Happy Samhain

The holiday that we call Hallowe’en is something of a mash-up between the Celtic Samhain, the Catholic All Souls Eve, and the Aztec festival in honour of their goddess of death, Mictēcacihuātl. Being a Celt (whatever that means), I tend to stick to our version of things, and therefore it is my duty to warn you that tonight the walls between the world of mortals and the world of the sídhe are thinner than at any time of the year. If you wish to avoid being abducted, you should take care not to accept any mysterious invitations.

Here’s a little music to help you out. First up, Steeleye Span with “Thomas the Rhymer” (and I’m pleased to see that whoever put this on YouTube used the original Thomas Canty cover art from Ellen Kushner’s brilliant novel).

And secondly, here’s Horslips from The Book of Invasions with something a little more scary, “Ride to Hell”.

Stay safe, people.

Introducing Modern Fairies

Many of my academic friends will know about this project already, but the rest of you will want to catch up too.

Modern Fairies is a collaboration between artists and academics to bring fairy tales into the 21st Century. That’s not re-writing and updating as you might get in a novel, but rather bringing back the stories and performances. The academics are providing the tales, and where necessary the translations from Old English and context. The artists are looking at narrating and performing these stories for a modern audience.

Phase 1 of the project has been a series of podcasts that introduce us to the major themes and stories. It addresses tales of people being kidnapped by amorous fairies, and fairies being kidnapped by humans; of changelings; of helpful fairies who assist the poor; and of loathly ladies who torment handsome knights. One of the presenters is Professor Carolyne Larrington who, in addition to being an expert on mediaeval literature, also wrote this fine book on the myth and history behind A Song of Ice & Fire.

Phase 2 is over to the artists, who will be putting on Fairy Gatherings around the country throughout the summer. There will be music and performance. One of the writers involved is Terri Windling.

And finally it will be back to the academics at the end of the year for a second series of podcasts looking back on what was done, and how it was received.

Look out, Britain. Fairies are coming to a town near you. And, dear Goddess, we could surely do with some right now.

Marvel Iconography

I went to see Captain Marvel today. I loved it for all sorts of reasons. I continue to be in awe of how Kevin Feige and crew manage the overall story arc. I enjoyed the glimpses of young Fury and Coulson. I can’t wait to see Monica in Endgame, which she surely has to be. Annette Bening totally stole the show. And of course there was Goose.

But there was one thing in particular that sticks out for me about the character. Captain Marvel’s symbol is an eight-pointed star. And she is accompanied by a particuarly dangerous cat. What’s that all about? Well here’s a clue.

By the way, Wonder Woman’s tiara originally sported a classic Texan five-pointed star. They changed it to an eight-pointed one for the movie. DC’s iconography is all over the place.

Hutton on Fairies

Bristol University has many fine academics on its staff, but undoubtledly one of the best is Professor Ronald Hutton. Here he is giving a lecture on the origins and purposes of fairy stories.

In the Q&A I discoverd that “trow” is an Orkney/Shetland word for “troll”. Local opinion has it that the town where I live was originally called Tree-bridge (treow-brycg in Old English), or True-bridge. From now on I am going to assume it is actually Trollbridge, because that’s much more cool.

Thanks to John Reppion for the link to the lecture.

Happy Solstice – Time to Get Green!


Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! Here in the Northern Hemisphere the days will be getting longer and it is time to welcome the green back into our lives. Down south it is summer, and hopefully not too parched, Australia.

What better way to celebrate than with the Green Man? In view of which Juliet and I have decided to put The Green Man’s Heir on sale for the rest of December. Thanks to an unlikely coincidence of exchange rates you should be able to find it for £0.99, $0.99 and €0.99, though some stores may adjust dynamically through the month. Prices in other currencies will be scaled accordingly.

Update: The sale is live on Amazon as well now.

Of course when I say that you can find it there’s always a catch. Kobo, Google and Barnes & Noble have already adjusted their prices as I requested. Amazon tell me that it could take up to three days to make the change.

