Friday, 21 February 2020

Cimaruta

The cimaruta is an ancient charm, most commonly found in Italian folklore tradition, dating back at least to Roman times, if not further. It is steeped in fascinating symbolism and speaks strongly of a superstitious and incredibly rich culture.

If you have visited any museum containing magical or folklore related artifacts the chances are you’ve seen a Cimaruta and maybe not even realised. Pitt Rivers has a huge collection of them, which is where I first encountered these curious objects. They can also be seen at Frederic Mares Museum in Barcelona, the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall and many other places.


Typically the Cimaruta resembles a Rue sprig, which is a plant with an absolutely fascinating history and symbolism. Rue has been used since ancient times in cooking, herbal remedies and as a popular ingredient in spells and witchcraft. During the Middle Ages rue was used as a way for witches to recognise each other. As ever the church attempted to hijack this herb by calling it the ‘herb of grace’ and using it to sprinkle holy water on subjects.

There are also some fascinating folklore tales which feature rue. In Classical mythology it was believed that the basilisk could kill all plants with its breath, except rue. Weasels bitten by the Basilisk would eat rue to recover from their injuries and fight back. This may relate to beliefs that rue could help to cure poisoning. In other examples rue represents virginity, or regret.

The imagery of the Cimaruta itself is complex. With the herb closely associated to Diana and the three branches displayed are connected her Triformis nature. In addition, the small charms at the end of the branches each have their own meaning. The result of this is that each different Cimaruta’s symbolism is unique.
Commonly featured charms are the moon, a hand, a fish, a key, a serpent, a heart, a flower. The piece can often be dated by what charms it features, as later charms imagery is more influenced by Christianity.


Different interpretations of the use of these protective charms only serves to increase the mystery (and for me intrigue) surrounding them. It is generally thought that they were a charm against the evil eye and witchcraft. The overtly pagan imagery of the charms is argued as being valid as a weapon ‘against’ witchcraft as Christian elements on later examples balance out and defeat these heathen elements, thus protecting from witchcraft. I have to say this does sound rather illogical to me, and I’m far more inclined to believe the idea that these were worn by followers of the cult of Diana. The majority of the various symbols all represent and connect with Diana in some way, suggesting to me that this was more about the worship of this particular goddess, before being changed and bastardised later by the church. The fact that rue was used for practicing pagans to recognise each other is another major point for me in this. I can appreciate that for hundreds of years the Cimaruta has probably been a talisman against witchcraft, but I can’t help but think that it has a much deeper history than that statement suggests.



Cimaruta have been a great source of fascination since I first laid eyes on them quite a few years ago now. Since then I have delved into their fascinating symbolism and history, but because of the lack of knowledge surrounding them and conflicting information available I have only gotten so far. I fully intend to continue my quest to learn all there is to know about these beautiful relics of superstition and magic and shed light of their true and I believe very ancient history.


Saturday, 8 February 2020

Museum of the Moon

One day by complete chance I saw an image on Instagram from a good friend which was utterly captivating and intriguing. I recognised the setting immediately having visited a number of times previously; it was Derby Cathedral. But I couldn’t quite understand why there was a huge moon suspended from the ceiling! But one thing was not in doubt; it was glorious!!

I immediately went and researched exactly what I was looking at, which turned out to be an art installation by Luke Jerram called ‘The Museum of the Moon’. The seven metre sphere is inflated, covered with high resolution NASA images of the moon and internally lit to mimic moonlight. It certainly has a huge presence even in a space as grand as a cathedral!

The installation is designed to evoke the thoughts and feelings we get when looking up at the moon and what it means to us. The cultural and historical importance of the moon is evident across the world, through this the installation aims to connect us all and get us thinking more deeply about the moon and what it means to us.

I have never been shy about the fact I have an inexplicable adoration of the moon and love it wholly. For me it has always evoked so much mystery, beauty and is the light in the darkness. As a teenager I had a map of the dark side of the moon (no I’m not talking about anything Pink Floyd related) on my wall for years and would spend many a hour looking at it in wonder. And as a keen child astronomer I would often sit inspecting each crater in depth through my telescope, secretly hoping I’d see something move or another unexpected turn of events.

Of course I had to go and pay the moon a visit while it was so close by! And while the boards of folk flocking to take a selfie with the moon was abhorrent, the installation itself and all its glorious lighting was fantastic.

Visiting the museum of the moon got me wondering when my obsession with the moon first happened and exactly how it came about. After wracking my brains the only possible  thing which I can think of is a strange one indeed (other than my lifelong obsession with space and stargazing - I still have my sky maps and some astronomy books and we’ve lost a planet since those were published!). Even as a child I had my strange morbid nature I still possess today, and I loved Halloween. I was told at around the age of 5 or 6 that on Halloween if I watched the moon long enough I’d see a witch fly by it on her broom. I can still remember sitting watching for hours waiting to see her. And suspect during this time formed my fascination with that wonderful lunar presence.

