I was watching the recent Time Team Special which looked at excavations at Low Hauxley in Northumberland and this set me musing in light of discussion that I have been participating in.
The show, which aired on the 2nd March 2014 on C4, was primarily concerned with the 2013 summer excavation of a Bronze Age burial cairn which was at risk of erosion by sea and air. At the time of excavation a portion, including burials, had already been lost and by excavating the site they were able to excavate 8 burials varying between inhumation and cremation. The timing of the excavation was perfect as the dune that the site was located in was heavily damaged during the winter storms of 2013/14.
However, as the title of the program infers the second focus of the show was to highlight that we have our own home grown mummification process here in Britain.
We shouldn’t be rushing off to the museums expecting to see anything remotely akin to Egyptian mummies any time soon however, or even mummified flesh. As you might expect we have never had the right kind of weather or geology to achieve that kind of preserved and desiccated mummy. Whilst there was a time during the research period of 2011-13 it was thought that preservation had been achieved in a method similar to Peruvian seated mummies through smoking the corpse scientific research provided information on a process much more suited to our soggy climate.
Excavations carried out by Mike Parker Pearson at Cladh Hallan on the Hebridean Island of South Uist discovered two bodies buried under the floor of one of the bronze age houses which made up a much larger complex. It wasn’t immediately apparent what had been discovered but it was clear that there was something unusual about the preservation of the bones. On investigation it was discovered that the two bodies were subjected to a process of partial de-fleshing before being submerged in a peat bog, which halted the process of decomposition whilst preserving the remaining tissue and cartilage. This was evidenced in that the demineralisation of the bone had been halted and it was thought that the bones had been submerged between 6 to 18 months. The process created a preserved and articulated skeleton which which presumably was accessible and maintain in some way as the one individual died 300 years before it was interred and the second for 600 years.
Not only has subsequent evidence emerged of other bronze age remains from across Britain which have undergone a similar process of preservation. One excavation near Cranborne Chase in Dorset discovered bodies which appear to have been wrapped and kept above ground for a substantial period of time, to the point that it was necessary to drill holes in the bones and use presumably wooden pegs to hold the body together. Investigations carried out by Sheffield Universities mummification study also showed that bodies previously seen as a single individual were actually re-articulated from two or more individuals.
For more information of the excavations at Cladh Hallan the BBC have an interesting overview and Parker Pearson etal published their post excavation findings for peer review which is available for viewing here. Also see the research section of the University of Sheffield.
What can we infer for these discoveries? Well obviously these bodies were treated with some degree of reference and respect. Not only were the bodies preserved they were maintained for protracted periods of time. Whilst we don’t know where they resided before being buried we can be sure that they featured in the lives of their decedents in some way. The idea that the bronze age people of Britain honoured the “Ancestors” both for religious and spiritual reasons as well as for socio-political ones is widely accepted. Not only are The Ancestors a point of mediation between the living and the supernatural Otherworld but they give rights to the land that any one group occupied and a collective identity. This can be seen in the large scale constructions of cairns, barrows and other forms of burial practices associated with this time period as well as other monumental constructions associated with the Ancestors and Otherworld.
In one sense the identification of ancestral spirits with stone constructions such as Stonehenge is an abstract concept. The stones become a representation of a multitude that make up a larger whole. On the other hand, the physical remains of one individual is a more direct and personal connection. Having Great-Great-Great Aunty Mab propped up in the corner of your house/shrine/ritual space whatever creates a much more real understanding of who and what the ancestors were. The body represents one person, the foundation of a family line, but is also as a direct doorway to the Ancestors which can be asked directly to speak to the larger whole on behalf of the living. In the case of re-articulated remains the inference is that they are creating a physical representation of their family line and that the individual is lost with the whole.
(for more information on Parker Pearsons work on Stonehenge and Durrington Walls and their association with the Ancestors please refer to the University of Sheffield’s website or read Stonehenge – Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery)
All very interesting but how does this relate to Egregores?
For those not familiar with the term an Egregore is the name given to a thoughtform or servitor created by a individual or group tasked with the the protection of the person/s and their ritual spaces, although this is not the limit of their use in magical practice. In group workings it is the sum of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies focused on a common goal which has developed to the point of becoming an independent energy which can be used and directed to the groups own ends. A none religious practitioner of magic might view an Egregore as being analogous to a god/dess however this would not be the case for those who incorporated religion into their magical practice. For a fairly detailed description of what an Egregore one can be found here
In Traditional Witchcraft Egregore are usually contained with a human skull, real or representative, and housed in a protective box when not in use. In his talk last week Alan Craw touched upon the skull and stone head in Traditional Witchcraft and a conversation evolved both within the meeting and on some Facebook groups about the concept of the Egregore itself (you can find my review of the talk here). Taken from his lecture notes Alan has this to say about the skull, particularly the human skull.
The Skull … links the Wytche’ to a more Shamanic and Animistic way of thought. Ultimately (it is) linking the Wytches to their ancestors. As a human skull, it can be seen to be used as a Gateway to an individual’s Guardian Ancestor, and to the Old Ones.
This dovetails nicely with the observations I have already made about the possible uses of the mummies created by our Bronze Age ancestors. Not only does the body represent an individual ancestor but a gateway and mediator with the collective Ancestors. The Ancestor would have been called upon to not only protect the living members of the line and hunt down their enemies.
Unfortunately it is not possible to know what rituals and intent the Bronze Age peoples of Britain actually had. We can infer and assume that their spiritual practices were shamanistic and animistic and that the mummies fell into the realm of ancestor worship and that a spirit, the original body owner or something created by the living, were seen to reside in the mummies.
My middle of the night musings led me to conclude that whilst our Bronze Age predecessors wouldn’t have recognised the term an Egregore was being created by their religious practices and the process of creating mummies provided an articulate and recognisably human form as a vessel for the Egregore to reside in.
My reasoning for this was based in the nature of Egregore and the time that the mummies were in use.
It is possible to create an Egregore quite accidentally. Gather three or more people together and you create a sense of atmosphere which is in itself an egregore. The egregore will only be as strong as the feeling and emotion that created it and often such social egregore are absorbed as quickly as they form. When the atmosphere lingers or is created in a deliberate manner a stronger Egregore can be formed amd in the case of the latter intentionally bound. It can then be ‘fed’ and maintained by the creators through active ritual for extended periods of time.
I believe this describes the processes that occurred in the Bronze Age. Although it occurs to me that the spirit of the departed ancestors might have been called to reside within the relic it doesn’t feel quite right. If this was done on a permanent basis it would be at odds with the idea that the deceased were to unite with the Ancestors. Perhaps their ritual intent was to recall the spirit back into the mummy as it was needed but again it feels off if the spirit was intended to be present at all times. The massive range of unknowns makes it hard to be definitive in any way, but I believe that over centuries and centuries even oral tradition shifts and twists and becomes only partially recognisable in comparison to the original. As time moves forward the understanding of the ritual changes, even the understanding of who and what the mummy represents changes, and the transition from spirit and egregore occurs and an Egregore is created with the purpose of protecting and facilitating communication with the Ancestors.
The above paragraph is a little neither/or middle of the road and hands up; I don’t like it. My personal believe is that the from the outset a servitor / Egregore by any other name was being intentionally created but there isn’t enough evidence for me to try and convince anyone else of my personal gnosis. Perhaps, dear reader, you can at least follow my thought process and I will leave you to decide just how daft you think I am.