The Vision and the Voice: Jeanne d’Arc – Warrior, Maid, Witch and Heretic

•May 16, 2020 • Leave a Comment
Jeanne d’Arc with Banner and Sword

“Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and so they give their lives to little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it…and then it’s gone. But to surrender who you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying – even more terrible than dying young.” ~ Jeanne d’Arc.

‘The Maid of Orléans,’ was burned at the stake on the 30th May 1431, as a witch, a heretic and a traitor.

She was just 19.

Image: Helmeted head of a late Gothic saint’s statue, in the past widely held to have been modelled after the likeness of Jeanne d’Arc.

The Prophecy

“France will be lost by a woman and saved by a virgin from the oak forests of Lorraine”

Her legend preceded her. It evolved long before the humble girl, Jeanne d’Arc was born. The writings of Bede and the ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth, asserted the mythic prophecy of a humble young maid from the Oakwoods of Lorraine who would rise to become a sacrificial saviour of France. Riding a white stallion and attired in blazing armour, the vision was completed by a legendary blade, a sword of note, brandished by this remarkable heroine.

Image:The Prophetic MS

The alleged prophecies of Bede and Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth were widely circulated in manuscripts (1)

Jeanne d’Arc was born an illiterate peasant into a farming family at Domrémy, Lorraine, a pastoral backwater surrounded by oak forests, easily visible just over a mile away. Unsurprisingly, Jeanne’s visions caught the attention of the local clergy, when as a young girl she began experiencing spirit visitations. These were identified as the archangel Michael (the patron saint of Charles Valois, the Dauphin of France), Saint Margaret, a local saint, and Saint Catherine (of Alexandria), a dedicated family saint. This was entirely in keeping with local custom and folkloric tradition.

http://www.kommunicera.umea.se/hemma/mathias/

In reconstructing her life from local records, it would seem that around noon in the heat of high summer, Jeanne, a mere girl of 13, was drafting wool on her drop spindle whilst tending her father’s sheep on the land between their house and the church. To her left beneath the great tree beside the church, she saw a great light and had a vision of the archangel Michael, surrounded by other angels. Local traditions notwithstanding, it is probable that her first vision occurred on a ‘fast’ day, adding credence to the circumstances that collectively facilitated her envisioning. Lack of food, the heat, monotonous activity (spinning) are certain inducements to trance. 

In the weeks that followed, the same vision appeared before her many times, and they spoke to her of a great destiny. Jeanne found refuge in her voices as the Hundred Years’ War continued to ravage northern France.

She maintained the voices were sent by God to be her guides, to direct her mission to deliver northern France from English domination, and to see the Dauphin, Charles of Valois crowned as the rightful King of France. A peace treaty brokered by England in 1420 had effectively disinherited the Dauphin, amid accusations of his illegitimacy, that placed King Henry V as ruler of both England and France.  

Jeanne had witnessed several local raids during her childhood, sometimes by free-booters and opportunists with no allegiance to either side. Henry of Orly, was one such soldier of fortune, whose ragged band lived off local plunder.  As local towns were laid to siege, the occupants of Jeanne’s village were temporarily forced to abandon their homes under threat of invasion. When they returned, many homes were burned, and their livestock stolen.

Her visions continued for three more years, by which time Jeanne reached a marriageable age. The rejection of suiters and an arranged marriage accelerated the immediacy of Jeanne’s mission; her persuasive zeal convinced a local court that she should not be forced to accept the match. At the tender age of 16, Jeanne took a vow of chastity, declaring that her mission required her to be a ‘Maid.’ Urged into action by the intensity of her voices, she was pressed to approach Robert of Baudricourt, the garrison commander at Vaucouleurs to gain an armed escort to see the Dauphin at Chinon. She convinced Baudricourt that without her by the Dauphin’s side, Orléans would fall, and France would be lost to the English.  Her persistence attracted a small band of followers who may have been familiar enough with the prophecy to support her claims to be the Maid of France.

According to Jeanne’s loyal captain who escorted her, Jean de Metz, she had boldly stated that “I must be at the King’s side (…) there will be no help (for the kingdom) if not from me. Although I would rather have remained spinning [wool] at my mother’s side (…) yet must I go and must I do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so.”

It was considered prudent that her journey through hostile Burgundian territory should be undertaken disguised as a male soldier, a necessity later used against her. “I was admonished to adopt feminine clothes; I refused, and still refuse. As for other avocations of women, there are plenty of other women to perform them.”


Image: Drawing of Jeanne d’Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue (a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated 10 May 1429. This is the only known contemporary representation of her.

Records provide various testaments to Jeanne’s clairvoyance and prophetic vision whereby she warned individual soldiers of their imminent deaths. For example, as she entered the Castle at Chinon where Charles Valois resided, a soldier cursed her; she responded “Ah, you make light of God, and yet you are so near your death.” He drowned that day.Arriving in the Great Hall, her voices singled out the Dauphin (Charles Valois) from his courtiers amidst whom he was concealed. Jeanne predicted to him the deliverance of Orléans, and ultimately of France, and of his victorious consecration as the King at Reims.

“When I entered into the chamber of the King,” said she, “I recognized him among the others on account of my Voices, which revealed him to me.”

Image: The Sword of Charles Martel

In private converse, Jeanne shared with him the words to a prayer he’d spoken to god in his private chapel, and informed him she had retrieved the lost sword of Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. This prized relic was previously lost to an obscure burial, behind the altar of the church of Sainte Catherine de Fierbois. Renowned for its miracles, this wasa popular place of pilgrimage, for soldiers especially.  Baudricourt had offered her a sword, which she declined, saying that the right sword would be found for her.

For Jeanne, the sword meant much more than a weapon, it was a symbol of the legend, a mythic element that roused the motivation and resolve of the soldiers who followed her. Under direction from Jeanne’s voices, an armorer was sent from Tours to find it. Buried for a long time, it was rusty and not sturdy enough for combat. (2) Once polished, it represented absolute and uncompromising Victory, a symbol that was ultimately drafted into her Coat of Arms. According to legend, it had five crosses on the blade.

Image: Jeanne d’Arc Coat of Arms

The Fierbois sword was lost after the failed siege of Paris, though an unsavoury rumour claims it was broken in half after Jeanne used it to chase away camp followers.

A relief expedition to Orléans early in 1429 was required, and gaining the Dauphin’s approval, Jeanne asked for permission to travel with the army. The Dauphin’s mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, confirmed Jeanne’s virginal status, then astutely provided Jeanne with a white horse, gleaming armour and a golden banner of France, in keeping with the prophecy. In addition, Yolande financed a small entourage from her own purse.

From her guides, Jeanne was also gifted with the remarkable ability to foresee certain events; indeed, she forecast her own wounding during an attack of Tourelles, 7th May, 1429. She was also aware her fame and status would be short-lived. A letter preserved in the archives of Brussels, relates to her prophecy. On the eve of the battle Jeanne declared that: “Tomorrow my blood will be shed.”  Jeanne insisted that the King should not delay his departure for Reims, repeating, “I will only be with you for one year. It is needful, then that you use me to the full.”

Contemporary sources acknowledge Jeanne’s heroic role and mystical presence, and of a certain enchantment that radiated from her. As predicted, she was indeed wounded by an arrow that pierced her flesh between the neck and shoulder while holding her banner outside les Tourelles. This did not prevent her return to encourage a successful final assault on the fortress. The English retreated from Orléans the next day, and the siege was over. Jeanne had lifted the Siege of Orléans in just nine days. The Anglo-Burgundians, were defeated by Jeanne’s forces and were compelled to retreat back across the Loire River.

Image : Jeanne d’Arc with Banner, White Horse and Golden Armour

Taken from the many quotes in her letters, her motto could have been:“I am not afraid… I was born to do this.”

Jeanne also advised the Duke d’Alencon, of his imminent death by cannon; heeding her warning, his life was spared:“Gentle Duke,” she cried, “retire from where you stand, for if not that cannon down yonder will be the death of you.”  Sadly, the Lord of Lude who replaced him, was killed immediately. As Jeanne was rallying the troops by the walls at Jargeau, her strong helmet withstood a stone missile, miraculously saving her life.

