Tuesday, 10 September 2013

New Beowulf course for autumn-winter 2013


 A 20 week course looking at the meaning, origin and background of England's oldest heroic poem - including the archaeological, historical and mythological traditions that underlie this fantastic tale.


1: Where Now the Horse and Rider? The Lost Literature of Old England
2: The Keenest for Fame – the plot and language of the poem
3: The Bear’s Son – what is Beowulf about?: The main theories.
4: Clans of the Sea Coasts – who were the English?
5: Former Days – the Prehistory of Scandza
6: On the Altars of their Idols – Scandinavian paganism
7: In Dread Waters – Vanir religion and sacrifice – first clues to the identity of the monsters.


8: Scyld Scefing and the Barley God
9: Freyr and Ing: The Wagon Ran After – pagan Gods in Old English Literature
10: Elves and Evil Shades – the anatomy of Beowulf’s monsters
11: Choosers of the Slain – the dark side of the Vanir gods


12: Who’s who in Beowulf – the Scylding family tree
13: Royal Obligations – a sacrificial Kingship?
14: The Hall turned to Ashes – Hrolf’s Saga in depth
15: The Wandering Inguz – The Celtic connection
16: A Midwinter Game – Grendel and the Green Knight


17: The Demon’s Head – The Indo-European myth behind the poem
18: The Brimwylf – Odin, werewolves and wargs
19: The arrival and the conversions of the Anglo-Saxons
20: People of the Wolf – The Sutton Hoo connection

Starts 7th November, at the University of Kent Campus in Canterbury 7-9pm
Price: £190  UKC Students £150

Please contact me on grigsby_john@hotmail.com to book or for more information

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Celtic Mythology Course

I've decided on teaching a course on 'Celtic Myth and Ritual' this coming winter (from October 11th) - it's a course I taught about 6 years ago but my ideas have changed a lot since then - it'll be covering many different aspects of the subject, with an emphasis on the literature and the archaeological evidence for pagan 'Celtic' religion.

The course will be at the University of Kent campus in Canterbury (Cornwallis NW seminar room 2) on Thursdays 7-9pm. It'll be £180 for the 20 weeks.

Please email me if you're interested (grigsby_john@hotmail.com)
Here's a summary:

A twenty week course examining the myths and religion of the Pagan Celts through their literature and archaeology

1. Who were the Celts? The Celtic calendar
2. The Gods of the Celts (Myth: The Second Battle of Moytura)
3. Were the Celts descendants of the earlier Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures? (Myth: The Wooing of Etain)
4. Sanctuaries and Severed Heads – evidence of holy sites and the cult of the severed head (Myth: The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel)
5. Druids and Champions of the Red Branch: (Myths: The Intoxication of the Ulaid; MacDatho's Pig.)
6. Celtic warrior society (Myths: The boyhood deeds of CuChulainn. The wooing of Emer. The Death of Aoife’s son)
7. The cattle raid of Cooley – the Irish iliad part one (Myths: The Tale of Deirdriu/The Curse of Macha, Intro: Medbh of Connacht)
8. The Cattle Raid of Cooley part two (Myths: Tain Bo Cualigne/Tain Bo Froech)
9. The Beheading Game – Lindow man and human sacrifice. (Myths: Bricriu’s feast. Aided CuRoi. Sickbed of/Death of CuChulainn).
10. Magic and Shamanism: The Salmon of Wisdom and the Irish Adonis. (Myths: The Fenian Cycle of Fionn and Oisin)
11. An Introduction to Welsh Tradition and language.
12.Sacred animals in Celtic life and myth: The Horse Goddess and the King of the Dead: (Myth: The First Branch - Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed)
13. celtic kingship: The Singing Head and the Wounded Thigh (Myth: The Second Branch – Branwen Ferch Llyr)
14. Evidence for a celtic mystery religion: The Golden bowl (Myth: The Third Branch - Manawyddan fab Llyr)
15. Poetry and enchantment: The Enchantments of Gwynedd (Myth: The Fourth Branch – Math ap Mathonwy)
16. The Celtic origin of the Grail: Cauldron of Pen Annwn (Myths: ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ ;‘The Spoils of the Abyss’/Peredur ap Efrawg)
17. The Quest for Merlin - The Madman of DinasEmrys: (Myths: Vita Merlini/Poetry of Myrddin/Lailoken/Lludd and Llefelys)
18. The Once and Future King – Arthurian legend as the last swan-song of the Celtic gods: (Myths: Owein/The Dream of Rhonabwy/Gereint)
19. The Battle for Britain: Celtic heroes and poets of the Dark Ages (Y Gododdin/the poems of Taliesin)
20. The Radiant Brow: - Taliesin - (Myth: Hanes Taliesin/CanuTaliesin/Cad Goddeu) The Celtic renaissance?

students get a 25% discount

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Werewolves, severed heads and a recent sad loss

It was with sadness today I learned of the death (aged 87) of the Celtic scholar Dr. Anne Ross.  I had first become aware of Anne when she appeared on the 1987 BBC program 'The Celts' where she made a great impression filmed sitting on a hillside, her red hair blowing in the wind, and talking of the Ulster cycle of myths - it was the first time I'd heard the pronunciation of such names as Cu Chulainn, Dechtire and Emhain Macha. The names sounded heady with strangeness - luring one in with their exotic nature.

