NOTE: For the most up-to-date facts on Verbeia, please check out my Verbeia research page.
This was my first attempt at getting my research surrounding the prehistoric rock art of Rombald’s Moor, West Yorkshire, in print. It was first published in HEAD magazine issue 8 (1997), edited by Holly Mina, and has floated around the web in various forms since then.
After compiling this turbulent rush of investigation and inspiration, I realised that despite the wilfully idiosyncratic nature of the style that I loved, there were some genuine new discoveries about the history of the region emerging. These were compiled into the booklet Verbeia: Goddess of Wharfedale (originally published by Rooted Media in 1998; Norlonto published a revised edition in 2000), using the pseudonym G.T. Oakley (mmm, a nice, warm, reassuring name that should disarm your average local researcher or academic!).
This booklet remains the most “accurate” source of information on the topics discussed here; though this article retains more of the original gnostic fire of discovery.
Many thanks to the Manor House Museum (Ilkley), the Local History Library (Leeds), the SEC Library (Avebury), Paul Bennett’s Library (Bennett’s bedroom), and UBIK Books (Leeds, RIP).
Dedicated to Harry Speight.
Firewoman, river of life
Firewoman, mother and eye
Firewoman, seeding below
Firewoman, help my earth glow
Psychic TV, ‘Firewoman’
At first it was just the stones.
The north side of Rombald’s Moor, steep crags and patches of forest, towers over the town of Ilkley in West Yorkshire. Scattered over its hills are literally hundreds of prehistoric rock carvings that are still baffling archaeologists and students of the history of art. They are all seemingly abstract, dominated mainly by ‘cup-and-ring’ designs. Cup-like depressions carved into the rock, alone or clustered in groups, often surrounded by one or more rings. These rings may overlap with those radiating out from nearby cups; there may also be a straight groove running from the central cup, out across the rings.
After checking these out for a while, I was amazed to learn that nearly identical carvings exist in Northumberland, across Scotland and Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Scandinavia. Closely related ‘primitive art’ can also be found in the Canary Islands, Africa, India, Australia, the Americas, and many others places I’m sure. Across the globe, these enigmatic designs can date to anywhere from the Stone Ages to the present day (in the case of tribal cultures still making them). The ones in Ilkley are hard to date, because of their exposure to the elements, and guesses range from Neolithic times (5000-2000 BCE) to the late Iron Age (about 500 BCE).
I was initially attracted to these markings because of their enigma. The possible significance of megalithic sites like Stonehenge seemed to me to be all mapped out, exhaustively elaborated. Yet stabs at the meaning of cup-and-ring marked rocks are generally half-hearted, quelled by a lack of reference points. Ronald Morris lists 104 possible interpretations, all extremely brief, in his book on the rock art of Galloway—from the stupidly prosaic (“stone age doodles”) to the wildly improbable (“carved by lasers from outer space”).
Several people have grappled with interpreting the carvings in an open-minded and intelligent way, but they are few. For good reason. We will never know what these carvings were used for. This is the bottom line of most prehistoric investigations. We’ll never know, not exactly. How you proceed from this baseline of ignorance is a mark of your own psyche. Do you not even start to delve further, dismayed by the prospect of never being able to attain certainty? Do you meticulously catalogue that which you can be certain of, sites and sizes, recurrent features? Or do you, in wilful ignorance of the evidence that exists, treat prehistoric art as some sort of Rorschach for your own mind, projecting your desires onto them to suit your own needs?
Given that you’re interested in rock art, the first option is an admission of despair, because ultimately nothing in life is certain. The second path is that of the academic, and such work is essential to any attempt at interpretation; but as an end in itself it is a petty cover-up for despair, and in omitting the realm of significance it removes genuinely human interests. The third tactic is a caricature of the independent ‘mystical’ researcher, and is how most academics would probably view my own work. But I think it has to be seen that an element of this subjective projection is unavoidable. As we have little concrete evidence about the meaning of prehistoric art, what else fills the gaps but our own minds? In the interests of ‘objectivity’, the psychology of the prehistorian is left out of academic texts. Yet they are still people, and no amount of rigorous methodology can, I believe, erase the person from the writing. The fantasy of objective science is a contradictory enterprise of reality-denial: “I want to see the world as it would be if I were not here.” The reality of the situation is that you’re always there. In denying their own personal presence, many writers leave themselves (and their readers) open to an unseen subjectivity, which can either be uncovered and made part of the picture, or left to grow more powerful and malignant, eventually rigidifying into dogma.
My own personal approach is… personal. I have to experience the place I’m involved in. I spend time there and immerse myself in it, meditate and do rituals, note dreams and synchronicities. I bathe in the mystery until intuitions that make contact with intellect bubble up. I study a lot, and greatly value the work of historians and archaeologists. But I am not overly concerned with ‘methodology’. My method is: go from the concrete part of reality that interests me, that draws me to it, and branch out into whatever different directions I feel are relevant. The ‘disciplines’ I delve into—archaeology, history, religion, etymology, ethnography—are subservient to the reality I’m investigating.
A general problem for me, one left out by most academics because it prods at their own basic assumptions, is deciding where I stand in relation to history. I feel I’m moving slowly (and non-linearly) towards a radical non-linear approach. I’ve tried to trace many different things through history, mainly shifting archetypal myth-figures; and I find too many cross-cultural connections, too many links across space and time to really believe, deep down, that ‘history’ (when it embraces human experience) can be accurately represented by a straight line. Historical context is important, but a wider context exists, that of the nature of time.
‘Time’ is a single word, but what it refers to is profoundly diverse and chaotic.
- Linear historical time
- One day, year, century after another, ad infinitum.
