Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In Insula Avalonia - Glastonbury Tor

It’s the end of October, and as it is the Celtic festival of Samhain I thought it would be a good idea to begin exploring a place that is near and dear to my heart: Glastonbury.

To most, the mere mention of this town’s name will likely conjure images of wild, scantily clad or naked youths and aged hippies. You’ll think of thousands of people covered in mud as they wend their way, higher than the Hindu Kush, among the tent rows to see their favourite artists rock the Pyramid Stage.

It’s a great party, but that’s not the real Glastonbury.

Removed from the fantastic orgy that is the music festival, this small town in southwest Britain is a very ancient place. The real Glastonbury is a place of mystery, lore and legend. It is a place that was sacred to the Celts, pagan and Christian alike, Saxons, and Normans. For many it is the heart of Arthurian tradition, and for some it is the resting place of the Holy Grail.

Today, Glastonbury is a place where those seeking spiritual enlightenment are drawn. The New Age movement is going strong here, yet another layer of belief to cloak the place.

I lived in the countryside outside of the town for about 3 years and I never tired of walking around Glastonbury and exploring the many sites that make it truly unique. I’d like to share some of those sites with you.

In Insula Avalonia is going to be a series of short posts exploring the historic and legendary treasures that make up this wondrous place known as the Isle of Avalon.

Morning view of the Tor
From where I lived on the other side of the peat moors, I awoke every morning to see Glastonbury’s most prominent feature shrouded in mist – the Tor.

Tor is a word of Celtic origin referring to ‘belly’ in Welsh or an ‘imposing hill’ in Gaelic. Glastonbury Tor thrusts up from the Somerset levels like a beacon for miles around. Every angle is interesting. On the top is the tower of what was the church of St. Michael, a remnant of the 14th century. Before that, there was a monastery that dated to about the 9th century A.D.

However, habitation of this place goes much farther back in time with some evidence for people in the area around 3000 B.C. It was not always a religious centre. In the Dark Ages, the Tor served a more militaristic purpose and there are remains from this period.

Flooding around Glastonbury
In Arthurian lore, the Isle of Avalon is a sort of mist-shrouded world that is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat or secret path. In fact, during the Dark Ages and into later centuries, until the drainage dykes were built, the Somerset levels were prone to flooding. This flooding made Glastonbury Tor and the smaller hills around it true islands. With the early morning mist that covers the levels, this watery land would have been a relatively safe refuge for the Druids, and early Christians, Dark Age warlords and late medieval monks.

In Celtic myth, Glastonbury Tor is said to be the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Faery King and Lord of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld.

Gwynn ap Nudd is the Guardian of the Gates of Annwn, an underworld god. It is at Samhain that the gates of Annwn open. This was also the place where the soul of a Celt awaited rebirth. 

'The Wild Hunt' (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo
If you are on the Tor at Samhain, you may hear the sound of hounds and hunting horns as the lord of Annwn emerges for the Wild Hunt of legend.

In Arthurian romance, there is a tradition of the wicked Melwas imprisoning Guinevere on the Tor. Arthur rides to the rescue, attacks Melwas and saves Guinevere. This particular story mirrors an episode in Culhwch ac Olwen, one part of the Welsh Mabinogion, in which Gwythyr ap Greidawl attempts to save Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, whom he is supposed to marry, from Gwyn ap Nudd himself.

Another even more fascinating Arthurian connection can be found in a pre-Christian version of the ‘Quest of the Holy Grail’, called the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ which was found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’. In this tale, Arthur and his companions enter Annwn to bring back a magical cauldron of plenty. In this, some say that ‘Corbenic Castle’ (the ‘Grail Castle’) is actually Glastonbury Tor. It isn’t just Herakles and Odysseus who journeyed to the Underworld!

Glastonbury Tor is not only associated with Celtic religion, myth and legend. It is also said by some to be a place of power sitting on a sort of vortex in the land. It lies along some of the key ley-lines, including what is called the St. Michael ley-line. The majority of sites associated with St. Michael, the slayer of Satan, along this ley-line were indeed places of power and belief of the old religion.

But this is nothing new. Christians built on top of sites sacred to the pagans they were eager to overcome. What better way to symbolize your ‘victory’ than to build right on top of a site and make it yours.

Gwynn ap Nudd on the Hunt
Gates of Annwn and Gwynn ap Nudd? ‘Let’s build a church of St. Michael on top of it! That’ll show ‘em!’

