On This Day:England’s First Historian And The Fleeting Sparrow

In 686, plague broke out at a monastery in Jarrow, north-east England. There were only two survivors, one being a young boy who we now know as the Venerable Bede. He went on to write many books, and the one for which he is most famous, The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People gained him the title of ‘The Father Of English History’.

He died on this day in 735, and a few years ago I visited Durham Cathedral where he is buried, along with St.Cuthbert and the head of King and Saint Oswald.

I’m one for deep and hypothetical conversations, especially in the wee small hours, and whenever the subject of our existence comes up, where we came from and where we are going to either end of this short life, the following passage of Bede’s always comes to mind. It reflects on the Christian faith when it was being presented for the first time to the people of early England:

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Today, in an older and more rooted England, if we call ourselves Christian or not, I love the image of that one, fleeting sparrow, passing through between storms.

On This Day: The Wolf And The Head

On this day is remembered Edmund, (c841-869), King of East Anglia from around 855. He was killed after being taken prisoner in a Danish incursion, when he refused the Dane’s demands to denounce Christ. This seems enough to qualify the King for sainthood.
He is often depicted pierced with arrows like a bristled hedgehog as, according to tradition, his captors tied him to a tree and used him for target practice before beheading him.

According to one legend, his head was thrown into a forest, but was found safe (as safe as a severed head can be) when searchers were drawn to it by a wolf that was calling “Hic, Hic, Hic.” It was not an alcoholic wolf with the hiccups, rather the three hics meant “Here, here, here.” My wife could use a totemic wolf when hunting for her car keys.

I have read of another version of this tale, where the wolf protected the head, and it was the head itself that cried out “Hic, hic, hic.”

A talking, severed head, though? That’s way too far fetched. I believe it was a talking wolf.

The place that he was buried (that is body and head together) became a great abbey around which the town of Bury St.Edmunds grew. Nothing enigmatic about that literal place name, is there ? It is a town that I have never visited. I have been to one about twenty minutes away from where I live that is called Bury. Instead of being a last resting place of a King and Saint, rather its fame lies in the selling of black puddings.

Tourists queue here.

One last point: it can be noted how Edmund’s death is similar to the fate suffered by St.Sebastian, St.Denis, and St.Mary of Egypt.
I’m not sure if they had a wolf though, speaking or otherwise. That’s a job for Google.

 

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The Grave Of Kazantzakis

This photograph was taken at the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis, in Heraklion, Crete.

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The epitaph, taken from one of his books, reads “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

I have read most of his books. Although his style may be a little dated now, I enjoy in them their universal themes of existential and spiritual struggle, and the creative tension this creates. His most famous works, with help from the media of film, are Zorba The Greek, (remember the Anthony Quinn dance?), and The Last Temptation. That last one was made into the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation Of Christ, which was condemned by the Church Of Greece. His reply was:

“You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I.”

I posted this today as I thought it an appropriate photograph to share.

Happy Easter to you all. Go easy on the chocolate.

Symbol

Everybody uses symbols. Religions, businesses, organisations, sports clubs, football teams, television channels, I mean everybody. It seems that we need something to represent everything that we stand for. An emblem to incorporate the ethos and identity of the various organisations that we belong to and binds us together.

A visual representation for something that becomes immediately recognisable.
Sometimes everyday objects, too, hold a greater significance for us. Maybe as an ideal, a target to aim for, a sentimental memory.

You take your ash wand and carve your rune. You find a space to hang your coat of arms. You open your trunk and take out that heirloom. You hold that old framed photograph and remember. These things become so much more.

The Palm Cross in the photograph was given to my daughter when she went to church with her school for her Easter assembly.

Most people know that the cross as a symbol represents the Christian faith.

But what exactly does it symbolise to people, personally? We cannot help but bring to it our own prejudices and concepts.

Where some may see it as a source of comfort and strength, others may see it as a symbol of torture and oppression. It is the same symbol, but coloured by our own perspectives.

To me the cross is a symbol of transformation. Transformation from despair to hope, from suffering to comfort, from death to life, from defeat to victory.

It also serves as a reminder to hold true to what we believe in, and value, until the end. Whether that is in a religious context or just an attitude towards life.

Whatever life should throw at us, and difficult though it may be, we use the tools at our disposal to fortify us and try to stay true to ourselves. To try not to change our true nature.

Faith unto death, if you like

No matter what our faith is, what our beliefs are, what our differing values may be, we all need something to focus on from time to time. Something to pour our energies into.

To all of you reading this, whether you regard this as a special, holy day, or whether you are spending time with your loved ones, enjoy your day. I hope the sun shines for you.

Sometimes, we pin all of our faith upon the weatherman.

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The Prodigal Son

I know I have bid you farewell for the weekend, but I just wanted to share this with you. Even if bible stories are not your thing, the way the story is told with sand is amazing. I would get it everywhere-in my hair, my eyes, and that’s just doing a smiley face!

Mushy Cloud

If you have never seen this before, you will be blown away I promise. Even if Bible stories don’t do it for you, the sheer talent and artistry will move you in this video. Give yourself 10 minutes to sit and watch this. It’s worth it.

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When Is Holy Wholly Holy?

In three days it is Christmas Day. Of course you know that.

Christmas Day is considered a holy day in the Christian faith, holy because that is the day that the birth of Jesus is celebrated. So it is Jesus’ birth that causes the day to be regarded as holy. You know- the reason for the season. 

But what if the date is wrong? Would the day still be holy?

