May 8th Helston Furry Dance

At the end of the May Day/Beltane Festival Helston in Cornwall holds its Furry (or Floral) Dance. It is normally on the 8th May, but it changes date if the 8th is a Sunday or a Monday (Helston’s market day) but it isn’t so the Floral Dance was held this year on Wednesday 8th 5th May.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels more of a ‘pagan’ festival, while Helston is a more sedate, gentlemanly, dance. Padstow is more fuelled by a belly full of ale, while Helston by a Pims No 1, or a Gin and Tonic?

Do, have a look at both youtube videos and watch the Padstow one until at least you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

Children born between the two days, May 1st and May 8th are considered to have been ‘born with the skill of man and beast and power over both.’

This Stinking Idol & the End of May Day May 2nd

An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft
An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft

Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583, fired a broadside at the tradition of dancing around the Maypole when he wrote a vitriolic attack on pagan practices. He said they had ‘as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell’ as they erected ‘this stinking Idoll’. Stubbes suggested that of the maids that went out to the woods on May Eve less than one-third returned ‘undefiled’.

The Maypole was stored at St Andrew Cornhill, which became known as St Andrew Undershaft. In 1517, it was attacked during the ‘Evil May Day riot’, which the Recorder of the time, Thomas More, helped quell. (300 were arrested and one hanged). The shaft was returned to its place under the eves of the houses in Shaft Alley, but apparently banned from being raised.

But in 1549, the curate of nearby St Katharine Cree Church made an inflammatory speech which led to a Puritan mob cutting the shaft into pieces and burning it. I always imagine the Curate’s sermons to be along the same lines as Phillip Stubbes attack on the Maypole:

But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale,
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue
twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete
Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen
drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is
couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about
with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted
with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and
children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared

vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they
strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set
vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fa!
they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the

a Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this
is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it
crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity,
credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides,
going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.

Phillip Stubbes from ”A Critical Edition Of Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie Of Abuses‘ By Margaret Jane Kidnie.

The unraised pole seems to have survived until the beginning of the Civil War, (1644) when it was destroyed. But at the Restoration of Charles II a new and huge Maypole was joyously erected 134 ft high (41 metres) in the Strand. This was danced around till 1713 when it was replaced and the original sold to Isaac Newton who used it to support the biggest telescope in Europe which was erected in Wanstead by a friend.

And that, my friends, is how you get from Superstition to Science in one easy story.

Old Print of Isaac Newton
Old Print of Isaac Newton

Postscript. I have always said that the sermon that led to the destruction of the Shaft in 1549 was made at St Paul but cannot remember where I read this. The suggestion that the Maypole in Cornhill was not used after 1517 seems strange because why then would it rouse a crowd to riot in 1549? Of the sources I have at hand, the London Encyclopedia mentions the riot of 1517 in its entry on St Andrew Undershaft but doesn’t elaborate more. ‘Layers of London‘ says ‘It was last raised in 1517 when ensuing riots led to the celebration being banned.’ which is definitive sounding. But is it? I wonder if it was banned for a year or two, then allowed again, and finally stopped in 1549?

First written in 2023 and revised on May 2nd 2024.

May Day May 1st

Bringing the Maypole, Bedfordshire. Image from ‘Romantic Britain’

Maypoles were often stored during the year. A few days before May Day they were repainted, and bedecked with May Garlands – mostly made from Hawthorn. The Maypole used in London in 1660 was 134 feet high. Tall straight trees were used, sometimes of Larch, and they might be spliced together to get the requisite height. John Stow says that each parish in London had their own Maypole, or combined with a neighbouring Parish. The main Maypole was on the top of Cornhill, in Leadenhall Street, and it was stored under the eves of St Andrew’s Church which became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft as a result.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels very ‘pagan’ or do I mean it is fuelled by an enormous amount of drink?

Here is a video, watch until you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

The celebrations begin on May Eve because the Celtic calendar starts the day at Dusk. This seems strange to us even though we perversely ‘start’ our day at Midnight just after everyone has gone to bed! The other choice, and maybe the most logical is, Dawn, but Dawn and Dusk are difficult to fix. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric, being half way between Dawn and Dusk.

