Transmissions from the Hill of Odin

Photo of Roseberry topping taken by me, edited using Afterlight and Snapseed
Photo of Roseberry topping taken by me, edited using Afterlight and Snapseed

Many places I have been on this island feel forlorn, secret or forgotten. This is not the case with the incongruously named Roseberry Topping, a hill on the Eastern edge of North Yorkshire.  It was originally thought to be the highest hill on the North Yorkshire moors until Urra Moor was found to be higher. It is cared for by the National Trust and on the day we were there lovers, families and packs of teenagers climbed its steep height.  I got a sense this was a shared place, much loved still, and to climb it was a rite of passage of sorts.

The name shift from Odin’s Rock to Roseberry Topping is a slow linguistic morphing.  It’s thought that hill was sacred to Scandinavian dwellers who inhabited this place during the Viking Age, and that its name was Othenesburg.  Othenes slowly, weirdly became Roseberry and Topping is an old Yorkshire dialect for hill.

The scramble down Odin's Rock
The scramble down Odin’s Rock

But there is something mysterious about this place– at its summit there was once a sacred spring and its waters were used as a cure for sore eyes. (Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs by Edna Whelan). Odin had one eye– having sacrificed the other in a shamanic bargain at Mimir’s Well of Urd, the waters of transcendent wisdom.

There was also said to be a hermit’s cave at the top, also lost, with a hole beside it called Wilfrid’s Needle, named after the 8th century Bishop.To crawl through such a place was a rite. The pagan past is not so distant– the Viking Age coming after the needle’s namesake’s reign of power came to an end.  The Scandinavian settlers left little evidence of who they were while they were here and its perhaps in residual Norse names and words (and their genetic code!) that their presence can really be felt.

All these structures are vanished now, with the top of the hill having caved in a mining collapse, burying these sacred spots. But the people of this place still hold it dear– I like to think the eye of Odin looks up through well buried in the ruins and sees the little girls climbing in their pink sandals, the teenagers, the lovers huddled in the crevices of the paths, and the dogs hurrying past their masters, all the way to the top.

More fascinating history can be found on the Yorkshire Holy Wells Website.

The triad design of these earrings was inspired by the Odin’s knot.

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Blessed Terminalia, Dear Reader

The drystone walls of the Yorkshire Dales

When I think of Yorkshire, the first image in my mind is of wide open space marked by the patchwork of drystone walls.  And there are invisible boundaries, tracks: public foot paths often are the very same Death Roads, or ancient rights-of-way through private land, which allowed people their funerary rites. And there are fragments of Roman roads, as well as dream-paths or ley lines.

This island is a sacred palimpsest, scored and re-scored, and yet all the marks remain as either archeological evidence or fairy paths.

Today is the Roman Festival of Terminus, the god of borders and endings. Ovid, in his usual warm, vivid and simple verse, describes the ritual:

Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,

You have been a god since ancient times.

You are crowned from either side by two landowners,

Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.

An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself

Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.

The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,

And works at setting branches in the solid earth.

Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,

While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.

When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire

The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.

Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:

The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.

Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,

And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.

I love the affectionate irony in the last line, which speaks to an intimacy Ovid (and it might be said Romans in general) had with the gods.  What a hard blessing are boundaries and wise endings, and how necessary.

Glowing coals from a broken pot. Ember Berry Earrings by Feral Strumpet on Etsy

Courting Ghosts

A stand-in for the face of Mary Smith, hanged for witchcraft in 1616.

396 years ago today a woman named Mary Smith was hanged for witchcraft in Norfolk, allegedly after a falling out with other villagers over the price of cheese.  Just one of the thousands of women to die in such a way at this time, the details of her life are completely lost to us.  Margaret Murray’s “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” contains a long Appendix of just such a list of witches in England and Scotland.  Mary Smith, with her common, every-woman name, is not among them.

Some claim the epidemic of witch burning during the 17th century was a systemic extermination of a certain kind of woman, or it was a mass hysteria. It certainly was singular consolidation of power– of supposed medical science over herb lore, of Christian customs over ancient, inherited Pagan ritual and the written word over oral history.  And the losers in it all were women folk.

Now, it’s big in the tourist trade, this particular bit of history.  In York, ghost tours make their rounds every night, the guides competing fervently for the tourist dollars. They might visit Tyburn on the Knavesmire near the race track, where executions once took place.  Many women who died there were accused of killing their husbands– considered high treason at the time.  The “Terrible Tales” bus makes its rounds, its sides painted with garish atrocities, and there’s the York Dungeon’s new attraction– “See Witches Burned Alive.” The ads promise “the witch hunt is on! Hear the screams and feel the heat as the accused are burnt alive before your eyes.” I can’t say how much I hate this aspect of the tourist trade, this sentimentality in reverse– the indulging in the sufferings of others.

Looking back at history will always be like looking into a shattered mirror.  How much more if one is a woman, picking up the shards and finding so many missing, deliberately destroyed.  And yet the impulse to wholeness is human, and we persist. As mothers of invention, we fill in the blanks, courting ghosts and making do– mending, as we have always done.

