Want to know the history behind Valentine’s Day? It might be a bit stranger than you think!
Want to know the history behind Valentine’s Day? It might be a bit stranger than you think!
There’s something about a cold day in December, the sky growing dark, the fire lit, candles glowing, a glass of red wine and a good book. Christmas is approaching and it’s already the shortest day. I’ve always been fascinated at the old traditions and history of the seasons and festivals, particularly those destroyed by religion. And the Winter Solstice has something really magical about it.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year – the day that has the shortest periods of daylight. It’s always been a cause for celebration because it means that we’ve reached a turning point – that the days will slowly get longer and we’re on our way to spring (even if it doesn’t feel like it). Our ancestors always knew how to throw a celebration and the winter solstice was a great excuse. There are some fascinating traditions associated with the point of midwinter and many of them have been stolen to become part of Christmas. It’s wonderful that some traditions have been revived and some new ones are beginning.
Burning the Clocks – Brighton, England
A relatively new tradition, this began in 1993, but has its roots in the idea of lengthening days and shortening nights.
A procession of lanterns and costumes, all bearing a clock face, makes its way through the streets and down to the seafront. Here, the paper and willow lantern are burnt – the lantern makers make wishes, voice their hopes and fears, and pass them into the lanterns before they are placed into the fire.
Newgrange Gathering, Boyne Valley, Ireland
Newgrange is a 5200-year-old passage tomb built by stone age farmers. Above the entrance is an opening, On mornings around the winter solstice, a beam of light penetrates the opening and travels up the passage, illuminating it and the chamber. As the sun rises, the whole chamber lights up dramatically.
Stonehenge Gathering, Wiltshire, England
Druids and pagans gather at Stonehenge for both the summer and winter solstices. At the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone. At winter solstice, the sun would have set between the narrow gap of the uprights of the tallest trilithon, which is no longer standing. The sun was so important to our ancestors, providing warmth, allowing crops to grow. They must have had such fear and respect for the earth, the sun, the moon and the power of nature, something we sadly lack.
Montol Festival, Cornwall, England
The Montol Festival in Penzance is a revival of many of the traditional Cornish Midwinter customs. There is Guise dancing, (from ‘disguise’ – dancers hide their identity so they can get up to mischief!) the Cornish candle dance, and performances of Guiser plays.
Midwinter, while sometimes viewed as dark and depressing, can be a really magical time. So much of our history and heritage is in the traditions that pre-date religion. While there’s a lot of noise around the fears that Christmas is being overly secularised, it’s worth bearing in mind that winter has long been a time of festivals and traditions since long before Christmas. So here’s wishing you a happy, healthy Winter Solstice – and let’s look forward to the lengthening days ahead.
I reviewed ‘Living in Italy: The Real Deal’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.
Would you dare to follow your dream and move or retire to Italy?
Stef & Nico did, although their dog Sara had her doubts. Now from your comfortable armchair you can share in the hilarious & horrendous adventures they experienced when they moved to Italy to start a bed and breakfast.
For lovers of amusing travelogue memoirs who like a good laugh. And for those interested in practical advice on how to buy a house in Italy there is useful information along the way, pleasantly presented within the short stories.
I have long harboured a dream to move to France, though Brexit may well scupper that. Italy or Portugal are next on the list, even though my own experience of driving in Italy was utterly terrifying (they literally have no rules – at least not any that anyone follows). So I was very interested to read the story of a couple relocating to Italy, especially as they bought a house that needed renovation and which has now been turned into a holiday rental (I am so tempted to book!).
Well, I now know that I will have to buy something that needs no work at all – I know I couldn’t bear the stress and upheaval that Stef and Nico went through. If you thought stories about unscrupulous tradesmen, a lackadaisical attitude to working times and deadlines, and a system where everything is done through a friend of a friend were exaggerated, then you should read this book. Everything you think and fear is true.
Stef and Nico come across as endlessly patient, hugely pragmatic and very nice indeed! The stories included here are so interesting and so funny at times. The portrayals of neighbours and friends, tradesman, agents and architects are delivered with a wry humour and a real eye for the little details that sum someone up in a few words or actions.
The only let down for me was that the translation isn’t great, which sometimes made things a bit hard-going. That isn’t really the fault of the author, but it does mean a lower rating than I would have given otherwise. If you can overlook that, and read it with an open-mind, then you’ll really enjoy it.
Three and a half out of five stars.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Here is my annual Valentine’s Day post about the real ideas behind the celebration.
Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day and lots of you will be receiving bouquets of roses and planning romantic dinners (not me- my husband knows I have no time for the gross commercialism that is Valentine’s Day and is under pain of divorce not to buy me flowers – and I mean it), however, it would seem that Valentine’s Day has always had a lot more to it than hearts and flowers. In fact, it originates from an ancient pagan ritual that was celebrated for years before anyone had heard of Valentine.
In Rome, many centuries ago, the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of February. On the 14th of February, a day devoted to Juno, queen of the gods and patron of marriage, young women would place their names on slips of paper put into jars. The young men would pick out a name and the two would spend Lupercalia together.
Lupercalia itself was a strange festival. It was held in honour of the gods Lupercus and Faunus and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The ritual began at the cave where Lupa the wolf was reputed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. A goat (fertility) and a dog (protection) would be sacrificed, and the goat flayed. Men would then run through the streets whipping women and crops with this flayed hide, in a bid to encourage fertility and to ease pain in any future childbirth. Not quite as romantic as a candlelit dinner, but this was ancient Rome.
So how did this rather wild sounding festival become the St Valentine’s Day of today? The rise of Christianity saw Pope Gelasius officially condemn the pagan festival, banning it at the end of the fifth Century. He declared that 14th February be St Valentine’s day. Although no-one really knows who this Valentine was, he is possibly an amalgamation of two different men. During the reign of Emperor Claudius, it was decreed that all marriages be stopped. A priest called Valentine was imprisoned for continuing to perform marriage ceremonies. In the 3rd Century A.D. another Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians. He allegedly fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and cured her of blindness. This good deed did him no good whatsoever, as he was executed on 14th February 289 A.D. These two Valentines may be the ones at the heart of Valentine’s Day (sorry!).
Even the tradition of young women placing their names into a jar to be picked by a man was incorporated into this new celebration – with one rather huge difference. The girl’s names were replaced by those of saints; each man vowing to emulate the life of the saint whose name he picked for the coming year. Not quite as romantic as the original really.
So, like many other feast days and holidays, Valentine’s Day has its roots in something far from saintly. Still, whether you object to the commercialism or not, it’s as good a day as any other to tell someone you love them!
Here’s a post from a few years ago – it’s a beautiful day today for the summer solstice.
‘As the sun spirals its longest dance, cleanse us.
As nature shows bounty and fertility bless us.
Let all things live with loving intent and to fulfil their truest destiny.’
Wiccan blessing for summer
Were you up early this morning watching the sun rise? If you were, you were joining hundreds of other people marking this year’s summer solstice.
The summer solstice happens when the tilt of the Earth’s semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun. In fact, the word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin ‘solstitium’ which translates as ‘sun stands still’. On this day there are the most hours of sunlight.
Humans have long been amazed by the power of the sun and light has a key role in many rituals, beliefs and superstitions. For Pagans in particular, this day has a particular significance. They believe that the Goddess (who they worship along with the horned God) took over the earth at the beginning of spring. The solstice marks the day when she is at her most powerful. Some Pagans believe the day marks the marriage of the Goddess and God – their union creating the abundance of the harvest.
Although they come together to celebrate life and growth at the time of the solstice, Pagans also recognise that the sun will now begin to decline, days will slowly get shorter, and we will edge slowly towards winter.
If you live in the UK, then you probably associate the summer solstice with Stonehenge. Many Pagans and, indeed, non-Pagans, gather at this ancient stone circle to watch the sun rise. The Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone are set just outside the main circle, and these stones align with the rising sun.
Although Stonehenge is the focal point for many, Pagans will gather outdoors to take part in rituals and celebrations that date back for thousands of years. These traditions have largely been forgotten or are now overlooked, but it is worth remembering that, although many were wiped from the history books once Christianity took hold, these ancient rites and beliefs were here long before the relatively modern Christian tradition. Because of the passage of time, and also because of the banning of many traditions and beliefs under Christianity, there is not much documented evidence of traditional celebrations marking Litha, or Midsummer, of which the Solstice is a part. There is some information to be found however; some of it, ironically, in the writings of monks.
One tradition that is known about is that of setting large wheels on fire and then rolling them down a hill into water. This may have been used to signify the fact that although the sun is strongest in midsummer, it will then weaken. Water also reduces the heat of the sun; subordinating heat (the fire) to water signified the prevention of drought.
The setting of hilltop bonfires was also a midsummer’s tradition, again linking fire to the sun and honouring the space between the earth and the sun. This tradition was brought to the British Isles by Saxon invaders celebrating the power of the sun over darkness.
Pagans today see the solstice as a time for focusing on inner lightness and power. Whatever your beliefs, getting up early on the morning of the summer solstice and watching the sun rise is sure to fill you with awe. It’s a tradition we should probably all embrace.