If you get chance to visit the Museum of the Moon in a city near you its an experience you shouldn't pass up!






Friday, 31 January 2020

Fabulous Fungi

All of my life I have had a healthy interest in mushrooms. My late grandad was an avid mushroom forager and would often be known to fry up his foraged goods for breakfast. I always found this vaguely terrifying, but on reflection probably quite normal for someone from rural Lincolnshire who worked on a farm for most of his formative years.




I have many mushroom photos I’ve taken over the years. The most fascinating I found on the Ercall in Shropshire around 10 years ago and still remember it vividly to this day. As if it was covered in countless red jewels (subsequent searching for this photo and research has identified this as either a Devils tooth or a Mealy tooth thanks to my good friend Montalo).


But during the autumn of 2019 I decided to take my fungi fascination up a notch and instead of casually noticing fungi while out walking I became a self certified fungi hunter and started actively walking specifically to find the most amazing mushrooms I could.


Throughout 2019 I made a specific effort on different walks to focus on different things. This had a huge seasonal impact of course and spring was lots of trips to see the ducklings, then lots of looking at wild flowers, as summer progressed it was chasing butterflies and dragonflies, then as things changed I started suspiciously rooting about in the undergrowth for fantastic fungi!



Admittedly it did help that this autumn was an absolutely bumper one for mushrooms. Never in my life have I seen so many, and some staggeringly vast! Not to take anything away from the beautifully dainty fungi.




My goal for 2020 is to become far better at identifying them all! While I don't expect to become an expert over night it would be nice to be more aware and knowledgeable on the subject, so this is a good place to start. One of my first tasks of the new year was to buy a pocket identification book to keep in my camera bag at all times. To know nature is to be nature.


Friday, 17 January 2020

Witch Marks After Dark: Apotropaic magic at Creswell Crags

Apotropaic magic is a very interesting and mysterious subject. In recent years the interest in apotropaic magic has soared, largely I believe due to our increasing understanding of the subject, and the ongoing discovery of apotropaic marks and objects in all sorts of places. One of these places is Creswell Crags. It would be tempting to say that recently apotropaic marks were discovered in their largest cave system, however the term ‘identified’ is actually much more appropriate.



In an unusual turn of events, two visitors to the Crags Hayley Clark and Ed Waters, avid hunters of so called ‘Witches Marks’ spotted some marks within the cave and informed their guide. After further research and observations in the cave what had previously been thought to be nothing more than (reasonably) modern graffiti was actually suddenly understood to be hundreds upon hundreds of apotropaic marks.


A brief explanation on apotropaic magic; the term literally means something which has the power to ‘turn away’ evil. There are countless different examples of this in most cultures throughout the world; the evil eye charm in Greece and Turkey, the Cimaruta and Mano Cornuto in Italy, Witches bottles and Horse shoes in Britain, the Eguzkilore in Basque France and Spain, to name just a few. The main purpose of these objects is believed to be to cast away evil spirits, Witches, Demons and Dark Magic. Apotropaic items have been found hidden within buildings; in cavity walls or under floorboards. But most apotropaic items or symbols are situated in or around entrance ways, to prevent the evil entering the building. A very common form of apotropaic magic as well as objects is marks, like the ones seen in Wookey Hole, Woolsthorpe Manor, Tithe Barn and of course Creswell Crags.


Creswell Crags has the largest concentration of spotropaic marks in Britain, and specialists are still trying to fully understand why. There are a few theories; perhaps to keep evil spirits from the cave so it could be used for winter storage, perhaps the site was a focus for local folklore and superstition or maybe the cave was perceived as a meeting place between worlds and the hole which plummets into the earth (incidentally where the concentration of the marks is most fervent) was perceived as a ‘well to hell’ and the Marks served the purpose to keep the demons from entering our world. Maybe we will never know what was going through the minds of the people who laboriously scratched these marks into the rock, but it’s certainly a major cause for curiosity.

The symbolism of the particular marks at Creswell are largely derived from Latin words or phrases commonly thought to be protective in the 17th century. The most heavily featured is the double V, which looks a lot like a W, which stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of Virgins), but there are also many ‘C’s for Christ, I for Iesus (original Latin spelling of Jesus), R for Rex or Regina (referring to king or queen) and several other variations which generally all relate to Mary and Jesus in some form.



There are also some which may take the form of ‘demonic traps’ designed to ensnare evil in a maze like form, such as a Merels board, ladders and other usually straight edged shapes.


As you might imagine there has been some scepticism from visitors suggesting that the symbols are merely graffiti. However when you take into account the sheer volume of symbols, witness first hand their obsessive repetition and are aware of the presence of the same symbols hundreds of miles apart the significance of these marks becomes startlingly obvious.



