History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Autumn's Chill

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

There's a wonderful passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet leads us through the changing seasons. I've always been struck by the poet's evocation of the harshness of winter's chill -- no surprise at time when people still reckoned age by how many winters they'd survived.

After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez
Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez,
Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute,
When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez,
To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne.
Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse,
Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe;
Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez,
no fage,
Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage.

After the season of summer, with the soft winds, when zephyr breathes lightly on seeds and herbs, joyous indeed is the growth that waxes thereout when the dew drips from the leaves beneath the blissful glance of the bright sun. But then comes harvest and hardens the grain, warning it to wax ripe ere the winter. The drought drives the dust on high, flying over the face of the land; the angry wind of the welkin wrestles with the sun; the leaves fall from the trees and light upon the ground, and all brown are the groves that but now were green, and ripe is the fruit that once was flower. So the year passes into many yesterdays, and winter comes again, as it needs no sage to tell us. [Jessie Weston's translation]

Your feelings about autumn probably reflect your feelings about that bright sun: I find it oppressive so I love to welcome October Country. The Venerable Bede called the month 'Winterfylleð' because the full moon this month that we often call the Hunter's Moon was used as the marker of winter's start. There is an ominous sense for the knight because he has a quest to fulfill by the new year: the other half of his challenge with the mysterious Green Knight, who is 'half a giant' and seemingly invulnerable.

Many scholars have seen in him the fecundity of the natural world, which may sleep in the winter but always returns. Like the holly branch he bears, the Green Knight lives on. We have challenges as we gather in the harvest. We need to plan for the long cold winter. But we can also appreciate with wonder the too-swift month of October offers us.

[October image via British Library]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.
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