6 - Seeking Out Pagan Traces
The old pagan Britons were in the habit of having fairs when they assembled at their holy centres for the big sun festivals The fairs went on just the same, whether they were pagan or Christian, and the missionary centres grew up where the crowds came together When the king was converted they just changed the Sun for the Son The common people never knew the difference.
They went for the fun of the fair and took part in the ceremonies to bring good luck and make the fields fertile How were they to know the difference between Good Friday and the spring ploughing festival?
(Dion Fortune The Goatfoot God)
Although we are living in a Christian country many of the sacred sites, the dates of Church festivals, and celebrations in both town and country places have roots much older than those of Christianity. Today we may forget that the common folk, living in rural areas, had little to do with the state religion, and for much of its history, the rites they were made to attend were in Latin, so the unamplified prayers of the priests would have meant little to about ninety per cent of the congregation.
In their own way, and in places which were long sanctified by Nature herself, they conducted their own simple rituals. At the foot of ancient trees, outstanding rocks, hilltops, caves or fresh water springs were the traditional sites of offering, supplication and thanksgiving. These were the sacred places to those of the Old Religion. They needed no roof to cover their shrines save the starry night sky, or a canopy of green leafy branches. Their gods and goddesses were the First Beings, vast, ancient, endless and yet still approachable by the ordinary folk, with their everyday worries, woes and wishes.
Of course, many ancient sacred sites are well-known places of historic and archaeological interest, famed for their vast circles of standing stones, earthworks, banks, ditches, burial mounds and barrows. The real antiquity of many of these enormous projects of human endeavour is only now being fully realised, and their age is being pushed back all the time. Many of the really elaborate monuments, like New Grange in Ireland and Stonehenge, may have been founded nearly 6,000 years ago, and these have passed through many stages of construction and reconstruction.
These mighty monuments must have had religious and magical associations and not merely been places of ritual burial for a few chosen dead, any more than the vast medieval cathedrals are simply extra special tombs for a few old bishops!
As well as the huge and famous antiquities there are literally thousands of much simpler, yet certainly as ancient constructions all over Britain, Ireland, Europe and North Africa, as well as around the Mediterranean Sea and on most of its islands.
Some timeless constructions are known to be complex temples, probably dedicated to the Earth Mother in whose shape they are constructed, for example on Malta and its neighbouring island of Gozo, where many figurines of fat, pregnant goddesses have been uncovered. In other places all we now see are single standing stones, hummocks over sacred mounds, or partial rings or rows of stones of various sizes. The glory and power of some of these ancient sanctuaries has been hidden, but those who are willing to use the old ways of seeing may experience visions of these outdoor temples in their heyday.
You can surprise yourself in this matter. Find a local place with really ancient connections, be it tumulus, quoit, fogou or hut circle, and try to visit it alone. Sit down, relax, and allow your mind to cross the vast river of time which separates that construction at its foundation from our modern, hurried world. Sink into meditation, with a silent request on your lips and in your heart to learn something of the wisdom which set up the structure, the powers which were handled there, the aspects of the goddess or god which were honoured.
Become as still and mentally alert as you can, and imagine a mist which wipes out time building around you and the sacred place you are visiting. Let the mist represent all the years that have passed and gradually, as it fades away, you may well find that the landscape you begin to see or sense is different. If there are people about ask, mentally, that you can communicate with them, and that they recognise you are coming as a friend and seeker to their holy ground. What they may say to you will probably be heard in your head, or envisioned behind closed eyelids, but it should make sense to you.
Although this is a very simple exercise, if you have been practising some of the meditative arts suggested earlier you will have a sure road, and clear access to the knowledge of the past. Nothing is or can be entirely lost. We have simply forgotten the ancestral keys to what was once known, perhaps even by ourselves, in previous lives.
We have also overlooked the powers of our ancestors too. No longer is the accrued wisdom of the grandparents passed on to their younger generations around the winter fireside, and the traditional skills of hand and mind shared in the garden or potting shed. Our grandparents may be dead, or shut away in an old peoples' home, or isolated by family splits or sheer distance. We do not reverence those people who are older, and may even have grown up mocking age and deploring old-fashioned ideas. Those who would walk in the ways of the Old Ones will have to re-learn the links of kinship, the value of inherited knowledge and the power of forgotten lore.
