Monday, 31 December 2012

All About the Eve - NYE and the Power of Anticipation

I can't help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It's as glorious as soaring through a sunset... - Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables 

Flight by K-Bladin on deviantart

It's New Year's Eve and through my open window drifts the sound of revelry. The harbour below is pearled with myriad yachts and pleasure-boats, which cluster together in preparation for the spectacular celebratory fireworks. A stunt-plane traces sinuous trails above the city - first soaring higher than the clouds, then diving abruptly to skim metres from the surface of the water. My nearest brother is out partying with friends, and inside the house the rest of my family ready themselves for merriment.

Amidst the happy bustle I wonder, why is it that we celebrate the eve of the New Year more than the day itself? What is so special about festive "eves" in general? In the West it seems many of our greatest cultural traditions occur on the "eve" of an event. Alongside New Year's Eve, both Christmas Eve and All Hallow's Eve spring to mind as nights steeped in story, myth and tradition. Why is anticipation such a potent magic?

Light and shadow are indistinct in the anticipatory mind... 
Anticipation for any desired event is usually more pleasurable than the thing itself. Who can forget the incredible childhood feeling of sleepless, tingling wakefulness the night before a birthday, Christmas Eve, a party or journey – that painful, delightful waiting for the morrow… Excitement and uncertainty mingle in the imagination to form conflicting visions of glory. Lost in our dreams of “what could be”; godlike, we revel in a sense of control – shaping our visions in a fantasy world of unlimited possibility. Anne was right when she compared anticipation to the glorious sensation of “soaring into a sunset” – but with the flying comes the fear of falling. In a world of limitless possibility, the worst can happen – the unthinkable manifests itself in shadowy, fearful forms.
This mingling of desire, excitement and fear at the times of great collective anticipation such as the “eves” of feast days, saints’ days and other celebrations explains their mythic significance. As desire blazes, our certainty in the future wavers, and other things are seen –smoke-shadows dance on on the wall and faces mouth secrets in the flickering flames. Times of anticipation are times of mystery – we want so badly for our beautiful visions to be made real, but we inevitably recognise that the control we have over our imaginings is illusory… Thus we become surrounded by spirits, wraiths, witches and demons – otherworldly beings who wield that elusive control over the future and the past; and we adopt superstitions to attempt to influence the outcome of events.

A look at just a few of the most mythic “eves” of the year reveals an enchanting array of story and belief, many of which were thought to influence the future:

 January 20: St Agnes’ Eve 

The Eve of St Agnes
  They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
  Young virgins might have visions of delight,
  And soft adorings from their loves receive
  Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
  If ceremonies due they did aright;        
  As, supperless to bed they must retire,
  And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
  Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Immortalised in Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes, this hallowed night was believed to give girls enchanted dreams of their lover, if they fasted and slept the night naked without looking behind or to the side.

April 24: The Eve of St Mark’s Day 
St Mark's Eve
If one were to watch the churchyard alone this night, they would espie the souls of all who were to die in the coming year entering the burial ground.
April 30: May Day Eve
May Day Eve
This day was the eve of the Celtic festival of Beltaine, was a day especially associated with the Faerie, and many old Irish observances dealt with mortal attempts to gain grace with the capricious “Good People” and the misdirection of the malevolent influence of witches, using fire and flower in rituals of purification. It was also thought that young girls could discover the name of their husband-to-be by placing a snail between two pewter dishes and watching until midnight. 
June 21 (in 2013 but a Solstice day): Midsummer’s Eve
Midsummer's Eve 
This was also a day under the influence of the Fair Folk, and witches were thought to hold strange revels in the forests or fields… To avert misfortune, people would conduct more purifying rituals of pagan origin, with bonfire-leaping harking back to Celtic Druidic rituals, and wreaths of mugwort woven to “protect man and beast” from eldritch influence.
October 31: All Hallows’ Eve
"Halloween" is a mysterious night with pagan, Celtic and Christian influence revolving around the harvest and the spirit world- ranging from the Ancient Roman festivals of Pomona and Parentalia, the Celtic festival of Samhain, various European harvest festivals and the Christian All Soul’s Night. It is incredibly magical, with traditions ranging from divination, prophecy, spirit-resting and “guising” (trick-or-treating).
December 25: Christmas Eve 
Christmas Rose
This is a night crammed with religious and mythic beliefs and superstitions. In Poland there was a belief similar to the New Year’s Eve beliefs: that however the night passed, so would the coming year. It was a time of miraculous and magical events - at midnight the animals were thought to fall to their knees in homage of the birth of Christ, various plants were thought to flower (such as myrrh and Christmas Rose), Saint Nicholas (Santa) to travel the world bringing gifts to children. It was also a time (similar to May Day Eve) where “maidens” would try to predict their future-husband, and country-folk would try to predict the weather.
December 30: New Year’s Eve 
Revels on New Year's Eve
Superstitions for this night include the familiar one of “ringing in the new year”, making noise at the turn of the year to frighten away evil spirits who were thought to be able to affect the coming year.

