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Hathor Blessing: Crop Circle finale & farewell

Salutation to Hathor, goddess of love, music and beauty and Lady of the Stars, whose ritual Menat necklace represents the Souls of the blessed ones

Last week on Friday the thirteenth what may be seen as the swan song of the 2010 Crop Circle season appeared: an Egyptian-style ritual collar with trailing neckgear shining from a Wiltshire field of golden corn. It is the height of the harvest, days before they start wholesale cutting of wheat and barley in the western countryside.

The formation’s simple lines and clear message to crop circle followers may be overlooked among a plethora of dimensional designs which have dominated the 2010 crop circle season.

Linking its unadorned but glorious glittering shape to a Menat necklace — the symbol of primeval mother goddess Hathor in both the Old and New Kingdoms of ancient Egypt — is not difficult. A ritual curving jewelled shoal of splendour, its form is emblazoned in our collective memory, even as a northern species, derived from classical and prehistoric civilization of Europe and the Mideast.

She is the world’s most ancient goddess, embodiment of the planet Earth herself. It is she who cradles the sun each night as he sinks in the west.

Even the current fashion in heavy female neckware harks back to that classical curve: row upon row of minute turquoise beadwork and beauty created to invoke delight in a child, desire and pleasure in a model on the catwalk.

In present-day Wiltshire, we may not admit to being familiar with Egyptian hieroglyphics, hieratic script or deathmasks and tomb-paintings of the earliest dynasties (Great Pyramid of Khufu, 2589 – 2566 BC). But we have dormant memory banks, our bodies contain suppressed genetic code which probably remembers such a time, can ‘feel’ the weight of such a beautiful collar round our necks, desire the touch of such a ritual necklace.

It belonged to the Earth’s primeval goddess, Hathor: bringer of love, abundance, joy, fertility and regeneration.

As a swan song for the Wiltshire crop circle season of 2010, it seems a fitting statement to place at the height of English summer, when crops of wheat, barley, maize and even oats glorify in eight-hour days of beating sunrays pounding health and vitality into their stems and cells, literally seconds on the cosmic clock before the combine harvesters slice through life, growth and celestial graffiti.

Judging by a pronounced extra-terrestrial bent to this season‘s creations — despite a fairly good supporting cast of ‘plankers’ (man-made designs) — and with Science now firmly convinced of genuine CC enhancement in grain nutrient value and crop size by ET’s ‘light treatment’, I fervently hope someone is buying up Wiltshire wheat to bake into ‘DNA-enhanced’ bread, or wonder-pasta for our general wellbeing!

While there have been many man-made attempts this summer to emulate the light-bent nodes of superluminary crop circles, the Beckhampton message from the goddess appears to be genuine.

But, back to symbolism. Why Hathor? Why choose to imprint English fields — and thereby all of croppiedom — with a blessing from an ancient goddess who ruled heaven and earth before most of the western world could write?

Hathor, Earth-Mother Cow-Goddess bestowed bounty

Some time in Egypt’s pre-dynastic past the Goddess Hathor came into being, considered a major force in the creation of the world. Hathor was worshipped for over 3,000 years. Alternate forms of her name are Hwt-Hrw, Het-Hor, Het-Hert, Athor or Athyr.

Hathor, frequently seen as Egyptian Cow Goddess whose horns ‘held the Sun’, is probably Earth’s most ancient female deity. She encompassed so many different qualities and roles that it’s near impossible to list them all. She has been known as Sky Goddess, Sun Goddess, Moon Goddess and Goddess of the West. She was known as goddess of Moisture, and of Fertility, Agriculture and Motherhood; Goddess of the Underworld, Mistress of the Necropolis and, in her role as Protectress of the City of the Dead at Thebes, she became Goddess of the Dead.

