Saturday, February 19, 2011

About Those Skull-Sipping Britons

So going beyond my annoyance with Reuters' reporting on how the very early Britons (i.e., living some 12,000 years before there were any Celts) drank from human skulls, let's talk about how this practice went on even up through modern times: Yes, I speak of the Penglog Teilo--the Skull of St. Teilo.

Writing in The Source, Buckley quotes an Asaph Dar, who describes how, at least in the 19th century, there was an association made between the nearby St. Teilo's Well, and the chalice made of his skull:

  The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans (Hifyn Ifan) used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay [9] the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.
 Whether this belief, that the efficacy of the well's water would only hold if one drank with the skull of St. Teilo (who, curiously enough, has a cult which lays claim to at least three bodies at three different churches), is an ancient one, is unknown.

The act of drinking from a skull is hardly limited to 19th century Welshmen; indeed, their Celtic forbearers were quite happy to drink from skulls, if Livy is to be believed:
The Boii stripped the body of its spoils and cut off the head, and bore them in triumph to the most sacred of their temples. According to their custom they cleaned out the skull and covered the scalp with beaten gold; it was then used as a vessel for libations and also as a drinking cup for the priest and ministers of the temple.

But it's not just Roman propaganda which recounts this; in Bruigean Atha I, a tale from the Fionn Cycle, Fothad Canaindi, a leader of a rival fianna, says that "It is a prohibition for me to drink ale unless it be drunk with white faces", by which he means he only drinks ale from a skull.

Drinking from a skull was hardly the province of the Irish or Welsh, of course; there are medieval Continental accounts of drinking from skull cups in religious settings.

The new story of 15,000 year old skulls used for drinking is held up as a gory detail of the ancient past, one replete with cannibals and all manner of barbarism out of a horror movie (or, well, something staring Arnold Schwarzenegger). But change the setting slightly, and the skulls become holy relics, and drinking from them a type of Christian piety.

Perhaps the modern disgust (and fascination) with the idea is bound up in our detachment from the material world: our meat comes pre-ground, pre-sliced, wrapped in plastic. Dealing with animal bones, unless you are truly into cooking, is a rarity outside of, say, eating some Kentucky Fried Chicken or buffalo wings.  Just today, I was making a pot of navy bean soup, using the remains of a ham I'd saved from Christmas. As the soup cooked, the meat came off the bones, and the marrow flavored the waters, so that the bones became clean and hollowed, and I could pull apart the joint. I saw the ball-and-socket of the pig's hip, and thought about how this had once been an animal walking about. And there was nothing strange about it, though it did impart its own type of awe--that in some ways, I am no different from this animal. I am flesh and sinew and bone, and I could be as easily boiled and separated. I felt for the pig, but it didn't stop me from cooking it.

Real skulls have been used as props in Hamlet; real cadavers used by medical students; real bodies, skinned and cased in a silicone rubber in Bodies.

And so maybe there wasn't anything that strange about drinking from a human skull, depending on context and circumstances. But I can't lie--I am a product of late 20th/early 21st century America. The concept still hold a sort of gruesome fascination.

I'll leave on this oddity:

While [Perceval and the Fisher King] were talking of one thing and another, a boy came from a chamber clutching a whilte lance by the middle of the shaft, and he passed between the fire and the two who were sitting on the bed. Everyone in the hall saw the white lance with its white head; and a driop of blood issued from the tip of the lance's head, and right down to the boy's hand this red drop rain. ...A girl who came in with the boys, fair and comely and beautifully adorned, was holding a grail between her hands. ...The boy saw them pass, but did not dare to ask who was served from the grail[.]

--Chr├ętien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail.
But then compare with the Welsh version of this story, where the wide-mouthed dish (which is what a "grail" originally meant) is gone, and replaced by a severed head:
Then Peredur and his uncle discoursed together, and he beheld two youths enter the hall, and proceed up to the chamber, bearing a spear of mighty size, with three streams of blood flowing from the point to the ground. And when all the company saw this, they began wailing and lamenting. But for all that, the man did not break off his discourse with Peredur. And as he did not tell Peredur the meaning of what he saw, he forebore to ask him concerning it. And when the clamour had a little subsided, behold two maidens entered, and a large salver between them, in which was a man's head, surrounded by a profusion of blood. And thereupon the company of the court made so great an outcry, that it was irksome to be in the same hall with them.

And of course, there is the famous story from the Mabinogi, where the severed head of Bran (the original Fisher King) holds an Otherworldly feast. Confusing heads and cups? Maybe, but maybe not.

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