But myth and legend persist through story and place, and the Tor is a prime example of how successive traditions do not overcome each other, but rather combine to make up the various aspects of that place.

If you ever get to Glastonbury, the Tor is a definite must. Walk to the top and sit awhile. Look out over the landscape and watch the crows and magpies dive in the wind around the steep slopes. Close your eyes and listen. While you’re there, you can decide whether you are sitting on a natural formation, a ceremonial labyrinth, a hill fort, a sleeping dragon, the Gates of Annwn, or the mound where Arthur sleeps until he is needed once more. The Tor is all of these things and more.

However, no matter what you believe, one thing is certain: Glastonbury Tor remains a site of extreme beauty and mystery that is well worth a visit, even if it is just to watch the sun sink in the west.

Have a safe and happy Samhain.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Tiryns – Mycenaean Stronghold and Place of Legend

This week, I wanted to write about a site. I haven’t done that in a while and everyone seems to enjoy the journey that sort of post provides.

But which site? I wanted to pick something that was lesser-known but still exciting. I’ve been to many sites, especially around Greece, all of them fascinating and steeped in myth.

I settled on Tiryns, Mycenae’s poorer brother in the tourist trade.

"In the south-eastern corner of the plain of Argos, on the west and lowest and flattest of those rocky heights which here form a group, and rise like islands from the marshy plain, at a distance of 8 stadia, or about 1500 m. from the Gulf of Argos, lay the prehistoric citadel of Tiryns, now called Palaeocastron." (Heinrich Schliemann; Tiryns; 1885

I visited the site with family during the summer of 2002. It was a scorcher of a day and the cicadas were whirring full force by 9 a.m. Luckily, the heat meant that the place was devoid of visitors - the perfect time to explore.

Tiryns is one of those sites that you likely know about if you have studied classics, mythology or archaeology. Most people have not heard about it. It lies in the broad Argive plain, a fenced-in circuit wall along the road between Nafplio and Argos itself, surrounded by orange and olive groves.

At first glance, there is no hint that Tiryns was one of the major Mycenaean power centres of the Bronze Age. The cyclopean walls are big, impressive, but there had been times when I had driven by and not even noticed it. Perhaps that was due to the madness of driving in Greece.

The West Wall
When we got out of the car, the hot wind whipped across the plain to envelope us and, once we paid our entrance fee at the small kiosk, it seemed to sweep us up the ramp to the citadel, and back in time.

Tiryns is a place of myth and legend. It has been inhabited since the 7th millennium B.C., but by the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it was already in the death throes of a swift decline. Pausanius visited as a tourist in the 2nd century A.D.

"Going on from here [from Argos to Epidauros] and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns... The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together." (Pausanias; Description of Greece)

I’ve spoken before about the feel of a place of great antiquity. Tiryns is an ancient place.

In mythology, it was founded by Proitos, the brother of Akrisios, King of Argos and father of Danae, the mother of Perseus.

It was said that the walls of Tiryns were built by the Thracian Cyclopes of the ‘bellyhands’ clan before they built the walls of Mycenae and Argos. This is why this style is called ‘cyclopean walls’. They were known as the ‘bellyhands’ because that clan of the Cyclopes were said to have made their living through manual labour.

It would have been a feat of tremendous strength to say the least, as each stone weighs several tons.

The association with Perseus is indirect as he acquired Tiryns after he killed his grandfather, Akrisios, but before he established Mycenae.

One of the most important mythological associations with Tiryns however, was Herakles, the son of Zeus and Alkmene. The latter was the granddaughter of Perseus.

Let us go back to the time when Eurystheus was king of Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos.

According to Apollodorus:

"Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal."(Apollodorus; Book II)

After Hera drove Herakles mad, causing him to kill his own children, the Oracle at Delphi told the hero that he needed to serve King Eurystheus for twelve years in order to atone for his horrible actions.

Herakles presents Eurystheus with
the Erymanthian Boar
Herakles settled in Tiryns. His twelve tasks, or Labours, for Eurystheus are legendary and have been depicted in art for centuries throughout the ancient world. 

Admittedly, when I visited Tiryns on that day, I had no idea of its associations with Perseus or Herakles. For me, a lot of research is sparked after visiting a site, and as a result a follow-up visit is certainly in order.

The citadel of Tiryns is about 28 metres high and 280 meters long, and it was built in three stages. In the 12th century B.C. it was destroyed by earthquake and fire but remained an important centre until the 7th century B.C. when it was a cult centre for the worship of Hera, Athena and Herakles.

