Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Has anyone seen the boy?

I've had so many enquiries about the above gathering if felt useful to give a few words about how i came to think about teaching it. An over night decision of about twenty years.

Back in the last century:
the timber heaved with orange slashes of flame then crashed down around the rocks. All afternoon a small band of us had laboured under uncertain Welsh skies to build a substantial fire, substantial enough to heat to a red glow the rocks required for entry into the sweat-house later that day. The house is small structure, close to the ground, just enough to squeeze in about twenty five folks, made from hazel, its roof at about chest height. It’s heavily covered, to block out any light. At its centre is a small fire pit. The real hot spot is opposite the door. It’s a place of singing, prayers, story and healing.

So the fire is cooking the rocks good - “cherry reds” is what the medicine man wants - and it looks like he’s going to get them. Our small crew are blearily proud of ourselves and then stop short. The sky is changing. This is not the usual uncertain scudding of a British sky, this is a coal black entourage of alpha-clouds, ready to sluice emphatically our blaze. We won’t stand a chance against this billowing ensemble of soon-to-chuck rain-gods. I see the first drop drip from the slightly out-sized trilby rim of a startled work mate. “Bugger”.

Through the dusking comes the old man. Plaits to his waist, a head taller than anyone, immeasurably ancient, from some other place, Turtle Island. Everybody stiffens and throws themselves more fervently into the work of keeping the flames in excitement. There’s the first peal of thunder.

Old man pulls me away from the fire a moment and glances up through the strangely glittering light. “Have you told them a story yet?” he croaks in that otherworldly badlands drawl. I don’t understand. Who? The crew? I haven’t told stories since i was a kid. “Sorry grandpa, what do you mean?” I think i blushed as i spoke, wriggling with ignorance.

He points upwards to the dark wings of the air. “Them beings. That’s what they’re here for. Charm ‘em. Barter for us.” With that he hurled some language into the fast coming night. Elegant language, a storied tongue, using the currency of his jaw to claim relationship to raindrops, weather patterns, and the old and secretive desire of a darkening sky to be held for a moment in the fragility of the human imagination. I’d never seen an adult doing anything remotely like it. I just did not know such a thing existed. It touched me deeper than all of Shakespeare.

Then he stopped. “You come from here. You have to continue. Keep talking to them.” He turned, kneeled and inspected the antlers we would soon be carrying the rocks in with. Oh no. So i squinted upwards to the assembled gallery of deities and began. It was pitiful, bereft of any remote shred of courtship, just my stumbling pony of words, making it quite clear that any significant vocabulary i possessed had long since been shuffled off to the abattoir. It was kind of heartbreaking. Lots of un-earned confidence with nothing beneath it. I mean zero. All hat and no cows.


For a couple of weeks i travelled on and off with the old man - nothing special - just part of his loosey-goosey ensemble. Lots of carrying water, chopping wood, building sweat-houses, witnessing ceremonies so archaic, so vivid, so extraordinary it was like watching a cave painting peel itself off the wall, and dance in vivid colour right through the soul-black dark of the sweat-house. No metaphor here, not a jot.

So my time is up. The old man is going back across the waters and i’m carrying my sore little heart back to the rinky-dink caravan that i called home. Its gently mooted by a few that i could save pennies, cross the pond, and properly apprentice. As you can probably imagine, that’s a dizzying proposition. Like getting airlifted out of hell
into a place where real live human beings exist and remember the old arrangement we used to have with the earth. The old man’s people need a response, so i take a few hours to go mull in a nearby copse, after we’ve prepared the final sweat.

I'm just struck dumb with it all. Can’t go. Just can’t. Want to. Want to so bad my shoulders are shaking as i make the decision and my throat is hurting with all the tears i can’t quite get out. I come from somewhere else. This place. The country we used to call Clas Merdin - Merlins Enclosure, goddamit, to bring in the big speech - Albion. I can’t go the road of the Red Man, it’s simply not mine. My bones stay here.

