Yale University Press, 2017
xv, 360 pages, illustrated
‘The Witch’ is a work of huge ambition, spanning tens of thousands of years and taking in every inhabited continent. The title, even including the subtitle, scarcely does it justice. While it’s main focus is on the image of the witch across time and in many cultures, it ranges far beyond that central theme, taking in religious and political history, folklore, ceremonial magic, shamanism and more, in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its scope is an important part of the book’s raison d’etre and appeal. Rather than focus on a narrow exploration of Witchcraft trials in early modern Europe, it seeks to place the phenomenon of European witchcraft in a deeper historical and global context. In doing so it opens up new debates and offers fresh perspectives on existing ones. Few historians are better equipped for this task than Ronald Hutton, whose previous work has ranged from the Reformation to Druidry via modern Wicca and Siberian Shamanism.
In discussing witchcraft and perceptions of it, it is necessary to define what the term witchcraft has meant to most people in most cultures and at most times. In making such a definition, it is necessary to compare witchcraft with other forms of human engagement with spiritual forces including religion, shamanism and ceremonial magic. To do so requires defining each of these. This the author does with admirable lucidity. Of course, not everyone will agree with the definitions arrived at, and Hutton himself admits that they are contestable. The chosen definition of witchcraft itself may prove contentious, even though it is firmly based on the most common use of the term over many centuries, that being a means by which individuals seek to harness spiritual powers and/or magic to harm others.
For this reason alone, The Witch may prove as divisive of opinion in the Pagan community as Hutton’s previous works on the subject, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press, 1999), and Witches, Druids & King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003). For those who might get apoplectic, it is worth remembering that this is about witchcraft as commonly defined throughout history, not about the present day constructs of Wicca, ‘white’ witchcraft, ‘hereditary’ witchcraft and related Pagan traditions that were the subjects of those earlier works. Having trained in Alexandrian Wicca in the late 1970s, I have often suggested to Wiccan friends and colleagues that a simple way to improve the public image of Wicca would be to discard the use of the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ in describing themselves and what they do. Having described myself as a Druid from the mid-1970s, before joining my coven, I have long been aware of the very different public responses to the terms ‘witch’ and ‘Druid,’ the former being largely hostile, the latter largely positive, albeit tarnished in recent years by the aggressive militancy of an unfortunately vocal minority.
One of the book’s innovations is the creation of a new description of those who use magic largely to benefit others, often in return for payment, as ‘service magicians.’ This useful term covers a wide range of medicine men, witch doctors, wise women, cunning folk, shamans and the like who may use techniques similar to those attributed to witches but who use them, on the whole, benevolently rather than malevolently, defensively rather than offensively, often for reversing the perceived effects of witchcraft.
My one problem with the book results directly from its ambitious scope: even with 300 pages of text and the use of a fairly small font, there are innumerable points passed over in a single sentence about which one would like to know so much more. Just on page 224, for example, there is a brief reference to a 16th century male magician in Dorset who contacted the fairy folk “in their homes inside prehistoric burial mounds.” Living in the West Country, not too far from Dorset, I would love to know more about John Walsh, as he is named in the endnotes. The same paragraph refers to a “Susan Swapper, a reputed service magician at the Sussex port of Rye, in 1609.” I went to school in Rye for 12 years, yet had never heard of this woman and would love to know more about her. Knowing the way publishing works, I imagine that the publisher insisted on a page limit. If this is so, I wish Yale University Press had been a lot more generous with their allowance. Under the circumstances, it’s as well that the author provides nearly 50 pages of carefully referenced notes. These have led me to seek out John Walsh’s confession online and to invest £15 in the book, Rye Spirits, by Annabel Gregory (The Hedge Press, 2013), and £60 in The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, by Emma Wilby (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).
Over the years, Professor Hutton has done a great deal to inspire academic research into paganisms old and new. This book represents a summary of the current state of research into the historical figure of the witch and other magic users and, as such, also points to where gaps in our knowledge remain to be filled. From the chapter devoted to ‘Witches and Fairies,’ for example, there is clearly scope for a substantial book just on the relationship between British magic users and the fairy folk as recorded in trial documents and other sources from the mid-15th century to the 18th. Throughout this period and right across the British Isles, such relationships often involved accessing the fairy realm via earthen mounds, meeting with a fairy queen and being taught various healing techniques by the fairy folk. The fairy folk referred to are not of the tiny, Edwardian, butterfly-winged variety, but are human sized, often spirits of dead humans known to the magician, sometimes shape-shifters.
In a brief review, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer range of information contained in this book. It is stuffed to the gunwales with everything from illuminating minutiae to grand ideas, all woven together with Hutton’s accustomed skill, clarity and insight. It’s not surprising the book was twenty-five years in the making, nor that research assistants were employed to make possible the task of sifting through the vast number of works consulted.
Having read most of the author’s books since 1991’s seminal Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, I am increasingly impressed by the care with which he credits previous researchers in the fields covered. In this, as in much else, Hutton shows an unusual generosity of spirit. The present work is no exception. At each step of the way, full and fair acknowledgement is given to earlier writers and their ideas. This is part of what might be called the Hutton Project, which is not only to present histories of the various topics on which he writes, but to detail the history of those histories through reflecting on the lives and opinions of the historians who have formulated our understanding of the past.
The book is in three parts, Part 1, entitled ‘Deep Perspectives,’ consists of the first three chapters, ‘The Global Context,’ ‘The Ancient Context,’ and ‘The Shamanic Context.’ Part 2, ‘Continental Perspectives,’ consists of four chapters, ‘Ceremonial Magic – An Egyptian Legacy,’ ‘The Hosts of the Night,’ ‘What the Middle Ages Made of the Witch,’ and ‘The Early Modern Patchwork.’ Part 3, ‘British Perspectives,’ discusses ‘Witches and Fairies,’ ‘Witches and Celticity,’ and ‘Witches and Animals.’
I suspect that this is a book that will resonate in the academic study of witchcraft and magic for some time to come, helping set the agenda for future research and encouraging that research to expand its range and ambition. I certainly hope so. For the non-academic, it is not an easy read simply due to being so densely packed with information. For this reason, I suspect its impact in the modern Pagan community will be considerably less than many of Hutton’s previous works. This is unfortunate, since it offers not merely food for thought but a veritable ten course banquet.
