The Twelve Days of Christmas; thronged with birds, rings and courtesans as gifts. It’s what we remember, it is what we recall when we see those five words.
We don’t think about the dead. We don’t think about wilderness imitations. We don’t think about the hot blood of a sacrificed dog and we certainly don’t think about the spirits of the dead riding the minds and bodies of the living to come back amongst us and bring wealth and fertility to the landscape we call home.
We don’t think of these things, but we should. At the core of the stories of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Hosts sits a bone of truth. A slither of white matter which holds onto the reality of these myths.
The Koryos was a ubiquitous institution, in one form or another, across the Proto-Indo-European and (PIE) Indo-European (IE) cultures. Young men were sent out from their settlements to live wild in the spaces beyond the walls. There they lived in groups – the Koryos – where they learnt to fight and hunt, and were immersed in the mythic and religious culture of their people. They raided other settlements, rustled cattle and acted in some ways as a mobile fighting force for their people. Their exploits survived into the myths we still tell from India to Ireland.
What we can say about them is that they were initiated into these war bands in winter, particularly Midwinter. From archaeological evidence found in Russia, and from mythic sources, we can also surmise fairly safely that the sacrifice of hounds and other canines formed part of those initiation rituals. In fact, the men of the Koryos were strongly associated with wolves and hounds; if not in a totemic manner then as part of shape-shifting warfare practices.
What concerns us here is the original practice of the ritual return of the Koryos to the settlements and places of the living; masked, draped in skins or with painted bodies. They would not only embody the dead but literally and in actuality, to those people, become the dead.
The Koryos itself is an extinct institution, and yet it has survived in the various Hunt and Host traditions, in the mumming and the guising that goes on at this time of year all over Europe. Monsters and spirits come to ‘terrorise’ the living, who need to be propitiated with food and drink. In all these cases, it usually ‘luck’ or general ‘blessings’ that are bestowed upon those households who hand over some beer or sweets, this recompense is a watered down version of what was originally considered to be bestowed on the people who welcomed back the dead. The dead have always been seen as being the bearers of fertility and prosperity; this is something which stretches way beyond the Indo-European and reaches right back to cultures still vibrant in Africa and amongst those peoples who retain traditions they took with them when their oldest ancestors left for the east. This may well be a trait that formed the basis of some of humanity’s earliest religious beliefs.
At the head of these parades is its leader; in Britain it could be a God; Gwyn ap Nudd or Arawn, or perhaps a legendary king such as Arthur. In the Mari Llwyd traditions in Wales we might also be seeing some other form of this tradition in which it is the horse who has survived as the leader.
What we are looking at here is a time when the land has reached its nadir; it is at its darkest, it’s deadest. It may yet get colder, but in that cold we will start to see the first shoots of life awakening. The days are beginning to lengthen; almost imperceptibly, by seconds and soon minutes each day. It is the end of one year and soon to be the beginning of the next. The hosts will ride out and gather the souls of the lost dead and take them onwards, in doing so they offer twelve days of madness, fear and anxiety. It is a period of chaos during which the world in unmade, all that we know is turned on its head as the Dead are abroad and the living hidden inside. The world is cleansed and prepared for the spring and made ready for the swing into a new string of seasons and period of growth. We can look at this as our Lupercalia – the Roman festival of similar purpose than stems from the same wolf-man war bands.
So are we to mark this? And if so, how?
If nothing else, this is a time to remember our dead. It seems out of place, accustomed as we are to doing so at the end of October. But this is the time more than any other when we set aside time to feast and make merry with our most beloved living – it isn’t much of a stretch to also include those who have died. And as we feast with the loved and living, we can set some aside for the loved and gone.
We can offer up hymns to the Koryonnos; the God of the hunt; Gwyn, Arawn or the name we know him by.
This is a time outside of the usual, an unmade time. It is a time to work magic, a time to capture the essence of those things beyond the edge of the civil and engage with the wild.
It is a time to work with fertility and prosperity; to prepare the ground. If we have gathered to ourselves the seeds of summer’s harvest, now it a time to ready the soil.
On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me; blessings and prosperity.
On the second Day of Christmas, I offered them love and gratitude.