Friday 26 December 2008

Montol and the Lord of Misrule

In this article, Alex Langstone looks at some of the folk traditions surrounding Christmas and the New Year, and links them to ancient esoteric mystical practises in Britain and Europe both in the past and very much in the here and now.

Montol and the Lord of Misrule
by Alex Langstone

The Christmas traditions we are used to today are largely the invention of Victorian society and early 20th century advertising! Before this time, Christmas was only observed in church, and much of the pagan mid-winter traditions that have become mainstream today, were largely forgotten. In Yorkshire, Wales, Cumbria, and Cornwall, however there were Chistmas and mid-winter folk-traditions stretching back hundreds of years, with many traditional folk-carols, music and rural traditions connected with the birth of Christ and the winter solstice now being revived. In Cornwall some Christmas church services now include the ancient traditional carols, and at the recently revived Montol festival in Penzance, a special choir has been formed to sing these Cornish folk carols.

In Yorkshire, many pubs now encourage the singing of folk carols at Christmas, and in South Wales the festival was known as Y Gwyliau, and would often be the only prolonged holiday in the year when most of Wales made merry to commemorate the end of the year and looked forward to the next one with all agricultural work grinding to a halt for this much anticipated season.

Native evergreens have been collected for decorating the home during the Gwyliau for thousands of years. Ivy, holly, yew and mistletoe have a mystical ability to produce fruit in the depths of winter and were a symbol of the eternal cycle of life on earth.

One of the most celebrated and terrifying sights to travel around the narrow alley ways and winding roads of South Wales was the Mari Lwyd. A horse's head, festooned by a white sheet, ribbons and bells with its jaws set in a trap to make that all important snapping; the Mari Lwyd is an integral and mythical part of the Welsh Christmas and New Year festivities.

Mari Lwyd (Welsh Y Fari Lwyd) translates as the Grey Mare and the horse is a highly significant animal or symbol in the mythology of Britain. Carried around Wales by wassail-singing groups of men, Mari Lwyd was an extremely popular figure in parts of south and north east Wales during the last century although the tradition has slowly died out and is today only performed in small pockets of Glamorgan.

The ritual of the Mari Lwyd begins with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd choir, travelling door-to-door soliciting both permission to sing and to gain entry into the houses of the towns and villages. Ale and Cider would be given as gifts, and gradually the whole event would become a community merry-making party! A similar tradition can be found at Aberconwy, in North Wales, where Penglog, (Welsh language: head or skull) assumes a similar role.

Bucca Dhu and Penglaz, Montol 2008

In Cumbria, the St Bees Traditional Mummers have recently revived Mumming and Guising around the pubs of St Bees on Christmas Eve and in Cambridgeshire the East Anglian folk-tradition of Molly Dancing at Christmas and the New Year is once again popular!

Montol hag Nadelik

In Penzance, Cornwall the ancient traditional festivities have been revived as the Montol Festival. Montol is a Cornish word meaning Winter Solstice, and many ancient customs of Nadelik (Cornish language Christmas) have been incorpoated into the modern festival.

Christmas as celebrated by the Cornish prior to the Victorian era had much of the elements we see in the modern Montol. In particular the singing of Carol's (Christmas folk songs as opposed to Christmas Hymns), the lighting of the Mock or Cornish Yule log and its chalking or carving with a stick man symbolic of what has been lost, and is still to come. The candle dance and 'Obby 'Oss also form a central part of the festivities.

Guisers and Musicians in a Chapel Street Hostelry (Photo: Sarah Jenner)

Many from the diverse communities of Penzance come together for this celebration of balance and harmony. It is both a mystical and religious celebration, combining the pagan folk-traditions of old, with the traditional Cornish Christmas observance of the Virgin Birth. This truly is a time of year where old customs and religious observance become entwined and entangled,and Montol is a perfect example of this

Penglaz, the Penzance town 'Oss leads the torchlit candle dance, and Carols are sung up on the Iron Age hillfort above the town, aound the Solstice beacon fire. School children make lanterns, and many folk dress up in traditional guise of mock formal, topsy-turvy or mock tatters. This years festival included Mummers, ghost story telling, guise dancing and the iconic Penglaz, the Night Mare 'Oss of the old ways...

I mentioned in my article The Solstice Goddess of Penzance, about the links we can find between the iconic image of Penglaz and Robert Graves' classic folk-prose-epic The White Goddess, and the sovereignty of the land. Penglaz, as the Goddess of the Dark Winter truly comes alive at this fantastic festival.

The Lord of Misrule and the Christmas Fool
As part of the masking tradition a Lord of Misrule would have been chosen to oversee the revels. He is also known as The Abbot of Unreason. Traditonally selected by the local community by some sort of lottery or game of chance, in many places this Lord would have been accompanied by other "mock" officials, such as the Mock Mayor, as happened at this years Montol festivities in Penzance, where Tony 'Mock' Blair, the towns official Mock Mayor was in attendance alongside the real Mayor and Mayoress and other dignitaries.