However, if you are a Kindle user there are many free tools that help you convert epub books to mobi, so if you really can’t wait that’s always an option. If that sounds scary, Amazon will catch up before the month is over, and doubtless it will take them time to change back in January.

Happy reading, everyone!

Handfasted


I spent Friday in Glastonbury where my boss at The Diversity Trust, Berkeley Wilde, was celebrating his handfasting to his partner, Duncan. They have been legally married for a few months, but being pagans it was important to them to have a proper handfasting ceremony at a significant time of the year. I was delighted to be asked to attend the ceremony.

This is actually the first time I have been to a formal handfasting. That’s partly because I haven’t been to a wedding for any sort in decades, and partly because I am a very independent neo-pagan and not part of any official group. However, I was very impressed with the ceremony and pleasantly surprised at how well I could fit it to my own rituals.

A great time was had by all, and I surprised myself by surviving the vegan banquet without eating any of the herbivores. Cat genes can be a pain at times.

Obviously no wedding is complete without a picture of the happy couple, so here they are.

Solstice Card


Yes, it is that time of year again. And because I am still in the Northern Hemisphere today is the Winter Solstice and a wintery card is required. If you were among the small group of people to whom I still send paper cards (mostly ancient relatives who don’t do the Internet much) this is what you would have got in the mail. The art is, as always, by my very talented friend, Dru Marland. You can find her Etsy shop here.

Happy Solstice, everyone! Thanks for being here over the past circuit around the sun.

Today on Ujima – Black History, Egyptians, Menopause & Underworld Goddesses

October is a ridiculously busy month in Bristol, being both Black History Month and the time when all of the literary festivals happen. As I had devoted all of my October show to books, I decided to do something for Black History Month at the start of November. I’d only be a few hours late, after all.

So I began the show talking to my good friend, Dr. Olivette Otele of Bath Spa University, who is probably the best known black historian working in the UK. We had a great chat about a whole range of issues to do with black history, including The John Blanke Project.

That was followed up with more black history, albeit with a fantasy twist, as I welcomed local author, Justin Newland, to talk about his novel, The Genes of Isis. Justin and I managed to wander onto all sorts of topics, including the Theosophists.

Normally at this point I would direct you to the Listen Again service, but for some reason the file for the first hour of the show is only 7 minutes long. I will check with the station tomorrow, but I have an awful feeling there has been a software glitch.

The second hour began with Dr. Isabel de Salis of Bristol University talking about the Great Menopause Event. Yes, this was more taboo-busting. I have a ticket for it, and will report back in due course.

Finally on the show I welcomed Deborah Ward who is running a course on Storytelling the Underworld. Deborah and I discovered a common passion for ancient goddesses, in particular Inanna. We may have geeked out somewhat.

Thankfully hour 2 of the show recorded correctly.

The playlist for the show was as follows:

  • Eddy Grant – African Kings
  • Cedric Watson & Bijou Créole – Le Sud de la Louisiane
  • The Bangles – Walk like an Egyptian
  • Peter Gabriel – Here comes the Flood
  • Lianne la Havas – Midnight
  • Little Feat – Old Folks Boogie
  • The Herd – From the Underworld
  • The Pretenders – Hymn to Her

Because November has five Wednesdays in it, I will be doing an extra show on the 15th. In the meantime, if you are local, check out Miranda’s 2:00pm Friday show when she will be interviewing the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees.

Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry & Chris Riddell do Mythology


Yesterday at the Hay Literary Festival Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry did an event about mythology. Neil talked about his hugely successful Norse Mythology book, and Stephen about a forthcoming book on Greek Myths. As a special bonus, Chris Riddell sketched live during the event. The 1700 audience (which included Tony Robinson) was enthralled.

Neil read the story of how Fenrir Wolf was chained by the gods, and Tyr lost his hand. Stephen read the story of how King Midas got ass’s ears. I’m assuming that you are familiar with both of these.

