Category Archives: History

The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion – a review

I’m no Arthurian scholar, although my wide ranging reading habits and interest in folklore and mythology mean that I’ve run into King Arthur and the grail from all kinds of perspectives already. I was interested to see what Simon Stirling would do with the idea. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a piece of historical writing, but I found it in many ways persuasive.

In this book, Simon makes the case for King Arthur being Scottish. I found this argument compelling. To establish his case, Simon draws on mediaeval writing, period history (such as it is) place names and the names of known historical figures. He also explores why we have a southern Arthur and how that benefitted the church.

I found the exploration of texts and history to be especially interesting. One of the things this book does especially well is to look at the relationship between history making and myth making. These things are deeply related to each other. We tell stories to reinforce our sense of history. We use history as propaganda. We reinvent our stories to reinvent ourselves. Arthur has been used repeatedly in this way, and I found the exploration of the mechanics to be really helpful.

One of the other things that stuck out for me is the way language changes over time. The poetic sources Simon deals with are full of kennings, allusions and metaphors. It represents a world view rather different to our own. There’s a blurring of edges created by word play and pun, and resonance that may easily be lost to a modern reader. There’s no knowing how literally our ancestors took any of this – whether we’re dealing in straightforward symbolism where Bran = raven, or whether in some sense ravens are Bran, and Bran is ravens… How much mythology could be grown from a misunderstanding of poetic language? For me, this raises more questions than it answers, and I am very glad to have them raised.

I do not emerge from this book confident that I know what the Grail is. The case Simon makes is fascinating and I very much enjoyed reading it. It is a pleasing addition to my sense of what the grail might be, and might have been, but I’m not one for definitive answers. I’ve certainly learned a lot about how different people have perceived the grail. For anyone looking for a non-Christian take on the elusive artefact, this is a good book, I think regardless of whether you find the central argument persuasive.

For me, reading this was like investigating an ancestral dream world. Simon draws on sources from all over the world to explore ideas about what it means to be human, because in many ways, the quest for the grail is always a quest for something fundamental about humanity. This take on the grail is very much the warrior poet, masculine grail, and it has most to say about male mysteries around what is often taken to be an innately feminine object. It often reminded me of reading The White Goddess – this is not a wilfully obscure book, but it has that same sense of being a hairsbreadth from absolute truth, while never enabling me to completely grasp it. As I appreciate that sort of mythic, deep dreaming experience in a book, I really enjoyed reading this. I suspect different readers could have radically different experiences of this book, depending a lot on what you know and believe already.

Mote about it here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail

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What Paganism can learn from comics

There’ isn’t a definitive narrative for the Marvel universe. People keep re-writing Batman, Superman, Spiderman, retelling their origin tales. The X-Men have had more re-boots and parallel universes than most of us could keep up with. Some people only ever see the films. People keep telling new stories about these characters because they are popular. The stories keep up with wider social changes. None of these stories ever is or ever should be considered the ‘real’ version.

Imagine that as a person far into the future, you had some of the surviving comics to draw on. You had the middle bit of a film, a book review, three comics, seven fragments of fan fiction and the script for a crossover project. You don’t know which ones came first. You don’t know that you have fan fic in the mix, much less which bits fall into that category. Whatever sense you made of the content, it would not seem to you as it did to the people who created it.

When we look at what writings there are about myths, legends and ancient histories, it is of course tempting to think there’s an underlying truth to uncover. A real version. We look for coherence in stories about Gods and heroes. Coherence is generally in short supply. It occurs to me that we have something in mythology that has more in common with modern comics reboots and re-imaginings than it does with the agreed and fixed texts of book-orientated religions.

There may never have been a fixed, original story. There may be no single coherent truth to uncover. When we’re talking about figures like King Arthur, or Loki, the modern treatment of them in films and books may simply be a continuation of what’s always happened – people tell stories about characters they like.


Sacrificing Virgins

Having been ‘out’ as a Pagan since my teens, I have always attracted questions from people who know nothing. “Do you dance naked?” and “Do you sacrifice virgins?” (no, and no).

My guess is that the idea of Pagans sacrificing virgins comes from bad horror films, B movie Satanists and the lurid dreams of people who want to shut Paganism down. I think for a long time, Paganism functioned as a kind of shadow self for Christianity – if you think about the ways people imagined witches, for example. Naked, having orgies, smearing themselves with strange substances, snogging devils and so forth. The idea of witchcraft has created an emotional space in which incredibly repressed people could think about sexy things without having to feel guilty, so long as they kept telling themselves they were horrified by it.

I see similar patterns today in tabloid ‘news’.

The obsession with virginity is a Christian thing, not a Pagan one. I think many of our more permissive Pagan ancestors divided women up only in terms of whether they had birthed a child or not – no child makes you a maiden. This is a pretty easy state for an observer to figure out, and making mistakes about it doesn’t matter when it’s not especially loaded with cultural implications anyway.