“The Wintering Party” live at Witness

A year or so ago, I became obsessed with the Dyatlov Pass Incident, the unsolved disappearance of nine hikers in the Urals in Soviet Russia.  I wrote a story about it, taking many liberties with the known facts but trying to preserve its uncanny effect on me.  That story has been published by Witness– you can read it online here: http://witness.blackmountaininstitute.org/author/allysonshaw/

Mother Red Cap, or the Crone of Camden

“Before the good folk of this kingdom be undone,
Shall Highgate Hill stand in the midst of London.”
–prophecy of Mother Shipton

Beneath the history dusted off for tourists in ghost walks and Tower of London grotesques, the spurned of London persist in collective memory.  We will never really know their truth, and this is even more so with women’s stories.

The unwritten persist in our imagination, amplified perhaps because of the silences surrounding them.  Jinney Bingham, or Old Mother Red Cap is one who has taken on mythic proportions in my narrative of North London.

In the essay Old Hags, Marina Warner argues that the infamous crones of London, though their erasure may be almost complete, provide an ancient, “apotropaic” magic:  they are “tomb guardians for the mean streets.”

Mother Red Cap is an old folklore archetype– shook down to us as Little Red Riding Hood.  The red hood or cap was associated with witches; it belies the girl’s collusion with the wolf and her penchant for straying.

Mother Red Cap was also the name of a famous pub in Camden, up until the 80s.  In Famous Impostors, Bram Stoker writes of its competitor across the road, Mother Black Cap and claims that there were also two witches after which these establishments were named.

Stoker goes on to explain that the black-capped woman was Mother Shipton, 17th century Yorkshire prophetess who foretold the Great Fire of London, now reduced to the panto dame.  She faces off eternally, silhouetted on the wings of the Mother Shipton Moth.

Mother Shipton Moth

But Mother Red Cap, Mother Damnable, “The Shrew of Kentish Town” or Jinney Bingham was also a real woman who lived in a cottage where the World’s End pub in Camden now stands.

She was the child of a brickmaker and a pedlar’s daughter.  A mother at sixteen, her baby-dady was one Gipsey George sent to Newgate and hung at Tyburn for sheep-stealing.  Stoker describes unkindly her series of lovers, some of whom, it’s inferred, died at her hand.  Her parents were tried and hung as witches.  She lived as a fortune-teller and healer in the house her father built on waste ground. In the end she was left with her “only protector”– a black cat.  She traveled only at night under hedges or in the lanes as “the rabble bait[ed] her as if she were a wild beast”.  The black patches on her cloak looked at a distance like flying bats.

Hundreds of people claim to have seen the devil enter her cottage– but he didn’t come out.  Later, she was found dead with her crutch and a tea pot full of herbs, crouched by the ashes of her fire which had burned out.  Her body was so stiff the undertakers had to break her limbs to fit her in the coffin.

And so she stayed in this spot, on the pub sign depicting her as brewster or witch, until the 1980s.  In 1776 the space across from the pub was to become a second Tyburn, but what became of those plans I don’t know.  Urban legend claims she still haunts the Underworld, the heavy metal club that is now in the spot.

The closest I’ve come to spotting her ghost was in Stinking Lizaveta drummer Cheshire Agusta’s possessed performance at the Underworld in 2007:

My friend C lives above the pub now. She has  the cunning ability to be seemingly everywhere at once, and a joie de verve that in the time of Mother Red Cap could’ve got a woman in trouble.  If Jinney’s ghost really is still there she has good company.

C, who now lives at the site of Mother Red Cap

Ash Wednesday

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…according to thy lovingkindness, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.

I’ve never been a good Christian. Even as an adult, going willingly to church every Sunday, I could not bring myself to be baptized. I was always a wild creature, resisting the tether of faith or name, and have wanted to be free above all else.

In the end I rejected the Christian church because it had no place for my ecstacies. But even after this decision, I went to church every Ash Wednesday to be anointed with ash and oil, and I would have a good cry. For years I would cry for being outside of the church– the whore/witch who refused repentance.

Strange then that I would find the one ritual associated with repentance the most moving– or perhaps not so strange in that as a “sinner” in the eyes of the church, it would be the open door. Or perhaps it’s just easier to be among Christians when they have assumed a position of humility, if even for a day, wearing on their foreheads a momento mori. The church I went to was full of lapsed Catholics, many gay men and women who’d found themselves outside of the church but not outside of their own faith. It was easier to kneel in such company.

After moving to the UK, I found more comfort in the green spaces and the ancient stones: wild affirmations surrounded me with an immediacy the church never held.

One Easter I found myself in Canterbury and out of curiousity I’d gone into the church during the service, all godly and somber, full of pensioners and wailing babies, families going through the motions of the good news. At one point we turned and shook hands and, according to my partner, I’d done it wrong, said the wrong thing, used two hands instead of one, turned to the wrong person– I can’t even remember now, but I took this news hard. It was as if he’d let out a secret, outed me as the spy I was. I felt dizzy and almost fainted with a rush of history, of consciousness that was unbearable. A stark realization: I was not singular at all, but from a long line of the cunning that had been shut out, humiliated, burnt.

Ashes to ashes– it’s in this spirit that I still celebrate the Wednesday so, remembering my sisters at stake.