It was finale to Christmas of merry-making, which included pageants and plays for those in the higher ranks of society. Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is thought to have been written for that purpose, and it contains the kind of uproarious comedy, topsy-turvy accidents of chance, and switches of identity which were in keeping with Twelfth Night games. There’s an excellent account of the Tudor Christmas, which put all the emphasis on those twelve days, and their associated customs, saints’ days, and food offerings, recorded by Lucy Worsley for the BBC. In the UK, you can catch it on iplayer for a couple of weeks longer, or find it on You Tube. (NB The link I put up when this post was launched has now been removed from You Tube, but perhaps it will be posted again.)
I’d like to spread the net wider than just the UK, so let’s have a look at a Spanish custom of making a special Twelfth Night ‘King’ bread. Within the complexities of the Twelve Days is, of course, the Christian Epiphany on Jan 6th, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the stable where Jesus was born.
This description comes from The Spruce Eats . I discovered that the recipe given on this website is almost identical to the one in my book Bread: A complete guide by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter, which I’ve had as a staple cookery book for years. I’ve streamlined the two versions here, which luckily agree almost entirely on quantities and method. However – COOK’S ALERT WARNING! – I haven’t actually made this recipe yet. I hope to do so this year, but please join me in the experiment, rather than take it as Cherry’s-Cache-tested. BUT – now I have made it! Please see ‘Checking in for the New Year’, posted on Jan 10th. I’m adding a few tips below, in italics.
Twelfth Night Bread, from The Spruce Eats Roscon de Reyes is a traditional dessert, served the night before or the morning of Reyes or Epiphany on Jan. 6. Dia de Reyes or simply Reyes is the day when children in Spain receive gifts from the Reyes Magos–Wise Men or Magi—the three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts. Instead of gifts from Santa Claus, the children receive them from the Reyes Magos. It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party, but if you find the bean, you pay for the cake. In the last half of the 20th century, filling the roscon with whipped cream or a thick custard became popular. Today about a third of the roscones sold in Spain are filled. If you want to fill yours, use a bread knife to slice the bread in half horizontally and carefully remove the top. Next, squeeze in the whipped cream or filling you’ve chosen and carefully replace the top. Keep refrigerated until serving if filled with cream or custard.
Ingredients 450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached flour ½ teaspoon salt 25gm/ 1 oz active dry yeast I don’t think this is correct – 25gm would be for fresh yeast. The proportion of fresh to dried is 3:1, so I used 8 gm granular yeast, which rose perfectly well, but probably a 7gm packet of instant yeast would be fine 140 ml/ scant 2/3 cup mixed lukewarm milk & water 75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp butter 75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp caster sugar Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (alternative quantity 2tsp) Finely grated rind of 1 orange (alternative quantity 2tsp) 2 large eggs 1 tbsp brandy 1 tbsp water (orange water also recommended – or I used 1tbsp fresh orange juice) 1 egg white (lightly beaten) for glazing 2 cups candied and glace fruit (eg assorted figs, oranges, lemons, mangos or cherries, chopped or left in large pieces. You’ll need the soft sugared kind as in glace cherries or mixed candied peel) As it bakes on the outside of the loaf, choose the softest kind. It might also be possible to mix in some chopped candied peel into the dough, the kind sold for cake-making. Flaked almonds for sprinkling on top
How to Make It
Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
In a small mixing bowl, stir and dissolve the dry yeast in the lukewarm milk mixed with the lukewarm water. NB if using instant packet yeast, you won’t need to do this
Once dissolved, pour the dissolved yeast into the centre of the flour. Stir in just enough flour from around the sides of the bowl to make a thick batter.
With your hand, grab about a teaspoon of the flour from the side of the bowl and sprinkle it over the top of the batter.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place, away from any draft. Allow batter to turn spongy, about 15 minutes.
In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Add grated orange and lemon rinds, eggs, brandy and water to the flour mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough.
Beat or hand mix the flour mixture until it is elastic and smooth. Gradually beat in the reserved butter-sugar mixture and mix until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl oiled cling-film or damp tea towel.
Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
Once the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap and knock down the dough. Lightly flour a clean counter or cutting board and place dough on it.
Knead for 2 to 3 minutes. You can incorporate any Twelfth Night charms, figures, beans etc at this point. (Consider the impact on people’s teeth, though!)
Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
Carefully place the dough seam down onto the prepared baking sheet and connect the ends together, forming a ring. (You can also hide a bean or a small foil-wrapped, ceramic figurine at this stage, too). Cover again. Leave in a warm place until doublde in size. This will take about 1 to 1 ½ hours
Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 F/ 180 C. Brush the top of the dough ring with lightly beaten egg white, and Decorate the ring with the candied fruit pieces. Push them into the dough slightly so that they do not fall off. Sprinkle with almond flakes.
Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
Midwinter Darkness And so to close this account, I’ll just slip in a reminder that my current series of posts are about different forms of celebrating the time of year, not just with dazzling lights and feasts, but also about relishing the darkness of the days and the long nights. These allow us to rest, to ponder, to warm ourselves with memories. Put another log on the fire, dim the lights, and sink into the dark womb of the year!
As we travel through the darkest weeks of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, my next few posts aim to celebrate the different aspects of darkness and of night. I begin with another trio of Tarot cards, where two of the three images are associated with nighttime. Then I’ll follow with ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, traditionally both a resting and a feasting time during the longest nights. After that comes the story of an Irish monk writing a poem at night while watching his cat hunt for mice. Finally, we’ll emerge via the The Feast of Fools, a look both at this custom and at the Fool card in the Tarot. Darkness has its own rewards, as I hope to show. It can be a time to reach deep within the soul. It can also be a fruitful time for creative activity, for dreaming up new ideas and writing more freely. At the end of this very strange year, 2020, my wish is for us all to find both rest and inspiration during these weeks.
Today’s cards are: The Hermit, The Emperor, and The Moon
Before starting this series of Tarot posts, I shuffled the cards, then drew them in trios, sight unseen. I enjoy the freshness of seeing them in new, unplanned combinations. Considering them in trios stimulates insights, as each brings something forth from the others. A triad of cards is in itself can describe a situation or a relationship, and as such can form the basis for a very simple Tarot reading, as I explained in Tarot Triumphs.
Images above by Robert Lee-Wade as line drawings for Tarot Triumphs
The Hermit At this time of winter, and in a year of pandemic when many of us may be in some form of lockdown, the Hermit shows us a way to go with his lantern. He takes us on an inward journey, shedding a light which aids us even when the darkness of midwinter surrounds us for many hours of the day. A Hermit was traditionally set apart from society, and certainly gave up any claim on wealth or status. But in fact he was not entirely solitary, as he was often considered to be a sage, someone to go to for good advice. He could be trusted because he didn’t have any worldly interests. (There were female hermits and anchoresses too, though as the card is male and space is short here, I’ll use the masculine pronoun.) His hermitage may have been remote, but those in search of counsel would often beat a path to its entrance. Or sometimes it was deliberately set up at a spot where travellers could readily consult him on their journeys, for instance at a crossroads, or by a ford.
The Hermit’s lantern represents an inner truth, and in a Tarot reading the card might suggest a wise teacher or counsellor who guides you through dark places. It can also represent the seeker in our own soul, that spark of truth which we all carry within us. The light of the lantern can be hard to discern sometimes, and we may have to go deep into our inner world, retreating from the distractions of daylight, to find it again. Thus for many of us – myself included – the time around the Winter Solstice can be a rewarding opportunity to do this. Although the glitter and dazzle of the Christmas may prevail, there’s still the possibility to drop into quiet solitude, perhaps during the darkness of the long nights. Here, we can ponder, dream, rest, and reconcile the conflicting forces of life. We can shine our Hermit’s lantern into chambers and passageways which we haven’t explored for a while, and they may reveal more in that flickering light than they would under the glare of the sun. All in all, the Hermit can signify wise counsel, point to a personal retreat, or recommend a return to a simple truth.
The Emperor At first glance, the Hermit and the Emperor seem a long way apart in their meaning. The Emperor represents great power in the world, and the Hermit has renounced the world. Yet they both signify authority, and they both support each other. The Hermit has inner authority, but in order for him to dwell peacefully at the crossroads, for instance, and give advice to travellers, those roads have to be kept safe, and this ideally comes through a well-regulated state. That’s the job of the Emperor, and his realm is that of justice, law and order, and a fairness in dealing with his subjects. A saying of Jesus in the Bible is relevant here: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. We live in a world, which needs order and structure at a mundane level. If that order is kept, then there is the freedom to seek higher things.
In the Tarot, of course, all the cards can represent both inner and external forces. A reading in which the Emperor is prominent might be a call to get your life in order, and take charge of it. At a period of rest in midwinter, or at least a time when the normal daily round is suspended for a while, it could be a good moment to check out your routines, and perhaps the infrastructure of your life. Maybe something could be dismantled and re-constructed? Or, in an external sense, the Emperor could be a significant authority figure, perhaps a father figure, who may be either supporting or, on the other hand, confronting you. Does that need attention, perhaps? I’ll say a little more about his place in the trio further on.
