Sunday, 18 September 2016

Solomon’s Knot

My last post ‘Visions, demons, graffiti’ included reference to Timothy Easton’s ‘spiritual middens’ and Matthew Champion’s ‘spirit traps’.  This post continues with and expands on the discussion.

Easton’s spiritual dumping grounds exist, there are numerous incidences of his ‘middens’ within antique buildings. However, there is no evidence that spirits or anything else are trapped within them, or that objects within these dumps functioned as “a lure for unwanted spirits” [1]. The fact that many of these concealed dumps contain leather shoes (leather being of animal origin) and animal remains identifies them as almost certainly parallel to the foundation deposit, a practice in which offerings were concealed for luck during the construction of a building. These were offerings to spirits or gods, not traps or intentional lures for invisible agencies or indeed anything else.

Easton has also borrowed a motif from Amerindian culture to help ground his thesis on antique superstitions, specifically here mark-making in British architecture.  On page 55 of ‘Physical Evidence’ [2] he suggests that incised grid patterns found in old buildings may have functioned as “a net of entrapment, such as the web of a ‘dream catcher’.” But the classic dream catcher from Ojibwa (Chippewa) culture is not an imprecise grid pattern; it is based on the regular form of a round spider’s web and is a spiral design [3], see the illustration below. Secondly, spider webs are not a “lure” for anything, they are invisible traps to and for insects and they do not eternally snare, they hold insects fast until they are either caught by the spider, or die on the web, or indeed manage to extricate themselves. A snare is not of itself a decoy or a lure; it does not attract its quarry.


Smithsonian 'dream catcher': my drawing after Densmore, 1929.

The fashion for Native American artefacts like dream catchers only became widely popular in Britain with the advent of New Age spirituality in the 1960s and 1970s. Ojibwe religion and post-Reformation folk belief are from disparate and unrelated cultures. To attempt to reference medieval and post-Reformation graffiti with Native American spirituality is misleading and an anachronism of colossal stature; it is also deeply ironic because, as Philip Jenkins points out, in the historical context of European Christianity there was no sympathy for the religious practices of Native Americans and “the clergy had little doubt that Natives were worshipping the devil” [4]. Furthermore, it seems that the example of the dream catcher has been selected as a convenient aspect of a “generic Native spirituality so amorphous that it can be adapted to the interests and ideologies of the moment” [5], as in the current instance. It follows that I must reject it. The dream catcher web is only a web, a symbolic net, there is no suggestion that the lines of the net are anything but composite parts of a whole [6], which leads on to the next spirit trapping theory.

For Matthew Champion’s theory on supernatural traps we progress away from concealed caches of faunal remains and pick up on two-dimensional imagery, which may or may not be partly inspired for Champion by Easton’s  ‘dream catcher’ analogy. Champion’s ‘spirit trap’ thesis, which can apparently view lines on walls as paths of entrapment along which demons endlessly circulate, would contradict Easton's dream catcher analogy because the dream catcher functions as a net, and not as an arrangement of linear trackways around which spirits endlessly circulate.

Champion bases his particular thesis on “the story of Solomon’s Knot” on page 28 of his book, but only examines Solomon's Seal which he says "gave Solomon power over demons" [7], and the Seal is not always identified as his Knot. He tells us that Solomon’s Knot was a linear device that demons were “attracted to”, becoming trapped “within the symbol” [8].  Let us examine Solomon’s Knot.

Solomon the magician comes to us from medieval Judaic lore. The author Joseph Verheyden [9] tells us that Solomon’s Knot was a variant of Solomon’s Seal, a design engraved upon a ring making it powerful. There is no consensus as to what the seal was, it was either a knot motif, a sacred name [10], or “an eight-, six-, or five-pointed star”, Verheyden says the star had a face in the middle of it. The ring was for “subduing demons and forcing them” [11] to work for Solomon. The Knot could catch demons in it but was equally “an apotropaic sign” [12] scaring them away, which is not unreasonable considering its property of restraint. However, it did not function as a lure or to attract spirits. There is a Biblical parallel from the book of Revelation where Satan is bound in chains by an angel who “shut him up, and set a seal upon him” but we are told nothing about the seal, [Revelation 20:3]. Again, the Arch-fiend is not lured or attracted to the chains; he is forcefully bound into them, and only for 1000 years at that, according to St John.

Solomon's Knot is a two-dimensional figure consisting of two loops, doubly interlinked, with four crossings where the dual loops interweave under and over each other. This knot or more accurately ‘link’ motif thus forms a complex cross, it is thus an elaboration on the theme of the cross.

Solomon's Knot

The cross is the Knot of Solomon’s primary symbolism and explains its appearance in churches. I would see the cross as an abstracted form of the sun wheel, spokes without the rim of the wheel. As a solar cross symbolising the sun it is indeed a powerfully apotropaic device, a lucky charm for driving away or banishing evil. This would explain its great popularity down the ages, amongst the pagan Romans, on their mosaics, and appearing on ancient synagogues and latterly in Christian churches where the solar cross becomes the Cross, a cruciform.

Celtic ‘sun cross’, modern era, Harnham, Wiltshire, UK.

Champion’s thesis would have a theoretical demon or spirit “attracted to lines” [13] then travelling eternally around  the unending figure of Solomon’s Knot, trapped forever because "evil begins to follow the line [which will] never come to an end..." [14]. Champion does not tell us how the demon enters this hermetically sealed figure in the first place. The author Ruth Mellinkoff [15] says that demons disliked confusion and includes knots and interlaces under this heading. Contrary to Champion, Easton and also the author Brian Hoggard [see note ‘witch bottles’ below] who view spirits being lured into traps, Mellinkoff thinks the appearance of a knot “with no determinable end” would confuse a devilish spirit and “ward off the feared demonic evil”. This contradicts the whole notion of luring or decoying a spirit into a trap, the function of the knot would again be – as with the sign of the cross – apotropaic, intending to fend off an unwelcome intruder. Mellinkoff mentions no spirits following or trapped within lines.

