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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reuters: Not One for Understatement

Ancient Brits ate dead and made skulls into cups:

Ancient Britons devoured their dead and created gruesome goblets from the skulls of their remains, according to new research published on Wednesday
Feeling peckish?

 I'm surprised it isn't followed by a series of exclamation points.


Now, I don't know enough about the report to really comment, except to point out that this wasn't the Celts, so please no more stories about the evil, bloodthirsty savage Celts. These bones are from 15,000 years ago--before the last Ice Age, and at least 12,000 years before there was such a thing as a Celt. Also, the article later bothers to point out
They said the circumstances behind the deaths of the Cro-Magnons (European early modern humans), whose bones they discovered, can only be guessed at.
 They may have been killed, butchered and eaten -- with the skull-cups just the end of this event -- or may have been part of the group who died and were eaten in a crisis situation, with the skull-cups created as a tribute to the dead.

"We simply do not know," they said in a joint emailed response to questions.

But hey, if we can't be sensational about archaeology, why report it at all?

Cannibalism can be a touchy issue in anthropology; and the article isn't very helpful, suddenly switching to Greeks reporting on Scythian headhunters, Vikings (take that, Swedes!), and those evil Tantric Buddhists, all of whom were cannibals.

Well, so were those football players in the Andes, but hey, why let circumstances like starvation get in the way of a good story?

Also, aren't vampires basically into liquid cannibalism? Think on that next time some tween squeals about Twilight. Those girls are on the long, dark road to cannibalism.

Picture from the Guardian, not Reuters.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A (Very Late) Happy Imbolc!


For those who don't know, Imbolc--falling roughly halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox (or, Christmas and Easter)--is the old Irish start of spring; it's a feast of purification1, and comes a day after the feast of Brigit, the goddess and the saint. In the Catholic calendar, it's also Candlemas/the Feast of the Purification of Mary. But you probably know it best as Groundhog Day.

Using this day for prognosticating the future weather goes way back, certainly long before some Pennsylvanian marmot chewed his way out of the ground. Plus, before him, it used to be a snake. To read a good summary of how Brigit relates to spring and predicting the weather in February, check out Alexander Carmichael's classic Carmina Gadelica:


The serpent is supposed to emerge from its hollow among the hills on St Bride's Day, and a propitiatory hymn was sung to it. Only one verse of this hymn has been obtained, apparently the first. It differs in different localities:--


'Moch maduinn Bhride,
Thig an nimhir as an toll,
Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir,
Cha bhoin an nimhir rium.'

Early on Bride's morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

Other versions say:--

La Feill na Bride,
Thig nighean Imhir as a chnoc,
Cha bhean mise do nighean
’S cha dean i mo lochd.' [Imhir,
'La Fheill Bride brisgeanach
Thig an ceann de in chaiteanach,
Thig nighean Iomhair as an tom
Le fonn feadalaich.'
'Thig an nathair as an toll
   La donn Bride,
Ged robh tri traighean dh’ an
   Air leachd an lair.' [t-sneachd

The Feast Day of the Bride,
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
Nor shall she harm me.
On the Feast Day of Bride,
The head will come off the 'caiteanach,'
The daughter of Ivor will come from the knoll
With tuneful whistling.
The serpent will come from the hole
   On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
   On the flat surface of the ground.

The 'daughter of Ivor' is the serpent; and it is said that the serpent will not sting a descendant of Ivor, he having made 'tabhar agus tuis,' offering and incense, to it, thereby securing immunity from its sting for himself and his seed for ever.


In America, the day has become associated with the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. In one of those wonderful cosmic convergences, the theme of the movie actually fits the original theme of the holiday: Phil Connors, the miserable, venal weatherman played by Bill Murray, spends lifetimes living the same day over and over again, indulging in every vice you can find in a small Pennsylvania town, before slowly learning to become a better person. What's funny, of course, is that the origin of Imbolc--like the Roman Lupercalia, or the Catholic Lent--is in a time of purification. Like Phil, we're all living the same day over and over again; sometimes we waste our time, which is easy, especially in winter when we're miserable. But hey, unlike Phil, we don't have an eternity to get it right.  We invent times like Imbolc to get ourselves back on track, to remind ourselves that winter doesn't last forever, that spring is coming, and we need to get our heads together. To purify ourselves, to make ourselves better people.

Hey--the groundhog called for an early spring. Better get crackin'.

1. Eric Hamp, 'Imbolc, Oimelc', Studia Celtica, 14/15 (1979/1980)

Google Finds a New Way to be Awesome

A new project from Google is the totally cool "Art Project", which uses the tech behind Google Streetview to take you on a tour of famous museums around the world, like the Tate and the NY Met. On the list is the always wonderful Cloisters Museum of medieval art in New York. Check it out to see the famous Unicorn Tapestries, the Nine Worthies tapestries (which includes a famous image of King Arthur), and a whole host of medieval art.