Several swift victories followed suit, allowing Charles VII to receive his promised coronation at Reims in 1429, which substantially weakened the Anglo-Burgundian claim to France. Although some distance from the front lines, Jeanne later sustained another wound when a crossbow bolt lanced her thigh during her failed bid to liberate Paris. Jeanne’s permission from the King allowing her to seize Paris, was delayed. Under possible advice from his court favourite, Georges de La Trémoille that Jeanne’s growing popularity may eventually become a threat to the King’s, precious time was lost. In the meantime, the Anglo-Burgundians fortified Paris and successfully repelled Jeanne’s September assault.

Just six months later, in the spring of 1430, orders from King Charles VII, bade Jeanne to block a Burgundian assault on Compiégne. During the melee, her horse threw Jeanne as the town’s gates closed to protect its inhabitants. Left outside, she was defenceless. The delighted Burgundians took Jeanne captive to a nearby stronghold at the English held Rouen. Jeanne never left. A year later she was dead. Her short meteoric rise had indeed served its purpose.

Madness?

Jeanne’s descriptions of her visions are vivid and quite lucid. She asserted that a bright light often accompanied them and that their voices had greater clarity when church bells were sounded. Some experts have suggested that certain details Jeanne has provided, appear to allude to possible neurological and psychiatric conditions, which are known to trigger hallucinations or delusions. These include brain lesions, epilepsy, migraines, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia!  Others posit that drinking unpasteurized milk from immature cattle can cause bovine tuberculosis, a condition that generates seizures and dementia. However, due to a lack of credible symptoms, and contemporary testimonies, these speculative diagnoses are highly improbable; Jeanne remained in good health and of sound mind to the time of her death.  

Jeanne was neither mad nor ill.

Others have championed the veracity of her pure envisioning. Ralph Hoffman, a professor of psychology at Yale University, has argued that visionary and creative states, including ‘hearing voices,’ are not necessarily signs of mental illness. Moreover, Jeanne never wavered from her faith in “King Jesus, King of Heaven and of all the earth, my rightful and sovereign Lord.”

But the speculation doesn’t end there. Revisionist theories about Jeanne d’ Arc contradict the official account of her life and death considerably. One claim doubts Jeanne’s existence at all, except as a work of later fiction designed to boost 19th century French nationalism. Another claim reveals the popular rumour also made during the 19th century, that Jeanne d’ Arc was the illegitimate daughter of the Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, and Duke Louis of Orléans, hidden in pastoral Domrémy with the d’ Arc family. Presumably, this would mean that when Jeanne met the Dauphin, she would have indicated some sign to him, by which he could recognise her as his half-sister Hence the elaborate political ploy that necessitated her capture, false death and secret escape to bamboozle the English!

Some venture further, asserting her guilt for the valid charges of heresy; others suggest that occult reliquaries from charred bones and clothing were circulated into nefarious cultic factions. There is even a claim that a substitute was executed on the blazing pyre in her stead, and that she escaped to found an occult secret order linked to Gilles de Rais, a knight and leader in the French army. Rais had been a stalwart champion and companion-in-arms to Jeanne. His military brilliance was cruelly tarnished by his alleged confession and conviction (under extreme torture) as a serial killer and sexual abuser of children, mostly boys. For these and other crimes involving, heresy, sorcery and necromancy, Gilles de Rais, the former Marshal of France, was hanged over a smouldering pyre in 1440.

Lingering doubts concerning this verdict, initiated counter-arguments based on the notion that Gilles de Rais, was also a victim of an ecclesiastic plot or act of revenge by either the French State, or the Catholic Church, through the Inquisition. That the Duke of Brittany, who was given the authority to prosecute, received all the titles to Rais’ former lands after his conviction, is particularly damning evidence in support of his wrongful execution.  

In the early 20th century, anthropologist Margaret Murray recognised the trial patterns and interrogation methods. Murray argued that Jeanne’s and Gilles’ condemnations as ‘witches’ was in fact correct, and that their (alleged) exploits could be explained by their adherence to a surviving current of paganism under the veneer of Catholicism. Murray further posited that Jeanne and Gilles were recognised by the peasants, military factions and nobility, as leaders of this ‘Old Religion,’ the superstitions and prophecies of which allowed them to enchant their followers, who practically worshipped Jeanne as the ‘Maid of France,’ sent by god to liberate them.

Murray explained that:“Gilles de Rais was tried and executed as a witch and, in the same way, much that is mysterious in this trial can also be explained by the Dianic Cult.” (3) Controversial occultist Aleister Crowley likewise questioned the involvement of the ecclesiastic and secular authorities in his case. Crowley described Rais as “in almost every respect (…) the male equivalent of Joan of Arc,” whose main crime was “the pursuit of knowledge.” (4)  Speaking for the academic consensus who consider Gilles de Rais to be a depraved heretic, Norman Cohn argues that Murry’s and Crowley’s views are not supported by the records of Rais’ crimes and trial.(5)

Much to the chagrin of academics and historians, Rais’ trial and conviction were overturned in 1992, when Freemason Jean-Yves Goëau-Brissonnière, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of France, set-up an unofficial ‘court’ composed of former French ministers, writers lawyers, judges and UNESCO experts, all of whom were directed to re-examine the medieval source materials. Gilles de Rais was declared ‘not guilty.’ The contentious hearing, was partially turned into a fictionalized biography called ‘Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule du loup’ (Gilles de Rais; or, the Mouth of the Wolf). It is narrated by the writer Gilbert Prouteau. “No child’s corpse was ever found at his castle at Tiffauges and he appears to have confessed to escape excommunication (. . .) The accusations appear to be false charges made up by powerful rival lords to benefit from the confiscation of his lands.” (6)

None of these theories are considered credible by academic historians.

Murray’s assertion that the destruction of Jeanne’s mission was a deliberate manoeuvre by the Catholic Church which gained for them substantial victory against the surviving pagan cult, is at least borne out by fact. The Church did reclaim a great deal of authority and influence after the cessation of the Hundred Years’ War.

Nonetheless, the official version of Jeanne d’Arc’s life is no less fantastic.

Jeanne possessed a famously volatile temper; having little humour, she had wit aplenty! Her extreme piety and zeal was unmatched by even her most ardent followers. The Maid of Orléans had no tolerance for indecent or improper behaviour, swearing, theft, skipping Mass, condescension or cowardice. She had no compunction in metering out punishments for transgressors.

During her trial, Jeanne stated that she didn’t properly know her last name. Growing up in Domrémy, a village in north-eastern France, it is clear that the references to d’Arc, was properly associated with her father’s place of birth. Jeanne has explained that her father, a farmer, was called Jacques d’Arc. The assignation of it to Jeanne, was evidently an English scribal error in its assumption that she would take her father’s surname. Over time, d’Arc became further Anglicized as Darc or Tarc.

Jeanne’s mother, a devout Catholic, was named Isabelle Romée (also known as Isabelle de Vouthon). Unusually, it was a French custom in Lorraine for daughters to assume their mothers’ surnames. In medieval France, family surnames were very rarely fixed, and could vary considerably: Romée,’simply designated a person who had made a pilgrimage to Rome (or another place of religious significance). Similar adjustments have been made to Jeanne’s christian name, which was properly spelled: Jehanne d’Arc, Jehanne Tarc, Jehanne Romée or possibly even Jehanne de Vouthon. To her family, she was known simply as Jehanne, or Jehanette. To herself, only as “Jehanne la Pucelle” (‘Joan the Maid’) once her mission began.

Jeanne d’Arc had been caught in the furore of a protracted dispute over the French throne, whence destructive raids and trade embargos devastated the economy of France, reeling still several decades later from the ravages of the Black Death. The Maid’s incredible sincerity and conviction pulled the moral of the French army from its deep fugue, tipping the balance, which led eventually to France shaking off the English yoke of its oppressors. This was no mean feat; without Jeanne’s fearless heroism, the English were certain to establish a dual monarchy in France under English control.