I hope that in years to come more becomes known about the Witch Marks at Creswell Crags and that we learn who put them there and exactly why. But the team there are certainly up against it with all the changes that have happened on site over the last few hundred years, in particular Victorian excavations which didn’t record findings as rigorously as archaeologists do today, and considered anything from the 17th century too contemporary to bother with and sadly may have discarded many clues to deciphering the mysteries of the cave.

A huge thank you to the team at Creswell for their dedication and passion, and of course to our guide Sarah who made the experience a fantastic one!
Witch Marks After Dark tours run on select dates until the end of the month. Check out the Creswell Crags website here to find out more!



Monday, 13 January 2020

Art in Focus: Treebeard

Throughout most of November and December I have been working on a top secret piece of artwork to be gifted to some of my oldest and best friends for Christmas. Now that the cats out of the bag and they have the piece I can talk a little more about it’s creation and concept!

As some may be aware, Tolkien is a absolutely huge influence on me, having visited some of his old haunts in Oxford, his grave and an exhibition at the Bodelian in 2018. The Hobbit is my favourite book of all time and I collect editions of Lord of the Rings (and almost anything Tolkien related) whenever possible. So it’s probably natural that at some point I did some Tolkien related art.



Many years ago I designed my half sleeve on the theme of ‘good and evil in Middle Earth’ (kindly tattooed by the super talented Nick Brinsley) and the main focus of this is my imagining of Treebeard, one of my favourite characters. (I always felt a huge affinity with Treebeard and probably wanted to be him more than any other character.)



Fast forward several years and me and good friends went to the Rodney Matthews exhibition Electric Rock near Birmingham to see many prints and originals on offer. My favourite was Rodney’s depiction of Treebeard (which I’ve been looking at in books since childhood). My friend ordered herself this print as she liked it so much. Little did I know she also ordered one for me and kept it safe over 9 months until my birthday! What a wonderful surprise, absolutely blew me away!


So, I got to thinking how I could express my gratitude and give a gift that really meant as much as some of the gifts she has given me over the years! So, I decided creating something was the only way.

I started doodling Treebeard in early November based on what I always saw reading the books (I refused to see Lord of the Rings until I had read the books, hence only seeing The Return of the King at the cinema). He closely resembles the Treebeard of my tattoo as this was also his basis. Just with rather a lot more moss, and of course mushrooms.
On my recent autumnal walks I took lots of photos of tree textures, lichen, moss and fungi to help as reference material.



Similarly to when putting together my tattoo design, Treebeard is imagined, but other elements are based on the depictions in the film. In my tattoo Sauron is based on Christopher Lees portrayal, the Orthanc and eye of Sauron also inspired by the film. Yet in the style of an illustration (in particular the way I tend to draw, which is not photorealism). Merry and Pippin who I chose to include in the painting are loosely based on the movie casting, with similar hair and clothes, but again, are an illustrative interpretation.



Creating the piece was a very enjoyable challenge. The knotwork in particular was infuriating! A very unforgiving art form! The piece consists of a complete pen layer (below) to build the depth of the piece, and then watercolour work to bring him truly to life. Interestingly this was the first piece I experimented in adding some metallic watercolour to bring out certain areas and give them a bit of pazazz. In total the piece took around 25 hours. As usual in the winter months the light is the biggest challenge to most creatives. Unfortunately I had to resort to doing the majority of the work under artificial light, which is never ideal, but I was happy with the results considering this.


I hope my friends are happy with their painting and enjoy it for many years to come!


Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Nine Stones Close

Recently I have become more determined than ever to visit the amazing ancient sites spread across our country.

Our island nations pre-Christian history and traditions are very important to me as I feel they reflect our identity and the true nature of our people and land. These ancient oral traditions are largely lost to us now, but glimpses still remain here and there, in tales, songs and most importantly the landscape.
One huge impact still seen in the British landscape today is henges and barrows.

Throughout 2019 I’ve been trying to make a strange heathen pilgrimage to as many of these sites as I can, starting of course with my local county Derbyshire.

Having already visitors Doll Tor, Arbour Lowe and the Nine Ladies, the next on my list was Nine Stones Close, near to Robin Hoods Stride.

These adventures are always a bit of a magical mystery tour, as Neolithic sites such as this are not generally depicted on my hiking app, so it’s always a bit of a voyage of discovery, which is refreshing as you usually stumble on all sorts of other interesting things on the way.

Unfortunately only 4 of the nine stones which make up the circle remain erect, and yet the stone circle still has a powerful presence within the landscape. It’s easy to imagine just how impacting it would have been with all 9 stones standing, proud on the brow of the hill, with Robin Hoods Stride in the distance and the landscape rolling all around.

I always find it an amazing experience to walk around these places in the footsteps of our ancestors, to touch the stones they touched and wonder what they felt, what it meant to them. Also looking out to gaze upon their world and what they would have seen from this obviously important spot, usually it’s a breathtaking landscape and endless moorland. While today the landscape is somewhat changed, with farming having a large impact on what we see now, it’s easy to imagine what our ancestors might have seen looking out into the wider world.