Easter, bunnies and eggs – rewriting history and fake news

In light of the almighty fuss about Easter, The Church of England, Cadburys, The National Trust and chocolate eggs which erupted yesterday (see here) I thought I should re-visit a story I learnt about a few years ago – the derivation of Easter, bunnies and eggs.

There is a ‘boss’ on the roof in Chagford church depicting three rabbits which was the symbol used by the people involved with tin mining on Dartmoor who in the Middle Ages were wealthy people and funded the building of the church. There are 28 churches on Dartmoor and in Devon where this symbol is found – it is known as the ‘Tinners’ Rabbits’.

The image / logo is a clever illusion – each of the three animals has two ears but there are only three ears and  these animals are not rabbits – they are hares.  It emerges that this ‘logo’ was not created by Dartmoor Tinners but has a lineage which dates back at least 1600 years to pagan times and is not just found in Devon but also in China, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Europe ……

If we step back to Pagan times the hare was a magical / mystical beast. It was associated with female fertility – hares have a gestation period of 28 days – the same length as the cycle of the female period which also coincided with the lunar cycle of 28 days. In Saxon times there was a cult of  the hare and there was a Goddess Oestara (thus the oestrous cycle)  or Eostre (Easter) who was said to rule over spring and the dawn.

With the coming of Christianity to England, Paganism declined and was suppressed – the cult of the hare became known as Easter and the hare transformed into a rabbit  – the Easter Bunny was born and the Easter Egg was created.

The fortunes of the hare also took a downturn – it was not longer portrayed as a magical beast – instead it became a partner of the devil. This was all driven by the early Christians who wanted to eradicate Paganism. There are many Dartmoor legends which tell that witches could transform themselves into hares: Bowerman’ Nosethe Witch Hare and the Witch of Dendles Wood.


The ‘Three Hares’ is the logo of Chagford today

Just for the record – here is how the National Trust airbrushed Easter out of their Egg Hunts ……

(Thanks to Legendary Dartmoor for the legwork- a great web site for all things Dartmoor – check it out)

The Meavy Royal Oak

The Meavy Oak or Meavy Royal Oak is one of the most famous and old trees in Devon. It is thought that the tree is over 900 years old and was planted in the reign of King John. Meavy is a village in south west Dartmoor not far from Yelverton and Sheepstor.

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It is referred to as the Royal Oak as it is said that King Charles hid in the tree whilst fleeing from Cromwell’s troops in the 17th Century.

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The oak is now hollow – indeed it has been for several centuries – the adjacent pub in the 17th century used to store peat for the fire in the cavity and it is suggested that in 1826 the landlady of the Royal Oak pub once held a dinner party for 9 people inside the tree.

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In the 1970s measures very taken to protect the tree by installing wooden and steel props to give it support. The crown was also reduced to prevent it collapsing. The tree is very much still alive and in the following photograph you can see it is starting to come into leaf.

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The tree predates the Church in the village which was built in the 12th Century. Before the Church was built it is thought that people gathered around the tree for Christian Services – it is therefore known also as a Gospel Oak. The Cross in front of the tree was erected in the 15th Century.

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In this photograph you can also see the local pub – the Royal Oak to the left and further back on the Green is another oak which has been planted from an acorn from the Meavy Oak.

On the third Saturday of June every year the Meavy Oak Fair is held which involves the celebration of the tree, May Pole dancing, feasting and drinking. In days gone by the crown of the Meavy Oak was trimmed so a platform could be erected in it – people then climbed up via a ladder to eat drink and be merry in the tree!

The Legendary Dartmoor site also includes an old story about a tin miner, a wealthy traveller and the Meavy Oak – see here.

Lunch Royal Oak Meavy

After looking at and photographing this wonderful tree I went to the Royal Oak pub for lunch – ham, egg and chips which I was able to eat outside so I could view the tree at the same time. Fabulous on all counts.

It is a fantastic tree with an amazing history which has many years of life left in it as long as it is carefully looked after and tended which I am sure it will be as it is a central feature of the village.

