This is a revision of a page I wrote on 31st October 2022.
I began my perpetual Almanac of the Past two years ago on the 31st October 2021. This was the first line:
‘This blog is to celebrate the Year. I will post, hopefully, once a day, so we can follow the seasons, as they happen naturally, and as people in Britain and Ireland have responded to the changes in the year.’
It was inspired by Charles Knightly’s book, which is a pot-pourri of folklore taken mostly from old Almanacs. I haven’t managed to post every day, nearly managed it in the winter but falling badly behind in the Summer when I take Road Scholar groups around the UK. My plan is to improve key posts and repost, and to fill in the gaps. Another aim is to give my Almanac more London specific content.
I started on Halloween because Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) was the beginning of the year for the Celtic world. It may mean Summer’s End. In Wales, it is Calan Gaeaf (first day of winter) and Kala Goafiv (beginning of November in Brittany).
For the Romans, it is the day that Adonis is injured hunting a wild boar, against his lover, Venus’s advice, he descends to the underworld. Nature withers and dies until he comes back. His blood stains a flower and was transformed into the Crimson Anemone. There is a similar story in Babylon of Ishtar and Tammuz.
He comes back again on May Day when he meets Venus again the world flourishes and is bright and warm.
Julius Caesar says the Gauls venerated the God Dis Pater on this day – an aspect of Pluto, the God of the Underworld, ruler of the Dead. There was a Roman Festival on the Kalends of November dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of the fruit of trees. This may influence the use of Apples, which are prominent in Halloween festivities.
I have been away leading a tour of Quintessential Britain for Road Scholar and have fallen behind. And I had a few almanac days waiting for the right day to come! And now they have passed. But, I need them in the Almanac, so here is the beginning of a July catching up exercise.
The Divine Twins, aka the Dioscuri, were horsemen, patrons of calvary, athletes and sailors, one of many indo-european twin gods. Pollux is the son of Zeus and Leda (raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan). His twin brother has a different and mortal father, the King of Sparta to the same mother, Leda. So they are examples of heteropaternal superfecundation as Mary Poppins probably didn’t sing.
One is therefore immortal and the other isn’t. They had many adventures including sailing with Jason as Argonauts.
According to some version of the story Castor was mortally wounded, and Zeus gave Pollux the option of letting his brother die while he spent his eternity on Mount Olympus. The alternative was to share his immortality with his brother. He did the good thing, and the twins spend half their year as the Constellation of Gemini and the rest, immortal on Mount Olympus. Thus, they are the epitome of brotherly love.
Their sisters were, no less than Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. They were also twins, Helen the divine daughter of Zeus and, Clytemnestra, mortal daughter of the King of Sparta. The Swan was being pursued by an eagle, so Leda protected the Swan and took it to bed on the same night she slept with her husband Tyndareus of Sparta. Two eggs were fertilised, each split in two to give two sets of twins.
Neither mind the Brothers, what Sisters! Helen you know but Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, the arrogant leader of the Greeks. On the way to retrieve Helen from Troy, the Greek Fleet is becalmed. So Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, on the island of Aulis to get a fair wind to Troy. (read Iphigenia at Aulis by Aeschylus, a great play which I studied in Classical Studies at University)
Meanwhile, Queen Clytemnestra, abandoned at home broods on her husband’s heartless fillicide. She takes a lover. After 10 years of war Agamemnon comes back, in triumph from the destruction of Troy, with his prize the Trojan Princess, Cassandra. Strutting with arrogance he demands Clytemnestra prepare him a bath and she gives him the hottest bath possible and, with the help of her lover, hacks Agamemnon to pieces.
Cassandra prophesizes that she too will be killed, but she has been cursed with ability of accurate prophecy twinned with the inability to get anyone to believe her. So she is also slaughtered.
I visit John Collier’s painting regularly and am fascinated by her grim expression. (Sadly she has recently come off display at the Guildhall Art Gallery).
In the 18th/19th Century rich people were into ‘attitudes’. For example, Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, would be invited to present an attitude in front of a dinner party of mostly male aristocrats. She would dress up in a flowing revealing unstructured classical gown and stand on a table presenting herself as: Helen or Andromache or some other classical beauty. She would assume an appropriate facial expression and posture to everyone’s pleasure.