The magical knot as apotropaic talisman seems to have entered Europe during the Middle Ages. As Champion notices [16], the Arthurian knight Gawain possesses ‘an endless knot’ on his shield in the shape of a pentagram, both knot and shield comprise a protective barrier between the knight and an adversary; I would stress that the device does not attract evil to it which would contradict the function of a shield. It may also be significant that Gawain’s shield with its golden pentagram has an image of the Virgin Mary on the other side, facing the knight. This arrangement realises an association between the shining fivefold geometry of the pentagram and the Marian devotional image recalling “the five joys that the gracious Queen of Heaven had of her Child” ~

Thus Gawain “had on the upper half of the inside of his shield, a picture of the Virgin painted, so that when he looked at it his courage never failed”.

‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, M R Ridley, page 34, 1944.

Note. ‘Witch bottles’ are archaeological remains of folk belief in Britain. A bottle was filled with material with the intention of forming a ‘sympathetic link’ with a witch, and thus harming the spell-casting witch through the preparation of the contents and treatment of the remedial bottle. Since bottles were buried many have been recovered enabling study. Brian Hoggard in ‘Physical Evidence’ ultimately refutes the documented evidence of Joseph Blagrave who, writing in 1671, clearly explained the apotropaic function of a witch bottle as “causing the evil to return back” [17] to its sender. The bottles are also endorsed by Merrifield as “counter-measures to witchcraft” [18].  These explanations are contrary to Hoggard’s belief that the receptacles were used as a “decoy” [19] for malign agencies. Hoggard’s belief also contradicts Mellinkoff’s thesis that spirits could see well enough to become confused and frightened away by the sight of knots and interlaces, and yet Hoggard believes malign spirits would mistake a stoppered bottle for a real person. Some early witch bottles were initially of the continental European imported stoneware ‘Bellarmine’ type, with stern bearded, generic faces on them. There is no evidence that they were intentionally manufactured for export for use in Britain specifically as decoys for spirits. Eventually, featureless glass bottles were used as witch bottles in Britain. The tradition of the witch bottle does not occur in Europe; Hoggard  following Merrifield [20] says the early stoneware witch bottles were manufactured in Holland and the Rhineland, but both authors say the witch bottle practice was indigenous to the British Isles. The author Paul Devereux contradicts this with the statement "Witch bottles were common throughout Europe" [21]. In terms of the spirit trap thesis, parallel to Champion and his sealed knots, Hoggard doesn’t attempt to explain how the spirit negotiates the stopper in the bottle in order to trap itself within it. Thus this is yet another ‘spiritual trap’ thesis I have to reject because there just isn’t the evidence for it.


1. ‘Physical Evidence’, page 162.
2. ibid. page 55.
3. Smithsonian Bulletin 86, Frances Densmore, ‘Chippewa Customs’, 1929.
4. ‘Dream Catchers’, Philip Jenkins page 20.
5. ibid. page 6.
6. ‘Dream Catchers’, Oberholzer, page 43.
7. ‘Medieval Graffiti’, Champion, page 49.
8. ibid. p28.
9. ‘The Figure of Solomon’, p238.
10. 'The Jewish Encyclopedia', 1906, V:11 P:448.
11. ‘The Figure of Solomon’, p238.
12. ibid
13. ‘Medieval Graffiti’, page 28
14. ibid
15.‘Averting Demons’, Vol 1, Ruth Mellinkoff, page 48.
16. ‘Medieval Graffiti’, page 48.
17. Merrifield, page 169.
18. ibid. page 167.
19. 'Physical Evidence', Page 96.
20. Merrifield, page 173.
21. Paul Devereux – (June 2007), under the ‘Spirit Control’ sub-heading: “Witch bottles were common throughout Europe”. (


‘Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic’, Ronald Hutton (Ed), 2016.

‘Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality’, Philip Jenkins, 2004.

‘Dream Catchers: Legend, Lore and Artifacts’, Cath Oberholtzer, 2012.

‘Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches’, Matthew Champion, 2015.

 ‘The Figure of Solomon in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Tradition: King, Sage and Architect’, Joseph Verheyden, 2012.

‘The Jewish Encyclopedia’, (1906) Jewish Encyclopedia, V:11 P:448 (

‘Averting Demons: The Protective Power of Medieval Visual Motifs and Themes’, Vol 1, Ruth Mellinkoff, 2004.

‘The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic’, Ralph Merrifield, 1987.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Visions, demons, graffiti

Apocalyptic Woman

Following the sun wheel, which I view in origin as a parhelion, has led me to a remarkable discovery and constrained me to read the Bible probably more thoroughly in some respects than a practising Christian. Such objective study should be encouraged since western civilisation is predicated upon the Bible as much as it is on late classical paganism. If you don’t comprehend the Bible, a lot that goes on in mainstream culture and heritage will remain opaque, including antique church graffiti, that’s just a fact.

Traversing the prehistoric Dorset Cursus I came upon the nearby church of Gussage St Michael where I noted an impressive ‘daisy wheel’ design scored into the side of the church font. What could it mean? Adjacent was a large circle with the letter ‘M’ scored in the centre. A relatively huge ‘W’ had been scored actually inside the font. This is no mere idle graffiti, generations of villagers had been baptised at that font, there had been no attempt to remove or obliterate these signs and symbols and they are graphically apparent even to the modern day. M and W are well known medieval letters or monograms referencing Mary (Virgin) and V+V, Virgin of Virgins, a Marian title.

 The Gussage baptismal font daisy wheel.

