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.

 

 

Shamans, Shapeshifting, and a Fisher God

June 13th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Fisher God

Nikolay Tarasov was fishing at a favourite spot in a river by his home in Tisal, Siberia. He dragged up his heavy net but, rather than revealing a nice catch of fish, he had actually snagged a piece of wood. In Tarasov’s words “I found the object, freed the net and was about to throw it back in the water – but at the last second I looked at it more closely. And I saw a face.”

Tarasov had found a figurine, a strange carving of (what is being referred to as) a man with fish eyes and mouth, plaited hair, and scales over his body but, for all that, quite definitely human. Taking it to a local museum, Tarasov was told he had discovered a 4,000 year-old carving of a Pagan God, likely a Fisher God, believed to originate with the shadowy Samus culture. They were early Bronze Age people who lived in semi-subterranean dwellings and fished the local rivers and lakes. Their material remains include many half-human half-animal sculptures so it is likely that the Fisher God that Tarasov found depicted shapeshifting, when a human takes on the form and characteristics of an animal. The figurine may have been less of a God and more of a spirit. But what was the spirit’s role in the community and why was he found at the bottom of a river? Another, much earlier site may provide the answer.

Lepenski Vir is a village on the banks of the Danube that was occupied during the late Mesolithic. Like the Samus people, those of Lepenski Vir survived on fish caught from the river – especially during the summer beluga run – and they lived year round in semi-subterranean dwellings on the riverbanks (there is no evidence of winter migration, even when sparse fishing caused malnutrition).

In each dwelling was an altar and, next to the altar, was a stone carving. These stones (or sometimes massive boulders) were engraved with fish-imagery and, the most notable, also had heads (and exceptionally bodies) carved with features that were a cross between human and fish. Whilst the down-turned mouth and goggle-eyes are representative of a fish, the placement of the eyes on the front of the head and the addition of a nose are representative of a human. They closely resemble the Fisher God from Siberia.

Lepenski Vir Head

The altars next to the stone carvings were decorated with entoptic imagery (especially that relating to fishing, such as net patterns and zig-zag lines), clubs for stunning fish lay close by and, buried beneath the altar, were adult people (newborn babies were also buried in the dwellings, but formed foundation burials when the dwellings were first constructed, usually during the summer). It seems that the entire altar arrangement stressed the importance of fishing. And with the half-human half-fish sculptures above them, perhaps the human bodies may actually be the shapeshifting shamans, those responsible for ensuring a good supply of fish. If so, then more can be found outside.

Most burials gathered in small cemeteries but a few, usually adult males, were buried between the dwellings. These were aligned so that their bodies lay parallel to the river, with their heads facing downstream. This alignment on the river was repeated with the burials in the cemeteries and also in the arrangement of the settlement itself, which originally formed two parts: upstream and downstream. The river, it seems, had an innate pull on the dead. But why?

The run of the beluga upstream in the summer and (even if only figuratively) downstream thereafter, may have been interpreted as the fish crossing and re-crossing a portal to the otherworld (these beliefs survived in the region and in Siberia into modern times). In effect, these were not fish anymore but spirits. Furthermore, these animals readily gave themselves to humans (beluga are incredibly passive when caught); they made clear their willingness to enter the realm of the humans and sustain the people. The annual run of the fish was now far more important symbolically than it ever was economically (remember the malnutrition that people ignored to remain close to the river and the fish). The imagery around the site became completely centred on fish (the dead were even covered with fish scales and bones of fish eagles made popular amulets). Over time, people, especially those with particular aptitude for crossing between worlds, (the shamans), shapeshifted into fish and joined them on their journeys to and from the otherworld (and they are reflected in the boulder carvings of half-human half-fish). Perhaps these individuals even led the dead on the route to the afterlife (a common role of shamans), and this was why the dead were aligned facing downstream: the route they had to take in death (again, this belief is still common in the region and in Siberia). When the fish returned in the summer (perhaps led by the same shamans), they brought with them the promise of life. At this time, people built new dwelling with a specially curated corpse of a newborn baby placed into the foundations (possibly reflecting the new life provided by the beluga run). Human life, the life of the village, and the life-giving migration of the fish had almost merged into one, and it was the shapeshifting shamans who oversaw and managed these annual events.

Since the carving from Siberia closely resembles those at Lepenski Vir – and notwithstanding the long time span that separates the two – perhaps the Fishing God found by Tarasov was actually a shapeshifting shaman, dropped into the river to assist the lives of the fish and ensure that enough would be available to sustain the Samus people. Interestingly, this is not the only shapeshifting imagery from the region as the adjoining Okunev culture carved pictures of men with bird-masks, as well as a horned mask with three eyes and a symbol of the sun. Maybe it is time to look again at these peoples in order to better understand the fluidity between human and animal and why some shapeshifted between the two.

