Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dragons and Yews

Sigurd slaying the dragon

Sometimes a horn sang out,
an eager war song, but
the troop all waited, watching
along the water the kin
of snakes, strange sea dragons,
swimming in the deep or
lying on the steep slopes--
water monsters, serpents, and
wild beasts, such as the ones
that appear on a dangerous
sea journey
in the morning time.
When those creatures heard
the war horn's note
they hurried away
bitter and angry.
Taken from a translation of Beowulf by Dr.David Breeden
Sometimes when we view history it is best to go back to storytelling to capture for one moment the imagination of past societies. Here in our present time we analysis with such thoroughness, that the life and soul is taken from the events that moulded our ancestors.
So it is with this story,the story of Nickers Pool, Nykerpole at Cunetio or Mildenhall. The first story I had read about this pool said that a small settlement of felons lived nearby and that their ghostly presence had caused wraiths to appear in the nearby River Kennet, the ghosts tumbling around on top of the water.
The second story told of Nickers or Nicor's well, now here we go back to Saxon sea-monsters, for nicor means just that and like the above translated verse from Beowulf, relates to dragons and monsters of the Saxon world. So here we have some evil creature living in the River Kennet that came out at night perhaps and terrified the people at Mildenhall. Strangely it is similar to a story in West Wales about a prehistoric stone cairn, though in this case the water-monster was a beaver.
A body of a Saxon woman was found in one of the Roman wells excavated near this site, it would seem that she was murdered and then thrown down the well and perhaps her disappearance adds to monsters coming out of the river at night.

Here be dragons

The Yew at Alton Prior

The Saxon presence round this part of Wiltshire is very strong, and perhaps the best place to understand it is in the Vale of Pewsey, along the road by Martinsell hill, or up on the old Ridgeway next to Adams Grave and the great Wansdyke, But for the moment we shall stop in the valley bottom by the two churches Alton Barnes and Alton Prior, situated by a small flowing stream.
There is magic here, time has been trapped for a moment, a small path leading from one church to another and there is a quiet sanctity to the place. In Alton Prior church there is an old supposedly 1700 yew tree, which of course puts us right back into the Roman period of 300 ad.
Why two churches you may ask, for that explanantion you must turn to John Chandler's
words here.
He describes Alton Prior church yard as a 'tree yard' with its great and beautiful Yew tree. For it is indeed beautiful, a soft creamy pink inner wood, sensually smooth to the touch, and the twisted contortions of the tree have a vibrant life of their own. Were yew trees sacred in their own right, perhaps with their evergreen foliage, they were one of the sacred trees of the Celtic people, and this relic in Alton Priors may have had predecessors in the Iron Age.
This is not so fanciful as it may appear for the famous well at Glastonbury when excavated, (and you have to go down many feet to expose the original Roman well,) also had a yew very near.

In Thomas Packenham's book Meeting with Remarkable Trees, there are glorious old yews a couple said to be dating back to before the christian church took dominance, and were 'druid' trees, one is at Selbourne, home to the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White. This great tree was blown down in the storms of 1990, but the vicar at the time, had the great crown cut off, and the trunk was lifted into place by crane to reside ivy clad like a stone monolith in the church yard.

the yew's inner wood

Information on the Nykerpoole was taken from the following link;


Now there is another story told by Nennius (an 8th AD Welsh monk), who though his stories are often thought of as mythlike and foolish, does tell an exceedingly good tale. Dragons dreams can foretell a future event, and in one of the chapters of Nennius's book, he tells the story of a young boys dream. Nennius had access to 5th century books, and this story is about Vortigen, who had found a young boy call Ambrose, the boy had a dream in which he saw a tent at the bottom of a pool, in this tent slept two dragons , a red one and a green one. They woke up and fought, and the red dragon who represented the saxons overcame the green dragon who represented the British, the tale in its full version from Nennius is told here......

"a pool; come and dig:" they did so, and found the pool. "Now," continued he, "tell me what is in it;" but they were ashamed, and made no reply. "I," said the boy, "can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;" they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions," What is in the vases?" they were silent: "there is a tent in them," said the boy; "separate them, and you shall find it so;" this being done by the king's command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, "There are," said he, "two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;" they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; "consider attentively," said the boy, "what they are doing." The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king, "I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Avebury - Jacquetta Hawkes

To continue with Jacquetta Hawke's writing, her words on Avebury, what she then saw at Avebury 70 odd years ago, thousands of tourists, is still seen today, as they traipse round paying homage. Strangely she does'nt have much to say about Silbury except perhaps
"there it stands a challenge to science, and a proof that faith can build mountains with the help of no more than bone shovels and antler picks"

Time drifts on but Avebury still manages to keep its air of mystery, its secrets safely kept, Silbury is the same, experts circle and pronounce their verdicts, amateurs theorise but the essence of truth remains stubbornly hidden.

