Tag Archives: Stories

Here be dragons

Taniwha in Maori Myth

Regardless of where you go in the world and what culture you study, stories of dragons are a recurring theme within the stories of any given people. Dragons abound everywhere and every time, even in our modern and increasingly sceptical world the desire to believe is still strong.  Take the stories of the Loch Ness monster or the giant serpents of the Hudson River and other similar creatures that periodically pop up all over the world. The Maori are no different, they too have their myths and traditions involving dragons, of a sort, called taniwha, who are intimately connected with the natural world.

Early drawing of waka – the double hulled waka were most likely to have been used for long sea journeys. (From Rotorua Museum, Wikicommons)

Taniwha are in essence supernatural creatures which can appear in different forms, one of which is dragon-like giant lizard, but they can also resemble sharks, dolphins, whales or even in some instances enchanted logs.  They can be the agents of good or evil and sometimes neither.  Every region of New Zealand has a host of stories about their local taniwha, many of whom came with the first explorers acting as guardians and protectors.  Some are special people who have been turned into taniwha upon their death and others are of unknown origin.

The Maori are descended from the first Polynesian explorers who arrived in the land we now know of as New Zealand approximately eight hundred years ago (give or take a few hundred years…) and there are often similarities in the myths from certain parts of the Pacific, such as the Cook Islands and Society Islands. However, the taniwha of Maori tradition have evolved as a result of the unique environment these early explorers found themselves in. New Zealand’s environment is very different from the island worlds they would have come from. It is after all a much larger world of mountains, deep forests with giant trees, fast flowing rivers and wild coasts.  Even today a person walking in the bush can come across areas, secret places where you feel it would not pay to tarry.

In Maori tradition the first people to arrive came on large seagoing waka and many of the early stories relate to these ancestors and how they adjusted to their new land. In the traditions the waka would be accompanied by a taniwha who would be its protector, such as, Kupe’s taniwha, Tuhirangi or the female taniwha Araiteuru who came with the waka Mamari.  Though there are some traditions which say she travelled with the waka Takitimu and another taniwha called Ruamono.

In the year 2000 New Zealand Post put out a series of stamps to celebrate the year of the Dragon; Araiteuru and Tuhirangi were part of this.

Araiteuru gave birth to eleven sons on arrival in New Zealand, who all went digging trenches along the way, thus creating the numerous branches of the Hokianga Harbour.  It is said that Lake Omapere was created when one of her sons burrowed inland and thrashed his tail around.  As guardian of the Hokianga Harbour Araiteuru dwells in a cave at the south head of the harbour, whilst her companion, Niua, lives in the north head of the harbour.

The taniwha Tuhirangi is said to dwell in the Cook Strait where Kupe left him to guide and protect waka as they crossed between the two islands.  Between 1888 and 1912 a Rissos dolphin named Pelorus Jack accompanied ships travelling between the North and South Islands.  At the time, local Maori believed this was the taniwha Tuhirangi in the form of a dolphin, guiding and protecting ships in this dangerous stretch of water.  A number of years later in the summer of 1955/56 another friendly dolphin appeared, but this time at Opononi in the far north of the North Island.  Nicknamed Opo, the dolphin would play and interact with visitors and many Maori believed Opo to be a guardian taniwha.

A grainy photo taken in 1911 of Pelorus Jack/Tuhirangi.

Tuhirangi and Araiteuru were part of a trio of important taniwha, the third member of this group was a female called Huriawa.  Her home is Te Waikoropupr Springs, Golden Bay. She is regarded as brave and wise, travelling through the earth to clear blocked waterways.  The springs which are her home are regarded as the purest form of water which both the spiritual and physical source of life.  The water is often used for healing and in blessing ceremonies.

Another taniwha which accompanied the ancestral waka of the Tainui from Hawaikii was the whale Paneiraira.  His name means ‘spotted head’ referring to his appearance.  He was last seen in 1863 just before the war broke out between the Maori and the newly arrived Europeans.  It is said he came to warn his people of impending disaster. 

In the story of Pania and Karitoki, their son (Moremore) became a taniwha when his father attempted a ritual to keep his mother form returning to the sea people and failed.  Moremore is a guardian, or Kaitiaki, of the harbour at Te Whanga-nui-a-Orutu.  He appears in different forms, as a shark, an octopus and sometimes a log.  Patrolling the harbour, he would protect the people from danger while they gathered seafood and fished.