Clytemnestra is more difficult! I imagine Collier’s model being prompted to look both sad at the loss of the daughter; outraged at the arrogance of the husband; horror at the gore of the murder but overall to portray a grim satisfaction that the bastard got exactly what he deserved.
Lord Leighton had a famous model who was exceptionally skilled at adopting poses for his paintings. He determined to help her with an acting career. As part of the plan he helped improve her cockney accent and it is said this inspired Bernard Shaw’s story Pygmalion which, in turn, inspired My Fair Lady and Eliza Doolittle.
The model was called Dorothy Dene. She became a famous actress, outstripping the fame of Ellen Terry and Lily Langtry. She modelled for the famous painting ‘Flaming June’ which sold 500,000 print copies in 1895. Lord Leighton went somewhat out of fashion and the original painting was purchased for £50 by the rather marvellously named Museo de Ponce, Puerto Rico where she still resides.
I have one of those half million prints on my bedroom wall.
Before we finish do have a look at John Collier’s Wikipedia because he is the most ridiculously well connected painter you can imagine! Related to half the Cabinet and married to TWO daughters of Darwin’s Bulldog T.H.Huxley (grandfather of Aldous Huxley).
European Twin Gods
It is suggested that twin male gods are a feature of indo-european religions, and that the Twins are associated with horses/chariots and are responsible for moving the Sun and the Moon. Their use of a horse above the water means that they can rescue people lost at sea. St Elmo’s fire was said to be the way they manifested their divinity to sailors. Diodorus Siculus records that the Twins were Argonauts with Heracles, Telamon, and Orpheus. Further, he tells us in the fourth book of Bibliotheca historica, that the Celts who dwelt along the ocean worshipped the Dioscuroi “more than the other gods”.
Easter is time for a tansy! The plant is awesome, not least in that the flowers display a classical Fibonacci spiral, which is two counter-rotating logarithmic spirals. But Mrs Grieve in her Modern Herbal repeats the belief that their name derives from the Greek word for immortality ‘Athanaton’, and this might be because they grow so well that in some areas they are proscribed they are so prolific. But Tansy was supposed to have been given to Ganymede by Zeus to make him immortal, and according to Ambrosius, through their use for preserving dead bodies from corruption. Tansy was placed in coffins and winding sheets and tansy wreaths placed with the dead.
Its toxicity means that it repels many insects, particularly, flies and ants, and so it was used as a medieval and early modern strewing herb. And yet there are other insects that love Tansy – it seems to have a dark side and a light side.
It was collected in August (along with meadowsweet or elder leaves) and strewn on the floors of houses (and the ‘thresh’ was held in by the threshold). But it was also placed between mattresses to keep away bugs. People rubbed meat with Tansy to keep flies off. It is now used as a natural protection for crops from insects to reduce the amount of artificial pesticides.
It was an important medical and culinary herb, said to be a substitute for nutmeg and cinnamon, and the leaves, shredded, as a flavouring for puddings and omelettes. At Easter ball games a Tansy Cake was the reward for the winners. It was symbolic of the bitter herbs eaten by the Israelites at Passover. Tansy was thought to be a very wholesome ingredient to eat after the sparsity of Lent and Winter, and voiding the body of the worms caused by eating too many fish. It was used for expelling worms from the stomachs of children. Interestingly it contains thujone, which is also in Wormwood, the other main herb for expelling intestinal worms. Thujone can cause convulsions, liver and brain damage if too much is taken.
In the 14th Century it was used for treating wounds. It was thought to be useful both to induce abortions but also to help women conceive and to prevent miscarriages. Culpepper and Gerard suggests the root was a cure for gout.
Take three pints of Cream, fourteen New-laid-eggs (seven whites put away) one pint of juyce of Spinage, six or seven spoonfuls of juyce of Tansy, a Nutmeg (or two) sliced small, half a pound of Sugar, and a little Salt. Beat all these well together, then fryit in a pan with no more Butter then is necessary. When it is enough, serve it up with juyce of Orange or slices of Limon upon it.
Sir Kenelm Digby was a Catholic and a natural philosopher of some reputation. After his death an employee published his cookery book. His father was executed after the Gunpowder Plot, and he supported Charles 1st but found a way to work with Oliver Cromwell. He made a great success of his idea of the ‘powder of sympathy’ – 29 editions of his book on the subject were sold. He found the powder in France and it was made with precise ‘astrological’ techniques. The most famous example of a suggested application for the powder was to win the competition for a method of working out longitude (in the 18th Century). Basically, a working method meant knowing the time, normally noon, in two different places. This allowed a triangle to be created between the two points and the Sun which allowed the distance between the two places to be discovered by triangulation. Clocks were not accurate enough (yet) to help so Digby’s famous powder of sympathy was suggested.
