First impressions: Exhausted after my 11hr flight from Paris, (having risen at 4.30am to get there from Manchester), arriving in Japan at 9.30am (the following day) I was struck, from the air, at how mountainous the country is. Great flat alluvial plains covered in a patchwork of agricultural and urban sprawl reached out toward the coast, laced with winding rivers, and separated by huge black mountain clusters. The interior of the country seemed a quite forbidding mass of dark peaks. I was arriving from the north, having traversed northern China and the arctic circle, in a line from Paris that went North-North-East cutting through the Baltics toward northern Russia. Now coming south, the plane was crossing the Japanese mainland towards the southern bay on whose eastern shores lie the city of Osaka, and in whose waters the industrious Japanese have built the vast airport named for this south western region, Kansai.
But once the cheerful but tedious formalities of finger-printing, photographing, interviewing and passport checking that make entry to Japan similar to that of the US (if a little less daunting), and the queues for baggage, and then for the train station where I exchanged my voucher for my Japan Rail Pass (a must-have), were finally over, and I was on the 50minute train from the airport to the centre of Osaka, the mountains seemed very far away. Instead, an overwhelming sense of dense – intense – urban sprawl flashed by the windows of the train, with the mostly grey buildings slowly but surely getting taller, gradually, gradually beginning to seem a little less haphazard – but still as tightly packed – as the US-style grid of the city centre grew nearer, and the occasional wide street that shot off dead-straight into the distance flashed by. Eventually even the little houses were four or five stories, dwarfed by the towers and apartment blocks of Shin-Osaka.
After almost thirty minutes wandering increasingly desperately around this huge railway station, I eventually found the ‘North Exit’ – the only one for which there were no signposts, and not even an ‘Exit’ sign at the door, yards from which lay my hotel. At wits end, 1pm local but 4am UK time, I managed to check in, actually delighted at the friendly and attentive concern and helpfulness of the staff.
In September 2016, after the close of my international conference at Salford, Colin and I fled the city for a fortnight away in the Southern Hebrides. We began with three days on Bute, based at The Victoria Hotel in Rothesay, and then went on to the cluster of Southern Hebridean Islands: Jura, Islay, Colonsay and Oronsay. All the photos are as ever on Flickr.
Bute, nestled into a notch of the Cowal peninsular, is a delightful and surprising little island, with the Highland Boundary Fault running across it, giving wooded highlands to the north and lowland pastures to the south. Ettrick Bay opens at the western end of this fault and is home to the remnants of a fine ritual landscape.
We are currently in the Quarternary Ice Age of the Earth, which began 2.5 million years ago. Ice Ages include warm interglacial periods (like the one we’re in now) and colder glaciation periods, when the northern hemisphere in particular is covered in ice sheets. The last of these was from 110,000 to about 12,000 years ago, and itself included some minor fluctuations. The last peak of the last glacial period of the current Ice Age is known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and occurred about 22,000 years ago. After the last of the ice of the LGM finally melted in Scotland by around 9000BC, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers began to take advantage of the flora and fauna that soon began to populate the newly unfrozen lands. Sea-level was consistently on the rise for a while, but the landmass, free of ice, was also enjoying a ‘rebound’ out of its magma foundations, so that the shoreline was at times both higher and lower than it is today during these millenia. As a result, the remains of Mesolithic camps, where people prepared flint tools (known as microliths), cast away the shells of seafood, and roasted hazlenuts, can be found on the ‘raised beaches’ inland from today’s seashore, and occasionally be exposed at very low tide out in the bays and estuaries that were once dry land.
The Neolithic, that agriculture/animal husbandry/settlement combination (with pottery added a little later) that began in the Middle East in c10,000BC, could be seen arriving from as early as 3900BC in timber buildings in Aberdeenshire, and with the incredible stone buildings of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, as early as 3500BC. In the islands, too, some traces of Neolithic settlements and funerary monuments are still found. But the Bronze Age in Scotland (c2100-750 BC) has left many of the most stunning of such early stone monuments – the Standing Stones and Stone Circles that pepper the Hebridean islands. The ‘Megalithic’ culture, as it is known, straddling the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age (when bronze tools first started to complement those which continued to be made of stone), stretched from the islands of the Mediterranean round the Spanish and Portuguese coasts all the way up and along the Atlantic seaboard – including all of the British Isles – as far as Denmark and the Baltic coast, with sites inland as far as the eastern Portuguese border with Spain, central France, and the plains of northern Germany.
For details of these historic developments, Steven Mithen’s very accessible book “After the Ice” is an excellent read (which I took on this trip with me), guiding one through the fifteen thousand years from 20,000BC to 5,000BC, and then there are a host of fine texts on the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, too numerous to mention, though David Caldwell‘s books on the Hebrides are excellent, Francis Pryor’s “Britain BC” makes a good introduction, and there are many more on the Northern and Outer Hebrides!
Bute boasts a number of such monuments, including some ‘Cairns’ – the Neolithic communal grave sites, and ‘Cists’ (pronounced ‘kisseds‘) – the square single graves used in the Bronze Age, and many single standing stones, stone rows, and a couple of stone circles. These are often found in clusters known as ritual landscapes, where single stones and stone rows act as outliers to stone circles, giving lines of sight to clefts and peaks among distant mountains, often themselves the site of cairns and/or cists. Cists, too, are also often found added later to such landscapes, even in the middle of stone circles, sometimes with mounds built over them and kerbs built around them (as at Kilmartin). Later still, ‘Celtic’ Christianity arrived from Ireland in the 7th and 8th Century, most famously in the person of St Columba, who established a first priory on Oronsay, and then moved on to Iona where his Abbey became a capital of Celtic Christian activity for centuries, spawning numerous other Abbeys, Priories, Churches, and Saints. Both these Hebridean Christian traditions, and the Pictish peoples of mainland Scotland, repurposed many of the standing stones by carving them down into the exquisite Stone Crosses and Pictish Symbol Stones, many of which still survive across the islands and across mainland Scotland. The Iona School of artists, in the 8th century, created some of the very finest.
