Tuesday 22 December 2009

Ana’s Christmas Message

Since I’m now about to sign off for the season I just thought I would wish each and every one of you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Tomorrow I’m off to join the rest of my family in a beautiful old manor house in deepest Sussex for our traditional jollifications, a real English Christmas, the sort of thing that mother does so well. It’s not quite as Belloc describes it in his lovely essay A Remaining Christmas, but it’s not far off.

On the Feast of Stephen my boyfriend and I leave with some good friends for a spot of skiing in Val d'Isère, which will take me through the New Year, returning home on 4 January. So, I’ll leave you a seasonal offering from Loreena McKennitt, one of my favourite singers. Snow is a particularly lovely song. You may feel that you’ve had enough of the stuff lately but do listen. The lyrics are adapted from the poem of the same name by Archibald Lampman.

White are the far-off plains, and white
The fading forests grow;
The wind dies out along the height,
And denser still the snow,
A gathering weight on roof and tree,
Falls down scarce audibly.

The road before me smooths and fills
Apace, and all about
The fences dwindle, and the hills
Are blotted slowly out;
The naked trees loom spectrally
Into the dim white sky.

The meadows and far-sheeted streams
Lie still without a sound;
Like some soft minister of dreams
The snow-fall hoods me round;
In wood and water, earth and air,
A silence everywhere.

Save when at lonely intervals
Some farmer's sleigh, urged on,
With rustling runners and sharp bells,
Swings by me and is gone;
Or from the empty waste I hear
A sound remote and clear;

The barking of a dog, or call
To cattle, sharply pealed,
Borne echoing from some wayside stall
Or barnyard far a-field;
Then all is silent, and the snow
Falls, settling soft and slow.

The evening deepens, and the gray
Folds closer earth and sky;
The world seems shrouded far away;
Its noises sleep, and I,
As secret as yon buried stream,
Plod dumbly on, and dream.

Zapping Clouds

I managed to catch that tub-thumping clot Hugo Chávez doing his bit in Copenhagen, looking every bit like the cheap gangster he so clearly is. He continues to ‘do his bit’ in Venezuela, his fiefdom, looking for scapegoats to explain away the miserable failure of his socialist tyranny, to explain away the fact that this oil-rich country is plagued by power cuts and water shortages.

There is a Chávez-style solution for the latter. Venezuelans have been told to stop singing in the shower, thus cutting down the time spent there. Meanwhile, El Comandante will fly with Cuban scientists, zapping clouds to make them rain. You think I’m joking? No, I’m not! He’s also warned Venezuelans to watch out for fat people, seemingly another cause of the country’s woes. The latter I take to be an indication that resources are being unequally distributed, the fatties getting more, a fair assumption when one looks at the presidential torso.

He’s a joke; his government is a joke, though some of his attempted scapegoating carries potentially serious consequences, including his admonition for the country to prepare for war with neighbouring Colombia. But the woes of Venezuela have nothing do with showering divas, fatties or Columbians and everything to do with the promotion of ‘Chavistas’ to important posts for which they are totally unfitted. Rubbish rots in the streets and inflation is now well into double figures. The inefficient command economy has encouraged a vibrant black market in a country that already has a horrific crime rate, with Caracas being one of the most violent cities on earth.

It’s the usual story with socialists and socialism everywhere, the usual story of geese and golden eggs, creating poverty where once was riches. To do this in a place like Venezuela really is some achievement. I suspect that Chávez would even turn El Dorado into the land of dust. Not much to sing in the shower about. :-))

Death on the Metro

I’ve not long finished a truly beguiling article in the January issue of History Today, written jointly by Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle. Headed Murder in the Métro, it concerns the mysterious fate of one Laetitia Toureaux, found dying in May 1937 in a first class carriage with a knife through her neck, in what shows every sign of being a professional assassination. The crime caused a sensation at the time because it was the first ever murder in the Métro and because the French press played the crime up in lurid detail thereafter. Although heavily investigated at the time no witness was ever found and no convincing suspect was ever produced. It is a crime that remains unsolved to this day.

The death of Laetitia could so easily have been forgotten like so many others, then and since, as history and events quickly pass over such small and personal tragedies. But it’s a crime that casts a little light into some of the darker corners of pre-war French political life, to a world of violent intrigue, terrorism and counter-revolution.

