Blog

Featured

Polly’s Law: a duty of care for the Earth


‘If you care, you can move mountains.’ These were the words of the extraordinary Polly Higgins, who devoted her life to creating a law to criminalise ecological damage, a law to protect the Earth. Polly died on Easter Sunday, taken suddenly by cancer during an extraordinary week in climate history. Across central London and several cities across the world, tens of thousands were taking part in non-violent acts of civil disobedience under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion; student leader of the School Strike for Climate movement got all the political parties at Westminster to sit down together and discuss the climate crisis; and it was Earth Day, celebrated by a billion people worldwide. It was also the day that the Easter Sunday bells of Notre Dame were silent for the first time in 800 years, the day that about 250 people were killed by suicide bombs up and down Sri Lan

Polly Higgins, the Earth’s lawyer

Yes, these are crazy times and sometimes it seems as though the whole world has gone mad. But something else is happening too, something remarkable and precious. We are remembering something wonderful that is deep within us, something we had thought we had lost. We glimpsed it as we silently watched the great spire of Notre Dame burn, the shock plunging us into our hearts. The connection was there for a brief and precious moment – before the babble and the voices started all over again, drowning it out. Nevertheless, it is undeniable. We are collectively waking up, starting to step out of our comfort zones and realise that we are here for the biggest show on Earth. The voices are many, the songs varied but slowly they are harmonising into one refrain. Will humanity, or will humanity not turn the evolutionary corner from treating our planet as a commodity to be bought and sold, to collectively stepping into our roles as guardians and protectors of the fragile and delicate ecosystem on which are lives also depend?

The message is clear and simple, scientists, activists and reformers have been saying it for years. Greenpeace, Noam Chomsky, Secretary-Generals of the UN, the IPCC all tell us that we are facing climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse if we do not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – now. Their voices were like cries in the wilderness, or if we heard them we chose not to listen. It seems that it would take a sixteen year-old student to do that. ‘We are facing an existential crisis,’ says Greta Thunberg. ‘We must act now to create a shared vision of change, to create a world that is fit for future generations.’ After her meeting with politicians in the House of Commons last week, Michael Gove echoed her demands. ‘The time to act is now, he said. Greta, you have been heard.’

Iceberg’s calving in Iceland (author’s photo)

Indeed it is now imperative we not only hear, but act. As our human population has increased, so has our impact on the natural world. The burning of fossil fuels to power, heat and light our world is the main source of CO2 emissions, but our use of plastics, pesticides and technology is causing pollution and plunder on unprecedented levels. Our impact on biodiversity is causing a mass extinction, our use of plastics is giving rise to a whole new layer in the geological record named the Anthropocene. But it is not too late, there are some simple solutions. We clearly need to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, we must manage and protect our oceans, reduce meat and plastic consumption, plant more trees and stop cutting them down to plant palm oil or make cattle farms. To rewild the wild.

The good news is that we have all the information we need, and there are some frameworks in place. Under the Paris Agreement, we are committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, to reach net zero by 2050. According to the IPCC, we have all the tools in our tool box to successfully limit climate change to 1.5 degrees.  We don’t need science to invent a magic machine to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, we can’t buy our way out of it, and we certainly shouldn’t intervene with drastic measures that would upset the delicate homeostasis of the Earth.


But we do need to make different lifestyle choices, and this means changes to our behavioural patterns. This is the rub, what we are resisting. Climate change and consciousness change are linked. We cannot do one without the other, and when we do one the other will happen automatically. And it is already happening, slowly but surely, like a seed planted in the ground, it has taken root and just needs more care and attention to make it grow into the shoot – like the one in the ‘Banksy’ picture. We are waking up to the fact that it is ultimately the future of our own species that is at stake. The Earth will survive, we might not.

We need people who are aligned to a cause, we need Greenpeace activists to highlight our follies, David Attenborough to tell us to halt biodiversity loss and re-wild the wild, Greta to get school children to care about their future, Extinction Rebellion activists demanding that we must act now. And most of all, we need a law to protect the Earth, for we must align our heads with our hearts if we are to change our consciousness.

That is what Polly dedicated her life to. To bring about a law at both national and international level to hold to account perpetrators of long-term severe damage to the environment. In her words, she was ‘realigning human law with natural law to take it back to the sacred trust that we all hold in our hearts.’ It’s not just ‘big corporations’ that need to clean up their act, though it is clear that this needs to happen, it’s down to each one of us too. How we take responsibility for ourselves on a microlevel is important, as this is what ripples out. Each one of us has a duty of care to the planet we call home, to protect the natural world, to protect life. And we need to expand this duty of care to a collective one. Polly has left us a framework to do this, she assures us that it is possible, even straightforward. She has now passed the baton, to Jojo Mehta and the rest of the ‘Ecocide: Change the Laws’ team, and to all of us too. She showed us what is possible when we step out of our comfort zones, she is daring us to be great. And she is assuring us that together, we can make it happen.

Autumn Equinox: Mabon and the Salmon of Wisdom

The Autumn Equinox is the time when the sun crosses the Equator and is positioned above it, exactly between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Now as the nights grow longer and the days shorten, leaves hang golden and burnished on the boughs, and the abundance of summer passes into seed. This is the time of the second harvest, gathering the last of the vegetables, fruits and seeds that will see us through the winter in the form of jams, purees, stews and chutneys. The opportunity to rest comes after the labour of harvest, time to give thanks for the abundance of the Earth’s produce, to reflect on all that one has reaped and sown in the previous months, to bring projects to fruition and to start to let go of all that which is no longer needed. Both the cornucopia, the symbol of plenty, and the apple, symbol of the fruit harvest, are associated with Autumn Equinox, now since the 1970s anyway, commonly known as the feast of Mabon.

In Welsh mythology, the figure of Mabon could be of ancient pedigree, and is certainly both elusive and multi-faceted. His story can be gathered and assembled from references in all four branches of the Mabinogion, and a couple of the medieval Welsh romances, though, as ever, this is disputed by scholars. His main association is as Mabon ap Modron, derived from the Romano-British god Maponus, meaning Great Son, born of the great goddess Modron, or Dea Matrona.[1] The sacred child born of the Earth mother goddess. The Maponus of Celtic tradition was sometimes equated with the Greek Apollo, giving him an association with light and the sun, but it is the divine-mother-son-pair that is the most primal archetype, possibly hinting back to a much more ancient origin.

Mabon ap Modron makes his most famous appearance in the guise of a Magical Hunter[2] in tale of Culhwch and Olwen, a romance probably first written in the 1100s, one of the earlier Arthurian references. The story centres on the romance between, Culhwch, son of King Cilydd, who becomes infatuated because of a curse with Olwen, a giant’s daughter. The giant is reluctant to let Culhwch marry Olwen and sets the love-struck youth a series of impossible tasks that he must fulfil in order to win her hand. Clearing fields, ploughing, sewing and raising a crop in one day, fetching two magical oxen to pull a plough, sowing linseed to produce the white linen wedding veil, producing sweet mead without the aid of bees, procuring a magical hamper that never empties, a harp that plays itself, a magical cauldron, and the comb and shears between the ears of the enchanted wild boar,  the Twrch Trwyth, to dress his hair. This magical beast can only be tracked by the dog Drudwyn, which in turn can only be hunted by Mabon ap Modron, but alas, no one knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Culwhch must seek the help of King Arthur and his men to perform these tasks, and most of the tale is given over to describing their exploits.

Mabon, it transpires, was taken from his mother when he was three nights old, as was Pryderi ap Pwyll, in the first branch of the Mabiniogion. This Pryderi was the son of Rhiannon, and it was she was blamed for the disappearance of her son, and his suspected murder, and made to bear those visiting court on her back as punishment (see September Harvest Moon: the Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds above). Pryderi makes an appearance in all four branches of the Mabinogion and this had led some researchers, e.g. W.J. Gruffydd, to suggest that the origin of the word Mabinogion pertains to the god Maponus, himself equated with Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll. Though some of Gruffyd’s ideas are no longer fashionable, recent scholars are now suggesting that this theory could contain at least a kernel of truth.[4] This could also be further evidence for the ancient pedigree of the divine-mother-son origins for the figure of Mabon.