The figure of the Lord of Misrule is an ancient archetype, often refered to as the Christmas Fool , and he officiated over the great inbetweenness. The time of chaotic revery at Chistmas and New Year is the perfect in-between-time of the modern age, and so perfectly lends itself to this primordial archetype. He is often seen as the Horned God Capricorn, and he who turns the universe upside-down and bends time unexpectedly! Within this chasm of chaos, infinite possibilities briefly emerge and the modern concept of making new year resolutions maybe an ancient echo of this ritual of new possiblitites and fresh ideas! The Lord of Misrule was prelavent in the Roman rites of Saturnalia, which pre-dated the Christmas feast in ancient times. This feast held many similarities to the revived festivities in Britain today, including all social norms and constraints being cast away, whilst crowds gathered in the streets by the feiry braziers glowing warmly in the winter air. In 15th century France the Christmas Fool wore Asses ears, and was identified with Saturn.

The image of the Holy Fool liberates us all from the profane and mundane, and esoterically he is the Lord of the Night who sows the seeds of the future, whilst sailing upon the Ship of Fools across the landscape of our deepest dreams and desires.

In Cornwall the Lord of Misrule is known as Bucca Dhu, the dark face of the twin faced God of the Year. In Wales he is known as Pwca, and in Cumbria and Yorkshire he is the Boggart.

Montol 2008
This years festival climaxed on Satuday 20th December, after a week of mask making, Christmas late night markets, ghost stories and Mummers plays. The evenings festivities kicked off at St John's Hall at 6pm, where many school children had gathered with the beautiful lanterns they had made. Many people were in traditional guise costume, and the Turkey Rhubarb Band led the procession with traditional music of the Geese or Guise Dancers. The fire procession made its way up to the ancient Lescudjack Hill Fort above the town, where the children created a circle of lanterns around the Solstice beacon, which was set in the centre of the Iron Age Hill Fort. The Master of Ceremonies then said a few words, reminding us that it was the shortest day of the year, the Eve of the feast of St Thomas and that the ancient hill fort we were now occupying was fully in use at the time a child was born away in a manger! Here the Turkey Rhubarb band continued to play their traditional mysterious tunes, whilst Mock Tatters Guise Dancers from the Druid Grove of Bega danced their own peculiar Solstice Dance! The Lord of Misrule then danced around the circle before lighting the Solstice Beacon. The Montol Choir then took centre stage, led by Rev. Julyan Drew. The crowd was in for a treat, as many traditional Cornish Carols (Curls Kernewek) were sung into the sacred night.

Later in the evening Guise Dancing took place in Chapel Street, before the torchlit procession, led by the Golowan band, took shape from the Exchange gallery. As the torch bearers, musicians and guise dancers snaked their way down this historic district of old Penzance; Penglaz, the dark skeletal 'Obby 'Oss of Midwinter joined the magical prosession, led in a mystical trance-dance by Her teazer the androgynous spirit of winter's darkness Bucca Dhu.

Penglaz led us all to the final ceremony of the night. On the Sacred Headland, close to the docks, by the ancient shoreline; the Chalking of the Mock ritual was re-enacted. A serpent dance then weaved its way around the Winter Solstice fire, as Penglaz and Bucca Dhu mysteriously dissapeared into the primeval chaotic darkness of the longest night of the year.


Masks of Misrule by Nigel Jackson
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
Druid Grove of Bega: Winter Solstice Gallery

Montol Lescudjack Beacon
Y Fari Lwyd
Bucca Dhu and Penglaz
Guise Dancers and Musicians (Credit: Sarah Jenner)
Penglaz is teased by Bucca Dhu!
Lord of the Night entranced by Penglaz (Credit: Sarah Jenner)
Chalking the Mock

With grateful thanks to the organisers of this fantastic community festival, without whom, Penzance would surely be a lesser place to be! Contact them here

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Stop the Destruction of the Sacred Heart of Penzance!

The town of Penzance lies at the far south-western edge of Cornwall, overlooking the beautiful and unique Mount's Bay, where the last vestiges of the English Channel melds with the wild Atlantic Ocean. The town's name means holy headland or sacred head, and is traced from the Cornish language Pen Sans. One of the oldest parts of Penzance lies at the sandy beach adjacent to Battery Rocks. It was along this shore on the holy headland where Dark Age Celtic hermits and settlers arrived from Brittany and Ireland. St Buriana, St Gulval, St Paul Aurelian and St Madern are all localised Celtic saints, and it is easy to imagine them landing at this beach in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Sandy Cove, Penzance

Gradually a fishing community was established and the site of an 11th century chapel was discovered where St Anthony's gardens lie, just a few yards from the beach. It was here that the remains of a Celtic cross of late antiquity was discovered. This can now be seen in nearby St Mary's churchyard, at the top of the ancient low-lying cliffs of this holy headland. St Mary's is an 1830's Victorian rebuild, built on the site of a medieval Church. From St Mary's church, the oldest street in the town leads away from the headland towards the modern shopping centre. Chapel Street takes its name from the ancient Celtic chapel by the beach, neither from the Victorian St Mary's nor the neo-classical Wesleyan Chapel, both of which now sit along this old road of beginnings.

