THE MONUMENTAL MIND
By Liam Rogers
Originally published at Imbolc 2003
Eight miles south-east of Shrewsbury rises the prominent form of the Wrekin, dominating the Shropshire skyline. The tale of its creation is charming, but illogical. A giant (later the Devil) with a bee in his bonnet decided to flood Shrewsbury by dumping a spadeful of earth in the Severn. So off he went with his spade towards the town. As he passed Wellington he was getting a little tired, and asked a passing cobbler how far he had left to go. The shrewd man opened his sack of worn out shoes, and told the giant he had worn them out himself on his way from Shrewsbury. "Bugger that for a game of soldiers", exclaimed the giant and dumped the spadeful of earth right there.
So why is that so illogical? Well, taking into account that the hill slumped a little as it hit the ground, I estimate that the giant had a spade with a blade big enough to hold a pile of earth roughly three kilometres by two kilometres at its base. If the giant's spade had similar proportions to mine, we get a giant at least twenty kilometres in height - a giant giant!
As such, Shrewsbury was only about two strides distant - surely he must have been able to see the town? Okay, so there may have been a few clouds in the way, but the story appears to rule this out - after all he could see the cobbler and his shoes, a pretty awesome display of optical prowess on the giant's part. And why did he bother with the mound of earth when he could have wiped out Shrewsbury by simply standing on it? After all, if the size of the Ercall (the hill made by the soil he scraped from his boots) is anything to go by, he had extremely large feet!
You may well be complaining that I am perversely missing the whole point, and you'd be right. But what I am trying to do is make another point - that of the total fallacy of trying to force twentieth century rationality upon the distant past.
The rational mind versus the natural world
We can probably trace the split between reason and unreason in the human mind back to Greece, particularly in the philosophy born out of the Athenian democracy (founded in 462 BCE). Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle started the process of subjecting nature, society, and consciousness to reason in order to promote order and self-discipline. Roy Porter explains further:
"Rationality became definitive of the noblest faculty in man. Through logic and theory, cosmic order could be perceived [or imposed], and so man's unique place in nature understood ... schools of Greek philosophers - the Stoics in particular - clearly exposed the irrational as a problem, a menace, a scandal, which reason should combat ... philosophy defined how the madness of the irrational was the antipodes of human dignity; and the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational, and the rightful sovereignty of the rational, became fundamental to both their moral and their scientific vocabulary, and, though them, to ours."1
Nietzsche was later to mourn the passing of the age of the Homeric heroes, when it seemed that men embraced all of their psyches including the irrational side. He characterised the schism traceable in Greek literature between the rational and irrational mind as the Socratic-Dionysiac dichotomy, perhaps an extension of the initial split between what he termed the Apolline and Dionysiac spirit in Greek artforms.2
When Christianity came knocking, the new faith found that neo-Platonism and Stoic philosophy were quite obliging bedfellows, since "Stoic ethics required attitudes to slavery or wealth that they [the Christians] found congenial ... Platonic metaphysics affirmed divine transcendence, the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness. In Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, Platonism and Christian thought came to keep house together."3 Such influential patrons were to help Christianity to lay deep foundations within the Roman Empire, an regime which was quite tolerant to the new faith despite the occaisonal outbreak of persecution.
Christianity and Platonic philosophy also seemed to agree on one more point - the rejection of the world. Schopenhauer noted that "... in the Gospels 'world' and 'evil' are used almost synonymously"4, and Nietzsche describes how: "Once the concept 'nature' had been devised as the concept antithetical to 'God', 'natural' had to be the word for 'reprehensible'."5. Platonism, too, promoted world rejection and withdrawal, in Phaedo, Plato launches his greatest attack on the human body, saying that rationality is superior to experience, and has Socrates say that philosophers "greatly despise the body".6 One can also see Plato's cave analogy as portraying the world as something deficient (a mere dance of shadows compared to the transcendant realm of archetypal Forms that was Plato's 'heaven').7 The mind/body split implies a break with nature, as Michael Dames explains:
By the time Constantine declared the Roman Empire to be Christian, it was all getting a bit rough for pagans like the British who were constantly having to be told to desist from idolising trees, stones, and wells. The impact of Christianity upon the subjugated British has been somewhat exaggerated, and your average Briton was unlikely to have done more than put up a pretence of Christianity if he worked on the land of a Christian master. As such, it didn't take too much persuasion by the Saxons to talk the indigenous population into becoming pagan once more. That said, one thing that the Romans did bring was land division upon broadly 'rational' lines.
A much greater impact was made following Saint Augustine's mission to Britain in 597. Christianity put down deep roots and rapidly became to dominant faith, although many pagan practices continued. In the end, a kind of compromise was reached - the Church just put a Christian gloss on all the practices it couldn't stamp out. Pagan gods/nature spirits were transformed into Christian saints at wells and other numinous spots, and a version of nature veneration still managed to survive.
In Britain, the emergence of Puritanism and the Protestant Reformation, was to lead to a fresh onslaught upon the natural world and irrational beliefs and practices. The newly formed Anglican Church demanded that all Popish idolatry be wiped out, and many a sacred site was subsequently desecrated. The Protestant vision of God was of a transcendent deity, one who did not manifest himself upon this (inferior) world, and who certainly didn't hang around megaliths and holy wells. The assault was to be continued when the eighteenth century Enlightenment brought the Age of Reason to Europe, bringing "a new awareness of man's increasing potential to master nature [my italics]"9 thus sowing the seeds for the Industrial Revolution.
Rapid industrial progress saw nature as a resource to be exploited, and the forward-looking nature of technology continued the job of linearising time that Christianity had begun. Also, with the birth of the factory, workers were expected to observe a uniform version of time as laid down by capitalists. Ever since, big business has increasingly dictated our concepts of time and space. The concept of linear time is, of course, a blatant contradiction of the cycles inherent in the natural world that were once so important to man, and the adoption of this temporal philosophy did much to divorce us from the land. Although even at the turn of the present century the average country dweller would have thought rather differently to those living in the cities, the annihilation of space through time that improved transport and communications have given us at the behest of capitalism has effectively destroyed this difference and wiped out the last traces of non-linear "irrationality". This distancing of man from the cycles of nature has led to many pagans and Earth Mysterians imposing modern mentality upon our ancient monuments, leading to such outlandish concepts as leys being seen as "energy lines" that can be detected by two bits of bent coathanger.
The changing face of monumentality
In assessing the role played by modern monuments, and how they may have differed from prehistoric (and even medieval) ones, I can do no better than summarise an insightful paper by archaeologist Julian Thomas, presented to the Ley Hunter moot in 1995.10
Modern cities all boast their monuments: statues of historical figures, war memorials, and even the imposing forms of municipal buildings. Although monuments in this country are not as overtly political as Russia's statues of Lenin and Stalin (recently removed in a fashion that can only be described as a monumental political statement!), they still represent key events in the past "from the point of view of dominant groups within society ... They are very much the art of the state." A case in point is the statue of Queen Victoria that towers authoritatively in front of Worcester Crown Court.
The whole point of modern monuments is to stand out; to dominate their surroundings so as to catch our eye in a most unsubtle manner. By doing so, they are simply reflecting the modern worldview:
The modern mind thus uses monuments as a symbol of man's achievements, and of man's superiority over nature. Even the medieval Church, with its 'leniency' towards nature-worship, was guilty of imposing its dominance upon the landscape. We only have to look at the Catholic heartlands of Italy and Spain (as well as the Irish Republic) to see how painfully unnatural the many roadside shrines were, and still are.
Also, the view of the past given by modern monuments is very much of an event which marks a "bridge of tradition" leading into the future. This is indicative of the characteristically modern view of linear time.
It is clearly absurd to attempt to understand ancient monuments, and the minds that erected them, with such a modern framework. For example, we cannot assume that a monolith or barrow was an isolated artefact in time and space, we cannot say it was seen as a symbol of man's mastery over his environment. Indeed, as Thomas explains:
He also wonders that by opening up the earth in order to create a monument, and, conversely by depositing cultural artefacts in pits (and human dead in 'hollow hills'), man may have been developing a "system of reciprocity with the earth, which effects value transformations."
To sum up, then, instead of being a way to assert man's dominance, prehistoric monumentality may have been expressing a very intimate relationship with the landscape indeed. Thomas ends his paper with the words:
Mountains and molehills
Consider Homer's description of the burial of Achilles:
Homer wrote these lines around 800 BCE, and the events of the Trojan war that he describes probably occurred about five hundred years earlier.12 However, this is about the earliest source we have to go on. What the account of Achilles mound suggests to me is that the primary purpose was to create a visible tomb, and also one that appears not so much to dominate its surroundings as to emphasise them. The place was important, at least visually, beforehand and the mound simply adds to the visual and emotional value of the place.
The whole point of barrows appears to be to create natural looking mounds. Jeremy Harte tells us that we should not assume that every time we see the Old English word beorh, we are talking about an artificial burial mound:
As Harte points out, this problem of interpretation should not simply annoy us, but should suggest that our ancestors viewed their world rather differently to us. He suggests that the way we view that landscape in terms of relative size is relatively new; our ancestors' topographical language was based on experience, not measurement. In other words size wasn't everything - it was a matter of what a feature looked like. So the Wrekin looked like a pile of earth dropped from a spade, therefore it was recorded as such.
To return to the Wrekin, we may now view this hill with its Cornovii hillfort (dating from c.300 BCE14) in a different light. Mircea Eliade saw mountains as images of the centre of the world:
The importance of prominent hills to the population of the surrounding areas may perhaps account for the way the shapes of certain monoliths appear to mirror those of certain hill-tops upon the horizon that have been recognised by some EM researchers. Maybe attention is deliberately being focused upon these features because they were important to the inhabitants of the area.
Venetia Newell, in her preface to Jacqueline Simpson's The Folklore of the Welsh Border, wonders whether the traditional Shropshire toast to "all friends around the Wrekin" may unwittingly commemorate a sense of unity dating back to, possibly, pre-Roman times. She claims that the name of the Wrekin (reflected in the name of the Roman regional centre at nearby Wroxeter (Viroconium)) may suggest a border region known to the ancient Britons as Erchin.16 There has to be some doubt over this, however. Jeremy Harte has commented upon the surprising lack of territorial feeling revealed in the names of the tribes of Iron Age Britain, saying that: "Though the noblemen and kings held power over an agrarian culture, not one of their names alludes to any feature of the land.."17 Mostly the names refer flatteringly to some aspect or skill the people were meant to possess. According to Harte, the Cornovii's name, meaning "people of the horn", may refer to their habit of charging into battle with their heads down, like goats.
This in no way means that landscape features were not important to the people, there is just a general paucity of evidence. The best evidence we have is the Wrekin itself which the Cornovii clearly went to some trouble with. The hill was certainly important to the Anglo-Saxon population, who did use some of the Romano-British land divisons. The seventh-century Tribal Hideage names the area in question Wrocen Saete, meaning "around the Wrekin".18
Certainly, if we put any faith in the findings of anthropologists working with modern tribal societies, it appears that prominent hills are often revered as a symbol of tribal unity or the home of the gods, and mythological evidence suggests these ideas have a considerable history. I see no reason to deny our own pre-literate ancestors their own sacred hills, features that would not have been viewed through the wholly objective eyes that modern people use, and the Wrekin may well be one such example. Children and Nash, in their consideration of Neolithic tombs within the Golden Valley area of Herefordshire, suggest that mountains may have been an important aspect:
"The positioning of the Golden Valley monuments and the additional tombs located around the upper Wye and Usk valleys suggests the Black Mountains acted as a 'visual magnet' for Neolithic communities. Symbolically, the mountains were a religious nucleus ... By siting a settlement close to the mountains, a sense of belonging with the landscape is engendered. A space becomes a place and an identity is established: an identity that in turn would help to create a territory."19
In another article, the same authors consider the role of Iron-Age hillforts may have not been primarily defensive, particularly before the Roman invasion.20 They consider that the early role of hillforts may have been to serve as focal points or meeting places for the inhabitants of the surrounding agricultural land. Further, they consider that a major symbolic aspect was to be visible:
"The visuality of hillforts was enhanced by their positioning within the landscape. Elevated sites were chosen, not so much for reasons of defence as to establish a relationship of intervisibility. Hillfort communities within sight of each other would have shared a common socio-political identity as well as a sense of collective well-being."
The role of the Wrekin may have been very similar, as a focus for the surrounding community farming the fertile land around the Severn. It is certainly very visible, standing alone as the only real hill for some distance in a relatively flat landscape. Its links with the fertility and prosperity of the land may be remembered in the custom of girls climbing through the cleft rock called the Needle's Eye to be met with a kiss from their boyfriends. The Bords consider that the custom may hint at the vestiges of an old fertility custom.21 Similarly indicative of fertility, the hollow in a rock called the Raven's Bowl or Cuckoo's Cup is said to be always full of water, despite not being fed by a spring. The Wrekin also boasts a St. Hawthorn's Well whose water was thought to possess healing properties.
There may even have been a custom, that seems to suggests the Wrekin's importance as a community focus, of boys parading around the hill and up its slopes. The founder of the Worcestershire Naturalists Club, Edwin Lees, recalls his Shropshire youth (early in the nineteenth century), in a poem that describes a group of boys, including one with a bugle, doing just that on a winter's night:
Could this perhaps be some kind of custom to dispell the harsh grip of winter and summon in the spring? Be that as it may, it appears that the Wrekin probably played a major role to the surrounding community in a manner that only becomes clear when we try to cast off some of our twentieth century preconceptions about the relationship of the human mind with the landscape.
Such a vision of the land - seeing it as something we are involved with - surely offers an approach to Earth Mysteries that should appeal more to modern pagans than the pseudo-technological fallacies of 'earth energies'.