Monday, May 22, 2017

The Pictish Runes That Never Were Pictish.

In many of these posts I’ve concentrated on explaining various symbols. In my dealings with the designs, and over years of carving, I’ve occasionally been asked to do some designs that, though billed as real, are historical fakes - symbols that have been made-up! Like this lot here...

I thought I'd expose here the so-called Pictish runes (see above pic). Putting it bluntly these are a complete fabrication, little more than a modern invention. None of these designs feature on any Pictish stone I’ve encountered - and I’ve been to many of the sites and I have many tomes filled with Pictish designs. These ones just don’t exist! 

The Picts were tribals folk living North of The Antonine Wall. Little is known about them. They fought with neighbouring Brythonic speaking Celtic Tribes and finally succumbed to Scottish dominion. By the 11th century A.D. their cultural identity had been absorbed by that of the Scots.  

Their legacy is revealed in numerous monumental stones, covered with carvings that often feature a unique plethora of symbolic motifs.  The problem is that no-one truly knows the symbolism of the real Pictish designs. There is a lot of speculation, but really, not even the experts can explain their function for certain. With a lack of written records, and the lengths Christianity went to destroy lingering refrains of paganism, it is impossible to know their exact symbolism. But the ‘Pictish runes' or 'Pictish alphabets' used by the likes of ‘Pecti wiccans’ are little more than modern fantasy - which is fair enough, if you recognise them as such. 

So Called 'Pictish alphabet - Yet another invention.

However, in saying this I find it amusing that they have joined the lexicon of Pictish motifs; that, although not historically true, are used by people out there with good intentions. I don’t think there is anything wrong in this. Personally my take on magic, items of divination etc, is that they function as trigger mechanisms that help focus the mind in particular ways. But if a wee heart symbol  makes you aware of love, or feel loved, or respect love, then it works - if it is a symbol for strength or fire with all its associated meaning, given as a gift to a friend, the intent is powerful - and the act of giving is potent in itself. 

The symbol doesn’t need to be of ancient origin. Though I find older symbols are pregnant with meaning and imbued with a  timeless Quality that modern efforts lack - that is possibly a personal choice, but it is one that I feel that I sense intuitively. 

Chaos magic is a modern magical tradition with its methods rooted in a sort of wry scientific/experimental magical approach. Chaos Magicians are encouraged to make use of modern and ancient symbols/items for magical/symbolic/ritual purposes. While respecting older magical traditions practitioners are not beholden to them. For example, the innards of a circuit board could be sectioned into rune-like symbols for divination. Though the symbol might be modern the thought process is the same. So while I’m pointing out that the Pictish Runes aren’t authentic, I’m not saying they are without worth. 

At some point I will attempt to write more about  Pictish symbols, I’m still researching the subject amongst everything else, but I will get around to the real symbols eventually. They are mysterious, enigmatic designs that deserve a few posts. In the meantime here’s a few pics to wet your appetite. 

Hilton Of Cadboll Stone

Sueno's Stone

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Let’s Give It Some Chaos!

A lifetime ago I used to love Role-playing games, it was a teenage obsession of mine. I used to collect a magazine called White Dwarf and study the articles religiously. I loved the idea of fantasy worlds and escapism because, as a bullied teenager, I longed to escape. I also enjoyed the notion of the game. To me role-play was best when it was a group of people lost in an imaginary world. We were playing games like children play only adults aren’t allowed, so we make up rules. We used the Warhammer Fantasy rule book as a guide and there were no lead figures or anything like that. Our weekly engagments were pure cerebral adventures. It involved acting, playing, escapism but most of all it was bloody good fun (and the players included two huge hairy bikers who were abslutely mental, so erase the stereotype of geeky role-play gamers from your mind please). 

