A short study on The Immortal Hour

William Sharp aka Fiona MacLeod

William Sharp aka Fiona MacLeod

Background to the author

Fiona MacLeod wrote the play ‘The Immortal Hour’ in 1908, although it would be wrong to refer to MacLeod as a she, for in fact she is a he, a Scottish poet and writer called William Sharp. Sharp was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1855 but throughout his life suffered ill-health. As a child he had a great love of nature and the outdoors which was enhanced by his nurse’s telling of Gaelic folktales and stories. When he was 18 he spent three months living with a company of gypsies. While at university he studied poetry, philosophy, occultism, spiritualism and folklore. In 1876 he voyaged to Australia but came back a year later although thee experience had been powerfully creative. In 1878 he joined the famous Rossetti literary group, a Pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic literary group. In his first book of poetry The Human Inheritance, The New Hope, Motherhood and Other Poems (1882) an important focus is given to Sharp’s early belief in spirit of place (or genus loci), which supports a strong mystical core. These threads of mysticism and spirituality also appeared in many of his later works. Following a trip to Italy in 1891 he entered into a decade of extremely productive and creative writing imbued with all his interests of mysticism, mythology, folklore, spirituality and philosophy. Then in 1892 Sharp published what was to be his greatest and most remarkable work – The Pagan Review – a single issue journal filled with pagan and Celtic historically based works, although all these works were written under the pseudonym of Fiona MacLeod. He also joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and was a central figure in the Edinburgh group, part of the Celtic Twilight or Celtic Revival.

Why the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod? This was not mere vanity on Sharps part but an important part of his literary persona he had created in his early twenties.  He wrote to his  wife (who happened to be his cousin) “in some things I am more woman than man” and it was a persona he maintained until his death in 1905. In fact, Fiona MacLeod was presented as Sharp’s protégé and his works written under this name evoke a Celtic world combining images of idyllic or harsh highland nature with mystical tales of the brave and beautiful.

The Wooing of Etain

The Wooing of Etain

Background to The Immortal Hour

The Immortal Hour (written 1908 as Fiona MacLeod) is loosely based on the Irish mythological tale of ‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaíne), which appears in the Irish mythological Cycle, partially preserved in the 12th century manuscript The Book of the Dun Cow, and fully preserved in the 15th century Yellow Book of Lecan. It tells of the lives and loves of Etain, a beautiful woman, one of the Tuatha de Danann, who is also equated and associated with the Gaulic Epona, and the Welsh Rhiannon. In both manuscripts she is married to mortal men. However, Midir, son of the Dagda and one of the Tuatha de Danann, falls in love with her. Midir’s wife grows jealous and polymorphs Etain into various things until one day she turns her into a butterfly and as a butterfly she becomes Midir’s constant companion though Midir does not recognise her. Eventually Midir’s wife creates a wind that blows the butterfly away and does not allow it to alight anywhere but the rocks of the sea for seven years.

Eventually it lands on the clothes of Óengus, who recognises it as Étaín, but he is at war with Midir and cannot return her to him. He makes her a little chamber with windows so she can come and go, and carries the chamber with him wherever he goes. But Fúamnach (Midir’s wife) hears of this and creates another wind which blows her away from him for another seven years. Eventually the butterfly falls into a glass of wine. The wine is swallowed (together with the butterfly) by the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain, in the time of Conchobar mac Nessa. She becomes pregnant, and Étain is reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.

Midir then goes to Eochaid Etain’s husband) in his true form and asks to play fidchell, a board game, with him. He offers a stake of fifty horses, loses, and gives Eochaid the horses as promised. Midir challenges him to more games, for higher stakes, and keeps losing. Eochaid, warned by his foster-father that Midir is a being of great power, sets him a series of tasks, including laying a causeway over Móin Lámrige, which he performs reluctantly. He then challenges Eochaid to one final game of fidchell, the stake to be named by the winner. This time, Midir wins, and demands an embrace and a kiss from Étaín. Eochaid agrees that he will have it if he returns in a month’s time. A month later Midir returns. He puts his arms around Étaín, and they turn into swans and fly off.

Eochaid and his men begin digging at the mound of Brí Léith where Midir lives. Midir appears to them and tells Eochaid his wife will be restored to him the following day. The next day fifty women who all look like Étain appear, and an old hag tells Eochaid to choose which one is his wife. He chooses one, but Midir later reveals that Étaín had been pregnant when he had taken her, and the girl he has chosen is her daughter. Eochaid is horrified, because he has slept with his own daughter, who became pregnant with a girl. When the girl is born she is exposed, but she is found and brought up by a herdsman and his wife. She later becomes the mother of the High King Conaire Mor.

