‘Arthur said, “Are there any of the wonders we have still not obtained?
One of the men said, “Yes, the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.
Arthur set out for the North, and came to where the hag’s cave was.’
– Culhwch ac Olwen
I. The Witch’s Cave
In the medieval Welsh story Culhwch ac Olwen (1090), Orddu ‘Very Black’, a ‘witch’ who lives in a cave in Pennant Gofid ‘the Valley of Grief’, battles against the servants of Arthur and is slaughtered by him in a gristly scene where he cuts her in twain with his knife to drain her blood.
In this tale Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead and ruler of Annwn, is dubiously made to appear beside his eternal rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol, as an advisor to Arthur. I judge this to be a move by a Christian interlocutor do demonstrate Arthur’s power not only over Orddu but her god.
It is my personal belief that Orddu was the last of a lineage of ‘witches’ of the Old North who resided in the cave at Pennant Gofid, which is identified with hell, showing Annuvian associations. They were powerful warrior-women and prophets who shared a kinship with the Witches of Caer Loyw who trained Peredur and with Scatach ‘the Shadow’ who schooled Cú Chulainn.
Their martial prowess and ability to commune with Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn to prophecy were seen as a threat to Christianity thus Orddu met her brutal end at the hands of the Christian king.
Orddu’s story has long haunted me. A few years ago it led me to trace her lineage through a series of spirit-journeys and in inspired writing from her mother, Orwen ‘Very White’, back to Snow, the first of her ancestors to arrive in Pennant Gofid (then known as the Valley of Winter) after the Ice Age.
Of all the stories I have written Snow’s has felt the realest, the deepest and the most profound. It tells how she and her people were led by Vindos/Gwyn and his wolves and ravens, following the reindeer and wild horses, to her northern cave, where it is remembered in her lore her ancestors once lived.
I have no idea whether Orddu, Orwen, or Snow are real or mythic persons or whether Pennant Gofid is an actual place in northern Britain (if it is I haven’t found it yet). However, archaeological evidence demonstrates that people lived here in caves after the last Ice Age and in the interstadials.
During recent research I found out from Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins and Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British that a high percentage of the modern population can trace its ancestry back to the period after the last Ice Age when people recolonised Britain from Northern Iberia along the Atlantic seaways and from the North European Plain across Doggerland.
Up until now it had never occurred to me to question who Orddu’s people were and where they came from. To follow their footsteps back to the continent, into older times, and deeper into the cave.
II. After the Ice Age
Following the end of the last Ice Age, the Younger Dryas Stadial, (12,900 to 11,700 BP), the earliest evidence for the inhabitation of Britain comes from caves in south-west Wales. The oldest human remains from Worm’s Head include a human scapula (9920 BP), an ulna (9450 BP), a femur (9420 BP), and a cranium (9360 BP). Human bones dating from between 9000 and 7000 BP have been found at Paviland, Foxhole Cave, Ogof-yr-Ychen ‘Cave of the Oxen’, Potter’s Cave, and Daylight Rock.
One of the most famous Mesolithic burial sites is Aveline’s Hole in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. It was discovered in 1797 and investigations reported the presence of between 50 and 100 human skeletons. Unfortunately most of the finds and documentation were destroyed by bombing during World War II. Only 21 skeletons remain and they have been dated to between 9115 and 8740 BP.
Most were adults and adolescents, but they also included three children aged between 2 and 7 and an infant of 6 – 18 months. One of the skeletons was buried ceremonially in a disused hearth with ‘red ochre, abundant animal teeth some of which were perforated, and a set of fossil ammonites’.
The cave was sealed after the burial. This may have symbolised closing a connection to relatives become ancestors and to the Otherworld, or may have been a precaution to prevent their return.
In 2003 ‘an engraved panel’ consisting ‘of two rows of crosses with six in the upper row and four in the lower’ was discovered in Aveline’s Hole. Because the cave was sealed after the burial it is suspected this cave art belongs to the Mesolithic. Further art, three engravings taking the form of ‘rectilinear abstract designs’, possibly of a similar date, were found nearby, in Long Hole.
Other finds from the Mendips from this time include a mandible (9360 BP) and cranial fragments (9060 BP) from Badger Hole and the skeleton of Cheddar Man (9100 BP) from Gough’s Cave. Research into DNA has made possible a reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s appearance. His genetic make-up shows he had dark skin of a pigmentation ‘usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa’ and blue eyes.