A wounded dog would be taken on board a ship, and a bandage from the wound would be left in London. At noon in London it would be sprinkled with the powder of sympathy. The dog on the ship would, perforce, yelp when the powder was administered on the bandage in London and so the Captain would know when it was noon in London! Digby was long dead when the application for the prize money was made and rejected.
‘Longitude’ by Dava Sobel tells the story of the discovery of a clock-based method of calculating longitude.
It is a simpler sort of bun than the Chelsea Bun, which was the bun to have at Easter, at least in London in the Georgian Period. To read my updated blog post on Chelsea Buns on Good Friday see below:
There seem to be all sorts of dubious traditions around the origins of the Hot Cross Bun. It has been suggested that the Greeks knew how to put a cross on a bun. Also that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated the Goddess Eostre with the crossed bun where the cross represents the four quarters of the moon, the four seasons and the Wheel of the Year. I doubt this folklore because there is very little evidence for Eostre other than the Venerable Bede’s mentioning her name, so her association with Hot Cross Buns cannot be known.
However, the addition of a cross, and the association with Easter, makes the bun powerful, so there are lots of superstitions on record. A piece of an Easter Hot Cross Bun given to the sick may promote a cure. It was said that a bun cooked and served at Easter will not go off for a year. This might help explain the traditions that hanging them up on a string or ribbon is a good thing – one hung in a kitchen prevents fire, on a ship prevents sinking, in the Widow’s Son pub in East London to remember a sailor son who never returned for his bun on Good Friday.
The technology of putting a cross on a Bun requires nothing more complicated than a flour and water paste so it might well be an ancient tradition. A more impressive cross can be made with shortcrust pastry as was traditional. The bun itself is simply flour, milk, butter, egg, salt, spices and mixed fruit.
They are, in my opinion, the sort of food that has been eaten so often after purchase from a shop that a home-made Hot Cross Bun would be strangely disappointing – better almost certainly but then just not the same. It’s normally eaten toasted and buttered although I really prefer the soft doughy untoasted and unbuttered bun. But then it is possible to get carried away and eat the entire pack of four.
There is a tradition of Skipping on Good Friday. I can’t say I ever saw it – in my school skipping was a perennial activity, mostly enjoyed by the girls, but the boys would sometimes be intrigued enough to join in.
There is a great article about Long Rope Day in the Guardian with a wonderful picture of a collective skip.
The expression ‘Mad as a March Hare’ comes from the displays of hare boxing that takes place as the Hare mating season begins. And no, its not male hares fighting in the spirit of romantic rivalry, its the female hares fighting off unwanted attention from the males. Hares are solitary creatures, and the mating season is, perhaps, particularly difficult for them. The Country File web site has more on the subject. www.countryfile.com
There are also March Kittens and March Chickens. Edward Topsell in his ‘History of Four-footed Beasts‘ 1607 says the best Kittens to keep are those born in March. ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened‘ 1669 says: ‘Keep a black cock hatched in March as a protection against evil spirits: his crowing terrifies them.’
He also give a recipe for Cock Ale: eight gallons of Ale, a boiled March Cock, four pounds of stoned Raisins, half a pound of dates, nutmegs, mace. Beat the ingredients in a mortar add to two quarts of Sherry. Add to the ale. Stop it in a container for 6 or 7 days. Bottle it, drink after a month. Let me know if you try it!
The hare is a sacred animal, it was sacred to Aphrodite:
‘For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree. At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young.’
Classical Texts Library. Philostratus the Elder, ‘Imagines’ Book 1.1-15 c 3rd Century AD. Translated by Arthur Fairbanks.
In ‘The Battle for Gaul’ Julius Caesar writes: “The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose.” Research reported by Exeter University suggests that hares were worshipped in pre-Roman Britain. In Neolithic Ireland hares were found buried with human remains at the Neolithic court tomb at Parknabinnia.
