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Spring Equinox: Bran and the Cauldron of Resurrection

The sap is rising, bulbs are emerging, blossom is exploding into life and buds forming at this time of balance between the light and the dark. As the days continue to lengthen, it is the light that has the upper hand but the power of darkness is still strong, urging us to integrate and acknowledge that part of our shadow that is holding us in stillness, even nourishing us like the moist and fecund Earth holds the seed. Dandelion starts to push through the loomy soil, along with burdock, borage, chickweed and violet, all packed full of nutrients and cleansing potential to prepare our systems for the energy of summer. And in the night sky the Spring Triangle is visible, comprised of Arcturus in Bootes, Spica in Virgo, and Regulus in Leo.

Sheelah’s Day is celebrated around Equinox in honour of Sheelah-Na-Gig, the goddess of fertility and sexuality, of green wildness and powerful life force. In the Celtic tree alphabet (f for Fearn), this time is ruled by alder, the tree of Brân. Said to have fought on the front line in the Battle of the Trees, this mother-of-all-trees is also closely associated with the goddess Sovereignty, who in her capacity as the regenerative and destructive power of Nature and ruler of the Equinox and Solstices, ultimately births, marries and lays out in death all sacred kings of which Brân was but one.

Brân was known as one of the three blessed kings of Britain and has an ancient pedigree preserved in several of the tales collated in the Mabinogion. Though written down in the Middle Ages, the tales were based on an ancient oral tradition where Brân was known as the Celtic god of regeneration, and has the illustrious pedigree of descending from both the house of Llyr (god of the sea) and Belenos (the sun god). The legends tell us that Brân possessed a magical cauldron with the power to bring dead warriors to life, but without restoring their speech. He received this cauldron from giants, or otherworldly beings, in return for his kindness, and it was so huge that it needed to be carried by wheeled vehicles such as chariots.

In a story related in the tale of ‘Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr,’ Brân gifted this cauldron to the Irish king Matholwch after he married his sister Branwen, but was dishonoured by another brother who had not been involved in the decision making process. Brân hoped to ward off war between the two kingdoms with his peace offering, but the Irish king refused to accept the cauldron as a gift in kind, reduced Queen Branwen’s position to that of a servant, and waged war anyway. Brân himself was poisoned by an arrow in the devastating battle that resulted and died. On his deathbed he instructed his followers to cut off his head, which was still able to talk even after removal. They solemnly and carefully carried the head back home with them, which was said to speak all the while.

This Cauldron of Resurrection was one of the sacred objects of the Celts and features later in Arthurian legend when King Arthur sets out on a quest to retrieve it. Indeed, in ancient times it was considered to be a gift of the goddess Sovereignty herself, the goddess of the land who bestowed plenty and abundance and presided over the magical gift of rebirth. In medieval times, the story of Branwen’s dishonouring by the Irish king is told in terms of her brothers, and her status is also reduced to that of a kitchen maid in the tale, symbolic of the withdrawal of powers by the goddess Sovereignty.  It is poignant that an object as magical as a Cauldron of Rebirth could no longer prevent petty wars between kingdoms as a result.

This theme is one that weaves through Celtic mythology, though in later times it is often edited out or watered down: the gifted abundance of the land is dependent on mutual respect between the land, the goddess of Sovereignty, and the people and mediated through the marriage between the land and the king who swore to uphold and protect her. When this sacred trust is broken, the gifts of the land and the Otherworld are withdrawn.

There is a powerful message here for our times. Alder rules from 18 March to 14th April, at time of writing, the period of lockdown in many countries due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic worldwide. The entire world is in the grip of the Wasteland, resulting in no uncertain terms from our abuse of the Earth and failure to take heed of the dire consequences of our actions and choices. Alder, like the cauldron of Brân is also known as the tree of resurrection through its association with the growing power of the sun, and its apparent ability to survive in, and therefore ‘conquer’ water. This year, Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection in the Christian church, falls on the 12 April, right at the end of the lockdown period imposed.

Brân was also associated with another magical symbol, that of the singing head removed from his body after he died in the futile battle with the Irish king. There are many legends surrounding this oracular head, but one of them says that it was buried on the hill where the Tower of London now stands, facing out towards France to ‘protect from invasion.’ Brân’s sacred bird was the raven, and to this day six of these birds are resident in the grounds of the Tower to protect ‘the Crown and the Tower,’ and superstition holds that if the ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. During this time of resurrection, we are being given an opportunity to examine the collective actions that have brought us to this current Wasteland. The old stories are very clear in their warnings. We ignore them this time at our peril.

March Wind Moon: Elen, Deer and Ash

The month of March is named for the Roman god of war, Mars. A time of winds and storms, blizzards and frost, this blustery month continues to stir things up from the depths, until the Equinox half way through when in the North the power of the Sun reaches tipping point, ushering in the full blossoming of spring. Blackthorn is now already in bloom, and primrose, crocus and daffodil push themselves out of the Earth to spangle the landscape with cheerful yellow bells, dancing in the wind and the promise of the warmth to come.

In the Celtic tree alphabet, the period between February 18th and March 17th was ruled over by ash (N, nuin), one of the most sacred trees in both Celtic and Norse tradition. A symbol of strength, even the warrior aspect as befits the  month of March, this tree can strangle the roots of other trees and block out sunlight with its canopy, but can also hold its power in water and is often planted in marshlands and by the sides of holy wells. It is therefore associated with deep ancestral wisdom, especially in Norse mythology, where the World Tree is said to be an ash. Yggdrasil holds the nine realms of the cosmos within its branches and roots and is tended by the Norns, the weavers of fate and destiny who spin the fabric of the world into existence and carve magical runes into the trunk. Each morning the leaves of Yggdrasil fill the valley with a sweet glimmering dew that holds the memory of yesterday. One of the Norns collects this precious elixir and pours into the well of Urd, the Well of Memory. In this way, the wisdom of yesterday can be brought forth to the present, and the world is kept healthy and in balance.

