North-easterly V: Layers

A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.

Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.

The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.

There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.

The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.

He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…

 

The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and even in its ruinous state still played a part on the defence of the north-eastern coastline during World War II. Dunstanburgh is a place of many layers, and as we walked towards it, we began to consider some of our own layers. The analogy of the castle as the ego, built layer upon layer by our own experience and that of those who went before still held true.

We build the shell of the ego from our reactions to all the situations and stimuli we encounter, including those passed down to us from our parents and to them from their parents… the layers go deep. This can be a good thing, as we learn from their experience… and just as we are taught early not to touch what may burn, or eat what will make us ill, we can also learn how to live within the society into which we are born and how best to treat each other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in a positive fashion. The accumulated wisdom of generations may also be contaminated by the acquired prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier era… and if we too acquire them, then the problems continue until we stop, look and challenge them for ourselves, stripping back the layers to see a kernel of truth from which we can form our own beliefs and make our own choices.

Steve also introduced the second thread of the weekend’s theme, that of pilgrimage… a sacred journey, deliberately undertaken. Although Dunstanburgh is a castle, not a sacred destination, we do not know for what purpose our earliest ancestors may have used the place. We had seen in Cornwall that the promontory forts may have ritual, rather than defensive roles. But for our purpose, it was symbolically perfect.

The ego is a necessary part of the human experience. It is our haven and shield, the face we present to the world, yet it is not who we are. Beneath the acquired layers, we are something more than our reactions, and the quest of the seeker is to take down the walls we have created around the shining core of being. Not completely… for the ego has its uses. Like this castle, where the natural erosion of time and weathering has reduced the impenetrable structure to beauty and bare bones, the ego dissipates as we grown and learn to know the inner beauty of the light within.

Curiously, another legend associated with Dunstanburgh is that of Sir Guy the Seeker. As night fell and a storm raged, an errant knight sought shelter beneath the ruined towers of the deserted castle. From out of the shadows, a wizard came forward to greet the knight… some say it was Merlin himself… and promised that, if Sir Guy would accompany him, he would be granted a vision of great beauty. The knight followed the wizard, who led him to a secret room. There, sleeping on a single radiant crystal, was the most beautiful woman Sir Guy had ever seen. She was surrounded by an army of sleeping knights, and on either side of her were a sword and a horn.

Sir Guy had, said the wizard, only to make the right choice and the maiden would be wake and be free of her crystal prison. The knight, dazzled by beauty, stretched out his hand and took the horn. Raising it to his lips, he blew a single note… and was plunged into darkness. As he lost consciousness, he heard a voice chastising him, crying shame on him for a coward for choosing the horn when a true knight would have drawn the sword.

Waking next morning, Sir Guy searched the castle for some trace of the maiden or the secret room, but none was to be found. So ardent was his determination to find and free her beauty that he spent his life wandering the castle in search of her, losing his mind and all thought of home. He wanders there still, and on stormy nights, they say you can still hear his desperate cries…

The castle is populated by ghosts. As well as Sir Guy and Earl Thomas, Margaret D’Anjou walks the castles grounds, weeping for those lost in battle. There is another story too, that seemed to fit our theme…that of a child imprisoned in the castle. The quest of the spiritual seeker…the pilgrim… is to release the inner Child from its prison. The story tells that she used the key to the dungeon, where many were tortured and killed, in order to escape. Once beyond the walls, she tossed the key into a field… and to this day that land remains infertile.

And so we wandered the empty space within the castle, passing the ruined chapel and exploring the gatehouse towers. In one, the breeze whipped through the empty windows, creating a vortex that whirled a mass of feathers around me like a snowstorm beneath the blue roof of late summer. From the other we looked out over the landscape and the castle’s tiny harbour to Bamburgh and beyond to the Holy Isle. Where next would our footsteps take us?

The Giant and the Sun – The one with the alien…

We had decided to visit six churches with our companions. That is a lot of churches to visit in one afternoon… and we were conscious that they are not everyone’s cup of tea. These ones, though, are  all old and interesting, and each one of them marks a point of the hexagram in the landscape with which we would work. We had assigned each of the churches to a place on the fire or water triangle, which carried with it a planetary attribution and colour, and each companion had chosen ‘their’ church by drawing lots.

We hoped it would be an interesting exercise and give a taste of the ‘thrill of the chase’ that we get when we are on the trail of mysteries, although you can neither predict how others will feel, nor assume they will feel as you do…or as you hope they will. We would have to wait and see.

