Monday, 12 November 2012

Bird-Spirit Thinking

...(the above isn't the book cover, just a visual reference whilst i was writing).

A chunk this week of the book i have been working on this last year - 'The Bird-Spirit King: myth as migration, a wild land dreaming'. As 'Snowy Tower' is now on White Clouds desk getting formatted for a Spring release, my attention this last week has been a slow read through and edit of what came from an autumn, winter and spring wandering the myth-lines of a quiver of local stories across Dartmoor. It's a very esoteric manuscript: three chapters on what i'm calling English Liminal Culture - from the Medieval wild woman to the ecstatic politics of Gerrard Winstanley. It feels a fitting conclusion to the Mythteller trilogy - which began with Lightning Tree.

PS - The family and I will be arriving in Northern California on New Years Eve no less, for good adventures, fellowship and to begin my program at Stanford University teaching Oral Traditions and Mythology. I am also in discussions with my old Point Reyes compadre Lisa Doron concerning a winter intensive (one weekend gathering per jan/feb/mar) up in PR. This is all very exciting, and the family are all looking forward to catching up with old friends. I will add info here the moment i have it.

The Winged King
Locals still tell of a story of the creation of much of Dartmoor’s landscape, of a time when King Arthur himself arrived on the moors and took on a malevolent dark spirit that lurked in its forests. Arthur is often said to come from the Royal House of Dumnonia, an ancient kingdom that would have included Devon as its centre. The two furies aimed at each other vast quoits (a kind of heavy ring of iron), brave Arthur solid on Blackystone rock, the spirit up to the north on Hel Tor.

Even in the pubs of Ashburton and Widdicombe they will tell you that the combat lasted days, weeks, even a month before the sheer strength of Arthur’s arm sent the dark one packing. Each of the hundreds of quoits hurled back and forth had, at the exact moment they hit the soil, transformed into the great lumps of granite that we know as Tors, in fact that mighty land as we know it today was actually forged in the intensity of the fight between Arthur and the foul creature.

What is also said is that from the day he left his body, Arthur’s spirit has entered into a chaw – a local name for a chough (which again is an English jackdaw) – that watches over the whole of Britain, trying to wake its deepest connections to its people, animals, and land mysteries.

That the ancient sovereign of Britain is to be found in the ribcage and beak and coak-black feathers of a bird is something we should pay great attention to.

So in this gathering of Devonian lore, this kistvean treasury of story, this call to olde England, this animistic nostalgia to create good meat for our children’s future bellies, I call on the feathered and sweet black wings of Arthur’s spirit to come again, with power – to the neuted hamlets of the rich, to towns drunk on Friday's pay-packet violence, to the travellers camp dotted bleak on coastal roads, to the golden house of fallen politics on the scat-black Thames.

Arthur is not sleeping in a hill, but a-roaming the lanes, blessing the ruts in a lonely Norfolk field, flying hard over the glitter of London, rustling the spook-trees of the Forest of Dean, endlessly nesting above any market square worth the name. He is looking for you. This longing of Arthur’s has sometimes been called The Hope of the West.

Make no mistake, the bird-spirit of the true king of Britain is still abroad.

Dangerous Talk
I sat eating steak and drinking with the writer Alastair McIntosh. We were in the White Hart bar in Dartington, just getting dark. It was mid-summer, we’d taught all day, and brown ale gently coaxed some hard thinking. Towards the end of the evening, the conversation got round to the idea of how to save notions of Englishness from the likes of the British National Party, that casual racism that so glibly provokes a distant nostalgia and then uses it as a crude but emotive tool. How to actually invoke the magical consciousness of England that sits so quietly under the lonely framework of concrete and pylons, something way before empire's troubled inheritance; to even briefly put down the wider notion of Britain and Ireland: the green lanes of beloved Ceredigion, or the Galway shore, or the forest of Caledon and focus on England.

England. We remember its old villages and hamlets – Buckland, Painswick, Ryhall, Ponsworthy. Names with stories attached. We remember the rebel spirit of Robin Hood, Emily Pankhurst, Bert Jancsh – feisty souled but also noble spirited, rather than the bilious kings and feudal lords that fill our history books.

