Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Appreciation of Black Cats

In any diary or calendar one will find, spaced rather unevenly throughout the year, International Days and Days of Appreciation. These days set aside to encourage us to remember groups within our society, many appear rather peculiar in focus, while some have a rather obvious historical or political function.

International Women’s Day is the 8th of March and International Men’s Day was originally observed on the day following, the 9th of March. Today many countries have for some unknown reason, moved that observance to the 19th of November. The International Day of Happiness is the 20th of March, International Children’s Day is the 1st of June and International Safe Abortion Day is the 28th of September. International Nurse’s Day is the 12th of May and International Lefthanders Day is the 13th of August. Yes, really.

There are an awful lot of these days and each one has a unique history. The origins of International Women's Day lie in the first stirrings of the Russian Revolution and one does find that the question; 'What is the point?' to be almost unavoidable. We can set one day aside in the year to celebrate one particular social group and Governments can pretend to support it. That isn't going to stop the erosion of rights, pay reductions, the cutting of holiday or vacation rights. Perhaps it is every day that needs to be set aside as a day of action.

There is at the end of October, appropriately falling just a few days before All Hallows Eve, Black Cat Appreciation Day. As the supposed owner of two black cats, I find this amusing. What I want to know however, is this. Is there an International Day set aside, for the appreciation of middle-aged, heterosexual white Englishmen who wear tweed? Oh yes, that it is my birthday.

I have always had pets. Since childhood I have shared a home with a pet of some nature, cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, hamsters, birds or reptiles. Some were family pets, some were my siblings and some as I grew older, were mine.

Grimalkin a ginger male died in August 2015, he was 16 years old. Cleopatra a tortoiseshell female died in January 2016, she may have been only a couple of years younger than Grimalkin and I did not replace either straightaway. They were my pets and I miss them both.

On the 15th of September 2016 a work colleague went into her garage and found that a stray had littered there, producing five charming kittens. Being the soft hearted woman that she is, my colleague adopted the mother and took in the entire litter. Then after a short while, what I have come to call the black-cat-mail began.

First there were a few comments at work. Hints that a black kitten or two, would suit a Pagan who had recently lost his beloved pets. Then came the photographs, taken on a mobile phone and sent via Facebook, then a video. All were showing a group of adorable kittens, some black and some not, playing around the house.

It became increasingly apparent at work when comments such as “I hear you’re getting a kitten,” were made, that it was assumed I would be taking at least one. Eventually I agreed to visit the pets, mainly to see if they actually liked me. Cats will often choose their own human companion.

Meeting the kittens for the first time, just before Christmas 2016 went well enough, they were very small and quite charming. So it was agreed that I would take the two black sisters and they came to live with me on the 30th of December. All five of the litter had now been homed, shared between the work colleagues past and present of the original finder.

My choice of names had been discussed amongst friends but to my surprise, caused a degree of puzzlement amongst my work colleagues. I had decided to name both kittens after Goddesses and since one was a domestic longhair, somewhat reminiscent of a Persian but obviously not with such a long coat, Eastern names suggested themselves. This sister was almost called Ishtar but I eventually decided on Tanith. This is a variant spelling of Tanit, an Arabian, Levantine or Mesopotamian Goddess, often equated with Astarte and in turn, often linked to the Persian Goddess Ishtar herself.

It was the chosen name of the other kitten, a domestic short hair, which was destined to cause bewilderment. From the very moment I saw her, I knew she was destined to be named not after a Mesopotamian Goddess but an Egyptian one. Her name is Isis.

Once named I soon discovered that my choice of names was not at all original, several friends and acquaintances, either had or knew of people with pets of the same name. Isis in particular is popular and almost commonplace within the Pagan environment. Outside of the Pagan community however, the reaction was quite different.

A total ignorance of Eastern mythology meant that many had never heard of either Goddess. This was understandable but thanks to the media, the name Isis was now equated with a terrorist organisation. I found myself quite surprised at having to explain the origin of the name, that the Goddess has a documented history of thousands of years, that her name predates any organisation of the same name. I have made it quite clear, that I have no intention of renaming my cat, just as the Fellowship of Isis have no intention of changing their name.

Tanith and Isis are just over a year old now, growing, playing and eating. I have grown to know them and they have perhaps, grown to know me. I have a furry alarm clock that like my previous cats, fails to comprehend that I do not have to get up for work every day at the same time.

Certain aspects of feline behaviour perplex us but I find myself equally confused by descriptions of feline behaviour that I have no experience of. One of these being the deliberate act of knocking items off a surface and onto the floor causing breakage. I have never witnessed this behaviour in any cat I have ever had, not even the males. I have certainly had my fair share of breakages, caused by accident and the remarkable clumsiness shown by a usually graceful species.

