Sunday, 25 November 2012

Gods and Monsters: A Review

Tony Robinson's series "Gods and Monsters" concludes its run this week with a look at the gods (and goddesses) of ancient Britain. This week he looked at:

1) Lindow Man, and the ritual killing of people when harvests were bad.
2) The Wicker Man, the mass killing of people in times of desperation, perhaps warfare.
3) The cult of goddess Cybele and the story of Attis, and the ecstatic rituals in which self-castration of men featured strongly.
4) Beserkers, the Viking Warriors who were prepared to die for the gods, and enter Valhalla.

He has a host of experts on the period to interview and guide him through re-enactments. And these are not fringe people, they are well-known experts in the field such as Miranda Althouse Green and Sir Barry Cunliffe. So why does the presentation seem so bad that what originally was a show on Channel 4 has now been tucked away on More 4?

One commentator on Facebook said: " It is almost deliberate attempt to frighten folk who don't know their history into fearing paganism." And they have a point. Robinson is contrasting Christianity as a system of mercy and compassion, which has no sacrifice because Christ is the final and once and for all sacrifice, with Pagan sacrifices, which he depicts as a contract with the gods? But is that fair?

Certainly human sacrifice did play a part in a number of Pagan societies, but we have to place it in its context. Let's look at Robinson's examples:

1) Lindow Man, and the ritual killing of people when harvests were bad.

Miranda Althouse Green takes Tony Robinson through a re-enactment of a ritual sacrifice, with the casting of lots to choose a victim, and then the theatrical ritual slaughter. It's very graphic, and when Robinson is to cut the throat of the victim, we see blood splatter, then cut to her fallen, unmoving on the ground. But just because it is re-enacted like this, it doesn't mean it happened this way. There are no texts describing this sacrifice, so there's a degree of imagination in any reconstructions. We must be extremely careful not to make assumptions and rule out alternatives.

A good example of bad interpretation is the "goddess figurines". The stone age Venus figurines were first described as stone images of the goddess, which they may have been, but to assume they must have been is to display a blindness to the interpretative framework brought to identify them as a "mother goddess" whereas they may have been fertility icons or amulets, or  emblems of security and success. We just don't know, and we don't have any extract texts. TV doesn't deal with this kind of ambiguity well. Bettany Hughes recently presented the viewers with them as images of a goddess for worship.

With regard to Lindow Man, Robert Connolly, senior lecturer in physical anthropology at the University of Liverpool, and Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol and the author of Witches, Druids and King Arthur have both cast doubt on whether Lindow man does represent a ritual sacrifice.:

Mr Connolly believes that the man may have been murdered in a violent attack. "This isn't an elaborate death," he said. "He was clubbed to death. A small group of people believe it was a ritual killing, but it makes a better story. With respect to my archaeology colleagues, they like ritual sacrifices. The museum and several other people just want it to be a ritual sacrifice."  The two men say that many of the wounds could have been inflicted during peat-cutting activities or from the man having been trampled by a horse.  They argue that Lindow Man's throat cartilage shows no sign of the trauma associated with strangulation and that the decorative necklace, being made of animal sinew, probably shrank in the wet so that it looks like a garrotte.  Mr Connolly said: "We do not have evidence from this body of ritual sacrifice in Iron Age Cheshire. We mustn't write it into the books until we have evidence. That is disrupting history. That is not historical evidence. It wouldn't stand up in court." (1)

But even if Lindow man does represent a sacrificial rite, we have no way of knowing how widespread that was. To say this was what the Celts did is to make a major generalisation about the uniformity of Celtic culture. To take a modern example, some societies, taking their legislative framework from Christianity, have abortion as illegal in the law of the land. Others have abortion as acceptable.

