Samhain at the Gates of Annwn

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It’s the end of October, and as it is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain I thought it would be a good idea to look a place that is both mysterious and iconic: Glastonbury Tor.

To most, the mere mention of Glastonbury will likely conjure images of wild, scantily clad or naked youths and aged hippies. You’ll think of thousands of people covered in mud as they wend their way, higher than the Hindu Kush, among the tent rows to see their favourite artists rock the Pyramid Stage.

It’s a great party, but to me that’s not the real Glastonbury.

This small town in southwest Britain is an ancient place. The real Glastonbury is a place of mystery, lore and legend. It is a place that was sacred to the Celts, pagan and Christian alike, Saxons, and Normans. For many it is the heart of Arthurian tradition, and for some it is the resting place of the Holy Grail.

Today, Glastonbury is a place where those seeking spiritual enlightenment are drawn. The New Age movement is going strong there, yet another layer of belief to cloak the place.

I lived in the countryside outside of the town for about 3 years and I never tired of walking around Glastonbury and exploring the many sites that make it truly unique.

From where I lived on the other side of the peat moors, I awoke every morning to see Glastonbury’s majestic Tor shrouded in mist.

My morning view of the Tor across the Somerset levels

My morning view of the Tor across the Somerset levels

Tor is a word of Celtic origin referring to ‘belly’ in Welsh or a ‘bulging hill’ in Gaelic. Glastonbury Tor thrusts up from the Somerset levels like a beacon for miles around. Every angle is interesting. On the top is the tower of what was the church of St. Michael, a remnant of the 14th century. Before that, there was a monastery that dated to about the 9th century A.D.

However, habitation of this place goes much farther back in time with some evidence for people in the area around 3000 B.C. But it was not always a religious centre. In the Dark Ages, the Tor served a more militaristic purpose and there are remains from this period.

In Arthurian lore, the Isle of Avalon is a sort of mist-shrouded world that is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat or secret path. In fact, during the Dark Ages and into later centuries, until the drainage dykes were built, the Somerset levels were prone to flooding. This flooding made Glastonbury Tor and the smaller hills around it true islands. With the early morning mist that covers the levels, this watery land would have been a relatively safe refuge for the Druids, and early Christians, Dark Age warlords and late medieval monks.

The Tor surrounded by flooded levels - Avalon!

The Tor surrounded by flooded levels – Avalon!

In Celtic myth, Glastonbury Tor is said to be the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Faery King and Lord of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld.

Gwynn ap Nudd is the Guardian of the Gates of Annwn. He is an Underworld god. It is at Samhain that the gates of Annwn open. This was also the place where the soul of a Celt awaited rebirth. (Quick hint: We delve into this in the upcoming Eagles and Dragons novel, Warriors of Epona!)

If you are on the Tor at Samhain, you may hear the sound of hounds and hunting horns as the lord of Annwn emerges for the Wild Hunt of legend.

The Wild Hunt 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo

The Wild Hunt 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Arthurian romance, there is a tradition of the wicked Melwas imprisoning Guinevere on the Tor. Arthur rides to the rescue, attacks Melwas and saves Guinevere. This particular story mirrors an episode in Culhwch ac Olwen, one part of the Welsh Mabinogion, in which Gwythyr ap Greidawl attempts to save Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, whom he is supposed to marry, from Gwynn ap Nudd himself.

Another even more fascinating Arthurian connection can be found in a pre-Christian version of the ‘Quest of the Holy Grail’, called the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ which was found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’. In this tale, Arthur and his companions enter Annwn to bring back a magical cauldron of plenty. In this, some say that ‘Corbenic Castle’ (the ‘Grail Castle’) is actually Glastonbury Tor. It isn’t just Herakles and Odysseus who journeyed to the Underworld!

Glastonbury Tor is not only associated with Celtic religion, myth and legend. It is also said by some to be a place of power or a sort of vortex in the land that lies along some of the key ley-lines, including what is called the St. Michael ley-line. The majority of sites associated with St. Michael, the slayer of Satan, along the ley-line were indeed places of power and belief of the old religion.

But this is nothing new. Christians built on top of sites sacred to the pagans they were eager to overcome. What better way to symbolize your ‘victory’ than to build right on top of a site and make it yours.

