Happy Solstice!

Because the universe is not neat and organised, it will not actually be the Solstice in the UK until a little into Friday. Today is Solstice day for the Americas though. Presumably similar issues apply in the Southern Hemisphere where it is summer. Here, however, we shall celebrate the defeat of the Dark and look forward to the return of the Light. And tomorrow night I will have a special date with a ghost horse.

Hereabouts actual Solstice celebration is being deferred until Saturday when, with any luck, I will actually get a day off work. Which is more than I can say for next week, I suspect. But that’s being freelance for you. You take the work when you can get it.

Meanwhile, here is a card for you. As usual, it is by the very talented Dru Marland. You can buy her stuff here.

Happy Equinox!

Our friends in the Southern Hemisphere are heading into winter today, but here in the Northern Hemisphere spring has sprung. Fertility goddesses everwhere are emerging from their underworld sojurns and brining new life to the world.

In Mesopotamia that means it is time for the Festival of Inanna/Ishtar (the two names are pronounced differently in Sumerian and Akkadian, but they use the same cuneiform signs). According to the Sumerian version of the legend, She has just been rescued from the underworld by a couple of gay boys who so impressed the Queen of the Dead with their singing and dancing that she offered to grant them any boon they asked for.

We have a contemporary source for the sort of thing that went on in Sumerian cities during the festival. Here it is.

The people of Sumer parade before you.
The young men comb their hair before you.
They decorate the napes of their necks with coloured scarfs.
The women adorn their right side with men’s clothing.
The men adorn their left side with women’s clothing.
The ascending kurgarra priests raise their swords before you.

If you are thinking that sounds a bit like a Pride parade, well, yes.

I’m wearing jeans. Back when I transitioned, the gender clinics used to class that as “dressing like a man” and therefore evidence of your lack of commitment to femininity. That will have to do for the cross-dressing.

If I had a working car, I would have driven up to my favourite butcher in Llandeilo and got some venison for a celebratory meal. However, the car is now with the car doctor and won’t be back for several days as the faulty part needs to be sent off to Fiat to be re-calibrated.

However, there is another festival day coming up soon. The Romans had so many gods that it was hard to fit all of the spring stuff onto the right days. Also, by Roman times, the connection between the goddess of sex and the goddess of queers had been severed so they needed two festivals. More on that later in the week.

Happy Solstice

For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, days will start getting longer now. Please join me in welcoming back the sun. Those of you in the Southern Hemisphere have my commiserations.

As always, by card is sourced from by friend Dru Marland. This one is titled, “Fox at Avoncliff”. You can buy Dru’s art on a variety of items, from Etsy.

Squidmas is Coming

It is that time of year when I break out the HP Lovecraft Historical Society’s delighfully bizarre versions of Christmas songs. As I don’t see why I should be the only one to make sanity rolls, I normally torment you folks with something suitably abhorrent. However, I’m feeling generous this year and I’m going to let you off. Instead, as I had the pleasure of hearing this live recently (in Bath Abbey no less!), I’m going to treat you to an actual Solstice song. Here’s Jethro Tull. Enjoy!

Happy Solstice!

As usual, my holiday card this year is by my talented friend, Dru Marland. This picture is titled, “Fox on Pickle Hill”, and Juliet McKenna fans will note that I picked it specifically because it features some of the chalk figures from the Wiltshire landscape. These also play a key role in The Green Man’s Challenge.

This particular image is currently unavailable as a card from Dru’s shop. I’m guessing that she has run out of stock. But it does feature in her 2022 Wildlife Calendar which looks an excellent thing to have.

May you all have a very happy holiday season, and in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy the return of shorter and warmer days. (Sorry Aussie pals, but you are thumping us at cricket so we need something to cheer us up.)

Those of you who celebrate the Solstice will be able to follow the sunset alignment at Maeshowe in Orkney via the broadcast below. It starts at 15:00 today.

In Search of Trans Celts

On Friday I gave a talk for the lovely people at Aberration as part of their LGBTHM festival. They asked me to look for evidence of trans people among the Celtic inhabitants of Britain. This isn’t easy, and my talk was hedged around with caveats. I promised a blog post that would explain things in more detail. Here it is.

I need to start off by explaining what I mean by “Celtic”, because the Romans did not use that word to describe my ancestors. The people who lived in France were called Gauls, and the people who lived here were called Britons. Beyond that they often used local tribal names such as Brigantes, Silures and so on.

