Three Items about the Dead

Whose Bones Are Those?

The Halloween news rush brought item about a new unit established at an Oxford college to perform cross-disciplinary investigations of religious relics

In what is thought to be the first research body of its type in the world, the unit, based in Keble College, will bring together experts in radiocarbon dating, genetics, osteology —the study of bones — chemistry, geography and archaeology with leading authorities in ancient Greek and Hebrew, Byzantine studies, ecclesiastical history and theology.

I am not sure what tone to take with this — not my saints after all — and it really does not matter to me if the skull of St. Cuthbert or whatever turns out to be someone else. One on level, this is interesting archaeology. On another, it feels like a re-run of the 16th century — the “stripping of the altars” and all that — but with “functional” science (instead of Protestantism) taking on “superstitious” religion (instead of Catholicism).

So why now? Is there a culture war motive, with “leading authorities in . . . . theology” participating in the disenchantment of the world? On the other hand, they hint that they may have found John the Baptist.

Four Scary Places

Still thinking about the dead? So are the editors at Indian Country Today, which ran this piece titled ” Get Spooked! 4 Scary Places to Visit This – or Any – Halloween,” on Friday last.

Halloween is the holiday when we face fear and get right in the face of the supernatural. Children wear costumes and adults seek out opportunities to confront the unknown or, some would say, the misunderstood. In that spirit, we offer four places you can go to laugh at your deepest anxieties. Or scream.

But why would you scream? Read it and find out.

Beads of copal (Wikimedia Commons).

Paganism at the Public Library

If I had time to drive over to Pueblo, Colo., today, I could view the winners of the public library’s Día de los muertos altar contest. Unfortunately, they were supposed to be set up at 1 p.m., so set-up is in progress as I write, with winners announced at 3:30 p.m.—and everything dismantled by 4:30.

The entry form states,”Altars judged on overall appearance, originality, and creativity reference [sic] to traditions of Día de los Muertos.” Battery-operated candles only, please.

The instruction sheet goes on to tell you that you may commemorate “ancestors past, celebritys [sic] or beloved pets.” So maybe Vlad the Impaler could count as a celebrity, as he did at the university on the mesa in 2007?

As I wrote in 2011, I am sensing some tension between people who want the altars to be done only in some correct Mexican-ish manner, and those wanting to take the tradition in new directions.

The instructions are quite specific as to how you are supposed to represent Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire, and of course copal incense (not burning, though) is recommended. (I like copal too.)

So I regret that I cannot see these altars, but I appreciate that the library is teaching an effectively Pagan tradition. My gardening priestess, however, wants me to haul a big round of bale of spoiled hay from a neighbor’s ranch for winter mulch this afternoon, however. That’s another Samhain ritual.

On Not Finding What You Were Looking For in Foreign Places

Take the door to the Dutch Consulate, but go up four flights.

Take the door to the Dutch Consulate, but go up four flights.

If you are the kind of traveler looking for history, you do not always find the history that you were looking for.

I learned that lesson years ago when M. and I went on a month-long honeymoon in Ireland. Newly Celtophile, I was all excited about seeing Neolithic monuments and Celtic Ogham stones and all that sort of thing — and we did — but I was smacked unexpectedly by the late 18th century.

It was such a powerful emotional experience — maybe reincarnational, I can’t say — with synchronicities that continued months later, that I can still feel it in my bones today.

Spending part of September in a little apartment in the old town of Corfu, an island on the west of Greece, I knew that I was visiting a place with a resiliant culture that has, thanks to its geographic location, experienced a lot of conflict. For instance, during World War II, the town was bombed by the Italians, the Germans, and the Allies at different times. Yet today the streets are full of German and British tourists. And there are great Italian restaurants.

Of course, I went looking for the Classical Pagan stuff, which is there but not emphasized nor extensive. And the Unexpected happened too: not a “reincarnational” whammy experience as in Ireland, but I found myself continually drawn to an era and events that were not really on my mind when I set out on the journey. Once or twice the ground shifted a little under my feet.

As the famous Mississippi novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Except that it would take a platoon of William Faulkners to do justice to Corfu.

More to come on this.

Pagan Superheroes Cut Down Forest, Regret It Later

A newly discovered piece of the epic of Gilgamesh includes a sort of ecological theme. It’s in a museum in Kurdish territory—another reason why they need their own country.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest narratives in the world, got a surprise update last month when the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq announced that it had discovered 20 new lines of the Babylonian-Era poem of gods, mortals, and monsters. Since the poem has existed in fragments since the 18th century BC, there has always been the possibility that more would turn up. And yet the version we’re familiar with — the one discovered in 1853 in Nineveh — hasn’t changed very much over recent decades. The text remained fairly fixed — that is, until the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and the intense looting that followed yielded something new.

