Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Werewolves, severed heads and a recent sad loss

It was with sadness today I learned of the death (aged 87) of the Celtic scholar Dr. Anne Ross.  I had first become aware of Anne when she appeared on the 1987 BBC program 'The Celts' where she made a great impression filmed sitting on a hillside, her red hair blowing in the wind, and talking of the Ulster cycle of myths - it was the first time I'd heard the pronunciation of such names as Cu Chulainn, Dechtire and Emhain Macha. The names sounded heady with strangeness - luring one in with their exotic nature.

It wasn't long before I had acquired some of her books - most notably Pagan Celtic Britain, which contained a massive amount of information on the Iron Age cults of these islands - especially the so-called 'cult of the severed head' which was explored in minute detail.

But Anne Ross was different from other Celtic scholars - she was a favourite scholar of neo-pagan groups as she wasn't timid in putting forward controversial theories, and she also supported the idea that a certain amount of pagan belief had survived the Iron Age, especially in the more remote parts of the UK. When i say remote I don't necessarily mean at the edges - for instance in a BBC Timewatch program she claimed to have been contacted by a local 'guardian' of an old traditional belief system that still venerated the image of the severed head - and all this going on not far from industrial centres like Manchester.

I first read of this interest of hers in a book called 'Twilight of the Celtic Gods' by Clark and Roberts (which is also the book that introduced me to Alan Garner). Some isolated areas of the Peaks and the Pennines, it seems, had retained a special relationship to the land that was perhaps more pagan in flavour than one might have expected.  In later years, reading Garner's Thursbitch, and especially an essay/lecture of his that explained how he had come to write it (  http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html) I saw that this book, too, explored this possibility - and in visiting Thursbitch 5 years ago i was able to feel for myself a certain 'otherness' in the locale that was 'odd' rather than disconcerting (but then i didn't go at night - not after reading the essay by Garner!)

Dr Anne Ross was no stranger to the supernatural. There is the famous case of the Haxham heads (photo above) which though claimed to be made by a local man for his children (why?) others believed to be linked to the Celtic cult of the head (which didn't necessarily mean they had to be old, if Ross's 'informant' was correct). Dr Ross took them in to examine them and soon found the atmosphere of her home changed. Here's what she saw that night:

"It was about six feet high, slightly stooping, and it was black, against the white door, and it was half animal and half man. The upper part, I would have said, was a wolf, and the lower part was human and, I would have again said, that it was covered with a kind of black, very dark fur. It went out and I just saw it clearly, and then it disappeared, and something made me run after it, a thing I wouldn't normally have done, but I felt compelled to run after it. I got out of bed and I ran, and I could hear it going down the stairs, then it disappeared towards the back of the house."
When her daughter, independently, saw the same creature Dr Ross took the heads from her house and the 'haunting' stopped. What is it she saw? My own research on the Beowulf poem lead me, in time, to uncover a possible link between the cult of the severed head and the legend of the werewolf - all pivoting around an ancient use of the ergot fungus, a parasite of barley and rye, that causes hallucinations and burning sensations. Ergot was found in the stomachs of the so-called 'bog people' - remains of Iron Age sacrificial victims found in the bogs of N W Europe. Ergot was known as 'tooth of the wolf' and I believe was used in shamanic rites that gave one the sensation of turning into an animal (shape-shifting)  - I believe the warriors of Odin used such drugs, and it is how they became the famous Berserkers (bear-shirts) and Ulfhednar (wolf-heads)...

Weird as it may seem Dr Ross seems to have picked up on this symbolism in her haunting - the wolf-head and the sacrificial head... how funny, then, that part of what inspired my interest in bog bodies was a book Dr Ross had herself written - 'Life and death of a Druid Prince' which was all about the death of Lindow man - a bog body found near Macclesfield in Cheshire - heart of 'Alan garner' Country, and visible from Thursbitch.

Dr Ross made no mention of her experience in that book - and I made no conscious use of her experience in my theorising on the fate of the bog-men - I merely followed the clues in Beowulf that suggested Grendel and his Mother were wolf-like spirits and that Beowulf himself may have meant 'barley-wolf'. I had linked Grendel's Mother to the goddess Nerthus mentioned by Tacitus, whose attendants were drowned following a ceremonial parade of the goddess in a chariot. These drowned men, I reasoned, were the bog-bodies found throughout Denmark - and thus had been killed in rites connected to the wolfish Grendel's mother, with stomachs full of ergot.  When I recalled Dr Ross's experience after I had published the book I had a spine-tingling sensation of having stumbled on some long-lost connection...

So for me Dr Anne Ross was both a brilliant scholar but also someone who didn't wish to take the magic out of the myths, but to hint that the magic is still with us today, especially in the remote valleys of this land. May she be feasting on the ale of Tir Na N'Og as I write. Thank you, Dr Ross.

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