Myth & Music

Storyteller

Ever since the first people sat around their campfires, we have told stories. People tell tales to explain events and to justify their actions. We see how one thing led to another, and wonder what might happen next. We learn about how we should behave in a similar situation. We use stories to understand the world.

But before myth, there was music. Before words, rhythm bound groups together. Making music was the first shared ritual. At the start, just simple repetitive beats. Hand slapping into hand, feet pounding on bare ground. Then sounds raised in song. Rhythms reflecting the cycles of nature, percussion pulses like the heart of the group.

Music and stories work because they both use sequence. We see patterns in things – shapes in tealeaves, faces in the clouds – it’s called pareidolia. Perceiving patterns is how we learn from experience: we form a causal narrative sequence of events, ie a story. Sharing stories is how we communicate our learning to others. This is because humans are storytelling animals: our brains are hardwired for narrative. Stories let us relate to people, convey a message, promote a cause: if you want to change your life or change the world, do it with a story.

Myth and music have much in common. They each use classic elements woven into new compositions. They both depend on harmony and counterpoint, synchrony and balance. Recurring themes echo and contrast with each other. A melody repeats but in a different key. The hero and the villain often have much in common. Music and myth follow rules, yet work best when they play with our expectations. They are linear compositions which lift us above the sequential constraints of everyday life. And like jazz, we make up a lot of life as we go along.

Myths are some of the best stories ever told. They have stood the test of time, surviving to be re-told generation after generation. Tales of heroes and clever girls, treasure and monsters capture our imagination. Our modern world doesn’t contain many dragons, but metaphorical monsters still exist: stories show you a way to go on. Myths and fairytales tell us to be brave and teach us to tackle life’s problems. Whether you’re a princess or an urchin, a lot of courage and a measure of good sense will see you through.

Meanwhile, music reminds us to be creative. When we remember to play, we know that we can constantly create new realities. The point of a symphony isn’t to get to the final chord, it’s to dance whilst the music plays. The universe is composed of a symphony of energies: life is a dance to that cosmic sound.

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Telling Your Story

img_6770“So what do you do?” It’s a question that most of us answer badly. We fall back behind a label (‘I’m a doctor / lawyer / accountant’). Or we relate what we’ve done in the past, a list of tasks completed rather than an exploration of goals achieved and skills acquired. Or worst of all, we claim not to do anything at all! (‘I’m just a housewife, I’m unemployed …’) when that just means that you’re not currently paid money for all the things you do and you love.

But when you define yourself like this, you’re missing out on an opportunity to really connect with the other person. You’re selling yourself short, and cheating them too in the process. img_6734How you present yourself has a huge impact on how others see you. You wouldn’t buy an expensive gift and hand it over in an old paper bag. So when you meet people, present yourself well: it helps them see you clearly.

Recently I was introduced to Steve at a networking event. “So what do you do?” I asked. “Oh, it’s very boring,” he replied. “I look at numbers on a screen.” “Tell me more,” I persisted. “It’s just data. I look for anomalies in the figures.” By this point I was starting to feel desperate, but I tried a third time: img_6769“Can you give me an example?” “Well yeah … you know when there’s a hurricane in the Caribbean and people donate money? We buy tents and send them over but sometimes they go missing before they reach the camps. That means someone stole them and I work out who.” “Oh my goodness,” I said. “So you’re a sort of Robin Hood for refugees … Why didn’t you say so?”

When you’re asked what you do, how do you reply? Answering with a job title and company is our cultural norm; anything else could make you feel exposed and vulnerable. But the way you present yourself has a huge impact on how others perceive you. When you’re freelance, self-employed, or looking for a new job – how could you introduce yourself in a way that makes you sound interesting? Which emphasizes not only what you’ve done but what you can offer? That tells them about your passions and what makes life worth living? Which makes you feel better about yourself?

img_6733So next time, answer with a story that tells people about yourself. Which lets them connect with you as a human being. You’re much more than what you do for a living. You’re  unique, tell us how!

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Walk In Their Shoes

* Social reporting is a collaborative way of curating an event. Leaders and participants are all invited to contribute. The record may include words, images, links and video clips.*

TattooAnthropologists are fond of a technique called ‘participant observation’. You join a remote tribe in Borneo, or a street gang in East Harlem, and become part of the group. Soon you’re enthusiastically taking part in a whole new world. Dance-offs? Eating lizards? Initiation rites? You acquire tattoos in places that don’t show on the metro. It’s all based on the premise that to really understand someone, you have to walk a mile in their shoes. If you want to catch big fish, you must be prepared to swim with sharks.

Social reporting is a similar idea, but it’s more a matter of participants’ observations. What we’re aiming for here isn’t just recording what went on: it’s getting people involved in the process, so that they want to see the result. A ‘conference’ (Latin: ‘bring together’) is much more than just a series of lectures and meetings. Before the event, the organizers plan a formal timetable. During the sessions, participants have experiences which may or may not reflect the official schedule. Afterwards, attendees want to remember what actually happened. When you bring people together you can’t always control what goes on!

What’s special about this technique? Simply, it’s collective storytelling: the output evolves as you go along. It’s a way of getting people involved and interested. It lets everyone contribute to the final record. Which makes the report feel more relevant for all concerned.

Social reporting is a participative and inclusive approach. It encompasses a role, a set of skills and a philosophy. The philosophy is that everyone’s experiences and perspective are valid and worth consideration: we shouldn’t just rely on the official version of events. The skills involve collection, collation and curation. The role is that of anthropologist, looking simultaneously outside in and inside out, to truly represent the gathering.

SocRepConfMe (2)Why does social reporting work? Because it goes with human nature. People are most interested in their own stories. When you see a group photo, who’s the first person you look for?  If your college has a year book, whose page do you turn to first? When a report drops onto your desk, do you read it all eagerly?  Or do you flip through the bit that affects you, then file it away? When you use social reporting to curate an event, you’ll ensure that everyone looks through the whole report. It recreates the content, mood and ethos of the gathering in an accessible and memorable way.

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The Power of Story

Tell me your story. Let’s start at the very beginning. Where in the world were you born? What name did your parents give you? Do you have brothers and sisters? Where did you go to school? In other words, Who are you??

Footprints

There are seven billion people on this planet, but your story is unique. Everything about you – your loves and your hates, your gifts and your challenges, your disappointments and your successes – is part of your personal narrative. All your experiences have made you who you are today. They are a line of footprints leading to exactly where you are now.

