Hunting the Unicorn: “…and under the earth…”

Sharp tang of woodsmoke, tall shadows climb stone walls, reflected flames dance in a black pool. Deep in the belly of earth, the symbols of the rite painted on pale skin, I wait as the torches come…

I could not say where or when the scene unfolded, nor what was the rite, only that to find yourself unexpectedly standing in a landscape familiar from an old, recurring dream is very strange. The soft echoes of the chamber brought back one missing detail.

“We need to chant…”

***

We had arrived in Burghead knowing that we would take a look at an ancient fort and a holy well. For once, that was about the limit of my knowledge. We had been given a detailed itinerary, but I had deliberately not researched any of the places on the list. As I was not one of those responsible for guiding the weekend, I would be able to come at each site fresh and free from preconceptions.

Burghead has all the solidity and cleanliness typical of the area, but although most of the town has stood for just a couple of centuries, its history goes back into the earliest of times. At low tide, you can still see the peat beds and remains of trees that stood where the sea now flows some seven thousand years ago. The earthworks of the Pictish fort were unmistakeable as soon as we had parked… and incredibly well sited on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by the sea. But, when the Picts first came to the area and began work on the earliest phase of the ‘promontory fort’, the promontory had become an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of sea.

Was the site of the new fort first chosen simply for defensive reasons, which is entirely possible, or was there some deeper significance for the choice? So many times we have seen the lands of the living and the lands of the dead… the landscape of ritual… divided by water. There is even the old magical tradition that flowing water contains or prevents the passage of otherworldly beings and forces to back up the idea. Maybe there was more than just tactical planning by the founders?

Most of the fort was buried beneath the new town in the nineteenth century, but radiocarbon dating has shown the site was already occupied as far back as the third century. At the height of its strength, the fort had walls up to twenty feet high and twenty-six feet thick, dotted with around thirty Bull carvings, only six of which have as yet been located.

Was the Bull the symbol of the tribe, its spirit animal… or both? Is it an earth-bull, association with strength and fertility, or one of the mythical water-bulls of Scottish folklore, who were shapeshifters and could not be killed by drowning?

The information boards at the holy well spoke of executions by drowning, such as that of Talorgen, son of the king of Atholl in 739,  could not resist the idea of possible beheadings and mentioned the Celtic carved head found there as being a ritual object such as we see at so many ancient wells. Bearing in mind that the well would once have stood within the walls of a fort surrounded by sea, I would not have thought that contaminating a source of drinking water with messy executions would have been the norm. Not with the sea below the walls.

On the other hand, having a shrine to water deities within the fort, to whom appeals and offerings might be made and where rituals might take place, that does make sense. The idea that the Picts saw ritual significance in both caves and water is reinforced at a site not far away.

In a nearby cliff, the walls of the Sculptor’s Cave are decorated, curiously enough, with pentagrams and other Pictish symbols. Deep within the cave, many human bones were found. Some were cut through the neck as if deliberately decapitated. Others show clear evidence of having been deliberately defleshed. Some heads, mainly those of adolescents, appear to have been placed around the entrance to the cavern.

The majority of reports focus on the apparent brutality, sensationalising ghastly rituals and barbaric sacrifices. One, rather more considered report is that of ScARF, the Scottish Archaeological Framework, who suggest that the caves would have been a liminal place, between land and sea, where “rites of passage – transforming children to adults or the living to the dead – may have taken place” and where it was thought that you could reach out to “the gods or spirits of the underworld”. We know that bones held meaning for our ancestors and that the cleaning of the bones for burial was seen as a respectful funerary rite. We also know that initiatory rites of passage, such as that marking the transition from child to warrior, priest or shaman, often held an element of real risk. What we do not know is the story behind the bones in the cave and it seems unfair to paint their people as barbaric, by our standards, without that knowledge.

That the ritual significance of water persisted into the Christian era we also know, with baptism forming the central rite of all who embraced that religion. There is another well in Burghead, dedicated to St Aidan… a name we have come across many times before on our travels… where the water is still clear and vessels are still provided for travellers… and their dogs. This is not something we have come across before in this health-and-safety dominated age… but oddly, it was not the last time we would see a holy and healing well still in service on this trip.

