Prehistoric Shamanic Healing Today

July 17th, 2015  -  Mike Williams


Boring into a person’s skull, cutting a ring of bone loose, and then snapping it upwards to remove it completely is a difficult technique to get right, especially when it is undertaken with stone tools and without modern anaesthetic. Yet this is precisely the procedure that Stone Age surgeons performed hundreds of times. The most remarkable part, is that some of their patients even survived the treatment and recovered. The technique is trepanation, the removal of small discs of skull, which seems to feature in all periods of our prehistoric past. It was not a primitive form of brain surgery, but let something out that was trapped in the body of the patient: bad spirits. We cannot know what conditions led to the radical surgery but episodes of epilepsy, mental illness, or even high fever may have been interpreted as the person having been invaded by a bad spirit and needing trepanation to remove it.

Today, modern shamanic practitioners still extract harmful spirits from their patients, although they do not make a hole in the skull in order to do it. Moreover, the rationale behind spirit intrusion and its necessary extraction has not changed across the millennia. To find out what these are, we need to travel to 35,000 years ago, at a time when the first people of Europe painted the caves of France and Spain with breathtaking images of their world.

The inaccessibility of the caves, and the need to pass along lengthy tunnels to reach the art, suggests that a visit to them was not undertaken lightly. It was probably an incredibly sacred activity and may have had echoes of the shamanic journey to the otherworld. When shamans enter trance, the prerequisite of any journey, they see shapes and these rapidly coalesce into a tunnel. By passing along the tunnel, the shaman eventually sees light at its end and can then step out into the realm of the otherworld. Ancient people clearly noticed the similarity between the journey to the otherworld and the route into their caves since they painted shapes on the walls of the caves that match those seen when first entering trance.

Along with these abstract shapes, people also painted images of the otherworld: visions of what they saw in trance. Animals abound in huge herds; bulls, horses, and deer all circle the walls, kicking up their feet in a whirling maelstrom of flesh and fur.

Most of the animals people painted were prey species: animals the people would have relied upon to survive. In among the herds, however, or stalking a lone straggler, were other beasts: lions, leopards, even a cave bear. These were predators and, despite being competition for prey, these were animals that humans would want to learn from, emulate, and even befriend. Perhaps this was why some carried small models of these killers, intricately formed from mammoth ivory. They were a touchstone of power to call upon when needed. Moreover, incised upon the sides of these models were the same shapes that decorated the caves walls; those that people see when entering trance. For the people that carried them, these were spirit animals.

The same was likely true for the animals painted on the cave walls and the way that certain creatures seem to flow in and out of the rock, or emerge from a crack in the wall, seems to underline the point. Some painters clearly wanted more, to reach behind the veil of the rock itself. They placed their hands against the wall and blew paint around and over them. It was a way of reaching out into other realms. Others scraped a little of the clay wall loose, as if they wanted to know what lay behind its shroud. To these people, the otherworld and its spirits were real.

If a model made from ivory, and a painted image on a wall could contain a spirit, then it is clear that so could anything else. This is animism, the belief that everything is alive and has a spirit that exists in the otherworld. The same is also true for illness.

When we catch something, the spirit of the illness passes into our body and lodges there, causing the symptoms of the disease. In a way, it is a little like a virus, which we cannot see and only know that it is there through the effects that we suffer. Rather than referring to a virus, however, a shaman would say a spirit has invaded us and, before we can heal, it needs to be extracted. This is when healers in the past would reach for their stone tools and their patients undoubtedly went very pale.

Today, a shaman would enter trance and search for the invading spirit. Being in trance means that the spirit becomes visible, since the shaman crosses the boundary between this reality and the other and develops a form of x-ray vision. This is why much shamanic art often shows the insides of things, such as animals’ bones. When the shaman locates the intrusive spirit, he or she will gather it up, maybe by using a fan of feathers or maybe by sucking it into the mouth, and will then take it to a place where it is returned harmlessly to nature. Rather than viewing the spirit as bad or evil, the shaman considers it merely as energy that is in the wrong place. By returning it to nature, it is reabsorbed into the great web of life.

In the Iron Age, people made little models of body parts and moved the invading spirit into their forms before throwing them into water. The source of the Seine in France is full of such models as it was an important healing sanctuary. Even today, many shamanic healers return extracted spirits to water

In order to conduct such healing, the shaman needs to be full of power. Otherwise, the spirit of the illness could just move straight from patient to healer and the shaman would go ill with the same symptoms. One way shamans fill themselves with power is to call upon the spirit of their helper animal. This may be why people in the Ice Age carried models of their animals with them: portable touchstones of power. Taking on such power can feel a little like turning into the animal itself, something shamans call shapeshifting and it is revealing that some of the Ice Age models are half-animal and half-human. Perhaps these are the shamans themselves, in the midst of shapeshifting into animal form.

When shamans enter trance and journey to the otherworld, a part of them, their soul or essence, leaves this reality to travel to the other. This is far more natural than it sounds as we all experience something similar when we dream at night. Only a part of the soul ever leaves, however, since if it all departed, then the shaman would be dead.

There are other times when part of a person’s soul might leave them, such as during terrible trauma, when people put a part of themselves in a safe place in order that they have protection against whatever assails them, either physically or mentally. It is the body’s way of ensuring that, however bad something gets, there is always a piece remaining safe and unharmed. Usually, once the trauma passes, the soul part returns. A problem only arises if it does not. People suffering from such soul loss might describe themselves as “not all here” or as if a part of them is missing and they are right. Without their missing soul part, they are not complete. Their energy depletes, their health suffers, and they enter a downward spiral that only stops once they seek healing and regain their soul part. This is why soul retrieval – finding lost souls as they wander adrift in the otherworlds, bringing them back, and restoring them to patients – is one of the most important of all shamanic practices.

