At the end of the fighting season…
The autumn is closing in rapidly around here, it is wet, getting colder and I get up for work and it’s still dark. Samhain approaches and my Pagan friends are looking towards the turn of the year. In the earlier times, that our modern paganism often looks back towards, this was the last gasp before the plunge into winter. With the harvest almost gathered there was still time for the flurry of activity to prepare for the months ahead. But what about warriors? What would this time of year mean to them? This is something I find myself reflecting on at this time of year.
Until fairly modern times, warfare was seasonal. Because when winter came survival was a big enough task, fighting would tail off in time for the harvest to be got in. If it didn’t there wasn’t much point to the fighting as you’d be starving by February. In the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746 the harvest was not collected throughout the highlands and oats, wheat and barley spoiled in the fields. The region had seen the passage of armies for over a year who sustained themselves by foraging (which is a euphemism for stealing), so meat, ale and flour was in short supply. Shortages caused by the passage of armies through the highlands became famine. Famine killed people regardless of their faith, politics or loyalties.
For the leaders this was a busy time and the longer view had to be considered. What was the plan (or likely plan) for Spring? Could a peace be organised over Winter? Would it hold come the Spring or would fighting have to be resumed? How bad had things got? Would bitterness and honour drive winter raiding? Who held the initiative? All of this had to be sorted out before practical steps could be taken to stand the warriors down (or in more modern times to turn the army into winter quarters). Many a late night council would be held and midnight oil burned, but this would have to fitted in around the mourning and recognition for the fallen, reports up the chain of command and the normal busy routines of society.
The first question would be how many warriors to retain under arms and how much manpower could be released to prepare for winter. Where warriors were also farmers and some might be fighters you had ‘turned out’ (that is pressed into arms), they had probably already gone, the call of their land and harvest being too much. It was possible to fight in a limited manner at this time of year, raiding and ambushing, so it was too early to let down your guard and stand all of your force down. An aggressive war leader might work in a few raids and cattle drives to insulate against deprivation, but the risk had to be considered. Losses would have to be made good and the youth coming of age would be considered, who was in training, who had cut their teeth and needed recognising? How many would need to start training now, not for next year but the year after? Who would need to be invalided out? Egos soothed, pride allowed for, new jobs given to avoid feuding. What about weaponry? What could be repaired or made new in house, what would require purchasing in? Likewise armour and consumables like arrows, powder and shot. Then there was the less sexy and glamourous things, boots, horse trappings, blankets, spoons.
A lord’s steward or seneschal might be keen to see the warband stood down, the cost for sustaining them physically and psychologically, transferred onto others. Traditionally warriors (and soldiers in the modern era) were not billeted on a civilian population until the last possible time, as soon as this was done, problems started, which would occupy the leaders more and more until Spring. So this was also the time of make work to keep the warriors out of trouble, patrols, hunting, guard duties, errands, exercise and training.
What can all this inform us as modern pagans who are drawn to warrior? It would be unrealistic to model our behaviour on this too closely. In today’s modern times warfare and fighting does not cease with winter, modern armies train and fight in almost any conditions to horrific cost on civilian populations. Fascists still march (it is in fact the traditional fascist torch lit parade season through much of Europe). In the west we are unused to seasonal shortages, cooperating and planning ahead to avoid famine. I find I am drawn to make, to repair and audit my gear. Make my domestic arrangements for winter (which increasingly here in the UK means lots and lots of rain). I invariably think about training, the idea being to insulate myself against the worst effects of over-indulgence over the winter (definitely a first world problem). I try to think about what skills I need to keep sharp and what new things I need to learn while I have the chance. I take time to reacquaint with old comrades who might be involved with events in the year ahead. Now I’m not immune to motivation crisis I feel the abuse I have subjected my body to over the years and I can afford to be complacent because I live in the UK in the 21st Century. So reflecting on what this time of year meant for warriors in the past and what was at stake is a powerful motivator to get off my ass and be active. For me this time of year is one of remembrance and there is an important social element. I might get together with members of my old war band, where we share food and drink and reminisce. To the outsider it may look like the telling of a lot of tall stories, but it’s difficult to talk to people about certain things, unless they already know the ground. Within the tall tales, there is a lot of fear, tragedy and loss. It is, I suppose a form of group therapy, an annual release. A mechanism of regrouping and healing old wounds a little at a time.
My pagan practice then, forming a warrior cycle of the year, starts with a look back on the previous year and further back. Reflecting and remembering events recent and ancient that exert their weight across any distance of time. It also is a time for looking forwards, to orientate and plan for the future. While being ready for action if your enemies (or life’s vicissitudes) attempt to surprise you now. With events here in the ‘civilised’ west so tumultuous and scary I see people are battered by events. Off balance and fearful of the future. This now, at autumn, is the appropriate time to do as older generations of warriors and fighters would at the end of the war season and reorganise. Look forward and plan for taking the initiative. For the campaign ahead. Think about who you want with you and tell them, make your appreciation and have some hope, because you survived another year to fight again and soon it will be spring.
(c) Rob Preece – October 2017