Tuesday 31 August 2010

The Mad Piper of D-Day

Bill Millin, "the Mad Piper of D-Day," died in Britain earlier this month at age 88. During World War II, the young soldier and bagpiper served in the regiment of Lord Lovat, the commander of the British D-Day troops who landed with the Allies on the beaches of Normandy.

On the fateful morning of June 6, 1944, the 21-year-old Private Millin waded ashore under heavy fire with the other troops, his kilt floating up around him in the waist-high water. But instead of a gun, he held his bagpipes above his head so they wouldn't get wet. There's a famous photo of him disembarking, the drones of his pipes visible in front of his face --

Although playing bagpipes in battle was strictly forbidden by the War Office, Lord Lovat had the unarmed private march up and down Sword Beach, piping Highland Laddie and Road to the Isles as a morale booster while soldiers all around him advanced or were mowed down in the German artillery and machine-gun fire. As Bill Millin said decades later, with amazing understatement, "When you're young, you do things you wouldn't dream of doing when you're older. I enjoyed playing the pipes, but I didn't notice that I was being shot at."

It was truly a miracle that he survived. German prisoners of war captured at Sword Beach subsequently said that the Germans didn't kill him simply because they thought he was insane. That's how he earned his nickname of "the Mad Piper."

There's a great YouTube video about Bill Millin if you want to check it out, complete with an interview about the day that made him a legend.

May a thousand piobaireachd (laments) be piped in his honour.

Monday 30 August 2010

The Salmon of Wisdom

In traditional Celtic myth, an ordinary salmon ate nine sacred hazel nuts which fell into the pool where it lived and so was magically transformed into the Salmon of Wisdom.

I prefer the re-visioning of this myth by Patricia Monaghan in her book, The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog (2003):

I understand why the ancient Irish saw wisdom as a salmon . . . . Who is wiser than one who knows the way home?

What natural phenomenon is more mysterious and compelling than salmon who return from the ocean, years later and against impossible odds, to spawn and die in the very same stream where they were born?

As Rabbi Seymour Siegel wrote:

In everyone's heart stirs a great homesickness . . . .

We are all called by the deepest yearning of our hearts to be Salmon of Wisdom.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Cats in the News (#3)

OMG, the Globe and Mail has just published some late-breaking news about cat poop coffee!

Because crappuccino has now been declared halal for Muslims, some producers are planning to meet increased demand by domesticating wild civet cats, breeding them in cages and farming their coffee-bean-studded poop. But experts warn that this will result in less flavourful coffee. The varied diet of wild civet cats is necessary to produce the special stomach enzyme which processes the coffee bean fruit during digestion. A regulated diet will produce a "monotonous enzyme" and therefore, a different taste for the coffee.

Run, little civet cats! Hide! Protect the high quality of your poop from the greedy entrepreneurs!

Friday 27 August 2010

Cats in the News (#2) (hee, hee, hee)

I know everyone has heard of that incredibly expensive coffee known colloquially as "cat poop coffee" (or sometimes as "crappuccino" LOL). In the rainforests of south-east Asia, wild civet cats eat a certain kind of coffee bean fruit, digest the fruit and then poop out the undigested coffee beans. This natural "processing" results in delicious coffee, apparently, once the beans are washed and roasted. A pound of this rare coffee can cost hundreds of dollars. It must be worth it, though -- the coffee company's logo says that it's "good to the last dropping!"

Recently, civet cat coffee was declared halal (religiously approved) for Muslims to drink, so long as the beans were thoroughly washed. This is a good thing since probably only oil sheiks can afford to buy this coffee on a regular basis.

However, it does not appear that civet cat coffee is kosher (religiously approved) for Jews to drink. Since Jewish dietary laws prohibit consumption of a certain flavour-enhancer additive derived from the glands of civet cats, it seems doubtful that coffee processed by the same animal would be given the green light.

For the rest of us, the only restrictions on consumption are our wallets, our taste buds and our sense of adventure!

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Cats in England

One more thing about England -- I expected to see lots of cats there. We saw oodles of cats when we were in Italy the year before. In fact, I milked the topic for three whole blog posts (here, here and here if you're interested). And aren't the English supposed to adore cats?

This is the only cat we saw in Glastonbury, sitting on the stoop of a house leading up Wearyall Hill. Yes, precisely, a FAKE one.

The ONLY real cat we saw in all of England was this cheeky little bugger sharpening its claws on someone's car tires in Avebury. Or perhaps I should say tyres in the English way . . . .

And of course, THIS is what I had HOPED to see . . . .

[First two photos by my Rare One, taken at my insistence]

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Stonehenge, Part 4

I have now been to both Stonehenge and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The two sacred sites have much in common. Each celebrates the Divine. Each has drawn pilgrims, seekers and the curious for millenia. Both have huge, awe-inducing structures designed to tower over and subdue the egos of those who enter that space.

