by Ronald M. White
All over the ancient world the smoke of incense rose incessantly to the heavens from the altars of Goddesses and Gods.
Their attributes were many and their powers various. Devotees frequented the homes of their chosen divinity.
Travellers from city to city might not find their home Gods exactly represented either in ritual or name; yet the similarities were sufficient for a man of Corinth to discover no unease at a temple in Ephesus.
The intelligent knew these deities were aspects of divinity, and although some attempts were made to equate one God with another, there was no sectarian strife and very little of the futilities of theology, which, like heresy, is a child of Monotheism. The story of the Gods and Goddesses was told in myth, altered, varnished, changed to suit invaders and amended to account for great epics in history. The divine function was to help man by providing a focus for his anxieties and hopes; rather than by imposing crippling moral burdens and demanding unnatural behaviour patterns.
The pagan inhabitants of Ancient Britain also had many local Gods, differently named, but with the same or similar attributes, and as in other pagan societies the local kings took the names of their Gods. In the West Country there must have been many Brans and many Arthurs however variantly spelled, and many Queens or sacred women; for we must remember that these old religions were Matriarchal in origin.
In attempting to elucidate the story of these Gods, and to discover their attributes, a valuable point of departure is to consider those whose names, like Arthur, are still household words. But first a few questions:
Why do we have robins and holly on Christmas Cards?
Why do boys in the Isle of Man still beat ivy bushes on Boxing Day and sing ‘Who’ll hunt the wren cries Robin the Bobbin’?
Is there any meaning to the rhyme ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’?
There can be many more such questions, but the solutions seem to lie in the Janus Factor of our early Gods. (Janus was the Roman God of the Door, whose two faces looked both ways. One face turned to the New Year and one face to the Old or Dead Year. One face was life and one death.)
If we consider Arthur (or Vran or Bran or Uther or Ooser; other once popular names for roughly the same personage) as the Lord of the Dead, and Robin as the Lord of Life, we can construct, with the aid of their symbols and attributes, a seasonal table.
Arthur has the wren. Robin the robin itself. Arthur’s tree is the oak, Robin’s the holly. Arthur has the club, Robin the arrow.
They alternate in the favour of the Goddess, Robin ruling from Yule to Mid-summer, when he is killed by his own arrow, and Arthur until Yule when Robin, restored, hunts him with a club. Robin symbolises, among other things, the fire of youthful idealism, whereas Arthur brings wisdom and a knowledge of secret things. Little ingenuity is needed to piece together the whole story, particularly when we know that in Devon the wren is still called Vran’s or Bran’s Sparrow.
Bran has yet other attributes and myths. He was the king whose messengers and oracular birds were ravens. His head was magic and sang long after he was dead. It is now little known, but this marvellous head is said to be buried under the White Hill at London, where the Tower of London now stands. The head and its attendant ravens are the guardians of the realm and protect this country from invasion.
These are interesting games with words and symbols, and the mythological muddles of our ancient heritage can be a labyrinth trapping even the most dedicated scholar in a lifetime of intricate labours; but we must seek some thread to guide us through the maze; and though we wish to understand and cherish the past it is where the thread leads that is our goal. We cannot seek to recreate the past. The centuries will not roll back.
Our purpose should be to find in enduring legends the persistent qualities of the Gods and to fix their characteristics, explaining them in our present terms and in the terms of humanity to come. The Gods are seen in our image because we make them. It cannot be otherwise. Yet they are immortal because they partake of all that which is essential in us and out of time. They are the enduring continuation of the human spirit and embody all its aspects.
They can, and should, develop and evolve with us becoming the focus for our ideals. They can enlarge our understanding even of the darkest parts of the human character. This understanding can show us the way ahead and depict the dangers we must avoid. They are the forces that inhabit our eternal present where the Goddess also dwells. We turn towards them, hoping through them to perceive the land where time has no meaning, and the material world is the gossamer of illusion. They are our connection beyond ourselves, yet they are ourselves, and through them we may speak directly to the Mother of All Things.
FOOTNOTE: For example many parallels exist between Egyptian Thot, Greek Hermes, the Celtic Cernnunos, and the later Norse Odin. They were all conductors of the dead, patrons of intelligence, and inventors of writing and letters.
Published in Spectrum, no. 7, Sept/Oct 1975, pp. 7-8, 11
© The Estate of Ronald M. White
No comments yet.