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. 

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