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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Oxhide myths

Penny Drayton

Following up the recent interest in liminality it seems appropriate to look at a specific aspect of mythology which manifests a concern with both physical and Otherworldly boundaries. Let us view first the legends associated with three prehistoric sites, scattered throughout Britain.

One such legend relates to Caistor in Lincolnshire. 'It was here that Hengist begg'd so much ground of King Vortigern as he was able to encompass with an oxhide, who, not well understanding his meaning, granted him his request, thinking that he meant no more than he could cover with an oxhide. But Hengist cut it all into small thongs, and by that means encompast in round about a great compass of land . ..' So recounts the diarist Abraham de la Pryme after his visit on 19th June 1695. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth had noted that Vortigern gave the Saxon leader Hengist a large possession of land in Lindsey and later in the same chapter recounts the oxhide story, although it is ambiguous as to whether he is referring to Caistor or to Tonge, near Sittingbourne in Kent. Later writers such as Pryme have firmly linked the tale to Caistor. The site is taken to be the remains of a Roman bastion at 113:116012.

The Maiden Bower at Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire (165:9922) is the remains of a small iron age hill fort, and evidence has been recovered of a fierce battle in the middle of the iron age. It is on the site of a much early neolithic causewayed camp; quite what causewayed camps were used for is unclear but their main function seems to have been for ritual rather than, say, defence. One plausible suggestion is that they were the places used for excarnation of corpses, a topic to which I will return.

However, according to a legend recorded in 1904, the site originated when a queen cut a bull's hide into thongs, joined them end to end and laid them out as a circle. The king then ordered that a ditch and rampart was to be dug along this line.

A similar legend survives for a small stone circle situated dramatically on the hills above Llanbrynmair (Powys). It is known as Lled Croen yr Ycht, which translates as 'Width of the oxhide'. (Any Mercian Mysteries readers who were on the The Ley Hunter Moot field trip in 1991 will recall being taken to this site by Lawrence Main.) Some archaeologists have interpreted this stone ring as the remains of a low retaining wall from a round barrow. Nineteenth century tradition holds that this was the grave of long- horned ox who died of grief at being parted from his mate. When he died he was skinned and his hide stretched on the ground and surrounded by a circle of stones.

A comparable tale was told by Virgil of the founding of Carthage in antiquity. When Dido fled from Tyre and landed on the coast of Africa she bought from the inhabitants as much ground as could be encompassed by a bull's hide. This she proceeded to cut into strips. The Greeks knew Carthage as Byrsa, which means 'hide' (although the word is probably a corruption of the Hebrew name Bozrah, meaning fortification).

A Methodist missionary to China, Samuel Pollard (1864-1915) bought a site at a stone gateway in the Miao villages which as 'as much as a cowhide would enclose after it had been cut into narrow strips.'

It has been speculated that the Anglo-Saxon unit of land measurement, the hide, was linked to the roots of this myth. However, the Old English word hid is thought to be derived from hiwan, meaning 'household', as it was considered the unit of land which would support one family [1]. Hide, in the sense of animal skin, comes from OE hyd. In a neat turn of phrase, J.U. Powell's article in Folklore in 1933 observes:

'As well might we connect 'ham' . . . which is often found in place-names, with 'ham' meaning the hinder part of a pig, because waiters in the Vauxhall Gardens were, according to the wits of the time, supposed to be able to carve a ham into slices thin enough to cover an acre.' [2]

Oxhides and property limits

Nevertheless, these legends could well be a debased form of traditional law and lore concerning land ownership. Medieval Scandinavian practice has been recorded thus:

'. . . Property limits might be established by a person getting as much land as he could walk or ride round or plough in one day, or as much as one could shoot or throw something across, or as far as one could carry the boundary stone, or as much as could be covered by strips from a calf skin.' [3; emphasis added]

We are led to understand that by cutting a single hide into thin strips a lengthy thong could be created, which would enclose an area of land significantly greater than that of the hide itself.

A variant of this occurs in a French tale redolent with Otherworldy images. After getting lost while hunting, a young nobleman from Poitou, Raymond, meets three maidens in glimmering white dresses, with long waving golden hair and faces of inexpressible beauty. One of these, Melusina, advises Raymond on a way to avoid suspicion for accidentally killing the Lord who had adopted him. They talk till daybreak and, before he leaves her, obtains from her a promise to be his. 'She then told him to ask of a kinsman, Bertram, as a gift, so much ground around the fountain where they had met, as could be covered by a stag's hide: upon this place she undertook to erect a magnificent palace. 'Bertram readily granted the land he asked for, but was not a little vexed when he found that, by cutting the hide into threads, Raymond had succeeded in making it include a considerable area.' Raymond and Melusina marry and further Otherworldly events transpire. [4]

Such activities suggest that roughly circular areas of land are being defined. When we consider that there is clear archaeological evidence for a high proportion of early British churches being situated within roughly-circular churchyards it is reasonable to suppose that this is maintaining a pre-christian preference for sacred enclosures. While there is no evidence to link circular churchyards with oxhide myths, there may be a congruence of beliefs behind both practices.