We throw bone to the crows to celebrate the energy that rose up through the feet of Merlin when caught in dragonish prophecy, or the black faced Morris dancer today, gloriously amok in pheasant feathers, fierce staff gripped in paw. We call out in swelled voice to the Holly King – the wintering spirit, for the Wassail, for the Women of the Wells.

That’s a vast proposal in terms of storytelling – and one that I know would include Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Caribbean, Romany and many other rich seams in the mix. These stories are a great blessing to a land that has always been a country of immigrants. Ground I felt clearer on was simply following the myth-line that Devon stories evoke. Englishness is a big question and to approach it would take many volumes, but Dartmoor?

Yes, I know a little of what that place feels like – its grumpy and magnificent landscape. When we finally parted in the small hours of the morning, some seed was planted. A thicket of stormy tales spread across the flank of Dartmoor – that I knew. My feet had the ache-information of long steps across the fragrant grasses, my eye the views seen since a wee boy, my gut the charged stories of that tor, that pool, that gully. Yes, maybe something could happen with this. I will address some wilder aspects of marginal English culture, but it is in no way exhaustive.

Some of the stories i walked - almost half - did not wish to be written about, rather told in their original setting. So, discretion and honouring was required. A place radically informs the speaking of a story. The buffeting wind, the iron sky, the crumbling bark, the eager rivers gush, would all seep into the galloping horse of story-speech; they would nestle under the feathered syntax and in some way massage the way the words jostled their telling out into the crisp air. So the land witnessed some sparky-glimpses of itself in the mutual speech.

And talking of mutual speech,if you are going to go walkabout, it's always good to introduce yourself, in some humble, or grand, or strange but always sincere manner. It shrugs off some of the electrical pylons, quiz shows and airplane food that slides through us, and gets to some hoofed speech that old places seem to like.

The Rattle-House of Sound:
Beating the Boundaries
(From the study, looking up to the south moor)

I am in the hut. The warm hut of myself.
Where language is a herding magic, nine inky mares galloping loose on the bone-white page, an equine flood.

Up in the crag-world do you hear these whinnies? Let the loom of my tongue craft the wild bees furry speech. Black clouds I am a-lightning; I hurl rain-daggers into mud. Black clouds I am a-shire, loosening my muscle hoofed stomp.

The geese that flew for Parzival, I love. The hawk that claimed three drops of their blood, I love. The snow it fell on to, I love.

The hut is a rattle-house of sound. A croft for wolves. It stands in dark privacy. Deep nested, wine briared from the drifting snows. The floor is erotic dirt, the air is sweet like stored apples.

Walls are the big trees – Grimm’s trees, Siberian, enormous Irish voyaging stories. Bark shines wet, the roots are mad and deep. I ramble under the billowing skirts of love’s tall pines.

This twigged hump holds the vastness of a stag’s breastbone, a pirate’s cathedral, it is a smokey den of gaudy leaps.

Gawain’s bent head in the green chapel, I love. The heavy horse alone in the orchard, I love. The woman who lives at the edge of the world, I love.

Grasses hum with beehive. I break chunks of honeycomb and offer them up to Dartmoor.
The hut shudders with foamy energy, reaching northwards to coax the rivers – the Tavy, the Plym, the Erme, the Avon, the Dart, and The Teign. Brittle gods are amok in the tourists' sour heather.

I call the names under the names of old Devon - Broken Court - Breazle, Dark Stream - Dawlish, Great Wood - Cruwys Morchard, all shimmering in the leafy gramarye of this Kingdom of Dumnonia.

I carry green waves from the bright girdle of the sea, generous beer in a bronze cup for the spit-wind. I come in the old way.

I leave a hollowed out hoof filled with apple-blossom on the turf, I haunch the dream path of the adder up to Hay Tor, Lucky Tor, Hound Tor, Benji Tor, Yal Tor.

The dry-stone wall, I love. The moon over corn, I love. Branwen of the white breast, I love.

At forty years old, I bend my head. I come in my father's boots, and Alec’s, and Leonard’s, and Bryan’s. I carry dark bundles of my mother's hair, and Christine’s, and Monica’s, and Jenny's.

The blood holds Shaw, Gibson, Causer, Thackery. I come to walk the boundaries. I come to find a myth-line. This spreading turf is the moor – once a desert, a tropical island, a red wood forest.