The World Tree is also associated with several magical animals, one of which is a deer, or stag, that feasts on the branches and allows the waters to flow through his antlers into the wells and rivers. In Celtic mythology, the deer, or hind, is also sacred and firmly linked to the realm of the Otherworld. Fairy women are said to take the form of deer, and a white hind is considered to be one of the most magical of all messengers. In Welsh mythology, the stag is named as one of the five oldest animals in the world and counted as one of the five totem beasts of Britain.

The connection between humans and deer is an ancient one that extends back well into the Ice Age. Thousands of years ago, the massive Irish elk walked the Earth, standing at over two metres tall with antlers that extended out another 3.5 m, and the wild reindeer herds roamed extensively over most of Western Europe. Some of the most exquisite Ice Age art features reindeer, for example the Magdalenian mammoth tusk ivory showing reindeer swimming (now in the British Museum) and the cave paintings at Font-de-Gaume France (see above). It was probably during this time, when the hunter gatherers of the Ice Age roamed the land in harmony with the seasons that the ancestral antlered goddess of Britain was born. Elen of the Ways as we now call her, the guardian spirit who through the reindeer herds led us to safe living during both the natural abundance of summer and the harshness of the snow-covered winters. The reindeer instinctively knew the ancient migration paths and trusted the grandmother deer of the herd to lead them to fresh pasture. Our ancestors in turn would follow the deer trods, which became sacred pathways or song lines on the Earth, often following geological patterns, water courses and prominent landscape features. These ancient pathways still crisscross the land like threads in a cobweb and have been honoured as sacred for many thousands of years, walked by generations in search of nourishment, both physical and spiritual. Sometimes they are straight like ley lines, other times they curve and meander like threads or song lines, and sometimes they connect with deep tectonic forces as dragon lines. They can still be felt in the landscape today and often link stone circles, megalithic sites, sacred wells and burial mounds with geological and other features.

Knowledge of this Palaeolithic ancestral land spirit has been preserved in the story of Elen and King Macsen in the Mabinogion, the ancient Welsh book of mythology. According to the tale known as ‘The Dream of Mascen Wledig,’ Macsen was the emperor of Rome and was there known as Maximus. One day, whilst out hunting, he and his men rested awhile by the river Tiber and as he slept, he dreamed that he was in an enchanted land surrounded by mountains where he came upon the most lovely island he had ever seen.   There in a magnificent castle in the centre of this island, he found himself in a splendid hall and here, seated on a throne, was the most beautiful woman in the world. But alas, just as Macsen was about to sit down and embrace her on her throne of gold, he woke up. Never had he been so bereft, and his days were filled with a love-sick yearning. Eventually, he sends out thirteen men from the place of his dream to find the enchanted land with the beautiful woman – and after much journeying they managed to do so, in the vicinity of Snowdonia at Aber Sain in Wales.[1]

The messengers tell Elen of the intentions of the emperor and though she is impressed, she insists that he should come in person to Wales to ask her hand in marriage – which of course he does. As a wedding gift Elen asks that three castles should be made for her in places of her choosing, and she then builds a network of magical roads between them, known today as Sarn Elen. This ancient track can still be partially followed and links Aberconwy in the north with Carmarthen further south. Elen of the Ways guards the ancient deer trods of the land, the paths that are often silver and sparkle under the moonlight when the chalk bedrock appears at the surface. She emerges in the ancient forests and woodlands where the secret pathways of animals and insects cross and mesh, where the underground mycelium connects all life in an unseen web. Her energy can be felt as we connect the ley lines of the Earth, grids that criss-cross the land in a form palpable to humans. As we continue to re-sensitise ourselves to the subtle energies of the Earth, it is fitting that Elen has been recognised and named in connection the Belinus line, the ley line that runs up the centre of the British Isles and is complemented by the more subtle energies of Elen. [2]


[1] See Sharon Blackie ‘If Women Rose Rooted’ for more details

[2] See Gary Biltcliffe’s  work on the Belinus Line for more details

February Storm Moon: The Hunter, Bear and Rowan

The cold winter month of February is still ice covered in many parts of the northern hemisphere, or a time when storms sweep in from Atlantic, when strong winds blow, or of cold crisp mornings when silver frost sparkles in the pale orange Sun. This is the month of the Ice or Storm Full Moon, a period of cleansing and purification in preparation for the year ahead, of the first stirrings of spring when the sap starts to rise and signal the return of the power of the Sun.

The first half of February is ruled by the rowan or mountain ash in the Celtic tree calendar, L (Luis) in the Ogham alphabet. Associated with quickening, rowan was often used for protection against negative forces and would have been used to bless the boundaries of the land. The wattles of the rowan were used by druids to drive away unwanted spirits when all else failed, and the tree was often planted by them in sacred groves for ceremonial and oracular purposes. The lush bright berries of rowan were considered a food fit for the gods, said to possess the sustaining value of nine meals. [1]At times when fresh food was scarce, this lush berry would have been a prime target for foragers; though raw berries taste bitter, when cooked they are delicious and packed full of nutrients. In Norse mythology, the rowan was also considered sacred and the first woman was also said to be created from it, probably because of its association with blood.

Orion the Hunter still reigns supreme in the February night sky. Though the archetype of the Hunter is one of the oldest known to humanity and manifests in different mythologies round the world, the evidence for Hunter god or goddess in Celtic mythology is relatively thin on the ground. Cernunnos, the Horned God and Lord of Wild Things is the closest archetype that has survived and is most notably depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. He is often shown wearing antlers, surrounded by stags, dogs or bulls, and sometimes a horned serpent. In a later incarnation he appears as Herne the Hunter (of Robin Hood legend), accredited by some to Shakespeare in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the British Isles, there is some evidence for the cult Diana the Huntress during Roman times. Mistress of the Wild Beasts, the Greenwood and springs, Diana is often depicted with bows and arrows and a hunting dog at her side, and inscriptions to her have been found scattered over areas of Scotland, Wales and England. Though she was obviously imported, the cult of Diana seems to have taken root in fertile soil showing that there was also some native predisposition towards the Huntress goddess before the Romans arrived. In one case she has been assimilated into the cult of the Celtic mother goddess Mabonus, whose son Mabon was also a hunter. [2]

Though not seen in Britain, Arduina was a forest and hunting goddess prevalent across the Ardennes region who also had clear links with the Greek Artemis, on whom the Roman Diana was also based. She was often depicted riding a wild boar, like Freya of Norse mythology who also could originally have been a goddess of hunting before being tamed by the male orientated pantheon. Arduina was celebrated well into the Middle Ages and there are records of her cult at Luneville in the Ardennes when children dressed up as bears in her honour.