‘Gates of Annwn and Gwynn ap Nudd? Let’s build a church of St. Michael on top of it! That’ll show ‘em!’

Artist impression of Gwynn ap Nudd at the hunt

Artist impression of Gwynn ap Nudd at the hunt

But myth and legend persist through story and place, and the Tor is a prime example of how successive traditions do not overcome each other, but rather combine to make up the various aspects of that place.

If you ever get to Glastonbury, the Tor is a definite must. Walk to the top and sit awhile. Look out over the landscape and watch the crows and magpies dive in the wind around the steep slopes. Close your eyes and listen. While you’re there, you can decide whether you are sitting on a natural formation, a ceremonial labyrinth, a hill fort, a sleeping dragon, the mound where Arthur sleeps until he is needed once more, or the doorstep of the Gates of Annwn itself! The Tor is all of these things and more.

However, no matter what you believe, one thing is certain: Glastonbury Tor remains a site of extreme beauty and mystery that is well worth a visit, even if it is just to watch the sun sink in the West.

Have a safe and happy Samhain.

samhain-bonfire

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A Head for War – Top 10 Ancient and Medieval Battle Helmets

Ancient Warriors - painting by Arturas Slapsys

Ancient Warriors – painting by Arturas Slapsys

Some of the very first things that interested me in history as a young boy were weapons and armour.

Boys will be boys, and so it’s no surprise that this is what drew me into the ancient and medieval worlds in the first place.

I remember getting a used book called The Art of Chivalry, which I flipped through over and over again. I was mesmerized by the images of broad swords and gothic armour, the shields, the lines, and the hack marks from various battles.

If there is one piece that has been common to most ancient cultures, it’s the helmet.

Apart from Celtic warrior heroes, most soldiers and fighters wore a helmet into battle. However, despite the common usage of something to protect the head and face, the styles varied greatly over the ages, making for some magnificent pieces that were utilitarian and beautiful at the same time.

So, here is my Top 10 list of favourite ancient and medieval battle helmets…

 

The Trojan War 

#10 – Mycenaean Boar’s Tusk Helmet

Mycenaean Boar's Tusk helm

My tenth choice on this list is one that you might not have expected to see. It isn’t made of iron or bronze, but rather of boar’s tusks that would have been sewn together over a skull-cap, or lining of some sort.

We’ve all heard about the Trojan War, but the portrayals of Greeks and Trojans wearing Classical Age Corinthian Helmets is not exactly accurate. We’re talking about the (approximately) 12th century B.C. here. This is a helmet of great antiquity that was worn by the heroes who fought beneath the walls of Troy in this most famous of wars.

I’ve put it on this list for sheer interest’s sake.

 

See You in the Lists!

#9 – Jousting Helmet

Medieval Jousting helm

If gladiators were the entertainment of the Roman world, jousting was the equivalent of the Middle Ages.

From the time I was a boy, this is what I was drawn to. Two knights in armour careening toward each other with their lances couched. I could see their horses’ trappings fluttering as they came closer and closer and then the tremendous impact of splintered lances and shattered shields.

Fantastic! But wow, so dangerous. Tourney knights may have donned colourful ribbons and head dresses for the tilt, but they were certainly not wussies. These guys were tough as nails!

And they did this with little to no visibility! The tourney helms were thick and heavy, and were intended to deflect a lance point at speed. It must have been absolutely suffocating inside one of those.

But how imposing they looked, how fantastic with the colourful tourney crests affixed on the top. These guys took the tourney circuit, and the ladies, by storm, all in a chivalrous way, or course. Men such as William Marshall or Ulrich von Lichtenstein (not Heath Ledger, the real one!), made a name for themselves in the European lists and helped to shape the chivalric ideals we see in art and story.

 

Riding with Alexander the Great

#8 – Hellenistic Cavalry Helmet

Companion Cavalry (wearing Boetian Helmet).

When you get to the time of Alexander the Great and the successors, they begin to add a bit more pizazz to their headgear. Alexander would have had special helmets outfitted just for him, perhaps made to look like a lion head which you can see on the coins (remember, the Argead dynasty claimed descent from Herakles!), or the ram horns of Zeus-Ammon.

