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


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.


Visiting the Otherworld in Ice Age Nottinghamshire

February 28th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Creswell Crags

When three archaeologists decided to search for rock engravings at British Palaeolithic sites (reasoning that painting would have already been discovered if there was any but engraving is much harder to spot) they decided to start at Creswell Crags, a narrow valley on the Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire border. It was a wise choice as, on 14th April 2003, the team discovered an engraving in Mother Grundy’s Parlour (every cave has its own unique name). Job done, they packed up and were about to leave for Gower (where they would find rock engravings at a later date). Fortunately, the head ranger at Creswell persuaded them to have a look at Church Hole Cave on the Nottinghamshire side of the valley. They had already discounted this cave as not worth searching but, humouring him, the team took a look. What they found was later described (with a knowing hint of exaggeration) as an Ice Age Sistine chapel.

What surprised the team was that Church Hole was north-facing and therefore got very little daylight penetrating the interior; they assumed this would mean no engravings. Moreover, directly opposite this cave, on the south-facing side of the valley, was another cave – Robin Hood Cave – where there was copious evidence for Ice Age living but absolutely no rock engravings (except a few indistinct lines). It seemed counter-intuitive, but a closer look at the arrangement of these two sites – which were inhabited at the same time, around 13,000 to 11,000 years-ago – may provide the key to explain how people related to their valley home.

Robin Hood Cave, where people lived, was in sunlight and the large chamber just inside the door provided space for people to cook, prepare hides, and gather socially. This was a cave of light and life. In contrast, Church Hole Cave was on the dark side of the valley, reached by crossing a river that flooded the valley bottom, and showed no sign of habitation. People engraved images but did not live there. This suggests the cave was reserved for ritual use, a place of darkness and possibly death.

The evidence for Ice Age people having a shamanic worldview is now widely accepted and formed the basis of my book, Prehistoric Belief, published in 2010. Often, a journey to the shamanic otherworld (usually made in trance) involves crossing water, a symbolic element attributed to the phenomena of hearing sounds like rushing water. Another common element of trance is entering a long, dark passage and moving along it. At Creswell Crags, people visiting Church Hole Cave from their base in Robin Hood Cave, would do both. Setting off, they would travel down to the river, which they would need to cross. Climbing up to Church Hole Cave, they would then enter a long, dark passage. While most of the rock engravings they encountered were in the front of the cave, there were others further back, where the original artist would have been in total darkness. Could the cave have represented a shamanic otherworld to these early people?

I had the good fortune to visit both Robin Hood and Church Hole Cave last summer. It was an awesome experience getting up close to the rock engravings but I also began to ponder their wider symbolism. The engravings at the back of the cave were initially thought to be of water birds, until one of the team compared them with contemporary Magdalenian art from the continent, notably from Gönnersdorf and Lalinde. They suggested the images were not birds but stylised women, adopting the late Palaeolithic shape for women as tall and slender but with large buttocks (this replaced the near obese women from the early Palaeolithic). To me, it suggested that the cave was a place where female (and conversely, not-female or male) identity was important.

Looking at the carvings on the same side of the cave as the stylised women, I found images of triangles which, using analogies with other Palaeolithic sites, may represent female pubic triangles. One even had a trace of another triangle within it, possibly relating to pregnancy. In fact, all the images on this side – the eastern side – of the cave featured images related to females.

Conversely, on the other side – the western side – the images were mostly of animals. These included an ibis, a stag, a bison, and a horse, along with other animal shapes that are harder to determine. To me, this represented both the spiritual power of the animals (animal spirits would be expected in the shamanic otherworld) but also, more prosaically, their utility as prey. It is perhaps not too great a step to identify hunting as a male sphere of influence, allowing for the probability that certain women also hunted alongside the men. The image of the stag had a row of notches beneath it and, as I started to count them, I hoped they would total 13, the number of moons in an annual cycle. They did, perhaps denoting the times when the animal was available to hunt, assuming they would have seasonally migrated (as the people may have done themselves). It also hinted at a link to the female images opposite.

It seems that Church Hole Cave was divided between female images on the right side of the cave (east), and hunting prey, potentially a male realm, on the left side of the cave (west). Whether rituals that may have been performed there were segregated – with each group using the cave at specific times – or whether both groups visited and interacted with each other is difficult to tell but the cave itself would have taken a relatively large group. It is only towards the rear of the cave that the passage narrows and this is where the stylised female figures are located. This may be an inner sanctum visited by only a few, perhaps girls on reaching adulthood, initiating them into the mysteries of womanhood.

The Palaeolithic people who inhabited Creswell Crags had massive challenges with hostile weather and a lack of available game. Church Hole Cave may have been a response to this, initiating the young into the roles of adulthood. It taught womanhood, fertility, hunting prowess, and the proximity of the spirits. It was a shamanic journey made real.

Herodias: The First Witch?

January 17th, 2014  -  Mike Williams

Witches FlightJohn the Baptist is a well-known figure from the Gospels, heralding the coming of a messiah and even baptising the young Jesus in the River Jordan. He wore a camel-skin robe and wandered the Holy Lands sharing the Good News that the Christ child was to be born. According to the Gospel of Mark, he met his death at the hands of Herod II, son to the more famous Herod (the Great) who intercepted the Three Magi. But it was not Herod II who was potentially the first witch in history but Herodias, his wife.

Herodias had an unfortunate start. She was the daughter of Aristobulus, Herod the Great’s son, who evidently did something to offend the great king as he was executed in 7 BC. This left Herodias an orphan and, in an attempt to make up for killing her family, Herod the Great engaged her to marry his other son, also called Herod.

The marriage went well until Herod II dropped from his father’s favour and Herodias, in a move that scandalised society, divorced her husband and married a more favoured son of Herod the Great, called Herod Antipas. One of those condemning the new marriage was John the Baptist, who had rolled up at the palace to reveal the new messiah. Herodias was not the sort of woman to be dictated to by a scruffy little prophet in a camel suit; she had outmanoeuvred kings to get her will. John was a marked man.

Now Herodias had a grown daughter from her marriage with Herod II, whose name is confused but comes down to us as Salome. According to the bible, she was the archetypal seductress and snared John the Baptist after dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils in his presence. The fact she was at youngest 17 and at oldest 22 may suggest her wiles were a little more innocent than the bible allows; after all, history is full of older men whose good sense leaves them in the presence of a young woman.

After dancing her dance, it was not only John who was smitten with Salome but also her step-father (and half-uncle) Herod Antipas. In fact, so besotted was Herod that he offered Salome anything she wished for. Following the whispered instructions of her mother, Herodias – who saw this her chance of revenge on John the Baptist – Salome asked for the prophet’s head on a plate. Reluctantly, as he rather liked being preached to, Herod obliged. So much for the biblical tale.

In later medieval legend, a strange new twist was added to the Gospel accounts. Nevardus, in his 12th century tome, Ysengrimus, tells that Herodias (subsuming her identity with Salome) asked to see John’s head as it lay on the plate. As she took in the sight, the head repelled her with its breath. So strong was this ghostly wind that Herodias was carried high into the air and then blown through a hole in the roof. The wrath of John the Baptist followed and Herodias was condemned to what Spanish medieval texts call “la dance aéra” or the aerial dance.

Since she had engineered the execution of a key figure in early Christianity, Herodias was already recognised as being an anti-Christian, but her reputation got darker still as people began referring to her as a witch. Her aerial dance became a night-time phenomenon and Herodias ushered in the belief that witches fly. Not only that, but she could draw out others to join her dance.

Writing in the 13th century, Jean de Meung in his Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), explains that up to a third of the population rode out with Herodias (now confusingly called Dame Abonde) for three nights every week. Interestingly, de Meung implies that only people’s souls rode out with Herodias, commenting that their bodies remain in bed. Adding a note of scepticism, he adds that their senses deceive them and they only believe they are witches wandering the night.

