Monday, 9 July 2012

Orkney Wedding Traditions


(This article was published in SPIN 63 - Scottish Pagan Federation magazine – summer 2012)

May is the time of year when, as a Celebrant, I get most requests for weddings and with the whole fertility / Beltaine thing going on then, I decided to do some research into traditional Orkney wedding practices.  Sadly, few of these traditions are still enacted today, which is a real pity as they are part of a rich folk tradition which has largely died out and been forgotten in less than a century.  I derived most of this information from Marwick’s “An Orkney Anthology”.

Orkney weddings traditionally involved the whole community, particularly so on some of the outer islands.  The traditions come from a time when most people scraped a living in subsistence farming, living in isolated crofts and farmsteads in extended families, and when the birth of healthy children to continue the running of the farm was vital to survival.  Even though the weddings would have been performed by a Christian minister, just beneath the surface of this religious veneer there is homage to the “peedie folk” – the faeries and trows (trolls) – all of whom had to be continually appeased, or else bad luck was risked.

Weddings start with courtship and young lovers in Orkney would perform a simple act of divination to determine their futures.  Each of the couple would take a straw and place it on a glowing peat.  One straw would be knotted and the heat would make it jump, if it jumped towards the other straw, then the couple would marry.

In the mid nineteenth century, it was recorded that “the common people” would meet at Stenness Kirk on New Year’s Day and would dance and feast in the Kirk for several days.  Any young couple who wished to secure each other’s love (a bit like an engagement perhaps?) would sneak away to the Temple of the Moon (the Standing Stones of Stenness) where the woman would fall down on her knees before the man and pray to Wodden that He would assist her in keeping her promises to the young man.  Then they both travelled north to the Temple of the Sun (the Ring of Brodgar), where the man would fall down on his knees to the woman and make the same prayer.  They then both went to the Odin Stone and stood either side of it, clasping right hands through the hole in the stone and making a promise to each other to be constant and faithful.  This ceremony was considered very sacred and binding on all parties and breaking it might be punished by being excluded from society.

On the evening when the bridegroom visited the minister to arrange for the proclamation of banns, the bride took part in “foot-washing night”.  A number of her friends would prepare a tub of water – this tub had to stand in the sunlight for 12 hours and all the dogs had to be shut away because it was bad luck for any of them to look into it.  Then a bucket of fresh well water and a bucket of sea water were added.  The bride would sit on a stool to the left of the tub.  Her father removed her shoes and then her mother took off her stockings and pulled the bride’s feet over the water in a sunwise direction.  Her mother patted each of the bride’s feet, Blessed her, and then plunged her feet into the water, at the same time dropping a ring into the water.  All the bride’s friends then scrubbed the bride’s feet whilst searching for the ring, whoever found it would be the next to get married.

Sometimes the bride and groom would sit on opposite sides of the same tub with both their feet in the water and in such a way that the light of the moon would reflect in the tub.  At other times the water was kept for the couple to wash their hair in on the night before the wedding, in which case the water subsequently had to be disposed of in a special way: by pouring into a round hole dug into the earth, over which the oldest women of the household had to say a Blessing before the hole was refilled.

Before sunset on the evening before the wedding, the bride and groom had to eat the “kissing meat” (limpets boiled in milk), they had to kiss before and after the meal!  Today, we make couples kiss at any kissing gates that might be passed on the way to the wedding site!

Pre-wedding traditions in Orkney today are usually “blackenings”.  The bride is kidnapped by her friends, the groom by his, they are then often tied to a prominent Orkney landmark, covered in black treacle / molasses, and “forced” to drink large quantities of alcohol.  These events are very noisy and rowdy, the pre-weddings parties often being transported around town in the back of an open truck to much merriment and banging of drums and more drinking.  There have been recent campaigns to get these banned or restricted on the grounds of health and safety and “it gives the wrong impression to the tourists”, but for now they continue – Orkney is about as likely to ban the Ba' on the same grounds!

The lucky day for a wedding was a Thursday, closely followed by a Tuesday and Sunday.  A waxing moon and flowing tide were also lucky.  I think most folk magicians would still consider these conditions fortuitous?

