The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday
Advertisements

My bedside table…

Each issue of Mslexia ends with an interview with a writer, journalist, poet etc. The prompts take a standard format and I thought it would be interesting to ponder my own answers…

The Table

An awful metal and plastic trolley that screams disability. Chosen because it can be moved easily, it can be easily reached without having to stretch and it does have a lot of space on it. Books also litter my bed.  And everywhere in my flat, you can stretch you arm out and grab a book.  I find it very comforting to be surrounded by books.

The Costume

Comfy pjs. Soft, stretchy bottoms and a t shirt. Preferably enough like lounge wear that I can get away with wearing when I leave the house.

The Method

Because of my disability, I read most of my books on my tablet and like to have both the audio and kindle versions so I can move between them as my health dictates. I have a foam triangle covered in non-slip netting that I use to prop up my tablet or book so I don’t have to bend my neck too much. In the past I’d have been laying on my side, propping up the book on a bear.

The Books…

Right now. I always have many books on the go… The main fiction book right now is Owlknight by Mercades Lackey, the last of a trilogy which makes me sad as I really like the characters. That said, there are other books set in the same world so I have more to move onto. There’s also Lady Killers by Tori Telfer and Stiff by Mary Roach.

Couldn’t put down. Pretty much anything by Robin Hobb definitely applies here. I also devoured Lucy Cookes’ Unexpected Truth About Animals over the summer. As a child, everything in my local library was unputdownable and included sweet valley books, Enid Blyton, Helen Forrester, E. B. Nesbitt and so many other books… Reaktion books are really interesting as well.

Gathering dust. I have so many books that many are literally gathering dust. Metaphorically, if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll leave it a while and return to it when I’m in a different mood. If I try this a few times and get nowhere, I’ll give it to a charity shop. Life is too short for bad books. My disability already reduces how much I can read so I’m not inclined to waste that on books I’m not enjoying…

Changed my life. This is a really tough question! I’d probably have to say all of them, but especially the books I read as a child and teenager. They gave me a way to escape, they showed me what was possible, they gave me friends and they inspired me. The Tamora Pierce books were very memorable and stood up to being read as an adult. They are an interesting take on gender and a recent twitter thread highlighted them as one of few books that mentioned periods…  And on that note, there were also the Judy Blume books…

Related posts:

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Mountains…

The Mother of the Mountains

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Mountains.
Mess with Her children, She’ll dust off an avalanche;
step out of line, She’ll realign your bones.
She’s a blue-eyed beauty,
and the mountains have their Mother’s eyes: deep lakes.
Gaze into them, you’ll see their thoughts like fish –
quick schools, slow rainbows – look deeper,
and you’ll learn to dream like a stone.
What does She feed them? Rain for breakfast.
Anything else? She peels them the sun for lunch.
And at night? Big helpings of quiet,
then the Mother of the Mountains sings them to sleep with snow.
The trees are Her grandkids; She brings them birds to play with.
Whenever it’s their birthday, She gives them an owl
’cause though She’s a blue-eyed beauty, She’s still kind.
Even soft  . . . even fragile . . .
Wolves howl to Her to show their gratitude. What about you?

Rob Carney

I love this way of looking at the mountain, a true deep personification, the mountain as mother, as provider and as oh so loving.

*  *  *

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Stars.
Mess with Her children, she’ll scatter white hot embers
and comets that burn
slowly
making Icarus seem like the lucky one.

Step out of line, She’ll set Draco on your trail.

She’s a wild eyed goddess
and the stars have their Mothers smile: radiating luminosity, intensity
burning bright.
Daring you to look and
punishing if you try.

What does she feed them? Diamonds and moon dust,
meteorites and wonderment.
She picks planets as though they were grapes,
offering them out as treats.

And at night? She drapes the sky with lush black velvet
then the Mother of the Stars steps back into the wings and lets her lovelies shine.

The milky way hides her grandkids as they grow;
She brings them tales from the cosmos, millennia old,
to fuel their fires and light the sparkles in their eyes.
Whenever it’s their birthday, she gives them pencils of sunlight
to practice joining dots into constellations.

Down on earth, eyes heavenwards, owls gaze in awe and gratitude.
What about you?