In order to locate Mabon, King Arthur and his men must enlist the help of a series of wise and magical animals, all of whom are more ancient and therefore knowledgeable than any of the human characters in the story. In order to understand these messenger from the Otherworld they need to enlist the help of a man named Gwrhyr, an interpreter of tongues, who they rescue from imprisonment. Thus prepared, they seek out the Blackbird of Cilgwri who tells them that he so old that he had worn away a smith’s anvil with his beak, ‘so that only a nut sized piece remains.’ Even so, he has heard nothing of Mabon and his fate.

He directs them to the Stag of Rhedynfre, who, when he first arrived ‘had only one antler on either side of his head and the only tree was an oak sapling. In the meantime, that tree grew into an oak of a hundred branches and finally tumbled down so that today nothing remains of it but a fed stump,’ yet despite his age, he too knows nothing of Mabon.

The Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the next creature, was so old that his wings were stumps when he first came to his place, had born witness to the growth and destruction of three forests, yet throughout this time has heard nothing of the men they seek. The Eagle of Gwernabwy, older still, once sat on a large stone from where he could peck the stars each night. Now, in the meantime, it has been reduced to the size of a fist, but even he is unable to help. However, he believes that the oldest and wisest creature of them all may be able to: the enormous Salmon of Lyn Llyw.

Indeed, the salmon does have news. He tells Arthur and his men that with each tide he swims up the river until he comes to the walls of a castle in Gloucester, and here he has heard a terrible grieving, the likes of which has never been seen before. He takes Cei and Gwrhyr the interpreter on his back up the river to the castle, and there sure enough, they find the wretched Mabon son of Modron, who has been painfully incarcerated within its walls for years.

With Arthur’s help, Mabon is freed and he helps them procure the dogs needed for the hunt of the enchanted boar, Twrch Trwyth, and the leash that must be held while he hunts. Culwch then goes on, with much assistance and a long and arduous hunt, to retrieve the scissors and comb from between the magical boar’s ears, therefore allowing the giant to complete his grooming in preparation for the marriage of his daughter to her suitor.

Though Mabon’s reference is fleeting in this long and detailed tale, his role as Magical Hunter is paramount for the story. And so is the help of the otherworldly animals, the most important of which is the great Salmon of Lyn Llyw. In both Welsh and Irish tradition, the salmon is the guardian par excellence of wisdom, knowledge, inspiration and prophecy. Another key reference to the salmon is in the Fenian cycles of Irish tradition where the salmon is said to swim in the well of wisdom, the source of all life, that has a physical location at the source of the River Boyne. This well is surrounded by a grove of nine sacred hazel trees, which nourish the salmon and make him wise, giving rise to the red spots on his side.

In the Irish tale, a young man encounters a fisherman who has been fishing for the Salmon of Wisdom for seven years. In a tale similar to that of Gwion Bach (see Summer Solstice: of Taliesin, Ceridwen and magical Cauldrons),  the fish is caught as the boy approaches, and he accidentally touches it’s magical flesh as he is given the task of roasting it over the fire. He instantly becomes endowed with all the knowledge and wisdom of the salmon, and became a great seer and poet.[5] The salmon is indeed a remarkable creature: it will return to the place of its birth to mate, swimming great distances, sometimes upstream, in both salt and freshwater to do so. It’s inbuilt instinct to return to the source of its youth has also led to its association with longevity, and in Druidic tradition, the story of Mabon is linked to the divine child of eternal youth and the salmon the elixir of life, forever sought but not often found.


[1] See ‘Mabon ap Modron,’ en.w.wikipedia.org (accessed 19.9.2020)

[2] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

[4] See ‘The Mabiniogion and other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited by Patrick K Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[5] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

September Harvest Moon: The Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds

The month of September is named simply from the Latin for seven, as in the seventh month, but what it lacks in name it makes up for in the bounty and splendour of the harvest produce, of the often serene last days of summer, and the emerging spectacle of leaves beginning to turn shades of crimson and amber. As the vibrant summer wild-flowers fade, crysanthamuns of every hue step in to fill the colour void and boughs of apple, pear and quince bend under the weight of their ripening load. In the woodland, mushrooms push their way through the fecund soil and brightly coloured berries abound – sparkling orange rowan, rich indigo elder and of course plump inky blackberries. Their briars and brambles are the stuff of fairy tales, said to grow prolifically around lands lost in the mists of time, and permission should always be sought before picking the berries, which can then be turned into wine and a source of inspiration and intoxication.

At this full moon close to the Equinox and time of balance in the seasonal cycle, it is pertinent to consider Rhiannon, one of the most liminal of goddesses in the Welsh tradition. A leading mythological figure in the Mabinogion, she features in two out of the four Branches. Her memorable appearance in the first Branch leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an otherworldly being. Her husband-to-be, Pwyll king of Dyfed, is sitting on a fairy mound when he sees  ‘a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound.’[1]

Entranced by this the most beautiful maiden in the world, he sends his men in pursuit. However, though the horse appeared to be moving slowly, neither Pwyll’s men nor he himself, mounted on the swiftest horse in the realm, can catch her up. Only when he bids her wait for the sake of the man she loves does she stop. She then reveals that she is trying to flee an undesirable suitor, who she is being forced to marry against her will, and that it is in actual fact Pwyll whom she desires to marry. After outwitting her suitor in a rather unworthy manner through a game called Badger in the Bag, Pwyll and Rhiannon do indeed marry and reign happily over Dyfed, until, a year later, Rhiannon gives birth to a son.

Tragically, on the night of his birth he is kidnapped and the women who were supposed to have kept vigil over him devise a macabre plan to save themselves. They kill a pup, and smear the blood over Rhiannon’s face, incriminating her in the death of her son. She was thus condemned for his murder and her punishment was to sit beside the mounting block at the court in Arberth for seven years, and to carry travellers on her back to court like a horse as a penance.

Rhiannon accepts her punishment gracefully, and meanwhile, her son is brought up by the lord of Brent who found the baby deposited on his doorstep as he tried to save a newly birthed colt. Eventually the lord of Brent realises who the foundling is and Rhiannon’s son is returned to her, and to his birthright, as he inherits the seven cantrefs of Dyfed upon the death of his father.

So Rhiannon, established as a sacred otherworldly being, descends to the mortal realm where she is badly treated, even abused. She appears in connection with a fairy mound, the movement of her horse beyond time and space, passing over the landscape steadily yet always out of reach, like the Moon traversing the night sky. She refuses to be given in marriage against her will, and insists on choosing her own love-mate, though this does not go particularly smoothly.

Above all, she, and indeed her son, are deeply connected with the horse, and for the people of Ancient Britain this was an aspect of Sovereignty, the sacred power of the land itself, intricately linked to power and fertility, and the life-death cycles inherent in this.  The relationship between people and horses is one of the oldest and most primal of all, stretching back deep into the Ice Age, and horse sacrifice played a central role in the proto-Indo-European religion that branched out from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, spreading over western Europe and eventually reaching the British and Irish Isles in the form of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. These people owed their lives and their livelihoods to the horse, and above all able to journey, to move through the countryside exploring new territories and lands. Both the archaeological record and Vedic mythology attests to the paramount nature of horse sacredness, and horse remains have been found in ritual pits and chariot burials over long distances and time.

This memory was retained later in the form of the Celtic horse goddess, Epona, who was worshipped from Britain to Bulgaria, and even the Romans set up shrines dedicated solely to her. Though the archaeological evidence for the worship of Epona in Britain is scanty and therefore her worship sometimes disputed, some remains from the Dubonni tribe in South Wales have been found consisting of coins with horses,  moons and heads on them, an area very much linked to the myths and legends of Rhiannon.[2] Further evidence for the central role of the horse in proto-Celtic times is the White Horse of Uffington located on the fabulous landscape of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, now dated in its original form to sometime between 1380 and 550 BC.[3]

Rhiannon is also famed for her magical birds, the Ader Rhiannon, which are also mentioned in the Mabinogion in two different Branches. These three birds are said to sing a song that can wake the dead and put the living to sleep. When they sing they sound as though they are very close but when you look for them they appear to be across an ocean. Like Rhiannon’s horse, they are otherworldly creatures holding the keys to life and death, possibly acting as psychopomps, or carriers of the soul to another realm.