The Moon is for many of us one of the most fascinating cards of the Tarot Triumphs. It offers dreams, and stirs the imagination, but it can also be the gateway to illusion, awkward moods, and disturbing psychic experiences. The Moon is of course honoured as a symbol, and portrayed mythically in cultures worldwide, as I’ve shown in my post about the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and her Moon meditation. Its representation in the Tarot is unusual, however. Even though there are various possible links to emblems from Babylonian culture, Greek myth, and the mysteries of Mithraism and the Kabbalah, as I’ve explained in my book, it has a unique depiction and an enigmatic presence, which cannot be attributed to a single source. The water and the two towers always remind me of the Arsenale in Venice, and when I visit Venice, I always feel compelled to go there for this very reason. When it comes into view, for a few moments I feel as though I am in the Tarot Moon scene itself.
The Moon is linked with our inner tides of emotion, reverie, dreams and nightmares. It pulls up images from the deep, and can bring confusion as well as a sense of joy at its subtle evocations. It erases the borders between us as individuals, or at least shows how illusory and shifting they are, thus leading us into the realm of psychic experiences. In some contexts, this is ideal: a shared visualisation in a trusted group, for instance, can be so much more powerful and resonant than one done alone. On the other hand, that delicate bond between individuals in a group can easily be damaged by a reckless or even malicious participant, causing pain to its members. Trust can be given, but also undermined here.
The Trio – So all in all, the Emperor is needed both for the Hermit and the Moon, to provide a safe framework for their energies. We need order in our lives, and reliable structures. It would be dangerous to swim too long in the moonlit waters, or to rely solely on the light of a single lantern. But where would we be, without that force of imagination? Humans need, quite literally, to dream. And the Emperor may help us to distinguish between the light of the Hermit’s lantern, our own spark of inner truth, and the reveries of the Moon, which wax and wane. Keeping the dynamic of this trio is a tall order, but it can be done.
Temperance, Justice, and the Chariot (Line drawings by Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs)
With three Tarot cards in hand, it’s nearly always possible to see a dynamic between them. It’s possible to do a simple three-card reading, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs, because any combination of three Tarot symbols can be seen as a situation, formed by a triad of energies at work together. However, I did feel that this particular trio of cards, which turned up when I shuffled the pack, are especially close in their relationship: they are all to do with the balancing up of different forces, along with principles of fairness and even-handedness.
TEMPERANCE no. 14 This winged figure offers a rainbow spectrum of possible meanings, rather like a prism of light shining in the spray of the waters, which she pours endlessly. The waters do indeed seem to flow eternally, in both directions; one of her messages is that our resources will stay fresh and renew themselves if we use them moderately, but generously. Creating the right kind of flow is everything.
This image goes back far in history: Temperance’s action of pouring is similar to that of certain Assyrian deities, who were shown in winged form, pouring divine water into a receptacle. Although the Tarot card of Temperance is not likely to have a direct link with this mythology, it could link indirectly through the Renaissance use of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which followed on from Assyrian culture. The winged figure suggests grace, and a benign, angelic presence from another realm, so that this symbol can represent being touched by something higher.
In terms of cultural history, this card of Temperance represents one of the four cardinal virtues, and could of course be taken as a stern warning against too much self-indulgence. But earlier associated meanings include ‘temperament’, as the blending of four elements to make up a person’s type. Temperance in a Tarot reading may raise the question of balance and flow; are the energies flowing well, and are they being channelled correctly in a particular situation?
Winged Temperance was also called ‘The Angel of Time’ (the words ‘time’ and ‘temperance’ are connected through their Latin roots), whose swift beating wings may announce the fleeting passage of time in human life. So perhaps the card could also signify that it’s important to make good use of the time available to us.
THE CHARIOT no. 7 Here we have drive, energy and movement. The crowned and armed youth rides in a triumphal car, a classical Roman emblem of victory. As a Tarot emblem it can signify achievement, and the overcoming of obstacles. ‘Onwards! Forwards!’ is the cry here.
There is also an allegory of duality, embodied in the harnessing of the two horses who have to move forwards together, two energies which must work in harmony. Otherwise, if they go in different directions, disaster follows, the chariot is overturned, and all is lost. In psychological terms, this represents control over our own emotional power. Feelings such as anger, desire and excitement make terrible masters but excellent servants. The driver must be the one to balance these energies out, and to train his horses to pull together and respond to his touch. But, as is often the case in Tarot, this card also poses a question. The driver does not seem to have reins. How, then, does he manage to steer and restrain his horses without this direct control ? Something to ponder, perhaps?
Plato portrayed the charioteer as an allegory of the human struggle, where we try to control a pair of horses who want to go in different directions; one is of finer breed, and represents our noble urges and impulse towards truth, while the other is a brute beast, fixated on selfish appetites. This classical reference might well have been understood by Renaissance owners of Tarot packs, though it was probably not the only source for the image.
Historically, too, the image has similarities to the triumphal chariots that were still used in processions or as allegorical emblems in early Renaissance times. One early Marseilles-style pack, known as the Vieville Tarot, and dating from 1650, shows sphinxes drawing the chariot. This is the only traditional pack that I have seen with sphinxes, but the idea was certainly carried forward into the 19th century Oswald Wirth pack, and incorporated into the influential Rider-Waite pack a couple of decades later. Digging a little deeper, I find that Renaissance mythic triumphal chariots were often portrayed being drawn by strange creatures, especially sphinxes, which were portrayed as part human, part lion, and symbolised the duality of Wisdom and Ignorance. This fits in well with the idea of self-mastery and the need to control opposing forces that the symbol of the Chariot implies.
JUSTICE no. 8 The figure of Justice is familiar to most of us. She is Iustitia, or ‘Lady Justice’, the Roman goddess, with upright sword and scales. In the most common image we have of Justice today, she is blindfolded, but in the Tarot card she is shown with her eyes open. This affirms that Tarot originated at least as early as medieval times, as the general image of Justice was not depicted blindfold until the fifteenth century.
Justice, like Temperance, is one of the four Cardinal Virtues, a schema originating in Platonic thought and taken up by the Christian Church. Possibly Strength may double for Fortitude, and, as suggested in my earlier post, the High Priestess could serve as Prudence. However, Tarot is an extraordinary mix of images and concepts, and can’t be pinned down to a single allegorical or religious set of meanings. So although Justice is one of the more ‘straightforward’ images in the pack, it is worthy of further scrutiny, to penetrate its deeper meanings, and perceive implications that might not immediately be obvious.
Although the principle is universal, each culture devises its own system of justice. Both in a tribe or a large nation, a person is required to know its laws, and infringement brings a penalty, or a requirement for restitution. Thus the balance of the scales is set to rights. The ways and means are decided by those acting locally in service to justice, whether in the imposing Law Courts of capital cities, or by a group of tribal elders deciding how many cattle the miscreant should pay to compensate the man he has wronged. In families too, parents act as enforcers of ‘Justice’, handing out rewards and withdrawing privileges, often battling with the growing child’s own very particular sense of what is ‘fair’, and what is not. Justice is not perfect; many who begin legal proceedings for justice eventually come to wish they had never started. So the Tarot Triumph may warn us not to invoke the goddess of Justice unless we are willing to let her do her work, whatever the result may be.
‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ Justice points to the pattern of cause and effect, and invites us to learn its laws.
In August, I featured posts about Russia, based on my travels and studies there. Here, we are back to Russia, but in a very different way. This story is from an unforgettable trip which I made to Siberia in 2004, travelling to the regions of Tuva and Khakassia. One of the most fascinating encounters that I had was with a traditional Siberian shaman, Herel. This is a shortened version of the article I originally wrote for ‘Quest: The Journal of the Theosophical Society in America’ (Winter 2017).
The first beats of the shaman’s drum were resounding, starting slowly but quickly mounting in intensity. I was transported, in spirit at least, back to Siberia from my home in Devon. But then came the sudden roar of a helicopter overhead, completely obliterating the sound I was listening to on the recording. I clicked on the pause button, and peered out of the window. A large army helicopter was circling right above me, barely skimming the rooftops of the town. Its presence felt incongruous, and menacing. But was it? Had I perhaps inadvertently invoked a shamanic presence, as I played the recording of the ritual in my study? After all, it is said that shamans can fly.
This particular recording was of a ritual that took place in 2004, in the far-off province of Tuva, Siberia. It was a consultation I had there with Herel, a local shaman. In fact, this was the first time I had ever played back the recording. I couldn’t bring myself to do so earlier –it might have seemed artificial, and dilute the experience while the power of that occasion still burned bright in my mind. But now, twelve years later, the time was right, and I was ready to listen and reflect. When the helicopter finally departed, as quickly as it had come, I immersed myself again in the drum beats and chanting. I sensed that I was sliding into a different world, eerie and disorientating in one way, but a place where reflection and calmness were also possible. However, the visceral sound of helicopter remained imprinted on my senses, a reminder that this meeting with the shaman had been a powerful experience, and one that, perhaps, was not quite over yet.