A while later I noticed exactly the same daisy wheel design graffiti in Salisbury Cathedral, and also circles, presumably compass drawn. I had earlier seen that the Biblical Tree of Jesse (family tree) drew a direct line to the Virgin Mary from a woman called Tamar. Her name means ‘date palm’ in Hebrew and this tree was sacred to the Semitic goddess Asherah who was a sun goddess. It might then seem plausible to look for solar symbolism for the Virgin Mary, did it exist? It certainly does.

If we examine some of Mary’s titles or attributes we can detect the light of the sun shining through them, Mary was known as the Queen of Heaven for example, that’s all of the heavens – the sky – both day and night. One of her greatest medieval feast days was called Candlemas, when churches and altars blazed with thousands of votive candles in her honour: fire symbolism, solar. Such associations are lost to us since the Reformation when references like these to the Virgin Mary were swept aside as ‘superstitious’ and her images destroyed as idolatry. But the same religion remains today, albeit shorn of Marian context in much of northern Europe, and underpins the western world.

Medieval stained glass [Lacock Church] 'Queen of Heaven' crown with W or V V Marian monogram signifying 'Virgo Virginum' or Virgin of Virgins.

There were more surprises; I noticed medieval English pilgrim badges erroneously labelled 'The Assumption' but referencing the Biblical book or chapter attributed to St John called Revelation: Mary as 'Woman of Apocalypse' - medieval pilgim badge . In this book of visions an Apocalyptic Woman appears ‘Clothed with the Sun’ and standing on the moon, and this is what the badges portray, St Mary as the sun-woman over a crescent moon, holding the Christ child. St John’s imagery is the legacy of the aforementioned sun goddess Asherah, the erstwhile spouse of El, a god also known as Yahweh which translates through to Jehovah. In the English speaking world this means God, the One God, and Asherah was his consort, his wife. I also discovered that the church font is intimately associated with Mary who was considered the ‘source of the source’, the virginal fount that brought forth the Christ, because Mary was “seen as the living fountain: she gave birth to the Redeemer who brought life to humanity”, p.98, ‘Sex and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Texts: The Latin Tradition’, (ed) Gold, Miller, Platter, 1997. Mary is especially associated with the lily and flowers generally. The stately flower known from the Middle Ages as the Madonna Lily [Lilium candidum] has six petals. Six-petal designs occur on medieval ampoules, pilgrim souvenirs which contained holy water, an example here is thought to reference the Virgin Mary who had a major cult site at Walsingham whilst another is backed with a parallel Marian symbol, another lily, the ‘fleur de lys’.

To me the foregoing evidence clearly indicates that the six-petal daisy wheel on the St Michael church font referenced the Virgin Mary, and it almost exactly fits the shape of the sexfoil or hexafoil Lilium candidum, the Madonna Lily.

Detail after Maestro della Madonna Strauss, Annunciation c.1390 with archangel Gabriel holding six petalled  Madonna Lilies, Christian symbolism for the purity of the Virgin Mary.

 The Madonna Lily [Lilium candidum]


It may be objected that notions such as Mary’s association with the font and the apocalyptic visions of St John were unknown to a medieval lay audience, since the Bible was only available to the public on a wide scale after the publication of the King James Bible (KJV) in 1611. Such objections fail to take into consideration the universal pre-Reformation practice of decorating the interiors of churches with lively scenes from the Bible. It may also be objected that the language of the pre-Reformation church was liturgical Latin so that even though congregations could actually see scenes from the Bible on the walls surrounding them there was no-one there to explain what they meant. This is simply not the case.

Lay folk were not in ignorance of the Bible in the Middle Ages. As Andrew Reeves has pointed out in ‘Religious Education in Thirteenth Century England’, (2015) page 130: “The bishops’ constitutions and treatises ... frequently enjoin clergy to teach their parishioners the Creed and Articles of Faith in their parishioners’ ‘mother tongue’ or ‘native language’.” Equally, D.S. Ellington in ‘From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul’ (2001), p.107, draws our attention to the fact that “in the Middle Ages ... Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation was also used [describing] a woman ‘clothed with the sun’... [and it] has always been easy enough to see also in the woman the triumphant Virgin... This text was used constantly in the Middle Ages ... all of its rich symbolic possibilities were developed to the full by artists and preachers”. Far from being ignorant of Biblical lore, folk and popular culture in medieval England – with its liturgical dramas and colourful mystery plays - was “saturated with Christian symbolism” [p.68, Ellington] with a long, documented tradition of sermonising in the vernacular, stretching back into Middle English - the language of Chaucer - and Anglo-Saxon times. The following example in Middle English dates from the 12th-15th century and clearly shows that during the Middle Ages the Virgin Mary was seen as St John's 'Woman Clothed with the Sun' described in the Bible in Revelation 12:1, and was a current cultural motif. [Click on text for expanded view]:-

 Middle English vernacular poetry with translation c.1150-1470 CE. Poem 88 from 'Middle English Marian Lyrics' (ed) Karen Saupe, 1998. 

Spirit Trap

The symbolism for the wheel and the Madonna Lily is ultimately solar whilst the etymology for daisy – known also as ‘Mary’s Rose’ in the Middle Ages - is ‘day’s eye’ in other words the sun. The daisy wheel is an ‘apotropaic’ - or lucky - symbol. Apotropaic is a Greek word meaning to turn aside, repel or ward off, so if you feared supernatural intrusions into your home you scored a daisy wheel by door, window or chimney to deter or bounce them out again. Daisy wheels may also be devotional if, as I suspect, they referenced the Virgin Mary – a saint also invoked under the formula ‘Auspice Maria’ [under the auspices of Mary] for protection. Recent scholarship suggests other forms of lucky insurance policies against misfortune, the ‘spiritual midden’ [Timothy Easton] and the ‘spirit trap’ [Matthew Champion]. Both theories reference, within their scope, linear figures including daisy wheels - or ‘hexafoils’, viewed simply as webs or networks of lines - alongside more mundane items such as shoes, and focus on entrapment rather than deflection as their method of outwitting malevolent spirits. These by definition anti-apotropaic theses appear to largely rest on one advocated by Ralph Merrifield over a quarter of a century ago, and can be found in his book 'The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic', 1987. 