As for the Fisher God, Tarasov has generously donated it to the local museum. In his words, “To sell it and make profit? What are you talking about? People should see it, and learn the history of their region.” This is my contribution to that wish.

For more about the find, click here.

 

Ascension Day: Ancient Roots of a Church Feast

May 29th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Beating the Bounds

Today is Ascension Day when, according to Christian tradition, Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven after his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e. universally celebrated) of Christian churches and many services tonight will include an outdoor procession with candles lighting the route.

As for many Church feasts, folk traditions are incorporated into Christian practice, or else given a new gloss by the Church. One of these is beating the bounds, possibly the origin of the Ascension procession (and still carried out today in some church parishes).

When communities beat their bounds (boundaries), the whole village would process from marker to marker (often standing stones) that determined the limits of the parish. In most cases, the boundary stone was beaten with willow or hazel withies and marked with chalk as a sign of people’s passing. The beating reinforced the rights of the parishioners, setting the boundary of who belongs (and could be married and buried in the church) against those who were outsiders. This was hugely important to the church and, as Christianity spread, ministers would accompany the procession, also stopping from time-to-time to say prayers to bless the land.

Since this tradition dates to well before the Norman Conquest it is possibly it has Pagan roots, with the beating afforded the bounds driving out evil spirits before the land was blessed. The procession itself may have been a means to demarcate a place of power, keeping in the energy that people raised, while notifying neighbours that the boundary must not be breached. Indeed, small boys often took the beating on behalf of the stone, ritually suffering to confirm the pact with the local spirits of the land. Some trees in the landscape still bear names such as Gospel Oak, showing they were part of the annual round once the Church became involved.

As part of church services today, first fruits are blessed, presumably in anticipation of the harvest rather than honouring actual produce (although beans and grapes sometimes take the place of first fruits for the blessing). This almost certainly replaces the earlier prayers and blessings offered to the spirits of the land at the beating of the bounds, ensuring that the Earth will be bountiful in the year ahead. It also emphasises the close connection people had with their land.

There are indications that the custom of blessing the land and its produce was widespread across early medieval Europe. On Ascension Day in Venice, inhabitants conducted a formal marriage between Venice and the sea (presumably being seen as a female spirit or deity). Rather than land, Venice sought her sustenance from the sea and the trade it brought them and so the marriage linked the two in closeness and partnership for the year ahead. Not to be outdone by their neighbour and rival, Florence celebrated by having a dove slide down a string from the high altar of the cathedral to ignite a large container filled with fireworks in front of the main entrance! Not surprisingly, I cannot find record of anyone else doing that.

It seems that the modern feast of Christ ascending to heaven has far older roots involving a community’s connection to the land (or sea) around them, acknowledging the local spirits, and also offering thanks for the anticipated harvest to come. In a way, that also explains the Christian festival and service, even if the land is the whole Earth, the local spirit is the Son of God, and the anticipated harvest is the paradise to come.

As with many religious traditions, even Ascension Day has older, possibly Pagan roots, which have been adapted and embraced by the Church. If you do join a candle-lit procession tonight – and I fully intend to do so – spare a thought for its origin in driving out evil, honouring the land, and praying for a good harvest to follow. It is a sentiment in which Christian and Pagan, on this night at least, are joined.

Melangell: Welsh Patron Saint of Hares

May 27th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Melangell

We are all probably familiar with Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess who gave her name to Easter and is often associated with hares – the original Easter bunnies. But today in Wales, we celebrate the feast day a 6th century saint, Melangell, who is the actual patron saint of hares and may be the true inspiration behind those cute Easter bunnies.

Melangell was the beautiful daughter of an Irish king, who determined that she should marry a nobleman of the court to further his royal and political alliances. Not surprisingly, Melangell was less than impressed. In fact, so opposed was she to the wedding that she fled her home and crossed the sea to Wales. Being a fugitive, Melangell moved inland to a secluded valley, now close to the modern village of Llangynog, in my home county of Powys. Here, Melangell lived for 15 years without ever laying her eyes on another man. Back in Ireland, even if her father and her betrothed ever did look for her, they never saw Melangell again. Presumably, the nobleman married another and, one hopes, the king regretted his impetuousness.

After 15 years living as a hermit, one bright spring day, Melangell heard the sound of a hunt in full flight. Unbeknown to her, it was Prince Brochwel Ysgrithrog of Powys, hunting hares with his entourage and a pack of hounds. Melangell froze in fear but then looked down at her feet to see a hare cowering by her side. Quickly, Melangell took the terrified creature and tucked it into the folds of her dress. Tradition determines that a virgin’s sanctity will overcome any threat and the hare had cleverly sought out the maiden’s help to avoid its inevitable death at the teeth of the hounds.

