How to Bag a Man on St. Andrew’s Day


Time’s up gentlemen. For the bandit, the scarecrow, the tramp and the hedgehog it is judgement day. It’s the end of Movember and you have show off your attempts at growing a moustache in aid of men’s health awareness.  So get those cameras out.

Overall the attempts have been excellent. Attempts – not results. One friend of mine found that his top lip can produce nothing more than the three-day stubble effect, although his beard is as full as that of Grizzly Adams. Pity beards aren’t allowed. Some cannot wait to shave them off come the 1st December, while a couple have decided that being hirsute is giving them a distinguished and manly appeal.

The last day of November is also Saint Andrew’s Day. He is the patron saint of Scotland and the first disciple Jesus chose. Coincidently, the name Andrew means ‘manly’. Bet he had no problems during Movember. He is celebrated all over the Christian world and Andressey Island, a name that has evolved from ‘Andrew’s Island’, is featured in The Prophets of Mercia. The island was named in Andrew’s honour by Saint Modwen in the 650s.

Now, I never met Saint Andrew but my guess is that he was a manly man. Not only for the value Jesus placed in him but because of the mythology and magic that his legacy has endured. In Germany,  for example, the tradition was for single women to sleep naked on the eve of Saint Andrew’s day. During the night they would dream about the man they would eventually marry. In Poland it is believed that the spirits of the forefathers visit with the purpose of opening up the minds of the single ladies and gentlemen so that they can see their future partners – if they exist.

The ritual involves pouring melted wax over a key head and then holding it up in order to cast a shadow on the wall. If the shadow resembles an angel then happiness is assured. If it is a heart then true love is on its way. Perhaps that man in your dreams the night before. If the dream was more of a nightmare, the ritual from Romania may be more appropriate: spread cloves of garlic around the house and eat a feast of garlic infused food. That way the evil spirits would be sent away. Including the man in the ‘mare who probably sported a bandit-style mo.

So my advice to the single ladies is to sleep naked tonight. Then again, it is below freezing here today and if it is where you live, give it a miss this year. After all, only a few men are at their best right now.

 Except, strangely, for the couple of men I know named Andrew.

(c) 2013 A.J. Sefton

Blood Month: the Darkest Month

It seems weirdly logical that the month following Halloween was once called ‘Blood Month’. The clue to reasons why this is, is the name the Anglo-Saxons gave their moon at this time – Hunters’ Moon.

The Celtic peoples of northern Europe celebrated their new year at Halloween – Samhain – and this was also the start of the winter. Winter was hard. There were no crops for the people to eat and no shops to buy in any imported foods. So began the hunting time so the Dark Ages folks could have meat to see them through the winter.

Generally, meat was not consumed in any great quantity by the ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon England. Its role was that of a stock cube, that is, it was used to flavour the stews and soups that were made from root vegetables and herbs. Rabbits were caught via hawking (as seen in Medieval depictions of the seasons) and the livestock people kept all year were slaughtered at this time.

As with all cultures, particularly of those two thousand years ago, all practical events had a religious significance too. According to the monk and historian, Bede, November was the “month of immolations”. He went on to explain: “for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to the gods.” There has been archaeological evidence to support this. In Berkshire, England, a boar’s head was buried with Roman tiles placed on top and in Cambridgeshire, an ox head was buried face down. Archaeologist David Wilson claimed that this was evidence of sacrifice to a pagan god. There have been many examples such as these.

Cattle, or ox, appear to be the most common animal to be given in sacrifice. There are depictions of blood being collected and maybe this was given to the spirits of the trees. Or perhaps the Dark Ages peoples knew about blood being an excellent fertiliser for fruit trees. The meat would have been dried or salted and stored for winter consumption. When the shortest day arrived at the winter solstice, there would have been a great feast to celebrate the fact that people had made it through another year. Plenty of meat would have been eaten simply because there was little else.

So the new year started in the darkness of winter, with the sights, sounds and smells of animal sacrifice (some have argued that there were human sacrifices too). It gets darker and colder. The leaves die and fall from the trees. People succumb to illness and disease and die as well. November truly was an ugly, dark month.

The Anglo-Saxons, as those before them, hoped that there was enough meat to last. A bit of help from the gods and maybe they could live until the light wins out in the spring.

I really don’t like November. But I am not in the right time nor place to complain so I consider the month as a time of remembrance. So I’ll think about those who died in the past whether they be soldiers or ordinary folk.

(c) 2015 A.J. Sefton

What the Runes Were

Now and again I stop to marvel at the wonder of the written word. The greatest gift, possibly, is the ability to read, hence to learn. Then I look at the funny little shapes that are letters and the meanings we put to them. It is easy to see how ancient peoples thought that these squiggles were signs from a divine power. None more so than the Norse runes.

The Teutonic alphabet is the oldest Germanic script.  It was used by them and the Norse peoples before they adopted the Latin language brought by the Romans.The symbols were designed to be carved onto stone, wood or horn, therefore they were made up of straight lines.

The word rune signifies mystery and hidden knowledge and has many magical connotations, even today.

The myth of the runes comes from ancient Norse. Odin (or Woden to the Anglo-Saxons) sacrificed his eye to gain knowledge and wisdom. The runes will only appear to those worthy of their power and insight and Odin/Woden hung from the great tree of life, Yggdrasil, for nine nights. He pierced himself with his spear and hung there, without food or water and forbadee anyone to help him.

After he had proved his worthiness, the magic and secrets of the runes revealed themselves in the waters below him. His tale is found in the epic poem, Poetic Edda:

I know that I hung on a windy tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no man knows

from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,

downwards I peered;

I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

then I fell back from there.

(Translated by Carolyne Larrington)

 (c) 2015 A.J. Sefton

Why We Should Remember the Fifth of November

It is a mainstay of British culture that we have fireworks, bonfires and toffee apples to commemorate the 5th November.​ There are often huge displays in public parks that include fun fairs and burger sellers. As I arrange my own fireworks party at home, I’m wondering if morally I should.

There are always objectors to events. But the main concern is over safety for animals and children. We are talking about fire and explosions after all. The complaints about ethics are quite minimal.

However, from an historical point of view, is it right that we celebrate the death of a man, Guy Fawkes, who was tortured by the hands of the rulers of England? It is generally accepted that he was the scapegoat for the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, not the brains behind it. A law was passed in 1606 called the Observance of the 5th November 1605 Act, whereby church bells rang out and services were held to commemorate the assassination attempt on King James of England and Scotland. There have been many conspiracy theories surrounding the event with political double-crossing and religious overtones. England did not have religious freedom and many thought that King James would be more lenient toward the Catholics as he was brought up in a Catholic household in Scotland. Up until the last century the figure burning atop bonfires was the pope. Of course that has ended and the evening is now simply a fun occasion.

But in this peaceful age should I have my party?

I have decided that it is fair to remember. Perhaps not for the original event, the gunpowder plot, but more for the symbol it has become or should be: that terrorism is not acceptable. As that is what it was. A group of people decided to blow up the home of the English and Scottish government in an act of terror. The challenge was not made in a democratic or civilised manner. Yes, I appreciate that democracy in the 1600s was not what we understand it to be now, but it was an underhand way to try to change things.

So I’m ordering my toffee apples after all.

(c) 2012 A.J. Sefton