Tag Archives: stories

Hands of the Moon

I’ve made bread for years, but in winter especially, my bread has not come out well – it doesn’t rise properly and comes out squidgy when cooked. It wasn’t room temperature, others making bread in the same conditions get good results. For years I assumed I was doing something wrong – I was told there must be things wrong with my technique – but not what!

Then in a random conversation about comics a few weeks ago, Tom mentioned a Japanese comic about baking (anything can be heroic, in comics) and a young man possessed of ‘the Hands of the Sun’ – hands at the perfect temperature for making bread. It got me thinking.

I have cold hands, especially in winter. I inherited poor circulation from my paternal grandmother. But also like her, I’m a good pastry maker. Bread needs warmth to stimulate the yeast. Pastry is best made cold. The temperature of a person’s hands are going to make a lot of odds on this one.

I have the Hands of the Moon. And so I make good pastry but struggle in winter with bread. Two mysteries solved, and with no need for blame, no issue with my technique, just a simple reality of my body that makes me good at one thing, not so good at another.

I love the term ‘Hands of the Sun’ – poetic, delightful. There is no doubt a perfect body temperature for bread making, and it’s going to be warm, because yeast thrives on warmth. And the colder your hands, the better your pastry. My circulation-troubled Nan was an awesome pastry maker. I’m not sure if ‘Hands of the Moon’ exists as a concept in Japan, but it seemed the obvious pairing.

The stories we tell about ourselves, the language we use and the we way we make sense of our own lives, abilities, challenges and experiences shape the journey for us. I used to consider myself a lousy breadmaker. Now, I have Hands of the Moon, and a totally different story about who I am and what I do (in the kitchen at least). There are plenty of things we have no control over (like my skin temperature) but I can shape the stories I tell to myself about who I am, and that is something available to all of us. Sometimes it takes some help to point us in the direction of a better story, but once we start looking, it can be possible to let go of the beliefs that make us feel small and unhappy, and find instead stories that celebrate who we are and what we are able to do. Stories that help us live our lives.

Violence in Stories

One of the egroups I’m on (Worlds of Fantasy) got into a debate yesterday about violence in entertainment and in society. Whether or not violence in entertainment has increased was poked around as a notion. We were able to agree that on the whole, humans in western civilizations are not as violent as they used to be.

The vast majority of stories are driven, to some degree, by sex, death, or a combination thereof. These are subjects around which it is possible to weave vast, complex, meaningful tales. Just look at Shakespeare. Humans respond to sex and death and all the things those two activities create, in all kinds of ways. In seeking, and avoiding them, justifying them, punishing and rewarding people for them… all the many facets of the human condition can be played out.

It may be fair to say that modern entertainment focuses more on the details of the sexual and lethal activities than older stories did. That in itself doesn’t have to be a problem. Good stories can be told around detailed depictions. Go back to ancient writing and what you find is very light on description, heavy on telling, light on showing. Classic myths don’t spend pages establishing characters or pondering motivation. Preferences and styles change. But there’s no shortage of sex and violence. I read Ovid’s Metamorphosis last year, and the single most frequently occurring plot element was rape.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that modern story telling is doing some very similar things to that classic Greek story telling. It’s become very focused on the sex and violence. There are films now whose sole purpose seems to be to shock, frighten and disgust audiences. There are Ovid stories that caught me very much the same way – it’s just about revelling in the ick. Our modern world is far tamer and safer than the ones the Greeks inhabited though. So why are doing this? I don’t know.

The context for sex and violence in the story is important I think. Sex and violence happening in the context of good story telling is very different from entertainment that is mostly depictions, with very little narrative reasoning. It’s the reasonlessness that bothers me most. When the ‘story’ is all about surface and immediate thrills and offers nothing deeper, then the violence and sex come through in very different ways. They aren’t just driving forces, they become the entirety, and that reduces everything down. Sex and death might underpin human experience, but they are not the sum and total of what we are.

Stories, like everything else, have their cycles and seasons. Currently people seem partial to immediacy, and intensity. Fast paced, in your face action, plenty of bare skin and a high death toll quite often makes for a successful film or book. Slower, more elaborate and involved story telling that isn’t a ‘page turner’ or ‘edge of the seat’ is out of fashion. The collective hunger is for thrills, not for thinking. There are, however, plenty of people who want to experience their stories in different ways.

The ways in which we tell each other stories (be those spoken, in books, films or computer games) informs our sense of what is normal. Most of us are not going to go out and emulate what we read or see. However, the entertainment we imbibe does affect how we perceive the world, how we understand our own lives, and what expectations we have. That makes me wonder where we are going with this, and what we might unwittingly be doing to ourselves.