 

TapestryLife is a tapestry woven from many threads. Everyone you meet is a part of this pattern. Each of them has their own story that made them who they are today: the schoolboy on the #33 bus, the woman in the corner shop, the funny guy at the party, the old man on the park bench: they all have their own private hopes and dreams, their fears and regrets, their longings and secret sadnessses. When you see them in the street, wonder about the series of events which brought them to cross your path. Think about who they really are, behind that public mask. Ask yourself what lessons you could learn from them.

 

When you tell me your story, you are telling me about yourself. You decide what is important: the people, places and events that are significant in your life. Naturally, you edit the narrative to suit your image. Some incidents make you look clever, funny or brave; others don’t reflect your real self. Life Story BookYou tell stories to make sense of your life, linking one thing to another  in a causal sequence of events. Be careful, because stories can create reality. Tell someone about what you’ve achieved, and watch your reflection in their eyes. Moan about how hard things have been, and those obstacles will cast ongoing shadows in your path. Stories can literally change the world. They provide models and metaphors which shape your perceptions. Hearing a well-told tale may transform your life. Leaders, teachers, lawyers and politicians all understand the power of story.

 

StoryOldManYour friends and family and colleagues each have their own story. Ask them about it: you might be surprised how little you know. When you listen to someone else’s story, you learn about things outside your own personal experience. If you find things in common, you feel closer to that other person. If their experiences are very different, you can empathize with them. Stories can teach you about how the world works, about how people think and feel, about what to expect from life. When friends share stories, you help each other to learn and grow.

 

So start asking people questions. Be genuinely interested in their answers. When you talk to someone, give them your full attention. So often, people get stuck on superficialities: What do you do? Where do you live? These markers help to place someone, but they don’t really tell you about the person you’re talking to. Everyone has something to share which could enrich your life. Try some more significant questions. When do you feel really happy? What’s your favourite saying? Why did you come to this place? Who are the most important people in your life? What’s on your bucket list? What’s your story?

 

That’s one thing you could ask everyone you meet: Tell me your story….

 

LifeWorks‘ shows how you compose your own life story. ‘StoryWorks‘ is my new book on the power of story. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, leave a comment and use the buttons below to Share on Twitter, Facebook and Stumbleupon.

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Archetypal Figures

LifeWorksAre you a clever girl or a wise woman? A hero or a trickster? There’s more to you than meets the eye, but you have a certain personality. And this persona tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your self-image affects how you feel. Your feelings influence the way you act. And your actions ensure that you get the experiences you expect. In other words, your character affects what happens in your life story.

All the world’s a stage and you act a central character. You choose your part and find people to play with you. At the same time, your image determines what role you play in their story. You relate to people whose life scripts fit with yours. All our stories draw on a common set of characters. The same figures recur in tales from different times and places: the princess, the good mother, the wise man and so on. We recognize such roles easily when we encounter them. The psychologist Carl Jung called these universally recurring figures ‘archetypes’.

Archetypes are outline forms which appear in the human psyche. They consist of clusters of stereotypical attributes. We fill in their features on the basis of personal experience. Your image of a ‘good mother’ draws on your own encounters with mothering. You fear the witch because of folktales you once heard. These figures are familiar and reassuringly predictable. They help us to make sense of the world.

Dancing FiguresWhen you interact with other people, you are usually playing one of these archetypal roles. You pick a part and act it out with your own personal interpretation. This character is your public image. It determines how other people see you, and how you see yourself. You have relationships with people who will act complementary roles. The hero needs a princess to rescue; the good mother wants a hungry urchin to feed.

The character you choose is influenced by the people around you. Social and economic factors limit the parts you can play: Beauty may be financially dependent on her Beast. But ultimately the only limiting factor is your imagination. When you change, so do your relationships with other people. Beauty can get a job and take control of her own life.

Writing on the WallThe writing’s on the wall but who composed it? You did: but usually you’ve used automatic writing. Most of us drift through life without realizing what’s going on. We accept the hand that fate has dealt us, without ever trying to change our cards. We fall into friendships out of convenience rather than choice. We stay in jobs that don’t really inspire us because we can’t see any alternative. Our lovers may take us for granted, or even abuse us: we act as if there’s nothing we can do about it.

Actually you have more control over your story than you think. You can broadly choose what happens in your life. Will you go to college or get a job? Do you want to stay single or get married? You may have to modify the details but you decide what you want to do. If you don’t make conscious choices, you’re actually deciding by default. What matters is to become aware of this process.

Antique BookThe greatest story ever told is happening right now, all around you. Your personal role is unique, but we’re all on the same great journey. Your life script interlocks with the stories of everyone you know. You choose the part you want to play, and you decide what to do. Once you are aware of this, you can start to take control of your life. Now there’s an empowering thought. Your story so far tells who you were: what happens next is up to you!

This post is based on an article in Watkins Magazine Issue 33 Spring 2013.

LifeWorks‘ shows how you use archetypal figures in your life story. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, leave a comment and use the buttons below to Share on Twitter, Facebook and Stumbleupon.

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Labyrinths

Labyrinth MinotaurLabyrinths are often seen as a metaphor for confusion. Theseus chases the Minotaur through a labyrinth; Jung talks of the labyrinth of the unconscious mind. Actually these are examples of mazes, not labyrinths. A maze is a web of tracks designed to confuse and disorient:  false turns and dead ends conspire to get you hopelessly lost. In a labyrinth, your path may twist and turn, but there is only one route.  If you follow the way, you will inevitably come to the centre. Labyrinths are a symbol of the soul’s journey: keep going, and you will find your true destination.

Labyrinth Chartres CathedralLabyrinths have been marked and walked since ancient times. They feature in spiritual traditions from around the world as a method of obtaining enlightenment. Usually they are in the form of two-dimensional patterns marked on the ground. They may be spiral, symmetrical or random meanderings. Early Christian churches feature labyrinthine patterns as a representation of human life, with the centre symbolizing salvation. In medieval Christianity, walking the labyrinth was a form of symbolic pilgrimage: religious rituals were conducted on the patterned floors of great cathedrals such as Chartres and Amiens. Nowadays ‘labyrinth workshops’ in both Christian and New Age traditions hark back to this ancient source of spiritual insight.

Labyrinth London UndergroundLondon Underground are installing a labyrinth in every station to commemorate their 150th year. The series of 270 black-and-white enamel plaques has been designed by Turner-winning artist Mark Wallinger. Each one is unique but they are all circular, and have a single starting point. The first ones were put up today and by summer 2013 they will all be in place. The designs will be numbered for the station to which they are assigned: this is their position in the ‘Tube Challenge’ – the route by which you can visit every station in the shortest possible time. Well, we each have our own spiritual journey….

