Tag Archives: British Prehistory

Doctors Strange: Early Modern Surgeons, Demonic Possession, and Witchcraft

8b4206c0ed5ded4e3db61f410f35b024In writing the social history of the supernatural, it’s all too easy for to create a pantheon of heroes and villains. For heroes we have educated doctors and humanists fighting fanatical magistrates, bringing modern wisdom to backward country farmers. As villains, we would have a field of straw men: Puritan preachers, ‘Witchfinder Generals’, ignorant yokels, conniving magnates, and corrupt search-women.

Yet, there were always those who didn’t believe in magic. From the 15th to 16th centuries, the Duchess of Bedford was accused of Witchcraft, and one of Jack Cade’s compatriots was executed for necromancy. Despite that, there are no mentions of magic or the supernatural in the Paston Letters – written by a family living in 15th and 16th century Norfolk. Continue reading

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Stonehenge, Burial Site or Ancient Computer?

Stonehenge, a lonely set of standing stones surrounded by clusters of barrows.

The site appears to have been evolved from around 3000BC to 1600BC.

The earliest version of the site, a ditch and earthwork, might have been surrounded by a wooden palisade, possibly with stones having been brought from as far as Wales to act as grave markers.

After time some sort of cremation building was erected on the site, followed by an avenue that might have been used for rituals marking rising sun during the solstice. In fact, the idea of Stonehenge’s use for astrology is still hotly debated amongst archaeologists, even contributing to the specialised field of Archaeo-astronomy.

The first theory that Stonehenge was a computer came from before 1740 and was still being championed in 1965. William Stuckley, the first archaeologist to suggest that Stonehenge was a tool for tracking and measuring astronomical phenomena, noted that the structure has a north-east facing earthwork called ‘The Avenue’, which terminates with the sun almost rising above a stone known as ‘The Heelstone*’ on the morning of the midwinter solstice (although skeptics point out that the sun won’t rise precisely over the stone until the year 3260AD, which would be a strange thing for neolithic builders to be marking… unless it’s the year day when great Cthulu rises to eat us all). Other archaeologists, like C.A. Newham, put a lot of meaning in a set of postholes (or possibly just the cavities left by tree roots) when the monument’s car park was extended in 1966, believing that they were useful for tracking a number of solar and lunar phenomena.

Other Astro-archaeologists have raised astronomical links with the Station Stones, a vaguely rectangular arrangement of stones just outside the main part of the monument.  Alexander Thom and others have argued that it’s possible to make no fewer than eight astronomically significant sight-lines using the stones, although Christopher Chippendale, in Archaeology, a magazine published by The Archaeological Institute of America, said that modern research has revealed that only three of those sight lines were astronomically relevant, and two of those lines were perpendicular.

One of the most interesting, and macabre, factors of the uses of Stonehenge as an astronomical tool relates to the Aubrey Holes, compacted chalk pits discovered by the 17th century antiquarian John Aubray, who found that there were bodies buried in the pits; a New Zealand-based researcher has also found that the holes – with knowledge of the moon’s movements and how lunar phases affect the sea – can be used to predict tides in the English Channel with uncanny accuracy. Were the dead some sort of sacrifices to the gods of Astronomy, or to the moon?

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Arthur, King of the Dead

Most of the people reading The Spooky Isles will have an idea who King Arthur is. Whether you’ve read Le Morte Arthur, or experienced the gentler teaching aid of Bradley James’ torso on the BBC show Merlin, you probably know the basics. Arthur’s a hero whose wife sleeps with his best friend, and then he’s killed by kid he made getting with his sister (well… his half-sister, but you can still see why Guinevere decided to explore incest-free relationships.)

The standard post-death of Arthur is well known: he’s taken to Avalon and healed by Morgan/Morgana le Fey. As Geoffrey of Monmouthshire writes in his History of the Kings of Britain, “Then that famous Arthur was mortally wounded, who from there, the river Cam, was taken to the island of Avalon for the healing of his wounds.”

Where is Avalon?

R.S. Loomis points out that the Irish world Ablach means ‘rich in apples’ and is used to describe the island home of Manannan, the God of the Sea. It’s also worth noting that in the Welsh tradition Avallach is the name of Moargana’s father, another possible early link between faeries, Avalon and water (a traditional home of the dead in early European mythology. Godfrey of Viterbo, a German writer, recorded a prophesy form 1190 where Arthur would be preserved in the depths of the sea and reign as he had on land.)

Death of King Arthur

Glastonbury has also been associated with the sleeping/dead Arthur. Henry H Payton writes that the association came from a spurious etymology of the word Glastonbury with the eerie fortress of glass mentioned in the poem Preiddeu Annwn.

Monks were even said to have found Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury in 1191, reporting that he was a giant with a skeleton covered in nicks and chips as well as the final wound that ended him. Mallory’s Le Morte Arthur even tried to reconcile the two traditions with the already existing folk traditions of Arthur’s return, saying that he would go from the Isle of Avalon to be healed, and that from there he would be buried in Glastonbury until “he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.” An older source, the Black Book of Carmarthen, contains the line, “Concealed till Doomsday the grave of Arthur.”

But this well known tradition isn’t the end for Arthur. There are a number of folk traditions that make it very clear that the Once and Future King definitely doesn’t sleep…

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