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.
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.”
I've recently been exploring prehistoric pottery, putting what I've learned into practice by making four Bronze Age pots (left) using only Bronze Age techniques (coil-building) and tools (hands and animal bones). Once they're fired, my intention is to turn them into clay drums. What inspired me to do this was reading claims by archaeologists that there is no evidence for the existence of drums of any kind in British prehistory throughout the whole of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, a period of more than 3,000 years. This seems extremely unlikely and would make the ancient peoples of the British Isles unique among ancient or modern cultures, percussion being fundamental to music-making and music-making being fundamental to humanity.
The first step was to find the missing drums. Knowing that timber and hide frame drums would be unlikely to survive long in the British climate, and knowing that clay drums were made during the Neolithic era in Europe, I started looking at clay pots in museums in Britain. It didn't take long to find numerous exapmles that looked as though they would make fine drums. Some replicate the shapes of the Neolithic European clay drums, in common with which other British examples have pinched and pierced lugs (see below) that would be ideal for threading rawhide through to attach drum skins. Then there are the hundreds of collared urns that have survived more or less intact from the Bronze Age. Though often called cremation urns, many do not contain cremations, some being buried alongside cremated remains but not containing them, others with un-cremated remains, while some are not found with burials at all. Then there's the question of what the collar is for that gives them their name? It would certainly be a convenient way to anchor a strip of rawhide cord, through which further cord could be threaded to hold a drum skin in place. I've been unable to think of another reason for it being there and would welcome any suggestions.
Having selected four specific Bronze Age pots, two made close to my home in Wiltshire, the others from neighbouring Berkshire, I decided to create replicas to see how they might work as drums. Making them has been an education in itself, and one that has given me an even greater respect for our ancestors. The collared urn in particular took four days to build using the coil method used by our ancestors before the introduction of the potter's wheel. Building a big coil pot requires it to be left every now and then to partially dry before the next stage can be added without causing the lower part to buckle or collapse. The process of pinching down the coils and then working them to produce a smooth surface is painstaking and time-consuming. Decorating a pot of this size (over 12 inches tall and 10 across) also takes hours, even when the decoration consists of relatively simple geometric patterns.
The presence of decoration on the upper part of many collared urns has been put forward as an argument that they can't have been used as drums because attaching a skin would obscure the carefully applied decoration. I'm not convinced that this argument stands up. A skin cut carefully to size and secured with narrow rawhide strips would cover very little of the decoration, as this rather crudely photo-shopped image shows. The rawhide cords shown are much thicker than they need be, so in practice even less of the decoration would be covered.
Incidentally, one of the things I learned during my researches is that, in all cultures of which we have any knowledge, pots are always made by women, until the introduction of the potters' wheel, at which point men take over. Hmmm...
My theory is that many 'collared urns,' and some other pottery types, including some identified as 'food vessels,' were made and used as drums, perhaps presented to their owners as part of a rite of passage into adulthood. These would then be used throughout their lives, not just to produce music, but also to access altered states of consciousness, as is common in cultures all over the world. Having been used for travelling between worlds while their owners were alive, what better thing to be buried with them after death, accompanying them on that journey too? Simon Wyatt has a similar theory in regard to the Neolithic clay drums of Eastern Europe.
I'm not the first person to come up with the idea that some Bronze Age pots were used as drums. That collared urns may have been drums was suggested by Ian Longworth, a former Keeper of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. In his 'Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland' (Cambridge University Press, 1984, page 6), he says “The function of the collar elements remains debatable... The basic role of the Collared Vessel in a domestic context is likely to have been as a storage vessel. The need for a cover would therefore have arisen spontaneously. The ability to secure a cloth or skin cover firmly on the top of the vessel raises the possibility that some may have enjoyed a secondary use as drums.” The difference between us is that I'm suggesting a primary use as drums and a secondary use as grave goods.
My friend, Elaine Gregory, on whose land we dug the clay, and in whose pottery I made the pots, suggested that I could either make some more to sell or run workshops on how to make them. The problem with making them to sell is that they take such a long time to make, even more once you factor in the time to treat and fit the drum skins. The collared urn was worked on over 20 hours plus. Being big and thick-walled, it then required several days to dry before firing. Firing them on a fire in the open would take a further 10-12 hours, although several can be fired at once. Treating and fitting skins takes around two weeks, though most of that is waiting for things to happen 😉
Estimating that a complete 'collared urn' drum requires around 40 hours of work, even calculated at the national minimum wage of £6.70 an hour, adding on materials, one would have to cost £300 or so. That said, they'd hopefully last a lifetime and beyond - I intend to have my ashes interred in mine when the time comes 🙂 Even a beaker like the one on the left would have to sell for around £150 to be viable. Which leaves the problem of how and where would you market them to folks who would, a) be interested, and b) be able to afford the cost?
