Fairy Horses

I’m getting ready to start graduate school. I’ve been putting it off for years, but things have finally clicked into place and away I am about to go.

I received my first syllabus tonight. The first book that I have to have read (by the first class, yay grad school!) is Jane Eyre. That’s easy enough, it’s not like I haven’t already read it several times, so it will just be a matter of rereading it and giving it a more “critical” look.

One of the things I love most about this story is that Jane Eyre thinks she has a brush with a piece of folklore.

As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed, — a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].  ~ Jane Eyre Chapter 12

Jane Eyre has an encounter with a Gytrash…at least she thinks she does. In reality, this is the scene where she meets Mr. Rochester, her mysterious employer and the hero (anti-hero possibly?), for the first time.

A lot of scholars like to use this as an example of Romanticism in Bronte’s writing. But I think that a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that the Gytrash was a piece of British folklore that most people probably still regularly had encounters with and would have talked about. People were probably warned to watch out for the Gytrash as they traveled through unfamiliar countryside

The Gytrash falls into that category of spirits that haunt lonely roads and weary travelers. Usually appearing as a horse, a dog or sometimes a mule, the Gytrash can either be helpful or harmful.

Jane Eyre is not the only famous piece of literature to depict a Gytrash. The legend of a Gytrash also shows up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles nearly 60 years later.

There are many types of spirits like this that people would have been weary of meeting on a deserted country road. We’ve all heard of the Will-O-the-Wisp, which are present even in American folklore. The Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts is famous for sightings. They even come up in children’s movies these days!

Kelpies and Pukas are also similar to the Gytrash. These water horses can bring good or bad fortune to whoever they encounter. The Puka is known for showing up as a horse, a goat or a rabbit. It is usually associated with Samhain, since it was known for demanding an offering from the last harvested crops. Without the offering, they would cause trouble for the whole community. The Puka can also speak with a human voice and was known for trying to tempt people to come out of their houses at night. (The Puka is also a character in one of my favorite novels, Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. If you’re interested in British folklore this is a great book to check out).

Kelpies could appear as beautiful women who would lure men to their watery deaths. The Kelpie usually liked to eat its victims. Sometimes also appearing as a horse, it would tempt someone to get on it’s back and then ride them into a body of water where they could drown and devour their victim. One of the more famous stories of the Kelpie was about one who had convinced nine friends to get on its back. The tenth refused, but put his hand on the Kelpie’s nose. The hand became stuck there and instead of getting on the horses back as the others had done, the tenth child cut off his hand and escaped.

There are also many stories of Kelpies kidnapping women to be their wives in their watery homes which were usually at the bottom of the local loch. (As I write this, my partner is at GenCon without me. This year their guest of honor is another one of my favorite authors…Mercedes Lackey. One of Lackey’s less well-known works is The River’s Gift, a story about a Kelpie. I also recommend this book).

These types of creatures are also related to the Mari Lwyd. The Mari Lwyd or the Grey Mare is a Welsh tradition. Men would carry a horses skull (usually made out of wood or cardboard), decked out in a white sheet (that disguised the man carrying it), ribbons, and a hinged jaw that could snap at people door to door as they wassailed the new year in. Unlike England, where the focus of the wassail ritual was on the birds and the crops, the Welsh focused on the Mari Lwyd, which was a tradition that connects back to the goddess Rhiannon.

We meet Rhiannon in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is an underworld woman who appears to the hero Pwyll on top of a fairy mound riding a horse. After they are married (which is a long story in and of itself), she is accused of eating her newborn son. In recompense she has to bear men on her back like a horse and tell them what she has done.

The penance that was put on her was as follows: she was to stay at the court of Arbeth for the duration of seven years. There was a mounting-block by the gate. She had to sit beside it every day telling anyone coming by the whole story (of those she supposed did not know it) and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried, to be carried on her back to the court. But only rarely did anyone allow the carrying. In this way she passed the next part of the year.

~ From the third part of the First Branch of the Mabinogion

And while Rhiannon’s son is eventually returned and all is well, it seems as though Rhiannon has to go through her own initiation to lose her underworld nature and does so in this way.

Rhiannon is also usually known for embodying an example of the idea of Celtic sovereignty. Rhiannon represents the land, Pwyll has to marry her to have the right to rule over the land. The book Women of the Celts discusses this idea at length if you’re interested in that.

