Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Symbology Of The Dog In Ancient Europe

Out-with any mythological context dogs are a key component of human survival. The domestication of wolves has given us the myriad of breeds existing in the world today. Our canine compadres were probably lured into symbiotic union with humans during the Palaeolithic era, but our earliest glimpses, as documentary evidence,  comes in the form of rock carvings from an archaeological site in Turkey. 

Close to the troubled Syrian border, Göbekli Tepe is thought to have been an ancient sanctuary of considerable size and importance. The architects and builders of this structure erected some two-hundred 6ft, 20 ton, t-shaped posts in series of circles. Some of these pillars are decorated with animals - with the function to guard the dead interred within. Evidence of ritual use has dated the site as having periods of use between  10,000 - 8,000 BC. Amongst the carvings of the animals are some that could be dogs. 

Göbekli Tepe
Dog carving from Göbekli Tepe

Suffice to say dogs have enjoyed a long history as companions of us humans. They turn up in many myths and legends across the globe (The dog-headed Egyptian God Anubis and Cerberus). However I’m concentrating on the European myths and the symbology attached (though surprisingly there is a link with the examples I quoted). 

Göbekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe

Dog bones were being interred within burial graves as long as five-thousand years ago in the  British Isles alone. Human bodies were often left to the elements, later the remaining flesh was stripped off (excarnation), the bones cleaned, collected and stored in burial chambers. Dog bones were sometimes mixed amongst the human, sometimes there are other animal bones present. A couple of thousand years later at Flag Fen near Peterborough, dog bones were found at the base of a mysterious wooden walkway - a Bronze-Age religious site consisting of thousands of wooden posts driven into the marsh, linking a sacred burial isle to the mainland. Were the bones placed there to guard the site? Or were they offerings to the deities worshipped there? Dog bones also turn up in ancient Scandinavian burials too.

Later still: ritual wells have yielded remains of dogs that were buried in pairs, hinting at latent, dualistic symbolism and funerary associations. Later still; and into the Romano-Celtic Iron age, there is evidence to suggest that dogs were tied-in with the healing  god Nodens. One theory is that - like the temple to Aesculapius at Epidaurus - dogs of the sanctuary would be allowed to lick the affected area of the worshipper. Given that dog slavers contain the enzyme lysozyme, which help defend wounds from certain bacteria, this might have worked on occasion.  Other healing deities were associated with dogs, such a Coventina, Nodens, and dogs appear at many Gaulish healing shrines. 

stone mad crafts
Simple Celtic dog carved by the author

Symbolically dogs are naturally associated with loyalty and bravery (like in the epic tale of Gelert the Hound). But, to the Celts, dogs encompassed a triad of significance: hunting, healing and death. In the Welsh tradition the Cŵn Annwn were huge white wolfhounds with blood-red ears - these were the Hounds of Annwn, the Hades of the Celts. These spectral hounds hunted the mountain of Cadair Idris and their howling foretold the death of those that heard them (In Welsh folklore the Cŵn Annwn  are also associated with migratory geese - see last week's post!)  Still within the otherworld aspect of the dog, Romano-Celtic statues of the hammer god, Sucellus, are occasionally accompanied by a triple headed-hound. 

With regards to the canines hunting prowess dogs feature prominently in this respect and were often depicted in scenery that may mirror the idea of 'the divine hunt'. Dogs are sometimes featured alongside hunting gods and  appear with the Goddess Diana at Cirencester and London.

stone mad crafts celtic dog
Another one of my dogs

Like the wolf, dogs were sometimes associated with battle for warriors in both Celtic and Germanic lands. There is reference made to the Lombards having cynocephali in their army; dog-headed warriors. There were also the Heodeningas or Hiadnings: dog warriors who would fight every day until the end of the world (these warriors are almost indistinguishable from the einheriar  (See Odin and the Wolf post). 

In conclusion then, dogs cover a range of ideas, the main being that of death and the Underworld, healing and the hunt. 


