Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain

The Traveller's Guide to

ARTHURIAN BRITAIN

A guide to the history and fantasy,
poetry and romance,
tradition and fable
of King Arthur's Britain

Geoffrey Ashe


Sample one:  Introduction

Glastonbury
Somerset


Beside the main roads entering this little town, signboards welcome the visitor to "the ancient Avalon". Glastonbury's identity with that fabled island, the Avalon of legend, is one of several hard questions. Others arise out of its claims to the Holy Grail and the grave of Arthur. But certainly it is unlike anywhere else. It nestles in a strange cluster of hills, all differently shaped. The highest, Glastonbury Tor, is a wildly distorted cone with a tower on its summit. Wirral or Wearyall Hill is a ridge stretching out towards the Bristol Channel. Chalice Hill is a smooth natural dome. Windmill Hill, more outspread, masks the others as you approach from Wells.

Around is flat country. At the beginning of the Christian era, much of it was submerged or swampy. Glastonbury's hill-cluster was not far from being an island. In the middle distance were Celtic lake-villages at Godney and Meare, on ground artificially banked up. These were centres of the "La Tène" culture, and objects from them are on view in the town museum, which is housed in a medieval building called the Tribunal. They witness to a high degree of craftsmanship and sophistication. In Roman times, to judge from traces of a wharf by Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury was a port. The water was still there in Arthur's day – very probably more of it, and closer in. The reclamation and draining of the levels came later, and even in fairly recent years, floods have been known to surge over the whole green expanse between town and sea.

Glastonbury islandPeople of Celtic stock formerly spoke of Glastonbury as Ynys-witrin, the Glass Island. Whether this was its name before the Saxons gave it its present one, or whether it was a mis-rendering of the Saxon name which sounded as if it had "glass" in it, is another hard question. Glass would have evoked Celtic fairy-lore and otherworld mythology, Avalonian or not (as at Bardsey). But whatever else was happening here before the Saxons' arrival, the "island" or near-island was the home of a community of British monks living in wattle cells.

Their monastery had a high reputation. Many saints of the Celtic Church are said to have come to it, and a Welsh triad makes it one of the handful with the distinction of a perpetual choir (see Amesbury). It was far enough west to escape the horrors of the early waves of Saxon invasion. Checked by the counter-attacks of Ambrosius and Arthur, the conquerors paused a long way short of Glastonbury and did not reach it till 658. By then they had become Christians themselves. The kings of Wessex took charge of the monastery, endowed and enlarged it, with no break in continuity. It became a temple of reconciliation between the races, where they worked together instead of killing each other. Here in a sense the United Kingdom was born. The monastery grew into a vast Benedictine abbey, a national shrine, so rich in its history, traditions, and multitude of great names that Glastonbury was spoken of as a second Rome.

Something of the abbey is still there, a huge, cryptic, haunting memento of an amazing past. The entrance is through an arch beside the Town Hall and up an approach path. It can also be reached directly from the adjoining car park. A bookshop by the entrance offers illustrated guides, books and souvenirs.

Glastonbury Abbey at its height was the largest and wealthiest in the kingdom after Westminster. As a popular saying put it, "If the abbot of Glastonbury could marry the abbess of Shaftesbury they would have more land than the king of England." In 1539 the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII with exceptional ruthlessness, and its last abbot, Richard Whiting, was hanged. A few years after wards it came into private hands. Its successive owners tore most of it down to sell as material for walls and roads. In 1908 the Church of England acquired the site and took steps to preserve what little was left. The scanty ruins standing today are fragments of buildings dating from the late twelfth century onward, replacing much older ones destroyed by a fire in 1184.

The Old ChurchThe Arthurian and related stories centre on the western end of the ruins. Here is the shell of the Lady Chapel, with a crypt below. The chapel was built on the site of the "Old Church", a deeply revered structure which the fire of 1184 wiped out. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was a plain building, basically of wattle-work, though reinforced with timber and lead. According to a legend which story-tellers and poets have elaborated over the past seven or eight centuries, its builder was Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who obtained the body of Christ after the crucifixion and had it buried in his own tomb. Joseph and several companions came to Britain bringing the Holy Grail, and made Glastonbury their home.

This famous and beloved story grew round the simple fact of the Old Church. At the earliest times we can document, it had already been standing there for many years, and no one really knew who had built it. In the tenth century, some said it had been miraculously planted by God himself and dedicated to his earthly Mother. In the early twelfth century its foundation was ascribed, by some, to disciples of Christ. But the leader of those disciples was not named as Joseph, the Grail-bringer, in any known writing till 100 years or so later again. It remains a puzzle why he should have begun to figure in chronicle and romance when he did. There may have been a far older tradition of his coming, preserved orally in Wales, and rediscovered with other Celtic matter in the Arthurian upsurge of the twelfth century. Nothing can be proved. What is very likely indeed, however, is that behind the legend – behind the mystery of the Old Church itself – is a solid and remarkable fact: that Glastonbury truly was the first British Christian community, or at any rate the first that survived, with an origin possibly in Roman times and almost certainly not long after, whoever the founder may have been.

Once Joseph was established in that role, the Abbey grew to value him more and more. Towards the end of its existence the crypt under the Lady Chapel was a separate chapel for him. Here the pilgrims came with offerings. It has been re-paved and is now in use again as a place of worship, weather permitting, since it is open to the sky.

A late growth is the legend of the Holy Thorn, said to have sprung from Joseph's staff when he planted it in the ground after disembarking from a boat at Wearyall Hill. The original Glastonbury Thorn grew on that hill; a stone marks the spot where the tree is popularly supposed to have stood. Today, descendants of it are flourishing in the Abbey and in front of St John's Church in the High Street, and on Wearyall Hill beside the stone. The Thorn's peculiarity is that it blossoms at Christmas or thereabouts. A sprig of the white blossom is cut off and sent to the reigning sovereign. It is not a native English tree, and the closest parallels to it are found in Syria – which, to be fair, does adjoin the Holy Land where Joseph came from! The truth may be that the first specimen was brought back by a pilgrim in the Middle Ages.

Another late growth is the belief that Joseph was Jesus's uncle or great-uncle, and that he brought the boy with him on an earlier visit to Glastonbury. It is not known when or how this story originated, but it can hardly have been current at Glastonbury in the Middle Ages, since the Abbey's chroniclers would certainly have made much of it, and they never mention it.

About 50 feet from the south door of the Lady Chapel is the site of Arthur's grave. This can be located roughly by standing on the far side of a path that runs parallel to the chapel wall. It was found – so the report goes – because when Henry II was in Wales, a bard divulged a long-kept secret. Arthur was buried at Glastonbury in the monks' graveyard between two pillars, probably the shafts of old crosses. Henry passed this on to the abbot. Nothing was done at the time, but in 1190 or 1191, during reconstruction after the fire, the monks decided to dig. Seven feet below ground level they unearthed a stone slab and a leaden cross, with the inscription

HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS
IN INSULA AVALONIA

Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon. Considerably farther down was a coffin hollowed out of a log like a dugout canoe. Inside were the bones of a tall man, with damage to the skull suggesting death by a blow on the head. Some smaller bones, and a scrap of yellow hair which crumbled when touched, were explained as Guinevere's.

We have an account of this exhumation by Giraldus Cambrensis, an observant Welshman who was there soon afterwards and discussed it with witnesses. Nevertheless, until a few years ago, historians were apt to argue that the monks invented the whole business for publicity because they needed money to rebuild after the fire. But then critics began to point out that this was unlikely. The description suggests an actual ancient burial, and medieval monks lacked the knowledge to get it right. In 1962 Dr Ralegh Radford excavated the site and showed that they had told the truth, at least to the extent that they did dig where they said, and did find an early grave. Its stone lining was still there, and it was in a part of the graveyard which would have been regarded as a place of honour.

So the question narrows down to this: Was it Arthur? (And, of course, Guinevere.) Most historians would still insist that it was not, that the claim was only a fund-raising stunt, though in fact no evidence exists that it was ever exploited for that purpose. The answer must depend at least partly on whether or not the inscribed cross was a fake. It has been lost, but perhaps not for ever, since it can be traced to a Mr Hughes in Wells in the eighteenth century. Meanwhile we have a drawing of one side of it, published by William Camden in 1607. This is the "Here lies Arthur" side. The other may have had writing about Guinevere. Again there are riddles. The style of lettering on the cross is crude, and curious. If the monks forged it they did a more interesting job than most medieval forgers. But scholarly opinion differs as to the date which the style does indicate. Guesses range from the twelfth century back to the sixth, the latter view implying that the cross could have been authentic and the grave genuine.

Glastonbury AbbeyIt is sometimes urged that the find was too sudden and opportune to be credible. If Arthur's grave had been there all along, the community would have known, and said so before. However, that is far from certain. Once again we must remember that because of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, many traditions handed down on the Celtic fringe were quite unknown in England till the rush of rediscovery in the twelfth century. With Arthur's grave, the story of the bard and Henry II seems to imply just such a rediscovery, rather than an invention out of nothing. And in view of the grave's prestige value, it is worth noting that Glastonbury's claim was never seriously contested. Once the secret was out, apparently, even Welshmen were aware of some reason why they could not challenge it.

Having found the bones, the monks enshrined them in their church. When this was enlarged, they made a black marble tomb in front of the high altar, and there the remains of Arthur and Guinevere were reinterred in 1278 during a state visit by Edward I. The place is marked today by a notice-board, whereas the original grave is not, a fact which can confuse visitors.

Coupled with the belief that Glastonbury was Arthur's last resting-place is a belief about the casting-away of Excalibur. Bedivere threw the sword into the mere at Pomparles Bridge – pont périlleux, the dangerous bridge – which spans the River Brue near the far end of Wearyall Hill on the way to Street, though the present structure, of course, is only a modern successor of the one intended. That area was then probably under water, and a mere would have been available. However, Pomparles has rivals (see Bosherston, Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, Loe Pool). Apart from this romantic motif, Arthur's death in or near Glastonbury would have a serious bearing on the problem of Camlann where he fought his last battle.

Glastonbury's other Arthurian focus is the Tor, which is the highest hill in the cluster, and National Trust property. It is reached from the town by heading out as for Shepton Mallet on the A361. Still within the built-up area, a minor road called Well House Lane turns off to the left. This leads to both the public paths up the Tor. One of them starts a few yards from the intersection, the other on higher ground some distance along, near where the lane swings right to circle the hill.

The Tor is a strange formation, with its whaleback shape and its ruined tower on top. It can be seen a long way off – the distant view from the Mendips, as you approach from Bristol or Bath, is especially striking – but in the centre of Glastonbury itself it vanishes, because the lower and rounder Chalice Hill is in the way. Ridges or terraces along the sides give an odd stepped effect. They are best seen in profile from the higher part of Well House Lane. Whatever the reason for them, the Tor itself is not (as many suppose) artificial. Of the two ways up it, the one that begins near the Shepton Mallet road is a long but mostly gradual climb; the other, at the far end, is shorter and steeper.

At the summit by the tower is a small plateau. It is 518 feet above sea-level. The impressive view includes the Mendips, and Brent Knoll near the Bristol Channel. In clear weather it extends to Wales. On the other side of the Tor Cadbury Castle is visible, whence in part the "beacon" theory, for which see Brent Knoll. But it is hard to pick out because it blends with a line of hills behind it.

The Tor is the probable locale of the oldest story connecting Arthur with Glastonbury, one that was current long before any claims were made about his grave. It is told by Caradoc, a monk of Llancarfan in his "Life" of Gildas. Melwas, king of the Summer Land (Somerset), carried off Guinevere and kept her at Glastonbury. Arthur arrived to rescue her with Cornish and Devonian levies, though his operations were hampered by the watery country round about. Before the fighting could grow too serious, Gildas and the abbot arranged a treaty. Arthur and Melwas made up their quarrel in the church of St Mary – that is, the Old Church – and Guinevere was restored.

This is the first known version of a tale which appears in several medieval romances, changing as it goes along. Melwas becomes "Meleagant" and later "Meliagaunt" or "Mellyagraunce", a sinister knight. His castle is moved to Lambeth and the rescuer becomes Lancelot. But the Glastonbury tale is the original, and the Tor would have been an obvious place for a local chief to make a strongpoint. In 1964-65 Philip Rahtz excavated the summit area and found, on the south and east sides, traces of buildings of more or less Arthurian date. The complex may have been part of Melwas's establishment. However, it may also have been monastic. The question is not settled.

The Tor's stepped appearance, though usually ascribed to agricultural work, has prompted theories about its use in pre-Christian ritual. Certainly it once had an otherworldly aura and was held to be an abode of strange beings – as indeed it still is, by some. The "Life" of the sixth-century St Collen preserves a tradition of this type. He is said to have spent some time as a hermit on the Tor's lower slope. One day Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the fairy-folk and lord of the Otherworld realm of Annwn, sent a messenger inviting Collen to visit him at the top of the hill. The saint demurred, but the invitation was repeated and at last he went. Taking some holy water, he climbed up and passed through a secret entrance into a palace. Gwyn, seated on a golden chair, offered him food, but he knew that this was a trap. After a brief conversation he tossed his holy water around him. The palace vanished and Collen found himself alone on the Tor.

Gwyn is a figure from Celtic paganism. His father Nudd is the British god Nodons, who had a temple at Lydney in Gloucestershire. Gwyn and his hidden realm of Annwn both appear in early Welsh legends of Arthur, who, in spectral form, rides with him on the Wild Hunt through the sky.

It was doubtless because the monks felt the Tor to be uncanny that they built a small church on top, and dedicated it to St Michael the Archangel, conqueror of the powers of hell. The powers of hell were perhaps incompletely conquered, because it fell down in an earthquake. The present tower is the last fragment of another church of St Michael, built to replace it. Local legend speaks of a hidden chamber under the tower. People who find their way into it go mad. The notion may be a last echo of ancient Celtic belief about the entrance to Annwn.

If the terraces around the Tor's sides were made for any ritual purpose, they must date from an earlier period than St Collen. They are much worn and weathered. However, attempts have been made to reconstruct a pattern in the shape of a spiral path winding in and out and in again, circling the hill several times, and ending near the top. The strength of the argument is that the same septenary maze-spiral occurs in other places – though, admittedly, not carved in hillsides – and was clearly strong magic thousands of years ago.

Hence, there is a case for the spiral maze theory which archaeologists are willing to entertain. More speculative is the zodiac theory. This asserts that the landscape overlooked by the Tor is covered with immense figures which represent zodiacal signs. They are marked out by streams, hills, old trackways, and other features, and form a circle ten miles across. Even believers are divided about them, disagreeing as to how they were made and what exactly the outlines are. They are only visible (if at all) from the air and it is useless to climb the Tor in the hope of seeing them. The Tor itself is said to be part of Aquarius. The Sagittarius figure is a mounted warrior, claimed as a divine or symbolic "Arthur" of great antiquity, whose mythology shaped the legends about the human one.

At the Tor's foot on the side towards Chalice Hill is a garden containing Chalice Well. This is owned and looked after by the Chalice Well Trust, a religious body, which sponsored Rahtz's excavations. The intending visitor should check in advance whether the garden will be open. Chalice Well itself, up a long slope, is enclosed by medieval stonework. The spring that feeds it, nine feet down, flows copiously even in drought. Owing to an iron impregnation the water has a slight "spa" quality, and gives a reddish-orange tinge to the stone of the channels which carry it away.

Chalice Well used to be called "Chalk" Well, or, because of its tinted water, the Blood Spring. The significantly altered name, and fancies about the "blood" being the blood of Christ in the Grail somewhere underground, are fairly recent. In the days of Arthur, however, when the spring was probably at ground level without superstructure, it does seem to be mentioned and thus described in one of the Grail romances, Perlesvaus, known in English translation as The High History of the Holy Grail. Clues here and elsewhere hint that it may have supplied water for a small early Christian community, in and around the little valley between Chalice Hill and the Tor, distinct from the one on the Abbey site. This perhaps is the retreat between hills – near Glastonbury, but not, at that time, in it – to which Lancelot and other survivors retire at the end of Malory's story.

The neighbourhood has one further Arthurian spot, Beckery on the west of the town near a defunct factory. In a chapel here, Arthur is said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, which was the reason for his putting her image on his shield (see Guinnion). Excavation has shown that an early chapel existed, but its date is unknown. Nothing can be seen today.

When all these beliefs are taken together, they show how the name "Avalon" could have settled on Glastonbury as an expression of several of them at once. First came its eerie non-Christian aspects as an enchanted Glass Island and as a point of contact with Annwn. One Celtic Otherworld could easily be equated with another; Annwn and Avalon did tend to merge or overlap; and at some stage, no one knows when, the idea took hold that Glastonbury might be the true Avalon.

Then, in the twelfth century, the monks learned the Welsh tradition of Arthur's burial and supposedly con firmed it by digging him up. His last earthly destination was agreed to have been Avalon – Geoffrey of Monmouth said it. That clinched the identification. If the inscribed leaden cross was genuine it proved it anyway, because it said "here in the Isle of Avalon". But even if it was faked, it was faked with the identification in mind. Glastonbury was now Avalon indeed, and the low-lying area round about became the Vale, or Vales, of Avalon.

Soon afterwards Robert de Boron wrote the first romance about the bringing of the Grail to Britain. It had been brought, he declared, by the first Christians to come there, who had been disciples of Christ himself. Glastonbury Abbey already claimed a foundation as early as that, and by such disciples. Robert took the obvious step of sending his early Christians to the "Vales of Avalon". Thereby Glastonbury-as-Avalon was explicitly built into the Christian legend as well as the Arthurian. Not that the equation was accepted by all, then or afterwards, but it was there to accept if one so chose. It appears again in the Abbey's chronicles and in the Grail romance Perlesvaus, which is based, so the author truly or falsely assures us, on a document "in a holy house of religion in the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere lie".

Sample one of this book:
Arthurian Britain: Introduction
See a sample of the sequel to this book
Complete Gothic Image book list

  Positively Wyrd

 

CONTENTS


Acknowledgements
Introduction

1  LIVING IN THE DARK
"There's a whole in my bucket..."


2  A WEIRD KIND OF FATE
In the hands of fate
A subtle hint of weirdness
Weaving a different world


3  THE SENSES TAKER
Choosing not to choose
Avoiding emotion
Beliefs, feelings, senses
A habit of choice


4  EVERYONE IS TO BLAME
"You can't get there from here"
Tyrant and victim
Who's to blame?
No-one is to blame


5  I AM WHAT I AM
Whose life is it, anyway?
The 'silliness barrier'
The 'tall poppy' syndrome
Strengths and weaknesses


6  AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
The curse of belief
An affirmative habit
Into action


7  WANTS AND NEEDS
What do you want?
We all want more money
What do you need?
What do you want from me?
What do you need from you?
"I'm a substitute for another guy..."
Take aim...


8  CONTROL AND OTHER MYTHS
Fear is a four-letter word
I want to be powerful
A different kind of power
New Age, new illusions?
A time to trust


9  TIME TO LET GO
Non-attachment, non-detachment
"Nobody's perfect"
Let go of knowing
An end to suffering


10  ALL THE FUN OF THE FAIR
Riding the roller-coaster
The hall of mirrors
Walking the tightrope
Bring on the clowns!


11  ONE STEP AT A TIME
A state of survival
Facing frustration
Panics and priorities
Re-accepting self
The process of change


12  WEAVING THE THREADS OF WYRD
A web of connections
The ordinariness of wyrd
Do what you will But be sure that you will it!


13  MY WORD IS MY BOND
Choosing your words
A question of commitment
Doubt and discipline
The role of religion


14  IT'S ALL IMAGINARY
Real or imaginary?
Invisible images
Watch the details
Real imagination
Inventing the real world


15  DIVINE COINCIDENCE
Cause and coincidence
Everyday weirdness
As above, so below
Prediction and paradox


16  DANCING WITH OUR SELVES
Stance and dance
A dramatic gesture
The flow of the dance


17  THE ART OF EMPOWERMENT
As the muse takes us
The art of listening
Drawing our visions
Words on the wind


18  WE'RE BUSY DOING NO-THING
Allowing ourselves to notice
When less is more
Time to slow down
Do it consciously


19  WHICH 'I' IS ME?
What or where is 'I'?
Caught in the web
A choice of boundaries


20  STRETCHING THE BOUNDARIES
Reclaiming the balance
The export of blame
Facing fear
A world without walls


21  SELF AND OTHERS
The sound of silence
Being selfish
Being self-reliant
A web of choices


22  RELATING
Soul-mates and cell-mates
Happy families?
Friends and other allies


23  WORKING IN A WEIRD WORLD
A world of connections
A world of confusions
A world at work


24  IT ISN'T EASY BEING GREEN?
A sense of value
A sense of place
A sense of healing
A sense of trust


25  A WYRD WAY OF LIFE
Wyrd
Self-exploration
Philosophical perspectives
Fiction

This book is no longer available in print


Positively Wyrd

Harnessing the chaos in your life

Tom Graves


Chapter 6

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION


It was as children that we learnt many of the habits we now have. And the way we learnt them, in most cases, was through repetition. That's how we learnt to walk, to talk, to read, to ride a bicycle: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again". But it's also how we learnt many of the habits that bind us: often in the form of derogatory statements repeated again and again by some authority-figure, like a form of brainwashing, until we eventually learn to believe them.




An irate teacher at school: "You're stupid, Kelley, you shouldn't ask stupid questions: how many times do I have to tell you that? So – repeat after me – 'Chris Kelley is stupid'. Come on – say it! Louder, child, louder – I want the whole class to hear you!" I stand there, barely able to open my mouth, squirming in shame and embarrassment... she's the teacher, I don't have the right or the strength to fight back. And a thought runs through my mind: "If can I learn to be stupid, like she tells me I am, perhaps she won't make me do this again.
Do you recognise incidents like this in your own life? Can you see how easy – and how apparently necessary – it was to change your whole way of life, to avoid that kind of repeated pressure from others?



A statement like that may well tell us more about the person saying it than it does about us – a teacher abusing his authority in order to avoid answering awkward questions, for example – but once we've learnt to believe them, we believe them. The statement eventually becomes something that we believe at an unconscious level – a habit of thought, a habitual way of thinking about ourselves. From there, precisely because it is unconscious, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: "What I tell you three times is true", as Lewis Carroll's Bellman put it in 'The Hunting of the Snark'. And then we're stuck with the results, for life – or until we can learn how to unlearn the habit. It can take a long time to unlearn habits...


THE CURSE OF BELIEF

Belief is a peculiar kind of magic: a habit of thought, an idea that becomes real by filtering reality. With a different belief, we not only change our perception of the world, but our actual experience of it. I experience the world as I believe it to be: I find experiences that confirm the belief, and tend to ignore those that don't. It always seems easier to find 'proof' of destructive beliefs than of constructive ones, so a repeated statement like "You're stupid!" can soon create a downward spiral, a self-confirming curse – even though it was never actually true to begin with.

Once I've learnt to believe that I should be afraid, for example, I experience the world as if I'm afraid: I become afraid, and in return the world becomes a fearful place. And even though the fear is of something imaginary, of something that has never existed as more than an idea, the fear itself is real: the results are tangible, in terms of my ability – or inability – to work in the world. Through belief, the untrue becomes true; an illusion – a belief – somehow becomes reality.




One famous example was the 'toilet-paper shortage', a few years back. An American TV presenter suggested on his show that there was going to be a shortage of toilet-paper. People took his warning seriously; there was a surge of panic-buying, supermarket shelves were rapidly cleared as people built up reserve stocks. In a matter of days there wasn't a toilet-roll to be had. But in fact the whole thing had been an April Fool joke: at the time there'd been no real shortage at all, and now there really was one. The untrue becomes true; an illusion – a belief – somehow became reality.
Can you see the same kind of effect happening in your own life? What rumours – imagined beliefs – do you find yourself acting on? How do you know they really are true – or whether they're just self-confirming 'prophecies' that you've been caught by?



In that sense our world is an illusion. It's everyone's illusion: an interweaving web of beliefs, of filters on reality. If we want to change our world, to improve our world, we need at the very least to change how we see it, what we believe about it. But the only beliefs we can change directly are our own – and even then it's not easy. Those 'curses', those self-destructive beliefs that we were taught as children, will seem to block us at every step: at times they twist and turn against us, like a peculiarly evil and insidious form of magic.

Children believe in magic: the 'inner child' still does – with good reason, if you think of belief as magic.

That's the child's point of view – not childish, but childlike. So once again we let go... play with belief the child's way, and work with it as if it is magic. Yet magic is, well... weird. Wyrd... Yet knowing now something of the nature of wyrd – 'there's always a choice, there's always a twist' – we can use the magic of belief to overcome the tyranny of belief: we can choose to twist it into a new and more constructive tool. Repetition – this strange process of 'what I tell you three times is true' – is how we were taught the habits that now restrict us; so now, in its turn, we can use repetition to help us break free of them.


AN AFFIRMATIVE HABIT

One way to bring up these habits of thought, and rebuild them, is through 'affirmations' – repetitive statements of intent that tend to highlight our resistance to change. And there's a surprising amount of resistance...

An affirmation (or 'intention', 'postulate', 'manifestation', 'positive thought' – there are many different terms for much the same thing) is just another belief. The difference is that, unlike those destructive curse-beliefs, it's one that we choose – as a tool to help us – rather than imposed on us by someone else. An affirmation is an invented belief, repeated over and over again, just like the 'curses', and with the same intention of making the belief into another self-confirming prophecy. Once again, the untrue becomes true – but this time in a constructive rather than self-destructive sense.

To make an affirmation, we simply write out this new constructed belief: for example, "I, Chris, now have total confidence in my ability to do anything I want". We then stop for a moment; listen for a moment; then write down the objections that are likely to come flooding in!

The first of the objections that we're likely to hit is the silliness barrier – and hard. Immediately, the whole thing seems ridiculous, childish, pointless – silly. Let alone those bitter memories of 'writing lines' as a punishment at school: "Kelley, write out one hundred times, 'I must not ask stupid questions in class"... So we acknowledge the barrier – work with it, work round it: yes, it does seem childish – it's meant to be, so as to be childlike. Yes, the statement isn't true: I don't have confidence in my ability to do anything I want – but the whole idea is to learn how to believe it to be true, so that it has a chance to become true. Yes, it does sound ridiculously optimistic: but that's only because we're so used to being forced to be pessimistic. And so on; and so
on.

Let go... let play... let the magic of belief break the tyranny of belief...




There are so many beliefs that cripple us, it's difficult to know where to begin! But try taking a repeated experience that the world seems to confirm as 'true' – for example, "I never get any credit for what I do" – and view it as if it was the result of a self-destructive belief that you hold at an unconscious level: "I don't deserve credit for what I do". Imagine that it's a belief you've learnt, or been taught, through constant repetition or constant example – which you may even know to have been the case. To counteract it, turn this belief around – "I do deserve credit for what I do" – and repeat it to yourself. Often! After all, the destructive belief was repeated to you often enough.
To make this an affirmation, put yourself into this new belief: "I, __, deserve credit for what I do". (And sometimes in the second- and third-person forms – "You, __, deserve credit for what you do" and "__ deserves credit for what he/she does" – because that's how the old belief was given to you.) Write out this statement on a piece of paper; as you write it, affirm it to yourself as being true – say it aloud, perhaps, put some emotion into it. Then wait for a moment. See what objections come up – "People don't like me, that's why I don't deserve credit" – and write those down under the affirmation, slightly to one side. Then write the affirmation again; then the objections. Repeat this sequence at least a dozen times.
Listen carefully to the objections – can you sometimes hear someone else's voice saying them – the person whose belief it was in the first place? And can you see how bizarre and unreal some of the objections turn out to be?
Let go..... let play.



It is important to regard this as play – which, to the child, is its real work. It's a good idea to treat the whole process like a piece of magic, as a piece of ritual – buy a new book to write these affirmations in, use your best pen, write in a quiet space, perhaps light a candle first... It's the 'inner child' we're working with here, so we appeal to the childlike nature of the child within us!

The usual recommendation is to do this with only one affirmation at a time, twice a day, for at least two or three weeks. (If that seems a lengthy process, remember that it's quick by comparison with the months and years of repetition through which we first learned each 'curse' that restricts us now.) It does work – though, as is typical with wyrd, not often in the way that we expect.

What we can expect, at the very least, is change: if nothing else, affirmations can be a good way of breaking 'stuckness' in our lives. It seems to be important to write these phrases and responses: speaking them, even aloud, does not seem to be enough. Perhaps writing is a way of driving the new beliefs into memory, driving them back into our deepest self, in much the same way as it's usually easier to remember a lecture from written notes even than from a tape-recording. I don't know: all we know is that it is so. Part of the magic, I presume.

Watch how the resistance arises – our own resistance to our actually living our life your own way. "It can't work", for example; "I don't deserve that, that would be too good", perhaps; or "It doesn't happen anyway, and I can't see how it could be possible, so it can't be possible". Again and again we'll find it breaks down to a simple statement, a simple belief: "It's not allowed for me to be me". But if that's so, how come other people are allowed to do what they want in life? That's worth looking at for a while.




Take one of your resistances that comes up regularly – "I don't deserve to be happy", for example – and apply the same process as for affirmations, but in reverse. Write out that statement in the same way as an affirmation – and then note the (more conscious) objections that come up to the statement. Wear down the resistance by showing, slowly, that it's absurd. "If I don't deserve happiness and affection, how come other people do deserve it?". "In which case, what is there that's so specially different about me that means I alone don't deserve to be happy?". And so on.
Can you see that the resistance is, in essence, a belief? One that is actively harmful to you? And one which, in all probability, you've been taught – for someone else's benefit, not your own?
Work at it for a while. You may even begin to see where you learnt the habit, and why: "I mustn't be happy because my big sister hits me if I show I'm happy", for example. Habits learnt very early, beliefs that are usually no longer relevant, but which we all still act on now...



One reason why it's useful to look at the resistances in this backwards way is that most of us look at the negative side, the weaknesses, first – and believe them. There's often a strong cultural pressure to do so: being positive or optimistic is considered egotistical, or naive, or both. It's not acceptable, not done, to accept ourselves as we are: we're soon made to feel pretty uncomfortable if we don't put ourselves down – as we saw earlier with the example of the bullying teacher.

But just remember: 'Whose life is it, anyway?'. It's your life: it's your right to reclaim power with your life. And this is one way to do it – to put new changes, new beliefs, into action.


INTO ACTION

Think of this as affirmative action – but there also needs to be an emphasis on action. If we only write the new beliefs out as affirmations, and then just sit on our backsides, waiting for things to happen by themselves, we're believing in the wrong kind of magic... What we're doing with the affirmation, in effect, is lifting a thread of wyrd to the surface, to look at it and see how we've usually pushed it away from our lives. But that, on its own, changes nothing. We also have to find a way to connect with that new thread: having written "I now have confidence in my ability", for example, I have to go out into the weirdness of the world and find that new confidence, find our connection with it. Let our selves find it – or perhaps let it find us.

So go looking – but without looking. Try to find it but without trying. It does take a bit of practice...




An affirmation itself is no more than a game with beliefs, a 'head-trip': to be useful, it needs to be grounded, brought into connection with the version of reality we share with everyone else. So having written out a series of affirmations, do something to 'earth' it, to honour and affirm the change in your intention. Almost anything will do: but do something. Put yourself in a different place or different situation for a change. Don't bother trying to think through what the best response would be – just follow a whim, an impulse. The wyrd thrives on difference, not sameness... thinking, on its own, will only give us 'more of the same'.
And then watch what happens: see what Reality Department gives you back. Watch the feelings, the emotions, the uncertainties that arise as you do these 'active affirmations': think of these as resistances, just like those that came up on paper as you wrote. What do these tell you?



Sometimes deciding what to do to act on an affirmation is a bit like looking for a dim star at night – it's not as simple as it seems. For a start, we sometimes have to put ourselves in a different environment: in the glare of the street lights of the city, it's hard to see anything of the sky at night, let alone a barely-visible star. If we don't do anything, if we don't try – don't even bother to stick your head out of the door – we'll never see the star: the chance will simply pass us by. Yet if we do look in the obvious way, straight at it, it disappears – and the harder we look for it, the more it disappears. The trick to seeing it is to look away slightly, to look not at it, but near it – look at it without looking at it – and let it come to us. It's much the same putting these affirmations into action: we have to do something, but somehow let the results come to us.

One way in which the results may come to us is not at all what we'd expect: namely in the form of some incident that acts like a test, a challenge. For example, if your affirmation was "I now have confidence in my ability", you might hope for people turning round and telling you how wonderful you are: but don't be surprised if, instead, some stranger comes up with exactly the same kind of derogatory remark that put you down in the first place. It's a test, a challenge: and you'll notice, by your reactions, just how much you've allowed your beliefs to change...