Oxhides and burial practices

If there are apparently clear links between oxhides and the liminality of physical places, then oxhides (and the hides of similar Otherworldy creatures such as stags) also seem to have been a part of another aspect of liminality: extraordinary funereal rites.

The poem about the quest for the golden fleece, The Argonautica (written around 250 BCE by Apollonius of Rhodes), describes the landing of Jason's companions on a beach of Colchis called Circea. Here grew abundant tamarisks and willow trees - and corpses were tied to the tree tops. Apollonius explains that even in his day, when a male inhabitant of Colchis died, they hung him from a tree outside the town, wrapped in an untanned ox's skin; the women, by contrast, were buried. In the Caucaus (where ancient Colchis was located), and in particular among the Ossetians, these funereal practices were still widespread up until a few decades ago. Several eighteenth-century travellers also recorded them, by now on the wane, among the Yakut of Central Asia.

The custom of excarnation, that is placing the dead on an elevated platform or hanging them from trees, is found over an immense area that includes a large part of Central and Northern Asia, as well as part of Africa. But to wrap or sew the dead inside animal skins is a much more specific custom. The parallel with widespread Eurasian resurrection rituals, based on the collection of the bones wrapped in the skin of dead animals, is evident.

Perhaps this is most clear in a myth recorded from the Ossetians in which Soslan succeeds in conquering a city by having himself enclosed in the skin of an ox killed for the purpose and pretending that he is dead (maybe this last detail is a dilution). In a variant of the legend Soslan is brutally mocked as though he were truly dead: 'Hey, you magician with the crooked legs, the worms are swarming all over you!' 'Soslan, whose knees are vulnerable as a result of a failed attempt to guarantee his immortality when he was a child, is in fact a sorcerer, a sort of shaman, a man capable of venturing into the beyond and returning from it. Thus he can be resuscitated from the ox skin in which he is wrapped.' [5]

The origin of much bull and oxhide mythology may lie back in First Dynasty Egypt, and the first inscription to the Apis bull. By the Second Dynasty the Apis bull was closely linked to the town of Memphis (and the Mnevis bull with Heliopolis). By the Late Kingdom era the Apis bull was given great reverence and an elaborate burial, with the crown prince officiating at its funeral [6].

In certain representations of Osiris on his throne a bull's skin is shown, neck hanging down on a pole, and dripping blood into a container. Jane Sellers takes this, along with a novel interpretation of the complex cosmology of Apis and Osiris, to suggest that the Apis bull was sacrificed as a substitute for ritual regicide.

A different aspect of ancient Egyptian funerary customs reveals that one of the ceremonies of the decisive 'Opening of the Mouth' (of the deceased) involved the body being placed temporarily in a bull's skin [7]

Although no close connections areappraent with the theme I am developing, a more recent and widespread cult involving sacrificed bulls is that of Mithraism, which became prevalent throught the Roman Empire.

Oxhides and dream incubation

The nineteenth century Irish historian Keating mentions the use of bull's hides by druids, who would attempt to gain 'knowledge from demons' by spreading out the hide of a sacrificed animal, raw side up, on wattles of mountain ash. Divination involving dream incubation is also linked directly to oxhides in the Welsh tale of the 'Dream of Rhonabwy' from the Mabinogion. The hero sleeps on a yellow calf skin which initiates an elaborate dream sequence lasting three days and nights. [8]

Foretelling the future from prophetic dreams was known in Scots Gaelic as taghairm. This rite was said to been performed by a diviner, wrapped in the 'warm smoking hide of a newly-slain ox, and laid at full length in the wildest recesses of some lonely waterfall' [9]. Another reference to this rite being performed in the Western Isles dates back to 1703. In this instance a man wrapped in a cow's hide was left overnight in a lonely place in order to learn from 'invisible friends' what he desires to know [10].

