Woolgathering


Last week I went to the John Arbon spinning mill in South Molton, as they were having an open day. John talked us through the surprisingly complex process of turning raw sheep fleece in to thread for knitting and weaving. Most of his machines are rescued or reclaimed and each one is named, which gives the mill a certain atmosphere and the feel of a working museum.

At one point in the tour John had to put a fresh set of bobbins on a machine before he could demonstrate it. Whilst talking us through the process he said “I’ll just doff the thread, that is, undo it or take it off…” then he paused before musing “It’s all ways ‘doff’ when you remove a thread, I don’t know why.” Various suggestions were put forward without any certain knowledge and I made a mental note to look it up when I got home.

Doff is, unsurprisingly, a contraction of “do off”. In much the same way, when you get dressed, you “do on” your clothes, though we rarely use “don” for anything except hats these days.
That this mostly archaic term should be preserved in the textile trade is interesting, well it is to me anyway. This is partly because so much of the terminology for storytelling comes from the textile business.

Further back in history than the invention of Mr Arbon’s assorted combing, cleaning, stretching and twisting devices, back when ordinary people still manufactured their own clothes, everybody could spin wool. When work in the fields was done for the day and the evening meal had been eaten but not yet digested, everyone took out a spindle and some fleece. There they would sit, setting the spindles turning and pulling out the fleece, stretching it and letting the spindle twist the fibres together. It was common for someone to tell a tale, so common in fact that the acts of telling a story and creating thread became synonymous, and so we get both “spinning a story” and “telling a yarn”.

The action of pulling the fleece to make it ready for spinning is known as drafting, which is the same as drawing, from “to draw” which means to drag or pull. If you draft your wool a lot then you get a fine thread and a longer thread from the same amount of fleece. Making finer thread will also take more time so your story might get a bit “long and drawn out”.

Whilst all women, men and children could and did spin, it took a little more skill to operate a loom. Nevertheless, once all the threads had been set up an experienced user could still work one and entertain, so “weaving a tale of wonder” entered the language as well.

Some of the old tales were collected and have come down to us in books such as the famous Grimm’s Household and Children’s Stories. Our lexical connection to cloth does not end here though. Before you commit your words to a page, it pays to draw out your yarn in a “first draft”. To weave in Latin is “texere” and it is from this that we get our name not only for textiles but for the written word: text.

So what you are reading is the final draft of a yarn that has been spun and woven in to a cloth of words. Finally it is worth noting that both the textile and the story process often start in the same place, with a bit of woolgathering.

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24/7 Hydrogen Bomb


The Sun is the one from whom nothing is hidden, the all seeing eye in the sky. Despite their late arrival in many mythologies, once the daily trip from east to west is established the Sun is the indispensable one without whom all life comes to a halt. Thus, if the Sun goes down and does not come up again something must be done. A great deal of solar mythology involves the incarceration of the Sun and its subsequent rescue. There isn’t time for a Tolkienesque quest, the first to notice get straight on the case, usually part of the support team of morning star, horses or attendant sky gods, the cause of the problem is dealt with in short order and the Sun is out of their prison and back in the sky before you can say Winter Solstice.

Sometimes the Sun actually dies and has to be brought back from the underworld. This may seem more drastic but is rarely as big a story since, metaphorically, the death of the Sun is a daily occurrence. There are stories in which the dead Sun does not get resuscitated but simply replaces itself with its own child who, going by the same name come elevenses, grows up, surreptitiously has its own child, grows old before teatime, then dies in their turn. It’s a lot to pack into a day.

Hunter gatherers and tribal societies seem content to let their Sun goddesses amble gently over the sky carrying a torch and don’t expect any more from them than that. Agricultural societies with cities and the like, who have more riding on the Sun showing up for work each day, are more likely to indulge in that curious act of mass delusional sycophancy known as Sun worship. There are advantages: these are the people who will give the Sun a chariot to ride in and equip them with a bow and arrows, but they never seem to run out of things they expect the Sun to do as well as shine down benevolently upon them. Now the Sun must organise agriculture, irrigation, all growing things, hunting… sometimes medicine, music, textiles and half a dozen other areas of life. In hotter climes the Sun will often preside over plagues and sudden death as well.

