While putting together a collection of stories and poems, and exploring the past influences on the society in which I was brought up, on the east coast of Scotland, I became interested in beliefs and myths – the stories that such a society tells itself. It became apparent that there was a reciprocal shaping action of influence between a society and its stories. At the same time it also became clear that there were basic human reactions and responses that all societies shared, which expressed themselves in their “myth” in remarkably similar ways. Rational and well-educated people can be inclined to assume that their minds work according to the principles of common-sense and logic. They ignore the Stone Age, or even pre-human, attributes that sit unacknowledged inside their skulls. In this paper I will explore via poetry and discussion these aspects of the mind which are often ignored.
The Singing Ringing Tree
I am the Singing Ringing Tree.
I have my roots in your bones.
I’m the seven swans, the lucky three,
the five for silver, six for gold.
I am the strings of harp and lyre,
I am the Phoenix, the song and the fire.
Teller of Tales, Lord of the Dance,
I’m the wizard you meet
in the forest by chance.
I hold the key
to the door of the cell
where the maiden sits
and to break the spell
you must answer the riddle
I am the Singing Ringing Tree
In your looking glass you will see
the Wicked Queen, the Youngest Son
and the Fool who must make his way
in the world.
I am the jester with bell and rattle,
the goblin, the dragon, the hero in battle.
I am the beauty asleep in the palace.
I am the witch with the poisoned chalice.
Paupers and princes,
beggars and kings,
the cheats and the liars,
the pullers of springs.
I have my roots in your bones.
Lean your back against my trunk.
Place your hands upon the ground.
Put your hands flat upon the ground.
Can you feel it?
The thrum of the rhythm,
the turn of the wheel, the spinning, the weaving
the false with the real.
The Hey Diddle Diddle,
the drum and the fiddle,
the sadness, the laughter
the whatever after,
the fable, the story,
the whole Jackanory!
I am the Singing Ringing Tree
I have my roots in your bones.
It would be just as great a folly to consider a version of a folk-tale or proverb entirely divorced from its teller, his group or region as it would be to consider a flower entirely divorced from the soil and climate in which it grows (Patai:1972).
We are all influenced in the way we think or in what we believe by the land we live in and the tradition and mores of the people around us – even the most independent-minded of us – if only to the extent of how independent-minded we really are. Possibly, however, the things that affect us most powerfully are the ones of which we are least conscious.
The celebrated scientist, Lewis Wolpert writes,
Things are made difficult if Hume is correct when he says that we cannot choose what to believe, since it comes from causes affecting our thinking over which we have no control. (Wolpert 2007:94).
After looking at the way my background on the east coast of Scotland had been shaped by its geography, its history and its people, I found it interesting to try to tease out the way one’s sense of identity is affected by folklore, myths and the stories a society tells itself. I was also interested in the way that one expresses oneself in these forms.
As the River Esk flows from its source to the sea its course is shaped by the configurations of the land. It leaps, rushes or drifts to the order of changing levels. It curves, twists and meanders to accommodate the obdurate rock. I can look at the river, follow it as it gathers together threads of water from the smooth slopes of the Grampians and see how a crag forces it to run this way, not that. A gully dictates speed. Gravel and sand delineate limits and direction, easing the river into sweeping bends or nudging it into little nooks and crannies. The river must do as the land directs.
But yesterday that sandbank was a different shape. That gravel was not splitting the river into separate strands last year. Something is moving them about. Changing them.
18,000 years ago those hills were covered by thousands of feet of frozen water that scoured those hills, carved out that gully and ground down rock to gravel and sand. Over there on the opposite bank I can see where the cliff is being undercut by the torrent and on a higher level where the sandstone is being slowly sculpted, abraded by the action of sand-laden water from the spring spate. Further down-stream the speed of the current will slacken and the sand will drop to form fresh sandbanks – and the dance will re-commence.
Stone and water – water and stone.
The lighthouse sits
like a pin on the map
fixing the sea to the sky.