- Linear eschatological time
- One day, year, century after another… BANG!!!
- Cyclical time
- Each day is created anew at daybreak; each year is, in a way, the first. The growing-older-and-dying world co-exists with the Dreamtime, where all the ancestors are still active and all myths and realities recur.
- Cyclical eschatological time
- “Anyone who can read history with both hemispheres of the brain knows that a world comes to an end every instant . . . And every instant also gives birth to a world—despite the cavillings of philosophers & scientists whose bodies have grown numb—a present in which all impossibilities are renewed, where regret & premonition fade to nothing in one presential hologrammatical psychomantric gesture.” (Hakim Bey)
- Real time
- No such thing!
All forms of time are potentially accessible. Many different gradations of these simplified categories are usually experienced in the course of a day by most people, but the subtle differences usually go unnoticed.
So history is not absolute. History as we know it is our own culture’s construct of time, our largely linear map of temporality, projected back onto the material artifacts left in the fabric of the world by our ancestors. Not to mention the psychological prejudices and models we leave unquestioned, and our lack of culturally sanctioned landmarks in the realm usually called the ‘spiritual’—a realm that was arguably a prime concern for ‘map-makers’ in prehistory. ‘Objective history’ is an illusion born of a lack of true context, our ontological context.
One of the stickiest problems in tracing mythology and religious practices through history is that of tracing influence and co-mapping meaning. Should we compare similar motifs and artifacts across time and space in our search for meaning? For example, could the rock art of the !Kung San bushmen in Africa today have any bearing upon the carvings left on Rombald’s Moor by people who lived thousands of years ago?
Things become stickier (for the linear historian) when times and places are closer together, but no direct evidence of cross-cultural interchange appears to exist. The Swastika Stone near Ilkley is pretty much identical to the ‘Camunian Roses’ in Val Camonica, Italy, and they were possibly carved within 500 years of each other. Did the two cultures that produced these designs interact? Was there a parallel, but separate evolution of the same basic pan-European design, the crossed circle? Was it coincidence? If so, is the meaning of each necessarily as separate as the carvings themselves? And do we need to insult the critical judgement of readers by meticulously pointing out the subtle differences between similar symbols, and only tentatively making comparisons? It is ironic that, because of their pedantic methodologies, texts aimed at the academic community (a most discerning and critical bunch), demand the least amount of critical intervention on the part of the reader.
I do not unquestioningly believe in Jung’s theory of ‘universal archetypes’, but I do believe in the uniformity of basic human physiology, and I think the body is one of the main aspects of the world from which maps of the spirit—shamanism, alchemy, yoga, tantra, whatever—unfold. So we may expect some recurring global motifs in art and myth, notwithstanding the infinite variations that similar body-minds interacting with different environments produce.
I also believe that we each need to ask ourselves why we are interested in these things. What do I get out of this? I have no illusions (OK, a few) that I’m trying to contribute to some ever-progressing body of human knowledge. The feeling that we’re building up an increasingly accurate and ‘truthful’ picture of the world as time goes by is part of the linear history package. Look at the ridiculous ideas held by quite intelligent people in the past, and assume that your own ideas may be equally stupid in the end.
In the end? What end? The straight line is hard to shake off…
There’s one thing I’m definitely not in this for. I don’t claim to be right. I get enough out of it already, and don’t need gaps in my enjoyment to be filled with the consensus of agreement. I have to write this, and hope some people get stimulated by it. But… “I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation.” (Michel Foucault) I involve myself in the conscious recognition of what I project onto the past. My theories will have a different emphasis from others’ because my transformation is different. Why shouldn’t people print for themselves a license to steal from the past, as Hakim Bey phrases it, as long as they’re conscious that they may have no ‘real’ connection to the culture they plunder, or to academic history? This is the Chaotic approach to history, the utilization of any and all human cultural artifacts for the purpose of making life now more interesting, stimulating and challenging. It can be abused by those who trivialize or entirely misappropriate other cultures, possibly affecting the general view of that culture; or by those who fail to keep a check on their ego and their connection with the here-and-now of their lives. It can also be used as the most adaptable and dogma-free map-making tool around. Flexible enough to cope with inevitable change, ontologically rigorous enough to realize it’s never right, never authoritative, always capable of laughing at itself. As a friend once said, some people would rather be right than happy.
The first time I visited the Badger Stone on Rombald’s Moor, I walked alone across the moors with a map. As I crossed a small valley, clouds gathered and light rain fell. I put the map away and stumbled across the heather shrouded in mist. As I blindly approached the stone, the rain fell harder, and all I could see around me was thick white moving mist. By the time I reached it, and rounded it to see the carvings, I was too wet to care about the rain, a state which alters consciousness into a more receptive mode. Throughout my explorations of the moors, I’ve found that there has been a subtle interactivity between the land, my consciousness and the weather, as if all conspire to make me receptive to a new discovery. Standing in front of the ancient carvings on this stone, I was struck by the realization that something I considered exotic and alien, something only found in caves in remotest Australia, was actually here as well, just down the road. The rock carvings are always more impressive when they’re wet, and this, one of the most impressive set of carvings on the moor, made quite an impression on me. I did some spontaneous chanting and whirling, then walked away. As I left the stone, the mists began to clear, and the rain stopped abruptly.
Later in the year, I was writing about my idea that the Christian Satan is a demonized remnant of prehistoric chthonic snake-goddesses. Flicking through a book on folklore, I found a picture of an altar stone showing the goddess Verbeia. She holds two snakes, and now stands in the All Saints Parish Church in Ilkley. The mythic irony was too much, I had to check it out. I had only the faintest idea that she would lead me back up on to the moors, and deeper into the stones.
