Category Archives: History

Superstition, colonialism and prehistory

My experience as a white person living in Europe, is of prehistoric peoples being depicted as ignorant and superstitious. It’s there in pop culture, and it intersects with a similar treatment of the global majority. It’s a kind of infantilising, treating adult people from other cultures as though they have the same relationship with reality as a typical white toddler.

One of the things this misrepresentation does, is to enforce the idea that white colonial cultures are superior. I think it actually starts from the assumption of that superiority and then interprets what everyone else is doing in light of the idea that those cultures are inferior. There’s nothing evidence-based here. I’m going to talk about prehistory because it’s less loaded and, being pallid myself, I feel it’s more appropriate for me to speak about. I do think that how we imagine prehistory is profoundly related to modern colonialism and racism.

Pop culture representations of prehistoric people tend to focus on their being ignorant and superstitious. An obvious example is the way people in Clan of the Cave Bear don’t know where babies come from. There’s a tendency to imagine ancient people attributing everything around them to gods and spirits while having no idea of how anything works.

Interestingly we don’t make the same assumptions about animals, historical or contemporary. Whether their behaviour is attributed to instinct, experience, training or conditioning, we treat animal behaviour in the wild as being fairly logical and as making sense as a response to the environment. But overall we like to imagine our wild human ancestors as not being rational in the way that all other mammals are. We portray them as children, for the greater part. It also does a disservice to our own children, who, given half a chance will do their best to figure out how the world around them works and how best to interact with it. Children tend to be quiet scientific in their figuring out and will engage rationally with their experiences unless adults actively teach them not to.

To survive in the wilds as a human, you need a lot of skills. You need to be able to source things, make things, gather things and maybe hunt for food as well. You have to understand the weather, the seasons, the resources and threats around you. This calls for people who are highly skilled and knowledgeable and who interact with what’s around them in informed and logical ways.

The irrationality and childishness are in fact projections from the minds of contemporary adults. We believe some pretty irrational things these days – not just the gods we’ve invented, but market forces, countries, trickle down economics, the divine right of kings, capitalism… none of these things make a lot of sense when you consider the evidence for how they function. We accept childish tyrants who do little of value but who have inherited wealth and power and a belief they should lead us. We’re not a culture that invests much in evidence or reason most of the time.

Our ancestors must have known how to communicate and cooperate with each other far more effectively than we do. Useful skills would have been essential. Knowing how to suck up to power isn’t worth much when you live marginally. I think a lot of the time what we project onto prehistory says a lot more about us as people than it does about the past. 


Stories about who we are

Making history isn’t an objective process. The choices we make – collectively – about the stories we focus on and how we tell them has everything to do with the present. While studying history can tell us a fair amount about the past, it has the power to reveal a great deal about the present.

Whose stories do we treat as important? Who is missing from the stories we favour? What current political thinking is reinforced by the stories we choose to tell about the past? This can be hard to spot because the stories that don’t challenge us feel affirming and don’t encourage us to question them.

Humans use stories about history to affirm the current state of the world. We like progress narratives that show us as being the best thing so far. We like to give the impression that the way we do things is the best or the only way of doing things.

At the same time we don’t like stories that make us feel uncomfortable. Nations whose wealth is built on slavery, violence and colonialism don’t like stories that cast their shameful history in a different light. The UK is terrible for this, so terrible that we’ve given more legal protection to statues of abusive men than we give to living victims of abuse. There are far too many people in the UK desperate to hang on to the implausible idea that we were a good thing for the many countries we exploited.

I grew up with history meaning stories of white men using their power over others. There are other stories to tell and we need those stories.

When someone tells you a story about the past, it’s always worth asking what purpose that story plays in the present. What agenda does it serve? What does it normalize? If you hear a story about the past and it makes you feel comfortable, consider the idea that this may be because you’re on the winning side that usually gets to write the past down on its own terms. If a story about things historical makes you angry or uncomfortable, or even makes you feel threatened, this is a really good thing to spend time with. What have you invested in that makes this story uncomfortable to you? It’s one thing if history makes you angry because you can’t bear the injustice you encounter, but quite another to be angry because it challenges your sense of self.

We all make stories about who we are and where we come from. For some people, the investment in the past, in ideas of nationhood and shared identity can be entirely good stuff. It’s good to feel rooted and to have a sense of place and belonging. Respect for our ancestors and love of the land are all good things. However, when a person’s story about who they are can only exist by denying other people’s stories and seeking to silence parts of history, there’s a lot of issue there. A sense of self that depends on silencing, whitewashing, minimising or denying is a fragile thing and the cost of keeping it viable can be high, and nasty.