Grief

It’s not just bereavement that brings grief. Any kind of loss or trauma will very likely take a person into the process of grief. Having been through some stuff myself, and watched others going through things, grief is not an experience that makes any kind of sense, but it is a process. So, I offer these words in the hopes that they are helpful to others who find themselves facing hard times.

The first challenge grief creates is that it doesn’t always kick in immediately after the event. If there’s a great deal of stress around the loss or trauma, we may not be able to grieve over what has happened – feeling like you are the person who must hold a family together after a loss, or being so deep in crisis there is no time to deal with emotions, would be two obvious causes of this. Grief is pushed aside. When this happens, the need to go through the process doesn’t actually go away. At some point, it comes back. That could take days, or years, and it’s not entirely predictable. Delaying the grieving process often makes it a lot harder to go through, and because delayed grief makes even less sense to onlookers, it can reduce the available support for the sufferer. In the meantime, the person who needs to grieve can find themselves numb, or otherwise emotionally troubled – depression may occur, feelings of helplessness and other expressions of suppressed distress.

Working through grief is a painful process. It’s very tempting to want to resist that pain, but doing so makes it worse. Recognising that it is a process and that it needs going through, make it easier to handle. There is a far side, and things do change. In the meantime it is necessary to mourn what has been lost, to weep and howl where necessary, and to adjust to whatever change trauma or distress has created. 

It’s not unusual for it to take a while for loss to sink in. The loss of a home, a job, a friend… or anything that connects you in some way, can trigger a grief process. It’s usually once the mayhem created by the loss is over that the grief process begins. Grieving is something that needs quiet, and often privacy and the sense of available time. It’s not something that can happen while a crisis is in full swing. So sometimes it’s when everything seems to be ok and stable again that the pain truly kicks in – which can be disorientating. But it is fairly normal, and not a thing to fear.

Once the grieving process begins, it comes in waves. In the first days after bereavement, I’ve spent more time crying than not. Then it eases, the raw pain becoming intermittent, until by slow degrees something a bit more like ‘normal’ returns. Sometimes the grief returns, triggered perhaps by Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, days that carry resonance, objects that bring back memories. And again, there is nothing to do but accept this process and allow yourself the space to go through it. In the longer term, working with the process of grief is far less painful.

One of the few things that reliably seems to help, is to tell stories. If you’ve lost a person, talk about them – you don’t need a wake to do that, although gathering together to share memories is a good thing. Find someone who will listen, and speak of what happened – it works for trauma too. If all else fails and there is no one to hear you, write it down, that too brings relief. It is in the making of stories that we get some sense of control over our lives, and in the sharing of them we reinforce bonds of community. In times of grief and pain, stories bring healing and help people move forward. It may seem like burdening others, but sharing grief is a good thing, it deepens relationships, and it means when that other person’s time comes to face something, they will know what to do – they will know to talk, and that others can understand what is happening to them.

Writing …

except it’s afternoon !!!

Just arrived here as spent morning sorting out the Ogham post – it goes up here  tomorrow.  It was good fun getting the info together, if rather like herding kittens . there is just soooooo much that each tree relates to I feel I could write a damn encyclopaedia (sheesh! spelling … need coffffeeee!). I am putting the whole into a book – out next year at this rate.

I love trees. The lore they give you if you choose to journey with them is fantastic, and doing so is like an hour with your best friend, exchanging Q&A. Every time I go to write about them I found something new arrives and wants to be mentioned.

Writing’s like that … you set off with an idea and then the story wakes up and writes itself, you just have to stop it wandering off into indigestible and incomprehensible ramblings … again like herding kittens LOL. I’m having the same round-up scenes with the latest novel too. Having begun with a 14 yr old heroine, I’ve now got a 40 yr old hero, with fiddle, itinerant musician, with red hawk and now (since last Saturday) two ferrets as well … Yikes! And he’s going to fall in love with the heroine – who may grow to 16, sigh! – although nothing happens, which is probably very sad for them both but we’ll see.

Arrrrgghhh !!! back to the grind of writing … but I absolutely love it. except there’s a mountain and a half of work to do in the garden too. And I can’t wait for Paul to bring Fabrice’s french bread back from Fodders … Yummmmmmmmmmm !!!

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Lammas Bread

Lammas

A time of harvest & honour

The word Lammas comes from a word meaning “loaf mass” from the Anglo-Saxon “hlaf-masse” or loaf-mass. It is the first harvest festival of the year and many Celtic traditions bake a special loaf for this day. Here is a Scottish recipe.