It wasn't long before I had acquired some of her books - most notably Pagan Celtic Britain, which contained a massive amount of information on the Iron Age cults of these islands - especially the so-called 'cult of the severed head' which was explored in minute detail.

But Anne Ross was different from other Celtic scholars - she was a favourite scholar of neo-pagan groups as she wasn't timid in putting forward controversial theories, and she also supported the idea that a certain amount of pagan belief had survived the Iron Age, especially in the more remote parts of the UK. When i say remote I don't necessarily mean at the edges - for instance in a BBC Timewatch program she claimed to have been contacted by a local 'guardian' of an old traditional belief system that still venerated the image of the severed head - and all this going on not far from industrial centres like Manchester.

I first read of this interest of hers in a book called 'Twilight of the Celtic Gods' by Clark and Roberts (which is also the book that introduced me to Alan Garner). Some isolated areas of the Peaks and the Pennines, it seems, had retained a special relationship to the land that was perhaps more pagan in flavour than one might have expected.  In later years, reading Garner's Thursbitch, and especially an essay/lecture of his that explained how he had come to write it (  http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html) I saw that this book, too, explored this possibility - and in visiting Thursbitch 5 years ago i was able to feel for myself a certain 'otherness' in the locale that was 'odd' rather than disconcerting (but then i didn't go at night - not after reading the essay by Garner!)

Dr Anne Ross was no stranger to the supernatural. There is the famous case of the Haxham heads (photo above) which though claimed to be made by a local man for his children (why?) others believed to be linked to the Celtic cult of the head (which didn't necessarily mean they had to be old, if Ross's 'informant' was correct). Dr Ross took them in to examine them and soon found the atmosphere of her home changed. Here's what she saw that night:

"It was about six feet high, slightly stooping, and it was black, against the white door, and it was half animal and half man. The upper part, I would have said, was a wolf, and the lower part was human and, I would have again said, that it was covered with a kind of black, very dark fur. It went out and I just saw it clearly, and then it disappeared, and something made me run after it, a thing I wouldn't normally have done, but I felt compelled to run after it. I got out of bed and I ran, and I could hear it going down the stairs, then it disappeared towards the back of the house."
When her daughter, independently, saw the same creature Dr Ross took the heads from her house and the 'haunting' stopped. What is it she saw? My own research on the Beowulf poem lead me, in time, to uncover a possible link between the cult of the severed head and the legend of the werewolf - all pivoting around an ancient use of the ergot fungus, a parasite of barley and rye, that causes hallucinations and burning sensations. Ergot was found in the stomachs of the so-called 'bog people' - remains of Iron Age sacrificial victims found in the bogs of N W Europe. Ergot was known as 'tooth of the wolf' and I believe was used in shamanic rites that gave one the sensation of turning into an animal (shape-shifting)  - I believe the warriors of Odin used such drugs, and it is how they became the famous Berserkers (bear-shirts) and Ulfhednar (wolf-heads)...

Weird as it may seem Dr Ross seems to have picked up on this symbolism in her haunting - the wolf-head and the sacrificial head... how funny, then, that part of what inspired my interest in bog bodies was a book Dr Ross had herself written - 'Life and death of a Druid Prince' which was all about the death of Lindow man - a bog body found near Macclesfield in Cheshire - heart of 'Alan garner' Country, and visible from Thursbitch.

Dr Ross made no mention of her experience in that book - and I made no conscious use of her experience in my theorising on the fate of the bog-men - I merely followed the clues in Beowulf that suggested Grendel and his Mother were wolf-like spirits and that Beowulf himself may have meant 'barley-wolf'. I had linked Grendel's Mother to the goddess Nerthus mentioned by Tacitus, whose attendants were drowned following a ceremonial parade of the goddess in a chariot. These drowned men, I reasoned, were the bog-bodies found throughout Denmark - and thus had been killed in rites connected to the wolfish Grendel's mother, with stomachs full of ergot.  When I recalled Dr Ross's experience after I had published the book I had a spine-tingling sensation of having stumbled on some long-lost connection...