It seems that, whereas the spirit of Herodias was suitably mythological to allow its reality, other people entered into the night-time revels through allowing their souls to take flight in a kind of shamanic journey. There may also be a connection with psychotropic substances and to the unguent that witches traditionally use to affect flight. Apparently, Herodias returned everyone at the morning’s cockcrow as the sound of a cock sent spirits fleeing back to their own realm. According to a witch trial held in 1497 in Italy (of one Zuanne Giovanni della Piatte) Herodias, when she was not out riding, lived in the Mountain of Venus where she feasted with both invited and abducted guests.

Some medieval writers, notably John of Salisbury in his 12th century Polycraticus, tell of Herodias as the witch-ruler who sits in judgement over her devotees. Some are rewarded, others punished. John of Salisbury also records that Herodias and her troop, in a familiar theme of condemnation, devour babies. He concludes by calling these denizens of the night demons and muses that that only women and simpleminded men would follow Herodias. The demonization of the witch and the persecution it led to had begun.

In more recent times, American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1899 work Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches details the life of the Italian witch Aradia, reputedly, the first-born witch. Leland equates Aradia with Herodias. Indeed, Herodias is mentioned as a Witch Goddess in many Italian witch trial transcripts, such as that of della Piatte.

Despite her medieval notoriety, Herodias seems almost a lost figure in Pagan circles today. She might survive in the veneration of Leyland’s Aradia in some Wiccan traditions (although his work has recently received criticism over its authenticity) but, as far as I can tell, Herodias herself has all but disappeared. The only contemporary references I found were to Herodias as the name of an outcast devil in the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and as the name of an American funeral-doom-metal band. I wonder what the daughter of Herod the Great and arguably the first witch in history would make of that. Off-with-their-heads is a distinct possibility.


“We Three Kings of Orient Are…” What Exactly?

December 20th, 2013  -  Mike Williams


According to the Gospel of Matthew, following the birth of Jesus, “there came three wise magi from the East to Jerusalem…For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him”. Note that Matthew writes magi and not kings; that was a later change, although it may have had some basis of truth. According to tradition, the magi arrived at the nativity on Epiphany (originally celebrated as the day that Jesus was baptised on his 13th birthday), although even the most devout now accept that it is probably apocryphal.

But such traditions stem from somewhere. So just who were these three wise magi and how did they become so well known in the West that Matthew wove them into his gospel.

The name provides the first clue. Magi (or, in its Greek form, magoi) actually stems from the Old Persian (now Iran) word magush. There are many references to magush in the carvings and inscriptions from ancient Persia, including the stupendous rock-cut carving of Darius the Great at Bisitun (now in eastern Iran). He describes an enemy as a magush. Inscriptions in the great city of Persepolis also refers to magush, using the word specifically to identify priests.

Herodotus, our half-trusty guide to the East, mentions magush (using his native Greek of magoi) existing in the 5th century BC, describing how they prophesised for the ruling monarch and advised on the best course of action. No wonder Xenophon, another Greek author writing a century or so after Herodotus, refers to Persian magoi as authorities on all religious matters. These really were wise men.

The religion of the ancient Persians was Zoroastrainism, named for the prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in Greek). Little is known about him, except that he came from the Aral Sea and trained as a priest. The religion he founded taught people to follow a path of truth and steer away from anything evil (personified as the dark God Angra Mainyu). The chief God of the pantheon was Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom, and he presided over creation with six other divine beings, creating a mystical seven forces in the world. These forces correspond with sky, water, earth, plants, beneficent animals, humans, and fire. Fire was personified as the son of Ahura Mazda, and became the symbol of the religion. Although adherents do not worship fire (contrary to much that is written), they preserve its sacredness by not defiling it in any way. Bodies are never burnt and priests wear facemasks when intoning over the flames. Since the earth, another of the seven forces, must be likewise unsullied, bodies are never buried but are left on, so-called, Towers of Silence, for vultures to consume.