Celebrations centred around the Bonfire, and for the Celts was sacred to the fire God Belinus, and May Day was called Beltane. Bonfires continued to be a part of the celebration into the 16th Century, and in places until the 20th Century. According to folklore tradition, the bonfire should be made of nine types of wood, collected by nine teams of married men (or first born men). They must not carry any metal with them and the fire has to be lit by rubbing oak sticks together or a wooden awl twisted in a wooden log. The people have to run sunwise around the fire, and oatcakes are distributed, with one being marked with a black spot. The one who collects it has to jump through the fire three times. Bonfires would have been on the top of hills, or in the streets in London.

May celebrations have a similarity to Halloween, which was also a fire festival and both are uncanny times when sprites and spirits abound. Hawthorn was a favoured wood not only because of its beautiful may flower but also because it was said to be the wood the crown of thorns was made from. It had the power of resisting supernatural forces, so was used to protect doors, cribs, cow sheds and other places from witches. Witches, it was said, got their power to fly from potions made from chopped up infants. The best protection was Christening and the custom was that christening took place as early as possible and normally three days after birth. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, so we celebrate his birthday on 23rd April. See my post for more on this subject.

Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be augmented by a bible, rowan, and garlic. Babies born between May 1 and 8 were thought to be special children destined to have power over man and beast. Weddings were frowned upon in Lent and in May, so April became a popular choice for marriage.

After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, other flowering plants, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree, or from a new-made grave. The dew was said to improve their complexion and was also used for medical conditions such as gout and weak eyes. Thinking of one’s lover on May Day might bring marriage within the year.

May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.

All Fools Day April 1st

April from the Kalendar of Shepherds

The first unambiguous British reference to April Fools Day is by diarist John Aubrey’s “Fooles holy day” in 1686, although he might have been referring to Germany. (‘We observe it on ye first of April… And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.)” For more details read hoaxes.org

But there is a possible earlier reference in Chaucer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale which I find quite compelling but most Chaucer scholars don’t. This is the text:

When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two

So, if you have been keeping up with me, you will know that the first lines are referring to March 25th, (when the world began) when God made Adam and Eve, and when the Church started the New Year and the year number moved one on. This was a major Church festival, usually followed by a week of holiness. The Roman New Year, January 1st, ended with a light-hearted festival called Saturnalia, and it is suggested that April 1st was, similarly, a day of release after the festival of the official Church ceremony of the New Year.

Chaucer’s last line says ‘Since March began thirty-two days have passed.’ A foolish person would not realise this is a reference to April 1st. Hence, this suggests a Fool’s Day already existed. Scholars tend to prefer to think that Chaucer was referring to May 2nd, counting the 32 days not from the beginning of March but from the end of March. I think they look at the second and third lines which read ‘That high March…. was complete’ and so add the 32 days to the end of March. Foolish in my opinion and not reading what Chaucer wrote.

I nearly always forget to honour April Fool’s Day (or April Fish Day as the French call it). But in Britain, we generally find that somewhere in our newspaper or TV station there is a April Fools Joke slipped in. The most remembered is the BBC piece showing film of Italian Farmers picking spaghetti from trees. Last year Harry and Megan proved irresistible and the Guardian reported that:

The Sun published a piece announcing the launch of Prince Harry and Meghan’s new video game “Megxit: Call of Duke-y” in which the royal couple try to reach California while dodging obstacles, including rival royals and the media, along the way.

This year this was the equivalent story (from the Guardian’s quiz on April Fool’s jokes:

Meghan Markle was criticised after it was revealed that when you put her lifestyle brand name – American Riviera Orchard – into the What3words location service, it points to a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who famously had a King Charles executed

Generally, in Britain, we play a prank and say ‘April Fool’ with great delight. But we are not allowed to continue beyond midday. The Scots used to call it ‘Hunting the Gowk’ and the main prank was to give someone a letter to deliver, and the person who opened the letter would read:

Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” and send the fool onto another leg of his or her’s fool’s errand. In Ireland the letter would read ‘send the fool further’.