My own spiritual path has led me deep into the heart of the Western hermetic tradition – in particular Tree of Life Kabbalah, alchemy, Tarot and astrology. At the time of my trip to Siberia, I was certainly interested in shamanism, but in a cautious, anthropologically-orientated way. I was wary of the contemporary enthusiasm for taking up shamanism. This provoked questions for me: is it possible to practice shamanism in a modern Western context? Does it require its own traditional culture, for authenticity and indeed safety? Many serious studies of shamanism emphasise what sacrifice is required from true shamans. Physical ordeals, renunciation of normal life and exhausting, risky encounters with the spirits, are part of the job description, in the efforts to help and heal others.
In a traditional context too, the shamanic path is not one that you can choose on a whim. Usually the shaman shows signs from childhood that this is his or her potential destiny. Having a parent or relative may pre-dispose one to be a shaman, but this is not guaranteed. Herel told me that although both he and his wife were shamans, only one out of their five children was possibly a shaman in the making. The signs were there at her birth, as the weather changed dramatically, from thunder and lightning to sunshine and then snow. The heavens were pointing a finger to her ability, which was now manifesting in later childhood through significant dreams, and encounters with spirits.
I came to Siberia seeking answers to my questions about shamanism: can it be practised, or truly experienced by anyone not of that traditional culture? I had no doubts about its power, only whether it could survive in a modern world, without losing its identity as a genuine spiritual practice. By 2004, I had visited Russia nearly sixty times. I ran a Russian arts and crafts business; I had studied Russian traditional folk culture, learnt the language and mixed freely with people in cities and countryside. But I was keen to find an even older culture, to witness practices which go back thousands of years, and which may be the source from which much Russian folk tradition itself has evolved. Siberia has a living, truly ancient culture; the majority of its people are ethnically different from Russians, and its primary religions are shamanism, and Buddhism.
I travelled with writer friend Lyn Webster-Wilde, visiting the fabled lands of Tuva and Khakassia, along with the Sayani Mountains. Our trip was an organised journey of exploration with a small group of Russian travellers. We went in the warm summer months, when the forests were in full leaf and mountain pastures were studded with alpine flowers. We traversed landscapes that had remained largely untouched since the Bronze Age, including sweeping grasslands studded with standing stones and stone circles, like an airbrushed version of the Wiltshire plains. In Khakassia, we saw Bronze Age carvings and pictograms on rocks still relevant to the customs of local people today –of the magic elk, for instance, who they say leads souls to the underworld. Shrines set up to spirits of the land were abundant, and ancient ceremonies of purification and healing were still carried out at important ritual points in the landscape. This was the landscape of shamanism in southern Siberia, that as far its people are concerned, is still a spiritual, magical terrain.
When we arrived in Kyzil, the capital of Tuva, we were put up at a nearby yurt camp, and then taken into the town itself. Here there is a monument that, allegedly, marks the Centre of Asia. It is also home to the shamans ‘clinic’. This is where approved and regulated shamans are allowed to practice. It might sound contrary to the spirit of shamanism, with its allegiance to nature, to fires and skies and a freedom of movement. However, Tuvan shamanism is in recovery after brutal suppression by the Soviet regime– many shamans throughout the whole of Siberia were murdered or dispossessed. In that era, some were even thrown out of aeroplanes with the cruel taunt: ‘You shamans say you can fly! Let’s see you do it, then.’ The tradition was severely depleted, but it was not lost, and is making a strong comeback. To a certain extent, though, it still has to work in co-operation with the authorities, hence the ‘clinic’ set-up. And these shamans certainly practice outdoors as well. They have special gatherings at sacred mountain sites, and as we shall see, our shaman Herel came to our yurt camp with his wife the following evening to perform a ceremony of blessing.
The consultation From listening to the recording, from my notes written at the time, and from the vivid recollections that I still carry, I now offer an account of the session with Herel, the Tuvan shaman.
So now our group sits in Herel’s consulting room, which is filled with feathers, ribbons, ropes, bones, plaques, a reindeer head, a horn and bells. They hang from his walls, a chaotic clutter of ritual paraphernalia, rather in the way that strips of cloth or leather hang from the traditional shamanic costume itself. He shows us some of the tools of his trade, and how they work. His is a hard calling, he admits. His own speciality is purification and divination, whereas his wife specialises in healing women’s ailments.
At the end of the talk, he asks if anyone would like to have a personal session with him. I alone say yes. I’ll pay the price he asks – higher for visitors than for locals, I’m sure, but he has to make a living, and I don’t begrudge it. Later, Ira our young guide tells me that from all the groups she has brought to this place, I am the only person who has ever opted for a private consultation. This surprises me, but she adds that Herel is the very best of the shamans she has encountered, and a man of compassion; some seem aggressive, and the quality, she implies, is variable.
Lyn and Ira stay. Ira needs to translate for me. I speak good Russian, but Herel’s accent is thick and guttural, as it is probably his second language. Lyn makes a recording, her earlier BBC training coming in handy.
Herel dons an eagle headdress and tells me to sit on a bear skin in the centre of the room. ‘Raise your hands,’ he says, as he passes burning juniper around my body. ‘While appealing to the spirits, I’ll ask them to take your worries and bad feelings out of you, and I’ll ask them to make your future road happy.’ He tells me to shut my eyes, and bids me not to be afraid. Let the tears come, he says. Tears often fall during an encounter with the spirits. And indeed they do. I am moved, and emotionally exposed during this session, though I am neither afraid nor unhappy. Herel dances around me, drumming and chanting, creating a kind of beehive of sound and movement around me. I feel that I am in a magical chamber, in a different dimension of space and reality.
The ritual is constantly changing. I have the impression that his chants and cries are a dialogue with the spirits, as they shift in tone and intensity. Phases of the session peak, and then fall away into silence. A new one is heralded by the blow of a conch shell, or jangling of bells. Suddenly, he thumps my shoulder with a bear paw – it’s a shock. Later, he pulls back my Tshirt and spits down the back my neck. Curiously, I don’t mind this a bit. He even uses a whip on me several times, but it is never painful. I write down later that this is ‘stimulating and pleasant’, rather like using a switch of birch leaves to beat your body in a Russian bath. At the end of each section, he blows away the psychic ‘debris’ and sends it out of the door. I am in a different time zone, and have no sense of how long the treatment lasts, although Lyn tells me later that it is about 15 minutes
He mentioned at the start of the session that I have an obstruction in my left shoulder. ‘You are worrying about something. I’ll take it out of you.’ Curiously, at this point I have had several years of problems with my right shoulder, and already recognise that is probably stress-related. I can see now that if one side of the body is numb with some emotional weight or obstruction, then it’s the other side that may take the strain and display the symptoms. After the session, Herel says that he has succeeded in asking the spirits to relieve me of this. Next year, he tells me, will be more normal, and that I will start to be happy again, after going through a little more personal suffering first.
We conclude with three measures of advice. He tells me that I may come again next year, if I wish. But if I don’t, I can connect to him at a distance; he is able to sense people he has treated, and can help if needs be. He gives me a ‘spirit bag’, a little bundle of cloth tied up with cord, and tells me that I should feed it three times a week with oil or melted butter. It is my talisman, to connect me to the power of the session, and I should take it with me if I am travelling or am away on business. He also advises me to contact the spirits of place where I live – the spirits of the hills, trees and streams. After this session, he says, I will be able to do this. That’s if I have such spirits in my homeland. (The aftermath, of how I endeavoured to put this into practice, is omitted here for reasons of length.)
The next day, Herel and his wife arrive at our yurt camp to conduct a ceremony to promote the well-being of everyone there. They come as the light begins to fade, preparing the space carefully, setting the fire and arranging little balls of dough to mark out the territory for the ritual. Once the fire is blazing, they don full costume and invite everyone to sit in a large circle. I am still bathed in my impressions from the day before, and the difference between the two occasions strikes me strongly. This one is open to all comers; it has resonance and power but not, to my mind, the concentrated force that I experienced in my session.
Herel and his wife are dealing with a big mix of people, from earnest Japanese tourists to young Australian surfers, since the camp is used by various travellers passing through the area. Some of them have never even heard of shamanism, and are nervous, or giggle loudly at this unfamiliar ritual. At one point, Herel passes around the backs of everyone in the circle, giving some of them a thump with his bear paw, though never as hard as he clouted me the day before. I wonder if they realise that they are actually being offered a precious nugget of healing, or blessing, or insight? I have a video of this ceremony though, and even viewing it ‘cold’, a long time later, it is compelling, and there is an unearthly quality to the chanting and singing of the shaman pair. I do not know exactly what the sounds mean, though it certainly sounds at times as though they are in conversation with spirits.