Soul parts always head for the otherworld when they leave their human host and so this is the place that a shaman will go to look for them. Immediately after entering the trance state that is necessary to travel to the otherworld, the shaman will call his or her power animal, as power animals make excellent trackers. When the soul part is located, often resembling the patient at the age that they lost it, the shaman can gather it up, sometimes placing it into a special container, and bring it back to this world. The soul part can then be blown into the patient’s heart and restored to them.

In prehistory, shamans seem to have used hollow bones to store missing soul parts as they moved between the worlds. Such bones frequently accompanied people to the grave, as if they were an important part of an individual’s belongings that they could not do without. In the Iron Age, there are even images of soul retrieval, such as that engraved onto the Gundestrup cauldron, from Denmark. Here, a shaman draws the soul back into his patients before sending them on their way.

Herbs and other medicines probably supplemented any other form of healing. Ötzi the Iceman, for example, who froze into the snow of the Alps with his travelling pack complete, carried various herbs to treat his ailments. For a shaman, however, since everything is alive and has its own spirit, an herb is more than just a plant and is something that he or she can befriended and use as an ally in the healing process. It is not just the herb that shamans dispense to their patients but also its healing spirit.

Despite having ancient roots, shamanism works in harmony with modern medicine and procedures since it has a very different understanding of the nature of illness. As well as treating the symptom, for instance, by taking painkillers or antidepressants, shamanism allows treatment of the cause of the dis-ease, whether it is an invading spirit or soul loss. The two approaches work hand-in-hand. Perhaps this is why Mercy Medical Centre in Merced, California has recently invited shamans to work alongside modern doctors, caring for the soul as the surgeon cares for the body. It is a beautiful partnership of the old and new.

Ships on Stone: Walking Through Images of Ancient Shamanism

May 22nd, 2015  -  Mike Williams


My visit to the land of the midnight sun was during early autumn, so that night was slowly creeping back into ascendancy over day. I was far north of the Arctic Circle at Alta in Norway, one of the finest rock-carving sites in the world. The images there date from all periods of prehistory but I went to see those carved during the Bronze Age, when the ancient precursors of the indigenous Sámi people left signs of their shamanic beliefs etched into the rock.

As I walked down to the shoreline rocks, where most images occur, I was struck at how appropriate it is that the designs occur on the boundary between land and sea. For many shamanic people, water provides the gateway to another reality – the otherworld. To cross to the otherworld, shamans first put themselves in trance but Bronze Age people probably recognised the rocks on the shore at Alta as a location where the two realities came together; even a place where transition between them was possible. The rapid lowering of sea levels in this region during the Bronze Age – and the resulting exposure of much new ground – probably heightened the belief that the shore provided access to different realms.


At first, the images I saw at Alta were of domestic scenes: hunting elk, corralling reindeer, and catching fish. A predatory bear also put in the odd appearance and one panel showed a hunt at its lair. In among these images, however, were others that seemed to denote magical practices and I was quickly reminded that the people who created the carvings did not separate ritual and domestic life as we do. Hunting a bear was both sacred and profane. This became particularly pertinent when I viewed the many images of boats. People were using some in ordinary fishing expeditions, or as platforms for hunting, whereas others seemed to have a very different role altogether. Just as the boatman Charon ferried the dead to the afterlife in Greek myth, so shamans utilise spirit boats to reach the otherworld. Of the images of boats on the rocks at Alta, the most curious were those depicted upside-down.


Shamans often report that the otherworld is a mirror image of this world, so that objects that are upside-down in this world are the right way up in the otherworld. The upside-down boats at Alta may have been travelling between the worlds.

At other sites in Scandinavia, people not only carved upside-down boats but also took advantage of the natural surface of the rock to make it appear as if the boats passed through its membrane and into a world on the other side. People also positioned the boat images so that the rising and setting sun fleetingly illuminated particular vessels before plunging them back into gloom. It seems that people deliberately emphasised the transient, ephemeral quality of the boats, possibly mirroring their journey into the otherworld.


Back at Alta, picking my way even closer to the shore, I noticed that a number of boats contained figures that were dancing or drumming. I knew that Sámi shamans listened to the repetitive beat of the drum to enter trance (and so journey to the otherworld) but the dancing required a different explanation. Further south, in Denmark, bronze razors carry designs etched onto their surfaces showing large mushrooms carried in boats. A close look at these images reveals that the mushrooms are fly agaric, the archetypal red-and-white toadstools that grow in the birch woods of the region. The mushrooms provoke trance states when eaten and a person can heighten this if they are prepared to drink their urine afterwards. Historical studies show that shamans in the region readily did this in order to fuel their journeys to the otherworld. Interestingly, one of the symptoms of ingesting fly agaric is excessive movement. Perhaps this explains why people in the boats at Alta appeared to be dancing; they were allowing the drug they had taken to course through their bodies.

Like ancient Greeks, the people who engraved the rocks believed that boats not only transported shamans to the otherworld but also the dead to the afterlife. During earlier periods, people buried their dead in coffins fashioned from hollowed out oak trees. Since they made boats in exactly the same way, people effectively buried their dead in boats; a fitting symbol given their beliefs. Even after coffins fell out of use, people surrounded graves with stones mimicking the keel of a boat. Some burial cairns even have images of boats beneath or around them and many of these boats contain no crew, as if the vessel were for the sole (and soul) use of the occupant.

Many burial cairns overlook the sea, as if people expected the dead to rise from their graves and head towards the water in their journey to the afterlife. In fact, sometimes people gave them a helpful steer by engraving footprints between cairn and sea that pointed in the right direction. These often cross a line of boat carvings, as if the wandering soul picked up its transport on its way to the shore.

Some of the figures in the boats I saw at Alta had drums and these individuals may have been shamans. I thought of the classic image of Siberian shamans, and, indeed, of the Sámi shamans, beating their drums and journeying to the otherworld. Intriguingly, Sámi shamans sometimes refer to their drums as boats, vessels that carry them to other realms; an echo, perhaps, of the Bronze Age beliefs that are evident on the rocks.