Known only through a dedication to her, carved by the Prefect of the Second Cohort of Roman troops stationed in Ilkley during 3rd century CE, and her depiction on a separate altar stone (shown at top of page). The All Saints Church stands on the remains of the Roman fort. The dedication (which can now be seen in the Manor House Museum behind the church) reads: “To Verbeia. Sacred. Clodius Fronto. Ded. Prefect of the Cohort, Second Lingones.” Goddess of the River Wharfe, which flows down from the Pennines in the northwest, through Ilkley at the bottom of the valley which the moor overlooks, and east to the Humber estuary. Snakes and flowing water have intimate archaic connections. The two snakes held by Verbeia probably represent the two streams that flowed from the moor in Roman times, past either side of the fort enclosure, and into the Wharfe.
The Roman troops stationed here were only Roman in political allegiance. Racially, the Lingones were Celtic Gauls recruited from the upper Marne in eastern France. A goddess image similar to Verbeia—she holds two snakes and has a pleated skirt—was found in Mavilly, which is in the region where the Lingones cohort were recruited from. In this area, Gaulish Celts are known to have been greatly concerned with water cults. Mavilly is only 35 miles south of the famous healing spring at the source of the Seine. Did the troops bring a goddess-related water cult with them to blend into the matrix of the Wharfedale environment?
Scholars argue against a Celtic origin for the word ‘Verbeia’. But a female water divinity holding snakes would, in nature if not in name, happily dovetail with the way in which the native Celts of northern England (the Brigantes) probably made their environment sacred. Water cults were very frequent among the Celts: they cast offerings into wells and lakes, including human heads (Celts, like the Greeks, believed the head to be the seat of life-force, as the ‘head’ of a river is its source). Romans likewise would sanctify natural features; for them, “every grove, spring, cluster of rocks or other significant natural feature had its attendant spirit. Generally the locals gave such entities personal names, but a stranger ignorant of these would refer to each simply as genius loci, ‘the spirit of the place’. Especially awe-inspiring or beautiful spots possessed proportionately powerful genii.” (Ronald Hutton) Verbeia seems likely to be a fusion of existing Brigantian and imported Gaulish and Roman influences.
Sifting through languages to find the origins of ‘Verbeia’ proved to be a dizzying task. Even a firm knowledge of linguistic influences in the area at that time wouldn’t stop your head from spinning. Two possibilities: Either language, like the universe, plays tricks, and leads you around in baffling cycles which appear connected to every other cycle; or the name ‘Verbeia’, for whatever reasons, happens to be an inexplicably polysemic (many-meaninged) cross-linguistic condensation of some of our most primal intuitions about nature. Follow me…
Verbeia is often equated with Brighid, the Irish goddess, aka Bridget, Bride, Bríd or Bríg—possibly the origin of Brigantia, the goddess of the Brigantes. Bride’s Day is Imbolc, 1st February, or when the ewes start to lactate. A goddess who heralds the coming warmth of spring. The Mavilly goddess is shown surrounded by rising vegetation. The Latin for spring is ver, from which our ‘vernal’, ‘verdigiris’ (green rust on copper) and ‘verdant’ (fresh, green) come. A botanical term, ‘vernation’, refers to the arrangement of leaves in a bud. This derives from the Latin vernatio: the flourishing renewal of plants in spring, and the snake’s sloughing of skin in spring. All these spring-associated Latin words stem from the Indogermanic root ?WES, meaning “to shine”.
Brighid presides over fire. Goddess of blacksmiths. Brighid, from brigh, ‘strength’. Welsh bri means ‘power’, and brig means ‘hill-top’ (‘Brighid’ and ‘Brigantia’ are often translated as ‘The High One’). Ancient belief in the sacred power of hills and mountains… the lighting of fires on hill-tops at seasonal festivals… St Bridget (the Christian edition) was honoured by nuns at a monastery in County Kildare, who kept her sacred flame burning until the Reformation. The public shrine to Vesta, Roman goddess of fire, both domestic and ritual, was a sacred fire tended by the Vestal Virgins. Brighid, too, ruled over the domestic hearth, and in Gaelic Scotland her bird was the white swan. ‘Swan Vestas’ anyone?
‘Vesta’ and close-to-home words like ‘vernacular’ both derive from the same Indogermanic root as all the shining spring-like words—?WES can also mean ‘dwell, live, be’. Home and fire, dwelling and light. From the temporary base-camp hearths of the first proto-human hunter-gatherers through to the Celts and the Roman Empire, these two are intertwined.
The most famous stones on the moor are the Cow and Calf—the ‘Cow’ is a vast part of a rocky outcrop overlooking Ilkley, the ‘Calf’ is a smaller, though still large boulder that has apparently separated from the crags. The larger rock was once known as the ‘Inglestone Cow’. When Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838, “a great fire blazed on these famous stones, and Ilkley I am told, was ‘illuminated.'” (Harry Speight)
There is a history of beacon hills in Wharfedale. During the early 19th century, when a French invasion was feared, beacon fires were tended all along Wharfedale. The beacon signal was sent from Ingleborough, over in the northernmost reaches of Ribblesdale (close to the Wharfe’s source), down via various hills, including Beamsley Beacon just north of Ilkley, on to the Otley Chevin. Perhaps the prominent ‘Inglestone Cow’ was part of this network? The Scottish dialect word, ingle, ‘fire burning on a hearth’, may come from the Gaelic aingeal, meaning ‘fire’ or ‘light’. The Mavilly goddess holds a torch as well as snakes.