We started with the Church of the Holy Rood, in the village of Buckland Newton. The area is rich in archaeological remains, with traces of prehistoric settlements, dykes, barrows and forts on every hill. Ancient trackways converge on the area and it seems to have been a hive of early activity. Dungeon Hill, an Iron Age hillfort, lies to the north of the village and Roman remains too have been located.

The church stands apart from most of the village and, on arriving, seems to be alone with the manor house opposite. The old manor is probably one of the reasons why the church appears to be rather grand for its surroundings, set as it is amidst green fields and farmland. Another reason is that historically, the church also served the villagers of Plush and, it seems, they were assigned their own door on the north side… the side traditionally reserved for the Devil’s Door, through which the demon could escape when baptisms were being performed. It makes you wonder what the relationship was between the two villages…

The tower is the first thing that strikes you, being very tall for the proportions of a village church… a feature we would find was common to the churches we would visit. There are old yew trees throughout the churchyard, which is always a good sign.  You are watched by some rather odd gargoyles as you approach too.

Another good omen for our quest were the four, six-pointed wheels carved on the sundial…. Not a bad start when you are looking for a hexagram.

The south porch is very grand these days, thanks to the carved  lantern. Above it is an old Parvise, a little room kept for the priests visiting from Glastonbury Abbey, to whom the church once belonged. The porch gates and lantern were given by John Bishop IV of Massachusetts, in 1989, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the marriage of his ancestors, Alice Dunning and William Bishop. They were married in 1589, and John emigrated to America around 1600.

The church is an old one, originally built eight hundred years ago, though the figure of Christ in Majesty that greets you in the porch is a hundred years older than that. No mention is made of its origins, and I have to wonder about an earlier church on the site.

Much of the chancel dates to the thirteenth century, while the nave and the font are fifteenth century. Near the ‘Plush Door’ is a heavily carved Poor Box, that has collected alms for the past five hundred years.

The base of the tower is hidden behind a carved screen, which is a pity as the stained-glass window by Kempe cannot be seen. It shows the three canonised Archangels Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, and I wonder once again why the Church saw fit to accord sainthood to Archangels. It seems a superfluous honour…

There is no lack of stained-glass though, with some stunning panels around the chancel, showing unusual scenes like the raisings of the dead from both old and new Testaments and some stunning patterns.

Beneath many of the windows are glass cases holding medieval tiles with fragments of intriguing designs. Behind the altar is a reredos, carved in high relief and showing Christ ascending, and, fortuitously, surrounded by an aureole in the shape of the vesica piscis. Both altar and reredos were carved by a Mr Tolhurst of Mowbrays and were dedicated in 1927.

There are a number of really interesting old memorials dotted around the walls, including one whose date I could not make out but which must be three or four hundred years old.

In fact, there are many examples of heraldry throughout the church, including one I rather liked, showing birds and with a motto that means ‘Truth without Fear’. And one of our number was a girl named Truth, and the motto seemed wholly appropriate, given the events of the morning.

There is a lovely wooden sculpture too of the Virgin and Child. She raises Him above Her…or He rests lightly within her hands, a fleeting presence reaching down with the kiss of Love. There is much tenderness in this work and much to contemplate. As parents and teachers, it is for us to raise those within our care and let them fly. Their time within our hands is brief and our hope is that they will rise to find their true selves…and perhaps, as they look back with love, we will learn from them too.

As we could not access the tower, we gathered in the porch for our meditative ritual, finding the symbolic planetary colours within the living land. But before we left the church, we had to stop and look at its oldest inhabitant… and wonder what on earth we were seeing. The small stone plaque was found in the vicarage garden in 1926. Its presence attests to the age of the site as a place of significance in the area, as the carving dates back around fifteen hundred years, making it historically Saxon. It shows a wide-eyed figure with what appears to be long hair, wearing trousers of some sort beneath a full-skirted coat.

He smiles, and the strange eyes seem amused at our puzzlement. Some have suggested it must be an early depiction of St Thomas, because it carried his symbol of the spear. Although, it does not look particularly saintly to me, nor does he seem to be holding the spear. In fact, at first glance it looked more like a tail… or an arrow carried in a quiver. Others believe it to be secular rather than religious but offer no explanation for what it might show.

It is an amazing thing to find in a village church, but it is not the first time we have come across treasures you might only expect to find in a museum, housed in a church way off the beaten track. It will not be the last either, for it is one of the joys of visiting these venerable old buildings that they hold the history of a thousand years and often more, holding it gently and within reach as if to say ‘here, this is your past and these were your people’.


