Tag Archives: Mythology

Myths and Colonisation of the Pacific.

This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by people.  The how, when and why has occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades.  For the European scientist these questions need to be answered with solid evidence backing them.  For the indigenous populations tradition told them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was needed by the way of explanation. 

Map of Oceania

New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific.  These first peoples were at the end of a long line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire to travel across vast tracts of ocean.  The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  The first area to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia.  Dates for the first colonisation range between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East Asia.  Micronesia is situated north of the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.  Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated to around 3500 years ago.  The third group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific.  Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit and are referred to as Polynesia.

The ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia, passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for long.  Fiji is an interesting case, as in many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia.  When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for millennia.  Yet today the visitor to Fiji will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian.  Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji.  These early explorers are known as Lapita people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.

The distinctive pottery of the Lapita Culture – this is a plaster reproduction photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements.  None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.) 

These people were exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga.  The archaeology tells us these were small groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent villages on each major island group and then they moved on.  At this time the distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to move into the eastern part of the region.  By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).

Kumara (or sweet potato) a staple food source.

All well and good you might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region?  To study the past of this region it is important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater depth of understanding.  In Polynesia there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.

In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland.  In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki.  Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death.  The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods.  Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.

In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons.  Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success.  It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki).  It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.

“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri.  In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these.  The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)

The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America.  More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand.  Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.

In other parts of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be linguistically traced into Micronesia.  It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in tradition with many supernatural goings on.  Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.

As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story.  Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia.  In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens.  In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass.  Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time.   In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.

Fish hooks represented more than just a means of procuring fish, they also had a symbolic meaning and it is possible that some of the larger more ornate types were representative of the ancestral stories.

Maui is one of the most well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he is often known as a trickster, part god and part human.  He was of a time when the world was still new and there much to do to make it bearable for people.  Maui is said to be responsible for raising the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the winds and arranging the stars.  On the island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple.  On his second cast he brought up the island of Fais.  The similarities here with Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of past movements of people.

Other characters common to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior. 

“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition.  For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes.  As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).

Of course none of this addresses the question of why.  Why did the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean, particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and Hawaii?  What motivated them?  The myths do in some way suggest possible reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they grew into adulthood.  Stories of great adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity.  Prestige and mana could be gained by person willing to find new lands.  In the places they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a small population behind.  In the traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and people fleeing retribution.  These too could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration. 

Ocean going craft as suggested in “The History of Mankind” (1896)

On their own the mythologies of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to answer those questions of how, when and why.

Sources

Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ratzel F & Butler A J (1869) History of Mankind

Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology

Orbell M (1996) Maori Myth and Legend

Some Photos from Roman Baths in Bath (and why it inspired me to write “A Roman Moon”)

Holidaying in the UK in winter can be rather satisfying.  Mainly because you don’t have to contend with the vast crowds which are usual in the warmer months at popular spots.  One such place was the Roman bath complex in Bath, here we were able to meander around the buildings and displays without being jostled by eager tourists trying to capture the perfect selfie.  This physical space allowed the imagination a chance to wander the halls of time.  A multitude of questions and possible scenarios playing out in my minds eye and so ‘A Roman Moon’ was born.

 

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The imposing stucture of Bath Abbey looms over the now open Great Bath – originally the Great Bath would have been roofed, most likely with an arched roof.

 

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Looking down on the Great Bath.

Bath complexes in the Roman period were not simply places to wash and clean the body but also places to meet, socialise, to be seen and make those all important contacts.  At the Roman town of Aquae Sulis (Bath) the baths rose to prominence from the late first century AD as a result of the natural hot springs which were a feature of the landscape and worshipped for many generations prior to the arrival of the Romans.

As with so many aspects of the Iron Age/Celtic landscape of the time, the natural springs here had its own diety who was recorded by the Romans with the name of Sulis.  The Romans were very good at adopting and blending local cultures with their own as part of their overall colonisation package. For the Romans the local goddess Sulis had much in common with one of their own – Minerva.  Thus the hot springs became dedicated to the amalgamated goddess of Sulis Minerva.

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The very roman looking head of a statue believed to be Sulis Minerva herself – most likely stood within the sacred space of the actual temple.

The success of Aquae Sulis (even the towns name pays homage to the goddess – ‘the waters of Sulis’) is down to it also being a place of pilgrimage.  People from all around would come to the town to make offerings or petitions to the goddess.  One such method to ensure the goddess knew what was required was to write a message on a sheet of lead.  For this purpose a trained scribe would be employed.  Once  the wording was just so the lead sheet was folded or rolled and then thrown into the sacred spring – a number of these have been recovered from the spring, mostly they were curses for relatively small wrong doings.

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A few examples of the inscribed lead sheets.

As well as the lead sheets, other gifts were found during excavations.  Thousands of coins (and even today people throw coins into the spring), jewellery, pewter dishes and cups usually inscribed with a dedication to Sulis Minerva.  The cups may have been used to drink the waters (as we continue to do so today) or as libation vessels.  The belief in the healing powers of the spring waters was an important part of the towns fame.

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Some of the jewellery finds from the spring.  It is interesting to note the continuity of ritual in this act of depositing important items into a watery context.  For more on this read here.

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And a few of the more everyday items found during excavations – people lived and worked here too.

Besides Sulis Minerva there were within the temple complex depictions of other deities.

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A relief carving of the goddess Luna – the disc of the moon can be seen behind her head and she holds a whip for driving her chariot across the sky.  This carving would have decorated one of the buildings in the temple precinct. 

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This massive pediment would have originally adorned the entrance to the temple of Sulis Minerva.  Although interpreted as a gorgon others have suggested it may in fact be Oceanus or even the sun god Sol (or Bel, ‘the shining one’ if you are looking for Celtic diety which is also the nickname of our heroines bodyguard and friend…). 

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This unassuming relief carving is believed to depict the triple goddess, a distinctly Celtic personification.  As to who and what this may be is a complicated discussion but foremost is the ability of the goddess to have many faces – to be one and the same.  Often the triple goddess in modern pagan/wiccan practice refers to the maiden, the mother and the crone however there is no way of telling if this was the case in the past.   An interesting take on this can be read here.