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Plough Monday

Ploughing in SnowPlough Monday traditionally marked the end of the midwinter festivities. The Twelve Days of Christmas were over: on the Monday after Epiphany, it was time to return to work. But in medieval England, it was an excuse for agricultural labourers to make money at a hard time of year. Ploughmen were meant to report early for duty at the start of the new planting season. Instead they would drag a decorated plough around the village, shouting “Penny for the Plough!” They were often accompanied by a boy acting the Fool, who wore animal skins and carried a pig’s bladder on a stick; and a man dressed as an old woman, known as the Bessy. This echoes the characters typically found in modern pantomimes. Plough MondayParticipants dressed in motley costumes and blackened their faces with soot. This disguise protected them from repercussions when they ploughed up the front garden of any householder who declined to contribute. In Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, the ploughboys performed ‘molly dances’; in the East Midlands they put on mummer’s plays. Their first takings went towards a ‘plough light’, a candle in the local church; the rest were spent on ale. Revellers feasted on ‘Plough Pudding’, a boiled suet pudding containing meat and onions. The Plough Monday customs declined in the 19th century but have been revived in the 20th, though they are now usually held on a Saturday – ensuring that participants can report for work on time!

Plough Monday is a good time to ‘put your hand to the plough’ and start a new project. Good luck with those New Year Resolutions!

LifeWorks‘ is about using myth and archetype to develop your life story. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, leave a comment and use the buttons below to Share on Twitter, Facebook and Stumbleupon.

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Christmas Customs

XmasWreathHave you written your Christmas cards? Made some mince pies? Put up the tree? On these cold winter days, we need a festival to feel good about life. Our midwinter customs go back a long way….

Christmas really began in the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Celebrations for Jesus’ birthday were moved to the midwinter solstice, conveniently coinciding with the ancient festival of Saturnalia. People were already decorating their houses with evergreens, feasting and exchanging small gifts. Now they could carry on carousing in a suitably Christian spirit.

It wasn’t just the Romans who celebrated the turning of the year. Many of our traditions have Norse or Teutonic origins. Viking children got midwinter presents from Father Odin, riding on his eight-legged horse. The English word Yule comes from the Scandinavian wheel’ (hjul). Cart wheels and spinning-wheels were ceremonially bound to prevent use. XmasTreeThe Yule log was hauled in from the woods on the solstice – around Christmas Eve – and kept burning for the next twelve days. This is the sacred time set aside for celebrations, and marks the period between Christ’s birth and the arrival of the Three Kings (Epiphany).

Advent literally means ‘coming’ (ad-venire). Christians decorate their houses to welcome the holy infant. Evergreen branches symbolize his promise of eternal life. The fir tree with gifts was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert after he married Queen Victoria in 1840. Pine wreaths on the door are another Germanic custom, circles symbolizing eternity.

XmasHollyHolly was used by the Saxons in their sun-return festivals. It is named the ‘holy-tree’ because berries like blood-drops appear about this time. Ivy is another evergreen, originally dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus (Greek Dionysius): the French word ivre means ‘drunk’! Its twining tendrils are a symbol of lasting love.

XmasMistletoeMistletoe was known to the Celts as ‘all-healer’: a sprig brings good luck, not to mention an excuse for  kissing. It was venerated by the druids, who believed it was seeded by lightning: these pagan associations exclude it from church decorations.

Candles on Christmas Eve guide the Holy Family towards shelter. They recall Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, which is celebrated around this time of year. Midnight chimes were once a protective noise to drive away bad spirits. XmasChristingleCarols (Latin choraula, a flute-player) were originally circle dances accompanied by singing: St Francis of Assisi introduced joyous hymns and set up the first Nativity crib in 1224AD. Nowadays children attend a Christingle service, carrying an orange (representing the world), tied with a red ribbon (blood of Christ), decorated with a candle and sweets.

XmasPuddingWe prepare seasonal food: sugared and spiced to mask the taste of stored ingredients. Each country has its own specialities. Eat a mince pie in a friend’s house on each of the twelve days of Christmas for a happy month in the coming year. Round biscuits, puddings and pies recall the shape of the sun; the blue brandy-flames around a plum pudding recall the ancient solstice festival.

Cards at Christmas are a good tradition, albeit a relatively new one. They only date from Victorian times – after all, they presume a postal service and high literacy rates. The first commercial Christmas cards were produced in 1846: they were condemned by temperance enthusiasts because they showed a family drinking wine.

Christmas cards perform a very different  function from e-mail or Facebook: each envelope is a small gift, representing a quantifiable investment of writing time and money. Of course, card etiquette is fraught with difficulty. Is a hand-written note preferable to a round-robin letter? How many years should you continue sending if there is no reply? Why do people always send you a card the year when you finally cross them off your list? What does my choice of charitable cause say about me? But this is as naught compared with the problems of presents, especially the annual potlatch* festivities with the relatives (*Native American celebration where big chiefs distributed status goods)…

StNickSleighThat leaves just one important question.
Is Santa Claus Real?
Click on the link to find out!
And it’s nearly time for some New Year’s Resolutions.

If you like this post, leave a comment and use the buttons below to Share on Twitter, Facebook and Stumbleupon. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. ‘LifeWorks‘ is about using myth and archetype to develop your life story.

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Numerology

What’s your lucky number? According to numerology, it might really have a secret significance. The first numbers were just mnemonic symbols to record trade transactions (The Story of Writing). We use a decimal system, but how many digits do we really need? Some Australian Aboriginal tribes only have words for one, two and many. The super-computers that control our space program just use the numerals 0 and 1 (off and on). But numbers are more than a mere tool for calculation: they are the product of sign and sound, and have esoteric meanings.

0 was invented by Babylonian priests in the Middle East around 500BC. The mathematician Fibonacci brought it to Europe around 1200AD, along with the rest of the Arabic numerals.* Zero is implicit in multiple dichotomies: absence and presence; dark and light; yin and yang. The circle is a symbol of eternal perfection, but zero originally carried connotations of dark magic: transcribing ‘nought’ was potentially an act of annihilation.

1 is a symbol of unity and wholeness, linked with God in the monotheistic religions.

2 is a symbol of division, the conflict which characterizes worldly existence. It represents duality and hence potentially complementarity. In stories, twins or brothers represent different aspects of the same character. In China, the number 2 is considered lucky. At New Year, bright-coloured oranges are given in pairs.

3 is the number of divine order. It combines the numerals of 1 (divinity) with 2 (humanity). Three represents the trinity of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. Time itself is divided into the past, present and future. The Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva embody creation, preservation and destruction. For the Greeks and Celts, the Triple Goddess manifests as the figures of Maiden, Mother and Matriarch (Crone). Most human societies have a tripartite division (warrior-lords, priest-scholars and producers). Three is an auspicious number: third time lucky, as the storytellers remind us.