On the wedding day itself, at forenoon, the guests would arrive at the bride’s house.  Then there would be a "wedding walk", led by a piper or fiddler.  The guests formed into couples and walked to the church in a long line.  The bridegroom walked with the head bridesmaid and the bride walked with the best man.  The wedding walk had to pass over running water twice, and guns were fired to scare away the “peedie folk”.

Eynhallow Church

On the way home, the groom walked with the bride and the best man walked with the head bridesmaid.  Once they had all returned to the bride’s home, the oldest and most respected woman – the “Hansel-wife” – offered the guests bread and cheese.  Meanwhile, another woman would rush out to throw the bridescake over the bride’s head – prompting a scramble to grab the biggest bit for luck.  The bridescake was made from oatmeal, butter, sugar and caraway seeds and hidden within it was a ring and a button.  It was lucky to find the ring, but whoever found the button would never marry ...

Sometimes the Hansel-wife would place the Hansel-bairn (the youngest child in the community) in the bride’s arms.  If the Hansel-bairn raised its left foot first, the bride would have mainly boy children, if its right foot, then mainly girl children.  This is probably a reference to the Scandinavian traditions of Orkney’s Viking ancestors.

Between the time of her marriage and the first sunrise, the bride was regarded as being vulnerable to bad luck and the peedie folk being able to steal her away, so the wedding house was watched by two young men who ensured that no-one walked around the house carrying dried fish in an anti-sunwise direction.  During this whole time, the bridegroom might keep his left arm around the bride, with his left hand over her heart, as further protection.  Sometimes the party would go on until sunrise.

The wedding feast was traditionally boiled goose, barley bannocks, and a bride’s cog.  The bride’s cog is a wooden “bucket”, made of alternate staves of light and dark wood, which would be filled with hot ale, gin, brandy, rum, whisky, plus pepper and sometimes eggs and bits of pancake.  The bride would drink first and the cog would be passed around the guests sunwise.  The bride’s cog is still seen today at Orkney weddings, usually at the reception.  Orkney wifeys (i.e. women) still compete today to acquire a reputation for making a “good cog”, these being secret and pungent combinations of alcohol sufficient to floor your average niggly rhinoceros.

Many thanks to Emma Maxwell for permission to use this photograph of her Bride's Cog and "coglets".

Many farmers complain about the numbers of Greylag geese in Orkney today (their population has increased dramatically in the last 20 years and they are accused of eating grass that was intended for cattle) and would probably be pleased to see the reintroduction of goose as part of the wedding feast as it would provide a perfect excuse for the cull that is periodically threatened.

The bride’s friends would undress her on her wedding night.  The older women would burn her shood – a narrow ribbon used to tie up the bride’s hair and the symbol of her virginity – on a hot stone from the fire as a further act of divination.  The shape the shood made as it burnt would indicate the bride’s future.

Some of these traditions seem bizarre today and hint at forgotten symbolisms, other traditions (such as the emphasis on sunwise actions) are familiar and reasonable to me as a practitioner of folk magic.  Then there are the practices that are so sweet I am hoping they will be revived.  I am particularly fond of the idea of the bridegroom keeping his left arm around his bride, with his left hand over her heart, as protection during the liminal time between their wedding and their first sunrise together as husband and wife.  How romantic!  But how impractical too!

I am also struck by the constant need to placate the “peedie folk” who, in Orkney folklore, can be both a bane and a Blessing on a household.  Since moving here, we have created an outdoor altar where we periodically leave a mead toast or the first slice of a freshly baked honey cake for the “peedie” folk.  We think they accept the gift, for our home has been kept safe through storm and snow and torrential rain.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Cursing. (Things we don’t like to admit to ... Part 1)



We were recently privileged to meet up with an Anglican priest on a fact-finding tour of UK Paganism and said priest asked me lots of searching and often difficult questions about Paganism and my practice of it.  One of those questions was about cursing and my answers were the catalyst to this article – tied in with some research I have been doing on the Orkney “witches”.  This has not been a comfortable blog to write, hence the title, but spiritual growth does not tend to take place in comfort.  Although I am grateful for being made to think, I much prefer comfort, so to paraphrase Henry II of England: “Who will rid my head of this turbulent priest?” 

