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.



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.