Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Odin stone

In the last post I quoted words attributed to the Norse god Odin. Father of the slain, god of battle with roots in shamanic traditions he's an enigmatic figure for sure. This little carving was inspired by the shape of the stone, then came the crown. On the reverse I envisioned a raven - which became the two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory). So there we have it, Odin on his throne waiting for warriors in Vahöll! 

Odin will be the subject of another future post.

The Druid

Here's a wee sample of my recent carving. He'll be going on the stall during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - where I'll be trading for 3 weeks! 

When I carve these figures I let the shape and natural colourations of the stone guide me. As soon as an idea begins to form in my mind I get to it and  as I begin more ideas rush in, one notion leads to the next (from a word to a word... says Odin).

stone carving

stone carving

stone carving

stone carving

stone carving

stone carving

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hands To The Sun - Solar symbols

The Life Giving Sun

We all like to sit in the sun. We like its warmth upon our skin. We appreciate how it is needed to ripen our fruit and our crops. We also know its danger, it can burn, ignite wildfires, cause drought and create deserts. To the ancients its nightly disappearance, and gradual loss of power during the course of a year as it yielded to winter, were sources of mythological tales. The sun is a life-giver, life sustainer, it embodies both strength and protection. To dance widdershins (clockwise in the direction of the sun) was deemed to bring fortune and luck.

Stone Mad Crafts
Helios,  4th c. BC, Ilion

For example, in Greek mythology Helios is the sun, himself the offspring of Titans (his father Hyperion - means the High One -  and his mother Theia - means wide shining light). His sisters are Eos (the dawn) and Selene (the moon). Helios was portrayed wearing a crown of sun rays and he drove the chariot of the sun across the sky everyday. His cult was most prolific in the Greek Island of Rhodes (The mighty Colossus was dedicated to his honour). 

Sun Symbol
Trundholm Sun chariot, dated to between 1800-1600 BC though dates are contested, others believe it to date between 1100-550 BC.

In Hellenic times, Apollo becomes associated with the sun, and the Romans named it Sol. However to the Bronze-Age Scandinavians Sòl was a female deity. Sometimes she was called Sunna and her brother was Maní, the moon. Her husband, Glenr, drove the horses of the sun across the sky - although in early myth the wagon or chariot was sometimes portrayed as a boat. Some say this 'sun-boat' myth points to an Egyptian origin, but that's not necessarily true.

The Celts and the Sun

stone mad crafts
Coligny Calendar

Surviving fragments of a Gallo-Romano calendar from Coligny, France, indicate that the moon was more relevant to the Celts (at least in terms of their time telling). The amazingly detailed calendar, itself based on earlier models, it pictured above. 

We know that ancient peoples aligned many of their sacred sites with the midwinter sun, and that many henges were astrologically aligned, pointing to a deep understanding of the celestial bodies, the constellations and movements of sun and moon. Surely some of this knowledge was inherited from the times of the megalith builders. 

Alan Sorrel
Stonehenge by Alan Sorrel

Pomponius Mela, a geographer of the 1st c. AD, wrote that the druids “claim to know the size and shape of the earth and universe, the motion of the stars and the sky and the will of the gods…
Caesar mentions that Apollo was amongst the gods venerated by the Gauls. Apollo was associated with solar and healing properties (of course Caesar used a Roman name to describe a foreign deity). 

Deities associated with the sun can be traced in northern Italy, the eastern Alps and southern Gaul, where Bēlenos was honoured; the name said to come from root Gwel, to shine. Bēlenos' worship is reflected in names such as Belluno. In Britain and Gaul there's evidence of a god named Lug, Lugh or Lleu Llaw Gyffes which means 'the bright one with the strong arm' (he threw magical spears... sun rays?). The name of this Deity is evidenced in many place names from London to Lyon.

However many scholars, including Anne Ross and Ronald Hutton, are opposed to the idea that the Celts worshiped the sun as a god, or that there were sun cults as such. But I find it hard to believe that, given the obvious veneration of the solstices (and the respect given to the motions of the year) that the sun was never considered as a deity. Solar wheels and sun discs appear in many cultures, including those considered Celtic and Germanic. 

