Category Archives: History

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.

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…

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.


When Is a Reconstructionist Tradition not a Reconstructionist Tradition?

A guest blog by Laura Perry

When Nimue suggested the idea of a guest blog post, I asked her what aspects of modern Minoan Paganism might interest her fellow Druids. Her response was enlightening:

“Probably the main point of commonality with Druidry is that this is a tradition with scant but tantalising evidence, parts of which was recorded by its oppressors.”

I hadn’t really thought about Druidry in that light before, but of course it’s true. Caesar wasn’t exactly a warm supporter of the Druids, was he? And the Hellenic Greeks weren’t terribly fond of the Minoans either, except when they could scrape up a few bits of Minoan mythology to give their own culture the patina of age.

Let’s start with the basics. The ancient Minoans were a civilization that spread across the island of Crete, just south of Greece in the Mediterranean, beginning in the Neolithic era, about 6000-5000 BCE. The main run of Minoan society flourished during the Bronze Age from about 3500 to 1400 BCE, with the heyday (the big temple complexes, colorful art, and so on) from about 1900 to 1400 BCE. This puts the Minoans contemporaneous with the New Kingdom of Egypt and the Mesopotamian cultures of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon. The first stage of Stonehenge was built during the early phases of Minoan society and it was completed during the height of civilization on Crete. The Minoans were a wealthy mercantile society of accomplished seafarers, trading all across the Mediterranean and as far up the Atlantic coast as Cornwall, from where they brought back tin to make bronze blades.

One issue that confuses many people is the ethnicity of the ancient Minoans. In modern times, the island of Crete is part of the nation of Greece. However, the Minoans weren’t Greek. Their ancestors came from Anatolia in prehistoric times, a part of the westward wave of pre-Indo-European peoples that eventually spread across most of Europe. And while the people and culture are called Minoan after the mythical King Minos who purportedly ruled the island at one time, there is no such place as Minoa. The homeland of the Minoans is called Crete.

You’re probably familiar with the Minoans thanks to their art: the colorful frescoes of bull-leapers and priestesses, the figurines of the goddess with writhing snakes in her hands, the seal rings depicting complex ritual scenes. Much of Minoan art focuses on religious acts: sacred games, offerings, animal sacrifice, sacred dance. As with much of the ancient world, the Minoans felt no divide between everyday life and religion, the ordinary and the numinous.

So what was Minoan religion like and why would anyone be interested in reviving it, even in a modified form, in our times? The initial appeal for many people is the prominent place of the goddesses in the Minoan pantheon. Rhea, Ariadne, Diktynna, Eileithyia, and others may be familiar to most people from the Hellenic Greek pantheon, but they all were born, so to speak, among the Minoans. We can deduce a lot about Minoan religious practice from their artwork – the offerings, dances, sacrifices, and so on that I mentioned above. But we can only get just so far by looking at pictures.

The Minoans were a literate culture. In fact, they had two writing systems, a hieroglyphic system and a syllabary known as Linear A. The problem is, we can’t read either one. Now, the Mycenaean Greeks came into contact with Crete during the last few centuries of Minoan civilization. Either they or, more likely, some Minoan scribes altered Linear A to write Mycenaean Greek. The ensuing syllabary, known as Linear B, was translated in the 1950s and we can read it pretty well. That’s how we know so many of the Minoan deity and place names, what kinds of offerings the temples accepted, and the fact that women owned property. But we still can’t read the native Minoan language. And that’s a problem, because our main source of written information comes from the Mycenaeans, who weren’t exactly the Minoans’ best friends.

Though we can’t be sure of the Mycenaeans’ specific aims, it’s apparent that they did their best to take over Minoan society, first by infiltration and then by force. They may have wanted the island as a hub for naval activity or they may have coveted the Minoans’ wealth, gained from extensive trading activity. In the process, the Mycenaeans borrowed a great deal of Minoan religious practice, including large chunks of the Minoan pantheon. The Hellenic Greeks later incorporated the Minoan deities into their pantheon but altered the myths and even the characteristics of many of the deities to suit their own cultural values.