***

The old Palace ruins in Birsay (HY 248277) are well worth a visit for the spiritual pilgrim.  All ruins are enigmatic and remind us of the fleeting nature of life and our own mortality, a perfect place to contemplate that “All mortal things are subject to decay and when fate summons even monarchs must obey” (Dyrden).  These ruins can fulfil that function perfectly as we try to imagine the former glory of this now crumbling red sandstone masonry.



In the 1560s, Mary Queen of Scots made her half-brother Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V, Earl of Orkney.  Together with his son, Patrick, these two Stewart Earls, were particularly oppressive of the Orkney people.  Although the landowners and merchants experienced appropriation of assets and business restrictions, the common people were forced into labour.  The landed gentry flourished at the expense of others and several fine houses were built at this time, financed by these requisitions and made physically possible through the subjugated labour of the poor.  Especially bitter memories are still evoked in Orkney at the mention of these Stewart Earls.

The Palace at Birsay was commenced c.1574 by Earl Robert Stewart.  This was an elegant and magnificent Renaissance building of four wings set around a central courtyard.  The Palace was built over two storeys; with the kitchen and stores on the ground floor and the domestic quarters of the Earl and his household above.  Defence is a key feature of this structure (understandably given how much they were hated and feared) with just one main entrance into the courtyard and high towers being placed at three of the corners; there are gun loops facing both outwards and inwards to the courtyard.  Outside were flower, herb and vegetable gardens and bowling and archery greens, as well as storage for peat stacks.  The Earl’s domestic quarters on the upper floor were described in 1633 as being “sumptuous and stately” with the interior being decorated with painted Bible scenes and the external windows with ornamental carvings.

This site is owned and managed by Historic Scotland but there is no charge for entry.  It can be compared with the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces in Kirkwall (blogs yet to come!). 

As stated, these Stewart Earls were particularly tyrannical and this site was built on the back of the forced labour of the peasantry.  One of the legends associated with this site is that human hair and blood from these workers was mixed into the mortar of the very stones.  When I first heard this, I understood it to not be a literal or metaphorical allusion to the harshness of the conscription, but rather to the memory of a piece of folk magick.  Many of the recorded spells and charms from the Orkney witch trials refer to the practitioners incorporating part of their very selves into the physical components of the working, usually spit or breath.  Indeed, one of the earliest and most detailed witch trial recorded is that of Alysoun Balfour of Stenness who in 1594 was accused of being involved in a plot to murder Earl Patrick Stewart (I’m ahead of you: “Make it so”!!!) as she was consulted on how best to bewitch him.  I suspect that the forced labourers worked a curse into the fabric of this structure and empowered it with their own bodily essence.  It may have worked: Earl Robert’s son, Patrick Stewart, came to a particularly sticky end, being tried and executed in Edinburgh for treason, amongst other charges.  Execution for treason was usually slow, painful and messy.

The “witch trials” in Orkney were particularly harsh and cruel and they are a sad memory for Orkney.  The ninth parliament of Mary Queen of Scots passed the act against witchcraft in 1563.  The Law of Scotland applied to Orkney after 1611 and the old Scottish Act against witchcraft was only abolished in 1736.  Most of the “trials” and executions took place between the end of the sixteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century.  However, even Marwick writing in the mid-twentieth century notes that “the fear of witchcraft has not completely disappeared in Orkney” and evidence for that fear, although now manifesting more as wariness, still exists today and I know some women who still encourage that fear.

By examining the recorded witch trials, it isn’t difficult to work out some characteristics of the people, mainly women, who were accused of witchcraft.  They were usually on the edge of society in some way, marginalised through social or economic isolation.  Sometimes they were recorded as being a “wanderer” – a vagabond or a beggar – getting by how they could and often hounded from place to place.  Then, as now, one way for misfits to exercise power is to allude to knowledge of how to manipulate the supernatural.  Even in the beginning of the twentieth century, tinkers in Orkney would threaten “I’ll witch your coo, mistress” to anyone who would not purchase their wares.  By developing a reputation for being able to manipulate power, such people could either receive payment in return for conferring favours or equally effectively demand “protection money”.

This manipulation of the supernatural could be performed as either a help or a hindrance.  Witches could be agents of death and disease, both causing and curing it, they might have power in their look or their touch, or the ability to predict or control events, they might also steal “profit” from other farmers, and they might be able to shape-shift, usually into cats.

