Olde English Custard

Custard was used to accompany pies and puddings in the days before ice cream!  It is still very popular today, and can be served hot or cold with a variety of delectable dishes.

custard

Ingredients:

3oz butter

3 eggs

1/3 pint of milk or single cream

4oz sugar

1 tablespoon of vanilla

Method:

1. Over a low heat melt the butter.

2. Add all the remaining ingredients and whisk continually for 8 – 10 minutes until the mixture thickens.

3. Cool slightly and place in a jug.  Serve warm.

4. For cold custard place in a covered bowl in the refrigerator until set.

Kit’s Crit: Like Water For Chocolate (Laura Esquivel)

Chocolate

Like Water For Chocolate (New York: Doubleday,1992) is a strange debut novel written in the magical-realism tradition.  The title comes from “an extremity of feeling” – perhaps sexual desire – where intense emotion melts the human heart, mind, or soul, just as boiling water melts chocolate.

Esquivel explores the impact of old Mexican traditions within modern culture, examining the filial responsibilities of a child to its parents, gender issues, personal sacrifice for the greater good, and the role of food as a metaphor for human feelings.

While I like the original premise that recipes contain secrets and can change with the fluctuating moods of the cook, this is not a book I would read more than once because the breaks from reality, sequencing, and characterizations sometimes make the tale a little too hard to swallow!

Vivien: The Lady of the Lake

Vivien and Merlin

“For Merlin, overtalked and overworn,

Had yielded, told her all the charm, and slept”

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Most Arthurian legends feature Merlin’s love-interest, Vivien.  She usually appears as The Lady of the Lake and ruler of Avalon, but sometimes she is described by other names such as Nimue – Niviane – the daughter of a vavasor named Dionas – a princess of Northumberland – or the Queen of Sicily.  And like the great magician himself, her character has undergone several important changes throughout history.

In the majority of early versions Vivien meets Merlin by a spring in the Forest of Broceliande, Brittany.  They fall in love, share a relationship, and exchange supernatural knowledge.  The Lady of the Lake is associated with water, the essential essence of life, and she quenches the lonely old man’s thirst for companionship.  She also gives King Arthur the magic sword Excalibur, and raises Lancelot in Avalon after the death of his father.  Then she takes Merlin away from Camelot and he is never seen again.

In Thirteenth Century Pre-Vulgate French mythology, Vivien is a fairy.  She appears as Merlin’s adoring student and he falls in love with her youth, intelligence, and beauty.  When Vivien uses one of her mentor’s spells to create a magical tower that locks them both away from the rest of the world, she does so to preserve their happiness together.  She acts out of genuine love without any deception or malice.

But when the Catholic Church adopted King Arthur as a champion of Christianity, Vivien was transformed into an evil sorceress and witch.  She is thereafter portrayed as another Eve-like temptress who seduces a good man and brings about his downfall.  In these tales she uses her feminine wiles to uncover Merlin’s most powerful spell and ultimately uses it against him.  Then she locks him in an enchanted tree – or prison made of air –  or tomb covered with a stone that no one can move – rendering him invisible from the outside world until he falls asleep forever.

In the post-feminist era, however, this fascinating character has evolved yet again and  Vivien emerges as the New Woman.  No longer is she portrayed as a dependent fairy or malicious witch.  Instead she has become a strong force in society – a free thinker –  someone in charge of her own destiny.  She lives with Merlin as a lover and equal.   She could survive perfectly well without him, but chooses not to.

The modern Lady of the Lake tale now suggests that mutual love is the greatest magic of all and the strongest power on earth.

Do you agree?

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Collier’s Encyclopedia (15).  Macmillan, 1974.

Wikipedia, “Lady of the Lake”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake

(Picture: Julia Margaret Cameron)

Selene

Selene

I refuse to vanish or set

when gravity tugs me to earth

in a blaze of gore or glory –

to wane to nothingness beyond

a slice of ashen promise –

And I will not slide quietly by

a masculine smothering of power –

for the damage will already be done.

Have you seen how moonlight blazes so hard

it slips beyond any brute shadow?

(Painting: Victor Florence Pollett)

Olde English Bread Pudding

 

Bread Pud

Ingredients:

12 slices white bread

Knob of butter

3 eggs

1/2 pint milk

4oz dried fruit ( currants, raisins, or sultanas)

4oz sugar

nutmeg or cinnamon

 

Method:

1. Heat the oven to 325 / 170/ Gas 3.

2. Grease a loaf tin with the knob of butter.

3. Cut the bread into triangles and place in the tin.

4. Sprinkle the dried fruit on top.

5. Whisk the eggs and milk together.

6. Add the sugar.

7. Pour over the bread.

8. Sprinkle with nutmeg or cinnamon.

9. Cook 40 – 50 minutes until golden brown.

10. Remove from the oven and serve immediately with custard, cream, or ice cream.

 

Merlin: Madman or Magician?

merlin

There are many contradictory legends surrounding the famous magician, Merlin.  Tolstoy suggests he was a real Druid who lived in Sixth Century Scotland, though it is more likely that the sorcerer was actually a composite created from several mysterious literary figures.

Most stories agree that Merlin was the son of a nun who was impregnated by an incubus in her sleep.  This means he was born of a devil and a virgin.  The demon gave him knowledge of the past – but the nun had the child baptized at birth to protect him from Satan – and in order to create a natural balance in the universe God granted the child a prophetic knowledge of the future.  His life was thereafter spent on the threshold of good and evil.

The Welsh claim Merlin as one of their own Celtic prophets and magicians.   In British mythology he was the protector of the young King Arthur.  Merlin was often portrayed as a princely figure who was overcome by madness.  He ran off to live in the forest and there acquired the supernatural powers that made him famous.

Some tales claim that a disguised Merlin slept with the Duchess Igerna and fathered the future King Arthur.  In other versions Merlin helped King Uther Pendragon to seduce Igerna, whom he married a short time later.  Either way, Arthur was protected by the wizard until the time was right for him to step forward and be crowned the king.

Merlin made the Round Table for King Uther.  It is also said that he created Stonehenge, in memory of Uther’s brother who was massacred at the Battle of Salisbury.  The wizard was said to control the wind, foresee the future, and transform his shape at will.  He once made a dragon on a banner breathe real fire, and enchanted a bed so that those who slept on it lost all sense and memory.

The magician’s most famous saying is, Who aims to cheat a friend / Gets cheated in the end.  Yet his wisdom did not stop him falling into the clutches of Vivien – the Lady of the Lake who brought about his end!

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Collier’s Encyclopedia (15).  Macmillan, 1974.

Wikipedia, “Merlin.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merlin.

Redbone’s Witch Queen of New Orleans

voodoo queen

Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau,
She’s the witch queen of New Orleans, of New Orleans.

I’m gonna tell you a story, strange as it now seems
Of zombie, voodoo, gris gris, and the Witch Queen of New Orleans.
She lived in a world of magic, possessed by the devil’s crew
From a shack near the swamplands, made of mud-pile brick,
Marie stirred her witches brew.

Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau,
She’s the Witch Queen of New Orleans, of New Orleans.

For a dime or a nickel, anyone could buy voodoo of any kind.
She had potions and lotions, herbs, and tanna leaves
Guaranteed to blow your mind.
Early one morning into mucky swamp dew, vanished Marie with hate in her eyes
Though she’ll never return, all the Cajuns knew, a Witch Queen never dies.

Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo ve veau,
She’s the witch queen of New Orleans, of New Orleans.

Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on you,
Marie, Marie, da voodoo veau, she’ll put a spell on . . . .

Picture: Frank Schneider

Crone Stones

Rocks

This is the womb of the world

where two seas collide

at a hammock of land

and bony rocks arch

in the jet blood-black spray.  Three

mythical crone stones . . .

who see what sharp lips never

tell – still watch through

their ageless snake hair for the

goings of they that

once crawled from their legs in the

primeval salt-dawn of time.