Although Jeanne outlined military strategies, proposed diplomatic solutions to the English (which they rejected) and directed troops, Jeanne never actually fought in battle or killed an opponent. That was neither her role, nor her destiny. Marching alongside the troops brandishing the banner of France, infused them with spiritual succour; her bright presence and passionate speeches spurred them on to victory. Her charm and grace inspired thousands of soldiers to bravely follow her.

Because of her remarkable actions, Charles VII granted her family the official arms of nobility. Their arms were: Azure, a sword per pale argent, hilted or between a crown in chief, and two fleurs-de-lys of the last. (7) The inherent symbolism is striking.

Though only a slip of a girl, a mere shepherdess with no military training, Jeanne’s military prowess is legendary. Envy was rife at court as countless knights fell under her spell. Her influence and power became a matter of concern to the extent that when Jeanne was captured on the 23rd May 1430, at Compiègne by Burgundian allies of the English, the court initially hesitated to extend protection to her. Headed by the pro-English bishop Pierre Cauchon, her trial began based on a variety of (trumped up) charges. To the English, the ability of this peasant girl to defeat their armies was regarded as proof that she was possessed by the Devil.  She was mercilessly interrogated for her alleged crimes.

As legal proceedings against her began at Rouen, two attempts to free her were made by her loyal Armagnacs over the Winter of 1431. Both failed. According to 15th century sources, Charles VII was incensed by Jeanne’s trial and execution, and threatened to “exact vengeance” in retaliation upon captured Burgundian troops, especially to all“the English and women of England.” (8)

During her trial, the subject of Jeanne’s visions was paramount. She testified over and again as to their veracity, to her own piety, and of her mission deliver France from the invading English and establish Charles of Valois, the uncrowned Dauphin to the French throne, as the country’s rightful king.

Jeanne d’Arc’s fascinating visions intrigue us still, attracting considerable analysis as to their origin. Many Catholics regard her them as authentic, divinely inspired, even. Numerous scholars cede to a consensus that her faith was sincere. Her trial transcripts that might have recorded the details of her visions are problematic because Jeanne rejected standard procedure, in defence of the conflict it would place on the integrity of her oath both to the King and to God. Jeanne abjectly refused to answer questions relating to her visions. We cannot know to what extent surviving records are fabrications, possibly falsified at the time to protect state secrets.

Incarcerated in a dank, musty cell, for months, her relentless captors quizzed her about the source of her voices, in their endeavours to make her slip. Failing to make the charge of sorcery stick, they turned to the intriguing markings on her silver ring. Inscribed with three crosses along with inscriptions ‘IHS’ (Jhesus) and ‘MAR’ (Maria), the devotional ring was a gift from her parents, possibly for her communion.  It had been noted that before battle, she stroked the ring on her finger and muttered under her breath, actions she explained were part of her devotions to god, performed in honour of her father and mother.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort, uncle to the ruler of England and France, King Henry VI, presided over the trial and execution. Jeanne’s martyr’s ring was taken by the Cardinal to England where it remained for almost 600 years. Passed down through the Beaufort family for centuries, the religious relic was presented as a gift by one of the Cardinal’s descendants, Lady Ottoline Morrell, one of the ‘Bloomsbury Set,’ to her lover, the (Welsh) artist Augustus John, who sold it in 1914, at the onset of the Great War to The Royal Armouries. (9)

Witchcraft featured in the charges brought against Jeanne d’Arc, but that is not what condemned her.  Of the 70 charges brought against her, ranging from sorcery to horse theft, an ecclesiastical court in Rouen were forced to whittle them down to around a dozen. Focus was centred upon her virginity and on her impropriety for imitating a man, a crime based in the biblical proscription against it. Her judges were particularly horrified by her cropped hair that mimicked the style adopted by her knightly companions.  

The procedure was a travesty of such proportion, the trial records provided the grounds for overturning the verdict two decades later. In short, they were illegal and violated inquisitorial rules. It was entirely partisan and lacked jurisdiction. Having no adverse evidence, Jeanne should have been released. Politics demanded otherwise, and so her interrogators had to rely upon theological traps, all of which Jeanne navigated with astonishing wit. The finest example occurs in a scholarly principle of faith: for when asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.” (10) Church doctrine declared that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. This was a trick question she should have had no hope of answering correctly. Whichever way she answered (yes or no), she admitted heresy or guilt accordingly. At every turn, she out-manoeuvred them.

Documents were falsified or substituted, and informations within, manipulated against her, often in contradiction to the court records. Her incarceration should have been under supervision of nuns, not male guards. She was denied counsel and appeal to the Pope. Under threat of immediate execution, she was forced to signed an abjuration document her illiteracy precluded her from grasping the connotations of.

Fending off several attempts of rape and molestation, Jeanne was reluctant to surrender her male clothing, that bound breech to shirt by a series of ties. The woman’s dress she was forced to wear after her abjuration, offered no such protection. Just a few days later, Jeanne told a tribunal member that she was forced to resume wearing her soldier’s garb as “a great English lord had entered her prison and tried to take her by force.” (11)

Heresy was a capital crime only in cases where the offense was repeated, thusshowing the accused to be guilty of a relapse in their oath. The Jury now had her, despite the point of law that allows for ‘cross-dressing’ if a necessity to safety, according to Catholic doctrine established by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.

Overwhelmed by the light and beauty of her visions, Jeanne exhibited classic exstasis. Moved to tears, Jeanne was faithful to them until the last breath expired from her choking lungs. Declared guilty, her head was shaved in keeping with the sentence of heretic. Tied to a huge wooden pole, she was burned alive without reprieve or mercy. Horrified crowds gathered around her in the cobbled market square at Rouen, (Normandy was then under English rule) to witness this gross miscarriage of justice, nothing more than an expedient act of politics. Once engulfed by the flames, the English insisted that the coals should be raked back to expose her charred body, ensuring that her death was under no ambiguity. To prevent foraging for relics, her remains were burned twice more, until her thrice-burned body was reduced to ashes which were cast without ceremony into the Seine River. Her executioner, Geoffroy Thérage feared his own damnation for burning a holy woman.

Her fame only increased after her martyrdom, and even after her grisly execution, rumours she was still alive were circulated by several people, including her own brothers, for notoriety and for the elaborate gifts procured from those bewildered by the miracle. Nonetheless, once the war drew to its close, a petition was raised at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal and Jeanne’s mother Isabelle Romée, for a posthumous retrial in 1455. As the English no longer posed a threat, a nullification trial was sanctioned by Charles VII to clear her name. Pope Callixtus III was actively engaged in the proceedings that condemned Jeanne’s former trial according to canon law. A secular vendetta had convicted an innocent woman on an errant issue of doctrinal law relating to a (biblical) clothing technicality. Investigations concluded it void, and her conviction was reversed – 7 July 1456.

Declared an innocent, she was added to the official roll of martyrs.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a helmet (of the right period) with a legendary attribution to Jeanne d’Arc. The site of her home in Domrémy-la-Pucelle is now a museum. The medieval church is much altered but still contains a 14th century statue of Saint Margaret, that Jeanne undoubtedly prayed before. The royal castle at Chinon where Jeanne met Charles VII, is now a ruin.

The Jeanne d’Arc museum at Chinon, France has a charred human bone fragment that is reputedly hers. Discovered in a Parisian Apothecary in 1867, in a jar along with a cat femur, a shard of carbonized wood and some charred linen. Apparently, because of the superstition associated with witches’ familars, it was standard medieval practice to throw black cats onto the pyre of ‘witches.’ Forensic analysis has indicated that the human bone is actually from a Ptolemaic mummy, possibly brought back during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.