Ralph discovered niches of old shoes and other objects and material – including long dead animals in antique buildings. He decided that the old shoes were for trapping spirits. He based his theory on the single incidence of a 14th century pastor, one Sir John Schorne, who was also an exorcist, who theatrically and famously in his time, conjured either a devil or the Devil himself into a prodigiously tall boot, which deft showmanship unsurprisingly left an indelible impression in the impressionable minds of his village congregation. But there is a problem here. An exorcist actively performs an exorcism and there is no evidence that similar rituals have accompanied the worn out shoes, hundreds of which have been discovered together at a single time in some locations. Another problem is that entrapment does not equate to the term apotropaic, which means to deflect and not to trap. An article from Schorne’s erstwhile cult site at Binham Church ponders whether the boot ‘devil’ may in fact have been a reference to gout, and that some saints' cults contained “an animated shrine statue”, in which a concealed operator manipulated wires to move things around. This suggests John Schorne's miraculous boot inspired or had parallels with the later invention of the ‘Jack in a box’, a children’s toy, Binham Priory Church page . Ultimately, I can't see a definite, proven link between the cleric's single celebrated boot and hidden heaps of old shoes.

After a medieval pilgrim badge replica on the Internet depicting John Schorne and his boot

A far simpler explanation for an habitual discarding of old shoes is that they are a folk memory of the many documented votive deposits including animals which were often inserted and hidden into the foundations of buildings. Originally these offerings would have been to gods ‘for luck’. The fact that some of these midden-like caches of shoes and other objects accompany the sad remains of animals identifies the intention. Shoes in the Middle Ages and later centuries were predominantly made from leather, the skin of dead animals. Even when a shoe made from something other than leather is used the faunal association is still there. Consequently, and in the absence of anything more substantial materialising than the folk-shamanism of a medieval pastor, I must reject the spirit trap thesis.

Out of sight, out of mind

The concept of the spiritual midden has substance because such locations exist. These concealed, liminal household spaces were where various antique objects were deposited with an assortment of superstitions attached to them: faunal remains and shoes – the memory of household offerings – wooden rake heads, associated with bad luck when you inadvertently stepped on one; and charred or scorched pieces of wood, arguably evidence for folk magic: a sort of parlous household inoculation against the disaster of fire. The middens are liminal dumping grounds - in a similar way to how parish boundaries and crossroads used to be seen - anthropologically neutral zones into which objects associated with folk belief, cultural transgression and superstition were deposited safely ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Old Shoes, after Vincent van Gogh.

Other sources consulted

'Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic', [ed] Ronald Hutton, 2016.
'Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England's Churches', Matthew Champion, 2015.
'The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic', Ralph Merrifield, 1987.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Knowlton: the strange case of the village which mysteriously vanished.

Knowlton Church

Knowlton village or hamlet in Dorset was always unusual. It is listed in Domesday and west of Knowlton lie Iron Age remains of dwellings laid bare by archaeology(1); but Knowlton village is unlikely to extend backwards in time beyond the Saxon period. Saxon inhumations have been found(2); strangely no medieval burials have come to light yet, the Middle Ages being the heyday of Knowlton. But what is chiefly unusual about Knowlton is its Norman era church – now a ruined shell – but situated right in the middle of a late Neolithic, ceremonial earthern henge, and at some remove from the village as well.

Knowlton village grew into being along the east bank of the pretty river Allen, apparently renamed the Wimborne [‘wim’, bright/ ‘borne’, river] in Anglo-Saxon times. I believe the Allen was always its name. There’s another River Allen seven miles north-east, a tributary of the Avon, so the place name has a local precedent. Allen in the Old British tongue means deer, that’s ‘elain’ in Middle Welsh. From records – which are scant – the village seems to have possessed a mill(3), presumably a water mill; and to have had its own fair held on July 5th, if the neighbouring fair at Woodlands village is the one which was transferred there when Knowlton went into terminal decline.

The River Allen at Knowlton

The henge in which Knowlton church stands is not alone, there was a much larger circle to its south which has been cut in two by the B3078 road and flattened by farm buildings and the plough. It cannot now be discerned from ground level and has to all intents and purposes vanished from the once monumental ritual landscape. North-west of the church circle are several more earth henges which have also fallen victim to the insatiable plough, and elsewhere there were numerous barrows testifying to the religious significance of the Knowlton area in prehistory. Only one barrow has escaped the flattening onslaught of agriculture and that is the Great Barrow north-east of Church or Centre Circle, impressive even after thousands of years of natural weathering and erosion. Of especial interest to ancient tree hunters is an interrupted line of yew trees which points towards the Norman church then veers away on a trajectory which takes it – if the tree line extended further – neatly between the church henge and the Great Barrow, plausibly linking up with a trackway to Knowle Hill Farm on the other side of the B road. How old are these venerable yews? Since they proceed over the now erased North Circle henge I think it unlikely they are prehistoric. Yew lore is documented especially in ancient Ireland so I would tend to see the churchyard yew tradition, to which these trees perhaps belong, beginning in the Iron Age. The henge builders were often drawn to astronomical events on the horizon, so I can’t see that they would have gained much by planting trees around their henges; which is not to say that they did not esteem trees in other contexts: quite a few wooden henge sites have been discovered for example. But the question remains, who planted these isolated yews and why? Jeremy Harte thinks they may be the remains of an abandoned hedgerow – which would accord with the linear nature of this feature, but why only yew trees left standing, what of thorn trees – the hedgerow tree of choice? And as noted earlier, the first stand of yews orients directly towards the centre of Church Henge – pointing right at the church in fact.