Lammas Bread

Ingredients
  • 1 lb flour – a mix of flours tastes good
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2 tsp cream or tartar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 pint milk
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
Method
  • Place the flour in a large bowl and add a pinch of salt, plus the cream of tartar and the baking soda.
  • Pour the milk into another bowl, and stir in the vinegar.
  • Then add the milk-vinegar to the flour mixture a little bit at a time to make your dough.
  • Knead this a bit and then shape into a fine, round lump.
  • Score a cross on the top of the loaf and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 for about 35 to 40 minutes.
  • If you would like a sweet bread add in honey raisins & dried fruit

Even if you’ve never made bread before have a go. You can vary the recipe with herbs from the garden – lavender and rosemary, together or separately make excellent flavourings; sage bread is savoury and delicious; onion bread is good with soups as well as cheese.

Lammas Bread Corn King

As a shaman, I always honour my food – the ingredients as well as the finished meal. This means sourcing them well, with concern for how they’ve been grown, prepared and marketed for all food comes from the Earth who is our mother. If we mistreat her body with chemicals, force her to bear more vegetables and/or animals than she naturally can, starve her of water, pound her skin with heavy machinery and take no notice of her seasons then we rape her as surely as any man does with an unwilling woman.

So I source my ingredients locally as far as possible, grow a lot myself, know how the animals are treated who give me my meat and milk. I even know how the bees who give me the honey are treated, and that they are local, feeding from local flowers and orchards, not being air-bussed into California from Australia !!! And the flour I use is grown here in my country, in Britain.

This sort of honouring is far more important than any prayers and rituals I may use as I’m cooking and/or eating. It’s the sort of honouring that respects the Earth and tries to listen to her, to work with her rather than forcing her into what may be convenient to me.

Sometimes I make a corn king shape for my Lammas loaf, remembering the song John Barleycorn, and eat the bread with a glass of ale from one of our local micro-breweries. Sage bread is especially good for this.

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Lammas: Corn King

Corn King by Charles Vess

The corn king, John Barleycorn for us here in Britain, is the god who sacrifices himself for the goddess, for the Land, for the good harvest to come next year. He appears in other traditions around the world, for instance as Adonis, Osiris or Tammuz.

This image is very lovely.

The Gaelic name for Lammas is Lughnassadh, celebrating the Irish sun god Lugh (pronounced Loo), and variant spellings are Lughnasadh, Lughnasad, Lughnassad, Lughnasa and Lunasa. In Ireland, races and games were held in his name and that of his mother, Tailtiu, which may have been funeral games in honour of Tailtiu who died of overwork clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

The Brythonic sun-god is Llew Llaw Gyffes. His name becomes Lugus with the Gauls. Llew’s totem is the eagle – a sun-bird – and all forms of his name refer to “light”. More modern forms are names like Luke, Luc in French, Lucifer which means light-bringer. I live near a river called the Lugg, this too is a form of a word for light. Llew is killed and reborn, wiser, see my here for his story.

In Celtic myth-lore the goddess often changes her guardian/spouse – see the stories of Culhwch and Olwen, Blodeuwedd, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, and many others. Sometimes the change of guardian goes from father to husband, as in Culhwch, where the prospective bridegroom must kill the father in order to obtain the daughter. It is an initiation ritual that proves the new guardian is up to the job while, at the same time, removing the old king from the scene. This is what is happening in the John Barleycorn song-story.

I also find these images of corn snakes very evocative. A friend of mine has one – a lady in that case, so a corn queen rather than king. They’re very beautiful. I’ve added a painting by Wendy Davies of twisted gold torcs … the snakes remind me of them.

The Ballad of John Barleycorn

This is the old version by Traffic

There were three men come out of the west their fortunes for to try

And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn should die.

They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throw’d clods all on his head

And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time till the rain from heaven did fall

And little Sir John he throw’d up his head and he so amazed them all.

They let him lie till the long midsummer, till he looked all pale and wan,

Then little Sir John grow’d a long, long beard and so became a man.

They hired the men with the scythe so sharp to cut him down at the knee,

They rolled him and tied him around by the waist, served him most barbarously.

They hired the men with sharp pitchforks and they pierced him to the heart.

But the loader he served him far worse than that for he bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him around and around of the field till they came upon a barn,

And these three men made a solemn mow of poor John Barleycorn.

They hired the men with the crab tree sticks and they beat him skin from bone.

But the miller he served him far worse than that for he ground him between two stones.

There’s little Sir John in the nut brown bowl and brandy in the cask.

And little Sir John in the nut brown bowl proved the stronger man at last.

For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly blow his horn,

And the tinker he can’t mend his kettles nor his pots without a little drop of John Barleycorn.

If you follow the verses through you’ll see how it begins with the ploughing, sowing and harrowing of the field, then goes on to sowing with the “seed of the king” – which really is meant to be taken both ways, as corn seed and semen. And the field too is meant as the earth, the soil, and the womb of the Earth, of Sovereignty.

