How will you spend your New Year's Eve? There are many customs around the world to mark how we say goodbye to the old year, and welcome the new. I’m delighted that this year I’ll be spending the evening with my two granddaughters aged 9 and 10 – just the right age for a little magic and well-wishing, which is often a part of old folk traditions for this season.
We’ll eat twelve grapes each, solemnly, one to sweeten each month of the coming year, as they do in Spain. Then I’ll suggest they write down their aspirations for the year ahead (resolutions sounds rather prim and old-fashioned!) But I also plan to do something more specifically ‘Circle of Nine’ with them. For this, I’ve purchased a supply of floating candles, and I’ll put a wide, shallow bowl of water ready in a lantern-lit summer house in the garden.
Nine Floating Candles
Each of the three of us will have three candles to float and light. We might make our mark on each, perhaps with a coloured pen.
One by one, we will put in our first candle, and light it. When all three are floating, we’ll remember the year that has past and the best of all the things that it brought us.
Then we’ll each float and light our second candle. Now we’ll make a special, secret wish for the year ahead.
Finally, we’ll add our third candles. This time, we will think of the people who we love, and wish them all well in the year to come.
Thus we’ll have nine candles floating together in a bowl, nine flames which may dance around each other and create their own patterns in the water.
You’re welcome to adopt this practice too! And of course, it may need some re-jigging to get the numbers right, if you’d like to create a Circle of Nine. It’s quite possible to do it on your own, finding three particular memories, wishes and people to honour.
My Queen of the Night tulips are coming out. These dark purple-red blooms have such a mysterious look to them. You could almost disappear into the deep darkness at their centre, made more enticing by the gleaming, satin-like petals which surround it. When I discovered that there was a type of tulip called Queen of the Night, I knew had to buy some for my garden! They echo that magnificent, dangerous beauty of the archetype, which beckons us in to discover a new realm in the power of the night. This is the first year I've grown them, and I am entranced.
I've just acquired a magnificent, three-volume set of books called 'Wonderful London'. It dates from the 1920s and has a wealth of photographs of London from the late 19th century to the '20s. The joy I have in looking through the pages is finding lots of pictures of street life, rather than just the buildings and the more official face of society. So it's also a goldmine for seeing what women were up to at the time.
Here are some fine examples – the seated circle of women are ‘professional pea-shellers’! They worked at the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, and you can tell from the mountain of pea pods in front of them that they were kept busy, and had, no doubt, a good gossip as they worked.
The woman standing and looking a tad fierce is a ‘Whip Woman’. No, she didn’t whip people for reason of crime or dubious sexual play – she was the guardian of all the whips that the carters used when driving their donkey or horse carts. They had to unload their goods, and leaving a whip on the cart in the meantime would make it highly likely to be stolen. So the Whip Woman looked after everyone’s whips, for a small fee of course!
I can relate these to our Circle of Nine without too much trouble. The Pea-Podders remind me of the Weaving Mother – women who act deftly with their hands, completing nimble tasks while passing on the news and weaving friendships. The Whip Woman is an emblem of the Just Mother. Even though she may not be using the whip, she is meting out justice in keeping property safe and banishing miscreants. And if anyone should dare to challenge her, well, I think the whip would come in handy!
Yesterday a local artist came up to me in the supermarket, and said how much she was enjoying reading my book. She’s a fine sculptor, and is now inspired to make nine figures, representing the nine archetypes in the Circle of Nine. It’s a joyful moment when ‘the Nine’ spark off creativity like this.
And it also made me want to share my three special figures with you now, which I’ve chosen to represent Queen, Mother and Lady. The Queen is the Snake Goddess from Crete – she’s the latest arrival, brought back for me by a close female friend who was herself a founding member of our original ‘Circle of Nine’ group. I can see in her the three Queens combined – Beauty, with a wonderful robe, Night as Mistress of the Beasts, grasping the living serpents, and Earth with her bared breasts and chequered skirt, like the patterns of the earth itself.
The Lady is Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion, who I have equated to the Lady of Light in the book. However, she is very much Lady herself, especially in this elegant blanc-de-chine form, with her unshakeable serenity and poise.
The Mother is primitive and powerful. She is a small clay figurine from the wilds of Russia. She was given to me by researchers at a Russian folk museum, who used to spend their summers travelling into the far reaches of the forested north, finding examples of ancient toys, dolls and artefacts made in the almost unchanged folk culture there. They told me that this figure has probably been fashioned the same way now for thousands of years, back to pre-history.
I’ve placed my three in different positions in my study, so that each has her own space, and yet they relate to each other in the eternal triad, the triplicity of the feminine spirit.