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – The pattern in the landscape

Leaving the church, we gathered in the little garden beside it which, so the church’s keeper of the keys would tell us, had been sold to them for the princely sum of £1, with the sole proviso that the garden be used. Beside its gate is another fragment of the old Abbey, bearing once again the symbol of St Catherine’s wheel… which seemed fairly appropriate considering what we were about to do.

The gardens are a beautiful and peaceful spot, tucked under the wing of the church. The air is fragrant with the perfume of herbs and old roses. Apples grow on carefully tended trees and there are bees and butterflies in abundance. We gathered around a small, paved square lined with benches to start the next part of our adventure.

We had been convinced to hold a workshop at Cerne Abbas because of a feeling and a series of coincidences with geometry. At first, we had thought we might find a vesica piscis in the landscape, but we had discovered that there was already a recognised geometric figure marked by sacred sites. It was listed as a ‘hexagram’, with venerable old churches on each of the points… and most of these older churches are built on sites of a more ancient sanctity than their stones and mortar. A quick look at the map confirmed that the figure seemed pretty accurate and we had dived down to Dorset to check out the sites.

It did not take long to realise that, while there was indeed a nice, six-pointed figure in the landscape, there was no guarantee it was supposed to be a hexagram. Granted, the symbol known as the Star of David and the hexagram is associated with Christianity, alchemy, Judaism and features in pretty much every religion and culture in some form, but a six-pointed figure did not have to be a hexagram. There were other options.

It could be a rayed star, a daisy-wheel like the odd ‘consecration cross’, or a simple a hexagon. It could even be marking points dividing the circumference of a circle. And, if it were centred around a seventh point, the circle would then be the traditional symbol for the sun. On top of that, the Cerne Giant had, coincidentally, been known as ‘Helis’… which is close enough to ‘Helios’ to be intriguing.

But it had been the hexagram we had been given to work with, so the hexagram it would be. In magical and alchemical terms, the two triangles that form the hexagram represent the elements which, when brought together to form the six-pointed star, symbolise perfect balance and harmony.

The hexagram in the landscape appears to be aligned with magnetic north, rather than ‘true’ north, which might imply that it was older than modern mapping techniques. Not that we really needed that implication, when all the churches on its points predate that scientific differentiation by centuries. Oddly enough, the figure of the hexagram can be used as a starting point from which it is possible to geometrically draw a vesica… the only problem is that the geometry required means you have to know which of the six possible directions on the starting hexagram is ‘up’.

Image: Deep Highlands

Later, there would be time to play with Google Earth, overlaying geometrical forms onto maps, with a really surprising result. For now, though, we were taking Cerne Abbas as the centre and working our way round from there.

Aproximate locations due to scale

But our weekend, although using the geometries, was not really about them. It was about how we might work ‘with’ the land to create harmony. We had devised a simple demonstration, assigning the planets to the points and centre of the hexagram…the fire and water triangles and, drawing lots, had assigned each planet to a member of our company. At each site visited, we would walk the pattern, drawing together the two triangles to create a harmonious whole. At each site, also, we would meditate on a seed thought, finding an expression of each planetary colour in nature. The simplest such rituals may have a profound effect when performed with intent.

And that was the end of our morning… especially as the rain began to fall. All that remained was to find shelter for a few minutes until the New Inn, a 16th century coaching in, was ready to open its doors for lunch…after which, we would be going on a church-crawl…


For the significance of the hexagram in the context of the weekend, please read Stuart’s posts: Magical Elements I  – IIIIIIVV   –  The Dance of Fire and Water IIIIII  and Magical Elements, The Dance of Fire and Water


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – Ikonography

We walked back into Cerne Abbas for our final visit of the morning. The plan was that we would give a bit of a tour of the church, pointing out some of the more intriguing iconography and historical features before giving everyone time to explore for themselves. I also wanted to get a full set of photographs as it had been five years since our first visit. We have learned a lot in that time about these old churches and have a much better idea what to look for and I was bound to have missed many things of which we ought to have taken note. But the best laid plans of mice, men and serial church-crawlers and all that… It started well, but we got side-tracked.

We did manage to look at the carvings outside the church. They are strange, even for grotesques and gargoyles, being mainly comprised of giants with smaller figures. One theory suggests many of these types of figures represent sins…and a sin may indeed seem giant -sized to the repentant sinner in hope of reformation or in fear of hellfire. Be that as it may, these giants have a place only on the outside of the church… within, only spiritual stature counts.

In many areas of ancient and religious art, there is a hierarchy of size; you often see gods, saints and kings portrayed as larger than those around them. Christianity is a religion where a Child holds the keys of heaven.

