Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Blackthorn Being and Vashti's 'Great No'

It was lovely to see a froth of blackthorn blossom at the edge of our church field on Sunday. A member of the rose family, she is one of the first trees to blossom in the hedgerows after the dark of winter and so she is a powerful symbol of the determination to return to life from the frozen places. I love that her blossom appears before her leaves, which reminds me of the blackbird singing before the dawn. They both know that what they long for is coming, so why not just start singing now? “Why wait?”, they say, “open your petals, sing your song, the light is coming!”

Blackthorn, whose magic is deeply woven into the folklore of winter, is sometimes known as 'The Mother’, or ‘Dark Crone’, of the Woods and grows prolifically in the British Isles. She is often planted in boundary hedgerows as a protection due to her sharp thorns. Her folklore is equally thorny, and it was that that I sat down to write about this afternoon but, as so often happens, in the writing of it I somehow connected to a deeper ‘river beneath the river’ of what the Blackthorn Being* might want to say. As well as their stunning blossom, blackthorn also has striking deep blue/black fruits called sloes at the beginning of winter. It was when I read that the expression ‘sloe-eyed’, which refers to someone with beautiful, dark eyes, was first written of in Augusta Jane Wilson’s 1867 novel, ‘Vashti’, that the lightning struck.

Vashti is one of the little known women of the Bible, who appears only in the first chapter of the Book of Esther. I’m not sure that Augusta Evans’ novel has anything to do with the Biblical Vashti, but I was reminded just by seeing her name how compelling she is. In Esther we are told that Vashti is the Queen of Persia and the first wife of Persian King Ahasuerus. In the third year of his reign, Ahasuerus held a celebration for visiting nobles, together with his officials and servants, to ‘show the riches of his royal glory and the splendour & pomp of his greatness’. This lasted for one hundred & eighty days, at the end of which he held a further seven day feast in the garden of his Royal palace, to which everyone was invited. There, drinks were served in golden vessels and ‘the royal wine was lavished’. However, the king made sure to declare that no one was under any compulsion to drink as, ‘the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired’. At the same time Vashti, his queen, was giving her own feast for the women in the palace. But she was not to be offered the same respect as the men.

On the final day of the feast, the king, who was ‘merry with wine’, told his servants to summon Vashti, ‘in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at’. But Vashti said no. Her defiance infuriated the king, who then consulted his officials on what should be done. Afraid that Vashti’s 'great no' would encourage other women to also say no to their husbands, and considering her refusal to comply a wrong against not only the king but all the men of the king’s provinces, an order was issued that Vashti was never again to come before the king, that she should be ‘replaced by someone better than she’, and that ‘all women must give honour to their husbands, high and low alike’. When the king’s anger had cooled he 'remembered Vashti and what had been decreed against her' but his reaction was not to mend what had been broken but to send out his officers to ‘gather all the beautiful young virgins in his kingdom’ and bring them back to his harem. This is when Esther appears and the story continues. But Vashti is gone, disappeared. And most people, even those who read the Bible regularly, are unfamiliar with her name.

I have been in a Bible study group studying the Book of Esther and Vashti was almost glossed over entirely, with perhaps a disapproving mutter. It seems that the church prefers Mary’s “Yes!”, which is so often painted as passive submission rather than the radical act that it was, to Vashti’s “No!” Where Vashti is remembered she is an ambivalent figure. Occasionally she is written of as a feminist icon; Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti's disobedience the "first stand for women’s rights’. And, author of ‘The Women’s Bible’, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wrote that Vashti "added new glory to [her] day and generation...by her disobedience; for 'Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.'" The African American poet Frances E.W. Harper, who considered the queen’s refusal to come from self-respect, wrote of her 1895 poem ‘Vashti’ that she was, "a woman who could bend to grief, but would not bow to shame." In contrast, the ancient Judaic interpretation of her story in the Midrash considers her to be wicked and vain, rejecting the possibility that her refusal was made for her own dignity and instead speculating that she must have been afflicted by a disfiguring illness, such as leprosy. Another interpretation suggests that the angel Gabriel had visited her and given her a tail!

