Part Three LOVE AND RELATIONSHIPS
Chapter Two THE ETERNAL TRIANGLE
The eternal triangle, by its very name, indicates that humans have always had difficulty in loving one person exclusively. Triangles are the essential stuff of the world's great poetry, drama and fiction, as well as of many lawyers' incomes. Infidelity hurts and demeans us; yet it also fascinates us, perhaps because we know its sufferings and enchantments all too well. The eternal triangle is an archetypal experience, and psychology is full of explanations about why we stray. We know, sometimes from bitter experience, that loss of trust corrodes marriages and destroys family life; and deceit makes us feel humiliated. Some of the greatest human suffering arises from betrayal. Yet we are really no closer to understanding why we seek monogamy and enact polygamy than we were millennia ago when the great myths of sexual and emotional betrayal were first written down.
THE MARRIAGE OF ZEUS AND HERA
Commitment versus freedom
One of the most famous mythic portrayals of infidelity is the marriage of Zeus and Hera, classical king and queen of the gods. Here we find not just one triangle, but an sequence of them, for Zeus is the archetypal serial adulterer, with Hera the jealous wife. Their married life is a catalogue of affairs, seasoned with jealousy, revenge and illegitimate children; yet somehow their marriage survives.
Zeus was king of heaven, and it was he who organized and governed the smooth and orderly workings of the cosmos. He married his sister Hera after a highly romantic courtship, and it seemed he was besotted with her. But, from the very beginning of the marriage, he was unfaithful to her, and she was hurt and furiously jealous. They bickered constantly, and Zeus was not averse to occasionally beating her to silence her accusations and protests. Hera was enraged by his constant pursuit of other loves – goddesses and mortals, women and boys. The constantly changing objects of his desires always required great inventiveness and effort to pursue. In fact, the more difficult the challenge, the more powerful his passion; and he often had to shape-shift – in various disguises and animal forms – in order to slip past angry husbands and possessive fathers. For Leda, he transformed himself into a swan; for Europa, a bull; for Demeter, a stallion; and for Danaë, a shower of gold. Yet, the moment he had achieved his desire, the object of his love would no longer appeal to him, and he would be off in search of a new one.
The god Jupiter falling for Io while Juno watches. Jacopo Amiconi (1682-1752)
Hera, on the other hand, spent most of her time feeling wounded and rejected. She concentrated all her energies on seeking out proof of Zeus' adultery and then working out some cunning plan to humiliate him and take revenge on his lovers. It sometimes seemed as if this gave her life meaning, since she did little else. Zeus' illegitimate children – who were as myriad as the stars in the sky – were especially in danger of Hera's wrath, and she always persecuted those whom she feared Zeus loved more than her or the legitimate children of their marriage. She drove Dionysus mad and contrived to have his mother Semele burned to death; she tormented Herakles, the son of Alcmene, with impossible tasks. She even bound her husband with thongs and threatened to depose him, although he was, conveniently and inevitably, rescued by the other gods. Yet, through it all, their relationship continued, and their passion periodically resuscitated itself. Hera was also quite capable of borrowing Aphrodite's golden girdle to enchant and excite Zeus' desire to suit her own ends. During the Trojan War, Hera (who held a particularly strong grudge against the Trojans) used this magic girdle to seduce Zeus and distract him from offering his protection to Troy.
Zeus was every bit as jealous as Hera and he adhered firmly to a double standard. Once, a mortal called Ixion wanted to seduce her; but Zeus read his mind and shaped a false Hera out of a cloud, upon which Ixion proceeded to take his pleasure. Zeus then bound him to a fiery wheel which rolled through the heavens for eternity. On another occasion, Hera decided she had had enough, so she left her husband and went into hiding. Without his mighty wife at his side arguing and berating him, great Zeus felt destitute and lost. His other loves suddenly seemed less interesting. He searched everywhere for Hera. Finally, taking the wise advice of a mortal experienced in marriage matters, Zeus gave out word that he was going to marry someone else. He fashioned a statue of a beautiful girl, draped it in veils like a bride, and paraded it through the streets. On hearing the rumours which Zeus had carefully spread, Hera hurried out of hiding, rushed to the statue, and tore the veils off her imagined rival – only to discover the rival was made of stone. When she realized she had been duped, she burst out laughing, and the couple were reconciled for a time. And for all we know, they may still be quarrelling and reconciling, hurting, deceiving and loving each other on Mount Olympus to this day.
COMMENTARY: The marriage of Zeus and Hera is certainly not a harmonious one, and the moral climate of our present society is quick to condemn any latter-day Zeus who behaves as the ancient Greek god was said to have done. Yet, there is passion and excitement in this marriage, and each partner is lost without the other. On the surface, we may take a conventional moral stance and condemn Zeus' adultery. However, there are deeper levels to this marriage, which may surprise us with their insights into the nature of what binds people together.
Why should these two powerful deities, each quite capable of divorcing and choosing a less stressful partner, remain together? Zeus is the epitome of creative power and ingenuity. His shape-shifting and ceaseless pursuit of the ideal tell us that he is a symbol of the mysterious,fluid,fertile and potent power of the imagination, which cannot be bound or contained within conventional worldly structures and rules. Hera, on the other hand, is the goddess of home and family, and symbolizes those bonds and social structures which involve continuity, responsibility, rules and respect for tradition. In fact, these deities are two sides of the same coin and reflect two dimensions of the human psyche which are forever at war, yet forever dependent on each other for their fulfilment. In most relation ships, one individual tends to lean towards the imaginative dimension of life, while the other leans more towards containing and structuring life. But we all possess both these capacities, and need both in our lives.
If we understand Zeus' infidelities on a psychological level, they reflect a ceaseless quest for beauty and magic, and a desire for self expression which is the essence of any artist's creative power. If we understand Hera's jealousy also on a psychological level, we may glimpse the difficulty – and the great strength of remaining committed in life, and the anger we inevitably feel when our freedom is curtailed by our own choice, while someone else appears to get away with self-indulgence without consequences. Each of us, man or woman, may identify with either Zeus or Hera. Yet this mythic marriage really tells us that both Zeus and Hera exist within each of us, and, if we wish to avoid having their marriage enacted in painful and concrete ways in our own lives, we might be wise to find a balance within ourselves.
Jupiter beguiled by Juno, James Barry (1741-1806)
Zeus and Hera can also laugh together. This is the magic ingredient which reconciles them when they have quarrelled. And each stands up to the other. Although Hera is jealous, she is not made of the stuff of martyrs. She fights back with spirit and wit rather than dissolving into a puddle of abject self-pity. Thus, they respect each other, although they also hurt and anger each other. This myth describes something fundamental about human nature: the grass, as they say, is always greener in the next pasture, and greener still if it is forbidden. Zeus pursues love objects in part because he is forbidden them; when Hera leaves him, he pursues her with as much passion as he does his illicit loves. And Hera pursues Zeus because she cannot ever wholly possess him. The deepest secret of this Olympian marriage is that enduring love springs from never being entirely able to own the other. Painful though it may be, when we are confronted with a straying partner, we might do well to ask ourselves whether we have given away possession of ourselves and have therefore become wholly obtainable and owned. And, when we are confronted with our own propensity to stray, we might ask ourselves whether our pursuit of perfection masks a fear of becoming wholly obtainable and owned. Recognition of this quest for the unobtainable which lies deep in human nature can lead us to an awareness of the necessity for compromise if we are to make any relationship work in real life. Compromise is an imperfect solution in which both people get something of what they want but nobody gets it all his or her own way. In order to have a workable human relationship, we must give up the ideal of perfection; yet equally, we must never give up our own souls.
There is no 'resolution' in the marriage of Zeus and Hera; and perhaps there is no resolution to the problem of infidelity, literal or fantasized, in human relationships. So much depends on the personal morality, ethics, honesty, self-control and psychological insight of the individuals involved. Unless we have discovered Zeus' and Hera's secret, we may continue to be baffled by marriages in which these mythic antics are enacted, while both partners continue to love and inspire each other. But the more we understand the struggle between commitment and freedom, the better able we are to cope with this tension within ourselves. It is then less likely that we will polarize into a rampant Zeus or a complaining Hera.
The Mythic Journey
The Meaning of Myth
as a Guide for Life
Liz Greene and
This book is now out of print
Myth is the original self-help psychology. For centuries, human beings have used myths, fairy tales and folklore to explain life's mysteries and make them bearable – from why the seasons change, through complex relationship issues, to the enigma of death. Jesus explained his teachings through parables, giving his followers difficult problems in an easy-to-understand form. Plato communicated abstruse philosophical concepts through simple myths and allegories. In ancient Hindu medicine, when someone with mental or emotional difficulties consulted a doctor, the physician prescribed a story on which to meditate, thus helping the patient to find his or her own solution to the problem. It is often our linear, causally bound, rational thinking that obscures the deeper meaning and resolution of life's dilemmas. Myths have the mysterious capacity to contain and communicate paradoxes, allowing us to see through, around and over the dilemma to the real heart of the matter.
Over the following pages, we will explore significant myths, some well known and others less familiar, from Graeco-Roman, Hebrew, Egyptian, Hindu, Native American, Maori, Celtic and Norse, as well as other sources, which relate to the various stages of life and the important challenges all human beings encounter. Rather than following the familiar format of a 'mythological dictionary' which gives snippets of interpretation for each of a long list of ancient deities and heroes, we will follow, instead, the format of a human life, weaving the ancient tales around fundamental human experiences, beginning with family relationships and ending with death as the final mythic journey. Each part of the book can be read and reread independently of the others; but as a whole, the book takes the reader on a journey through the major rites of passage of a human life.
Each part focuses on a particular area of life and the characteristic conflicts and joys we all encounter. Specific myths are, in turn, used to illustrate particular issues, both positive and negative, relevant to that sphere of life. The story is told first, and then a psychological overview is given which helps us to understand the deeper meaning and application of the myth to our own lives.
The purpose of this book is to show you how mythic stories and imagery can bring relief from internal conflicts and help you to discover greater depth, richness and meaning in life. One of the great healing functions of myth is to show us that we are not alone with our feelings, fears, conflicts and aspirations. We learn from myth that sibling rivalry is as old as time; that Oedipus is alive and well and is not limited to the psychoanalytic couch; that the eternal triangle is indeed eternal and has been written about since human beings first learned to write; that beauty, talent, power and wealth bring their own forms of suffering; and that in the darkness of loneliness, failure and loss we have always discovered light and new hope.
These images are copyright © Lisa Tenzin-Dolma 1999.
The Glastonbury Tarot
Timeless Wisdom from the ancient Isle of Avalon
Now out of print and unavailable
by Caitlin & John Matthews
Some years ago, the Arthurian scholar, Geoffrey Ashe, (himself a resident of Glastonbury) wrote a wonderful novel called The Finger and the Moon, in which the imagery of the tarot lay hidden, embedded in a story of Avalonian magic, much as the Glastonbury Zodiac underlies and surrounds the town itself. Now Glastonbury has its own tarot in Lisa Tenzin-Dolma's vibrant deck.
There can be very few places in the world that contain sufficient mythic and mystical reference points to furnish 78 cards, but the small market town of Glastonbury is just such a place. The Glastonbury Tarot emerges from the melting pot of ideas, beliefs and wisdom which have been embodied around this extraordinary sacred site for many ages. Indeed, this focus of world-wide pilgrimage has so much mythic energy, that to enter its streets and walk its hills is to become part of the myth.
The tarot is first and foremost about journeys – to work within the imagery of such a pack as the one you hold in your hands, is to enter into a journey of one's own – a life journey that is often seen in terms of a quest. Thus it is particularly appropriate that the major arcana of the Glastonbury Tarot draw upon the imagery of the Arthurian legends – which are themselves built around the transformative quest for the Grail.
To open and use this pack is very like taking a walk through and around Glastonbury itself. In each card there is a sense of wonder which accompanies one at every step, a feeling of entering an otherworldly place where anything can (and frequently does) happen, where a chance meeting around the next corner can presage a whole new direction in one's life. In the minor arcana, the modern pilgrims on this quest and those who live in and around the town, are seen as part of the myth, recipients and mediators of the wisdom. For this is not a quest that only exists in past times: it is an ongoing central feature of many people's spiritual progress today.
Wherever you may be on your own journey, you will find some echo coming back to you from the cards, which are indeed, as the author notes, a mirror held up to every one of us – one that reflects back truth with an accuracy we may scarcely ever have encountered. It is indeed a little bit like standing in the medieval Abbot's Kitchen in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, and looking down into the mirror which is so positioned that we can see the roof far above us. The image there is the same yet different – a reflection of the roof, but containing our own image. The tarot does this also – putting our own life and concerns into the pattern of the archetypal world referenced in the cards.
The message of the Glastonbury Tarot to its users is very similar to that which the spirit of Glastonbury whispers to all pilgrims who, like the Fool in this deck, set out in hope for the golden towers of better times and circumstances. Drawing cards from this tarot and using the Bird spread, we offer you this message. It is to find inner equilibrium (Temperance or Brigit) through uncompromisingly facing one's true self (Queen of Swords). For though we all visit sacred places to find spiritual nurture and a mature, creative way of life (Empress or Guinevere,) our quest is about refreshing our direction, releasing old illusions which ensnare us (Eight of Swords) so that we may understand the subtle impressions which are nagging under the surface (Seven of Chalices) and to test whether they represent our true vision or not. Many times, we are called to pass "the door without a key" as esotericist, Dion Fortune, (who lived under the shadow of Chalice Hill) called the way into our dreams where we experience true vision (The Moon or Chalice Hill). When we attend to the information that arises from our quest, we learn that our actions have causation and effect upon our lives and surroundings which causes us to change the way we live (Justice or Arviragus.) This encourages us to re-tune to our vision, and to spend periods of reflection apart in order to receive and welcome the light that ever burns within the soul (The Hermit or St Collen.)
Glastonbury is one among many sacred sites to be visited, but our individual spiritual quest is a pilgrimage that must be consistently pursued in the everyday world. Lisa Tenzin-Dolma's deck opens to us remarkable doors of perception through which we can each access the ancient wisdom of the landscape of Glastonbury, and by inference other and deeper mysteries, at any time we so choose.
John and Caitlin Matthews, June 1999
The tarot is an ancient system of self-knowledge through the use of symbols. The images, in sequence, track a pathway through the journey of the soul – from the trust and innocence of THE FOOL to the wisdom, joy and spiritual liberation of THE WORLD. The cards reveal the tests, trials and triumphs along the way, which we as human beings encounter in our development of the knowledge of who we are.
The tarot cards are divided into two parts. The 22 Major Arcana cards reveal the experiences of life, and the archetypes which bring their energy to those experiences. The 56 Minor Arcana show how we react to those experiences, and how they manifest in our lives. These are divided into a further 4 sections, one for each element: Fire (Staffs), Water (Chalices), Air (Swords), and Earth (Vesicas). Fire relates to action, to inspiration and the use of the will. Water relates to the emotions and the intuitive aspect of ourselves. Air relates to the mind, to the processes of thought and intellect, which can be divisive or unifying. Earth relates to the 'grounding' or manifestation of our energy, and to material considerations.
There are many tarot packs available, so why, you may ask, is this one dedicated to Glastonbury – a tiny town in Somerset, England? The Glastonbury Tarot follows the sequence and symbolism of other traditional tarot cards, but contains within its imagery the inspirational myths, legends, historical figures and sacred sites which abound in this area.
Glastonbury has been known by many names. It is the ancient Isle Of Avalon, the entrance to the Otherworld, a place of magic and mystery. As Ynys Witrin, the Isle Of Glass, this place acts as a mirror, which, when you look into it, shows your soul, your deepest self. Glastonbury has been known as the Isle of the Dead, where secrets are revealed, and as the Isle of Apples, because of its many orchards. It is linked with the Summerland, the beautiful place where souls go to rest.
Since ancient times, when Glastonbury was an island, surrounded by water broken only by lake villages rising from its depths, the area has been richly steeped in history and enigma. Pagan traditions flourished here, co-existing with the first Christian church in the Western Isles, founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus. Druids trod their paths through groves and lines of oak trees. Heroes and warriors came here. Saints and seekers of truth journeyed to its shores, and it was long known as "the holiest earthe in England".
As the Isle of Glass, Glastonbury is seen as a mirror which enables seekers to look deep within their hearts, and truly know themselves. It is a place of visions. The light has an unusual, luminous quality which attracts the eye to look deeper, to go within as well as feast itself upon the haunting beauty of the landscape.
Throughout the ages, Glastonbury has been a place set apart -a refuge, the entrance to the Otherworld and the Underworld; a land where time moves different courses, and where realities can shift and merge to birth new and wondrous images and revelations.
In her book, Glastonbury: Maker Of Myths, Frances Howard-Gordon observes that living in Glastonbury is like living in a pack of tarot cards. Like the tarot, one is on a journey here. In this unique area are embodied all the archetypes and symbols that are found in the tarot. These are encompassed within the landscape and in the mysticism of earth-lore; in the Arthurian legends, and in Christian history. All paths meet and merge here to form a rich tapestry, the weft and warp of human existence and experience.
Within the Glastonbury Tarot cards is a blending of philosophical paths within the context of the landscape. The illustrations depict the history of the area through Pagan, Christian, and Arthurian figures, reflecting the marriage of belief systems in this small area of land which is a melting-pot of ideas and ideologies, a cauldron of inspiration which feeds all who come here.
Glastonbury breathes spirit through the air which caresses her land. But the energies here also provide an anchor which clarifies and 'grounds' who we are, and what the individual purpose is for our lives. As the magical Isle of Avalon, Glastonbury embodies the place of mystery and beauty that exists within the human heart – no matter where you are geographically. The journey through the Glastonbury Tarot is the journey we all undertake through life, focused and concentrated within this area of land, but relevant everywhere.
In the images depicted in the cards, the landscapes are all of this area. Some are symbolic, others are recognisably rendered. The text for most of the cards will reveal the location of the landscapes, except where I have painted the gardens of friends. Most of the figures in the images are of friends of mine from the area, who I felt embodied aspects of the energies of the cards, and I offer my thanks to them for their inspiration.
The figures in the Major Arcana come from the history, myths and legends associated with Glastonbury. Their stories are told as a prelude to the symbolism and interpretation of the images. This can give you a deeper insight into the meaning of the cards, and also relates some of the rich history and folklore of this area. Each figure has many tales to tell, and an entire book could be written (and in many cases, has been written) about each one. Because of this, I have selected only the stories that bear relevance to each particular image.
The Minor Arcana cards show the landscapes of the area, and marry these in with the symbolism that is reflected in the card. Before you read the interpretations of the cards, I would recommend that you just sit quietly and observe what each image reveals to you. If you allow the cards to speak to you, you will be able to access the land of deep inner knowing that resides within each of us.
Now out of print and unavailable
The Glastonbury Tarot images:
Celtic Totem Animals
Make a shamanic journey
and meet your animal helpers
Our ancestors imagined themselves as animals. Ancient cave paintings attest to this. Imagine seeing these images thirty-thousand years ago, torch-lit upon the walls, moving and shifting under the flame. Here a bison with human legs strides across the gallery, there an antlered man dances the other animals to life. Imagine now the stories that were sung of such images, and the descendants of those ancient narratives that may still be told. Here are the words of the animal totems.
We have always needed to see the world through animal eyes. Mythological stories are the frequent landscapes for such transformations; they speak of times when the boundaries between humans and animals were few or non-existent. Inuit tradition speaks of a time when a person could become an animal, or an animal could change into a person: all they needed to do was to say the words. As distant as the worlds of myth may seem to our modern sensibilities, these times are not lost to us so long as we have the stories. Stories and sounds are our best passports to the sacred.
Even the language of the stories themselves can blur boundaries. Are we hearing about actual creatures, or a person who plays the role of that animal, or even a tribe or group of people who, because they are named for an animal, have become deeply associated with that animal's powers and symbolism? There are important reasons for such ambiguities: animals are people. They are afforded status. They have lessons and wisdom to impart. Through our interactions with animals, or by imagining ourselves as animals through the telling of a tale, we gain both insight into the workings of the natural world and an ability to see that world from the perspective of the creature with whom we share this world.
While modern industrial 'visions' often blind us to the sacred aspects of the land, animal wisdom encourages us to open our eyes once more, to see our way back to the cave and the forest, to know the crossing of the plain and path of the high hill, to go on four legs or by the beating of wings. In this way, we may come to see animals not as Other but as partners, allies, and friends – guides to the wonders of the living storied lands.
These stories may be seen as doorways, entrances to the animal realms. Here are worthy journeys to be taken. Think of these tales as touchstones for your own imaginative travels. Let them light a path and provide a new way of seeing yourself in relation to the natural world.
Accompanied by the sound of the drum – an instrument used in shamanic work since the world was young – these stories take us to the frontiers of myth and imagination. Traditionally, encounters with animal guides and spirits happen at crossroads: at twilight, deep within an ancient wood, at the water's edge, high upon a hill. Knowledge of the animal totems concerns itself with such frontiers: places where different worlds, different tribes or cultures, or different species come together and interact.
John Matthews' telling of these ancient tales moves us across wastelands, through forests, beyond waters, above the hills. Like the animals themselves, this book guides us into the mysteries and wonders of the borderlands: a voice in the wilderness.
Ari Berk, PhD., Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, 2001
INTRODUCTION: LEARNING THE WAY OF THE TOTEMS
The traditions relating to Totem Animals are very old indeed, but the teachings that derive from them are not something that belongs only in the past. The wisdom of the animals that still roam the countryside today and feature in the ancient stories, like those included here, has not left us; it is still accessible to those who accept their own part in the world they share with birds, beasts and fish in nature, and who feel the presence of the spirits who choose to adopt the forms of these creatures. Like the presence of many wild animals, which has become more and more hidden from human view, the deep wisdom of the totems can still be accessed and shared by those who are patient enough to watch and listen, to attune themselves to an older way of life. The rustle in the undergrowth, the spreading ripples in the stream, the shadow in the thicket all pass the unnoticing eye, but they are there nonetheless. It is only when we tune our senses to nature that we begin to draw near to these abiding teachers who are our kindred, and to learn from them, without fear or expectation.
Every person living has an already existing relationship with the Totem Animals; kinships you may not have guessed at are waiting to be realized. Such relationships match you with your appropriate animal power or totem, which in most cases has already chosen you.
In this pack you will find three steps (three is a sacred number among the Celts) towards learning how you can still work with the totems today.
In Part One, you will find the lore of the totems as they appear in ancient Celtic tradition. In Part Two is a set of nine ancient stories, all deriving from that same tradition, which demonstrate some of the ways in which the Totem Animals interacted with human beings in that far off time, and which help you to tune into the idea of the totems. In Part Three, you will find instructions to show how you can work with the totems through the technique of the shamanic journey, and how you too can learn from them: to live life fully, to face the challenges that come your way, and to deepen your awareness of the natural world and relate to it more fully.
To help you to do these things a set of Totem Animal Cards is included, to aid you in finding your own appropriate spirit-animal helper, which will become your guide and supporter throughout any number of situations. Full instructions for this can be found at the beginning of Part Three, along with further information about the traditional nature and qualities of the primary Celtic totems.
In addition there is a CD of shamanic drumming to enable you to undertake your own shamanic journey safely, to meet with and learn from the Totem Animals, and to find which of these will become an inner helper for as long as it is needed and made welcome. How to use the CD is explained in Part Three.
By working with Totem Animals today, we are following in the steps of our Celtic ancestors, and in the process learning not only to honour the creatures who share our world, but to see through their eyes into a deeper place where spirit is central and all-important. In the process we learn more about ourselves, our own place in the web of creation, and the constantly changing possibilities which are part of our personal heritage. As well, we may find that we have acquired a whole collection of new friends with whom we can begin to explore the inner dimensions of the Otherworld. There, where the infinite opens on all sides, we may find a new perspective on life, and a new understanding of our relationship with the universe we inhabit.
THE WISDOM OF ANIMALS
SHAMAN GUIDES,TEACHERS AND MEDIATORS
The Eagle of Eli keeps the seas:
He will not fish in the salmonries:
Let him cry for blood! The feast is his!
The Eagle of Eli is up and abroad,
At dawn he will feast in the breast of the wood.
And his feast shall be on my new-slain lord.
The Eagle of Eli is up and abroad,
He lifts his beak from Cynddylan's blood;
Tonight, his eyrie's in Brochwael wood.
The Eagle of Eli: from the thirteenth-century Welsh (trans. by Ernest Rhys)
He had the mind of a fish
That moment. He knew the glitter of scale and fin.
He touched the pin of pivotal space, and he saw
One sandgrain balance the ages' cumulus cloud.
Vernon Watkins: Taliesin and the Spring of Vision
ALLIES IN ALL THE WORLDS
Everywhere one looks in Celtic tradition there are animals. They dance before us, leading us deeper into the magical world of this ancient race, beckoning from behind every rock and standing stone, looking up at us from the still pools of water, floating above us on wings of song that can take us out of time. They are the allies of heroes, the helpers of those who travel in search of wisdom, the guardians of a hundred hidden ways between the worlds. And, above all, they are the companions of a mysterious body of people who hold the keys to altered states of being, to the ecstatic vision of creation – the shamans.