Nature and writing project: An update

So I’ve had a busy few months and whilst I’m pleased I’ve still been blogging, my nature and writing project has been paused.  A combination of going to Stanmore for three weeks, resting and recovering, and also getting used to having a lot more care.  With this in mind, I put my nature and writing project on hold – it had a summer holiday!

This means I will start getting back into it now that the summer holidays are over and the school year has begun again!  Expect more tarot and animal spirit posts as well as I’m planning – long term – to work through all my animal allies cards, my animal totem tarot cards with a focus on the animals.  I’m also planning – very long term – to work through all the tarot cards, having been inspired when I started with the ten of swords.

There are so many directions to take the nature and writing in and I think this is partly why I’ve not done much recently.  I was really clear about the different topics for the different months and now I’ve covered a lot of these, or at least touched the surface of them, and I don’t know whether I want to return to a topic or go with a new one!  So many choices and so little restrictions!  I think that’s why I’ve been doing the tarot and animal allies posts because then I’m not having to decide what to focus in on!

Animal Allies wise, I have the following to look into:

  • Bighorn sheep
  • Boar
  • Canary
  • Coyote
  • Mountain Lion
  • Opossum
  • Rat
  • Skunk
  • Squirrel
  • Turkey

As well as looking forward, I wanted to look back. I’ve been retired for over two years now and whilst I retired in May 2016, it was the September when things finally started to fall into place so I could have a life.  I decided that September 16-17 would be a bit of a ‘gap year’ for me.  I was overwhelmed at retiring, at having lots of things I wanted to do with my life and unsure what and how much I could actually do if I wasn’t destroying myself working.  It felt like there were so many directions I could go in and yet I didn’t want to commit to just one.  In the end, the gap year involved a good mix of things; art, Saturday classes at the university, writing and reading.  It was January 2017 when I started on my animal spirit posts and it was from there than I formed my nature and writing project.

I had a feeling before but now I know for certain that I am a lot happier when I have projects like these which are long term but with smaller short term chunks (the entire deck of oracle cards but also each individual post).

I have also finally found the kind of writing that comes naturally to me at this stage in my life.  As a child I wrote a lot of stories and created magazines and newspapers for fun.  As a teenager I wrote an awful lot of (probably quite awful) poetry.  I was a prolific poet and it just streamed out of me without much thought or effort.  As an adult I have tried to recreate the stories and the poetry but its felt forced and definitely didn’t flow as it once did.  This year whilst I was reading and writing and learning, I came across the term creative non fiction and it felt like a validation that my posts about animals, about nature, are creative and they do count as creative writing.  Because they are non fiction I had essentially dismissed the creativity in them.  And because they weren’t in a voiceless, facts only style I had dismissed them as non fiction. It wasn’t until I found the term creative non fiction that I was able to figure out what my writing is and from there I can learn more about the style and how to improve and explore different techniques.

There have of course been lots of other realisations and discoveries in the past year of my nature and writing project but the thing I am most proud of is that despite having 6 months of being incredibly ill, I didn’t give up.  I had to change goal posts and I had to instil patience in myself because I wasn’t physically able to do what I wanted.  I also had to spend my energy fighting for help when I wanted to be doing my nature and writing project instead.  But despite this, since I started it last September, I have written over 165,000 words and 186 blog posts.  I have carefully researched the topics I talk about and have done some really interesting reading and watching of documentaries to fuel what I am writing about.  For a year which involved six months of starvation (literally… I couldn’t swallow much food…), I’m pretty proud of myself.

I couldn’t possibly chose a favourite topic or post but the one I find myself telling people about more than any others is the post I did in October about the very real and very serious cases of animals in court on trial.  If you read nothing else I’ve written (except obviously some of this post to reach the link…), read that.

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted.

Campanula

          When I grow up, I want    |     When I grow up, I want
to be a campanula, growing     |     to be a campanula, self
tight to rocks     |   sufficient, hard, persistent
to stones     |   resistant
to walls.    | resistance.

         Spreading and reaching     |   Reaching and spreading
into the crevices of the     |  roots creeping though
humanmade world.      |  cracks in domesticity.

Patiently establishing myself;    |    Weakening structures
dainty, delicate lilac petals     |   forcing a new perception,
– miniature stars.   |  a new perspective.