But what of her connection to the Blackthorn, other than the suggestion that she may have been ‘sloe-eyed’? In many ways, Vashti reminds me of our own ‘hawthorn Christa’, the Welsh Blodeuwedd, who is described as the most beautiful woman on earth, having been created by enchantment out of flowers as a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, without of course ever asking her what she wants. When she falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebr, whilst Llew is away she plots with him to kill her husband in order to free herself from this enforced spell and is punished by being turned into an owl who is ‘shunned by other birds’. Again, there are many interpretations of her story. To be ‘turned into an owl’ might not be seen as a punishment at all, but instead as Blodeuwedd’s decision to reclaim her claws after years of submission. This is Blodeuwedd’s ‘great no’. As Alan Garner writes of her in ‘The Owl Service’, “She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.”

Nevertheless, again I was once in a group, comprising only women, which was discussing the Blodeuwedd story and it was suggested to me that her meaning in myth was as, “a warning to women not to give in to our fickle and unfaithful natures!” I wrote more about Blodeuwedd, and her connection to hedgerows in my article, ‘Boundaries and Blodeuwedd’. Then, I had only thought of her in relation to hawthorn, which is one of the flowers purportedly used in her creation, but perhaps there was a petal or two of hawthorn’s hedgerow sister, blackthorn, included too. They are both after all so wonderfully willful and wild.

Blackthorn is often associated with witches and with spells used to 'bind or blast’. In South Devon witches were said to carry blackthorn walking sticks for use in mischief making and, in Irish folklore, Blackthorn is the home of the Lunantisidhe, or moon fairies, who are unfriendly towards humans; and with good reason when one considers the devastation we have brought to hedgerows. In medieval times the Devil was said to prick his devotees' fingers with a blackthorn & heretics & witches were burned on blackthorn pyres. She is also one of the trees said to have been included in the crown of thorns at Christ's crucifixion. What a heavy burden to bear.

In older Celtic lore blackthorn is said to symbolise a warrior's death in service to a higher cause & to provide aid to heroes who, if they threw a blackthorn twig, would find an impenetrable hedge between themselves & their enemies. In Scotland too she is associated with warfare, & with the 'Old Hag of Winter', the Cailleach, who calls in winter by striking the ground with her blackthorn staff; a long & difficult winter being named a 'Blackthorn Winter' in her honour.

But, of course, Blackthorn is also a healer. She is not only a protector but a purifier. Medicinally, like hawthorn, sometimes known as whitethorn, she is wonderful for the circulation, for stimulating the metabolism, & for 'cleaning the blood'. Her dark sloes, ripen & sweeten after the first frost, which puts a rather different slant on the Cailleach's cold prayer; just as we are warned after the first frosts not to eat the remaining blackberries because the Devil has spoiled them, the sloes sweeten & help us to settle into the dark. As we emerge into the very early spring, her flowers help to purify the blood, soothe the stomach, and lessen the apathy that we can sink into in the winter. Drinking water infused with blackthorn bark is said to relieve fatigue and increase vitality and the fresh juice of her sloes when gargled can relieve a sore throat. The pulp of her berries, when combined with other ingredients, has also been used to make face masks to maintain skin elasticity and so ‘enhance beauty’. I’m sure that both Vashti and Blodeuwedd might have been said to have skin that was ‘blackthorn blessed’. And, of course, her sloes make the most delicious sloe gin.

And so, here is Blackthorn, a most wonderful healer, a provider of protection and much needed boundaries, and a bringer of joyful intoxication, yet there is such ambivalence towards her. Despite being acknowledged to have her uses, she is associated with the Devil and with witches’ curses, and linked inextricably with, the often terrifying Old Woman, the Cailleach, and so with winter, that most ambivalent of seasons. Perhaps with her stunning froth of flowers, which belie the ‘savage thorns’ beneath the prettiness, she just isn’t ‘friendly’ enough?