Sámi drums contain images on the surface of their skins, painted in red alder sap, which represent a map of the entire cosmos, including this world and the otherworld. The carvings on the rocks may have had a similar function. At Alta, I found one design that showed a boat full of people dancing and drumming. Above them was an individual with arms outstretched, a shaman perhaps, on his or her way to the otherworld. The design was at the base of a rock that sloped upwards, with footprints helpfully pointing out the upward direction of travel. I followed after them, taking care not to step onto the rock, and before long I passed the flying shaman again, confirming that this was definitely the route I should take. When I reached the top of the incline, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the fjord, all the way beyond the headland and out to the shimmering sea. Was this the route to the otherworld that the ancient shamans followed?

The gathering gloom eventually fell on my time at Alta and I reluctantly had to leave the images and head away from the shore. As I did so, I noticed the ball of the sun descend across the sea, heading towards the realm of the otherworld. I thought of the Bronze Age shamans watching a similar scene, deep in trance from eating hallucinogenic mushrooms, and waiting to board the boat that would ferry them into that alternative existence. In this place of age-old ritual and magic, it even felt like I might join them, peeling back the veil of millennia to enter their world: the realm of the ancient shamans.


City of the Monkey God

March 6th, 2015  -  Mike Williams

City of the Monkey God

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was never one to ignore the possibility of treasure; his lust for gold had already seen the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan fall to his mercenary army. So when he heard tales of a region with a city of extreme wealth in Honduras, his interest was piqued. Fortunately for the occupants, and for us, he never found it, but the myth of the legendary city of La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) was born. Following the conquest of the Inca, people forgot about La Ciudad Blanca until, in 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh reported seeing a “white city” while flying over eastern Honduras.

In 1939, adventurer Theodore Morde claimed to have found a “City of the Monkey God” in Honduras, which, because of its location, many reasoned to be la Ciudad Blanca. He told tales that would have made even Cortés blush, about there once being temple with a large staircase leading to a statue of a Monkey God. According to what Morde was told by local people, the temple had a long, staired approach, lined with stone effigies of monkeys. The heart of the Temple was a high stone dais on which was the statue of the Monkey God himself. Before it was a place of sacrifice. The steps to the dais were said to have been flanked by immense balustrades. At the beginning of one was the colossal image of a frog; at the beginning of the other a crocodile. Morde also related folk tradition about a monkey who had stolen three women with whom it bred, resulting in half-monkey half-human children. Morde claimed that the native name for monkey is Urus, which translates literally into ‘sons of the hairy men.’ Their fathers, or fore-fathers, are the Ulaks, half-man and half-spirit, who lived on the ground, walked upright, and had the appearance of great hairy ape-men.

Interest in La Ciudad Blanca grew in latter part of the twentieth century as numerous explorers searched for it. News of any archaeological work in the area was chronicled in popular media, which always liked a “lost city” story. Then, at last, the ruins were identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, a vast region of swamps, rivers, and mountains containing some of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth. However, an archaeological discovery isn’t confirmed until it has been seen on the ground. So, a team of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, National Geographic documentary filmmakers, and support personnel set off to establish the truth. According to a news announcement by National Geographic this week, the team found and surveyed the city. La Ciudad Blanca, the White City, the City of the Monkey God, has now been officially found.

Although no excavation took place (in line with scientific protocol) the archaeologists found evidence of, so-called, were-jaguar carvings. These are half-human, half-animal (supposedly a jaguar) carvings, which probably represent a transformed shaman, shapeshifting into animal form. The first part of the name, were-, comes from the Old English meaning man (human) and also gives rise to the more familiar were-wolf. Were-jaguars first emerged in the Olmec period and appear to be almost universal throughout all cultures that came after.

At La Venta, an archaeological site of the Olmec located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco, an altar contained a carved image of two lively were-jaguar babies being carried out from a niche or cave—places often associated with the emergence of human beings— and may relate to the mythic hero twins of Olmec mythology and perhaps the forerunners of the Mayan Hero Twins.

There is no actual consensus that these transformed spirits were jaguars, however, and, even if they were, since La Ciudad Blanca developed almost two thousand years after La Venta, it is possible that the mythology had changed. Going back to the stories of Morde, could the “were-jaguars” at La Ciudad Blanca actually be “were-monkeys”, making sense of what local people remembered about the site. Like the “were-jaguar” babies at La Venta, could the story of were-monkeys born to a woman and a male monkey, relate to the existing tradition of the mythical twins, as revealed on the carving at La Venta?

Perhaps La Ciudad Blanca really was a City of the Monkey God. It is believed that the first “were-jaguar” statues of the Olmec were worshiped as gods, could the same be true of the “were-monkeys” at La Ciudad Blanca, giving credence to Mordes story about a monkey temple with a Monkey God at its heart?

It is anticipated that further excavation will reveal more and I hope archaeologists will not easily dismiss indigenous beliefs, which tell of a great city devoted to the cult of the “were-monkey”. Morde and his local informants may just have been right.


The illustration is by Virgil Finlay for The American Weekly representing the Temple in Morde’s “Lost City of the Monkey God.

The original National Geographic press release can be found here.

St Dewi of Wales: Once and Future Saint

February 27th, 2015  -  Mike Williams

Dewi Sant

This Sunday, it’s St David’s (Dewi) Day in Wales – Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant in Welsh. He is unusual in the United Kingdom for being the only saint born in the nation he represents, although the date of his birth can only be estimated at between 462 and 512 AD.

Dewi was born to Sant, was the son of Ceredig, King of Ceredigion, and Non, later St Non, the daughter of a chieftain of Menevia (now the cathedral town of St David’s). Non gave birth on a cliff top near Capel Non (a later chapel built for her) on the south-west coast of Wales. A fair storm whipped up from the sea as Dewi made his way into this world. The proximity of a Holy Well, possibly a pre-Christian site of veneration, may explain why Non chose this unlikely place to give birth. It is curious that milestones during Dewi’s life were marked by the appearance of springs of water.