Melangell acted just in time, as Prince Brochwel and his party were almost upon their quarry and had to pull up short to avoid crushing Melangell under the horses’ hooves.

The hare peeped out from the folds of Melangell’s cloak and was spotted by the hound master. He urged on the dogs for the kill but they remained rooted to the spot. The hound master then took his hunting horn, intending to blow the sound for attack, but the instrument stuck to his lips and not a sound emerged.

It is not written how long this standoff lasted but, at last, Prince Brochwel, deeply moved by both the beauty and courage of the maiden before him, got down from his horse and called off the hunt. He questioned Melangell about her origins but she remained mute. Finally, realising she contained the sacredness of God within her, Prince Brochwel offered Melangell all the lands in the valley for her to build an abbey. This Melangell did and she remained as prioress of the abbey until her death on 27th May, 590 AD.

Nothing survives of Melangell’s abbey but a surviving church nearby is dedicated in her name: St Melangell’s Church in Pennant Melangell. Interestingly, the ground upon which the church stands is both a Bronze Age burial site, and is also ringed with yew trees, all dating to before the Christian era. Perhaps this was even a meeting place of Iron Age Druids who were said to gather in groves. Inside the church is a shrine to Melangell, said to date to the 12th century and therefore the earliest Romanesque shrine in Britain. Her body is believed to lie beneath the structure. Since that time, hunting hares in the parish has been banned and nobody local would ever knowingly hurt Melangell’s patron animal. In the immediate area, hares are known as Oen Melangell, or Melangell’s lambs.

Interestingly, in Celtic tradition there are stories of (usually female) witches turning themselves into hares, and we are reminded of the words of the charm used by Scottish witch, Isobel Gowdie:

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.

 

Could this verse relate in some way to Melangell, who sheltered the hare beneath her own clothes and became its patron? A Pagan origin for a Christian saint? If so, it reveals a shadowy tradition linking women with hares that has survived through the ages in the figure of St Melangell. Perhaps her story even gives rise to Easter bunnies, a sanitised form of the wild hares she knew. Either way, she is a saint to be proud of and I shall be lighting a candle to her memory later today.

New Find Reveals Romans Did Give a Duck About Bathing

April 1st, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Anaticula resiliens

A hugely significant find has been made close to the Letocetum Roman Baths at Lichfield in Staffordshire. Excavating an outlying field, which many believe to be a water shrine used by the bathers, excavators have recovered a small yellow duck. This tiny find is now set to revolutionise the way we consider Roman bathing.

I am sure most readers of this blog will subscribe to the International Interdisciplinary Journal of Early Roman Bathing and Bath Structures and so it will come as no surprise that one of the longest unanswered questions about Roman bathing habits is: did they have fun in the bath itself? Many of the activities that took place in and around the baths were carried out in the frigidarium, tepidarium, and laconium including meeting friends, eating snacks from vendors around the baths, playing board games like tabula, and playing trigon, a ball game with three balls. But when it came to the actual bath and immersion in water, very little is known about what Romans did, as most evidence was carried away in antiquity by the drains. This chance find is now set remedy the lacuna in our knowledge.

Seneca the Younger, who recorded Roman bathing habits in Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, occasionally refers to Romans having anas or ‘duck’ with them in the baths. Until this find, it was assumed that Seneca was referring to a pre-bath snack – often a local mallard, known to be popular with fish sauce mixed with orange – but this new find posits another possibility. A more obscure Roman historian, Aprilis Calendae, writes about Anaticula resiliens rather than anas, which, until now, had completely baffled Latin scholars as to the correct translation. This new find suggests it is etymologically related to anas and that Anaticula resiliens can now be accurately translated as ‘Rubber Duckie’.

The fine condition of the Anaticula resiliens from Litchfield, with hardly any of the dirt that one usually expects from an excavated find, suggests it was heavily used in the bath itself. Any, dirt would have been washed off on a regular basis. Had the ‘Rubber Duckie’ been purely for display, it would have attracted dust and rapidly become very dirty. The baths may be self-cleaning but this was unlikely to reach a display duck. This means that Romans must have played with their ducks in the bath itself and clearly their bath time fun extended into the wet as well as dry areas. This adds significantly to our knowledge of Roman bathing.

Since this Anaticula resiliens appears to have been dressed as a centurion, it is likely it was used by the legionary commanders but, without further finds, it is not possible to say if ordinarily Roman soldiers used rubber ducks in the bath. The expectation is that they did.

