The Undreamed Region: Barrows In Folklore & Archaeology
Hills, mounds and burial sites. Places which have a timeless allure. Such places can be seen and regarded as mythically liminal, a place that it is not a place. A place outside of time. A place where the living freely walk with the dead. Barrows are just such places.
Archaeologically speaking, barrows or tumuli are large man made mounds of earth used for internment of the dead in Western Europe. It is a practice which originated in the Neolithic period (c.4300 – 2000 BC). The word barrow comes from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word beorg, which is related to berg, which in turn means ‘mountain'(1).
There are basically two types of barrows. The oldest are the Neolithic Long Barrows such as Belas Knap in Glos. and West Kennet in Wiltshire. The later are Round Barrows which date from the Bronze Age (c.2000 – 700 BC), and these in turn can be sub-divided into at least thirteen types (2). Barrows usually consist of a stone box chamber which contain the body and sometimes the possessions of the deceased. The chamber is usually covered with earth. They sometimes stand in high places, acting as landmarks. They are a central feature to the study of leys and earth mysteries. A good example of Barrows and alignments comes from Uppsala in Sweden. There is a remarkable alignment of approx. six fifth to sixth century barrows which are visible across the flat landscape. At the head of the alignment is a larger mound which acted as a moot site. Opposite this site where an important pagan temple stood, now stands the Old Uppsala church.
One of the many unanswered questions about long barrows in particular is why are they so long? The first, and most obvious theory was that they were constructed as a huge monument to some great royal chief, but the lack of emblems of royal prestige at most long barrows negates this as a theory. Michael Dames in his seminal work ‘The Avebury Cycle’ (3) suggests that the West Kennet long barrow is a monumental image of the living neolithic Great Goddess, in her Old Hag guise. As Dames himself writes “Long barrows are long because they show the Winter goddess as gigantic.”
Entrance to the Underworld
In mythic tradition as already stated barrows were considered magical places, entrances to the realm of the goddess, the entrance seen by many as symbolising the vagina of the goddess and the interior her womb.
“The earth under which men are buried is the mother of the dead. The acceptance of such an explanation would have an important effect on the construction of burial places. The object of the tomb builders would have been to make the tomb as much like the body of a Mother as he was able. The same idea seems to have been carried out in the internal arrangements of the passage grave, with the burial chambers and passage perhaps representing uterus and vagina.” (4)
The well known cromlech at Pentre Ifan, Wales, was known in folklore as ‘the womb of the goddess Ceridwen’ (5).
In the story ‘Pwyll Prince of Dyfed‘ in The Mabinogion, Pwyll dares to sit on a mound called Gorsedd Arberth and repeatedly sees a lady dressed in gold riding a white horse that could not be caught. She was Rhiannon. Pwyll eventually enters the underworld kingdom of Annwn where he exchanges places with its lord, Arawn and rules for a year (6). Another story of equal pagan imagery is Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, (7) which sees Gawain’s quest to find the Green Chapel, possibly a barrow, and his other-world initial style beheading game with the Green Knight (8). To those who entered the faerie realm there were countless hidden dangers.
One day in 1692 the Rev. Robert Kirk was walking upon a faerie hill at Aberfoyle in the Scottish Trossachs, when he collapsed and died. If this had happened to anyone but the Rev. Kirk the incident would have passed with little interest. But the Rev. Kirk was no ordinary minister. In 1691 he had written a book entitled ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’ . It was believed that his soul was imprisoned in the Faerie realm awaiting the pertinent ritual to set him free (9).
Within Northern Europe the fertility deities the Vanir have close connections with burial mounds. Chief of the Vanir is the god Freyr, whose symbol is a ship, and at such places as Sutton Hoo we find evidence that a ship was buried in the barrow, possibly suggesting that the ship was to act as a vehicle to the otherworld. Norse tradition also tells that Svart Alfs (Dark Elves) were the dead ancestors of the land and they could be found in burial mounds. The Dark Alfs or Mound Elves of folklore are not to be confused with ‘New Age’ fantasies. In the Icelandic Kormaks Saga a badly wounded warrior has the blood and flesh of a steer placed on a alf mound as a libation to healing. It was also considered great bad luck to build on mounds or to brake branches of trees growing on mounds. They could also be great places of inspiration.