A new TV series called Britannia takes as its setting the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 CE which began almost 400 years of Roman occupation of England and Wales. In the community at large, the main talking point seems to be whether or not Britannia is trying to be another Game of Thrones clone. In the Druid community, the major topic of debate is the show’s portrayal of Druids. In weighing into these discussions, I am at the considerable disadvantage of being unable to see the programme in question due to not being a subscriber to Sky. That said, I’ll have a go based on what little I’ve been able to glean from brief clips online and other people’s comments.
The chief Druid in the series is portrayed by Mackenzie Crook (above), most recently gracing our screens in the excellent BBC series, Detectorists. In Britannia, he is heavily made up and seems to portray his character as something between a circus performer and a homicidal maniac. Some modern Druids have been quoted in the press as being deeply offended by this portrayal on the grounds that modern Druids are peace-loving people who honour the cycles of nature. In most cases, this is undoubtedly true. I’m a life-long pacifist myself. We may, however, legitimately ask whether the same was true of Druids two thousand years ago. Classical Druids’ ability to bring peace to warring factions is evidenced in Diodorus Siculus’ 1st century BCE statement that, “Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.”
On the other hand, classical Druids relied for their livelihood on the patronage of the warrior caste that formed the upper echelons of Celtic society, while some Celtic sacred sites were decorated with human skulls (right) or piled with the bones of the dead. Then there are the Druids in medieval Irish literature who use battle magic against their enemies, hurling balls of fire or causing rocks to rain down from the heavens. There is also evidence for human sacrifice among the Celts, albeit on nothing like the industrial scale suggested by their Roman conquerors. Need these have involved Druids? Diodorus Siculus (left) suggests that they did, writing that the Celts “have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought.”
Even from this fragmentary and at times dubious evidence, it seems likely that classical Druids were considerably more robust in their approach to life and death than many contemporary Druids are willing to believe.
The makers of Britannia, however, clearly take Roman descriptions of Druids as the basis for their portrayal. This is problematic in that the Romans were intent on conquering the Celts and as part of that agenda they needed to demonise their intellectual caste, the Druids, since they represented the only organisation in Celtic society capable of uniting warring tribes to resist Roman plans for conquest. To this end, Roman writers characterised Druids as the most bloodthirsty members of a savage race, accusing them of all manner of barbarity, including nailing people’s entrails to trees and making them run around them, divining the future from their death throes. Greek writers, by contrast, who were well acquainted with the Celts, described Druids as wise philosophers, eloquent speakers and counsellors to kings. From what I can gather, Britannia over-emphasises the brutality of Druids for dramatic effect while downplaying the other activities for which Druids were noted, like storytelling, genealogy, healing, music, poetry and the aforementioned counselling.
It seems that the Druids in Britannia are also portrayed as regular drug users. There is absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, I suspect that the inhabitants of 1st century CE Britain would have felt much that same as the more recent inhabitants of Siberia, i.e. that any Druid or shaman who needed drugs to access the Otherworld was pretty lousy at their job.
On the whole, then, it looks as though the portrayal of Druids in Britannia revels in dope and gore to excess and ignores most of the other priestly functions Druids fulfilled in their communities. This should go down well in America, where, for historical reasons, the Roman view of Druids as barbaric monsters has always been prevalent.
Incidentally, I note that Britannia Druids are shown gathering in a sort of two storey Stonehenge (above). This will doubtless revive the old argument about Druids being a Celtic priesthood and the Celts not arriving in Britain until many centuries after such megalithic monuments were abandoned. Here again, all may not be as it seems. Julius Caesar, one of the few classical writers who actually met Druids, was told by them that the Druid faith originated in Britain (Gallic Wars, bk.6, ch.13). Celtic culture, on the other hand, originated in central Europe. Assuming Caesar’s informants were accurately reporting their tradition and that Caesar accurately passed on their words, this means that Druids were not Celtic in origin, but native to Britain before Celtic culture arrived here. In which case, as many reputable archaeologists have argued, it is possible that Druids were directly descended from those who built and used Stonehenge and other monuments. There were Iron Age shrines in southern Britain which, like many of their megalithic predecessors, consisted of timber circles enclosed by earthwork banks and ditches, arguing for some continuity of tradition. Iron Age and Romano-British finds at megalithic sites such as the Medway tomb-shrines show that they continued to be visited, though for what reasons we can only speculate. The Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp lies a little over a mile from Stonehenge, a short stroll away and Iron Age and Romano-British pottery and other artefacts have been found within the henge. It seems impossible to believe that Druids would not re-use at least some of the stone circles built by their, and our, ancestors. It is hard to imagine that they would not have felt the same sense of ancestral connection and simple wonder that we ourselves feel when we visit such places, even harder to believe that they would simply ignore them.
I’ll probably watch Britannia when it comes out on dvd. After all, when Emma Restall Orr and I (left) sat on a bench watching the rough, grey winter sea at Eastbourne way back in the 1990s, discussing the future direction of the British Druid Order, we decided to make it our goal to bring sex, fear and death back into Druidry. In Britannia, we may have found an ally. In any case, a show that uses Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as a theme tune can’t be all bad…
“Histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast down through all eternity the crying of humanity.
‘Twas then when a hurdy gurdy man come singing songs of love….”
In the late 1970s, I was asked to compose a set of seasonal ceremonies for the Alexandrian Wiccan coven of which I was a member. One thing that struck me as soon as I started researching for Midwinter was that none of our ancestors seem to have celebrated the winter solstice which normally falls on December 21st, but many celebrated on December 25th, a few days later. Similarly, Midsummer’s Day, the traditional date of Midsummer celebrations across the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, falls on June 24th, not on the summer solstice, which usually occurs on the 21st. Solstices represent the midpoints of the solar standstills that occur twice a year and span about five days when the sun’s apparent rising and setting positions on the horizon don’t visibly move. It puzzled me that modern Pagans seem to celebrate the solstices and not a few days later, in keeping with ancient practice.
Answers emerged in the 1990s through the researches of Ronald Hutton, Steve Wilson and others. Steve Wilson was among those researching the origins of the eight seasonal celebrations that are a feature of modern Paganism, certainly of Wicca and Druidry. They discovered that the festival cycle known to many of us as the Wheel of the Year was formulated in the late 1940s and early 50s by Gerald Gardner (right), the father of modern Witchcraft, and Philip Ross Nichols, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Both were keenly interested in Celtic folk traditions and discovered that a sequence of cross-quarter day festivals that fell between the solstices and equinoxes had been widely celebrated in Ireland under the names Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain and Imbolc. Each had an equivalent in English folk festivals: May Day, Lammas, Hallowe’en and Candlemas. Dubbing them Fire Festivals, Gardner incorporated them into his version of Witchcraft.