Göbekli Tepe -

Reference used:

1: Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Mreen
2: Pagan Religions Of The Ancient British Isles - Ronald Hutton
3: Ancient Germanic Warriors - Michael P. Speidel
4: An Archaeology Of Images - Miranda Green

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Migratory Birds And The Sinking Sun

Every year, across the British Isles and Europe,  birds flock in the wetlands or the trees. It is a process that seems timeless, an annual avian gathering that was taking place long before humans took notice. Drawn by  warmer climates flocks head off to North America or Africa, following mysterious inner maps locked into their genetics. Swallows, starlings, geese by the thousand. Across the entire breadth of Europe this Autumnal drama takes place. 

Mass flocks of  migratory birds gathering and taking to the skies must have been poignant events to the people of our historical  and pre-historical past. How did the people view these events (which may have involved considerably larger flocks, given that humans have altered many natural habitats in the last couple of centuries, and  before scrying guns, on tiny Mediterranean islands, reaped massive quotas of these colourful migratory birds)? 

Long before people were cognisant of the incredible breadth (and fragility) of our planet they must have wondered where the flocks went. Considering the ancient myth of the sun: its journey beyond the horizon into the underworld, which was also the kingdom of the dead - and  that this great departure coincided with the lengthening of nights, as the midwinter solstice drew closer (a celebrated landmark in the annual cycle), it would not be unfeasible to associate this migratory process with the sun (Sun Symbol). Certainly there is a lot of evidence to suggest that water fowl are associated with sun symbols; therefore validating the status of the bird as psychopomp (in fact the Valkyrie's birdlike appearance and their association with death could be a lingering remnant of such ancient imagery - see the post). 

stone mad crafts
From one of my many sketch books

Stone Mad Crafts
Sun cross and bird proud vessel - Bronze-age, France

Indeed shamans often fly to the spirit world. The Evenk shaman of Siberia use wooden effigies of birds to help guide them through their trance journeys. In Celtic myth the druid Mug Ruith wore a bird mask, while the filid, or poet/bards of Celtic tradition wore the tugen, a feathered cloak whose upper half was white with swan fathers, while the lower portion was of darker drake plumage. The striking costume was meant to heighten the filid's otherworldly appearance. 

It is a powerful, mythological  image: flocks descending to the otherworld, where they might sing to the dead or return with their messages  - hinted at in the profusion of tales in which birds possess  oracular powers (Ravens) - is a beautifully primal image. It reflects the idea that death is not an end, but a sort of freedom. Metaphorically the idea of flocks of brightly coloured birds flying into the dark unknown might also reflect the human condition; our journey through life. Surely there is no better envoy or emblem of freedom than the bird, which can rise into the ether, freed from earthly tethers. 

paul jenkins
Hallstatt Iron-Age period sheet bronze vessel stand - picture by Paul Jenkins

To begin with I was thinking I'd crash into a single post covering the symbology of birds... but the more I looked into it, the more evident it became that an single post was going to be messy. There's just no single easy statement that covers the genus of birds. Different species have different attributes and symbology. Therefore this post deals with migratory species, such as geese. At a future point I will cover other species.


The Archaeology Of Images - Miranda Green
Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green:
Celtic Symbols; Sabine Heinz
The Well Of Five Streams - Erynn Laurie
The Shaman - Piers Vitebsky

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Wild Boar

Bronze-age celtic shield
Witham Bronze Shield
Northamptonshire Helmet, Saxon 7th c. AD

It is evident  that  boar images on  helmets and shields point to the use of the wild boar, symbolically, as a protective symbol (whereas the wolf appears mainly on swords - see the WOLF post). From early times the boar was  associated with battle,  it was a fierce adversary in the hunt. In the Welsh story  Culhwch and Olwen,  the hero Culhwch tracks the  renowned boars Ysgithyrwyn (Chief Boar) and Twrch Trwyth. The former to rip out its great tusk,  the latter to claim the golden comb, razor and shears that were trapped in the bristles between the beast's ears (all this, amongst other tasks, for fair  Olwen’s hand). Culhwch’s birth is interesting: his mother, Goleuddydd, went mad during pregnancy, shunning habitation and coming to her senses amidst a herd of pigs. Gripped by a terrible fear of the animals she delivered her child. Thus Culhwch was discovered sitting alone in the woods, on a pig-run.

stone mad crafts
These three boars were hand-carved by me many years ago.

