Women: ruling Hallowe’en since forever

A little thing for Halloween by me for the brillian Women are Boring blog

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Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Lucy Ryder, is the first in our two-part Hallowe’en series (the second is coming on Monday). Read on and learn all about where Hallowe’en originated, and how women have always been central to the festival.

10665389_10152821527398838_3608783368422652392_n We love you, Lisa Simpson

Where does Hallowe’en come from?

Hallowe’en is one of most secular of religious festivals, and possibly the most misunderstood. Deriving from the considerably more ancient Samhain (first recorded in the Irish tale Tochmarc Emire meaning ‘When the summer goes to rest”) the current fright night we now experience is a long way from its very ancient, but decidedly muddled, origins.

From an archaeological viewpoint, the period around Samhain (stretching from 31st October to, in some traditions, November 2nd) is difficult but not impossible to trace for the landscape…

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Unlucky three

My grandad used to say that bad luck came in threes, and to stop the trouble we needed to break a match.

It’s a little tradition I’ve taken into adulthood (and think of him each time), but as I caught myself carrying out the ritual tonight I stopped to think about it a little more.

I know that “three on a match” – that is three cigarettes lit from one match – was deemed unluckily in both the First and Second World Wars, and was thought to foretell the death of one of the triplet. It is suspected that the superstition may even go back to the Crimean War for its origin.

My grandad’s time in Monte Cassino during WWII would have certainly needed all the luck he could get, and is undoubtedly where our family superstition came from, if altered.

But what is it about the number three?

In the case of the match, it is sometimes thought that keeping a flame lit long enough the light 3 cigarettes would give the location of soldiers away to the enemy, but it’s bad luck connotations appear elsewhere.

Apparently three butterflies on a leaf is also unlucky, and an owl calling three times will bring misfortune.

On the flip side, it is seen as good insofar as it represents the holy trinity, and the stages of creation and life for cultures such as the ancient Babylonians and in the  Chinese tradition.

Whatever the reason I’ve broken my match this evening, as a positive action to move forward. Wish me luck 🍀…

Landscape of…. nothing?

I’m supposed to be writing, I mean ‘proper’ writing for an edited book. The problem with having a day job unrelated to my research is that I’ve have to write when time allows rather than when inspiration strikes.

So I have a chapter deadline looming fast, and my motivation has gone off to hide. As such I’m procrastinating; one such diversion is helping with some local history work of my village.

Everything is everso much more interesting when you’re trying to avoid the thing you need to do, and I’ve been happy to be pulled away on this tangent. But something is wrong. As a landscape archaeologist I have a standard toolkit of things to check first, which for my research also means delving into the local lore.

Except there isn’t any. There is nothing, not a pixie, ghost, or petrification in sight.

At first I thought I was just not looking in the right places, but hitting the internet to check more obscure gazetteers I was still drawing a blank.

How can a place have no narrative of it’s community? Is it down to the lack of existence or lack of preservation? If the latter,  why? Is there some reason, when surrounded by the Blackdown Hills that are filled with Willow-o-wisps, ghosts of dead rebels, dragons, and great battles of giants warriors and pixies there is nothing that sheds light of the beliefs of the villagers that lived here before me.

I have to admit, I am at a loss to explain, but it does elicit further distraction – I am determined to get to bottom of this odd deficit in my database.

 

Who you gonna call…

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I’ve tended to shy away from ghosts within my landscape/folklore/archaeology research (with the obvious exception of the ‘haunting’ of Jacob Seley, which can be found here). This is not through lack of interest, more due to the fact that it is a pretty emotive subject.
Unlike tales of pixies, giants, and demons, the belief in ghosts (or lack of it) is not something that can always be approached objectivity, and in many cases belief, or the need to believe, in the existence of ghosts are tied up in personal experiences of loss and bereavement. By questioning validity takes away the needed link to a love one. Equally, by following up on stories could reflect back to a real person and/or tragic event.
Though the collection and mapping of folkloric stories across the South West of England I came across a number of visual places in the landscape held stories relating to ghostly occurrences (and I’m not referring to ‘sightings’ of famous and historical figures), but I’ve always been avoided further analysis of them. I think the reason comes from a personal observation of the danger of forgetting the people in the stories told (and I’m changing/omitting the names and location deliberately in this next paragraph).

A number of years ago there was an investigation of a haunting of a house next to a relative of mine.
Their new neighbours were experiencing supposedly ghostly interactions with the former occupant of the house who had passed away about 6 months before.
They described in detail the appearance and mannerisms, and suggested the activities were strongest in particular locations that reflected the habits of the person when alive.
A team of investigators arrived, and subsequently published the account in a book on regional ghost stories.

Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, despite changing the name, the details listed relating to the location and suggested haunter were such that a family member of the ‘ghost’ ended up finding out and recognising their loved one. Obviously, to find a relative is supposed to be haunting your childhood home is not something I think anyone wishes to know.

So, as I think a semiconscious result of this, I’ve deliberately avoided working in this area, and edged around the ghost stories in my database. That is until recently. Maybe my reputation as “the girl who talks about fairies” means that I appear more approachable, but I have been asked to undertake archaeological and landscape investigations a number of supposedly haunted buildings or places.

