Why Myth?…

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‘…history became legend, legend became myth…’

What a pleasant conceit, to suppose that this process produces myth. Whilst undoubtedly true for many legends the process can also work the other way. Many legends for example have produced history. Pre-eminently in this respect, at least for Britain, is ‘King Arthur’ whose story the scholars do indeed now refer to as a mythos.

But what is really going on here?

It is probably more accurate to regard all these forms as stories. We are not supposed to regard History as a story but as ‘recorded fact’ and also ‘true’, but well, really, the clue is in the name. So why do we set such store by stories? The clue is in the question.
The truth of stories lies in a realm other than the literal. And what is ‘the literal’ anyway’?

‘The literal is something that actually happened.’

‘And what do we mean by something?’

‘We mean an ‘act’.’

‘Do we mean an act in a play?’

‘No, we mean a physical act; we mean the physical actions of a person.’

‘What, any act, and any person?’

‘Usually a significant act and a significant person’…

*

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…A woman set off in the west, coming this way.
She was carrying her baskets for plant foods, her digging stick and a fire-stick.
She was coming, travelling along, camping and then setting off again.
As she went along she was looking about her and where she saw plenty of small creatures and plant food she would stop and eat and then camp.
At sunset she would settle down and sleep and early in the morning she would set off again.
Going on she saw that salt-water tide had come up at a place she hoped to go across.
So she camped there.
She made a sleeping platform in a tree because so many mosquitoes were biting her.
When at last early morning came she made a paper-bark canoe, paddling with her hands to cross to the other side.
Then she started off again and eventually came to a cave house…

*

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…A Dust-Devil was living in the cave house.
Tall, thin and hairy he was with a crooked body and bat-like wings.
‘My woman has come,’ he said, ‘my body’s no good but today we two will sleep together.’
When they met the woman offered him vegetable food and the Dust-Devil reciprocated with fish.
They slept together but the woman did not like the look of him so she cast about the cave house, found a stone axe and began sharpening it whilst he slept.
The Dust-Devil woke up.
He stretched himself and was preparing to eat the woman. She slashed his neck.
Then she looked around made a fire and cooked his body.
Perhaps he just tossed away the flames that Dust-Devil?
He came out the fire, ‘you woman, why did you kill me? I will cover you with my wings.’
The woman tried to hide but he found her.
He sealed her up in the cave where she was lying.
That cave remained for her then a dark cave.
She kept on talking in there, abusing the Dust-Devil.
At last she became like a rock.
She stands there a rock, forever.

A Young Woman meets a Dust-Devil

(Adapted from ‘Speaking Land’ by R.M. Berndt and C.H. Berndt)

North-easterly V: Layers

A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.

Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.

The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.

There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.

The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.

He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…

 

The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and even in its ruinous state still played a part on the defence of the north-eastern coastline during World War II. Dunstanburgh is a place of many layers, and as we walked towards it, we began to consider some of our own layers. The analogy of the castle as the ego, built layer upon layer by our own experience and that of those who went before still held true.

We build the shell of the ego from our reactions to all the situations and stimuli we encounter, including those passed down to us from our parents and to them from their parents… the layers go deep. This can be a good thing, as we learn from their experience… and just as we are taught early not to touch what may burn, or eat what will make us ill, we can also learn how to live within the society into which we are born and how best to treat each other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in a positive fashion. The accumulated wisdom of generations may also be contaminated by the acquired prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier era… and if we too acquire them, then the problems continue until we stop, look and challenge them for ourselves, stripping back the layers to see a kernel of truth from which we can form our own beliefs and make our own choices.

Steve also introduced the second thread of the weekend’s theme, that of pilgrimage… a sacred journey, deliberately undertaken. Although Dunstanburgh is a castle, not a sacred destination, we do not know for what purpose our earliest ancestors may have used the place. We had seen in Cornwall that the promontory forts may have ritual, rather than defensive roles. But for our purpose, it was symbolically perfect.

The ego is a necessary part of the human experience. It is our haven and shield, the face we present to the world, yet it is not who we are. Beneath the acquired layers, we are something more than our reactions, and the quest of the seeker is to take down the walls we have created around the shining core of being. Not completely… for the ego has its uses. Like this castle, where the natural erosion of time and weathering has reduced the impenetrable structure to beauty and bare bones, the ego dissipates as we grown and learn to know the inner beauty of the light within.