In reality the boar has a huge head, mounted on a powerful, muscular neck. Thus, when foraging for food, the boar can shovel into frozen earth for roots, tubers and bulbs. They have a varied diet, eating leaves, bark and seeds, shoots, garbage as well as worms, fish, rodents, snakes and frogs in the warmer seasons. Carbohydrates are important factor, helping to build up the fat reserves needed by the boar during hard times. 

Throughout the span of Europe wild boars vary in size from a metre and half in length and standing about 80cm tall, weighing around 70-100KG (though their eastern european cousins are a little bigger). The males possess a ridge of back bristles tracing the length of their spine, which stands erect when the animal is agitated. If males are fighting they emit a high-pitched, harrowing cry ( like the Carnyx - see the video below). They are hardy animals, adapting to various climates and - as a bonus -  they are immune to snake venom. 

As regards their ferocity, attacks on humans are incredibly rare, however they are certainly not to be messed with. Their protruding tusks are razor sharp and they bowl through the undergrowth, capable of speeds of up to 40km/hour. Once the initial charge has  sent the opponent spinning to the ground, the boar will step back, commencing to attack again until the target is unmoving.

stone mad crafts
A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron

In myth boars appear as huge monstrous beasts, often luring their pursuers into the underworld. Their red-eyed visages adorned the carnyx, or battle trumpets of the Celts. More often than not the boar is portrayed with its dorsal bristles exaggerated, placing emphasis on their fierceness, or perhaps depicting that these are not animals of this world but of the otherworld: the ridges reflecting  the way real animals react to death trauma. San shamen  depict animals this way as an evocation of the spirit-animal.

stone mad crafts
Double boar design from Anglo Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo

Even into the 1800’s folk customs from Estonia, Swabia, Austria and  Russia recorded numerous accounts of customs involving a Rye-boar or Corn-boar. An old custom in parts of Europe was to bake a yuletide bread in the form of a boar. 

It appears from the multitude of these customs that the boar was involved in the idea of the sowing and reaping of the crop; in the cycle of growth and the harvest. Celebrations at Yule and Christmas involving boar effigies of straw or bread possibly  replaced earlier sacrificial animals (in the Golden Bough, Frazer continually refers to this  as evidence of a Corn-Spirit worship… perhaps forgetting that corn was only introduced into Europe in the 15th-16th centuries. However it might be indicative of some association between the wild boar and fertility with other grains, such as wheat). Boars were also associated with prosperity, not only for the harvest but as a source of food. 

Many Celtic coins portray boars with grossly exaggerated dorsal ridges atop human profiles; as though reflecting some poignant connection between the head and the boar  and may reflect states of altered consciousness. The idea that people could become animals and change states of Being is well attested in ancient myth (and this is a topic for another post). 

The boar exists as force of nature. It lives in the forests and the wilds, occasionally straying to the periphery of human habitation. Thus they are ambassadors of that force, and the power of the wild. Their hardy, fierce aspect was something that Iron-age warrior tribes coveted. They are also protectors, their tough skins and hard bristles affording them a thick skin. 

I've always enjoyed that inital scene from the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke: when the primal sprit of the wild appears as a huge white boar, thundering through the forest. It's a great representation of the embodiment of Nature that the boar offers us. This glimpse into the past, a sort of reality check, from our domesticated world into that of the chaos of the wild. 

stone Mad crafts
Another one of mine, based on a Pictish design


An Archaeology Of Animals - Miranda  Green
Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
The Golden Bough (Vol 2) - James George Frazer

Thursday, October 6, 2016


viking odin
Odin with his ravens

Ravens conjure up scenes of battle, with mobs of winged shadows flocking to consume the dead. However much truth there is in this we can’t say but  unfortunately the raven gets some bad press in medieval  folklore - such notions as a death-bringer, sign of ill omen etc, might be Christian attempts to blacken pagan ideals linked to the bird. So, let’s see if we can’t wipe away some of that monotheistic grime and  unveil the Raven’s true symbolic nature.