One study of shamanism mentions that Tuvan shamans simulate bird and animal calls to express particular emotions: that of a raven to curse an enemy, a cow to call up rain, a wolf or eagle to frighten people, a magpie to uncover a lie, a bull to demonstrate power, and a bear to convey rapture. (Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003) The horse has special properties in many branches of Siberian shamanism; it is a creature that can fly the shaman to the spirit world. The bear, hare and eagle are also particularly important in Tuvan shamanism.
I suspect that the eagle is Herel’s own spirit guide, although – understandably – he refuses to tell us what kind of creature it is. During my individual session with him, I ‘saw’ an eagle. My notes say: ‘Just the head, neck and shoulders were visible. It was quite clear and communicating with me – intelligent.’
When the ceremony ends, the mood is peaceful. The daylight has not quite gone and unexpectedly, the sky brightens and I look up to see a cloud in the shape of an eagle just overhead. Am I imagining it? No, it is there when I look on the video later. Curiously enough, this video will give me a lot of trouble; I discover that the original mini-tapes are jammed, and only after various professional companies refuse to try and repair them do I find one local man who is prepared to have a go. Luckily, he succeeds in transferring the whole recording to DVD. As I said at the beginning. strange things do happen when shamanic forces are in action.
On a lighter note, after the evening’s ceremony is over, I pick up some of the balls of dough used by the shamans, and take them back as souvenirs to the yurt that Lyn and I are sharing. I hang them in a cloth bag from the end of my bed, for want of anywhere better to put them. That night, I sleep peacefully. Lyn, however, is awake for hours, disturbed by the sound of a mouse that has detected the presence of tasty titbits and is trying all kinds of ways to reach the prize. Scuttlings, rustlings and chewings ruin her night’s sleep. The next morning, when we relate this light-hearedly, to one of our fellow Russian travellers, he takes it very seriously. ‘No, that was not a mouse!’ he pronounces solemnly. ‘That was a rival shaman come to steal the power of our shaman.’ A little far-fetched, perhaps? But there again, if I am claiming that an army helicopter might be a shaman in disguise, perhaps my ideas are no stranger than his.
As is often the way, my initial questions about shamanism gave way to a different perspective on it. My trip to Siberia, rather than achieving solid answers, showed me that shamanism is a living tradition that cannot be completely pinned down. It is in essence a shape-shifter, and will ebb and flow, finding different forms in different cultures.
I have come to realise that such a development is more important than an anxiety about inappropriate use of shamanism in other cultures, or the blurring of boundaries and nomenclature in academic studies. As Tim Hodginkson, anthropologist and musician, and former student friend of mine at Cambridge, says in his excellent papers, (see link below and Related Reading, below) shamanism is itself improvisatory. It deals with the circumstances as they are; it responds to very particular configurations of place and time.
And each of us may discover something different within its practice. Meeting the shaman gave me not just insight into the tradition itself, but a very specific outcome: it invigorated three of my major passions: the power of music and sound, the power of nature, and the world of ancestry.
Related Reading Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape, Cherry Gilchrist, Quest 2009 and e-book edition Lume 2019 Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats – Virlana Tkacz with Sayan Zhambalov and Wanda Phipps Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer, Joan Halifax E.P. Dutton, New York 1978 Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003 Shamanism in Siberia, V. Dioszegi & M. Hoppal (editors), Akademiai Kiado, Budapest 1978 The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul, Piers Vitebsky, Duncan Baird, London 1995 Transcultural Collisions: Music and Shamanism in Siberia, Tim Hodgkinson. Paper given in 2007 at SOAS, London; available on Tim Hodgkinson’s website.
An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards
This was actually the first trio of cards which I drew, but I decided it was a tough one to start with. So I’ll make it the second of my series on Tarot cards, and their imagery, history and meaning. The cards are the Star, the Hanged Man, and Death. And before you flinch at the mention of the last two, I have to say that this trio is one of the strongest grouping there can be in the Tarot to signify hope and new beginnings. The Star is indeed sometimes called ‘The Star of Hope’, the Hanged Man may in fact be choosing to turn his world upsidedown, and on the Death card there are signs of new beginnings as the old order breaks down and a new one simultaneously begins to grow. It’s a message we could all embrace.
THE STAR (no. 17) The Star is akin to Temperance, in that an angel in one and a naked girl in the other pour water from two jugs. But here the water is poured out, one jug pouring into the waters of what could be a river or lake, the other onto the ground. This is a card where nothing is kept back. Nakedness, openness, and giving forth characterise the figure of the Star. She can be interpreted as hope, generosity and healing. In addition, stars were often believed to be souls which had migrated from human life to the heavens, and the bird on the tree usually symbolises a messenger from the world of souls.
It’s possible that this card could also be a sign of initiation, or an inner journey in the context of myth and tradition. The collection of myths surrounding the related goddesses Ishtar and Anahita from Babylonia and Iran carry a startling likeness to ‘The Star’. Ishtar is known as “The Star of Lamentation”; Anahita is the goddess of the heavenly waters that flow from the region of Venus among the stars. In one of the key myths, Ishtar travels to the centre of the underworld to fetch the water of life to restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven gateways, leaving behind one jewel at each portal, until she arrives naked at the sacred pool. And in this underworld, the souls of the dead are represented by birds. Although it may be hard to find a direct historical link, such myths can have a resonance which finds its way into another form.
Other images of the Star may show an astronomer, or simply a maiden carrying a star symbol. These are on the left from the Jacques Vieville, pack, Paris 1650, a very early ‘Marseilles’ Tarot, and on the right, from a modern reproduction of the 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack.
The Star can thus symbolise the heart of the matter, where there is no further secrecy or pretence. Here, there is giving and receiving through the outpouring of living water. The Star gives all she has, without stinting. It may indeed be a hard journey to reach this point, but this is where hope is renewed.
DEATH (no. 13) In many early Tarot packs, Death was not named. The act of naming might invoke his fearful presence, so it was safer to include him only as an image, along with his number, the so-called ‘unlucky’ thirteen. People were all too aware that the ‘grim reaper’ with his scythe could strike suddenly, and that he had no pity on those from any station in life. In the Middle Ages, images of Death were often shown as slaughtering the Pope or Emperor first, to make a point that those at the top of society were no more protected from his blow than the poor and humble. However, there was also entertainment value in Death; then as now, people liked to frighten themselves with the macabre, and the ‘Triumph of Death’ as a spectacle on the streets was a surprisingly popular part of street carnival celebrations.
Death as a Tarot Trump has gained a bad reputation, unsurprisingly. But if we look more closely, we can see that in nearly all the different Tarot packs, the image shows new life springing from the earth around: heads, hands and plants poke up from the ground. Death promotes fertility, as withered plants and old bones break down and form compost. Nothing is lost, only transformed. We can hope for new growth in the future, even when matters seem bleak.
Death in a Tarot reading is very rarely an indication of physical human death. In the Fool’s Mirror layout which I describe in my book, all 22 Tarot Trumps are used – the situation they reveal depends upon their ordering and their relationship to each other. Plainly, Death could not mean literal death on every occasion, as it will always be there in the reading! It does imply change though, and bidding farewell to the familiar can be painful. But from this comes new growth.
THE HANGED MAN (no 12)
The Hanged Man is not what he might at first appear to be – a criminal hanged, or a traitor suspended by his feet, according to the Italian custom. In nearly every Tarot version, he looks calm and happy, a man who is in control of what he’s doing.
There are historical accounts of acrobats and gymnasts who did tricks very like this, suspended from a rope or a pole. Sometimes they performed high up on the rooftops to entertain visiting dignitaries in Paris or London, astounding them with feats of balance and upside-down contortions. In modern times, an itinerant acrobat in France was spotted holding himself in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.
And the ‘Tarlà’ Festival of Girona, still current in north eastern Spain, involves hanging a life-sized dummy dressed as a jester from a pole placed high across the street. He is said to commemorate the time of the Black Death, when citizens were confined to their quarters to sit out the plague. To relieve the fear and the tedium, a young acrobat, Tarlà, entertained them with displays of swinging and hanging from these poles.
So the Hanged Man may be someone who chooses to be upside-down, and has trained himself to do so. In this light, the main meaning of the card is skill and balance, and indicates a willingness to enter the world of topsy-turvy. The Hanged Man frees himself from conventions. He is also similar to a shaman on a vision quest, relinquishing normality to receive gifts of prophecy and healing, just as the Norse god Odin hung upside-down from the sacred world tree for nine days and nights, in order to acquire divine knowledge. Ideas of acrobat and shaman do combine well here, for both are entrusting themselves to a reversal. The acrobat must trust his training and the strength of the rope. The shaman goes willingly into the unknown, ready to be shaped by what he encounters there.
