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Folklore of England

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Mead Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England
by Stephen Pollington

Communal meals were an importnat part of Anglo-Saxon society. They were enjoyed by nobles, yeomen, warriors, farmers, churchmen and laity. Some of the feasts were informal communal gatherings while others were formal ritual gatherings.
Using the evidence of Old English texts - including the epic Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - Stephen pollington shows that the idea of feasting remained central to early English social traditions long after the physical reality had declined in importance.
The words of the poets and saga-writers are supported by a wealth of archaelogical data dealing with halls, settlement layouts and the magnificent feasting gear found in many early Anglo-Saxon graves.
Published by Anglo-Saxon Books, this 283page hardback comes with 24 illustrations and is highly acclaimed. The book can be purchased by clicking on the link below: (UK only) £14.95 plus handling fee.

Anglo Saxon Riddles #12

A moth ate words - to me that seemed
a strange event when I learnt of that wonder
that the words swallowed down part of a man's song
- the theif on the darkness- his glorious saying
and its strong foundation; the stealing guest was not
any the wiser for having swallowed those words.

Answer: book-worm moth

Anglo Saxon Riddles #11

The wet earth, wondrously cold
first gave me birth from its womb
I know I was not made with woollen fleeces
through high skill with hairs, by my wise mind
no weft shall be wound in me, nor have I a warp
nor does a thread run thorugh me with the force of strokes
nor does the creaking shuttle glide through me
nor from any side shall the weaving-slay strike me
Silkworms did not weave me with their lucky skills
who cleverly make a fine yellow fabric
Yet men widely over the earth will
call me a desirable garment for heroes
Say in true speech, being wise in cunning thought
clever with words, what this clothing may be.

Answer: mailcoat

Anglo Saxon Riddles #10

I am a wonderful thing, a hope for women,
useful to those near me, none do I harm
among men except my slayer.
My standing is high and steep, I stand in a bed.
hairy beneath. Sometimes she dares -
the comely daughter of a yeoman,
the proud girl - so that she grips me,
rushes on me, ruddy, seizes my head
fixes me in a firm place, she soon feels
our meeting who comes near me
- a woman with curly hair - wet shall be her eye.

Answer: onion (and not what some of you crude minded folk may have thought!!)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Anglo Saxon Riddles #9

Grey is my garment; adornments bright, red, and shining are in my raiment. I lead astray the stupid, and urge the foolish on to rash journeys; others I hinder from a useful journey. I know not at all why they, thus maddened, deprived of mind, led astray in deed, praise my crooked ways to everyone. Woe to them for their custom, when the High One brings the dearest of treasures, if they cease not from folly ere that.

Answer: night . The riddle seems to refer not only to darkness but also to night revels. ‘The dearest of treasures’ is perhaps the sun. An alternative solution is wine.

Anglo Saxon Riddles #8

My neck is white, my head yellow, also my sides; I am swift in my going, I bear a weapon for battle; on my back stand hairs just as on my cheeks; above my eyes tower two ears; I walk on my toes in the green grass. Grief is doomed for me if anyone, a fierce fighter, catch me in my covert, where I have my haunt, my lair with my litter, and I lurk there with my young brood when the intruder comes to my doors; death is doomed for them, and so I shall bravely bear my children from their abode, save them by flight, if he comes close after me. He goes on his breast; I dare not await his fierceness in in my hole – that were ill counsel – but fast with my forefeet I must make a path through the steep hill. I can easily save the life of my precious ones, if I am able to lead my family, my beloved and kin, by a secret way through a hole in the hill; afterwards I need dread not at all the battle with the death-whelp. If the malignant foe pursues me behind by a narrow path, he shall not lack a struggle to bar his way after I reach the top of the hill, and with violence I will strike with war darts the hated enemy whom long I fled.

