Parental Advisory


People die in folk tales, especially kind, loving parents. People get hurt, tortured, imprisoned, eaten, turned into animals, boiled to death and shoved into ovens. Whole families are systematically wiped out until the youngest child, presumably paddling ankle deep through their kindred’s blood, tricks, traps and dismembers or cooks the clan’s psychopathic assailant.

People talk about violence on TV but it’s been part of our entertainment for thousands of years. As has sex.

Folktale farmers and fishermen fornicate with fairies, mate with mermaids and sleep with seal people. Princesses, peasant girls and goddesses alike are wooed, seduced, stripped naked, abducted and sexually assaulted whilst in a magical sleep. Heroes, villains, step relatives, trolls, witches and half siblings magically transform themselves into the likeness of protagonist’s lovers for a night of passion, often followed by gloating revenge and/or dubious offspring. When not disguising themselves as bulls, bears and swans to have sex with humans, mythical deities frequently have sexual relationships with their siblings, their mortal enemies and occasionally horses.

You see, despite what most modern people think, these stories were not created for children. They were told by firesides of an evening to a mixed audience who’s age range probably narrowed from both ends as the night wore on. Many were grown out of the lives of real people and poorly reported events. Everything that television, radio and even books are to us now, storytelling was to our forebears.

When I tour pubs I am unsurprisingly expecting my audience to be adult. Characters in the stories may be driven by hormonal motivations that make little sense to the pre-adolescent and other characters, a drunk and abusive giant for instance, are more believable with a touch of post watershed language. That is not to say that it becomes a tsunami of filth and gore but these are stories originally created by and told for adults. An intelligent, well behaved child of say 10 would be able to cope with most of the material but I wouldn’t recommend many of the tales for a six year old simply on length of time and level of plotting. Kids under seven have neither the attention span, the narrative facility, nor the vocabulary necessary to be anything other than mildly baffled by the experience.

Of course I also do sessions for families at festivals, fun days and the like where I select the material that is less likely to horrify and bemuse the youngsters. It is a tricky business, age appropriateness. On the face of it a tale of two abandoned kids who rob, are imprisoned by and eventually roast a cannibal might be considered parental advisory, yet few would question Hansel and Gretel’s place in the cannon of little children’s literature. Death is part of the point of the stories: things change, people die, life continues. The stories are a safe way for children to experience fear and loss and learn how to overcome them. For all their fantastical settings, folk tales hold up a mirror to life and help us cope. Each tale is a learning experience, a map for dealing with the problems that life throws at us, including sex and death. However old we are we keep needing to revise these lessons and what better way than with a story in your local pub?

3 Comments

Filed under Folk Tale

Of Cats, Queens and Star Mice


Where, you might ask, did witchcraft come from? How did this magic lark get started? Well, I could answer with talk of tribal shamanism, of ancient herbalists who also practised a little psychological manipulation of simple folk… but that story is a modern construct, a theory advanced by anthropologists and authors of fantasy and, for my taste, has to ferment a little longer before it can officially be recognised as folklore. The story I am going to tell you has been around a bit longer, even if it hasn’t been around as long as it claims.

The story starts at the very beginning when the goddess Diana is the first created being. Containing all within herself she splits herself in two, producing from her own darkness the light, simultaneously her son and her brother, who’s name (don’t get carried away now) is Lucifer. Here I have to interject to point out that, although the name means “morning star” and “shining” and “lord of light” depending on your translation, this Lucifer is not the same one that you find in that famous book from the middle east. This radiant fella is from Italy. Treating the one as the other would be like assuming that a chap called Peter from Weatherfield is the same as another bloke called Peter who lives in London when one of them is in Coronation Street and the other in Eastenders. The two mythologies are unconnected.

Diana having a rest after creating the earth, trees, water, bows, arrows and cloth, but not apparently clothing.


