Sunday, 22 July 2012

Mouthy Mary

Four weeks after John-the-Baptist’s Day, the ecclesiastical calendar commemorates Mary Magdalen.  While John preached repentance; Mary Mags (if we believe she was the penitent prostitute) practised it.  There is a fabulous Rubens painting in the Scottish National Gallery, depicting Herodias spiking the tongue of John-the-B with a fork as his head is presented to her husband, Herod, on a dish by sumptuously-dressed Salome.  The symbolic message of the jabbing fork is clear: that will teach him to speak out.
The witch’s gag or ‘branks’ in the museum is another horrid symbol of how, in the past, women have been silenced.  Some of these awful contraptions had spikes that, when inserted into the mouth, would pierce the “gossip’s” tongue if she talked.  Whether these so-called witches, loose-tongued, or accursed women were truly evil, touched by spirits or just plain misunderstood is hard to say.  Jesus Christ was reported to say, ‘let the one without sin cast the first stone.’  Tell that to the tabloid journalists, 2000 years on.

Madeleine and the Minister

Quoth he: I’ll mak ye haud yer weesht,
an’ he straps the branks on ma heid.
Kens Ah’ve blether fir the baith o’ us;
gin Ah clype oan - he’ll be deid.

His creeshie words are sleekit as oil,
but it’s me wha greets an’ begs.
Ye’ll cry me a gossip, but hae a wee keek
at whit lies between his legs.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Buried Treasures

So we come to the third of this year's Fridays-the-Thirteenth - triply unlucky for those who believe in bad luck - and with it, as coincidence would have it, the thirteenth of my 26 Treasures from the National Museum of Scotland. I've already said I'm not superstitious, and I don't have a mind for numbers, but it kind of makes sense.  Any month that begins with a Sunday will have a Friday 13th.  This year, an extra day in February means that, three months had Sundays-the-first; each three months apart and therefore, the Friday 13ths were thirteen weeks apart. Ooh, scary?  No, just maths. 
What secret or subconscious power led me to post a 13th sestude on Friday the 13th? The simple fact is that 26 sestudes (yikes - that's 2x13!) in the space of a year is no easy task, especially when it involves finding, researching or even photographing one of the museum's vast array of Treasures every fortnight. Sometimes items have caught my eye; a story, or an over-heard snippet or random fact inspired me.  Mostly, it is serendipity or chance.

For today’s Treasure I could have chosen from a multitude of artefacts that symbolise luck or superstition. The ancient practice of burying treasure with the dead pre-supposed that it would be useful in the next life; and so, there are many items of symbolic meaning.  This gave me plenty of words to play with.  For that reason, I have chosen a string of glass beads, and formed my sestude out of meaningful words, half-randomly strung together in three contrasting tiers, to be read in any direction you – or fate – may choose.

Friday, 6 July 2012

What a Bore

When I started this project of 26 Sestutes for 2012, inspired by the 26 Treasures competition for the National Museum of Scotland, I had great plans and pretentions.  First, that I could write a mere 62-word snippet based on 26 of Scotland’s Treasures – displayed in a building I enjoy spending far too much time in – every two weeks for a year.  Believe you me: a ‘sestute’ is no easy discipline.

Second, that I would find time to look more deeply into issues of national identity, and explore what it means to be Scottish.  This is particularly hard for someone who pronounces words with a ‘posh’ (or at least, received) English accent.  And third, that I (while being chronologically-challenged) would find items to write about that might slot pleasingly into calendars of events, historical, personal, or ecclesiastical.

I managed to shoe-horn Corpus Christi into the mix; even Lent got a mention but, when it comes to the hagiographical calendar, I sadly forgot about Saint John-the-Baptist, whose date was handed to me on a plate, since I used to work for a church that bore his name if not his fore-running fame. So, with apologies to June 24 (and anything else that rhymes with ‘ore’) I will throw this one in, belated. 

Oh, and if you’ve never heard the wonderful and legendary John Kenny play this beast of an instrument, I urge you to look it up while you’re here on the internet.

The War-Trumpet

I’m not quite sure
who bore the boar
on a John-the-Baptist dish.

A weapon of war,
adored and abhorred, a caricature, 
with bulging eyes and laughing lower jaw;
its sforzando roar let rip
with puckered lip
and petrifying embouchure.

Then, in a peaty grave and frore
was chilled by hoar-frost
and nature’s icy blast;
a silenced sacrifice,
heard – and feared –
no more.

This brass and bronze head of a carnyx - an Iron Age battle trumpet - was found at Deskford in Banffshire. It is the only surviving carnyx head from Britain. The carnyx was used sometime between 80 and 200 AD, and buried as a sacrifice to the gods. The head resembles that of a wild boar, a symbol of strength and fearlessness.