Thursday, September 22, 2016

Erynn Rowan Laurie

A short post this week  -  I thought to promote the work of an American writer who is living and working in Trieste. Erynn Rowan Laurie is a poetess and historian who practices Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism. She’s written a number of books and numerous articles in a career stretching back decades. When I re-read the articles in 'The Well Of Five Streams' it made me realise that in these blogs I’m only pawing the surface. Erynn goes into great depth on numerous topics and her research is meticulous and thoughtful. In fact, in mentioning that particular tome I’d just like to quote a paragraph. I think she sums up a lot in this:

“Too many modern people have been looking for something in druids and druidry which cannot be known. It has been so filled with speculation-become-certainty that far too many people speak of druidic beliefs, mores,  and opinions as if they were obvious, plain, and commonplace rather than as palimpsest of such various accretions as environmentalism, Freemasonry, and ideas drawn from (largely discredited) Indo-European structuralist assumptions that may have little or no bearing on the ancient realities, insofar as these can be known.”

Actually 'The Well Of Five Streams' is a great place to introduce yourself to Erynn’s writing. In this hefty volume she covers topics as diverse as the Geilta, the mad bird figures of Celtic myth, or the Fili and the cauldron of poetic inspiration. There are also a number of insightful interviews Erynn has given through the years. In short the book is a wealth of information and Erynn binds poetry and good writing around the vast corpus of her understanding and knowledge. 

Erynn's Blog and books can be found Here

Friday, September 16, 2016

Val Camonica - A Stone Carver's Heaven!

Stone Mad Crafts
Val Canonic footprints scaled alongside my foot.

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Cammuni/Etruscan Runes - Photo by Author. 

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Deer carvings - Photo By Author.

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The Cammuni Rose -Pic by author.

For this post I thought I'd expand some notes I made last year during a visit to Val Camonica. For many years I had seen these images (like those above and below)  during my winter  research binges. For some reason the images struck a chord with me. There is also a very famous Cernunnos figure located amongst the recorded 300,000 images carved there.  

The valley is some 90 kms in length, one of the longest valleys in North Eastern Lombardy (many of the cravings are in the province of Brescia). Its importance as a migratory thoroughfare is obvious and the carvings substantiate the region's importance as a religious and ritual site from the 1st millennia BC (the Romans named the  tribe there the Camunni). The earliest carvings in the valley date back to the 5th-6th millennia BC and are assumed to be the work of migratory bands of hunter-gatherers, as most portray elk and hunting scenes.  There are also medieval carvings and that made me wonder if some remnants of the older beliefs remained in the folk customs of the valley - enough to solicit the interests of the Inquisition who, in the 1600's, burned hundreds of people as witches. 

Those carvings discovered so far are grouped into eight national parks and we visited the Riserva Naturale Incisioni puestri di Ceto,Cimbergo e Paspardo. The environment there is stunningly beautiful and the retreating ice-sheets of the last glacial period has left undulating flanks of  ice-smoothed rock as a canvas for carving. 

The first impression upon visiting the sites, at Ceto, Cimbergo and Paspardo, is that the groups of carvings are not passive scenes to be adored like paintings in a gallery. Some are difficult to reach, like the deer sequence at Paspardo, which is accessible by climbing along natural terraces in the glacier-smoothed rock, allowing one to step closer and navigate the narrow ledge to reach the scenes. Perhaps these delineations and protuberances in the rock were viewed as natural horizons for the imagery.

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I love the simple grace of these designs, hidden in the folds of stone - Pic by author.

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Oranti - Pic by Author.

At Cimbergo the rocks are studded with carved footprints (these, I noticed, appeared to be aligned, not true east, more southeast, with others turned to a 45 degree axis, tending north) - the sensation here is that these are meant to be stood upon; perhaps ritual poses were to be emulated; such as the classic orant pose (see picture), similar to the Yoga Monkey Pose. In fact I noticed a set of prints  where the footprints are just over  shoulder width apart (though I'm not suggesting the Cammuni were yoga practitioners). Throughout the parks the 'oranti' are numerous and the pose is distinctive and stylised: knees bent, arms crooked but held sky-wise. The creators of the carvings made a point of making the gender of the figures obvious (penis stem for males and a circular bowl indentation for females - a motif also used in bronze-age carvings in Tanum, Sweden). That the figures portray the act of worship is obvious. In Parque Nazionale Di Naranque there is a section where oranti are clustered around a solar symbol (incidentally oranti figures are also found in the Tomba Branca, Sassari, Sardinia).