Though not explicitly stated, it is possible that these were blackbirds, considered one of the oldest of animals in the Welsh tradition. Blackbirds sing harmoniously at twilight, the magical transition time between day and night, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. They are known as the blacksmith’s bird, and in Gaelic the word for both is ghobadhu. [4] As the blacksmith uses an anvil to forge his metalwork, the blackbird uses rocks to crack open snail’s shells. His jet-black feathers are reminiscent of the blackness of the smith and his metals, forged into beautiful and useful objects by the elements of air, water and fire. As the blacksmith works magic in a practical and elemental way, so the blackbird is the otherworldly smith inviting us onto a journey to the depths of our souls with his melodious song.

Rhiannon has thus mastery over both the horse, the ultimate symbol of super-nature and an aspect of Sovereignty, the power vested in the land itself, and the three blackbirds, who also have powers over life and death through their song. Though she is an otherwordly being herself, Rhiannon shares in the experience of mortal women, at times subject to the powers of men and not exempt from tragedy, betrayal and humiliation. We can therefore identity with her suffering, and feel that she can identify with ours. But her story also stirs up something deeper in us, for she makes us question our relationship with the sacred. In Rhiannon’s story we see an example of the debasing of the sacred feminine, at the hands of mortals. And as Rhiannon is an embodiment of Sovereignty, of the land, what does this say about our relationship with the Earth on which we rely and of which we are also a part?


[1] The Maboniogion and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ Edited and Translated by Patrick K. Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[2] Gwilym Morus-Baird, ‘Is Rhiannon a Goddess?’ Online.

[3] Powell, Eric A (September – October 2017) ‘White Horse of the sun,’ Archaeology, 70 (5): 9-10. Retrieved 31.8.2020

[4] The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

Lammas: Tales of Tailtiu and Lugh the Shining One

August is the time of the first grain harvest, when the golden corn now packed with the nourishing energy of sunlight is ripe and ready for winnowing, and round lush berries start to sweeten on the stem. In Anglo Saxon tradition this festival was known as the ‘feast of the first fruits,’ or ‘loaf mass’ from whence comes the word Lammas. Bread was baked and shared to celebrate the harvest that would ensure survival throughout the winter, and a huge cartwheel was lit and rolled down a hillside to symbolise the beginning of the descent down into the underworld of autumn. [1] The holly king who had defeated the oak king at Summer Solstice now takes on the guise of the sacrificial corn king and effigies of John Barleycorn are burnt on the Lammas fires to symbolise the winnowing, and therefore sacrifice, of the wheat and barley crops. As the wheel of the year turns, birth, life, death and rebirth cycles were experienced as man and nature intimately intertwined.

In Celtic tradition, the festival was named Lughnasa after one of the most well known gods in the Irish pantheon – Lugh the Bright and Shining one. His story and origins are complex and he appears at first glance to have much in common with the other patriarchal gods of the Iron Age such as Zeus, Yahweh and Apollo, all of whom were frequently worshipped on high places and have been associated with the sun and its light giving, logical and guiding qualities. Yet Lugh was never a sun god per se. His most prominent epithet is ‘Samildanach’ which means ‘many skills,’ emphasising the importance placed on the mastery of arts and crafts in the Celtic world, and he was also the owner of magical objects, including the spear that never missed its goal. The stories of his origins tell of a mixing and mingling of lineages and traditions both historical and mythical: he was the son of the Formorian princess Ethne, daughter of the feared giant Balor, and a man named Kian of the Tuatha De Danaan, the rival tribe. Lugh himself decided to fight for the Tuatha De Danaan, who were being unfairly governed by king Balor, his maternal grandfather.

One day appears one day at the palace of king Nuada while the company are feasting and asks to be admitted. The gatekeeper challenges him to name a craft over which he has mastery before he can enter. He says he is a carpenter, then a smith, a warrior, poet, harpist, scientist, physician, sorcerer, sculptor, all in turn, but is met with the answer that his services are not needed as there was already somebody at court who could name each of these skills as their own. However, Lugh’s unique selling point is that nobody but him has mastery over all of them, and it is on this basis he is allowed entry into court.  In due course he became the king of the Tuatha when Nuada lost his hand in battle then died, and the father or patron of many houses in Celtic legend. In the second and final Battle of Mag Tuired, he fulfilled an old prophecy and killed his grandfather by piercing him through his evil eye with a sling shot before cutting off his head. He himself would eventually meet his end at the hill of Uisneach, the naval of Ireland, at the hands of a triad of gods.

Lugh is was said to have instigated the festival of Lughnasa in honour of his foster mother Tialtiu, and it is in her that we meet the personage of the ancient goddess of the land, Sovereignity. Lugh has royal pedigree through his parents, but he is also associated with the mythical realms through his foster parents, Tailtiu, the Earth goddess, and Manannan mac Lir, the Sea god, both said to be older than the Tuatha de Danaan. According to the Book of Invasions, Tailtiu was daughter or Mag Mor, the king of Spain, and she was married to Eochaid mac Eiric of the Fir Bolg.  After their defeat at the hands of the Tuatha de Danaan, she was put into bondage and presumably this is when she became Lugh’s foster mother. However, as a result of the invasion, the crops failed and famine brought misery and death. Tailtiu took action to save the people and taking up an axe, she set about clearing the forest, in some accounts the wood of Cuan, which enabled cultivation and grain planting to take place.[2] She succeeded in bringing the life giving force back to the land, but the burden was too much and she died of exhaustion as a result. In honour of his foster mother and her sacrifice, Lugh instigated the Tailtiu games, similar in scale and importance to the Olympic games of Greece. This was a time when a truce was declared and the people came together in peace and harmony to pass laws, celebrate handfastings and show off their sporting prowess. The festival would last around two weeks and there would be feasting, bull sacrifice, and much dancing.

However, according to more ancient accounts it was Tailtiu alone, whose name means ‘The Great One of the Earth’, who mediated and embodied the authority of the land. After clearing the forest, and once again on her death-bed, she pre-selected her burial spot, today associated with Teltown in County Meath, and decreed herself that funeral games should be held annually here in her honour. There is also evidence that the harvest festival was originally been called Bron Trogain meaning ‘the pains of childbirth,’ as it is through the birthing powers of the land that the harvest is enabled, and to this end the month of August was known known as the month of sorrows.[3] This speaks of a deeply seated sense of grief felt by the clans, and the Earth itself as there was no separation, for the act of cutting down the crops that had been so carefully nurtured and tended in order that they themselves might be nourished. This is of course reflected in the story of Tailtiu, in whom resides the ancient power of the land, or Sovereignity, who sacrifices herself so that her people might be fed. It is only in later versions of the story that the festival of Earth’s sorrow becomes linked to Lugh the Shining One through Lughnasa, when dominance and mastery over the land becomes a much more prominent theme.


[1] See ‘Lammas’ available at http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk

[2] See ‘Goddess Tailtiu’ available at http://www.journeyingtothegoddess.com

[3] See ‘Tailtiu, Primal Earth Goddess for this season by Deanne Quarrie,’ available at http://www.feminismandreligion.com

July Hay Moon: Nemetona, Eagle and Oak

July is the time that the harvests begin, the first gathering in of the bounteous crops ripening over the land, the time for hay making. Wild-flowers abound in this month, meadows now full of poppy, ox-eye daisy, red campion and teasel, and butterflies gather nectar from dangling horns of violet buddleia. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, this full moon was known as the Wort moon, when the wyrt, or medicinal herbs were gathered to be dried and stored, or also Buck moon as July was the month when deer began to grow their velvet covered antlers.

All northern hemisphere agricultural societies associated the energy impetuous needed to ripen the crop with male energy in its most potent form. The month was named by the Romans for their most famous of kings, Julius Caesar, and in a Greece the Olympia, or early Olympic games, when men would come from all over Greece to demonstrate their prowess in competitions in athletics, drama and music, was presided over by Zeus. In Celtic tradition, the eagle and the oak are associated with this time of year, and the eagle was known as the king of the birds and the oak the king of the trees, both powerful images of strength and mastery.

According to legend, two great eagles guard the burial place of Arthur in Snowdonia, in Welsh called Eryri, or the nest of the eagles. It was also said that druids shapeshift into these eagles and create the whirlwinds of stormy cloud that sweep so frequently across Snowdonia with its mercurial weather patterns. The eagle is often also linked to the power of the sun, the source of heat and light on Earth, and in Gaelic it is known as Suil-na-Greine, eye of the sun. As such clan leaders and kings would wear plumes of eagle feathers to symbolise enlightenment.