Workshops would be fairly costly too once time, materials, accommodation and food are all factored in. Again, I wonder if there's enough interest to make them viable? Also, from a practical point of view, workshops might have to be spread out, with one devoted to actually making and decorating the pots. Depending on the size and design, this could take from two to four days. Then there would need to be a break while they dried, followed by another workshop to fire them, hopefully fitting a pre-prepared skin on the same weekend once they'd cooled down. Hmm, that would require a fair level of commitment. Still, if I'm nuts enough to do it, maybe others might be interested too? And even if I only get a few clay drums out of the experience, it's still been a fascinating adventure!
I've also been in touch with Andrew Appleby, a.k.a. the Harray Potter, who has been making Neolithic pots based on originals found in the Orkneys since 2007. He has made several into drums and tells me they play brilliantly. He has made a set for percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. He's also written a pre-historical novel, Skara, which features characters playing his drums in context, and which is being turned into an opera. In the book, he refers to the drums having rounds of pitch applied to the skins, as is the case with tabla drums. Interesting idea. I might try that... 🙂
In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite was held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s and is described in some detail:
“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”
A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god.
Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was at the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.”
Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th?
The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonhenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on the 24th.
Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the nature of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, by far the most likely explanation for the alignments is that they were designed to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over southern England and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential.
Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there can be no doubt that there is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other.
You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating the solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the the henge that he uttered a long and angry curse on their owner. In the 1950s, the Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after loud, drunken hecklers climbed all over the stones during the AOD's solstice ceremony. In 1985, the police and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I attempted to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused.
A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power.
When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate Midsummer's Day. This works out well, as a quiet, focused ceremony attended by no more than a hundred people restores a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations which attract many thousands.
In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of good herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, along with bad herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove.
I suppose rolling flaming wheels down hills would land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer.
Merry Midsummer to one and all,
Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."
In researching and writing for the British Druid Order's Druid course, I've been working on the sub-stratum of spiritual beliefs and practices that underlies just about every religion there is. This seems to have emerged about 40,000 years ago in Central Asia. By 35,000 years ago, it had spread across a territory extending from Spain to Siberia. A central feature consists of ways in which humans and other animals relate spiritually. I've identified seven animals, or groups of animals, that have maintained key roles in human spirituality for millennia - at least among peoples who have either retained ancestral ways or are seeking to renew them. The seven are:
Eagles: - Eagles are royal birds, linked with the Sun, sometimes regarded as ancestors, and are messengers between our Mid-world and the Upper-world of the sky gods. Because of this, they are often regarded as bringers of storms and winds. They are also invoked for healing and in childbirth. (Picture: shape-shifting Eagle from Woodeaton in Oxfordshire. Late Iron Age)
Ravens: - Highly intelligent birds, Ravens are noted for their wisdom and also regarded as creators, shapers and shape-shifters, culture-bringers, teachers and tricksters. They are invoked, and their movements studied, for divination. As carrion-eaters, they are associated with the Otherworld of the dead and seen as messengers between worlds. What goes for Ravens applies to some extent to most other members of the Corvid family, Crows, Magpies, &c..
Serpents/Dragons/Wyrms, &c.: - By many names are they known. Serpents are chiefly seen as Under-world beings, receptacles of very strong power that can cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Some are winged and create thunder-storms. Serpents can also create disease and injury in humans and other animals. Conversely, people of sufficient strength can 'tame' the serpent power and use it just as powerfully for healing. Serpents have long been associated with the Moon, their ability to shed and renew their skins being likened to the lunar cycle. (Picture: Pictish stone with carved Serpent, Moon, lightning bolt and Oghams. Brandsbutt, Scotland. c. 6th century.)
Bears: - Bear cults and societies are pretty much universal wherever there are bears. The bear is seen as a powerful protective spirit, teacher and guide, also as an ancestor, healer and culture-bringer or enhancer. Considered human-like because they sometimes rear up on their hind legs, bears were also invoked by warriors for their courage, strength and stamina. (Picture: The Bear goddess, Artio - from Celtic 'Artos,' 'Bear' - feeds one of her kin. Bern, Switzerland. Late Iron Age.)
