Nehalennia, a Dutch goddess and a safe passage

Nehalennia, a Dutch goddess and a safe passage

Nehalennia is a goddess of unclear origin, perhaps Germanic or Celtic, but also quite possibly an earlier, distinct people (such as those of the Nordwestblock). Gysseling gives her name as likely from the ancient Belgian language. He derives it partly from the Proto-Indo-European *nei- “to lead”, and translates it as either “leader” (“lead” in terms of guiding ships) or “steerwoman”.
Nehalennia is known from more than 160 votive altars, which were almost all discovered in the Dutch province of Zeeland. Two altars were discovered in Cologne, the capital of Germania Inferior. All of them can be dated to the second and early third centuries CE.
Most pieces show a young female figure, sitting on a throne in an apse between two columns, holding a basket of apples on her lap. Nearly always, there is a wolf dog at her side. In some cases, the fruit basket is replaced by something that looks like loaves of bread; in other cases, we can see the woman standing next to a ship or a prow.
Several inscriptions inform us that the votive altar was placed to show gratitude for a safe passage across the North Sea, and we may assume that other altars were dedicated for the same reason. An example of a typical inscription:

To the goddess Nehalennia,
on account of goods duly kept safe,
Marcus Secundinius Silvanus,
trader in pottery with Britain,
fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly.

Hilda Ellis Davidson Davidson links the motif of the ship associated with Nehalennia with the Germanic Vanir pair of Freyr and Freya, as well as the Germanic goddess Nerthus and notes that Nehalennia features some of the same attributes as the Matres.

Hope in fate – Eva Weggelaar

Hope in fate – Eva Weggelaar

My life is just an act of faith;
I paint its cardboard scenery,
add endless detail until it looks quite real to me,
then make sure my colours match, and wait.

For you’re the one who wrote my part;
though I can pencil in my lips and sketch my eyes,
imagine some clothes and ad-lib a few suitable sighs,
without you the play will lack a heart.

If you’d say I come with strings attached, it would be true:
following the movement of your hands,
I’d be only too glad to dance
to any tune you want me to.

In the meantime I dance with your shadow, in the mirror on the wall;
I do it well and make it seem
as if it’s much more than just a dream,
though I know that if you don’t move me, I’ll soon fall.

You’re the only thing that’s real, so let me put my hope in fate;
without the thought of you, nothing would matter
and all my dreamed up limbs would shatter –
just let me wish the curtain won’t go up too late.
-©Eva Weggelaar-

Listen to the audio version of this poem here on youtube

Photograph: Baron Adolph de Meyer, for Vogue

The four-leaved clover

The four-leaved clover

NOT many years since a farmer lived in Bosfrancan in St Burrien, who had a very fine red-and-white cow called Daisey. The cow was always fat, with her dewlaps and udder sweeping the grass. Daisey held her milk from calf to calf; had an udder like a bucket, yet she would never yield more than a gallon or so of milk, when one might plainly see that she had still at least two gallons more in her udder. All at once, when the milk was in full flow, she would give a gentle bleat, cock up her ears, and the milk would stop at once. If the milkmaid tried to get any more from her after that, she would up foot, kick the bucket, and spill all the milk, yet stand as still as a stock, and keep chewing her cud all the time. Everybody would have thought the cow bewitched, if she hadn’t been always fat and held her milk all the year round; besides, everything prospered with the farmer, and all the other cows had more milk than any of the neighbours. No one could tell what the deuce could be the matter with Daisey; and they tried to drive her to Burrien Church-town fair, that they might, be rid of her, as she was always fit for the butchers. All the men and boys on the farm couldn’t get her to Church-town. As fast as they drove her up Alsie Lane, she would take down Cotneywilley, through by the Crean, down the Bottoms, and up the Gilley, and be in the field again before the men and boys would be half way home.

One midsummer’s day in the evening, the maid was later than usual milking, as she had been down to Penberth to the games. The stars were beginning to blink when she finished her task. Daisey was the last cow milked, and the bucket was so full she could scarcely lift it to her head. Before rising from the milking-stool, the maid plucked up a handful of grass and clover to put in the head of her hat, that she might carry the bucket the steadier. She had no sooner placed the hat on her head, than she saw hundreds and thousands of Small People. swarming in all directions about the cow, and dipping their hands into the milk, taking it out on the clover blossoms and sucking them. The grass and clover, all in blossom, reached to the cow’s belly. Hundreds of the little creatures ran up the long grass and clover stems, with buttercups, lady’s smocks, convolvuluses, and foxglove flowers, to catch the milk that Daisey let flow from her four teats, like a shower, among them. Right under the cow’s udder the maid saw one much larger than the others lying on his back, with his heels cocked up to the cow’s belly. She knew he must be a Piskie, because he was laughing, with his mouth open from ear to ear. The little ones were running up and down his legs, filling their cups, and emptying them into the Piskie’s mouth. Hundreds of others were on Daisey’s back, scratching her rump, and tickling her round the horns and behind the ears. Others were smoothing down every hair of her shining coat into its place.