Amenhotep III's ritual Menat necklace of bronze, faience, stone, glass and turquoise was gifted by goddess Hathor to pharaoh to engender his rebirth; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of New York

She was worshipped as Goddess of Love, Ecstasy and Beauty, and enriched the lives of her followers as Goddess of Music, Dance, Drinking and Joy. She was patroness of Women and Marriage and Protectress of Pregnancy. Hathor ultimately became special guardian spirit for all women and all female animals, and had such titles as ‘Lady of the Turquoise’ and ‘Lady of the Sycamore.’

The Menat Necklace was a ritual object first seen adorning the neck of the goddess and later used in ritual ceremonies to Hathor. The bejeweled necklace had many strands which ended in a counterpiece that, when originally worn as a collar, would hang down the back of the neck. In later use it had a ceremonial purpose and was wafted and waved as an amulet over the devoted to convey a blessing from the Goddess. The Menat symbolized fertility, and some sources see its offering a mystical union between the Goddess and her followers.

Are we earthlings now ‘followers’ of the wise goddess? Do we rate a heavenly blessing from the most high?

All summer long we’ve been expecting a message from God. Finally, as the year turns to autumn, we get a blessing from Goddess.

Much like the goddess Ishtar, Hathor’s attributes were a complex combination of the sacred feminine, death and the afterlife. It was she who bore bodies of the dead to the Underworld, she who actually took ownership of them. In this role Hathor became Queen of the Underworld.

Sun blessing embedded in a Wiltshire crop circle: Hathor regalia ends the 2010 season

In her association with Sun God Ra, Hathor was granted the title ‘Golden One’, while also sharing the name, ‘Eye of Ra’ with goddesses Sekhmet and Bast. Hathor was Protectress of Horus, the falcon god, and called a wide variety of names in that role. Some attributes appear conflicting and confusing and, as Mother Goddess, Hathor was often confused with both Isis and Nut. What confuses even more is the fact that she subsequently ‘became’ Isis who, in a later period, absorbed and acquired many of the aspects previously attributed to Hathor.

When she governed in her principal place of worship at Dendera, Hathor’s role as Goddess of Fertility, Women and Childbirth was venerated specifically. Her temple there was filled with incense, intoxication and pleasure. At her other temple in Thebes, however, Hathor changed into her robes as Goddess of the Dead, known as ‘Lady of the West.’ In Thebes she cradled in her arms the sun god Ra, as he descended below the horizon in the west.

Goddess Hathor wearing the Menat, holding her sacred Sistrum (rattle)

Hathor has represented the erotic in femininity and procreation, and was frequently identified with Greek goddess Aphrodite, Roman Venus. In her role as Goddess of Fertility, Hathor represented Nature’s creativity, and as Goddess of Moisture, she was associated with the annual inundation of the river Nile. In this aspect, Hathor was linked to dog-shaped constellation Sothis (Sirius, ‘dog-star’) which, at its heliacal rising on the eastern horizon — immediately before the Sun — announced yearly flooding of the Nile in July.

Eventually, in a later period, when Hathor’s role began to change, Isis/Osiris (Serapis) cults gained popularity in Egypt and then spread through the Roman empire and Greece. Because of her fertile and life-bringing nature, Hathor was considered capable of reviving the dead; she welcomed them to the Underworld, dispensed water to them from the branches of a sycamore tree, and offered them food. In various New Kingdom tombs at Thebes Hathor is depicted embracing the dead.

In pre-dynastic times, and certainly in the early dynasties, Hathor is seen as the cow-consort of the Bull of Amenti, the original deity of the Necropolis. As queen or ‘Lady of the West’, her mortuary title as Protectress of the Necropolis valley on the west bank of the Nile, in her role as protector she not only oversaw where the sun (Ra) went down, but this choice location for later kingdoms’ burial tombs.

Amazingly Hathor, one of the world’s greatest goddesses, was worshipped for a longer period than Christianity or Islam have reigned. Hathor’s religion of joy and celebration dominated for over 3,000 years. It continued strong throughout Egypt, and through both Greek and Roman empires, where it spread and became assimilated.