Not content with filling their days the priests find even more work for the Sun to do at night: They have to negotiate the return from west to east, usually by way of the underworld. This is likely to involve one or more battles with serpents, snake bodied gods and other demons of darkness. Which rather puts doing the washing up and falling asleep in front of Gogglebox in to perspective.

Somehow though, the Sun finds time to be a lover as well as a fighter. Filled with fiery passion the Sun takes partners from amongst gods and humans alike becoming parent to the earth, moon, sky, night, day, light, stars, assorted heroes, and in Japan the entire dynastic royal line of the empire. These solar love affairs are often explosive and short lived. Pretty much all of Apollo’s paramours end up dead and most of the children he sires come a cropper along the way too, some he even does in himself, whilst two greek Sun children are blown to pieces with thunderbolts by their grandfather, Zeus.

So if a hot and fiery lover claiming to be the Sun comes wooing you, my advice is to make your excuses and sidle quietly away. The sex might be hot but, being a fertility deity, pregnancy is pretty much guaranteed and the child will be more trouble than it is worth. However much they appear to care the Sun won’t stay with you… and if they do then it won’t be long before a couple of golden horses turn up with an irate star, kick your house to pieces and drag your sweetheart back to their 24/7 job.

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The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


You know those things that seem like a good idea at the time? “I’ll do a set about the sun” I said. “ The research will be easy” I said. “There’s Amaterazu from Japan, Apollo from Greece, Ra from Egypt, I’ll just read up on them, find one or two more, job done!” I said.

With a legendary character, say Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, there is a natural starting point with their birth and an obvious chronological order for the events of their life to unfold in, providing a generally consistent narrative thread. Their story mostly is presented as just that, all neatly packaged up in one place from beginning to end and helpfully titled with their name.

The problem with the Sun is that its birth is not the beginning of its own story but merely a passing event in the great story of creation from which the teller swiftly moves on. Other parts of their development are often tied in to the workings of the cosmos in a similar way and are found amongst the stories of their parents, creators or siblings. Sun goddesses are particularly beset with pushy Moon gods, usually their brother or husband, or both. This means that the Sun’s story is often scattered, like the shards of a broken pot in an archaeological site, through the episodes of a mythology.

In several countries their mythology is only preserved in a corpus of songs or poems which never actually tell the story as it was, but only allude to a now forgotten narrative in deliberately obscure ways. Here it goes beyond archaeology and becomes detective work. One is no longer trying to assemble fragments of broken pot but solve a mystery… using a cryptic crossword in a foreign language.

Even where scholars have gone before and collated the disparate elements it isn’t always easy going. Each author has their foibles. One will try to illustrate every deity by comparison to their Greek counterpart, another to the Egyptians, yet another with chapter and verse references to the bible. None of these are useful unless you have studied the mythology they are clearly obsessed with in as much detail as they have. In addition their various anecdotes, comparisons and academic diversions, though fascinating to the casual reader, have the same effect to the storyteller as if the ceramics expert, having glued the pot back together, smashed it up again and handed it to the historian in a bag full of other random bits of pot from completely different digs.

It should be simpler in Egypt. Ra is the creator of all things as well as being the sun and there is only one sun isn’t there? Maybe, but there would appear to be more than one spirit of the fiery orb. Horus also lays claim to the title, as does Osiris. Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast are just three of the goddesses that go by the name “The Eye Of Ra” which makes them the sun too. It seems that most cities or areas had their own divine wrangler of the heavenly yellow orb and to avoid (or settle) conflict a fair number of them were absorbed in to the official versions of how things were. The end result of this is that Hathor, Horus and several others work with Ra as specialists in a sprawling department of solar affairs. There are so many of them that they dispense with the traditional chariot and use a barge to get across the sky. Horus and Sekhmet handle security while Osiris takes over completely for the night shift as they make their way through an underworld full of giant snakes hell bent on having them as hot, hydrogen flavoured snacks. Poor Ra. “I’ll create a world” he said, “I’ll be the sun” he said. I expect it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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The Ultimate Reboot


