Tea and a Story: Stories of Hallowe’en and Samhain

Happy Hallowe’en and blessed Samhain! In honor of the holiday that marks the beginning of the dark quarter of the year, I thought I’d talk a bit about the stories and legends I’ve encountered that deal with this spooky time of year. Hallowe’en falls at a time that is approximately halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, so it’s about halfway from an equinox to the longest night of the year. And, really, Hallowe’en is around that time of year where you really start noticing that the days are getting shorter. All of a sudden, the sun isn’t coming up until I’m on the train, with my morning commute well under way. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that we change our clocks to give us a bit more light in the mornings right around Hallowe’en.

In folklore and legend, Hallowe’en or Samhain is the time at which the boundary between light and dark becomes thinner and, in many traditions, the veil between the mortal world and the spirit world is more easily traversed. In neo-Pagan traditions, Samhain is a time to meditate on your ancestors. It’s also no surprise that this thinning of boundaries would bring spirits and ghosts into the world, hence the Hallowe’en imagery involving ghosts and other supernatural beings. Divination was also said to be more successful at this time, which is a part of a lot of old Hallowe’en traditions, and most of which center around determining when and whom one is to marry [1].

But I’m here for the stories, not the general descriptions of traditions. And one of the stories that has the most explicit link to Samhain is the story of the Kelpie in Celtic mythology [2]. The Kelpie is a water spirit that takes the shape of either a human or a horse, and lives in water. In the Celtic story of the Kelpie, the sons of the chiefs of the tribes of Ireland are lured onto the back of a Kelpie in his horse form and dragged into the water because they stick to the horse once they’ve touched him (similar to the story of the goose that lays golden eggs). One man escapes by cutting off the hand that touched the horse, and goes on a quest to try to free the princes. He encounters a magician who tells him that the princes have been taken to the Otherworld, which is the Celtic spirit world, and the only time they can be brought back is during the feast of Samhuinn, when the veil between worlds is thin. I would definitely suggest reading the original story (or at least listening to the Myth Podcast treatment of it) because I haven’t done the complexities of the plot justice here, but suffice to say, they are successful in rescuing the lost princes.

Another legend that I’ve come to associate with Hallowe’en is the traditional folk theme of the Wild Hunt. I first encountered the idea of the Wild Hunt in the book Dead Beat by Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files series. In the book, a wizard can summon the Wild Hunt on Hallowe’en because it is the best time for the spirits to come through. After reading the book, I looked up more legends and folktales of the Wild Hunt and found that it has a deeply-rooted tradition in Germanic and Celtic folklore [3]. In Germanic traditions, the Hunt is often led by Odin or Woden, as a god of both battle and the dead. In Celtic tradition, the hunt is led by legendary heroes, including King Arthur in some traditions. There are also varying derivative traditions that have the hunt being led by any of a litany of unpopular figures at the time of the particular story. In general, the stories of the Hunt have evolved to be a party of infernal or evil characters. There is even a story in the American wild west, immortalized in song by Stan Jones, of damned cowboys who hunt the Devil’s cattle across the sky [4]. They warn the cowboy who sees them that he will join them unless he changes his ways (presumably to become a better person, although it’s unclear why the cowboy is particularly in danger of becoming damned). In this version, the unseen “leader” of the Hunt would be the Devil himself, dooming the spirits of damned cowboys to chase his herds forever. While the story doesn’t explicitly take place on Hallowe’en, it seems as likely a “dark and windy day” as any for a visitation of damned spirits.

Finally, no Hallowe’en festivity is complete without a Jack o’Lantern. So I thought I’d talk a little about the folkloric story of “Jack o’ the Lantern.” In Irish folklore, there’s a story of “Stingy Jack,” who borrowed money from the devil and then tricked his way into not giving up his soul when the debt came due [5]. Through a series of annoying deceptions, Jack ended up being barred from hell by an exasperated devil, but because he wasn’t exactly a good person, he wasn’t allowed into heaven. Doomed to walk the earth as a spirit for eternity, Jack found himself possibly worse off than if he’d just gone to hell. The devil ended up taking a bit of pity on him and gave him a perpetually-glowing ember to help him light his way, which Jack put in a carved-out turnip. From then on, he was known as Jack o’ the Lantern and was something of a will o’ the wisp type of spirit. Originally, people on the British isles carved turnips before the tradition was taken to North America, where there were pumpkins.

So there you have three stories of the season. What’s your favorite Hallowe’en or Samhain story?

