+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘religion’

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.

The burial

What happens after you die

This is one of an occasional series of articles recounting the stories around my dad’s death from cancer in 2019, and what happened afterwards. More specifically, this post follows on directly from this one about his funeral service.

Personally speaking, I don’t have much experience of funeral services. At my dad’s I was steeling myself up to have to say thank you, afterwards, to all the people who had come along who I didn’t know at all. I remember as a child, being taken to church: the priest standing at the door as everyone filed out, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming. Somehow I had assumed we’d probably have to do the same thing, thank everyone for coming and for feeling suitably sad. Indeed, the undertakers asked if we wanted to stand outside the church and speak to the other mourners. The Mother, though, wasn’t ready for anything like that. She wanted us to get going as quickly as we could.

“As quickly as we could” is a bit of a misnomer for a funeral, of course. The Rector at The Mother’s church had already told us she liked to lead processions from the church to the cemetery on foot. At, it turned out, a fairly glacial pace, one step at a time. The cortege followed, and I tried to carefully drive at a matching pace without accidentally rear-ending the hearse. We crept through the village lanes linking the church and the cemetery, waiting at junctions for passing traffic, watching old men stop and remove their hats as we passed. The whole journey was well under half a mile, but it felt like an age.

Naturally, the rest of the extended family had all reached the cemetery well before us, and had all half-blocked the lane outside the cemetery with their cars to some distance either side of the cemetery gates. Not exactly knowing what to do, and with the limousine carrying my father’s frail sisters right behind us, I blindly followed the hearse through the cemetery gates and up the path. We just fitted through: but of course we did, you have to be able to get a hearse into a cemetery after all. We sailed slowly up the single path that runs up the middle of the field. The village cemetery is nearly full, with only a few spaces left available to people who lived within the bounds of the parish,*, so my dad’s grave was tucked away down at one corner at the far end, a mound of wet clay marking it out. Hand-dug by a professional artisan gravedigger, because the parish council has put a ban on mini-diggers. My mind naturally wondered if this would be a selling-point in Bishopston or St Werburghs.

We gathered around the muddy hole, its edged protected with fake turf. When all of us were in place, everyone decanted from their cars, the pallbearers carefully carried the wicker coffin over and solemnly lowered it into place. The Rector said her piece, and we scattered soil; then, one by one, flowers from a bunch of white roses. The undertaker had suggested this idea, “but don’t buy them from us,” she’d said. “Go to a supermarket before the funeral and pick some up, it’ll be a third of the price we charge.” So we had dutifully stopped off at Morrisons on the way there, for a bunch of white roses to be thrown into the grave. I took them round the mourners, offering them out to my various aunts and uncles and cousins in rough order of consanguinity downwards. Behind the hedge at the edge of the cemetery, a horse started neighing. The Child Who Likes Animals was trying to get away and look for bugs and minibeasts in the undergrowth.

I took out my phone, trying to be relatively discreet, and took a photo of the coffin lying in the grave with soil and roses scattered on top. The last one. Soft rain had started, and the relatives were all heading to their cars, ready to head off to the waiting buffet over on the other side of the village. The bespoke artisan gravediggers were, I assumed, hiding somewhere round the corner ready to start their hand-shovelling as soon as was tactful, as soon as we were all out of sight. Loading the family back into the car, I gingerly reversed back down the path and out to the lane, dead slow lest there be any elderly relatives directly behind me. It wouldn’t really do to drive over somebody at a funeral.

* If you already own a plot but want to open it up to add another body, then the village council charges you about fifteen times more if the new body comes from outside the parish. Can’t be doing with outsiders moving in for eternity, I assume.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

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.

Calling Dr Jones (part two)

In which we discuss lost relics once more

Time to return to Tudor Parfitt‘s documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, which I started to discuss last week. A brief recap: Prof. Parfitt has discovered, in a museum in Harare, a 14th-century southern African war drum whose descent can, arguably, be traced back to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, as described in Raiders Of The Lost Ark Exodus:

“Have them make a chest of acacia-wood: two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.