Now a symbol that arose a lot in Warhammer and still does is this:

It is a symbol for chaos, sometimes the points radiate from an open circle too. It was something that appealed to this youngster. And I still feel a  bit feverish when I see it these days. Of course in Warhammer it’s used to represent the forces of chaos. Everytime I carve it it sells instantly. Why? Because it’s a great symbol for a great theme. Chaos. However the motif's origins are interesting. The Chaos star was designed by Michael Moorcock, the author of the Elric Sagas and such. In fact it originates from his Eternal Champion series. The idea is ingeniously simple, the arrow reflects the direction of possibilties branching from the source. It’s a neat piece of imagery, which ties in with elements of chaos theory. Moorcock’s influence is deep and if you like bands such as Hawkwind then you’ll be familar with his ideas. 

Ok, but what the hell is chaos anyway?

Well chaos has been a buzz word over the latter half of the 20th century due to discoveries in quantum physics and dynamic systems, such as the weather, turbulence etc. I’ll paste some links to further your study of inquiry should you wish to expand your mind some. In Grecian myth Kaos was the first thing, from which came everything else. In fact many myths and religions follow this theme. As mentioned in the Serpent Post - the whole concept of  a sky god beating down a serpent monster can be interpreted as order triumphing over chaos. However chaos is never defeated, modern quantum physics kind of illustrates this fact: through chaos comes order, comes chaos then order. Look at any fractal such as the infamous Mandelbrot set and this is visually highlighted over and over again. 

Think of it scientifically, you have the Big Bang, the entire universe comes into being from a single unique point. Everything goes nuts! A mass of elements in their prime are sent hurtling around, crashing into each other, exploding, mixing, stabilising  and gradually forming gaseous planets that begin to solidify, harmonise and settle… yet chaos still provides an interesting undercurrent. 

Again I find it amazing how this symbol has been adopted by many modern media outlets, Warhammer being the classic, but there are many other places where the symbol crops up, Halo for example, and even My Little Pony! Haha! So it just goes to show how symbols can easily work their way into society, almost assuming a life of their own (although there are sites that insist this is an ancient symbol of chaos, which is bull - but again is interesting how such notions develop).  For me, I just like it, the idea of chaos and, like Dee’s Monad, and the design is aesthetically pleasing. Sure it’s only been around for 50 years, but I’ve a feeling it will be around a lot longer. 


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cycladic Goddesses

I’ve recently returned from a two month sojourn in Greece. As usual I’m drawn to various archaeological sites and museums. I find that in Greece the evidence of the past is everywhere, and like symbols the past is incorporated into later ages. Temples are forgotten, their ruins pilfered for building materials, in the same way that symbols gather new meanings. 

This week I’m concentrating on the Cycladic Goddess figurines because I believe that the figurines provide a great example of the abstraction of physical form. The Cyclades is a group of Grecian islands situated in the Aegean Sea. I recommend visiting there and island hopping - each island possesses a unique character. Highlights include the volcanic spur of Santorini, the beautiful beaches of Naxos, rugged mountain tracks over Andros and everywhere  fresh food and a relaxed atmosphere. 

Dating between 3300-1100 BC the Cycladic culture is famous for producing a distinctive stylised art-form. The majority of the remains found are of the so-called ‘goddess’ figurines. Most of which are rendered in varying degrees of abstraction. For example some look like guitars, others conform to a stylised ritual stance, i.e. figure is standing, arms folded across the chest, the face is triangular, almost shield-like, with only the nose form modelled. Of course many of these were painted, so that details like eyes and mouths were rendered in ochre or charcoal. The effect of the paint upon the stark white marble must have been very striking. The picture taken for this page are my own, and they all come from Naxos Archaeological Museum.

Here were see the artistic/ritual metamorphose of feminine form in a way that still has the ability to amaze us moderns. Once again we have to remember that religion was indistinct from art. But are these effigies goddess figurines, as Marija Gimbutas would have us convinced? or are they localised deities, representations of fertility spirits and such? 

A series of figurines in profile. Naxos Archaeological Museum.