Diana, seeing the beauty of the light wishes to reunite with her other half and chases him but Lucifer is having nothing to do with her. Diana then makes the world and all that goes in it and both she and Lucifer take mortal forms and step down on to the earth. Diana busies herself teaching magic and sorcery to her creations, also bringing fairies, goblins and other supernatural creatures in to being. Lucifer has a pet cat that sleeps on his bed which, unbeknownst to him, is actually a fairy. Diana persuades the fairy to swap likenesses with her and settles on Lucifer’s bed as his cat. In the night she re-takes her own form and seduces the bringer of light. He is not entirely happy with this when he wakes in the morning but she sings to him using her craft and, quite literally, enchants him.

For some unknown reason Diana is in disguise as a mortal and none of the witches know she is their creator. She decides to impress them by putting some earth and some mice in an ox bladder (as you do) and inflating it until it bursts at which point the earth inside becomes the heavens, the mice become stars and it rains for a few days. The witches are sufficiently impressed that they take her as their queen.

Later, after Diana passed on from the mortal world, the rich people on earth cruelly enslaved and mistreated the poor, so Diana sent the daughter of her union with Lucifer, Aradia, to teach the poor people spells, magic and poison potions to use against the rich. Aradia also taught them about Diana queen of the witches, the cat who ruled the star-mice, the heaven and the rain.

Now the story of this story is that it was told by the “stregheria” or Italian witches of Roman times and was passed down an unbroken line in secret. It was first published by an American folklorist called Charles Leland in 1899 who claims it came to him from his Italian assistant Maddelena whilst they were collecting folktales in Italy. She originally wrote it down and gave it to Leland before mysteriously vanishing… It is however entirely possible that one or other of them simply made it up so it may well be a piece of literature and not mythology at all.
I expect we will never really know where witches came from, even if they do tell us themselves!

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

Leave a comment

Filed under Goddess

The Last Place You Want To Go


If you take a walk deep in to the forest of Russia you may find yourself at a strange dwelling. Before you stands a fence made of human bones. On the larger posts, regularly spaced along the bleached white barricade, sit skulls, their eyes flickering with a sickly flame. Within this gruesome enclosure a hut, with windows like eyes and a door like a wide open mouth, spins round and round on giant chicken legs. This is the home of The Baba Yaga, the most famous witch on the planet.

The Baba Yaga’s home by Thomas Denmark

The skinny, bony legged Baba Yaga has a long, hooked nose and iron teeth. Her method of travel is rather unusual: she uses a pestle and mortar, pushing the latter along with the former and swinging a broom behind her to sweep away the traces of her passing. As the pestle hits the ground it strikes sparks and makes a sound like thunder. Sometimes this peculiarly culinary form of transport, rather like having a car designed as a massive Moulinex, can even take flight.

Her name translates with difficulty, Yaga being such an old word that it’s meaning is lost in time. Through various related languages we come to Horror, Witch or Wicked Spirit. The first part, Baba, is easier meaning an elderly female relative. So how about Grandmother Evil?

Despite all the build up The Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, as likely to hand out good advice and put everything right as she is to fire up the stove and chase children through the land licking her dry old lips in anticipation of a feast. She is probably best known as the antagonist to Vassilissa, who is variously The Beautiful or The Wise. Vassilissa is persecuted by her stepmother and step sisters who eventually put out the fire and send her to The Baba Yaga to get a light… and hopefully to get eaten. Although fearing for her life Vassilissa does various domestic chores for the Baba Yaga who, pleased with her work, sends her home with one of the flame-eyed skulls for a light. When Vassilissa arrives home the Baba Yaga’s gift incinerates her duplicitous step family.

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin (1902)

There are similarities here with the Grimm’s tale of Mutter Holle, in which the industrious step daughter goes down a well to retrieve her lost spindle. She finds herself working for Mutter Holle, or Mother Hell, a similarly scary, hook nosed, big toothed, bony old crone. The girl is made to shake the duvet until the feathers fly which makes it snow in the world above. When she decides to return home she is showered with gold. Sometimes The Baba Yaga is attended by three horsemen: one in red armour who rides by at dawn; one in white armour who rides by at midday and one in black armour who rides by at dusk. The symbolism will not escape you I am sure, placing Baba Yaga in charge of the daily cycle of the sun. These remnants of global powers in the natural realm give our woodland dwelling witch a somewhat different background.

