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....

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