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Secrets of the Pow-wow

12 Feb

Early Pennsylvania was a melting pot of various religious persuasions, as William Penn’s promise of religious freedom opened the doors for many Christian sects: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, German Reformed Catholics, and all manner of religious mystics and free-thinkers. It is from this blending that the Pennsylvania German Pow-wow tradition was born. Despite the appropriation of “pow-wow”, taken from an Algonquian word for a gathering of medicine men, the tradition is actually a collection of European magic spells, recipes, and folk remedies of a type familiar to students of folklore. Although the name was taken from the Algonquian term for shamans, Pow-wow relates directly to the European culture from which the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants came. While immigrants from the Netherlands did make their homes in Philadelphia, the term Pennsylvania Dutch actually refers to immigrants from the Rhine region in Germany (the name being a corruption of the word ‘Deutsch’). These peoples fled religious persecution at home and settled in and around Philadelphia in the late 17th and early 18th century. The moniker has expanded in modern times to include a broader variety of immigrants from the Germanic region in Europe, especially those who cling tightly to their traditional religious perspectives, as it is a magical tradition that combines Catholic prayers with intonations or inscriptions of mystical words, folk rituals, and recipes to create cures for various ailments and illnesses. While modern Pennsylvania Dutch most often profess little to no belief or practice of the culture’s ancient magic, the traditions have not been entirely lost, and it is still possible to find devotees of the old ways in the city to this day.

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The Kingdom of Hay

15 Jan

The rolling agricultural landscapes of Herefordshire have an easy-going charm, but the finest scenery hereabouts is along the banks of the River Wye, which wriggles and worms its way across the county linking most of the places of interest. Plonked in the middle of the county on the Wye is Hereford, a sleepy, rather old-fashioned sort of place whose proudest possession, the remarkable Mappa Mundi map, was almost flogged off in a round of ecclesiastical budget cuts back in the 1980s. To the west of Hereford, hard by the Welsh border, the key attraction is Hay-on-Wye, which – thanks to the purposeful industry of its very own self-proclaimed ‘King’ Richard Booth – has become the world’s largest repository of secondhand books, on sale in a score of secondhand bookshops. The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held there for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’. But Hay-on-Wye was already well known for its many bookshops before the festival was launched. Booth opened his first shop there in 1961, and by the 1970s Hay had gained the nickname ‘The Town of Books’. On 1 April 1977 Booth proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as king – styled Richard Cœur de Livre – and his horse as Prime Minister. He lives there still, ruling the kingdom of Hay from his very own castle in the hills.

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Sinterklaas

11 Dec

Sinterklaas is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins based on Saint Nicholas and is the primary source of the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus. Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and sometimes red stola, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top, and traditionally he rides a white horse. Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by a man in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in colourful attire, often sporting a lace collar and a feathered cap. Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, who as King of the Norse Aesir was a major god among the Germanic peoples, and was worshipped throughout Northern and Western Europe prior to Christianization. Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin include the fact that Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse (Odin rides the sky with his grey horse Sleipnir); Sinterklaas gives chocolate letters to children (like Odin gave the rune letters to mankind); Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces, who listen at chimneys to find out whether children are bad or good and report to Sinterklaas (Odin has a spear and his black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who report what happens in the world to Odin).

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The Land of Lost Content

17 Apr

For a whole host of children born at the tail end of the 19th century the First World War marked a terrible frontier between innocence and adult worldliness. First-hand experience of the horror of war consigned blissful childhood visions to doubtful memory, and post-war technological and economic changes seemed set finally to dismantle an already crumbling rural culture, leaving much that was good behind. One of England’s most gifted poets, Edmund Blunden, seeing perhaps the cultural and spiritual consequences for the nation of unnaturally accelerated fundamental change, and at the same time trying to make sense of his own terrible war-time experience, sought to bring to mind – to his and ours – what at root really mattered in life. Unsurprisingly, he turned to his pre-war childhood vision of the village of Yalding in the Garden of England, his very own ‘land of lost content’. In his poem Old Homes, it was Yalding that he described: ‘O happiest village! how I turned to you / Beyond estranging years that cloaked my view / With all their heavy fogs of fear and strain; / I turned to you, I never turned in vain…’.