The rituals in Roman religion took place mostly outdoors, the temples buildings were often small affairs where only the priests or priestesses would be allowed to enter.  Public ceremonies would have been conducted outside in the surrounding precinct.  Within the precinct there would have been altars dedicated to the diety set up by individuals in anticpation of a divine favour or to give thanks, these would have been decorated in offerings of all kinds or with bowls of incense.

“The temple, in its original late first century form, was a purely classical building set on a high podium reached by a steep flight of steps.  Its porch was dominated by four massive Corinthian columns supporting an ornate pediment.  Behind lay a simple room, the cella, where only priests could enter to tend the flames kept burning around the life-sized cult statue of Sulis Minerva” (from ‘The Essential Roman Baths” – a guidebook).

The above is a selection of the numerous altar stones and memorials found in the Roman layers during excavations.

 

The complex at Aquae Sulis was quite extensive – with facilities for men and women to bath seperately which was rare and spoke volumes about the wealth of the town.  At the heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a rectangular swimming bath surrounded by a walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax in.  The bath itself was and still is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead.

 

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A model of the bath and temple complex in its heyday. 

 

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The Great Bath – looking across to one of the alcoves.

 

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The East Bath – a rectangular tepid bath – the doors would have led to heated rooms known as tepidariums. 

 

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The remains of the extensive hypercaust system – ensuring visitors were kept warm and comfortable at all times.

 

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One of many mosaics which would have adorned the floors of the rooms within the complex.

 

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The arched overflow was part of the Roman engineering which kept the water flowing through the complex and still does today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The dark interior of the circular bath, here bathers would complete their visit to the steam rooms with a cold plunge to rinse off – note the coins littering the bottom of the pool. 

The complex at Aquae Sulis was quite extensive – with facilities for men and women to bath seperately which was rare and spoke volumes about the wealth of the town.  At the heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a rectangular swimming bath surrounded by a walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax in.  The bath itself was and still is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead.

 

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A model of the bath and temple complex in its heyday. 

 

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The Great Bath – looking across to one of the alcoves.

 

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The East Bath – a rectangular tepid bath – the doors would have led to heated rooms known as tepidariums. 

 

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The remains of the extensive hypercaust system – ensuring visitors were kept warm and comfortable at all times.

 

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One of many mosaics which would have adorned the floors of the rooms within the complex.

 

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The arched overflow was part of the Roman engineering which kept the water flowing through the complex and still does today.

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The above shows a reconstruction picture of how the town may have looked at its height based upon what has been discovered through various archaeological excavations.  In “A Roman Moon” astute readers will note that I did away with the amphitheatre, replacing it with a Forum.  Why? Well, to begin with the evidence for an amphitheatre is at this stage is quite thin on the ground and I am sure that a town of such importance would have had a Forum.  In addition, you can also put it down to the authors whim, a bit of ‘literary licence’.

The river running beside the town is the Avon, known then as Afon which is Welsh for river (amusingly making the name of the River Avon, the River River)…

I hope you can see why the ancient town of Aquae Sulis inspired me to write ‘A Roman Moon’ – from the presence of Luna, the triple goddess and the sacred spring all play a part in Sarah’s story.

 

RM cover 1 (2)

 

The Roman Baths Official Website

Wikipedia – Roman Bath

 

Sacred Waters

The original article from which this post comes from was first published in June 2014 for The Celtic Guide, a free to download magazine.

Water – it is life giving and for some life changing.  It shows us a reflection of ourselves and without it we and all around us would cease to exist.  It is essential to our being.  Many cultures, past and present, have recognised this simple fact.  For the ancient Egyptians it was from water that all creation began, in ancient Mesopotamia water was regarded as a symbol of absolute wisdom.  In many situations water is given anthropomorphic qualities which are almost always female.  Interpretations of the meaning behind the names for the Rivers Dee and Don in Scotland range from ‘the goddess’ to ‘the mother’.  Identification with the female is common thread across the world’s cultures.

 

Today the most sacred river to Hindus is the river Ganges; it is worshipped as the goddess Ganga who descended from heaven to earth.  To bathe in the waters of the Ganges is to wash away your sins; her waters are seen as both pure and purifying.  It is also believed the Ganges flows in heaven, earth and the netherworld and is regarded as a crossing point of all beings, the living and the dead.  Thus it is very desirable to have the ashes of a loved one scattered on the Ganges.  This belief in the sanctity of the river, and all rivers, began early in Indian culture and has continued uninterrupted for several thousand years.

 

Heading far to the west and much closer to home, we arrive in Britain and ask ourselves was water important to our ancestors?  The answer would be a definitive “Yes”.  In fact, the importance of watery places in Britain’s past is a given for archaeologists and other like-minded individuals.  There have over the years been numerous outstanding excavations and archaeological finds to back this up.

 

The relationship people had with water in both Britain and Irelands past can be seen as far back as the Neolithic.  During this time people were beginning to make their mark on the landscape constructing sizable and (fairly) permanent monuments such as Stonehenge, Ness of Brodgar and New Grange.  Such sites are usually part of a wider ‘sacred’ landscape, often surrounded by many other monuments of varying type and size but what is of interest to us here is their relationship to water.  Thus the Stonehenge sacred landscape is bounded by the River Avon in the south and east, whilst New Grange and associated sites are nestled in what is known as the Bend in the Boyne (the river Boyne).  The Ness of Brodgar, as well as a large number of other sites, in Orkney is situated on thin strip of land with the saltwater Loch of Stenness on one side and the freshwater Loch of Harry on the other.  In this landscape there is very little to differentiate the water from the sky.

 

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The view from Maes Howe in Orkney looking towards the Stones of Stenness and what would later be known as the Ness of Brodgar in the top right corner.  This sacred landscape is bounded by expanses of water. (please excuse quality of the photo – it was taken a long time ago before digital…)

 

The reasons for the placement of such sites near rivers may never be fully understood but it is possible to say the symbolism is inherent but as Francis Pryor says in his book Britain BC (2003) “…it would be very easy to oversimplify our reading of that complex, layered symbolism that contained within it the shared histories of the people who created, nourished and guarded it.  To say, for example, that water symbolised a soul’s journey to the next world is banal.  It may have done – indeed it probably did – but it also marked boundaries in this world, and provided corridors along which people could move without crossing too many tribal frontiers.”