Which brings me back to Vashti, Blodeuwedd, and another Biblical woman who refused to say a submissive “Yes”, Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Lilith was said to have been ‘created from the same clay as Adam’ and at the same time, or even sometimes before him. This is in contrast to Eve, who was created from Adam’s rib later. In Jewish mythology, Lilith is often described as a sexually voracious demon who is banished to the desert but returns in the night to steal babies. Shades of Vashti’s ‘tail’ here perhaps? And what of Lilith’s crime? That was to refuse to be subservient to Adam, or in some versions of her story, to refuse to have sex in the missionary position! Here then is her ‘great no’. We might then find meaning in the knowledge that her name translates from the Hebrew as ‘night hag’, or ‘screech owl’. Indeed, Lilith is sometimes depicted with the feet of an owl. Sometimes she is also described as ‘the serpent in the tree’, but that is another story and another thread to follow. Isaiah 34 tells us that, “Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the Lilith repose...” Again, she is often described as beautiful, but, like Vashti, like Blodeuwedd, like the Blackthorn she just isn’t nice enough. She has claws.

All of these stories provide inspiration for women not living the lives that they themselves have chosen, and to all living without liberty. Vashti, Blodweuwedd, and Lilith, all had status, at least in relation to their men, and all were valued for their beauty. And they all said “No” to living a life without power over their own bodies and destinies. But it isn’t really about being able to say no. Rather, it is about being counter-cultural, taking back our power to choose, just as Mary took her power by saying her ‘great Yes’. The Blackthorn Being, both blessed and burdened by the meaning that she has been given, can teach us about the strong boundaries that we need in order to make these clear decisions over our own lives and, if we are met with resistance, how to use our claws.

In response, we too might be regarded with, at best, ambivalence; thought of as unbeautiful; too willful, too wild, too fat, too thin, too waspish, too sharp, too unruly, just not friendly enough, but the world is changing, slowly, and Vashti, Blodeuwedd, and Lilith, queens of the Blackthorn Being with their ‘great nos’ are flowing through our veins to make sure that it does. They know that what we long for is coming, so why not just start singing now? 

“Why wait?”, they say, “open your petals, sing your song, the light is coming!”


* I borrowed the phrase 'Blackthorn Being', slightly adapted and with much respect, from Sharon Blackie's wonderful article, 'The Blackthorn Beeing' at https://www.sharonblackie.net/theartofenchantment/the-blackthorn-beeing/

Blackthorn, and other plant lore ~

Vashti ~

Blodeuwedd ~

Lilith ~

Monday, 18 March 2019

An Early Spring Prayer for the Beeing

Mo Gobnait*,
Holy honey woman in the line of Brigit,
Little smith who walked the land as prayer,
follower of the white deer tracks,
Wild lands dweller at forge and well,
saint-protectress of the heart-hive of bees.

As the earth wakes from winter into spring and symbols of hope are everywhere,
we ask for a blessing on the waking bees whose hum calls us back to Creation,
and whose gathering of pollen, freely offered by the spring flowers,
by snowdrop, and crocus, by primrose, and by daffodil,
reminds us to trust that the earth can provide everything that we need.

We give thanks for the beautiful creation that we have been invited to share in,
for the intricate web of life that holds us and all our brothers and sisters in
abundance and beauty.

May the pollen gathering of the bees remind us that we are held safely in the Holy One’s generous hand, and may their return after winter sleep revive in us the knowing that we live a Resurrection Life grounded in hope that can break through winter’s frozen ground. May our fear of lack and ingratitude for the simple things melt away with the last frosts. Let us see that we already live in a land flowing with milk and honey.

Mo Gobnait,
Holy honey woman in the line of Brigit,
Little smith who walked the land as prayer,
follower of the white deer tracks,
Wild lands dweller at forge and well,
saint-protectress of the heart-hive of bees.

We come before you in grief and gratitude for all that we have done and do not do
to live in harmony with the web of life.

As our fruit trees begin their journey to blossom,
may we remember the essential role of bees and other pollinators
in producing so much of the food we eat,
not just the wild honey which fed John the Baptist in the wilderness,
but in ways which might not be so easy for us to see.

