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My local shops are already full of spooky masks, cobwebs and halloween paraphernalia. I just wanted to remind people of the ancient origins of this Celtic Festival.

Halloween or Hallowe’en is now celebrated across the world on the night of 31st October. Modern day celebrations generally involve groups of children dressed in scary costumes roaming from house to house, demanding “trick-or-treat”. Fearing the worst, intimidated householders normally hand over vast amounts of treats in the form of chocolates, sweets and candy to avoid whatever dastardly tricks may have been dreamt up by these little miscreants. The origins of these celebrations however date back thousands of years, to pagan times.

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Until 2,000 years ago, the Celts lived across the lands we now know as Britain, Ireland and northern France. Essentially a farming and agricultural people, the Pre-Christian Celtic year was determined by the growing seasons and Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Massacre of the Druids

It was believed by the Celts that on the night of 31st October, ghosts of their dead would revisit the mortal world and large bonfires were lit in each village in order to ward off any evil spirits that may also be at large. Celtic priests, known as Druids, would have led the Samhain celebrations. It would also have been the Druids who ensured that the hearth fire of each house was re-lit from the glowing embers of the sacred bonfire, in order to help protect the people and keep them warm through the forthcoming long, dark winter months.

The Romans conquered much of the Celtic tribal lands when they invaded from mainland Europe in 43 AD, and over the next four hundred years of occupation and rule, they appear to have assimilated many of their own celebrations into the existing Celtic festivals. One such example may help to explain the current Halloween tradition of ‘bobbing’ for apples. The Roman goddess of fruit and trees was known as Pomona (pictured to the right), and her symbol just happened to have been that of the apple.

As the Romans moved out of Britain in the early 5th century, so a new set of conquerors began to move in. First Saxon warriors raided England’s south and east coasts. Following these early Saxon raids, from around AD430 a host of Germanic migrants arrived in east and southeast England, including Jutes from the Jutland peninsula (modern Denmark), Angles from Angeln in southwest Jutland and the Saxons from northwest Germany. The native Celtic tribes were pushed to the northern and western extremes of Britain, to present day Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Cumbria and the Isle of Man.

In the decades that followed, Britain was also invaded by a new religion. Christian teaching and faith was arriving, spreading inwards from those northern and western extremities from the early Celtic Church, and up from Kent with the arrival of Saint Augustine from Rome in AD597. Along with the Christians arrived the Christian Festivals and amongst them “All Hallows’ Day”, also known as “All Saints Day”, a day to remember those who had died for their beliefs.

Originally celebrated on 13th May, it was Pope Gregory who had the date of the All Hallows’ feast moved to 1st November sometime in the 8th century. It is thought that in doing so, he was attempting to replace or assimilate the Celtic Samhain festival of the dead with a related but church approved celebration.

The night or evening of Samhain therefore became known as All-hallows-even then Hallow Eve, still later Hallowe’en and then of course Halloween. A special time of the year when many believe that the spirit world can make contact with the physical world, a night when magic is at its most potent.

Throughout Britain, Halloween has traditionally been celebrated by children’s games such as bobbing for apples in containers full of water, telling ghost stories and the carving of faces into hollowed-out vegetables such as swedes and turnips. These faces would usually be illuminated from within by a candle, the lanterns displayed on window sills to ward off any evil spirits. The current use of pumpkins is a relatively modern innovation imported from the United States, and we can also extend the same debt of gratitude to our friends in America for that ‘quaint’ “trick-or-treat” tradition!

Link source: http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Halloween/
Link: http://www.history.com/topics/halloween

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For 24 hours, on the last Tuesday of January, the town of Lerwick goes more than a little mad.

uphellyaa-shetland-festival“There will be no postponement for weather”. That’s a defiant boast by Shetland’s biggest fire festival, considering it’s held in mid-winter on the same latitude as southern Greenland. But it’s true: gales, sleet and snow have never yet stopped the Up Helly Aa guizers of Lerwick from burning their Viking galley – and then dancing the dawn away.

Amazing Blaze

Up Helly Aa is a lot more than a sub-arctic bonfire and booze-up. It’s a superb spectacle, a celebration of Shetland history, and a triumphant demonstration of the islanders’ skills and spirit. This northern Mardi Gras lasts just one day (and night). But it takes several thousand people 364 days to organise. Much of the preparation is in strictest secrecy. The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the ‘Guizer Jarl’, will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he’ll represent.

The Guy’s A Jarl!

The Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of his life for 12 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon.

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, over 800 heavily-disguised men (no women, thank you, we’re vikings!) form ranks in the darkened streets. They shoulder stout fencing posts, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking.

On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall. The torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed replica longship, or ‘galley’.

It takes half an hour for the Jarl’s squad of burly Vikings to drag him to the burning site, through a crowd of four or five thousand spectators.