The recent and tragic case of an Indian woman who died of septicemia after giving birth to a still born child, because doctors in Ireland interpreted the law that way does not mean that every society whose legislation comes in part from roots in Christianity would have the same result; even in Ireland, it is now being disputed as to whether the medical team in fact acted properly within the law. The rule is that some instances do not constitute a general rule, and where the evidence is scant, and lacks documentary backing, there is even more need for caution before taking sacrifice as widespread.

In fact, the way in which law developed in Ireland, with the Brehon laws, and the fact that Ireland - a Celtic heartland if ever there was one - had so few witch trials, along with other Gaelic speaking areas - the Isle of Man (one case), the Gaelic speaking Highlands of Scotland, Wales - is suggestive that there may have been a certain antipathy to that kind of propitiation of the gods in Celtic territories, even if it occurred in places.

Robinson is also very deceptive in his presentation of Celtic society as a rural farming one, by implication, almost a society of yokels. While there certainly was farming, Francis Prior has also noted (in Britain BC), the elaborate metal working from this period. The sophistication of the Celtic society is being overlooked.

2) The Wicker Man, the mass killing of people in times of desperation, perhaps warfare.

Regarding the Wicker Man, the evidence here is again patchy.

Caesar's Gallic War, which mentions "figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men which being set on fire, the men perish in the flames", and Strabo in his Geography, who mentions "a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing". Aylett Sammes (c1636-c1679) gave the first illustration of a Wicker man, and this imaginative construction formed the mould from which all other designs have been drawn, as with the film. However, Strabo is probably deriving his material from Caesar, and Caesar is only describing practices in Gaul, so it is dangerous to extrapolate from this to a widespread practice. Virgin sacrifice is not mentioned in this context, but only introduced by Frazer.

But clearly sometimes such an event did take place, what we don't know is how often. Barry Cunliffe made great play of how the screams and the smell of roasting flesh would have been terrible, but let's again remember that in the 16th and 17th centuries a supposedly Christian society cheerfully burnt -  or in England hanged - people as witches - as many as 40,000-60,000 perished in this way. This is well documented, and in Jersey and nearby Guernsey, while some witches were exiled, there was still a savage amount of burning. Burning of witches was not propitiating the gods, but it was seeking explanations for misfortunes and looking for scapegoats. It was very like an act of propitiation; it was a purging of society of evil, in the hope that God would look kindly and not condemn it for its sins.

The lack of records about a Wicker man may mean simply that the sources have been lost, but it could also mean that it was an act of desperation, a kind of ritual propitiation to the gods, on an occasional scale. We just don't know.

3) The cult of goddess Cybele and the story of Attis, and the ecstatic rituals in which self-castration of men featured strongly.

I've come across this one in the 1970s when I was at Exeter, and reading Frazer's Golden Bough on a particularly dull evening, although Frazer actually gives two accounts, while Robinson only tells the one about a pine tree:

Two different accounts of the death of Attis were current. According to the one he was killed by a boar, like Adonis. According to the other he unmanned himself under a pine-tree, and bled to death on the spot. The latter is said to have been the local story told by the people of Pessinus, a great seat of the worship of Cybele, and the whole legend of which the story forms a part is stamped with a character of rudeness and savagery that speaks strongly for its antiquity. Both tales might claim the support of custom, or rather both were probably invented to explain certain customs observed by the worshippers. The story of the self-mutilation of Attis is clearly an attempt to account for the self-mutilation of his priests, who regularly castrated themselves on entering the service of the goddess. (2)

What I hadn't seen before, which was very interesting, was the instruments with the figure of the goddess used to perform an act of castration, which was very ornate, and quite remarkable. Tony Robinson makes a lot of the cult of Cybele, and suggests that this was pretty terrible. We wouldn't do that now, or would we?

Of course, he neglects to say that our own Christianity society had a practice of emasculating young boys so that their voices could be preserved. These were the castrati:

A castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty.

