Myth and Magic Episode 1 — Fantasy Writers Kitbag —
Episode 1 SHOW-NOTES
Folklore and fantasy themes aimed at creative writers: to start writing stories and challenge your brain with exciting ideas, dip into this kit-bag. Learn how fantasy worlds draw on real world history, mythology, and folklore. And there’s weekly news from the world of fantasy fiction too, plus fabulous creatures, studies on folk tales, nature fables and lots more mythical, magical fun.
CLICK HERE for >>> Episode One : 31m:25s
Tolkein’s Black Country, Godiva, Zee, St John’s Wort, Anansi, Confabultion
VISIT TO THE BLACK COUNTRY
“Black by day, red by night”
I’ve just returned from a trip to the West Midlands where I stopped in the “The Black Country.” I went up there to visit the Black Sabbath exhibition in Britain’s “second city” Birmingham. Some of you might know that Ozzy and Black Sabbath come from the Wolverhampton and Birmingham area but that’s a whole other story.
During the Industrial Revolution, this area became one of the most industrialized parts of Great Britain with coal mines, coking works, iron foundries, glass factories, brick works and steel mills.
Metalworking and coal-mining had been going on since medieval times but became highly developed during the mid-18th century.
The “Capital of the Black Country” Wolverhampton, and Bilston (where I stayed during my visit) and also Wednesfield (pronounced Wencefield) are all mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters and chronicles. The Saxons migrated to the British Isles during the 5th century and brought their customs with them, especially their notion of kinship*. They were converted to Christianity in about: 590–660
The name Wednesfield derives from the old English: Wōdnesfeld that means Woden’s Field.
He’s normally portrayed as a long-bearded old man wearing a cloak and a broad hat. The old Irish believed he was a “seer and a prophet…” He’s Mr. Wednesday (played by Ian McShane ) in the TV adaption of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” [Anansi the “spider” is also mentioned in the same novel!]
Woden in his guise as a wanderer – by Georg von Rosen
Wōden is an old Norse God associated with wisdom, healing, sorcery and knowledge
The reason you might find this interesting is because several characters from J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction were inspired by this figure The appearance of the wizard Gandalf was particularly inspired his “wanderer” guise.
TOLKIEN lived in Kings Heath ( a suburb of Birmingham) with his grandparents in 1895 and later moved to the quiet hamlet of Sarehole on the outskirts of the Black Country, where he lived as a child in the 1890s. The area probably influenced his description of THE SHIRE.
It is claimed that Tolkein’s Mordor is influenced by his knowledge of the Black Country (in the Elvish Sindarin language, Mor-Dor means Dark (or Blackened) Land…) i.e. Black Country!
His character named Bilbo Baggins might have been based on an observation of the Mayor of the Bilston ( the town where I stayed during my visit last week.) Intriguingly, the Mayor that Tolkein knew was named: Ben Bilboe
To read more about Tolkein’s Birmingham here: https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/tolkien
* It’s a coincidence that Tolkein’s ancestors were probably of Saxon origin: hence the name derives from Tolk’s Kin although he was born in what is now South Africa.
BANBURY / COVENTRY
What’s the Difference between the Fine Lady of Banbury and Lady Godiva?
On my trip to the Black Country by National Express coaches, we stopped off to pick up customers at Banbury and, later, Coventry. And it got me wondering what the differences are/were between these two horseback ladies…
Banbury had many crosses (the High Cross, the Bread Cross and the White Cross), but these were destroyed by Puritans in 1600. Banbury remained without a cross for more than 250 years until the current Banbury Cross was erected in 1859 [shown above photo credit: Jongleur100]
It’s thought the nursery rhyme (Roud Folk Song Index 21143 )
attached to the town is a folk-memory of this “period without crosses.”
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes
A cock horse might mean a high-spirited horse, or riding the horse that’s pulling the cart, or, as told to my by my riding instructor, it just means riding side-saddle.
The fine lady can been associated with Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Godiva (who I will turn to in a moment) or a 17th century socialite named Celia Fiennes who traveled England riding sidesaddle on horseback between 1684 and about 1703 in a period when lone female travelling, especially on horseback, was unheard of. Her travel notes became an (unpublished) memoir.
Fiennes saw many of the finest baroque English country houses while they were still being constructed and before the idea of “stately homes” was a thing.
Lady Godiva was the Countess of Mercia in the eleventh century. According to a legend she rode her horse naked through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband imposed on his tenants.
According to legend, just one person in the town viewed her naked ride, a tailor known as Peeping Tom.
The nakedness might be an allusion to Godiva’s penitential journey. The custom of the time was for penitents to make a public procession in a shift, (a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip) a very wispy garment considered to be “underwear”: thus, to all intents and purposes: Naked.
The dogma of the time taught that after atonement was complete any previous sin was no longer present on the sinner’s soul so they could continue life “in grace.”
Those familiar with the “Game of Thrones” (season five) will know that Cersei Lannister was forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing as atonement. This part of the tale was perhaps influenced by the Lady Godiva story.