But the rock-cut well before us was unlike anything we had ever seen outside of dream. It felt forlorn, forgotten… but the spirit of place was not without power. Had it been a baptismal chamber? Quite possibly, with its steps leading down into the clear water and its ledge, either seat or walkway, running around the outside. Had it been used for Christian baptisms, like many another holy well that predates Christianity? Probably… but only later in its history.

The well reminded me of a painting I made many years ago, trying to catch the essence of a fleeting dream, with the shaft of light illuminating a priestess who stands within a well, her robe floating around her on the water. It was not a good painting, but I saved it and called it Chalice… for when I inverted the colours and the image, the priestess made the stem of a grail-like cup.

And it was dream that brought me to ask for the chant. We gathered once again at the entrance to the chamber. With a health issue, my own voice was meagre, so I was able to listen and feel the growing resonance as we filled the chamber with sound, cleansing, illuminating, reverberating… and, at the last, lifted to the sublime by the voice of a tawny-haired priestess whose favourite robe is red.

It was a quieter company that walked along the earthworks to stand looking out across the sea, the mood only lightening when we found a complete ‘fairy ring’ of toadstools on the way back to the car. There was once more visit before lunch… down to the shore in ritual mode, to once more walk our pentagrams.  The tide had come in, as if sea had come close to watch and, after the well, there was a rightness in that.

Hunting the Unicorn: “Upon the earth…”

Our morning began with an early meditation upon the hillside, turning our attention to the light, both in literal and symbolic terms. It was a moment to drink in the beauty of the land as a ‘false dawn’ opened a window in the clouds and we placed the work of the weekend under the aegis of Spirit. Each of us brings our own peculiar interpretation to that word and concept… and that is how it should be; the relationship between each of us and whatever we conceive of as spirit, divinity or a guiding presence is both unique and personal.

In simple rituals and in spite of a multitude of perspectives, we can set differences easily aside, colouring the symbols we use with our own interpretations in order to work together towards a common goal. That is one of the ever-present joys of such workshop weekends. We were using a five-pointed star, but there is always a hidden point to any symbol and, magically, that always operates on a different level to the symbol itself. The opalescent horn of the Unicorn would be both the guardian of the threshold and would point the way for us.

Having established the Unicorn as a symbol of Spirit the night before, we were about to begin a more personal journey into the elements of our own nature. Using imagination, knowledge, memory and the senses, we would map that journey onto the five points of the pentagram. Dean had carefully chosen passages from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to illustrate the psychological aspects of the elements as they are played out within the human psyche. He had chosen stones with different colours, patterns and textures to represent the physical  elements with which we would weight down the ribbon paths we were to walk around the pentagram and chosen sites for us to visit that reflected the elemental principles too. In other words, he had tied the journey together beautifully on all levels.

 

Our next stop would be Duffus Castle, built around 1140 and abandoned in the eighteenth century. As Steve has already covered the history of the castle, I need not repeat the details of its construction and ownership, but can take a more personal perspective.

The castle is surrounded by the remains of a moat, now a pure, clear stream, teeming with wildflowers and small creatures. It was here that we began to get an inkling of Dean’s deep love and knowledge of the natural environment of his adoptive home, much of which he would share with us over the weekend. It is a very beautiful site, an island in a green land. Rising from the Laich of Moray, it dominates the landscape and, from a distance, seems to epitomise our idea of a ‘proper’ castle.

The mound upon which the fortifications are built is imposing. Both the motte that holds the castle keep and the bailey… the lower enclosure that once protected the stables, people and day-to-day practicalities of castle life… are intact.

It is only as you come closer that you see that the castle has not only suffered the depredations of time, but is gradually slipping down the slope of the motte to be swallowed by the hill. Windows have broken, whole sections of the structure seem to be sailing away. It is almost as if the most solid-looking part of the castle is the most fragile… and what a good analogy for our own masks that might be.