What is a complex society?

I’m currently reading Ancient Jomon of Japan by Junko Habu, and it has brought to my attention a massive issue about how we think about societies. When it comes to prehistory, people are often interested in the markers for things like civilization, and complex society. What are the key indicators of these things? 

There’s a school of thought that says you’ve got a complex society if it’s doing more complex things – material culture, food storage and more involved subsistence strategies would be obvious examples of a more complex society, and all of those things could be true of hunter-gatherers.

However, it turns out there is also a school of thought that defines complex societies in terms of hierarchy and inequality. This might be a bit out of date, the book I’m reading comes from the 1990s, but even if this isn’t a contemporary issue, the impact of it stands some thinking about. What happens to our sense of both the past and the present if we define complexity in terms of inequality? It is so limiting and distorting to see things like hereditary privilege and the exploitation of labour as defining signs of social complexity.

Given that we tend to value ideas of complexity, associating them with development, sophistication and civilization, defining more egalitarian societies as less complex has a lot of implications. It means we are bound to miss things about historical societies that don’t seem to fit this model. It is also bound to inform how we think about ourselves now.

Societies that depend on cooperation rather than dictatorship must, surely, be more complex and nuanced? It takes a lot more communication and effort to work as a team than it does to have someone in charge telling you what to do. I feel that recognising our fundamental equality as living beings is a good deal more sophisticated than deciding some people are born special and therefore should be in charge. I find the idea of inherited power barbarous and loaded with superstition. 

As a Druid I am drawn to looking at how we imagine ourselves and how the stories we tell about humanity shape what we do. I think we need better stories.


Time and the living landscape

It always perplexes me when I see Pagans expressing the idea that we should aspire to live in the moment with no reference to the past or the future. Or even when it’s offered as a temporary goal for meditation. To be Pagan is to connect with nature, and when you do that, every moment – surely? – is held in the context of the wheel of the year. It makes even less sense when considered in terms of the landscape.

History is always present in a landscape, whether it is immediately visible or not. The underlying geology is part of the history of the planet itself. The soil is made up from the remains of those who have lived here before, layered beneath your feet, often holding bones, objects and memories amongst the broken down organic matter.

If you honour the ancestors, it makes no sense to focus only on the present. It does however make a great deal of sense to be alert to the ways in which the ancestors of a place are always with us in that place. Their actions, their living and dying are part of what makes a place how it now is. We might not see every influence, but it’s good to look for them and to honour the way in which their lives shape the present moment.

What we do in the present moment has consequences for the future. Being too focused on the present can allow us to ignore the future – and given how destructive our species is, this is irresponsible at best. What we do to our landscape today informs what will survive there in years to come. We have a responsibility to consider the future whenever we interact with the land.

Landscape isn’t just pretty bits of nature, either. You live and work in a landscape, even if there is a lot of tarmac involved. Perceiving the landscape in our urban environments often requires bringing a sense of history with us.

It is always good to be present to what is around us. It’s also important to remember that a landscape is not something that exists only in the present moment. The existence of a landscape is due to its history, to layers of rock and soil built up over time, to human actions, and non-human actions. The landscape holds the past, making it present to us. The land is time made solid. If we ignore that aspect of the land itself in the desire to be ‘purely in the moment’ we miss important aspects of existence.


Wessex Mysteries

I’ve been blogging for a few weeks now about crime, murder mysteries and working with David Bridger and I’m going to keep that coming because there’s plenty to think about around the project. This week we made a commitment to a trilogy, and that these will be The Wessex Mysteries.

Wessex is a wonderfully evocative name, I think. It conjures up two wildly different things. The first is Thomas Hardy, who had a fictional version of the south west that featured in his novels. I’m not a huge Hardy fan (I’ve read three now) but I am really interested in the idea of how stories relate to landscapes, and his Wessex has been highly influential for a lot of people.

Go back a bit further and Wessex is an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and has strong associations with King Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of those historical figures who stands on the edges of history and myth – he’s the one with the burnt cake story. 

The Wessex area also has a lot of prehistory in it, and I’m looking forward to giving that more thought and attention as we go along. The presence of history in the landscape is definitely going to be a theme for these books.


Making people invisible

The history we are taught, and the history we see in pop culture representations has tended to be the history of straight cis white men. It’s not accurate. Everyone else has always existed and done stuff. However, this selective storytelling has consequences. 