Laetitia herself, who was twenty-nine years old at the time of her death, was found to have some very shady political associations. Of working-class background and Italian origin, she worked in a glue factory during the day though she clearly ambitious to improve her condition. She was a social climber slightly on the model of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. She also liked to socialise in some of the nightclubs in the more sordid parts of Paris, in places where she was known as ‘Yolande’ by the pimps and prostitutes. It was also in these places that she met men who shared her right-wing politics, the fascism she professed. At some point in 1936 she became the lover of Gabriel Jeantet, a wealthy intellectual with political ambitions and extreme right-wing views. But Laetitia was a dangerous commodity; for she was also a paid police spy, a mouche, to use the contemporary jargon.

In the January after her murder, with the case not that much further forward, the police began to suspect that her death had political overtones, that it was a professional assassination linked with the murder in the same year of Dmitri Navachine, a Russian economist, and Carlo and Nello Rosselli, two Italian anti-fascist exiles. The murders of the Navachie and the Roselli were traced to the extreme-right Comité secret d'action révolutionnaire, better known as the ‘Cagoule’ , the ‘hooded ones’, an orgnaisation violently opposed to the Third Republic and the then Popular Front government of Leon Blum. One of their aims was to overthrow the government by violent terrorist action. Jeantet, Laetitia’s boyfriend, was in charge of arms-smuggling operations.

In 1936 and 1937 the Cagoule was responsible for a series of crimes, including bombings in Paris and at least seven murders. On more than one occasion they attempted to assassinate Blum himself. Throughout France Cagoule militias stockpiled arms with the help and support of Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy. Jeantet met Mussolini in person on a number of occasions and may have brought Laetitia with him on at least one of these occasions.

After an abortive attempt to start an anti-government rising in November 1937, a number of Cagoulards were arrested. Under interrogation two of them, Rene Locuty and Frenand Jakubiez, swore that the organisation was also responsible for the murder of Laetitia. According to their testimony she was killed by Jean Filliol, the Cagoule’s principal hit-man, because it had been discovered that she was a police spy. Even with such a solid lead the case was still closed, an action which the authors put down to the complex politics of France before, during and after the Second World War. The Cagoule leaders were simply too well connected to pursue for the murder of an Italian immigrant with, as the authors put it, a shady love life and a penchant for espionage.

So, on the face of it looks as if Laetitia was no more than the victim of her circumstances. Doubts remain, though, over the exact circumstances leading to her death. There is reason to suppose, as Finley-Croswhite and Brunelle suggest, that it was not the Cagoule but the Italian Secret Service that was responsible for her death. The Cagoule, as a terrorist organisation, had little in the way of subtlety; its crimes, including its murders were open and excessive. Its victims were stabbed, bludgeoned or blown up.

Laetitia, in contrast, was killed in a highly professional manner by a silent and anonymous assassin, who left barely a trace of blood before the police pulled the knife from the dying woman’s neck. At the time the police investigation discovered that she had fallen foul not just of the Cagoule but of the Italians. She was known to have inside knowledge of the plan to assassinate the Roselli. It was also known not long after that she was a police informer. The suggestion is that rather than trust the Cagoulards with her disposal-there had already been two abortive attacks on her-the Italians brought in their own operative. Again, though this was a reasonable conclusion, it was not pursued because of the sensitive diplomatic implications. Laetitia was a little person caught in big events, of no importance to anyone.

So, this poor women’s personal tragedy was caught up in the history and politics of France and Italy. After the war her story was forgotten at a time when France was going through a collective ‘memory loss’ over so many aspects of its recent past. After all, even people as highly placed and respected as Francois Mitterrand had close ties with many members of the Cagoule in his youth. The story of Laetitia, as the authors conclude, forms part of France’s refusal to come to terms with the interwar era when so many French people sympathised with extreme right wing politics, fascism and anti-Semitism. With the passing of this generation a new willingness has arisen to look afresh at the past.

Freya of the Witches

Freya, the daughter of Njord and Herta, of the Sea and of the Earth, is the most beautiful and revered of the Norse pantheon, a kind of Viking Venus, with dominion over love, sex, pleasure and fertility. She also has dominion over death, magic, glory and-perhaps most important of all-over witches and witchcraft. From the moment of her arrival in Asgard, the home of the gods, she is immediately identified as a witch, teaching her fellow immortals how to craft charms and potions. It was she who introduced Odin to runes and shamanism.