Living in a world which is changing week by week instead of generation by generation, we may well not be able to keep up with the speed of change, and change itself is the very essence of magic. Magic is the art of working with change, predicting it and shaping it by our trained wills. The world is rushing by us at an ever-increasing pace, at this cuspal tide of Pisces going into Aquarius. Perhaps the hardest lesson we all need to learn is to slow down, return to the pace of the horse and cart, not the train or aircraft. By slowing down, we change our focus on the way we see things, just as in dreams we feel as if we are running through treacle or moving as if we were in the Moon's gravity rather than that of Earth.
By being still and watching Nature at work and play we refill our depleted stores of natural energy and our awareness of what the world is really about. We can watch people, animals, the flowers and trees around us, no matter how urban we New Age pagans may be, in exactly the same way that our real pagan ancestors watched their world pass the doorways of their little houses. It is by observation that we can judge the mood of people and animals. Scientists have given us the term 'body language' with which wild animals and insects communicate with each other, and humans unconsciously express some of their innermost feelings, in a code few of us are trained to read.
An old country dweller could see a cow in a distant field and know that she was ready to calve, or that a horse was going lame, or that the household dog had scented a stranger, just by the way each animal was standing. That sort of trivial information was the vast store of knowledge on which the local wise woman or cunning man thrived. Most of it was almost intuitive; it was how the old dame, noted for her love spells, would already know that the girl calling at her cottage for guidance fancied a certain lad, or that one of the young fellows had his eye on a particular married woman. She would know, too, how best to fend off unsuitable matches or encourage, both by magic and common sense psychology, those couplings which she approved of. Today we have computer dating!
Many of the old sacred sites, the ancient holy places and healing springs are actually under our noses, but our television-focused eyesight misses them out, because they don't come with subtitles. We have to learn to look at anything which might give us clues in a new light; reconsider the local customs, the traditional dishes, the occasional fairs, or Morris dancers outside the nearby pub.
Each holds some of the tangled threads with which we are bound to our magical and pagan heritage, and given a little time, a bit of luck and some thought we may well be able to untwist the skein and see again its sacred colours, its secret pictures and its long-lost lore. For instance, every city must have been founded near water. This may sound trivial, but it is true! Somewhere, even under London (the encampment of Llud, god-king before the Romans came), there are healing springs, wells and old watercourses. Heard of Sadlers' Wells theatre? Underneath is an ancient well, and it is close to London Spa at Clerkenwell! Holborn, the 'holy stream'; Fleet Street, with its underlying noxious Fleet Ditch; the Strand - the watery connections are there if you start to look for them.
Take many of the famous churches too - St Paul's, built and rebuilt many times but always on that hill, upon which in pagan times there was a temple to the Moon Maiden, Diana. Perhaps that was why the mystical Prince Charles elected to marry his Diana there! Many of the city churches are linked by the powerful 'ley lines' which equally join better known sacred sites, like Glastonbury and Avebury. Temple Church near the River Thames, damaged in the last war, was set up by the Knights Templar, that magical brotherhood whose mysteries are another layer in the strata of the Western Mystery Tradition. Its remains still show the circular chapter house, surrounded by mysterious faces peering down at the fire-scarred effigies of the old knights.
Almost all old churches in Britain, certainly those built before about AD 1500, are secret repositories of pagan symbolism and ancient power. Because some New Pagans reject the Christian faith they also throw out the heritage, preserved in stone in many a village church, because of its new religious context. They should be willing to open their eyes and see with the simplicity of their country-dwelling forebears the hidden messages revealed by carvings and decorated windows, adorning the interior heights and the exterior pinnacles of old chapels in the green countryside.
Most older churches are aligned with the altar in the East, the first point blessed in both pagan and Christian ceremonies. In fact, the altar end of many old churches points at the place of sunrise on the day of the saint to whom the edifice is consecrated. Many early saints were, in fact, Celtic guardian spirits, or pagan gods and goddesses thinly disguised.