So for me Dr Anne Ross was both a brilliant scholar but also someone who didn't wish to take the magic out of the myths, but to hint that the magic is still with us today, especially in the remote valleys of this land. May she be feasting on the ale of Tir Na N'Og as I write. Thank you, Dr Ross.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

St Martin’s Land - 

Could the name of the humble bird the 'House Martin' offer clues to a lost belief in a supernatural realm bordering our own?

I'm reposting this newly edited version of this piece from my website in honour of Garner's 'Boneland' which is heavily concerned with the medieval poem 'Pearl' which was one of the inspirations for this piece.

A few years ago I began a novel (subsequently mostly lost) entitled ‘St Martin’s Land’ in which I voiced the idea that the origin of the name of the House Martin, a bird that arrives on our shores each year as a summer migrant, somehow answered the question that must have often puzzled our ancestors – where did these birds go in Winter? It was an answer more prosaic than the simple truth (Africa) and one that had its foundations in folklore concerning another, more mysterious, realm that was once thought to border our own.

I had put this book and its ideas aside it must have been six years ago, but then last summer I stumbled again upon a few lines of a medieval poem known as ‘Pearl’, written by the same anonymous 14th century poet who penned ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ – which seemed to support a theory I’d come up with concerning certain sacred earthly rivers and the Milky Way, but which I’d seemed to have missed on past readings. It was this that brought back to mind my lost book which had been indirectly based on this poem, as I shall explain. With my head now buzzing with the ideas I’d presented in this book (in which the appearance of these birds was key) I resolved to put my ideas on paper at some point.

Why, then, are House Martins so called? If one seeks to discover the origin of the name of this bird (and its cousin, the Sand Martin) one tends to draw a blank. In H Kirke Swann’s "A Dictionary of English & Folk Names of British Birds" the author states that ‘The... name, "Martin," occurs in Merrett (1667) and Willughby (1678).’ And that ‘Turner (1544) calls this species "rok martinette or chirche martnette….Martinet is French for the swift.’ The name, then, we can presume, was known before this date – but as to what the name Martin refers we are left ignorant. It may be of French origin, in which case we have the probability that it was brought to England by the Normans. But why Martin(ette)?
Here’s where my eclectic reading of old folklore and literature comes in. My book ‘St Martin’s Land’ was prompted by three main sources – the first being the medieval poem ‘Pearl’ mentioned above, the second being the medieval story of the Green Children of Woolpit and the third from an old ballad named ‘The wife of Usher’s well’ all of which provide, in their own ways, clues to the naming of the bird. But I shall start with the Green Children, for it is in this tale we first hear of this mysterious land of St Martin. The tale, told as historic fact, is to be found in the Chronicles of William of Newbury, who was writing in the second half of the twelfth century – and I make no apologies for printing his account in full:

In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities, called "Wolfpittes," that is, in English, "Pits for wolves," and which give their name to the adjacent village. During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days without food. But, when they were nearly exhausted with hunger, and yet could relish no species of support which was offered to them, it happened, that some beans were brought in from the field, which they immediately seized with avidity, and examined the stalk for the pulse, but not finding it in the hollow of the stalk, they wept bitterly. Upon this, one of the bystanders, taking the beans from the pods, offered them to the children, who seized them directly, and ate them with pleasure. By this food they were supported for many months, until they learnt the use of bread.
[3] At length, by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves, and also learnt our language. It seemed fitting to certain, discreet persons that they should receive the sacrament of baptism, which was administered accordingly. The boy, who appeared to be the younger, surviving his baptism but a little time, died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say.
[4] Moreover, after they had acquired our language, on being asked who and whence they were, they are said to have replied, "We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth." Being further asked where that land was, and how they came thence hither, they answered, "We are ignorant of both those circumstances; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father's flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund's, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping." Being questioned whether in that land they believed in Christ, or whether the sun arose, they replied that the country was Christian, and possessed churches; but said they, "The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river." Book One, ch 27

Again, analysis of the Green Children is a fascinating topic in itself and to which I will return in another article, but all I feel I need to say at this moment is that green was the colour of both death and the fairy folk in medieval tradition, so we are not to see these children as mortals like us, but more as otherworldly beings, and this is surely what St Martin’s land is – an Otherworld. In Celtic lore the Otherworld bordered ours, and often it was said that summer in that world was winter in ours (a belief expressed in the Welsh word for the Otherworld, Annwfn, which means literally ‘not-’ or ‘anti-world)’. What’s more the condition of eternal twilight shows that this was a kind of ‘liminal’ realm, a border-land, a place of ‘neither nor’; it was neither day nor night – and this, too, is a condition often spoken of ‘faerie’, the land of enchantment that bordered our own. This ‘liminality’, the state of being on the boundary – neither day nor night – we shall see as being increasingly important as we go on.