Ettrick Bay is one such ritual landscape, on Bute, and did not disappoint, except in one regard – when we tried to see the carved cross at East St Colmac Farm the farmer said he knew nothing of it, that there was a stone the other side of a paddock (to which he waved vaguely) but no carving on it that he was aware of. Nonetheless, the stone circle opposite the farm was really atmospheric, and clearly treasured by at least one contemporary pagan worshipper, who had deposited large quartz stones from the beach beside many of the standing stones of the circle. Two outlying single stones, moreover, besides the one later carved into a cross, gave the feel of quite a powerful landscape, and one could close one’s eyes, standing in the circle, and imagine lines of megalithic people, torches held aloft, processing across the rich pasture at the highpoints of the year.
Out in the bay, moreover, lay the tiny island of Inchmarnock: a private place not open to visitors, but home of a 2000BC cist burial of what has come to be known as the Queen of Inchmarnock, and her exquisite jet necklace. Jet – black petrified wood found only at Whitby in the British Isles, on the north-east coast of England – was clearly highly prized, as was the glassy pitchstone found only on Arran and Eigg. The fashion for black stone perhaps originated in the Middle East, some thousands of years before, and the rich deposits of obsidian in Anatolia, as good as flint for making blades, but shiny enough for jewellery too. More obsidian is to be found in the Mediterranean on the Greek Islands of Melos and Giali, the Sicilian islands of Lipari, Pantarola and Pantelleria, and at Monte Arci on Sardinia where I acquired some in 2011.
Besides Ettrick Bay, down in the south of the island there are also the strangely shaped remains of a further circle at Kingarth, with its outlying stone row of Largizean. These are quite atmospheric, but did not have quite the impact of those at Ettrick Bay.
Lastly, and perhaps one of the most interesting experiences on Bute, for me, was our visit to the ruins of the church of St Blane’s, on the southern tip of the island just beyond Kingarth. Originating from Iona – like most of the oldest Christian sites in this area – the ruins of a 12th century church on the site of a 7th century original were incredibly atmospheric: there was a really sacred feel to the place on our visit. We were alone, there are no shops, little in the way of interpretation beside a few well placed plaques, and the quiet and tranquility of a place of contemplation, meditation and peace. A delightful visit.
Jura is a fascinating place. The most conspicuous feature is the famous three Paps of Jura, the tall conical mountains visible from everywhere nearby, dominating the landscape of the whole Southern Hebrides. This mountainous area is to the south of the island, with lower lying moorland to the north. The two halves of the island are split by Tarbert Bay, which almost completely halves the island, save for a few kilometers of land. This valley was – for millenia – a highway for travellers between east and west, seeking to avoid the treacherous whirlpool of Corryvreckan (Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning “cauldron of the speckled seas”) to the north of the island, still avoided to this day by the ferries and any other self-respecting seafarer.
As Gordon Wright relates in his “Jura’s Heritage” booklet, which you can buy on the ferry, the name Jura may derive from Gaelic ‘Iubhar’, meaning Yew, making it the “Island of Yew Trees” – perhaps referring to the Glen of Yew trees found near Inver, to the north of Tarbert on the East Coast, where Steven Mithen has excavated Mesolithic activity. It’s equally possible that the name is Norse, from ‘Dyr-ey’, meaning deer-island. Certainly deer are a-plenty nowadays, though there is a question over how many were here in the more distant past.
Wright tells us Edward Furlong’s reading of Homer’s account of the travels of Odysseus suggest a possibility that in the Greek Bronze Age, c1000BC, Odysseus (who made the Trojan Horse, but then took ten years to return home from Troy) may have journeyed to Ireland and the Scottish Isles on his travels. In Homer’s account he reaches “the cavern of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis.” Wright continues, “Is the whirlpool of Charybdis the whirlpool of Corryvreckan? Adomnan – the biographer of St Columba – calls the Corryvreckan whirlpool ‘Charybdis brecani’. Later Odysseus comes to an island which he calls Thrinacia. Thrinacia means three pronged and Mr Furlong suggests it gets its name from the three Paps of Jura.”
Apart from another Iona-related chapel at Tarbert, much of the settlement activity, old and new, is in the south-east corner of the island, nearest to Islay. Here, the enormous Camas an Staca Standing Stone rises out of the peat twice the height of a man, surrounded by further rocks and outcrops which Canmore (Scotland’s inestimable archaeological database) includes two conflicting and rather confusing accounts of. The feel of the place – the lines of sight and the general atmosphere – gave me a strong feeling that Camas an Staca could be another Callanish under several thousand years of peat deposit, with the single stone still visible the monstrously high centrepiece of something far greater and more impressive. Who knows if an archaeologist may yet have time – and funding – to take a closer look. [Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis, one of the most impressive and largest stone circles and ritual landscapes in the whole of the British Isles, erected around 3000BC, was almost completely buried under 1.5m or so of peat for (at least) 1500 years, only first recorded in the early 17th century, and the peat finally all dug away to reveal it in all its glory in the mid-19th century.]
In Norman Newton’s tourist guide to Islay the last chapter tells of Jura and of a lovely Gaelic folklore tale from John Francis Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’, concerning “the Old Woman or Witch of Jura” and her “magical powers. There was a Caileach (old woman) in Jura who had a magic ball of thread by means of which she could draw any person or thing towards her. MacPhie (or MacDuffie) of Colonsay was in her clutches, and was not allowed to leave Jura; on several occasions he tried to escape to his native Colonsay in his boat, but always the Caileach would spot him, throw the magic ball of thread into his boat, and so bring him back to shore. Eventually MacPhie found out that the magic of the Caileach’s thread could be broken, but only if it was cut by an equally magic hatchet; thus he pretended to be content with his bondage until he found the chance to steal the Caileach’s magic hatchet, and then he made his escape from Jura in a small boat. When the Caileach noticed his absence, she rushed as usual to the top of Beinn a Chaolis, [the tallest of the Paps] and … hurled the magic ball of thread into MacPhie’s boat, but he cut it with the Caileach’s magic hatchet and made his escape. She was distraught … [and] in despair she slid down the mountain to the sea shore, pleading with MacPhie to return. But he would not, and the marks left by the old woman’s heels as she slid down Beinn a Chaolis can still be seen. They are called Sgriob na Cailich – the slide of the old woman.” The best view is from the ferry from Port Askaig to Colonsay.