Amazing Blazing

The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion Catherine Wheel of fire. Another rocket explodes overhead. The Jarl leaves his ship, to a crescendo of cheers. A bugle call sounds, and then the torches are hurled into the galley.

As the inferno destroys four months of painstaking work by the galley builders, the crowd sings ‘The Norseman’s Home’ – a stirring requiem that can brings tear to the eyes of the hardiest Viking.

The Procession

Tears of mirth are more likely as the night rolls on and more than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation. They’re all invited guests at what are still private parties – apart from a couple of halls where tickets are on sale to the general public.

At every hall each squad performs its ‘act’, perhaps a skit on local events, a dance display in spectacular costume, or a topical send-up of a popular TV show or pop group.

 Every guizer has a duty (as the ‘Up Helly Aa Song’ says) to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks.

The All-Nighter to End All-Nighters

It’s a fast and furious night – and a lucky guizer who arrives home with a completely clear head before 8.30am the next morning which, not surprisingly, is a public holiday. Lerwick’s a ghost town but by evening the hardier merrymakers are out dancing again, this time at the ‘Guizer’s Hop’.

The Burning Galley

That’s not the end of it, for throughout the rest of the winter each gang of guizers will hold their own ‘squad dances’ for family and friends. By early autumn, there’ll be the first meetings to arrange the next year’s performance, while at the Galley Shed in St Sunniva Street the shipwrights, carpenters and their helpers will be starting work on the new galley, not forgetting ‘the boys who made the torches’.

‘From grand old Viking centuries, Up Helly Aa has come…’ That’s what the guizers sing but in fact the festival is only just over 100 years old in its present, highly organised form. In the 19th century Up Helly Aa was often riotous. Special constables were called in to curb trigger-happy drunks firing guns in the air – and dragging a blazing tar barrel through the streets, sometimes leaving it on the doorstep of the year’s least popular worthy burgher. Today’s festival is much better behaved.

Fire, Feasting and Fancy Dress

The ingredients in the Up Helly Aa recipe go back 12 centuries and more – fire, feasting, fancy dress and, above all, fun. The torchlit procession and galley burning echo pagan Norse rituals at the cremation of great chieftains, and religious ceremonies to mark the Sun’s return after the winter solstice.

Elaborate disguise was part of prehistoric fertility rites. Mediaeval Shetland guizers were called ‘skeklers’ and wore costumes of straw. The feasting and dancing continue saga traditions from the winter drinking halls of Viking warriors, while the satirical ‘Bill’ or proclamation, lampooning local worthies and fixed to the Lerwick Market Cross on Up Helly Aa morning, has precedents in the sharp wit of the Norse skalds.

If you should miss the Lerwick Up Helly Aa (or if it gives you the taste for more of the same), don’t despair – there are another eight fire festivals in various districts of Shetland during the late winter.

And the country Up Hellies A’ do NOT ban women from being torch-bearers and guizers. Don’t mention that in Lerwick, though – where the men-only rule is a ticklish topic in these politically correct days.

The Up Helly Aa Exhibition in the Galley Shed, St Sunniva Street, Lerwick, welcomes visitors. Shetland Museum also has extensive photographic archives of the festival.

For more information please visit the dedicated Up Helly Aa website.

Rural Up Helly Aa Celebrations:

Scalloway – 13th January 2012
Nesting – 3rd February 2012
Uyeasound, Unst – 10th February 2012
Northmavine – 17th February 2012
Bressay – 24th February 2012
Cullivoe, Yell – 24th February 2012
Norwick, Unst – 25th February 2012
South Mainland – 9th March 2012
Brae – 16th March 2012

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The lights are up, Noddy Holder’s voice is ringing in your ears and you’ve already eaten all your advent chocolate in a gluttonous frenzy. Yes it’s Christmas; that time of year reserved for frantic last-minute shopping, burnt turkeys and half-drunk carols in the front room. It’s also the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, of course: and even that bears more than a passing similarity to the ancient god Mithra.
So where did some of the Christmas traditions we take for granted actually come from? The truth stretches back a lot longer than you might think. Here are ten yuletide customs born in the ancient world.

1. Christmas Trees

Our Christmas Tree We might curse the fact that we’re still picking pine needles out of our toes come spring, but the idea of decorating your house with greenery at winter goes back thousands of years. King Tut may never have seen the multicoloured mess we put up with nowadays, but he would have had date palm leaves scattered around his royal abodes on the winter solstice.Evergreens were celebrated in Egypt as a reminder that, though the winter was harsh and yielded little, spring would come just as inevitably. The palm also spawned a shoot each month, meaning that by December (as it would become known) Egyptians weilded the leaves to show that the year was over. They’d have decorated with entire forests if they ever saw a European winter.