The main activity in Ariadne’s Tribe is figuring out how much of what we know about the Minoans (mostly through Greek mythology) was recorded accurately and how much was purposely changed. The Mycenaeans, like the later Hellenic Greeks, were a profoundly patriarchal society, in contrast to the egalitarian Minoans. So the Greeks ‘demoted’ many of the Minoan goddesses (Ariadne became a mere human, for instance) while they forced others, such as Rhea, to submit to husbands who ruled over them when these goddesses had been stand-alone, unmarried deities in Minoan religion. Then the Greeks invented Theseus, a culture hero, to show that they were superior to the backwards, human-sacrificing, Minotaur-worshiping Minoans.

So those of us who practice modern Minoan Paganism spend a lot of time teasing out the original myths from what amounts to a political smear campaign. There are some aspects of ancient Minoan religion we’re not likely to revive: huge mystery plays attended by hundreds or thousands; drug-induced shamanic journeys; animal sacrifice. But we use the same symbol set the ancient Minoans displayed in their temples, shrines, and homes: the labrys, the horns, seashells, the sacred serpent. We’ve taken a page from the modern Norse Pagans and are working with multiply-corroborated gnosis to fill in the blanks where necessary, along with a lot of ritual experimentation. And of course, we listen to the gods. They understand that life changes with the passage of time, and whatever we can do to help them remain relevant while respecting their underlying nature is a good thing.



Though I’m often wary of Wikipedia, the page about Minoan civilization contains generally undisputed information and is pretty comprehensive:


Max Dashu’s Suppressed Histories Archives has 5 pages of good examples of Minoan art, focusing on the religion of ancient Crete:


The writing systems mentioned above:

Cretan Hieroglyphs

Linear A

Linear B


Ariadne’s Tribe – Facebook discussion group for modern Minoan Paganism:


The Minoan Path blog, an exploration of modern Minoan paganism:

Forks in the road of history

With the benefit of hindsight, the road we took to get to this point can look straight and obvious, even if it didn’t seem that way at the time. The way in which choices, opportunities, apparently random connections and the like become the story of your life is something you can only see by looking backwards. It should be obvious that history – personal or on the grand scale – only makes sense in retrospect, but there are less obvious implications that are important.

When we look backwards, we see the path walked; the line from then until now. In hindsight, it looks like a line. All the things that didn’t contribute to it seem less important. The choices not made, the options discarded, and all the little things we did and said and had a go at that led to nothing of apparent import. When we look back to make history stories, all the asides tend to seem less relevant. What we’re looking for is that story of how we went from there to here.

There may be all kinds of consequences in terms of what we lose, but there’s a reliable one in terms of how we tell the story and how we understand it. With the path from then to now apparent to us, ‘now’ looks inevitable. It becomes harder to imagine we could have gone the other way. That we are here seems to validate all of the choices that brought us to here, or to prove that everything before was inevitable. Here we are, history has happened and because we are where we are, it is foolish to think any of it could have gone differently.

There are a lot of people in the past who still influence us, whose beliefs included the will of God and predestination. If you think everything must happen in line with God’s plan, then you look at the past and see the clear line of intent. I think that influence dominates how many of us tell stories – that we see the line of clarity. I also think that life lived, and the trajectory we follow is not inevitable. I think it’s important to look at options, for chances to rethink the whole direction and for different ways of understanding all the stories we carry.

In terms of history, I believe we have a major fork in the road before us. Are we going to become wholly corporate in a world ruled by big business? Huge international trade agreements that give companies the power to sue governments if their profits are harmed, seem to be taking us that way. The growth of giant companies, and the rising wealth and power of the 1% suggests an inevitable trajectory. But it’s not inevitable, and we can choose differently. Many of us are uniting through an array of campaigning groups around the world to fight for human rights, to resist ecocide, to challenge over climate change and to resist the direction our collective path seems to be taking us in. We could win this.

If we let go of the idea that history went the only way it could have done, we can think a lot more flexibly about the present. If we let go of progress narratives, and watch out for ideas of predestination, then we don’t have to go with the apparent flow, we don’t have to be washed away by someone else’s story. By changing how we see the stories of the past, we can imagine the future differently.

I’ve read a fair bit of radical history. I’ve read about resistance, and apparently futile fights, and things we didn’t win, and I see in there not the failures of the losing side, and not the people stood on the wrong side of history, but an ongoing thread of not accepting that we have to go where we are told to. There are options. A neo-feudal world of warring corporate entities is not necessarily our future.