Sources:

1. http://www.americas-most-haunted.com/2016/09/21/halloween-and-the-lost-art-of-divination/

2. https://www.amazon.com/Mammoth-Book-Celtic-Myths-Legends-ebook/dp/B00OGV0KTU

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Hunt

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/(Ghost)_Riders_in_the_Sky:_A_Cowboy_Legend

5. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history

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On My Bookshelf: A Little Tea Book

At first glance, A Little Tea Book appears to be a typical decorative book. It’s the kind of brief, heavily-visual book with just enough text that my in-laws might put it in a guest bathroom for a little light reading on the toilet. But such books are generally pretty to look at without a whole lot of substance. Granted, coming from a pre-eminent tea authority, author, and illustrator, it’s likely to be enjoyable, at the very least. But A Little Tea Book went beyond these superficial expectations and surprised even me.

A quick note about the title: I keep thinking the title is The Little Book of Tea, which reminds me the episode of Black Books where Bill swallows The Little Book of Calm. And similarly, I have utterly devoured this book. Though I haven’t gained preternatural skills in meditation or tea from my consumption, I found the entire book thoroughly enjoyable.

The book combines information about the botanics, history, processing, and enjoyment of tea written by a foremost authority with beautiful photographs and illustrations to perfectly offset the text. It begins with the botany of the tea plant, and how processing turns a single species of plant into a diverse array of types of tea, before going into the differences between varieties and cultivars. I found this particularly fascinating because, while I know that only Camellia sinensis can truly be considered tea, and I have a passing familiarity with the two major varieties, I’d never gone into much detail about the cultivation of tea. I also appreciated the personal anecdotes about rarer types of tea.

From there, the book discusses the cultural context of tea, describing the naming of tea and how history has affected global distribution and tastes in tea. I was intrigued by the historical background, particularly how politics and economics drove different tastes around the world.

And finally, the book goes into the enjoyment of tea. I appreciate Sebastian’s informal, forgiving tone on the subjects of flavoring and adding to tea, neither demonizing either practice, while not encouraging it. He suggests tasting teas as they are, but ultimately admits that the best way to drink tea is the one that you enjoy. After all, tea rules, as he says, are less rules, and more “rules of thumb” (or as I like to say: tea rules are like the pirate code; they’re really more like guidelines).

And through the whole book, the visuals are fantastic. Gorgeous photographs of tea growing, processing, and brewing are interspersed with Wendy MacNaughton’s watercolor illustrations, which are both beautiful and informative. My favorite illustration would have to be the “flavor tree” of teas. But of course, I would expect nothing less from the illustrator of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

All in all, I would consider A Little Tea Book a delightful gift for both the veteran tea-lover as well as an enthusiastic novice. It is both beautifully designed and illustrated and contains a non-threatening, yet informative, introduction to the culture and enjoyment of tea.

NB: I purchased this book with my own money and have not been given any incentive to review it. All thoughts are my own.

On Being a “Beauty Blogger” but Also Being Kind of Lucky

This is another of my random, slightly-rambly posts where I work through my thoughts on something that has been on my mind for a while. You see, I consider myself at least partially a “beauty blogger” because I do post about beauty products (mostly skincare). And since I review beauty products, there is an underlying assumption that I think of myself as some sort of authority, no matter how minor.

This train of thought started when I posted a selfie on Facebook and someone commented on my “lovely glow.” Now, I believe this was a pregnancy reference, and I played it off with a joke about being excited about food, but a small part of me wanted to point out that I do spend more time than the average person thinking about my skin and caring for my skin. I definitely have honed my personal routine to have the best effect on my skin that I can get.

But the fact is that I am also somewhat a lucky person. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had struggles and skin issues, but nothing major. And while I credit some of my current success in good skin to proper care, I’ve never had a major skin issue. In fact, if I tried to see a dermatologist in the US, even at my skin’s worst, they’d probably consider me silly. Don’t even get me started on my hair. No, I’m not model-gorgeous, but I have a perfectly acceptable face and figure, and I do have rather nice hair.

