Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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The three-fold living landscape

Self-evidently, Anglo-Saxons lived in a landscape somewhat similar to rural England today. We know from the many descriptive place-names that they were well aware of 'local distinctiveness'. But how did they think about the landscape? Concepts like 'nature', 'countryside' and so forth – while seemingly intrinsic to the world – have all be constructed in recent centuries (see the opening chapter of my book Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination (Trubshaw 2005)

Modern people augment their memories with photo albums and scrap books – although, increasingly, hard drives and web servers are taking over. In contrast, traditional societies the world over have a much more intimate link between places and 'collective memory'. Such collective memories often manifest in storytelling, myths and other legends – although the term also includes traditions which are performed – such as dancing or games at seasonal festivities – as much as the spoken word.

Stories are linked to place in a fundamental manner -– we and the storyteller share the same place, whether it is the familiar home or a more special 'place of performance'. I'll return to this aspect later.

The words of Apache storyteller Dudley Patterson illustrate the deeper aspects of a culture transmitted entirely by word of mouth:

How will you walk along this trail of wisdom? Well, you will go to many places. You must look at them closely. You must remember all of them. Your relatives will talk to you about them. You must remember everything they tell you. You must think about it, and keep on thinking about it, and keep on thinking about it. You must do this because no one can help you but yourself... Wisdom sits in places. It's like water… you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. And your mind will become smoother and smoother.
(Quoted in Basso 1996: 70)

We need not travel to the New World to encounter such traditions. Indeed, until the last few decades Scotland provided plenty of examples. In a web page explaining the title of his CD Bothy Culture the musician Martyn Bennett (1971–2005) describes his nights during the early 1990s he spent in the stone-built shelters of the Scottish Highlands known as 'bothies'.

… in some ways bothies have the same, familiar atmosphere to urban nightclubs – arriving for the sound-check when they are merely cold, empty shells is always a spooky experience. Perhaps the same spirits of so many fire/spot-lit, whisky/drug charged nights have somehow imparted a memory of the ghosts of those people you have never met and can only imagine.
(Martyn Bennett's web site)

Overlapping with Bennett's experiences are the traditions of the Scottish Travellers. One of the last of their 'tradition bearers' was Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) who in addition to doing many storytelling sessions also published various books. In the last few years of his life the academic Sara Reith took a deep interest in his work and tales, and provided a concise but insightful overview, called 'Through the eye of the skull'. For Robertson 'places "become" through memory, and memory teaches through place.' (Reith 2008: 81)

Within Traveller culture, the pervasive themes of cyclical renewal or life as a journey reflect a worldview instilled by the practical, descriptive, and symbolic richness of Traveller education in which the guidance of family, tradition and nature is always accessible when sought.
(Reith 2008: 95)

'In the concealed Traveller topography of North-East Scotland', as Sara Reith calls it, '[…] Stanley's expansive worldview encompasses the material, ancestral, ethereal and eternal as ever present resources.' (Reith 2008: 81–2)

When the landscape as seen by the Scottish Traveller tradition, especially when conveyed by Stanley Robertson, is – in his own words – 'the land where stories grow.' ( Reith 2008: 96; 99 fn41)

Ma mither used to say that this particular land [here] between the river Dee and the river Don - and they used to say lang ago that the Don wis the warlock and the river Dee wis the witch. And this land between it wis for her bairns. This land wis oors aa richt because there's only twa hooses. But this road has been known for many, many supernatural happenings ... there's a lot o happiness on this auld road. And every time I ging up it I could aye sort o feel the spirits o the past…
( Reith 2008: 128–9)

At first impression this seems fairly standard folklore. But for Robertson repeatedly-visited places do not simply resound with legends and stories, but they are the 'containers' for the collective memories of his Traveller culture. 'As a child Stanley remembers passing milestones on the road. At these places his father would review a learning principle, asking questions to make sure that he had been understood.' ( Reith 2008: 87–8) If Robertson had difficulty remembering a tale, he would imagine himself back at the place where he heard it told.

First of all I try to remember the actual place where I heard the story, maybe Lumphanan or someplace camping. I try to remember the setting, everything, even the smells, everything to do with the senses.
( Reith 2008: cited Reith 2008: 91)

Robertson's way of remembering – and retelling – tales is deeply immersive. As a child of about five or six he and his great aunt passed a dead animal. She asked him to describe the world through the eyes of the skull (Robertson 2009: 107)

Stanley Robertson    Maggie Stewart

(Left:) Stanley Robertson at the Old Road at Lumphanan about 2005.
(Right:) His great-aunt, Maggie Stewart, photographed in the 1920s.

