Archive for the ‘Dead Spirits’ Category

Ritual and Symbolic Thought Has Just Moved Back 3 Million Years: Meet Homo naledi

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Homo nadeli

It is not often that an archaeological discovery can completely change what we know (or think we know) about prehistoric belief. But it has happened. The announcement yesterday of the discovery of Homo naledi, a completely new species of human, changes everything. Let me explain how.

The latest addition to our direct family tree, Homo naledi, was actually found by two cavers in 2013, in a cave system known as Rising Star, located within South Africa’s famous Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Recognising the importance of the discovery, a team of sixty scientists and dozens of volunteer cavers started a 21-day exploration and dig during November. Hoping to recover some bones, maybe a skull, maybe even a skeleton, in just three days they had amassed so many bones that research leader Lee Berger described it as “something different and extraordinary”.

In all, the team recovered 15 skeletons, with many more still lying in the cave. In fact, so many bones have been recovered (1,500 to date) that almost every skeletal element of the body is represented multiple times throughout different age groups: from infants to teens, to young adults and the elderly. Excavators believe the individuals may have been part of an extended family.

Homo naledi was very tall for its time (around 5 foot), very slender (around 100lbs) but with well-muscled joints. It also had a curiously tiny head with a correspondingly small brain, the smallest of all Homo and even Australopithecine species. It is very possible (even though no dates are yet available, excavators have guessed at around 2-3 million years-old) that Homo naledi is the base of our species, the link between the last Australopithecine in our evolution and Homo habilis, hitherto the earliest homo species.

This is all incredible, ground-breaking stuff that will, quite literally, rewrite the history books (including mine) but, for me, this is not the most exciting aspect of the discovery. The location of the bones, at the back of a very narrow cave (as narrow as 17.5 centimetres in places and so remote no other animal lived there), begs the question: how did they get there? The answer is revolutionary.

The excavators quickly ruled out possibilities such as mass death, transport by water, predation, and other natural, or at least rational, reasons. This left them with the irrational. It slowly dawned upon the excavators that they were witnessing deliberate activity; Homo naledi deliberately disposed of their dead at the end of a very long, dark, and dangerous tunnel. This is revelatory as we are only just accepting that, perhaps, maybe, Neanderthals did something similar, but, apart from that, the trait is believed unique to anatomically-modern humans (Homo sapiens).

The conclusion has to be that ritual activity goes way beyond our modern incarnation, right back to when the genus Homo first emerged. But Homo naledi had a very small brain. How could they have thought symbolically? Current wisdom would suggest they cannot. “What does that mean for us?” ponders Berger. “Did we inherit it, has it always been there in our lineage, or did they invent it?”

I think the answer may lie in trance. We know that people experiencing trance often describe the appearance of a tunnel before them (caused since the active neurons in the brain at this stage of trance have a spiralling tendency). Although it is hard to prove, this phenomenon is likely for all higher-order mammals. Modern shamans describe going down the tunnel and stepping out the other side into an otherworld, where they see spirits or deceased ancestors. Homo naledi may have experienced similar but what this species also seems to have done is extrapolate thoughts about this sensation and replicate them in this world. If dead spirits lay at the end of a long tunnel, then it must have seemed logical to put the remains of the dead in similar locations. But this requires symbolic thought – something only we are supposed to have.

The work on the new discoveries will take years longer and new surprises will almost certainly appear. But it no longer seems outlandish to suggest that what set Homo apart (not “us” but our entire species lineage) from earlier species was its ability to have symbolic thought and use inner experiences (such as trance) to determine outer actions. (That’s until we find a species of Australopithecine that does similar!)

Spirituality (as it relates to the treatment of the dead and a concept of an afterlife) may have started with Homo naledi, our earliest direct ancestor to bear the prefix Homo. It’s a staggering thought. It opens up a completely new way of seeing prehistory and the actions of our earlier relatives. Were hand axes art? Did fire have a symbolic importance? Were cults shared culturally in or between groups? These are questions we thought we would never ask.