Tarot Triumphs – In 2016, my book Tarot Triumphs was published by Weiser, USA. This marked a very special moment in my life, as I first became interested in Tarot as a young student, way back in 1968. I spent time in the early ’70s researching its history, looking at historic packs held by the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I learned more about Tarot symbolism, and using it for divination, and became heir to an unusual system of reading the cards known now as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. The chance to write this book was also an opportunity to explain this, and reveal my findings during what is now nearly a lifetime’s interest in these enigmatic and intriguing cards.
I’ve taken an interest in Tarot cards since I first came across them in the USA, at the age of 19. I was fascinated by their images, and over the following years delved into their meanings and history. When I wrote Tarot Triumphs in 2016, it was a chance at last to put together my research and findings, and to pass on what I had learnt from others too – in particular a unique divination layout called ‘The Fool’s Mirror’.
But it didn’t allow me to share the glorious images of traditional Tarot cards, which range from the opulent gilded cards from the royal courts of Europe, to the crude but vigorous woodcuts sold for popular use. There are many mysteries as to Tarot’s origins, and how it was used – you can find out more in my book – but the images have retained their power through the centuries, and are a colourful set of symbols in their own right.
And so I’m planning a series of occasional posts on Cherry’s Cache, which enables me to share images from my own sets of cards, and from digital resources. Along with this, I’ll post extracts from my book on the individual cards themselves, giving some snippets of their meaning, history and variations of imagery.
I prefer the traditional packs, which have been handed on down through the centuries, and adapted to different countries and cultures. They have a resonance, like traditional folk songs. Their river of time can carry me on its currents, whisper secrets in my ear, and speak to me of its past and future. The symbolism of the 22 Tarot Trumps, as the pictorial cards are known, echoes down through the centuries, if we do but listen to it, connecting us to an ancient way of knowledge.
Each post will put the spotlight on three individual cards – today’s cards are pictured above, in line drawings produced by my husband Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs. I’ve allowed the cards to speak in the time-honoured way, simply by shuffling the pack, and using the order in which the cards appeared in, to define the sets of three, rather using the regular numbering of the 22 cards. These are from what is known as the Major Arcana, or the Tarot Trumps; the remaining 56 cards fall into 4 suits like regular playing cards, with one extra court card in each suit.
THE HIGH PRIESTESS(No. 2) The image of the High Priestess, otherwise called the ‘Papesse’ or Female Pope, is very simple in one sense. A woman with a tall headdress sits before a curtain hung between two pillars, holding an open book in her lap. But she has aroused great debate and much learned research among Tarot historians. Does she represent Pope Joan, Isis, Sophia, the Virgin Mary, Faith and the Church, a prophetic Sibyl, a Sorceress or Pagan Knowledge? All have been proposed as candidates, along with a specific historical character, the heretical Manfreda who believed in creating female popes. After fighting my way through this thicket of possible allusions, and appraising their possibilities, I have arrived at the view that this card can best be understood not as one particular figure, but as an embodiment of wisdom and ancient knowledge, symbolised in female form.
In the early Renaissance, for practitioners of philosophical or Hermetic traditions, such a figure of female wisdom was not only acceptable but essential to their cosmology. The headdress and book of the High Priestess were associated with the spirit of ancient teaching, and from that standpoint, she could quite readily have been equated by different interpreters with Mary, Sophia, Isis or the Kabbalistic Shekinah, each of these a feminine representation of wisdom, current in different strands of teaching and thinking at the time. She is not a historical counterpart of the Pope, or a renegade version of the Pope in female form. There is a case though for associating her with ‘Prudence’, a later personification of Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom; some of her attributes – book and triple crown, for instance – can be found in imagery related to Prudence.
So the High Priestess is a teacher of wisdom. And if you go past the trappings, you can also see her as the symbol of contemplation itself. She sits at the entrance to the temple, and is the keeper of its mysteries. In a reading, the card may suggest the need to tap one’s inner resources and to use silence wisely.
THE LOVER (No. 6) The usual version of The Lover clearly indicates a choice: which woman will the young man decide to marry? However, some earlier versions, notably the 15th century Visconti-Sforza pack, show what appears to be a wedding in progress, and in that particular case, the figures are presumed to be Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. The couple were married in 1441, and the sumptuous set of Tarot cards may have actually been commissioned for their wedding. But the dilemma shown on the prevailing traditional image is not a straightforward, happy union; as with many of the cards, it poses a question for us to fathom.
One common interpretation is that these two ladies represent Vice and Virtue. This is borne out by various emblems independent of Tarot packs, such as the one in Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius (1658), where his illustration no. 109 under “Moral Philosophy” shows much the same picture, with the two women positively tugging the young man in different directions.
But if we take this as a choice to be made, rather than purely a decision over love, it opens the way to broader interpretations. The question of a dilemma still remains at the heart of this image. The Marseilles Tarot version of The Lover (seen at the start of this section) is a masterpiece of cross tensions, within this Y-shaped formation, indicating this agony of decision. Here, Cupid’s arrow points towards the man’s left, and to the fair-haired maiden standing there. The Lover, though, looks to the right, towards the laurel-crowned lady with the severe face. She rests a restraining hand on his right shoulder, her left reaching out to him below, while the pretty girl on the left, in some versions crowned with flowers, touches his heart with her fingers. She looks forward, while Miss Laurel Crown looks straight into the Lover’s eyes. Both seem to say, ‘He’s mine!’
The card therefore may not always be about a relationship, but can also indicate a decision pending, a choice to be made in another area of life. Likewise, it could indicate a matter of choosing a particular path, and sacrificing another tempting way forward, in order to achieve the desired goal. And sometimes, the best choice is really very simple.
STRENGTH (No. 11) The usual Tarot image for ‘Strength’ shows a woman bending over a lion, calmly but firmly opening its jaws. The French name for this this card is ‘La Force’, which means Strength, but not ‘force’ in the English sense of the word. Here, therefore, gentleness triumphs over ‘brute force’, which sets up one of those intriguing Tarot paradoxes: how can a woman tame such a savage creature without using force? Some versions of Tarot cards show this as a woman breaking a pillar in half or a man clubbing a lion, but these are crude allegories by comparison, and, to my mind, miss the point.
To understand this better, we can go back to the cult known as the ‘Mistress of the Beasts’ or ‘Lady of the Animals’. This portrays a woman presiding over wild animals, and in particular lions. Images are found as statues and paintings from ancient civilisations such as Crete, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, where ‘The Lady’ may be seen standing between lions, riding upon a lion’s back, or driving a chariot drawn by lions. There may not be a definite historical link to ‘Strength’ in the Tarot, but it shows that the archetype of woman taming beast resides deep within our culture. It’s also possible that this image derives more directly from the woman jongleurs, the wandering performers who travelled in mixed bands, and whose ‘entertainments’ included showing women taming wild beasts. As I’ve suggested in my book, the troubadours and jongleurs may well have played a part in shaping the Tarot.
The ‘strength’ shown, therefore, overcomes danger through gentleness, patience and persistence. This type of strength works through anything that is not direct force – through confidence, compassion, understanding, or quietness.
I am not known for my skill in mathematics. Although my father was a maths teacher, it seems I didn’t inherit the gene. I struggled as far as O Level Maths (with remedial input from Dad) and then abandoned it with relief. Later, however, when I came into contact with the idea of sacred geometry, I did make my reluctant brain face up to certain mathematical challenges. The effort made me realise that grappling with number can help to stimulate deep layers of thinking, and has come in useful both for my own understanding, and for some of the books that I’ve written.
But the story here is more light-hearted – my own experience of encountering the powers of zero. Although zero itself is not such a light-hearted topic, I discovered, when looking into its history: ‘Within zero there is the power to shatter the framework of logic.’ More on that shortly, but I’ll start the memoir first.
There are no zeros in the world of the gods. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. Vida, a friend of mine with a strong interest in the supernatural, pointed out that the number nought doesn’t register on the psychic plane.
‘It just doesn’t work,’ she said. ‘I proved it, with the Premium Bonds. I asked for £50,000, and visualised the number as powerfully as I could. I know that I shouldn’t really ask for money. But my daughter needed things for the baby. Thought I’d give it a go.’
‘And? What happened? Like the rest of us, you didn’t win, I suppose?’
‘Oh, I did. In the very next draw. But I only got £50. The powers-that-be didn’t recognise the noughts, you see.’
‘There’s a zero in fifty,’ I pointed out.
‘Well, they don’t do £5 wins any more,’ she said tartly.
However, as I discovered, it works both ways. The way in which the gods may disregard zeros can sometimes work in our favour. This is the tale of how I lost £200 through no fault of my own, but gained justice through the casual handling of these cosmic zeros. Or maybe it was deliberate? I’ve done my research, and have learnt that the gods sometimes take zeros into their own hands, not so much to retain their jealous power over them, but out of love, to soften the blows of fate, or to allow a little bit of cosmic luck to come our way. Although whatever the outcome, there’s usually a lesson in that too, for us mortals concerned.
Zero may be a relatively modern toy of the gods. The number zero is an invention, not an obvious concept from day one of human civilisation. ‘The origin of the symbol zero has long been one of the world’s greatest mathematical mysteries’, as the Bodleian library states boldly.