A statue of Pania on the Napier seafront.

An important aspect of the people’s relationship with taniwha was acknowledgement by making the necessary offerings or appropriate chants.  The local tohunga might off the first kumara to be harvested or the first birds to be caught in the season.  Travellers when passing by a known lair might make an offering of a green twig whilst reciting a chant.  In 2002, the Ngati Nohu (a hapu of the Waikato area) objected to the construction of part of a highway on the basis it would destroy the lair of their taniwha, Karutahi.  After much discussion and to the satisfaction of the elders, the transport agency agreed to reroute the highway to avoid the lair. 

One of the more unusual forms a taniwha can take it that of a log.  In order to identify the taniwha you would be looking for a log that did behave in the manner of regular log, known as Rakau tipua.  On Lake Rotoiti the taniwha Mataura would appear on the water as a huge tree trunk with numerous branches and covered in water weed, particularly on the death of a high-ranking person. When visiting the Kaipara Harbour watch out for a log moving against the current.  It is believed to be the taniwha Humuhumu, the guardian of the Ngati Whatua. 

Other taniwha can take a myriad of forms, some can be a strange conglomeration of creatures – native lizards such as the gecko or tuatara feature strongly as do bat wings, shark teeth and octopus tentacles.

A modern rock carving of a taniwha on the shore of Lake Taupo – here their lizard like appearance is emphasised.

So far, we have only looked at those taniwha who are kaitiaki, but not all have good intentions.  Some may have begun this way, as guardians of the people, but it only takes one mistake and the taniwha can turn on the people.

“Because of their role as guardians they watched vigilantly to ensure that the people respected the tapu restrictions imposed upon them, and any violation of tapu was sure to be punished. They were usually held responsible for deaths by drowning; the person must have insulted the taniwha by breaking tapu in some way” (Orbell M. 1995)

 In December 1876, a news article in a Maori language paper told of four young girls who went swimming in a waterhole at Waipapa.  Local tradition knew this place to be the lair of the taniwha Taminamina.  One of the girls swam to the far side of the waterhole where she climbed up onto a rock and started to drink the nectar of the red flowers of the sacred Rata tree. Without warning, the girl slipped into the water, one of the other girls tried to save her but failed.  The water began to froth and swirl and the girls believed it was the taniwha.  The elders were of the firm belief that the girl was punished for breaking tapu and drinking the nectar of the sacred Rata.

Southern Rata near Franz Joseph Glacier (Photo by Graham Rabbitts wikicommons)

In 1955, a photograph was taken on the Whanganui River.  It depicts a swirling mass in the middle of the river and the inscription on the back of the photo reads:

“On many occasions a large flow of water gushes up from the head of the Wanganui river below the bluff of Buckthaughts Redoubt, just past the village of Upokongaro. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loud bubbling noise and small pieces of waterlogged wood and debris are brought to the surface. Few people have ever seen this occurrence and this photograph was taken in 1955 by one of a party of Wellington visitors camping at Mosquito point.”

In another story the guardian (Takere-piripiri) of Otautahonga Pa, a hillfort of the Ngati Raukawa would have offerings of food left below his cave.  One day a gift of eels was mostly eaten by the people who had brought it.  This angered the taniwha and he ate the people instead, unfortunately this gave him a taste for human flesh and he left the pa and went to the mountains where he would prey upon travellers. 

There were though taniwha who were just plain nasty, such as Ngarara Huarau from the Hawkes Bay who just liked to eat people and then there were the taniwha who liked to kidnap beautiful young women to keep as wives.

However, not all is lost because where there is a threat to the people there will always be heroes.  In this case warriors who used their strength and cunning to defeat the taniwha and protect the people. Pitaka, Tamure, Potoru and Ao-Kehu were all famous warriors known for their prowess in defeating taniwha. Tamure had a special mere (greenstone club) which had the power to defeat taniwha.  He is well known for defeating the taniwha at Piha who had a taste for people.  Interestingly, he did not kill this taniwha but wounded it enough that it could not eat people.  The warrior Ao-Kehu hid himself in a hollow log with a shark tooth club and when the taniwha smelt him he swallowed the log whole. Ao-Kehu then hacked his way out of the log and out of the taniwha killing it in the process.