By far the most significant event for us during our stay on Jura, was at Inverlussa. Knowing that microliths are still found from time to time amongst the pebbles of the Lussa river as it enters the bay, we went up the eastern shore road almost as far as it goes, to Lussa Bay, and pottered about on the beach there for an hour, looking through the pebbles for microliths. To my astonishment, however, although no microliths were to be seen, instead, in about an inch of water amongst the pebbles on the southern shore of the river only thirty or so yards from the sea I found what I have since (tongue-in-cheek) been calling, the Lussa Venus. It is a (horse’s? whale’s?) tooth, (or ivory,) carved in the semi-abstract, semi-lifelike form of a female, missing both head and feet, but with the arms folded formally across her abdomen supporting her breasts, and clear lines delineating legs and buttocks both front and back. It is a truly remarkable find. Teeth and ivory can survive in the ground or in the water, undamaged, for a very long time, David Caldwell told me, when I showed him my find at Finlaggan, on Islay, a week later, where he was directing a dig. Unlike the microliths I didn’t find, it is not Mesolithic – I sent a photo of it to Steven Mithen and he graciously replied straight away, uncertain what it was but confident it was not of his period – 20,000-5000 BC. David Caldwell recalled a recent discovery of carved teeth that proved to be 14th century. It could, of course, he said, equally well be something African or East Asian, brought back to Scotland during Empire days. It seems rather risque to be Victorian, at any rate, and would more likely have been porcelain in that period. I sent photos of it on to David Caldwell, at his request, for him to share with colleagues at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. No less than Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator of Early Prehistory, got back to us straight away with a pretty clear indication that it is not an ancient Scottish artefact. The likelihood, she thought, was that it was either carved by a local in the last few centuries, or brought back from elsewhere – though she suspects the “similarity with Cycladic figurines is purely coincidental (and not close, in any case.)” I’m not greatly surprised, but it is a lovely item nonetheless, and such an amazing find, amongst the pebbles, in that tranquil remote bay.
Our stay on Jura was crowned, finally, with a magnificent steak of Jura Venison washed down with very fine 2007 Pomerol, on our last night, and by a fabulous rainbow the following morning just as we got into the car to set off for the ferry back to Islay.
As David Caldwell’s books make clear, Islay is a place of great historical interest. Today, for the tourist, perhaps the greatest draws are the birds (the RSPB have a strong presence here [many thanks to Phil, RSPB warden at the Mull of Oa, for helping me change the wheel after my punctured tyre!]) and, of course, the eight distilleries, making some of Scotland’s finest whiskies, including no lesser names than Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. My personal favourite, however, was Bruichladdich’s Valinch, which has spent its full term of 12 years in Sherry casks. Very smooth!
The Rinns, that westernmost part of Islay that juts out into the Atlantic barely attached to the rest of the island, is in fact quite an oddity. The southern part is mostly Lewisian Gneiss, like Iona to the north, (and of course much of the Outer Hebrides), and during the last glacial maximum the ice sheet came only as far south and west in this part of the Hebrides as the main part of Islay: the Rinns were not covered in ice 22,000 years ago. This is significant because it means that Ice Age hunters may indeed have visited the Rinns, on their tours at the edges of the ice sheet, and left some of their ancient flint tools behind. It is perhaps all the more significant because the flint that is so prized by stone-age people for tool making is mostly ground down by ice sheets, and in this area of Scotland the only really good source of flint is the beaches of the Rinns. There are, therefore, no less than four mesolithic sites on the Rinns, where hunter-gatherers prepared such tools, before venturing back onto the tundra and the increasingly wooded landscape of Scotland after the ice finally melted. The area is also rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age remains too, such as the cup-marked stone at Kilchiaran, and including Islay’s only complete Stone Circle, at Cultoon.
Odder still, however, for reasons now unfathomable, Cultoon Stone Circle, which includes two upright and twelve horizontal great stones, from the evidence gathered in excavations in the 1970s, was clearly not finished. The twelve stones were never erected, and the site abandoned before completion.
Of the later, Celtic Christian era, the Rinns boasts two of Islay’s three carved stone crosses, at Kilnave and at Kilchoman. But perhaps the two finest historic sites to visit are the stone cross at Kildalton, and the islands in the loch at Finlaggan. The Kildalton Cross dates from the 8th century, and is almost certainly one carved by the Iona School of artists, and probably in the best condition – due to the kind of stone and its relatively sheltered position – of all the stone crosses of this era throughout Scotland and the North of England. On a fine day it is truly a wonder to behold, amongst the scattered gravestones of the cemetery of a ruined church in the south east of Islay.
In the north of the island, kept by the Finlaggan Trust with its own interpretation centre and a suitably easy wooden bridge across the reed-choked loch, is the “great” and the “council” islands within the loch at Finlaggan. The “council” island, a small island next to the “great” island, has been shown to have once been a crannog – a man-made island created with tree-posts and a lot of rubble in the Bronze Age. It is tiny, but supported a Bronze Age broch – a small defensive tower. The “great” island includes 8th-9th century graves: it was clearly occupied during Columba’s time, by one of his missionary monks, St Findlugan. But for the most part what remains on the island is 12th to 14th century, and represents the capital of the Kingdom of the Isles, where the King – and later Lord – of the Isles resided, and, after the manner of the Isle of Man Tingwall, held Council meetings with the nobles, thanes, lords, Bishop of the Isles, and Abbot of Iona. At its greatest extent the MacDonalds ruled not just all the isles but a good part of the mainland, too, ultimately threatening the King of Scotland in Edinburgh: reason enough, in the end, for its demise.