Kit’s Crit: Illuminations (Mary Sharratt)

Sharratt

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, the famous German Benedictine Abbess who lived from 1098-1179.  Hildegard’s genuine mystical prophecies earned her the name, the Sibyl of the Rhine. 

Given to the church at the tender age of 8, Hildegard was entombed in a tiny room with a radical anchorite called Jutta von Sponheim, and here she grew into a great thinker who had a strong impact on the early Catholic Church.  She also became a gifted composer and artist, and was able to heal the local population with herbal medicines and gemstones.  Her God was a feminine version of love.

Hildegard began experiencing visions at the age of 3, and eventually began recording them in a brilliantly illuminated manuscript.  But were these images sent from God or from Satan?  Fortunately she was able to convince those around her that her mysticism was a holy gift.  And as she lay dying her sister nuns claimed to see two streams of light in the sky crossing over her room – a sign they interpreted as a heavenly blessing.

Illuminations is an absorbing story about a fascinating woman who bravely took on the medieval patriarchy to create a safe community for religious women.  The book is well-written, filling the gaps in history with plausible suggestions that help explain why certain characters acted as they did.  Although Sharratt is aware that if Hildegard had lived at a later time in Puritan England she might well have been accused of witchcraft (http://marysharratt.blogspot.com/2012/07/of-witches-and-saints-mother-demdike.html), Illuminations maintains a firm focus on the mystic’s religious calling, and does not undermine her venerable status within the church.  A very good read!

Kirtles

kirtle

We are naturally fascinated by the glamorous dresses worn by medieval queens and their ladies at court.  But under those fancy gowns was the same staple garment worn by gentry and peasant women alike – the kirtle.

Worn over a linen smock, the kirtle acted as an early girdle, or corset, that shaped and supported the body in the time before modern bras.  They were made from wool, linen, or silk and were usually sleeveless, often holding the under smock down to reveal much of the neck, shoulder, and chest of the wearer.

On top of their regular kirtles wealthy women wore an additional fancy frock called a cotehardie or surcoat.  This was made of fine cloth and decorated with fur, jewels, embroidery, lace, belts or buttons.  Their kirtles could lace up at the sides or back because they had maids to help them dress.

Less wealthy women had kirtles that fastened at the front.  This was a more practical choice because the laces could be easily opened to allow for pregnancy and breast feeding. Most women would roll up their smock sleeves for the everyday household chores, but  interchangeable dress sleeves could be pinned or tied to the kirtle for going out.  At a time when material was very expensive, such extravagancies were usually saved  for ‘best’ occasions such as visiting friends or attending church.  Therefore, if a lady was fortunate enough to have several sets of sleeves, she could change the look of her outfit without needing to change her kirtle!

Picture: Orazio Gentileschi

Coifs

In most historical fiction set in the European Middle Ages, the female characters wear coifs.

4x5 original

Hans Holbein

But what exactly was a coif?

Coifs were various styles of close-fitting caps that covered the top, back, and sides of the head, holding the hair in place and away from the face.

In the Thirteenth Century coifs were worn by everyone, but they slowly fell out of fashion for men.  Women and children, however, continued using them well into the Seventeenth Century.  Not only were they a practical item for additional warmth in winter, they also provided a level of respectability for women and could be turned into a decorative status symbol for the nobility.

Up until the Tudor era, coifs were made from unadorned white linen and tied under the chin.  In Elizabethan and Jacobean times the hoods of the wealthy were made from silk.  They were often embroidered with elaborate Blackwork stitches.  Many had fancy lace edges.

Noble women’s coifs were usually wired to fit discretely under the current head fashions of the day.  They gradually became smaller to allow curls to flow down the back of the lady’s gown.

Workers and servants wore large, plain practical wraps that completely covered their hair.

 

 

 

The Eagles’ Witchy Woman

witch woman

Raven hair and ruby lips,
Sparks fly from her finger tips.
Echoed voices in the night,
She’s a restless spirit on an endless flight.

Woo hoo, witchy woman,
See how high she flies.
Woo hoo, witchy woman,
She got the moon in her eyes.

She held me spellbound in the night,
Dancing shadows and firelight.
Crazy laughter in another room,
And she drove herself to madness with a silver spoon.

Woo hoo, witchy woman,
See how high she flies.
Woo hoo, witchy woman,
She got the moon in her eyes.

Well, I know you want to love her,
Let me tell your brother,
She’s been sleeping
In the devil’s bed.

And there’s some rumors going around,
Someone’s underground.
She can rock you in the nighttime
Until your skin turns red.

Woo hoo, witchy woman,
See how high she flies.
Woo hoo, witchy woman,
She got the moon in her eyes.

Olde English Summer Pudding

Summer Pudding is a delicious traditional treat to enjoy in warm weather!

 Summer Pudding

Ingredients:

6 slices white bread with crusts removed

Knob of butter

4oz redcurrants

4oz blackcurrants

4oz blackberries

6oz sugar

Method:

1. Grease a pudding bowl with butter.

2. Line the base and sides of the bowl with 5 of the 6 bread slices.

3. Wash all the fruit and place in a pan. Add sugar.   Over a low heat stir in the  sugar to hull the fruit to a soft consistency.  Use only its own juices.  Cool.

4. Pour this mixture into the bread bowl.

5. Add the final bread slice to form a lid.

6. Cover with a saucer and add a 1-2lb weight to press the pudding into shape.

7. Place in the refrigerator to set overnight.

8. Serve with fresh cream.

Circe the Witch-Goddess

Circe

Circe – one of the foremost witch goddesses from the European literary tradition – was immortalized in Homer’s Odyssey.  Offspring of the sun-god Helios and a sea nymph called Perse, Circe lived on the island of Aeaea.  Some sources, however, claimed she was the daughter of the dark goddess Hecate because of her association with the moon.

The fair-haired Circe was skilled in the arts of transformation and illusion.  She was also the mistress of glamor magic with a vast knowledge of potions and herbs.  In Homer’s tale she transformed Odysseus’ men into pigs with human intelligence.  Eurylochus escaped the enchantment and managed to warn Odysseus, who had remained behind to guard their boat.  On the way back to rescue his crew the hero was met by Hermes and given a magic plant called moly to protect him from the witch.  Odysseus overpowered Circe, demanded that his men be restored to their human forms, but then he stayed on the island with her for another year.  During this time he fathered a son called Telegonus, the boy who eventually killed him with a poisoned spear.  Later, Circe was slain by Telemachus – Odysseus’ legitimate son with Penelope.

Botanists suggest that enchanter’s nightshade could have been one of Circe’s magic plants because it contains an anticholinergic that produces hallucinations, and may make men believe they have been transformed into animals.  Also, moly might derive from the snowdrop, as this flower contains the anti-hallucinogenic compound called galantamine.  

Circe appears to have functioned as a symbol of luxury and wantonness, perhaps as a warning against the drunkenness, lust, and debauchery that made men act like pigs. But unlike other mythological hags who rendered men impotent, she was a beautiful, alluring witch figure who catered to their sexual fantasies instead.  Small wonder her fame lives on!

Sources:

Graves, Robert. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.  Worldwide: Hamlyn, 1977.

Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Wikipedia: “Circe”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe

Photo: Wright Barker

Kit’s Crit: The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman)

Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011) tells the tragic story of the Siege at Masada in 70 CE, when 900 Jews were trapped on a mountain in the Judean desert surrounded by an army of hostile Roman soldiers.  After many months of resistance the rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender themselves into slavery.  Only 2 women and 5 children survived.  They gave their testimony to a scholar named Flavius Josephus.  Alice Hoffman then turned their extant accounts into this epic historical fiction.

