Sunday, 12 September 2010

First thing: Sunburst not Starburst.
The name *Starburst* seems to be my own, I got the name from the Digital Digging site for a specific henge and pits: the Catholme site.

Second Thing: British mythology and its fascination with The Otherworld.
I find British mythology difficult; it is hard to remember one myth from this land; they are convoluted and often cease making sense midway through. As a child I was never told British myths, Ovid had done too good a job and made the Greek stories so much more accessible.

Even now when I think about British myths it is like getting on an elevator and descending through periods of history; we are told that the Greek myths refer to archetypes and are therefore universal. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton used Greek mythology to provide a structure for their fictions and so it is that it feels as if the Greek myths are naturally our own home grown mythology.

Ovid spins the Greek myths into Roman, as the Greeks had spun well known myths of their time -such as The Epic of Gilgamesh- into Greek.

So what about The Celtic myths, do they bear any resemblance to Bronze Age myth?

Before the Romans came to Britain, Britain was well connected to Europe by trade, stories would have travelled in both directions across the sea and after the Romans, the Saxons too, brought stories. Latter, comes Norse mythology which often seems more than a little Greek to me.

The shorthand name for the pre-Roman British is The Celts. And there is a layer of mythology known as Celtic mythology which contains myths that are called British.

But before I get to those, just a note about how mythology is rarely natural or home grown. The 12th century chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth in keeping with the Roman tradition of writing spurious history wrote in his Historia that Brutus, grandson of the Trojan King Aeneas and his followers landed at Totnes in Devon -there is a stone to mark the spot- and in 1103 BC Brutus was crowned King of England.

What am I to make of such stories?
The Roman tale of Aeneas (The Aeneid) is really a pack of pork-pies. It tells how Aeneas escapes from Troy (carrying his elderly father through the secret tunnels) and sails away to wash up, eventually, in Italy. It was written by Virgil to glorify traditional Roman virtues and legitimize Julius Ceasar and yet it still contains references to Etruscan, as well as to Greek mythology. Contempory clues about Roman society are in there, even though very often what is written about and valued within the text represents things the readers themselves felt uneasy about; the text therefore providing a kind of comfort by showing Roman conduct as it aught to be, rather than how it actually was.

As Michael Grant (1971) noted, the Roman myths did not:
"...come up from the ordinary people as it has often been believed that a decent, respectable myth should. They were produced instead, by a whole series of different pressures coming, roughly speaking, from above."
There may not be such a thing as a pure Roman myth, nor a pure Greek myth or even a pure Sumerian myth. The Greek myths in particular are held up as an example of something isolated and specifically from Greek culture but there was immigration into Greece. The Greeks did not spring fully formed from the ash of Dionysus and Titan molded by Zeus. Mycenae was settled by Indo-Europeans who practiced farming and herding, close to 2000 BC and from other parts of the Aegean: Minoans, Phoenicians, Hittites, Egyptians and Babylonians. Both Homer and Hesiod had an enormous wealth of literacy behind them from the non-Greek near east. And the stories themselves travel far and wide, for instance fragments of the Gilgamesh epic were found at Megiddo in Palestine and the Babylonian myth of Adapa was found in Tell el-Amarna in Egypt (fifteenth or fourteenth century BC).

Stories and mythologies spread and change in their journey.

The question is, after invasion or an influx of missionaries, or devastation through famine, war and plague, how much remains of the original myth that was attached to a place or structure?

In my own experience -just by reading the Wiki about my old school -built circa 1976- not much of the history has been recorded by the people who attended. Or perhaps it was recorded, but was later deleted. The Wiki entry is very short, and contains this line and similar:
" of the happiest schools in the area as there is extremely few cases of bullying and the pupils are happy and comfortable in school"
Anthropologists and theologians require a myth to have a 'Sacred narrative' but as in the case of Aeneas and his grandson Brutus, and the Wiki of Leasowes High, myth may be used as state policy to engender social cohesion.

Myths are imported to explain institutions and structures that have lost their *real* history; but often the reason why something is built satisfies a deeply held sense of what is fitting and correct and may in fact be without a coherent plan or narrative to begin with! Confronted with Stonehenge people of my time see a several-times-finished-work-in- progress that was abandoned for reasons that were not written down. So we look for clues, for what is actually there and then (spiders all) we weave a narrative.

But we base it upon what we know...

A thread that runs through British mythology is a fascination with The Otherworld.

In the Mabinogion the Otherworld is Annwn. Unlike Arali in Sumerian myth, or Hades, Annwn is not divided from this world by a river or protected by a guardian dog.

Annwn looks just like this one but it's not...

The motif that runs through tales of Annwn is of pairs and parallels; of a king (his name being Pwyll) of this world meeting the king of Annwn and swapping places for a year; of his wife Rhiannon giving birth, the child is stolen and at the same time of a mare giving birth to a foal, also stolen. The child and the horse are brought up together, and Rhiannon does penance by acting as a horse -by sitting by the horse-block outside the gate and carrying people up to the court on her back.

Pwyll's kingdom was Arberth, a name that links Pwyll to Dyfed and on the Pembroke peninsula is found Pentre Ifan...a place already ancient when the Celts were telling tales of Pwyll. Pembroke is linked by Bluestones to Stonehenge.

So did the Celtic myths contain memory, or were they woven from a a story-teller's art.

I wish that I knew.

One story remains to tell: after the death of Pwyll, Manawyddan comes to Arberth to marry Rhiannon. He, Rhiannon and her son Pryderi and his wife go out one night to sit on the mound of Arberth. There is a clap of thunder and a thick mist surrounds them...when the light returns they are within the wasteland -everything has gone, the houses are all empty, no sheep or cows are in the field, no birds in the trees. They are alone in a suddenly empty land.

But it is only civilisation that has vanished...

They go out hunting and are led by a shining white boar to a castle that had never been there before. Their dogs disappear into it, and so does the boar.

Nothing comes out.

Pryderi enters and finds the castle empty except for a golden bowl hanging from four, thick chains that disappear into the roof of the castle, suspended over a marble slab.

Pryderi is mesmerized by the beauty of the bowl and reaches out to touch it. He is fixed in time and space, unable to move or to speak, stuck there with his feet on the marble, his hands on the bowl.

Rhiannon too enters the castle and she too reaches out for the bowl and becomes fixed.

Then there is a clap of thunder, the mist descends once more and the castle, Rhiannon, Pryderi and the bowl vanish....

The story (and it is long) concludes with wheat being brought from (possibly) England or Italy, the lifting of the spell of desolation and meanwhile and yet again Rhiannon must do time as a horse, having to wear an ass's collar hung around her head.

Does this story echo memory of a great famine?
And what of the great bowl and it's ability to send people into a trance, and into another world?

The bowl becomes ever more distant, in our time as the Holy Grail and the mound of Arberth turns into Glastonbury. Annwn becomes 'The isle of Apples' and on and on and on...Into a thousand science-fiction epics.