If there were any doubts as to the ‘otherliness’ of this location mentioned as the origin of the green children then confirmation of its supernatural quality is given in the description of the broad river that separated it from a ‘luminous country’ – for to medieval minds this could not be seen as anything other than the river of death that separates us from Paradise, (and thus suggesting to contemporary ears, no doubt, that St Martin’s land may have been some kind of ‘purgatory’).

As I stated at the start, I was reminded of all of this when I happened to re-read some lines from ‘Pearl’ last summer, for ‘Pearl’ makes mention of this self-same river. For those who don’t know, the Pearl referred to in the title begins, it seems, as a precious object that the poet has lost in an orchard and searches for, but as the poem commences we realise that this is a symbol for something more precious – his daughter – who he lost to death when she was very young. The poet describes how lying in the orchard he sinks into a dream or vision and finds himself walking through a wonderful country until he finds himself faced with a broad river, of which:

In the founce ther stonden stones stepe,
As glente thurgh glas that glowed and glyght,
As stremande sternes, quen strothe-men slepe,
Staren in welkin in winter nyght

In the depths stood dazzling stones aheap
As a glitter through glass that glowed with light,
As streaming stars when on earth men sleep
Stare in the welkin in winter night

(Illustration from the Pearl poem manuscript)

The connection between this river on earth and the river in heaven, the Milky Way (and the appearance of shining quartz in a number of rivers linked etymologically with the heavens), will be explored in a future posts  – but it is clear in this poem that the river has a heavenly aspect for it borders Paradise. For there, on the yonder shore of this stream, stands a girl:

A mayden of menske, ful debonare;
Blysande whyt was her bleaunt;
I knew hyr well, I had sen hyr ere

She wore a gown of glistening white,
A gentle maid of courtly grace,
Erewhile I had known her well by sight…

The poet, we discover, had known her well by sight because this girl is his lost daughter. What follows is a heart-breaking exchange between the two that speaks of loss but also ultimately of hope that one day both will be united again in Paradise. I won’t paraphrase it because it should certainly be read in the original. Failing that read Alan Garner's 'Boneland' which deals with the same theme, and which contains numerous nods to the poem.

The Pearl poet makes it clear that for to cross the river would be death, and though the grieving father may feel tempted, he chooses not to follow his daughter. No such constraints, it would seem, were placed upon the green children who were able to cross from the borders of Paradise.

My third source for the lost book which has bearing on the name ‘martin’ presents us with three more individuals who made this journey, not from the borders of paradise, but from paradise itself, though their sojourn back on earth lasted but a night. These are the three sons found in the traditional English ballad ‘The wife of Usher’s well’ a ballad which provides us with our final and most revealing ‘Martin’ reference – one that is key to untangling the name’s origin.

There lived a wife at Usher's Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them over the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carline wife,
That her three sons were gane.

"I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood."

It befell about the Martinmass,
When nights are long and mirk,
The carlin wife's three sons came hame,
And their hats were o the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o Paradise,
That birk grew fair enough

Her sons have come from Paradise – they even wear hats made of the bark (or birch, the two words are related) of the Tree of Paradise as a sign of their origin; they have crossed that river of death though unlike the green children it is clear that once the cock crows the following day they must return to paradise. (And here I use the ‘Steeleye Span’ version, rather than the original, just because I like it)

Then up and crowed the blood red cock
And up and crowed the grey
The oldest to the youngest said
It's time we were away
For the cock does crow and the day doth show
And the channerin worm doth chide
And we must go from Ushers Well
To the gates of Paradise

The crux of my lost book had been the point when the son of the old lady in whose house the hero was staying returned home – in military gear from WWI even though the year was 1945, returning home from an earlier war after a sojourn across that same gleaming river as divided the maiden from her father in Pearl, and to which the protagonist of my book, following the dead son home after the crowing of the cock, was to seek out his own wife and child, killed during the Blitz. But I digress… It is the date of the return of the sons in this ballad that is important – it is Martinmas, the feast day of St Martin of Tours, the French Saint, which falls upon the 11th November.

What, then, is the importance of this date? It is quite clear from folk-customs throughout Europe that this festival marked the start of winter. In other words it lay on the border of summer and winter, that ‘liminal’ point between the two polarities that was the feature of the Celtic otherworld. On a practical level it was the point in the year when cattle that were not to be overwintered were slain and the meat eaten or salted. But it also marked the end of the All Souls festivities and is clear that much of its origins lay in the nearby Celtic feast of Samhain. Now Samhain (‘summer’s end’) is traditionally celebrated on 31st October/1st November so Martinmas falls less than two weeks later. This festival saw the opening of the doors between the worlds – when fairies were abroad or man could stumble into fairyland and it seems obvious that the sons of Usher’s well return home at Martinmas thanks to a similar quality of that feast: the doors to paradise/the land of the dead stand open.