Nichols (left), who knew Gardner well, liked the balanced mandala created by the eight seasonal rites, the solstices, equinoxes and the quarter days. They gave a communal celebration roughly every six weeks throughout the year. Nichols tried to persuade his colleagues in the Ancient Druid Order to adopt the eightfold scheme but they refused, preferring to stick to celebrating only the two equinoxes and the summer solstice. The Wheel of the Year finally made its appearance in Druidry when Nichols incorporated it into the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which he founded in 1964. Prior to the modern creation of this festival wheel, each of the festivals had been celebrated by some people in some areas, but no community or group had ever celebrated all of them.
This still leaves the mystery of why most modern Pagans now celebrate the solstices and not Midsummer’s Day and Christmas Day, as our ancestors did. To unravel this, we need to go back a little further, to the Druid revivals of the 18th century. By this time, the science of astronomy had taken over from astrology and the dates of the solstices were predictable and understood. When William Stukeley (left) surveyed Stonehenge in the 1740s, he noted the alignment of the Heel Stone with the summer solstice on June 21st. This spectacular piece of ancient engineering caught the public imagination and that of the Druid revival groups that began to emerge a few decades later so that they made the assumption that Druids celebrated the summer solstice. This in spite of the fact that a fair had long been held at Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, and that the Heel Stone sunrise alignment is equally good on that day. The idea having taken hold that Druids celebrated the summer solstice, the further assumption was made that they celebrated the winter solstice too.
Ronald Hutton brought together a wide range of sources in his 1996 study of the ritual year in England, Stations of the Sun. In it, he addresses the discrepancy between ancient and modern pagans/Pagans in celebrating summer and winter. He concludes that what our ancestors actually celebrated was not the solstices, but the point a few days after the solstices when the sun’s rising and setting positions begin to move again. At Midwinter, this is the time at which the light was considered to be reborn, hence the birth of children of light at this time in various ancient pantheons.
In Druidry, many of us celebrate the rebirth of the Mabon (‘Child’), son of Modron (‘Mother’), whose story features in The Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen. The antiquity of the Mabon is affirmed by inscriptions to a god, Maponus, in Romanised Gaul and Britain and by the Lochmaben Stane, a large solitary boulder on the Scottish Borders that was formerly the focus of large regional gatherings. Modron is reflected in numerous inscriptions to the Matronae (‘Mothers’) on groups of three female deities that cover a similar geographical range to the Maponus inscriptions and appear at more-or-less the same time. Our Scandinavian ancestors celebrated Christmas Eve as Modranicht (‘Mother’s Night’) and it is likely that the Gallo-British Matronae were celebrated as giving birth to Maponus, the child of light, on the same date, the moment of his rebirth being sunrise on the old Midwinter’s Day, December 25th.
So, the doubts about the timing of modern pagan celebrations I had in the 1970s were confirmed in the 1990s, since when I have been regularly reminding anyone who’ll listen of the times when our ancestors actually celebrated Midsummer and Midwinter. How little impact my efforts have had should be plain to anyone remotely connected to modern Paganism, where greetings always go out on the solstices. Ah well, one can but try.
In the BDO courses, we recommend celebrating the original dates for the original reasons. As the popularity of our courses grows, perhaps the old ways and days will undergo a revival. My early 1990s translation of ‘awen’ as ‘the flowing spirit’ (based on what turned out to be a very inaccurate Victorian Welsh dictionary) has certainly caught on and is now used by Druids and others all over the world, so anything is possible!
Rye Grammar School was not a good place in which to be a hippy in that halcyon summer of 1967. While Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, was in the USA, encouraging the world to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” A. L. F. Buttery, the Old Etonian headmaster of my very English school, was telling me that “there is no room in an institution like a school for individuals.” While love-ins and be-ins flourished in San Francisco and ‘swinging London’ was enjoying the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream, the little town of Rye in Sussex remained a sleepy Tory backwater, rife with bigotry, prejudice and hypocrisy, and full of boys around my age who would, within a year, be proudly calling themselves skinheads. I was barred from the newsagents in Rye because I had long hair. The same social stigmata meant that I was frequently stopped by the police in Rye if I went out wearing anything other than school uniform. That certainly included the psychedelic shirt I made by taking a discarded white shirt of my father's and painting huge, brilliantly coloured flowers on it with felt-tip pens. I took to going barefoot and sitting on floors rather than chairs too. None of which endeared me to my parents, teachers or peers.
By 1967, I had been a pacifist for ten years. This came from watching playground fights between individuals or gangs of boys during my first year at primary school. I saw that the only results were that one or more children got hurt and fresh enmity and resentment were caused. Even at the age of four, it didn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to see wars as playground fights writ large, the difference being only the scale and severity of the casualties. Since I could see no positive outcomes to fighting, only negatives, I determined that I would never take part in acts of violence, a position I have maintained ever since.
I made sure I passed my 11 Plus exam so that I would go to the local Grammar School rather than the Secondary Modern because I assumed that children attending the Grammar School would be sufficiently intelligent to share my view of violence. I could scarcely have been more wrong. Whereas the Secondary Modern School had a liberal-minded headmaster, Mr. Rothwell, who employed like-minded staff and genuinely took an interest in encouraging pupils academically, Mr. Buttery’s overwhelming interest was cricket. If you were good at cricket, you were in for an easy ride. Not only was I not good at cricket, I found it, as I still do, perhaps the most tedious team game ever devised by humankind. ALF and I were never destined to get on. Worse than that, the Grammar School encouraged, or at least tolerated, two forms of institutionalised bullying.
Attached to the school was Leasom House Farm. Parents who wanted a Grammar School education for their children who had failed the 11 Plus could buy it by sending them as boarders to Leasom House. It also meant they were completely rid of their children during term time and could get on with their lives unencumbered. The bitter resentment this fuelled was exorcised by bullying day pupils, a sport indulged in by virtually every Leasom House boy. If there happened to be anything a little unusual about you, you were picked out for special attention and bullied on a daily basis. This applied to pupils who wore glasses, suffered from asthma, or, in my case, had long hair, a deep objection to wearing school uniform and was a pacifist. Discovering the latter was taken by the bullies as carte blanche to bully me as much as they liked, knowing I would never hit back. Fortunately, I was a lot more intelligent than the bullies and therefore able to talk my way out of most potential violence.
