Monthly Archives: March 2018

Prince with a Thousand Enemies

(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Watership Down. And references to animal suffering. Proceed with caution…)

Easter is almost here. And while this is most obviously a Christian festival (more about that later), it’s also – in the modern, small-p pagan sense – a celebration of the arrival of Spring, in the northern hemisphere. Which means imagery of eggs, chicks, lambs, and of course…bunnies.

As with so many folk customs, nobody’s really sure where the Easter Bunny originated. It seems to have Germanic roots, but beyond that, we can’t say. One thing worth mentioning is that the original ‘bunny’ probably wasn’t a rabbit, but a hare; rabbits were introduced to England by the Romans, but the hare was around before that. Legend has it that our own local Celtic queen, Boudicca, released a hare and watched its movements to predict the course of battle, in the name of her goddess, Andraste.

You can see hares out on the fields on these Spring mornings, usually alone or in pairs. They are beautiful things, rather bigger than rabbits, with those massive powerful back legs. (The ‘boxing’ you may witness at this time of year is actually the female making a likely male prove his strength, before they both get down to making baby hares.)

But the Magpie lives in a part of East Anglia where rabbits – which unlike hares, come in large quantities – are also very much in evidence, thanks to the local medieval nobility having kept their own warrens. We even have areas where there’s a tendency to black rabbits. People think they’re escaped pets, but they’re a natural genetic quirk. They don’t last long in the wild thanks to their high visibility, but it’s pleasantly startling to suddenly see them, against the greens and browns of the countryside that provide better camouflage for their more traditionally pigmented relatives.

British folks of a certain age may remember being traumatised as kids by a film called Watership Down, adapted from the novel by Richard Adams, which tells the story of a band of rabbits forced to find a new home when their warren is destroyed. I was nine when I went to see it. At the scene where the big bruiser rabbit, Bigwig, was struggling in a snare in a torrent of foam and blood, I fled. While my older and less squeamish cousin calmly sat munching Maltesers down the front, I watched the rest of the film peering round the toilet door at the back of the cinema.

It was around that time that I decided that going into the veterinary business, an ambition of mine up till then, probably wasn’t for me.

A bad joke of the time comes to mind: Watership Down: you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film…now eat the cast. Jokes aside, I did later see the film under more comfortable circumstances, and read the book, and I’ve also been to the location, a real place in Hampshire. The movie is worth watching at any time of year, but especially now; the animation is stunning, the cast star-studded (I love Hazel, voiced by the late John Hurt), and it’s all set off with the music of the genius Angela Morley, who saved the day by composing all but a fragment of the score in three weeks. (Ms. Morley had a pretty amazing story of her own, which you can read more about here.

One of my favourite parts is the prologue telling the rabbits’ own origin myth. Their God is Lord Frith, the sun, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever seen a warren at morning or evening when the sun is low and they all come out to graze (silflay, as Adams’ Lapine language calls it). Frith creates the world and its creatures, including the father of all rabbits, El-ahrairah. And while Frith makes the world a dangerous place for the rabbit and his descendants, he also gives gifts to help them live in it, and a promise:

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies; and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you – listener, digger, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.



Rabbits do have a great many natural predators, and we humans are perhaps the worst. We’ve used them for food for millennia; we’ve destroyed their warrens when we wanted land, as happens in the book; and when they interfered with our agricultural aims, we took devastating action.  Myxomatosis (don’t look at this link unless you have a strong stomach) exists in nature, but back in the 1950s – in Britain, Australia and other countries – we introduced it deliberately into rabbit populations to control them. It is a truly horrible disease, and if you look at what it does, you can’t help concluding that humans are a bit shit. We wiped out ninety per cent of the rabbits in the UK with this bacterium.  The fox and the weasel couldn’t hope to do anything as lethal.

But then there’s Frith’s promise. Rabbits are as plentiful today here as they ever were. They developed resistance, and they breed…well, like rabbits. (And rabbits have another trick up their sleeves, in that they don’t breed totally indiscriminately; when conditions are hard, the does can re-absorb embryos, so they don’t bear kittens they may not be able to support. We should maybe work on developing that skill.)

Here’s an interesting piece of symbolism, then. We have a creature that’s scapegoated as a troublemaker, that’s subjected to horrible torture and death…but which always manages to resurrect itself. Remind you of anyone? It’s perhaps surprising that rabbits haven’t cropped up in Christian imagery. (Their cousins, hares, have done so; some old churches include carvings of the triple hare, three hares joined by the ears, symbolising the Trinity.) But it’s maybe appropriate that they ended up as symbols of Easter anyway, whatever you see the festival as representing.

