Exploring Prehistoric Caves

Spent a few hours on Bank Holiday Monday (or just ‘Monday’ to the world beyond the UK) travelling around the Mendip Hills in Somerset, which is rich in items of interest for anyone with a taste for prehistory or the Roman occupation, or the myths and legends of Britain. The landscape around the hills is wild and evocative and pretty unspoiled, as long as you ignore any business with Camelot, Arthur or Avalon in the name (otherwise known as the Glastonbury Tourist Fleecing Industry).

Cheddar Gorge is filled with plenty of spectacular caves that have turned up some great finds. Gough Cave delivered us Britain’s oldest complete skeleton in 1903 – mitochondrial DNA tests show his descendents still live in the area 9,000 years later. And nearby Soldier’s Hole contained some of the oldest Neolithic tools, dating back about 40,000 years and possibly Neanderthal.

I would normally advise you pass by Wookey Hole, not far from the cathedral city of Wells, which is essentially a pretty grotesque tourist attraction aimed unapologetically at the lowest, almost subterranean, end of the taste spectrum, complete with plastic dinosaurs and King Kong, a ludicrously inflated entry fee (£15 for adults, a tenner for kids) and the tired, desperate air of a travelling Carny. But the caves deserve to be seen, and the guides will give you a fantastic amount of interesting information if you catch them after the tour (thank you, James).

The legend says the Wookey Hole caves were the home of a witch, of the old-fashioned ‘evil’ kind, who terrorised the locals until a Glastonbury monk made sure she got her come-uppance in good old wrath of God, consigned to hell kind. Not sure how much of this is Carny huckstering – a great deal, I imagine. More interesting is the fact that the caves were sacred to the Celts, who used them as burial chambers. It’s also a powerful symbolic magical and spiritual site as the location of one of the biggest springs in the region the birthing point for the underground River Axe. There’s a suggestion that the Celts used the system of caves for numerous ritual acts.

Get past all the showmanship and there’s still a lot of power there.

Megalithomania!

“THE NEWTON stone is a small, rather unassuming pillar in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. On one side is faded, ancient writing, on the other a curling snake and cylindrical patterning. Many would say that it is a typical example of a Scottish standing stone.”

One, shall we say, creative opinion, for the meaning behind the designs is detailed here. The truth, of course, is being defined in The Kingdom of the Serpent.

Who Really Writes The Stories?

All writers are privy to a big secret. They rarely talk about it among themselves, but when someone foolishly raises it, there are embarrassed smiles and nods and a few mumbled words of agreement. The reason is simple: to admit the big secret would mean admitting intellectually dangerous things to yourself and to risk the rest of the world calling you a crackpot.

So I’m going to tell you about here.

Writers are deeply troubled about the genesis of their stories. Not only that, they have nightmares about the reality of said stories, and their meaning and potency beyond the words on the printed page.

To illustrate, I’ll give you some examples from my own work. In World’s End I wrote about the main characters visiting Glastonbury Abbey where they uncovered secret knowledge encoded in the design of the ancient Abbey’s floor. Due to the vagaries of the way I work, I’d already semi-written this scene before I went to Glastonbury to conduct the research on the detail of the setting. While I was there, I came across a book which discussed how secret knowledge had been encoded in the Abbey’s floor, but the knowledge and much of the pattern had been destroyed in a fire almost a thousand years ago.

Now I had never come across this before. I swear I made it up. It’s just coincidence, right? It’s the kind of thing that could have happened, so no reason why it shouldn’t have happened.

Except the same thing happened again when I was writing Darkest Hour: something I was convinced I made up, came to light while I was researching Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh.

And it happened again during the writing of Jack of Ravens. Three times I have written about real things that were completely beyond my knowledge.

Most writers will tell you this happens all the time during the creation of a story. Stephen King has spoken (in On Writing, I think) about how he has come to consider his creative process more like archaeology: how the story is already fully-formed somewhere and he is simply digging it out of the sand.

Other authors have told me in very concerned tones about how what they have written has somehow started to affect the ‘real’ world. Graham Joyce speaks eloquently about near-supernatural happenings on a Greek island that echoed the story on which he was working, House of Lost Dreams. Robert Graves has written about the strange pile-up of coincidence and synchronicity during the writing of The White Goddess when books would mysteriously fall from shelves, open on the correct page with the information for which he had been frantically searching for days.

Both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have spoken about the use of the imagination during the writing process as an act of magic, and it’s difficult for many writers not to believe that. Strange, irrational things happen during the creative process. There’s a sense of tapping into something else, and once tapped that something else coming into your life to haunt you for a while.

So now I’ve got this out into the open I’d be interested to hear about the experiences of others…

Riding the Broomstick

Witchcraft remains a prime source of interest for people intrigued by myth and legend.  Not only does the practice of Wicca tap into ancient archetypes and deities, it also has a huge continuum of its own myths whirling around it.

Many of those were – and are – designed to destroy it as a practising spiritual path.  Myths have always been powerful material for propaganda, utilised by politicians of every stripe down the centuries.  That’s because myths can imprint their message very deeply, on the unconscious, making it hard to shake.  Anti-Semites used mythic archetypes in an infamous and widely-distributed pamphlet – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20th century.  It purported to be a Jewish manifesto that built up the myths of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world through the media and finance.  A complete pack of lies, it has been discredited as a hoax many times.  Yet many in the Arab world still believe it to be true, and the Protocols are continually referenced even today.

Religions, of course, act in much the same way as politicians; both are involved in a struggle for power, over souls or voters, hearts and minds.  When the Christian church tried to get a foothold in Britain more than a millenium ago, it found a thriving nature-based religion.  The only way the new belief system could establish itself was to discredit the old religion.  And so stories grew up of the old religion’s ‘wise women’ eating babies and ruining crops.

It was very effective and continues up to the present day.  Effective, of course, might not be the best word.  Between 1450 and the mid-18th century anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 women – branded as witches – were murdered.  Their Christian persecutors accused them of being in league with Satan – even though Satan is a Christian concept and witches do not believe in him.  We like to think that’s all part of an unenlightened past.  But even today we have ignorant head teachers outlawing Halloween and burning Harry Potter for fear its use of magic will lead impressionable young minds on ‘the path to Satanism’.  People still get get fired for being a Wiccan.  And regular scares appear in the media of witches involved in child abuse – the baby-eating myth retooled for a new age.

But Wiccans have also been accused of generating their own myths.  In 1921, Margaret Murray published her seminal work The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, which tried to establish an unbroken tradition from modern witchcraft back to the old, pre-Christian religion.  That was generally derided by many scholars as a way for modern practitioners to legitimise their beliefs.

Most people now believe Wicca to be pretty much a twentieth century revival.  And what’s wrong with that?

However, a new academic work now gives weight to Margaret Murray’s assertion.  Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits – Shamanistic Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (Sussex Academic Press) compares beliefs from around the world and infers that modern witchcraft is a direct descendant of prehistoric shamanism.  The book is hard-going, but it shows that in the mythosphere – as in everywhere else – the ‘truth’ is hard to come by.