It is always a unique pleasure to have two weeks holiday in one go. I rarely manage it – the last time in 2015 – and it is even rarer for me to stay in one place for the whole fortnight; I can’t recall the last time I did so – unless you count Peru in 2010, of which the first few days were a conference, and the next 10 a tour around the country. This holiday, Colin and I have taken one cottage for the whole two weeks (albeit that we spent two nights away from it, last week, on Westray and Papay) and this is a wonderful, relaxing, and rare treat.
Hoy, South Walls and Flotta
Our first excursion in this second week, was to the south western islands of the Orkney archipelago. We couldn’t visit them all, but it was fairly easy, in a day trip, to take the ferry across from Houton on the southern coast of the main island across to Lyness on Hoy, drive across the causeway from there to South Walls, and get off the ferry on its way back from Hoy on the island of Flotta, catching it again an hour and a half later to get back to Houton.
The single really rewarding and indeed awe-inspiring sight on this trip was the famous Dwarfie Stane on Hoy. This incomparable marvel of the ancient world, contemporary with the other Neolithic archaeology of the Orkneys, is a single huge stone – a glacial erratic dropped millennia before in a stunning glacial gorge through the mountainous territory of Hoy – that has been painstakingly hollowed out, to provide a small chambered tomb. The amount of work required – with bone and stone tools – and the simply stunning location, are surely signs that this must have been a very special burial, indeed. The plug-stone, that sealed the tomb, now lies outside it, where it was pushed by grave-robbers who broke into the chambers from above (the roof now repaired by conservators). I have never seen anything like it, and indeed I believe there is nothing else like it anywhere in the UK, at least. Simply magnificent – though, as Colin said, it was perhaps disappointing not to see any dwarves.
The rest of Hoy, South Walls, and Flotta, I’m sorry to say, that we saw, are rather drab. The whole area is littered with World War I and II remains, rotting, rusting and crumbling away, sad shells of what were once hastily put-together barracks, munitions buildings, ‘batteries’, and gun emplacements. Oh, and, of course, the 1970s North Sea oil terminal on Flotta. The general feel of these islands, then, away from the ancient grandeur of the glacial interior and its megalithic jewel, is one of decay, waste, and the worst of 20th century industry and refuse.
By the end of the day, then, although happy to be able to tick off three more islands from our spreadsheet – including one of the ‘Top 20’ largest scottish islands (Hoy) – we were glad to return to Unigar cottages.
The contrast, on our next excursion, could not have been greater. Taking the (very) early morning flight from Kirkwall – 15 minutes in the same plane that took us from Westray to Papa Westray – we flew to the furthest north of the Orkney Islands: North Ronaldsay. This island is even smaller than Papay, and has only one archaeological jewel: the ‘Stan Stane’ (disappointingly merely Scottish dialect for ‘Standing Stone’). This stone is, however, at over 13ft high, one of the tallest standing stones in the Orkneys (the tallest being on the island of Eday – which we’re saving for our next trip to the northern isles). The Stan Stane is said to have been the site of annual dancing among the locals, on the New Year.
It sports, moreover, uniquely, a small hole in the middle, although there seems not to be any record of marriage or birthing rituals similar to those at the holed stone at Stenness.
North Ronaldsay also boasts a unique breed of sheep. DNA tests on bones found in Scara Brae suggest that the North Ronaldsay breed are in fact likely the survivors of the sheep first brought to the northern isles at the start of the Neolithic here, c4000BC. A small, hardy breed, some grey, some black, some white, and a few brown or ‘tanny’ in colour, they were kept, when the rest of the island was given over to cattle, by the building of a wall or dyke all around the island, demarcating the beach area for sheep, and the inland pasture for cows. North Ronaldsay sheep, as a result, eat seaweed, and can develop copper poisoning if allowed to eat too much pasture. Their mutton is said to have a distinctive flavour, as a result, and is much prized at specialist restaurants. The lady in the Post Office claimed to have sold some of her sheep to The Star Inn, Harome – one of my favourite restaurants, where Colin and I had our 2nd Anniversary. (After Honeymooning on the Isle of Arran, our first anniversary was in Lerwick, Shetland, our third on the Isle of Coll.)
We had a fascinating tour of the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse – though I elected not to climb to the top, after our four mile walk from the airport to the Stan Stane to the lighthouse, and with another two and half miles yet to walk back! But after a lovely lunch in the little cafe, (though there was no mutton on sale!) I could not resist a ‘tanny’ North Ronaldsay sheepskin from the little Lighthouse shop, and we walked back to the airport via Linklet bay, watched all the way by the seals.
I planned to come to Mihintale to be here for the New Moon (at 11am GMT 20/09/17). I did not know whether there would be any ceremony to witness. Poya – The Full Moon – is a national holiday each month. I was very pleased to see a few people with a horn player and two drummers like at the Galadari conference (only no dancers this time). They brought a golden covered tray with small pots of food offerings to each of the special places at the top of this mountain. I followed them to take pictures at each place where they made their offering and to clasp my hands in prayer and meditate celebrating the New Moon. At the last, they beckoned me forward: I touched the lid as I had seen others do, but again he beckoned, saying ‘take it’. I had noticed them taking turns to carry it. So I took the tray, reverently, and I carried the tray up to the altar of the central stupa (the spot where Buddha sat in meditation on his third visit to Sri Lanka), placing it on the altar and, as I had seen them do at the bigger stupa above, lifted the lid to make the offering. We all stood back to clasp our hands in prayer, as the horn player and drummers played. Then they beckoned me to take it up again, and carry it through to the private area past the guards. As we walked, one asked me, “Are you Buddhist?” I hesitated, and said merely, “I try.” They liked this.
I followed the guard up into the office where I put down the tray, and fresh food offerings were placed in the pots. Then they beckoned me one last time to carry the tray again through to the relic house, and place it at the high altar. This was a very beautiful inner sanctum, with elephant tusks, rich cloths, and a seated Buddha with an altar in front with flowers, and room for the tray. Such a privilege and honour, to stand with the monk, the musicians, the followers, hands clasped, mind still, at the very moment of New Moon, at the crest of Mihintale. Thanking the monk for the honour, he said “Buddha bless you,” and I went back to the public area, beaming. Easily the highlight of my trip!
The Wilpattu National Park is famous for its leopards. Eco Team Big Game Safaris offer a night in a large square tent inside the park, with candlelit fireside dinner, and a jeep safari to see the animals. A 16month drought ended with rains a few days before my arrival, so there were plenty of insects (!) but this wasn’t so much of a problem. The inner tent has a double bed with a mosquito net! What I found difficult was the heat. Since arriving in Sri Lanka I have been in air-conditioned hotels. This was my first experience of a true Sri Lankan night. I had no appetite at dinner, and barely touched my food, drank less than half my can of beer. In the day, it had been 34′. Thankfully i had descended from Mihintale before it reached 30′, but my visit to the Vedda Cave Carvings was a river of sweat. At Wilpattu, at night, it did not fall below 28′. I sat in front of the fan in the settee area of my tent, sweating, for a while, then retreated from the moths and flies to the inner tent, inside the mosquito net, the second fan playing gently against the net as I tried to sleep.
Awaking at 5.15am, as instructed, I was at the meeting tent at 5.30am for my jeep. Some other guests, (Dutch, German, Australian, French, two Chinese girls) all got into the jeeps they had had the previous evening. Asking about mine, the staff there seemed unaware that I had booked a safari. Perhaps slightly shorter tempered than usual, (I had barely slept, just hoping the night would be over soon) I showed them the email, proving my booking. They got onto the phone with their manager, who assured me my driver was now on his way. The staff there said it was his mistake. He arrived a minute or two later blaming the driver for miscommunication. All-in-all not a great start: this was easily the most expensive outing of my trip, and wasn’t turning out too well thus far.
