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

St. Patrick’s Day, St Albans, Nicholas Fuentes, & Cats March 17th

Stained Glass window depicting St Patrick with a  crock and a castle
Stained Glass window depicting St Patrick (source of image, lost in the mists of time!)

St. Patrick has a very interesting autobiography (Confession).  He was captured by Irish pirates while living in a Romano-British Town.  He says his father was a Decurion and a Deacon which suggests elements of Roman political organisation continued.  No one knows the dates of St Patrick’s life but these titles suggested an early date perhaps just after the end of Roman rule.

The town he lived in was called Bannavem Taburniae.  Many places have been proposed for it.  The closest linguistically is Bannaventa in Northamptonshire but this seems a very unlikely place for Irish raiders to land, being about as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in Britain!

Scholars have suggested South Wales and the Scottish borders most commonly.  But my favourite suggestion is Battersea in London.  This was made in the pages of the London Archaeologist by editor Nicolas Fuentes. 

Fuentes was one of a pioneering group of archaeologists when Rescue Archaeology first began a campaign to record the archaeology, being destroyed by massive redevelopment of town centres in the 70s.

He changed his name from the anglicised Nicholas Farrant back to its original Fuentes and wrote a magnificent series of papers which located St. Patrick in Battersea; St Alban’s execution in London and all 12 battles of King Arthur around Greater London.

All were well argued, but as a set they do raise an eyebrow, being unsupported by any clear evidence, and, as far as I know, without scholarly support.  The one I really like is St Alban being martyred in London because it reminds everyone that the first reference to St Alban, which is by Gildas in the 6th Century, places the execution of the Saint firmly in London. It makes sense of the story that Alban, keen for martyrdom, gets God to part the River so he can get quickly to the execution spot. In Gildas’s case, the Amphitheatre is in Roman London, and the river needing parting – the mighty Thames. Anglo-Saxon historian, the Venerable Bede places St Alban’s death firmly in St Albans, but the river that God needs to part – the River Ver, is a piddle, and Alban could have crossed it easily, hardly requiring anything more than wellington boots.

To my, unscholarly mind, when we worship people we venerate them, chiefly, at their birthplace and death place. So to me, it makes sense that St Alban’s main shrine was at Verulamium where he was born (now known as St Albans) and London where he died. The hagiography of St Germanus of Auxerre tells us that Germanus came to an amphitheatre for a religious debate about 15 years after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, and then went to a nearby shrine dedicated to St Alban. Unfortunately, the writer of the memoir is not really interested in post-Roman Britain, so does not tell us whether it was in London or St Albans. But there is an early church dedicated to St Alban just by the Roman Amphitheatre in London, although archaeology does not reveal any evidence early enough to suggest the Church is that early. Fuentes, argued that London as the Capital was likely to have been the place where capital punishments were carried out, particularly in the case of a Roman Citizen like Alban. I must note that in placing any credibility to Fuentes theory, I am standing largely alone.

stained glass window from Gloucester Cathedral of St Patrick being taught by St Germanus

I’m not so convinced by the 12 Battles of King Arthur, for which there is just never going to be enough evidence to locate, and they are more likely to have been spread throughout Britannia.

So, to the point – St Patrick in Battersea?  The evidence, as I remember it, was really only the suggestion that Battersea was derived from Batrick’s Island or originally Patrick’s Island.  The word ‘sea’ being used in that sense along the River Thames as in Chelsea, Thorney, Putney derived from ey which is short for eyot (island).

St Patrick lived as a teenage slave for 6 years, then escaped from captivity in Ireland and returned home. Trained as a priest, in perhaps Auxerre (home to St. Germanus who is another crucial witness to post Roman Britain) and returned to Ireland to begin the conversion to Christianity. He is the Patron Saint of Ireland, with St. Brigitte and St. Colomba.

