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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Ephesus: A City At The Crossroads Of Ancient Cultures

Just laying around the ancient city of Ephesus.

In the 1st millennium BC ancient Greece expanded its boundaries, spreading across the Aegean towards Italy and modern day Turkey, then known as Ionia. Numerous great cities were built by the Grecian empire and one of these was Ephesus. It flourished in the 2nd century BC, and when the Greek empire waned the Romans rebuilt it and again the city thrived. Estimates put the population at its heyday at about a quarter of a million. The city was well planned, with aqueducts to provide water to numerous wells situated throughout. Ephesus was a crossroads of cultures, and here you would find settlers, travellers and traders from India, Persia, Egypt and beyond. As well as materials ideas travelled with these peoples and you can  imagine that Ephesus was a vibrant and hectic place, with wide boulevards, numerous temples and huge amphitheatre with a 25,000 seating capacity. 

The theatre at Ephesus from below.

It must have been incredible to watch a performance here!

The patron goddess was Artemis though a profusion of deities and philosophies thrived within the city walls. Even the apostle Paul preached there, only to be ousted by angry traders and craftsman who saw the notion of a one-god as a threat to the flourishing trade in Artemis statuettes. I suppose if they could have foreseen the religious fervour of the evangelists and their derivatives they might have started fashioning crosses! Icons! Perhaps in time they did. 

Another view of the ancient ruins.
This symbol appears throughout the Roman Empire

In the Autumn of 2012 I took a boat from the island of Samos and entered Turkey. I remained there for a month and walked some of the Lycian way. I also had a chance to visit Ephesus. The site is extensive to say the least and busy -  thousands of tourists visit the site, but that’s cool, because it would have been a city of noise, the murmuring voices of people, the hawks and cries of vendors and preachers, prophets and philosophers. So far only about 15% of the site has been excavated, and much of what remains is the Roman city. It remains a pilgrimage site for Christians  because St Paul's connection to the city (he was there twice). 

As a lover of history and stone-carving Ephesus was inspirational for me. I've posted some of my photographs and a couple of Youtube links for those wishing to find out a little more. 

The Ancient Library was built by the Romans in the 2nd c. AD
This carving could have been outside an armourers.