One curious carving beside the north porch, though is more utilitarian than symbolic. The open-mouthed face is a chimney outlet for a fireplace that warmed the toes of the incumbent priest, traces of which can still be seen within the church.

We entered the church and were soon side-tracked. As it turned out, between them, everyone found the most important bits of the church in the context of the workshop and we got to talk to artist John Coleman, better known as Ikon John. The artist uses archaic techniques and styles, painting with egg tempera and gold leaf to create ikons that continue an age-old tradition, and which have been commissioned by Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Coptic churches and individuals.

His work draws upon the symbolic language of images… a concept at the heart of our workshop… and it was a real gift to be able to speak with him. Not only did we learn a little about his work and the Cyrillic script used in ikon painting, he also told us of another large hillfort which is now on our ‘hit-list’ and about the burial of St Edwold… the hermit associated with the Silver Well. He even gave us the location of his final resting place, which we felt we ought to visit before heading north once more.

Meanwhile our companions had wandered round the church, discovering its details and secrets. The church of St Mary the Virgin belonged to the Abbey that cast its mantle over Cerne Abbas. When the Abbey was first founded, the people of the village came to the nave of its church to pray. Around 1300, the monks began building St Mary’s and its first vicar was installed in 1317.

Most of the fabric of the current building are 15th and 16th C, but traces of the original church remain in the chancel, where there are medieval wall paintings showing the Annunciation and scenes from the life and death of John the Baptist.

Most of the stained glass is either heraldic or comprises of small, individual panels set into clear windows. There is only one full stained-glass window, showing the Adoration of the Lamb from the Book of Revelation.

The oldest stained glass is a tiny fourteenth century panel, high up in the tracery, showing a rather solar lion. As one of the oldest local names for the Cerne Giant was reportedly Helis, and the giant once carried a lion-skin, this just adds fuel to the flame of mystery.

Plaques, most of the painted, commemorate local people from the past few hundred years of Cerne Abbas’ history. One mentions ‘William Cockeram, Gent and Practicioner of Phifick and Chirugery’ who died aged forty-three. Another pays tribute to members of the Notley family, early settlers to America, who owned the land now known as Capitol Hill, but once called Cerne Abbey Manor.

There are post-Reformation scripture panels painted on the walls of the nave; the Puritans banned all religious iconography and ‘abused images’ that smacked, to them, of superstition. The medieval wall paintings that once covered the walls of almost every church with colour and stories were destroyed or covered with plaster and paint. High above the chancel arch, a few traces of those earlier paintings can still be seen.

The arches of the arcade brought us back to geometry. They are of the gothic shape, formed from the interlocking circles of the vesica piscis, the figure that had been our initial inspiration for holding the workshop in the area. It is a shape often found in religious iconography, usually as an aureole around the figures of Christ and the Virgin.

The most intriguing geometry though, is the so-called consecration cross. These were crosses, painted on plaster for the interior, usually with a candle sconce beneath them, or carved in stone for the exterior of a church. There would originally be twelve inside and twelve outside, marking the place where the presiding bishop anointed the building with holy oil during its consecration ceremony. Few survive the inevitable remodelling and repainting over the centuries, but occasionally, we stumble across one.

A consecration cross is supposed to be just that…a cross, often inscribed within a circle. Usually, a cross has four points… but not this one. It has six and looks much more like a flower or a star than a cross. Therefore, it is not a cross. We have seen these same symbols before, also described as consecration crosses, and simply accepted the name without question… which is the human default position when a trusted authority speaks. This time, a chance comment as I researched made me question.

A little further digging and it seems we are not alone in questioning the meaning of this daisy-wheel symbol, thought to date back to the thirteenth century. Oddly enough, this is the time when the Templars were active in the area…  and the examples we have previously seen of this symbol were in churches with Templar connections. But, regardless of the possible meanings and connections of this daisy-wheel ‘cross’, it was an interesting find in light of what we were going to be doing that afternoon…


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – Open minds

Crossing the land upon which the Abbey of Cerne Abbas had once stood, our party split into two groups. The more adventurous went to climb a hill. Having climbed it once before, on the hottest day in memory, and without hats or water, Stuart and I joined the more sedate party that skirts the bottom of the hill. We knew too that although the view across the Dorset hills was well worth the climb, the gentleman we had really come to see could only be viewed from a distance…or from the air.

We had come to see the Cerne Abbas Giant… for us an old friend, but for the rest of our party, this would be their first encounter with the great figure carved into the chalk. Our secondary quest, though, was for a crop circle. We had heard of one ‘in a field below the giant’ and there had already been one rather fortuitous crop circle in that area.