Brighid is also a cow goddess; she was reared on the milk of a white, red-eared cow. In Ireland, churn-staffs were fashioned into the likeness of a woman called Brìdeog, ‘Little Bride’. ‘Verbeia’ may derive from the Old Irish root ferb, ‘cattle’, making her ‘She of the Cattle’. Like the Irish Boand, ‘She who has White Cows’, goddess of the river Boyne. Like Marsa of Latvian mythological songs, “Mother of Milk, the Mother of Cows” (Marija Gimbutas), who may appear in animal stalls as a black snake. The night before I read Gimbutas’ book, where she relates Verbeia to Marsa, and suggests the ferb derivation, I was staying with friends who have two daughters. I dreamt I had breasts and was breast-feeding their two-year old.
There is strong evidence of an old calendar custom in the British Isles, around Beltaine or springtime in general, where the old fires are extinguished and new ones are lit. Cattle are then driven between two fires to divinely protect them from disease. ‘Imbolc’ means ‘purification’. Inglestone Cow… Fire-stone Cow.
Ronald Morris found three separate people in Scotland who remembered from their youth a ritual connected to cup-marks in rocks. They would be filled with milk each spring, lest the “wee folk” prevent the cattle from giving milk that summer.
“Springs, wells and rivers are of first and enduring importance as a focal point of Celtic cult practice and ritual.” (Anne Ross) Not far from the Badger Stone, at the top of Heber’s Gill, is a spring called Silver Well, “which it is not unlikely was an old Celtic tutelary spring, and bits of metal or other articles may have been thrown into it as offerings for protection from the saint or presiding genius of the well.” (Speight)
The source of all life. We come from the ocean, we need water to live, we are two-thirds water. Verbeia, goddess of the river, bearing the two serpentine streams flowing down from the moor. They flow from the area where one finds the White Wells, a Victorian spa building. The healing powers of the spring waters on the moor here were reputed in the last century, and probably long, long before as well. Certainly the Romans were obsessed with spa baths, and there was one in Ilkley. “Verbeia may be a Latinised form of the Goidelic guerif, to heal.” (Speight) Geurir is used in France with the same meaning.
(At the bottom of the bath in the White Wells today there is the familiar site of hundreds of coppers and ten pence pieces. You even find this in fountains in shopping malls. It is a remnant of the widespread Celtic practice, mentioned by Speight above, of casting offerings to water spirits into wells, lakes and rivers.)
In Niederbronn, Alsace, where in Celtic times Diana was worshipped as the Goddess of sacred wells, to this day women carry water from the mineral spring to nearby mountains. There, they pour it over stones with circular depressions to ensure pregnancy. . . . Holy wells are recorded by the hundreds in 19th century literature. In Ireland, they mostly became St. Brigit’s wells, all visited on the first day of spring. Devotees perform the rounds at such wells, washing their hands and feet and tearing off a small rag from their clothes, which they tie on a bush or tree overhanging the well. According to a 1918 written account from Dungiven parish, after performing the usual rounds at the well, devotees proceed to a large river stone which has footprints; they perform an oblation and walk around the stone, bowing to it and repeating prayers as at the well. If there are hollows or cupmarks in stones, the country people stoop to drink.
Ronald Morris’ survey of cup-and-ring marked stones in Argyll, Scotland, revealed that they “are nearly always carved where there is a fine open view. . . . more often than not it includes a view of sea or estuary.” They are “nearly always made on parts of rock which are nearly horizontal. Thus, in southern Scotland seven out of eight sites have carved areas which are within 20 degrees of horizontal, and nearly half the carved areas are absolutely horizontal. . . . Where there is a ‘tail’ or radial groove from near the middle of the cup-and-ring (very often from the cup), in about seven out of eight cases, where there is any slope on the rock surface, the tail runs downhill.” This all accords well with the Ilkley carvings, which are dominant on the north side of the moor overlooking the river, and are often clustered close to springs or streams. Before I had theorized about these glyphs, my intuitive ‘offerings’ to the Badger Stone consisted of pouring some of my drink (water or whiskey) into the cups and watching it stream down the grooves. There are some cups on near-vertical surfaces, but most were clearly meant to hold water, rain, or other fluids. Like wells, the water in cup-marks could be healing water. In regions where there are cup-marked rocks and peasant lore about them still survives, there are recurrent beliefs that water out of the cups is good for all manner of ailments, especially eye diseases.
