I’ve just returned from a deeply nourishing pilgrimage to England to connect with my English ancestry and heritage.
I believe that there is an inherent need for the soul to make the mythic journey of pilgrimage. To feel ourselves transported into time out of time in order to connect with precious aspects of self.
In so many myths and stories from around the world, the protagonist leaves their ordinary life for a time to wander in the wilderness. Pilgrimage requires us to journey away from the “village” and into the unknown. This is an initiatory journey which, at its heart, is a quest for the soul. Pilgrimage is a sacred and vital act that is highly undervalued in modern society.
One of the places that I traveled to that I fell in love with was the forest of Ytene, which is the old name for the woodland now known as the New Forest in Hampshire.
I traveled to Ytene after spending a few days on the Isle of Wight, and took the ferry from Yarmouth to Lymington. On the ferry, I spent some time reading a book I had brought with me called Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folktales by Michael O’Leary.
The book explains that Ytene became known as the ‘New Forest’ because it became William the Conquer’s new forest during his rule in England. (For those who don’t know, William invaded England in 1066, leading an army of Normans to victory over the Anglo-Saxons, and suppressed subsequent English revolts during the Norman Conquest.)
William made the New Forest crown property and imposed forest law. This meant that the vegetation and the game (boar, hare, coney, pheasant, partridge, wolf, fox, marten and deer) were all under ownership of the crown. This meant that common folk could no longer hunt or harvest in the forest.
The stag is of particular importance to Ytene, and the white stag is considered a magical emblem. The white stag, also known as the white hart, has long been a symbol of the otherworld, and the sight of it is said to signify that someone important is about to enter into the realm of spirit.
As I read about the white stag on the ferry to Lymington, I learned that to see the white stag is a very rare occurrence.
The ferry docked, and I went on my way, driving through picturesque Hampshire countryside. I’d chosen a particular walk in the forest, and followed my GPS towards my destination.
The White Stag
It wasn’t long until I entered Ytene, with its wild woodland and heath covered in heather. Within the National Park, wild ponies can be seen wandering freely through the countryside but also in towns and villages. Coming across a band of ponies, I spontaneously decided to pull off into a car park.
The moment I stepped out of the car, I saw a couple standing by the car beside me with a pair of binoculars, looking into the distance across the heath. The woman caught my eye and said, “There’s a white stag right over there.”
Though the stag was quite far away, I saw its white shape immediately, moving alongside a group of deer. Having just read about them on the ferry less than an hour ago, I was truly astounded.
The man passed me his binoculars to take a closer look, and I saw the stag’s white antlers against the landscape. This was a truly special moment, and I felt the magic of pilgrimage, strong and undeniable. It was a feeling of affirmation, a sense that I was meant to be there.
Had I kept following my GPS and ignored my intuition to take a detour, I would have missed the magic of this moment. It was a powerful reminder that the journey is often as important as the destination.
After a while, I continued on my way, went on the walk I’d chosen and had yet more magical experiences. Within the forest, I felt the presence of the wild woman, full of wisdom. Through my communion with her, I was able to do some bone tracking, and found the precious bones of a bird (perhaps a pheasant, based on the feathers).
This brings me to another wonderful folktale from Ytene about an old wise woman of the forest, told in the book I mentioned earlier by Michael O’Leary. Below is an abridged version of the story, though I highly recommend getting a copy of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folktales if you want to read the whole thing.
The Wise Woman of the Forest
In the village of Burley, deep in the New Forest, there lived a man called Robert who was an administrator of forest law set in place by William the Conqueror. Robert had a sweetheart, who’s name was Mathilde.
During their regular walks through the forest, they would often pass by the hovel of an old woman. She would always be at the doorway stirring her cauldron, and Robert and Mathide would avoid the woman’s piercing malevolent gaze, which frightened them a little.
The night before the couple’s wedding, Robert passed by the old woman’s hovel, where he saw something extraordinary. Standing beside the old woman was a huge white stag, who fondly nuzzled her. She spoke to the stag using strange guttural words, and the stag responded by breathing on her, and scratching its antlers on her hovel.
Robert could not understand why a fine beast would commune with such a vile commoner. “Leave the beast alone,” he shouted, watching the abomination. “This stag is the king’s property.”
The old woman turned and glared at him, with an ancient hatred in her eyes. Then the stag bounded off into the forest.
The next day, the wedding took place between Robert and Mathilde. The priest did his work, the musicians were playing, and all were dancing on the green. But then there was a shout, and the wedding part all looked at the edge of the forest trees.
There, watching them, the sun behind it, was an enormous white stag. It is hard to gaze at the sun, and the stag seemed to shimmer and change, transforming into a huge wild boar. It foamed at the mouth, and charged towards them.
With shouts and screams the wedding party scattered. The boar focused on the bride and pursued Mathilde around the green, as the young woman screamed at the top of her lungs.
Robert threw his coat over the boar’s massive head and leaped onto its back, clinging to its neck. It screeched, a terrible noise between a squeal and a roar, and tossed Robert over its head, goring him to death with its trunks. Yet it was a white stag, not a boar, that bounded off into the forest once more.
A vengeful wedding party marched to the old woman’s hovel, but she was already dead. On the face of the corpse was a smile. It was the first time that the appalled wedding party had ever seen such an expression on the old woman’s face.
What I love about this story is that there is a de-colonial undercurrent within it. Hundreds of years ago, the old woman would have likely been called a witch, treated with disdain and mistrust by storytellers. Yet there is a very clear and undeniable lesson that she delivers; the forest can never truly be colonized or owned. She is the personification of the forest itself, wild and untamed, calling us to repair our connection to the land, decolonize our mindset, and become fierce protectors of the forest.
Throughout my travels around England, I dug beneath layers of modernization, colonialism and complex history to discover the heart of the land, which is wild and pure in nature. I’m deeply grateful to Ytene, the spirit of the forest and its stories, providing such a heartfelt pathway of remembrance.
An Introduction to the Grail Priestess Path
If you hear the call to discover England’s sacred feminine heart, I lovingly invite you to join me for a special event on Thursday, September 21st. called An Introduction to the Grail Priestess Path.
There’s an ancient call inside so many of us with English ancestry…a call to remember the sacred feminine heart of our heritage, beyond our complex history of colonialism.
The colonial mindset and patriarchal imprinting over many generations has separated us from the memory of our sacred roots. By facing the pain of our collective past as a nation, we have an opportunity to reclaim these roots and re-imagine what it means to be English.
The Grail Priestess path is a deep ancestral journey to learn about England’s myths, stories, and traditions, while unlearning colonial imprinting and untangling ourselves from the predatory mindset. This path is designed to create a bridge from the ancient past to the present, supported by the ancestors.
For more information about this 90-minute online event, be sure to follow this link (it’s FREE to register!)