This is well documented, and first appeared  in mid-16th century, but the practice shockingly continued to the 19th century, and was only banned in Italy in 1861. Some sang in churches, but the main impetus was opera - in the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4,000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art:

The last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to have made solo recordings. While an interesting historical record, these discs of his give us only a glimpse of the castrato voice - although he had been renowned as "The Angel of Rome" at the beginning of his career, some would say he was past his prime when the recordings were made in 1902 and 1904 and he never attempted to sing opera. He retired officially in March 1913, and died in 1922. (3)

Of course, again, what we don't know is how widespread and popular the cult of Cybele was. We know it was an import from Asia Minor - Robinson misleadingly suggests it was Roman in origin. In fact, while it did have a certain popularity, and became almost a craze for a while, most Romans were vehemently against it:

A traditionally conservative people, most Romans took a dim view of such behavior. The Roman Senate was repulsed enough at this behavior to issue edicts condemning and criminalizing its "bacchanals." So, in spite of their gratitude to Cybele for her help in defeating the Carthaginians, this was just not a way the majority of Romans were willing to comport themselves. Still worse, the priests who oversaw Cybele's worship were eunuchs, men who'd been castrated when they joined the cult. That was definitely not something Roman mothers dreamed of for their boys. (4)

4) Beserkers, the Viking Warriors who were prepared to die for the gods, and enter Valhalla.

It's likely that political sensitivity meant that Tony Robinson did not note the most obvious modern counterpart to the Beserkers. While looking at their ferocity, and frenzy, and appearing amazed that they'd be willing do die, and reach Valhalla, he didn't look at Muslim suicide bombers, who expect to go to Paradise. It's a good comparison, because not only is it very close in terms of psychology, it also demonstrates something else. Most Muslims are law abiding citizens, and don't try and blow themselves and others to kingdom come. Likewise, we must see the Berserkers in context. They may have been some of the warriors, but they certainly did not represent Viking society as a whole.

In the same way, the crusaders were hardly paragons of Christian virtue. In the Fourth Crusade, they sacked the Christian city of Constantinople. Speros Vryonis gives an  account of the sack:

The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. (5)


Ancient paganism did practice ritual acts that we would find quite revolting, and that's something that is perhaps too easily airbrushed away by modern pagans looking for pagan antecedents. The Middle East, which is a region I've studied, had bloodthirsty empires slaughtering people in war on a grand scale, and also animal and human sacrifice, as well as slaves being put to death to follow rulers into the afterlife. There was certainly some barbaric sacrificial rituals in Britain. It wasn't all tree hugging sweetness and light.

But not all ancient paganism was like that, and human sacrifice, I think, was probably more exceptional that Robinson suggests, especially in Britain. Tony Robinson's rather lurid presentation distorts the past by just focusing on those areas where it was like that.

His contrast with Christianity as a religion which did away with sacrifices is fine on paper, but the historical record tells a very different story. Certainly people did behave in terrible ways, but let's consider a Robinson style history of the last five hundred years - what might loosely be termed Christian civilisation:

This is Christian society over the last five hundred years: 60,000 witches burnt at the stake in Europe. People hung for stealing a sheep. The ultimate spectacle - prominent people hung, drawn and quartered so the crown could see. Public hangings. Castrati. Slavery and the slave trade. Licensed piracy - privateering. Child labour down mines, up chimneys. The mass slaughter of a push in the First World War. Mass murder of thousands with the atomic bomb.

If someone drew up that as a record of early modern society, we'd be tempted to say it was a distortion to just focus on that, and it did not do justice to the complexity of society, and the way in which it changed and developed over time. That would surely be right. But Tony Robinson has done something very similar with the ancient world with his Gods and Monsters, producing a picture that is a gross distortion of those he calls "our ancestors", as if everyone was involved in those kinds of rituals.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I watched the first of the new series last week, and it killed any interest I may have had in watching any more.

I certainly don't recall the earlier series being half as "childish" in it's presentation style.

And have you seen how Time Team has been dumbed down with Blue Peter-ish segments?