4 represents the cardinal directions, or points of the compass. The number 4 therefore represents the world and earthly existence. In Western tradition there are four winds, four seasons and four elements. Jung regarded quaternity as ‘the archetypal basis of the human psyche’. Four is especially significant in Native American myth and symbolism.

5 is the central point of the four directions. It is the sum of the first even and odd numbers, symbolizing the unity of male plus female, and the median of the first nine digits. For Muslims, there are five hours of prayer and five ritual elements of the hajj (pilgrimage). The pentagram is a symbol of esoteric knowledge, as evinced in the cross-section of Eve’s apple.

6 points characterize the star formed by a pair of inverted triangles. In Hindi tradition this represents the lingam penetrating the yoni, or the union of masculine and feminine. In the West it became the Seal of Solomon (Star of David), showing the human combination of flesh with spirit. Six embodies the balance of good and evil in manifest creation.

7 is the sacred union of four and three: it is the number of wholeness and perfection. There are seven days of the week; seven planets; seven branches on the shamanic tree. Our lives go in seven-year cycles, and there are seven ages of man.

8 is the number of cosmic balance. Sideways, it is the mathematical symbol for infinity.

9 is thrice three, a sacred ritual number in many traditions. Greek Demeter wandered the earth for nine days searching for Persephone. Norse Odin hung on the World Tree for nine days in search of wisdom. There were nine steps leading up to the Chinese Imperial Throne. According to Dante, there are nine celestial spheres and correspondingly nine circles of hell. Inverted and subverted, a triple nine becomes ‘the number of the devil’.

12 is the product of three and four: it links the worlds of gods, men and spirits. These are often shown conjoined by the World Tree, with Heaven in the branches and the Underworld amongst the roots. The number twelve is significant in many traditions. There are twelve seats on Mount Olympus; Jesus has twelve disciples; there are twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve months in the solar calendar year.**

Numerology perceives meaning in quantitative symbols. Plato considered it the basis of cosmic and inward harmony; Pythagoras viewed it as fundamental to understanding cosmic rhythms. The Chinese saw it as the key to harmonizing their Empire with the Laws of Heaven. Nowadays we see digits as having pragmatic rather than predictive powers. But if you don’t believe in the magic of numbers, just consider the miraculous properties of pi….

*Zero isn’t needed for simple record-keeping systems: the Romans had a symbol for ‘10’, a separate symbol for ‘100’ (10×10), another for ‘1000’ (10×100) and so on. But zero is useful if you have a positional system of counting. Take a number like 1001: you need to indicate that there is nothing in the tens and hundreds columns. A simple dash is easily confused, especially with a double gap. Originally, ‘0’ was just a token to fill an empty space. It began to be seen as a number in India during C5AD. Nothing (the state of emptiness) is something, a profound philosophical concept: zero is the average of +1 and -1: and bingo, the science of mathematics is born.

**There are thirteen lunar months in the year. The number is thought by some to be unlucky, because of its pagan connotations: witches are said to meet in covens of thirteen, by the light of the moon. The Wicca movement has reclaimed thirteen as the number of the Divine Feminine.

Visit my Author Page for more posts and pictures. ‘LifeWorks‘ is about how you use myths and archetypal figures to develop your life story. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post,  use the buttons to Share on Stumbleupon, Facebook & Twitter.

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Hallowe’en

Hallow’s Eve: the night before All Saint’s Day, when dark things walk the earth. Good folk need protective rituals to keep their houses safe from harm. People may call it Fright Night, but actually the things associated with Hallowe’en are designed to ward off evil forces.

In Celtic times, late autumn marked the feast of Samhain. The end of the year was celebrated with a great fire festival. At this time the veil between the worlds was thin, and ghosts walked the earth. Rituals were needed to protect the living from the dangers of the spirit world. Most of our modern customs date from traditional Celtic ceremonies.

Bonfires were lit to combat the forces of darkness. Turnip lanterns were whittled into fearsome faces to scare away evil spirits: no ghost would enter if they thought a fiercer fiend already lived within. Scottish settlers took this custom to America, where they found orange pumpkins much easier to carve.

Bobbing for apples was a traditional children’s game. Apples are an ancient fertility symbol, ripening in autumn but keeping well until the season of renewal. Their pentagramic cross-section is an esoteric symbol of wisdom, as recalled in the Bible story. They can be dipped in honey, showing the sweetness of life – or more conveniently coated in toffee.

Spider webs recall the ‘web of wyrd’ that binds all living things together. Wyrd is an old Celtic concept reflecting the interconnected nature of everything in this world. It includes ideas of ecology, fate and karma (Sanskrit and Celtic traditions are fundamentally related). Macbeth’s ‘wyrd sisters’ are not strange, but wise women.
Witches are wise women, of course: herbalists, healers and midwives. They incurred the wrath of the medieval church, which cared more for saving souls than healing bodies. Henceforth witches were seen as evil crones who commanded supernatural powers due to a pact with the devil. The witch’s black cloak and pointed hat are the colour of darkness. Her companion is a cat, associated with the pagan mother goddess. Her broom combines a phallic shaft with bristly bush, a blatant fertility symbol. Her cauldron recalls the regenerative cauldron of life.

Hallowe’en has taken off as one of the major events of the childhood year. Non-celebrants often criticize it as a combination of threats and gluttony. But now you know the origins, you’ll see it’s not so bad. The real time for trouble is Mischief Night. On 30th October, Yorkshire lads and lasses traditionally delivered the tricks without the treats. Anyone with a grudge would exploit it ruthlessly. Doors would be daubed, carts thrown in the village pond, and much worse. Which would you choose to celebrate??

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Hiawatha

In the old days, the braves were always fighting. Summertime, and the living was easy: what else was there for a boy to do?

Quite a lot, actually. The Iroquois tribes who controlled lands along the Atlantic coast were renowned as hunters and warriors. This constant warfare was getting in the way of growing food. Their women told them to stop, but the braves refused to listen. Tribe fought with tribe, villages raided other villages, and even between families there were arguments. Fear and hatred reigned in the land and nobody was safe. Something needed to be done, so the people would not go hungry.

Haio Hwa Tha (‘He Who Makes Rivers’) was a Mohawk chief. Amongst these warring tribes, he was held to be the best fighter in the land. But Haio Hwa Tha was also revered by his people as a wise man. One summer day a Huron shaman named Deganawida arrived at his longhouse, seeking an audience. This was most unusual, and the tribe gathered together to hear him speak.
“Fighting must cease in this land,” Deganawida said. “The Great Sky Spirit never intended that blood should flow between human beings.”
“But if we do not fight,” one man objected, “we will be killed by the neighbouring tribes.”
“They have already heard my message of peace,” said Deganawida, and the Mohawk people then accepted his vision too.

