Most countries in Europe have places where they celebrate their bizarre old traditions. But Britain, despite it's rich history, has no properly funded institution where people can research and celebrate our native traditions and vernacular arts.
Simon Costin is a remarkable individual who has devoted his life to the accumulation of information and artifacts relating to ancient rites and festivals that occur around these Isles every year, some of which are centuries old.
"I intend to establish a permanent collection and national exhibition centre that celebrates and promotes the Folk Culture of the British Isles." he claims. But for now, his museum is on the road. He takes his caravan of artifacts and books around the country to various village fetes in an effort to spread information about these fascinating traditions before they are lost.
Why is it Britain doesn't already have a museum of folklore?
Simon: I suspect there are a number of reasons for our not having any kind of permanent research facility here in the UK. Firstly, the very subject of folklore is perhaps a difficult one to be represented within a museum context. It would come under the heading of 'Intangible Heritage'.
There are very few objects or representative artefacts associated with our annual customs that are not either still in use or that are only constructed for the duration of the event and are then destroyed. Things such as the figure of the Jack from May Day's Jack in the Green, Well Dressing's, Garlands, Lewes Bonfire figures, Punkie Day carved turnips etc, all only exist while the festival is happening. This presents a problem for museums. Should the objects themselves be sourced and preserved in some way? Is there legitimacy is replica's being made? So there is a problem from a curatorial point of view as to the kinds of objects that can and should be displayed. This may have discouraged people from tackling the subject in the past.
Another reason could be the way the media has trivialised folk customs in the press, only choosing to highlight the nation's ambivalent attitude towards Morris Dancing or reporting on the casualties of cheese rolling for instance. There have been very few in depth reports, possibly because lazy journalists find it easier to ridicule than study.
do you think that interest in folklore is tainted by political associations?
Recently, far right groups such as the BNP, have taken to selling the CD's of various folk musicians at their meetings and attaching spurious meanings to 'Traditional' British songs. This has prompted the formation of a group called Folk Against Fascism which has gained a strong following within the folk community, who are keen to point out that they have absolutely nothing in common with the ideology of the far right.
That the playing of traditional music should be co-opted by a group such as the BNP is of no surprise and it could be argued that in Britain today anything deemed to be in celebration of certain parts of the UK's national culture has been tainted by the far right, to the point where even the word 'British' carries negative undertows. That can be said of any national symbols which become corrupted by political groups.
Folklore is something that is created by the people living in a specific culture and is a universal phenomena with many cross overs with other nationalities. After all, it deals with universal themes, the coming of summer and the beginning of winter, celebrations of life and memorials for the dead. The origins of that most British dance form, the Morris, are thought to have derived from the Morrish dances of North Africa. St. George was possibly a Roman or a Turkish solider who never even visited the UK. Small minded political groups who would deny this world view do so by showing their ignorance and intolerance.
How is folklore relevant to British people today?
Folklore can be said to be a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating mostly outside of commercial and academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore.
Folklore is reflected in everything from the names we bear from birth to the names of our local pub. The Green Man for instance. Folklore is the slang we use, the secret languages of gangs from school children to guilds and masonic groups. It is the shaping of everyday experiences in stories swapped around the kitchen table or told on blog sites. Folklore can be a roadside shrine to commemorate a killed pedestrian or the massive public display formed when Princess Diana died. Folklore is the cry of foxhunters as they ride across a field and the weather lore of a farmer. It is scrawled on urban landscapes by graffiti artists or woven into the fabric of churches, mosques and temples. Folklore is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad forms and interactions. Universal, diverse and enduring, it enriches the country and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.
What is your favourite custom/legend in British folklore?
There are far too many to mention but some of my personal favourite customs would have to be Padstow on May Day, the Hastings Jack in the Green Festival, the Barrel Burning in Ottery St. Mary and Lewes Bonfire.
Can you tell us one of the most unusual things you have encountered while touring?
There was nothing particularly unusual as such but certainly one of the most heart warming was the huge amount of support the project was shown from the many thousands of people who visited the caravan and the the way that everybody said the same thing, 'Why is it that so few British people don't seem to value their native customs and traditions like other people in Europe?'
So what plans do you have for the museum in 2010?
I'm planning a series of mini museum exhibitions which would ideally be situated in various houses which are open to the public. The first will be at Port Eliot in Cornwall, where they have the Lit Fest in August. Each show will deal with the folklore of the region and take one or two of the festivals which take part in that area and look at their history and development.
Then at the end of May, opening on the 29th, is an exhibition featuring work by the various artists who have been involved with the museum project to date such as Jonny Hannah, Mark Hearld, Clare Curtis, Riitta Ikonen, Tamsin Abbot etc. This will be at the Hexham Art Gallery for the Folkworks Hexham Gathering.
This book is pretty awesome. It details unusual weapons and military tactics in the ancient world.