The material from which the Anaticula resiliens was made is rubber. This material was only rarely found in the Roman world and may give a clue as to why this particular duck was finally deposited in a sacred area. Since Romans did not manufacture rubber themselves, it is likely that this duck was formed from local rubber, probably from recycled chariot tires. We know from Tacitus that Boudicca used chariots in her final battle with Suetonius, which many believe occurred along Watling Street near Litchfield – exactly where the Roman baths are located. It is possible that, the Roman victors from that battle would have recycled Boudicca’s chariot tires to make symbolically important items, including rubber ducks.

Using Anaticula resiliens in the bath may have therefore been a symbolic means of showing superiority over the local Celts who were, according to pretty much every Roman historian, a fairly filthy, unwashed bunch. But in addition, the Roman bathers were displaying their supremacy over the Celts – epitomised with the defeat of Boudicca – by bathing with ‘Rubber Duckie’ (or, most likely, Duckies).

That this duck survived the bath drains to be offered to the Gods at a water shrine shows that they were hallowed objects rather than purely functional items. Although it is only speculation at this stage, excavators believe each duck would have been named for its owner. It is hoped that laboratory analysis may reveal the name of the centurion from Litchfield. But whoever he was, he clearly loved playing with his duck over many bath times before offering him (and the clothing on the duck suggests male gender) as a gift to the Gods, marking both the subjugation of local tribes but also the affection in which the Centurion held his ‘Rubber Duckie’.

 

Mana to Heaven: Offerings to the Gods in Roman Britain

March 28th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Selby Hoard

It was in 2010 that a metal detectorist, who opted to remain anonymous, heard the tell-tale bleep notifying him of metal below his feet. He was part of a club detecting over land near Selby in Yorkshire. Digging gently down, and hoping to find a Roman coin, the metal detectorist was astonished when he came across two pots stuffed full with coins. Knowing this was now a job for professionals, he called in archaeologists via the hugely successful Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Such a large find of coins was instantly classed as treasure and the British Museum had a chance to buy it and put it on public display. I caught up with the hoard in Bristol, as part of its national tour, and it was incredible to see the silver coins spilling from one pot that was broken, whilst the other was so stuffed full the coins had actually fused together over the millennia.

Incredibly, the solid mass of coins could still be identified through something called Microtomographic Volume Imaging, which, in English, means using X-rays to identify every coin singularly (a general image of the pot is shown above). From this, researchers could tell each pot contained 201 (unbroken pot) and 99 (broken pot) Roman denarii (the small silver coin of everyday use) dating from the last years of the Republic right through to coins dating to AD 181. It seems remarkable that so many historical coins would have still been circulating so long after minting, so it is possible they had been collected and kept for many years, perhaps even centuries.

Initially, the find was reported as a chance loss of somebody’s life savings, buried in the ground for safe keeping but, unfortunately for the owner, never retrieved. This seems to be the standard approach to all coin hoards, at least initially, as it is hard for modern people to imagine giving away so much wealth for any other reason. We no longer offer such gifts to the Gods but there is something the X-rays found in both pots that suggest this may have been the true intention of whoever buried it.

In between the coins, the X-rays revealed small organic material (preserved only because the coins were so tightly fused), which turned out to be chaff from spelt-wheat grains. This was the grain from which Romans and Romano-Britons made their daily bread. But why put grain in with a coin hoard, unless both were intended as a gift to the Gods? Could these grains represent the first harvest of the year, offered in thanks for a successful year of farming?

Writing of an earlier time, Roman historian Siculus tells us that the inhabitants of Britain burnt their “first fruits” on a bonfire as an offering to the Gods in thanks for the harvest (he also talks about the odd human prisoner being thrown on as well for good measure). The Greek historian Arrian adds that Celtic people always offer the first fruits of the hunt to the Gods in a similar gesture of thanks. Perhaps the grain in the jars was the “first fruits” of the harvest, not burnt but buried in the ground.

If grain was a usual offering to the Gods from the first take from the harvest, then this particular year it was boosted by the addition of a small fortune in silver denarii. But why this year? The only event that occurred around 181 AD (the date of the last coin in the hoard and hoards are usually deposited close to the date of the last coin) is the overthrow of the Antonine Wall by the northern tribes and the retreat of the Romans to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s possible this may have caused repercussions further south, especially if it led to increased militarisation of the area.

Perhaps our farmer at Selby, probably an estate owner given the sheer wealth he or she gave away, had had a good harvest but, with the unrest in the north, feared for the future. So this year, as well as giving his or her first fruits to the Gods, he or she added the family’s greatest treasure, an heirloom passed down and added to across generations. It would have been a momentous event, seeing so much money disappear into the ground and perhaps gave the family hope that they would be safe from the turmoil. I hope that was true and that the Gods smiled on their harvest for a good few years afterwards.