Haio Hwa Tha proposed that the tribes should unite in a peaceful federation, with a council of delegates and regular meetings for shared ceremonies. The League of the Long House, Haudenonsaunee, was founded by five tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Senecca, Cayuga and Onondagas peoples. The Confederacy had been going strong for at least fifty years when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in 1621. The newcomers were impressed with this democratic system of government: popular history credits it with influencing the American Constitution.

In 1854, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians… It is to weave together their beautiful traditions as whole.” What he produced next year was ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ a composite of myth, legend and folklore. At a time when many white people regarded the natives as savages, Longfellow’s lyrical lines were a hit. He evoked a traditional way of life where man lived in close harmony with the natural environment.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis….

Read more about Longfellow: Father of historical fiction in guest post at Past Times Books. More stories in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Follow Jane on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons below to Share on Facebook, Twitter or Stumbleupon.

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Lughnasa

Lughnasa (1st August) marks the beginning of harvest-time and the ripening of the first crops. In Irish mythology, the festival takes its name from Lugh, the god of light. According to the Book of Invasions, Lugh was a boy hero who became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He was known as the ‘Bright One’, and was renowned for his all-round skills. Lugh proclaimed the festival in honour of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the forests of Ireland so that the land could be cultivated. Tailtiu was a corn goddess, her role comparable to Demeter, Gaia or Mother Earth. Her funeral games became part of the ritual calendar of the Celts.

The Tailteann Fair was a time for thanksgiving and celebration. Peace was declared throughout the land, so families and friends could travel to be together. Fighting and feuds were replaced by contests of strength and skill. Lughnasa was a favoured time for handfastings, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day before they were finished or formalized. The first corn was made into a loaf and offered to the gods on a high hilltop. Then the people could relax and celebrate with feasts, bonfires and dancing.**

The Christian church adopted this summer thanksgiving, calling it Lammas (loaf-mass). A newly-baked loaf of bread is placed on the altar in gratitude for the harvest. The honouring of Tailtiu’s sacrifice is echoed in the Catholic veneration of ‘Our Lady’. In modern Ireland, people still have parties to celebrate Lughnasa. In the USA, where many Irish immigrants settled during the 1800s, August was a time for family reunions. Later generations have moved Lughnasa get-togethers to coincide with the Fourth of July celebrations.

* Lughnasa should properly be celebrated on 12 August since 1752 when Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In Irish Gaelic, Lunasa is simply the name for August. In Scottish Gaelic the festival and the month are both called Lùnastal.
**Lughnasa is sometimes called a fire festival. In fact, there were no fires apart from those needed for cooking and light. The festival is properly associated with water and earth, the attributes of a corn goddess.
Lugh is shown here with a spear and sling.

More about myths in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Follow Jane on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons below to Share on Facebook, Twitter or Stumbleupon.

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The Hero’s Journey

Do you know about the hero’s journey? The one where you set out on a journey, and meet a wise man, and fight a dragon to gain treasure? Of course you do, because you’ve done it. The monster you fought may have been metaphorical – there aren’t many dragons in modern cities – but it was a real threat nonetheless. Luckily monsters come in different sizes: you tend to get the adventure for which you are prepared. It works like this….

Hercules (Herakles in Greek) was a golden boy. To his doting parents, his gifts were apparent from an early age  His mother made him a cradle from a great bronze shield. Once a snake slid in beside him, and he strangled it with his bare hands. As he grew older he was a wild one, good at games but less keen on school stuff. His mother made him take music lessons, but he hit his teacher over the head with a lyre. If there was fun or trouble brewing, you could be sure to find Hercules at the heart of it. Tall and strong, he was always a leader among the boys. He wore a lionskin which he slung over his shoulders like a cloak.

When he was older, his temper got the better of him. In a fit of madness, he killed his children. The Twelve Labours were set as penance, a way to reconcile him with the world. The first few depended on brute force: he used muscle power to wrestle beasts to the ground, assert dominance over nature. Later on, things started to get more complicated. He had to work out challenges, start to use his mind. The last task involved a trip to the Underworld. This is a symbolic journey, and necessitated insight and spiritual wisdom.

Hercules is honoured because he made the hero’s journey. He plumbed the depths of despair, gained wisdom and returned to benefit the rest of society. He has been remembered down the ages; he even got a constellation named after him. But the real reason we retell his story is that it resonates with our own lives. We each have to grow up, face our personal demons, and hopefully learn a degree of self-knowledge. There will be times when we despair, and times when we triumph. With luck we will have a mentor to guide us; we will certainly need friends to help us along the way. The depths we face may be symbolic, but the insights we achieve are very real.

Joseph Campbell wrote about the Hero’s Journey which we must each undertake. He believed that there are heroes (and heroines) everywhere: ‘The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the street corner waiting for the traffic lights to change.’ Sometimes the greatest heroes are those leading the most ordinary lives: Campbell reveres Leopold Bloom, that humble modern Ulysses, equally with Achilles or Cuchulainn. The inner spiritual journey matters more than the dramatic outward quest.

It’s daunting to set out on this journey. The threshold guardians represent unknown dangers: far easier to stay within our comfort zone, in the familiarity of the known world. But if we dare to take the first step, we will find the support we need to achieve our goals. The hero’s journey is the path we must travel if we are to fulfil our true potential. It is the way we were meant to follow, the work we were born to do: the deepest expression of our inner self. The heroic journey is the great road of life itself.

The Hero is one of the twelve major archetypal figures. Learn how these figures manifest in your experience. ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain helps you to develop your own story. Visit Jane’s Author Page and follow her on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons to Follow or Share on Facebook, Twitter and Stumbleupon.

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Boudicca: Warrior Queen

Boudicca was a striking woman: tall enough to look a warrior in the eyes, with russet hair tumbling to her waist and a voice that rang out like a bugle call. She was married to the king of the Iceni, but she was of royal blood, a queen in her own right. Her name means ‘Victorious’ and she was revered as both a leader and a priestess. Boudicca was a young girl when the Roman legions arrived in Britain. The invaders demanded that the Celts pay tribute tax: their leaders demurred, negotiated, and eventually agreed on a treaty of celsine, a patron-protector relationship. When her husband died, Boudicca became leader of the Iceni people. The Romans took this opportunity to declare Iceni territory their own. They used the usual brutal methods to deal with women and savages. Boudicca was whipped and her daughters ravished. But Boudicca was a true queen, and she was not prepared to accept such treatment of her people.