New Year's Eve Fireworks
As the New Year approaches, we are filled with pleasant and unpleasant fantasies of the future. But all in all, I think it’s for the best that we are not omniscient and omnipotent. Uncertainty is what fires the imagination and casts the shadows of Mystery. If we were able to control events – then we would lose the delightful, perilous soaring of anticipation. And for all of you, my friends and readers, I wish that your coming year fulfil the gleaming promise of a sunrise, but that enough of the unexpected occurs to keep things interesting.  

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Marsh Priestess - a Personal Story

But all I remember 
Are the dreams in the mist... 
There's something out there 
I can't resist

In my last blog post I wrote a bit about the mysterious feeling of sentience one senses sometimes from trees in the forest. It put me in mind of a short story I wrote last year, which was based on my own experiences in the bushland at the bottom of my mountain garden. 

Most of the garden is cultivated, with roses, bulbs and other flowers, deciduous and fruitful trees, little paths and birdbaths... It is a lovely garden, with a magic of its own. But about a hundred metres from the bottom of the garden stand two giant pines, marking the transition from the garden to the wild. Beyond is bushland, often mist-shrouded, where all the colours are different, mysterious and strange and where the eucalypts stand like pale gods with their proud heads crowned by cloud. And at the very bottom is a valley with a grassy, gurgling marsh, full of humming things and secretive trickles. Perhaps the mythic nature of trees is what calls to me, or I sense the borders to otherland fade when I am by a marsh. For sometimes I feel a call to I wander there alone, and at these times I feel a sense of kinship with the forest. 

I hope you enjoy the story.

Photograph credit, Stephen Hayden Photography

Marsh Priestess

I am the priestess of the scorned and wild forest. Afternoons, the softly falling chill brings with it the mists, which, clinging, frost the eucalypts with tiny jewels. I stand on the track my constant pilgrimage has worn, while the borders of reality are shrouded; first the garden, green and tame beyond the furthest pine; the straggling wire fence; the bleached rope swing; all fade. The bush has reclaimed the land from civilisation, and I am enclosed by the pale trees, their stringy bark hanging in rags off white and virgin limbs; initiates disrobing for an ancient ritual. I tread carefully, hesitant to disturb the soft and steady dripping of condensation from the myriad leaves. The track is soft and spongy; new-speckled with tiny ferns I weave around, unwilling to crush.

As I descend, I briefly pay homage to the matriarch, the huge red-bark whose maternal roots shelter and protect the forest’s treasure: the waratah I discovered with my brothers last summer. The red and sticky sap has crusted carnelian, and it beads my forehead as I lean against the trunk. I feel the soil’s moisture soak my knees and watch it slowly darken my skirt. Further down, the grasses have starred themselves in pale blossoms that glow amidst the slate and khaki of the dimming mist. In the half-light my merino cardigan fades to muted steel, until an intruder, stumbling from the end of the road, (hidden a scant thirty metres to my left), would find it hard to see me, my goose-pebbled arms around my wild sister; my wet and darkened hair sticking to my face like sheeted bark.

I near the end of the track, averting my eyes from the plastic teeth of a rake, which leers drunkenly from its precarious position in the fork of a banksia, where my father must have propped it. The rake is a blasphemy to the untamed sanctity of the forest. Angrily, I push it over and watch in satisfaction as it is swallowed by the eager shrubs. A cluster of ferns ends the path, damp fronds caressing a weathered piece of sandstone. Many years ago, the rock was engraved with plain, sensible English, marking the boundary between our property and the next. Now, the crumbled inscription is illegible, translated by the endless dripping of the mists into an arcane script. Here, I too can go no further. The track breaks off at the edge of a sharp depression. Beneath me lies the fertile green of the marsh, waiting silently for nightfall.

The ceremony will not be marked by sunset. My family’s cottage, sitting smugly at the top of the hillside beyond the bushland’s boundaries, regularly catches the last rays of the setting sun. Here, however, obscured in the mist, the marsh is enveloped in mystery. A little to my right, a scribbly-gum has split itself into three, extending over the swamp like the hand of a druid over a cauldron. Gingerly I walk along the middle finger, uncomfortably aware of my sneakers’ tentative friction on the wet wood. Convulsively I grip the twigs then straighten, poised above the morass. As the mist dims and the pale, scented stars light the long grass, I await the invocation, my sacrifice clutched in my hand.

 Sonorously, the bullfrogs give the signal. Symbolically, I sacrifice a piece of my body, heart and soul to the wild spirits of the marsh; a bead from my childhood necklace; a twist of my hair moistened in spit; a name scribbled furtively on a scrap of paper… They slip from my fingers and vanish into the dark trickling of the swamp. On the other side, two foxes perform their mating ritual unconcerned before my gaze. For a few moments, I am one with the forest. But a few moments are all I am granted. The carrying deep voice of my father, floating down the valley, calls me back to humanity. Reluctantly I force myself to turn away from the marsh; to walk slowly back up the path in the chilling fog, feeling the damp cling to my skin; back to reality.