Most of the other surviving Norse goddesses survive only as ‘wives. Freya, in contrast, answers to no-one. She was married but Od, her husband, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She travels through the heavens in her independent course on a chariot pulled by two large gray cats, Bee-gold (Honey) and Tree-gold (Amber) said to embody her twin qualities of ferocity and fecundity. She also rides a boar into battle, as does her brother, Freyr. Her sacred day is Friday and her sacred number is thirteen. Hence the malevolent associations of Friday the thirteenth by the Christians!

The Christians held a particular fear of Freya and all she stood for, which paradoxically has meant she continued to have a far more vivid presence over time than many other Pagan deities. Constant condemnation, in other words, stopped her slipping into obscurity. In the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, she was even described as a ‘bitch goddess’ by one Christian in the debates leading up to the adoption of the new faith.

Freya was continuously denounced as a Queen of Witches, automatically branding women who revered her as practitioners of the art. But her cult proved particularly resilient. Snorri Sturlsson, the thirteenth century Icelandic chronicler, says that she was the most renowned of all of the goddesses, still worshipped in his day. Her last surviving temple at Magdeburg was destroyed by Charlemagne in the eighth century AD but amazingly as late as 1688 it was claimed that the ‘worship of Frau Venus’ was still live in the area.

Though banished from the mountain peaks of Norway but she continued to dance with her devotees in The Brocken, the highest peak of Germany’s Harz Mountains, where she presides over the annual Midsummer and Walpurgis festivities. She is among the most beloved of deities for Neo-pagans.

Monday 21 December 2009

The Congress of Mice

The past is a foreign country; they do things better there. Oh, yes they do. Anyone with any sense at all could have predicated that the massive jamboree at Copenhagen would be utterly pointless. There was never going to be any real substance but where was the style, where was the glamour, where was the panache? How utterly insignificant they all seemed, the leaders of our world, what silly little pygmies trying to cut a figure on the stage of history. What a joke the whole thing was, what a total scream, the place packed with polar bears representing one group of global warming fascists or another.

I loved Gerald Warner’s suggestion that Copenhagen was an attempt to recreate the Congress of Vienna with a cast of third-rate extras. The climate itself seemed to be laughing at them, showering England in snow and giving us the coldest December days in years! What a cast there was at the 1815 Congress: the great Prince Metternich for Austria; Castlereagh and Wellington for England, Talleyrand for France. Even Tsar Alexander of Russia, not the most intelligent of autocrats, casts a shadow like a colossus from the past across Obama, Brown and the rest of the vulgar and mediocre Copenhagen crew.

This congress of mice was never about saving the world, no, it was cheap and undignified haggling over money, over who gets what, with a touch of added blackmail, tantrums and phony histrionics. It was quite simply, as Warner says, about blatant greed and naked self-interest, the so-called developing world, which never seems to develop, attempting to extort as much as it can from rest; a modern form of Danegled that will go into the vaults of some dictator or corrupt politician-you chose; there are so many-to buy limos in countries that barely have roads.

Think also about the terminology these clots were using. Think about the precise meaning behind the phrase ‘legally binding agreement.’ Now ask yourself one key question: in what fashion can a sovereign state be ‘legally bound’ to cut carbon emissions or anything else for that matter? In what way would breaches of these ‘legally binding agreements’ be addressed? By sanctions? By war? The questions are rhetorical because I don’t know the answers and I’m reasonably certain the mice would not know the answers either, even if they had considered the questions.

The lie of global warming, the pseudo-science behind it, is without doubt the greatest scandal of our age, through it may take years before the world wakes to this simple truth. Meanwhile the warmists will continue to spread panic and despond as a way of pushing ‘green taxes’ ever higher, as a way of sucking the life out the western economy, of moving resources from the productive to the wasteful. But who is prepared to stand against this; who is prepared to challenge the bogus orthodoxy? None from the congress of mice, of that we can be certain.