At the park, we were joined by a very friendly and knowledgeable Park Guide, and made off into the National Park. I saw Spotted deer, the National Bird – Jungle fowl; a Stork billiard kingfisher and various Kites and Eagles, Monitor lizards, and Jackals. Of the dozen or so jeeps out on safari this morning, however, only one was lucky enough to see a leopard, for a few seconds, and no-one saw any bears. I, however, along with my guide, was fortunate enough to witness – for about three seconds (too short a time to get to my camera) – a Tusker! Of all the elephants I have seen here in Sri Lanka this was the only one with tusks – and big 3-4ft long tusks they were too. My guide said this was very rare indeed. He was clearly excited. I also saw Wild buffalo, Grey headed fish eagle, and Green bee eater birds. I’m no David Attenborough so offer no wildlife photos from here. See what I managed to snap on Flickr.
Leaving Wilpattu late morning, meeting up with my driver Rohana again, we made for the last excursion of my trip – Mannah. This part of Northern Sri Lanka is mostly Tamil. Tamils are more Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, and less Buddhist, than the rest of the country. The Buddhas here seem mostly to do with the large police and army presence, underscoring the victory of the majority over the ethnic minority separatists only a few years ago.
Along the way were two more temples – the great Catholic Church complex at Maddhu, and the Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple. The former, to be honest, I found rather dull, but (from the crucifix and Jesus-pendant in the car) I guess my driver is from the Christian community here, and he was clearly interested to visit this place. As I told him, I have been to Jerusalem and to the Vatican – ‘so you see plenty churches,’ yes. The Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple, on the other hand, is something I have never experienced before, but, in a different way, was also rather disappointing.
The Temple was ‘under renovation’, with no access inside; all the statues from inside were arranged in a great shed outside the Temple, but there was no access inside the shed either. What was strangest, in the 33′ heat, was that to enter the complex at all, one had to not only remove one’s hat and shoes – which I am used to now from the Buddhist temples – but one must also remove one’s shirt!
Mannah itself is an island promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, petering out into a series of islands that then at last become a new promontory jutting out from southern India. This is known as Adam’s bridge, and the beach where this begins was my final visit of the day.
Tomorrow begins the long journey back south, for a last night, at Negombo, before the flight home, with just a couple more temples along the way.
Manavari and Chilaw
To break up the long journey, a little research revealed a fascinating Shiva Temple at Manavari, just short of Chilaw, where we could stop for lunch. This little known temple in fact houses one of only two Ramalingams in the world (the other in India), so called because the Shivalingam venerated inside this temple was made, according to the chronicles, by Lord Rama himself. Here, the Hindu priest sat on the steps of his temple, speaking with two or three devotees, and welcomed me with a warm smile, beckoning me in to visit, and to take photographs. Reverently, I entered, and soon discovered at the back of the temple the inner sanctum where the Ramalingam was kept, draped in a cloth. Returning to the steps, I smiled and said, “Ramalingam” and the priest nodded smiling, enthusiastically explaining that this lingam was 10000 years old!
I asked him if there was also an Ardhanarisvara statue here – perhaps I did not pronounce this properly, or it is known to him by another name. I explained by saying “Shiva, Pavarti” and miming the two together by clasping my hands and threading my fingers together, hoping this would convey the hermaphroditic union of the God and Goddess in one deity that is Ardhanarisvara. He nodded, explaining there was one on the left hand side of the temple. I looked, and found an old blackened statue there, but was not sure this was the one I sought.
Shortly further down the road, at Rohana’s suggestion, after lunching in Chilaw – a rather hot but very tasty Sri Lankan rice and curry – we also stopped at Chilaw’s Kali Kovil Temple. Here, I caught the eye of the Hijra (the third gender of the Indian subcontinent, often a specifically religious one, and clearly a much respected devotee here) who took it upon him/herself (perhaps after seeing me put notes into the donation box) to show me around, introducing me to each of four different statues, beckoning me to photograph each.
Then s/he brought me forward to the altar, instructed me to bow, placed his/her hand upon my shoulder, and proceeded to chant a blessing for me -helpfully explained here and there in English- for good fortune on my travels. I was most grateful! What an honour, on this trip, to have received, without seeking it, the blessing of both a Buddhist Monk and a Hindu Hijra, at their Temples. I am blessed indeed! Just outside the Kali Temple, at a stall packed with Indian brass statues, I spotted a heavy brass Shivalingam, and with the aid of my driver, Rohana, paid not too handsome a price for it, to bring home as a keepsake of my Hindu blessing.
At last, then, to the Heritance Negombo – a wonderful beach hotel just 20minutes taxi ride from Colombo airport, for my final night, and a fantastic sunset view from my bedroom.
I was fortunate enough, in September 2017, to attend an academic event in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
As in the past, I took some annual leave whilst in the country, as soon as the work was over, to get outside the hotel and conference centre and actually see something of the country itself – especially of its rich history, many thousands of years old, and of its rich flora and fauna. It is not, however, a rich country, financially, and even after the shrinking of its value since the summer of 2016, the British pound still goes a long way here: there were many times I felt very privileged, and the tips I gave, though seemingly small to me, meant a lot to those who received them. You can haggle, but when the price is £3, why bother to argue it down to £2.50?
After my week in the very nice, but corporate hotel/conference complex in Colombo (where a plush dinner is £15), I spent a couple of nights at Jungle Tide – the retirement villa Homestay of two old friends from the theatre world, where I received a warm and comfortable welcome.
Homestays are like Bed and Breakfast, but they’ll cook dinner for you too, and make you welcome in the lounge. This was just the antidote I needed to the working week in Colombo, perched in the mountains above Kandy, treated to the fireflies in the evening, monkeys squabbling in the trees. The large rat snake (so called because it eats rats) that I disturbed on the path in the morning – thick as my arm and probably as long as I am tall – gave me a fright, but all they eat is rats, so I wasn’t in any danger. At least it wasn’t a python – which of course can kill with a single bite!
Sad to say, it is still illegal in Sri Lanka to be gay. A legacy, no doubt, of colonial times. In this, as in many parts of the world, same-sex relationships in a variety of forms were commonplace before the arrival of the bigoted and discriminatory Christian Europeans. But here, perforce, I have had to retreat, quietly, back into the closet, for a couple of weeks, answering questions like “Are you married” with an affirmative that then describes my spouse with a female pronoun. Yes, “she” is well, but could not join me this time. Yes I will bring “her” next time. Sadly, with two sisters in their late sixties running Jungle Tide in the absence of my theatre friends, already used to this from Colombo, I stayed in this temporary holiday closet, not wanting to risk spoiling the enjoyment of the homestay with a challenge they might not welcome. Who knows, they may have been very accepting, but I did not want to run the risk. With the Sri Lankans, I am not prepared to take any such risk.
Between my two nights’ stay at Jungle Tide I took a tuk-tuk ride down into Kandy itself. The tuk-tuk is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka: a sort-of three-wheeler moped taxi, mostly open air, not very fast, and driven largely by mad people!