At the border I pause, my hand on the solid trunk of the vast pine marking the end of the forest. Up the hill, past the new-mown lawn and the rose garden, the kitchen light gleams warmly and my father’s shadow moves industriously against the glow. Solemnly, reverently, I turn and make obeisance to the silent eucalypts and they toss their crowns in acknowledgement. Then I cross the border, and make my way up to the house, out of the mist.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Glory and the Dream: Lucy Pevensie and I

I am a magnet for all kinds of deep wonderment
I am a Wunderkind
I am a pioneer naive enough to believe this
I am a princess on the way to my throne

Rewatching two of my favourite movies, the first two in the relatively recent Narnia adaptations, I realised that contrary to what I had thought as a child, the character with whom I most  identify from of the Narnia chronicles is not Susan, but Lucy Pevensie. In fact - the more I understand myself, I come to believe that out of all my fantasy heroes - she embodies most the kind of person I am, my outlook on the world; my insecurities and my delights.

Lucy is the one who discovers Narnia first - the girl who enters the snow-clad forest, not with fear (as most people would enter an strange, cold place at the back of their wardrobe), nor with the assumption that she is hallucinating or dreaming. Instead she laughs with wonder; not astonished but delighted. Clearly, she had always believed such things were possible - perhaps had imagined them, and longed for them, unuttered. The snowy, bitterly cold Lantern Waste is to her a marvelous place - a miracle - her kingdom. From her first visit, she is the most at home of all the Pevensie children in Narnia, the one who feels the most joy in its air and beauty in its every aspect. She is the one who makes friends with the faun and the beavers - and who feels closest to Aslan. 

I think I am very like Lucy. But when I first read The Chronicles of Narnia that very similitude was what made me ignore her. After all - she was just a little girl, the same age as I was when I picked up the books for the first time. And I knew I was no hero. Susan however - the responsible and superior elder sister - had all the qualities I felt I lacked but passionately desired. She was older - taken more seriously than a little girl. She had beauty (something both Lucy and I felt we lacked, though I've later come to learn that we were both wrong), and she had deadly (and admirable) skill with a bow. But with all her qualities, she is the one who feels the least connection to Narnia, who is the most content to live in the "real world"... Now I understand this, I question - is this what I really want?

There's a telling exchange between Lucy and Susan in Prince Caspian, where Susan wonders why she didn't see Aslan when her younger sister did. Lucy answers: "Perhaps you didn't really want to." Susan says wistfully to her, "You knew we were always coming back, didn't you?" Lucy replies, as if it was obvious - "I hoped so".  It is clear here that Susan had given up hope on ever returning to Narnia, and almost didn't want to come back because it would disrupt her carefully constructed contentment in her "real world" life. Even her pleasure at returning is tempered by the bleak thought - "while it lasts..." Lucy however is shocked that anyone could come to Narnia and not feel boundless joy. She had never given up hope or forgotten her time as "Queen Lucy the Valiant".

 As I grow older, I  see many Susans. I see that I could become like her, and that such would not be a bad thing to be... After all, she is queenly, strong, beautiful and kind. But she lost her magic. Lucy however, never stopped believing, and neither will I.

Two scenes in particular epitomise those elements of Lucy's character that are most like mine. The first is from The Lion,  the Witch and the Wardrobe. After having her belief in Narnia mocked by her brother Edmund and disbelieved by Susan and Peter - after having felt the wood at the back of the wardrobe depressingly solid beneath her fingers - after the humiliation of being unable to "prove" Narnia's existence to her siblings - Lucy returns to the wardrobe in the dead of night. 

Listen to the following music from the scene to perfectly understand her trepidation as she pads through the darkened house, slipper-clad, wondering if she had indeed dreamed her adventure, but hoping desperately that it had been real... and her transcendent joy when she opens the door of the wardrobe and the chill Narnian wind blows out her candle.   

This scene perfectly expresses Lucy's questing spirit, and her belief in something beyond the mundane.

The second scene is from Prince Caspian. Previously she had been disappointed to discover that the trees were still and silent on her return, but before, when she had been queen they "used to dance". But never one to be content with the explanation "that's the way things are", upon waking beside a campfire on her first morning back at Narnia, Lucy walks into the forest alone, to find the woods suffused with light and magic - just as she had always believed. The trees sway and dance before her, and dryads float on scented breezes. And between the trees - a flash of gold - the ultimate validation. Aslan waits for her in the forest of wonder. 

Lucy: I've missed you so much! Why haven't you shown yourself, like last time?
Aslan:  Things never happen the same way twice, dear one.

In the midst of her joyful reunion with Aslan, a twig snaps - and Lucy awakes in truth - to a grey dawn and a forest of still and silent trees. Though she immediately retraces her dream-steps, and the real forest is still beautiful - Aslan cannot be found and the dryads are gone - perhaps had never been.