Soon Egypt’s tree-hugging tradition spread north to Italy, during the height of the Roman Empire. Palms were substituted for firs and other native species, on which tapers would be lit and burned in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture and justice, during the notoriously raucous Saturnalia festival. The custom migrated north to Germany and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, resulting in today’s obsession.

2. Christmas Carols

 

Carol Singing Whether you enjoy strangers caterwauling on your doorstep or not, you can thank ancient pagans and their joyous celebrations of the stars. Song and dance were commonplace at the earliest stone circles of Europe: some think even Stonehenge was built with acoustics in mind.

As with the trees, special songs would be created for the winter solstice. In fact songs would be sung for each of the seasons, but the Christmas tradition stuck with the newly-created Christian faith, eager to commemorate Jesus Christ.

The first ‘proper’ Christmas carol can be dated back to ancient Rome in 129 AD, when a Roman bishop decreed that a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung during the Christmas service at Rome. Fast forward a few hundred years, and a Greek Orthodox Priest named Cosmas of Jerusalem (or Maiuma) wrote another famous hymn. Soon, the whole of Europe was singing at Christmas. Incidentally the tradition of singing to people whether they want to or not was invented some time around the 17th century. If someone had shown Cosmas he might not have bothered.

3. Santa 

 Santa ClausMillions of people still think Santa owes his current scarlet clobber to canny ad men at Coca-Cola. But it’s a belief that should have been consigned to the ‘urban myth’ bin many moons ago. The western world’s enduring image of a red-and-white-robed Santa owes more to his ancient ecclesiastical roots then a syrupy soft drink. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, an Ancient Greek town of Lycia, modern Turkey, during the 4th century AD. Popular throughout the Christian world, he’s also known as ‘Nicholas the Wonderworker’ thanks to the large number of miracles attributed to him.

Nicholas’ association with the reindeer-propelled giver of gifts we all know today stems from his propensity for leaving coins in the shoes of those who gave to him (see stockings story below). This grew into a European Catholic tradition, whereby the poor would leave their shoes in church overnight. Coins would then be donated by rich patrons in a homage to Saint Nick’s generosity. Present-hungry kids also can thank Nicholas’ status as the patron saint of children when they’re maniacally tearing open a box of badly-rendered plastic rubbish.

 The name ‘Santa Claus’, incidentally, didn’t come until the 19th century, as an evolution of the Dutch colloquialism Sinterklass. His name may have changed, but Santa still kept the ceremonial red robes of his ancient forebear. However many think the clothing may be an amalgam of Saint Nicholas’ and those of the Norman god of misrule, a red-robed character who would go about causing havoc during the winter solstice period. Santa didn’t always use reindeer to power him from house to house, either: many believe they are an evolution of the eight-legged grey horse of the Norse god Odin called Sleipnir, who could leap huge distances. Middle Ages children would leave out food for Sleipnir, a custom which continues to this day.

 4. Yule Log

  Yule LogLike most things associated with Yule, a pagan festival largely attributed to the Germanic peoples of the medieval period, the yule loge can trace its roots back through some of the world’s most successful ancient civilisations. Today the burning of the yule log has become a marginalised affair, and can be carried out pretty much any time leading up to Christmas Day. Yet the log began its life as a yuletide tradition thousands of years back, in the earliest cities of Sumer and Egypt.

Egyptians believed that the winter solstice period marked the death and rebirth of their national god Horus, the god of the sky and the sun. Thus light was shed to celebrate him, and since Egypt was about 5,000 years from electricity a log would be burned for 12 days. This tradition carried into the cities of Sumer and Mesopotamia via the winter festival of Zagmuk, and would later become one of the features of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, when a yule-style log was burned for ten days to usher in the strength of Mithra.

Saxons and Visigoths would latch onto the log as a symbol of good, or light prevailing over darkness, or evil. Ashes were prized for their supposed magical powers. Christians, most likely taking their lines from the Romans, would later adopt the log as a symbol for the light of Christ bringing the world from darkness.

5. Christmas Cards

 

Christmas cardsChristmas cards may only have come into European vogue during the 15th century (thanks to the Germans, again). But their origins go back thousands of years before, to the greetings given in Ancient Egypt via ornately decorated papyrus. Related or not, the ancient Chinese are thought to be some of the greetings card’s earliest fans, exchanging simple messages to celebrate the New Year.

The invention of printing, and the west’s popularising of card-giving, wouldn’t arrive for another 1,500 years or so. You might expect the Chinese, with their longstanding obsession with fireworks (and blowing things up in general) to have invented the Christmas cracker too. Not so: desperate London sweet-seller Tom Smith invented it as an explosive panacea to his ailing bonbon trade, in 1847.

