Monthly Archives: January 2016

Imbolc: Call the Midwife

It may not seem like it if you’re suffering from a blizzard like the one that’s been affecting the eastern seaboard of the U.S. (I hope you’re OK over there, folks), but here in the UK, there are signs that the year is on the turn. It’s noticeably lighter in the evenings than it was a couple of weeks ago. The unseasonably mild winter means there are already daffodils out in places, but the more normal later winter signs are creeping up on us too. Including round here, snowdrops (photo courtesy of Mr Magpie):

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The beginning of February is known to Pagans in the northern hemisphere as Imbolc; a word of Irish origin variously interpreted as ‘in the belly’ (implying the first stirrings of life in in the womb of the Earth) or as ‘ewes’ milk’, because it’s about now that the sheep start lambing (haven’t seen any yet, but I’m guessing it won’t be long). It’s about that moment when, while it’s certainly not yet spring, it’s maybe the beginning of the end of winter. Which has to be a positive thing, whatever your belief system, right?

Imbolc is associated with light and fire, which makes sense given the lengthening days. In Christian terms, it’s Candlemas, or more formally, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (which seems a little odd – why would Herself, of all people, need purifying?). But Imbolc was traditionally dedicated to another powerful woman: Brighid.

St Brighid was the abbess of Kildare in the fifth century CE, a friend of St Patrick, and renowned for her wisdom and generosity. She performed some notable miracles – extending her cloak to cover enough land to build a convent on, churning vast quantities of butter for the needs of visiting dignitaries, and turning her bath water to beer! She was transported over land and sea (and back in time) to be midwife at the birth of Christ – and she was addressed as ‘Christ’s foster-mother’, which, given the crucial role of fostering in the ancient Irish social system, was a title of high honour. A sacred flame was kept burning in her name in Kildare until the Reformation – and has been revived in modern times. If you visit Kildare – which we did, some years ago – you can visit her sacred well and tie a token, a ‘clootie’ (traditionally a rag, but ribbons, items of clothing and written messages are also left) to the tree nearby. There’s little evidence that she actually existed, but she’s one of Ireland’s most beloved saints.

But Brighid was also a goddess – possibly, three goddesses, given how so many things in Irish myth come in triplicate. She was the daughter of the Dagda, the ‘good god’ who kept a cauldron of plenty (which fits in nicely with her brewing skills). She was the patroness of poets and blacksmiths, and a healer. She may be Brigantia, depicted in Romano-British reliefs, who gave her name to the Brigantes, the tribe inhabiting Northumbria, and whom the Romans, who liked to play spot-the-deity with the funny foreigners they met on their travels, seem to have identified as their Minerva, goddess of learning and trade. But as with much unwritten lore, we don’t know.

Nevertheless…here’s a female figure who’s associated with birth, fire, water, and healing, and who’s continually had a shrine in one particular spot in Ireland (not to mention the many Bridewells elsewhere around Britain). Who seems to also have a connection with early February – the month sacred, in Roman times, to Juno Februa, the Purifier…another goddess of childbirth. Then there are the many customs associated with the saint in Celtic areas, which centre around imagery of fire, the hearth, the sun (or its emblem in the form of a wheel or cross woven from rushes), water, and healing.

While traditions matter, they also have the meaning we choose to give them. And if Brighid wasn’t associated with Imbolc before, she is today.

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I find, as an artist, an interesting symbolism in the three main areas Brighid is patron of.

First, poetry. Poetry – and music, given that poetry in the bardic tradition used to be sung or recited to music, not written down – is the most immaterial of the arts, so perhaps the closest to the initial point of inspiration – which literally means an intake of breath. That’s the start of the artistic process: the initial spark of an idea.

But then, you have to put the idea into concrete form, and that’s the second aspect of Brighid: as the patroness of the forge, where raw metal gets transformed into things you can touch. That process can be tough and sweaty, one way or another. So you’re not a metalworker…but you can end up with calluses on your fingertips or toes, paint on your clothes, endless balls of screwed-up paper in the trashcan, and all the things artistic solitude and frustration can do to the mind. But you also, hopefully, end up with something useful, or beautiful – hopefully both.