When I grow up, I want
to be a campanula, a paradox.
Lover and fighter.
Darkness and light.
A fairy-flower-wall-tumbler.

And no one to expect any less from me.


I struggled with wordpress formatting this.. I tried all sorts but it wasn’t playing friendly with me… The first three stanzas are two columns, side by side, the left column is aligned to the right so they butt up against each other.  I’ve used |’s to separate the sides.

Place in poetry

I was going to write a post about how place is used in poetry as a complementary post to place in literature, and perhaps I still will, but I feel more drawn to sharing some examples of place in contemporary poems.

Gargoyle by Bruce Barnes writes from the perspective of York from one of the gargoyles on the minster.  I tried to find a copy online as I don’t like sharing work without permission but I couldn’t so instead I’m going to point you all to the Versions of the North anthology which is a great collection of contemporary Yorkshire poetry.  Having said that, here is an excerpt:

“Stuck up here, becoming less than what I was,
the mason’s mark still, even stone gets livid,
saying, “Oh, sod this for a game of soldiers…”

expletives deleted by the roar of the street”

I thought this was an interesting angle on place poetry, the gargoyles are such a fundamental, but vastly overlooked, part of the minster and they have endured for centuries, despite become less than they were.  They have seen immense change, creation and destruction, life and death, each gargoyle looking at a slightly different part of York, a deep knowing of the small view they have.

Adrienne Rich’s Turning the Wheel (listen to her reading this and other poems ) sums up sense of place for me in the first two lines:

“The road to the great canyon always feels
like that road and no other”

Far away from the Yorkshire I am familiar with, Rich writes of the universal experience of sense of place in those lines.  Here though, she is writing politically about the history of the place, what has been erased and what later becomes icon-ised, and in turn made unreal.  The history of the land, of place, in America is one that is often fraught with tension and violence and colonialism. A history that was ignored and that more recently has been rewritten.  “Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around”, writes Rich.

A very different poem is Amanda Dalton’s Making Space about both creating a room where there was none and creating space in our lives.  From the blurb for the collection, we find that

“How to Disappear shines a torch into the dark corners and finds a world inhabited by the missing and the dead, by monsters and wounded beasts, discarded dreams and the memories of strangers – a trawl through the apparently empty spaces and what might be found there.”

“For days the builders filled the house.
They lifted wood and fibreglass
into the dark hole in the roof.
She watched their shadows lurching
in uneven shafts of artificial light
and tried to understand how anyone
could ever make a space of this.”
an excerpt, again I couldn’t find an online copy

Jessie Lendennie’s Quay Street, Galway speaks to me of the parts of us we leave behind everywhere we go.  We lose something of ourselves in the places we move though but we gain something else, something we often can’t articulate.  But we change as we move through places and the places change as we move through them.  What ghosts have you left behind?

My final look at poetry and place is an anthology which describes itself as “a book of place-awareness and companion to illness from the writings of David Dorward, CP Will and Adam Watson”.  A far-off land is a small collection which is for MacMillan Cancer Support, here are some lines from it:

“to hear a place-name is to recollect a life”

“turn for home
when your foot-
steps stop follow-
ing behind you
in the snow”

“one learns          one learns
          to die        to live       
       by dying
         to live           to die       
by living               by dying”

Place features heavily in poetry, in many ways, shapes and forms and I hope I’ve given a flavour of the different ways of approaching place and poetry.

No One Is British

No one is British

On an island that has only existed

Eight millennia,

 

In a world that was born

Over four and a half

Billion years ago.

 

No one is British

In a land with a muddy,

Rain sodden history

Of raiders and invaders,

Of settlers and leavers

 

Rome took a chance

And Rome took charge

Then Rome retreated.

 

Not the first

And not the last

To dip a toe

In this archipelago.

 

Picti and Scotti and Attacotti

Preyed upon the shores.

Ravaged and rampaged

Looted and left.

 

In need of a place

To replace

Lost homes, Saxons and Angles

and Jutes showed up.

Desperately colonising

A nation of future colonialists.

 

No one is British.

On an island that has only existed

Eight millennia.

 

Keep your racism.

Keep your hate.

 

No one is British,

Not even you.