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Foot print pairs - Pic by author.

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Author adopting Oranti pose.
Another impression I had, during our visit, was that the designs are fixed upon a living surface, like a map - a microcosm of the bigger picture. Elements and figures are folded into creases and crevices. There are some natural shapes that reflect the carved, like a natural footprint mirrored above by carved feet.

Stone Mad Crafts
Deer Carved on a Rock on the Valley floor - pic by author.

I am aware the reductionist historical view tends to limit  explanations to the purely functional, e.g. pictures of houses are merely  pictorial representations and nothing else, and the counter argument which focuses too heavily upon the symbolism - often reading too readily into the minutest details. Both are products of historians reflecting their historical moment, or academic fashion, on the past: the tendency to interpret the past with our political and social mores layered throughout.  For example, illustrations in popular history books of the 20th century people appeared very clean-cut - like historical films of the same period. Whereas as the 20th century rolled on, the historical characters (whether in Western movies or history books about Saxons) got rougher looking and more foul-mouthed. Basically reflecting not history, or any sort of truth, but our modern reflections and fashions - that is a mainly modern Western prejudice, draped over the skeletons of the archaeological record.

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A game folding into the land? And is that a game board? - pic by author.

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The figure appears to flee along a natural feature - pic by author.

Both versions mentioned above miss the point: that what the ancients poured into the carvings was not merely the result of purely functional or utterly symbolic living, but the life they lived - that was possibly indistinguishable from that which they portrayed on the rocks. A measure of reality and unreality, both indistinguishable to the peoples of that time. The spirits and the anima, the gods and goddesses were not a separate reality. They were intermingled with life.

For example Val Camonica is subject to a natural phenomena when, in spring and autumn, the morning sun projects a shadowy counterpart of Mount Pizzo Badile. Perhaps such phenomena secured the valley (or reinforced it) as a religious site. 

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Mount Pizzo Badile - pic by author.

One gets the impression, looking around at some of the groups of carvings, of a game, a sacred game; figures twisting and dancing, or locked ritual poses and warrior stances on the rock - which was perhaps seen as a living hide (when wet some outcrops are like the backs of whales breaking through the soil). 

Going back in time to our early ancestors, who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, there seems to be some indication that such efforts might have been an attempt to commune with the spirit world; that by interaction with the veil that divided worlds i.e. the skin of the world, its surface, worshippers (or their intermediaries - shaman types or priests) could cross over.

The thought of this being a sacred game and the progression of natural forms into man-made got me wondering about these people. They could build houses, mine ore, fight, perform rituals, carve rocks, etc, but weren't they in many ways as children, partaking in a kind of fantasy? That doesn't mean to belittle their beliefs, I think they were onto something - a profound depth that we have lost, something that in its elemental form is intuitively scientific, spiritual and ultimately poetic.

Stone Mad Crafts
One of The Maps -pic by author

What I am trying to get a cross here is the element of play and the time they had to pursue such endeavours. They had time! Carving these images wasn't something you just did, like doodling in margins with a pen. To hammer the designs took time, effort, using shards of harder stone, most likely granite, to chip the smooth surface. We have to take into account the noise this would make too. Were these taps, echoing around the valley, part of the ritual? A sonic element, like the rhythmic beat of a shaman's drum (that's me inflecting the modern historical penchant for shamanism in there  - ho-ho)? 

Could it be that several people worked on images at different times as part of the ritual, or was this task consigned to a sacred artist? By drawing the picture of an iron-age house was that meant to bring luck or protection to the real house, by way of sympathetic magic? If so why? Or were these just pictorial images reflecting the folklore of the Camunni? Was the ground, the stone itself, sacred; a skin between this world and the spirit world - a realm that was occasionally glimpsed near Mount Pizzo Badile? Were the carvings elements in a sacred ritual site that evolved through the ages, like a Bronze-age Delphi? Could it be that the sites were used for different functions, or in different ways, that some were pictorial histories, or became that in time - a way of teaching the young about their clan identity? Did their proximity to tribal villages reflect or enhance their profaneness or sacredness?

Map with view across the valley - author's pic.