Although it is primarily a mathematical tool, it most definitely has a magical side too, and many cultures have considered it as having ‘darkly magical connotations’, as one reputable article proclaimed. Zero’s history is one ‘of the paradoxes posed by an innocent-looking number, rattling even this century’s brightest minds and threatening to unravel the whole framework of scientific thought…The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion.’ (Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife).
Zero arose independently in different parts of the world, but the version we have today probably began in Babylonia around 300BC, as part of the system for notating numbers. It was developed further in India from the 3rd or 4th century AD, as recent carbon dating of a manuscript proves. It then spread both East and West – the Silk Road must have played a part in its transmission – and finally arrived in Europe in about 1200 AD, championed by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci.
As for the symbol we use today, it began as a dot, and then a hollow centre was added, turning it into the 0 symbol that we have today. Perhaps someone thought that a dot is a ‘something’ and that we really need some empty space in it to fulfil the underlying concept. (Could the creation of doughnuts, bagels and Polo mints have followed a similar philosophical evolution, I wonder?)
But back to the story – I’ll tell you what happened to me one summer, and you can decide for yourself whether zeros have a cosmic significance.
It was an August Bank holiday weekend, in the city of Bath. I’d been at a lunch party in the country on the Sunday, and drove home to a deserted street. I lived on a short Victorian terrace running up a hill. As you can see in the photo at the start of this post, the houses are set up high, and the road running below is bounded by a high retaining wall. It was conveniently close to the city centre, and thus usually choc-a-bloc with commuter cars on weekdays, and with residents, shoppers and visitors at weekends. But today it looked as if almost everyone had gone on holiday, so I had the luxury of gliding, rather than squeezing, into a parking space.
On that Bank Holiday Monday, my friend Erica came over from Bristol for the day, and when she left, I walked with her to her car. I could see immediately that something was up. Her car was parked safely at the top of the hill, but my red Golf was now skewed sideways along the wall, with a grimy white Toyota sitting too close to its bonnet. It didn’t take long to figure out that the Toyota had reversed with considerable force into the Golf, shunting it back into the wall, then rebounding a few inches forwards. The tow bar on the rear of Toyota showed traces of paint, and it had clearly left a corresponding dent on the front end of the Golf. I was flabbergasted.
‘Why on earth did someone do this? There was plenty of room to park.’
‘Looks as if he was drunk,’ said Erica. ‘You’ll have to report it. Would you like me to be a witness?’
I was grateful. Over the next few days I contacted the insurance company, and waited to hear from the owner. I even put a letter on the windscreen of the offending vehicle, inviting the driver to contact me. At once. Forthwith. Politely, so far – after all, it could have been stolen and returned after a joy ride.
One morning later that week, I drew open my bedroom curtains to see someone taking my letter off the windscreen. I recognised him as the man who lived further down the terracey: fiftyish, with a beaky nose and a loose-fitting fawn mac. A widower, someone had said. Ah, well if it was a neighbour, he would be round, once he’d had a chance to read the note.
I waited for another day, but nothing happened. Was he the type to get drunk, then crash his car? I’d heard he was fond of the cricket club bar, but he didn’t look quite that irresponsible. But you never know, do you?
By the end of the week, I’d put a note through his door, and contacted the police. Why didn’t I go round to see him? Why indeed – I ask myself that now, and the only answer – or excuse – I’ve come up with is that I had recently begun to live on my own, and that divorce can make you timid, and want to avoid further confrontations for a while.
‘How could he have done that and walked away?’ I fumed, as time slipped by, with no word from him. ‘He couldn’t have done it without noticing.’
The policeman who called at my house was sympathetic, but he’d seen evidence in the form of train tickets, proving that the widower had been in Cornwall at the time. The said widower also denied both lending his car to anyone, or having it stolen. Nothing to do with him, or his car, he maintained. This was plainly nonsense, but the same pleasant police officer said that without initiating a private forensic test to prove that the paint on the front of my car came from the back of his, there was no firm proof.
By now, my ex had heard of the mishap and offered to pay a visit to the perpetrator along with a friend. They planned to wear black balaclavas and brandish baseball bats. Just to frighten him, he said. Just to get an admission of guilt. It wasn’t his normal style at all, and I can only assume he and the friend had had a fun time the evening before, fuelled with a bottle of wine, planning this heroic rescue mission.
‘What if it gives him a heart attack?’ I said, declining the offer.
For a long and tedious time, it seemed as though my insurance company would triumph over his. Then they said as Erica was a friend, her witness statement was not evidence. Huh? Since therefore I couldn’t prove the other party’s guilt, they would charge me the £200 excess. I was left with a hole in my bank balance, and also in my understanding of this event. My best guess was that he’d offered a mate the use of his car while he was away – there was no disproving his story of visiting the son in Cornwall – and that the mate had gone on a binge, rammed the car, and left it without a backwards glance. The owner had probably thus invalidated his insurance, and in order to escape trouble was prepared to alienate a close neighbour. It was a bitter result, but I had to swallow it, unless I was to launch an independent court case. But there was more to come.
Sometimes cosmic justice takes a while to pan out. The following summer, I bumped into the widower on the allotments which ran behind my garden. By the time I spotted him, we were so close that acknowledging each other was inevitable.
‘I’ve lost my cat,’ he said. ‘She might have gone away to die.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘I’ll look out for her.’
Why were we being polite, as if nothing had happened? Why was I being such a coward? The moment had come to change that.
‘I was very upset,’ I said, ‘when you didn’t respond to my letter. I think you’re aware that your car hit mine, but you wouldn’t own up to it.’
He looked sheepish. ‘I was going through a lot at the time. My wife had died.’
‘And I had just been divorced. I didn’t need the stress either. I lost my no claims bonus, £200.’
He played another hard luck card. ‘Well, maybe it was stolen. When I came to get the MOT, they found that the chassis was completely bent. Had to scrap the car. It was worth £2000 and I had to write it off.’
Hah! I knew then for sure that there was no thief. ‘If there had been, he’d have told the police. He lent or illegally hired out the car, and couldn’t claim on the insurance,’ I triumphed, inwardly.
And so the gods had been kind with their cosmic zeros, at least in terms of the overall balance sheet. The widower had paid three noughts for his misdemeanour. I had lost only two, and perhaps learned a lesson about cowardice.
Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife (Souvenir Press – new edition 2019) ‘The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Christian Church used it to fend off heretics. Today it’s a timebomb ticking in the heart of astrophysics. For zero, infinity’s twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything.’
The Meeting – January 2014 As our train pulled into Diss station in Norfolk, Walter was on the platform to meet us. My colleague Rod Thorn and I had seen photos of him, but were unprepared for the sheer energy of this 87-year-old, striding forward energetically to greet us with a long mac flapping behind him. We shook hands with a rugged-faced man, with exuberant wavy white hair, and a ready smile. We piled into his car, which as I recall was on the rough and ready side, and he drove us to ‘The Abbey’ at Eye, his current home just over the border in Suffolk. As the name suggests, this was a former medieval Benedictine Monastery, which had evolved into a large and impressive house. Its permanent resident at the time was Walter’s partner, Kate Campbell. Walter himself was not long back from his second home on Crete, close to where he had filmed Zorba the Greek, his most famous cinematic feat. For a few hours that day, my colleague Rod Thorn and I were able to enjoy Walter’s company, listening to his philosophical ideas and sharing impressions of the Kabbalah group he had studied in, to which we also had connections.
Walter had long been renowned as a cinematographer, in a career that spanned half a century. He began his career as a lowly clapper boy at Riverside Studios, frequently sent off by the crew to collect cups of tea on his clapperboard, but swiftly moved on to greater things. His career as a cinematographer blossomed at the start of the 1960s, when he made three films with director Tony Richardson – A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Tom Jones. These titles became key films in the British cinema of that decade.
But the film for which he was most highly acclaimed worldwide came straight after these British triumphs. For his work on Zorba the Greek (1964), Walter won an Academy Award for cinematography.
Yet despite his status as an Oscar winner, which gave him the freedom to work wherever he wished, he largely stayed rooted to Britain and its film industry. He was a leading light in Lindsay Anderson’s radical Free Cinema movement, which favoured realistic, heavy-hitting narratives, shot with flair and imagination. Critics dismissed some of these works as ‘kitchen sink dramas,’ but they effectively portrayed the spirit of those times.
Walter remained a firm favourite with leading British-based film-makers, notably Merchant Ivory, who hired him as cinematographer on three of their major titles: Savages (1972), Heat and Dust (1983) and The Bostonians (1984). Thereafter he continued working on smaller films in various countries until the turn of the century.
This section has been augmented with the kind assistance of film critic David Gritten,best known for his writing in the Daily Telegraph and Saga Magazine.(David@Gritten.co.uk)
The Soho Group Our own interest in Walter’s story began when a few colleagues and I started to research the roots of an organisation known as Saros, which we had been involved with for many years. This had started as a series of groups studying the Kabbalah, in its Tree of Life form, as a framework for peronsal and spiritual exploration. (Read more about these groups, their practices and Kabbalah at our ‘Soho Tree’ website ).