A few years ago I remember people worrying about Tamagotchis and similar digital pets. The concern was that, since a creature could be re-animated following it’s virtual death, children would develop a false understanding of the finality of pets or relatives actually expiring in physical reality. To anyone who has glanced even briefly at the belief systems of humanity regarding our inevitable passing on, it is quite obvious that that particular black barge sailed a very long time ago.


Pretty much all religions and cultures assume that death is only a temporary state and is followed by a continued or re-established existence of one form or another. In the Philippines a large percentage of funerary practices serve to prevent the spirits of the dead from following you home. Despite this, it is the custom to place the deceased in their coffin without shoes so when they do start wandering around your house they don’t make too much noise.

The ancient Egyptians were famously obsessed with Life 2.0. They believed everyone would re-animate in their pre-used body. It would appear that this belief came from the tendency of corpses, buried in shallow, sandy graves, to dry out and naturally mummify. Later, when rich people started building cool, stone tombs, they found that more elaborate means were necessary to preserve the cadaver. Many interments were accompanied by a little statue, about 60-80 cm (2 and a bit feet) tall. This was a failsafe. If the original body was damaged then the “Ka”, or soul could not re-enter and would have to find a replacement vessel. Presumably the Fields of Yalu (the Egyptian hereafter) were filled with these back up bodies since the artificial mummification practices involved removing the internal organs and putting them in jars. It’s hard to see how having your brain liquified and pulled out through your nose wouldn’t qualify as damage. Ironically the poor, unable to afford tombs, were still getting their whole, un-eviscerated bodies naturally preserved for them in the desert sands, so it would mainly be the rich who were rebooting in the afterlife as short, wooden people.

Unlike the Greeks, whose Elysian Fields are an eternal sunny picnic with your loved ones, an unprepared Ancient Egyptian would find themselves working for their after living. Much like earthly life, Life EternalTM required food, shelter and constant toil on public works. As with most negative aspects of extinction there was a work around. Amongst the various tools, crockery, foodstuffs, jewellery and clothing that one obviously needed to take on the not-so-final journey, many people, rich and poor, were buried with a bag or box of tiny figurines called “Shabti Dolls”. These models, ranging from coarse plaster about 5cm tall to finely carved stone around 45cm in height, could be sent to answer the call whenever there was work to be done, allowing an immortality of leisure to whoever brought them.

When life is generally considered to not only carry on after death but be improved by it, I have to wonder why we put so much effort into staying alive. Thinking about it though, the Egyptian afterlife must be very stressful: walking down the street with posh, child-sized mannequins trying to boss you around whilst having to avoid stepping on all the fragile, miniature labourers trotting about their business (or indeed, someone else’s business). What if there is only one afterlife and we all end up in the same place? Imagine arriving in the Great Beyond with bare feet while two dimensional virtual pets keep winking in and out of existence amongst a moving carpet of fragile Egyptian micro workers tooled up with scythes and chisels!

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Have You Got A Light?


Mostly, when I am researching a new subject, it is the similarities between religions, which are separated by miles and years measured in the thousands, that leap out. In the last two days however, it is the extraordinarily wide array of variations that is striking. One might think that the creation of the sun would be an event of sufficient significance to rank alongside the existence of primordial chaos as a pretty much constant component of the worlds disparate creation stories. Likewise one would probably imagine the status of any solar deity to be high enough to make them one of the best cards to hold in a game of Divine Top Trumps. By this point I expect the regular reader will have worked out that in both cases one would be wrong.

