Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Healing Ground

Still settling into life in Northern California. One of the coldest winters the local folks can remember - for sure i have noticed a chill in the morning - that has had me at the thrift store digging scarves out of $3 boxes. Still, i can't help but feel wistful seeing when i see the white carpet down in the west country of England at the moment. Sledges and hot chocolate!

A suggestion and a poem. I am very much enjoying "Entering the Healing Ground" by the writer Francis Weller, and include my endorsement below - so my suggestion is to check it out! There's good eatin' in there - much truth and valuable glints of how to work into the fertile ground of grief - how it can become an offering to something vaster than ourselves. A great deal of joy is threaded through the prose.

"This book rings a shivering bell of hope: that, when lifted by ritual and fellowship, the moist ground of grief actually contains a treasury of gifts that are our ancestral birthright. In other words we start to become a real human being. We are no longer rigid islands of self sufficiency, but open to the soulful wonders that the animate world offers. Insightfully written, warm and with a wonderful poetic sensibility, the deep experience of Weller shines through. The work has honed something clear and valuable in his own character, and a delightful wisdom illuminates every page of “Entering the Healing Ground”.

Being amongst all this vitamin D infused sunlight in the depths of winter is a new experience, and of course, immediately turns me back towards the inner-weather we all carry regardless of whether we walk on sand, tundra or moss. Here is a strange old Irish story - The Horned Women - that i think carries some positively archaic residue in its saddle-bags. I'm enjoying working these old stories into something like the below - all the details are the same, there's just some playful turns of language embedded in the mix.

The Horned Women

In the storm
the heavy house is resting,
places girth over migration,
resists invasion from the gailing heave,

robust with creaking,
but staying its compass,
sullen and slumbered in the epileptic rain.

Above, Orion lopes about in his black-jungled heaven,
his triple starred belt, his hunter charms
fast moving over the weather, the house, the people.

But this is not his story.

Below, children are curled pink in blankets, servants doze with their thin hounds
by the twinkling peat.

Only the Big Woman of the house is awake,
working by candle -
nailed fast to her evening task, the carding of wool *.

*‘carding’ wool is the separating of wool fibers in preparation for spinning.

She is in the hut of herself.

Something haunches through sleet to the old door,
issuing a strident clamor -
part voice, part knock - a commingling of energies - brick fisted and gallop-jawed:

“Open! Open!”

Big Woman calls; “who is there?”
Comes grizzled croak, tindered with soot;
“I am the Witch of the One Horn”

Suspecting a villagers trick, no more than that,
the mistress groans open the oak,
and the weird being enters, parading a pair of wool carders in her left hand,
and truly a horn, bone-white from her forehead, as if still in growth.

She slow-hoofs to the hearthside and starts carding the wool,
granite knuckled but finger nimble.

More battery on the door, another voice, silvered with water this time
“I am the Witch of the Two Horns”

This elegant wraith enters, with a wheel for spinning, a hand sparrow-quick for the task,
double horned a-glow from her skull.

Through the juddering dark
twelve women glide in,
the last with twelve horns jutting
her brow, ornate and terrible,

Like the jaw of an Irish shark
a glinting Underworld crown.

Saying nothing to the Big Woman
they settle to their spinning and open to
a moon-vast language - a singing -
a dozen acres of cold speech
like frozen lumps cut from an icy lake
smelling of no color we could understand

each tongue-sound lubricating the human air
into new shape, sluicing the known burrs and warmth
of speech with tributaries of startling cold star-streams.

This keening
drains the mistress,
makes tender the divide between here and
the Other Place,
keeps her giddy, weak, silent.

The Witches caw for food,
for cake. They love cake.

The Big Woman
takes the black air, making her way to the well to collect water for the mixing.

Alone, in terror, groping her white arm into the well,
all she has is a sieve to collect, which of course cannot hold the water.

Her tears drop into that ancient granary of silver.

A voice speaks from the shimmering hole;
“Yellow clay and moss will bind the sieve like plaster.” So she does.

She delivers the mix to the witches, who send her outside to stand in the dark,
like a child failing in class.

They wander corridors and small rooms,
gather blood from every living thing
in the house and cherry the cake
with their findings.

All sleep on,
dank crusted with dreams.


Out by the well -
Again, the voice of the clear waters;

“When you come to the north face of the house, bellow out three times
“the mountain of the Fennian women - the Horned women - the Irish women,
and the sky over it is all on fire”.

At the northern point,
she brays hard three times the message.

From the door they burst, amok,
in terror, smeared with licks of wool
floating merry in the loose, cold air
around them, like soft sparks of light.

They flee.

Active now, awakened,
the Spirit of Well
offers the Big Woman instruction
from the her ghost-hole,
the glimmered-pit,
this gaped slit that reaches down,

down past slippery tree roots,
the spiked pits of faithless lovers, a shingle of dragon scales,
crumbling ritual gear of the Celts,
to that smoky conscience that grinds in the very heart
of the earth.