Stalin and the Nudes

I mentioned in a previous blog that I’m reading Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, an account of Stain’s Purge of the mid to late 1930s, the latest in a series of books I have read on the dictator’s life and career. I think, on a rough calculation, that I have now read more books and articles on Stalin than I have on Hitler.

While I cannot truly claim to know what motivated the latter I think I have a slightly better understanding of him than I do of the former. Stalin, I have to say, as a human being, remains a complete enigma. The core question, one I simply cannot answer, is why would such a man, cruel, vindictive and malevolent to a quite unbelievable degree, ever have embraced an ideology like Marxism, which, no matter how perverse, advances a model of human enlightenment and liberation? All I will say is that Stalin is a figure who can only be understood in the context of Russian history, in all of its grandeur and all of its tragedy.

Now a little piece in Saturday’s Telegraph complicates the picture still further. Stalin, I know, liked to doodle when he was thinking. What I did not know was that he took classical nude drawings and defaced them with messages ridiculing opponents and colleagues. These ‘art works’ have now gone on exhibition in Moscow.

On one of the nude male figures Stalin has written “Ginger bastard Radek, if he had not pissed against the wind, if he had not been angry, he would still be alive.” Karl Radek, a former Secretary of the Comintern and one-time supporter of Trotsky, was jailed for ten years in the second Moscow Show Trial but never emerged alive from the labour camps.

In a sketch of a bearded nude man Stalin has drawn a red inverted triangle over his penis with the comment “Why are you so thin?” According to experts the insult was specifically directed at Mikhail Kalinin, one of the dictator’s own circle, a nonentity who served as the nominal head of state from 1919 to his death in 1946.

I’m not sure what these drawings tell us other than perhaps to throw a little more light on the darker recesses of the tyrant’s psyche.

Mother Diana

Diana, Mother of the Forest, is the one spirit most associated with witchcraft. Revered by the Romans and closely identified with Artemis, the Greek goddess, Diana is unique to Italy, originating, perhaps, with the Etruscans.

Although Diana has the same attributes as Artemis her associations with night, darkness and magic are much stronger. Also she lacks the virginal aspect of the Artemis cult, being much earthier in that particular respect!

In Celtic Europe the goddess was worshiped in the form of a log. Though revered by women she was also worshipped by men. Werewolves might conceivably be wolf-shamans or lunar priests dedicated to Diana.

Although Diana emerged as a local deity in Italy she became popular across Roman Europe, so much so that the early Christians saw her as one of their greatest rivals. So, when they achieved political power in the late Empire, Diana was one of the ancient deities most reviled.

Her association with witches meant that her name continued to be evoked during the great witch hunts of the medieval and early modern periods. She was described by the Inquisition as Satan’s bride. In 1487 Tomas de Torquemada, one of the most loathsome of all the Inquisitors, went a step further, saying that Diana was the Devil. Indeed another term used by the Inquisition to describe witches was the Society of Diana.

But despite the intensity of the persecution the devotion to Diana survived the Burning Times. Now she is among the most beloved of deities, central to the witchcraft tradition in Italy and elsewhere.

The Sun Still Stands

Today, 21 December, marks the winter solstice, the shortest day, the heart of the ancient Germanic rite of Yule. It is the first day of winter and the Great Hunter God has been reborn. From tomorrow the earth begins to turn as we move by steady degrees to the summer solstice, the earth filling with new life. The sun still stands.

The Heimskringla, one of the great Norse sagas, describes how Yule was celebrated in the times gone by;

It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut [ sacrificial blood ], and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and served as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lighted in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat.

It was also traditional to burn a Yule log on the eve of the solstice. The log itself has ancient sacred associations. In the Roman world Dian and Hera were once worshipped in the shape of a log. In the northern world the Yule log has opowerful associations with Frigg, the wife of Odin. The log is incorporated into fertility spells as well as spells for protection. Once burnt the ashes should be kept until the following Yule, as it is said to bring prosperity and protection from evil.

Anyway, a blessed Yule to one and all. :-)

Sunday 20 December 2009

The Murdered Communist and the Headless Corpse

I was fascinated to discover in reading The Telegraph on Saturday that prosecutors in Germany are reexamining the case of Rosa Luxemburg, the communist leader who was murdered by the Freikorps after an abortive rising ninety years ago. It’s now being claimed that her corpse was replaced at the time with that of another woman.