 

The Neolithic would have been a very alien world to our modern minds and trying to assess the symbolism of a natural phenomenon is fraught with numerous pitfalls.  Regardless, it is important to take heed the role of waterways in Neolithic life.  The lifestyle of the Neolithic would have been reasonably mobile, with people moving around the landscape following the seasons. 

 

Where people moved around the land, pathways between places would be emphasised, and monuments placed beside them.  Given the scale of many Neolithic monuments, they may also have been placed at locales where groups were in closer proximity at certain times of the year.” (Barnatt J. ‘Monuments in the Landscape: Thoughts from the Peak’ Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Eds. A Gibson and D. Simpson).

After the Neolithic we have the Bronze Age, a period heralded, as the name would suggest, by the appearance of metal objects (bronze, copper and gold) within the archaeological record.  We also see an increasing (albeit gradual) degree of sedentary behaviour, with family type groups concentrating their activities at permanently laid out farms and fields.  Many (but not all) of the monuments of the Bronze Age began to reflect this more localised behaviour with smaller monuments being built by these groups for their own use.  The monuments are now found in all manner of landscapes and it would it appear that water is no longer of importance.  However, excavations at sites such as Flag Fen, Lincolnshire and the finds from Duddington Loch, Edinburgh or the Rivers Thames, Trent or Witham to name a few all suggest that watery places were still of great ritual importance.

In the early days of discovery such finds were often attributed to accidental loss however the excavations at Flag Fen have seem to indicate the majority of the items deposited were done intentionally and with no desire to retrieve them.  In 1984 Francis Pryor began excavating a post alignment at Flag Fen.  It was 10m wide and consisted of five roughly parallel rows of posts.  During the 1989 dig season the excavators began to find some unusual artefacts, some three hundred and twenty metal objects, mostly made of bronze and dating from the Bronze Age.  Swords, daggers, jewellery, axe-heads, spearheads and pieces of a metal shield were amongst the artefacts uncovered.  Interestingly every object had been deliberately damaged before being placed carefully into the water.  The deliberate destruction of artefacts prior to deposition at Flag Fen is not an isolated example.

 

At Duddington Loch a number of bronze objects were found, mostly weapons, and once more all had been broken or burnt prior to deposition.  Still in Scotland, Late Bronze Age swords were found in the River Tay and three Late Bronze Age shields were recovered from a bog in Yetholm, Roxburgshire.  Another feature of Bronze Age deposition is its longevity, At Flag Fen and the bog sites of Ireland such as Dowris, Co. Offaly; Mooghaun, Co. Clare and the Bog of Cullen in Co. Tipperary deposition did not occur as a single event rather it was the result of many individual events over a number of years.  In the case of the Irish bogs over two hundred bronze artefacts have been found, deposited over a number of years.

 

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A few of the items recovered from Dunaverney Bog in County Antrim, Ireland.  From ‘A Guide to the Antiquities of the Bronze Age in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities’ 1904 Charles Hercules – The British Museum.

 

 

The tradition of deposition in watery places continues into the Iron Age. Still the weapons appear in rivers, for example, the Battersea Shield found in the River Thames, a horned helmet from under the Waterloo Bridge and the Witham Shield from the River Witham. An excavation at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire also discovered a causeway that led to Lindsey a significant patch of dry land which is essentially an island bounded by the rivers Humber and Trent to the north and east and the Witham and fens to the south.  Here the archaeologists found swords, spearheads and other artefacts deposited into the wet ground.  Interestingly it has been suggested that the deposits coincided with periods when the causeway was being rebuilt around the time of lunar eclipses.

 

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The Battersea Shield – photo by Babelstone (CC0 commons.wikimedia.org)

 

Similar to the Bronze Age, the bogs and lakes of the west seem to be the place of choice for ritual deposition.  The most well known is Llyn Cerrig Bach (originally a lake) in Anglesey.  From here some one hundred and fifty objects were recovered.  The finds from Lylyn Cerrig Bach are regarded as the most important collection of La Tene style metalwork in Britain to be found.  The artefacts found included two slave chains, swords, spearheads, a bronze trumpet, cauldrons, iron bars, blacksmith tools and animal bones.  Once more all had been deliberately broken and deposited over a long period of time, approximately from 300BC to 100AD.  In fact there may have been a double whammy of sacredness here, as it has been suggested that islands represented sacred spaces because they were bounded by water on all sides.

This connection between water and the deposition of weapons is embodied by the later legends of King Arthur.  In Malory’s version King Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere “…take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder waterside, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water”.  For some this could be regarded as a cultural memory, a continuation of a ritual performed by our ancestors for many generations.

 

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Sir Bedivere throws Excalibur into a lake – painting by John Garrick 1862.

 

But it is not only lakes and rivers that were important there were also the peat bogs.  Finds from peat bogs are of a relatively common occurrence given the use of peat for fuel.  Of course the most famous of all bog deposits are the human bodies.  Bog bodies are well known in several European contexts for example, Tollund Man found in a Danish bog.  However, there are also examples from Germany, Holland, Norway and Sweden.  The tradition goes right back to the Mesolithic and culminates in the Iron Age and early Roman period.   

 

One of the most dramatic discoveries in Britain was that of ‘Lindow Man’ found in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire.  The remains were of a young male (mid 20s) who had been violently killed from a blow to his head, strangled and a cut to his throat.  A detailed examination of the remains suggests he was of a high status.  His teeth were healthy, his nails manicured and his beard and moustache neatly trimmed, in addition there were none of the usual signs on the bones that he had ever done any heavy manual labour.  Radiocarbon dating has his death and deposition at somewhere in the mid first century AD.

 

Many reasons for such a grisly deposition have been put forth, from murder and violent robbery to human sacrifice.  Sacrifice in the Iron Age was well known and took many forms either as the sacrifice of an object, an animal or a person. 