It’s been pointed out that there are elements of Watership Down that echo Old Testament narrative – notably, the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. And some have seen overtones, too, in the totalitarian nightmare of Efrafa, ruled by the iron paw of the tyrannical General Woundwort, of later Nazi persecution, although Adams denied that he ever had that allegory in mind. And Passover, that Jewish celebration of liberation, is also tied to this time of year.

For this Pagan, anyway, seeing rabbits out in the countryside always gives me a sense of hope. The very persistence of these small creatures – cute and fluffy, sure, but capable of clawing and biting, and as anyone who’s owned a pet rabbit and electrical equipment with cables will tell you, gnawing through practically anything – is a picture of life surviving in spite of the odds. Biologist Dougal Dixon, in his book After Man, even pictures rabbits surviving human extinction and evolving into deer-like animals; it is, he points out, the creatures we see as ‘vermin’ that are the truly successful ones.

At the end of Watership Down, the leader of the rabbits, Hazel, now old, is invited by El-ahrairah to join his Owsla, or warren council. The younger rabbits are by now being told stories of his exploits, and now he too becomes part of the mythology himself. We all become stories, eventually.  But the book ends as it began, with primroses and the return of Spring. The cycle continues. Life goes on. And that, after all, is what matters.

The mother of all relationships?

This weekend saw us celebrating Mothers’ Day in the UK. The Magpie hasn’t raised any fledglings of her own, and my mother passed over some years ago, so this was mainly an occasion for spoiling my mother-in-law (who’s a sweetie). But it’s not a bad time to look beyond the flowers, chocolates and cards with cute kittens on them. Because motherhood is a lot more complicated and messy than that.

While the US has its own version of this festival later in the year, ours is much older, and didn’t originally have its modern connotations. Mothering Sunday was, in Christian tradition, when you went to visit your ‘mother’ church, the one you were baptised at. While you were there, it was logical that since you didn’t get much time off work, you’d pop in on the woman who actually gave birth to you, if she was still around. It became traditional to take her a posy of flowers, or a cake – the Simnel cake, topped with marzipan and often eaten at Easter a few weeks later, became associated with Mothering Sunday in England. The greeting card industry didn’t get in on the act till a lot later, but here we are now, with floral sausage dog baskets and pink spa products coming out of our collective ears.

‘Mother Church’ – more often for Catholics, the organisation itself – is only one way motherhood has been used as a symbol. A Mother Superior heads a convent; a matron (from the Latin mater, mother) oversees (or used to) a hospital ward. Your Alma Mater, ‘dear mother’, is the school or university you attended (if it was a posh one). Your motherland is where you were born; your mother tongue is your native language. In biology, a mother cell splits to produce daughters; a mother culture is used to brew fermented products like kefir. Metals come from a mother lode, and precious stones are embedded in a matrix of base rock. Ideas of origin, containment and nurturing authority are all summed up in this way.

Human motherhood is often lauded as the pinnacle of relationships. After all, you can’t get more intimate than having literally grown inside someone. As mammals, and as primates, an intense physical and emotional mother-child bond was what enabled us to survive. We’re told that mother-love is pure, unconditional. We talk about a ‘face only a mother could love’. Our culture used to deify maternity in the form of Mary, the immaculate and ever-loving Mother of Jesus and by extension, of all believers. These days, we more often see perfect mother-and-baby shots in celebrity magazines: the babies contentedly snoozing, the mothers perfectly coiffed and beaming, the surroundings invariably spotless. You almost expect to see cherubs fluttering around with swags of flowers.

There are two snags to this idyllic picture, though. One is that motherhood is, as I’ve observed from watching many of the women I’ve known go through it, damned hard. Neither statues of the Blessed Virgin nor celeb photo shoots give any indication of stretch marks, vomiting, the literal bloody mess of childbirth itself, pacing up and down at 2 am desperately longing for sleep, screaming meltdowns in supermarkets, homework, puberty…and that’s in the best case scenario, assuming no complications like divorce or disability or extreme poverty or any of the other random shit life can throw at us.

And yet, she persisted…and the human race goes on. But painting a pretty, idealised picture of motherhood makes light of just what hard work it is.