A lot of the bullying directed against me came not from fellow pupils, however, but from teachers. The Grammar School seemed to attract teachers with a pathological hatred of children, especially ones who were unusually bright and questioned authority. Think Lindsay Anderson's If... Slaps round the head were daily occurrences, being caned across the hand less frequent. There was a history teacher whose methods ranged from the casual slap across the back of the head, through twisting and pulling the hair by the ear to nipple-twisting, the latter being particularly excruciating. The PE teacher preferred to administer punishment with one of his large plimsolls rather than the flat of his hand. On cross country runs, he would ‘encourage’ asthmatic children over farm gates by whacking them across the buttocks with this item of footwear. I think it was in 1967 that this man pinned me to the wall in a corridor, put his face close to mind and asked, "Don't you mind people thinking you're a freak?" I replied, "No, sir. I am one." This confused him so much that he let me go without another word.
The environment in which I experienced the Summer of Love was thus one of daily brutality five days a week, alleviated at weekends by taking the train to Hastings and roaming its back streets or seafront alone. There too, I was often stopped by the police for being in possession of long hair without a license. Since my father was around at weekends, I got out of the house as much as possible. He objected strongly to my long hair, weird attitudes and interest in music and art. He regarded them, and me, as a waste of space, and told me so whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Despite, or possibly because of, the tribulations of home and school, I drew huge comfort from what was happening in the rest of the world, fed to me through newspapers, the radio, television and, perhaps most importantly, through the music of the time. I had been a Beatles fan since the release of ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962 and had watched them develop from loveable Liverpudlian mop-tops into thoughtful individuals who were one of the driving forces of popular culture worldwide. August 1966 saw the release of the ‘Revolver’ album, featuring the deeply psychedelic tracks, ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ ‘Love You To,’ and the awesome, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ an aural assault unlike anything put on vinyl before, with its dreamlike lyrics, backward tape loops and sitar all merging into a rolling, crashing wave of sound. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream – it is not dying...”
Along with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘19th Nervous Breakdown,’ the Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes of Things,’ the Beatles’ ‘Rain/Paperback Writer’ and others, here was a new music that demanded you not just listen to it but to immerse yourself within it and be swept along by it to other head spaces. To my ears and mind, it was utterly beautiful, magical and transcendant.
1967 kicked off with the Beach Boys’ extraordinary ‘Good Vibrations’ riding high in the UK singles chart: “When I look into her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world...” The chart for late January that year also included Cat Stevens’ ‘Matthew and Son,’ the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Hey Joe,’ Cream’s ‘I Feel Free,’ and Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman.’ Yep, there was definitely something in the air, and it was being beamed into my ear via a little transistor radio tuned to pirate Radio Caroline.
Caroline played stuff you never heard elsewhere, with the noble exception of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show on Radio London. It was on Caroline that I heard three singles that, for me, still encapsulate the English Summer of Love. One was Nirvana’s ‘Tiny Goddess,’ released in July. That was followed in September by Les Fleur de Lys’ ‘I Can See A Light.’ The third was again by Nirvana, and called ‘Pentecost Hotel.’ All three have a dreamlike quality that lifted me into a beautiful place back then, and continue to do so now.
These bands, and others of the period, were clearly beginning to realise that music has the ability not only to move the emotions, effecting hearts and minds, but to actually shift the consciousness of the listener. How conscious this was on the part of the musicians, I don’t know, but it certainly produced some of the most extraordinary music of my lifetime.
The apotheosis of the music of that golden era was, of course, the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ released on June 1st, 1967. I first heard it, weirdly enough, at my school, which happened to have an open day that coincided with the album’s release. I was too poor to afford full-priced albums, but a WWII bomb shelter in the school grounds had been converted into a sort of psychedelic dungeon for the day, complete with primitive light show, a 6th former had brought in a copy of Sgt. Pepper, and the first chords of the album were sounding just as I wandered in to see what was happening. I stayed to listen to the whole of both sides, culminating in one of the most famous piano chords on record, reverberating like a nuclear explosion at the close of a psychedelic trip set to music. I was dumbfounded. I could barely speak.
John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show was another oasis of bliss. Broadcast from 12 midnight until 2 o’clock in the morning, I used to listen to it under the covers with the little transistor radio clamped to my ear. It was not just the album tracks, or whole albums that Peel played, by Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and the rest, it was the poetry readings from Roger McGough, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories Peel read between tracks, the references to the Dibblers who sat on toadstool seats and just the whole atmosphere of magical wonder conjured during those two hour sessions. This, of course, came to an end on August 14th, 1967, when Harold Wilson's Labour government shamefully introduced the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act that made the pirate radio stations illegal and led to the BBC setting up it's insipid, tightly regulated, Radio 1 as an extremely poor substitute.
Perhaps my reaction to what was happening in music and popular culture at the time was partly driven by the circumstances I was living with. We lived in poverty, in a shack with a leaky roof and cracks in the walls where, for the first years of my life, we didn’t even have running water, relying instead on a rain tank in the garden. Bullied on a daily basis by teachers and fellow pupils, my father adding his unconcealed dislike of me to the mix at weekends, it was hardly surprising I should look for any avenue of escape that was offered and, given my proclivities, music, art and literature were obvious ones to latch onto.
It was more than that though. My innate pacifism gave me an automatic sympathy with the message of ‘peace and love’ that was in the air, and with the growing global protests against the American war in Vietnam. It was more than that too. Since early childhood, I had been fascinated by the concept of other worlds beyond the physical. This was spurred by disturbing visions I had in the state between waking and sleeping, by vivid, often terrifying, dreams, and by a strong sense that there were discarnate entities all around us that were capable of interfering in our lives. Whenever I tried to speak of these things to anyone, they dismissed them as over-vivid imagination and, more often than not, warned me that to take an interest in them was unhealthy and probably a sign of madness.