We wondered some time ago if we should run a workshop in and around Cerne Abbas. Not only is it an area rich in archaeology and curious remains, there had been the ‘Glastonbury effect’. As we walked from the Silver Well to the church that first day, Stuart had been moved to blurt out that it ‘didn’t feel as if we were in England’. Later discussion revealed that this was the same, peculiar feeling he had experienced at a particular spot in Glastonbury and again at a little church in Nevern in Wales.

Now, both of these spots are associated with large-scale sacred geometry in the landscape, on which much work has been done over the years, by eminent researchers and surveyors of both spiritual and scientific persuasions.  Archaeoastronomy and sacred geometry in the landscape are, it must be said, not accepted by all, but having done our own research, we are convinced there is a basis of truth, even though the more extravagant claims may push the boundaries of believability sometimes.

The thing with this kind of stuff is to keep an open mind. Science, as well as alternative archaeology, is continually widening our vista on the past.  Many things that our ancestors were once considered too primitive to accomplish have now become accepted as mainstream fact.

In both the locations where the ‘feeling’ had been apparent, it has been demonstrated that ancient sites mark out specific points on a figure called the vesica piscis, a geometric shape formed when two circles overlap in a particular way. What, we wondered, if there was a vesica at Cerne Abbas?

We Googled. If there was one, someone would have found it, surely? It certainly looked that way, as the very first thing to come up was the image of a crop circle containing a vesica and the figure of the Mother goddess. And that one was in the field just below the very masculine giant… and had gone down just days before.

Now, crop circles are another area wide open for debate. Personally, I don’t buy the ‘aliens’ theory, and some are quiet obviously commercial, jokes, or quite personal… but there are some curious anomalies with these complex and beautiful patterns. Is the land itself trying to  speak through the makers of some of these designs? I do not know enough about them to judge… so I’m keeping an open mind.

From ‘maybe’ to ‘we should run a workshop there’ was a very quick shift. Especially when we realised that, although no-one had reported finding a vesica, they had found a large-scale geometric figure, marked by sacred sites in the landscape… and so the two of us had dived down to Dorset on a research trip and the workshop had evolved from there.

The most obvious ‘pattern in the landscape’ around Cerne Abbas, though, is the Giant… and he too demands an open mind. He stands a hundred and eighty feet tall on his hillside, within a six-sided enclosure whose outlines are still faintly visible. In one hand he holds a club, the other arm is outstretched and archaeologists have found traces of what may be a skin draped over it… and the possibility of a severed head in his hand. Some have compared the figure to that of Hercules with the lion-skin draped over his arm. Others see Orion… and the stellar alignments with that constellation are striking.

He is a curious figure, with his own head being not only minimally sketched and sized, but invisible from most of the viewpoints close to hand. His virility, on the other hand, is not open to question. The giant is cut into the chalk of the hillside, gleaming white against the green. Above his shoulder, to the viewer’s right, is an Iron Age earthwork enclosure known as the Trendle, and there are burial barrows on the hill too dating from a similar period.

These figures need regular ‘scouring’ to keep them bright and this would have been a task that the villagers performed together as a community. Couples too would come together at the obvious spot when they wished to conceive a child.

The purpose of the giant, as well as its date of origin, is unknown. The most prosaic theory is that it was cut in the seventeenth century as a political joke aimed at the Puritan Parliamentarian, Oliver Cromwell. This is supported by a lack of documentary reference to the figure before that date. My favourite is the legend that the giant is the actual outline of a real giant who came from Denmark to invade the land at the head of an army, but who was beheaded by the villagers as he slept on the hill.

The most prevalent belief is that he is an ancient figure, like the prehistoric White Horse at Uffington. As the grass grows over the chalk, the figures disappear… which might be one reason why no mention of the giant has been found before the seventeenth century. But then again, the earliest mention of the White Horse only dates to the twelfth century…and that has indisputably been there since prehistory!

The most compelling indication of the giant’s antiquity though, must lie in the astronomical alignments with Orion. While we know that very many prehistoric monuments indicate the procession of the seasons, the movements of the stars and planets and were used to predict celestial events, I find it wholly unlikely that a political satrist would go to that much trouble for what must have been, by the very nature of politics, a transient joke.