There is a story in Flateyjarbok of a poet who gained his inspiration after sleeping on the mound of a dead poet, who appeared in a dream to teach poetry (10).
In Irish tradition the barrows where the ‘hollow hills’ and where the handy work of the Sidhe, and mortals could enter faerie land via the barrow. The links between barrows and faerie folk is a wide ranging and strongly held belief amongst most European cultures. Different cultures ascribe different beings to barrows and mounds. To the Norwegians they were called Thusser, the Finnish they were called Maanvaki and to the Swedish they were known as Pysslinger-Folk.
They are either portrayed as small ugly folk or beautiful, tall and thin.
For those wishing to communicate with the dead, barrows where the ideal place to venture. In the story of ‘Waking of Angantyr’ in the Elder Edda, the story describes Hervor going a barrow when it was gaping open and wreathed with supernatural flame. There she confronted her dead father and requested his sword Tyrfing which had been forged by the dwarf Dvalin. Despite his warnings Hervor is finally given the sword for her show of courage (11).
This cross over between barrows as entrances to the realm of faerie and the dead is a curious one, which seems to indicate a strong link between faeries and the dead, even that in certain circumstances the dead become faeries as an evolutionary cycle (12). Barrows certainly played an important role in the life of early farming communities. Built to endure the harsh elements , our best examples of trying to understand the relationship between life and death, things temporal and spiritual, lies in Orkney, for there seems to be strong archaeological evidence that tombs were considered to be houses of the dead, their design mirroring that of the houses of the living. Although we cannot say for certain, I believe that these tombs to the ancestors were visited by the family and community in a similar way that Victorian families used to visit places like Highgate Cemetery in London and hold picnics in the tombs of beloved family members. Echoes, albeit very faint, of something far older may exist at places like Fortingall, Tayside, where every Samhain a bonfire was lit on the Bronze Age barrow called Carn nam Marbh (Mound of the Dead).
Near Mold in Clwyd there was a tumulus known as Bryn-yr-ellylon, ‘the hill of the fairies’. Legends grew up around this burial mound concerning a warrior figure dressed in gold armour that several local people claimed to have seen over the years. In 1833 workmen clearing the tumulus came across the skeleton of a tall man laid out and wearing an impressive gold collar (13). A similar story concerns Rillaton Barrow, Linkinhorne, Cornwall. Traditions tell of a Druid who lived in the barrow on Bodmin Moor, who offered passing hunters a drink from his golden cup. One day a hunter came along who vowed to drink the cup dry. When he couldn’t he galloped off on his horse still clutching the cup, but his horse fell, and both were killed. He was buried on the spot. When the round barrow was opened in 1818 it was found to contain a gold cup (14). Both the cup and the collar are now in the British Museum. A similar story has only recently come to light concerning the well known discovery of the Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo (15). Since at least the Anglo-Saxon period barrows have also been seen as the repositories of great treasures, often guarded by a dragon (16). As fearful as dragons appeared, the lure of wealth was too great, and unfortunately countless barrows were ransacked, any treasures they may have held lost forever.
Of things Undreamed Of…
Despite the discovery of human remains in many barrows, it would be an over simplification to see them simply as burial houses. Danny Sullivan, former editor of The Ley Hunter writes concerning Long Barrows ” It is likely that the latest of them were shrines rather than cemeteries, places from which the bones of ancestors were removed for the rituals of the living” (17). The practices of the Kogi Indian shamans may give us some interesting insights into ancient barrow rituals. Would-be shamans are incarcerated in a cave from infancy, not being allowed to venture outside for several years. When the shaman is finally let out, he can ‘see’ the spirits of the landscape. Could barrows have been utilised for similar activities ? Animal bones have been found in barrows such as Hetty Pegler’s Tump (Uley tumulus) in Gloucestershire, where the jaw bones of wild boars have been discovered, leading to speculation that the animal was used as a family totem, a psychopomp, bridging the gap between the worlds (18). A similar explanation may explain the mysterious arrangement of three ox skulls along the axis of the Beckhampton long barrow, West of Avebury.