Her cult was in its heyday when the first great pyramids were built and used as sacred pharaonic tombs, and lasted until pyramids were no longer used for that purpose, by which time royal patrons continued under her protection on the west bank of the Nile in the great Necropolis Valley of the Kings.

She is the equivalent in Nordic, Celtic and Anglian territories of the Old Goddess of the pagans. She perpetuated in popular speech, in rituals of hearth and earth, in festival custom with its cargo of symbol and myth. She was seen as the source of life, power and wisdom. People prayed to her for wellbeing, abundance, protection, and healing. They invoked her during birth, and the dead returned to her and moved in her retinue.

They say that the Old Goddess, Crone who rode the winds, caused rain and snow and hail on earth, and that she revealed omens of weather and death and other momentous things to come.

In this sense she and Hathor are one and the same: primeval Eve, Brittonic Bride, Norse Auohumla, the great cow-giant goddess, true ancestor of the Norse gods. She is also Gaia, Sumerian Antu (who later ‘became’ Ishtar, goddess of love and procreation).

Apex of inspirational 'Hathor crop circle' at Northdowns, Beckhampton, Wiltshire, photo courtesy Bert Janssen

It is significant, too, that the ‘Hathor crop circle’ at Beckhampton appeared on a Friday the 13th.

The superstition held today of Friday the 13th being unlucky may stem from the betrayal of the Knights Templar on Friday, October 13th 1307 (Old calendar) when their monastic military order in France was arrested en masse by King Philip. The Spanish, however, hold Tuesday as their unlucky day; so the suggestion is a tentative one. Perhaps ET used the date merely to get our attention. It’s a familiar technique he’s employed over the years to combine crop images and Calendar.

An alternate explanation occurs: in later European tradition Friday was observed as ‘holy day of the goddess’, beginning with its eve on Thursday night. In that sense she is Norse goddess Freyja. The dark of the year was sacred to Old Goddess. On winter solstice nights, she was said to fly over the land with her spirit hosts. Tradition added that shamanic witches rode in her wake on the great pagan festivals, along with the ancestral dead.

Reverting to the Hathor connection, one ancient tale is retold of a group of goddesses, bearing cow horns and playing tambourines who went by the name the Seven Hathors. These Hathors were able to foretell a child’s destiny; similar in many ways to the weaving of the Tapestry of Life by the Fates, the Norns or the Disir. The Hathors were more than clairvoyants who could see into the future. They were questioners of the soul as it made its way to the Land of the West. In addition to knowing a child’s destiny, the Seven Hathors could foretell the exact hour of his death.

Egyptian mythology held that a person’s destiny was decided by the hour of his death and therefore his fortune, or lack of it, stayed with him throughout his life. The Hathors were known to have extreme powers, and were able to replace a prince, born with a bad fortune, with a child born with a good one. In this way they had the ability to protect both the Dynasty and the nation. The Seven Hathors are presently receiving some attention through the works of musician and psychic channeler, Tom Kenyon. When Hathor’s ‘old’ attributes became overshadowed by those of Isis and new kingdom beliefs, the Hathors were sent into the sky. There they have become identified with the Pleiades.

In more northern latitudes, reverence was paid for centuries to the Old Goddess in planting and harvesting, baking, spinning and weaving. The fateful Spinner was worshipped as Holle or Perchta by the Germans, as Mari by the Basques, and as Laima by Lithuanians and Latvians. She appears as Befana in northern Italy and as a myriad faery goddesses in France, Spain, and Celtic countries (Brittonic Bride). In Serbia she is Srecha; in Russia Mokosh, Kostroma or the apocryphal Saint Paraska.

Corn dollies embody ancient goddess Mother Earth

The Old Goddess was commonly pictured as a crone or aged woman, and origins of her veneration are lost in the mists of time. While goddesses of ancient ethnic cultures have unique qualities, they share traits, a deep international genetic root. Old Goddess is like the weathered Earth, ancestor of all, a tangible presence in forests, grottos and fountains. In her infinite guises she manifests countless forms: as females of various ages, she shapeshifts to tree, serpent, frog, bird, deer, mare and other creatures. Surviving the European Reformation, she remained beloved by the common people.