April comes from Latin and it was Aperilis from aperio from ‘to open’ as this is the month when the Earth opens. In Anglo-Saxon the Venerable Bede mentioned that they called the month Eostremonath. But there really is no other evidence for the Goddess Eostre from where we get our word ‘Easter’. In Gaelic it’s the Cuckoo’s month ‘Ceitein na h-oinsich’. In Welsh it is Ebrill which comes from the Latin.

The image from the medieval Kalendar of Shepherds shows all the beautiful flowers blooming and a female sitting on the grass embroidering, and the star signs of Aries (a Fire sign, brave, independent and impulsive) and Taurus (an Earth Sign: stubborn, down to earth, sensual with good taste).

First published March 25th 4004 BC and republished on April 1st 2024

As Mad as a March Hare March 28th

Hares Boxing in Yorkshire by yorkshireroestalking

The expression ‘Mad as a March Hare’ comes from the displays of hare boxing that takes place as the Hare mating season begins. And no, it’s not male hares fighting in the spirit of romantic rivalry, but the female hares fighting off unwanted attention from the males. Hares are solitary creatures, and the mating season is, perhaps, particularly difficult for them. The Country File website has more on the subject. www.countryfile.com

There are also March Kittens and March Chickens. Edward Topsell in his ‘History of Four-footed Beasts‘ 1607 says the best Kittens to keep are those born in March. ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened‘ 1669 says: ‘Keep a black cock hatched in March as a protection against evil spirits: his crowing terrifies them.’ He also give a recipe for Cock Ale:

Eight gallons of Ale, a boiled March Cock, four pounds of stoned Raisins, half a pound of dates, nutmegs, mace. Beat the ingredients in a mortar, add to two quarts of Sherry. Add to the ale. Stop it in a container for 6 or 7 days. Bottle it, drink after a month.

Very weird. I challenge my readers to try it and let me know how it goes?

The hare is a sacred animal, it was sacred to Aphrodite:

‘For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree. At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young.’

Classical Texts Library. Philostratus the Elder, ‘Imagines’ Book 1.1-15 c 3rd Century AD. Translated by Arthur Fairbanks.

Research reported by Exeter University suggests that hares were worshipped in pre-Roman Britain. Julius Caesar wrote:

The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose.”

‘The Battle for Gaul’ Translation by Wiseman, Anne, Wiseman, T. P. Published by Penguin Random House, 1980 ISBN 10: 0701125047 (TP Wiseman is my professor for Classical Studies at Leicester University)

In Neolithic Ireland hares were found buried with human remains at the Neolithic court tomb at Parknabinnia.

illustration of a hare from 1873 fom the London Illustrated Almanac
The Hare

Hares are thought to be the original Easter Bunny although finding good evidence before Germany in the early modern period is difficult. There is a tradition that witches can be scared away at Easter. Exactly, how this works is not clear, but it has been said that witches could take on the form of a hare, and so Hare Pie and hare meat was eaten at Easter to rid the land of the witches. Or you could have a jugged hare. Jugging is cooking a whole animal in a container over water. Here is a recipe for jugged wild hare. Remember, you are not allowed to shot or trap them on a Sunday or on Christmas Day! For a discussion of hares and folklore, click here:

A jointed hare’s foot was considered very lucky and a remedy against gout, stomach pains and insomnia. (The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore by Charles Kightly, which I have used several times in this piece.) You can buy one on eBay. (Don’t click the links, it’s not an advert but a picture of an advert). I remember friends having rabbit feet which they carried around with them often on key rings?

Advert for a hare's foot from ebay
Advert for a hare’s foot from ebay

First published in 2023 and revised March 28th 2024

Stone of Destiny on display in Perth March 30th

Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.
Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.

The Stone of Destiny is, today, on display again at the reopening of the redeveloped Perth Museum, in Scotland. This is near to its ‘original’ home at the Palace of Scone.

The Museums Association reports that it is a ‘£27m development project ….funded by £10m UK government investment from the £700m Tay Cities Deal and by Perth & Kinross Council, the museum is a transformation of Perth’s former city hall by architects Mecanoo.’