There is a saying that a “witch who cannot hex, cannot heal”.  This saying encapsulates the idea that both cursing and curing are flip sides of the same manipulation of energy.  As a shamanic practitioner, I do not believe in a dualistic universe, instead I believe that there is nothing that is intrinsically good and bad, there is only energy that is in an appropriate or inappropriate place, everything just is.  Weeds, for example, are only herbs that need to be transplanted.  Cancer, I suspect, is simply the body’s own healing mechanisms going askew. A witch, or a manipulator of energies, needs to be able to move this energy, to make things more appropriate, to keep the balance in check.  A witch needs to be able to both move something away, as well as needing to be able to bring something in.  This is why we might do different magicks at a waning moon to that at a waxing moon, but with the same overall goal.  The waning moon is about things leaving and I might Work for poverty to depart, whilst the waxing moon is about things increasing and I might Work for abundance to flow in.  Being only able to hex or only able to heal is akin to having a one way ticket or just half of the power.

In 1633, for example, Katherine Grieve took sickness out of Elspeth Tailyeour and cast it on a calf and the calf immediately died.  In 1643, Cirstane Leisk was reported as causing a man to fall sick when she spread her hands over his back, but he immediately became well when she repeated the action.  In 1708, Katherine Taylor of Stromness was tried in the Kirk session of Birsay.  She had washed a sick man, William Stensgar, with water which she had subsequently emptied at a gate in a highway.  It was inferred that the disease would have been taken out of William, passed into the water, and would then be transferred to the next person who passed through the gate.  These are all examples of the movement of energies.

I thoroughly believe that such magick and the way it works has a scientific explanation that hasn’t been discovered yet.  I had hoped that Neuro-Linguistic Programming might produce some of the bridge between magick and psychology, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Most humans are incredibly suggestible and it would appear that these witches were able, through their reputations, to create events through the manipulation of their supposed powers, possibly using hypnosis techniques.  The placebo effect is well known as being incredibly powerful, whilst a terminal diagnosis from a medical professional can be as potent as a curse.  I am constantly surprised how many people will happily offer to give their power to me, believing that I have more power than them, asking for my Blessing or a Spell to change their lives.  As one of Terry Pratchet’s witches says: “Witchcraft is 90% headology”.  “Assisting” people to believe you can do something, and daring to believe that you yourself can, is the main way to personal empowerment.

For the record, I wish to state that I have no more power than anyone else, or rather, than anyone else could have if they were also prepared to do the research, do the work, and make the changes.  Lots of people think I have lots of power.  They are right, I do, they are wrong only in thinking they don’t.  I spend quite a lot of time being deliberately light-hearted and silly simply to demonstrate that I am nothing special, I am not the goal to be followed, and by these means I try to encourage people to empower themselves.  In common with a minority of others, I believe that training humans into believing that they cannot do something is the main way by which the majority of the population are kept controlled and subverted.   The secular and religious authorities have, and are, conspiring to keep up from our own personal power.  We are all infinitely powerful, we need to grow into that power, and not misuse it – this latter being vital.

Now, back to the title: “Things we don’t like to admit to”.  Do modern witches curse?  Course we don’t, we’re all lovely now and terrified of the Witches’ Rede “If it harm none, do as you will” and the threefold rule, and we are all ready to be accepted as a proper grown up religion and be taken seriously, so we don’t do any of that nasty stuff like human sacrifices and looking at people oddly (whilst wearing The Hat). 

Not quite.  I think it is more appropriate to say that modern witches “reserve the right” to curse.

If the social-economic grouping from which Pagans in general and witches in particular is examined, most are from C1/C2 – we are mainly upper working class and lower middle class.  Most of us are not landed gentry.  We are educated but most of us are not high-achievers.  If we are professional, we tend not to climb too highly.  Yes, there are exceptions, I am generalising.  We lack the connections and money which buys the elite a comfortable safety net.  The knowledge of the existence of this safety net fulfils an important psychological function for the elite because, for the rest of us, even if we “make it”, we are aware that it only takes a messy divorce or a prolonged illness for us to roll back down to where we had climbed up from.  So some Pagans live life in fear and some live it in need – it is why most of us start out on our Pagan path by trying to get stuff when we learn early on that magick does work. 