But our study groups, which began in the 1970s, were preceded by one simply known as ‘The Group’, which met in the coffee bars of Soho in the late 1950s. Our small band of researchers was keen to explore the connection, and see where our tradition had come from. As we began locating contacts who had themselves been in that Soho group, the name of Walter Lassally kept cropping up. Some former members were even still in touch with him, sporadically. Fired up by the fascinating interviews we were recording, and the intriguing world of 1950s Soho, we were keen to trace this man.
‘My career as world-famous Director of Photography is well known and has been written about ad infinitum. On the other hand my other activities in the realm of philosophy and esotericism are not so well known but have in my estimation been even more important and significant to me than my main occupation.’
Walter’s chief interests were in Tree of Life Kabbalah, especially through the writings of Dion Fortune (her book The Mystical Qabalah was the one most readily available in the mid-20th century), and in the I Ching. He was also a keen and proficient astrologer. As he said to us at our meeting:
‘You have an aim, which can broadly be described as self-knowledge. The saying ‘Know Thyself’ – inscribed over the temple of Apollo at Delphi – is very important. …And now I firmly adhere to the idea that that is the only point of being on earth as a human being. Everything else is peripheral.’
Walter’s Early Life As we tried to get in touch with Walter Lassally – he had gone off radar, even to his close friends from ‘the Group’ – we started to look into his background. In a series of YouTube interviews, he gives an account of his challenging early years, a remarkable story of persecution and escape.
Walter was born in Berlin in 1926, growing up there during Hitler’s ascent to power. His father worked as an animator of industrial films, and the family seems to have been cultured and comfortably-off financially. However, although the family were Lutheran Protestants, they had Jewish roots in earlier generations, which led to them being classified as ‘non-Aryan’, even though they weren’t technically Jewish. Hitler’s regime clamped down on them. His father was prevented from working after 1933, and Walter excluded from school from 1938. At this point, his father was put in a concentration camp and would only be able leave if the family could prove they had permission to emigrate.
Walter’s mother tried every avenue, nearly securing a job in Canada for her husband, but finally obtaining a Peruvian visa with a transit visa for the UK. Armed with this, she was able to secure the release of her husband, and the family set out on a stressful and risky journey to Dover. Walter clutched his ‘Kinderpass’, stamped with the red J for Jew. They arrived in the UK with virtually nothing, since all their possessions were bombed while awaiting shipping in Bremen, and their valuables had in any case been confiscated automatically by the Nazis. On top of that, Walter spoke no English, a source of anxiety to him at first, but soon overcome by studying so hard that he came second in the English exams at school!
In the UK, his father was at first interned as an alien on the Isle of Man, but set free after a tribunal assessment. The family then settled in Richmond, near London, and Walter left school at the age of sixteen with the firm conviction that he wanted to be a film cameraman. He ascribes his interest in film not so much to his father’s involvement, as to his passion for visiting the cinema as often as possible during those war years.
Finding Walter We were about to give up our search when a stroke or two of luck enabled us to trace him. It seemed he was probably in Greece. When our Greek friend Byron, another member of Saros, returned to his native country for a while, he agreed to help in the search. Contact was made. He wrote to me later, on Sat, 5 Oct 2013:
When I finally decided to post the letter to Walter to an address I accidentally found from an interview that he had given on the net, I went to my local post office to ask whether there was in fact a post office in that little village in Crete where I was sending my letter to. By sheer ‘coincidence’ the employee at my local post office hailed from Stavros Acroteriou, the very same place where Walter now resides. He didn’t know Walter himself, but described the place to me and also told me that there was no post office there and that the nearest one was in Chania. So anyway thank you all for your ‘intent’ it must have helped in this search!
However, at that point, it was only a distant possibility that one of us would be able to go out to Crete to meet him. But once again, luck was on our side, as he suddenly decided to return to the UK for a while. And so it was that two of us had the pleasure of getting off that train and meeting Walter for the first time in the East Anglian countryside.
Conversation at the Abbey Walter led us into the main drawing room, an impressive room where we began our talk. Later he showed us his equally impressive study which doubled as a projection room, its shelves lined with reels of the films he had made.
How did he come across ‘the Group’? What aroused his interest? We were eager to hear more about how his search began.
It was probably triggered by an unhappy love affair in the early 1950s, he said. ‘And that led to what I would call the search for the self. Which is still going on…First of all, I turned towards Yoga – I read Paul Brunton’s book, a classic book about Indian yoga, and then I became interested in Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.’
One day in 1956 when he was in Soho, perhaps on film business – it was a hub for the film industry at that time -Walter entered a café where an energetic discussion was taking place. As a person of keen intellect, with a friendly nature and an enquiring mind, I imagine he wasn’t shy about joining in. He hadn’t retained an exact memory of the occasion – the Group met in various coffee bars, but he thought it was probably ‘the “Nucleus” [which] was the centre of it all, the coffee bar in Monmouth Street. And someone was always in there holding forth.’
The cafes were the place where most members of ‘the Group’ first encountered ‘the Work’. They were a magnet for young people, who flocked to London seeking something different and inspiring after the war years. The open gatherings acted as a hub for anyone who might be interested in following up ideas on Kabbalah and its associated practices – primarily meditation and astrology. But it wasn’t about putting pressure on people to join; indeed, the waifs and strays who ended up in Soho were often encouraged to go back home, sometimes with a donation of cash towards food or a train ticket. The ‘Work’, as it was known, was only for those who actively wanted to pursue the aims of knowledge.
Nor was it for guru worship. At the core of the Soho gatherings were three key figures. Alan Bain was the overt leader, and the man who became Walter’s teacher. He was a former merchant seaman, and an accordion player who busked for a crust in the early days after he arrived in London. He was far from being a typical sailor, however, and his life had taken a different turn after a transformative spiritual experience. A second figure who tended to observe from the sidelines, even though he was a teacher in his own right, was former RAF Radar Fitter Glyn Davies, originally from South Wales. Glyn became my own mentor, and later initiated Kabbalah groups which evolved into the organisation known as Saros. The third key person was Tony Potter; he too later founded his own line of groups in London. The talkative one of the three, remarked Walter, was ‘mainly Potter. Potter was great at holding forth, whereas Alan was really quite reticent, a shadowy figure in the background’.
Remarkably, a film clip has survived which shows Glyn Davies, Tony Potter, and astrologer Ernest Page discussing a horoscope in a Soho café. It was filmed for the ‘Look at Life’ series. View it here.
The encounter was an eye-opener for Walter, and what he discovered there became his lifeline. He described this type of Kabbalah as ‘such a wonderful system. It’s both simple and complicated. It covers all the areas…the Tree is a terribly dense, but a relatively simple diagram. It’s not hard to understand, although you can study, and study and study …the Tree in all its aspects, the paths on it, its connections with astrology.’
At this point, so as not to overburden the narrative of Walter’s story, I’ll refer you again to the ‘Soho Tree’ site we have created, which explains the various teachings that these and subsequent groups practised. It also paints a portrait of Soho life at that time, as a fascinating mix of people and ideas. But here we can track Walter’s progress into a ‘closed’ group, and how he later started to hold private group sessions himself.
These closed groups were where the real focus lay, rather than in the casual gatherings and discussions in the coffee bars. Anyone who showed a real interest would be invited – discreetly – to a private group meeting. As Keith Barnes, another early member and life-long friend of Walter’s told me: ‘Even the existence of the group was hidden. Everything was kept very quiet, and it was very hard to find out anything.’ But then Keith was handed a piece of paper, an invitation to visit a certain address at a certain date and time. This address turned out to be Walter Lassally’s flat. (Walter was becoming successful in his film career, and able to afford a very nice flat in Holland Park.) ‘There were 20-30 people gathered there, many of whom I’d seen around the West End, plus Glyn and Alan’.
Walter had joined a little earlier than Keith, and was still a regular member on the night that Keith turned up, but a few years later he started running a group. It was common practice in this particular tradition to ‘learn and pass it on’, and to set up groups that could offer a useful starting point for beginners. During our visit, he brought down old notebooks to show us, inscribed with ‘Society of the Common Life 1962’, listing attendance of members and their subscriptions (strictly for expenses only, as no one took a fee for their teaching). Two sample pages are displayed below, which he invited us to photograph.
But it became a tricky matter to balance initiatives related to ‘the Work’ with his own professional work, and his financial affairs. One of the most difficult crises he ever had to deal with came about because of conflict of interests, as we’ll see shortly.