This suggests that the earliest inhabitants of Britain, including Snow and her people, were dark-skinned. Snow received her name because she was born in a snow storm not because she had snow-white skin. Dark skin is hinted at in the way I describe Snow’s Very Great Grandmother whose face was ‘wrinkled like an old crowberry’, crowberry (empetrum nigrum), being black. Perhaps Orddu ‘Very Black’ was herself black due to a gene that linked her back to oldest ancestors.
In northern Britain a piece of human thigh bone contemporary with the burials in Aveline’s Hole was found in Kent’s Bank Cavern near the Kent estuary where it enters Morecambe Bay. Other evidence of human inhabitation of this area includes microliths and an antler point from Bart’s Shelter.
III. Creswell Crags Cave Art
Snow possessed stories about her cave, passed down by her ancestors, suggesting her people had lived in Britain in the past. Archaeological finds from a number of caves show the landmass, then attached to the continent, had indeed been occupied during the Lateglacial Interstadial (14,670 – 12,890 BP).
Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge in Derbyshire, is famous for its parietal and portable cave art and stone tools. According to Paul Petitt these have ‘very direct parallels with material from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany… the term Magdalenian… links these British industries to a much wider population dispersal into empty areas of Europe following the Last Glacial Maximum. This dispersal has its roots in the Magdalenian of south-western Europe… Magdalenian sites in Britain cluster relatively tightly between 12,600 and 12,200 radiocarbon years ago, which places the sites in the relatively mild conditions of the first half of the Lateglacial Interstadial.’
There are 25 examples of parietal art at Creswell; 23 in Church Hole, one in Robin Hood Cave, and one in Mother Grundy’s Parlour. All are engravings that often use the structures of the cave walls.
The clearest engravings are of a stag, bison, and an ibis. The latter is a bird for whom we have no faunal remains in Britain, but would have been seen on the continent by the highly mobile artists.
One of the most intriguing is a bird/woman motif, which has been interpreted as ‘long-necked birds of some kind…. cranes, herons, bitterns, and swans’ and ‘schematic human females, drawn upside down.’
Another, equally ambiguous, is described as ‘a diving bird, a serpentiform or a stylised human female?’ There is a also a ‘headless horse’, ‘small incomplete engraved animal’ and ‘abstract designs such as a ‘boomerang’, ‘engraved triangle’, ‘horn-like motif’ and ‘two small triangles’. ‘Figures of uncertainty’ include a ‘square’, a ‘bison-head profile’, a ‘horse-head’, and a ‘bear’.
In Robin Hood’s Cave was found a rib engraved with a horse coloured by red ochre. William Boyd Dawkins described it in 1867: ‘the head and fore quarters of a horse incised on a smoothed and rounded fragment of rib, cut short off at one end and broken at the other. On the flat side the head is represented with the nostrils and mouth and neck carefully drawn. A series of fine oblique lines show that the animal was hog-maned. They stop at the bend of the back which is very correctly drawn.’
The Ochre Horse shares parallels with portable Ice Age horse depictions from the caves of Perigord in France and Kesserloch in Switzerland. It is also contemporary with a decorated horse jaw from Kendrick’s Cave, Llandudno, which had five panels of chevrons cut into it creating a zig-zag effect. That people carried these representations with them may suggest horses held a special place in their traditions. Whether this was simply as a prey animal or as a spirit guide or deity remains unknown.
In Pin Hole Cave, engraved on the rib-bone of a woolly rhincoeros, was a masked figure described by Albert Leslie Armstrong as a ‘masked figure in the act of dancing a ceremonial dance.’ Again, the identity of this figure and why he was carried into and left in the cave remains a mystery.
Other British examples include an engraving of a reindeer from Gower Cave in Wales and engraved plaquettes from La Varines in New Jersey featuring abstract designs and ‘zoomorphic representations’, possibly of horses, mammoths, a bovid, and human face, dating to 14,000 years ago.
The art of Creswell Crags shares similarities with Magdalenian art from across south-western Europe. Paul Pettitt links its characteristics artworks at Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France. He suggests the Creswell Crag artists spent their summers in this area and retreated to the lowlands that now form part of the North Sea or the Netherlands and central Rhine areas and says they would have been in contact with people from Ardennes and the Dordogne, which was also accessible on foot. “The Magdalenian era was the last time that Europe was unified in a real sense and on a grand scale.”
