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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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The haunted house

If you believe in that sort of thing

It being a couple of weeks now since the house move, I feel surprisingly settled-in already, and a big proportion of stuff has now been unpacked and sorted out. At some stage I will write a fuller account of what happened on move day itself, and all the stresses that had to be overcome, but today is not that day.

This post, though, is partly about how different it is living here. Not about the neighbourhood or the landscape, different though they are, but how different it is to move from an old, fragile, Victorian brick-built terrace to a modern house on a modern housing estate. Not just about how physically different the spaces are, but how I have moved away from an old building with an old building’s atmosphere to somewhere that, spiritually speaking, is much more fresh and bare.

That paragraph is really just a long-winded way of saying: the new house, I’m pretty sure, is not haunted. The old house, I can’t say that about.

Regular readers will have seen my post the other day about Surviving Death, the recent TV series about, well, evidence there is an afterlife. In that, I naturally concentrated on the bits of the documentary it was easy to be sceptical about: frankly, it’s more fun to write and I assume more fun to read. That isn’t to say, though, that I’m prepared to rule out the possibility that something can survive after death, or that ghosts exist, or anything else along those lines. All I’m sure about is that, if anything of that kind does exist, it will be completely different in every way from anything you, me or anybody else has ever been able to imagine. So I’m approaching this from a sceptical angle, but an open-minded sceptical angle. All I will say is that when I went from spending most of my time out of the house, to most of my time sitting in my bedroom working, I became less and less willing to say that the house, for definite, was not haunted.

Surviving Death didn’t really touch very much on ghosts. Maybe they’re considered a bit passé in a world where a medium promises to rustle up the spirit of a lost loved one almost on-demand. The sort of haunting I’m talking about is also one very light on evidence, with nothing other than strange feelings, curious hunches, and the like.

Last March, back when the death rate started to climb and everyone was told to stay at home, I made sure I had a suitable working space. Previously when I worked from home I’d done it at the kitchen table, which was almost tolerable but not really. For one thing, the dining chairs were fine to sit on for a couple of hours but were rather painful after a whole day. The kitchen was hot in summer, cold in winter, and the wi-fi dropped out whenever the microwave was on.* The bedroom, on the other hand, was large, directly above the wi-fi base station, and kept me nicely out of the way. I bought a cheap little desk—more of a table really—that just fitted into the bedroom’s window bay, found a slightly more comfortable chair than a dining chair, and settled down to a life of working in the window bay, tapping away at my laptop and watching the neighbours walking up and down the street, not to mention the local magpies, squirrels and occasionally foxes.

I quickly became used, though, to something else. Somebody would come and stand over me. I don’t mean I heard anything, but that I could see somebody out of the corner of my eye, who wasn’t there when I looked at them directly. They weren’t always there, but they would come and watch over me, maybe two or three times per day, when I was busy and when nobody else was around. I never saw them directly, but I knew they were there just as I knew when a living flesh-and-blood person had walked up behind me. They always approached from the same side, from my left, the direction of the doorway, never my right.

Was I just seeing my own hair moving out of the corner of my eye? Or noticing the curtains moving? But if so why only ever on the one side of me? My eyesight is rather asymmetrical, it’s true: my left eye’s sight is much worse than the right. I will, of course, never know the answer. But it’s easy to think that a 130-year old house will have had people die inside it, particularly in the large bedroom; or will have emotions and spirits become attached to it in a way that a three-year-old house will not have.

You can never trust what children, small children, say. But I remember that when they were much younger than they are now, or were a year ago even, The Child Who Likes Fairies said a man would come to play with her. An old man, she said, would come into her bedroom and talk to her. What he said was never specified, but apparently he seemed friendly. As you will have guessed, nobody of the sort had ever been in her room. Nowadays, she has no recollection at all of any of this.

Was the old house haunted? It’s not a question I can honestly give a yes to: there are too many unknowns and too little evidence. But equally, I feel I can’t say for certain that the old house wasn’t haunted. It’s not a question we can ever get an answer to, and I very much doubt a medium could help, or diving in kitted up with night-vision cameras and temperature sensors. For that matter I never had any feeling there was anybody watching when I was in bed, even though I have in the past, when living in other places, had the classic “old hag” night terror. Only when I was working, concentrating on my screen, would the figure come into the room to wonder what I was doing.