“Heaving scorpions by the basketful at attackers was specifically recommended by Leo VI (AD 862-912) in his famous military Tactics handbook.” Romans may also have hurled pots of assassin bugs at their enemies. (182)
Following on from my previous blog, about the spiritual connection we naturally have with nature and therefore rural areas, I think This documentary is relevant. Carl Jung talked about racial memory, and how ancient pagan traditions have resonance in the psychology of their ancestors. Richard Rudgley makes similar speculations in this channel 4 documentary. Some say his arguments require huge jumps in logic in order to form tenuous conclusions. Despite this, no other program on British television deals with the pre-christian history of Northern Europe in as much detail, so fair play to him. I personally recommend his book Pagan Resurrection: A Force for Evil or the Future of Western Spirituality? which is about Odin's role in modern culture.
The most profound realisations I have experienced in my life have come to me in isolation. I love the city, the noise, the women, money, beer, food in abundance and all the resources that can be found. Centuries of history, libraries and museums.
The greatest minds of humanity have depended on these hives of activity for inspiration and learning. It is here that ideas are shared and used to shape the world. But those who live in cities know that the noise can drown out the most significant of epiphanies. That's why all the wisest men of history have gone on a pilgrimage into the wilderness.
Nowadays most go on holiday, sit on the beach, eat greasy food and claim to have "gotten away from it all." Some people go on gap years to "find themselves" but they generally follow a well trodden tourist trail in a hot country, get pissed and hang out with other disillusioned middle class Westerners.
This is a list of hermits who I admire. Each of them took a bold step into the void to be one with nature and to better themselves.
Friedrich Nietzsche - This great German philosopher went into the Swiss alps and lived in a boarding house. He described himself as a hermit. a man of the mountains. One day he descended from the Alpine heights to the town of Turin, and was found to be quite mad. He broke down in tears at the site of a man flogging a horse and rushed over to embrace the beast. Isolation creates genius, but also insanity.
Carl Jung - The founder of modern psychoanalysis and a guru for those who seek to intellectualise the pluralism of spirituality. He was raised in the Swiss alps. Much of his life was spent in the wilderness, either in his rural cottage by a river in Switzerland or exploring Africa, India and Mexico to learn the ways of the gods that are worshipped there and to understand the psychology of man.
Theodore Kaczynski- A terrifying genius, he excelled academically from an early age and was pronounced a child prodigy. He was asked to be a lecturer at his university after he graduated, but soon tired of it, frustrated with people, and the insane society he lived in. In 1971, he moved to a remote cabin, in Lincoln, Montana, without electricity or running water, where he began to learn survival skills in an attempt to become self-sufficient. This all went tits up when new development began eating into the woodland surrounding his little cabin. He was not the type to take this shit lying down so he began a terrorist bombing campaign, sending 16 bombs to universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23. Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times on April 24, 1995 and promised "to desist from terrorism" if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto. In his Industrial Society and Its Future (also called the "Unabomber Manifesto"), he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization.
Timothy Treadwell - This dude was not a genius. He was a washed up actor and an acid casualty, plus he was totally insane, an idiot and refused to accept the fact that bears eat people. Having said this, his determination and resourcefulness are to be admired. To survive without a gun in the Alaskan wilderness in a tent, amongst wolves and grizzlies, is incredible. Although, ultimately this "kind warrior", as he described himself... didn't survive.
Many spiritual disciplines include ritual isolation. This is in keeping with prominent religious figures who preach the value of social isolation and contact with nature.
Jesus Christ - The king of the Jews set off into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. There is a lot of talk of the unleathen bread he ate. LSD is derived from a type of mould that grows on this bread. This whole ordeal has been interpreted by some as Jesus going on a Hunter Thompson style mind bender. Fasting enhances the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and is a major part of many narcotic-related spiritual ceremonies. Jesus looked like a hippy, so this theory seems plausible to me, but The Temptation of Christ has a valuable lesson in it besides "LSD is awesome." The Devil keeps visiting Christ while he is tripping balls in the desert and Jesus resists his offer of comfort and convenience in favour of further suffering.
Buddha - Siddhartha Gautama was a rich boy who snuck out from his palace to mingle with the little people. After witnessing the horrors of existence, from which he had previously been sheltered:- Poverty, sickness and old age, he decided he needed to have a bit of a think. He sat under a tree and pondered on the subject of suffering. After many days he achieved Nirvana and Buddhism was created.
Odin / Wotan / Woden - Norse God of war and poetry. He was worshipped everywhere in Northern Europe from England to Finland and as far south as Germany. His is a story of contemplation and sacrifice that is similar to those of both Christ and Buddha. Odin was the wisest of the Gods, but in order to drink from the well of wisdom in the roots of the world tree, he had to pull out one of his own eyes.
This would be enough for some, but old one eye went a step further and hung himself from the world tree for nine days so that he could learn the secret of runes. He sacrificed himself to himself. Runes are what people in Northern Europe used before the Roman alphabet was introduced. They were believed to be magic. He also stabbed himself with his own spear (fuck knows why). In the ancient poem, Havamal, Odin has this to say on the subject.
" I know that I hanged on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn
downward I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there."