Strong as an Aurochs, Patient as a Heron

A figure has been appearing in my journeys back to the time of the ancient Britons to the lake dwelling on the marshland close to the green hill that put the ‘pen’ in my home town of Penwortham.

I first saw her as I approached the dwelling on a wooden pole decorated with animals. Amongst them she sat seated cross-legged on a bull with a crane in flight emerging from her head above her.

The second time I encountered her within the dwelling itself, again in a meditative position, a cord of light down her spine shining upward through the smoke hole into the heavens and down into the earth. She was encircled by worlds, flickering in out of existence, like juggling balls or fairy orbs.

Read this and you will probably be put in mind of non-Western traditions. Yet there is evidence that, like the indigenous people of the North-West Pacific Coastal communities of what is now called  America and Canada, the ancient Britons carved and erected ‘totem poles’ displaying sacred animals. For example at Stonehenge there were four pits with post holes dated to between 8,500 and 7000 BC.

I like to think of the new wooden carvings on poles between the docks and the hill on the Ribble and upriver on Frenchwood Knoll as expressions of animistic relationships with local creatures and as a call from our ancient ancestors to return to their worldview in which the natural world is inspirited.

Again, the cross-legged figure will likely put you in mind of the lotus position of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Yet, the artwork on the Gundestrup Cauldron, dating to between 200 BC and 300 AD, features Gaulish artwork including an antlered figure sitting cross-legged surrounded by animals.

It seems likely this position was adopted for meditation by the Indo-European and Eastern cultures because it works. It was possibly used in Gaul and in Britain by spirit-workers when journeying into the spirit world to meet with animal spirits and to shift into animal forms and invoke their qualities.

The fluid relationships between human and animal, and shapeshifting, are fundamental to Celtic art. In relation to my vision Tarvos Trigaranus, ‘the Bull with Three Cranes’, appears with the divine woodsman, Esus, on the Pillar of the Boatman from Paris and on a pillar from Trier and may be related to statues of bulls with three horns found at Autun and at Maiden Castle in Dorset.

A bronze bucket mount found at Ribchester, fifteen miles up the river Ribble from Penwortham, features a bull with knobbed horns and a prey bird emerging from its head with a human head on the back.

It has been suggested that the image of the Bull with Three Cranes may have originated from the mutual relationship between cattle and cattle egrets who stand on their backs and eat their lice as well as eating the worms and insects from the soil that is overturned by their great hooves.

Maybe this is the case but I also feel such images are representative of the human impulse to participate in and become one with the wider ecosystem, to feel the strength of aurochs, the joy of crane. To be taken out of oneself, to get out of one’s head, to soar with the wetland and prey birds.

I’ve recently been having a difficult time not only because of the stress of COVID-19 as a threat to the lives of my parents and an obstacle to finding paid work in conservation, but because my mum had a fall and broke her hip and had to have a hip replacement on top of my dad’s ongoing health problems.

Through this time in my morning meditations I have been guided to take the position of this ancestral figure and to invoke the strength of the aurochs and, rather than the qualities of the crane, the patience of the heron. I believe this is because this is a time, not of joyful dancing, but of waiting.

Aurochs is an animal I have long felt a connection with due to early experiences in journeys leading me to the aurochs skulls in the Harris Museum which were found in the vicinity of the lake dwelling. I often wonder whether some were offerings to my patron, Vindos/Gwyn, a hunter god referred to as a ‘bull of battle’. Whatever the case they are primordial and powerful presences.

I have been seeing herons in increasing numbers along the Ribble and beside local lakes and ponds for many years. They are a bird I am much in awe of for their quiet waiting and sense of wisdom along with their quickness and determination. I have seen a heron tustling with a huge eel on the riverbank. Recently I came within a foot of a young heron absorbed in fishing beside the Lancaster canal.

‘Strong as an aurochs, patient as a heron,’ is my current chant and this and the image of the awenydd seated on an aurochs bulls with a heron emerging from her head help me get through the days.

I wonder whether the awenyddion of the past worked with and depicted the animal spirits in similar ways?

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph of the aurochs skulls.