But here is where they differ -- Stonehenge sits open to the elements and, imposing though its stones may be, graphically reminds us that its stones are themselves dwarfed by the true power and divinity of the Earth. By contrast, St. Peter's is enclosed against the elements, its magnificent glories all man-made. It may indeed point to its own transcendent truth, but that truth is not Nature. A building seeks to contain. An open-air temple simply seeks to acknowledge which is why, for me, Stonehenge radiates more spiritual power.

Monday 23 August 2010

Stonehenge, Part 3

We entered Stonehenge in ritual procession. Mara Freeman, an Archdruidess of the Irish Druid Clan of Dana, led us in spiral formation to the centre of the great stones. There was silence except for the sound of her ringing bell. We called the Quarters and their guardians: the Hawk of Dawn (east), the Salmon of Wisdom (west), the Great Bear (north) and the Great Stag (south).

There was a special invocation of the Goddess and a celebration of Autumn's blessings. Then we were free to move about the stones, explore the site and take photos for half an hour before resuming the ritual.

The National Trust's rules for those who enter Stonehenge are strict, of course. You may touch the stones but not climb them or sit on the fallen ones. Obviously nothing can be done to mar or deface the stones or the site. No foreign objects may be left behind.

What can I say about the stones? They are everything you would imagine them to be. Huge, imposing, solemn, full of energy. They glowed in the setting sun. Our shadows and theirs were long and dark against the earth.

We found a megalith with a sacred yoni at its base . . .

. . . and one that was either pursing its lips disapprovingly or holding in a big guffaw . . . we couldn't tell which?

Resuming our ritual, Mara led us in a meditation giving thanks to the Earth Mother. She followed this with a special and very beautiful blessing ceremony using water from the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. After chanting the ancient Druidic chant of Awen, we thanked and closed the Quarters. Our ritual ended just as the sun was slipping past the horizon. We spiraled out of Stonehenge as we had entered, silent except for Mara's ringing bell.

We waited on the paved pathway while two security guards went over the site with a fine-toothed comb to make sure everything was all right. An artist among us who had been sketching the stones had inadvertently dropped a pen. They found it. Otherwise, we left Stonehenge undisturbed!

Tomorrow -- some last thoughts about Stonehenge . . . .

[All photos by my Rare One. Isn't the sunset shot wonderful?]

Friday 20 August 2010

Stonehenge, Part 2

So it was on September 10th of 2009 that we headed off to Stonehenge in our little tour van. We stopped and had a lovely dinner at a nearby country pub called The Wheatsheaf. Those who wanted to garb in ritual wear before entering Stonehenge changed in the bathroom and then we were off again. We mustn't be late if we wanted to make full use of our one hour of private access to Stonehenge before sunset!

There is a major highway that runs right past Stonehenge (and I mean right past). On one side of the highway is the parking lot, ticket office and gift shop for Stonehenge. On the other side is Stonehenge. So you must park and enter where required on that side of the highway and then walk through a tunnel under the highway to actually get to Stonehenge on the other side.

In this aerial shot, you can see the dark slot parallel to the highway where the tunnel surfaces. Then you walk along the paved pathway to Stonehenge. This shot also gives a good view of the earthenwork henge ditch around Stonehenge.

I must admit to feeling quite overcome with emotion on emerging from the tunnel and seeing Stonehenge rise before me. It was hard to believe I was actually there and about to enter one of the earth's most sacred pagan sites.

Monday's post -- our Druid ceremony at Stonehenge . . . .

[All photos by my Rare One except for the aerial shot]

Thursday 19 August 2010

Stonehenge, Part 1

Stonehenge may only be England's third largest Stone Circle but it's definitely the most spectacular, with its huge megaliths and capstones. It rises from Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire like a grand neolithic cathedral.

The public are not allowed to wander freely among the stones any more. The huge number of tourists coming to Stonehenge in the 20th century proved dangerous to the preservation of the site. Now there is a paved pathway and rope barriers to keep people at a distance.

However, it is possible to buy tickets that allow a limited number of people (a maximum of 24 or so) to enter among the stones for one hour at sunrise and one hour at sunset each day. These tickets are in high demand and the waiting list is approximately one year. This is where it's handy to be part of a tour group! Our leader, Mara Freeman, reserves tickets for her tours far ahead of time and moreover, buys up every ticket for the sunset hour on her chosen date so that we in the tour group (about a dozen people) will have Stonehenge all to ourselves.

Tomorrow -- entering Stonehenge . . . .

[First photo by my Rare One; second photo from the internet]

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Stanton Drew

England's second largest Stone Circle is found in the Somerset village of Stanton Drew. Actually, the site has two Stone Circles, one large and one small, like having a main hall for big rituals and a breakout room for smaller ceremonies! They are located in a farmer's field, so you just open the gate and go onto his land --

A lot of the stones are recumbent. But there are still a fair number of stones present on the site.

Two local teens were using one of the stones to film a little video about rock climbing. The megalith was cast as a mountain in their production. Some of our tour group thought they were treating the stones disrespectfully but they weren't hurting them, just using them for a contemporary purpose. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, myself.

Beside the Circle is a large tree -- its limbs bare and black, devoid of leaves and life. It's quite a spectacular tree and creates an eerie atmosphere for the Circle grounds.