In my field of prehistoric belief, this is the most exciting discovery in my lifetime. I only hope my mind is big enough to take it all in!


The academic reports on the discoveries split into two. Click here for an analysis of the remains, and here for the context of their discovery.


Ships on Stone: Walking Through Images of Ancient Shamanism

Friday, May 22nd, 2015


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


Keeping Samhain for the Ancestors

Friday, October 31st, 2014

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.


A Saxon Princess with a Pagan Past

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Around this time last year, at the delightfully named Trumpington, just outside Cambridge, archaeologists discovered the burial of a 16 year-old Saxon girl who lived and died in the second half of the 7th century AD. This was a time when Christianity was taking hold in this region of England and the girl seemed to be at the heart of it.

Excavators immediately knew there was something special about the grave since the girl was laid to rest on a bed – a wooden frame supporting a straw mattress and held together with metal brackets. This type of burial (called, with great imagination, a ‘bed burial’) occurs only in a few other places and seems to cluster around the 7th century. All appear to have held women.

Laying the deceased on a bed may be an allusion to death being a form of sleep and it is interesting that the Old English word ‘leger’ (which gives us our modern word ‘lair’), was used in early literature to refer to both beds and graves. The arrangement of the bed in the grave may also hark back to ship burials, the most famous being at Sutton Hoo, where chiefs were laid in a chamber aboard a ship. These ship burials may incorporate even earlier beliefs about a ship taking the dead to the otherworld – and there is plenty of evidence for this in rock art from the Bronze Age onwards – but nothing in the Norse literature suggests that the belief was current at the time. Maybe a bed burial was a later equivalent of a ship burial, although the two women buried in a ship at Oseberg in Norway cautions that we should not assume a straight divide along gender lines.

Moreover, the ship burials were decidedly pagan, whereas many of the bed burials, including Trumpington, contained Christian imagery. In particular, the Trumpington girl wore a pectoral cross – a beautiful garnet-inlayed piece of jewellery made from solid gold – that marked her out as truly extraordinary. Such crosses are so rare that only five other examples are known, one from the grave of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. It raised speculation as to whether the girl was of royal blood – possibly a princess – and whether she could have been an abbess of one of the new monastic orders that catered specifically for women. Her young age may have been offset by royal connection.

Despite all the finery, there is another aspect of the burial that is less obvious and tells a richer story of life in these times. In addition to wearing the cross, the girl also had more typically pre-Christian Pagan items such as an iron knife, a chatelaine – which is a chain that hung from the waist – and some glass beads. Granted, it does not look much, but is possibly the equivalent of an abbess wearing a pentagram today. Clearly, neither the girl (assuming they were her usual clothes and accoutrements) nor those who buried her (who may have chosen the outfit she wore for her final journey) minded that the imagery shifted between Pagan and Christian.

In fact, Christianity might have been adopted by the Saxons, not because of its apparent message of self-sacrifice and care of the poor, but because of its presumed ability to win wars. An inscription with the Staffordshire hoard calls upon God to scatter his enemies and this is what people probably wanted first and foremost – a battling, champion God. This was a time when stories such as Beowulf were told around the evening fire and in the ‘Dream of the Rood’ Christ himself becomes a warrior (as does Judith, showing that Saxon women had pluck). It would not have been lost on people either that Christ, like the great Germanic God Odin, hung on a tree and descended the lowerworld for knowledge. Odin doubled for Christ just as Loki doubled for the Devil.

Although Saxon imagery became more Christian over time (albeit, until the coming of the Normans, churches were decorated with protective animals such as dragons), the 7th century was an age when traditions mingled. Odin set off to war alongside Christ, graves referenced the sleep and journey of death, and a young girl could wear the cross of a Christian abbess and the trappings of a Pagan princess. It is a fascinating time and perhaps, for a fleeting few decades, we can gain a glimpse of a more tolerant attitude towards religious affiliation that seems all but lost to us today.