 

“The Celts did not love their deities; they made contracts with them as they did in their own society.  By making offerings into pits, wells, springs, peat bogs and all watery places, no doubt with the solemn attendant ritual, the druids were in fact ‘binding’ the gods into making reciprocal gifts to mankind…” (A Ross ‘Ritual and Druids’ in The Celtic World ed M Green).

 

It would seem that the greater the ‘ask’ the greater the sacrifice.  The Lindow man was deposited at a time of turmoil in Britain, northern England was not properly subjugated by the Romans until well into the first century AD, perhaps he represents a last ditch attempt by the Druids asking for the Gods intervention?  Perhaps his grisly death is a reflection of ‘destroying’ an object before it is deposited into its watery grave?  Throughout Britan and Ireland there have been almost two hundred documented cases of bodies found in bogs.  Not all are dated to the Iron Age and not all can be given a ritual explanation.

 

Any discussion on the sacredness of watery places needs to include springs and wells. Unfortunately, the majority of springs have been tampered with, cleared out and utilised to such a degree in our history the evidence is very sparse indeed.  Some prehistoric sites are associated with springs through proximity such as Swallowhead springs which is near the Neolithic monuments of Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow.  However, the best preserved piece of evidence comes from the town of Bath.  Here we have the very famous Roman baths based around the springs dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.  The impressive complex of baths and temples built by the Romans began some fifteen years after the Boudiccan rebellion.  It does seem this was an attempt to do honour to a local deity – Sulis – by aligning it with one of the more significant Roman deities – Minerva.  It is well recorded by the Romans the importance of this site to the local people.  Thousands of coins of both Roman and Celtic type have been found in or near the hot springs in addition to many curse tablets of a Roman date. 

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This tradition of offerings to a spring or well continues into the modern day.  Throwing a coin into a well to make a wish is a common practice as is the tradition of well dressing.  Every summer throughout the counties of Britain wells are cleaned up and made pretty.  The longevity of this practice is well attested, in 960 a canon was issued that expressly forbade the ‘worship of fountains’ and yet it could not be suppressed, eventually the church turned these pagan sites into Christian holy wells.  In some cases the well or spring has a special tree nearby, a Clootie tree.  The clootie is a piece of cloth that has been dipped in the spring’s water and then tied to the tree, after which a supplication is given to the saint or deity of the spring.  Many of these springs are associated with healing, in some cases the clootie represents the ailment and it is believed that once it has perished then so will the ailment. 

 

Furthermore it is not unusual for a church to be built near a sacred spring or well such as St Oswalds in Cumbria or at Golant in Cornwall.  Some have even embraced the sacred well as is the case for St Winefride’s well in Holywell, Wales.  In fact the overall sanctity continues well into the Christian era, monasteries can be found on islands (St Michael’s Mount or Lindisfarne) and many other Christian religious houses are situated close to rivers. 

 

 

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St Winifreds Well, Holywell, Wales. A renown place of healing, it continues to be popular today. This image is available from the National Libary of Wales.

 

This article merely scratches the surface but from reading and research it soon becomes apparent that water in all its forms has played a major role in the history and prehistory of our world.  It has defined where we live and it has defined how we live, indeed if we live at all.  That our ancestors’ revered water should be of no surprise to us and yet often it is. 

 

“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium.  There is no life without water.” Albert Szent-Gyorgi

 

“Nothing is weaker than water, yet for overcoming what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.”  Lao Tzu

A recent interesting blog from the British Museum which talks about the Thames – “Secrets of the Thames”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tintagel: Facts vs Fiction

On a cold and damp day in January the family and I decided to visit the famous site of Tintagel Castle in North Cornwall.

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Walking down the valley towards Tintagel Haven the castle’s outer ward can be seen in the distance.

For hundreds of years the site of Tintagel Castle has fascinated visitors and locals alike. Even without knowing any of its past the place oozes with untold stories and imaginations can run riot (which they have).

The Fiction

 

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The title page from N C Wyeth’s ‘The Boys King Arthur’.

Ask almost anyone about Tintagel Castle and immediately King Arthur and Merlin will come to the fore.  It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the History of the Kings of Britain sometime between the 1135 and 1138 who associated Tintagel with King Arthur as the place where Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon seduced/tricked Igerna into bedding him (Merlin and magic appear to be involved…) and so Tintagel became known as the place where King Arthur was conceived.  It should be noted that at no time did Geoffrey of Monmouth ever suggest that Tintagel was Arthur’s home or that the castle belonged to him.  The only connection was and is the story of his conception.

“The History nowhere claims that Arthur was born at Tintagel, or that he ever visited the place later in life, or that in any sense the stronghold became his property when he was King…On so slight a foundation, almost every subsequent writer was able to expand the conception of Arthur at Tintagel to his birth there and, by implication, ownership and even residency.”  (Thomas C. 1993)

Whilst it is understandable, after all this part of Cornwall with its dramatic coastline rather lends itself to stories of magic, romance, skulduggery and drama.  It seems a shame that the Arthur connections – real or imaginary – detract from the true story of the headland and its castle.

The Facts

The remains the visitor sees today can be divided roughly into two phases of occupation, post-Roman (5th- 7th centures AD) and after 1100AD.

The occupation of the headland in the post-Roman era was originally believed to have represented the remains of early Celtic monastery.  This theory has now been rejected and instead it is believed that the site is that of a “…high status secular settlement probably used by the Kings of Dumnonia between the Roman withdrawal in 410AD until the end of the seventh century AD, and it has now been identified as the Durocornouis (fortress of the Cornish)…” (Weatherhill C. 2009).

 

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Site A – the larger walls at the rear are the remains of the chapel whilst the low dry stone walls in the foreground are post Roman/early Medieval in date.

The buildings which are associated with this phase can be found clustered around the later medieval chapel, below on the cliff edge (just above the iron gate) and further along the headland.  Many of the buildings were revealed after a scrub fire on the headland.  Excavations have produced vast quantities of Mediterranean pottery such as amphorae dating to the fifth and sixth centuries.  The amount of imported pottery exceeds the amounts found on all other known post-Roman sites in Britain.