The Dovekeepers follows the lives of four women: Yael, the daughter of an assassin; Revka, a baker’s wife who lost her daughter in a brutal Roman attack; Aziza, who was raised as a male warrior; and Shirah, “The Witch of Moab.”  These four women arrive at Masada on very different paths, yet they all become dove keepers at the fortress.  Shirah and Yael survive the final massacre.

Hoffman’s lengthy book is vivid and powerful, with a dramatic mix of magic and Judaism that some readers may find offensive.  And some of the supernatural elements, like the cloak of invisibility, stretch the bounds of belief.  Nevertheless, the book resonates with the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and is a wonderful reminder of courage, sacrifice, and fortitude.

I found Shirah the most compelling character.  She is an Alexandrian wise woman with uncanny insight, gifted in magic and medicine.  Shirah was trained by an Egyptian priestess and passes on some of her skills to Yael.  Her bravery helps the few survivors to escape through their underground cave system – the final proof of her resilience, adaptability, and cunning powers.

The Dovekeepers is a great Book Club selection, generating a lot of insightful discussion.  But its length and density makes it more demanding than some other popular choices.

The Final Temptation

 

Woods

And suddenly – with a rip of flesh –

the veil gapes full wide,

excitement blankets horror – sees

the onyx gleam inside,

a blanched bone cheek is turned to toward

gained opportunity.

Does crossing this threshold

lead to spirituality?

 

Cher’s Dark Lady

DARK LADY – Cher

(John Robert Durrill)

      Marie_Laveau[1]

The fortune queen of New Orleans,
Was brushing her cat in her black limousine.
On the backseat were scratches from
The marks of men whose fortune she had won.
Couldn’t see through the tinted glass,
She said, “Home James,” and he hit the gas.
I followed her to some darkened room,
She took my money, she said “I’ll be with you soon.”

Dark lady laughed and danced and lit the candles one by one,
Danced to her gypsy music until her brew was done.
Dark lady played back magic until the clock struck on the twelve.
She told me more about me than I knew myself.

She dealt two cards, a queen and a three,
And mumbled some words that were so strange to me.
Then she turned up a two-eyed jack,
My eyes saw red but the card still stayed black.
She said, “The man you love is secretly true
To someone else who is very close to you.
My advice is that you leave this place,
Never come back, and forget you ever saw my face!”

Dark lady laughed and danced and lit the candles one by one,
Danced to her gypsy music until her brew was done.
Dark lady played back magic until the clock struck on the twelve.
She told me more about me than I knew myself.

So I ran home and crawled in my bed,
I couldn’t sleep because of all the things she said.
Then I remembered her strange perfume,
And how I smelled it was in my own room!
So I sneaked back and caught her with my man,
Laughing and kissing until they saw the gun in my hand.
The next thing I knew they were dead on the floor,
Dark lady would never turn a card up anymore!

Dark lady laughed and danced and lit the candles one by one,
Danced to her gypsy music until her brew was done.
Dark lady played back magic until the clock struck on the twelve.
She told me more about me than I knew myself!

 

 

 

Olde English Pottage

The staple meal for most medieval folk was pottage – a stew made from whatever was available at the time.  Everything was cooked together in one large cauldron over the fire.  Pottage usually contained a mixture of meat, vegetables, herbs, pulses, and grains.  Here is a tasty modern version for you to try!

pottage Gerard Hoet

Ingredients:

1lb fully cooked meat or poultry

Good pinch of salt and pepper

2 potatoes

2 onions

2 carrots

2 sticks celery

1 leak

2 root vegetables (turnip, parsley, or swede)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pint chicken or beef stock

1 tablespoon parsley or thyme

1/2 pint red wine

2 tablespoons Worcester Sauce

2oz pearl barley

 

Method:

1. Chop all the meat and vegetables into large chunks.

2. Boil the olive oil in a pot until bubbling, then lower to a medium heat.

3. Add the onions, potatoes, carrots and root vegetables.  Brown until slightly softened.

4. Add the celery and leak.  Brown until slightly softened.

5. Stir in the cooked, chopped meat.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well.

6. Pour in the beef stock.  Bring to the boil stirring well.  Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.

7. Add the red wine and Worcester Sauce.  Simmer for an additional 20 minutes.  The mixture will reduce.

8. Stir in the pearl barley and add parsley or thyme to taste.

9. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the barley softens and the pottage thickens.

Serve with rice or fresh crusty bread!

 

Kit’s Crit: The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)

Allende Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is my first encounter with Latin American magical realism (New York: Random, 2005).  This epic saga follows three generations of a Chilean family – headed by the determined patriarch Esteban Truebas – as they experience joy, tragedy, struggle, rebellion, and political turmoil, in a world where the supernatural mingles alongside reality.

The House of the Spirits contains magic, ghosts, poison, and demonic possession, and it functions as an allegory of the South American world where Allende grew up.  It is a novel designed to “reclaim the past” and “overcome the terrors” of Chilean history (433).

Allende successfully employs symbolism, mysticism, and nationalism in a vivid drama of political turmoil and feminist rebellion.  And while the novel itself does not rank as great literature, it is an excellent example of lush storytelling and descriptive writing – a tale that resonates with the poetic musicality of the Latino language.

I would recommend The House of the Spirits to those readers seeking a unique, well-crafted, multi-cultural experience. 

 

A Biblical Puzzle: The Witch of Endor

Endor Benjamin West

The Witch of Endor (1 Samuel: 28) is one of the great puzzles of the Old Testament.  She was the medium who summoned the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit at the request of King Saul, and then comforted the king when he received the terrible news of his impending defeat and death.  Yet the one true Wise Women in the scriptures was not originally portrayed as being evil, manipulative, or sinister.

Ironically, Saul had previously driven all the magicians and cunning folk out of Israel.  But when God stopped appearing in his dreams – and the Philistine army was at his door – the desperate king went in search of a medium to help him contact Samuel’s ghost for advice.  During the 11th Century this witch (named Abner) was thought to have been the mother of Saul’s cousin – and therefore his aunt – but this seems unlikely as he commanded a servant to “seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit,” and only then heard about the medium at Endor.  They met and conversed as strangers, the king being in disguise, and she was naturally reluctant to help until he promised her “no punishment” for doing what was legally forbidden.  The witch finally conjured up the dead prophet’s spirit who predicted the end of Saul and his reign. This quickly came to pass.  The Philistines were victorious and Saul, wounded in battle, ended up taking his own life.

This episode is the Bible’s only suggestion that the spirits of the dead can be summoned by magic.  The Witch of Endor, sometimes described as a ventriloquist because other voices spoke through her, appeared to see the dead yet could not hear what they told the person who had summoned them.  She was a genuine medium – not a trickster – described as a kindly character who comforted Saul after the terrible prophecy was revealed.  She even fed him a lavish meal before he left her home.

Then at some time during the Middle Ages this wise woman was turned into a wicked witch.  No longer did she present the ghost of Samuel on demand, but instead conjured up a demon to give the illusion of the dead prophet.  Martin Luther called the apparition the “Devil’s ghost” and Calvin dismissed it as “but a spectre.”  The story then changed from being a worried king’s frantic search for supernatural help, into a morality tale about witchcraft and death.

But the puzzle remains: Was Samuel’s appearance an act of God working through a spiritualist to grant Saul’s request?  Or is this tale an example of Satan’s cunning in bringing about a good king’s defeat and suicide?  What do you think?

Sources:

Wikipedia – “Witch of Endor.”  Accessed on 5/11/2015

Holy Bible, 1 Samuel: 28.

Kit’s Crit: The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

On my first reading of The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, I was impressed by Philippa Gregory’s bravery in writing against the popular romantic image of the Tudor queen as a much-maligned victim.  I re-read the book again this past week as part of my research into medieval witchcraft, and still maintain this is one of the finest examples of historical fiction in the genre.

