Sunday, 31 October 2010
Monday, 25 October 2010
In Whitby, upon the Eve of All Saints, it was customary for young suitors to practice strange divinations. The medium for one peculiar process of love prognostication was the nut. Couples would throw two hazelnuts into the fire. If they burned quietly together, then a harmonious marriage lay ahead. Exploding, popping nuts that ricochet around the room upon all hallows eve were considered an inauspicious omen.
Saturday, 23 October 2010
The spells were in vain, the hag returned
To the green in sorrowful mood
Crying that witches have no power,
Where there is a rowan-tree wood.
From The Old Ballad of Laidley Wood
From the secluded back lanes and woods of the English countryside to the cities' municipal parks, the European Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) is a common sight throughout the British Isles. In fact it is such a familiar part of the landscape that it almost becomes inconspicuous, when compared to it’s grander cousins like the English Oak and the Sycamore. But the truth is that the humble Rowan tree has a remarkable story to tell.
The tree itself is referred to in numerous mythologies throughout history, the ancient Greeks believed the tree was created from the blood and feathers of an eagle sent to aid Hebe in her battle to regain the chalice of ambrosia. The Rowan that appears in Celtic mythology is often associated with druidic rituals, where as the Norse myths relate to the Rowan as been the creator of woman. The tree also constantly recurs in literature from the ancient sagas and poems of the Irish right through to contemporary stories like J R R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings.
During the 16th century the emergence of a more puritanical Christian church forced the last residual enclaves of paganism to the periphery of society, where anyone that was deemed a follower of the old order was branded a practitioner of witchcraft and subjected to trails, torture and invariably executions. This meant that thousands of innocent people across the whole of Europe were put to death, simply because they put their faith in nature and an ancient knowledge that had been passed down through the generations.
What is testament to the iconic power of the Rowan tree that it was able to survive these events, but it was with a certain amount of irony that the defining symbol of paganism had to suffer the indignity of been turned into the very object that was need to protect a person from the supposed malevolent forces of magic. It seemed on an intuitive level there was still an awareness of the tree’s importance, but the old, true meaning had become distorted through this new indoctrination of the people.
The following extract is taken from ‘Forty Years In A Moorland Parish’ written by the Reverend Canon Atkinson in 1891, and is an account of the ritualised preparation and use of the Rowan as a charm against witchcraft.
To be effectual, the requisite piece of rowan tree,- for many were wanted; one for the upper sill of the house door, one for the corresponding position as to stable, cow byre and the other domiciles of the various stock, one for personal use, one for the head of the bed, one for the house place etc, etc, - must not only be cut on St. Helen’s day, but, in order to be quite fully efficacious, they must be cut with a household knife: they must be cut, moreover, from a tree which not only the cutter had never seen before, but of the very existence of which she must have no previous knowledge or suspicion; and that, on the tree having been found in this blindfold sort of way, and the requisite bough or boughs having been severed and secured, they must be carried home by any way save that by which the obtainer of them had gone forth on his quest.
It would appear that the remoteness of the surrounding moorland had a significant influence on these archaic rituals enduring far into 19th century. In places like Danby, Lealholm and Castleton the people still considered witches and witchcraft to be such a serious threat to their homes and livestock that ‘Witch Wood‘ was considered to be the only effective means of keeping these malign creatures at bay. In fact so prolific were these enchantresses that many of the villagers could name and identify them as well as where they were perceived to live.
BY RICHARD LOCKER
He was serving in the garrison under Hugh Cholmley in 1643, concerned with holding Scarborough Castle for Parliament. However Cholmley suddenly decided to hand the castle over to the Queen in March of that year, thus turning his back on Cromwell. Before doing so, he sent Bushell away on an errand to Hull, but he was captured and imprisoned by his cousin John Hotham, the Govenor of the city. He was held for two days, and only released after promising to recapture Scarborough Castle again for the Roundheads.
Bushell arrived back at the castle to find Cholmley had gone to York where the Queen was staying for a time. The soldiers at Scarborough were very dissatisfied and angry with the manner of Cholmley's feeble surrender, so Bushell and his brother Henry had little trouble in retaking the castle for Parliament in a totally bloodless coup.
...............Two men duly apprehended the turncoat, getting a reward of £20 for their troubles, and he was thrown in prison. On March 29th, 1651, with Cromwell having displaced Charles I, Bushell was condemned and executed having spent the final three years of his treacherous life in prison.
............. In 1916 two dismembered paintings were found in the box room at Bagdale Old Hall. They were duly sent to London for restoration and returned to the hall in something akin to their former glory. They were portraits made directly onto wooden panels, probably by some unknown itinerant italian artist. One was of Browne Bushell aged 24, the other depicted Dorothy, his bride aged 19. They were dated 1633. Each sitter is wearing a betrothal ring on a chain round their necks.........................
Some would say the turncoat Bushell has never left the hall. His ghost has been seen on more than one occasion among the upper rooms. Some say he is fated to return every year on the anniversary of his execution. Maybe the footfalls people hear outside their rooms, as if someone is passing in the dead of night, are those of the wretched Browne Bushell. It seems even after his spirit is meant to have left this mortal realm, he still can't decide which side to be on.
Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great tides landward flow,
Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great winds landward blow,
When the long billows heavily roll o’er the harbour bar,
And the blue waves flash to silver ‘mid the seaweeds on the Scar,
When the low thunder of the surf calls down the hollow shore,
And ‘mid the caves of Kettleness the baffled breakers roar.
Under the cliffs at Whitby, whoso will stand alone
Where, in the shadow of the Nab, the eddies swirl and moan,
When, to the pulses of the deep, the flood-tide rising swells,
Will hear, amid it’s monotone, the clash of hidden bells.
Up from the heart of the ocean the mellow music peals,
Where the sunlight makes it’s golden path, and the sea-mew flits and wheels,
For many a chequered century, untired by flying time,
The bells, no human fingers touch, have rung their hidden chime.
Since the gallant ship that brought them, for the abbey on the height,
Struck and foundered in the offing, with her sacred goal in sight.
And the man who dares on Hallowe’en on the Black Nab to watch,
Till the rose-light on St. Hilda’s shrine the midnight moonbeams catch,
And calls his sweetheart by her name, as, o’er the sleeping seas,
The echo of the buried bells comes floating on the breeze,
‘Ere another moon on Hallowe’en her eerie rays has shed,
Will hear his wedding peal ring out from the church-tower on the Head.
S K Phillips
The poem by Miss S K Phillips is just one version of an old Whitby legend concerning the loss of the Abbey bell. Another more likely story tells of Henry VIII’s men removing the bells during the Dissolution in 1539 and placing them on a ship bound for London. But it is said that as the vessel left the safety of the harbour, it foundered in the open sea and sank without trace, probably due to the weight of the bells on board.
The final and more commonly known version is the tale of a villainous sea captain who put to shore at Whitby one night and stole the bells from the Abbey‘s tower. With the heavy load eventually on board, the ship made good it’s escape, but once at sea the captain found that he was unable steer his vessel. The combined force of wind and waves together with the weight of the bells rendered his ship uncontrollable and it was dashed upon the rocks at the Black Nab.
There is one on display in Whitby Museum from East End Cottage, Egton. An example of one performing its supporting role by the fireside can be seen in The Rydale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole. The whole of the Stang End house at Danby was painstakingly transplanted there complete with the mysterious and cryptic witch post.
The posts remain as relics of a lost tradition, their meaning and their secret symbolism a reminder of how the moors are laced with mysteries that still remain out of reach to our modern consciousness.