My eighth pick would be the helmet commonly used by the Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, commonly thought to be the best cavalry in the ancient world. Being one of these guys was glamorous and carried a lot of cache. They wore a Boeotian-type cavalry helmet with embellishments such as laurels and other ornamentations. It was also a sort of armoured sun-hat, perfect for charging across the plains of Asia in summer.

But don’t let the fanciness fool you, the Companions were crack heavy cavalry troops, and fierce enough to help Alexander bring down the mighty Persian Empire.

 

The Battle of Hastings

#7 – Norman Conical Helmet

Norman Cone helmet

1066 is a year that many of you will be familiar with. This is the year that William the Conqueror and his Norman army invaded England and killed the last Saxon King, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans changed the face of England, some might say not for the best.

But they were a fighting force to be reckoned with. And their arms and armour reflect a more functional, militaristic culture that is immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When I think of the Normans, I think of kite shields, chain mail, and of course the conical helmet. This may not be the most dashing or even protective of warlike head gear, but its silhouette is unmistakably Norman. It was basically two bits of steel held together by a spine with a big nose guard. That’s it. There was no neck protection unless chain mail was attached to the lower rim, and the face was exposed apart from the nose. It would have had great visibility and some deflective traits because of its pointed shape. It would not be my pick for personal use, but I’ve included it because there’s just something about it.

 

Gods of the Arena

#6 – Murmillo Gladiator

Murmillo helmet

The Romans didn’t just like violence on the battlefield. They also enjoyed it on a Saturday afternoon, just for fun!

Some of the most enduring images of ancient Rome that we have are of gladiatorial combat in the amphitheatre. Gladiators were slaves, but they were also showman, and some reached unprecedented heights of popularity, almost as high as the charioteers of Rome.

Because it was a show, the gladiators played the roles of mythological beasts or ferocious, long-defeated enemies from past campaigns. But they didn’t wear masks, they wore elaborate helmets. My favourite gladiatorial helmet is the Murmillo, which was meant to represent a sort of sea creature, paired off against a Thracian warrior, or Thraex.

The Murmillo helmet was big and could be very elaborate with mythological or battle scenes embossed on it. This was an ornate, but heavy-duty helmet that was meant to inspire awe and take some heavy hits. During the early Empire, the Murmillo and Thraex were the most common pairing in combat. When they clashed, you can bet the crowd was baying for blood!

 

The Cross the the Crescent

#5 – Medieval Great Helm

Medieval Great Helm

The Crusades figured largely in my study of medieval warfare, and so it’s no surprise that the one helmet from the time that should be included here is the medieval ‘Great Helm’.

This cylindrical helmet would have been worn over a chain mail headpiece, or coif, and was the standard for most knights going on Crusade to the Holy Land. Designs by way of the puncture holes for breathing varied, but they were all big with narrow eye slits and cross-like seems on the face.

I really like the look of this helmet, but I can imagine that in the heat of Palestine, it would have felt like being in an oven. Furthermore, because the ears were covered, and because of the box-like structure of the Great Helm, the echo inside must have been insane in the thick of battle.

When I see this helmet, I also tend to think of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. ‘None shall pass!’

 

The Waning of the Middle Ages

#4 – Gothic Armour

Gothic Armour

Some of the most complete and beautiful armour ever comes from the late middle ages. Late medieval armour was, in large part, a reaction to new weapons technology, namely firearms.

This was really the last hurrah for full body armour and helmets that matched beauty with defensive intent. We know it as Gothic armour, and there are plenty of well-preserved examples in museums and castles around the world where you can get up close and personal with it.

There are many styles, but they all share one thing in common: they seek to encase the wearer as much as possible to protect against sword, mace, axe, arrow, and of course firearm shots.

Early firearms were notoriously inaccurate, but knights would have been extremely vulnerable when charging into the spray from a bunch of arm cannons. The English longbows at Agincourt and Crécy destroyed the French knights, and this just took things one unfortunate step further.

The Gothic age of helmets and armour in general is a bit of a swan song.