I clamber flanks of bailing twine and rusting tractor engine to get nearer to your gurgled speech. I break the hard crust of snow with blue paws. I lace granite with whisky and milk. Within the stag’s bone there is a hawkish wine, in the glisten of the hare's paw lies the old singing.

Let the tusks of Dermot’s Boar get soaked in the wine of your education, Let your milk heavy udders splash hot into our story-parched mouth, Let the wild swan at dawn rise to meet Christ’s dark fire.

I ask for protection from the good power.

Let all stories hold, heal and nourish my small family. Let they be hazels for our mouths. Nothing but goodness – no fear, no meanness, no envy.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Saturday, 3 November 2012

THE ROOSTER AND THE TORTOISE: Something on the Masculine

I have been asked about my involvement with men's work, so here's a quick peak at part of an interview that should be out in 2013. As always, some of it i do hope is relevant to women, and so please take anything of use.


an Interview with Martin Shaw

"men's work is not about enforced separation between genders, it’s about depth and respect on the return - it’s about a love affair"

What is your interest with men's work?

Well, during its first experience overground (in the media) - in the late eighties and nineties - i was unconnected to it, i was in my teens and twenties and would have regarded it as a little strange, i do remember some of the media propaganda about naked white men bashing out of tune drums and weeping about their father issues. That wasn’t appealing.

Like a lot men of my age - around forty - i come from a background very sympathetic to feminism, so had a radar sharp detection for any sense of secretive groups of pissed off guys moaning about their wives, i wouldn’t and still wouldn’t want any part of that. To my regret i didn’t engage with any further investigation. I was suspicious, i suppose, of homophobia, or some nutty kind of Masonic set up.

So i was living outdoors, getting soaked in weather and holding a tent together through British winters, and involved with wilderness rites-of-passage work during the mens work most visible era - i say visible because it was cooking merrily underground for half a decade before Iron John and has continued in various incarnations every since.

However, i was aware and reading the work of some of its main teachers - Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman - so i received a kind of distant mentoring through the ideas - like thousands of other men.

I felt that the strong emphasis on the need for men to initiate men was actually a subtle point, and not very well handled. I would agree that there is a crucial point in adolescence where a boy needs a period exclusively under the guidance of older men, but that is not the only initiatory stage, there are many before and after that profoundly involve women.

So i felt that could have been communicated more fully and saved alot of confusion and hurt. Speaking to Robert about this years later he said if he wrote it again, he would have given over twenty pages to the grief of women at that point in adolescence when the son breaks certain intricate connections to their mother.

At that point it was less the emphasis on the masculine that really caught me, but a wider connection between myth and our lives - something with a similar scent was going on with Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Marion Woodman - who i also loved. So just that relationship between the images in stories and our everyday lives was mind blowing to me - more than specifically a gender issue.

I had an instinct for metaphorical language, and just loved the sophistication and deep intelligence of these men from across the water. Standing behind the American origin of these guys however, is an immersion in a European tradition - the fairy tale and its exegesis in the work of Marie-Louise Von Franz and Carl Jung. Bly was already fifteen years into leading the seminal mythopoetic conference, The Great Mother Conference, so the idea of him being opposed to the feminine was rather grotesque.

In reflection, it was this wider impact that took a hold, rather than entirely a reflection on the masculine. However, i wasn’t a father at that point, so as I absorb the joy and labour of being a parent, much of that work returns with even greater intensity.

The father is such a mysterious figure in modern families - so many of us are just trying to figure what on earth it looks like these days. Neither as the Saturnian figure of old or a kind of mother substitute. It’s felt a very corrupted image, distrustful.

Well, it can’t remain that way. Just can't. If a family is a like an old growth forest, something fundamental happens when you remove a big tree - there is an absence, and there are consequences, vaster than we can imagine. The whole bio-region changes. After twenty years experience of working with at risk youth, i can say candidly that the vast majority of the young men i work with have not only not grown up with a responsible male, they have rarely met one. That’s old news, but still shocking. I have many friendships and great admiration for many single mothers negotiating this terrain.