In the Welsh tradition, the eagle is one of the four sacred birds and named as one of the five oldest animals. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, it is the Eagle of Gwernaby who leads them to the salmon, the oldest and most revered animal of them all, and who is able to free Mabon. The eagle rules over the domain of air, of intellect and clarity of thought. The salmon, a creature of the waters, symbolises emotion and the unconscious. This story reminds us that it only through the union of the two that we gain wisdom.

The oak is the tallest and mightiest tree in any grove, the roosting place of oracular birds, and as such it was the central tree to the druids. In Celtic tradition it was the sacred tree of the Dagda the king of the gods, and in Norse mythology to Thor, god of thunder and lighting. The month of July has particularly strong associations with thunder and lightning in most cultures and these natural phenomena was seen as the tool of gods (e.g. Zeus was also often depicted with a lightning bolt.) Here we see an echo of father sky culture, where the male gods were seen to preside over lofty (heavenly) weather patterns, but also a reminder that for the crops to grow successfully, copious amounts of rain was also needed, which at this time of warm surface temperatures, would frequently come in the form of storms. This aspect of the male life force was seen as a necessary complementary energy to the nourishing fecundity of the bounteous energy bringing forth the crop from the earth. An oak tree was especially revered if it had been struck by lightning, a living symbol of the fusing of the two complementary energies of heaven and earth.

The pre-Roman peoples of Britain and Ireland did not build temples, but for thousands of years worshipped outside in nature, in particular in the sacred groves. These were natural clearings in areas of trees, deemed sacred on account of their position near water or other landmarks, and due to the particular mix of trees that prevailed. Oak groves were particularly sacred to the druids. These groves were made into sanctuaries, or sanctified, by evoking the presence of Nemetona, the guardian presence of the sacred place, which were themselves known as nemetons. Hawthorn was her most sacred tree, but mixed groves of hawthorn, oak and ash was deemed to be especially sacred.

This most elusive of goddesses has left virtually no trace in the written record, yet her presence would have endured for thousands of years as the guardian of consecrated and sacred enclosures in woods and forests, probably surrounding a central altar. In Roman times, she did have a shrine in Bath where she was depicted seated on a throne holding a sceptre, surrounded by three hooded figures and a ram. She was sometimes also associated with Rigonemetis, the king of the sacred grove whom the Romans associated with Mars. The ram figuring at the shrine was another symbol of potent male fire energy, again preserving this sacred connection between trees and lightning. In Celtic times however Nemetona would not have had a consort, as it was her presence alone that was needed to sanctify a grove. The circular nature of many nemetons could have been linked to later stone circles that also had the function of making an area of land sacred, and therefore able to function as a bond between heaven and earth.

Summer Solstice: Taliesin, Ceridwen and Magical Cauldrons

With the sun at its zenith and the Earth at the peak of her abundant glory, this is the time for manifestation, for flowering and empowering, for achieving the full potential offered by those long daylight hours. Male drones swarm about the queen bee, who will choose carefully with whom she will mate, and the hues of purple and white heather brushing the hillside are alive with their potent hum. In ancient times, as the drone must give up his life after coupling with the queen, so too the king in his role as guardian of the land must also give up his, for as the wheel of the year turns, the power of the Sun must wane as that of the darkness waxes. Now more usually it is the Green Man and Faery Queen who preside at the Solstice, reminding us that connection with the Otherworld is just behind the veil.

In Britain, Summer Solstice was once dedicated to Ceridwen, keeper of the Sacred Cauldron, the goddess whose story is mentioned in the medieval Tale of Taliesin and with whom she is intricately bound. Though this folktale is of relatively recent provenance, it is clear that this goddess of transformation, magic, shapeshifting and rebirth has a much more ancient pedigree, the energy of which can be felt at the ancient cromlech of Pentre Ifan near Nevern in Pembrokeshire. Ceridwen is also a dark moon goddess, and as this Solstice falls at the dark moon, it seems particularly relevant to recount her story now.

Drinking from her magical cauldron was said to confer inspiration (Awen), prophetic gifts and the art of storytelling, so Ceridwen has an intimate connection with welsh poets and bards  who call themselves sons of Ceridwen. This tradition is enshrined in folklore through the character of Taliesin, the sixth century bard of the Brythonic chieftan called Urien, and a legendary figure of other traditions, including the Arthurian. Here is their story:

Taliesin began life as a boy called Gwion Bach. One day, he found himself on an island on Lake Bala in North Wales where the giant Tegid Foel lived with his wife Ceridwen. Together they had two children, a beautiful girl and a boy called Morfan who was said to be very ugly. In order to compensate for his lack of good fortune,  Ceridwen decided to brew a potion in her wondrous cauldron that would bestow wisdom and knowledge on her son. She sought special herbs from the Earth, gathered on certain days and hours, and made from them a magic brew that needed to be kept at constant temperature. She had a blind  man tend the flames, and to Gwion Bach was given the job of tending, for this potion needed to be stirred for a year and a day.

Eventually, just as the allocated time arrived, Ceridwen fell asleep and alas! three drops sprang from the cauldron and landed on Gwion Bach, who had shoved Morfan out of the way. But not just any three drops, for only the first three contained any magical properties, the rest of the potion was poisonous. Gwion instantly attains the gifts of prophecy and wisdom – and knowing he was in grave danger, he takes flight.[1]

With Ceridwen in hot pursuit, Gwion magically shape shifts into a series of creatures in order to keep ahead of her. First he transforms into a hare, and Ceridwen gives chase in the form of a black greyhound. Then he turns himself into a fish, and she an otter. He then turns into a bird, and she a hawk. Finally, he ends up cornered in a barn and there transmutes into a single grain of corn.  Ceridwen became a high crested black hen – and gobbles him up!

She immediately becomes pregnant, and knowing that is Gwion that she carries, vows to get rid of him when he is born. In the time honoured manner reserved for magical characters of divine birth and many founding heroes, the child is spared, instead placed into a containing object, in this case a leather bag, or a coracle, and set adrift out at sea. Within time he is washed up on the shore of the Conway, where he is found by one Prince Elffin ap Gwyddno, who happened to be out salmon fishing. The prince cuts open the coracle and upon seeing the forehead of the baby says, ‘behold the radiant forehead!’ (in Welsh tal iesin), to which the child replied, ‘Tal-iesin he is!’ So thus named, Prince Elffin saddled the coracle onto his horse, the child reciting stanzas all the while, and takes him home to his wife. They raised the boy as their own and found themselves in receipt of riches and wealth as a result.

Taliesin goes on to goes have an illustrious career as a bard and rescues his step father from imprisonment on several occasions through his clever use of riddles and prophecy. King Maelgwn Gwynedd, to whom Elffin was in service, was so impressed with his poetic ability that he asks him who he was and where he had come from. His reply is the enigmatic Song of Taliesin as follows:

‘I was with my lord in the heavens when Lucifer fell into the depths of hell;

I carried a banner before Alexander; I know the stars names from the North to the South.

I was in the fort of Gwydion, in the Tetragrammaton;

I was in the canon when Absalon was killed;

I brought seed down to the vale of Hebron;

I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwydion;

I was patriarch to Elijah and Enoch;

I was head keeper on the work of Nimrod’s tower;

I was atop the cross of the merciful son of God;

I was three times in the prison of Arianrhod;

I was in the ark with Noah and the Alpha;

I witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah…

I got poetic inspiration from the cauldron of Ceridwen..

And I shall remain until doomsday upon the face of the earth.

And no one knows what my flesh is – whether meat or fish.’ [2]

Many, including Robert Graves, have tried to demystify this riddle (more on this another time) and together with other poetic utterings contained in the Book of Taliesin, it ensured that the historical Taliesin entered into the realm of legend. In this way he becomes the enduring embodiment of the inspired poet/bard archetype who has had many incarnations, including a later, possibly more famous one, in the form of Merlin at the court of King Arthur.

It was however through Ceridwen that he ultimately gained his inspiration (anwyn) and this was achieved through the medium of her magical cauldron, as he says. That cauldrons were considered both wondrous and practical by the Indo-European then Celtic people is not in doubt, and cauldrons were at the centre of the Celtic Mystery traditions. There were said to be three, the cauldrons of rebirth, inspiration and transformation. Ceridwen’s cauldron seems to bestow all three powers, and therefore it is she, as Mistress of the Cauldron, who holds the mysteries of transformation, as her shapeshifting abilities in the tale show; inspiration, as demonstrated in the bardic and prophetic insights its potion bestowed; and rebirth, as the character of Taliesin demonstrated.