A little research into the ancestry of the saint to whom your nearest old church is dedicated might provide some fascinating revelation! The North door was nearly always blocked up, and in some cases was known as the 'Devil's Door', mainly, I suppose, because a chill North wind blowing through it would benefit neither priest nor congregation. But to the pagan the North was a sacred direction and it is here, often on the outside of the church, that many pagan carvings or symbols will be seen to this day. These range from the heads of cats, deer or bears to the vast array of Green Men, foliate heads or zodiacal symbols.
On the towers or spires, well out of the way of the common view, there are the faces of gargoyles, known delightfully in Somerset as 'Hunky-punks', again often basically animals or small demons, tongue-pokers or hybrid man-creatures, sometimes with exaggerated sexual parts. The famous 'Sheelah-na-gigs' turn up too, from time to time, showing the Goddess in her birth-giving or wildly erotic aspect.
The name, from Irish Gaelic, has never been fully understood, but the name of the British goddess Sul or Sulis, worshipped at Bath, the Roman Aquae Sulis', also means 'eye' or 'opening' and may well arise from the same concept. At Bath, the only hot spring in Britain gushes forth, red-stained in the sacred enclosure, and is visited by millions of unknowing pilgrims at the very ancient Goddess Shrine every year. It was known for its oracle and healing power long before the Romans came and set up their huge temple there, with its official haruspex, the State diviner.
Around the country, and all over Europe, you will find traces of the Old Gods wherever you look. Perhaps the most common, occurring not only in many village churches and city cathedrals but on ordinary Victorian houses and as a public house name or sign, is the Green Man. This is the witches' God, he who is the Lord of Growing Things, known in folklore as Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Goodfellow and even Robin Hood. His face is partly made up of leaves, fruit, grapes or trails of foliage issuing, like the words he has never spoken, from his mouth, or entwined in his hair and beard. He is the Son of Pan, that Greek God of all wild things, and has the same pointed ears, older visage and smiling expression.
Not only is he found all over minor buildings but there are many town halls, university buildings and theatres where his laughing face may be seen, peering from its leafy surrounds. Many of these carvings were quite recent for this particular image seems to have somehow appealed to the Victorians. Of course, they often decorated their municipal edifices with classical figures, goddesses and gods associated with art, music, law or commerce. Why this pagan face appears so frequently in that elite company is not clear, yet on elegant public buildings in many a city centre, moulded in plaster, carved in stone, shaped in brick or tile, the Green Man is to be found throughout the land. The power of the wild aspect of Nature, so often absent from inner cities and great housing estates seems to have caused his older presence to be felt, and inspired masons, architects and builders to include him among their thronging buildings.
Do really look at the long rows of terraced houses, and see if over the doors or at the tops of the windows or incorporated as decorative details on the faces of houses you can find this smiling old God of Nature. As well as his head there are often goddesses with crescent moons in their hair, or regal Mother Natures smiling down on passers by. Also the decoration on either side of the windows often shows some of the sacred birds, beasts or flowers long associated with pagan themes.
I have never found Christian traces used in similar ways, or decking out so many houses in the vast estates which sprang up to accommodate the workers in the early part of the nineteenth century. You will often find really beautiful brick or tile mouldings of apples and pomegranates, both scared to the Goddess in the Greek and Celtic traditions, roses, lilies, sunflowers and laurel, whose leaves were chewed to inspire the ancient oracles. The birds depicted in low relief often represent ravens or wrens, skylarks or herons, all, in their own way, sacred to the Old Gods.
The Green Man, as well as being quite a common pub name, is a character who turns up in many of the surviving country or seasonal customs. For example, in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, a group of green-clad dancers perform an extremely old dance early in September each year. Most of the dancers carry sets of reindeer antlers, long extinct in that part of the country, some of which have been carbon-dated to around AD 1000.