The power of these dancing, shape-shifting individuals has been recognized from earliest times. Their ability to assume the forms of hunted animals made them essential to the continued existence of the tribe, while their communion with spirits in animal form gave them insights far above those of ordinary men and women.
In time of need, the shaman, the virtuoso dancer of the tribe, communes through ecstatic dances with his animal familiars in order to grasp the secrets of the tribe's gods. His animal helpers serve as vehicles to transport him to the pinnacle of ecstasy in dance, from which he climbs, in a state of trance, to divine heights... Through his ecstatic prayer the dancer himself moves closer to immortality: in dancing the god he becomes him.
The Celtic peoples, who emerged from somewhere in Central Europe (the exact place is still debated) around 1500 BCE and proceeded to colonize much of the Western world from the Far East to the Atlantic seaboard, would have recognized these abilities at once. A nomadic people, really more of a loose confederacy of racial types than a nation, they founded colonies throughout Europe, especially in Spain, Gaul, Britain and Ireland, that have lasted to this day. Their culture has exerted a powerful influence over the West ever since, especially as this manifests in their boundless imagination, which has survived as a huge storehouse of lore and legends, much of it orally transmitted until the early Middle Ages, when it began to be collected and written down.
It is from these late sources, augmented by archaeology and a few scattered first-hand reports by the Greeks and Romans, that we have come to know what we do about this fascinating and colourful people. In fact, despite a vast and ever growing literature of 'Celtic Studies', we still know very little about the beliefs and traditions of the Celts. What we can do is look at the surviving literature, which, despite being filtered through the hands of Christian scribes, retains a great deal of genuinely ancient knowledge, and can, with a little effort, help us to recognize how they saw and interpreted their world.
Many of the stories in this book, though they come late in the historical timeline of the Celts, preserve age-old concerns: with the natural world especially, and with animals in particular. This knowledge tells us that the early Celts practised shamanism, and that they possessed the skills described above. The purpose of this book is to show how these same abilities, once so familiar, can still be practised today, with many kinds of benefit to those who do so, through the acquisition of knowledge and a deepening awareness of our relationship to the natural world.
The amount of animal art and artefacts discovered throughout the ancient Celtic world has long suggested the importance of such representations. The archaeologist Charles Thomas, in his study of animal art, notes that these 'seldom served merely as animal ornaments'. Rather:
Each creature possessed obvious virtues, its own peculiar and widely known mana... ...When we consider that, from an early stage in almost all historically-documented societies, these virtues and special properties were generally expressed in terms of pantheistic religion, we have the real clue to the... animal-style art.
The current view regarding the use of animal iconography in Celtic art refers to theiromorphic deities – that is, gods or goddesses who tend towards animal form or assume such shapes for an indefinite period of time. However, it is my belief that this is a mistaken reading, and that what we are in fact seeing is a catalogue of the various Totem Animal helpers whose aid was summoned by the tribal shaman, or whose form he also, briefly, assumed, either during trance or by donning a costume created from the fur or feathers of the creature in question. This may well have led to the shaman figure becoming identified with the god or goddess he served, and would explain the reason why the Celts did not make representations of their gods until the influence of Roman and Greek art forms made itself felt – there would have been no need to do so if the shaman-priest regularly assumed the form of the animal, bird or fish in question.
Originally emblems which designated the identity of each tribe within the society, these creatures became the 'totems' of the shaman, powerful spirit allies who aided them in their work as healers, seers and guardians of the traditions of the ancestors – the great dead of the tribe.
Another important aspect of the shaman's identification with animals is represented in the glorious cave paintings at Lascaux in France, Altamira in Spain and elsewhere, depicting men in the act of hunting and killing a variety of creatures. These not only represent the magical aspect of the hunt, but also the shaman's dream-magic, performed before the hunt set forth. In this, the hunter (or his representative) entered into a symbiotic relationship with the creature he desired to capture and kill in order to anticipate its every action, and – perhaps more importantly – to make contact with its spirit-self in order to explain the need of the tribe for its flesh and fur. (This is still practised by the Laplanders of the Arctic Circle.)
The fact that the majority of prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered in the very deepest and most inaccessible caves is not without significance. Shamans everywhere sought out dark places in which to work their magic or experience their visions, and to encounter the power of the animal totem they were seeking. There, in the dark, they left behind the only concrete symbols of the experience – painted on the walls, perhaps while still in the altered state of being to which their ecstatic trance had brought them. The famous dancing shaman of Trois Frères in France is not merely a representation of the magical action itself, it is also a picture of the shaman in the act of assuming animal form.
In Greece, in the fifth century BCE, before the iron hand of logic (in the form of Socrates and the school of Plato) descended upon seekers after wisdom, those who sought to penetrate the veils of ordinary perception called themselves pholarchoi, an odd word which can mean 'those who lie down in a lair [like an animal]'. This name derived from the practice of seeking out a dark place such as a cave in which to incubate a dream that would bring the answer to a particular question.
A pholarchos, whom we know about from a single inscription discovered at Velia in Italy, was like the shaman of other cultures, seeking answers from a place associated with animals. The Celts too had an exact version of this, where the seeker after knowledge slept in a darkened place and emerged with answers. We shall hear more of these people later.
The importance of animals within everyday Celtic culture is incontestable. The mere presence of a large number of references in the texts and stories which have survived indicates this. A very great deal of the Celtic shaman's power was bound up with his animal 'helpers', totem spirits who took the form of beasts, birds, or fish and were able to guide him through both their own particular element and through the Otherworld. As well as this, the shaman sought to take on the natural abilities of the creature itself: the strength of the bear, the speed of the hare, the keen-sightedness of the eagle or the hawk. By adopting the shape and consciousness of the animal kind, the shaman projected himself outside the normal range of human awareness, into a world where everything was different: more balanced, less complicated, less bound by the laws of his own world. From this position he could view that world more clearly, with a degree of insight not generally available to him. These concepts are still common in modern shamanic practice, just as they were to the ancient Celts.
Many of the stories retold in this book give examples of the way such helpers featured in the work of the shamans. Stories such as The Story of Leithin and the Coldest Night and The Search for Mabon show that spirit allies in animal form were called upon to answer questions concerning the ancestral past, to discover things which had been forgotten by living people.
Elsewhere, anecdotes such as the following one, found in an ancient Irish text called The Yellow Book of Lecan, show that animals were seen as supporting humans in all kinds of ways – actually not very different from the way we relate to our own pets today. In this instance, the story refers to a white boar owned by the eponymous Marvan, which was according to its master 'a herdsman, a physician, a messenger and a musician'. When asked how this was possible, Marvan replied:
When I return from the swine at night, and the skin is torn off my feet by the briars of Glen-a-Scail, he comes to me and rubs his tongue over my foot, and [then] he goes after the swine ... He is [also] a musician to me, for when I am [too] anxious to sleep I give him a stroke with my foot and he lies on his back with his belly uppermost and sings me a humming tune, and his music is more satisfying to me than that of a sweet-toned harp in the hands of an accomplished minstrel.
There is something wonderfully human about this, and though the owner of the boar is a herdsman rather than a shaman, his communion with the wondrous beast is the same; the boar is both servant and friend to Marvan. In another text, an ancient poem called the Hoianau ('Greetings'), the great seer Merlin confides in a pig, addressing it as he lies mad and desolate in the forest.
Listen, little pig!
O blessed pig!
If you had seen
All I have seen,
You would not sleep,
Nor root on the hill.
Listen, little pig,
Is not the mountain green?
In my thin cloak,
I get no repose.
Again, the animal is both friend and confidant, invoking a response from its human companion which might not otherwise have occurred.
TRANSFORMATIONS OF FEATHER, FUR, AND FIN
Considering the importance of this deep and abiding relationship between human and animal, it is scarcely surprising that there are a number of Celtic stories relating to shape-changing, for in this way the shamans sought to establish an even more intimate relationship with the creatures they saw as allies. Numerous parallels exist from worldwide shamanic practice, the point being that:
A corridor between earth and heaven, mortal and immortal, is maintained by servicing, magically, whatever is patent around them: rocks, roots, leaves, streams, wind, stars, and most commonly animals, which can serve as totems.
The sixth-century Welsh shaman-poet Taliesin, whose story appears below, listed numerous animals into which he had personally transformed, including snake, eagle, sow, crane, buck, cat, goat, salmon, serpent, roebuck, cockerel, stallion, wolf, dog, bull, hare, fox, marten, squirrel – a veritable menagerie of magical creatures, from each of which he had learned valuable knowledge. The Irish seer Tuan mac Carill, whose tale appears on page 77, spent a vastly extended life in the form of various animals, each of which supplied him with a unique view of events taking place in the world of men.
Elsewhere we learn how the lives of heroes and heroines in Celtic myth are intimately connected with the lives of certain creatures. In a ninth-century Irish text, The Destruction of Der Derga's Hostel, for example, Mes Buachalla, the daughter of the mighty king Cormac mac Airt, is abandoned at birth and brought up by cow-herds. Word reaches King Eterscal of this mysterious girl and, since there is a prophecy that a woman of an unknown race will bear him a wondrous child, he sends men to fetch her to him. Before this can happen, however, a bird comes to her and tells her what is about to happen. Then, shedding his plumage, the bird takes the form of a beautiful man and lies with her. Afterwards he tells her that she will have a son called Conaire, who must never kill birds. The girl is then betrothed to Eterscal, and it is generally believed that he fathered her child while in bird form.
Here the bird is clearly an Otherworldly personage who chooses this method to beget an heir on a human woman. Such stories are by no means unusual in Celtic mythology, where the parentage of heroes was continually attributed to the participation of deities. Among those who could claim supernatural parents were Mongan (whose father was Manannan mac Lir), Cuchulainn (who was fathered by Lugh), and Owein (who was the offspring of Urien Rheged and the goddess Modron). The Irish story of The Dream of Aengus spins a similar tale of shape-shifting magic, in which the god can only be with the woman he loves when they are both in the shape of swans.
Animals were frequently twinned with human births, so that the resulting offspring became closely allied with them in later life. (Either that or they were taboo, as in the case of Conaire's prohibition against killing birds.) In the Welsh saga of Pwyll, from the great collection known as The Mabinogion, the hero is stolen from his mother's side by a monster and left in a stable with a new-born colt which afterwards plays a significant part in his life. The fate of the Ulster hero Cuchulainn was linked with dogs (his name means 'Hound of Culainn'), and it was only after he had been tricked into eating dog-meat, and therefore breaking his geis (ritual prohibition), that he was finally killed. It was also said of Cuchulainn that a mare dropped twin foals on the night of his birth, and that these became famous as the Black Saighlenn and Macha's Grey, with whom Cuchulainn had an almost symbiotic connection, and which arose from the depths of a lake at his call.
Another story concerns Cairbre Cinn Cait ('of the Cat's Head'), who is called this 'since it was a cat's head, that is the form or shape of a cat that was on his god'. This is significant in a number of ways. 'Of the Cat's Head' suggests that Cairbre was 'of the tribe of the Cat', that is, a tribe whose totem was the cat. Yet the wording 'the form or shape of a cat that was on his god' suggests something more – that Cairbre partook of the nature of the cat because the deity he worshipped also partook of that nature. From this I believe we may see further evidence of the assumption of animal form by the shaman of the tribe.
NAMES OF THE PEOPLE
The number of tribal names which have animal names hidden within them stresses the importance of animal symbolism even further. For example, there are the Epidii of Kintyre (Horse-People), the Caerini and Lugi in Sutherland (People of the Sheep and People of the Raven), the Cornavii of Caithness (People of the Horn – as in horned animal), as well as the Tochrad (Boar People), Cattraighe (Cat Folk), Gamanrad (Stork People), Taurisci (Bull Folk), and the Brannovices (Raven Folk). These were surely at one time clan totems, if not the power animals which guarded and guided the people of each group. Within the clan, individuals would also have possessed their own personal totems – discovered for them by the shamans or revealed in ordeals or initiations. Modern folklore records of Celtic families indicate that association with a particular Totem Animal continued into more recent times, as for example in the name 'McMahon', which translates as 'Son(s) of the Bear'.
Painted images of these sacred creatures became the source of the heraldic devices worn by men and women in the Middle Ages and after, and which to this day constitute a veritable bestiary of animal symbolism. The early Celts almost certainly would have displayed the head or pelt of their particular totem at the entrance to their settlement, whilst the warriors either painted their shields with devices of their own, or had them tattooed on their bodies.
In the case of the elite Irish warrior group known as the Fianna, there is a text which has preserved a description of the images on the banners carried by the greatest of these men. Such images would have had a similar importance to the imagery displayed on their shields.
Indeed, whilst there is no exact parallel in Celtic literature, there are indications that the idea of magical or powerful shields would have been recognized among the native shamans of these islands. Among the Native American tribes such shields were painted with magical pictograms. Shields could also represent the sacred directions (North, South, East, West, Above, Below) and the Totem Animals of both the tribe and the individual.
Two poems from a ninth-century Irish text called The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution illustrate this further. Here the poet Dallan describes Dubh-Ghiolla, the magical shield of the King of Oirgiall, and makes several poems about it. The shield was made from one of the five sacred trees of Ireland. It is described as follows:
Fast is thy shield
As the wave which runs its course
A speckled shield, the feeder of ravens,
Wards off the foe from his borders.
[A] surprising and beautiful shield
Is with Hugh the son of Duach
Bright as the speckled salmon of the wave!
Dubh-Ghiolla! panic of the banded brave
Fenced with its thorny mail the holly stands –
So round the prince the guardian shield expands:
The bull's strong hide the needle's point defies –
Thus vainly round him baffled ranks arise
Here the bull's-hide shield is invoked as if containing the essence of the beast itself, and we can be sure that such painted guardians were seen as more than just pictures – they were the strength of the totem itself.
THE OLDEST ANIMALS
As mentioned above, an important role attributed to animals was their ability to provide inspiration, or to possess a knowledge of the past that far outstripped that of a human. The average lifespan of a bird or beast was probably unknown at this time, which may account for such a belief. But it was the spiritual life of the creatures which was important, rather than the physical span of years. Certainly some creatures were believed to live to very great ages, or were seen as of Otherworldly origin and thus possessed of wisdom deeper than that of mortals. In the story of The Hawk of Achill, this is part of an ancient theme known as 'The Oldest Animals', in which a number of creatures are consulted about various things and refer the questioner to successively more ancient beings.
A similar story appears in the Welsh saga of Culhwch and Olwen in which various animals – blackbird, stag, owl, eagle, and salmon – are consulted as to the whereabouts of the lost god Mabon, who is finally discovered, and rescued, by the warriors of Arthur, helped by various of the animals.
In the seminal poem known as The Hawk of Achill, which is an ancient Irish myth of great depth and ancestry, Fintan, who represents a vast lineage of wisdom-holders dating back to a proto-Celtic demi-god named Vindos, addresses the bird in a way that makes a shamanic association apparent: each learns from the other in a mutual exchange. The poem is remarkable for the clarity with which it presents the life of the ancient poet, who has lived through most of history in the shapes into which he is cast. An extract from the poem, which takes the form of a dialogue, gives us an idea of the power and mystery with which such Totem Animals were imbued.
Fintan rehearses a catalogue of events to which he has been witness, then refers to his own misfortunes, and finally speaks of his transformations into the forms of eagle, hawk and salmon, in which shape he continued for long ages, following the course of the rivers of Ireland.
There is much more of the poem, with Fintan and the Hawk swapping stories and traditions until they finally reach their own time and, having apparently nothing further to say to each other, die on the same day. The Hawk itself reappears in several other texts, including The Story of Leithin (where it is described as a crow).
This text quoted here, which combines both the shamanic shapeshifting of the poet and a recital of the history to which he has gained access at first hand, is virtually unique in Celtic literature. In essence it is a summary of Irish mythological history, and there is a suggestion that Fintan, who loses an eye, may have done so as a kind of fee for the acquiring of his great wisdom (as in the case of the Norse god Odin, who gave up his eye in return for the wisdom of Mimir). Since the Hawk itself admits to this act, while it was in the shape of a crow, and later discusses the deaths of Fintan's sons, whose remains it seems to have picked over, we may assume that the bird itself was able to assume other shapes.
We are seeing a very ancient theme here, one which flows through both The Story of Taliesin and The Hawk of Achill poems, in a similar fashion. It is the age-old theme of the Quest for Knowledge, in which the shaman poet or priest sought out the deep places of the inner realms and returned with riches beyond the dreams of mere men. Here, we see this done through the adoption of the form - and wisdom – of sacred Totem Animals.
Sample chapter from...
WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?
The Secret of Stand-up Comedy
THE HISTORY OF STAND-UP COMEDY
Whoever writes history will probably get it wrong, especially in the eyes of the actual participants. For every news item ever broadcast, there's probably some Jo who was on the spot with a clear view, saying, 'Well it didn't look like that from where I was standing.
Writing history out of your own time is a matter of diligent research unless you're lazy like me. Then it's mostly about interpreting previous interpretations and the occasional first-hand subjective account.
Modern history is a bit different. I can make up my own mind about how important I think Lenny Bruce or Max Miller is to the development of stand-up comedy, because I can listen to the tapes of live gigs and watch some ragged film footage. I can check the dates, research the context and read several contemporary accounts. Then I can write my own interpretation. But it's harder to go back 100 years and do that with Dan Leno and the development of 'patter' in the Music Hall, because there's less to go on. There are no recordings performed in front of a live audience, only some very primitive studio stuff and a few selected scripts, reviews and photos. Meanwhile, some of Leno's contemporaries have been left out of the more recent interpretations and the context is getting mistier. 200 years back in the fogs of time, only the performances of Joey Grimaldi are documented. And four hundred years back?
The Storyteller, the Fool and the Shaman
All form tends toward the archetype.
The archetype itself has no form. - Max Handley
The storyteller serves the story.
The fool serves the moment.
The shaman serves the tribe.
Taking a stroll through the camping area of a summer festival around dusk, you'd be hard-pushed not to find a storyteller sat in front of a fire surrounded by kids gradually nodding off in their sleeping bags. Not all performers have to go for the big finish. But then not all storytelling audiences lie down with their eyes closed or sit staring into the flames of an open fire.
For the storyteller, part of her art lies in selecting the right story for the occasion. The rest is in the telling. A good storyteller will rarely repeat the same story word for word, and the same story from a different storyteller can often be unrecognisable to the lay listener.
The storyteller / writer, as a general rule, selects the bare bones of an existing story and then customises it to suit her own style. The process can involve describing and interpreting each scene and character through all five senses and in terms of a choice of passing or pervading moods. The whole text can be enriched and decorated using a personal repertoire of mnemonics, schematic sequences and structural devices. In the actual telling, she can inhabit and personify just about anything she chooses, investing every detail, every phrase and every word - verb, noun and adjective, every vowel and syllable, with energy or meaning. She can do sound effects, sing, sniff, snort, spit and gargle. Characters and their actions can be described in their own particular language, rhythm and sentence structure.
And the BIG monks, in the BIG hats, looked under the BIG stones. KERR...RUNCH!
A purest-strain storyteller has no first person voice and expresses herself through all the creative choices she has made in the 'writing', and continues to make in the telling. She is a cipher but does more than simply serve the text; she becomes it; she is the text. Her story exists not so much in her physical performance, but more in her ability to feed the imaginations of the listeners. There are no moments in between - the radio's on - there is a version of the fourth wall in place but it mainly concerns the soundscape. If it is broken, then the story embraces the intrusion. At a festival a story can include:
...and in the distance they could still hear the very silly goblins and the very sad goblins pretending to be at a party.
The traditional fool operates with a similar set of creative options to the traditional storyteller, except that with the fool there is no text being served because none exists. While the fool can call on a vast repertoire of technique and comic business, his performance serves only the moment. Like the storyteller, the fool avoids the first person. He expresses himself through selfless play. Beyond that there are no rules and the options are endless - it's playtime.
Ask a fool to express an opinion; he will play at expressing opinions. Ask a fool to make a choice; he will play at making choices. Ask a fool to tell a story and he'll ask you for the plot and the characters.
In the tarot pack, the fool is card Zero of the Major Arcana - the beginning and the end. We start off as a fool knowing nothing and we end up as a fool knowing nothing.
The shaman is a storyteller fool.
The shaman serves the tribe. He has a similar creative toolbox to the storyteller and the fool, plus a few extra options of his own.
He serves the story but there is only one story. He serves the moment and the moment goes back a long way and that's the story.
The shaman takes risks and investigates the dark side. He speaks in the first person only as a cipher to serve the tribe. The shaman can be outrageous and provocative. He may even be feared.
The shaman asks the audience:
Who are we? What are we doing? And is this the interval?
The First Joke
It's a good bet that the first joke was a combination of schadenfreude and toilet humour. When the first group of punters gathered around the original village idiot and started laughing at him, it was probably because he was exposing himself or eating turds or bellowing obscene nonsense.
The first inter-action was probably mimicry - them pointing at him and laughing, and him excitedly pointing back at them and imitating their laughter. It escalated from there - shameless behaviour and mimicking the peculiarities of his tormentors, sometimes earning him a scrap of dinner and sometimes landing him in the stocks for the afternoon.
To cut a long story very short: soon his uninhibited antics and complete lack of guile gained a modest reputation and he attracted the attention of the local chieftain who came riding up and said, 'That is funny! Hose him down and bring him back to my place, I've got the King coming to dinner at the weekend.' And so it was that eventually the village idiot, with his innocent lewd show and untutored piss-taking, gibbered, dribbled and masturbated his way to the table of the monarch and eventually into the job of Court Fool.
Didn't last long of course: 'Is that all he does - insult my guests, fart and play with his dong?'
'He pisses himself occasionally.'
'Get me a different one. One that doesn't smell quite as bad.'
Soon the word was out that you could get regular board for the night and eat at the King's Table and all you had to do was pretend to be interestingly deranged.
The Fool became the Feigned Fool, cleaned up his act and became Court Jester with his own regular chat show. Meanwhile, back on the village green, a new grotesque was learning three-ball juggling using two cowpats and a small child.
May 3rd 1993
The Danga to Archy
The parasites of Ancient Greece also blagged a free meal at the table of the great and good in exchange for their provocative and witty banter. Buffoons, wits and fools, with varying degrees of license and success, have done much the same across most cultures and throughout history.
The first recorded mention of a fool is of an all-singing all-dancing African pygmy, the Danga, in the Pharaoh's court in ancient Egypt, 2000 BC. He was said to have mimicked the 'Dance of the Gods' - probably tagged on the end of the chorus line and by pure juxtaposition, rendered it ridiculous.
The rich, famous, and powerful throughout ancient history appear to have surrounded themselves with unusual and eccentric specimens of humanity. Although many of them were kept simply as freak show exhibits, they were part of a culture of otherness that included everything from philosopher fools to half-wits and contortionists.
The best documented is the cult of wise fool dwarves who served the warlords of ancient Ireland. The Celtic tradition is full of the exploits of a broad spectrum of dwarf fools versed in the creative arts, many of whom were warriors, all vested with alleged magical powers, and if not, then at least the talent to trick, amuse and mesmerise.
One suicidal performance by a warrior fool probably changed the course of history. Taillefer was a joculator of William the Conqueror. The story goes that on the morning of the Battle of Hastings, when the two armies were lined up against each other, Tailleffer rode out into no-man's land singing a rousing song of French chivalry. He dismounted and began juggling a huge sword, throwing it high into the air and catching it in rhythm with his singing. The English frontline troops were gob-smacked and even more so when he charged them, making a killing before being killed himself. It is presumably quite difficult to defend yourself while applauding. The French, of course, were roused to great deeds and the rest is the cliché of history.
Much of the information relating to English fools comes from the writings of Christian clerics who were clearly unhappy with the irreligious feigned innocents who had the ear of the king. If fools were not 'the devils work', then what were they? In the cleric's interpretation of events, warrior fools in particular, even though they martyred themselves in battle with lateral behaviour that changed the course of history, were either demonised or left out of the official recorded story of the victors.
The idealised view of the jester is of a licensed fool - the king's eyes and ears in a potentially traitorous court; more pertinently, a confidante and personal playmate, a wordsmith-cum-psychotherapist skilled at reinterpreting the king's own words back to him and capable of inhabiting an alter-ego to mirror the man's folly. Such are the luxuries and necessities of absolute power.
In reality, medieval monarchs, just like modern cabaret audiences, probably got the comedians they deserved. For every jester who lived dangerously and dared to speak the truth, there were those who did little more than competently MC the royal command performance. Doubtless many more ended up in prison or what passed for the madhouse.
What is less well known is that the fool had no status whatsoever, and depending on the etiquette of the particular court or mood of the moment, may well have been ignored entirely by all but his lord or master. Existing only on the fringes of reality, the fool was officially non-existent - a nobody, with less actual status than a pet or even a piece of furniture.
In modern film interpretations of English history, the Monarch's fool is all but absent. Will Somer, the last of the English innocent fools, never features in the films depicting his master Henry VIII. Even Elizabeth I, who recognised and dignified her fools, is never seen with either her two female dwarf fools or her jester, Tarleton. Like most of their kind before them, they are still being written out of history.
In the paranoid court of James I, Archibald Armstrong was more than a jester to the King; he was James's closest friend and personal aide. When James fell seriously ill, he refused to see anyone other than Archy. The court jester was the only one privy to the seriousness of the situation, and for a period of 3 months, perish the thought, a fool probably ran the country. Archy is also credited with a string of outrageous stunts, including assuming the role of a foreign diplomat and ridiculing members of the Spanish court. He eventually had to be pensioned off and was given an estate in Ireland where he retired in colonial decadence with his own court jester. Or did he?
'Commedia dell'arte - comedy of the professionals - was an irreverent, knockabout style pantomime which evolved from the carnivals of Southern Italy and spread across Western Europe via France in the late sixteenth century,' it sez here.
It's hard to imagine a culture with the sort of artistic freedom and high concentration of talent that could give birth to something as elegant and as basic as the commedia dell'arte. But it clearly happened and without any perceptible interference. In fact it was initially sanctioned and sponsored by the wealthy courts
The actors involved were dedicated professionals who committed their careers to extending
the working archive of one character while exploring new riffs and licks in a tight ensemble set-up. These universally recognisable stock characters, with their deeply human flaws and foibles, provided the bedrock of the dramatic conflict. The flexible knockabout style with its fights, deceptions and intrigue was aimed directly at the common people. The plot always reflected the downtrodden servant's perspective of the perennial subjects of love, sex, wealth and power.
Imagine an improvised Goon Show (including women) performing unsentimental Charles Dickens scenarios in the theatrical equivalent of a live rock group format. It was a concept that toured Europe for 200 years.
Commedia was highly stylised theatre, strong on mime, with the actors wearing half masks that accentuated their physicality. They probably expressed themselves verbally in a pan-European theatrical pidgin language, and with every blow, bump and knockabout exchange accompanied by an ensemble backing of sound effects and music.
Any given commedia troupe would have a core group of actors playing the familiar stock characters; essential were two servants and their employer. Harlequin, the young male lead - tricksy, agile and often too clever by half, Columbine, sometimes his lover, torn between love and security or duty, and the wealthy Pantaloon, her sometimes suitor, husband or father, always cuckolded or robbed. There were also other rich and decadent characters: a Doctor-cum-Lawyer - greedy and lecherous, and The Captain - a swaggering boaster often revealed as a coward. But most important was the comic chorus of Zanni - various servants, mischievous oiks and scheming low life - notably Brighella, a wily wheeler dealer gang leader, Pedrollini a love-struck melancholic, Punchinello, a grotesque yobbo.
With an agreed rough scenario and denouement, and a disciplined code which allowed for plenty of spontaneous solos, they improvised their way through a sequence of scenes - the familiar stock character inter-action often having a stone - scissors - paper logic to the outcome.
A solo mime exercise used by modern commedia exponents illustrates the theatrical style and context of bottom-line street life survival perfectly. It's got the makings of tight ten-minute routines dependent on attitude. Every nuance and every thought process is played large and repeated to the audience:
Enter character in half mask. He mimes hunger. He sees some dog shit, considers it as a meal, reflects on the grossness, reminds himself of his hunger, ponders, makes a decision, and relishes eating the dog shit, feels sick, regrets doing it, throws up, feels better, is still hungry, sees the vomit, and eats it.
The history is sketchy, but commedia companies could number anything from 10 to 20 and included several other women characters. The actors, who spent their lives playing one stock character, improvising speeches, reciting poems, quipping asides and customising their roles, need not have been playing themselves, but they certainly must have brought much of themselves to their roles. Consequently, throughout the two hundred years of commedia's existence, the stock characters gradually developed and subtly changed, as did their relationships and their status within the troupes. In various cultures across Europe, characters combined and new characters appeared, leading to the establishment of national variations under new names.
In France in the early 1800s the mime actor Debareau developed Pierrot, originally the melancholic Pedrollini, into a national institution. In Les Enfants Du Paradis, the classic French film about his life, Debareau too is portrayed as a deeply sad character hopelessly in love with an unattainable woman.
In 1642 when Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime banned all theatrical performance, commedia companies must have scrubbed England from their gigging schedules. But the Punchinello character appears to have hung in. Cross-pollinated with the local Vice character - originally the trickster fool of the Mystery plays - Punch utilised Harlequin's slapstick bat, took a wife and resurfaced in the Punch and Judy puppet show.
In England commedia dell'arte eventually morphed into the Harlequinade and then the English Pantomime - but more of that later. First the Bard.
Robert Armin - a speculation
That bear is bleeding! It's injured! Either chain it up outside or kill it,
but you're not bringing it in here.
I've always wondered how Elizabethan actors dealt with the groundlings - the rough crowds who paid a half-groat concessionary rate to stand for hours, five feet immediately below the stage. The influence of the energetic commedia dell'arte troupes and how they worked the crowd can have only upped the ante further. My guess is that in both styles, the actors not taking part in a scene, must have remained on stage or at least within the view of the audience. Here they operated like any good performance ensemble - as a role-model for the audience: focussing on the action of the play, always taking part in, but never quite leading the general appreciation and, through their own 'performed' sense of occasion and expectation, subtly censured any disruption. It still must have been an awkward gig. There must have been tension between the serious actors and the comic performers, who had the skills to work the crowd. The temptation must have been irresistible.
Back around 1600, Robert Armin landed a residency as principal comic actor with The Chamberlain's Men - scriptwriter Will Shakespeare. Top of Armin's CV was the fact that Tarleton, Elizabeth's Jester, was once his mentor. He'd also played fool leads with the best theatre companies, had written a successful comic satire, and was publishing a book of jests. He was a top comedy attraction and took up his new post probably just in time to play the original first gravedigger in the original version of Hamlet plus some chorus bits.
Robert Armin was groomed as a fool and then as a comic actor / performer. His creative process must have involved a lot of working the crowds in big alfresco town centre venues. Then suddenly he's landed a ten-minute bit part in a four-hour tragedy. My interpretation of Armin makes him the subject of Shakespeare's irritation in a sub-plot of Hamlet's speech to the First Player. Still with me?
And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of the barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered; that's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.
Forget the plot of Hamlet. What Shakespeare is indirectly saying to Armin (and the other comedians and of course to the audience) is...
This is a new theatre and you are the new comic lead in this company. Your predecessor Billy Kemp was always going off script and working the riff raff in the crowd and wrecking my best lines. And now you're at it. This isn't some Latin knockabout romp. This is my show. So stop it. Now! And consider this a public warning.
Was Shakespeare censuring the early development of stand-up comedy? I think so. He wasn't stupid. He will have witnessed the commedia actors improvising long comic speeches and could see that his job, and the jobs of his twenty actors, could all be done by one comic performer and he wasn't taking any chances. If the Bard hadn't been so vigilant, Elizabethan theatre might well have gone the same way as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - dominated by solo comedians.
If Armin did play the first gravedigger, what did he make of his lines in Act V Scene 1? He is required to pick up the skull of the royal jester Yorrick and utter the words, 'this skull hath lain in the earth three and twenty years,' and, 'a whoreson of a mad fellow...' and '...a pestilence on him for a mad rogue...'
Hamlet picks up Yorrick's skull and explains further with, 'Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.'
Someone, who knows about these things, once pointed out to me that the Bard was referring to Elizabeth, now an old woman, and her jester Tarleton, who had been dead 13 years. Tarleton was of course Armin's mentor. Why would the Bard put such words in Armin's mouth? Surely as a wind up.
Whatever the nature of the tension between them, and the plays of the Bard are peppered with clues, they continued to work together. Most notably Armin was the original Fool in King Lear. How much of Lear's Fool can be attributed to Armin and how much to Shakespeare is a question worth posing, but not one central to the history of stand-up comedy. There was other, darker stuff about to happen later in the seventeenth century that would match any tragedy the Bard could write.
Fools in High Places
During the English Civil War 1642-8, both the Royalists and Parliamentarians described their adversaries as 'fools'. The subsequent Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell closed down all the theatres and banned public performances. During this dark period the word 'fool', which had previously been applied to a sympathetic comic innocent or comic performer feigning innocence, now had an ominous connotation. 'Fools in high places' was a phrase used only to describe politicians. A rhetorical question like 'what sort of a fool would ban comedy and laughter?' suggested a far greater madness than any comic pretence a mere fool show could offer. The appellation 'fool', like the fools themselves, was rendered redundant. The actual Fool performers with no professional identity and ostensibly nowhere to perform, had to re-invent themselves as Jack Puddings and Merry Andrews playing in illegal drolls (rough theatre farces) on the country fair circuit.
It was, however, very difficult to legislate against what went on in a market-place or a fairground. Descriptions of Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield make it sound like a long-running seasonal Glastonbury Festival in the middle of London's East End. The jester / cleric Rahere is said to have had the original idea in a vision in 1100.
Throughout the two decades of the police state, 1642-1660, Bartholomew Fair ran almost to schedule. The only time the Puritans did threaten to close it down, they were pre-empted and it opened early and, once up and running, was unstoppable.
For the previous fifty years many a fool performer had earned a living as one of the dupes and fool accomplices in a mountebank's medicine show. These shabby commercial ventures had evolved over the years into an entertainment form using the sale of the elixir only as a means of collecting an entrance fee to what had become a popular fairground attraction. From the 1640s, what was once the very lowest gig a comedian could play, became overnight one of the few shows in town.
It is difficult to comprehend the depth of the social upheaval during this period. The monarch was not only head of the Church and head of the English state, but had ruled (it was believed) with divine authority from God. In January 1649 when Cromwell beheaded Charles I, the political and religious radicalism that was already rife, increased. A year later he put down the leftist Leveller mutiny in the Army and this act unleashed a further spate of utopian sects. Most flamboyant were the Ranters, who eschewed all authority and believed that God existed in all creatures and that men and women were incapable of sin. Ranter prophets and their followers were reported to be roaming the countryside spreading heresy and endlessly partying. This early exotic blossoming of English anarchism was gradually hunted down and its exponents tortured and forced to recant at their trials before being imprisoned.
Meanwhile, and against this backdrop, there existed a sub-culture of professional comic actors and satirical pamphleteers touring the country fair circuit in small troupes, offering news bulletins and the medicine of raw satire to heal the body politic. There is understandably only scant evidence about the nature of these mountebank shows (or the droll shows, which also dabbled in satire). The fact that it did happen was revealed when a semblance of normality was reinstated in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II. Mountebanks with Jack Pudding (fool) assistants emerged as a popular satirical ensemble style doing the rounds.
The world of conventional theatre in England never quite recovered from the Puritan period. Actual spoken word became the designated prerogative of the serious actor and was confined to a handful of theatres, mostly in London. Other venues were required to produce various styles of musical entertainment. This code of niggardly censorship would remain in place with minor tweakings until the turn of the twentieth century. To this day England's licensing laws make it illegal to have three or more musicians on a stage in a regular pub. And as for closing times! What are we? 12 year olds? But I digress... In the decadent Restoration period, the law was arbitrarily administered and it barely extended to the popular theatre of the masses.
By the 1680s, a rogue actor, called Joe Haines, was getting himself a bad name as a comic mountebank by hawking a cure-all elixir of seditious satire aimed variously at the sickness of the church, the state, and certain of his fellow actors. Haines, as well as being an accomplished Harlequin and a comic actor, was also a prankster and practical joker - he was once imprisoned in France for impersonating an English peer. In fact Haines' career is better documented by magistrates' reports and the complaints of those whom he wronged or affronted, than by any theatre reviewers. He toured England with a Jack Pudding fool troupe in tow, masquerading as a professor of medicine, his satirical diatribes and spontaneous mock sermons often landing him in trouble with various authorities and on a number of occasions with audiences too. He explained himself on stage and from the dock, but invariably his pleading and recanting was tongue in cheek and designed to add further confusion.
The escapades of Joe Haines, with his delight in notoriety, suggest he was fearlessly satirising the blatant double standards of his time. In its short life as a stock comic character, the mountebank had always been tarnished by the deceptive show of its real life double-dealing counterpart, selling moody medicine. Haines' contribution deepened the crimes of the mountebank from minor hawking infringements to something close to treason.
The only 'recent' example of a mountebank talking witty social politics I gleaned from the biography of Bonar Thompson - Hyde Park orator. He sold pamphlets on birth control with his customary flair in the street markets of 1930s London, most notably in Electric Avenue, Brixton.
Joseph Grimaldi and English Pantomime
By the first half of the 18th century commedia dell'arte in its original form had spread very thin, although its influence was everywhere. Its harshest critics described it as 'an excuse for staging the spectacle of public brawling'. In the established theatres the Harlequinade pantomime became the English hybrid of commedia dell'arte, with the addition of Clown, a minor English stock character, to the line-up of fall guys for Harlequin to trounce and best. The influential mime actor and dancer, John Rich, silenced the character of Harlequin and moved him away from broad comedy into an eccentric mute romantic hero, and subsequent players continued the trend. The Harlequinade pantomime became a fantastical fairy story - an hour's entertainment at the end of a long evening in the theatre. Meanwhile, Clowns and Pierrots had discovered a little earner away from the theatres, and were developing their broad knockabout comedy skills in the new Equestrian tent shows (the beginnings of Circus) which started from 1770. This potted history is by way of introducing the idea of a comic void to what happened next.
By the end of the 18th century, a Clown of French birth, name of Dubois (the first performer in England to use white face in the circus), was influencing a Clown of Italian extraction, name of Joseph Grimaldi. The Clown character had been steadily growing in comic status with the work of various players, including Grimaldi's father. In 1806, at Covent Garden Theatre, Joey junior junked Clown's traditional rustic smock and ruddy face and dressed himself up in a customised version of servant's livery that also parodied the strutting peacocks of high fashion, and of Harlequin too, no doubt. He added wild startling make-up - white face, red contoured cheek triangles and exaggerated eyebrows. It was all designed to project his actions and expressions to fill the theatre. It would also fill the vacuum left by Harlequin's virtual abdication from the role of top comic lead.
Joseph Grimaldi must have been on a 'moment' at the turn of the 19th century. When his father had last played the role of Clown, he was a dummied-down bumpkin of a character, the bumbling butt of Harlequin's slapstick. Almost overnight Grimaldi Jnr had leap-frogged over and out of the part-time double act and landed Clown downstage centre as an all-knowing urban trickster, adding a tougher satirical edge to the content of his fooling.
Joey Grimaldi had become the first star of the new English Pantomime with customised vehicles written to display his talents. He developed various solo spots within the Panto plot-line and showcased what was generally acclaimed to be his comic genius. As well as establishing the comic song, he also performed high-energy acrobatics and performance stunts. Whatever it was he had, the impact was phenomenal. The next generation of clowns and funny men, particularly in the new circuses, were Joeys, not 'were known as' Joeys. This was beyond generic. They 'were' Joeys. They did him. The full tribute act. Every other Light Ents act in the biz was a tribute act to Joey Grimaldi. Long after his death, his influence was still felt beyond theatre and circus, in the robust satiric approach to costume, make-up, and comic song in the Music Halls.
Any description of Joey Grimaldi's varied talents always includes his unusual skill of lampooning popular figures of the day by apparently re-arranging fruit, vegetables and cooking utensils and other everyday items on a barrow. It wasn't a one-off joke; he was known for it and he rang the changes. For example: upper class dandies, King George III included, had made the hussar uniform high fashion. Now, just how Grimaldi arranged a coal scuttle, a muff and a full-length coat into a primitive cartoon sculpture that had a Covent Garden audience of 2500 rolling in the aisles night after night, was beyond me. I assumed that an allusion to royalty was dangerous and his comic genius must have been in the execution, leaving the joke, therefore, lost to us.
Then, in the early 1990s, I was sat in the middle of 2000 people in a tent at the Campus Festival in Devon watching the theatrical maverick and spoken word performer, Ken Campbell. He had brought a little shopping trolley on stage with him, holding several books which he referred to occasionally. He started talking about the meaning of life and took off his jacket and casually dumped it on top of the books. Then he read out something about physics, replaced the book, took off his glasses and placed them on top of his jacket. It was a hot day and, while he talked, he mopped his brow, took off his cap and put it with the rest of his stuff. He started talking about paying a visit to Prof Stephen Hawking to discuss Grand Unified Theory. He gave the trolley a half turn and started talking to it. No one saw it coming and no one expected it. But there, on stage, was the unmistakable icon of Stephen Hawking - his crumpled little body, with a book on his lap, and his face, lost as usual behind his glasses and under the peak of his cap. Uncanny? I think so. Grimaldi was clearly a comic genius. And Ken Campbell is worth a mention too.
A Brief History of Burnt Cork Minstrelsy
There were white actors blacking up and playing black comic characters in the British Theatre as early as the 1760s - Charles Dibdin, the actor who wrote Joey Grimaldi's first major Panto, Mother Goose, 1808, had toured England in his youth with a black-face solo comic recitation. It was an acquired taste of the English upper classes who also kept black servants as fashion accessories. The English 'comedian' Charles Mathews played Philadelphia in 1820 as a comic slave character performing a recitation.
In 1828, during an interval spot in a New York theatre, a white actor named Daddy Rice appeared as a black character, 'Jim Crow', and sang a song of the same name. His skin was darkened with burnt cork; he was dressed up as a crass black stereotype. The song and the man were an overnight success. Rice was touring Britain within two years.
In 1843 a bunch of white musicians did some serious ear-wigging and learned a whole repertoire of black songs and performed them under the name 'The Virginia Minstrels'. Their example was soon taken up and given a more theatrical format by the Christy Minstrels and very quickly the whole tawdry show was on the road. It became a national pastime and spread throughout America and Europe. While the blacks were still at work, many whites spent their leisure time blacking-up in hobbyist bands portraying blacks as all-singing, all-dancing, grinning hedonistic buffoons. We'd slipped back 4000 years.
While many of the early songs and music were stolen from the blacks by whites, and customised to suit their own style and prejudice, it was a white man who originated the format for the spoken word interludes. Steven Forster was the writer / director behind the Christy Minstrels. Not only did he write many of the original songs, he is also credited with the concept of the semi-circle of musicians with Mr Interlocutor the MC in the centre, and the two 'end men', Brudder Tambo (on tambourine) and Brudder Bones (on bones or spoons). These three players performed short comedy interludes of cross-talk repartee, riddles and jokes in between the song and dance numbers, plus an extended musical sketch where the stock characters, 'Jim Crow', a stupid country bumpkin, along with his skiving, work-shy urbanite counterparts, Jim Dandy and Zip Coon, explored and exaggerated the cross-talk further. In another context, this wholesale denigration of a defenceless race would have been the acceptable and familiar stuff of developing stock character foolery.
The terms 'Jim Crow', 'Dandies', and 'Coons' became used as racial slurs with a whole entertainment genre to perpetuate them and the bigotry behind them. Eventually, as the abolition of slavery became a major issue, 'Jim Crow' became the word applied to the laws and customs which oppressed blacks. By then the garish simplicity of the burnt-cork minstrel style and its oeuvre of often outstandingly catchy songs, energetic dance routines, and cross-talk comedy formats, had become endemic across the Atlantic in the Victorian Music Hall.
There had always been featured 'genuine Negro' minstrel performers working the English Halls and they had long since set a precedent for what seems in retrospect one of the bizarre ironies of 'emancipation'. For American blacks, it must have been a rare early equal opportunity to form their own minstrel shows and black-up with burnt cork (with a touch of white on the eyes and lips), pretending to be whites pretending to be blacks. By the time they got on the circuit forged by the whites pretending to be blacks, and toured the English Music Halls, they were blacks pretending to be whites pretending to be blacks, replacing whites pretending to be blacks. Had nobody heard of whiteface? It was that style of confusion (but not that one) that was the stuff of the cross-talk repartee of Minstrelsy.
There is still much denial and embarrassment around the documenting of Minstrelsy. I discovered more information on a website about the history of the banjo than on sites or in books devoted to the history of Pop music, Vaudeville, or Music Hall. I find it hard to believe, but supposedly the black minstrel troupes hardly deviated from the existing formats of their white predecessors and did little more than continue to confirm the stereotypes.
However offensive it appears to us now, the burnt-cork minstrel of the late 19th and early 20th century was an acceptable home grown American stock character - an available option for any performer, regardless of race, to inhabit and explore all manner of eccentricity.
When Al Jolson (previously an endman with Dockstader's Minstrels and, incidentally, Jewish) 'immortalised' blackface and sang 'Mammy' in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, in 1928, he gave the solo Minstrelsy of Daddy Rice a new lease of life.
All the stock characters of fooldom had their battles with language, and it's a fair assumption that the fast cross-talk misunderstandings of Abbot and Costello and the Marx Brothers all owe much to the endmen of Minstrelsy.
'My wife's gone to the West Indies.'
'No, she went of her own accord.'
Victorian Music Hall
Victorian Music Hall evolved from backroom tavern entertainment - so-called Penny Gaffs. The first customised Halls were built in the late 1840s and were licensed for smoking, drinking and music, but not spoken word dramas. So the modern history of stand-up comedy seems to have started in an institution where sustained talking to the audience was actually illegal. The comedians of the Music Hall sang mostly robust comic songs with a fair sprinkling of sentimental ballads and were devised for mass community singing and without a
PA system. It's no surprise that fragments still live on in the sing-a-long choruses and chants from the terraces of football grounds: My old man said, be a city / town / united fan. Fuck off! Bollocks! You're a cunt! being a particularly charming re-working of 'Don't dilly-dally on the way' which, had she heard it, Marie Lloyd may well have approved of. The song seems to be a variation on 'Polly Wolly Doodle' which was one of the very first songs of Minstrelsy and also has a range of football terrace adaptations.
The influence of Panto
Music Hall also had deep roots in Grimaldi-style English Pantomime which developed and occupied many theatres as well as most of the Halls for several months of the year. The convention of cross-dressing was endemic and the costume, make-up, and performance style of Panto all added to the projection of image to fill the room. There were as many solo women artists strutting around the stage in top hat and tails as there were men making the most of their pantomime dame routines. Panto was (and remains) predominantly a performer's, rather than an actor's medium, and long runs in Panto doing knockabout comic characters performing monologues with musical accompaniment was a major influence and training ground for the Halls.
While many of the wide range of skills and novelty acts in the general Music Hall melting pot were picking up influences and finding their own comic rapport with the audience, the singers of sentimental comic songs were developing in another way. Gus Elen was one of the leading 'Coster comedians', a sort of barrow boy-cum-pearly king, a popular London character 'type' of the time. He was less of a rowdy carouser than his contemporaries and the long lyrical verses of his songs resembled the reflective content of much later stand-up routines. Songs like 'it's a great big shame' and 'ouses in between' were rich in lines about poverty and textural jokes about the cockney dialect.
If you saw my little backyard, 'Wot a pretty spot!' you'd cry,
It's a picture on a sunny summer day;
Wiv the turnip tops and cabbages wot peoples doesn't buy,
makes it on a Sunday look all gay.
The neighbours finks I grow 'em and you'd fancy you're in Kent,
Or at Epsom if you gaze into the mews.
It's a wonder as the landlord doesn't want to raise the rent,
Because we've got such nobby distant views.
Oh it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the eastward could be seen;
Wiv a ladder and some glasses,
You could see to 'Ackney Marshes,
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between.
Dan Leno, Harry Champion and patter
A further advance came from Panto Dame and King of the Halls, Dan Leno, a cross-dressing clog-dancing expressive comic mega-talent, who was reckoned to be the first to introduce long sequences of patter tacked on to the verses of his songs. His contemporaries developed it further and it's hard to imagine now how this actually worked in practice. At the turn of the 20th century new customised Variety theatres were being built that held up to 3000 people, double the capacity of most music halls. The patter-style cockney bollocks verse to a music hall song like Harry Champion's 'Any old Iron' requires much the same motormouth delivery as a modern rap offering.
Just a week or two ago me poor old Uncle Bill
He went and kicked the bucket and he left me in his will,
The other day I popped round to see poor Aunty Jane
She said, 'Your Uncle has left to you his watch and chain.'
I put it on, stuck it across me chest
Thought I looked a dandy as it dangled on me vest.
Just to flash it off I starts to walk about
A load of little kids began to follow me and shout:
Any old iron etc...
Without amplification, just how did the audience, sat in the back of the Hackney Empire upper circle, hear the jokes and appreciate the subtleties? My understanding is they were probably singing the chorus at the time and that patter started off and developed as asides to the front stalls and those within earshot. Either that or Champion had impeccable diction, excellent projection and the sort of charisma that demands total focus. He had none of these; he was a loveable blustering rabble-rouser.
This is no idle speculation. When I was in Rough Theatre in the mid seventies, I re-wrote several of his songs and while the choruses worked fine, I never managed to keep the rhythm and project the verse lines beyond the front few rows:
And to protect their racketeer karma
they've got this extra character armour
Corrugated iron corrugated iron etc...
Patter became one of the comedian's creative options and although it may have been officially described as music, with regular piano chords punctuating the spoken word, it was undoubtedly the beginning of modern stand-up comedy. Patter's leading exponent, Dan Leno, was still ostensibly wedded to character comedy until the end of his career, and would tick the same box as Dame Edna Everage or Harry Enfield. Others used the costume and make-up of character only as a way of projecting their image.
Marie Lloyd needed no character costume to stamp her good-time girl identity on the back row. Although she may have exaggerated her make-up, she sang her bawdy songs, and doubtless worked the stalls, without the facade of character. She, like many others, was performing a bold and heightened version of herself.
After World War One, eccentric comedians, as opposed to character comedians, were more in evidence. George Robey (the Prime Minister of Mirth) wore a dark smock-like coat and had enormous eyebrows set against a tides-out receding hairline, and Billy Bennett (almost a gentleman) wore a crumpled dinner suit and hobnailed boots. Both recited set-piece rhyming monologues with accompanying patter, short sections of which were single idea jokes.
If it was only for want of a PA system to project their voices in the larger venues, what then was happening in the smaller venues? Did stand-up comedy actually get started away from the big Variety theatres? Audiences of the time were also listening to a range of alfresco public orators in parks and market places, many of whom were far from serious speakers and joked about everything under the sun. Alongside them was a sub-culture of racing tipsters - big characters who relied on entertaining crowds with prolonged mountebank-style witty spiel. It's hard to imagine that there wasn't some crossover of styles happening in the more intimate entertainment venues. It's an unfashionable thought, but maybe stand-up comedy, in terms of a sustained act of nothing more than just talking to the audience, first got going in the more up-market supper club circuit, where comedians like Arthur Askey learned his trade sharing the bill with after-dinner speakers.
By the time decent PA systems were eventually installed in the early 1930s, sustained joke-telling and short anecdotes were part of the comedian's options. The official restrictions on spoken word were now delegated to the theatre managements who enforced stringent codes concerning good taste. It became a matter of choice whether to cut out the songs, ditties, and monologues and go for a wholly stand-up set. It is Ted Ray who is credited with dumping his white suit and bowler hat, and walking on stage in much the same Saturday night togs as the other young blokes in his audience. He performed an act comprising jokes and short first person anecdotes, saving his violin solo only for the all-important big finish.
Max Miller - Comic Attitude and Beyond
I saw Max Miller play the Chiswick Empire in 1957 when I was twelve. My Dad took me one evening out of the blue - doubtless as a rite of passage. All I can remember is that there was this geezer, and I mean 'geezer' on stage wearing a suit made out of jazzy curtain material with the baggy trousers stuffed neatly into his socks - 'plus fours'. I asked my Dad afterwards. I'd recently become obsessed with clothes. On the way to the gig, Dad had said, 'So you wanna suit? I'll get you a suit like Max Miller's.' He said nothing else. I knew it was going to be a joke. That was my only expectation and my only lasting image of Max Miller. I can't remember any of his jokes, only my Dad's daft joke on me about Miller's suit.
Clearly I was bonding with my father and not paying attention, but what I did recall of Miller is fascinating: a packed darkened room, with the crowd hanging on his every word. The pervading mood was of something illicit happening, like at any moment we might be found out and all asked to leave.
Later, as an adult, listening to the tapes of his gigs, I seriously started to wonder what sort of repressed adolescent I must have been to have had a chance to listen to so many saucy jokes, and not to have taken it. Maybe I was simply embarrassed and chose not to hear. But that's not the point. Whatever else I missed, I clearly clued into what was going on.
When he was peaking in the late thirties, he must have cut the same sort of figure as Joey Grimaldi. Working class geezer dressed up like an over-the-top toff - on anyone else it'd look silly - but Miller's so full of himself, he's carrying it off. A cheeky charming swaggering narcissist. He's travelled, he's gambled and he's certainly 'one for the ladies' and, given half a chance, he'll tell us all about it.
As soon as Miller is on, he establishes a conspiratorial dynamic with the audience concerning the whereabouts of the theatre manager who wants to check his material. He keeps glancing into the wings:
'He's still there. He wants to look at my stuff, you see. I don't show him,
but he wants to see it.'
Miller, and he must have been 65 years old when I saw him and well past his best, was still creating a mood of furtive disclosure and the audience were still colluding with him. He presumably still had his comic attitude of 'cheeky and conspiratorial' curled into 'devilment and mock denial' with its 'will he or won't he get a chance to tell us' hook of expectation into the audience.
It's a device that served him well over four decades and there must have been times when it was very real. Miller's career is dotted with periods when he was out of favour and banned outright from the stages of employers who were committed to promoting a 'decent' show, aimed at a broad popular cash return.
There has never been a period when such a device was not relevant. A contemporary comedian could make it work today on the Miller-lite Jongleurs circuit, where the current taboo is one of creativity with its possibility of causing discomfort by hinting at the evil of service industry failure. 'If he gets a chance, will he or won't he go too far and be an individual and serve his own truth instead of a generic approximation?'
When Miller did put down the approved white book and delivered his 'blue book' material, it was merely a taster of the sort of jokes doing the rounds in the public bars. Hearing Miller tell it again, publicly and in front of the ladies, was the actual gag. Contemporary comedians like Jenny Eclair and Jo Brand (who women take their twelve-year-old daughters to see) are leading exponents of a modern variation, with a range of awkward female subject matter. When I saw the Milleresque Roy Chubby Brown live in Skegness in 1998, he had a neat twist on the theme, which involved a tacit conspiracy with the women in the audience to tell detailed cunnilingus jokes to embarrass the lads.
Max Miller, the Cheeky Chappie, is remembered for his risqué comic songs and the jokes he shouldn't have told, but the other element of his performance that consolidated his attitude and assured his longevity as headline act, was his sparkling rapport with the audience and the fluency of his 'patter' between the gags.
'You can't help liking him, can you? Miller's the name, Lady, there'll never be another, will there? - They just don't make 'em any more, Ducks. Good job I was a boy. If I'd turned out a girl, I really would have been in trouble. No! Listen. He's gone. Here's one...'
Who Killed Variety?
Variety wasn't killed off by television; it just failed to adjust its set. From the mid-fifties everything got a lot grubbier in Variety; whether or not Max Miller was supported by a series of nude tableau acts, I can't recall, but that's what started to happen. It was the wrong response aimed at the wrong generation and when it became obvious that rock 'n' roll was the new Music Hall, Variety couldn't compete. The first wave of rock audiences were tearing up the seats because they didn't want to sit and watch; they wanted to get up and dance. In retrospect, an astute Variety management should have ripped out the front six rows in a couple of the tattier theatres and booked a trial season of raunchy comedy rock packages. The Coasters headlining, Lonnie Donegan in support, and Screaming Lord Sutch, for openers. I'd have gone. Instead, their last ditch attempt was to try and incorporate it in a traditional bill 'and introducing popular new recording star Cliff Richard'. That sort of approach.
Lonnie Donegan did actually play Variety but with much the same treatment. They missed their chance there; his comic songs were in the tradition of the Music Hall. If anybody could have saved Variety, it was probably him.
It was three years later, in 1960, when I was fifteen, that I next recall seeing live entertainment - Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran - at a scruffy cinema in Ruislip. By then, the new generic role model of rock had narrowed to young, cool and mildly delinquent.
Well I'm gonna raise fuss
And I'm gonna raise a holler
Variety was dead by then and live stand-up comedy was virtually in hiding.
Why are Eric and Ernie so Loveable?
In the autumn of 2001, I was on my way to Amsterdam and arrived in the crowded departure lounge at Luton Airport to learn that the flight had been delayed for two hours.
About a third of the three hundred or so people waiting were sat watching the telly on an overhead screen. Back to back Morecambe and Wise TV shows. I stashed the book I was reading, found myself a seat in the middle of them and let it wash over me. There's a lot worse ways of spending two hours. The youngish lively crowd were focussed and loving it. Every time there was a break from Eric and Ernie, people chatted to each other and I soon picked up on the fact that most of them were Dutch with a fair sprinkling of other nationals, mostly Europeans, but only a few English.
So what was it about Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise that made them so universally loved?
Ernie Wise was working the Northern Club circuit when he was six-years-old. His father would black-up and sit him on his knee and sing 'Little Pal' as the finale to a cross-talk comedy double act, Carson and the Kid. Eric Morecambe was almost as precocious - winning talent contests in his early teens, staged by a professional 'blacked-up minstrel' troupe in the local seaside resort of Morecambe. He, like Ernie, was an all-round song and dance comic. They teamed up as a double act in the mid 1940s when they were both still in their teens. By sheer hard work and dedication, they became a headline showbiz attraction by 1960. In all that time they'd never had an original thought in their heads. They did what almost every other act did in their profession - they nicked material off other acts or rummaged in the archive and appropriated whatever suited them. It was the demise of live Variety and their decision to concentrate on television that forced them to finally take on scriptwriters and pay for using other people's material. No judgement. That's the way it was. Interesting to note that Hills and Green, the scriptwriters for their second TV series, were paid more than them.
In a profession where the bland were leading the bland, Morecambe and Wise got creative. Their double act evolved and gradually became less dependant on scripted gags and more on the subtle inter-action of their personas. For the rest of their careers (until 1983 when Eric died of his third heart attack) they stayed at the top. Their most creative period was their time at the Beeb from 68-77. In the final five years they appeared to be coasting.
In a double act, the two expressions of attitude echoing the set-up and punchline of joke structure are obvious. In their early work there was little or no attitude involved beyond the fact that Ernie was charming and sensible (the feed) and Eric was wacky and comical (the gag man). They would stand or fall on the quality of the gag and the business of putting it over to the audience. The whole thing was in inverted commas and very stagey. Often the set-up was cumbersome and required a prop that was then discarded. Eric walking on with an apple on a string tied to a stick.
Ernie: What are you doing?
Eric: I'm going fishing.
Ernie: Fishing? You don't catch fish with an apple. You catch fish with a worm.
Eric: The worm's in the apple.
Boom boom! And it was a 'boom boom!' or 'tarrah!' to the audience on the punchline. A dozen more gags, a couple of songs and a dance routine. Such was the stuff of double acts. After twenty years with regular updates and ringing the changes, Morecambe and Wise knew their business intimately.
When they subtly reversed the roles with Ernie Wise still providing the set-up but by expressing ambition, vanity or pomposity, it's his attitude that is the set-up more than what he's actually saying. And it's a perfect set-up. Eric also gets to express attitude. Eric need only register the fact that he's heard it. A simple turn to Ernie and a corresponding raised eyebrow to the audience or camera can get the laugh. His attitude is a complexity of rising status, mock pity or mild derision and of course playfulness. From there he can embark on humouring Ernie to encourage him to make further egocentric statements.
A further sophistication involved Ernie Wise catching on to the fact that he was being humoured or that Eric was sharing something with the audience and going behind his back. When Ernie started standing up for himself and making efforts to turn the joke back on Eric, it got curlier still. Eric's mugging to the audience became double-takes, which required a look of knowing amusement acknowledging what was going on - (Whooee! get him!).
The final deepening of the plot assured them an undeniable place in the heart of the nation's Christmas viewing habits.
When Ernie's backchat starts scoring the odd point, Eric is forced to notionally stop the game and remind Ernie of some salient facts. He points at Ernie, warning him to lay off the clever stuff. These threats never amount to anything more than playful reminders that Eric is twice Ernie's size - a look of censure, a firm arm around the shoulder, and very occasionally briefly holding Ernie's face between his hands and glancing at the audience.
But Eric never takes it any further. He may still glance at the audience, but he never goes so far as to ask them, 'Shall I give him the slap he deserves?' He always desists. They are friends and Eric is not about to betray the friendship any more than he already has.
And that was the beauty of it. Their on-stage relationship became a well-observed reflection on the unwritten rules of any long-term relationship. Eric has reached the boundary. Whatever his problem is with Ernie, he'll have to live with it, grin and bear it and close ranks.
Ernie of course is oblivious to all this and full of himself. Eric can only gently snipe, even playfully sulk, or better still, get Ernie off his ego-trip and on to another agenda where they can both mess about and enjoy themselves. Cue for a song. Two of a kind? They definitely weren't that.
In their performance, Ernie Wise is a vain, ambitious, penny-pinching, bumptious, flawed little know-all - a showbiz monster; Eric Morecambe a big, warm, endlessly playful man, who expresses a complexity of largesse and patience in a look and a minor adjustment to the tilt of his glasses. His only flaw is that he loves Ernie unconditionally. Every Morecambe and Wise sketch is a little homage to the tolerance of friendship.
I never saw Lenny Bruce perform. I was vaguely aware of the news items about his short run of gigs at The Establishment Club in 1963 and his subsequent exclusion from the UK. Shortly after this, I heard his first album 'Sick Comedian'. It was recorded in the fifties. I didn't know it, but by then he'd moved on to a far more adventurous style of comedy. It was 1968 and Lenny Bruce had been dead for two years when I first heard what I now consider to be his three seminal albums - the concerts at Berkeley, Carnegie Hall, and the Curran Theatre.
America in the fifties
In the period following World War Two, the development of good quality microphones, and the advent of television contributed to more intimate and less robust approaches to live comedy.
In America, the post-war generation of comedians were playing a circuit of cabaret clubs with occasional TV chat show appearances. They began to drop the razzmatazz of vaudeville styles (the equivalent of Variety and Music Hall) in favour of something far more relaxed and sophisticated. By the late fifties, one strain of this style eschewed familiar gag-telling in favour of extended skits and thematic routines. The early albums of Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman helped establish and popularise this style. Its most adventurous exponent, Lenny Bruce, explored subject matter previously deemed unsuitable as mainstream comedy material, performing extended raps about religion, drugs and sexuality. While Bruce's admirers celebrated him as a taboo-breaking social satirist, he was dubbed 'sick comedian' by journalists representing the conservative silent majority.
Lenny Bruce clearly became tired of doing the well-rehearsed comic 'bits', as he called them, and he began endlessly experimenting with ways of sustaining improvisation beyond the simple honing, heightening and embellishment of existing material. As early as 1960 his preferred approach was to 'free-form' - go out there, kick a few ideas around and give voice to his stream of consciousness, keeping his existing set-piece 'bits' in reserve to, if need be, pull the gig round.
By the early sixties, Lenny Bruce and his more politically motivated contemporaries, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, were performing their material as if they were holding an intelligent spontaneous conversation with the audience. The joke structure employed was subtle and not immediately apparent; their stage personas, the experiences related and the opinions expressed, had the ring of authenticity. The subject matter was real and relevant. Even their costume was casual everyday wear. We had entered the era of the serious raconteur comedian, although it would be another twenty years before this style of stand-up established itself with any grace on a live stage in the UK (Dave Allen being a notable exception).
The sensational side of Lenny Bruce's career has been well-documented. But there is an artistic legacy made of subtler stuff. Lenny Bruce's most important contribution to the art of stand-up comedy has less to do with breaking taboos around choice of language and subject matter, and more to do with the risks he took with himself on stage. Unsurprisingly, Lenny was into be-bop - he wanted to 'blow', 'wail' and 'cook' like a jazz musician, but having a flair for language and a head full of outrageous ideas, didn't bear comparison with 'being at one with your axe'. Performing stand-up seemingly without artifice, he started to discover range and variety in the light and shade of his own on-stage personality - his performance 'attitude'. More than any other comedian before or since, Lenny Bruce intuitively understood, used, and oozed attitude. He performed in a style of such flair and intimacy and expressed himself so eloquently, it is hard to think of any comedian since who has done anything vaguely comparable.
It was the American legal system that provided him with the impetus which would ironically liberate his artistic style, and tragically also be the death of him. First, in 1961, came an unnecessary drugs bust for the possession of methadone for which he had a doctor's prescription. A few weeks later, there was an equally pointless and vindictive obscenity bust for use of the phrase 'cock-sucker' in his stand-up act at the first house at the Jazz Workshop, San Francisco. He was out on bail and back on stage for the late show, with a whole wodge of potent material and the urgency and opportunity to share it. Rapping out his experiences with the law and updating his audience with his latest take on the current situation became a central theme in his work.
The busts (eight in all) and the police harassment continued; preparation for the lengthy trials and appeals began to take over much of his life; by 1965 he was bankrupted by legal fees. He died penniless of a methadone overdose in August 1966. For much of this time he was gigging - catharting his stuff and downloading the contents of a teeming mind to an intrigued audience.
It's a sign of those times that throughout, he was never hostile towards his audience; there was no indulgent ironic anger or second-hand raging at authority. Quite the opposite. He spoke to them as equals, often without guile, honestly sharing his bewilderment at the madness of the situation he found himself in. While Lenny was offering insight and overview of contemporary American society, he was also conducting a self-examination. Lenny's gigs were intimate affairs, and although there were many hundreds present, they had the mood of confidentiality, as if he was thinking aloud while writing up his diary.
The 1961 recording of his non-stop three-hour gig at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco, contains sequences that surpass any in stand-up comedy. The potency of the moment and much of the content is lost on us now - the samplings, local and cultural references, the detail, even some of his opinions and slang - it's all a foreign country. But forget the material, forget the word play and the twisted cliché joke structure; listen to the technique - the orchestration of his range of attitude. Just listen to the jazz of it.
Lenny Bruce delivered his witty insights and opinion in a spectrum of personal voices all in close attendance, but none getting to solo for more than a few seconds. While it wasn't always immediately funny, it made for a decidedly vital performance. He chatted honestly and openly, confided conspiratorially, wisecracked asides, mused soulfully, shared very personal observations, pleaded world-weary bewilderment, groped earnestly to understand and laughed delightedly at his own conclusions. He also rattled off opinionated short-hand information, sampling two decades of popular culture with comments, quips, quotes, snapshot characterisations, imagined official conversations and references to the local-immediate. Any of it could escalate into flights of nonsense and surrealism or slow to thoughtful reflection. There was a continual reprising of some of these references throughout in a range of fresh contexts. Another part of the textural glue uniting his act was a generous peppering of Yiddish slang, hip slang, jazz slang, showbiz slang, concocted language and verbal sound effects. All of it a deliberate artifice to help release his stream of consciousness and its free associations. He even alludes to this fact in his act, one voice offering an ongoing explanation of his comedy technique. Listening to Lenny Bruce, you get the feeling there was nothing in his life or art that he couldn't express through stand-up comedy.
The art critic Peter Fuller, writing in Modern Painters – Reflections on Modern Art, 1993, said that Derek Hyatt was one of the most important painters of landscape in Britain.
Now aged 70, Hyatt still paints, draws and enthuses about the landscape he has known since childhood. His energy seems not to have diminished. He still travels to Spain to record the flight of birds, attends printmakers' conferences in Finland, gives talks at galleries including the Tate St Ives, and writes for the magazine Modern Painters. His work is known and respected by artists, but he is relatively unknown to the general public partly because he does not seek publicity and has therefore been overlooked by a media-hungry art market. There is nothing here to shock, only a quiet, powerful voice that reverberates long after you have seen his work. The paintings are not complicated, but take time to absorb. Perhaps one also needs some terms of reference to locate Hyatt in what he calls 'the long tradition'.
When I first came across the paintings of Derek Hyatt in an issue of The Green Book, a quarterly magazine published in 1992 in Bristol, I immediately felt drawn to them. They connected strongly with the lineage of art I have been exploring for some years which traces the influences of mysticism, mythology, dream states and other forms of tapping the unconscious, in Western art. Later I came across an article on Hyatt's paintings by Linda Saunders called, Close Encounters on the Moors, in Modern Painters (winter edition 1994), in which she writes: "Not many artists are evolving a personal symbolism in relation to a particular ground in this way. Plenty, it is true, are lifting, with post-modern sangfroid, archetypes from other times and cultures, but funking the risks whereby these are re-inspired with life."
In the same issue of Modern Painters, Hyatt had written an article about the poetic imagination of the artist Paul Nash, who is considered by many to be one of the major English landscape painters of the twentieth century Enthused by his writing, I found further articles, one describing a visit to the artist Victor Pasmore on the island of Malta, and an article to celebrate 1995 as the European Year of the Bronze Age called, To Strengthen the Tribe. I found his writing poetic and precise, elucidating the qualities of both artists and also the qualities to be found in the landscape.
It was Nash who used the phrase genius loci – spirit of place – which describes the inherent energies of particular locations. I sensed that Hyatt also could unlock hidden sources in his paintings, that he had the ability to 'read the landscape' and decode it for us in a new way. With often oblique and sometimes humorous references to the pagan symbolism of such deities as Cernunnos, the Horned God, the Green Man, or the sensuous and flowing incarnations of the Goddess, Hyatt evokes echoes of folklore and mythology. His reference material extends throughout Europe, from the Mediterranean shores with the muscular forms of the minotaur, to the poetic tragedies of Orpheus and Eurydice. We find elements from cave paintings in Spain and France, runic markings, creatures from Norse mythology, Celtic patterns, neolithic cup and ring markings found on stones in the Yorkshire Dales where Hyatt has his studio.
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Eventually I met Hyatt in 1999 when I decided to include his paintings in the book I was writing about the spirit of place and its relationship with various artists, writers and filmmakers, called This Enchanted Isle.
It was at his home in West Yorkshire that I saw his paintings for the first time in situ. I found the paintings exciting and admired the technical skill and the visual language he has evolved. Talking with him and looking at the work evoked memories of my own childhood. Like Hyatt, I am from Yorkshire. Born in Sheffield, I spent much of my youth walking across the moors which edge the city. Hyatt's paintings conjure up those days, of unseen forces, of a silence which deepened into something else. A hypnotic spell which drew you further, which, if the weather suddenly changed, as it often did, could be dangerous. On the deceptively benign moorland called Kinder Scout, hikers would often lose their way when a mist suddenly descended.
Impressions from our childhood remain, it seems, forever. Some years ago when I lived in Somerset, I remember looking at the Mendip hills edging the wetlands, making their way towards the Bristol Channel. They were beautiful and yet I felt a sense of disappointment, as if something was missing. Suddenly I got a flash of myself on the Pennines, staring at the vast, daunting dark contours of the moors and the ragged, surrealist weathered stones. I was still looking for that landscape.
It was these kinds of responses that connected me with Hyatt. I found his ideas and views about the world thought-provoking and challenging. What became clear in the subsequent discussions, which have continued up to the publication of this book, is that there is another view of art outside the general consensus of cultural history as taught in art colleges and universities. This 'other' view, often referred to as 'the long tradition', connects us with ancient religions and myths, rituals, dreams, and the many ways of tapping the unconscious. In his book Dreaming With Open Eyes: the Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture, Michael Tucker writes in depth about the relationship between visionaries who have delved deep into the psyche, and their influence on Westem art. The long tradition is a fascinating lineage.
In discussion with Hyatt we talk about this gap in cultural history. The gap is where anthropology, archaeology, mythology and art interconnect, which causes embarrassment to many art historians who prefer a more rational, logical history for the development of Western art. The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was influenced by the teachings of the Theosophical Society. Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian painter, was influenced by Theosophy and the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. The Russian Constructivist, Casimir Malevich, was also highly influenced by Theosophy which came through the Symbolist school of painting, It is well known that Jackson Pollock was influenced by Native American mythology and ritual. According to William Moritz, in his essay Abstract Film and Colour Music for the catalogue The Spiritual Art – Abstract Expressionism 1890-1985 to an exhibition held at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in 1986, Poflock was introduced to the ideas of the Theosophical Society by his first art tutor, Frederick Schwankovsky. He also took Pollock to lectures by the Indian mystic, Krishnamurti, in Ojai, Southern California. Interestingly, according to Moritz, the method of drip painting, for which Pollock became world famous, was introduced to him by Schwankovsky. In most art history accounts, these facts are usually glossed over. It is the secret lineage of folklore, dreams and what many term 'magic' which is a key part of the formation of Western culture. This is art made for practical reasons in the sense of unifying humans with their environment and to help, as Hyatt points out, the survival of the tribe. As for being an embarrassment to the general view of the development of Western art, the obvious reason is that any art connected with the occult or mysticism after the Second World War, was highly suspect. Hitler's involvement with occult and esoteric knowledge and his subsequent perversion of it, is well known. However, this is very different from the tradition that connects the creative endeavours of 'primitive' society and the evolution of a spiritual source to art.
Every country has its indigenous art and culture. To connect with this is natural for many artists. At the present time, interest in 'ethnic' culture is expanding. Knowing one's own indigenous cultural roots is important in this context and can only enrich our understanding of the world. However, the role the irrational plays in the development of art has often been bypassed. Many artists have railed against the stranglehold of Greek ideas of aesthetics on art. John Ruskin criticised the coldness and mathematical qualities of Greek architecture in his essay The Nature of Gothic. He saw Gothic architecture as the height of the civilised world in the sense that it was not constricted by mathematical formulae and rigid codes, but allowed to be organic.
Paul Gauguin proclaimed, "the great error is Greek, no matter how beautiful it may be." Henry Moore wrote about "getting the Greek spectacles off one's nose", and that one had to find 'the world tradition'. In John Russell's biography of Moore, Russell writes, "there is no doubt the struggle which he (Moore) was describing is a European struggle, and one which lies somewhere in the unconscious of everyone who has been brought up as a European and given even so much as wry, resentful attention to the established hierarchy of Western art."
Hyatt echoes this view when he says, "I think the folk art elements in Kandinsky and Klee and Brancusi, the Scandinavian art, the folk myth, the folk stories, fairy stories, darkness and dream, are very useful as a source for what we call modern art. Then I would question the term 'modern art.' It isn't modern art, it's the rediscovery of ancient art. That's what modern art is. It's someone discovering the potency of prehistory Picasso went to the caves at Lascaux and he came out and said, "we have added nothing!" That's Picasso, the great artist, the inventor of modern Cubism saying they were there before us! They used multiple images, they used all sorts of things, overlapping images, multiple viewpoints, flickering light and diagrams of thinking."
The role of the shaman, the psychic healer of the tribe, who appears in many guises in different cultures, is part of this worldwide spiritual tradition. In Hyatt's paintings there are strong elements of shamanism. I see shamanism in this sense as the ability to connect us with higher states of consciousness, enabling us to see the world afresh. Hyatt in no way pretends to be a shaman, but often when talking with him and viewing his paintings, I felt somewhat like Carlos Castaneda describing the knowledge transmitted from his Yaqui Indian teacher, Don Juan. Different points of view collide. Multiple references are made to art, artists, jazz musicians, poets, pop stars, Greek tragedies, neolithic carvings.
As well as his involvement with the landscape, Hyatt has a deep concern for wildlife. He has participated, with other artists in Southern Spain, in observing and capturing the flight of birds on their migratory paths from Northern Europe. He is rightly worried about the demise of so many species of birds and animals. Even the patterns on the stones on Rombalds Moor, which he continuously draws and paints, are eroding because of acid rain. He attempts to address these issues, not through any form of propaganda, but calmly and skilfully through his paintings and drawings.
Hyatt also has an intense concern for education and the role the artist can play in society. He sees art as a tool for exploring not only the unconscious, but for making our ideas about ourselves and society visible. In a time when art has become almost the domain of a cultural elite, from which more and more people have become disenfranchised, it is refreshing to connect with an artist whose ideas break through the boundaries of conventional thinking. In a period when art has little, if any 'content', then Hyatt's paintings, which reflect not only the natural world, but the world of the imagination, are a challenging breakthrough.
This book is the result of three years' communication with Derek Hyatt using written correspondence and taped interviews. The areas discussed cover his reflections on art and artists including John Ruskin, Paul Nash, Peter Lanyon, Kurt Schwitters and Jackson Pollock. There are a myriad excursions into the state of art education, the revelry of the 1960s, the relevance of dreaming, the role of the shaman, the poems of Ted Hughes. Finally, this book is about Hyatt the visual artist and poet, so reproductions of his key paintings and drawings as well as a collection of his poetry and extracts from the book he wrote and illustrated, The Alphabet Stone, are included.
Peter Woodcock 2001
JOHN RUSKIN - A VICTORIAN VISIONARY
1890 - 1900
The year 2000 was the centenary of John Ruskin's death. Hyatt, a Companion of the Ruskin Guild of St George which, among other aims, wishes to propagate the idea of drawing, is passionate about reclaiming drawing as a source of inventiveness, exploration and feeling. In the article Lifelines in the Spring 2000 issue of Modern Painters, Hyatt writes: "There are many different kinds of drawing... but if we consider the eye is part of the human brain, we misuse its potential if we equate drawing with merely copying appearances – as most people still do. Drawing as illusion and mimicry is not enough, in fact it is a barrier to discovery and revelation. Four thousand years ago artists were using marks and signs to think about, organise and project their deepest intimations of life. Their rock art was much more than hunting, 'magic'."
It is the idea that drawing creates its own language and opens up our thinking, rather than simply acting as a recording device, that fascinates Hyatt. For his own drawing he scavenges the moors looking for material which will find its way into his work. Tiny fossils, ammonites bleached white, rusted metal, a strange, battered, heraldic aluminium object which once belonged to a car. Colours on walls, lichen on rocks, a new moon seen wanly in the misty sky, are signs that interlock with childhood memories, echoes of other artists such as Nash's Totes Meer, or graffiti in a subway in New York City. All these can be drawn, made real and immediate by marks from graphite, chalk, razor blade, aerosol, fibretip, soft pencil.
Cubism was a false dawn. It did not break open memory and imagination. Too quickly it became a worldwide modem art mannerism, a style merely, lacking heart. Drawing is not about mannerism, style or copying appearances. It is a precise tool into the unconscious. It can excite, terrify, open wounds, describe, delineate, surprise. Memory is the clue. By recording things photographically, or relying on the mechanical means which computers give us, we diminish our ability for recall. Try drawing a horse from memory and you'll see what I mean. Memory is a skill. Draw to put forms into memory. The Roman poet Vico wrote, 'imagination is the memory rearranged'.
I discovered John Ruskin via a little book of his called The Elements of Drawing when I was in the RAE in Norwich. I could sit on the big stone steps above the market place reading Ruskin and I was amazed that he could so confidently lay out a course of drawing for the Victorians that was so popular, so acceptable, that so many people of that time wanted to draw. Amazing that there was that need and that he could come up with a very philosophical book in some ways, but also a straightforward manual of how to approach drawing, how to begin doing it. The Elements of Drawing contains so much.
For instance, it is the basis of the French Impressionists' thinking and approach. Ruskin said "the world is a series of patches of colour." Monet says he got it all from Ruskin – the theory of Impressionism, the colour patches of light.
In his Modem Painters series, Ruskin writes about Turner being great because he understands nature, has studied it, and understands the principles of nature. So he doesn't just record appearance, he understands why the light is reflected like that. Turner had studied optics and the early cameras, telescopes, camera obscuras and all sorts of optical phenomena outdoors. He wanted to understand light and how it reflected and so on. He did his scientific homework, but he balanced that with philosophical and mystical questions like: can I understand it when perhaps our relationship with nature isn't one of trying to understand it? It's quite honestly that, in the presence of stupendous natural events, the main thing is the power and the mystery of the experience. It's not about trying to understand it scientifically but about being deeply strangely affected by the mystery as an event. We are part of it in some way because we are part of nature, but in another way, as one appreciates, separated from it.
Our self-consciousness separates us from Nature. If all we had to do was swim about in it, fine. We would just swim about in it and be content. But because we have this complicated mechanism called the brain with the mind and the soul, we ask nature, we need other things from nature.That doesn't come through scientific understanding. It comes through the artist, the poet, the philosopher, the mystic and the shaman responding to it in other ways. Ruskin knew that but he also knew that his own experience of life hadn't fulfilled him. No matter how much he studied, talked to other people, travelled, tried to understand Italian art and architecture, there was something in it he couldn't cope with. And he was a very sad person, I think, for most of his life, because he wasn't sexually fulfilled. So he was constantly frustrated by wanting to project into nature. He had this longing, longing for another life, longing for union with someone, longing for something else. It seems Turner, by comparison, arranged his love life very well.
Peter Fuller curated a touring exhibition called Rocks and Flesh (1998) which took a very thoughtful angle on Ruskin and Turner and contemporary artists who took mother and child images and landscapes as a source. He observed that the rocks in Ruskin were trying to become human. In Henry Moore's sculptures, rocks were trying to become human. There is this sort of interchange between ourselves and Nature.
When I discovered Ruskin, I could read him with terrific enthusiasm and sense of discovery and realise that there was a lot in art, a lot in there for us to enjoy. Ruskin had gone to Venice, not on a day trip, but for six months drawing in order to understand architecture and understand why the shape of leaves became symmetrical, became spirals, or became symbols, became organic or became human. He tracked this theme, followed things up in Venice. He had a team of artists he sent there to collect material for him and they used to send their material back to England. Now this sounds crazy, but he had an American artist who studied marble in the architecture in particular, and this artist would do beautiful colour studies of marble structures and would send them back to England. Ruskin would return them saying "not enough blue, or pink. Make them more intense!" Ruskin had enough money to pay other people to build onto this research. He published books such as The Stones of Venice, he had his own private publishing house, his own printer. He didn't have to apologise or do it in relationship to the public or printers or anyone. He could do it exactly as he wanted.
When I discovered him, you could buy Ruskin books for next to nothing, his little red Everyman Library books you could buy for sixpence. They are beautiful little items, full of information if you have the inclination and time to sit down and study them. They still are the best guides to Venice. For example, where he says: "Stop! Look at that. Look at that for half an hour! Forget where everyone else is going. Look at that. Just look how someone did that bit. Didn't they do that extremely well? Notice how that carved capital moves the eye from the vertical to the horizontal forms." Think about it. They put thought into that, or religion into that, or craftsmanship into that. Care, craftsmanship, knowledge of materials, perseverance or whatever it takes.
Later on I found that the art critic and thinker, Peter Fuller, was interested in these aspects. We got into correspondence and got on well through our interest in landscape art and Ruskin research, In fact I have a copy of Elements of Drawing that Peter Fuller sent me, inscribed 'to Derek who has similar interests'. Peter Fuller was a very busy person but he was always ready to stop what he was doing and discuss Ruskin. He was searching in Ruskin for something that was missing in present day art.
The Ruskin Museum at Sheffield, in Norfolk Street, was a constant source of information and pleasure – a quiet place to pay homage to Ruskin, to visit his collection of geology and crystals, his photographs of Venice or Turner drawings, paintings, or Durer prints. It was marvellous for me to know that all that was available and then to have two exhibitions of my own paintings and objects in the gallery, and then to be elected a Companion of the Guild of St George, which is the group of people who share Ruskin's ideas on the social role of art and beauty.
I was at one time critical of what the Guild were doing, others thought the same, out of which came ideas for their present campaign, 'Drawing Power', allocating one day of the year for drawing, where all types of people across society, would share a day together drawing. All sorts of artists are joining in that with people of varied abilities, schools, art colleges and retired people – all finding out what drawing can do to them, drawing different things in different locations.
Going back to Ruskin's championing of Turner, I went to Paris to look at landscape art. I came back and looked closely at some Constables and they were mad! The vegetation, the palette knife application was madness! The French paintings were tasteful, beautiful cream cheese, good cooking taste. Taste. Even Courbet, beautiful butter slab palette knife, goodly, creamy cuisine. Constable was madness! Turner was beautiful, luminous, translucent – such subtle gradations! Look at Monet's paintings. Awful oil paint. It's only acceptable because we see it in reproduction. Reproduction gives it back its translucency. Go to Giverny and see the fish underwater. There are no translucent fish in the painted water, no reflected light on those painted water lilies. Because people do not look, they recognise echoes of what they've been told. But most of the Monets are badly painted. He over-painted and over-painted and the paint died. We don't realise how good Turner is. If we just call him the forerunner of Impressionism, we do him a great disservice, He was so much more than that.
A few months before he died, I discussed with Peter Fuller how science could, might, should affect the teaching of drawing. Recent advances in neurology and in the study of how memory works suggest that the brain's computer constantly updates the model of the world we inhabit. We have known since Darwin, and even more since the Chaos Theory, how the world is changing and adapting all the time in both large and subtle ways, and how everything is interactive. Form is always changing. Ruskin told his students there were no outlines in nature, only edges of forms expanding and contracting. As the mind probes appearances, the world changes shape. "If you have the choice between colour and form," Ruskin advised, "go for colour."
By the same author: This Enchanted Isle
This book's aim is modest. Its intention is simply to reveal the extraordinary variety of art-forms in nature. It was John Michell, the writer and philosopher, who inspired me and opened my eyes to the images created by forces like the wind, water, erosion and other geological processes.
The book documents my very personal journey. My fascination for faces and figures in landscapes, rocks and trees, grew out of two of my favourite pastimes. I have always loved to be out in nature despite the fact that I have lived most of my life in big cities. Whenever I had the chance, I took a walk in the countryside. But it was my move to Britain which opened new doors of perception and had an enormous impact on my life. I have been living in England since 1984. Of course I enjoyed London, a vibrant metropolis with much to offer – culture, music and politics; after all, I am a political writer. London was challenging and stimulating. But the longer I lived there, the greater was my urge to escape from the city. I felt a need to get away from the noise, the cars, the pollution and the huge number of people. I began to understand what had inspired an author like Thomas Hardy to write a novel with the title Far from the Madding Crowd.
The lure of rural Britain, especially its wilder, untamed areas, proved to be irresistible, especially the open downlands of Wiltshire's prehistoric landscape with its numerous monuments from Bronze age and neolithic times, the rolling hills and cliffs of Dorset, the majestic silence of Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor. I became aware of the ongoing, indeed growing fascination of people with prehistoric sites, when the bitter conflict around Stonehenge erupted in 1985, a conflict about the right to gather at Stonehenge at Summer Solstice and celebrate the rhythm of nature with a free festival. From then on, I was in the grip of megalithomania. I started visiting ancient sites all around the British Isles, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides; I climbed up numerous hill-forts, searched for inaccessible menhirs and stone circles, photographed remote landscapes, mountains and monuments. The legacy of the megalithic period is still present in abundance all over the British Isles. One of the beauties of a mild obsession (at least I like to think it is mild) with the remnants of our past, is that it leads invariably into the most beautiful, remote areas, quite often the last wild refuges in our densely populated and industrialised countries.
From there the journey led to countries in Europe and around the world, always searching for the remnants of ancient civilisations. Standing stones, stone circles, burial mounds and other stone structures are absolutely everywhere: in Northwest Europe, around the Mediterranean Sea, on all continents. During my travels, on which my wife Katharina has been a wonderful companion, I stumbled across more and more of these mysterious images, for which John Michell has coined the term 'simulacra' in his seminal book of the same name. Once my eye had learned how to perceive these simulacra, I became aware of the astounding variety of faces and figures in the natural world. Nature has the uncanny habit of creating images which remind us of ourselves: rock formations look like statues from Easter Island, trees grow into clearly recognisable faces or resemble creatures which remind us of mythological figures we ourselves have created in folklore and legends. It might very well be that some of the rocks which look like gods, giants, dragons or demons, might in fact be the source of our mythologies.
There are unmistakable signs that the awareness of simulacra is growing. After all, no one is ever alone on journeys of discovery. There are always other people on a similar trip; the simulacra section in every issue of the Fortean Times magazine is evidence of this. Recently a number of natural images have been published in the mainstream press. British tabloids like The Sun and The Mirror presented their readers with newly discovered 'faces' on Mars and strangely shaped tree trunks. The colour supplements of broadsheets like The Times and The Guardian came up with a double-page advertisement (for Californian wine) featuring the work of the American artist Teresa Shea, who used driftwood at Middle Beach, Point Lobos, in California, to create out of natural sculptures, a new form of land-art.
One explanation for the increased awareness of simulacra may be the widespread growing ecological consciousness. People realize that wild, untamed landscapes, quite often exactly the places to encounter simulacra, are ever more endangered by the relentless forward march of human civilisation with its tendency to spoil and destroy more and more of the natural world. Journeys to remote places have increased dramatically in the last two decades. Rupert Sheldrake interprets these journeys as modern pilgrimages, driven by the often subconscious wish to feel and see places that our ancestors regarded as special and sacred. These are journeys to an archaic region of our collective imagination. And, of course, there is always the feeling that they might not be there for much longer. The interconnectedness of humanity and our planet – Gaia, as James Lovelock has called this living, self-regulating super-organism – is a truth which more of us are beginning to grasp, even if we don't know how to stop the relentless pace of civilisation. William Cobbett, the English writer and radical traditionalist, chose to call this the Thing. We are all part of it, enjoying its comfort, mobility and wealth, while worrying about its darker side. After all, modern industrial civilization is based on the principle of eternal progress and infinite growth in a clearly finite world with shrinking resources, rising populations and ever more damage to Nature.
Something else might also contribute to this growing ability to discover and appreciate simulacra. Psychedelic drugs can open those 'doors of perception' which Aldous Huxley wrote about in the last century. Altered or heightened states of mind seem to enable modern people to reconnect with and recognise anthropomorphic images or mythological creatures. Terence McKenna, who spent thirty years studying shamanism in the Amazon basin, talked about an 'archaic revival' triggered by psilocybin, the hallucinogenic ingredients of mushrooms, which grow all over the world and have been used over thousands of years by tribal societies to switch on other channels of consciousness, leading to spiritual and religious experiences. One common feature of all these attempts to gain access to a different level of perception seems to be not only mystical experiences and the encounter with archetypal images, but at the same time nature is experienced as being alive. Whatever one's personal attitude to the psychedelic revolution of the last forty years, it is a fact that the use of psychedelic drugs such as cannabis, magic mushrooms and LSD, has influenced and shaped the perception of a few generations now, despite a relentless war against the softer drugs. These days even contenders for the leadership of Britain's Conservative Party are contemplating the legalisation of cannabis. Hopefully, however, the simulacra presented in this book will be recognised and appreciated in whatever state of mind the reader may be in.
In some cases, I took a photo of a landscape or monument and only discovered the simulacrum afterwards by looking at the print or slide. When I took the picture of Horus in front of the Egyptian temple of Hatshepsut, I was not aware of the striking profile in the walls of the rocks which the builders of the temple had chosen as a dramatic background for the monument. In most cases, though, I recognised the images and photographed them deliberately. I was not quite sure whether I should offer my personal interpretation of the images or whether it was best left to the reader to make up their own mind. After all, the image is in the eye of the beholder and as we all have different ways of seeing, we can all come up with different interpretations. In the end I decided to give my view and would like to invite the reader to join me on this adventure into the wonders of nature. Hopefully my photographic journey will please or, even better, excite the reader. It may be the beginning of their own journey of discovery.
Simulacra - Folklore and Mythology
There is a striking similarity between the folklore surrounding standing stones and menhirs that have been erected by our neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors, and rock simulacra. Both were quite often interpreted as people or warriors frozen to stone, occasionally awakening, dancing or drinking or, like Bowerman's Nose on Dartmoor, going out on a wild hunt. Bowerman's Nose is an impressive rock sculpture, rising at the edge of Hayne Downe, near Houndtor. The rock statue is said to be a former gentleman with a passion for the hunt who comes alive one night of the year, chasing souls across the moorland, accompanied by a pack of ferocious dogs. Sir Francis Drake, a military leader with occult leanings, reportedly had a vision of this frightening wild hunt whose dogs can be seen on Houndtor frozen in stone.
To this day the legends of local people tell us that giants were the artists who erected granite statues like Bowerman's Nose. Science presents another explanation for these remarkable sculptures. They are the result of a unique geological process which took place eighty million years ago, when molten lava was forced out of the interior of the earth, creating the monumental artwork topping the tors of Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and similar places around the world. The lava cooled, then the forces of evolution went to work over millions of years. The creation stories in folklore, however, have one advantage over science. They encapsulate the spirit and mystery of these monumental sculptures and speaks to us of the 'folksoul' of our ancestors which we have inherited.
Simulacra and Art
Some members of the fraternity of the visual arts do not enjoy simulacra. A friend of mine, a sculptor, reacted with obvious irritation when I showed him some pictures. He seemed to feel that rock formations looking like statues, faces or animals, would devalue the artistic efforts of humans. He thought it inappropriate to see something as art that was, in a Darwinian sense, created by blind chance or pure coincidence. Maybe there was something else – a feeling that human art, even in its most noble endeavours, is always an attempt to translate aspects of the natural world into the language of visual art? Yet simulacra evolve right at the source itself. Some artists seem to have seen it that way. They were drawn to the artwork of nature and to the power and beauty of the living landscape. Visual artists and novelists in particular, were gripped by the mythical and poetic qualities of these features.
They are reflected in the artistic visions of William Blake or in Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes. Henry Moore's work would not have been possible without the rock formations and the prehistoric monuments of Yorkshire and other parts of Britain, as he himself admitted freely. In the early decades of the last century, Fabius von Gügel, an Austrian painter in the fantastic and surreal tradition, encountered in the heart of the jungle of Sri Lanka, a mountain shaped like a cube. Sigiria, the name of this remarkable place, was the fortified castle of a kingdom from the fifth century AD. One night, during a heavy thunderstorm with lightning, the artist 'recognized', in a flash of inspiration, the forces of change which turned the inanimate world into living forms. The mountain became alive, turned into a mythological head, roots and trees changed into spirits and strange creatures. The animistic vision of the artist reveals that there is no such thing as inanimate nature. The world around us is alive and humanity is part of a larger living whole.
Ley Hunter's Guide
Revised edition of the seminal 1979 book
The Ley Hunter's Companion
Now out of print
THE LEY STORY
(shortened, with footnotes removed)
Most inhabitants of modern society cannot help but view the world in terms of urban perspectives, for that is the nature of the present culture. Great cities sprawl into the countryside, forming conurbations that breed their own consciousness: automobiles hurtle along motorways that are merely urban arms stretching across the landscape between towns; passengers sleep, read or eat as the countryside flashes past their train windows at 100 mph – a countryside which is viewed culturally as an inner-city zone where farming for urban needs is carried out under the dictate of an international, urban economy.
Even those who live and work in the countryside have their rural sensibility subtly eroded by radio, television and other media which usually engender urban goals and concerns. There are no mental city limits.
Beneath this complex of urban consciousness the landscape still broods, the elemental cycles of the planet still function. The difficulty encountered by people in becoming aware of this primordial backdrop, against which the actions of the modern world take place, characterizes the cultural isolationism of our times. It is an isolationism which leads inevitably to ecological insensitivity, and a complementary decay in understanding the subtle needs and realities relating to the mind and spirit.
The subject of this book requires that we look back to a remote time when people's lives were closely in step with elemental and spiritual realities, when the landscape, the heavens and the human mind were understood as one deeply interdependent whole.
It is hardly surprising that the nature of structures and marks which such a society left behind is not always fully understood by archaeologists of our era. Even less can it be expected that more enigmatic qualities, such as the relationship between these sites, will be readily recognized. Such perception would require an exceptional person existing in circumstances that minimized urban consciousness.
Such a person was Alfred Watkins, living half a century ago in Herefordshire.
'A flood of ancestral memory'
In 1921, when he realized the existence of ancient alignments, Alfred Watkins was sixty-six years old. The complex rhythm of the twentieth century had barely begun, particularly in the rural county of Herefordshire. As a partner in a firm of flour millers, Watkins needed to make frequent tours of the local countryside, and there is no doubt that he was a man with his native landscape 'in his blood'. He was a respected local figure and highly regarded at a national level for his work in photography. A man of broad interests, independent thought and varied talents, his mind was open, exploratory and not restricted within the con fines of a single discipline. In addition, he had spent a great part of his life getting to know, at a direct and intimate level, his local countryside and its inhabitants. He knew its lore, its ancient sites and its little-known places. The appropriate mind and physical circumstances were set up for the flash of insight that came on a summer's day in 1921. It was like experiencing 'a flood of ancestral memory', Watkins was to tell his son, the late Allen Watkins. In his own words, Watkins describes his insight in his book Early British Trackways:
I had no theory when, out of what appeared to be a tangle, I got hold of the one right end of this string of facts, and found to my amazement that it unwound in an orderly fashion and complete logical sequence...
A visit to Backwardine led me to note on the map a straight line starting from Croft Ambury, lying on parts of Croft Lane past the Broad, over hill points, through Backwardine, over Risbury Camp, and through the high ground at Stretton Grandison, where I surmised a Roman station. I followed up the clue of sighting from the hilltop, unhampered by other theories, found it yielding astounding results in all districts, the straight lines to my amazement passing over and over again through the same class of objects...
It is by no means unprecedented for new understandings to be based on an individual's sudden vision. Watkins's ley theory is a leap of cognition a process abhorred by orthodox scholar ship which prefers a slow, meticulous process. But perhaps there is room for both approaches.
After his realization that alignments of ancient sites existed, Alfred Watkins committed himself to detailed fieldwork investigation, frequently taking photographs of sites, alignments and other features he came across in this work. His first, short, book on his discovery, Early British Trackways, came out in 1922 and was the development of a lecture he had delivered a year previously. He continued his study of the alignments, and his main book on the subject, The Old Straight Track, was published in 1925. Later books were The Ley Hunter's Manual (1927) and Archaic Tracks Around Cambridge (1932). A little after the publication of The Old Straight Track the Straight Track Postal Portfolio Club was formed, in which ley hunters circulated postal notes, viewpoints, research and photographs amongst themselves. Major F. C. Tyler was secretary of the club, which, in the Thirties, organized field trips for its members. These took the form of special tours around chosen areas, often in fleets of cars.
But the deaths of Watkins and Tyler in the Thirties, and the coming of the Second World War, took the impetus out of the club, and it was closed in 1948. A handful of individuals and fringe groups kept a caretaker's interest, as it turned out, in Watkins's work up until the Sixties when a whole new cycle of interest in leys began to form.
Alfred Watkins felt he had caught a glimpse beyond the modern face of the landscape and was tracing the remnants of a system of straight trackways belonging to remote antiquity. He postulated that these tracks were laid out with certain types of markers, some of which may have developed into sacred or important sites in both pagan and Christian times. Some ley markers were therefore original while many others were evolved features, such as ancient churches and castles, standing on sites of former significance. Odd sections of the old straight tracks were still visible, Watkins thought, in some lengths of roadway and old paths aligning on ancient sites. He considered that some of his alignments had astrological significance.
Alfred Watkins adopted, 'rightly or wrongly', the Saxon word ley as the name for the alignments, which he found had formerly meant a cleared glade. In the Concise Oxford Dictionary we have found an even more satisfactory terminology: 'ley' is linked with 'lea' which means simply a 'tract of open ground'.
'The sequence seems clear,' Watkins wrote. 'First, the straight sighted track, then a clearing of the woodland, through which it passed, then the fields which evolved in the clearing, the same name ley, lay, lee applying to each stage, a logical sequence.' (Numbered references indicate an alphabetical list of sources at the end of this book.)
The dictionary traces 'lea' tortuously back to the Latin lucus, meaning grove, derived from lucere (to shine). This indicates a possible association of 'ley' with brightness or light. Watkins noted that 'leye' was an obsolete word for flame or fire. He rationalized this as referring to the fiery beacon ley marks which, he believed, together with ponds used as reflective points, were instrumental in both laying out the alignments and periodically (perhaps ritually) checking them. He found, too, that glade derived from glaed meaning bright.
Watkins concluded that even if the 'ley' name was a mistaken one, 'this in no way weakens the fact of the thing named'.
A number of place-names were studied by Watkins, who surmised that names involving the colours 'red' and 'white' might indicate pottery and salt routes respectively. He originally thought that 'gold' as a place-name element could have indicated a route for precious metals and ornaments, but when he noted such names on a ley at the angle of midsummer sunrise, he felt it more likely that they were a reference to solar alignment. 'Black' was an element that related to the surveyor who laid down the leys; the man who lit the beacon fires as a part of that process. 'A word of difficult history', as the dictionary has it, 'black' meant in Anglo-Saxon times 'shining, white or pale'. The word 'bleach' is apparently derived from this source.
'Cole' or 'cold' place-name elements might also refer to the ancient surveyor, possibly being related to the Welsh coel, Watkins reasoned, which derived from gole meaning light or splendour. Perhaps our 'coal' refers to the effect when the sub stance is burned rather than its colour. Watkins also unearthed a reference to 'cold-prophet' meaning a wizard or diviner. The ubiquitous 'Cold Harbour' place-name, usually near rather than on a ley, recalled the shelter of the Cole Man, the surveyor. In Welsh, the word Coelcerth apparently means omen of danger, beacon, bonfire. (Old King Cole's daughter was supposed to be Helen, or Elen, who instituted the building of roads.)
The early surveyor is also recalled in 'dod' names. Watkins realized this when idly watching a snail at Llanthony Abbey, in the heart of the Black Mountains. 'It came as a flash', he wrote; the snail was nicknamed the dodman because of the two 'sight ing staves' he carried on his head. This observation led to a number of remarkable allusions. There is the 'Hoddyman Dod' of nursery-rhyme fame, and the builder's hod may perhaps go back to the mound-building practices of the ley surveyor. Old folk are referred to as 'doddering ' along, a similar series of actions as would be performed by a surveyor moving his rod back and forth until it accurately lined up with another one as a backsight or foresight. We have a similar word and meaning in 'dodge'. In Welsh, dodi means to lay or place.
Only one profession or trade required the two rods, Watkins pronounced, and that was the surveyor or 'dodman'. Accordingly he believed that the image of the ley surveyor could be seen in the very chalk figure known as The Long Man of Wilmington, in Sussex.
According to Watkins, leys were sighted like a 'bee-line' between two intervisible spots which he called initial points, one at least of these being a hilltop or raised ground. The line between was laid out with artificial markers such as cairns, mounds and stones as the surveyors went along. In the first instance, these markers would be as minimally constructed as their function would allow. Watkins pointed out that a ley could be beyond the second of the initial points.
It must not be forgotten that leys originated in almost unimaginable antiquity, and all present-day attempts to plot them on maps, to walk them, to measure them, or to subject them to statistics have usually to be at several removes from the original features. Watkins himself felt that the ley system 'was brought to efficiency by Neolithic man, even if later additions and refinements were made in the Bronze Age'.
For those unfamiliar with the standard archaeological chronology for prehistory, the periods that concern us here are, approximately expressed: Neolithic – 4000 to 2000 BC; Neolithic/Bronze Age overlap (Beaker Culture) – 2200 to 1700 BC; Bronze Age –2000 to 800 BC; Iron Age –800 BC to AD 43 (Roman conquest). We deal with the ley markers in the order of importance ascribed to them by Alfred Watkins.
These exist in a number of forms, their ages ranging from Neolithic times to the latter end of the Bronze Age, with a smaller number of examples originating in Roman or even Saxon Britain.
The oldest type of mound is the Neolithic long barrow. Its earliest form seems to be the earthen or unchambered variety and, though nearly always containing burials, its exact nature is not fully understood. Barrows of this type are mounds of earth or chalk up to a few hundred feet in length and 100 feet in width.
One end, usually at the east, is normally higher and broader than the rest of the feature, and this is where the burial, if any, is contained. Long barrows have ditches running along their long sides, and these ditches sometimes form a 'horseshoe' around the barrow. There are only a few hundred surviving examples of this type of feature in Britain. Remains of post structures found within these barrows suggest that the earth covering was itself only the last stage in the development of some form of sacred enclosure used for considerable periods of sepulchral and unknown purposes. So even as far back as the Neolithic period we are probably considering evolved sites.
A variation of the long barrow is the bank barrow, a particularly long form of Neolithic barrow. One in the Maiden Castle earthwork is no less than one third of a mile long.
The cursus is another mysterious type of Neolithic structure. These features are earthen avenues formed by parallel banks with ditches outside them. Similar banks usually terminate both ends of such avenues. Some examples incorporate, and are aligned on, long barrows, and so may be associated with them. The longest cursus so far discovered is in Dorset and measures over six miles. This may even have had an astronomical function. Cursuses seem to be older than henge monuments: one of the Thornborough henges in Yorkshire, for example, is known to have been constructed over a silted up cursus. The purpose of these features is quite unknown but they clearly display a 'linear consciousness' in prehistoric landscape engineering. Cursuses are mainly straight, or straight in sections.
Megalithic tombs are mounds or cairns containing some form of stone chamber or passage, and their function seems to be different from that of the unchambered long barrows. These 'tombs' allowed a series of interments over periods of time and thus were probably constructed with that in view. Evidence has been found indicating that ceremonies were carried out in front of these structures, so their overall function was very likely to have been that of a temple, and not restricted to purely sepulchral activities.
Cairns, constructed as a rule from small stones, are often Bronze Age features usually encountered in mountainous and moorland areas. Here the functions of burial and sighting are often dramatically combined.
Dolmens, quoits or cromlechs are more or less horizontal stone slabs supported by upright stones. They are thought to be the remains of the central chambers of no longer extant burial mounds. Watkins treated them in this way, but some modern ley hunters are not satisfied that this standard archaeological interpretation is always correct, since they cannot see why the wind should have eroded the earth coverings of some dolmens and not of others. It is also odd that there are no examples of demi-denuded dolmens.
Round barrows are the most numerous type of mound, there being up to 20,000 surviving examples in Britain. These barrows or tumuli are known by many colloquial names, such as howe, low, mount, toot, tump, bury and castle. They are primarily Bronze Age features and occur on open moorland or hilltops. The hilltop examples are often below the actual top, on the 'false crest', as noted by archaeologists as well as Watkins, so that they can be seen from the valley below.
Watkins considered all prehistoric mounds to be the principal ley markers. He often found, as we have in our fieldwork, that leys go over the flanks of mounds rather than over their tops. This led him to surmise that the original marker mounds had in many cases been enlarged asymmetrically at a later date.
While Watkins saw mounds as ley points, he never disputed their sepulchral characteristics (although it is a fact that not all mounds contained burials). Admiral Boyle Somerville, a pioneer in astro-archaeology and a member of the Old Straight Track Club, put it succinctly: 'Some ancient and forgotten connection exists between orientation and sepulchre.' As an idle thought we may speculate whether this connection set up an association between the words 'dead' and 'dod', and whether the phrases 'dead on' and 'dead straight' (denoting aligned accuracy) reflect such an association.
Apart from prehistoric mounds, there are in Britain about 100 extant examples of conical Roman barrows. These should not be automatically dismissed as possible ley points, because they could have been erected on the site of an earlier marker of some sort: we know that the Romans often sited their structures on or adjacent to prehistoric features, and we will come across examples of this type of site evolution in our selection of leys. In addition to the Roman mounds there are some Saxon barrows. We will consider Norman mounds in the section on castles.
Standing stones or monoliths vary considerably in height and occur singly, in groups, and in rows. These prehistoric remains can be found in hedgerows, fields, and out on open moorland.
Markstones are a particular type of feature associated uniquely with leys and are, as a consequence, controversial. In old village and town areas, as well as out in the open country, one can come across smaller, sometimes squat, stones that are little worked, if at all, and do not come into the category of monoliths. 'In theory it is difficult to distinguish a markstone from other casual stones,' wrote Watkins, 'but not in practice, for a markstone was always selected to appear different, either in shape, size or kind of stone from other stones about the district.' They were placed either directly on or to one side of the ley. But markstones should not be confused with protection stones laid alongside walls. Watkins considered that markstones gave their name to markets: 'Note how closely akin in verbal origin are the mark or march or merch stones, the market or mercate, the merchant or marchant, and the god Mercury, whose symbol was an upright stone,' he wrote.
Ancient crosses developed from markstones, Watkins felt, either replacing the original stones or using them as socket stones. So all pre-Reformation crosses should be viewed by ley hunters as likely ley markers. But it is important to remember that these may have been moved from their original location.
Stone circles are to be found mainly in the highland areas of northern and western Britain. There are about 900 extant examples in varying states of preservation. Not a great deal is known about their origins or purpose, but most circles are considered to date from the late Neolithic through to the early Bronze Age. Their diameters vary from a few yards to over a hundred. In some circles there is a distinct gradation of stone height. Quartz in various forms has been associated with a number of circle sites.
As a result of decades of meticulous research and surveying by Professor Alexander Thom, we now know that megalithic circles are not simply crude rings but consist of careful and precise ground plans. Leys can strike a stone anywhere, but Alfred Watkins noted 'that ancient methods of alignment... tended to pass through the edges of circles, not taking their centres as is now the case'. He also drew attention to a peculiar form of edge alignment in sets of circles. We show here one of the examples he mentioned, the Stanton Drew circles in Somerset.
Henges are circular areas delimited by a ditch which usually has the bank outside it. Their purpose in unknown. As many henges enclose stone circles that have become famous monuments, such as Stonehenge and Avebury (both on leys presented in the selection), we include the features in this section. From map and fieldwork the present authors conclude that any henge is likely to indicate the presence of a ley.
Stone rows are Bronze Age lines of small stones ranging from a few hundred yards up to a mile or more in length, and are found on Dartmoor, usually related to a mound or stone circle.
Rows can be single, double or even triple. The longest row known is on Stall Moor on southern Dartmoor; it is over two miles in length and links a stone circle with a prehistoric cairn. The row at the circle is aligned on the cairn which is set at the extreme limit of visibility from that point. These rows again indicate that linear features linking sacred sites were a feature of Bronze Age landscape activity. Nothing is known of their purpose.
Watkins considered circular moats to be fairly safe ley points. They developed from ditches around tumuli, he surmised. He sometimes found causeways in moat beds that he felt might indicate the direction of leys, and he quoted a number of examples in his books.
Square moats were later features, and Watkins viewed them with great suspicion as ley markers because of the practice of surrounding dwellings with them for defence, or as a symbol of prestige. Although they do sometimes fall on leys, they 'are apt to prove mare's nests from the ley hunter's point of view,' Watkins warned. Therefore if a square moat falls on a ley, the alignment must be indicated by other more convincing sites: a 'ley' made up primarily or completely of square moats is unacceptable.
Ponds are sometimes found to fall on leys. Watkins knew of several instances of this, and one particularly convincing example was at Holmer in Herefordshire, where his excavation revealed a paved causeway at the bottom of the pond. In amongst the cracks between the stones, fragments of Anglo-Saxon pottery were discovered, testifying to the antiquity of the pathway. Many ponds not known as moats were really such, Watkins thought, and central islands had been used as sighting points.
The reason why water points are on leys is 'that the ring of water was a valuable sighting object, as it reflected light from the sky (and perhaps at times from a beacon on the ley).' Watkins noted that the word hlaew, used in the ancient epic Beowulf as a term for barrows, significantly meant 'halo'. He also recalled that Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress described a causeway through a 'slough' or pond, and indicated that it lay on a straight track which aligned to a beacon.
Ancient fords could also be considered as possible ley points, Watkins felt sure, particularly if a hollow road led down to or up from one.
These may often be evolved sites developed from earlier structures. Castles were usually built on mounds or high points so that they could command a view of the surrounding country side: military purposes required the same properties as ley points. In Watkins' opinion, Norman castles proper, and the earthen type of castle known as 'motte and bailey', originally had their site settled by a prehistoric mound which the Normans then enlarged by heaping up earth from their defensive trench or earthwork. This enlargement was often on one side of the prehistoric feature.
To support the theory that Norman castles were evolved sites, Watkins cited the castles at Worcester, Duffield, Penwortham, Arkholme and Warrington, all of which have had pre-Norman articles found in their mounds.
Watkins pointed out that there were 'castle' names around the country at places where there were no defensive structures at all. He found that earthworks much earlier than the Norman period sometimes bore the castle name.
Watkins did not realize the relationship of these features with leys until a year after he had published Early British Trackways. It was the frequency with which he noted beacon spots aligning on leys, often as initial points, that aroused his interest: 'The prehistoric purpose of a beacon fire was to guide and direct', he wrote.
Hills with names such as Tan (modern Welsh for fire), St Anne (tan), Cole, Black, Midsummer, Beltane, etc., are indicative of ancient beacon sites. On one occasion Watkins was able to prove by personal excavation that Malvern's Midsummer Hill possessed a beacon pit. It was Watkins' contention that, because of our obsession with beacons as warning signals in relatively recent times, their earlier use as surveying instruments had been overlooked. In the Beacon chapter in The Old Straight Track Watkins mentions, amongst many fragments of evidence to support his theory, the bonfire lit on Mount St Michael at Carnac during the summer solstice. It was known as 'Tan Heol'. Heol is Celtic for street, road and lane.
Beacons gave light by night and smoke by day for the sighting purposes of prehistoric surveyors. Watkins believed that ponds were used as plane surfaces to reflect the beacon light and thus determine the precise angle of alignment.
Watkins listed these sixth in importance as ley markers. In The Ley Hunter's Manual Watkins states unequivocally that wells on leys must be initial points, but in his first book on leys, Early British Trackways, he stated that wells were 'sometimes' terminals and 'sometimes included as secondary points'. Our own work in the field suggests that wells usually are at ends (or beginnings) of leys, but on rare occasions when a well happens to fall on an alignment, or has been deliberately sunk there, it has been developed into a sacred, or at least a frequented, site.
Wells have been incorporated into churches, churchyards and cathedrals (eg. Wells and Winchester cathedrals), thus hinting at the way ley points were interrelated according to some forgotten set of traditions. Some wells are associated with stones – Francis Jones made a survey of 1,179 wells in Wales and no less than 62 of these are associated with megaliths. Well dedications to Christian saints (usually female) are simply the Christianized evolution of dedications to pre-Christian deities.
Most modern ley hunters consider pre-Reformation churches and other ecclesiastical buildings as major ley points, but Watkins thought of them – in theory at least – as confirmation ley points only. In practice, however, he seems to have used them as primary points.
For churches to play a major role in indicating alignments that are supposed to have originated in prehistory, they have to be considered as evolved sites. Fortunately, there is strong and widely accepted documentary and field evidence to support the view that pagan sites were Christianized.
In June, 601, Pope Gregory wrote to Abbot Mellitus as he prepared to leave for England:
'I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed... I hope the people (seeing their temples are not destroyed) will leave their idolatry and yet continue to frequent the places as formerly, so coming to know and revere the true God'.
In The Old Straight Track Alfred Watkins quoted from Johnson's Byways in British Archaeology:
'It is on record that Patrick, Bishop of the Hebrides, desired Orlygus to build a church wherever he found the upright stones or menhirs'.
Orthodox archaeological figures such as Burl agree that the Christianization of pagan sites took place, and Glyn Daniel has written: '... I find it difficult to envisage why there should be a Christian occupation of some megalithic sites unless a real tradition of their importance as special and sacred places was carried through the period of the Bronze Age and Early Iron of barbarian Europe and into historic times.' Such archaeologists would probably not be prepared to accept as widespread a Christianization of former sites as would ley hunters, but such an attitude would be based on negative evidence rather than positive information to the contrary. Either there was 'a real tradition' or not. And there clearly was.
There is a Gaelic phrase, Am bheil thu dol don clachan?, meaning 'Are you going to church?', clachan signifying both a stone circle and a place of worship.
A body of folklore, touched on later in this book, relates to pagan-Christian conflict in the siting of churches.
The markstone, Watkins suggested, could have formed the foundation of some churches, and thus could have given rise to the tradition of the foundation stone. When two half-buried boulders were found under the western end of a church in Cornwall, no less an opponent of the ley theory than 0. C. S. Crawford admitted that they were 'doubtless the sacred nucleus round which the chapel was built'.
The three-tiered evolution of a particular place was well illustrated in The Old Straight Track: Watkins referred to a Roman altar found in 1837 at the west end of Michaelchurch church, Ross. It had an inscription reading, in translation: 'To the God of the Three Ways Bellicus gave this altar.' Watkins felt the Roman altar had been carved from the markstone at the meeting of ways. Track meeting, Roman shrine, Christian church – a place marked, in quite different ways, for millennia. Roman altars have been found at other churches too.
'There is, occasionally, a connection between stones and fonts,' Watkins wrote. He described puzzling over a niche in the font at Callow church near Hereford before realizing that the font had been made from the socket stone of a disused cross. He also remarked that the Michaelchurch Roman altar seemed, by a hole cut in it, to have been used as a font at an early period. Major F. C. Tyler made the point that some churches at least must be alongside leys 'either because they were built close to a mark spot and not on it (where a churchyard cross exists this is presumably the case), or because the mark stood on a spot not found suitable for building upon'. He felt that churches standing close to the line should be accepted as evidence. Watkins would have none of it: he felt sure, from his own experience, that churches were built on the ley. He had noted that in ancient towns churches often blocked roads leading up to them.
It has already been shown, by the Roman altar discovered at Michaelchurch, that crossways were venerated in antiquity. They were certainly of importance in Celtic times as well. Martin Puhvel wrote a fascinating paper in Folklore (1976, ii) called 'The Mystery of the Crossroads', in which he pointed out that the meeting and parting of ways (not only the usual conception of crossroads) have left a deep imprint on the human mind and were considered places where 'mysterious praeternatural phenomena occur'.
Suicides were traditionally buried at crossroads, and there are several traditions which state that crossroads are the haunts of witches and, indeed, of the Devil himself. These are the sort of associations that have also been attached to megalithic sites – the 'Devil' being perhaps a Christian-inspired term for the beliefs and practices of pre-Christian spirituality. In the Abruzzi Mountains of Italy it was thought that the spirits of the dead could be seen at crossroads on All Hallow's Eve, if one stood there resting one's chin on a forked stick. This could indicate that the tradition had faint echoes of a sighting memory incorporated in it: the Romans used a forked stick called a groma for surveying.
Crossroads, like many standing stones, were also considered places where cures could be effected, and sites for divination.
The midsummer fires were, on occasion, lit at crossroads, and this is a most direct suggestion of a possible link with beacons, sight points and leys.
The position of certain crossroads was probably determined initially by a marker of some sort, such as a stone. Thus although the tracks may have changed course over the ages, the original point was preserved by their crossing.
Crossroads are legion, however, and many of them are modern and of no significance from a ley hunter's point of view, so Watkins advised that only ancient track-crossings in open country, and crossroads or road junctions with ancient names, should be considered as sighting points.
When half a mile or more of roadway fell on the line of a ley, Watkins considered it might be an evolved remnant of the original alignment, providing the road was of ancient origin. Roman roads are the first type of road one thinks of when straight tracks are being considered, and it is valid to ask from where the Romans obtained their idea and knowledge of laying down straight routes.
In some ley hunting circles it is thought likely that the Romans may have resurfaced and developed existing but decaying tracks they found in the lands they invaded. The origin of leys would be further removed in time from the Romans than the Romans are from us. In fact, the Roman roads often consist of subtle sections of straight alignments which, on a superficial glance, appear to be one long straight stretch. Ley hunters consider this an indication that different sections of leys were used as required by the Romans for their purposes.
Capt. F.L.M. Boothby wrote that 'sometimes the Romans made their roads by laying foundations over prehistoric tracks and roads, and many of the long straight roads in the neighbour hood of Winchester are so formed.' Leys apart, it is known that Iron Age Britons used chariots, and so there simply had to be tracks suitable for wheeled vehicles before the arrival of the Romans. Earlier paving has been found under the Roman surfaces of the Foss Way, Ermine Street, and Watling Street, and straight roads of the sort marked 'Roman' in England are to be found in Ireland, a country the Romans did not occupy. But this is not to say, of course, that prehistoric roads were always straight.
In our fieldwork we have invariably found leys to run down one side of a road, or even immediately parallel to it. Watkins noted this in towns where old building lines often preserved an alignment on to a church. The road was 'often widened on one side' of the ley, he stated.
In 1923 extensive sewer work in Hereford gave Watkins the opportunity to confirm, in three instances, buried tracks where his ley research had already indicated they should be.
In spite of this sort of evidence many ley hunters, including the present authors, have felt that trackways simply could not have been the original purpose of leys. It is the concept of 'The Old Straight Track', particularly, that some archaeologists enjoy jeering at. But leys and straight tracks need not be considered as synonymous. Leys can be viewed simply as alignments for other purposes, and this answers problems involved in trying to visualize straight tracks going through convoluted mountain landscapes, across marshes and over precipices. In 1929 Major Tyler came to the conclusion that leys could not just be prehistoric tracks by noting the parallelism of alignments of crosses on Dartmoor. 'It seems to be growing clearer', Tyler wrote, 'that all alignments are not connected with roads or tracks.' He felt the 'only explanation' of so many alignments was that they were to do with a system of rectangular land division.
Even if leys were not originally surveyed for use as tracks, it is still quite probable that some sections of the 'invisible' alignments became marked on the ground as processional and ritual ways – particularly near major sacred sites – and, later, other sections may have evolved into secular routes for travel and trading. So sections of ancient track on a ley can be thought of as evidence of its validity even if one cannot accept in full Watkins's concept of an original system of straight tracks.
But caution must be exercised against wholesale dismissal of the track theory: ley hunting is still a young study, held back by prejudice on the part of orthodox archaeologists. The finding in Bolivia of a system of track-like features shows that ancient peoples did lay dead straight lines that went over hill and gully for miles, as if the physical obstacles were not there.
'These are a very weak point with the ley hunters,' Watkins wrote, but he discovered, as every ley hunter does, that clumps of trees are found time and again atop prehistoric mounds and other sight points, often enhancing the visibility of the site. Barrows are sometimes known as 'The Clump' or some similar name. It may have been that trees were used in this way in prehistory, but that has to be pure speculation. Only the descendants of such trees, of course, would be the ones visible today. It is by no means impossible, just unprovable. However, if a clump is on a hilltop, has an ancient name and the 'suspicion of an earthwork', Watkins felt it was fair to consider it as a reasonable confirmation point along a ley.
Single, aged trees bearing an individual name also probably marked ley points. They appear out of the mists of time as boundary marks and moot sites, often giving their names to ancient locations.
One tree, the Scots pine, Watkins dubbed 'the tree of the ancient track'. He found that it indicated an ancient sighting point or a track.
These are often good evidence, according to Watkins, providing of course they are ancient and not formed by a modern road or track going over a ridge. Watkins sometimes found hollow roads on leys aligning on notches on mountain ridges, particularly roads leading up from fords.
Theses are sometimes designated as 'hill-forts', and are usually considered to be Iron Age or late Bronze Age structures. Archaeologists consider them to be military sites, and there can be little doubt that many could have served a defensive purpose, and some did. It is not clear that such a purpose was the original intention of all these sites. Most camps have not been excavated, and those which have provide considerable evidence to suggest that they were not all used for long-term habitation. Watkins's way of describing them simply as 'a space enclosed, usually on the top of a hill or high ground, by ancient earthen embankment' is refreshingly objective when compared to the romantic notions of archaeologists, which often involve highly organized military scenarios of late prehistory.
Watkins was certain that earlier mounds had been incorporated into camp embankments by the Iron Age people, so here we are considering ley markers that underwent site evolution as far back as the late prehistoric period. There are certain examples of camps that do have earlier mounds incorporated into their embankments, as well as those that have mounds within their earthen walls.
Watkins discovered that camps frequently occurred where two or more leys crossed, and that leys usually went along the embankment or the highest point of a camp. Since he regarded the mounds as contemporary with the surveying of leys, it followed that the earthen walls of camps, whatever their purpose, had to be considered as later features covering or replacing earlier markers.
A special feature of camp alignment which puzzled Watkins was that he found numerous examples of camps aligning in groups of three or more, in such a way that lines drawn through their edges converged slightly, and frequently met at a mound or church some distance away. Watkins must have sensed that this discovery rang the death knell for any theory regarding leys simply as tracks. He wrote of these specialized camp alignments:
'I cannot say why they were made, nor exactly how they were made. It is evident that with two leys so close together, both cannot well be trackways...'
With camps, we come to the end of the eleven main categories of ley marker sites as defined by Watkins. There are other possible prehistoric features – chalk hill figures for example – that have to be considered on their merits when they are encountered on a ley hunt.
