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.