When you live life in fear or in need, it can be useful to allow others to think you have “powers”, just like our historical witches.  If you live in a sink estate under the constant threat of burglary or violence, you could get a big threatening dog, or you could “let it be known” that anyone who harms you will come off far worse in the long term ...  Go into most occult shops and look for the signs warning against shop-lifters if you want an example of this!  I have one very good friend who “lets it be known” and I have watched her in a pub take an insult from someone, wait for that person to go off to the loo whilst leaving their drink on the table, whereupon she will make sure she is observed in picking up their drink, wiping their saliva from the glass with a clean napkin, putting the napkin safely away in her bag, and the drink back in its place, and then sitting with a smug look on her face.  She won’t do anything else, I know her too well.  But she doesn’t need to, the majority of people are mightily suggestible and they will do it to themselves.

Pagan belief systems are experiential rather than revealed.  That means that we tend to have less dogma than those religions that can be traced back to a named founder.  The second principle of the Pagan Federation is “A positive morality, in which the individual is responsible for the discovery and development of their true nature in harmony with the outer world and community”, that means that most Pagans develop their own individual and fluid personal moral code.  This is actually quite difficult to live by!  I would argue that it is easier to refer back to a book of rules ... but it does “allow” us to curse, if we are prepared to live by the repercussions.

Have I ever cursed anyone?

Yes. 

I am not proud of this admission but, in my defence, I was provoked after a prolonged attack over about seven years on my character and circumstances.  Usually I would perform the more neutral binding spells, but these were having no effect.  So, I cursed my step-mother over the legal action she took against me over my late father’s Will.  But it was more than about money.  At my father’s funeral and subsequent Wake and disposal of the ashes she behaved in a rude and insulting manner towards me and my mum which was unprovoked and unwarranted.  She attempted to destroy my character and reputation through the English civil legal system, and she wasted vast amounts of money on solicitor’s time and Court fees in trivial and frivolous matters.  She turned my family against me (I refused to put my side to them, not wanting to involve them, so they only heard her side, and they judged accordingly).  She played the case out for an unreasonable time, thus frustrating the grieving process of all involved.  She refused to enter mediation or arbitration or even to discuss reasonably.  And when my mum died, she telephoned that same evening to gloat.

I tried at every stage to give a benign Dalai-Lama smile and Bless her.  I tried to absorb the hatred or to reflect it back.  I tried to feel compassion and empathy, knowing myself what it was like to be widowed and the terrible anguish of raw grief.  I tried to be good and I failed.  I am only human and I took so much and then I turned around and bit back.

I cursed her to never be happy; I didn’t curse her to die, curses do not have to be death curses.  I have no idea if my curse “worked” on her.  I have no idea if at the last bit of my Working, I unwittingly pulled back my power due to some moral fail-safe I may have hard-wired into my psyche.

What I do know now, is that the curse has indeed worked itself through me.  It bounced back in a way.  The price I paid is too high and it is gnawing at me.  And now I have to find a way of undoing it.  In due course I shall report back via a blog report on how that proceeds because this blog is about my spiritual lessons and how difficult I find to learn them.

So, yes, witches reserve the right to curse, but if we are wise we don’t do it ... but we really wouldn’t want to admit to that ...

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Animal totems in the Neolithic in Orkney – or how this Magpie got her name


(The first half of this article was published in TouchStone - the Journal of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids - issue 190, September 2012)

One of the earliest monument types to appear in the Neolithic is the communal tomb.  Often large and obvious in the landscape, they appear to have been used as some sort of collective repository for the dead.  In Wessex, some of the most famous examples include West Kennet Long Barrow and Waylands Smithy, in Orkney the most famous examples are probably Maeshowe and Midhowe.  In Orkney these monuments are known as chambered cairns because they are built of dry-lined and corbelled stone and used take the form of a main chamber with subsidiary cells off.  The cairns in Orkney can be classified as either being of Maeshowe type, or as stalled cairns (like Midhowe), but most are hybrids, having characteristics from both tomb types.

There are dozens of Neolithic tombs or cairns in Orkney.  Those which are known occur mainly in West Mainland, plus the northern islands of Rousay, Eday and Westray, but more tombs come to light on a fairly regular basis, usually when a farmer’s deeper ploughing disturbs a capstone.