Touching a silver birch-bole, Lucy whispers "Wake up..." But the trees do not respond.
I feel such aching sympathy for her at this point. Lucy is eventually proven right when she finally meets Aslan again and he wakes the trees for her, but in that moment I know just how she feels. I too have felt that the trees were my friends - that could I but call them at the right time - they would wake for me. I have called to them - have whispered to the wilderness, desperately hoping for reply... But there was never a response. Or - not in words at least. I did notice that whenever I felt most "magic" in nature - whenever I tried to move within the world I half-sensed to be - those were the times I saw and understood the deep beauty within the sun, the wind and all growing things, and knew myself to be a part of that beauty. But I believe the sensing and the wishing and believing are part of that understanding. 

I used to think Lucy was the least of the Pevensies - but now I have learned wisdom. She is not gifted with the weapons of war, like her siblings, but with the gift of healing and compassion. She does not win glory on the battlefield, but knows the deeper truth that "battles are ugly affairs". She feels afraid, but nevertheless accompanies Aslan on his journey to Death, rides him like a tempest and faces down the Telmarine army by his side. I love her like a sister; like myself. I have come to understand that her qualities are admirable, and her magic gifts - an eye perpetually attuned to beauty, a seeking mind and heart for marvel, and a belief in "the glory and the dream" are gifts that are innately mine. Lucy always had them, the child-me possessed them, but did not see their worth. Now, as I see more and more people around me lose their wonder and vision, and turn their gazes to the trivial, I realise that this "magic" is what makes life so wonderful for me, and that the qualities of the little girl Lucy are wondrous and rare. I feel supreme joy in my being, and in the beauty of the world, and vow never to lose it.

Monday, 24 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Mythic Christmas

Star of Bethlehem, by Edward Burne-Jones

Christmas is, and always will be for me, a magical holiday, full of mystery and beauty and mythic significance. I have never known it otherwise, as my family decided before I was born to never subscribe to the consumerism and reductionist mania that seems to have possessed the world and made mockery of the season. We do not give gifts on Christmas day (except for those of "Father Christmas" to the children, in whom I am proud to say I believed until I was thirteen, and whose presence invested the holiday with a magic that refused to leave even when I found out he did not exist). Our "presents" (and only one each) are exchanged on Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas and the day when the three Kings in the legend gifted the Christ-child with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Nor do we have a massive dinner, in which most gets wasted and everybody ends up over-full and inebriated, rather a simple yet festive meal of chicken with apple cider and lots of summer fruit, using a recipe that has family significance. Nor are we religious (rather spiritual and hopeful agnostics). Our family used to be Catholic, but left the faith and the church many years ago. How is it then that I find Christmas to be the most beautiful day of the year?

To me and my family Christmas celebrates a beautiful and inspiring myth – the legend of the birth of Christ (for the story itself is beautiful, regardless of how it has been twisted by the bigoted religious authorities) – as well as the older celebration of the seasons. It is a time to consider death and rebirth, and to rejoice in family love. It is a time to reflect on and connect with the past – for this is a day that has been celebrated for over two thousand years. For my family, it is a time of light, magic, story and song.  For these and many other reasons Christmas has been, and always shall be for me, the most mythic time of the year.

Among all the beauties of Christmas Рit is song which is most effective in conveying feelings of majesty, magic and myth at Christmas. We have only a few albums, and they have been played every Christmas for as long as I can remember. I truly believe they are the best arrangements, as they get to the heart of the season, exploring the historical, spiritual and universal elements of the occasion; from the Christian to the pagan; medieval to modern Рall sung with purity, grandeur and sincerity. Look for no triteness among this selection. Even the oldest songs avoid clich̩.

I will share with you a selection below. Some of my favourites I have not been able to find on Youtube (such as Rutter’s version of Silent Night from the “Christmas Star” album) but I have provided a link to Amazon where you can download the tracks for 99c each, should you so desire (and I would truly recommend it).

I love the exquisite Burne-Jonesian  cover of this beautiful album. 

I wonder as I wander

When I was younger, I used not to love this song. As a child, I thought that Christmas ought to be a day of unmixed joy and celebration. Especially because I am not Christian, and do not believe in the literal truth of the Christmas story, I did not feel the beauty and the tragedy at the core of the legend. But as I grew, I came to understand the power and enduring “truth” of story, and to feel the sorrow expressed by the singer of this song.

“I wonder as I wander” deals with the Christian singer’s amazement at the immensity of the generosity of  Christ, in being “brought forth to die” for the sake of “poor ornery people like you and like I”. It truly is an incredible thought – that someone would have such love for flawed humanity as to die for them… Although I do not believe that the historical Jesus “died for our sins”, the symbol is a humbling one of ultimate altruism, and even fictional it strikes me with the same sense of wonder and awe, causing me to ponder whether my life is worthy of such a sacrifice, and to resolve to make it worthy.