The milkmaid wasn’t much startled to see them, as she had so often heard of fairies, and rather wished to see them. She could have stayed for hours, she said, to look at them dancing about among the clover, which they hardly bent any more than the dew-drops.

The cows were in the field called Park-an-Ventan, close under the house. Her mistress came out into the garden between the field and the house, and called to know what was~ keeping the maid so long. When the maid told what she had seen, her mistress said she couldn’t believe her unless she had found a four-leaved grass. Then the maid thought of the handful of grass in the head of her hat. In looking it over by the candlelight, she found a bunch of three-leaved grass, and one stem with four leaves. They knew that it was nothing strange that she should see the Small People, but they didn’t know what plan to take to get rid of them, so that they might have the whole of Daisey’s milk, till the mistress told her mother about it. Her mother was a very notable old dame, who lived in Church-town. The old woman knew all about witches, fairies, and such things; was noted for being a sharp, careful old body; for when she happened to break the eye of her stocking darning-needle, she would take it to the blacksmith that he might put a new eye to it. The smith always charged her twopence. She would rather pay that than throw it away.

Our Betty told her daughter that everybody knowed that the Small People couldn’t abide the smell of fish, nor the savour of salt or grease; and advised her to rub the cow’s udder with fish brine to drive the Small People away. Well, she did what her mammy told her to do. Better she had let it alone. From that time Daisey would yield all her milk, but she hadn’t the half; nor quarter, so much as before, but took up her udder, so that one could hardly see it below her flanks. Every evening, as soon as the stars began to twinkle, the cow would go round the fields bleating and crying as if she had lost her calf; she became hair-pitched, and pined away to skin and bone before the next Burrien fair, when she was driven to Church-town and sold for next to nothing. I don’t know what became of her afterwards; but nothing throve with the farmer, after his wife had driven the Small People away, as it did before.
-Popular Romances of the West of England-

September – Eva Weggelaar

September – Eva Weggelaar

It’s night and here’s another song:
next to a grey car in an autumn street
you bury your face in a sweater and meet
the words ‘sorry it took me so long’.

The autumn sun touches the frost;
7 o’clock: pull the blanket over me,
take away the early morning tea,
it smells lovely outside and I feel lost.

I think about all the rain that fell on midsummer’s day,
when I wrote to tell you that it promised apples for September,
and now I lie here wondering if you remember
as I search, as always, for something new to say.

I’ll go back to sleep and be the blanket that covers you;
you’ll say ‘not right now’.
Typical. I’ll laugh and love you anyhow,
for babe, my dreams come true.
-©Eva Weggelaar-

Listen to the audio here on youtube

Midsummer superstitious customs

Midsummer superstitious customs

IF on midsummer-eve a young woman takes off the shift which I she has been wearing, and, having washed it, turns its wrong side out, and hangs it in silence over the back of a chair, near the fire, she will see, about midnight, her future husband, who deliberately turns the garment.

If a young lady will, on midsummer-eve, walk backwards into the garden and gather a rose, she has the means of knowing who is to be her husband. The rose must be cautiously sewn up in a paper bag, and put aside in a dark drawer, there to remain until Christmas-day.

On the morning of the Nativity the bag must be carefully opened in silence, and the rose placed by the lady in her bosom. Thus she must wear it to church. Some youngman will either ask for the rose, or take it from her without asking. That young man is destined to become eventually the lady’s husband.

“At eve last midsummer no sleep I sought,
But to the field a bag of hemp-seed brought;
I scatter’d round the seed on every side,
And three times in a trembling accent cried,–
‘This hemp-seed with my virgin hand I sow,
Who shall my true love be, the crop shall mow.’
I straight look’d back, and, if my eyes speak truth,
With his keen scythe behind me came the youth.”
Gay’s Pastoral:.

The practice of sowing hemp-seed on midsummer-eve is not especially a Cornish superstition, yet it was at one time a favourite practice with young women to try the experiment. Many a strange story have I been told as to the result of the sowing, and many a trick could I tell off, which has been played off by young men who had become acquainted with the secret intention of some maidens. I believe there is but little difference in the rude rhyme used on the occasion, —

“Hemp-seed I sow,
Hemp-seed I hoe,”

(the action of sowing the seed and of hoeing it in, must be deliberately gone through) ;–

“And he Who will my true love be,
Come after me and mow.”

A phantom of the true lover will now appear, and of course the maid or maidens retire in wild affright.

If a young unmarried woman stands at midnight on Midsummer-eve in the porch of the parish church, she will see, passing by in procession, every one who will die in the parish during the year. This is so serious an affair that it is not, I believe, often tried. I have, however, heard of young women who have made the experiment. But every one of the stories relate that, coming last in the procession, they have seen shadows of themselves; that from that day forward they have pined, and ere midsummer has again come round, that they have been laid to rest in the village graveyard.
-Popular Romances of the West of England-

Illustration: Ernest Quost

Telling the bees

Telling the bees

“A Bedfordshire woman was telling me the other day,” says a writer in a Northern daily paper, “how her son had been stung all over by bees. ‘And no wonder,’ she said, ‘he never told them he was going to put them in a new ‘ome, and everybody knows that before you goes to put bees in a new ‘ome, you must knock three times on the top of the ‘ive and tell ’em, same as you must tell ’em when anyone dies in the ‘ouse. Ef you don’t, they’ll be spiteful, for bees is understanding creatures, an’ knows what you say to them.”