Symbolically we know that through life experiences we are transformed and grow as we shed old ways and take on new forms, but there is also another ecological aspect to this story. It is through a deep connection with the other than human world, mediated through the prophetic and inspirational properties of certain plants, and the deep wisdom embodied in animal lore that shape shifts throughout the seasons, that we become more in harmony with the natural world, with the land. From this connection emerges a deeper knowledge of the Otherworld, which both is of and permeates the physical world, and it is in this liminal space that deep insight and wisdom is found. This mystical understanding is one of the great gifts of the Grail tradition, with which stories of wondrous cauldrons and also later intertwined.


[1] ‘The Tale of Gwion Bach’ from ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K. Ford, 1997, 2019

[2] ‘The tale of Taliesin’ from ‘The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited and translated by Patrick K Ford, 1997, 2019

Picture credits: ‘Ceridwen’ by Christopher Williams (1910), ‘Ceridwen and Gwion Bach’ by Tim Rossiter

June Mead Moon: Maeve, Honeysuckle and Bees

The month of June, named for the Roman Mother goddess Juno, is the time of the longest days and the shortest nights, a time to celebrate love, fertility and marriage. The Earth is now resplendent, trees decked in shimmering emerald leaves, cow parsley nodding at roadsides, and roses blooming in dazzling profusion. Swifts swoop in the evening skies while rivers and lakes are full of geese, ducks and swans protectively chaperoning their young, teaching them the life skills necessary for survival.

Gardens are spangled with the delicate mauves and purples of lavender, and the tendrils of honeysuckle are just starting to entwine tree trunks and bushes with their delicate golden blossoms, filling the evening air with their sweet scent.  Honeysuckle is associated with love and courtship and when hung over the door, will bring luck to any marriage. It is also associated with secret wisdom, waiting to be explored and uncovered, like the hidden delights buried deep in the blooms. [1]

Everywhere the bees are in full flow and this full moon is also known as the Honey Moon. Busily flying from flower to flower, they squeeze themselves into the nodding heads of foxgloves and emerge laden with their precious hoard, dizzy from its intoxicating scent. Their gentle humming adds an undertone to the midsummer garden, drawing us into a seductive dreamworld of rest and replenishment. Female forager bees return to the hive with their bounty, welcomed back and organised by those assigned to guard duty, regurgitating nectar into the mouth of the house bee, who then processes it some more before depositing it into a cell. Pollen stuck to the bee’s body is also removed by worker bees who pack it carefully for food, or convert some into royal jelly used to feed bee larvae laid by the queen.[2]

There are many traditions associated with the bee, all of which are ancient. For the Druids and the Celts, the bee was sacred and every aspect aspect of their lives was honoured and studied.  Britain was called the Island of Honey in Bardic traditions and in Ireland, the Brehon laws protected bees and their hives. Bees are attuned to the position of the sun and the direction of the winds, and use this orientation to communicate the location of pollen to members of the hive by dancing a sun dance in the shape of the lemniscate, or figure of eight, also known as the waggle dance.[3] Shamanic and goddess traditions including the Path of Pollen have used this sacred movement in a ritual context that pays homage to the social structure of the hive with the Queen Bee at the core.

All of the gifts of the hive have been honoured and used over the ages, from the nutritious and healing properties of honey, to the health benefits of propolis and pollen, the preserving and flavour enhancing qualities of honey when used on meat or salmon, and the uses of wax for candle making , polishing and sealing. Today we acknowledge bees as pollinators, one worker bee can visit up to 2,000 flowers in one day, and these services alone are valued at over 170 billion dollars a year. Yet bees are in decline suffering colony collapse disorder at an alarming rate. In Europe alone over the past 10 years this has risen to over 50% of all hives.[4]

Honey is one of the main ingredients of mead, one of the most ancient of alcoholic drinks. At the royal court of Tara, the assembly hall was known as Tech Midchuarta, the House of Mead Circling, as at festivals the mead was passed round in a goblet, circling all the participants until the last drop was drunk. [5]The mythical Queen Maeve, or Medb, of Connaught is associated with mead, as her name means ‘she who intoxicates.’ This could reflect her role as Sovereignty goddess, offering the chosen king of the land the cup of mead to bestow office upon him. Her story, as told in the Ulster Cycles, is a complex and often disturbing one. Here is it in abridged form:

Medb, ‘a fair-haired wolf queen’ was the daughter of the High King of Ireland and she was married to Conchbar, King of Ulster, as compensation for the death of his father. The marriage did not turn out well, and she left him. However, in her place her sister was given as a substitute. This did not suit Medb, and she murdered her own sister who was pregnant at the time of her death. The child survived and came back later to take vengeance for his mother’s murder.

In the meantime, Medb’s father installs her as the Queen of Connaught. But she is raped by her former husband Conchbar at an assembly at Tara, whereupon war broke out between the two nations. She marries several times and eventually finds a man who ‘is without fear, meanness or jealousy’ in the person of her bodyguard Ailill, when she marries forthwith. They have seven sons together and one daughter.

In the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, we are told of a conflict between nations that arose because of a competition between Medb and her husband over their respective wealth. Unfortunately for Medb it turned out that Ailill had a magnificent white bull and she had nothing to compare to this. Determined not to be outdone, she sent out her messengers to search the land, and eventually they came across the Brown Bull of Cooley. He was so magnificent that Medb had to possess him – even though a soothsayer warned of impending doom.  She offered endearments, gold, sexual favours, but Daire, the owner of the bull would not surrender it. Maeve would not take no for an answer: she  assembled a great army to invade Ulster and steal the bull. Even this did not work. Nothing, not even the curse of Macha (see above) and single combat could bring victory to her side. But on the eve of battle, Medb managed somehow to steal the creature and bring it back to Connaught.

The prized bull was placed in a pasture alongside Ailill’s magnificent white horned beast, but alas! The two animals gored each other to death. All the loss of life and warfare had been in vain. Several years later, it was Medb’s turn to meet a sticky end. One morning whilst taking her ablutions at a well, she was recognised by Furbaide, the son of her murdered sister. He acted quickly as follows:

‘He was eating a piece of cheese. He did not then tarry to seek a stone. He put the piece of cheese in the sling. When Medb’s forehead was turned towards then, he let fly the piece of cheese and it struck her on the crown of the head so that he killed her by the one cast in vengeance of his mother.’[6]

And that is the story of Medb of Connaught. There is jealousy, revenge, rape, murder and pointless warfare in this tale, but also a measure of human passion, folly, love and above all, power. Medb is certainly a force to be reckoned with, but like Villanelle in the Killing Eve series, with whom she has something in common, she  is not exactly your classic role model. Some of her power and passion can be attributed to her role as Sovereignty goddess where she bestowed and took away the power of kings, but there is an ambivalence towards this role in the telling of the tale that bears witness over the centuries to the changing nature of man’s relationship with the land. Maeve was said to be buried standing up, so as to face her enemies head on from the grave. I am hoping to visit her cairn at Knocknarea in August and hear for myself what her long since silenced voice has to say…


[1] ‘Honeysuckle’ in the ‘Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘The Bee Book’ by F Chadwick, S Alton, E S Tennant, B Fitzmaurice and J Earl, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2016

[3] ‘Bee’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[4] The Bee Book, as above

[5] ‘Bee’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[6] The Violent Death of Medb’ ed. And trans. Vernam Hull

Picture credit: Queen Maeve by J.C Leyendecker, public domain

Beltane: Of Flower Brides and Green Men

The ancient festival of Beltane is celebrated at the beginning of May when the sexuality of life and the Earth itself is at its peak and now turns to conception and the initiation of a new life force. This is when the Greenwood marriage was celebrated, the union between the May Queen, or the Flower Bride, and the Green Man, the young oak king or the Jack-in-the-Green. Even today this ritual is still re-enacted in villages around the country, where a May Queen decked in flowers weaves the ribbon of the male pole, symbolising the fertility of the god, in a dance that follows the spiral of life.