Let us come deeper into awareness of the intricate relationships woven into
Creation, that we might learn love and serve it better.

Let the bees inspire in us the hope that we too can bring to flower the barren places in ourselves and in our wounded world.

Mo Gobnait,
Holy honey woman in the line of Brigit,
Little smith who walked the land as prayer,
follower of the white deer tracks,
Wild lands dweller at forge and well,
saint-protectress of the heart-hive of bees.

May we follow the example of the hive in knowing that our greatest service
is to work not for ourselves, but tirelessly for the common good of all creation.

May we too strive in the dark and secret places of our hearts to
shed light on our own complicity in not speaking out, in refusing to change through
fear, through tiredness, through stubbornness, through greed, and through
self-entitlement, knowing that in the perfect society of the honeybee all
have equal worth and know their power in working for the good of all.

We ask forgiveness for all the ways in which we give up hope,
letting go of the belief that the honey of love can change everything in an instant, that everything has already changed.

We ask that you help us take the tattered pieces of our battered hope to be shaped into
a honeycomb; strong and beautiful, perfect of form, that might sweeten the lives of our community, the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and any who have given up, lost faith in the possibility of good, or who are afraid to speak. Let justice be the sweetness on our tongue and the medicine we offer to a broken world.

Mo Gobnait,
Holy honey woman in the line of Brigit,
Little smith who walked the land as prayer,
follower of the white deer tracks,
Wild lands dweller at forge and well,
saint-protectress of the heart-hive of bees.

Let us remember the holiness of bees; that it was once believed that their hum
spoke the secret name of God, that the souls of the dead left their bodies as bees, that the tears of Christ on the Cross transformed into bees as a symbol of Risen Life, that beauty can come even from the darkest of journeys.

Let us treasure the Beeing** as a precious messenger of beauty, joy, good work, generosity, and abundance, in a world so often lacking in all of these.

Let us do all that we can to ensure that our bee family thrive by being mindful of our own actions and by speaking out against anything that threatens their wellbeing; the use of pesticides, the mowing of wildflower meadows, the proliferation of monoculture farms, the loss of orchards and wild places, and the hubris that tells us we can do it without them.

Let us speak truth to power for the Beeing and for all who cannot speak for themselves, that the holy Word might become as wild honey in our mouths.

Mo Gobnait,
Holy honey woman in the line of Brigit,
Little smith who walked the land as prayer,
follower of the white deer tracks,
Wild lands dweller at forge and well,
saint-protectress of the heart-hive of bees.

Hear the prayers of our hearts for our sister and brother bees, for the world, and for our part in it.

Aho mitake oyasin, for all our relations, amen, blessed be, Inshallah.

*Saint Gobnait, also known as Mo Gobnat, is the 6th Century Celtic saint of bees and beekeepers. Her Feast Day is 11th February. Like Saint Blaise, whose Feast Day is on 3rd February, she has much in common with Goddess-Saint Brigid, and it may be that they are one and the same. More about the weaving of holy threads soon.

** The 'Beeing' is a name for the collective consciousness of honeybee kind on our planet. See the work of the Natural Beekeeping Trust , who say "Each beeing, each hive is a little universe, completely evolved, perfect like a star", for more.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Flowers and Blood and Mercy and Miracles, and Repeat

Thank you to Teri Windling for this quote and image

Today, I lift many prayers and offer deepest love and sorrow to the victims of the horrific terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. An attack on one people of Spirit is an attack on all people of Spirit, and on all people. It is hard to find words, or the right words, in a world which often feels so full of horror for yet another horror. Only that I stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in New Zealand, the UK, in all lands.

Salam (peace) to the dead.

Salam to the injured.

Salam to the grieving.

Salam to all who are afraid.

Knowing that the last words of the first Muslim man to die were to the gunman; "Hello, brother", salam to all who walk with prejudice & hatred that their wounds might be healed and their hearts opened.

Salam be with us all.

I wrote this two years ago about another horrific act for which there were really no words and I will share it again and again, because we have to keep breathing somehow, and on some days it is very hard to breathe.