When farmers, and those who worked the land, were less dependent on technology to produce our food, Mother Earth and nature played a much more important role in the annual cycle of life. In particular, the harvest of cereal crops was a major event in the calendar.

We are now three weeks into ancient Lammas, the traditional harvest season.

In pre-industrial times a summertime ‘Lord of the Harvest’ would be given the responsibility of planning the harvest and marshalling the workforce, and when harvest was finally done they would celebrate with a ‘Harvest Home’ feast.

Corn Dolly made from the last (Clyack) cut sheaf, held sacred through winter, a blessing of Earth's bounty

The first and last sheaves of corn to be cut had major significance. Grain from the first sheaf (the ‘Maiden’) was made into a sacred loaf of bread while the last sheaf – the Clyack – was reserved for transformation into a corn dolly: symbolic of Mother Earth and the Spirit of the Corn.

Straw from this last sheaf was woven or plaited into the complex shapes of corn dollies, as cornucopiae, horns of plenty, horse shoes, knots, fans and lanterns. Ultimately, shape depended on local tradition, but in every case a symbolic ‘dolly’ graced the top table at the end-of-harvest feast and was then carefully guarded over the winter months. When spring crops were sown, the dolly re-emerged to be carried round the fields to pray that Nature and corn goddess delivered up another good crop.

In Wiltshire they’ve already started the harvest. Even in my native Aberdeenshire winter barley is going under the combine. Three weeks into Lammas (which pivots round August 1st), harvest is in full swing.

Our consciousness these days has become less aware of such natural cycles of food-cultivating-and-cutting; we are lulled into ignorance of the provenance of our daily bread. Perhaps it is this lulling that the crop circle presence wants to jerk us out of: to rekindle in us an appreciation — even reverence — for Earth’s bounty and her unconditional gifts of life and nourishment. More significant may be the appearance of a ritual symbol in the crop to help us understand our civilization’s most ancient ancestral traditions which show respect for (Earth’s) sacred creator gods.

Hathor was probably civilization’s earliest goddess. Her blessing showered on us now from above, five thousand years after the zenith of her devoted following, emblazoned in golden grain for our delectation and visual appreciation (aerial photographs superbly provided by Frank Laumen and Bert Janssen, thank you guys); it sparks our earliest memories of civilization. Are we being given a futuristic jab in the arm, to trigger our DNA? or to learn to appreciate more fully what our ancestors understood?

Our senses are being stroked, honed, we are receiving her gifts again. Not only was she goddess of birth and death, she was goddess of REBIRTH.

It’s just possible she has returned in essence now to show us that — at the end of the 2010 season of remarkable cosmic signs — our species is poised on the brink of rebirth: that we humankind are jointly headed for regeneration.

Dare we hope? As we come together as a race, as we feel joy in our rebirth, may we also see a faint promise of Hathor’s greatest gift? Immortality?

August 16, 2010 Posted by | ancient rites, belief, calendar customs, consciousness, crop circles, festivals, New Age, ritual, sun | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Party games and Mnemonics

Angel of the Festive Spirit

The festive season is here.

It’s the time for feeling peaceful, sharing joy and being merry; it’s also time for exercise: not of the body perhaps, but of the mind.

Trivial Pursuit used to be very fashionable; Scrabble keeps the cogs oiled, but old poems and rhymes that jog the cogs have a place too.

Whichever way your mind works, the mnemonic that fits the season is one that comes from the far north: its about wood and logs and burning those valuable resources we now cherish so much and burn less frequently. In Scotland, where we still burn logs in woodstoves and open hearths to celebrate solstice and Yule – Christmas and Hanukkah – wherever it is cold enough to warrant a blazing fire, this poem is not only something to remember the season by, but to remember the value of each yule log that we consume. Precious resource, indeed, but what joy it brings.