As well as the Stone of Destiny, the Museum has Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sword and a rare Jacobite wine glass, which are on public display for the first time. This is the first time the sword has been in Scotland since it was made in Perth in 1739. https://perthmuseum.co.uk/the-stone-of-destiny/

Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny
Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny

Before Perth, the Stone was in London under the Coronation Chair for the Coronation of King Charles III (6 May 2023) . Before that, it was on display at Edinburgh Castle after being sent back to Scotland by Blair’s Labour Government as a symbol of the devolution of power from Westminster to the restored Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in November 1996. Before that, it was under the Coronation Chair from the time Edward I stole it (1296) from Scone as part of his attempted subjection of Scotland in the late 13th Century. So, virtual every English and British King has been crowned upon the Stone of Scone.

However, the Stone had a brief holiday in Scotland in 1950/51 after four Scottish students removed it from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950. After thee months, it turned up at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. It was briefly in a Prison Cell, then returned to Westminster for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

I’m guessing the-would-be liberators of the Stone, thought Arbroath was suitable, as the Declaration of Arbroath is the supreme declaration of Scottish Independence from England. Following the Battle of Bannockburn, and Robert Bruce’s leadership, the Scots wrote to the Pope of their commitment to Scotland as an independent nation. They said:

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”

The Pope agreed and Scotland remained independent until voluntarily joining England in the United Kingdom in 1714.

Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)
Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)

Before Edward 1 stole the Stone, it was at Scone Palace, upon which the Kings of Scotland were crowned, including Macbeth (August 14, 1040).

Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)
Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)

Those who attended the coronation traditionally shook their feet of all the earth they had brought from their homelands, and this over the centuries grew into Boot Hill, aka Moot Hill. So the mound represents the sacred land of Scotland. 42 Kings were crowned upon its soil on its Stone.

Before Scone, it was, possibly, in Argyllshire where the Gaelic Kings were crowned, Their most famous King was Kenneth MacAlpine and he united the Scots, Gaelic people originally from Ireland, the Picts, and the British into a new Kingdom which was called Alba, which became Scotland.

MacAlpine was the first king to be crowned on the Stone at Scone in 841 or so. He made Scone the capital of his new Kingdom because it was a famous Monastery associated with the Culdees who followed St Columba to Scotland. MacAlpine brought sacred relics from Iona to sanctify the new capital. And Scottish Kings were by tradition crowned at Scone and buried on the holy Island of Iona.

Before that, legend has it that the Scots bought the Stone from Ireland when they began to settle in Western Scotland (c500AD). The Scots, it is said, got the Stone from the Holy Land where Jacob lay his head on it and had a dream of Angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Jacob used the stone as a memorial, which was called Jacob’s Pillow (c1652 years BC).

But, questions about the Stone remain. Firstly, an angry Edward 1 failing to conquer the Scots makes a spiteful raid on Scone, but would the Monks meekly hand over the stone, or do they hide it and give him a fake?

Secondly, was the Stone brought to Scone from Western Scotland in the 9th Century?

These questions of doubt are based on the assumption that the Stone is made of the local Scone sandstone. If it were brought to Scone from somewhere else, it would be in a different type of stone, surely? So, either it was made in Scone, possibly for MacAlpine’s Coronation or the Monks fooled the English into taking a copy. So the English would then have been crowning their Monarchs on a forgery.

Ha! Silly English but then the Scots have spent £27m on the same forgery.

Historic Environment Scotland have recently undertaken a new analysis of the stone, which confirms: ‘the Stone as being indistinguishable from sandstones of the Scone Sandstone Formation, which outcrop in the area around Scone Palace, near Perth‘. It also found that different stone workers had worked on the stone in the past; that it bore traces of a plaster cast being made; that it had markings which have not yet been deciphered and had copper staining suggesting something copper or bronze was put on the top of it at some point in its history.

So it seems the Stone of Destiny was made in Scone.

 

The Beginning of the Universe as We Know It; Birthdays of Adam, Lilith, & Eve; Conception of Jesus, Start of the Year March 25th

Lilith is shown coming her hair and looking in a mirror
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia)

March 25th is the Annunciation—the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. (to see some very fine paintings of this meeting, look at my other March 25th post here)

March 25th is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.

Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logically structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. It is also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).

Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus probably because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods, but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia. December 25th might have been chosen by the pagan religions because it is the time when the Sun begins to rise, to the naked eye, further north each day, lengthening the day, increasing light and the promise of warmer weather.

So, Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he must have been conceived approx. 9 months earlier, which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun (because the Sun does not circle the earth in 365 days, or in 365 and a quarter days, but 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes which makes Calendars hard to align with the Sun). But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing my two posts on March 25th. And since writing that sentence I have had another revelation. But be patient.

So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being, so she would send the Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people, Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.

So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days, and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? Right? So March 25th.

This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).

Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember, Easter is a lunar festival, so its date varies each year. Births and deaths, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.

It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, I have just worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not the Equinox, March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.

Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. So, they got that wrong.

The Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:

  • Day 1: Light – March 20th
  • Day 2: Atmosphere / Firmament – March 21st
  • Day 3: Dry ground & plants – March 22nd
  • Day 4: Sun, moon & stars – March 23rd
  • Day 5: Birds & sea creatures – March 24th
  • Day 6: Land animals & humans – March 25th
  • Day 7: The Sabbath of rest – March 26th
  • For more information www.bibleinfo.com

So there you have it! Adam, Lilith, and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.

And that, dear Reader, is the very first time anyone has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this, but it is very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me, I have done a lot of reading about calendars and not spotted an explanation.

So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are numerous things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).

So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles, and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).

I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to March 25th until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year’s Eve on 31st December. So January 1st was the New Year, but the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.

December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But, today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year, and its festivals, is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st (or the Kalends of January as the Romans would have called it) would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice. Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult, and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival, much to our perennial confusion.

Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts.

Lilith

The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this, and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.

The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is gradually modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, let’s call them out, the Patriarchy. Lilith cannot be equal to Adam so she becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to propose that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is, therefore nor equal, but subservient to him. Lilith is now a significant figure in feminist folklore circles.

I wrote about more about eras and ages in my post which you can see her: Greater Cycles and the Six or Seven Ages

Attached to the watercolour of Lilith by Rossetti (at the top of the page), was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

The model is Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later, but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini which you can see here.

I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.

For more on the Annunciation, look at my other March 25th post here.

Yew Sunday Palm Sunday March 24

Giotto. Entry into Jerusalem from the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova (sent to me by Lucia Granatella)

Yew Sunday (Domhnach an Iúir in Irish) is the medieval name for Palm Sunday – this is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey, with palm leaves being laid in front of him. It has always been very curious to me this so-short-lived triumph preceding such heavy and heart breaking tragedy. It is the Sunday before the Betrayal, which leads to the Crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday. A busy week for the Church.

Palm Sunday can be celebrated by making crosses out of palms, or with processions bearing palm branches or eating special cakes (there is always room in any ritual for cakes). But in the North where do you get your Palms from? So, it was often substituted by Box, or Olive or Willow and particularly, in Britain and Ireland, by Yew. Yew is evergreen and is so long lived as to be a symbol of everlasting life (I wrote more about the Yew here).

Giotto Bondone was a Florentine painter of the 14th Century of whom Giorgio Vasari, in his essential guide to the artists of the Renaissance, ‘The Lives of the Artists‘ said of the 10 year old:

One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence.

There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily.

Written in 1550.

If you look at the painting, you will see, even more than his contemporary Duccio, the faces of the people are rounded and, and at least somewhat, individual. The crowd scene, particularly, to the right, has some depth and the people further away seem to recede from the viewer, rather than, as they often do in Byzantine style paintings, either float or seem to stand on or support themselves on each other’s shoulders. The Gate into Jerusalem has been rendered by someone who has seen something that he believes has the key to realistic scenes. One day it will be rediscovered, and named single-point perspective. Yes, Giotto doesn’t know the secret but he is working to find out what the trick is. The people in the trees are also in the distance. These are the giant strides that Vasari is referring to in the quotation above. Realistic people, in spaces with depth. The donkey is quite sweet too! Cimabue was particularly good at painting Crucifix scenes.

The Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova is a World Heritage Site and Giotto and his team covered all the walls and ceiling with frescos, depicting the Life of Jesus, the Life of Mary, and the Last Judgement.