Traditionally Beltane began when the hawthorn blossomed, drenching trees, hedges and paths with scented petals like the scattered confetti of a bridal feast. The blossom was taken into the house and used together with mead and cake in handfasting ceremonies, where a couple tied hands with a red chord bound in a figure of eight and pledged to stay together for a year and a day. It was also the time when everyone went to the fields and celebrated the Greenwood marriage; children born to these couplings nine months later were considered sacred.

Beltane is above all a fire ceremony when bonfires are lit to honour the sun and its role in bringing forth life on Earth. It was probably named from the god Bel, a complex composite god originally belonging to the Sumerian/Babylonian (Bel = Baal = Lord) pantheon, and then adopted by the Celts as their sun god. This was when a special fire was lit called the Tein-eigen (‘teine = fire in Gaelic)[1] and everyone would gather together and jump over it to purify, cleanse and bring fertility. Cattle were also driven through the smoke to protect them from disease. Afterwards everyone would take a spark of this original fire with them to rekindle the home hearth. There is also some evidence that bonfires were lit along special places that were aligned to rising sun at Beltane, giving rise to some huge scale alignments such as the Michael Mary line. [2]The fires were lit on top of mounds and aligned Heaven and Earth, drawing down and harmonising energies, renewing the sacred bond afresh each year with this sacred act.

There are two stories about Flower Brides, or May Queens, and they are both told in the Mabinogion. In keeping with the prevailing Welsh culture of the early Middle Ages, the stories are told from a male perspective and the female protagonists appear somewhat lacking in their own authority. However, as ever there are deeper thread discernible just below the surface.

The first story is about Creiddylad, the beautiful daughter of Lludd Silverhand. She was fought over by two men, ‘carried off by one before the other had slept with her.’ Acts of revenge were carried out between the two parties, until King Arthur himself heard tell of it and came north to settle the dispute. He decreed that ’the maiden should remain in her father’s house, unmolested by either side,’ and there should be battle between the two ‘suitors’ each Beltane ‘for ever and ever, from that day till doomsday.’

So Creiddylad in this way, remained the eternal May Queen around which the seasons revolved, fought over by the holly and the oak king, or the powers of the waxing and waning sun, locked in a continuous battle for supremacy as a result of the yearly seasonal cycle.

The May Queen in the second story also has two male suitors, but of quite a different form. This is the tale of Bloueuwedd, the flower bride, created for the son of the goddess Arianrhod (more on her later) by his uncles to thwart his mother who declared he would not marry a mortal woman. Together they ‘took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw.’ [3]She was duly presented in marriage to Arianrhod’s son, who changes his name throughout the story, but here is called Llew Llaw.

After they have been married a while, he leaves her alone in the castle and goes to visit his uncles who have promised him some land. However, in the meantime a hunting party arrives and Blodeuwedd invites the leader of the party into the castle. They immediately fall in love and ‘she knew great joy at heart, and their talk that night was of the affection and love that they had conceived for the other.’ [4]Losing no time, they plot to kill her husband on his return.

Showing a degree of cunning that has earned her a reputation for betrayal, Blodeuwedd tells her husband that she fears for his untimely demise. He tries to reassure that this would not be easy for in order to die, he must be killed with a spear that was a year in the making. Not only that, but the manner of the death is very specific. ‘By making a bath for me on a river bank, and making a vaulted frame over the tub, and thatching it well and snugly too thereafter, and bringing a he-goat and setting it beside the tub and myself placing one foot on the back of the he-goat and the other on the edge of the bath. Whoever should smite me so, he would bring about my death.’[5]

Bloudeuwedd listens demurely. ‘Why’ she replies, ‘I thank god for that. That can be avoided easily.’

Armed with this information, her lover gets to work and fashions the spear needed to kill his rival. A year later, once they have their plan in place, Blodeuwedd once gain feins concern and asks her unsuspecting husband to demonstrate how he might meet his untimely death. This he dutifully does and as he stands precariously with one foot on the bath tub and the other on the back of a he-goat,  her lover jumps out and stabs him with the spear. Llew Llaw flies up in the form of an eagle and gives a horrid scream, and after that he was seen no more.

But that is not the end of the story. Llew’s aggrieved uncles once again come to his rescue and set out to find him. Eventually they find a maggot covered eagle and sing him out of a tree, changing him back into the form of a man with the tap of a magic wand. Llew Llaw is in a pitiful state and it takes him a year to get his strength back. But then he comes back to the castle where his wife and her lover are ensconced to seek revenge. Blodeuwedd’s maidens are all drowned in a lake whilst trying to escape, but she herself survives. For her is reserved the fate of being turned into an owl ‘so that she may never show her face in the light of day, and that there be enmity between thee and all the birds and that it be their nature to mob and moles thee wherever they may find thee.’[6]

So, it could be said that the flower maiden, made as the perfect wife to serve her husband, falls in love and thereby empowers herself. This enables her to take the sort of ruthless action that those  deprived of choice must take. But she must take responsibility for her action as she matures, symbolised by the owl, an ancient symbol of wisdom and cronehood. She also achieves independence and self-determination in the end (the owl), and like Creiddlydd, remains connected to the cycle of nature for ever more. Her suitors also face each other in combat, but unlike in Creiddlydd’s story, her lover is killed, though only after he has served as the king, or consort for allocated time (the timings are very precise in this story). So in this way, the story may be perceived in terms of the May Queen, goddess of the land (Sovereignty) and her two suitors, the holly king and the oak king, or the Green Men, who act as consort to the goddess, forever locked in an eternal cycle of waxing and waning, linked to the seasonal power of the sun.

[1] http://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk

[2] ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller

[3] The Mabinogion, ‘Math Son of Mathonwy,’ 1991, Everyman

[4] As above

[5] As above

[6] As above

The Medway Megaliths Part 1: The enigma of the White Horse Stone

The White Horse Stone is shrouded in legend. It is located in the Neolithic funerary complex that we today call the Medway Megaliths, and was once possibly part of a chambered long barrow of which no other traces remain. Until recently it was one of a pair of megaliths that stood close to the Pilgrims Way in North Kent, the chalk ridge that comprises the northern limb of the Wealden anticline, but the Lower White Horse Stone was destroyed in the nineteenth century, leaving the upper White Horse Stone alone and isolated. To add insult to injury, now it can only be reached via a slip road behind a petrol station, cut off by the racing traffic of the A229 dual carriageway that links the M20 with the M2, part of the extensive motorway network that divides Kent. And just below it the Eurostar train emerges from a tunnel cut into the chalk as it speeds down towards Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel.

White Horse Stone, author’s photo

Isolated and lonely it might be, yet dating back to around 4000 BC, it is an important piece of our heritage, placed at the very beginning of the arrival of the farmers from Europe who brought with them the knowledge of agriculture.  These people were said to be semi-nomadic, yet near the stone was found the remains of an early Neolithic longhouse that was used 3780 – 3530 BC and was most likely a domestic residence. Another chambered long barrow was found nearby containing human remains and could have shed more light on these apparent contradictions, but sadly this has also been destroyed.

If the Neolithic ancestry of the stone has many unsolved elements, the legends become more complex when linked to a more recent invasion, this one involving the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon people, again from continental Europe. Around 409 AD, the last of the Romans withdrew from Britain, leaving a vacuum soon to be filled by tribes from Germany, including the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, some of whom had already begun to settle during Roman times. The takeover was gradual and not uniform throughout the country; it could have begun in Kent, certainly the legend describing the foundation event say it was.

White Horse Stone from side, author’s photo

There are different sources for the story, and each tell a slightly different version, but the gist is as follows. Vortigern, King of the Britons, needed assistance to fight the Scottish Picts who frequently launched raiding parties into his territory. He invited the Angles to come to his aid, and in due course (449 AD),  the brothers Horsa and Hengist arrived at Ebbsfleet to serve as mercenaries. They were said to have arrived under the banner of a ‘rampant white horse.’ [1] In return for their services, they were given supplies and land on the Isle of Thanet, and in time they sent back home for more aid, causing more Angles, Saxons and Jutes to arrive in large numbers. According to Nennius in the ‘History of the Britons,’  Vortigern had bitten off more than he could chew and tried to get rid of them, but to no avail. At any rate, Hengist’s daughter Rowena came over and Vortigern fell in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. In return, Hengist asked for Kent, which Vortigern granted even though it wasn’t strictly his to give. This made Vortigern unpopular, and he was forced into hiding by his own people. His son Vortimer turned against Hengist and Horsa, engaging them in battle and driving them back, back dying himself in the process.[2]

The Wooing of Rowena, by A. S. Forrest – Our Island Story, Public Domain

Eventually, Hengist and Horsa, now reasonably established, sent Vortigern a message of peace, and invited him to a feast where the Saxons and Britons could meet. Here a great act of treachery took place, deepening the drama of the story. Hengist’s men concealed knives ‘beneath their feet’ and murdered the unsuspecting Britons in what is known as the Treachery of the Long Knives, though they did spare Vortigern. [3]

According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, in 455 AD, Vortigern faced the brothers at Aylesford in Kent, where a decisive battle was fought. [4]The Saxons were victorious though Horsa was killed. Hengist went on to found the kingdom of Kent with his son, marking the beginning of Saxon rule. Horsa, according to legend, was buried by the White Horse Stone, over which was draped his banner.

