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.

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