Flowers and Blood and Mercy and Miracles

Cherry plum. Image: Jacqueline Durban

...and today, as on so many days, many are weeping for their lost brothers and sisters, and for the seeming loss of hope and love and compassion, none of which is ever truly lost because we are human and humans hope and love and care, in spite of and because of it all.

And everywhere humans are at this moment lighting candles and lifting prayers to their God, or Goddess, or gods, or no god, and will care all the more fiercely because of a day like today, and some will hate and call it care and not the fear that it really is, and some will lift up weapons and some will lay down their weapons because they are sickened by it all. And no doubt tomorrow, somewhere, more will die needlessly and more candles will be lit and so we go on in our broken and bewildered way. Because this is what life is, or part of it anyway. It isn't worse than it has ever been. It just is.

And we don't have to say that 'they' won't win, because there is nothing to win and there is no 'they'. There is only us, spinning around on this messy, precious little planet filled with flowers and blood and mercy and miracles, and we have to make it work. And we might not know much but what we can know is that we are all going to die trying. And we don't have to say that we aren't afraid, because we are allowed to be afraid. And I won't be looking at images of people bleeding and dying on Westminster Bridge, or of a man lying dead because how it 'just is' twisted his heart into this act of violence. I will be thinking of the candles and lighting my own. And there are just too many words, and never the right ones, so I will just say that this is how it is. It isn't going to stop, or not any time soon, and so we must find a way to love life and one another all the more because of it. There is nothing else.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un

Arabic: إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

English Translation: "Surely, we belong to God and to Him we shall return."

Sura Al-Baqara Verse 156.

Thank you to Fr. Rod Bower of Gosford Church, Christchurch for inspiring the 'salam' prayer.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Shrovetide & Turning the Fresh Page of Spring

(Image: Jacqueline Durban)

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the final day of Shrovetide or the ‘Pre-Lenten season’, which either lasts for three days or seventeen days, depending on your point of view. This is a period of preparation for Lent, which in itself is a preparation for Easter. I must admit that I like the slow mindfulness of this coming into spring. I often underestimate how much energy it takes to wake up from the dark and becoming more aware of that movement; of the ending of Christmastide at Candlemas, and then the intake of breath before Shrovetide and Lent begin, is valuable. The more that we are able to mark the holiness of our days the better.

The seventeen day Shrovetide begins on Septuagesima Sunday, the ninth Sunday before Easter and the third before Ash Wednesday. Septuagesima comes from the Latin word for ‘seventieth’, falling as it does around seventy days before Easter. The subsequent Sundays; Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, and Quadragesima, translate as ‘sixtieth’, ‘fiftieth’, and ‘fortieth’ respectively. These pre-Lenten Sundays were abolished as part of the liturgical calendar by the second Vatican Council and ceased to be marked from 1970. However, Septuagesima Sunday remains the first day of the carnival season in many countries.

Carnival, or Mardi Gras, is a period of public celebration, parades, and street parties; a welcome opportunity to rejoice before the ‘stripping back’ of Lent. Often carnival involves ‘over-indulgence’ in alcohol, meat, and sweet foods which will then be given up, which of course is the purpose of Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day; a chance to use up the last of our flour, eggs, butter, and sugar before Ash Wednesday begins. Another facet of carnival is the wearing of masks and costumes, the stripping away of individuality to allow for a deeper, collective experience. Oliver Rafferty SJ, notes that carnival’s “most important social function was as a highly ritualised challenge to the established order of Church and State” and that, “this was often done under the cover of anonymity and hence the need for the dressing up and masking of participants. This essential element gave individuals freedom to indulge in chaotic displays of anarchic behaviour which sought to undermine the sanctimonious seriousness of ‘normal’ life.” Carnival then was an opportunity to confront the dogma of religion and the strict monarchical hierarchy with a different reality.