Wolves: - Wolves are powerful teachers and guides, also revered as ancestors. Their pack behaviour teaches us the benefits of community. Wolves, like Bears, were also invoked by warriors, Wolf warrior societies having been common in Europe, Asia and America. Like the others mentioned so far, Wolves are hunters or scavengers, invoked to bring success in hunting. (Picture: Pictish Wolf. Ardross, Scotland. c. 7th century.)
Bovines: - The primal bovine of ancient Eurasian cultures was the Aurochs, an animal considerably bigger and stronger than the modern-day cattle descended from it. Its hide was usually black. The other major bovine spirit of our ancestors was the Eurasian Bison. Bulls and Cows are both associated with powerful deities, often the parents of divine dynasties. The first, largest and most powerful prey animal on the list, hunted for meat, skins to make clothing and shelters, bones and horns to make a wide variety of practical or decorative objects. Bovine skulls were often buried as spirit guardians of sacred sites. (Picture: Pictish Bull from Burghead, Scotland, now in the British Museum. c. 7th century.)
Cervids (Deer): - Like bovines, the Deer family have long been a major prey species for humans and wolves. Like bovines, their skins have provided shelter and clothing, their bones tools and ornaments. They are often connected with via antlered deities who ensure their health as a species while giving humans permission to kill individual animals. (Picture: Bronze Stag from Nuevy-en-Sullias, France. Late Iron Age.)
We humans connect with these and other animal spirits in a variety of ways. They often appear to their chosen humans first during life-transforming visions. After the first appearance, their aid can be invoked by mimicking their behaviour and cries and/or dressing as them in ceremonies, by using a feather, tooth, claw or some other token, usually kept about the person for this purpose, by painting them on a drum or making a rattle in their image, or by placing images of them on an altar in the home.
In looking at the copious folklore attached to all these creatures in cultures around the world, I am struck by the fact that folk who study such 'oral texts' these days seem to readily accept them as evidence of ancient beliefs and practices if they are found in, say, Siberia, Nepal or New Mexico. Some of the same researchers then seem oddly reluctant to make the same assumption when very similar folk tales and customs are found in Britain and Ireland. This even applies when the British and Irish tales were collected at the same time and their Asian or American counterparts, usually the late 19th century when interest in folklore was at its height. The folklorists who collected this material at the time mostly believed that it related to ancestral cultures in the same way wherever it was found. Some undoubtedly overstated the case, but the suspicion that overstatement caused doesn't seem to apply to 'exotic' cultures. Could it be that some European scholars, at this point in the 21st century, still feel deep in their bones that 'those people' are 'primitive' whereas our fellow-countryfolk couldn't possibly harbour beliefs similar to ones our shared ancestors held 35,000 years ago? I sincerely hope this isn't so, but the differing attitudes towards different cultures do make me wonder.
The picture is of Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century. He was definitely one of the good ones. His Carmina Gadelica remains a fine source of arcane lore. You can access two volumes of it for free here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg.htm
There are, however, more modern researchers who revert to the older notion of accepting folk tales, specifically those written down in the medieval era, as preserving genuine ancient beliefs. One such is Irish archaeologist, John Waddell who, In his recent book, Archaeology and Celtic Myth (Four Courts Press, 2014), quotes his colleague, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's opinion that: "what is remarkable about the Irish situation is the extent and richness of the vernacular literature which has come down to us from the early medieval period. Much of this literature is firmly rooted in ancient myth and remains robustly pagan in character."