Read the rest.

New Paintings Found in Petra

Detail of a winged child playing the flute, before and after cleaning. Photograph: Courtesy of the Courtauld Institute

Detail of a winged child playing the flute, before and after cleaning. Photograph: Courtesy of the Courtauld Institute

Some exceptional paintings from the Hellenistic era have been found at the ancient city of Petra.

Virtually no Hellenistic paintings survive today, and fragments only hint at antiquity’s lost masterpieces, while revealing little about their colours and composition, so the revelation of these wall paintings in Jordan is all the more significant. They were created by the Nabataeans, who traded extensively with the Greek, Roman and Egyptian empires and whose dominion once stretched from Damascus to the Red Sea, and from Sinai to the Arabian desert.

They are full of flowers, insects, and human figures, all of which qualifies as “idolatry” to the fanatical Muslims, so let’s hope that the Islamic State does not roll over Jordan at any time.

Responding to Attacks on Pagan Shrines

_85298986_palmyra_before_after_624On the 20th of August, I posted about “Khalid al-Asaad and the War on Pagan Idolatry.” He was the Syrian archaeologist beheaded by the Muslim fanatics of the Islamic State, their reward for his devoting his professional life to preserving and studying the ancient (and Pagan) city of Palmyra.

On the first of September, the BBC displayed before-and-after satellite images of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Responding to the Islamic State’s campaign of destruction against Pagan holy sites, blogger Galina Kraskova writes,

We are horrified, and rightly so, by the human rights violations this filth commits, but we should be equally horrified, if not more so, by the destruction of ancient spaces and places of worship. The destruction of a place like Palmyra, isn’t just the destruction of an ancient building, it’s an attack on the future and what it might be, what it can become. It’s a severing of any link with a pre-Islamic past, and likewise a severing of possibilities for the future. In blowing up the Temple of Ba’al Shamin and the Temple of Bel, they’re damning future generations and that is an attack far more long lasting in its impact, than simply the loss, however grievous it might be, of an antique site.

She offers some suggestions about what to do, both on the “outer” and the “inner” planes, and warns that militant monotheism comes in various disguies (let us not forget the non-theistic mono-ideologies as well).

And for background on Ba’al Shamin and Bel, see this post by Tess Dawson.

If there is a blessing to be gathered out of the ashes of the wanton acts of evil Daesh [the Islamic State] has done here, it is that polytheists are gathering together, protesting in solidarity. I hope and I pray that for every temple they threaten, and for every mine they plant in these dusty, dry, decaying ruins, seven more living, new shrines or temples will spring up. As great as our fury is, we may feel drawn to hurl curses upon the heads of those who would threaten these sacred places. I do not say “do not curse them”—by all means, if you feel moved to do so, be my guest—but I firmly think that there are more important things that need doing first and foremost.

Read the rest. These horrid actions should remind us that if IS could get us, they would treat us contemporary Pagans just the way that they treated the Yezidis.

“Trace What It Means To Be Celtic”

In their book Pop Pagans: Paganism and Popular Music, Donna Weston and Andy Bennett use the term “cardiac Celts . . . people who feel in their heart that they are Celtic.”

They are not the only ones who use it — but I wonder if this new British Museum exhibit will name-check Marion Bowman, who teaches religious studies at The Open University, the scholar who first employed the term in an  essay  included in the book, Paganism Today 1)Marion Bowman, Cardiac Celts: Images of the Celts in Contemporary British Paganism,” iPaganism Today, ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman (London: Thorsons, 1995), 242–51.

I still look at “Celtic” as identifying a language group — to be Welsh, for instance, is an ethnicity, but “Celtic” is not. That term covers too much time and space to mean anything useful as an ethnic tag. Nevertheless, since the late 18th century, there have been many attempts to use it that way, and I suspect that this exhibit — which I will probably never see — will examine them.

Maybe I can get the published catalog, if there is one.

Notice how drumming is always the aural cue for “barbarians.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Marion Bowman, Cardiac Celts: Images of the Celts in Contemporary British Paganism,” iPaganism Today, ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman (London: Thorsons, 1995), 242–51.