Points a straight finger
at white clouds
that steer ink shadows
over a wash of blue.
Two inshore hulls
quarter the field
A sea-gull stands
on the wind.
To the north,
beyond our tidy town
the shoulder of the Ness.
To the south
the shaded-in greys
of the shores of Fife.
And in between?
Stone and water.
Water and stone.
from the creep
of glaciers twelve
thousand years since.
Pebbles and jetsam
banked by the pendulum
swing of the morning’s tide,
and the soft dust
of dry sand over
at the water’s edge .
as the sun winds down
and the light
from the Bell Rock
ticks the seconds by
as the tide comes in.
Here we see a constant interplay of shape and shaping , akin to the way that there is interplay between a society and the myths that its people possess, or the myths that possess them.
Already I have summoned up two major elements that figure in the world’s mythologies – the Earth from whom all living things spring and who demands appropriate respect; and Water, the life-sustainer, the unpredictable, the ultimate protean Shape-shifter, from solid to liquid, from liquid to vapour, from tinkling brook to murderous flood, from healing spring to stinking swamp.
In the last paragraph I have demonstrated something. Look at the words, “whom”, “demands”, “respect”, “murderous”. Personification. Why? Keep that in mind.
One thing that has existed in mankind since as far back as the age of the Neanderthals, as evidenced for instance by their apparent need for the ritual of burial is the idea that there is something more than everyday experience, something transcendent or spiritual, something that leads to a wide variety of customs, beliefs and eventually to the religions of the world which, in turn, would shape the societies that adopted them.
Why? What is going on?
There are many possible answers. One, of course, is that there are things there that are not perceptible by the five senses in the everyday world; that there is a world of spirits, ghosts, bogles and brownies, of gods, or of a single deity, entities that may interact with us, help us, or destroy us. If this is so, then we should be able to have a clearer view of that world by looking first of all at how some of these beliefs or customs are simply initiated by quite natural and inherent actions of the human mind. By a delicate and careful investigation of the haystack we might at least get a glimpse of the needle.
In his book, Breaking the Spell, the philosopher, Professor Daniel C. Dennett states that:
It is high time that we subject religion as a global phenomenon to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster, calling on the best minds on the planet. Why? Because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about (Dennett 2006: 14).
He also states that “[o]ne of the surprising discoveries of modern psychology is how easy it is to be ignorant of your own ignorance” (Dennett 2006:31).
One of the reasons that we remain ignorant is not that we might have the wrong answers but that we have not asked the questions in the first place. We start off at four or five years old filling the air with “Why’s”. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why does the Tooth Fairy want my tooth?” Perhaps the world is too complicated for us to go on doing this – especially since no-one seems to know the answers.
Sometimes we simply accept what we are told or what we see – in which case we know the answers. We don’t believe the answers, which might leave room for a smidgeon of doubt. Weknow the answers.
Let me take you back to my student days. I was sharing a room in digs with an old friend – a sensible, bright young woman. It was a sunny autumn day at the beginning of term but, in those days of no central heating, it was cold. She would light our coal fire. She arranged the newspaper, the sticks and the coal, applied the lit match to the paper and went over to the window and closed the curtains. She did this because of the fact, which she knew, that if the sun shone on the flames it put the fire out. I am sure you did not know that. Perhaps you don’t have a coal fire.
The flames do indeed disappear when the sun shines on them. If you are ever near a coal fire you can try this for yourself. Just don’t put your hand near the fire.
It might not be possible to follow Professor Dennett all the way on his journey of discovery but it is interesting and enlightening to look at his approach and helpful in looking at the “why” of myth and folklore. He builds the case for a biological study of belief, citing examples of inherent human behaviours, predispositions or reactions that could lead to the constructing of what we might call “myth”.
Like many other natural wonders, the human mind is something of a bag of tricks, cobbled together over the eons by the foresightless process of evolution by natural selection. Driven by the demands of a dangerous world, it is deeply biased in favour of noticing the things that mattered most to the reproductive success of our ancestors” (Dennett 2006:107).
