Tag Archives: ancestors

Copper Age, Bronze Age

When I first met Tom, he was Copperage all by himself. I didn’t ask why, or what it signified, although every so often someone does. The Copper Age is also, historically speaking, the Bronze Age – that pre-historical time when our ancestors were moving from stone tools but had yet to discover the lethal potential of iron.

Today, we stood in the remains of a 5000 year old long barrow – whose top was destroyed a long time ago, but whose core and layout are present and exposed. People have been on this land for a long time. Those ancestors are so remote that it’s easy for us to impose any desire, fantasy or aspiration upon them. We don’t know a great deal about how they lived, the remains they have left are tantalising clues. To what degree were they like us? How different? Looking back at our ancient Pagan ancestors, under-informed and over-romantic as we so often are, they can be whatever we need them to be.

Walking an ancient hill fort and visiting the barrow today, I was conscious both of this incredible geographical closeness to the past, and also the huge distance between myself and the barrow makers. I looked out at the river. It would have been marshy down there 5000 years ago, the river occupied more of the flat land then, but people farmed there from whenever it was people started farming this part of the world. In many ways, not much has changed. I had a moment of thinking that the differences humans have created maybe aren’t as big or impressive as we think they are. If we were wiped out tomorrow, that landscape would revert to wilderness soon enough.

Looking backwards, we can dream and imagine a better time, when the aurochs and wild cranes still roamed the land, before the wolves, boar, bears and beavers were driven from the UK. A wilder time, a more heroic time when people were free. We can glaze over the messy bits. Perhaps it gives us a moment of warmth. But every time we look back, imagining it was better then, we do ourselves a disservice.

Why?

Because we ought to be looking forward. In many ways, what went before is unknowable, but we can shape what is to come. Maybe there was no golden age of peaceful matriarchy. Maybe there was. Maybe our ancestors were just as greedy, short sighted and materially hungry as we are today. Maybe very little has changed. How much does that matter? Things can change. We can go forward. The golden age should always be something that lies ahead, attainable and worth working for, not something lost to the past so that it’s bound to be all decline from now.

What is Copperage? Aside from being a team that makes a webcomic, and other things, it’s an aspiration. An idea that things could be other than they are. Knowing the past is good and worth taking as far as we can, but shaping the future is more important still.

Keep the home fires burning!

Central heating means that you can go out of a cold winter’s night and come home to a warm house. Hurrah for human innovation and technology… And for most people the central heating can be topped up with gas or electric heaters. Instant warmth! In the past rich people had servants who, when you get down to it, could be used much like the central heating – you go out, you come home to a nice fire. Although some of those huge houses must have been cold and draughty, and I can’t imagine that castles were warm.

Then there were all of our poorer ancestors. Most of us won’t come from wealthy, aristocratic stock. Our forebears will have lived a lot closer to the soil. And the fire. While there’s nothing more cheery than a fire in the hearth, they’re very different to live with. If you go out for the day, the fire does not light itself for nightfall. If you’re very clever at setting it up, it might stay in and a bit warm for as much as 12 hours, enough to stop your house from freezing, but not enough to keep you comfortable if the temperature drops below zero. (I write from experience).

When all you have for heating and cooking is the fire, then keeping it going becomes essential to survival in winter. This also means that you can’t all decide to go out for the night. Rolling back from the pub at midnight to a frozen home, ice inside the windows and a bed that will make you yelp from the cold (because no fire means no warming pan in the bed, no hot water bottle…) is no kind of fun. The man of the house might head out, but the odds were a woman would stay home, look after the children and keep the fire in, historically speaking.

Using electricity or gas to heat a house means not really seeing how much energy you use. Not until the bill arrives, which can be a shock. Heat happens by magic, and until we have to pay for it, it’s easy not to envisage that as resources used. Burning wood and coal is a much more immediate experience. You rapidly develop a keen sense of how much it takes to keep you warm. Once the snow and ice settle in, you aren’t going to be able to fell more trees, and most of them won’t burn green anyway. Anyone who has tried foraging sticks for the fire will know how much work it takes to bring home enough wood for a few hours. Sticks burn fast. Rotten sticks don’t burn well. Foraging in freezing conditions is hard. Snow-covered wood rapidly becomes wet and reluctant to burn wood.

Now add into the mix single glazing, no cavity wall insulation, no loft insulation, windows and doors made of wood that might not keep the drafts out, and the implications of winter for our ancestors, even relatively recent ones, start to become more apparent. To be warm at the touch of a button is a luxury they could not have dreamed of.