Answer: badger

Anglo Saxon Riddles #7

Often I must war against the wave and fight against the wind; I contend against them combined, when, buried by the billows, I go to seek the earth; my native land is strange to me. If I grow motionless I am mighty in the conflict; if I succeed not in that they are stronger than I, and straightaway with rending they put me to rout; they wish to carry off what I must keep safe. I foil them in that if my tail endures and if the stones are able to hold fast against me in my strength. Ask what is my name.

Answer: anchor

Anglo Saxon Riddles #6

My head is forged by a hammer, wounded with pointed tools, rubbed by the file. Often I gape at what is fixed opposite to me, when, girded with rings, I must needs thrust stoutly against the hard bolt; pierced from behind I must shove forward that which guards the joy of my lord’s mind at midnight. At times I drag my nose, the guardian of the treasure, backwards, when my lord desires to take the stores of those whom at his will he commanded to be driven out of life by murderous power.

Answer: key

Anglo Saxon Riddles #5

My abode is not silent, nor I myself loud voiced; the Lord laid laws upon us, shaped our course together; I am swifter than he, stronger at times, he more laborious; sometimes I rest; he must needs run on. I ever dwell in him while I live: if we are parted death is my destiny.

Answer: Fish and River

Anglo Saxon Riddles #4

I am puff-breasted, swollen necked, I have a head and lofty tail, eyes and ears and one foot, a back and hard beak, a high neck and two sides, a rod in the middle, a dwelling above men. I endure misery when he who stirs the forest moves me and torrents beat upon me in my station, the hard hail and rime; and frost comes down and snow falls on me, pierced through the stomach, and I….

Answer: weathercock

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Anglo Saxon Riddles #3

Have a go at solving the riddle before you can see the answer below.

Father and mother gave me up dead in these days, nor was life or stir yet within me. Then one, a linswoman very gracious, began to cover me with garments, held and guarded me, covered me as honourably with a protecting robe as her own child, till beneath her bosom, as my destiny was, I became mighty in spirit among those who were no kin of mine. The beautiful kinswoman afterwards fed me, till I grew up, could set out more widely on journeys; she had the fewer of her own dear sons and daughtesr by what she did thus.

Answer: Cuckoo

Anglo Saxon Riddles #2

Have a go at solving the riddle before you can see the answer below.

Silent is my garment when I tread the earth or inhabit the dwellings or stir the waters. Sometimes my trappings and this high air raise me above the abodes of men, and the power of clouds then bears me far and wide over the people. My adornments resound loudly and make melody; they sing clearly when I am not near the flood and the earth - a travelling spirit.

Answer: Swan

Anglo Saxon Riddles #1

Have a go at solving the riddle before you can see the answer below.

I am a solitary dweller, wounded with a knife, stricken with a sword, weary of battle deeds, tired of blades. Often I behold war, fight a dangerous foe; I look not for comfort, that safety may come to me out of the struggle, before I perish entirely among men; but the forged brands strike me; the handiwork of smiths, hard-edged, exceeding sharp, bite me in the strongholds. I must await a more grevious encounter. Never could I find in the city the race of physicians, of those who healed wounds with herbs, but my sword wounds grow wide by deadly blows day and night.

Answer: Shield

On the worship of Mother Earth

Tacitus writes in his Germania (chapter 40) of a number of tribes living just after the time of Christ in what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany. He says:

After the Langobardi come the Reudigni, Auiones, Anglia, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines and Nuithones all well guarded by rivers and forests. There is nothing remarkable about any of these tribes unless it be the common worship of Nerthus, that is Mother Earth. They believe
she is interested in men's affairs and drives about among them. On an island in the Ocean sea there is a sacred grove wherein waits a holy wagon covered by a drape. One priest only is allowed to touch it. He can feel the presence of the goddess when she is there in her sanctuary and accompanies her with great reverence as she is pulled along by kine. It is a time of festive holiday-making in whatever place she deigns to honour with her advent and stay. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, in fact every weapon is put away; only at that time are peace and quiet known and prized until the goddess, having had enough of people's company, is at last restored by the same priest to her temple. After which, the wagon and the drape, and if you like to believe me, the deity herself are bathed in a mysterious pool. The rite is performed by slaves who, as soon as it is done, are drowned in the lake. In this way mystery begets dread and a pious ignorance concerning what that sight may be which only those about to die are allowed to see.