And though highly acclaimed for her martyrdom in 1456, by Pope Callixtus III, she was not Canonized until the 16th May 1920, by Pope Benedict XV. (She had been Beatified on the 18th April 1909, by Pope Pius X) Her Feast Day is officially the 30th May. She joins the ranks of several other visionaries and warrior saints of France: Saint Denis, Saint Martin of Tours, Saint Louis, Saint Michael, Saint Rémi, Saint Petronilla, Saint Radegund and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

Jeanne d’Arc was a tragic pawn in a political arena, that martyred her on one side, and demonised her on the other. Undoubtedly a naive idealist, and national icon, she was also a spiritual mystic who inspired many hundreds of men to follow her into battle. A true heroine to her faith and people, she rightly stands amongst the ranks of other martial saints. Her patronage extends to all political martyrs, particularly to military captives; or those ridiculed for their faith and piety; soldiers and most poignant currently, women who have served in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and Women’s Army Corps.

She bravely raised the guiden pole to rally others to her cause, bore the banner and armour of her faith, and challenged the injustices of her time with her words and her sword, and this undoubtedly makes her a true heroine, and more – Jeanne d’Arc is the role model to aspire to, to follow! And yet, her light stands in contrast to those who would extinguish all that is true, and pure and beautiful in the world. I cannot help but ponder on the minds of the those who claim to represent the highest states of spirituality and faith, yet put politics and power, the trivia of ‘self’ before the highest Truth. If those people are willing to sacrifice one of their own, as they clearly did here with Jeanne, then ‘True’ faith is not only thin on the ground, but more precious than life itself……….

“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”

  1. See: https://www.jeanne-darc.info/biography/prophecies/
  2. See: https://www.jeanne-darc.info/biography/sword/
  3. See: Murray, Margaret. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. pp. 173–174. Gilles de Rais was tried and executed as a witch and, in the same way, much that is mysterious in this trial can also be explained by the Dianic Cult. (1921)
  4. Crowley, Aleister. The Banned Lecture: Gilles de Rais. New Orleans, Louisiana: Black Moon Publishing. (2011)
  5. Cohn, Norman. Europe’s Inner Demons. London: Pimlico, (1973).
  6. By Paul Webster, (17 June 2013). “From the archive, 17 June 1992: Rehabilitation of France’s Bluebeard”. Retrieved 16 February 2017 – via The Guardian.
  7. https://www.jeanne-darc.info/biography/coat-of-arms/
  8. https://www.jeanne-darc.info/trials-index/
  9. https://www.jeanne-darc.info/biography/finger-ring/
  10. https://www.jeanne-darc.info/trial-of-condemnation-index/
  11. https://www.jeanne-darc.info/trial-of-nullification/

HOPE

•November 29, 2019 • 1 Comment

The ‘Salve Regina’ meaning ‘Hail Holy Queen’ is an 11th century Marion Hymn sung three days before Advent Sunday, when the mass is replaced by the Gregorian chant ‘Universi qui te expectant.’

Hope is the maxim for this custom that as the Mother of Mercy and Gateway to Heaven, she will bring respite from the toil we endure in this ‘vale of tears’ that is life. Her gift is Hope, hope that manifests in the promise of fulfilment through living a spiritual life endowed with Faith in Her Grace.

Advent Sunday.

Customs include, wreath making, comprised of three blue candles, (sometimes black or violet) a rose candle and sometimes a white central candle for the solar eve itself. Devotional practices associated with the observance of Advent include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, daily prayers, erecting a Christmas tree or a Chrismon tree, lighting a Christingle, or setting up Christmas decorations, a custom that is sometimes done liturgically through a hanging of the greens ceremony around the home, church or chapel.

Originally a 16th century Lutheran tradition, the modern wreath as we know it was formed in the 18th century, and today adorns the doors of many homes throughout the Yuletide period.

“The wreath crown is traditionally made of fir tree branches knotted with a red ribbon and decorated with pine cones, holly, laurel, and sometimes mistletoe. It is also an ancient symbol signifying several things; first of all, the crown symbolises victory, in addition to its round form evoking the sun and its return each year. The number four represents, in addition to the four weeks of Advent, the four seasons and the four cardinal virtues, and the green colour is a sign of life and hope.

The fir tree is a symbol of strength and laurel a symbol of victory over sin and suffering. The latter two, with the holly, do not lose their leaves, and thus represent the eternity of God. The flames of candles are the representation of the Christmas light approaching and bringing hope and peace, as well as the symbol of the struggle against darkness. For Christians, this crown is also the symbol of Christ the King, the holly recalling the crown of thorns resting on the head of Christ.” [1]

From the 5th century, Advent has signified a period of fasting broken by the Christmas feast in celebration of the light of Hope.


[1] Wiki

Binding the Dead

•October 7, 2019 • Leave a Comment

They say that death is the final leveller.

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Amidst the grief, the living mourn their loved ones, but amidst triumph, the victor in battle perhaps gloats a little. Yet fear of haunting by ones’ enemies especially, initiated taboos and rituals to prevent the spirits of the dead from returning to torment the living, or to take their vengence upon them.

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Steps were taken to ensure this did not happen.

Artifacts like these are iconic, if somewhat grotesque battle trophies, but they also serve another purpose rooted in the instinctive fears and taboos surrounding death. These are in fact protective talismans for numerous indigenous, remote tribes peoples across South America, India, Africa and Australia.

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Once beheaded, the skulls of ones’ enemies are bound in complex weaves of various organic materials, or shrunk and hung from carefully woven braids, interlaced with spella. Eyes are sewed shut, and beads or shells may be threaded into the flesh for extra protection.

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Nostrils and mouths are pegged or pierced. The heads are defleshed and seared with hot sand and stones. These processes literally ‘sealed’ in the spirit of the defeated enemy to prevent it from returning to torment the living.

Binding the dead was practise common to all peoples the world over, and the few remaining examples attest to the extreme procedures involved. European folk tales provide hints to similar procedures whereby stakes, poles and iron bars were driven through the chest cavity or the skull.

These rituals were often conducted in secret.

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An Egyptian spell typifies the importance of calling upon a higher powere of gods and ancestors to ensure the enemy is rendered impotent and the supplicant remains under their protection.

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“O Ra in his egg, shining in his disk, rising from his horizon,
floating on his sky, whose abomination is evil,
raised on the supports of Shu, without equal among the gods,
who gives the breath of flame of his mouth,
who illuminates the two lands with his power of light,
May you rescue the Osiris N from that god secret of forms,
whose two eyebrows are the arms of the balance
on the night of calculating theft.”

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“It is Bringer by his Arm,
as for that night of calculating theft,
(it is) that night of fire-serpent with sacrifice.
The one who casts lassos against the evil, (roping them in) to his slaughter-block that suppresses souls.”

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“It is the tribunal that prosecutes the enemies of Osiris.
May you together rescue the Osiris N from those ropemen, killers, sharp ones who love to behead, from whose guard none can escape, the following of Osiris.”

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“They can have no power over me; I shall not descend into their cauldrons,
because I know him, I know the name of that one who presses, among them in the house of Osiris, who shoots with his hand without being seen, who circles the land with flame in his mouth, who has reported the Nile Flood without being seen.”

Extract from chapter 17: The Book of Coming Forth by Day – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/religious/bd17.html

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Sometimes, other treatments were deemed essential: Shrunken Heads:

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THESE IMAGES ARE THE COPYRIGHT OF SHANI OATES 2019 – THEY WERE TAKEN AT THE PITT-RIVERS MUSEUM IN OXFORD.

Lupercalia- Another Ancestral Tradition misunderstood!

•February 14, 2019 • 1 Comment

Despite the popular notion that Gelasius abolished the Lupercalia, replacing it with the ‘Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is no evidence to support this. The closest reference that links Lupercalia to any romantic elements of Saint Valentine’s Day, or the blessed virgin is found in Chaucer, which merges with poetic traditions of courtly love during the Marion Cult in popular tradition. However, we should remember how this geo-centric celebration coincides roughly with the Disirblot held by the Northern peoples in honour of ancestral Female guardians of the people and their lands.

Pagan Rome celebrated Lupercalia, held in February, which proves  interesting due to its relevance the annual wild hunt. As the remnants of archaic pre-Roman pastoral rites that probably originated in the Sabian or Etruscan annual festival for the land and its protective spirits. Lupercalia exhibits several elements fundamental to the Wild Hunt traditions that are shared with the northern peoples.

