Sunday, 21 October 2012
The Harvest Goddess and The Holly Man
In Corca Dhuibhne, living between the ocean and the mountain, I've become increasingly aware of how profoundly my neighbours' lives are shaped by Ireland's seasonal festivals. It's an ancient inheritance, rooted in the time when the Celts saw the steady turn of the seasons as a sign that the universe was in balance.
Each festival had its own dances, music, customs and food. And each year they're celebrated with the same communal rituals that express joy in the present moment and hope for seasons to come.
It's not surprising to find a profound awareness of the seasons in rural Ireland. But when Wilf and I found our flat here in Bermondsey I was amazed to discover echoes of the same seasonal rituals in inner city London.
Huddled under Victorian railway arches, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market's one of the oldest markets of its kind in England: food and drink have been sold there to Londoners since at least the eleventh century. And probably far longer.
These days Borough market's about as fashionable as city markets can get, a must-see stop on every tourist's schedule where camera crews jostle with celebrities and locals frequently discuss their dinner menus with tv chefs out on a recce. And each year, on Apple Day, in a festival that's now called October Plenty, it hosts the annual procession of the Goddess of the Harvest.
Her journey begins in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on Bankside and continues through streets that Shakespeare himself once walked in the footsteps of countless Londoners who'd lived here long before him.
With St. Paul's Cathedral in the background and ordinary life flowing round it, passers-by join the procession. Cameras flash, kids are hoisted onto parents' shoulders, buggies bump over cobbled streets. And versions of jigs and slides I know well from sessions in Ballyferriter bounce back from the high walls of offices and apartment buildings .
When the crowd reaches Borough Market the goddess, still surrounded by music and dancers, weaves her way between the heaped-up apples and cider kegs, in a ritual progress from stall to stall to bless the stallholders, celebrate the harvest and invoke good luck for the future.
Exciting, dynamic and numinous, harvest festivals tap the roots of human hopes and fears. They're local celebrations of fertility echoed throughout the world and across millennia. They're shared rituals, rich with communal memories of firelight, warmth, comfort and plenty.
But the cold days and nights ahead hold other memories too, of harder times when survival through the winter months was never certain.
These days they're the months when the old and the poor juggle the price of food and fuel, and the homeless sleep on freezing pavements and die in their sleep before morning.
That's why the Holly Man who accompanies the Harvest Goddess has an edge of ancient terror to his beauty.