Zoroastrianism is concerned with truth. Both the spoken (and written) truth. Herodotus says that Persian children are only taught three things: to ride, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth. The king’s personal signal was a falcon, hovering over his magisterial image. This was the shahin and it represented the path of truth and righteousness. If the King should stray from the path, the shahin would fly away, taking away Ahura Mazda’s authority for the king to rule. Wisdom and knowledge, personified by the magush, was at the centre of society. No wonder the magush, the seekers into the truth of reality, had the epithet “wise”.

Lesser spirits also helped the King, the most powerful being the Sun God Mithra (later known as Mithras – or the Persian God – to the Romans). As with most Sun Gods, Mithras was born at the winter solstice.

The traditions of Mithras and Jesus interact. This makes sense since they developed in tandem and adhered to many set archetypes that would be immediately familiar to people. The magi almost certainly visited Mithras (in his Persian guise) after birth, but what about Jesus. What was the inspiration that led Matthew to include the tale in his gospel. When would he have witnessed Persian magi?

During the reign of Emperor Nero, the Romans started to feel uneasy about the rise of the Persian Empire. To counter the perceived threat, they installed client kings to rule buffer states, sometimes removing the incumbent monarch. One of the deposed was Tiridates, ruler of Armenia and brother to the King of Persia, Vologases. The Romans could not have chosen a more dangerous man and the whole sorry episode led to war between Rome and Persia. After several battles, sieges, and much posturing, the parties agreed a peace treaty whereby Tiridates would be restored to his old position of king on the condition that he visited Nero in Rome and paid featly to his rule.

In addition to being a king, Tiridates was also a Zoroastrian priest, a magus, and was accompanied by other magi on his journey to Rome in 66 AD. He also took 3,000 horsemen as a royal guard. His stature and presence made a huge impression on Nero and the Romans (so much so that Nero effectively handed Armenia back to Persia to be ruled by Tiridates). The flowing dress, soft hat, and treasures of the Zoroastrian magi astonished those in the West. Even if St Matthew did not witness the visit, the memory of it hung in the West a long time thereafter.

St Matthew wrote his Gospel around 80 to 90 AD and it is likely he incorporated memory of the magi’s visit to Rome in his nativity story. He did not use the name Tiridates for the lead magi but instead chose another contemporary ruler. In south-east Iran a local king called Gondophares ruled. Scholars attest that his name would be translated as Caspar, the most familiar of the magi to visit Jesus. Maybe the three magi were also three kings.

The gifts the magi brought were possibly also adapted from those given to Nero, although they may have had a more symbolic importance when presented to Jesus. The writer Origen sets out the reasons in Contra Celsum, which he wrote in the third century AD. Gold was given as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (a holy incense) was given as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) was given as a symbol of death (anticipating the crucifixion). More recent research at Cardiff University suggests that both frankincense and myrrh were useful treatments for arthritis, although it does seem a rather odd gift for a newborn child.

Some early portrayals of the nativity scene show the magi giving their gifts. Each bend and kneel, a sign of great respect in the East reserved only for kings and Gods. In certain representations, the magi wear gloves to present their gifts. In Zoroastrian tradition, hands must be covered in religious rites. The illustration above, taken from late Classical Ravenna in Italy, shows the magi in their Eastern garb, two with their hands covered, and bowing low in obeisance.

So “we three kings from Orient are…” not kings exactly (although they might have been) but Zoroastrian priests inspired by a spectacular visit to Rome in 66 AD, and bringing gifts worthy of both a king and a God. Back home, the Zoroastrian magi were known for their knowledge of astrology and the heavens. If there really was an odd star in the night sky, they would have been the first to know about it, setting in motion their incredible journey to mark the birth of the Sun God at the solstice.

Wishing all my readers a peaceful solstice and a very happy Christmas and may your God bless you.