The etymology of the word Artemis derives from the Greek word arktos meaning bear, and this in turn could have derived from a proto-Indo European root word for ‘bear’ as the name crops up in lands associated with the migrating Indo-Europeans. For example, in Switzerland the bear goddess Artio was the major cult of Bern, and in Wales, arth is the word for bear, from which Arthur is also derived. In Greek mythology, Arkas was the name of the son of Kallisto, a follower of Artemis, that was changed into a bear by Hera and then set among the stars as the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Therefore a link with Artemis and the bear has existed since earliest times, alluding to a deep connection with the huntress archetype and the bear.

In fact, the Goddess of the Wild Hunt has clear Palaeolithic origins, when the land was covered with boreal forest and fresh water, when man hunted game to survive and lived in awe of the large and powerful beasts with which he competed for survival. As Lord of the Beasts, evidence of bear worship dates back around 70,000 years to Drachenloch in Switzerland where stone altars and caches of bear bones attributed to Neanderthal man have been found. Aspects of this cult seem to have been taken over by modern man and evidence of bear worship has also been found in many Ice Age caves across France, most notably at Lascaux when the Magdalenians seem to have used bear heads and pelts in ceremony.

So there is mounting evidence for a primal cult of the bear as a sacred creature that climbed and ascended a world pole at the centre of the world that linked with the seven circumpolar stars of Ursa Major that we now call the Plough. This cult later developed into Palaeolithic shamanism and became a triple world cosmology linking Heaven, Earth and the Underworld, again largely mediated through the bear. Therefore, the cult of the Bear and the Huntress, as recorded in the legends of the Greek Artemis, contain important clues that can help us piece together the minds of our most distant ancestors.


[1] John Matthews, ‘Ancient Wisdom from the Greenwood,’ 2003

[2] See earthandstarryheaven.com for more details

Imbolc: Of Ewe’s Milk, Brigit and Swans

Half-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, the astrological point of Imbolc heralds the first stirrings of spring. Delicate bell-shaped snowdrops push up through Earth as hard as iron at this the coldest point of winter, and candles are lit for the returning Sun. The festival was celebrated with ewe’s milk, the first fresh food of the year and produced as lambs appear from the ‘tupping’ at Samhain. Indeed, the feast probably gets its name from the old Irish word imbolg, meaning in ‘the belly’, referring to the pregnancy of the ewes.

This Celtic festival belongs to the mother goddess Brigit, daughter of the Dagda and in her triple aspect patron of healers, smiths and poetry, seen as guardian of the oral tradition by which all sacred knowledge was mediated. Brigit was sometimes depicted as a milk maid, milking the sacred cow, the bringer of nourishment and plenty but taking what is needed, never too much. In this role as ecological protectress, or Sovereignty goddess, she is the maiden aspect of the Cailleach, the hag who ruled over winter but was transformed into a beautiful maiden at spring, bringing rains and fertility as the Bride.

One of her most significant roles was as guardian of the wells, seen by the Celts as the sacred gateways to the Otherworld from which the source of spiritual as well as physical nourishment arises. Imbolc was therefore traditionally a time to dress wells and honour the sacred gift which they bestowed. Many wells in Britain still bear her name, most famously St Brides of Fleet Street in London, though there are also many local well goddesses around the British Isles, for example Sulis at Bath and Coventina in the North. Churches were often built over these ancient healing sites and this way, Brigit was subsumed into Celtic Christianity and became Saint Brigid, taking  1st February as her feast day and establishing a sanctuary on the ancient site at Kildare. Here  nineteen nines tended the Sacred Flame all year, with Brigit herself said to come on the 20th night. This sacred fire was kept alive from at least the four century through the early medieval period, until abolished by Henry VIII in Tudor times.

As goddess of spring and new growth, Brigit was often associated with childbirth and in a curious mingling of pagan and Christian traditions, she became known as the foster-mother of Jesus. According to one legend, when Christ was lost in the Temple she helped Mary to find him by making an augury as follows:

‘The augury of Brigit made for her foster-son. She made a pipe within her palms;

‘I see the Foster-son by the well’s side, teaching the people assuredly.’ [1]

Candlemas, the Christian equivalent of Imbolc, was associated with the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth to the infant Jesus, later known as Churching, the time when women were allowed to resume normal life after birth. This custom could have evolved from Judaism with its emphasis on ritual cleansing, and indeed it has also been suggested that another origin of the name Imbolc was derived from imb-fholc meaning to wash or clean oneself. Today we often feel need to spring clean our houses at this time, to sort through what is needed and what can be released in preparation for receiving the new life experiences of the coming year. It is highly likely that origins of both customs are even more ancient and could be linked to a proto-Indo-European word meaning both ‘milk’ and ‘cleansing’, potential evidence for a deep-rooted association.[2]

This could also explain why Brigit the Milk Maid was also linked to the celestial stream of milk that flowed with abundance across the night sky, the Milky Way. As ever, there is an ecological aspect to this myth, for February was the time of year when the swans started to depart for the Arctic after their winter sojourn further south, flying overhead as the constellation Cygnus does along the Milky Way. This would have been an awesome site, flocks of large winged birds flying north in huge formations, off to the mysterious north, unexplored lands of ice and fire.

