Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Sign of Fire

This is a meditation for Beltane, which turned out, quite by chance, to have a Royal theme.

Beltane, as Hutton notes has long been associated with fire festivals, and lately Wicker Man burnings have been used in celebration (although without any sacrificial offerings) at Girvan, Scotland (May 1st) 2009, Portsmouth, England (May 1st) , and Kirkcudbright, Scotland (May 1st) 2005, to name but a few.

Strabo and by Caesar described the use of the Wicker Man by druids for human sacrifice. Caesar's Gallic War mentions "figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men which being set on fire, the men perish in the flames", and Strabo in his Geography mentions "a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing".

However, these accounts may be lurid propaganda - the Romans were noted for demonising their enemies in print. One must remember that the Romans accused the Carthaginians of sacrificing infants, which historians are viewing as increasingly doubtful, and accused Christians of child sacrifice, incest and cannibalism, which we know to be untrue.

In the meditation, the instruments described in the house of Dr Dee are those tools which actually belonged to him and can be seen in the British Museum. The poem about the beacons is my own adaptation of Macaulay on the Armada, and the Tilbury poem is based on the speech given by Elizabeth but rendered into verse; the story of the raising of the wind by the Tarot is an old one, but this account is my imagining of it

Enjoy your May Day!

The Sign of Fire

The mist was coming in over the waters, and I sat on the rock, in the darkness, the waves lapping around my ankles; I gazed ahead, seeing faint shapes, outlines in the dark haze, that came and went.

I hear a voice, calling softly across the sea, and I lose myself in the mist. It is hard to see anything but a dark space ahead of my eyes. The voice is that of a woman, calling softly across the waves as they ripple beneath the fog:

Beltane fires, burning bright
Take me back to yester night
To a time that I may learn
How to see, and how discern
Flaming spirits in the night
Burning fire, victory sight
Open up the gates of time
Show me now the way sublime

The House of Dr Dee

The mist clears, and I found myself looking at an old man in an simple black robe, with a small skull cap on his head. He is seated at a desk in a large library, the walls full of old books and manuscripts. Somehow, I know that I am inside a study, within the house of Dr Dee.

On the desk is an astrolabe, a short wooden wand, some papers written in a thin, spidery hand, and a dark obsidian stone, with a mirrored surface, and a candle, half-burned down. It is night, and through the window, the crescent moon shines faintly in the sky, as dark clouds blow across, obscuring its light.

The man is speaking softly to himself.

"The Queen wishes to see the shades of what may yet come to pass, and how peril may be averted. May the angelic wisdom guide me with my shew-stone, that I may see the coming dangers."
He takes up the stone, and peers at it, and chants in a tongue unknown to me, strange words that seem full of power. And as I watch, the surface of the stone clouds, so that it no longer reflects, and then, after a short span, it clears. But it is no longer reflecting the room. And he chants:

Beltane fires, burning bright
Take me back this mystic night
Let me see the burning past
Let me see the ships and mast
Show me true, and show me well
Here I summon, cast my spell
Take upon this eve to see
Danger sailing close to me

The Armada

Inside the shew stone, I see a dark moonless night, and waves rising and falling, in the midst of an immense ocean. And sailing across the sea, a vast fleet hoves into view, a great mass of ships, assembled in a tight formation, and on them flies the Spanish flag. It is the Armada, on its way to England, ready for invasion.

My line of sight changes, and I am flying over the ocean towards the land. Across the jagged rocks, up onto the hillside, where there are gathered watchers looking out. A watchman sounds an alarm, and a burning torch is plunged into the bonfire. Slowly the yellow flames begin to glow, as the fire takes hold, and soon there is a roaring flame, tongues of fire leaping high into the night sky, and glowing ashes carried higher still, caught in the updraft as the beacon blazes its warning.

I look across the land, and another hill suddenly burns brightly, as another beacon blazes its warning note. Then across the hills, one by one, the lights come on, the beacons set ablaze, the warning flame across the land. And on, and on, without a pause, they sprang from hill to hill.

And Dr Dee gazes at this sight in his shew-stone, his dark mirror, and his gaze reaches across the land, and he chants:

All night from tower to tower they sprang;
And in the valleys, with bells they rang
As flames sprang forth from hill to hill
As danger blew forth bitter chill

Till the peak blazed high on the rocky dales
Till as volcano flared the hills of Wales,
Till twelve fair counties saw blaze on lonely heigh,
Till streamed in crimson far and wide the crest of light

And I see across the sea, and English ships sail into view; they exchange cannon fire with the Spanish, but the formation holds. Then the English fleet sends forth ships alight, fire ships, into the heart of the Armada, and the formation breaks apart.


I am on a hillside, and soldiers are massed there, some on foot, some on horseback, in shining armour, with banners unfurled, the English flag waving in the wind. There were all kinds of other people present. I see many noblemen, wearing embroidered woollen tunics, fine cloaks fastened around them. And also around are peasants who had come from the fields.

Suddenly trumpet players sound a fanfare, and a lady rides up in silver armour, her red hair glowing in the sunshine, and I know it is Queen Elizabeth. She halts and addresses the crowd.

My loving people:
We have been persuaded to take heed,
But safety must give way to need;
And while treachery may be around,
I will not cower, but stand my ground;
I trust my loving people, faithful, true;
I will not shy away, the day to rue;
But under God, I come to fight,
To take upon the Spanish might
In midst of you, in heat of battle,
We will not bow like docile cattle;
To live and die amongst you all,
And if we bleed, in dust to fall:
This is the noble way I'll die,
Fierce fighting, and with battle cry.