Of the seven tribes mentioned by Tacitus in this passage, three have never been properly identified and two of the other four do not occur anywhere else; but what is important to us English is that of the remaining two, one is the Angli. Thus we have trustworthy testimony that at least one of the three main tribes which went to the making of the English nation worshipped Mother Earth round about AD100.

Book review - The English Warrior

The English Warrior from earliest times to 1066
by Stephen Pollington

This is not intended to be a bald listing of the battles and campaigns from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources, but rather it is an attempt to get below the surface of Anglo-Saxon warriorhood and to investigate the rites, social attitudes, mentality and mythology of the warfare of those times.
Published by Anglo-Saxon Books, this 304 page hardback comes with over 50 illustrations and is highly acclaimed. The book can be purchased by clicking on the link below: (UK only) £16.95 plus handling fee.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bomere Pool

Many years ago a village stood in the hollow which is now filled up by the mere. But the inhabitants were a wicked race, who mocked at God and his priest. They turned back to the idolatrous practices of their fathers, and worshipped Thor and Woden. They scorned to bend the knee, save in mockery, to the White Christ who had died to save their souls.

The old priest earnestly warned them that God would punish such wickedness as theirs by some sudden judgment, but they laughed him to scorn. They fastened fish bones to the skirt of his cassock, and set the children to pelt him with mud and stones. The holy man was not dismayed at this; nay, he renewed his entreaties and warnings, so that some few turned from their evil ways and worshipped with him in the little chapel which stood on the bank of a rivulet that flowed down from the mere on the hillside.

The rains fell that December in immense quantities. The mere was swollen beyond its usual limits, and all the hollows in the hills were filled to overflowing. One day when the old priest was on the hillside gathering fuel he noticed that the barrier of peat, earth, and stones, which prevented the mere from flowing into the valley, was apparently giving way before the mass of water above. He hurried down to the village and besought the men to come up and cut a channel for the discharge of the superfluous waters of the mere. They only greeted his proposal with shouts of derision, and told him to go and mind his prayers, and not spoil their feast with his croaking and his killjoy presence.

These heathen were then keeping their winter festival with great revelry. It fell on Christmas Eve. The same night the aged priest summoned his few faithful ones to attend at the midnight mass, which ushered in the feast of our Savior's nativity. The night was stormy, and the rain fell in torrents, yet this did not prevent the little flock from coming to the chapel. The old servant of God had already begun the holy sacrifice, when a roar was heard in the upper part of the valley. The server was just ringing the Sanctus bell which hung in the bell cot, when a flood of water dashed into the church, and rapidly rose till it put out the altar lights. In a few moments more the whole building was washed away, and the mere, which had burst its mountain barrier, occupied the hollow in which the village had stood.

Men say that if you sail over the mere on Christmas Eve, just after midnight, you may hear the Sanctus bell tolling.

Source: Edwin Sidney Hartland, English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (London: Walter Scott Publishing Company, ca. 1890), pp. 83-84.

The Origin of the Wrekin

Once upon a time there was a wicked old giant in Wales who, for some reason or other, had a very great spite against the Mayor of Shrewsbury and all his people, and he made up his mind to dam up the Severn, and by that means cause such a flood that the town would be drowned.

So off he set, carrying a spadeful of earth, and tramped along mile after mile trying to find the way to Shrewsbury. And how he missed it I cannot tell, but he must have gone wrong somewhere, for at last he got close to Wellington, and by that time he was puffing and blowing under his heavy load, and wishing he was at the end of his journey. By and by there came a cobbler along the road with a sack of old boots and shoes on his back, for he lived at Wellington, and went once a fortnight to Shrewsbury to collect his customers' old boots and shoes, and take them home with him to mend.