My first signs of possible salvation came from American comic books. I was lucky enough to discover Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel Comics about a month before the debut of ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961. The FF acted like a family should, rather than like mine actually did. Sure, they had fights, but they were quickly forgotten and, when the chips were down, they were always there for each other. Kirby debuted his take on Norse mythology in 1962 in the pages of ‘Journey Into Mystery’ where he introduced us to ‘The Mighty Thor.’ This gave me my first glimpse of paganism. Things heated up considerably when Kirby starting producing full-page portraits of Odin, the All-Father. Unlike the Christian God, who seemed both nebulous and mean-spirited, Kirby’s Odin was a god of stocky build and awesome power and presence, yet forgiving of his children and not the least prone to unleashing plagues on entire populations. By 1967, I had begun to pray to Thor every Thursday morning, and to ask him to send cooling breezes whenever it got too hot when we were excused classes to watch cricket matches or, in my case, to surreptitiously read a book while supposedly watching cricket matches. He always obliged, providing my first indication that pagan gods are real (whatever ‘real’ means).
July, 1963, saw the first appearance of Doctor Stephen Strange in ‘Strange Tales’ 110, created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, based on an earlier character, Dr. Droom, created by Jack Kirby. No one drew other worlds like Steve Ditko, and those he conjured up for Dr. Strange were my first indication that there might be other people in this world who shared my interest in exploring these realms that existed alongside our own. The good Doctor himself learned how to project his astral body by studying with an ancient sage in the Himalayas. Since I frequently used to fall out of my body whilst trying to get to sleep at night, I found this particularly interesting. Given the bizarre experiences I had as a child, the fact that Strange handled similar weird forces with the aid of magic was both inspiring and hugely encouraging, as was the fact that he could move in and out of alternate dimensions at will. By 1967, his stories were being handled by another excellent artist, Marie Severin, and the tales remained as cosmic as ever.
Through comic books first, and then through music, I realised I was not completely alone, and perhaps not even entirely insane. In 1967 in particular, the blanket coverage given in the media to the hippy movement gave me the feeling that, far from being alone, I was actually part of a world-wide revolution drawing the world away from war, authoritarianism and hatred, towards a peaceful anarchy in which people exchanged flowers rather than bullets and made love, not war.
On first hearing Sgt. Pepper, I was particularly impressed by the George Harrison track, ‘Within You, Without You,’ so much so that I bought a budget priced LP of Indian classical music and began to explore Hindu philosophy, so far as limited resources allowed. This track, perhaps more than any other, in combination with what I had gleaned from the Mighty Thor and Doctor Strange, pitched me headlong into the spiritual exploration that was to become the keystone of my entire existence, leading ultimately to founding the British Druid Order.
The very real sense of being part of a global community founded on peace and love enabled me to survive the abysmal days at Rye Grammar School and the painful tensions of home life, and gave me the confidence to walk out of both in the middle of the spring term of 1969. By then I had discovered The Incredible String Band and the mingled joys and sorrows of sex and drugs, but that’s another story. In the summer of ‘67, it was enough simply to know that I was not alone but that there were many, perhaps hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people in the world who saw life in much the same way as I did…
It was a time of unbounded optimism, when anything seemed possible, even that love might conquer the world, causing coercive governments to fall and peaceful cooperation between people take their place. It saddens me when, as now, large parts of the world seem strangely bent on sliding back into repressive authoritarianism, fuelled by paranoia, as we are increasingly under surveillance by our own governments, while those same governments seek to persuade us that all our problems are caused by external agencies, and where Western democracy, always something of a sham, has become both a laughing stock and a reason to weep.
And yet, despite Trump, Brexit, Daesh, Front Nationale, AfD and all the rest, the music, art and literature of the late 60s, and of 1967 in particular, still speaks to my heart across the decades bringing joy, a sense of wonder, and renewed optimism. Let us, therefore, continue to sing, speak, and make art, music and literature to convey the message of peace and love to the world because, as George Harrison sang, “with our love, we could save the world, if they only knew.”
When the first thatch layer on our reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse in Shropshire was finished, we stood with John Letts, the expert on medieval thatching techniques who had taught us how to thatch, and he told us that a thatched roof has been described as “a managed compost heap.” Over the years, the truth of this has become clear. Our roundhouse is built in a wood, meaning that the roof doesn’t get as much sunlight as it should to dry the thatch after rain, therefore it rots more quickly than it otherwise would. Because of this, we have to renew the thatch more often than we would like. We completed the roundhouse in the spring of 2009. Eight and a half years later, we have just completed our third thatch layer.
Rather than stripping off existing thatch and staring again, renewing a thatched roof usually entails putting a fresh layer of thatch on top of what’s already there. Our latest layer is a spar coat, meaning that the thatch is fixed with long hazel ‘sways’ held in place by twisted hazel ‘spars’ pushed and hammered into the existing thatch.
The roundhouse is thatched with long straw as being more period authentic than the now far more common ‘combed wheat reed.’ Long straw thatching requires considerable preparation. The straw must first be layered into ‘beds,’ each layer being thoroughly wetted. The beds are then ‘drawn’ or ‘pulled.’ You grab a few ends of straw from somewhere near the bottom of the bed and tug firmly. As the straw slips out of the bed, it is straightened out and most of the leafy bits that will prevent rain from running smoothly down the thatch are left behind in the bed. More handfuls of straw are then pulled with the left hand and transferred to the right. When the bundle in the right hand is thick enough, you grab it firmly at one end and give it a shake. Then you run your fingers through it like a comb, stripping out more of the leafy bits. Then turn it over 180 degrees and do the same again, shake and comb. The cleaned straw is then laid across a length of string on the ground. Then you pull some more.
When your bundle of straw on the ground has reached a size where you can just about get two hands around the end of it, you tie the string around it. This bundle is called a ‘yealm.’ This preparation is hard, time-consuming work, and we were very glad to have such a great group of people arrive to lend a hand.
At John’s advice, the lower three layers of thatch were stitched in with tarred twine, tarred so that, in theory, mice won’t chew through it. In practice, they must have a hardier breed of mice in Shropshire, and we’ve had to replace some of the stitches with spars. Ah well…
Ideally, you need a ladder with nice, wide rungs for thatching. This is because the ladder lies flat against the roof and you need a wide rung to give your toes something to stand on. One of our ladders had rungs only half an inch across. Ah well, all along the line, since 2006, when we planted the seed for the straw with which to do our first thatch, we’ve had to make do with whatever tools we can find or make, and whatever time we can spare from other work. Under the circumstances, we’ve done pretty well.
The other-than-human inhabitants of the grove in which we built the roundhouse have been open to us from the start, when I found a deer skull on the first day we started clearing the ground.