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Oranges and Lemons

20 Mar

Oranges and Lemons is a traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of London. The lyrics go as so:

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

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The Bay of the Departed

21 Feb

The westernmost tip of the Brittany coast, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, is alive with legends of the sea. Mythical creatures, giants, imps, naiads and sages – each associated with a detail of the sea that explains the violence and the beauty of the coastline. The stories are often harsh and, to modern ears, cruel. Men and women destined to live out the same sacrifices for all of time, retribution for crimes committed by earlier generations or as an attempt to appease the angry sea. One part of Brittany that is today more famous for its surfing and its seafood is the Baie de Trepasses – the Bay of the Departed – but in ancient times it was said to have always been a portal into death. Here, the way of life still follows the steady tread of the century before and the century before that, a timelessness that recalls the telling and retelling of old folk tales. One of the more famous stories inspired by Breton folklore is that of the Ankou: a fisherman called by name in the deep of the night by God or the Devil to transport dead souls to the portal of the beyond on the shore of a distant land.

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Manannan, Son of the Sea

22 Nov

The Isle of Man, almost equidistant from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, is one of the most beautiful spots in Britain, a mountainous, cliff-fringed island just thirty-one miles by thirteen, into which are shoehorned austere moorlands and wooded glens, sandy beaches, fine castles, beguiling narrow-gauge railways and scores of standing stones and Celtic crosses. Although it takes some effort to reach and the weather is hardly reliable, this also means that the Isle of Man has been spared the worst excesses of the British tourist trade: there’s peace and quiet in abundance and an entire yesteryear ensemble of picket fences and picnic spots, rural villages straight out of a 1950s picture book, steam trains and cream teas. This is also the island whose name comes from Manannan mac Lir, who in some tales was the son of the Irish sea god and others the brother of the Welsh Bran, known as the Blessed, and his doomed sister Branwen.

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Morag, the Monster of Loch Morar

19 Sep

It is notable how many of Scotland’s lochs have monster traditions and sightings: Loch Ness, Loch Lhinne, Loch Lochy, and Loch Arkaig to name just a few. Morar is a freshwater lake in the highlands of Scotland, in relation to which – in common with the neighbouring Loch Ness – occasional reports of a large unidentified creature (dubbed Morag, the monster of Loch Morar) in its waters have been made. The loch, although not as large a mass of water as Loch Ness, is a thousand feet deep in places, and is much more remote and inaccessible to eyewitnesses. Its resident monster, who in general appearance resembles the classic pictures of Nessie as a prehistoric plesiosaur, has allegedly been spotted just as often as Scotland’s most famous loch-based monster. While, up until a couple of years ago, Morag had been quiet for more than two decades without even the hint of a recorded sighting, there are now signs that Scotland’s second most famous Loch monster is making something of a comeback.

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Scarborough Fair

19 Jul

Scarborough Fair is a traditional English ballad about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. Today, Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history: in the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a popular holiday resort. Long before this, however, it hosted the ‘Scarborough Fair’ – a popular gathering in Medieval times, which attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th. In the Medieval period, this fair gave its name to a popular folk song that became widely known as Bards would sing it when they traveled from town to town. The author of the original song is unknown, and today many different versions exist, the best known of which is probably the one by Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon learned about this song when he was on tour in England, where he heard a version by a popular folk singer named Martin Carthy. The traditional version has many more lyrics, some of which are quite sinister and replete with mythological associations.

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The Mistletoe Bride

17 May

The Mistletoe Bride is a haunting short story by one of Britain’s finest living authors, Kate Mosse, who was inspired by a traditional English folk tale. Mosse describes how as a little girl she first came across the story of the ‘Mistletoe Bride’ in a book that her parents had – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. In the book several places in Britain claimed to be the historical setting for the story – Skelton in Yorkshire, Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, Marwell Old Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck in Cornwall, Exton Hall in Rutland, Brockdish Hall in Norfolk and Bawdrip Rectory in Somerset. While the time and place is uncertain, the story, concerning a young bride who suffocates in an oaken chest, is always the same and is generally regarded as being founded on fact. However, its popularity can be laid at the door of the 19th century songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayley, who set the story to music and published it as The Mistletoe Bough in 1844. It was an instant hit and became one of the most popular Victorian and Edwardian Christmas music hall songs. The enduring nature of this particular story has led many to wonder how much truth there actually is to it or whether it instead taps into something more primal – fear of change, loss of innocence or awareness of the fragility of life?

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