Solar Crosses from 1500 BC - pic by Radan Haenger.

Scandinavian Bronze-Age carvings - the solar boat

The Mythic Mechanics of the Sun Disc

Many myths make reference to a solar disc being drawn through the sky, while some describe how the solar deity was born across the heavens. It's possible that images of the solar wheel derive from this idea; the solar disc, combined with the wheels of a sun chariot (see the sun chariot above).*

The solar wheel was developed in the Carpathian region around 3000 B.C. and spread across Europe. It often appears on gold items, strengthening its solar association, for gold is the element of the sun. In Bronze-Age Scandinavian artwork it's drawn by horses, or borne in boats or chariots (tying in with the whole sun-boat imagery and ancient mythology regarding the rise and fall of the sun). There's even archaeological evidence that Iron Age Gauls offered solar wheel images at shrines, and also  cast them into sacred pools. As a symbolic gesture this is powerful, representing the sun’s departure into the ocean (the Underworld).

Scandinavian rock carving from the Bronze-age

Mithraic Sun Links 

Another sun god worshipped across the continent during the Roman invasion was that of Mithras, who enjoyed something of a cult following (though not an especially populous one - its adherents being drawn from a select cadre of Roman society, and by the military). In many ways Mithraism shared common ideas with Christianity: born of a virgin, an ultimate sacrifice, his followers addressed each other as ‘brother’, while temples were run by a ‘pater’ (father). Unlike Christianity Mithraism was tolerant of other faiths. 

Mithras born from the rock.

Mithras’ roots reach far back into antiquity; having his origins in the Middle-east, a Hellenised form of the deity was worshipped in Europe, with the spread of the Roman Empire. Like Bel and Apollo, he's more a god of light, than the sun itself. Temples to him were erected along Hadrian's Wall; like the one at Housesteads, dedicated to Sol - with whom Mithras was also associated. 

There's also some speculation whether Ogmios, a Celtic deity associated with the Ogham alphabet and also a solar god, was perhaps mingled with elements of this exotic deity. There is also speculation that the 6th Century bard, Taliesin, was knowledgable in the ‘mysteries’ of Mithraism

The Alchemical Sun

Robert Fludd
Alchemical sun by Robert Fludd 17th c. AD

In the middle-ages Alchemists viewed the sun as an active agent, as gold prepared for the work, and philosophical Sulphur. There was also Sol in homine, which was the invisible essence of celestial sun that nourished mankind's inner fires. From such aspersions, Jung, the master of symbolism and its interpretation, considered the sun as representing wholeness (especially when unified with the moon, like a king for a queen). 

There's something particularly enigmatic about some of these Alchemical and medieval images of the sun. To those versed in their layers of meaning surely the images evoked a sense of the deeper mysteries, and spiritual insights, Hermetic Alchemy professed. 

The Cycle of Hope

In doing the research for this piece, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sun was many things for the many different cultures, that have populated the earth throughout history. Never has there been a single unifying principle, though common themes exist between cultures. 

For example, the sun as life-giver, or protector, offering salvation seems to me a natural instinctive symbolism. Archaeological records show that burial mounds and stone circles of the megalithic period were involved in the veneration of both sun and moon. In generalising myth into principles, the sun could be seen to reflect the active principle, while the moon the passive. Equally, the sun could be said to encompass the hero and passion. In its yearly progression from the summer solstice, through the seasons toward mid-winter, it represents re-birth. A cycle of hope, which surely the ancient pastoral and pre-pastoral peoples clung to for the basic, pressing necessity of their survival. 

Sun horse from Balken

*curiously the sun-wheel image pre-dates the invention of the wheel - thus it may be that the sun wheel's spokes are in fact sun rays. 