Amongst the Norse god Odin’s many appellations was God of Ravens, for in myth he wore a raven upon each shoulder. These were Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory/mind) and he taught them speech.  They scouted the lands, bringing him news and thus extending his knowledge (see the Odin post). 

I love this fragment from the poem  Grímnismál which is found in The Poetic Edda. 

Hugin and Munin fly each day Over the earth. 
I am worried about Hugin, that he not come back, 
And yet more worried about Munin. 

In other words, though Odin worries that new thoughts and insight might not arrive, he frets more over losing his memory or mind. 

Bracteate, or talisman, from Sweden, 5-6th c. AD. Check out that head dress!

Migration period bracteate often depict a portrait with birds near its head or sometimes forming a sort of hat (see pics). John Lindow suggests that the notion of knowledge-seeking birds may come from shamanic practices, and therefore Odin’s fear of losing Munin might actually to be related to the danger a shaman faces when in a trance-state, travelling the spirit worlds.
Further strengthening the link between ravens and knowledge is the head-gear mentioned above, along with the horned, ceremonial helms with raven faces representing the double-raven aspect; these were ceremonial helmets worn by priests of the Odin cult -  reinforcing the link between raven and mind: the head being the seat of knowledge upon which the helm is placed. 
This association with Odin might in someway explain the bird’s prominence as a presence on the battlefield and might account for those later burdens of ill omen and death placed about the raven’s shoulders. Odin was many things, chief amongst them was a god of death and the Underworld. Perhaps it was this symbiotic relationship with the god that the Christians needed to refute. 
There is also a link between the Celtic god Lugh and Odin for, like the latter, Lugh possessed two ravens that did all his bidding. However the goddess Morrighan, a war spirit sometimes split into three battle maidens (with  similarities to the Viking Valkyries i.e. battle and bird-like qualities*) is directly associated with battle. This being said the raven was also possessed of prophetic powers in Celtic myth too: it could prophecy death and life and was associated with the  Underworld. This is personified in the tale of Brân Llyr in the Welsh Mabinogion. In this tale Branwen, his sister, was lured off to Eire where she was imprisoned. Her brother led an expedition to bring her back but during the attempt he was fatally  wounded. So Brân instructed his warriors to hack off his head and take it back to Wales. Even so his head sang and told jokes. Brân means raven, and Branwen the white raven. 
Raven artwork by me.
In Grecian myth Ravens are associated with Apollo and were the God’s messengers in the mortal world, bringing luck to those who beheld them.  To the tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast, including the Innuit, Haidas and Koyukons, Raven is a creator and a trickster. Back in Europe, by the time that alchemy was reaching its zenith, the raven was symbolic of darkness and putrefaction -  which, however negative it may appear, is seen as a necessary step in alchemical processes. 
In the so-called Real World Ravens are indeed clever creatures. Their brain size is one of the largest in the bird kingdom and they have a great potential and ability for problem solving, mimicry and insight.  These are just some of the attributes that scientists have noticed in Ravens. However couldn't ancient man - living closer to the animal kingdom - have shared such intimacies long ago, and did such insights influence early myth? It's an interesting thought. 
If you'd like to know more of the esoteric new-age symbology of the raven, you might like to try this page at The Order Of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The post, by Susa Morgan Black goes into some detail in many aspects of the Raven, from scientific to magical. 

There are many similarities between many cultures' mythology. Personally I believe that some of this can be accounted by the idea of diffusion, in which root ideas harking back to Indo-European or even Pre-Indo-European tribes still hold sway. As tribes migrated core motives were held onto but changed as the result of the meeting of other cultures and tribes splitting, spreading out.  I also feel that some of these ideas appear similar because we humans are hardwired the same way. As with Jungian concepts of collective unconscious and archetypes, I feel that there are ideas that are common to us all. The profound measure of our symbolic needs and desires have been projected by numerous cultures and transferred, generation-to-generation, by means of mythology. 

Stone Mad Crafts
Hand carved by me. Stone Mad Crafts.


Celtic Symbols - Sabine Heinz
Alchemy And Mysticism - Alexander Roob
The Encyclopaedia Of Celtic Mythology And Folklore - Patricia Monaghan
Norse Mythology - Peter Andreas Munch
Norse Mythology - John Lindow