The Greek Muses were water-nymphs, and poets drank from their springs on Mounts Helicon, Parnassus and Castalia for inspiration. To them, a poem was the water, honey or nectar of the Muses. Pythagoras gained prophetic insights from drinking spring water. Richard Onians, in his investigation of ancient Greek concepts about the body and soul, found that they believed ‘life-essence’ to be contained in a ‘seed liquid’ concentrated mostly in the cerebro-spinal marrow—”on tap in the genital and stored in the head”, as Norman O. Brown puts it. They thought it came out of the body in the form of tears, sweat, and sexual fluids. Crying and sexual love are “repeatedly described as a process of ‘liquefying, melting’ . . . Aristotle tells us that the region around the eyes was the region of the head most fruitful of seed, pointing to . . . practices which imply that seed comes from liquid in the region of the eyes.” Tears, sex, melting… I think of Wilhelm Reich’s ideas about bodily armour, rigid musculature softened by crying and sex. Experiences of weeping at orgasm. Tears, eyes, seed… the repressive myth of masturbation and blindness. There is an Egyptian myth of people coming out of a creator-god’s eyes. Cup-marks, rain, creation, life-force, healing…
The Slavic goddess Mokosh-Paraskeva Pyatnitsa “is the dispenser of the water of life. . . . The name Mokosh is connected with moisture, mok- or mokr- meaning ‘wet, moist,’ and her ritual was called mokrida. On the other hand, the root mok- appears as a name for stones. In Lithuanian, mokas is a ‘standing stone,’ always appearing in legends associated with lakes or rivers.” (Gimbutas)
The significance of water and stones extends down into the rites of divine kingship. Pagan British kings usually had to symbolically wed the goddess of the land. Even as late as the 17th century, England’s King James said, “I am the husband, and all the whole island is my lawful wife.” Gerald of Wales (12th century) said that in County Donegal, for his feis (inauguration), the king would bathe in water then stand barefoot in a footprint carved in rock, or sit on a stone to be handed his rod of office. The feis site of the Irish king O’Donnell in western Ulster was used until the end of the 16th century. It is a rock with the holy well Tobar an Duin at its foot, where the king probably bathed. In early Scottish history the fort of Dunadd, in the Kilmartin valley of Argyll, was one seat of the kingdom of Dalriada, “and upon the summit of the fortress the modern traveller can still find the carved footprint. Next to it in the rock surface is a bowl-shaped hollow and a splendid figure of a wild boar . . . A ruler placing his foot in the print would be gazing north straight at the ancient row of megalithic monuments.” (Hutton) “In Scandinavia engravings of human footprints are common—especially near the cupped stones. On the Bunsoh stones, indeed, footprints and cups are found together.” (Herbert Kühn)
The king gains his power from his union with the goddess of the land, symbolized by his immersion in her waters and his body’s shallow, but significant, penetration of her stones. Paul Devereux, in a persuasive book that links divine kingship back to shamanism, quotes a !Kung man talking of his trance experiences: “When people sing. . . I dance. I enter the earth. I go in at a place like a place where people drink water. I travel a long way, very far. . . . You enter, enter the earth, and you return to enter the skin of your body. . .”. For the San people, snakes are significant because they enter the earth, go underground, like themselves when they go on ecstatic journeys.
J.D. Lewis-Williams suggests that rocks are ‘veils’ between this world and the spirit world, and that rock art is the destruction of this veil. “In many cultures, the shaman in his trance passes through the rock into the spirit world, and to communicate what had happened in the trance, the shaman depicts what had happened on the other side on the rock. . . . The Hupa of America have a concept of spirits responsible for precipitation that live in the rock, and are known as ‘Mi.’ In addition, several contemporary shamans have acknowledged that the rock art is a marker for where a shaman could enter the rock.” (Grant S. McCall)
The belief systems of the Australian aborigines, whose rock and totem-shield art is often compared to cup-and-ring markings, may be one of the most useful tools we have to approach the meaning of European petroglyphs (rock carvings). The Australian continent is their Bible; the earth, the physical landscape, embodies their spiritual understanding of the world, contains their history and knowledge. “Preliterate peoples are at pains to identify with their land as if it were a physiological or psychological ‘echo’ of themselves.” (James G. Cowan) Body and earth, psyche and landscape.
Some hunter-gatherer tribes, like archaic humans, do not see sex and birth as cause and effect. To explain birth, beliefs about the origin of children from the earth evolved. The spirits of unborn children dwell in the land, in rocks and pools, waiting to enter a receptive womb. Even after the connection between sex and birth is made, many, like the aborigines, favour the idea of earth-conception as ultimately essential to the creation of a child. Rocks or pools “bore the spirit that would vitalise the baby. It therefore seems likely that the purpose of cutting a circular cup in the surface of a rocky outcrop was to liberate a spirit and so ensure a complete and successful child-birth. . . . At some later date a ring would be circumscribed about the cup to guarantee a second child, and in this way, as the years passed, the ring systems built up.” (George Terence Meaden) This idea holds that the interlinking groups of cups and rings depict inter-family bonds. The ‘spirits’ released by carving the cup may have been those of ancestors as well as unborn children, for ancestors are frequently the source of divinatory and magical knowledge in shamanic cultures. For aborigines, the two types of spirit are interchangeable, as each person is a reincarnation of an ancestor.
Two apparent survivals of these notions in modern times. The Christian doctrine of baptism: a baby’s soul is not ‘saved’ (and may as well not have one as far as hardcore Christians are concerned) until it is baptized, with holy water from a cup-shaped font. And the folklore of the stork, which carries babies from marshes to drop them down the chimneys of expectant parents.
The ‘caged spirit’ theory of cup-marked rocks does not ‘explain’ all the carvings, but no one ‘explanation’ will. The carvings were probably used by different people through time for different purposes; by different people across space for different purposes; and almost certainly by the same people for different purposes. Our culture and our psyches, outside the frames and boundaries of ‘art’, are conditioned to assign singular meanings to symbols. Before dictionaries, words were a lot more elastic. Proto-linguistic symbol systems such as hieroglyphs were even more amenable to polysemy, the existence of many meanings. Further back in the development of symbols, petroglyphs take us into a realm of signification almost alien to the industrialized west. Their meanings seem abstract and vague until they are bound to the concrete feelings and bodily, non-verbal perceptions they refer to. And many meanings happily co-exist, emanating from the same symbol without being stifled by fear of paradox.
Middle English hwerfen, ‘turn, change’. Spelt in The Ormulum by Ormin (12th century Lincolnshire) as wharfen. The variations are endless: hweorfa, ‘whirl, what is hastily turned around’; hweorfan, ‘a turning, winding round’, cognate with Norse hvarf, ‘a sharp bend’; Old Norse hwerfi, ‘bend, crook’. Among these words is certainly the origin of, or a major influence on ‘Wharfe’, which turns and winds along the valley floor before and after Ilkley.