6. Mistletoe

  When Tara from IT starts waving mistletoe at you from across the office fix023with one suggestive eye on the stationery cupboard, you can thank ancient pagans for the group email the next day. Druids, to be precise: the ancient mystics saw the herb as having magical powers thanks to its evergreenness. Amongst its miraculous characteristics – curing illness, countering poison etc – mistletoe was thought to enhance virility.

Kissing under the mistletoe may date all the way back to the ancient Greeks; no strangers to free lovin’. Traditionally, kissing beneath the magical mistletoe would ensure a couple stayed happy. It was even used as a sort of natural proposal, and hung at marital ceremonies. Saxons then took on the mantle, associating the plant with Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. Men could kiss any woman who found herself beneath a sprig of mistletoe, plucking a berry with each kiss. When the berries had all gone, the kissing was over. One suspects mistletoe was never in short supply at Saxon parties.

7. Presents

  For retailers at least, Christmas is the biggest gift of all: whether we want Oxford Street Xmasto or not (boo to those in the latter category) we’ll all be trapsing the high street in search of something we can pass off as thoughtful, with more than half an eye on our wallets. Yet as much as the world hasn’t always been obsessed with Furbies, novelty ties and shaving kits, we’ve been giving and receiving gifts since the beginnings of society. Archaeologists have found evidence of personal decoration as far back as 70,000 years ago – and French anthropologist Marcel Israel Mauss establishes social bonds which establish respect and interdependence – key to social cohesion.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and gift-giving was a key part of Saturnalia, when masters would ceremoniously be ruled over by their slaves. Gifts were also seen as an important way to keep up good spirits during the long, cold winter. Of course Christians point to the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh given to baby Jesus by the three wise men, though it’s worlds away from the capitalist scrums of today. The idea of presents being stuffed down the chimney pot may also have derived from ancient times. Germanic tribes would throw gifts onto fires as sacrifices for the gods. Thankfully my slippers stayed flame-free last year.

8. Feasting

 It wouldn’t be Christmas without unholy doses of Turkey (or Goose, or Christmas Dinnernuts), bread sauce, potatoes and, of course, the only batch of Brussels sprouts you’ll eat all year. But, like most Christmas customs, feasting to see in the day has its roots in the earliest civilisations on the planet. The Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk would traditionally involve great feasting, as the height of the winter ended, days became longer and farming could continue once more. Food was one way to usher in the sun, as was the case in Egypt with Horus – and later became part of the Saturnalia festival, a Roman middle-finger to the harsh European winter.

Goose had been used since ancient Egyptian times as the meat of choice for Winter Solsticers, a tradition which continued in Britain until the 16th century. Some credit Henry VIII with having introduced turkeys to our Christmas platters. The Spanish allegedly took on the turkey mantle from their conquered Aztec subjects, who had long domesticated the far juicier bird.

The Romans frequently ate Christmas ham, a custom still followed in many countries today, to celebrate the life of Adonis, god of rebirth and vegetation, who was killed by the tusks of a wild boar sent either by Artemis or Ares. A boar’s head is still roasted ceremonially each year at Oxford University. Though fruits, berries and spices had been used to make cakes in ancient times, the Christmas Pud we all know and love (and hate in equal measure) didn’t enter the annals of history until the 15th century.

9. Stockings

 There are no steadfast stories as to the origin of the Christmas stocking, Stockings for Allbut one apocryphal tale has stood the test of time, true or not. And unsurprisingly it comes courtesy of Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity. A poor man in Myra lost his wife, and was left to bring up his three young daughters alone. He became poor, and worried that he would not have enough money to pay any of his daughters’ dowries, as was the custom back then.

Enter Saint Nick, who, knowing the father would be too proud to accept money for his daughters, surreptitiously threw coins into his house, beside the hearth over a few nights. The family were drying their clothes by the fire at the time, so each day each daughter would wake up to receive a coin in their shoe or stockings. Some stories even say Nicholas chucked coins down the chimney; another reason why we have Santa throwing presents down the chimney nowadays.

10. The Nativity

 Pushing the boundaries of ‘ancient’ somewhat, you can thank Saint Francis of Assisi for that heart-in-mouth moment you forgot your one and only line, ‘Sorry no room’, in front of over a hundred parents armed with cameras and pitiful expressions (or was that just me?). The famous Catholic deacon set up a living tableau in memory of Christ’s birth, using the accounts in the Gospels of Luke and John, in Greccio, near Rome, in 1223.

The tradition spread fast, leading to the annual humiliation of children that occurs in nearly every school in the western world, if not more. Catholics in Spain and Latin America also celebrate Las Posadas, a ritual re-enactment of the tribulations Mary and Joseph enduring before giving birth to Jesus. This can take place on any day from the 16th to the 24th of December.