It has a very different ‘feel’ than its Norman counterparts in England. So often these were built by the conquerors on sites already important to the community, thus both wresting position and imposing authority on the land and its people in one fell swoop. There is a lot of research ongoing at the moment, looking into the age of motte and bailey-type earthworks that were once Norman castles… and had, we now know, sometimes origins and uses of a  much earlier date.

Here though, the castle mound was purpose-built. There was none of the underlying trauma or conflict felt at many other such sites. Sadly, though, it may be this very fact that has proven to be its downfall; the ancients were pretty good at building earthworks. Apparently, the castle-builders had needed to learn a bit more about foundations…

And that carried us neatly into the next part of our work, for the foundations of our own personalities need to be firmly built and deeply rooted before we can build upon them.

We were looking at ourselves from a magical perspective and the spiritual journey of each of us has to start somewhere. We all start at the beginning, knowing nothing, and build gradually from that point. How you build will determine how you will develop.

Most of us start by devouring information… books, articles, courses…whatever we can find, like newly-hatched chicks in need of nourishment. Some will believe that is enough and will construct an impressive-looking façade from what they have learned. You can carry on adding knowledge for decades… but unless you do the ‘spade-work’, the spiritual edifice you are building will one day crumble and swallow itself.

You may even find that, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the ‘power’ you think you have attained demands more and more of you in order to maintain its illusion. The real ‘spade-work’ of a spiritual system tends to include getting to know yourself… and that may mean digging into areas of the mind, heart and memory that can be as unpleasant as a blocked sewer.

It also means finding ways to put into practice what you have learned. That’s where this type of workshop can be useful. The written word can only teach knowledge and report experience… it cannot teach understanding, though it may show a way towards it.

But maybe, too, this broken castle might symbolise the freedom that comes when we can cast down the walls behind which we so often feel the need to hide, opening ourselves to light and life. Either way, it was a great place to start our day.

Nature Versus Nurture?

“Ewww!”said my younger son, screwing up his nose and making terrible, traumatised faces as he drank the small glass of milk, with about as much relish as if it were arsenic. “Straight from the udder?”
“‘From moo to you‘ it says on the carton.”
“Completely raw? Not treated…or anything?”
“Yep. Cow juice, just as nature intended.”
“Yeurch…”

I got the distinct impression that he would not be joining his older brother in his enthusiastic conversion to raw milk. I am well aware of the pros and cons of drinking unpasteurised milk, but the taste and health benefits outweigh any minor concerns about safety. The hygiene required for this nascent industry is stringent and well-regulated, and the industry too young to have grown complacent enough to take risks. And anyway, I rather like watching the ‘ladies who munch’ graze in the field while I fill my bottle with the milk they donated that morning.

“Ewww” said my elder son, the one who is into healthy eating and raw milk, screwing up his nose at the prospect of freshly picked blackberries. “There might be maggots and stuff…”
“I washed ’em.”
“Yeah but…” It is not that he doesn’t like blackberries. I had just made him a milkshake with commercially frozen berries… berries which are just as likely to have the odd stowaway and which are not individually inspected. His younger brother, on the other hand, the one to whom raw milk is anathema, enjoys growing his own fruit and vegetables. He has no problem picking off the odd slug or eating potatoes freshly dug from the soil.

I am no better. I carefully wash the few strawberries I have from my own garden, but will happily munch on punnets of fruit bought at the roadside and with no knowledge of what, if any, hygiene measures have been employed.

I think it is the plastic. Over the past few decades we have been ‘educated’, taught to believe the supermarket myth that, if it comes in plastic, it is safe, clean food and we are okay to eat it. This may, on the whole at least, be true, but it does not mean that plasticised food is the only food worth eating or that all else is unsafe.

I grew up in a time when potatoes were still sold covered in earth… and I was fascinated by the different colours and textures of the soils that encased them, wondering how that affected their growth and taste. Fresh fruit and veg may have had a blast from a hosepipe, and greengrocers hand polished their display apples, but most of it came straight from the ground… and most food was what is now expensively labelled as organic.