It's weird – but that's how it works, that's how it is. That, after all, is the nature of wyrd!

After a while working with affirmations, we can begin to see some changes – some of the old, evidently self-destructive patterns begin to weaken, until they're nothing like as compulsive as they were. For example, I recognised that I'd always viewed being on my own as a punishment – "Go to your room!", my parents would say – which had led me to cling on to others, especially parent-figures, to prove that I wasn't considered 'bad'... and kept doing this compulsively well into adulthood. Recognising this as an old fear, I turned it round and made it into an affirmation, "The more I, Chris, enjoy being on my own, the more I can enjoy being with others", and worked with it each evening for a while. It wasn't until about a month later that I noticed I wasn't going out much in the old compulsive "Got to see someone or I'll go crazy!" mode any more; instead, without my particularly doing anything to make it happen, people were coming to see me. In fact I was getting annoyed that I didn't seem to have enough time on my own...

The point was that I'd always needed time on my own – but I wasn't allowing myself to get it, because I was afraid of it, of what aloneness symbolised. But the wyrd knew what I needed, so to speak... so it's given me enforced periods of loneliness many times in my life! One way or another we always get what we need: but it may not be in the form that we want... With the weirdness of wyrd, there's always a choice, but there's also always a twist.

More accurately, the wyrd seems to give us always what we say we want – which may not be what we think we want. As long as we're stuck in habit, and in unawareness of our needs and of what we're asking for, we can hardly complain about what the wyrd ends up giving us – if I outwardly say I want company, but am inwardly screaming for time on my own, it's hardly surprising that the results in my life are a mess!

So to give those affirmations something on which to work, and to help the web of wyrd to give us a more worthwhile way of living, we need next to gain more clarity about our wants and needs, desires and intentions – and the subtle distinctions between them.

Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain

The Traveller's Guide to

ARTHURIAN BRITAIN

A guide to the history and fantasy,
poetry and romance,
tradition and fable
of King Arthur's Britain

Geoffrey Ashe


Sample one:  Introduction

Glastonbury
Somerset


Beside the main roads entering this little town, signboards welcome the visitor to "the ancient Avalon". Glastonbury's identity with that fabled island, the Avalon of legend, is one of several hard questions. Others arise out of its claims to the Holy Grail and the grave of Arthur. But certainly it is unlike anywhere else. It nestles in a strange cluster of hills, all differently shaped. The highest, Glastonbury Tor, is a wildly distorted cone with a tower on its summit. Wirral or Wearyall Hill is a ridge stretching out towards the Bristol Channel. Chalice Hill is a smooth natural dome. Windmill Hill, more outspread, masks the others as you approach from Wells.

Around is flat country. At the beginning of the Christian era, much of it was submerged or swampy. Glastonbury's hill-cluster was not far from being an island. In the middle distance were Celtic lake-villages at Godney and Meare, on ground artificially banked up. These were centres of the "La Tène" culture, and objects from them are on view in the town museum, which is housed in a medieval building called the Tribunal. They witness to a high degree of craftsmanship and sophistication. In Roman times, to judge from traces of a wharf by Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury was a port. The water was still there in Arthur's day – very probably more of it, and closer in. The reclamation and draining of the levels came later, and even in fairly recent years, floods have been known to surge over the whole green expanse between town and sea.

Glastonbury islandPeople of Celtic stock formerly spoke of Glastonbury as Ynys-witrin, the Glass Island. Whether this was its name before the Saxons gave it its present one, or whether it was a mis-rendering of the Saxon name which sounded as if it had "glass" in it, is another hard question. Glass would have evoked Celtic fairy-lore and otherworld mythology, Avalonian or not (as at Bardsey). But whatever else was happening here before the Saxons' arrival, the "island" or near-island was the home of a community of British monks living in wattle cells.

Their monastery had a high reputation. Many saints of the Celtic Church are said to have come to it, and a Welsh triad makes it one of the handful with the distinction of a perpetual choir (see Amesbury). It was far enough west to escape the horrors of the early waves of Saxon invasion. Checked by the counter-attacks of Ambrosius and Arthur, the conquerors paused a long way short of Glastonbury and did not reach it till 658. By then they had become Christians themselves. The kings of Wessex took charge of the monastery, endowed and enlarged it, with no break in continuity. It became a temple of reconciliation between the races, where they worked together instead of killing each other. Here in a sense the United Kingdom was born. The monastery grew into a vast Benedictine abbey, a national shrine, so rich in its history, traditions, and multitude of great names that Glastonbury was spoken of as a second Rome.

Something of the abbey is still there, a huge, cryptic, haunting memento of an amazing past. The entrance is through an arch beside the Town Hall and up an approach path. It can also be reached directly from the adjoining car park. A bookshop by the entrance offers illustrated guides, books and souvenirs.

Glastonbury Abbey at its height was the largest and wealthiest in the kingdom after Westminster. As a popular saying put it, "If the abbot of Glastonbury could marry the abbess of Shaftesbury they would have more land than the king of England." In 1539 the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII with exceptional ruthlessness, and its last abbot, Richard Whiting, was hanged. A few years after wards it came into private hands. Its successive owners tore most of it down to sell as material for walls and roads. In 1908 the Church of England acquired the site and took steps to preserve what little was left. The scanty ruins standing today are fragments of buildings dating from the late twelfth century onward, replacing much older ones destroyed by a fire in 1184.

The Old ChurchThe Arthurian and related stories centre on the western end of the ruins. Here is the shell of the Lady Chapel, with a crypt below. The chapel was built on the site of the "Old Church", a deeply revered structure which the fire of 1184 wiped out. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was a plain building, basically of wattle-work, though reinforced with timber and lead. According to a legend which story-tellers and poets have elaborated over the past seven or eight centuries, its builder was Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who obtained the body of Christ after the crucifixion and had it buried in his own tomb. Joseph and several companions came to Britain bringing the Holy Grail, and made Glastonbury their home.

This famous and beloved story grew round the simple fact of the Old Church. At the earliest times we can document, it had already been standing there for many years, and no one really knew who had built it. In the tenth century, some said it had been miraculously planted by God himself and dedicated to his earthly Mother. In the early twelfth century its foundation was ascribed, by some, to disciples of Christ. But the leader of those disciples was not named as Joseph, the Grail-bringer, in any known writing till 100 years or so later again. It remains a puzzle why he should have begun to figure in chronicle and romance when he did. There may have been a far older tradition of his coming, preserved orally in Wales, and rediscovered with other Celtic matter in the Arthurian upsurge of the twelfth century. Nothing can be proved. What is very likely indeed, however, is that behind the legend – behind the mystery of the Old Church itself – is a solid and remarkable fact: that Glastonbury truly was the first British Christian community, or at any rate the first that survived, with an origin possibly in Roman times and almost certainly not long after, whoever the founder may have been.

Once Joseph was established in that role, the Abbey grew to value him more and more. Towards the end of its existence the crypt under the Lady Chapel was a separate chapel for him. Here the pilgrims came with offerings. It has been re-paved and is now in use again as a place of worship, weather permitting, since it is open to the sky.

A late growth is the legend of the Holy Thorn, said to have sprung from Joseph's staff when he planted it in the ground after disembarking from a boat at Wearyall Hill. The original Glastonbury Thorn grew on that hill; a stone marks the spot where the tree is popularly supposed to have stood. Today, descendants of it are flourishing in the Abbey and in front of St John's Church in the High Street, and on Wearyall Hill beside the stone. The Thorn's peculiarity is that it blossoms at Christmas or thereabouts. A sprig of the white blossom is cut off and sent to the reigning sovereign. It is not a native English tree, and the closest parallels to it are found in Syria – which, to be fair, does adjoin the Holy Land where Joseph came from! The truth may be that the first specimen was brought back by a pilgrim in the Middle Ages.

Another late growth is the belief that Joseph was Jesus's uncle or great-uncle, and that he brought the boy with him on an earlier visit to Glastonbury. It is not known when or how this story originated, but it can hardly have been current at Glastonbury in the Middle Ages, since the Abbey's chroniclers would certainly have made much of it, and they never mention it.

About 50 feet from the south door of the Lady Chapel is the site of Arthur's grave. This can be located roughly by standing on the far side of a path that runs parallel to the chapel wall. It was found – so the report goes – because when Henry II was in Wales, a bard divulged a long-kept secret. Arthur was buried at Glastonbury in the monks' graveyard between two pillars, probably the shafts of old crosses. Henry passed this on to the abbot. Nothing was done at the time, but in 1190 or 1191, during reconstruction after the fire, the monks decided to dig. Seven feet below ground level they unearthed a stone slab and a leaden cross, with the inscription

HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS
IN INSULA AVALONIA

Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon. Considerably farther down was a coffin hollowed out of a log like a dugout canoe. Inside were the bones of a tall man, with damage to the skull suggesting death by a blow on the head. Some smaller bones, and a scrap of yellow hair which crumbled when touched, were explained as Guinevere's.

We have an account of this exhumation by Giraldus Cambrensis, an observant Welshman who was there soon afterwards and discussed it with witnesses. Nevertheless, until a few years ago, historians were apt to argue that the monks invented the whole business for publicity because they needed money to rebuild after the fire. But then critics began to point out that this was unlikely. The description suggests an actual ancient burial, and medieval monks lacked the knowledge to get it right. In 1962 Dr Ralegh Radford excavated the site and showed that they had told the truth, at least to the extent that they did dig where they said, and did find an early grave. Its stone lining was still there, and it was in a part of the graveyard which would have been regarded as a place of honour.

So the question narrows down to this: Was it Arthur? (And, of course, Guinevere.) Most historians would still insist that it was not, that the claim was only a fund-raising stunt, though in fact no evidence exists that it was ever exploited for that purpose. The answer must depend at least partly on whether or not the inscribed cross was a fake. It has been lost, but perhaps not for ever, since it can be traced to a Mr Hughes in Wells in the eighteenth century. Meanwhile we have a drawing of one side of it, published by William Camden in 1607. This is the "Here lies Arthur" side. The other may have had writing about Guinevere. Again there are riddles. The style of lettering on the cross is crude, and curious. If the monks forged it they did a more interesting job than most medieval forgers. But scholarly opinion differs as to the date which the style does indicate. Guesses range from the twelfth century back to the sixth, the latter view implying that the cross could have been authentic and the grave genuine.

Glastonbury AbbeyIt is sometimes urged that the find was too sudden and opportune to be credible. If Arthur's grave had been there all along, the community would have known, and said so before. However, that is far from certain. Once again we must remember that because of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, many traditions handed down on the Celtic fringe were quite unknown in England till the rush of rediscovery in the twelfth century. With Arthur's grave, the story of the bard and Henry II seems to imply just such a rediscovery, rather than an invention out of nothing. And in view of the grave's prestige value, it is worth noting that Glastonbury's claim was never seriously contested. Once the secret was out, apparently, even Welshmen were aware of some reason why they could not challenge it.

Having found the bones, the monks enshrined them in their church. When this was enlarged, they made a black marble tomb in front of the high altar, and there the remains of Arthur and Guinevere were reinterred in 1278 during a state visit by Edward I. The place is marked today by a notice-board, whereas the original grave is not, a fact which can confuse visitors.

Coupled with the belief that Glastonbury was Arthur's last resting-place is a belief about the casting-away of Excalibur. Bedivere threw the sword into the mere at Pomparles Bridge – pont périlleux, the dangerous bridge – which spans the River Brue near the far end of Wearyall Hill on the way to Street, though the present structure, of course, is only a modern successor of the one intended. That area was then probably under water, and a mere would have been available. However, Pomparles has rivals (see Bosherston, Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, Loe Pool). Apart from this romantic motif, Arthur's death in or near Glastonbury would have a serious bearing on the problem of Camlann where he fought his last battle.

Glastonbury's other Arthurian focus is the Tor, which is the highest hill in the cluster, and National Trust property. It is reached from the town by heading out as for Shepton Mallet on the A361. Still within the built-up area, a minor road called Well House Lane turns off to the left. This leads to both the public paths up the Tor. One of them starts a few yards from the intersection, the other on higher ground some distance along, near where the lane swings right to circle the hill.

The Tor is a strange formation, with its whaleback shape and its ruined tower on top. It can be seen a long way off – the distant view from the Mendips, as you approach from Bristol or Bath, is especially striking – but in the centre of Glastonbury itself it vanishes, because the lower and rounder Chalice Hill is in the way. Ridges or terraces along the sides give an odd stepped effect. They are best seen in profile from the higher part of Well House Lane. Whatever the reason for them, the Tor itself is not (as many suppose) artificial. Of the two ways up it, the one that begins near the Shepton Mallet road is a long but mostly gradual climb; the other, at the far end, is shorter and steeper.

At the summit by the tower is a small plateau. It is 518 feet above sea-level. The impressive view includes the Mendips, and Brent Knoll near the Bristol Channel. In clear weather it extends to Wales. On the other side of the Tor Cadbury Castle is visible, whence in part the "beacon" theory, for which see Brent Knoll. But it is hard to pick out because it blends with a line of hills behind it.

The Tor is the probable locale of the oldest story connecting Arthur with Glastonbury, one that was current long before any claims were made about his grave. It is told by Caradoc, a monk of Llancarfan in his "Life" of Gildas. Melwas, king of the Summer Land (Somerset), carried off Guinevere and kept her at Glastonbury. Arthur arrived to rescue her with Cornish and Devonian levies, though his operations were hampered by the watery country round about. Before the fighting could grow too serious, Gildas and the abbot arranged a treaty. Arthur and Melwas made up their quarrel in the church of St Mary – that is, the Old Church – and Guinevere was restored.

This is the first known version of a tale which appears in several medieval romances, changing as it goes along. Melwas becomes "Meleagant" and later "Meliagaunt" or "Mellyagraunce", a sinister knight. His castle is moved to Lambeth and the rescuer becomes Lancelot. But the Glastonbury tale is the original, and the Tor would have been an obvious place for a local chief to make a strongpoint. In 1964-65 Philip Rahtz excavated the summit area and found, on the south and east sides, traces of buildings of more or less Arthurian date. The complex may have been part of Melwas's establishment. However, it may also have been monastic. The question is not settled.

The Tor's stepped appearance, though usually ascribed to agricultural work, has prompted theories about its use in pre-Christian ritual. Certainly it once had an otherworldly aura and was held to be an abode of strange beings – as indeed it still is, by some. The "Life" of the sixth-century St Collen preserves a tradition of this type. He is said to have spent some time as a hermit on the Tor's lower slope. One day Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the fairy-folk and lord of the Otherworld realm of Annwn, sent a messenger inviting Collen to visit him at the top of the hill. The saint demurred, but the invitation was repeated and at last he went. Taking some holy water, he climbed up and passed through a secret entrance into a palace. Gwyn, seated on a golden chair, offered him food, but he knew that this was a trap. After a brief conversation he tossed his holy water around him. The palace vanished and Collen found himself alone on the Tor.

Gwyn is a figure from Celtic paganism. His father Nudd is the British god Nodons, who had a temple at Lydney in Gloucestershire. Gwyn and his hidden realm of Annwn both appear in early Welsh legends of Arthur, who, in spectral form, rides with him on the Wild Hunt through the sky.

It was doubtless because the monks felt the Tor to be uncanny that they built a small church on top, and dedicated it to St Michael the Archangel, conqueror of the powers of hell. The powers of hell were perhaps incompletely conquered, because it fell down in an earthquake. The present tower is the last fragment of another church of St Michael, built to replace it. Local legend speaks of a hidden chamber under the tower. People who find their way into it go mad. The notion may be a last echo of ancient Celtic belief about the entrance to Annwn.

If the terraces around the Tor's sides were made for any ritual purpose, they must date from an earlier period than St Collen. They are much worn and weathered. However, attempts have been made to reconstruct a pattern in the shape of a spiral path winding in and out and in again, circling the hill several times, and ending near the top. The strength of the argument is that the same septenary maze-spiral occurs in other places – though, admittedly, not carved in hillsides – and was clearly strong magic thousands of years ago.

Hence, there is a case for the spiral maze theory which archaeologists are willing to entertain. More speculative is the zodiac theory. This asserts that the landscape overlooked by the Tor is covered with immense figures which represent zodiacal signs. They are marked out by streams, hills, old trackways, and other features, and form a circle ten miles across. Even believers are divided about them, disagreeing as to how they were made and what exactly the outlines are. They are only visible (if at all) from the air and it is useless to climb the Tor in the hope of seeing them. The Tor itself is said to be part of Aquarius. The Sagittarius figure is a mounted warrior, claimed as a divine or symbolic "Arthur" of great antiquity, whose mythology shaped the legends about the human one.

At the Tor's foot on the side towards Chalice Hill is a garden containing Chalice Well. This is owned and looked after by the Chalice Well Trust, a religious body, which sponsored Rahtz's excavations. The intending visitor should check in advance whether the garden will be open. Chalice Well itself, up a long slope, is enclosed by medieval stonework. The spring that feeds it, nine feet down, flows copiously even in drought. Owing to an iron impregnation the water has a slight "spa" quality, and gives a reddish-orange tinge to the stone of the channels which carry it away.

Chalice Well used to be called "Chalk" Well, or, because of its tinted water, the Blood Spring. The significantly altered name, and fancies about the "blood" being the blood of Christ in the Grail somewhere underground, are fairly recent. In the days of Arthur, however, when the spring was probably at ground level without superstructure, it does seem to be mentioned and thus described in one of the Grail romances, Perlesvaus, known in English translation as The High History of the Holy Grail. Clues here and elsewhere hint that it may have supplied water for a small early Christian community, in and around the little valley between Chalice Hill and the Tor, distinct from the one on the Abbey site. This perhaps is the retreat between hills – near Glastonbury, but not, at that time, in it – to which Lancelot and other survivors retire at the end of Malory's story.

The neighbourhood has one further Arthurian spot, Beckery on the west of the town near a defunct factory. In a chapel here, Arthur is said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, which was the reason for his putting her image on his shield (see Guinnion). Excavation has shown that an early chapel existed, but its date is unknown. Nothing can be seen today.

When all these beliefs are taken together, they show how the name "Avalon" could have settled on Glastonbury as an expression of several of them at once. First came its eerie non-Christian aspects as an enchanted Glass Island and as a point of contact with Annwn. One Celtic Otherworld could easily be equated with another; Annwn and Avalon did tend to merge or overlap; and at some stage, no one knows when, the idea took hold that Glastonbury might be the true Avalon.

Then, in the twelfth century, the monks learned the Welsh tradition of Arthur's burial and supposedly con firmed it by digging him up. His last earthly destination was agreed to have been Avalon – Geoffrey of Monmouth said it. That clinched the identification. If the inscribed leaden cross was genuine it proved it anyway, because it said "here in the Isle of Avalon". But even if it was faked, it was faked with the identification in mind. Glastonbury was now Avalon indeed, and the low-lying area round about became the Vale, or Vales, of Avalon.

Soon afterwards Robert de Boron wrote the first romance about the bringing of the Grail to Britain. It had been brought, he declared, by the first Christians to come there, who had been disciples of Christ himself. Glastonbury Abbey already claimed a foundation as early as that, and by such disciples. Robert took the obvious step of sending his early Christians to the "Vales of Avalon". Thereby Glastonbury-as-Avalon was explicitly built into the Christian legend as well as the Arthurian. Not that the equation was accepted by all, then or afterwards, but it was there to accept if one so chose. It appears again in the Abbey's chronicles and in the Grail romance Perlesvaus, which is based, so the author truly or falsely assures us, on a document "in a holy house of religion in the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere lie".

Sample one of this book:
Arthurian Britain: Introduction
See a sample of the sequel to this book
Complete Gothic Image book list

Arthurian Britain

Book extract:

The Traveller's Guide to ARTHURIAN BRITAIN

A guide to the history and fantasy, poetry and romance,
tradition and fable of King Arthur's Britain

Geoffrey Ashe


Click for sample two: Glastonbury


Introduction


The Arthurian Legend is unique. Nothing else is quite like it. During the Middle Ages, it was the favourite theme of imaginative writing throughout western Europe. In modern times it has re-surfaced to inspire novels, plays, films. Nor is it confined to such media. Britain, where it began, has well over 150 places that are associated with it. Arthur is more widespread in local lore than anyone else – except, it is said, the Devil.

Given this persistent spell, one naturally asks a plain question: Did Arthur exist? There is no plain answer. "Yes" implies that the monarch of the Legend, with his medieval splendour and magnificent court, was real. He was not. He is a literary creation. But the alternative "no" implies that Arthur is purely fictitious, with no factual basis at all, and that doesn't work either. Simply to say that no such person existed is not enough. More is involved than mere doubt or lack of evidence. His Legend does exist, copious and multiple, and has done for a very long time. Anyone who denies him can be fairly asked to account for it without him, to explain where the Legend came from if there was no Arthur of any kind. Few sceptics have seriously tried, and none has produced a theory that is any better than guesswork.

Since the question "Did Arthur exist?" can't be given a straight answer, the constructive course if we want to probe the mystery is to ask another question, starting from what does exist – the Legend itself. How did it originate, what facts is it rooted in? If we can trace it to its sources, we may find somebody lurking there. We must have no preconceptions as to who or what that somebody was. But, to be acceptable, he must account directly or indirectly for the items in this Guide.

Most of the Legend as we know it dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A series of authors built up the montage of characters and themes: the king himself, with his glorious and dangerous queen; Merlin, prophet and magician; the magic sword Excalibur; the Knights of the Round Table, dedicated to high ideals; the tragic love-stories of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult; the Quest of the Grail; Arthur's downfall through treachery, his departure to Avalon, his cryptic death or more cryptic immortality. None of this is history as it stands. It is imaginative romance. King Arthur is an idealized medieval monarch, his Britain is a chivalric Utopia that never existed – certainly not in the far-off past when Arthur might be supposed to have reigned.

However, this lack of authenticity doesn't mean that there is no factual basis. Medieval romancers were not like modern novelists. Authenticity was not their concern. A novelist today, dealing with long-ago events, will try to portray people as they were, to re-create their ideas and beliefs, the houses they lived in, the food they ate, the clothes they wore. Writers in the Middle Ages had a different approach. When dealing with an ancient story they updated it, presenting it in terms of their own day and their readers' interests. Artists did much the same, as illustrated manuscripts show. The romancers who developed the story of Arthur were well aware that it belonged to a far-off time. What we would call their anachronism carries no implication that they didn't know what they were talking about. It was simply the custom of the age when they wrote.

Their romances, in fact, fitted loosely into a framework that was taken to be history. This was mainly due to one highly inventive author. He is known as Geoffrey of Monmouth, and he gave Arthur what amounted to an official biography. We must examine what he says. And we must ask where, if anywhere, he got it from. That is not an academic question. For a guidebook it is vital. Here are those numerous places with Arthurian connections: Tintagel, Glastonbury and many more. Should we treat all this as pure fantasy, concocted by Geoffrey and writers after him? Or are there underlying realities which their imagination fastened upon?

A "biography" and its setting


Monmouth, Geoffrey's presumed birthplace, is on the south-east fringe of Wales. His family background is unknown, but he was familiar with Welsh traditions, and interested in the Celtic Britons from whom the Welsh were descended. A cleric, and probably a teacher, he was at Oxford from 1129 to 1151. In the late 1130s he produced a Latin History of the Kings of Britain covering a stretch of time not far short of two thousand years. It makes out that wandering Trojans founded a monarchy in the island then called Albion and re-named it Britain. Geoffrey runs through a long series of British kings including Shakespeare's King Lear, nearly all of them fictitious. When he gets to the Roman conquest, and thus to recorded history, he has to be a little more factual. But he claims that it wasn't a true conquest, and British kings went on reigning as tributary rulers.

Britain, in his narrative, breaks away from the Roman Empire, and here he begins building up to an Arthurian climax. He tells us that a sinister British noble, Vortigern, made himself king, and two rightful princes went into exile. The usurper had trouble with the Picts in the north, and invited some Saxons, led by Hengist, to cross over from the Continent and settle in Britain as auxiliary troops. More Saxons flooded into the country and got out of control, seizing land for themselves and spreading chaos through Britain. Vortigern fled to Wales, where he encountered Merlin, who prophesied his doom and the advent of a deliverer. The princes returned, Vortigern was killed, and the Saxons were partially contained, though still turbulent and aggressive.

Arthur in the NorthThe elder prince, Aurelius Ambrosius, reigned for a short time. His brother Uther succeeded him. At a banquet in London Uther was seized with ungovernable desire for Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. Gorlois withdrew from the court taking her with him. Uther considered himself insulted and led an army into Cornwall to ravage the ducal lands. Gorlois left Ygerna for safety in a fortress out on the headland of Tintagel, accessible only along a narrow ridge, and marched off to oppose the king. He was outwitted. Merlin gave Uther a magic potion that turned him into an exact replica of Gorlois, and in that effective disguise he entered Tintagel past its guards and found his way to Ygerna, who, thinking him to be her husband, made no difficulties. She conceived Arthur. The real Gorlois had just fallen in battle, so Uther resumed his own shape and made Ygerna his queen.

Uther was poisoned by a Saxon, and Arthur became king while still in his teens. He soon showed gifts of leadership, and launched a series of campaigns, routing and dispersing the Saxons and subduing the Picts and Scots. He had a special sword called Caliburn, forged in the Isle of Avalon. He married Guinevere and made himself popular with his subjects. Next he conquered Ireland, and then Iceland (which would not have been difficult, because in those days Iceland was uninhabited). Twelve years of peace and prosperity ensued. Arthur founded an order of knighthood enrolling distinguished men from various lands. Britain was fast becoming pre-eminent in Europe. This was the time, or at least the beginning of the time, when the adventures related in romance were said to have happened.

The Roman Empire still had a shaky hold on Gaul, now France. Arthur had designs on the Empire himself. He won over many Gauls to his side, crossed the Channel with an army, and took possession. Around this part of the story we are beginning to get familiar names in the royal entourage – Gawain, Bedivere, Kay. Some years later Arthur was holding court at Caerleon in Wales when envoys arrived from Rome demanding that he restore his conquests and pay tribute, as earlier British kings had done. Judging attack to be the best defence, Arthur led another army to Gaul, leaving his nephew Modred at home as his deputy, in joint charge with Guinevere. While he was away Modred proclaimed himself king, conspired with the Saxons, and persuaded the queen to live in adultery with him. Arthur, who had got as far as Burgundian territory, was forced to return. He defeated and killed the traitor in a battle by the River Camel in Cornwall, but was seriously wounded himself and "carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to", handing over the crown to a cousin. It is not stated that he died. Geoffrey knew of a folk-belief that he was still alive, and left the door open for it, but did not commit himself.

As to the time when all this is supposed to have happened, an important clue is that western Europe still has a Roman ruler. Since there were no emperors in the west after 476, Arthur's continental exploits must be before that. Allusions to a real emperor Leo, who ruled in the east from 457 to 474, narrow the range. This context for Arthur is in harmony with his family relationships. Unfortunately Geoffrey's readers are also given something rare in his History, an exact date, and it doesn't fit. Arthur's passing is assigned to the year 542. Its total incompatibility is one of several reasons for thinking it an error, and it can in fact be brought into line as an error of a known medieval kind, which we need not go into. If we dismiss it and take everything else together, we see a fairly coherent picture of a reign lasting twenty-five to thirty years, largely in the 450s and 460s.

So again, where did Geoffrey get this from? Did he get it from anywhere? Or was the entire Legend born in his imagination?

We need to understand how he works. In the previous part of his History dealing with the Roman period, where there is solid information, we can compare. First, he is not really writing history and he can never be trusted for facts. What he says about Julius Caesar and others is a travesty of the truth. Secondly, however, it is a travesty of a truth which is on record, and which he does to some extent know. He habitually uses history, or what he would like to think is history, to evolve his fiction. Except in the early chapters on mythical Britons in an impenetrable past, he doesn't contrive major episodes out of nothing at all. He draws his inspiration from real events or established stories or names or monuments; always from something. With his biography of Arthur, we can be sure that he has some basis for it ... or thinks he has.

Arthurian EnglandAs far as the hero's setting is concerned, he has. Post-Roman Britain is very poorly documented, but we can allow that his story shows knowledge of things that actually happened. Archaeology, while not supplying all the support we could wish, does supply some.

Most of Britain was under Roman rule for well over three hundred years. Its people were British Celts, ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons; there were no English as yet. The upper classes received a veneer of imperial civilization and, in course of time, Christianity. As the Empire weakened in the west, under pressure from barbarians, the island on the fringe was exposed and hard to defend. Britain was beset by Irish, Picts and Saxons.

About 410, political upheavals cut if off from the centre and it broke away. The emperor authorized the Britons to look after themselves.

The administration carried on for a while, but regional chiefs were rising in importance, and one of them seems to have attained paramountcy over a good deal of the country. This was the Vortigern whom Geoffrey medievalizes as a crafty usurper. He played a leading part in a policy on imperial lines, providing a group of barbarians with land and supplies in return for keeping order and driving off other barbarians. Saxons, Angles and Jutes, ancestors of the English, were settled in Britain on this basis to contain the Picts. Here again, in the tale of Vortigern and Hengist, Geoffrey romanticizes facts. More settlers arrived without permission. Somewhere in the 440s the reinforced Saxons allied themselves with the Picts they were supposed to contain and began raiding far and wide, right across to the western sea. This phase of revolt probably dragged on into the 450s, a side-effect being a flight of Britons across the Channel, laying the foundations of Brittany.

At last the raiders withdrew into their authorized enclaves. The sequel was without parallel anywhere else. Alone among Roman ex-provincials, the Britons had become independent before the barbarians moved in. Now, alone among Roman ex-provincials, they cared enough to fight back. A noble, Ambrosius Aurelianus, organized counteraction. His name shows that his family was still Roman in its traditions and sympathies. To-and-fro warfare followed, and Saxon incursions at new points. Britain probably had long spells of partial and even general peace, but fighting in the 490s culminated in a British success at "Mount Badon", unidentified, though almost certainly in the south. For a while the situation was stabilized. A brief Celtic resurgence was marked by activity in the Church and swift growth of the colonies that were forming Brittany. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons took over most of the country and made it England – Angle-land – but the Britons' descendants held out in Wales and elsewhere, handing down songs and stories about the phase of independence.

Gildas, a monk writing in the 530s or thereabouts, testifies to the main post-Roman course of events. He is a sermonizer, not a historian. He makes terrible mistakes, and the only Briton whom he names between the break with Rome and his own time – a stretch of well over a century – is Ambrosius. Nevertheless he is an early witness for the Saxon disaster, the partial recovery, and the battle of Badon.

Geoffrey, in his corresponding chapters, is giving his own treatment to these happenings. He knows of Vortigern and he knows of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he turns into King Aurelius Ambrosius. Since he did have some awareness of this near-anonymous turmoil, we can reasonably ask whether he found a real Arthur in it – not, of course, the King Arthur of the Legend, but some Briton whom he built up into his towering monarch.

If we could trust his preface the answer would be "yes". He claims that he translated the History from "a certain very ancient book in the British language" given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. The British language could be either Welsh or Breton. Geoffrey and Walter were acquainted. Moreover, Geoffrey makes one specific statement about the book's contents, that it gave him information on Arthur's downfall: hence, presumably, on his reign. What he says about the book is, alas, incredible. He is simply trying to make his inventions more respectable by alleging an older source for them. Other medieval authors do much the same. Still, the touch about Arthur's downfall is an extra. Geoffrey may have had some Welsh or Breton text, now lost, that told of him.

While "may have" is not an argument, an original Arthur would at least fit into the sequence of events, as a leader during the phase of British recovery. There is a curious piece of evidence for him. His name is a Welsh form of the Roman "Artorius". It suggests someone from a family like Ambrosius's, still not remote from the imperial world. It doesn't suggest a Celtic god or fairy-tale paladin. Such a being would hardly have had a Roman name. The name is actually on record in Roman Britain, proof that it was known. Lucius Artorius Castus took a legion across the Channel in 184 to suppress a rebellion. He is much too early to be the original, and the notion of his having descendants or namesakes is a pure guess. But after a long gap with no other men so called, we begin to find several in the sixth century, up and down Britain, even in Scotland. It looks as if some saga had elevated a post-Roman Briton into a national hero.

We may be closing in on him. Failing the ancient book, what can we say Geoffrey of Monmouth knew that gave him inklings of such a person?


Arthur in Wales


Before his time, Welsh bards, story-tellers and clerics had generated a varied body of literature – much more, written and oral, than survives today. Arthur occurs in several connections. Poems extolled him as proverbial for prowess in war, and one said there was a mystery about his grave, though it stopped short of saying he was immortal and never had one. Other poems gave him a train of followers, some decidedly larger than life and credited with slaying monsters as well as enemies. Popular tales abounded. Most of them are lost, and we must infer their contents from tantalizing summaries grouped in threes, called triads. Early triads mention Arthur quite often, attesting his fame, but they are not much help as background for Geoffrey's narrative. From that point of view the only interesting ones are a few that refer to a sort of feud between Arthur and "Medrawd", and to a fatal battle at Camlan. There are hints here for Modred's turning against Arthur, though not for the circumstances, and for the final clash by the River Camel.

Arthurian WalesA single pre-Geoffrey tale has survived complete, composed in its present form late in the tenth century. Culhwch and Olwen ("Culhwch" is pronounced Kil-hooch, with the ch as in "loch") is colourful and extravagant and savage and comic. Arthur is the chief prince of Britain with a court assembling most of the men and women of note in Welsh tradition, as well as many mythical figures. Pre-Christian Celtic beliefs make their presence felt. One was that there are "Otherworld" regions – places not in our world yet somehow in contact with it – which are abodes of spirits and fairy-folk. An Otherworld ruler, Gwyn, is among the characters. Arthur and his company have fantastic adventures. They hunt a colossal boar, Twrch Trwyth, who is really a wicked king under a spell. This boar-hunt has left its mark on local lore. Apart from its literary merits, Culhwch and Olwen is a storehouse of information on Welsh legend. However, it is hard to trace any use of it by Geoffrey. He may have got the idea of Arthur's court from it, but the court he portrays is very different.

Finally, several Latin "Lives" of Welsh saints include anecdotes of Arthur. They are rather hostile, and inconsistent, making him sometimes king of Britain and sometimes a war-lord or "tyrant". A recurring motif is the saints' superiority, shown when their supernatural powers make him repent of his misdeeds.

From this Welsh matter, Geoffrey picked up some notions, and he picked up some characters – Merlin (originally Myrddin), Guinevere, Kay, Bedivere, Modred. However, none of it adds up to a real source for his Arthur story or any large part of it. Fabulous adventures, as in Culhwch and Olwen, don't disprove Arthur's reality. Fabulous adventures were ascribed to Alexander the Great and other real people. But we are certainly a long way from history.

Just two Welsh items – Latin items from Wales – are on a different footing. A tenth-century chronicle, the Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales, has a couple of Arthur entries. It notes the victory of Badon, noted long before in Gildas's tract, and assigns Arthur a major role in it, saying he "carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ" – probably meaning an emblem, or one of the reputed fragments of the True Cross that were treasured as relics. Arthur is a Christian champion here against the heathen Saxons, as he is not in the Saints' Lives. The Annals also note "the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell". While Medraut is Medrawd or Modred, the chronicler does not say that he was a traitor or even that the two were opposed. Attempts have been made to argue that the Camlann entry was posted from a more trustworthy chronicle nearer to Arthur's time, but there is no sound reason to think so.

Delving back farther, we come to a book written early in the ninth century, the Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons. It is attributed to a monk named Nennius, perhaps wrongly, but it is convenient to say "Nennius" to mean the author. The book is a medley of Welsh legend, just-possible history, and fantasy. It includes two local legends bringing in Arthur. If we stick to the parts that may have some relation to fact, we find an account of Vortigern, his opening the door to the Saxons, and the consequent catastrophe. There is also an account of his meeting a mysterious boy-prophet in Snowdonia, named Ambrose, with discouraging results for himself.

Nennius has a chapter on Arthur. Dropping out of the blue without much preamble, it consists of a rapid survey of twelve battles which he is said to have won against the Saxons. It may be based on an older Welsh poem in his praise, though no such poem exists now. Nennius is unclear as to his status. He makes him the British warleader, dux bellorum, co-ordinating the efforts of Britain's "kings" or regional rulers. This chapter was used briefly before Geoffrey by two non-Welsh historians, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. William infers that Arthur was a great, charismatic warrior in Ambrosius's service, not a king himself; Henry, that he was "the leader of the soldiers and kings of Britain". Both might have been the case at different stages of his career. Arthur is a Christian champion here too, carrying a holy image.

Nennius mentions Mount Badon, credited to Arthur as in the Annals, and presented as the climactic twelfth battle. The others build up to it, identified by puzzling place-names. The most comprehensible are in different parts of Lincolnshire, in the "Forest of Celidon", and in "the City of the Legion". The Forest of Celidon was in southern Scotland. Another passage shows that for Nennius the City of the Legion was Chester. All these battles, seven out of the twelve, would fit best into a mid-fifth-century setting. The Lincolnshire battles would have been against Angles encroaching up the Wash and Humber. There were no Saxons in Scotland till long afterwards, but during the anarchic phase of revolt and cross-country raiding they had Pictish allies who might have provoked reprisals. Chester, too far west for relevant war later in the century, could be allotted to the same phase, as the target of a cross-country raid.

Geoffrey makes use of these two texts. He improves Nennius's account of Vortigern, the Saxons, and the young prophet, though he makes out that the prophet was the youthful Merlin, thus introducing his second most famous character. He adapts some of the battles. He turns Medraut into Arthur's nephew Modred, deputy-ruler and traitor. He has Arthur fall at Camlann, revised and interpreted as the Camel. So parts at least of his Arthur story draw on earlier matter and are not total fantasy. His habitual practice is confirmed. However, if we are looking for real history, and particularly if we are looking for a real Arthur, the earlier matter is not early enough. It is written closer to the events, if any, but still centuries after them. And it already has touches of legend that cast doubt on it. At Badon, Nennius assures us, Arthur killed 960 of the enemy himself in a single charge. Heroes' deeds get exaggerated over the years, but not to this extent in contemporary reports. Because the Welsh present Arthur in such different guises – as a feuding chief, as a protagonist in impossible exploits, as a foil for the saints, as Britain's war-leader – sceptics have urged that he is too inconsistent to be true. Not so. The best parallel here is not Alexander but a more recent person, the American folk-hero Davy Crockett, given juvenile cult status by Disney during the 1950s. Born in Tennessee in 1786, he hunted in wild country and fought Indians, then went into politics, entering Congress in Washington as a picturesque backwoodsman. In 1836 he joined the Texan volunteers defending the Alamo against a Mexican army, and died there. In his political campaigning he had made his mark by telling tall tales from the frontier and encouraging supporters to embroider his own life-story in the same spirit. After 1836 legends clustered around him. Within a year or two he was alleged to have killed 85 Mexicans during the siege – not 960, admittedly, but the time for exaggeration was shorter. He was rumoured to be still alive. Yarn-spinners took up his tall-tale aspect in print, going beyond anything in Culhwch and Olwen. Their fictitious Davy rode on the lightning, climbed Niagara on the back of an alligator, greased the earth's axis to set it spinning again in a freeze-up. An American historian once complained that Crockett's biography could not be written because there were half a dozen of him. Yet he existed, and he shows that Arthur's inflation and diversification don't disprove his own existence.

To revert to Nennius, he need not be rejected as dis credited. He may be giving us facts, and so may the Annals. Some at least of the battles may be authentic; Gildas's tract is a much older testimony to Badon. But if we do try to treat this matter as history, we face an immediate problem. It makes Arthur's life-span absurd. The most acceptable battles, before Badon, only make good sense in the middle of the fifth century. Badon itself occurred not far from the year 500, probably a little before. So we would deduce from what Gildas says ... but the Annals contradict him, putting Badon in 518. They put Camlann in 539. To cover all the data Arthur would have to be an active warrior when over a hundred years old.

If these texts gave a chronological fix – a statement calibrating him with known history – we might be able to pin him down somewhere in the time-range, and then find explanations for whatever won't fit. The Welsh matter never gives such a fix. It never says Arthur was born when X was emperor, or died when Y was pope. Historically he hangs in a void.


Outside Britain?


All is not lost, however. We have one more resource, Geoffrey's account of the Gallic warfare, and it is far from negligible. It takes up half his Arthur story. Assessed by allocation of space, his Arthur is more a continental campaigner than anything else. He thinks this part of the king's career is very important. Romancers after him do not go so far, but their Arthur often has a continental domain. Modern readers and novelists are not sympathetic. After all, contemporaries across the Channel don't seem to have noticed any major British invasions. Yet if we dismiss this part of the story as imaginary, we must assume that Geoffrey is fabricating half of Arthur's career out of nothing at all. It is not his style. There has to be something, and since Welsh tradition has no trace of it, it must be elsewhere.

Furthermore, in his Gallic chapters he supplies what the Welsh never do, a chronological fix – the only one Arthur ever gets. The Gallic campaigns happen in the reign of the aforesaid Leo, emperor in the east from 457 to 474. Clues from other names tie down the final campaign much more closely, to a couple of years, 469 – 70. Geoffrey's indications of date are not often so precise. When writing of the final campaign he is thinking of something relevant which happened about then.

Something did. We are touching bedrock at last. In 467 Leo appointed a colleague, Anthemius, to take charge in the west. Anthemius tried to retrieve the situation in Gaul, much of it overrun by an assortment of barbarians. He negotiated an alliance with a man described as "the King of the Britons", who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 troops. Historians have underrated him in the belief that he was only a chief of Bretons, but that opinion no longer holds. He did come over from Britain. One historian, James Campbell, suggests that he had authority on both sides of the Channel.

After a pause north of the Loire, when he may have aided British settlers against marauding Saxons, he marched into central Gaul to oppose the Visigoths who were advancing from Spain. But Arvandus, the imperial governor, had been acting treacherously, proposing to the Visigoths that they should crush the Britons and share out Gaul with the Burgundians, who held parts of the east and south. Though Arvandus was detected, the Visigoths pushed ahead to Bourges, which the "King of the Britons" had occupied. After fierce fighting he retreated into Burgundian territory, probably in 470. No more is said about him.

Here we have raw materials for Geoffrey's story. The "King of the Britons" was in Gaul with his sea-borne army at the right time. He advanced to the Burgundian neighbourhood. He was betrayed by a deputy-ruler who conspired with barbarians. When we last see him he is even moving in the direction of a real town called Avallon (still there). Geoffrey's Latin form of that place-name doesn't correspond to its Welsh original and may well have been influenced by the town in Gaul.

Several authors have noticed this king and wondered if he was Arthur. The drawback is that he is referred to, with slight variations, as Riothamus. The h is due to scribes copying manuscripts with notions of their own about spelling. The correct form would have been Riotamus. Anyhow Geoffrey almost certainly has him in mind when relating Arthur's continental adventures. He inflates wildly, he changes the politics, he invents British successes – things he does in other parts of the History. But here, at last, the trail leads back to someone living at the right time who could be the original. Riotamus is the only documented person who does anything Arthurian, and he really is documented. We even have a letter to him.

The natural objection is, "Yes, but Geoffrey just took a hint from what this man did and made out that Arthur did it, or an exaggerated version of it. That needn't mean he thought Riotamus was Arthur. After all, the name is wrong." That fails to settle the question. Other people did think Riotamus was Arthur. A Breton, probably before Geoffrey and certainly not copying him, introduces a legend of a saint with a preface reviewing events in the fifth century, and sketches the activities of "Arthur, King of the Britons" (the same title) in terms that fit Riotamus. Half a dozen chroniclers, later than Geoffrey but still not copying him, concur to give Arthur a reign running from about 454 to 470, the year when Riotamus drops out of the record. Apparently they see the two as the same, and very likely they draw on somebody earlier who took that view. One other chronicle has an intriguing touch. It calls Arthur's betrayer Morvandus, which looks like a mix-up of "Mordred", the more literary form of the traitor's name, with "Arvandus", the name of Riotamus's actual betrayer.

As it seems that these authors equated Arthur with Riotamus, Geoffrey is probably doing likewise. The identification means that there has to be a solution of the name difficulty. Otherwise it could never have happened. It could be that Riotamus simply had two names, as some Britons did, that the other name was Arthur or rather Artorius, and that he passed into tradition under that one. A less conjectural notion would follow from the meaning of "Riotamus". It is a Latin version of a term in the British language, Rigotamos, "supreme king" or "supremely royal". It may have been a sobriquet, even a title, bestowed on a man after he rose to prominence, and used in addressing him or referring to him. He could have been Arthur.

That is to assume that "Arthur" came first and "Riotamus" was additional. It might have been the other way round, with "Riotamus" as the king's original style: more likely perhaps, since it appears later in Welsh adaptations as a proper name. As noted, a previous Arthur, Lucius Artorius Castus, took an army across the Channel. A leader taking another army across the Channel might have been hailed by some knowledgeable poet as a "second Artorius". And there is a last possibility, which is odd yet worth mentioning. If "Riotamus" was the king's original name, "Artorius" could have been a sort of nickname derived from it. ARTORIUS is almost an anagram of RIOTAMUS, and could have been suggested by a reading of the letters on (say) a medallion. RIOTAMUS, plus an r for rex, king, can be arranged quite neatly to give that result.

RIOTAMUS reads clockwise, omitting the R, which is slightly nearer the centre. The reading counter-clockwise, starting from A and bringing the R in, spells ARTORIUS. The M is left out, but it doesn't break the sequence of letters. Frivolous? Maybe. Still it is interesting that this can be done at all.

Nothing is on record concerning Riotamus, as such, back in Britain before he went overseas. However, he was important enough for word of him to reach Rome through the tumult of western Europe, and cause an emperor to seek his alliance. "King of the Britons" looks like an excessive title, but he was king of some of them and probably a good many, since he could raise a substantial army and assemble a fleet to carry it. His cross-Channel contact suggests that he ruled in the West Country, Arthurian territory, and he could just about have initiated the biggest "Arthurian" project revealed by archaeology, the refortification of Cadbury Castle, reputedly Camelot. If he was involved in the anti-Saxon resistance, all of Nennius's locatable battles could find a place in his timeframe. By the date of his overseas expedition, Saxon pressure had presumably eased.

We have a provisional answer to the question "Did Arthur exist?" though not the impossible yes-or-no. Arthur is almost entirely legend, at one level or another, but he has a real original, and that original may well have been the King of the Britons who went to Gaul. There is no firm evidence for any rival "real Arthur". Yet when we study these beginnings, we face legend-making in Britain as far back as we can get, even apart from the slaughter of 960 Saxons. No single leader is likely to have done everything Arthur is supposed to have done, fighting all the battles and falling at Camlann, especially if the Annals are right in putting Camlann in the sixth century. The Riotamus candidacy works well in the early part of the time-range. It gives an answer, if any is needed, to a cavil sometimes heard – that Arthur's name doesn't appear in Gildas. If he lived that much earlier, beyond living memory, no reader who has struggled with Gildas will be surprised that it doesn't. However, the candidacy runs into trouble later. If we forget all the medieval growth, Arthur still has to be a composite figure. The same could be said of Merlin, who presents difficulties of much the same kind.

In Riotamus we may have an authentic glimpse, a moment in continental limelight. But when he or some unknown became a British hero, under the great name, the saga absorbed the exploits of others, possibly others called Arthur. A Welsh poem indicates that a war-band known as "Arthur's Men" may have continued in being after his death, perhaps long after. If so, bardic praises of Arthur's Men, on dimly-recalled occasions, might have inspired legends of their founder's presence in person when he was long since dead. In discussing places associated with Arthur, we must sometimes content ourselves with meaning "the man who is said to have done such-and-such at this place", with no commitment as to identity. The mystery, in the end, abides.


Arthur transfigured


The Anglo-Normans who ruled England in Geoffrey's time were receptive to his History, partly, no doubt, because it put the "Saxons" whom they had conquered in a poor light. Their successors ruled a large part of France as well, and were glad to have their parvenu empire given proud antecedents. In 1155 a poet named Wace, from Jersey, produced a free paraphrase of the History in French verse that made it more accessible. It was giving shape and coherence to a process which Wace noticed, the spread of other Arthurian matter. The saga which had grown up in Wales, and in Cornwall and Brittany too by now, was being disseminated piecemeal. A book by a French priest had recently recalled a visit to England as early as 1113, when West Country locals pointed out Arthurian sites, and, in Bodmin, insisted that King Arthur was still alive. Bretons were saying the same. There were at least two versions of this belief, that he was on an enchanted island – Geoffrey's Avalon – or that he was asleep in a cave. Either way, his return was hoped for. Breton minstrels said many other things about him, and spread through French-speaking lands and farther. Arthurian characters were carved over a doorway in Modena Cathedral, in Italy.

Arthur in the West CountryWithout Geoffrey and Wace, it is unlikely that the scattered traditions would have converged in a single body of literature. Because of them, however, the latter part of the twelfth century saw the beginnings of an outpouring of narrative poems and prose tales in several languages. The great name is Chrétien de Troyes. The romancers created the full-blown Legend. New characters took the stage, among them Lancelot, and the Lady of the Lake. Merlin, who, in the History, had virtually dropped out after masterminding Arthur's birth, became the wonder-working sponsor of the whole reign. Other themes from Geoffrey were taken up and improved upon. He had introduced the knighthood, but the actual Round Table, imported by Wace from Breton folklore, became a ritual piece of furniture with symbolic meanings. Geoffrey had made Arthur hold court at Caerleon, an already-existing Roman city. Now he was given a headquarters of his own, Camelot. His sword Caliburn became Excalibur. Sometimes drawing on Celtic sources, more often not, romancers developed themes that are now familiar: the sword-in-the-stone test proving Arthur's right to the crown; the loves of the principal women; the fall of Merlin through his own love for an enchantress, who trapped him in a magic imprisonment; the acts of the ambiguous Gawain, though his greatest adventure, with the Green Knight, was a later topic; and the Quest of the Grail.

The last of these themes raises issues beyond the scope of fiction. Underlying it are pre-Christian myths about magical cauldrons and other marvellous vessels, and possibly, also, idiosyncrasies in the practices and beliefs of Celtic Christians. At its literary debut the Grail has a strange and rather disquieting ritual context. When fully Christianized it is explained as a cup or dish used by Christ at the Last Supper, with miraculous properties. It came to the "Vales of Avalon" in Somerset through the agency of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich disciple who provided Christ's tomb. He had caught drops of the Saviour's blood in it. Some time after its arrival in Britain it passed into the custody of a succession of guardians in an elusive castle. Many of Arthur's knights went in search of it. The romances are puzzling and contradictory. In the most important, the vision of the Grail is a spiritual initiation which only Galahad is worthy to achieve fully.

The key to the symbolism may have been lost. Ecclesiastics generally ignored the Grail and made no attempt to interpret it. From their point of view the stories, however Christian, were suspect. However, Joseph was named as the builder of the first church at Glastonbury, in the "Vales of Avalon". There, the monks of the Abbey had nothing to say about the Grail. Their chief chronicler made some use of the romances, but he told only of two small vessels called crnets which Joseph had brought to Britain, containing drops of the Lord's blood and sweat. These were holy relics with no mystical implications.

Glastonbury was also woven into the legendary fabric by the Abbey's assertion that Arthur was buried there and it was the real Avalon. Some accepted the claim, some did not, though no one seriously challenged it with a rival grave. In a famous version of his passing, when lying wounded after his last battle, he tells Bedivere to cast Excalibur into a lake. The knight demurs twice but finally complies, whereupon a hand rises out of the water, catches the sword, and draws it under. The king is then taken away to an Avalon that is not defined, perhaps to be healed and wait undying till the hour comes for his return. His golden age may not be lost for ever, it may be reborn.

Throughout much of the medieval period, the romances enjoyed a large public among the aristocracy and upper middle classes. One reason was that women were gaining ground socially, and their literary tastes carried weight. Unlike the martial epics of earlier days, Arthurian fiction had something for everybody. The love-stories – Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult – were a novelty, and while Guinevere was slow to mature as an interesting character, Iseult was always vivid and capable. Lords and ladies held "Round Table" entertainments at which the guests enacted Arthurian roles, feasted, and engaged in jousts and other suitable sports. Ironically, Arthur became a national hero of England, his role as enemy of the early English forgotten. Plantagenet sovereigns took him seriously. Edward I held five Round Table entertainments, and bolstered his claim to rule Scotland by saying Arthur had ruled Scotland. Edward III contemplated reviving the Arthurian knighthood, though, in the end, he founded the Order of the Garter instead.

The Arthurian wave gradually ebbed, but during the Wars of the Roses some of the best-known romances, most of them in French, were adapted by Sir Thomas Malory. More than an adapter, he made contributions of his own, one of them a great enhancement of Guinevere as a character. In 1485 Caxton edited and printed his writings, and Malory's version became the standard presentation of the cycle in English. It was the basis for many later works including Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the novels of T. H. White.


New perspectives, new departures


To sum up, the Arthurian Legend is a complex growth. Some of the stories belong to history, after a fashion. Some are myths and folk-tales that have been worked into the saga, and date from earlier ages as well as later. Some are barbaric, wild, timeless – products of bardic imagination. Some are due to the courtly romancers, and portray the king and those around him transformed into medieval figures. Stories appear on more than one level and in different forms. Even names vary widely and confusingly. "Drystan" and "Tristan" and "Tristram" all stand for the same person; so do "Medraut" and "Modred" and "Mordred"; so do "Gwenhwyfar" and "Guinevere" and "Ginevra"; so do "Essyllt" and "Iseult" and "Isolde".

Arthur can be pictured in quite a variety of ways. T. H. White, in The Once and Future King, was still sticking to Malory in the mid-twentieth century, though he superimposed modern ideas. But Arthurian authorship was already beginning to be affected by new research. Historians were re-examining sources, archaeologists were probing legendary sites.

An influential step had been taken in 1936 by R. G. Collingwood. Accepting Nennius's chapter on the battles, he suggested that Arthur was a Roman-style commander-in-chief who organized a cavalry corps and routed the pedestrian Saxons. The poet Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, adopted Collingwood's theory. Others thought the cavalry fanciful, but, for several decades, were prepared to endorse the military view, sometimes looking toward the early sixth century rather than the fifth for Arthur's main activities. At length more critical studies swung the pendulum back toward scepticism. However, the "historical Arthur" issue had been raised and could not be exorcized. Riotamus, who had been noticed as a possible original long before (long before Collingwood, as a matter of fact), was rediscovered in the 1980s.

Archaeology had results which many found more exciting. Though never a deliberate search for Arthur, it drew attention to three places outstandingly linked with him: Tintagel, the scene of his conception and presumably birth; Glastonbury, with its Grail associations and grave; and Cadbury Castle, a hill-fort reputed to have been the real Camelot. In all three cases, the connection does not appear in written records for many centuries. Yet in all three cases, excavation showed that the places were British-occupied and important in the appropriate period. While it revealed nothing about Arthur, it proved that the people who focused on these places knew something about them and located him credibly. A purely accidental three-out-of-three score would have been too much. Knowledge of Arthur's Britain clearly persisted through a vast stretch of time. The story-tellers, therefore, were entitled to a hearing on other counts also.

When researchers dug into the strata underlying romance, some critics complained that their work was either destructive or pointless. New creative writing inspired by it refuted them. Rosemary Sutcliff in Sword at Sunset, Mary Stewart in novels of Merlin, Persia Woolley and Bernard Cornwell and others, bypassed the medieval scene and tried to recapture the world of Arthur as it might have been in its post-Roman reality. Marion Zimmer Bradley, in The Mists of Avalon, invented a new myth of her own with a woman as narrator. John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy in drama, John Heath-Stubbs in poetry, approached the subject by other paths again. Extension of knowledge has done no harm to the medieval cycle, which remains immortal literature. But it has enlarged and enriched the mythos itself with new insights into the enduring impression which Arthur and his companions have made.

It is because of this impression that "Arthurian Britain" is a meaningful term. Arthurian names, Arthurian lore, spread in a network over the land – a network of history and fantasy, poetry and romance, tradition and fable. Yet Arthurian Britain has an elusive quality. The map is unfamiliar. Oxford, Birmingham, Glasgow, do not appear on it. Zennor, Aberffraw, Drumelzier, do. Except at a few spectacular places like Tintagel, what often confronts the traveller is a kind of enigma: a landscape where a legend hovers; or some natural feature, an Arthur's Cave or Arthur's Hill; or a standing stone or fortification which is linked with his name or the name of someone in his circle. Why the legend, why the name? Even when a reason can be inferred, explanation may be in order.

Yet the quest is worth pursuing, the presence can be evoked. The tradition takes remarkable forms, clinging as it sometimes does to earthwork "castles" or hill-forts dating from the pre-Roman Iron Age, and to prehistoric structures older than that. With a few hill-forts such tales have a degree of substance, because they were re-occupied by Britons of Arthur's day. Sometimes, however, we get a name or a story only. We seldom know why the name was localized or when the story took shape. The process began more than a thousand years ago and has gone on into recent times.

It is striking that the Arthur of local legend appears as he does. He has very little fame in great cities and major historic settings. We are apt to find him in out-of-way places and on sites of immemorial age. Legend and folklore may belong to a half-barbaric fairyland, or carry echoes from unseen "Otherworld" realms of Celtic myth. Since the romantic image of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has so long been the accepted one, it is strange how little impact it has had on place-lore. Moreover, most of the sites are in parts of Britain – the West Country, Wales, Cumbria, southern Scotland – where Celtic people, descendants of Arthurian Britons, kept their identity longest and in some cases keep it still. Even today, after all the literary development, Arthur's presence belongs mainly to regions where he could actually have flourished, not to the more English parts of England. As with the three archaeological sites, we glimpse a body of tradition that is rooted far back beyond the romances.

Sample two:
Arthurian Britain: Glastonbury

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The Traveller's Guide to Sacred Ireland - click to order

The Traveller's Guide to
Sacred Ireland

A guide to the sacred places of Ireland,
her legends, folklore and people

Cary Meehan


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INTRODUCTION


THE EARTH GIVES US LIFE and we are all drawn back, at certain times, to this potent source of our beginnings for a sense of nurture and completion. Those places where this sense of connectedness is strongest are the sites we term sacred. And, although our lives have evolved a long way from those of our neolithic ancestors, we are still touched, however unconsciously, by the same earth energies and the same miracle of life. This sense of the divine is reflected in every age, from the ancient cairns of prehistory to the great cathedrals of today.

The places described in this book are just some of these sacred sites and the experience of seeking them out has convinced me that visiting and connecting with these places is vital to the well-being of both ourselves and our planet. It is also a great pleasure.

Some of these sites are of national importance: royal palaces like Tara, sacred mountains like Croagh Patrick and the great passage cairns of the Boyne valley. Others are less well known.

There are spectacular dolmens, massive like Browne’s Hill or elegant like Legananny and court cairns with names like Creevykeel, Cohaw and Behy. There are hundreds of stone circles and stone rows, some in complex groups like Beaghmore and others, like Bohonagh, isolated on hillsides. Like the circles, wedge cairns are also from the Bronze Age. Labacallee in Cork is the biggest, its huge dark boulders like the limbs of an eccentric dinosaur.

Myths and stories associated with particular sites continue to illustrate an ancient understanding of the landscape and its energies: the Children of Lir spent 300 years as swans on Lough Derravaragh - itself the shape of a swan in flight. The caves of Kesh Corran in Sligo are seen as an entrance to the Otherworld and the place where the goddess, known as the Morrigan, emerges to do battle. The cairn-topped hills of the south are full of stories of the Fianna and their encounters with the fairy people of the hills. And then there is the Hill of Uisneach, the energetic centre of Ireland and place of many legends.

There are lakes and rivers still identified with pre-Celtic deities and small island sanctuaries which are places of fertility and power. Some of these islands have been Christianised by early saints: Devenish and White Island in Fermanagh, for example, Inchagoil in Galway, and Holy Island in Clare.

The locally venerated sites such as fairy hills, wells, trees and stones, are places which tradition has protected as gentle or fairy places. Fragments of these old traditions are still preserved in their folklore. Some of these were Christianised and became the sites of early monasteries, oratories, carved crosses, round towers and cross slabs. A number of them, like Glencolmcille, are important pilgrimage sites today. Others are deserted but seem to hold an echo, especially at dusk, of lives spent in contemplation and prayer. Islands with their monastic ruins are often still places of pilgrimage. A few are deserted, though not all. The Aran Islands, Achill and Tory have substantial populations.

Other early Christian sites were built and rebuilt into medieval monasteries with fabulous Romanesque carvings like Cong or Gothic arches, like Kilmallock. Some sites like Ahenny, Moone, Kilfenora, Kells, Clonmacnois and Monasterboice are famous for their beautiful carved crosses.

And there are many cathedrals, each different. St Canice’s cathedral in Kilkenny is a treasure house of late medieval figure carving. Killaloe and Tuam have beautiful Romanesque arches. St Brendan’s in Loughrea has the best collection of early 20th century stained glass in the country.

It may feel like a great leap in imagination to go from the neolithic passage cairns of 5000 years ago to the great cathedrals of today, but the variety of sites described above seems to link scattered fragments of human experience across time and space, allowing us a glimpse of our own origins. All are, like us, connected.

The flagstone at the centre of the small Bronze Age stone circles in Cork may have served the same purpose as the much earlier cap-stones on the neolithic dolmens in Waterford or County Down. The tiny early Christian oratory with its corbelled roof on the hillside in Kerry is descended from the chambered cairn at Loughcrew in Westmeath. The people who carved symbols on the great megaliths at Newgrange are ancestors of the stone cutter who decorated the high cross at Kilree in Kilkenny with concentric circles and spirals. And the deposits of human bone in a neolithic cairn are part of a tradition of relics as power objects which continued into Christian times. The power of such relics to confer grace and healing is still acknowledged in Ireland. In 2001 the relics of St Therese of Lisieux were brought here from France and taken on a tour around the country. Everywhere they went flowers were strewn along the roads and thousands queued to touch them.


MYTH & HISTORY:

THE ORIGINS OF THE SACRED LANDSCAPE


OUR MAIN SOURCE OF EARLY HISTORICAL MYTHOLOGY is an 11th century book, called Leabhar Gabhála Eireann or The Book of Invasions of Ireland. It begins with the arrival of the first people to Ireland in the time of Noah and is the closest we have to a creation myth. We also have our most quoted historical text for the early Christian period, The Annals of the Four Masters. It was written in the 17th century and begins forty days after the flood in the year of the world 2240. At that time the date for the biblical Creation had been set at 4004 BC by the Bishop of Armagh, Bishop Usher.

Much of it is simply a record of names, dates, battles and disasters with some quotes from ancient sources a kind of early news bulletin, though less reliable. However, as it gets closer to modern times, more information is available. It is a much-used source of dates for early saints and the founding of their monasteries. Viking raids, accidents and fires are also listed.

Many manuscripts disappeared in the turbulent years of the 8th to 10th centuries, some destroyed in local raids or looted by Vikings. Of those that remain, most are illustrated copies of sacred texts copied by monks with perhaps some historical records about the monastery and stories about its founding saint or local ruler. These give texture and life to these early saints and some, like the Vita Colurnbae, written by Adamnan at the end of the 7th century, provide useful historical data of larger events. Then we have the stories or cycles: The Ulster Cycle, The Mythological and Fenian Cycles and The Cycle of The Kings. For the rest we have archaeology, folklore and our imagination.


THE PALAEOLITHIC 18000 BC -8000 BC

The Ice Age in Ireland lasted over 1.5 million years, yet during that time temperatures fluctuated and, towards the end of this period, the mountains and much of the south was relatively ice free. The climate was able to support a tundra-like vegetation grassland with birch and willow scrub. The great elk, woolly mammoth, arctic fox and brown bear inhabited this landscape. They roamed from the Russian Steppes to the French Pyrenees and were hunted across Europe by early Stone Age or palaeolithic people. In Ireland they must have found a haven for no trace of human presence has been found for this time.

With the last glaciers gone, tundra spread right to the north across the scoured landscape and over the next few thousand years rising temperatures encouraged the spread of woodland: hazel and pine at first, then elm, oak, birch and willow. The large animals of the palaeolithic grasslands were displaced and by about 8000 BC most of the flora and fauna of Europe had spread right to the west.

With them came the first humans. About the same time the island of Ireland was set adrift from mainland Europe as melting glaciers flooded the oceans and covered the last land bridges to the east.


THE MESOLITHIC 8000 BC - 4000 BC

These early mesolithic people settled in this fresh new land on the western fringes of the known world. They lived along river valleys and lakesides where the forest cover was light. They were hunter-gatherers.

For a long time the only tangible signs of their presence were finds of small flint tools, called microliths. The flint was sourced in the calcareous limestone of the north east and this is where the first evidence of these people was found. Later finds were uncovered in the south in Offaly. Here chert was used instead of flint. Since then, other traces of these early people have been found around Dublin Bay and in the south west.

Post-holes at Mountsandel in the north east indicate dwellings made from bending and weaving poles into frames that could be thatched or covered with skins. There were food remains here from different seasons, indicating that they were not as nomadic as we think.

Flint tools in Ireland are significantly different from those found in Britain at this time, yet those found throughout Ireland seem to share a common provenance. This would seem to imply that their owners did not come from Britain at all. Perhaps they came from further south.

However, evidence has been found of a mesolithic presence at Carrowmore in Sligo around 7500 BC. So it is possible that they came from the west. Who knows what truths lie behind the lost civilisation of Atlantis, now buried beneath the ocean?

These people seem to disappear from our sights around 6000 BC. Then comes a later phase which lasted until about 4000 BC. Tools were now significantly larger.

Did the early mesolithic people leave or die out and were they replaced by newcomers?

There are plenty of questions and not many answers. And with no human remains from this time, it is a bit like chasing ghosts.

The authors of The Book of Invasions are quite transparent about giving the Irish Judaeo-Christian roots, but they also draw on knowledge and folk memory of the time. According to this source, the first people to inhabit Ireland were of the family of Noah. Three ships set sail to escape the flood, though only one arrived safely. In it were Cesair, grand-daughter of Noah, with fifty of her women and three men: Bith, her father, Ladra, the ship’s pilot, and Fionntán.

They came ashore on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry. The story goes that they divided the women between the three men but Bith and Ladra soon died, leaving Fionntán with responsibility for all the women. He fled and Cesair died soon after of a broken heart and all the women with her. Only Fionntán was left and he is said to have lived on for 5500 years, changing shape over time. He lived as a salmon, then an eagle and a hawk, witnessing the events of history so that they could later be written down by historians of such works as The Book of Invasions.

The next people to arrive here fared little better. They were also from central Europe, this time from Greece and led by Partholán, a prince who had killed his father, the king. He came with his three sons who each introduced skills previously unknown in Ireland: the first, hospitality; the second, cooking and duelling and the third, brewing. Their father, meanwhile, cleared four plains, having brought with him the first four oxen. However, they only survived for 550 years before being wiped out by plague, except for one, Tuán mac Cairill, who lived on for many years in various animal guises to be a witness to this time.


THE NEOLITHIC 4000 BC - 2000 BC

And so to neolithic times when, according to the archaeological record, human activity began to alter the face of the landscape. These people came with a new energy. They cut down trees, grew crops, grazed animals and erected huge stone structures or megaliths which were central to the new culture.

In recent years in the Ceide Fields in Mayo, in the west of Ireland, a network of dry-stone walls, dating to around 3000 BC, was discovered beneath the bog. These field walls follow the contours of the hills above the north Mayo coast, covering an area of about four square miles, evidence of a highly organised agricultural society and a large one at that. It is estimated that a group of maybe 300 people came here and established this farming community.

Where did these people come from? How did they manage to bring enough animals - cattle, sheep, goats and pigs - to provide genetically viable groups? And why?

We have assumed that successive groups of people came to Ireland from the east and landed in the east. It was assumed that they came with difficulty in small perilous boats and would have needed to see their destination before they set out - a kind of island-hopping. We have also assumed that the passage cairns of the Boyne Valley in the east were the earliest in the country. It now seems that the Sligo cairns, in the west, may be much older. And as we wake up to the vision and skill of these megalith builders, we realise that they could have travelled any distance they chose with the sky to guide them in boats built with great skill from the forests of Europe and North Africa. And if they settled in the west, it was probably by choice.

Local tradition and the early writings say that both Cesair and Partholan arrived in the west. And, of course, we have the Ceide Fields in Mayo - the biggest neolithic community yet discovered. Perhaps this is where Partholan set to work with his sons. Nor were these neolithic people confined by our shores. Stone axes from Rathlin Island and Antrim have been found from the north of Scotland to the south of England. And English and Welsh axes have been found in Ireland.

According to our mythological history, Nemhedh arrived next with his wife Macha and four sons. They cleared twelve plains and four lakes and he is credited with building a fort in South Armagh (‘Ard Mhacha’, meaning ‘Macha’s height’). And so appears the first of many of Ireland’s deities. Macha has a number of guises but she is very much a northern goddess.

Nemhedh is also credited with lighting the first fire at Uisneach, the centre of Ireland. This is the first mention of conflict with another, already present culture, the Fomoire or Formoriaas. This may be a conflict between the hunter-gatherer mesolithic people and the new neolithic farmers with their earth moving, wallbuilding activity.

We do not know how long the Formorians had been in Ireland but they are cast as giants, demonic and malevolent. They have each only one eye, one arm and one leg. Pushed to the coastal fringes by Nemhedh, they become cruel pirates, collectors of brutal taxes, including the children of their victims. They are said to have cut off the noses of those who could not pay. This tax was collected each Samhain (Halloween), a time when people are vulnerable to incursions from a malevolent Otherworld.

Nemhedh defeated them at first, but eventually after his death, his followers fled, scattered across Europe, some northward, others to Greece. The Formorians remained on the western fringes and they continue to be associated with Tory Island, off the Donegal coast, into modern times.

The next and fourth invasion included three groups, all descended from the followers of Nemhedh who had spent long years in servitude in Greece after their flight from the Formorians. The best known of these were the Fir Bolg.

The Fir Bolg are said to have come to Uisneach, in the centre of Ireland, and from there they divided the country up into its five Cuigedh (fifths) or provinces. The four provinces still radiate out today from that central point at Uisneach, with the fifth division being the land around Westmeath. Each province was ruled by one of five brothers responsible for prosperity, order and justice for all. This formed the basis of sacral kingship, a concept that survives to this day on some of the islands and in certain remote parts of the country.

And so, throughout neolithic times, invasion myths repeat and fall away like incoming waves in a mathematical pattern: the three sons of Parthalón; the four sons of Nemhecth; the five brothers of the Fir Bolg.


The Megaliths

Neolithic people were responsible for the great megaliths, the cairns and temples of prehistory. Archaeologists have called them tombs because they have found cremated bone deposited in them, but they are surely the cathedrals of prehistory. Perhaps people in the future will look at the ruined churches of today and see only the remains of the dead in their special sarcophagi.

It is ironic that they should have come to be associated with the dead when it is much more likely that they were places which ensured the continuity of life. Once you have seen a passage cairn as the belly of the goddess complete with reproductive organs, it is hard to see them in any other light. Small smooth round balls have been found in their recesses, and even decorated phalluses. We can never know the exact nature of their ceremonies, but everything points to an association with rebirth and regeneration, rather than death. It is possible that the bones of their ancestors acted as power objects. Perhaps placing them in the womb of the cairn, where they would be touched by a shaft of sunlight at an especially potent time, ensured the continuing cycle of the year or even the rebirth of that powerful ancestor. Maybe, for some initiates, entering the ‘belly of the goddess’ was part of a potent initiation rite. It is interesting to note that one of these neolithic groups was called the ‘Fir Bolg’ which means the ‘belly men’ or perhaps the ‘people of the goddess’.

All the neolithic megaliths: dolmens, court cairns and passage cairns, have certain things in common. There is a chamber with portals which separates it from the outside world. Often these chambers are roofed in dramatic or seemingly extravagant ways like the cap-stone on Browneshill Dolmen in Carlow, or the great mound of cairn material covering the chamber at Newgrange in Meath. This must have served to further separate the inside space from the outer world. Their astronomical and earth alignments would have further focused the energy inside the chamber, making them potent places indeed.

Sometimes, even from this distance in time, that power still lingers.


THE BRONZE AGE 2000 BC - 300 BC

By 2000 BC metal workers had arrived in Ireland and with them a whole new culture. Most of Ireland’s copper came from Munster. Ross Island in Killarney was the site of the first copper-working and the copper mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel in Cork were a rich source of ore. They would have heated the ore with fires before shattering it with stone mauls and drawing it to the surface. Wealth was measured in cattle and the prestige of bronze artefacts. This would have been a relatively peaceful and prosperous time. These people built stone circles and rows as well as wedge cairns a little lower down than the earlier megaliths, for weather conditions had deteriorated since neolithic times.

Then, between 1159 and 1141 BC, there was a catastrophic weather change. Tree ring readings show us that there was no summer growth for 18 years. This was the time of the fall of Troy, and the beginning of the Dark Ages in Greece. Everything was cold. Nothing ripened.

Around this time we see sacrificial pools, such as the King’s Stables at Armagh. Bronze and gold objects were deposited, as well as animal and human sacrifices. Dark times made people more religious and more warlike. There was a new concern with death and fertility. Large hill-forts began to appear, and crannogs - both places of safety in a dangerous time. Hill-fort walls followed the contours of the hill and were often huge.

By 800 BC society had begun to recover and even grow wealthy. Fabulous objects of beaten gold appear: discs patterned with more discs, sun images upon sun images, and neck ornaments shaped like crescent moons, called ‘lunuli’. The best place to see their work is on the ground floor of the National Museum, Dublin, where a gold collection is on permanent display. The sun discs from Tedavnet in Monaghan have double concentric borders surrounding an equal-armed cross, a universal image which would not be out of place in a Christian church.

But the landscape was undergoing a change. Increased rainfall created waterlogged conditions in the once fertile farmland, now denuded of its forests. Many areas became slowly smothered under a deep blanket of bog.

Modern turf cutting this century has given us a glimpse of what lies hidden. In mid-Ulster, in particular, where the stone circles are often low, there have been some extraordinary finds. At Beaghmore, in County Tyrone, turf cutters have revealed a complex of seven stone circles and at least nine stone alignments. One circle is studded with 884 small stones. At nearby Copney, one circle has been uncovered which had been filled with stones set radially and with a hollow centre which may have held a cist. These seem similar to the radial cairns of Cork and would have been constructed around the same time.

In our mythological cycle these metal workers with their Druidic arts and their new, magical technology, were the Tuatha Dé Danann. They were the Tribe of the Goddess Danu or Anu. Her male counterpart was the Daghdha, the great father. The Tuatha De Danann arrived in a mystic cloud and landed at Lough Corrib, Galway and on the mountain of Sliabh an Iarainn, Leitrim. They brought with them four talismans:

  • The Stone of Destiny or Lia Fal which was used at the inauguration of the kings at Tara. It was said to roar when the rightful king was inaugurated.
  • The Spear of Lugh which would always ensure victory.
  • The Sword of Nuadha from which no-one could escape.
  • The Cauldron of the Daghdha from which no-one would go away unsatisfied.

On their arrival, they demanded the kingship of Ireland from the Fir Bolg. When it was not forthcoming, they fought and beat them in the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh and drove them west into Connacht.

However, in the battle, Nuadha, the king of the Tuatha Dh Danann, lost his arm. It was impossible for the king to have any bodily imperfection, so he gave the kingship to Bres the Beautiful instead. Bres’s father was a Fomorian, though his mother was of the Tuatha Dh Danann. This turned out badly as Bres did not display any of the kingly virtues besides his physical beauty. He was neither hospitable nor generous, and he humiliated the Daghdha and Oghma by setting them to work building his fort and collecting wood for his fire.

In the meantime, the tribe’s healer, Dian Cécht, had made a silver arm for Nuadha. The fingers moved and it was much admired, but one of Dian Chcht’s sons, Miach, was a better healer than his father and he decided to try and restore the king’s own arm. He took it and brought it to him and set it against his body with incantations. The first day he put it against his side and the second day against his breast, until it was covered with skin. The third day he took bulrushes blackened on the fire to put on it and after that, the king’s hand was completely healed. However, Miach’s father, Dian Cecht, was angry with his son for performing a better cure than he could and he killed him. Herbs grew up from his grave, 365 of them over each joint and sinew, according to their usage. Miach’s sister spread her cloak and collected the herbs carefully, laying them in order so that she would know their use. But Dian Cécht discovered what she was doing and mixed them up. The knowledge was lost and to this day has not been found.

Meanwhile Nuadha, being whole again, wanted to take back the kingship from Bres as he was proving such an unworthy successor. But Bres was not willing to give up his position and he went to the Formorians, his other kin, for help. This time Nuadha and the Tuatha Dé Danann had to fight the Formorians and Bres. But help was at hand. It was at this moment that Lugh appeared at Uisneach, while Nuadha and his household were gathered waiting for the Formorians to come and collect their taxes.

‘Lugh’ means ‘the Shining One’, and he saves his people. He is always young and handsome, and associated with wealth and abundance. His festival is Lughnasa, the harvest time of year when young people go berry-picking, dance and make love. His epithet, ‘Lamhthada’, means long-armed and, like the Indian god Savitar of the Wide Hand, it means he has great power and generosity.

His grandfather was Balor, the chief of the Formorians, whose stronghold was on Tory Island off the coast of Donegal. Balor had been told that he would die at the hands of his grandson, so he kept his daughter Eithne imprisoned in a tower on the island so that she would not come into contact with any men and so could bear no children. Of course it did not work and she conceived triplets with Cian, another of the sons of Dian Cecht. When Balor discovered his grandchildren, he ordered them to be drowned but Lugh was rescued and fostered by Manannan mac Lir, the Son of the Ocean. Lugh came of age just in time to rescue his father Cian’s people from certain defeat at the hands of the Formorians as Nuadha tried to win back the kingdom of Ireland from Bres.

Back at Uisneach Lugh was at first refused entry to the king’s palace even though he identified himself in turn as a smith, a wright, a warrior, a musician and more. Each time he was told that the tribe already possessed someone with that skill. It was only when he said that he possessed all these skills together that he was allowed to enter. Nuadha then challenged Lugh to play chess. When Lugh had won every game, he was allowed into the king’s household and after proving himself the Oghma’s equal in strength, Lugh showed his skill as a harper by moving the company to laughter, tears and finally to sleep. After this, he was given the kingship of Ireland so that he could lead the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Formorians. The battle was called the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh.

The Tuatha Dé Danann used all their magical arts to help win the battle. And Lugh came face to face with Balor, his grandfather. Balor’s eye was so great that it took four men to raise the lid and when it was uncovered, its venomous gaze could kill. Lugh cast a sling-shot straight into the eye which drove it right to the back of his head from where it disabled Balor’s own army. Balor died, the prophesy was fulfilled and the Tuatha Dé Danann won the battle. The Formorians were expelled from Ireland forever and Bres escaped with his life in exchange for advice on the best times for ploughing, sowing and reaping.

And so Ireland prospered for many years with Lugh as king, the perfect embodiment of divine authority. In time he seems to have been replaced by the Daghdha and he becomes a shadowy figure, occasionally encountered when some wrong needed to be righted or some wisdom given. This was a time of prosperity when humans and gods were still closely related and both moved easily between the seen and unseen worlds. But then came the next invasion. This time it was the Milesians, or sons of Mil. They came originally from Asia Minor where they had lived for thousands of years.


IRON AGE 300 BC - 500 AD

It is generally accepted that the new wave of Celtic migration reached Ireland around 300 BC and with it the new iron technology. These newcomers are associated with the so-called royal sites or centres of ceremony and administration - Emhain Macha in Armagh, Dun Ailinne in Kildare, Tara in Meath, Rathcroghan in Roscommon and, of course, Uisneach. There are some 30,000 ring-forts or fairy forts in Ireland dating to this time. These were Iron Age farmsteads, some built in stone where it was plentiful or where status or enmity demanded, but most had earth banks, probably topped with a wooden palisade. Many were in use up until medieval times (not to be confused with the Bronze Age hillforts). They also built long earthworks which have been thought of as boundaries, such as the Dorsey and the Black Pig’s Dyke, as well as track-ways across the bog, like the Corlea track-way in Longford. Ornamented ritual stones, like the Turoe and Castlestrange stones, are also of this period as well as many carved stone heads. Ogham (pronounced om) writing evolved around 300 AD. It was based on the Roman alphabet and remained in use till the 7th century.

There is a sense now of kinship groups and families living in separate homesteads, of regional centres of power, boundaries and communication networks. This fits in with the mythological stories of this time.

The sons of Mil, called the Milesians or Gaels, are said to have landed in the south west of Ireland at the feast of Beltaine. At Sliabh Mis in Kerry they met Banba, a queen of the Tuatha De Danann and wife of Mac Cuill, Son of the Hazel, with her Druids. Some time later, they met a second queen and she was Fodhla, wife of Mac Cecht, Son of the Plough. And when they came to Uisneach, they met Eriu, wife of Mac Greine, Son of the Sun.

They travelled on to Tara and found these three grandsons of the Daghdha, who shared the kingship of Ireland, quarrelling among themselves. The Milesians were surprised at this as all about them was so rich and prosperous, so they challenged them to give up the kingship or fight for it. The three kings were not ready to fight, so the sons of Mil made an offer. They returned to their ships and sailed out the length of nine waves from the shore. It was agreed that if they could land again, in spite of any enchantments the Tuatha De Danann could make against them, then the kingdom would be theirs.

At first the Tuatha Dé Danann raised a storm against their ships. The ship of Donn, one of the sons of Mil, perished, as it was said that he had not given proper respect to Eriu when they met earlier at Uisneach. In the end, five of their ships were destroyed and only three were left. Then Amhairghin called out to Eriu, asking that they might come to her again, and the storm abated. He was the first to put foot on the shore this second time and as he did so, he sang to her:

I am the wind on the sea;
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock;
I am a flash from the sun;
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who spreads the light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?

- Lady Gregory’.s Complete Irish Mythology

Then Amhairghin and the Milesians crossed Ireland and, though they had battles to fight, they had won acceptance from the spirit of the land in the form of the three goddesses (queens) and the number of their dead was slight compared to the Tuatha Dé Danann. The final defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann came about at Tailtiu (now Teltown, Meath), home of the great earth goddess of that name. She is said to be the foster-mother of Lugh who instigated the first festival and games there at harvest, later to be known as Lughnasa.

In spite of the Milesian victory, the Tuatha Dé Danann still held power over the land and they withheld her fertility till the Gaels made a settlement with them. The Tuatha Dé Danann took the underworld and the Daghdha, their leader, divided the hills and cairns among them. And so they retreated from the seen world and became the goddesses and gods, or fairy people of later times.

The time of the Milesians or Gaels is the time of the great heroic tales. But above these is the constant presence of the Goddess in her various guises. Maebh is probably the best known and associated with Tara and the high kingship as well as Cruachain in Connacht. There is Macha in Ulster, Boand by the Boyne, Aine in Munster and the Cailleach Bearra, Aoibheall and Cliodna in the south west. Also there are the three great Goddesses of war: Morrighan, Badhbh and Nemhain who personify frenzy and destruction as well as transformation and regeneration.

The Ulster Cycle, also called The Heroic Cycle, and first written down in the 7th century, tells of the deeds of COchulainn and the Red Branch Knights and the great feud between Connacht and Ulster, called the Tam Ba Cuailnge. The stories of Fionn and the Fianna are from this time. The Fianna are a band of heroes in the same Romantic tradition as the Knights of Arthur. They hunt across Ireland righting wrongs and coming up against the magical arts of the beautiful women of the sidhe. Finally OisIn, Fionn’s son, and his companion, Caoilte Mac Ronan, live on into Christian times, just long enough to travel with Patrick and tell him all that went before.


The High Kings of Tara

The Gaels or Celts stayed faithful to the goddess through her sacred marriage to the king. The most famous of these ceremonies was the Feis Tembra, the feis at Tara, where for many years the land of Ireland was personified by the goddess Maebh. She was the consort of no less than nine high kings. No one could be high king without her approval.

A Tarbhfheis was also called for in choosing the high king. This involved the killing of a bull. The meat and broth was then eaten by someone who would sleep with Druids chanting over him while he dreamt of the next king. Finally, the Stone of Destiny would cry out when the right king was inaugurated.

Long after the stone ceased to be used, Brian Boru used it again in the 10th century to add credence to his claim to the high kingship. It was said to have cried out then for the last time in Ireland. Across Ireland every tuath or small territory had its sacred stone, representing the spirit of place, upon which every local chief was brought to power. The power of the inauguration stone lasted right into the 17th century. When Elizabeth I sent Mountjoy against Hugh O’Neill (Ui Néill), the last Gaelic chief of Ireland to hold out against the English crown, Mountjoy went to Tullyhogue in Tyrone and smashed the inauguration stone of the O’Neills. This marked the end of sacral kingship in Ireland and the end of the O’Neills.

But to go back to the Iron Age... Roman power was gradually declining towards the end of the 3rd century and Britain had fallen prey to attacks from those closest to her borders. Irish chieftains were raiding across the water and expanding their territories eastward. The kingdom of Dalriada in the north-east extended into northern Britain and Scotland, creating a route for some of the first Irish missionaries.

Most famous of raiders was Niall of the Nine Hostages who is said to have controlled land through hostages taken from the Scots, Saxons, Britons and French, as well as Irish. He is credited with capturing the young Patrick and bringing him back to Ireland as a slave in the middle of the 5th century.

By the 5th century Ireland was divided between the two strongest families, the Ui Néill, sons of Niall, in the north and the Eoghanachta, based at Cashel in the south. For roughly the next five centuries this divide replaced the old five provinces and the Ui Néill ruled at Tara till displaced by Brian Boru in 1002.


Early Christian Ireland 400 AD - 800 AD

We know there were Christians in Ireland early in the 5th century, for Pope Celestine I sent Palladius to be their bishop in 431. These early Christians made converts and built the first churches on land given to them by local rulers.

There are accounts of their adventures and the miraculous feats they performed in most local lore. Sometimes their challenges backfired and they had to flee for their lives. But these events are remembered across the country where Christian faith caused wells to spring up and the imprints of saints’ knees or feet to appear in stone. These eatly converts understood the power of place in peoples’ lives so it was natural for them to build churches on sacred sites, blessing the wells and carving symbols of the new religion on the old stones. And so, quite naturally, a new mythology of place began to overlay the old.

Patrick escaped a life of servitude in Ireland and went to Europe where he became a priest. By the time he returned to Ireland, there would already have been many converts to the new faith with Palladius as their bishop. Small groups of Christians in rural Ireland had naturally evolved into autonomous communities - a monastic system. Patrick took as his mission the spread of Christianity across the country. He founded many churches, each time leaving them in the care of a trusted follower. His name is linked to churches everywhere and, while he probably did not found them all, his influence was certainly widespread.

Patrick also focused his attention on places of power. We see him challenging the High King at Tara when he lit the pascal fire at Slane. Across Ireland at that other great seat of power, he is said to have converted the King at Cashel with his illustration of the Trinity, using a shamrock. He was even said to have fasted against God for forty days and nights on Croagh Patrick in a clever mix of Celtic and Christian tradition which won him responsibility for the souls of the Irish at the Day ofJudgement. In exchange, he tried to banish the pagan spirit of Ireland in the form of a great serpent. In this he was less successful. (It was an old Celtic tradition to petition for a change of heart from a more powerful opponent by fasting outside their dwelling till they relented. This accounts, in part, for the power of the hunger-strike in the modern Irish psyche.)

Many Christian concepts must have seemed quite familiar to a 5th century Irish population. At the centre was the Sun King, the Son of God, magician and leader of his tribe. Lugh was just such a figure, personification of the sun, perfect hero and saviour of his people.

The standing stone already had a magical function as a link between worlds. The famous Crom Dubh, covered with gold and silver, and smashed by Patrick as he challenged the old gods, was one of these. It is now in the Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff. In early Christian stonework the Christ figure was represented with outstretched arms joining heaven and earth, bridging the great divide, also forming a link between worlds. He is smiling and relaxed, fully clothed and exuding love and compassion. The 500 year evolution from this to the monumental stone crosses of the 12th century, with their emphasis on the crucifixion and suffering, illustrates the journey from Celtic to Medieval Christianity.


The Sacred Tree

The Sacred Tree was already familiar. In Celtic myth all trees have special virtues. The hazel by the sacred well at the centre of the world dropped berries into the water. To eat one of these was to gain the wisdom of the goddess. These berries had been eaten by the salmon, hence its spots and hence the Salmon of Knowledge.

As the berries dropped in the water, it bubbled. These bubbles were called ‘na bolcca immaise’ or the ‘bubbles of mystic inspiration’. All wells were linked to this one at the centre of the world so that the magic could happen, or the salmon appear at any of them.

Many stories from the lives of the early saints show a great reverence for trees, following the Celtic tradition. Such was Colmcille’s respect for the oak trees of Derry that, rather than cut them down, he allowed the first church to be built without an east-west orientation.

There were five sacred trees in Ireland from prehistoric times, each with different virtues. Stories of the lives of Saints Molaise and Moling both tell of the fall of EO Rossa, the yew tree of Ross in Carlow. The 12th century Book of Leinster contains a litany recounting the tree’s virtues in metaphor. The saints treated the wood with great respect. Moling used a portion of it to roof his oratory.

The monastery at Lorrha founded by St Ruadhán in the 6th century became one of Munster’s most famous monasteries on account of the Tree of St Ruadhán. It was reputed to give enough food to sustain all the monks at the monastery and visitors as well. Its fame continued into medieval times.


The Golden Age

While Europe was experiencing its Dark Age from 600 to 800 AD, it was a golden age in Ireland. Some saints founded hermitages in remote places, on islands in the far west. The monastery on Skellig Michael was founded around 600 AD on a cone of rock, 8 miles off the Kerry coast. Even today it is often inaccessible. The cluster of beehive huts is reached up slate steps 700 feet above sea level. It is a magnificent place, but only people driven by spirit would contemplate living there.

However, most of the early saints chose populated areas on fertile land beside roads and waterways. A typical monastery before 800 AD would have included a small wooden church with an enclosure of domestic buildings to the west. Stone remains from this period would be cross-inscribed pillar stones such as the Reask pillar in Kerry. The abbot or spiritual leader of this monastery might well have been the local chief who ruled over, and was responsible for, all within his domain. His sons would have succeeded him. Some were ordained, some not. Many were married. The chief was patron and the fortunes of the monastery would rise and fall with their chief. In many ways this left the monks free to pursue a spiritual life without having to be responsible for temporal matters.

It was a time of purity of vision, of art and learning. Students in Ireland were studying and preserving what was being lost in Europe. Manuscripts were written, initially in Latin, later in Irish, on spiritual and secular subjects: gospels, nature study, liturgy and legends. Irish monks went abroad as missionaries to places in Europe where Christianity had become weakened and corrupt. As monasteries grew in the 7th century, the practice of illuminating manuscripts spread. The 7th century Book of Durrow is a copy of St Jerome’s Vulgate and illuminated in the La Téne style with curvilinear abstracts, tightly coiled spirals, and interlacing. Monks became skilled at metal-work and enamelling.

At this time Pope Gregory was concerned that the Irish church was out of step with Rome. The dating of Easter was a sore point. In 625 AD the Council of Nicaea had decreed that the date of Easter was to be standardised throughout the Christian world. The Celtic church was very reluctant to conform. Eventually the south of England, led by Canterbury, conformed. Ireland and the north of England only followed suit in 664 AD, after it was accepted at the Council of Whitby. This marked a triumph for conformity over individuality and a defeat for Celtic Christianity. Ever since then, Easter Day has been celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox.

In the absence of towns, the monasteries grew in importance and sometimes held the balance of secular power. They became centres of population, trade and politics, as well as learning, craftsmanship and religion. They began to accept gifts of money and land, and rivalry between powerful Celtic families drew them into conflicts. For the first time, a battle over land quarrels is reported in the Annals. By the 8th century there was a slow decline in purity and strength of purpose.

The Céli Dé movement was formed to try to rekindle the spirit of the earlier monasteries. Important sites such as Armagh, Kells and Clonmacnois started building stone churches. This was also the time of the first purpose-built carved stone crosses.

An attempt was made to centralise power again at Armagh and this seems to have involved a revival of interest in the role of St Patrick and his connection with Armagh.

However, towards the end of the 8th century the Viking raids began and for the next 50 years their coastal raids overrode all other concerns. By the middle of the 9th century, they had established bases on inland lakes and had begun plundering the heartland. Here is a verse penned at the time:

Bitter is the wind tonight
As the sea’s hair is tossed white,
On a night like this I have no fear
Of fierce sea roving warriors.

There were many atrocities but folk memory still shudders at Ota, whose husband Turgesius led a raid against Clonmacnois. She is said to have desecrated the high altar by using it for pagan oracles. In 867 AD the northern Ui Néill took on the Vikings with the help of the Bachall fosa (the Staff ofJesus) and a Relic of thefl Cross. All settlements north of Dublin were destroyed. Central and southern Ireland now took the brunt of the raiding, but at least the country as a whole was no longer in danger of being conquered. By 880 AD unrest at home in Norway created a lull in the raids.

The last hundred years had taken a heavy toll. The art of illuminating manuscripts did not survive and metalwork and enamelling also suffered a decline. Only stone carving continued to develop. The scriptural crosses were carved towards the end of the 9th and into the 10th centuries.

Another effect of the raids was the huge increase in Irish monks crossing to Europe, often with books and other valuables, to save themselves and their possessions from destruction. Unlike the 7th century missionaries, these monks did not set up their own religious houses, because Europe was in recovery now and had a new diocesan system. The Irish monks had to fit in and some were accused of heresy, but their learning, their manuscripts and their art contributed to the cultural life of Europe and they wrote on a wide range of subjects. By the second half of the 9th century, they were renowned across Europe.

Early in the 10th century the Norse renewed their attacks. This time the Dal Cais in Clare took them on. The long bitter struggle that followed, lasting until the end of the century, created a folk hero out of one of the Dal Cais brothers, Brian. He went on to take Munster from the Eoghanacht and Tara from the Ui Néill, becoming High King. His full title was Brian Boromha (pronounced Boru) and he had united the country for the first time in centuries. However, in his last battle, fought at Clontarf to curb Viking dominance in Dublin, he was killed minutes after victory. The year was 1014.

There followed a time of unrest in Ireland with different families vying for control. Monasteries grew wealthier. Some were ruled by hereditary coarbs. These coarbs were traditionally descended from the original followers or servants of the founding saint. They were often lay, and corruption was rife. The Norse had mostly become Christian but they wanted their own bishops and institutions. By the end of the 11th century, there were calls for reform and the setting up of a diocesan system along European lines.

One of the leaders of this reform was the new Bishop of Armagh, Malachy.

Over time a new system was put in place with Armagh, Tuam, Cashel and Dublin as the four diocesan centres. It seems to have been a time of revitalisation as the effects of the reforms were finally felt: round towers were being built and high crosses carved. These new crosses showed newly important bishops carved in stone alongside images of Christ. There was a new interest in pilgrimage and in relics, and fine metal shrines were produced to house them. However, Malachy is remembered not for this, but for introducing the first Cistercian monks to Ireland. He had stayed with Bernard of Clairvaux while travelling to Rome and was so impressed that he left some of his monks there. In 1142 Malachy’s monks returned home with some of Bernard’s Cistercian monks and a French architect to build the first Cistercian abbey at Mellifont. By the time the huge building was consecrated in 1157 with an assembly of kings and bishops, a number of daughter abbeys had already been founded.

Mellifont was built in the new Romanesque style and other examples quickly followed. They had round-headed doorways, multiple arches and windows, all carved with designs from a variety of cultures: Celtic, Greek, Roman, Scandinavian and Oriental. Western Europe was being influenced by travel along the trade routes following the crusades. Art and architecture were particularly influenced. Oriental faces began to appear on Romanesque buildings.

Cormac’s chapel at Cashel in Tipperary is our finest Romanesque building.

The medieval imagination is brought alive in the stonecarving of the Romanesque period when Sheela-na-Gigs, Mouthpullers, Mouth-spewers and figures from the medieval bestiaries appeared, incorporated into ecclesiastic architecture.

The Cistercians were soon followed by the other European orders: the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans. Monks flocked to join them, attracted by their strict rule and aesthetic idealism and especially by their freedom from local power and corruption. Celtic eclectic monasticism seemed to have run its course. Some of the old monasteries were absorbed by these new orders. Others became cathedrals ruled by bishops and some became parish churches. Some still flourish in towns and cities throughout the country. Others now lie deserted.

Around the same time as the consecration of Mellifont, Pope Adrian IV granted the overlordship of Ireland to Henry II of England, giving him freedom to send his Norman barons to Ireland. Thus began the Norman occupation which was to replace much of Irish tribal society with medieval feudalism. Their architectural legacy was the Norman castle, while their descendants dominated Leinster in the east and the rich lands of Munster in the south.

The move from Romanesque to Gothic was later in Ireland than in Europe. Boyle Abbey in Roscommon is a fine example of Transitional style, built in 1161, with both round-headed and blunt pointed arches.

By the late medieval period there were still some monasteries being built, now in the Gothic style. The Franciscan Kilconnell Abbey, founded in 1400, is a fine example. There followed a period of medieval stone carving and figure sculpture in Ireland which peaked between about 1480 and 1560. The greatest of these carvings are in Kilkenny, with the best single collection at St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny city.

In England in 1534, Henry VIII made himself supreme head of the Church, thus removing the ultimate authority of the Pope over spiritual and doctrinal matters. This was soon extended to Ireland where Henry made himself head of the established Church of Ireland. The Reformation was sweeping across Europe at this time. There were demands for reform within the church and an end to corrupt practices and the misuse of wealth. Anti-clerical feeling was strong. This meant that, particularly in England, in spite of his opposition to these reformers, and his obvious personal motives, Henry found a certain support for his new role. Monasteries across England and Ireland were ‘dissolved’ and their wealth transferred to the English crown. The anti-clerical reform movement was not strong in Ireland, however, and the established Church of Ireland with Henry as its head, was really only accepted by those loyal to the English crown. In some places local landowners rented monastic buildings back from the king and the monks continued much as before.

The 16th and 17th centuries were turbulent times. In the middle of the 16th century, between 1563 and 1585, the powerful Norman Geraldine family rebelled against English rule. The rebellion failed and their lands were tranferred to new English Protestant settlers in 1586.

By the end of the century, the last of the Gaelic chiefs were crushed in Ulster. The Nine Years’ War ended with their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale and their flight from Ireland in 1603. This was known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’. Their land, and that of their followers, was granted to new Protestant, English and Scottish settlers which extended the English feudal system into the heart of Ulster. This resulted, particularly in Ulster, in a polarisation along religious and political lines that would mirror the new religious divide between Protestant and Catholic in 17th century Europe. Cromwellian excesses in the middle of the 17th century remain imprinted on the folk memory in Ireland.

Roman Catholicism remained the religion of the native Irish. It was suppressed until 1829. In spite of this, it has continued as the dominant religion in Ireland and after 1829, new churches were built and continue to be built up to the present time. The Anglican Church in Ireland, called the ‘Church of Ireland’, generally retained the old churches, many of which were built on early monastic sites which, in turn, were built on even more ancient sacred sites. In areas where there were significant numbers of Scottish settlers, Presbyterian churches were built from the 17th century.

A small number of these churches are mentioned in this guide. There are hundreds more, far too many to mention here but many that are well worth visiting.

All places where people seek the Divine become sacred places.

 

CONTENTS

A note from the author
How to use this book
Irish Words used in Place Names
Helpful Definitions of Terms
Introduction
Myth and History: the Origins of the Sacred Landscape
Goddesses, Gods and Pilgrimage in Ireland

PROVINCE OF ULSTER

Armagh
Monaghan
Cavan
Fermanagh
Donegal
Tyrone
Derry
Antrim
Down

PROVINCE OF LEINSTER

Westmeath
Longford
Meath
Louth
Wicklow
Wexford
Kilkenny
Carlow
Kildare
Laois
Offaly

PROVINCE OF MUNSTER

Limerick
Clare
Tipperary
Waterford
Cork
Kerry

PROVINCE OF CONNACHT

Roscommon
Galway
Mayo
Sligo
Leitrim

Bibliography

Index



 

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Traveller's Guide to Sacred England

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The Traveller's Guide to Sacred England - click to read a sample

The Traveller's Guide
to Sacred England

A guide to the legends, lore and landscape
of England's sacred places

John Michell


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Sample two:

GLASTONBURY: England's Jerusalem


Ynis Witrin, the Glassy Isle, was the old British name for Glastonbury, and in earlier times it was indeed an island, rising dramatically above an inland sea which has since given way to the marshes and flat meadows of Somerset. The landscape is dominated by Glastonbury's conical hill, the Tor, surmounted by a church tower.

Pilgrims are drawn toward it from afar, and as one approaches one becomes aware of a peculiar change in the atmosphere: The light intensifies and takes on a quality unique to Glastonbury. It can scarcely be described, but the experience is unforgettable. Glastonbury is a famous sanctuary, a place of magic and legend, and the cause of its reputation is soon apparent to visitors. There is a natural enchantment to the place that has affected people in all ages and makes it appropriate for Glastonbury to be called the English Jerusalem.

Modern Glastonbury is a small country town, population 7000, brick built and architecturally undistinguished. Its ancient treasures are well hidden. One can drive through Glastonbury in a few minutes without being aware that behind its long, straggling High Street lie the ruins of a great abbey built upon "the holiest ground in England." It is the resting place of saints, the first Christian shrine in England, and the center of a network of sanctity that links prehistoric sites far across the countryside. Here is Avalon, island of the blessed dead, gateway to the spirit realm. Legends of all ages have their settings in the surrounding landscape, where secluded spots by streams, groves, and hills are haunted by the memories of ancient saints and heroes. Every generation adds to the stock of Glastonbury lore, for the spirit of the place links past with present, and its mystical attractions are as powerful today as they have always been. Thus the legends of pagan gods, Christian visionaries, and Arthurian knights, for which Glastonbury has long been famous, are constantly augmented by fresh experiences and discoveries relating to the mysteries of Avalon.

The longer one spends at Glastonbury and the deeper one's reading about it, the more fascinating it becomes. There are stories of people who have gone there for brief visits and stayed on for the rest of their lives!


GLASTONBURY ABBEY: Joseph of Arimathea in England

A medieval gateway on Magdalen Street leads to a green meadow that is the heart of Glastonbury. There stand the gray stone ruins of what was once the greatest religious house in England. It is a charming spot even to those who do not know its history, but its supreme importance as a place of pilgrimage is due to its unique foundation legend which, if literally true, makes Glastonbury the site of the world's first Christian church.

The locus of that legend is the delicately sculptured, late twelfth-century building at the west end of the abbey, the Chapel of St. Mary. It is also called the St. Joseph Chapel because it is on the spot where St. Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus, is said to have built a church of wood and wattles shortly after the Crucifixion.

The story of St. Joseph is that he was a tin merchant who traded with the Cornish miners, and on one of his visits to western Britain he was accompanied by his Nephew. That is an old belief among the Cornish, immortalized in William Blake's poem, ("And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green?"). Later St. Joseph returned to England as a Christian missionary, leading a party of twelve from the Holy Land. Navigating the Somerset waterways, he landed at Pilton, a few miles east of Glastonbury (where a modern banner in the church commemorates the event). He then proceeded to Wearyall Hill, overlooking the site of the abbey, where he planted his staff – which miraculously burst into leaf and became the sacred Glastonbury thorn tree. The local king, Arviragus, made him a grant of land, and there the missionaries settled, dwelling in circular cells in a ring around the wattle church.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that in very early times, long before the Roman Church was known in England, the paramount sanctity of the Celtic Christian shrine at Glastonbury was generally acknowledged. Before the fire that destroyed the abbey in 1184, the library at Glastonbury contained documents with reference to its foundation. These were inspected in about 1130 by a scholarly monk, William of Malmesbury, and incorporated in his work On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury. Later chroniclers added to it, but the original text bears witness to the unique history of the place. Citing ancient records, William stated that "the church at Glastonbury did none other men's hands make, but actual disciples of Christ built it." Further, he wrote:

The church of which we speak is commonly called by the Saxons the Old Church on account of its antiquity. It was the first formed of wattles, and from the beginning breathed and was redolent of a mysterious divine sanctity which spread throughout the country. The actual building was insignificant but it was so holy. Waves of common people thronging thither flooded every path; rich men laid aside their state to gather there, and men of learning and piety assembled there in great numbers. . . The resting place of so many saints is deservedly called a heavenly sanctuary on earth.

At medieval church councils, where the question of precedence was important and was keenly disputed, the Abbot of Glastonbury was allowed priority over all other delegates on account of the antiquity of his church's foundation. Nor did he have to rely upon the legend of St. Joseph; documentary evidence, referred to by William of Malmesbury, proved that the Old Church had been rededicated in the year 166, at the behest of King Lucius, by legates of Eleutherias, the thirteenth pope after St. Peter.


Glastonbury and Her Saints

St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, by tradition responsible for converting the Irish to Christianity, ended his days as Abbot of Glastonbury. When he died at the age of Ill, his holy relics became Glastonbury's greatest asset. They attracted, many pilgrims from Ireland, including St. Bridget, who settled not far from the abbey at Beckery, and priestly scholars and philosophers from throughout Celtic Christendom. St. David of Wales arrived in Glastonbury with a retinue of bishops, intending to reconsecrate the church, but he was warned in a vision that the site had already been dedicated by Jesus Christ Himself to His Virgin Mother, so St. David fulfilled his mission by building an oratory to the east of the Old Church.

Groundplan of Glastonbury Abbey

Undisturbed by Viking raiders, the Glastonbury monks accumulated an awesome collection of saintly bones and mementos, causing their shrine to flourish as a popular place of pilgrimage. Saxon governments followed the British in respecting its sanctity, and the shrine continued to prosper under Norman rule. The autonomy of Glastonbury, as a place too sacred to be subject to secular control or taxation, was confirmed in the Domesday Book. By that time the abbey estates had expanded far beyond the original twelve hides of land (1440 acres) granted by Aviragus to St. Joseph, but the land surrounding the abbey was still known as the Twelve Hides, and within its boundaries the abbot enjoyed absolute sovereignty. His Church of St. Peter and St. Paul had grown from St. David's oratory east of the Old Church to become the largest and most richly endowed in England.


Destruction by Fire and the Finding of King Arthur

The most precious of Glastonbury's relics were the remains of St. Joseph's original wattle church. In the seventh century the old structure was preserved within a timber building roofed with lead. Its interior was filled with sacred objects and, according to William of Malmesbury, it was held in such religious awe that no one dared keep watch there at night or commit an unseemly act in its vicinity.

On the night of May 25, 1184, the glory of Glastonbury suddenly departed. A fire swept through the abbey and spread to the Old Church, which was reduced to ashes. Efforts were made to locate some of the most important relics, such as the bones of St. Patrick and St. Dunstan, and the present Chapel of St. Mary was built on the sacred foundations of its predecessor. Architecturally, the abbey soon regained its splendor, but its reputation as a place of pilgrimage was much diminished. Then it was restored a few years after the fire by the dramatic discovery, sixteen feet below the surface of the burial ground to the south of the abbey, of two ancient oak coffins containing the bones of a large man and a woman with strands of golden hair still attached to her skull. Also found was an inscribed leaden cross, identifying the bodies as those of King Arthur, whose traditional place of burial was Avalon, or Glastonbury, and Queen Guinevere. The place of honor where they were later reburied, at the center of the abbey church, is marked today by an inscription.


The Fall of Glastonbury Abbey

From the twelfth century to the sixteenth century each successive abbot added to the magnificent range of abbey buildings. Still intact is the octagonal Abbot's Kitchen, built early in the fourteenth century, which stands in the abbey grounds and is now a museum. Beyond it, at the corner of Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane, is the abbey's tithe barn, built in about 1420, where produce from the abbey estates was garnered. This splendid, well-preserved timber and carved-stone building in the ecclesiastical style is open to the public as a museum of rural life. Its nobly worked fabric testifies to the medieval wealth of the abbey.

With the growing tendency toward centralized government in England, the independent power of the Church began to be seen as an anomaly. Areas of economic independence, such as Glastonbury under its abbots, were no longer tolerated. In 1539 the last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was visited by agents of Henry VIII, who sought an excuse for confiscating his possessions. Nothing serious could be found against him, but he was accused of concealing abbey treasures, arrested, and brought to trial. His sentence was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and on November 15 Whiting and two of his monks were taken to the summit of the Tor, where their bodies were suspended on gallows in full view of the countryside. Parts of the abbot's body were distributed for exhibition in various cities as a warning against disobedience to the authorities.


Lost Treasures of Glastonbury and the Restoration Prophecy

The seizure of its assets and the dispersal of its monks reduced the abbey to an empty shell, and it soon fell into ruin. Its stones were sold off in cartloads for local construction purposes; many of them can still be found in buildings in and around Glastonbury. More completely lost are the manuscripts, reliquaries, and other treasures which Abbot Whiting was accused of hiding. No doubt he actually did so. Glastonbury underground is honeycombed with tunnels and crevasses, mostly sealed up and uninvestigated. Monks are notoriously fond of secret hiding places, and it may well be that objects of great intrinsic and historic value are awaiting their future revelation in Glastonbury's hidden recesses.

The Glastonbury cross, which marked the burial place of King Arthur, passed into private hands at the Reformation and was then lost. In 1981 it made a tantalizingly brief reappearance. Council workmen excavating a site near Waltham Abbey in Essex dug it from the ground and, not knowing what it was, gave it to a local man with an interest in antiquities. He took it for identification to the British Museum but refused to leave it there. When ordered by the courts to return it to the owner of the land where it had been found, he chose to go to prison rather than comply. After a few months he was released, still retaining the secret of the whereabouts of the Glastonbury cross.

Surpassing all other hidden treasures at Glastonbury is the sacramental vessel that St. Joseph was said to have brought with him from the Holy Land. It was the cup used at the Last Supper, and it had held the blood of Christ that dripped from the cross. This most sacred of objects, the Holy Grail, is said to have been buried at Glastonbury with the body of St. Joseph on Chalice Hill, which lies between the abbey and the Tor. It is traditionally believed that one day the Grail will be rediscovered, and then will follow the fulfillment of ancient prophecies that identify Glastonbury as the place of a spiritual and cultural renaissance. The power of those prophecies gives the country around Glastonbury its special character as the Holy Land of England.


The Stonehenge Connection

In one of the traditional Welsh bardic verses, the Triads, Glastonbury is named as one of the old perpetual choirs of Britain. "The choir of Ambrosius," or Stonehenge, was another, and a third was at the place now called Llantwit Major in South Wales. At these sites choirs of holy men maintained a constant liturgical chant which varied over the seasons and cycles. This was in times long before Christianity, when an archaic priesthood sanctified its society by keeping human activities in tune with the rhythms of the cosmos. Thus the traditional sanctity of Glastonbury goes far back into pagan times.

Another ancient link with Stonehenge is demonstrated in the planning of Glastonbury's religious buildings. St. Benedict's Church, on Benedict Street, two hundred yards west of the abbey, has the same orientation as the abbey and lies on the extension of its axis. The same axis line, continued eastward, passes through the archway to the abbey house and along a road called Dod Lane that becomes a footpath over the flank of Chalice Hill. Sixteen miles further east the line goes over a hilltop church, St. Michael at Gare Hill, and thence toward Stonehenge.

Dod Lane, which falls on the line and was a straight trackway up to a few years ago, is a form of Dead Man's Lane. Its name suggests that it was part of an ancient spirit path by which the souls of the dead passed from the old temple westward to Avalon and the other world.

Groundplan of Mary Chapel

Glastonbury's foundation myth provides another link with Stonehenge. After the fire of 1184, the monks rebuilt the Chapel of St. Mary on the foundations of the previous building, which contained, and preserved the dimensions of, St. Joseph's wattle church. From that clue, together with the legendary grant of twelve hides of land made to St. Joseph's party, one can reconstruct the original foundation plan of Glastonbury.

The figure shows the plan of the St. Mary Chapel and the scheme of geometry which develops from it. The width of the chapel, 39.6 feet, means that the side of the outer square is 79.2 feet in length, and the area contained by that square is equal to one ten-thousandth part of 1440 acres. There are 120 acres in one hide of land, so 1440 acres is the area of the twelve hides of Glastonbury. In this diagram the twelve hides are represented on a scale of 1:10,000.

Comparison of this diagram with the plan of Stonehenge (page 104) shows that the two are essentially the same. Here once more the Stonehenge-Glastonbury link is hinted at. Its meaning can only be surmised, but it prompts the suggestion that Glastonbury Abbey was once the site of a temple, similar to Stonehenge and of much the same period, about 2000 B.C. It is recognized that many Christian legends are restatements of earlier pagan traditions, and it may be that the legend of St. Joseph's settlement at Glastonbury echoes a previous tale of Glastonbury's foundation by Druidic saints or divinities.


The Tor and its Labyrinth

The summit of Glastonbury Tor, the highest spot on the Isle of Avalon, is reached by the Pilgrim's Path along its spine. It offers a magnificent view of the countryside for miles around; on a clear day one can see the mountains of South Wales. Other landmarks are indicated on a plaque by the ruined tower which crowns the Tor.

The tower is all that remains of the Church of St. Michael, which in the fourteenth century replaced an earlier church on the site. Excavation in the 1960s exposed the foundations of an extensive monastic settlement alongside the church. In the early days of Christianity, when the Tor was covered with trees and undergrowth, Celtic hermits occupied cells on its summit and slopes. Traces of prehistoric settlement have also been found, and the survival of a few ancient stones on and around the Tor indicates the sanctity of the place in the age of the megalith builders. As an object of pilgrimage, the Tor is as popular today as it has been for thousands of years.

Glastonbury Tor

In certain lights it can be seen plainly that artificial terraces have been carved around the sides of the Tor. It has recently been shown that these terraces form a huge labyrinth that encircles the hill and leads to its summit. The date of this work is unknown, but it is certainly prehistoric, and the symbolism of the labyrinth suggests that it was designed as a ritual pathway related to the ancient religious mysteries.

In walking a labyrinth, an initiate prepares to enter another world, and the discovery of the figure on the Tor recalls old legends of a hidden entrance to the hollow interior of the hill. Over the centuries many stories have been told of people who have found the entrance and gained access to the Tor's inner chambers, where the ancient mysteries were once celebrated. A former abbot of Glastonbury, St. Collen in the seventh century, is said to have retired to a hermit's cell at the foot of the Tor, where his contemplations were several times disturbed by a strange visitor who demanded that he ascend the hill and pass through a tunnel within it to meet the king of the underworld. Finally he agreed. Armed with a flask of holy water, the saint followed his guide into the bowels of the Tor and confronted Gwynn ap Nudd, the Celtic Lord of Hades, in the midst of his demonic court. A few words were exchanged, then St. Collen produced the holy water and dashed it over the king and his demons, who promptly vanished – whereupon the saint found himself alone in the hillside.

The inside of the Tor does indeed contain passages and chambers, formed by the underground waters which well up beneath it. Sacred springs once issued from its flanks, and today it conceals a reservoir that supplies the district with water.


The St. Michael Pilgrimage Path

The establishment of a Christian church on the Tor is attributed in the annals of Glastonbury to the founders of the abbey and to St. Patrick. Its dedication is to St. Michael – more properly, the Archangel Michael – who is depicted in a carving on the tower weighing the souls of the dead. Beside it, representing the female principle, is a carving of St. Bridget milking her cow.

St Bridget

As the leader of the heavenly hosts, the bearer of light, the slayer of the dragon, the revealer of mysteries, and the guide to the other world, Michael is the Christian successor to pagan deities with similar functions, such as Hermes, messenger of the gods, and the Celtic light giver, Lugh.

St. Michael's shrines are commonly set on high places, where beacon fires once blazed on the days of festival. At such places the electric forces of the atmosphere make contact with the magnetic powers of the earth, producing strange effects whose causes are unexplained by modem science. Balls of light emanating from the Tor are often seen hovering above it, giving rise to legends which vary with the times, from tales of fairies and demons to modern reports of unidentified flying objects. Thus the reputation of the Tor as a place of magic and enchantment is not a matter of convention but has its roots in human experience and the mysteries of nature.

St. Michael on the Tor is one of the stations in an alignment of Michael shrines that extends along the spine of southwest England to its western extremity by the Land's End in Cornwall. It corresponds to the path by which, according to legend, Christ once proceeded from Cornwall to Glastonbury, and which his avatar will one day tread again; on which account the country people were careful to be hospitable to unknown travellers.

Burrowbridge Mump

In very ancient times the path appears to have provided a pilgrimage route from the west to the great temple at Avebury. Eleven miles southwest of Glastonbury, the road to Taunton skirts another prominent St. Michael's Hill, also topped by a ruined church, known as "the Mump" at Burrowbridge. From the church on the Mump, Glastonbury Tor is visible behind intervening hills. That alignment, from Mump to Tor, extends eastward precisely to the southern entrance of the Avebury ring, touching two of the enormous stones of the main circle. It continues on for a few miles to the church at Ogbourne St. George, dedicated to another dragon-killing saint who is said to represent the earthly aspect of St. Michael.

Close to the Glastonbury Tor – Avebury line stand the churches of Stoke St. Michael and St. Michael, Buckland Dinham; westward from Glastonbury, also near the line, is St. Michael's Church at Othery. Traveling further west, one's eye is drawn to the high rock on the western edge of Dartmoor, where the church of St. Michael, Brentor, offers a distant landmark to ships off the coast. Near the terminus of the line, slightly to the south of it, is the famous island rock of St. Michael's Mount (page 185).

The ancient rockpile on Bodmin Moor called the Cheesewring marks the direct course of the St. Michael line.

Stretches of old trackway near Avebury and the Pilgrim's Path along the axis of the Tor fall onto the line, as does the axis of Burrowbridge Mump. Indications are that this alignment of pilgrimage stations, dedicated to an archaic deity whose attributes were assumed by St. Michael, was planned in remote antiquity, in times long preceding the age of the megalith builders. Today it provides a useful guide to modern pilgrims, leading them to the sacred high places and many of the obscure shrines of southwest England.


The Chalice Well and Garden Sanctuary

In the valley between the high eminence of the Tor and the gently rounded Chalice Hill – natural symbols of the male and female in nature – lies the most beautiful of Glastonbury's goddess shrines, where the indwelling spirit of the place can be experienced in tranquillity. At its center is an ancient holy well, fed by a spring of pure chalybeate water from the depths of nearby hills. Long ago, in its natural state, the spring issued from the ground to form a stream that washed away the silt of the valley. A well house was built over it in the Middle Ages, but soil accumulated around it and it became buried. An excavation was made through its roof to form the present well shaft that leads to a stone chamber. The water never fails. Flowing at a rate of some thousand gallons an hour, its overflow comes to the surface below the well and passes through stone channels before disappearing again underground. Much valued for its sacred and healing properties, its fame has long drawn pilgrims to Glastonbury. The patina it leaves on the stone is a rich gold, and its blood-tinged color associates it with the lunar waters of the goddess.

Around the well is a simple country garden, set among the apple orchards of Avalon and sheltered by the ancient yew, the tree which flourishes at sacred spots. Daily access is afforded by the Chalice Well Trust, founded in 1958 by the Glastonbury mystic Wellesley Tudor Pole, who gave relief to many sufferers during World War II by his institution of the daily silent minute. Another such, Frederick Bligh Bond, designed the present well cover with its symbol of the vesica piscis, two interlinked circles that represent the merging of the worlds of spirit and matter.

At the entrance to the garden is Little St. Michael's House, belonging to the Trust, wherein is the Upper Room, a sanctuary furnished with objects of Glastonbury craftsman ship. A turning off Chilkwell Street gives access to the garden. At the gate is a small building for the reception of visitors and the sale of booklets relating to Glastonbury; the garden beyond is always peaceful and refreshing, intended as a resting place for pilgrims, especially those visiting the St. Michael shrines to the west.


Gog and Magog, the Oaks of Avalon

Certain trees, as they grow large and old, attract legends and veneration. Several of various species in the Glastonbury area are of impressive age, rooted in pre-Christian days of the Druid religion. Their sites may be even older, for it was an ancient practice to replace sacred trees in decay with saplings of their own seed.

Gog and Magog were ancient giants of Britain in the time of Brutus the Trojan, and their names have somehow attached themselves to a pair of great oak trees which are a feature of Glastonbury's legendary landscape. The trees are said to be more than two thousand years old, and in their gnarled and twisted limbs the mystic's eye descries faces and figures and simulacra of all the forms in nature. Once there were more of them, but their venerable companions were massacred by a farmer early in the present century. They formed part of an avenue leading toward the Tor, and legend has extended it even further: A local belief holds that an avenue of contemporary oaks once lined a causeway from the Tor to King Arthur's castle at South Cadbury. An old Glastonbury record says that King Arthur laid siege to the Tor, where a rival chieftain had his stronghold in about 500 AD. If so, he would have marched there along the legendary causeway, shaded by the companions of old Gog and Magog. As well as being worthy objects of contemplation, these trees are worth visiting for the sake of the walk, which leads by a National Trust footpath through beautiful scenery from Wick Hollow, across the vale called Paradise, to the foot of Stonedown, where stand Gog and Magog.


The Lake Villages and the Tribunal Museum

In the great days of Glastonbury Abbey, travel in the district was mostly by water. The abbot possessed an ornate barge from which he could inspect his estates, navigating the rivers and artificial watercourses that intersect the flat country around the Isle of Avalon. Much of it was formerly covered by a shallow lake, from which rose island hills. At Meare, 3 miles northwest of Glastonbury, the Abbey Fish House, built early in the 1300s, stands on the former banks of a large pool, now drained, which provided the abbey with fish. Local legend identifies it as the place where King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was offered to him by the Lady of the Lake.

The Tribunal

In prehistoric times this area was inhabited by numerous village communities, dwelling on the islands or in houses raised on timber piles from the bed of the lake. The villages were linked by wooded causeways, stretches of which have been preserved by the peaty soil of the district and are now being investigated by archaeologists. Current researches are illustrated at the small museum south of West Hay near the Sweet Track, a causeway over a mile long which is dated to about 3800 B.C. and is thus recognized as the oldest stretch of road in the world. The lake dwellers are found to have enjoyed a rich and varied diet through hunting, fishing, and agriculture. They were also masters of many crafts, including carpentry, bone carving, pottery, weaving, and metal work. Their houses were of wood and wattles in the same style as St. Joseph's original church. Avalon, one of their sacred isles, was where they buried their dead. Another, at Godney, is sanctified today by a small, simple church. The road there from Glastonbury, a turning off the road to Meare, passes the site of one of the lake villages.

Many of the objects found beneath the causeways and villages of the lake people are exhibited in the ancient Tribunal on Glastonbury's High Street, a picturesque fifteenth-century building which was the courthouse and administrative center of the Twelve Hides. Information is available there on current excavations and where to see them. In summer, when wild roses are growing among the willows which line the waterways of Glastonbury's moors, this beautiful, historic landscape invites exploration.


Some Sacred Features in the Glastonbury Landscape

The Glastonbury Zodiac. In 1929 a young artist, Kathryn Maltwood, was lodging in Glastonbury, engaged in illustrating The High History of the Holy Graal, which describes the adventures of King Arthur and his knights. The origin of this romance was said to have been an old Latin manuscript discovered in the library of Glastonbury Abbey. Walking the countryside after reading the book, Kathryn Maltwood recognized many of the landmarks around Glastonbury as the scenes of episodes in the Arthurian legends. The key to their understanding, she felt, was in the landscape itself.

One summer evening, gazing from a Glastonbury hill toward the legendary site of King Arthur's castle on Cadbury Hill, she noticed in the shadows moving across the landscape the outlines of gigantic effigy figures. It suddenly occurred to her that the tales of King Arthur were based on an astrological pattern, formed by natural and ancient artificial features in the local countryside. Working from maps and aerial photographs she commissioned, she identified a circle of astrological effigies and other figures which seemed to be referred to in local folklore and place names. Their outlines were marked by streams, tracks, contour lines, and boundaries, and their relative positions were in accordance with a map of the constellations.

Kathryn Maltwood's idea was that the zodiacal figures were roughly sketched by nature and had been given more precise form thousands of years ago by the ancient Sumer people of Somerset. No proof is attached to her thesis, but its poetic, visionary quality appeals to many, and it provides a useful synthesis of the various mythological themes which have settled upon the Glastonbury landscape. Guidebooks with descriptions and maps of the Maltwood zodiac can be obtained at Glastonbury bookshops, and guided tours are offered throughout the summer.


The Great Yew of Dundon.  Five miles south of Glastonbury, off the road through the village of Street toward Somerton, is Dundon's wooded hilltop, surrounded by the earth ramparts of an ancient British settlement. To students of the Glastonbury zodiac it forms the head of the Gemini figure, Below it, on a grassy knoll, stands the village church. The church dates from the thirteenth century, and over the years it has gained some interesting memorials, but the main attraction is its atmosphere of peace and sanctity. The site is naturally adapted for worship and contemplation, and its qualities were no doubt recognized in Celtic times. Testifying to its early religious significance is the huge and venerable yew tree in front of the church porch. The yew is thought to have stood for more than a thousand years and is therefore older than the present church, Encircled by a wooden bench, the Dundon yew is a natural place of council for village elders.

Jan Christiaan Smuts, the South African leader, lived nearby after his defeat in the Boer War. In 1949 he returned to Dundon on a visit to his daughter, Mrs. Clark, whose house was in Street. Once more he walked through the churchyard, and his comment is recorded in a framed text on the west wall of the church: "As an old man I am glad to have had again this glimpse of Paradise."

St. Andrew at Dundon is one of the quiet corners where the ancient enchantment over the Glastonbury landscape can still be experienced.


King Arthur's Camelot.  Standing on Glastonbury Tor and gazing across the wide landscape, one grows aware of the natural kinship between the Tor and other hilltops of the district. This is reflected in the local mythology; Arthurian associations adhere to many of the prominent landmarks visible from the Tor. The King Arthur to whom the legends refer lived in about 500 AD., but the legends themselves are rooted in far earlier times. Behind the Arthurian tales of battles and alliances between the hilltops of Somerset can be heard an echo from primeval times, when the hills were seen as elemental forces engaged in a mythological drama throughout the course of the year.

One obvious natural relationship is between the Tor and the high plateau 11 miles to the southeast, called on maps Cadbury Castle. Its proper name is Camelot, for that was what the locals called it when questioned by John Leland in 1542. On top of it, they said, was King Arthur's palace, and in a cave below the hill he still lies sleeping, awaiting the call to save his kingdom in time of peril. On certain winter nights the king and his retinue are supposed to ride across Camelot and down an old track to drink at a spring beside Sutton Montis church. At other times a band of ghostly knights is seen below the hill on the lost causeway to Glastonbury Tor.

The evidence of excavations at Cadbury Castle in the 1960s was in accordance with the legends. The four great ridges of earthworks surrounding the hilltop were found to have been heaped up over many periods from prehistoric times. A town within the ramparts had apparently been stormed by the Romans and for a time abandoned. Ancient wells around the hifi and evidence of a central shrine hint at its occupation by hermits and holy men. Then, at about the time King Arthur flourished, a great timber hall was erected on the hilltop. The ramparts were heightened and capped with stone, wooden walls were added to them, and strong gatehouses were built. Cadbury Castle at that time could lodge and protect an army. No other such stronghold of Arthurian times is known in southern England. Its traditional identification as Camelot could hardly be a mere coincidence; here, surely, is the site of King Arthur's court.


Camelot Today.  Its steep earth ramparts covered with dense woods and undergrowth make Cadbury Castle as impregnable today as ever. The only way up to it is by a steep and (in winter) muddy path, which joins the south end of South Cadbury village street just past the church, opposite the inn.

On a fine day the ascent of Cadbury is well worth the effort. Antiquarian explorers and family picnic parties are sometimes to be encountered, but one is mostly there alone. The upland meadow and its surrounding woods shelter many types of flower, bird, and animal life, and the view from the site of King Arthur's palace is endlessly delightful. Small villages with churches, set in wooded parkland, cluster around the foot of the hill, while Glastonbury Tor beckons in the distance. At Camelot one is at the center of the legendary landscape of the quest for the Holy Grail.

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Chapter 1. The Making of the Sacred Landscape
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The Traveller's Guide
to Sacred England

A guide to the legends, lore and landscape
of England's sacred places

John Michell


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Sample one:

The Making of
the Sacred Landscape


Before the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, England was very obviously a sacred land. In both town and country the church steeple was the dominant symbol of the landscape, while the Church calendar with its feasts and saints' days dominated the pattern of the year. Stone crosses by the roadside guided travellers to the famous places of pilgrimage, where shrines and holy relics gave miraculous cures and other blessings. At innumerable lesser shrines about the countryside, by rocks, hills, and holy wells, crowds gathered on certain days to perpetuate rites and customs which, though often of pagan origin, were sanctioned by the Church.

These occasions were marked by fairs, festivals, and markets where all kinds of local business were conducted. Every corner of the landscape had its sacred and legendary associations, and these were constantly added to as successive generations contributed new tales of marvels and miracles. Thus the face of the country was like a storybook, illustrated by the monuments and natural features which preserved its history. This book could be read by country people who, being generally illiterate, could read no other. It was the source of their education and culture and enabled them to live fully human lives in their own native surroundings.

The Puritans' destruction of religious relics and "idols," and the suppression of festivals and popular assemblies, coincided with the growth of centralised political and economic power. These developments had a crushing effect on local independence and culture. The rural population declined, and whole chapters of its traditional lore were erased from the face of the landscape. Modern industry and the methods of modern agriculture and communications have since hastened the process of deculturisation; but that process has at the same time brought about a reaction. It is now widely apparent that the future of the earth as a living system is in many ways threatened, and that the basic cause is modern alienation from nature. There is a very essential difference between the present scientific way of regarding the earth, as a mass of inert matter, and the traditional view of it as a living, spiritual entity. It may be that, out of sheer necessity, the traditional view will once again become popular. In that case, the proper understanding of the earth, including its spiritual aspect, will be the priority of future science. That implies the future reconsecration of the earth, as a whole and in all its parts, to the spirit which gives it life. How that is done can be discovered through study of the landscape and the history of its sacred places, to which the following is an introduction.


THE PRIMEVAL GARDEN

Everything about prehistoric times is by the nature of things uncertain. No one knows who were the first inhabitants of England or when they appeared. The earliest known stone implements are dated to about 300,000 years ago, after which successive ice ages are said to have driven everyone out of the country. The date of about 10,000 BC is given as the end of the last ice age, when England again became comfortably habitable. It was then occupied by groups of nomadic people, each group ranging over a particular region and living on the natural resources of its territory.

These people lived well and simply and made so little impression upon the earth that what chiefly remains from their time is the debris of their feasts. Feasting played a large part in their lives. Following the necessary fast of early spring (corresponding perhaps to our Lenten fasting), they began the yearly ritual journey around their country. As nomadic people have always done, they took the accustomed routes and stopped at familiar places. These places were marked by some natural feature, a tree, a rock, or a spring of water, wherein dwelt a spirit, and the nature of that spirit determined what should be done there. Some places were for gathering herbs or nuts, others for hunting a particular game. With these substantial gifts of the local spirit came others of a different order: healing, fertility, and oracular dreams. At certain places other travelling groups were regularly encountered, leading to ceremonies and exchanges of gifts which later became festivals and markets.

Thus, from the very beginning of their history, the sacred places of a country accumulate a wide variety of lore and custom. Nomadic people, such as the Australian Aborigines today, perform their annual journeys in the footsteps of the creative spirits who first shaped the hills, rivers, and other features of the landscape. The paths they took, the places where they stopped, and the locations of episodes on their journey form the sacred geography of the nomads, who ritually imitate the actions of the creative spirits at the appropriate spots. The places where a certain animal or plant was first created are made sacred to that species, and whatever member of the tribe has a special affinity for it is charged with performing the proper ceremony. Other places are scenes of mythical adventures, where a divine ancestor did some heroic act which ever afterward has been commemorated there. It was no doubt by a similar process that certain British landmarks first became associated with the prototypes of Arthur, Merlin, and other native heroes.

This picture of Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age life in Britain emphasises its most essential feature, the intensely spiritual relationship between people and landscape. It shows how successfully the ancient people communicated with the local spirits of the country and how well they were able to live as a result. Dr. Richard Muir (Reading the Celtic Landscapes, 1985) gives detail to the picture:

As long as these hunting and fishing folk did not upset the natural balances, each valley, strand and lake basin could sustain a clan of hunter-gatherers, which migrated around an eternal circuit, harvesting each resource which the changing seasons provided. There were salmon in the rivers, eggs to be gathered on the sea cliffs, fish, seals and stranded whales along the coast and limpets on the rocks, while the rich woodlands harboured wild cattle. deer and horses, fungi, fruit, roots and shoots. . . . To live well under the Mesolithic economy one needed to have an intense awareness and understanding of Nature, know the habits and behaviour of the intended prey and when each edible plant would release its fruits and where it could be found.

All that survives of Mesolithic craftwork are the beautifully formed flint implements known as microliths, which include saws and delicate arrowheads. These fine objects were exchanged as gifts between tribes and have often been found far from their original sources.

The pattern of life at that time was closely in accord with the pattern of human nature (which was no doubt formed under similar conditions) and with the requirements of human spirit. Every aspect of life was celebrated. This was the innocent Golden Age yearned for by poets, the Garden of Eden or lost paradise. People felt secure in their own country, a sacred landscape inhabited by familiar spirits, each of which was visited in the course of the annual pilgrimage. Though it has left scarcely any physical mark upon the landscape, that way of life laid the foundations of native culture, which rest in the sacred places of the country. Certain spots, where the old British nomads gathered at the shrine of some nature spirit, are now marked by cathedrals and churches. Many have retained sacred and legendary associations from the old times. Thus the basic pattern of the English landscape, still discernible beneath its modern accretions, was laid down in times before settlement as a network of sacred centres with pilgrimage paths between them.


SHRINES AND SETTLEMENTS

In a book with the amusing title Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, the nineteenth-century sage Edward Carpenter suggested that civilisation was a "disease which the various races of man have to pass through – as children pass through measles or whooping cough." There is no knowing what it is that causes a people, who for thousands of years have been living satisfactorily in the same nomadic pattern, to move toward a settled life-style. An elderly person may sometimes have been left by the travelling group to shelter by a sacred spring, later to become its resident priest, priestess, or oracle. Certainly the first settlements were by springs and traditional shrines.

The change from nomadic to settled life coincided with the beginning of agriculture, and the first traces of cultivation in England are from about 5000 BC. That time, therefore, was the beginning of serious warfare, which occurred first between settled and wandering people – as in the story of Cain and Abel or the farmers-against-the-cowboys tradition in the American West – and was perpetuated in disputes between settled communities over property and possessions.

With settlement came formal religion and science. They were required for the organisation of society and to preserve contact with the spirits of nature, theologised as gods, on which life still depends. Settlement involves guilt. In the exchange of the delights and hardships of the road for the more even life of domestic comfort, certain things were lost. Human nature is no longer as fully satisfied as it was in the old wandering days; the distant shrines are no longer visited, and the sacred landscape has shrunk to the district around the homestead. The feeling of guilt is expressed by prophets who urge a return to the sacred journey. Their voice rings through the Old Testament, as in Jeremiah's reproach to the Tribes that they "stumble in their ways from the ancient paths" (18:15) and in "Thus saith the Lord, stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (6:16).

The way to compensate for giving up the sacred journey is to ritualise it. Plato's advice to colonists in the Laws was to seek out the sacred places of the old inhabitants, rededicate them to familiar gods, and reinstitute festivals there on the appropriate days. There should be, he said, at least 365 festivals in the course of a year. Thus the shrines of the local spirits in the country were to be attended and honoured at the proper seasons in imitation of nomadic times.

Plato looked for the best possible social order, one combining the advantages of settled life with the spiritual values of nomadism. That is the ideal of every civilisation, and early religion and science were designed to realise it. Religious systems reduced the wide-ranging sacred landscape of the nomadic people to the proportions of a settled district. No longer did seasonal festivals occur spontaneously, as the old wanderers reached the customary site; their times were now determined by a priestly calendar based on astronomy. The round of festivals still reflected the rhythm of nomadic life. Each was dedicated to a particular god who corresponded to an aspect of human mentality and instinct and presided over one of the stages in the farmer's and the hunter's year. Life thereby was made rich and varied, less so than under the free spirit of primeval times, but with the comfortable compensations of settled life.

Civilisation demands hierarchies and specialisation in functions. A priestly profession comes into being, whose tasks include keeping the calendar and the record of events and officiating at rituals. The overall purpose of the priests is to keep the life of their communities in harmony with the seasons and ways of nature. In many parts of the world, including the British Isles, a comprehensive code of science was developed with the object of regulating the dealings between humanity, the earth, and the cosmos. Much is still to be learned about its methods and achievements; the following summarises the present state of knowledge on the subject.


SACRED SCIENCE AND THE MEGALITHS

Not long after the beginning of Stone Age agriculture, something dramatic but mysterious took place along the western coasts of Europe. From the Canary Islands, Spain, and Portugal to Brittany, Ireland, Britain up to the northern Scottish isles, and parts of Scandinavia, large, skilfully built stone structures began to appear from early in the fifth millennium BC. Among the oldest and most impressive are great chambered mounds, such as New Grange in Ireland, Maes Howe on the main Orkney island, and the smaller Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesea. Their main feature is a passage way, walled and roofed with large stones, leading to an inner stone cavern, sometimes with side chambers, buried deep within a dome-shaped mound of earth and stone. Archaeologists refer to them as tombs, but that was certainly not the limit of their function. Westminster Abbey, for example, is full of old bones but cannot be described as a mere tomb or reliquary. Particularly in Ireland, some of the stones within and around the mounds are inscribed with patterns or symbols. Their meaning is unknown, but in Martin Brennan's book The Stars and the Stones, it is shown that some of the symbols are picked out by rays of light or shadow at particular times of the year. Brennan also shows that the passages into the mounds are so oriented that at a certain date they allow a light beam from the sun or moon to penetrate into the inner recesses of the chamber. New Grange, for example, receives the light of the rising sun at midwinter. This interplay of light and darkness with the carved symbols on the walls of the inner chamber suggests that the buildings were used for purposes other than burials: for recording seasons and astronomical cycles and as places of vigil and initiation. Rather than tombs, perhaps, they might be called temples.

According to the revised method of radiocarbon dating, the earliest known mound is at Kercado in Brittany, which was built in about 4800 BC. Others range from about that time to 3000 B.C or later. In the same period and into the second millennium BC. many thousands of great stone or megalithic structures were built, together with vast stretches of earthworks. Regional variations are found between those in different lands, Britain having by far the greatest number of stone circles – almost a thousand are known – but the similarities between them are so striking that they must surely have had a common origin and purpose.

Until a few years ago it was believed that the megalith builders must have spread to the northwest fringes of Europe, as conquerors or missionaries, from some original seat of civilisation on the Mediterranean. However, that theory was disproved by the discovery of radiocarbon dating, which established that the monuments on the Atlantic coastline were considerably older than their supposed Mediterranean prototypes. Academic patterns of prehistory were thereby upset, but attention was drawn to certain earlier writers, long ignored, who had anticipated this development. One of them was J. Foster Forbes, an antiquarian mystic and the author of several books on ancient Britain, such as The Unchronicled Past (1938). On the subject of stone circles he wrote that:

They were made from about 8000 BC by people from the West, priests who survived the Atlantis cataclysm.
Their overall purpose was to establish and maintain social order.
They functioned both as lunar observatories and as receiving stations for celestial influences at certain seasons.
They were instrumental in augmenting the earth's fertility and the prosperity of the people by controlling the earth's field of vital and magnetic energies.

Several of these ideas, such as the western origin of the megalith builders, are in accordance with the later evidence, and others have since been verified. The use of stone circles for measuring the complicated cycles of the moon was demonstrated in Alexander Thom's Megalithic Lunar Observatories in 1971, and in his earlier work, Megalithic Sites in Britain. Through statistical analysis of the numerous surveys he took of stone circles and neighbouring monuments, Thom was able to show that:

Stone circles were precisely planned and laid out in accordance with certain geometric figures in the classic Pythagorean tradition. The unit of measure in their designs was the "megalithic yard" of 2.72 feet. Stones within and beyond the circles lined up to indicate a natural or artificial mark on the horizon where the moon or sun reached one of the extreme positions in their cycles, as at a solstice. The megalith builders had a highly developed, unified code of science based on number and geometry, and they were expert surveyors, engineers, and astronomers.

These conclusions indicate that the ancient dwellers in Britain were not, as had previously been thought, savages and simple peasants, but people who lived in ordered societies governed by a religious-scientific priesthood.

From the 1970s, research into the hidden properties of stone circles has produced some remarkable results which, though not yet conclusive, tend to support the ideas of J. Foster Forbes. The investigation of anomalous energies at the old sites has attracted dowsers, engineers, and scientists. Tom Graves's Needles of Stone gives a dowser's view of the connection between megalithic sites and magnetic earth currents. The use of Geiger counters and ultrasonic detectors has revealed abnormal patterns of pulsations within stone circles that vary throughout the year. One effect which has been widely recorded is that the levels of ultrasound and radiation inside the circles is significantly lower than outside; hence the title of Don Robins's book on megalithic energies, Circles of Silence.

From the apparent fact that the megalith builders placed their circles and other stone monuments on sites with peculiar dynamic properties, it seems likely that they were aware of and made use of certain natural energies for practical purposes connected with their way of life. Early settled societies were concerned above all with the fertility of land and ,livestock and communication with the local and ancestral spirits who were presumed to be the cause of human prosperity. The megalithic science is certain, there fore, to have been spiritually based. In simple nomadic times, communication with spirit was made naturally and spontaneously in the course of the annual journey; the science of early settled times was designed to make up for the loss of natural communication by a system of ritualised invocation. It was a form of magical technology. The power of the ancient shrines was augmented by the erection of stone monuments or temples, where the local spirit was induced to dwell and follow human example by becoming domestic. Where in the old wandering days the shrines had been active only during the short period when they were visited, their season of potency was now extended. How this was done is told symbolically in the heroic legends of the dragons or serpent killers. The serpent is an image of the mercurial earth currents by which the country is made fertile; transfixing the serpent's head with a stake or stone pillar is the traditional method of arresting and tapping its flow of energy. At Delphi, where in archaic times the Pythoness or earth serpent had dwelt and given oracles for a brief season in the year, the piercing of her head by Apollo's staff lengthened her period of efficacy by several months. The spot where her energies were centred was marked thereafter by the omphalos stone at the centre of the shrine. Further information on the ancient sacred science and its perception of the nature and use of earth energies can be found in The Decline of Oracles, a work by Plutarch, who was a priest at Delphi in the first century AD.

The religious-scientific works of the megalith builders, along with domestic building and agriculture, produced a dramatic change in the appearance of the landscape. Yet the new pattern of temples, roads, and settlements was firmly based on the sacred geography of nomadic times. Temples and oratories were built on the old nature shrines, and the paths between them were still trodden by pilgrims or used for religious processions. On their straight course between the sacred places, the people erected stones and other landmarks, and thus were created the straight alignments of ancient monuments, known as "leys," which have been the subject of much modern research in the British landscape. These lines across the country were as sacred as the temples and shrines they linked, and evidently they played an essential part in the mystical megalithic science. Memories of the old times, preserved in the folklore record, identify the paths between the old shrines as ways of the dead and spirit paths, where at certain times of the year strange lights and phantom creatures are seen. Where the paths intersect, the old stone monuments have a variety of strange reputations, as the scenes of supernatural events or for powers of healing and fertility. The folklore of megalithic monuments forms a significant background to the modern scientific discoveries of abnormal energy patterns at the old sites.

In creating their sacred landscape, the Stone Age priests of settled times were careful to preserve the old pattern and the spiritual values attached to it. The temples and natural shrines about the country were seen as forming the body of one great temple, the native holy land. By a round of feasts and rituals throughout the year, the spirit of the earth was made content and bountiful, allowing the settled communities to grow and prosper. Archaeologists now reckon that the population of England in the second millennium BC. was at least as large as the two to three million it was at the time of the Norman Conquest. Prehistoric standards of craftsmanship, science, and general culture were many degrees higher than those of medieval England.


THE CELTIC DRUIDS

The question of who invaded Britain in prehistoric times, and when these incursions took place, was much debated by earlier generations of scholars. Bloody battles were imagined, in which one race virtually exterminated another and populated the country anew. Mysterious "Beaker" folk were said to have arrived in the third millennium BC., introducing metalwork and burying their chiefs in barrow tombs along with their favourite beakers. After them came the Celts; around 600 BC. was the accepted date for their appearance in Britain.

The nature of these invasions and their supposed dates are all now disputed. Archaeological science earlier in this century was much concerned with racial types, and it was fashionable to argue that successive invaders prevailed because they were of superior stock to the natives. At the root of these theories were Darwin's theory of evolution and belief in progress. The influence of such theories has now waned, and scholars are more inclined to regard social changes as being produced by migrations of culture at least as much as by warfare. In ancient times, as today, new ideas spread quickly enough around the world without violence. Nor is there any more certainty about the date of the Celts' arrival. One can speak of Celtic culture and languages, but there is no single Celtic race; Celtic speakers vary in appearance from short and swarthy to tall and fair. Evidence of Celtic culture appears in Britain from the second millennium BC, and it is now suggested that the Celtic priesthood could have been responsible for the Stonehenge temple, built in about 2000 BC.

Celtic society in Britain preserved many features from the previous order, including shrines and feast days. Its calendar combined lunar and solar cycles, as in megalithic times. The social structure was similar to that advocated by Plato, based on a religious cosmology and democratic idealism. Each tribe had its own territory with fixed borders, and that land, held by the tribe as a whole, consisted of forest and wilderness, common lands and agricultural holdings. Under a complicated system of land tenure, everyone's rights and obligations were carefully defined. Some of the land was worked in common for the chieftain, the priests, and the old, poor, and sick tribesfolk; the rest was apportioned as family farms. Grazing and foraging rights were shared on the common lands. Much of the tribal business was conducted at annual assemblies, where land disputes were decided, petty offenders were tried, and chiefs and officials, both male and female, were appointed by popular vote. A great many old farmsteads in Britain today are on Celtic sites. During his raid on Celtic Britain in 55 BC, Julius Caesar commented on its high population and numerous farms and cattle.

The unifying bond between all the Celtic tribes was their common priesthood, the Druids. Their efforts preserved common culture, religion, history, laws, scholarship, and science. They had paramount authority over every tribal chief and, since their office was sacred, they could move where they wanted, settling disputes and stopping battles by compelling the rival parties to arbitration. They managed the higher legal system and the courts of appeal, and their colleges in Britain were famous throughout the Continent. Up to twenty years of oral instruction and memorising was required of a pupil before being admitted into their order. Minstrels and bards were educated by the Druids for similar periods.

Knowledge of the Druids comes directly from classical writers of their time. They were compared to the learned priesthoods of antiquity, the Indian Brahmins, the Pythagoreans, and the Chaldean astronomers of Babylon. Caesar wrote that they "know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe, and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of the immortal gods; and these things they teach to their pupils." They also taught the traditional doctrine of the soul's immortality. They must have professed detailed knowledge of the workings of reincarnation, for one writer said that they allowed debts incurred in one lifetime to be repaid in the next.

A significant remark of Caesar's was that Druidism originated in Britain, which was its stronghold. Indeed, it has all the appearance of a native religion, being deeply rooted in the primeval native culture. Its myths and heroic legends are related to the ancient holy places of Britain, and they may largely have been adapted from much earlier traditions. In Celtic as in all previous times, the same holy wells and nature shrines were visited on certain days for their spiritual virtues. The overall pattern of life was scarcely changed. In the course of time, society became more structured and elaborate and the Druid laws more rigid, but the beginning of the Celtic period in Britain was evidently not marked by any major break in tradition. Nor was there any great shift in population; the British today, even in the so-called Celtic lands, are predominantly of native Mesolithic ancestry. The Druids' religion and science also have the appearance of belonging to an earlier Britain. Their knowledge of astronomy may have descended from the priests of megalithic times, together with the spiritual secrets of the landscape.

Yet there is an obvious difference between the Celtic Druids and the megalithic priests before them. The Druids abandoned the great stone temples and reverted to the old natural shrines, the springs and groves where they held their rituals. A religious reformation is here implied. It is characteristic of state priesthoods that their spiritual powers wane as their temporal authority grows, and the less confidence they inspire, the more tributes and sacrifices they demand of the people. In its latter days the rule of the megalithic priesthood probably became so onerous that it was over thrown. Whether as a native development or prompted by outside influences, a spiritual revival seems to have occurred in Britain in about 2000 BC, with the building of the cosmic temple of Stonehenge and the first evidences of Celtic culture. Stonehenge is a unique monument, a symbol of a new revelation. The tendency in modern scholarship is to see it once more as the temple of the Druids. If so, it proclaims the high ideals on which Druidism in Britain was founded.


ENGLAND'S FIRST CHRISTIANS

The date and circumstances of Christianity's origin in England are unknown. According to the legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea's missionary journey to Glastonbury, it was shortly after the Crucifixion. Bran the Blessed is credited by the Welsh with bringing Christianity to the British Isles in the first century, and there is a record of King Lucius's receiving missionaries from Rome in 167.

Although the Romans persecuted the early Church and made St. Alban the first English martyr at the end of the third century, their soldiers and officials in Britain were susceptible to the new religion and no doubt helped to spread it among the natives. Yet it was recorded by Tertullian in about 200 that there were Christian colonies in parts of Britain which the Romans never reached. Many other old writers remark on the early beginnings of Christianity in Britain, implying that it was never imposed on the Celtic culture but developed naturally from the existing religion as a reformation of Druidism.

The original institution of British Christianity was the Celtic Church. Its history, rituals, and above all its spirit were essentially different from those of the Roman Church. Its saints, as the early priests and holy men were called, were heirs to the Druid tradition, often literally so, in that many of them were children of Druids or former Druid priests themselves. Like the nonconformists of modern times, they rejected the formalism of the established religion and re turned to the source of religious spirit in the wild places of the countryside. The doctrines of Christianity were not unfamiliar to them, for the Druids recognised the mystical Trinity, and the image of Divinity sacrificed on a cross or tree was significant in their own theology. Thus the Celtic Druids readily adopted Christianity in its original, gnostic form. Their Celtic Church was that of St. John the Divine, visionary and spiritual, rather than that of St. Peter in Rome. In many ways the Celtic Church perpetuated the customs of the Druid religion from which it sprang. The Celtic monks adopted the Druid tonsure, shaving their heads across the crown from ear to ear and leaving it long behind. That was the tonsure of St. John rather than that of St. Peter, where the head is shaved on the crown. The Celts celebrated Easter on a day calculated by the Jewish lunar calendar, also used by the eastern churches, while the Roman calendar, as amended by a succession of popes, produced a different Easter Day.

As successors to the Druids, the Celtic bishops and priests were appointed by their own tribes and ministered to their own tribal districts. Their monasteries replaced the Druid colleges, which had been suppressed by the Romans, as centres of learning. In them were preserved the native traditions of philosophy, craftsmanship, and bardic lore. The wisdom and scholarship of the ancient world survived in the Celtic monasteries during the Dark Ages, when missionaries from Britain and Ireland spread the light of Christianised culture throughout Europe.

The Celtic Church was distinguished by its close relationship to nature, its belief in immortality and individual free will, its married priests and women saints, and its tolerance. These were also features of Druidism. Religious fanaticism was alien to the Celtic spirit. For several centuries Christians and pagans lived side by side, warring among themselves for traditional tribal reasons rather than for ideology. One of the last of the old-fashioned pagan kings, Penda of Mercia in the seventh century, fought his rivals, pagan and Christian alike, without rancour, and said that he had nothing against Christians except bad ones. Pagan kings married Christian princesses and allowed them to practice their own religion, and the Christians refrained from aggressive proselytising. One complaint the Roman Church brought against the Celts was that they were not active enough in the missionary field.

When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain at the end of the fourth century, leaving cities, temples, and great country houses to fall into ruin, the only cultural institution remaining in these islands was the Celtic Church. Native and classical learning was upheld in its monasteries, which were the sole providers of higher education. Pagan nobles sent their children to them, and thus Christianity began to prevail in the ruling families. Pagan customs were long maintained throughout the countryside, but among educated people paganism was regarded as outmoded and provincial. Christianity had become the religion of modern international culture.


THE END OF THE CELTIC CHURCH

The Church of Rome was long jealous of Celtic independence and disapproved of the pagan customs and doctrines that the Celtic Church had adopted. When St. Augustine was sent to England by the pope in 597, his mission was both to convert the pagan kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons and to bring the native church under Roman discipline. The Celtic bishops refused to oblige him, but Roman influence nevertheless began to prevail. Rome was the world centre of power and scholarship and was thus naturally attractive to ambitious clerics. Rome's constant appeal was for worldwide Christian unity, by which it meant total subservience to Rome. Some of the Celtic clergy thought the price was worth paying, while others were firm in preserving the traditional rites of their church.

The two sides met in 664 at a synod or church council in Whitby, a town on the east coast of Yorkshire with a Celtic abbey founded by St. Hilda. The immediate point at issue was the date of Easter and whether it should properly be calculated by the Celtic or the Roman method. Attached to this was the whole question of whether the Celts should keep their independent rites or whether they should reject them in favour of Rome's.

At the Synod of Whitby, Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne spoke for the Celtic Church. Being Irish, he was not fluent in the Saxon English language of the debate. Opposing him was Bishop Wilfrid, a man of formidable intellect and ambition with powerful connections in Rome. His patron, King Oswy of Northumbria, presided over the debate. He may not have understood the subtle arguments which both sides produced, for he settled the issue on one simple point. Colman claimed the apostolic descent of his church from St. John. Wilfrid asserted the seniority of the Roman Church's founder, St. Peter. King Oswy knew of St. Peter as the keeper of the gates to heaven and said that he would not dare to offend him for fear of being refused admittance. He therefore awarded victory to the Roman party.

Bishop Colman resigned his see at Lindisfarne and retired with a few followers to the old Celtic monastery at Iona. Even there the Roman influence was soon apparent, and the Celtic diehards found their last refuge on an island off the Irish coast.

The absorption of the Celtic Church by the Roman caused pain and resentment but no bloodshed. The Celtic virtue of tolerance was displayed by many priests of the old church who accepted with good grace the new order and worked peacefully to implement it. One example was St. Cuthbert, who obeyed the Synod by converting to Rome and was then sent as prior to Lindisfarne, where he tactfully persuaded the monks to abandon their Celtic practices. Compromises were allowed and local customs were often respected, with the result that the Roman Church in Britain became subject to Celtic influence. That influence can be seen most clearly today in Ireland, where feast days and pilgrimages from Celtic and pagan times are patronised by the Church.

In England the traditions of Celtic Christianity were inherited by the Saxons whom the Celtic saints converted. Their churches were built on the old sanctuaries, and their sacred art followed Celtic models. The Celtic spirits survived the Norman invasion. Medieval kings boasted of their Celtic lineage from King Arthur, and Celtic ideals were revived in the age of chivalry. In churches and cathedrals the medieval craftsmen carved symbolic figures that had nothing to do with Roman Christianity but reflected the Celtic love of nature and humanity. Mystics in all ages have been inspired by the memory of Celtic Christianity.


CONTINUITY AND REFORMATION

Stability and change are the two opposing principles in nature that lie behind the world of appearances. In English religious history they are represented by the two themes which govern its entire course: continuity and reformation.

Continuity is demonstrated by the ancient, enduring sanctity of many of the great religious centres. It is illustrated, for example, by the prehistoric holy wells which are found beneath such cathedrals as York, Winchester, Carlisle, and Ely and at innumerable parish churches.

Reformation plays a necessary part in religious history because spiritual powers can never adequately be confined, codified, or institutionalised. All man-made systems are imperfect and doomed sooner or later to fail. The more powerful and elaborate they become, the nearer they are to collapse. Religion expresses the communion between the human spirit and the divine spirit in nature. That communion can be achieved through various forms of magical or religious techniques, by invocation in appropriately designed temples, or through sacred architecture, chants, music, incense, and images in dimly lit cathedrals. These methods are of course artificial, and the more ritualised they become, the more they diverge from the simple, natural processes of spiritual communion. When a religious system becomes too formal and oppressive, religious people abandon it and return to the natural sources of spirit in the wild places of the countryside. There they build shrines and oratories, thus beginning a new cycle of religious development.

Sacred places are not fixed and permanent. Formerly great shrines are abandoned and desecrated; others spring up with the cult of a saint or a memorable person and fade away with it. Then there are places such as Stonehenge, which retain their reputation for sanctity but, through losing their local populations, or for some other reason, fall aside from the mainstream of religious continuity. Yet many of the sites described in this book have been religious centres since before the dawn of history, and they illustrate the themes of continuity and reformation.

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It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
Dolores Ibarruri, leading Basque politician, 1936.

He's the man from the Mission. He's just painted plaster, hung up there, nailed to the wall. He lived up in heaven. He looked down at us. And one day he came and stole thousands of acres from us. That's him, that painted plaster statue. Damned liars - he isn't God.
An Arhuaco Mamu (shaman) of Colombia, on being asked "Who is Jesus Christ?", from a Danish TV programme, The Earth is Our Mother, 1996.
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Stresses and strains between different countries, ethnic and interest groups are all too frequently reported in the news. This indicates the extent to which nations and peoples are damaged by their past. All peoples without exception are affected by painful, malignant and distorting scars deriving from events taking place years, generations, centuries, even millennia ago. Sagas of the past and their remaining footprints influence collective judgement and the quality of life today. The worst thing is that these hidden influences are largely unconscious, unrecognised and not taken into account for the effect they have on us now.

In the last decade or two we have seen conflicts involving Bosnians, Kosovans, Croats and Serbs in Yugoslavia; Georgians and Abkhaz, Chechens, Armenians and Azeris, all in the Caucasus; Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in Afghanistan; Tigréans, Eritreans and Amharas in Ethiopia; Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land; Kurds in Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan; East Timorese in Indonesia; Tamils in Sri Lanka; Karens in Myanmar (Burma); Tibetans and Uighurs in western China; Zapotecs in Mexico; the Mende, Temne, Hausa and Bassa in West Africa and Zulus in South Africa. This is not a conclusive list. More groups, some of whom have had frictions for centuries, act out their conflicts too, whether violently, in heated exchanges, nervously or in suppressed frustration.

Anxious, seldom-expressed feelings ricochet between many peoples who are technically at peace. Germans, French and English are allies, but past shadows lurk around, coagulating around any niggle that comes up - recently evidenced in their sudden sparks over Iraq in early 2003. Northerners and Southerners in USA still reference back to the American civil war of the 1860s and vie with each other politically and culturally. Russia has a wary relationship with Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, going back to the 1920s and earlier. The relationship between French Québecois and English-speaking Canadians heats up periodically, dating back at least to the 1790s. Taiwanese frictions with mainland China go back to 1948 and the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists. Sikhs in Punjab, sandwiched between Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan, look anxiously both ways, having done so for centuries. Shadows of the past deeply permeate attitudes and can, in exacerbated circumstances, lead to irritability, reactivity and trouble. Every nation has its own versions, even if frictions have gone quiet or are forgotten. Events and their implications have a way of digging out old wounds.

Buried pain and shadows cause nations to overreact to events and developments. They cause them to project unwholesome imagery on their neighbours and assume postures inaccurately representing their true position or interests. This can lead to self-destructive or mutually-harmful behaviour. The long Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was a manifestation of a multi-chapter story at least three thousand years old, even though the insecurities between the regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran actually ignited the war. Iraq and Iran (Persia) have variously controlled and vied with each other for many centuries. The ruinous 1980s war cost 1.5 million lives, to little avail, hardening both societies and propelling both into years of difficulty. One wonders whether such conflicts are between opposing sides or actually between war and peace.

If there is a history of conflict, it does not mean conflict has to break out again. It depends on what happens, on leaderships and cultural movements and what they choose or omit to choose to do. In the early 1990s South Africa came dangerously close to civil war between whites and blacks and also between Zulus (Inkatha) and Xhosa (ANC). The day was saved by white and Zulu acceptance of the situation, coupled with a mature and inclusive philosophy pursued by the ANC toward all parties. People stepped back from the brink. Actually, it is usually by far the easiest solution - as long as the bones of contention are properly sorted out.

Two unique ethnic groups have fought less than one might expect, in the circumstances: the Armenians and the Kurds. Both have lived where they live since ancient times - 700 BCE and 2000 BCE respectively - and both have long been dominated by neighbours and split up by other people's political boundaries. Around 1915 1.75 million Armenians were massacred by the Turks or deported, mostly to die, and many others were dispersed worldwide. The Kurds have sustained chemical attack twice, from the British in 1922 and the Iraqis in 1988, and the 1980s repression of Kurds in eastern Turkey was exceptionally cruel. Even speaking and writing Kurdish became a crime. Today, Armenians are much diminished as a result of death and emigration. The Kurds have shown remarkable resilience and patience with their situation. Both groups have markedly persevered. Perseverance like this has been demonstrated more than anyone by Tibetans: when the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s a resistance movement started amongst the Khampas in the east, but this was discouraged by the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetans have remained exceptionally pacific, despite extreme provocation.

There are several reasons why national hurts are propagated over time. Here we shall run through a number of them.

War

For the Palestinians, the wars of 1948-49 and 1967 have not been forgotten to this day - understandably, since so many were exiled and dispossessed, despite assurances by the British and the UN. Circumstances since then have been adverse for Palestinians. As a people, they are divided between and within themselves over the need to fight Israel, which is why much of their resistance is secretive, in the form of suicide bombers. The Poles, who have seen Poland partitioned and swallowed up by Austria, Russia and Prussia/Germany over the centuries, have a justifiable nervousness of repetition - so much so that, after the collapse of the Soviet Warsaw Pact in 1991 Poland was quick to seek NATO membership. These two nations have been faced with the sharp-edged question of whether or not to fight back, and the very existence of the question has had a big influence on their histories.