Yes, in secluded villages, among old people, the bee superstition still exists, but the modern apiarist will have none of it. To him it is a bit of poetry from out of the past. And it has some poetry in it; in fact it is one of the most picturesque of all rural superstitions, and some of them are neither picturesque nor decent. Whittier’s “Telling the Bees” is so good a description of the idea that it is worth quoting in part:–

“Just the same as a month before,
— The house and the trees,
The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,–
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.

Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.

Trembling, I listened: The summer sun
Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we all must go!

Then I said to myself, ‘My Mary weeps
For the dead to-day;
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
The fret and the pain of his age away.’

But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.

And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:
‘Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!'”

Brand does not mention “telling the bees,” nor does Sir Henry Ellis, but the latter has some notes which apparently go further back than the origin of the “telling.” In Molle’s Living Libraries (1621) we read:–“Who would beleeve without superstition (if experience did not make it credible), that most commonly all the bees die in their hives, if the master or mistresse of the house chance to die, except the hives be presently removed into some other place? And yet I know this hath hapned to folke no way stained with superstition.”

Here the bees are not to be told of a death in the house: they die themselves if the hives are not removed. In a later century they do not die, but the hives must be turned round.

I found the following in the “Argus,” a London newspaper, Sept. 13, 1790; “A superstitious custom prevails at every funeral in Devonshire, of turning round the bee-hives that belonged to the deceased, if he had any, and that at the moment the corpse is carrying out of the house. At a funeral some time since, at Collumpton, of a rich old farmer, a laughable circumstance of this sort occurred: for, just as the corpse was placed in the hearse, and the horsemen, to a large number, were drawn up in order for the procession of the funeral, a person called out, ‘Turn the bees,’ when a servant who had no knowledge of such a custom, instead of turning the hives about, lifted them up, and then laid them down on their sides. The bees, thus hastily invaded, instantly attacked and fastened on the horses and their riders. It was in vain they galloped off, the bees as precipitately followed, and left their stings as marks of their indignation. A general confusion took place, attended with loss of hats, wigs, etc., and the corpse during the conflict was left unattended; nor was it till after a considerable time that the funeral attendants could be rallied, in order to proceed to the interment of their deceased friend.”

If one must find a suitable source for all these varying ideas about bees and bee hives, it can only be in the mysteries surrounding the activities and habits of bees, now much better understood than they used to be; and in the manner in which signs of a religious nature were sought and found in daily phenomena. To the intelligence of the peasant a bee could not but provide marvels sufficient to win his respect, if not something more; for the bee worked industriously and cleverly on behalf of the peasant, and asked no wages. In other words, the peasant was a debtor to the bee, and his attitude was one of gratitude. Out of this feeling, no doubt, arose a sense of identity in interests–a fellow-feeling which prompted him to “tell the bees” of a death, and to turn the hive at a burial.

The religious element is seen in a letter, dated 1811, contributed to The Gentleman’s Magazine. The writer says: “There is in this part of Yorkshire a custom which has been by the country-people more or less revived, ever since the alteration in the style and calendar: namely, the watching in the midnight of the new and old ‘Xmas Eve by bee-hives, to determine upon the right ‘Xmas from the humming noise which they suppose the bees will make when the birth of our Saviour took place. Disliking innovations, the utility of which they understand not, the oracle, they affirm, always prefers the most ancient custom.” This is a good instance of using bees as a means of divination, and when once a people start divining, a crowd of omens is sure to follow in their train.

The theory that when the bees in a farmer’s hives die, he will soon be compelled to move from the farm, is easily accounted for by Mr Gibson. “A hive of bees rarely dies unless the season is so bad that it is disastrous to farming; consequently, where a farmer holds his farm on a yearly tenancy, it may follow that he will find it necessary to go elsewhere to build up his fortune.”

-The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs, T. Sharper Knowlson-

Read more about bees in folklore here:

Illustration: unknown

Ebb’s potential – Eva Weggelaar

Ebb’s potential – Eva Weggelaar

Through the earth and rhododendron scented rains,
with the dog panting at my feet,
I roam all your winding lanes,
your twisting byroads, in search of a sigh that I can read.

I have such great potential for happiness
and, though it was always my dismissal,
I long to be the one to make you smile as I caress
each Braille shaped crevice of your strong stone wall.

I crush the petals for their wet soil scent,
ask the dog to run
so the wind can dry my eyes and mend
the many things I left undone.

There’s so much that I can’t say
and daren’t even write,
I long to spell it out for you anyway
I dream about it every night.

The dark trees make way for me
as I run with my faithful shadow
towards the crashing sound of the sea
that echoes your mind’s ebb and flow.

I’ll be the moon, the hare
whose eye lights up the tide –
you may not know, you may not care
but I’m so very much alone when out of sight.
-©Eva Weggelaar-

Listen to the audio here on youtube