Lupercalia was a ‘Wolf Festival’ consecrated to Lupa, the she-wolf who nourished and protected the founders of Rome. That wild celebration took place at the mid-February kalends, to avert evil spirits and purify the city, reminding its citizens of the sting of life in death, and death in life. It was a ritual involving the purgation of its citizens of lingering spirits through flagellation by goatskin whips in honour of the Mother Goddess, Juno/Hera whose totemic beast was the goat/wolf.

Two noble youths were chosen from (the two named) ancestral families of Rome to lead the hunt, the Luperci in their riotous pilgrimage through and around the city boundaries. At the Lupercal altar, Vestal Virgins offered salted meal-cakes as a priest of the Luperci sacrificed a male goat and a dog. The foreheads of the two youths were anointed with blood from the sacrificial knife, then wiped clean with wool soaked in milk.

Thongs (known as februa) were cut from the flayed skin of the goat, whereupon the two youths, now adopting the role of wolves, were obliged to break out a peel of laughter, braying loudly as they began their hunt, scattering citizens everywhere as they rampaged, near naked, herding everyone to and from the boundaries of Rome, beating upon everyone they encountered with the thin strips of goatskin, purged under the aegis of Juno/Hera’s sacred goatskin mantle, they each wore. After completion of their circuit along the old Palatine boundary, in an anticlockwise direction around the hill, they returned to the Lupercal cave.

Lupercalia served to remind its citizens of their salvation from savagery and the primitive Sabian and Etruscan pastoralism of Rome founders and ancestors. As simple shepherds and goat herders, they were easy prey to the hunter, vulnerable to predators such as the wolves. In other words, it celebrated Arcadia as the mythical ancestral realm. Italic tradition associates the wolf with the Underworld, the ancestral realms. From the study of funerary reliefs, we can link the Lupercalia with the traditions of the dead, indeed the luperci themselves came to represent their returning ancestors.

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Deemed essential to Rome’s continued safety and well-being, the Lupercalia festival initially occurred alongside traditional and Christian festivals. Despite the banning in 391CE of all non-Christian cults and festivals, Lupercalia clearly continued to propitiate the archaic land spirits and ancestral guardians of the city.

[Text copyright of shani oates, taken from ‘The Wild Hunt’ pending publication. Images are from wiki commons]

Faoileach

•January 2, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Faoileach

Greetings all as we enter a new secular year, one that the waxing light of the solar rays always inspires hope and better tidings. Traditionally, many of us relate to January through the ‘Janus’ perspective – fore and aft. We embrace whatever Fate has in store for us ‘braced’ with the gifts we have acquired along the many turnings endured in our lives up to this point of change and opportunity.

Beyond the immediate needs and subjective aspirations of the individual self, the objective world reflects the changing tides in subtle yet interconnected ways that perhaps reveal and preserve a primality of survival, of deep-seated instincts that modern social conventions have buried or eroded into irrelevance.

As the first real month of winter, January perfectly embodies the drive for survival and for reproduction, though these are more typically associated with Spring, being the season of actual birth, the natural product of those instinctive drives.  This view reveals how removed many of us are from nature, or how fiercely we have suppressed those instincts.  

Known to the Gaelic Scots as Faoileach, the concept of this winter-tide eventually became condensed into the month of January.  Deriving originally from faol-chu, meaning ‘wolf,’ Faoileach was to our ancestors, a wilder, bleaker period that brought death and the promise of life to come. Although there have been no (natural) wolves in Scotland for over two hundred and fifty years, this was the month their mating calls reached their peak. That eerie cacophony heralded perfectly the deep-rooted mood as Nature’s gift – to gather, to mate, to hunt and seek the companie of others to ‘dig-in.’

Outwardly, and above, the skies are abundant with meteor showers – bright shards of light, bursting against the inky black winter skies. Peering upwards as they appeared in the north eastern quadrant of the skies falling just before the rising dawn engulfed them, the wonder and promise of new life was surety against the chaotic gloom and uncertainty of winter.  That hope literally kept the wolves from the door….the threshold of all things sacred and mundane, and the boundary of all things pertaining to life and death.

At this time, we too can re-connect with the thousands before us who have gazed in wonder at the phenomenal, celestial displays above and around us.  January the 3rd-4th are the peak dates for the Quadrantids meteor shower as up to 50 meteors radiate out from Boötes in the hour before dawn. This year, the dark moon offers full visibility, so take a step outwards into the real world and embrace the true sensory gifts that Faoileach offers us.

All images are from Wiki Commons, various artists.

A Lame Goat, a Crooked Furrow and a Horned King

•August 7, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Classical paganism in which the earth and its bounty are honoured through Ceres as the Harvest Mother and Kore as the Harvest Maid, differs from heathenism wherein a pragmatic, yet more personal sense of imminence is conveyed. Though both share a reverence for the divine feminine as a fecund virtue, the mediation of it shifts significantly across the belief systems that developed in the Roman world with that of the so called heathen Barbarians.  These diverse foundations led to separate traditions that crossed first in the Romanisation of Europe and then again in the Christianisation of Europe and finally in the re-introduction of classical paganism as a Romantic movement in the 18th century. Cross-cultural influences no doubt occurred, yet the distinct traditions of the British Isles have retained a fierce loyalty to the folkloric diffused beliefs of our heathen ancestors.

We briefly explore a nostalgic overview of the origins and patterns of quaint folk customs and traditions developed within the British Isles over many centuries concerning the relationship between a people and the land shared inspired by a belief in a divine agent. Social Bonding through festival and celebration has long been established as a way communities have come together to survive and thrive against adversity. Local customs reflect those behavioural patterns. Sadly, crises of self-identity through a loss of ‘Community,’ is not an uncommon feature in modern times. Yet if we consider the purpose of Harvest and of Thanksgiving festivals, they celebrate far more than bounty. What they offer besides abundant ample food, is a brief pause, a temporary freedom from toil to celebrate our humanity and its visceral needs pertaining to life and its celebration, primarily as a gift from the gods.

The principal feast of the Virgin Mary celebrates her departure from this life and the assumption of her body into Heaven on the 15th August as ‘Féile Mhuire ‘sa bhFomhar.’ Commonly known as The Festival of Our Lady the Harvest, it is held as a holy day of obligation in the Irish calendar. In the Scottish Highlands, Her feast is also known as  Là Féill Moire, the Feast day of Mary the Great. Early in the morning Barley Bannocks are baked on an open fire, fuelled by rowan wood, after being hand ground on stone querns and kneaded on sheepskins by the lady of the house. The husbandman breaks the bannock – The ‘Moilean Moire,’ or ‘fatling of Mary’.  into pieces for his wife and each child in descending order, hailing their abundance as a merciful gift from the mother, whom they hope will shield them from harm from cradle to grave. While singing  ‘The Paean of Mary Mother,’ known as raising the ‘Iolach Mhoire Mhathàir,’ the family walk sun-wise round the fire, the father leading, the mother following, and the children following in descending order – oldest to youngest.

Image result for bannocks on wiki commonsAcross England, various revels take place throughout the Summer held around this time that honour a Maid, prized for her charity and gifts of abundance.  A beautiful example of this is the Marhamchurch in Cornwall founded initially as a monastic settlement by 5th St. Morwenna (cognate with Welsh morwyn  – maiden).

A Queen of the Revel is elected from amongst the young girls of the village and later crowned by Father Time in front of St. Morwenna’s church. The newly crowned Queen riding on horseback, leads the procession through the village to the Revel Ground where villagers are entertained with games, contests, wrestling and other festivities.

Sharing that gift of life within the community is a sacred act once recognised in subtle contrast to Mary’s blessing above, as the aegis of the chieftain or tribal leader, Earls and later of Kings. In fact, the essence of Germanic sacred kingship is expressed as a gift of good fortune and fate, an archaic principle of cultic belief in his divine descendency from the gods within a faith where he is both subject and object. But it is a position earned and maintained on merit. Failure on his part resulted in dire consequences for his people who might starve or be overcome in battle.