Colonsay and Oronsay
But if you are visiting the Southern Hebrides, it would be churlish not to include a day-trip to the small islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, visible from the coasts of Jura and Islay, out into the Atlantic. Colonsay boasts two or three villages, including a hotel and a shop at the ferry port of Scalasaig. Oronsay has just one farmhouse, built from the rubble of the fallen Oronsay Priory. Parking on the beach on the south coast of Colonsay, and waiting for lowtide, we walked out across the Strand between the two islands to visit the Priory. It is wise to know exactly what time the tide is at its lowest, and to stride out as soon as one can, in order to get the most time on Oronsay before needing to return! We inched our way across, seawater around our ankles, covering the mile or so of distance across the sand, until finally climbing up onto the beach of Oronsay for the mile and half walk round the low hill to the Atlantic facing side of the island where the Priory sits. Here there are more Iona School stone crosses, and a collection of medieval carved grave slabs including effigies and carved swords and celtic knotwork. It is a fine place, though the atmosphere is perhaps not as secluded as that at St Blane’s, amongst the bustle of the working farm that shares the site – and much of the stone building blocks.
We were unlucky on the one day of the week that Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferries go to and fro between Port Askaig and Colonsay: it was the worst weather of our trip. We got quite cold trying to cross the Strand, and didn’t stay long at the Priory, heading back across the now almost completely dry Strand to the car just as the rain started to come lashing down.
The one other site we did manage to visit was Fingall’s Limpet Hammers, a stone row of just two standing stones, at the head of the valley of Loch Fad – in fact three lochs one after another all called Loch Fad – that cuts through part of the Island. Quite impressive stones, with a view down through the valley and out into the sea. But the rain by now was becoming very heavy, and we – like all the rest of the small group of tourists taking the same day trip – sheltered in Scalasaig’s little hotel bar, for a half-and-half: once upon a time half a gill of whisky and half a pint of ale, now just a sixth of a gill of whisky. It’s a popular combination in these isles, both warming and thirst quenching, sipping from each glass in turn.
For our Easter holidays this year Colin and I returned (me for the second, he for the third time) to Malta and Gozo. Here the temples remind me of the domestic layout of Scara Brae. Photos as ever on Flickr.
I arrive at just before 10am and the town square is still quiet – a few traders setting up for the day. But activity gathers very quickly. Beside the main marquee, on a truck, is what will become one of the main attractions – everyone wants to climb up onto it and have their photo taken. It is not Dionysus, but not merely a satyr. The bunches of grapes draped over the sides of the cart certainly point to Dionysus, but the floppy ears suggest something far more satyrnine – and the hooves are cloven! In this respect he is perhaps closer to Pan! The phalloi on offer at the stalls have a local, home-made quality, mostly made of clay, (though there are also some (Chinese?) plastic/rubber dildoes,) and there are plenty of phallic lollies and chocolate willies – things made easily in a mould.
The centrepiece of the event, at the middle of the main marquee, is the real fire under a great old iron cauldron full of green Bourani soup. Bourani is a thick, oil-less, spinach-based soup served on Clean Monday in Tyrnavos, and has given its name to the Festival, too.
Clean Monday (Greek: Καθαρά Δευτέρα), also known as Pure Monday, Ash Monday, Monday of Lent or Green Monday, is the first day of Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Christian, Saint Thomas Christians of India and Eastern Catholic churches.
It is usually in late February or early March, 7 weeks before (Orthodox) Easter. Any relationship with Ancient Greek Phallophoria, in honour of Dionysus, in early or late Spring, is as conjectural as a relationship between Guy Fawkes night and the Celtic Samhain. Syncretic religious festivals are by nature moveable feasts. The first written records about Tyrnavos’ Bourani festival date from 1898 – seventeen years after the creation of the modern Greek state after its mountain rebels liberated the country from the Ottoman Empire, of which it had been a province since the mid-15th century BCE. [After the sacking of Constantinople and the fall of the Byzantine Roman Empire in the first years of the 13th century, the whole region fell to the Ottomans over the following two hundred years or so.]
The cauldron is stirred constantly with a big old ladle, and around it people began dancing from shortly after 10am as the PA system cranked up and began blasting out traditional Greek choral dance music. The ottoman edges to the sounds are hypnotic, the gradually increasing rhythms mesmerising. After initial excitement walking round and round the square, I settled down in a seat outside one of the cafes for an espresso fredo, and to drink in the atmosphere as the square filled up with people. Soon the square was heaving!
Everyone wants their photo taken with Satyr – the old men, the kids, and the women. People take it in turns to stir the Bourani cauldron too. When the women stir the cauldron, the old men gather round, waving Phalloi in their faces, and lift the women up – often with an arm between their legs – so that they can stir the cauldron from above. The crowd roars approval every time.
A Greek brass band finally strikes up, and the live music really gets the dancers going. Its quite a spectacle! At last the Bourani is served in little plastic bowls – to anyone who wants some. With all that fun, laughter, and history stirred into the pot, I couldn’t resist: it’s salty, wholesome, and delicious!
After yesterday’s post it seemed appropriate to make the trip north to Vergina – ancient Aigai. Here the great mound of the Royal Tombs of the Kingdom of Macedon has been dug out and turned into a marvellous museum. One literally walks into the mound, to find a concrete domed roof over a range of cases and cabinets where the gold, bronze and other exquisite grave goods are laid out.
The gold oak-leaf and acorn crowns are particularly beautiful and impressive. I took my hat off as I walked down the concrete ramp into the tomb. It seemed the right thing to do. Past many of the various cabinets, one suddenly comes to an opening at the top of a ramp and flight of stairs down deep into the ground, at the foot of which stands the Tomb gates of King Phillip II. It is awe inspiring. I’ve not experienced anything like it outside the Valley of the Kings. Even Sipan, in Peru, where the museum was similarly built over the excavated tomb of a Moche king, and the gold and treasures, in truth, far more sumptious even than Phillip’s, did not have the sheer atmosphere and ‘wow’ factor of this Royal Tomb – at least for me. After catching my breath, stepping slowly down the steps – they keep the place quite dark, no doubt for the sake of the fading paintwork as much as for atmosphere – I stood at last at the foot of the stairs and paid my respects to the great King, father of the only greek to become Great King of the Persian Empire: Alexander the Great. It was quite humbling. Turning, at last, to retreat back into the 21st century, the museum, and the bustling of other tourists, I felt quite blessed to have visited this amazing place. Next to his grandfather’s tomb is that of (probably) Alexander IV, the son born to Roxanne, Alexander the Great’s Bactrian wife, a few months following the death of the great Conqueror.