“These are ancient, ancient forces
you have allowed into your house.

You need to re-enter right away, this moment.
You need to carry a bold shoulder of power
to block the crackling flank of their magics.

Sprinkle on the threshold the water in which you have
washed your kiddies feet - the feet-water.

Take crumbs of the cake the Horned ones made,
with blood from your dreamed family,
Break the cake and place crumbs in their sleeping mouths,
this will break evil and restore them.

Two final hexes:
take their cloth and place it half in and half out
of a chest you then bind and lock tight.

Place a great cross beam across the doors,
that no pagan muscle can shift.”


Surely the baleful coven return.
Not immediate - but just when the Big Woman is moving to forgetting.

A batter-thrash on the door, the gurgling shriek, the twelve gathered,
crow circled in the iron piss rain, cocked horns glinting and steamed,
bullies a chant with their demands.

The foot-water speaks;
“no entry for you. None.
I am scattered across this threshold. I have the power of
the loch, the river, the clouds, the dew, a women a-weep.
I will block such queer folk as you.”

The door speaks;
“a beam like iron strides my storied oak. I am a collision for
you wintery spirits with hearthfire power. I will outlast you
with this simple twig.”

The twelve send a thin keen
to the spirit of the blood bread,
their greatest power in the house.

“open this door, break beam and water,
spirit that holds the familied blood.”

“i cannot. My round shape has been brutalized,
crumbled, fed into the mouths of the children. Turning widdershins
your spell-cant, making your powers cockless.”

The shrieking ensemble
flail impudent in their bad news,
do not immediately leave the scene,
try strange persuasions,
but this island of the strong door,
carries the cut-truth of a Sligo Boars tusks,
A Dingle waves salty defiance,
and they can do nothing.

At some slow point before dawn they slip away.

In the yellowed light of morning comes safety.
the Big Woman leaves the house and twitches her nose
in the bruise-fresh air.
There is a mantle left
in the thick ruts of muddy hoofed departure -
no witching this time, just haste.

For five hundred years now the mantle has hung
on a rusty nail in the Old Place. As a reminder
of what we let in
when the house sleeps
and rain sleets the glass
and we stay anchored to our one, great task.

copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Thursday, 3 January 2013


Greetings and a very happy and peaceful new year!

I am just settling into life up near Point Reyes, Northern California. To my surprise it is actually chillier here than in Devon, in the UK - although usually by mid day the sky is that wonderful, vast blue i associate with this part of the world. I look forward to leading the Oral Culture and Mythology program at Stanford from next week - i will also be doing working with myth, ideas and the living world up in Marin.

So here's a little something (i put some of this up early last year) in deference to some of my new neighbors, the mighty Raven. Please eat this and not me!

Something more coherent when i have finished unpacking, recovering from colds, opening bank account, finding a set of wheels etc.

Black-Mouthed Raven
Raven carries fear under its wings, and is not afraid to drop handfuls here and there to get what it wants. It's preponderance for the flesh of the dead, and its willingness to gobble scat, make it an edgier presence in our heads to that of the rabbit or budgerigar. Its ink-black plumage, elongated Roman beak and patterning of honks and ghostly croaks make it a bird with a rep.

Beloved of the Norseman, the natives of the pacific north west, and the Greeks, it has surprising associations with the sun, rather than endless gloom and corpse-picking. As the story states - there is the old native Trickster tale of Raven actually bringing light to the world in a small box stolen from a big man of the Otherworld so humans could hunt fish and collect berries. Odin bent his great ear daily to the litany of genius gossip that Hugin and Mugin (his raven companions) would report to him of the world's occurring.

We know that an alpha-raven’s mouth turns black on the inside when taking a position of leadership (always by force) within a community, and that the followers' mouths tend to stay pink, unless making a bid for dominance. There seems to be no way round this black-mouth leadership, even in our most refined universities. Knowledge can quickly become a form of intimidation to bruise your way to tenure. This way physicality is no longer so crucial, even the solitary can think their way to stature rather than swing a fist or kick a football.

Initiation has always placed emphasis on colour. Black is always one with knowledge of the Underworld, of failure, of stuckness, or depression, fatality, listlessness. Whilst having endured all that, they have somehow turned it into a great song. The colour red is more showy, more to do with the young warrior, than the patient depth of black. This mouth colouring reveals much about relationship; that too much subservience around the leader cripples development to an individual.

Remember the painter Willem De Kooning's refusal to work in Arshille Gorky’s studio?, “nothing grows around big trees.” he said. Depends what kind of tree i would suggest. For animals, pack living often greatly assists survival, and they know well that leadership will require constant display, strategy, barracking, and generally large behaviour. It’s exhausting. But for initiated tribes people, much of the West is a pink-mouthed society, a society that runs from much of what initiation offers in the raising of an adult – becoming kin to nature, facing the Underworld, staying connected and debted to a cosmos. When we stay distant, protected, coddled, ironic, our mouths stay resolutely pink. We have not taken responsibility for the shaping of our lives, we are not in service.