Photo of a drawing of an unknown Maori warrior by Sydney Parkinson (photo by Szilas at the Canterbury Museum Christchurch)

The earliest stories are those connected with the arrival of the first waka.  These stories or traditions are in the style of creation myths adapted to the local landscape.  Hence, many taniwha are responsible for the sinuous rivers, the many inlets in a harbour or in the case of the Porirua taniwha, Awaru, the flat appearance of Mana Island which she crashed into as she was learning to fly. 

Others are stories which serve to identify valuable resources and offer a means of protection of those resources.  Then there are those which all societies have; sagas that glorify desirable human qualities.  For the Maori, the great warriors used both their minds and their strength to defeat the undesirable taniwha. 

The traditions of taniwha are often complex narratives which serve to enforce what was considered acceptable behaviour within an iwi/hapu (tribe/subtribe), whilst at the same time providing reassurance to the people – reasons for why certain events happened.  If a group of travellers went missing in the mountains, the most likely reason was that they did not make the right offerings and were eaten by the taniwha.  Even today the New Zealand bush is not a place for an inexperienced hiker, accidents can and do happen.  Rivers and lakes are deep and full of hazards, drownings are a far too common event, landslides and earthquakes are a regular occurrence.  We are all familiar with the sense of helplessness, the feelings of not being in control.  Attributing such events to the taniwha, a creature you can placate with offerings, or in some cases can hunt and kill, helps to explain such events and at the same time offers a way to take control once more of their world.

Ureia, a kaitiaki taniwha – carved on a poupou (house post) inside Hotuni, a carved meeting house of the Ngati Maru. The building can now be found inside the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

A little Fiction

STORIES

The silence was constant, the darkness absolute but at least it was comfortable.  Of course, that was not completely true.  Sometimes there would be noise and light but only on rare occasions.  This was one of those occasions.  At first it was only a muffled clipping noise could be heard, plastic heels on a hard linoleum floor.  As the minutes ticked by the noise got louder until it stopped, so close.  They had heard the noise before, anticipation hung in the still air or perhaps it was just the dust motes waiting for something to disturb the stillness so that they at least could continue to be what they were, to do what they were meant to do – float lazily around finding surfaces to decorate.

Now a loud clicking as the tumblers in the old lock turned, a breath then a snap, crackle and pop.  The ancient and rarely used fluorescent lights shuddered on, illuminating row after row of metal shelves filled to the ceiling with anonymous brown boxes.  Each box was numbered and some of the older ones even had labels, browning around the edges, peeling, faded but labels all the same.  Testimony, that someone had once cared.

From its cushioned interior the broken pot waited, perhaps this time it would be chosen.  Broken it may be but it still had a story to tell.  

At first a lump of cold, dull clay, providing inspiration for a human mind.  Worked and moulded by human hands, its exterior carefully smoothed and decorated.  Then from the hot fire like a phoenix it came.  The incised decorations had meaning, told their own story of the people who made it.  Its beauty admired, given as a gift from an aunt to a niece and filled with grain.  Beautiful and practical, that was its story.  It was valued passing from mother to daughter until a day of violence, rough voices and screaming.  In the aftermath the pot lay broken on the hard-earthen floor, broken into many pieces, its precious contents spilt out.  The crackle and spit of the burning building heralding the end of an era but not the end of the story.

Buried, for what seemed like an eternity.  The only company the ever-present earthworms and the occasional mole. Scratching and burrowing, moving away parts of the whole so that even now safe in the brown box, it was not complete.  Then came the day when the light returned, once more human hands held it, reverently, exclaiming over its beauty.  Carefully washing away the dirt that had accumulated over the centuries, it was drawn, measured and photographed.  Then carefully, oh so carefully, a new home was made for all its broken parts.

At first many hands held it, admired it, there were more drawings and more photographs but gradually the visits into the light became fewer and fewer as the next best thing came along.  It had been a long time since it had felt the warmth of human hands gently caressing the incised decoration that had its own story.  Perhaps today would be the day.  If it had a voice it would have cried out “pick me, pick me” not unlike so many of the other artefacts sitting comfortably in their specially cut foam in their anonymous brown boxes.  Each had story to tell of a time when they were useful and valued, even broken and buried over centuries their stories had not diminished. 