China has seen enormous atrocities in its time, but the Japanese occupation of 1937-45 was particularly brutal. Diplomatic relations were later patched up, but the Chinese people still hold reservations about Japan today. This is unlikely ever to come to war, but held-down feelings are there. Serbia's history has been scarred by the armies of Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey, Habsburg Austria and Nazi Germany. In the 1990s, Serb treatment of Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims reflected old Serb feelings toward the Turks, and its trust of Germany has never fully revived after World War Two. During the 1990s, Serbs, or at least their leaders, chose to express their feelings through war, and the outcome has mainly been great loss, even though they were the technical military victors.

Germany, an aggressor in two world wars, has painful memories of occupation and devastation by foreigners too. What started as Protestant revolts in Bohemia and Holland against the Catholic empire of the Habsburgs became the full-scale Thirty Years War of 1618-48, in which French, Austrian, Bavarian, Danish and Swedish armies pillaged, burned and battled their ways across Germany's principalities, setting back the land for a century. The 1920s Rhineland occupation after the Great War, plus weighty war reparations, led to resentments that were exploited by Hitler to justify what became the Second World War. After 1945 Germany underwent foreign occupation by USA, Britain and France for four decades. In 2003 these shadows reared up in Germany's vehement opposition to the Iraq war: it knew what foreign occupation and interference meant. Having tasted being a victor in war, it also knows the taste is not sweet.

Civil War

More insidious is civil war, such as the thirty years of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland during the 1970s-90s. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s claimed 60,000 lives. Civil wars set neighbours against each other, eating out the heart of society, and ill feeling permeate down to neighbourhoods and families. The scars of the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, the Mexican revolution of 1910-40, the American civil war of the 1860s and the French Wars of Religion in the 1560s-90s still leave their marks on current public feelings. Social trust can be fatally undermined for generations, fundamentally eroding confidence in society's fabric and its capacity to regenerate itself. Negative precedents can be set which do not disappear - they make repetition of ill-fortune easier.

During the 1980s-90s came a new type of civil war led by criminals and opportunists, usually for control of lucrative business. The Colombian civil war involved drug barons, and crime-funded leftist and rightist forces who ripped and tore at the country, caught in a loop of feuding which has devastated the country. Rationales change, yet the civil war addiction carries on, seemingly unable to exhaust itself. Wars in Zaïre/Congo, Angola and various West African states have been fought over control of diamonds, copper and gold - that is, big money. Such wars lucratively interlock with the interests of international arms dealers and suppliers, subjecting local populations to senseless atrocity, loss and insecurity. In West Africa a precedent arose in the 1990s when 40,000 boys entered the fight, desensitised by drugs, personal loss and oblivion to 'good behaviour' in war. The Geneva Conventions, regulating the treatment of war wounded, prisoners, civilians, deportation, torture, hostage-taking, collective punishment and chem-bio weapons, were completely flouted.

The avoidance of civil war in South Africa and Russia in 1988-94 was an untrumpeted victory for social sanity and maturity - or perhaps for weariness with suffering. Such triumphs don't hit the news because non-happenings go unnoticed, unannounced in the media. Yet they have a strengthening and healing effect on public integrity and spirits worldwide. Civil wars have recently been avoided in Jordan, Nigeria, China, Brazil, Jamaica, Romania, Burundi and Estonia. This century we need to build a growing tide of triumphs, de-escalating warfare and outweighing the habit of reaching for the guns. Conflicting groups cannot just be admonished by the international community and forced to sit at negotiating tables unless existing injustices are righted. Otherwise the causes of conflict perpetuate, and diplomacy is overridden.

Arms-producing countries, arms traders, banks, corporations and international authorities have been crucially involved in permitting and sanctioning civil war. Money-making is no excuse for undermining societies, popular movements and governments. CIA interventions, under the cover of anti-Communist activities yet usually on behalf of business interests, have played a disastrous role in the last fifty years. The CIA has fomented coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Ecuador (1961 and 1963), Dominican Republic (1963), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Greece (1965-67) and Chile (1973); it undermined elected governments in Australia, Guyana, Cambodia and Jamaica; it supported dictators in Chile, Iran, the Philippines, Haiti, Panama, Zaïre, Greece, Pakistan and Iraq; it created, trained and supported death squads and secret police in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Iran, Turkey and Angola; it launched secret, illegal military actions in Nicaragua, Angola, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and contributed to the massacre of 200,000 in East Timor, 500,000 in Indonesia and 1-2 million in Cambodia. A fine record, achieved mainly by using locals as proxies. The overall effect has been to stunt the social and economic growth of many countries.

Internal repression

Serious internal repression, such as Stalin's eradication of millions of dissenters and innocent bystanders in the Soviet purges of the 1930s-50s, or the suppression of Protestants in Catholic Europe in the 1500s-1600s, is equal to or greater than warfare in the damage it wreaks. If your government nonsensically turns against you, the whole logic of society turns upside down, warping social relations and setting precedents that make repetitions possible. The brightest and most valuable people are dispossessed, exiled or killed, weakening the possibility of revival, killing off ideas and peace-building coalitions. The price paid by ordinary people is staggering, often affecting them for generations. They might not think of the people who are not there because war killed them or their parents-to-be, but the gap is nevertheless felt in unconscious ways. Mercifully, the shock of disaster can sometimes make for a 'never again' response too, which can change the future.

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the best candidates to replace him were eliminated or exiled. Exiles lose touch with their country, making them less legitimate to lead when times get better. Whenever Tibet is at last relieved of Chinese occupation, its people will have to start from an entirely new and untried basis: the exile Tibetan government has written an exemplary constitution ready for such a time, but there is no knowing what life will be like for residents, whose memory of the old culture is virtually gone, and for returned exiles, many of whom have been born abroad. Independence will mark the beginning of a long journey of nation-rebuilding, of creating a new Tibetan culture.

Outrages

Pain and angst deplete a nation's spirit longterm, frequently weakening its gene-pool, kinship patterns, neighbourhood relations and social structures. Promising possibilities are killed off, together with the people who can set them in motion. The dissolution of England's monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-40 was a massive cultural outrage: churches were wrecked, sacred artworks and relics destroyed, valuables sold and nuns and monks cast out. A whole socio-economic sector was shaken out, mainly to serve the interests of the king and his henchmen. In orthodox history Henry VIII is regarded as a great king, yet he was a tyrant who severely damaged the nation's psyche. Today his legacy contributes to an underlying shadow of British public cynicism and reluctance to turn against the political establishment. Powerful and necessary shifts and geopolitical developments took place in Henry's time, but such depravity, self-interest and theft as were practised were not inevitable, and a reconciliatory approach was perfectly possible. Are wrecked abbeys, of which England has plenty, truly gems of national heritage, or are they memorials to a nation's guilt?

Ethnic cleansing and the intentional disadvantaging of sub-groups, up to and including genocide, casts a shadow of horror which can long outlast living memory of it. The singling out of Jews, Gypsies, dissenters and homosexuals by the Nazis in the 1930s-40s left a shadow with lasting consequences in Germany. This has had not only a negative effect: Germany's promotion of tolerance and its reluctance to deploy armed forces in anything but peacekeeping and nation-building been its strong point ever since. But did we have to have Hitler to obtain such a result? Hitler's long shadow falls now on Israel, in its questionable treatment of the Palestinian people over recent years.

The damage caused to Ethiopians by the Mengistu regime of 1977-91 has made governance and the buildup of inter-ethnic trust in Ethiopia difficult. Trust was fundamentally broken and, though the Ethiopian government has since worked hard at national reintegration, sporadic war with Eritrea has persisted and other tensions lurk like ghosts, waiting for a spark to fire them up again. In Ethiopia, climatic problems, famine and social tensions interlock horribly.

People oppress others because they are already hurt. As a child, Saddam Hussein was regularly beaten for years on end, and Slobodan Milosevic watched his parents commit suicide in connection with political strife during his childhood. Stalin was bullied at school and, in his twenties, was sent to Siberia for his Communist beliefs. Hearts are thus hardened and, a generation later, thousands can suffer. Such extreme cases reveal the top of a worldwide iceberg of endemic human cruelty. Precedents established in one place germinate and propagate the psycho-emotional cruelty virus, which jumps from place to place unless it is dealt with. In Afghanistan the onus for cruelty passes from one party to another, reproducing itself in different contexts and taking hold of people whose own pain intersects with collective resentments, turning them from victims into perpetrators and criminals against humanity.

The slough of despond

Some susceptible places become sump areas where existing social-cultural weaknesses attract harmful social viruses from elsewhere, and the nation catches a disease - dissension, oppression or war. Few foresaw the breakdown of social relations in Yugoslavia around 1990 or the extent to which it would go - yet Yugoslavia, disoriented by the fall of the Iron Curtain, unconsciously took on the cold-hearted shadow of the Cold War, which was being shed by other formerly-Soviet countries, and it caught the civil war bug from Lebanon, where a civil war had just ended. Just like colds and flu, these psycho-emotional viruses can move fast.

Even so, such conflicts are usually fomented by individuals who activate harmful ideas and feelings in others, setting mass traumas in motion. This proves difficult for peacekeepers and negotiators, who must be impartial when intervening in crises. In some respects, it could be more effective to 'take out' key perpetrators, but this cannot legally be done, and it is risky. Hence, in Cambodia, Pol Pot's henchmen still walk free, bringing a pervasive atmosphere of fear and forcing the continued presence of peacekeepers to keep the matter under wraps.

Human history has witnessed a cumulative buildup of scars like these, twisting and poisoning situations out of proportion to the actual causes of the problems they face. The unchecked transpersonal motivation to oppress or be oppressed is often unconscious, usually only indirectly connected to the manner in which the oppressor was originally hurt, or the oppressed were originally vulnerable. People might not knowingly exact revenge for past injury, and it might not be aimed at the original oppressor, but it is nevertheless revenge, a psychological getting-back for past pain. One of the biggest illusions we need to break open is that victory in conflict is gratifying.

Connections between past and present events run deep. The Battle of Britain of 1942, when Germany attempted an invasion, revived unconscious English associations going as far back as the Anglo-Saxon invasions some 1,400 years earlier, which came from Germany. These invasions brought large-scale genocidal ethnic cleansing to the Britons. The main strain of the English gene stock derives from the Saxon peoples, and the Battle of Britain activated deep unconscious imagery. The Saxons had invaded Britain precisely to insulate themselves from pressure and attack by others - they came there seeking safe space and willing to fight for it. In the 1940s, this was by no means a consciously-held memory, but its symbolic associations were nevertheless there - a miasm or hidden propensity in the psyche of the English.

Scapegoating

Ill feeling frequently represents a shift of blame onto an available scapegoat, in the absence of truth and of sane ownership of responsibility at home. Discrimination aimed at convenient minorities such as immigrants deflects attention from deeper national issues, fears and social stresses. This has happened for Arabs and Berbers in France, for Mexicans in USA, for Palestinians in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon and for Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few. The anti-Americanism of today is of this kind, even though Americans are not underdogs: while there is cause for such feeling, Americans have become opportune targets for a range of sentiments concerning other issues. USA currently embodies a ghost of imperial heartlessness and big-footedness going back at least to the Romans, also attracting residual anti-imperialist ill-feeling derived from the now-defunct British Empire.

The bottom line here is twofold. First, oppressed or formerly-oppressed peoples, while genuinely hurt, are nevertheless responsible for their own lives and feelings. They cannot continue indefinitely blaming oppressors or symbols. Whether or not they are correct in their feelings, it does them no good. Second, former oppressors have a duty to act to redeem their history and to recognise how others have experienced their actions, whether or not such feelings on the part of recipients are fully justified.

Minorities are scapegoated to steer public attention away from domestic weaknesses. The net effect is that overall social control is increased - not only of the minority. Recently, in USA, anyone looking vaguely Arabic has risked trouble. Sikhs have suffered discrimination, even though they are not Muslims, they dislike Muslim fundamentalism and have themselves suffered greatly from its effects. But their turbans, skin-colour and beards are sufficient to spark mistaken discrimination. Such things happen in many countries and cultures.

Over time, Jews have faced tremendous pressure, insecurity and persecution. This has meant that errors on their part, real or perceived, have been blown out of all proportion, and they have caught blame for things they had little to do with. During the Crusades, European malice toward the Muslim infidel fell first on Jews, who were close to hand and easy to punish - so Jews were persecuted. In our time, as traditional anti-Jewish prejudices have generally been subsiding, except in the case of people who feel aggrieved toward Israelis' recent and current behaviour, it is important for Jews to release the anticipation of persecution. It can cause Jews to over-react to events, misread situations and develop questionable rationales for mistreating non-Jews. The challenge for Jews is to trust: the miasm of anti-Semitism is a two-way tango.

Ethnic jealousy and intolerance can lead to the destruction of cultural heritage remains. This gets at the heart of a culture. The Romans burned part of the library of Alexandria to teach a lesson to free-thinking intellectuals in that city, and in 640 invading Arabs destroyed its remaining 700,000 volumes for similar reasons. In 1993, Serbs targeted Bosnian archives and museums in Sarajevo and Croatian sites in Dubrovnik, and in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the historic Greaco-Bactrian Bamiyan Buddhas. The Serbian case represented distinct ethnic retribution and culture-attack, while the latter was a case of historic deletion of signs of the country's pre-Islamic greatness.

Sometimes such actions are carried out from barefaced arrogance, born of decades or centuries of hard-heartedness. Sometimes they are pointed and intentional, as was the Chinese destruction of Tibetan holy places in the 1950s-70s. Sometimes, though, cultural destruction has been deliberately avoided: the Ottoman Turks, taking Constantinople in 1453, converted the architectural wonders of Christian Byzantium to their own uses, inheriting a ready-made proud capital. Alexander the Great and his fellow Greeks enjoyed inheriting the assets of Phoenicia, Egypt, Babylon and Persia - they thought of themselves as an upgrade of all preceding civilisations.

Passing the buck

What pain drives USA to bombard various parts of the world every few years? One contributory factor lies in the nation's birth and earlier times: many settlers arrived as escapees from hardship and oppression. Once they had got there, carving out a life and building the infrastructure of American society incurred further hardship. The trials faced by refugees, settlers, pioneers, homesteaders, slaves and factory workers built a strange mixture of a strong family spirit and a gun-addled hard-heartedness. USA has at times utilised its arms superiority to positive ends, but the shadow of gun law, armed might and self-interest largely cancel out this benevolence. Conservative Christian fundamentalist values have ruined millions of lives in Latin America and the Middle East. The overwhelming force of the American military permits nothing but the most skilful opposition, such as that of al Qaeda - and many of al Qaeda's methods were taught to them by none other than the CIA in the 1980s. What goes around comes around.

Conservative power-lobbies in USA semiconsciously create enemies against which to rail and joust: once it was Communists, 'the evil empire', and now it is Muslims and rogue states, 'the axis of evil'. There is some basis for these projections, yet they betray a national obsession and paranoiac tendency. USA's underlying insecurities undermine its best interests. There is talk of Pax Americana, but for such an ordered world hegemony to work longterm and wholesomely, if such is possible, it needs to be created with the minimum of force and the maximum of cultural sensitivity. In the last sixty years USA has done more for arms proliferation than any nation. This ethical failure creates an unconscious dynamic inviting the attentions of such people as Muslim terrorists: in their view they challenge the evil forces of world destruction. But their own error is that terror fails to stop war: they have fallen into the same trap as USA's hawks.

Self-punishment

Nations, like individuals, can become self-immolating or suicidal. This applies to all nations, each in their own way and to a greater or lesser extent. As a whole the world is in an unprecedentedly suicidal phase: this surfaced with the exploding of the first atomic bombs in the 1940s, extending since then into environmental, demographic and climatic arenas, into disease, inter-ethnic and military manifestations. Collective death-urges have existed throughout history, but only in the late 20th Century did this become global, consistent and truly visible.

Dallying with death has its thrills - like motor racing or skydiving, it involves treading a fine line between life or death, as if to precipitate one or the other. Yet the brunt of this collective death-wish falls upon some more than others, on victims of war, drought, famine, destitution, disease and social breakdown, whether in Sudan or Harlem. This overall world condition hits vulnerable individuals, social subgroups and nations because it is there globally, like pollution. Suicides in jail, heroin junkies, suicide bombers, terrorists and dictators are not just isolated cases dumping their personal problems on everyone else - they carry something on our behalf that we suppress by living routinised, 'sensible', cautious, self-suppressed lives.

To cover up past inequities, injustices and shadows, a country unconsciously infects itself with degenerative tendencies, taken sometimes to the point of national collapse. Some African countries have fallen in this deep pit - damaged beyond sense or easy revival. Cambodia's 2.5 million deaths in the 1970s represented a nightmare humanity presumably had to suffer, in order to draw a line on depravity, yet Rwanda proved that the shock therapy had been insufficient. Saddam Hussein took Iraq twice to the edge of disaster, with suicidal panache.

National rulers and their competitors can engage in ruinous power-manoeuvring; society lapses into crime, drug-abuse, drunkenness or mass murder; endemic corruption or delusion penetrate business and government, or military establishments gain total control; or social life can drift into a sad movie of contrived appearances and false beliefs. Such symptoms conceal gaping untruths, eating into the body social like dry rot, undermining it to the core. The cultural revolution in China in the 1960s-70s dulled truth perhaps for generations. Such scenarios seem unstoppable until they exhaust themselves and the bottom of the trough is reached.

On the surface, all might seem well enough in many societies, but something insidious lurks underneath, relating to undiscussed national verities and collective crimes sanctioned by public omission and commission. Northern Ireland, Colombia and Angola each became so habituated to polarisation and violence that they had trouble stopping, even when the causes of conflict changed or when resolution came in sight. Afghanistan's future rests on its warlords choosing to bury the hatchet, forget past rivalries and get on with the job of reconciliation. In the end, this is mainly an attitudinal issue, and everything else proceeds from there. It depends also on the amount of power a community gives to those leaders who promote rivalry.

Pain and difficulty are habit-forming. It seems easier for conflicting parties to perpetuate strife than face conflict-redundancy and the facts and realities that peace reveals. While war is in progress, people are toughened, accepting what comes as best they can, but when peace comes pain can surface as people realise how fruitless and ridiculous the whole trauma was, and how much they have lost. The dead and disappeared are missed and the bombsites and minefields starkly remind everyone of their traumas. Delayed-action loss and bitterness can take years, if not generations, to work through. Forgiveness only partially relieves the shooting of one's parents, since it remains a concrete fact that they are no longer there. Yet, still, things can be done to relieve such pain: festivals, mourning occasions, reconciliatory ceremonies and forgiving messages, truth commissions, rebuilding projects and simply getting on with life do bring healing - if the pain is acknowledged rather than suppressed.

The lawless and arbitrary terror of Idi Amin's Uganda and Duvalier's Haiti in the 1970s represented extreme examples of hidden national self-hate and self-doubt turning in on themselves. In Haiti, poverty, dictatorship, an anarchic history and American meddling created a long-lasting nightmare. In Uganda, post-colonial hiatus and the abstractness of Uganda as a nation, founded by colonialists with little regard to local peoples, allowed Idi Amin to drive tribes against each other, then to justify taking military control. This started a murder epidemic. After he escaped to Saudi Arabia (where he still lives), his reign of terror was followed by an AIDS epidemic, caused by rape and bad behaviour during Amin's days.

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 arose from internal degeneration tipping over a critical threshold. The Hutus and Tutsis had been cemented unwillingly into one nation - again, Rwanda was a former colony inappropriate in shape to its residents. The Tutsi minority customarily held the power. The Hutus were deliberately stirred up by their leaders, who exploited a difficult situation to make things worse, and the massacres followed. This kind of thing does not have to happen, but to survive in peace a divided country needs collectively-reinforced social values and impartial institutions to protect it from division or degeneration, and this can sometimes be difficult.

If a nation has steadying factors, cultural or institutional, to prevent the rise of dictators or the descent of society into degeneracy, such nightmares can be avoided. Individuals can do this too: characters such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel and Konrad Adenauer each raised the spirits of their nations after hard times, contributing mightily to reconciliation. But the balances are fine: the friendliest and most beautiful of nations can transform into places of horror - Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia and Cambodia all being examples. One major helpful force is women, whose collective power to shift social values, when it gains momentum, can be final and unstoppable.

Degeneration

When society splinters and atomises, national attention and energies are diverted away from the central issues it faces. Ulster has always suffered a certain geographic marginality which it needed to counterbalance by developing its special talents and assets. Yet it accentuated its marginality by becoming a civil war zone, prompting emigration, discouraging outside contact and, overall, disempowering Ulster society. Moderate sectors of the population were hampered and cowed by sectarian extremists of both sides, just 10-20% of the population, who dominated and skewed all dialogue. Further complications arose too - drug-abuse, disaffected youth, diseconomies, unemployment and lack of a future. Such a loss of social spirit makes any enterprising person choose either to get out or to become a troublemaker.

Opium consumption in China deflated what otherwise could have become a movement for reform or regeneration in the declining days of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s. Western business interests imported the opium, seeing an opportunity to control China through its markets - and, incidentally, establishing the precedent of secret government involvement in the world drugs trade. Opium-addled degeneration was not China's sole alternative, but imperial and cultural conservatism made China easy to exploit. Popular rebellions against the Qing took place, but they failed and, again, were exploited by foreigners for their own designs. Corruption, stagnation and social apathy took hold. Had significant changes come about instead, perhaps around 1790-1840, the later revolutions and disasters of the 20th Century might have been avoided. The Qing were ousted in the nationalist revolution of 1911. This was followed by warlordist mayhem and systemic corruption in the nationalist period of the 1920s-30s, then by Japanese invasion (1937-45) and finally the Maoist revolution of 1949. The Maoist revolution went awry, leading to late-1950s famines during the Great Leap Forward and the 1960s madnesses of the Cultural Revolution. Each of these crises was a mother-of-all-disasters in itself. Arguably, they all dated back to avoidable causes such as the opium trade of the 1800s.

Nations can wallow in self-indulgence to conceal their historic unease. They gratify and placate themselves through consumerism, or pageantry and ostentation, military adventures, investment bubbles, political insanities or faddish cultural permissiveness, in an attempt to bury old woes and dilemmas and to conceal signs of cultural emptiness or decline. The 1920s demonstrated such symptoms in many countries - an exciting time in one sense, but also a time of avoidance and creeping lunacy.

During the 1980s and 1990s countries of the developed world lived in an affluent daydream from which they are only now waking up. At a time of urgently pending world change, comfortable indulgence, self-interest and affluent leisurism prevailed. Western civilisation has many virtues, yet it is plagued with immoderate, unsustainable levels of materialism, complacency and self-entertainment. Gulping consumerism vacuums up the world's resources, prioritising the developed world's interests over all others. This has a burn-up effect, like over-indulgence at Christmas, leading to cultural lethargy, indigestion and eventual crisis. Indulgence makes some sense when a society is reviving from hardship, but ongoing affluence can be self-destructive. Europe's and America's futures lie in humane cultural creativity, but materialism blocks this and is very addictive. As a result they omit to contribute their maturity and inspiration to a changing world.

The sunny opulence of California compensated for the compounded historic hardships experienced by immigrants to USA and migrants heading out West, a century and more ago. The Golden State promised fortunes and the fulfilment of dreams which were to bury Californians' woes forever. This worked well enough between the 1930s and 1980s, at least for the winners, but things are now moving on. When rich and successful, it is difficult to change, even though plenty of Californians do seek it. This is tragic, because available wealth can help bring change, yet change is often delayed until times get hard. Affluence is an age-old means of lulling internal irritations to sleep. Reality does return. Western affluence is now a key global problem, and California is one of its centres. Something must change.

One symptom of insecurity is intolerance toward alternative perspectives, coupled with an unwillingness to discuss major national defining issues. Ruling classes or whole nations can go into denial, maintaining enormous falsities for a long time. This was a perverse cause of the Protestant Reformation in 1500s Europe: the Catholic church had stifled nascent ideas for so long that new and necessary religious developments could take place only outside its cloisters. The church became increasingly militant and repressive in response to the challenge of the innovators. When it staged a comeback in the Counter-Reformation from the 1540s onwards, it had lost its character as a 'broad church', a catholic church.

Internal oppression takes many shapes: domination of provinces by capitals; the tyranny of ruling classes, majorities or influential minorities; the exploitation of workers or specific social groups; male dominance, selective infanticide, ageism, caste and race discrimination; exclusion of the disabled, disadvantaged or outsiders; and punitive judicial systems and suppression and exile of dissenters. These reflect a deep-seated division of the collective psyche into compartments which lose dialogue and eventually stand in opposition.

Such splintering weakens the national psyche as a whole. This goes back longer than anyone can remember, accreting gradually, with flare-ups following latent periods. National characteristics feeding such crises are often accepted as given, indelible tendencies. As global interaction and cultural comparison have increased, populations have become more aware of others' strengths and weaknesses, throwing light back on their own societies. Sometimes this relieves age-old problems and sometimes it transplants social ailments across borders.

Dominance

Deep social divisions can channel very ancient issues. Caste separation in India is an atavism of the Aryan invasion of 3,500 years ago. It prevents ethnic groups from intermarrying or diversifying their social roles, thus rigidly preserving separate gene-stocks, social groupings and roles in a multi-ethnic subcontinent. Indigenous Dravidians, such as Tamils, are today mostly spread across ethnic minorities in south India. At the top of the caste pile are the Aryan Brahmins and warrior and merchant castes of the north. They themselves were kicked around by Muslim invaders of Afghan, Mongol and Turkic origin, who arrived in waves between the 1000s and 1400s, placing themselves on top. Then came the British in the 1700s, placing themselves above Muslims and Hindus. The British successfully dominated India because their own class system had educated them to 'divide and rule'. Mother India absorbed them as a new ruling caste. To an extent this was a balanced power arrangement. But when the British left, Hindu-Muslim relations deteriorated, India was partitioned, Pakistan became entirely Muslim and India remained mixed, with a reduced Muslim population. Secular governance handled this up to the late 1970s, but Hindu nationalists gained the ascendancy by the 1990s. This widened the north-south, Aryan-Dravidian divide in India. An old story was thus revived.

Some empires have been founded on the emotional energy generated from being kicked around or threatened. The Ottoman Turks, busy carving out an empire in Anatolia, were suddenly defeated by Timurlenk at Ankara in 1402. This galvanised them and, within 50 years, they had taken Constantinople and much of the former Byzantine empire. Eventually they controlled the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa.

The rise of imperial Rome can partially be attributed to demeaning treatment by the Etruscans, when Rome was but a small town. Already aggrieved, the Romans smarted after the sack of Rome by invading Celts in 387 BCE. Eventually they broke the back of the Etruscans and other Italian tribes until, by the 290s BCE, they controlled most of Italy. This invade-and-control process extrapolated itself until, within 400 years, their empire stretched from Iraq to Scotland.

The British had been merchant adventurers, pirates and haphazard colonists for 200 years, but when the Americans shockingly declared independence in 1776, the Brits became serious imperialists. Napoleon then took over Europe between 1794 and 1810, isolating Britain, and industrialising Britain was goaded into action by loss of its European markets. The British made sure they dominated the seas and colonies, embarking on a massive colonial project.

The point with the above instances is that, as with school bullies, imperialists and oppressors have historic pain that they then pass onto others.

Environmental impacts

Historical hurts manifest in the destruction of landscapes. Insecure nations think short-term - so the forests are thoughtlessly chopped down, the grasslands desertified and the rivers polluted. It is not felt to be worth it to invest energy in wise land-use, improvement of ecological capital and conservation. Inter-tribal feuds on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) led to its deforestation centuries ago. Ancient Sumerian farming and irrigation techniques were cut back when attacks started, and this led to land salination, turning much of Mesopotamia into semi-desert. Settler pressures and over-farming in the US Midwest led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Soviet industrial, plantation and irrigation projects in Uzbekistan led to the draining of the Aral Sea, now a fraction of its former size. Britain, once 97% and now 4% forested, was deforested gradually, but the shipbuilding exploits of Henry VIII and his successors robbed the forests of their greatest trees, and ordinary people, over-taxed and rather jaded, permanently cleared much more.

Collective pain can blind a culture to its environment, causing it to bypass sustainable development strategies. This can emanate directly from rulers - such as the decimation of Lebanese cedar forests by king Solomon for the building of the Jerusalem temple. Heavy taxation, economic downturn, social disturbance and civil war mightily contribute to environmental degradation. As each new generation grows up it carries no memory of how things were before, so it tends not to return things to their former glory. Military actions have laid waste whole landscapes, polluting the soil with lead, chemicals and, more recently, depleted uranium. A mixture of human folly, local need and industry-scale exploitation has denuded the world. Restoring healthy natural balance involves not just policy decisions and investment but significant psycho-emotional shifts in humankind. The biggest single ingredient in environmental correction is love - love for life, love for the land and love for the massive job of restoring it.

Conclusion

We have examined various manifestations of social pain and historic scarring. To prevent further tragedy and repetition of error, a fundamental healing process is needed. Treaties, fair trade, peace processes and nation-building have their virtues and their place, but they do not replace healing They usually work more for governments and business than for ordinary people and their feelings. Healing through economic growth and democratic institutions without attending to the feeling-substrate of society can create fuel for future crises - like chocolate, it relieves a craving but leads to longer-term health problems. What is needed is a deeper process of public communication, communion and reconciliation which addresses hearts in their own language of empathy and feelings. When victims recognise that oppressors are in themselves hurt and defensive, some movement might start. When oppressors realise that victims have genuine grievances, movement can accelerate.

Pain-inflicting activities ultimately help no one: they are internalised injuries externalising themselves. Cycles of tyranny can go on forever. Until negative tendencies are turned around, their repercussions can reverberate through to generations uninvolved in the initial wrongs and often unaware of them. Collective memory-shadows can stretch back thousands of years. No matter what justification is given for conflict, conflict is critically obsolete now that globalisation has changed the context. Even pre-emptive strikes on the most humanitarian of grounds have a damaging longterm impact. Conflict obstructs the process of getting to grips with global issues. So a matter of primary importance is to set in motion a global process of directly addressing hurts. It is not just a matter of dealing with the past: we need to stop creating new pain for the future.


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Healing the Hurts of Nations

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In 1950 China invaded the peaceful land of Tibet using a force of 40,000 troops. China was keen to tell the world that they had done no wrong. Following the invasion the Chinese government set up a 21-Point Plan, committing China not to interfere with Tibet's existing government and society. Today, the three Tibetan provinces have all been given Chinese names. All local legislation in Tibet must first be approved by the Chinese government in Beijing before in can become law. In every region of Tibet, local government is overruled by the regional party, and nowhere does the regional party have a Tibetan leader. Following the invasion Tibetan farmers had their farms seized from them and put under Chinese government control. As a result, Tibet had its first recorded famine, from 1960-62. The crop failure led to the deaths of 340,000 Tibetans.

In 1959 there was a National Uprising in which the Tibetan people attempted to reclaim their country. Many of Tibet's leaders and academics were forced into exile from their own country. This included the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who fled Tibet ten years after the invasion, along with 100,000 other Tibetans. The Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan people even today, yet he still cannot return to his native country.

Tibetan exiles claim that 430,000 Tibetan people died either as a result of the National Uprising or during the ensuing guerrilla war which lasted 15 years. Over one million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese since 1950. By 1960 the International Commission of Jurists concluded that there was genuine evidence of genocide committed by the Chinese upon the Tibetan people.

A vast number of protesters have been placed in prison camps. Many have died in prison. Exiled Tibetans claim that 260,000 people died in prison camps between 1950 and 1984.

Since 1987, about 3,000 people have been detained in prison for what the Chinese consider to be 'political crimes'. These crimes include writing letters which mention the right of Tibetans for self determination, or distributing leaflets or talking to foreign visitors about this issue. A majority of the prisoners held for such crimes are monks, nuns, and students or academics. In the prisons, political prisoners are regularly tortured - methods of torture which have been conclusively documented include forcing prisoners to live in filthy conditions, starvation, denial of medical attention, being forbidden to speak, solitary confinement, beatings, and electric shock batons. There are prisoners being held in these conditions as you read this book.

Following the invasion, Chinese replaced Tibetan as the official language. All children in school in Tibet are taught a fabricated version of their own history, a version which omits all mention of an independent Tibet. All classes in secondary school are taught in Chinese. No discussion of any kind relating to Tibetan history, culture, religion, or contemporary society is allowed, unless it has been rehearsed and officially approved. All such discussions must glorify China and make no mention of Tibet's suffering.