Hares are thought to be the original Easter Bunny although finding good evidence before Germany in the early modern period is difficult. There is a tradition that Witches can be scared away at Easter. Exactly, how this works is not very clear, but it has been said that Witches could take on the form of a hare, and so Hare Pie and hare meat was eaten at Easter to rid the land of the witches. For a fuller discussion of hares and folklore click here:
A jointed hare’s foot was considered very lucky and a remedy against gout, stomach pains and insomnia. (The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore by Charles Kightly which I have used several times in this piece.)
I saw my first Daffodil in Hackney in a Council Estate some weeks ago, (12 Jan 2023) and see them popping up around and about. Mine are not yet more than green leaves but they are coming out.
Their formal name is Narcissus. The Roman natural historian, Pliny tells us that the plant was ‘named Narcissus from narce, not from the fabulous boy.’ The fabulous boy was Narcissus. As told by the Poet Ovid Narcissus met the nymph Echo, and she fell in love with the beautiful boy. He spurned her and she faded until all that remained of her was her voice the echo we hear. Nemesis, the Goddess of Revenge with her fiery sword decided on revenge upon the handsome boy. Nemesis lured the thirsty youth to a fountain where he saw an image of a breathtakingly handsome boy and fell in love. It was an image of himself, and he faded from life realising he would always be unfulfilled in his love, He eventually metamorphised into a white and yellow flower which was named after him.
But Pliny says the plant was named after the Greek word narkē from which we derive the word narcotic and this is a reference to the narcotic properties of the narcissus. An extract of the bulb when applied to open wounds produced numbness of the whole nervous system and paralysis of the heart. The flowers are also slightly poisonous, which led to their use as an emetic – to bring on vomiting when it was felt necessary that the stomach be emptied. It was used to treat hysteria and epilepsy; treating children with bronchial catarrh; and epidemic dysentery; amongst Arabian doctors it was used to cure baldness and as an aphrodisiac. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve. And please remember these are not recommendations for use medicinally but are historic uses and may be dangerous.)
Daffodils are mentioned in a list of Spring Flowers by Shakespeare in the pastorial play The Winter’s Tale:
(Please note that: Prosperpina is wife of Pluto, the God of the Underworld, Dis, is another name for him, Cytherea is the Goddess of Beauty and Love. Phoebus is the Sun God. And the Spring Flowers are Daffodils, violets, primroses, oxlips(primula), Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), Lillies, flower-de-luce (Iris)
Perdita to Camillo
Out, alas! You’d be so lean that blasts of January Would blow you through and through. (To Florizel) I would I had some flowers o’th’ spring, that might Become your time of day – (to the Shepherdesses) That wear upon your virgin branches yet Your maidenheads growing. O Proserpina, For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let’st fall From Dis’s waggon! Daffodils, That come before the swallow dares, and take The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim, But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses, That die unmarried ere they can behold Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds, The flower-de-luce being one: O, these I lack To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend To strew him o’er and o’er!
The reference to Daffodils suggests that for Shakespeare they are around to withstand the March Winds before the Swallows arrive in April. With selective breeding, early flowering species have been developed and now February and even January are within the scope of the glorious bulb. (here is a post on winter flowering varieties)
Once a noisy Nymph, (who never held her tongue when others spoke, who never spoke till others had begun) mocking Echo, spied him as he drove, in his delusive nets, some timid stags.—For Echo was a Nymph, in olden time,—and, more than vapid sound,—possessed a form: and she was then deprived the use of speech, except to babble and repeat the words, once spoken, over and over. Juno confused her silly tongue, because she often held that glorious goddess with her endless tales, till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove’s embrace, had made escape adown a mountain. But for this, the goddess might have caught them. Thus the glorious Juno, when she knew her guile; “Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense, shall be of little use; your endless voice, much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph was stricken as the goddess had decreed;—and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds of others’ voices, or, perchance, returns their final words.