What you might not know is that the legendary Midas was said to be king of Gordium, the same city where, years later, Alexander the Great cut a great knot. Gordium is in Phyrgia in central Turkey, which is also the home province of Cybele.

At the end of the event Amanda read Neil’s poem, “The Mushroom Hunters”, which is about how women invented science. This was apparently a request from Stephen who had seen the original reading on Brainpickings.

Neil did a four hour signing after the event, which meant that he missed Amanda’s concert. I went to the gig, which was great. More of that another time. After Amanda had finished, I managed to catch up with Neil who was finally getting time off to eat. As we were chatting, Chris came up with his stack of sketches from the talk. I asked if I could photograph them. The light wasn’t great, and all I had was my phone, but if you’d like to see the sketches you can find them all here.

The Strange History of Hot Cross Buns

Easter is a time when all sorts of nonsense tends to get talked about religious history. For the record, the only evidence of a goddess called Eostre is a single paragraph written by the 8th century English cleric, the Venerable Bede. He does not mention rabbits, hares or eggs in connection with this supposed Anglo-Saxon deity. There are no known shrines to Eostre, no votive offerings, nothing.

Even more so, there is no known connection between Easter, Eostre and Ishtar, other than the fact that Ishtar’s main festival may well have been held in the spring.

I say that because Ishtar was, in part, a fertility goddess, and spring is the time when fertility festivals were held. In Rome the Rites of Attis, part of the cult of Cybele, were celebrated in late March. Spring is the obvious time to have a fertility festival.

One of the things that the ancients appear to have done at such festivals is make offerings of bread. These may have taken a phallic form. The most famous reference to this is an epigram by Martial

Si vis esse satur, nostrum potes esse priapum:
Ipse licet rodas inguina, purus eris.

You’ll rarely see that translated because it talks about eating a phallus. However, Martial isn’t extolling the virtues of oral sex. Rather, he’s probably he’s probably expressing the well known Roman abhorrence of that activity. The epigram is titled “priapus siligineus” which probably means “bread phallus”. Martial seems to be suggesting that, rather than engage in oral sex, it is much cleaner to eat a bread substitute.

So the Romans may have baked bread in phallic shapes (and frankly if they didn’t then bread might well be the only thing they didn’t make into phallic shapes), and these may have been associated with spring fertility festivals. I’ve found no firm evidence of this. What we do know is that this practice appears to have found its way into Christianity.

Kulichi

Exhibit one is the Russian Orthodox Easter tradition of baking Kulichi. These are tall, cylindrical breads traditionally topped with white icing. No doubt about the symbology there.

The 19th century French historian, Jacques Antoine Dulaure, reports that in the town of Saintonge phallic bread was still being baked for Easter in his lifetime.

The most obvious example comes from the Portuguese town of Amarante, but these magnificently phallic objects are now made for a festival in June, not for Easter.

The theory is that early Christian clergy could not stop people making bread for spring festivals. But they could ask them to make it in a different shape. And just for good measure they put a cross on top to prevent anything devilish going on.

Happy Solstice



I have a radio show to do today (yes, I am working on a religious holiday), so I have scheduled this post in advance.

My annual northern-hemisphere-winter solstice card (posted here in order to save trees and postage costs) comes, as usual, from the fabulous Dru Marland. You can buy physical copies of the picture (and many other fine artworks) from her Etsy shop.

Capricorn is a sea goat and is a representation of the Sumerian god, Enki (Ea in Babylon and Assyria). He’s the guy who, in the myth of Inanna in the Underworld, created a couple of trans people to go and rescue the goddess. Good choice, Dru.

Capricorn is also, of course, the astrological sign with provenance over the midwinter period. And yes, that is Glastonbury Tor in the background.

I hope all of your solstice celebrations go well, and that 2017 manages to be less awful than 2016.