Carnival might also be thought of as a sort of ‘wassailing’ of the year, with the last of the winter spirits being driven out in a cacophony of noise to make way for the new, but what that new might be is in many ways for us to choose. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting on the theme, ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’, Carnival, depicted as a rotund king riding a barrel of beer, and ‘Lady Lent’, a starving nun with a beehive on her head (beehives being a symbol of the church), joust for dominance. Here are Carnival and Lent as two manifestations of the human experience; plenty and poverty, merrymaking and moderation, chaos and order; springtime Oak and Holly Kings of the human heart. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting, ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’, Wikiart

We are really not very good at negotiating between extremes and so often find ourselves going far too much one way or the other; Carnival and Lent remind us to watch the path. Indeed, in Bruegel’s painting a couple are being led between both along a path of light as though being shown the dangers inherent in becoming too identified with either way of being. We all need our times of celebration and revelry, giddy with abundance like the hedgerows of autumn. We all need our times of being stripped back, waiting for new growth like the bare earth before spring.

(Image: Jacqueline Durban)

Whilst we might feel inclined to turn away from the austerity of Lent and to celebrate the liberation of Carnival, both have their dark and light. Carnival was often associated with violence and with the further pushing aside of the already marginalised, although of course we must always consider who was reporting such happenings. If we are honest about ourselves though we will see that in many large groups, liberated after being too long hemmed in, there is potential for things to go too far. It is this dark seam in rich strata of humanity that allows us to weave the crown of thorns again and again, for the migrant, the refugee, the poor, the vulnerable, the scapegoated, the fox, the badger, the cormorant, the Christ. This too we will consider in the weeks to come, and Carnival, among so many things, is a reminder of what we are capable of at our very worst.

Southwark Fair, which was held in September to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary had its delights, including a ‘Mr Pinchbeck, who caused a tree to grow out of a flower pot on the table and flower and bear fruit in a minute’, and stallholders collecting money to help prisoners in the nearby Marshalsea. Nevertheless, amidst much reported criminality, a woman was trampled to death by the crowds in 1733, prior to the Fair being banned in 1763. Similarly, there have been many attempts to ban carnival itself. In 743, the Synod of Leptines in Belgium spoke out against the ‘excesses of February’, and dire warnings were also issued in this period against people who attempted to drive out winter via a ‘variety of less honourable acts’. Confession books from the period also tells us much about the activities of the common people who were noted to dress as an animal or an old woman during festivities in January and February, despite the severe penance required. This writing down of confessions in a book may explain where the name ‘Shrovetide’ comes from, as the original meaning in Old English of ‘scrifan’, whose root is in the Latin, ‘scribo’, is ‘to write’, but has now come to mean ‘confess’, to be ‘shriven’, perhaps then to ‘rewrite’ the book.

Moving to the present day, we find the annual ‘Shrovetide football’ game, which takes place over two days in the rural town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire and have been played in England since the 12th Century and in Ashbourne since at least 1667. This game is played on a ‘pitch’ that is three miles long, stretching from one side of the town to the other, and any number of people are allowed to join in with birth in relation to the town’s river dictating whether one should join the Up’ards or Down’ards team. The game is characterised by much eye gouging, punching, and stomping, shops and boarded up and parking in the main streets of the town is much discouraged! There are very few rules involved but, tellingly, these include the prohibition of murder or manslaughter, with ‘unnecessary violence’ being frowned upon, the ball not being carried in a motorised vehicle or hidden in a bag, coat, or rucksack, and the avoidance of cemeteries, churchyards, and memorial gardens. Enough said I think! 


In Bohemia in the Czech Republic, a Shrove Tuesday tradition sees a man dressing up as the personification of ‘Shrovetide’ and whoever is able to snatch a straw from his hat and place it under a hen is assured of a fine batch of eggs in the spring.