Meeting Kate At some point in our talk at the Abbey, we were summoned to lunch, where we joined Kate Campbell, Walter’s partner, and Kate’s son Adam. Kate was the widow of artist Peter Campbell – they had been childhood sweethearts, according to one source – and the Abbey had been their home until Peter’s sudden death in 1989. But Walter and Kate had a relationship which stretched back to the 1960s, during decades of her marriage to Peter, and sometimes the three adults had shared a home, both in London and Suffolk. Kate was also Walter’s business partner for a number of years. There seems to have been a kind of accepted arrangement between the three of them. But even so, Kate’s and Walter’s relationship wasn’t plain sailing – both were strong-minded, and Kate was a feisty person, who did not care for Walter’s more esoteric interests. Rod Thorn and I were treated politely by Kate and Adam, but very much kept at a distance.
It’s clear that Walter was very loyal to Kate over the years, but their modus operandi allowed for a part-time relationship. Perhaps ‘the Itinerant Cameraman’ (as he entitled his autobiography) preferred the freedom to travel for work and savour life in Greece. Just after I’d finished writing this section, I watched the film ‘Before Midnight’ (2013) in which Walter actually took on an acting role, playing the part of an elderly English writer (based on Patrick Leigh Fermor) living in Greece. At the dinner table one evening with assorted writers who are staying in his house, the conversation focuses on the nature of romantic love. Patrick, aka Walter, speaks the following lines about his marriage: ‘We were never one person, always two. We preferred it that way. But at the end of the day, it’s not the love of one other person that matters, it’s the love of life.’ Were these words, even if scripted, ones which Walter had produced and which reflected his own long-term relationship with Kate Campbell? I think it’s very likely. ‘Patrick’ also proclaims the inscription at Delphi, ‘Know thyself’, which we know was one of Walter’s favourite sayings.
The I Ching
Walter had a great passion for the ancient Chinese oracle known as the I Ching. ‘The advice that you get – I did one yesterday – is absolutely to the point. It’s unbelievably practical,’ he told us.
Although the I Ching is well-known today, it was far less so when Walter began to use it around 1960. Remarkably, Walter kept a record of nearly all of his readings, which he later turned into a book called Thirty Years with the I Ching. (He probably practised it for over fifty years, although the book stops short of recent readings for discretion’s sake.) In the event, he failed to find a publisher but left a legacy of a photographic copy on his website.
The opening to the book states: ‘Some of my questions will be seen to refer to something I call the Work. This was the general term I used to denote the ongoing process of the ‘search for the self’ referred to earlier, and which for some years I conducted as a member of the Society of the Common Life, a small group dedicated to this search.’.
Every reading that he includes in the book quotes sections of the relevant I Ching text, with his interpretations of these, both at the time and retrospectively. He uses the classic translation by Richard Wilhelm, which has an introduction by Carl Jung.
Walter’s questions centre chiefly on a trio of concerns: ‘the Work’, his professional film work, and his relationship with Kate Campbell, referred to as ‘K’. On one occasion Walter asked the I Ching whether he should try and keep Kate in the group – the answer was that it would do no good to try and force her! She attended just once or twice, and remained suspicious of it thereafter.
Some questions were less about problems than to seek a balanced view of a situation. On Sep 2nd, 1961, Walter asked a question about the Kabbalah group he was running: ‘What is the present state of the group?’ The I Ching offered two hexagrams – no. 11 Peace turning into no. 55 Abundance. These are plainly favourable situations, and Walter reflects in hindsight: ‘The period in question turned out to be one of the best periods in the life of the group; the traumas connected with the over-ambitious purchase of the lease of the house [more on this below] were by now forgotten, and the group could get on with some productive work.’
Conflict and acceptance But there were also tricky issues that kept cropping up, and one in particular related to Walter’s teacher Alan Bain. Alan was someone that I knew quite well in later years, and I can vouch for the fact that he was not a straightforward character. Although he didn’t seek to profit personally from his teaching, he had a weakness where money was concerned. As Walter put it: ‘He lived a very easy-going life.’ He looked for just enough money to get by, and if he hadn’t got it, he’d look around for a way to get it.’
That ‘way’ was often to solicit it from those who were in funds. Walter was doing well financially, and he wanted to further the Work as best he could. With the best of intentions, he bought a lease on a building in Bath Street, near Old Street in London, to set up a bookshop, provide premises for group meetings and accommodation for both him and Alan. His record of his I Ching readings tells the story, and I’ve inserted additional comments based on what Walter told us in person.
These grainy images are the only record of the place where this ill-fated bookshop was set up.
Page 4/5: [In March 1960] ‘I had just taken on the lease of a building in London to serve as HQ for the group, as well as to provide accommodation for myself and A.B. [Alan Bain], the leader of the group and a small bookshop.’
But Walter couldn’t be there much of the time, as he was away a great deal filming on location.
Page 7: ‘I had left some members of the group in charge of the bookshop I had opened before leaving for Greece, and now K. [Kate, Walter’s partner in business as well as in his personal life] brought me the news that they had proved to be less than reliable, to say the least. The whole thing was a complete disaster.‘
Even if ‘stole’ is too harsh a word, they certainly ‘borrowed’ and lost most of the stock.
This prompted the question: 3/6/60: Will the bookshop prosper?…the I Ching’s answer indicated that the bookshop had no future, and that immediate steps were needed to prevent a rapid deterioration of the situation. K. sorted out the mess, which was considerable, when she returned to England, closing the bookshop and managing to dispose of the lease of the whole building which I had foolishly taken on.
It was plain, as Walter recounted this sorry story to us, that it had caused him much grief and stress, although he found some consolation in hindsight that the lease was sold to Eduardo Paolozzi, who became a leading sculptor and artist.
It also threw into question his relationship with his teacher, Alan Bain. Perhaps it served to make him more guarded in future dealings.
Page 12: ‘After my return home to England I was faced with a number of problems. As result of closing the bookshop and disposing of the lease, my relationship with the group, and in particular with A.B. were rather strained.‘
Page 13: He concluded that the I Ching counselled him ‘to proceed gently with the group, distancing myself a little, and taking care not to repeat the weakness that had led to my pandering too much to fulfilling the material needs of the group leader.’
This wasn’t the only time that Alan attempted to get money from Walter.
Page 66: ‘A.B. was once more in financial difficulties, and asked for a loan to help him move to Glastonbury. 27/3/63 Question: Should I give him a loan? Hindsight: Here is one of several occasions when I was asked to help A.B. financially, and the advice here is – don’t!’
Further records refer to ‘the danger of pouring it [money] down a bottomless well.’
However, Walter showed great maturity and wisdom in the way he resolved the complexities of the situation. ‘But the I Ching also speaks of loyalty, so I had to balance my loyalty to him as the leader of the group against my misgivings about his abilities as a businessman. I made a series of loans to him over the period of our association, and whilst not regretting this, I was not surprised when all his business ventures failed.’
As far as Alan’s tendency to sponge off him went, he told us: ‘To some extent I saw that, and as far as Alan was concerned, I was prepared to go along with it as the sums concerned were never anything other than minor. And I think I was getting value for money. He was telling me things I wanted to know about.’
His admiration for Alan as a teacher remained, but he was now able to accept him as a mixture of weakness as well as strength: ‘As a teacher, he was patient; there was a lot of wisdom in what he said, which was never presented as ‘a word from ‘The Man’, it was just something he thought you might like to consider. And I was always very convinced….Alan talked to people who were willing to listen. Quite a lot of them sought him out…He never advertised himself…He was a person who you would pass in the street, and you wouldn’t give him a second look in his dirty mackintosh. And yet he was a very unusual person’
A mosaic of images from his long and illustrious career
The end of the connection
Fri, 14 Mar 2014 Dear Cherry, I have some very sad news for you. My beloved Kate died peacefully in her sleep last Tuesday and will be buried here tomorrow… I shall therefore return to Crete permanently just after Easter as there is nothing to retain me here…
It goes without saying that you are very welcome to visit me in Crete at any time and I will keep you up to date as to my whereabouts.
Tomorrow evening I will embark on a short trip to Norway, which had been planned since before Xmas. I will be back here on March 26th.
All good wishes,
We didn’t manage to see Walter again, and he died in Crete at the age of 90 in 2017. His death was reported in the papers, and various obituaries were written, such as that in The Guardian.
But none, as far as I’m aware, mention Walter’s deep and abiding interests in Kabbalah, astrology and the I Ching. I hope that this account will add this dimension for those who are interested in the life of this unusual and talented cinematographer.
Books and Articles Itinerant cameraman by Walter Lassally (John Murray 1987), is an account of his work in cinema. (Out-of-print but sometimes available second-hand) Uploaded articles and essays by Walter Lassally Among these articles is access to a photographic version of Thirty Years with the I Ching by Walter Lassally. Scroll down from the article ‘Big Screens’ on the opening page to see this.
Background research This article has been written from research done on behalf of the Saros Roots Group, which for several years has been investigating the origins of a particular teaching line of Kabbalah and how it links through to present day activities. The members of this group have all been involved in this line themselves, and as well as myself and Rod Thorn, mentioned here, they include Jack Dawson and Michael Frenda. Thanks for our collaborative efforts!