Wood for the Season: log burning rhyme
Beechwood fires burn bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new-cut holly laid beside;
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for years ’tis stored away;
Make a fire of the elder tree,
A death within the house you’ll see

But ash green or ash old
Is fit for a Queen with a crown of gold.

Fires of the Festive Season

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze too bright and do not last;
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
Dangerously the sparks will fly;
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread;
Elm-wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold;

But ash wood green and ash wood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.

Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter’s cold;
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Apple wood will scent the room,
With an incense like perfume.
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom;

But ash green or ash dry
For a Queen to warm her slippers by.

According to my grandfather, a childlike lovable old churchman who never wished to stop learning, the Victorians were great ones for mnemonics: for the wind and compass directions in clockwise order:

Never Eat Shredded Wheat

to remembering which side of the ship you were on on an ocean voyage:

The ship’s left port

or, more obscure,

Port wine should be left alone when it is red

This suggests port (left) red, so starboard (right) green. However, my grandfather also liked an occasional glass of port himself and his explanation was that as after dinner port is always traditionally passed around the table to the left; the “port” light is always red, just as port wine is always red.

His many interests included classical languages, the rivers of the world, the seven hills of Rome and how to remember them. While I doubt that too many reading this will have a need for mnemonics for such trivia, you never know; it might come in handy one day.

Firstly, the World’s greatest/longest Rivers:

NAM-MI YACH-Y

Nile (Africa) – 4,145 miles
Amazon (South America) – 4,050 miles
Mississippi-Missouri (USA) – 3,760 miles
Irtysh (Russia) – 3,200 miles
Yangtse (China) – 3,100 miles
Amur (Asia) – 2,900 miles
Congo (Africa) – 2,718 miles
Huang-Ho or Yellow (China) – 2,700 miles

Capitoline to the Aventine - hills of Rome

The Great Lakes from West to East:

Sam’s Horse Must Eat Oats

The Seven Hills of Rome:

Can Queen Victoria Eat Cold Apple Pie?
To remember the seven hills of Rome

and for those of us who might have to look that one up: they are:
the Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine, and the Palatine hills.

Roman numerals, too, in ascending order, for the classics scholar with a bad memory:

Lucky Cows Drink Milk

L = 50, C = 100, D = 500 and M = 1000.

And while on number, he had a mnemonic to help him remember the exact decimal value of Pi to the twentieth place! Counting the number of letters in each word of the sentence in order gives the value of Pi = 3.141592653 etc.

Sir, I send a rhyme excelling
In sacred truth and rigid spelling
Numerical sprites elucidate
For me the lexicon’s dull weight.

I prefer the simpler version of Pi to a mere seven places:

May I have a large container of coffee?

His wide reading brought him into much more esoteric branches of learning, which I won’t elaborate on – such things as Pythagorean theory, [a very non-pc version: ‘The Squaw on the Hippopotamus is equal to the sum of the Squaws on the other two Hides’] Lord Nelson’s injuries(!), remembering the names of world oceans and continents, and the date of the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight.

The Colours of the Rainbow are worth quoting:

Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain

which my mother (his daughter) abbreviated to the acronym: ROYGBIV.

Henry the Eighth’s six wives:

‘Divorced, beheaded, died;
Divorced, beheaded, survived.’

They were: Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard and Katherine Parr.

The Bayeux Tapestry recounts the Battle of Hastings

His greatest mnemonic was, for me, the poem of the succession of the Kings and Queens of England from William the Conqueror, 1066. Not the Scots, or Kings of Picts, mind you; something I wished for at the time and tried in later life to create a mnemonic for and failed miserably. [It is quite difficult to place King Dubh, Kings Aedh, Custantin, Fergus and King Nechtan into a rhyme!]

