Monday 31 December 2007

Feet & Noses


May 2008 bring you creative happy things and wonderful adventures...

There have been movings-about-of-things in our house to help us get on with our various projects in the new year. So now this cosy living room above with table set for dinner is also where I will paint new paintings and Tui has made a lovely nest of music making where he will sit with his almost-there-album.

And some new year tales for you ...

First Footing
~ An old custom of north England and Scotland in which the first person to step over the threshold in the new year must be a dark haired man. He would bring bring luck and symbolic gifts of salt for wealth and a lump of coal for warmth and was welcomed with a dram. If the first-footer was a woman, a light haired man or one with a squint there would follow a year full of bad luck!

Tui's mam told us a tale of New Year's Eve: that her father used to say to her as a small girl on December 31st - If you go out today, you'll meet a man with as many noses as there are days left in the year!

Knecht Ruprecht

A DARK FIGURE from Germanic folklore, Knecht Ruprecht, meaning Knight Rupert, accompanies St Nicholas when delivering gifts and represents the more frightening side of this custom. He is also known as Black Peter, so called from the soot in the chimneys he goes down.

In some places, the image of St Nicholas has merged with Knecht Ruprecht to form “Ru Klaus” meaning Rough Nicholas, so named because of his rugged appearance; “Aschen Klaus”, meaning Ash Nicholas because of the bag of ashes he carries with him; and “Pelznickle”, meaning Furry Nicholas, referring to his fur-clad appearance.

Knecht Ruprecht is there to reward good children and punish naughty ones. He sometimes carries with him a chain or birch rod to beat those who have misbehaved and an empty sack in which to carry them away! These beliefs are obviously well exploited by parents around Christmas time!

It is unclear where the Knecht Ruprecht figure has come from. Some say that St Nicholas put the devil in chains and made him his servant.

Illustration: drypoint etching

Sunday 30 December 2007

Mother Holle

MOTHER HOLLE is a winter sky spirit of Nordic and Teutonic folklore. Also known as Perchta or Berchta, she is an old crone who presides over the dark end of the year and it is said that it snows when she makes her bed and shakes the duvet, making the feathers fly. Mother Holle is also patron of spinners and weavers, and one of her feet is flattened and longer than the other from continuous pounding of the spinning wheel treadle.

A popular German folk tale tells the story of a widow with two daughters, one her own and the other a stepdaughter.
The stepdaughter was kind and industrious, but her own daughter was selfish and idle. Every day the poor stepdaughter had to spin until her fingers bled. One day it happened that she stained the spindle with blood, and went to the well to wash it, but it dropped out of her hand and fell to the bottom. Her stepmother scolded her and told her she had to go and retrieve it. So the girl went back to the well and not knowing what to do, jumped into the well. When she came to her senses she found that she was in a beautiful lake by a meadow where a little cottage stood. There was an apple tree nearby laden with apples, and as she approached, it called out to her “Shake me! Shake me! My apples are all ripe!” The girl dutifully shook the tree until all the apples were down. Gathering them up, she took them into the cottage where a baker’s oven full of bread stood. The bread yelled “Take me out! Take me out! I’ve been baking long enough!” So she took the loaves of bread out and laid them carefully on the table. The cottage belonged to an old woman with enormous yellow teeth – Mother Holle, who invited the hardworking girl to stay and do the household chores for her. She agreed, and worked hard, never once complaining, and, as instructed, always made the bed well, shaking the duvet enough to make the feathers fly. For when the feathers flew, Mother Holle told her, it snowed on earth.

The girl spent a long while with Mother Holle, but eventually became homesick. So one day she asked Mother Holle if she could return home. Mother Holle was kind and happily led the way, taking her to a doorway, giving her back the spindle she had lost, and as she walked through the door, the girl was showered with gold. She emerged on the other side not far from her home. As she entered the yard, a cock crowed “Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your golden girl’s come back to you!” Covered in gold, as she was, the girl was well received, but her stepmother insisted on knowing how this had come about. Desiring the same for her own daughter, she sent her to do the same, pretending to drop her spindle in the well in the same way. Events happened the same as for the first girl, but being lazy and spoilt, she did not shake down the apples from the tree, take the bread out of the oven, nor shake the duvet. So it did not snow on earth.

Eventually, when it was time for this selfish girl to return home, Mother Holle showed her the doorway. This time, however, the girl was showered with pitch, and as she walked into the yard, the cock crowed “Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your pitchy girl’s come back to you!” The pitch stuck fast to the girl and could not be removed as long as she lived!

Illustration: drypoint etching

Saturday 29 December 2007

Baba Yaga

LEGENDARY RUSSIAN OGRESS Baba Yaga, is reputed to feed on young children. She lives deep in the forest, in a house that moves round on chicken’s legs, surrounded by a fence made of bones. She is the wild old crone who is guardian of the Fountain of Life and Death. She flies through the air in an iron cauldron or pestle and mortar, sweeping away all trace of her passing with her broom.