In Ancient Egypt it was Ra, the sun himself, who first rose out of the void and made all the other stuff, but he is far from typical. On the other side of the Sahara, in south west Nigeria, we find the Yoruba mythology. Here Oloron, the chief sky god of a quite large and established pantheon, sends Obatala down from heaven to the marshes on a golden chain. After Obatala has made land in the waters, built himself a home, planted the palm nut that he brought with him and moved in with his cat, it occurs to him that it is a bit grey and dull so he asks Oloron for some light. In answer to this request Oloron knocks up the sun and Obatala is able to get on with the important business of making humanity and palm wine.

A little to the east of Egypt, Yahwey has the good sense to invoke some photons at step one, day one, but takes until day four to come up with the source for them. In these and several other instances the celestial lamp is completely devoid of personality or divine spark.

Sidling to the north before turning back west gets us to Greece, where chaos brings forth Gaia (Earth), Erebus, (Darkness), Tartarus (an abyss) and Nyx (Night). Nyx has a prodigious number of children including Sleep, Pain, Death and Day. Gaia gives birth to Uranus (Sky) who then becomes her husband and together they begat the numerous Titans including Theia (Brightness). Following her mother’s example for keeping it in the family, Theia marries her brother Hyperion (The High One). It is only at this point, not the fourth day but the fourth generation, that Helios (The Sun) is finally born, and two generations further on he has to give up the post to his grand nephew, Apollo. Turning east again and skipping over most of a continent brings us to the Land of the Rising Sun where Amaterasu (The Great Divinity Illuminating Heaven) is held in high regard, for when she goes away the world is plunged in to darkness and all things die. Despite her exalted position, she is an eighth generation goddess brought in to being by her father wiping water from his eye at the end of a story that has seen him married, widowed and divorced (yes, in that order) by his sister. Along the way they created the earth, oceans, mountains, plants, animals, humans, death and the underworld; presumably by touch. I could go on: the sun is variously the child of night, earth, day, the sky, the moon, the reed marshes, the great void, the realm of fire, or is a lantern carried in to the sky by a woman looking for her lost child.

One oddly counter intuitive element that does seem to be consistent is that day and night almost always exist before the sun does. Why would the sun arrive so late in our mythologies? I wonder if, in the mesolithic world of hunter gathering, when the great majority of habitable land was covered by a near continuous forest, anyone really saw the sun that much. Day and night would come and go, but it is only when the neolithic people cut down the trees and started growing crops that the sun became sufficiently obvious and important to get a deity of its own. With the exception that might prove the rule being the desert dwelling Egyptians, for whom an all-seeing, all-powerful, solar creator makes total sense.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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You Haven’t Got A Prayer


When you spend as much time getting to know the gods and goddesses of different cultures as I do, pretty much all of whom inhabit a realm that is variously described as “in the sky”, “on high” or the delightfully vague “above”, your concept of the heavens becomes very odd. As well as being highly multicultural it appears on the surface to be a phenomenal resource. Whatever you want to do, there will be a deity to pray to there: growing stuff, herding cattle, shoemaking, metalwork, pottery, making false teeth… and what ever befalls you there should also be a corresponding demiurge to seek help from.

If all that activity is too much for you there are deific beings to call on when you want some down time too. Without looking beyond the Greeks (because we don’t want to overtax ourselves do we?), we can put in a request to the relaxing Goddess Pasithea for some much needed rest. If that isn’t enough then a plea to her husband Hypnos, god of sleep, could be in order.

Mind you, there are some you should probably avoid. Enkairos, for example, got in to trouble with Zeus after he was sent off to earth early one morning, to bring a specific human to Olympus by sundown the same day. It shouldn’t have taken that long but Enkairos was rather known for leaving things to the last minute. Down he went, located the mortal in question and was about to return when he had a thought: since he had all day… as he didn’t get a day out in the human world very often… he could fit in a bit of sight seeing while he was there! He enjoyed the pleasures of the city, ate the local food and visited the theatre. As he noticed the sun was setting, Enkairos looked around for the being in question who was now nowhere to be found. Zeus waxed mighty wrathful, as well he might, shouting: “I gave you plenty of time!” He never asked Enkairos to do anything again. With no other obvious career ahead of him the dilatory Olympian became the god of procrastination. Presumably some time later.