Remains of Dark Age cross

It is difficult to understand then, why this ancient sacred heart of the town is about to be completely destroyed. The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company in association with Halcrow Group Limited and Cornwall County Council are developing a project to build over the beach and battery rocks, completely destroying what remains of the ancient sacred headland where Penzance was born. This is one of the towns last pieces of wild shoreline, most of which has been destroyed over the last couple of hundred years of "development". Dolphins and Seals are regularly seen here, and the rock-pools are full of life, with anemones, fish and crabs. The view from this small beach is unsurpassable! St Michael's Mount with the Lizard peninsular stretching out behind is a wildlife paradise. It is difficult to believe that this project is even being considered, as back in the 1950s over half of the existing harbour was filled in to make a car park. This car park remains as a constant reminder of idiotic planning!

The plan now is to build a combined passenger and freight ferry terminal to service the Isles of Scilly, along with another car park and numerous buildings and warehouses. The present Lighthouse pier will be extended, and the beach and rocky headland will be obliterated in the name of so-called "modern progress". So in the 1950s one side of the historic port was ruined, and now in 2008, the proposal is to completely obliterate the other side of the historic harbour and docks at Penzance.

The road leading to and from this historic area to the immediate west of the present docks is totally inadequate for any increase in traffic, and this project will bring increased freight traffic, which in turn will cause many problems on the narrow roads in the Barbican and harbour areas of the town. The existing Isles of Scilly freight and ferry service is more than adequate, and given the lack of space available to add any kind of development at this historic and much loved Cornish port, I believe the plans should be scrapped.

Snakelocks Anemone, Sandy Cove, Penzance

The Route Partnership Proposal Isles of Scilly Link has come up with the worst possible option for Penzance in spite of hundreds of thousands of pounds being given to Hyder Consulting (UK) and others. The council tax paying residents of Penzance and Cornwall are expected to pay millions of pounds to guarantee the funding from the Department for Transport for this project. It does not remove traffic congestion from Penzance, in fact it will only increase it! They propose a development that is detrimental to Penzance sea front and will destroy the valuable and irreplaceable beach and Battery Rocks. It will ruin the setting of many listed buildings - the Lighthouse Pier, Jubilee Pool, and the Promenade. The war memorial, which sits between the beach and the art deco splendour of Jubilee Pool, will be lost amongst the new buildings, not very respectful to those who lost their lives during two world wars!

So what about the archaeology of the site? As mentioned the remains of a dark age cross was found at this site. If this project goes ahead, any remaining archaeological discoveries will be lost forever. Penzance thrives on the tourist industry, and the people who visit, do so because they are interested in the unique history of the place. If we allow part of the towns history to be destroyed, what will that tell future visitors about us? It is also worth remembering that this beach falls on the so-called St Michael/Beltane Line, a loose alignment of ancient sacred sites spanning the entire length of Southern Britain.

Autumn Equinox Sunrise from Sandy Cove, Penzance

So what can we do?

There is now an online petition courtesy of the Save the Holy Headland group. The petition is to the Secretary of State for the Environment and is requesting the rejection of a proposal put forward by the Route Partnership to build a passenger terminal and warehouses over Sandy Cove! The whole beach and rock pools would be buried under metres of concrete and obliterated forever. This proposal was rejected in 2004 by local people but since then plans have been going through without the townsfolk direct involvement. I know that this project will not affect people outside of Penzance but it is a stand against private companies who believe that their money can buy anything! We cannot simply stand by and do nothing to protect our ancient shoreline. A shoreline littered with the ghosts of dark-age Celtic hermits and the founding souls of this ancient settlement; a place where the sacred landscape and diverse wildlife of the sea meet and merge!

If you feel you could support this cause then please click on the link below and sign the petition.

Sign the online petition now by clicking this link here

Protest now by writing to the following:

Andrew George MP, Trewella, 18 Mennaye Rd, Penzance TR18 4NG. Tel: 01736 360020 Fax: 01736 332866

Secretary of State for the Environment. The Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR

Keep up to date with the latest developments by subscribing to the online newsletter on this site

If you are local, visit the beach, take photos of the wildlife and protest, tell people and keep in touch.

It was reported in last weeks Cornishman newspaper (20/11/08 ) that due to massive public opposition, the plans have been put on hold whilst further consultation is held with the public!

Let's keep up the pressure by continuing to protest and lets hope for a sensible outcome.

This article first apeared in Heritage Action's Heritage Journal here