As for the, perhaps by now welcome, peace and quiet of Lent, it once would have made much practical sense to enjoy all our persishable foods, such as meat and dairy, before the warming days of spring, and then to give meaning to doing without them until a new season of food could be gathered. It would also give people of the land a chance to cleasnse through fasting and the taking of spring tonics to wake up the body, mind, and blood. This finishing up of our winter larder is expressed in many ways. The Syrian Orthodox church celebrate ‘Moonnu Nombu’ at this time, a three day pre-Lenten fast which recalls Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale. In Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, ‘meatfare’ and ‘cheesefare’ Sundays are designated to help use up these ingredients. In Russia and other Slavic countries, the week before Lent is known as ‘Butter Week’. In Iceland, this day is known as ‘Sprengidagur’, or ‘Bursting Day’, and is characterised by the eatring of salted meat and peas. The word ‘carnival’ itself is said to come from the Latin, ‘carne levare’, to ‘remove meat’. The last three days of Shrovetide then are our final chance to use up all of these foods (not forgetting ‘Fat Thursday the week before).

Shrove Monday, also known ‘Rose Monday’ and ‘Merry Monday’, is known by the name of ‘Collop’, or ‘Collopy’, Monday in Britain. The ‘collop’ refers to the traditional meal of the day; leftover meat, or ‘collops of bacon’, and eggs, although in East Cornwall it is sometimes referred to as ‘Peasen’ or ‘Paisen’ Monday due to the local custom of eating pea soup on that day, presumably with bacon added. Interestingly, Lithuania have a similar tradition of eating pea soup on the last day of Shrovetide, Shrove Tuesday.

Known in Britain, and elsewhere, as ‘Pancake Day’ and in others as ‘Mardi Gras’, or ‘Fat Tuesday’, Shrove Tuesday is filled with tradition. Our custom of eating pancakes on this day dates back until at least the 16th Century, although the instruction to be ‘shriven’ is much older. Church bells were traditionally rung on this day, the toll being known as ‘the Shriving Bell’, both to call people to confession and to remind everyone to start cooking their pancakes. Christianity is full of mixed messages!

‘Mob football’ games are a feature of Shrove Tuesday festivities in some towns, such as Ashbourne, mentioned previously, but also Alnwick in Northumberland, Atherstone in Warwickshire, St Colom Major in Cornwall, and Sedgefield in County Durham. In others pancake races take place, thought to be inspired by a 15th Century housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, who was once so engrossed in making pancakes that, when she heard the shriving bell calling her to confession, she ran out of the house frying pan, pancake and all, tossing it to stop it burning in the hot pan! Pancake races still happen there, with only women allowed to join in and with the instruction to wear a bonnet and apron.

(Olney pancake race, Wiki Commons)

In Scarborough, it’s traditional for local people to skip over long fishing ropes from the harbour on this day, called by the town crier with a ‘pancake bell’. In Whitechapel, Lancashire children, echoing many traditions of going from house to house, visit local homes to ask, “Please, a pancake” before being rewarded with sweets or oranges. At Westminster School in London, the "Pancake Grease" is held, an event during which the schoolmaster tosses a very large pancake over a bar that's set to about 15 feet high. The children then make a mad scramble for the pancake and whoever emerges with the largest piece is the winner.

Choristers vs. staff and parents annual pancake race, Norwich Cathedral

And so, it seems that we begin our spring in the same spirit as we journeyed through winter, with our traditions full of the invitation to share what we have in unity and community, not to grasp or cling with the thought that we might then not have enough, but to trust the earth to give us enough, and freely; that what we give out will be returned when we too have need. It seems to me though that we are encouraged to trust less and less, to instead blame, to scapegoat and point the finger, to believe that everyone is out to take what we have and that it is our right to have it, even at the expense of another. In the invitation of our seasonal festivals we are shown both the best and the worst that we can be and Shrovetide and Lent reveal that to us in all the raw, stripped back, vulnerability that we can bare, and perhaps even more than that. We may not like what we see but it is a blessing to be shown it. So, this evening let’s rejoice in our pancakes, and I hope that there will be far too many until we are full to bursting, and then let’s let it all go; the grasping, the fear, the meanness, the blame, the always wanting to be full, let’s turn the page of our confessional and give ourselves up to the green things of spring. We can be so much better than we are. They are waiting to help us rewrite the book.

(Image: Jacqueline Durban)


On Shrovetide ~



On Carnival ~


The Fight Between Carnival and Lent ~


On Moonnu Nombu ~


On 'Mob Football' ~


Southwark Fair ~