‘Verbeia’ has always been related to ‘Wharfe’, and a trip back to the ver- words in Latin gives us, if not a confirmation of the link, at least some fruitful and irresistibly fascinating associations. Many of our own ver- words come from the Latin vertere, ‘to turn’. ‘Vertebra’ means ‘something to turn on’, describing the backbone’s interlocking pivotal structure. ‘Vertex’ is ‘the highest point’; in anatomy it refers to the crown of the head, where hair spirals. Latin vertex literally means ‘that which turns’, but can refer to ‘top, crown, summit, pole, whirl; whirlpool, eddy’. Properly it refers to the turning point, especially the Pole Star, around which all the others turn. ‘Vertical’ stems from these associations—straight up to, or down from, the crown or summit. ‘Vortex’ is a variant of ‘vertex’. Dictionary definition: ‘a mass of whirling fluid, whirlpool or whirlwind; a system viewed as swallowing up or engrossing those who approach it’. ‘Whirl’ is related to the Old Norse hvirfill, ‘circle’; and, along with ‘twirl’, relates to the Gaelic Tuirl, ‘to descend suddenly, to come down rapidly with a gyratory motion’. ‘Vertigo’ is from Latin vertigo, ‘whirling’, again from vertere.
The closest word I’ve found to ‘Verbeia’ in any language is from Anglo-Saxon, which couldn’t have influenced the Roman altars in Ilkley—they invaded Britain after the Romans left. Nevertheless, the word wer-bære is ‘a weir where fish are caught’, which keeps the river connotations, as well as the idea of turning, as weirs (and wharves) redirect the flow of rivers.
‘Verse’ is another vertere word, because at the end of a line of poetry, one ‘turns around’ and starts a new one, unlike the linear flow of prose. Countless -verse words in English express contrary direction: converse, perverse, inverse, reverse, you get the idea.
Vertere itself comes from the Indogermanic root ?WERT, ‘to turn, become’. Also root of the Old English wyrd, ‘destiny, fate, that which happens’. Sanskrit vrt means ‘to turn, turn oneself, exist, be’.
Brighid, patroness of poets & writers, healers & doctors, and of blacksmiths. Goddess of fire. She appears to be a late pagan distillation of the core elements of archaic shamanism.
The shaman is the original poet, the tribal myth-maker who pulls up a ‘secret language’ from the depths of ecstasy, the hidden roots of language.
The shaman is the healer par excellence, the witch-doctor.
A Yakut proverb says that smiths and shamans are from the same nest. Shamans often meets a smith during initiatory trances, who dismembers and then re-forges the shaman’s body in his furnace. Both smiths and shamans are respected and often feared in Siberian tribes, because both possess esoteric transformative knowledge.
Most importantly, both are masters of fire. “Mastery over fire . . . is a magico-mystical virtue that . . . translates into sensible terms the fact that the shaman has passed beyond the human condition and already shares in the condition of ‘spirits.'” (Mircea Éliade) Firewalking, eating hot coals, generating ‘inner heat’ for magical use, melting snow with will, drying wet sheets wrapped around the body while sat outside in freezing weather… Many tribes express magical power in terms of heat; Hindus call powerful divinities jvalit, ‘possessing fire’; Indian Mohammedans in communication with God become ‘burning’. The !Kung dance for hours around a fire to awaken num, a primal life energy that rests at the base of the spine and in the pit of the stomach. When it ‘boils’, it ascends the backbone, and when it reaches the skull, the shamanic kia trance occurs. Those experiencing kia can feel compelled to leap into the fire or handle the glowing embers.
Verbeia’s equation with Brighid is poetically supported by her forest of linguistic associations: verse is the ‘turning’ form of poetry; we have the Goidelic guerif, to heal; both these aspects are deepened by her undoubted link with spring waters, inspiring and healing. Her fiery nature should be obvious by now.
Further, Verbeia’s possible links to all the spiralling vertere words echoes one of shamanism’s most basic features. The Centre of the World, the World Tree, Mountain or Pole, the shaman’s path to the lower and upper realms of the other world. Through kundalini yoga, and the Greeks’ cerebro-spinal ‘life-force’, this may be equated with the human spine. Raise the kundalini serpent to the crown chakra, through the vertebrae, past the crown of the skull, where hair spirals round in a vertex.
One impulsive evening I went up to the moor and spent the night alone at the Badger Stone. While drifting off, I opened my eyes suddenly and was startled beyond belief. One star in the sky was motionless, and all the others were drifting rapidly north across the sky. This persisted, as I stammered and reeled, for about 10 seconds. Then, in a gratefully received shift of perspective back to reality, I realized that the single ‘star’ was a satellite arcing across the sky. My mind, for some reason, had played the ‘relative motion’ trick you often get on trains, where the station appears to be moving when the train sets off.
Later that week, I was playing with a toy planetarium at a friends’—a small light over which you place a clear perspex hemisphere with all the constellations marked on it. I put it in a dark cupboard, and played with it by spinning the dome around. Instantly the memory of dream (probably inspired by the shifting stars experience) from a night or two back flooded into me, and I had to stop turning the dome because of the dizzying memory rush. In the dream I was out in the open, and the entire night sky was revolving around one star above me, which was surrounded by bizarre light formations. Inspired by this, I searched out beliefs about the stars, particularly the Pole Star.