The illustration shows a replica Anglo-Saxon bed burial from Kirkleatham Museum (Prioryman).

Lepers as Shamans? A Spiritual Approach to Medieval Illness

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Leprosy is a terrible disease that ravages the body causing horrific disfigurement and disability. Although modern medicine can treat it, much of the developing world is still devastated by its effects. Moreover, leprosy carries stigma and we are probably all familiar with the stereotypical image of the medieval leper, segregated at the edge of the community, and ringing a bell to warn others of an approach, lest the healthy be contaminated. But contaminated with what exactly, since disease was poorly understood in the early medieval period and it unlikely that people would have identified the vectors of infection? “Sin”, screams scripture: lepers suffer for their sins.

But if medieval lepers – presumably justifiably – suffered for their sins, why were the afflicted so well cared for? There were over 300 leper hospitals in England alone between the 12th and 13th centuries, a quarter of all hospitals existing. Moreover, evidence from these hospitals, such as Sherburn Hospital near Durham, show that inmates wore clean woollen clothes and ate meat, cheese, and fish – an incredibly good diet for the time. Excavations at St Mary Magdalen leper hospital in Winchester, show that inmates also received respectful burial, with graves carefully cut with niches to take the head, and clearly marked, as no burial over-cut an existing plot. In fact, one member of the cemetery at St Mary Magdalen was no leper but a healthy and wealthy man, who lay with a scallop shell – sign of pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Satiago de Compostela. He was clearly devout as well as a man of considerable means.

But was his presence in a leper hospital cemetery – to say nothing of the considerable alms that provided for these hospitals in the first place – all down to a sense of charity to care for the sick and destitute? Partly. To appreciate why lepers were so well cared for, it is necessary to know something of medieval spiritual beliefs.

In the beginning, there was heaven and hell. Good people went to heaven; bad people went to hell. Simple. But, of course, life was not like that. Good people sometimes did bad things; as the gospels tell us, we are all sinners at heart. So did that mean everyone was destined to go straight to hell, apart from a few saintly types who may have been excused? That was a grim prospect; why bother being good at all? The medieval mind came up with a solution to this predicament: purgatory. If you were bad, but not so bad that you went straight to hell, you could work off your sins with a stay in purgatory. The length of time you spent there depended on the blemishes you sustained in life. Purgatory was suffering but not irredeemable suffering. One day, everyone there made it to heaven.

Of course, if you had people pray for you, then maybe your time in purgatory may be reduced. Giving alms to found hospitals, a positive act in itself, also got a person noticed and probably prayed for, thereby taking a few more years off the time spent in purgatory. But the medieval mind went further still. Since purgatory was suffering, perhaps those who suffered through this life were actually going through a living purgatory. Lepers were suffering for their sins – the sins everyone carried – but they were doing it here, on earth, assuring them a shorter stay in purgatory and a quicker route to heaven. Accordingly, they would reach heaven some time before someone who was not suffering, such as a wealthy benefactor. If lepers were going to reach heaven before you, maybe they could intercede on your behalf once there; put in a good word with St Peter. Best keep on the good side of lepers and make their passage through life as comfortable as possible. Maybe this was why the man with the scallop shell chose to be buried with lepers, staying close to his gamble for a better afterlife.

Lepers lived at the edges of society (whether being banished there or merely because this was where the land was to build the hospitals in the first place), their contact with others was controlled and brief, the local population cared for their wellbeing – making sure they were adequately provisioned – and they interceded with otherworldly beings for the good of their community – both from this world and from the other. To me, that sounds a little like the roles adopted by traditional shamans. And when we add the propensity of traditional shamans to be wounded in some way, drawing power from their suffering, the analogy is complete. Medieval lepers, whether by design or accident, provided a role that the church did not: personal intercession with otherworldly beings – both from this world and in the other – for the welfare of others. That’s a lot like shamanism.