Animals have always been magical to ancient peoples. Unless you specifically traced one, who is to say that the raven that honks above the ancestral bone-yard is not a perennial constant, present, unchanging forever? (referring to story not seen in this blog) They disappear into the lonely tree line, and maybe in and out of other worlds entirely.

The seemingly modern notion of a raven, or snake, or parrot, as inner-figures that also dig away at our logical, up standing mind, is not so modern. Recall the third century Origen (Origen 1982 :115):

“understand that you have within you herds of cattle, flocks of sheep…and that the birds of the air are all within you…You see that you have all those things that the world has.” This has been a vital step from them as a mere meal on legs or being a resource only for labour and feast. We also realise that there is plenty of order, logic and up standingness in the animal world. All kinds of habits and cautions. Real animal nature is not just a byword for sweaty exuberance.

The trouble with this animal association is that too rigid an interiorising robs the animal of its independent vitality, we risk degradation in too many attempts to assimilate something that we recognise, but that should in some ways remain ‘other’. Raven is a spiritus rector, a guardian deity, not as a mere symbol ‘representing’ my mysterious side. We have the task of losing some vanity. The living world is very skilled at providing that.

Although enjoying a kind of solitary ambience, ravens are effective team-players when hunting. Terry McEneaney, an ornithologist from Yellowstone Park, reports seeing a raven landing on the rim of an opsrey nest and stealing a fish. Whilst the osprey was agitated, another raven working in tandem sneaked in and stole an egg. There are hundreds of such accounts.

This seems to indicate some kind of forward thinking on behalf of the ravens. Professor Dieter Wallenschlager witnessed a raven feigning injury – dragging a wing – to incite a swan to attack, whilst again its mate rushed the nest and stole an egg. Whilst opinion ranges on how much forethought is required to pull this off, what is clear is mutual dependence from both birds on the anticipated outcome.

The Tower of London still clips the wings of its ravens because of an old superstition that if the ravens leave, then England will fall. It is a bird close to wolf-mind: it will deliberately lead wolves to prey and then it will guzzle the greasy left overs. It was said they did the same thing for old west country hunters: they would be left the guts when the deer was killed.

They have also saved human lives: Ginny Hannum tells the story of being stalked by a cougar and only by the repeated, attention grabbing behaviour of a raven just overhead, did she glance up, see the cougar and rapidly retreat.

But let us not be too caught in the complete rehabilitation of the terror-birds; let us not place them comfortably within a human relational range of behaviour. They are mystifying, smart, aggressive and strictly hierarchical; they don’t sit round on bean bags in talking circles - they have black-mouthed leaders who intimidate to get themselves to the top of the pile until they themselves are toppled. Ravens are into power. The raven expert Bernd Heinrich tells the story of watching a particular dead beech tree for some time, and noticing that a succession of dominant ravens in the group would all choose a specific perch when their time came as top-bird. There were many others to choose from, equally plush, but somewhere in the wider raven-mind of that group it became established that that was the power-perch and so that was it. After years of careful and sometimes painful observation, Heinrich also noted that leadership amongst ravens came with a cost. All leaders have large bodies which require more feeding, all leaders have to constantly display their grandiosity, which requires many battles, much blood on the snow. You can’t relax, there is no one for you to follow, you lead, always.

Raven carries the Nigredo black of the alchemist on its wings, beak, body. It is like some charcoal stain on the optimist's blue horizon. Fifty thousand years of gobbling scat and flesh, a constant at the battlefield, make it a companion to putrefaction. Black is strong medicine, even when denied that it is a colour at all. It is the robe of choice for any decent occultist; the black of night is the cover for illicit liaison; to be ‘in the dark’ is to be wandering, confused, un-settled; it is a hint of what could await at the moment of death.

At the same time, archaeology tells us that black is the place to go. It’s long been known in England that any place name with the word black in it – Black Meadow, Black Woods, Blackingstone Rocks – is a place worthy of digging. The reason? The darker coloured soil will indicate an old settlement – generations of fire ash, food remains, and general use.

To a certain eye, black means to dig deeper. To a certain eye, it offers reward.
Raven carries this rattle-bag of contrary wisdoms, invokes a cautionary wave or grimace as it sweeps over the jolly street party. We know who would be first to pluck out an eye if we were we to slip one rainy night on the step. And yet, some memory remains of this bird and a box of light and a pinprick hole to the Otherworld (ref to ancient notion from Pacific North-West that Raven brought light to the world). They certainly stirs up mixed emotions. Duende, duende.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012