An often overlooked feature of the headland is the indentation known as Arthur’s footprint.  It is an eroded hollow in the rock on the highest point of the headland and shaped roughly like a footprint.  Its association with Arthur is irrelevant as it is more likely an indication of ceremonies enacted here during the post-Roman period if not earlier.

In parts of Ireland and Scotland there are places which  also have footprint type impression in rock and are associated with inauguration ceremonies of important people well into medieval times.  Symbolically, placing a foot in a specific place is representative of a persons right to rule over the surrounding territory.  Is it not possible that this example here at Tintagel was something similar and equally ancient.

“It can be wondered. therefore, if the occasions when the Dumnonian ruler and his court – or any other major chieftain in the post-roman south-west – came to Tintagel included public recognition of a king as replacing his dead predecessor, and whether this rock-marking figured in ceremonies.” (Thomas C 1993).

Perhaps the importance of Tintagel during this period cannot be over emphasised enough.  In 2016 three weeks of excavations were carried out by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit as part of a long term research project undertaken by English Heritage.  During this time the team dug opened trenches in two different parts of the island opening a small but fascinating window into Tintgels past.  Over 200 sherds of imported Mediterranean pottery were found alongside some fragments of high quality glass vessels.  All pointing to Tintagel being a place of great importance – unfortunately the dubious connection with King Arthur reared its head in the newspapers with headlines such as ‘Kings Arthurs Palace Found’ for which there is no evidence at all…For more well informed facts regarding last summers excavation follow this link to the EH blog – English Heritage Blog – Tintagel Castle Dig.

 

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Reconstruction drawing of TIntagel in the post-Roman period – drawings based on the 1930s excavations – Picture from the English Heritage Blog site (see link above).

 

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Site B – the low walls in the foreground are post Roman whilst the inner and outer ward seen in the background are 12th century.

The second phase of settlement belongs in the twelfth century and is the result of building works done under the auspices of Richard the Earl of Cornwall.  Richard was made Earl of Cornwall in 1227 and in 1233 bought Bossiney and Tintagel from Gervase de Hornicote although it does seem that building works had already begun by this time.

Much of the impressive remains the visitor sees today are the ruins of Richards castle.  The inner ward is on the island and the outer ward is on the mainland side.  Originally there appears to have been a bridge between the two as by this time the land bridge had all but eroded away.

 

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The remains of the Great Hall of the inner ward.

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A reconstruction drawing of the 12th century Great Hall taken from an information board.

One question does need to be asked at this point – why did the Earl of Cornwall build a substantial castle here in Tintagel?  It is far from the centers of Cornish commerce and it is no where near the main routes into and out of Cornwall.  It defends nothing but open water.  In short it has no military value or function and is that not what castles are for?  So then, why Tintagel?

Richard was the second son of King John and by all accounts was an ambitious and educated man who had decided to make a statement.  He would have read Geoffry of Monmouth’s History and would have been told about Tintagel being the ancient seat of the rulers of Dumnonia.  His decision to build a flashy castle here was his way of saying to the Cornish people and others – “Here I am, your Earl – from this ancient seat of power I will rule”.

 Final Facts

·         The headland has two freshwater wells.

·         The Chapel is dedicated to St Juliot and is 12th century in date but seems to have earlier origins (see photo below).

·         The tunnel is an enigma, dug into the stone bedrock of the island with small iron tools, it is most likely medieval in date and it has been suggested it was a cool store for foodstuffs such as meat (see photos below).

·         Merlin’s Cave is a great place to explore at low tide but is unlikely to have anything to do with the Merlin of Arthurian myth.

·         The beach below the headland is known as the Haven.

In the end, it is fair to say the story of Tintagel Castle is not complete.  I, as much as the next person have a great affection of the Arthurian stories and if such stories provide impetus for the average person to visit Tintagel then all the better.  But personally the facts are the clincher – it is they which make the better story.

Sources

Thomas C. 1993 Tintagel – Arthur and Archaeology  English Heritage/Batsford.

Weatherhill C. 2009 Cornovia Ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly 4000BC – 1000AD. Halsgrove.

 

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From inside Merlins Cave looking out at the Haven –

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The feature known as the tunnel.

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Inside the tunnel – note the work marks on the wall indicating metal tools were used to dig the tunnel out of the rock.

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The remains of the 12th century chapel dedicated to St Juliot.

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Sheep have been reintroduced to the island in an effort to keep the vegetation under control.

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The Post Medieval doorway framing the view of Glebe Point.

 

 

 

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Patupaiarehe – The Fairy Folk of New Zealand

During the research for a post on Auckland’s volcanoes I found an interesting Maori story about how the volcanoes came to be.  The story referred to the Patupaiarehe but who or what were the Patupaiarehe?  Obviously a bit of research was required…

 In Maori tradition the Patupaiarehe (also sometimes referred to as turehu or pakepakeha) were the first people of New Zealand – the first Tangata Whenua.  They are supernatural beings who are rarely seen, fairy creatures of the deep forests and mountains, their houses built from the swirling mists.

They have light skin, red or fair hair and unlike the Maori are never tattooed.  There is some debate regarding their size, some say small, others say they are the same size as humans but then there are the traditions where they are giants.  Sunlight was a curse to the Patupaiarehe, they only venture out in the night or when the mist was heavy enough to shield them from the sun.

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They were hunter/gatherers who ate only raw food – cooked food is an abomination to them.  In some stories albino birds and eels, red flax and red eels were considered to be the sole property of the Patupaiarehe and woe betide any Maori caught taking these.

The Patupaiarehe men were known to lure people away from their homes, particularly attractive young women, they used the magical sounds of the koauau or putorino (types of flutes).  No harm would befall the young women and they would eventually be returned home.  It was believed the cases of red heads and albinos (the urukehu) among Maori were a result of the union between Patupaiarehe and Maori.  Unfortunately, Maori men suffered much more, often being mistreated and in some cases killed.

Of course, if you did not want to be abducted by the Patupaiarehe there were several options available.  Firstly, you could smear your house with kokowai, this was a mixture of iron oxide with shark oil – the smell was repugnant to them.  Secondly, the uses of the cooking ovens or a fire as Patupaiarehe are very much afraid of fire and the smell of cooked food was enough to scare them away.