Knowlton church with yew trees beyond

Knowlton centre henge was the location of a regular ‘hundred’ meeting, and so the ritualistic henge associations could have accorded with pagan law making, as the assembly sat in session. The yew was recognised as a sacred wood in West Germanic tradition(4) although the custom itself may have been the result of Celtic influence. It may be feasible then that the yew line represents a processional way towards the henge; after all, Centre Circle was also selected by the early Church as a site for its house of worship. But why this lesser henge received so much attention is not clear to me – the largest henge, the South Circle looks like it was summarily obliterated in favour of the road and farming.

Knowlton village seems never to have fully recovered from the Plague (c.1348-1350 and later) which swept across medieval Europe including the British Isles. Probably drastically depopulated, the ailing village limped on until 1659 when the church was considered for demolition, perhaps due to the sharp village population decline; although church attendance seems to have rallied sufficiently for a north aisle to be added in 1730 and subsequently a new roof to be added. Yet by 1750 the roof had disastrously collapsed and the church was finally abandoned, which also seems to have been the fate of the village at around this time. But how can we read the erection of a church in the middle of a pagan henge? We know next to nothing about either monument.


After the abandonment of Knowlton its annual July 5th fair was removed to the nearby village of Woodlands(5). Many medieval fairs were held in honour of the local patron saint. An example of a local, insular saint was St Olfrida or Wulfrida to whom nearby Horton Priory - of which Knowlton was a chapelry - was dedicated. Knowlton’s fair date of July 5 suggests Saint Gwen, supposedly married to a Saint Fragan (feast day October 3rd); the dedication of Knowlton church is today unknown. What else commends Saint Gwen to Knowlton? Beside her English feast day date there is her name and, surprisingly for Dorset, her association with Brittany. According to legend, in the fifth century CE Saints Fragan and Gwen migrated to Brittany where many churches are dedicated to  them. The legend is brought into sudden focus when we read in the Domesday book that the lord at Knowlton in 1086 was one Ansger the Breton(6). With regard to Gwen’s name, it means ‘white’ (or holy) in Welsh. There is another albescent saint associated with Dorset and that is Saint Wite(7) at St. Candida and Holy Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum 50 miles to the south-west, Candida being the Latin reading for white or ‘gwen’. Is this then the same saint as at Knowlton?

The Allen River at Knowlton

The author S. Baring-Gould(8) informs us that a saint called variously Gwengustle, Guengu, or Vengu migrated to Brittany and that she was probably also called Ninnat, Latinized to Ninnoca. She was additionally known as Saint Candida or Saint Gwen in the Breton town of Scaer. So we are indeed looking at the same British saint with Breton associations. The name Ninnat may be a red herring since the variants Ninnoc or Ninnocha are not forenames, “they mean Little Nun” and this is identical to a Saint Nona’s legend from Cornwall – Nona just means nun. I think this was an early ecclesiastical strategy to adopt formerly pagan goddesses into the Church as saints; perhaps when you didn’t have an appropriate saint to identify a female deity with, you just substituted the local pagan name for ‘nona’ or nun*.

So we have a July 5th insular saint’s name, Gwen, Wite or Candida – all meaning white or perhaps brilliant light - with Breton, Celtic or Old British associations. Is there anything else to commend her to Knowlton? Several kilometres up river from the settlement site we come to the village of Wimborne St Giles. This saint’s attribute is a deer, a doe – one of the factors which suggested to me that the River Stour tributary known as the Allen has always been named this way and that it is an old British river name meaning deer.

St Giles

On researching Gwen in Brittany I discovered the following legend. Gwengustle [Gwen] founded a monastery at Ploemeur, near Lorient in Brittany. Subsequently, a hunter was pursuing a stag nearby when it fled into Gwen’s church for sanctuary and was spared its life. Today at Ploemeur, in the chapel of the Priory of Saint Ninnoc – otherwise known as Gwen - there is a statue of her as an abbess with a stag at her feet. And so I believe – through Gwen’s church at Knowlton - we have a second cervid association for the deer river in Dorset, the Allen River.

Saint Gwen

However, the bright light implicit in Gwen’s name needs some qualification. It’s equally there in her names of Wite (white) and Candida (radiantly white, bright, clear, beautiful, fair), her name rendered in Latin. The association with Centre Circle earth henge at Dorset explains the association. Henges are frequently found with standing stones, and a megalith was recently uncovered from the site of the largest henge at Knowlton(9). Gwen’s adopted Ploemeur** in Brittany is a mere 30 kilometres along the Breton coastline from the gigantic megalithic complex of Carnac, and the nearby stone rectangle of Crucuno with its multiple solar alignments(10). It seems logical to assume that the sun was also the primary focus at prehistoric Knowlton, and that this tradition survived in some form or other down to the early medieval period, moving the Church to dedicate the new edifice and ancient henge to an obscure saint called ‘light’ who may well have stood in for the original female divine presence at Knowlton now lost to us, but not beyond speculation, if not a hypothetical reconstruction.

If we accept that Gwen (‘light’) was the prehistoric deity at Knowlton and that her attribute was the deer – also the name of her sacred watercourse – we can find documented parallels. Alauna is a documented river name(11) - as a goddess – it is almost certainly cognate with Allen as Welsh ‘alun’. Elen from the Mabinogion who lives in a palace of red-gold and silver was almost certainly a goddess of the ancient British, and possibly the presence behind so many St Helen churches and holy wells – Helen being a name dating back to at least the Bronze Age which has spread from Greece to Eurasia, and then to Britain in the remote past. And of course the names Elen and Helen recall both the Allen river name and ‘elain’ the Middle Welsh word for a doe or a fawn. A folk association between water and sunlight can be found in the many summer dawn dew rituals(12), and this extends to rivers and bathing, an association which was Christianised under the name of St John the Baptist and his feast day falling on or around the midsummer solstice. Deer are not exclusively female solar symbols, another river-sun lady might be Sequana the spirit of the Seine and her symbol was the swan. The solar deer symbolism probably goes right back to the Mesolithic, a surviving incidence of this would be the Sami sun goddess Beaivi, potentially an antlered female reindeer divinity(13). Beaivi’s symbolism often incorporates a rhombus, a sign which appears again and again throughout British prehistory as a full lozenge or in abstracted form as a chevron.

Epilogue: who stole Knowlton’s church bell?

Well, quite possibly no-one but ironically a ‘culprit’ has been identified(14).

Knowlton tower & belfry

Folklore is correct in identifying the negative loss of the bell since I believe the bell symbolised both the church’s spiritual inspiration – and before that the ritual landscape - and the communal village soul. But the baddies in the story, Sturminster Marshall, suffered their own catastrophe. In 1802, after Knowlton church had stood derelict and empty for 50 years, the west tower of Sturminster Marshall St Mary’s collapsed. It seems likely to me that the three bells, un-rung for half a century in Knowlton’s undamaged tower belfry were taken at this time, to restore the tower at nearby St Mary’s, which has six bells today(15).

The story of the Knowlton yews remains a mystery to me.


1. Cunliffe, B. 'Iron Age Communities in Britain', p.169,  2006.


3. Dorset History Centre, Ref.D-PUD/C/1/2 Date: 7 Aug 1650

4. see Elliott, RWV. ‘Runes, Yews and Magic’, Speculum, Vol. 32, No. 2, Apr., 1957



7., also mentioned is a ‘sun well for sore eyes’



10. Burl, A. ‘Guide to Stone Circles’, Crucuno, pp.254-5, 1995

11. Rivet & Smith, ‘Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp.243-6, 1981.

12. de Vries, A. ‘Dictionary of Symbols’, p.134, ‘dew’ 15.B, folklore, 1984.


14. DNHA vol.19, 1898, a tradition that at least one bell went to Sturminster.


Drawings - after the Internet.

Stills from Ric's 'Knowlton Experimental 2012' Standard 8mm cine film

*Curiously the figure of a nun has claimed to have been seen near the church.

**Gwen's Ploemeur site with its stag legend is also only 19 miles from Teviec, the location of a Mesolithic 'antler burial' ~

Monday, 8 December 2014

Will the real Father Christmas please stand up?

A Winter’s Tale:

In the family home at Christmas I used to muse over the plastic fairy on top of the artificial conifer  tree: who is that supposed to be - & she holds a star (wand), what's this star? Many years on and I realise that it represents the day star, dying and being reborn at the winter solstice - so what exactly is this tree – introduced by Victorian nobility in the 19th century? I think it's the solar tree, it wears the sun in its crown. The star is equally the Pole Star around which the great, antlered female elk circles, today known as the constellation Ursa Major - at the midwinter rite it symbolised the frail midwinter sun, a tiny star (prehistorically Thubron) at the apex of the soaring solar tree or world axis if you prefer. I have patiently restored this narrative from stories and tales, including the Kalevala where the elk has been predictably demonised by subsequent cultures and systems of belief.

Googling Father Christmas invariably gets you a jolly old Norse Odin (Old English Woden) showering his admirers with gifts. That looks a bit suspect to me. I can't find an Odin gift tradition; perhaps there is one, the ‘ring giver’? But gift-giving is a fairly universal and ancient activity with an important social function; & is Odin jolly like Santa? Not really, this hooded figure is called 'Grimr' meaning masked and in the context of the violent, furious god it can only be the grim, set mask of death - this being a god of the dead.  The name Woden corresponds to Old English ‘wod’ meaning mad: possibly recalling the pejorative ‘wooden head’ in English. Secondly, what we have for Odin doesn't appear to be that old in terms of prehistory, he is frequently associated with riding (Wild Hunt) & riding is a comparatively recent activity (Eurasia) c.4 to 3500bce and later still in Western Europe. Odin is called 'Jolnir' after the festival of Jol or Yule but gods tend to attract attributes to them, just like saints absorbed qualities of older pagan divinities, so I don't read too much into the name: Odin had many names, such as 'Yggr' meaning the terrible, not particularly jolly that one. What does Odin bring as a gift? He is credited with bringing poetry to humans but he is also reputed to have stolen this poetry in the first instance, so it's a bit of a wayward gift it seems to me

I leave Odin here & am unconvinced  that Odin is Father Christmas; also worth noting that historically the pagan English called Yule 'Mothers' Night' according to the venerable Bede, there's no apparent reference to Odin or Woden in that naming. What we do have however is Wednesday, the day of Woden. But I don't think anyone for sure knows why Yule in England (then eastern Britain) was referred to as Mothers' Night by Bede. There have been attempts by some to weave these mothers into Teutonic tradition but it's unconvincing & if it were so, why don't we see a winter's Mothers' Night in Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology? Mythological mothers – female groups - are certainly attested to in Romano-Celtic cultures though. According to the Odin ‘Jolnir’ model, Yule should be recorded as being presided over by this deity in England, and it isn't. Not that Bede is particularly reliable, but it's what he leaves out that is questionable, not so much the information he supplies, which appears to me muddled & perhaps not even thoroughly understood by England's first historian. Bede was a cloistered soul, he had no practical understanding of what pagans did or believed in. When in doubt he invoked classical sources - which is what everybody did - and still do to a degree. This was also pleasing to Rome, Bede was painting a picture agreeable to Rome, a picture of a people ripe for conversion. So he wasn't perhaps that bothered about the detail of his description only the overall impression it would create.