The evidence suggests that many of these sites originally contained large amounts of human bone, some articulated and others disarticulated, and where the bones subsequently appear to have been “sorted” in some way.  The main problem is that most of the tombs were investigated before the techniques of modern excavation had been developed so their contents have neither been preserved nor adequately recorded, making it difficult for archaeologists to suggest what the original burial rites might have been.  It does seem likely, however, that there were a variety of different rituals for processing the remains of the dead, including excarnation (exposing the dead to nature until the bones are defleshed, a practice still seen in the Zoroastrians’ “Towers of Silence”).

At some tombs considerable quantities of animal bones were found, alongside the human bones, with concentrations of specific species being favoured at different tombs.  This evidence has been interpreted by some archaeologists as suggesting that the animals represented the totem animals of the community using that tomb.  Totemism is a belief which is inherent in animism; animals or plants are believed to have special powers and are revered and the animal or plant may be adopted as an emblem in some way.  In terms of adoption as an emblem, our brains have a propensity to anthropomorphism: we have a tendency to project personality and human characteristics onto nature.  We say: “as cunning as a fox” when the fox is not really cunning, it just is, it is just fox-like.

The most famous such tomb is probably the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister in South Ronaldsay (ND 470845), dating from about 3000 BCE.  South Ronaldsay is one of the southern islands which are linked by the Churchill Barriers and accessible from Mainland by car.  It is privately owned and there is an entrance charge but this includes access to the excellent museum and introductory talks from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff.  This is a stalled cairn with the long main chamber being divided into “stalls” by pairs of upright flagstones, but the passage in is to the side, not to the end.  At each end of the tomb there is a shelved compartment which you access by stepping over a flagstone lintel.  There are also three side cells, two to the west and one to the east, these are influences from the Maeshowe type of tomb, making this a hybrid cairn.
 

 The tomb is entered via the long (4ms) stone passage by lying on a wheeled board and pulling yourself in on a rope – it is traditional to sing the Indiana Jones theme tune at this point ... The side passage is aligned east-north-east to west-south-west and may have been to allow the sunrise at around Beltaine (beginning of May) to shine into the tomb.

As well as the excarnated bones of about 340 people (although more recent calculations, based on the number of human skulls recovered, suggest this was only about 100 people), there were many animal bones including the complete carcasses of at least fourteen sea-eagles / white-tailed eagles plus seventy talons.  The walk to this cairn (about 1km from the museum) is along a stunning clifftop from which you can watch seals and seabirds, including sea-eagles on occasion.  It may be that the location of the tomb was chosen so that the sea-eagles could be attracted specifically in order to participate in the excarnation of the dead.

Cuween Hill Cairn, or The Tomb of the Dogs, is in West Mainland just east of Finstown (HY 364127).  It is in the care of Historic Scotland but there is no entrance charge; there are two car parks, one at the bottom of the hill and another up a rough track, there is a steep climb to the tomb, but the view over the Bay of Firth is worth it.  All of the tomb is accessible but you may need to crawl and squeeze in places; a torch is supplied outside but it is best to also bring your own. 

View over Bay of Firth from Tomb of the Dogs
 
This is a classic Maeshowe type tomb, dating from 3000 BCE, with a rectangular main chamber with four side cells off, one to each side of the main chamber.  The side cell to the west has a further side cell to the north.  Some of the side cells retain their original corbelled roofs and the tomb was constructed using skilful masonry techniques.  The tomb is entered via the long low stone passage to the east which is about 6ms long.  


This tomb was not excavated using modern techniques but at least eight human skeletons were reportedly discovered plus twenty four dog skulls.  The dogs were of the Highland Terrier type.  Some local stories say that this tomb is haunted but I find it a pleasant place, although I wouldn’t want to spend the night here!  The tomb appears to be larger on the inside than the outside, but this is probably a spatial illusion caused by the very long low passageway in and could have been something intended by the original builders.

The Knowe of Yarso is on the northern island of Rousay and is accessed by a short ferry crossing (HY 404279).  This tomb is also in the care of Historic Scotland and there is no entrance charge, the roof is modern and no torch is needed if you visit during the day.  This is a classic stalled cairn, entered at one end via a passageway aligned north-west – south-east.  The main chamber is divided into four stalls by upright flagstones and the chamber furthest away from the entrance is entered by stepping over a lintel, there is a flat stone set into the end of the main chamber which may have been intended as a false or spirit portal. 