Giotto, The Last Judgement. Cappella degli Scrovegni, In Padova. Wikipedia

Here is a real Digital Heritage treat – a 360 Degree tour of the Chapel! Follow the link below. If it seems to be taking a long time to load there is an information button which, once pressed will allow the panorama to load immediately.

https://www.haltadefinizione.com/en/image-bank/giotto-di-bondone-scrovegni-chapel-360-view/

The Wandering Cardinal Points & Digital Heritage March 21st

Photo  by Jordan Ladikos on Unsplash of a weather vane showing the cardinal points
Photo by Jordan Ladikos on Unsplash

This post was originally part of the Equinox Post but it was too long and I have moved the section on the cardinal points of the compass to here.

So, Spring has sprung. At the Equinox the sun now rises due East, and sets due West. The rising and setting points vary throughout the year, further North each day as we move to Summer Solstice, and further South as Winter Solstice approaches. Dawn and Dusk vary accordingly. The only fixed point in the Sun’s journey (as seen from Earth) is Noon. Every day, the Sun is at it highest point at Noon. And this is the definition of South, something that can be seen and measured. The Sun never strays into the North so the North is cold, remote, more mysterious, unknowable almost, except that it is defined by the opposite direction to South.

To my mind, it makes South/Noon very special. At Stonehenge, there are two exits. The biggest is aligned to the Midsummer Sunrise and Midwinter Sunset direction, but there is a smaller second entrance and this aligned due South. There is also a uniquely small standing stone in the main circle of Sarsens, and there was some sort of corridor heading South through the mysterious wooden phase which precedent the stone Stonehenge. So, we can be sure Noon\South was important at Stonehenge.

Sketch of Stonehenge showing the smallest Sarsen stone to the North of the Southern Entrance

Noon, derived from ‘nona hora’ in Latin and is ‘one of the seven fixed prayer times in traditional Christian denominations.’ (Wikipedia)

Strangely, North, somehow, has come to be the principal direction, the one that is shown on all decent maps, and the one that people of my generation and hemisphere think of as being ‘up’. The Google generation sees things differently. You have to fight with Google Maps to get it to put North at the top of the map, and all over Britain, tourist maps on walls or plinths, increasingly show up as being the way you are looking and nothing to do with North. My children mock me when I say ‘You come out of the Tube station and you turn up the High street Northwards.’ Their view of maps is completely relational – you turn left out of the tube station, you walk past the M&S. you cross the road and walk along the park. They do not see any reason to know where the cardinal points are. Although I see this as being part of the Decline of the West, and ‘things were better in my day’, it is simply returning to the way maps were produced in the past.

Representation of a Roman Map with the top being roughly East.
Representation of a Roman Map with the top being roughly East.

The four points of the Compass are called the cardinal points: “chief, pivotal,” early 14c., from Latin cardinalis “principal, chief, essential,” (online etymological dictionary).

Of course, there is another version of the cardinal points: the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wanders over time and does not coincide with geographic north. In recent times they are close enough, but in the past there have been huge variations and occasionally the earth has had geomagnetic reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions, including southwards. The last one was 780,000 years ago, and they take place on average very roughly every 500,000 years. The magnetic pole is caused by the molten iron in the earth’s core and mantle, which creates a dipole. Fluctuations in the dynamo flow of the molten iron cause occasional reverses. The science is very complicated and, even now, not entirely understood. Is it a random consequence of flow dynamics? Or do external events, like sinking continents, or meteor strikes cause the reversal? Of course, since the first use of compasses for navigation in the 11th/12th Centuries,  the magnetic pole hasn’t wandered enough to be of concern to navigation. It has wondered a few hundred miles of over the last 500 years but is speeding up, from 9km a year to 52km (since 1970).

Cavit – Own work Observed pole positions taken from Newitt et al., “Location of the North Magnetic Pole in April 2007“, Earth Planets Space, 61, 703–710, 2009 Modelled pole positions taken from the National Geophysical Data Center, “Wandering of the Geomagnetic Poles” Map created with GMT Wiipedia CC BY 4.0

My first proper job after university was as a technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying these phenomena. I say ‘proper’ because when I left University, I became an itinerant archaeologist, digging in Switzerland, Northampton, East Anglia and Nottingham before I got the job at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Keble College, Oxford.