May Day was the Celtic festival of Beltaine, the Shining Fire. It was a time for the extended clan to assemble for celebration and conference.  On this day, livestock were driven through clouds of smoke to purify them for summer pasture. Boudicca, priestess and queen, invoked the power of fire for a different reason. On 1st May 60AD, she led the Iceni in revolt. Dismayed by decades of Roman oppression, other Celtic tribes rallied to her cause. They destroyed Camulodunon (Colchester), captured Londinium and marched on Verulamium (St Albans) amidst scenes of great rejoicing.

The Celts were fearsome warriors: they  fought naked apart from a torc (neck ring) and woad tattoos, their hair stiffened with lime into tall spikes. Celtic women were reknowned as even more skilled swordfighters than their menfolk. Boudicca led her people into battle riding in a light chariot, her daughters by her side. The Romans were outnumbered, but their military discipline was superb. The legions rallied and in a final confrontation the Celts were routed. Boudicca and her daughters were never found: some say they took poison to avoid capture.

She may have been beaten, but Boudicca was never forgotten. She is honoured as a Great Mother, a woman who rose against adversity and defied death to protect her children. There is a  statue to her on Embankment, near the Houses of Parliament in London. It shows a figure reminiscent of Britannia. Boudicca was arguably the first great British queen.

How much of our image of Boudicca is true? The Celts kept no written records, and the Romans had a vested interest in recording facts from their own perspective. The Roman Tacitus was a contemporary recorder, but his terse style of writing gives us the word ‘taciturn’ so we learn little from him. Another historian Dio mentions her, but he was writing nearly 200 years later. So we have to use our imaginations a little, our empathy a lot, to keep alive the memory of this glorious woman: fighting like a lioness protecting her cubs, with her mane of long tawny hair.

More stories in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Visit Jane’s Author Page and follow her on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons below to Share on Facebook, Twitter or Stumbleupon.

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Mermaids: A Fishy Tale

Do you believe in mermaids? A beautiful woman with a fish’s tail. Sometimes they come out of the water and sit on the rocks combing their hair. Sweet-voiced and slippery, they are hard to catch. In Shakespeare’s time, the term was used to mean ‘courtesan’. So when Ben Jonson and Walter Raleigh met at the Mermaid Tavern, they were maybe in search of more than beer to quench their thirst!

They are linked with the old French tradition of ‘poisson d’Avril’. Mermaids move between two worlds, sea and shore. April is the month of new beginnings (Latin aperire, to open): 1st April is around the old-style spring equinox, hence the countryman’s new year. Mermaids are April creatures, bridging two states of being.

New year, fresh start, old order turned upside down.

Or maybe it depends what time you read this. Catch me out if you can!

More myths in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain.

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Saint Valentine’s Day

Valentine was purportedly a priest who lived in Rome around 270AD. The Emperor Claudius II issued a decree forbidding military recruits to marry, in the belief that single men make better soldiers. As a Christian, Valentine believed marriage was a holy sacrament and continued to perform weddings in secret. He was brought before Claudius, who was impressed with his rhetoric and tried to convert him to paganism; but Valentine refused, and was sentenced to death. Whilst in prison, he miraculously healed his jailer’s blind daughter. The night before his execution, he sent her a note signed ‘From your Valentine’. So the first Valentine’s card was from a priest and a convict. Not an auspicious start for a festival of love….

The Feast of Saint Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius in 469AD on February 14th. Because his story is rather unreliable, it was deleted from the Calendar of Saints in 1969. But Amor vincit omnia – Love conquers all – and the festival has taken firm root in popular imagination. The day became associated with romantic love in the Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer composed a poem commemorating the betrothal of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia (they were both only fourteen years old).  He wrote,

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(‘For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.’)

By the 15th century, Valentine’s Day had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their affection by presenting flowers, sweetmeats and greeting cards (known as ‘valentines’). In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. By the early nineteenth century printers were producing cards with poems and pictures, decorated with ribbons and paper lace. The introduction of the ‘Penny Post’ in 1840 made it feasible to post Valentines. That, in turn, made it easy to exchange cards anonymously – which accounts for the sudden appearance of rather racy rhymes in the otherwise prudish Victorian era!

Valentine’s Day is now big business in the greetings card industry. This is one area where the Internet has not made substantial inroads: you can’t make an anonymous Facebook declaration of affection. Modern symbols of love include hearts, doves, and the winged figure of Cupid firing his arrows. But a card will hardly suffice for the serious suitor. Chocolates, flowers and theatre tickets are least the modern miss will expect. And if a man fails to measure up, he only has two weeks to prove his worth….

For February 29th is traditionally the day on which a single girl might propose to her partner. The day occurs only once every four years, because the earth actually goes around the sun in 365 ¼ days. (There’s still a discrepancy of 0.000125 days so in 4,000AD our calendar will be one day out. But lovers don’t worry about such things). February 29th is an anomaly: according to olde English law, it had no legal status. Folks assumed that social mores were similarly suspended on that day.

The proposal custom is said to have started in 5th century Ireland, when St. Brigid complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to make his move. St. Patrick was a man ahead of his time: he replied that women could take matters into their own hands on this one day in February. (Very prescient, seeing that Pope Gregory didn’t introduce his new-fangled calendar until 1582). Tradition states that any man who declines a leap year proposal must pay a fine, ranging from a kiss to a pair of silk gloves.

These days, women might prefer to choose their own gloves: at the very least, a man should get a gift receipt. But Valentine’s Day in many countries is as much about friendship as erotic love. It’s a chance to tell the people who matter – whether it’s your girlfriends or your grandchildren – how much they mean to you. And if you’re feeling cynical about the whole amorous affair, here’s a modern-day version of The Valentine Writer (feel free to add your own suggestions as comments)!

“Love me little, love me long.” (English Folksong)

“Love and hate are necessary to human existence.” (William Blake)

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but of looking together in the same direction.” (Antoine de Saint-Expury)

LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain looks at relationship patterns and life themes.
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Saint Brigid’s Fire

Brigid was a slip of a girl with a mass of red-gold curls. It drove the nuns wild, that hair, for however much they combed it sprang back into a cloud. The girl ran wild too, although she had such a sweet nature none could not be cross with her for long. Not that she was often around to be told off. Brigid loved to be outside: she would slip out of the convent and dance barefoot through the long grass in a manner not becoming to a novice nun. She was a problem, that was for sure: daughter of a serving maid by her master, only their Christian charity had given her a home. The lord Dubhthach was said to be a wizard, one of the old faith who knew more than was right of mystery and magic. At least her mother had been baptised by the good Saint Patrick himself.