After visiting the carvings at Capo Di Punte, climbing high above the town, we viewed one of the so-called 'maps'. This apparent landscape, with plots and rectangles, dotted inside with regimen cups, seem reminiscent of fields with meandering paths between them. Superimposed upon the rippled rock, as though reflecting the territory across the valley. In fact the perfect place to view such a map. Though what purpose did it serve? Were the Camunni settlements such permanent things that they'd wish to set them in stone? Were fields? Or is this not meant to be the real world? Or, as my girlfriend suggested, was it also part of a game? Were the cups meant to house counters?

Indeed a little further away we found another, obviously vast mapping (remaining to be fully uncovered), ranging over a series of ripples (microcosms, miniature valleys and mountains) - but this time no spectacular view - what then? Territory of another valley far away? Another game?

Apart from the famous Cernunnos figure were other figures meant to be deities? Some motifs are reported to be elemental sprits, appearing as suggestive sections of stippled carving. Or perhaps the tribe had little need to carve visions of gods and goddesses because their forms were already implanted in the land around them!

Stone Mad Crafts
The Famous 'Cernunnos' figure - Pic by author. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Odin - The God Of Jarls

Viking Gods
Odin or a warrior of Odin. Note the two ravens.

There is something enduring about the image of Odin: cloaked, one-eyed, wearing a hood or a wide brimmed hat, his ravens on his shoulders, wolves by his side as he brandishes Gungnir, his great spear. Or the image of him hanging from the great world tree,  a spear thrust into his side, without food or water, hanging for nine nights until grasping the runes and tumbling back into the world. 

Odin has the jarls,   who fall in battle
but Thor has the race of thralls

(Hárbardsljód - poetic Edda)

Possibly starting life as a god of the dead, through the centuries he was elevated to the exalted status if god of kings, All-father (Alfödr), king of the battle-slain (Valföthr). His character is mysterious and multi-faceted; reflected in the multitude of  appellations bestowed upon him; names such as Hnikarr (he who incites battle) - each reflecting in part Odin's personality. The highest of the Norse gods is not easily categorised into 'good' or 'bad'  - for he is wily, tricky and often has heroes slain, to join the ranks of his great army, the einherjar, who wait in Valhalla until the final battle against the great wolf, Fenris

Five hundred doors and four tens

I think there are at Valhalla :
eight hundred warriors
go out each door,
when they go to fight the wolf.

(The Edda)

It is often his Valkyries who gather the battle-slain. See the earlier post on them HERE. In relation to battle Odin was also associated with the Berserkers -  wild men who wore the pelts of wolves to gain ferocity in battle. Of these warriors it is reported: 

"“... his own men went into battle without coats of mail and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed people and neither fire nor iron affected them. This is called berserker rage!”


See my post on The Wolf HERE.

Biting their Shields - Berserkers feature amongst the Lewis Chessmen.

Odin has a thirst for knowledge. He sacrificed an eye so that he could sip from Mimir's well and partake of the knowledge found there. And he performed the shamanistic ritual mentioned above; a self-sacrifice to receive knowledge of the sacred runes. His ravens, Huginn and Muinn (their names mean thought and memory),  scout through the lands, bringing their master news and information. Yet such knowledge  comes at a price, for despite Odin's clairvoyant and prophetic powers he cannot halt Ragnorak, the twilight of the gods (when he will face Fenris). He foresees it, but is powerless to halt the death of his son, Baldr.

Etymologically the root of Odin's name (ódr) means furor, rage, fury and is related to violent poetic/prophetic inspiration. He was a sorcerer, possessing various magical items, and should his great spear pass above the heads of your army, then it was surely doomed. For it was also Odin who caused men to freeze in battle, netted as they were in his invisible fetters. From Häsaeti (The High Seat) in Asgard Odin watches the nine worlds. Beside him sits Frigg, his wife and he possesses two great wolves, Geri and Freki.

Cult of Woden
Spears feature a lot in Odin worship. Are these two performing a rite associated with the god? Their ceremonial helms portray Odin's ravens. 

volk knot
Human sacrifice was performed to honour Odin. Note the spear and ravens - all symbols linked strongly to Odin. 

The Valknut features on a number of Gotland stones, usually in relation to figures identified with Odin. However its precise symbolism is speculation. Some say it represents three realms being part of one (similar in ways to the triskele). It is obvious that it reflects some sort of trinity, and the knot on the Stora Stone (see pic) consists of three interlocked triangles. The way the symbol is placed in this instance (above the sacrifice) might indicate that the doomed is meant for Odin, and the symbol is therefore a symbolic representation of the god. A customer told me recently the knot symbolised the nine-worlds over which Odin was lord. 