A lot of people – white English speaking people especially – never get further than what little history they are obliged to encounter at school plus the problematic film and cultural content that works much the same way. This means that many people struggle with the idea that anything could have happened in the past that wasn’t centred on straight cis white men. Show them any content that even acknowledges other people exist and they can be surprisingly upset.

This means that accurate content showing queer people, People of Colour, and even active women can be dismissed as ‘woke’ and inaccurate. Some people seem to be stuck in the film worlds from the first half of the twentieth century, which is grim. They are unable to imagine or accept the existence and agency of people who are not straight cis white men. You find them on social media, criticising accurate historical content and arguing with evidence because it doesn’t fit their fantasy. They also can’t handle having this kind of thing in fantasy stories, firm in the belief that even fantasy Europe can only be straight white men.

The other consequence of this is the belief that diversity is a modern invention and that diverse people aren’t really real, or don’t matter. Again, you’ll find them on social media denying the historic existence of neurodiverse people, denying the existence of trans and non-binary folk in history, denying historical female agency, and making that a basis for saying this ‘new stuff’ is pretend and does not merit taking seriously.

History is not a neutral subject. The way it is taught and represented isn’t neutral and has ongoing consequences. Many things that are intrinsically human have been left out of how we tell our history stories and that distorts cultures and societies.


The fall of Colston

All four defendants on trial for taking down the statue of Colston in Bristol have been acquitted. Not because they didn’t do it, but because taking down that statue was the right thing to do. Of course there’s a howling backlash from people who think this means anarchy, or the end of history. I have thoughts.

The Colston statue wasn’t an historic artifact from the time Colston was alive. It was put up far later. It didn’t record history, it hid the colonial, slaving violence that was part of Colston’s actual story. He was not a nice man, putting up a statue to commemorate him distorts the real story. History itself is not harmed by taking him down. Further, at this point he’s on his side in a museum with information about both him and his statue, so overall this has led to more history, not less of it.

I’m not a Bristol person, but I live close enough to have been to The Colston Hall as a child. I had no idea what the name meant. Thanks to the toppling of the statue, I now know a lot more about Bristol and Colston history than I did.

History is written by the victors. It’s a story about the past, the selected highlights that someone wants to focus on. It may be a story that tells us who we are or that encourages us to believe certain things about ourselves. Celebrating Colston is the story that goes with colonialism and making heroes out of people who are rich because they do such a fine and sustained job of exploiting others. Toppling Colston gives us a new story, and right now it’s a story about exposing the grim truth, community solidarity and being better people moving forward.

Right now, the victors who get to write the story are people who don’t want to whitewash the history of slavery, or excuse the ‘great white men’ that we’ve previously celebrated. This works for me. I don’t want to be part of a culture whose touchstone for celebrating people is that they be white rich men. I think we need to talk a lot more about how certain people, and certain families manage to accumulate so much wealth. It isn’t their own hard work, that’s for sure. Contemporary wealth is often built on the backs of historical slaves, on the backs of colonised people past and present, on the backs of exploited workers, and with the materials taken from the earth with no care for the lives, landscape and ecosystems destroyed in the pursuit of profit.


Druidry and Prehistory

Having been poking about learning what I can about prehistory, I think this is a really good topic to put on your ‘Druid syllabus’. Not just for what we can learn directly about our ancestors.

There is more of human history in prehistory. Modern humans are perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 years old. These were not the first humans. We only have a few thousand years with written records. This distorts our sense of time, I think. 

Looking at prehistory has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. What is culture? What is civilization? What is art? What physical evidence do we take as signs of different kinds of activity? Just asking these questions tells us a lot about ourselves, and about humanity.

One find can change the entire story. This is inherently exciting. It teaches us not to be dogmatic, to remain open and flexible and ready to change our minds in face of new information. These are good life skills to have.

Modern culture is materialistic and has a high impact. Seeing how little remains from early humans makes for a powerful contrast. Can we imagine complex societies that aren’t so materially oriented? We’ve tended to assume ancient humans were inferior because of their technology, what if we instead learned to see their strengths and capabilities?  Colonialist thinking likens non-material modern societies to ‘primitive’ ancient humans, but we are wrong about that in so many ways. Studying the past can help us learn about this without having to interfere in the lives of living people.