New Grange Before It Was “Restored”

“Late 19th century: This atmospheric shot of the passage tomb entrance shows a man emerging from its dark interior. It was taken by R. J. Welch sometime in the late 19th century and it shows an overgrown and partially disturbed mound. Although the roofbox, through which the winter solstice sun rays should pass, is completely blocked, its decorated stone lintel can still be partially discerned c. 1 m above the entrance passageway” (Irish Archaeology).

Before excavation and restoration (think “concrete wall”) began in the 1960s, the famous Irish Neolithic temple of New Grange  (older than the Pyramids!) looked quite different. The Irish Archaeology site offers sketches and photos from the 18th century forward.

Khalid al-Asaad and the War on Pagan Idolatry

Wouter Hanegraaff, professsor of Western esotericism at the University of Amsterdam, has written a moving blog post on larger implications of the death of Khalid al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist recently beheaded by the Muslim fighters of the so-called Islamic State. (He was a Muslim too, of course.)

We are told that Khaled Asaad was murdered for the crime of “overseeing ‘idols’ in the ancient city” and “attending ‘infidel’ conferences as Syrian representative”. This makes him one of the most recent casualties in a culture war that has been raging for thousands of years: that of exclusive monotheism against its mortal enemy, “pagan idolatry”. We should not delude ourselves: historically, our “own” dominant Western culture has not been on Khaled Asaad’s side but overwhelmingly on the side of his murderers. The idea that paganism and idolatry is the ultimate abomination that must be rooted out and destroyed, along with anybody who practices or sympathizes with it, goes to the heart of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic identity. And moreover, (pace Peter Gay c.s.) it goes to the heart of Enlightenment rationalism as well, which inherited the Protestant view of paganism and idolatry.

Read it all. For the news story, here is the New York Times version.

A Viking is Nothing without his Oar

nydam
The Nydam ship was found in southern Jutland in 1863. It has recently been dated via dendrochronology to 310–320 CE, and the deposition in the bog where it was found is likely to have taken place 340–350 CE. The picture shows a German replica of the ship, built in 1935.1)Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963). (Photograph in Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landsmuseum.)

Norwegian scholar Eidar Heide tracks down the origin of the term “Viking” in an etymological article. Like a lot of people, I had thought it came from a word for “bay” or “inlet,” the first proposed word origin that he examines.

Not so, he argues, it’s all about the rowing — and the word itself actually predates the era of “the Vikings” as we typically think of them (PDF file, in English).

Note to readers: the abstract is at the end of the paper, not the beginning.

Scroll down here for a link to others of his articles on the history and archaeology of Viking ships, some in English and some in Norweigan.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963).

She’s Dead, She’s Female, She Must Be the Witch!

The 1,400-year-old-burial (News Team International).

There is a well-known set of standing stones in England called the Rollright Stones — actually, a dolmen plus a “circle” plus a larger standing stone, believed to have been erected at different times in the long Neolithic period.

So they have had at least four thousand years to accrue folklore, not to mention for the name to change from an Old English meaning of “the land of Hrolla,” referring to the surrounding area, to something suggesting rolling. For example, they are often seen as “the king” and his “knights,” all turned to stone. The ceremonial magician Wiliam Gray, who was creating rituals and texts in the 1960s and 1970s, with some overlap with new Wiccan groups, wrote a book of ritual based on them, The Rollright Ritual.

Comes now a metal detector hobbyist who finds an ancient (but not as ancient as the stones) skeleton there. This news story gets a lot wrong: the stones are Neolithic, not Bronze Age (big difference1)But see Ethan Doyle White’s comment ), a patera 2)Since the patera was used for pouring ritual offerings, I have long assumed that it is the direct ancestor of the paten, which holds the bread in the Christian Eucharist. is not both Saxon and Roman, but Roman (but not for “cooking wine”), and there is absolutely no reason to say that this is the “Rollright Witch.”

No wonder archaeologists mistrust the news media.

But here is something interesting: the reporter — who cannot even be bothered to Google “patera” or “Neolithic”—a fully willing to buy into the “ancient witch” myth, to the point of quoting unnamed “experts” that this apparently high-status person was the legendary witch, in other words, that there were 7th century or whenever, high-status female witches buried among standing stones. All it lacks is some sort of Marion Zimmer Bradley-esque college of priesteesses. Maybe this is the Bradley-ization of archaeology reporting in the popular press.

Notes   [ + ]

1. But see Ethan Doyle White’s comment
2. Since the patera was used for pouring ritual offerings, I have long assumed that it is the direct ancestor of the paten, which holds the bread in the Christian Eucharist.