Here we see the classic pose.
You might just make out a painted eye on the centre figure. 

Great close up of a marble goddess head.

The head bears a striking similarity to later Mayan pieces, though
thousands of years and miles separate them. 

Again the striking, ritual pose in various sizes. 

Classic stylised 'guitar' shape goddess.
Could it be that carved wooden heads were fixed to the neck peg?

We’ll never know for certain, but I’d like to draw your attention to the following pictures. Note how the female pubic region is simplified into a triangular form, sometimes struck with a dividing line, representing the vagina. This to me is a great example of how a symbol is formed. The vagina is bordered, or framed by a triangle, itself replete with profound symbolism. This boundary demarcates sacred ground: it is the entrance to the womb of the deity, the seat of fertility. The humble triangle inspired by the sculpture, could, in theory, be used to represent such a meaning 
-  a pictogram or ideogram. Such motifs are the beginnings of alphabets. 

Further Reading and Links:

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Load Of Old Bull?

There is a vast corpus of striking imagery from Mt. Bego in the Italian/French Alps. The images, dated to between 3,200-1700 B.C depict many stylised bulls or oxen. There are about 13,000 ‘corniform’ carvings, being a substantial percentage of the 40,000 carvings discovered at the site. 

Carvings from Mt Bego.

This reverence for the animal persisted in the Alpine regions into the later Hallstatt period. After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain the bull became linked to certain deities and cults. For example the god Esus, the strong or roaring one, was often portrayed in the company of bulls. There were also specific bull-gods, such as the Gallic Tarvostrigaranus.  In Graeco-Romano realms the bull was linked with the chief of the gods, Zeus/Jupiter, proving how powerful an image it was. The image hints at tribal memories of times when the mighty auroch roamed the lands. The auroch were  huge wild bulls that became extinct by the 2nd Millenia BC (although according to some sources the species survived into the 1600’s in Poland). 

With a lot of animal symbology  natural qualities become  sympathetic attributes ie; certain beneficial qualities of a particular animal are desired to be transferred, or acquired, by a human.  In the bull’s case these 'desired qualities' are strength and endurance. This is a reoccurring theme in many cultures. 

There appears to have been a symbolic association with the moon and the bull in many ancient religions. Of course visually the crescent of the horns could easily have been identified with the moon and this doesn’t suggest a cross fertilisation of early ideas. Such ideas could have been formed and associations deduced  by communities where stylised symbols were used. 

Brone Age Celtic figure. The triple horns suggest heightened potency.

Cattle were also linked with fertility and prosperity. This association was another practical one extending from the days when cattle were a tribesman’s wealth. The first rune of the Viking futhark, Fehu (Feoh in old English),  means money and cattle. In Vedic India cows were once payment for poets - something similar was not unknown in ancient Ireland, as is mentioned in the Táin Bó Regamna: Cú Chulainn, encountering the Morrighan disguised as a travelling poet, asked her where she got the cow that she led. The goddess replied that it was given in return for a poem. 

Bull skulls have been found at Celtic shrines, and the animal was often slain in sacrificial rites. This practice was not only confined to the Celtic regions. Bull worship and sacrifice was vital to the Minoan civilisation. Often such sacrifices coincided with communal feasting celebrations in which the sacrifice was on the menu.

The sacrifice of cattle in ritual was to yield a portion of wealth to the god/goddess. The inclusion of carved wooden bull figurines at shrine dedicated to Sequana, the goddess of the River Seine in France, may well be sacrificial offerings made by those unable to afford to sacrifice a real cattle.

Stylised bull from Pictish Scotland, Late Iron Age.

As hinted at previously, there is a strong link between cows and poet inspiration. In Vedic and Grecian myth this theme is alluded to in the Rig Veda and there are similarities between the myth of  Orpheus and the tripartite craftsmen of Hindu myth, the Rbhus. The latter are craftsmen who also craft words, which is exactly what a poet does. 

