The Ancestors and the Religion of the Soil (Part 1)

26 Jun

This time of year, around the summer solstice, is usually a quite significant period of the year for me. Connections to and with both Spirits of Place and ancestors heighten around now and it is usually a period of revelation for myself, which can lead to a period of unrest, usually with myself, as concepts start to encroach in my subconscious before manifesting themselves coherently. I have learnt that this heightened agitation with my posting is usually indicative of a change of perspective as these revelations make themselves known. This passage of transition through the subconscious into the conscious appears to be akin to a power surge through an electrical circuit, with thoughts, moods and perceptions subject to unusual activity (for me anyway) which lead to dissatisfaction with some previous perspectives.

However, the establishment of this blog has presented an outlet for ideas not entirely appropriate for some of the forums I frequent, giving me licence to follow-up ideas and perspectives that may have taken a considerable longer amount of time previously to develop. As such, it appears to be serving the primary purpose of acting as a safety valve, allowing me to attempt to try to make some cohesive thought structures here that, hopefully, will speed up the process.

My previous reading material from this past year has impacted on my reasoning with this book in particular, though hard to comprehend in some sections at the time, especially giving me a frame of reference that continues to impact on my thinking. This was not immediately obvious at the time of reading, but it appears the process mentioned previously has been in motion since reading and the solstice has now acted as a catalyst for some form of structure to take place in my mind.

I was reading some material on the net and this came to my attention. The entire piece is quite substantial and is dated around 1911 but on this page I was struck by this….“S. Martin of Tours was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine-tree which stood beside it – an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil, from which it sprang, could not be entirely eradicated.”

An older religion of the soil was something I had not considered thoroughly. However, the more I think about it, the better it fits. Basically as we know, soil is the physical remains of organic material. With the landscape in earlier times being more organic in nature due to the very limited impact of humanity in those times, the surface of the land, one would assume, would be covered far more expansively in varied native plant litter. Attempting to get into the mindset of the peoples of those times, it occurred to me that this material may have been viewed as life giving back the potential for future generations through these physical remains, possibly viewed as a ritualistic sacrifice by these other forms of life. The results of trees depositing leaves, adding to this material, would have been observed to be, amongst other things, new tree life. Ground hugging plants dying back would also have been observed as providing the fuel for new growth. These living structures would be seen to be rooted in this life-giving substance and I would suggest that to some, it may have appeared that these very same living structures may have been viewed as attempting to retain this life-giving property by attempting to retain this soil through these rooting systems and building upon by these deposits by sacrificing its own life-giving parts, thus adding to the vitality of the soil by the sacrifice of the plants own parts. Therefore, these accumulations may have been seen as containing the ancestors of these life forms whose sacrifice was returning life to later generations.

Anything leaving physical remains in the environment may have been instinctively viewed as sacrificing of itself to nurture new life. Therefore, a religion of the soil would appear to be a natural position. The soil may have been viewed as the catalyst for life by the inclusion of ancestral remains, thus providing the conditions for vegetation to grow and therefore providing the material for more advanced life to exist, for example, life cultivated for human consumption amongst other things. Because it would be accepted that the ancestors existed in this soil substance, it would be a natural progression to see examples of “concentrated” ancestor interactions present in some examples of plant life. Therefore, certain examples of plants would be understood to exhibit ancestral powers, in the form of healing, fertility etc. This would place certain individual examples of a particular plant into the realms of the sacred also, through observed or related examples of interactions.

If we take the position that this ideology may have been present, then the examples of Long Barrows may be further explained using the idea that human remains being housed in areas derived from wood, taking it’s life from the sacred soil and possibly being derived from these sacred examples, would then act as a “conditioner”, preparing these remains for their entry into the sacred soil. When the time was deemed appropriate these remains would have been covered by that very same sacred soil, as is seen in the covered roofs of long barrows, thus reenacting and ritualizing the observed cycle of life and directly placing humanity into this sacred cycle. These human remains would, therefore, have a direct place in this cycle, no doubt with the intention of influencing that very same environment for the advantage of later generations.

If my speculation here has any basis in actuality, then it would appear to me that animism would be a natural evolution from this base position, the idea that there is a common substance or condition that envelops or permeates all of life. Ritual depositing of human remains into the soil, with these remains being marked out by the elevated mounds present in the landscape, would represent a marker and possibly a suggestion of soil being enhanced by the incorporation of these honoured human remains thus making a statement about the areas human population entering into and hopefully enhancing or influencing the localities life-giving potential.

Using this position that the soil was viewed as sacred by earlier generations makes for some interesting observations about ancient monuments and raises some further possibilities about some secondary reasoning behind the structures themselves. Most henges appear to have started life as earth banks and ditches, a position that appears to also relate to Stonehenge amongst others, if this piece is correct. Other henges appear to follow a similar construction, for example Arbor Low with its long barrow (Gib Hill) dated around 4,500 BC with the henge itself being a later addition, appears to have had its earthen bank constructed before any stone structures were placed on site. Using the position of soil as being viewed as a sacred substance may indicate that as well as forming a physical structure with which to restrict both access and viewing opportunities to the ceremonies being held inside, the bank may have been viewed as a method of symbolically raising the ancestors and incorporating them into the rituals of the local populations using this soil as a physical medium. Creating the bank is to raise the soil and thus, raise the ancestors from their present position within the soil.

The circular construction of these banks suggests that this would present all the ancestors with a viewing position for any and all activities within the henge and also would place protection of the site into the care of those very same ancestors by creating ancestor structures (the earthen bank). If they wanted certain ancestors present, then this design would afford those ancestors the opportunity to participate, no doubt with some positions more favourable for the “honoured” ancestors for whom a particular ceremony may be held for.

So the raised soil, in the form of earthen banks, may have been a symbolic and physical attempt with which to exert the influence of the ancestors into the lives of the present generations through both ceremonies and rituals in a semi-permanent setting using their understanding as to the properties of the soil. Entering the henge through these banks would be viewed as entering the arena of the ancestors, no doubt a somewhat powerful experience. The ditches observed with such structures, as well as being a possible defensive adaptation, may have also been intended as a possible method of intimidation to potential attendees by forcing them first down into the sacred soil (the ditch), and as such, the ancestors earthen bank would appear to be even more imposing from that position in the ditch, before being allowed to ascend into the company of the honoured ancestors.

I would suggest that this ideology would have been present before ideas about Gods started to impact onto their thinking and whose appearance would appear to be of a later period. I will deal with this progression in the next part.

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Posted by on June 26, 2010 in Speculative conjecture


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