Thursday, April 27, 2017

Let’s Give It Some Chaos!

A lifetime ago I used to love Role-playing games, it was a teenage obsession of mine. I used to collect a magazine called White Dwarf and study the articles religiously. I loved the idea of fantasy worlds and escapism because, as a bullied teenager, I longed to escape. I also enjoyed the notion of the game. To me role-play was best when it was a group of people lost in an imaginary world. We were playing games like children play only adults aren’t allowed, so we make up rules. We used the Warhammer Fantasy rule book as a guide and there were no lead figures or anything like that. Our weekly engagments were pure cerebral adventures. It involved acting, playing, escapism but most of all it was bloody good fun (and the players included two huge hairy bikers who were abslutely mental, so erase the stereotype of geeky role-play gamers from your mind please). 

Now a symbol that arose a lot in Warhammer and still does is this:

It is a symbol for chaos, sometimes the points radiate from an open circle too. It was something that appealed to this youngster. And I still feel a  bit feverish when I see it these days. Of course in Warhammer it’s used to represent the forces of chaos. Everytime I carve it it sells instantly. Why? Because it’s a great symbol for a great theme. Chaos. However the motif's origins are interesting. The Chaos star was designed by Michael Moorcock, the author of the Elric Sagas and such. In fact it originates from his Eternal Champion series. The idea is ingeniously simple, the arrow reflects the direction of possibilties branching from the source. It’s a neat piece of imagery, which ties in with elements of chaos theory. Moorcock’s influence is deep and if you like bands such as Hawkwind then you’ll be familar with his ideas. 

Ok, but what the hell is chaos anyway?

Well chaos has been a buzz word over the latter half of the 20th century due to discoveries in quantum physics and dynamic systems, such as the weather, turbulence etc. I’ll paste some links to further your study of inquiry should you wish to expand your mind some. In Grecian myth Kaos was the first thing, from which came everything else. In fact many myths and religions follow this theme. As mentioned in the Serpent Post - the whole concept of  a sky god beating down a serpent monster can be interpreted as order triumphing over chaos. However chaos is never defeated, modern quantum physics kind of illustrates this fact: through chaos comes order, comes chaos then order. Look at any fractal such as the infamous Mandelbrot set and this is visually highlighted over and over again. 

Think of it scientifically, you have the Big Bang, the entire universe comes into being from a single unique point. Everything goes nuts! A mass of elements in their prime are sent hurtling around, crashing into each other, exploding, mixing, stabilising  and gradually forming gaseous planets that begin to solidify, harmonise and settle… yet chaos still provides an interesting undercurrent. 

Again I find it amazing how this symbol has been adopted by many modern media outlets, Warhammer being the classic, but there are many other places where the symbol crops up, Halo for example, and even My Little Pony! Haha! So it just goes to show how symbols can easily work their way into society, almost assuming a life of their own (although there are sites that insist this is an ancient symbol of chaos, which is bull - but again is interesting how such notions develop).  For me, I just like it, the idea of chaos and, like Dee’s Monad, and the design is aesthetically pleasing. Sure it’s only been around for 50 years, but I’ve a feeling it will be around a lot longer. 


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cycladic Goddesses

I’ve recently returned from a two month sojourn in Greece. As usual I’m drawn to various archaeological sites and museums. I find that in Greece the evidence of the past is everywhere, and like symbols the past is incorporated into later ages. Temples are forgotten, their ruins pilfered for building materials, in the same way that symbols gather new meanings. 

This week I’m concentrating on the Cycladic Goddess figurines because I believe that the figurines provide a great example of the abstraction of physical form. The Cyclades is a group of Grecian islands situated in the Aegean Sea. I recommend visiting there and island hopping - each island possesses a unique character. Highlights include the volcanic spur of Santorini, the beautiful beaches of Naxos, rugged mountain tracks over Andros and everywhere  fresh food and a relaxed atmosphere. 

Dating between 3300-1100 BC the Cycladic culture is famous for producing a distinctive stylised art-form. The majority of the remains found are of the so-called ‘goddess’ figurines. Most of which are rendered in varying degrees of abstraction. For example some look like guitars, others conform to a stylised ritual stance, i.e. figure is standing, arms folded across the chest, the face is triangular, almost shield-like, with only the nose form modelled. Of course many of these were painted, so that details like eyes and mouths were rendered in ochre or charcoal. The effect of the paint upon the stark white marble must have been very striking. The picture taken for this page are my own, and they all come from Naxos Archaeological Museum.

Here were see the artistic/ritual metamorphose of feminine form in a way that still has the ability to amaze us moderns. Once again we have to remember that religion was indistinct from art. But are these effigies goddess figurines, as Marija Gimbutas would have us convinced? or are they localised deities, representations of fertility spirits and such? 

A series of figurines in profile. Naxos Archaeological Museum.

Here we see the classic pose.
You might just make out a painted eye on the centre figure. 

Great close up of a marble goddess head.

The head bears a striking similarity to later Mayan pieces, though
thousands of years and miles separate them. 

Again the striking, ritual pose in various sizes. 

Classic stylised 'guitar' shape goddess.
Could it be that carved wooden heads were fixed to the neck peg?