Indeed there appears to be a strong Indo-European root-myth in which a divine hero slays an underworld serpent, releasing the cattle of the dawn from the cavern of its stomach. It is said that a true poet must learn the names of the footprints of the cattle. This obscure reference (and the fact that in Hindu myth this is also linked to Soma) perhaps alludes to hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow in cow dung. Perhaps naming the footprints was an allegory for naming the ’shroom. Who knows, but if you want inspiration of deep-seated and far-sighted proportions mushrooms will do the trick!* 

This notion of cattle as wealth and  as providers of poetic inspiration is heightened by the produce obtained from the milk-cow. As providers of milk and butter they are benefactors to the community and therefore, symbolically, themes of abundance, prosperity and fertility abound. Sacrificial offerings of large slabs of butter have been found in bogs in Ireland dating to the later Bronze-age, attesting to the power of the motif and providing an insight into other ways the cow was sacrificed. 

In the male aspect we see strength, endurance, and the warlike nature of men. These themes are epitomised in the famous Irish tale the “Táin Bó Cuailnge”, in which a brown and white bull  symbolise the warring tribes of Connacht and Ulster. In the final section of the tale the bulls battle on the Plain of Aei, ripping each other apart.*  Here we see a warlike aspect of the bull in vivid Celtic imagery, it is a insight into the cattle raiding nature of the warrior Celts, possessing powerful metaphoric insight. 

“It was not long before the men of Erin, as they were there early on the morrow, saw coming over Cruachan from the west the Brown Bull of Cualnge with the Whitehorned of Ai in torn fragments hanging about his ears and horns. The men of Erin arose, and they knew not which of the bulls it was.” 

From the Táin Bó Cuailnge


It is interesting to reflect that the first runic imprint in the futhark alphabet is that of cattle! 

They are both swineherds who have been reborn as the mighty beasts.


Futhark, A Book Of Rune Magic - Edred Thorsson
Inherited Bovine Aspects In Greek Reflexes of the Indo-European Serpent Slaying Myth - John-Andrew McDonald
Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore  - Patricia Monaghan
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Prehistoric Britain - Timothy Darvil


Mt Bego link Here

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Epona, the Goddess of the Horse

The Trundholm Artefact - The cosmic horse pulls the sun through the heavens

Horses were introduced into central Europe in the 8th century B.C, possibly arriving with migrations of Indo-European settlers*. What the horse truly symbolised to those people we can only guess. We know that later the horse was of vital importance to the Celts. Not only was it associated with the sun (check the picture above of the artefact from Trundholm, Denmark**) but it signified power and might - for those who could harness the horse could create empires. 

A carving from Agassac, South-West Gaul.  Epona is surrounded by cosmological symbols: mythological creatures, sun-symbols and flowers.
A carving from Agassac, South-West Gaul.
Epona is surrounded by cosmological symbols: mythological creatures, sun-symbols and flowers.

Epona was a Celtic deity whose name means horse. She was worshipped across the Celtic kingdoms as far away as Bulgaria, and Northern Africa. Her cult also maintained a presence in Britain too. Among such tribes as the Treveri and Mediomatrici she was a popular and powerful goddess.  Usually she is portrayed sitting side-saddle, sometimes between a pair of horses or with groups of horses that appear to pay homage to her. Epona never appears without the animal. 

She is linked with symbols both life-giving and those of death. Sometimes she bears a cornucopia, or  baskets of food for her beasts; obvious symbols of fertility (an aspect of vital importance in areas where horses were bred). Other times she appears in the company of ravens, keys, rosettes and dogs (all associated with the underworld/afterlife of which she was sometimes a guardian).  Many shrines are found near springs and this association with water also points to the equestrian goddess’ healing powers. 

