St. George’s Day again. I tried to reblog my original post that I did on this day, two years ago, but think that I can only reblog a post once? Anyway, the highlighted, following title should take you to it. It is about St.George, St.Aidan, Ancestry, History, DNA, and what it means now for me to be English, or rather, British, or rather, African. Go figure. Mongrel Nation.
Two components of Halloween/Samhain celebrations, from both a pagan and a non-pagan perspective, are ancestors, and ghosts. So I thought I would combine the two in this post with three stories from my own family, two of them passed down, one of them recounted to me personally.
For any serious paranormal investigators out there, you can file them under the headings of Death Bed Visitation, Ghost Sighting, and Near Death Experience respectively. I am not claiming them to be true, supernatural experiences beyond all rational explanation, but neither am I dismissing them as anecdotal events that are grounded in purely biological and physical laws as we know them. I’m just passing them onto you as I received them. Make up your own mind on the cause. And the effect.
Death Bed Visitation
My Gran had a sister named Margaret who, being eleven years old, was three years younger than my Gran. One day, around 1924, the sister was in Queen’s Park, which is a public park in Harpurhey, Manchester. In a built up area, this was one of the few green spaces that families could visit to escape the bleak, polluted streets of the industrial, run down city suburbs of the time. While she was there, like so many others, Margaret drank water from one of the water taps. Who could have foreseen that such a casual act was to cost her her life, as in doing so she caught diptheria.
She soon became very ill, and her family gathered around her bed as her condition worsened. In those days it seemed that so many people died at home, as opposed to the modern custom of removing the act of death to hospices and hospitals. As she became weaker, and her end drew near, she suddenly reached out, her arms spread before her, and exclaimed “I’m coming, Mama!” looking into the empty air above her bed. With those final words, Margaret died.
On the day of her funeral, in the manner of how so often life’s occurrences can be perverse, a letter arrived informing everybody that poor Margaret had passed her eleven plus at school. While other young scholars throughout the country were being congratulated on their achievements, Margaret was buried in the same grave as her parents.
One day, sometime after 1927, my teenage great aunt came flying recklessly down the stairs of her home, in such a speed as to risk life and limb. Her stepfather, (who had married her mother, now deceased, after her real father was killed in the First World War), was sat at a table downstairs and startled by the girl’s sudden, breakneck flight.
“Whatever’s to do?” he asked the frightened girl.
“I’ve just seen my Mam!” she exclaimed.
Her stepfather said “Don’t ever be scared of your mother. She loved you and would never harm you. What was she doing?”
My great aunt went on to tell him that she had saw her mother just standing there, looking at her, while shaking her head. She never spoke, nor attempted to speak. Perhaps she would have done if the girl had not bolted in fear.
Not long after this episode my my great aunt’s stepfather died. My great aunt, as so often happened in those days, abandoned her education to become a mother figure to her siblings. She always said afterwards, when recounting her extraordinary occurrence, that she thought that the reason her mother’s apparition was shaking her head was because she was aware that her widowed husband would soon be joining her, and could foresee the life of struggle that lay in store for her eldest daughter, having such responsibility and struggle thrust upon her at such a young age.
Near Death Experience
Around a year before my Dad’s death in 2003, he was sat watching the tv at home in the lounge. The video player on the shelf beneath the tv was connected to another television in the bedroom upstairs, and my brother had put a football cassette in the video player and then gone up to watch it.
After a while my Dad began to struggle with his breathing, in pain (it transpired later that he had had a heart attack), he reached for his inhaler to try and find relief, but on taking a few puffs found it did not work. Barely able to move and desperately wondering what to do next to summon help, he thought that his only hope lay in if he could manage to turn the video player off so my brother would come downstairs to see why his viewing had been interrupted.
He reached for the remote control, struggling to breathe, then suddenly-he was gone.
He said that he was no longer in the room, but ‘somewhere else’. Surrounded by pink-tinged cloud, he was aware of people being around him though he couldn’t see them. Then, up ahead, he saw the figure of a man. He told me “I’m not saying it was Jesus. But it was a man with a beard, and his skin looked like he was Mediterranean. My language was terrible-if God would have been there he would have struck me down. I was saying ‘You can **** right off! I’m not ******* coming! you ****!’ “
All the while that my Dad railed at him, the man just faced him, smiling silently, until the figure moved his head at an angle to look behind my Dad, looking beyond him, a puzzled expression on his face. My Dad then ‘shot backwards’ and found himself back in his armchair before the tv. But stood beside him now was his father, my granddad, who had died ten years previously. His father said “Don’t worry, I will see you again one day, son.” To which, still in fate-fighting character, my Dad replied “Not for a ******* long time you won’t!”
At that point my Mum walked in through the front door, took one look at my Dad’s ashen, stricken face, and remarked “Have you had a wash today?”
There you go: all families have their stories, and these are just three of ours.
Happy Halloween to you all. Keep the light on.