Another candidate for Bannavem Taburniae’ comes from Andrew Breeze FSA. I read about this in Salon IFA, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries, and it is also discussed in this History First article. Breeze has revived a theory that the Saint comes from the West Country, and that the ‘Bannavem Taburniae’ is Banwell, near Weston-super-Mare in North Somerset. He suggests that ‘Bannaventa was a Latinisation of a Brittonic name that included banna, for a bend’, crook or peak. Venta is a well known word for an area of local administration or marketplace (for example, Venta Bulgarum, was the name for Winchester in the Roman period.) . He suggests that these ‘elements, as well as the Berniae element of ‘Taburniae’, can be found in the name Banwell, itself a compound name of the Brittonic ‘Banna’ and the Old English wylle, both meaning pool, or in the names of surrounding villages.’

mage credit: Looking south from Winthill, near Banwell, Somerset, Colin S Pearson; Banwell in Somerset, Google Street View
Image credit: Looking south from Winthill, near Banwell, Somerset, Colin S Pearson; Banwell in Somerset, Google Street View

What it has over the London theory is that it is more likely to have been subject to Irish Raiders than London. But, for me, it is just another theory based on placename evidence that might or might not be true.

And least we forget, today is also St Gertrude’s Day, patron saint of Cats.

comical post from facebook of St Gertrude Patron saint of cats
Facebook Post by a friend

St. Walburga and St. Ethelbert of Kent’s Day February 25th

engraving of St Walburga
St Walburga
(public domain)

Yesterday, was the Feast day of two very important Saints. Walpurga was the Abbess of Heidenheim in Germany. She was a nun at Wimborne in Dorset who, with her brothers St Willibald and St Winebald accompanied St Boniface of Crediton (in Devon) on his mission to convert the Germans to Christianity. They all became leading figures in the new German Church. Willibald set up the Monastery at Heidenheim, which was a duel monastery housing both Monks and Nuns, and his sister became Abbess of the Monastery in 761.

In 870, St. Walpurga remains were ‘translated’ to Eichstätt, which St Willibald had set up as the Diocesan centre of this part of Bavaria. This was done on the night of April 30th/May 1st and is now notorious as Walpurgis Night. This is the night of May Eve when witches are abroad up to all sorts of mischief, May Day being one of the main pagan festival days.

Walpurgis is the Saint for battling pest, rabies, whooping cough, and witchcraft. She was moved again in 1035 when she was enshrined at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga which was named after her and which ‘which continues to this day.[4][5]’ Terrible things happen on Walpurgis Night in Dracula by Bram Stoker and the night has now become a trope for Heavy Metal Bands, doyens of horror stories and the Satanic. More about this on April 30th perhaps?

Stained glass window showing Baptist of King Ethelbert of Kent by St Augustine watched by Queen Bertha. In St Martins Church, Canterbury
Stained glass window showing Baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by St Augustine watched by Queen Bertha. In St Martins Church, Canterbury

St Ethelbert is responsible for welcoming the Augustinian Mission to the Angles sent by the Pope, St Gregory. This re-established Christianity in Easter Britain, and set up the Anglican Church or the Church of England as it became known.

I tell this story in this post:

London Stone as a Palladium February 20th

OLD ENGRAVING OF London stone
Old Engraving of London Stone, Cannon Street

On February 18th, I revised a post about Ravens, King Bran’s Head and other Palladiums that protected Britain (or London) from invasion. If you missed it, look here. A possible Palladiun I missed out is London Stone. To remind you, London Stone is an eponymous stone found in Cannon Street, in the heart of the City of London, It is first mentioned in the 12th Century, and no one knows why it was famous.

In 1862, an ‘ancient proverb’ surfaced:

“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”

It was made anonymously in the journal Notes and Queries. In Welsh, it was “Tra maen Prydain, Tra lled Llyndain’ This verse, if genuine, would link the Stone to Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder of London. (To be precise: by genuine, I don’t mean it would prove the stone was linked to King Brutus, I mean, if genuine, it would prove that in the medieval period the stone was linked to Brutus.)