She was so widely worshipped even the Romans held a festival in her honour on the 18th of December (the only Gaulish goddess taken up by the Romans). But it has been suggested that in the far distant past she was represented by a horse, only later taking human form. Animals were revered for particular qualities, be it vitality, ferociousness (as we’ve seen in the WOLF post), agility etc. The horse was especially revered for its beauty, strength, speed and sexual vigour. Sometimes the horse appears with horns in ancient Northern European imagery - reflecting its ‘otherworldliness’ and supernatural properties. In Norse myth the god Odin rides his eight-legged horse Slepnir. This magical horse  can travel to the underworld (sacred horses were used for divination by the Germanic  Wends at Ancona - they also possessed a white horse that none were allowed ride). 

On the subject of white horses this image is a powerful one and reoccurs throughout northern Europe. For example the famous Uffington horse, an image carved into the chalk hillside which dates from 1000-600BC. 

The Uffington horse, Southern England


* Although this view has come under fire in recent decades, with the onset of DNA testing the theory apparently holds - there were successive migrations of peoples from the central Eurasian steppes at various periods in the mid and late Bronze-age. 

** The sun is a topic I explored HERE


Symbol And Image In Celtic Art - Miranda Green
The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe - HR Ellis Davidson

Friday, February 24, 2017

Toys and Games

Hellenic goddess figurines. 1000-1300 B.C

This post is a bit of an ad lib - really just a thought, rather a series of thoughts that occurred to me while perusing books looking up info and reference and such. 

When I was a kid I had a number of toys. I wasn’t spoilt, my Dad wasn’t so well-off and he hated spending money so my toys were special to me (unlike some of my pals who seemed to get everything they wanted). Over the years those toys that survived my games (being bashed with bricks or burned for spectacular effect) became dear characters, they were stars in bouts and episodes of storytelling. The games were stories, there were epics, or single self-enclosed pieces. Sometimes, after watching some movie, I would rummage through my toy box and assemble various characters together to ‘re-enact’ the film, or sections from the film… usually the battles. I used to drive my mother nuts with my battles. Especially the big ones, with every single soldier and others drawn on bits of paper arranged in regiments on cupboards and down the stairs... and then the noise of explosions and characters dying heroically. The spectacle must have looked absurd, but then most adults ignore the games of children. It’s just a game after all. But they were so consuming, it was more than just acting out some sequence of events to pass time. They were like movies, they were in part real.

I remember there came a day when I suddenly felt stupid playing my games. I think I was spotted by some older kids and they regarded me like a freak. For some reason I became self-conscious and the playing petered out, it felt childish. I guess that’s the way we are conditioned.  

Romano-Gallic pieces
Romano-Celtic Bronze, 3rd c. AD

Romano-Gallic pieces
Romano-Gallic pieces, bronze and enamel

When you look at the assemblage of pictures here, note that some archaeologists consider that these were just toys. I’d  like to elevate the status of the toy, from 'just a toy'. I’d like to question the notion of childish games being simply childish. But rather I’d like to point out that the gaming ‘frame of mind’ is actually a remnant of the mind-frame that inspired the craftspeople who fashioned such stunning and complex pieces. 

So where is my evidence here? Well many of the figures pictured here were placed in graves as votary elements, some have been found at religious shrines. It is well attested that in the past people didn’t think like we ‘moderns’. Oh sure, they did many things the same. But  from what we understand of the votary and funerary practices across ancient Europe  there is a vast corpus of evidence, and some of this same evidence that might appear unsavoury to our modern mind. In Bronze-age Europe the polytheistic animist cults that flourished were not always so politically correct as some would have us believe, even if we take into account that certain literary accounts from that period may be Roman or Grecian, bias (‘civilised’ versus 'barbarian'). However we can’t ignore the archaeological record in which numerous skulls confirm such practices affirmed in ancient accounts of the Celts (the so-called cult of the severed head), or the widespread and ancient practice of excarnation are attested. So are finds of bog bodies, sacrificial victims, placed in pools and whose remains are incredibly preserved because of the peat. Some of these bodies exhibit triple deaths, a theme that reoccurs in Celtic myths. We have to understand that our way of thinking in the West especially has been altered by Christianity. For 2000 years the Abrahamic belief systems have dominated the West. The instillation of a linear timescale is one of its legacies. Before this time was viewed as cyclical. Some tribes held to the belief of transmigration. The difference is huge. 