“Pick me, pick me” said the silence.

*****

Standing still at the doorway to the storeroom the woman took a deep breath.  Smiling she wondered where best to start.  Her boss had simply said “choose the ones with the best stories”.  But how do you choose a good story?  What is a good story? With a small satisfied sigh,  she looked at her tablet with its inventory, deciding to simply start with the artefacts that appealed to her personally.  Hoping on some instinctive level she would choose the ones with the ‘best stories.

Although there was a certain amount of pressure to pick the right artefacts this was a job she had been looking forward to for quite some time.  Finally, a legitimate opportunity for a good rummage in one of the museums oldest storerooms and a chance to prove she was good at her job.  A job she loved.  If she were a person of a certain disposition she would have done a little jig, as it was she simply contented herself with humming her favourite tune. 

Running her fingers lightly along the brown boxes she did a slow circuit of the room, soaking up the slightly musty atmosphere.  There was no real order to the space except in a numerical fashion.  Each box numbered according to when it arrived in the room, so that Mesolithic flints sat happily beside early medieval pottery sherds.  She did briefly wonder if there was analogy for the modern world there.  Either way, here she felt at home, to her each and every one of these artefacts had a good story to tell.  Put them together and their story would be…mind blowing?  No, wrong word, it would be…enlightening.  Smiling and humming she went in search of a trolley.

After an hour she had half a dozen boxes on the trolley, so far so good she thought as she sat on the desk at the end of the room. There were a few errant boxes that for reasons known only to themselves had moved to other locations in the room other than their designated spot.  Perseverance had paid off in those cases.  It had been a risk coming here, her choices were risky too.  This was not the only storeroom there were others with brighter, better and more well-known artefacts stored in them, safer choices, but better stories? 

Perusing the inventory, the woman waited for something to jump out at her.  What she needed for this part of the exhibition was an object that grabbed people’s attention, an item to stop and wonder at, what else is hidden away in the bowels of their museum?  Page after page she flicks through, finally at the bottom of the very last page a hastily added note.  The last few boxes to come into the room, containing artefacts from a small, local society training dig.  The enthusiastic amateurs had come across an ancient settlement but a lack of funding had kept the dig to a single trench, two metres wide and five metres long.  Even so, several of the finds had been remarkable, telling a story of settlement in use for many generations and its eventual but violent demise.

Feeling her heart beat quicken the woman began to count boxes searching, hoping that no one had moved them.  The sound of her heels clicking a beat along the rows, up, down, pause, up, down, pause.  Damn!  They weren’t there.  Hands on her hips, frowning, her eyes focussing on the boxes that were not the boxes she was looking for.  Taking a step back she scans around, sometimes they were simply a little bit in the wrong place, but no not this time.   If she were of a particular disposition she would have stamped her foot in frustration not once but twice, instead though she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Logic dictated that she should check who had last looked at the boxes, there might be some indication as to where were now.  Walking back to the desk where she had left the tablet with its inventory she spied a row of four brown boxes sitting innocently on the desk she had only moments before been sitting on.  Her pace quickened, please let it be them she prayed to no one god in particular.  If she were of a particular disposition she would have ran and slid to a halt at the table, but she was not and she still got there in good time.  A quick glance at the numbers on the outside of the box confirmed it, yes it was them. 

As she lifted the lids on each of the boxes, once more she said a silent prayer of thanks.  The contents of all four boxes would be her centrepiece, they told a real story, a story to resonate through the ages.  The woman placed the boxes on the trolley, satisfied.  Her heels once more clicking sedately on the linoleum floor, a creak of the door, snap as the fluorescents flicker off, bang, the door shuts once more on darkness.  The dust motes swirled about in the air eddies left by the woman’s presence.  A comfortable constant silence reigns – until next time.

*****

Slam, went the car door.  Two bodies wrapped up against the weather, one tall, one small make a mad dash for cover under the museum’s portico.  Stopping to catch their breath the small one links hands with the tall one. There were a lot of people milling under the portico and mum had said very clearly, ‘do not lose your dad, after all, he can’t even find his way out of a paper bag’.  The boy wasn’t really sure what his dad would have been doing in a paper bag.  He shrugs to himself, grown-ups!