Many ley hunters probably do not know that Watkins devised his own points system for ley markers. He suggested that an alignment was probably a valid ley if, when the point values of each site on it were added up, the total value came to five points or more. We present this points system below, in the order chosen by Watkins himself:
|Circular moats||1 point|
|Traditional wells||1 point|
|Crossroads (if named, ancient)||¾ point|
|Road alignments (higher value if ½ mile or over)||1 or ¼ point|
|Fords (higher value if notch)||¾ or ½ point|
|Tree groups (higher value if on hilltop with ancient name)||¾ or ¼ point|
|Single trees (only if ancient or named)||½ point|
|Track junctions||½ point|
|Square moats||¼ point|
Most modern ley hunters would probably consider that ancient churches and camps merit a whole point if they used this sort of scale. This system's main interest, in the view of the present authors, is that it shows Alfred Watkins's 'pecking order' of ley marker priority and serves as a general guide, but should not be adhered to in a slavish fashion, if only because not all of Watkins's own leys add up to five points!
In deciding whether an alignment could be based on a deliberate prehistoric intention, in other words whether or not it is a ley, one relies, in the final analysis, on common sense (how many points in how many miles, and so on). But the use of intuition is not to be ignored, though it might cause scientists and mathematical ley critics to throw up their hands in horror. Many people appreciate that the 'hunch' has its uses even if it cannot be analysed and quantified.
Dreaming the Earth
from Symbolic Landscapes
by Paul Devereux
[Footnotes excluded from this extract]
DREAMING THE EARTH
It seems difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of the nature of myth, for it is a particularly mercurial aspect of humanity. Scholars still fail to agree on a precise definition.
It was because C.G. Jung saw basic mythological motifs (mythologems) occurring in the dreams of his modern patients that he came to the conclusion that there had to be such a thing as a Collective Unconscious. He postulated the existence of transpersonal processes he called archetypes deep in the Collective Unconscious that can produce related thematic imagery in any society or person of any period. These images can vary dramatically according to the cultural context they occur in, but their underlying function remains true to the archetype that originated them. Because it exists in the unconscious realms of mind, the archetype itself can never be directly known or understood but merely interpreted by the imagery it occasions in a dream or vision – or in a myth. Jung warned that modern society in cutting itself off from such mythological roots ran the risk of neurosis and 'psychic epidemics', as it had a literally rootless consciousness. According to Jung, this modern condition has come about because of the pronounced development of differentiated, conscious mentality in civilised peoples, which leads to a one-sidedness and a deviation from the roots of our being. Archetypal material does not come from our rationally-conscious minds.
The recurrence of certain mythological themes at widely separated times and places around the world gives great credence to some kind of Collective Unconscious. The mythologem of the ladder to heaven, for instance, occurred virtually everywhere. There is of course the Biblical story of Jacob's visionary dream of angels on a ladder leading to heaven, but versions of the theme, which I suggest derives from shamanic trance experience, as we shall see below, can also be found in the myths of Arctic Europe, Siberia, Tibet, the Americas and Oceania. Depictions of figures in a shamanic context teetering atop ladders is even found in the rock art of southern Africa. French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has studied the myths of related tribes in Brazil and Paraguay as recorded by missionaries over hundreds of years, and found that though particular personages and events in them changed over time, the fundamental structure of a story remained constant.
Clearly, there seems to be something in the human mind, or at least in the common neurological structure and functioning of the human central nervous system, that is outside the timescale of individual persons or societies.
Since Jung's time, it has been suggested that archetypal images can provoke automatic responses analogous to the way that certain sensory cues can cause an animal to react in a predetermined manner. (For example, a newly-hatched chick will cower if shown the shape of a hawk, yet will not react to other bird forms.) 'Each society gives its own particular form to such "archetypal images" or stimuli,' says Sheila Savill, 'for myths and legends are expressions of communal feelings and intuitions.' Joseph Campbell warned that even though our culture no longer lives by myths, they are active and dynamic parts of the psyche, however we might ignore or forget them. Myths derive their source from 'an immemorial imagination', and can be driving us in ways our conscious, civilised minds do not perceive.
Alan Watts defined myth as 'a complex of stories.., which, for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and human life'. He saw myth as quite distinct from philosophy, as it was 'always concrete – consisting of vivid, sensually intelligible, narratives, images, rites, ceremonies and symbols'. The processes that give a story a mythic dimension are 'very largely unconscious', which, if Jung was right, they would have to be. Watts further noted that if the appearance of archetype-derived transpersonal images in a person's dreams indicated a healing process, as Jung maintained, then those societies that lived by myth were also healthy – healthier, indeed, than our own peculiar culture. He remarked that A. Coomaraswamy saw myths as one of the ways the 'perennial philosophy' was communicated, the perpetual spiritual reality underlying all religious forms and yearnings, the reality that allowed those who could partake of it to 'wake up' to 'a vision of the world startlingly different from that of the average socially conditioned man... because of the discovery that time – as ordinarily under stood – is an illusion'.
Greek scholar G.S. Kirk has warned that myths are so varied that it is unwise to seek one single definition of them. He finds some of the theories to be questionable, while others work for certain bodies of myth in the world but not for all of them. But while he is cautious about accepting Jung's ideas in toto, he admits that myths can have a dream-like quality, with the dislocations of sequence and location common to dreams. He notes, too, that it 'is a commonplace among several tribal societies... that myths and dreams evince a similar insight into reality. Many of the Indian tribes of the American South-west agree in spite of other cultural differences that myths are dreamed, and are created in that way. They are of great importance, being closely connected with the complex of rituals on which the life of the Pueblo Indians, in particular, is centred'.
Like Watts, Kirk notes that true myths tend to be 'set... in the timeless past' while their lesser cousins, folktales, are realistic, placed in specific if anonymous time and place, with characters having generic names. The anthropologist V.W. Turner similarly mentions the unusual time quality associated with myths, and points out that in tribal societies where myths form the basis of ceremonies, the activities are performed in 'liminal' situations, between the mundane and supernormal worlds, at sacred sites in remote locations, at night, naked or in strange garb. Myths could also be 'told at a time or in a site that is "betwixt and between". He felt that myths were 'high and deep mysteries' which put a tribal person into a temporary rapport 'with the primary or primordial generative power of the cosmos'.
Various anthropologists have created phrases to describe this mythic dimension of time: Preuss referred to it as die Urzeit ('pre-time'); Lévy-Bruhl as 'pre-temporal time', noting that the mythic events of the San or Bushmen of southern Africa take place in a time that 'is not time at all in any rational sense; it is a special kind of time, itself as mythical as the events it embraces...'
People from any culture, modern or traditional, who experience altered states of consciousness can encounter this mythic time, Great Time, in which a sense of unutterable antiquity is linked to a quality of timelessness which allows mythic events to have happened in some remote past and yet to be somehow eternally occurring. Tribal shamans who use hallucinogenic plants as a sacramental part of their trance rituals report that they can 'look back to the very beginning' and go 'where the world is born' (my emphasis). They meet mythic beings such as tribal ancestors or deities and are shown the secrets of creation.
Taking a loose, general consensus, then, we can view myths as having dream-like qualities, their own dimension of time – at once ancient and present – and deriving from other sources of consciousness than the rational-type of waking awareness we moderns possess. They may also reveal neurological functions common to all humanity. High or serious myths represent deep realities of mind and nature.
Myth and mind
This is our clue. Dreams are private myths, as someone put it, and myths are tribal dreams. They both clothe processes going on deep within the human psyche. Looking at the examples of mythologised landscapes given in the first section of this essay, it is indeed difficult to avoid the feeling that we are dealing with some kind of dream world, a dream world that was allowed to develop a resonance with the physical world. I can vouch for the fact that this can happen directly in dream consciousness, for I am one of those weird people who sometimes sleeps with his eyes a little open. I have on numerous occasions experienced a dream in which some object my sleeping eyes happened to be fixed on in the bedroom became something else in my dream an ornate doorknob becoming an eagle, for instance. Conversely, when I have awoken from such dreams, the dream image slowly dissolves and I am left staring at the physical object in my surroundings that gave rise to it. As I awake, the physical object becomes divested of its dream or 'mythic' aspect.
Even those who do not possess my curious sleeping quirk, must have experienced an external sound or touch working its way into the matter of their dreams.
Dreaming is, of course, the one type of altered state of consciousness familiar to us all. Even those who are most vehement about the horrors of hallucinogenic drugs (which they unfortunately mix up with dangerous 'hard drugs' and chemicals which can be 'sniffed' from certain commercial products) have dreams, and dreams, it now seems, are produced by hormonal hallucinogens secreted by our own brains.
In my heady youth, when I was an art student in London during the 'Swinging Sixties', I took some LSD (it was still technically legal then). I took, unknowingly, a very large dose and I had a wild cosmic ride. One of the multitude of experiences I underwent has a bearing on our discussion here: as the session finally began to subside from its overpowering, transcendental heights, someone with me took out a handkerchief. It was what in those days was a rather fashionable khaki colour. He held it at one corner, and as he had taken a teaspoonful out of the tall glass I had drunk containing the LSD, he paused to look at it, empowered with the enhanced observational abilities released by the hallucinogen. I did likewise. The limp, hanging cloth fell into folds from the held corner. As one might catch a semblance of a face or a castle or whatever in a cloud, I saw the lineaments of a dove. A dirty, mud-covered dead dove, an impression literally due to the colouring given by the khaki material of the handkerchief. In the twinkling of a mythologising eye, the piece of cloth and its folds 'hardened' into a very perfect, realistic representation of a dead dove being held by its beak. I knew it was a handkerchief, but I was looking at a dead dove. As I was 'returning' from transcendental heights back into the world of mortals, of fallen humanity, I found the symbolism of the dead dove to be powerfully relevant. I marvelled at the fluid ambiguity of perception and of symbolism, and the symbiosis existing between them.
It is this type of 'loosened' perception, this mixing of sensory and symbolic data, I feel we have to acknowledge when we look at mythologised landscapes. We are not dealing with the enforced, brittle, intellectual consciousness we tend to employ in trying to 'read' a reclining woman 'into' a range of hills, or a Dreamtime hero 'into' a boulder. The Dreamtime is literally that, and we must envisage a people who could see in the fashion I have described above. They can see the 'lineaments of legend' in the land. They do not have to translate it as some simulacrum as we have to do.
Writing in 1935, Lévy-Bruhl acknowledged that to Aborigines 'the mythic world and dreams have some important principle in common'. The Kalahari Bushmen told Laurens van der Post that 'there is a dream dreaming us'. They felt themselves to actually be part of the dreaming of the world.
The term 'Dreamtime' is not an Aboriginal word. It was, in fact, coined by B. Spencer and F.J. Gillen, the explorer-anthropologists who trekked through the Australian Outback in the latter part of the nineteenth century, observing the ceremonies of, and speaking with the Aborigines they encountered. To Aborigines the term is altjira, dzjugur, bugari, lalan, depending on the tribe. Mountford noted Gillen's and Spencer's invention was a 'particularly apt word' for the Aboriginal term, a feeling obviously shared by the Aborigines themselves who adopted it when trying to explain altjira to Europeans. Anthropologist A.P. Elkin learned that the Aboriginal terms had a number of meanings for the Aborigine
...all of which, however, are summed up in the long-past time when the culture-heroes and ancestors introduced the tribal culture and instituted its rites and laws... The same term also means 'dream' (noun or verb). But to the Aborigines this does not signify mere phantasy, but spiritual reality. A man's 'dreaming' is his share of the secret myths and rites, of the historical traditions, of the old or 'eternal dreamtime'. (My emphasis.)
James Cowan is at pains to emphasise the altered states of consciousness quality of this Aboriginal Dreaming. Contact with the Dreaming is the primary objective for participants in ceremonies at sacred sites along Dream Journey routes, he states. 'It is not a divine place that they are endeavouring to enter by way of ritual gesture, but a state of mind – a return to the source.' Aboriginal holy men, 'Men of High Degree' or karadjis, have direct contact with the Dreaming and the spirit figures that populate that realm of mind. As a consequence of this direct contact, a karadji is the only person who can create new dances, songs and stories. In Jungian terms, it would be said that because he has access to the Unconscious, he is able to extract authentic mythic material – transpersonal, timeless. Jung was confident that "myth-forming" structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche'. Cowan points out that the Dream Journey is at once an exoteric activity, a social activity, and an esoteric or inward journey:
In both cases, however, there is a certain amount of ritual activity designed to encourage a new awareness of environment and the way personal 'country' can inspire a greater understanding of nature itself... both journeys overlap in their significance because many of the stories, myth cycles, sacred environments.., and cave paintings are common to both.
By using the Dreaming, Cowan argues, the Aborigines were able to find in topographical features a 'profoundly symbolic language'. Their Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, Torah or Koran was written on the face of the Earth. The landscape became 'a rich source of information on the sacred... the land had a story to tell to mankind.., a topographic story elicited from a given landscape by a tribal member is not a 'just-so' tale but a demonstration of mythic data'.
The mythologised land emerged, then, from the interaction between the physical environment and a particular state of mind experienced by its human inhabitants. The land came to be haunted – by human consciousness. Ideas of 'sacred places' do not emerge from the land, they can only be sacred if human consciousness is present. Symbolism and sanctity are what we invest the landscape with – they are not factors that exist separately in the environment.
The nub of the matter revolves around the state of consciousness in which this process took place. We do not mythologise the land nowadays; not, at least, at any sort of cultural level. Why not? Surely because our modern, urbanised (literally 'civilised') Western-style consciousness is much more differentiated than that of traditional or early peoples. Our minds have hard edges. We do not melt into the landscape, we sit aloof on it, dig into it, use it as a material resource. It is 'separate'. In the way that we put up walls and fences, and hedge in blocks of land, so too does our modern consciousness have its defined boundaries. From an originally diffuse sense of self, we have developed iron-clad egos, that is, personal mental vehicles. But early and traditional peoples were not so 'locked into' our present-day form of waking consciousness. Indeed, the question arises as to whether they were in continual, or at least readily-accessible, altered states of consciousness. Did earlier, prehistoric, peoples wander the Earth in an actual dream or entranced state? I have elsewhere suggested that the great division of time we moderns with our 'hardened consciousness' make between 'history' and 'prehistory' – documented and undocumented time – can be seen as analogous to the division between waking consciousness and the unconscious psyche. In such an analogy, the waking mind floats like a small cork on the unknown depths of the Unconscious, as history bobs along on the ocean of prehistory. To try to interpret ancient sacred sites or mythologised landscapes is, therefore, a little like attempting to peer into the depths of our unconscious minds.
Landscape as a gateway to the mind
Whatever the state of mind earlier peoples may have had, we have to accept, I think, that they were more easily able to enter trance conditions than we are, generally speaking, today. We see this still with the !Kung of the Kalahari (the exclamation mark denotes a glottal, click sound). They engage in trance dances that can project them into a profoundly altered state of consciousness (they call it kia) that most modern Westerners in normal conditions would require a drug as potent as LSD to experience. Ancient and traditional peoples were or are more at home in extended states of mind, and needed less of a stimulus to enter into them. The very landscape could act as such a stimulus. Elkin said that the country of the Aborigine 'is the symbol of, and gateway to, the great unseen world...' (My emphasis.) Working with the Marind-anim of New Guinea, anthropologist Paul Wirz observed that holy spots, the places of Dema or spirits, had hallucinogenic properties in themselves:
In most cases such spots have a striking outward appearance in consequence of some strange or unexpected aspect. In them occur unusual land formations, chasms, uplands, swamps with sandbanks or gravel deposits fresh or salt. Curious noises may be heard in them... Occasionally people catch sight of strange apparitions, the Dema themselves, rising out of the earth, though mostly such visions are but fleeting and uncertain...
Given the right preparation, a spiritual or poetic interaction with the external environment can still occur with modem people, of course, though without the framework of tribal myth. An intriguing instance of this was given by Philip O'Connor, an articulate vagrant. He felt that the study of the mental effects of walking were akin to the effects of certain drugs, and has been insufficiently researched. He found that in walking endlessly the roads of England that he could sometimes obtain an 'incomparable feeling...as though one were a prayer winding along a road; the feeling is definitely religious. ..' He found that during prolonged periods of tramping a deep mental rhythm, 'poetic in its effects', began to dominate all his perceptions. 'All hard nodules of concepts are softly coaxed into disbursing their cherished contents...' he observed. 'Maybe mental fireworks, will gloriously light the mind – but quickly the world will attach the inner light to outer phenomena... The speed of transit between inner state and outer appearance is a feature of tramping.' (My emphasis.) One's 'identity-sense' becomes 'diffused into the landscape'. On one occasion O'Connor passed an uprooted tree by the roadside. He thought, or heard within his head, the curious words 'She has left me'. O'Connor noted that a pressure at the back of his head accompanied 'this perversion of thought, or insight of poetry'. Furthermore, 'Time stops in such perceptions'. A cessation of mechanical, linear time-sense was somehow caused by 'a high sky, a statically spread landscape'. The different experience of time when alone in the landscape was markedly shown up whenever he came in contact with townspeople. They would appear 'terribly quick, jerky, and doll-like, with chatter to suit'.
In normal modern, urban consciousness, with its mechanical rather than elemental, cyclical kind of time, we are prevented from entering into a poetic dialogue with the land.
The bicameral brain
Julian Jaynes, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, has put forward a contentious but well-argued and attested theory that ancient peoples did actually have a differently-functioning consciousness to ours today. It is worth spending a little time to consider this idea.
The human brain is divided into two 'halves' or hemispheres, separated by a band of over two million fibres called the corpus callosum. In each hemisphere is an area known as the temporal lobe, which seems to be related to dreaming, hallucinations or visions, language and other functions. These two are connected across the corpus callosum by a thin bundle of nerve fibres called the anterior commissure. In very crude terms (it is more complicated than this), the left brain handles speech, logic, analytical thought, stage-by-stage cognition, while the right hemisphere handles gestalt, patterns, connections, intuition, emotion and poetic matters. (O'Connor's reaction to the uprooted tree, above, was a right-brain response.)
Many of our sensory functions cross over, so that what is seen by the left eye is processed by the right hemisphere of the brain. When a person has undergone a complete commissurotomy, that is, the cutting of the midline connections between the hemispheres, nothing is generally seen or felt to be different. But when sensory input is closely monitored, defects are found. For instance, on a page of writing everything to the left of the middle of a line of writing is 'seen' by the right hemisphere, and vice versa. The 'you' in your left hemisphere, which has articulated speech, would cognise the words on the right-hand side of the line as normal, but those on the left-hand side could not be 'told' to the 'you' in the right hemisphere, because that hemisphere does not have speech. Similarly, a person with 'split brain' cannot describe the contents of a slide shown to the left eye (and thus the right brain), but the left hand could point to a matching picture. It is as if there were two persons inside the brain. As only the left brain has articulate speech (though both hemispheres understand language) it is the one that dominates cognition in a culture like ours.
Voices of the gods
Jaynes argues that the ancients had each hemisphere of their brains operating on separate tracks as it were, and 'heard' voices that originated in their right brain or hemisphere and for which, Jaynes suggests, the anterior commissure acted as a bridge. Like the voices 'heard' by schizophrenics today, these auditory hallucinations, which were taken to be the voices of the ancestors or the gods, had an inescapable authority, and gave instruction to ancient peoples' left hemisphere or waking, daily consciousness. Jaynes calls this condition 'the bicameral mind', and has argued in the sort of detail that cannot be given here how this structure of consciousness gave rise to great bicameral civilisations of the past. Early tribal peoples 'heard' their ancestors, but as societies grew more complex and cities formed, the ancestors' voices became those of the gods, and it was the king who spoke to and was guided by the hallucinatory commandments of the main gods of the culture. The instructions of the gods were carried out through extremely hierarchically-organised societies. Although individual people could consult 'household deities', their voices were culturally accepted as subordinate to the institutionalised voices of the great gods transmitted through the king or governing theocratic elite. The consciousness of these bicameral peoples was pitched so differently to ours that even the stress of an unfamiliar situation could be enough to trigger auditory hallucinations in them.
As with people who hear voices today, the inner speech could seem to come from some point in the environment. A schizophrenic may hear a piece of furniture, or a wall, issue sounds at him, for instance. In the bicameral world, if Jaynes is right, auditory hallucination was highly organised and was conducted mainly through the use of statues and idols. These were consulted and they spoke in reply. Indeed, there were ancient ceremonies involving the mouth-washing of idols, to keep their speech clear, and the Spanish conquerors of the Maya were told by the Indians that their statues spoke. The earliest forms of writing also give the speech of the gods as if dictated, and some, such as a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet of the first millennium BC, specifies that it was 'the royal image' (statue) that spoke. (I knew one mental patient who organised his auditory hallucinations in something of a similar fashion, so he could cope with his condition in daily life: when he heard a voice 'coming on', he would make for the nearest telephone booth and lift the receiver. In this way, he could converse with his voices in a socially acceptable way!)
Such idols were often depicted with large eyes, as eye-to-eye contact is an important factor in communication – when a mother speaks to an infant, for exam ple, it looks at her eyes, not her lips. Ancient idols the world over often had huge eye orbs, or had gems inserted for eyes, and sometimes their lips were half open as if in speech. These powerful images held their human makers in their thrall.
The use of idols as organised sources of hallucinated speech may have derived from much older traditions of ancestor worship, if Jaynes' ideas are correct. The whole groundplan of some early communities was so designed as to place the tomb of a dead chieftain in a position still at the centre of living activity. With a range of evidence that cannot be entered into here, Jaynes suggests that the voice of the dead king could still be 'heard', if not by the community in general, then by the chief's or king's successor. The arrangement of the ancestor's bones, particularly the skull, and the type of grave goods, as if for a living person, together with the veneration and even dread obviously bestowed upon the graves of the ancestors, all suggest that the dead leader was thought of as in some way still alive. The dead king became a living god.
Temples eventually replaced tombs, and as the ancestors became the gods, their skeletons were supplanted by idols. As Scully noted, the temples were houses for the gods, not for people. Jaynes has identified particular types of street and building layouts in ancient communities that he feels indicate bicameral consciousness.
The hallucinatory associations with the ancestors' bones could explain the various head cults of early societies, Jaynes suggests. It is certainly a fact that the head was seen by many people as the seat of the soul, and in Stone Age temple-tombs skulls are often found placed in separate compartments to other bones. This was noticeably the case at the Neolithic chambered mound of Isbister, the so-called 'Tomb of the Eagles' on Orkney, and we will encounter something similar in the Avebury complex in Part Two.
An example of a speaking head being mythically associated with a particular topographical feature occurs in ancient Celtic literature. The tale of Branwen in the old Bardic stories collected in the Mabinogion tells that Bran the Blessed ('The Blessed Raven', possibly originally a major Celtic god) was mortally wounded during a raid in Ireland. His followers cut off his head and took it back to Wales with them. The head continued to speak and instructed the group to take it to the White (meaning sacred) Mount in London (now site of the Tower of London). On the way, the Assembly of the Wondrous Head was delayed for years in an enchanted condition, but eventually reached the White Mount and there buried Bran's head, to protect the sovereignty of Britain. The origin of this story is, of course, the Celtic head cult, and hundreds of pagan Celtic heads fashioned from stone have been found, and countless more made out of wood must have been lost.
In and out of style
We have to try to envisage a style of consciousness in the bicameral world in which the sense of 'I' is greatly diminished, and with no sense of space within the head. (We all think of ourselves as a little person inside our head , which is, of course, a sustained, culturally-sanctioned hallucination, We feel a sense of mental space, in which the little inner person sits looking out at the world as if in a room with five sensory 'windows'. Our little person can also wander around in our thoughts, like a clerk sifting through a filing cabinet, and we can glimpse ourselves, our little person, in our memories and fantasies. We can create mental space. All this is likewise a sustained hallucination. There is no 'person' nor any empty space inside our head, which is solid tissue, liquids and bone. A characteristic of altered mental states is that the location of the 'person' can wander to other parts of the body, or even out of it; the seat of consciousness becomes mobile.) This state of mind was not because of some different physical structure of the brain, but due to a differently jigged range of neuronal patterns and connections. To use computerese – a software difference rather than one of hardware. Bicameral awareness would feel a little like our mental state when doing a task such as driving a car, things were done almost 'unconsciously'. When a novel situation was encountered, the bicameral person would be instructed by their god or gods, that is, their right brain, how to handle it: there were thousands of portable idols and household statues to focus any daily instructions by the lesser 'gods'.
Jaynes points out that our present-day style of consciousness is probably quite recent (no more than 2000-3000 years old in his opinion) and not necessarily permanent. We produce a culture based on our state of consciousness, and that in turn gives us feedback helping to sustain that state. But for all sorts of reasons, changes in worldview can change dramatically, and long-term, cultural-scale changes of worldview require actual alterations in the way consciousness works, how perceptions are made, what priorities govern thinking. Our present cultural state of consciousness could transform into something that would be unrecognisable to us today. (This could happen on a scale hitherto impossible because of the worldwide telecommunications that now exist and which are themselves approaching the global equivalent of the human cortex in information connections.)