Having read the novels of Mary Renault – praised for their historical accuracy as much as for the richness of their evocation of the era – on a number of occasions, I felt the power of this place quite keenly, and, following yesterday’s post, and prior to tomorrow’s Phallophoria in Tyrnavos, I was reminded that Phillip II, the King who united all Greece under the Macedonian throne, as well as several wives, enjoyed a string of lovers both female and male. His assassin was, in Mary Renault’s story at least, a former male lover. Alexander, also married and a father, (albeit posthumously), was renowned for his love of Hephaistion. They met as boys and remained lovers until Hephaistion’s death shortly before Alexander’s own. Also for his taking of Bagoas, the young male concubine of the conquered Persian Great King, Darius, to his own court, and his fondness for him.
From Aigai I returned southward, once more, but only half-way back to Larissa, to stop and take in the sights of another ancient Macedonian wonder, the Archaeological Museum and Archaeological Park of Dion. Having been to Athens on a number of occasions, it must be said that Dion is not spectacularly impressive: little exists above waist height, and the statuary is pretty battered, as a whole. Nonetheless it was well worth the visit, to discover the Villa of Dionysus, within the city, and the Sanctuary of Isis, on its outskirts. Dion was the location of the first ever Olympic Games (according to the Museum guide who welcomed me fulsomely – me being from Manchester!), and the gathering of athletes from across Greece required a number of different sanctuaries, outside the walls of the city, where encampments of visitors could make their observances. The Sanctuary of Demeter, and the all important Sanctuary of Zeus, (from which Alexander launched his campaign to conquer Asia), therefore, were accompanied also by a Sanctuary of Isis, too. But the city itself – beyond the clear precedent given to Zeus – seemed more devoted to Dionysus, and this is clear from the mosaics and the statuary.
The full set of photos from Dion are on Flickr – click on the photo below to go there.
Todger. Willy. Knob. Yep – this is a blogpost about the penis. Not my penis. Not yours or anyone else’s – not any particular penis, in fact, but The Penis. Not even just The Penis, either, but The Erect Penis: aka The Phallus.
Let me put this into some context. What follows is a fairly lengthy introductory ‘context’ preamble, and then a discussion about the Phallus. But before we start I need just to say that this is NOT, of course, a post about femininity, or from a particularly feminist perspective, albeit written by a feminist. But I want to mention right away how pleased I am that, at last, there has been, over the past hundred years or so, some movement on gender equality, although there is still a long way to go. So, that said, back to The Phallus.
1 – What do I mean by ‘Ancient’
‘Ancient’ – when we’re talking about Classical Times, this means Ancient Greece and Rome. ‘Ancient’ also, however, also often means pre-Historic. History – literally ‘his story’ – is by definition written, and therefore since the advent of writing, and by definition patriarchal, i.e. stories about men running things and ‘his’ being in charge.
This post about the Phallus in Ancient Greece needs to start with an acknowledgement that there remains some debate about how old patriarchy is, when and how it arose, whether it was preceded (in Europe, or anywhere else) by matriarchy or matri- or gynocentric cultures that have not been recorded as a part of our ‘history’. Margaret Murray and Marija Gimbutas are perhaps most responsible for some of these ideas, and despite many academic misgivings concerning their methods, there seems also to have been widespread acceptance that there is truth in what they asserted. As Ronald Hutton explained, of course, such acceptance did not mean they were right, and the mythology of a pre-Patriarchy matricentric ancient culture centred around a single Mother Goddess may indeed be just that: a mythology.
It must also be recognised that ‘History’ arrived in various parts of the world at different times. In some Amazonian corners it is still making its first appearances, thousands of years since developed writing first arose in the Middle East in the 4th millennium BCE. (Such developed writing systems grew slowly from a wide range of different Neolithic symbol and number systems, evident as early as the 7th millennium BCE both in China, and, according to Gimbutas, in Serbia, in the mysterious and untranslated Vinca symbols.)
So ‘Ancient Greece’ is something that could be understood to be both pre-historic, and historic, under conditions both of gynocentric and patriarchal social structures.
2 – Is this just a ‘gay’ thing?
Sexuality, per se, inevitably, figures hugely in any discussion of The Phallus. As a gay man myself there will inevitably be a lot about same-sex activity in this post. But The Phallus is obviously a Male thing, and it goes beyond sexuality, into spirituality. I need to say a thing or two about the roots of our modern notions of sexuality.
Anyone who has even heard of Foucault’s three volume History of Sexuality will know where I’m going with this. For the last two thousand years we have – as a species – been subject to, at first the Christian, and then the Islamic, suppression of non-procreative sex. Whether this is an innate part of how patriarchy works, or a later addition for the purposes of greater control of the self, there remains much debate. Without doubt, however, since the early 4th century CE edicts at the Byzantine Council of Nicaea against male same-sex activity, (perhaps simply aimed at arresting some Greek Philosophers who dissented from the new Church doctrine), Christianity has sought to repress our sexual natures, and confine our activities to strictly procreative acts. It was Peter Damian, in the 11th century, striving to stamp out the male same-sex activity that was rife amongst the clergy and in the monasteries, who first limited the notion of ‘sodomy’ to acts undertaken with a penis. Until then the story of Sodom, where Lot offered his daughters to be ravished by a mob, seemed focused less on male same-sex activity than on anything that was not strictly procreative.
Islam, from the 7th-8th centuries onwards, followed suit, in much the same vein. Despite edicts from the pulpit and minaret, however, there remained much ‘leeway’ and tolerance for centuries, and it was only in relatively recent times that attitudes really hardened. With the industrial and scientific revolutions in full swing, the British Empire, in Victorian times, helped to spread European ideas that medicalised sexual activity and ‘invented’ whole categories of ‘sexuality’ – ascribing a name to a series of specific sexual acts and ascribing that set of acts to particular types of personality: The term ‘homosexual’ was first coined by Hungarian sexologist Kertbeny (1869). This notion was taken up by Westphal in a famous article in 1870 as, “contrary sexual sensations” – regarded by Foucault as the “date of birth” of the categorisation, ‘homosexual’ (Foucault 1990). An 1895 translation of Richard von Kraft-Ebing’s sexologists’ bible Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) saw the word’s first appearance in English (Halperin 1990). Such Victorian values of prudery gradually changed the British Christian laws against sodomy (first introduced by Henry VIII in 1533, and a capital offence until 1861) into laws against a type of person – the homosexual. As early as 1860 in India, laws against sodomy were simultaneously exported to the colonies. So in the 21st century we see “sodomy laws throughout Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been colonial impositions,” (Gupta 2008:10) and do not reflect pre-colonial cultural mores. Such laws are, as Gupta titles his treatise, an ‘Alien Legacy’. “No ‘native’ ever participated in their making. Colonizers saw indigenous cultures as sexually corrupt. A bent toward homosexuality supposedly formed part of their corruption. Where pre-colonial peoples had been permissive, sodomy laws would cure them—and defend their new, white masters against moral contagion.” (Gupta 2008:10).