As guardians and keepers of these mysteries, swans were known as one of the sacred birds of Britain and many customs today enshrine their importance to the land – for example, the Swan Upping ceremonies conducted each year on the Thames. As a result of their mysterious flight patterns, they were also considered to be threshold creatures, guardians of the mysteries of the celestial world, as psychopomps, said to accompany souls on the journey to the afterlife. The swan song, the mythical melody of the dying swan, has long been symbolic of the final act of the soul before its departure. Their association with the constellation Cygnus, gateway to the Dark Rift of the Milky Way and guardian of the mysteries of the North has very ancient origins, and flutes in the shape of swans have been found in Ma’lta Siberia that date back 25,000 years. It is also possible that ancient temples such as Gobekli Tepe in SW Turkey were aligned to Deneb, one of the stars of Cygnus, which was circumpolar during the last Ice Age and seen as a portal to the sky world, potentially as a source of cosmic creation.[3] We are only just now beginning to understand the intricate and ancient mythology of Cygnus the Swan.


[1] Caitlin Matthews, 1989, ‘The Celtic Tradition’

[2] Sharon Blackie, 2020, ‘This Mythic Life’

[3] Andrew Collins, 2018, ‘The Cygnus Key’

January Wolf Moon: Fenrir, Freyja and her Necklace

January is named for the Roman two headed god, Janus, who looks both backwards to the ending of the old year and forward to new beginnings. In Celtic tree lore, it is the time ruled over by birch, the first tree in the forest to start producing leaves (B or Beith in the Ogham alphabet). Birch is self propagating and therefore highly adaptive and able to thrive in areas cleared by forest fires, making it associated with new beginnings. It was traditionally used to drive out the spirit of the Old Year, but this became distorted later when it was used to flog children.   It was used by druids as kindling to ignite fires, and silver birch is often associated with light bodies such as the sun, moon and the stars.

The January full moon is often called Wolf Moon. Wolves rule the midwinter nights and the image of the wolf howling during a full moon is probably the origin of the concept of the werewolf, a fearsome predator that feeds on blood. Though now more often linked to Native American tradition, the wolf is also a key animal in Celtic and Norse mythology. Solitary and shy, but able to survive in packs and hunt ferociously, the wolf was often associated with death and sometimes destruction, but with the understanding that clearing away the old is a necessary step in the process of renewal. It was a companion of the Welsh goddess Ceridwen, one of the sacred guardians of Britain, and one of the four sacred animals of the Celtic Brigid,[1] all of which demonstrate the importance of wolf to the ancient British landscape.

It is in Norse mythology, however, where wolf has its most intriguing role. Fenrir the wolf was the feared offspring of the frost giantess and trickster Loki who grew to such a huge size that he had to be bound in chains to prevent the prophesied destruction of the world, Ragnarok. Eventually, when the time was nigh, he broke free of the magical chains made by the elves themselves, swallowing the god Odin whole in the drama known as the twilight of the gods. Fenrir was the father in turn of another wolf who chased the sun until finally ‘taking possession of it.’ Not only did the sun disappear from view, but the world was engulfed in a hideous winter of freezing and bloodshed as a result, so there is a possible association here between the wolf and celestial phenomena such as eclipses, comets or meteor impacts, a harbinger of destruction, even a deliver of it.

 The 10th January, the date of this year’s full Wolf Moon, is also the birthday of the Norse goddess Freyja. As mistress of the runes, prophetic vision, and magick, she was once one of the most important figures in the Norse pantheon, and certainly one of the oldest.  Originally a Mistress of the Wild Animals, she is often seen in a chariot pulled by cats or riding a wild boar. Later, like Inanna in the Middle East, she became the typical goddess of sex and war, and as (possible) leader of the Valkyries, prowled the battlefields with Odin, choosing half of all slain warriors to take to her great hall.  

One of her most striking attributes was a cloak of falcon feathers which enabled her to shapeshift into a bird and take astral flight. Shamanistic and extremely ancient in origin, this type of magical ability was known as seidr and said to be gifted by Freyja herself. Indeed, even Odin had to come to her to learn the art of reading the runes showing that she once had precedence over him.

As mistress of prophet visionary and shape shifting, Freyja would have had mastery over the four primal elements Earth, air, fire and water, and therefore alchemical knowledge of how to work with the treasures of the Earth. This knowledge is encoded into the story of how Freyja obtained her famous necklace, Brisingsamen. Here my version of the story:

One winters night, Freya lay dreaming in her bed of fur. She saw the ancient ash tree that stood at the centre of the Nine Worlds and it was spangled in a web of light that shone like diamonds. Yearning to be there, she stepped out of bed and pulling on her cloak made of the softest and lightest of falcon feathers, she flew towards the tree. There she alighted on a branch and traveled down the solid trunk and down into the roots that burrowed towards the heart of the Earth. As she journeyed, she could hear strange notes given out by the rhythmic clanging of a hammer and she followed the sound until she ended up in a candle-lit chamber. Four dwarfs were busy at work, one hammering sheets of gold, one pulling it into long wires, and the other two cutting and polishing stones of every colour and hue until their light radiated out onto the walls of the cave, causing it to sparkle like the night sky.

Freya stepped towards them and saw they were making a necklace, the most beautiful and powerful necklace she had ever seen, and she longed to possess it. She pleaded with the dwarfs, offering them riches and gold in exchange, but they already had mastery of all the treasures in the seams of the Earth and needed no more. What they did, want, however, was for each of them in turn to spend a night with the beautiful goddess. Freyja agreed and stayed with them to learn the magical arts of alchemical transformation taught by the dwarves, who was a master of each element. This was how she came to be in possession of Brisingamen, the necklace that shone bright as the Milky Way.

The story as handed down to us is patchy, and for many it is purely sexual in nature, the goddess sleeping with each of the dwarves in turn to obtain the treasure. Strangely, the necklace is also not a magical object per se and has none of the attributes or named powers as for example Odin’s ring or Thor’s hammer. Yet to Freyja the necklace is of prime importance so much so that she is prepared to do anything to retain it, and there is a disturbing end to the story.