In old English, Hengist and Horsa mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’ respectively, and Bede in his version of the story charts their geneology back to Woden, the great Norse god.[5] Both the Norse and Anglo-Saxon languages are Indo-European in origin, and have inherited aspects of Indo-European mythology, cleaving it to fit their own time and place. Two of the central tenants of this proto-mythology were founding brothers, or divine twins, and they were often associated with the horse, the most sacred animal in Indo-European cosmology. There are many examples of divine twins who founded nations, including Romulus and Remus in Rome, Aggi and Ebbi of the Danes, and Ibur and Aion of the Lombards .[6] And in all of the legends, one of the founding twins must die, as does Horsa in this case.

Folkestone White Horse

There is no evidence of course that he was actually buried beneath White Horse Stone, but the association stills lingers on. His emblem was adopted by the Jutish kingdom of Kent, the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and the rampant white horse is still today the emblem of Kent. In this way the story of Horsa, Hengist and Vortigern can be seen as an Anglo-Saxon foundation myth, similar to Romulus and Remus in the foundation of Rome. Not to be taken literally, but seen as a sacred and part of a greater cosmology. What Horsa and Hengist as German immigrants would have made of Brexit we do not know, but the constant presence of the Eurostar train beneath the stone is certainly a reminder of our deeply European connections, and one which they appear to stand guard over today.


[1] Richard Verstegan ‘Restitution of Decayed Antiquities.’

[2] Nennius,’Historia Britonum’

[3] Nennius, Historia Britonum

[4] The Anglo Saxon Chronicles

[5] Bede ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation’

[6] ‘Hengist and Horsa,’ Wikipedia (accessed 30.5.2020)

Venus Retrograde in a time of Lockdown

The planet Venus, associated with love and beauty and all that governs relationships, reached her highest point in the night sky on March 24th and has been descending ever since, mirroring precisely the descent of the world into Coronavirus lockdown. On May 13th she will turn retrograde in the next stage of a complex series of motions during which she will set as an evening star, disappear from view, perform an interior conjunction with the Sun, then rise as the morning star before turning direct again just after Summer Solstice. For millennia human beings have tracked the movements of Venus and correlated them happenings on Earth, but the timing this year seem particular poignant as we contemplate love, loss and all that we value in a time of lockdown.

Inanna/Lilith, British Museum (author’s photo)

In Ancient Sumeria the planet Venus was worshipped as a personification of the goddess Inanna, queen of heaven and earth. The story Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld is the oldest epic poem in world literature (written down around 1700 BC), and, remarkably, it can be interpreted as an allegory of the visible movements of the planet. Thus when we weave together the story of Inanna’s descent with the planetary movements of Venus, linking both with events in our personal and collective lives, we renew afresh the sacred bond between heaven and Earth. And on a personal level, Inanna’s story is a poignant description of the maturing of the soul through relationship, with love, loss and reflection on all that we value, with a powerful message for us all.

In the ancient Sumerian version of the story of her descent, pieced painstakingly together from 13 fragments,  ‘Inanna, from the great above, set her mind toward the great below, abandoning both heaven and earth to descend to the netherworld.’ [1]Before beginning her mythic descent, she was careful to don all her accoutrements of power, and to instruct her messenger Ninshubur to get help if she does not return after three days. This preparation period and initial descent began on March 24th when the planet reached the highest point, and correlates to when lockdown began in ernest. We too had to seek out our power objects and prepare practically, psychologically and materially to go deep into the uncertainties created by pandemic.

On 28th April, Venus attained maximum brilliance, a breath-taking site in the night sky just after sunset and right next to the silver sliver of the crescent moon. Now entering the second stage of lockdown, we watched anxiously to see if the peak of the pandemic has really been reached, and to calibrate our own lives to the restrictions imposed.

Venus at maximum brilliance, 28th April (author’s photo)

Finally, after approximately seven weeks, Inanna, in full regalia, arrives at the gateway of the underworld. This corresponds to the time when the planet starts its retrograde motion, May 13th. For us, as we go into a potential easing of lockdown, we must be particularly vigilant and reflect on all we have lost and gained throughout this time, of the gifts and sacrifices we have received and endured. As Melanie Reinhart says, ‘We are ‘given the opportunity to plumb the depths of our relationships, finish unfinished business, release the past and renew our capacity for love.’ [2]The myth offers us very clear guidance on how can we can do this, for now Inanna must descend through each of the seven gates, and as she does so she is asked to surrender all the carefully collected symbols of her worldly power, just as we have been forced to surrender ours. The following could be used as a journey through the chakras, or as a contemplation of what the different power symbols mean to us, and how they relate to our own personal losses during the Coronavirus pandemic.

At the first gate, she must surrender her crown.

At the second, her rod of lapis lazuli was removed.

At the third, the lapis lazuli stones from around her neck.

At the fourth the sparkling stones of her breast,

The fifth the golden ring of her hand,

At the sixth the breastplate of her breast,

And finally at the seventh, she must surrender her robe.

For it is decreed that she must enter the Underworld naked.

Each time she asks the gatekeeper, ‘Why pray is this?’ And each time he replies, ‘Extraordinarily O Inanna, have the decrees of the netherworld been perfected, O Inanna do not question the rites of the nether world.’[3] This is a reminder that what is demanded of us now is nothing short of unconditional surrender to the situation we collectively found ourselves in, to remain willingly present in the liminal zone, perched somewhere between a world of fact and of illusion. We must enter this stripped bare, peeled away so that only our inner essence remains. This time period lasts 40 days, the length of the retrograde cycle, the proverbial time for mediation and reflection also incorporated into later traditions, including Lent.

Planet Venus (Wikepedia Commons)

On the May 28th Venus will set as the evening star one last time before disappearing from view. This is the time of the greatest danger for Inanna, who now naked and vulnerable, comes face to face with her sister, the dark goddess Erishkigal, seated on a throne next to the Annunaki, or the seven judges. As she stands before them, they pronounce judgement on her. This symbolises on a personal level the confrontation with our shadow, our inner self, that which we keep cloaked. What inner reserves have we discovered, what has emerged for us once the ego has been laid bare?

June 3rd is the interior conjunction between Venus and the Sun, the time period when the planet is behind the Sun and no longer visible. This is the time when Inanna, now turned to a corpse, is hung from a stake for three days and three nights. This is the time to bear witness to not only our own soul, but the World Soul, the most poignant moment of all. We are required to sit with ourselves and engage as little as possible with external relationships, to listen to the inner voice and the voice of the Earth herself. There is the potential for unresolved grief to surface, that which has not been processed, all that has been denied and suppressed.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Three days have passed and Inanna has not returned, so the faithful Ninshabur, as instructed, and goes out to sound the alarm. He turns first to the god Enlil, who refuses to help, then next to Nanna, who also does nothing. Finally he goes to Enki, the ruler of the abyss and the waters, who is so troubled on Inanna’s behalf that he fashions beings called kurgarru and kalatuttu from dirt and gives to them the food and water of life. They find the corpse of Inanna, and ‘sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life they sprinkle upon it, and Inanna rose.’ [4]

After three days and three nights of being hung on a stake, Inanna rises again (note, this myth predates Christianity by about 2,000 years!) This reminds us that during a liminal period, times of great change and flux, we should take special care to nourish both body and soul with good food and allow tears, the waters of life, to gently dissolve the grief and mend the wounds of the psyche, to console that which was previously not consoled.