And the giant called out to him. "I say," he said, "how far is it to Shrewsbury?"

"Shrewsbury?" said the cobbler; "what do you want at Shrewsbury?"

"Why," said the giant, "to fill up the Severn with this lump of earth I've got here. I've an old grudge against the mayor and the folks at Shrewsbury, and now I mean to drown them out, and get rid of them all at once."

"My word!" thought the cobbler. "This'll never do! I can't afford to lose my customers!" And he spoke up again. "Eh!" he said, "you'll never get to Shrewsbury -- not today nor tomorrow. Why look at me! I'm just come from Shrewsbury, and I've had time to wear out all these old boots and shoes on the road since I started." And he showed him his sack.

"Oh!" said the giant, with a great groan. "Then it's no use! I'm fairly tired out already, and I can't carry this load of mine any farther. I shall just drop it here and go back home."

So he dropped the earth on the ground just where he stood, and scraped his boots on the spade, and off he went home again to Wales, and nobody ever heard anything of him in Shropshire after. But where he put down his load, there stands the Wrekin to this day; and even the earth that he scraped off his boots was such a pile that it made the little Ercall by the Wrekin's side.

Source: Edwin Sidney Hartland, English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (London: Walter Scott Publishing Company, ca. 1890), pp. 85-86.

The Golden Arm

There was once a man who traveled the land all over in search of a wife. He saw young and old, rich and poor, pretty and plain, and could not meet with one to his mind. At last he found a woman young, fair, and rich, who possessed the supreme, the crowning glory of having a right arm of solid gold. He married her at once, and thought no man so fortunate as he was. They lived happily together, but, though he wished people to think otherwise, he was fonder of the golden arm than of all his wife's gifts besides.

At last she died. The husband appeared inconsolable. He put on the blackest black, and pulled the longest face at the funeral. But for all that he got up in the middle of the night, dug up the body, and cut off the golden arm. He hurried home to secrete his recovered treasure, and thought no one would know.

The following night he put the golden arm under his pillow, and was just falling asleep, when the ghost of his dead wife glided into the room. Stalking up to the bedside it drew the curtain, and looked at him reproachfully. Pretending not to be afraid, he spoke to the ghost, and said, "What have you done with your cheeks so red."

"All withered and wasted away," replied the ghost, in a hollow tone.

"What have you done with your red rosy lips?"

"All withered and wasted away."

"What have you done with your golden hair?"

"All withered and wasted away."

"What have you done with your golden arm?"

"You have it!"

Source: S. Baring-Gould, Appendix to William Henderson, Notes on the Folk Lore of the Northern Counties of England (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1866, no. 14, pp. 338-339.


Once upon a time there was a teeny-tiny woman lived in a teeny-tiny house in a teeny-tiny village.

Now, one day this teeny-tiny woman put on her teeny-tiny bonnet, and went out of her teeny-tiny house to take a teeny-tiny walk. And when this teeny-tiny woman had gone a teeny-tiny way she came to a teeny-tiny gate. So the teeny-tiny woman opened the teeny-tiny gate, and went into a teeny-tiny churchyard. And when this teeny-tiny woman had got into the teeny-tiny churchyard, she saw a teeny-tiny bone on a teeny-tiny grave, and the teeny-tiny woman said to her teeny-tiny self, "This teeny-tiny bone will make me some teeny-tiny soup for my teeny-tiny supper."

So the teeny-tiny woman put the teeny-tiny bone into her teeny-tiny pocket, and went home to her teeny-tiny house.

Now when the teeny-tiny woman got home to her teeny-tiny house she was a teeny-tiny bit tired. So she went up her teeny-tiny stairs to her teeny-tiny bed, and put the teeny-tiny bone into a teeny-tiny cupboard. And when this teeny-tiny woman had been to sleep a teeny-tiny time, she was awakened by a teeny-tiny voice from the teeny-tiny cupboard, which said,

"Give me my bone!"