The Turko-Tatars, like a number of other peoples, imagine the sky as a tent . . . In the middle of the sky shines the Pole Star, holding the celestial tent like a stake. The Samoyed call it the ‘Sky Nail’; the Chuckchee and the Koryak the ‘Nail Star.’ The same image and terminology are found among the Lapps, the Finns, and the Estonians. The Turko-Altaians conceive the Pole Star as a pillar; it is the ‘Golden Pillar’ of the Mongols, the Kalmyk, the Buryat, the ‘Iron Pillar’ of the Kirgiz, the Bashkir, the Siberian Tatars, the ‘Solar Pillar’ of the Teleut, and so on. A complementary image is that of the stars as invisibly linked to the Pole Star. The Buryat picture the stars as a herd of horses, and the Pole Star . . . is the stake to which they are tethered.
Macrocosm is reflected in microcosm for such peoples, who identify the Sky Pillar with the pole in the centre of their yurt or tent.
Ancient Saxons called the Pole Star Irminsul, termed ‘the universal column which sustains all’, and passed the idea of the ‘Pillar of the Sky’ or ‘Pillar of the World’ on to the Lapps of Scandinavia. Similar concepts survive in Romanian folklore. For Chuckchee and Altaian shamans, the Pole Star is a hole in the sky through which they pass into the upper levels of the spirit world.
My attention shifted from these findings to the Swastika Stone. Nine cup-marks in a cross formation, surrounded by a whirling swastika groove, with a curious appendage to one arm. The north-south line of cups is aligned to less than a degree off magnetic north—pointing straight at the Pole Star. This connection was thrown a bit by the fact that the swastika appears to rotate in a clockwise direction, whereas the stars in the northern hemisphere go anti-clockwise round the pole, rising in the east and setting in the west. But if it was meant to be some sort of connection between the earth and the sky… Try pointing your finger and making an anti-clockwise circle in the air, following the stars. Imagine you are drawing a rotating disc. Now move your hand, the disc, downwards until you are looking at the ‘other side’ of the disc, looking down your finger instead of up it, but keeping it moving in the same direction. It will now appear to be moving clockwise. If the stone describes the base of a Sky Pillar, extending down from the Pole Star to the ground, the clockwise motion of the swastika makes perfect sense—it maps the motion of the stars down onto the rock. Cup-and-ring petroglyphs may be seen to echo the same image. The groove or ‘tail’ becomes the Sky Pillar, the cup the Pole Star, and the rings the paths of the revolving stars.
(I should note here that I’m not moving towards the general idea that cup-and-ring patterns are maps of stellar constellations. Perhaps some involved rudimentary attempts at this, but no one seems to have found accurate correspondences in any existing patterns. They seem to be more to do with the sky as an access point to alternate realities.)
The swastika is a near universal symbol that should be reclaimed from the Teutonic boot-boys of the mid-20th century. It is found in Buddhism and Hinduism, on goddess-related artifacts from Bronze Age Greece, and in British Celtic metalwork from the 1st century BCE. As a petroglyph, it is found in abundance in Val Camonica, northern Italy. Here there are 16 carvings almost identical to that near Ilkley, and 68 others with differing arm orientations, all spread over 27 rocks. They date from the 7th to the 1st century BCE. The symbol is also found in Sweden, along with many other designs based on the so-called Celtic Cross, the wheel with four spokes. “Across the Romano-Celtic world, from Britain to Czechoslovakia, the wheel was the symbol for the sky, representing either the sun alone, or the whole turning heaven.” (Hutton) Most interpreters, indeed most surviving religions who still use it, see the swastika as a sun or fire symbol. Its connection with fire-oriented cults is strong, but the Ilkley carving is oddly positioned if it has anything to do with sun worship—it faces squarely north into the Wharfe valley. One possible sun connection exists, though. The ‘appendage’ cup, in relation to the central cup, is roughly aligned to the summer solstice sunrise in the northeast. The groove around it forms a sort of hook shape which, if turned in the same direction as the ‘spin’ of the swastika, would haul the solstice sun across the sky.
On the Isle of Man a Norse cross from around the 10th century was found standing in a groove in a large round stone in a churchyard. At its bottom is a fylfot, or swastika-like design, incorporating four spirals bound together. Of course, the national symbol of Man, the Three Legs, is a three-legged swastika.
February 1st in Man, until recently, was Laa’l Breeshy, ‘Bridget’s Feast Day’ (‘Wive’s Feast Day’ in northern England). A parish church, a nunnery, and no less than seven of the ancient keeils or cells on the Isle are named after the Irish saint. A favourite form of Bridget’s Cross, central to Imbolc folk-rituals in Ireland, suggests a swastika.
Oddly, the Bible gives us a link between stones and ascension into the sky. Check out Genesis 28:10. Jacob spends the night in a place where he gathers stones together for pillows. “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Vastly impressed by this place, he sets his pillow-stone up as a pillar, and anoints it with oil. He names the place Beth-el, ‘sacred stone’.
“Throughout the world, certain images of ascent were used—the shaman’s spirit could rise on smoke, ride along a rainbow, travel up a sunbeam and so on. But from northwest Europe to Tibet none was more ubiquitous than the ladder. . . . It shows the remarkably universal aspects of shamanism, then, that the image of a human figure atop a ladder occurs also in southern African rock art.” (Devereux) The Zulu word form -qab associates trance-states with ascension and art: ukutiqabu, ‘recovering from fainting’; ukuqabela, ‘to climb to the top of a ladder, tree or mountain’; ukuqabela, ‘to paint’.
In some cup-and-ring designs on Rombald’s Moor, the single groove ‘tail’ becomes a ladder-like image. The interlocking cup-and-rings may be series of levels of the spirit world penetrated by a shaman’s consciousness. These varied and sometimes messy patterns evoke shamanism still evolving, humans repeatedly grappling with deep trance states, plumbing the depths behind and ascending the heights above the rocks, attempting to haul descriptions of their journeys back to the earth.
