Tag Archives: Celtic

“Beltane” by Ian Anderson

Image Source: YouTube

Since today is Beltane, I decided to listen to Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” on my run. Since it is the extended remastered version, it includes the song “Beltane,” appropriate for today. For today’s post, I decided to analyze the lyrics as a poem. For those who are unfamiliar, here is the text:

Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
While the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?
There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder.
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old gods getting older.
And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high
Come a Beltane.

Have you ever loved a lover of the old elastic truth?
And doted on the daughter in the ministry of youth?
Thrust your head between the breasts of the fertile innocent.
And taken up the cause of love, for the sake of argument.
Or while the kisses drop like a fall of shot
From soft lips in the rain
Come a Beltane.

Happy old new year to you and yours.
The sun’s up for one more day, to be sure.
Play it out gladly, for your card’s marked again.

Have you walked around your parks and towns so knife-edged orderly?
While the fires are burned on the hills upturned
In far-off wild country.
And felt the chill on your window sill
As the green man comes around.
With his walking cane of sweet hazel brings it crashing down.
Sends your knuckles white as the thin stick bites.
Well, it’s just your groaning pains.
Come a Beltane.

Here is a little background information on Beltane.

Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May), and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the “symbolic use of fire”. There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them. Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. Beltaine was a “spring time festival of optimism” during which “fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun”.

Wiccans use the name Beltane or Beltain for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practices from many different cultures. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic/English May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.

Source: Wikipedia)

OK, now we will look at the poem.

In the first stanza, Anderson evokes a pastoral setting that is on the threshold of seasonal change. But there is some interesting symbolism hidden in here which I feel is a reference to the Yeats’ great occult poem, “The Second Coming.” Anderson’s image of the dead leaves spinning calls to mind the gyres in Yeats’ poem, and the kestrel is a type of falcon, which strengthens the connection to the opening lines of “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

The old gods are described as getting older, possibly symbolizing the readiness for rebirth.

In the second stanza, Anderson incorporates the sexual and fertility symbolism associated with Beltane. He expresses the concept of sympathetic magic, where human sexuality and fertility is connected with the fertility of the earth.

The third stanza celebrates the dawn of the new year, and acknowledges the importance of the sun in the continuation of life.

The final stanza forms a unique bridge between the old and the modern, between the wild and the “civilized.” We are presented with images of manicured parks, of towns built in a sterile and uniform fashion. But in the far-off wild country, fires are burning and the green man is ready to strike with his cane, causing our fragile construct of a world to collapse. I see the fire as symbolic of the deep desire to reject the industrial world that we have built and return to a more stable and sustainable way of life in accordance with Nature. And the green man is the embodiment of Nature. Ultimately, if we do not change our ways, the green man will smite us and we will be forced to return to our primal state.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. If you celebrate, I hope you and yours have a very merry Beltane!

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The Kelpie

CelticKelpie

This was a short vignette included in the graphic publication, “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1953: Issue 1.” The comic actually contains two tales: “The Phantom Hand” and “The Kelpie.” Both are very good and draw on supernatural folklore of the British Isles, but the tale about the Keplie really fascinated me.

I did some research into the actual mythology and discovered that it is one of the most well-known of the Scottish water spirits.

The Kelpie is the supernatural shape-shifting water horse that haunts the rivers and streams of Scotland. It is probably one of the best known of Scottish water spirits and is often mistakenly thought to haunt lochs, which are the reserve of the Each Uisge.

The creature could take many forms and had an insatiable appetite for humans; its most common guise was that of a beautiful tame horse standing by the riverside – a tempting ride for a weary traveller. Anybody foolish enough to mount the horse – perhaps a stranger unaware of the local traditions – would find themselves in dire peril, as the horse would rear and charge headlong into the deepest part of the water, submerging with a noise like thunder to the travellers watery grave. The Kelpie was also said to warn of impending storms by wailing and howling, which would carry on through the tempest. This association with thunder – the sound its tail makes as it submerges under water – and storms, may be related to ancient worship of river and weather deities by the ancient Celts, although this is difficult to substantiate.

(Source: Mysterious Britain)

I could not help thinking about the symbolism here, how water represents the subconscious. When being lured into the regions of the subconscious mind, there is always the possibility that one can get lost there and never be able to return to the realm of ordinary consciousness. I see this as a warning for those dabbling in the mystical arts, to beware of the temptation that could lead to one’s drowning in mysteries of the unseen world.

I really love that the Hellboy series draws on myth and folklore for inspiration. The image of Hellboy sitting amid stone monoliths in England and listening to his companions recounting the tale of the Kelpie symbolizes how these early tales can be retold and continue to inspire new generations.

HellboyBPRD1953_01

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“The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats

StolenChildThis morning I read “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats. I’d read the poem in college, but it had been a while since I had last read it. The poem is a little too long to post on the blog, but you can click here to read it online.

(Note: There is a discrepancy between the online versions I found and the version in my print book edited by M. L. Rosenthal. The last line in the online versions starts with “For” but in the print version it begins with “From.” This greatly changes the meaning of the last line, in my opinion, so just consider that when reading.)

The poem is basically an allegory of the loss of childhood fantasy and imagination which seems to be told from the perspective of the faery folk. The child believes in faeries and magic, but the “real” world of adulthood is poised to steal the child away from the realm of imagination and draw the child into the world of sorrow and weeping. In addition to the basic interpretation, I recall discussions in college about how this poem could also be symbolic of Irish culture being stolen by the English, or pagan traditions being usurped by Christianity.

Structurally, the poem works like a childhood song. There is a refrain at the end of each stanza which enhances the musical feel. I would not be surprised if someone put this to music. If I didn’t have to start work soon, I would search YouTube to see if anyone has done so.

There are a couple of passages that stood out for me on this reading which I’d like to look at closer.

We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;

What I found interesting about these lines is that they invoke an image of Celtic tradition, particularly with the weaving. I almost get a sense of artists designing Celtic knots. The words also conjure imagery of pagan dances. I can envision people dancing around a May Pole, weaving their ribbons as they dance in circles around the pole.

The other passage that I found interesting is:

We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;

The first thing that struck me is that trout do not have ears, so there is no way that anyone could whisper into a trout’s ear. There are a couple possible interpretations here. First, it could be the child’s imagination creating an image of a fish with ears, but also–and this is what I find the most thought-provoking–it could symbolically represent how faeries communicate with people in our realm. I suspect that Yeats viewed faeries as beings from another dimension, and that the threshold between these dimensions is easily crossed by children. As adults, greater effort is required to cross the span between realms. But the issue arises: how do beings from different planes of reality communicate? I think that Yeats was trying to express that faeries communicate in a non-verbal manner with people in our realm, that the words are projected directly into our psyches, similar to speaking into the non-existent ears of a fish.

The more I read Yeats’ works, the more I appreciate his genius. He can be challenging, but that is a good thing when reading poetry, since the thing about poetry which I love the most is that it seeks to express that which is difficult to express in a way other than through symbols. Cheers, and thanks for reading!

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