This one is still popular and while you have to remember another rhyme to insert each monarch into his/her houses, (Plantaganet, etc.), it has a ring to it:

Kings and Queens of England from 1066
Willy, Willy, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard Two,
Harries Four Five Six, then who?
Edwards Four Five, Richard Three,
Two Harries, Edward and Bloody Mairee;
Elizabeth the Virgin Queen
Two Jameses with Charlies in between

Coronation of Alexander III at Scone

[sometimes:
Mary, Bessie, James ye ken,
Then Charlie, Charlie, James again)

William and Mary, Anna Gloria
Four Georges, William and Victoria
Edward Seven next, and then
Came George the Fifth in nineteen ten
Ned the Eighth soon abdicated
Then George the Sixth was coronated
After which Elizabeth
And that’s all folks until her death.

The Royal Houses to which those monarchs belonged:

No Plan Like Yours
To Study HISTORY Wisely

(Norman (1066-), Plantaganet (1154-), Lancaster (1399-), York (1461), Tudor (1485-), Stuart (1603-), Hanover (1714-1901), Windsor (1901/1917-present))

Like Winston Churchill, whom he admired although a younger man, he could recite by heart: Greenleaf Whittier’s Ballad of Barbara Fritchie, a stirring epic from the American Civil War.

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

It goes on for another thirty verses, but its most poignant couplet tells of an order from Stonewall Jackson himself:

‘Who touches a hair of thon gray head
Dies like a dog. March on,’ he said.

It is a fact that Winston Churchill, while visiting Frederick, Maryland in 1943, held up his own welcome party while he stood in front of the house where she is said to have waved the Union flag in Stonewall Jackson’s face; and recited the poem from beginning to end. It is not reported whether his hosts were particularly pleased by this recitation; but my grandfather was!

Of course the old minister would recite from every verse of ‘Remember, Remember the Fifth of November’, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Wreck of the Hesperus and he was particularly fond of ‘Peter, Andrew, James and John, Hold the Horse while I get on’ -a mnemonic for the first four of the 12 disciples.

With such a mentor, is it any wonder that my education was, to say the least, eclectic?

I don’t have to repeat the mnemonic for the months of the year because I think that is one rhyme which has filtered down through oral tradition into the consciousness of now. [Unless someone really doesn’t know and writes me a comment/request to that effect!]

However I think my grandfather would have loved to hear a hurricane rhyme which I learned in the Bahamas in the early ‘sixties: in these times of changing world climate and strange seasons, it is reassuring to find the hurricane season stays (roughly) the same…

Hurricane Season
‘June, too soon;
July, stand by;
August come it must;
September, remember;
October, all over.’

My grandfather had ways of remembering the Arabic names of stars and constellations, too, but I think we’ve covered enough ground for one festive blog. Those gems will have to wait for another time.

Happy solstice.

December 14, 2009 Posted by | ancient rites, culture, history, popular, seasonal | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Midwinter Solstice: Return of the light

Sine umbra nihil

Burning the Clavie at Burghead, Moray

MIDWinter Fire festivals were ancient man’s most fervent prayer to the Universe to return the light to the earth after the shortest day.

At 57º North latitude in Scotland, the equivalent in North America of the parallel of Juneau, Alaska, there aren’t a lot of hours of light in December and January. By the time solstice – the day the sun appears to stand still – December 21st – arrives, ancient man was getting to the point where it was going to get dark forever, unless something was done to propitiate the spirit world.

In the earliest known Calendars devised by Arabian astronomers, even the balmy latitudes of the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas saw a dwindling of the light. And so when Neolithic man erected stone circles and sacred precincts of stone leading the eye to the horizon to a point where the sun set on midwinter’s day, he did it for a most urgent purpose: to ask the Light of the Universe, the Sacred Fire, to return.

What better way to kindle the blessing of the gods of light and fire than with fire itself?

In Northeast Scotland, where recumbent stone circles abound, the recumbent or ‘resting’ stone lies in the southwestern quadrant of the circle, flanked by two carefully chosen pillars of stone (quartz, quartzite, granite with inclusions to reflect the light), creating a window on the horizon where the midwinter sun goes down. At 4:00 p.m.!