Warfare had changed and the sight of fully armed knights tilting on battlefields such as Bosworth was soon to become a thing of the past, a thing of romance. Perhaps it is fitting that this was some of the most beautiful, functional armour all rolled into one. It was indeed the end of an age, and well-deserving of number four on my list.

 

Ghost Warriors

#3 – Late Roman Cavalry Helmets

Bronze Roman Cavalry mask Newstead

Now we come to it – the top three.

Whereas the men of the Legions had solid functional helmets when they went into battle, the cavalry alae of the Empire went in for something a bit more dashing and terrifying.

There is a lot of differentiation among the auxiliary units attached to the Legions because most of them were not Roman, and brought their own cultural style to the mix.

However, my favourite cavalry helmets are those with masks attached. They’re ornate on top, often with mythological scenes or beasts, and then have a mask of the same metal protecting the wearer but also striking fear into the enemies they were riding down.

There is some debate as to whether or not the actual masks were used only for demonstrations or parade, that they were perhaps removed for actual battle. But it’s not unlikely that they were indeed worn into battle. After all, some medieval helmets, as we shall see, provided much less visibility than a Roman cavalry mask.

These elite cavalry troops would have seemed like shades or furies as they rode into the fray, swinging a spatha and holding a howling draco standard. My solid number 3!

 

Men of the Legions

#2 – Roman Imperial Gallic Helmet

Roman Imperial Gallic

The Romans knew their warfare and their weapons. They also knew how to adapt, and how to adopt when they saw a good thing.

By far, my favourite Roman helmet has to be the Imperial Gallic helmet. If you look closely at the design, it makes perfect sense. They thought of everything – good vision and hearing for the legionary, protection for the back of the neck from downward slashes by those Celts, a visor in the front for the same thing, and massive cheek pieces that protected the side of the face without hindering vision.

This was a warrior’s helmet, and it was worn by tribunes, centurions, optios, and regular troops. A crest could also be attached depending on the rank of the person wearing it. But regular legionaries wore it without decoration and just went at it with the enemy in front of them. This is my pick for most utilitarian! It could easily take number one, but…

 

Grace in the Golden Age of Greece

#1 – The Corinthian Helmet

Corinthian Helmet

…I’m giving in to beauty.

When it comes to ancient Greece, the helmet that most people imagine is the Corinthian helmet. To me, this is a supremely beautiful helmet, my favourite for looks. It was used for several centuries, sometimes with a crest, sometimes without. These were made of bronze and would have been great at deflecting, spear thrusts, sword swings, and whizzing arrows.

I’ve tried on this helmet at re-enactor fairs and I must say that it’s very comfortable. Vision is decent, and it does indeed rest easily on the top of the head when not sweating it out in the shield wall. Hey, if it’s good enough for the goddess Athena, it’s good enough for me!

The one downside of the Corinthian helmet is that it would have been difficult to hear everything that was going on because there were no holes for the ears. Also, in the Mediterranean heat during the summer campaign season, it would have been hot!

But I still love the Corinthian helmet. For me, this is #1!

300 Spartans at Thermopylae - by Peter Connolly

300 Spartans at Thermopylae – by Peter Connolly

This could easily have been a much longer list. It was harder than I expected (but oh, so much fun!) to pick just ten. They are unique, utilitarian, and beautiful in their own ways, and so deserving of a place on the list, in my humble opinion.

I’ve always felt very strongly that the invention of gun powder was a low point in human and military history. It meant that any coward could pick up a gun and, from a distance, take down the most skilled, well-trained warrior without breaking a sweat. It meant that the scale of casualties would increase, and that is something we feel painfully to this day.

A lot of people might disagree with that. They might say that guns are the great leveller.

But somehow, in an age of cold black steel and bullets, I don’t really think we’ll hear about heroes like Hector or Achilles meeting face to face. Alexander won’t be charging King Porus’ elephant on Bucephalas any time soon. The Spartan shield wall is lost to history and the lists of medieval Europe are long silent but for a few scattered bands of Renaissance Festival enthusiasts.

But the art of war does remain, and it serves as a reminder of the past and the reasons for it.

Next time you are at a replica shop, re-enactor fair, or Renaissance festival, be sure to slip an ancient or medieval helmet replica over your head. You’ll be taking one step closer to understanding and feeling the past.