I don't know if it's a defunct oak tree but it would be neat if it were, since oaks were sacred to the Druids.

Our guide, Mara Freeman, said that the name "Stanton Drew" is a colloquial pronunciation of what was likely the original name of the site -- "Stone Town of the Druids."

[All photos by my Rare One, official photographer of the She Who Seeks blog]

Tuesday 17 August 2010


The village of Avebury in Wiltshire is home to the largest Stone Circle in England. The Circle is approached by a long avenue of paired standing stones called the West Kennet Avenue. Imagine the large ceremonial processions of robed Druids and followers who must have walked its length at one time! As shown in the following photo, enough stones still remain to give you a feel for its past glory. On the morning we were there, cows shared the Avenue with us, munching grass as we walked by.

Unfortunately, the ancient Circle and Avenue are today bisected by a roadway leading to the village of Avebury. So a few of the Avenue's stones now find themselves isolated across the road, like this one:

At the end of the Avenue is a huge tree. Walking past it, you come to two great megaliths which form a ceremonial entrance to the Circle. One of these stones has a large indentation like a built-in seat. (You can see it in the upcoming panoramic photo of the Circle). Druids and pagans call this stone "the Old Woman" (a clear reference to the Crone Goddess) and say that "sitting in the lap of the Old Woman" brings good luck and fertility. Like everyone else, I took my turn sitting in the lap of the Old Woman but phew! I'm not pregnant yet, LOL! Rather predictably, Christians and non-pagans call this indentation "the Devil's Chair."

In the following panoramic photo you can see how the Circle is bisected by the road. The road was built in an era when the Circle was not being preserved. In Puritan England during the 1600s, many of the standing stones were systematically toppled, buried or destroyed as evil pagan symbols. In the 1720s, an early champion of preservation angrily wrote:

And this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav'd the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, hath fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it.

Avebury still retains its "henge" or ditch that encircles the Stones. Our guide, Mara Freeman, said that in Druid times, the turf would have been cut away completely to expose the chalk "bones" of the earth. In those days, Avebury Circle would have been enclosed by a pure white henge.

Most of the Stones have official names and distinct personalities. I don't know their official names, but I think of this one as "Grumpy Old Man Stone" --

[All photos taken by my Rare One except for the panoramic shot of the Circle, which I found on the internet.]

Monday 16 August 2010

The Standing Stones

It has been almost a year since my Rare One and I went on our spiritual pilgrimage to various sacred pagan spots in England. I've already blogged about our magickal, Goddessy, King Arthury experiences in Glastonbury and Cornwall (if you missed those posts but still want to read them, just click on Travel over at the sidebar's labels cloud). So now only one other subject remains -- our visits to the ancient Stone Circles at Avebury, Stanton Drew and Stonehenge. Our Druidy experiences, so to speak, among the Standing Stones.

That will be my topic all this week and a bit of the next -- so tomorrow, please join me at Avebury!

[Painting by D. Bruce Bennett of Bennett Celtic Art]

Friday 13 August 2010

Thursday 12 August 2010

Simple dreams

My Rare One and I watched Brokeback Mountain again the other night on TV. It was kind of frustrating because the CBC broke up the movie's flow with a gazillion commercials, bleeped out most of the swear words and cut the two most graphic sex scenes. But even so, they could not diminish the film's tragic story nor blunt its emotional impact. More than a week later, Jack and Ennis are still on my mind.

The first time I saw the movie, the lingering image that I could not shake was the final shot of their two shirts on the wire hanger in the closet. This time the story's tragedy was epitomized for me in a single line of dialogue.

Throughout the movie, Jack is presented as the dreamer, the unrealistic one. At one point he says to Ennis "What if you and me had a little ranch together, little cow and calf operation, it'd be some sweet life." What a modest dream this is. Such a small dream really, not grandiose at all. But utterly unattainable for a gay couple in his time, culture and circumstances. That is the poignant tragedy of Jack's simple dream. He might as well have wanted the moon. He couldn't have that either.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Batman Funnies, Part 2

By the time I was a teenager, disturbing questions and rumours about Batman's sexuality began to circulate.

Was he straight?

Was he gay? Was Robin more to him than just a sidekick?

What else could possibly lurk in Batman's bat-closet?

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Batman Funnies, Part 1

When I was a kid, my favourite superheroes were Batman and Robin. Spiderman was okay too, in a pinch. I didn't like Superman at all -- he was too perfect and prissy for my taste. But I still read Superman comics if that's all I could lay my hands on.

As an homage to the Dark Knight, here's a few miscellaneous funnies that make me laugh. I hope you like them too:

Monday 9 August 2010

Yeah, Baby, That's Me!

As a blogger, I've been taking it pretty darn easy for the past couple of months: not writing a lot, just swiping LOLcat gags off the interwebz and reposting them here, maybe sticking in a video or two for variety, etc. But this month I'll try to add a bit more substance, especially in the spirituality area. I'm going to do a series on the stone circles we visited in England. I also intend to start a series on labyrinths I have known and loved. But don't worry, there'll still be lots of goofy stolen stuff too. Especially this week.