If this shamanic idea holds water, the dating of the moor’s petroglyphs poses problems for the orthodox study of their significance. Most of the comparable Italian and Scandinavian glyphs are dated to the late Bronze Age or the Iron Age, the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE. Was there a Celtic or proto-Celtic shamanism that continued the traditions of much older cultures? Cup-and-rings appear in Neolithic tombs in Ireland. Paul Bennett, a local researcher who knows the moors here better than anyone I’ve met, believes the Swastika Stone could date to 2000 BCE or earlier—and its complexity suggests that the simpler cup-and-rings are even earlier. People lived on Rombald’s Moor from as early as 7000 BCE, so this is entirely possible.
More perplexing of all is the complex of shamanic associations constellated around Verbeia’s possible etymologies. Possibly language playing tricks, but they’re compelling tricks, evoking the vertical pillar up to the Pole Star… the ascent into the sky vortex, ‘a system viewed as swallowing up or engrossing those who approach it’… the vertebrae of the spine, the vertiginous whirling motion of a fiery climb to the vertex…
NOTE: Evidence has surfaced that indicates the ladder designs attached to the cup-and-rings on the Panorama Stone may be Victorian additions. The “poetic” aspect of this piece obviously cares little about this, dealing as it does with the constellation of related motifs from different periods of time, resulting from different intents, and the beauty of their relatedness in the landscape. But obviously any more specific argument about the Panorama Stone markings should now be read with caution. Gyrus, 20/7/04
I approached the Badger Stone once to do a brief ritual. As I neared it, it started to rain. I was reminded of my first visit, but I tried to shift my attention back to the present to focus on my ritual. After I started, I was soon forced back to the present. The rain pelted harder and harder, the wind grew more fierce, and at the peak of the ritual the rain turned into savage hail. It was blowing hard from behind me, hurting my head, and coming in at an almost horizontal angle, creating a tunnel-like effect before me—and an extremely conducive state of mind! I wound down, and the hail returned to rain. I left the site, and the rain stopped.
When the sun rose after I had the ‘shifting sky’ experience, just before it cleared the clouds on the horizon, it started to rain lightly. I jumped up to run for cover, but decided to stay and see the sun up with some chanting. It was beautiful. Glowing sun bursting up, gentle rain, and behind me a magnificent rainbow. I finished chanting, left, and the rain stopped. I kid you not.
Memories of these experiences shouted for attention when I read Ruth Whitehouse’s book on cave-based cults in Neolithic central Italy, Underground Religion. The apparent sacred significance of water in ‘abnormal states’ (stalactites and stalagmites, bubbling or hot water, steam) to these people led her to recognize the importance of ‘liminal’ (marginal, borderline, cross-over) states in their beliefs. Cave mouths, between dark and light… stalagmites, hard water… steam, gaseous water… and ultimately the shaman, between this world and the other, a mediator. For numerous shamanic cultures, the rainbow is a prime liminal phenomenon, produced in the conjunction of sun and rain, fire and water, bridging the gap. Fire and water. Brighid. Verbeia. Why should they preside over such contradictory elements?
The Aztecs, according to Laurette Séjourné’s Burning Water, believed that liberated consciousness could only be achieved through an internal bodily battle, a “blossoming war”. Victory is attained through the union of opposites; the Aztec “vision of Earth as Paradise is based on the concept of the dynamic harmony between water and fire.” Their hieroglyph for the “blossoming war” is called atl-tlachinolli, from atl, ‘water’, and tlachinolli, ‘something that has been burned’. This symbol always accompanies Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, the Aztecs’ mythic originator. Bird-and-snake figures are frequent in myths across the globe, and probably represent the union of chthonic earthly realms (snake) with the skies above (bird). The Aztec symbol for the union of heaven and earth is the cross, perhaps the most basic possible representation of liminality (cross-over). The quincunx (a cross formed by five points, the four cardinal points and a centre) is “the most frequently occurring sign in the Meso-american symbolic language.” The number 5 represents the centre, the point where heaven and earth meet, and the quincunx also symbolizes the heart, “the meeting-place of opposed principles”. Curiously, one of their symbols for the Fifth Sun (or Era), the Sun of Movement, the Era of Quetzalcoatl, the unifying “Law of the Centre”, is a swastika-like glyph.
How all this spiritual cartography relates to human experience is crystallized for me in the Aztec vision of the heart as the centre, where opposites unite. We are impoverished if we can only feel one emotion at a time. All pure emotion, I find, is profoundly ambiguous. Polysemic. Anger and exhilaration, joy and bittersweet sadness, sexual bliss and terror, tender love and fear, weeping at orgasm… ‘Emotions’ are the words and concepts we tack on to the chaotic flows of psycho-biological energy around the body, flows which have no anchors and no true boundaries.
Potent emotion, when cut loose from judgement and prejudice, becomes ecstasy.
- T.A.Z. by Hakim Bey
- Foucault edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman
- The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton
- Upper Wharfedale by Harry Speight
- The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas
- Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross
- The Origins of European Thought by Richard Broxton Onians
- Love’s Body by Norman O. Brown
- The Prehistoric Rock Art of Argyll by Ronald W.B. Morris
- The Rock Pictures of Europe by Herbert Kühn
- One Medium, One Mind by Grant S. McCall
- Shamanism and the Mystery Lines by Paul Devereux
- The Aborigine Tradition by James G. Cowan
- The Goddess of the Stones by George Terence Meaden
- Shamanism by Mircea Eliade
- Burning Water by Laurette Séjourné
Header photograph of the Cow & Calf rocks, Ilkley Moor, copyright Andy Hemingway.