Archive for the ‘archaeology’ Category

“Selfies with Trilithons” and Our Longing for (Re)connection   Leave a comment

Selfless trilithons

Selfless trilithons

Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.

In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.

Will Self visits Stonehenge

“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The Guardian.com

I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.

New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10” list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.

The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”

You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”

English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”

“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.

Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness.  They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.

Until we did.

[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]

We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.

But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)

These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”

Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:

Midhowe broch

Midhowe broch

… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.

During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.

If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.

“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.

“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.

Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react variously to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets some of them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:

When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.

The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be crossed with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)

In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.

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 Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.

*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]

McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

Updated 9 August 2015

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

Stuart Piggott’s “Wessex Harvest”   2 comments

Stuartpiggott“Wessex Harvest” is a poem written in 1948 by distinguished British archaeologist Stuart Piggott (1910-1996). I quote it here because it evokes autumn and an autumnal mood. Also because some of Piggott’s uncharitable remarks about contemporary Druidry, especially in his 1985 book The Druids (Ancient Peoples and Places), haven’t earned him much applause in some Pagan quarters. He distinguishes, quite appropriately, between “Druids as known,” “Druids as inferred,” and “Druids as wished-for,” and drops contemporary Druidry squarely in the latter category. The Druid Revival also earns Piggott’s scorn at times.

But of course, as AODA archdruid J. M. Greer is fond of remarking, mere age is no indicator of quality in anything. If we actually could dig up a 10,000-year old Druidry, would that make it better? And “wished-for” happens to be a quality inherent in most of the great accomplishments of human culture. What “actually” exists as “known” first arrives imagined, wished-for, waiting — oddly enough — like a poem not yet written down.  No Druidry of any period simply appeared on the scene without prior human imagination and effort, to be buried like a dog’s bone and subsequently turn up in the archaeological record just for convenience.

Piggott’s poem shows a more intuitive and perceptive side of the man, which is helpful in seeing him more accurately and completely — more charitably. So here it is:

Wessex Harvest

Now the ancient Wessex hills
seize their lost splendour–
once, Stonehenge-building, their princes
proud with their Wicklow gold
strode in the sunshine;
now earth inherits
their dust, who are chalk-graved,
dry frail and brittle
pale bones under barrows–
poor fragments, those great ones.
But see, the austere lines
of downland are gladdened
splendid now, flaunting
armour of red-gold plate,
corn-stooks its studding;
new from old treasure
is this year’s miraculous
rebirth in the harvest.
And so in all years
is nothing forgotten,
always the far dead things
new life begetting.

In this poem, unlike in his other work, Piggott shows that he does perceive how things like Druidry might re-emerge, finding “rebirth in the harvest” where “far dead things” really can and do “beget new life.”

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Images: Stuart Piggott — Wikipedia.

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