Old Cold Gods


Old Cold Gods

“Wekk up lad, cum’n see, its ‘er time!”

The old man shook me awake, stooping under the low ceiling of the old farmhouse.

I was thrilled and honoured; the old man, my Grandfather, had chosen me to share this moment, which he had awaited, sleeplessly, for over a week.

I quickly got dressed, it was Easter, but Easter came early and my breath fogged before me in the bedroom.  The only warm room on the farm was the kitchen, the realm of my Grandmother.

I pulled on my boots and we tramped across the cobbled yard to the stable.

Inside, the young Clydesdale Mare, the pride and joy of my Grandfather, was about to drop her first foal.

I expected a long wait, but it all happened so fast, within minutes the foal was there, dark chestnut with a white star and four white socks, a dream of a young mare.  But that wasn’t all, after he’d cleaned the nostrils and rubbed the foal with straw, the old man sat down to wait.  I watched enthralled, as the puzzled young mare cleaned her foal, then the first unsteady attempts to stand.  

“That’s it lad, it’s important, we’re dunn ‘ere,” my Grandfather picked up the afterbirth, with some reverence, and strode out of the stall.

Outside he set off, not to the farm, or the midden as I expected.  With the dripping placenta in his arms, he strode up the hill above the farm.  Dawn was breaking on the pennine uplands and the valley below was filled with a sea of fog.  It was a magical experience for a four year old boy.

Half a mile above the farm there is a spring, where water bubbles, glass clear, out of the hillside into an old stone trough.  Hanging over the spring is a thorn bush, a blackthorn, rare at this height near the tree-line.

With care and reverence, the old man hung the placenta in the bush.  

I watched the ceremony, somewhat bemused, but I knew it was a ceremony.

He coughed, by way of an incantation, and as a libation he spat into the spring.

“It’s dunn, don’t ask me how, it brings t’orse luck, hawthorn, blackthorn, mekks no odds, but it must ‘ang!  We’ve always ‘ung ‘em ‘ere.  When it’s your turn you’ll know!”

This was the most my Grandfather ever said to me at one go, I knew it was important.

On the way back to the farmhouse I wondered what my Grandmothers reaction would be to the blood smeared jacket my Grandfather was wearing.  I expected there would be trouble.  Non of it, “Give me that dirty clobber and get your head down, I’ll look in on the foal” then to me “you’ll want some breakfast after that.”

It was twenty years before I understood it all, my Grandfather never knew why he hung the placenta, but I do.

Twelve hundred years before, the deep valleys in the western Pennines were settled by Norwegian Vikings, some fleeing the wrath of their king, others fleeing the hardships of Norway.  When a foal came into the world, they dedicated it to their war god, Odin, who himself was once hung in a tree to die and be resurrected.  He gave the Vikings the runes, and his own rune, the symbol for a tree, the crowsfoot, still marks all British military equipment.

My Grandfather, pious, a churchwarden, was also a pagan and a Viking, and he didn’t know it.  

Or did he?

In April this year, in Germany, my wifes Haflinger mare produced a foal, a strong well coloured colt.  I was present with my youngest son.  

It was my turn and I knew!

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