Roman Britain on the Big Screen

During a recent conversation over margaritas in the old provincial capital, Peculiar mentioned two new forthcoming movies set in Roman Britain.

There is an added resonance to Americans flocking to films set during the rise and fall of ancient empires as they contemplate their own long-dominant place in the world amid economic upheavals at home and protracted wars abroad.

And I told him about how Troy (2004) subtly supported the archaeological theory of diffusionism.

The movies in question are Centurion and The Eagle of the Ninth.

Both should be regarded as “inspired by” rather than as any attempt at accurate history, I reckon. The so-called”disappearance” of the Ninth Legion is something that historians still squabble about—and bloggers too.

Archaeologists have shown that they were happily in garrison in York in AD 108, which is rather a long time after their supposed demise in Caledonia.

(And it’s amazing how many people think “centurion” means “Roman soldier” rather than what we would call a company commander.)

Clash of the Titans has not fared well on blogs that I read, so I am skipping it.

The Roman province of Britain lasted longer than the United States of America has thus far (just for comparison), so there are plenty of movie-making opportunities left.

The Invention of Scotland…

… or why the kilt was invented for the benefit of factory workers.

Ronald Hutton told some of this story in Witches, Druids And King Arthur, but here is a review of a new book on the invention of Scottish-ness, the late Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History

Knee Deep in the Bloody Ford of History

Sometime around age 15 I took home Vol. 49 of the Harvard Classics from the Fort Collins (Colo.) public library and read for the first time Beowulf and The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel. (The Ring saga is in there too, but I had already encountered it.)

Beowulf
is an understandable story, while The Destruction at least introduced me to the concept of geis, which is actually fairly troublesome when you are that age and trying to figure out where the walls are.

Not until my undergraduate years did I discover The Gododdin, which is totally different from the above. Like petals on a blood-soaked daisy, it is a series of short elegies for warriors who fought and died (more or less to the last man) at the battle of Catterick, c. 570 CE in what is now Yorkshire. (Poetic samples are at the link above.)

There is no narrative; it is as though you had short poems about Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, George Washington, Daniel Morgan, Benedict Arnold, Baron Von Steuben, John Paul Jones, etc., without needing to tell the reader about the American Revolution.

Many critics as well as authors of fiction based on the poem tend to create dichotomies about it such as these:

  • It’s the Romano-Celtic (mostly Christian) British versus the (Pagan) Anglo-Saxons, with the Celts carrying faded remnants of Imperial Britannia and the Saxons representing ignorance and barbarism.
  • It represents a nonlinear “Celtic” way of thinking versus the linearity of, say, Beowulf.
  • It is typical of how glorifying “beautiful losers” is part of the Celtic soul or something.
  • It demonstrates the tactical deficiency of mounted fighters without stirrups against the Anglo-Saxon “shield wall.” (But cf. Battle of Hastings.)

Recently I picked up John Koch’s The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (University of Wales Press, 1997).

I have no background in the Welsh language, so I cannot really follow his discussions of changes in phonetics and orthography over many centuries, nor the 24 types of medieval Welsh poetic meter, for example.

But I do appreciate the point he made about 6th century versus medieval nationalism. In the 6th or 7th centuries, there was none. What is now England and Scotland contained many little kingdoms — and yes, some were ruled by Old Welsh-speakers and some by Old English-speakers, but they did not line up neatly on ethnic lines.

He argues that there were other Celto-British forces, allied with the Saxons, on the winning side at Catterick, and that another Old Welsh poem represents their heroic versifying about their victory. So much for beautiful losers.

Later, by the Middle Ages (13th century), when the line between England and Wales was drawn on the map and a greater sense of separation existed, The Gododdin was cast as Celts versus Saxons and used to reinforce that sense of separation.

Once again, the lesson is to be careful about projecting our categories backwards on the past, especially on the distant and mostly unrecorded past.

Ancient British religion–stranger than we imagined

Were the heads of dead children really a memorial?

In the depths of the cave, there’s the first glimpse of the trapped pool of water– this was the bridge to another world, the high altar of a Bronze Age basilica.

Any BBC Scotland viewers, let me know what you think of the program.

Wicca: trendy, phony, and Constitutionally protected

If I were not teaching rhetoric, I would not have found Michael Medved’s column on Sgt. Patrick Stewart’s pentacle memorial while looking for a good political column for my students to analyze.

After insulting the religion–“it’s a trendy, phony potpourri of druidical, primitive and New Age elements that’s more a pagan cult than an organized faith”–Medved grudgingly admits that “the Constitution leaves no room for the government to discriminate against its adherents.”

Uh, OK, thanks, I guess. And we are a Pagan cult, in fact, if you want to be technical about it.

Meanwhile, his fellow Townhall.com columnist Dennis Praeger, who has been bent out of shape over a Muslim Congressman wanting to take his oath of office on the Koran, responds to his critics and adds,

I am a Jew (a non-denominational religious Jew, for the record), and I would vote for any Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, atheist, Jew, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Wiccan, Confucian, Taoist or combination thereof whose social values I share.

A couple of nights ago I guest-lectured via telephone to Jeffrey Kaplan’s class in new religious movements at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

I said that I thought that Paganism–Wicca in particular–was becoming the new designated Other on the American religious scene–and these columnists bear me out. Get used to “What about Wicca?”

However, I expect that it will be a long time before the first Wiccan elected to the House of Representatives has to worry about on which book to swear an oath. For the record, no holy book is required anyway.

Amtrak Heaven, Amtrak Hell–and all for Pagan Studies

Regular readers know that M. and I like train travel. We saw both sides of it on our just-completed trip to Washington, DC.