Rain and school holidays, not a good time to come to the museum but today was his only day off work and he had promised his son that he would bring him.  He had no idea why he actually agreed, he would have much rather chewed off his own leg than come to the museum.  But there was something about the look the boy’s mother had given him and then there was the boy…equal portions of guilt and love tumbled through his consciousness and he found himself agreeing.  She had pulled him aside, “he loves the museum, and it’s soothing…when he is there he almost like any other kid, stay as long as you can”. 

As they walked through the doors, father and son turned and looked at each other.

“Well, you know it best, where to first?”

The boy smiled, twirling around eyes closed, mentally communicating with the museum, where to first?  He stopped, opened his eyes and pointed.  Following the pointed finger, he spies the new exhibition hall and yes as luck would have it there was a new exhibition.  A display of previously unseen objects from the museum’s storerooms, well fair enough at least it wouldn’t be the same old things although he did fear that was yet to come.  There was a tugging at the end of his arm; the boy was itching to go.  His mother was right he did almost seem like any other kid here. 

Kids, no one tells you no matter what you think will happen, no matter how prepared you are, it is nothing like what actually happens.  He had been so excited knowing he was to have a son, he had imagined footy games, cricket on the beach, surfing, building tree houses and boisterous games of tag.  What he had got was an entirely different kettle of fish.  It wasn’t that he didn’t love him his heart had almost burst when he first held him in his arms.  It was just that things had not quite turned out as expected and in the beginning the readjustment had taken awhile, it had taken too long for his wife, the boy’s mother.

The boy tugged again on his dad’s hand, come on, imagine the treasures in here he tried to say.  He looked up at his dad, his lopsided grin bigger than ever.  He loved the museum, he loved the way it smelled, the way it sounded, the way the objects would speak to him, tell him their stories.  He could spend hours with his nose pressed up against the glass cases just staring and imagining.  His mum always told him that no matter what he would always have his imagination, the endless stories he wrote were testimony to that.  She had packed his journal and brand-new pack of pencils in his backpack, “just in case the mood takes you”, she had said with a wink.

As they wandered around the new exhibition they saw stuffed animals in scary poses, shiny beetles and beautiful butterflies pinned very carefully to a board, everything was named (common and Latin), everything creatively displayed.  Each display had an information board with their stories.  Many of the stories were about where the animal had come from, who had found it and the hardships that were undertaken in the name of science.  The boy wasn’t that impressed, again he decided it must be a grown-up thing, killing something in the name of science, it was not a part of the museum he liked much.  But although just a kid he understood that you didn’t need to like everything about something or someone in order to love it – no one was perfect.

He tugged on his dad’s hand again, something was calling him forward.  It was the archaeology section, now this was more like it.  His soul sang for this was his nirvana.  Here artefacts spoke of human lives, told their stories, here he could lose himself totally.  He moved quickly from case to case his dad trailing dutifully behind him.

“Slow down kiddo, we have all the time in the world.”

The boy came to a complete halt in front of a case displaying a beautiful blackened pot, its swirly incised decoration speaking to him.  There were other artefacts, bronze clothes pins, other pieces of pottery, part of an iron skillet and an iron knife blade, both rusted but still identifiable, jet beads lovingly set into a shape of necklace.  The board said that they all came from the same excavation, not far from where the boy lived with his mother.  It was exciting to know that under his feet as he walked around his town there could be more stories waiting to be discovered.  He looked at his dad, who was just smiling at him in a funny kind of way.

“Go on, your mum said she had packed your journal, it’s okay.  I like to watch you write your stories, I’ll just be over here keeping an eye on you.”

The boys grin said it all.

*****

She had drawn the short straw, the volunteer who was rostered on to look after this section answering the public’s questions had called in sick, a migraine or something.  So here she was, she didn’t really mind, she liked to see people interact with the artefacts.  The boy and his father had intrigued her. 

They were in a world of their own, the boy strangely silent.  The father seemed a little uncomfortable, he looked like he’d much rather be out tackling the elements than in here.  The boy had sat down on the floor with his back leaning against the plinth, on his lap was a book and in his hand a pencil, he leaned back eyes closed, obviously deep in thought.  Suddenly as if someone had fired a starting gun his eyes flicked open and the pencil flew across the page.  Her eyes glanced at the father, he was smiling, he had seen this before.  Father and son settled in, one watching the other, just being.