Deemed as void of the blessing of the (female) fates, and the (female) spirits of the land, and of the (female) spirits of the ancestors within their burial mounds, 5th and 6th century Germanic kings were deposed when the harvests were lost to ill weather. Without the waters of fecundity, the ground remained arid, too much water and the crops were spoiled.

Evidence of this can be found on Swedish rune-stones of the 7th and 8th centuries, from Stentoften and possibly Sparlösa where the Kings are depicted ‘giving the harvest,’ and of divine ancestry. As the mediator of fate amongst his people, the King was responsible for the weather and the harvest as well as for external and internal peace. In Christian times skaldic poetry referred to this perfunctory mediation as the duty of the saints who thereafter dispensed those sacred duties, ensuring  ar ok friðr – peace and good year/harvest.

This principle is at the heart of reciprocity by which a leader of a community is the Drighton lord, that is the one who provides for his people and is rewarded by their loyalty. Their mutual bond creates and serves – community. It is this relationship and sacred dynamic deemed co-existent between fate, the dead and the living that fuelled the auspices of a people, of folk whose customs and traditions protect and preserve the lawful balance that staves chaos and all that it invites.

The Drighton Lord is a role adopted by the Lords of the Harvest, of Misrule, of the May and of the Mound or Hunt. He is partnered by a Mistress whose role is to mediate the sacred element of fate imparted to him through the land wights, and ancestral forms. Her presence is the assurance of the divine blessing from the gods that inspires the people of his community and himself as Drighten Lord to serves them truly in return, ensuring and their faith in him will not be unrewarded. Veneration, blot, sumble, libation and Houzle are sacred rites that have evolved around the sharing of bread and mead, or wine – they are always conducted by the women of the house.

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And so, throughout the folklore calendar, predicated upon a round of feasting events, that relationship and principle of provision is projected onto the main characters of those events, from Mummery to Morris, and most especially within the Harvest traditions. The central features of all Harvest festivals are: feasting, joviality, song, laughter and the vital interplay with physical contests of speed, agility and strength to build the rites and festival of life and thanksgiving celebration for it around the world. But how did it all begin?

Cultivation of cereals crops such as barley, and early strains of wheat: einkorn, emmer and spelt, then later oats and rye, helped humans transit from hunting and gathering to agriculture.  Archaeologists have discovered the oldest evidence of bread dating back 14 back over 14,000 years – predating farming. As the origins of domesticated cereals, wild seeds and grains were ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking as unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey, produced long before the development of farming.

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Bronze-age myths of Inanna and Dumuzi were formulated in the region later named Mesopotamia. These and other classical descent myths such as The Eleusinian Mysteries were introduced in the 18th century as part of the pagan revival that blossomed in art and literature, especially poetry. Though these clearly influenced James Frazer they do not reflect the rural traditions of Britain, which follow a different origin, as noted above.

The word ‘harvest’ is from the Old English word ‘hærfest’, meaning ‘autumn’. It then came to refer to the season for reaping and gathering grain and other cultivated products. Poor folk especially have long depended upon a staple diet of bread, beer, porridge or oatcakes, a subsistence that hovered between life and death, as this succinct ditty illustrates:

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“The wheat and the barley, as much as the corn

Have kept us alive, ever since we were born.

But unless we had turned them in to flour and bread,

Few would be living, and many’d be dead!”

 

 

First of three main harvests of grain, fruit and meat, Lammas,  is Anglo Saxon for ‘loaf-mass.’  Earlier pagan and heathen celebrations often took place on the last day of July and again marked the first grain harvest. The success of the harvests determined the quality of life through the long winter months. Some Irish and Scottish customs are linked through the ancestry of Celtic speaking peoples, and share the celebration known as Lughnasadh that many presume is named after a Sun god, bearing the name Lugh.

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Traditionally, Lammas marked the culmination of the growing season.’ Lammas is recognised today as a Christian holy day. Since medieval times, loaves of bread baked from the first grain harvest were laid on the church altars as offerings. It was the custom in past centuries to eat them as a celebratory feast, served with early potatoes, boiled over an open fire in a huge pot, then mashed and flavoured with freshly churned butter, or even with other seasonal vegetables and herbs. Wild garlic, leeks and cabbage were common choices available to the poor.

Further north in the Shetland Isles, barley and oats ripened later, around September. Blessing rituals were performed there upon the harvest and upon the entire farming community. Shetland crofters believed the grain harvest and October potato crop (as well as the cutting of peats for winter fires) should take place during a waning moon, during an ebbing sea tide. Food crops are at the mercy of weather so harvesting can be an unpredictable operation. Our ancestors observed the seasons very carefully, monitoring each fluctuation in the weather very carefully.

Early fruits, gooseberries, red and blackcurrents, raspberries, then strawberries, bilberries and bramble berries were gathered as soon as they were ripe, providing valuable source dietary supplements. Some were dried along with herbs gathered at their peak.

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The Harvest Moon is the full moon that rises nearest the autumnal equinox, therefore, Harvest Festivals are traditionally held on or near to the Sunday of that moon as it blooms full. Once every three years or so, this moon rises later, in October. Food production is dictated by season, hence the importance of seasonal rites. But due to modern trends like polytunnels that help delay or speed up growth, so many of our seasonal traditions and customs are now sadly redundant. New potatoes can be lifted as early as April and root vegetables are available all year round. We need to re-introduce the rhythmic growth cycles celebrated by our forebears if we are to understand the traditional customs they constructed their lives around.

Harvesting Crops

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To some extent, being so out of touch with those cycles, modern pagans have lost sight of just how wide-ranging the crops harvested were, and of their value to the livelihood and well-being of the common folk who devised the lore and customs around them accordingly. Harvesting of these vital resources began in June with the first apple crop and hay load, and did not cease until December with the last crop of apples and root vegetables. Apples grown for Cider-making created a lucrative trade and business for the apple blessed counties of the UK. During a waning moon, animal parts and even nitrogen rich blood was added to the barrels of raw pomace to ensure fermentation.  Each round of cider given to the workers, was passed sun-wise around the men, with the last man pouring a little onto the ground as “a drap t’ t’ owd mon.”

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The grain harvest and its attendant lore concerning John Barleycorn, was made popular by James Frazer’s promotion of the mythic cycle of a dying and resurrected King. The myth of John Barleycorn properly refers to the magical brewing of beer and its communal consumption, and is not classical at all. We should remember that August is just one month which falls midway in this extended preparation for the long winter ahead. Now remote from this reality, we are no longer sensitive to the ebb and flow of seasonal tides of land and of celestial orbits.

 

In July, sheep shearing, sheep fairs and mop fairs begin, signalling the influx of labour needed for the forthcoming hop-picking events of Kent and parts of the Welsh borderland counties, Herefordshire, Shropshire and parts of Worcestershire. Hops were picked by hand until 1960s from middle of August through into mid-September, providing employment for local and non-local labourers. For the duration of the harvest, urban working class people from the Midlands were drafted en-masse, into the countryside on trains chartered by the farmers, as seasonal labour.  Exacting, arduous graft, it was nonetheless the closest the urban poor ever came to experiencing a holiday. Moreover, the summer weeks given over to this task generated the long break in schools and factories that once ‘shutdown’ for the summer to enable the free- flow of labourers to the countryside to bring in the harvests.

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One man recalled that it was:

“Lovely in th’ ‘opyard. Everybody was a-singin’.

You sung while you were pullin’ the ‘ops off.

“We ‘ad sing-songs round the fire.

I’ve ad some good times down th’ ‘opyards.

I ‘ardly missed a year.

 It was the best o’ my days”

 Observing a natural camaraderie, a custom arose known as ‘cribbing;’ it was much frowned upon by the farmers. Some of the men, fresh from the cities, were seized by women and thrown in to the ‘hop cribs,’ which were effectively, large cradles constructed out of sacking and wooden frames. Enveloped with hops, the young man was held captive until he’d kissed all the women party to his predicament who then released him only after providing the ring leader with enough money to buy them all a drink.

