Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe Festival so far!

So two thirds of the way through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I thought to write a quick post just to thank everyone who either bought stone, came to look or just popped along to say hallo. I took a day out today to give myself energy for the final few days (I'll be trading until the 20th August), and I might even catch a show! Why not?

Next week I will continue to post another article about some of the designs I carve.

Stone Mad Crafts
Me at my stall a couple of years ago.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Celts exhibition in Edinburgh

Edinburgh National museum

If you happen to be in Edinburgh you might want to check out the Celts Exhibition at the National Museum Of Scotland. There are loads of famous Celtic finds on display and these are complimented by informative films and the usual multi-media fare. 

I was blown away to see the Gundestrup Cauldron there. This is such a beautiful piece of work and the designs are amazing. To see it there, in the real, choked me up with emotion. Very impressive. There are numerous other items I am very familiar with on exhibit. I have sketched designs from many of these objects into my  books over the years. It was kind of like seeing old relatives... you know what I mean... there was a certain familiarity, even though I've only seen most of them in books. They felt like old friends! Some of the designs on display I've even carved at some point over the last twenty years! 

The only bone of contention is that photos aren't allowed. This seems to be a bit of a liberty (or less liberty), but perhaps it's an attempt to secure sales of the museum catalog (a hefty £25 each). But apart from that the content is well worth the tenner entrance fee.  So go visit, and then, once you're all fired up and inspired you can came on down to Playfair Steps (near the National Art Gallery) and visit my stall (hidden amongst the cheap Thai silverware and faux Celtic offerings), there you'll find my hand carved stones! :>

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Valkyries - Weavers of Battle

Carved Memorial Stone from Gotland - a Valkyrie stands before Odin's Eight Legged steed.

They Delighted in Slaughter

Valkyries (Valkyrja) were known across the Germanic and Scandinavian realms. As with most deities and spirits there's an evolution to their role, attested by various scholars, that the romantic idea of the Valkyrie developed from earlier concepts. The alaisiagae were warrior spirits/goddesses whose worship along Hadrian’s Wall is evidenced in a series of inscriptions found at Housesteads. These women appear to form the basis for the Germanic idisi and Anglo-Saxon wælcyrge - depicted as fierce spirits who wove the battle with threads, that dripped blood upon the fighters. They delighted in slaughter.  Such imagery is illustrated in the following excerpt from ‘The Story Of Burnt Njal’. 

“On Good Friday that event happened in Caithness that a man whose name was Daurrud went out. He saw folk riding twelve together to a bower, and there they were all lost to his sight. He went to that bower and looked in through a window slit that was in it, and saw that there were women inside, and they had set up a loom. Men's heads were the weights, but men's entrails were the warp and wed, a sword was the shuttle, and the reels were arrows.
They sang these songs, and he learnt them by heart,


See! the warp is stretched
For warriors' fall,
Lo! weft in loom
'Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
'Neath friends' swift fingers,
Our grey woof waxeth
With war's alarms,
Our warp blood red,
Our weft corse blue.

This woof is woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hard-weighted
With heads of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our war-winning woof.

Now War-winner walketh
To weave in her turn.
Now Sword-swinger steppeth,
Now Swift-stroke, now Storm;
When they speed the shuttle
How spear-heads shall flash!
Shields crash, and helmgnawer
On harness bite hard!

Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof.
Woof erst for king youthful
Foredoomed as his own,
Forth now we will ride,
Then through the ranks rushing
Be busy where friends
Blows blithe give and take.

Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof,
After that let us steadfastly
Stand by the brave king;
Then men shall mark mournful
Their shields red with gore,
How Sword-stroke and Spear-thrust
Stood stout by the prince.

Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof;
When sword-bearing rovers
To banners rush on,
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray!
We corse-choosing sisters
Have charge of the slain.

Now new-coming nations
That island shall rule.
Who on outlying headlands
Abode ere the fight;
I say that King mighty
To death now is done,
Now low before spearpoint
That Earl bows his head.

Soon over all Ersemen
Sharp sorrow shall fall,
That woe to those warriors
Shall wane nevermore;
Our woof now is woven.
Now battle-field waste,
O'er land and o'er water
War tidings shall leap.

Now surely 'tis gruesome
To gaze all around,
When blood red through heaven
Drives cloud-rack o'er head;
Air soon shall be deep hued
With dying men's blood
When this our spaedom
Comes speedy to pass.