Bede notwithstanding – the name means prayer - in our hunt for the real Father Christmas, we shall proceed on to the next venerable & festive gentleman: Saint Nicholas. The saint gives us Santa Claus, 'santa'=saint, 'claus'=Nicolaus. And what is so Christmasy about St Nick? His 'feast day' falls on the 6th of December which is tolerably close - but not that near - to the winter solstice, that's about it. The folklore (hagiography) surrounding the saint is for me awkward in its attempts to absorb the prehistoric & astronomical midwinter event, when the sun 'stands still' on the horizon for three days. He resurrects three murdered children; he gives dowries to three young women, thrice, but most tellingly the triple dowries turn into 'three gold balls' in some versions & there can't be much more of a graphic reference to the three standstill solstice sun days than this. St Nicholas & the Church purloined the solstice event as far as I am concerned. But there's more -

The Austrian/Italian St Nicholas tradition has split the saint into two distinct personages, a medieval demonic  goat & a saintly gift bringer, so what's going on? You'll notice that the Krampus figures are not necessarily goats, they're composites: furry hides & horned or even antlered. That's the key to the puzzle I think.

Nicholas aka Santa aka Father Christmas brings gifts - three golden orbs in one instance - but there is a much older & more important winter solstice gift-bringer whom Santa has displaced. Combing through the myths of Eurasian peoples who have retained remnants of their hunter-gatherer culture it is possible to tentatively reconstruct the picture. At the winter solstice a giant, antlered female elk gathers up the sun with her horns & dashes with it into the deep forest of the night, taking with her the light of humanity, potentially never to return. The world is plunged into the longest, darkest night. There appears a 'culture hero', in this instance a bear. However, the female elk (obviously inspired by antlered doe reindeer) is the sun herself. The bear-god either captures or marries the doe, and that is probably the significance of the furry Krampus's wearing horns, they represent a sacred marriage, a 'hieros gamos' - elk and bear as one. Who the bear-god actually was is lost in the remote past - I think he is the northern constellation Bootes pursuing the Great Elk [just like in the Kalevala] we know as the Plough. But what was his original name? In Siberia he is known as Mangi.

Otherwise, an obvious candidate is going to be Arthur whose name, some say, not only means the bear, but additionally his personage also answers to a 'culture hero', just like the lost bear-god, but surviving down to the modern period. Moreover, the Arthurian hunt for the Grail is I believe the hunt for the sun goddess herself - a retelling of the same age-old story. In Arthurian lore there is the Grail Maiden, Elaine, and 'elain' means deer in Middle Welsh.

It follows that the gift-bringer at Christmas brings us that most precious jewel, the light, the sun reborn into a new solar year. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

God of the Witches

Who is this god?

He bears horns, ‘cernu’ in Celtic, he is literally a horned man, Kernunnos, the horned one, which is just a descriptive, it is not his name, it is an adjective. He is half man, half beast, those breeks belong more to Pan than they do to Kernunnos, but anything with horns will do – cloven feet are fine – but it’s the headgear which identifies him. Only Pan (Faunus) comes close to this in the Graeco-Roman world. The God Pan. So what else is there? There’s music, [top link, centre right], and music is often important in Celtic Britain, the image of the harp for example, and the magical singing birds of Rhiannon. It would be odd to find any indigenous folk tradition then without music featuring in it.

[Circle of Demons and Witches, Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688.]

What else? The phallic broomstick and phallic torch or candle, so there is fire symbolism, which compliments the circle – usually a symbol for the sun (wheel). And what else – people dancing in a ring and drinking jugs, indicating feasting, so this is also a god of plenty, and a god of fertility. The Sacred Circle. Then what can we find in Britain and, or Ireland, to match this otherwise bewildering figure? The art work seems to be derived from a 1628 publication entitled “Robin Good-Fellow” (short title) and the original figure is graphically virile, reinforcing the previously-mentioned phallic imagery. By the 17th century Robin was a name for the regent of the fair folk, the King of Faery, but we need to delve much further back and earlier in time to identify this elusive fellow


There are several contenders I think for the god of the witches in Celtic Brtain and Ireland. We have already noted the horns, the stag god’s antlers; but during the later medieval period there are repeated references to the devil being black, for example, “a very mickle [large], black rough man" claimed Isobel Gowdie in 1662 [1]. So step forward swart god! Not so simple though: Celtic belief was regional, it was tribal, the deities do not fall into neat categories and I believe their gods may overlap to quite an extent, quite unlike the classical pantheon with its apparently well defined Olympians.

But black, or rather dark; an obvious match could well be the Irish Donn  whose name gives us the adjective ‘dun’. This is a dark god of the Celtic underworld, but he is possibly more than that as well.  Julius Caesar [2] stated that the Celtic equivalent of his ‘Dis Pater’ was considered to be the ancestor of the Gauls, and so a very major figure, and Dis Pater was the god of the Roman underworld, so we may have a parallel dark Donn figure here. In Wales, the medieval Mabinogion affords us a glimpse of another large dark figure, a pillar-like ‘black man of great stature on the top of a mound’ grasping a stag and a club [3]. The club or cudgel is also an attribute of Gaulish Sucellous (‘good striker’) and the Irish Dagda, called 'The Good God' and the ‘All-Father’ bringing us back to Julius’ comment again. Equally, the Dagda has been poetically referred to as ‘Donn’ which can mean brown or dark [4], exactly the same adjective used to describe the Donn Cuailgne or great brown bull featuring in the epic Irish Tain saga – yes, those horns again.