One has to remember that the versions of this story differ slightly but the main characters stay the same.

Etain and Midir

Etain and Midir

 

An analysis of The Immortal Hour play

Although The Immortal Hour is based on the Irish mythological tale of the Wooing of Etain,  it is steeped in other mythological motifs also. Links can be made to the Greek Eurydice and Orpheus. In fact MacLeod says as much in her introduction to the play. Thus it can be seen as a kind of universal play touching on the love for a man and a woman, the cycle of life and other realities that not only appear in Celtic mythology but in other cultures also. Although the character Dalua does not appear in Irish mythology, MacLeod likens him to the Amadan-Dhu or Dark Fool, who can be equated with our own dark shadow-side, known in the Faerie Tradition as the Dark Fool. Hugh Mynne writes in “The Faerie Way”  the encounter with the Dark Goddess is thus an encounter with our own psychic waste material, our own “garbage.” By facing Her we face our own shadow-self, known in the Faerie Tradition as the Dark Fool, and named Dalua.

Sources:

Dennis Denisoff, The Yellow Nineties Online, 2010

Hugh Mynne, The Faerie Way: A Healing Journey to Other Worlds

Caitlin & John Matthews, Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus

Caitlin & John Matthews, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom

 

 

 

Advertisements

Fae, Spirits and Elementals…oh my!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGreetings, dear readers, this is my first post of 2014 and what better way than to start the new year than to jot down my thoughts on the Fae, Spirits and Elementals. I think I’ve probably written something about this topic before but for the life of me cannot remember, so bear with me. Of course there are many ideas about these three groups and I’m going to paint a broad picture of how they sit in my own belief system and from my own experiences with them. of course many of you know that I follow a shamanic path so perhaps my thoughts may be a bit different to your own but each person’s experience is individual and I truly believe there are no right or wrong experiences….they are what they are. So let’s kick off with The Fae (or faeries/fairies).

Who are the Fae?

First of all I’d like to clear one thing out of the way first. I do not hold with the idea that the Fae are tiny winged creatures. This is a Victorian notion and actually does the Fae a great injustice. The Fae are actually what is known as the Tuatha de Danann (pronounced Tootha de Danarn), or Children of Danu. Now, Danu is the ancient Celtic great mother goddess and is not tied solely to Ireland. In fact she is a pan-Celtic goddess appearing in many places. For example, she is equated with the Welsh Goddess Don, and in the Rig-Veda she appears with the same name Danu. The River Danube is actually named after her too.  However, in Ireland she appears as Danu, and her progeny were known as the Children of Danu or Tuatha de Danann who were the fifth group of people to settle Ireland having wrested it from the Fir Bolg (According to a theory proposed by O’Rahilly: the Fir Bolg are linked to the historical Belgae tribe, known from Gaul and Britain, and to the historical Builg of Munster). The Tuatha were highly skilled in magic and working silver and had four magical treasures – The Dagda’s cauldron, the spear of Lugh, the stone of Fal and the sword of Light. However, eventually the Tuatha were defeated by the Milesians and unfortunately they were banished underground to the Sidhe (prounounced Shee) mounds, or hollow hills. Here they diminished and over time became what we now refer to as fairies/faeries/The Fae. Nevertheless, it is important to note the word *diminished* here. This word can be used to describe being reduced in size, or in power. If you’ve watched the film Lord of the Rings you might remember the elf Galadriel saying “we will diminish and go into the West”. She did not mean reduce in size but reduce in power – the elves time in Middle Earth was over. So too with the Tuatha, whose time of rule was now over. So the Children of Danu now reside in the Otherworld, and are often referred to as the Sidhe, or the Fae.

Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan

Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan

All that is…is Alive

Now we come on to Nature Spirits – those spirits/entities that inhabit the natural world. In Greek mythology they are often called dryads, dyads and nymphs. However, in my view this is restrictive. Through following a shamanic path I’ve learnt that nature spirits abound EVERYWHERE and are not necessarily tied to a certain place (although they can be). Every plant, tree, lichen, moss, crystal, rock and pebble is a nature spirit, every river and stream, every volcano and marsh is one and contains many of them. Even that pot of mint or rosemary growing in your kitchen is a nature spirit; and for those of you who collect crystals, just think how many nature spirits you have in your house. Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, some nature spirits are connected with a particular place. In fact it’s impossible to quantify nature spirits because they are literally everywhere – as we shamans are fond of saying…all that is…is alive!