The singer’s voice is incredibly beautiful – high, cold and pure like starlight. As she sings, I can imagine her, wrapped in a peasant cloak, walking across a snow-covered hilltop, with the black fingers of winter trees clawing the twilight. With every star that shines forth in the darkening sky, she wonders…

We Three Kings of Orient

Now this song has always been a favourite. I have always been fascinated by the “kings of Orient” and their precious, symbolic gifts. As I have been blessed with the gift of vivid visualisation this evocative arrangement of the carol summons for me the most incredible imagery. I can see the kings, with their proudly wondering faces and fixed eyes reflecting the star they follow; see the silhouette of oasis-palms against a starry night sky. In the arrangement of the song, I can hear the jingle and clink of bridles and saddle-ornaments, and almost feel the cooling desert sand-dunes giving up the last of their daylight warmth to the night. In the last verse the song blazes with the fierce beauty and glory of the “star of wonder, star of light/Star with royal beauty bright”. And with the “wandering off” of the song’s ending, I am left with an image of hoof prints in star-lit sand, winding toward the horizon…        

Rise Up Shepherd and Follow

This lesser-known carol is one that I have always loved, since earliest childhood. Perhaps it is because I can identify myself with the shepherd – I would not hesitate to “follow the star”, leaving behind anything and everything in pursuit of a gleaming, wondrous goal. As I have grown, I’ve started seeing the carol as an allegory (but nonetheless self-sufficient in its own story, as all the best myths are). We all hear a “call” in our lives to “rise up, rise up and follow” – perhaps an artistic ideal, a story or some other venture – something to which we will dedicate our lives. Although the quest demands sacrifice, the prize is beautiful beyond anything – the resolution of a shining dream...

Veni, Veni Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has some of the most mythic lyrics, harking back to the ancient beginnings of the legend, and the reason for  the “coming” of Christ. “O come, O come Emmanuel/ And ransom captive Israel”. The idea of a captive people calling out for a Saviour – a Promised One to lead them from darkness and despair – is a potent one, and one with which I think we can all identify. Anyone who has ever been marginalised, discriminated against; felt loneliness and despair – will particularly resonate with this song.

There are many reasons why I love Libera’s version of this carol best. Firstly, I love that it is sung in Latin. The ancient language calls us as listeners back to an elder time when myth and history were intermingled – a place mysterious and echoing with vanished voices. Secondly, I love the sadness of this version – even in the triumphant last line “Rejoice, rejoice/ Emmanuel shall come to thee/ O Israel” there is intermingled elation and sorrow. This is extremely appropriate to the conflicting emotions evoked by the Christmas legend – joy because the Promised One has come to lift the despair from suffering Israel, yet deep grieving, for in order to save the people, Jesus must sacrifice himself. Finally, the arrangement is just so beautiful: the lone voice of the first stanzas, abandoned as a captive or abandoned Israel – the harmonies like wind on a cold night – and the choir’s powerful, triumphant singing of the last verse in English, which brings us, the present listeners together with the ancient voice of the past. The pure voices of the Libera child-singers sing ethereally from a place of darkness – the darkness and despair in our own souls.

The Corpus Christi Carol

This Middle England carol is Arthurian in its medieval imagery and references to the Fisher King (the eternally wounded knight from the Grail Quest). It is an unusual carol, in that it only references Christ at the very end, and even then indirectly, which has prompted some to theorise whether the wounded knight is actually supposed to be Christ, and the weeping maiden Mary. Personally I prefer to think of it as a “fairy tale”, as Jeff Buckley said about his version of the song (found here). I thrill to the mysterious line “The falcon hath borne my mate away…”

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

I love the melancholy and nostalgia of this song. Having lived all my life in a country where Christmas day is usually marked by clear sunlight and summer warmth – I have never longed wistfully after a “white Christmas”, (although I want to experience one sometime in my life).  What resonates with me about this song is the line “Where tree-tops glisten, and children listen/To hear sleighbells in the snow”. The idea of longing for a “white Christmas”  becomes for me a longing for a magic Christmas – a Christmas where children really do listen for sleighbells, as I did, but as it seems fewer and fewer children do…

Do You Hear What I Hear?

This is the favourite carol of my youngest brother, and it is not difficult to see why, with the “night wind” speaking to the “little lamb”, telling of an angel’s song, using the beautiful description “high above the trees, with a voice as big as the seas”. It has a windy, open joy and wonder in its instrumentals, and Aled Jones sings tenderly, like a parent telling a story...

As well as our trusty three Christmas albums, there are some isolated Christmas carols that I and my family love, in particular:

Jussi Bjorling’s  O Helga Natt (O Holy Night)

This carol is always incredibly powerful - it has soaring immensity and beautiful lyrics - and I don't think I've ever heard it sung badly. Perhaps it is impossible for the reductionists to diminish such a glorious song. After all, who can hear the lines "Chains shall he break/ For the slave is a brother", without feeling "a thrill of hope"? In fact - Libera and Aled Jones both sing amazingly beautiful versions (click through on their names). However, Jussi Bjorling's version, sung in his native Swedish, is specially moving and primal.

Loreena Mckennit’s The Holly and the Ivy

This carol has always been a favourite. I cannot adequately express how much I thrill to the magic, timeless lines "The rising of the sun/ The running of the deer". The Pagan influence on the Christmas season is still powerful - perhaps even more powerful and longlasting than the Christian influence (no matter how beautiful the story of the Christ-child), because it is older and more concerned with the movements of earth and cycle of the seasons. Certainly in this song the Pagan elements are stronger and more powerful than the Christian elements. Loreena McKennitt's rendition of the song is haunting and ethereal as dawn mist over a lake, or first light over a thick and secret forest.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Mythic Significance of Trees

The Garden of the Hesperides by Edward Burne-Jones

World-spanning, life-giving or destructive, bearing golden apples of life or the knowledge of good and evil - trees have immense presence in mythology, religion and story. 