It’s getting dark again, and the old man comes through the glimmer to hear what’s what. I tell him. He’s not happy or sad or anything, he just is. Final words; “keep talking to your bush-friends, and don’t expect your teachers to be human”. That night he sang the old songs in the lodge and i felt very foolish. I never saw him again.


I didn’t expect it to be nearly twenty years of labour before i would be prepared to talk about some of what transpired publicly. Hints of it are in the books - four years in a black tent, indeed continuing to talk to my “bush-friends”, and learning the elaborate courtship required to just attempt to carry stories in such a manner where this lively, heart-sore kind of elegant magic that the old man demonstrated could, just for a moment, appear in a way that felt authentic to someone from here.

Living in a circle, bent by weather, stewarding grief, apprehending the powers that still stalk the old fields and gullies of this gorgeous island, wearing my mistakes like a gaudy cloak, it’s exacting.

You probably remember: in the nineties everyone wanted to be a shaman, now they all want to be farmers. This is a very good trade in my opinion. Immeasurably more healthy, more real, visceral and properly more spiritual. I can’t stress enough the wisdom in losing our seduction to be the one wielding the rattle. (other than little babies of course, which is a scary analogy for the west).

Shaman is a word that has been ripe for hallucinatory levels of personal inflation, tyrannical behaviour, and a lot of nonsense. We try it on like a hat in a junk shop. At the same time there seems to be a little protein on the bone, areas of mystery left to the term that can prove useful in a strip-lit, sound bited world. They are kind of hard to pin down. Maybe with everyone now knee deep in kale and sacred grains we can have a slightly more useful conversation.

My own work has not entertained the paraphernalia of shamanism too much, but the shard that cut me so deep is this vitality and generosity of language. That thing that happened as we peered up to a story-starved thunder being and began to use the dusty old language of praise. That's the shard that will go with me into the ground.

Cautions: Stories that have this kind of currency come with a price-tag: they are not one-size fits all, they claim you not the other way round, and to speak them prematurely is rash to put it mildly. I’m still fifteen years into the courtship of some of them and have not yet uttered a word. So there’s a little apprehension about even shimming the word storyteller and shaman into the same many acred corral.

But in a time when many storytellers pride themselves at being “professional” or “performance” storytellers, it feels salient to remember the older arrangement that tellers used to have, and the skill (i.e. labour, time and discernment) required to steward such a position without recourse to too much hubris and premature flowerings. Swimming and drowning can look like the same thing from a distance.

So i’ll be teaching as much about Dylan Thomas and Lorca as i will be Black Elk. What’s at the centre of it is a lot of love, study, and a great lintel of language under which us and our kids and their kids may grow.

Ok, that’s the disclaimer.

WHEN WORDS WERE LIKE MAGIC: The Shaman and the Storyteller

Sat Feb 7th, Dartington Village Hall, Devon. £50 to book email:

From the bardic schools to contemporary Turkic storytellers, there has long been an understanding that speech elegantly crafted has the capacity to “drink down the moon”, and in doing so revives culture, steals fire from the gods. Language, with its capacity to bless or curse, is magical currency: words are alive.

The tradition of the storyteller has almost always faced in two-directions; to both the village and the forest. They are a hinge. This edge position has jostled up against such vocations as a hedge woman, cunning man or even the shaman. We will court the words and images such characters used, and see where they hide out in fairy tales and tribal stories. Why do this? to rub up once again to the warm flank of antlered language, to track the immense distance such energies have hoofed
to get to our flowered tongue.