Once the hop-picking was over, any young lady a lad had taken a fancy to might expect to be treated in like manner, but where the lad himself would join her in the cradle, both covered in hop bines. This relaxation of strict social conduct between the sexes exhibits a lifting of the taboos normally imposed through gender motivated behaviour. For a few brief weeks, women could act with the same free license as men.  During the picking season, the man and woman elected as King and Queen had to goad and chide the workers, tease and torment them, keep spirits high and the load moving, driving them towards a fruitful conclusion.

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An informal procession of pickers and sack bearers each bedecked with hop sprays, signalled the end of that harvest. The chief hop picker bore a pole garlanded with hops, leading them all to the farmhouse where they could expect a lavish feast presided over by the ‘King and Queen’ of the hop pickers. In order to avert ill fortune or ill luck from the evil eye, or sprites, the King and Queen caused confusion by exchanging their clothing. Cross-dressing during a celebration is yet another peculiar custom of the British Isles that has it origins in the superstitions that surround the fear of misfortune importuned upon them by non-human beings and forms. Everyone raised the first toast to the farmer and his wife for the feast’s provision.

Rush-bearing ceremonies also occur in August, although this is now commemorative rather than functional, though reeds gathered from the fenland reed-beds remain essential roofing and thatching materials. In the Middle Ages, rushes were strewn across cold flag floors to bear the bulk of dirt trodden in from muddy streets.

Towards the end of August and into September, coppiced hazel poles from managed woodlands were harvested and made into essential baskets for the fruit harvests, and hurdles for the sheep and cattle corals and pens.

Under the right to forage laws within the forests, fallen branches were gathered, dried and stored for winter fuel. This supplemented the gorse, bracken and peat gathered in July, used for fuel, baking ovens and thatches. Acorns, beech-mast and cobnuts, beans and barley spears were gathered by the poor to sell to farmers as winter feed for the pigs.

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Brambles and other late soft fruit, including wild bilberries and sloes were gathered along the lanes and hedgerows to eat, preserve or dry. It was a common superstition that after the 29th September, they were not fit for eating as the Old Devil had either spat upon them or trodden them with his dirty hooves. Turning now to folklore and tradition connected to the harvesting of grain, we find an even greater association with the King and Queen of the Harvest as purveyors of abundance.

The Harvest Lord

Seasonal harvesting was a prized skill and a good crew could command a healthy stipend. Carried out by travelling bands of casual labourers, Reaping gangs toured local farms announcing their arrival by scraping their scythes on farm yard cobbles. The most skilled reaper was elected as Harvest Lord who negotiated rates of pay for reaping, carting and stacking of the grain and for gloves to protect hands against thistles and thorns. The contract was sealed by a token payment of 1 shilling and a pint of ale per head. Newcomers to the crew, especially if unseasoned, or from out of town, could expect an ‘initiation.’

Undertaken by the Lord, this took the form of a simple charming secured by scraping the soles of the newcomer’s boots with a stone, ‘to ground’ any unfavourable sprite activity, or ill-luck brought there from outside the ‘consecrated’ gang members. Ably assisted by his Harvest Queen, the work began in earnest as soon as the corn was deemed ripe. It was her role to ensure each man received his allotted cider allowance of 8 pints per day and sandwiches and small pies to keep them going until sundown. Caraway seed cake was a popular treat served to the workers because the seeds were deemed to provide strength whilst securing their loyalty from other farmers wishing to lure away a proficient gang with the prospect of better pay.

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No time was wasted in their wandering off to find food and drink – it was brought to them. The race was on to harvest whilst the grain was dry and before it could deteriorate or spoil. A prolonged wet spell at the critical time could – and still can – cost an entire harvest. While the weather held, every able-bodied man, woman and child would be out in the fields. Harvest was a time of social bonding.  On fine days, work began at dawn around 4am and continued well into the evening as the Harvest Moon rises very close to sunset providing a few hours more of valuable extra light.

Sporting his conspicuous rushen hat entwined with green bindweed, interlaced with wild red poppies, the Harvest Lord opened the day’s work, setting the pace at an acre a day per man in each field tackled. Working in lines known as ‘flights,’ the men advanced through the swaying corn armed only with hand sickles or scythes, laying out the cut sheaves across the field ready for binding. The cut must be swift and sure, if manoeuvred incorrectly, the blade would knock back the stems, flattening them, rendering them useless.  To help counter this, the juice form the wild Arum lily was rubbed over the blades at intervals to retain sharpness and charm away ill strokes. Each field was cut in a circle, from the outside in.

Related imageAble-bodied youths followed behind the Reapers binding the corn sheaves with wisps of straw. An efficient binder was able to bind the sheaves for three Reapers; these were then stacked, or ‘shucked’ in pairs to dry for several days before taking them to the winnowing barns.

There was intense rivalry and competition between Reaping gangs, all desperate to prove their superiority, thus retaining the title of top gang which ensured their Lord could secure the best fee for them at the next year’s harvest tide. Singing loudly, folk songs echoed out across the busy landscape, each gang showing their prowess keeping up the pace and rhythm whilst giving good voice. In the Hebrides, this rivalry manifested in the creation of the Gobhar Bhacach -‘Lame Goat,’ fashioned intentionally to lay low the prowess of rival gangs. Once completed, the figure was hurled into the field where Reapers were yet to finish.  Tossed back and forth along the line to the last man reaping his own acre, fighting often erupted as a result of this grave insult.  No one wanted this misfortune, for it meant that perceived as lazy, he would not be hired in next year’s gang, and would find labour elsewhere hard to come by and he and his family might starve in the winter. There was a hardened incentive then to work hard in order to survive.

The Last Sheaf

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Deemed sacred, the last sheaf of corn left standing in the last field, known as the Mare or the Nack was believed to shelter the retreating corn spirit, which attracted several customs attached to its culling. Cutting this final sheaf was therefore subject to great ceremony and reverence.  Known as ‘Crying the Nack,’ the reluctance to cut this blessed last sheaf was never lightly broached.

In many cases, the reapers would encircle it backwards (so as not to be ‘seen’), and throw their sickles up and over from a safe but close distance, each man pitching for the prize. Once won, it was raised up with great pomp to “Holla the Nack,” the winner declaring “Arnack, Arnack, Arnack! We hav’en, we hav’en, we hav’en!” This was quickly fashioned into an intricate knot known as a corn dolly and tied with ribbons.

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A very similar rite took place in Hertfordshire called ‘Crying the Mare;’ using variations on the calls, including the following one, the Sheaf was fashioned into a four legged figure, with the ears of corn falling as a mane:

 

“Master he’s got in his corn
Well mawn, well shorn
Ne’er heeled over, ne’ stuck fast
Harvest he’s come home.”

The Reaper claiming that prize was awarded a place of honour at the supper table opposite the ‘Maister’ or ‘Lord.’  As so much of this lore is created to stave or assuage ill luck befalling the farm, the land and its produce, we can see how the Harvest King and Queen were substitutes for the farmer and his wife, who were the real patrons of the feast and the couple obliged to the Reapers for their labour. Diverting attention to them, and their antics, the ill-luck was distracted and lost to that subterfuge.

In the Scottish highlands, the youngest member of the team was given the dubious honour of culling the last sheaf, named the Maiden if the harvest was plentiful, or the Hag (Cailleach) Hag if the harvest was poor. In other places, she was referred to as the Kern Babby, plaited and knotted to form a female figure, which may even be ‘dressed’ later by the harvest Queen. It was deemed an ill omen if the Kern Babby got wet on its way to the Barn, the person guilty of that transgression was duty bound to forfeit any drinks owed to them by the rest of their gang members.

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The Mare, Nack, Kern Babby, Maiden or Hag, brought its own blessing to the household that held it, to maintain the flow of good luck upon and across that threshold. It was dispatched in several different ways according to local custom, via a complimentary rite that again, invited further blessings upon the land. They could be hung up by the farm house hearth, ploughed into the field on Plough Monday, hung out on New Year’s Day to feed the birds, fed to the horses or burned and trampled into the ground by horses hooves during the next year’s harvest when a new one was fashioned. When ploughing began in the New Year, a crooked furrow was tilled near the farm house to ensure any malicious intent from the faerie folk or curmudgeonly mortal was averted away from its hearth.

