BRITISH MYTHOLOGICAL FIGURES
This is a collection of the many and varied characters that belong to the rich heritage of British folklore and legend. There is a vast spectrum of possibilities that tend to be forgotten, since the dominance in education has been to teach children about the Greek and Roman figures. Everyone has heard of Venus and Mars, but how many have heard of Black Annis or Herne the Hunter? It's time to reclaim our own cultural history.
The figures are selected from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon religious mythology as well as general folklore. Each character is selected for the quality it epitomises, if that facet is still relevant. The collection currently comprises of twenty pictures, which took six years to produce. This low rate of production is because of the details in each one. For instance in the Mermaid it took five weeks just to make the tail. The pictures are hand-coloured, that is a black and white print is produced and the the colour painted onto each one using a special photographic dye.
Another ubiquitous figure, the mermaid is part of the folklore of any country with a shoreline. There are different types of sea-dwelling shape-shifters around the country, including the Kelpie, who turned into tame horses, but if they enticed someone to ride on their backs would dash of into the water and drown the rider, and the Selkie who wore the skins of seals in the water. They can either be good or bad, and this picture again has an ecological bias, since she had been trapped in a fisherman's net, and is dying on the beach. She has the traditional paraphernalia of the Mermaid in the shape of her mirror, but it is turned face down, as her own face is turned away - in capture her identity is lost.
HERNE THE HUNTER
The horned man. He is traditionally a fearsome figure, the leader of The Wild Hunt, a band of Hell-hounds, white dogs with red ears, who chase in Mid-winter, so that farmers used to lock up all their livestock so that they would not be driven mad by the sounds of the hunt. He occurs across Europe under various names and genders including Berta, Holt, Selga, and Herla, and may be a version of the old French Celtic antlered god Cernnunos.
At the back of the picture a car exhaust was put to blend in with the trees as a symbol of how modern life is encroaching on the forests that he inhabits as we cut them down to build roads. He is shown making an arrow, ready for the hunt.
Although there are many types of fairy, this is the type that most people think of most immediately. Beautiful, winged, associated with flowers and summer she is as harmless and attractive as the bumble-bee. This image appears in Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream with Titania's fairy entourage, but really gained prevalence in Victorian times, when a fear of the Little People was fading, and city life separated people from the strange country occurences.
Fairyland, in which she lives, is somewhere apart, where times moves differently. For centuries there have been stories of people going into fairyland for one or two days, and coming back to find decades have passed. Time is the key to this picture, with dandelion clocks, broken clockwork, and a watch face on the left of the picture.
Another figure that occurs across Europe, known in Germany as Wieland, a name which survives today. He is the smith of the gods and fairies, making their weaponry and armour. There is debate as to whether he himself was one of the fairy folk or not, as many of the legends contradict each other. Smiths were commonly worshipped in ancient times, the Greek Haephestus, Sucellus in Belgium etc.
In this picture he is representative of the working man, and in modern iconography the hammer and horseshoe transmutes into the hammer and sickle of the proletariat.
THE MAY QUEEN
The virgin aspect of the Triple Moon Goddess. English spring festivals. Ties in with the Goddess Eostre, who gave her name to our Easter, and Bloduedd, the lady of flowers from Welsh Celtic mythology. One of the main type of flower used in the picture is Hawthorn, who's colloquial old name is 'May'.
In the picture she has the maypole, and there are 3 masks to symbolise the three aspects of the goddess, and to give warning not to believe what you see. One is in her hand, one immediately to her left, and the third is seeded into backdrop in between the top two streamers on the left-hand side.
The three pictures are linked together by the shaping of the Maypole, the streamers of which in this picture are close together like the tightly furled petals of a flower bud.
Head of the pantheon of Anglo-Saxon gods brought over by the invaders from the North, he is the same as the German Wotan and the Norse Odin. He has parallels with the Celtic Lugh (pictured elsewhere in this collection) though there are significant differences in their aspects. Woden gave his name to Wednesday and many many places. He was the Wanderer, the Trickster, the Wise One. His familiars were either two Ravens or two wolves. He is pictured here with two members of the crow family at the crisis moment for him. In order to gain wisdom Woden had to sacrifice himself. He was hanged for nine days and nights from the tree of the world - Yggdrasil, and had one eye plucked out. Very interestingly, and possibly a later addition to the myth is that his side was pierced by a spear. This obvious Christian parallel may be a coincidence though, since it is amazing how many different societies generate independently very similar myths.