Having two black cats has brought other matters to mind. The association of the cat, particularly those that are black, with witchcraft and the occult. This is so obviously apparent when looking at popular superstitions, that allegedly cats were a witch’s familiar. Although it should be noted that a familiar is so much more than a pet, the definitions of such are perhaps fluid.

One such superstition, contradictory when viewed from either side of the Atlantic, is based upon this association with witches and witchcraft. Here in Britain the black cat is predominantly regarded as lucky and the white cat is sometimes perceived as unlucky. In the United States of America, this belief is completely reversed.

Due perhaps to global communication, the web, books, film and others forms of entertainment; the belief that black cats may be unlucky has crossed the Atlantic. Far worse however, is the peculiar persecution of black cats. Historically cats were persecuted in Europe, hunted by packs of dogs and burnt in the strange belief that their cries caused pain to the Prince of Darkness.

Tragically, within the past few years and primarily in the United States of America, the physical persecution and torment of black cats has been documented. Animals have been killed in a variety of brutal and horrific ways by members of minority Christian groups, believing that black cats are inherently evil creatures. I cannot understand this inhuman behaviour but I can observe that it is an aberration, a behaviour at odds with modern Christianity and disowned by the mainstream churches.

The presence of Tanith and Isis in my life brings joy and worry. I baby them, I call them my children and yes, I do talk to them. Occasionally they bring a gift or a toy inside to play with. A branch and the occasional dead mouse is bearable. Finding a mauled but still breathing pigeon behind the curtains is far from ideal. I would prefer not to have living prey deposited behind the furniture.

To me black cats are and always will be, regarded as lucky. Their association with the Craft makes them my ideal pet, even if having one or two, is unoriginal and rather predictable. They are mysterious and magical creatures that are quite at home, within my own rather eccentric and magical existence.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Hallowtide 2017

October has come and gone, as has Bonfire Night, Michaelmas, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. We are now well and truly at that cusp of autumn and winter. The clocks have changed, it is getting dark earlier now and it is getting colder. There is much that happens at this time of year here in England, each of the dates above are marked in some manner, some only in a small way and others with national observances.

As expected with the majority of groups of a Pagan, Craft or Occult persuasion, we of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel have experienced a busy and often demanding Hallowtide. Our semi-private moot for members and supporters of the HTW, took place on Tuesday the 24th of October, a full week before All Hallows Eve.

Here in the warm, convivial setting of the Exeter Arms, a small group of us met for an evening meal, a drink and as ever, stimulating conversation. Because of the time of year our conversation naturally covered the festivals of the season, ancestors and heritage. What is the meaning outside of politics of blood and soil or perhaps more appropriately, blood and bone? That is perhaps something for us all to ponder, to turn our minds at this time of year to our own self-identity and ask where we stand within our greater society. These are not questions I can answer for anyone other than myself, we each have our own answer and we each have our own place.

On the 31st of October I set up my home to welcome my guests, those who would be attending our ritual observance that evening. First however, there was the setting up of my hallway, this in preparation of the local ‘Trick or Treat’ families. Here upon a stang topped with a horseshoe and lit candle, I hung a ram skull. At the base I placed an iron cauldron literally overflowing with goodies and a hunting horn. A sword and shield were positioned nearby, representing my own interpretation of an ancestor shrine. A resin skull and a genuine roebuck skull, together with a few velvet drapes, added to the decoration. By five p.m. I was ready to welcome the local children.

The groups began slowly as one would expect but soon the numbers had picked up, people even being told to call at my home by those who already had. Such is the attraction of my decoration, my eye for detail and I suspect, the large number of edible treats. I can say honestly that I had not skimped and not long after six, I was running short of sweets.

Many visitors wanted a closer look at the sword or the horn, I was happy to oblige. Positive comments on my display were plentiful, one woman in fancy dress like her children making the comment; “Look at this, this one does it properly.” I wonder if she knew. I do have an advantage, the real deal perhaps?

Not everything ran smoothly however, the loud noise of my hunting horn frightened one young girl and one small boy, probably on his first time out with his parents and elder brother, was rather overwhelmed by the number of people milling about in fancy dress. It is a fun and enjoyable evening, pleasurable to see so many children with their parents in tow, dressed in a variety of costume choice. Not for the first time, I stood impressed by the quality of the dressing up and I was equally pleased by how polite the children were.

Apparently the children know me as ‘that cool Halloween Guy.’ Well I do this every year and I have been doing so for some twenty years now. I even have second generation ‘Trick or Treat’ parties, some of those children who called years ago, now bring their own children. Dear Gods, am I really that old?