If walls could talk.
If concrete could confess.
If soul could seep through cement.
If only one of those monochrome apparitions could reach out and take me by the hand, leading me into a world of smoke and ale and revelation.
The woman stood by the door on the right of the picture is my great grandmother. The two little girls are my grandfather’s older sisters. The guy on the far left, in the bowler hat, is my great grandfather. The other two younger men could be family, I don’t know. Will probably never know. Posing with a football and a trophy of an unknown triumph, they remain silent, anonymous ghosts. Enigmas of imagination.
The building itself, its very brick and mortar, contains more than can be revealed in a two dimensional image. It contains that which is valued in meaning.
Ancestors of mine dwelt in that place between 1901 and 1939. A descendent of theirs also ran the pub for a short period in the 1950’s. What emotions those rooms must have absorbed. Laughter and tears resonating in time. My great, great grandmother died in there, as did her son in law, my great grandfather.
Behind those upstairs windows, in one of those unseen rooms, my grandfather was born. At the other end of life’s spectrum, two of his siblings died in there.
Happy times, sad times. The building stands in the photograph as a mausoleum of memory.
I would love to be able to go into that pub today, buy a drink and take a seat in the corner. Shift my sight and listen to echoes. Watch the ghost of an old man skip through those doors as a little boy. Perhaps whistling the tune of a song that one day, many years in the future, he would sing to another little boy.
Hand me downs of blood and mannerism and story.
Alas the pub no longer stands-it fell victim to the slum clearances that transformed whole neighbourhoods and scattered communities. I’ve been to the site where it originally stood. Ironically there was another pub there, empty and boarded up. Perhaps its own ghosts were walled up inside, caught in the shadows. Memories in a new mausoleum, waiting for people of their line to come searching and shift their sight.
This post has a higher word count than I normally commit myself to, but it is the images that I want to share with you all so please bear with me.
As a lover of history and archaeology, it is all about layers. Layers and eras.
The era that enthralls me the most is the Neolithic era.
The Neolithic really was the time when ‘we’ began to become ‘us’. Our hitherto continuous lifestyle changed to one more recognisable to us today. We left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind for a more settled way of life. With cattle and crops we adopted farming as the way to survive. We began to develop a relationship with the land, putting down roots. Burying our dead in monuments and tombs that we could re-visit and interact with, rather than just leaving them behind as we followed the migratory routes of our food sources.
Instead of merely experiencing the landscape, we began to change it.
I have visited many surviving, Neolithic stone sites in this country, from the famous Stonehenge in Wiltshire in the south, up through Castlerigg in Cumbria and Kilmartin in Scotland to the most northern places in Orkney. They constantly draw me and effortlessly capture my wonderment and imagination.
From the Neolithic period there also survives countless examples of a creative and artistic culture- be it the strange symbols engraved on tombs whose meaning is now lost to us, the artwork painted on cave walls, or the inscribed drawings on bone and tusk, all paling in comparison to the beautiful and exceptional sculptured figures that have been unearthed.
The reason I visited London was in order to see an exhibition entitled Ice Age Art: Arrival Of The Modern Mind, which was on at The British Museum.
Artifacts from all over the world had been gathered together in this one place and I was determined not to miss this opportunity to see them. Sculptured models, jewellery and drawings representing people and animals, all on display side by side.
There were many examples of the depictions of animals and creatures that these early people would have encountered, some familiar to us now, some long gone, like the mammoth.
People more artistic than I were gathered around the exhibits, sketching in notebooks copies of ancient drawings made on ivory and antler.
One such work is this drawing of two deer made on the lower leg bone of a reindeer around 12-14,000 years ago and found in France.
Interesting though these artworks are, it is the carvings that really capture my interest, and I want to share some of my favourite ones here with you.
Here is the head of a Lion, (probably once attached to a full body) made of mammoth ivory, from Vogelherd Cave, South West Germany. It is around 35,000 years old. I wonder what the significance of the crosses are? Many such animal figures feature markings like these. Do they convey a message that a contemporary observer would have immediately understood?
Here are ‘Swimming Reindeer’ made from mammoth ivory, from Montastruc in France. They are 13,000 years old, putting them at the end of the last ice age. The artist knew the animals that he created, and unlike some pieces that could have been created by anybody at that time with the inclination, this was the work of a gifted, competent individual, confident in his or her craft. As the only female deer that have antlers are reindeer, it makes identification of them certain. And amazingly, due to the female pelt and the fact that males normally lose their antlers after rutting, this depicted scene can be placed in November or December.
Stunning though these animal sculptures are, it is the human figures that particularly fascinate.
