Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Black earth..and the making of a long barrow.

I first came across the term black earth when reading Maud Cunnington's description of what was found at The Sanctuary, or rather, Maud uses the term a 'dark humus' to describe what is probably the remains of decayed turf.

The term black earth was used originally by her husband's great grandfather: William Cunnington (1754 – 31 December 1810) . His sketch plan of the long barrow in Heytesbury North Feild records a circular mound at the east end composed of black earth mixed with sarsens, flint nodules and chalk. This black earth puzzled both Cunnington and Wyndham (on whose ground the long barrow lay).

To check out his suspicions, William Cunnington consulted some chemists, Mr Hatchett and Dr Gibbs who told him that the black earth wasn't a result of fire, and that it wasn't animal matter...Richard Colt Hoare concluded therefore that it must be plant matter. Yet the black seemed too black for Cunnington and controversy raged over whether it was black like the pudding... because of blood...or not.

In 1889, William Cunnington (the grandson of the original W Cunnington) in his Notes on Bowl's Barrow describes what he learnt about the black earth. William followed his grandfather's example and sent some black earth off for chemical analysis. The report stated that ammonia had been detected. Ammonia is the breakdown product of proteins such as blood and muscle and it will happen with or without air present, but it seems that plant material doesn't produce ammonia in anaerobic- airless, packed inside a long barrow- conditions.

William Cunnington grandson believed blood to have been shed at prehistoric sites proving barrows to be sites of ritual sacrifice..

One detail that comes from William Cunnington senior's records is that long barrows, not always but often follow a sequence of black earth, a pit and a pavement (a layer of flat stone) and then a cairn or mound. Sometimes there is evidence of burning, and most have their wider end pointing eastwards.

At Bowl's Barrow, Cunnington found a pavement of flints nodules. Bodies had been laid out in no particular order on top of the flint pavement, by the side of the pavement Cunnington describes a cyst, or a pit neatly cut into the chalk- but he didn't have time to investigate this pit thoroughly as the whole structure of the barrow was becoming unstable.

Stones of sarcen and flint had been built up from the pavement to make the long barrow over the pavement almost 2m high, and the whole lot was capped with chalk to make a white mound.

The name black earth is redolent of darkness and mystery. The modern etymology of the word alchemy links it with Al-Khemet meaning Egypt, land of the black earth. The inundation of the Nile producing rich and dark and fertile soil.

But I'm not sure if this is simply a short-cut from information related by Madame Blavatsky.

Madame Blavatsky (1887) mentions this theory about Egypt but goes on to say that the word alchemy probably comes from Arabic al-kimiya meaning something that can be changed.

I have no idea either way!

Here's the whole thing- from Isis Unveiled:

I don't suppose William Cunnington meant anything of the sort when he became fascinated by the black soil inside barrows.

So let's assume that the black earth is freshly cut turf. The ground from which it was cut could be white? I'm thinking of those chalk horses cut into the downs, of how the ground is pale and full of bone-like flints. The bright green turf cut from the ground becomes a sacred area ringed around by the white ground.

Next there is the pavement of flints and the digging of a pit.

Next bodies go on top of the flints and the rest of the barrow is constructed.

But not all long barrows contain bodies; some contain lots, some only one. Most point eastwards: if it's the full moon being used as a marker, the most north-easterly full moon rises in December. The most easterly new moons are in early summer. It wouldn't be easy but if you wanted to know roughly what the season was, the moon could work.

But looking at the plants and trees would probably give you more of a clue!

So midwinter full moon as the time for the dead still makes more sense to me that the midsummer party stuff. But it is still the equinox that intrigues me- when the gates of the sun and moon open at the same time...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Tanit and The Lord of the City.

This is a new version of an older post:

Tanit was the Queen of Heaven in Carthage, and her consort was Baal-Hamon.
Tanit was known as 'Face of Baal'.

Baal-Hamon: Baal means Lord. Baalu translates as 'Oh my lord' in Standard Babylonian, but the Hammon part is harder to translate.

It has been suggested that it comes from a root syllable and means hot..

Another possibility is that Hammon is very close to Amun- from Egyptian- where Amun before becoming linked to the sun as Amun-Ra, created via breath.

Baal Hammon- Lord of the breath of life?

The image said to represent the Goddess Tanit is represented by the triangle, and upright arms figure, standing just above the rectangle in this drawing of a Carthagean burial marker- once set up over the cremated remains of children and small animals.


The other icons above the Tanit figure remind me of those found on kudurru (Mesopotamian boundary stones) that likewise present the deities as symbols.

If this stone follows similar rules, the rectangle below Tanit indicates her temple.

But the image that really puzzles me is the downwards pointing arrow.

The Omega is at the top of the arrows, the omega is used in Mesopotamian iconography to represent the life-giving Goddess, it portrays the birthing hut, and the goddesses of birth -the womb goddesses.