One day, when she observed Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods, she loved him and she followed him, with soft and stealthy tread.—The more she followed him the hotter did she burn, as when the flame flares upward from the sulphur on the torch. Oh, how she longed to make her passion known! To plead in soft entreaty! to implore his love! But now, till others have begun, a mute of Nature she must be. She cannot choose but wait the moment when his voice may give to her an answer. Presently the youth, by chance divided from his trusted friends, cries loudly, “Who is here?” and Echo, “Here!” Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around, and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!” She calls the youth who calls.—He turns to see who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims, “Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns. He tries again, again, and is deceived by this alternate voice, and calls aloud; “Oh let us come together!” Echo cries, “Oh let us come together!” Never sound seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods she hastens in accordance with her words, and strives to wind her arms around his neck. He flies from her and as he leaves her says, “Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms around me. Better death than such a one should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save, “Caress me!” Thus rejected she lies hid in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face with the green leaves; and ever after lives concealed in lonely caverns in the hills. But her great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up her skin, and all her lovely features melt, as if dissolved upon the wafting winds—nothing remains except her bones and voice—her voice continues, in the wilderness; her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear her calling in the hills, ’tis but a voice, a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.
Thus he deceived the Nymph and many more, sprung from the mountains or the sparkling waves; and thus he slighted many an amorous youth.—and therefore, some one whom he once despised, lifting his hands to Heaven, implored the Gods, “If he should love deny him what he loves!” and as the prayer was uttered it was heard by Nemesis, who granted her assent.
There was a fountain silver-clear and bright, which neither shepherds nor the wild she-goats, that range the hills, nor any cattle’s mouth had touched—its waters were unsullied—birds disturbed it not; nor animals, nor boughs that fall so often from the trees. Around sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees that shaded from the sun let balmy airs temper its waters. Here Narcissus, tired of hunting and the heated noon, lay down, attracted by the peaceful solitudes and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped to quench his thirst another thirst increased. While he is drinking he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool—and loves; loves an imagined body which contains no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. He cannot move, for so he marvels at himself, and lies with countenance unchanged, as if indeed a statue carved of Parian marble. Long, supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white. All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself:—he who approves is equally approved; he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt. And how he kisses the deceitful fount; and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck that’s pictured in the middle of the stream! Yet never may he wreathe his arms around that image of himself. He knows not what he there beholds, but what he sees inflames his longing, and the error that deceives allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy, so vainly catching at this flitting form? The cheat that you are seeking has no place. Avert your gaze and you will lose your love, for this that holds your eyes is nothing save the image of yourself reflected back to you. It comes and waits with you; it has no life; it will depart if you will only go.
Nor food nor rest can draw him thence—outstretched upon the overshadowed green, his eyes fixed on the mirrored image never may know their longings satisfied, and by their sight he is himself undone. Raising himself a moment, he extends his arms around, and, beckoning to the murmuring forest; “Oh, ye aisled wood was ever man in love more fatally than I? Your silent paths have sheltered many a one whose love was told, and ye have heard their voices. Ages vast have rolled away since your forgotten birth, but who is he through all those weary years that ever pined away as I? Alas, this fatal image wins my love, as I behold it. But I cannot press my arms around the form I see, the form that gives me joy. What strange mistake has intervened betwixt us and our love? It grieves me more that neither lands nor seas nor mountains, no, nor walls with closed gates deny our loves, but only a little water keeps us far asunder. Surely he desires my love and my embraces, for as oft I strive to kiss him, bending to the limpid stream my lips, so often does he hold his face fondly to me, and vainly struggles up. It seems that I could touch him. ‘Tis a strange delusion that is keeping us apart. Whoever thou art, Come up! Deceive me not! Oh, whither when I fain pursue art thou? Ah, surely I am young and fair, the Nymphs have loved me; and when I behold thy smiles I cannot tell thee what sweet hopes arise. When I extend my loving arms to thee thine also are extended me—thy smiles return my own. When I was weeping, I have seen thy tears, and every sign I make thou cost return; and often thy sweet lips have seemed to move, that, peradventure words, which I have never heard, thou hast returned. No more my shade deceives me, I perceive ‘Tis I in thee—I love myself—the flame arises in my breast and burns my heart—what shall I do? Shall I at once implore? Or should I linger till my love is sought? What is it I implore? The thing that I desire is mine—abundance makes me poor. Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire unknown to me before, for I would fain put off this mortal form; which only means I wish the object of my love away. Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run, and in my early youth am I cut off; but death is not my bane—it ends my woe.—I would not death for this that is my love, as two united in a single soul would die as one.”