Rhiannon Alan Lee Illustration, 1984

Rhiannon
Alan Lee
Illustration, 1984

In general, these horse spirits seem to be tied into the land. They either haunt travelers who are in their territory, or they are a part of the rituals of the harvest and the turning of the Wheel. Rhiannon is a goddess that is a big part of my own work. I love that the mythology of the original horse goddess still remains present in a great deal of folklore and literature. I don’t know what I would do if I were to meet a Gytrash or a Puka on the road. They are seductive creatures and even though I know better, even I might be tempted to see where one would lead me…

Other Readings:

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self

Rebellion of the Queen

The Wedding of Sir Gawain & Dame Ragnell

The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty as Warrior: Boudicca and the Death of a Druid Prince

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And another Yule has passed…

I hope this finds everyone well and that you all survived the holiday madness. Here was this year’s Wassail. It turned out pretty tasty…

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Today was my 27th birthday and as I enter into my Saturn Return, I can only hope the peace of these last few days will remain throughout the year. If not, at least that means some interesting blog posts for all of you reading this…

New Orleans has some fabulous Holiday traditions, I’ll leave you with my friend’s blog The Yuletide Joy of Unregulated Pyrotechnics, which more than adequately explains my favorite one. Those Cajuns don’t do anything half-way…

Yule and holiday blessings a little late from down here in New Orleans! And a very Happy New Year!

Wassail!

I’m reposting this from my Pagan Household column because I think you all will enjoy it as well.

Happy Holidays!

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve had a hard week. So I’ve decided to turn my mind to the things I am looking forward to about the upcoming holidays. And one of the things that I like best about Yule is Wassail.

For those of you who are not familiar with this delicious Yule treat, Wassail is an old Saxon tradition. The word breaks down to ‘Waes Hail’ or ‘Good Health,’ and it was traditional to drink to the ‘good health’ of the village for the year. The young men of the village would go door to door on Yule singing a Wassail song. Each household would give them silver to “pay” the young men to drink for the good health of the household and their fields for the new year. This is where caroling comes from, and in many small towns in England, this old tradition is still carried on to this day. (Bobbing for apples probably came from the wassail tradition as well).

Wassail is a hot punch that brings comfort and cheer, though I wouldn’t recommend it for the children. (Unless of course, you want your children to sleep very soundly that night. In all honesty, you can make this completely alcohol free, though traditionally the alcohol is an important component, ritually and practically).

Wassail Recipe –

2 apples

2 pears

cloves

1 gallon local cider

1 or 2 bottles ale (whatever brand you prefer, I like to use locally brewed)

A fifth of brandy (again, whichever brand you prefer)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon nutmeg

First you should clove your apples and pears. All you need to do for this is to take your apples and pears and spear them with cloves all over. Some people do it in orderly rows  or patterns (we’re not that picky in my household). When the fruit is liberally stuck with cloves, set them aside until later.

Next you must mull your cider. To mull, pour a jug of cider into a large stock pot and heat it until it’s almost boiling. When it’s almost boiling, you add in one or two bottles of ale and a fifth of your preferred brandy. The amount of each alcohol can vary, depending on how strong you like your Wassail.

After this mixture has heated back to almost boiling, add in your cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The amounts of these are again a matter of taste, I would start with a teaspoon each and then taste and see how you feel about it. After you add in your spices, drop in the cloved apples and pears. Gently stir at a constant temperature for about five minutes.

Serve and keep it warm for as long as people want to keep drinking it. (I’ve seen people put it in a Crockpot and set it on low if your event or party is lasting for a while).

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After making your Wassail, make sure everyone has a glass and raise a Bragi Toast, which is an old Viking tradition. Make vows for the things that you plan to do in the new year. Traditionally people standing in a circle would make a vow and take a drink, one after another until the Wassail was all gone. This is where our modern New Year’s Resolutions come from.

Don’t be surprised if you become tipsy enough to vow to invade Iceland. (Gotta watch out for that one…)

You could also sing a Wassailing song or two…

Old Apple tree, old apple tree;

We’ve come to wassail thee;

To bear and to bow apples enow;

Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;

Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.

Or…

http://youtu.be/6vwwEmQmSWs

Hopefully the Wassail will remind you, like it does me, of all the things we have in our lives that make them wonderful. And when the Joulupukki comes for your leftovers on Yule night, he will be just as pleased and leave even more presents under the Yule tree.

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