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However, not all was bad between the Patupaiarehe and the Maori.  Traditions tell how Maori gained knowledge of net making from the Patupaiarehe as well as makatu (magic arts) and atahu (love charms).  String and stick games are also said to have come from these supernatural beings.

 In 1894 an elder of the Ngati Maru, Hoani Nahe spoke of the Patupaiarehe and his words were recorded.

 “Now listen. When the migration arrived here they found people living in the land – Ngati Kura, Ngati Korakorako and Ngati Turehu, all hapu or sub-tribes of the people called Patupaiarehe. The chiefs of this people were named Tahurangi, Whanawhana, Nukupori, Tuku, Ripiroaitu, Tapu-te-uru and Te Rangipouri. The dwelling places of these people were on the sharp peaks of the high mountains – those in the district of Hauraki (Thames) are Moehau mountain (Cape Colville), Motutere (Castle Hill, Coromandel), Maumaupaki, Whakairi, Kaitarakihi, Te Koronga, Horehore, Whakaperu, Te Aroha-a-uta, Te Aroha-a-tai, and lastly Pirongia, at Waikato. The pa, villages, and houses of this people are not visible, nor actually to be seen by mortal (Tangata Maori) eyes – that is, their actual forms. But sometimes some forms are seen, though not actually known to be these people … Sometimes this people is met with by the Maori people in the forests, and they are heard conversing and calling out, as they pass along, but at the same time they never meet face to face, or so that they mutually see one another, but the voices are heard in conversation or shouting, but the people are never actually seen.

On some occasions also, during the night, they are heard paddling their canoes … At such times are heard these questions: ‘What is it?’ ‘Who are the people who were heard urging forward their canoes on the sea during the night?’ or, ‘Who were heard conversing and shouting in the forest?’ The answer would be as follows: ‘They were not Tangata Maori, they were atua, Patupaiarehe, Turehu, or Korakorako.

Like with so many stories there are those who believe the patupaiarehe are something more than just myth.  There is a subculture within New Zealand who firmly believe that they were the descendents of Celtic tribes who discovered New Zealand some 3000 years before the first Polynesians, pointing at tribal groups such as the Ngati Hotu who historically had instances of red hair and fair skin amongst their people when little or no intermarriages were known.  This is a complicated issue and not one that can be dealt with lightly, whether true or not, the jury is still out on that one…

Celtic New Zealand – Please note that whilst I do not necessarily agree with all that is written on this site I do believe we are all entitled to conduct research.

Stories and traditions are what make our cultures rich and the Maori have their fair share.  Often such traditions are used to make sense of the world around us, I would dare anyone to venture deep into the New Zealand bush and not see the supernatural in its deepest darkest places. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Museum With A Difference

The fog rolled in along the North Cornish coast blanketing the hills.  Coming in fast behind it was a weather front of rain and blustering wind.  What was I doing out in this weather?  Why would anyone venture forth in such conditions, most sensible people were safe inside.  But today I was a tourist and nothing was going to stand between myself and the place I wished to visit.

Tomorrow it would close for the winter and my chances of visiting again would be blown (it’s a long to come from NZ).  My destination?  The Museum of Witchcraft in the wee coastal village of Boscastle on the North Cornish coast.  I had also dragged the husband and kids along (I needed a driver and there’s this funny law which says you can’t leave the kids at home alone…)

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The exterior of the museum – Jan 2015 (it now has new signage…)

The museum is the home to the worlds’ largest collection of “witchcraft-related objects dating from the time of the witch-hunts to the present day.”  A friend recently asked why I would want to visit the museum.  Well, in short it is a fascinating subject because it tells a story of how people have viewed not only themselves but also the world around them on a very deep and personal level.  So my question to her was – why wouldn’t you?

The museum was not always in Boscastle, originally it was based on the Isle of Man in Castleton.  It was first opened by Cecil Williamson in 1951 (the same year the Witchcraft Act was repealed successfully).  He employed Gerald Gardner – the father of modern witchcraft – as “Resident Witch” and the museum was very successful.  But eventually as things go, the two men felt the museum should go in different directions and Williamson sold the building to Gardner and moved his collection to Windsor and then onto the Cotswolds.  Unfortunately a lack of tolerance in the local area resulted in the museum being firebombed several times.  Once more Williamson moved his collection but this time to Boscastle, where it has been ever since.  The current owner is Graham King, who bought it from Williamson in 1996.

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The village of Boscastle looking back from the sea wall.

 In 2004 the whole of Boscastle was brought to its knees when a flash flood filled the valley – the town was swamped by over three metres of flood waters.  The museum was severely damaged however this did not deter King – clean up of the museum began as soon as possible with every inch of mud being sifted and every item found meticulously cleaned and disinfected.  During this time the museum layout was redesigned and gradually the museum rose from mud and sewage all brand new.  I recently read on Facebook, that once more the museum is having a bit of face lift for no other reason than “change is good”.

The museum itself is divided into sections, each section dealing with one particular aspect of the craft.  The descriptions below are from a pamphlet bought at the museum during my visit.

  • Images of Witchcraft – “Although many people today are sceptical about the power of magic, there can be no doubt about the enduring power of the image of the witch.
  • Persecution – “Our display about the witch-hunts begins with a 17th Century copy of Daemonologie – a book condemning magic written by King James I. King James wrote it after personally interrogating the suspects in the North Berwick witchcraft case, who were accused of raising a storm to sink his ship”.

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A witch weighing chair – not everyone was into the witch hunts.  As long as the accused weighed more than the Bible they were proved innocent.

  • The Wheel of the Year – “Modern witches meet on, and celebrate, ancient seasonal festivals and call them Sabbats”.
  • Stangs – “Modern witches refer to forked or skull-topped staffs as stangs”.

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A collection of stangs.

  • Sacred Sites – “Ancient sacred sites are very important to many people who practise Modern Pagan Witchcraft today…however, the witches of the past centuries also valued sacred sites as places to practise magic.”
  • The Hare and Shape-Shifting “Many legends and folktales tell of witches turning into animals – particularly hares, cats and owls. A traditional Cornish term for “cursed” is “owl-blasted”.