Solstice Shopping

Uffington Hare - Dru Marland
This morning I popped over to Bradford-on-Avon where the canal folk were holding a floating Christmas market. (It will still be on tomorrow if you are local and want to go.) I did so because the Daily Malice‘s War on Non-Christians has made it almost impossible to buy a solstice card in a high street shop. If I want cards to send to friends and family I have to get them from small businesses. Thankfully I have the fabulous Dru Marland to rely on. The above is the card I used last year. If you like it, and want to guess which card I’m using this year, you can see more at Dru’s Etsy shop.

I also discovered SkyRavenWolf, on whose products I could spend an absolute fortune.

Real Gods of Egypt

Serapis
The Pharaonic period of Egypt lasted for about 3000 years. During that time, much can change. It is therefore impossible to propose a definitive form for Egyptian religion. To do so would make as much sense as to say that there was a definitive form of Christianity that applied to both the early Byzantine church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Egyptian religious belief and practice changed radically through time as one temple or another, one city or another, gained power. There were attempted revolutions such as that of Akhenaten. In the last few hundred years of the Pharaohs, however, the changes were much more radical.

In 525 BCE the Persians conquered Egypt. I’m not a great expert on their rule, but they were adept at absorbing many different cultures into their empire. My guess is that they will have left Egyptian religion mostly alone, though it will not have escaped unscathed. However, in 332 BCE Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. One of his generals, Ptolemy, was put in charge of Egypt and became Pharaoh in 305 BCE. His descendants ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE which resulted in the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire.

Rule by a Greek dynasty caused major changes in Egyptian religious life. The Ptolemies were keen to show their commitment to local culture, but at the same time they wanted to bring in a lot of Greek ideas. Let’s start with the chap pictured above. You might think that he doesn’t look much like an Egyptian god, and you’d be dead right, but he is one. His name is Serapis. It is not clear whether he existed before the Ptolemaic period, but it is clear that his worship was either invented, or massively promoted, by the Ptolemies. He continued to be popular through the Roman era.

That’s a very imperialist approach to merging cultures, but there is another option. Syncretism is the process of finding links between two different religions and building on that basis. You could take the view that two cultures worship the same god, but each has their own prophet whom they deem the sole arbiter of that god’s word, in which case they must fight for all eternity to see whose prophet is right. But you could say, look, your god Khonsu is a bit like our god Herakles. Both of them are mighty young warriors who defend their people. Perhaps they are the same god seen through a different cultural lens. Let’s build a friendship based on that. This sort of thing happened a lot, both in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.

I came home from London yesterday with a new goddess for my home. This one.

Isis-HorusThis is Isis and her son, Horus. Images of Isis nursing Horus were common in ancient Egypt (though Horus does seen a little big for breastfeeding — perhaps he grew very quickly).

The image of the nursing Isis is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it is very similar to the image of Mary and Jesus that is so well known in Christianity. Secondly, those of you who know a bit about Egypt will have spotted that Isis is wearing the horned crown of Hathor. By the time this statue was made the cult of Isis has absorbed that of the older mother goddess, Hathor the Cow.

What attracted me about this statue, however, is that it has a significant difference from most Isis and Horus images. In fact it doesn’t appear to have been taken from either of the Isis & Horus statues found in Thonis/Heraclieon and Canopus. Rather it is based on this one, which is in the Knust Museum in Vienna.

The difference in the statue is the throne on which Isis is seated. It is flanked by lions, and that’s something more often seen elsewhere. Here, for example.

Cybele_Bithynia_Nicaea
That’s Cybele, an Anatolian goddess with strong links to Ishtar who ended up in Rome as their Great Mother. Cybele was the patron goddess of trans women in Rome.

I know very little about gender in Egyptian society, but I am starting to turn up some very interesting stories about Isis. Some sources I have seen mention that the Phoenicians connected Isis to Astarte, their local version of Ishtar. Others mention a connection between Isis and Cybele in Rome.

There is no temple to Cybele in Pompeii. There is one in Herculaneum, and there is a lot of evidence of Cybele worship in Pompeii, including a number of paintings in people’s homes. What Pompeii does have, is a big temple to Isis. A while back I came across this master’s thesis suggesting a syncretic relationship between Isis and Cybele in the Roman Empire. Images Isis seated on Cybele’s lion throne would seem to confirm this.