In verse two, little Sir John raises up his head, the first green of the corn breaks the surface of the earth, we know that there is hope, there is return, the food is likely to grow this year and we will not starve. At the end of the verse little Sir John grows a beard, the tassel of the corn appears.

In the third verse, the harvest happens. The corn is cut, scythed, it is made into stooks and bound to the cart to be carried off to the barn.

In the fourth verse they wheel the cart around and around the field, partly to pick up all the stooks but also in a ritual walking of the field which has given them the grain they hoped for, an honouring of the Land. The corn is beaten with “crab tree sticks”, that’s branches of the crab-apple tree which is an ancient tree but also a good wood for threshing the corn. Threshing is the meaning of “beat him skin from bone”. And finally the miller grinds the corn between the great millstones.

In the last verse the ale is made, the corn is transformed and transmuted from a plant into a health-giving drink. Ale was (and is) good food as well as drink, there is much goodness for the body as well as the pleasures (and pitfalls!) of intoxication J. The reference to fox hunting is repellent nowadays and is probably a fairly late insertion, like the tinker. The original may well have referred to hunting, but for food animals not “the pleasure of killing”.

So, the song is about the growing of the corn, harvesting and making ale. It makes its references as if the corn is a person and, in ancient days, it would have been the king. Human sacrifice took place in all lands. Human life was, and still is to most humans, the most precious gift that could be given to the gods, the power of blood is known worldwide.

With its habitual de-paganising zeal, the Christian church recycled Lammas as the harvest festival. Traditionally on this day a new loaf of bread was offered at mass as the first-fruit of the harvest. In the good old days when bread was truly your harvest fruit – you tilled the land, planted the grain and watered to soil to make it grow – the making of the Lamas/Lughnasadh loaf was packed with mystical symbolism. The breadmaker and those who ate it were acutely aware of their relationship with Mother Earth – a relationship not of words but of conscious interaction. Quite different from buying a loaf in your local supermarket off the bakery shelf! These days bread-making is a mechanised process and you have had nothing to do with the planting, growing and harvesting of the grain.

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Lammas: Old Country Customs

Just like the Sun God whose heat nourished its growth, the grain which goes into bread must be cut down in its prime to be useful. Death is necessary for life to flourish, otherwise  life dies. In the past humankind the world over acknowledged this relationship between death and life – harvesting grain for bread and seeds for next year’s crop – through ceremonies and rituals.

Corn Dolly from Winterspells

The presiding figure was often female, the Corn Dolly, made from the last corn to be cut. In northern Europe she was known as the Corn Mother, in Scotland as the Carline, meaning Old Woman. On the island of Islay she was the Old Wife, the Cailleach, which is the title Ceridwen takes. After harvest Islay’s Cailleach was hung up on the wall until ploughing time for the next year’s crop. On the first day of ploughing the mistress of the house divided her among the men going to plough the field. They took the Old Wife in their pockets and fed her to the horses when they reached the field, thus ensuring a good harvest next year.

This picture is from Winterspells – very beautiful.

In Wales (north Pembrokeshire) a plaited tuft of the last corn was known as the Hag (wrach). The reapers would throw their sickles at the last patch of standing corn and the one who succeeded in cutting it down received a jug of home-brewed ale. Sometimes the lucky reaper would try to bring the Hag into the farmhouse without being seen. The inhabitants would be waiting with buckets and pans of water to drench him. If he managed to get the Hag in dry and undetected, the farmer had to pay him a small fine or sometimes a small cask of the best beer. Then the Hag would be hung up on a nail and kept until the following year.

Some harvest celebrations are rather curious, like the biblical Pesach (“hobbling”) ceremony performed at Beth-Hoglah in Canaan, where devotees danced in a spiral imitating the partridge’s way of hobbling. In ancient Greece male dancers hobbling and wearing wings performed an erotic partridge dance in honour of the Moon Goddess.

Other celebrations take life and death literally, like the Indians of Guayaquil in Ecuador who used to sacrifice human blood and men’s hearts when they sowed their fields (In one year they were said to sacrifice hundreds of children to make sure their crops flourished!) The Khond, a Dravidian race in Bengal, ritually sacrificed choice victims and distributed their flesh among every family in the tribe to bury it in their fields. Human sacrifice, whether real or symbolic, plays a key role in the harvest culture. Frequently the victim was a total stranger, chosen for sacrifice not out of any personal animosity towards him but merely because he happened to be passing by at the “right time”.

And, look up the rites of the Corn King and the Eleusinian Mysteries. If you fancy an excellent story that’s also telling the rites read Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die” and you’ll find the story of the Eleusinian mysteries about 1/3 through, after Theseus comes down from his trials on the Isthmus. Remember, the ancient Greeks were Celts too.

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