In the words of Emily Dickinson: “A little madness in the spring be wholesome even for the king” and, indeed, all over the world this season seems to be perpetually associated with madness, magic and mysticism. In the western world, spring is associated with two festivals in particular: May Day and Beltane. Traditionally an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, the pagan festival of May Day lost its religious character when much of Europe became Christianized. However, it still remained a national holiday in many countries and in the 20th and 21st centuries many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again. Also revived in recent years was the Celtic festival of Beltane (or ‘Bel’s fire’, named in honour of the deity Belenus), when fires were lit to signal the beginning of summer. However, spring festivals are by no means limited to Europe – in India the season sees the celebration of the raucous festival of colours known as Holi; Akitu was the spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia; and in Vietnam the celebration of Tet in February marks both the New Year and the beginning of spring. After a winter that (at least on this side of the pond) seems to have gone on forever, now seems the perfect time to celebrate the rites of spring.
From the beginning of time the subject of angels has inspired mankind. An angel is usually understood to be a supernatural being or spirit, usually humanoid in form, found in various religions and mythologies all over the world. They are intermediaries between God and mankind and it is chiefly as divine messengers (the word ‘angel’ actually comes from the Greek for ‘messenger’) that angels appear in the religious stories of Christians, Muslims, Jews and a number of other faiths. Another of the tasks of angels is said to be the care of human beings, each of whom is supposed to have a ‘guardian angel’ to help to protect them from evil. For some reason music always seems to be intrinsically associated with angels – poets and others have imagined them as a vast choir in the heavens. Whilst angels are supposed to be invisible to human beings, except on special occasions, artists and writers have imagined them as having human form and they are often represented with wings. There are said to be nine different types of angels: they are seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels and, lastly, angels. The malicious nephilim, meanwhile, are the half-breed offspring of angels and humans. Angels have inspired artists, musicians and writers over the ages to create poems, songs, paintings and fantasy novels. Angels, both good and bad, appear in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the TV series Supernatural and Daniella Trussoni’s bestselling novel Angelology. What has caused so many to surrender to the lure of angels and follow them into the most haunting reaches of the imagination?
For the Celts and ancient Britons, most features of the landscape were imbued with significance. Fires caused by lightning were sacred, bogs were evil, and there was not a mountain, tree, river or spring that did not have its own spirit. Amid such numinous surroundings it was unwise to tread carelessly, for fear of offending the gods, and respect was shown by the making of offerings. The Celtic deities of the natural world were often synonymous with the places themselves. Trees in particular were revered as symbols of seasonal death and rebirth, and they also formed a bridge between the earth and the heavens. The greatest tree of all was the oak, from which pagan priests collected their sacred mistletoe. Oak trees feature strongly in Welsh myth, where they are often associated with magic. In the story of Lleu, oak blossom was one of the flowers used to conjure up the fair maiden Blodeuwedd. Among the holiest of all sacred places were oak groves, and the word nemeton (‘grove’ or ‘sanctuary’) is found in numerous ancient Celtic place-names, such as Nemetobriga (“Exalted Grove”) in Spain, Drunemeton (“Oak Grove”) in Galatia, and in present-day Nymet and Nympton in Devon. But the respect afforded to trees may well have been tinged with a healthy degree of fear, for there was also a dark side to the veneration of the ancient oakwoods. Anglesey’s sacred groves, for instance, may also have been the scene of ritual human sacrifice, if Roman sources are to be believed. The wisdom of the trees, it seems, was often bought at a steep price.