An often neglected aspect of barrows are ‘blocking stones’, physical barriers across the entrances to barrows but which do not prevent physical access to them. Two examples can be seen at Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire and West Kennet in Wiltshire. What could be the purpose of these ‘blocking stones’ ? With the current paradigm in ley research links leys with ‘spirit paths’, and leading earth mysteries researchers Paul Devereux and Nigel Pennick have theorised that ‘blocking stones’ may have been erected to act as ‘spirit traps’, preventing spirits from entering or leaving the tomb (19).
Russian shaman and physicist Evgeny Faidish also links ‘spirits’ with landscape features such as barrows. During his work with the nomadic Khanty tribe of Siberia, Faidish enquired of the tribal shamans why ‘spirits’ favoured certain landscapes. He was told that they like porous soil, which helps to preserve and accumulate energy. The organic nature of such soils means that they used to be composed of living organisms which release energy which accumulates in the soil and which in turn feeds the ‘spirits’ (20) .
It has been pointed out by several earth mysteries researchers that the design of barrows, alternating layers of organic and inorganic material is very similar to the construction of an orgone accumulator, a device created by Wilhelm Reich to focus the amount of natural orgone or ‘life force’. Reich used his accumulators as a healing device. The relationship between healing and natural sites is an intriguing aspect, as it seems that certain sites emit an increased natural radioactivity which can bring on a feeling of drowsiness. Recent research work into ancient sites seems to show that natural earth radiation can bring about an Altered State of Consciousness (ASC) which may affect the bodies natural healing process This may sound strange but at the beginning of this century, radioactive caves in Colorado were used for health visits by some Americans in the same way that some people visit spas. Wells such as Sancreed in Cornwall have so far been proposed as dreaming/healing sites along with the Roman site of Lydney in Gloucestershire, and as we have already seen from Flateyjarbok barrows were seen as valid places to gain inspiration, could they also have been used as healing sites ? (21). And if they were used for healing, then maybe they were used for other things.
Research work at Wayland’s Smithy and other tumuli by Paul Devereux, Professor Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne appears to suggest that such sites may have been deliberately designed for particular acoustic properties. In particular, the natural resonant frequencies of such sites were all within the human vocal range, and the chambers could thus act to amplify any pronouncements or chanting made from inside (22) . Visitors to Fourknocks passage tomb in Ireland noticed the rock art which forms an ‘undulating line’ running around the interior of the tomb. They decided to try an experiment, and chant, using the line of the rock art as a musical notation. One of the group reported afterwards: “A bright light appeared from the stones, ran around the top of them, and then rose upwards and disappeared”(23). This is not a one off experience, as similar experiences have been reported at various chambered tombs around the country (24). The archaeologist Aubrey Burl draws an evocative picture when he writes about a possible neolithic barrow ritual: ” Incantations may have been uttered around the skulls of totem animals before the bones and broken objects were deposited in the mortuary house, and then bonfires and feasts followed with the recitation of ancestral myths… .” (25)
It is not just Earth Mysteries researchers and Pagans who suggest that barrows were not simply used for burials as a recent article in the prestigious journal of the Prehistoric Society also makes the same point (26). Some academics have also been intrigued by the possible ‘ritual’ aspect of burial tombs, and at such places as Newgrange, its rock art has already been shown to embody ‘entoptic’ motifs which suggest they were produced by people familiar with ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ (ASC) (27). Even the very layout of some passage tombs may have been deliberately designed to match the ‘tunnel’ effect so often reported in Near Death Experiences (NDEs) (28). Respected Earth Mysteries researcher Phil Quinn has also noticed that a large proportion of Long Barrows are situated on or near earth faults (29). Paul Devereux has also amassed some impressive data that suggests that rocks undergoing stress, such in areas as earth faults, can induce light phenomena and ASCs (30). Could it be that the would-be initiate had to undergo a symbolic death and then rebirth from the Earth Goddess, having communed with the ancestral spirits, with a little help from the naturally consciousness altering geology ? Someone I once knew told me of a visit some years ago to a burial tomb in Jersey where he took some photographs. Upon looking at them later he noticed what appeared to be faces on the interior walls of the tomb. In ancient times would this ‘simulacra’ have been enhanced to the would-be initiate, expectant of contact with his ancestors and possibly even high on hallucagenics ?
Barrows are a rich source of knowledge for those with the wisdom to listen, and the urge to learn. And please remember, it isn’t just tourists and road builders who damage ancient sites, recent ‘pagan’ activity at West Kennet Long Barrow is caused by a mindless minority, but it affects the responsible majority.*
“… all is blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region…”
(1) Ancient Burial-Mounds of England – Leslie V. Grinsell (Greenwood Press 1975)
(2) Collins Field Guide to Archaeology – Eric S. Wood (Collins 1968)
(3) The Avebury Cycle – Michael Dames (Thames & Hudson 1977)
(4) Cyriax, T. in Archaeological Journal (1921 Vol.28)
(5) Earth Mysteries – Michael Howard (Hale 1990)
(6) The Mabinogion – Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones (Everyman 1991)
(7) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin 1959)
(8) Gawain, The Green Knight and the Otherworld Journey – Rowan (White Dragon No.9 Samhain 1995)
(9) Robert Kirk: Walker Between the Worlds – R.J.Stewart (Element Books 1990)
(10) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe – H.R.Ellis Davidson (Penguin 1964)
(11) The Elder Edda – Transl. Paul Taylor & W.H.Auden (Faber 1969)
(12) Call of the Horned Piper – Nigel Aldcroft Jackson (Capall Bann 1994)
(13) English Myths and Traditions – Henry Bett (Publisher unknown 1953)
(14) Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain – Jennifer Westwood (Paladin 1987)
(15) Strange But True (BBC TV 1996). For details of the archaeology of the ship-burial see The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial – R. Bruce-Mitford (British Museum 1972)
(16) The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon burial mounds in literature & Archaeology – H.R.E.Davidson (Folk-lore LXI 1950)
(17) Shamanic Gateways to the Otherworld? – Danny Sullivan (Gloucestershire Earth Mysteries No.17)
(18) Ancient & Sacred Sites of the Cotswolds – Danny Sullivan & Jo-Anne Wilder (GEM Publications 1996)
(19) Lines on the Landscape – Paul Devereux & Nigel Pennick (Hale 1989)
(20) Siberia: Land of Shamans – Evgeny Faidish (Inward Path 2/92)
(21) Dream Incubation – Bob Trubshaw (Mercian Mysteries No.23 May 1995)
(22) The Old Stones Speak – Robert G.Jahn (The Ley Hunter No.123, Summer 1995)
(23) Touchstone No. 45 (July 1996)
(24) Places of Power – Paul Devereux (Blandford 1990)
(25) Rites of the Gods – Aubrey Burl (Dent & Sons 1981)
(26) Food for the living: a reassessment of a Bronze Age barrow at Buckskin, Hampshire – M.J. Allen (Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Vol.61 1995)
(27) Entering alternative realities: cognition, art and architecture in Irish passage-tombs – J. Dronfield (Cambridge Archaeological Journal Vol. 6 No. 1 1996)
(28) Precognitive and prophetic visions in near-death experiences – Prof. K. Ring (Anabiosis: Journal for Near-Death Studies Vol. 2 No. 11 1982)
(29) To A Fault – Phil Quinn (Readers Forum The Ley Hunter 120)
(30) Earth Lights Revalation – Paul Devereux (Blandford 1989)
By David Taylor