Thursday, 23 December 2010

Santa and Odin - Christmas folklore

I've finally done all my last minute gift-buying for the holiday season and now feel ready to gorge myself on turkey in two days. Since it's that time of the year, I thought it would be good to talk about an aspect of Christmas that is instantly recognisable - Santa Claus.

The loveable fat guy who defies physics is a tradition that has spawned from a number of sources, one of those inspirations for the myth being the Norse god Odin. Like Santa, Odin would fly his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, across the world at winter, spear in hand and accompanied by his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, delivering gifts to the good and punishing the cruel. You can instantly see the parallels, although I think Santa would be so much more badass with a spear. Odin was said to have a cloak of blue and a long white beard, but I doubt he went 'ho ho ho'.

When the Christianization of Germanic countries came about between the 8th and 12th centuries, the legend of Odin was mingled with the current Saint Nicholas figure, a 4th century saint from Greece. He was said to be incredibly generous, such as leaving coins in people's shoes that they had left out for him. What we see today is an amalgamation of Odin and Saint Nicholas - only without the badass spear.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Pub names are a great source of local folklore

When I'm travelling around I love to find out about the folklore of the places I visit. Usually I'll do some research in one of my books or online before or while I'm there to try and glean some folklore factoids about the area. But one of the best ways to learn interesting tidbits about the town or city you're in, especially in the UK, is to look at pub names.

The names of pubs often have a traditional link to the location. Take Kingston Lisle in Oxfordshire, for example. If you are wandering through the area, you may come across a pub called The Blowing Stone and wonder "why the hell is this pub called The Blowing Stone?". Close to the pub is Blowing Stone Hill, atop which lies a perforated sarsen stone boulder that, if done right, when blown into can produce a sound not unlike a horn. Apparently not very many people have been able to create the sound, and I have yet had the chance to try, but the stone has a rich legend attached to it. Legend tells that Alfred the Great used the stone as a horn to summon his Saxon army to fend off the Viking invaders in the Battle of Ashdown. Apparently this became to be known as the King's Stone, which is reputedly where the village got its name.

Sometimes it's difficult to discern whether the name is unique to the location. There are probably a dozen pubs called The Dun Cow scattered across England as many areas have their own spin on the legendary tale of the monserous cow and how they are linked to the story. But it's definitely advised that you check out pub names as a source of local folklore. Also, it's a good excuse to go on a pub crawl.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Is Bonfire Night older than Guy Fawkes?

This time of the year is rife with traditional festivals descended from pre-christian beliefs. It's the time when the harvest ends and stocking up for winter begins, kicking off with Halloween, which was last night.

Here in Britain we celebrate Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes night, on the 5th of November. Most people from over here know the ryhme:

'Remember remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason,
should ever be forgot'

Of course, this festival commemorates Guy Fawkes (real name: Guido) who plotted to blow up parliament in 1605, along with King James I. However, the King caught wind of the conspiracy and sent the guards to the cellars under the Houses of Parliament, where Fawkes was caught red-handed with dozens of barrels full of gunpowder. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were executed for treason. It has become tradition that we celebrate this event with fireworks and bonfires, in which we burn effigies of Fawkes.

However, according to some theories, Bonfire Night could stretch back to Celtic times, when the festival of Samhain was observed, as it was commonplace to have bonfires and throw on effigies of the Green Man, possibly symbolising the death of nature due to the cold. Is has also been recorded that people threw belongings onto the fires. The modern Bonfire Night may be an amalgamation of the two festivals. But to me, it's a great excuse for a jacket potato, a toffie apple and some awesome fireworks.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Gimme Candy - Contemporary Souling

What a great holiday on which to begin a folklore blog - Halloween. No doubt that today many of you will be answering the door to groups of skeletons, ghosts, zombies and pop culture icons, all holding bags or tubs in their hands. But Halloween is more than feeding hyperactive scamps diabetes inducing amounts of chocolate and sweets - it's a holiday with brilliant folklore roots.

In a nutshell, Halloween stems from the Celtic festival of Samhain, a celebration to signal the end of the harvest and the 'lighter half' of the year and the beginning of the year's 'darker half'. The Gaels believed that, because of the death of plants and animals at this time of the year, the line between this world and the 'otherworld' of the dead grew thin and enabled spirits to pass into our world. To ward away these spirits, who could be malicious as well as passive, people would dress in masks to blend in with their spirit visitors. They would also carve turnips to make lanterns to fend off these spooks.

So where does the tradition of kids going around houses and stuffing their faces with sugary goodness come from? Well, it all stems from souling, which was when children and the poor (known as soulers) would go door-to-door singing prayers for the dead. In exchange for this the homeowner would give out soul cakes (usually reffered to as souls). Each soul cake that was eaten represented a spirit released from purgatory.

If you fancy having a go at making your own soul cakes check out this recipe.

Have a happy Samhain all!