I gave this talk in the lead up to Samhain 2003.
Tonight is about remembering the ancestors. We remember them in the waters of life, flowing down the generations. We remember them in the body of the earth, from which we are born and where our bones return. We remember them in the light that has always been and will always remain.
I went to Waylands Smithy at the summer solstice this year. Waylands smithy is a long-barrow, a place built for purposes unknown about 5000 years ago, a place where our ancestors put the bones of their ancestors. Nowadays it’s a long grassy mound with small stone chamber at one end with big stone pillars at either side of the entrance. It’s a pleasant spot, surrounded by woodland high up on the ridgeway out in the countryside near Swindon.
I went with some friends to stay overnight and see the midsummer sun rise, avoiding the crush at Stonehenge and other more popular locations, but there were quite a few folk who had the same idea. There must have been about a hundred people there overnight, many clustered around campfires, talking, drumming, singing, drinking, eating, smoking, sleeping.
In the early hours as the moon rose I walked around the site, and stopped to watch a young lad standing by the tomb entrance. He had two censers full of burning oil, and he was spinning them round so that the two fireballs made circles of light, spinning up and down, roaring as they lit the ground and the stones with a flickering, changing light. It felt like a timeless scene – was it happening now or 5000 years ago?
By the time the light started to rise in the east the mood had changed, and the place was quiet, many people sleeping now, with the few quiet murmurs and rustling that I always associate with early morning camping. Soon there was more bustling as people went about their preparations for the sunrise. As I waited for the sun to rise, the clouds took on the form of a seascape, with islands that looked like they were just a little way off from where I stood, the tide out inviting me to walk out. Then as the sun’s fire rose to warm us all again a horn sounded, part of someone’s greeting. An old woman walked around the smithy, singing to greet the new day. Two policemen came to visit, more curious than anything. And so began another midsummer’s day, the sun climbing to shine its warmth onto the old bones in the tomb.
So what were all these people doing there? On the face of it they were there for different reasons – anything from just having a party to more particular intentions of marking a special time at a special place. Whether they had a conscious intention or not, I think that they were remembering the ancestors.
In the olden days, so we’re told, people took a lot more interest in their ancestors. Ancestor worship is one of human history’s oldest and most basic religious beliefs, and is found in various parts of the world and in diverse cultures.
In early days most people lived in tribes or clans – essentially family groups – and the ancestors were very important to the living, as ambassadors to the spirit world. When family members died, they joined the spirit world and were closer to the gods than the living are. They could protect and guide the living, and formed a link between the two worlds. For example the Celts would spend the night by the tomb of an ancestor in the hope of receiving an oracular dream. The ancestors also prepared the way into the land of the dead, and the living expected to join them in the afterlife, so that the sense of belonging to the tribe would carry on into death.
In pre-historic Britain, as elsewhere, there is plenty of evidence for special reverence for the dead. The earliest traces are of ritual burial, such as that discovered in Paviland Cave in the Gower Peninsula in Wales. In this cave, overlooking the sea, a young man was buried 26,000 years ago, covered in red ochre and accompanied by grave goods made out of bone, antler, sea-shells and ivory. The use of red ochre in burials is a very old and very widespread tradition, found in Neanderthal burials over 100,000 years ago, and across Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa, and the Americas. No-one knows what the significance of red ochre was, although it may have had something to do with symbolising life-blood.
This burial dates to before the last Ice Age, when Britain was connected to the continent, and the cave was in a cliff looking out on a plain that the sea now covers. As Paviland is in the southernmost part of Wales, it was probably not completely covered in ice in the following millennia. Thus, it is possible that those living around Paviland at the time of the burial – a people with an Upper Palaeolithic or Later Old Stone Age culture – are among the ancestors of the present population of Wales.
Much later, there are the communal tombs, like Waylands Smithy, or Parc Le Breos near Paviland Cave on Gower. This ancient burial chamber dates back 6000 years: a time when people started to trade, farm and build communities. Seemingly death took on a new spiritual significance, symbolised by hand-built chambers that pointed to the close relationship with the departed, and their home on earth.