Few people manage to reach the Fountain of Youth safely, but as the Old Bone Mother, representative of age, death and winter, she is also a renewing force, who will sprinkle decaying white bones with the water of life and resurrect them.

Her hut is said to spin, raising and falling according to seasonal changes. To approach Baba Yaga’s hut is believed to be symbolic of facing one’s own deepest darkest fears, or death. However, this confrontation usually results in renewal and greater wisdom.

Illustration: drypoint etching

PS ~ It's snowing!
And I know it has nothing to do with Baba Yaga but Oliver from next door says
"Let me in!"

Friday 28 December 2007

Cailleach Bheur

SCOTTISH MYTHOLOGY tells of a blue-faced hag associated with winter – the Cailleach Bheur. According to ancient tradition, she reappears each year at Samhain (Halloween), bringing with her the cold weather and snows of the winter months. The Cailleach Bheur is the ancient Queen of winter – possibly the oldest Goddess of the British Isles. She sits crouching in a cave wrapped in a tattered shawl, peering out of her one good eye, waiting for her reign to begin at Samhain.

Throughout the winter she is the guardian of wild animals including wolves and deer. She carries a magical staff which freezes the ground with each tap. In later legend the Cailleach Bheur has tended to lose some of the more fearsome aspects of her character, and has been linked with the Loathsome Lady of Arthurian and Celtic myth.

The reign of the Cailleach Bheur ends at Beltane (May Day eve) when she is replaced by Brigit, the Goddess who ushers in the spring. On this date, the Cailleach Bheur is said to lay down her staff under a holly or gorse bush and turn to stone.

Illustration: drypoint etching

Thursday 27 December 2007


every farmstead has its own “Tomte” or farm gnome. The Swedish word means that he is on the “tomt” – the site of the house. The oldest Swedish literary record of the Tomte’s activity is to be found in Saint Brigitte’s revelations from the 1360s. On Olaus Magnus’ “Carta marina” from 1539 one finds the oldest Nordic picture of the Tomte, drawn as a devil cleaning out a stable. In spite of all the propaganda from the church, it was impossible to suppress the idea that the heathen Tomte in general was an asset to the house.

By nature, the Tomte is slow thinking and kind, but quick to take offence. Since it is believed that humans are living on the Tomte’s domain, it is important to remain friendly with him. He cares for the household and lands, especially in the winter, and tends and protects the animals. In return he expects a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve. He is generally believed to be a small gnome-like creature, wearing a grey homespun tunic and a red knitted cap. Tomtes can live to be hundreds of years old, and mostly have long grey or white beards.
Tomtes also look out for animals and humans lost or injured in the forest. Originally the Swedish Tomte was active throughout the year, but today he is mostly associated with Christmas.

Illustration: drypoint etching

People of the Winterlands

IN KEEPING with the celebrations at this cold end of the year, for the next eight days I will be posting the text and imagery from a book I made entitled People of the Winterlands - a collection of folklore characters from wintry northern climates...

In ancient times the climates of the northern lands brought cold, hard winters and long, dark nights. In the midst of a frozen white landscape, the need to keep warm and find enough to eat was vital. It is therefore understandable that all cultures held winter celebrations to welcome back the warmth and light, in hopes that the frosts and snow would not last too long, and that spring would return the green once again to their lands. Nowadays, we celebrate Christmas at this time of year, but the date of the celebration of Christ’s birth was in fact altered by Pope Julius (AD 337–52) to December 25th deliberately to coincide with ancient popular pagan midwinter festivals. The Christian myth links in well with the theme, celebrating, as it does, the birth of the child of light and hope, conquering death.

In the days before central heating and electricity, the prospect of a harsh winter was frightening. To people who lived so close to the land and shaped their lives around its turning seasons, winter represented death – of root and field, and of livestock. It was recognised, though, that death and harsh frosts were necessary in order for life to spring up again once more, and for the wheel of the seasons and of life to continue turning. Indeed, the word Yule (the traditional name for this season, and specifically for December 21st – the midwinter solstice when the night is the longest of the year) probably derives from the Old Norse “iul” or the Anglo-Saxon “hweol” both meaning “wheel”.