When we imagine the Stone Age as being a bunch of people barely wrapped in animals skins, mostly saying ‘ugg’ and full of superstition and irrational beliefs about how the world works, we do our ancestors a great disservice. Modern humans of the Stone Age had the same brain capacity we do. The evidence is that our ancestors were all far more complex, sophisticated and capable than we’ve habitually depicted them. We might have a better, healthier perspective on our own state if we did not imagine ourselves to be superior. 

Contemporary humans are not the pinnacle of achievement in a progress narrative. We’re the irrational ones. We are the ones whose behaviour is driven by ignorance and irrational belief.


Material Culture

I read an interesting piece recently about the way in which we name historical eras after metals (Sorry, I have no idea where it was!). This naming shapes how we think about the past and gives the casual reader a feeling that the metals are the most important bits. Metal tends to mean weapons and hunting gear, and archaeologists in the past were often more interested in those ‘manly’ things than in evidence of gathering or other domestic activities. There’s been recognition of this, and progress, but it’s there in a lot of earlier work.

What if metal isn’t key to pre-history? It’s interesting to consider what early technologies might have resulted in significant cultural shifts. I’ve written before about the necessity of the baby sling in human development, but what else would be key?

Ceramics – for cooking, and for storage. 

The spoon – making it easier to eat cooked plant matter from your ceramic pot. Also making it possible to feed invalids and young children.

String. My son pointed out that without string, you can’t have bows or spears and are limited to opportunism, scavenging, or having to get up close and personal with anything you want to kill and eat. 

The sewing needle – enabling the making of clothes, bags, baby slings, making it easier to make shelters out of hides. Makes shoes possible.

Weaving – baskets and textiles. Increased warmth, storage, improved gathering options, means to pen livestock and make fish traps, and cradles. 

Art – the pre-history of art is really interesting. Apparently the first stage was collecting things that seemed interesting. Then we got into modifying what was around. Then we took up making art from scratch. It’s reasonable to assume there must have been a lot of less durable art, and that it wasn’t all cave paintings.

There’s probably lots of others. Not all of them could easily be dug up, but signs of less durable materials can be found. Part of the prominence of metals is how well it survives in the ground, but that’s certainly not the only factor, and less emphasis on what is assumed to be male would be helpful. It’s the focus on stone in the Stone Age that has us imagining people draped in skins and living in caves. Ceramics are Stone Age. So are string, and baskets.


Celtic Shamanism

The internet offers a vast array of content on the subject of Celtic Shamanism – books, courses, names, symbols, meanings… Which is problematic in all kinds of ways.

There were no historical people who self identified as The Celts. It’s a term applied from outside to describe an array of tribes living in Europe in the Iron Age. The Romans drew a rather arbitrary line between Celtic peoples and Germanic peoples that may have coloured our interpretations ever since. Iron Age Europeans were no doubt a diverse lot, and imagining the existence of a single, coherent Celtic culture is probably unhelpful.

Problem number two is that much of what we know about Celtic culture comes from stories recorded in the mediaeval era by Christians. This clearly isn’t going to be a precise rendering of a Pagan belief system. A brief flirtation with Irish, Welsh and Scottish tales will also give you a pretty clear sense that these are not the same people, even if some figures appear to crop up more than once.

Shamanism is a problematic word. It most probably derived from the Tungus word ‘šaman’ the internet reckons. Its use to describe the religions of contemporary indigenous people around the world is widely considered problematic. Applying it to the Celts also causes problems. It starts from the assumption that what the Celts did was shamanic and that therefore it can be reconstructed by drawing on practices from existing indigenous people. 

We know that the Celts had a lot of gods, and put up statues to them. There are ways of reading the stories that suggest ties with shamanic practices – but perhaps only if you start out looking for that and ignore the material that doesn’t fit. My personal feeling is that the desire to believe in Celtic shamanism comes primarily from a desire to believe that Europe had shamanistic practices comparable to other parts of the world. This, all too often, works as a justification for a bit of cultural appropriation. Druid sweat lodges. Druid animal guides. Druids burning white sage, and smudging their sacred spaces. And so on, and so forth. 

These are all terms deriving from other cultures that I’ve seen Druids using. We aren’t entitled to these words, no matter how much we want them. We aren’t entitled to these practices, no matter how much we want our Celtic ancestors to be like some specific group of contemporary people. We aren’t entitled to steal other people’s words and practices to fill in the gaps in our own history and knowledge. It’s appropriation, and there’s a lot of it out there.

The urge to find a way to be an indigenous person in Europe, is a good one, I think. But we can’t do it by stealing things from other cultures and trying to pretend it was ours all along.