In some tales there are three sisters, all called Baba Yaga. Now we have a final clue to her true nature. The Baba Yagas were once a triplicate nature goddess, mysterious, terrifying and deadly but also bountiful if approached without fear. Maybe the name translates better as Grandmother Death, not a witch at all but the ultimate power in the world… and one day we must all pass through the fence of fear and pay her a visit.

2 Comments

Filed under Russian folktale, Witches

The Red Glass Lantern


This story is a special story because it did not come to me from a book, as most of my tales do, to be set free for other ears. I got it the old fashioned way, sat beside a fire at the Beautiful Days festival after my last late night set, floated on the air as a gift from another’s tongue. I feel almost guilty nailing it to the page in this way.

One day a man decided he would go in search of a land far away. Knowing that the way would be long and hard he packed only the bare essentials, which is to say he took nothing but the clothes he stood in and, since he might have to travel into the night to find places to stay, a simple, red glass lantern.

He walked for many days, sleeping where he could, trading news and stories for a bite to eat. After a time he came to the great forest. The forest was dangerous to cross because of the bandits who would take anything of value from those who sought to pass through. This was why the man had chosen to make his journey with so little and his stratagem worked. Seeing he had no purse on his belt and no possessions save a worthless red glass lantern the thieves let him pass unmolested.

Next he came to the a high mountain ridge and with his cloak pulled tight around him fought his way through wind and snow as the path wound upwards through narrow, rocky defiles; then blissfully downwards through more of the same; until at last he found himself stepping out of the rocks on to a slope terraced with rice paddies, overlooking a wide landscape filled with fields and farms. Down on the plain by the banks of the river he saw a great city.

The people marvelled at his outlandish clothes, the hue of his skin, the colour of his hair, and the stranger from the mountains was soon brought to the palace where the king spoke in a voice like thunder “Who are you that has dared to enter my kingdom? If you come in peace then you must give me a present worthy of my status. If I am not pleased then you shall forfeit your life!” Humbly, the man took to one knee saying “Your majesty, I have little but what little I have is yours, even though it be my life, please accept as the total of my worth the light that has guided me to your magnificence.” and he handed over the red glass lantern. They did not have glass in that country and the king was amazed. Never had he seen such a wonder. Delighted with the present he laid a sumptuous feast before the traveller, entertained him for days with music and dancing and heaped treasure at his feet. When the time came for him to leave the king gave him an honour guard of the fiercest warriors who carried the rich gifts in packs on their backs safely through the mountains and forest all the way to his home.

When he got home his brother was astonished and immediately piled valuables and food in to carts, gathered some friends and set off to make his fortune in the same way. As he passed through the forest the brigands fell upon his party, slew his companions, stole his goods and chased him in to the mountains. He escaped with his life, an old brass lamp and nothing more. When he was brought before the king and the king demanded a present he fell on his face weeping and begged the king to accept the brass lamp as it was all he had. They did not have brass in that country and the king was amazed “this is a wonder, never have I seen such a marvel. You must be rewarded. Unfortunately our treasure house has been emptied, nevertheless you shall have the most valuable thing in our kingdom!”
And so they gave him the most valuable thing in the kingdom.
They gave him the red glass lantern.

2 Comments

Filed under Rich and poor, stories, Storytelling

Story, Writing and Literature


The relationship between oral tradition and literature is as complex and fluid as the relationship between any immortal and deific parent and child.


Writing was the offspring of Commerce, born amongst the hustle and bustle of the earliest cities, dedicated to a life of record keeping, trapped in rigid columns. Although Story was ancient she never aged, being born anew every time she she was spoken, kissed in to vital life by each pair of lips she passed. As Writing grew amongst the trappings of trade, he developed his powers of description, struggling for accuracy, detailing the specific. Story, ever seeking new experiences to incorporate in to her repertoire, was drawn to Writings descriptive skills, impressed by his unfailing memory.