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too!

And she takes a flaming torch handed to her by one of her knights, and tosses it into the beacon. Dry and ripe for burning, the flames crackle and take hold in an instant, and the fire burns high over the land, as she rides off with her army, to see what may be, if the threat of invasion comes to pass.

The Witch on the Shore

The sun was gleaming on the tranquil sea beside the shore, and reflecting in the rock pools. Dark seaweed lay strewn around the tide line on the sand.

And there, standing on the shore,  I saw an old woman in a white robe; she pushed back her hood, and I saw her white hair, and blue eyes. She held a leather pouch, and reached into it, and drew out one card, the Ace of Staves, then another, until she had four cards in her hand, the Two of Staves, the Three of Staves, and the Four of Staves. She held them fanned out in her hand, and waved them towards the sea in a beating motion. All at once, a breeze sprang up, and the sea, still until then, began to ripple in the breeze. And she began to chant.

Let the wind be loose, let the wind be free
Loose the cards, across the sea
Raise the wind, and raise the storm
Let the cards their shape take form

Let the wind be loose, let the wind be free
The hanged man on the broken tree
Raise the wind, and raise the wave
Gusts of wind, and beating stave

Let the wind be loose, let the wind be free
Loose the cards, let Staves be key
Raise the wind, and raise the cloud
Death is coming, with a shroud

She got out four more cards from the suit of Staves, and added them to her hand. Again she fanned them out, and stood there, beating them out to sea. Small wavelets appeared, and leaves began to rustle; the breeze grew steadily stronger, loose leaves and small twigs began to move, and out at sea the wavelets grew in size, crests of waves beginning to break, white horses on the blue sea.

Once more she reached into her bag, and brought out the rest of the suit of Staves, and began to beat the air with the cards fanned out., and small branches in the trees began to sway. The waves started to break upon the rocks, sometimes throwing up spray, and dark clouds rolled over the sky. Small trees were swaying, and soon large branches began to move. Out at sea, long foaming crests were forming, and the sea was breaking over the rocks, throwing up spray high into the air.

She began to raise and lower her cards in a strong, vigorous action, becoming faster, and now the large branches began to move, and still the wind rose. With a cracking sound, some branches broke off the trees, and the waves were high, dashing down upon the rocks, and soon very high waves began to appear, their crests overhanging, them collapsing with a crash of white foam. The sky was dark with thick clouds, and it was beginning to rain.

And on the horizon, the Spanish ships came into view, struggling to retain some semblance of formation, trying to keep in line. They rose and fell with the huge waves out at sea, the wind howling through their sails, as the storm rose to its height. The water was swirling, and the ships rose and fell; the cries of the crew, desperately trying to control their path, are lost in the shrieking gales. The wind was gusting, beating, beating, like the Staves let loose into the world, free elemental forces in the dance of life.

The old women collected the cards up, and placed them back in her pouch, and withdrew one card, and held it up against the storm. It was the Tower, struck by lighting, the fire let loose upon the world. A Greater Trump had been unleashed, and would be made manifest. Once more she chanted an incantation.

The hour has struck, the cards make clear
The time has come for fire and fear
Bolts of light, come down from sky
And see the card, and let them fly

The hour has struck, the cards make clear
The time has come for loss and tear
Bolts of light, the Tower struck
And see the card, it brings dark luck

The hour has struck, the cards make clear
The time has come, the wind will hear
Bolts of light, come with my art
And see the card, all falls apart.

A violet glow like fire appeared on the masts of the ships, and the sailors crossed themselves fearfully, muttering in Spanish that the spirit-candles had come, a sign that their ships had been cursed. Then suddenly a loud flash rent the air, as a dagger of light streaked down from the heavy clouds above, and hit the leading ship, and as it blazed, the other ships fell apart, losing all formation. A deep rumble of thunder rent the air. And so it was that the ships were scattered, some lost, some to limp around the coast of Britain and back to Spain, defeated, beaten for good.

The card was replaced in the pouch, and the old woman walked slowly up the path, away from the beach. The storm was dying down, the sea becoming calm once more. The final threat was over; the Armada had been blown away by the winds, by the fire from above, and through the dance of the staves, beating against those ships in each gust of wind.

The Burning Shore

The sun is rising, breaking through the mist, and I am back by the shore; the shades of the past have faded, returning to their time and place, and it is the start of May day. The fog lifts, and I see tide is now receding, and the beach is coming clear.

In on a raft, comes an effigy in wicker, a wicker man, drawn in by the subtle currents within the bay; it gently comes to rest upon the sand, and the waves slowly drawn back, the tide going out, and it is standing there alone.

I walk down to the wicker man, and take from my bag a brushwood torch, which I set on fire with a match. I hold it out to the wicker man, and he catches fire, and is blazing, a sign of fire in the dawn sky.

Beltane fires, burning bright
Here is now the sign of light
Remember true, remember well
When the tide did rise and swell
A virgin Queen, a golden age
Now in history's crabbed page
Tarot loosed the winds they say
Now rejoice for bright May day

I sit on rocks just above the sea line, and watch the wicker man burn. As I watch the wood burn, and crumble to ashes, I notice on the ground below me an old worn Tarot card, which I pick up. I turn it over. It is the sign of the Sun, the sign of light. And I know that Beltane will shine forth and there will be many blessings on our land.

1 comment:

Alane said...

This is a work of art and beauty.
Well done.