Over a day, myth-teller and author Martin Shaw will use story, rumination, humour and that high art - conversation - to open up the power of words. Witnessing Inuit incantations to the brilliance of Dylan Thomas we will ask: if mythology is the heart of ecology, then how can we use story to bring an animistic universe right into the very centre of our times? Expect electrifying myth, troublesome ideas and a widened palette. Speech is how we taste our ancestors.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wild Land Dreaming: Dartmoor July/Sept 2015

men of the moor being gleefully goaded by the wild women of the woods - Prophets writing weekend.

on the road

post-progress poetics

** News of a five day Mythteller intensive on Cortes Island (Hollyhock) on Canadas west coast May 22-27th 2015 coming soon - **

It would appear that we in Devon are peering balefully over our goat skins and embroidered covers at the handover between Autumn and Winter; the denizens of the Oak are laying their cloak at the feet of the victorious gods of the Holly. I love this time of year so much. Hard to get me from the fireside. Here's a few smoky lines of Lorca, straight from the shepherds hut where Stephan Harding and i continue our twilight translations; Stephan provides flamenco guitar and the linguistic rigour, i provide wine and wayward thoughts.

No one could comprehend
the perfume of the
dark magnolia of your belly,

No one knew you martyred
Love’s hummingbird amongst
your teeth.

A thousand little Persian horses slept
on the moonlit square of your brow,
Whilst i, for four nights stayed close
to your waist, great enemy of the snow.

It's been a busy few weeks. Some richly rewarding gatherings in Lewes and London, and then onto a weeks teaching: "Myths At The Edge of the Fire: The Initiation of Eloquence", three hours break, and then a weekend teaching with Paul Kingsnorth, "Prophets of Rock and Wave" (thanks to Jini Reddy for photo) - a raised glass to the hundreds of new allies that showed up to these lively happenings. I don't forget you. I will be telling the startling, deep-frieghted and dark eyed Yakut love story of "The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman" at Bridport Arts Centre in Dorset this Friday. The last few weeks have seen some disappointed folk on the night, so please get tickets in advance.

So in all these road miles, I imagine the beginning of 2015 as the blessed, shadowed, antler-curve of the moon rather than its fat bellied fullness, as i craft final love notes on the cave painting which will be my next book. The below is from it - i think a fledgling version wobbled out onto the page here about a year ago.


When we grope back far enough we hear the clinking bells and animal croon of a vast migratory journey. Way back, through the blue smoke. Press your ear to the mud and you will hear them.

From Africa, the Caucasus, the steppes, we hear the creak of the great wagons, the lively yip of reindeer song, the crackle of the fire. Movement has been one key display of our temperament. And not always on the run, not always adrift in ghosts and oppression, but often styled with tremendous elegance.

In the remote burial cairns of high Dartmoor, beads originating from the Baltics have been found. A sign of great veneration. Four thousand years old. So migration and especially trade have often been at the heart of even what we regard as intrinsically local.

We know that many nomads travel for pasture (the word comes from the Greek nomas - meaning the search for pasture), they are usually rooted in the wealth of the word herd - the fed bellies of the animals in turn dictate happiness to the wanderers. The sustenance of the four legged ones is a homing device for the tribe, a humbling incentive.

Numbering still some forty million worldwide, some travel to collect wild herbs, whilst others - like the Lohar blacksmiths of India - are craftworkers and travel to trade. It was nomads - the Mongols - who gave birth to the largest land empire we have ever seen. Under the unification of Genghis Khan, the land of these nomadic tribes stretched the great flank of Asia. It was nomads who carried the banner of Islam across North Africa, Spain and Iran in the early Seventh Century. In early books of the bible they are claimed as god's children, it is the city folk who are outcasts. They have made a substantial hoof print on what we think history is. Intense pragmatism, intricate social networks, and an often dazzling degree of weaponry ride alongside.

It’s too loose a connection to claim them as hunter-gatherers: they are not. They have entered the business of movement, of proximity to and cultivation of herd. They clack with their staff directing the migrations, not just following the chomping amble of the animals. There is a tangible back and forth between the desires of both. Venkatesh Rao (Rao 2011 p.35), claims their bounty as the invention of the wheel, falconry, leather craft, rope-making, even sewing (from the construction of hide tents with needles of bone and gut strings). If mobility is the pressing issue it’s likely a nomad designed it.