Don’t even think about hiring a car and driving anywhere yourself in this country: the roads are insane. What you do is hire a car and driver – I got one from reputable company Mahaweli, arranged for me by my theatre friends at Jungle Tide, and driven by mid-late 20s man-of-the-world-in-the-making, Rohana. Mahaweli are a company whose owner-director is only 38, and all his employees between 25 and 35. Rohana answers the phone with “Hello, Sir” all the time, perhaps especially with his employers as much as with potential clients. (The phone rings all the time while we are driving, and there is no hesitation to answer and talk while at the wheel, here.) He is a very friendly, helpful, hospitable fellow who has tried really hard to make me welcome and to ensure I enjoyed my stay, and learnt about the country and enjoyed its hospitality. I would certainly recommend Mahaweli – and Rohana – to any tourist in Sri Lanka, including gay men such as myself, missing their husbands at home. I have no idea what his reaction might be to this knowledge, but didn’t want to risk the potential estrangement a bad reaction might bring. What a gay couple holidaying together here might do, I have no idea. But this country has so much to offer, that these personal questions are, when you are a solo traveller at least, relatively easy to set aside.
The greatest attraction at Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth – a reliquary temple for one of the teeth of Siddharta Gautama Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC.
Whoever holds it holds the governance of the country. After some years in Anuradhapura – the ancient capital for many centuries – it came to Kandy, the last Sri Lankan kingdom to hold out against the European colonial powers, and, after some time in British hands, it is kept again in this fantastic temple by an artificial lake in the high mountain town of Kandy. The majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhist.
Journey north from Kandy
At Aluvihare Rock Temple, in Matale, the moment when Buddhism was first written down in Sri Lanka, in the 2nd century BC is remembered both in a fantastic cave temple, and in a superb giant Buddha sculpture on the hillside.
Also present in Sri Lanka, however, are many Hindus, Muslims, and Christians (in that order) and a good deal of harmony between them all. (The ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, many centuries old, the latest chapter of which ended bloodily some years ago, is less religious than it is ethnic). There is plenty of syncretism between the prevailing, largely Theravada, but in parts Mahayana Buddhism, and the Hinduism that exists alongside it. The Nalanda Gedige Temple, for example, from a thousand years ago, shows two faces: one Buddhist, one Hindu, as an example of the harmony between the two traditions in Sri Lanka.
Islam arrived during the ascendancy of the Mughals in India, and Christianity – in the form of Catholicism – arrived with the Portuguese.
In Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka, therefore, it is not uncommon to see many aspects of Hindu culture absorbed into the local form of Buddhist practice. Krishna, Ganesha (known here as Pulyar), and Shiva are all present both in their own shrines and in the Buddhist temples. Here also, is the Hindu Goddess of Rain and Fertility, Sri Muthumariamman.
Dambulla Cave Temples
Amongst the best Buddhist temples, of course, are the caves. At Dambulla, where one must climb high up to the top of a small mountain, up many stone steps, to reach them, are four natural and one man-made cave all exquisitely painted inside and filled with statues of the Buddha at various stages of his life-story. These are particularly impressive, and testimony to the devout following of Buddhist practice for many centuries – and still today – in this country.
Traditional Village life in Sri Lanka
After leaving Jungle Tide, and visiting temples along the route north to Sigiriya, I was treated to an interesting experience of pre-colonial traditional village life in Sri Lanka, through a ride on a traditional bullock cart to a (man-made) lake, and a boat ride across to a lakeside village where locals prepared and served traditional Sri Lankan food – the traditional way. This was the idea of my Mahaweli driver and guide, Rohana, and it was amazing to see how it is all done, how simple, and how delicious it all turns out. Alongside the South American introductions (tomato, chilli) were the older, local foodstuffs: fenugreek, salt, mustard seeds, lime, turmeric, lentils, okra, onion, a local kind of pumpkin, fresh water tilapia fish, the ubiquitous curry leaves, and the incredible coconut which produces oil to cook with, the flesh to spice and eat as a salad, and the milk to make the rich sauces of the vegetable curries – along with the leaves to make the roof, the half-shell cups to drink from, and many more uses beside.
Kaudulla National Park
My Mahaweli guide, Rohana, through friends of friends, asking for someone who knew about the animals and could please someone such as me, with lots of information, and who had a good, safe vehicle for the jungle, got a recommendation, got his number, and managed to book a fantastic guide for us for an Elephant Safari.
I confess I felt very proud of our 1959 vintage black Land Rover Defender, as we passed the touristy Mitsubishi jeeps (all 2-wheel drive and not very comfortable) on the dirt tracks. We were also taken into Kaudulla park, rather than Haburana, as the elephants move, each year, from the latter to the former, when the late September rains begin. This year, they have come early (nowhere escapes climate change) and so the elephants are on the move already – the males, or ‘bulls’ on their solo journeys – sometimes blocking the minor roads around the park – and the herds of females and their offspring in family groups.
We arrived by the lake shortly after several of these solo male elephants and three family groups had emerged from the jungle onto the grassy plains around the lake, and were amongst only three or four jeeps of tourists to witness these amazing animals up close.
As we left, dozens more jeeps were arriving in the park, and I was very grateful to our guide for knowing not just where to be, but when, to witness these extraordinary creatures. On the way there, and on the way back, he also stopped frequently, with keen eyes, to point out the red-faced macaques in the trees by the road, black faced grey langurs, peacocks and peahens, and even a crested hawk eagle.
Rarest of all, on our way out, standing in the back of the land rover, I was first to spot a billiard kingfisher – and our guide was really impressed that we had had the opportunity to see one – and that I had spotted it!
It was truly an incredible privilege to see all these fantastic animals, and an absolute delight to do so from what was clearly the best vehicle around, and probably the best guide!
Staying at the Zinc Sigiriya – once the ‘Resthouse’ and now fully renovated and newly marketed to the global market – I rose very early to climb the famous, UNESCO World Heritage Site Sigiriya Rock. The site opens at 7am, and it is wise to begin one’s climb straight away, to be on the top at 8am, and making one’s descent by 8.30.
The heat is such that a visit any later in the day invites both exhaustion and burning for northern European white skin. The rock is the vanity project of a 5th Century CE royal usurper, defeated in battle by the ‘rightful’ king, who temporarily transferred the royal capital from Anaradhapura to this pleasure-palace-cum-fortress for the length of his reign. As a feat of urban planning and architectural folly it is perhaps in many ways unsurpassed, and remains immensely impressive a millenium and a half later.
The many, many steps up are nothing compared to a climb up Mount Misen in Japan , taking only 30 minutes, but the final section up fire-escape-style metal steps is definitely not for the faint-hearted: if you have any kind of vertigo that makes you quiver up a ladder, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is probably not for you.
I was not the only one quite fearful on this stretch of the climb, both up and down, and you have to steel yourself to brave the trip. The rewards, however, at the top, are very well worth it. The views across Central Province are astounding and unmissable, and the extraordinary brick architecture of the citadel palace built upon the flat-topped summit are a wonder to behold, even now, some 1500 years later.
Back at the hotel, after a shower and a good breakfast, I made ready and embarked on our journey to Anaradhapura. On our way, we took a detour down rural country roads, past local country shrines to Pulyar (Sri Lanka’s name for Ganesh) where the locals pick a twig of leaves to hang by the shrine and pray for a safe journey.
Just past here, our destination was Aukana – the largest rock-carved Buddha in all Sri Lanka. This enormous statue of the standing Buddha, hand raised in blessing, and the rock-hewn water cistern nearby, are contemporary with the palace at Sigiriya Rock (late 5th century CE) and although somewhat out of the way, well worth the visit if you have time. Here, the orange robed monk, with impecable English, clearly a very well educated and highly intelligent man, personally welcomed me and showed me around the site, as the coach of local children came and went. He was clearly pleased to see an international tourist and I would recommend any visitor to the country to make the time to come here. It is a very special place with a fantastic ambience, and I was deeply moved by the exquisite carving and serenity of this enormous standing Buddha sculpture.