In the end, the wise old abbess let the girl have her way. Brigid was put in charge of the convent flock, and spent long happy days playing in the pastures. Under her care, the sheep gave thrice as much milk as they had before. The nuns were not the only ones to benefit. Brigid was a kind-hearted child, always willing to help those in need. She would let any thirsty passer-by drink his fill, but miraculously the milk-pails were always full at the end of the day. The nuns saw the good-will this earned them in the village and sensibly held their peace.

As she grew older, Brigid remained just as kind but she became cannier. One day the lord of Leicester was visiting, and she asked for alms to feed the poor. When he refused, she begged him for a patch of land – “Just as much as I can cover with my cloak”. Now that cloak was woven of fine Irish linen but with a weft as loose as a baby’s bowels. Four of the sisters took hold of the hem and began to stretch it out like a fishing net. He laughed as they backed away and promised to give enough land to keep them in food for a year. Another time, thieves stole cattle from a local farmer: the river rose up to block their escape, and as they swam across their clothes were washed away. The men returned dripping naked to beg for forgiveness. Brigid brewed ale for the poor too – rumour said she changed her own bathwater into beer: and her example inspired the local innkeepers so that none ever went without in that part of the land.

She learnt what she could of namesake, too. Brighid  – ‘Bright One’ – was a Celtic deity, daughter of the great Dagda and a reknowned poetess. She was born at sunrise as her mother walked over a threshold, so that she belonged ‘both within and without’. Brighid was said to have two sisters, one of them a physician and the other a craft-smith: but more likely they were all one person, a triune goddess of creativity and healing and sacred fire. She presided over the festival of Imbolg (In belly) or Oimelc (Ewe’s milk), when the sheep drop their lambs. This was celebrated on the ‘quarter day’ midway between the Yule solstice and the Eostre spring equinox, and was a time especially sacred to women.

When she grew up, our Brigid became Abbess of Kildare herself. She was known both for her wisdom and her compassion. She kept the old ways in Christian fashion: she was said to have power over both fire and water, and many stories are told of her healing miracles. Where the hem of her robe touched the ground, snowdrops and crocuses sprang up. To honour the hearth fire that women tend in every home, she kept a flame tended by nine maidens burning in a sanctuary that no man was permitted to enter.  Brigid was eventually consecrated as a bishop, which was unusual in her day too. When she died, she was made a saint – the patroness of poets, blacksmiths and healers. She is often portrayed with a cow at her feet, holding a crozier (bishop’s crook) and a lamp. The Feast of St Brigid is held on 1st February, the day before Candlemass. It is a festival of song and light and purification. And if Gaelic Brighid is honoured too at this time, there is no conflict in those celebrations.

More stories in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Follow Jane on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons below to Share on Facebook, Twitter or Stumbleupon.

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The Story of Writing

Ever since the first men sat around their camp fire, people have wondered about the meaning of life. Who am I? Why am I here? One of the ways we answer these questions is to tell stories… ‘LifeWorks

In the beginning was the Word… and it was Good. Mmm. Nice. Followed soon afterwards by Ugh! That’s yuk! At first, these were the only words that people had. Then someone combined them to make a suggestion. Umm? How about it? You and me, babe…?? And that was when things began to happen.

For a long time, no-one bothered to write words down. Eventually the Ancient Sumerians started to scratch marks on clay tablets. This was just to keep track of their trade transactions: how many sacks of grain for how many camels? Then some bright spark thought of putting pictures on the tablets too: it was worth getting your sacks and camels the right way round. They were pretty basic markings, made with a reed stick. If you look at a Sumerian tablet, it looks as though a bird had walked over the wet clay. But this was the first time that words had been written down.

So, strictly speaking, accountancy is the father of literature.

The earliest cuneiform (‘wedge-writing’) tablets date from around 5,500 years ago. Early scribes had to memorize hundreds of signs used to represent common words. At last someone had another good idea, and developed a system of phonograms. This meant you could spell out strange words, like foreign names, from their sounds. Our modern alphabet is based on a system of twenty-two letters used around 1200BC in the Phoenician city of Gebal. It became known to the Greeks as Byblos, the Place of the Book.

Early books were written on papyrus or vellum. The invention of paper came much later, and even then, books had to be laboriously copied out by hand. This was thought to safeguard the transmission of knowledge. When William Caxton set up his printing press in 1472, he was accused of corrupting the public by distributing bawdy ballads.

After this protracted start, the printing trade began to speed up. In 1525, William Tyndale published his English translation of the New Testament. The Church tried to suppress it, but to no avail. Across Europe, knowledge was no longer the preserve of the educated few. Classical works in Latin were replaced by writing in local languages. By the nineteenth century, steam-powered rotary presses made production possible on an industrial scale. Scientists could share their discoveries through academic journals. Reading became a popular pastime for the emerging middle classes. In 1935, Allen Lane was stranded without a good book in his pocket, and Penguin paperbacks were born. By the late twentieth century, personal computers provided printing technology in private homes.

Nowadays, if you are a writer, you have a huge range of options to get your work into print. From the gilded behemoths like Oxford University Press to innovative independent publishers like John Hunt; from ponderous leather-bound tomes to Kindle and e-books. The publishing world is changing at lightning speed: the internet means that the smallest minority interests can find their target audience.

But there is no substitute for a real book: slightly dog-eared, the pages turned down at the corners, scribbled comments in the margins. A date and place on the fly-leaf, to remind you where you were. The dry weight of paper, balanced in your hands.

And that’s the story of writing. My book ‘LifeWorks’ was launched on 12th January 2012. Celebrations!!!

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New Year’s Resolutions

What are your New Year’s resolutions? Not the ambitious ones you announce, slightly tipsy, when someone asks you at a party on the big night; nor the virtuous ones you make, feeling slightly wistful, when the next day dawns and finds life much the same  as it was before. So many people focus on their shortcomings: things they want to remedy about themselves. But as any trainer knows, criticism alone is a poor motivator. Surely it’s better to focus on doing something positive: a new skill (learning a language), a dream (becoming an artist) or a long-held ambition (running a marathon). Things on your bucket list, that you want to do before you finally kick it. That way, we find fresh energies and start to change our selves. Instead of being merely remedial, our resolutions become another step on our life path. And this just could be the month to make it happen.

January is the month of Janus, the Roman god who presides over the turning year. Portrayed with two faces, he looks to both the past and the future. He is the guardian of gateways (modern keyholders are called janitors) and his image was carved over doors. Doorways imply the entrance to a new domain: they are associated with birth, death and initiation. On a practical level, they are important for marking boundaries. A ‘front door’ separates our private lives from the public domain. Within the house, doors demarcate areas of personal space from rooms for general use. We use doorways to categorize our thoughts: sometimes you forget why you came upstairs until you go back to the hallway. Cicero coined the term ‘memory palace’ in 55BC for the technique of memorising a list of items by visualizing them in a series of rooms. Passing through doorways, whether physical or imaginary, helps us to organize information in our minds.