The thinking is that the date of December 25th, one of many suggested and argued about over the centuries, was chosen to coincide with the many non-Christian, pagan festivals that took place around this time. This made it easier for the people to convert, as they were used to observing ritual practice and celebrating around this time. It has been suggested that the actual day that Jesus was born could have been in summer, or autumn,  rather than in the depths of winter.

So if, say, December 25th is not the day that Jesus was born on, what about the actual day that he was born on? Is that day, the date long lost to us, nevertheless still holy? Even though we don’t observe it. Is it made so by Jesus’ birth? And would that mean that December 25th is not holy, even though we say it is?

Or is the day made holy, not by the act of the baby being born, but by what we bring to the day? How we regard it, perceive it? What the day stands for in our own perceptions, and how we accordingly act and respond to it?

The town of Bethlehem is considered a holy place as being the birthplace of Jesus. But there is also a train of thought that Jesus wasn’t born there, but rather in Nazareth, the connection to Bethlehem being made for scriptural reasons.

If, for arguments sake, we say that this is true, does that mean that Bethlehem is no longer a holy place? Despite the many pilgrims that visit at this time of year? Or is it the pilgrims that make the place holy, by what they bring to it? An attitude and perception? A faith of heart and mind?

I do not know the answers to the questions about Jesus’ real date and place of birth-there are far more learned people out there who you can find to counsel their opinions, numerous books and articles that you can read which argue the case both for and against.

But if we hold the idea that holiness is determined by how we approach life, by our attitudes, perceptions, outlook and behaviour, and it is what we bring to the day, and to the place,then no matter where we find ourselves in life,

every day is holy, and all ground is sacred.

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This is a local tree, situated at the foot of a hill below
Alkrington Hall, decorated with what local children have
brought to it.

London Day Three: Neolithic Glimpses

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.

Two deer

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?

Lion

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.

swimming reindeer

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.

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lion man face

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.

puppet

puppet shadow

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!

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(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.

Picasso woman Picasso woman two

This rear view seems to show some kind of skirt or apron hanging down from below the hips.

back view

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.

venus

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?

Woman

woman two

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?

London Day One: The Big Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

My wife would have hated Oxford Street, Bank Holiday Monday.

The streets were swarming with every conceivable shape and colour of humanity. I was constantly moving through swathes of  conversation held in loud, unrecognisable languages. Unknown words passed before me, around me, over me. She would have had no problem with that, its just large crowds that she has an aversion to.

Jostled and often thwarted in my random meandering by both human and motorised traffic, I sought refuge in Hyde Park. Everywhere I looked sunbathers had staked a claim to their own chosen patch of grass, as the warmest day of the year so far had summoned them out from their enclosed, pale slumber.

But despite this crowd of simmering flesh, this is where I feel most comfortable, with the verdant stretch of grass and trees declining towards a lake in the distance,  my vision expanded to take in distance and sky. I instantly began to relax despite the odd close encounter with a wildly aimed frisby-seemingly the standard requirement of the recreational Londoner.

Combating dehydration in the heat with a tepid bottle of water, I headed towards the section known as Speaker’s Corner. This is famously where open air speaking and debating  is allowed, crowds gathering to hear numerous speakers on all manner of subjects. As  this normally takes place on Sundays, today there were just two vocal rhetoricians, yet with the whole of the arena to themselves they had decided to set up shop directly facing each other. One was Christian, holding aloft a leather bound bible as beads of sweat gathered upon his brow. The other was Muslim, waving his arms in the air demonstrably as his voice rose over the heads of the thirty or so people who had gathered between them.

Take your pick, casual audience, who will you turn and listen to?

The Muslim: “Why do you let your children dress as they do, when you know that there are pedophiles everywhere, with cameras, taking photographs? ” ‘What did he say?, one woman to another.

The Christian: “You are running out of time, and who are you going to blame?” A puzzled frown on a photographing tourist.

The ghost of a woman, drifting and weaving through the gathered listeners, would occasionally shout over the shoulder of a flinching observer “Jesus was, and is, a Jew!” Sometimes in the direction of the Christian, sometimes in the direction of the Muslim, who was now holding up a book of his own, entitled Women In Islam, to mirror image his fellow preacher waving his bible.

He singled out a woman who was stood by me. “Beautiful American woman-do you want this book?” I’m from Austria. “Forgive me, do you want a copy? It is free.” I only came for the politics, but I got the day wrong.

It was intriguing in a detached way, and bypassers would slow and mingle with those already hooked.

In a jousting cacophony both speakers began addressing each other directly. “There will be a Judgement, don’t be among those who burn.”

“Indeed there will be Judgement my friend, and you will burn.” Fingers pointing, heads swiveling.

Some children giggled, watching an Irish Setter dog running playfully behind the gesticulating Christian orator, chasing yet another frisby with an unbridled joy in its ignorance of judgement.

“Your God is a God of hate! My God is a God of  love!”

Splinter groups formed among the audience, all thrusting and parrying. I heard a Japanese man saying “Jesus has nothing to do with your Jesus in Pakistan. God will not recognise you.”

Your God, My God, Your Jesus. It seemed everybody was claiming ownership of the Divine. Possession is nine-tenths of the problem.

My head hurt, whether with the sun or the rhetoric or both. I left the melee behind me, with one final “Jesus was, and is, a Jew!” hurled after my quickening gait.

Outside the gates a man who reminded me of the elderly Bill Crosby sat playing an amplified guitar. A permanent grin fixed upon his face, his eyes occasionally closed, he shone with the great delight he took in sharing his musical gift with everybody.

I waited awhile.