The Chinese government has encouraged Chinese families to move into Tibet. The result is that today, Tibetans are a minority in their own country. There are now up to 5.5 million Chinese in Tibet, compared to 4.5 million Tibetans. At least half of Tibet's forests have been cut down, and China openly admits to using Tibet as a dumping ground for their vast quantities of radioactive nuclear waste. One such nuclear dump is 20 square kilometres across, and is situated alongside Lake Kokonov, Tibet's largest fresh water lake. It is believed there are currently 300,000 Chinese troops in Tibet.

For more information or to offer your support:

Free Tibet Campaign
28 Charles Square, London N1 6HT, United Kingdom

Or

Australia Tibet Council
PO Box 1236, Potts Point, Sydney 1236, NSW, Australia

Or type in TIBET on your Internet search engine


Adrian Beckingham

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Adrian Beckingham

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The Banyan Deer King


Once upon a time long long ago the Buddha was reborn as a Banyan Deer. The herd of deer in which he was a family member lived in an area rich with valleys and hills, fields and forests. It was a blessed place to be a young deer, full of wonders and adventure as well as danger. He grew up wisely, learning the ways of the deer, and when he was fully grown, he was elected as the leader of his tribe.

Other clans of wild deer also lived in the area, as did a great menagerie of other animals such as bears, foxes, and boars. This was no problem, for theirs was a rich land in natural bounties of the Earth, and there was plenty of food and space and fresh water for everyone. As leader of his clan, the Buddha led his herd into the heart of a bountiful and beautiful forest, where he knew they could live in peace and humble splendour, surrounded by the bounty of nature and the protection of the tall trees.

But then one day it came to pass that the human population of the area elected a new human king. The king of the people considered himself good-hearted and wise, and in some ways this was true - he appreciated bravery and craftsmanship and strength. Yet in other ways he was less good-hearted and less wise.

The new king's gravest vice was his love of the hunt. Nothing pleased him better than to mount his horse and charge across the farms, fields and meadows, or into the valleys and through the woods, with a great convoy of courtiers hunting alongside him. He gave no thought to the terror this inflicted on the poor animals running for their lives away from him. He considered the hunt a great and noble tradition, and he was determined to celebrate the fact with frequent rides, regardless of the consequences this had upon the land or other people and animals that lived in the area. This was pompous and ignorant pride - though he did not at first see it as so.

The king would mount his horse as soon as the sun rose, and charge away from his palace with a small army of men armed with bows and arrows, and a great cluster of wagons following rapidly behind. The hunters would race across the land in hot pursuit of any prey unfortunate enough to cross their maddening path. Fields would be ruined, meadows would be trampled, forests would be beaten this way and that. And as the sun went down, the king would return to his palace, the long line of wagons laden with monkeys, boars, tigers, pheasants, rabbits, deer and other creatures that had made the surrounding landscape their home.

The hunters were thrilled by the chase and the success of their catch, none less so than the king himself. But the people of his kingdom were less pleased. Fields and meadows had been trampled underfoot, and many of the common folk were expected to leave off their daily chores to beat the long grasses or shout between the trees. With long sticks they would shout and stamp and holler and swing - this being to scare the wild animals and make them bolt in the direction of the waiting king and his troupe of armed men. The king was so busy hunting he gave no time to affairs of the state,

so that many of the farmers and traders and other common folk feared their small country might soon fall to wrack and ruin due to the king's lack of attention.

And so the people devised a plan. First, they went to the edge of the forest and cut down a great number of young, tall, sapling trees. Slice, crack, thwack. The sound of metal cutting into wood, and the groan, creak, whoosh of the trees as they fell and hit the forest floor, resounded heavily through the valley. This was followed by the crunch and thud and whomp of hammers and spades as the fallen saplings were bound together and their ends buried into the rich black soil of the forest floor. Carpenters, masons and builders worked side by side, and with everyone working together, they

erected a strong stockade. The tall saplings made an excellent fence, with a wide platform running along the top of it, and a sturdy set of wooden stairs that led from the platform to the forest floor. The fence was higher than a deer can leap, and wide enough to encompass a long sweep of forest glade. The fence was well disguised, for the tied and bound saplings were camouflaged by the tight canopy of trees that grew naturally all around them. And there was but one set of wooden stairs, which could only be used if you were outside the perimeter of the fence. Inside, there was nothing but a tall drop, taller - as you know - than a deer can leap.

The people then crept stealthily through the forest, quiet and careful and skilled - hushed as only those humans can be who have explored a forest as children, learning its every dip and bend, and played hiding games there. In this manner they crept upon two large herds of deer which were grazing together on the rich green grass.

With whoops and cheers, the people leapt forward. They chased the deer toward the open gates of the stockade. The deer turned and leapt and darted and sprang, but at every bend there were more people shouting and waving, and in the end the deer were chased straight through the disguised gates of the forest stockade.

Then the people leapt forward and, with swift and eager hands, they clamped the wide gate shut, entrapping the deer within. The deer were horrified to see themselves confined. They ran this way and that along the inside edge of the fence, running and jumping and snorting and panting, till their bodies were slick with wet sweat and their limbs were utterly exhausted and their heads drooped in despair.

Yet the people were glad. It was their intention to present the stockade of wild deer to the king - present it to him as a gift of their labours and a sign of their goodwill. This they did, and they made sure to emphasis to their king that within the stockade's perimeter lay a domain rich with wild game - including two full herds of deer.

It was the common people's unspoken hope - unspoken before the king, that is, for they spoke openly enough of it amongst themselves - that this stockade, built as it was within the wilderness of the forest, would satisfy the king's lust for hunting. This would at the same time hopefully discourage the Royal Hunt from chasing across the farmers' fields and meadows and from trampling the good earth, the precious seeds and plants underfoot. Also, if the king agreed, the people would be free to tend their farms and their shops and other businesses, rather than beat out the animals for the hunt, and this would advantage them greatly. The hunt was an unwelcome expense to their energy and their time.

The people hoped in earnest that the stockade would bring an end to their troubles, for whereas the Royal Hunt had repeatedly crossed their land time and again, they knew it is very difficult and extremely perilous to say no to a king. And so the stockade was built and it was presented before the king. The new king was openly pleased and secretly flattered that they, his subjects, had created such a thing in his name.

It seemed fair to assess that the building of the stockade had been a success and granted everyone's needs. This might be true, if viewed narrowly and with a closed heart - truly the people were very glad and so too was the king and his troupe of proud hunters. However, view the same situation with open eyes and an honest heart, and it shall be clear that the situation did not please everyone. For the two herds of wild deer were trapped within the fence, their freedom to run the wild forest had been ended and instead, they were ensnared. This knowledge unsettled the deer and filled their days with fear.

The Banyan Deer King watched the wide startled eyes of the frightened deer in his clan and the other herd. He saw some of them leap and charge and run along the fence, trying to escape.

The Banyan Deer King walked amongst them. His huge many-branched antlers caught the soft golden beams of the sunlight as he walked amongst the shadows of the trees. His dark eyes shone.

"Do not be fearful," he said. "Truly we are caught within the perimeter of the stockade. Yet still we have green grass below our hooves, protective trees all about, rich fruits and berries and nuts to feast upon, sweet flowing rivers to drink from, and the high blue sky above our heads. While there is life, there is hope. Trust in me, for I shall find a way."

This gave the deer clan of the Banyan Deer King a sense of faith that worked greatly toward healing their fears. He was truly noble and truly wise, and they trusted he would not let them down.

When the king of the people arrived, he walked to the top of the high stairs and peered down at the many deer that were caught in the confines of the wide stockade. He saw the two deer kings who led the clans and he was in awe of their majestic beauty, their strength, and noble grace. And so he looked to his courtiers and he said, "The two deer kings are magnificent creatures indeed! Let it be known that they must never be harmed."

Then, aiming away from the two deer kings but into the general crowd of deer standing in the enclosed forest below him, he notched an arrow to his bow, and fired. His men followed suit. It seemed to the deer that a great rainfall of arrows was showering down upon them. The deer panicked, in fear for their lives, and they darted in wild frenzy this way and that, in a terrified attempt to be safe from the bitter sting of the arrows. The stockade was wide and long, but the hunters could run along the wooden platform and seek the panicked deer out as they hid amongst the trees. How they shouted and pointed and cheered, as they let their arrows fly!

When the firing stopped, several deer lay slain. The men entered the stockade with their arrows at the ready, lest any of the living deer dare to charge them. They need not have worried. The deer were shocked and horrified and exhausted. The king's men gathered up the fallen deer and loaded their wagons.

When they had left, there was great mourning, a huge mist of sadness that descended upon the two deer herds. Their situation seemed desperate indeed. And they realised that the toll they had taken stretched further than the slaughtered deer which the king had taken away, for the wild terror of their stampede had meant several of the deer had crashed together and been badly wounded.

Several days later the king and his hunters returned, and again

a great storm of arrows hailed down upon the terrified deer who stampeded this way and that. And again the men's arrows killed several of the deer, and the men came and took them away. And again, there were a number of deer who had managed to escape the arrows, but who, in blind panic, had tripped or stumbled or crashed together, and they lay now wounded on the forest floor.

Buddha, in his reincarnation as the Banyan Deer King, called upon the other deer chief to meet him in council, to discuss their fate. Thus the two deer kings met and contemplated what could be done. It was resolved that from this moment forth, each day every deer would pull a single blade of grass from the forest floor, pulling it loose between their sharp hooves. And it was decided that whenever they heard the sound of the king's horses coming toward them through the forest, whosoever amongst the deer had that day pulled the shortest blade - they would sacrifice themselves to the hunters.

When the kings' council was over, the Banyan Deer King spoke to his tribe and he instructed, "The two herds shall take it in turns to pull grass from the forest floor. The deer who pulls the shortest blade shall stand alone in clear view, and offer themselves up to the hunters' harsh arrows. It is a bitter and a tragic event, and yet such a sacrifice shall save lives, for it will spare us the maddened stampede - the stampede that only occurs when the hunters fire down in an attempt to reach us with their arrows. The stampede is casting injury and death amongst us. Let a single deer offer himself, herself up - by allotment of fate - and let the rest of the herd thereby be daily spared."

And thus, when next a few days later, the king and his courtiers arrived with their horses and climbed the steep wooden steps to the top of the stockade, they were astonished to see a single deer standing in clear view directly below them. The deer's eyes were bright with terror, and its legs and body trembled. Yet it held its head high.

"What is this?" the courtiers remarked, questioning their king and looking to him for an answer.

The king of the people looked down at the deer, and he was touched by the sad nobility of the creature as it stood there in direct view below them. "Why this deer is noble indeed!" the king said. "For it is clear to me that this deer has chosen to give up its life, in order to save the many. Hmmm. Let it then be so - for who am I to contest such a noble fate?"

The king took his bow, notched an arrow, took aim, and fired. The aim was direct and the deer fell to the forest floor. The king hung his head, and in silence he returned to his horse and rode sadly back to his palace. The hunters gathered the single deer and placed it upon their wagon, and with many wagons still empty, they followed their king slowly home.

That night, when the king took himself to his bed, he dreamt of a great and powerful stag. It ran with him through the forest - running as brothers - the stag's swift hooves carrying a grace and a speed, as his antlers arched tall and wide into many branches which captured the bright radiance of the dazzling sun.

When next the hunters arrived, the king was not with them. Yet a single deer stood in clear view below the wide platform of the stockade. The hunters, following their king's orders, fired upon this single deer with a single arrow. And the deer fell dead, and the men gathered it into a single wagon, and rode home.

And so it was that the fear amongst the deer was greatly abated. And yet still, each day, every one of them would drag a single blade of grass from the forest floor - and much did they dread that it would be their turn to sacrifice themselves to the good of the many.

Then one day it happened that the shortest blade was drawn from the soil by a pregnant doe. She was terrified that it was now her turn to sacrifice herself, and yet more than this, she was horrified that this would also mean the death of the unborn child which nestled in the nourishing warmth of her womb.

She went to her king, who was not the Banyan Deer, but the other - yet nonetheless her king was good-hearted and wise. After all, unlike the kings and queens of the humans, the royalty of the deer folk are always elected according to virtues of wisdom and bravery, gentleness and strength combined. Her king listened to her plight, and then he replied, "Dear doe, I wish it were not so. How I wish we were free to roam the forest, instead of penned into this single forest glade. And yet alas we are stuck here, and each of us has agreed to work together, for the better good and the ultimate survival of us all. You have drawn the shortest blade of grass. If I allow you to be free of the condition of the sacrifice, then I must also allow others to free themselves as well. This cannot be, for soon we would return to the wild stampede, and we should certainly vanish sooner as a herd."

Sick with sorrow for the fate of her unborn child, the pregnant doe went in desperation to the king of the herd to which she did not belong - the herd led by the Banyan Deer King. She went to him, and knelt before him on the ground. He too listened to her plight. And he said, "Dear doe, I wish it were not so. How I wish we were free to roam the forest, instead of penned into this single forest glade. Alas we are stuck here, and each of us has agreed to work together, for the better good and the ultimate survival of us all. You have drawn the shortest blade of grass. And yet - our agreement holds that only one deer shall be sacrificed each time when the hunters come. And you are not one deer. You are two. Therefore, be free of the bounds of the sacrifice, for they do not and cannot apply to you."

The pregnant doe leapt to her feet in a flood of relief and gratitude and joy. She jumped off through the forest glade, even as the Banyan Deer King began a slow walk amongst the deer of his tribe.

The Banyan Deer King walked amongst his clan. Already he knew what he must do. The pregnant doe had been released from the terms of the sacrifice, and another deer needed to be selected to stand in her stead. His herd peered upon him with trustful eyes, for he was great and strong and noble but never pompous. He was humble in his majesty and grateful for the joys life could bring. They looked upon his high wide antlers and his strong neck and clear eyes, as he walked amongst them. Never had he lorded it over them. Always had he looked after them with care and compassion and

wisdom. They trusted that if there was a way to escape this current disaster, then he would find it. He had always done his best to care for them. They wondered what they would ever do without his gentle strength and clarity to guide them.

Walking amongst them in slow silence, the Banyan Deer King already knew there was none in his tribe he could ask to take the pregnant doe's place. The terms of the sacrifice must be fulfilled, or be discarded forever to the detriment of them all. Yet among his herd there was no one he could order to replace the doe he had released.

And so it was that when next the hunters arrived, they climbed the wooden stairs to find the Banyan Deer King standing alone below them, in clear view. This startled them, and they knew not what to do. So they sent a message for their own king to come, and see for himself.

The king soon arrived, with a rush of his horse's hooves and a sweep of his long fine robes. The king mounted the stairs and peered down from the platform. There below him stood the beautiful majesty of the Banyan Deer King.

"What are we to do, our king?" his hunters asked him.

The king of the people descended the stairs and went to the gate of the stockade, then slid its clasp to one side and entered. His courtiers watched in awe as the brave man walked toward the tall and powerful deer. The human king carried his bow, but he held it gently to one side, and his arrows rested without threat in the quiver.

The king of the people walked softly and slowly and quietly toward the great antlered deer king before him. Then, standing almost nose to nose, the two kings locked eyes - and in this stance they began to speak, to speak not using words, but with their eyes only, for this was enough.

The man spoke first, and said, "Great and noble deer king, I know you. I have seen you in my dreams, where we have run through the forest as brothers - though I could not match your grace or your speed. You know that I have decreed my hunters may never fire upon you. Why then do you sacrifice yourself?"

To which the Banyan Deer replied, "Great and noble man king, what ruler can be free if those we rule suffer? We have decreed that only one deer should die when your hunters come, and on this occasion the lottery fell to a pregnant doe. She asked for my aid, and although not of my tribe, yet we deer are all of us in this together. Our fate is shared. I could not ask her to commit the sacrifice, for she is not one deer. She is two. Therefore I had little choice but to let her go - and to stand here in her stead. This is my right and my duty as a king. How could it not be so?"

The man hung his head, for deep was his reverence for this noble deer. He contemplated what had been said, and then he raised his gaze to again look into the eyes of the Banyan Deer. The king of men said, "Noble deer king, you have instructed me in the task of kingship, as though you were my teacher and I a mere student.

"A good king should take care of all the subjects in his domain - from the meekest to the greatest. I have been mistaken in my handling of kingly affairs, and for this lesson I shall grant you a reprieve. You may lead your herd out of the stockade, and live in freedom in the open forest. Never again shall you or any of your herd be hunted by my courtiers or any person within my domain."

The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have accepted the offer there and then - it is well known it is often dangerous to say no to a king, and the offer was, after all, a generous one.

Yet it is told how the Banyan Deer King raised his head high and said, "Great man king, I must say no!"

"No?" asked the man, astonished. "I give you and your herd the gift of life. How can you say no?"

"How can I not?" asked the Banyan Deer. "For if I accept, and my people leave the stockade, I must contemplate the devastation that would reap upon the other herd. A good king rules with a compassionate heart, looking over the needs of everyone, and balancing what is best for all. Our freedom would come at too great a price. For look into the hearts of those who live in the other herd, and imagine the terror and the devastation that would fall upon them. They would taste the bitter death of a storm of arrows indeed, which would rain down upon them with relentless fury, and there would be no reprieve. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."

Again the king of men found himself to be astonished, and to feel humbled before the depth of compassion evident in the noble deer before him. He thought at length, and then he said, "Noble deer king, you would sacrifice yourself and your herd to share the burden of this grief with the other herd, rather than realise your own freedom?"

"I would and I must," said the Banyan Deer King. "For a good king considers the fate of all things in his domain, and weighs the good of all to the best of the many."

The king of men needed some time to consider what to do. He was humbled before the grand compassion of the Banyan Deer. It inspired him. And so, in the end, he said, "Noble deer king, your compassion has opened my locked heart, which I knew not to be closed until this very moment. For this lesson, I shall pay you the boon of freedom for both the deer tribes. Go to your herd, and go to the king of the other herd also, and inform all that you have bargained their freedom well. All of you may henceforth live in the open forest, and no man shall ever hunt the deer again within my domain."

The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have accepted the offer there and then - after all, you don't lightly say no to a king who holds power over you.

The Banyan Deer King said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"

"No?" The king of men exclaimed, his eyes wide with surprise. "I offer you the freedom of all the deer in the stockade, how can you say no?"

"I can and I must, it is my duty as a king," replied the Banyan Deer. "For if all the deer are free from your arrows, my heart goes out to all the other creatures of the land - the bears and the pheasants and the tigers - who must pay a weighty price for our freedom. If you and your people spare only the deer, then death shall come quickly indeed to the other creatures that also call this land their home. If I am to live at all, it must be in compassion. For a good king looks to all who live in his domain, and cares for them equally. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."

The king of men could not believe his ears. He could not believe what he was hearing, but deep within him, he felt a weight fall from his heart, and it was as though his eyes had been opened for the very first time. He peered into the gaze of the noble Banyan deer, and the king of men said, "Noble deer king, let it then be so. Your words have opened my heart, and opened my eyes. Such compassion as yours is a gift indeed. I am privileged to have witnessed it, and shall strive from now on to follow your instruction in my own kingly deeds. May I be a better king than I have been. And thus I do decree, that from this moment on, all animals who walk this land shall be saved from the sting of my hunters' arrows, and no man shall ever endanger you again. Now, return to your tribe, and to the king of the other herd, and leave the stockade. Tell all the animals of the land what has been said and what has been agreed."

The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. It was a good offer. He might have accepted it there and then - you do not easily say no to a king who holds the power of life or death over you.

The Banyan Deer King stood tall and raised his mighty antlers toward the sky, then said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"

"No?" stammered the man king, his eyes reeling in surprise. "I have offered you the freedom of all the animals of the land who live in my domain! How can you say no?"

The Banyan Deer replied, "I can and I must. It is my duty as a king. For if all the animals of the land are spared by human hunters, how swift shall be the silence that ends the singing of the birds who live in the sky. Your arrows shall in no time at all end their song forever, and we shall all be the poorer. Lament the day the sky is emptied of their graceful flight, and the trees are barren of their nests! Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."

The king of men trembled as he looked up, and admired the smooth glide of a wide-winged hawk as it rode the wind, carving a slow and gracious path through the sky. Somewhere a small bird chirruped and cooed, and the melody of it softened the man's heart even more. He looked back to the Banyan Deer, and the king of men said, "Noble deer king, you are a wise teacher indeed! Your words are like music that softens and shatters the hard binds of ignorance that until this day have captivated me, and held me as their prisoner. From this moment on, I shall decree the freedoms you request are granted, and all creatures of the land and the sky shall live without fear of men - for never again shall they be hunted by any person who lives in my domain."

The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have done well to accept the generous offer there and then - it is said to be unwise to challenge a king, and to say no when the king requires a yes.

The Banyan Deer King said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"

"No?" choked the man king. "I have offered you the freedom of all the animals of the land and the birds of the sky who live in my domain! How can you say no?"

The Banyan Deer King bowed his great head and pointed his branched antlers toward the soft song of the nearby river. Then he matched the man king's gaze, and with his eyes he said, "I can and I must say no. It is my duty as a king. For if all the animals of the land, and all the birds of the sky were safe from the arrows of your people - what then the fate of the creatures who live in the fresh water rivers and pools? The water refreshes us all, it gives life to the plants and the animals and the people. Open your heart to feel compassion for the fish and the crabs and the eels and all creatures who make their home in the fresh water, who honour it with their presence and give it the entirety of their lives and their dreams. Their fate would be a bitter swift end indeed, if I were to agree to your noble terms. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."

The king of men was awed and dumbstruck. It was as if a great wave of compassion swept from the heart of the Banyan Deer King and flooded his own. Such compassion was a beautiful and a wonderful ocean to swim in, a momentous cleansing wave that washed away all his previous misconceptions. It made him want to dance and sing, and he sensed a great new era open out for his entire kingdom.

The king of men bowed and looked into the Banyan Deer's eyes, and he said, "Oh, most noble Banyan Deer King, you have washed away the old chains of disillusionment and selfish nature which have bound and tortured my unknowing soul. What I saw as pleasure of the hunt was really my own desire to run free with the deer in the forest, to swim free with the fish in the rivers, to fly free with the birds in the sky. It seems you shall make farmers of us all, and yet I can see now more clearly than ever I saw before. My heart is an ocean of compassion, and I wish to nurture it wholly and faithfully. Therefore, noble deer, I shall today decree that from this time henceforth, no creature of the land or the sky or the water may ever again be hunted by any person in my domain. We shall all share this home of ours as brothers and sisters. May the story and the example of our kingdom spread across the globe of this Earth, and touch people's hearts as you have touched mine. Oh, let there be peace at last on Earth!"

And the Banyan Deer King said, "Yes!" He leapt into the air and danced, his antlers and hooves gliding gracefully and in utter ecstasy. He had done it! He had found a way! As he ran through the forest, the king of men ran alongside him, laughing and dancing and whooping for joy. The man could not match the Banyan Deer's speed or grace, and yet they were brothers, each with their own power, and the world was to be a better place for it. If only the world would listen.

And so it was that a peace that had never before been matched, settled into the kingdom wherein lived the Banyan Deer King, the king of men, and the creatures of the land and sky and water. Compassion softened that land like a gentle blanket of glorious warmth and endless grace, and all living things were glad.

The king grew to be old and wise, and the kingdom prospered. Before he died, the compassionate old king of men had a stone pillar set in the forest - set in the very spot where he had stood and spoken with the Banyan Deer King all those years ago. Upon the stone, masons carved the image of a deer, and the words:

Homage to the Noble Banyan Deer,
Compassionate Teacher of Kings.


That stone stands in the forest still. Its message lives on in the hearts of those who look upon the stone and sit by it for a while, in the hearts of those who live in that small kingdom, and in the hearts of those who listen to this story.

Om Shanti!

 

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Sample chapter:

1. Avalon

 

The name Avalon has become associated with Glastonbury to a point beyond question. It is everywhere: in house-names, businesses, a school, and more. It has long had a sort of vague acceptance among the local people as something to do with legend, King Arthur and the Grail and all that sort of thing. But to dig deeper, to try to find out why this is so, or how it happened, is to get into a very complicated area indeed. Perhaps we shouldn't worry. Might we not just as well content ourselves with Avalon as a 'feeling', recognized subjectively as a magical point of fusion between the known and the unknown applied to a small area of semi-rural England?

All places breathe their own atmosphere of destiny, hinting at some future deliverance coloured by a nostalgia for a once-known, but lost, past. Glastonbury's is writ larger than most.

The fact of it all lies in the landscape itself: nature has set the scene to allow our myth-making faculties full rein, opening a gateway, a bridge, to another world.

Every nation has its chief holy place. We can think of Jerusalem in the Middle East, Delphi in Greece, Tara in Ireland. For England it is Glastonbury. The name itself is a thing to conjure with, as John Michell shows in his New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury:

"It is possible that the first syllable in 'Glastonbury' derives from an old British word for oak or woad, and it has also been linked with Glasteing, a legendary early settler at Glastonbury... but there is no reason to doubt the obvious explanation, that it is a simple translation from Glastonbury's former Celtic name, Iniswitrin, Isle of Glass or Crystal Isle. A glassy isle is mythologically a place of enchantment. Within it is Caer Wydr, the Glass Castle, and Caer Siddi, the Fairy Fort, also translated as the Spiral Castle. The country where these places are to be found is Annwn, the Celtic land of Faery. In The Spoils of Annwn, a poem attributed to the sixth-century Welsh bard, Taliesin, is described how Arthur sailed there to rob its ruler of his magical, pearl-rimmed cauldron which gave sustenance to all who were worthy of it. This vessel seems to have been an early version of the Holy Grail, and Arthur's quest for it in Annwn foreshadows the location in Christian times of the Grail Quest at Glastonbury."

There is little doubt that Glastonbury was a pagan centre long before it became the prime Christian shrine of the West. In ancient times it was a tidal island, a sea-shore place, and, as Geoffrey Ashe has suggested, may have been venerated as one of the 'Isles of the Dead' from which souls passed on into the other world.

From a distance, the landscape is dominated by the strange conical hill known as the 'Tor'. A lone church tower caps its summit, dedicated, as such places nearly always are, to the Archangel Michael. Apart from the lesser hills scattered round and about, the land westward towards the Bristol Channel is flat as far as the eye can see, the shelf of the Mendips to the north and the less dramatic ridge of the Poldens to the south-west. Near the side of the Tor, set in a well cared-for garden, is the ancient chalybeate spring known as Chalice Well. Water pours from it at all times even in periods of long drought.

The town of Glastonbury itself is ranged around the square of roads which frames the extensive grounds of the ruined Abbey, once the largest and grandest in the country. These days there is nothing 'quaint' about the town. There are supermarkets, filling stations, cafés, tourist shops, inns and car-parks. Some eight thousand people live there.

To the west, towards the long-closed railway station and these days intersected by the relief road, runs Benedict Street, passing an ancient church bearing the same dedication. More correctly this should not be Benedict at all, but Benignus, a Celtic personage whose name ought not to have been so blatantly expunged from memory. A half-mile further on, within a system of fields known on old maps simply as 'Bride', is the site of a hermitage and chapel, no longer visible, said to have been occupied by the Irish saint, Bridget, with her community of nuns. Nearby was once a spring known as St. Bride's Well, of which more later. On the southern edge of this area, close to the road leading to the neighbouring shoe-making town of Street, the whale-back shape of Wirral Hill rises up and falls sharply towards the crossing of the River Brue at Pomparles Bridge. This is the 'Weary-all' Hill of the Joseph of Arimathea story, the place where it is said he struck his staff into the ground. This took root, to become the famed Glastonbury 'Holy Thorn' which flowers remarkably every year at Christmas.

It is known that prehistoric settlements existed here. A hundred years ago a local antiquarian, Arthur Bulleid, discovered the foundations of two ancient lake villages, built for security on wooden piles in the sea-marshes a couple of miles or so outside the town.

In more recent times the suggestion has been put forward that the dominant prehistoric culture here was matriarchal - making it pre-eminently a 'goddess' place. This dovetails well with the theory, which we will explore later, that a women's druidic 'college' may have existed at Beckery, on the site of St Bridget's settlement, in early Celtic times.

There are two linked traditions at Glastonbury. The first is that Christianity came to Britain immediately after the crucifixion, with Glastonbury the chosen site of its foundation. The second is that Glastonbury is the ancient 'Isle of Avalon' where, as legend has it, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere lie buried. The two are connected by the story of the Holy Grail. One tradition has it that the uncle of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, brought the Cup of the Last Supper with him to Glastonbury, and disposed of it by either, as some say, burying it on Chalice Hill (near Chalice Well), or delivering it to the safekeeping of a secret priesthood. In time its location was forgotten, and this was deemed the cause of the many misfortunes that befell the Kingdom. In the Arthurian romances, the Quest of the Knights of the Round Table is for the recovery of the vessel leading to the restoration of the Waste-Land to life and fecundity. The trouble is that none of these stories comes into any kind of focus before the chronicles and other literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is not before this time, either, that there is any reference identifying Glastonbury with Avalon.

There are indications that point to a pagan origin for much of the later, Christianized material. This conclusion need not destroy anything for us if we are primarily apprehending these stories on the level of the 'soul', as atmosphere, as poetry. With Christianity came a sea change, an adjustment of the psyche, collectively and individually, which extended but did not demolish, the pagan rapture of the Celtic heart. So, too, the storytelling flowed on the inner currents. There was a new promise of Divine Love, of Transcendent Being, of Deification - but ever the battle with the forces of opposition, of destruction. It is not the place here to discuss the historical complexities of the development of the Glastonbury Arthurian and Avalonian lore, nor is it in my power to do so. The whole ground has already been thoroughly worked over by that greatest of latter-day Avalonians, Geoffrey Ashe, who has lived for more than thirty years in Dion Fortune's former home at the foot of the Tor. In his King Arthur's Avalon, all these questions are carefully sifted through and discussed sympathetically at length.

We should hold it as our basic premise that 'Avalon' is something spiritually real and valid, something that can be recognized by those whose destiny it is to travel close to the heart of 'inner' things. We can allow that it has both an identity with the location known as Glastonbury and a meaning on a level which transcends it. During the nineteenth century, an awareness gained momentum of what might generally be called 'The Matter of Britain'. Precisely where this revival began, if it had ever wholly died, is debatable. Possibly with certain poets; possibly within certain Masonic, Rosicrucian groups; certainly with William Blake. In his writings Blake foresaw a spiritual destiny for Britain, personified as the giant Albion, and the birth of a new awareness in men and women.

The idea that the sleeping Arthur might return, and that this represented something, took hold. Tennyson was the most notable exponent of the Arthurian myth, and its connection with Glastonbury, in his Idylls of the King. There was also a bevy of socialists and 'New Thought' radicals who saw it all as an allegory of the birth of the 'whole man', unexploited and emancipated with nature in useful toil.

This period saw the emergence of new occult and esoteric movements which taught that myth has meaning for our inner evolution. Initially, the impulse was from the East and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, but first with Anna Kingsford, then with Rudolph Steiner, and finally with Dion Fortune, a sense of an indigenous western 'mystery tradition' saw light of day, giving credence to both Pagan and Christian elements.

These developments bore in an interesting way upon aspects of the Celtic revival being witnessed in Ireland and Scotland at that time. While much of this had to do with politics and the overthrow of the English oppressor, there were, within the cultural engine of the endeavour, key figures who were fellow-travellers with our fore-mentioned occultists. We can think here of William Butler Yeats and George William Russell (aka AE) in Ireland, and William Sharp (aka Fiona Macleod), Lewis Spence, Patrick Geddes and the painter John Duncan in Scotland. All had connections with the Theosophical Society. However, there were qualitative differences between the aspirants in the two countries: Yeats and Russell were prepared to invoke the powers of the Old Gods and heroes to give zeal and inspiration to the call to arms in Ireland, while the Scots preferred to confine themselves to fostering a more pacific spiritual awakening of the ancient Celtic spirit chiefly through the medium of the arts. The Welsh, too, should not be ignored here. Their arising ran on different lines with a highly successful restoration of their language and a reinstatement of the Bardic tradition with the Eisteddfod as the focus for its celebration.

Even if perversely, there was a minority in England that found it could easily identify with the developments happening just beyond its borders to the north and west, mindful that it had once itself been a Celtic land in ancient times. We can fairly identify this seeming anomaly as the "English Celtic revival"; if it requires a venue, then we need look no further than Glastonbury, with its green hills and apple-orchards. This is the God-given stage-set on which our Dramatis Personae now enter.

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Gothic Image Tours is a small company which has been specialising in tours to ancient and sacred sites since 1980. These tours offer a unique opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful and powerful places in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Each place has a tale to tell and these are related to us at the very place of their origin by authors and researchers who are experts in the fields of history, myth and legend, folklore and earth mysteries. Gothic Image Tours are organised from a flourishing bookshop and publishing enterprise based in Glastonbury.