Samhain Dark Moon
Unless I make that melody, how can the dead have rest?
The Feather, Vernon Watkins
The above quote by the ‘bard of the Gower’, Vernon Watkins, sums up one of the key functions of the bard. To honour the dead – ancestors, loved ones, heroes and heroines of the tribe – with words of deep intent. This ancient purpose, as relevant as ever, is especially resonant at this time of year, when the veil is said to be thin and it would be foolhardy to do otherwise. To reverse Watkins phrase, would we have rest if we don’t?
The dead scream in my ears and it feels like my life has been taken over by them – as I dedicate my energies to telling their stories, their arrested narratives.
This Saturday sees the launch of The Book of the Bardic Chair, initially published in a limited edition to honour the founder of the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon, Tim Sebastion Woodman, who died Imbolc 2007. It features profiles and winning poems by all the Chaired Bards of Bath, plus Ovates, Druids and all those involved with what has become the most successfully revived English bardic chair to date. It has now been revised and expanded to celebrate bardic chairs across Britain and around the world. It is my way of honouring all those who are making this a living tradition. It seems very appropriate to launch it at Samhain. It was originally meant to come out at Imbolc, a year on from Tim’s passing, and I organised an Imbolc Bardic Showcase in Glastonbury for that purpose – but the book wasn’t ready. It seemed Tim was having a last laugh in the afterlife. Yet perhaps it wasn’t the right time anyway. Now seems to be, and it has finally manifested – I have the book here. When things flow it is a good sign that the time is right. The event encountered a snag when I discovered the venue had been mistakenly double-booked for original date, October 31st. And so I had to move it to the Saturday, 1st November – which is still Samhain, and perhaps better, since it’s the Celtic New Year. A good time for new ventures. I have a sneaking feeling that the ‘Good Folk’ were making their presence felt – just to remind us who’s in charge! Samhain is always a busy time, so this new date is probably better for most. There’s going to be performances from Bards of Bath and special guests, with some floor spots – so a chance for everyone to shine.
But before then, tonight is Samhain ‘proper’ – dark moon. The nadir of the year – the ultimate ‘death’ time, more so than the winter solstice I feel, which is redeemed by the rebirth of light. We have some hard walking ahead before we reach the light at the end of the tunnel: the underworld journey of winter. Yet this katabolic tide has its place. A time to strip away all that is unnecessary, all that is uncertain. The Cailleach is abroad – the fierce mountain mother sweeps across the land (snow fell in the North yesterday for the first time this season, and it feels like the true start of winter), testing all – like Lady Ragnall at King Arthur’s court, the hag who sets the impossible task, the hag who Gawain must kiss. Anything weak will not last the winter. Lame livestock is culled, meat salted and stored. The rest driven to winter pastures. This is Nature at its cruellest, but most honest.
It looks like the world is experiencing this ‘winnowing’ at present, with the escalating financial crisis. Global economic meltdown. Who knows when it will bottom out – how far the house of cards will fall? It shows ‘the fragility of everything revealed at last’, to use Cormac Mccarthy’s words from his haunting post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Hopefully it will make people realise the vacuity of materialism, the flaw of Capitalism, and the meaning of true wealth – friendship, health, the generosity and beauty of the natural world, freedom of expression, community. We live in terrifying times. Nothing feels safe. So we need to hold onto what is nearest and dearest to weather the storm. Yet it is important to look at this ‘winter wounds’ as Watkins called them, hard in the face. This is the ugly reality of life revealed at last. The skull beneath the smile. What is of value? What is false? We will all be tested in the times ahead – will it bring out the best in us, or the worst? As the world’s resources dwindle, will those who have widen the gulf more, become increasingly selfish and paranoid? The only consolation seems no one is immune to this – even the fattest cats – and this may level the playing field somewhat and make us find common ground. We may bond through this peril.
On a personal level, this stripping back is extremely healthy. Time to take stock. What do you need in your life? What don’t you need? What will sustain you through the dark months? It is time to batten down the hatches, to survive on our reserves like bears in hibernation. This ‘wintering’ can be exceptionally productive. I love the deep dreaming of winter, when summer seeds are sown in the imagination. I often embark on a new book over the winter, having more head-space than the busier summer months allow, although this is generally not until after Yuletide: things get crazier until then. It is the dead of winter – January – that things begin to blossom for me. Revelling in the quietus, I can get my head down and write. The austerity of the season is a blessed relief after the jangling frippery of Christmas and Hogmanay. We can hear ourselves think, and our feelings are our own, rather than colonised and manipulated by the cloying sentiments of the season when we are expected to feel and act in certain ways. A bardic humbug on it all! Saying that, I do like certain aspects of Yuletide – the carolling and wassailing, the holly and ivy, mistletoe and mulled wine, the merriment and misrule. Perhaps I’m not as much of a Scrooge-like curmudgeon as I sound! Every Twelfth Night I hold a wassail in my back garden to my apple trees – my favourite way to celebrate after the tinsel has settled.
Before then, it is time to listen to the night and hear the ghost songs. It is a time for ghost stories, prognostications by flickering firelight, rituals of appeasement, days of remembrance and nights of sacrificial fires.
The air is still committed to their speech
Their voices live in the air
Like leaves like clouds like rain
Their words call out to be spoken
Until the language dies
Until the ocean changes.