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A ceramic hare-woman made in the 1960s by Lionel Miskin.

  • The Magic of Christianity – “Trial records show that most people who practised magic during the witch-hunts were Christians, and often used the sacred object of Christianity in their spells.
  • Herbs and Healing – “Healing has always been an important part of magic. Many people arrested for witchcraft were respected healers using charms and herbal remedies.
  • The Wise Woman – “Our wise woman in her cottage shows just how different real life witches were from the stereotype of the ugly hag muttering curses.”

 

  • Protection Magic – “The use of objects as protection charms (also known as amulets) is one of the most ancient types of magic – and also one still widely used thoughout the world today.”
  • Magic in Wartime – “This display shows some of the ways people have used magic to help them cope with the stress and danger of war.”
  • Mandrakes – “According to William Shakespeare, human shaped mandrakes roots were worn as good luck charms.”
  • Curses – “Did people really use magic to put curses on their enemies? Of course they did!…Cursing was an instrument of natural justice, and a form of anger management.”
  • Ritual Magic and The Golden Dawn – “At the heart of the display are the colourful and dramatic tools developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.”
  • The Richel Collection – “This collection of magical objects from the Netherlands bequeathed to the museum in 2000, is complex, challenging and sometimes downright mystifying – though sexual symbolism is a recurring theme.”
  • The Devil and the Horned God – “There can be little doubt that the horned Devil of medieval art had its origins in earlier horned deities of nature and fertility, such as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the Celtic god Cerunnos and the Roman god Pan.”
  • Baphomet and the Green Man
  • Fortune Telling and Divination – “Of all the objects in the museum, the one that most intrigues and fascinates visitors is the dark mirror used by the museums founder Cecil Williamson.”
  • Spells and Charms – “Many of the exhibits in this museum illustrate a central principle of folk magic, that there is magic all around us in the natural objects of everyday life”.
  • Sea Witchcraft – “There are many accounts of witches selling the wind to sailors, by magically knotting it into a length of rope on a windy day.”
  • Tools of the Witch – “Knitting needles might not seem an obvious magical tool – but stitches are really knots, and knot magic is ancient and widespread.”
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    The cauldron – you can’t be a witch without one of these…
  • Modern Witchcraft – “Many of the objects in this section are personal and unusual, such as the Peruvian magic dolls used by Brownie Pate, or the painted altar stone made by Iain Steele, with its dragon like symbol in the centre.”

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This may not be a museum for everyone, some might even find the occasional display uncomfortable (the sideways looks I kept getting from the hubby was proof of that).  Even so, the effort to visit should be made.  To learn about and educate ourselves in the ways  of the craft and its history means that the past won’t be repeated.  When it comes down to it, today witchcraft/paganism is just another form of spirituality which provides harmony and solace in the lives who follow that path.

It was a fascinating museum and well worth the trip, the dreary weather adding to the atmosphere.  To visit on a bright sunny day when Boscastle is thronging with tourists…

 

Contact details:  The Museum of Witchcraft, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0HD.

Tel: 01840 250111

www.museumofwitchcraft.com

museumwitchcraft@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

Vikings in ‘A Viking Moon’

In ‘A Viking Moon’- the first of Sarah’s adventures – our heroine is transported back in time to Viking Denmark.  The story itself is set in roughly the mid 800s AD, a time of great change throughout Europe.  The following is a brief overview of the Vikings as encountered by Sarah.  For those who would like a lot more detail, my apologies but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on Vikings.  There are some great sources of information out there on the internet or even in your local library.

Sarah’s story begins when she comes into contact with a Viking rune stone.  There are large numbers of rune stones throughout Scandinavia (some 3000), their name deriving from the runes written upon their surface.  Runes were a form of lettering used by the Vikings.  Rune stones were erected between the 4th and 12th Centuries and can be found anywhere the Vikings went.  They served mainly as a memorial to the deceased but were also used to mark territory, explain inheritance, boast and bring glory and to tell of important events.

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An example of a rune stone.

During the first twenty years or so of the 9th century, Danish politics were characterized by constant infighting and changes in kingship.  Often kingship was held jointly as was the case in 812/13 where Harald Klak and Reginfred ruled jointly but only until the sons of Godfred (an earlier king who died in 810) turned up and promptly exiled them both.  Harald and Reginfred then recruited an army but failed to win back the crown.  By 819 Godfred’s sons were bickering amongst themselves and all goes to seed until finally Horik remains and manages to hold onto power until 853 when he was overthrown by a rebellion within his own family.  It is during the reign of King Horik that Sarah finds herself and just prior to the civil war that was about to erupt.

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Map of Viking Denmark.

Kings during this early period were not the most powerful, because most communities were loyal to their local chieftain.  A king had to conduct religious rituals and lead his subjects into battle.  He was expected to keep a force of fighting men and ships to protect his people and their property from attack.   But when a king died, a new king would be chosen from the members of the reigning royal family.  A person’s age, health, reputations and popularity were all taken into account.

The steading of Geir is situated in the southern part of the island of Zealand or Sjoeland as it was known at the time.  One of the greatest concerns at this time were the raids from lands across the sea.  It was not just the Danes, Norse and Swedes who raided their neighbours. In Sarah’s story the Kurlanders/Kurshes were often considered a great threat.  Kurland (Courland) was situated in the north west corner of what is modern day Latvia.  In reality the situation got so bad that in 853 the Danes launched a campaign against the Kurlanders, there was a major sea battle and the Danes were defeated.  Another contributing factor to the brief civil war in Denmark that wiped out many of the contenders to the throne and ended Horic’s rule.

Geir was once a ‘styraesman’ or ship commander who through many successful raiding trips accrued enough wealth to buy land and a steading.  It was possible using wealth and ambition for any man to become a member of the aristocracy and so it was for Geir who by the time Sarah turns up is referred to as a Jarl or Lord.  Apart from kings society was divided into three main groups Jarls, Karls and Thralls.