And then the final stage. Because while we make art, initially, for ourselves, it really needs an audience. Brighid is, finally, the midwife and healer. She shows the baby to the world, and she offers the results of the artistic process to other people. And what they make of it, how they metabolise it, can bring about profound change and healing. Making whole; making holy.

Brighid is also a goddess of the liminal, the in-between. The legends describe the saint as having been the child of a pagan chief and a Christian slave-girl, born on a doorstep, at sunrise. The goddess was a member of the Tuatha De Danaan race – the divine culture-bringers – yet married to one of their arch-enemies, the chaotic, elemental Fomorians. And of course, she’s both Pagan and Christian. As artists know, one of the things about not fitting in anywhere is that you can go everywhere.

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There’s a ton of traditional customs associated with Brighid and Imbolc, especially in Ireland. (Kevin Danaher’s The Year in Ireland has a whole chapter of them.) But here are a few simple suggestions to attune with the season:

– Get outside. We’re all probably suffering from Vitamin D deficiency in this neck of the woods by now, and when the Sun shows its face, it’s as well to make the most of it. Just being outdoors gets the Magpie into a more springlike frame of mind.

– Bring in white and golden flowers, whether that means picking them from your garden (if you have snowdrops of any other early flowers) or buying them.

– Light candles.

– Eat traditional foods. Dairy foods (if you want to be agriculturally appropriate, Roquefort cheese is made with ewes’ milk), seed cake, barmbrack (a dense fruit loaf, which you can get in some supermarkets), and colcannon (an Irish dish made with cabbage and potatoes) are ideal. And dare I say, given the words ‘beer’ and ‘Irish’, a drop of Guinness might be a good offering for the season.

– Make something. If you feel the urge, you could make one of the Brighid’s crosses associated with this festival – traditionally made from rushes, but you can also use straw, or even paper drinking straws. Here’s how it’s done.

If you have other favourite crafts, or if you write, or paint, or have any other kind of creative pursuit, be thinking about how those three stages apply to your own process.

As this is a time of quickening, bringing to life, you might also want to think about the things you’d like to come to fruition later this year – whether that’s a work of art, job prospects, relationship issues, or (I’ll skip this one, but your mileage may vary) a literal pregnancy. Brighid is a midwife, but midwives don’t just assist with the muck and magic of the birth – ideally, they’re with you from the early months, making sure all is well and the new life is growing as it should. Because even before there are any signs of life, there can be a lot going on beneath the surface.

I leave you with a traditional carol from Wales, set to music by Benjamin Britten. While it’s officially a New Year Carol, the imagery of maidens and well water puts me more in mind of this time of the first stirrings of the year…

We could be heroes…

A new year…and barely are we into it when, in the last week, we lose two people who’ve made huge contributions to art over the years. First, the shape-shifting phenomenon, musician, and cultural icon that was David Bowie; and then, barely a day later, the celebrated actor Alan Rickman.

I was a bit young for the classic Bowie stuff, although I remember hearing ‘Space Oddity’ on the radio when I was a kid in the 70s, and I have fond memories of his comeback of the 80s, ‘Let’s Dance’ being a fixture at school discos, and the class hippies insisting any time I had my guitar with me that I played ‘Jean Genie’, even though I didn’t know the chords.  It was later on that I learned to appreciate his earlier work.  And of course, Bowie was a huge influence on Kurt Cobain – his album, The Man Who Sold The World, was on Kurt’s top 50 list, and the song of that name was one of the awesome covers in Nirvana’s MTV show and, well, basically, musically speaking, any friend of Kurt Cobain’s is a friend of mine, And while the Magpie is not exactly hooked to the silver screen (my routine with movies is typically: see the trailer, think ‘Ooh, that looks cool’…and end up watching it on TV ten or twenty years later), Professor Snape in the first Harry Potter movie was memorably sinister.

One imagines, on some other plane, a conversation between Snape and Ziggy Stardust:

“A lightning bolt across the face? Are you the Boy who Lived?”
“Nah, mate, I’m the Man who Fell to Earth…”

Which is not to say that’s all there was to these two talented men, of course…which brings to mind this cartoon:

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Aside from the coincidence of their age and Britishness, both Bowie and Rickman succumbed to cancer, that shitty quirk of human genetics. And the kind of cancers, liver and pancreatic, respectively, that kill too often due to vague symptoms that get mistaken for other illnesses until it’s too late (which is one reason why cancer research still sorely needs funds – please go and donate if you can).