Norse Odin
Odin riding Slepnir, notice the Valkyrie to the left.

Evidently Odin possesses many shamanistic qualities, the ritual hanging, shapeshifting, his spirit guides, his gazing into the worlds. He travels to the realm of the dead to visit his slain son, Baldr, on his eight-legged steed, Slepnir -  indicative of a shaman's spirit journey to save lost souls. Even the notion of Odin hanging on the world tree is deeply significant. Many cultures in which shamanism still exists today  parallel  this imagery. It is something I will deal with in a separate post. 

This, in itself, is indicative that Odin's origins lie in the distant past and though he was later elevated to god of Jarls, and head of the Scandinavian pantheon, his roots lay in the early shamanistic practices* of the Indo-European  peoples. Again this is reflected in comparisons with Vedic mythology and Indo-Iranian sources which point to a migratory spread of such concepts, which obviously altered over time as different cultures developed. For example the Langobards had a myth connected to how they changed their name from the Winnili, and this story involved a deity called Godan, itself a form of Woden, itself a form of Odin - here we see the development of the god across Germanic Europe (and many ancient tribes traced their lineage to Odin/Woden).  It is also worthy to note that the Celtic God Lug shares quite a number of similarities with Odin too. 

What I find fascinating about Odin is that despite his otherworldly apparels and such, there is something earthy and human about him. Like many of the Norse pantheon he is no picture-book of perfection, rather a mirror of ourselves, or an aspect of ourselves. Despite his wily ways, his trickery (measured by his honour) there is an honesty to the figure. A truth that is very human, fallible and illogical - just like us!

Before you go have a look at my wee carving of Odin HERE (long sold).

Odin and Fenris
Odin on the Kirk Andreas cross slab from the Isle Of Man.
Odin is consumed by Fenris. 

*Shamanistic practices - I use this word for want of better. Shamanism denotes animistic belief systems involving the spirit world. World-wide there are many similarities, pointing to the great antiquity of shamanism. Again this is a topic of great interest for another moment in time. 

Georges Dumèzil  - Gods Of The Ancient Northmen
HR Ellis Davidson - The Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe
John Lindow - Norse Mythology
John Stanley Martin - Godan to Woden  
Piers Vitebsk - The Shaman

further reading:
This website has a vast amount of reference and information on Norse myths:
Norse Mythology For Smart People 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dragons - part 1

Photo I took in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Dragons capture our imaginations to this very day. They are huge and powerful, ancient beyond measure, wily and wise, both benevolent and malevolent. In the ancient East they signified the powerful forces of nature, and these mythological creatures still make impressive appearances in many a fantasy film and series (like those from The Game Of Thrones). Any Google 'image search' will instantly reveal the breadth of their modern-day devotion; in the plethora of dragon tattoos and stunning artwork that fill page after page. The fire-breathing monsters still very much ignite the sparks of our imagination. 

Dragons appear in the mythological record as serpents of monstrous size, such as the great Serpent of Nordic myth who encircles the human realm of Midgard, gripping his tail in his mouth. Our usage of Dragon comes from the Latin  droconem (draco), itself from the Greek word dragon (drakontos) meaning serpent or giant sea-fish. Etymologists trace the word's lineage even further back to aorist derkesthai, or even the Proto-Indo-European dark - both giving the meaning of 'one who stares'. Thinking about the unblinking eyes of lizards and snakes this would seem apt. 

In the tale of Lludd and Llefelys (contained within the ancient Welsh epic, the Mabinogion) mention is of made of a battle between two great dragons which symbolise the invading Saxons and the Celtic Welsh (Brythons; Britons). The tale has the British  King,  Lludd, dispense with the harmful, plague bearing dragons by burying a vat of mead in the centre of Briton (which turns out to be Oxford). When the dragons plunge into the mead and fall into a drunken stupour Llud has the pot, containing the sleeping dragons, buried on Mount Snowden, in modern day Wales. 

Viking memorial stone
Memorial stone by Asmund - check out those wings!

Asmund Karason, of the Swedish province of Uppland, was an 11th c. AD sculptor who may well be the creator of the Urnes style of Norse art. He carved at least ten memorial stones and introduced the winged dragon into Viking art! However its use as a motif did not flourish until the onset of Romanesque art in the 12th c. AD. 

