Let’s have a little game….
The evenings are drawing in, the temperature outside is ever lower, and soon the snows will come; but not yet.
I am hoping when you read this you are at home and maybe it is dark outside. I am hoping a first November gale is blowing, that leaves, brown, red, amber, are flying by your window. Perhaps it will be cold enough to tip the grass with frost by morning, perhaps not.
Are you comfortable now? Are you warm?
See outside – the street lights, cheerfully blinking? Can you picture how dark it would be if there were no lights – if there was no street?
Let’s take them away, then.
Now your central heating – let’s take that, too! Instead, you’re huddled by an open fire, but wait – the fire is in a clay hearth marked out by a circle of stones. The wood you burn is green. It spits and crackles. Can you picture that? Can you feel it?
There are no windows anymore! No double glazed transparency, no glass at all, no view of the outside dark: that is lost. Your ceiling, lost; your roof, too. Instead there is a thatch of straw or reed so badly bound it leaks steadily if it rains. Birds and the small creatures of the night live there, insects may drop in your hair from time to time – but even worse is the hole at the highest point of that roof, where the smoke of your chimneyless fire escapes. It doesn’t work when the wind is high. A choking haze fills your room, soot clings to the bare stone walls. The rain runs down them – drip – drip – drip….You must ration carefully: save your food. Your supplies are mean and flavorless. Dried meat, maybe some root vegetables, whatever you can gather from the forest edge in the short hours of daylight – there will be nothing else until spring.
So you’ve had enough? You want to get out of this? Go to your door, it is a few nailed planks at best, at worst an animal skin that flaps like a whip in the cold wind. Outside it is so dark you can see nothing; not the fingers on your hand, nor the arm that supports them. You can only hear.
Yes, the night is full of sound. The trees of the forest reach to within a dozen yards of your room, and the wind howls through them like some soul demented. It is so easy to hallucinate when you are starved of proper food. What do you think you see, out there in the blackness? Stealthy shadows, unearthly figures? Dare you walk outside? The woods are full of wolves and bears – dare you walk outside?
Beneath your floor your ancestors lie curled as they were in the womb, long dead: bad men swing from gibbets atop every hill, the predators of the woods are hungry, and you do not have the superiority over them you once assumed was your due. On a night like this they will come close, very close. If they sense your weakness – if you are ill or old, they will not wait to be invited in. And still the wind blows, and the storm cracks: and when lightning cleaves the sky it terrifies because it is a thing too great for your understanding. No-one has heard of electricity yet.
So easy to envisage in your frightened mind witches flying in that night: so possible to imagine the touch of ghosts upon your flesh, the cries of your dead in the agony that waits them at the gates. So pardonable you should cower before the forces of the cruel season and call for those very ghosts, or to a god – to save you.
The envelope of time which embraces this world of the past and our cozy modern homes need be scarcely larger than two millennia; a mere speck of gravel on evolution’s road. Small wonder, then, that we have not really shed the cloak of superstition that wraps a winter’s night, when Loki’s laughter whistles through the rafters, when the flash of Wayland’s sword splits the sky – when the thunder of Thor’s hammer is heard to crash and echo in the hills. Though our minds have accepted the sophistications of the years, our instincts have not. It is easy still to recall that naked terror of winter and the long nights – just walk outside, just linger in the darker pools between the streetlights, listen – and imagine.
Odin’s cart is creaking along the ridge of that hill, gathering the bodies from the gibbets. The wild riders, Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping towards you on that wind, the snuffling whisper behind those trees might just be dogs, or wolves, or bear…..