IV. Prehistoric Chapels and Rites of Initiation
The French archaeologist and Catholic Priest, Abbé Breuil, referred to Lascaux as ‘the Sistine chapel of prehistory’. The caves of the Franco-Cantabrian area have long been seen as sacred sites that were central to the religion of the Magdalenian people and their predecessors who made earlier paintings.
According to Bruno David these caves were used for ritual performances and rites of passage. He describes Cougnac: ‘Human engagements in the deep, dark space of the cave are intriguing: here are found animals that take shape along rock walls in a combination of natural concretions and painted red or black lines. At the entrance of chambers, palms of hands were dipped in red ochre and fingers smeared with black pigment, and then pressed against rock walls to leave distinctive marks. Animals were neatly arranged along rock walls, their viewing intentionally and carefully choreographed. Depictions were made of repeatedly speared humans or human-like creatures, and rocky concretions were tapped to make a ringing sound, it appears. This is the stuff of rituals… It formed part of an inner sanctum of knowledge, of an inner life, one that needed to be performed.’
David speaks also of ‘orchestrated performance’ at Tuc d’Audoubert where, adjacent to the Gallery of the Clay Bison, in the Chamber of Heels are found ‘183 impressions of the balls of human heels and myriad shallow impressions of fingertips’ ‘which show that those who walked this space did so on the heels of their feet, carefully avoiding placing the flat of their feet on the ground… The size of the heel imprints… indicates they were not made by adults but by youths probably adolescents.’
‘What we see in the art and imprints in the clay are the products of choreographed actions involving youths walking on the balls of their feet and pressing fingertips into clay along long and sometimes narrow tunnels underground, leading to sculpted clay bison that were never meant to be seen by the broader populace of the outside world. These were rituals along passageways that were, we think, literally rites of passage for youths approaching adulthood. The art was not just to be seen, but to be performed.’
David Williams argues that Lascaux holds ‘the key to major mysteries’ as a place for ‘vision quests’ leading to shamanic initiation. He says ‘different rituals were performed in contrasting areas’. In the ‘Hall of the Bulls’ the only area that can accommodate a large number of people, ‘dancing, music, and chanting’ may have taken place. He describes this area as a ‘vestibule’. In the Axial Gallery the Roaring Bull might have evoked auditory hallucinations and the Falling Horse sensations of falling and descent.
The dense engravings in the Apse featuring ‘crowded images of horses, bison, aurochs, ibexes, deer, and a possible wolf’ etched on top of one another might have provided a glimpse of the spirit world. Having passed a pair of ‘Cerberus-like paired bison’ and crawled down a tunnel to the Diverticule of the Felines to eight formidable cave-lions, ‘a horse seen face-on’, and ‘bison with a raised tail’, ‘questers came face to face with visions of power and made personal contact with the spirit realm.’
The Shaft, and end area, which falls away into a deep well is where offerings with ‘broken signs’ were left. Here is the famous painting of a bison wounded by a spear charging down a bird-headed man with a bird-staff. Williams says here ‘we have transformation by death: the ‘death’ of the man paralleling the ‘death’ of the eviscerated bison. As both ‘die’, the man fuses with one of his spirit helpers, a bird’. He interprets this as the ‘zoomorphic transformation… becoming a shaman necessitated.’
It seems possible that Creswell Crags was also seen as a prehistoric ‘chapel’ where people communed with spirit animals and sought and then engraved visions of the spirit world. Perhaps the witch’s cave at Pennant Gofid was also used for rituals of descent presided over by Orddu and her kin that led to initiates, like them, becoming awenyddion, ‘people inspired’, the Brythonic term for ‘shamans’.
V. Gough’s Cave – Skull Caps and Cannibalism
A discussion of the cave-based rituals of the people living in Britain during the Magdalenian period would not be complete without mention of the skull caps of Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and ritual cannibalism.
There were discovered the skeletal remains of ‘a Minimum Number of six individuals: a child (aged 3.2 years), a young adolescent (approximately 12–14 years old), an older adolescent (approximately 14–16 years old), at least two adults and an older adult’ dating to 14,700 BP. Results of the research by Silvia Bello et al. ‘suggest the processing of cadavers for the consumption of body tissues (bone marrow), accompanied by meticulous shaping of cranial vaults. The distribution of cut-marks and percussion features indicates that the skulls were scrupulously ‘cleaned’ of any soft tissues, and subsequently modified by controlled removal of the facial region and breakage of the cranial base along a sub-horizontal plane. The vaults were also ‘retouched’, possibly to make the broken edges more regular. This manipulation suggests the shaping of skulls to produce skull-cups.’