Odin saw that Freyja had obtained the necklace, and how, and was apparently angry, even outraged. He ordered the trickster Loki to steal it from the sleeping goddess and bring it to him forthwith. Freyja soon realised her necklace was gone, and who had taken it, and came to confront Odin. Apparently, with very little persuasion, she struck with him a dark bargain in order to secure its’ return: she was to incite war between two kings and their great armies, then revive them on the battlefield so that they might rise up and fight again.

The reason for this request is not explained and could be interpreted simply as a moral warning against coveting material possession, or even against sexual promiscuity, both of which could bring unwanted consequences. But there could also be something more behind this rather intriguing story. The necklace could represent some sort of primal power, and one that is linked to the stars of the Milky Way, it could symbolise secret and eternally powerful knowledge that has been lost in the mists of time. The silver birch with its association with light bodies, the wolf with its cosmic symbolism and Freya’s starry necklace all demonstrate that the stars of the Milky Way were much for central in the psyche of our ancestors than it is in today’s light polluted world, and the long dark nights of the North would have been the perfect place to view it. Furthermore, the wolf myths also hint at a cataclysmic event that led to Ragnarok, the destruction of everything including the gods, when an old order broke down in order to make way for a new. And in this it is tempting to see parallels with today’s world with the lunar eclipse and important conjunctions around this January full Wolf Moon.


[1] See www.exemplore.com for more details

Yuletide: the tale of the Holly and the Ivy

Yuletide is the twelve festive days celebrated from the Winter Solstice that were used by our ancestors to align the solar calendar with the lunar. The Solstice was seen as the still point of the wheel of the year, the pivot on which the agricultural year turned, the time when the sun appears to start heading northwards in the sky just as it has reached its furthest point south. These twelve adjustment days were therefore taken at this special time and were used as an opportunity to relax and make merry, to walk in the fields and the forests, commune with the ancestors, to rewild.

The image of streams of cavorting revellers was probably the origin of the Wild Hunt of Norse/Anglo Saxon mythology. This was when the one-eyed all-seeing shamanic god Odin rode across the skies with his ghostly hunters. Accompanied by ravens, trolls and otherworldly psychopomps, or soul guides, these creatures were later demonised and reduced to satanic hordes and discarnate spirits, harbingers of death, bringing misfortune on anyone who saw them. A piece of propaganda later introduced by the Christian world to ensure the midwinter revelries did not take place.

Despite these attempts at censor, there is much in this old mythology that has survived and preserved in our Christmas customs. Odin rode a large muscular horse called Sleipnir, said to have eight legs, who carried his master through the nine worlds held in the branches and roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, a clear reference to shamanic journeying. Reindeer are also important shamanic animals with their antlers rising to the heavens and their hooves firmly on the ground, and it is significant that eight of them are said to pull Santa’s sleigh. Odin also dropped presents at the foot of his sacred pine tree for the faithful, a custom preserved in the laying of Christmas presents under the Christmas tree.

And trailing behind the Wild Hunt were the Oak and the Holly Lords perennially engaged in a battle of mythic proportions. Robert Graves analysis of an ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Battle of the Trees’ unravelled a remarkable and ancient story telling the unfolding of the natural year through a tree alphabet encrypted with sacred knowledge and ritual.[1] The year was divided into two halves to reflect the power of the waxing and waning sun. The Oak king was the Lord of the Waxing Sun who reached his peak at Midsummer, but was then supplanted, or even sacrificed, by the Holly king who ruled the part of the year when the Sun’s power was waning. At the Winter Solstice, it was Oak that supplanted Holly, who then ruled over the waxing year. Graves uncovered evidence for this Earth centred belief from Turkey to the West of Ireland with different cultures flavouring the narrative with their own character.

In Britain, the Robin Redbreast embodied the spirit of the New Year, signalling the return of the Sun. This half of the year is associated with holly, which now produces red berries amidst its spiky evergreen leaves, hence the association of robins with holly at Yule. Just after the Solstice, around Christmas Eve, Robin Red Breast sets out to kill his predecessor, the Gold Crest Wren. Men would hunt wrens with birch rods at this time, driving them out of ivy bushes, indicating that Ivy as the Lord of the Waxing Sun. The Robin is said to murder the Wren, his father/predecessor, acquiring his red breast as a result. For the rest of the year, the Wren was considered sacred and it was forbidden to collect her eggs.

Graves also introduced another dimension to his Battle of the Trees analysis, for the gods of the waxing and waning years were revealed as pawns who competed for, and each in turn lose, the love of the triple goddess, Creatrix of Nature, who he called the White Goddess. There are considerable depths to this story, but one of the most pertinent is the subscript of the day out of time, the 23rd December just after the Solstice, the magical thirteenth month which was not ruled over by the tree alphabet. This was the Epilogue, the story that told of the birth, life and resurrection of the god of the waxing year. The time when the Goddess gave birth anew to herself and the sacred child, bringing about redemption and the resurrection of the life- giving power of the Sun.

Christianity has of course taken over all the major aspects of this ancient narrative in the contemporary version of the Christian story. Now it is Christ, born of the Virgin, who shall redeem us, and his birth takes place at the Winter Solstice. His cousin, John the Baptist takes on the role of the Midsummer tannist and throughout the Middle Ages, 24th June was referred to as the Eve of St John.

Nowhere is this ancient knowledge so explicitly preserved and intertwined with Christianity as in the carol the Holly and the Ivy, cheerfully sung in chapels and churches up and down the country at Christmas. The chorus ‘the holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown’ implies Holly is Lord of Midwinter, with the Ivy as Midsummer Lord. The birth of the sacred child by the goddess and the sacrificial aspects of the story are clearly indicated, albeit in a very mild form, by the  next verses, ‘the holly bears a blossom was white as lily flower, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our dear Saviour’ and ‘the holly bears a berry as red as any blood and that Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.’