We were in Bristol this past Saturday visiting the university as my daughter is thinking of applying there to study Veterinary Science. It’s only the second time I’ve ever been to Bristol, but on both occasions I’ve been struck by what a lovely city it is.
Without getting too political (I’m sure that anyone who knows me even a little bit will have no doubt as to my views on today’s referendum), the atmosphere in the UK over the last few weeks has been toxic to say the least. We seem to have forgotten about the many benefits of multiculturalism, indeed of culture, and it was lovely to wander through the streets of Bristol, seeing people of many different backgrounds, faiths and cultures. I’m not sure what the exact ethnic make-up of Bristol is, but like most cities, it has that wonderful metropolitan feel – that sense, often missing in small towns, that you can be who you are and no one could care less.
One of the lovely things about Bristol of course, is its connection with street artists, Banksy among them, and the opportunity to see some of their work. It’s quite astonishing to be driving or walking down a Bristolian street, to glance up and see a work of art – just there, accessible, free, as it should be.
I was particularly pleased to see the queen/Ziggy Stardust piece by Incwel. I’m a fan of one but not so much the other (I’ll leave you to decide which) and I love this:
We also saw this beautiful work by artist JPS:
Art has always been a comment on our times, a way of expressing ourselves, whether through painting, poetry, novels, and even, nowadays, through blogs. Regular readers and followers will know that my new book involves a girl with a passion for the French nineteenth century painter Eugene Delacroix, an artist whose work I adore. I’ve been very lucky to see some of his paintings. Another painter I love is Mark Rothko, who could be viewed as being as far from Delacroix as it’s possible to get. I’ve also seen some of his work, both in London and in New York.
What Delacroix, Rothko and, I feel, these street artists have in common, is the way they provoke emotion, the way they cause discussion, the way they draw attention, both to themselves and to the world around them. Art, particularly now, can be a provocation and a balm. It has always been a way of celebrating diversity, and culture, and humanity.
I’ll be keeping that in mind today.
My current work in progress – Chiaroscuro – was inspired by and features the French painter Eugene Delacroix. I love visiting art galleries and have been lucky enough to visit the National Gallery, Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So I was thrilled when I found out that the National Gallery currently has an exhibition of Delacroix’s work, focussing on his influence on modern art.
So on Easter Monday my husband, son and I went off to London. I’m very lucky that my son shares my love of art and isn’t above accompanying me to galleries. Plus my daughter, who has no interest at all, was on a college trip to the Belizean rain forest (much more her thing) so I didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving her out!
The exhibition was amazing. I know it might sound over the top, but to actually see Delacroix’s paintings in front of me was truly awe-inspiring. And to learn how he was so influential on so many artist who came after him, many of who are certainly more well-known than he is, was really interesting. I don’t know many other people who count Delacroix as their favourite artist, so it was heartening to know that I wasn’t alone and that he was held in such high esteem by artists of the calibre of Renoir, Van Gough, Cezanne, Picasso and Signac, to name but a few; I felt in very good company!
Delacroix is known for his lavish use of colour, but it truly isn’t until you are actually standing in front of his work that you can really appreciate just what that means. And while the paintings by others accompanying his were by artists considered geniuses in their own right, for me their works paled in comparison. As you moved from room to room, it was the Delacroixs that stood out, that captured your eyes and imagination.
The most touching part of the exhibition came at the end though. The wall outside the exhibition is adorned with a print of Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘Homage to Delacroix’. Fantin-Latour painted this tribute to give Delacroix the recognition, the respect and the admiration that had more or less eluded him in his lifetime. Artists and writers, among them Whistler, Manet, Baudelaire and Fantin-Latour himself, cluster around a portrait of Delacroix – if the critics had not liked him, his contemporaries and those that followed certainly did. And as the exhibition shows, Delacroix’s influence was far-reaching and long-lived. Indeed, Picasso’s ‘The Women of Algiers’ painted in 1955 was one of a series of his variations on Old Masters and was a take on Delacroix’s magnificent painting of 1834. Picasso’s painting sold in 2015 for $179 million, causing a bit of a sensation. Delacroix’s original never made nearly as much, but caused a sensation because of its subject matter and its sexual connotations. And while I admire the Picasso, having seen Delacroix’s amazing painting in reality, I know which I prefer.
The exhibition is at the National Gallery until 22nd May.
Two of the characters in my WIP ‘Chiaroscuro’ work as life models – one models for Eugene Delacroix as he paints his controversial work ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, while the other, a 21st Century student, supplements her income posing at the local university.