Here's a quote from the British Druid Order ovate course booklet, The Ways of the Gods. It seems particularly relevant in the light of recent events that have seen a tiny, destructive minority of fanatical members of each of the big three monotheistic faiths invoking scriptural authority to justify violence against others, sometimes succeeding in dragging whole nations along with them. I'm thinking not only of the 9/11 attacks and those that have followed in its wake, but of the continuing strife between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tragic list that could all too easily be extended:
'I see no harm in applying rigorous analysis to systems of belief. On the contrary, it seems to me a good and useful thing to do. I do so for my own beliefs and feel no sense of threat when others do the same. I admire and enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who regard all religious beliefs as absurd and dangerous delusions. They are intelligent men who write, and argue their cases, well. I agree with much of what they say and would be happy to debate amicably with them over points of disagreement. As an intelligent, enquiring Pagan, I do not see blind faith as being an adequate substitute for provable fact or observable reality. My own beliefs are based on observations that have been subjected to repeated analysis over a period of half a century or so, as a result of which they have continually changed and evolved as new information has become available and new observations have been made. 'By contrast, some adherents of the big three monotheisms seem to feel deeply and personally threatened by any attempt at objective analysis of the background to their faiths, or any deviation from those faiths, often responding with death threats or actual violence, up to and including murder on an industrial scale. The history of Europe is littered with examples of the latter, from the murder of pagan priests in late Imperial Rome, through bloody campaigns against Christian heretics (right) and 16th century Witch-hunts to the Nazi Holocaust.
'The underlying cause of such deep-seated and destructive insecurity can only be fear; fear of change allied with a fear of being shown to be wrong. What is wrong with being wrong? Surely the path towards ultimate truth requires us to question each step along the way, rejecting those that prove wanting so that we can move on? 'The difference here is one that has been characterised by Robert Anton Wilson (left) as that between dogma and catma. Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! trilogy (Dell Publishing, 1975), said that “Discordians don't have dogmas, which are absolute beliefs; we have catmas which are relative meta-beliefs.” In other words, religious dogmas are regarded as absolute and therefore restrictive of freedom of thought, while Discordian catmas, through not being hard and fast but constantly subject to change and revision, actively encourage freedom of thought.
Discordianism is an absurdist, surrealist, Dadaist religion that Wilson, Shea and others created inspired by the philosophy and spirituality of late 1960s youth culture. I find the idea of catmas admirable and inspiring, while I have always had a problem with dogmas, which is why the BDO promotes the former and rejects the latter. We both expect and encourage you to regard our course material as a series of catmas that you can either take or leave depending on how well or otherwise they resonate with your own experience of the world. We actively encourage a questioning approach to the world in general, and anything we say in particular.
'Incidentally, Wilson also said that “Most religious people take themselves too damn seriously, which is why they act like such damn fools. I'm using the word damn for the paradoxical effect.” I like him.'
I've loved the idea of roundhouses since my teens when I went to a party hosted in an oast house in Sussex. As soon as I entered, I just thought there was something inherently right about living in a circular structure. When everyone sat around the walls in a circle, it seemed to encourage conversation and sharing, whether of conversation or food and drink. Oast houses, incidentally, were traditionally used for drying hops in South East England. Quite a few still exist and they are, I think, beautiful buildings, as you can see from the picture of these Sussex examples.
A few years later I became interested in the ancestral spiritual traditions of Britain and was delighted to find that our ancestors in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and well into the Roman era had lived in roundhouses, a period of about 4,000 years.
It wasn't until 30 years later that a friend offered me the opportunity to build a roundhouse (above) in a clearing in a wood in Shropshire that she inherited from her parents. Working only in some of my sons' school holidays, it took three years and a lot of help to create our roundhouse. Most of those working on it were Druids, though a few Buddhists and folk of other traditions helped out too. All put great spirit energy into the place and the building. We had to learn a lot of new skills. My design used elements from the archaeology of half a dozen different sites, combining them into something that seemed like it would work and create a good, structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and useable building. We use it mainly for ceremonies, music and storytelling. The acoustics are excellent.
There's something about learning all these old craft skills, from growing and harvesting the straw and cutting the right wood, through wattling the walls to thatching the roof with the straw we'd grown, that really connects you with the spirits of our ancestors. You get a clear sense of what it was like to walk in their shoes. The fact that the building project was accompanied all the way through by rituals designed to weave the building into the place and integrate it with the spirits of nature helped to build that sense of connection. Our roundhouse has a 22 foot internal diameter, a wheat-straw thatched roof partly supported by an internal circle of ash posts, lime-washed wattle and daub walls and a beaten earth floor (right). For more photos, see the albums on my facebook page, especially the one covering the building process.