Virginity is a concept deeply linked to patriarchy. It is woman as property, unspoiled by the touch of another ‘owner’. It is reproduction as the property of the man, and female inexperience enables male ownership. Virginity is a construct, not a reality, and for many young people, gaining experience is a process, not an event. The idea of virginity tends to be focused on straight penetration and to miss out the experiences of gay and lesbian people. Sexual experience should be about exploration, not focused on this antiquated notion of ‘deflowering’. Virginity itself is a concept that doesn’t reliably hold up well in a Pagan context.

Human sacrifice has always been a popular thing to accuse your enemies of. It’s also been something many cultures have practiced. The Romans were deeply opposed to human sacrifice, considering it a barbaric custom and a reason to conquer a tribe. At the same time, Romans crucified people to make political points, and celebrated the deaths of countless people in the gladiatorial arenas, with death as a popular spectacle. Christians who burned/hanged Pagans and heretics did so ostensibly for the good of the sinner’s soul, but it still looks a lot like human sacrifice to me. The lines between punishment, ritual and spectacle are often blurred and uneasy when we look at the past.

Sacrificing virginity when it means the taking it for ritual or magical purpose just makes no sense in this context. People who practice sex magic are looking for the power and energy that can be raised through the act and for that, you need confidence and experience.

Why do people think Pagans want this kind of thing? I think it says far more about the people who ask the questions than it does about us.


Maiden, Mother, Grandmother identities

When you are a maiden, you have a name of your own. It may have your paternal name with it, but it is a distinct name, and it is yours. People will call you by that name.

Babies do not automatically call their parents mother, father, mummy, daddy. You have to teach them. You may have to teach them by naming yourself as mummy in front of them. It is easier for the child to learn that you are mummy if they do not hear other adults calling you by your name. Your maiden name. And so you may start calling the father of your child ‘daddy’ and he may call you ‘mummy’ and to other adults in your life you may also be ‘mummy’ for the benefit of your child. I didn’t go this way, but I’ve seen it done.

Granny is not a life change that results from your own action in the way that becoming mummy does. Being granny may mean that the people who once called you mummy are now calling you granny so that their children learn to call you granny. Other adults in your life may choose to reinforce this. You may find yourself calling our own offspring mum and dad for the benefit of the grandchild.

Of course there’s a similar pattern for men. However, men have traditionally had roles and identities outside the household. People to call them by their names and treat them as distinct individuals. Inside the house, trapped in the domestic sphere, there is a lot less room to be anyone other than mother or grandmother. Not a specific, named identity. Not a distinct person. A title. A job description. A loss of personal identity into the ocean of mothers and grandmothers.

Names have power. I wonder how many of our female ancestors lost their sense of personal identity to the titles given them.


Shaman and mummers

Let me be clear up front – this is not a scholarly blog post, the evidence is curious but uncertain, and does not constitute any kind of reference, or proof in and of itself.

Mumming plays are a kind of traditional theatre. Some people consider them to be ancient Pagan survivals, others reckon them to be a more recent invention and until now, I feel wholeheartedly into the second category.

There is a scene that crops up in many plays I’ve seen, where a dodgy doctor and his assistant cure a dead man. It is normal in mumming plays for someone to be killed and brought back, this is often the basis of arguments for Pagan survival. The doctor affecting the cure seems to be a quack. He usually talks utter bollocks and his cures are unlikely. He may have a magic potion, he may require a virgin to kiss the afflicted person. I was once summoned from an audience to be the virgin, and my cries of ‘but I’m actually pregnant right now’ made no odds. Often, when the healing is working, the doctor pulls a bloody great tooth out of the patient and claims this was their problem. We all know he had the tooth all along, and we all saw the victim struck down by their opponent. Clearly the doctor is not to be trusted even if his cure does always work.

I’ve run into the idea that some shamans use sleight of hand to show clients a physical object that has been taken from their body during the spiritual healing process. It could be said that this is chicanery in the style of our mumming doctor. It can also be said that people find it easier to invest in the healing process when they can see something happening, and our minds are key healing tools. The placebo effect gets things done! We are more likely to heal if we believe in the healing.

So, could the doctor in the mumming play hold some memory of this process? Could there be a touch of ancient British shamanism in the mix after all? Or a satirising of a remembered practice that had lost favour? Which is still when you get down to it, a folk memory of something Pagan.

An unsubstantiated theory, but one I thought it worth sharing all the same.


Evolving traditions

If something is traditional, that shouldn’t mean it’s above questioning, even if you are someone who is passionate about upholding the traditions of your culture and protecting other people’s rights to their traditions.

