9 December 2017

White Ladies and Green Teeth

The Torc of Moonlight Trilogy launches today! Yay! And just in time to snuggle down over the Christmas break and immerse yourself in 900 pages of time-spanning Gothic Fantasy. It is certainly Gothic, but is it Fantasy?

The characters are clearly fictional, I make no bones about that, but I’m also clear about the settings being real-world places readers can visit. That leaves the un-named deity who, by slow degrees, is determined to resurrect herself, and re-exert her influence over her environment. Now that’s Fantasy, surely? Not quite.

Years ago, when I was a back-packing walker, my preferred area was the North York Moors - a place of sweeping vistas, Iron Age hillforts, Roman marching camps and Industrial Age workings – all returned to Nature. It didn’t take me long to realise there were also an awful lot of springs named Lady Well marked on the Ordnance Survey maps I used.

At first I accepted that the Lady in question was a nod to Mary, mother of Jesus. However, with a bit of research it soon became clear that the Lady, or Ladies - each was a resident of her own water source - were linked strongly with Pagan beliefs. They only become an amalgamated, unnamed female entity when conflated during the early Christian period with that other powerful female icon, the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the surprise is not that such occurred during the demonisation of all that was not Christian, but that hardly any had taken on the saint’s name directly, as happened in less wild places.

We do know the names of some pre-Christian water deities, mostly thanks to early Roman occupation and writings: Coventina on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland; Arnemetia at Buxton Springs in Derbyshire, Senuna at Ashwell in Hertfordshire; and the most famous in the country, Sulis, at Bath in Somerset where she presided over thermal springs prior to the conquest. Even when the invaders tamed the flow of heated waters by building a bath and temple complex in the accepted Roman style, they only partly conflated the known goddess with their own Minerva. To this day she is known as Sulis-Minerva.

Silver votive plaques depicting Senuna excavated at the Ashwell shrine site, now in the British Museum

White Ladies, or a White Lady, pops up all over the country as a folklore memory of a once exalted deity, though they are now often referred to as a ghost. Attending a history day at a nearly village last month, I was intrigued to see mention of a White Lady known to have walked the area of the pond and spring used as the source of drinkable water before the village was connected to modern piped mains.

Ghostly apparitions aren’t always known as the more benign White Lady. In another village just north of where I live a short road leading to its village pond is named Bugg Lane. And the native name for a spirit or ghost? Bugg or boggle. It’s where the term bogey-man comes from, originally one of the fey, the people of the Otherworld, it was better not to annoy.

In this respect, Jenny Greenteeth gets star billing. Those who were of a superstitious leaning considered ‘Jenny’ a witch or fairy name. Jenny Greenteeth was, and sometimes still is, associated with deep, dank waters covered in clinging duckweed, of a decaying being intent on pulling the living to their deaths. Rather than it being a true water hag, might she be the last remnants of a remembered guardian of a fresh water spring polluted by man’s unthinking industry? Rather than being demonised, perhaps Jenny Greenteeth and the other White Ladies should be an icon for our environmentally-conscious time.

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