The local farm that sells raw milk also hosts a cooperative of locally produced food items, from organic meat to home-made jams, villagers’ surplus eggs, home-grown and beautifully misshapen vegetables and honey with the name and address of the ninety-year-old bee-keeper on the hand printed label. The honey my son had been using comes from Bulgaria… hardly local and ecologically not all that friendly in shipping miles. And the co-operative ensures a decent price for the growers too.

I still find it deeply satisfying to know where my food comes from, and that includes being able to see the soil still clinging to my carrots and knowing whether the beef in my casserole is shin or rib. Most younger shoppers have never had to wash a potato or ask for a particular cut of meat. A generation ago, few would have been fazed by having to gut and pluck a chicken. Their parents would have had no problem feeding  the bird in the morning and seeing it on the table at night… I know, my mother was good at that. Today, especially for those who live in urban areas, our food is sanitised, generically labelled and sold on looks not flavour.

That worries me.

We seem to be being systematically brainwashed into dependency by the big-money supermarkets. And this is just one example of the way the society we have created for ourselves is creating a reliance upon the structures that are supposed to serve us. Just one example of how our need to know, to question and to think for ourselves is being eroded…and these ar skills we should be employing in every area of our lives, from what we eat to what we believe. We allowing ourselves to be robbed of knowledge about what we are buying and eating… and meanwhile, we are losing the knack of choosing a ripe melon or a tender steak by sight, smell and touch, stifling our senses and suffocating ourselves with plastic. We rely on the supermarket to do it all for us.

More importantly, we are losing contact with the source of our food. We no longer think of the earth in which the potato grew, any more than we think of the lives, both plant and creature, that sustain our own. We forget the balance of sun and rain, day and night, winter and summer. We eat out of season and forget the seasons’ place in the grand and beautiful dance of life and growth.

Greengrocer’s, butcher’s and baker’s shops are disappearing rapidly from our towns. Convenience and the buying power of the supermarkets have already won the day and beggared small farmers. We cannot all afford the extra cost of organic food, especially when there is no farm selling local produce or innovative cooperative handy. But one thing we can all do, every day, is take a moment to consider what we eat and where it grew. It is a small act of gratitude… and a substantial act of rebellion against the fallacy that plastic is best. An act of rebellion that reclaims control and allows us to choose.

If we do not care about the earth that cares for us, we will damage it to the point where it can no longer do so.  It has taken a generation, that’s all, for town dwellers to lose the skills required to provide ourselves with food and informed choice, abrogating responsibility in favour of convenience. We forget reverence and gratitude and our connection to the earth that gives us life.

Mothering Sunday

Someone, somewhere must have a vicious sense of humour. It is Mother’s Day in England today… a day when many Mums may get to lay in bed a little longer… except that today is also the day when we lose that hour as the clock’s have gone forward. I also happened to forget about that and worked late into the night, robbing myself of even more sleep. The dog wouldn’t have been bringing me breakfast in bed anyway…

That only happened to me once on Mother’s Day and, given the extent of the ‘damage’ in the kitchen when my small sons decided I should have breakfast in bed, I am quite glad about that. Today I get to go out to lunch instead, invited to my younger son’s home, where I get to play with my granddaughter while her parents cook and do the dishes.  Little things like that make all the difference.

It struck me, when I was thinking about my granddaughter, that I am a grandma. I know that sounds odd, but there is a vast difference between knowledge and realisation. I am not just a grandma, though, I have, since my granddaughter’s birth, moved ‘up’ a generation. If I am blessed with the longevity of my own great-grandmothers, I could even move up another couple of generations before becoming an ancestor.

I was lucky enough to know my own great-grandmothers. One, indeed, was with us until long ofter my own children were born and from her I heard the tales of her own mother and grandmother, taking my imagination back through shared memory to the mid 1800s. It is not the same as reading about it. When the person from whom you gather memories remembers the people and the incidents, they come alive…especially when these women were your family. In a little while, when they are old enough,I may be able to share that same gift with my grandchildren, giving them access to memories stretching back seven generations before their own, with me somewhere near the middle.

