Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Local gods for local people?

I love amateur local historians! They're often an untapped seam of little-known stories and obscure information that has yet to find it's way into regional guidebooks. And they make it their business to know what's going on in their immediate area.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to chat with Arthur Hopwood, a resident of Meanwood in Leeds and a diligent researcher of all things local and historical. He told me of a rumour that he'd heard concerning a curious rock carving to be found in some nearby woods at Adel, a suburb on the northern edge of Leeds. He didn’t know any details, but he seemed to recall hearing about it from the Meanwood Valley Countryside Ranger. Several months later I had a chance meeting with the Ranger, Elaine Hill, as she was working in a local park. She graciously offered to show me the carving the same afternoon.

It’s very indistinct, if she hadn’t pointed it out and traced the outline with her finger, I doubt I’d have known it was there at all. Apparently, it was discovered by a local woman whilst out walking her dog. The woman had noticed it several years previously and eventually thought it curious enough to bring it to the attention of English Heritage.

Elaine sent me a copy of the English Heritage Inspector’s report, which said:-

“The carving depicts a schematic image of a human figure in a style typical of the Brigantes tribal region. The carving is difficult to date, but the depiction of a circular shield is characteristic of early Roman images. The figure has been identified as a Celtic warrior god Cocidius, a deity which features regularly in Romano-British society. The figure is approximately 40 cm high, with a sub-circular head, almost square body and disproportionately long arms and legs. The legs are not clearly defined and the right side of the figure is either more eroded, or was carved less-deeply than the left. The facial features of the figure are barely discernible but the eyes are set close together and positioned high on the face above a long nose. These types of features are typical of the Celtic portrayal of the human figure. Two concentric circles extending from the left hand are understood to be a shield, and carved linear forms extending from the right hand are interpreted as a spear or sword.

It is unclear why this carving is located here as there are no contemporary monuments or features in the immediate area, although the Roman fort and settlement at Adel lies only 1km to the north west. Comparable examples elsewhere in the country (which are few in number) have been interpreted as shrines or burial markers, but in this case there is no indication where any burial may have lain.

The rock carved human figure… is the only example of Romano-British rock carving known in West Yorkshire and one of very few known outside the frontier region of Northern England… The carving provides a very important contribution to the knowledge and understanding of Celtic art and religion in this area and in the wider landscape.”

A friend put me in touch with Nick Ford, currently working on the definitive reference work on native gods and goddesses of Roman Britain. Intrigued by the carving, I asked him for a little information regarding this deity. He told me;-

“Most, if not all, inscriptions seem to be by military personnel and (with one exception, in Lancaster) from the central area of the Wall, and north and south between Redesdale and Derwentdale. Some inscriptions conflate him with Silvanus, some with Mars. Once also with Vernostonus, who is unrecorded elsewhere to the best of my knowledge and who I take to be a god imported (as it were) by Germanic, Tungrian or Frisian auxiliaries. Silvanus is your Roman god of the wild places (especially woodland), and frequently invoked here and elsewhere when hunting (a major occupation by soldiers stationed in this military zone). But then, Mars is similarly invoked sometimes. A crude silver plaque found there shows him with spear and shield, and for no better reason than this he has, like Belatucadrus a little further southwest, been defined as a 'war god'. Just as they might have done with Minerva, if she hadn't a huge literary tradition describing her many other abilities and interests. The fort at Bewcastle was apparently known as 'Fanum Cocidi' ('The Shrine of Cocidius'), and there are more inscriptions to him there than anywhere else. But was his shrine there before the building of the fort? I would suspect so, and that he is therefore a local god.
The etymology of the name seems Celtic (tentatively, I'd translate it as 'The Red God'), but half the Roman army on the Wall spoke a Celtic language, so it's possible he came to Britain with some military unit or other. Don't rule out the possibility, either, that Cocidius may be another British god under another name in another place. For what it's worth, though, my feeling is that he is himself and no-one else, and he is local to that area.”

However, Mr. Ford did wonder why it has been identified so confidently as Cocidius. Especially as the carving is indistinct and the location of the stone is not in the area in which there is supporting evidence for his cult...

And another thing!

Marion Benham pointed out the uncanny similarity between the Cocidius carving at Adel and the 'Devil Stone'; a 'sheela-na-gig' carving said to be of Romano-British origin, in St. Michael's church at Copgrove in North Yorkshire.

Weird, eh?......

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Hitching Stone

Enigmatic, impressive, and largely ignored.
The search for the huge Hitching Stone took us on single-track roads through the windswept fields and moors of the Pennines, south of Skipton.