Curiously, another legend associated with Dunstanburgh is that of Sir Guy the Seeker. As night fell and a storm raged, an errant knight sought shelter beneath the ruined towers of the deserted castle. From out of the shadows, a wizard came forward to greet the knight… some say it was Merlin himself… and promised that, if Sir Guy would accompany him, he would be granted a vision of great beauty. The knight followed the wizard, who led him to a secret room. There, sleeping on a single radiant crystal, was the most beautiful woman Sir Guy had ever seen. She was surrounded by an army of sleeping knights, and on either side of her were a sword and a horn.

Sir Guy had, said the wizard, only to make the right choice and the maiden would be wake and be free of her crystal prison. The knight, dazzled by beauty, stretched out his hand and took the horn. Raising it to his lips, he blew a single note… and was plunged into darkness. As he lost consciousness, he heard a voice chastising him, crying shame on him for a coward for choosing the horn when a true knight would have drawn the sword.

Waking next morning, Sir Guy searched the castle for some trace of the maiden or the secret room, but none was to be found. So ardent was his determination to find and free her beauty that he spent his life wandering the castle in search of her, losing his mind and all thought of home. He wanders there still, and on stormy nights, they say you can still hear his desperate cries…

The castle is populated by ghosts. As well as Sir Guy and Earl Thomas, Margaret D’Anjou walks the castles grounds, weeping for those lost in battle. There is another story too, that seemed to fit our theme…that of a child imprisoned in the castle. The quest of the spiritual seeker…the pilgrim… is to release the inner Child from its prison. The story tells that she used the key to the dungeon, where many were tortured and killed, in order to escape. Once beyond the walls, she tossed the key into a field… and to this day that land remains infertile.

And so we wandered the empty space within the castle, passing the ruined chapel and exploring the gatehouse towers. In one, the breeze whipped through the empty windows, creating a vortex that whirled a mass of feathers around me like a snowstorm beneath the blue roof of late summer. From the other we looked out over the landscape and the castle’s tiny harbour to Bamburgh and beyond to the Holy Isle. Where next would our footsteps take us?

Getting personal

This weekend saw the monthly meeting of the Silent Eye in the north of England… a time when we reconnect, share and explore ideas and discuss plans for the four workshops we run every year. Work is already well under way for Lord of the Deep, the April workshop, which will explore the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories known to man, but our next workshop is a far less formal affair.

These informal workshops are held at various places across the country, making them as accessible as we can to anyone who would like to come along and meet us, see what we do, and visit a variety of historic or ancient sites in the process.

Readers who have followed our adventures at previous workshops, such as the recent Giant and the Sun weekend in Dorset, will know that we manage to see and experience a goodly number of places while exploring the mysteries of the human heart and mind, the spiritual quest …and a few odd theories for good measure.

For our next workshop, Castles of the Mind, organised by Steve, we will be exploring some beautiful parts of the north- eastern coast and its history. It is an area I love, one of which I have many fond memories and in which I have some personal roots; my grandmother and great-grandmother were from the area and my father’s ashes were scattered on the beaches he loved, many years ago.

We will be visiting some of the great castles of the area, and on the Sunday, will spend time on Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, a place of stark beauty, and one which has more history in its thousand acres than many cities.

There are the graceful arches of the old priory, a church that has been a serene presence since Saxon times… although it has also seen the incursions made by the Vikings and other marauders… and, when the sun pours the gold of its setting across the waters, lighting up the ancient stones with a rosy glow, there can be few more beautiful places to be…

…especially as the first day of the workshop coincides with my sixtieth birthday. I have no problems with attaining that age. I count it a privilege, even though I distinctly remember turning thirty and thinking that sixty was positively ancient. The fact that I still feel thirty… inside, at least… is sufficient compensation for attaining the threshold of venerability. And I will be celebrating with friends in a landscape I love. Why not come and join us?

Castles of the Mind

Seahouses, Northumberland

Friday 14th – Sunday 16th September 2018

Bamburgh Castle smaller

Do we have ‘castles of the mind’?

Traditionally, ancient castles were built where there was trouble… Do we have the equivalent in our minds and emotions? Have we, over the course of our lives, built up strong fortifications with which to repel those intrusions which, as children, we considered frightening?

Our ‘walk and talk’ events are friendly and informal. We ask those attending to bring one or two readings from their favourite books, poems, or other sources of inspiration. We listen and talk… and share. If someone is ready to enter their personal borderlands, we hold their hand and walk with them.

The cost per attendee is £50.00. This is an administrative cost, only. All personal costs and bookings, such as hotels, meals and admission charges are the responsibility of those attending. Meals are generally shared in a local pub.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Enquiries: rivingtide@gmail.com.

Flight of the Seer V…

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Any creative endeavour involves hazard.

We are fortunate enough to work with an eclectic and talented bunch of souls which inevitably lessens that hazard.

With our previous Workshop, Leaf and Flame, we had made a rod for our own back by extending the compass of R4 out into the night and into the realms of spectacle… and fire… and dance… and legend, courtesy of the street entertainers known as Mister Fox.

So, what this time for our R4 extension?

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“It’ll need to be big, brash and in your face to counteract the, ‘Beyond the Veil’ section of R4.”

“We’ll hand it over to Dean and Ali.”

“Our Lore Keepers?”

“Perfect!”

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Dean Powell and Alienora Browning have been April Workshop stalwarts since the Silent Eye’s inception and have on numerous occasions stepped in to cover more than their primary roles when illness or mishap has dictated.

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“So how do we play it?”

“Just give them the story we want performed…”

“…and let them get on with it.”

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We were not disappointed.

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“It was better than watching telly!”

“It was brilliant!”

“They are legend!”

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Trust is the other side of hazard.

Trust is also an antidote to fear.

So… Trust!

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Ali and Dean as, The Lore-Keepers.

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Circles Beyond Time – Convoy

circles-time-higger-gardom-arbor-carl-wark-barbrook-rowtor-dawn-049

We left Higger Tor after the sunrise and headed back to our respective breakfasts. Most would have to pack their bags too, before gathering for a final journey together. We were the lucky ones with time to spare and a drive back across the moors into the edges of the city. The early morning light was beautiful, though the first hint of autumn was showing in the iridescence of the clouds and the turning colours of the moor. For most of the year these high, wild places wear the colours of autumn… the russet, copper and pale gold that anywhere else would mean a sleeping time. It is only for a few brief weeks in late summer that they dress in amethyst and emerald and show their true colours. It matters little to me… though the heather makes my soul sing, it is the heart if the high places that speaks to mine.

circles-time-higger-gardom-arbor-carl-wark-barbrook-rowtor-dawn-109

We gathered in the car park, most of us taking advantage of the clear, bright morning to capture last shots of Carl Wark where we had begun the journey so short a time before. A lot happens on these weekends and time seems to bear little relation to how much we manage to see, do and experience. As the party would be breaking up after lunch some miles away, we had ourselves a convoy as we headed back across the moors, passing Barbrook and Gardom’s and then onwards into territory we had yet to share.

circles-time-higger-gardom-arbor-carl-wark-barbrook-rowtor-dawn-111

It is times like these that I don’t want a convoy… I want a mini-bus. “Over there to your left you can see the traces of the medieval ridge-and-furrow field system,” ” to your right you will see Devil’s Drop, officially known as Peter’s Rock, that features heavily in the Doomsday books,” “on the horizon you can see the huge hillfort above Great Hucklow where we hold our annual ritual workshop…” So many things I would have liked to point out and share… but there is only so much you can do. At least we could stop halfway and tell a tale or two.

fin-cop-1

So we stopped at Monsal Head and looked out over the valley so high above sea level now, but whose rocks are made from petrified coral,  waiting for ice-cream and we told the legend of the beautiful shepherdess, Hedessa and the misshapen giant, Hulac Warren, who had loved her and of how she fell to her death to escape him…and how, where she fell, a healing spring welled from the ground. And we showed them where to look to see the giant’s form in the rocks.

snow weekend 004

And we told them of the tragedy of Fin Cop, an enigmatic site upon the top of the hill. There too, like Carl Wark, there are walls that were built to protect an ancient enclosure. The wall stood ten feet high and in front of it was a deep trench and wide embankment. Yet it did not stop those who came with murderous intent. They took the plateau, a place of women and small children, toppling the walls upon their  victims, it seems. One of them was either heavily pregnant or bore a new-born child. Their bones were found beneath the stones.

fin-cop-2

The ice-cream was still not forthcoming and time was getting short. There would be no time on this to do more than look at the valley from our vantage point, which was a shame as there is a lot  to see here. Through the valley, the river winds; in places, wide and slow, in others magical and strewn with flowers. There is even a waterfall…and high on the hillside, a fairy castle…or so it seems… that hides a cave where yet another skeleton was found. To look at the beauty of the place, you would never guess that it hides such tragedy… yet that too is a lesson and is true of many faces, not just places.

river wye weir

We piled back into the cars and headed off on the final leg of our journey, leaving the heather and bracken behind and entering into the other Derbyshire, of rolling green hills and dry stone walls. It is a very different landscape, yet you can see it shares a common ancestry with the high places, where the pale rocks thrust through the green of the fields. We were heading for the great stone circle of Arbor Low…

 Arbor Low and Stanton Moor Imbolc 001 (11)