Five years on from the completion of that first roundhouse, I'm working again with John and Ken. John's the guy who taught us to thatch and Ken is another core member of the team from the Shropshire build. We're working on a pair of conjoined roundhouses for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in South Wales (below). These are based on archaeology from a site on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, 'Hill of Eagles.' As in Shropshire, we're being aided by many helpers, from archaeological students to men on probation. Also helping out are Ian, the Museum's resident Iron Age reenactor, and Dafydd, whose website, britishroundhouses.com, lists over a hundred reconstructed roundhouses in England, Wales and Scotland with photos of each one.The first of the St Fagans roundhouses is being thatched with a base coat of gorse and heather onto which straw is stitched. We're then stuffing straw into this base coat. This roundhouse is 32 feet in diameter. The second, larger roundhouse (40 foot diameter) will have a short row of gorse around the base of the roof as a rodent deterrent and will then be thatched using a long-straw thatching technique. Neither has an internal post circle, relying instead on very thick clay and earth walls.
Of course, most of what happens above ground in modern roundhouse reconstructions is based on educated guesswork. Almost everything that survives in the archaeological record is at or below ground level. Peter Reynolds set the style for roundhouse reconstructions with his pioneering work at the Butser Iron Age farm in Hampshire in the early 1970s (below). This includes using straw thatch for the roofs. The logic of this is that cereal crops were being grown and the by-product of straw would therefore have been readily available. In other parts of the country, water reeds or grasses such as marram grass may have been used. It's also possible that turf, tree bark or wooden shingles were used.This morning a facebook friend suggested I might go to the USA and show folks over there how to build Iron Age roundhouses. This got me wondering if there weren't already reconstructed roundhouses in America. An online search failed to reveal any Celtic ones. However, there is a Native American tradition of roundhouse building. Here are two examples from California:
First is a 1947 picture of a roundhouse on the reservation of the Tuolumne band of the Me-Wuk (or Miwok) tribe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A typical Me-Wuk village consisted of umachas (cedar bark houses), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the center of tribal life, used for a variety of purposes by different groups. They are typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and roofed with earth, bark, or, as with this one, wooden shingles. Dances are still held in these roundhouses to give thanks and to honour all that the Earth Mother has given to the people.A second Me-Wuk roundhouse (left) was built in 1974 within the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. As with the Tuolumne example, the door faces East, towards the rising sun. Four large oak posts support the roof of the sixty foot diameter structure (below left). The rest of the roundhouse is constructed of cedar poles secured with grapevine and the roof is topped with cedar bark. Inside is a central fire pit. A fire exit was added in the rear of the structure in 1993 to comply with state fire regulations. The door faces the east to catch the sunrise. The roundhouse is still used today, on occasion, for ceremonial dances. It has a plaque outside designating it as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1001.
One notable similarity between the two roundhouse-building traditions is that both British and Native American examples have doors oriented to the East, or an arc between East and South-east. The practical reason is to allow maximum daylight into the roundhouse via the doors. The spiritual reason, which I'm sure is the same in both traditions, is that the sun is recognised as a divine source of light, warmth and healing.There's archaeological evidence that some larger British roundhouses were used for ceremonial purposes during the Iron Age, as ours in Shropshire is and as the Me-Wuk ones are.
One difference between the two traditions, obvious from the photos here, is the pitch of the roof. Having a straw-thatched roof on a roundhouse means you have to apply a fairly thin thatch so that smoke from the central fire will filter out through it. A thin thatch means you have to rake up the angle of the roof so that rain will run off it quickly and not have time to soak through. A bark or wooden shingle roof with a central smoke-hole allows for a much lower pitch that will still shed rain off successfully.
There's an idea that leaving a smoke-hole in the roof of a British-style roundhouse will create a funnel that will draw up sparks and set fire to the thatch. Having lived with a roundhouse for six years now and lit many fires in it, I'm not convinced of this. I think that if the smoke-hole is created by pulling out a ring of thatch towards the top of the cone, you'll have a way for smoke to get out but will still have enough inside the upper part of the roof that any sparks going up above the rafters will be extinguished from lack of oxygen. I'm going to try it with ours in Shropshire (above right).
Will I end up teaching Iron Age roundhouse building techniques in the USA? It's a thought. After all, there's a lot of interest in Celtic heritage in the USA. You only have to look at the string of American presidents since at least John Kennedy who have traced their roots to villages in Ireland or, occasionally, Scotland. Many European-Americans do have Celtic ancestors and value those ancestral links. Helping to build, or being able to visit, the kind of houses their ancestors lived in would be another powerful way to honour and enhance those ancestral connections.