Dewi was destined for the church from an early age and spent his formative years in the monastery of Hen Fynyw under the tutorage of St. Paulinus, a saint honoured as one of the founders of Brittany across the Channel. Paulinus was old when he took on Dewi and, as his sight faded into blindness, Dewi miraculously restored his vision. It was the first of many miracles performed by the saint.

Perhaps the most famous is the time Dewi was preaching at the Synod of Brefi. As more and more people crowded around him to hear his words, the ground on which he stood rose to form a hill. Now everyone could see Dewi clearly. A white dove landed on his shoulder, and it became his symbol, always shown in later illustrations. Although one of the most esteemed historians of Wales, the late Dr John Davies, remarks that creating a hill in Wales must rank with the most superfluous of miracles, Dewi was acclaimed for it and people called upon him to be made archbishop. This meant that St David’s, the monastery that he had earlier founded and was now bishop over, gained a metropolitan status that it still holds today. Despite being a tiny settlement, St David’s is a city.

Dewi ruled his monks with a kindly authority, insisting they pull the plough by themselves and spare the animals. Dewi was a vegetarian and, during his time in retreat, lived on leeks. This is one reason the leek is the symbol of Wales. Another more prosaic reason (mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry V) is that they identified the Welsh soldiers in battle. That bright idea is also attributed to Dewi.

Dewi owned nothing and if any of his monks referred to an object as theirs or his, they were chastised. Dewi lived a very simple life. Despite this, he is reputed to have travelled widely, founding other churches and monasteries. He even rededicated Glastonbury Abbey. But his role founding churches in Brittany (and many places there are still named for him) is probably apocryphal.

Dewi died at his cathedral on Tuesday 1st March, which could have fallen on 569 or 601 AD, apparently being a very old man of over 100 years-old. His remains were reverently buried in a shrine in the cathedral, befitting his status and immediately becoming a place of pilgrimage. Unfortunately, the place was ransacked in the 10th or 11th century by Viking invaders, who plundered the site and murdered two Welsh bishops along with it. They wrecked the shrine but not the remains of Dewi. In 1275 a new shrine was constructed (the remains of which can still be seen) and it was here that Edward I, not a very popular king in Wales, came to pray in 1284. During the Reformation, the shrine was stripped of treasure and the remains of Dewi confiscated. However in 1996 bones were found in St. Dewi’s Cathedral which, it is claimed, could be those of Dewi himself.

Unlike many other saints of Wales, Pope Callixtus II in 1120 officially canonised Dewi as a saint. It was a little after this that he became the patron saint of his nation, which he remains to this day.

Much of what we know about Dewi comes from the writings of Rhygyfarch in the late 11th century, supposedly based on archives from the monastery. However Rhygyfarch was extremely political. His main aim was to gain independence for the Welsh Church, which had rejected the Roman rite and remained Celtic until the 8th century. Old wounds went deep and it is interesting that the Church in Wales is now independent of English Anglicanism and is a far gentler and more inclusive church, just as Dewi and his forbears would have known it. Even Rowan Williams, our very own former Archbishop of Canterbury, thought nothing of initiating as a Druid whilst in post.

Through his life and, perhaps more importantly, after his death, Dewi unwittingly became a champion of Welsh identity. There is even saying about St Dewi that harks back to the medieval myth that he was a nephew of King Arthur, the once and future king. It is written in the 10th century Armes Prydein Fawr, that one day ‘A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant”, in translation, “and they will raise the pure banner of Dewi” and defeat the English once and for all. We can still but hope.

But the last words should, appropriately, be the last words of Dewi himself. On his deathbed, he uttered his last instructions to those gathered around him: “do the little things, the small things you’ve seen me doing”. As Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury adds: “…it reminds us that the primary things for us are the relationships around us, the need to work at what’s under our hands, what’s within our reach. We can transform our domestic, our family relationships, our national life to some extent, if we do that with focus and concentration in the presence of God.” Amen.


If God Had a Face, What Would it Look Like?

January 23rd, 2015  -  Mike Williams

Way back in 1995, Joan Osborne asked If God had a face, what would it look like? Well, the Christian belief, which is what Joan wrote about, is that God made humans in “his” own image, so “he” is depicted as a man, and usually an old man at that. Fine, but if “he” made humans (i.e. two sexes) in his own image, “he” must have both male and female characteristics. Islam would say that even discussing what God looks like is sacrilegious and portraying his image is blasphemy. That goes for cartoons too. But what if a religion had no choice; it had to represent its Gods (and Goddesses) but, hitherto, had no idea what they looked like?

This happened to the Kushans, a vast empire centred on the Oxus River and absorbing modern-day Afghanistan. It was more than a match for the contemporary empires of Rome, the Han Chinese, and the Persians, but is almost unknown in the West. This may be because fewer sites have been excavated and far less is understood about their culture. In particular, apart from an assumption (born from images of kings making offerings before a fire) that they were Zoroastrian in outlook, very little is known about their Gods and Goddesses. In fact, the scant information we do have about their pantheon comes from their coinage, and that only started around AD 113 to 127, after Wima Kadphises became king. His son, Kanishka I (reigned AD 127 to 151) carried on the tradition, although he changed the language of the coins from Greek to Bactrian, albeit retaining the Greek script.

Like the inscriptions, rather than using images for their deities that arose from Kushan tradition, instead, each portrayal of a God or Goddess drew upon a God of Goddess from another culture, principally Greek (the region had been part of Alexander the Great’s empire), and neighbouring Iranian Zoroastrianism, Indian Hinduism, and Indian Buddhism. Theirs was an eclectic mix.

Take Oesho (who appears to be the chief deity for the Kushans). Here he is on a coin issued by Wima Kadphises.


The God has flames emanating from the top of his head and is leaning against a bull. If you saw this image alone, you might think it was Shiva and that’s exactly where the inspiration for this coin appears to originate. Albeit, recent opinion also associates Oesho with the Zoroastrain God Vāyu-Vāta.

Pharro (the God of good fortune) also has Zoroastrian elements in his design as, like Oesho, he can have flames rising from his shoulders. But his image is based on the Greek God Hermes, since his hat is winged and he wears a nimbate.