However, the writer has been identified as Richard Williams Morgan, who was a passionate Welsh Nationalist and prolific author, who was not very scrupulous with his analysis of sources. As no earlier source can be found, it is thought Morgan made it up.

He lived in London in the 1850s and was very struck by the London Stone. Archaeologists prefer the idea that London Stone it is, likely, a milestone from which the Romans measured distance. For Shakespeare, it was the stone on which rebel Jack Cade claimed lordship of London. For the romantic, it was a coronation stone; a stone of power; the sword in the stone stone; or an ancient megalith. The truth is, we have no idea. It has been called the London Stone since the 12th Century, but why was it so named and what was it ‘for’ or symbolic of, we still don’t know.

picture of london stone from the inside
Pic by Graham Hussey pic shows the LONDON STONE which is in Canon Street, London .pic taken inside the Tech Sports shop

Morgan came to the conclusion it was the stone plinth on which the original Trojan Palladium had stood. This was a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, that protected Troy from invasion and which was stolen by Odysseus and Diomedes shortly before the successful Trojan Horse plot. It was then taken to Italy.

Morgan’s idea was that King Brutus brought it from Rome when he sailed into Exile in Britain. Brutus, was a descendent of Aeneas. Aeneas was the only Trojan leader to escape from the destruction of Troy, who found his way to Rome, after leaving Dido in Carthage. He was the ancestor of Romulus who founded Rome, but also the ancestor of King Brutus. Brutus gathered all the Trojan slaves and exiles and sailed to found a new Troy in our green and pleasant lands. His new capital he called Troia Nova, which became Trinovantum, then Lud’s Dun, and finally London.

Morgan’s theory held that the Stone was used as the altar stone of the Temple of Diana (supposedly on the site of St Pauls Cathedral) and set up by Brutus.

Morgan was the first person to link London Stone with Brutus, or so people thought and still think (see Wikipedia, until 2018.

Picture of the plinth in which London stone is rehoused recently
London Stone as recently rehoused.(Photo K Flude)

John Clark, Emeritus Curator at the Museum of London, in 2018, found a reference to a narrative poem of the 14th Century, that links London Stone to Brutus and to the future prosperity of London. Just as Morgan did. So, it makes it possible, at least, that Morgan did not just make the link-up but draw on this medieval ‘tradition.’

Brutus set up London Stone
And these words he said anon:
‘If each king that comes after me
Makes this city wide and roomy  
As I have in my day,
Still hereafter men may say 
That Troy was never so fair a city  
As this city shall be.’

From Burnley & Wiggins 2003b, lines 457–64(John Clark’s modern English version)

For the full story, see John Clark’s article.

Recent archaeological discoveries that London was the site of Late Neolithic feasting on a possibly large scale (discussed here🙂 makes the chances that the stone is a ‘ritual’ stone from prehistory slightly more likely than previously thought. At least that is my opinion.  But, of course, there is still no evidence that London Stone is prehistoric, nor that Brutus actually existed.

Written in 2023 and revised in February 2024.

The Raven, the Palladium and the White Hill of London February 18th

Shows a photo of a missing Raven at the Tower of London
The Independent January 2021

The Raven – Corvus corax – is hatching. An early nesting bird, and the biggest of the Covids. They were pushed to the west and north by farmers and game keepers but are making a comeback and finding towns convenient for their scavenging habits. So they, again, cover most of the UK except the eastern areas.

Their habits, and their black plumage has made them harbingers of death. In poetry Ravens glut on blood like the warriors whose emblem they are. Here is a very famous quotation from Y Gododdin, a medieval poem but thought to derive from a poem by the great poet Aneirin from the 7th Century

He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur.’

Aneirin-he-glutted-black-ravens

This is one of the much argued-about references to Arthur in the ‘Was he a real person’ argument.

The Raven was also the symbol of the God-King Bran. Bran was one of the legendary Kings of Britain and his sister, Branwen, was married to the King of Ireland. To cut a long story short, which I hope to tell in further detail on another occasion, Branwen was exiled by her Irish husband to the scullery. She trained a starling to smuggle a message to her brother.