The Southwest Chief was on time to La Junta, Colorado, where we meet it, but the ticket agent was muttering about possible stoppage due to high winds.

Somewhere in western Kansas, we ended up parked for five hours. Apparently there is an Amtrak regulation against prairie travel when winds exceed 50 mph, and according to a crew member, winds at the Dodge City airport were 63 mph. Can those double-decker Superliner cars blow over?

Late to Chicago, we missed our connection on Capitol Limited to Washington, but did make it onto the Lakeshore Limited, which had been held in the station. Thus began the great Rust Belt tour: northern Indiana and Ohio, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and down the Hudson River to New York City. This time, our sleeper was one of the one-level Viewliner cars, designed to fit into Penn Station.

I could never keep count of all the old brick warehouses, piles of scrap metal, and empty factories. What is the quarter-mile long three-story white brick building in Utica, New York, that looks empty? There is just so much stuff in this country.

We arrived in New York about 8 p.m. and an Amtrak representative promised us seats on a regional train down to Washington, DC, which would have gotten us there by midnight–eight hours late, but we could live with it.

But what she did not tell us was that a freight train had derailed south of Baltimore, interrupting the “catenary” electrical system and stopping commuter trains in that sector. We got this sad news from the conductor somewhere around Trenton: our train would stop at Philadelphia.

It was too late for a Greyhound bus–the last one had left at 10:15 p.m. The rental car counters were all closed. Amtrak’s Philadelphia agents were flailing around, first promising buses and then saying that there were none, and that Baltimore was worse, anyway.

Eventually, like some other passengers, we partnered with a third traveler and rented a cab. Yes, from Phillie to Washington by taxi, driven by an immigrant Indian driver who knew how to get onto Interstate 95 south, but after that had no idea where he was going.

Neither M. nor I knew our way around either. Fortunately the other guy knew the main roads–and somewhere in the south part of downtown, the brotherhood of cabdrivers was invoked: our driver pulled alongside a DC cab, rolled down his window, and shouted [assume melodious Indian accent]: “Where is Hotel Washington?” And soon we were there, heads hitting the pillow about 3 a.m.

And so I slept until about 10:30 a.m. and then trudged off to the Convention Center, arriving late for the all-day Pagan studies conference, but delighted to be there and able to say that I had paid all that money out of my devotion to Pagan studies.

It was totally worth it.

On the return trip, we were only slightly late into Chicago and right on time in La Junta. Boarding the Southwest Chief in Chicago, we looked around and realized that we were in the same “roomette” in the same sleeping car that we had just vacated six hours earlier. That never happened before. Perhaps it was . . . a sign.

Thursday, Nov. 16, apparently was no picnic for air travelers either. I spoke to one attendee who had been dropped in Pittsburgh and sent by bus to Baltimore. Others had similar stories. The travel system is complex and fragile. One thunderstorm at an airport can back up air travel all around the country, so I cannot be too hard on Amtrak for its high-wind policy.

On the other hand, I have been talking with Customer Relations and will be seeking some sort of refund, having bought Chicago-Washington sleeper tickets but having been dumped in Philadelphia.

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A fall from a height

I am in Colorado Springs today, where famous evangelical pastor Ted Haggard’s fall dominates the news.

Frankly, to borrow the name of a better-known blog, I just don’t “get” his kind of religion. A 14,000-member megachurch? Why? So you can sit on your butt and be preached at and sung at among a huge crowd of strangers?

My dislike for Haggard’s approach is more than theological. It is partly aesthetic–the whole megamall megachurch entertainment thing. And it’s partly because of the way that New Lifers regarded the most interesting parts of Colorado Springs (such as the Old North End and Tejon Street) as controlled by Satan or something. I wrote elsewhere that they do not understand the gods of the city, only the gods of the suburban shopping mall.

One excerpt: “[Jeff] Sharlet makes a good case for New Lifers as exurban parasites, taking the services that the city provides but being unwilling to pay for them, either financially or psychically.”

Anyway, he is toast now, although there will probably be some sort of public-repentence-as-career move. From a Christian perspective, LaShawn Barber’s coverage is about the best.

And that’s the news from “Fort God.”

Some Hae Meat

On Saturday the 24th of January, a colleague invited me and the notorious M.C. to the “Burns Nicht Supper,” an annual event in many locations around the world, celebrating the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Go here for a typical evening’s program, Alberta version.

“You’ll see,” she said. “The Presbyterians provide the organization, and the Pagans provide the music and energy” . . . or words to that effect.

I tied on my dress Gordon necktie (Victorian invention, all that specific clan tartan stuff); the notorious M.C. combed her red hair and dressed in black, and off we went, to the dining hall of The Retired Enlisted Association in Colorado Springs, a suitably banner-hung and martial venue. Aside from one singer/guitarist and his companion, who set off my . . . what’s the Pagan equivalent of “gaydar”? . . . I would say that the Presbyterian influence dominated the evening.

All the elements were there: the haggis was piped, the toasts were drunk, and the wee laddies and lassies danced around basket-hilted broadswords as large as they were. I give the Scottish Society of the Pike’s Peak Region credit for this: they are not afraid to let children handle large edged weapons. Imagine such a thing in a public school in this safety-crazed age.

But eventually it all wore on us, and we slipped away before “Auld Lang Syne” was sung, pleading the long drive home.

The same Scottish Society of the Pike’s Peak Region will be “kirkin’ the tartan” in our former home of Manitou Springs come April 3. A little research reveals that this seemingly ancient “tradition” was invented early on in World War II to build American support for the British cause, in the months before the Pearl Harbor attack brought us into the war. Now it has become a major American and Canadian tourist event: here is one example from Nova Scotia.

As for the Pagans, I think that they are at the Highland Games that are spreading everywhere.