The Late Bronze Age (1600-1050 B.C.) was the height of Tiryns’ existence. It is during this time that the cyclopean walls and most of the fortifications were built. 

Today, as in the Bronze Age, one approaches the citadel on the east side. To get to the upper citadel, which was the location of the Great Megaron and palace, you must walk up a massive ramp that is 47 metres long and 4.70 metres wide. This would have led to the main wooden gates.

The Great Gate
Once past the gates, you walk along what was a corridor that led to the Great Gate which was flanked by a tall tower. The Great Gate was almost the size of the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae, and would have proved an imposing structure.

When I was walking along the ramp, looking up at the remains of the massive walls and the tower, I could imagine warriors in bronze, with boar’s tusk helmets, looking down on me with spears or bows in hand.

Even though the citadel contained a luxurious palace and baths, this would not have been an easy fortress to storm.

Once you attain the top, you find yourself on a level area looking out over the site – the upper, middle and lower citadels.

Artist Reconstruction of the Citadel of Tiryns
There is not much left in the way of intact walls when it comes to the palace but you can see the outlines of the many rooms, especially the courtyards and the Great Megaron where the King of Tiryns held court and had his throne on a raised platform overlooking the central hearth.

Imagine Herakles approaching Eurystheus to ask him what his next labour was to be, in this room. This was the heart of the palace. Other rooms would have included residences, a second Megaron and even a bath, the floor of which is made up of a huge monolith.

I was a bit dazed, standing there in the heat, looking on the remains of this site with awe. It is so very old and the ruins only hint at what was a luxurious, but defensible, palace.  And that was just the upper citadel.

The middle citadel, 2 m lower, provided access to the defences and may even have contained a pottery kiln. The lower citadel, which is also surrounded by walls, may have been used as a refuge for the people of Tiryns town on the west side, in times of need.

Reconstructed frescoe
from Tiryns' Palace
At one point, when I was looking about the gravelly surface of the court, I spotted tiny bits of pottery. Of course, I bent down to get a closer look and picked up a shard with three black lines painted across it. Before I could contemplate the age of this piece, a loud whistle blew and a site person seemingly emerged from the rocks like an asp hiding from the midday sun. “No touching!” I heard, in heavily accented English.

Good thing she didn’t have a spear or bow.

After leaving the upper citadel, we walked down some steps to what is my favourite part of the site – the east Galaria.

This beautiful arched tunnel is still intact, and with the sun shining from above it was suffused with soft light. I immediately imagined a Mycenaean queen strolling between the light and shadow of this place, or a determined king on his way to a war council, his cloak flapping behind him, bronze-clad guards in his wake.

The East Galaria
Such is the power of a site like this to fire the imagination.

Back to the present.

Today, with the cold of November almost upon us, I think back to that scorched but brilliant day at Tiryns, and smile. I feel warmth again, enjoy the glint of the sun radiating off of the stone, its sparkle far out in the Gulf of Argos.

This ancient citadel is a welcoming place where history and myth are entwined, comfortable allies. I certainly hope my path leads me there again one day.

I’d like to thank all of you for reading and to extend a warm welcome to all the new subscribers. If there is anything you are interested in hearing more about on Writing the Past, send me an e-mail at writingthepast [at] 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mars - God of War and Defender of Agriculture


This weekend in Canada is Thanksgiving Weekend.

Hard to believe harvest time is upon us. The seasons turn so quickly, especially the warm ones.

Harvest time was an important time of year for many ancient cultures including Greek, Roman and Celtic societies.

As a result, there are many gods and goddesses, major and minor, who are associated with crops, agriculture and the harvest. 

I was going to write a post on Demeter (Ceres) or Cronus (Saturn) who were both associated with agriculture.

Instead, today's written offering will go to Mars.

Yes, the Roman God of War who was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.

The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.

Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.

"On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war." (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)

Artist's representation of the
Temple of Mars Ultor
People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.

In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.

Mars was a very different god from Ares, a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.

Mars was the God of War, but also a god of agriculture. Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks and their lands.

War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.

In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, or lustratio.

Relief of a suovetaurilia being performed
The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.

It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars. The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.

Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:

 "Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…"
(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)

This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.

The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.

Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.

But it was Mars who held Rome’s enemies, and those of its land, at bay.

In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.

Happy Harvest and Ave Mars!