After Aukana we headed on to another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Anuradhapura. This time I stayed at the Rajarata Hotel. This was a good hotel – not unlike Zinc Sigirya – although offering hot water for people to make their own coffee with sachets of Nescafe is for the rooms, not for the breakfast buffet, please! Dinner, however, was very good here, as it had been at Zinc Sigiriya.
I then spent all day – from 8am to 3pm – with Jagath, a guide whose excellent English and understanding of the sites made the whole experience exceptionally interesting, despite the crushing heat (a very humid C29-31 most of the time.) I kept applying sun block and spraying anti-mosquito spray, but still got a bit red, and several bites. (You have to take your hat and shoes off to get into/near to the Buddhist shrines.) Jagath was extremely informative, and Anuradhapura is simply incredible.
The village of Anuradh was founded by a King’s minister (called Anuradh) in about 600BC, and only later became a city (a ‘pura’) in 300BC when Buddhism was introduced to the country, when pagan Sri Lankan King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism, and his people with him. Anaradhapura was the place, shortly after, where a clipping was brought from the Bodhi tree under which Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha, had reached Enlightenment. Relics of the Buddha’s body, of objects from his life, and of things associated with him, form the three different kinds of relics, nearly all of which are buried in sacred caverns (called relic chambers), and then enormous solid brick domes are erected over those chambers. Atop the domes, where once were a kind of fence, there are now square or rectangular boxes, and above these, where once were parasols one atop another, there are now cylindrical columns. Crowning the pinnacle of the columns there are now bright crystals ( – possibly lightning conductors in their day – ) where once there was a simple pillar next to the fence.
This religious architecture is called a STUPA, and is completed by three rings around the base of the dome, representing the Buddha, his life, and his Enlightenment. The main stupa at the First Monastic Complex at Anuradhapura, originally built around 100BC, contains many such relics, and is the largest brick built building in the entire world. (Nearby, at the 3rd monastic complex, the Stupa there is the 2nd largest brick building in the world and is estimated to have 93million bricks in it, which would be enough to build a wall from London to Edinburgh.) The biggest is repainted every June. The second biggest has just been restored, from being covered in greenery. Beside the main stupa in the First Monastic Complex, from that original cutting brought to Sri Lanka around 300BC from the tree in Northern India under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment around 600BC, is a giant fig tree – the very same Bodhi tree. It is, thus, the oldest chronicled tree in the world: now 2600 years old. So this oldest tree in the world, and the largest brick building in the world, together form the centrepiece of the First Monastic Complex of Anuradhapura.
The Second Monastic Complex is a city where 5000 monks lived, worked, meditated, ate, slept, and welcomed international visitors from around Asia for study and sharing. There are a further six or more such complexes, which were sub-schools of the Second Monastic Complex, some of which remain buried in the jungle, some just beginning to be excavated. The site, in short, is vast – literally a kind of Ancient Rome or Athens in Sri Lanka, but entirely devoted to the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. It finally came to an end, in the 10th century AD, when Sri Lanka was invaded from South India, and the great city was completely destroyed and burned. The capital moved to Polonuwara (where I don’t have time to visit on this trip) briefly, and then to Kandy, which, at last, fell to the European colonialists.
In the Second Monastic Complex I had time – amongst the vast area of living quarters and shrines – to visit some special places selected by my guide: the finest ‘moon stone’ in Sri Lanka, the finest ‘door guardians’, and both the largest water cistern and the pair of most attractive water cisterns. The sandakada pahana, or ‘moon stone,’ named after a half-moon, is a semi-circle laid at the entrance to many different Buddhist sites around Sri Lanka. There are a series of semi-circular rings. The outermost ring is of fire: the experience of the world, of desire, and the pain and suffering that go with it. The next ring is of elephants, lions, horses and bulls – the four animals that represent the four pains of life: birth, ageing, ill-health, and death. They are also the four stages of life: growth, energy, power and forbearance. The next ring is a twisted creeper, representing the tortuous routes one must sometimes take to put aside desire in search of one’s true happiness. Then the next ring is of Thorn Birds or Swans; in Sri Lankan mythology the Thorn Bird can magically separate milk and water. This symbolises, then, the moment when the follower of Buddhism begins to discern the true happiness from the fires of the world. At last, then, in the inner semi-circle is reached: a semi-circle of lotus flowers, and the radiant inner happiness of nirvana. Thus, at the entrance to a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, stepping upon the ‘moon stone’, one is stepping upon the path to Enlightenment. It is the cycle of Samsara – from worldly desires to the achievement of Nirvana.
There are, of course, lots more photographs on Flickr.
In September 2016, after the close of my international conference at Salford, Colin and I fled the city for a fortnight away in the Southern Hebrides. We began with three days on Bute, based at The Victoria Hotel in Rothesay, and then went on to the cluster of Southern Hebridean Islands: Jura, Islay, Colonsay and Oronsay. All the photos are as ever on Flickr.
Bute, nestled into a notch of the Cowal peninsular, is a delightful and surprising little island, with the Highland Boundary Fault running across it, giving wooded highlands to the north and lowland pastures to the south. Ettrick Bay opens at the western end of this fault and is home to the remnants of a fine ritual landscape.
We are currently in the Quarternary Ice Age of the Earth, which began 2.5 million years ago. Ice Ages include warm interglacial periods (like the one we’re in now) and colder glaciation periods, when the northern hemisphere in particular is covered in ice sheets. The last of these was from 110,000 to about 12,000 years ago, and itself included some minor fluctuations. The last peak of the last glacial period of the current Ice Age is known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and occurred about 22,000 years ago. After the last of the ice of the LGM finally melted in Scotland by around 9000BC, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers began to take advantage of the flora and fauna that soon began to populate the newly unfrozen lands. Sea-level was consistently on the rise for a while, but the landmass, free of ice, was also enjoying a ‘rebound’ out of its magma foundations, so that the shoreline was at times both higher and lower than it is today during these millenia. As a result, the remains of Mesolithic camps, where people prepared flint tools (known as microliths), cast away the shells of seafood, and roasted hazlenuts, can be found on the ‘raised beaches’ inland from today’s seashore, and occasionally be exposed at very low tide out in the bays and estuaries that were once dry land.
The Neolithic, that agriculture/animal husbandry/settlement combination (with pottery added a little later) that began in the Middle East in c10,000BC, could be seen arriving from as early as 3900BC in timber buildings in Aberdeenshire, and with the incredible stone buildings of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, as early as 3500BC. In the islands, too, some traces of Neolithic settlements and funerary monuments are still found. But the Bronze Age in Scotland (c2100-750 BC) has left many of the most stunning of such early stone monuments – the Standing Stones and Stone Circles that pepper the Hebridean islands. The ‘Megalithic’ culture, as it is known, straddling the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age (when bronze tools first started to complement those which continued to be made of stone), stretched from the islands of the Mediterranean round the Spanish and Portuguese coasts all the way up and along the Atlantic seaboard – including all of the British Isles – as far as Denmark and the Baltic coast, with sites inland as far as the eastern Portuguese border with Spain, central France, and the plains of northern Germany.
For details of these historic developments, Steven Mithen’s very accessible book “After the Ice” is an excellent read (which I took on this trip with me), guiding one through the fifteen thousand years from 20,000BC to 5,000BC, and then there are a host of fine texts on the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, too numerous to mention, though David Caldwell‘s books on the Hebrides are excellent, Francis Pryor’s “Britain BC” makes a good introduction, and there are many more on the Northern and Outer Hebrides!