The realisation brought with it a sense of continuity. My personal memory covers the three generations before me. If I am very lucky, I may see three, or perhaps even four generations after me, though I would have to rival great-grandma’s years to do so. But the story doesn’t stop there. I am just one small link in a very long chain. The future will count me as an ancestor one day, just as I can look back at the faceless women whose names are on my own family tree…and even further back to a time before records began.

It puts you in perspective. You are suddenly a very small link in an incredibly vast chain… yet an essential one if the chain is to continue into the future. Even the smallest of things can make a difference.

Science has traced the first ancestors of humankind, but our evolution did not begin with humanity. The very earliest lifeforms appeared over four thousand million years ago, poised between inorganic and organic matter… and even they had to evolve from something. We speak of Mother Earth… and with some truth as the Earth must be the ancestor of us all.

She still does what mothers do… providing us with all those things we need in order to survive.

On Mother’s Day, maybe it would not be a bad idea to look at the Earth with as much love and appreciation as we give to human mothers.

The perfect teacher?

When the student is ready, the master will appear.

This saying is often quoted both by and to those who walk a spiritual path. All too frequently, it is said with the kind of supercilious air that implies that the listener is not yet ready… and further, that they are in the presence of one who already knows more than they ever will. The early stages of any path are littered with those who like to think they have walked much farther than anyone else.

The trouble with that is how it devalues a principle that is, in fact, true… though not necessarily in the way the seeker might think.

A few envisage a numinous being descending in glory to reveal the inner secrets of the universe to them alone. Many expect to simply meet a person or group who can guide them, or point them in the right direction. For most of us, though, it is not even that…it is a thought, a book, a glimpse into a moment that changes our view of the path we have chosen and sets us on our way. It can be the smallest thing and its magnitude is seldom immediately obvious because it is so different from anything we thought we expected.

The clue, though, is in the proverb; the master will appear. Not from out of nowhere, in a puff of smoke… when the student is ready, the guidance they need becomes visible to his eyes. It may always have been there, indeed, there is a teacher within, just waiting for the question, but without everything he has learned on his personal journey, the student is simply unable to see it for what it is.

There is one teacher we each experience every single day. It illustrates many of the most basic beliefs upon which we have founded our complex religions and our personal faiths. It may be from observing its ever-changing face that those beliefs arose in the heart of Man in the first place.

We have only to look at the planet we call home, in all its beauty and order, to see the origins of wonder. From the rising of the sun that chases away the shadows, to the seasons of the year that lead from youthful spring to sere winter…and on again to the rebirth of spring. From the harvesting of what was sown, to the precise perfection in the design of any living organism and its place in an endless, cycling chain. There is a perfect teacher there for all of us.

If you look at the incredible design of body, leaf or crystal, even at the most minute level…and then consider how everything we know works in harmony, feeding from, nourishing and reliant upon other links in the endless chain…apart, perhaps, from humankind’s behaviour…you cannot help but marvel at the scale and perfection of the design.

Accidents, mutations and evolution, say the scientists.

Really?

Am I suggesting that there is a bearded old guy on a throne somewhere, compass in hand, drawing up plans for creation? No. I don’t discount the scientific explanation at all. But I do see it as just that… an explanation of what is and most scientific explanations are little more than descriptions of the mechanics of the physcal world.  It doesn’t mean it is entirely correct… how can we, a species that is a mere blip on the face of evolutionary time, expect to fully understand the whole process of creation? Nor does it mean it is incorrect…as far as it goes. Accidents and mutations are certainly part of the evolving design….but that design is too vast for us to see in its entirety.

With the intricacy of the interwoven strands of the physical world before our eyes every day and the dance of the  heavens above us at night, little wonder that humankind percieved Intelligence behind the design. From there, it is but a short step to see the basis of beliefs such as reincarnation, karma and the survival of the soul played out upon the body of the earth. Nor is it difficult to see perfection in action.

It is worth considering. When the student is ready, the master will appear. Maybe all we have to do is open our eyes.