The Lion Man, below, made of mammoth ivory, is from Stadel Cave on the Hohlenstein, Germany. This is the world’s earliest figurative sculpture, at 40,000 years old. This piece shows that the person who created it, and the people who it was created for, were capable of imagination. This wasn’t a reproduction of a creature that these people were familiar with, such as the previous animal carvings we have seen, or the animals that can be found replicated on cave walls. This was an imagined figure, a lion with human-like characteristics. Did it have shamanic, symbolic purposes? What we can say is that this shows that the mind behind its creation was capable of new concepts, and not just of reproducing known, familiar forms.
Compare the similarities of the Lion Man’s head with the lion’s head at the beginning of this post.
Below is a male figure with articulated head and arms, made of mammoth ivory, around 26,000 years old. It was found placed on the skeleton of a man in a burial in Brno, Czech Republic. The body was surrounded by bones of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. With a vast number of other items discovered in the burial, the man was of obvious exceptional status. It has been suggested that he could have been a shaman. His skeleton showed signs of him having suffered a painful disease of the joints. Did his suffering and disability mark him out as special?
With movable limbs and head, this is a puppet-like sculpture. The head and torso have opposing holes allowing it to be moved with a stick, and seems also to have had movable limbs. Did the movement of this creation represent, or replace, his own limited movement, perhaps in the spirit world?
Perhaps the man buried was the ‘puppeteer’ of this figure, who used it to enact certain stories or myths. The connection of man and puppet transcended death.
All we can do is speculate.
In firelight, the use of shadows against a canvas tent, or cave wall, would have added a dramatic, theatrical sense.
Today we probably find puppet shows a bit tame, but in one of my usual moments of synchronicity I stumbled across this photograph of children at a puppet theatre in Paris, 1963. Look at the reaction on those kids faces!
(photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)
The puppet must have had a purpose, and an intended audience.
The Lespugue Venus, below, is the figure of a woman, of mammoth ivory, found at Lespugue Cave in France. Incised lines indicate a long hairstyle falling onto her shoulders. This bowed-headed figure is famous as the work which fascinated Picasso, who owned two replicas of the piece.
How amazing that the work of an unknown, ancient artist can still inspire artists today 25,000 years down the line.
This rear view seems to show some kind of skirt or apron hanging down from below the hips.
This sculpted portrait head, below, probably broken from the body of a female image, is made again from mammoth ivory and was found in Brassempouy cave in France. At 25,000 years old, it is regarded as one of the greatest ivory masterpieces of all, and one of the earliest realistic representations of a human face and hairstyle (although the hair has also been interpreted as a wig and a hood.)
It reminds me a little of a personalised chess piece.
Was this based on a real person who lived and breathed our air 25,000 years ago? It gives a limited sense of hairstyle, or headwear, of the time.
This last figure, below, is my favourite, I was drawn to return and study it once more when I finished viewing the exhibition.
Between 25 and 29,000 years old, this is the world’s oldest known portrait. It was found at Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic. (Another figure found at this site was given a tomograph scan in 2004, and found to have the fingerprint of a child upon it, who must have handled it before it was fired. How great is that?)
It is a woman whose face shows a twist to the smile, and the left eye droops. Thinking back to the disability of that man of Brno, associated with the puppet, could it be that this person was similarly marked out as special due to some type of birth defect or paralysis? Maybe it is the result of an injury in some dangerous encounter?
There has been a skeleton of a woman found in a burial at the site which shows evidence of serious injury to the head and left side of the face, from which she was helped to recover. Of course any connection cannot be proved-but it is intriguing to think that we could have the model and subject together.
I cannot help but look at this face and feel that I am looking at someone who actually lived 29,000 years ago. Just the very nature of the deformity to the face suggests this is not a ‘Goddess’ or archetype representation but a real, blemished, person.
Who were you? How did you live? What were your beliefs?
Remains discovered at this site shows other individuals with signs of disabilities, suggesting that the disabled underwent different burial practices to everybody else who were probably exposed to the elements and then scattered. Were they placed back into the womb of the earth and somehow ‘made right’, or given back to Underworld Gods that had made their mark on them by disfigurement? Were they set apart from everybody else, and given special, social status?
There is so much we don’t know. A lot of the artifacts in this exhibition were deliberately broken before being buried or placed in the caves or in the ground. Was this a way of signifying the end of their use to the living, and were broken to be made right in a similar fashion to the disabled? I think of places such as the Barnhouse settlement that I have visited in Stenness, Orkney. After continual use for 700 years, it was suddenly abandoned and was deliberately destroyed in the process, seemingly by its inhabitants. Was this a way of designating it to be no longer of use to the people, and now it served as homes for the ancestors?
Are these carved figures now for the purpose of the dead? Items of importance for an Otherworldly voyage?
I find this period of our history fascinating-there is so much that we don’t know, but there are many hints and tantalising glimpses inviting us to try and make connections and understand the reasoning of our early ancestors, and how they experienced the world around them. Glimpses of expression that has passed down to us like an inspirational thread.
In my enthusiasm and insatiable curiosity, I thought I would share such glimpses with you. There were many other items in the exhibition that I have neglected to highlight-maybe a future post, yes?