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Silent Sunday

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Silent Sunday

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Not so much mythology as ancient practice, the tradition of lighting bonfires on Midsummer’s Eve continues even now in some parts of Britain. Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough contains a brief passage describing the various incarnations of these Midsummer Fires:

“In Wales three or nine different kinds of wood and charred faggots carefully preserved from the last midsummer were deemed necessary to build the bonfire, which was generally done on rising ground. In the Vale of Glamorgan a cart-wheel swathed in straw used to be ignited and sent rolling down the hill. If it kept alight all the way down and blazed for a long time, an abundant harvest was expected. On Midsummer Eve people in the Isle of Man were wont to light fires to the windward of every field, so that the smoke might pass over the corn; and they folded their cattle and carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times. In Ireland cattle, especially barren cattle, were driven through the midsummer fires, and the ashes were thrown on the fields to fertilise them, or live coals were carried into them to prevent blight. In Scotland the traces of midsummer fires are few; but at that season in the highlands of Perthshire cowherds used to go round their folds thrice, in the direction of the sun, with lighted torches. This they did to purify the flocks and herds and to keep them from falling sick.” 

– Frazer, The Golden Bough, Ch. 62 ‘The Fire-Festivals Of Europe’

At a time when entire villages would rely on a good harvest to feed them through the long, dark winter months, it is not surprising that folk turned to these rituals in an attempt to ensure good fortune for their crops and livestock. The lighting of the Midsummer Bonfire was a salute to the sun as it reached its highest point in the Summer sky, and an acknowledgement that the slow descent into shorter days and harder nights had begun.

The annual fire ritual is still a popular part of the Cornish Midsummer celebrations; in Penzance, as part of the Golowan Festival around the 24th of June each year, a firework display takes place. There are also various Midsummer Bonfires across the county as listed on the Federation Of Old Cornwall Societies website.

The nearest I personally have ever come to a Midsummer celebration was at the Glastonbury Festival in June 2000; we spent the Saturday night on the hill by the standing stones, and were rewarded with the incredible sight of the Tor rising from the mists below us in the early morning sun, as the bonfires burnt behind us. Hardly traditional, but I like to think it was as earnest a celebration as any that took place all those hundreds of years ago – though perhaps slightly louder…

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…just found a hardcover copy of Robert Lacey’s Great Tales From English History for the bargain price of £1!

 

Looking forward to a long afternoon of tea, reading, and letting Cbeebies babysit my children…

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‘Alison Gross’ by Vernon Hill, an illustration from Ballads Weird And Wonderful (1912)

The Victorians were HUGE fans of fairytales and mythology, as can be seen in the  illustrations of Arthur Rackham and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as Millais’  The Lady Of Shalott. [EXPAND]

Francis J. Child‘s five volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) is a staggeringly huge catalogue of songs and poems collected from across the British Isles. The majority of the ballads have been traced back no further than the 16th Century, but of course there are plenty of motifs within the ballads which owe their origins to folktales from the Middle Ages, possibly earlier.

The Ballad of Alison Gross (sometimes referred to as Alison Cross) is of particular interest to me as it turns the traditional stereotype of ‘bewitched young female’ (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, anything Disney have had their paws on) on its head. The subject here is a man whom Alison Gross – ‘the ugliest witch in the North Country’ – captures and tries to seduce with promises of fine gifts and trinkets.She offers him a scarlet mantle, a shirt garnished with pearls, and a cup hewn from Welsh gold, all of which he refuses as she gently combs his hair, singing to him of offering him ‘so many good things’.

He spurns her advances, and as punishment for rebuking her, Alison turns him into a Worm. She tethers him to a tree, and there he remains until Hallowe’en, when the Fairy Queen passes him with her court and deigns to free him from his enchantment by stroking his head and reversing the witch’s spell, restoring him to human form.

I first heard the Ballad of Alison Gross in the Steeleye Span song of the same name. Although this version is rather more Anglicised than the one recorded in Childe’s anthology, it does an excellent job of bringing the song to life:

A Scottish folk band called Malinky recorded a gorgeous version which is a little more faithful to the Ballad’s Scottish roots:

(It is interesting to note that this version is called ‘Alison Cross’, a possible corruption of Child’s title but one which is referred to elsewhere occasionally.)

