Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Dig Village/ A Birthday/ Scythian Speculation

One of my new translations (with Tony Hoagland)- to commemorate reaching the ancient peaks of 42 years this coming Thursday.

The Turn in the Road
Welsh, From traditional verse; seventeenth century

Past forty,
a man can carry

the flush
of a tree in leaf,

and shoulder a
quiver of speech.

He can laugh quietly
over his scars

as he strides
the years.

But the sound of
a vault being opened,

Lets the
crow settle

on the soft acres
of his face.


I finally have a moment in what is proving a heinously busy month to get into my study and scrawl down a few thoughts. Just had a great weekend with a new project from the Time Team folk - Dig Village. (Time Time is massively influential British TV show on archeology). Dig Village - the clues is in the name really.

They go digging for archeology - i go digging for story. There was great fellowship/beer/mud/wild speculation/a chilly and magnificent church/ and proper finds emerging from the soil - with a tithe-barn of local folk to hear the story of their place told back to them on the Sunday night. This was the moment i gathered the fragments of folk-lore and straight out fact from around the small town of Dunster (a grateful nod to the wonderful Helen Geake for providing some historical anchor points). High stakes poker really - when relatives of characters in the stories could well have been beadily eyeing me in the candle-lit gloom of an autumn night. Many of the stories details only landed in my lap in the hours leading up to the telling.

This all felt like a little triumph for the oral tradition - rescuing the stories from documents and getting them spoken out into the resonating air of the place itself. Imagine if every village in the country had their storytellers (who used to be cultural and speculative historians of a sort) rescuing their stories and folk-lore back out of the records and hearing them settle back into the hearts of the local folk? Get to it! What a great way to elegantly deepen the current revival of storytelling. More on that thought as it develops.

Later that night i stood out in the rain and gave a little single-malt to the grasses by the open test pits. Gazing down into those crow-dark underworld holes, and then up at the resolute and moon-brooding Dunster castle, history had slyly crept into my shoulder-bag of stories.

It was great also to meet some amazingly resilient diggers putting in the hours. My little daughter only has respect for the ones clutching trowels on the TV show. Stories she hears everyday round the woodburner. They were like something from the old tales themselves...

So in honour of where history/archeology/folklore bang into each other - here is a repeat of a post i think i out up last year.

A Scythian Camelot

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor (2000), two scholars of folklore and anthropology, have made the case that the core of the Arthurian tradition is not Celtic, but Iranian.

Scythia was the western segment of the vast “sea of grass” that extended all the way from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Steppes. Everyone in this region spoke a variant of north-eastern Iranian. The academic view is that the changes in dialect were minimal, and that tribal groups were bound in a common culture. They were fierce; unlike the Celts, who were still utilising horse-drawn chariots, they were on horse back, fighting with bow, lance and sword. In a show of equality, women fought alongside. In fact, it was said that there was a marriage law that forbade a girl to marry until she had killed an enemy in battle. Wow.

This was the nomad culture of the ancient steppes: the Scythians, the Sarmatians, and then later the Alans of classical times. They adored art engraved with animals, often with great curling manes of gold, and were often blue-eyed and blond-haired. These steppe Iranians were visually different from how a typical Persian may look.

Part of the theory of Littleton and Malcor is that, as this culture (now almost forgotten), followed migrational patterns to France and England, they carried a kernel of stories with them – their myths.

In the year 175, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurealius sent a contingent of 5,500 Sarmartian cavalry to Britain. They were posted in groups of five hundred along Hadrian’s wall. When their fighting time was done, instead of returning overseas, they settled in a vicus, or veteran’s colony. The post was very near the modern day village of Ribchester, up in Lancashire. Their commander – practically hero worshipped – was named Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of the VI legion Victrix, who was charged with the defence of northern Britain. There were numerous occasions for the Steppe Iranians to have contact with Europeans during late antiquity, and to permeate the stories that eventually became the fuller, medieval picture.

