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In the northern hemisphere, today is the longest day of the year–the summer solstice! Go out and worship the sun and enjoy summer. To help guide you in your revels, here is a fantasy picture of wild druidic rituals among the megaliths of Stonehenge. I love summer, so this truly is a sacred holiday for me. For readers in the southern hemisphere, congratulations it just gets brighter from here.

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We are coming up on the Yule season and that means ornamental conifers!  As I was putting up my traditional tree of many animals, it occurred to me to see if there were any spooky Gothic-themed Christmas trees.  And, oh indeed…there are so many Gothic themed trees and ornaments out there!

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Although at first these dark trees might sit wrongly with traditionally minded revelers, a moment of thought will reveal that Gothic trees are quite appropriate!  Not only is the Christmas tree an ornament for the darkest & hardest time of year (Winter Solstice) it is also an ancient relic of pre-Christian Europe when pagan folk venerated trees.   Furthermore the idea of Christmas trees, like the ancient Goths themselves, originated in Germany and Scandinavia.  For years, pundits have been worrying what happens when marketers put up their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier. Maybe this is what happens: a reversion to druidic darkness.

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Here are some Gothic trees—some are “goth” in the modern punk rock sense, while others are pagan, macabre, ironically twisted, or just winsomely slender.  In case this is making you anxious, it’s all in seasonal fun!  Also I threw in some beautiful Gothic-revival Christmas trees to evoke feelings of Victorian opulence!   Enjoy the gallery and the holiday season (but don’t worry, we’ll have more appropriate seasonal fare next week).

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Eek!  I mean...cool crystal thing!

What a cool crystal thing!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

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I guess, it's sort of spooky...

I guess, it’s sort of spooky…

This one might be slightly photoshopped--although cats do love Christmas trees!

This one might be slightly photoshopped–although cats do love Christmas trees!

What?

What?

Dammit, there isn't even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Dammit, there isn’t even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Skinny Christmas Tree

wchristmastree-5tumblr_mxwuwe2NJR1svgz44o3_500And Here’s a really good one for the dramatic conclusion.  It has a touch of the cosmic–and it’s also a shout-out to tree worshipers everywhere).

 

 

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lead-image-halloweenDuring secondary school in rural Ohio the music teacher annually dug out the moth-eaten scores for a bunch of Halloween songs including “Black and Gold,” (the lyrics of which I still somewhat remember). The song was a doggerel hymn about the colors of Halloween season and the lyrics were just a list of black and gold items: jet black cats with golden eyes, golden goblins, pumpkins, and black shadows. Some young wag always said “this should be titled ‘black and orange,’” which I thought was a fair point based on all of the orange and black candy and decorations around.

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Allegedly the seasonal color scheme of black and orange go back to the ancient Celtic traditions which Halloween comes from. Orange (or rich gold/saffron, maybe) is the symbolic color of the harvest, the crops, and the autumn leaves whereas black represents night, death, and winter darkness. It’s a good color combination, but I always wonder whether the seasonal obsession with bright orange and black may be more a result of marketers rather than ancient Celts—or maybe they actually dug out black robes and golden sickles every year for Samhain just like the music teacher got out those smudged Halloween music sheets.

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If it is a marketing tradition, the marketers chose well. Orange and black are beautiful together and perfectly fit the season, but you rarely see people running around wearing this combination other than tigers and baseball players (and tigers aren’t even people). I wonder of there are shopping seasons in the future that likewise will be known by color—like back to school will be aqua and puce. Perhaps the seasonal holiday colors are predetermined by the natural colors season. Do Australians have a creepy death holiday in their fall (our spring) or what? Or is everything just orange, dun, and buff there every season? What are holiday color combinations from other cultures?

Polynesian Halloween?

Polynesian Halloween?

A Female Holly Tree (Ilex aquifolium) with trademark berries

A Female Holly Tree (Ilex aquifolium) with trademark berries

As the winter solstice approaches, the deciduous trees are bare.  My back yard is a desolation of fallen leaves, dead chrysanthemums, and scraggly ornamental cabbages.  Yet in the winter ruins of the garden, one tree glistens with color: its shiny dark green leaves and gorgeous red berries have made it an emblem of the season since time immemorial.  The tree is Ilex aquifolium, also known as the common holly (or English holly).  The small trees grow in the understory of oak and beech forests of Europe and western Asia where they can grow up to 25 meters (75 feet) tall and live for half a millennium (although most specimens are much smaller and do not live so long).  Hollies are famous not just for their robust good looks but also for their sharpened leaves which literally make them a pain to care for.  The wood is a lovely ivory color and is fine for carving and tooling (in fact Harry Potter’s wand was made of holly wood in the popular children’s fantasy novels).

A male holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) with flowers

A male holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) with flowers

Holly was long worshiped by Celts and Vikings before its winter hardiness and blood-red berries made it emblematic for the resurrection of Christ.  Yet even before there were any people in Europe the holly was a mainstay of the great laurel forests of Cenozoic Europe. The genus ilex is the sole remaining genus of the family Aquifoliaceae which were incredibly successful in the hot wet climates of the Eocene and Oligocene.  The semi-tropical forests began to die out during the great dry period of the Pliocene and were almost entirely finished off by the Pleistocene Ice Ages, yet the holly survived and adapted as the other plants vanished.  Today there are nearly 500 species of holly. In addition to the well-known common holly which is so very emblematic of Christmastime, there are tropical and subtropical hollies growing around the world.  There are hollies which are evergreen and hollies which are deciduous. Even if they are not as common as they were when the Earth was hotter and wetter, they are one of the great success stories among flowering plants.