Further Reading: 

Transcript of the Child Ballad of Alison Gross

The Ballad as it appeared in print in its original form

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As you will no doubt be able to tell from looking at my archive, this blog is something of a newborn. I’ve certainly been treating it like one – touting it around on Facebook and Twitter, lovingly tending to it at stupid o’clock in the morning when I should be sleeping, that sort of thing. I get inordinately excited watching my hit-count grow with each post, and I LOVE positive feedback.

But there’s something that’s been bothering me a little. As much as I love my subject matter, I don’t want Mynd And Mist to remain a dry, analytical ‘resource’ of a blog – I want it to be more notebook than textbook, I need it to reflect its author. (But with less gin and swearing, ideally.)

With that in mind, it’s time to indulge myself and post something a little more personal.

What to say that I haven’t said on my About page? Hmmm…I’m not very good at sensible grownup stuff. I AM good at: funny faces, jokes about poo, cooking, and locating Lego figures’ missing heads. I am the proud parent of two small boys, look:

This is Childe The First. He likes knights, castles, and Lego (good lad). He also likes refusing to eat anything cooked in sauce (don’t ask).

This is Childe The Second. He likes breaking stuff, climbing on stuff, and jumping off stuff. He also likes all food ever, particularly if someone else is eating it.

This is where I live. Well, pretty near – we are fortunate to be surrounded by huge areas of natural beauty here in Cheshire; Peak District National Park in one direction, the Lake District in the other. We are just a couple of miles from Alderley Edge, home of Alan Garner.

There is also Mr Wilde, but he can’t have his likeness displayed anywhere on the Internet or it messes with the portrait of him in the attic.

I have won NaNoWriMo twice, in 2005 and 2006. I attempted it in 2011, but circumstances conspired against me and I only managed 34000 words. All three drafts are languishing somewhere on the hard drive of my PC, as I am far too scared to dig them out and read through them; the first two are actually 0ne long novel set on some desolate part of the North Cornish coast in the distant past. Last year’s effort was/is a reworking of the story of Tam Lin, from a contemporary perspective; I am plotting a blog post about this in the near future, if I can cobble it together from the mess that is my Bookmarks folder…

And on that note, I am going to be brave and hit ‘Publish’, and hope that this tangent doesn’t sit too awkwardly with the rest of Mynd And Mist. Thanks for reading!

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The legend of the Green Children originated in the Suffolk village of Woolpit in the early part of the 12th Century, during the reign of King Stephen.Versions of it have appeared in folklore collections for centuries; it was first chronicled by Ralph of Coggeshall, a 12th Century monk who lived in a neighbouring town; he claimed to have heard the tale from Sir Richard de Calne, a Suffolk baron and landowner.

Late one Summer, the Woolpit villagers were busy bringing in the harvest when several of them were alerted to the sound of crying coming from one of the nearby wolf-pits from which the village got its name.

The man who went to investigate found two young children at the bottom of the pit: a boy and a girl, seemingly siblings, both terrified. Neither spoke any recognisable language, and their skin was tinged a curious green colour. After much coaxing the villagers managed to retrieve the children, and took them, starving and frightened, to Sir Richard de Calne’s house. Despite being visibly famished, the children refused to eat any of the food put before them. They grew increasingly more distressed, and spoke to one other in a strange whispered language. Finally de Calne’s staff presented them with some freshly-picked green beans – the children leaped on them and devoured them in an instant. For several months, these beans were all either of the children would eat.

As time passed, the girl and her brother gradually learned to eat other foods, and the green tinge began to face from their skin and their hair. De Calne provided them with a home and a basic education, encouraging the children to learn to speak English in the hope they could shed some light on their curious origins. The children were baptised, presumably as protection for their souls in the event of their death; this proved to be a timely decision, as the boy became ill and died a few months later. His sister remained living with de Calne until adulthood, when she apparently married a local man and adopted the name Agnes.

As the girl learned to speak English, she described how she and her brother had found themselves in the wolf pit after following the sound of ringing bells down a tunnel from their homeland, a place she called ‘St Martin’s Land’ which existed in a permanent state of twilight. Everything there was the same shade of green as she and her brother; the sky, the land, and all the living creatures. Efforts by the girl and the villagers to find this tunnel proved fruitless, and it is said that the girl lived out her days in Woolpit, where she could occasinally be seen wandering by the wolf pits in the hope of finding her way back to her homeland.

Further Reading:

The Green Children of Woolpit on Wikipedia

St Martin’s Land as mentioned in this interesting collection of East Anglian folklore

Woolpit, Suffolk – a history

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