In other words, we have inherited from our forebears certain responses to the natural world that enhanced their chances of surviving long enough to produce heirs.
Again I want to take you back in time. Many years ago, as a young teacher in a shared flat in Edinburgh, I experienced one of his afore-mentioned inherent predispositions in action. I walked into the half-lit kitchen intending to rinse my cup. As I reached for the tap the whole house shook to a piercing shriek. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I froze. Then I saw the mouse – running along the top of the panel in front of me. The kitchen filled with excited flat-mates. Who had shrieked? Well, I have to confess, I had.
But the interesting thing was that the shriek, provoked by the mouse, arrived in my conscious mind before the realisation of “mouse”. A very fast reaction – like the hand that leaps back from a hot surface before we have time to think, “My word, that is hot. I’d better take my hand away before it is damaged.”
Now, let’s get this clear, I can handle mice – both literally and metaphorically. After all I am a good deal bigger than they are. But the reaction was not to “mouse” but to movement – movement where no movement should be. Unidentified movement. Something that triggers the response “Weird!” The chill down the back of the neck. There is fear there certainly, but it has a different character from the feeling of dangling at the end of a rope over a two hundred foot drop or the shock of just missing being mown down by a bus. There are other ingredients.
As Dennett says, an animal in the wild has, of necessity, evolved to discriminate between ordinary everyday sounds like the wind in the grass and the sounds that indicate that somebody is there – or I should say Some Body is there – a body with a mind. An agent with its own agenda. Hunter or hunted. Supper is about to be served, one way or the other. No time to hang about. An immediate response is activated. Sometimes this Good Trick can be too much of a good thing. Then we have a hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD.
He cites the dog that growls at the thud of snow falling off the roof. It could equally be the horse that shies at the paper bag. Instant – and “possibly inappropriate reaction to a not yet identified stimulus” (Dennett 2006:109).
I had been HADD.
Added to this, in more sophisticated animals there is something that Dennett, in his research on animal intelligence, refers to as “intentional stance” and which other researchers call “theory of mind“.
- they treat some other things in the world as:
a. agents with
b. limited beliefs about the world
c. specific desires
d. enough commonsense to do the rational thing given those beliefs and desires
In other words, our sophisticated animal has sensed that there is something animate there, and is aware that whatever “it” is, “it” knows what “it” wants, and will behave in a particular way to produce for “its” own benefit a satisfactory outcome. If our animal can interpret “its” thoughts and anticipate the other’s moves, this would be a handy evolutionary development that inevitably would lead to an
evolutionary arms race — with ploy and counter-ploy – – – normal humans do not have to be taught how to conceive of the world as containing lots of agents who, like themselves, have beliefs and desires, as well as beliefs and desires about the beliefs and desires of others (Dennett 2006:110-111).
Those people who are affected by autism, can display a lack of recognition of other people’s thinking, and therefore can be at a most severe handicap in terms of the ability to integrate into society. It is difficult for me to envisage the growth of human society without this inherent attribute.
Most of us who drive can identify with the picture of John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers” beating his car with a large branch because it would not do what it was told. One aspect of human belief in gods is “an instinct on a hair trigger, the disposition to attribute agency – beliefs and desires and other mental states – to anything complicated that moves” (Dennett 2006: 114).
I have seen groups of mature ladies on the bowling green bending intently forward to instruct their bowls where to go. “Left a bit! Slow down. Now!” I have seen gentlemen on the golf course telling innocent little white balls off – quite vehemently.
The moving thing doesn’t have to be all that complicated. Dennett quotes Hume:
“We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything that hurts or pleases us” (Dennett 2006: 108).
As suggested by our readiness to employ personification in language we have a tendency to attribute personhood to, or to animise, things with which we interact. Add to this the factor of intentional stance, that is to say, our ability or desire to read or anticipate their intentions and we are well on our way to attempting to influence their actions. What would please or placate them? Perhaps the car would like a new steering-wheel cover, the bowl a gentle rub down with a soft cloth, the golf-ball a little kiss.