A Female Holly Tree (photo allegedly by "Chase Wood")

A Female Holly Tree (photo allegedly by “Chase Wood”)

Today is June 21st , which, in the northern hemisphere–where the majority of humankind lives–is the summer solstice.  This is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night).  Rejoice!  Now is the time of light and warmth.

Druid

Druids!

Of course it would hardly be the solstice if we didn’t talk about druids, but here, suddenly things get tricky, because, despite their long-standing popularity, we don’t actually know very much about druids.   There are no writings left to us from actual druids and although we have some archeological finds from Iron-age Western Europe which relate to the religions of the time, we do not have any objects which are directly connected with druids.  Some scholars question whether they ever even existed.

What is known about druids, therefore comes from Roman and Greek writers (including no less a person than Julius Caesar).  Druids were the priestly caste of polytheistic Celtic society.  Druid lore was passed down orally and it was no mean feat to become one of these elite priests:  it could take decades to master the complicated plant lore, ceremonial forms, and other esoteric druid knowledge.

Druids are associated with sacred groves and augury.  Roman writers also believed that druids practiced human sacrifice.  Julius Caesar wrote of druids placing prisoners in huge men made of wicker and then burning the victims to death.   However druid-sympathizers (which is apparently a real thing) dispute this idea and assert that Roman sources were guilty of cultural propaganda.  In fact, an even more extreme faction of scholars asserts that druids were entirely made up by Romans as a sort of fantasy of the other in order to highlight Roman superiority.  To me this seems like an unwarranted assumption: the concept of the hard headed Julius Caesar making up fantastical stories to drive home Roman superiority (which was an indisputable fact to him)  seems suspect, and there is archaeological evidence to support a tradition of human sacrifice, although it too is controversial.

"The Victim" An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson's poem (engraving,1868).

“The Victim” An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson’s poem (engraving,1868).

The only description of a druid ceremony comes from Book XVI of Natural History by Pliny the Elder.  This single highly colorful passage is responsible for most of the popular image of druids.  Pliny describes

“The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing … when it [mistletoe] is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to god to render his gift propitious to those whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

Whether he heard about it and thought it sounded neat or just made it up is anyone’s guess.

Neodruids (hahahaha)

Neodruids (hahahaha)

So wait, what does any of this have to do with the solstice?  Why are druids associated to an astronomical event in the way that Santa goes with Christmas?    Druids became greatly popular during the 18th and 19th century Celtic revival.   As romantics and neo-pagans invented rituals they looked towards the Roman sources (and certain Irish Christian sources which set up druids as being the opposite of Christian saints). Druids became associated with the great stone monoliths such as Stonehenge, and, since those ancient constructions are focused on the solar calendar,  it  was logical to assume that druids were too.

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An Ogham Stone at Derrynane

Saint Patrick’s Day spirit is beginning to pervade the land and the mind turns to all things Hibernian.  Last week, Ferrebeekeeper investigated Leprechaun tattoos and, though visually interesting, that subject quickly turned dark and scary.  This week, we plunge into the green forests of ancient Celtic Ireland to pursue the roots of Ogham, the mysterious tree alphabet of the Druids.  Get out your golden sickles and put on your mistletoe haloes, the nature and origin of Ogham are shadowed by primeval mystery and this whole journey could easily veer off into the fantastic realms of pre-Christian myth.

To begin with the basics, Ogham was a runic alphabet from early medieval times which was in use throughout the lands ringing the Irish Sea, but which seems to have been most prevalent in Munster (Southern Ireland).  Ancient objects inscribed in Ogham are most commonly found in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but are also known in Wales, Scotland, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Man, and the Devon coast.  Stone monuments inscribed in Ogham are usually written in Old Irish or an unknown Brythonic tongue—probably Pictish.  The alphabet seems to have been primarily used from the 4th century AD to the 8th century AD (although correct dates are a subject of contention).

Um, Ogham, I guess....

There are many historical theories explaining the origin of Ogham, but none are conclusive.  Some scholars hold that the script originated during the Roman conquest of Britain as a sort of non-Roman code language used between Celtic people.  Others assert that the language grew up as a means for denoting Celtic sounds—which the Roman alphabet is not well suited for—and became more complex and complete only as Christian scholars set up communities in Ireland. Wilder theories involve ancient primitive peoples as diverse as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the lost tribes of Israel, and the mysterious Sea People who destroyed Minoan palace civilization in the Mediterranean (please, please don’t tell my Irish history professor that I let you know about any of these hare-brained ideas).  My favorite mythical (as in “not-real”) story of the origin of Ogham involves the legendary Scythian king, Fenius Farsa, who invented the Gaelic language and then crafted Ogham out of scraps recovered from the fallen Tower of Babel (there’s more than a soupçon of world-famous Irish blarney in this folktale).

Brueghel's "Tower of Babel" (I never noticed the workmen wearing green eating potatoes in the left corner)

Whatever the actual origins of Ogham were, a large number of inscribed stones have been found in what were once Celtic lands.  Most of these were territorial markers and memorials—the oldest of which come from Ireland (although it is believed there was a heritage of inscribing the lines on sticks and bark which predated stone inscriptions).  Some scholars believe the Welsh, Manx, Scotish, British, and Orkadian Ogham stones date from Post-Roman Irish incursion/invasions.  Ancient tradition assigns the names of trees or shrubs to each of the letters of Ogham (although such a naming convention may only date from the tenth century).  A comprehensive glossary of letter names can be found here along with a translation of an ascetic Ogham joke (of sorts).

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