Jarls were often the wealthiest and most powerful people, owning and ruling large tracts of land.  A Jarl would usually have a small band of household warriors to fight for him if needed.  The second tier of society belonged to the karls.  They were free men and women who sometimes owned their own farmsteads or rented from the landowners.  In Viking times the eldest son would inherit his father’s land, younger sons would need to make their own way either by joining raiding parties, become professional warriors or merchants.  Some could become hunters, fishermen or crafts men.  The poorest landless karls were servants or farm workers.  At the very bottom of Viking society were the Thralls these were slaves who had no rights and were bought and sold like any other piece of property.  Most slaves were captured during raids or battles, some were karls who had lost their freedom after going bankrupt or committing a crime.

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Reconstruction of a Viking woman spinning using a drop spindle. Photo by P van der Sluijis via wikimedia commons.

Viking women enjoyed far greater respect and independence than many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world.  They were allowed to own land and property and sometimes a daughter would inherit a share of her parents’ wealth.  However, a women’s status varied according to her position in society.  Thus, Astrid as wife of the Jarl would have considerably more freedom and authority then the wife of a farm worker.  When a woman’s husband was away either trading or raiding, she was responsible for the smooth operation of the business or farm in his absence.  A noble woman such as Astrid would be expected to make decisions and organise protection of the steading should it be necessary.

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A depiction of two female warriors of royal birth participating in a sea battle. From Olaus Magnus’ History of 1555.

Some women had other jobs apart from being wives and mothers.  There were female skalds (storytellers), carvers, merchants and others who played a part in the religious ceremonies.  Certain women were thought to be prophetesses who could tell the future and give people advice in their daily lives.

 

Messing about in Boats

Actually the Vikings were highly skilled shipbuilders, producing some of the finest ships of their time.  They were essential to the Viking way of life.  They built vessels of many different shapes and sizes.   In 1962 five ships were excavated near to the city of Roskilde in Denmark.  There was a ‘knarr’  an ocean going trading vessel, with an open hold amidships, and only needed 6-8 men to crew; a ‘skeid’ or ocean going warship which was 30m long and 4m wide with space for 60 oars or a crew of 65-70 men; a ‘byrding’, a small trading or transport vessel only needing a crew of 5-8 men, wind powered and perfect for the Danish and Baltic coast; ‘snekke’, a small warship built for speed and maneuverability only needing a crew of 30men.  The last vessel was rowing/sailing combo probably used for fishing or seal hunting.

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The oarsmen did not have seats instead they would sit on their sea chests (wooden chests that would contain their personal belongings).  If a vessel had need of a sail it would most likely have been made from wool with leather reinforcing strips.  Another feature of most vessels would have been the steering oar – this was positioned on the right hand side at the rear and gives rise to the English word ‘starboard’ coming from the Norse word ‘styra’ or ‘to steer’.  The vessels themselves were clinker built meaning that the planks of timber that made up the body would be overlapping each other and then the spaces between would be filled with moss, wool or animal hair drenched in tar to ensure water tightness.  The decks would be open with little or no protection from the elements, at the best an oilskin tarpaulin was rigged up bivouac style.

The most famous type of vessel is the ‘drekar’ or dragon ship, the name derived from the wooden carvings on the front of the ships.  They were the finest of all warships, very ornate and well built.  A common misconception is that warships would sail with the shields over the oar ports – it is unlikely this happened unless in port as it would be far too easy to lose a valuable shield overboard.

The Vikings used the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate but they would also use the depth and temperature of the ocean to judge their position.  They also used their knowledge of the habits of seabirds and mammals to guide them.

 

The Gods

There are a great many books and internet sites that deal with the plethora of Viking gods, goddesses and all things otherworldly.   Viking deities were divided into two groups the Vanir who came before and were a race of peaceful gods, Freya and Frey being examples and then there is the Aesir who came later and deposed many of the Vanir.  They were a warrior race of gods and include gods such as Thor and Odin.  The following is a brief (and probably unsatisfactory) account of those that Sarah encounters in ‘A Viking Moon’.

The first goddess to turn up is Freya an indigenous goddess who is being held hostage by the Aesir to maintain spiritual peace.  She is very powerful and her areas of expertise include love, sex, fertility, magic, witchcraft and death.  Her priestesses are called ‘volvas’ and are greatly feared by the general population.  In later times she is labelled the ‘Queen of the Witches’ by Christian priests and her followers were heavily persecuted.  Cats are also special to Freya, her chariot is drawn by two huge gray cats called Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber).  To be kind to cats was to invite Freya’s blessings.  In the story Astrid offers a prayer to Freya but at the same time she is spinning wool.  Spinning has a magical quality about it and was once associated with divination, the magical art of transformation and the cycle of life.  But it is also associated with the goddess Frigga, Odin’s wife.

 

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Freya and her spindle – from ‘A Book of Myths’ by Helen Stratton (1915).

Later in the story Sarah has an encounter with a ‘volur, women who were believed to have prophetic powers.  These women would travel around the countryside staying at the halls of local leaders, interpreting dreams and predicting the future.  During the ceremony the chief prophetess would sit on a platform or special chair whilst her companions would chant sacred songs and she fell into a trance.  It was believed that her soul left her body and soared over the earth giving her great wisdom and insight.  The ‘volur’ would carry a wand of alder to signify her power as a representative of the goddess.

In the final chapters Sarah meets Thor and Aegir (sort of).  Thor was and is a very popular Viking god and as such much has been written about him.  He is the god of thunder, lightening, wind, rain, physical strength, good weather and crops.  As such he was very popular among the farmers of the Viking countryside.  His hammer was called Mjollnir, archaeologically his popularity can be attested to by the significant numbers of hammer pendents found.  He was regarded as a straightforward and reliable god even if he was not the sharpest knife in the draw.  Aegir is regarded as the god of the sea and fishing and would be well known to the sons of Geir.  It is not unusual for sudden and violent storms to sweep across the Baltic, sometimes it is even possible to think that have been sent by the gods…

A Thor hammer pendent (modern design by Hayman Celtic Jewellery).thors-hammer

 

On a final note, sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were common.  The kind of sacrifice made would very much depend on what you wanted.  They could range from a simple offering of food at a field-side shrine for a good harvest to the death of an prize animal or even in some cases a person perhaps in exchange for success in battle.  It went without saying that a simple prayer to deity was not enough, there must be payment if you wanted them to listen.