Bute boasts a number of such monuments, including some ‘Cairns’ – the Neolithic communal grave sites, and ‘Cists’ (pronounced ‘kisseds‘) – the square single graves used in the Bronze Age, and many single standing stones, stone rows, and a couple of stone circles. These are often found in clusters known as ritual landscapes, where single stones and stone rows act as outliers to stone circles, giving lines of sight to clefts and peaks among distant mountains, often themselves the site of cairns and/or cists. Cists, too, are also often found added later to such landscapes, even in the middle of stone circles, sometimes with mounds built over them and kerbs built around them (as at Kilmartin). Later still, ‘Celtic’ Christianity arrived from Ireland in the 7th and 8th Century, most famously in the person of St Columba, who established a first priory on Oronsay, and then moved on to Iona where his Abbey became a capital of Celtic Christian activity for centuries, spawning numerous other Abbeys, Priories, Churches, and Saints. Both these Hebridean Christian traditions, and the Pictish peoples of mainland Scotland, repurposed many of the standing stones by carving them down into the exquisite Stone Crosses and Pictish Symbol Stones, many of which still survive across the islands and across mainland Scotland. The Iona School of artists, in the 8th century, created some of the very finest.
Ettrick Bay is one such ritual landscape, on Bute, and did not disappoint, except in one regard – when we tried to see the carved cross at East St Colmac Farm the farmer said he knew nothing of it, that there was a stone the other side of a paddock (to which he waved vaguely) but no carving on it that he was aware of. Nonetheless, the stone circle opposite the farm was really atmospheric, and clearly treasured by at least one contemporary pagan worshipper, who had deposited large quartz stones from the beach beside many of the standing stones of the circle. Two outlying single stones, moreover, besides the one later carved into a cross, gave the feel of quite a powerful landscape, and one could close one’s eyes, standing in the circle, and imagine lines of megalithic people, torches held aloft, processing across the rich pasture at the highpoints of the year.
Out in the bay, moreover, lay the tiny island of Inchmarnock: a private place not open to visitors, but home of a 2000BC cist burial of what has come to be known as the Queen of Inchmarnock, and her exquisite jet necklace. Jet – black petrified wood found only at Whitby in the British Isles, on the north-east coast of England – was clearly highly prized, as was the glassy pitchstone found only on Arran and Eigg. The fashion for black stone perhaps originated in the Middle East, some thousands of years before, and the rich deposits of obsidian in Anatolia, as good as flint for making blades, but shiny enough for jewellery too. More obsidian is to be found in the Mediterranean on the Greek Islands of Melos and Giali, the Sicilian islands of Lipari, Pantarola and Pantelleria, and at Monte Arci on Sardinia where I acquired some in 2011.
Besides Ettrick Bay, down in the south of the island there are also the strangely shaped remains of a further circle at Kingarth, with its outlying stone row of Largizean. These are quite atmospheric, but did not have quite the impact of those at Ettrick Bay.
Lastly, and perhaps one of the most interesting experiences on Bute, for me, was our visit to the ruins of the church of St Blane’s, on the southern tip of the island just beyond Kingarth. Originating from Iona – like most of the oldest Christian sites in this area – the ruins of a 12th century church on the site of a 7th century original were incredibly atmospheric: there was a really sacred feel to the place on our visit. We were alone, there are no shops, little in the way of interpretation beside a few well placed plaques, and the quiet and tranquility of a place of contemplation, meditation and peace. A delightful visit.
Jura is a fascinating place. The most conspicuous feature is the famous three Paps of Jura, the tall conical mountains visible from everywhere nearby, dominating the landscape of the whole Southern Hebrides. This mountainous area is to the south of the island, with lower lying moorland to the north. The two halves of the island are split by Tarbert Bay, which almost completely halves the island, save for a few kilometers of land. This valley was – for millenia – a highway for travellers between east and west, seeking to avoid the treacherous whirlpool of Corryvreckan (Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning “cauldron of the speckled seas”) to the north of the island, still avoided to this day by the ferries and any other self-respecting seafarer.
As Gordon Wright relates in his “Jura’s Heritage” booklet, which you can buy on the ferry, the name Jura may derive from Gaelic ‘Iubhar’, meaning Yew, making it the “Island of Yew Trees” – perhaps referring to the Glen of Yew trees found near Inver, to the north of Tarbert on the East Coast, where Steven Mithen has excavated Mesolithic activity. It’s equally possible that the name is Norse, from ‘Dyr-ey’, meaning deer-island. Certainly deer are a-plenty nowadays, though there is a question over how many were here in the more distant past.
Wright tells us Edward Furlong’s reading of Homer’s account of the travels of Odysseus suggest a possibility that in the Greek Bronze Age, c1000BC, Odysseus (who made the Trojan Horse, but then took ten years to return home from Troy) may have journeyed to Ireland and the Scottish Isles on his travels. In Homer’s account he reaches “the cavern of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis.” Wright continues, “Is the whirlpool of Charybdis the whirlpool of Corryvreckan? Adomnan – the biographer of St Columba – calls the Corryvreckan whirlpool ‘Charybdis brecani’. Later Odysseus comes to an island which he calls Thrinacia. Thrinacia means three pronged and Mr Furlong suggests it gets its name from the three Paps of Jura.”
Apart from another Iona-related chapel at Tarbert, much of the settlement activity, old and new, is in the south-east corner of the island, nearest to Islay. Here, the enormous Camas an Staca Standing Stone rises out of the peat twice the height of a man, surrounded by further rocks and outcrops which Canmore (Scotland’s inestimable archaeological database) includes two conflicting and rather confusing accounts of. The feel of the place – the lines of sight and the general atmosphere – gave me a strong feeling that Camas an Staca could be another Callanish under several thousand years of peat deposit, with the single stone still visible the monstrously high centrepiece of something far greater and more impressive. Who knows if an archaeologist may yet have time – and funding – to take a closer look. [Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis, one of the most impressive and largest stone circles and ritual landscapes in the whole of the British Isles, erected around 3000BC, was almost completely buried under 1.5m or so of peat for (at least) 1500 years, only first recorded in the early 17th century, and the peat finally all dug away to reveal it in all its glory in the mid-19th century.]
In Norman Newton’s tourist guide to Islay the last chapter tells of Jura and of a lovely Gaelic folklore tale from John Francis Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’, concerning “the Old Woman or Witch of Jura” and her “magical powers. There was a Caileach (old woman) in Jura who had a magic ball of thread by means of which she could draw any person or thing towards her. MacPhie (or MacDuffie) of Colonsay was in her clutches, and was not allowed to leave Jura; on several occasions he tried to escape to his native Colonsay in his boat, but always the Caileach would spot him, throw the magic ball of thread into his boat, and so bring him back to shore. Eventually MacPhie found out that the magic of the Caileach’s thread could be broken, but only if it was cut by an equally magic hatchet; thus he pretended to be content with his bondage until he found the chance to steal the Caileach’s magic hatchet, and then he made his escape from Jura in a small boat. When the Caileach noticed his absence, she rushed as usual to the top of Beinn a Chaolis, [the tallest of the Paps] and … hurled the magic ball of thread into MacPhie’s boat, but he cut it with the Caileach’s magic hatchet and made his escape. She was distraught … [and] in despair she slid down the mountain to the sea shore, pleading with MacPhie to return. But he would not, and the marks left by the old woman’s heels as she slid down Beinn a Chaolis can still be seen. They are called Sgriob na Cailich – the slide of the old woman.” The best view is from the ferry from Port Askaig to Colonsay.