But returning to the Good-Fellow imagery – especially the circle - and our quest for the dark figure, perhaps the Witches’ God. Besides Kernunnos and the Dagda as sometimes dark, ancestral and fertility deities in the broad Celtic pantheon, a third personage presents himself. This is Crom Dubh, ‘dubh’ meaning black [5]. The word ‘crom’ forms Welsh ‘cromlech’ meaning curved stone, in other words a stone circle. Crom Dubh may have also been known as Crom Cruach, which would tend to identify him with the hilltop god Lugh (Lleu) who has an agricultural and harvest association. The god Lugaid - perhaps related to Lugh - is a tricephalic diety just like Kernunnos – he can be depicted with three heads or faces.

I return to the dancing circle though because Crom Dubh, whom Michael J O’Kelly calls the chief Celtic idol of Ireland [6], is associated with several stone circles, and I do not see this as coincidental. Aubrey Burl informs us that the stone circle in County Cavan known as Crom Cruach or Crom Dubh was a circle of twelve standing stones with a taller monolith in the centre. The central stone appears to have been thought of as the god Crom Cruach himself. A second stone circle in the same county has a Crom Cruach association and that is at Killycluggin. This circle also appears to have possessed a central pillar. Both circles have been deliberately destroyed in antiquity and the question of Crom Dubh’s identity has been all but effaced [7]. However, the ‘mickle black man’ of the seventeenth century – the Witches’ God of the round dance, and the many megalithic monuments credited with witch associations, suggests to me that the chthonic Kernunnos – variously named and conceived of - was indeed the God of the Witches

From the Compendium Maleficarum by Francesco Maria Guazzo, (1608).


Kernunnos only means ‘horned’ it doesn’t mean anything else, it doesn’t refer to any particular animal at all. Consequently, all horned animals can be thought of as potentially the ‘horned one’ and this is what we find in the scant evidence available to us today. Where clearly represented Celtic male horned figures appear they are antlered (stags) or associated with horns like the ‘ram horned’ serpents frequently accompanying the chthonic god. Bovids are less acknowledged as horned divinities, but the Celtic bull was esteemed, as in the Tain, and a bull deity existed even though his nature is now as altogether shadowy as the erstwhile major divinity Crom Dubh in Ireland. The bull god was named Tarvos who is depicted as Tarvos Trigaranus on the 1st century Pillar of the Boatmen (an altar) at Cluny, France; immediately beneath this panel is a representation of Kernunnos with apparent stag’s antlers over which are looped torcs. I think this further suggests the interrelatedness of Celtic male horned figures, all being seen as facets of Kernunnos.


The Dagda as a major pre-Christian figure is described in the Tochmarc Étaíne [8] as having power over the storm which would tend to identify him as originally an archaic weather god, and his cudgel or club [9] parallels Indra’s axe, Thunor’s hammer and the thunder bolt of Zeus. In this way these deities have something in common with anciently bovine lunar* gods like the Anatolian Teshub, consort of the sun goddess of Arinna, and Sumerian Nanna /Sin – another ‘father of the gods’ figure - who rode a winged bull. The god’s consort Ningal was represented by a priestess who led a white cow and  is thought to have performed a ritual to the east or even the rising sun; the priestess is named ‘ornament of the heavens’ and embodied the person of the goddess [10]. Considering the sacred issue between Nanna/Sin and Ningal was the sun it is probable that Ningal was a solar cow goddess, recalling ancient Egyptian Hathor and the cow goddess Aditi who births the sun in the mythology of India. Bovine Nanna/Sin’s symbol was the crescent moon, reflecting his twin albescent crescent horns.


In general, the educated seventeenth century Establishment – the clergy, aristocracy and the judiciary, could only interpret the remnants of paganism, which were all around them, in terms of classical learning and the Bible. Thus the Witch God became the Christian Devil often depicted with Pan-like goat’s legs and feet. But it follows that the god of the witches was largely an archaic moon and fertility god, and that he was consequently worshipped at night. Indeed, recumbent stone circles in northern Britain are believed to reference the moon [11]. Elsewhere the solar nature of stone circles and related megalithic monuments is beyond serious dispute and there are too many documented sun alignments to call this into question, even accepting that some megalithic monuments remain obscure in terms of archeoastronomy. The examples of Stonehenge and Newgrange will always stand, and importantly so [12]. That many daylight traditions may have been erased, must be accepted, just as the Brythonic sun goddess Sulis is all but ignored in the modern period; we are left with the nocturnal god of the witches – a surviving folk memory - but without his consort the sun goddess, whose identity was probably overlain and absorbed by Roman Minerva in the late Iron Age and then Mary ‘The Queen of Heaven’ in the succeeding Christian period, and it remains for us to recover our lost heritage.



7. Aubrey Burl, ‘Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany’ p.211-12, 1995.
10. Harriet Crawford (ed), ‘The Sumerian World’, p.253-4, 2012.

*I broadly refer to Teshub as lunar after Karl Kilinski’s identification of him with the Neo-Hittite Tarhunt who was himself identified with the Luwian moon god Arma [Burney, 2004]. Kilinski also compares Teshub with the bull-horned, storm god Akkadian Adad whose father was Nana/Sin. The Hittite moon deity Kaskuh equates to Hurrian Kusuh [Taracha, 2009], consort of Nikkal, the Hurrian version of the Sumerian ‘Great Lady’ Ningal, spouse of the moon-god Sin, and I feel that this places Kaskuh in a category of male Middle Eastern weather/lunar/bovine deities.


Karl Kilinski, Greek Myth and Western Art, p.19, 2013.
Charles Burney, Historical Dictionary of the Hittites, p.219, 2004.

Piotr Taracha, Religions of Second Millennium Anatolia, pp. 127-8, 2009.

[All links visited 24.04.2014]