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The Hay Wain

The end of the grain harvest was cause for great celebration. A procession of the horse led hay wain, laden with the Harvest Lord/Maister his Lady/Dame, the exhausted Reapers, trundled triumphantly in the fading light back to the farm, bedecked with ears of corn, ribbons, corn flowers and poppies amidst much jubilation.

Painted and garlanded horns, were placed upon the head of the Harvest Lord; anointed with cider, he was then hailed as King of the Harvest. As the old folk gossiped and told stories to the young, fires were lit, the grand supper of meats, cheeses fresh bread, pies, fruits, tarts and puddings was served and the ale and cider flowed ever freely accompanied by singing that became increasingly bawdy, drinking games and much reverie.

In Wiltshire, the traditional harvest shout was:

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“Well ploughed! Well sowed!

Well harrowed! Well mowed!

All safely carted to the barn

with nary a load throwed!

Hip hip hip hooray!”

Gleaning

The woman elected as Harvest Queen or Dame, supervised the acquisition and fair distribution of the fallen ears of corn, a process called gleaning. Once grain harvest proper and the Harvest Supper over, women and children began scouring the fields for the leftover ears of corn picking up stray ears of corn from the stubble. Claimed under forage laws, all they could gather before sunset the next day was theirs to keep, an essential bonus that once ground into flour, could help provide bread during the winter months. In like manner to her Lord’s ‘initiation’ of new unseasoned Reapers, new gleaners would receive the grounding stone, tapped upon the sole of their boots before they were allowed to step foot into the fields to work.

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Once replenished with food and drink, sporting contests held the next day were favoured activities, these included football, swimming, sack races, leap frog, wrestling, tug o’ war, racing and dancing.  There was even an extraordinary broomstick dance contest, where the fittest men vied and pitted their agilities against each other, a quality that could mark them as potential Lord the following year. Gatherings of entire communities also honoured patron saints by visiting shrines and holy well, leaving tokens and making wishes for loved ones. Afflicted body parts were sometimes immersed in healing waters. Above all, the sense of a blessing, an obligation, a reciprocity, and gratitude for abundance instigated the theme for the grand fairs and events undertaken during August through to October. Celebrating community through custom and tradition, all of them involved drinking, feasting and revelry.

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In 1921, Punch published the following rhyme entitled ‘Hell in Herefordshire’ after hearing of the Bishop’s railing against the perils and consumption of cider and ale in England.

“The wild white rose is cankered
Along the Vale of Lugg,
There is poison in the tankard,
There’s murder in the mug;
Through all the pleasant valleys
Where stand the palefaced kine
Men raise the devil’s chalice
And drink this bitter wine.

Unspeakable carouses
That shame the summer sky
Take place in little houses
That look towards the Wye;
And near the Radnor border
And the dark hill of Wales
Beelzebub is warder
And sorcery prevails.

 

For spite of church and chapel
Ungodly folk there be
Who pluck the cider apple
From the cider apple tree,
And sqeeze it in their presses
Until the juice runs out,
At various addresses
That no one knows about.

And maddened by the orgies
Of that unholy brew
They slit each other’s gorges
From one a.m. till two.
Till Ledbury is a shambles
And in the dirt and mud
Where Leominster sits and gambles
The dice are stained with blood.

But still, if strength suffices
Before my day is done,
I’ll go and share the vices
Of Clungunford and Clun,
But watch the red sun sinking
Across the March again
And join the secret drinking
Of outlaws at Presteign.

Beware of farmhouse cider!”

Sadly, during the 1870s, harvest traditions changed forever when the horse-drawn reaper-binder appeared. What had once taken one man a day to reap and another to bind after him, could now be achieved by two men in an hour. Combine harvesters arrived in the 1930s which further reduced our active engagement and celebration of the land. Even so, over and over again, there are clear examples of long cherished customs preserved within the folk traditions of the British Isles, from the sacred gift of life, the divine king, the fecund queen, ancestral protection, and of camaraderie. What was once a collective effort and magical celebration of life that involved an entire community, now involved only a handful of farm workers. How much we have forgotten. How much we take for granted. How flaccid we have become. How apathetic to the chimes of Life and death? It is surely time to reclaim and revive an understanding of the customs we have lost and understand those better we continue still!

ár ok friðr! peace and good harvest!

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…………………………………………..

 

THE KALEVALA. PROEM.

•June 16, 2018 • 1 Comment

MASTERED by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation’s ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.
In my mouth the words are melting,
From my lips the tones are gliding,
From my tongue they wish to hasten;
When my willing teeth are parted,
When my ready mouth is opened,
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
Hasten from me not unwilling.

Golden friend, and dearest brother,
Brother dear of mine in childhood,
Come and sing with me the stories,
Come and chant with me the legends,
Legends of the times forgotten,
Since we now are here together,
Come together from our roamings.
Seldom do we come for singing,
Seldom to the one, the other,
O’er this cold and cruel country,
O’er the poor soil of the Northland.
Let us clasp our hands together
That we thus may best remember.
Join we now in merry singing,
Chant we now the oldest folk-lore,
That the dear ones all may hear them,
That the well-inclined may hear them,
Of this rising generation.

 


These are words in childhood taught me,
Songs preserved from distant ages,
Legends they that once were taken
From the belt of Wainamoinen,
From the forge of Ilmarinen,
From the sword of Kaukomieli,
From the bow of Youkahainen,
From the pastures of the Northland,
From the meads of Kalevala.
These my dear old father sang me
When at work with knife and hatchet
These my tender mother taught me
When she twirled the flying spindle,
When a child upon the matting
By her feet I rolled and tumbled.

Incantations were not wanting
Over Sampo and o’er Louhi,
Sampo growing old in singing,
Louhi ceasing her enchantment.
In the songs died wise Wipunen,
At the games died Lemminkainen.
There are many other legends,
Incantations that were taught me,
That I found along the wayside,
Gathered in the fragrant copses,
Blown me from the forest branches,
Culled among the plumes of pine-trees,
Scented from the vines and flowers,
Whispered to me as I followed
Flocks in land of honeyed meadows,
Over hillocks green and golden,
After sable-haired Murikki,
And the many-colored Kimmo.
Many runes the cold has told me,
Many lays the rain has brought me,
Other songs the winds have sung me;
Many birds from many forests,
Oft have sung me lays n concord
Waves of sea, and ocean billows,
Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation,
Oft have been my guide and master.


Sentences the trees created,
Rolled together into bundles,
Moved them to my ancient dwelling,
On the sledges to my cottage,
Tied them to my garret rafters,
Hung them on my dwelling-portals,
Laid them in a chest of boxes,
Boxes lined with shining copper.
Long they lay within my dwelling
Through the chilling winds of winter,
In my dwelling-place for ages.

Shall I bring these songs together
From the cold and frost collect them?
Shall I bring this nest of boxes,
Keepers of these golden legends,
To the table in my cabin,
Underneath the painted rafters,
In this house renowned and ancient?
Shall I now these boxes open,
Boxes filled with wondrous stories?
Shall I now the end unfasten
Of this ball of ancient wisdom,
These ancestral lays unravel?
Let me sing an old-time legend,
That shall echo forth the praises
Of the beer that I have tasted,
Of the sparkling beer of barley.
Bring to me a foaming goblet
Of the barley of my fathers,
Lest my singing grow too weary,
Singing from the water only.
Bring me too a cup of strong-beer,
It will add to our enchantment,
To the pleasure of the evening,
Northland’s long and dreary evening,
For the beauty of the day-dawn,
For the pleasure of the morning,
The beginning of the new-day.

 

Often I have heard them chanting,
Often I have heard them singing,
That the nights come to us singly,
That the Moon beams on us singly,
That the Sun shines on us singly;
Singly also, Wainamoinen,
The renowned and wise enchanter,
Born from everlasting Ether
Of his mother, Ether’s daughter.

Text from Sacred Texts

Images from Sacred Texts and Pinterest

 
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