We had wrens nest inside during the build, and there are still wrens who nest under the eaves. Buzzards have circled overhead, deer visited at twilight and, during this last thatch session, we were entertained one day by a group of wood mice who were remarkable friendly, strolling around our feet while we ate lunch and posing for Elaine’s camera.
We completed all the thatch we could on Sunday morning. We had used almost all the last batch of straw Elaine had bought in. We didn’t go right to the top of the cone, because, in the spring, we’re going to remove this part of the thatch, exposing the roof timbers again. Then we’re going to erect a new timber structure consisting of a downward-bending roof pole at either end of which will be a triangular opening to let out the smoke from the central fire.
Roundhouse reconstructions have, until now, followed Peter Reynolds, who built the first such reconstructions at the Butser Hill Farm in Sussex. Reynolds copied African roundhouses, but decided not to include a smoke hole in the belief that the smoke would permeate out through the roof. If the thatch is thin enough, a lot of it does, but a lot more doesn’t. It then depends how big your roundhouse is and how high its roof as to whether the resulting smoke layer is above or below head height. Our roundhouse is only 22 feet internal diameter, and that’s not quite big enough, so the smoke layer comes down to chest height, which means that unless you build the fire with very dry wood and keep it burning strongly, you’re breathing smoke whenever you stand up. Having had pleurisy a few years ago, I’m reluctant to expose my lungs to too much more smoke.
Fortunately, I don’t have to. It turns out that roundhouses had not one, but two smoke holes. Our evidence for this comes from little clay or metal models of roundhouses dating from the late Bronze age and early Iron Age and known as Villanovan hut urns. They seem to have been used as incense burners. Their roofs clearly show two triangular vents at either end of a downward-curving ridge pole. The same style of roof is being used in the Baltic region to this day. Given that it has been in use for 3,000 years or more, my assumption is that it works. In the spring, we’ll find out. Many thanks to Corwen Broch for drawing my attention to this hopefully elegant solution to our smoke problem in this excellent blog post.
A bonus in this year's thatching session was that Amanda, Ariana and Pete re-whitewashed the roundhouse and added spiral decorations on either side of the doors (see photo below).
Huge thanks to everyone who has worked on the roundhouse over the years. Between us, we have created an amazing, magical place, filled with ancestral voices, woven with music, poetry and ritual, a perfect venue for ceremony, journeying between worlds and communing with the spirits of the place and of the old gods of these lands.
Sometimes, waves of sadness wash over us, regret comes by unbidden, sorrow for what was lost or might have been. For no particular reason, this happened to me this afternoon and I wrote this poem, the first I've written for a long time, in memory of a lost love. The painting is one I made about 20 years ago in recollection of that same winter. It was a magical, insane time.
Once upon a winter time was I well beloved
with freedom, honesty, openness and joy,
way back when I was no more than a boy,
taught the ways of love by a woman with pale skin,
straight black hair and a taste for heroin,
a mouse that nestled ‘neath the kitchen table
while snow outside fell thick and bluish white
as we walked starlit skies until first light,
the sound of frosted drums on sparkling air,
hearth warmed by broken legs of burning chairs,
illumined by cream candles from a place of sighs,
cavernous and Church of England high,
Victorian Gothic, the essence of our style,
with dark eyes and ever wistful smile,
my shirt that bound your arms in bloody strips,
my squeamishness that turned away from whips,
leaving my sweet Venus wrapped in furs,
your black dog the gentlest of curs,
you covering the pain you gave in part
payment for the track marks on your heart,
the craziness that dragged us to the edge,
with broken fingernails to grip the ledge,
because to slip would take us from this world,
with all its frail faults and failings,
And it’s forever that I should have stayed with you,
as happiness and understanding grew,
but I was still so young and still a fool,
seventeen and barely out of school,
yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved,
in Chapel Park Road in an L-shaped room
that could have been a primal womb
in which love’s endless wonder bloomed,
and yet became instead another tomb
where love was lost and intimacy died,
where lovers rocked as for that loss they cried
and then were gone like flickering stars that hide
when dawn’s light robs them of their morning glory,
as black holes one night will devour their story,
as time’s insatiable maw devours all things,
from babies’ cries to soaring eagles’ wings,
erasing memories of gods below and gods above,
yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved.
Archaeoacoustics is a fairly new branch of archaeology that studies the acoustic qualities of caves inhabited, or used ritually, during prehistory and ancient buildings such as the Newgrange tomb-shrine and Stonehenge. Studies sometimes include the use of instruments contemporary with the sites themselves.
I visited Avebury last weekend with my friends, Amanda and Pete, taking with me the newest of my Celtic lyres, wire strung and made from Oak. Towards the end of the day, we arrived at the huge southern entrance stone known in local folklore as ‘the Devil’s Chair’ due to a natural cleft, the base of which forms a comfortable seat in the southern face of the stone, the face that greets people arriving into the henge from the processional route along the West Kennett Avenue. At Amanda’s request, I broke my usual protocol against sitting in the seat so that she could photograph me with the lyre. It was then that we made a remarkable and surprising discovery.
Sitting in the notch in this enormous sarsen stone, I began to play the lyre. As I played, I moved the instrument across my lap until it was facing into a hollow depression in the stone beside my right thigh. I don't know what prompted me to do this, presumably the spirits of the place, but I noticed as I did so that the volume of the lyre increased dramatically when the soundhole was aligned with the hollow and pointing at it. The amount of amplification was quite startling. So much so that I decided to explore it further. Standing up, I held the lyre as far away from the stone as I could lean and still manage to play it, then, continuing to play, moved it towards the stone. From about a foot and a half in front of the stone’s face, the increase in volume was very marked indeed, maximum amplification being achieved when the soundboard of the lyre was almost inside the hollow ‘seat.’ Such was the acoustic feedback coming off the sarsen stone that the last note played on the lyre sustained for much longer than the instrument was normally capable of, continuing to ‘ring’ for several seconds. I didn't count, but I'd guess a good ten seconds longer than usual, probably more.
I thought the effect might be extremely localised and that you’d need to be right on top of the instrument, as I was, in order to appreciate it. Thanks to Amanda and Pete, I quickly learned that this was not the case. They were standing five or six yards away, between the sarsen and the busy main road that runs through the henge. When the lyre was facing away from the stone, any passing traffic drowned it out completely. When it was played facing into the stone, it was clearly audible, even over the sound of large lorries going by. We found that the effect varied depending on where you were standing in relation to the face of the stone, with particularly strong effects heard when standing at a shallow angle to it and at some distance to the side.