Akkadian Inanna (Ishtar)

Thus brought back to life, Inanna prepares to leave the underworld. This is marked by the heliacal rising of Venus as the morning star on June 10th. But beware, the danger is not yet passed. In the original Sumerian tale, when Inanna returns she brings with her a whole army of demons, who cause havoc wherever they go. This fragment of the poem breaks before it ends, so we need to look at another text, the ‘Dream of Dummuzi’ to find out how we can safely exit the underworld without unleashing our demons.

In the Akkadian version, Inanna is only allowed to return when she has sent a substitute in her place, in keeping with the laws of the netherworld. She ponders who this could be, and when eventually she sees that her consort Dummuzi has been occupying her throne in her absence, oblivious to her suffering, she fixes her eye of death on him.

A great wail of mourning goes out, let by his sister (Geshtinanna) and this touches Inanna’s heart, who now feels the grief of her consort’s death – by her own hand. Now softened, she decrees that Dummuzi will spend half the year in the Underworld, going down when called, and alternating with his sister, who will go down for the other half. The natural order has been restored, breaking the cycle of destruction, ushering in forgiveness and seeds for new potential. This coincides with the time that Venus turns direct (also in Gemini) on the 25th June, just after the Summer Solstice.

This year, a solar eclipse occurs on the exact day of the Solstice (21st June), which is also on a dark moon. This extremely fiery and powerful combination seems set to melt even the most frozen of areas, especially as Jupiter makes another conjunction with Pluto around this time. At the lunar eclipse in January, the Saturn/Pluto conjunction ushered in the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown in China. As Jupiter tentatively enters the dance again (Jupiter will come into full conjunction in December), this could be time of great upheaval, maybe as lockdown fatigue really takes hold. Only if we take the opportunities offered for reflection, for release and for taking personal responsibility will this be the breakthrough that we are hoping it could be. Working with the retrograde cycle could then really have collective as well as personal impact.

Pattern made by orbit of Venus

The orbit of Venus is highly regular with eight Venusian orbits round the sun corresponding to five of those of Earth’s. This means that every eight years, the retrograde cycle will repeat at the same place in the zodiac. So the last time Venus went retrograde in Gemini, the esoteric ruler of Venus, was in 2012, when a very rare transit of Venus across the sun was also seen. [5]If we look back to what we were doing exactly eight years ago, we gain a deep perspective on the nature of our soul journey, and of the potential for any unfinished business from that time that may need addressing. It seems significant that the much talked about prophecies around 2012 never seemed to materialise. But maybe something was set in motion then which is starting to come to fruition now?


[1] Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld’ in ‘Sumerian Mythology’ by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972

[2] Melanie Reinhart, ‘Venus: Queen of Heaven and Earth,’ (2009) at http://www.melaniereinhart.com

[3] ibid Samuel Noah Kramer

[4] As above

[5] See Melanie Reinhart at http://www.melaniereinhart.com

May Flower Moon: Etain, Willow and Crane

The May Flower full moon is the time when the Celtic goddess Etain brings beauty, grace and fertility into our lives. Known as the Shining One and as a White Lady of the Fae, Etain is a goddess of transformation and rebirth, associated with water, the sun, apple blossom and horses, to name but a few. She is also associated with butterflies, swans and other beings that symbolise the transmigration of the soul. Her story is complex and warrants a deeper analysis than is possible here, but her message of grace, rebirth, and maturation of the soul is deeply resonant for our times.

In ‘The Wooing of Etain,’ her story is told largely through the lens of a series of male protagonists, all of which seek to court her (indeed possess her) in some way. It revolves primarily around the character of Midhir, a king of the Tuatha de Danann, who lived among the sidhe. We are told that he loses an eye whilst visiting his foster son, Aengus Mac Og, and asks compensation for his loss which includes ‘the fairest maiden in Ireland.’ This is Etain, the daughter of king Ailill of Ulster and she is said to have ‘shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves.’

Aengus duly goes to the king and asks for his daughter, as bidden by his step father. In return, he must perform a series of tasks which he successfully does, but before he is permitted to take her, he must also provide the maiden’s weight in gold and silver. Finally, she is brought to Midhir, and stays together with him at the home of Aengus for another year. When the pair eventually return to his castle, his first wife, the queen, becomes jealous and ‘strikes Etain with a rod of scarlet rowan, turning her into a pool of water.’ In time the water congeals and forms a hard chrysalis, or a worm, out of which a beautiful purple fly, or butterfly, emerges. [1]

Midhir takes the butterfly and cherishes it, but the queen now conjures a strong wind that blows the butterfly around for seven years without rest until she finally alights on the breast of Aegnus, who feeds her pollen and nectar for nourishment. Alas, the queen intervenes again and sends such a wind that the butterfly is now tossed around for 1000 years in misery, without respite, until finally, she lands in the goblet of another queen of Ulster. This queen swallows her down with her wine, then gives birth nine months later to a beautiful daughter who she calls Etain.

Her beauty once more becomes legendary in this new life, she is coveted by the High King in Ireland, and they duly marry at Tara. Over the course of time, however, his brother also falls in love with her and starts pining, much to the concern of the king, who asks Etain to do everything in her power to heal him. At this point, her former lover and husband Midhir, in a desperate bid to get her back, uses spells and enchantment to get her to sleep with him instead. In an echo of their former existence, he carries out a series of task designed to make her current husband let go of her, demanding a kiss from Etain as his prize. In this way he ‘reminds’ her of the love they once had for each other and reunited in ‘the dining hall,’ he takes her into his arms and they change into swans, linked together by a golden chain, and fly off into the distance. [2]

The story of Etain functions on many levels. On one hand it is the story of the soul, of hope and maturity in adversity, of love, jealousy, possession and the belief that through all the trials of life, our inner essence remains pure and unsoiled, shining like Etain. There are also specific number references throughout the story, showing clear calendrical or symbolic connections, maybe even links to astronomical cycles. The time frames and frequent use of shapeshifting into different animal forms is a powerful way to depict the cycling of the soul through space and time, and the experiences it gathers along the way. The butterfly is a potent and beautiful symbol of rebirth, and the swan a psychopomp, or accompanier of souls into the afterlife.

Though swans are named in this story, another bird is also linked to the flight of the soul in Celtic mythology. The crane, or heron, is one of the four sacred birds in both Irish and British tradition, and in one version of this tale it is said that three cranes guard the entrance of Midhir’s castle.  Cranes were linked to the Cailleach, to longevity and wisdom, and a crane bag was a key part of the druid or medicine woman’s equipment. They were also famous for their dances, which they performed in circles. This has led to their association with birth, in the form of storks, and then death, when they perform the function of psychopomp as the swan does in this story. [3] Both are large migratory birds, that mysteriously appear and disappear with the seasons and seem to take pre-destined flight paths across the heavens.

The crane is also linked to the flight of the soul not just in death, but also in the quest for otherworldly knowledge. The story of Etain has this aspect to it in that the soul experiences and gains wisdom and deep knowledge through not just love and loss, but through the wisdom of nature in the form of water, worms, butterflies, even wind. Cranes are also sometimes associated with the willow tree, the tree that along with the hawthorn, governs this time of year.

Like Etain the willow is beautiful and full of grace. They are also one of the oldest trees in Europe, embodying deep wisdom, and they are frequently found close to rivers and streams due to their love of water. Etain was changed into a pool of water, symbolising a deeply transformative potential, the ocean of possibility, or waters of rebirth. In Celtic mythology journeys are often taken by boat to the Otherworld in search of inspiration and wisdom, crossing over water as part of the process. The willow stands guard to this entrance, showing us that when we are in the flow of grace we can attain both of these prizes. [4]

Perhaps most of all, Etain’s story reminds us of the deeply healing and transformational power of beauty, in herself but also in the Nature around her. She loves to make people around her happy through kind words and smiles, and with her music she breaks through sadness and dissolves it gently into tears. Flowers bloom when she is near, and mankind falls in love with her. In all the trails and tribulations of the souls journeying, she reminds us of the beauty and nourishing power of Earth’s abundance through water, butterflies, swans and cranes. Each of them wondrous in themselves to be sure, and also holding up the mirror to us so that we can see the beauty of our own soul in them.


[1] Sharon Blackie, ‘The Wooing of Etain.’

[2] www.orderwhitemoon.org, ‘Etain the Sining One’

[3] The Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[4] The Green Man Tree Oracle, John Matthews and Will Worthington