Bran took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but the ships were becalmed and so Bran blew the boats across the sea – he was that mighty a man.

Bran was mortality wounded in the battle that followed, having previously given away his cauldron of immortality to the Irish King in recompense for the insults given to the Irish by his brother.

So, the dying Bran, told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill in London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, and the journey home took 90 years.

At last they got to London where he told his men to bury his head on the White Hill, and as long as it were there Britain would be safe from foreign invasion.

This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’

A raven landing with a brown background
By Sonny Mauricio from Unsplash

But many years later King Arthur saw no need for anybody or anything other than himself to protect the realm so he had the head dug up. Thus the Saxons won the Kingdom from the Britons. This was one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.

The White Hill is said to be Tower Hill with its summit at Trinity Gardens, although Primrose Hill is sometimes offered as an alternative. If we want a rational explanation for the story, there is evidence that Celtic cultures venerated the skull, and palladiums play a part in Celtic Tales.

A Palladium is something that keeps a city or country safe, and was named after a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, which protected Troy. Perceiving this Odysseus and Diomedes stole the Palladium from Troy shortly before the Trojan Horse episode. The palladium then went to Italy (I’m guessing with Diomedes who is said to have founded several cities in Italy), and ended up in Rome.

The Romans claimed to be descendents of Trojan exiles led by Aeneas so it was back with its rightful owners. It protected Rome until it was transferred to the new Roman capital at Constantinople, and then disappeared, presumably allowing the Ottoman Turks to conquer the City of Caesar.

So what was Arthur doing destroying the palladium that kept Britain safe? Vanity is the answer the story gives. But, perhaps, it’s a memory of Christian rites taking over from pagan rituals. God, Arthur might have thought, would prefer to protect his people himself rather than they rely on a pagan cult object.

The story of Bran’s head is inevitably linked to the Ravens in the Tower who, it is still said, keep us safe from invasion, and so we clip their wings and get in a tiz when one goes missing.

Sadly, and I am probably more sad about this than most others, Geoffrey Parnell,who is a friend of mine told me that while working at the Tower of London he searched the records assiduously for the story of the ravens and found no evidence of the tale before the 19th Century and concluded that it was most likely a Victorian invention.

The Welsh Triads give a total of three palladiums for Britain.

Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain;

The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island;
The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which llud son of Beli concealed;
And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.

All good but then came the three unfortunate disclosures:

And there were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed.
And Gwrtheyrn the Thin disclosed the bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed form the love of a woman: that was Ronnwen the pagan woman;
And it was he who disclosed the Dragons;
And Arthur disclosed the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.

Gwrtheyrn is Vortigen, the leader of the Britons after the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, one or two leaders before Arthur.

The Dragons were making a terrible noise, causing miscarriages and other misfortunes, and King Ludd, whom legends says gave his name to London (Ludd’s Dun or Ludd’s walled City), had them buried in a cavern in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The Dragons represented the Britons and the Saxons. Vortigern in trying to build a castle in Snowdonia at Dinas Emrys disturbed the Dragons and their disclosure caused the Saxon conquest.

Gwerthefyr is Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, who was keeping the Saxons out, but his father betrayed his own people for the lust of Rowena the daughter of Hengist, the Saxon.

After Vortimer’s death his bones were buried at the chief ports and they kept the country safe.  But they were moved to Billingsgate which allowed the Saxons to land safely on the Kent coast and consolidate their increasing hold over Britain and turning it into Englandw

Written in February 21 revised in February 23 and 24

Constellation of Gemini overhead February 10th

Photo  of consteltion of gemini with connecting lines to show it better
Till Credner – Own work, http://www.AlltheSky.com from wikipedia

Gemini should be almost overhead in the Northern Hemisphere, and can be picked out by its two brightest starts, Castor and Pollux. Gemini can be seen from September to May. But between September to November it is only visible in the morning before sunrise. It is best viewed from January to March. For evening viewing it is possible from December to May In February it should best visible at 9.00pm.