In ‘ancient’ times, then, the notion of ‘sexuality’, as we understand it today, simply did not pertain. People had sexual relations with each other, plain and simple, and such relations did not define who one was, in any sense. It is therefore likely that many, if not most people, were what we might today consider ‘bisexual’. Indeed, Ryan and Jetha assert in their book, Sex at Dawn, that their interpretation of the anthropological data suggests that even monogamy is a latter-day social creation.
So no, it is not a ‘gay’ thing, because ‘gay’ (a 1950s redefinition of an older word) and ‘homosexual’ (a late 19th century Victorian invention) simply did not exist in ancient times: the Phallus was a part of all male sexual activity.
3 – OK so what about today?
Modern attitudes to sexuality have – as we all know – very swiftly changed, in the last decade or two, and this is greatly to be welcomed. Legalisation of homosexuality in the West, during the 1960s and 1970s, has been followed by equality in age of consent, legal protections, employment laws, and most recently marriage law. Young people today are increasingly ‘heteroflexible’, sexually fluid, (or even pansexual) in their attitudes: yes, these young people are still mostly straight, but increasing numbers would happily go with the right person for a same-sex experience, and not consider it a problem. Perhaps this is closer to what Ryan and Jetha were on about, or a transition towards it at any rate. Sad to say, there has been a great polarisation, however, and whilst attitudes in the ‘West’ and ‘North’ have changed such that things have never been so good, in the ‘East’ and ‘South’ things have got much worse. At the United Nations, in March 2011, 85 of the United Nations’ 192 member countries sponsored a new version of the declaration first proposed in 2008, recognizing LGBTQI rights (Jordans 2011), and followed it up with a report published in December 2011 documenting violations of the rights of LGBTQI people around the world, including hate crime, criminalization of homosexuality, and discrimination. With the notable exceptions of Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and the West Bank (in the Palestinian Occupied Territories,) same-sex activity is illegal throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In most countries in this region there is no recognition of same-sex relationships or same-sex marriage; there is no legal route to same-sex adoption; gays are not allowed to serve openly in military; there are no anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation, or laws concerning gender identity/expression. In the Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty (Bruce-Jones & Itaborahy 2011). LGBTQI people are to all intents and purposes invisible in public spaces in these countries. It can only be hoped that this turn for the worse is soon reversed, and that attitudes soften once more.
In the West, though, now, we are welcoming in the extraordinarily liberating times of gender fluidity: transgender rights are in the newspapers, being championed (with varying success) by celebrities – think Eddie Izzard, Eddie Redmayne – the list is long…. More profound, still, in the spaces where gays and lesbians carved out their rights in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that have, in recent years, become somewhat colonised by Hen nights, a new thrust of drag and transgenderism is retaking the ‘scene’ with a spirited gusto that can only be praised and supported.
SO, as the (very lengthy) preamble finally moves towards its conclusion, my question is: is it time to recall, also, the sacred phallus of ancient times – the erection that represents virility, life-force, ‘generative power’, spirit : not in a patriarchal way – nor in a ‘gay’ way – but unashamedly ‘cocky’ nonetheless. It would, I believe, be in keeping with the new flexibility in sexuality and gender, to begin again to be more open about The Phallus.
Collections of material related to this topic – often known, in 19th century terms, as ‘erotica’ – used to be private, the whole thing frowned upon; now in more enlightened times this study is coming to light, less the focus of reproach or giggles, more of serious anthropological interest. Let us – for example – recall the story of The Warren Cup (see the excellent British Museum booklet on it). In solid silver, it has exquisite depictions of man-on-man anal sex on it. It was refused when first offered to, but later expressly bought by the British Museum, in (these) more enlightened times. The Museum have since also celebrated Hadrian and Antinous – the Roman Emperor famous for his northern British wall, and his younger male lover. More importantly, those sculptures with Phalloi which survived the destruction wrought by Victorian explorers who broke them off statues as a matter of public decency, are now being brought out of private collections and displayed in our museums.
I think the time is indeed ripe for people to consider and appreciate the beauty, spiritual history, cultural significance, and potency of The Phallus, and to understand it anew – and in a modern context.
Having ‘contextualised’ the broader debate, we need also to spell out a bit of the ‘background’ of discussion around The Phallus. It must be recalled – though it is perhaps impossible for any modern eye to see through the eyes of the pre-moderns, that, as far as we can understand it, pre-modern sexuality – the ancient form of gender flexibility – had none of the Victorian embarrassment or prudery around sex, sexuality and nudity of modern times. Sex was much more openly a part of our lives, much more vibrant and present, absent the shame and discounting that is habitual in this day and age: it was front and centre: I would say, as it should be. This was true not just for family life, but for those engaging in same-sex relations too.
Although in Europe the purging of the ‘pagan’ religions by the Inquisition was so complete that there remain scant – if any – remnants of how things were before the imposition of the notion of ‘Sin’, elsewhere in the world it is clear that such prudery is far from typical of the human condition.
As Stephen Murray asserts, Islam replaced pagan religions across the Middle Eastern region that included “sacred sexually receptive – often gender-variant – functionaries” (Murray & Roscoe 1997:24) – and Roscoe argues that the ‘eunuchs’ who ran the vast bureaucracies and harems of the Empires of the ancient Middle East may not even have been castrated: the translation of their title as ‘eunuch’ is laden with the historical overlay of 19th century English commentary. It is closer to the truth that these functionaries were simply not a dynastic threat to their rulers – uninterested in procreation – and in any case where castration was in evidence it is clear that it was also reserved in many cases only for the very highest ranks of such functionaries. Societies in the Middle East, then, included families and single men and women. The latter were more normally gathered in segregated groupings, either in temples or colleges. But not always. Nor were the male heads of the families always exclusive to their wives, or to what we would today call ‘heterosexual’ behavior outside of their marriages. According to Herodotus, even wives would spend time in the Temple of Aphrodite at least once in their lives, to be visited by a Temple devotee, to whom they would grant their favours.
Roscoe tells us more, too, about same-sex behavior in ancient times. “The category of status-differentiated homosexuality, includes not only paederastia, relations between adult men and youths such as flourished at Athens, but all relations between individuals socially defined as male in which one partner is of higher status than the other.” Status-differentiated homosexuality, then – familiar in English public schools like Eton between sixth formers and their younger ‘fags’ (Bullough and Bullough 1979) – is universally based on “a distinction between the inserting (high status) role and the penetrated (low status) role in sexual intercourse.” The more institutionalised, status-differentiated homosexualities appear “to have been more limited to the Mediterranean basin and areas of southwest Asia influenced by Greek and Roman culture” (Murray & Roscoe 1997:56). Third-gender roles, meanwhile, it seems, were common throughout the region, including, “state third-gender roles, in which gender difference was linked to specific positions in state and civic institutions, and folk third-gender roles, exemplified by the devotees of popular goddess cults,” such as Cybele, common to all the ancient cultures in all the regions that Muslims eventually contacted (Murray & Roscoe 1997:56), and indeed throughout the Roman Empire, including many altars to Cybele in Britain. That these third-gender roles so prevalent in the pre-Islamic Middle East and North Africa, and absorbed into pre-Modern Islamic culture, continued not only into the 19th century but – in some places – to the present day, is evidenced by the discovery, during the war in Afghanistan, by American troops, of institutionalised pederasty in the Pashtun areas of the Af-Pak border region (Wijngaarden & Rani 2011).
Sexuality and gender, then, as we have understood it in the West, in recent decades, is in fact far more complex, contextual, and dependent on local/regional mores than we are often led to believe. Historically it has had many and various setups, according to time, place, and context. Until very recently – with the medicalisation of sex in the 19th century – it has always been subject to spiritual understanding, but only very recently subject to both medical and spiritual censure.
The spirituality of sex, then, with ‘hierodules’ – religious functionaries (and devotees performing once-in-a-lifetime service) whose function was to have sexual relations with temple visitors – both male and female, and for both male and female, according to mood, the deity, or need, is something quite widespread, and ancient. So, we can move (at last!) to direct consideration of the pillar at the centre of this post.
The Sacred Phallus
First-off, it is a global phenomenon. By this I mean that it is likely something as old as humanity itself, to see in the image of the erect penis a symbol of much that is important to us. Until the advent of modern science – spermatozoa were not discovered until the late 17th century – it is likely, even, that little was understood concerning ovulation, and indeed Greek writers such as Aeschylus and Galen suggested that human beings emerged from the ‘seed’ within semen, and that the womb was merely the place where it grew before emerging as a baby. That such anatomical ignorance helped to impart some of the significance that semen, and the Phallus, had for people, should not, now, in more enlightened times, lead us to dismiss that significance altogether. The seed remains the bearer of half the genetic material, and the spark that sets things going in the egg that it finds. There are some assertions that the drinking of semen in religious rites is very ancient, and was even still being practiced in early Christian mystery sects. The importance of the Phallus, therefore, for ancient peoples – even during gynocentric times – cannot be overstated.
Neolithic peoples, aside from the many goddess figurines many of us will be more familiar with, also left behind many phalli in the archaeological record – the world over.
As the (less than academic) books of Alain Danielou And the highly academic work of Asko Parpola both assert, the ancient Indian deity Shiva, whose story Danielou traces back to the Indus Valley civilisation (3300BCE) – whose Phallus forms the central pillar of the world and whose semen spawned the universe – can be considered a cultural ‘original’ for a host of later, regional variations, gradually moving westward through the Middle East, as the Lord of the Animals, into Europe, where his story and role in local pantheons is found under the name of Dionysus (and of course his son, Priapus), Bacchus, and Cernunnos.
These ‘horned’ or ‘horny’ deities, whose Phalli represent Creativity, Life, Power and Inspiration, have so much in common, according to Danielou, that their local and regional variations are almost merely accents, rather than dialects, of an original Shivaic tongue. Certainly the main image we know of Cernunnos – from the Gundestrup cauldron – set beside the Indus Valley civilization depiction of (proto-) Shiva, seem to suggest that they contain many identifiably common themes.
Danielou asserts that (Greek) Dionysus and (Roman) Bacchus are closely linked to the (Indian) Shiva story. Such linkages are a common theme going back many centuries. Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus both believed the Greek Gods derived ultimately from the Egyptian pantheon. There are interesting arguments that it was in fact the phallic rituals that they all have in common that form the principal link.
Indeed the focus in this post is not to suggest such correlations, many of which may have simply been the result of syncretism in ancient times, but upon this common theme of the Sacred Phallus, and its prevalence across the ancient world. Beyond the more obvious Greek and Roman fascination with the Phallus, there is of course Egypt’s Pamyles, the Priapic God whose Spring Equinox festival, the Pamylia – the ancient Egyptian phallophoria – were a celebration of his fostering of the child Osiris, one of the five all-important intercalated days between each 360day year (see Plutarch’s account, and the mention in Theodor Kock’s Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta (vol2) p289). Small Horus child statuettes with hugely exaggerated phalluses are found in their thousands along the sacred waterways where this festival (among others) took place, deposited in the waters as votive offerings to the fertility of the Nile inundation. Better known still, perhaps, is Egypt’s God Min, whose ithyphallic likeness appears frequently on the walls and pillars of the temples at Luxor, and who presided over the coronation ceremonies of New Kingdom Pharoahs who may have been expected to ejaculate as part of the ceremony – thus ensuring the annual flooding of the Nile.