By far the most significant event for us during our stay on Jura, was at Inverlussa. Knowing that microliths are still found from time to time amongst the pebbles of the Lussa river as it enters the bay, we went up the eastern shore road almost as far as it goes, to Lussa Bay, and pottered about on the beach there for an hour, looking through the pebbles for microliths. To my astonishment, however, although no microliths were to be seen, instead, in about an inch of water amongst the pebbles on the southern shore of the river only thirty or so yards from the sea I found what I have since (tongue-in-cheek) been calling, the Lussa Venus. It is a (horse’s? whale’s?) tooth, (or ivory,) carved in the semi-abstract, semi-lifelike form of a female, missing both head and feet, but with the arms folded formally across her abdomen supporting her breasts, and clear lines delineating legs and buttocks both front and back. It is a truly remarkable find. Teeth and ivory can survive in the ground or in the water, undamaged, for a very long time, David Caldwell told me, when I showed him my find at Finlaggan, on Islay, a week later, where he was directing a dig. Unlike the microliths I didn’t find, it is not Mesolithic – I sent a photo of it to Steven Mithen and he graciously replied straight away, uncertain what it was but confident it was not of his period – 20,000-5000 BC. David Caldwell recalled a recent discovery of carved teeth that proved to be 14th century. It could, of course, he said, equally well be something African or East Asian, brought back to Scotland during Empire days. It seems rather risque to be Victorian, at any rate, and would more likely have been porcelain in that period. I sent photos of it on to David Caldwell, at his request, for him to share with colleagues at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. No less than Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator of Early Prehistory, got back to us straight away with a pretty clear indication that it is not an ancient Scottish artefact. The likelihood, she thought, was that it was either carved by a local in the last few centuries, or brought back from elsewhere – though she suspects the “similarity with Cycladic figurines is purely coincidental (and not close, in any case.)” I’m not greatly surprised, but it is a lovely item nonetheless, and such an amazing find, amongst the pebbles, in that tranquil remote bay.
Our stay on Jura was crowned, finally, with a magnificent steak of Jura Venison washed down with very fine 2007 Pomerol, on our last night, and by a fabulous rainbow the following morning just as we got into the car to set off for the ferry back to Islay.
As David Caldwell’s books make clear, Islay is a place of great historical interest. Today, for the tourist, perhaps the greatest draws are the birds (the RSPB have a strong presence here [many thanks to Phil, RSPB warden at the Mull of Oa, for helping me change the wheel after my punctured tyre!]) and, of course, the eight distilleries, making some of Scotland’s finest whiskies, including no lesser names than Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. My personal favourite, however, was Bruichladdich’s Valinch, which has spent its full term of 12 years in Sherry casks. Very smooth!
The Rinns, that westernmost part of Islay that juts out into the Atlantic barely attached to the rest of the island, is in fact quite an oddity. The southern part is mostly Lewisian Gneiss, like Iona to the north, (and of course much of the Outer Hebrides), and during the last glacial maximum the ice sheet came only as far south and west in this part of the Hebrides as the main part of Islay: the Rinns were not covered in ice 22,000 years ago. This is significant because it means that Ice Age hunters may indeed have visited the Rinns, on their tours at the edges of the ice sheet, and left some of their ancient flint tools behind. It is perhaps all the more significant because the flint that is so prized by stone-age people for tool making is mostly ground down by ice sheets, and in this area of Scotland the only really good source of flint is the beaches of the Rinns. There are, therefore, no less than four mesolithic sites on the Rinns, where hunter-gatherers prepared such tools, before venturing back onto the tundra and the increasingly wooded landscape of Scotland after the ice finally melted. The area is also rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age remains too, such as the cup-marked stone at Kilchiaran, and including Islay’s only complete Stone Circle, at Cultoon.
Odder still, however, for reasons now unfathomable, Cultoon Stone Circle, which includes two upright and twelve horizontal great stones, from the evidence gathered in excavations in the 1970s, was clearly not finished. The twelve stones were never erected, and the site abandoned before completion.
Of the later, Celtic Christian era, the Rinns boasts two of Islay’s three carved stone crosses, at Kilnave and at Kilchoman. But perhaps the two finest historic sites to visit are the stone cross at Kildalton, and the islands in the loch at Finlaggan. The Kildalton Cross dates from the 8th century, and is almost certainly one carved by the Iona School of artists, and probably in the best condition – due to the kind of stone and its relatively sheltered position – of all the stone crosses of this era throughout Scotland and the North of England. On a fine day it is truly a wonder to behold, amongst the scattered gravestones of the cemetery of a ruined church in the south east of Islay.
In the north of the island, kept by the Finlaggan Trust with its own interpretation centre and a suitably easy wooden bridge across the reed-choked loch, is the “great” and the “council” islands within the loch at Finlaggan. The “council” island, a small island next to the “great” island, has been shown to have once been a crannog – a man-made island created with tree-posts and a lot of rubble in the Bronze Age. It is tiny, but supported a Bronze Age broch – a small defensive tower. The “great” island includes 8th-9th century graves: it was clearly occupied during Columba’s time, by one of his missionary monks, St Findlugan. But for the most part what remains on the island is 12th to 14th century, and represents the capital of the Kingdom of the Isles, where the King – and later Lord – of the Isles resided, and, after the manner of the Isle of Man Tingwall, held Council meetings with the nobles, thanes, lords, Bishop of the Isles, and Abbot of Iona. At its greatest extent the MacDonalds ruled not just all the isles but a good part of the mainland, too, ultimately threatening the King of Scotland in Edinburgh: reason enough, in the end, for its demise.
Colonsay and Oronsay
But if you are visiting the Southern Hebrides, it would be churlish not to include a day-trip to the small islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, visible from the coasts of Jura and Islay, out into the Atlantic. Colonsay boasts two or three villages, including a hotel and a shop at the ferry port of Scalasaig. Oronsay has just one farmhouse, built from the rubble of the fallen Oronsay Priory. Parking on the beach on the south coast of Colonsay, and waiting for lowtide, we walked out across the Strand between the two islands to visit the Priory. It is wise to know exactly what time the tide is at its lowest, and to stride out as soon as one can, in order to get the most time on Oronsay before needing to return! We inched our way across, seawater around our ankles, covering the mile or so of distance across the sand, until finally climbing up onto the beach of Oronsay for the mile and half walk round the low hill to the Atlantic facing side of the island where the Priory sits. Here there are more Iona School stone crosses, and a collection of medieval carved grave slabs including effigies and carved swords and celtic knotwork. It is a fine place, though the atmosphere is perhaps not as secluded as that at St Blane’s, amongst the bustle of the working farm that shares the site – and much of the stone building blocks.
We were unlucky on the one day of the week that Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferries go to and fro between Port Askaig and Colonsay: it was the worst weather of our trip. We got quite cold trying to cross the Strand, and didn’t stay long at the Priory, heading back across the now almost completely dry Strand to the car just as the rain started to come lashing down.
The one other site we did manage to visit was Fingall’s Limpet Hammers, a stone row of just two standing stones, at the head of the valley of Loch Fad – in fact three lochs one after another all called Loch Fad – that cuts through part of the Island. Quite impressive stones, with a view down through the valley and out into the sea. But the rain by now was becoming very heavy, and we – like all the rest of the small group of tourists taking the same day trip – sheltered in Scalasaig’s little hotel bar, for a half-and-half: once upon a time half a gill of whisky and half a pint of ale, now just a sixth of a gill of whisky. It’s a popular combination in these isles, both warming and thirst quenching, sipping from each glass in turn.
Colin and I took a holiday at our friends’ gite near Poitiers this July, and visited several of the local prehistoric sites, including several dolmens and the truly incredible Neolithic necropolis of Bourgon. Photos as ever on Flickr.
For our Easter holidays this year Colin and I returned (me for the second, he for the third time) to Malta and Gozo. Here the temples remind me of the domestic layout of Scara Brae. Photos as ever on Flickr.