This does not guarantee that the dance has an unbroken tradition going back a thousand or more years, but it seems very likely. In earlier times the area was a forest and so deer hunting with bows and arrows, which forms a part of the modern dance, was a natural activity thereabouts. Also, like many similar dances in other places, the symbolic killing of an animal or 'hobby horse' usually depicts the overcoming of the darkness of winter, or harm to garnered crops, rather than some sort of animal sacrifice.
In other places the Green Man is part of the retinue of the May queen, nearly always a young girl, dressed in the White Goddess's colour, decked with flowers and ribbons, who is accompanied by Robin Hood or the Forest King. Sometimes the Green Man is made up as a giant, covered with a framework of wire or branches interwoven with early leaves or flowers. Sometimes he walks through the village or rides around the boundaries, marking out an ancient territory.
In South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth the Burryman comes forth, completely covered with the clinging green burrs of the burdock plant, and slowly parades about with two flower-topped wands in his outstretched hands, looking very like the far greater Green Man carved into the chalk hillside at Wilmington in Sussex. In many other annual, local processions there are green-clad fellows, always linked with a pagan past, when the carrying of green branches or flower garlands was the best way in which the country folk could celebrate the turning cycle of the agricultural year.
The Romans accused the Druids, those mysterious Celtic priests, of burning people in wicker baskets, as many people will have seen in the film The Wicker Man, but in reality it wouldn't have worked. It is far more likely that the Druids did indeed make wicker or woven figures covered with leaves or flowers, which were cast onto a fire or into the sea, or left to decay in a sacred grove, as an offering to the powers of the Elements. Today we still have the variety of corn dollies or kern kings, woven from the last sheaf of wheat, oats or barley, and bound with blood-red ribbons, signifying the life force still contained therein. In different places there are special patterns, depicting a traditional concept of the Corn Spirit. These are found in Britain, all over Europe, in India, Greece and South America.
It really is worth going to see any traditional customs which may be celebrated in your area or where you spend your holiday, for the wild pagan spirit has survived in a surprising number of places, and is demonstrating its power of life overcoming death in an enormous variety of different regional forms. There are plenty of books on calendar customs and folk festivals; many will be in the library. Whether just the local Morris side, dancing their weather magic with hankies or their male fertility magic with sticks, or the ritual dances with long or rapper swords, they are the latest inheritors of a long-surviving tradition of white-clad dancers celebrating in the open air.
Their bells ward off harm, their bright ribbons and flowers ask blessings of the Old Ones, their white clothes are worn in honour of the White Goddess, Maiden of Spring, fruitful Earth Mother in the long summer days. Even their name, Morris, may be derived from that other sacred Mother, Mary, and they are Mary's Men! Women are taking up some of these dances, but their own dances were different, performed in family groups, with spindles, winnowing sieves or domestic brooms rather than sticks, and they danced in honour of the Moon Goddess. These dances could be recalled, by far memory or remembering past lives.
Many dances today begin outside, or occasionally inside, some of the ancient churches. This may seem strange, but often those were the old pagan sacred sites, and at least a small church is better than a large supermarket on such holy ground. You will know the antiquity and sacredness of such places by the circular churchyard wall, for example, or the aged yew tree, which has little connection with bow-making or any other mundane purpose. Yews were sacred to the Dark Goddess, the Taker to Rest, and they may well have been there long before the church was built.
If you find an old church with a great yew, look also for the remains of standing stones built into the walls, or in the surrounding enclosure. Look too, perhaps with binoculars, at the faces carved on the North wall, or the tower or spire. Walk slowly round, feeling the energies, the power lines unaltered by the newer edifice. Examine the porch, any faces over the door, the angular masons' marks cut into the stone, often including the magical five-pointed star or pentagram, so popular with modern witches who may well not appreciate its ancient significance.
Venture inside, with a quiet prayer to all Holy Mothers and all sacrificed God-Sons, and look for the symbols of power. The roof bosses, acting like wheel hubs in the roof beams, are often carved or painted wood or stone, and these are the most common places for pagan or other symbols to be seen. Many have dragons, mazes, the heads of wild animals and magical flowers. You will find goddesses smiling down at you, or Green Men with their foliate faces, leafy beards, fruiting hair.