Pharro often appears with the Goddess Ardochsho (the Goddess of Abundance), whose name is only known from coins. She takes the image of the Greek Goddess Tyche and, like Tyche, Ardochsho is always depicted carrying a cornucopia.


The Buddha makes it onto many coins, including the less valuable copper coins. Maybe this was a “deity” that spoke to ordinary people. The legend on this coin introduces him as Boddo.


The God Vajrapani was Buddha’s protector and he also finds himself on Kushan coins, except he is portrayed as the Classical Greek God Hercules, complete with lion skin and club.


The God Mithro is based on the Roman/Iranian deity Mithras, and his image on Kushan coins includes a sun disc.


Two copper coins bear a ‘Ganesa’ legend, presumably relating to Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed God, but on these coins there is an image of an archer holding a full-length bow with string inwards and an arrow. This is typically a depiction of Rudra, the Rigvedic deity, who often conflates into Shiva, as he is thought he does on these coins. But, to the Kushan’s he is Ganese/Ganesh.

All in all, over 30 different Gods and Goddesses appear on Kushan coins, all with characteristics taken from other pantheons. The Kushan dieties may have had their own stories, customs, and traditions, but when it came to giving them a face, the Kushans looked elsewhere.

In time, only two divinities appear on the coins: Ardoxsho (the Goddess of Abundance) and Oesho (the chief God). But they are still represented as the Greek Goddess Tyche, and the Hindu God Shiva, albeit with a little of the Zoroastrain God Vāyu-Vāta.

So, to answer Joan Osborne’s question. If God had a face, he’d most probably look like the neighbour’s God. And that can’t be a bad thing.

For those who now have the bug for Kushan coins (and who, seriously, can resist), there is a book to be shortly published: Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian and Kidarite Coins: A Catalogue of Coins from the American Numismatic Society by David Jongeward and Joe Cribb. It will apparently focus as much on the pantheon of Kushan deities as it will on their coins. Definitely not to be missed!

The Yule Goat: A Pagan Presence in Modern Scandinavia

December 1st, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Yule Goat

In the town of Gävle in Sweden, residents mark the first day of advent by building a huge straw goat. It fills the main square and, if it doesn’t get burnt down beforehand (which extra straw is kept to hand to rectify), it lasts until Yule (trying to burn it down has almost become a tradition in itself).

The Gävle Goat is a new celebration that was only started in 1996, but actually follows a very old custom thought to originate in pre-Christian northern Europe: the Yule Goat.

It is thought that the celebration of the goat is connected to worship of the Norse god Thor (one of the most popular Gods in the northern pantheon) who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Perhaps the burning of the straw goat mimics the sacrifice of real goats once offered to Thor.

As in many countries, the last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was credited with magical properties as containing the spirit of the harvest. Whereas in other places it might be woven into a corn dolly, in Scandinavia it is saved for the Yule celebrations, and, in particular, for the making of the Straw Goat. So the offering to Thor also contains elements of harvest and, presumably, entreaties for more of the same in the following year.

Of course, Christianity recast the goat as a devil and it is interesting that there are 11th century references to a man dressed as Saint Nicolas leading the devil, demonstrating his mastery over evil sources. The devil, in this case, was a man dressed as a straw goat.

The custom of wassailing is sometimes called “going Yule goat” in Scandinavia and it does seem that from the 17th century, young men in costumes would walk between houses singing songs, enacting plays, and performing pranks. The group would always include an individual dressed as a straw goat. As with horse characters elsewhere (such as at Padstow and in south Wales), the goat was rowdy, rude, and somewhat threatening.

During the 19th century the Yule goat’s role changed and he became the giver of Christmas gifts, with one of the men in the family dressing up as the Yule goat to deliver them. Possibly this was due to a confusion between the Saint Nicholas figure and the devil (straw goat) from medieval times.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jultomte, or Father Christmas/Santa Claus took over the role of present giver – as he did in many other parts of the world – although, in Finland, he is still referred to as the Yule goat. As Ulla kindly adds below, the Finnish word, “joulupukki”, is a combination of words “joulu” (Yule) and “pukki” (goat).

The straw/Yule goat was never truly forgotten and it is brilliant that towns like Gävle are bringing him back. I just hope he survives until his date with destiny at the midwinter solstice.

Happy Advent everyone and let’s all go a little “Yule goat” today!


Patron Saint of England: George the Christian or Edmund the “Pagan”?

November 20th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

St Edmund Martyr

St George of dragon slaying fame is the patron saint of Georgia (the country which is not named after him but it sure could be1), Portugal, Malta (although there are others there as well) and, of course, our neighbours, England. But St George was not born in (or even visited) these countries (albeit there are some legendary accounts of him visiting Glastonbury but there are about Jesus too!). George was born in Lydda, which was part of Roman Palestine, and was a soldier in the Roman army until he was tortured and executed by a surprisingly reluctant Diocletian for not making sacrifice to the Roman Gods.

Theories abound as to why he was adopted in England (with the truth probably being he was a bit exotic, had no connections with England – and so could be universally followed – and his Feast Day survived the Reformation intact, unlike a lot of saints). Maybe this occurred as a result of him being adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Or maybe it didn’t. But King Edward III adopted St George as patron of his newly formed Order of the Garter in 1348 before extending that designation to his entire kingdom.

In doing so, Edward usurped the existing Patron Saint of England – that’s right; there was another – whose Feast Day is today, November 20th. He is St Edmund, as English as a bulldog, who sacrificed himself for the good of his people in 869 AD. In next-to-no-time, no less a figure than King Alfred the Great elevated Edmund to saint and also patron of England. Within 20 years, he was the number one martyred saint in the country. Until St George muscled him aside that is (and not forgetting St Thomas, of course. He of brain-scooped-up-by-sword-fame).