And this teeny-tiny woman was a teeny-tiny frightened, so she hid her teeny-tiny head under the teeny-tiny clothes and went to sleep again. And when she had been to sleep again a teeny-tiny time, the teeny-tiny voice again cried out from the teeny-tiny cupboard a teeny-tiny louder,

"Give me my bone!"

This made the teeny-tiny woman a teeny-tiny more frightened, so he hid her teeny-tiny head a teeny-tiny further under the teeny-tiny clothes. And when the teeny-tiny woman had been to sleep again a teeny-tiny time, the teeny-tiny voice from the teeny-tiny cupboard said again a teeny-tiny louder,

"Give me my bone!"

And this teeny-tiny woman was a teeny-tiny bit more frightened, but she put her teeny-tiny head out of the teeny-tiny clothes, and said in her loudest teeny-tiny voice, "TAKE IT!"

Source: Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales ( London: David Nutt, 1898), no. 12, pp. 57-58.

The Piskies' Changeling

Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England

This story is told by Mr. T. Q. Couch, as an example of the folk-lore of a Cornish village, in "Notes and Queries," under the name of "Coleman Gray":

There is a farmhouse of some antiquity with which my family have a close connection; and it is this circumstance, more than any other, that has rendered this tradition concerning it more interesting to us, and better remembered than many other equally romantic and authentic.

Close to this house, one day, a little miserable-looking bantling was discovered alone, unknown, and incapable of making its wants understood. It was instantly remembered by the finder, that this was the way in which the piskies were accustomed to deal with those infants of their race for whom they sought human protection; and it would have been an awful circumstance if such a one were not received by the individual so visited. The anger of the piskies would be certain, and some direful calamity must be the result; whereas, a kind welcome would probably be attended with great good fortune.

The miserable plight of this stranger, therefore, attracted attention and sympathy. The little unconscious one was admitted as one of the family. Its health was speedily restored, and its renewed strength, activity, intelligence, and good-humour, caused it to become a general favourite.

It is true the stranger was often found to indulge in odd freaks; but this was accounted for by a recollection of its pedigree, which was not doubted to be of the piskie order. So the family prospered, and had banished the thought that the foundling would ever leave them.

There was to the front door of this house, a hatch, which is a half-door, that is kept closed when the whole door behind it is open, and it then serves as a guard against the intrusion of dogs, hogs, and ducks, while air and light are freely admitted. This little being was one day leaning over the top of this hatch, and looking wistfully outward, when a clear voice was heard to proceed from a neighbouring part of the townplace, calling "Coleman Gray, Coleman Gray!"

The piskie immediately started up, and with a sudden laugh clapped its hands, exclaiming, "Aha! my daddy is come!" It was gone in a moment, never to be seen again.

Source: Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England: The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, 2nd ed. (London: John Camden Hotten, 1871), pp. 95-96.

When the Whole Earth Was Overrun with Ghosts

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
So have I heard and do in part believe it.

So says the immortal Shakespeare [Hamlet, act 1, scene 1]; and the truth thereof few nowadays, I hope, will call in question. Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact.

What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, specters, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks [necks], waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost.

Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its specter, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!

Source: The Denham Tracts, edited by James Hardy, (London: Folklore Society, 1895), vol. 2, pp. 76-80.

Getting started

I'm totally new to the idea of Blogs but can see distinct advantages in making use of the new technology to safeguard the past.

I plan to use this Blog as a repository of that which could be lost as our nation, the English nation heads pell-mell into a hellish 24/7 consumerist society where the splendour of our ancient culture, traditions and values is lost in the race to keep up with the mythical Joneses and rapidly waste all the finite resources of the planet to create extra layers of comfort separating us as humans from the vibrant natural world which we intent on destroying.

I plan to use this Blog as a store of folklore, myths and legends of England and the English whereever they may be found. Without any idea of our past and where we came from, how can we possibly have any idea where we are in the present moment and where we are heading?

Thank you for visiting.