I arrive at just before 10am and the town square is still quiet – a few traders setting up for the day. But activity gathers very quickly. Beside the main marquee, on a truck, is what will become one of the main attractions – everyone wants to climb up onto it and have their photo taken. It is not Dionysus, but not merely a satyr. The bunches of grapes draped over the sides of the cart certainly point to Dionysus, but the floppy ears suggest something far more satyrnine – and the hooves are cloven! In this respect he is perhaps closer to Pan! The phalloi on offer at the stalls have a local, home-made quality, mostly made of clay, (though there are also some (Chinese?) plastic/rubber dildoes,) and there are plenty of phallic lollies and chocolate willies – things made easily in a mould.
The centrepiece of the event, at the middle of the main marquee, is the real fire under a great old iron cauldron full of green Bourani soup. Bourani is a thick, oil-less, spinach-based soup served on Clean Monday in Tyrnavos, and has given its name to the Festival, too.
Clean Monday (Greek: Καθαρά Δευτέρα), also known as Pure Monday, Ash Monday, Monday of Lent or Green Monday, is the first day of Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Christian, Saint Thomas Christians of India and Eastern Catholic churches.
It is usually in late February or early March, 7 weeks before (Orthodox) Easter. Any relationship with Ancient Greek Phallophoria, in honour of Dionysus, in early or late Spring, is as conjectural as a relationship between Guy Fawkes night and the Celtic Samhain. Syncretic religious festivals are by nature moveable feasts. The first written records about Tyrnavos’ Bourani festival date from 1898 – seventeen years after the creation of the modern Greek state after its mountain rebels liberated the country from the Ottoman Empire, of which it had been a province since the mid-15th century BCE. [After the sacking of Constantinople and the fall of the Byzantine Roman Empire in the first years of the 13th century, the whole region fell to the Ottomans over the following two hundred years or so.]
The cauldron is stirred constantly with a big old ladle, and around it people began dancing from shortly after 10am as the PA system cranked up and began blasting out traditional Greek choral dance music. The ottoman edges to the sounds are hypnotic, the gradually increasing rhythms mesmerising. After initial excitement walking round and round the square, I settled down in a seat outside one of the cafes for an espresso fredo, and to drink in the atmosphere as the square filled up with people. Soon the square was heaving!
Everyone wants their photo taken with Satyr – the old men, the kids, and the women. People take it in turns to stir the Bourani cauldron too. When the women stir the cauldron, the old men gather round, waving Phalloi in their faces, and lift the women up – often with an arm between their legs – so that they can stir the cauldron from above. The crowd roars approval every time.
A Greek brass band finally strikes up, and the live music really gets the dancers going. Its quite a spectacle! At last the Bourani is served in little plastic bowls – to anyone who wants some. With all that fun, laughter, and history stirred into the pot, I couldn’t resist: it’s salty, wholesome, and delicious!
After yesterday’s post it seemed appropriate to make the trip north to Vergina – ancient Aigai. Here the great mound of the Royal Tombs of the Kingdom of Macedon has been dug out and turned into a marvellous museum. One literally walks into the mound, to find a concrete domed roof over a range of cases and cabinets where the gold, bronze and other exquisite grave goods are laid out.
The gold oak-leaf and acorn crowns are particularly beautiful and impressive. I took my hat off as I walked down the concrete ramp into the tomb. It seemed the right thing to do. Past many of the various cabinets, one suddenly comes to an opening at the top of a ramp and flight of stairs down deep into the ground, at the foot of which stands the Tomb gates of King Phillip II. It is awe inspiring. I’ve not experienced anything like it outside the Valley of the Kings. Even Sipan, in Peru, where the museum was similarly built over the excavated tomb of a Moche king, and the gold and treasures, in truth, far more sumptious even than Phillip’s, did not have the sheer atmosphere and ‘wow’ factor of this Royal Tomb – at least for me. After catching my breath, stepping slowly down the steps – they keep the place quite dark, no doubt for the sake of the fading paintwork as much as for atmosphere – I stood at last at the foot of the stairs and paid my respects to the great King, father of the only greek to become Great King of the Persian Empire: Alexander the Great. It was quite humbling. Turning, at last, to retreat back into the 21st century, the museum, and the bustling of other tourists, I felt quite blessed to have visited this amazing place. Next to his grandfather’s tomb is that of (probably) Alexander IV, the son born to Roxanne, Alexander the Great’s Bactrian wife, a few months following the death of the great Conqueror.
Having read the novels of Mary Renault – praised for their historical accuracy as much as for the richness of their evocation of the era – on a number of occasions, I felt the power of this place quite keenly, and, following yesterday’s post, and prior to tomorrow’s Phallophoria in Tyrnavos, I was reminded that Phillip II, the King who united all Greece under the Macedonian throne, as well as several wives, enjoyed a string of lovers both female and male. His assassin was, in Mary Renault’s story at least, a former male lover. Alexander, also married and a father, (albeit posthumously), was renowned for his love of Hephaistion. They met as boys and remained lovers until Hephaistion’s death shortly before Alexander’s own. Also for his taking of Bagoas, the young male concubine of the conquered Persian Great King, Darius, to his own court, and his fondness for him.
From Aigai I returned southward, once more, but only half-way back to Larissa, to stop and take in the sights of another ancient Macedonian wonder, the Archaeological Museum and Archaeological Park of Dion. Having been to Athens on a number of occasions, it must be said that Dion is not spectacularly impressive: little exists above waist height, and the statuary is pretty battered, as a whole. Nonetheless it was well worth the visit, to discover the Villa of Dionysus, within the city, and the Sanctuary of Isis, on its outskirts. Dion was the location of the first ever Olympic Games (according to the Museum guide who welcomed me fulsomely – me being from Manchester!), and the gathering of athletes from across Greece required a number of different sanctuaries, outside the walls of the city, where encampments of visitors could make their observances. The Sanctuary of Demeter, and the all important Sanctuary of Zeus, (from which Alexander launched his campaign to conquer Asia), therefore, were accompanied also by a Sanctuary of Isis, too. But the city itself – beyond the clear precedent given to Zeus – seemed more devoted to Dionysus, and this is clear from the mosaics and the statuary.
The full set of photos from Dion are on Flickr – click on the photo below to go there.
Todger. Willy. Knob. Yep – this is a blogpost about the penis. Not my penis. Not yours or anyone else’s – not any particular penis, in fact, but The Penis. Not even just The Penis, either, but The Erect Penis: aka The Phallus.
Let me put this into some context. What follows is a fairly lengthy introductory ‘context’ preamble, and then a discussion about the Phallus. But before we start I need just to say that this is NOT, of course, a post about femininity, or from a particularly feminist perspective, albeit written by a feminist. But I want to mention right away how pleased I am that, at last, there has been, over the past hundred years or so, some movement on gender equality, although there is still a long way to go. So, that said, back to The Phallus.
1 – What do I mean by ‘Ancient’
‘Ancient’ – when we’re talking about Classical Times, this means Ancient Greece and Rome. ‘Ancient’ also, however, also often means pre-Historic. History – literally ‘his story’ – is by definition written, and therefore since the advent of writing, and by definition patriarchal, i.e. stories about men running things and ‘his’ being in charge.
This post about the Phallus in Ancient Greece needs to start with an acknowledgement that there remains some debate about how old patriarchy is, when and how it arose, whether it was preceded (in Europe, or anywhere else) by matriarchy or matri- or gynocentric cultures that have not been recorded as a part of our ‘history’. Margaret Murray and Marija Gimbutas are perhaps most responsible for some of these ideas, and despite many academic misgivings concerning their methods, there seems also to have been widespread acceptance that there is truth in what they asserted. As Ronald Hutton explained, of course, such acceptance did not mean they were right, and the mythology of a pre-Patriarchy matricentric ancient culture centred around a single Mother Goddess may indeed be just that: a mythology.