Dancing with Crocodiles: Spirits and Masks Torres Strait Islands

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Until last week, the Natural History Museum in London had a collection of human bones, gathered as souvenirs and curios by 19th century travellers to the Torres Strait Islands, a chain of small islands running between northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Despite initial resistance, the Museum finally returned the bones to representatives of the Islanders, who had long campaigned for their ancestral remains – taken with no thought to the desecration inflicted upon traditional beliefs – to be returned. After an hour-long ceremony to commune with the dead spirits, the bones were on their way home.

I thought of these bones when I viewed a crocodile dance mask from the same islands at the British Museum (shown in the photograph above). Unlike the bones, the mask was legitimately presented to a 19th century collector by its maker, a local Chief called Maino, and there is no pressure for its return.

The mask is a compelling object, formed from local wongai wood, but brought alive with turtle-shell inlay, cassowary feathers, hanging charms, and, most impressive of all, teeth formed from the blades of metal saws. It is undeniably beautiful, slightly sinister, and deeply moving.

It was not until the mid-19th century that Torres Strait Islanders had access to such an array of materials. A turbulent period overseen by Maino’s father – a revered warrior and leader – opened up the island to contact and trade. This new openness eventually brought a British scientist to Maino’s shores: Professor Alfred Cort Haddon. From his copious records, it appears Haddon got on splendidly with Maino and this enabled the scientist to study and record many aspects of Torres Strait tradition that might have otherwise been closed to an outsider. One of the most cherished traditions was a spirit dance and, after persuasion, Maino agreed to put on a dance for his British friend.

From Haddon’s notes, it appears that a spirit dance was a means for the community to contact deceased ancestors. Often part of a mortuary ritual, the dance took place at a special ceremonial ground called a ‘kod’. Dancers, known as ‘markai’, impersonated dead ancestors so accurately that people in the crowd immediately recognised who it was being portrayed. Although Haddon does not mention possession, it is possible that the dance was a means of drawing down ancestral spirits and embodying them within the form of the dancers. The accompanying drums and dizzying rhythm would have been more than enough to initiate trance states if this was what the dancers intended.

An important part of the dance was for the totem animal of each family to appear and, in Maino’s case, this was a crocodile. His role was to dance the creature and bring its spirit to the performance.

The crocodile mask fitted over the wearer’s head completely and was held in place by biting on a horizontal bar. Teeth marks show where Maino did this, possibly even during the dance witnessed by Haddon. To see his surroundings, Maino would have looked out of the crocodile’s jaw, perhaps giving him a different view of reality and of the ancestral spirits descending into other dancers.

After the performance, Haddon asked to purchase the mask and other dance regalia, including Maino’s drum. On his return to Britain, Haddon donated the objects to the British Museum where they now housed. Maino got fair trade in return and there is even a record of Haddon giving calico and tobacco to Maino’s mother-in-law as part of the payment. In Torres Strait society, this was considered a smart move.

In letting Haddon collect the objects and record the ceremonies, Maino thought that he was preserving a record for the future. His faith in this regard was visionary. Haddon’s collection – including all his notebooks – are still consulted by Torres Strait Islanders to learn about their culture and traditions and to serve as inspiration for modern craftspeople. As for Haddon, he was eventually adopted into Maino’s family and, wherever he travelled in the South Seas, he would always introduce himself as ‘Haddon, a crocodile man’.

Baskets and Belonging: Aboriginal Australian Cosmology

Friday, August 12th, 2011

There is a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum this summer about Aboriginal basket making in Australia. Truth is, I almost didn’t bother with it as, pushed for time, I couldn’t see how baskets could possibly be that interesting. How wrong I was. The exhibition is a gem and had themes that immediately resonated with the circularity of death and rebirth, revealing much about the Aboriginal view of the world.

Basket making is an ancient activity in Australia. Rock art from 20,000 years ago shows people using baskets that their descendants still made until very recently.