Gregory plays the devil’s advocate by posing the question: What if Anne Boleyn really was guilty of the charges brought against her?  She then weaves a plausible explanation of the young woman’s dangerous rise to power, a gamble that ultimately cost her life.  The story is told through the eyes of the other Boleyn girl at court, her sister Mary.  And although British historian David Starkey claims there are only “four known facts” about Mary Boleyn, and that this therefore amounts to “one fact per seventy-five pages,” Gregory does a splendid job of recreating an authentic version of the Tudor court from numerous other sources.  There are, fortunately, many more extant facts regarding Anne and Henry!

Gregory’s Queen Anne is not an endearing character, but then everything said about her comes from the rival sister’s lips – one of the women she ousted from the king’s bed.  Anne is portrayed as ambitious, vain, single-minded, selfish, ruthless, callous, manipulative, and amoral.  Yet she is also intelligent, artistic, fashionable, and fun.  She is not a practicing witch – though she does enchant Henry and all those around her – but when placed in a desperate situation she turns to a local wise woman for help.  As the king is aging and impotent, when Anne needs a son to secure the throne her brother George steps in as a replacement.  And she may or may not have poisoned some of her enemies.

The Other Boleyn Girl strips away the traditional glamor of court, presenting a much more realistic insight into the fragile and perilous lives of the youngsters groomed as bargaining chips by their ambitious families.  It also highlights the differences between those born high and low, and how real happiness lies in the simple pleasures of life.  The characters are engaging and interesting – even as they descend into strange, dark places.  And the psychological explanations offered for Anne Boleyn’s criminal behavior are fascinating, thought-provoking, and plausible –  even if factually untrue.

A five-star read!

Olde English Yorkshire Pudding (Lancashire Style!)

 

 

 

Yorkshire_Pudding[1]

Here’s a Lancashire version of Yorkshire Pudding.  It was traditionally cooked in the fat drippings from a roast of beef and makes a delicious addition to Sunday Lunch.

Ingredients:

4oz plain flour

Pinch of salt

2 eggs

1/2 pint cold water

12 teaspoons of meat drippings or cooking oil or 3oz animal fat (lard)

 

Method:

1. Heat the oven to hot – 475 / Gas 9 / 240.

2. Place one teaspoon of the meat dripping (or oil or 1/4oz lard) inside the individual holes of a 12-cup muffin tray and set aside.

3. Sift the flour and salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center.  Add the eggs.  Stir.

4. Begin adding the water a little at a time, mixing with a fork to smooth out any lumps until a smooth watery batter forms.

5. Whisk with a fork for 2-5 minutes until the mixture forms large bubbles.  Place in the refrigerator.

6.  Heat the oil or fat in the muffin tray in the hot oven for 3-5 minutes until it is hot and steaming.  Carefully remove from the oven.

7. Whisk the batter again for 3 minutes. Spoon an even amount into each of the twelve holes.  Immediately return to the heat.

8. Cook for 20-25 minutes until risen and golden brown.  Serve immediately.

 

Hints for the perfect pudding!

* Puddings cooked in lard or meat dripping are the tastiest.

* Use only plain flour.

* Mixture made in advance, whisked several times, and stored in the refrigerator produces the best batter.

* Whisk with a fork – not a hand or electric mixer.

* The more air bubbles you whisk in, the more the mixture will rise.

* The oven must be piping hot.

* Do not open oven door at all while cooking.

* Fat must be smoking before the batter is added.

* Best served straight from the oven.

 

 

 

 

Lilith and Eve: Part Two

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

In the Christian version of Genesis, Adam (meaning literally “man”) is the perfect model of strength and beauty.  He donates a rib to create a submissive partner, the naïve Eve. They dwell in the Garden of Eden with two special trees – the Tree of Knowledge (which gives the wisdom to uncover good and evil) and the Tree of Life (which grants immortality).  Eve is tempted by the devil (in the guise of the serpent) to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and is then expelled from paradise alongside her mate, cutting off the Tree of Life and making them both mortal.

Eve, the first woman deceived by a sweet-talking male, becomes the original mother of mankind.  In the beginning she is a daughter of nature – a creature half-way between animal and man – beautiful, sensual, emotional, but also fickle, stupid, and weak.  This archetypal woman soon becomes the victim, the first person seduced by Satan and therefore the first witch.  Indeed, in early iconography, Eve is even physically linked with the serpent through her long twisting hair.

Eve sins in multiple ways – by disobeying God and rejecting divine authority, going her own way, and in seeking the wisdom of the male Gods – implying that all the evil, death, and suffering in the world comes from disobeying your master.  Naïve woman is blamed for the Fall, a typical psychological projection onto a convenient scapegoat.

At some point Lilith became entwined with Eve in the minds of the early Christian commentators.  Instead of a masculine Satan being culpable for Eve’s ruin, Lilith is associated with the snake in Genesis 3 – a female demon who tempts Eve into rebellion.  Even John Milton alludes to the “snake witch” in Paradise Lost.  Thereafter, the gullible Eve is portrayed as a calculating, evil, seductress, and the source of man’s carnal desire.

And because the first woman committed the primal sin, all females were forever to be held accountable.  For centuries they were considered subservient, lustful, untrustworthy, base, unintelligent, and sly.  Small wonder that so many of the witches executed in the Burning Times were female!

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes.  London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions.  Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 1999.

Witcombe, Christopher:  “Eve and the Identity of Women” (7) http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/7evelilith.html

Lilith and Eve: Part One

 

Lilith Dante Gabriel Rossetti

According to the Jewish Midrash’s  explanation for the two separate accounts of the Creation Story, Adam’s first wife was a woman called Lilith.  She was made of the same soil as man and therefore was his equal.  But when Adam tried to dominate Lilith she rebelled, fled the Garden of Eden, and abandoned her mate to consort with more submissive demons instead.  So God created another mate for Adam and called her Eve.

From the Sixth Century BC, Lilith was portrayed as a female demon who killed infants and threatened women in childbirth, and perhaps because of this association the scriptures began partnering Lilith with Samael (Satan), making her the Queen of Evil.  Her Hebrew name translates into “night creature,” “night monster,” “night hag,” and “screech owl” – and only the three angels Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof can protect against her wicked powers.

In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church identified Lilith (and her daughters, the Lilim) with female succubae – demons who copulate with sleeping men, causing their erotic dreams.  Contrasting with the pure, submissive, Holy Mother, Lilith was a disobedient, lustful sinner who used her sexuality to seduce and ruin men.  Her evil stems from being willful – a dangerous threat to patriarchal order and stability.

Mirrors were the direct entrance into Lilith’s realm.  Vanity allowed Lilith and her daughters to enter an unsuspecting maiden through her eyes, then lure her into all manner of wild, promiscuous behavior.

In some cultures Lilith is the wind-witch.  She brings storms, sickness, and nighttime predators.  She is bird-like – often depicted with talons and wings – and the name Lil is also associated with the Sumerian word for “wind”‘ “air,” or “storm.”

Today, however, some wiccans and occultists worship Lilith as the “first mother.”

 

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes.  London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions.  Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 1999.

Witcombe, Christopher:  “Eve and the Identity of Women” (7) http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/7evelilith.html

 

Elementary Magic

elements Shutterstock

The four elements are the basic substances that make up life on this planet. They were classified by the Ancient Greeks as Fire, Air, Earth and Water.  This categorization influenced European thought well into the Renaissance period, and still remains important in modern magic and astrology.  For example, the twelve horoscopes are divided into Fire Signs (Aires, Leo, Sagittarius); Earth Signs (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn); Air Signs (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius); and Water Signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces).

FIRE (Ignis) is plasma matter that can manifest as both hot and dry.  Galen associated it with yellow bile and the choleric body.  It is a positive power – or a destructive influence – depending on how it is used.  Fire is also a transformer that can turn into heat, light, smoke, and ash, and is the energy that brings about change.  Magicians use fire spells to inspire drive and motivation, particularly in the pursuit of passion or ambition.