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Meaning in Celtic Knot-Work

On My Stall

If you’ve ever visited my humble stall, and listened to me waffle on, you might have heard me mention that knot-work reflects the thread of life and a sense of connectedness. The incorporation of animals and plants into these designs reinforces this notion. My explanations evolve with my understanding, partly instinctive reasoning, after years spent carving these motifs on stone. But it's always good to back these ‘notions’ up with research. 

The famous Sutton Hoo burial buckle, 7th c. AD

In all my years carving I've restricted my use of knot-work, due to a  number of factors: 

  •  It’s complicated, and time consuming, to reproduce the type of work found in the likes of the Book of Kells. There's a lot of planning involved.

  • I feel that knots have become synonymous with Celtic art, and this isn't wholly true. Knot work is a later development and not restricted to the tribes we nowadays term Celtic. If anything the knot was borrowed from other cultures.

Lombard knotwork
Lombard gold disc from Cividale in northern Italy, 6th c. AD

The Thread of Life

As with all ancient designs, the symbology morphs and can be understood to rest upon deep foundations. It contains meaning that works on various levels.  Many ancient cultures saw the world as a vast tapestry; the threads of fate strung together:

 “Do you know the string on which this world, 
and the next and all beings are strung together?”
- Upanishads 3:7:1. 

Life was woven; never remote, never isolated, but linked by these invisible threads.  In the distant East, Tao was the chain of all creation, while the ancient Babylonian word, markasu, means both link/cord and, in myth, “the cosmic principle that unites all things”

In some cultures, such as the Norse, certain goddesses, or female principles were given charge of the threads of fate. In Viking myth the three Norns: Urd (from wyrd, which means fate - but also, what was, or has been), Verdandi (being) and Skuld (what shall be*), sit below Yggdrasil - they are the governesses of time, and therefore govern all.

Norse 'Mammen' Style artwork, 10th c.  AD

Hence looking at some of these fantastic images here with the above text in mind perhaps you can sense that connectedness is rife through these designs.

Wholeness and the Implicate Order

This sense of place and connectivity reflected in quantum physics. David Bohm’s book, “Wholeness And The Implicate Order”, likens the rush of thoughts to a river, in which there are eddies and vortexes of thought, yet all are connected and moving. Although our mind isolates fragments of thought into phenomena, this isn’t actually so. In the quantum world everything is linked, nothing is separate. This ties in with Chaos theory and the famous quote of the butterfly, whose tiny wings could kick-start hurricanes across the globe.

Sometimes I have the uncanny feeling that at an instinctual, intuitive level the ancient peoples grasped fundamental principles of existence. Not fully understanding the physics behind the metaphors - but it suited their cosmologies and sense of sacredness all the same… or perhaps that is my interpretation, my fancy… a hope. Ah, what tangled webs we weave! 

Indeed, But Back to Knotwork!

Thinking of the primary function of a knot in a piece of twine, hempen rope, or blade of grass, binding one to another. Marriage is a binding of two, legally and emotionally, and some later knot work designs, from the Highlands of Scotland, symbolise this idea. 

In the past sorcerers and various cult practices bound demons to their service. Bewitching was to bind, and across the globe the etymology of magical words is often linked to root words for tying or binding.

Odin was bound, and hung from the world tree in Norse Mythology. And there is evidence of cult practices amongst ancient Germanic tribes that involved binding rituals. In one of the earliest human sculptures of a ‘goddess’, the hands appear wrapped in a cord, possibly hinting at an ancient ritual. 

Knotwork could be used as a talisman to protect from evil spirits, much like the idea of labyrinths, in which the malign spirit becomes lost. Knots could be used both beneficially and detrimentally, they could curse as well as heal. But don’t worry, all the knots I carve are ‘happy knots’! ho-ho. 

Celtic Knotwork
Celtic interlace from Edinburgh Museum, 8th c AD

The Endlessly Flowing Knot

John Romilly Allen, in his book, Celtic Art In Pagan And Christian Times, points out that during the Roman occupation of Britain, knots were simple plaits, and hadn't metamorphosed into the intricacies that adorn the Book of Kells, and high crosses of Britain. He traces the change to northern Italy, during the 
he Lombard invasion of the 6th Century A.D. 