The idea of sitting or lying on a hide is found also in Icelandic tradition. The thirteenth century Mariu saga tells how a man sits on a freshly flayed oxhide with squares drawn round it until 'the devil reveals the future'. Other sources tell of those Icelanders who 'sit out' wrapped in the hide of a sheep, walrus or bull to gain knowledge from the dead [11]

Oxhides and shamanism

There is quite direct evidence for popular rituals involving men dressed in animal skins. The fourth century Bishop Pacianus of Barcelona chided those who disguised themselves as a stag in afolk play. A few years later no less than St Augustine preached a sermon which encouraged severe punishment for those who dressed up as a stag or a horse. Caesarius of Arles (470 to 542) likewise delpored those who dressed up in animal skins or wore the heads of horned beasts. The sixth century Council of Auxerre condemned anyone who masqueraded as avstag or bull calf at New Year. [12]

Continuing this long-running lambast, and closer to home, the seventh-century St Aldhelm is reported to have been horrified by revellers wearing animal costumes, espcially stags. Around 700 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, in his Penitential book, stipulates:

'To those who go about at the Kalends of January garbed as a stag or an old woman, taking the form of beasts, cald in the skin of beasts and assuming the heads of beasts; who transform themselves into animals, three years penence, for the thing is devilish.' [13]

These tirades continued. In 915 Regino of Prun was still moaning that people were going about on New Year's Day dressed as stags and calves and urged them to repent. Burchard of Worms, in 1024, ordered 30 days penance on bread and water for those who put on stag or calf disguises. Yet still in the fourteenth century we find depictions of people dressed in animal masks [14]; indeed the practice has continued on one form or another into modern times.

Note that 'guising' is specifically associated with the liminal New Year period; note too that the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance traditionally took place at this time (although it is now enacted in early September).

Abbots Bromley conundrum

At The Ley Hunter Moot last September in Lincoln, Ron Hutton discussed the complex origin of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. The reindeer horns have been radiocarbon dated to between the eight and eleventh centuries, that is long after the species was extinct in the British Isles. It is assumed the horns are exotic imports from Scandinavia. However, Hutton has established that until the late sixteenth century the written references to the Abbots Bromley dancers are to a hobby horse dance. This makes them part of a great Midlands hobby horse dance tradition of the period (the word 'hobby' originally mean 'little' or mock'). Only in the seventeenth century does the first reference to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance occur.

Hutton suggests that, in an attempt to 'liven up' the costumes of the hobby horse dance the villagers procured a set of pre-exisitng 'trophy' reindeer horns. There is no direct evidence to support the widely-held notion that the reindeer horns represent an unbroken tradition of New Year 'guising' from the Anglo-Saxon era.

The custom of 'guising' may date back to the paleolithic, according to a contentious interpretation of a cave painting from Ariege in France. Mesolithic hunters at Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering also appear to have adapted stag antelrs to form head dresses. No less than 21 examples have survived - deliberately lightened and drilled with a pair of holes to allow them to be tied to the head. Whether they were worn as disguises during hunting, or as part of a more ritual activity, we will never know. What is clear is that the tradition of dressing up as a stag goes back to at least this date, about 10,000 years ago.

By the seventh century dressing in animal skins and headgear may have been linked to the worship of Odin or Woden, among whose many pseudonyms was 'Grimr', which means 'masked man'.

'Guising' at liminal times is more common nowadays around the Celtic New Year Samhain, which we now call Hallowe'en. Cakin Night is the name of a custom perpetuated on 1st November at three South Yorkshire pubs (Robin Hood Inn, Little Matlock; Fox and Glove, Stannington; The Royal, Dungworth); this is the still-popular survival of a once much more widespread local custom. These days the participants are heavily disguised, not as animals, but as ghosts and ghouls. Disturbingly, they merely stand or move around the bar in total silence. [15]

Threads and thongs as spirit paths

Thinking back to the idea of hides being cut into thongs, it is perhaps worth noting that threads and cords themselves can assume shamanic significance. During the seances of the Siberian Tungus shaman, long cords connect the poles of the ritual tent with ceremonial objects displayed outside the tent. The Tungus of Manchuria similarly used cords during shamanic initiation when red cords, specifically said to be made from silk or animal sinew, were attached to special trees and drawn to where the shamanic candidate sat during his three-day ordeal. In both rituals these cords were the 'road for the spirits'.

The Buryat shamans would place an arrow on the ground near a sick person's head and stretch a red thread out through the entrance of the tent to a birch pole set up outside (symbolic of the World Tree). This tread was the path for the sick person's spirit to return to their body.

Tunguska tribes believe that an invisible straight thread connects each person with the god of fate. We have only to look to the deeply-held pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs in 'the web of wyrd' (fate) to see close connections between threads and destiny.

Moving from Siberia to the sub-Sahara, the !Kung trance dancers hold that they climb up threads to heaven during their out-of-body trance experiences. [16]

Oxhides and astronomy

Shaman's drum

Saami shaman's drum with motifs (encircled) depicting stellar constellations.

Which rather neatly takes me to some celestial associations with oxhides.

