Oil on panel – 25 x 20 cm.
Last week I wrote a few lines about the hawthorn and the sheep’s wool. When I was thinking about this a picture came into my head of the Windrush – a small river that flows through the Cotswolds before it merges and becomes part of the Thames further west. I remember a summer, the water idly gliding, the earth, hard, dusty on its banks worn by sheep’s hooves and the reeds ticking, bristling, checking the waters flow at the margins. I sink my bare feet into the soft silt watching as they disappear. There are hawthorns and the sheep’s wool, like the wool on the farm has snagged on the bark. I take off bits and roll the wool in my hand, feeling its oily-ness, its smell of wet winter jumpers. Back to the present, I see if I can find any myths or stories about wool and discover this Greek tale about the golden sheep with poisonous bites. This is from Apuleius, The Golden Ass (trans Walsh )
Psyche had been commanded to bring back some of their fleece as penitent labour imposed by Aphrodite…. ‘their fleeces sprout with the glory of pure gold, I order you to go there at once and bring back to me a tuft of wool from the precious fleece. Psyche made her way with no intention of carrying out the task. She wanted to seek the cessation of her ills by throwing herself headlong from a cliff above the river. But from that stretch of stream one of the green reeds which foster sweet music was so divinely inspired by the gentle sound of a caressing breeze, and uttered this prophecy : ‘Even though you are harrowed by great trials, do not pollute my waters by a most wretched death. You must not approach the fearsome sheep at this hour of the day when they tend to be fired by the burning heat of the sun and charge about in ferocious rage; with their sharp horns, rock-hard heads and poisonous bites they wreak savage destruction on human folk. But once the hours past noon have quelled the sun’s heat, and the flocks have quieted down under the calming influence of the river- breeze you will be able to conceal yourself under that very tall plane tree, which sucks in the river water as I do myself. Then as soon as the sheep relax their fury and their disposition grows gentle, you must shake the foliage in the neighbouring grove and you will find golden wool clinging here and there to the curved stems.
This was how the reed, endowed with human qualities of human kindness, told Psyche in her extremity how to gain safety. She did not disregard this careful instruction and suffer accordingly; she followed out every detail, and the theft was easily accomplished. She gathered the soft substance of yellow gold in her dress and bought it back to Aphrodite.
I don’t know how Psyche fared after this, perhaps I’ll find out or if anyone knows her story …. ? But the point is my own memory and the Greek myth have woven together to make a new kind of story in my head and the connections to our past and the stories we make are as if one.