What I would argue is that, yes, the feast of Martinmas was to be seen as a time that the gateway to this other realm was accessible; and this being the case might not the realm itself be named after the festival – the gates of St Martin? Was not St Martin’s land the land that was opened on this feast day? And were not the qualities of that land perhaps suggestive of that time of year: ‘neither nor’ in the manner of the Celtic otherworld? But as I said above, the Celtic otherworld was not just ‘liminal’ but opposite to our world: day when here it was night, hot when our land was cold; these were the ‘summerlands’, or the ‘summer country’. Which finally brings me on to the birds…

Where else would the birds of summer go when they vanished in the winter but to this land of sunny winters? Here, I believe, the possible French origin of the word Martin comes to the fore. Let us say that in France these birds leave the shores of the Mediterranean a fair bit later than they do in Britain. The last of them to leave the south of France would probably depart around the end of October. And where would they be headed? One must imagine that some travellers or merchants brought back knowledge that these birds in fact travelled to the south – to the southern hemisphere, in fact, where the seasons were reversed and what was winter here was summer there. These birds, departing just before Martinmas and travelling to a strange southerly land with alternate seasons to our own, no doubt began to accrue folklore associated with such another ‘underworld’ with opposite climates – the otherworld of native beliefs. This otherworld, we have seen from the tale of the Green children of Woolpit was a liminal realm bordering Paradise, and it took its name, we could argue from ‘The wife of Usher’s Well’ from the date of that liminal festival, that hinge in time between summer and winter. Somehow or other the knowledge of the journey of these birds to the southern-hemisphere melded with the folkore of a land that was summer when winter held sway in the real world, and thus the birds were thought to disappear through that liminal door, crossing the sparkling river of death, and entering St martin’s land; and thus they were named: the birds of Martin.

Now, if this seems fanciful we must listen to the words of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who as a child in Germany questioned where Storks vanished to in the winter; he tells how a local man tied a parchment to one of the poor bird’s legs with a question written upon it, asking, if it were found, whether the finder could please reply as to their location so that they could uncover the truth. Sure enough the next spring the stork came back, a new parchment on its leg bearing an enigmatic answer – that they had never heard of the land mentioned in the letter (Germany), but the stork had overwintered in St John’s land...

Clearly the migrant storks were seen to vanish into a strange country that had never heard of our land, much as the Green children had never known ours. Like the green children and the sons of the wife of Usher’s well, the birds of England were thought to journey to/from another realm – the land known as St Martin’s land after the feast on which its doors lay open, and it was after that land the birds, I believe, were named. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

Just how old are our myths?

Now it's a hard enough job, academically, trying to get people to believe that Medieval Celtic and Norse tales (such as The Mabinogion or the Eddas) contain any real traces of ancient myth and pagan religion, so what I'm about to talk about would be seen as doubly anathema, at least in academic circles - and that is posing the question of whether certain myths might have an origin not in the Iron Age, or even in the preceding Bronze Age (shall I keep going?), but in the, wait for it... Ice Age!

The sort of myths I'm talking about are those that can be shown to possibly contain an astronomical component, and therefore are potentially datable, given that the position of the stars shifts ever so slightly over time due to something called precession.  But what occurred to me today was that some myths which we presume to be about astronomical events in a certain era may themselves be adaptations of even older myths - recycled myths, in other words.

The two 'myths' I'm thinking about are an Egyptian ritual and an Irish legend, both of which we can date fairly precisely to around 2,500 BC. Now the Egyptian myth concerns the New Year rites signalled by the rising of Sirius which coincided with the flooding of the Nile and the subsequent return of fertility to the Nile valley. Sirius was imagined as Sopdet, a white cow with a star over its head, heralding the Nile flood. Now in this era, and this era alone (c. 2500 BC) the Nile flood coincided exactly with the re-appearance of Sirius in the sky at Midsummer, after an absence of 72 days (this is known as the 'heliacal' rising of the star - and explains why the process of mummifiction took 72 days). The rising of the star on the shores of the heavenly river, the Milky Way, seemed to mirror the flood happening on earth below.


Now in Irish myth the flooding of a river, this time the Boyne, is brought about, so the legend says, thanks to the actions of a goddess named Boann.  Boann's husband owns a magical well of knowledge, but Boann is barred from drinking from it - but as is the nature of these tales (and the female mind) curiosity proves too strong and she visits the well, but in drinking from it (after walking about it three times widdershins) the water boils up, tearing an eye from her head, and causing the waters to flood and form a river. Both her and her hound drown in the waters that thereafter bear her name  - Boyne (Boann). 