The Winged Man of Uppåkra
The Winged Man of Uppåkra

To the pre-christian European tribes  death was viewed very differently. In  Norse tradition we have accounts of people volunteering to be sacrificed with a particular lord. While Celtic warriors often charged naked into the fray. In the tales that survive in the Norse sagas and Celtic myths such as the Mabinogion, themes of rebirth persist and many heroes are killed, reborn through numerous cycles. Death was a veil, and for many life was an element in a circular motion, a point of reference in a transmigratory procession (life-death-rebirth, as the druids were said to have taught). These concepts of life and death and re-birth were echoed in the nature that they were so close to. From time immemorial these myths existed. In Sumerian legend  the goddess Inanna’s descent into the Underworld, and how she made a deal and sent her lover, Dumuzi, into the underworld for the winter months. The tale is a sort of divine rendering of the yearly cycle. Such concepts have been with us since we first settled, indeed they probably existed long before, as people explained the seasons that provided hunting and other means of sustenance. 

Mythology, like the symbolism that is often attached to it, mutates through the ages. But many forms remain the same. Just because for thousands of years the record was an oral tradition, when the gathering of communities involved the telling of cosmological stories, and just because these were orally transmitted myths doesn’t mean they were Chinese whispers. This is another of our modern prejudice.  The role of the priests, as attested by what we know of the druids, was as keepers of the stories and the tales from the past. For example a druid spent some 20 years perfecting his craft. The stories, histories and myths were told in the form of poems and these were committed to memory.

One of my creations:
A skull of smoky quartzite
Eyes are obsidian shards!

Another  relevant  factor to this topic is the idea of animism. It is ground I've covered before but I'll elaborate briefly here. For many cultures everything possessed a spirit, an energy. Some of these became deified through the millennia. Metal was seen as a powerful element, and even forged implements had their 'spirit'. They were not dumb inanimate objects but vested with power. So this wasn't something restricted to the natural world, humans, or rather the magician who knew how to take metals from the earth and forge a blade, a statue, a torc... well there was spirit, or magical power within. The legends are full of such tales, the obvious that comes to mind is King Arthur's blade, Excalibur (itself a possible folk memory of when bronze blades were cast in stone moulds). This idea persists into the modern age in fantasy and such. 

With this in mind let's return to the object of the game: Our humbler toy is now blessed with life. The little statuette of bronze (itself a magical material) is no lifeless object, for something resides within it. When the Evenk shaman gathers his wooden birds, these are not toys, there are powerful representations of the spirits that will aid him in his journey. Likewise the Greenland Tupilak is no mere toy, for the shaman uses it to destroy his enemies. 

"It's all just imagination?" Says the Western adult, ignoring the importance of the childhood game. Imagination is everything. Artists, writers, musicians and craftsmen often can’t explain where their inspiration derives. Some feel like a vehicle or mouth-piece for something else. Some 'unknown' that moves through them; god, or gods, spirits whatever. The point is that imagination drives us. A carpenter pictures the chair before he lays his hands on the wood. The structure of the atom was revealed to Niels Bohr in a dream (and there are many more examples of scientists dreaming up answers). Sci-fi authors imagine what science then creates.  Illness is often the physical manifestation of that which takes root in the mind - stress, anxiousness, negativity, psychological disorders, etc. 