Visiting the 'Votes for Women' exhibition at Killerton House this week, I was struck by how the battles fought by suffragettes a hundred years ago and more have helped to give us the freedom that many if not most of us experience today. In the late 19th and early 20th century, I could not vote for government, obtain a university degree or even, for a while, own property if I was married. That's unthinkable nowadays. So this piece, which I've included on my main website www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk, is a tribute to the movement and also to the National Trust for staging such a fine exhibition. It's on until Nov 4th 2018, so visit if you can.
Imagine a garden party being held on the lawns of a stately home, on July 26th 1910. The ladies are elegantly dressed in summer gowns or long skirts, topped with a smart hat, the men in summer boaters and suits. They stroll on the lawns, admire the roses, and chat sedately while balancing cups of tea. Surely this is the stuff of gracious living? Although a clothing stall set up near the front entrance suggests that it might be a fund-raiser too. And yes, so it is – the party is being held to raise funds for the Anti-Suffrage Movement. Put another way, to stop women getting the vote.
In which case, why are so many women present? The guest list shows plenty of Mrs and Misses. Well, the sad fact is that they too wanted to prevent women’s suffrage. It is the Anti-Suffrage Garden Party, attended by the upper ranks of Devon Society at Killerton House, including several Colonels, Drs, Revs, and a Sir and a Lady. The Acland family, who owned Killerton and were hosting the party, had a curious mix of opinions on in their ranks. A earlier member of the family, Thomas Dyke Acland, had already expressed his views on why he opposed admitting women to universities: ‘Girls are different from boys, their brains are too light, their foreheads too small, their reasoning powers too defective.’ And within the current family members, although the male side was against the idea of votes for women - you can see part of Sir Charles Thomas Acland's garden party speech in the photo below - the women were divided. While Aunt Gertrude was a staunch anti-suffrage supporter, her niece Eleanor was fiercely pro-suffrage.
Killerton House is today owned by the National Trust, and this split in the female side of the family has given an incentive for a great exhibition about the suffragette movement, and the campaign to give women the vote. You can wander round the house and see suffragette memorabilia. But what made more impact on me was the weight of anti-suffrage propaganda – board games mocking suffragettes, cruel jibes, denigration of women’s worth in society. Sometimes the pictures say it all: there’s a panel of pictures of suffragettes, which are in fact surveillance photos taken in 1914 by the security services of the day and included on the Criminal Register.
The final shocker is a map of the world, showing where and women have been given the vote. A surprising number of countries didn’t allow women to vote until the 1940s or 1960s – or even, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, until 2015. Some countries still remain blank, but maybe in many of them there is no chance to vote at all. So, fellow women, let’s be proud to use our vote if we have it, and be thankful we no longer have to fight that particular battle to take an equal place in society.
A few weeks ago, I was in East Yorkshire on a research trip with a couple of friends. It’s a long story, but in essence we were treading in the footsteps of a late friend and mentor of ours, filling in background to his life story. We’d visited the old radar station on the flatlands of Holderness, magnificently elemental and striking in their open vistas and huge, golden cornfields. We’d combed the village of Patrington, once the most important port in Yorkshire and now marooned some miles inland, but with a magnificent church to show for its former fame, steepled like a galleon. Now we were strolling through the adjoining hamlet of Winestead, where the poet Andrew Marvell was born, and old cottages dozed in the summer sunshine. It was our last call, and in the hedgerow by a dilapidated cottage that was up for sale, I noticed a strange piece of rock lying in the grass. I turned it over. It was a piece of sculpture, a beautiful lady with sleepy, mysterious eyes.
I didn’t know whether to take her or leave her. The place was abandoned, but theoretically, the hedgerow was not public. I hesitated, and left her there, driving the 25 miles back to the hotel.
The next morning I was due to drive west, to meet my husband near Ilkley. But I woke up seized with the urge to travel back east and rescue the Lady of the Hedgerow. I felt that it was no accident I had found her there and that she should come home with me. I found her as I’d left her, wrapped her gently in a cloth, and took her, a couple of days later, back to Devon.
As we arrived at our house I spied a parcel on the doorstep. It was the advance copies of The Circle of Nine, my new book about feminine archetypes. I was astonished, as I hadn’t expected these for a few weeks yet. The Lady had timed her appearance with miraculous precision. She now has a place of honour in our garden – or at least, she seems a little picky, and I move her from place to place, looking to see what suits her best. And another surprising feature emerged. With the help of knowledgeable friends and the internet, I established that she was most probably once a mermaid. It’s typical for a mermaid figure to have her hands folded on her head. She had apparently lost her tail, and surfaced in a hedgerow. Now, make of that what you will, but I doubt we will ever know her full story.