Aside, too, from the Gundestrup cauldron, there is also the assertions of J.G. Frazer concerning the use the Druids of Old Europe had for Mistletoe: for them the white berries represented the semen of the Gods – according to Frazer, anyway – suggesting a common thread with sacred phallic practice elsewhere. There is the extraordinary work in Papua New Guinea of Gilbert Herdt on the Sambia male initiations – where boys drink the semen of the older boys and men of the tribe as part of their education: the semen is what makes them into men. In North America, there were the Native American berdache or Two-Spirit people, and, according to James Neill, cave-paintings of palaeolithic shamans with erect penises, dancing among the game animals. In South America, the Moche in particular represented the Phallus in their ceramics.
And at Chucuito in Peru there is this enigmatic Aymara/Inca temple:
So to find the Sacred Phallus in Ancient Greece is indeed not at all surprising. There are both antecedents that can be cited as origins for its presence, and plenty of evidence that the Sacred Phallus has been the focus of cultural and spiritual attention in all parts of the world.
The Phallus in Ancient Greece
The Phallus in Greece is evident from the 7th millennium BC at least.
In the Classical period, once the Bronze Age was well under way, still the stone statuary honoured the Phallus – as testified by one of the most famous statues on Delos, for example:
The Satyrs of the period are renowned, of course, for their ithyphallic representation, along with the Sileni and Priapus, and of course Pan:
Hermes was one of the Greek Pantheon – a son of Zeus – who was thought of as the one who leads souls to the other world and can restore them to Earth, feeding them with the power they need. He was the God of boundaries and their transgression, the protector of tombs, the “patron of magicians”. At road junctions and at street corners one would often find a ‘Herm’ – an ithyphallic statue of the God, Phallus proudly erect – to mark the transition from place to place.
In Thessaly, his cult had particular importance, uniquely so in Greece: on grave markers a Herm is represented accompanied with an invocation to Hermes Chthonios. In this manner, the deceased is identified with the God and coexists with him in the actual monument. The grave marker was sometimes simply a large stone Phallus.
According to Danielou, it was in honor of Dionysus that Greek villages organized Phallophoria festivals in spring: phalloi were carried in ritual procession. Kerenyi tells us that the revealing of a phallus in a basket figured as a central element of mystery cult initiation.
Is it all gone? Suppressed by modern patriarchal religions? No. Here and there, there are strange relics, hangovers, echoes. The Sambia people are probably still around, though Herdt disguised their name and location, and there is debate around their practices, and whether they constitute abuse.
Less controversially, there’s a Penis Cafe in Sicily, a Phallus Museum in Iceland, a Penis Park in South Korea, and two annual Phallus Festivals in Japan. Also, though frowned upon by the Orthodox Church, even in Greece, there are echoes of this ancient past… In Tyrnavos, a small village near the capital of Thessaly, Larissa, an echo of this ancient practice lives on. There is no evidence that the Tyrnavos festival is older than the late 19th century. But its heritage is clear, and the Phallophoria takes place on ‘Clean Monday’ every Spring.
In the next blog post, I will describe my experience, as I arrive and wander around the Phallophoria of Tyrnavos, 14th March 2016.
Kerenyi, Carl. (1976) Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Kertbeny, Karl-Maria (1869) Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and Its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation. Leipzig: Serbe’s Verlag http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2008/05/06/1942 (Viewed 9-2-2012)
Murray, S & Roscoe, W (1997) Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature New York: New York University Press
Neill, J. (2009) The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, Jefferson Caroina: McFarland
Ryan, C., & Jetha, C. (2010) Sex at Dawn HarperTorch
Sergent, B (1984) Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Boston, MA: Beacon Books.
Wijngaarden, J & Rani, B (2011): Male adolescent concubinage in Peshawar, Northwestern Pakistan, Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, 13:9, 1061-1072
For general interest, I include below links to the Flickr gallery I am building of photographs I have taken regarding all things associated with the Phallus.
I have been to the Isle of Mull and its little islet of Iona more times than I can recall. In November this year I took Colin for his first visit. My favourite site, however, despite the fame of Iona, remains the circle at Lochbuie.
For our summer holidays this year, Colin and I went to the northern isles – my second time to Orkney, our first time to Shetland. The World Heritage site of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Scara Brae and Maes Howe, which I had seen in May 2012, is always worth another visit! Plus we were able to visit Taversoe Tuick, Blackhammer, the Knowe of Yarso and Mid Howe on the Isle of Rousay, and a number of other smaller sites around the mainland, such as Barnhouse Village, Cuween Hill, Unstan, and Wideford Hill. Lots of photos of all these places on Flickr, as ever.
But coming here in the summer meant we were able to see the archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar underway – an amazing experience 🙂
We also drove down across the causeways that join the little islands to the south to visit the Tomb of the Eagles. A fuller description of some of these sites is in the May 2012 blog.
Shetland is quite a different place altogether. Because of the huge oil terminal the roads are probably the best of all the roads on all the Scottish isles – bar none – and better than many of the roads on the mainland! There are lots of interesting little megalithic places to visit, too, including the Stanydale Temple, and a number of single and pairs of standing stones. There is also, on the south coast, the extraordinary settlement of Jarlshof, and on the tiny island of Mousa, the best preserved Iron Age Broch in all of Scotland. Here are some of the photos – more as ever on Flickr.
Best of all was a fabulous first anniversary dinner overlooking Lerwick harbour.
Today, after a lie in, we went for a walk at Burn o’Vat – a huge meltwater kettle hole left over from the glacial times that shaped most of the landscape in Scotland. Here we found that it wasn’t just a hole you could look into, but one you could walk into and examine from its bottom – very impressive!
From there we took a walk around Lock Kinold – 4.25miles in total – past delightful little coves of water lillies and bullrushes, overlooking ancient lake villages, in the shadow of more recent Celtic Cross stones. A really lovely walk indeed.
Lastly, on what was turning out to be a quiet day after Monday and Tuesday’s excursions, we paid a visit to the nearby Balronald Wood, where there is a recumbent stone circle with a (later) central cairn. This site is completely overgrown and uncared for, but clearly still visited by those who have respect for it. Click on any picture in these blog posts to see all the photos in the Aberdeenshire set on Flickr