This tomb dates to about 3000 BCE and has some particularly skilful slanting stonework around the outside which may have been decorative.  It was excavated in the 1930s and at least twenty nine skeletons were found plus many animal bones, mainly from red deer of which there were at least thirty six.

In 2010, a chambered cairn was discovered at Banks in South Ronaldsay (ND 458834) which dates from about 3000 BCE.  This is a Maeshowe type tomb with a long central chamber aligned east-west and entered by a passage to the north; there are at least five side cells, plus a possible additional cell under the entrance passage.  Human remains have been recovered plus large quantities of otter spraint, otter bones and fish bones, suggesting that the tomb had been left open in prehistory for long periods of time, perhaps to encourage the otters to come and go, possibly as part of the rituals to process the dead.  Almost inevitably, this tomb has become known locally as the Tomb of the Otters.  


This site is in private ownership and is only open during the summer season.  There is an entrance charge which includes access to the tomb by guided tour, conditions are muddy and cramped, plus a small finds handling area.  The inside of the tomb can also be viewed by web-cam.  Although state funding has provided a limited initial rescue excavation, no further funds are available and, with regret and not without some contention, the owner is funding further excavations privately.  It is possible that some decorated stones have been recovered similar to those found at the Ness of Brodgar site.


So, this is some of the evidence for the adoption of totem animals by communities in Orkney in the Neolithic period.  Unfortunately, the evidence is not too compelling because there are dozens of these chambered cairns in Orkney and only these four, to date, have provided any evidence for the selection of a specific animal species.  In addition, archaeologists do (sometimes on purpose, sometimes unwittingly) choose their evidence to suit their argument ... red deer bones may have been found at the Knowe of Yarso, but so were bones from other animals too.  The main problem is that many of Orkney’s Neolithic tombs were opened in antiquity and vital evidence destroyed then, so we will never know if similar deposits were originally placed in other tombs.  What we can only hope for is that more tombs will be discovered in the future and that there will be the willingness and the funding to excavate them to modern standards.  It is also, of course, an assumption that each tomb was used only by a specific community; what seems more likely is that Neolithic burial practices are not as easily compartmentalised and labelled as we would like them to be – there is almost certainly more variety than conformity.

We do, however, know that other peoples around the world adopt specific animals as totems and archaeologists have direct and contemporary anthropological parallels to draw upon.  An affinity with a specific animal or plant is also something than many “modern Pagans” will have some sympathy with.  I myself have felt drawn to magpies for as long as I can remember.  When I first self-initiated, over twenty years ago now, I took the name “Magpie”.  At first this was my secret name, but over time I liked the name so much and used it so openly that it became my outer name and when I was formally initiated into a Wiccan coven about 7 years ago, I took a new name which has remained secret, known only to my Gods, my initiators, and to my husband and current magickal working partner. 


Casually though, to non-magickal folk, it is my nick-name and if asked why, I respond: “I am an intelligent bird and I steal stuff, check for your wallet on the way out ...”

I like the striking colours of magpies and I like their apparent cheekiness.  Magpies are not black and white.  Their white is off-white, usually muddy, not pristine and virginal.  Their black is black, blue-black and green-black, their dark feathers shimmer like spilt petrol on a wet forecourt.  This is a wonderfully analogy for Pagan ethics, my morality is not black and white, it is a muddy grey and sometimes I have to delve into the black and try to find beauty and truth.

Magpies cannot sing.  They have a rough rasping call which ratchets like a machine gun firing.  Some folk think it is an ugly call, you certainly probably wouldn’t keep a magpie as a song bird.  I also cannot sing, I am tone deaf and miss most of the notes, I have no sense of rhythm.

Magpies are monogamous and mate for life.  They use their tail feathers in sexual display.  The older a magpie, and thus the fitter, the longer their tail.  Their nests are famously untidy.  There is a fable that the magpie was learning to nest build at one time and she went to each of the birds asking them how to build a nest.  Each bird gave advice and magpie replied to each “I know that already”.  All the other birds got fed up with magpie’s attitude and refused to show her how to build a nest.  And now the magpie builds a mess for a nest because she never learnt!  I am very loyal in relationships.