Celtic art is a mutation of the Lombardo-Byzantine style, from which fantastical creatures such as centaurs, griffons, etc, were also borrowed. The art-form flourished, developed to exquisite heights. The  subject matter was overwhelmingly Christian, with mythological imagery used out of context, so that a centaur might represent a desert, rather than some episode in Greek myth.

Right or wrong, I think this theory is important in our day and age. Not only in relation to symbolism, for nothing is achieved in isolation: ideas move like people move - religions, creeds, philosophies - all inspire and alter art, reflecting the evolution of perspectives. 

Recently Britain voted itself out of the EU, for better or worse. However it is pertinent to say that movements of peoples are evidenced by art. Ideas from Europe and further afield have always been integral to the island’s culture, and these were indeed altered, developed and adapted by these island’s inhabitants (including Ireland here too). States are modern conceptions, they are the amalgamation of ancient kingdoms, peoples (themselves migrants and movers, invaders or refugees). This has always been the way of the world and no walls or frontiers can stop that. 

Islamic Knotwork from a 12th c. AD Koran

National Museum of Scotland
Celtic Christian Cross showing marriage of styles and mythological monsters. 

Find Knotwork and other designs in my Etsy Shop


1: Romilly Allen -  Celtic Art In Pagan And Christian Times 

2: H.R. Ellis Davidson - Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe 

In Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe HR Ellis Davidson has the Norn, Skuld, connected with debt, or something owed… as in life.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ancient Symbology Of The Wolf

Wolf design
15th Century AD Scottish hand-and-a-half sword from Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. 

Wolves and Warriors

Even though the wolf was often portrayed as a symbol of destruction and chaos - when personified by such entities as Fenrir (the giant winter wolf of Scandinavian Mythology), it was also a warrior's symbol. 

I’ve seen wolves etched into the blades of Highland swords, in Blair Atholl and Edinburgh National Museum. Such motifs, meant to bring luck in battle, are lingering refrains of the ancient belief that objects created from metal were not inanimate objects. Celts across ancient Europe saw metal as a magical element, and to inscribe a design onto a blade was to endow that object with a powerful essence. The inscribed wolf on a sword offers us a tantalising glimpse of a thought process, that is a direct inheritance from more ancient times. 

To call upon the wolf; its ferocity, its fury - for tribes across the world was to become the predator. This was achieved by various methods. Codexes from Mexico portray a Cuetlachtli warrior, dressed in a wolf skin. Other warriors wear predator pelts, and other wolf warriors appear across the globe. Tales abound, in which people turned into wolves by wearing their skins. Warriors may have taken part in a sort of animalising ritual, mimicking the movements of the wolf. By performing such rites as a ‘wolf-dance,’ the warrior would gain sympathy with the wolf.

Wolf Ceremony
6th c. Ad from Bjornhouda, Torslunda parish, Oland

Giving credence to this idea is the famous plate from a 6th century A.D. helmet. In this we see a dancing figure wearing a ceremonial horned helmet (most likely a priest of Odin, or the god himself) and a warrior in the guise of a wolf. Odin also had two wolf companions, Geri and Freki.  Evidence has been documented by historian, Michael P. Speidel, of a warrior wolf cult, associated with Odin. These 'Berserkers' wore the skins of wolves, or bears, when they charged into battle. 

To identify with a predator like the wolf was to be a better warrior. There are examples of ‘wolf clad warriors’ on Trajan’s Column, and the Germanic association with war and wolf was reflected in name prefixes like Ulf, Wulf (a famous example being Beowulf). The Germanic tribe, the Alamanni, were proud wolf-warriors, and the Langobards (Lombards) were known to have ‘hound-headed’ warriors in their ranks (cynocephali). In ancient Italy the Brettii were the young, wolfish outcasts of the Lucani (wolfmen). Such themes abound in history, surviving well into the Medieval period (and perhaps this warlike association is hinted at in tales of lycanthropes).  