Of course, most of us would prefer an absence to a brute, which is the quickest and most demonstrative example of what’s been called an uninitiated man - a boy. So, right now, that is the overriding concern i have around the masculine. And to men who are not fathers i would suggest, to take these ideas towards whatever they are birthing, stewarding, or care-taking in their own lives.

Over the last six years or so i have worked side by side with Robert, Hillman, Malidoma Some, Daniel Deardorff, Robert Moore and many others at conferences and smaller events. Despite the inventive leaps that all these thinkers produce, it is clear that the nitty-gritty of men’s work is still done in small groups, with men risking some vulnerability, tasting the unique experience of sharing grief, living their desires, letting others go, shouldering more responsibility in their communities, being far more open to the feminine in themselves and in women, and developing the ability to praise what deserves to be praised.

This is slow work, and needs to be so, otherwise it lacks a certain groundedness, which appears to be part of this fathering business many of us long for.

So, to the surprise of my younger self, through men’s work i have found some of the most steadfast, playful, courageous men it could be anyones good fortune to meet.
And in doing so, have been forced, by example, to review my own inhibitions about the notion of fathering, and make a room in myself for the reality of a generous, warm-spirited masculine. It’s been a revelation.

In 2012, what are its concerns?

Well i can only speak of my own, and a few friends around me engaged with the same issues. Although men’s work continues in small groups, it doesn’t really have figures like Bly anymore to bring together the many different groups, and there is a woeful lack of books and ideas around to really create some sense of momentum. When it just becomes an old boys club you can count me out.

Although many hate to admit in, men respond to leadership, and there would have to be a move from a deep passivity into personal motivation to change this slumbering trend - especially from guys who have been involved in this work a long time. To teach it is a real art form; if you handle the material of story, ritual, wilderness work clumsily then you invite havoc. I remain hopeful of some coming through though. We would have to become as adept in spirit as we have in the business of soul for men's work to catch some urgency again.

But, many of the concerns of twenty years ago - the lack of initiation experience in a mature rather than faux fashion for young men for example - have increased in urgency.

A large amount of the men that entered these ideas in their forties are now in their sixties, and an ideal age to start getting involved with active mentoring - the kind they themselves would have longed for. A common mistake is that all the blessing occurs from the mentor down to the youth - but the mentor requires the blessing of the younger’s eyes and attention in the first place to get it started. Without that flow, nothing much will happen.

Three issues i find myself working through in my own life are:

Damaged Eros: The access to hardcore pornography through the internet is causing a massive interference to mens erotic imagination, and a lack of real relating to their flesh and blood partners. That’s something that has rapidly accelerated in the last two decades. I would suggest we need to stake some claim to our own passions again, to revive the old gods of imagination that stand behind sexual appetite and ingenuity - Dionysus, Eros, Pan. Porn chucks all that into some shadowy hinterland that we find hard to talk about. Shame and desire are weird but very common bedfellows. We enter relationships already ashamed of ourselves. I’m interested in a different approach.

External Work: The strand of mens work i am connected to - what is often called mythopoetic - is very engaged with relationship to an inner life - through myth, poetry, ritual and the wider arts. This is a huge step for many men. I feel that that awakeness, needs to be taken into an outer experience of caretaking some some area of the natural world. Plant according to the moon, cultivate difficult relationships, think carefully about what you abandon, find ways to display some real gallantry, pay attention to what is happening to the mountains and arctic ridge, invest in the outer world in some way that feels of service. Be visible for gods sake. There has been some admirable work creating ways out into the wilderness for young people, but far less on an integrated return - to engage in the ‘things of the world’. Something wakes up in man when he sees something beautiful and true crafted by his own hands flourish in the outside world.

I struggle with some of this myself, to be clear. Whilst i think the gathering of time for women just for the company of women, and men for men is important, i’m more interested finally in the coming back together to be directly engaged in the raising of wild, snuffling kids, protecting owls and whiskery field mice when they need it, crafting art, working hard on things that connect us to oak trees and star formations. Ultimately men's work is not about enforced separation between genders, it’s about depth and respect on the return - it’s about a love affair. And we get there by time apart - allowing longing as well as constant proximity into the experience. Something holy can break out in that absence.