My only concern about the tree is the ivy growing on it – I am not anti ivy and I don’t believe that ivy kills trees but looking at older pictures it does appear that the ivy is getting more prominent. I noticed a similar situation when I visited the 1000 year old Tortworth Oak (see here). This is what I wrote then

One final comment and some food for thought. I was told that historically the area where the Tortworth chestnut grows had been grazed. Today it is fenced off to protect the tree. It would appear that as a result ivy has been able to establish itself and it has started to colonise some of the trunks. Normally I am quite happy to see ivy growing on trees and would never want to remove it. However for such an ancient and venerable tree as this perhaps we should not allow ivy to establish – we wouldn’t let ivy grow on an ancient building in case it caused damage and because it would partially obscure the spectacle of the building.

It might be worth getting some advice from the Devon Ancient Tree Forum who know much more than I do about such things.

 

I thoroughly recommend a visit to see the Meavy Oak followed by a visit to the Royal Oak pub

The Tolmen Stone

When I was out on the moor on Saturday I revisited the Tolmen Stone which is located at SX655870 on the North Teign River near to Scorhill Circle. It is a large boulder with a water worn hole in it. Tolmen comes from the Celtic – mean meaning stone and tol meaning hole.

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The Tolmen Stone is in the middle of the picture and the stream – you can see the hole on the right hand side

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A close up. As ever the Legendary Dartmoor web site is very useful -see here. The Druids thought that tolmen stones held special powers particularly cleansing properties. More recent myths suggests that people with rheumatism can be cured if they pass through the hole.

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Here is a picture I took from 2011 where one of our 10 Tors training teams are, one by one, scrambling through the Tolmen Stone hole expertly supervised by Tony Owen

Mistletoe, Christmas, the Winter Solstice and the Druids

Mistletoe is inextricably linked with Christmas – ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ has become an almost universal tradition. But how has this poisonous and parasitic plant achieved such a legendary status? Like many  Christian traditions they have their ancestry in our Pagan / Celtic / Druid past – I have written before about how the magical, mystical hare changed into the Easter bunny – see here.

Here is the story of mistletoe.

Pliny the Elder in the first century AD describes how the Druids – the religious order of the Celts (or Gauls as he called them) would seek out mistletoe growing on an oak. They would then climb the tree, cut down the mistletoe, sacrifice two white bulls and then make an elixir from the white berries to cure infertility and effects of poison. This account is interesting in that today mistletoe grows predominantly on apple trees, limes and poplars. I have never seen a mistletoe growing on oak.

The story continues and I can do no better than quote the website – Mistletoe – Mythology and Folklore – The White Goddess. 

“The ancient Druids believed mistletoe to be an indicator of great sacredness. The winter solstice, called ‘Alban Arthan’ by the Druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the Oak. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice. A cloth held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the spigs of mistletoe as they fell, as it was believed that it would have profaned the mistletoe to fall upon the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.

The Druids are thought to have believed that the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the Gods. When pressed, a semen like substance issues from the white berries. Mistletoe was considered a magical aphrodisiac. Girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were asking for a bit more than a kiss, it seems.

The plant in old folklore is called Allheal, used in folk medicine to cure many ills, and indeed the Druids considered the mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft. When taken as a form of diluted tea, it was thought as a curative for everything from infertility to epilepsy. (WARNING, this plant is highly toxic when ingested. You should seek expert advice before using Mistletoe in any form.)

This account links the mistletoe to the Winter Solstice (yesterday) and therefore pretty close to Christmas and gives a hint about where the kissing bit came from! You can see how 21st  century Druids view mistletoe here.

Rather like in the mystical hare/Easter bunny story the Christian generation tweaked things around – the Anglo-Saxon (5th century + AD) word mistletoe is derived from mistle means twig or branch (thus mistle thrush) and toe means dung. This maybe relates to the fact that the berries are poisonous to people or may hark back to the aphrodisiac / sperm like properties that the druids considered.

Mistletoe isn’t very common in Devon but there is a good population at Parke in Bovey Tracey. It grows in the orchard on some of the apple trees and in the Parkland on lime trees and poplars.

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A big colony of mistletoe on a common lime in the Parkland at Parke

Mistletoe 2A clump of mistletoe on a poplar at Parke

If you want to know more about mistletoe and its biology and ecology this is a good place to go.

And if you know of any mistletoe growing on oak – I would be interested to know but I suggest you avoid the place on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice…….