Link: http://heritage-key.com

 Happy Christmas everyone………

The Best Tours during the Festive Period
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If you find yourself gasping, “Wow, that tree’s fatter than anything else like it around here!” the chances are you’ve probably found an ancient tree

The mighty Bowthorpe Oak, near Bourne in Lincolnshire is Europe's greatest girth English Oak at a massive 42 feet Photograph: Alamy

The mighty Bowthorpe Oak, near Bourne in Lincolnshire is Europe's greatest girth English Oak at a massive 42 feet Photograph: Alamy

What is an ancient tree?  The definition varies from species to species, so a silver birch may be ancient at 150 years old, while an oak of the same age is still a baby. But if you find yourself gasping, “Wow, that tree’s fatter than anything else like it around here!” you’ve probably found one. If you’re tempted to hug it, don’t hold back – ancient trees are essential to biodiversity, providing homes to thousands of species. Hugging is also the easiest way to measure a tree’s girth, to get some clue to its age. The “British standard hug”, as defined by the Woodland Trust, is 1.5 metres (5ft) from fingertip to fingertip.

Here are a few notable specimens; you can find 80,000 more, or log your own discoveries, at ancienttreehunt.org.ukAncient Tree Hunt.

Fortingall yew, Perthshire

Estimated to be at least 3,000 years old and possibly 5,000, this is the oldest yew in Britain. In 1769 its girth was recorded as about 17 metres (55ft). Today you can see only remnants of the old plus new growth amounting to no more than two hugs – a shadow of its former glory but still remarkable. 

Bowthorpe oak, Lincolnshire

This 1,000-year-old tree stands in a field at Manthorpe, near Bourne. Its hollow trunk has been used for parties; at one point, it is claimed, three dozen people managed to stand within it.

Llangernyw yew, Conwy

Possibly more than 4,000 years old, the tree in the grounds of St Dygain’s church in Llangernyw is one of the oldest living things in Wales.

Belvoir oak, County Down

This fine oak is thought to be somewhere between 500 and 700 years old, making it probably the oldest tree in Northern Ireland. It is one of many ancient trees in Belvoir Park Forest.

Tolpuddle Martyrs’ tree, Dorset

Under this sycamore in the village of Tolpuddle in 1834, six poverty-stricken agricultural labourers formed the first trade union in Britain.

Spanish chestnuts, Croft Castle, Herefordshire

Among more than 300 veteran trees in the grounds of this castle near Leominster is an avenue of magnificent sweet chestnuts. Some of them are rumoured to have come from nuts from the wrecks of the Spanish Armada in 1592.

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/apr/09/ancient-trees

British Countryside Tour Guide
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Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark, at Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is November Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween. 

Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer’s end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as O�che Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter’s calend, or first. With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a gallimaufry of celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.

 

In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in — barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples — for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal. 

In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centers of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year.   The greatest assembly was the ‘Feast of Tara,’ focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the new year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year — not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age. 

At at all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire,  and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come. 

The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the centuries.  In the 1860s the Halloween bonfires were still so popular in Scotland that one traveler reported seeing thirty fires lighting up the hillsides all on one night, each surrounded by rings of dancing figures, a practice which continued up to the first World War. Young people and servants lit brands from the fire and ran around the fields and hedges of house and farm, while community leaders surrounded parish boundaries with a magic circle of light. Afterwards, ashes from the fires were sprinkled over the fields to protect them during the winter months — and of course, they also improved the soil. The bonfire provided an island of light within the oncoming tide of winter darkness, keeping away cold, discomfort, and evil spirits long before electricity illumined our nights. When the last flame sank down, it was time to run as fast as you could for home, raising the cry, “The black sow without a tail take the hindmost!”

Even today, bonfires light up the skies in many parts of the British Isles and Ireland at this season, although in many areas of Britain their significance has been co-opted by Guy Fawkes Day, which falls on November 5th, and commemorates an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in the 17th century. In one Devonshire village, the extraordinary sight of both men and women running through the streets with blazing tar barrels on their backs can still be seen! Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winter’s dark.

Divination at Halloween  

Samhain was a significant time for divination, perhaps even more so than May or Midsummer’s Eve, because this was the chief of the three Spirit Nights. Divination customs and games frequently featured apples and nuts from the recent harvest, and candles played an important part in adding atmosphere to the mysteries. In Scotland, a child born at Samhain was said to be gifted with an d� shealladh, “The Two Sights” commonly known as “second sight,” or clairvoyance. 

Apple Magic
At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grows an apple tree whose fruit has magical properties. Old sagas tell of heroes crossing the western sea to find this wondrous country, known in Ireland as Emhain Abhlach, (Evan Avlach) and in Britain, Avalon. At Samhain, the apple harvest is in, and old hearthside games, such as apple-bobbing, called apple-dookin’ in Scotland, reflect the journey across water to obtain the magic apple. 