Viking design
5th Century AD gold bracteate depicting Tyr and Fenris

In Roman mythology Mars, God of war, took the wolf as his sacred animal (along with the bear). Back to the Vikings, and Tyr, the warrior god, who lost his hand to Fenrir while binding the wolf (the Romans identified Mars with Tyr). 

The Wolf Isn't always a Warlord!

In North American Indian mythology many tribes treated Wolf with great respect. Wolf was a creator and loyal protector that offered fortune in the hunt. But for the Plains tribes he was a symbol of war and identified with the warrior. 

I think here we see natural observations taking symbolic form across various cultures. The wolf’s predatory nature is reflected in a duality of themes, from being a malign entity to guardian and helper. Perhaps then the wolf is a symbol of unbridled nature, something to be accessed in times when humanity is uncalled for, and brute strength is required; such as courage in battle. 

The wolf is to be respected. Yet it also reveals its nurturing nature in themes as Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who were suckled as infants by the Capitoline She-wolf. 

Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus from the Capitoline, Rome

Myth is an ongoing process. It evolves, even as we speculate about the nature of the symbology of the past, drawing our conclusions, it mutates - myth can never wholly be what it once was. We superimpose our own preconceptions, our political and moral tastes upon these ideas. 

Thus much modern wolf imagery symbolises modern man's sense of departure and longing for the wild. The wolf embodies a sort of noble sense of the power of nature, its uncertainty and mystery. There is a striking sense of power and pride in much of the visual data (as a google image search will instantly reveal). It appeals to the sense of community (the pack) and yet appeals to those appreciating solitude (the lone wolf). 


1: Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green

Monday, July 11, 2016

Regarding Research

One thing that I don’t wish my posts to turn into are dry historical accounts that could have been written by some history prof long ensconced in academia and its narrowing compass. What I mean to say is even a  cursory glimpse through historical sites and the more speculative New Age stuff tends to make me feel that there are two camps, both at odds with each other - the dry, empirical data-bound academic and the fanciful. 

A case in point is Marija Gimbutas who wrote a whole series of academic books in which she referenced, from her own experience in the field, the discovery of numerous mesolithic and neolithic goddess figurines. She began to interpret the resulting data into a theory in which a passive matriarchal society was superseded by a warrior based patriarchal one. Her book The Goddesses and Gods Of Old Europe is a fine book indeed. I came across this book years ago, when I was looking for designs to carve (over the past twenty years I've filled many sketchbooks with images from sites, ref and museums). However, in part, her theories are intuitive and don't always rely on much evidence (fanciful, intuitive). She caused a stir in the academic world.  

As far as I'm concerned I like her idea. Her notion is an insight, not truth... we'll never know the complete truth. And after researching numerous dry archaeological accounts which offer measly tokens, usually from a safe, logical perspective, I feel that there is room to examine the finding of so-called alternative archaeologists (like Martin Brennan for example). 

Here I’m trying to gather both the archaeological, historical and notions, ideas that might sometimes deviate from the rationalist path. Why? Because throughout history people have never been rational or reasonable. When it comes to things like symbology and religious meanings  the empirical attempt falls short, as we are dealing with a subject that sits uncomfortably with reasonable minded professors, clutching thesis and degrees based on scant evidence. The illogical nature of belief is therefore best approached with a healthy measure of irrationality, a sort of inspired madness perhaps. 

I’m going to delve into some odd ideas in the course of these blogs, that much is for certain, but exactly how ‘out there’ they might appear remains to be seen. I’m hardly going down the UFO conspiracy line, but I’m attempting to keep an open mind. If something strikes me as relevant, interesting and plausible I’ll include it. 

There will also be something of the intuitive here too. I do believe that much that so-called primitive humans knew/discovered was the result of ‘channeling’ a deep, inner intuition. 