He spoke; and crazed with love, returned to view the same face in the pool; and as he grieved his tears disturbed the stream, and ripples on the surface, glassy clear, defaced his mirrored form. And thus the youth, when he beheld that lovely shadow go; “Ah whither cost thou fly? Oh, I entreat thee leave me not. Alas, thou cruel boy thus to forsake thy lover. Stay with me that I may see thy lovely form, for though I may not touch thee I shall feed my eyes and soothe my wretched pains.” And while he spoke he rent his garment from the upper edge, and beating on his naked breast, all white as marble, every stroke produced a tint as lovely as the apple streaked with red, or as the glowing grape when purple bloom touches the ripening clusters. When as glass again the rippling waters smoothed, and when such beauty in the stream the youth observed, no more could he endure. As in the flame the yellow wax, or as the hoar-frost melts in early morning ‘neath the genial sun; so did he pine away, by love consumed, and slowly wasted by a hidden flame. No vermeil bloom now mingled in the white of his complexion fair; no strength has he, no vigor, nor the comeliness that wrought for love so long: alas, that handsome form by Echo fondly loved may please no more.
But when she saw him in his hapless plight, though angry at his scorn, she only grieved. As often as the love-lore boy complained, “Alas!” “Alas!” her echoing voice returned; and as he struck his hands against his arms, she ever answered with her echoing sounds. And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool he said at last, “Ah, youth beloved in vain!” “In vain, in vain!” the spot returned his words; and when he breathed a sad “farewell!” “Farewell!” sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head, and rested on the verdant grass; and those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master’s beauty, sad Night closed. And now although among the nether shades his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze on his reflection in the Stygian wave. His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped their shining tresses laid them on his corpse: and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made lament anew. And these would have upraised his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch, and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes where he had been, alas he was not there! And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew, golden and white, the white around the gold.
The Full Moon was on the 5th February this year. but the Goddess Book of Days’ has the the 7th as the Day of Selene and other Moon Goddesses. (February 6th as the Festival of Aphrodite)
Selene is one of the most beguiling of Goddesses as she is the epitome of the Moon (Romans knew her as Luna). She, who gives that silvery, ethereal light to dark days, who appears and disappears to a routine few of us really understand. She is therefore beautiful, beguiling, unknowable. She is the Goddess of Intuition,. She brings the tides and the monthly periods, and so is a Goddess of power as well as fertility, pregnancy and so love, and mothers, and babies.
To my mind far more powerful than Aphrodite Selene seems much more independent. On the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum she is shown with her brother Helios, the Sun God, her brother, with Hercules, Demeter and Persephone, representing the earth and underworld, Athene and her father, Zeus,and Iris, the messenger Goddess, Hestia, the Goddess of the home, and Dione with her daughter ,Aphrodite, representing love. At one end Helios brings up the sun with his Chariot and Horse and at the other Selene’s horse sinks exhausted in Oceanus after a glorious night of moon shine. Its a wonderful arrangement which suggests the scheme was to show a balanced cosmos between female and male forces.
I did a longer piece on this pediment of the Parthenon Marbles here
I have used several of Natalie Tobart’s photos in my post which I pluck from Natalie’s face facebook feed which is a veritable visual feast. She worked, as an archaeologist at the same time as me at the Museum of London, and is an excellent potter, photographer and artist. Natalie was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a member of Society of Designer Craftsmen. You can find out more about her here:
Paganalia, also known as Sementivae, was a festival dedicated to seed, to Ceres (from who we get the word cereal) and also the Earth Goddess of your choice Tellus, Demeter, Cybele, Gaia, Rhea etc.. Ceres can be seen on the top left roundel resting on the Globe on the marvellous Ceramic Staircase at the V&A, and in my slightly out of focus photograph below.
To create life we need earth for nurture and seeds for fertility. And so into the cold dead world of January the Romans created a festival of sowing. It had two parts one presided over by Mother Earth (Tellus) and the other by Ceres, the Goddess of Corn. The actual day of the festival (aka Paganalia) was chosen not by rote on a set day of the calendar but by the priests dependent upon the weather, as there is no point sowing seeds in terrible weather conditions. I’m assuming the Priests took professional advice!
On the 24th-26th January Tellus prepared the soil, and in early February seeds were sown under the aegis of Ceres. Tellus Mater (also Terra Mater) was known as Gaia to the Greeks. Gaia was chosen by James Lovelock & Lynn Margulis in the 1970s as the face of their Gaia hypothesis.