The life story of St Edmund has come down to us with a Christian gloss. Little is known of his early life (although myths abound) but he was probably King of East Anglia in 869 AD, when the Great Heathen Army (full of Danes and would-be Vikings) fell on the kingdom in an orgy of traditional rape and pillage. The army was led by Ivar Ragnarsson or Ivar the Boneless, who was a Viking leader and berserker. According to legend, he was the son of the powerful Ragnar Lodbrok (who will be immediately recognisable by fans – like me – of the Vikings series). Anyway, old Ivar may have been boneless but he was no pushover and his army routinely defeated that of Edmund. The Viking issued terms for surrender (as was usual, even if it seems extremely civilised) with a proviso that St Edmund renounce his Christianity (or was this later gloss?). Edmund felt unable to do this, or, more importantly, agree to the surrender terms at all, saying to his bishop he would “rather die for my country”. Ivar obliged. He tied Edmund to a tree, scourged him (sound familiar), then shot him with arrows and javelins until they resembled “the bristles of a hedgehog” (described by an eyewitness), and then, finally, in that over-the-top Viking way we all love, had him beheaded. Job done. Martyred for his faith, 29 years-old, glamorous, royal, and, through dying valiantly, saving his people from an oppressive surrender treaty. No wonder Alfred dusted off the hagiography almost immediately. Edmund’s example was just what was needed to give other rulers a bit of backbone.

But, despite the Christian gloss, things from now on turned decidedly Pagan. Edmund’s bristled body was recovered quickly, but his severed head had been kicked into a nearby forest and was lost. When his followers went looking for the head, they were led to its location by the sounds of a howling grey wolf crying, in Latin no less, “Hic Hic!”, “Over Here!”. Clever wolf.

The wolf (later a giant wolf) seemed to stand guard over the head but allowed Edmund’s followers to retrieve it. As they did so, a spring gushed from the ground at the point at which it lay. When the followers later stuck the head back on the body, the two miraculously joined, so that the king was whole again for burial at, the appropriately named, Bury St Edmunds (I think the name came later). Very soon, a cult grew around Edmund’s shrine. One manifestation of this is that a woman hoping to conceive would take a pampered white bull to the shrine, garland it with flowers, kiss Edmund’s tomb, then whisper to the dead king her desire to conceive. The tradition survived into Tudor times and if Queen Mary has got herself a bull, there’s no telling what might have happened to English history.

Fertility seems to run through Edmund’s story. The King giving up his life for the land, a spring appearing beneath his slain head, and the posthumous joining of head and body, all suggest a sacrificial king who knew the role he had to play. He told his bishop it was “never my way to flee”. The cult of the severed head is well attested from Celtic times as is its potency as a relic. King Edmund had stepped into a world of myth, from Bran the Blessed of Celtic myth to King Arthur of medieval tales. He even had his own animal spirit protector and, unlike St George, Edmund did not try to slay the wolf.

Whether Edmund was Christian (possible at this date) or whether he was Pagan (as were many of his more rustic supporters) is immaterial. He was probably swayed a little by both faiths, just as King Rædwald of Sutton Hoo (died around 624 AD) was “half-believing” and had separate altars to worship both the Christian God and the Pagan Gods. Smart man. So the myths that grew up around Edmund served both causes, he was a Christian martyr but he also fulfilled the role of sacrificed king in Pagan mythology.

Should he ever have been usurped by St George, the dragon killing upstart who suffered no less at the hands of Diocletian, but had no physical, moral, or circumstantial link with England? What do you think? I know where my vote would go, but I’m Welsh so it wouldn’t count.

There is a new book by Mark Taylor called Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom which covers similar ground in much greater detail.

1 The name Georgia (Sakartvelo in Georgian) is an anglicisation of Gurj, derived from the Persian word for the frightening and heroic people in that territory.


Keeping Samhain for the Ancestors

October 31st, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Ancestor Night

I am writing this surrounded by the trappings of modern Hallowe’en. I had my Godson stay over the weekend with his sisters and they are of an age where ghosts, skeletons, ghouls, and witches are the order of the day. I even have a black and red cape and trident sitting next to me; some might say a very appropriate gift from the children. We ate toffee apples, carved pumpkins, and decorated the house like a witch’s grotto. It was lots of fun but it definitely wasn’t Samhain: the far older festival that Hallowe’en threatens to replace.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or, at least, the “darker half” of the year. Samhain is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature (from the 10th century AD) and is widely believed to have pre-Christian roots. It was celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November. Along with Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh, it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. People observed Samhain in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and parts of Scotland whereas kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; such as the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany), all meaning ‘the beginning of winter’.

Samhain was the time of year when cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and a number slaughtered for winter stores. In our contemporary lives, the threat of winter shortage has receded and this element of the festival is all but forgotten in modern Hallowe’en. Samhain was also a liminal time when the spirits or fairies (the Gaelic sídhe, pronounced “she”) could easily cross into our world. Most scholars see the sídhe as remnants of Pagan gods and nature spirits and people left offerings of food and drink out for them, both in friendship and also to stop them making any mischief through the winter. This element of Samhain is very evident in modern Hallowe’en, although most of these supernatural elements now have a wicked or even evil aspect, following their condemnation by the medieval church. Mumming and guising were another part of the festival and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise) to recite verses in exchange for food. Hallowe’en trick or treating recalls this tradition; it is not an American invention as often thought.

There is another aspect to Samhain that is more sombre and is not reflected in Hallowe’en at all. This is honouring the ancestors. If the parting of the veil allowed spirits to pass through into our world, this also included the dead. People held feasts and invited their deceased ancestors to attend. I would argue that, until the Gaelic tradition widened its remit, this was the original reason for a festival at this time, with roots going back deep into our prehistoric past.

You may know of the Coligny calendar, a Celtic time keeping plaque found in France and probably dating to the late 2nd century AD. As the words are Celtic (despite the script being Roman) it is assumed to reflect a far older, indigenous tradition. The year (as with the Gaelic Celtic year) was divided into two with the division from summer to winter occurring at Samon[ios], which may have given rise to the word ‘Samhain’. There was a three night festival at this time (Iron Age people recorded times by nights not days), called the trinux[tion] samo[nii], the three nights of Samhain. What people did at this time of year is hard to discern from the archaeological record alone and most explanations involve superimposing later Gaelic tradition into the Iron Age past. It’s certainly likely they slaughtered stock and feasted on the surplus but I think the main focus would have been on honouring the ancestors.