The theory is that certain key motifs and characters in Scythian mythology fit unusually well with the Arthurian canon. There is a magical cup called the Nartamongae, a grail-like vessel that never runs out of food and drink, and appears at feasts to the most worthy. It is not in the running as the chalice of the last supper (a later add on), but certainly fits with earlier Welsh and wider Celtic images of a cauldron or stone.

There is also Arthur having Excalibur thrown back into a lake by faithful Sir Bedivere; the great Scythian mythical hero Batraz, when stricken with guilt over much destruction, orders his sword also to be thrown into water – this time, the sea. Both henchmen fail to accomplish the task several times, and both heroes know that their servants are lying because they are aware of magical occurrences that will take place when they do. For Arthur, it is the hand of the lady of the lake reaching out, for Batraz, it is the waters turning wild and blood red.

Even the beginning of Arthur’s work life – the drawing of the sword from the stone – bears resemblance to the old Scythian motif of a great warrior drawing a sword from the soil. Even the name Lancelot – never perceived as British in the first place - is suggested to be a derivative of Alan of Lot – the Alans being another well travelled Scythian group. It’s intriguing at least.

Nomads Breed Nomads

The Alans arrive several hundred years later, in the fifth century, and marry into families in France. The Alans are serious business, they carry quite a reputation with them. They love fighting, adore their wagons, and regard it as an embarrassment to ever be caught on foot. Although they carry their heritage proudly, they assimilate well. Ageing was not encouraged, and killing your parents was seen as quite reasonable behaviour if you needed to spread your wings a little.

The Alans enjoyed all sorts of privileges, continually intermarrying into the next invading force to the point where, when William the Conqueror takes over England, many of the French afforded English estates were in fact Alans – feudal and deadly lords over the conquered English. It is partially these very knights who commissioned the medieval Arthurian romances that then fed back into France, and had such an impact on Troubadour culture and the courtly love ideal. Could it be such a stretch of the imagination that these lordly enthusiasms of the stories were partially a recognition of ancient images surfacing again in their new home?

It is ironic that those very Lords of William helped create a new nomadic culture – not of the steppes, but of the Greenwood – as a reaction against the brutality of their own regime change. As we will see in a later chapter, the image of these invaders forged a strong, marginal consciousness in the relegated, on-the-run lords, minstrels and wolfs-heads, who took to the forest to form inventive retaliatory strikes against the “Norman yoke” Funny how it all comes around. Up sprung Eadric the Wild, Brumannus, and Brave Hereward the Wake, to combat the most recent set of invaders and ignite the oppressed imaginations. Doomed of course - but we all love a hopeless cause.

In their lairs in the woods and waste places…they laid a thousand secret ambushes and traps for the Normans.
Flowers of History, thirteenth century chronicle

The arrival of William was a great class leveller – everyone was in trouble. Even twenty years after his arrival, there was a trail of decimated villages and homesteads in the line marking his march to London. Soon there were only two English names in the Domesday survey as tenants-in-chief of the King. There was Ailric of Marsh Gibbon, gripping his land ‘at rent, heavily and wretchedly’, and Warwickshire Hereward, now in service to the charming sounding Ogier the Breton. It was an unbelievably brutal period, England was a trembling bell in the wake of the Normans.

So we have this theory that the roots of the Arthurian canon (stories seen as the embodiment of the best of English mythology), derives from ancient folktales of the foreign conquerors, from way back when.

The Greenwood rebellion it invokes, although never a revolution, instates what I later (in essay) call a 'leaf bowed morality’, something that I believe that Arthur and the whole courtly system have been greatly sympathetic to; that the margins hold a clarity of ethics that call account to the indulgences and atrophies of the centre. Where else is it that the Knights of the Round Table ride again and again, for spiritual and ethical refreshment? The two strands of Arthurian and Hood are in no way opposed, but mystically entwined in western mythology. So, it could be argued, that Scythian culture is behind the two most vibrant threads of English story!

Scythia holds some of the most powerful myths that we in the west have encountered. It is right and probable that research should be done to investigate the mythic migratory routes, and that this canon of Arthurian stories and the Iranian images be amongst them. This is an exciting development. Or at least it will be, until they figure out that the Scythian stories originate in Africa, or North Korea, and then it all begins again.

A story's origins is not its end. It rolls around like a sow in mud, and picks up fragrant lumps of cultured soil and toddles on, drunk and frisky.

We find Russian fairy tales in New Mexico, or is it the other way around? The Arthurian romances, Nart sagas, Peublo love stories, keep unfolding, every time we gather round a fire and the mythteller begins.

This healthy tugging at what we presume is established facts has a tricksterish goodness to it – this emerging Scythian Camelot illustrates the collective commons perfectly. Who owns the story? The people of the Caucasus mountains? The medieval scholar? The dreamy child in love with the romances? Where did it begin, where does it end, and where do we stamp copyright? Such it is with empire thinking.

If we go all the way back to the ancient world, to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak.
Lewis Hyde (Hyde 2010 :19)

To an exclusively written society, the long reach of the Arthurian stories can seem bewildering if one is trying to anchor a living tradition down to the authorship of specific individuals. Of course there are beloved signposts; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Ecshenbach, Malory. But to nail it down seems tricky, when the origination and destination points of the story are wonderfully shrouded in the mysterious. Everyone is working out of someone else. And who’s to say that the story is not ‘working’ them?

This is not always a popular idea for a modern society focused on the notion of the entirely original, brilliant summoner of new ideas. And, in the old way of thinking, even if there was no historical precedent, then it is likely the ‘new’ notion is a divine wind emerging rather than thrashed out in the mind, entirely without supernatural assistance. That would be seen as a very unsophisticated idea.

Hyde, a man who has worked deeply into thoughts around originality and ownership, reminds us of this quote from Goethe.

Everything I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, peoples of intelligence and dunces…I have often reaped what others have sowed. My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.
(Hyde 2010 177-78)

So where is the copyright? Are we to be like Benjamin Franklin, refusing a patent on his wood stove as he understood it to be a collective, the bringing to fruition of many individual's ideas; or more contemporary - battling it out in the law courts for the merest shred of personal innovation? Of course, part of the genius of both Goethe and Franklin is the assembling of these others ideas into a cohesive whole; that alone blows open the distinction between ‘I’ and the ‘many’. Both points of view are served within one individual, and make art.

Within the storytelling traditions, a certain sense of handed downess is actually a sign of authenticity, it is to be admired, sought after, it indicates roots. It could be that in the second half of an individual’s life, a natural balancing between influence and instinct arises and contributes to a convincing sense of mythtelling. But I wouldn’t be too eager to point out where that dividing line is: it pulses in and out like a heartbeart.

The Arthurian story is too big, too well travelled, too deep, too robust, to have irate steppe Iranians claiming it back for the Caucasus. Elvis has long since left the building. And in the same way, Celtic scholars will have to suck on that same lemon as long atrophied ideas about the tradition’s routes suddenly leap thousands of miles to the east. This is a commons of the imagination. The claims of diffusion through Europe, or even Jung’s rather exhausted collective unconscious are but milky teats hanging on the magical belly of the stories as they amble through the known and unknown worlds.

It is difficult to begin without borrowing.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013


Anne said...

Wonderful piece, and thank you. On a tangentially related note, the "Arts & Letters" issue of Lapham's Quarterly (vol. III, no. 2) has a lovely map--Telling Tales--that illustrates the evolution and geographic travels of four stories (Pygmalion, Oedipus, Faust, and Leviathan). Worth a look if you haven't seen it; not surprisingly, a number of these paths crisscross the very areas you speak of in your essay. Such precious things carried along these invisible routes.

tracy said...

Indeed there is 'nothing new under the sun'. thank you for the pot-stirring and illumination - 2 qualities you do justice to well.

Have eons of storycarriers, myth-tellers, poets, alchemically avoided redundancy by reinventing and re-creating tale after tale...'history' after 'history'? A necessary magic. Hats off to you again!