Before long we might find ourselves presenting the car with a small totem to dangle at the windscreen, intoning a rehearsed mantra as we fire the bowl down the rink, or demonstrating a customary two-step before swinging the seven-iron. All of which, with a variety of modifications, I have witnessed. When we do this we are showing signs that we believe we have cracked the code of causality.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday I was late. In my haste I snatched my bag and black gloves and headed for the car. As I was about to drive off I realised that I had picked up two left-handed gloves. I was in a hurry and decided not to go back and change them despite the fact that it was a very cold morning.
All the traffic lights were at red. When I was in town I got a parking ticket and someone ran into the back of the car. Next time I pick up two black left-handed gloves on my way out, I will go back and change them. I have made a causal connection. Something unusual. Two misfortunes! Black – not usually good news. Left-handed! Sinister! Oooo!
That is how causality shows itself. Human beings have reason. We know about cause and effect. The only problem is that, as with the hyperactive agent detection device, we are sometimes too quick to attribute cause and effect to those events that just happen to occur one after the other. Perhaps we could call this a hyper-active causal detection device.
If there is something unusual, even just a little bit different, we are likely to remember the juxtaposition and it will be stored in the memory bank along with all the black cats, four-leaved clovers and ladders that must not be walked under.
Lewis Wolpert describes the visit of a scientist to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. He was surprised to find that a horseshoe was nailed to the wall over his desk, so he said to Bohr;
“Surely you don’t believe that horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr” Bohr replied: “I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not!” (Wolpert 2007:19).
The world is full of people who keep misfortune at bay by avoiding looking at the new moon through glass but even more so by always putting their left sock on before their right or never stirring their porridge in an anti-clockwise direction – little private discoveries that are kept close like special recipes for embrocation or cough mixture. This is the way our brains operate. We construct invisible safety harnesses for ourselves.
Life for primitive man could be very unpredictable. Crops fail. Drought and flood, famine and disease, lightning-strike or adder-bite. With man’s innate compulsion to trace cause and effect, there was every reason to suppose that Some Thing was causing every stroke of good or bad luck, and precautions had to be taken.
When we are in situations where we face danger it is useful to have someone to consult, someone who is an expert in these matters, who knows all the answers.
If I, as a witch, know the herbal remedies, the significance of the phases of the moon and the spells that will protect you from all unseen dangers, then it might be as well if you were to cross my palm with silver, and receive protection, especially on those hazardous occasions when there are gaps in time and you are most at risk.
In the gap atween
now and then,
when it’s neither
the day nor the morrow,
atween the strike
o’ the midnight bell
and the hearing o’ it
I’ll gi’e ye a red ribbon
a sprig o’ rowan
and the Good Book
In the crack
o’ the open door,
atween the Old Year
and the New,
atween the incoming
and the outgoing,
when darkness is bull-hornit 6
and the night is long
I’ll gi’e ye the cream o’ the well, 7
a red herring, and a bairn drawn at New Year
in a manger
I’ll gi’e ye a rabbit’s foot,
a cup o’ wine, some bread
to break and a wooden cross.
thrums with magic, and glimmers
with unseen winged things
that flutter in the trembling air,
and the sun steps
neither back nor forward,
in the crack
in the shell o� time
I’ll gi’e ye a bunch o’ ferns,
and three nails o’ iron
I’ll gi’e ye
a puddockstone, 13
some salt and garlic, in toad’s head
and a paternoster.
In the crack
atween the ebb and the flow
and your breath goes out
by the open door.
When I loose the knots
o’ your winding sheet,
take out the nails
from your coffin lid,
and your hands
they will come
Mischief – or harm was believed to be around “in the crack” between things, at a time of change. Protection was required.
In each italicised section I have introduced remedies which are relevant to the time or occasion – except for the midnight section where the remedies are general, for use in any potentially threatening situation. In each case I have seeded in Christian symbols.