So cheerily chant we
Charms for the young king,
Come maidens lift loudly
His war-winning lay;
Let him who now listens
Learn well with his ears,
And gladden brave swordsmen
With bursts of war's song.

Now mount we our horses,
Now bare we our brands,
Now haste we hard, maidens,
Hence far, far away” *

(The Story Of Burnt Njal Chapter 156 - Brian's Battle)

This harsh imagery reflects the warlike nature of the Valkyries, and they are also weavers of fate, similar to the Norns (who weave the tapestry of destiny beneath the great World Ash) - though the Valkyries are defined by the function of determining victory, or defeat, in battle. 

What intrigues me about the poem is the reference to the Wyrd Sisters. Wyrd was a pagan Anglo-Saxon concept denoting the idea of fate or destiny. This adds strength to the notion of that the Valkyries  decided the outcome of the battle and whom were able directly influence the fate of the fighters. 

Valkyrie Amulets (note the bird-like quality of some)

Frenzies of Battle

Anglo Saxons also believed in the Choosers Of The Slain (wælcyrge, walcrigge). These frenzies of the battle are paralleled in Celtic mythology, by the taloned sisterhood of the Morrígu.  In Germany, and north of the Rhine, these are echoed the idisi, who bound men in battle, trapping or freeing warriors during the melee. In Anglo Saxon glossaries, wælcyrge appear paired with those of Grecian furies, and Bellona,  Goddess of War, enforcing their role on the battlefield. With the arrival of Christianity they were relegated to the status of evil witches. 

However the Valkyries are more famous for their association with the Norse god, Odin, father of the slain. They appeared here as proud warrior women clad in chainmail, riding huge war horses. Rather than their horrific, flesh-eating ancestors, they were often seen as beautiful and youthful. In this aspect they strode across the field of slaughter, selecting warriors, half of which would go to Odin, the rest for the goddess Freyja. The fallen warriors selected for Odin were called the Einheriar and they would help Odin fight during Ragnorak (the Twilight of the Gods).  

Heard the war-lord what the Valkyries spoke of,
high-hearted, on horseback—
wisely they bore them, sitting war-helmeted,
and with shields sheltering them.

(from the Hákonaramál, 10th c. AD)

In some of the Viking Skalds and poems there are numerous Valkyries who serve Odin. Not all worked for the god though, some became guardians of heroes, guiding them in battle. Some even married, as in the tale Völundarkvida, in which Völundr and his brothers are betrothed to Valkyries that appear as swans (the brothers steal their swan gowns so that the women can't fly away). 

There are close ties with the image of Valkyries as ravens, or appearing in raven form. Indeed it's easy to imagine that, as mobs of these dark birds settled upon the battlefield, plucking at the cadavers, that the birds were choosing the slain. There's reference made in Hrafnsmàl of a valkyrie who understands the language of ravens.

The Guardian Dísir

Symbolically, Valkyries were viewed as powerful female spirits, with the ability to guide the fallen to Valhalla. Amulets and carvings usually depict the warrior maidens bearing drinking horns; draughts of mead or beer for the einheriar.  Having carved many of these Valkyrie designs over the years I’ve always been struck by the bird-like quality of their design - reinforcing their swan or raven attributes. 

Guardian properties are also given to the Valkyries, and there may be some cross-over with tales of the Dísir - a group of female warrior spirits, the guardians of families. Indeed the Dísir  developed from the Germanic Idisi. Certainly they were magical beings. Names given to Valkyries in the sagas point to their association with sorcery and rune magic. For example, just as Odin could invoke a battle-fetter so too could the Valkyries. They also sang magical songs to those who fell during the day’s battling in Valhalla, resuscitating them and making them ready for more of the same the following day - so some healing aspect is involved here too. 

The Valkyries have also been mentioned in reference to Freyja in the sagas, and she was viewed as Odin’s consort (she was originally the same as Frigg). This might mean that the goddess was seen as a goddess of death. 

There are two distinct versions of what a Valkyries was: the slaughter-loving elementals that appear as a personification of the intoxication of battle, weaving the destiny of warriors and the austere maidens collecting the slain for Odin’s host. I feel that the latter is a later refinement of an earlier belief in which Odin/Woden was also a god of the dead, and therefore the battle frenzies would be suitable attendants to the court of the dead (more on this in my post about Odin). 


1: John Lindow - Norse Mythology