Queer Spirit Festival

One of the things I learned about yesterday was the Queer Spirit Festival, “a festival of queer spirituality” which will take place in August. The festival site is not far from where I live, but it is a five-day event and you can only buy a five-day ticket at £130 so I doubt that I’ll be popping over to take a look. I did promise to give it a plug, though. Maybe some of you will find it of interest.

Today on Ujima: Pagan Festivals and Stuart Milk

We were a little light on guests for today’s show, it being that time of year, so I am especially grateful to Liz Williams and Trevor Jones for coming all the way from Glastonbury to be with me today. Most of you will know Liz as a science fiction writer, but you may not know that she and Trevor run the Cat & Cauldron witchcraft shop in Glastonbury. I had them on the show to talk about midwinter festivals. We covered a wide range, from the origins of Santa Claus to Roman Saturnalia and German Yule. My French colleague, Melody, was on hand to provide a European perspective.

You can listen to the first half of the show here.

At the start of the second hour I shamelessly used my place in charge of the microphone to send a Christmas message to Kevin. After that I played the interview with Stuart Milk that I recorded in London a couple of weeks ago. Thanks again to Dan Vo and his colleagues at Heavy Entertainment for the use of their studio.

If you want to see some of the things that will be happening in Bristol for LGBT History Month, check out the OutStories Bristol website. There will be lots more posts coming during January.

Melody and I were joined in the studio by Mary Milton who, amongst other things, is the Producer of ShoutOut, the LGBT radio show on BCFM (and now a host of other local community stations). In the final half hour we had a chat about the state of LGBT rights and what we we need to do to improve matters.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for the show was inevitably seasonal, though I did try to avoid most of the obvious choices. Having to play mostly black music helped a lot. I was especially pleased to be able to play Eartha Kitt. The full playlist was as follows:

  • Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt
  • Sun Goddess – Earth, Wind & Fire featuring Ramsey Lewis
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Jackson 5
  • Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry
  • All I Want for Christmas – Mariah Carey
  • So Strong – Labi Siffre
  • Winter Wonderland – Booker T and the MGs
  • Hot Stuff – Donna Summer

As Paulette is on holiday in Vietnam I’ll be hosting the show again next week. If anyone who lives in or around Bristol fancies being on, do get in touch. It is hard to find guests at this time of year.

Chyskhaan Is Coming To Town

Chyskhaan

Last night I re-tweeted a lovely picture of the chap above, billed as the Siberian Santa Claus. People seemed to like it. It came from Samantha Lee in New York, whom I don’t know. As is the way of such things, I was half expecting a “well, actually…” tweet this morning. It didn’t come, so I guess all of the mansplainers are down the pub complaining about how it should have been Christmas Adam, not Christmas Eve, and what’s all this about a festival given over to some female giving birth, ewwwwwww! However, as they will doubtless be back at some point, I have done some research.

My Googling first led me to Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, who is a character from Russian mythology. You may remember that he is a character in Cat Valente’s wonderful novel, Deathless. He’s a pretty fearsome chap, so to make sure the kids are not frightened he is assisted in his gift-giving by his beautiful granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden.

Snegurochka

However, most pictures of Ded Moroz have him looking much more like Santa than the chap above. He does sometimes wear blue rather than red, but that may be the work of Stalin who allegedly wanted to make him look different from the Western equivalent.

So who is our Siberian friend? It turns out that he is Chyskhaan, the King of Cold. He is indeed from Siberia, and he shares a lot of characteristics with Ded Moroz, including the beautiful granddaughter. Some things however, are all his own. See those horns on his hat? Yep, mammoth tusks. That’s one bad-ass Santa.

For more information, and a whole lot more Russian gods of the cold (and more pictures like the three I have borrowed), see this wonderful article in The Siberian Times.

Siberian Santas