Loaf Mass Blessings, Strumpets!

Lammas postage stamp from Red Moon Musings blog.

Lammas postage stamp from Red Moon Musings blog.

I live in a place where history is a constant companion. There is no place where this isn’t true, but York, and Yorkshire in general feels haunted, submerged in the past, and this inspires me.  Sometimes I don’t even have to imagine it– it manifests itself, like this summer afternoon at the abbey ruins of Rievaulx when these minstrels created what felt like, in the words of Hakim Bey, a temporary autonomous zone.

Today is the feast day of Saint Peter in Chains, and the glorious York Minster is dedicated to this original Houdini.  I’m going to walk to the minster today and think on all the miraculous escapes in my life! A day to not only celebrate shaking off the fetters of whatever holds us back, but it’s also a time to let things come to fruition– help them rise, like yeast in bread. It is Lammas, or as the Anglo Saxons called it hlaf mas or “loaf-mass”– a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, a baking of the magic bread.

I’m not much of a baker. Sometimes I wish I knew how to fire ceramic beads in a kiln– clay instead of grain– now there’s a magic bread.

The Kitchen Witches' pentagram ring, available made in your size, in my shop.

The Kitchen Witches’ pentagram ring, available made in your size, in my shop.

I have begun to incorporate small ceramics in some designs, like the Kitchen Witches’ pentagram ring, above. I make these in many colours, but perhaps my favourite colour is the raku pottery– which is an ancient Japanese style of firing which allows for “happy accidents”– the colour takes on hues of a stormy sea or iron rich silt or even blood. I like to imagine that the fire makes up its own mind what the colour will be! In a way, that symbolises the creative process for me.

In the Middle Ages, when people lived by the seasons, the wheat stores were running low, and the new harvest and the first breads baked with it meant that the season of plenty was beginning again.

Ironically, this is true for my own business (and retail businesses in general!) The summer months are slow and I’m busy making for the time when the harvest begins again– late summer and then into the intensely busy winter holidays.

I’ve been making lovely new pieces that I’ll roll out over the next few weeks– this is my magic bread. What’s yours?

The Wishing Well at Osmotherly

The Saint John's Well, Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire

The Saint John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire

Last weekend Mike and I went looking for one of the “lost” water shrines in North Yorkshire. There are many of these places, though they are fast disappearing– blocked up, trashed and forgotten.  Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs by Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor, now out of print, is a wonderful resource.  Though the information in this gem of a book is now over twenty years old, it is still and invauluable aid to finding these magical places.

Mike in the bluebell glade

Mike in the bluebell glade

To reach Saint John’s Well, also called “The Wishing Well” one must traverse a forested hill misted with bluebells–a marker of ancient woodland. The equally ancient path, no doubt trod by countless well-wishers, is now blocked by many felled trees. The hike is not easy but also not impossible.

The photo above shows the well house secreted away in its gully now densely upholstered with decades of leaf mould. The water inside was clean and clear, though leaves blocked the entrance. It resembles a little house with a fairy door. It is not hard to imagine that this was built to house a genius loci.  One is tempted to return and clean this place– it wouldn’t be hard to return it to its former order.

The water here formerly supplied Mount Grace Priory–itself a sacred site. The restored Lady Chapel behind the Priory is said to be a site of miraculous healings. (See Yorkshire Holy Wells site).  The well predates the priory as a water shrine.  Though there is no written record of this, the landscape and folk customs make their own argument.

William Grainge in his 19th century writings on the Vale of Mobray explains that this well was the depository of wishes: “Even yet to this font come young men and maidens to breathe or whisper or wordless sigh the secret but ardent wishes of their heart…” This ritual included an ivy leaf with a bent pin stuck through it, tossed into the water.

Me at the well house, St. John's Well, Mount Grace Priory

Me at the well house, St. John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory

Many wells are called “pin wells” because of this practice. Why bent pins? Altering an ordinary object, destroying its original use, marks it as a talisman. In the Middle Age coins intended as offerings were bent in order to mark them as such– this practice continued for hundreds of years. It appears in the nursery rhyme–

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.

He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Throughout my journeys to various sacred sites I have often found little poems, flowers or coins left on stiles or near the sites themselves. Could the crooked sixpence be an offering left? And the crooked man and his odd cat and house be a cunning one (Ok, some say this rhyme is about Scotland and England in the 17th century, but could it be about something else as well.)

Some say the bent pins were offered to the fairies as elfshot. We found no such offerings in the dark water that day but the generations of longings and hopes left here for safekeeping were unmistakably present.

Bluebell earrings, inspired by fairy landscapes, available in my Etsy Shop

Bluebell earrings, inspired by fairy landscapes, available in my Etsy Shop

Queen of the Bean

The Green Man and Queen Pea, from the Twelfth Night celebrations at the Globe in London, a few years back

It’s the Twelfth Day– do you know where your golden bean is? Traditionally, the head of revelry for this day was chosen by a bean secreted away in a slice of cake, distributed at random or in some cases by a child hiding under the table.

Twelfth Cake-- once a work of confectioners art.

This custom is still celebrated in New Orleans but is no longer part of the seasonal celebrations in the UK, except in some instances of folk revivals.  A king chosen by whim– it’s the stuff of fairy tales as well as the Roman Saturnalia.  It was difficult for me to imagine the psychic necessity of such a celebration, coming from a land where everyone is presumed equal.  Even if the reality in the US is very different, the philosophical idea rules many interactions between people.  Not so in the UK, where rigid ideas of class permeate the culture.

Today is considered “Old Christmas Day” and the last hurrah of the Yule celebrations.  Traditionally, all the decorations are taken down– it’s bad luck to leave them up.  And, in the village of Haxey in Lincolnshire, the Fool and his Boggans corral the inhabitants and bystanders in the mad Hood Game, but that is the subject for another post.

Coffee with your twelfth cake? Queen of the Bean set by Feral Strumpet on Etsy.