Dookin’ for Apples
Place a large tub, preferably wooden, on the floor, and half fill it with water. Tumble in plenty of apples, and have one person stir them around vigorously with a long wooden spoon or rod of hazel, ash or any other sacred tree. 

Each player takes their turn kneeling on the floor, trying to capture the apples with their teeth as they go bobbing around. Each gets three tries before the next person has a go. Best to wear old clothes for this one, and have a roaring fire nearby so you can dry off while eating your prize!
If you do manage to capture an apple, you might want to keep it for a divination ritual, such as this one: 

The Apple and the Mirror
Before the stroke of midnight, sit in front of a mirror in a room lit only by one candle or the moon. Go into the silence, and ask a question. Cut the apple into nine pieces. With your back to the mirror, eat eight of the pieces, then throw the ninth over your left shoulder. Turn your head to look over the same shoulder, and you will see and in image or symbol in the mirror that will tell you your answer.

(When you look in the mirror, let your focus go “soft,” and allow the patterns made by the moon or candlelight and shadows to suggest forms, symbols and other dreamlike images that speak to your intuition.) 

Dreaming Stones
Go to a boundary stream and with closed eyes, take from the water three stones between middle finger and thumb, saying these words as each is gathered:                        

         I will lift the stone
           As Mary lifted it for her Son,
           For substance, virtue, and strength;
           May this stone be in my hand
           Till I reach my journey’s end.
 

(Scots Gaelic)
          Togaidh mise chlach,
          Mar a thog Moire da Mac,
          Air bhr�gh, air bhuaidh, ‘s air neart;
          Gun robh a chlachsa am dh�rn,
          Gus an ruig mi mo cheann uidhe.

Carry them home carefully and place them under your pillow. That night, ask for a dream that will give you guidance or a solution to a problem, and the stones will bring it for you.
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Three very different national histories are marred by their refusal to admit neighbours into the narrative, writes David Cannadine from the Financial Times.

“There are,” John Julius Norwich notes with pardonable exaggeration in his lively and engaging volume on the subject, “a thousand histories of England, ranging from the scholarly to the popular, the impartial to the tendentious, the consistently riveting to the utterly unreadable.”

The Venerable Bede was the first in the field with his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in AD731. Almost 1,200 years and much more history later, another Northumbrian, G.M. Trevelyan, produced the defining account of the national past, not only for his generation but for the next as well. Yet few histories of England have ever attained the canonical status of Bede or Trevelyan, and the best put-down to what has all too often been a formulaic, parochial and self-satisfied genre remains 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. In a bravura display of historical comedy, they unrelentingly sent up the conventional national narratives built around dates and dynasties, which categorised all people and events as either “good” or “bad”, which chronicled England’s pre-destined rise to being “top nation”, and which lamented that history came to a “full stop” when that pre-eminence was given up at the close of the first world war.

Sellar and Yeatman published their incisive masterpiece of historical hilarity in 1930 but it would be another 50 years before the no-longer-deniable decline of Britain as a great power, and the growing demands for devolution in Wales and Scotland, combined with the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, encouraged a fundamental rethink of the traditional English national narrative – a reappraisal beginning in 1984 with the Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, developed by Hugh Kearney in his “four nations” history of the British Isles, and brought to broader public attention either side of the millennium by Norman Davies in The Isles: A History and by Simon Schama in his television series History of Britain.

As they saw it, the history of England was no longer the right way to define, approach or understand the national past: instead, they urged a more complex and nuanced treatment, exploring the relations between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, recognising the constructed and contingent nature of “Britishness” and paying appropriate attention to the constant interactions between the British and continental Europe and the wider world beyond. Thus understood, the English past was merely one specific component of a much bigger history and multilayered narrative.

“We are told that Hampshire is ‘older’ than France – but what exactly does that mean, and do the French know or care?”

But if the three books under review here are any indication, English history has carried on regardless: for their authors are wholly unengaged with or unimpressed by the scholarly rethinking and upscaling of what constitutes our national past that has by now been going on for three decades and more. John Julius Norwich would shed no tears if Scotland became independent and he focuses exclusively on England because writing its history in one hundred places was just about possible, whereas dealing with Britain as a whole with the same number was not.

For Simon Jenkins, too, England is the subject of his concern. Wales, Scotland and Ireland are separate countries with separate histories, which have only occasionally connected with England: Wales was “a thorn in the side of Norman monarchs”; Scotland had an unrivalled “capacity for causing trouble” for the English; while after the Act of Union, Ireland was “a curse on British political leaders”. And although he had thought of including the histories of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Peter Ackroyd also concentrates on England, on the grounds that a broader approach would run the risk of “their seeming to become merely extensions of England” – which is exactly how he treats them anyway.