Perhaps the giant represents something else altogether… an archetypal figure, protecting, defending and fertilising the land. Could he be a depiction of some father-warrior-god-king, deeply entrenched in the psyche of the early inhabitants of the land? Perhaps a figure from which the very earliest myths were born that would eventually be grafted onto the legend of Arthur…

Interior image of the book ‘The Cerne Giant’ by Peter Knight

For now, the figure keeps its secrets… and we ponder on who, or what, his mate… his feminine counterpart… might be. Are we looking at the Earth herself? Or might there be some symbolic figure in the landscape, just waiting to be discovered…

In the shadow of the giant, we withdrew to a quiet spot beneath the trees for the second part of our visualisation in preparation for the next place we would visit…

 

 


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

The Giant and the Sun – The Silver Stream

“There is an alchemy of fire and water going on within and without.”

Alethea Kehas

It is early. The streets of the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas are quiet as we make our way through the hush of morning to a place of perfect peace.  The churchyard attached to the old Abbey has been planted with a row of young yews, marrying Christian tradition and an older paradigm and carrying the past and the present into the future. Old stone bears carvings of angels and the abstract images of lichen and there is something very appropriate about walking through a place of the dead to a moment that marks a new beginning.

Our destination in a green temple… a grove through which a pure spring flows, sheltered by stone and with a colonnade of living trees arching overhead. These linden trees are known as the Twelve Apostle by locals. It is a place of miracles and magic, legend and folklore. Long held sacred and, to judge by the prayers, offerings and clooties that abound there, still held sacred to this day.

The Silver Well, also known as St Augustine’s Well, has its origins clothed in legend. One version states that St Augustine himself struck the ground with his staff to bring forth water for thirsty shepherds, crying, ‘Cerno El!’, which means ‘I see God!’ and for him the well was named, and a shrine built over it. Another says that a hermit paid silver to drink from the well. The hermit was the Celtic saint, Edwold, a member of the Mercian royal house, who lived with the birds and wild things, much like St Francis of Assisi. We would learn more of Edwold later that morning and eventually visit the chapel where he was finally laid to rest.

The little glade has a link to St Catherine too, and has a stone from her chapel which once stood on the hillside above. The stone, like another outside the church garden in the village, bears the symbol of a Catherine Wheel. Catherine, according to the Christian legend, was a pious virgin martyred for denouncing the pagan Emperor Maxentius. She is said to have converted many during her imprisonment, including the Emperor’s wife. Angels ministered to her and doves fed her during her torture, until the Emperor proposed marriage to her. She refused, having dedicated herself to Christ… so Maxentius ordered her to be tortured to death on a spiked wheel. The wheel shattered at her touch, so…as is frequently the case…she was beheaded.

The story is not quite so simple, though, with modern scholars believing her legend to be a twisted version of the violent death of Hypatia, the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher of ancient Alexandria. The main alteration to the story being that it was Hypatia who was pagan and the Christians who literally tore her to pieces.

There may be an even older interpretation of her symbol as it is portrayed on the stone too. The eight-pointed wheel may refer to the pre-Christian celebrations of the Wheel of the Year, and there are many older fragments of folklore associated with this well. It has been credited with oracular powers, enabling those who look into its waters on Easter day will see the faces of those who will die within the year. At the opposite end of the journey, drinking from the well from a cup of laurel leaves or placing your hand on the ‘wishing stone’… the one with the Catherine Wheel… will allow maidens to find husbands, and wives to fall pregnant. And once the baby is born, it should be protected by dipping it into the well as the first rays of the sun shine on the waters. If that is not enough, it is also a healing well, that cures problems with the sight and many other ills.  Vision, health and creation… all quite appropriate, in essence, for our purpose too.

Many birds sing in the trees, a robin and a wren dart through the leaves, rabbits graze the green lawn and skitter just a little further away as we enter the shelter of the venerable trees. Later, at the close of day, two of us would return to savour the silence and watch the creatures who live there, delighting as, with no fear at all, a tiny shrew sought its supper around our feet and swam in the spring. It is a place that seems to welcome all.

There is a small lawn with a stone bench and an altar, over which carved water flows. Separating the little lawn from the path is the crystal-clear stream. It emerges from the darkness beneath a stone and collects into a pool before continuing its journey unseen. The analogy of the underground stream and its emergence into clarity and light was perfect, as we were here to celebrate and ratify the Third Degree Initiation of one of the Companions of the Silent Eye.

‘To initiate’ means simply, ‘to cause (something) to begin’. The road to that inner state we call initiation begins long before we consciously set our feet upon that path… it is a lifetime’s journey. Within an organisation such as the Silent Eye, it is also a moment of completion, marking the end of one phase of life and study, and the beginning of another. For the initiate, who has watched and worked to emerge from the shadows of unknowing to this point of both completion and new beginning, it is a threshold, a point of transition… and for those who have walked with them a little way, it is a moment of joy and beauty.