Coroners from the state prosecutors’ office in Berlin are to perform an autopsy on a headless corpse found in the basement of the city’s Charité Hospital. In 1919 what was alleged to be the remains of Luxemburg was found in the Landwehr Canal, four months after it had been thrown in. There was never a positive identification and the government of the day, anxious to prevent any political fallout at a sensitive time, rushed through the investigation, putting pressure on the forensic examiner to go along with the official line.

Michael Toskos, the Charité’s head of forensic medicine, says that the 1919 corpse was the wrong dimensions for Luxemburg, going on to say that the body the hospital has fits all the right descriptions. The 1919 body was buried in Berlin’s Friedrichsfelde Cemetery, along with that of Karl Liebknecht, at a spot where left-wing pilgrims gather in commemoration every 15 January.

The issue was so historically sensitive because although Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered by a right wing militia it was acting on the authority of Friedrich Ebert, the Chancellor, and Gustav Noske, the Minister of Defence, both members of the mainstream SPD, the Social Democratic Party, who felt just as threatened by the extreme left. Captain Waldemar Pabst of the Freikorps' Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision, who gave the order for the execution, always maintained that his actions were specifically approved by Ebert and Noske. It was most certainly in their interests to have the aftermath dealt with in the most expeditious manner possible.

The question now remaining is that if the Charité corpse truly is Luxemburg who have the lefties been worshipping all these years; who is the unknown woman? We are never likely to know the answer.

Frustrated Citizen

I saw Law Abiding Citizen over the weekend, a movie directed by F. Gary Gray. It tells the story of one Clyde Shelton, played by Gerard Butler, whose home is invaded by a couple of thugs who wound him and gratuitously murder his wife and infant daughter.

Although caught and put on trail one of the killers subsequently cheats the death penalty by giving evidence against the other, in a self-serving deal cut by Nick Rice, the prosecutor, played by Jamie Foxx. Shocked by this perceived betrayal, by this mockery of justice, Shelton pleads with Foxx to pursue the case against Clarence Darby, the informer, played by Christian Stolte, who is in fact the principal killer.

Rice, who remains emotionally unengaged in his professionalism, says that it does not matter what is right; it only matters what can be proved in court and that’s how the criminal justice system works. Shelton later sees Rice shake hands with Darby, convicted of third-degree murder, an action which compounds his sense of betrayal. This is a key scene and, in a sense, the beginning of the absurdity. I simply cannot conceive of Rice who, while coolly detached and methodical, is an essentially decent man, shaking hands with a character as loathsome as Darby, no matter the circumstances.

What follows, though ten years after, is a campaign of revenge, not just against the killers, but against the whole justice system, increasingly gothic, and increasingly ludicrous, in its intensity. The premise is good: that an ordinary citizen can be frustrated by the cynicism and compromises of the law. The conclusion is ridiculous: that this same citizen has the capacity and the expertise to turn the system inside out, hitting out at targets without proportion or discrimination.

The point of the movie was simply lost in an orgy of violence, some of it truly laughable in the total absence of verisimilitude. Shelton, in his desire for justice and revenge, becomes just as bad in his own way as Darby, the psychopath he captures and dissects alive.

It’s torture porn, violence for the sake of violence. All the sympathy I had for Shelton at the beginning was exhausted by the end. Still, it’s as well to see this movie as a kind of symptom, perhaps like the earlier Death Wish, a sign that the law is often perceived to be serving its own ends, not the ends of justice. The law was built to replace more primitive forms of revenge and vendetta. If it turns into a something else, a means by which people often escape the consequences of their actions through procedural loopholes and shabby compromises, then the urge for revenge and vendetta will once again take its place.

The Artists and the Revolutionary

When I was in Mexico city a couple of years ago one of the places I visited was La Casa Azul –the Blue House-in the suburb of Coyoacán, where Frida Khalo, the painter, was born and where she lived for so many years with Diego Rivera, her husband and Mexico’s greates muralists.

I also visited, not too far away, the house that Leon Trotsky lived in during the last part of his Mexican exile, where he was murdered with an ice pick, and in the grounds of which he is now buried. Both of these palaces are now museums. The Trotsky museum is particularly poignant in that the bullet holes from an earlier assassination attempt that same year can still be seen on the walls of one of the bedrooms.