I tried calling into the ‘seat’ hollow and found the same effect, my voice being considerably amplified and thrown back at me. This led me to wonder if the effect might have been used to project sound towards the gap between the banks where the West Kennet Avenue reaches the henge. I would imagine that an instrument like a bull horn would have had considerable impact on anyone entering the henge at that point. The fact that the sound was being thrown from the entrance stone would have made its source hard to identify. I’ll have to try it on my next visit.
It’s amazing that I’ve been visiting Avebury for more than forty years, have taken part in ceremonies that have included the southern entrance stone for more than twenty years, but had never previously noticed this acoustic effect.
Pete made some recordings, and if they came out OK, I'll add them to this post.
Incidentally, I don't mean to suggest that an Iron Age lyre, played in Europe from at least 800 BCE, was contemporary with a Neolithic henge constructed between 2800 and 2200 BCE. Clearly it wasn't. The lyre just happened to be the only instrument I had with me. Next time, I'll take a bull horn and a clay drum...
In the summer of 2010, archaeologists working on the Isle of Skye at a site called High Pasture Cave discovered most of the charred bridge of a lyre in amongst charcoal that had been scraped to one side in a large, stone-lined fire pit situated in the forecourt just outside the narrow entranceway through which the Cave is accessed. The bridge piece has been dated to around 500 BCE, early in the British Iron Age. Reconstructions of the instrument of which the bridge was a part have generally been modelled on a complete one found in a 6th century CE warrior’s grave at a site called Trossingen in Germany in 2002. It’s quite possible that this was indeed the type of lyre the High Pasture bridge came from.
There is, however, an alternative, which is the type of lyre commonly known as the Lyre de Paule after a small stone statue of a late Iron Age bard unearthed in Brittany. This is a very different instrument, more akin to a Greek lyre. Similar lyres are shown on numerous Celtic coins, while the earliest known representations are scribed onto ceramic pots from the Hallstadt region of Germany and date from around 800 BCE.
This type of lyre, the earliest surviving name for which is chrotta, has fascinated me for decades, ever since I first saw an image of the Lyre de Paule. I now have one (left), and it's a beauty, thanks to the superb craft skills of Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. However, I also have another, made for me in Oak some years ago by Jim, an electric guitar maker. It came without fittings, the idea being that I would provide strings, tuning pegs, etc. myself. Naturally, what with Druid courses to write, and concern as to whether my craft skills were up to the task, I never got around to it. The Oak lyre therefore stayed propped up in my dining room until my Dark Age Crafts lyre arrived, at which point I decided to have a go at completing the Oak one myself, using the one Koth made for me as a reference guide.
The first piece I’ve made for it is a bridge based on the one from the High Pasture Cave. First, I drew out the profile of the piece on a spare piece of well-seasoned Yew that was about the right thickness. The original being apparently for a three or five stringed instrument, I expanded it a little to accommodate seven strings, the number on the Lyre de Paule. Having sawn the bridge roughly to shape with a tenon saw, I cut out the ‘stepped’ shape at the two ends, sawing down from the top, then slicing in from the side with a whittling knife.
I then drilled two holes through the ends. I’m not sure what purpose these serve. It’s possible that it allowed the bridge to be tied in place on the original instrument, although bridges are rarely fixed in place on modern acoustic instruments, so this seems unlikely. They may be either to make the piece lighter, or simply for decoration, or both.
The next step was to cut the notches in which the strings will sit. For this, I used a small fret saw, clamping the piece to the front of my desk with a G-clamp. In order for the strings to all sit at the same height from the soundboard, it’s vital to get the V-shapes all cut to the same depth. This is fiddly, but will make a real difference to the playability of the instrument.
Next came the most fiddly, delicate and time-consuming part of the process, shaping the whole piece using a whittling knife. I started by hollowing out the base of the bridge, leaving just the oval ‘feet’ at either end. I then used the fret saw to cut along the line of all of the notches at the top at an angle, making them into flat-topped pyramid shapes. Using the whittling knife, I then pared down the ends to a rounded shape and hollowed out one side of the bridge. I then used a counter-sink drill on either side of the already-drilled holes.
Once satisfied that I’d got the overall shape as near as I could to the original, the last stage was to sand it down with two different grades of glasspaper, one rough, one smooth.
I have to say, I think the finished piece looks great and I’m really pleased with it. Just as well, as it took me the best part of five hours!
Now I just have to wait for some violin pegs and a hole reamer to arrive, make a tail-piece, find some strings, and put the whole thing together.
My Dark Age Crafts lyre having nine Nylgut strings, the Oak one is going to have seven wire strings. It’s going to be a semi-acoustic too, once the pick-ups I have on order arrive. Why semi-acoustic? Well, I have a hankering to see what a wire-strung Iron Age lyre sounds like when run through an effects unit and amplified. If I was an Iron Age bard, I’d have wanted that...
More pictures and sound files will follow. Meanwhile, here’s a tale of the Irish god of Druidry, the Dagda, and how he summoned his Oaken harp (bearing in mind that the words for ‘harp’ and ‘lyre’ in Celtic languages were interchangeable for several centuries):
Now Lugh and the Dagda and Ogma pursued the Fomorians, for they had carried off the Dagda’s harper, whose name was Uaithne (pronounced Oona). Then they reached the banqueting-house in which were Bres son of Elatha and Elatha son of Delbaeth. There hung the harp on the wall. That is the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies so that they sounded not until by his call he summoned them forth when he said this below:
Come, Oak of two plains,
Come, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter, Mouths of harps and bags and pipes!
Now that harp had two names, Daurdabla ‘Oak of two plains’ and Coircetharchuir ‘Four-angled music.’
Then the harp went forth from the wall, and killed nine men, and came to the Dagda. And he played for them the three things whereby harpers are distinguished, to wit, the sleeping-strain and the smiling-strain and the wailing-strain. He played the wailing-strain to them, so that their tearful women wept. He played the smiling-strain to them, so their women and children laughed. He played the sleeping-strain to them, and the company fell asleep. Through that sleep the three of them escaped unhurt from the Fomorians though these desired to slay them.