AIR (Aer) – a gaseous matter – contains both wet and hot properties.  Galen believed it was related to the blood and created the sanguine body.  Air is a detaching element associated with the mind.  For this reason it is used in magic to enhance human intellectual powers and inspire creativity.

EARTH (Terra) is dry and cold, a feminine solid matter.  In Galen’s philosophy it partnered black bile and the melancholic humor.  But Earth is also a binding element, and while it can freeze, liquefy, or dry into other states, it always retains the ability to return to its natural form.  Because it represents the grounded soul, earth spells are used for guilt-free material gain, and personal happiness.

WATER (Aqua) is the cold, wet element that manifests as a liquid matter.  Galen connected water with a phlegmatic  imbalance of the humors.  This substance not only nurtures and sustains all life on the planet but it also contains magnetic properties.  It is a mystical element used by practitioners for communing with divine spirits.

 Aristotle studied the heavens and decided to add a fifth element he named Aether.  His concept of ETHER sounds like stardust – the substance beyond the material world that is heavenly and unchangeable.  Some modern magicians believe this is the stuff from which all magic is made – that spells function by directing the energy in our own bodies to manipulate the flow of Ether as it swirls about the universe.

Perhaps Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock song is right in claiming:

“We are stardust

Billion year old carbon” . . . 

Sources:

Rees, Matthew. “A Metaphysical Theory of Magic” at http://www.sabledrake.com/2000a/metaphysical_magic.htm

“Fire, Water, Air, Earth” at http://www.spiritualknowledge.net

Wikipedia: “Classical Elements” and various Wiccan, Pagan, and Magic websites.

Photo: Shutterstock

Olde English Sherry Trifle

Trifle

This traditional Sherry Trifle is intended for adults.  For a non-alcoholic version omit the sherry.  Another adaptation can be made by leaving out the jelly / Jello layer.  They all taste fabulous!

Ingredients

1 family-size raspberry jam Swiss-roll cake

1 sherry glass of sweet sherry

1 pint of raspberry jelly / Jello (made from blocks or powder)

1/2 Ib (one small punnet or tub) fresh raspberries

1 pint of homemade vanilla custard (or Bird’s instant custard powder mix)

1 pint heavy or whipping cream

Chopped nuts, candied fruit slices, chocolate flakes, or ice-cream sprinkles for decoration

Method

1. Mix up the jelly / Jello and leave to cool in a jug.

2. Make the custard and  cool in a pan away from the stove.

3. Line a large glass bowl with the halved slices of the Swiss-roll cake.

4. Pour the sherry evenly over the sponge.

5. Wash the fresh raspberries and add on the top of the cake.

6. Pour the cooled jelly /Jello over the fruit and sponge.  Place in the refrigerator to set.

7.  When the custard is cold carefully remove the skin from the top and discard.  Spoon the custard onto the chilled jelly mix and spread evenly over the top.  Chill in the refrigerator for about one hour.

8. Whip the cream into peaks.  Spoon onto the  cold custard layer.  Using a fork, spread the topping evenly in a pleasing design.

9. Decorate with the nuts, fruit slices, chocolate flakes, or ice-cream sprinkles.

10. Keep the in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

The Wizard’s Wand

wood wand

The  Harry Potter book series made magic wands the must-have addition for any aspiring wizard.  But what exactly are they? Do they work?  And if so, how?

In J.K. Rowling’s world, wands are mystical tools made from a wide variety of wood.  At the core is a magical talisman from some mythical creature such as a phoenix feather, dragon heartstring, or unicorn hair.  And as Hermione tells Harry, you do not choose the wand – the wand chooses you.  Rowling’s sticks contain supernatural powers that assist the youngsters in casting various spells, and seem inspired by a few elements from European folklore and a good deal of literary license!

Traditionally, the wand was associated with wizard’s staff and the monarch’s scepter, and may have first originated as a phallic symbol.  It has also been suggested it derived from the shaman’s drumming sticks, which were widely used as pointers in magical ceremonies.  The first literary reference appeared in Homer, when Circe used a wand to turn Odysseus’ men into wild pigs.

But how do the facts differ from the fiction?

* Wands are usually made from wood, but they can also be made of stone or metal depending on the type of spell required.  For example, copper wands are used in healing.

* These rods are tools used to focus the power of the wizard but they do not work magic by themselves.  They guide and direct human energy to the proper, desired place.

* Wands are associated with the element of air (and sometimes fire).

* Spirals are sometimes incorporated into their design to represent the beginning and end of everything.  They also create a vortex that harnesses energy.

* Each wand is unique.  They are quasi-sentient – inanimate objects with animate characteristics.

* They can be used for protection, empowerment, healing, and love spells.

* Beginners should use flexible wands made from ash or willow.  Experts may graduate to hard woods like ebony and oak.

* Wands need to be cleansed on a regular basis to keep their energy strong and pure.

* They can be recharged in sunlight or full moonlight.

* Power builds up in the handle and is released through the tip.

* Whatever you send out to others comes back three times stronger – therefore a magician should always send out blessings instead of curses!

 But do they actually work?  You tell me . . .

Sources:

“Wand” – Wikipedia.  Accessed 4/2/2015.

http://www.magicwandsofwizardry.com.  Accessed 4/2/2015.

Kit’s Crit: The Daylight Gate (Jeanette Winterson)

Winterson

Starting from the assumption that Jacobean Lancashire was a rebel Catholic stronghold in a Protestant country, Jeanette Winterson’s version of the most famous English witch trials is quite unlike any other.  The Daylight Gate is a novella – not the hefty Victorian saga first told by Harrison Ainsworth – and it often strays away from the recorded historical facts.  Indeed, this book examines witchcraft and Catholicism as “matters treasonable and diabolical” in an impressionistic, modernist manner, which culminates in a broody tale where events appear blurred by the mists of time.

 Winterson takes a lot of poetic license with the facts as they are recorded in the trial documents, inventing new players, and placing famous people of that era in implausible situations.  Her Alice Nutter – the central character she admits is not true to the actual historical figure – is lured into witchcraft, knows William Shakespeare and the magician John Dee, appears younger than the matron who was actually executed, and is bisexual. Yet at the same time Justice Roger Nowell, who led the puritanical crusade against the local cunning folk, gets painted in an unexpectedly sympathetic light.

However, Winterson’s rough characters and brutal situations are credible for that time, area, and circumstance.  And she deftly strips away the romanticism found in some of the earlier novels based on these same events.  I particularly admire her intelligent justification for the motives and causes behind the three remaining puzzles: Why was a gentlewoman of Mistress Nutter’s rank convicted alongside the common poor?  Why did nine-year-old Jennet Device betray her entire family?  And why did some of the accused willingly confess to diabolical crimes?  Winterson has obviously considered these questions and reached her own conclusions about the excitement, hysteria, and sexual opportunities that open up during a witch hunt.  And while she does not dwell on the misogynist drive that fuelled men like Nowell, she does address the other power imbalances associated with gender, wealth, and rank.

I appreciate Winterson’s sparse, poetic technique that functions like a series of flashbacks to a dangerous, incomprehensible era that was ripe with suspicion and superstition – a place where poor women did what was necessary to survive.  Because they had no control over the real world they “must get what power they can in theirs,” though this is not a feel-good fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after.

If you like intensity, and are open to magical realism, The Daylight Gate is an interesting introduction to the Pendle Witches.  But it is ultimately more of a literary horror story than a traditional historical fiction.

The Goddess Within

 goddess

When they thought us wicked, we were really wise

In the Burning Times of world despise,

They named us as tricksters, blamed things dark and worse,

Called cunning and wile a demon’s curse.