The Forest of Dean Gloucestershire

The Forest of Dean Gloucestershire

It’s all Elemental my dear Watson

Finally we come to the Elementals. Now my view of them is slightly different from that of Wicca, which sees elementals as the guardians of the elements air, fire, water and earth. In Wicca the elementals of air are known as Sylphs, those of fire are Salamanders, those of water are Undines and those of earth are known as Gnomes. Instead I rather see elementals AS elements themselves and closely tied to weather patterns, air streams, ocean currents and so forth. Moreover, elementals never work solitarily but always in connection with other elementals. for example clouds are air and water, water always helps earth, volcanoes are earth and fire, fire always has the help of air, water spouts are air and water. Although some weather patterns such as tornadoes can be pure air, earthquakes are pure earth but you’ll usually find one elemental working closely with another one. I like to see elementals as the great movers and shakers of life and they are extremely powerful as us humans know only too well.

The great elementals

The great elementals

 

References

O’Rahilly, T. F. (1946) Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

Ellis, Peter Berresford (2002) The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends

From little acorns mighty oaks will grow

DSCF1501I have two baby oaks growing in my garden – what a sweet blessing! Have no idea how they got there but I have my suspicions. About three years ago I cast a handful of acorns around my garden as part of a ritual I was doing. Well I did forget I’d done this until now. Or maybe they are the children of the oaks that stand behind the boundary fence at the very back of the garden. Who knows but for the fact they are here. One is much small than the other and I’m not sure if they will both survive but I’m going to try to keep them safe. I’ve already cut away the tall grasses and thistle plants surrounding them so they both get access to sunlight.

So what is the meaning for me? Well the oak tree has been a symbol of strength, power and sacredness in a great many cultures and indigenous tribes across Europe. The Celts especially, and the Teutonic tribes, venerated oaks and considered them chieftain amongst trees. Oaks were associated with a great number of deities – Zeus, Jupiter, The Dagda and Thor amongst others. The Green Man is always most often seen surrounded by a partial mask of oak leaves. Because they live a long time (it takes an oak a very long time to grow so I won’t see these at their full glory during my present incarnation) they embody endurance too. And of course wisdom from the Gods.

The oak also stands for great protection, justice, honesty and bravery. Apparently its associated stone is Aventurine so I will lay one of these at each stone as a blessing for it – a gift! It’s position on the Wheel of the Year is at the Summer Solstice, when once again the Oak King will battle with his brother the Holly King. But this time it’s the Holly King that will win the bout and the waning year begins once more.

The medicinal park of the Oak is its bark, because of the strong astringent properties. Internally as a tea it helps fight diarrhoea and dysentery. Externally it can be used to treat haemorrhoids, inflamed gums, wounds, and eczema. The tannin found in oak can help reduce minor blistering by boiling a piece of the bark in a small amount of water until a strong solution is reached, and applying to the affected area.

It is tradition for the Litha fire to be oak wood representing the God, since this is the time of year when oak reaches its Zenith power.

The Oak trees essence helps boost energy levels and the ability to manifest our goals. The tree’s roots mirror its branches and stretch as far below ground as the branches do above  – this reminds me of the saying ‘As Above So Below’, which usually refers to the astral plane and the physical but I think it can also refer to the physical and the underground realms, the land of the dead.

Oak twigs bound together with red thread into a solar cross or a pentagram will make a greatly protective talisman for the home, car, or in your desk or at work.

LESSON OF THE Oak from The Wisdom of Trees by Jane Gifford

The oak represents courage and endurance and the protective power of faith. The tree’s noble presence and nurturing habit reassured ancient people that, with the good will of their gods, their leader, and their warriors, they could prevail against all odds. As the Tree of the Dagda, the oak offers protection and hospitality without question, although its true rewards are only apparent to the honest and brave. The ancient Celts deplored lies and cowardice. To be judged mean-spirited could result in exclusion from the clan, which was one of the most shameful and most feared of all possible punishments. Like the oak, we would do well to receive without prejudice all those who seek our help, sharing what we have without resentment or reservation. The oak reminds us all that the strength to prevail, come what may, lies in an open mind and a generous spirit. Inflexibility, however, is the oak’s one weakness and the tree is prone to lose limbs in storms. The oak therefore carries the warning that stubborn strength that resists will not endure and may break under strain.