It is usually, although not exclusively, women who create the baskets. Using traditional techniques and long established patterns, they form each basket by plaiting fibres collected from the bush around them. This entails an intimate knowledge of not just the environment but also the best times for collecting, whether it is during the dry season or after heavy rains. It connects people to their land.

Although people birth the baskets and give them life, some have even stronger links with parturition and long thin baskets, often with a tell-tale protuberance at their base, contain dried umbilical cords from a baby’s birth.

These, and other baskets, often have decoration on their sides, mostly geometric shapes or stripes. People leave the rear undecorated, however, so that the paint will not rub off as the baskets hang against the back. The pigments are all earth based and are the same as those used in rock art, linking the two medium together. Both the colour and designs transmit tribal identity and ancestral knowledge of the region. People can read a basket and know about the life of its owner. Baskets become symbols of belonging and carrying a basket is akin to carrying the land.

Some baskets go deeper still and some, woven from fibre and wool pulled from the blankets European missionaries once doled out, hold pituri, a nicotine based hallucinogen that is chewed by senior men. These baskets are small, brightly coloured, and shaped like a well-stuffed banana. The exhibition, uniquely, has several bags still containing their original pituri leaves.

Upon death, people carry provisions to the funeral in baskets. Usually people use these same baskets for hunting or carrying food and they are plain and undecorated. When people take them to funerals, however, they paint each basket, adapting designs used to decorate bodies for ceremonies. It is as if the baskets become surrogates for the deceased and, after the funeral, people hang them upside-down on the top of the poles that mark the mortuary ground. The baskets become a memorial that will slowly disintegrate over time. Occasionally, people will retain some bones from the dead and, inevitably, they store these in baskets.

Basket making is undergoing a renaissance among Aboriginal people, partly due to the introduction of coiling. Due to the restrictions on innovation among traditional basket weaving, this new style allows people to experiment and try new things. Some waste products have been given new life through basket making with plastic strapping tape making colourful and hardwearing baskets. The traditional styles usually last only three years with constant use. Finally, there are those who gather damaged fishing nets washed up on the coast. Known locally as ghost nets, the fibre makes colourful and strong baskets, adding another facet to the history of the region and people’s relationship with the land they inhabit.

The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 11 September and is free to enter. Spend a while absorbing the power of these beautiful objects and let these words of Verna Nichols, an Aboriginal basket maker from Tasmania, roll around your mind. “The baskets are not empty. They are full of makers, their stories, their thoughts while making. The baskets are never empty.”

Dark Shamanism: Embracing the Shadow

Friday, July 8th, 2011

I once visited a place in Siberia that local people considered so evil that I needed to purify beforehand, bathing in sacred waters and staying the preceding night close to a mountain sacred to Buddhist tradition. To me, the rock plateau that my guides took me to was beautiful, with views far across the Mongolian steppe, but it was not a place to linger. At the base of the rock lay 36 black shamans, killed whilst in trance by a Buddhist monk and buried there for their spirits to fester malevolence for all time. That salutary visit made me realise that not everything about shamanism was either positive or pleasant.

Many traditional shamans can curse as well as cure. For them, illness and bad fortune is often a direct result of dark shamans inflicting malignant energy upon an individual, usually via spirit arrows they send whilst in trance. Extracting these arrows from a patient requires the shaman to understand and have a working knowledge of how they are formed and sent. After extraction, many shamans have no hesitation in sending them back to the dark shaman; cursing the malefactor as he or she curses others.

In a similar manner, I have no hesitation in defending myself, sometimes verbally, sometimes legally, but often spiritually, putting up barriers against harm and baleful influence. But it has never crossed my mind to curse anyone or send malevolent energy their way. The practicalities of doing so would not be hard – if I can extract negative energy from an individual then I can certainly insert the same – but it just feels wrong. I am sure traditional shamans would just shake their heads and say that I am too soft and my shamanic practice too sanitised by Western views of what is right and what is wrong. Maybe they are right.