The destiny of the artists and the revolutionary were closely connected. Trotsky, under permanent threat from the Stalinists, found refuge in Mexico after Rivera intervened on his behalf with President Lázaro Cárdenas. Once there he and Natalia Sedova, his wife, were accommodated by Frieda and Diego in the Blue House.

Frida had a brief affair with Trotsky in the summer of 1937, not long after he came to Mexico, sometimes suggested as the reason for his break with Rivera. But this did not come until the winter of 1938-39, while Frida was absent at an exhibition of her work in New York and then Paris.

The breach, according to Hayden Herrera, the author of Frida, was caused by a combination of personal and political differences. Rivera had an expansive personality, one that did not harmonise well with that of the didactic and humourless Trotsky. More and more the two men came into open disagreement, over the nature of the Soviet state, over trade union work, and over Rivera's support for Francisco Mujica's bid for the Mexican presidency.

But these disagreements in point of detail came down to one big thing: Riviera was simply not the kind of man who could fit easily within the narrow political and personal discipline demanded by people like Trotsky. He was, as he told the old Bolshevik, 'a bit of an anarchist', which is as good an assessment of his politics-and his personality-as any. In Paris Frida reported the breach in a letter to a friend "Diego has now fought with the Fourth International and told piochitas [Trotsky] to go to hell in a very serious manner." And as far as she was concerned he was completely right, despite their earlier relationship.

It was after this that Trotsky and Natalia moved to the house in Avenida Viena, a place that was effectively turned into a fortress. It was there in February 1940 that he wrote what was to become known as Trotsky’s Testament, which concludes by thanking his wife before descending in to whimsy;

In addition to the happiness of being a fighter for the cause of socialism, fate gave me the happiness of being her husband. During the almost forty years of our life together she remained an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity, and tenderness. She underwent great sufferings, especially in the last period of our lives. But I find some comfort in the fact that she also knew days of happiness.

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

Standing in that place, in the room where he was so brutally murdered it is possible to feel something of the personal tragedy of the man, of the tragedy of the history. But one has to reflect that, in his days of power, it was he who denied life to others, who acted in a brutal and oppressive fashion, a fashion that closed so many futures forever. Too much was sacrificed on that abstract alter to which he dedicated his life, the alter of a frightful idol. We all, each and every one of us, only ever live in a perpetual present. It is a terrible thing to destroy others in the name of a bloodless utopia.

The Magic of Mistletoe

Mistletoe, for reasons that will become apparent as I proceed, is also known as Witch’s Branch or Witch’s Broom. Widely scattered from Northern Europe, parts of North Africa and all the way to Japan, it has long been considered to have magical properties wherever it is found.

It’s unique for one simple reason: it’s not a ‘plant’ understood to be an organic life growing on the face of the Earth. Rather it’s a parasite that attaches itself to trees, and eventually may suck the life out of them. In this sense the identification with witchcraft has distinctly megative connotations. The poisionous berries are also known in Geraman as ‘witches berries.’

Mistletoe was sacred to both the Romans and the Greeks, who believed that it originated from the lightning that struck the trees. It thus reprsesented life energy and generative, magical power. According to Sir James Frazer, authour of The Golden Bough, it was also sacred to Diana, Queen of the Witches.

It was nicknamed ‘thunderbroom’ by the Celts, uniting male and female sexual symbolism. It is the one plant most associtated with the magic of the Druids, who believed it inauspicious for mistletoe ever to touch the ground.

In Germanic tradition it was closely associated with the goddess Freya, bringer of love and fertility. The imagry here is complex, because there are two sides to Freya, light and dark: she brings life but she also brings death.

Because of its pagan associataions, and because of the skill required in its magical preparation, it became closely associated with witchcraft medicine and the magical arts in general. It’s really only on Christmas Eve that it becomes a stimulant for love and romance. :-)

Thursday 17 December 2009

Brown Days, a new Gotterdammerung

We are witnessing an interesting process of degeneration at the present, or a reverse metamorphosis: New Labour, the Blair Project, is dying by rapid degrees. In its place the Old Labour Adam is re-emerging, blinking in to the light, full of ancient class resentments, full of old war cries. Yes, the Blair Project is dead; the Brown Project arises.