Our Christmas derives from various traditions, including the raucous Roman “Saturnalia”, and Greek “Mithrasian” fire celebrations, but here in Northern Europe, it owes most to Yule – with its ritual fires, evergreen decorations and sparkling lights. Sacrifices were made to the old gods and goddesses to confirm the mystical moment of the sun’s rebirth. The church tactfully turned a blind eye to deeply enshrined pagan delights and long-established festivals and, in return, pagan joy in earthly pleasures came to warm the Church’s own austere feast. Christmas became merry, homely and appealing to simple humanity; a lovely child in human shape, welcomed and rocked in a cradle, whose birthday was celebrated in earthly style with feasting, lights, gifts and music, replaced the cool incarnate God of the early years. Many cheerful pagan aspects remain in our Christmas festivities, including the Christmas tree, Yule log, evergreens, candles, gifts and festive meals. These images mingle without much conflict with the more dominant Christian message, as after all, they have much in common – pleasure in family life and friendship, in hospitality and gift-giving, in warmth of heart and hearth, sparkling lights, greetings and goodwill.

Over recent years, however, Christmas has had all that was at its heart brutally commercialized. Plastic, neon and money seem to be all that Christmas is about nowadays, and the old pagan gods have been sanitised into the sickly-sweet American Santa Claus. We cannot appreciate the realities of a harsh and bitter winter, and the vital dark side of this ancient festival is therefore lost to us.

There are many folk figures and mythological pagan deities amongst the cultures of Northern Europe who are symbols of this winter season, or who protect the people from its severity. Winter spirits are the embodiment of the popular experience of winter in ancient days, and as such can be either benevolent or frightening. They can represent both the warmth of the hearth and the heart, and the bleak reality of death. These are the elements which have been removed from today’s commercial Christmas, and which I believe need to be honoured once more.

In this book are a just handful of the winter spirits, all gathered from Northern European folklore. You will find figures both male and female, both friendly and frightening. This small glimpse will, I hope, conjure for you an enchanting, icy winter landscape and a world of the “in-between” where animals speak, and where the spirit world is not far away, but where death is always just round the corner ...

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Happy Christmas

AND WE RETURNED ON CHRISTMAS EVE with coffers full and tired as sleigh-pulling reindeer .. so here's a belated winter wish to you all for a very happy Christmastime and warm days with books and cosy...

Telling Stories to the Trees

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Squeezing Boxes

WELL TODAY I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET four friends of mine. They are an odd breed and they sing with a voice that I love. Um-pah um-pah they chatter to each other in the corner of the room.
I first played an accordion a couple of years ago and knew that it was my instrument. My mum played one too as a small girl in New Zealand.
Accordions are not an old instrument, they have been around only since the early nineteenth century and became an excellent means of making a piano transportable in order to accompany small musical groups.
My first friend, this green fellow below was sold to me by a man who'd had it in his attic for years, and had found it years before amongst melons for sale on a market stall in a Ukrainian village where he was delivering medical supplies. The stall holder told him that it had belonged to a soldier who had died. I learned by ear tunes that moved me and it was not long before I felt brave enough to play on street corners to others. Once I had crossed the hurdle of two-hands- doing-different-things-at-once, like patting your head and rubbing your belly, I bounced along and loved to play it very much.
And a little squeezeboxgeekery for you: I play a B-System chromatic button accordion (also known as a bayan). This is the system of button arrangement favoured in Russia and the Balkans, and so these are harder to find over here. My first accordion has a deep and gutsy sound and three rows of buttons.
The second and third characters in this troupe I have acquired along the way because I like accordions, the second, and most beautiful of the lot (despite some missing teeth) and sadly least playable, from my friend Gretel.
Finally, the magnificent Bugari, with its five lovely rows of buttons, I bought with my own hard earned pennies from Mr Allodi, and it is a joy to play.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Winterdust and Heather

THIS MORNING AS WE LOOKED FROM OUR WINDOW we saw the beginnings of a white-delicate whisper of winterdust moving down from clouds to roofs to windowsills with just a faint damp murmur of a soft sound as it fell.
So today was the day for painting a new winter painting. I trundled the van down the windy roads with a pot of rather horrible medicinal tea and some sticks for the fire and a handful of pencils. Parked in a little corner where the snow fell all about me and pitterpattered on the van roof, I sat in the warm firelight and drew until dark ...and through the porthole I could see a quiet hillside patchwork of winterdust and heather.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Seven Paintings

I HAVE BEEN ASKED TO PAINT seven paintings ... seven characters representing the seven chakras in each of the seven colours.
Chakra is a Sanskrit term meaning circle or wheel and describes a system that is used in many belief systems. Each chakra point is a place in the body and represents also a spiritual aspect. Taken together the seven chakras describe a flow of energy and a development within.

If you were to look for imagery of the chakras you would most likely find swathes of rainbows and swirling misty colourful evanescences. I chose instead to paint seven interesting and strange characters, in broken oil paint on wooden breadboards. This commission will take time and I will work one by one through the seven from tailbone to the top of my head. In each painting I will include a horizon which crosses the body at the chakra point and an animal associated with the chakra's spiritual aspect. In each painting a colour will dominate, but quietly. I hope that when hung together on their owner's wall, they will look like a series of old icons, strange and perhaps mystical in a very different sense from many other visual representations of old eastern belief systems.