Thank you for reading.

What does your top 10 list look like? Do you have a favourite?

Let us know in the comments below…

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The Ruin – An Anglo-Saxon Poem of the Past

Ruins of the Roman Baths

Ruins of the Roman Baths

When I write about history my work is inspired by human behaviour and the people of the past, but a large part of my inspiration comes from the remains of civilizations that I have seen.

Whenever I have been fortunate enough to travel, the memories of my visits to ancient and medieval ruins have stayed with me as a sort of vivid library of information and emotion through which I can browse whenever I need to.

Often, sites will give me a particular feel or ‘vibe’ for lack of a better term. I can well imagine the voices of a crowded agora, or the cheers of a packed amphitheatre. You can’t help it. The past speaks to you in these places.

Roman Bath

Roman Bath

The other day I read a fragment of an 8th century old-English Saxon poem called ‘The Ruin’. This fragment, which survives from the Exeter Book, is a sort of elegy for the Roman city of Bath. It is incomplete, but very interesting to read, even a little sad. Here it is in translation:

 

The Ruin

Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken

and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.

The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,

frost in the mortar has broken the gate,

torn and worn and shorn by the storm,

eaten through with age. The earth’s grasp

holds the builders, rotten, forgotten,

the hard grip of the ground, until a hundred

generations of men are gone. This wall, rust-stained

and moss-covered, has endured one kingdom after another,

stood in the storm, steep and tall, then tumbled.

The foundation remains, felled by the weather,

it fell…..

grimly ground up ….

……cleverly created….

…… a crust of mud surrounded …

….. put together a swift

and subtle system of rings; one of great wisdom

wondrously bound the braces together with wires.

Bright were the buildings, with many bath-houses,

noble gables and a great noise of armies,

many a meadhall filled with men’s joys,

until mighty fate made an end to all that.

The slain fell on all sides, plague-days came,

and death destroyed all the brave swordsmen;

the seats of their idols became empty wasteland,

the city crumbled, its re-builders collapsed

beside their shrines. So now these courts are empty,

and the rich vaults of the vermilion roofs

shed their tiles. The ruins toppled to the ground,

broken into rubble, where once many a men

glad-minded, gold-bright, bedecked in splendor,

proud, full of wine, shone in his war-gear,

gazed on treasure, on silver, on sparking gems,

on wealth, on possessions, on the precious stone,

on the bright capital of a broad kingdom.

Stone buildings stood, the wide-flowing stream

threw off its heat; a wall held it all

in its bright bosom where the baths were,

hot in its core, a great convenience.

They let them gush forth …..

the hot streams over the great stones,

under…

until the circular pool …. hot…

…..where the baths were.

Then….

….. that is a noble thing,

how …. the city ….

 

(translation by R. M. Liuzza)

The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book

I’ve often wondered what people in the Middle Ages might have thought of the Roman ruins that were all around them. They probably used the Roman roads (and we still do today!), walls, foundations, and town plans, but I had never really read a primary medieval source that lamented the ruins of Rome’s past in Britain in such a way.

Artist's reconstruction of Aquae Sulis

Artist’s reconstruction of Aquae Sulis

I have to admit that I was a little surprised to read ‘The Ruin’ and detect a hint of sadness as the poet describes what remains of the once-great town of Aqae Sulis. I feel as though he is expressing how I might have felt seeing that wondrous, crumbling city.

The poet has resuscitated Roman Bath for us at a moment in time, after the days of its glory. I can see the grass growing out of the cracks of the paving slabs, and the moss filling the spaces where mortar has crumbled from walls. I can hear ravens cawing from atop the city’s carcass as terra cotta roof tiles slither and slide from their perches to crash on the ground below.

This is yet another interesting perspective to keep in mind when visiting ancient sites – how might other people in history have viewed these places, depending on the perspective of their own age in time?

It’s something worth thinking on.

Thank you for reading!

Let us know what you think about this poem by leaving a comment below.

Anglo Saxon poet

Anglo Saxon poet

If you want to hear what the poem sounds like in old-English, here is a video of a young historian reading it. She speaks for about a minute before she starts reading the poem, but hang in there. It’s well worth the wait! What a beautiful language.

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