I honour the energy of oak, the doorway to the mysteries. I will call upon the strength of the Horned One when I feel in need of protection. So mote it be

C is for Cunning Folk

cunning folk1Who are Cunning Folk, and do they exist today? Cunning folk (both women and men) have been around for centuries, and the term ‘cunning’ was entitled to these people as far back as the 1400’s (AD). When we think of the cunning woman (or man) we usually think of a poor peasant woman healing the sick with herbs, acting as midwife, or tending to sick animals and so forth. Indeed, cunning folk were all these but a lot more. The term ‘cunning’ did not have the same connotation as it does today, back then it meant someone who is skilful and knowledgeable. But they were also known as many other things depending on where their area of expertise lay. Not only that, they were not only peasants but also people of high status too. Titles that they were known by were wise man/woman, cunning man/woman, witch, wizard (for men), conjurer, charmer, magician, wight, necromancer, seer, blesser, cantel, soothsayer, fortune-teller, girdle-measurer, enchanter, incantrix (for women) and many more depending on the village or town where they lived, as these titles tended to be geographical in nature. Practically every village or town had a cunning man or woman often families of them, where their arts were passed down orally from mother to daughter, or father to son. They were honoured for their wisdom and knowledge; when they spoke, people listened. Such men and women carried on the beliefs and traditions handed down to them through the centuries – those of their traditions and that of the land and of nature. The practices of these women and men had much in common with shamans and witch doctors around the world- a belief that we are surrounded by spirits and that we can commune with them, that the land is alive and must be honoured and cared for, that our actions affect the world around us and we must seek to live in harmony with it, that we are part of the ebb and flow of the seasons and must perform certain actions at the correct time.

Famous cunning folk of old are numerous. Some examples are that of George Pickingill (1816-1909) was a well-known cunning man who practiced his art in the Essex village of Canewdon. Julia of Brandon, who had lived in a village north of Thetford in Norfolk.  In Essex, from 1812 to 1860, nearby Hadleigh was the home of James Murrell, called Cunning Murrell, the seventh son of a seventh son. Robert Berewold from St Mildred Poultry, who was accused of theft in 1382. John Harries (1785–1839) from Cwrt y Cadno in Wales and Mother Merne from Milborne Down in Dorset.  These are just a handful, yet research has shown that men actually made up two-thirds of all cunning folk. For every famous cunning man or woman there were probably many more who went about their business out of the public eye.

cunning folk2

Now we come onto that word ‘business’ because contrary to popular Wiccan belief these old cunning folk did in fact charge for their services, either financially or by bartering. It is a popular notion today that one should not charge for magical or healing services yet this is not traditional. Remember, many cunning folk were poor and had to eat and find shelter, so charging something for services rendered was perfectly acceptable and expected. It is the same for us today – those who perform magical or healing services should be expected to charge for their services and it is not against any pagan law to do so.

Cunning Folk practiced in all kinds of ways – some were experts in plant lore (or wort cunning), some had a great knowledge in astrology or divination (also weather magic), and others cast all kinds of spells on behalf of their customers. What most of these earlier cunning folk had in common was their reliance on folk magic and amalgamation of earlier times such as druidic  and Anglo-Saxon practices. In England during the Early Medieval period, various forms of folk magic could be found amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who referred to such practitioners as wicca (male) or wicce (female), or at times also as dry, practitioners of drycraeft (there is speculation among historians that this was the anglicised term for the Irish drai, meaning Druid). Even after Christianisation, cunning folk would still hold onto their ways because magic is energy and perfectly natural.

So what about today? Well, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of cunning folk across Britain had dropped markedly from that of a century before, and by the 1940s they had essentially vanished from the country. Despite this, other professional practitioners of popular magic, such as astrologers and fortune tellers, continued to remain popular. Historian Owen Davies suggests that the reason for the decline in the cunning craft was the declining belief in the existence of witchcraft in the country brought about by modernization and increasing education and literacy rates. however, I believe that anyone who still utilises folk magic and the healing arts,  and is attune to the natural cycles of the seasons can call themselves a cunning man or woman.

References

Owen Davies – Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History

Anna Franklin – Wise Women

Ronald Hutton – The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft

Emma Wilby – Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic