The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

Once Upon a Time

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

It is a cliché that causes us to smile, yet variations of that phrase will have been used countless times in the distant past, when our ancestors gathered around the storyteller of the tribe to hear whatever tale he (or she) was about to tell.

And research http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645  that was published this week, now tells us that the history of fairy tales turns out to be even longer than anyone suspected, going back to the times of prehistoric tribes. Not that this theory is entirely uncontested, of course.

But I would be surprised if it were untrue.

There have always been storytellers, who performed an important role, especially before the invention of writing. In those days, when all knowledge had to be memorised if it was to be of any use, then the skills of the storyteller in the tribe, someone who was used to organising their thoughts so that they could remember what was important and then recount it to the rest of the tribe, would have been vital for far more than simply entertainment; they would have been essential for the tribe’s survival.

They would have told stories about wild animals; either cautionary tales, or how to hunt them. Stories of skirmishes with other tribes; praising the bravery of their own warriors, and recounting how the other tribe was put to flight, but warning, still, of the danger these other tribes posed.

They must have always speculated on the origins of their world, and come up with the various creation myths. It would be important that all the tribe understood the appropriate rituals they would need to follow to appease the gods and ensure their own welfare.

So these stories would have been a way of sharing information with all the members of the tribe.

Much later, after the invention of writing, these tales began to perform a different function. They would still be used as cautionary tales, but now perhaps aimed more towards children (watch out for cross-dressing wolves and the like), or purely for entertainment.

But in a society where the majority were unable to read, they would remain important.

Throughout history, there has always been a borrowing and reinvention of stories; the myth of a flood that wipes out most of mankind, for example, is found virtually all over the world.

But the difference between a ‘myth’ and a ‘fairy story’ seems a little vague. I suppose the term ‘myth’ does seem to have a little more gravitas.

Many of these stories concern blacksmiths, which might be due to an early awe of those peoples who discovered how to work stronger metal, specifically iron, and fears that they might be using magical or supernatural means to do so. I’ll return to that shortly.

Now let’s take one well-known example of a fairy tale; the story of Snow White plays out both as a royal power struggle, something that has occurred time and again all over the world, and also the classic tale of the wicked stepmother, highlighting the insecurity a child may feel when a parent dies and is replaced by a stranger.

She flees an assassination attempt to find refuge with another people. The fact that they are depicted as dwarves (in the well-known European version) serves to emphasize the fact that they are not her own people.

There are further attempts on her life, but she is finally rescued by a passing prince and lives happily ever after.

Variations of this story crop up across Europe, Turkey, Africa, Asia and America. Whether these tales were passed from tribe to tribe and spread across the world that way, or were invented spontaneously in different parts of the world, it is unlikely we will ever know. It was probably a combination of the two. What is certain, is that they tend to be reinvented regularly.

Stories of mortals striking deals with supernatural beings (i.e. the devil) occur world-wide. What they all have in common is that either the human making it reneges on the deal, and usually finds a way to cheat the supernatural being, or, of course, the devil comes to collect his soul.

It is still a well-used device in literature. There is Goethe’s Faust, and since then many other popular novels on the subject, and we are still happily reinventing this story, as well as all of the other fairy tales, into new stories today.

In Britain, there are numerous folk-tales on this subject, usually concerning blacksmiths who either make pacts with the devil, or who are visited by him in disguise and realise who he really is (the comely maiden with the cloven hooves is often a bit of a giveaway). It usually ends with the devil being grabbed by the nose with red hot pincers and running off screaming. But again, these tales surface from all parts of the British Isles, and are set in times that are contemporary to the story teller. So the fellow telling the tale in an ale-house in a sixteenth century village would mention the blacksmith in a village twenty or so miles away – close enough to be particularly exciting to the listeners, but probably far enough away for there to be no one in his audience who might confidently denounce it as false.

And then, of course, they all lived happily ever after.