All across the world, from the earliest epochs of recorded history, they have stood as religious emblems, or been worshiped as gods themselves. And it's not difficult to discern why. 

Who cannot help but feel small beside such a giant?

Anyone who has stood beneath a tall and verdant tree, looked up into the green vastness of its branches, listened to the whispering of thousands of leaves cannot but feel a sense of awe - standing so small beside something so huge and long-lived. Beside the transience of human lives, these living statues which endure for hundreds if not thousands of years are monolithic. 

The bright autumn foliage of maple flames bravely against the chill of approaching winter. 

But trees are not dead and grey as statues of stone. They are alive and vital - they leaf and bear fruit - they grow inexorably; thrash frantically against storms. With brilliant colours they blaze in the dying of the year. They sing - wind soughing through branches as through an Aeolian harp.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter: in all seasons, a tree is awe-inspiring.

From seed-time trees possess immense power - defying gravity with thin, translucent stems, pushing through soil toward the sun. Within the tiny seed - the energy to fuel the plant until it can put forth its first set of delicate leaves to catch sunlight. And each leaf - so slight and wafer-thin - is filled with a transformative power to transmute the life-giving warmth of the sun into starch to feed the plant. As a sapling, a young tree is a fierce competitor for resources, space and light. Full-grown, it is magnificent, whether a towering sequoia or a squat baobab.

Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology was thought to connect the earthy and unearthly realms . 

Trees have creative force, supporting and sustaining life. Roosting birds make their home in the branches - fungi and lichen establish colonies on the trunk, squirrels nest in the hollows and innumerable insects swarm over and around it. With their proud crowns reaching the sky and roots firm-gripping the earth - they connect the physical and immaterial worlds. Thus it is not difficult to see how early peoples all over the globe chose a tree to represent the universe - the World Tree which connects life and death, reality and spirituality. Trees appear in almost all religions - symbolising fertility, immortality, interconnectedness, wholeness or even appearing as gods themselves.

Ankor Wat's magnificent stone temples are slowly destroyed by the roots of the strangler fig 

Trees can also be destructive - as the decaying city of Ankor Wat displays, their roots have the strength to split stone and consume human edifice. A falling tree branch can kill or severely maim. Thus our awe and reverence for trees is touched by fear. And thus the roots of Yggdrasil reach the underworld.

Grove of Crypotomera japonica, a hallowed tree to the believers of Shinto in Japan. 

Collectively, trees have the ability to transform space - exuding oxygen and water as a result of photosynthesis and transpiration - thus affecting the climate. But though the early humans did not know the scientific significance of trees to the global environment - they understood the power of the forest. Woods and groves are uncertain places - realms of living pillars, many ancient with the years of human generations. Light and shadow intermingle, creating a shifting, flickering border between the real and unreal - the earthly and divine. In recognition of the haunted, hallowed spaces that are created by forests, sacred groves were maintained and used by various religions. To the Ancient Greeks and Romans the groves were the sites of godly shrines. The Norse pagans of Scandinavia used the groves as sites of sacrifice.  Druids met in the groves of Albion, and in Japan they were the sites of Shinto reverence and ritual. 

The image of "golden apples of the sun" is a recurring one in myth and fairy-tale. 

In human consciousness trees are the sentinels at the gates of mystery. Although tree-worship has all but vanished, and deforestation continues to ravage some of the most beautiful and vital forests of the earth, trees continue to have a mythic power - which manifests itself in the modern myth-mediums of story, art and film. A few examples can be seen below:

The Trees of Valinor were sung into being to provide light to the universe, after the great cosmic Lamps were shattered . 

In crafting his fantasy world of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien created a whole mythological fabric upon which to embroider, like some glorious tapestry, his tales of wonder and heroism. In his creation myth, recounted in The Silmarillion the sun and moon are the flower and fruit of the twin trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These glorious trees were sung into being by Yavanna, Queen of the Earth, who was also responsible for the creation of the Ents, sentient and wise tree-folk of The Lord of the Rings. The Trees of Valinor represent night and day, male and female, fertility and above all, life-giving light. Though they are killed by Melkor, their last light is caught in the peerless jewels called the Silmarils, which in turn drive much of the later mythology of Middle Earth.

Tolkien clearly felt trees to be of deep spiritual and symbolic significance, as they are a recurring motif in his stories - in the Lord of the Rings alone there is the Party Tree (centre of community life in Hobbiton), the aforementioned tree-folk the Ents, the arboreal elven city in the forest of Lothlorien and the White Tree of Gondor (a descendant of Telperion). 

Digory plucks an apple of immortality for Narnia, then ponders the merits of stealing a second... 

Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis, creator of the Chronicles of Narnia also made trees a significant element in his Narnian creation-myth The Magician's Nephew. In order to protect Narnia from future harm, an apple must be plucked from a mysterious "Place", an orchard on a green hill and planted in the vital soil of young Narnia. These apple trees have similarities to the Tree of Life (as their fruit bestows eternal life on the taster), as well as the biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (as transgression of the law "Take of my fruit for others" results in immortal misery). The Tree of Protection is another light-giving apple tree (clearly a powerful mythic image at work), but one with "silver apples like stars". Wood from its earthly descendants is fashioned into the eponymous Wardrobe of Lewis' most famous book.

In an interesting (though less cosmic) parallel to Tolkien's Trees of the Valinor, Lewis' world also contains a pair of trees, one pure gold, the other silver (grown from fallen coins from a miser's pocket). These are fashioned into the crowns of the first King and Queen of Narnia.      

The Tree of Souls is the spiritual centre of Pandora.

In James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar the indigenous people of the forest-moon Pandora, the Na'vi follow an anamistic religion, feeling a deep spiritual connection with "Eywa", the mother-goddess of the moon, and through her, with all life on their world. The "Tree of Souls" represents a tangible link between Eywa and the Na'vi - it is the beautiful, shining heart of the forest and the Na'vi culture.

Our ancestors called it Yggdrasil, and we call it the Universe, but Thor comes from a place where they're one and the same.. 

In the 2011 movie Thor the World Tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is revealed as the structure of the universe - a "tree" of swirling nebulae and stars that links the "Nine Realms".

In conclusion, there is something undeniable and enduring about the power of trees - as sources and symbols of life, as totemic watchers, as ladders between here and the beyond - undoubtedly, they have a deep-rooted and mythic significance in our collective consciousness. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why are we so Fascinated by Pirates?

It is, it is, a glorious thing to be a pirate king.
Who hasn't dreamed of "a pirate's life" at some point in their lives? When we think of "pirates" our imagination flies to the Spanish Main, or to the Caribbean - even to Neverland. Our mental images of pirates have been shaped by popular culture for centuries - a myth-making and glorification of bandits, similar to the legend of Robin Hood. Since the writer "Captain Charles Johnson" published his influential work A General History of the Pyrates in 1724 - the figure of the pirate has assumed legendary qualities, and accrued some interesting (but fictitious) characteristics. We invest these beings with attributes we desire or feel we lack - courage, rebelliousness, a devil-may-care outlook on life, loyalty to others (in the form of "crewmates"), adventurousness, confidence... They become the agents of mystery - hailing from exotic locations, bound for strange shores. They do not conform to society - observe their bohemian dress and colourful language. Oh if only we dared to follow their example. 

We all know that the reality of piracy was not so attractive as popular culture has portrayed it. While the so-called "golden age" of piracy has been depicted as a time of lavish treasure and boundless opportunity for adventurous souls to discover new places and make their fortune - conditions aboard even the cleanest and best-equipped ship became quickly unsavoury when the sweaty and unwashed crew had sailed a week or two... While the captain's cabin was palatial compared to the rest of the ship (almost big enough to stand up in), most crewmembers had to bunk in cramped and squalid conditions, or swing in flea-swarming hammocks. Those picturesque Spanish galleons - they had the euphemistically named jardins instead of toilets. The food was at best bland and at worst rancid, bilge-soaked or rendered inedible by rats, mildew or weevils. The unsanitary conditions and poor nutrition made the ships into breeding grounds for disease. Did you ever wonder where the phrase "scurvy rascal" came from?

This is the face of your average pirate.
But surely we can afford to put up with a bit of hardship to live such a free and wonderful life as pirates led? Now they weren't stuck behind a desk all day. Nor are they required to conform to society's standards of beauty. And with the job comes so many cool tricks! We all know what pirates do - they swing around on rigging, quaff quarts of rum, romance (seduce is such an ugly word) beautiful and fiesty yet ultimately yielding women, engage in frequent and flamboyant sword-fights and walk around with parrots on their shoulders.

And we mustn't forget the golden lure. Just think of the treasure! Who doesn't love golden chalices and chests of silver coins? Speaking of chests - check out that beauteous buxom pirate wench! She even has a sword! How empowering is that? And anyway - everyone knows that pirates were gentlemen underneath... Well - maybe not gentlemen, after all they had hard lives and were rebels against society! But deep down underneath they were decent. Just look at Jack (I mean Captain Jack) Sparrow!

Just a lovable rogue... right?

The truth is, our perception of piracy is a romantic fantasy. "Piracy" really refers to acts of violent crime committed at sea (but can also be stretched to include violent robbery on land and air). And our image of the swashbuckling pirate is based only on a small period in history (the aforementioned "Golden Age" of piracy) whereas piracy has actually existed since the 14th Century BC and still exists today.

Nor were pirates the attractive idealists, attractive daredevils or unattractive-yet-comical characters we have seen on stage or screen. Rather they were hardened criminals who, although they did not commonly "kill all hands on deck" (simply because it would cost them too many lives), felt no compunction in committing murder, rape, extortion and theft.

