Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

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

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

The Yule Goat: A Pagan Presence in Modern Scandinavia

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Yule Goat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

St Edmund Martyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, July 25th, 2014

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.



New Find Reveals Romans Did Give a Duck About Bathing

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

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

Friday, March 28th, 2014

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.


Herodias: The First Witch?

Friday, January 17th, 2014

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?

Friday, December 20th, 2013


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.

What did the Romans Really Think about Britain?

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Knife Handle

In 2008, a metal detectorist found a copper Roman knife handle in a field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t very large and sold for a mere £1,000 but is now the centrepiece of the Roman galleries in Lincolnshire Museum. It has already caused quite a stir. You only have to look at the handle to see why. In the straight-laced way of museums, it is being described as an “erotic scene”. In reality, it shows a naked woman straddling an aroused man while she holds onto another naked man clasping a severed head. I am sure we have all experienced parties like that. But this handle is particularly special as it is not just an erotic scene but may also cast light on what late Roman soldiers thought of their posting to Britain.

The largest figure on the handle wears a distinctive cap with a flat top rather like a pork-pie hat. From carvings and frescos in other parts of the Roman world, the headgear would suggest he is a Roman soldier from around the late 3rd or early 4th century. Such flat-topped caps were very popular and the fact the soldier is shown larger than the two other figures supports the identification. Moreover, the crudeness of its manufacture and the cheap metal used suggests the handle was not grand; this knife was for a common sort. It was likely a soldier’s knife and, fittingly, it’s owner took the starring role upon it.

The man holding the severed head is clearly a Celt. The Romans often portrayed Celts as headhunters and this man, completely naked, is living up to his stereotype. Unlike the soldier, this man is not aroused.

The woman who straddles the Roman soldier is naked but for a few lines on her body. One, around her neck, may be a torc, possibly a crude sign of royalty perhaps. The draped lines across her body may represent chains (they do not take the form of clothing), suggesting the woman has been defeated and humbled. The most obvious identification is Boudicca, the warrior Queen who provided a genuine military threat to Roman conquest of these isles. Portraying her in chains and sexually available brutally demonstrates her utter defeat and the ensuing dominance of the Roman military.

But, and this is curious, the penis of the Roman soldier does not point towards Boudicca but between the two figures (or even at the man holding the severed head), as if the soldier would happily give it to them both. Perhaps he would.

A more nuanced interpretation is that this is not an erotic scene – no actual intercourse is going to take place – but a triumphalist scene showing Roman domination over the Celts and their most famous Queen. In this sense, Boudicca stands for Britannia, the country of Britain.

Possibly, the Roman soldier is about to give the island of Britain and her inhabitants a good seeing to, and perhaps this is the message contained in the knife handle. It may have been a satirical comment of Roman rule and carried by an indigenous Briton, but I think it’s more likely to have belonged to a Roman soldier, doing his bit visibly to “stick it” to the Celts. Following the famous words of Caesar, perhaps he would even describe his role as “Veni, vidi, futuō”.

For the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds database record for the knife, click here.


Echoes of Shamanism in Medieval German Weather Lore

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Islamic Art

In Germany today it’s Siebenschläfertag or Seven Sleepers Day, ostensibly a celebration of medieval weather lore. The weather experienced on Siebenschläfertag is supposed to determine the average weather for the next seven weeks. It’s similar to St Swithen’s Day in the UK or Groundhog Day in the US.

Siebenschläfertag, or Seven Sleepers, however, has far more ancient origins than mere medieval lore.

The Seven Sleepers were a group of youths who lived in the Roman city of Ephesus (now in modern Turkey) around 250 AD. They were Christian and, at that date, this meant they had to keep their practices secret due to persecution from the state.

The Roman Emperor at that time was Decius, who was known for his building projects in Rome, his love of morality, and his ceaseless persecution of Christians. His reach eventually fell upon Ephesus and the seven youths found themselves at dire risk. To escape, they fled to a cave outside the city where they walled themselves in. They were not heard of again for many, many years.

In fact, according to legend, the seven youths slept for 180 years until they finally awoke during the reign of Theodosius II. Fortunately for them, Theodosius was a committed Christian who liked nothing better than to pontificate on theological disputes. The youths left the cave and walked about the city, reportedly speaking to many residents before eventually succumbing to extreme old age.

The earliest version of their legend comes from the writings of the Syrian bishop, Jacob of Sarug, who lived in the 5th century, although he probably copied earlier (and now lost) Greek sources.  The best known record of the legend is by Jacobus de Voragine, an Italian chronicler and archbishop of Genoa who lived in the 13th century. His Golden Legend chronicled the lives of several saints, including the Seven Sleepers, who, by this time, had been beatified.

The disappearance of seven youths into a cave, where they slept (presumably in some sort of trance) for 180 years before emerging again, has clear shamanic overtones and may reveal traces of earlier ascetic traditions. Somewhat fortuitously, there is a clue in the Islamic Koran that adds further detail.

In Surah 18, verse 9-26 of the Koran, the legend is retold, except this time the sleepers lie in the cave for 300 years. Most tellingly, they were accompanied by a dog, which lay at the entrance to the cave, seemingly guarding the inhabitants from harm. (The illustration above shows a folio page from the Book of Omens, dating to around 1550 from Qazvin in Iran, where the dog appears in the foreground). The importance of dogs as guardians of the otherworld in the ancient world cannot be overstated. A canine friend also finds its way into Christian mythology in the story of Tobias, where a dog accompanies the boy along with Raphael, his guardian angel. Perhaps in an effort to divorce itself from earlier beliefs, the Book of Tobit (where the story appears) was excluded from the authorised bible and is now only found in the Apocrypha.

The Seven Sleepers legend may reveal echoes of earlier traditions of accessing the otherworld through caves, with a dog either accompanying the practitioners or acting as a threshold guardian. It is possible that, in the original legend, the sleepers brought back knowledge and wisdom from their sojourn in the otherworld, just like modern shamans, but, if they did, this part of the myth is now lost.

An early Christian catacomb on the slopes of Mount Pion near Ephesus came to be associated with the site of the cave. These catacombs, along with the ruins of a later church covering them, were excavated in 1927–28. Archaeologists discovered several hundred graves, dating to around the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers lined the walls of the church and also occurred in the graves. Clearly, the legend of the Seven Sleepers meant a lot to people even then.

Curiously, according to the Koran, Surah 18, verse 15, the myth even came to be attached to Glastonbury. The cave is associated with a cavern beneath Chalice Well and the sleepers were guided by Joseph of Arimathea. But even the Koran concedes that this may be no more than a picturesque addition to the legend.

Modern Siebenschläfertag recalls only the merest hint of the earlier tradition but, somewhat whimsically, Siebenschläfer in German also refers to the edible dormouse, a creature known to sleep for long periods.

So whether you celebrate seven saints, medieval weather lore, or even an edible dormouse, have a wonderful Siebenschläfertag and let’s hope it doesn’t rain.