To me, the importance of the idea is not a scientific principle that environments co-evolve with the organisms within them but as a personification of our world a complex living ecosystem that we have to care for. Gaia exists as a series of feedback loops, and she will spit us out unless we can control our appetites to live in balance with our alma mater.
I have searched the calendar three or four times, But nowhere found the Day of Sowing: Seeing this the Muse said: That day is set by the priests, Why are you looking for moveable days in the calendar? Though the day of the feast ís uncertain, its time is known, When the seed has been sown and the land ís productive. You bullocks, crowned with garlands, stand at the full trough, Your labour will return with the warmth of spring. Let the farmer hang the toil-worn plough on its post: The wintry earth dreaded its every wound.
Steward, let the soil rest when the sowing is done, And let the men who worked the soil rest too. Let the village keep festival: farmers, purify the village, And offer the yearly cakes on the village hearths. Propitiate Earth and Ceres, the mothers of the crops, With their own corn, and a pregnant sow ís entrails. Ceres and Earth fulfil a common function: One supplies the chance to bear, the other the soil. Partners in toil, you who improved on ancient days Replacing acorns with more useful foods, Satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest, So they reap a worthy prize from their efforts. Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness, Don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows. When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes, Sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain. Forbid the birds, that prey on cultivated land, To ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds. You too, spare the sown seed, you ants, So you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest.
I’m not sure what the Three Kings were doing on the day after Epiphany, but if, the shepherds were like English farmworkers, they would still be on holiday until next Monday, which is Plough Monday (see Monday’s post!). By contrast, the women, according to folk customs, went back to work on the 7th, St. Distaff’s Day, the day after Epiphany.
A distaff is ‘a stick or spindle on to which wool or flax is wound for spinning’ and because of its importance in the medieval and early modern economy it became a synecdoche for women. St Distaff is a ‘canonisation’ of this use of the word. So a day to celebrate women.
Robert Herrick (1591–1674), born in Cheapside, a Goldsmith, priest, Royalist and Poet wrote in ‘Hesperides’
Partly work and partly play You must on St. Distaff’s Day: From the plough soon free your team; Then come home and fother them; If the maids a-spinning go, Burn the flax and fire the tow. Bring in pails of water then, Let the maids bewash the men. Give St. Distaff all the right; Then bid Christmas sport good night, And next morrow every one To his own vocation.
In London the Fraternity of St Anne and St Agnes used to meet at the Church in London with that name. It is near to the (now closed) Museum of London on the corner of Gresham Street and Noble Street, by a corner of the Roman Wall. St Agnes is the patron saint of young girls, abused women and girl scouts. St Anne is the mother of the mother of the Son of God, and, thereby, the three generations of women are represented: maidens, mothers, and grandmothers.
Archaeologists discovered the sculpture while investigating the Roman Wall at Blackfriars, City of London. Scholars believe it depicts the Celtic Three Mother Goddesses, worshipped in Roman London. The fourth person is a mystery, maybe the patron of the temple(?) where the relief sculpture was kept before it was used as rubble as part of the defences of London? The idea of triple goddesses is a common one and in folklore and history they have been referred to as Maiden, Mother, and Crone, or even Maiden, Mother and Hag. They come in Roman, Greek, Celtic, Irish, and Germanic forms with names like the Norns, the Three Fates, the Weird Sisters, the Morrigon and many more. The Three Fates, the Goddess Book of Days says, were celebrated during the Gamelia, the Greco/Roman January Festival to the marriage of Zeus and Juno. The Festival also gives its name to the Athenian month of January.
There was a theory widely held that the original Deities, dating before the spread of farming, were mother goddesses (perhaps as depicted by the Venus of Willendorf) who were overthrown by the coming of farmers who worshipped the male gods which destroyed the ancient Matriarchy and replaced it with the current Patriarchy. Jane Ellen Harrison proposed an ancient matriarchal civilization. Robert Graves wrote some interesting but no longer thought to be very scientific studies, on the idea. Neopaganism has taken these ideas forward.
Whatever the truth of the origins of the Three Mother Goddesses, the use of the terms Hag and Crone for the third is a great disservice to the Grandmother figure. These Goddesses represent the importance of the female for human society. The three phases of womenhood are equally as important in the continuation of the species, providing love, support and experience through the generations. Compare these three generations of supportive deities with Ouranos (Uranus), Cronus(Saturn) and Zeus(Jupiter). Saturn castrated and deposed his father, Uranus. Later, he tried to eat his son, Jupiter. And then Jupiter is nobody’s idea of an ideal father.