These skull caps resemble those from other Magdalenian sites such as La Placard Cave and Isturitz in France, and from Herxhein, Germany, in the Neolithic period, and El Mirador, Spain, in the Bronze Age.
In Gough’s Cave was also found a human radius engraved with a zig-zag pattern of ‘87 incisions: 33 single-stroke incisions, 32 to-and-fro sawing incisions’, also bearing evidence of cannibalism. What was particularly interesting is that ‘the decorative pattern seems to have been applied in the middle of this process: the break where the bone was snapped to extract marrow cuts across the zig-zag. It seems that the arm’s flesh had been removed, but then the butchery was paused while someone engraved the bone, and only then was it broken to get at its contents.’
This shares similarities with an ulnus from Kent’s Cavern with fine cut marks and percussion marks dating to 8185 BP. The zig-zag also resembles the pattering on the Kendrick’s Cave decorated horse skull.
It is clear that complex rituals and beliefs surrounded these acts of cannibalism and the creating of skull-caps and engraving of bones. Were these acts performed to honour the ancestors? Was eating one’s kindred an act of holy communion through which their life’s essence passed from the dead to the living?
What did the marks on the bones symbolise? Days? Acts? The release of the spirit from the bones? Was the creation of skull caps linked to belief that the soul presided in the head and with its release? What did wearing or drinking from the skull caps mean? Answers to these questions can only be guessed at.
It is worth nothing that, in Culhwch ac Olwen, Gwyn is associated with ritual cannibalism. He feeds the heart of Nwython, the ruler of Strathclyde to his son, Cyledyr, who becomes wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’, but later becomes a rider on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth – a veiled version of the Wild Hunt. Here the consumption of the flesh of an ancestor is initiatory, leading first to madness, then to prowess.
Orddu is associated with Gwyn and witchcraft and her abode is described as hellish. One wonders whether the practice of cannibalism lived on and was practised by her and her ancestors in the Old North.
It certainly continued into the Iron Age in other areas of Britain. In the Bone Cave of Alveston, in Gloucestershire, the remains of seven individuals were found including an individual murdered by a pole-axe. The femur of one these adults ‘had been split longitudinally and the bone marrow scraped out.’
The skeletons were deposited with dog bones, cattle bones, a possible bear vertebra, and wooden twigs.’ Mark Horton says: ‘This was a highly structured deposit that can only have got there as a result of some form of ritual activity. This region was an important centre for underworld cults during the later Iron Age, some of which survived into the Roman period; in particular the Celtic Hound God, Cunomaglus, was represented as a dog guarding the underworld in a local temple sculpture.’
VI. Further Back in Time and Back to Now
The footsteps of Snow and her ancestors might be followed back from Britain to the continent and back again through earlier glacials and interglacials. The famous ‘Paviland Red Lady’, actually a male hunter found in Goat’s Hole Cave, Paviland, on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, his bones stained with red ochre, with mammoth ivory and nerite shells, dates to 33,000 BP. This is our earliest evidence for a ritual burial and thus for beliefs linking caves and the Otherworld.
The first record of Homo sapiens in Britain comes from a maxilla fragment from Kent’s Cavern, Devon, and is dated to between 34,700 and 36,400 BP and an Aurignacian burin busqué from Ffeunon Beuno, Wales, dated to 36,000 BP may have belonged to an early ancestor.
Homo sapiens arrived in Europe in 43,000 years ago having travelled through Israel after dispersing from Africa 120,000 years ago where the earliest evidence, from Omo I, dates to 195,000 years ago.
The stories of Snow and her predecessors remind us of our shared European heritage and its origins in Africa when, as Brexit approaches, Britain is cutting itself off from the EU and limiting foreign aid.
Whilst the cave art of the Magdalenians appears to have been born of a shared culture and religion, much later on, due to Christianity, Orddu, the last carrier of these traditions, appears alone in her cave. Isolated like those of us drawn to the Brythonic tradition today and those isolating due to COVID-19.
Dare we hope, instead of fearing death by Arthur’s knife, for a happier time when we can meet safely in caves and other sacred places to celebrate our bond with the Otherworld and its gods and spirits?
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