Aberdeenshire's recumbent stone circles' window on the horizon

It is more than seventeen hours before it rises again. Seventeen hours must have created an enormous hiatus of doubt and disbelief in the minds of ancient communities whose shaman or holy man might be the only one who knew the light would return. But did they? It is no wonder that oral tradition handed down tales of the supernatural abilities of such knowledgeable men.

We have no record of how such workers of celestial magic were named in the time of the first farmers, the Neolithic communities who raised the megaliths of Aberdeenshire.

But by the time of Roman historians, like Tacitus and Ptolemy, who wrote of ancient Britons’ ‘great powers’, Roman respect for the Celtic peoples of Europe and the Druids of the Britannia was great. Ptolemy and Caesar record phenomenal belief by the people in their magicians, their Druids, their ‘keepers of knowledge’ and rightly so. The Celtic traditions known to the Gauls owed their origins to the British druidic élite. Much veneration and respect was paid in Gaul to this small group of islands lying in Ultima Thule, or in Roman slang ‘off the map’ on the edge of the Roman Empire.

Sun and moon markers embedded in stone

Certainly by the time of our Pictish ancestors – those whom the Romans called the Caledonians – stone circles were in constant use for fire festivals and seasonal rites of propitiation for the welfare of the community. The Picts also had their own druidic priest class like those of Wales and other Brittonic peoples. And their power to be seen to command the elements of fire, water, wind and earth were extraordinarily great. Annals and documents from Gaul, Cornwall, Brittany and Rome confirm their hold over the people, not only to guide farming work through the annual cycle, but also to act as advisor to queens and kings.

By the ancient Celtic calendar, known to the Romans as their equivalent of the Julian method of calculation, there were ten months in the year and thirteen moons. Man moved according to the sun for daily light and warmth, but owed allegiance to the moon for rhythms of planting and harvest, the female menstrual cycle and hence the cycle of birth and death. The Julian calendar was a ruling force for fifteen hundred years, until it started to lose time.

By then the Church, mathematicians and enlightened astronomers had stepped in to alter the rhythm to run more closely with human time. Most nations changed over to the new calendar after it was decreed law by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. But the Orthodox Greek and Russian Churches refused to change. Other nations remained staunchly in favour of the older calculation. Among these were Ethiopia and Russia, who did not accept European calendar reckoning until 1750. Ethiopia still does not.

And Burghead in Moray.

In Burghead they burn the clavie to celebrate the return of the light of a dying sun. An ancient rite practised on the night of solstice in pre-Christian times, to propitiate and ask the dying sun to return, its confused calendrical transposition to January 11th can only be slightly rationalized by calendar change. Nevertheless, it is on this date that Burghead has through oral tradition and in living memory rekindled and paraded its torch of blazing fire.

It’s a little more complex than merely holding to the old calendar. Well-wishing for a new year is what we do in the Northeast of Scotland when the calendar points to January. It’s called Hogmanay. It was always so. Or was it?

In Gregorian, we count this as 2009; about to go 2010. It is already 5770 Jewish time. The month of February 2010 opens the Chinese year of the Tiger; on February 22 Islam moves into 1431. For Sikhs, new year (542) comes just before vernal equinox when Hindus (2067) and Persians (1389) celebrate, just as we used to before the Julian calendar adjusted new year from March to January.

Clavie Crew hoist the burning barrel and parade it round the town

This is no surprise to the Clavie Crew of Burghead on the Moray coast. They still run on Julian time.

When Scotland changed calendars in 1660, there was much misunderstanding in country districts – the loss of 11 days was seen as someone in a position of power having robbed them of important events. This was also a period of change in parishes because of the implementation of new church doctrines introduced at the Reformation. Calendars in Church records added to the confusion by writing numbers in ‘Old Style’ and ‘New Style’. It caused so much concern that Old Parish Records (OPR) had to show both systems. Births in the OPR are recorded for several years in both Old and New Time.