You may find goats, unicorns, mermaids, especially as carvings on pew ends of seaside village churches, or as misericords, hidden under upturned seats in the vast and lofty cathedrals, those ancient centres of power. Remember, most of the masons, carvers and builders were members of secret brotherhoods, just as much a Craft Guild as were the witches. Each in their own way found methods to preserve their holy symbols, their own mythology, their own animals and trees of power.
Not only did the Church unknowingly preserve the faces of the Old Gods in their roofs and towers, but they also kept the ancient pre-Christian festivals. One of the early Church Fathers insisted that new churches were built in places where the people were accustomed to go to worship on their older feasts, which is why small lonely chapels exist on many an uninhabited hilltop, or in remote valleys. Many of these high churches are dedicated to St Michael who took on many of the aspects of the earlier Sun God.
Michaelmas is around the Autumnal Equinox when day and night are equal, and Michael is a saint who interacts with the power of darkness, seen in the newer faith as the Devil. St Michael, unlike St George who is another solar-type saint, does not slay his adversary but overcomes him. Thus the Light-bringer, Lucifer, is balanced with the Lord of Fire, St Michael. In the spring this pattern is reversed.
Keeping holy the ancient high places, using their magical or healing springs (a frequent feature of old chapels is a water well of some sort) in the new religion, celebrating harvests, wakes, gatherings and partings in the traditionally sacred places, has allowed us, two or four or ten thousand years later, to be reminded of those things which were blessed or magical.
Take off the blinkers which prevent you considering any part of the newer faiths, and underneath their dark surface you will see the green fire of Mother Nature's own religion, its sacred centres, its holy days, preserved and shining. The Goddess never dies; she cannot die for she is the Bringer of Life, just as the God is the Bringer of Light.
You will need to spend at least fifteen to twenty minutes every day you can in some sort of meditation practice. You can do it whilst walking, or doing mundane tasks, waiting for transport or commuting, as well as at deliberately set aside moments at the start or end of your day. Choose aspects of the gods, folk or hero tales, symbols or even the odd bits of information all your research will dredge up as themes. Write down whatever you discover, for your researches may prove very valuable.
During the sixth moon you will need to look for survivals all round you, many, indeed, almost under your nose. Put aside any misconceptions and go and explore a local old church or historical monument. Try to see it as it was when first built, and think about the folk who worked at it.
Try to find out what the oldest local construction is, and if archaeologists have ever dug in your area. Reports of ancient findings will be in the reference library. Search the nearest museum for old artefacts or traditional happenings, perhaps now no more. What pagan traces can you find there?
Make a Green Man mask, using leaves on a thin card base - if it happens to be winter, make the leaves from green card, or paint them on. See if you can discover anything about the 'Mask Prayer' said by some pagans as they changed into their magical personality. Try to write such an invocation, asking for help to become your magical self.
Who was the goddess most closely associated with the Green Man? Make a mask or garland to represent her magical powers.
Do they have a maypole in your area, and do the local schoolchildren elect a May Queen or King? Is there a turf maze or a hedge labyrinth? Using an equal-armed cross with a dot at each quarter, draw a unicursal maze. You can make these big enough to walk round, marking the walls with string or lawn mowings!
Find out how to make corn dollies - handicrafts shops sell kits or books of instructions. These can also be made of lavender stalks, and varieties of rushes, which can be woven to make St Bridget's Cross.
Try tying a knot in a narrow strip of paper and carefully flattening the resulting knot, until it is an even shape. Why is this a Witch's Secret? What use can you make of such a pattern?
Here are some more books to sample or collect:
Janet and Colin Bord, Mysterious Britain (Garnstone Press)
Brian Branston, The Lost Gods of England (Thames and Hudson)
Diana Carey and Judy Large, Festivals, Family and Food (Hawthorn Press)
Paul Devereux, Places of Power (Blandford Press)
Marian Green, The Elements of Natural Magic (Element Books)
Doreen Valiente, Natural Magic (Hale)
Ralph Whitlock, In Search of Lost Gods (Phaidon Press)