Remains of bones confirm that these chambers were used for depositing dead bodies. Bodies would have been left to rot away outside though, before being dragged in and buried. There was evidence that men were repeatedly accessing the chambers, and that people gathered in the large forecourt to feast and celebrate the dead.
This is the archaeological view, but who knows how these people used the tomb, and how they related to the dead? We can only imagine. What we call a tomb – with all the associations the word has for us – may even have been seen in a quite different way by the people who made it. For example, the plan of the building is reminiscent of a woman’s body, with the bone chambers situated in the womb. Perhaps the building was a house of the mother, where the people came from the other world as babies, and where they returned when they died. Perhaps it was a maternity house as well as a tomb. The point I’m making is that the archaeology doesn’t tell us the meaning of the place. For that we have to use other facilities. We have to spend time with the ancestors.
Nowadays, of course, things are changed, and changing faster it seems every decade. Who now even lives where their parents or grandparents lived? We have changed the way we live, and don’t have such a strong connection to our tribe, our land, our ancestors.
It’s easy to take a negative view of this, that we’re striking at our roots and losing some connection that we need both psychologically and spiritually, BUT it needn’t be such a bad thing. We can forge our own connections, find our own land, make our own tribes, and remember our own ancestors. After all we all have ancestors – we just need to remember them!
How many of you knew your great-grandparents?
How many know their names, what they did?
What is the furthest back anyone knows? Any famous ancestors?
Use imagination to go back in time and see your ancestors:
500 years ago: 1500 Rennaisance, Elizabethan times, Dr Dee, Discovery of America
1000 years age: Norman conquest, Crusades, Knights and Damsels
1500 years ago: Dark ages – King Arthur
2000 years ago: Roman Britain
2500 years ago: Celts and Druids
4000 years ago: Stonehenge and the megaliths
6000 years ago: First farmers; tombs
10000 years ago: Ice age ends
25000 years ago: Paviland cave burial, cave art in Europe
80000 years ago: Modern man leaves Africa
? years ago: Our common ancestor
Which era appealed most?
There are ancestors and ancestors. Ancestry has to do with belonging. When someone claimed an ancestor – usually a distant and famous one, they were saying something about what clan or tribe they belong to. This is often tied into myth, and usually to the land as well – this valley is the land of my ancestors.
A key way in which this works is through myth and story-telling – the memory of a culture, a tale that gets re-told generation after generation. In the old days, kings would hire poets to remember and re-tell the deeds of their ancestors. Sometimes, the ancestor is a supernatural being. For example, King Arthur’s legendary ancestry goes back ten generations to Bran son of Llyr. This kind of ancestry was important to hereditary kings because ancestry is the source of their rights and powers. The Tudors for example played on their Welsh ancestry to invoke an Arthurian connection.
There’s also a wider form of ancestry represented in mythology. The religions of the book – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have our ancestry traced back to Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. Then, after the flood, we are again all descended from Noah, his three sons and their wives. The bible is quite explicit about which of Noah’s descendants founded which nations and cities.
In old British myth there’s another, more recent descent for the Irish people. Bran, king of Britain, went to war with Ireland, and after the war, the only people left alive in Ireland were five pregnant women:
In Ireland none were left alive, except five pregnant women in a cave in the Irish wilderness; and to these five women in the same night were born five sons, whom they nursed until they became grown-up youths. And they thought about wives, and they at the same time desired to possess them, and each took a wife of the mothers of their companions, and they governed the country and peopled it. And these five divided it amongst them, and because of this partition are the five divisions of Ireland still so termed. And they examined the land where the battles had taken place, and they found gold and silver until they became wealthy.
This kind of ancestor myth tells us where we come from, and how we fit in. Typical as well is the telling of the land that each ancestor claimed. I suppose the scientific equivalent of this is our common descent from the first members of our species in Africa, about a 100 thousand years ago. At the time there were other hominid species around – the Neanderthal, which fits into the types of origin myth where there were not-quite-human giants or dwarfs before humans appeared on the scene.
