WITCH-FAMILIARS AND STORM-RAISERS

I reached out absent-mindedly towards my green filing tray – the one with the hundreds of scraps of paper – ideas for all those totally awesome and stupendous future blog posts. But my hand landed upon a sleeping tabby, and something about her sleepingness was saying Wake me if you dare!

So I picked up instead a book I’ve been meaning to examine in more detail for some time now. It’s a huge, weighty, falling-to-bitsy book with a detached spine and no dust-jacket, published in 1973 by the Reader’s Digest Association: Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Various authors, artists and contributors.

I have been sleuthing around for this particular treasure for some time because I suspect it may be the book given to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull by his American manager one long-ago rural hippie Christmas, and which subsequently inspired the weird, atmospheric collection of songs that became Songs from the Wood (1977). It’s impossible to know for certain since the CD booklet notes – as might be expected from a 70s prog-rock band – are somewhat artsy-fartsy and airy-fairy – but I believe it may well be. I know – I’m a little old sad person. Things like that interest me.

It’s possible that Ian Anderson never so much as dipped a pointy nose into this volume or followed its tiny text with a pointy fingernail, or stood on one leg and played the flute in the same room as one of its cousins – but I like it in any case. It’s inspiring: a treasure trove of the weird and the arcane – of history, legend, rumour and tall tales. And lots of lovely pictures. You could build an entire writing career around this one volume, if you happened to have a whole writing career in front of you. Unfortunately, I don’t.

So, I turn to the index and find a creased orange postit-note pencilled Cats. References I had earmarked for just such an emergency – when a tabbycat snores in the post-tray.

The first reference to moggies is this one, on page 44:

Witches were once said to disguise themselves as cats, and many people refused to talk near a cat, for fear that a witch would learn their secrets.

Cats were regarded as the most common of witch-familiars. Puss would advise his mistress and run malicious errands for her. Their lives were thought to be so intertwined that if the cat was wounded the witch would be wounded in a similar fashion.

Cats, unlike dogs and horses, are said to be fond of ghosts, purring whenever they meet them. Cats can predict the wind or even, some say, raise it by clawing at carpets and curtains. When a cat washes its ears or sneezes, rain is sure to come, and if a cat sneezes near a bride on her wedding morning she will have a happy marriage.

Black cats are mostly believed to be lucky, although in Yorkshire (they always have to be different in Yorkshire) it is lucky to own one but unlucky to happen upon one by accident. White cats, unlike white horses, are usually said to bring bad luck.

Then of course there is the Cheshire Cat. Lewis Carroll’s Alice met a version of him in Wonderland. It had the ability to melt away into invisibility leaving only its grin behind. However, the common saying “to grin like a Cheshire Cat” was around long before Carroll picked up on it. Some say that Cheshire cheese used to be decorated with the head of a cat, others that the expression comes from the open-mouthed wolf-heads on the arms of the 11th Century Earl of Chester.

There is the story of the Doctor’s Devils. Gustavus Katterfelto, an 18th Century conjuror and quack who toured England dispensing worthless flu cures at five shillings a bottle. He made a grand entrance to each town in an antique horse-drawn carriage with two ‘negro servants’ in coloured livery parading through the streets and blowing trumpets. He kept two black cats with him at all times. These were known as the Doctor’s Devils although, sensibly, Gustavus always denied that they were of diabolical origin.

Witches were supposed to ride to their Sabbats on broomsticks, and in illustrations are often shown with a cat perched on front or back of the broomstick. However, the Cornwath witches, executed in 1664, claimed to have ridden upon ‘cats, cockerels and bundles of straw’.

At the first major English trial for witchcraft, in Chelmsford in the year 1566, Agnes Waterhouse, her daughter Joan and Elizabeth Francis, all from Hatford Peverell, were accused of each possessing in turn a black cat named Satan. Cat Satan was said to talk in a strange, hollow voice and occasionally assume the shape of a toad or a black dog. For each of his services to her Agnes was said to have paid him a drop of her blood: her face was said to be marked by spots where Cat Satan had sucked blood from it. She then apparently gave Satan to the other two defendants, for whom he was said to have spoilt butter and cheese (decked out for the occasion in an ape’s head and a pair of horns with a silver whistle about his neck), drowned a neighbour’s cows and bewitched a man to death.

How foolish and dangerous we all were, and how close even now to such beliefs. All those foolish, innocent girls and women killed. And I try not to imagine what must have happened through the witch-finding years, to those cats that just happened to have been born the wrong colour, at the wrong time, fed by the wrong woman in the wrong village or condemned by a sinister name.

I have dwelt at some length on the worship of trees…

And dwell at some length he does, throughout the whole of Chapter IX (The Worship of Trees) and Chapter X (Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe).

In England the best-known example of these leaf-clad mummers is the Jack-in-the-Green, a chimney-sweeper who walks encased in a pyramidal framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May Day at the head of a troop of chimney-sweeps, who collect pence. In Fricktal a similar frame of basketwork is called the Whitsuntide Basket. As soon as the trees begin to bud, a spot is chosen in the wood, and here the village lads make the frame with all secrecy, lest others should forestall them.