The ‘prickle’ of the Holly is a premonition of the crown of thorns worn by the sacrificial Christ and the bark of the holly, as bitter as any gall, mentioned later in the carol, is a reference to the redemptive Christ, who was offered gall to drink in place of water whilst dying on the cross.

Though we now celebrate the birth of the sacred child (Christ) at Christmas, in Anglo Saxon Britain, it was the Mother who was honoured on the 24th December. This was when the sacred tree was taken into the home and decorated, a living representative of the World Tree, with the star at the top representing the Pole Star around which everything turned. The Yule log was lit as a symbol of the returning Sun, and food and gifts were shared to honour the abundance of the Earth. Even Santa Claus, with his obligatory red suit, is actually the old Holly king or Robin Redbreast in disguise, with his elf helpers a reference to the fairy folk of the Old Religion, and his magical flying reindeer and Christmas Eve night journey a memory of the Wild Hunt of Odin.


[1] Robert Graves, ‘The White Goddess’ Faber and Faber, 1997

December Cold Moon: the Cailleach, owl and elder

The full moon in December, usually the last full moon of the year, is known as the Cold Moon, or Long Nights Moon, when the days are short and the hours of darkness long. This is the time when the first frosts have claimed any remaining leaves leaving trees tall and exposed against an inky skyline, when the fecund Earth has drawn down into it all the remaining nutrients from above, and bulbs and seeds lay dormant. It is the time of endings, before the time of new beginning, the time when the sun will begins its annual cycle of return at the Winter Solstice, bringing with it the promise of longer days.

Though the sun seldom reveals itself by day, the night skies can be spectacular. The great bear Ursa Major makes the climb up around the world pole in the east, and meteor showers radiate from Ursa Minor in the middle of the month. Orion the Hunter and his faithful dog (Sirius) chase Taurus the Bull towards the ecliptic in the South, and the Pleiades are visible as seven tiny enigmatic pin pricks of light.

The winter garden is ruled over by robin, wren, blackbird and thrush, vying for berries and grubs, while winter visitors like whooper swans and pink footed geese have arrived from the Arctic in search of milder weather. The hedgehog and snake have long since taken to their holes deep within the Earth, and frogs and toads over-winter by sitting at the bottom of ponds. At night the black and white badger and fire red fox prowl, and the occasional long eared hare might be seen leaping through fields by day.

With the Earth laid bare and nutrition withdrawn, this time is ruled by the Cailleach, the one-eyed blue faced hag of winter who is older than time itself. She carries the memory of the tectonic formation of the Earth, and is accredited with the formation of many glens, mountains and lochs. She strikes the land with her magic hammer, turning soil to solid rock, even causing crustal movement to form valleys and mountains. When she washes her brown cloak in the turbulent sea, the snow falls dusting all the mountains of Scotland an icy white. She is seen leaping from mountain top to mountain top with a trail of animals in her wake. The animals of winter such as wolf, fox and eagle all adore her, and she protects the deer of the forest from over hunting. She is at once the Creatrix of the land, and its fiercest guardian. When the delicate balance of the earths ecosystems is overturned, she is the first to seek vengeance, reminding humans of the dangers of taking more than is needed, of thoughtlessly plundering the Earth.

She is often associated with the owl, the ruler of the night winter skies. Like her, the owl is old beyond its years, all-seeing and all-knowing. UV vision make it a fearsome predator at night, especially in the depths of winter when all cover has been stripped away. The owl can look forward and backwards by twisting its head, seeing both past and future, like the Cailleach with her single piercing eye.

The Blackthorn is her preferred tree, as its berries ripen after the first frost. She is said to carry a staff made from its wood and when she strikes the ground, winter begins. Growing alongside Blackthorn, it is, however, Elder that rules December according to Celtic tree lore. Though the flowers and bark of Elder are therapeutic, it has a long association with death and disease. Legend calls it the Crucifixion tree and the fateful tree on which Judas Iscariot hung himself. In Harry Potter, it was the Elder wand that was one of the deathly hallows, which according to legend was fashioned by Death himself. Sometimes acquired through killing its previous master, the wand had a long and bloody history before coming into the possession of both Dumbledore and Harry Potter. It’s association with the thirteenth month of the tree calendar, R (ruis) 25th November to 22nd December could be one of reasons that the number thirteen is also considered unlucky, when darkness became dreaded and feared.

Yet this thirteenth month was once considered the most sacred time of the year, when the Earth lets die what it is no longer needed, a time of allowing the passing of the old to make way for the new. A time to get rid of anything surplus in order to face the cold winter ahead, which in turn would bring with it the cyclical return of the sun at the Solstice. When the balance between us and nature was understood, when our lives and that of the land were considered intimately entwined.

January Heaven and Earth calendar

1st – 7th Seven Days of Rest

3rd Quadrantid meteor shower peak, Waxing half moon (4.45)

5th Earth at Perihelion

10th Full Moon (19.21), Penumbral lunar eclipse (19.10)

12th Saturn/Pluto conjunction in Capricorn, Uranus goes direct

17th Waxing half moon (12.58)

20th Martin Luther King birthday

21 – 24th World Economic Forum in Davos

25th Chinese New Year – Metal Rat

26th Australia Day

27th Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Black Madonna of Tripoli (Lebanon)

In the city of Tripoli there is humble and almost unknown Black Madonna. She has lain dormant for many years now, but quite suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, she is starting to emerge from the fecund, dark loam of the collective unconscious like a fragile shoot appearing out of frozen soil. The power of the Black Madonna as an agent of change and transformation cannot be overlooked, and nowhere today is this more true than in Tripoli, the second city of Lebanon. So, what does this particular Black Madonna represent, and what is her message to us at this time?