Some shamans go further still and we are probably all familiar with the historical Jivaro (now called Shuar) from the Amazon and their practice of capturing heads of enemies. They shrink the heads in order to trap the soul of the person and prevent it from gaining revenge from the otherworld. To the Jivaro, this was not a bad or evil practice but just common sense when feuds between communities could rapidly turn into violent and prolonged confrontation.

Other Amazonian shamans seek more than heads from the slain and will stalk and capture victims who they ritually, and extremely sadistically, torture to death. The precise details are enough to give any seasoned anthropologist nightmares. The shamans then bury the body. When it begins to putrefy several days later – the heat of the Amazon speeding the process – they go back to taste the flesh. If it is sweet like a rotting pineapple, they will take body parts from the corpse and use them as power objects. Whilst many of us might have power objects that we use in our practice, very few would be prepared to go to such hideous lengths to obtain them.

At a significantly lower level of ghastliness, but still unsettling to Western minds, blood sacrifice is extremely common in tribal societies and is often connected with shamanic ritual. In North America, supplicants may offer their own flesh to the spirits and in the Yuwipi ceremony, this may leave people bleeding profusely where they cut flesh from their arms to wrap in cloth as offerings. Similarly, whilst dancing the Sun Dance, people pierce their flesh with hooks connected to the sacred tree at the centre of the dance and rip them out as the climax to the ceremony. Elsewhere, people offer animal sacrifice to the spirits and I have attended rituals in traditional communities where people have slaughtered and burnt sheep for their ancestors. Inca shamans use guinea pigs to diagnose and heal illness, rubbing the patient with the animal until the malignant spirit leaves its host and attaches to the guinea pig. After that, killing the animal prevents the spirit doing further harm. Clearly, this attitude towards sacrifice is not shared in the West, where self-harm is considered a mental disturbance and animal protection laws prevent any form of animal sacrifice.

There is a huge divergence between our Western practice of shamanism and the darker ways of traditional shamans from tribal societies. Does this weaken our practice, leaving it overly sanitised and removing us from the bloody, violent, and occasionally death-ridden origins of our path? Indeed, would there be a demand for weekend workshops on how to curse, how to trap souls of the dying, or even how to procure power objects from the decaying copses of the dead? Possibly not. But these are all parts of shamanism that we ignore at our peril. The world is not always as benign as we might like it to be and knowing how to attack is, if nothing else, useful for defence. As traditional shamans might tell us, if we do not know how to curse, then how can we know how to cure? Maybe we need to look again at dark shamanism and not only embrace our own shadow but that of our tradition too. But remember, in the immortal words of Sergeant Esterhaus: Let’s be careful out there.

Oseberg Shamans: Sailing to Eternity

Friday, March 25th, 2011

In 1903, Norwegian archaeologists made a staggering find: an enormous Viking longboat buried at Oseberg, just south of Oslo. Tomb raiders had beaten the archaeologists to the finest treasure but the boat and remaining contents are still spectacular and the reconstructed vessel, with silver-inlayed stern and towering mast, forms the centrepiece of the Norwegian Ship Museum. Buried within the ship were two women. After cursory analysis, excavators initially reinterred them back into the burial mound, but they were recently exhumed and have now revealed more of their secrets.

Both women were elderly for the time at 70 and 50 years old. Bone analysis showed they had a good, meat-based diet and the younger even picked her teeth with a silver tooth-pick. These were clearly women of status. Archaeologists initially thought that they were wives of farm-owning gentry and some the objects in the grave not filched by the tomb raiders would not look out of place on a farm. But other objects, including the boat itself, were surely too valuable for mere farmer’s wives. So just who were these women and how did they earn their status? A small leather purse gives a clue.

Opening the purse, archaeologists found cannabis seeds. When burnt, they induce trance, famously used by the Scythian shamans recorded by Herodotus. Another item also hints at ritual: a rattle. It was discovered fastened to a post fashioned into an animal head and covered with sinuous knotwork. The tapestries accompanying the women may have illustrated the shamanic rituals in which it was used.