So here, once again, are three little England histories: 1066 and All That, but without the jokes. In A Short History of England, Simon Jenkins provides a brisk and confident narrative from the Saxon dawn beginning in 410 to David Cameron exactly 1,600 years later. He focuses on high politics: kings and queens, war and peace, with (as might be expected of a National Trust chairman) occasional allusions to landscape, churches and country houses. There is nothing here that is new and his account is devoid of context, analysis or explanation, falling back on such banalities as “England had a genius for opportunistic social change” and “new forces were now coming into play”. The Black Death, the “rising middle classes” of Tudor and Stuart times, and the Industrial Revolution are dismissed in little more than a few lines. The marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer is thought of more importance than the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or the Indian Mutiny. If the book has a theme, it is the growth of parliament, but this is insufficiently developed. In the conclusion, we are told on one page that no extra-parliamentary movement has ever acquired political traction but, soon after, we learn that progress in England has always been the result of social, economic and political change welling up from below. It is impossible to make sense of such contradictory signals.

Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation is not only on a larger scale than Jenkins’ brief canter across the centuries, it is also the first of a projected six-volume history of England, which will test the stamina not only of the author but also of his readers. In this opening instalment, he takes us from pre-Stonehenge times to the death of Henry VII in 1509. As with Jenkins, the narrative is built around the reigns of kings and queens, and their interminable quarrels, and even Ackroyd’s talents as a storyteller are taxed when he takes us through the Wars of the Roses, where everyone seems to have been called Henry or Edward or, alternatively, Norfolk or Suffolk, or Gloucester or Salisbury. These chapters stress chance, contingency and unintended consequences, and he interleaves them with accounts of the ordinary lives of ordinary people: religion, family, education, crime, medicine and so on. According to Ackroyd, it is in the deep continuity of ordinary people’s lives and circumstances, rather than in the chaos and confusion of royal politics and dynastic quarrels, that the essence of English history and national identity is to be found. But he offers no convincing explanation as to how or why this has been true or could be true; and he seems unaware of the fact that the job of the historian is at least as much to investigate and question identities as to support and create them.

Like Jenkins, Ackroyd adopts a traditional style of exposition, and tells us little that is new, whereas John Julius Norwich adopts a wholly novel approach, whose obvious indebtedness to Neil MacGregor’s recent History of the World in 100 Objects in no sense diminishes his own book’s interest. In A History of England in 100 Places, he takes us from Stonehenge to the Gherkin, via Offa’s Dyke, Bodiam Castle, Blenheim Palace, Ironbridge, the Albert Memorial and the National Theatre; but he also includes such unexpected places as Brick Lane Mosque in London, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the Liverpool houses in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up, and Greenham Common. In these short histories, Norwich succeeds in conveying the complex texture and endless fascination of English history in ways that elude both Jenkins and Ackroyd. He has wise things to say about, for example, the general ghastliness of medieval life and medieval monarchs, the splendours of the King James Bible (“the only world-class masterpiece ever created by a committee”), the limitations of the English educational system, and the inexcusable destruction of Dresden by the allies during the second world war (though he does harbour a particular – and unexplained – animus against Queen Anne).

Despite their differences of scale and approach, dates and names and kings and queens loom very large in all three of these books. Ackroyd takes us through English history from the Saxons to the Yorkists reign by reign; Norwich prints a list of monarchs from Offa to Elizabeth II; and Jenkins not only has his own table of English sovereigns but also adds the names of all prime ministers from Sir Robert Walpole to David Cameron, along with his choice of 100 key dates, which he regards as “the finger-posts of history”, and as “the most important turning points in the national story”.

No one would deny that names and dates, narrative and chronology, are important in our past or in that of any other nation. But as these lists serve eloquently (and inadvertently) to show, without context and explanation, so-called “finger posts” and “turning points” can be as meaningless as the names and numbers in a telephone directory. When some politicians call for a “return” to history taught around kings and queens, they need to be reminded that such calls have repeatedly been made for the best part of a century, and that all too often, the cult of names and dates can be a substitute for teaching or learning history, rather than opening up the real thing itself.

In addition to their excessive stress on kings and queens, all three authors go too far in asserting the singular importance and identity of England. Ackroyd tells us that Hampshire is “older” than France (but what exactly does that mean, and do the French know or care?). Jenkins insists that England’s history is “the most consistently eventful of any nation on earth” (he does not seem to have heard of China or Iran). And while writing his book, Norwich was constantly struck by “how unlike the English are to any of their neighbours” (though most of their neighbours would probably say the same thing about themselves).

But while these claims to exceptionalism seem overstated and, indeed, inappropriate to the middle-ranking European power that Britain has for several decades been, all three authors are to be congratulated for offering relatively even-handed accounts of the national past, and for avoiding the sort of cheerleading propaganda that some politicians are also again urging. Each of these books describes extraordinary achievements and (on occasions) admirable and exemplary lives. But they also describe poverty and suffering, cruelty and destruction, duplicity and aggression on a scale that calls to mind what is happening in the most impoverished and war-ravaged parts of the world today.