Writing was barely old enough to grow a beard when they met but Story teased him with adventures, one moment wild and exotic, the next full of homely warmth. Seduced by Story’s enigmatic beauty and the worlds of wonder she laid before him, Writing broke free from the constraints of the trade ledgers and set out to woo Story. He followed her faithfully across the lands and hung on her every word. Flattered by the attention Story gave herself to him, fell breathlessly under his stylus in his bed of clay… and in the heat of their union Literature was born.

Though they often travel together, Story remains ever young and fresh while her daughter, Literature, stiffens with age. Writing, trained from birth to be pedantic, constantly complains of Story’s inconsistency. Sometimes Literature tires of her mother’s flightiness and will endeavour to trap her in her pages. Whilst Writing still loves Story he loves his daughter more and will often side with her. Together they bind Story in chapters of finely woven prose.

Sooner or later one of Story’s old lovers will find her, recognizing her grace behind the lines of greying grammar. The storyteller, who loved her as she was and loves her just as much as she is now, tickles her with their tongue and, laughing, she slips free from the chains of ink and dances once more in the air, leaping from mouth to ear as husband and daughter follow behind entranced, reminded of their love, desperate to catch her again.

6 Comments

Filed under literature

Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy


If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Witch, Wizard

Roots


I remember coming to Devon on holiday as a child. The journey took all day. I remember once, winding slowly up Porlock hill, passing overheated cars in every lay-by and some in between while my father worried that we might join them. I remember being amazed by the steep banks and narrow lanes and the vast openness of the fence-less moor. Even though I grew up in Hampshire’s countryside, Devon was like a magical other world. Now even a cheap car can handle the steepest hill without fear and the same journey is over in an afternoon with time for a cream tea.


As you read this I have just returned from a tour that took me across the country for 16 public gigs, three private parties, three days of schools workshops and a wedding as I made my way to Cambridgeshire, London and Kent, back to Devon for one day and a gig at the London Inn and off again to end the tour in Norfolk (so much for logistics!). All facilitated by a car and uncountable acres of tarmac.


We live in a very different world to the one I grew up in and an even more different world than the one in which the stories I tell are set. Only a tiny percentage of the characters from my repertoire would recognise a steam train and none would know what a car is. They lived in a world where rising at dawn to milk the cows was the norm, where they and almost everyone they knew worked on the land to the tune of the turning seasons. How many of us now experienced life without mechanisation, electricity, central heating or water coming into our homes at the turn of a tap?

The world of folk and fairy tale, always in some hazy undefined long ago, is moving further from us. Where once Jack could leave the familiar farm to go on his amazing adventures, now the farm itself is a place to be imagined, the plough a baffling wonder, the goat a mythical creature. Well, maybe not for the denizens of Morchard Bishop but there are an ever increasing number of people whose daily journey from double glazed house to air conditioned office only includes six paces of outdoors between front door and car door. On TV we often see stories of adoptees seeking out their original parents and people of all stripes going in search of their cultural roots. Our past is an important part of who we are, without it we feel disconnected, unsure. As more and more people live in cities and never see a cow, as a society we are becoming disconnected with our past, with the seasons and with the land.

Through successive waves of invasion and cultural change, from the Romans to the Normans and the rise of Christianity, the old gods of the land have been preserved in tales of ever diminishing fairies. As they diminish another step under the ongoing estrangement of the industrial and technological revolutions the stories also gain a new importance, keeping the world of our grandparents alive in our memories, keeping us connected to our recent agrarian past and through that to our bronze age roots in the landscape and the soil.

Devon is no longer an otherworld to me since I moved here six years ago, still something of the magic remains. I am glad of the improved automotive transport of the modern age and the wonders of the microchip but I feel very strongly the need to speak the corpus of our past, to tell the tales that are slipping away from us, to keep connected. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our stories are who we are. Come and get them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized