Julian’s Bower

P1020700

IMG_2025 2

Julian’s Bower is a turf maze found in Alkborough in North Lincolnshire. Unusually there is a carving of the maze in the stone floor of the porch of the nearby church. (There is also a copy on the East window of the church, and on a gravestone in the nearby cemetery).

As the photo shows, the view from the maze is stunning, and on a fine day reveals the countryside for many miles around. But why a maze, and what purpose did they serve?

The idea of the maze goes back as far as the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, son of King Aegeus of Athens. He used a ball of wool given to him by Ariadne to mark his way through the labyrinth of the Minotaur in Crete, where he slayed the monster and retraced his steps with the aid of the thread and so to safety.

Perhaps the best theory is that this maze was carved by a small cell of monks who lived in the area until the 13th century, and that it represents the path through life to heaven. This would fit in with the carving in the porch of the church.

It is also thought that mazes were also used for penitential purposes, so sinners would be made to trace the path upon their hands and knees. Yet another theory is that mazes were a way to confound the Devil, who could only travel in straight lines.

Turf mazes are all unicursal, that is, they have no choices or branches, and there are a number still to be found across England. The dates for their creation are all guesses, since because they are turf, they have to be renewed frequently, or they disappear, as many presumably have.

 

 

 

510 years ago a tradition was born

It begins at 4.00 am when a flute band plays outside the houses of two of the main participants in the Selkirk Common Riding, a tradition that dates back to the Battle of Floden in 1508. Of the 80 men who left Selkirk to fight for the cause of James IV of Scotland, only one, Fletcher, returned.

 

P1020484
Selkirk Standard Bearer setting off on the Common Riding of 2018, accompanied by 300 other riders

But he came back bearing a captured English banner, and that is at the heart of the event.  Some 300 riders parade through the town, and most importantly the Standard Bearer and his attendants are at the heart of the event.

The pride of the community in their annual event is tangible, and if that isn’t enough to touch the heart of an onlooker, the sound of the bands will succeed, especially from the bagpipes of the Pipe Band.

Voices from the past

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Rudston Church, East Yorkshire, England

It is both surprising and stunning. As you come around the edge of Rudston church, there is the monolith, the tallest in England at 7.6 metres, with reputedly the same length buried under the ground. It is so unexpected that the stranger can only stop and admire. Of course, it predates the church by many thousands of years, and it’s presence says something very clearly. This is a holy site and has been for millennia. It is one of many henges, standing stones, circles and tumulus that still litter the landscape, that speak of a past now lost to us. Their silent witness tells of people who cared enough to put a huge effort into constructing and erecting monoliths such as this one. But why? We can only speculate. Speculate not only about the purpose, though that is grand enough. But who organised the fetching of the stone that forms it? Who fed the labourers, who had the knowledge and skill to erect a structure that has lasted thousands of years? They clearly had the leadership, resources and commitment not out of place in a modern company. Reflect on the fact that the monolith weights some 26 tons, and was transported a distance of 10 miles to its present site, and ask yourself the question, how far have we really progressed today?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Law on Bees

Bee_SwarmIn our modern world it’s hard to believe that that 30 pages of law could address the issue of how to deal with swarms of bees.  Yet according to Alistair Moffat in his book The Sea Kingdoms, both Irish and Welsh law had much to say on the subject.  Honey was a valuable commodity, the only sweetener available before the advent of sugar, and those pesky bees had a habit of moving.  And so Celtic lawmakers had the challenge of trying to regulate the management and ownership of bees.  As we worry about the demise of the bee population of today, perhaps our lawmakers might find some inspiration in their Celtic predecessors.

An ideal community? At least now.

We recently spent a week in the island of Skye, an island off the coast of Scotland, although technically no more an island, thanks to a majestic bridge that connects it to the mainland. The owner of the cottage that we had rented told us that Skye was a crime-free community, where people left their front doors unlocked and the ignition keys in their cars.  As an added bonus, it rarely snows on Skye, thanks to the close proximity of the Gulf Stream, which also makes it also generally frost-free.

Interestingly, only half of the people who live on Skye were born there, the rest being ‘newcomers”, yet the ancient language of Gaelic still flourishes. There appear to be no tensions within the community, such a huge difference between so many other places in this world.

But it wasn’t always like that.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_8fe1

The picture shows the remains of Trumpan Church located on the Vaternish peninsula. A plaque tells the story of a particularly brutal massacre, when the Clan MacDonald of Uist travelled to Trumpan in eight boats and under cover of a thick mist, barred the doors of the church, set fire to the thatched roof and burnt alive all the MacLeods who had come to worship there, with only a young girl able to escape.

She managed to get out of the one narrow window in the church, and sounded the alarm. This led to instant retribution by Clan MacLeod who killed all the invaders, before they had time to flee the island. This skirmish is known as the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke, named after the Dyke in which all the bodies were buried.

But Clan MacDonald themselves were only repaying in kind a massacre that Clan MacLeod had visited on them when in the winter of 1577, a band of MacLeods, intent on causing trouble, landed on the island of Eigg. The Clan members took refuge in a large cave, but one that had a narrow entrance. The tight opening of the cave made it hard to find but was also to be the clan’s downfall as the same constricted cave mouth stopped anyone from escaping.

The MacLeods were able to cover the cave mouth with straw and set it alight, suffocating all inside. History says that 395 members of Clan MacDonalds died that day.

And perhaps the lesson to be drawn from Skye? Times do change, sometimes for the better.

 

 

Namaste – I bow to the Divine in you

Namaste is such a wonderful term. It recognises the soul that dwells within each of us, and the journey from birth to death that we all of us must make. Yet it is so difficult to see the soul in another. It is masked by our perceptions, and by how the other chooses to show themselves. Are they arrogant, self-centered maybe, a braggart, or perhaps good company, honest and caring?  They too will have been fashioned by the vicissitudes of life, for better or for worse, which also shapes the face we present to the world.

But it is you and I who decides what to see, how to judge the “other” stood before us. And it is so difficult to move beyond our perceptions.

And this is the challenge. Namaste, to see the soul in another, to see underneath the surface.  That does not mean to accept arrogance, or misogyny, or wrong doing, but to remember that, within that persona,  there is another soul there, making their way along the same road that you follow.

Magic or Medicine?

Writing “The Wisdom of Rhiannon” was a test of my beliefs. I was trained as a physicist which fashioned me to see the physical world in which we live in a certain way. So I was challenged in trying to determine what “powers” did the Druids have; any, or was it trickery, or a good knowledge of the natural world, for example, in predicting eclipses?  What was the nature of ancient knowledge?  Certainly there is evidence of quite remarkable medical knowledge, for example, trepanation, a delicate surgical technique for making a hole in someone’s skull, with evidence that the technique dates back as far as 6500 BC, with plenty of people recovering from the operation.

And this was my difficulty.  How did ancient peoples “know” what to do, let alone the Druids?  Where did their knowledge come from?  And what was the extent of it?  My scientific training taught me that observation, experimentation, theory, and more experimentation were the only ways to classify and understand the world.  But then there are people like Rupert Sheldrake, a scientist, who talks about morphic resonance, fields which reverberate and exchange information within a universal life force.

Could the Druids, amongst others, “know” when to trepan, could they “know” which herbs to collect, how to prepare medicines from them, see into the future, could they perform “magic”?  But at that time I decided this was a step too far for my rational mind, so the Druids in my book are broadly simply clever people who are well read and educated.

And I think I was wrong!

If I had read Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer’s book, Extraordinary knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable, I would have changed my mind, just as she was forced to change hers, moving from a hard scientific paradigm to a much more open minded view.  In a book full of challenging examples to the rational of conventional science, there was one example I really liked.  The very successful brain surgeon who waited by the head of the patients he was scheduled to operate on until he “saw” a white light; it might take minutes, or hours, but when he saw the light, he knew his operation would be successful.  His difficulty was, how to teach the technique to medical students and other surgeons, so he didn’t, because he would have been laughed at, ridiculed, after all, everyone knows that medical science doesn’t work like that!

Or can it?

The archer, the arrow and the target are united in the “dance”.

I based a chapter in my book, the Wisdom of Rhiannon, on the famous book by Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery.  As a Western visitor to 1930’s Japan, and a lecturer in Philosophy, Herrigel found it almost – but not quite – impossible to learn the Way of the Archer.

It involves not using the mind, not taking aim, but instead stilling the mind, holding the bow steady until “it”, as Herrigel’s teacher called it, determined when to let the arrow fly.  At that point, and only at that point, did the archer, the arrow, and the target become one.  To Herrigel’s frustration, his attempts to hit the target by improving his technique, the strength in his bow arm, and his concentration, all failed and only resulted in his Master’s increasing ire.  Always the guidance was to wait until “it” determined when the arrow should be released.

And then comes this passage toward the end of the book:

“Do you now understand,” the Master asked me one day after a particularly good shot, what I mean by “It shoots”, “It hits”?

“I’m afraid I don’t understand anything more at all,” I answered, “even the simplest things have got into a muddle. Is it “I” who draws the bow, or is it the bow that draws me into the state of highest tension? Do “I” hit the goal, or does the goal hit me? ….. Bow, arrow, goal and the ego , all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straight-forward, and so ridiculously simple ..”

All is One!

A 2000 year old coin

coinsIt sits on a shelf, in a little pillbox.  I rarely look at it, yet somehow I am always aware of its presence.  Not in a good or a bad way, but as though gravity is slightly heavier near to it.  Tonight I took it out of its box and viewed it again.  Compared to a modern coin, it’s tiny, light and not well finished.

Yet what holds me is that 2,000 years ago, someone minted this coin, someone carried this coin with them, perhaps it changed hands many times, and I guess someone lost this coin, who knows,  and somehow, it found its way to my shelf.  In geographical terms, a short journey from Norfolk to Yorkshire, in terms of time, a journey that few artefacts survive.

Certainly, the kingdom of the Catuvellauni, whose coinage it was, has long disappeared in the sea of history, and of those who live in its lands today, there will be few who will have heard of this long lost kingdom.  Yet a coin survives to tell a tale and to speak of people who lived, loved, fought wars, and vanished, although no doubt the children of their children’s children still live, love and walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.

And the coin?  Does history, or time, imbue it with a power, a presence, or is it my imagination?

 

Tabby’s star

I rather like it when scientists come up against something they can’t understand.  Tabby’s star is one such conundrum.  Its behaviour is – pun intended – out of this world.

One of the ways in which astronomers search for exoplanets is to see if the brightness of a star dips as a planet moves in front of it.  Such dips are quite small and quite regular, matching the orbit and size of the exoplanet. Except for Tabby’s star. Hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered by this method, and they all display the nice regularity I’ve described.  Except for Tabby’s star.

It’s light dips massively above the 1% a Jupiter sized planet moving in front of it would cause; as much as 15% and 22% have been recorded. The equivalent of something massive enough to obscure half of the surface area of the star. And when it does brightens again, that too is not as expected. Instead of the dip and the rise being the same shape, as current theory says it should, they do not match.  Furthermore, even the occurrence of these dips is irregular and difficult to explain.  Finally, to add to the mystery, apparently, Tabby’s star has been getting progressively dimmer over the last 100 years or so, (the star was first observed in 1890).

The name “Tabby’s Star” or “Boyajian’s Star” refer to the initial study’s lead author, Tabetha S. Boyajian. The star’s proper nomenclature is  KIC 8462852.  It didn’t show up in a computer led search for exoplanets and was found by good old fashioned humans.  These same humans have come up with many explanations for the behaviour of the star, including of course, aliens at work.  But currently, there are no explanations that fit the observations.  Although there are a lot of astronomers working on the puzzle and trying to come up with said explanations.  Just google “Tabby’s star” and see.

Which I rather like! One little pointer to the fact that we still have a lot to learn about this Universe that we live in!!