So back to those games. The power of those games, which I’m sure many a parent takes delight in joining in from time to time. Adults long to play too. We immerse ourselves in adult versions of the game, games that are 'allowed' by society. We numb out with video games, become embroiled in someone else’s fantasy, lose ourselves in films, feel empathy for make-believe characters - indeed some ‘adults’ out there feel their favourite fictional characters to be real! They become alive. Yes, in our ‘modern’ slightly skewed way we still do these things, though the child’s game, with plastic super-heroes of Star Wars figurines is, I contend, a purer form, a remnant of what were once elements of the mythical world of which we were part.

Not a Toy! Another Celtic bronze. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Unicorn... or is it a Rhino?

This Pic was taken by my Ma at Stirling Castle. Medieval pic, the unicorn is captured. Post virgin! 

These days the elegant and noble unicorn has been reduced to a pink cutesy teen toy. This week I’m going to expose the unicorn… that sounds totally wrong… okay, you know what I mean! 

The first images of unicorns turn up in the archaeological record at the ancient site of Harappa, in the Indus valley. These motifs are dated to between 2,300 BC and 1200BC. They are a little different from what we’d expect a Unicorn to look like. Appearing on seals, carved in semi-precious stone, the Harappan Culture unicorn is a hybrid between antelope and water buffalo, or bull. The debate still rages whether the portrayal with a  single horn is just artistic or intentional. The jury is out. Have a look and see what you think. 

Harappan Seals from the Indus valley... I'm not convinced at all!

So what is a Unicorn? It is described as beautiful animal with the body of horse, a stag head, elephant feet, the horn is straight and 4 feet long. Discounting the mysterious Harappan seals (that may or may not be unicorns), where else do they appear in antiquity? Let’s find out. 

The Unicorn really makes its entrance in the Medieval period, despite a few accounts from Greek and roman authors from the classical era. These earlier accounts amount to speculation on the veracity of the unicorn and reports of its existence. Indeed the early Grecian writers were convinced of the unicorn’s existence (even though it never appears in any of their myths, unlike the Centaur). Funnily enough the location cited is very often India - an ancient Indus valley reference perhaps? However a monoceros and the rhinoceros are also mentioned… could it be that our elegant unicorn was some distorted Chinese whisper? The horse with the elephantine feet? Could that be a rhino?

Another pic courtesy of me Mudder. From Stirling castle, Scotland.

Well, the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, saw one and this is what he has to say on the matter:  "scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead... They have a head like a wild boar's… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions." 

Sounds like a Rhino to me. 

The Unicorn is fully adopted and adapted during the middle-ages. It appears on many a heraldic device including the two that hold aloft the royal arms of the King of Scotland. Long before Marco Polo’s time the unicorn had risen in elegance and symbolic heights. This is partly because the unicorn is mentioned in the Bible (Psalms). Indeed Christ is the unicorn because of the virgin birth, for only a virgin can lure the unicorn to her; the beast just can’t resist and will gallop up and lay its head in her lap -  and that’s when the hunters can seize it! I’d like to see them try that with a Rhino! 

Sure enough in Medieval bestiaries the unicorn is fierce and the elephant hates it. The Unicorn has sharp claws and a powerful horn.  It was the mortal enemy of the lion, which would flee up a tree to escape but the unicorn would charge at the tree, shaking the lion from the boughs and impaling it on its horn.  This fierce aspect was the reason why many medieval royal houses put the unicorn on their shields and crests. Seems a world away from the image we have of the unicorn in our day and age! 

Need I say more?


Early Christian Symbolism in Britian - J. Romilly Allen 
The Ancient Indus Valley - Jane McIntosh

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Serpent - Symbolism And Myth (part 1)

One of my carvings of a evocative Pictish design featuring entwined serpents

If you’ve ever stumbled across a snake in the wilds you’ll know just how hypnotic the sight can be. The encounter instills an immeadiate sensory barrage of fear and awe. The sudden racing of your pulse, the surge of adreneline, the dryness in the mouth, amazement, excitment, fear. In my travels I’ve stumbled across serpents many a time, including a memorable encounter with a quick darting viper that I nearly trod on in Turkey (we danced I tell you! we danced!). I believe that they are awe-inspiring creatures.