There are several artistic interpretations of Godiva, my favorite (though it’s a bit chocolate boxy) is John Collier’s Lady Godiva [shown below] now held in the Herbert art gallery, Coventry.
Lady Godiva by John Collier – Herbert art gallery, Coventry
Last week TADE THOMPSON, a British-born Yoruba writer, became only the second writer of black African heritage to win the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction.
Three out of this year’s six shortlisted titles were by writers of color, a reflection of the fact that some of today’s most exciting SF and fantasy writing comes from non-white authors
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater Part One of his Wormwood Trilogy set in a future Nigeria after alien “meteors” ave wiped out the USA and UK.
The book also won the Nommo Award from the African Speculative Fiction Society
And, incidentally, a NOMMO is an ancestral spirit important to the Dogon people of Mali
NOMMO is a Dogon word meaning “to make one drink.”
Nommos are described as amphibious, hermaphroditic, fish-like creatures (hence the odd logo of the Nommo awards, see below)
African Speculative Fiction Society
Nommo was the first living creature created by the sky god AMMA At that stage I picture it to be something like a Mudskipper, but according to legend Nommo underwent a transformation and multiplied into four pairs of twins. One of the twins rebelled against the universal order which meant that AMMA had to sacrifice the “other” twin to restore balance and order. This “innocent” twin was dismembered and scattered through the universe.
The main character is Kaaro, he’s a “sensitive” that works for a government agency. Sensitives are able to enter the “xenosphere”, which is a mysterious alternate space where sensitives can meet each other, manipulate their appearance, and interact with one another. The world-building is excellent, with many ideas being “drip fed” into the mind of the reader.
Midsommar has also been in the news. With cinema goers asking how “real” the rituals are…
The 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster is about solstice ritual. Set in a place called Hälsingland in central Sweden (but filmed in Hungary) Hälsingland was first described by the English poet Widsith in 1072 in his The Traveler’s Song (found in the Exeter Book.)
It’s likely that the summer solstice has been celebrated since the Stone Age
Mostly, in the British Isles, the midsummer observances have centered around “staying up all night” and keeping a bonfire alive on the Eve of St. John the Baptist and/or St. Peter’s Day to celebrate and rejoice in the “light of the world.”
A 13th-century monk (in Winchcomb, Gloucestershire) suggested that youths collected bones to burn. The bonfires, or Saint John’s Fires, explained the monk, were to drive away dragons, which were abroad on St. John’s Eve, poisoning springs and wells.
The parish church at Barnwell in the Nene Valley, said that parish youth would gather on the day to sing songs and play games served to repel witches and evil spirits. Midsummer was also a popular day for infant baptisms in the 19th century
The Cornish “Golowan Festival” possibly harkens back to Druid superstition and includes a dangerous “serpent dance.”
Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was probably influenced by the middle-German “wild man” tale of Der Busant. (The buzzard)
In Sweden Midsummer’s Eve is a de facto public holiday in Sweden with offices and many shops closed. Like in Norway and Finland, it is believed that if a girl picks seven different flowers in silence on midsummer night and puts them under her pillow, she will dream of her future husband.
Solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still)
At summer solstice at Stonehenge an observer standing within the stone circle, looking northeast through the entrance, would see the Sun rise in the approximate direction of the heel stone
Let me know if you have any interesting midsummer rituals or observances in your area or you can confirm or deny any of the information I have presented here.
All creation is part of a great energy, everything is worthy of respect, and all matter is connected through an unseen energy, think of it as the lifeblood of the universe. Some may know it as Godhead (the substance of God rather than the actual figure) and it’s an energy we can all tune into and use it through prayer and meditation.
This life force is known as: prana, chi, energy, earth energy, or the ether…
Perhaps, just as the blood in our bodies permeates every body of the flesh, but connects via the veins, this life force energy is concentrated in the ley lines, or the paths of the feng shui dragon.
According to Patrinella Cooper in her Romany book of charms, herbs and fortune-telling, the first step on the path to performing any magic is to recognize and harness to power of Zee.
These energy currents are known by most cultures across the world by various names but the Romani word for this life-force is: mi douvals zee … or just ZEE
CONFABULATION is a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive
CONFABULISTS are very confident about their recollections, despite evidence to the contrary
NOTE: It’s not LYING because there’s no intent to deceive and the person is unaware that their information is false
Most cases of confabulation are due to brain damage, dementias or toxidrome caused by hallucinogenic drugs
There is a good theory that says CONFABULATION is useful for memory-disabled people to maintain their self-identity
If there are two memory processes: (verbatim and gist) and GIST processes representations of an event’s semantic features rather than its surface details (the details being the verbatim processes)
Most people process and store verbatim and gist information (memories) in parallel with equal credence given to both. But it’s feasible that some RECOLLECTORS or WITNESSES are stronger in Gist than they are, perhaps, with verbatim. And vice versa. We have this in my house. I tend to recollect the flavour and mood of an event while my wife remembers the miniscule details. And it is irritating (to me) that she doesn’t remember the spirit or feeling of a HAPPENING but I’m sure it’s equally v (to her) that I don’t remember times and places and, more especially, peoples names.
