Friday, 13 July 2018

Benedictus Solstitium 2018

A Blessed Solstice if somewhat belated, as this post is written in retrospect and we are now very likely turning our minds to the Lammastide. Here I review my activities over the month of June and early July. My adventures have been varied, enjoyable and tiring, as I have filled three weeks annual leave almost without a pause. Much of what I will very briefly touch upon will I hope, be covered in later and separate blog posts. The highlight without any doubt and the primary content of this post however, was a post Summer Solstice betrothal ceremony and celebratory picnic.

Indeed my first important action of my leave was to spend Sunday the 19th of June visiting the betrothal site, with the couple and other members of the betrothal party. This was for a viewing, a general orientation and an informal rehearsal. This very much helped to settle my mind, as I wanted to get a ‘feel’ of the place.

My first jolly trip in the lead up to the solstice however, was a visit to the city of Sheffield on Monday 18th June. I went to attend a lecture in what is now Sheffield, at the wonderful Bishop’s House Museum by Professor John Moreland. His presentation was titled ‘the impact of the Reformation in the Peak District’ and focused in particular on the Derbyshire village of Bradbourne.

Before the lecture I had time for an enjoyable walk around the city and considering the content of the later lecture, it was apt that I should find myself in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St Marie. This beautiful building dates from the early to middle Victorian period and is part of the great Catholic Emancipation of that timeThe building is charming, tasteful and has an atmosphere of tranquillity. It is a building not much more than a century old, yet it feels older. The heritage of the Catholic tradition seems almost tangible in expression.

These feelings were reinforced later at the riveting lecture presented by Professor Moreland and this was to prove the theme of my experience over the summer. So much esoteric symbolism is evident in the older Catholic buildings when compared with emptiness of the Anglican Church. I am left with the uneasy feeling that the Puritans in their zeal to purge the post Reformation English Church of the last vestiges of Catholicism, effectively and tragically, threw out the baby with the bathwater. Leaving a spiritual void, a church lacking mystery and passion.

Tuesday 19th of June was our usual and now regular Hearth of the Turning Wheel Moot in Derby. A time for a small number of us with connections to the Hearth, that is to say members of the Inner Court, Outer Court and Friends of the Hearth, to socialise. A drink and dinner with friends, complemented by good conversation is always a good way to spend the evening. It was also a convenient time to discuss almost at the last minute, our plans for the betrothal on the approaching Saturday.

On Wednesday the 20th of June I decided to take another journey, travelling to the Derbyshire village of Breaston to view St Michael's Church. This is a Norman church, quite charming and still retains some rather interesting features. Outside carved into the arch of the blocked up south door are signs of the zodiac. Today they are heavily eroded and barely readable. These carvings date from early in the church’s history and pose many questions, regarding the now lost symbolism of church architecture.

Inside is what is officially described as a grotesque. A large, near life size carving of a chubby faced boy. The origin is unknown, although there are many theories. How this grotesque survived the destruction of the Reformation is unknown. Perhaps being regarded as secular, it was felt unnecessary to remove it. The church today faces yet more change, modifications that some churches have declined.

In an effort to make churches more community based, the powers of the Anglican Church have issued policy guidelines suggesting that pews should be removed. A common practice in other Protestant churches, in particular those of an Evangelical leaning. As an outsider and as something of a traditionalist, I find myself asking; is a church a place of worship or an ornate village hall?

The Summer Solstice was Thursday the 21st of June 2018 and I was up bright and early. By half four in the morning I was on a hill overlooking the neighbouring village. This was not my usual spot and although picturesque, it proved to be unsuitable. I was required to move my spot to get a better view of the sunrise and it was from this alternative viewing location, that I toasted the golden orb with mead from my drinking horn. Unfortunately my photographic skills were lacking on the day and I remain rather unhappy with the results of my attempt to capture a sunrise.

The major social occasion of the week was on Saturday the 23rd of June, the Eve of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist and therefore joining with the solstice itself, the birthing period of the Holly King. In a park within the bounds of the city of Derby, a goodly number of us gathered to celebrate the engagement of Dominic the Defender of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel, to his lady Adele with a formal betrothal ceremony.

I had the honour of officiating and the ceremony was open to many connected with the HTW, not exclusive beyond family and friends of the couple. This was a decision made by the Defender, as the ritual would include a Hearth solstice observance.

We gathered on a rise above the main area of the park and away from the river. The working area, the picnic area and the changing area, each having clear demarcations. All those attending were encouraged to dress for the occasion. I was in full Saxon to early Norman attire with more than a few historical anomalies. Experts would have noted the errors and it is unlikely I could have passed the ‘ten foot rule’ never mind any closer examination. The working area was set up along the lines of the compass, with painted shields used to designate the compass points themselves.