An hour later, the pencil was put away.  She was intrigued, her feet moving of their own volition she walked over to the boy.

“Hello, I’m the curator who put this section together.  Do you like it?”

The boy nodded smiling his lopsided smile.  His dad hurried over “he doesn’t speak but he does understand everything, just doesn’t talk” he shrugged apologetically.

“But you like to write, don’t you?” she asked, not fazed by his father’s explanation.

The boy nodded again, a moment of silence stretched out and then he handed her the journal.  Taking the journal, she moved to the bench the father had previously occupied, sat down and started to read.  Both father and son sat quietly and waited.

When she had finished, she turned to look at the boy, “you have a rare talent, you can see the story behind each artefact, I honestly can say I felt like I was transported back in time.  Thank you.  You are a very clever young man.”  It was a truth, not words to bolster a child’s confidence.

“I would love you to come back another day, so I can show you some of the other artefacts in storerooms and you can write more stories.  Perhaps we can convince the museum to publish some of them.  People need to hear your stories”.

Because the boy was of a particular disposition he did do a jig, his joy obvious to all.  His father felt a lump in his throat and not trusting himself to speak just smiled and nodded his thanks.  She handed over her card and got his details too – she knew a good story when she saw one. 

It’s all about the story, we all have them tucked away inside, sometimes we tell ourselves, sometimes we tell others.  They are in everything and everyone we touch.  Some are short lived and some will resonate through time but in the end, it is our story and how it ends is up to us.

         

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

 

A little bit of self promotion…

I do try to keep this blog as a place to air my interest in archaeology and the history, as well as a place to share with you some of the interesting places I have visited.  However, there is no getting away from the fact that all of these things have inspired me to write three novels (so far…).  Each of ‘The Adventures of Sarah Tremayne’ are set within a time and place which for many reasons has grabbed my attention.

The latest novel A Roman Moon is no different.  A couple of years ago I visited the town of Bath, it was not my first visit, but it was a visit that got my imagination fired up and I just knew Sarah had to go there.  But before that she needed a companion and where was she to meet that companion?  Well, as it happens she meets him in a place now known as Weston-Super-Mare.  This may seem an odd choice but my family history with this Victorian seaside town goes back a way.  It is the town where my parents met, where my grandmother lived for many years and where I visited many times.  The story of the hillfort at Worlebury, the small temple on Brean Down, the Roman road at Uphill and the possibility of a Roman period settlement beneath the old technical college all shouted at me to be included in the story.

And so A Roman Moon was given a context, a place and a time – then I needed a friend, a foe (or two) and a healthy dose of fear…

So, if you fancy given this third book a chance they are available in print or ebook form at the below links.  Thanks for reading!

Print book – Amazon

EBook  (or you can get it from your preferred ebook retailer)

PS – if you enjoyed reading any of my novels I would really appreciate a review

“Fear stalks the cobbled streets of Aquae Sulis. It is the third century AD and Aquae Sulis epitomises a Roman town on the edge of an Empire. But it is no ordinary town. At its heart lies the sacred spring venerated long before the Romans arrived. Here the native goddess, Sulis and the Roman goddess, Minerva have melded to become one. Worshipped by all, the goddess, the sacred spring and the Great Baths bring peace and prosperity to the town. That is, until a Brother of the Dark arrives and spies an opportunity to create chaos currying favour with his dark Master. Now fear, suspicion and death haunt the shadows. The goddess is under attack. Meanwhile in the twenty-first century, Sarah Tremayne is enjoying a weekend away at the seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare with her Nan and Brad the Dog when ‘IT’ happens again. To return home Sarah must travel to the besieged town of Aquae Sulis, face the evil lurking in the darkness, defeat the Brotherhood (again) and not fall for her handsome bodyguard, Belator. All of which is easier said than done. Join Sarah on her third journey as a Daughter of the Moon (Mhyres-an-Loor) as she faces her biggest trial yet”.

