Tag Archives: Mythology

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.

 

 

A Cornish Mermaid

“The village of Zennor, about a quarter of a mile distant (from Morvah), lies in a wild and stony district.  Within the very interesting church are some quaint bench ends, one which depicts a mermaid…” (The Cornish Riviera 1911)

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The pub and the church – two essentials in any village.

Zennor is a small but perfectly formed village nestled into the rugged landscape of west Penwith.  It has an air of having been around since the beginning of time and a quick survey of the surrounding landscape would seem to confirm this.  The ancient past is all around you in this part of Cornwall, whether it is the stone walls that snake across the land, the portal dolmens dating back to the Neolithic or the remains of circular huts with dates in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

But perhaps the most well known aspect of Zennor is its connection with mermaids.  In the church there is an ancient oak bench, which at one end has carved into it a mermaid holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other (the mirror is sometimes referred to either as a quince or a pomegranate).  As with all matters in this land of stories there is a legend attached to the chair.

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The mermaid chair.

 

“One Christmas morning, long ago, so the local tradition runs, the mermaid came to the church, attracted by the marvellous singing of the squire’s son, a handsome youth, who considered by the ladies of Zennor the most desirable “future husband” in the district.  Moreover, so the story goes, the mermaid changed herself into a beautiful human maid wearing a gown of woven silver filament, which gave off a bright incandescence, and sitting beside the squire’s son she cast a spell on him.  Suddenly a terrific storm raged around the church and several flashes of lightening zigzagged at the windows, filling the church with a blinding glare.  The storm only lasted a few moments, and when it had abated the mermaid had vanished – and so had the squire’s son.” (Cornwall by R. Thurston Hopkins date unknown).

There are a few variations on this version but the essentials stay the same.  In the official pamphlet from the church at Zennor the legend tells “…how a beautiful young woman in a long dress used to sit at the back of the church listening to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. One evening she succeeded in luring him down to the stream which runs through the village.  Together they went down the stream and into the sea at Pendour Cove, now known as Mermaid’s Cove.  It is said that if you listen carefully on warm summer’s evening you can hear the pair of lovers singing together.”

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Detail of the mermaid chair – the comb and the mirror are recurring themes in depictions of mermaids.

It is believed that the carved chair which commemorates this story dates back to the late Medieval some five to six hundred years ago.  Stories of mermaids go back centuries, the first record of a mermaid tradition comes from the Assyrians and in Ancient Greece the mermaid was the symbol of Aphrodite who was not only the goddess of love but also the sea. Tumultuous and unpredictable, both can be said of the sea and love.  In many stories surrounding mermaids they are both beautiful/kind and ugly/evil – the two sides of the same coin.

It is not surprising then to learn that in the churchyard at Zennor there are many unmarked graves of unknown sailors who died during shipwrecks on this perilous stretch of coastline.  The sea can be both kind and bounteous but can turn in an instant taking life without remorse.

“It is a fact that, to this day, the women of the choir at Zennor sit between the male choristers and the church porch, and this, the village people say, is to protect their menfolk from the wiles of seductive “merry maidens”.” (R. Thurston Hopkins)

During the Middle Ages the mermaid appears in carvings at churches around the UK, becoming a symbol for the evils of lust, the fishy tail reminiscent of the scales on a serpent providing a link to the idea of ‘original sin’.  The mirror and the comb features in many depictions and are sometimes regarded as symbols of the mermaids (and thus female) vanity and it is through vanity that sin occurs.

Throughout time men have gone to sea to make their fortune or simply to provide for their families, it is a fact that some have never returned leaving families behind wondering what had happened to their menfolk.  Perhaps the legend is born from a truth – the mermaid is the capricious sea – a beautiful woman who lures men away often never to be seen again.  Is it not said that the sea is a ‘harsh mistress’?

 Other Point of Interest in Zennor

The Church  itself is dedicated to St Senara  – the earliest record of a church here dates to 1150 AD but the circular shape of the churchyard and the 6th century saints name would indicate that there has been a church here from around the earlier date.  St Senara is often associated with the legend of Princess Asenara of Brittany who married King Goello.  Her stepmother was jealous of her beauty and accused her of infidelity condemning her to be burnt however when it was found that she was pregnant her gaolers nailed her into a barrel and set her to sea.  It is said the child was born in the barrel and named Budoc, eventually the barrel washed up onto the Irish coast and Asenara and Budoc stayed for awhile.  As in all good stories King Goello discovered the truth of the matter and Asenara returned to Brittany with Budoc via Cornwall. Along the way they founded the parishes of Zennor and Budoc (near Falmouth).

Within the church there are two fonts, one is Norman in date and the other is 13th/14th century in date and is still in use today.

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A very degraded stone carving – possibly a saint?

In 1270 the church was appropriated by the Provost and Canons of Glasney College, at this time much of it was rebuilt.  The builders were housed in what is now ‘The Tinners Arms’, the local pub which was built in 1271.  In 1450 the tower and north aisle were added to the church.

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One of several stone crosses to be found in the churchyard. These originally marked the path for the ‘coffin way’.

Apart from all the great scenic walks (‘the coffin way’ to St Ives being one) around the area there is also a working water wheel and local museum – ‘The Wayside Folk Museum’.  This is a private museum of rural and local artefacts with everything from stone axeheads dating from the Neolithic to farm implements from the 18th century.

NB – It has come to my attention that The Wayside Folk Museum has closed and was sold recently (2016).