Many cultures have a tradition of genital mutilation. Traditions of cruel punishments, unreasonable intolerance and sick leisure activities have existed all over the world through history. As someone with a deep attachment to British traditions, I am not obliged to take onboard the whole lot of them. For me, any ‘tradition’ that involves cruelty needs ditching. Baiting animals, cock fighting, bear dancing and fox hunting are all things that have been considered great traditions in this country. To try and hide that cruelty behind the excuse of tradition is intolerable to me.

Traditions can and do change. Mumming used to be more about collecting money for those in poverty during the winter – many customs have an aspect of ritualised begging to them – wasailing, pace egging, guy making to name but a few. Our trajectory away from abject poverty has reduced the impetus to go out undertaking these forms of ritualised begging. Instead, people now do them for fun. The traditions have changed.

The most ardent traditionalists from all cultures pick which traditions to ignore and which to uphold. Most usually people ignore the traditions they find inconvenient and uphold the ones they enjoy. Take for example the way in which the Christian far right in America is keen to uphold anything negative the Bible might suggest about LGBT people, but seems to have entirely failed to notice how opposed Christian traditions are to divorce and adultery.

The idea that ‘this is my culture and you have no right to tell me I can’t do my traditional but horrible thing’ has hard wired into it a complete disregard for how traditions actually work. Traditions change. They evolve to meet other changes in circumstances. If the wider culture changes, it is reasonable to assume the tradition will evolve to keep up. Cock fighting is no longer a sport. It’s been widely speculated that the great tradition of cheese rolling has its roots in some ancient practice involving burning wheels and human sacrifices. I have no idea if it did, but the principle that you can go from chasing a burning wheel with a human sacrifice in it down a steep slope, to chasing a cheese, is a good one. Willing victims offer sacrifices of broken bones.

If a tradition is no longer suitable, it can be changed, without destroying the culture it came from. I suggest that hanging onto an otherwise dead and unsuitable tradition, for the sake of tradition, is a sure fire way of actually killing tradition within your culture, what isn’t allowed to evolve, will die.


In our ancestry

I know that when my maternal grandmother was young, there was an odd double standard in that her brother always got cream cakes, while my grandmother was given buns. My great uncle was, undoubtedly, the favourite. It’s possible the double standard is older – go back to my great grandmother’s mother and we’re back somewhere in the 1800s, where double standards around gender were much more normal. My grandmother would buy posh biscuits for my brother, who could eat a whole packet in a session, but would tend to offer me something plainer, cheaper, more in line with the bun.

It’s easy to talk about the food choices, but they represent something deeper, something about the way women in my family teach their children to think about gender, perhaps. The women of my family tend to prioritise the menfolk, and I grew up understanding that masculine validation was essential.

We pass beliefs and ideas down family lines alongside the genes. We hand down stories about who we are, and what we can expect, and the same flawed myths can mess up generations. Little phrases can encapsulate a world view. “Neither use nor ornament.” “If you were a horse, we’d shoot you.” “Getting too big for your boots.”

Our family background, whatever it is, forms our first impression of what ‘normal’ looks like. It’s our reference point for making sense of the rest of reality. It often isn’t helpful.

If you’d like some tools for unpicking what’s in your ancestry, do have a look at my Druidry and the Ancestors, and Jez Hughes’s The Heart of Life, which explores shamanic healing for family legacies.


Ladies of the Lakes

The Lady of the Lake raising her arm from the water to offer Excalibur to Arthur is a powerful image, one of the defining images of Arthur’s myths, I think.

Working on the graphic novel adaptation of Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, I’ve been obliged to notice that it’s not just one lake lady. Also, as a personal note, in some versions, Nimue/Vivien is a lady of the lake.

The second, less famous lake lady rocks up to Arthur’s court bearing a sword only a good knight can pull from its scabbard. This is a bit of an evil joke, because the man who takes the sword is then fated to kill someone he loves with it. Swords from lakes may be magical, but they aren’t reliably benevolent.

Who are these ladies? Spirits of place? Half-forgotten deities? Literary plot devices? A bit of minds-eye candy?

As I’ve been colouring on the project, I’ve thought about them a lot. I’d like to offer my unsubstantiated personal uncertainty on the subject. (It’s not gnosis, I really don’t know…)

We know the Celts made offerings to water, including offerings of weaponry. There are sites, in lakes, where lots of booty was thrown in. I think this has to be connected. One possibility is that the ladies of the lakes are a vague folk memory of the lake beings to whom those offerings were made. Another option is that they’ve come into being to explain the underwater hoards. It makes sense if you find a treasure under a lake to imagine it belonged to someone, and from there it’s not very far to the strange women lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a system of government.