And my hair is a good place to start. You see, one of the reasons I have rather nice hair is that my hair is incredibly resilient. I have thick, straight, strong hair and quite a lot of it. It’s graying, but it a somewhat chic way, with a streak that comes through at my part in a kind of Lily Munster sort of way. I’ve even been asked if I dye it in. So when I talk about my hair care routine, yes, I use best practices, avoid heat, wash as little as I can get away with, and make sure to use gentle tools. But I also know that my hair didn’t become any more brittle that one time in high school when I dyed it with boxed dye twice in the space of 48 hours (I didn’t like the color the first time). My hair is a good example because I could probably heat-style almost every day and dye it every month and still have pretty nice hair. At the very least, I have so darn much of it, it would take a long time for the wear and tear to show. So if you have thin, dry, curly, delicate, damaged, easily-damage-able hair, your mileage is certainly going to vary. That’s not to say that I don’t want you reading my blog, but I’m not necessarily going to be as helpful to you as someone with more trouble with their hair.

The same is true for skin. I was blessed with trouble-free skin as a teenager, and had some hormonal issues pop up later in life. I managed to wreck my skin barrier with high-pH cleansers and a lack of proper moisturization, but even when I was “breaking out,” I generally got maybe 4 or 5 spots at a time. It wasn’t even on the same level as some of the truly amazing skin transformations I’ve seen among bloggers I follow. And it’s never been to the point where I would consider much in the way of strong prescription treatment really worth it (I did Curology for all of three months, I think). I will admit that my skin is pretty calm. And since my hormones stopped fluctuating on a monthly basis, it’s been even better (we’ll see how that goes in a few months…). Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read this blog if you don’t have generally good skin, just that most of my beauty reviews aren’t going to feature drastic before-and-after results, but more a sense of how I like the feel of a product and whether I notice its subtle effects.

And I think that’s so important to admit as a person who reviews beauty. It seems like it’s going to damage your credibility to point out that you might not actually need some of the products you tout. But I would rather see a blogger be honest about the fact that their a bit genetically gifted than constantly compare myself to people who are always going to have better skin than I do. And I think it’s even more important to realize that the people who have the “bad” skin might actually be more informative in the long run if you’re actually looking for products that might make a difference in your skin. I’d rather see someone with a chin full of hormonal acne tell me what took them from cystic eruptions every month to just a few lingering clogged pores and residual pigmentation marks than listen to Regina George tell me what she uses on her nonexistent pimples.

It’s why I like to follow bloggers who are over 40 and bloggers who have made their struggles with acne public. No, I do not want to watch anyone squeeze anything on their face. But if I want to try a wrinkle cream, I’d rather see it reviewed by someone with actual wrinkles. And if you’re going to use Botox, yes, I’m thrilled that you’re going to tell me about it, rather than pretending that your flawlessness is entirely the work of your 12-step over-the-counter routine.

So that’s where I am with this right now. I hope my readers continue to enjoy the posts I post, but know that you’re probably never going to get a before and after photo from me because, frankly, the benefits I get from any given product don’t tend to be dramatic enough to show up on a photograph. But hopefully there is some merit to my opinion anyway.

It’s Supposed To Be Autumn

It’s 75 degrees (24 C) and humid today. I’m still wearing sleeveless chiffon blouses and a skirt with no stockings to work, and I still arrive after my walk in drenched in sweat. It’s muggy and the bugs are still out in full force.

It’s October. It’s not even very early October — we’re in the double-digits now. It’s supposed to be autumn. It’s supposed to be cool, maybe a little rainy, but it’s supposed to be sweater weather. Boot weather. Sipping-hot-cider weather.

Instead, I’m still in my summer holding pattern of sweating outside and then freezing when I walk into air-conditioned buildings. I even caught a cold, which felt more like a summer cold, since I was attempting to drink hot lemon tea while it was hot outside, which is nearly as uncomfortable as having a cold in the first place.

I would love to put on a pair of leggings and an oversized sweater and curl up with a soft blanket on the couch, sipping something hot, and thinking about what kind of warmly-spiced baked good I’d like to have in the oven. Maybe pumpkin bread. Or an apple pie. If it were proper autumn, I would put on a flannel shirt, jeans, and a pair of tall boots and walk around the lake until my cheeks were flushed with the chill in the air. Maybe I’d even need a hat (okay, it’s not usually that chilly by now, but still).

And it’s time for dark teas. We had some cooler, rainy weather last week and it reminded me how much I’d been missing black tea, deeply-roasted oolongs, and dark, rich, ripe pu-erhs since the spring and summer sent me into a whirl of white and green teas. Oh, I know I can drink any tea I like at any time of the year, but there’s something so fitting about pairing a rich tea with a crisp autumn day.

Have you gotten proper autumn weather yet? If not, what would you be doing if it were cool and lovely instead of still clinging to summer?