Since October 20th, I've been helping to thatch a pair of Iron Age roundhouses at the Museum of Welsh Life in St. Fagans, not far from Cardiff in South Wales. The Museum has a 100 acres of grounds, in which are buildings from many parts of Wales and many eras of Welsh history, including a church, a water mill, stone cottages and Victorian shops. The roundhouses I'm working on are based on the archaeology of a site on Angelsey, that legendary Druidic isle. I'm sharing a cottage nearby with two friends, Ken and John, both of whom helped build my roundhouse in Shropshire. John is an expert in ancient thatching methods and taught me to thatch. Both the roundhouses we're working on are bigger than mine. One is 38 feet in diameter, the other 45. Mine's just 22 internally, 28 to the outside of the eaves. The larger of the two at St. Fagans is over 28 feet tall, ten feet taller than mine. We have just eight weeks to thatch them both. Since no one knows how Iron Age roofs were constructed, we're using a method that has historical precedent in the medieval period. Working on a base of hazel and willow wattle, we're weaving in a thick layer of gorse. Over this, we'll lay a thin coat of heather, pressing down on it to compact the gorse. Then we'll stuff straw into this base coat in a process called, appropriately, stuff-thatching.
I've been meeting lots of interesting folk here. We have groups of volunteers helping out, including archaeology students and guys on probation. Then there are the archaeological consultants on the project and Ian, the resident Iron Age reenactor, who's building an 18 foot wicker man this week to be burned at Hallowe'en. It's a public event here at the Museum and you're welcome to come along. It starts at 4pm on the 31st. I love thatching, and roundhouses. I hope to bring some Druidry to these two when they're complete, giving talks and maybe workshops and ceremonies. I'm weaving Druidry into it as we work. A time-lapse camera is set up to photograph the site every 30 minutes. This morning it caught me invoking gods, including Arianrhod of the starry skies and Gwydion, antlered lord of forests. Appropriate, I think, to the setting of a Museum of Welsh Life.
Blessings to all, and have a wondrous Hallowe'en (or Nos Galan Gaeaf as it's called in Wales, 'Nights of Winter Calends')!
Published by Yale University Press, November 2013, xvi + 480 pages, 103 illustrations.
In 1991, a few months before I first met him, my friend Ronald Hutton published Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, at the time a unique, one-volume survey of its subject that quickly, and rightly, attained classic status, being quoted in almost every subsequent work on British prehistory. This new book is designed to supersede it, reassessing its contents and conclusions, expanding on it and adding a huge amount of new information that has come to light over the last two decades. Here's my review:
First impressions are of an attractive, well-produced book, containing many more illustrations than its predecessor, though still in monochrome. The illustrations are well-chosen, including many of the usual suspects – the 'Sorcerer of Trois Frères,' the 'Venus of Willendorf,' and so on – but going well beyond them. For example, a group headed 'Less familiar Palaeolithic images' includes human figurines that were found alongside the much better known 'Venuses' on which whole theories of prehistoric belief have been built. These images and their accompanying text provide one example of a process Ronald follows throughout the book, returning to original excavation reports and re-examining, often at first-hand, the objects described so as to place them in their proper context. He has visited or re-visited many sites where objects were found, often in company with archaeological specialists. This meticulous research is filtered through the Ronald's broad areas of personal interest, including ancient and modern paganisms and shamanism. These interests, however, are never allowed to overwhelm the evidence.
As well as exploring prehistoric sites and the artefacts found at them, the book examines ways in which attitudes to the past alter in tandem with more recent changes, so the Victorian era of conquest, colonisation and conversion by the British produced the idea that Britain itself was repeatedly conquered, colonised and converted throughout prehistory. The 20th century dismantling of the British Empire and our joining of the European Economic Union then produced a new vision of prehistory that replaced conquest with trade as the primary means by which the British Isles interacted with the rest of Europe. Pagan Britain offers many such insights into both our remote and more immediate ancestors.
One of my own areas of interest is in what archaeologists call burnt mounds, piles of stones that have been subjected to very high temperatures before being either doused with water or immersed in it. Many theories have been put forward to explain them, including Native American style sweat lodges, Swedish style saunas, cooking sites for joints of meat or breweries for prehistoric beer. Thanks to this book, I now know that a major survey of such sites in Ireland, published in 2011, has shown all four explanations are sustainable for some of the sites. For a modern Druid such as myself who has experienced the power of ritualised sweat lodges and is also partial to the occasional pint of ale, this is welcome news indeed!