The resolutions that matter are the groundswell ones that creep into your conscious from below, that you find lounging in your mind like intruders because you had no idea you felt that way. Once formed, they seem inevitable and undeniable, a natural extension of your self. A major decision in life is never a choice, but rather a realization that the decision has already been made. Suddenly it’s obvious what you should do next. You can see it all clearly in your mind now. Everything we do, from making a drink to founding an empire, starts as a picture in our image-ination. This is the right direction: you just need to take the first step. And you know it is a good decision because once you’ve made it, life feels back on track.

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Is Santa Claus Real?

St Nicholas is busy this month. In northern Europe, children put their shoes neatly by the door on 6th December. If they have been good this year, St Nicholas fills them with sweets and toys; if not, they will find a lump of coal and a hard stick. For others, he will come on Christmas Eve, soaring through the night sky in a flying sledge. Many centuries ago Nicholas lived in Patara, in modern Anatolia. His father was a rich merchant and left a fortune to his only son. But why did he start leaving gifts in this way?…

… It had been a good night. The wine was sweet and the barmaids obliging. Nick staggered slightly as he stepped into the street. A full moon hung low above the rooftops. The cool air was welcomely refreshing. Nick waved away the servant who stood waiting and set off alone through the quiet streets. His way passed through a poorer part of town. He stumbled on the rough ground and bumped against a wall. As he steadied himself, he heard a girl’s voice from the window high above.

“That’s all I really want….”  Without thinking, Nick paused to listen. What women really want: that would be good for a young man to know!

Another girl answered, speaking softly.  “Three gold coins! Father will never find so much for each of us. And unless you have a dowry, his family will not let him marry you.”

A third voice chimed in.  “There’s only one way for girls like us to make money.”

“And he would never want me after that…”  The first voice dissolved in tears.

Nick bowed his head in confusion. Three gold coins: he had three times that in his purse    at the end of a night out. To these sisters, it was the difference between life and despair.   He pulled the little bag of money from his belt. Should he call up to them, throw it through the window? But they might be scared, ashamed at having been overheard. Better to leave it secretly, where they would find it in the morning. He only had one purse: how to show their father that this was for his girls to share? Nick stood on one foot: wobbling, he pulled off one silk slipper, then the other. Swiftly he filled them with coins, twisted each into a ball, tossed the three little sacks over the courtyard wall. He heard them land with soft jingling sounds. Then he ran down the street, his bare feet thudding on the ground, laughing like a schoolboy.

From that night onwards, Nick was a changed man. He still liked the good life: he could drink and sing with the best of them. But he seemed gentler, more interested in other people. When he heard a story of hardship, there was often another tale next night of unexpected generosity, an unseen benefactor who had helped in hidden ways. No-one knew who gave these gifts: they were left in secret, without the expectation of thanks.

Nicholas joined the Christian Church and rose to become Bishop of Myra, in south-west Turkey. He was eventually canonized, although his full title sounds a little formal: the children whom he loved shorten Santa Nikolaus to Santa Claus. The three bags of gold are echoed in the three gold balls found outside a pawnbroker’s shop, giving people another chance in life.To this day, millions of people around the world help Nicholas in his work. At Christmas time they give gifts to children just to make them smile. Forget about magical flying reindeer: now that’s what I call a real miracle.

Read about Christmas Customs and why we send Christmas Cards!

More stories in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons below to Share on Stumbleupon, Facebook or Twitter.

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Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving is a time of praise and plenty. Surrounded by friends and family, we celebrate the fruits of the past year. But what did this feast mean to the first inhabitants of America?

The Pilgrim Fathers landed at Cape Cod on 21st November 1620. They came ashore at Provincetown, just inside the tip of the rocky headland. It was not a good place to found a colony: a few days later they moved the boat to New Plymouth, Massachusets. The winter weather in this new world was worse than their wildest dreams. They crowded back aboard the boat and lived there for the next three months.

These early settlers were English folk. They were not Puritans; the Founding Mothers (of whom we hear less) wore colourful dresses with full skirts. They were not Quakers, so-named several decades later. They were Protestant Dissenters, leaving their homeland for the freedom to worship God in their own way.

The passenger lists of the Mayflower give 102 names: a mixture of men, women and children (including several fosterlings of illegitimate birth). The Mayflower was a merchant ship, square-rigged with three masts, about 100ft long and 25ft wide, sailed by about 28 crew. The quarters were cramped enough during the nine-week voyage; almost unbearable in the three months that followed. The people were weakened by hunger and disease. Half of those on board died during that first terrible winter.

They would all have perished were it not for the generosity of the Native Americans. A Wampanoag leader named Massasoit gave them food when their own supplies ran out. Tradition says that at one point, they were surviving on five grains of corn a day. The following spring, a man called Squanto showed them how to plant the ‘Three Sisters’ – the staple local crops of maize (sweetcorn), beans (legumes) and squash (marrows and pumpkin). He taught them to fertilize the corn with a fish-head under every shoot. That autumn, the settlers brought in an adequate harvest. They knew now that they could survive in this new land.

The First Thanksgiving was a feast to thank God and the Indians. Actually, New England colonists regularly held thanksgivings, but these were more usually days of prayer and fasting. The Christian Eucharist of consecrated bread and wine is literally a thanks-offering (Greek eucharistos, grateful). Thankfully for us, prayer and fasting was not the Native way. Ninety Indians arrived with turkeys for a three-day festival, expecting song and dance. The Thursday start gave the Pilgrims time to enjoy themselves before the Sabbath observance.

Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War. It was originally celebrated on the last Thursday in November; this was moved to the fourth Thursday in 1941 to extend the Christmas shopping season. It is now the biggest holiday in the most powerful country in the world. The festive meal includes maize, beans, turkey, cranberry sauce and of course pumpkin pie. Five grains of parched corn on every plate remind us of the hardship of those early days. Happy Thanksgiving!

More stories in ‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. If you like this post, use the buttons below to Share on Stumbleupon, Facebook or Twitter.

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LifeWorks: Welcome

BooksWelcome to LifeWorks: an alternative, ad hoc and occasionally aspirational look at using stories in everyday life.

LifeWorks: Using myth and archetype to compose your life script‘ (2012) Published by John Hunt (O-Books)

StoryWorks: A handbook for leaders, writers and speakers‘ (2015) Published by John Hunt (Business Books).

Visit my Author Page Jane Bailey Bain and Like it! Follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain.

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