In ancient Norse society, shamanism or seiðr was the preserve of women. Practtioners were known as seiðkona or völva and they entered trance through drugs or by chanting. Whilst in trance, they obtained prophetic visions of the future. In the case of the Oseberg women, the cannabis seeds and rattle would have facilitated the journey.

Interestingly, seiðr was always closely associated with women and the female gender. Its practice was considered ergi or unmanly and male practitioners were reviled and sometimes even sentenced to death for their traoubles. Even the God Odin was taunted by Loki over his use of seiðr and, as a result, he has become important to the GLBT community due to his shifting gender roles.

The burial of the Oseberg women in a ship may also relate to trance journeys to the otherworld. Throughout prehistory and even into historic times, ships were seen as vessels to enable shamans to reach the otherworld and the dead to reach the afterlife. People were buried in graves shaped in the keel of a ship, images of ship keels were inscribed beneath burial mounds, and, in the far north, people engraved images of shamans onto rocks, banging their drums and sailing in ships to the otherworld.

The Oseberg ship had been securely tethered to the earth with an enormous boulder and it seems clear that it was not designed to sail anywhere in this world. But maybe its purpose was to take the two women, possibly seiðkona – practitioners of Norse shamanism – on their final journey beyond this world and into another. It was a route they had probably followed many times through their lives except, this time, it was to be their last.

Death and Rebirth in Byzantine Sicily

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Death and rebirth is a common theme of many religions, often with a God dying and being reborn at certain times of the year. In shamanic communities, death and rebirth also alludes to the shamanic journey and the physical state of the shaman as he or she enters and returns from the otherworld.

Death and rebirth is also central to the Christian faith, with Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday to be resurrected two days later on Easter Sunday. Within Christianity, such a cycle of death and rebirth seems entirely limited to Jesus, however, with the only hope of rebirth for ordinary mortals being in the afterlife. In fact, having the ability to die and be reborn may even be viewed as heretical and against the natural order determined by God.

It is on this basis that recent discoveries at the Byzantine village of Kaukana, on Sicily, are so interesting. Between AD 580 to cAD 640, a house within Kaukana was built, occupied, and finally abandoned when wind-blown sand engulfed the interior. Within the confines of the house, and probably constructed after the occupants had moved out, is a tomb, built above ground in the style usually reserved for high-status individuals. Inside were a woman and her daughter. Finding such a tomb within a house, at this date, is highly unusual.

Evidence around the tomb – a hearth for cooking and copious food remains – suggests that people were returning to the tomb to feast with the dead spirits that lay within. This was frowned upon by religious authorities, and they would have been horrified to learn that there was also a small hole in the covering of the tomb to allow libations and other choice morsels to be passed to the dead woman inside.

We know that the occupants of the tomb were Christian since there are many symbols with alpha and omega signs; clearly those burying the woman thought that they were important to include. So, the question is: why did people – probably Christian themselves – defy their own tradition and bury a woman in a high-status tomb, in a house (possibly her own), and then continue to visit the site to cook and share food with the deceased? A strange mark on the woman’s cranium might provide the answer.

A small dimple at the back of the skull, as well as signs of water-on-the-brain, suggests meningocele, a condition leading to headaches and frequent fainting fits. It is the fits that are significant. A woman who regularly faints with seizures, only to rise again a few minutes later, may have been thought to be divinely touched, even replicating the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In Renaissance times, St Catherine was venerated for precisely these qualities.

At Kaukana, was the posthumous treatment of the woman because people revered her power or did they fear her reach, even after death? Or did they think that she might possibly rise once again and kept her tended and fed for this possibility?

The dig, led by Professor Roger Wilson of the University of Columbia, returns to Sicily this year and will attempt to uncover more about this remarkable woman and her powers of resurrection.

More information on the University of British Columbia website.