Initiation cannot be conferred by human hands. Not all who reach the Portal will pass the Threshold. Not all who knock will see that door held open to the Light. Initiation cannot be bought, nor can it be earned through effort. It is not a goal. It is a recognition of the soul, and a symbol of the contract between the Candidate and the Inner Light. It comes not as a reward, nor as a gift, but as a Grace.

Barbara Walsh and Alethea Kehas had both arrived at this point of the journey at the same time, but while we celebrated Barbara’s passing of the threshold in April at our annual workshop, Alethea had not been with us. At the time, we were saddened, but she was able to fly over from America for the June workshop… and there could be no more fitting person to guide Alethea through the celebration than Barbara… and no more perfect setting than the Silver Well in which to celebrate Alethea’s new beginning.


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

Drawing a dark veil…

“Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus, 6thC, on the conversion of Britain.

***

You have to admit, Pope Gregory was sneaky. The mission to bring the blessed isles of Britain into the Christian fold was not to be accomplished so much by conversion as subversion. To ‘convert’ means to turn in a new direction, to subvert means to destroy from below… and that, is pretty much, the definition of sneaky.

The instructions to the missionaries were clear… take and use the old sacred places for the new worship. The letter was quite detailed in how this should be done, but basically it meant allowing the people to celebrate the same festivals, in the way they had always done, and in the same places. The only difference wa that, while they were doing so, the clergy of the Church could gradually add a Christian gloss to the festivities. Many of the old gods were adopted as Christian saints and their stories rewritten accordingly, magical places were rendered ‘officially’ sacred by appropriating them for Christian myth and the symbolism of ancient festivals was reallocated to the Christian story.

Gregory was right. The people were soon turned to the new religion.

They may have neither noticed nor cared; when you worship God made manifest in Nature, the names and stories of the gods matter less than natural and cosmic force they represent… and Britain already had a long history of accepting ‘foreign’ gods into the pantheon. The new Jesus-god was little different from many who had come and gone before, after all. Miraculous births abound in religious history, across the globe and throughout the ages. Gods who walk the earth as men are not uncommon, nor are the gods who come to teach. Saviour gods and sacrificed gods were ten a penny, and Jesus was not the first to be hung upon a tree.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Gregory must have been well aware of this ready acceptance of new gods into the pagan fold. Throw in a few incentives…and eternal life isn’t bad for starters… add a dash of hellfire and brimstone to put the fear of God into the laggards, put learning, healing, economic and political power into the hands of the priests, and he was right; within a generation or two, the conversion was pretty much complete. The old gods faded into myth and their altars were forgotten…or repurposed.

But, let’s be honest, Gregory was not exactly the first to bring Britain to Christianity, whatever his letter might suggest. The process had been going on for quite some time. There were already Christians in Britain before the Romans left in 410AD. The very earliest missionaries, according to the legends, had arrived much earlier than that, when Joseph of Arimathea had come to Glastonbury, bringing with him relics of Jesus’ life and mission, and founding the first Christian oratory there. Joseph, according to the Bible, was the man who asked Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the Cross… so, if the legends are true, then Christianity came to these shores within a few years of the Crucifixion.

Celtic Christianity, which carried a greater love and respect for the natural world, was already firmly entrenched in these isles before Gregory wrote to Mellitus. The last pagan warrior-king was Penda of Mercia…and he died in 655AD. So it was not so much Christianity that Gregory wanted to bring to the land, but Roman Christianity. be that as it may, after the Synod of Whitby in 664, Britain was officially under the sway of the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual landscape was confined to the churches and chapels.

For those who seek a greater understanding of our spiritual past, Britain is particularly rich in archaeological remains dating back thousands of years. There are over a thousand stone circles, innumerable barrows and many other ancient monuments to baffle, intrigue and illuminate the seeker. Sacred sites continue to document the evolution of belief throughout the Roman Occupation, then you hit what was known as the Dark Ages (until political correctness renamed it the Early Medieval period) and nothing much remains except the imported Norse and Saxon gods and the earliest beginnings of the Church. The lines between them blur as the one blends with the other and our original spiritual story sinks further into myth… and the seeker is left with the task of unpicking the resulting tangle.

Unfortunately for Pope Gregory, his directive had an unexpected result. By building his churches on sites of a far more ancient sanctity than the sanction of Christianity, many of those sites were preserved. We not only know where they were, they are still there.

There are barrows in churchyards, ancient yews, once held sacred, still cast their shadows on holy ground, sacred springs run beneath foundations and local saints with strange names and even stranger stories leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.