There are no magpies as far north as Orkney although there is a dead stuffed one on display in Stromness Museum – it was blown off course in the 1930s, caught, killed and stuffed.  Someone probably thought it was a flying penguin.  That makes me the only magpie in Orkney.

Magpies are synonymous in folk history as being evil and in league with the devil.  There are all manner of chants and legends associated with magpies.  In Norse mythology they are known as Loki’s eyes.  The number of magpies which you see at any one time can famously be used as divination: “One for sorrow”.  Traditional folk spit when they see a magpie to avert the devil or ask after the magpie’s wife “Morning, Mr Magpie, how’s yer wife?”, thereby implying they have seen the “Two for joy”. 

The collective noun for magpies is a mischief.  I saw a mischief of over twenty magpies once and have no idea what it might have meant, but I have had a weird and magickal life, learnt a lot of secrets and discovered a lot of treasures.  I’ve had sorrow and joy in plenty as well.

The magpie’s hip bones are articulated in such a manner that they are able to walk, as well as to hop, and their gait is a sidling, shifting, sneaky movement that looks like they are up to no good.  They are incredibly intelligent, as are all the corvid family, and are tremendous opportunists.  This has gained them the reputation for being thieves and they certainly have a liking for shining things – as do I! 

Corvids are so intelligent that they beat most primates in problem-solving intelligence tests set for them by scientists.  However, the evolutionary advantage that primates have, including ourselves, is social intelligence, the ability to act as a team; in corvids, this type of intelligence is not as well developed.  And they don’t have opposable thumbs either!

Magpies have been blamed for the decline of the songbird but this is prejudice.  Magpies do take nestlings but rarely and only if the opportunity presents, they are not the predators that they are depicted as.  Most nestlings are taken by jays, the magpies’ garish pink cousin, and by domestic cats.  Game-keepers especially hate magpies because magpies will deplete young game birds such as pheasants.  But young game-birds are incredibly stupid, reared for their docility and ease of shooting, and are an introduced species with few adaptations to the environment – magpies are merely being the opportunists they are.  The magpie’s diet is mainly slugs and snails and roadkill.  In other words, magpies clear up the mess that others’ leave behind.  Whilst everyone thinks that they are vicious carnivores, preying on the pretty garden birds, the reality is that they are a vital part of the bio-cycle.

This is the real reason why I originally took the name “Magpie”, because magpies are misunderstood.  In public perception they are much maligned and seen as malevolent, in reality they quietly get on with being themselves and tidying up, taking advantage of any opportunities that might present, hoping not to be noticed when they help themselves to something they perceive is unwanted. 

Likewise, it is a recurring theme in my life that I am periodically unfairly accused of something.  Repeatedly I find myself having been accused, tried, judged and sentence passed without being asked for my side, my opinion, or my reasoning.   Sometimes this is over trivial things, occasionally more important issues, often I am left with a surprised feeling of “how did I get here?”  I never know quite how to respond, I am left feeling misunderstood and persecuted.  One of my dearest friends said of me once: “You know, there are many people who absolutely love you, but once someone decides to hate you they always seem to do so with such venom; you are the sort of person who seems to provoke extreme feelings from others”.  I cannot but wonder if perhaps I was executed following accusations of witchcraft in a previous existence and that these are issues I am still working through.  From my perspective this is a perfectly logical explanation but not everyone will be working with the same assumptions that I am ... I did have some past life regression under hypnosis once and this was a theme which arose, but my inner cynic has too many questions.  I suspect I am on the autistic spectrum (it is a spectrum, we are all on it somewhere!), I am not quite Rainman and most of the time I get along fine with people, but I am shy and introverted and generally puzzled by those social interactions that others seem to find so easy.

Magpies are also mystical and magical.  As a practitioner of shamanistic techniques, one of my power animals is, of course, a magpie.  Actually, I have two, and they perch, one on each shoulder, whenever I go adventuring into the Otherworld on a journey – rather like Odin’s ravens: Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory).   Sometimes they fly ahead, and sometimes they will attack for me, always going for the eyes.  As birds, they are associated with the element of air, an element which is lacking in my birthchart.  This apparently sets me aside as an air adept – I will be always compensating for this lack until I own it and start to channel it.    

So, there you have it, I am Magpie.  I am mystical, magical, misunderstood, full of mischief, and harbinger of mayhem.  I think the name suits.