By focusing as they do so specifically on the history of England, all three authors are in ignorant or deliberate denial of a generation’s scholarship that has done so much to make us aware of the many and more complex interactions between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, between Britain and France, Scandinavia and Germany, and between Britain and the wider world beyond. A national narrative that gives no more than walk-on parts to the rest of the British Isles, to continental Europe, to the British Empire, and to those places that were never coloured red, is in too many ways a contradiction in terms.

Little England has always been part of a bigger world and, for good or ill, English history has taken place in many parts of the globe beyond its boundaries and its shores. It was Rudyard Kipling (among other things the author of a distinctly tendentious national history) who once inquired: “What do they know of England who only England know?” As these three books inadvertently make plain, there are two very different answers to that question. The first is “a considerable amount”. But the second is “not nearly enough”.

Sir David Cannadine is Dodge professor of history at Princeton University. His ‘The Right Kind of History’, co-authored with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, is published in November by Palgrave Macmillan

Foundation: The History of England, Volume 1, by Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, RRP£25, 352 pages

A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins, Profile, RRP£25, 384 pages

A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin, by John Julius Norwich, John Murray, RRP£25, 512 pages

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Archaeologists searching for King Arthur’s round table have found a “circular feature” beneath the historic King’s Knot in Stirling.

The King's Knot in the grounds of Stirling Castle

The King's Knot in the grounds of Stirling Castle

The King’s Knot, a geometrical earthwork in the former royal gardens below Stirling Castle, has been shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years.

Though the Knot as it appears today dates from the 1620s, its flat-topped central mound is thought to be much older.

Writers going back more than six centuries have linked the landmark to the legend of King Arthur.

Archaeologists from Glasgow University, working with the Stirling Local History Society and Stirling Field and Archaeological Society, conducted the first ever non-invasive survey of the site in May and June in a bid to uncover some of its secrets.

Their findings were show there was indeed a round feature on the site that pre-dates the visible earthworks.

Historian John Harrison, chair of the SLHS, who initiated the project, said: “Archaeologists using remote-sensing geophysics, have located remains of a circular ditch and other earth works beneath the King’s Knot.

“The finds show that the present mound was created on an older site and throws new light on a tradition that King Arthur’s Round Table was located in this vicinity.”

Stories have been told about the curious geometrical mound for hundreds of years — including that it was the Round Table where King Arthur gathered his knights.

Around 1375 the Scots poet John Barbour said that “the round table” was south of Stirling Castle, and in 1478 William of Worcester told how “King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle”.

Sir David Lindsay, the 16th century Scottish writer, added to the legend in 1529 when he said that Stirling Castle was home of the “Chapell-royall, park, and Tabyll Round”.

It has also been suggested the site is partly Iron Age or medieval, or was used as a Roman fort.

Extensive work on the royal gardens was carried out in the early 17th century for Charles I, when the mound is thought to have taken its current form.

The first known record of the site being called the King’s Knot is from 1767, by which time it was being leased for pasture.

Locals refer to the grassy earthworks as the “cup and saucer”, but aerial photographs taken in 1980 showed three concentric ditches beneath and around the King’s Knot mound, suggesting an earthwork monument had preceded it.

The new survey — funded by Historic Scotland and Stirling City Heritage Trust — used the latest scientific techniques to showing lost structures and features up to a metre below the ground.

It also revealed a series of ditches south of the main mound, as well as remains of buildings, and more recent structures, including modern drains which appear at the northern end of the gardens.

Mr Harrison, who has studied the King’s Knot for 20 years, said: “It is a mystery which the documents cannot solve, but geophysics has given us new insights.

“Of course, we cannot say that King Arthur was there, but the feature which surrounds the core of the Knot could explain the stories and beliefs that people held.”

Archaeologist Stephen Digney, who coordinated the project, said: “The area around Stirling Castle holds some of the finest medieval landscapes in Europe.

“This investigation is an exciting first step in a serious effort to explore, explain and interpret them. The results so far suggest that Scotland’s monarchs integrated an ancient feature into their garden, something we know happened in other countries too.

“We are looking forward to the next stage in September when we hope to refine some of the details.”

Dr. Kirsty Owen, Cultural Heritage Adviser at Historic Scotland, added: “The project has the potential to add to our knowledge of the landscape context of the medieval and early modern occupation of Stirling Castle.

“The ditches identified may intriguingly be part of historically documented earlier garden features, or if prehistoric in origin could add to our scant knowledge of prehistoric activity at Stirling Castle.

“We look forward to seeing the results of the next phase of investigations.”Futher work including a ground-penetrating radar survey, is now planned to take place next month to find out more.

A small display of the interim results can be seen close to the site at the Smith Museum.

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