 

The White Hart – so what is that?

The White Hart is a popular name for a pub and indeed we had our Christmas Party for the National Trust Dartmoor Team yesterday at the White Hart in Moretonhampstead. It was inevitable (especially with me there) that we would discuss ‘what is a hart’ and ‘ what is a white hart’.
White hart1Here is the pub sign – it is clearly a fallow deer buck (male deer) – note the wide bladed antlers

There are a number of names for male deer: Harts, Stags and Bucks……

Hart is an old English name derived from the word heorot, which is similar to the Dutch word hert, and  the German hirsch, all meaning deer. Following on from the old English the Medieval meaning of ‘hart’ was a red deer male in excess of 5 years old.

The White Hart in Moretonhampstead is covering all bases  – whilst the pub sign is a fallow deer there are also references to red deer.

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In  the courtyard – a white red deer with a crown tether

White hart2Red deer antlers in the restaurant

White hart3Festive Fallow deer in the bar

So a hart may originally have referred to a red deer stag over 5 years in age but it has been used more widely to also include fallow stags / bucks too.

The white hart itself is deeply tied to British folklore – a rare and mystical animal which is linked to Royalty (thus the picture above) – the white hart was the symbol of Richard II.

According Arthurian legend whenever a white hart was seen it meant it was time to start a new quest. The white hart therefore became associated with the search for never ending knowledge and the quest for the unachievable. In Christianity the white hart symbolises Christ on earth.

Finally killing a white hart will lead to the perpetrator being cursed.

Lydford Gorge’s Spirit of Place

The Dartmoor team along with a number of Regional colleagues have just completed our Spirit of Place statement for Lydford Gorge. It is based on how we all feel about the place and what our visitors like about it too. I hope you like it too – we will now use it to bench mark everything we do at Lydford Gorge thus ensuring we keep it a special and magical place.

Walking through the gorge is a challenging but rewarding adventure. The only way through is on foot where you will discover mystical woodlands with cascading waterfalls, tranquil pools and gurgling streams, a timeless treasure which has ignited the imagination since Victorian times and before.

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The river Lyd has carved potholes and whirlpools over thousands of years, sometimes thundering and tumbling and in other places gently gliding with its moods ever changing in rhythm with the seasons and the weather. The sound of dripping water, birds singing and trees and rocky crags towering above you makes you feel you are in a primeval world.

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The gorge defended all who lived in Lydford with the deep chasm acting as a natural barrier to any invading threatening forces. Imagine people who over many hundreds of years harnessed the natural power of the river through milling and tin streaming with their history and lives now shrouded by layer upon layer of vegetation.

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Mysterious yet romantic and enchanting; myths, legends and folklore abound. Wild flowers, fungi, garlic and bluebells mixed with the scents and sounds of wildlife in their natural habitat capture your senses as you walk. This is a ‘temperate English rainforest’, luxuriantly green and humid, cut off from civilisation yet available for visitors to experience and enjoy.

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Today we should be wassailing

As a word wassailing comes from Anglo Saxon and means ‘be in good health’ and is synonymous with Christmas. Wassail is also an ale based drink seasoned with spices and honey.

There are two types of wassailing – home wassailing and orchard wassailing.

Home wassailing involving the singing of carols at people’s houses around Christmas in return for food and drink and is celebrated in such carols as “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New New” which includes the lines about ‘figgy pudding’ and we won’t go until we get some’ etc.

On the other hand Orchard Wassailing was celebrated on 12th Night – which before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar fell on the 17th January. It involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees. The aim is to ward off evil spirits. There is a Wassail King and Queen to lead a procession and the singing. The Queen then ‘lifts the boughs’ which involves toasting bread soaked in ‘wassail’ as a gift to the tree sprits. A crowd then bangs drums and makes a lot of noise whilst a gun is fired into the tree.

Here are a couple of photos by Mark Lakeman of the wassailing at Parke’s orchard in 2013.

Wassail 1 Mark LakemanA member of the Grimspound Border Morris Men – ‘making a lot of noise’

Wassail 2 Mark LakemanHere is the bread soaked in wassail being toasted

Photos from this year’s wassail at Parke should appear in due course on the National Trust Parke Facebook site