One day, the supply of natural gas will run out. We are pushing the limits of electricity supplies in the UK and sometimes this results in power cuts. Do we want more nuclear power stations? The fossil fuel burning stations are going to run out of supplies too, eventually. Can we really do it all on renewable energy supplies? Most modern homes don’t have fireplaces in them. How would you cook if the power went off for a few days? How would you keep warm? We’re so used to the comforts of modern life, most of us, that we take them for granted and imagine they will always be there. How would we cope if obliged to live as our ancestors did? How many of us even know how to do that? And what is the likelihood that we might be going to have to learn, if we can’t better manage our energy consumption, as a species.

Warmth in Winter

I’ve never lived in a centrally heated house. Winter has always meant cold for me. I’ve been through a fair few winters with single glazing as well, with condensation in the morning, pools on the windowsill, and sometimes ice. Go back a generation or two and this would have been normal. Either there are fires, or it gets very cold. Fires mean constant maintenance and the lugging and cutting of wood. This is the first winter in a decade when I’ve not borne the brunt of that work, and it feels like absolute luxury.

Other people talk about how you should put on a jumper on colder days rather than turn up the heating. It’s greener. Winter for me doesn’t only mean jumpers (plural today) but also vests and thermal long-johns. The idea that anyone could be warm enough to float round in a t-shirt seems weirdly alien to me, but I hear people do. For folk in colder climes, this need for thermals is normal. I remind myself that there are many people who have lived their entire lives in freezing conditions, and made their houses out of ice. I have no idea how anyone survives that, mentally or physically, but apparently they do.

I find the cold exhausting. But I look at the cottage I’m in. It has porches and other modern additions. If any of the insulating layers is fifty years old, I’d be surprised. When the place was first built, it had a front door that opened from living room to road – normal for a labourer’s cottage round here. Single glazed. There was no loft insulation back then. There are stories in my family about boys sleeping in attic rooms (nothing unusual there) and obliged to put their coats on the bed in winter. I can’t begin to imagine how cold it must have been. I think about people going out to fetch water from wells when everything was frozen. My Gran talked of when she first had hot running water in the house. Yesterday a local woman described how as a child she, her parents and a sibling had lived in two rooms with an outside toilet. How cold must that have been when there was snow on the ground?

Life for our ancestors in winter must have been entirely focused on survival. The bringing in of fuel for the fire, the sourcing of it, the making of food, the drying of clothes and shoes, the warming of chilled bodies. They must have been a lot tougher than we are, mentally and physically.

In this weather, heat to me seems like the most amazing luxury. Hot food and warm drinks become essential. Summer seems like a distant dream. And yet there are schools of thought in Druidry and other pagan traditions that winter is the time of sleep, of dark restfulness and quiet. If you live in a milder place, perhaps this is so. If you have central heating then sure, winter means snuggling up inside and looking through the double glazing at the frost. Our ancestors relied on fire for heat, and fire needs constant feeding. Our ancestors had to forage outside, not in supermarkets. The sleep of winter is only possible if you are insulated from the climate by modern technology, maintaining toasty temperatures that aren’t green or sustainable.

But we get hungry for heat, as we do for any other essential thing in brief supply. The cold can, and does, kill people. The desire to be comfortable is a very human one. But without the knowledge of discomfort, we take those mod-cons for granted. At this time of year, I relish heat, and the days of sunlight, as rich, luxurious blessings, and I reconcile myself to the cold as best I can, armed with extra socks. And I do not, ever, find winter to be a sleepy time of rest and retreat.

Life in Objects

It’s very easy to have your life cluttered and limited by objects. They take up space, require care and cleaning, and can take over. Not accumulating ‘things’ takes effort, and may not always seem the best way forwards. Unwanted gifts we don’t know how to part with, things that might just come in handy, stack up. I was heavily influenced by my Gran, growing up, and having been through the Second World War, she kept a hoarder’s mentality. Waste not, want not. Re-using is also a green option, and to re-use, you have to keep.

If items are bought carelessly and have little monetary or personal meaning, then de-cluttering is easy. I’ve not tended to buy ‘things’ for myself. Most of my ornaments were gifts, as were a significant number of my books. I have objects that belonged to my grandmother, and great grandmother, and other family members. So many of the things I own have stories of their own, and that makes them harder to part with. Relinquishing the object means relinquishing the story, and the connection, the ongoing reminder of the one it belonged to before me.