I will follow this post up with another one about the Twins on July 15th but here are the basic details from that post:

The Divine Twins, the Dioscuri, were horsemen, patrons of calvary, athletes, and sailors. Pollux is the son of Zeus and Leda (raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan). His twin brother has a different and mortal father, the King of Sparta and the same mother, Leda. So they are examples of heteropaternal superfecundation.

One is therefore immortal and the other isn’t. They had many adventures including sailing with Jason as Arganauts.

According to some version of the story, Castor was mortally wounded, and Zeus gave his twin brother the option of letting Castor die while Pollux spends eternity on Mount Olympus, or sharing his immortality with his brother. He agreed to the latter, and the twins spend half their year as the Constellation of Gemini and the rest, immortal, on Mount Olympus. Thus, they are the epitome of brotherly love.

Their sisters were, no less than Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. But more about them in July.

Diagram of H. A. Rey‘s alternative way to connect the stars of the constellation Gemini. Twins are shown holding hands. Wikipedia AugPi CC BY-SA 3.0

See Also Almanac of the Past on Gemini.

Candlemas February 2nd

From the Illustrated London Almanac 0f 1873

Candlemas is a very important festival of the Church, celebrated throughout the Christian world. It is the day Jesus is presented to the Temple as a young boy when Jesus is prophesied to be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and so the day is celebrated by lighting candles.

It is also called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is 40 days after the birth of Jesus which was fixed as the 25th December by Pope Liberius by AD 354. So it is the end of the postpartum period ‘as the mother’s body, including hormone levels and uterus size, returns to a non-pregnant state’.

It is also one of the cross quarter days of the Celtic tradition, that is halfway between Winter Solstice and May Day. The candles also suggest a festival marking the lengthening days. It is probably another of those festivals where the Christian Church has taken on aspects of the pagan rituals, so Brigantia’s (celebrated at Imbolc on February 1st) role in fertility is aligned with the Virgin Mary’s.

Folklore prophecies for today: ‘If it is cold and icy, the worst of the winter is over, if it is clear and fine, the worst of the winter is to come.’ This suggests that 2024 has the worst of winter yet to come.

It’s also the official end of all things Christmas. For most of us Christmas decorations were supposed to be pulled down on January 5th, but, the Church itself puts an end to Christmas officially at Candlemas so Cribs and Nativity tableaux need to removed today.

Robert Herrick has a 17th Century poem about Candlemas:

Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

https://www.catholicculture.org

First published 2022, revised 2023 and February 2024

Festival of Imbolc, St. Bridget’s Day February 1st

Today is Imbolc, one of the four Celtic Fire Festivals. It corresponds with St Bridget’s Day, which is a Christian festival for the Irish Saint, and is the eve of Candlemas. Bridget is the patron saint of all things to do with brides, marriage, fertility, and midwifery (amongst many other things, see above). And in Ireland, this year (2024) is the very first St Bridget’s/ Imbolc Day Bank Holiday!

St Bride,s Statue St Bride's Church. Fleet Street
St Bride’s Statue, St Bride’s Church. Fleet Street from K.Flude’s virtual tour on Imbolc

St Bridget, aka Briddy or Bride, converted the Irish to Christianity along with St Patrick in the 5th Century AD. She appears to have taken on the attributes of a Celtic fertility Goddess, called Bridget or Brigantia, so some doubt she was a real person. There are Roman altars dedicated to Brigantia, and it is thought that the Brigantes tribe in Yorkshire and the North were named after the Goddess. The Brigantes were on the front line against the invading Romans in the 1st Century AD, and led by Queen Cartimandua, It is interesting that two of the British leaders facing the Roman invasion were women. Cartimandua tried to keep her independence by cooperating with the Romans, while, a few years later, Boudica took the opposite strategy. But both women appear to have had agency as leaders of their tribes and show a great contrast with Roman misogyny.