From a distance the huge boulder appears tiny, though it’s actually one of the largest in Yorkshire, said to weigh in at a little over a thousand tons. As I trudged towards the rock which sat brooding over the desolate moorland, I noticed an odd effect. Now, I’m not one for overly-fanciful musings, but the Hitching Stone seemed to grow in stature far more than I expected as I approached. From a distance it looks rather inconsequential… but as you near the place, it’s almost like it takes in a great breath and swells up! Sorry, but it’s an impression I couldn’t shake off.

The day was a typical Yorkshire summer day; windy, occasionally sunny but the sky was teeming with threatening, fast-moving, rain-promising clouds. Right on cue, (and half-expected), the clouds opened to bathe the stone in sunlight just as we arrived. It made me smile.

The most obvious feature on the rock was the hole. About eight feet from the ground, begging to be explored…

Scrambling up the sheer sides, I noticed a chain had been secured to the left wall of the hole, just at the right height for grabbing as an aid to entry! The chamber went back a little over six feet. There were markings on the walls and roof that looked like the hole had been enlarged by man at some point. There was writing carved into the floor by some previous explorer. And at the far end of the chamber was the most curious thing - a ‘tube’ that entered from high on the right wall and exited opposite on the lower left wall. The tube then went all the way to the outer surface of the boulder. Geologists reckon this is caused by a fossilised tree (called Lepidodendron) that has since eroded away leaving the ‘tube’.

Sitting there in the chamber, looking across to the unmistakeable shape of Pendle Hill on the horizon, I became aware of a low resonating hum. It was barely loud enough to hear at first and reminded me of the sound made by a didgeridoo! Then it dawned on me - it was the wind, blowing over the mouth of the fossilised tree hole… Now, that did give me goosebumps!

Some of our group decided to test the acoustic qualities of this natural instrument!

I climbed out of the hole and began to explore the southern side of the rock. With care, it was possible to climb right up to the top of the house-sized stone, where yet another surprise lay waiting. Near the upper surface, in a hole with three vertical sides and one side gently sloping to the edge, was a pool of water, around four feet wide by eight feet long… the water looked to be maybe three feet deep at the far end. Waves lapped at the rock’s surface. Surreal! A little pond atop this massive boulder?!

It struck me that this place was very ‘experiential’. I could imagine some truth-seeker from times long gone, washing in the pool, settling into the hole within the rock, listening to the trance-inducing hum of the wind past the hollow, watching the sun roll down the flanks of Pendle Hill (which it does at sunset on the equinoxes). Water (the pool), Earth (the land-fast rock itself), Air (the noise of the wind) and Fire (the setting sun)…

And above the pool, a carving; some sort of 'cross' ?

One local legend recorded by John Gray (1891) recounts the initiation of neophytes occurring here, the hole assuming the role of one of the many Druid or Priest Chairs found around the country.

There are also two folk-tales relating to the activities of local witches. The first tells how the boulder was named and how it came to sit where it does; being ‘hitched up’ there.

The second recounts how a different witch, this time on the tops of Ilkley moor, was so annoyed at having her view of the land around spoiled by this huge rock, that she stuck the handle of her broomstick into the stone, lifted it high and flung it across the valley.

Definitely not girls to get on the wrong side of…

The position the rock landed turned out to become rather important. Not only does it sit on what has become the border of North and West Yorkshire, it also marks the township boundaries of Keighley, Cowling and Sutton.
Given that the concept of boundaries or ‘liminality’ in magic and ritual is given great importance by folks with more knowledge on these matters than me, I wonder what significance, if any, this has on the site. It was certainly a significant enough place to host ancient councils and parliaments. It was the site of a Lammas fair until 1870, with the racing of horses nearby and curious competitions; Alec Wood wrote in 1973 of the old ‘treacle and pudding eating’ competition!

From the top of the stone we could see another rock, half a mile or so to the north-west. The map showed it to be called the ‘Winter Hill Stone’ so we set off to check it out…

It’s a wind-blasted thing, from one angle it reminded me of the Doubler Stones near Addingham. On the side that faced the Hitching Stone there appeared to be plenty of cup markings, clustered at the base of the rock. Paul Bennett (Old Stones of Elmet, 2001) indicates the appropriate nature of this rock's name. He writes that if you stand here to observe the winter solstice sunrise, the sun should appear from behind the Hitching Stone on the horizon.
I might just get along to watch this one midwinter... with the obligatory shot of Seasonal Cheer and sexy thermals, of course.

As we left the place, we noticed another carving on a boulder, this one in a pasture north of the site:-

Another 'cross' of some sort... ?