And follow them we do, finding mysteries and motes of ancient light as we delve into the origins of belief. Why do we search? What can such ancient beliefs offer us, and how do they relate to the modern world? You have only to look at the political evolution of ‘official’ faith to see how murky the waters can be and how the minds and hearts of a nation can be quietly subverted.

But somewhere beyond all the chicanery, beyond dogma, beyond all organised religion, when we reconnect to our ancestors, we touch a time when the questions we still ask today were first being explored. Their world was simpler… everything was either sacred or magical, or both. There were spirits in stone and tree, there was healing in the waters. Everything was seen as connected. Animals, even the hunted, were held in reverence and the green and growing land was the body of a goddess. Nature was the self-expression of divinity and mankind no more than a part of that expression. With humankind seemingly determined to despoil and destroy our home, I believe that perspective to be more than relevant today.

Under the weather

It is spring and here, that can mean anything. For many it means being ‘under the weather’ with colds, viruses and the other miseries that attend the change of season. Yesterday was as warm as a summer’s day… the day before was wintry cold and rainy. Tomorrow…who knows?  The forecast suggests it will be archetypically English and grey but it is entirely possible that it could snow. Or we may be wandering round in shirt sleeves complaining at the sudden ‘heatwave’. We seldom believe the forecast.

Like most countries, Britain has a rich weather lore and we are probably more likely to believe that it will rain if the cows are laying down than whatever the official forecast tells us. And if it rains on St Swithun’s day, 15th July, well, it will continue for a good while to come. The story goes that the Saxon bishop of Winchester chose to be buried outside beneath the feet of passing pilgrims on his death twelve hundred years ago. When a decision was made to move his remains into the cathedral, the rain began, marking his displeasure and continued for a biblical forty days and nights.

The weather here is notoriously changeable and ‘never cast a clout until May is out’ a saying that most of us will heed… though whether the May in question is the month or the blossom is up for debate. On the other hand, should there be ‘enough blue in the sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers’, as my grandma used to say, we can safely leave the ‘clouts’ at home and go coatless in the sun.

The sailors and those who work the land know the weather best. An uncle of mine had a farm. He knew the weather… his livelihood and the wellbeing of his animals and crops depended upon it.  An old sea dog of my acquaintance never failed to predict the weather accurately, even though age had kept him from the waves for many a long year. He watched the skies because his life and those of his shipmates depended upon their ability to read the signs. The awareness was learned and honed, through observation and experience, to a point where he always beat the meteorologists with their focus on scientific data that fails to actually look at the skies.

For most of us, the weather is a hit and miss affair. For all our national preoccupation with its fickle behaviour, few of us can read the skies and predict what the day will bring. Some can smell a coming storm or see that nebulous tint of pink in the light that heralds snow, but most of us just accept what the day brings and live in hopes of a brighter day. At one time our own survival would have depended upon our knowledge of its changes, but today, the weather is little more than an annoyance or inconvenience when it fails to conform to our needs.

We still live under the same skies. The wider patterns of a shifting climate may be affected by both mankind and the tides of the earth itself, but the pattern that announces what the weather will bring on any given tomorrow does not change. The clouds, winds and colours of the light still do what they have always done to hint at rain or sunshine to come. We have, on the whole, lost the affinity with the weather that we must once have had and become acclimatised instead to paying little heed to the subtle signs around us. There is no longer a need.

How long would it take us now to regain that lost gift of weather-wisdom? How long did it take for it to dissipate, so slowly that we did not notice its loss? How far back in our history did we begin to lose it? They are probably unanswerable questions. I wonder too if, in discarding a skill we no longer needed for our survival, whether we gained those more suited to the changes in our nascent society? What other skills might we have lost…and are any of them truly lost at all or merely dormant, waiting for need to arise once more?

There are many skills in the old tales that we do not possess. We consign them to the realms of myth and magic. What if, amongst the wilder embroideries of the story tellers, some of those skills were once real? Skills that, like weather-affinity, relied upon a reading of signs and signals too subtle for our modern eyes and minds to notice and an observation more acute than we are used to giving to our world. What if there are lingering remnants of those abilities and those who walk amongst us seeming ‘different’ still have access to the layers of attention needed to read what we call the unseen?

We can learn to read the weather through careful and attentive observation. We can ‘feel’ so many things, picking up  invisible  signals and calling it intuition or  gut-feeling. I wonder what else we could learn about ourselves and our world by giving our full attention and awareness to the study. Just how wide is reality…and how much of it do we really see? It is a thought…