When pagan gods are mentioned, it’s fair to say that some pantheons are rather better known than others. Most people in the western world are fairly familiar with the likes of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades from the Greek pantheon; Odin, Thor and Loki from the Norse Aesir; and the Egyptian deities Ra, Isis and Set. However, few can name even one of the pagan gods of the Chinese, the Japanese or the native tribes of North and South America, Australasia or Africa. The Loa, for instance, are West African deities, transplanted through slavery to the Caribbean and the New World in the 17th century. They are best known as the gods of the Voodoo or Voudon religion, called upon to raise zombies by black magic practitioners in any number of horror B-movies. Both the Loa and Voudon in general are, however, at best misunderstood and at worst misrepresented by the mainstream – largely because so little is known about it in comparison to other faiths. Also, make no mistake, Voudon is very much a living, breathing religion in many parts of the world and the Loa are regarded by those who follow this faith as all too real. So be careful when you speak of the Loa, lest you call down their attention upon you…
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte and his French troops conquered Egypt. They were the latest in a succession of foreign forces to dominate in the wake of the pharaohs. The expedition’s reports of countless temples, tombs and monuments lining the banks of the Nile – the remains of an ancient yet sophisticated civilisation – helped to spark a new interest in the region that has never abated. The power of ancient Egypt, at its zenith in circa 1450 BC, extended from the border with Libya in the west to the river Euphrates in the east, and from the Nubian deserts in the south to Syria in the north. The heart of the empire lay along the Nile, a haven from the surrounding deserts in which the Egyptians could nourish their own unique vision of the world. A stark duality – harsh desert versus fertile river margins – was woven deeply into Egyptian thought. Myths were expressed in Egyptian iconography, hieroglyphics and ritual, but no one version of a story was held to be authoritative. Egyptian religion was a cult of the pharaohs’ ancestors, with the attendant rituals conducted in temples open only to priests and the pharaohs themselves. Indeed, so pervasive was the presence of the gods and goddesses in every aspect of life that there was no separate word to denote religion. The gods, the world and the planets were all part of the same cosmic order, known as ma’at, which humans sought to maintain.
All over the world there are myths and legends concerning beings of human appearance but prodigious size and strength, commonly referred to as giants. Fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk have formed our modern perception of giants as stupid and violent monsters, frequently said to eat humans. In cultures as diverse as ancient Greece, Scandinavia and the Indian subcontinent, giants are almost invariably associated with chaos, wild nature and conflict with both gods and heroes. The overwhelmingly negative nature of the lore concerning giants, as well as its ubiquity across the world in otherwise totally unrelated nations, seems to suggest that there is a germ of truth in the old tales. Was there, perhaps, at one stage in the dim and distant past a gigantic, brutal race that walked the earth, oppressing humanity and giving rise to dark race-memories that ever since have forever made the giant a figure of fear and loathing? The sacred texts of many different religions almost uniformly equate giants with evil. In the Bible there is the tale of David and Goliath; In the Vedas and Puranas there are the Daityas, who fought the Hindu gods known as Devas; and in the Jewish Torah further giants are reported, including the Anakites, the Emites and the Rephaites. There are the occasional ‘big friendly giants’ that appear in the books of Roald Dahl and others but by and large in literature these more benign examples of the species are overshadowed by the sinister connotations of beings such as Anne Rice’s Taltos. Another view of giants is that they symbolise immense primal forces, neither good nor bad, but simply larger than life in every way.
The wolf has always been a creature of legend and romance, of all animals one of the most invoked, celebrated and feared. In the Dark Ages, kings offered rewards, or pardons for wrongdoings, to those who collected sacks of wolves’ tongues. January, the leanest and harshest time of year, was known as ‘wolf-month’. Saxons and Danes used the word ‘wolf’ as part of the personal names of warriors and leaders, such as Aethelwulf or Cynewulf. A wolf was associated with St Edmund, the 10th century East Anglian king and martyr, who was for long the unofficial patron saint of the English. It was said to have guarded his head and helped monks and the king’s followers to find it. Despite this, the wolf was usually reviled by church scribes, carvers and illuminators. It is depicted as a sly and slinking beast, and as a symbol of evil and sin. But its fierceness and prowess was also acknowledged. Medieval lords took the wolf as their emblem in heraldry, while outlaws and renegades might be likened to wolves, and relish the comparison. As fairy tales began to be fashioned out of traditional and courtly fabric from the 18th century onwards, the wolf’s loping form was seldom far away. Little Red Riding Hood was by no means the only tale to feature a Big Bad Wolf. Wolves, along with ruined abbeys or castles, saturnine villains, immurement, phantoms, graveyards, decay and wronged heroines, were also very much part of the macabre landscape of the Gothic novel in the early 19th century. To begin with, wolves were also traditionally given the role of villains in fantasy literature; examples include J R R Tolkien’s White Wolves, who terrorised the Shire during an exceptionally cold winter, and the Wargs that are in league with the Orcs, in addition to Maugrim of C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. More recently, however, wolves have increasingly been given the role of heroes in fantasy fiction. Any journey into the fictional realm of the wolf therefore invokes no little trepidation, as well as excitement, in the heart of any reader.
