Stories around the fire
A little while ago some of the newspapers ran stories about the kind of questions candidates for Oxford and Cambridge universities are asked at interview. One of the cited questions was, "Why is the sea salty?" It struck me that all the model answers, whilst true, were rather dry and practical. If I was sitting in a don's study in Oxford I think I may have answered like this.
"In the time before written history all the seas were pure and the waters sweet to drink. Men and women left offerings to the Goddesses of the seas and asked permission of the spirits of the sea entertaining them with dance before they set out to fish. When they returned with the sweet fruits of the sea the young women would dance wildly in thanksgiving. Then men began to covet the riches of the sea and called upon the one God of the sky to help them conquer all they beheld. Lords declared that it was wrong to leave offerings and ask permission. They asked the teachers to tell the children that the Goddesses of the sea were mere myth. That all worship and honour was due to the one God and the earthly Lords who worshipped him. And so the offerings and dances ended, the seas were raped of their bounty and the Goddesses of the sea forgotten. But in their homes beneath the sea the Goddesses began to cry for all that had been lost and lament the foolishness of men. They cried and they cried and their tears began to turn the once sweet sea salty so that today no man can drink of the sea's waters."
Would this get me a place at Oxford? I don't know but I do know that it is just as true as the model, dry practical answers given in the papers.
It is almost Samhain and we enter the dark time of the year when we sit by the fire, tell stories, enter our hearts, and touch ancient wisdom. May I wish you every blessing for the season and leave you with my own re-telling of the first part of the old Scottish story of Bride and the Cailleach Bheara. I promise to re-tell the second part of this story come Imbolc.
At the end of October the Cailleach Bheara took captive a beautiful young woman called Bride and locked her in a room in her palace deep below the Cairngorm Mountains. She was jealous of Bride’s beauty which brought warmth and joy to the earth. The Cailleach gave Bride old torn clothing to wear and put her to menial tasks like clearing the ashes from the palace fires. The Cailleach scolded Bride and found constant fault with everything she did. Poor Bride, her life was made wretched. As she wept the trees lost the last of their leaves, flowers died, and the sun lost heart and refused to climb to the heights of the sky.
One day the Cailleach brought a filthy brown fleece to Bride and ordered her to wash it until it was as white as the snow that now covered all the dying land. All day long Bride washed and washed, her hands becoming chapped and sore. But when night fell the Cailleach scolded the girl saying, “You are foolish and incompetent, look the fleece is as dirty and as brown as when I gave it to you. In the morning you will wash it again and you will go on washing it every day until it is white.”
This made Bride even more sorrowful for it seemed as if she would be washing until the Moon no longer had the strength to complete its monthly cycle. As she grew ever more sorrowful all light was ebbing away from the world above.
Then one morning whilst Bride was washing a grey-haired old woman came to her and said, “I am Grandmother Winter, if you give me the fleece I shall wash it whiter than the snow for you.” Bride gave Grandmother Winter the fleece and she shook it to the North, to the East, to the South and to the West calling upon all the ancient grandmothers. When she had finished the fleece was as white as newly fallen snow.
Bride was filled with joy and she gave thanks to Grandmother Winter and all the ancient grandmothers. At that moment Bride’s joy and thanksgiving shook the whole world above and the sun regained heart and began her slow climb back to the heights of the sky.
Grandmother Winter then told Bride that she would return towards the end of January with a special present for Bride. True to her word, several weeks later, she came to Bride whilst she was smooring the ashes and said, “Take what I hold in my hand.” Bride reached out and took a bunch of pure white flowers. Bride’s eyes lit with happiness as she beheld their beauty. Then Grandmother Winter spoke to Bride, “If the Cailleach scolds you show her these flowers.”
Sure enough at the close of that day the Cailleach scolded Bride saying, “Will you never learn how to smoor the ashes you stupid young woman.” Then Bride showed the snow white flowers to the Cailleach. The Cailleach’s face turned grey and in anger and frustration she asked, “Where did you get these flowers?” Bride replied, “The snowdrops are now growing in the woods and the adders are beginning to stir from their long sleep.” “Bad news!” the Cailleach shouted and stormed out of the kitchen. But a new profound joy had entered Bride’s heart.