In Egypt the icon of the omega becomes the characteristic shape of Hathor's hair.

The Arrow symbol above the rectangle on the Mesopotamian kudurru represents Marduk, but it isn't an arrow.

It is a 'pick axe' or at least some kind of digging tool.

The digging tool (marru) and the horned snake-dragon on Mesopotamian kudurru (boundary stones) stand for Marduk. The marru represents the act of creation: of building and defending the city. It was also the tool the gods handed to the people: http://thingsinthree.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/creation-of-mankind-pickaxe.htm

In the Enuma Elish, Marduk represents kingship, you could call Marduk King of the town, or the Lord of many (which reminds me of one of many euphemistic names the Greeks had for Death).

So what is a symbol for life and the womb doing above the pick axe?
The arrow-omega could carry an almost Soviet style message of 'hard-work and fertility'?

Or it could represent Melqart/Nergal.

The stone was placed above cremations, after all...

Nergal is a complex character as the Tel Amena version of his myth shows. He is both Nergal and Erra, a plague god who rules 'The Seven', and a god of war. He is both Mars and that aspect of the sun that causes rot and decay.

His symbol is similar to the omega.

Double-headed lion symbol of Nergal.

The worship of a god of war, plague, rot and the underworld, promises protection from those terrible things.

But in Carthage, though offerings may have been offered to him originally, he becomes linked to kingship. The MLK 'word' that becomes molk and that is so close to the word Melqart, becomes a verb.

Molk comes to mean, to sacrifice.

Melqart's forunner is Nergal whose name translates as Lord of the Great City,  has dominion over war and disease, and so he can also be a god of healing.

His symbol of the double lion seems to become the twisting snakes of the Caduceus.

The double headed snake of the Caduceus comes to mind, as the symbol for Mercury.
A god who could cross between life and the realm of the dead.

This image of Iris -a messenger of the gods- shows her holding almost the exact same symbol as on the Carthaginian stela. The Greek name for this device is kerukeion, meaning "herald's staff. Hermes (Mercury).

Above the figure we recognize as Tanit is another version made of a triangle, moon and dot.

Above that composite symbol is something like an orange cut into two! It could be the sun or Venus.

On Mesopotamian boundary stones the sun usually has wriggly lines coming out between the 'petals' whilst the star of Venus is usually drawn without the wriggly lines.

Returning to the icon for Tanit, the Tanit figure starts with a triangle.
It is possible that the triangle represents a stone...

Hesiod records echoes of Hittite and Mesopotamian myth when he writes of the 'Theogeny of the Gods' describing Cronos being tricked into swallowing a stone instead of his own child.

Did this record an established habit of placing a stone in a temple to stand for the god?

In Cyprus, coins issued by Caracalla (198-217 AD) depict the Temple of Aphrodite at Palea Paphos.

They show a conical stone, which represented the goddess Aphrodite, at Palea Paphos.

If you go to Paphos and visit the museum you can see the stone that was once the Goddess herself.


It is said that the Kaaba at Mecca used to contain fragments of black, meteoric stone...

Cybele too was once represented by a black stone...originally, probably at Pessinus or at Pergamum or on Mount Ida.What is certain is that in 204 BCE  the Cybele stone was taken to Rome.

So the triangle of Tanit, lets say, represents the sacred stone.
In the second representation of her on the stone from Carthage, above the triangle comes the a moon shaped crescent surmounted by a dot.

The moon was once a symbol of the god responsible for the birth of the sun and Venus, for order and time (Nanna) . The crescent moon symbol placed over the triangle puts these powers for time and measurement under the control of Tanit...making her Stella Maris.

well perhaps...

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


A hall I saw, far from the sun,
On Nastrond it stands, and the doors face north,
Venom drops through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls do serpents wind.

I saw there wading through rivers wild
Treacherous men and murderers too,
And workers of ill with the wives of men;
There Nithhogg sucked the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?

It's probably a mistake, but I think of the Vikings as being just about as close as I can get to any written record of an Iron Age way of life and thinking.

On their incredibly long journeys and through their extensive trade networks came both  physical objects and intangible ideas from cities far away, both in space and sophistication. The Vikings crossed seas and followed rivers inland, down the great rivers of Russia to the  Caspian and the Black Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar and over the Mediterranean; across the Atlantic to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and on to America.

Better still, they were written about and their poems were preserved.

The Poetic, or Elder Edda.
Norse myth was collected and written down: The Codex Regius was written around the year 1270  in Iceland from an original compilation (now lost) thought to have been made in 1225. It contains the Elder Edda- a collection of 39 poems. The poems are older than the book and were a mixture of stories and advice.

The Prose Edda.
Written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson from the Poetic Edda. It could be described as the handbook to accompany the Poetic Edda. The Prose Edda is a compilation of stories from the Poetic Edda to provide a connected, systematic account of Norse cosmology.