Heaven and the Underworld, summoned at will,

Crept on cat-paws to nurture or thrill,

Reading vain futures – balancing humors –

Attending births and healing tumors.

Folklore has always survived the Dark Ages . . .

They’ll never destroy the timeless Sages.

 

 

Comfits: Before There Were Jellybeans . . .

In the time before Jellybeans and Fruit Pastilles there were Comfits, a delicious confectionary also known as Sugar Plums.  Comfits took several weeks of painstaking dedication to make, and were often a good cook’s most closely-guarded secret.  There are several modern recipes for Sugar Plums – but here is an original version for those with the perseverance.  Your patience will be sweetly rewarded!

Ingredients

Damson plums

Sugar

 Comfits George Flegel

Method

  1. Wash the plums and remove their stones.
  2. Sprinkle the base of a large cauldron or cooking pot with sugar. Arrange the fruit in layers, covering each layer with a good coating of sugar.
  3. Press down the fruit with a wooden spoon. Place on the lowest heat on a stovetop (or at the edge of the fireplace) until the sugar dissolves without burning. Remove from the heat.
  4. Cover with a lid to protect from insects. Leave undisturbed in the cool larder (not refrigerator) until the juice turns into syrup. This may take up to a week, depending on the outside air temperature.
  5. Bring the fruit to the boil for one minute, then immediately transfer it to an earthenware pot. Cover tightly. Place back inside a cool larder for an additional week.
  6. Roll each plum individually in sugar and place on a baking tray. Cover and leave overnight.
  7. Repeat the process with each damson daily, for one week, until the fruit has absorbed as much sugar as possible.
  8. On the eighth day cook for 30 minutes on the lowest oven setting possible, to dry out any remaining juice.
  9. Again coat each plum with sugar and leave overnight.
  10. Repeat the 30-minute baking and sugaring process above for three-to-five additional days, until all the plums are completely crisp.
  11. Store in a glass jar with an airtight lid.
  12. Enjoy a delicious taste of the past!

 

Nature’s Vampires: 25 Things You Need To Know About Leeches

Sucking_leech

I read recently that leeches are still being used in plastic and micro surgery.  Their first reported use appears in Sanskrit writings that date back 2,500 years.  Here are 25 facts that you probably didn’t (ever want to) know:

1.  The Ancient Greeks adopted the practice of leeching to balance the four humors in Galen’s theory of the human body.

2.  The majority of leeches live in fresh water, although there are a few marine varieties too.

3.  They have suckers on each end of their bodies.

4.  Leeches are hermaphrodites.

5.  Most species have a 3-bladed jaw that slices through the skin of the host.

6.  Hirudo Medicinalis – medical leeches – have three jaws with approximately 100 sharp teeth at the rim.

7.   They store blood up to 5 times their body mass.

8.  Medical leeches only need to feed twice a year because they have a super-slow digestive system.

9.  The European variety were so popular in the 19th Century that they actually became endangered.

10. Leeches attach themselves to feed, but fall off naturally to digest the host’s blood once they are bloated.

11.They feed between 20 minutes – 2 hours.

12. The safest way to remove these parasites is by using a blunt object to break the seal of their suckers.

13. If they are shocked from the host they regurgitate their stomach contents, which often causes infection in the bite.

14. Leech saliva makes wounds bleed more readily.

15. The anticoagulant in their spit is called hirudin.

16. Leech bites generally don’t hurt because they also release an anesthetic when they penetrate the skin.

17. Wounds itch as they heal.

18. Leeches come in brown, black, and dark green colors.

19. They vary from 1″ (2.5 cm) – 12″ (30cm) in length.

20. Leeches lay eggs in cocoons.

21. In cold or dry spells they hibernate by burying themselves in the mud until conditions improve.

22.  They have poor vision, but a highly-developed response to touch and vibration.

23 Many species are nocturnal.

24. Rainforest leeches are not aquatic.   They thrive in vegetation and feed of warm-bodied hosts.

25. The use of leeches in US medical procedures was FDA approved in 2004.

In leech-rich areas these tiny vampires will drop from their hiding places and inch towards you like something from a horror movie . . .

and the thought of plastic surgery drops even further down my to-do list!

Kit’s Crit: Magic In Western Culture (Brian P. Copenhaver)

Copenhaver

Magic In Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015)

Brian Copenhaver’s Magic In Western Culture traces occult beliefs From Antiquity to the Enlightenment.  His study starts in Ancient Iran, Greece, and Rome, and moves through the early Christian Church to the influential thinkers of the Renaissance.  Magic is treated as a tradition that derives from classical philosophy, as Copenhaver examines why European intellectuals “repudiate magic in the Enlightenment, after having previously accepted it for more than two millennia” (xiii).

Copenhaver suggests that before the Enlightenment most educated Western people believed in magic – a tradition handed down from Herodotus.  But the early Catholic Church claimed any supernatural activity in The Bible was the result of divine miracles (not earthly magic), which created little problem until Thomas Aquinas insisted that if there were heavenly angels there must also be hell’s counterparts – demons.  Thereafter, devils were seen as tempting the faithful with magic powers and turning them into witches.   This belief persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond.

As more medical advances were made, traditional magic was superseded by new therapies – regimen, pharmacy, and surgery.  Doctors of Physic practiced a natural philosophy whereby physical treatment (not ritual or religious) aimed to produce the correct mix of humors in the body.

During the Renaissance, natural philosophy gradually gave way to mechanical science, particularly after the invention of the telescope and microscope.  Men like Descartes favored reason, method, and metaphysics over occultism, but this was not a clear-cut process.  Isaac Newton, for example, spent much of his scientific career as an alchemist searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, and was later called “the last of the magicians” (288).  But over the centuries, magic gradually succumbed to the dual pressures of religion and science until it fell out of fashion with the European intellectuals.

Magic In Western Culture is a dense, scholarly book, lightened in part by the rich illustrations.  Copenhaver has sifted through the murky realms of early belief to piece together a well-researched, cohesive analysis of the occult tradition.  His section on Newton is particularly fascinating.  I also enjoyed the references to Shakespeare’s plays that highlight the intersection between intellectual development and common folklore.

If you have an academic or historic interest in the rise and decline of magic you will find this book an impressive read.  Highly recommended!

Olde English Raspberry Crumble

Raspberry Crumble

Ingredients

1lb fresh raspberries

2oz white sugar

1/2 pint water

8oz plain flour

pinch of salt

6oz butter

4oz brown sugar

2oz chopped walnuts

20z rolled porridge oats

knob butter or margarine

Method

1. Heat the oven to 350 / 180 / gas 4.   Grease a large baking dish with the knob of butter or margarine.

2. Wash the raspberries.  Place them in large pan.  Add the water and white sugar.  Heat gently until the water boils.

3. Stir well for two minutes.  Turn off the heat, but leave the raspberries cooking in the pan.

4. In a large mixing bowl sift the flour and add the salt.  Chop up the butter into small pieces and rub in until the crumble topping looks like large breadcrumbs.

5. Stir in the brown sugar, chopped nuts, and porridge oats.  Mix thoroughly.

6. Place the raspberries inside the greased baking dish.

7. Add the crumble topping.  Smooth out.  Press into the edges of the dish to seal the fruit mix below.

8. Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-45 minutes, until the topping is crisp and the edges turn brown.

9. Cool before serving.

This tasty dessert is great with fresh whipped cream, pouring cream, vanilla ice cream, or English custard.  The raspberries can be replaced with blackberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, rhubarb, or apples! 

Macbeth’s Weird Sisters: Reason or Treason?

A Psychological Riddle:

Were Shakespeare’s weird sisters real evil hags who seduced the newly-appointed Thane of Cawdor with ambitious promises above his station?  If so, could they have been the reason why the brave warrior Macbeth murdered King Duncan?