How the present changes the past

“History changes, I’m telling you. OK, the things that actually happened way-back-when don’t really change, but our interpretation of them sure does. It’s amazing how much our understanding of ancient Minoan culture has changed in the century or so since Sir Arthur Evans first uncovered the ruins of the temple complex at Knossos.” Laura Perry – it’s a great blog post and you can read the rest of it here. http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-paths-blogs/the-minoan-path/how-history-changes-the-minoans-and-their-neighbors.html

The relationship between the present and the past is something that fascinates me. How we tend to look at timeframes that seem to resonant with where we are now, and how we read the past to make sense of the present, and read the past through the distorting lenses of currently in-vogue glasses.

Take, for example, the way we’ve made sense of the graves of the ancient dead. Weapons = warriors = men. Beads and mirrors = women. Start from that perspective and it’s not possible to think you’ve dug up a warrior woman. So the past can have no warrior women in it, which in turn validates the idea that women are passive and domestic things, and men do all the important, active stuff. Only now we can do DNA analysis its getting obvious that buried items and the gender of the body do not always match up this way.

Rare, exotic and costly grave goods buried with the ancient dead are understood as status, symbols of power and importance. As such, they ‘prove’ the existence of a ruling elite, validating the idea of a ruling elite as a timeless truth about how human societies are. It’s possible that our ancient dead had completely different ideas about the meaning of items placed in graves. Does burial have to relate to personal ownership? No. Do rare items neatly equate to kingship? No.

It’s very easy to make the past say almost anything we want it to. It’s especially easy to think we’re seeing evidence for things we already believe are true. I’m not a believer in the idea of one true way and I think truth is often complex, shifting and multi-faceted. But here’s a bit of personal dogma for you – if you can’t imagine more than one interpretation for something, you’re probably wrong, because you’re probably too busy seeing what you think is true to have thought about what’s actually in front of you.

For more of this sort of thing, Druidry and the Ancestors… http://www.moon-books.net/books/Druidry-Ancestors


Ancestors in the land

The presence and nature of ancestors in the land are going to vary a lot depending on where you live. For people of European descent living in formerly colonial countries, ancestors of land raise issues of appropriation, and of awful histories. Having never worked with this, I can only flag up the issue, I can’t really answer it.  I think relating to those who went before us as part of the land may help to make honourable relationships that take nothing, but maybe give something back in terms of respect. It wouldn’t be about visiting their places, but about recognising their continued presence, and knowing the stories of their presence in the land, and knowing what happened to them. As someone who lives in the UK, I’m not well placed to discuss these matters. Working with ancestors of place is certainly easier if there’s been no conflict between them, and your ancestors of blood.

Rather than trying to imagine all possible ancestors for all people in all places, I’m going to talk about my own experiences and hope people can use that as an effective jumping off point.

 

Ancestors in the geology

I live on Jurassic limestone. The internet is your friend when it comes to finding out about the rock where you live. Different rocks come from different eras and have different qualities, so there’s a lot to engage with here. Some of the soil here is thick clay, some is a more sandy loam, and there are areas of good topsoil for growing produce. Where it’s thin, sandy soil over rock, there’s often a history of quarrying, and a current presence of grazing livestock.

The Jurassic limestone is full of fossils – generally small sea shells, and other relics of a long departed shore. I’ve picked up fossilised crab shells, sea urchins, and all kinds of things that were probably plants. That these ancient ancestors of place can appear, so perfect and undamaged by time, is a startling thing. I cannot make any sense of the vast swathes of time between their lives and mine, and yet I can hold them in my hands. A dinosaur skull was found locally, some time ago, and I remain in hope of finding one myself. But then, having grown up on this limestone, I’ve spent much of my life finding fossils and longing for dinosaurs.

 

Ancestors in the archaeology

Prehistoric human life is only available to us as archaeology. I’m lucky – there are four barrows within viable walking distance, and more I have yet to visit. There are three Iron Age forts I can walk to from my home. I’m a short distance from a churchyard that was discovered to have a Roman villa on it, and an incredible mosaic, which is dug up at intervals – I have yet to see it. There’s a site reputed to be a Roman camp site, and stories and histories go forwards from there, becoming more certain as we go. Not so many miles away is the city of Gloucester, known to have been inhabited since people returned to these shores after the last ice age. Ancient ancestors are all around me, and visible. Much of the UK is like this.

There’s a great deal I cannot know about them, but I can walk the paths they used – some of the paths around here are 4,000 years old. I can visit their graves, and I can look at this land and try to imagine their lives in it. Currently, the Severn River is cut off from the Cotswold hills by a motorway, crossable on foot at only a few points. For much of history, there was no barrier to walking between the river and the wooded hills. It’s easy to imagine a mobile population doing just that – shifting out in times of flood, going where the hunting would be good, and coming to the hilltops above the river to bury their most significant dead.

Of course my imaginative engagement with them does not give me certainties about who they were and how they lived. However, I’ve walked from the river to the hills, I have a physical knowing of this place that must, to at least some degree, be held in common.