In many early medieval folklore tales throughout Europe and Middle-East, the image of the knight sallying forth to slay a ‘malevolent dragon’ is a common enough theme. Variants of the myth echo across the Medieval world. In this sense the Dragon is the ultimate danger,  found in outland areas, at the edge of the world, or guarding great treasures, holding back waters or imprisoning beauty and the object of the heart’s desire itself. In this sense the dragon becomes the winged monster we best know:  a malevolent guardian -  a force that must be overcome, perhaps reflecting human kinds'  base and barbaric natures. 

The most famous of these dragon slayer’s is St. George. His story originates in Cappadocia in Turkey and possibly dates from the 7th c.AD. His tale kind of sets a precedent. I often wonder if such tales were metaphors or Christianity’s triumph over paganism (or Satan according to others) or whether there did exist huge lizards which bore the brunt of dark-age and medieval ‘heroism’. Browsing medieval bestiaries there seems to be some element of truth in the latter notion. Nature was often misunderstood in the past, as is brilliantly illustrated in Flavius Philostratus’ The Life Of Apollonius Of Tyana (217AD). It’s so funny I’ve included it as part of this blog. 

Now as they descended the mountain, they say they came in for a dragon hunt, which I must needs describe. For it is utterly absurd for those who are amateurs of hare-hunting to spin yarns about the hare as to how it is caught or ought to be caught, and yet that we should omit to describe a chase as bold as it is wonderful, and in which the sage, of whom I have written this account, was careful to set on record:

The whole of India is girt with dragons of enormous size; for not only the marshes are full of them, but the mountains as well, and there is not a single ridge without one. Now the marsh kind are sluggish in their habits and are thirty cubits long, and they have no crest standing up on their heads, but in this respect resemble the she-dragons. Their backs however are very black, with fewer scales on them than the other kinds; and Homer has described them with deeper insight than have most poets, for he says that the dragon that lived hard by the spring in Aulis had a tawny back (but other poets declare that the congener of this one in the grove of Nemea also had a crest, a feature which we could not verify in regard to the marsh dragons).

[3.7] And the dragons along the foothills and the mountain crests make their way into the plains after their quarry, and get the better all round of those in the marshes; for indeed they reach a greater length, and move faster than the swiftest rivers, so that nothing escapes them. These actually have a crest, of moderate extent and height when they are young; but as they reach their full size, it grows with them and extends to a considerable height, at which time also they turn red and get serrated backs. This kind also have beards, and lift their necks on high, while their scales glitter like silver; and the pupils of their eyes consist of a fiery stone, and they say that this has an uncanny power for many secret purposes. The plain specimen falls the prize of the hunters whenever it draws into its folds an elephant; for the destruction of both creatures is the result, and those who capture the dragons are rewarded by getting the eyes and skin and teeth. In most respects the tusks resemble the largest swine's, but they are slighter in build and twisted, and have a point as unabraded as sharks' teeth.

[3.8] Now the dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden colour, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eyebrows are more prominent than those of the plain, and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance. And they give off a noise like the clashing of brass whenever they are burrowing under the earth, and from their crests, which are all fiery red, there flashes a fire brighter than a torch.

They also can catch the elephants, though they are themselves caught by the Indians in the following manner. They embroider golden runes on a scarlet cloak, which they lay in front of the animal's burrow after charming them the runes to cause sleep; for this is the only way to overcome the eyes of the dragon, which are otherwise inflexible, and much mysterious lore is sung by them to overcome him. These runes induce the dragon to stretch his neck out of his burrow and fall asleep over them: then the Indians fall upon him as he lies there, and dispatch him with blows of their axes, and having cut off the head they despoil it of its gems.

And they say that in the heads of the mountain dragons there are stored away stones of flowery color, which flash out all kinds of hues, and possess a mystical power as resided in the ring, which they say belonged to Gyges. But often the Indian, in spite of his axe and his cunning, is caught by the dragon, who carries him off into his burrow, and almost shakes the mountains as he disappears. These are also said to inhabit the mountains in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea, and they say that they heard them hissing terribly and that they saw them go down to the shore and swim far out into the sea. It was impossible however to ascertain the number of years that this creature lives, nor would my statements be believed. This is all I know about dragons.

Stone Mad Crafts
One of my Carvings based on a 7th c. AD Celtic Cross


Sabine Heinz - Celtic Symbols
James Graham Campbell - viking Art
John Lindow - Norse Mythology 
Flavius Philostratus - The Life Of Apollonious Of Tyana
Risto Järv - The Three Suitors of the King’s Daughter