So how does this fit in with the Egyptian rite? We have a flood, yes, but what else? Okay - for a start Boann/Boyne comes from the Old Irish Bo-Finne, 'White Cow' but also the Milky Way was known as the ‘path of the white cow’ - ‘Bothar Bo Finne’ so we have an earthly and a heavenly river, as we do in the Egyptian myth, and a lady who is also a white cow in both. Coincidence? Hmm. Given that Boann is also drowned with her dog, and that Sirius is known as the Dog Star, it seems more than just plain chance.

Can we date the Irish myth? Not as easily. But we do know that beside the Boyne stands the megalithic passage-grave of Newgrange, said in myth to be the dwelling place of Boann. We can date the grave to 2500 BC, and what's more show that it is aligned to the rising of Sirius at this date, and even consider the possibility that the circular wall of quartz and chalk that surround it are mirroring the Milky way, which in this era lay encircling the horizon at a certain point every night.

(Boann - and her dog)

So far, so good... but given the dating of both myths/rites to 2500 BC why am i harping on about the Ice Age? Well - to start, first try to explain why we have identical myths (to my mind anyway) cropping up thousands of miles apart at the same date.  They're not precisely the same simply because the Boyne floods in the winter, due to rainfall, and the Nile in summer. But there is no evidence, not a jot, for any contact between Ireland and Egypt at this date (okay - let's forget the Irish myth that the Irish are descended from Scota, daughter of a Pharaoh...) - no archaeological contact, I should say.

Now given that both myths are similar we either have to argue for independent invention (which is possible) or that both must be descended from an ancestor.  But how old and where from? It would have to be from an era when the re-appearance of Sirius coincided with a flood (although it wouldn't necessarily have to be a heliacal appearance - after all, in 2500 BC Sirius rose heliacally in the summer, yet the Irish flood, if we are looking at a physical flood, was a late winter phenomenon). But I guess for the myth to be so strong and important that it took root in such differing locales as Egypt and Ireland it would have to have been something major about the re-appearance of the star and a connection to fertility and/or rebirth.

I'm not about to launch into possibilities of Mesopotamian floods or what have you - this is a blog, not an academic journal - so I'm just going to throw this idea out there... It's always seemed to be odd that a society like Egypt should seem to panic so when a star disappears for 72 days, especially when for all of their known history, it had never not risen again afterwards. It's the same with the primitive fear of the sun not  growing strong again after winter. I always wondered if our ancestors might have perhaps worried too much (I am being a bit facetious, btw). But all the same, Sirius really was bound to rise again, so the panic and jubilation always seemed a little extreme. I've researched many myths (especially Celtic) and we see the same joy at the rebirth of the star, of fertility - but again and again, especially in Hindu myth, it is associated with floods and 'the release of the waters.' But aren't floods generally destructive? And where were the waters being kept? And what has this to do with Sirius?

So here I go... imagine that tens of thousands of years BC mankind has populated Europe, and hunter-gatherer that he is he sees in the sky the great Hunter (Orion) and his dog (Sirius) and the bull (Taurus) and bear (er, Great Bear)... but the skies are changing... due to precession Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, begins to creep lower on the horizon until - shock! - it disappears. Now the re-appareance of Sirius I have argued elsewhere is linked to the seasonal myths of the disappearance of the fertility of the land over winter and its re-emergence in the spring. The fertility gods and goddesses of the ancient world, such as Persephone or Attis ape this seasonal pattern - disappear into the earth at winter to arise again, with the crops, in the spring.  But imagine if Sirius set one year - and never rose again? Imagine, too, if the land began to grow colder, game more scarce. Imagine if the Hunter, Orion, began to disappear, too - as the land became covered in sheets of ice?

This happened. Orion once disappeared from the night sky - went into the Underworld - descended into the earth. From northern Europe, up until around 11000 BC Orion could not be seen - and Sirius had long disappeared into the lands below.   

Now imagine the opposite - that around 11,000 -10,000 BC the nadir has been reached and Orion begins to climb out of the earth - around 8,000 BC Sirius would have made its re-appearance in the skies over Egypt - and in the previous 2,000 years the Glaciers that had covered much of Northern Europe began to melt... waters that had been 'imprisoned' were now being released - in great floods, that once more opened up the plains of Northern Europe and beyond to game, to new life - man returned to these climes. the valleys of the post-glacial world were more fertile and teeming with life than before; and as he spread north so did Orion rise more from the earth, and with him the shining star Sirius.

Might one imagine the fear returning each year when Sirius disappeared that she might never rise again, and the winter return, and the waters once more be locked in the ice? Might the celebration of the re-appearance of Sirius and the release of the waters in a flood have less to do with seasonal myths and more to do with a memory of some Ice Age trauma? 