(a hazardous interval was the period between delivery and baptism. The child was as yet unprotected from evil spirits.)
- Hansel – brings good luck to anything new – new child/ new house
- A silver coin was commonly put in the hand of the new-born by any person met on the way to or from christening. Silver has protective qualities and the action also promises future wealth.
(commonly regarded as a time for unchancy things, darkness giving rise to insecurity)
- Rowan – widely used as a charm against witchcraft, particularly when combined with red thread. Planted near house doors, hung in byres and round necks – a custom deplored by St John Chrysostom of Antioch as far back as 390AD
( winter solstice / Christmas / New Year)
- Cream of the well – the first water drawn at the New Year. Brings good fortune for the rest of the year.
- Red herring – salt-preserved herring. Presented to host when “First- Footing” at New Year, signifying future supply of fish and prosperity.
Pasque (spring equinox)
- Rabbit’s foot. Good luck – link to the hare – which was one of the popular guises for witches.
- Sun’s dance – sun was said to dance for joy on Easter Sunday
Solstice (midsummer’s eve / baptism of St John the Baptist)
- Fern – magical plant with protective qualities/ fern seeds . conferred invisibility.
- St John’s wort – commonly used in healing Three nails of iron – emblem of St John / crucifixion
Hallowmas (autumn equinox)
- Carline -last sheaf cut / corn dolly – numerous superstitions / possibly sacrifice. -carline means “witch”
- Puddockstone – magical stone/ stone in toad’s head
- Salt and garlic – both used to keep off witches/ spirits / Devil Possible connection with use as preservative
- Paternoster – Lord’s Prayer
- Doors opened to ease the way for the soul
- Knots – all knots loosened to ease passage of the soul
- Nails in coffin removed likewise. Also removal of cold iron.
In the poem the times selected are those with which custom, ritual and superstition are most commonly connected – that is to say midnight, birth, death, the two equinoxes and the two solstices.
The seasonal occasions, of course, carry with them the blurring of meaning caused by the concatenation of ancient festivals and more modern religious ones – or more accurately, the superimposing of the latter upon the former.
There are interesting differences in the certainty of definitions of this word:
from the assurance of:
It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious prejudices: they are sucked in as it were with our mother’s milk: and growing up with us at a time when they take the fastest hold and make the most lasting impressions, become so inter-woven into our very constitutions that the strongest good sense is required to disengage ourselves from them. No wonder therefore that the lower people retain them their whole lives through, since their minds are not invigorated by a liberal education, and therefore not enabled to make any efforts adequate to the occasion. Gilbert White (1788) 184 –
Credulity regarding the supernatural, irrational fear of the unknown or mysterious, misdirected reverence, a religion or practice or particular opinion based on such tendencies. Concise Oxford Dictionary (1964) –
Irrational belief usually founded on ignorance or fear and characterized by obsessive reverence for omens, charms etc. Collins English Dictionary (1986)
to the rather more cautious:
Belief, half belief, or practice of which there seems to be no rational substance. Those who use the term imply that they have certain knowledge or superior evidence for their own scientific, philosophic or religious convictions. An ambiguous word, it probably cannot be used except subjectively. Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edn.1974) 401.
The poem is intended to be, amongst other things, a recalling of the occasions when one has to deal with the “unchancy”. The inclusion of Christian symbols is a reminder that there are blurred edges between what we, who have had our minds “invigorated by a liberal education”, call superstition and some might call belief. Or it could mean that when you are led off to meet your Maker you will find that all these signifiers are irrelevant.
Poems, like myths and symbols, are seldom unambiguous.
Daniel C. Dennett (2006). Breaking the Spell (New York:Penguin).
Raphael Patai (1972). Myth and Modern Man (New Jersey:Prentice-Hall)
Lewis Wolpert (2007). Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast:the evolutionary origins of belief(London:Faber & Faber)
15 Dec 2010