" Learned men and kings (she mentions a testimonial in the Red Lion here), still go to Avebury, but they are supplemented by thousands of tourists. This flow of visitors to ancestral monuments is curiously reminiscent of that of medieval pilgrims to famous shrines; though without faith or doctrine, their fundamental needs and purposes are, I believe, very much the same.
However this may be, there is no doubt that in the summer months visitors swarm at Avebury, and the archaeological traveller may prefer to go there in other seasons when the place relapses peacefully into the downland countryside. Let him go in early spring when the wind still blows chilly across the chalk hills but the beeches are grape coloured with thrusting buds, or in autumn when these same trees are no more than a glowing aftermath of summer in the pale nostalgic air, and he can wander in pursuit of earthworks and stones among cottage gardens heavy with the last dahlias and chrysantheums."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stonehenge By Jacquetta Hawkes

One of my favourite authors is Jacquetta Hawkes, an archaeologist who not only loved the ancient world but described it with extraordinary imagination, here she writes of Stonehenge...

The traveller who wishes to approach Stonehenge most fittingly should keep along this road, crossing the little river Till at Winterbourne Stoke. As he reaches the quiet crossroads on the summit, he will be on the edge of one of the greatest, and certainly the richest, congregation of burial mounds in all Britain. Here was a kind of vast scattered cemetery on ground hallowed by its proximity to the renowned sanctuary. Barrows cluster round Stonehenge on all sides - 300 0f them - but here to the west is the greatest concentration and the area most sequestered from the blighting military activities of Amesbury........
When the ritual and whatever it accompaniment may have been of masks, effigies and offerings have vanished so long ago, when there is no stir left of emotion and the ghosts which emotion keeps alive, when the verypeople responsible for raising these mounds have been overwhelmed, absorbed and forgotten, then their detailed study can become lifeless enough.
Better perhaps to look at them with knowledge but with knowledge unexpressed, these round barrows that are like the floating bubbles of events drowned in time.
Away to the right of the road the bubbles ride the downs in lines and clusters. First on Normanton Down immediately above Stonehenge where some of the richest burials of the Wessex invaders have been uncovered, then further away the great conglomerations of Wilsford and Lake. So we approach Britain's most famous prehistoric monument through crowding satellites attracted towards it by the magnetism of its own holiness......
...... Stonehenge is concentrated into a very small space and as a result it seems to have grown upwards. Partly because of this concentration colour plays a great part in the architectural quality of the sanctuary. The huge blocks of sarsen are a pale silver grey and in many lights they stand out with a strange pallor against the duler tones of the downs, an effect seen with heightened intensity in Constable's marvellous painting of the stones enveloped in storm-clouds.
.......We may feel that publicity has destroyed the spirit of this too famous building; yet once among the stones all but the most stubborn resistant moods must surrender to their power.
The massive, roughly squared blocks of sarsen seem to possess a forceful presence which asserts itself within the human consciousness. Their silver grey colour fills the eye but now shows itself to be variegated with dark lichens and with the shadow of the grotesque fissures and hollows worn by centuries of rain and frost.....

Prehistoric and Roman Monuments in England and Wales - Jacquetta Hawkes 1951

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Ruin translated by Michael Alexander

Well-wrought this wall; Wierds broke it.
The stronghold burst......

Snapped rooftrees,towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,
..............Rime scoureth gatetowers
...............rime on mortar.

Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.
...............And the wielders and wrights?
Earthgrip holds them - gone, long gone,
fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed.
...............Wall stood,
grey lichen, red stone, kings fell often,
stood under storms, high arch crashed -
stands yet the wallstone, hacked by weapons,
by files grim-ground....
....shone the old skilled work
....sank to loam crust.

Mood quickened mind, and a man of wit,
cunning in rings, bound bravely the wallbase
with iron, a wonder.

Bright were the buildings, halls where springs ran,
high, horngabled, much throng noise;
these many mead halls men filled
with loud cheerfulness; Wierd changed that.

Came day of pestilence, on all sides men fell dead,
death fetched off the flower of the people;
where they stood to fight, waste places
and on the acropolis, ruins.
.............. Hosts who would build again
shrank to the earth. Therefore are these courts dreary
and that red arch twisteth tiles,
wryeth from roof-ridge, reacheth groundwards....
Broken blocks.......

.............. There once many a man
mood-glad, goldbright, of gleams varnished,
flushed with wine-pride, flashing war-gear,
gazed on wrought gemstones, on gold, on silver,
on wealth, held and hoarded, on light filled amber,
on this bright burgh of broad dominion.

Stood stone houses; wide streams welled
hot from source, and a wall all caught
in its bright bosom, that the baths were
hot at hall's hearth; that was fitting....

Thence hot streams, loosed, ran over hoar stone
unto the ring-tank...... is a kingly thing

But No Ruined Stones

The inward gates of a bird are always open.
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man's are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird's can be…

Hugh MacDiarmid, 'On a Raised Beach'

We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor;
palace or pigsty. There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world
but no ruined stones.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

William Morris - The Story of the Unknown Church

...moreover, through the boughs and trunks of the poplars, we caught glimpses of the great golden corn sea, waving, waving, waving, for leagues and leagues; and among the corn grew burning scarlet poppies and blue corn-flowers; and the corn-flowers were so blue, that they gleamed, and seemed to burn with a steady light, as they grew beside the poppies among the gold of the wheat. Through the corn ran a blue river and always green meadows and lines of tall poplars followed its windings.....

The Path - Poppies

Amongst green fields
Brief moments of scarlet magic
fretted with sky-blue flowers
hanging heavy
with pollened bees
High above grey sarsens
lie hidden amidst trees
guarding the bones.