Recent work on human evolution have suggested that the role of the Grandmother might be crucial to our species ability to live beyond the age of fertility. Because, in evolutionary terms, once an individual cannot procreate their usefulness for the survival of the genes is finished. So what’s the point of putting resources into their survival? The theory is that, particularly with women, the Grandmother has such an impact on the survival of the next generation, that longevity beyond fertility makes evolutionary sense, and is selected for.
Yesterday was dedicated to Joan of Arc, and today is the anniversary of the breaking of the fabulous Portland Vase in 1845 by a drunken visitor to the British Museum. It looks immaculate despite being smashed into myriad pieces, a wonder of the conservator’s art. To see the vase and read its story go to the BM web site here:
In the orthodox church, дед Мороз (Ded Moroz= father of frost), accompanied by Cнегурочка (Snieguroshka= fairy of the snow) brings gifts on New year’s eve, (which is on January 7th). He travels with a horse drawn troika!
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: 8 Maids a Milking; 7 Swans a Swimming; 6 Geese a Laying 5 Golden Rings 4 Calling Birds; 3 French Hens; 2 Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree
The 8th day is the day of the Throbbing Head. Leonard Cohen wrote in ‘Closing Time’ about drinking to excess. I like to think he refers to Christmas and New Year’s Day:
‘And the whole damn place goes crazy twice And it’s once for the devil and it’s once for Christ But the boss don’t like these dizzy heights We’re busted in the blinding lights of closing time.‘
So what you need is a hangover cure. Nature provides many plants that can soothe headaches. And in the midst of the season of excess, lets start with a hangover cure.
Ivy, ‘is a plant of Bacchus’…. ‘the berries taken before one be set to drink hard, preserve from drunkenness…. and if one hath got a surfeit by drinking of wine, the speediest cure is to drink a draft of the same wine, wherein a handful of ivy leaves (being first bruised) have been boiled.’
Culpeper Herbal 1653 quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanac’ by Charles Kightly
The image of Bacchus above is from a fascinating article by the Museum of London on wine making in Roman Britain. Bacchus is often shown with an ivy crown around his head as Romans were wont to wear them to fend of hangovers.
Back to our hangover cures:
One of the best documented is willow bark. Here is a record of how simple it could be to use:
‘I am nearly 70 years old and was born and bred in Norfolk… My father, if he had a ‘skullache’ as he called it, would often chew a new growth willow twig, like a cigarette in the mouth.’
‘A Dictionary of Plant Lore by Roy Vickery (Pg 401)
In the 19th Century Willow was found to contain salicylic acid from which aspirin was derived. As a child I remember chewing liquorice sticks in a similar way, although supposedly for the pleasure and the sweetness not for the many medicinal virtues of the plant.
Yesterday’s weather on the 5th Day of Christmas was sunny and warm. This means, according to Gervase Markham, that the 5th Month, May will be sunny and warm ‘The English Husbandman’ of 1635.
The Day of Nymphs in Greece dedicated to Artemis, Andromeda, Ariadne, Ceres. (according to the Goddess Book of Days by Diane Stein.)
We are probably too pained to think about the New Year and our resolutions but we might begin to turn to an almanac to see what the year has ahead. Newspapers and the web have now taken over largely from Almanacs. They print articles about the upcoming highlights of the Sporting Year or the Musical year and so one. But almanacs are still produced and arguably grew from medieval manuscript Books of Hours and, in particular, the 1493 Kalendar of Shepherdes which was published in Paris. Each month was described with the addition of important information for farmers. By the 1600’s almanacs were the most published form of book other than the Bible. Lauren Kassell in ‘Almanacs and Prognostications’ reports estimates that by 1660 one third of every household had one.
Originally, they had a Calendar for each month, and information about the phases of the month, and the tides, predictions of the weather, and health issues likely to occur at that time of the year. Astrology was an important element of them. London Almanacs contained further information about the year and its ceremonies and elections of officials. And this informational side to the almanac grew, they began to include lists such as lists of monarchs, and interesting stories, verse foretelling the weather, recipes and cures. This are the source of most of the quotes used in blogs such as mine which look at all things calendrical.