On the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day I met up with eight other friends at the Original Re-enactors Market held on a show ground near Leamington Spa. I am a regular attendee at these events if I can beg a lift and I thoroughly enjoy my trips there. Here one can purchase replicas often of museum quality, ranging from leather goods, knives, and swords, jewellery, cooking pots, glassware and pottery. Many of the stalls sell basic craft working items, fur, yarn and fabric. Wares so specialist in nature, it is near impossible to source them elsewhere. Why waste your money on a plastic handled athame from a MBS fair, when here you can buy a 14th century dagger?

It is worth noting that such living history fairs will often feature a large number of military items. These will range from Iron Age to the 20th century. Many an attendee and stall holder are in uniform, a fact not without meaning or significance during this time of remembrance. To see a Roman Legionary and a British ‘Tommy’ stand together and observe the two minute silence on Armistice Day has a certain poignancy.

I use my trips as an excuse to stock up on mead, at this last event there were five different suppliers, including German and Italian meads. I also use my trips in the autumn to do a little shopping in preparation for the Yuletide. So while at this time we remember the past, we are also looking forward to a time of celebration with our families and our friends.

The nights are dark and the days are getting shorter, yet time will turn full circle. The children that at this time call upon us in fancy dress, will one day remember us as their ‘ancestors’ and come Yule light will return.

By flesh, blood and bone, the Chattering Magpie.


The Fifth of November (English Folk Verse c.1870)

The Weeping Window

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Poem by Sir William Collingbourne

The Catte,

The Ratte,

And Lovell our dogge;

Rulyth all Englande under a hogge.

Poem by Sir William Collingbourne
Executed for his support of the Tudor House

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Weeping Window

During the summer of 2017 a rather unusual and striking artistic feature came to Derby. A large, multi-pieced imaginative work depicting one assumes, the tragic loss of war. The Weeping Window was a touring exhibit created by the artist Paul Cummins and the designer Tom Piper, other locations besides Derby were Cardiff, Belfast and Hull. Their other creation the Poppy Wave, visited Southend on Sea and Plymouth.

The display consisted of several thousand ceramic poppies, all were formally part of the exhibit at the Tower of London. There streaming from an upper floor window, millions of poppies flooded the now dry moat, each poppy representing one single British life that was lost in the 1914 to 1918 conflict. The exhibit was installed at the Derby Industrial Museum in the Old Silk Mill, itself an historic factory site and place of the very first industrial strike in history. Today the factory green is overlooked by a modern statue of the Bonnie Prince, Charles Edward Stewart.

Now in November 2017 we look back on the horror of this Great War, with confused and often contrary emotions. We look forward to the centenary of that conflict and find ourselves asking many deep, searching and disquieting questions. Why did it happen? How did a continent and then the world, slip into such turmoil? Was it necessary and could it have ended sooner? These questions have been asked by historians, amateur and professional for decades. These questions have been the source and subject, of much scholarly conflict, less bloody but still often vitriolic.

Millions of people, mainly young men went to war. From the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Pacific Coast of Australia and almost everywhere in between. Millions sacrificed their lives in a European war, that became a global conflict; wastefully, needlessly and often horribly. I offer no opinion on who was in the right and who was in the wrong, during that shameful and costly conflict, because there was no right or wrong. All the major powers of the time have blame, all the major powers of the time share responsibility.

All those who fought in battle or toiled on the home front, all those that died, did so for their country. Whether they fought and died for their king, their emperor or their president is unimportant now. They all fought because they thought it was the right thing to do and they all thought that they were in the right. Discussions of who was and was not in the right are now, as futile as the war itself. It is better to remember that people died.

We find ourselves facing the equally vexing question of how to mark the events of that war as each centenary passes. Do we celebrate, commemorate or mourn each battle, each skirmish and each death? How can we mark such events without glorifying the conflict and the tangled causes of the war?

Debates on the colour of the right poppy to be worn continue and they are often as aggressive, as the scholarly debates pertaining to the war itself. Does a red poppy glorify conflict? Is a white poppy disrespectful? To ask these questions is to perhaps misunderstand the reasons for wearing either. A red poppy should be worn with pride. A red poppy should be worn to show respect for those who die in conflict, to mourn them and to honour their memory. A white poppy should be worn not to insult the dead but to show how shamed we are, that such conflicts happen.

Harry Patch who was briefly the oldest man in Europe and the last surviving combat soldier of that first global conflict from any country; famously left us with a haunting quote. “War is organised murder and nothing else.” At the end of conflict in 1918, many a general and many a politician, should have faced the hangman but they did not. It was they who got away with murder.

Wear whatever colour poppy you want, wear them both together if you have to but remember. Remember the dead, remember the cost of war. Light a candle, say a prayer, set aside a moment of silence but most of all, remember.

Harry Patch biography:

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Fifth of November (English Folk Verse c.1870)


Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!

    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.
    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England's overthrow.
    But, by God's providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

    A stick and a stake
    For King James's sake!
    If you won't give me one,
    I'll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.

     A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn'orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.

     Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! Make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!