The evidence for this is scant, but for a piece of little known mythology surrounding the Pleiades. From the Bronze Age, and possibly long before, people observed the movement of the stars and an embossed disc from Nebra in Germany seems to reflect the celestial skies at the start of winter. The disc shows the moon, the prow of a boat along its edge (perhaps hinting at deeper mysteries), and a star constellation that looks very similar to the Pleiades. Given its prominence, the Pleiades certainly had considerable meaning to the people using the disc. What this might be requires a little more digging.

In Western astrology, the Pleiades is associated with mourning the dead. Dr. Morse, an astrological consultant to the Saudi Royal Family, drew attention to this in his book The Living Stars. This does not seem to make much sense now (the reason for the link having been lost) but, as with all stars, the Pleiades has shifted its position over the years. During the Iron Age, the Pleiades rose to its apex in the winter skies during trinuxtion samonii, or the three nights of Samhain. If, as I think they did, Iron Age people mourned and remembered their dead at this time, then it may have given rise to the association between the Pleiades and mourning the dead. The Nebra disc shows the importance of the constellation to prehistoric people and it may have even been the marker people sought to begin their festivities. There is even folk tradition that Druids celebrated Samhain when the Pleiades were at their apex at midnight. Mourning and remembering the dead may have been the focus of the Samahin festival during the Iron Age, before the Gaelic tradition widened its remit in later years.

Strangely, while Hallowe’en now forgets about honouring the ancestors, the Christian church does not. In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1st November, while 2nd November later became All Souls’ Day. This was a day for remembering the ancestors and the recently departed. It seems strange that the Church should recognise this element of Samhain but it is probably a case of the Church putting a Christian gloss on what they perceived as a Pagan tradition. Requiems for all souls still take place in churches and I shall be attending one on Sunday to honour all my ancestors who lived and died as Christians. The weekend after, I will honour my ancestors who died fighting for their country in wars (Remembrance Sunday). It is surely not a coincidence that it happens at this time of year.

In short, my Samahin will have very little to do with the start of winter (today is forecast to be the mildest October 31st for many, many years), will have little to do with slaughtering stock (although I might feast), and I am far too old for trick or treating. Instead, I shall focus my thoughts on my ancestors and all those who have gone before. My celebration will be a time of honouring them. Whether it is at a Pagan ceremony, a Christian requiem, or even a national day of remembrance, let’s make the ancestors the heart of our Samhain this year and give our thanks for their continuing presence in our lives.


Shapeshifting Felines: How the Domestication of Cats led to their Worship

August 8th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Shillourokambos cat

To celebrate International Cat Day, held on 8th August every year, I want to explore the domestication of cats and how people may once have seen them as powerful spirits, important enough for individuals to shapeshift into their form.

It will come as no surprise to any cat owner that, rather than humans domesticating cats, cats probably domesticated humans. As the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was coming to an end, people started to grow crops. Soon, they had surplus grain and had to store it in granaries. The stored grain likely attracted mice, and, in turn, the mice attracted cats. Archaeologists used to think this first happened in Egypt (around 4,000 years-ago) but grain was grown and stored long before that, all the way back to around 12,000 years-ago in the Near East. Indeed, genetic analysis suggests that all domestic cats derive from at least five founder cats from the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East (where agriculture began) rather than from Egypt.

The first cats probably turned up on their own some 12,000 years-ago to feed on the mice that accumulated around granaries. It is likely these first farmers appreciated the cat’s hunting ability and controlling what would otherwise be a serious threat to their food supplies. Cats were certainly tolerated and possibly even encouraged by the people and it was likely not long before a Neolithic child brought home a fluffy bundle and asked his or her parents imploringly “Can I keep it?”

From the Near East, farming spread and one of the first places it went was to Cyprus. At the time of the farmers’ arrival, Cyprus was unpopulated and, significantly, it had no cats. But archaeologists have discovered that when people arrived, so did the cats, indicating people brought them with them on their sea crossing. Given, as the saying goes, it is almost impossible to herd wild or feral cats, perhaps those chosen for the journey were already partly domesticated. And even if cats were not domesticated at this stage, a slightly later burial at Shillourokambos on Cyprus, a settlement which people inhabited from 9,500 years-ago, shows they soon were.

A grave of a high-status individual (assumed from the rich array of grave goods he or she possessed) was accompanied by a cat, which had its own grave only 40 centimetres away. The two are contemporary and this may be a case of someone taking their faithful pet with them to the afterlife. Although people at the site did occasionally eat cats, this one was unbutchered and laid out with respect (albeit probably killed for its supernatural journey). It is also likely that people viewed cats as separate individuals in their own right since this cat had its own grave (the same is true of the first domesticated dogs). It is only later, in Egypt, when cats were fully domesticated that they shared the same grave with their presumed owners (again, the same is true for dogs). Interestingly, the first illustration of a cat with a collar appears in a tomb in Saqqara, dating to around 4,500 years-ago. But, at the very least, Shillourokambos reveals the beginnings of the close bond between humans and cats.

As with many animals at this time, such a bond was more than merely physical but also extended into the spiritual. Cat Gods and Goddesses came much later (most famously with the Egyptian Goddess Bast) but to begin with cats may have been seen as powerful spirits. Certainly the excavator of the Shillourokambos cat argues “It’s difficult to say the cat was a religious animal but it probably played a role in the symbolic and imaginative world of these people.”

Interestingly, from the same site in Cyprus, excavators found a sculpture of the head of, what appears to be, a half-human, half-feline individual. Shapeshifting into animals is a common technique of both modern and ancient shamanic practice and it is likely this is what the sculpture represents.