'. . . the drum, the most powerful device of the shaman, representing the Universe in a specific way, is the unmistakable grandchild of the bronze lilissu drum of the Mesopotamian Kalu-priest (responsible for music, and serving the god Enki/Ea). The cover of the lilissu drum must come from a black bull, "which represents Taurus in heaven", says Thureau- Dangin. Going further, W.F. Albright and P.E. Dumont compared the sacrifice of the Mesopotamian bull, the hide of which was to cover the lilissu drum, with the Indian Ashvamedha, a huge horse sacrifice which only the most successful king (always a Kshatrya) could afford. They found that the Indian horse must have the Krittika, the Pliaedes, on his forehead, and this too, according to Albright, is what the Akkadian text prescribes concerning the bull. This should be enough to indicate the level of phenomena being brought into play.

'The striking of the drum covered with that specific bull hide was meant as a contact with heaven at its most significant time, and in the Age of Taurus (c.4000-2000 BC) this was explicitly said to represent Anu, now casually identified as "God of Heaven". . . . Striking the drum was to involve (this time, yes, magically) the essential Time and Place in heaven.

'It is not clear whether or not the Siberian shamans were still aware of this past. The amount of highly relevant star lore collected by Holmberg, and the innumerable figures of definitely astronomical character found on shamanistic drums could very well allow for much more insight than the ethnologists assume. . . . What is plain and relevant is that the Siberian shamans did not invent the zodiac and all that goes with it.'

Petronius's Trimalchio, talking of the month of May, states: Totus coelus taurulus fiat (The whole heaven turns into a little bull) [17].

Bearing in mind also the detailed association between the Egyptian Apis bull and cosmology (mentioned above) is the obsession with oxhides which permeates down into recent folklore and mythology in some way linked to a long-lost practice which involved drums symbolising the cosmos? Given that there is good reason to suppose that our bronze age ancestors were especially interested in the stars, is it too far-fetched to imagine that the stones which form markers of astronomical alignments were erected to the accompaniment of ecstatic drum- outs inside circular sanctuaries defined by thongs cut from sacramental hides?


Grateful thanks to Janet Bord for help with information on places related to oxhide legends.


1: The actual area of a hide varied greatly from region to region and the consequences of inheritance meant that many families came to live on much less than one hide; in the later Anglo-Saxon period the hide as a unit for taxation was radically re-assessed. See The Danelaw, Cyril Fox, The Hambledon Press, 1992, p289-305.
2: With the exception of the above footnote, all the information in the article up to this point is from Albion - a guide to legendary Britain, Jennifer Westwood, Granada, 1985 (reprinted Grafton 1992)
3: O. Bo and J. Ejdestram cited in 'Establishing borders: the narrative potential of a motif', R. Kvideland, in Boundaries and thresholds, ed. H.R. Ellis Davidson, Thimble Press, 1993.
4: Curious myths of the middle ages, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1866.
5: Ecsatsies Carlo Ginzburg, Random House, 1991 citing: M. Marconi, 'Usi funerari nella Colchide Circea', in Rendiconti del R. Istituto Lombardo di scienze e lettere, LXXXVI, 1942-3, p309ff; J. Janko in E. de Zichy, Voyages au Caucase et en Asie centrale, Budapest, 1897, I, p72-3.
6: The death of gods in ancient Egypt, Jane B. Sellers, Penguin, 1992
7: Mysteres Egyptiens, A. Moret, Paris, 1922 and Osiris and the Egyptian resurrection, Vol. 1, E.A.W. Budge, London, 1911 (republ. 1973) cited in Sellers op. cit.
8: History of Ireland, Keating, 1905 cited in Myths and symbols in pagan Europe, H.R. Ellis Davidson, Manchester University Press, 1988.
9: Gaelic dictionary, Armstrong, cited in Davidson ibid.
10: A description of the Western Isles of Scotland circa 1695, M. Martin, 1703 (reprinted 1934), cited in Davidson ibid.
11: Icelandic folktales and legends J. Simpson, (trans), 1972, cited in Davidson ibid.
12: In search of Herne the Hunter, Eric L. Fitch, Capall Bann, 1994.
13: The pagan religions of the ancient British Islaes, Ronald Hutton, Basil Blackwell, 1991.
14: Fitch op. cit.
15: Strange South Yorkshire, David Clarke, Sigma, 1994.
16: Shamanism and the mystery lines, N. Pennick and P.Devereux, Quantum, 1992.
17: Hamlet's mill - an essay on myth and the frame of time, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Macmillan, 1970 (1st pub Gambit USA 1969) citing: B. Meissner Babylonien und Assyrien Vol.2 p66, 1925 (re lilissu drum); Thureau-Dangin Rituels accadiens, 1921; C. Bezold Babylonisch- Assyrisches Glossar, 1926 (re hide as Anu); E. Ebeling Tod und Leben nach den Vortsellungen der Babylonier, 1931; W.F. Albright and P.E. Dumont 'A parallel between Indian and Babylonian sacrificial ritual', Journal of the American Oriental Society, No.54, 1934 pp107-28.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.22 February 1995.

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