However, the Greeks used the word “Keltoi” to describe people who lived up the Danube, so north of the Balkans, including places like Hungary and Slovakia. The modern word “Celtic” is used to denote a group of Bronze/Iron Age tribal cultures that are united by a common language and culture. They spread all the way from Britain and Spain to Eastern Europe and possibly even China. Archaeologists will refer to Hallstatt Culture (named after a town in Austria) as a general term for these people. There are regions of Spain and Poland known as Galicia because the Romans knew them as home to Gauls.

This is all very simplistic, of course. The reality of the archeology is much more complex as we shall see. Also shared culture is not proof of shared ethnicity. The fact that we drive Japanese cars and watch anime does not prove that we are ethnically Japanese.

The only reference I could find regarding trans people in possibly-Celtic culture comes from Tacitus in his book, Germania. As far as the Romans were concerned, “Germany” was somewhat displaced east from our modern idea of the country. The people he was talking about were a tribe called the Nahanarvali, who were part of a larger confederation of tribes called the Lugii. Their home territory was in modern Poland, between the Oder and Vistula rivers. Tacitus wrote:

Among these last is shown a grove of immemorial sanctity. A priest in female attire has the charge of it. But the deities are described in Roman language as Castor and Pollux. Such, indeed, are the attributes of the divinity, the name being Alcis.

On the face of it, that’s pretty good. Sacred groves are things that we associate with Celts, and these people lived in an area where Hallstatt materials have been found. But were they Celts? And if so, would the same gods have been worshipped in Britain? Well, it is complicated.

Depending who you read the Lugii are described as Celtic, Germanic, or proto-Slavic. We do know that the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals lived to the north-east of Lugii territory, and that they gradually pushed westwards through the Roman era. But Tacitus says that the grove is very old, so hopefully that indicates a Celtic origin.

Then there’s the language. The Lugii sound like they are associated with the Celtic god Lugh (Irish) or Lleu (Welsh). There is an unrelated tribe with the same name in Scotland. But the name of the god, Alcis, suggests a Germanic root and an association with deer.

Also, sacred groves are not unique to Celts. I have turned up evidence of one in Sweden, and Cybele (the patron goddess of trans women) was worshipped in a sacred grove on Mount Ida in her home in Phrygia.

Then there is the nature of the gods. Tacitus says they are twin boys, and compares them to Castor & Pollux. But those gods are traditionally associated with horses, not deer. There is good evidence of a pair of twins associated with horses being worshipped by the locals in the Spanish Galicia during Roman times, but we’ve still got the wrong animal.

Of course none of this proves anything about the ancient Britons, so I turned to the Mabinogion to see what surviving Welsh legend might tell us. Somewhat to my surprise, I found something.

In the Fourth Branch, as a precursor to the tale of Blodeuwedd, we get a story about two sons of Dôn, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Gwydion goes on to have many other adventures, but Gilfaethwy is known only for his obsession with a young girl called Goewin. She’s not interested, and she’s a special virgin servant of King Math of Gwynedd so untouchable. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy therefore kick off a small war by stealing some pigs from a rival king, Pryderi of Dyfed. While Math is away dealing with the inevitable retaliation, Gilfaethwy is able to rape poor Goewin.

When Math gets home he finds out what the boys have done and is furious. He turns them first into deer (significant?), then into boar, and then into wolves. In each case one of the boys becomes a male of the species, and the other becomes a female, and they have children, whom Math adopts.

So what we have here is a tale of divine brothers who go through species and gender changes and produce offspring, which is all a bit reminiscent of Loki. Also the boys’ sister, Arianrhod, becomes the mother of Lleu.

At this point the story is so complicated that it is impossible to say anything concrete without sounding like Robert Graves or James George Frazer. You start to understand why they wrote the things that they did. My mind has been racing down rabbit holes ranging from Castor & Pollux and their sister Helen on the one hand, to Freyja and Freyr on the other. I could easily concoct a whole neo-pagan theology around this.

But I am a responsible historian, so I just have to say that we don’t know. It is all very mysterious.

In the meantime, if you have been sent here by the folks at Aberration, you can find a lot more about trans Romans in my academic writing. And the books that I mentioned on Friday are:

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!


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.


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.