Authors who walk

In recent months I’ve read a number of writers who are (or perhaps more accurately ‘were’ as four of them are dead!) walkers. Thoreau, John Clare, Nan Shepherd, Anthony Nanson, Robert McFarlane, John Powys. I’m looking for more, especially women writing about walking, so do please make suggestions if you have any.

Go back as little as fifty years and walking for transport was a good deal more normal. Read some of the older writers on walking and it’s obvious that while people walked when they had to, most would do no more than was necessary. These different walking authors have, in different times and places, walked because they had to for reasons of a different kind of necessity; because they felt a need to move in open spaces. Around them, neighbours were bemused by what they did, by this need to stretch legs beneath the sky.

I am inclined to suspect that in settled human history, walking because you must has been the norm, while a calling to walk is something rare. As someone inclined to saunter, I find it hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t choose to do that, but reading these authors it’s clear that the people around them do not share their passion. They are oddities. For a long time I’d harboured the idea that we were perhaps a few hundred years away from a time when people were joyfully out in the natural world, but my romantic fantasy is not supported by the available evidence. Walking as a hobby for the rich only came in the wake of the romantic poets and the idea of picturesque landscape, but I’d thought the poor walked.

My family in various branches, has produced walkers. Not just my parents and sibling, but my grandmother and great grandmother on my maternal side, while on my mother’s father’s side, the tradition of the Sunday walk was an important one. I don’t know much about my father’s people in that regard.

The rhythm of walking has an effect on the rhythm of thinking and the flow of thoughts. I don’t think it’s any accident that authors are drawn to walking (the list of walker authors I can think of is longer than the above, and has a lot of poets in it) and I know that walking creates an urge to crafting language, at least in me.

Progress and Decay, Ravens and Druids

The Throng, by Tom Brown, for The Raven’s Child.

We tell all kinds of stories about the shape of human history, but without a doubt its the progress and decay narratives that dominate. Back when I was working on Druidry and the Ancestors, I included a chapter about these kinds of stories, but at that point I was still seeing the progress and decay narratives as two distinct things. (The chapter still stands, this is a development, not a rethink)

My current working theory is that they are inter-related; aspects of the same underlying experiences. The more complex our civilization (progress) the more remote we feel from nature (decay) the more liberal we are (progress) the more decadent we are (decay) etc. Which story you see depends entirely on whether you see things as getting better or worse as a consequence. For many, technology is all about progress, for others, it’s the decay of the environment.

It’s an incredibly binary way of thinking, that doesn’t reveal itself as such if you’ve signed up for one side or the other.

Tom Sneignoski’s story of The Raven’s Child is an interesting depiction of the decay/progress dynamic. The monstrous Throng are a culture of great power, able to conquer new worlds and dazzle victims with biological and technological advances. Even within that culture there are voices of resentment, who see The Throng as having fallen into decadence and lost their direction. Those who believe in the decay narrative will work from within to change or even destroy what they have a problem with. Sometimes that can be right – I think it is around the Green movement. Sometimes it has you beheading academics who know that your God wasn’t the first one on the scene.

The Raven’s Child isn’t just about monstery progress and decay issues. The humans in the story are living in the ruins of their former civilization. They are degraded. They are what we fear happens when we fall from grace, fall from progress. To overcome their situation, they need a new kind of progress, on new terms. Because we see both sides of the progress and decay narrative in this story, we also get to see its limitations, and its binary nature. Both are going on at once, in a vast web of things that improve and things that get worse, with what goes where depending on how you view it.

When we obsess about making things better, we can start to get ideas that some things are expendable in the name of progress. Some lives, some landscapes, some species can be sacrificed for the great push forward, and this willingness to pay unreasonable prices for the idea of progress is, I think, what creates the decay scenarios as a side effect. It’s not progress that’s the problem, it’s progress at any cost. It’s progress that pays no heed to who it crushes or what it destroys. This set up in turn creates the impression that only the brutal destruction of the progress-civilization (as with the humans in Raven’s Child) can set things right again. Of course it doesn’t, it just kickstarts new cycles.

Better considerations of the real costs of our often imaginary progress, might be the better outcome.