I worked for Dr. Mike Barbetti who was an expert on the wanderings of the Magnetic Pole. His interest was firstly in the pure science of the subject, but he was keen to explore the applied uses of the science to Archaeology as well. So, after being appointed as a Research Fellow at Oxford, he set up an epic journey from his native Australia to Oxford that went via some of the iconic sites of Palaeolithic Archaeology, such as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, site of excavations by Mary and Louis Leakey.

In order to plot the movements of the magnetic north, scientists needed dated samples, and early human sites provided dated sites over a long timespan. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Another application was to determine whether deposits were fired or not. One of the sites Mike sampled was a candidate for the first evidence of fire in human existence. But was the scorched earth actually scorched rather than just discoloured?

As I said, Mike’s interest was discovering how the magnetic field of the earth changed over time, and, more importantly, what was the mechanism. He shipped back to Oxford samples of soil cast in Plaster of Paris. My job was to cut the samples up and to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the samples. I cut them up with an electric saw in a shed in the backyard of the Laboratory, and then we used a mini-computer to measure the direction and intensity of the magnetic field in the samples.

Soil contains particles of iron, and they align randomly, so a sample of soil has a low magnetic intensity and a random direction of magnetic field. But once heated up, the iron particles align to the current direction of the magnetic pole and its intensity is proportional to the intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field. These measurements provide a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field over time. And from these data, models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.

We could, therefore, tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire. Once we had built a reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic pole and the changing intensity of the magnetic pole we might be able to develop another dating method to rival radio carbon, thermoluminescence, and tree ring dating, all of which were being developed at the Research Laboratory in Oxford.

Having got the results, I then typed them up onto machine-readable cards, took them to the Oxford University Computer Centre with a copy on cards of the programme written in Fortran, and gave them to the Computing Staff. They were run through the Centre’s mainframe computer which was probably an IBM or ICL computer, and 24 hours later I received a print-out to proofread. When I located mistakes, I ran an editing run of punched cards, essentially instructing the computer: ‘on card two replace 2.5 with 2.6, and run the programme again’. I would pick up the results 24 hour hours later. It seems extraordinarily primitive now, but then it was an enormous saving of time.

And that, patient reader, was my early contribution to Digital Heritage and pure science. We published at least three articles in the prestigious Science Journal Nature. And it is slightly annoying that my citations in the groves of academia are still dominated by articles I co-wrote in the late 1970s!

The work was important in the development of the study of the earth’s magnetic field. However, the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occasionally, in specific circumstances, it can be useful, but those circumstances tend to be times when no other methods came up with the goods and most often in attempting to date kilns.

These are the papers:

Barbetti. M and K. Flude, ‘Palaeomagnetic Field Strengths from Sediments baked by Lava flows of the Chaine des Puys, France.’ Nature, Vol. 278 No 5700. 1979

Barbetti. M and K. Flude, ‘Geomagnetic Variation during the Late Pleistocene Period and changes in the radiocarbon time scale.’ Nature, Vol. 279 No 5710. 1979

Barbetti M., Y. Taborin, B. Schmider and K. Flude ‘Archaeomagnetic Results from Late Pleistocene Hearths at Etoilles and Marsangy, France’. Archaeometry 22. 1980

First written March 2023, revised 21st March 2024

The Spring Equinox March 20th

Video by Heike Herbert of Druids at the Spring Equinox at Tower Hill, London

So, Spring has sprung, not only meteorologically speaking but also astronomically. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring which started on 1 March and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The sun has been rising further north each day since December 21st, and it now rises due East, and sets due West, The day and night are roughly equal in length although by no means exactly. At 3.30pm today, the Sun was directly overhead at the Equator.

The term vernal comes from the Latin for Spring, and today is the primavera, the first day of Spring. The Anglo-Saxons originally used the word lencthen (Lent) for Spring, but later adopted the idea of the ‘springing’ of the year when the plants bud. In Middle English, the word Spring was also used for sunrise, the waxing of the moon, the rising tides (spring tides) as well as the sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair! Happy Spring Time!