Points to consider:

* Superstitious Jacobeans believed in magic, and would have readily accepted that Macbeth was genuinely bewitched.  Satan was stalking the land in search of souls and his coven of witches found a good, brave man who succumbed to their temptations because he was also human.

* If you were put under a spell, you had no control over your actions.  Therefore, once Macbeth was in their power he could not prevent himself from killing the king.

* The Malleus Maleficarum claimed that wicked women have been responsible for the downfall of great men since the time of Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Macbeth was following in a long tradition of doomed heroes.

* The three sisters first approach Macbeth.  He does not initially seek them out.  This implies that Macbeth was intentionally targeted by Satan, which makes him a hapless victim of evil.

* Banquo sees the women too.  They were not just a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.

Fuseli

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

Or perhaps the witches were merely a convenient excuse?  In other words, did they exist only in the mind/s of the central character/s – as a projection of ambition and desire – or as a psychological attempt to rationalize the ultimate treason?

Points to consider:

* If Macbeth was truly a good man he would not have been so readily tempted by evil.  Satan picks targets who are easy to seduce. The witches were the excuse he used to explain away his actions.

* The ambition to be king may have been seeded in Macbeth’s mind even before the witches appeared.  It was common to come across poor wise women, gypsies, or cunning folk, who made a living from fortune telling.  After the murder they were fashionable targets to blame for the deeds that Macbeth was destined to do.

* Supernatural influences can be used to explain, excuse, and justify horrific acts on the grounds that they are outside of self control.  In the same way that mass murderers claim to hear voices that make them commit their crimes, Macbeth blames the popular scapegoat of his (and Shakespeare’s) time.

* If Macbeth was genuinely bewitched he would have killed without deliberation.  But he questions his actions, later wrestling with guilt and remorse.  Is this because he knows he has done wrong and fears being found out?

* Banquo sees the weird women and also hears their prophecies, in which case he should also fall under their power.  But he is content to let fate play out by itself and does not take part in any murders.

I have always been fascinated by Shakespeare’s skill as both a writer and early psychologist.  His audience would have accepted these characters as real supernatural influences (which means Macbeth was an innocent man duped by evil).  But the bard also knew the human mind.  In today’s psychoanalytical society we understand how criminals sometimes project their crimes onto external influences to escape from blame (in which case Macbeth would have been guilty of murder and treason).

What do you think?

Boggarts and Bogeymen

Boggart

Boggarts have terrified English country-folk for hundreds of years.  Particularly feared in Lancashire,  they were said to haunt the fields, woods, and marshes – sometimes stealing away naughty children.  The term Boggart derives from the Middle English bug meaning ghost, hobgoblin, or object of terror (OED).

According to those who have seen these spirits, Boggarts come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes they appear as ugly humans, while others have described them as beast-like creatures.  Everyone, however, seems to agree that they are hairy, strong, have strange eyes, and sometimes resemble devils.

Tradition says that if a Boggart is given a name it becomes destructive and unreasonable, rather than simply mischievous.  Perhaps for this reason these sprites are often referred to generically as The Bogeyman. 

While they have sometimes been held accountable for poltergeist activity inside the home, Lancashire Boggarts prefer the outdoors – they scare people with eerie noises, overturn farm items, sour milk and ale, lame animals, and leave behind weird hoof-prints.  They also get blamed when children or travelers go missing.

So how do you ward off Boggarts and Bogeymen?

Stay away from the places they roam, especially at night.  And hang a horseshoe over the front door of the house – or leave a pile of salt outside your bedroom.

Sweet dreams!

Horseshoe The Golden Horseshoe (William Michael Harnett)

 Sources:

Wikipedia: “Boggarts” accessed 3/28/2015

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon,1993)

Olde English Cottage Pie v. Shepherd’s Pie.

I am often asked what the difference is between Cottage Pie and Shepherd’s Pie.  They are essentially the same recipe, except for the type of meat at the base.  Shepherd’s Pie uses minced lamb, so it has always been popular in sheep farming communities.  Cattle-rearing areas generally prefer minced beef instead, to make Cottage Pie.  Both versions are nourishing but can be rather bland.  So here is my own tasty version, developed from my Great Grandmother’s recipe to spice things up.

Ingredients:

5lb potatoes

Pinch of salt

Knob of butter for greasing dish

1oz butter

2 tablespoons of milk

1lb lean minced meat (lamb or beef)

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

1 clove crushed garlic

1 finely chopped onion

3 carrots, cut into rounds

1/2 pint beef stock

6oz tomato paste

1 tablespoon mixed herbs

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4oz grated cheese

Shepherd's Pie

Method:

1.  Preheat the oven 350/ 180 /gas 4.

2.  Grease a 2-pint ovenproof dish with the knob of butter.

3.  Peel the potatoes and place in a pan of water with the pinch of salt.  Boil until soft.

4.  Heat the virgin olive oil in a large saucepan to boiling.  Add the garlic, chopped onion, and meat.  Stir until thoroughly browned.  Add the carrots.  Stir well.

5.  Slowly mix in the beef stock.  Then pour in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce.  Add the mixed herbs and stir.

6.  Reduce to a medium heat.  Cook for 20 minutes until the carrots are soft.  Remove from the stove.

7.  Drain the boiled potatoes. Mash with 1oz of butter.  Add the 2 tablespoons of milk and whisk to a creamy consistency.

8.  Place the meat mix in the ovenproof dish and spread flat.  Cover with a layer of grated cheese.

9.  Spread the mashed potato evenly over the top of the cheese, taking care to seal the edges so  that the meat will not bubble over.

10. Place the dish in the center of the oven for 20 – 30 minutes to heat through.  Brown the top layer under a high grill for 5 minutes for a crunchy topping.

Serve with fresh garden peas or sweet corn.  Enjoy!

In Search Of Evil

Devil

After recently re-reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I am again left questioning the origins of evil.  Golding takes the classical stance that there is good and bad in everyone – the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other – yet he ultimately remains pessimistic about human nature, and the fate of civilization.  Golding sides with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, suggesting that the “life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  But where does this wickedness come from?

It can be argued good and evil are human psychological concepts, projected onto outside active agents.  People need something other or outside to worship, fear, or blame — something beyond their own selves — and so they unconsciously create, and then personify, supernatural forces.  The semantic origins of God being Good and Devil being Devil supports this theory. These powers are then courted, worshipped, and offered sacrifices, in an attempt to secure individual favors.

By turning something other into the wicked outside element, communities can maintain an image of themselves as chosen or blessed.  They are then able to avoid looking too carefully at their own souls, may deny personal responsibility, and can point the finger of blame at a scapegoat: the witch, beast, devil, bogeyman, or whatever.

Over time, encounters with the supernatural have either turned into folk legends or been expanded into organized religions.  The eternal battle between good and evil was then mythologized in morality tales that showed folk how to live together in civilized societies, or served as warnings against giving in to selfish desire.

I  find myself agreeing with Golding’s conclusion that the beast dwells within us all.  As the Lord of the Flies tells Simon: “You knew, didn’t you?  I’m part of you?  Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are as they are?”

What do you think?

The Ancient Rushbearing Festival

Rushbearing

Rushbearing is an old Lancashire custom from the early Middle Ages that still survives in a few rural areas today.  It began as an annual Catholic festival to rededicate the local parish church, and soon developed into a day-long village celebration.  In olden times, the floors of churches were made of packed earth.  These were covered with rushes, herbs, and grasses to provide a sweet-smelling insulation against the cold and damp – a practice that continued until flagstones were finally installed.  One day a year, at the end of summer, or on the Saint’s Day associated with a particular church, the old rushes got swept away and new ones were put in their place.