But on the other hand, I have a lot of stuff, and there isn’t room for all of it. I can’t take it all with me. I don’t have half the necessary things I could do with, and I do have a lot of things I love, but do not strictly speaking, need.

A few generations ago, the house sheltered a family of seven. They lived before washing machines and fridges, grew their own fruit and vegetables, and probably didn’t own any books aside from a Bible. I’m a whole world away from them. It creates an interesting sort of perspective. By normal standards, I am going to be very tight for money in the next few months. By the standards of those who lived in that house before me, I am astoundingly wealthy, and possessed of a lot of luxuries.

Most of my ancestors were not, to the best of my knowledge, affluent people by the standards of their own time. By today’s standards, they were very poor indeed, and lived in conditions we could barely imagine. Most of us modern folk would not know how to survive in the world our predecessors inhabited. You don’t have to go back many generations to life without hot and cold running water, or electricity.

I feel like I am camped out somewhere between the past and the present, straddling two worlds. I’ve tended to choose a lifestyle more like that of previous generations (laptop and internet my big concession to modern living). Now it will be a necessity. I’m learning to spin, going to try my hand at growing vegetables. The direction of the future seems, in many ways, like moving towards the past.

 I keep the things that are dear to me, and part with everything I can bear to give up. I’m finding new items to replace the necessities I couldn’t bring with me. Second hand things, cleaned, painted and otherwise made into something new. In the future, these will be part of the story of when I came back to the Cotswolds, and I will have become fond of them.

Hills and Ancestors

When I was a child, these hills held me, sheltering my growing self, and nurturing my identity. So much of my paganism started here, learning to love the land, discovering its stories, enchanted by the seasons, and the wildlife. Forest, vale, high blue hill, River Severn, Cotswold, Malvern….

The hills circle this small town, enfolding the space. It’s such a sheltered spot, so distant from the cities. Life is gentler here, people are friendly. I can also see how the place has changed in my absence – there are more houses, but fewer young folk, because you have to be very well off to afford a house here, and young people with new families stand little chance of owning property. The house I am in was built for factory workers, growing up on this road, people weren’t wealthy, but to buy in here costs a fortune now. The world has changed.

Returning, I’m aware of those hills holding me again, the feeling of peace and safety. Which is odd, because for years I had nightmares about being stuck here, unable to remember where home really was. In the last twelve months or so, the dreams of being trapped and needing to run had me back here as a safe haven. And now I am, and it is. A part of my soul belongs to this place, and I feel more complete for being here.

Not all of my ancestors came from this part of the world. My paternal grandmother came from the Forest of Dean across the river, my paternal grandfather from Winchcombe, on the edge of the Cotswolds. My grandmother’s father’s people came originally from Cornwall. But many of my ancestors lived and died in this area, their stories connected to the land itself, their bones resting here. I feel much closer to them for being in this place. I have a sense of belonging, of tribe, that had been missing. Here, my ancestors of blood, bone and tradition are all the same people.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Ozz, perhaps I needed to travel in order to know where to come back to. By my late teens, the circle of hills felt too small, and I was hungry to know more of the world. I will travel again, see new places, live in different houses – of that I have no doubt, but I have found something precious here. These are my roots, this is my past, and wherever the future leads, I have that understanding now, of where my heart-home lies.

Stories in the Land

There’s a strong relationship between land and story, or at least, there should be. For one, stories happen somewhere, even long, long ago and far, far away is somewhere. Knowing the stories of a landscape you are in enriches the experience of being there, and knowing the landscape enriches the story. From a bardic perspective, this is definitely something to bear in mind. Crafting stories, exploring place and history, and seeking inspiration should all include a sense of land. Everything happens somewhere.

There are stories that exist purely to explain a feature of the land – often supernatural creation stories for notable features. Silbury hill was made by a man who lugged a bag of shoes there as part of a ruse to keep the devil out of Salisbuy. Some stories are born of place names – making Bromsgrove the grave of the giant Brom. Others focus on a feature – as in the story that sitting and Caedr Idris all night will make you into a poet, or a madman. It’s a way of making sense of the world as we find it.