If you remember the film: the prop-makers on Raiders Of The Lost Ark followed this description pretty much spot-on. Tudor Parfitt, though, has another theory. As the Ark’s descendant is a drum, the original Ark must have been a drum also.

There are, though, a couple of glaring problems with this. Apart from one verse in the Quran which is pretty consistent, the evidence we have for the Ark’s original existence comes from the Bible; from the Old Testament and related books. In all those Biblical references, it’s described in the same way, as a chest. That’s very clear. For Professor Parfitt’s theory to be correct, then we have to assume that although the ark existed according to our sources, all those sources are wrong about what it essentially was. It’s like saying “I believe the Battle of Agincourt happened just like it says in the chronicles – only it wasn’t a battle. And it was somewhere else.”

Furthermore, it makes good archaeological sense that the chest the Israelites built was indeed a chest. If you follow the description of the Ark in the Bible, it’s a chest, about a metre long, designed to be carried on poles. According to the Bible, it was built just after the Israelites had left their Egyptian bondage; and the Egyptians used very similar chests in their own religious rites. They had portable shrines, chests borne on poles just like the Ark, used to carry iconic statues in religious procession – just as the Ark was carried in procession in front of the Israelites. Indeed, Parfitt’s documentary covered all this, and pointed out that the description of the Ark quoted above is pretty close to a description of an Egyptian portable shrine. He didn’t believe in it, though, because it’s a very ornate object to be built by people wandering about in the desert.

In Deuteronomy there’s a different description of the building of the Ark:

At that time YHWH said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands.

None of the ornate decoration, just a wooden box. A box, note. This passage has led some people to believe that there might have been two arks, an ornate one in the Temple and a practical one for use in war; but equally, it could be that the Israelites built a simple chest first and decorated it later.* In any case, it’s still most definitely a box, not a drum.

In order to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant was a war-drum, as Tudor Parfitt thinks, you have to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant didn’t exist at all; and that the Israelites had some other holy object which they carried in front of them, some holy object for which there is no evidence at all. On the other hand, if you’re willing to embrace a more sophisticated model of archaeology and culture than Professor Parfitt apparently is, it’s quite possible that there is a 14th-century AD African war drum which is, in some way, a descendant of a 14th-century BCE** Israelite reliquary. A lot can change in 2,800 years, after all. In the final part of these posts, we’ll talk about cultural change, the archaeology of Yorkshire, and why a holy chest might well become a holy drum over time.

Part Three of this post follows, here, even though I haven’t got around to the Yorkshire bit yet »

* Or, this could be a brief summary of the previous chapter which didn’t need to delve into the full specification.

** That date’s based on Moses’ traditional Jewish birth date, in 1391 BCE

Calling Dr Jones (part one)

In which we go in search of lost relics

In our attempt to make sure we didn’t do anything too romantic on Saturday, we stayed in and watched an archaeology documentary on the telly. Or, at least, it said it was an archaeology documentary. It quickly veered off towards pseudoarchaeology, and stayed there.

The documentary in question was The Quest For The Lost Ark by Tudor Parfitt – a repeat, although neither of us had previously caught it. The titular ark in question was the Mosaic Ark Of The Covenant, as described in the Bible: built according to God’s instructions while the Jews were wandering lost in the desert, then later installed in the inner sanctum of Solomon’s Temple. It went missing, though; Jerusalem was sacked, the Temple was destroyed, and nobody knows where the Ark now is* – or, indeed, if it survived at all.

Professor Parfitt’s theory was, essentially, that the Ark of the Covenant can’t have been the chest described, in remarkably detailed fashion,** in the Bible. This is because he has found its descendant: an African war drum, currently in storage in an Harare museum. This drum and the Ark were both used something like a military standard was in later times, borne at the head of armies; except that unlike a standard, both the artifacts had unearthly powers. It was the Ark, for example, which brought down God’s destruction of the walls of Jericho, after it had been paraded around the city.

Some backtracking might be needed here, to explain the professor’s argument. This wasn’t any random African war drum. Rather, it belonged to a tribe called the Lemba, who, despite living in Zimbabwe, maintain that they are a lost tribe of Israel, having been led south by seven priests, back in the mists of time. They do, indeed, have religious practices that are similar to Judaism in some ways; more to the point, study of their Y-chromosome has apparently found that a large number of men from their priestly clan are probably descended from a small group of Kohanim.*** That wouldn’t really be that significant if they were a Semitic people; but, they’re not.

The Lemba’s traditional belief is that, as they were led south by this small group of priests, they took with them a holy war drum. Remade over the years, the descendant of this artefact is the drum now in Harare. It is, indisputably, a drum. So, says Professor Parfitt, if this 14th-century drum is modelled on the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, and not the box described in the Bible**** – even if it definitely did exist, as described in the Bible. Hum. I can spot a bit of a logical gap here.

Putting on my archaeological hat,***** there’s nothing at all to say that the Lemba drum in Harare wasn’t inspired, in its use and construction, by the original Ark – or by traditions of the Ark, which is slightly different. That is, of course, if the drum in Harare is the genuine article, evidence for which wasn’t really discussed: Parfitt skipped over that bit in something of a hurry. However, you can’t then justify a logical leap to say that it is modelled directly on the original, so the original can’t be as described. There are sound archaeological reasons why the Ark of the Covenant is unlikely to have looked like the drum Parfitt found in Harare; and, for that matter, why the drum might have become a drum later. I’ll come to that, in the next part of this post.

Part Two of this post follows, here »

* although you might know the apocryphal story about the Nazis and an American treasure hunter…

** at least he’s not as bad as those of the von Däniken school – I forget if it was von D himself or an acolyte – who stated baldly that if you build the ark according to the biblical plan, you get a radio receiver with a high-voltage battery. Unsurprisingly, they have not managed to replicate said item.

*** The Jewish priestly clan, if you didn’t know and didn’t want to follow the link.

**** It does get two contradictory descriptions, but in both it’s a reliquary, a chest for relics.

***** It’s a bit dusty, but quite dashing

Evolving

In which we remember Darwin

Happy birthday Darwin, two hundred today, and probably one of the most important scientists who ever lived. He may not have been the sole person responsible for evolutionary theory – certainly not for modern evolutionary theory – but, as well as being a great scientist, he was a writer, someone who could communicate scientific ideas. That’s more important, sometimes, than the idea itself.

If you’re near Bristol: to commemorate Darwin, Bristol Zoo is offering free entry to anyone who turns up this morning with a beard (real or fake). As I write, there’s about 2 1/2 hours left to claim, so you’ll have to rush.

As it happens, only the other day I was reading a book which reminded me how important it is to remember Mr Darwin, as important as it ever was. Counterknowledge, by Damien Thompson, a short book on a long long subject: how falsehoods such as creationism and pseudoarchaeology are presented as somehow equal to facts and truth. How they are presented by the media as a “debate”, when one side’s evidence greatly outweighs the other.* It’s easy to find people today who believe that evolution is wrong; that somehow, because they find life beautiful, there must be a purpose and a designer behind it. And from there it’s a slippery slope to believing first that species are immutable; and from there, that conservation is unimportant, that God must have given us everything we need, and that Genesis 1:28** gives humanity the right to use up any and all resources that there are.

* as much as the inactive contents of a homeopathic remedy outweigh the active contents, you could say.

** “God said unto [man and woman],*** be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

*** Not “Adam and Eve”, note. Adam and Eve aren’t in the “six days” story of Creation, which this verse is part of. They’re in the second Creation story, which starts at Genesis 2:4; where God creates Adam from the barren earth and then Eden for him to live in.