Wait - you mean I'm not drawn from life?
Nor is piracy a Western phenomenon. Rather it is a global crime - with pirates found all over the world throughout history, including China, India and North Africa. In modern times pirates are still to be found in the waters of Somalia, Guinea and the Danube River.

Viewed out of the rose-coloured lenses of popular culture, a pirate presents a truly ugly sight. But is there nothing good we can take from the pirate trope? Is it necessarily a dangerous fantasy? Of course not!

The pirate legend satisfies the universal human need for heroes - mythical figures onto whom we project the "admirable" qualities we feel we lack in ourselves and our society. Today we feel restricted by bureaucracy, obliged to conform to social expectations and niceties. We look to the pirate ship as a means to sail away from the strictures of modern life. The pirate's crew, appeals to us with its tight-knit sense of belonging - a connection we feel we lack in a technologised society. In a world where  security is of paramount concern - the image of the adventurous, risk-taking treasure-seeker offers hope and consolation. The pirate reality was and is brutal and dark. But then, so was, in all likelihood the "reality" behind so many of our mythological figures - the ancient Greek heroes, King Arthur and Robin Hood...

It is the nature of the mythic to transcend its origins. We as humans need these inspirational, larger than life figures. Therefore the pirate fantasy figure has a great deal of value, so long as we remain aware of the disturbing truth; and do not let the attractive myth tempt us to glorify the ugly reality.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Interesting and Liberating - Thoughts on Looking Up

I love to look up. There is so much to see and rejoice in - the ever-changing light spectacle of the sky; the unique and often quirky facades and tops of buildings; the faces of people passing, and of course, trees. I am never bored when I look up. In the most dingy part of the city my eye seeks out, and finds beauty - the wispy mare's tails in the sky, curiously bubbled glass on windows, and the stained-glass effect of sunlight seen through leaves on a plane tree. In surroundings with less aesthetic disadvantages - such as a suburb verdant with trees and gay with flower gardens, or better still, the country - there is even more to see when I turn my eyes upward.

The trees are still more beautiful - have you ever noticed when certain trees are blown by the wind, the sun creates reflections on the outer surface, like a bunch of silver shards shaken on thin wires? Or seen a winter-blasted tree clawing at the sky, like something out of an Arthur Rackham illustration? And faces! Such interesting speculations can be had, on the cause of an expression, or the history of a line. Is that woman's face creased with wisdom or bad temper? Is that man's vacant expression indicative of an empty mind - or is he wandering in some personal dream world?

With such constant stimulation for the eye and brain to be found when looking up - why is it that I see so many people with constantly downturned eyes?

Whenever I am anywhere - out walking in my neighbourhood, in the park, in a shopping mall or in the city - I see them. When I walk by, they scuttle or meander past, eyes down in avoidance of human contact. Bored, they hunch over their iPhones, or slouch idly looking at scraps of rubbish blowing like tumbleweeds across the road.  It would seem most people spend their lives looking downward - at the ground or at their electronic gadgets.

It bothers me. And there are several reasons why.

Firstly, the view when looking downward is so uninspiring. What are all these people looking for on the ground? Surely not gemstones. Now if the streets really were "paved with gold" or studded with gems (as  innocent medieval rustics believed of London and later conquistadors believed of El Dorado) - if our city streets were littered with jewels rather than junk, then I too would assiduously rake the ground with my eyes. But aside from the aforementioned (and depressingly familiar) bit of rubbish - the urban street contains few treasures. Looking down, you are likely to see nothing more interesting or spirit-lifting than grey pavers, concrete and asphalt, blobbed with the tar-like and shiny spots of old chewing gum, scattered with cigarette butts and grimy leaves. And instead of faces - a parade of legs and feet adorned with so much black leather; so many Nikes and stilettos. Where are the vistas - the colours and the wide space, where the imagination is free to roam? Suffice it to say, turning the eyes perpetually downward, rather than up toward the horizon or beyond yields only a limited view, which in turn provides limiting stimulation for the mind and imagination.

My second reason for raising my sights is that it allows me to take my bearings on my surroundings and my life. Without our destination in  our sights - how can we properly direct ourselves? To me, this constant looking down implies a lack of purpose - a directionless wandering of the feet and of the mind. If we look up, then we can clearly see where we want to go, and in a real and metaphorical sense, take steps accordingly.

Finally - it is an act of submission and self-effacement to walk around with perpetually downcast eyes. Every time we drop our eyes before someone else, we self-abnegate, signalling a lack of assertiveness. Whether we do it out of fear, awkwardness or a desire to not stand out - it badly affects our psyches, making us more likely to give way before the opinions of others and stand small.

To break the negative cycle, try raising your eyes. Meet the eyes of others, not in a spirit of confrontation, but creating a moment of human connection and making, every time, a quiet declaration of courage and self-worth. Meeting someone's eye, even briefly, says "I am your equal, and I'm not afraid to show it". When it is time to break contact - look aside, not down. See the trees and the buildings, and the faces of all those other wonderful, complex human beings. Feel yourself their equal too. Eye contact is an empowering experience - looking up is both interesting and liberating.