Welcome, American Witch! This blog was born at Yule 2009, as I mused about reading “The Night Before Christmas” aloud to my family. I’ve been reading it to them before bed every December 24 since they were little, the same way my father used to read it to all of us every year when we were kids. I remember how I used to hang on his voice, his words echoing his own father’s inflections; in many ways it was the spine of this whole magic holiday.
And there are certain passages I treasure and always make sure to pronounce with his own inflections: “as DRY Leaves that beFORE the wild HURRIcane fly, when they MEET with an OBStacle, MOUNT to the SKY…” But for other passages, the inflections are my own, his memory morphing just as it is being preserved, so gracefully part of the flux of life, as if spoken language, which distinguishes us from so much else in nature, links us to that changing web at the same time.
This morning, I could still physically hear his voice in my head, still inhabiting the lines of poetry. I thought how much more radically intense that experience would be in an oral-based culture, hearing the spoken voice of the dead inhabiting your own voice, as you pass along the words that are so much more immortal than any of those who speak them, realizing your own voice just a breath in that wind.
I thought about Julian Jaynes’ idea, in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that ancient people used to “hear” the remembered voices of their leaders, and later the voices of deities—-and always, the voice of the Muse–sounding from their right/back brain into their left/front brain (or, to put it another way, from their unconscious into their conscious mind). Jaynes says this is what first kept societies together, linking people with the charisma of commonly remembered words. And of course, poetry was crucial to all of this, the words probably chanted, incanted–easier to remember, easier to pass along, with the technology of meter.
Meter, music, and meaning all threading together, an intimate link of sound and soundlessness, body and meaning, as old as any human culture.
All this magic infused our Yule celebration last night. Our dear friend Reza, originally from Iran, came over for a while and we drank wine by our tree decorated with animal and magical ornaments, with the bright gold wooden sun on the top. We got out drums and turned off the lights, and drummed and chanted for the sun to be reborn and lit candles and shouted that we are glad to be alive. Reza told us about the ancient Iranian solstice festival called Yalda, and I got shivers up my spine thinking about the connections between Yule and Yalda, and how recently and closely connected all of us on this planet are to the earth and its power.
It was a magnificent Yule, the best ever. We even gathered white pine needles to make pine needle tea (delicious with a little honey, and full of vitamin C), following Cait Johnson’s cookbook The Witch in the Kitchen: for each cup, soak a handful of needles in boiling water for 15 minutes. That was a high point for me.
And another high point was feeling part of the river of poetry, and realizing that it is no coincidence how, the world over, we use poetry to mark special occasions: the thread of poetry is the thread of meaning, of celebration, of life.