 

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The Roman Baths in Bath (Aquae Sulis)

 

A Visit to the Shire

On a fine but crisp morning the family and I made the two hour journey to the set of Hobbiton where the scenes for the Shire were filmed for both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.  I am big fan of the works of JRR Tolkien and whilst I was dubious about the movies they still have much going for them.  I was also dubious about visiting what is obviously a place with the overseas tourist in mind.  However, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised – Hobbiton was delightful!  The managment work hard to maintain the spirit of what Tolkien describes in loving detail.  My visit was a balm to my frazzled self and the following are a few photos of our time there, I only wish we could have spent more time there.

Hobbiton is situated on the Alexander farm near Matamata, Waikato and was first discovered during an aerial reconaissance for suitable filming locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The original set was constructed of untreated timber, ply and polystyrene – it was always the intention to return the site to its original condition.  However, with the filming of The Hobbit an agreement was struck between Peter Jackson and the Alexander family and Hobbiton was born, this time with more permanent materials.

The following are just a few of the many Hobbit holes, each individual in their own way with gardens and furniture.  It seems as if the occupants have just stepped away and will be back in a tick…

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”  (The Hobbit.  J.R.R. Tolkien).

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Of course we were all looking forward to getting to the most important Hobbit hole of them all – Bagend…

“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted gree, with a shiny, yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted…” (The Hobitt. J.R.R. Tolkien)

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The oak tree in the picture above is an artificial tree made from steel and silicon with over 250,000 fake leaves…

 

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My daughter was very happy to be standing outside of Bagend.

 

From here our guide led us down to the Party field with its huge tree (this one is real and the reason for choosing this small part of the Waikato for a film set).

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And then it was on over the bridge to the Green Dragon for mug of ale and food…

 

Two very happy hours later we turn and say goodbye to what can only be described as a magical place…

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“By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and properous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at the door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his wooly toes (neatly brushed) – Gandalf came by.” (The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien)

www.hobbitontours.com

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

 

 

 

 

 

Stone Circles and Sarah

In the second novel – A Megalithic Moon – our heroine, Sarah, finds herself transported back in time some five thousand years (ish).  For archaeologists and those with an interest in the past this is the Late Neolithic, a time of massive stone constructions, of megaliths, of stone circles.

For many years stone circles have fascinated me and so I was really very keen to weave these monuments into Sarah’s story.  There are some 1300 recorded stone circles in Britain and this is not the place to discuss each and every one of them.  Instead I wish to look at two stone circles in particular which feature in A Megalithic Moon, Boscawen Un and Loanhead of Daviot.  For those who want to find out more about stone circles I highly recommend Aubrey Burl’s The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany published by Yale University Press (2000).

In the very early pages of A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to one of my all time favourite sites – Boscawen Un – a stone circle in the heart of West Penwith, Cornwall.

Boscawen Un

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Boscawen Un on a very grey Cornish day…

Not a true circle the stone ring measures 24.9m and 21.9m in diameters making it more elliptical than circular.  The ring consists of nineteen stones varying in height from 0.9m to 1.3m and has two unique features.  Firstly there is a central stone which leans sharply to the north east.  Originally it was believed that the lean on the central stone was the result of people digging for treasure believed to be at its base but recent archaeological work has confirmed that the stone was deliberately placed in the ground at a lean.  Another interesting fact about the central stone is the presence of two faint, but real, carved axeheads near the base which can best be seen at the midsummer sunrise.

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The central stone with its deliberate lean.

Secondly all but one of the stones are of local granite, the odd one out is a solid chunk of white quartz.  For those of a pagan leaning, the quartz stone is significant as it serves to represent the feminine lunar deity (and thus the central stone is the male).  Quartz is often found on sites of ritual significance, the Duloe stone circle (also in Cornwall) is smaller but all of the stones are quartz.  Excavations at the Hurlers, a stone circle complex on Bodmin Moor, uncovered traces of a quartz pavement which highlights the importance of this material in the rituals of the past.  It is easy to imagine how the quartz in its freshly cut state might glow in the light of the moon.  The use of quartz is not restricted to Cornwal and much further afield in Aberdeenshire the recumbent stone circles often feature quartz.

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The single quartz stone in the circle.