I’m also going to take on a slightly holistic approach - again I need to explain this. Many modern archaeological bodies appear to be constrained by location and thus the tendency is to focus on that location, albeit a modern location - say for example a Scottish archaeological society funded by the Scottish government, finding itself limited to Scottish sites and data  - the problem being such geographical boundaries did not exist way back when:   for example Celtic tribal boundaries were always shifting and our knowledge of them comes from Roman manuscripts written at a certain point of a very long history. With such documents we have to take into account hearsay, interpretation, political bias etc etc - however we can’t discount them altogether, just see them for what they are: insights rather than ’truths’. In fact it is safe to say that this approach is best at many levels - to see both ancient texts and archaeological data and 'interpretation, as insights

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Triskele: part two

Stone Mad Crafts
A copy of a design from 7th century Ireland carved by the author

Let's get precise!

The word Triskele comes from the Greek, meaning three-legged. In general the design consists of curled or bent legs radiating from a  central point, both clockwise or anti-clockwise. They appear on both weaponry and other functional items.

For antiquarians of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the symbol was often figured to be a relation to the swastika (minus a limb) and therefore associated with the sun.

Geometrically concise, the basic construction method of a triskele originates with a hexagram - from which many images of the Celtic Iron Age take shape. The hexagon is composed of two equilateral triangles, representing the equilibrium between male and female elements (in many cultures there exists a mythic triad e.g; the Trimurti of Hinduism, in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance and destruction are personified by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva*). 

Triskeles also said to embody the golden ratio, one of the core principles of Pythagorean mystic thought, with which the Celtic druids became acquainted with via Abaris, a follower of Pythagoras. However the triple spirals of the infamous Newgrange tumulus predate these Iron Age conceptions (see the previous post).

The triskele can also represent the unification of the three Celtic kingdoms air, earth and water. Many Celtic coins have the solar symbol punched in their centre, binding them to the sun god perhaps… Often the legs of the triskele become the bodies or necks of animals, most notably birds. 


The triskele also featured on a lot of Celtic military equipment across Europe and the Balkans - suggesting the symbol offered some form of magical protection.

celtic triskele

celtic sword

The Triskele and the Triple Goddess

Triple goddesses are attested in Celtic literature as well as archaeologically. Triadic goddesses (Matres or Matronae) appear as refinements, or reflections, of deities. This concept of the many from one reaches far back into the depths of time. The Matronae were widely worshipped across ancient Europe. At least 1100 shrines still exist, indicating a complex of goddess worship spread across old Europe. Try this link for extra information about the Matronae in the meantime:

It's often been assumed that the trickle is the symbol of the 'triple goddess. The one thing that strikes me is there's no Matronae imagery  portrayed alongside the triskele - which strikes me as a little odd. However, there exist Grecian spells and hymns that mention a triple Goddess; Hecate, Persophone and Selene, and these spells are accompanied by powerful 'triskele' evoking imagery

  • triple pointed
  •  triple-headed 
  • triple voiced 
  • triple-pointed 
  • triple faced 
  • triple necked

The triskele also shows up in a lot of Celtic-Christian and Catholic sculpture and art. Just as the Christian church appropriated the symbol for their own religious needs, so too earlier forms of paganism utilised the triskele, warping its nature to suit their template. Perhaps in this endeavour the symbol has evolved, adopted fresh layers with each wave of migrants. 

It's a rich tangle, and there's no easy answer. Perhaps, as with any symbol, it boils down to what feels right to you, how the symbol sits in your sights. To a large degree we superimpose our own templates of perception upon such devices. This template is formed by our nature, the way we are nurtured, by environment and the influence that forms the intricate mesh of our experience.

Check out my Etsy shop for my Hand carved ancient stuff

Sources used in this post:

1: Cross And Spiral - The Triskele In Early Christian Art - Brendan Mac Gonagle

Check out this website to see methods of spiral and triskele construction using triangles and hexagons - HERE

* note the similarity here between the modern version of the triskele reflecting the earth goddess and the idea of life, death rebirth… maintenance, destruction, creation. 

**three-faced god images appear in Gaul right up to Scotland. I wonder if such deities had the ability to gaze into the different worlds or from the present into the future and the past.

*** the earliest reference to this appears on coins from the 1600’s.