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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Happy New Year

London New Year Fireworks‘Tis the season to be better… and this year I’m going to stick to my New Year Resolutions. The best way of being sure is to make them easy – so I’m making them mnemonic by using a threefold division of mind, body and spirit.

Girl on SaxophoneMind: I need to brush up my French; but it gets much better after a bottle of wine, so there’s not much incentive there. How about learning the saxophone? No, I tried that last year and I need someone else to yell ‘Practise’! Sudoku? Crosswords? But those are meant to be fun…. What I really need to do is start writing regularly again. The ‘LifeWorks’ launch was great fun, and I’ve had a string of articles, but I need to get back to the story stuff. I’ve promised my publisher there’s another book in the pipeline. I’m going to mark ‘white space’ in my diary two mornings a week and just sit in front of the computer until something comes.

Zumba Body: Botox? Boob job? Laser eye surgery? Not indulged – or at least acknowledged – in my wholistic social circles. I’ll have to hone the effortful way. Since I ran the London Marathon in 2011, my knee has been a weak point (it was totally worth it though!). But I do need some regular exercise. I’m going to set aside two sessions a week, one for a short run or bike ride, the other for something more structured. I’m thinking Zumba at the local health club, where you can sign up for a term’s worth of classes (paying up front is a great way of guilt-tripping myself into going). Maybe I’ll persuade a friend to sign up too and treat her to coffee afterwards.

Spirit: This is the simplest in theory, the hardest in practise. Live in the moment. Banish negative thoughts and emotions. Do a kind deed every day. Easy to say, but difficult to actually do. Someone gave me a metaphor today which might be helpful. My phone has an icon which tells me how much battery it has left. Low Phone BatteryBy the time it gets down to 10% it’s about to switch off: I have to monitor it and recharge when it gets anywhere below around 30% full. Apparently my emotional welfare is similar: I need to recognize when I’m dipping towards subsistence level and do something about it whilst I still have the energy to pull up. This could be going for a swim, or meeting up with a friend, or whatever jump-starts my body / mind and reminds me that life is worth living. Just being alive is a ticket to the greatest show on earth. I’m going to watch myself and learn to work out when I’m getting low. Meanwhile, the equivalent of a regular re-charge is doing something I love every week. Music NoteI can’t manage meditation – living in London it’s hard to switch off – but I find that hyperventilating harmoniously with like-minded individuals has much the same effect. I’m going to join a choir.

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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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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 Happenings

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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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 (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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