As a result of his new-found wisdom, Woden brought the runes - the first form of writing to Mankind The power of knowledge, and the greater power that can be brought to each individual by sharing it. The parallel today is obvious. Computers and the internet allow the greatest access to information there has ever been, and it is open to all. On top of this if computer programming language is not mumbo-jumbo runes, then what is. So while Woden hangs from his tree, in one of his hands he holds two rune-stones, inscribed in runic symbols with MS, that is Microsoft.
One of the Anglo-Saxon goddesses originally brought from the North by the Vikings, her name is still in common use. Friday is Friga's day. She has some childbirth affiliations, but is more akin to the female sexual power of Venus. A more rounded figure perhaps in that she covers both areas. Because of her strong sexual image it is thought that the modern taboo slang ‘Frig' also links directly to her. She also had the gift of prophecy and far-seeing, hence the Tarot cards she is holding. All in all she was a very powerful goddess, that seems to prefigure the modern woman very successfully in her In fact the aspect that has so revolutionised the life of present-day women is their ability to control their fertility. As a consequence under the drum to her left is a packet of the contraceptive pill.
Unlike most modern beliefs about the Celts they had very little interest in the sun and its solstices. The only representation of the sun in their pantheon was in the form of Lugh, the sun-warrior. He is also exceptional in that he was known throughout Europe, and his name turns up in places such as Lyons and Carlisle.
He was the many-skilled god, and when he came to the court of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the home of the gods, he is told that he cannot gain entrance without his proving his mastery at some art. He claims he is master of them all, and eventually proves his skill at chess.
He also had one of the four major Celtic festivals named after him. Lugnasadh, on the 1st August. As possibly the most powerful of the gods, and representative of the sun, the nuclear symbol is most appropriate He wears it on his arm, mixed with the Celtic lion, itself often a sun symbol, on his skirt, and it occurs again on the chess board. Nuclear power is of course what the sun's energy is in itself, but is also man's use of energy, the exploitation of nature for his own purposes and power.
The Piskie, or Pixie is one of the Fairy or Little People. Sometimes helpful, often mischievous, their presence is often heralded by a high-pitched laugh. Like other fairies they can be propitiated by leaving out offerings such as cakes or cream.
Often devious and deceptive, they were the spirits of rivers and groves, and often took pleasure in leading travelers astray, known as being Piskie-led. They could make the paths and roads run round in circles, and make reality appear different to what it was.
Today we have a society based on making things seem real that are not. We call it film and TV, hence the unspooled video-tape by the Piskie's side.
Red-cap, or Blood-cap was a particularly unpleasant sprite, and occurs in the North of England and Scotland. He lived in old castles and caves, preferably ones of scenes of cruelty and in justice. He would attack and sometimes murder unsuspecting travelers by throwing large stones at them. Then he would re-dye his cap in their blood.
This early version of the mugger is busy washing a base-ball cap in his bowl of gore.
The Banshee is a fairy, a figure of folklore found mainly in the Celtic regions, primarily Ireland and the Western Highlands (spelt Bean-sidhe). She is the harbinger of doom, usually death. She howls at dusk outside the house of someone who is going to die, and is often attatched to a particular family, though this may be a late addition of royalty trying to claim special treatment. In some variants of the myth even the sound of her wail can drive the listener insane. For obvious reasons she is feared, but in a strange sort of way also welcomed. Sometimes it is better to know that death is coming so the family can be prepared. In this picture she has the accoutrements of the dark side. Poison ivy grows around the symbolic portal between life and death where she stands. On the right-hand column there is a hag-stone, a stone through which nature has made a hole. If a person looked through that hole they could see the fairy world. At her feet, at the base of the left-hand column are a collection of pills and tablets. Symbolic of modern death- through drugs overdose or medical assistance. Both sides are reflected as she herself is a dual-natured character.
JACK O'LANTERN, or WILL O'THE WISP
A fairy creature probably created from the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas, Jack o'lantern always lives in fenland. He is a figure of temptation, luring unwary travellers off the paths into the bog to drown. He can change sex, and can appear as a beautiful man or woman, or even a crock of gold, though most commonly is seen as a dancing flame.
In this picture he is surrounded by lanterns, but there is a skull behind him on his left, vertebrae on his right, and a human hand peeping out from the reeds. He is a very dangerous and mischievous creature, and in front of him is a crock of brand new £1 coins.