Now we have moved on and are unlikely ever to know what is happening to that place, and how it is changing from when we lived there. If it was haunted, I hope the ghost who lives there is happy with whoever is there now. I hope he finds them as intriguing as I apparently was. Since moving, I’ve been sitting at the same desk, working away on the same computer, staring out of a different window, and never feel there is anybody watching me, or that anybody I can’t see has walked into the room. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there is some distinct qualitative difference in what I feel I am perceiving. Whether that is something paranormal, or something else about the nature of the building, I would never be able to even begin to work out. Subjectively, though, whether there was a ghost or not, is there really any difference that matters?

* This is a very normal problem, so if you find your wi-fi often has problems at around the same time each day, check to see if it corresponds with cooking activities.

The afterlife

Or, a TV review

Recently, I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series Surviving Death, covering various pieces of evidence for the existence of an afterlife, across various themes. It was…an interesting watch, which tries to stay even-handed; but its thematic approach meant a huge degree of difference between how each topic was presented and how plausible each one seemed to be.

Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by anything paranormal—blame those classic 1980s Usborne books—and I wouldn’t say I’m a sceptic. More, I’m one of those people who almost wishes they could believe in the paranormal were it not that the evidence for it is almost universally thin and quick to shatter at the slightest glance. The biggest issue I have with Surviving Death is that its attempt to be even-handed comes across uniformly in favour of the paranormal, because of the complete lack of any sort of critique at all. If anything, this does the more plausible phenomena a disservice, as they are lumped in with others that do have straightforward alternative explanations.

The largest topic covered across the whole series was “Mediums”, with two episodes; and it also came across as the area given the most credulous treatment. This is largely because it included no critical comment at all, of any sort. On the other hand, though, it would be difficult to include any critical comment on mediumship without it quickly becoming clear that there are no aspects of mediumship, none at all, that cannot be reproduced by different magicianship skills. Indeed, Harry Houdini’s work in discrediting various mediums in the first half of the twentieth century was explained as being unreliable, because as a showman, Houdini would have exaggerated his own skills and therefore he couldn’t be trusted. I suppose it’s better than Conan Doyle’s explanation of why Houdini’s work should be trusted, but it’s not much better.*

There were occasional threads dangling, which I would like to have pulled on. A major part of the “Mediums” episodes were given over to a physical medium—one who can manifest “ectoplasm” and other artefacts. Her physical seances only took place in pitch-black rooms with no cameras inside, so the manifestations had to be taken on trust. A sitting with a mental medium was filmed; but the session did not seem to go at all in the direction the medium had wanted. The message the sitter had been hoping for certainly didn’t come through, but the filmmakers seemed uninterested in exploring what might have happened, or why it had failed. In short, the episodes on mediums were extremely unconvincing, but seemed happy to turn a blind eye at the least convincing moments.

Across the whole series, though, not everything was quite so clear-cut or shallow. The final episode, on reincarnation, was in parts both touching and uncomfortable to watch, as the programme covered a man who, as a child, had apparently had memories of a former life. Those described in the film were traceable to a real, identifiable person, and there seemed no way that the boy could have known the things he had talked about, or why he would have said them. The man he had grown up to be, though, clearly wished he could forget all the things he had said as a child; and on meeting the family of the man he might have been the reincarnation of, he seemed deeply sorry for not fulfilling all their dreams.

Overall, Surviving Death was a bit of a mixed bag. There were a lot of interesting ideas, and a lot of interesting people, some of them very damaged people. It triggered the scientist in me, though. I wanted to go poking, go investigating, answer some of the questions. I wanted to test out the haunted Polaroid camera that featured in one episode, to find out whether it would be haunted if you used it in a different house.** The programmes were so busy trying to be open-minded, though, to present everything without judgement or criticism, that any sort of questioning or investigation was completely off the menu. It’s a shame. Now, I want to go back and pull at all the threads.