Over time, this religious ceremony developed into a community festival that contained many carnival elements.  The rushes were harvested and dried out several weeks in advance, and then fashioned into a bee-hive decoration on the official rushbearing cart – a float also adorned with garlands and flowers.  The cart was traditionally pulled by all the young bachelors of the parish, and a village maiden chosen as the Rushbearing Queen rode on top.  The procession was often accompanied by banners, Morris Men, street performers, dancers, bands, and minstrels.

The day began with a slow progress through the crowded streets.  Those towns that do not use an official cart appointed several Rush Maidens instead, who carried a white sheet containing the new rushes.  Once they arrived at the church everyone ceremoniously helped to spread out the fresh flooring.  It was originally customary to ring the church bells, and to provide wine, ale and cake for the rushbearers – but the ceremony later developed into a day-long drunken revel, which unfortunately encouraged a lot of criminal activity.

By 1579, this festival had become so bawdy that Queen Elizabeth 1st outlawed the custom, disapproving of the drinking and frolicking taking place in local churchyards.  It was reestablished by King James 1st as part of the “diverting exercises” endorsed in his Book of Sports. 

Rushbearing can be seen each August at Newchurch-in-Pendle.  Other Lancashire towns have replaced the ceremony with similar village processions such as Club Day or Carnival Day.

Sources:

Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2007)

Wiki: “Rushbearing” Accessed on 4/6/2015

Kit’s Crit: Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

Golding

Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) tops my list of all-time favorite books!

In the wake of a nuclear war, a group of school boys are being evacuated from England when their aircraft is shot down.  The survivors land on an isolated tropical island with no adult presence.  Here,they have to fend for themselves. The children ultimately form two rival gangs and soon cross the line from civilization into savagery.

There are three main reasons why Lord of the Flies is the perfect novel.  Firstly. it is an allegory that makes readers question their moral, spiritual, anthropological, and psychological beliefs about childhood innocence.  Secondly, Golding produces a beautiful cocktail of modern and poetic language where every sentence advances the action, or reveals something important about one of the central characters. And thirdly, he incorporates mythology, magical realism, anthropological research, religion, and psychology to build up the tension with carefully crafted foreshadowing and symbolism.  This is a very tight, taut, controlled horror story full of unpredictable events, where the only relief comes right at the end.

Lord of the Flies exposes the darkness of the human condition.  It is a pessimistic examination of everything we hold sacred.  And that is why it so wonderfully terrifying.

The “Witch” Church

Newchurch

Newchurch-in-Pendle is an ancient village in the North of England, close to where several of the Lancashire Witches once lived and roamed.  It has been a religious center since Druid days, with the first Christian building appearing around 1250.  In 1544, a stone chapel was dedicated by the Bishop of Chester, possibly with the original tower.  Then a gallery was added in 1915, though the current St. Mary’s Church that stands here today has been restored and renovated many times throughout the centuries.

Graveyard (2)

The most fascinating feature is the carving on the west face of the tower (under the clock face) – a large eye said to symbolize the all-seeing Eye of God.  In earlier years though, this may have been a talisman to ward off evil from the local cunning folk who were forced by law to attend services here every Sunday.  Today, St. Mary’s is also one of the few remaining churches that still celebrates the medieval Rushbearing Festival with a special service each August.

Graveyard (1)

The graveyard contains the headstones of many old families.  The Nutter plot (dated 1694) likely contains the  descendants of Alice Nutter, one of the witches executed in 1612.  From this consecrated soil, another witch – Old Chattox – supposedly stole twelve teeth that she later traded with her rival, Old Demdike.

In later times the village funeral processions were led by two black horses, and when these were spotted coming over Nanny Maud Hill the church bells began tolling The Passing Bell.

The Bone Room opens onto the graveyard, and for many years served as the Charnel House – a place where human remains were stored.  These were skeleton parts that had either been dug up by accident, or intentionally removed to make room in a plot for fresh bodies.

St. Mary’s Church is one of two major landmarks to have outlived the old belief in magic.  The other – providing its majestic backdrop – is the famous Pendle Hill.

Hill

Sources:

Clayton, John A.  A History of Pendle Forest and the Pendle Witch Trials (Lancashire: Barrowford Press, 2007)

Stansfield, Andy. The Forest of Bowland & Pendle Hill (Devon: Halsgrove House, 2006)

“St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch in Pendle.”  Wikipedia, accessed 3/23/2015

Magic Or Medicine?

Magic Or Medicine?

Doctors / Physicians

Doctor   Hans Brock der Altere (c. 1584)

Throughout history, people have consulted doctors to diagnose and treat their ailments, but educated physicians were rare, expensive, and often dangerous. There was no understanding of how germs spread disease.  Indeed, well into the seventeenth century practitioners still followed Galen’s Greek notion that the body was made up of four humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – and when one of these fluids got out of balance the body fell sick.  Leeches and blood-letting were common practices because fevers were thought to originate from having too much blood in the body.

Barber-surgeons

Quack  Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1785)

The first barber-surgeons were monks who aided parishioners in their monasteries.  They often advocated a heavy dose of fasting and prayer to accompany their herbal remedies.

Later on, barber-surgeons  were found on battlefields tending the wounded.  In the age before anesthetics, surgery was considered a lowly occupation and these quacks performed many of the procedures that physicians refused to do, including barbaric amputations, teeth-pulling, enemas, and blood-letting for those who could not afford a physician.

Apothecaries

Apothecary

If a person knew what was wrong and merely required a cure, they could visit the apothecary.  These were early pharmacists who made medicines, salves, and potions, and also gave out advice on surgery and midwifery.  Their tonics consisted of herbs, minerals, animal parts, urine, honey, and a variety of fats.

Cunning Men and Wise Women

Cunning Folk

If you could not afford any of the above, a cure might be found with a folk-healer.  Cunning men and wise women used magic, prayer, herbal lore, and family experience to tackle the everyday ailments of the townsfolk, villagers, farmers, and their livestock.  They were cheaper than apothecaries and could be paid by trading goods instead of money.  The cunning folk also provided an array of services for specific problems that could be dealt with very discretely – contraceptive powders, abortion, love potions, impotence cures, and poisons.

Some of the more unfortunate – or unpopular – cunning folk got caught up in the witch hunts that swept across Europe throughout that period.  But when people began realizing these healers were not only useful, but necessary, new regulations appeared that differentiated between good magic and bad.  Lighter sentences were handed out – time spent in the pillory or jail – and capital punishment was only awarded to witches – those in league with demons, who conjured up devils or committed murder.

By the end of the Seventeenth Century extensive advancements had been made.  William Harvey discovered how the heart controls blood circulation in the body; Ambroise Pare made important breakthroughs for treating war wounds; Marcello Malpighi invented the microscope; and the first blood transfusions were carried out by the Royal Society in London.  But it took a great many years for these advancements to permeate throughout England.  In the meantime, the common people continued to pray and turn to the wise women for help!

 

Olde English Rice Pudding

For a deliciously creamy rice pudding, try my Great Grandmother’s version:

Ingredients

knob of butter

1 pint of full milk

2oz short grain pudding rice

2oz castor sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

pinch salt

fresh grated nutmeg

1/4 pint fresh whipping cream

rice pudding

Method

1. Heat the oven Gas 2/150 c/300 f

2. Grease a 2-pint baking dish with the knob of butter.

3. Slowly heat the milk in a large pan on the stove.  Add the rice, sugar, salt, and vanilla essence, stirring constantly until the mixture boils.

4. Pour into a greased baking dish.  Sprinkle with lots of grated nutmeg.

5. Bake 60-90 minutes until golden brown on top.

6. Remove and cool slightly.

7. Carefully peel off the skin if not required (though most people love it).  Fold in the fresh cream and stir well.

8. Serve warm with homemade raspberry, strawberry, or blackberry jam.

 For a fruitier, chewy version fold in 4oz of dried fruit (currants, raisins, or sultanas) to the pan of boiled rice before pouring into the baking dish.