The Trickster is an unpredictable and irrepressible figure found in stories all over the world. A paradox, the Trickster can be both heroic and villainous, funny yet dark, and wily but vain. Sometimes called the Lord of Misrule, the Trickster is a crosser of boundaries, a violator of rules and an agent of change. The Trickster can be male or female, human or animal, mortal or god – Coyote, Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Pan, Hanuman, and Loki are all characters who demonstrate that such figures are staples of mythology. The Trickster lives in between realities, bound by his own code of ethics but indifferent to outside laws. He riddles, tricks and slips through cracks. He feels compelled to subvert the old order to craft new possibilities – after all, for every rule, there is someone who cannot abide it. Many may despise the Trickster, for he is an outlaw to some, but others desire him, for he still possesses a rebel charm and the romance of the damned. However, as the old tales show, you underestimate this seemingly loveable rogue at your peril. The Lord of Misrule can be dark and deadly to encounter and even the most gentle brush with him is likely to leave your life turned upside down. Alan Garner once memorably described the Trickster in the following terms ‘the advocate of uncertainty… a boundary for chaos… the shadow that shapes the light’. This provides as good a definition as any of the elusive, enigmatic anti-hero that is a recurring motif in almost every nation’s myths, legends and fairy tales.
The Romany (often referred to as the Gypsies or Rom) are an old and unusual people whose history remains hidden in the mists of the past. Stories passed down through time from parent to child weave the tapestry of the Rom’s heritage. Many people today think Gypsies are rather romantic folk because of their wandering life and fabled fortune-telling powers. Like all great works of art, however, the stories are often embellished. While some of the work may be true in fact, much is only true in essence. Of course, some sections of the work have been made up whole cloth just for the hell of it – after all the Romany, of all people, understand the importance of play. The Rom know not all stories and legends are true, but which are fact and which fancy is not of great importance to them. Even today, the Romany transmit their history orally, with outsiders responsible for most written treatises on these people. George Borrow, who lived from 1803 to 1881, spent a good many years among them, speaking their language and writing two books, Lavengro and The Romany Rye, which tell of some of his adventures as a wanderer and friend of the Gypsies. Since the Romany feel that it is both proper and wise to bend and even break the truth when dealing with the gaje (their term for those whom they deem to be ‘outsiders’), such texts are certainly suspect to a far greater degree than what the Rom tell one another. It is said elsewhere that the Gypsies known secrets that would make other folk’s hair stand on end and their blood run cold.
There’s a tree, some say, at the heart of all the worlds. Its roots wind down into the ashes of the past and its branches reach into future skies. At the centre of a grove at the heart of the first of all forests, this titanic world tree binds the essences of That-Which-Was, That-Which-Is and That-Which-Will-Be together. There are many names for this tree, including Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life and the lotus of Meru. Legends say that mankind was born amid the Forever Trees of the First Forest. Here humanity dwelt for untold aeons until some dark sin or distant shame exiled them from the shade of the great world tree. Perhaps this explains why forests have provided the setting for some of the most enchanting tales in world literature and mythology, from the perilous woods of medieval Romance and the fairy-haunted glades of Shakespeare and Yeats to the talking trees of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the archetypal wilderness of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago sequence. However, Holdstock’s mythagos – living, breathing ‘images of myth’ who dwell in Ryhope Wood, a primeval tract of virgin forest, and other ancient woodlands around the world – are anything but harmless. Even Tolkien, despite his oft-mentioned Green ideology, was famously ambiguous about trees – as illustrated by the actions of Old Man Willow in the Old Forest. This illustrates an equally important point about the way forests are portrayed in mythology. Just as there are shadows in the hearts of men, nature too has its terrors, and the sum of all of them becomes the Dark Wood – the dread within each forest’s core. In folklore there were said to be many ways through the forest – the narrow road beset with thorns and briars that was the path to righteousness; the broad, leavened road that was the path to wickedness; and the bonny, winding road that was the path to fairyland. For this reason, among many others, caution was always advised for those who travelled the deep woods.