One section of the book looks at interactions between professional archaeologists and interested non-professionals, including what might loosely be called the 'Earth Mysteries' community. These are often hostile and have been for a very long time. The story of how archaeology stopped being a hobby and became a profession, and how those who adopted it as such subsequently came to exercise such unquestioned access to, and control over, our shared heritage would make a fascinating sociological study in the development of elite dominance. Another admirable feature of Pagan Britain is the extent to which it continually reveals topics such as this and shows them to be worthy of extended treatment. Hopefully a generation of researchers will be inspired to follow up on them. If so, they, like the rest of us, will owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald for the diligence of his research, the breadth of his vision and his ability to bring so much information and so many ideas together.
Ronald writes both for academic colleagues and general readers, achieving this rare double by the simple means of using clear, precise, jargon-free English. If more of his colleagues adopted this habit, they would render their work accessible to a much broader readership. Another aspect of his writing that appeals greatly is his inclusion of illuminating, entertaining, often bizarre incidental details such as the fact that the early 19th century scholar, William Buckland, was often accompanied at academic functions by his pet bear, which he dressed in a student's cap and gown. Such quirky and engaging human touches certainly help bring history to life. The picture here captures Buckland at dinner with friends, human and other.
As with Ronald's previous works on Paganisms, this book will no doubt divide the modern Pagan community, perhaps most strongly in its final chapter, 'The Legacy of British Paganism.' It is here, looking at changing academic and public attitudes towards possible survivals of paganism from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the present day, that the author most maintains his reputation as an iconoclast. Those who dismiss this section as simple iconoclasm, however, can only do so by ignoring qualifying statements as in the following passage: “The former tendency to assume that virtually all traditional British seasonal rites were survivors of paganism was clearly misplaced, but blanket dismissal of pagan ingredients in them would be even more erroneous. Broad themes of seasonal festivity often have more staying power than individual customs, though even some of those can be proved to have survived for millennia.” [My italics].
A word of warning: if you are looking for the sort of certainty found in other books, such as the many claiming to have 'solved the mystery of Stonehenge' once and for all, you should definitely look elsewhere. Ronald is careful not to argue beyond what demonstrable facts allow. Where, as is often the case, the evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, he is equally careful to present a range of alternatives, where possible evaluating which are the most likely, but willing to admit when none are proven or where such proof may not even be possible. Some may find the frequency with which a 'not proven' verdict is returned frustrating, but, as the author makes clear, there are times when our current state of knowledge simply leaves no definitive conclusion possible.
Is Pagan Britain, then, a worthy successor to Pagan Religions...? My answer is a resounding yes. Like its illustrious predecessor, it offers a one-stop shop for all who, like me, have an abiding interest in prehistoric British religion, a desire to keep up with the latest information on the subject, but little access to academic journals, field reports or specialist publications. Ronald draws together the whole gamut of recent research along with the speculations and conclusions stemming from it, bringing it all together for us. And for those who want to look further into areas of particular interest, there are extensive endnotes.
As mentioned earlier, what makes Pagan Britain so compelling is Ronald's unusual breadth of personal interests and depth of knowledge in them, spanning paganisms old and new, shamanism, anthropology and archaeology, as well as British, European and world history. This is enhanced by his almost unrivalled list of contacts with colleagues across this wide range of disciplines, his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy for detailed and thorough research, and his remarkable ability to marshal and make sense of a huge quantity and range of information and present it clearly. In short, the book is a tour de force and, like Pagan Religions..., is essential reading for anyone with an interest in its subject.
Born in India in 1953, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he also heads the School of Humanities. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, a Commissioner for English Heritage and a member of, among others, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Ancient Druid Order and, of course, the British Druid Order. His other publications include The Druids (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009), both of which are also highly recommended.
If you're not yet convinced, you could check out this review from the Economist by Erica Wagner, who describes Ronald as "a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes."
Or, for a less sympathetic review, try this one from the Guardian by Graham Robb, who takes Ronald to task for only devoting six pages to the Druids, despite Ronald making it clear in the book that the reason he is not giving more space to them is that he's recently written the two full books on them referred to above. He also complains about Ronald not including evidence for paganism in France, despite the book being called Pagan Britain and Ronald's stated intention in it to maintain a focus within the confines of the British Isles. Robb may have a vested interest, however, in that his most recent publication is a book claiming to have rediscovered a lost 'map' of Pagan Celtic Europe.