Up to the 15th Century, the English also used the French term ‘prime-temps’ in the sense of ‘first times’. This follows the idea that the year is young, while Winter represents old age. As we shall see, on March 25th, there was also a belief that the world was created in Spring at what became the Equinox (after God created it!), and Jesus was also conceived at this point of the annual cycle.

Zodiacally, if that is a word, Spring is Aries (brave and impulsive); Taurus (sensual and stubborn), and Gemini (dynamic and talented).

Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert
Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert

The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill already today (or so the Daily Mail, but I will not give you a link to that perfidious rag). I have a picture of the ceremony from when I attended many years ago, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival last year and has kindly let me use photos for this post.

When I last went to the ceremony I remember noting, with some distaste, that the druid costumes seemed to be made with nylon sheets, and their footware was mostly plimsolls. I see the nylon has at least been replaced with cotton, and the plimsolls with trainers. Not quite sure what that pair of black trainers are doing in the picture! Photos of this year’s ceremony suggest a better sartorial turn out.

I say modern druids because there is no convincing evidence that the modern fellowships of Druids can trace their origins back to prehistory. Druidry was reinvented in the 18th Century — for example, the Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781. They were set up as societies in the tradition of the Freemasons and with a belief in the fundamental importance of nature. However, the British Circle of the Universal Bond, claim descent from a group persecuted by the Bishop of Oxford in 1166. Look at their website for more details and for an idea of their beliefs.

As to when the Equinox first had importance for human society, the answer is, probably, at least as long as we have been reasoning creatures. On January 24th, I draw attention to a recent discovery suggesting evidence for a Palaeolithic Calendar. This is what I wrote:

But recently, evidence of a Palaeolithic Calendar has been uncovered by an ‘amateur’ studying markings in cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other caves. Furniture maker Ben Bacon has collaborated with Professors at UCL and Durham and interpreted markings which suggest the use of a lunar calendar to mark the time of the year when particular animals gave birth. A Y shaped mark is interpreted as meaning ‘giving birth’ and the number of dots or dashes drawn by or in the outline of the animal or fish has been shown to coincide with the time of the year that the wild creature gives birth. For further details, follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/

At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park, they found three huge Pine post-holes in a line, erected in the Mesolithic period. They align to the direction of the Mid-Summer Sunrise and Mid-Winter Sunset (NNE/SSW) IF, and it’s a big IF, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself, which was built some 5000 years in the future.

Imaginary reconstruction of the Carpark Postholes

It is a bit of a stretch using two pieces of evidence so far apart in time but recent excavations have revealed that there are, on the site of Stonehenge, natural periglacial striations in the soft chalk bedrock which themselves point to the Solstices. These not only predate Stonehenge but also the three post holes, and may well have been visible from the time they were created when the glaciers melted.

Around 12,000 years ago (date from my memory so approximate), the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape. At Stonehenge, it gouged out striations in the chalk. By chance, or as ordered by the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature, the striations pointed to the Solstice Axis, just at a place where the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature provided super-abundance in the guise of herds of Aurochs, which are huge wild cows. Richard Jacques excavations in the vicinity of Stonehenge have revealed that the aurochs came to the Stonehenge area for grazing and water. Each one had enough meat on them to feed 200 people. So, by 8,000 BC we have what might constitute proof of recognition of the significance of the major movements of the Sun.

Foreground shows the periglacial striations aligned on the Solstice. Source Current Archaeology?

This is confirmed by the alignment of many megalithic monuments dating from 3,600 BC onwards, including, of course, Stonehenge. Also, all around the UK are long barrows and other burial mounds, many of which are indeed sighted/sited E-W to the Equinoxes. Many are fairly approximate, but at Loughcrew, County Meath in Ireland the Vernal Equinox shines right into the burial chamber, onto a stone marked by stone carvings. Similar alignments are recorded at Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley.

The Equinox also has another role, which is to be the anchor of the cardinal points – North, South, East, West, when there is a harmony, a balance in the world, and therefore a fortunate, a lucky time, a time to fall in love or undertake notable undertakings. Of course, as the Christian world awaits the commemoration of the death of the Messiah, marriage has to wait a little longer.

First Written in March 2023, and revised in March 2024