Category Archives: History

The boar-hunt – excerpt from The Grail

This is an excerpt from Simon Stirling’s The Grail, which I reviewed here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/04/29/the-grail-relic-of-an-ancient-religion-a-review/

The Annals of Tigernach list four battles for the year 594:

 

The battle of Ratha in Druadh & the battle of Áird Sendoim.  The slaying of the sons of Áedán i.e. Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artúr, in the battle of Circhenn, in which Áedán was the victor, & the battle of Corann.

 

The first two battles were closely linked, the battle of Áird Sendoim (‘The Headland’, near Peterhead, ‘on the coast of Mordei’) being immediately followed by Arthur’s ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ of Morgan’s Tillymorgan hill-fort.  The Annals of Ulster described this as the ‘battle of Ràth in druaid’ (Early Irish ràth, a ‘residence surrounded by an earthen rampart’).  It took place in the ‘Sorcerer’s land’ (Early Irish drui – a ‘Druid’; genitive druad).  Morgan was considered ‘skilful’ (medrod) by the Britons, which would imply some level of Druidic knowhow – including, no doubt, the art of raising a ‘ghost fence’, such as that which Geraint fatally crossed above the sands of Cruden Bay.

The Arthurian legend of Culhwch and Olwen recalls that ‘when Arthur had landed in the country’ in pursuit of the fearsome king-turned-boar, Twrch Trwyth, ‘there came unto him the saints of Ireland and besought his protection.’  There were Irish monks at Old Deer, just west of Peterhead.  Arthur then went ‘as far as Esgeir Oerfel’ – the ‘Cold Ridge’ of the Grampians – ‘where the Boar Trwyth was with his seven young pigs.’

There followed three days of fighting, after which Arthur sent in his interpreter to parley.  Morgan’s spokesman vowed that he would yield nothing to Arthur: ‘“And tomorrow morning we will rise up hence, and we will go into Arthur’s country, and there we will do all the mischief that we can.”’

Morgan escaped with Gwenhwyfar, quite possibly in the Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy (Car Morgan Mwynfawr), which became one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain: ‘if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’  Arthur, meanwhile, sought to block the arrival of any hostile reinforcements from his half-brother’s Highland kingdom.

The evidence for this move on Arthur’s part is the presence of an Arthur’s Seat (Suiarthour in 1638; now it is just Suie) at the head of Glen Livet.  This was the channel, on the eastern edge of the Highlands, through which Gartnait’s warriors might have hastened to Morgan’s defence.

What happened next was hinted at by Myrddin:

 

I predict a summer of fury,

Contention of brothers,

Treachery out of Gwynedd:

The lofty exile and the good-pledge [i.e. ‘hostage’],

The tall one [Gwenhwyfar] from the land of Gwynedd.

Seven hundred-ships from Saxon-land,

Blown north by the wind;

And in Aberdeen they confer.

 

Morgan’s ‘Saxon’ allies – the Angles of Northumbria – sent seven ships, each carrying 100 men, to supplement his Miathi spears (Geoffrey of Monmouth later bumped this up to ‘eight hundred ships’).  Arthur almost certainly spied these reinforcements from the hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (an Arthur’s Cairn – Arthouriscairne – was recorded there in 1595), having paused at Percylieu (perc-y-llew, the ‘Lion’s Perch’; rendered as ‘Preseleu’ in the Culhwch and Olwen legend) en route to the coast.

The Gododdin were with Arthur, meaning that Lothian was barely defended.  Morgan and his supporters saw their opportunity to race south and seize Manau (Stirling) and the Edinburgh capital of Lothian.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen recounts the bloody pursuit of the Boar-King from the ‘Cold Ridge’ towards the ‘Vale of Manau’ (Dyffryn Amanw).  Morgan’s spokesman had sworn that they would ‘go into Arthur’s country’ and there do ‘all the mischief that we can.’  And so Morgan, with his Saxons and his Picts, made for the crucial bulwark of Manau Gododdin.

Arthur and his battered war-band followed them into Angus.

 

Find out more about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail

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Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?


Alternative history

What happens when an author deliberately re-writes history to offer us an alternative? It’s pretty much a given in steampunk writing, it can be highly entertaining but it’s also problematic. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

I think the first key question is to ask what the re-imagined history does with actual history. One of the things speculative fiction does well is to create coherent and fast moving realities in which you can look at real issues. If the alternative bits serve to drive a story so that you can explore real historical issues, clearly this is going to work out well. I recently reviewed Stephen Palmer’s Factory Girl trilogy which is a case in point, using automatons as a quick way in to talking about the rights issues of the industrial revolution and Victorian era.

Alternative history is problematic when it simply takes out all the awkward bits and creates an impression that they never happened. History without the racism and sexism, without the grinding poverty, the colonialism, the exploitation, can serve to prop up the illusions of people with privilege who don’t want to deal with how things really were. Entertaining though Gail Carriger is, I think she’s an author who is a case in point here.

Alternative history can go further than this in the harm it does, by deliberately minimising real issues. My go-to title for this is an alternate Second World War story were aliens turn up so the humans have to work together. I think it’s a vile premise, encouraging the reader to treat the whole Nazi project as no big deal. I cannot remember the name of the series, or the author.

What occurred to me as I was thinking about this is that all historical fiction is alternative history. Even when the characters existed, the author puts words in their mouths and comes up with motives and explanations that are entirely speculative. We see the past through the filter of the present, we take our beliefs and preferences with us, and we imagine historical figures on our terms. We focus on the kinds of characters we find appealing and ignore those we don’t care for. Every story about the past is a re-writing, and is no less vulnerable to the problems I’ve mentioned above than openly speculative work is.

Our willingness to tell stories – especially romances- about the upper classes, with scant regard for where their money comes from and what enables their lavish lifestyles, is perhaps one of the most pernicious problems in the fictionalising of history. We romanticise wealth and power, and all too seldom do we look at the exploitation underpinning it.

Speculative fiction can encourage us to focus on what’s been added to history, but often the most important question to ask of any historically set book is – what, and who, has been left out?


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


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.