Some land stories come from actual history – battles, heroic ventures, and events that changed things. Bosworth field and Hastings have their stories, and people visit them because of the history. Sometimes those true tales blur into myth. Tintagel becomes part of the Arthur myth, Joseph of Aremathea gets tied up with Glastonbury. We place stories in the land, and in so doing own the myths for our own part of the country. King Arthur crops up just about everywhere in the UK. By placing a story ‘here’ we make it our own. Local history gives colour to where you live, a sense of connection with the past, a way of relating to ancestors of place.

Some tales grow out of misconceptions. There’s a hill near where I am just now, called ‘Smallpox Hill’ because there was an isolation hospital on it. On the side, you can see several distinctive raised mounds. Local legend has it that these are mass graves for all the people who died. More likely these are the remains of early Norman rabbit warrens. People fit features together to make coherent tales.

We make up stories about what we see – I’ve just shown my son how to interpret some of the hills as a pair of sleeping dragons. We’ve done that other places too, improvising our own myths. Where such things catch on, they become part of the narrative of a place.

Modern writers add to the richness of the stories. Kevan Manwaring’s The Long Woman works with the Long Man of Willmington. Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen works with and adds to older myths. Dr Who has a habit of using iconic UK landmarks as settings, adding in an alien twist, making new legends. There are many more such examples. It’s fun. It adds to the story, helps to draw the audience in.

Some places are richer in stories than others. Folklore can be hunted for. If there’s a shortage, new tales can be made to fill in the gaps. I think, in fact, that new tales should be made. If a land is impoverished, storywise, we ought to create new ones. We can also add in our own stories, taken from our families or our own time in a place. Sharing those tales with others is a sweet thing to do. These days people move round a lot, but it is good to go back, to remember, and to tell the tales.

Telling the stories is an honouring of place, and of ancestors, it connects us with the land and lends extra beauty and resonance to our tales.

Honouring my Grandmother

Had my grandmother lived long enough, today would have been her 90th birthday. Diana Patricia Beatrice Barton (Barty to her friends)  died a few years ago, and I still miss her. At the date closest to her birthday, I sing songs of hers at folk club, as a way of honouring her memory. In previous years that’s been a private thing, but my son is sharing it this time round.

In many ways, I am a pagan because of my grandmother. Both of my parents explored Wicca when I was a child, and I grew up in a house full of books on myth, folklore, magic… I met witches, had a few interesting experiences along the way. But none of these things actually made me pagan, they just helped when I realised I was.

 It all came down to one conversation with my grandmother.

Like many teenagers, I wasn’t an especially happy creature. There were reasons. Not extraordinary reasons, most of them to do with being a lost and confused young person with low self esteem, convinced that I was too fat to be loved, struggling with my parents separating, hungry for affection but not knowing how to do relationship, socially inept, painfully shy, self conscious, and full of need that nothing seemed able to answer. At the time it seemed like a very big deal, but I had only seen molehills and had yet to learn that mountains are something else entirely.

My grandmother had a much harder life. Hers included horrendous poverty, divorce when that kind of thing wasn’t very socially acceptable, abuse, and dreadfully poor health. She had far more to be unhappy about than I did, but she handled it with grace, and stoicism. As a self obsessed teen, I didn’t really appreciate that, but I think I see more looking back than I did at the time.

I can’t remember why I was having a bad day. Which says a lot about whatever had made me miserable. She told me, quietly and without judgement, that when things were getting to her, she would go outside, and look at the sky and the hills. She reminded me that nature is beautiful, and always around us, and that whatever else is happening, the beauty of nature is something to find joy in, take comfort from, and trust.

I took those words onboard, and from that day I started looking around me more, taking notice, and learning to care. Boys might be fickle and unkind. School might be stifling. Family life might be uncomfortable. The hills were always there, constant, dependable, full of beauty and their own kind of magic. Thanks to her words, I learned to see.

Since then it’s been a process, deepening that relationship with the natural world, letting it feed my soul and ease my heart. Most people are not much use in that regard, and it took me a long time to learn not to be so people-centric in my affections. The hills do not approve of me. I do not need them to. That works. I can cry into the wind, howl to the soil when my heart is breaking. Being able to do so makes it easier to manage those ever-challenging human relationships that tend to cause all the pain.

My grandmother considered herself Christian, but on her own terms. She could tell a person’s character from their handwriting, and had premonitions. She saw ghosts. I don’t know much about what she believed, I think it was a private thing for her. But she took me chasing rainbows as a child, taught me to bake, and some needlecraft, shared her art, stoicism, and love of nature. That I am a pagan now, is very much due to her. So today, I honour her memory.