Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

All The Lost Words

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Last night I dreamed I sank into the depths of some great ocean.

I went down, right down to the bottom of the sea and

There I saw a wooden chest.

And then a mermaid appeared and smiled, and indicated

That I should open it.

 

But having done as she had asked,

I thought at first I had made a mistake,

For I beheld countless stars shining in the depths of the chest,

Which appeared to be as large and as wide as the sky.

And even as I thought this, those stars rose up and surrounded me

And then, dismayed, I saw them floating up until they reached

The surface of the sea,

Where they were taken by the tides and currents

And swept away to every corner of the Earth.

 

***

 

When I awoke, I felt sad for the loss of those stars.

But then I realised it had been a dream, and

I fell asleep again and dreamed I laboured down a mine.

And I was hot and weary and grimy as I crawled

Through low passages, searching for precious stones.

It was tiresome work but finally,

Rounding a corner, I saw a distant glow and

As I drew near, I saw a gem that shone amidst the darkness.

I found then I carried pick and hammer, and

Any number of chisels, so I set to work.

 

After much labour I held the gemstone in my palm and

The light from this treasure seemed to flow out from my hand,

And illuminate every corner of the mine.

This gladdened my heart, but one appeared who I had been dreading,

Although I had not known it until that very moment,

And they took the jewel from my hand and disappeared,

I knew not where.

 

***

 

And so again I awoke and then

I slept a third time – troubled sleep! – this time

I dreamed I walked on crowded streets

And watched the many who surrounded me

And listened to their talk.

These were the conversations carried on

By every man and woman who had ever lived,

Or ever would.

 

But after time their speech became confusing;

I could no longer distinguish any words, and then

The world fell silent, although they still spoke,

And still I watched and found that I could see their speech,

And all their conversations floated on the breeze

Before me,

For their speech was made of stars and gemstones,

Mingled now with flowers and with ash.

Mingled now with night soil and with butterflies.

 

And I was content with that, and now slept deeply.