Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A midsummer excursus

"He is still alive, and can be heard neighing in the Ardennes on Midsummer Day."

Is this not one of the greatest quotes you could hope to find, and in a children's book at that? Once you read it at the age of ten or so, you would commit it to memory surely. It describes the fabulous horse Bayard, and it comes from the classic Bulfinch's Mythology, first published in the 1850s. I hope you know it. A childhood lacking in thorough exposure to that great book cannot be called really happy. Here is the paragraph in full, from the "Dictionary and Index" at the back:
Ba' yard: A horse of incredible swiftness, given by Charlemagne to the four sons of Aymon. If only one of the sons mounted, the horse was of the ordinary size; but if all four mounted, his body became elongated to the requisite length. He is still alive and can be heard neighing in the Ardennes on Midsummer Day.  
A few days ago, the 24th of June, was Midsummer Day, so if you were anywhere near the region in question, you might have cocked your ear for a moment, and waited for a wondrous and mysterious echo. The Ardennes is a hilly, forested part of Belgium, Luxembourg, and northeastern France, called (according to Wikipedia) "Arduenna silva" in Roman times. Silva is the Latin for woods; Arduenna seems to be a recollection of whatever word the ancient Gauls or Celts used for "forest," deriving either from the name of the goddess Arduinna or from the Celtic ardu, meaning dark or obscure. The blog Faerie Lore assures us it is all about the pagan goddess; the old, deeply respected and very fun eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica opts for the simpler etymology. Julius Caesar and his legions fought native tribesmen in these dark, obscure places. A thousand years after, Charlemagne and his Christian knights paced the same woods --  hence the tale of Bayard. Faerie Lore reminds us that in the meantime, in the year 565 "Saint Walfroy preached to his local parish and community in Villers-devant-Orval forbidding them to worship Arduinna any longer." In our own era, we recall the Ardennes as a battlefield in both World War I and World War II (the Battle of the Bulge -- a winter offensive, as it happened). 

If you will indulge me as I continue another excursus, I'll confess that summer is for me the great time for associations with ghostly and distant Europe. I must have been influenced by all the happy thumbing through Bulfinch's, and other storybooks, when I was ten. Though Charlemagne and the Paladins never interested me much, tales of Apollo and Daphne, and Robin Hood and Maid Marian, did. These stories were always set in the timeless greenwood of summer. One imagines jousts and tourneys, one imagines waving pennons, blue skies, and smiling ladies with scarves fluttering from their conical hats, all agog at the action in summer. One imagines princesses making their marriage journeys, amid trains of laden palfreys and baggage-carts, in summer. For that matter one imagines the fleeing Daphne sprouting leaves, or men sporting togas, walking about Athens and Rome and discussing politics or Greek myth in the heat of a Mediterranean summer.

Midsummer Day in particular has odd old associations. This is the day which Cassandra greets with shouted vowels – really, "Aaeeiioouu!" – on a hilltop in the English countryside in Dodie Smith’s delightful 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. ("We first held the rites when I was nine – I got the idea from a book on folklore.") Vowels? Why in the world? Yet Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths, agrees with her. All the thirteen months of the pre-Christian calendar and the four seasons, he says ("implicit in Greek and Latin myth and in the sacral tradition of all Europe"), are associated with the alphabet and with corresponding sacred trees. For June he gives the letter D and the oak, and for the summer solstice itself, U and heather. You would have to delve not only into both volumes of The Greek Myths but also into his wildly difficult and just plain wild The White Goddess to make a real study of his study of the alphabet, trees, the calendar, and "the sacral traditions of all Europe." Let me reassure you that his investigations appear impeccable -- Hyginus, Isidore of Seville, Philostratus, Pliny, Plutarch -- and the upshot of all of it seems to be that our ancestors paid minute attention across whole generations to sky, sun, and stars. They seem to have regarded the everlasting, rhythmic passing of time as something holy, which I suppose it is. And they appreciated every living thing and associated everything with everything else -- trees, seasonal change, a breaking dawn. How the vowels come into it I still don't understand. But did we know that the Gauls, by no means your garden variety forest tribesmen, are said by Caesar to have had a written language using first the Greek and then the Latin alphabet? 

We moderns sometimes try the "pagan" route in lieu of a proper religion. Probably we get the idea from books on folklore. A few years ago I saw a picture in the newspaper of some people holding midsummer rituals in a suburban living room. (I ask you.) The large man leading the group wore a little mask topped with undersized, fake deer antlers. He held up a basket of bread toward the ceiling. Everybody else in the "coven" looked on politely. I'm guessing the attendees had not read their Robert Graves, nor even their Dodie Smith. Rather than putter about indoors it might have been more authentic for them to make, as Graves says, a "fire sacrifice, offered when no creature casts a shadow -- that is, at noon on midsummer day." Or even to shout vowels from hilltops. And a fire sacrifice of what? When we moderns try paganism on for size, we also don't bother to read Caesar. He reported in his Gallic War that the ancient Gauls used to burn people alive, sometimes crammed into freakish huge wooden cages shaped like a man. It wasn't all holiness, bread and wildflowers ....

Daisy in The Great Gatsby may better represent the true modern attitude. When it comes to midsummer rites or any awareness of sun and sky at all she just sighs fecklessly: "Don’t you? -- don't you always wait for the longest day of the year, and then miss it?"

We'll close with a photo of an Ardennes horse (remember we began our excursus talking about the wonderful Bayard), and a brief glimpse of food writing in, yes, even Bulfinch's Mythology. Here the good old couple Baucis and Philemon, a kind of Lot and Lot's wife without the tragic pillar-of-salt ending, prepare dinner all unawares for two visiting gods:

...she rubbed the table down with some sweet-smelling herbs. Upon it she set some of chaste Minerva's olives, some cornel berries preserved in vinegar, and added radishes and cheese,with eggs lightly cooked in the ashes. All were served in earthen dishes, and an earthenware pitcher, with wooden cups, stood beside them. When all was ready, the stew, smoking hot, was set on the table. Some wine, not of the oldest, was added; and for dessert, apples with wild honey; and over and above all, friendly faces, and simple but hearty welcome. 
Below, the Ardennes horse today, looking every inch the descendant of the war chargers that carried Crusading knights, or the four sons of Aymon, in full armor, into battle. Unhappily, we must learn from Wikipedia that today he is raised mostly for stew.

Image from Wikipedia

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