What of Hel?
The Vikings describe a triple level world; a realm of the gods, a middle earth (where we live) and an underworld. Hel is the Queen of the underworld, the custodian of those who die of old age or before their time, and of cowards and criminals.

Hel resides over a place of punishment for those who deserve it. But her world is not Hell for those who do not deserve punishment- the old and the young.

From the battlefield, with Odin go the brave to Valholl , the good go with Fraya to the Fólkvangr...
Fólkvangr 't is called, where Freyja rules
    Degrees of seats in the hall;
Half the kill she keepeth each day,
    And half Odin hath.
and the rest...sink to Hel to be judged.

As in Greek myth, the underworld has levels deeper than death, the lowest space is filled with mist:
To the nine worlds I came
To Niflhel beneath
Where the dead from Hel descend.
From: Vafþrúðnismál 

The greatest of all is this: that he made man, and gave him the spirit, which shall live and never perish, though the flesh-frame rot to mould, or burn to ashes; and all men shall live, such as are just in action, and be with himself in the place called Gimlé (after Ragnarok, the new world). But evil men go to Hel and thence down to the Misty Hel; and that is down in the ninth world."
From: Gylfaginning. 
As is clear from the last quote, the idea ofthe soul and the last battle, refuses to stay inside Christianity.

Snorri describes Hel  in the second part of his Prose Edda, Gylfaginning:
Loki, trickster god and Angrboda (Bringer of distress) a giantess in Jötunheim, had three children: one was Fenris-Wolf, the second Jörmungandr--that is the Midgard Serpent,--the third is Hel.

Odin threw the serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about all the land; and this serpent grew so greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all the land, and bites upon his own tail.
Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.
The Wolf the Æsir brought up at home, and Týr alone dared go to him to give him meat.

The Gylfaginning contains the story of Hermódr's ride to the underworld to try to restore Balder back to life.

The road the dead have to take- the Helway - leads northwards and down. Its entrance is a cave guarded by Garm, a warg-hound with a blood smeared chest. The dead do not dance following a bright god like Dionysos, instead they trudge for days over mountains and through dark forests and down into bleak valleys. The Helway ends in a place of of noise and confusion,  at an 'ice-wave' the river of blades. This river rises from the coldest and deepest part of the underworld. It name is Gjöll (resounding). It is impossible to cross Gjöll in a boat or to swim; it is a river so cold, as if of liquid nitrogen and full of razor sharp knives flowing through it.

Hermódr's ride on Sleipnir took nine nights and nine days to reach this place.

The river of blades is crossed by a bridge thatched with glittering gold. Módgudr (or Móðgunnur) is the woman who guards the bridge...

The blades, the bridge and the girl are themes found in Zoroastrean texts. 
The Chinvat bridge may be as narrow as a hair, or as broad as a road. For the bad, a demon called Vizaresh would emerge and drag the soul into the druj-demana (the House of Lies), a place of eternal punishment and suffering similar to the familiar concept of Hell. However, if a person's good thoughts, words and deeds in life were many, the bridge would be wide enough to cross, and the Daena, a spirit representing revelation, would appear and lead the soul into the House of Song...

The bridges in Muslim belief cross fire:
As-Sirāt al-Mustaqeem is the straight path over hell, a fire more intense in heat than boiling molten brass, and it has seven bridges over it: Each is three thousand years in length: one thousand to vertically ascend, one thousand to horizontally cross, and one thousand to descend. It is thinner than a human hair, sharper than the sharpest sword and darker than the darkest night inside a tunnel. Each bridge has seven branches, and each branch is like a long lance with sharp teeth: each servant of Allāh will be confined on each and every one of them and be asked about all the injunctions the Almighty had required him to perform during his lifetime on this planet....continue.

After the bridge Hermód sees the walls of Hel's land. Sleipnir jumps them easily.

Where is Hel?
In the song of the sun Sólarljóð the poet seems to say that the Hel-gate is in the east- opposite the setting sun:

The sun I saw,
true star of day,
sink in its roaring home;
but Hel's grated doors
on the other side I heard
heavily creaking.
And, as in Gylfaginning, the river Gjöll runs nearby:

The sun I saw:
she beamed forth so
that I seemed nothing to know;
but Giöll's streams
roared from the other side
mingled much with blood...

So a north east direction for the mouth of a tomb would make sense..specifically winter time...
From the September equinox until the march equinox, the sun sets in the southwest quadrant- so the Hel-gate is north east....

More sun and moon facts:
At the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere the Sun's annual path across the sky is at its lowest, or closest to the southern horizon, while the Moon's path is at its highest north.
The Sun and Moon appear to reverse positions at the summer solstice with the Sun at its highest north and the Moon at it's lowest south.