Also at the Reformation pre-Christian festivals, such as clavie-burning and fire festivals at Beltane, Hallowe’en and harvest too, were frowned on. On the other hand, local tradition was strong: it was commonplace to mark the return of the light after midwinter in all northern communities and northeastern ports. Such pagan celebrations as ‘fire leaping’ and dancing round the fire within the precinct of stone circles was still known in 1710 and harvest fire festivals continued unabated until the year 1942. Gradually, however, other celebrations and farming fire festivals started to die out.

When the other northern ports stopped their Clavie burning in winter after the first World War, Burghead held on. After the second War, it continued to celebrate as it had always done. It has continued to do so ever since, except for two of the years during the 1939-45 European War.

Now only two villages hold to the ancient tradition: a pre-Christian ritual of celebrating the closing of one seasonal door and the opening of another.

Stonehaven in Kincardineshire celebrates with a street festival of fireball-swingers. Both festivities are awe-inspiring, if marginally dangerous to watch. It must be awesomely perilous for those involved. On Hogmanay night Steenhivers have a street party to end all street parties. Whereas Burghead only spills combustible materials over the shoulders of Clavie-bearers, Stonehaven delights in spinning fire in clumps into an unwary crowd.

Stonehaven has conceded to the newer calendar, swinging its crazy fire balls on Hogmanay; yet it is celebrating the same midwinter seasonal hinge as the Clavie Crew of Burghead: The end of the Old Year; Old Yule: Aul’ ‘Eel.

Burghead is more precisely still counting its eleven lost days.

In Burghead, lighting the eternal fire and carrying it round the town reenacts the celebration of the return of new light after the longest night in the Northern hemisphere – the dark of the Latin quotation often found on sundials: ‘without shadow there is nothing’. Implied, naturally, is the fact that the all-important entity which creates shade in the first place, is the Sun.

To the Clavie King and his torch-bearers of Burghead, this is Aul’ ’Eel, pre-Christian Yule or winter solstice. Yule becomes interchangeable with Christmas south of the border but Scotland has held to its pagan festival of Hogmanay, itself a testimony to and turning point in that Roman calendar.

Fire for the clavie is ritually kindled from a peat ember – no match is used. This is in respect for the spirit of fire itself which is eternal.

The Clavie itself is an old whisky barrel full of broken up staves ritually nailed together by a clavie (Latin, clavus, nail). One of the casks is split into two parts of different sizes, and an important item of the ceremony is to join these parts together with the huge nail made for the purpose. The Chambers’ Book of Days (1869) minutely describes the ceremony, suggesting that it is a relic of Druid worship, but it seems also to be connected with a 2000-year-old Roman ceremony observed on the 13th September, called the clavus annalis. Two divisions of the cask in the Burghead ritual symbolize the hinges of the old and the new year, which are joined together by a nail. The two parts are unequal, because the part of the new year joined on to the old is very small by comparison with the old year which is departing.

Burning the Clavie at Burghead

Clavie King, Dan Ralph and his Clavie Crew heave the Clavie into position

Clavie King Dan Ralph has carried out his duty for twenty years. He gathers together his Clavie Crew and they help each other take turns carrying the man-sized torch: a tar-barrel stoked with oak staves soaked in combustible fluid. It is a feat of human endurance alone to lift what must weigh more than a man, not to mention avoiding flaming drops of leaking fuel. They stagger in unison round the town, dispensing luck as they go: flaming brands from the burning tar-barrel are presented as tokens of abundance to important burghers, including the publican. The bearers keep changing; circling the town sunwise, stopping only to refuel or change carriers. A final free-for-all happens after the clavie arrives at the fire-altar hill, on a rib of the old Pictish ramparted stronghold, which juts out into the Moray Firth. There it is fixed to its fire-altar, the doorie.

More tar, petrol, any source of incendiary fuel is added until the flames reach for the heavens. Then both fire and wooden vessel, the fast-distintegrating clavie, and its lethal blazing contents are left to die.

Happy New Year. Julian indeed.

December 6, 2009 Posted by | ancient rites, astronomy, crystalline, culture, nature, Prehistory, ritual, sacred sites, stone circles, sun | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments