Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Hare In Mythology - Guest blog Post by Steph




Hand Carved Hare by Dave Migman of Stone Mad Crafts 





The Names of the Hare in English* 



Dew-beater, dew-hopper,

The sitter, the grass-hopper,

Fiddlefoot, form-sitter,

Lightfoot, fern-sitter,

Stag of the cabbages, herb cropper,

Ground creeper, sitter-still,

Pintail, turn-to-hills,

Get-up-quick,

Make-fright,

White womb,

Layer with the lambs





Hare Today…


The hare is everywhere in art these days. However as their habitats are urbanised and become more inhospitable, they are less visible in their natural environment.  Perhaps the popularity of “hare fayre” today speaks to the wildness within us, buried beneath a veneer of societal norms and plastic detritus.


 The hare’s contradictory nature is evidenced by their ubiquity in folklore. They feature worldwide in stories of the moon and fantasy and were also anthropomorphised into everyday folks. They are comfortable in the company of rude mechanicals and divinity alike. Often confused with rabbits, their gentler cousins, we are drawn to their beauty and grace which can seem otherworldly and has inspired many legends.



The Nature of the Hare


Why then are there so many legends across the world surrounding hares? They are indigenous to every continent excluding Antarctica, yet they remain stubbornly unfamiliar. They are solitary in nature, and even leverets born in the same litter are separated at birth. Yet they are known to congregate on mountainsides and even airfields in vast numbers… and nobody knows why.

In researching this post, I encountered so much contradictory information. So little is known about their habits. In fact it was only in recent years that it was discovered that “boxing hares” are not males competing for mating rites, but females rejecting potential mates. They are rarely visible out-with springtime, when they can be seen trying to outrun cars on country roads or sitting sentinel in fields. 


Hares differ from rabbits in several key ways – a hare has no home to retreat to, resting in forms above ground which makes them entirely reliant on hiding and running for survival. Their massive hearts power these high speeds. This is why they make lists of fastest animals on the planet with top speeds of up to 60km per hour. They are small prey animals with a reputation for being feisty.


Beast of Venery


As prey animals, hares have long enjoyed an elevated status and a reputation for scrappiness. In Medieval Britain, the hare was designated one of four “Beasts of Venery”. Hares were for the landed gentry only, not for peasants and poachers. Laws were passed to forbid the common man from poaching hares, as they were revered alongside the deer, boar and wolf. The unlawfulness of eating hare may have been adopted by conquerors from Celtic customs. Perhaps this status as food fit for a king only is in part responsible for the anthropomorphic interpretation of the hare as arrogant.


Whether full of bluster, like Aesop’s Hare and the housemate of Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit, or full of cunning like Brer Rabbit, hares are culturally elevated to a higher status. It is possible to see a correlation between this and their aloof, solitary nature.


Celtic and Anglo Saxon Tradition


Hares have been revered across many cultures in mythology. Both the Anglo-Saxons and Celts treated the hare as forbidden flesh excepting a ritual hunt (Celts at Beltane, Anglo Saxons at ‘Easter’ time)**. Celts viewed hares as creatures of divination. There is a well-known story of Boudicca releasing a hare as a portent during a speech. It is said that hares can shape shift, or that women (often, defined as witches) could change into hares. The Celtic warrior Oisin chased a hare and found a beautiful woman with identical injuries. There are stories too of witches, under the guise of hares, stealing milk from cows in the field. 


‘I shall go into a hare,

With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.’ 


 1662, Isobel Gowdie’s confession.



Hand carved stone pendant by Stone Mad Crafts


Moon gazing hares

The most common image by far we see of hares in art is that of the moon-gazer. The hare’s association with the moon spans across many cultures and seems to derive, in part, from their nocturnal habits and tendency to stillness. However it could also be attributable to the shape of a hare perceived in a full moon.


To Be or Not To Be…

The ancient Greeks used hares to represent both homosexual and heterosexual love. Gender fluidity is attributed to the hare in legend and they are associated with fertility in many different legends. They are associated with the god Eros and the goddess Aphrodite. It may be this reputation, along with their speed and dynamism, which led to them being used as a symbol of regeneration as well as a messenger of the gods. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, hares were most commonly used to mean ‘to be’. 

The individual hare representing existence flows nicely into some of the theories about the triskele of hares. Three hares appear in a circle formation, sharing ears so that between the three ears  they each have a pair. Three as a number represents community (where individuality and duality precede it). It is often associated with worship – trinities of gods or triskele patterns form a triangle of dependence and interconnectedness. A circular image appearing along the silk path, from the Far East to the south of England,  is known as the “Tinner’s rabbits”. It appears carved in Romanesque churches and painted in Buddhist caves.




Hieroglyph from Saqquara, Egypt, 2400 BC (Photo - S. Johnson)




Reference 

The Private Life of the Hare by John Lewis-Stempel ISBN 9781473542501

The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor ISBN 9781472942265

The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson ISBN 9780571336050




Foot notes:

 *Middle English poem, circa 13th Century, first published by ASC Ross in Proceedings of Leeds Philosophical Society, Literary and Historical Section, in 1935 (p347-77)

Translation into modern English is largely my own, Seamus Heaney has his own sweary and inaccurately translated version if you like that kind of thing!


**Easter is often referred to as having had its origins in the celebrations of the Germanic goddess ‘Oestre’ who had a hare for a companion – in reality we know very little about the extent of worship to Oestre before being referenced by Bede in 725ad and theoretically, there may well have been a host of goddesses of the spring and fertility, localised, who all became generic and celebrated under one banner… however we can readily recognise the hare’s symbolism of fertility and spring from their habits.


***oral traditions in Africa seem to make it hard to pin down an origin for this story, but there is a tradition generally of smaller, prey animals being tricksters who outwit larger creatures. There is another typical type of pan African tale which explains the origins of different animals – both aspects are present in this particular story.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Carnac




Carnac Alignments

Carnac Alignments

Carnac Alignments

Carnac Alignments



Ancient legends record that the strange alignments to the north of the Breton town of Carnac were legionnaires, turned to stone by a local saint. Walking amongst the stones you can sense how such tales grew and each megalith seems to possess a definite anthropomorphic character.  

Around the alignments lie a host of cromlechs, burial chambers, long barrows and stone circles.  They fall into 3 main groups, Menec, Kermario and Kerlescan, covering 3km with over 3000 stones. Back in the nineteenth century archaeologists assumed that the alignments were a vast druidic temple. While druids may have used the sites, the megalithic landscape of the Morbihan region of Brittany is much older, belonging to a megalithic culture that existed for about 3000 years (from 4800BC to 2250BC). 


Menhir Du Champ-Dolent - with attendant film crew that I chanced upon.

Initially huge Dolmens were erected in the 5th millennia BC. These towering pillars of rock dominated the landscape and some were carved with flowing, linear motifs. They represent a staggering achievement, not only in terms of organisation and manpower (it is estimated that to lift the Grand Menhir Brisé would have taken up to 3,800 people - it was 20-30 meters high, 5 meters wide at its base -  and weighed a mere  350 tonnes). 

However, at the close of the 5th millennium some of these menhirs were pulled down and the decorated stones fell out of favour. Some turn up in fragments recycled in long barrows, and there is a theory that many of the long mounds were originally open sites. At some point they were covered and their interiors became private. Perhaps this meant only a select few were allowed into the sites, or during certain ceremonies. Whether this change reflects a cultural change, invasion or resettlement no one is sure. 


Photo of a sign at the site which gives you an
idea of the scale of the Grand Menhir.

The toppled Grand Menhir Brisé


The large cairn next to the Grande Menhir du Brisé know as  Table Des Marchand.

The Alignments appear in the early fourth Millenium. There are a number scattered around Carnac, some aligned east to west. Various theories have been put forward, from a vast calculus that could predict the lunar eclipse, a chariot race site, or a huge druidic temple. The truth is open to interpretation and speculation. Modern archaeologists are now of the viewpoint that the alignments were a boundary, marking the frontier between two realms, that of the living, and that of the dead;  a huge funerary landscape. 

It must be said that the alignments from Erdeven, to the west, and those of Carnac, cut off  the coastal area from the mainland. It was around this coastline, and the once low lying swampland which now forms the Gulf of Morbihan, that early peoples settled, farmed, fished and foraged. The coastal area would have been a veritable land of the living, while the wilder interior less so. The alignments may mark a boundary, that of civilisation against that of the wild, the latter associated with the dead. 

What reasons drove the ancients to erect thousands of menhirs in regimental rows? Whatever they were the process took a lot of time, energy and passion. The tribes raising these alignments did so because they believed in something very powerful, the epitome of which  is the physical manifestation of the megalithic remains of Brittany that astound us to this day.


Inside La Table Des Marchand a massive carved portal stone. 





Ref -

Statements In Stone, Monuments and Society in Neolithic Brittany - Mark Patton

      























Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Wondrous Head



Stone Head dated between 500BC and 500AD  from Wentcliff Beck near Earby



The Celts had a well known and documented  reverence for the human head. The head, as the seat of the soul, was considered sacred. Ancient historians, such as Herodotus, described Celtic headhunters displaying their victims craniums with pride. To these iron-age tribesmen the  power of the slain was appropriated by the collecting of heads.  In this manner it is believed  that Celtic warriors honoured their victims. 

The idea of the head as the seat of the soul is reflected in many Celtic legends. The myth of Bran The Blessed is told in the Mabinogion, a collection of ancient tales in the Welsh language, and is just one example*. In this tale the seven survivors of the war between Matholwch and Bran bear the latter’s  severed head back to Wales from Ireland. There they lived in a fort on an island off the coast for four score years and were known as The Assembly of The Wondrous Head.  Bran’s severed head regaled them with tales, poems and songs,  until one of their number opened a forbidden door and reality rushed in. The myth  hints at the power assumed to reside within the head, even when it was no longer attached to the body. 

Stone Mad Crafts
This is one of my carvings - see the link below

Indeed this idea isn’t restricted to bloody tales of head hunters and singing severed heads prophesying the fates of lands and peoples. Stylised  heads, carved in stone, were probably used as a focus for reverence. The symbolic head also appears on much metal work from the  iron-age period throughout Europe. Such images often portray stern countenances, with large eyes and pronounced brows. They are thought to have been magical devices and were used to protect against evil. 

Wells, springs and lakes are associated with severed heads, and lingering remnants of ancient traditions involving human skulls and curative springs were still in use during the last century in Scotland and Wales. Old traditions often continued, even after the conversion of most ‘pagan peoples,’  albeit under the thin veneer of Christianity. Thus the head of Saint Fergus, who died circa 730 AD, was said to possess curative powers. In the 1400’s James IV had a silver case made for the skull.   The head of another Saint, Marnoch,** also possessed healing powers and oaths were sworn by it, testament to the lingering notion that the head contained great power. 


Stone head from York Museum. 
As you might have noticed I carve rocks. Please visit and like my FaceBook page where I post more pics of my work and give folks the head's up (ho-ho) of events I'll be attending. 



Notes:

* These texts relate the tales of the Brythonic speaking tribes who once inhabited Britain, up to the Forth Clyde isthmus
** He gave his name to Kilmarnock


Reference:

Druids - Anne Ross
Folklore of Lochs - MacKinlay

The Head Cult Tradition and folklore surrounding the symbol of the severed head in The British Isles - David Clarke.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Mysterious Kelpie: A Vestige of Older Beliefs?






Manannan's Bride, By The Author



The side was steep, the bottom deep 
Frae bank to bank the water pouring; 
And the bonnie lass did quake for fear, 
She heard the water-kelpie roaring."* 



A page from my Sketchbook showing waves depicted as sea horses. 


White  horses racing across the ocean, white manes flaring.  Tolkien used the image in the Lord of The Rings, when the river sweeps away the Dark Riders at the Ford of Bruinen. The imagery has been used in art,  myths and poems for thousands of years. It is more than mere allegorical musing, as images from Greece testify. The sea horse, or hippocampus, was  a chimera that had the head of a horse and body of a scaled fish, it is seen accompanying Triton, a sea god, as well as sea monsters such as Scylla.

I have long been intrigued by this design and references to Sea horses and Kelpies in old tales. Much Scottish folklore was documented by various folklorists back in the 1800’s, such as J.F Campbell. He travelled around the country writing down oral traditions and  stories, which bear testament to an oral tradition sadly lost. Old tales that were  themselves are like beads of sea glass found on a beach, their worn surfaces clouded. These fragments once belonged to a clearer, fully formed piece. This is how I regard much folklore. Tales were added and amended through the generations, sometimes in line with the religious and political  needs of the community, thus adding, or subtracting  elements to each tale. However, key elements persist and they are vital to the telling. Some even appear to reference pre-Christian deities. This is what I believe the folklore of the Kelpie myth refers to. 

Many lochs and pools, rivers and streams had their Kelpie, or water horse. They were also known as Each Uisge, Voughans/Vaicghs and in the Shetlands as the less threatening appellation of Nuggles - these were said to look like Shetland ponies… so no threat there!  The Kelpie/Kelpy were equated also with the Norse Nikr (Nix/Nixie and where Ole Nick comes from).  


Some of the designs that the Picts left us that date from the  6-7th c. AD. Do these images relate to the Kelpie? Are there any references to these images in earlier Celtic art? Well yes, here are a few I’ve found over the years of collecting designs to carve. 





A page from my Sketchbook, including the 'elephant' 
design mentioned below. 

This is one of my carvings - Please check the link below :>




The  so-called ‘Pictish elephant’  I believe  is a representation of an early form of Kelpie. It appears to be much more benign, or passive. The positioning suggests this motif was  powerful, and it often hovers above scenes of hunts, wars, kings and queens. And yes, perhaps the symbol came to represent a certain leader or tribe or clan,  the same way  Capricorn was adopted by the Legio II Augusta. Yet in the myths of Kelpies and sea horses, creatures that inhabit lochs and rivers, there suggests a belief in this image as a deity/spirit of associated with bodies of water.  Christianity frowned upon such beliefs, so we have the all too familiar process of ‘demonisation,’ in which the original ‘genus locii,’ or spirit, becomes an evil thing that will only bring bad luck, a creature that would drag people into the depths, lurking in boggy lochs and fast flowing rivers, or ready to pounce on the unwary in the muddy banks. 

In many tales and legends the Kelpie was a creature to be feared and sometimes it appeared as a magnificent horse, saddled and bridled, but whoever tried to ride the beast would find themselves stuck fast to its flanks, crying in terror as the beast dove into the dark cold waters of the loch.

However there are glimmers of an older, less malign version of the Kelpie, for example there was once a tale told that the materials for the building of St Vigeans, Forfarshire were brought there by a Kelpie. And beneath the church, which rested on foundations of iron bars, was a deep lake. 

Another sketchbook page, this one depicting aquatic creatures, some a bit less friendly, others, the paired examples, possess an air of tranquility and affection about them.

  


Along with the tales of Kelpies there are also those of water bulls, mermaids off the coast, and the selkie. All these are associated with watery places. We know that pools and lochs were often revered by the Celts. In fact the beliefs of our ancestors, across the globe, infer that everything had its spirit or essence. The Romans named local spirits Genus Loci. In Scotland many of the major rivers were named after local spirits and worshipped, or honoured in some form or another. 

Could it be that in these images we are seeing the lingering refrains of a spirit form, something that the peoples refused to relinquish, even in the early days of Christianity? Perhaps this in itself reveals why the Kelpie became so often a thing of malevolence. As  Christianity became less tolerant of other beliefs, the church denounced the old ways the peasantry clung to. By changing their nature, warping the old deities, spirits and Genus loci wretched demonic beings best feared. 



The Rodney Stone depicts two types of Aquatic creature.




STONE MAD CRAFTS - I carve rocks! Please check out my FACEBOOK PAGE


* From a Southern County Ballad (Quoted in Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs - James A. Mackinlay


Reference

Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs - James A. Mackinlay
Popular Tales of the Western Highlands - J.F Campbell

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dunadd - seat of the Scots



Dunadd - Picture by the author


Dunadd rises from the Moine Mhor (Great Moss), like the gnarled knoll of a giant's brow,  heightening the sense that you are travelling amidst a sacred landscape. Little remains of the fortifications that once wound around the steep escarpments, yet  it is not difficult to imagine how it looked in its heyday.  The enclosing walls were massive, thick and stony, threading between the cliffs and banks. A circular citadel stood upon its crest, warriors watched from the battlements, flags blustered in strong winds. Once the mound of Dunadd was not so still, or silent.  Hunting hounds barked and whined, horses whinnied, people called to each other, the murmur of their voices drifted across the marsh. Once upon a time the hill was an island of habitation, rising above a treacherous marsh.   It was a mysterious place, and it still possesses an otherworldly quality.


Moine Mhor - Picture by the author


From the heights - Picture by the author
Remains of fortification walls - Picture by the author



Given the sacred nature of such landmarks in other areas, and Dunadd’s proximity to Kilmartin Glen (a site of religious importance from the Bronze Age), it is likely that Dunadd served  religious and secular functions and was not only a  military installation. Kilmartin is home to the highest concentration of cup and rings, barrows, cairns and standing stones in Scotland, with over 800 within six miles of the village itself. 


Cup marked standing stone near in Kilmartin Glen - Picture by the author


It was once assumed that the Scots invaded Pictland from Ireland but evidence, supported archaeologically,  suggests a gradual process of assimilation with strong economic ties already existing between the north of Ireland and western Scotland. As this culture mutated the peoples became a cohesive society, recognisable as the Dal Riata. The tribesmen of this growing kingdom would become known as the Scots. Their seat of power was Dunadd. Dun means fort, and -add (originally -att) is the nearby river.  



Battlements near the summit - Picture by the author

Legend has it that the fort was founded by Fergus Mór mac Eirc in 500 AD, but  archaeological finds from Dunadd predate the Roman invasion of Britain*. Obviously Dunadd existed as a site of importance long before Fergus showed up. However, by the turn of the 700 AD Dal Riata had two seats of power, Dunollie in the north and Dunadd to the south.   The fledgling kingdom of the Scots was growing!


The footprint! - Picture by the author


A carving of a Pictish boar is  located  at Dunadd near the summit. Parts of an indecipherable Ogham text can be traced running along cracks near the figure  and a footprint, carved into the stone, in which the kings of the Scots were said to place their feet when they took their oaths of kingship. It is interesting that the symbol of the boar may come from the fort’s seizure by the Picts in 736 AD, when Oengus I took the fortress.



Ogham script following the natural cracks in the stone - Picture by the author


Oengus moved against Dal Riata after his son, Prince Brude, was captured by a warband of Scots. His retaliation was ferocious: first he took Dunollie and then he moved on Dunadd. It must have been a difficult task, the hilltop was girthed by a series of thick stone walls, and to reach the citadel at its crest warriors would have had to fight their way through a series of courtyards and negotiate a narrow gully, all the while exposed to archers. Given the strong defences, it is more likely that they starved the defenders into submission… but I like the idea of a bloody slog best!  Oengus brought the kingdom of Dal Riata under Pictish dominion for a time, but of course the tide would eventually shift in favour of the Scots. 

A killing zone. A narrow defile is the only way to access the heights
 - Picture by the author

Looking back through the defile at the
lower portion, once a fortified courtyard
 - Picture by the author



The boar - I have darkened a portion because the original is so faint,
but here you can clearly see the head of the boar to the right
- Picture by the author


Were these carvings the result of a Pictish victory? Did they denote the house of Oengus? Or were they the creation of a peacetime treaty? There were silversmithing workshops within the castle walls, moulds and fragments have been found that hint at a Pictish influence in style. So was the carving created by an artist with a taste for designs he’d seen on Pictish stones to the East?  And what did such symbols mean to the people of Dal Riata? Was this a tribal motif? Did it hold religious significance? We do  know that by the tenth century AD the Pictish culture had been superseded by that of the Scots and these carvings bear a tantalising glimpse into the power such symbols once held, even if their purpose is obscure. 


* - A legend places the Stony of Destiny, upon which the Scot's kings were crowned, at Dunadd for a time too.



Resources:

Find Pictish and Celtic designs at my Etsy shop



Reference:

 1 - Strongholds of the Picts: The Fortifications of Dark Age Scotland - Angus Konstam

 2 - The Art of the Picts - George Henderson and Isabel Henderson