I’ve not been asked to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, let me make that clear, nor am I undertaking any ‘ghost hunting’ of my own (I’ll leave that to those with the specialism and the fancy equipment!). But through documentary and map evidence, and clues in the landscape I have tried to piece together the background to a location, and suggest a reason for the story to occur and be tied in a place. In one case I was asked to research the siting of a school, and from a landscape perspective overlaying the modern building on to old maps, and discussing what is now a built up area before the urban spread, was fascinating. For another, I actually had a name to work with, and finding reference to it in the archives in the right place did come as a bit of a suprise!

That said, it could be argued it merely a straightforward piece of landscape research; being pragmatic by nature, it’s certainly the best way to approach it, and how I conducted it. But I’m conscious of the ethical issues relating to something that could uncover real people, and real tragedies, misremembered and the context lost and forgotten. After all, as Prof. Tolkien wrote “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth…”

I’m continuing to look into the stories as a little distration from my normal day job and research, but fully aware of the veritable minefield of issues that come from it. Maybe I’m being over cautious, but I’m probably going to stick with pixies and petrification myths in the long term. After all, the likelihood of upsetting someone by investing fairy activities is much less likely than that of a tale of hauntings.

Messenger from the other side

This morning, at an hour way too early to be up and about on a Sunday, I was pootling around and saw this lovely lady sitting watching me.
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I love blackbirds; one use to sing in the eave next to my window as child, and mum put my hair from my brush in the garden from which they made their nest in our clematis in spring.

A blackbird nest near to your house brings good fortune, but I’ve subsequently found out that my mother’s act of kindness was endangering me to bad luck and headaches for the period the nest with the hair was in use, but I luckily escaped that fate!

Like magpies, seeing two (male) blackbirds is deemed lucky, and in some traditions dreaming of a flying one is said to indicate good fortune.
That said, much folklore tells that dreaming of blackbirds can bring misfortune for many weeks.

Blackbirds are also associated with Yggdrasil, or the mythical world tree, and are able to interact with other realms.
They are often said to be able to bring messages to our world from the dead.

Interestingly, in Ireland during the nineteenth century the shrill song of blackbirds was supposed to be the souls of those in purgatory; the singing at dawn foretelling forthcoming rain.

Personally I prefer the idea of the messenger role, although I’m not sure what message she had for me…

The Green Man is coming…

This striking picture appeared in the Queen’s Building Gallery at the University of Exeter about a month ago.

I’ve passed it a number of times over the last few weeks, but finally stopped to look properly.

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The Green Man image is a potent one, although appearing frequently on ecclesiastical buildings as bosses or stone carvings, it’s association with fertility, birth, renewal, and the coming of spring is decidedly ‘pagan’.
Often the Green Man is seen as a Tom Bombadil (from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) type character, tied to the environment and controlling the seasons.

So why has he suddenly appeared?

Well, it seems he’s coming to Exeter….
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I’ll keep you posted…

Feeling Hag-gard…

I am not feeling at my best at the moment, in fact far from it. So as part of my attempt at rest and recuperation a walk to breathe in the restorative air of Devon’s coastline was in order.

There is something about the whole of the Jurassic Coastline that is amazing, not simply the natural beauty, but also the realisation of the sheer depth of time, and how we are small part of millions of years of activity.DSC_0120[1]

Sidmouth – the location for my walk – is the gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and archaeologically there are signs its long history all over town (indeed a previous walk took in some of the town’s features). The start of today’s walk was Connaught Gardens played a strategic defensive position, the evidence of which can still be seen in the gardens still.

The gardens themselves were a fortification, and a lime kiln, and the evidence for the kiln can still be seen at Jacob’s Ladder (and I can really recommend the cake at the cafe….)

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The stormy weather of recent weeks has really played havoc with the coastline, and it took me a while tyo realise that I was standing on top of the promenade’s railings and that the stones had completely covered them!

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I also love the graffiti on the cliff. I obviously don’t condone the damage of a World Heritage Site, but I love to see the care taken by people to preserve their presence.

DSC_0135[1]Back on the beach I started to pick up Hag stones, natural perforated stones which have numerous folkloric meanings and associations. Also known as Odin/ adder/ fairies/ holey/Hex stones they are said to have amazing and magical properties.

DSC_0142[1]Hag stones are particularly prevalent in the folk history of the South West of England, and were used to ward off evil spirits, influence by the dead, and witchcraft. In Dorset fishermen used the stones to protect against witches or spirits from boarding the boat. On Dartmoor they were known as Hex stones, and placed on window sills to protect the house.

Hag stones were worn around the neck to ward of the evil eye and spirits, but also illnesses such as plague and whooping cough, and actually thought to be able to cure a whole range of diseases. They were also used as treatment for snake bites. The stones were also able to prevent pixies, fairies and witches from interfering with livestock, in particular effecting the milk of cattle. If hung over a bed or round a bed post, it would stop Succubus or other such nightmares harming the occupant while they slept.

Moreover it is often said that if you look through the hole of a Hag stone you can see fae creatures such as fairies and pixies, or malevolence that had concealed itself from view.

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Maybe I should start wearing one, I might gain some benefit from its protective and magical nature!