Arrangements for the betrothal had been ongoing for some time and had necessitated not only the granting of permission by the rangers of the park authority but importantly, informing the police formally. Many of those attending including myself, would be bearing arms and a sword was to be an integral element of the ritual.

Also present were two professional photographers from Peacock Obscura Photography and two animal handlers with assorted birds from Talonted Feathers. The links to both are below. The latter would provide an avian escort at the beginning of the ceremony and a blessing near the closing.

We eventually gathered to the south of the ritual area and leaving my shield and horn on the boundary, I entered bearing a broadsword. Saluting the altar I began a banishing, loudly and dramatical. So loud and dramatic, that I spooked the nearby raven on the arm of one of the handlers and one of the younger owls.

The guests present then walked around the ritual space to form a circle, with the elemental callers taking station at each of their designated points. The Defender’s son Alex followed me to perform the Hammer Working, an adjunct to my own banishing before the quarter callers began their own actions. Since the Defender of the Hearth is a Heathen, it is natural that elements of the Northern traditions should be incorporated throughout.

The entrance of the betrothal party consisting of Adele, Dominic and their seconds, was the final part of the jigsaw and heralded the start of the proceedings proper. After my formal welcome to the attendees gathered around us, the couple made public their formal intent and exchanged gifts. This part of the ceremony being deeply personal, was also a deeply emotional one for several persons present.

Then followed the binding of hands and if this is done correctly; should result on removal, in a knotted cord forming a figure of eight. When stretched between the fingers of both hands, the X rune Gifu or Gebo should be the visible. I had been practising my knot tying for some time.

The closing of the ritual now began, with mead and cake being blessed by the couple themselves and a final, unique blessing provided by the handler of the raven. This involved after a parable, the raven taking station upon the joined wrists of our couple.

I provided one final blessing; “My Lords and Ladies of Aesir and Vanir, we thank you for your attendance upon us in our rite. Ere the circle is finally opened I ask your blessings on all here as we go from this place.

Aegir calm the waves of your journey,
Thor give you a fair wind to fill your sails,
Tyr give you the victory you deserve,
And Frey lead your hunt.

May Skadi guide your arrows,
May Frigga keep your hearth always warm,
May Freya bring you Valkyries to aid you,
And may Saga tell tales of your great deeds.”

Dominic adding, “And may Loki never tie your shoe laces together as you are coming down the stairs.” This is an ending that really fails to raise a smile.

I had one final closing remark, “Let the circle be open, any spirits, elves, dwarves or unicorns trapped by it be released, and all here be free to go with no bonds except those of troth and friendship.”

My dislike of airy fairy unicorns is well known and had become a running joke during preparations for the betrothal. Even reaching a point when a unicorn headdress and tabard was suggested for ritual wear. I had missed the unicorn banishing during rehearsal however and my shocked reaction caused some mirth.

Finally and I do mean finally, the happy couple jumped the besom and guests were invited to follow. I then removed the handfasting cord, slipping it off the wrists still knotted. Not an easy task as I had tied it rather tight and I was delighted to see the rune, letting out magic word ‘yippee’ as I did so.

There followed an enjoyable and relaxing picnic, all present basking in the beautiful weather before our diaspora at the end of the afternoon. Many of us returning home to refresh ourselves before reconvening the celebrations at the Old Bell Hotel in Derby for a betrothal reception. We all wish the couple a blessed future and look forward to the more formal handfasting next year.

On the Sunday I was truly worn out. Indeed my annual leave was beginning to run with a discernible theme. One day of high activity being followed by a near total collapse. On Monday the 25th of June however, I decided on another trip. This time travelling to Wollaton Park in Nottingham, meeting a friend and exploring the grounds.

Wollaton Hall is an Elizabethan mansion that formally belonged to the Willoughby family, the Barons Middleton. Today it is a municipal park and museum owned by Nottingham City Council. The manor itself is ornate and has many wondrous carvings places as decoration. The building was designed by Robert Smythson, the architect responsible for Longleat and Hardwick. His designs influenced later architects and their work, including the creation of Locko Hall near Derby, built over hundred years later.

The park is famous for the deer, red and fallow. It was my intention to capture them on camera but the heat meant that most where hiding away in the shade, away from the public areas. My only snap of the deer is so poor that I have not published it and although I disturbed a fawn while walking through some ferns, I was unable to get a picture.

Although my hopes of seeing the deer were thwarted, I did enjoy exploring the park. It is truly remarkable to think, that only a couple of miles away is the bustle of the city centre. Here at Wollaton one can enjoy a cocoon of peace, detached from the stress of a town life and admire the woodland beauty.

On the way home I explored the canal route in the town of Sandiacre. Here I took pictures of swans that are amongst the best taken that day. I spent all afternoon at Wollaton Park and did not get a single good picture of the deer. I spent half an hour walking the Sandiacre canal and got some stunning shots of swans. That’s life. I came away however, with a swan’s flight feather. A bonus.

