Sunday, April 11, 2010

Throwing swords into water

I fell in love with Cornwall the first time I crossed the Tamar. My Cornish great aunt and her Kentish Cockney husband drove me to their luxury flat in St. Ives, fed me up on local seafood and pasties, and set me off down the north Cornish Coastal path every day for over two weeks. I would hike all morning, and they would meet me in some tiny hamlet where I photographed holy wells, dolmens, stone circles,barrows, and Celtic crosses to my little heart's delight. I first encountered clouties, small threads tied to branches near holy wells, in Cornwall. I picnicked by Wicce Pool, on Green Man downs, and danced around hillforts. It was a magical time.

Cornwall is a religious soup. Celtic saints abound, and many switch genders with impunity. (Gender bending could easily be seen as Celtic custom!) I adore St. Senara, mermaid saint of Zennor Church; Saint Madron and Uny are listen as male and female depending on your hagiographers; St. Buryon church stands at a crossways of five roads, each with a stone cross. St. Brigid's well is near Launceston, and is one I haven't seen but hope to one day.

Cornwall, like the rest of the European Iron age, Roman Era and early medieval world, has its share of swords, knives, jewelry, pots, tankards and bones happily strewn across bogs, lakes, rivers, cricks and pools. I first encountered these watery finds in little historical museums in Cornwall, and then later saw more at the Welsh National Museum and National Museum of Scotland. This was some 30 years ago, and the research on European bog finds was just percolating in academic circles and had not reached small Cornish historical societies. Yet even in the 1980's, the museum volunteers told me the swords were possibly votive offerings to (gender undefined) gods.

Three decades and several huge archaeological finds later, and the picture of neolithic, bronze age, iron age, Roman age and modern era sword bunging is much more clear. Flag Fen, in Cambridgeshire, that huge repository of thousands of swords and knives, spans millennia in the sword tossing world! Archaeologists there are finding swords from the bronze age right through to the 14th century. My favorite archaeologist, Francis Pryor, sees this amazing continuity as proof of neolithic religious culture surviving well into modern times.

Pryor goes even farther. Instead of seeing the Christian church as stifling and eradicating pre-Christian beliefs, he points out that in many ways the early church just plopped down next to pagan sights, often with apparent ease. Early British worshipers plopped their swords into pools, went to church, and honored pagan devas turned saint. The Romans, in some but not all instances, persecuted druids, but the early church men and women often were themselves druids. (St. Bridget, daughter of a druid, is not so unusual at all.)

Pryor is somewhat at the forefront of British archaeologists re-writing the Dark Ages: contrary to the written, and biased, historical record, the archeological world can find not one shred of evidence that either the Anglo Saxons or the Vikings arrived in England as conquering armies. Instead, the research in the UK today points instead to massive trade amongst Britain, the Continent and even Byzantine cultures in the east. That trade began before the Romans, and continued without pause after the Romans bopped off. The bloody period of fighting and conquest we all learned about in our text books never happened.

All this archaeological research, just like in Israelite society, points to a far more complex, multicultural and polytheistic world. And a world where religious offerings to water continued unabated across eras. ( See some of Pryor's telly shows here. )

The sword offerings point, again, to a far greater role for women and Goddess than many modern pagans want to embrace. The endless web listings of Celtic Goddesses - all noted as "healing" and "fertility" Goddesses on website after website - make any online feminist research completely barf making. Go ahead and google "Celtic Goddess" yourself: find endless descriptions of Sulis and Coventina and Sequanna and even Brigantia as "water goddesses." That all the just mentioned Goddesses have swords tossed into their wells, pools, bogs and streams just means they were connected to "healing," if you want to believe that.

Francis Pryor, white, male archaeologist that he is, has, thankfully, other ideas. Since most of the boggy finds are swords/knives/jewelry specially made for offering, he neither connects the offerings with war or healing. Instead he believes they were part of denoting status. Want to show your high rank? Order a really amazing bronze sword, and then bung it in a pool to Sulis. Make a really cool iron knife, and drop it in a stream for Brigantia. Roman sword and offering inscriptions, left behind at Hadrian's wall and other sites, almost always mention the fulfilling of vows to the Goddess so honored. We can't "know" what the non-written offerings meant in quite the same way, but that centuries of people made gorgeous swords and shields and knives and jewelry and pots and tankards, and then all bunged them into the water for health - well, even if that is so does not the high status activity point to a greater position for female deity than "fertility goddess?"

And the neo-Celtic groups, now claiming that Celtic goddesses weren't of the same stature as the boys, have a lot of explaining to do. Nobody, nowhere, left thousands of swords in streams for one single male Celtic deity. Hmmmm. Who is high status now??? Given that the offerings do span so many millennia, I would suggest that high ranking women deities were of greater importance than those poor boys who never got a sword at all.

And I admit, for me, with my own learnings in blacksmithing, I find myself seeing swords in quite a new light. My daughter has been learning to smith - faster than I, truth be told, and she is a Society for Creative Anachronism warrior who deeply loves all things sword and knife related. I have spent many an SCA battle sniffing at all the silly sword play. Yet with archaeological research so clearly connecting high status non-martial offerings to female deity, I may have to work a bit harder on knife making the next time I'm at the forge.

Bridget herself has ever been the patron saint of blacksmiths, something Christian and Pagan writers have long tried to explain given our modern attitude as swords not being feminine. Yet the archaeological record is far more complex.

Swords were used as offerings for something that was clearly not martial for several thousand years. And those swords were given to Goddesses.

1 comment:

  1. The title of this post immediately brought to mind the image of Excalibur being given as a votive offering to the Lady of the Lake after Arthur's death. It also brought to mind the Ace of Swords, which is sometimes shown being held above water. I'm sure this kind of depiction bothers some folks because swords are the suit associated with air, but I think it illustrates that reason and intellect must be grounded in (or at least connected with) emotion to be used wisely.