This is the unmistakeable voice of Sir James George Frazer (1854 – 1941), regarded as one of the forefathers of modern anthropology and the author of The Golden Bough, a twelve-volume monster Study of Magic and Religion. Having, between the years 1890 and 1915, published his twelve huge volumes Sir George set about abridging them, to make his work available to a wider audience. The copy I have is a second-hand £1.99 Wordsworth Classic abridgement, but it still runs to 756 pages of teensy-tiny print. Love it! The paper is cheap and thin, and gloriously toasted at the edges. It smells like dust and vanilla. Love vanilla!

Some of his stories of mankind’s superstitious doings are almost too painful to read nowadays, let alone quote – like the burning of cats in bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent, in some cases hanging them over the fire from the end of a pole and roasting them alive. Without a qualm, I would have roasted the roasters alive. Others are more lyrical:

Halloween, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old a time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? And could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

It’s… it’s Biblical. Bleak winds whistling among swaying boughs and snow-drifts deepening in the hollows – the very essence of winter.

The Golden Bough is one of those books that, for the omnivorous reader, have a tendency to keep cropping up, along with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (don’t have) and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (have). I was always meaning to get hold of it and see what it was all about, but somehow I never did. Then quite recently I was seized by the idea of writing fantasy in earnest, rather than just dabbling. Fantasy, I suspect, is my mind’s default setting. The Partners of the law firm for which I used to work classified me as Not really with-it, but unique, according to a female colleague. For an instant I was flattered, and then I hated her. (Always the reaction to being bitten by an arch-bitch.) But what to write fantasy about? I was not inclined to be inspired by elves, since it was they who had been stealing my mother away in instalments, and had latterly substituted one of their own, a grouchy elder elfling far past its prime. So I decided to do some ‘reading around’, and The Golden Bough is part of that.

One of the great merits of homeopathic magic is that it enables the cure to be performed on the person of the doctor instead of on that of the victim, who is thus relieved of all trouble and inconvenience, while he sees his medical man writhe in anguish before him. For example, the peasants of Perche, in France, labour under the impression that a prolonged fit of vomiting is brought about by the patient’s stomach becoming unhooked, as they call it, and so falling down. Accordingly, a practitioner is called in to restore the organ to its proper place. After hearing the symptoms he at once throws himself into the most horrible contortions, for the purpose of unhooking his own stomach…

I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of a book of British Myths and Legends, which I think may be the one that inspired Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) to write his 1977 album Songs from the Wood. Tiresomely, the spindly prog-rocker failed to quote the exact title of the book in his CD booklet, only saying that was given to him as a present one Christmas in East Anglia, Buckinghamshire or somewhere else rural and folksy, by Joe Lustig, his American ‘press and promo guy’. I wanted that same book – felt I just had to have it – and spent a long time on Amazon scrolling down lists of folklore and legend books, eliminating those published post 1977. Not that I’m a nerd…

I am hoping that these two books, together, will inspire me to write the best-selling fourteen-novel fantasy saga which will save my bacon, financially. You can never have too much inspiration when there is bacon to be saved.

…Hence, from the primitive point of view, it is perfectly possible that a savage should have one soul in his sex totem and another in his clan totem. However, as I have observed, sex totems have been found nowhere but in Australia; so that as a rule the savage who practises totemism need not have more than one soul out of his body at a time.

tree-worship.jpg

Frazer was a social anthropologist, and his genius was to do two things – to collect, obsessively, more or less everything ever written in the way of superstitions, rituals and legends, and then to notice and explain, lucidly, the connections between them. He also possesses a dry sense of humour. He actually got into trouble for placing the story of Jesus and the Resurrection on an equal footing with ‘legends and superstitions’ rather than making a special case for Christianity. He implied, for example that the idea of the Lamb of God might be a relic of a pagan tradition and pointed out that the dates of many Christian festivals coincided with those of prehistoric pagan rituals. This doesn’t seem particularly outlandish now but it shocked many of his readers to the core. As a result, in subsequent editions his work was watered down and censored.

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city and stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats. One of the victims was sacrificed for the men and the other for the women. The former wore round his neck a string of black, the latter a string of white figs.

The Golden Bough was to influence subsequent generations of writers, poets and thinkers including T S Eliot (The Waste Land), W B Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium), H P Lovecraft, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud.

Eight tracks, one book and a luxury item

I don’t know how many people outside the UK will have heard of Desert Island Discs? It’s a BBC Radio 4 programme which has been running since January 1942. It’s a British institution along with Doctor Who, the children’s programme Blue Peter, the sacred Shipping Forecast and that ghastly, never-ending Northern soap Coronation Street. All are much loved, much mocked and never likely to be forsaken by viewers and listeners. This little cluster of programmes is infinitely reassuring to the British. Whatever else may change – terrorists threatening to blow us up, immigrants battering down our borders, farmers releasing cows in supermarkets to protest at the price of milk, an unlikely person with a beard being elected as Leader of the Opposition, weather forecast data no longer to be supplied by the Meteorological Office – as long as we have this handful TV and radio programmes we are going to be OK. No need to worry. Have another cup of tea. All’s right with the world. Underneath, we are a very nervous nation.