Black Madonna of Tripoli (author’s photo)

She hangs on the wall of the Greek Orthodox Church of St George near the old souk in the heart of Tripoli. She feels slightly incongruous in this poor and very conservative Sunni city close to the Syrian border, where women frequently wear the veil. Dubbed the ‘City of Division,’ Tripoli has gained negative publicity over the past few decades as a place of unpredictable sectarian violence and frequent clashes between Sunni and Alawite rebels or anti/pro Assad factions. It has also historically supported Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement. Yet over the past few months the people of this conservative place have been at the heart of the Lebanese anti-government protests.

Ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (author’s photo)

Possible reasons for this unexpected behaviour can be found by looking back into the city’s long and illustrious past of dynamism and change. Tripoli was first established as a trading port by the entrepreneurs of the ancient world, the Phoenicians. For hundreds of years, these merchants dominated the seas of the Mediterranean and traded in silver, wood, glass, textiles and of course their hallmark purple dye made from a secretion of the murex sea snail. They invented the alphabet that we use today and ducked and dived at a time when many great civilisations were going into decline. They also witnessed the arrival of new and aggressive players such as Alexander, the Ptolomies, Seleucids, Persians and Romans, and even managed to stay independent to some extent, some of the time. Parallels with today maybe? The Lebanese may be part of the Arab world, indeed at the heart of it, but they also have a different quality and pride themselves as being the entrepreneurs – the ‘middle-men’ of the Middle East.

Mamluk era mosque (author’s photo)

Then in 551 AD, it all changed. A devastating earthquake and ensuing tidal wave swept away all that remained of the ancient world like it had never existed. Nature abhors a vacuum and into this one stepped the next set of invaders, this time from the Muslim world, who in the shape of the Omayyads, Fatimids, Druze, Ottomans then Lebanese, were to dominate the city until today – aside from a period of Western and Mamluk domination, both of which have left physical legacies. The citadel of Raymond of St-Gilles built by the Crusaders still dominates the city, and the Mamluk era mosques, khans and souks make the architecture of Tripoli unique in the Middle East.

Citadel of Raymond of St-Gilles (Qala’at Sanjil)

Though Tripoli’s past has been rich and colourful, the twentieth century has brought with it a fair degree of misery. Sectarian violence had already become a theme at the close of the 19th century with frequent conflict between the Druze and Maronite Christians. When the Maronites began to oppose the then ruling Ottoman Empire, the Western Powers seized the opportunity and intervened, a precdent that was to continue after WW1 when the League of Nations, and Sykes-Picot carved up Lebanon, thereby altering the demographics and sowing the seeds for the devastating civil war of the 1975 – 1990.

To return to the Black Madonna and her message, it is important to understand that the full name of the church in which she stands is the ‘Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in Lebanon.’ Though obscure today, this church has an ancient pedigree which can be traced back to the very earliest days of Christianity when both Peter and Paul visited Antioch. The church founded at this time became so important that it became part of the Pentrachy – one of the five major episcopal sees of the Roman Empire, which included Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople. In time, Rome claimed supremacy over all the other churches with the great schism of 1054 splitting Rome and the Eastern Churches for good, and the rest is literally history.

Hammam in Tripoli, the oldest in the country (author’s photo)

Somehow, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch has managed to survive the upheavals of the last two millenia and today its members count for around 8% of the Lebanese population. It has also managed to exist in small numbers in other parts of the Arab world where its’ highly educated and financially adept people have managed, in Phoenician style, to blend into a rigidly conservative and at times fractious religious environment. Most notably, during the Lebanese civil war , the terrible and prolonged sectarian conflict in which over 120,000 people lost their lives, 1 million went into exile and over 76,000 were displaced, the Greek Orthodox community were able to act as negotiators to build bridges between the Maronite Christians and the Arab community at the heart of the conflict.

So, the essence of this Black Madonna is about the preservation of something pure and almost lost, of blending in chameleon-style in hostile environments, and of thriving not just surviving. Of knowing when to lie low and when to step forward and having the courage to do so even when threatened. Of seeking heartfelt, inclusive change that benefits all, not just a minority.

Tripoli protests in October 2019

Over the past few months, the people of Tripoli have been reclaiming their city, resurrecting it from the fragments of division and renaming it a ‘City of Peace.’ Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Maronite are putting aside religious differences to protest against and demand the resignation of a corrupt and ineffectual government. In the words of one protestor, ‘It was always minority causing all the trouble, most people were trying to live their lives…. I always thought people would come together, they just needed a reason.’ [1]

Though this Black Madonna arises from a Christian/Orthodox background, her message transcends religion and draws on a wisdom that resonates with us all at a deep, core level. The protests may have faded in Tripoli for now, but the sentiment behind them has not. People want change and once the nature of this change is formulated coherently, there will be nothing than can get in their way.

[1] Richard Hall, Independent Newspaper, 25.10.2019.

The Black Madonna of Vilnius

Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn is one of the most beautiful and evocative of Europe’s Black Madonnas. She has presided over the city of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, for nearly four hundred years and showers her gifts of compassion and mercy from her lofty position on top of the Gate of Dawn on all those who enter and leave. Her story is one of heartbreak and loss, prejudice and politics, love and hope, all intricately bonded with the remarkable history of the city and its’ people. She also sits at the heart of the European landmass, very near to geographical centre of Europe (latitude 54 54 and longitude 25 19), so she is in a sense an omphalos, a microcosm in the macrocosm of Europe’s more recent history.

Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (author’s photo)

Her origins are shrouded in mystery. She probably emerged around 1630, her painting commissioned by the government of the time, though other legends say that she was brought from the Crimea as war booty. This story hints at Lithuania’s great past when her boundaries stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea under the days of the Grand Duchy, but by the seventeenth century these days were no more. In any event, after her first appearance she was placed in the Gates of Dawn, part of the city walls, built to protect from invaders. She began to bestow miracles with immediate effect, restoring to health a two-year-old boy who had fallen from a second floor window.

The Black Madonna of Vilnius (photo credit Diana Eder)

By now Lithuania had been swallowed in a union with Poland and Vilnius no longer exercised any real political power. The people would have visited Our Lady to tell her of their woes and reflect on a glorious past long since vanished. But worse was to come. In 1654 the Russians arrived and during the Battle of Vilnius, the city was looted and pillaged, many people taken prisoner and murdered. Carmelite monks were given the task of maintaining the city gates and inherited Our Lady as part of the job.   They built her a small wooden chapel which became her home until it burnt down at the beginning of the eighteenth century when the current brick chapel was built. It was during this time that she was to gain her stunning coat of gilded silver, richly decorated with roses, tulips and carnations, and lending her a more Orthodox look.

For the next two centuries Vilnius was to remain under Russian rule, apart from a brief interlude in 1702 when the Swedish army captured the city as part of the Great Northern Wars. Our Lady once again came to the fore. Four Swedish soldiers, who had the impudence to mock and even shoot at her, were killed when the iron gates of the city fell on them. Then, the very next day, the Lithuanian army launched a counter attack against the Swedes, right next to the Gate, and were rewarded with victory.

Over time, Lithuania’s other neighbour – the Prussians – emerged as a military power and she found herself surrounded by aggressive and expansionist neighbours who mercilessly carved her up in the partition of Poland. Repression increased; the Russians clamped down on any rebellion and in 1840 in a bid to try and stamp out any remnants of national pride, the Russian language was made compulsory. The city walls were demolished as a in an act of dominance, but miraculously the Gates of Dawn survived and remains to this day the only surviving part of the defensive walls.

Woman of the Apocalypse

Throughout the trials and tribulations of occupation, war and repression, the faithful continued to pray to Our Lady for her benevolent intervention and brought her votive offerings of cured limbs, eyes, and many, many hearts. It was during this time that she inherited her splendid silver crescent moon, earning herself the title of Queen of Heaven. With her golden crown and halo, the twelve stars around her head and the moon beneath her feet, she became associated with the Woman of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation.

Jewish Quarter, Vilnius (author’s photo)

By the end of the nineteenth century, Vilnius had become a major Jewish centre. Forced to live within the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, many Jews were attracted to Vilnius with its railway network and thriving business centre and by 1870 they comprised half of the population of the city. The Jewish quarter was a bustling place where furriers, opticians and goldsmiths plied their crafts, and moves were afoot to build a large synagogue to facilitate their worship. But anti-semitism also thrived and organised pogroms and acts of extreme violence against the Jews became more frequent on the streets around the Gates of Dawn. Many tried to emigrate, but those that remained were to face the then unimaginable horrors of the twentieth century.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Vilnius was occupied by the Germans, then in 1918 with both the fall of the Tsarist Empire and the collapse of the German Empire, the city finally and jubilantly declared independence. Sadly, this was not to last. The city was annexed in 1920 by the Poles, and for the next 19 years Vilnius became part of Poland, cut off from the rest of Lithuania and ruled over once again by outsiders. The people turned again to Our Lady in their hour of need and in 1927 she was crowned formally as the Mother of Mercy.

The twentieth century was to wreck worldwide havoc with its mass murder, unimaginable scale warfare, disease and genocide and Vilnius played out its role as microcosm to the macrocosm of European/world politics. One of Lithuania’s most famous daughters, the renowned archaeologist and thinker Marija Gimbutas lived during these times. She was born in Vilnius in 1921 to doctors, who had founded the first Lithuanian hospital and were themselves strongly involved with the folk history and culture. The young Marija would have almost certainly visited Our Lady, though there are no formal written records of this.

Under Polish rule, the family moved in 1931 to Kaunas but Marija was to study in both Vilnius and Kaunas where she embarked on her studies of the Ancient Balts and their Indo-European ancestry, a theory for which she is now famed. Vilnius was not to return to Lithuanian control until World War Two, when the Russians, this time in the guise of the Communist Soviets, took control of the whole country including the former capital. But fortune proved once again fickle, and with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Lithuania now found herself ruled by an even more aggressive master.

Paneriai Forest Memorial (author’s photo)

Almost immediately the next tragic stage in Vilnius’ history began – the mass murder of its vast Jewish population. Already segregated in ghettos near the Gates of Dawn, the Jews were systematically liquidated. The first stage was transport to the forest of Paneriai just outside Vilnius where around 100,000 people were shot and buried in mass pits over the course of the war. In 1941 over a three-month period, half of the Jews of Vilnius had been massacred at this site alone. The deportations must have occurred within sight of Our Lady,  but sadly no intercession was forthcoming on this occasion.

Nuclear silo, Zemajitija National Park (author’s photo)

By the end of 1944, Europe was on her knees and the Reich that was to last a thousand years came crashing down. Out of the ashes of chaos, a new threat was emerging and in 1945 Vilnius came come back under Soviet control once again. Regarded as the worst of all foes by some, Gimbutas chose to flee the Soviets and sought haven in the ruins that was Germany with her manuscripts under one arm and her baby under another. The people of Vilnius now faced life under the Stalin and thousands of Lithuanians were murdered, imprisoned or deported under his rule of political terror. Many would have turned to Our Lady for comfort and mercy and to feel her boundless compassion during the spiritual sterility of the Cold War, when tension was always high between East and West. Unbeknown to anyone, four nuclear warheads pointing at European capitals were stationed in the forests of Lithuania after the stand-off of the Cuban missile crisis and remained perilously positioned there for over a decade.

Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (author’s photo)

Finally, in 1989 the opportunity to shake off Soviet repression presented itself and the Lithuanians were in the vanguard. Under the Glasnost of Gorbachev, the Warsaw pact countries began to open their borders and align themselves to democracy. The people of the Baltic States, who actually comprised part of the Soviet Union at the time, formed a Chain of Freedom of over two million people from Tallinn to Vilnius. Seven months later, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Republics to declare independence. In 1990, for the first time since the thirteenth century, Lithuania became an independent country and the smile of Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn seemed to become more serene. She can now be visited by anyone at most hours of the day and night, always available with her boundless compassion, fully at home in her role as Queen of Hearts and the Lady with the Moon at her feet and stars in her hair.