Shaking your Tail-Feather, but Going Steady:
Quite a few men i meet have either abdicated entirely from any kind of cohesive parenting, or they are are unsure of how it looks in a man, so they mimic the skills of the mother. Clue: women will always do it better. It’s old news that some men learn their emotional expression through women, because they haven’t seen the masculine range embodied. But there seems to be some damage in this - their feathers wilt, their coat lacks shine, they lack a certain decisiveness. So how could we get some of that back, whilst also displaying a greater commitment to our loved ones?

For this, i go back to the old stories, and the images within them. The god of the storytellers is Hermes - and storytelling is always a job of both parents - the father, just like it is the mother. Two totem animals of Hermes are the rooster and the tortoise - I would suggest we could focus on the steady diligence of the tortoise (who carries a house on its back remember), but not sacrifice the plumage, display and general panache of the rooster. To find a connection between those two animal powers could be a great step towards simply being a deeper human being.

The tortoise seems to be to do with the issue of trust. Some quiet steadiness, some resilience, not caught in the hysteria of the new. And then rooster - a place for the lover - that place not crippled by shame, that allows our funky little shape to howl its love-cry up to the yellow moon. In the Greek world this is relationship between the Puer and the Senex - the luminous boy who feels a little like god, and the old man who keeps a gnarled fist around their ankle as they float off towards the sun. Ensuring that neither quite wins over the other is the business of growing up i think.

I like this because it provides an image to work with (rather than just a concept) and an image from the animal world. What i’m not going to do is give a five point plan for ‘reclaiming the rooster’ - that’s to be figured out oneself, and those connections suffer when dragged into the thin light of the literal. In my own life i seem to gather the stories, friendships and challenging situations that call forth these seemingly opposed forces. I think an adult is someone who has absorbed and maintained certain tensions in their life and transformed them into something rather stylish. They know their own mind but are curious enough to change it.

copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Friday, 2 November 2012


# hello folks, here are the dates for the 2013 School of Myth year programme. Please note we have have taken 50% of available places within one week of releasing the dates, so please email tina at today to avoid disappointment. For more details, check the 'courses' page at

April 26th to 28th 2013

June 28th to 30th 2013

August 2nd to 4th 2013

October 4th to 6th 2013

December 6th to 8th 2013

£200 per weekend, non-refundable deposit of £250 required to secure place.

The Rattle-House of Sound, The Stag-Boned Hut that is a Poacher's Chapel, The Den of Smoky Language…

The school attracts a diverse set of students: from storytellers to surgeons to racing car drivers to artists. No one is too experienced or too new to myth to not find their way into this groundbreaking programme. All are assured a very warm welcome by Martin and the team. The success rate of the programme can be noted by the wonderfully diverse and idiosyncratic way that students of the school have taking their own way of relating and expressing the mythic imagination out into the wider world.

Most weekends are held in cosy residential centres on the moors-hot water, bed, woodburning stove, great food and fellowship.

This is not just a course about storytelling, but the wider ways that story informs and deepens the experience of our own life - that we are in fact in a living myth whether we know it or not. The programme gives us an extraordinary set of tools to enjoy that exploration.

The weekends revolve around the telling and exegesis of several myths. Implicit in these vivid expeditions is attention to the age old relationship with civilisation and the wild - animal-lore, philosophy, poetry and ritual practice. For 2013 onwards, Shaw is re-visioning much of the programme, with accompanying work on radical, wild-infused ideas through British history – from the Bardic schools, to medieval dream-poetry, to the Cunning Man and Woman to the ideas of the radical Leveller, Gerard Winstanley. These will be given as optional lectures late on the Saturday afternoon.

The school is centred on the teaching, myth telling and scholarship of Dr. Martin Shaw. The year programmes structure is organised around Shaw’s trilogy of writings: ‘A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet Black Branch of Language, The Bird-Spirit King: Myth as Migration, A Wild Land Dreaming. Both ‘Snowy Tower’ and ‘The Bird-Spirit King’ are forthcoming for 2013/14, so the school remains the place to be for these ideas and stories to be explored in one place before publication.

"Martin Shaw has hung around a great deal in the Underworld. There is woodsmoke and fox fur in his thinking - a wild mix of stories and troubling ideas." Robert Bly