The basic premise is this: each week a guest, called a “castaway” during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. (Thank you Wikipedia for the definition).

Why discs? These pieces of music would once have been encoded on gramophone records, children. Gramophone records were black discs originally made of something called shellac. Shellac was easily breakable, as I can attest, having accidentally parked my teenage posterior on my ancient shellac disc of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly’s True Love – oh, I loved both the song and Bing Crosby. I’m sure sitting on and shattering them set an unlucky precedent for the rest of my life .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAO8vlvPS88

Latterly shellac was replaced with plastic, and plastic was replaced by downloadable tracks. Unless something has replaced tracks? Forgive me, I’m old and still listening to CDs with occasional recourse to a Tesco generic MP3 for yomping along the sea-front. Actually, I don’t so much yomp as totter nowadays but the fresh air is good for me.

Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. They are then asked which book they would take with them; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. (Wikipedia again. Why bother to rewrite something when it’s perfectly well-written already?)

There’s one final element. Guests are allowed to choose one luxury item to take with them. It must be inanimate and can’t be something you could use either to escape from the island or to communicate with the world beyond. Comedian John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame was allowed to take Michael Palin with him on one condition – that Michael Palin would be dead, and stuffed. People tend to ask for pianos, and champagne, for example. If you’re fascinated to see a list of what people actually do ask for (I love lists, don’t you?) here is the link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Desert_Island_Discs_episodes_(2011%E2%80%93present)

The above list answered one of my questions – what about electricity? I suspect the desert island must be attached to the mains by an underwater cable, since people have asked for electric guitars, cappuchino-makers, a Sex and the City DVD boxset (why on Earth…?), though others, when requesting laptops and i-pods, and taking the whole frivolous concept ultra-seriously, have been careful to specify solar-powered.

Working out and Desert Island Disc list is something I have never attempted before but, for your edification and delight, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to attempt it now. I suggest ‘Desert Island Discs’ as a good game, perhaps for power-cuts, or at Christmas when full of brussels-sprouts and Yorkshire Pud, or to amuse the children on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As long as you take it seriously – but not necessarily so seriously as to suggest solar-powered laptops – you might discover a few profound somethings about yourself and your fellow players. It might also be an idea to repeat it every ten Christmases or so (concealing the previous list from yourself) to see if your tastes have changed.

So, my current eight Desert Island tracks would be:

  • Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Tallis Scholars version
  • Fire at Midnight by Jethro Tull (Songs from the Wood)
  • True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
  • Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen, but Jennifer Warnes’ version)
  • Another Monday – instrumental, by John Renbourn from the album of the same name
  • The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Eternity by Dougie MacLean
  • Who Will Sing Me Lullabies by Kate Rusby

My ‘most highly regarded’ would have to be Spem in Alium. I have blogged about that before. Also about desert islands, actually, though in a slightly different context.

I won’t go into all the reasons for my choices. Quite often these are down to personal/ sentimental associations with the tracks as much as the tracks themselves. And by now I am sure you are no longer listening and are busy disagreeing, arguing amongst yourselves or compiling your own list.

How I could manage with only one book I don’t know, since at the moment I have about 2,000 and will never get to the end of reading them. However, the best thing seems to go for value for – not money but words. Mercifully I’ll already have the Bible and Shakespeare – there’s an entire desert island’s-worth in the Bible. Shakespeare is just the icing on the cake.

My first thought was to go for Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill – a fearsomely abstruse book on a subject that interests me greatly. I feel that reading it would be greatly to my spiritual benefit, but wonder if I actually would read it in my changed circumstances, given that it is so challenging, both in terms of subject matter and a thorn-thicket of elaborate and antiquated English. After all, if you can’t meditate and attain a state of higher consciousness on a desert island, with blue sky above, the sound of the sea and a warm, sandy beach, where can you? So I decided to follow the example of many other castaways and ask for the biggest possible anthology of poetry. Poems have such potential for entertainment – not just savouring and studying them, but learning them by heart, making up tunes and singing them, discovering hidden messages in them by opening the volume at random (also possible with the Bible and Shakespeare, of course) declaiming them aloud to the seagulls so as not to forget the sound of your own voice…

And for my luxury item, a solar-powered… no, it would have to be a giant, inexhaustible, damp- and weather-proof store cupboard or underground vault stacked from floor to ceiling with green and yellow A4 writing pads, wide feint, cardboard-backed, and an equally inexhaustible supply of top-quality 2B pencils, with pencil sharpeners. Maybe a ring-binder file or two… and a box of paperclips…