We’ll never know for certain, but I’d like to draw your attention to the following pictures. Note how the female pubic region is simplified into a triangular form, sometimes struck with a dividing line, representing the vagina. This to me is a great example of how a symbol is formed. The vagina is bordered, or framed by a triangle, itself replete with profound symbolism. This boundary demarcates sacred ground: it is the entrance to the womb of the deity, the seat of fertility. The humble triangle inspired by the sculpture, could, in theory, be used to represent such a meaning 
-  a pictogram or ideogram. Such motifs are the beginnings of alphabets. 

Further Reading and Links:

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Load Of Old Bull?

There is a vast corpus of striking imagery from Mt. Bego in the Italian/French Alps. The images, dated to between 3,200-1700 B.C depict many stylised bulls or oxen. There are about 13,000 ‘corniform’ carvings, being a substantial percentage of the 40,000 carvings discovered at the site. 

Carvings from Mt Bego.

This reverence for the animal persisted in the Alpine regions into the later Hallstatt period. After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain the bull became linked to certain deities and cults. For example the god Esus, the strong or roaring one, was often portrayed in the company of bulls. There were also specific bull-gods, such as the Gallic Tarvostrigaranus.  In Graeco-Romano realms the bull was linked with the chief of the gods, Zeus/Jupiter, proving how powerful an image it was. The image hints at tribal memories of times when the mighty auroch roamed the lands. The auroch were  huge wild bulls that became extinct by the 2nd Millenia BC (although according to some sources the species survived into the 1600’s in Poland). 

With a lot of animal symbology  natural qualities become  sympathetic attributes ie; certain beneficial qualities of a particular animal are desired to be transferred, or acquired, by a human.  In the bull’s case these 'desired qualities' are strength and endurance. This is a reoccurring theme in many cultures. 

There appears to have been a symbolic association with the moon and the bull in many ancient religions. Of course visually the crescent of the horns could easily have been identified with the moon and this doesn’t suggest a cross fertilisation of early ideas. Such ideas could have been formed and associations deduced  by communities where stylised symbols were used. 

Brone Age Celtic figure. The triple horns suggest heightened potency.

Cattle were also linked with fertility and prosperity. This association was another practical one extending from the days when cattle were a tribesman’s wealth. The first rune of the Viking futhark, Fehu (Feoh in old English),  means money and cattle. In Vedic India cows were once payment for poets - something similar was not unknown in ancient Ireland, as is mentioned in the Táin Bó Regamna: Cú Chulainn, encountering the Morrighan disguised as a travelling poet, asked her where she got the cow that she led. The goddess replied that it was given in return for a poem. 

Bull skulls have been found at Celtic shrines, and the animal was often slain in sacrificial rites. This practice was not only confined to the Celtic regions. Bull worship and sacrifice was vital to the Minoan civilisation. Often such sacrifices coincided with communal feasting celebrations in which the sacrifice was on the menu.

The sacrifice of cattle in ritual was to yield a portion of wealth to the god/goddess. The inclusion of carved wooden bull figurines at shrine dedicated to Sequana, the goddess of the River Seine in France, may well be sacrificial offerings made by those unable to afford to sacrifice a real cattle.

Stylised bull from Pictish Scotland, Late Iron Age.

As hinted at previously, there is a strong link between cows and poet inspiration. In Vedic and Grecian myth this theme is alluded to in the Rig Veda and there are similarities between the myth of  Orpheus and the tripartite craftsmen of Hindu myth, the Rbhus. The latter are craftsmen who also craft words, which is exactly what a poet does. 

Indeed there appears to be a strong Indo-European root-myth in which a divine hero slays an underworld serpent, releasing the cattle of the dawn from the cavern of its stomach. It is said that a true poet must learn the names of the footprints of the cattle. This obscure reference (and the fact that in Hindu myth this is also linked to Soma) perhaps alludes to hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow in cow dung. Perhaps naming the footprints was an allegory for naming the ’shroom. Who knows, but if you want inspiration of deep-seated and far-sighted proportions mushrooms will do the trick!* 

This notion of cattle as wealth and  as providers of poetic inspiration is heightened by the produce obtained from the milk-cow. As providers of milk and butter they are benefactors to the community and therefore, symbolically, themes of abundance, prosperity and fertility abound. Sacrificial offerings of large slabs of butter have been found in bogs in Ireland dating to the later Bronze-age, attesting to the power of the motif and providing an insight into other ways the cow was sacrificed. 

In the male aspect we see strength, endurance, and the warlike nature of men. These themes are epitomised in the famous Irish tale the “Táin Bó Cuailnge”, in which a brown and white bull  symbolise the warring tribes of Connacht and Ulster. In the final section of the tale the bulls battle on the Plain of Aei, ripping each other apart.*  Here we see a warlike aspect of the bull in vivid Celtic imagery, it is a insight into the cattle raiding nature of the warrior Celts, possessing powerful metaphoric insight. 

“It was not long before the men of Erin, as they were there early on the morrow, saw coming over Cruachan from the west the Brown Bull of Cualnge with the Whitehorned of Ai in torn fragments hanging about his ears and horns. The men of Erin arose, and they knew not which of the bulls it was.” 

From the Táin Bó Cuailnge


It is interesting to reflect that the first runic imprint in the futhark alphabet is that of cattle! 

They are both swineherds who have been reborn as the mighty beasts.


Futhark, A Book Of Rune Magic - Edred Thorsson
Inherited Bovine Aspects In Greek Reflexes of the Indo-European Serpent Slaying Myth - John-Andrew McDonald
Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore  - Patricia Monaghan
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Prehistoric Britain - Timothy Darvil


Mt Bego link Here