We could ask; what does local mean to a nomad? Proximity to a fireside or dwelling under a ragged canopy of stars, cradled in the soft fur of the desert grasses? They seem to represent a modern aspiration - a perception of the wider earth itself as home. But still they maintain their song-lines; their passage is still deliberate, often worn into an ancestral groove under their hooves, paws and feet.


When nomads claim the rich soil of farmers, we often locate a growing change in their thinking. What George Monbiot calls “a belief in progress” Transformation and salvation become an arrow cutting through the previous hard-wrought perception of the cyclic seasonal world - loss and gain, abundance and scarcity. So where once was the spiral, now exists the gleaming road of future security. The crops are dry stored, nature's grip is to be overcome. We get to dictate some terms. The greater purchase we have over nature’s whimsy, the better.

Professor Greg Retallack claims that differing soils dictate the religious emphasis of the people who work them. Whilst collecting samples from ancient Greek temples, he observed that thinner soil existed where nomadic herders worshipped Artemis and Apollo, but as it gets capable of supporting a robust farming life, the gods in the mix are Demeter and Dionysus, deities of harvest and the vine. It becomes less about hunting more about planting. The gods do not just exist in lofty Olympus, but wander the fields in the evening light. They reflect the intricate concerns of the local, maybe they guide those concerns.

The nineteenth century writer, Thorstein Veblen (Veblen, New York:MacMillan, 1899), makes a distinction between two different kinds of pastoral nomad: lower and higher barbarian stages (barbarian is high praise in Veblens eyes). the lower stay pretty much to the lifestyle i’ve described, whilst the high gradually become civilisation’s whilst maintaining an eyeball in the direction of their roots - an example being large herds of animals maintained for sport rather than sustenance. They in turn get deeply settled, forgetful and comfortable, till nomads from the edges charge in, kick over the applecart and claim dominion. Then over time they make exactly the same moves towards surety as their predecessors.

Venkatesh claims that one on one, the nomad displays more innovation, street smarts and flat out aggression than any civilised person, but en-masse, the porridge-thick, comfort-sucking horde will almost always win the battle. The Mono trumps the feudal.

Traditional nomads rarely worshipped much local in the way we understand it, rather they hurled their praise up at the vast tent of the sky. The sky enclosed all. The Mongols loyally offered libation to vast Tengri, god of the air. Everything under its great sway was related. But, as we see, this old view is impacted with the knowledge of life’s inherent fragility, the seasonal patterning of what is stripped away, and the green buds of spring's recovery.

We have in large part inherited “the belief in progress”, and now stand in the debris of its consequence. Maybe we are on the verge of becoming a post-progress society. There’s enormous relief in that.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Monday, 3 November 2014

the big one: year course dates 2015

year course dates and more coming

Just to let you know that the dates for the year course 2015 have come out, and also news of an exciting collaboration for next spring - long planned and desired. We have more stand alone events coming for the winter, so stay tuned. x

YEAR COURSE DATES FOR 2015 - Book now to secure a place.

April 24-26
June 19-21st
July 24th-26th
October 2-4th
December 4-6th

Ted Hughes and the myth world

with Hugh Lupton and Martin Shaw
May 1-3rd, 2015, Dartmoor, £240 residential.
To book places email:

A weekend delving into the myths that inform the poetry of Ted Hughes, and walking the landscape that inspired him. We will gather on Dartmoor to explore the fundament of Hughes’s imagination. With oral storytelling, ancient poetry, and the visceral wilds of the moor, this will be an essential gathering for all lovers of Hughes, myth, and nature.

** Hugh Lupton is one of Britains leading storytellers, and author of many books, including; “The Ballad of John Clare”. He co-founded the influential Company of Storytellers in 1985, and has gained a reputation for bringing the revival of the oral tradition to audiences all over the world.