One step down from Enkairos, who will at least attempt to respond to your prayers and might get round to it eventually, is Aergia. She is one of the daughters of Air and Earth, who, as parents, are probably very disappointed in her. Technically Aergia is a daimona, a spirit, rather than a goddess. She hangs around by The Cave of Sleep with her sister Lethe, or Forgetfulness. She does nothing and has no story of her own, which is hardly surprising as she is the personification of Laziness. Well, I suppose somebody has to do it… or not.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

Hmm, I seem to have written a rather short piece this month. I better quickly burn something in offering to the husband of Pandora and all round pointless deity, Epimetheus. After the creation he was charged with the job of handing out abilities to all the creatures on the earth. With no sense of forward planning, he used up all the good stuff on the animals and had nothing left for humanity. Luckily his brother Prometheus sorted us out with the civilising arts and fire, but no thanks to Epimetheus, the God of Afterthought.

 

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The First Christmas Tree, A German folk tale


Once upon a time there was a Count, by the name of Otto, who lived near Strasburg. Although handsome and single he was so indifferent to the flirtations of the ladies that they called him “Stone Heart”.

One year Count Otto hosted a Christmas Eve hunt in the forests around his castle. He and his guests rode for hours through woods and wastes until, as is pretty much compulsory for a noble who goes hunting in a story, Otto found himself alone and lost. Finding a spring he stopped to wash the dust of the chase from his hands. He was surprised to find the water warm despite the time of year and plunged his arms deeper into the bubbling well head. As he did so he felt as if a smaller softer pair of hands met his own and drew from his finger his favourite gold ring. When he withdrew his hands the ring was indeed missing so he made a mental note to send some servants to fetch it out the following day.

As he lay in his bed that night he heard sounds as of the drawbridge going down and a host of people arriving. Rather shortly afterwards he also heard coming from his own Great Hall the sounds of music and merriment, rather like some throng feasting. When he threw open the doors he found that was indeed the case as colourfully clad dancers whisked past him. In the centre of the room a fir tree stood, bedecked with gold rings, diamond encrusted bracelets, bejewelled belts and ruby pommeled daggers in silver sheaths. As Otto stood staring in disbelief, the dancers parted and as the music faded away the most beautiful woman he had ever seen swayed towards him with raven hair and fine dress in plush satins and velvets. “We have come to return your Christmas visit to our fairy well” she said, “and return to you something you have lost.” She held out a small gold casket which, when opened, revealed his ring. “I am Ernestine, Queen of the fairies” she said holding out her hand. As the music began again Otto found himself taking her hand and joining the dance. As they danced the other fairies shimmered away leaving only Ernestine in his arms. Entranced he sank to one knee and asked her to marry him. Ernestine smiled and said: “As long as you never speak the word “Death” in my presence.”

The two were wed the very next day and spent many happy years together. Otto still enjoyed hosting the occasional hunt and Ernestine joined in too. One day, when everyone was in the courtyard ready to set off on for the pursuit, Ernestine was still in her chambers. Otto held up the departure. Time trickled away and Otto grew impatient. Eventually Ernestine came out through the doors. Otto was quite angry by this time, “You have kept us waiting so long,” he cried, “that you would make a good messenger to send for Death!”

There was barely time for her to utter one anguished scream and then she was gone, vanished in to thin air. Otto was frantic. He searched the castle and the forest, dived in to the fairy well and ranged up and down the banks of the stream that flowed from it, all to no avail.

Every year he brought a fir tree in to his hall and dressed it in bright shiny jewels and candles in remembrance of their first night together and the hope that its sparkling lights might bring her home.

After a while Otto’s neighbours began to put up decorated trees of their own. Slowly the custom spread until now, if the queen of the fairies should return to seek her lost love, she would find his signal shining from houses all over the globe.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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