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Loreena’s notes on the songs of The Book Of Secrets:
October 1995, Athens: On a trip to the Greek capital, I find that during the course of interviews with local journalists, certain themes arise again and again: people’s spiritual needs, and the time and space needed to nurture that process…One writer mentions a monastery at Mount Athos: a place of reflection but alas, for men only…
July 6, 1996, Istanbul: One of the organisers of the Istanbul Jazz Festival reminds me that a certain section of the city can be traced back to Celtic roots… In tracing the mosaic of history, I am eager to learn of the influences that come from this place.
April 1997, London: I have begun reading From The Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. The book, which pursues traces of early Christian life in the Middle East, is the account of his journey following in the footsteps of two monks who set off for Byzantium from the monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos in 587 AD. One of those monks, John Moschos, wrote about his arduous travels in a book called The Spiritual Meadow.
Dalrymple’s book highlights striking similarities between archetypally Celtic illuminated manuscripts such as The Book Of Durrow and The Book Of Kells, and earlier Byzantine works, and suggests that these influences may have been transported via the monastic migration from east to west in the early centuries after Christ.
The Mummers’ Dance
January 1, 1985, Stratford: I have just read an account of a mumming troupe which boarded a Polish ship stranded in the harbour in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on New Year’s Eve, to entertain the sailors. According to James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, mumming has its roots in the tree-worshipping of the peoples who inhabited great regions of a forested Europe now long gone.
Mumming usually involves a group of performers dressing up in masks (sometimes of straw) and clothes bedecked with ribbons or rags, and setting out on a procession to neighbouring homes singing songs and carrying branches of greenery. It’s primarily associated with springtime and fertility, and it has a cast of stock characters, like the Fool, which recurs in some form or another from Morris dancing to the shadow puppet plays of Turkey and Greece and even the morality plays of the Middle Ages.
September 1995, Palermo, Sicily: Friends have brought me to see one of the last of a long line of puppet-makers by the name of Cuticchio. We were treated to a delightful private performance of the story of Charlemagne in a puppet theatre across the narrow street from the puppet-maker’s workshop.
October 31, 1996, Inishmore: A friend has told me of an unusual version of Hallowe’en that takes place on the island of Inishmore, off the west coast of Ireland. As no one speaks at all, “mum” is definitely the word. Characters wander into the local pub, have a pint and sometimes a dance, but these everyday activites are made surreal by the power of their silence. Outside, the roar of the Atlantic provides a suitably dramatic backdrop.
December 4, 1996, Real World Studios, Wiltshire, England: I’ve incorporated the chorus of a traditional mumming song into “The Mummers’ Dance.” The lines, rich with references to spring, come from a song traditionally sung in Abingdon in Oxfordshire.
May 1, 1997, Padstow, Cornwall: As with many time-honoured events, Padstow’s May Day festivities begin the night before. It’s not surprising to find a celebration like this in one of the most historically Celtic corners of England; it begins with a ritual carol, sung a capella, rich with references to springtime and St. George. May Day morning’s rendition of the song adds a full complement of accordions and drums which accompany a procession led by the “obby oss,” a “horse” figure costumed in a large hooped skirting and an almost African-looking mask.
May 15, 1997, London: Through a series of coincidences I refer back to Idries Shah’s book The Sufis and am fascinated to read about a particular Sufi ritual associated with St. George which incorporates a hobby horse.
September 13, 1995, Tuscany: I have been reading Thomas Cahill’s book How The Irish Saved Civilization, with its lively account of Irish monks in the so-called Dark Ages. Monasteries were often founded in harsh, remote outposts like the Skellig Islands off Ireland’s west coast. Monks occupied themselves with the copying of religious, literary and philosophical texts. Surviving manuscripts tell us much about the cultural identity and even individual characters of their creators via both the books’ beautiful ornamentation, and in the margins, the scribes’ own notations of a whimsical, personal or even racy nature.
September 20, 1995, Italy: “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean.” I set out for Bobbio in Emilia-Romagna, which Cahill says was the first Irish monastery to be established in Italy when renegade Irish monks were banished to the continent. H
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