At midnight on Monday, August 14th, 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law in the UK. This draconian piece of legislation, brought in by Harold Wilson's Labour government, made it illegal under UK law for anyone to broadcast a radio or tv signal outside of UK territorial waters if such a signal was aimed at an audience in the UK. Anyone assisting in such a venture, whether by actually taking part in such a broadcast, or by providing food or other supplies, was liable to imprisonment.
Until that time, from 1964, British listeners had enjoyed a number of what were dubbed 'pirate' radio stations, mostly broadcasting from ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters. Prominent among them were Radio London, Radio England, and Radio Caroline, the latter run by an Irish national, Ronan O'Rahilly, whose grandfather, Michael O'Rahilly, had died in Dublin in 1916 during the Easter Rising, fighting for Irish independence.
In support of the legislation, the UK government told a series of blatant lies, falsely claiming, among other things, that the 'pirate' radio ships were a danger to shipping or that signals from them were interfering with aircraft and police, fire and ambulance services. The real reason for the Act was that the UK government were able to exercise control over the BBC and ITV, to the extent that, for most of its existence, MI5 maintained an office inside Broadcasting House. The 'pirates' were beyond state control and, therefore, deemed a potential threat to the state.
Ironically, Harold Wilson had gone out of his way to be photographed with prominent pop starts of the day, including The Beatles, just as his successor, Tony Blair, would do with the stars of 'Brit-pop' thirty years later. The BBC, at that time, broadcast very little pop music, so the burgeoning UK music industry was delighted with the additional airtime that artists got from the commercial 'pirate' stations. Support for the pirates was strong amongst the artists too, since it meant that millions more people were able to hear their work.
The 'pirate' stations also benefited from independent-minded and musically knowledgable DJs. One such was John Peel, whose Perfumed Garden Show, broadcast between midnight and 2am on Radio London, was required listening for anyone with a freak mind. He played poetry readings from Roger McGough and strange ditties from Tyrannosaurus Rex, interspersing them with tales of the Dibblers who lived at Peel Acres. Peel's final farewell from the Perfumed Garden is revisited here with a full track listing. Running Peel a close second was Johnnie Walker, whose shows on Radio Caroline would sometimes feature entire new LP releases being played in their entirety, without interruption. Again, for those of us who cared about music, this was bliss.
On the day that the Marine Offences Act came into force, most of the 'pirate' stations ceased broadcasting, and most of their personnel would go on to join the new BBC Radio 1 station, which essentially tried to clone Radio London, even to the extent of repurposing its jingles. What Radio 1 lacked, however, was any sense of independence. DJs' freedom of choice over what they played was replaced by an approved playlist. Eventually, John Peel managed to carve out a career for himself on Radio 1 that, in many respects, carried on what he had been doing in the Perfumed Garden Show, championing artists that his fellow DJs wouldn't, or weren't allowed to, play.
One station, however, remained on the air; Radio Caroline South, moored off the Frinton, Essex coast on the good ship, Mi Amigo. As midnight struck and the Act became law, two DJs and a skeleton crew remained on board. Those DJs were Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale. They celebrated their new status as literal outlaws by playing The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' and Pete Seeger's 'We Shall Overcome.' For the next few days, they kept up 24-hour broadcasting between the two of them until a tender arrived, bringing another DJ to help out. From now on, Walker and Dale could not set foot on British soil without fear of arrest. Any UK citizen who gave them a Mars bar or a bite of a sandwich risked the same. However, thanks to their efforts, the ideal of free radio survived.
Johnnie Walker wrote the following piece, broadcast repeatedly from Radio Caroline during that summer, in which he speaks of freedom and hope, ending with the words, "No man will ever forget Monday, August 14th, nineteen hundred and sixty seven." This man hasn't...
About a quarter of a century ago, I became fascinated by a musical instrument called a chrotta, a type of lyre played in Iron Age Europe from at least 800 BCE up until around 400 CE and the forerunner of many modern instruments, most notably the harp. At that time, no one was making replicas of them or even seemed interested in them. Despite the prominent role played by bards in early European societies, a role maintained to some extent in the countries of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ to this day, most books on the European Iron Age ignore the music of the period completely.
As a musician, I wanted to get my hands on a chrotta, to see what they sounded like and to figure out how they might have been played. One way and another, from building roundhouses to making frame drums and bone flutes, I’ve spent a good deal of the last 20 years doing things that increase my sense of community with our ancestors. Unfortunately, my craft skills are not up to making lyres from scratch.
Now, thanks to the far greater skills of fellow chrotta enthusiast, Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, who I had the good fortune, or gods’ guidance depending on your belief system, to meet at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival this year, my 25-year quest is finally fulfilled. Here, then, is my Iron Age lyre. I've added a soft leather back strap by which to support the instrument when playing it standing up, as was the common Iron Age practice so far as we can tell. I’ve also made a plectrum from a piece of horn. At my request, Koth made a bridge for the lyre based on this Iron Age one found on the Isle of Skye.
I still have a couple of other things to do, like painting Wolf heads on the tops of the uprights and possibly adding a horn wrest plate like one found at Dinorben in North Wales. I also need to make a padded bag to carry it in. Incidentally, I will also be making an Iron Age bardic costume when I have time and enough floor space to mark out and cut the material...
As for how it sounds, it's hard to describe in words, but I'd say that, appropriately, the chrotta has a more 'primitive' sound than my harp when playing the same notes with similar length strings. It sounds like the hand-made, one-off folk instrument it is, rather than a production line ‘concert’ instrument. Another way to put it is that the chrotta sounds 'real.' The harp is nylon strung and the chrotta strung with Nylgut, an artificial material designed to have a sound close to the quality of real gut strings but with a better ability to maintain tuning, and without animals dying. While I get my own recordings together, check out this video of Koth playing my lyre's big sister (mine has nine strings, allowing almost two octaves using pentatonic tuning, Koth's has twelve)...
Koth's not the only one making reconstructions of these ancient lyres now. There's even a place in France that's holding regular lessons in how to play them. Chrotta-mania appears to be catching, even if it does take 25 years to spread!
I’m really looking forward to getting to know this beautiful instrument over the coming weeks and trying some recording. There are a number of early medieval stories, poems and prayers that I’d like to set to music with it. There’s even a genuine Gaulish healing spell I might have a crack at. Sounds amazing in the original, although, when translated, it's all about expelling phlegm!
Stay tuned for further adventures as I transform myself into an Iron Age bard.
Meanwhile, if you'd like to join the chrotta revolution, Koth is still taking commissions. Here's a link to his Contacts Page...