altar to Brigantia
Altar to Brigantia from K Flude’s virtual tour on Imbolc

There are many wells dedicated to St Bride. They were often used in rituals and dances concerned with fertility and healthy babies. And perhaps, the most famous, was near Fleet Street. Henry VIII’s Palace of Bridewell, later an infamous prison, was named after the Well. St Bride’s Church has long been a candidate as an early Christian Church, and although the post World War Two excavations found nothing to suggest an early Church, they did find an early well near the site of the later altar of the Church, and by the remains of a Roman building, possibly a mausoleum. Therefore, it is possible that the Church was built on the site of an ancient, arguably holy, well.

St Bridget's Well Glastonbury
St Bridget’s Well, Glastonbury

The steeple of St Brides is said to be the origin of the tiered Wedding Cake, which, in 1812, inspired a local baker to bake for his daughter’s wedding.

Steeple of St Brides Fleet Street
Steeple of St Brides Fleet Street

Imbolc and St Bridget’s Day are the time to celebrate the return of fertility to the earth as spring approaches. In my garden and my local park, the first snowdrops, violets, and daffodils are coming out, and below the bare earth, there is a frenzy of bulbs and seeds budding, and beginning to poke their shoots up above the earth, ready for the Spring. In the meadows, ewes are lactating, and the first lambs are being born.

Violets, bulbs, and my first Daffodil of the year. Hackney (2022), London by K Flude

I, occasionally, do walks about Imbolc and other Celtic festivals, in conjunction with the Myths and Legends of London, and at May Eve, the Solstices, Halloween and Christmas (when I have time). See the walks page of this blog

https://www.chr.org.uk/anddidthosefeet/walks

And let’s end with the Saint Brigid Hearth Keeper Prayer Courtesy of SaintBrigids.org

Brigid of the Mantle, encompass us,
Lady of the Lambs, protect us,
Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us.
Beneath your mantle, gather us,
And restore us to memory.
Mothers of our mother, Foremothers strong.
Guide our hands in yours,
Remind us how to kindle the hearth.
To keep it bright, to preserve the flame.
Your hands upon ours, Our hands within yours,
To kindle the light, Both day and night.
The Mantle of Brigid about us,
The Memory of Brigid within us,
The Protection of Brigid keeping us
From harm, from ignorance, from heartlessness.
This day and night,
From dawn till dark, From dark till dawn.

For more about St Bridget.

First published in 2023, revised and republished Feb 2024

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

St Cadoc’s Day January 24th

S Cadoc of Llancarfan

St Cadoc was born in 497 AD, a Saint, and Martyr, who founded a monastery at Llancarfan, near Cowbridge, Glamorgan, Wales. He also has associations with Scotland, Brittany, and England. His story is not written down until the 11th Century, but it is fascinating and, in its own way, a charming story. The gentle son of a savage, robber King, he was educated in Latin under an Irish priest, and refused to fight on his father’s orders. But lived to convert his parents eventually. He is known as Cattwg Ddoeth, “the Wise”, although his sayings are mired in the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg.

His story brings Cadoc into conflict with King Arthur. In Welsh literature, King Arthur is a brave but wilful King who demanded Cadoc give him compensation after the Saint sheltered a man who had killed three of Arthur’s men. The compensation was delivered as a herd of cows, but as soon as Arthur took charge of them they turned into ferns.

Cadoc was forced out of Britain by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, but eventually, he felt he had to return despite the grave danger he would return to. He wanted to obey his own maxim:

Would you find glory? Then march to the grave.

He therefore moved to the Saxon settlements to give spiritual succour to the native British Christians who had survived the massacres of the Saxons. He met his martyrdom at Weedon in Northamptonshire, where he was celebrating a service when it was interrupted by Saxon horsemen, and Cadoc was slain as he served the Eucharist.

The Catholic Church celebrates him in September, elsewhere on the 24th January.

For more, look at https://celticsaints.org or Wikipedia.

First published in January 2023, republished in January 2024