And from the other side, idealising mothers themselves isn’t great either. It’s rightly been argued that we shouldn’t expect anyone to be a ‘perfect’ mother – such a thing does not exist, and couldn’t – but being a ‘good enough’ mother is a worthy goal. What does that mean? Hard to define, but if your kid has reached adulthood passably happy and reasonably healthy, is doing something good for society, and hasn’t taken up serial killing or eaten Tide pods, you probably did OK.

But there are mothers who fall short of ‘good enough’. The obvious ones, who beat their kids to a pulp, or look the other way when their partners abuse them, or scream at them non-stop. And the less obvious, who manipulate the child, who see them as a status symbol, or a carer, or a fan club, or a sticking-plaster for a bad relationship, or a burden, or…anything, really, except a small human being who’s utterly dependent on them for love and support. We don’t like to accept that there are mothers like this – so, every Mothers’ Day, we sweep them under the carpet and keep up the ideal. We forget that that maternal word matrix is also the name for a series of movies in which people were deceived into thinking their world was real. And that many mammals eat thir own young.


So, this day leaves out a lot of people. Kids, who were abused, who grew up in the dubiously named ‘care’ system, whose mothers died, or left, or were mentally ill, or addicted, or just assholes. Who were adopted, or raised by their grans or aunts or older siblings, or by their dad, on his own. And mothers, or not-mothers: those who couldn’t conceive, whose longed-for babies died in the womb, or were stillborn, who terminated pregnancies for whatever reason, who were forced to give babies up for adoption. Or whose versions of motherhood don’t fit society’s template: the woman who chooses to have a child by donor and raise them alone, the lesbian mums, the trans mum, the woman who chooses to be a surrogate. Not to mention women who consciously decide that having children just isn’t for them, thanks.

Paganism often sees the Goddess as having three aspects: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Letting aside that Goddesses, and women, have many more aspects than that, it’s perhaps significant that we don’t have the equivalent of a Maidens’ Day or a Crones’ Day anywhere in the calendar. Our culture loves young women as long as they’re cute and don’t act too liberated, and it fears and loathes powerful older women. In between, however, the only real role it has for us is the nurturing role, and heaven help us if we step outside that stereotype. They hate it when mothers get uppity and start asking for things like rights. But that, as anyone who knows anything about mammals knows, is part of the deal of motherhood: fighting like hell against anyone who wants to harm your cubs, whether that’s big business or rape culture. There have been more and more women on the recent protest marches toting babies or with kids in tow. They know it’s the future they’re marching for.

On the other side, what of those of us for whom the slew of cards praising those loving mothers we didn’t have, leaves a bad taste in our mouths? There are ways to cope. A counsellor said to me, a few years back: ‘You have to be your own best mother now.’ That’s sensible advice for anyone who feels the lack of good mothering.

So how do you mother yourself? You look at what good mothering involves, and do that for yourself.

Nurturing: Babies have to be selfish or they’d never survive, and a good mother knows she has to drop everything and attend to that wailing bundle. While our adult needs aren’t quite so urgent, they can be equally basic. Have you been eating regularly, something other than takeaways? Are you getting enough sleep? Staying hydrated? Taking any meds you need to take? Gently make sure you’re looking after those things before you attend to anyone else. (This also applies if you have kids of your own, on the oxygen mask principle: if you look after yourself, you’re more able to look after them.)

Protecting: Here’s the mother-bear stuff. You need and deserve boundaries. Good mums make sure let their kids don’t run out into the road; you, as an adult, can make sure you don’t do things that have a greater than average chance of actually harming you (and as an adult, you may be a better judge of what those things are). Where you can, learn to say no to the things (and people) you know aren’t good for you.

Loving: Do you actually love yourself? Many of us don’t show it often enough. Do mirror work – actually look into your own eyes in a mirror and tell yourself those loving things you want to hear. This takes practice; don’t be surprised if you laugh, or cry, when you first do this. It’s powerful stuff. It takes some of us a very long time to learn that we’re worthy of love; use any therapy or self-help techniques that help you towards this.

You might even consider – whether you normally receive Mothers’ Day cards or not – buying yourself one when it next comes round. Maybe some flowers. Or chocolates. Or whatever tells you that you’re someone special. Because if you’re taking the time, as an adult, to give yourself the mothering you didn’t receive earlier on, then, dammit, you are pretty special. And that’s also something worth celebrating, right?