What we have before us is the manifesto of the grudge trawled up from the past. Tories are to be attacked and pilloried as public school toffs, one element of a two-pronged strategy, the other being an attack on the rich and the successful, first outlined in last year’s pre-budget report (PBR), when a new top rate of income tax was conjured into existence. The attack on bankers and banker’s bonuses, a popular target just at the present, also falls within this general rubric.

The assumption with both is that Britain, the British people, are full of the same cringing sense of inferiority and resentment that is such a part Gloomy Gordon’s repressive Presbyerian personality. I rather suspect that his resentment of Tony Blair was as deeply rooted in personal jealousy as anything else. After all, Blair went to a public school and he did not. He is just, to use that frightful phrase, a ‘son of the manse.’ So the attack on Cameron and the Etonians proceeds from the assumption that they are weird and different and he is not!

The strategy is so narrowly conceived that all but a one-eyed and blinkered man could see. Yes, it will buy votes among those who hate toffs and bankers but these are the kind of people who would vote Labour anyway. Labour for them is no more than the political expression of resentment. Class for Brown, as The Economist rightly says, is a bit like immigration for the Tories: the people who are pleased to hear him talk about it were already listening anyway.

Meanwhile, the bankers, those dreaded bankers, have become another of Gloomy Gordon’s scapegoats. Let’s all focus on those bonuses while the country slips steadily into the worst debt crisis in its history. Darling Darling’s latest PBR had absolutely nothing to do with the country’s finances and everything to do with this wretched government’s desperate attempts to cling on to power. Even Charles Clarke has said that Brown was frightened of allowing the Chancellor to present the full picture because he is frightened of the voters’ reactions. Instead even more spending was promised while the Bank of England, the OECD and the IMF and credit-rating agencies have all warned that the continuing growth in borrowing is unsustainable. If-God help us all-Labour win the election we will all soon find out exactly how unsustainable it is, especially the voting fodder in the ‘public’ services.

Let us look towards spring. There is the Leader in his bunker, doing his best to ignore the distant echoes of enemy artillery while he plays with his models and pours over his maps, planning a future that will never come, a victory that will never come. There he is spilling venom, blaming everyone but himself for the disaster that has descended on the country. There he is a sad, wretched little man, permanently unfulfilled, permanently resentful, now on the down sweep of history. There he is, the son of the manse.

Little Devils

Imps are little devils, an expression that means something quite different now than it did in the past. For, you see, little devils were literally little devils!

Traditionally imps were small; demons who served witches as familiars. They were able to fly through the air and, invisible to all, spread mayhem and destruction along the way. In those parts of Europe where witchcraft was closely associated with devil worship the belief was that a new witch, in attending her first sabbat, was personally given an imp by Satan himself. The imp was not so much a servant as a master, ensuring that the witch carried out her quota of wicked deeds.

Imps were also little vampires that had to be nourished with blood. The host was obliged to feed them, milk if they were mothers, blood if they were not. It was supposed that the witch grew an extra nipple specifically for her imp, located anywhere on the body. The search for this added nipple became one of the features of the witch-trials.

If the witch herself was unable to supply sufficient fluid the imp would set off on its own hunt, preying on local livestock, sucking them completely dry. On these hunts they would travel in the shape of familiar animals, bats, ferrets, hedgehogs or cats. Hence the continuing superstition that certain animals are harmful to cattle. Hedgehogs are still believed to steal cow’s milk, as are bats.

The image of the imp is most probably rooted in older folk beliefs, that of the shape-shifting spirits, not malevolent but friendly and helpful. In pagan Europe households as far apart as Lithuania and Italy once cherished snake spirits as household helpers. In Finland the Para were domestic spirits who assumed the shape of cats, frogs or snakes. In later folklore the Para were transmuted into goblins, magical and beneficial creatures.

As the horror of the witch trials, and the fear and ignorance that motivated them, slipped into the past the imp re-emerged in her original form, a figure of fun, mischief and humour, though sometimes with an acidy and sardonic edge. They entered popular imagination in Victorian times in Halloween postcards, shown not as animals but as red devils. One can find this kind of imp, fun-loving, lascivious and joyful, drawn to perfection The Halloween Tarot by Kipling West.