All I'll say for now is that the first evidence for astronomical use of the Giza plateau occurs at precisely the same era that Sirius can once more be seen from this latitude. imagine if from before the end of the Ice Age mankind had remembered myths about the bright star in the south. Now imagine when after hundreds of generations it appears once more in the sky... might it have inspired some great cultural leaps?  Might this explain why it is 'coincidentally' the first sighting of Sirius in the night sky above Orkney around 4,000 BC that coincides with the development of the henge and the stone circle tradition that is carried throughout megalithic Britain from this unlikely spot - almost as if the arrival of the star in the far north of Britain is some pivotal moment (like the arrival of the Olympic torch, but one that had journeyed for millennia).

One only has to think of the Norse creation myth where the primal giant, Ymir, is created from ice, to wonder if such myths do have a very ancient date. It seems plausible, if unprovable, to imagine a time when the flood-waters from the retreating ice were heralded by the re-appearance of Sirius in the sky, a star out of legend, long lost in the underworld - and that this trauma of loss and the joy of rebirth were remembered for generation upon generation, who handed them down, fashioning them to their own ends, where they provided a blue-print for seasonal myths.  Conjecture, I know, but I'd like to imagine that in celebrating the rising of Sirius and the flooding of the Nile, or the ever-so slight and unconnected calendrically to Sirius in any-form-whatsover flooding of the Boyne, we see echoes of a myth from the end of the Ice Age. It would answer why a flood myth, and the later Grail myths that are to do with releasing water, make up stock Celtic legends, when you would imagine the last thing you want to do in this climate is celebrate the coming of more water!  And it means we don't have to look to Mesopotamian or Egyptian cultures to explain why we have such myths at all - such cultures are the heir to a myth, not its progenitors.   

Friday, 31 August 2012


Well, I couldn't wait any longer, and have just devoured Alan Garner's 'Boneland' in one sitting. And my thoughts? This is a difficult thing to write about. Would I recommend it to others? Certainly. But with reservation - for it is a book that has many resonances for me on a personal level that I wonder if anything I say would be relevant for anyone but myself. Here the job of reviewer seems questionable. What use is it for me to talk about my experiences of a book, when, arguably, the book is more than words on a page - a novel exists in the mind of the reader, and it is fleshed out by what the reader brings to it. There is no such thing as a novel as a separate entity, utterly objective, that can be read without us projecting something of ourselves into it. But I'll write about my experiences of it, for what it's worth. You may, and will, read a very different novel.

I read the Weirdstone of Brisingamen when I was in my early 30's - not as a child, and I found it to be the work of a man in his twenties. I enjoyed it, but I found the mixture of Saxon and Celtic myth jarred somewhat. Having immersed myself in myth for the previous 15 or so years I found it unsatisfying mythically, immature, even. But I recognised Garner as a good storyteller - just not as captivating as I may have done if I had read it as a child. The Owl Service, though, was leagues better - a more complex and mature work. Thursbitch I found the work of a genius. Garner did not need to write of elves and wizards to bring the landscape to life; Thursbitch's supernaturals were more deeply rooted in the land, more real; it was as if garner had realised how to portray the numinous without having to turn to the stock figures of fairytale.  Boneland, being part three of the Weirdstone trilogy, then, had me (wrongly) worrying in anticipation that he would feel the need to return to the old style. But I needn't have worried. The book is more like Thursbitch or Strandloper than any of the Weirdstone books; indeed, it sits almost as a sister to Thursbitch, both in tone and in plot.
Like Thursbitch there are two stories in one (although this isn't a fair description - there are two timelines, melting into each other rather than two distinct plots). The first (in time) tells of a prehistoric man in the age of the painted caves, basically a shaman, obsessed with keeping the world in existence through his art and rituals, and dreading his own passing lest this knowledge be lost; his quest resembles that of John Turner in Thursbitch whose strange fate in embroiled in the attempt to keep the year turning ('summer hangs in the balance tonight'). The second story has Colin Whisterfield, the boy from the Weirdstone series, who is trying to find his lost sister, and who suffers a breakdown through which he is helped by a psychiatrist named Meg - these pair form the equivalent to the two modern-day protagonists of Thursbitch; indeed we see similar exchanges between the two concerning the movement of the earth's crust and our place in the cosmos. But I'm not going to tell you what happens, obviously, perhaps, for a start, because what happens isn't easily told - Garner's tales are elusive at best.

There's a lot of Garner's personal story in the book - like Colin, Garner suffers from manic-depression, and has described elsewhere (The Voice that Thunders) his own analysis under a maverick psychiatrist. Here it is given a fictionalised form, and it is the relationship between doctor and patient that knits the story together. Colin is a complex character - his dance from highs to lows is described eloquently; his moments of openness and revelation touching - especially the story of the crow...

