(10/5/03 10:22 am)
The Wife of Usher's Well|
I'm rereading the old ballads again, in particular, "The Wife of Usher's Well", which I love. These lines always haunt me :
"It fell about the Martinmass
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carlin wife's three sons came hame
And their hats were o the birk...."
Can anyone shed any light on these strange hats? Why were they made of birch? It's the birk that grows at the gates of paradise. But why, birch? All I know is that it has associations with death and other worlds. But I'd love to know more.
They are such brilliant lines, don't you think? And maybe because they are so enigmatic....
(10/6/03 9:50 am)
Head gear for 3 ghosts|
Well, after a quick glance through my collection of ballad books, the collection BRITISH BALLADS FROM MAINE gives a bit of detail (more so than the Child volumes). The hats are described as made of "birk" or birch and the next line (in older variants) says that these trees grow beside the gates of paradise. As to why anyone would wear a hat made of birch (does anyone know the mythology connected to the birch and the 'why' of it growing near heavan?) is anybodies guess. But I would assume that this is a way of letting the "audience" know that since these 3 boys have returned to their mother before they have entered paradise (heaven)that they are not "bad" ghosts just good wee ones returning to say a fond but sad farewell to their mother.
(10/6/03 12:57 pm)
No ideas about the hats, but a couple of notes on birch trees: Birches are 'nurse' trees. They can establish themselves almost anywhere, grow quickly, and have quickly decaying leaves (good fertilizer). They offer protection to slower-growing trees like oak or pine which end up growing taller than the birch, depriving them of light and killing them. So the birch is both a colonizer of new ground, and a tree which sacrifices itself for the good of others...
The birch is also the first tree in the Ogham tree alphabet - symbolizing new beginnings and new opportunities. More Celtic/Ogham associations are fertility, birth and springtime (the Maypole was tradionally made of birch for these reasons). I haven't run across any obvious connections to heaven/paradise - other than that could be considered a 'new beginning' as well...?
The bark of birch is really tough - and survives long after the wood has rotted away (you can find hollow bark 'tubes' standing long after the tree has died). Maybe birch bark hats are as practical as symbolic...?
Don't you love old, enigmatic references?
(10/7/03 3:28 pm)
Re: The Wife of Usher's Well|
Yes, it says somewhere that the sons were learning "grammary" (witchcraft) so perhaps the hats give them some magical protection. I know that the silver birch was a magical tree for the Celts and the Druids. It was also a self propagating tree so it recreated itself. It's fascinating... I'd certainly love to know more.
Charles Vess, may I just take the chance to say how much I love your paintings! I think you would create a beautiful image of that ballad. But maybe you have already....
All the best