Snakes inhabit almost every corner of the globe. Therefore it is unsurprising to discover that their veneration is global. Serpents featured predominantly in Egyptian myths; gods and goddesses alike wore the Uraeus, the serpent crown of golden cobras meant to protect the bearer and hint at their latent power. Then there was Apep, the intestinal underworld serpent and the Sun god Ra’s enemy. It was Apep that threatened the sun god’s daily journey. It was a destroyer and consumer of souls. 

The serpent was many things. It bestowed power, it protected and it was also a chthonic force (subterranean), often viewed with disdain. In so many core myths of ancient cultures there exist stories of great battles between shining, godlike heroes who battle a serpent monster of gargantuan proportions. These monsters dwell in the deepest oceans or darkest rivers. They appear to represent the primal forces of chaos and disorder. 

Examples of such battles include: Thor versus Jormungandr (Norse), Zeus versus Typhon (Grecian), Apollo against Python (Grecian), Indra versus Vrtra (Hindu), Marduk versus Tiamat (Mesopotamia), Ra against Apep (Egypt), Tuna versus Maui (Polynesia). These are just a few examples, but they hint at an encompassing concept that possess uncanny parallels. 

Another serpent pair. This time a piece of driftwood from the Greek Island of Santorini.

It is interesting to note here that another common theme marries these myths. The serpent monster is often female, and if not has been birthed by a feminine earth goddess. The hero is invariably a male warrior god. This gives us pause for thought. Are these Jungian archetypes? Or are they folk memories of distant events, i.e. the overthrow of feminine earth based religions by warrior Indo-Europeans? Are they reflecting a vital point in our history - the religious and political overthrow of an indigenous population?** Or are they just stories? Is their similarity purely coincidence?

The latter hardly seems likely. The second theory is interesting, but then what of the similarities of this motif that exist between different cultures who never met until much later? I ‘m thinking here specifically of serpent myths of the Maya, a people who never encountered the Europeans until the 1500’s, or so we are told. 

There is something compelling about the Serpent myth. The more I delve into it the more I unearth. The subject is vast and I believe leads to the deepest core, the seed of mythology itself. These myths are some of the oldest, most primal and tie in to the stories of the cosmic serpent - the life giving force that was later symbolised as a giant serpent by many cultures. 

In the past the serpents were the subject of many a cult. In Greece we have the story of Apollo defeating Python, who guarded the oracle of Delphi. Python was the offspring of Gaia. Serpents were often associated with healing goddesses, both in the Grecian and Celtic world. The goddess Hygieia and the celtic deity Sarona and Damona  are amongst the few examples of such. They were often worshiped at wells and the idea of the serpent as a beneficial element of healing is even used today in the form of the Caduceus. The classical image of the serpent coiling around Hygieia's arm and sipping from the chalice reveals the use of a serpent as a symbol of potency. Modern anti-venoms and self-inoculators use the venom to build resistance and to cure bites.  

This natural phenomenon brings me to another element of serpent symbolism. In many myths the serpent is seen as an immortal being, and this notion may well stem from the serpent’s ability to shed its skin. Again yielding associations of rejuvenation and regenerative powers - many myths are full of such tales. 

The serpent in legend is an interesting topic and I'll return to it at a future date for sure as I attempt to unravel the coils of the serpent myth. 

Not the best pic, but gives you the idea. One of my Pendants with a serpent spiral. 

*I know the Adder is poisonous but it is rare and even if you are unlucky enough to get bitten its bite is rarely fatal as treatment can be easily found. 
 **As suggested by Marija Gimbutas' 'Kurgan Hypothesis'.


Symbol and Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Who’s Who In Classical Mythology - Michael Grant & John Hazel
A Dictionary of Symbols - J.E Cirlot
The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe - Marija Gimbutas