It’s one of those jobs that many people find fascinating. What must it be like to take your clothes off in front of all those people? What sort of person does that for a living?
Well, a surprisingly varied type of person! As part of my research, I read many articles and blogs written by and about life models. They come from all walks of life and come in all shapes and sizes – life modelling is definitely a modelling job where difference is celebrated, where you don’t need to be a size six, and any ‘unusual’ physical features are welcomed, not disparaged.
Life models are vital for the development of artists. Drawing a real person, with all the imperfections, nuances and attributes that come with the human body, is essential practice. The students are appreciative of their models and respect and realise their importance. So what does it take to be a life model? And what is it actually like?
It’s not as simple as it might appear – it’s not just a case of taking your clothes off and standing there. The Register of Artists’ Models offers some very sound advice. You will need to be comfortable with your body – and happy to be naked in a room full of strangers. You’ll need to be unconcerned by a tutor mentioning your defects over and over again. You’ll need patience and stamina – standing or sitting in the same position for up to forty-five minutes at a time can be uncomfortable, to say the least. And can you come up with interesting poses? Often a teacher will ask you to improvise so you’ll need to be able to think up new positions.
You’ll also need to be reliable – often life models are booked for a run of sessions, posing in the same position so that students can work on a painting or sculpture. You need to be able to guarantee that you’ll be there.
The blogs and articles I’ve read are mostly filled with positive and sometimes extremely funny experiences. Many say that they were worried at first at the reaction their imperfect bodies would fetch from the students, but found that no one was bothered by a middle-aged paunch or too much body hair or dimples, freckles and birthmarks.
So far from being a nudge-nudge wink-wink type of job, life-modelling seems to me to be rather life-affirming and rather good for a positive body image too. A way of celebrating our imperfections (and we all have them) rather than hiding them. And a refreshing antidote to the photo-shopped and honestly rather weird nude selfies pumped out on a regular basis by certain attention-seeking celebrities.
And as the sketches here show, life models are a vital resource for artists – the men, women and even animals that modelled for Delacroix helped to add the vitality and richness that the figures in his paintings possess.
Halloween is here again, and here’s a post from last year that will hopefully make you think about what’s really behind those pointy noses and black cats. Happy Halloween!
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Most of us are familiar with these words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and with the gruesome hags that stir the cauldron. They have become the blueprint for the portrayal of witches; ugly, toothless old women; scheming, mysterious and powerful. But is it fair? And why do we see witches in this way – it can’t all be Shakespeare’s fault, can it?
Before the advent of Christianity there were many diverse religions – Druids, Norse Odinists and the witches that had for centuries acted as healers, midwives and wise women and men. However, when the Inquisition was launched, it wasn’t just direct ‘threats’ to the Roman Catholic Church that came under suspicion. Anyone could potentially be accused of heresy, and many of those healers and wise woman came under attack.
Propaganda was a big part of this religious war. The inquisitors sought to portray witches as evil, ugly, dirty, devil-worshippers as these images show:
This left anyone who didn’t conform open to attack – if you lived by yourself, had a wart on your nose or a deformed leg – then watch out! You were probably a witch. The majority of those arrested, tortured, tried, condemned and murdered were not witches; real witches had taken their religion underground.
Of course real witches are nothing like those pointy-nosed, warty child-cookers of Hansel and Gretel fame and seemingly endless Disney adaptations. But the stereotype lingers, as false today as it was back then. Witches aren’t Satanists, and witchcraft isn’t and never has been Satanism. In fact, witchcraft in ancient times was ‘the craft of the wise’. It is a spiritual system that teaches respect for the earth. Witchcraft is also referred to as Wicca, the term most often used today. It is a religion, based on respect for the earth, and the worship of a creator that is both male and female – Goddess and God. Wiccans believe the creator is in everything – the trees, rain, the sea and all other creatures, and this belief fosters a respect and a caring for the natural world and for all life. Wiccans celebrate the changing of the seasons, and the phases of the moon. They are still healers; using natural remedies, and their spells are for harmony, love, creativity, wisdom and healing. Isn’t it time witches were given the respect that we give others? After all, we speak a lot of tolerance for religion and beliefs and yet don’t allow this most ancient of religions any respect at all.
Halloween falls on a Saturday this year so if you have some free time over the weekend, there’s no better time to visit one of these fantastic places described in this article first posted here in July 2014.
England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic for my novel ‘The Black Hours’, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.
The North West
No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!
The North East
Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:
“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”
The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.
I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!
This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General, subject of ‘The Black Hours’. There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.
Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!
The South West
Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.
I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.
I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.
I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.
Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England? I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).