Baba Yaga in a fight with a wolf-wizard
In writing The Circle of Nine, I’ve been looking out for figures from myth and legend which align with the nine feminine archetypes that I describe in the book. One of the nine – and one of my favourites, I confess - is the Queen of the Night. She is wild, instinctive, a force of nature – she understands beasts and birds, and has a dark, powerful sexuality. A figure from Russian mythology that really does have an alliance with her, in a crone form, is Baba Yaga, the witch.
The way Baba Yaga is usually represented, and what she really is deep down, are two different things, however. She often appears in fairy tales as a cantankerous, ugly old witch who makes trouble and eats her enemies. In popular culture, she becomes a terrifying bogey-woman who threatens badly-behaved children, and you can also find her as long-nosed, evil-eyed puppet or a gruesome cartoon character.
But the really intriguing role of Baba Yaga is as an initiator. She challenges intention, blocks the way to those who are not true of heart, and can take on the role of guardian of the threshold. She stands at the border between this world and the supernatural kingdom. In this respect too, she is linked especially to initiation, and some scholars believe that she has emerged from an older goddess who played a part in male initiation rituals, taking young boys into manhood.
Baba Yaga often greets the seeker on the path with a question: ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ It’s a wonderful question - how often do we think we are doing something bold when in fact we’re running, tail between legs, to get away from a bad situation? It might pay us to ask ourselves this question if we find that we’re galloping down a path in a heedless fashion. Find the Baba Yaga in your own soul to test your resolve and inner motivation!
She is also, according to different tales, in command of fine horses who carry her across the face of the earth. And she can whistle up the four winds, and demand to know what they see as they blow around the world. Baba Yaga harnesses the forces of nature, and is herself elemental, unstoppable and ruthless in her actions.
But she respects hard work, and a true heart. She may nail the heads of her enemies to the gatepost and boil up tender mortals for her supper, but she may also come to the aid of those who are loyal, brave and diligent. Baba Yaga does not just attack and slaughter – she stands her ground to find out if a man is made of true metal, and a woman capable of patient work. Her particular feminine strength isn’t based on beauty. It may derive from wisdom, but it’s a hard, ruthless kind of wisdom that won’t allow useless sympathy or sentiment to get in the way. A man must do or die under the eye of Baba Yaga. A woman had better find the iron in her own soul and stick by her principles.
Baba Yaga’s dwelling is usually depicted as deep in the forest – a hut which stands on chicken’s feet, and revolves around its own axis – but she is also, some stories hint, the guardian of the gateway between life and death. A soldier in search of his lost love finds her home right at the end of the world:
‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it.’
Only Baba Yaga can take him across that borderland into the unknown. The soldier knows that he cannot run away. ‘If I do not find out what I want to know here, there will be nowhere else for me to go.’ he says in realisation that the moment of truth has comes. And, being a fairy tale, he is indeed reunited with his sweetheart after he enters the supernatural world of Baba Yaga and the four winds.
You can read more about the Queen of the Night in my book The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within, published by Weiser Books Sep 2018. You can also read more about Baba Yaga in Russian Magic: Living Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape (Quest Books 2009)
Baba Yaga appears in a number of fairy tales, notably Vasilisa the Fair and The Enchanted Princess.
This week, I’m going to write about three archetypal feminine figures – a witch, a goddess, and a lady of mystery. These are Baba Yaga, the fearsome, wise and enigmatic Russian witch, the Goddess Kuan Yin, spirit of healing and compassion, and a figure of stone who I recently found in a hedge and who may be part White Lady, part mermaid. At present I’m on a personal trek to explore the significance of these. I have a story to tell about each one of them, and then I’m also going to let them interact as they will, and see what dances, what images or dreams emerge. I’ll be posting on my two blogs www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk and www.circleofnine.org, and probably other sites too. As publication of The Circle of Nine approaches, I find that the work isn’t over yet – the cauldron of myth and legend, and the ever fascinating questions that they raise in our lives, is still drawing me in. Wish me luck on my journey! And I'll plan to post soon. Once I've put this up, I can't really back out, can I?
And in the meantime, here are some images to whet the appetite.
'The Company of Nine - An Ancient Template for Women's Magic' is a new blog post I've written, now up at https://singinghead.wordpress.com/. It looks at the ancient radition of nine women forming circles for divination, healing and magical practices. The evidence is often right there in the landscape. Rod Thorn, who runs the site, has included many other fascinating articles there on old magical traditions. He and I have also explored a few ancient sites together - here's a picture from a recent trip to the Nine Maidens stone circle at Belstone, on Dartmoor.