The circle was restored in 1862 when three stones were re-erected and the hedge which originally cut through the ring was diverted around it.  Historically Boscawen Un was believed to be the Beisgawen yn Dumnonia named in the Welsh Triads as one of the ‘Three Principal Gorsedds’.  So much so, in 1928 the modern Cornish Gorsedd was inaugurated here.  Unfortunately recent academic work by Rachel Bromwich revealed that the Triads were in fact an eighteenth century forgery.

There is a west facing gap which may represent an entrance not unlike the one found at the Merry Maidens, another well known stone circle in West Cornwall, which can be seen from Boscawen Un.

 

Much later in A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to another kind of stone circle but much farther away, those of north east Scotland in Aberdeenshire.  Recumbent stone circles are so called due to a common feature of a large single stone lying ‘recumbent’ between two flanking uprights.  The recumbent always occupies a position on the circles arc between SSE – SW and the uprights are graded in size from the smallest on the northern arc and the tallest flanking the recumbent.  They are unique to this area of Scotland and are not found elsewhere except for in the south west of Ireland.

Unfortunately, agricultural practices of the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in many of the circles being destroyed.  Some well preserved examples which are worth a visit include Loanhead of Daviot, Easter Aquorthies, Sunhoney and Tyrebagger.

Loanhead of Daviot

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This recumbent stone circle is situated near the summit of gentle hill overlooking the village of Daviot and few miles from Inveruries.  Excavations conducted in 1934 provided evidence for the longevity of the site from the late Neolithic through to the Iron Age.  The site itself consists of two concentric rings of stone with a central cairn. In addition adjacent to the main stone circle is a late Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

The outer circle is 19.5m in diameter and is made up of ten upright stones and one recumbent.  Around the base of each upright a small cairn of stones were piled and in some evidence of burials were found.  Several of the uprights also have faint cupmarks engraved into the stones surface.

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The recumbent stone at Loanhead. Photo by M and K Grundy from geograph.co.uk.

The inner circle is 16.5m in diameter and forms a kerb of low stones to the central cairn which was built over a cremation pyre.  Here some 2.3kgs of burnt bone lay in the central space.  Interestingly the type of stone to be found in the central cairn consists mostly of quartz.

Just north of Loanhead a second recumbent is known, however all that remains is the recumbent itself and its two flankers.  A third circle was recorded in the 18th century to the south of Loanhead in the village of Daviot, sadly nothing remains of this circle.

 

Stone Circles and the Moon

A great deal has been written about the astronomical associations between megaliths and the night sky.  In relation to stone circles it was Aubrey Burl who pointed out that a circle is not the most efficient means to observe the night sky, rather a single line of stones would work considerably better.  Indeed there are scattered throughout the British landscape enigmatic lines of stones and often in association with stone circles, such as the previously mentioned Hurlers on Bodmin Moor.

So if stone circles are not for astronomical observations, what are they for?  Increasingly, there is a body of work which is leaning towards a lunar and/or solar explanation.  Often the emphasis is on the solstices, the rising and setting sun, midwinter and midsummer being the most popular.  However, there is some suggestion that the spring and autumn solstices were just as important if not more so, particularly in Cornwall where the people of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age were most likely to be pastoralists rather than agriculturalists.

In regard to the recumbents of Aberdeenshire it appears to be the procession of the moon which was important.  Thus the recumbent were laid in line with the southern moon but not as it rose or set but when it was actually up in the sky.

The majority of the recumbent lie in the arc between the moon’s major rising and setting…” Aubrey Burl p227 The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

 Another feature of these recumbent circles is the presence of both quartz and cupmarks and again an association with the moon could be made.  The quartz shining brightly in the moonlight perhaps representing pieces of the moon itself and the cupmarks themselves do seem to generally align with either the major or minor moonset or moonrise.

To the users of the circles it may have been the steady procession of the moon above the recumbent that was wanted rather than a particular moment, minutes of moonlight when quartz glowed luminescently and when nocturnal ceremonies where performed.” Aubrey Burl  p226  ibid.

 And so, all of these elements are woven throughout Sarah’s story and have become my inspiration for the Daughters of the Moon – the Myhres an Loor.

Please find below some links to interesting websites about stone circles and megaliths in general.  Enjoy!

Stone Circles of North East Scotland

The Megalithic Portal

Stone Circles.Org.UK

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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.