In the mid-1940s, when about five or six years old, Robertson was walking one of the old roads to the west of Aberdeen with his great-aunt Maggie Stewart when they came across the skull of a dead animal. The old woman asked him what it was and he replied 'It is the skull o a deid animal like a sheep or goat.'

'Describe it tae me, bairn', the old woman said. 'Weel, it has big empty yak sockets, and teeth, and it his horns upon it, and it is covwered wi little green, orange and ambier lichens, and it is sinking into the spagnum moss and being reclaimed by Nesmore [Mother] Nature.'
'Weel, that wis an awfie guid description, bairn. Noo, gang inside the riche ee socket and tell me whit ys feel.'
I immediately wint inside the yak o the deid animal and I came tae a place where there was canyons, caverns, waterfalls, mountains and animals o as kinds and colours, smells and the rick mi tick o the inside unfolded tae me and awa in the distance I heard the aud woman cae me tae come back tae her again.
(Robertson 2009: 106–7)

Read the whole of Sara Reith's excellent article about Stanley Robertson online: Through the 'Eye of the Skull': memory and tradition in a Travelling landscape

I have looked at the 'riual use' of first-person narratives more broadly in Through the eye of the skull: The metaphysical relocation of self in ritual narratives

The three-fold landscape

In Robertson's landscape there is the present day landscape, the 'ancestral' landscape and a 'supranormal' landscape of not-quite-human entities. It is just such three-fold patterns of land occupation (and 'ownership') which are commonly found among traditional cultures. One of the longest-surviving of such cultures is that of the Uralic-speaking eastern Khanty, who live around the River Ob and its tributaries in western Siberia. Their nomadic, predominately hunter-gathering, lifestyle was largely unchanged until recent decades and comparatively well-recorded by twentieth century ethnographers. One researcher who spent several summers with the Khanty in the early 1990s was Peter Jordan; the following section is a summary of his 2001 article (Jordan 2001).

From the world-view of the Khanty, the forest landscape is subjected to three overlapping forms of ownership – human, ancestral and spiritual. This, in turn, manifests as three types of 'settlement' – ones for the living, ones for the sacred and others for the dead. Khanty tribal territories are centred around watersheds, although they over-winter in permanent riverside camps. This is where they are 'at home' – referred to as being doma. The camps comprise of between two and six households, each in their own yurt or, latterly, wooden cabin. Each camp is based around a male lineage named after the founding father – women marry into the lineages. These local lineages are part of non-local clans, named after such 'totemic' animals as bear, elk or beaver.

A new hut is built when a young man marries. Newly-built or rebuilt huts are situated upstream – even if only by a symbolic few metres – as it is considered very unlucky to build downstream. Older huts – downstream of the current homes – are used for storage until such time as they become too dilapidated. Although Jordan does not state why, the reason is undoubtedly a pragmatic one – Stanley Robertson recounts how he when his family camped near a burn he was told to always go to the toilet downstream of the tent. Presumably water used for washing or cooking was drawn from upstream. By association downstream becomes not simply 'dirty' but unlucky. (A similar scenario can be seen in the Latin for 'left', sinister which – because the left hand was traditionally used after going to the toilet – evolved from simply meaning 'on the left' to the current sense of modern English.)

While the three-fold ownership of the landscape is symbolised by the sky (the bright upper world of the sacred deities) and the dark underworld of the dead, with the forest-world of humans and animals in the middle, in practice there are places in the forest which are sacred to the deities and others for the dead. This is clearly distinct from Christian world-views, where the church and churchyard is the locus for both the sacred and the dead. Also distinct from Christian concepts is the Khanty view of souls or 'life forces'. Humans – and bears – have four or five souls, each capable of leaving the body in different ways (such as during dreaming, fainting, or illness).

The souls of the dead lived on in cemeteries – known as settlements of the dead – with each one closely linked to the individual riverside settlements. Such graveyards are only ever downstream from settlements for the living from fear that diseases of the dead will contaminate the living. They are visited only at special times, for feasts to remember and commune with dead relatives. A desire to honour obligations to dead clan members were mixed with conflicting feelings of fear of the dead and grief. Miniature, elongated, versions of the yurt-cabins were constructed over each grave to make them feel more comfortable – the door at the front enable vodka toasts to poured in. An iron knife stuck into the ground outside the door was to prevent the soul departing from the grave. Between the graves are fire-sites used for the preparation of tea and food. Around the cemetery are stacks of firewood for future visits and piles of empty bottles from previous communions.