The Land and the ancestors
One of the ways that we remember our ancestors is through the signs they left in the landscape. I started out by talking about pre-historic tombs and megaliths, and now we’re back there.
An interesting view of ruins in the landscape is given by one of the earliest English Saxon poems, written in the 8th Century probably about the ruins of Roman Bath, which had been deserted some 400 years before:
Well wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.
The stronghold burst . . .
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,
Rime scours gatetowers
rime on mortar.
Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.
And the wielders and wrights?
Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone,
fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed.
These so-called primitive people weren’t all that dumb. I always try to remind myself that they were people just like us, no less intelligent. But – they saw the world in a different way. There is a lot of evidence that they were smart – they made artefacts – for example, over 400 carved stone balls have been found in Scotland, with apparently symbolic or artistic meaning – spheres and other intriguing geometric designs including platonic solids. These date from around 3000-2500BC.
They also left their mark on the landscape – stone circles and tombs, carvings and cave art. Particularly the megaliths are designed to last down the ages – as they have done – and a good trick it is, because we do remember them even now!
And how do we remember them? As people who thought it worth doing, worth putting the immense effort into making these markers in time and the land. It tells us something about what they cared about. Now we can visit these places, and perhaps gain access to what it was they were doing.
A modern interpretation is that the stone circles were ‘astronomical observatories’, and maybe it is true that our ancestors had an interest in the stars – why not? But I wonder if this isn’t an attempt to impose a modern viewpoint onto their activities. An ‘astronomical observatory’ comes straight out of our familiar world. Maybe they built stone circles for a reason that wouldn’t make such clear sense to us – maybe they didn’t build them for any reason that made sense in the familiar world, but was entirely based on otherworld experience.
So does the land remember the ancestors, the people who lived there? I went to America this year, and tried to see what kind of story the land had to tell. My impression was that although the same sort of mechanisms were operating, the flavour and content was different. The land there seemed to talk about Native American stuff, bows and arrows and bears and eagles. They don’t have stone circles, and the nature of the landscape is different. So is it easier to make to contact with the Celtic culture here, and the Native American there? It seemed so to me, but people do make cross continental connections. Some people are quite protective about their ancestors, culture and land. For example, some people hold the position that you can’t really work in a Celtic tradition unless you live in a Celtic country or speak a Celtic language or have a Celtic ancestry. I don’t really hold with this, because in the end it is all outer forms, and the connection we all have to the land and to the ancestors is for us as individuals to uncover and work with.
This brings me back to an earlier point. In the modern world we are (I submit) losing our instinctive connections to the ancestors and the land. This has its dangerous aspects, in that we risk becoming disconnected from our roots, and losing a way into the instinctive world. It also is an opportunity in that we have an element of choice about where and how to sustain this connection. The difference is that we have to work at it more, because we don’t have the structures to maintain the connection for us.
In the olden days people would make offerings to the ancestors, and we see this today with flowers on graves for the recently dead, and all kinds of things left on prehistoric tombs. I’m indebted to a book by Jenny Blain which makes the point that the original offerings found in tombs, or in lake or bog deposits would have had a value in those cultures very different to the value of the candles, crystals or flowers that we can buy in local shops today. A range of objects, varying with time and place and the wealth of the community or family accompanied the burials – decorated pottery or jewellery or gold, amber or jet – things that represented considerable work, and that held considerable value.
What do we give today, that is comparable? What is most precious, most valuable to people today? Our time. In a social setting that has forgotten the ancestors, we ‘make time’ for them in our lives, in visiting them, in showing them respect both privately, in meditation, dream and thought, and publicly, in ceremonies of remembrance, and in our actions in the community and the landscape.
Men and women go to opposite ends of the room.
Men bring to mind the line of fathers, as far back as you can.
Women bring to mind the line of mothers, as far back as you can.
Investigate the nature of the line. How does it make you feel?
Men facing women, each observe the other, the lines of ancestry behind you. Let the lines acknowledge each other.
Further Reading –