And there was also this pertinent comment, from a great British champion of the working class, on how the art education background that helped produce these two men is sadly in decline. That’s also something that needs support:

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But all kinds of tributes have been coming thick and fast. Family, friends and fans have all been expressing their sorrow and gratitude. Bowie, appropriately enough, has even had a constellation dedicated to him. But a lot of the memorials have centred on the shrines that now commonly spring up at sites connected with a deceased celebrity, or at the sites of murders, terror attacks or fatal traffic accidents.

In the UK, some people still like to complain that such public outpourings of emotion – which seem all the more common since the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – are ‘un-British’ or sentimental. But they still happen – I think, because people need a way to express grief for someone whose life has affected theirs, even if they never met.

So, the piles of flowers are accumulating in Brixton, Bowie’s old stamping-ground, at a well-known mural depicting his Aladdin Sane album cover portrait. And at Hogwarts in Universal Studios, Florida, fans are leaving memorial offerings for Rickman in his best-known role.

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Hero-worship, thought often derided by the jaded and cynical, has a lot in common with what I wrote in my older post about ancestors. People feel an urge to honour those who came before – whether that means genetically, or in terms of being forerunners in their field. And people want to thank those who’ve made art that’s helped them find meaning or consolation or joy. And that urge may continue long after those people have passed from this world.

It’s actually nothing new. There was a cult of celebrities in medieval Europe: they just called them saints. Some of them were vague figures about whom only bare scraps of biography were known, who were layered with mythology over the years until they became as colourful as their stained-glass representations. Some were very real, historical people, whose stories might have ended up similarly embellished if the historical records had been more sparse. Christianity admits to only one God, but it’s possible that some of the actual gods of polytheistic religions were real people whose lives became mythologised over the centuries. Some of the kami, the local spirits of the Shinto religion of Japan, originated in exactly that way. There’s even a name for it in religious studies – euhemerism.

The snag is that in making people into full-fledged gods, you may lose all that their humanity implies. Humans are flawed, for starters; put them on too high a pedestal, and you’re in danger of glossing over those flaws. (Some elements of Bowie’s past have been under discussion, notably in this wise and balanced article.) It’s tricky to separate the artist from the person, and perhaps we shouldn’t try; people we wouldn’t want as role models in one part of their lives, can still be inspirational in another.

But there’s also the fact that putting people on pedestals doesn’t just leave them too high up; it also leaves us too far down. Remember what Billy Bragg said about working-class boys? Our heroes are special, yes – but at the same time, they’re like the rest of us. Which implies that we might – in our own way, never exactly the same, but uniquely ours – be like them.

The Magpie, plagued in her teenage years (oh, aren’t too many of us?) by unrequited love, learned – I can’t recall where from – a valuable lesson: What you seek in other people is what you’re really seeking to express in yourself. And it doesn’t just work for crushes, but for any experience of being powerfully drawn to someone. Even in a negative sense – because even negative energy is powerful stuff. Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron suggested this for dealing with people you’re envious of: What is it you really envy in them, and could you take a step in that direction?

The irrepressible Caitlin Moran knows this. In recent days, her advice has been re-tweeted all over the place:

When in doubt, listen to David Bowie. In 1968, Bowie was a gay, ginger, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak walking around south London in a dress, being shouted at by thugs. Four years later, he was still exactly that—but everyone else wanted to be like him, too. If David Bowie can make being David Bowie cool, you can make you cool. PLUS, unlike David Bowie, you get to listen to David Bowie for inspiration. So you’re one up on him, really. You’re already one ahead of David Bowie.

So, no, I don’t think it’s sentimental or silly for people to pay tribute to those they admire and are inspired by, in whatever way they find appropriate. I don’t believe it’s counterproductive for us to have heroes. Just as long as we bear in mind that, like the man said, we could be heroes, too. Just for one day, or…always.