The face on the sculpture (shown above on the front of an excavation report) has both cat and human characteristics, but since the neck was not as sculpted and polished as the rest of the face, excavators assume that it was embedded in a wall, with the face protruding outwards. Maybe this shapeshifting individual was thought to have crossed a membrane from the otherworld into this world as it emerges from the wall.

Interestingly, Hekete, the Greek Goddess of Classical times, also shapeshifted into a cat, mainly to escape the clutches of the monster Typhon. But, afterwards, she extended special treatment to all cats. Since Hekete is also a Goddess linked with witchcraft maybe this is why witches’ familiars are popularly seen as black cats. Possibly the black fur was lent by another God who took cat form. In medieval Slavic mythology, the spirit Ovinnik appears in the form of a black cat, and was worshipped by many farming families, ostensibly because he watched over domestic animals and chased away evil-natured ghosts and mischievous fairies. But if treated badly, Ovinnik would think nothing of setting fire to the grain store. It seems that cats have always had a rather fickle nature.

Today, there is enough folklore and tradition surrounding cats that it would need a thick book to relate them all. But I wonder if both our closeness to the humble moggy, and also our respect (even distrust) of cats as powerful spirits (Gods in some traditions), did not start in Cyprus with a high-status individual and his or her cat. Perhaps he or she was also the person who shapeshifted into cat form, blurring the boundaries between humans and, what became, our beloved pets.


What’s in a Name? The Gods Behind the Days of the Week.

July 25th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Moon Phases

As a writer, words, and especially the origin of words, provide me with enormous pleasure. Sometimes it is possible to tell something about the history of a nation from the words it uses. Take Welsh, for example. Hearth, the burning fire in the centre of a house, is aelwyd, a Celtic word with no later addition. Hearths were used throughout prehistory and were likely named very early in the Celtic past. Window in Welsh is ffenestr, a Latin loan word, suggesting that windows only originated with the Roman invasion. Roundhouses, of course, rarely had windows.

It is even possible to discover something about people’s beliefs and the Gods they worshipped through words they use. Take the days of the week. It’s common knowledge that the days in English are named for Gods and Goddesses, but where and why did that arise? And what can it tell us about the Gods themselves.

The week itself probably developed in Babylon, where a month was divided into roughly four seven-day periods to match the four phases of the moon (one occurring every seven days or so). This didn’t exactly work out as some weeks were longer than others but by the time of ancient Greece, the seven-day cycle was firmly established and each day of the week had a common name. In Greek, these were:

Sunday: hemera heliou “day of the sun”
Monday: hemera selenes “day of the moon”
Tuesday: hemera Areo “day of Ares” (the Greek God of War)
Wednesday: hemera Hermu “day of Hermes” (the Greek God of commerce and travel)
Thursday: hemera Dios “day of Zeus” (supreme Greek God of the heavens)
Friday: hemera Aphrodites “day of Aphrodite” (Greek Goddess of love and beauty)
Saturday: hemera Khronu “day of Cronus” (supreme Greek God of the universe before Zeus)

Each day is named for a God or a heavenly body. The Romans had a similar system but, instead of using Greek Gods, they used the equivalent Roman God.

Sunday: dies solis “day of the sun”
Monday: dies lunae “day of the moon”
Tuesday: dies Martis “day of Mars” (the Roman God of War)
Wednesday: dies Mercurii “day of Mercury” (the Roman God of commerce and travel)
Thursday: dies Jovis “day of Jupiter” (supreme Roman God of the heavens)
Friday: dies Veneris “day of Venus” (Roman Goddess of love and beauty)
Saturday: dies Saturni “day of Saturn” (Roman God believed to have ruled in an earlier age)

Each day is almost an exact parallel to the Greek attributions, except Saturday, when Saturn – who is believed to have ruled the earth during an age of happiness and virtue – replaces Cronus. Saturn is probably the closest God the Romans could use.

Welsh follows the Latin entirely (even having the prefix day before each name), as do many of the Romance languages throughout Europe. Presumably, before the Romans, nobody much cared about the days and finds such as the Celtic Calendar of Coligny seem to support this absence. But English is different. It doesn’t follow either Latin or Greek names. Instead, it follows the day names first given by the Anglo-Saxons. And these appear completely different from those of Greek or Latin. However, an exploration of the meanings behind the names shows, in fact, they adhere to the same principle.

Sunday: Sunnandæg “day of the sun” (dæg is pronounced “day”)
Monday: Mōnandæg “day of the moon”
Tuesday: Tīwesdæg “day of Tiw” (the Anglo-Saxon God of war)
Wednesday: Wōdnesdæg “day of Woden” (the chief Anglo-Saxon God)
Thursday: Þunresdæg “day of Thunor” (the Anglo-Saxon God of thunder, represented as riding a chariot). Strictly, the day means “day of thunder” after Thunor.
Friday: dies Frīgedæg “day of Freya or Frigg” (the Anglo-Saxon Goddesses of love and beauty)
Saturday: Sæternesdæg “day of Saturn” (no equivalent Anglo-Saxon God so the Roman God is reused)

What is immediately apparent is that the attributes of each God are identical (except for Wednesday and Thursday, which have transcribed). The Anglo-Saxons clearly did not invent their own terms for each day but followed Roman practice, turning Roman God names into their own. It also tells us how Anglo-Saxons thought about their Gods and which they most closely linked with the Roman equivalent. Most are strikingly obvious but Thunor / Mercury is less clear. Possibly the early Anglo-Saxons saw Thunor (in ancient Norse, Thor) as having qualities shared by Mercury; over time, this attribute diminished as he became the giant-killing God of strength. Maybe to begin with, Thor used his chariot for commerce and not just riding to battle.

In much of the Western world, the day names are very similar, either taken directly from Latin, or, as we have seen with English, taken from the equivalent Anglo-Saxon Gods. So, when I say Tuesday in English, it is not so far removed from Dydd Mawrth in Welsh. One remembers the Anglo-Saxon God of war, the other remembers the Roman God of war. It is yet another way in which we are all connected.