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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A Meditation on Winter

The medieval Scots poet William Dunbar is probably best known for his humour, but he offers A Meditation on Winter that captures the melancholy many feel at this time of year.

Into thir dirk and drublie dayis
Quhone sabill all the hevin arrayis
With mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis,
Nature all curage me denyis
Of sangis, ballattis, and of playis.

Into the dark and overcast days
When in sable all the heaven arrays
With misty vapours, clouds and skies,
Nature all courage me denies
Of songs, ballads and of place.

Which is to say that the inclement weather does not move him to want to write poems or songs. The dark and overcast days he describes as 'sable' which is the heraldic term for black and even then, the colour of mourning. He seems to be in mourning for his muse. It's almost as if the season drowns him out "With wind, with haill, and havy schouris" all the time.

I walk, I turne, sleip may I nocht,
I vexit am with havie thocht.
This warld all ovir I cast about,
And ay the mair I am in dout,
The mair that I remeid have socht.

I walk, I turn, I may not sleep / I am vexed with heavy thought. I cast about over this whole world / yet ever more am I in doubt / the more I have sought a remedy.

The poet seems to be spiraling down into hopelessness as every attempt to find a solution to his melancholy just leaves him more heavy in his thoughts. He turns to allegorical figures for guidance. Despair is no help, of course. Patience counsels him to keep Hope and Truth by his side. Prudence suggests that we are always wishing for something other than what we are and where we are. The gentle sage Age holds out a hand to his brother, and Death opens his gates, reminding the poet that the same fate awaits everyone.

In part that's what winter brings to his drooping thoughts: "For feir of this all day I drowp" for the dying year must remind us all of our mortality. But as Boethius' Lady Philosophy would remind us thus the Wheel of Fortune turns ever. Those downtrodden rise up once more. Death is only a reminder that we must live every day.

Yit quhone the nycht begynnis to schort,
It dois my spreit sum pairt confort
Of thocht oppressit with the schowris.
Cum, lustie Symmer, with thi flowris,
That I may leif in sum disport.

Yet when the night begins to shorten / it gives my spirit some part comfort / of the thought oppressed by the showers./ Come, lusty Summer, with your flowers / that I may live in some enjoyment.

Summer may be only a dream in January, but it is all the sweeter for that. Let us not despair but enjoy the pleasures of the season and know that the Wheel of the Year turns on and on.

[Image via British Library, A January calendar with a bas-de-page scene of feasting by an open fire, from King’s MS 9, f. 2v]

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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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