The speaking environment
Although the use of idols was the great organiser of hallucinated 'god'-voices during what Jaynes would call bicameral times, actual topographical features could also take on the aspect of deity in themselves. He records the Hittite mountain shrine of Yazilikaya in central Turkey:
That the mountains themselves were hallucinatory to the Hittites is indicated by relief sculptures still clearly visible on the rocks within the sanctuary, showing the usual stereotyped drawings of mountains topped with the heads and head-dresses used for the gods. As the Psalmist sings, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills whence cometh my help.'
On one of the faces of this mountain temple, the robed king is carved in profile. Just behind him in the stone relief towers a god with a much loftier crown; the god's arm is outstretched, showing the king the way, whilst the god's left arm is hugged around the king's neck and grasps the king's right fist firmly. It is testament to an emblem of the bicameral mind.
So the topography could actually speak to earlier peoples, if Jaynes is correct.
Schizophrenia is considered by Jaynes to be a vestige of bicameral consciousness, and he notes that many patients 'heard.., voices as emanating from strange and unknown places'. Amongst several examples he gives is of a 26-year-old woman whose topographical 'stimulation point' was a river bank where she would hear a man and a woman calling to her. Also the sounds in the world around a schizophrenic can provide the matrix in which voices can form. One patient described hearing voices...
...sometimes sounding from the wind, sometimes from footsteps, sometimes rattling dishes, from the rustling trees... I hear the voices only if I attend to them... The voices are words that tell me one story or another... The whole day through they keep on telling truly my daily history of head and heart.
Researcher John Steele quotes the case of 'The Talking Stone' in Seneca Indian tradition, which long ago told a Seneca boy the history of his people, a history which itself became enshrined in the story of the speaking rock. 'Thus our earliest ancestors,' writes Steele, 'lived in what can be described as a conscious interactive environment.'
The bicameral fate of cities In Jaynes' view, hallucinated voices may have been responsible both for the foundation of city sites and their desertion during the bicameral period. Jayne's cites the mysterious case of the lost Mayan cities:
...the curious inhospitable sites on which Mayan cities were often built and their sudden appearance and disappearance can best be explained on the basis that such sites and movements were commanded by hallucinations which in certain periods could be not only irrational but downright punishing – as was Jahweh sometimes to his people, or Apollo (through the Delphic Oracle) to his, by siding with the invaders of Greece.
(In this regard, it is worth noting that Istanbul was effectively founded by Byzas in 657 BC as a result of a somewhat oblique pronouncement by the Delphic Oracle.)
The actual bicameral act may be recorded on stone reliefs from Santa Lucia Cotzumalhaupa, a non-Mayan site in Guatemala: a man is depicted laying face down on the ground listening to two spiritual beings speaking over him. To this day, seers in the region adopt this posture in order to hear prophetic voices, though they now use the hallucinogenic cactus peyote. (Jaynes considers the use of hallucinogens to have developed as natural, spontaneous bicameral ability began to decline. Personally, I doubt that this is true. However, proto-historic peoples like the Etruscans did develop the use of divination techniques to found cities, and it is possible, as we shall note, that this began to emerge as bicamerality broke down.)
The sacred sun
Auditory and other hallucinations can originate from parts of the cortex that imbue them with a religious aura – there are apparently brain structures that accommodate this function. Jaynes notes that the sun, 'as the world's brightest light', takes on a special religious significance in many unmedicated schizophrenic patients, just as it did in the theocracies of bicameral civilisations. One modern schizophrenic has written:
The sun came to have an extraordinary effect on me. It seemed to be charged with all power; not merely to symbolise God but actually to be God. Phrases like: 'Light of the World,' 'The Sun of Righteousness that Setteth Nevermore,' etc., ran through my head without ceasing, and the mere sight of the sun was sufficient greatly to intensify this manic excitement under which I was laboring. I was impelled to address the sun as a personal god, and to evolve from it a ritual sun worship.
Fairly recent research, probably unknown to Jaynes, at the great temple complex of Karnak, at Luxor (the ancient Thebes), on the east side of the Nile some 370 miles south of Cairo, gives some support to the bicameral theory. It has been suggested by researchers since the beginning of this century that the axis of this temple complex, which was respected throughout the many centuries of structural changes and additions in the second millennium BC and possibly earlier, was oriented on the setting midsummer sun. But Gerald Hawkins, an astronomer with the Smithsonian Institution, discovered that the orientation was, in fact, in the other direction, eastwards, giving midwinter sunrise during the second millennium BC. Hawkins found that in the main building housing the sanctuary there was an upper chamber, the 'High Room of the Sun', from where the event could have been observed:
There was a square altar of alabaster in front of a rectangular aperture in the wall. This roof temple was dedicated to Ra-Hor-Akhty, the sun-god rising on the horizon. The wall carried a picture of the pharaoh, facing the aperture, one knee to the ground, making a gesture of greeting to the risen sun... The platform was elevated, the view clear of obstruction. Here the priest-astronomer could make his observations to check the sun was on course.
Eastwards beyond this building are two small temples, one dedicated to Ra-Hor Akhty, the other 'The Temple of the Hearing Ear', an intriguing and – in the light of the bicameral theory – significant dedication. It contains hymns of praise to the god that appears at dawn. It may relate to auditory phenomena 'heard' as the sun rose on the special day – if the ancients could 'hear' mountains, why not the sun? It is perhaps worth recalling that William Blake, the poet, painter and mystic, indicated that he was able to hear the sun rising like a host of angels singing. It would be unwise, especially in the case of Blake, to assume this to be mere poetic license.
Across the Nile from Luxor is the Valley of the Kings, itself defined by a horned skyline on one side, according to Scully, and a conical mountain, an extraordinary natural pyramid, with a 'teat' – a pre-dynastic mound – on the other. Two giant sandstone statues, 60 feet tall, stand near the Nile in isolation. They represent Amenhotep III and flanked the entrance to his mortuary temple which was also dedicated to Ra-Hor-Akhty but has now disappeared. Their stoney eyes stare eastwards, and Hawkins has been able to confirm an earlier suspicion of Sir Norman Lockyer's that they are in fact also oriented to the midwinter sunrise. During an earthquake in 27 BC, one of these great statues was cracked, and began to make sounds at dawn. In proto-historic Graeco-Roman times they became known as the Colossi of Memnon, and were consulted as an oracle because of the dawn sounds which issued forth.
The age of oracles
According to Jaynes' view, the 'age of oracles' in the proto-historic period (the period between undocumented pre-history and fully-documented historical times) was a symptom of the breakdown of the archaic bicameral mind as modern mentality with its sense of 'I' and illusion of interior, mental space began its ascendancy. He considers this process began to occur in the Old World during the third and second millennia BC, but accelerated dramatically in the final thousand years BC due to vast natural disasters (such as the eruption of Thera – Santorini – in the Mediterranean, which sent out a tidal wave 700 feet high that drowned key areas of Mediterranean civilisation) and the subsequent chaos caused by refugees and disruption of the carefully-balanced bicameral social structures. In fact, the size of cities had begun to threaten these structures in any case. The emergence of writing, too, can be seen as increasing left-brain dominance.
Slowly the gods became dumb and retreated, mythically, into the sky. Heaven was created. (Although the sun, planets and stars had become gods, and there were important sky deities, most of the gods had physical locations in the landscape.) Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets of the late second millennium BC bemoan the disappearance of the gods. 'One who has no god, as he walks along the street, headache envelopes him like a garment' says one, perhaps referring to a physical sensation caused by the neurological re-patterning. 'My god has forsaken me and disappeared' wails another tablet. And around 1230 BC, Tukulti-Ninurta I, an Assyrian tyrant, had a stone altar made that showed him, sequentially, emphatically gesturing towards and kneeling before an empty throne. The empty throne became a feature of declining Mesopotamian bicameral civilisations.
Oracles were a carry-over of the earlier mentality, Jaynes claims. They occurred, he notes, in locations where 'because of some awesomeness of the surroundings, or some important incident or some hallucinogenic sound, waves, waters, or wind, suppliants, any suppliants, could still "hear" a bicameral voice directly'. Over time, the bicameral ability diminished in the general population even under such stimuli, and selected people with surviving bicameral traits – prophets, priestesses (women are more 'lateralised' in brain function than men, their psychological functions being less tied to one or other hemisphere) – took over the role until eventually even they could not 'hear' and actual right-brain consciousness was overtaken by rote procedures or divination.
One of the greatest oracles of the ancient world was at Delphi, on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassos, Greece. Originally dedicated to Gaia, the Earth Goddess, the site was appropriated by the cult of Apollo. A temple complex developed. A female prophetess, the 'Pythia', gave responses to questions from commoners and the high born. She drank the waters of the local holy springs before giving audience. Even today this place is still redolent with numinosity, and seems wedded to the elements. It is prone to earthquakes (the ancient Greeks built the temple of Apollo on an anti-seismic wall of ingenious design), and fierce electrical storms that blaze and roar within the confines of the steep valley on the side of which the temple complex clings vertiginously. Zeus and his thunderbolts are very close, and in its heyday the oracle site must have seemed profoundly awesome. Even archaeologists acknowledge that the 'brooding physical power of the site must be considered in any account of its history' Jaynes suggests that due to the stresses of the pilgrimage to the site, plus preparation and powerfully-endorsed social expectation, a suppliant would be in a primed psychological state.
To this causative expectancy should be added something about the natural scene itself. Oracles begin in localities with a specific awesomeness, natural formations of mountain gorge, of hallucinogenic wind or waves, of symbolic gleamings and vistas, which I suggest are more conducive to occasioning right hemisphere activity than the analytic planes of everyday life. Perhaps we can say that the geography of the bicameral mind in the first part of the first millennium BC was shrinking down into sites of awe and beauty where the voices of the gods could still be heard.
Certainly the vast cliffs of Delphi move into such a suggestion and fill it fully: a towering caldron of blasted rock over which the sea winds howl and the salt mists cling, as if dreaming nature were twisting herself awake at awkward angles, falling away into a blue surf of shimmering olive leaves and the grey immortal sea.
The voice of Zeus could be heard at Dodona, and was consulted by Odysseus. At that time the site was probably just a great sacred oak, and Jaynes suggests that the voice was stimulated hallucinogenically from 'the wind trembling in its leaves' and wonders if the oaks of the Druids may have acted as similar stimuli. In the fifth century BC, Zeus could no longer be heard directly, and there had to be a priestess who spoke for the god while in trance. As the direct voice connection at oracle sites diminished, more elaboration had to take place at them.
At Lebadea, 20 miles east of Delphi, was another oracle site and one of the last 'direct voice' oracles where suppliants heard the gods for themselves without temple intermediaries. Jaynes finds that Lebadea 'even today bears some remnants of its ancient awesomeness'. It is at the junction of three steep precipices, where 'murmuring springs' emerge and fall away into the ravines. The suppliant, after extraordinarily complex preparations, retired to a carved-out cell in the rock where one ravine winds into the heart of the mountain, and is situated over an underground flume.
Dreams became a source of omens, a contact with the ancient processes of the bicameral mind, as they still are. Dream omens were collected in Assyrian society in the first millennium BC and recorded in dream books such as the Ziqiqu. 'Temple sleep' was commonplace in Greece, as noted in the previous section of this essay, and throughout the Mediterranean world. In fact, all forms of divination proliferated, from the relatively simple, such as the casting of sticks, soil and stones, to the more sophisticated, such as reading bird flight, the heavens or using cards and charts, because mancy is another way of circumventing the tyranny of the left brain.
And there was singing and chanting. Although the left brain has speech, the right brain has song. This is shown by the so-called Wada Test, in which a person has one brain hemisphere sedated. With only the right side active, a person cannot speak, but can sing. When the right hemisphere is sedated, the person is unable to sing but can speak. Electrical stimulation around the temporal lobe in the right hemisphere often produces hallucinations of singing and music. The right brain is dominant, also, in our attention to music and song. Knowing this, we can see the significance of the fact that the first poets sang their verse. The wandering Celtic Bards, the Greek Aoidoi, and others, sang the ancient myths, the stories of the gods, the history of the people. We might also recall from the previous section that the Aborigines chanted at their sacred sites. Each piece of mythically significant topography had its song; the Dream Journeys were lines of songs, and tribal boundaries were noted by song. At sites, the elders would scan the imagery on the Churingas and chant what they told.
The words of the gods and songs of the Muses (what 'music' is) only became imaginary to a left-brain-dominated consciousness. We moderns have lost the soundtrack of prehistory.
Gateways to the Dreamtime
We cannot be sure, of course, if Jaynes is right in his theorising, but it has to be admitted that when all his evidence is considered, his case is persuasive. Whether he is right or wrong, or, more likely, partially correct, however, we can be certain that the ancient worldview was arrived at through a different filter of consciousness than that prevailing today.
One of the ways we do know for sure that consciousness was modified in the ancient world – and often today also where traditional societies survive relatively intact – was by the use of hallucinogens. Botanical sources gave access to the Dreamtime Earth – the spirit version of the material world, what Lévy-Bruhl called 'supernature'. (Interestingly, this is also the term the Irish nature mystic, G.W. Russell – 'AE' – gave to his perception of the visionary environment: see the final section of this essay.) Certain plants, trees, bark, vines and fungi provided 'doorways' into the Earth's Otherworld. All Eurasia had its botanical drugs for religious and shamanic use: hemp (cannabis; hashish) – samples of which have been dug up in Iron Age burials in Germany; Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) and psilocybin mushrooms; henbane; mandrake; belladonna; ergot; opium... The list is almost endless. Africans, too, used plants to give access to the Otherworld: marijuana; khat (murungu, otyibota); kwashi bulbs and who-knows-what herbs and roots. The Australian Aborigines made use of pituri. The Americas are vastly rich in hallucinogens, and the shamanic Amerindian peoples made great use of the fact: in North and Central America there was wide use of hallucinogenic mushrooms; Datura-type hallucinogens such as Jimson Weed (a pre-Columbian wall painting in a Zuni kiva in New Mexico shows a medicine-man holding Jimson Weed); the mescaline-containing peyote cactus, and mescal bean amongst many others – even toads which secreted hallucinogenic bufotenin and hallucinogenic fish! In South America there were a variety of narcotic snuffs; coca; hallucinogenic fungi; San Pedro cactus and many preparations of the vine, Banisteriopsis, such as ayahuasca. Such substances taken in a ritual setting were viewed as sacramental to ancient and traditional peoples, and enhanced their social integration: we have to be careful not to project our own, modern drug prejudices.
I also suspect that there were other 'gateways' into the Dreamtime Earth that have been largely overlooked by archaeologists and many alternative researchers alike, namely, the actual materials of the landscape itself. That ancient peoples were good geologists cannot be in doubt – other wise, where did the Bronze Age come from? They knew how to find and work copper seams and iron deposits. Before that, they knew where the very best sources of quality flint were to be mined. They would not have thought in geophysical language like we do today, naturally, but the knowledge was there. It is surprising that we have tended to overlook the geophysical characteristics of prehistoric sacred sites, for both folklore and anecdotal experience tell of unusual 'energy effects' at sites, such as curious light phenomena, stones that give electrostatic shocks, and sites where effects on mind and body can be had.
The Dragon Project Trust has done extensive if poorly-resourced work on this aspect, and I have written at length on what is currently known about various energy effects at sites in books such as Earth Lights Revelation and Places of Power, where the interested reader can obtain detailed information. Here it is enough to state just in caption form some things we have found.
We have discovered naturally-magnetic stones at stone circles (usually just one at a site and in a key position) and at natural holy spots – such as a rock outcrop, an Indian power place, on Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco, and a mountain peak called Carn Ingli ('Hill of Angels') on the Preseli range of south-west Wales, where a Celtic saint had visions and where modern people have reported physiological and mental effects. (It is known that magnetic fields can affect the temporal lobes and the pineal gland, both areas of the brain that seem involved in the production of dreams, memories and visions or hallucinations.) Compass needles spin and magnetometers record unusual magnetic variations at such places.
The Dragon Project has confirmed that certain types of sacred sites the world over occur in close proximity to fault lines – fissures or breaks in the Earth's crust (like the San Andreas Fault) which tend to be the scene of tectonic stress, magnetic and gravitic anomalies, and enhanced mineralisation (which can cause variable electromagnetic fields).
Such geological zones also tend to be high-incidence areas of 'earth light' phenomena – exotic and currently unexplained lightforms apparently emerging from processes within the earth and which hover at the extreme limits of known geophysics. They sometimes act as if they have mass, at other times as if weightless. They have electromagnetic properties, yet also possess other characteristics that go beyond known physics. There is even a strong hint in the available evidence that these lights possess some rudimentary intelligence of their own. Energy fields associated with the lights may also have hallucinogenic properties in close-encounter witnesses.
I think it possible that this last factor was put to use by some ancient shamans. Certainly, such 'earth lights' were known by many ancient and traditional peoples. Min min lights were sorcerers or ancestor spirits to some Aborigines, and eskuda'hit, 'fire creatures' to the Penobscot Indians of Maine, were shamans in flight, as they were to the Lapps. The Snohomish Indians of the American north-west saw the lights as gateways to the Otherworld, and some Yakima Indians to this day use the lights for divination, much as the old Etruscans used birds. Hawaiian Islanders saw their akualele lights as spirits. Folk living in the Himalayan foothills around Darjeeling were warned not to approach the lanterns of the chota admis, 'little men'. Similarly, the Wintu Indians of California called such lights 'spirit eaters'. West Africans called the lights aku, and saw them as devilish. In the Celtic world until recently, and still in some remote, rural parts, lights would readily be identified as fairies – literally 'fairy lights' – or 'corpse candles', denoting an imminent death.
Sacred monuments where lights are seen from time to time range from temples in India and China to stone circles in Britain. Indeed, Asian temples could be built precisely because of the appearance of lights at a spot, and even in the Alps there is a chapel dedicated to 'St Mary of the Lights'. Also, sacred peaks often have reputations for unusual light phenomena. Sorte Mountain in Venezuela, for instance, produces lights near its peak at sunset. They are thought by contemporary shamans to be spirits, and to see them is a good sign that healing there will be effective. Mount Shasta in northern California is said to produce curious lights and fleeting apparitions. Identical reports abound about Pendle Hill in Lancashire, where George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, had a mystical vision and where the Pendle Witches, the shamans of their day, congregated. In May 1869, for instance, a 'firey goose' was seen flitting a hundred feet above the hill slopes. This happened at the time of a local earthquake. In modern times, of course, such lights seen over the hill are interpreted as 'UFOs' – the sci-fi mechanistic myth of our times. The holy mountain of Athos in Greece displays light phenomena from time to time which are interpreted as appearances of the Virgin. The legendary Welsh mountain of Cader Idris is said to harbour the entrance to the Underworld and to produce lights at the Celtic new year. In fact, it was midsummer eve of 1982 when I personally witnessed (with others) a ball of blue-white light erupt from the north side of the mountain. It flashed overhead, and I was later able to estimate its speed at over 600 mph. The mountain is of volcanic origin and stands on the Bala Fault.
I suspect that these lights are nature's most direct intermediary between mind and land.
By accident, the Dragon Project has stumbled on another aspect of natural energy: it has found that areas of heightened natural radiation seem capable of precipitating spontaneous but fleeting altered states of consciousness of a very vivid nature in certain people. Granite is a particularly radioactive rock, and the Dragon Project has identified stone circles containing granite megaliths that have exceptionally active spots on them which emit constant streams of gamma radiation. Could this have been used by the old shamans of the megaliths? Possibly. Alberto Villoldo has reported how the contemporary Peruvian shaman, Don Eduardo Calderon, teaches his students to place their spine or foreheads against certain sacred stones at Machu Picchu. These stones are granitic (and the site is situated on a fault).
Enhanced natural radiation zones are created in enclosed ceremonial monuments (such as Neolithic dolmens) built from granite. Egypt's Great Pyramid is a vast limestone structure, yet granite was shipped 600 miles from Aswan to clad the interior of the King's Chamber. To the Egyptians, granite was the stone of spirit, Maat. I have measured the interior of the King's Chamber and found its radon levels to be virtually identical with those so far measured in prehistoric granite monuments in western Europe.
Subterranean ritual sites such as the kivas of the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest and the Iron Age souterrains or underground stone passages of the Celtic fringe of Europe, all seem to occur in areas of high natural radiation, such as granite regions or zones with relatively high uranium levels in the ground. The role of enhanced natural radiation in mind-change effects awaits a serious study.
The use of a fire in ceremonial practices increases the ionisation of the atmosphere generally, and, particularly, negative ions, as well as inducing trance-friendly alpha brain rhythms by the flicker effect of the flames. But there are more powerful negative ionised environments. Harner comments that the Jivaro Indians of South America might retire to 'a cave, the top of a mountain, or a tall waterfall' in their quest for a guardian spirit. Mircea Eliade records how the Aranda shamanic initiate of Central Australia goes to sleep in the mouth of a remote cave. The spirits come and carry him into the cavern's interior, where the Aranda's paradisal land is situated. And we have already noted the Greek legend of Epimenides who 'slept' and fasted for a long time in the cave of Zeus on Mount Ida in Crete and emerged as a master of trance consciousness.
Now, caves, mountain peaks and waterfalls are all notable places where natural ionisation occurs. The moving water of a waterfall charges the surrounding air, and mountain peaks can sometimes be seen with ionised glows around them (well-known in the Andes as the 'Andes Glow'). Light phenomena have even been seen around the apex of the Great Pyramid. Cave mouths are notorious for being subject to a high incidence of lightning strikes due to ionisation. (Indeed, earlier this century, one of the explorers of the Henne-Morte caverns in France was struck by lightning 200 feet beneath ground!) The reason for intense ionisation in caves seems to be the accumulation of radioactivity from subterranean rocks by the action of groundwater. The radiation builds up within the enclosed space of a cavern. This is sometimes expelled during hot, summery weather, and can cause a stream of ionisation skywards, providing a path for lightning.
Ionised air is known to have an effect on certain hormone levels in mammals, and hormones in turn regulate brain function and hence affect consciousness. It is now thought that emissions from rock can affect serotonin levels in mammals, for instance, and serotonin is associated with the production by the pineal gland of hallucinogenic beta-carbolines, which, it is thought, aid in producing dream imagery.
Caves are also very dark places, of course. The training for a 'Mama' ('Enlightened One') or shaman in the Kogi Indian society of Colombia involves his being incarcerated in a cave from infancy or childhood, and not seeing the light of day for several years. Even when brought out at night, he wears a broad-rimmed hat so he cannot see moon or stars directly. This must have an enormous effect on the hormonal workings of the pineal gland, which is regulated by light-dark cycles. When he finally emerges, the young Mama can 'see' the Spirit or Dreamtime Earth, which the Kogis call aluna, interfused with the physical terrain. He can see supernature.
As we have noted, cave environments contain heightened levels of radiation. We associate radon – the naturally radioactive gas that is produced by uranium decay in the ground – with cancer, because a house sealed for air-conditioning or heating situated over a radon emission point (a 'radon chimney') will accumulate radon. A person breathing this in over many years is subject to greater risk from lung cancer. However, there is some evidence that in limited doses, or in aerated environments, radon might well have a beneficial effect. At the turn of the century, people resorted to radon-filled caves in Colorado much as their European counterparts took the waters at fashionable spas for the betterment of their health. Yet in at least some cases, those European waters also contained mildly enhanced radiation. The famous hot springs of Bath in Britain, for instance, used for seven thousand years from Neolithic times through the Celtic and Roman periods into recent centuries, are radioactive. The waters of Chalice Well at Glastonbury are likewise said to be radioactive. Even now, old gold and uranium mines in Montana are used by people suffering ailments such as arthritis and diabetes. Sufferers are placed in the old mine workings for timed periods, and cures over a given course of such 'treatments' have been claimed. Further, Dr Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh has taken measurements in 415 US counties and found that in those where the level of radon would have been expected to produce a 25 per cent increase in female lung cancer, cancer incidence was actually down 30 per cent. Similar unexpected inverse relationships have been found in Finland, the UK, and elsewhere.
Geophysical conditions were probably not used on their own for producing mind-change, and are perhaps best seen as factors augmenting other techniques such as trance dancing, drumming, breathing methods, hallucinogens, and so on. Further, relevant geophysical conditions do not exist uniformly throughout the world, any more than do plant hallucinogens, so they could only have been made use of where they occurred.
In overview, then, it seems that ancient peoples sought altered states of consciousness – trance conditions – by many routes, botanical, geophysical and physiological, used both separately and in conjunction with one another. Myth is the reflex of other realms of mind, from dreams to trance states. The very word 'trance' derives from a Latin term meaning 'a passage' or 'a crossing over', as in entrance. The landscape therefore provided literal entrances to the Other world. The ancients' neurological software may have been 'rigged' differently to our own, if Jaynes is right, at some point in the past; they may have sought other techniques when this began to change. All we know for sure is that states of consciousness other than that consensus one we nowadays claim as 'normal' were used. When studying ancient sacred sites and mythologised landscapes, this factor has to be taken most powerfully into account. We have to learn to view them with different eyes.
We also have to understand that when in trance states, it was possible, is possible, to move around in a spirit version of the physical landscape, and the figure in ancient and traditional societies who best exemplifies this ability is the shaman.