The Nottingham Pagan Network Moot takes place on the last Wednesday of the month at the Lincolnshire Poacher in the city. I was invited to speak at the moot taking place on the 27th of June and I spent several weeks in preparation. This obviously necessitated writing the presentation but as is my usual procedure, also included several timed rehearsals. My instruction being to keep within a thirty minute slot.

I met one of the hosts of the moot, a pleasant and supportive gentleman called Howard, well before I was due to perform. A man of kindness and generosity, he took me for dinner at the Round House and firmly refused to go Dutch. I delivered my presentation in what is usually a cosy backroom of the pub, the heat of the day however, made the gathering a little less comfortable than usual. With a very acceptable attendance of over twenty persons, it was rather close.

The title of my presentation was ‘My Journey – my Crooked Path’ and the premise was to give some idea of where I began my journey, the changes of direction I have experienced and where I am now. Not an easy task at any time and within a twenty five minute delivery, challenging.

I attempted to explain a move from atheism to witchcraft, without ever truly experiencing Christianity. A journey that although it has left me lacking in the actual involvement, has had the unforeseen benefit; that I outgrew the anti-church phase experienced by many new to Paganism very early. This has thirty years later, left me with an appreciation of the esoteric within Christianity and a growing interest in the English Reformation.

No one chooses their path and no one chooses their Gods. These things come about by other means, which we as mere mortals subject to fate, are unlikely to ever fully understand. This premise and my own meandering path from atheism to polytheism, I may have delivered with greater intensity than necessary. I am pleased to report however, that my presentation has been well received and may yet be reprised in an extended form.

Although I did cover briefly the philosophy of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel, with regard to the Solstices not being the time of change. We perceive the equinoxes to be the points when the crown is passed from one king to another. I was unable to go further and introduce the esoteric concept of Christ and the Baptist, as Oak and Holly Kings. This may be a subject I shall return to at a later time.

The next evening (Thursday the 28th) I was in Longeaton, a Derbyshire town close to the county border, to watch an energetic performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The production was by the Erewash Musical Society Youth Group and I estimated the age range to vary from ten to sixteen.

The sheer exuberance of the young cast carried this production and proved to be delightful entertainment. Perhaps because I do not have the anti-church baggage that some carry, I can appreciate a musical such as this and Jesus Christ Superstar, without bias.

During that last week of June Nottingham City Council waved the usual admission fee to the Castle. This is because the Castle and grounds are being closed whilst restoration and remodelling takes place. This is a major project that is expected to last two years. Like many others I chose to take advantage of this free entry and say a fond if temporary farewell to the attraction.

The castle site sits high on a cliff but it is no longer a castle. That building was unfortunately destroyed by the Puritans after the Civil War. A military form of iconoclasm almost comparable to their vandalism of our churches. Today the building is a ducal palace housing the city museum.

Besides the great mythological significance of the Castle to the legend that is Robin Hood, the Castle has considerable historical significance. Somewhere in the hidden caves is the famous Mortimer’s Hole (see Marlowe’s Edward II), used by the youthful Edward III to enter the castle in secret and arrest his mother and her lover. The same Edward III later kept King Duncan II of Scotland prisoner in the castle

My second theatre visit was on Tuesday the 3rd of July and that was to see the musical Oliver in Derby. Presented by the Creatio Youth this production had 90% of the cast under the age of eighteen. It was an enjoyable, entertaining and competent presentation.

My last real activity of my long summer break, was a return almost to my starting point. I travelled to Nottingham on Wednesday the 4th of July, to attend the Empyrean lecture at the Theosophical Hall on Maid Marion Way. This was an important trip, made to hear and support Dominic the Defender of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel, deliver a presentation on Runelore; historical and contemporary. This was his first public appearance after the betrothal and his first engagement at Empyrean.

Prior to our arrival at the hall I met with a group of friends at the delightful Trip to Jerusalem for dinner. We sat hidden away in one of the cave snugs, positively absorbing the historical atmosphere of this building, claimed to be the oldest pub in England.

Since our Defender’s presentation will eventually be the subject of a separate review, I do not wish to say too much regards the content. Suffice to state that his presentation was professional and displayed deep insight. His observations on the development of the runic script, its earliest documentation and how history can inform us on their use today, whilst avoiding more fanciful interpretations, was replete with meaning.

So ended three weeks of activity, trips, rehearsals and performances. I find that I now need a holiday, to recover from my holiday. May those that are wise understand what is written and may Loki never tie your shoelaces together, while you are coming down the stairs.

Peacock Obscura Photography

Talonted Feathers

Nottingham Pagan Network

Nottingham Empyrean Pagan Interest Group

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