But what struck me was the resonances with myth and legend and the geography of the area of Cheshire in which Garner has set the bulk of his books. And here's where you'll either love the book or hate it, depending on what you bring to it. For as a novel it was mysterious, rich, melodious (his writing has a musical quality, full of rhythm and repetition) - holding one's interest, as well as igniting the senses (I've never fancied cheese and wine as much as reading one of the scenes in this book - mind you, try reading the desert scenes in Strandloper without having to drink lots of water!). But what I most enjoyed were the veiled references to older traditions and poems - and here I'm at an advantage. having studied, and loved, the works of the Gawain poet, I recognised nuances in the plot based on his works, but also whole phrases taken straight from the poems that most, I fear, would miss. And this would be a shame, as the meaning of the phrases give the events they are describing within the novel a greater depth and pathos, which otherwise might be missed. The novel reads well without them, but to see them adds a whole extra dimension. I'm thinking about references to the poem 'Pearl' in a passage in which Colin hears the voice of his sister (and which brought a lump to my throat) and especially a number of descriptive passages that resonated with events in Gawain and the Green Knight (the sharpening of an axe being one such moment).

It's a book that is rich in ideas, too - you can tell that masses of thought and research have gone into it, yet it wears that research lightly; he'll mention something about the stars, which adds colour to the story, yet to a researcher like myself I know has not been nonchalantly tossed onto the page - for instance an idea of the age of certain constellations - whether man knew of the Hunter (Orion) and the pursued maidens (Pleiades) before he had left Africa, which I found enthralling.

It's a book I think I shall begin again, immediately - for like good music the point is not to get at the end and find out what happens, but to immerse yourself in the experience. Garner doesn't do twists or reveals; the story isn't really separate from the weave of words - yet there was one point where, in the story of the stone carver, the shaman, that I was wrong-footed.

And the 'point' of the book? Is there a 'media-friendly-sound bite' that one can give to summarise what it is about? No - not really, except perhaps this: Don't confuse myth with reality (as myth is far more important) and that sometimes the answer to a question is not what you might have wanted or expected, but it is an answer all the same...

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Waiting for Boneland...

Alan Garner is perhaps the most well-known and respected of modern authors who make use of native myth and folklore, hence why I am looking forward to his forthcoming 'Boneland', part three of the Weirdstone trilogy.

But for those unaware of Garner's works, or those only aware of his 'childrens' books' (I put that in inverted commas as he never intentionally wrote for children, as such) I'd recommend reading his 'Thursbitch' which I count amongst my favourite books. It's a hard book to recommend, however; it's 'pure protein' as far as fiction is concerned (a phrase used by Joseph Campbell to describe James Joyce's prose, as opposed to the works of Thomas Mann whom Campbell describes as full of asides to help the reader understand what's going on); Garner, however, like Joyce, offers no easy explanations of his text - it is what it is, tight, pared down to bare essentials and the reader has to work out what is going on for him/herself.

What's more, Garner peppers his prose with liberal dosings of Cheshire dialect and offers no appendixes to help explain the meanings of the words he uses - this can be hard for the casual reader, for his work often consists of pages of dialogue. But for those who persevere the work is a rich interweaving of stories and themes; it's like stock that has been simmering for centuries until one is left with something deeply rich, like blackened soil - fertile, heavy, dark.

I won't even attempt to summarise the story - just read Garner's own words on his research for the book here to get an idea of the research and preparation that went into the writing of this novel that hovers somewhere between fact and fiction; and the fact is more mysterious than the fiction.

The book inspired me to seek out Thursbitch, a valley in the Peak district, close to the locale that seems to have inspired the Gawain poet six hundred years ago. I found the place strangely deserted on what was a stormy and dark August day 5 years ago now. The valley felt charged with something - lined with ancient standing stones. I took this photo of the view from Thoon - local dialect for 'The Oven', a natural feature that had the feeling of some kind of ancient dolmen.

I'll no doubt return to Thursbitch in a future blog, but for now all I will say is that Garner's book picks up on the strange, numinous atmosphere of the place - an atmosphere that makes one fully believe that some kind of ancient presence still haunts the valley, some 'thyrs' - Anglo-Saxon for 'giant' or 'monster', after whom the valley is named (Bitch comes from the dialect word batch, meaning valley). Having written in my 'Beowulf and Grendel' about ancient fertility cults preserved in the Old English poem it came as a shock and a delight to find Alan Garner had been writing of the same theme in his fiction.  Here is a man in tune with our landscape - hence why i am looking forward to Boneland which promises much of the same.