* Conan Doyle apparently convinced himself that although Houdini claimed to be a stage magician, he actually had secret paranormal powers, which is how he could reproduce the tricks that mediums carried out.

** And, indeed, find out whether it was that specific camera that was haunted, and exactly what was unusual about that camera’s type of film pack.

Look into my eyes

A brief digression into heterochromia

Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.

One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.

When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.

Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.

There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.

As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.

* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.

Photo post of the week

Into the woods

If you have a day to spare at the tail end of autumn, and the weather is all damp and misty, what better to do than go for a walk in the woods? In this case, a Forestry England wood just outside Failand, Ashton Hill Plantation. At its centre is a stand of sequoias, looking suitably mysterious in the mist. For a moment you can start to imagine you’re in some sort of supernatural horror-mystery filmed in Washington State.

Grove of sequoias

In the shelter

However, brief glimpses of the rolling landscape outside the woods, showing off the traditional English fear of outsiders, soon remind you where you are.

Keep out

Near the edge of the wood is a fairy tree, naturally beloved by The Child Who Likes Fairies, decorated with several tiny doors and various garlands and trimmings round its base. Further up, I noticed at adult head height, something that seemed much deeper, speaking directly to the fairies themselves, not there to entertain children.

Corn dolly

A corn dolly pinned to the tree with a baby’s teething toy. Some sort of offering; some sort of old ritual; maybe some sort of prayer.

Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.

Evidence of ritual activity

Neu, es i fwyta pysgod a sglodion

Sunday: a trip out to Stanton Drew stone circles. They are a mysterious and imposing group, relatively little-investigated and therefore with little certainty about them. The Great Circle, second in size only to Avebury, appears to be the remains of a complex henge monument containing multiple concentric circles of wooden posts and an avenue down to the nearby river: rather like Woodhenge, if you know it. The precise date or sequencing, though, is very unclear; it is almost certainly at least four thousand years old, possibly five thousand or more, a range of timescales which in the modern day would easily encompass both a medieval cathedral and the latest office blocks with a huge amount of room to spare.

Pointing to Stanton Drew

We have no real way of knowing what sort of rituals were held here, just that some sort of ritual presumably was, and that over time it will have changed radically. To the last prehistoric people to carry out a religious act here, it might have said to have been immeasurably old, here before the start of the universe; or it might have said to have been built just beyond the touch of living memory, in their fathers’ mothers’ fathers’ time. What we do know is that in reality it may well have been in continuous use for fifty generations or more. In that time there may have been considerable change in language, belief and ritual, or it may have been relatively static. Modern reconstructions of the site, which you can see on the English Heritage website, show an almost-alien forest of posts, completely foreign when compared to any modern-day religious rituals or structures.

Of course, people still carry out religious rituals at Stanton Drew today. They have no real relationship with the religion the site was originally built for, but they do have a deep spiritual and emotional connection to the site itself, as we today see it: to the land, the landscape, and the goddesses and gods that the people of today call upon.

Walking around and exploring the site, we looped around two-thirds of the Great Circle and wandered over to the North-East Circle, much smaller and on a much more human scale. It, too, had its avenue down to the river, and may have had some sort of four-post structure in its centre. Today, at its centre, we found a dead crow. Wrapped in black silk and placed there carefully face-down.

Crow in the circle

We had no way to tell if it had been sacrificed deliberately, or had died a natural death. We had no way to tell who had placed it there, or why, other than that they clearly cared, that it clearly meant something, to place it directly in the centre of the smallest circle, its head facing north. “Insects will eat it and turn it into a skeleton,” said The Child Who Likes Animals, and, indeed, we could see small flies on its soft feathers already getting to work and returning it to the soil. We stood back respectfully and let it go on its way, just as the brambles still ripening in the hedge at the corner of the field will in a few weeks time wither up probably still on the plant.

Stone circle brambles

And then, as it was barely even lunchtime, we headed off to the fish and chip restaurant at Chew Valley Lake to dine in style from cardboard boxes and with wooden forks.

Fish and chips

Hurrah, even if the peas are a bit too fancy to be proper mushy peas.

Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time

There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive*; and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films — the period ones, at least — is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study — following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

The trouble with religion (part 94)

In which we discuss a suitable Sunday topic

The Mother phoned up today, as she does regularly, to tell us all the latest exciting goings-on in her social circle. Her friend George, who she knew from church, has died aged 85, after a long illness. “Of course, he’d been ill for years,” she said, “and he was in great pain. By the end he was screaming. ‘Take me, Lord, take me!’ It was a blessing when he died.”

When it comes to religion, The Mother is a great fan of this sort of logic. If The Family Car Crash Of 1988 ever comes up in conversation, The Mother will no doubt say something along the lines of “You had such a narrow escape! It just proves that God was looking down on us.” Now, it’s true that I almost lost a) my life b) an eyeball;* but I’m not sure God deserves much in the way of credit. It is fair to argue, though, that the Family Car Crash Of 1988 was a Good Thing: the insurance windfall paid for a piano and a university education.

You can’t really argue, though, that taking the life of an old man after he’s had a long and painful illness, so bad he begs you to kill him, is a good way for any deity to behave. If God really wanted to bless a man who had been a devout churchgoer all his life, a churchwarden and church committee member for many years, someone who every Sunday had been up at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ devoutly believing that the said God had personally told us all to do this every week,** if He had really wanted to grant him a boon, wouldn’t he have saved him the several years of pain and suffering?*** But, no, in The Mother’s religious logic, bringing the death after George had been calling out for it loudly for a while is the kindly Godly way to behave, not letting him die after a short illness a few years ago. It leaves me thinking: just what does count as compassion, for the religious?

* Strangely, although my life was saved by a pretty narrow margin, I never realised until many many years later just how close I’d come to being killed. Instead, I concentrated on the irony that my eyeball was probably saved by my poor sight, as the thick plastic lens in front of it absorbed the impact of the shards of glass that hit me. With extra irony, the sight in my other eye is almost perfect.

** Although of course, Jesus didn’t want me for a sunbeam do it on a Sunday morning.

*** Let’s not get into the tragic story of George’s wife, either.

Wrong

In which I am right, but not in a helpful way

Well, part of last Wednesday’s post quickly came true: my “almost certainly wrong” prediction of the future did, indeed, turn out to be wrong. I was sorely tempted to claim I’d been right all along, or that I’ve got enough right that I can be considered reasonably infallible; but, nah, I got it wrong. As I did say I would. Hence, I was right. Hurrah! I should go into business as a futurologist; I’m good at it. And I’ve known people make bigger futurology U-turns.

Strange Times

In which research fails

Sometimes, there are little things that bug me. Like: remembering the vague outline of the plot of a book I read 20 years ago, but not being able to remember enough to track it down. Or remembering something I saw on TV,* or read in a library book at some point in the distant past.

It’s something like that that’s bugging me at the moment. Regular readers might know that I occasionally enjoy talking about prophets and predictors of the future, noting people who make predictions that fail to come true, or try to rewrite their predictions retrospectively to match the actual events. Ages ago, probably approaching the 20-years scale, I read that a sometime-famous clairvoyant had predicted that a nuclear war was going to start, and that it would involve a nuclear attack on Hull. Which may one day happen, I suppose.** Unfortunately, this was a prophecy with a very specific date, and that date was in 1981.

The only hint I have to go on is that I’m fairly sure this was in a book I got from my local library of 20 years ago, and it might have been by Jenny Randles. As Jenny Randles has written several shelves’ worth of paranormal books, that’s not much help. It may well have a book about the vast number of prophecies indicating that Something Horrible Would Happen To Civilisation As We Know It around the start of this century; clearly all very very accurate ones. There’s not much to go on, though, and searching for information on prophecies about Hull hasn’t dragged anything up either. So, in trying to track this one down, I’m puzzled.

* Like an old movie where a pit pony refuses to be evacuated from a coal mine and gets blown up in an accident as a result. That movie gave me nightmares for weeks.

** Feel free to insert the compulsary joke along the lines of “at least [insert street/district here] might be improved a bit”