After each visit to the settlement of the dead, the children must leave without looking back, as their souls are most at risk of being kidnapped. The path to the cemetery is symbolically closed with felled saplings. Anyone who has been to cemetery will be ritually unclean for a period and unable to visit sacred sites for fear of offending the spirits. Until the next seasonal celebration, the cemetery will be strictly avoided, especially if on procurement activities. Any trip which would mean walking or skiing in a circle around the cemetery will be strenuously avoided – even if this means a detour at the end of long and arduous day.

The spirits of the upperworld have their own hierarchies, with a chief deity and various subsidiary local spirits who protect individual camps. Carved cedar wood images of these spirits are placed on low open-fronted stilted houses in areas of dense forest some distance from the living settlement. The huts and images may be replaced but in the location remains constant. These sacred sites are known just as yurts – 'settlements' – but when spoken of in Russian as bozhestvennyi ('sacred'). They are visited when the community returns to the riverside and again shortly before they move away. The spirits are asked for health, welfare and hunting success. Lengths of white cloth and coins are left, along with the remains of ritual meals featuring tea, vodka, elk heads and other fare. Reindeer or other domesticated animals are sometimes sacrificed there.

A different sacred site is known as an 'earth house' – isolated island groves surrounded by bog. The spirits who reside there are more closely associated with hunting. Each tract of land has its own earth house and offerings must be made there before beginning to hunt. Because of the cyclical nature of the hunting season, these would take place at a similar time each year. Again, reindeer were at one time sacrificed. In more recent times white cloth would be offered and hung from trees on the sunny side of the grove. Ritual meals similarly involve tea, vodka and elk heads; afterwards the bones and bottles are carefully deposited. These earth houses seem to be where stories associated with the hunting ground were retold.

Each household had its own carved anthropomorphic idol about the size of a doll fashioned from cedar wood which had grown on an earth house island grove. This 'sees all and does not let the illness spirits come close'. Once a month – usually corresponding to the provisioning of the household with goods – the idol was honoured. When a man marries he visits his wife's family's earth house grove and cuts the wood for idol from a living tree. The couple occasionally return to leave offerings. After the death of woman the idol is returned to the same tree and allowed to rot away.

Bringing it back to Britain

Now imagine replacing the bland language of ethnological reports with the immersive experience of tales told by the tribal 'elders', whose memories and ancestry are intermeshed – like Robertson's – with the places they recount.

I have provided this extended description of the Khanty customs because there is no reason why people living throughout northern Europe and the British Isles were doing anything much different – although of course there would have been all sorts of local variations, and the beliefs associated with the activities may have been dissimilar.

There are close parallels with Anglo-Saxon culture – especially the weoh ('idols') and hearg (several hectares devoted to ritual mounds and activities, presumably with specific areas closely associated with specific male lineages). And the notion of settlements moving steadily upstream fits the evidence of Eye Kettleby on the banks of the River Wreake, to the west of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire and the location of early Saxon settlement on the banks of the Winterbourne to the south of the later burh at Avebury – and the chronology can be extended further if, as Simon Draper noted, we consider the Roman small town to the south of Silbury Hill as part of the sequence, as this is downstream of the Saxon occupation. (Draper 2006: 38–9).

Back in 1998 Sarah Semple looked specifically at the way Anglo-Saxon literature reveals a 'fear of the past' – a fear which could be mitigated by the way existing barrows and other monuments were incorporated (Semple 1998). Barrows were not simply places of the dead. They were the homes of assorted other-than-human-persons, who might respond unfavourably to the presence of living people. The souls of those buried there might take revenge on any unwarranted disturbance. Supernatural guardians such as dragons (perhaps better termed preternatural gaurdians, see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol), whose function was to protect the treasure within the mound, might also be inimical to anyone passing to close.

Barrows were alive with such 'spirits'. So when Martyn Bennett writes of the spirits of fire and whisky charged nights in bothies, conceivably an Anglo-Saxon living a thousand or more years before him would readily recognise this same 'spirit world'. From the perspective of traditional cultures the world over, the landscape is alive in ways which modern minds do not intuitively recognise. The landscape is also alive, as Robertson revealed, with memories. But that deserves another article: The carrying stream of memory.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


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