Studies show that verbatim memory declines between early and late adulthood, while gist memory remains fairly stable into old age.
Psychological researchers have noted that Schizophrenic patients tend to make up delusions on the spot which often become fantastic and perhaps increasingly elaborate with questioning
Anansi in my hallway
Last Sunday a house-spider spun a web across my hallway (a much used passageway) between the time my wife went through the hall to get out of the front door and I had finished my morning coffee. I guess it took 20–30 minutes to build and I have a picture of the web and spider which I shared on Instagram [above]
This creature has prompted me to think about ANANSI.
ANANSI takes the shape of a spider and is considered to be the spirit of all knowledge in stories. So he’s an important “medium” for people like us… for storytellers.
He takes the role of trickster, he is also one of the most important characters of West African, African American and Caribbean folklore… although I first came across him when researching the Leni Lenape or Delaware people, the indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands, who live in Canada and the North Eastern United States. Incidentally, Lenni Lenapi literally translates as: ”The Original Men/Man”
Anansi stories were part of an exclusively oral tradition, and Anansi himself was seen as synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech * … could he spin a story in just 30 minutes?
Anansi is often celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, because Anansi is able to turn the tables on his powerful oppressors by using cunning and trickery…
As the creation narrative goes: there were no stories in the world. The Sky-Father, Nyame held them all in a giant box. Anansi liked the world, but without stories he thought it was boring, so he went to Nyame and asked if he could buy them. All the stories. The Sky-Father set a high price, so high he thought the stories were safe. But, in a series of adventures, Anansi won them all.
You might think that Anansi shares similarities with the trickster figure of Br’er Rabbit, through the stories shared by Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus narratives.
When I was a child, at school, we were made to read Br’er Rabbit stories. At the time the teachers and establishment didn’t think they might be racist or patronizing… and although Joel Chandler Harris’s stories tend to convey demeaning stereotypes, his aim (I think) was to accurately recount the tales he heard from slaves when he worked (himself) on the plantations as a young man. In that respect, he might be forgiven perhaps, for preserving an oral folklore that might have been lost. One such tale is the story of the tar-baby:
A tar-baby is a doll made of tar and turpentine and it’s used by the villainous Br’er Fox to entrap Br’er Rabbit. In the West African version, though, it’s Anansi who creates a wooden doll and covers it with gum, then puts a plate of yams in its lap… in order to capture the elf known as Mmoatia. The elf takes the bait, eats a yam, a strikes out at the tear-baby to get a response, and that’s when it gets stuck fast. It makes more sense that a sticky trap is set by a trickster spider than by a Fox, doesn’t it?
I’m aware that some will consider the tar-baby a metaphor or “racial slur” which is why I prefer the Anansi story and did not chat about this on the show.
* Another coincidence : As a child, JRR Tolkien was bitten by a spider. Was this Anansi giving him the skills to spin a story?
ST JOHN’S WORT
My St Johns Wort
Many of you will know that I am an enthusiastic gardener here by the River Thames in Surrey. This week I purchased and planted two rare Hypericums. ST JOHN’S WORT. I already have one large bush and it’s so reliable and so golden-yellow that I decided to get two more.
This isn’t a gardening show so I won’t bother you with the special strains of ST JOHNS WORT I planted (but if you’re really interested, tweet or email me and I can let you know what I planted) but this is a myth and magic show and so I wanted to tell you about ST JOHN’S WORT and why it is famously associated with repelling ghosts and evil spirits.
You’ll see the yellowish shrubs with their bright-yellow rose-like flowers in concrete tubs and traffic islands all over the UK. They are so often used in modern landscaping because they are hardy and put up with all kinds of pollution and mishandling. But they are also considered, by some farmers and gardeners, as invasive pest weeds and its true than can poison cattle and livestock. Oddly, some of the plant’s leaves contain what look spots are around the veins (these spots are actually glands) and a proportion of these contain a red secretion that can stain hands and clothes. The flowers are at their best and brightest around Saints John and Paul’s Day that’s 26th June. This is not St. John the apostle by the way. Legend has it that those two saints were beheaded and the plant-leaves contain John’s blood. Although St John (the Baptist) has his feast day on June 24th and because this marks Midsummer and St Johns Wort was commonly harvested at that time, I suspect the two JOHNS are interchangeable. The herb was hung over pictures or icons of saints in houses at Midsummer… thus, the Latin name “Hyper” means OVER and eikon means picture.
Common Saint John’s wort has long been used in folk medicine to treat depression. The red oily extract was used by the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of St John, after battles, and probably has antibiotic properties.
The herb was once enthusiastically grown in Black Country gardens to ward off evil. The folk belief was that these plants “work” like a lucky horseshoe or making a cross on a loaf of bread, they just do it without bother. Even if you don’t believe in their magical properties, what’s to lose? You may as well plant one, enjoy the buttercup flowers, and sleep peacefully.
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