It must also be recognised that ‘History’ arrived in various parts of the world at different times. In some Amazonian corners it is still making its first appearances, thousands of years since developed writing first arose in the Middle East in the 4th millennium BCE. (Such developed writing systems grew slowly from a wide range of different Neolithic symbol and number systems, evident as early as the 7th millennium BCE both in China, and, according to Gimbutas, in Serbia, in the mysterious and untranslated Vinca symbols.)
So ‘Ancient Greece’ is something that could be understood to be both pre-historic, and historic, under conditions both of gynocentric and patriarchal social structures.
2 – Is this just a ‘gay’ thing?
Sexuality, per se, inevitably, figures hugely in any discussion of The Phallus. As a gay man myself there will inevitably be a lot about same-sex activity in this post. But The Phallus is obviously a Male thing, and it goes beyond sexuality, into spirituality. I need to say a thing or two about the roots of our modern notions of sexuality.
Anyone who has even heard of Foucault’s three volume History of Sexuality will know where I’m going with this. For the last two thousand years we have – as a species – been subject to, at first the Christian, and then the Islamic, suppression of non-procreative sex. Whether this is an innate part of how patriarchy works, or a later addition for the purposes of greater control of the self, there remains much debate. Without doubt, however, since the early 4th century CE edicts at the Byzantine Council of Nicaea against male same-sex activity, (perhaps simply aimed at arresting some Greek Philosophers who dissented from the new Church doctrine), Christianity has sought to repress our sexual natures, and confine our activities to strictly procreative acts. It was Peter Damian, in the 11th century, striving to stamp out the male same-sex activity that was rife amongst the clergy and in the monasteries, who first limited the notion of ‘sodomy’ to acts undertaken with a penis. Until then the story of Sodom, where Lot offered his daughters to be ravished by a mob, seemed focused less on male same-sex activity than on anything that was not strictly procreative.
Islam, from the 7th-8th centuries onwards, followed suit, in much the same vein. Despite edicts from the pulpit and minaret, however, there remained much ‘leeway’ and tolerance for centuries, and it was only in relatively recent times that attitudes really hardened. With the industrial and scientific revolutions in full swing, the British Empire, in Victorian times, helped to spread European ideas that medicalised sexual activity and ‘invented’ whole categories of ‘sexuality’ – ascribing a name to a series of specific sexual acts and ascribing that set of acts to particular types of personality: The term ‘homosexual’ was first coined by Hungarian sexologist Kertbeny (1869). This notion was taken up by Westphal in a famous article in 1870 as, “contrary sexual sensations” – regarded by Foucault as the “date of birth” of the categorisation, ‘homosexual’ (Foucault 1990). An 1895 translation of Richard von Kraft-Ebing’s sexologists’ bible Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) saw the word’s first appearance in English (Halperin 1990). Such Victorian values of prudery gradually changed the British Christian laws against sodomy (first introduced by Henry VIII in 1533, and a capital offence until 1861) into laws against a type of person – the homosexual. As early as 1860 in India, laws against sodomy were simultaneously exported to the colonies. So in the 21st century we see “sodomy laws throughout Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been colonial impositions,” (Gupta 2008:10) and do not reflect pre-colonial cultural mores. Such laws are, as Gupta titles his treatise, an ‘Alien Legacy’. “No ‘native’ ever participated in their making. Colonizers saw indigenous cultures as sexually corrupt. A bent toward homosexuality supposedly formed part of their corruption. Where pre-colonial peoples had been permissive, sodomy laws would cure them—and defend their new, white masters against moral contagion.” (Gupta 2008:10).
In ‘ancient’ times, then, the notion of ‘sexuality’, as we understand it today, simply did not pertain. People had sexual relations with each other, plain and simple, and such relations did not define who one was, in any sense. It is therefore likely that many, if not most people, were what we might today consider ‘bisexual’. Indeed, Ryan and Jetha assert in their book, Sex at Dawn, that their interpretation of the anthropological data suggests that even monogamy is a latter-day social creation.
So no, it is not a ‘gay’ thing, because ‘gay’ (a 1950s redefinition of an older word) and ‘homosexual’ (a late 19th century Victorian invention) simply did not exist in ancient times: the Phallus was a part of all male sexual activity.
3 – OK so what about today?
Modern attitudes to sexuality have – as we all know – very swiftly changed, in the last decade or two, and this is greatly to be welcomed. Legalisation of homosexuality in the West, during the 1960s and 1970s, has been followed by equality in age of consent, legal protections, employment laws, and most recently marriage law. Young people today are increasingly ‘heteroflexible’, sexually fluid, (or even pansexual) in their attitudes: yes, these young people are still mostly straight, but increasing numbers would happily go with the right person for a same-sex experience, and not consider it a problem. Perhaps this is closer to what Ryan and Jetha were on about, or a transition towards it at any rate. Sad to say, there has been a great polarisation, however, and whilst attitudes in the ‘West’ and ‘North’ have changed such that things have never been so good, in the ‘East’ and ‘South’ things have got much worse. At the United Nations, in March 2011, 85 of the United Nations’ 192 member countries sponsored a new version of the declaration first proposed in 2008, recognizing LGBTQI rights (Jordans 2011), and followed it up with a report published in December 2011 documenting violations of the rights of LGBTQI people around the world, including hate crime, criminalization of homosexuality, and discrimination. With the notable exceptions of Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and the West Bank (in the Palestinian Occupied Territories,) same-sex activity is illegal throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In most countries in this region there is no recognition of same-sex relationships or same-sex marriage; there is no legal route to same-sex adoption; gays are not allowed to serve openly in military; there are no anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation, or laws concerning gender identity/expression. In the Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty (Bruce-Jones & Itaborahy 2011). LGBTQI people are to all intents and purposes invisible in public spaces in these countries. It can only be hoped that this turn for the worse is soon reversed, and that attitudes soften once more.
In the West, though, now, we are welcoming in the extraordinarily liberating times of gender fluidity: transgender rights are in the newspapers, being championed (with varying success) by celebrities – think Eddie Izzard, Eddie Redmayne – the list is long…. More profound, still, in the spaces where gays and lesbians carved out their rights in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that have, in recent years, become somewhat colonised by Hen nights, a new thrust of drag and transgenderism is retaking the ‘scene’ with a spirited gusto that can only be praised and supported.
SO, as the (very lengthy) preamble finally moves towards its conclusion, my question is: is it time to recall, also, the sacred phallus of ancient times – the erection that represents virility, life-force, ‘generative power’, spirit : not in a patriarchal way – nor in a ‘gay’ way – but unashamedly ‘cocky’ nonetheless. It would, I believe, be in keeping with the new flexibility in sexuality and gender, to begin again to be more open about The Phallus.
Collections of material related to this topic – often known, in 19th century terms, as ‘erotica’ – used to be private, the whole thing frowned upon; now in more enlightened times this study is coming to light, less the focus of reproach or giggles, more of serious anthropological interest. Let us – for example – recall the story of The Warren Cup (see the excellent British Museum booklet on it). In solid silver, it has exquisite depictions of man-on-man anal sex on it. It was refused when first offered to, but later expressly bought by the British Museum, in (these) more enlightened times. The Museum have since also celebrated Hadrian and Antinous – the Roman Emperor famous for his northern British wall, and his younger male lover. More importantly, those sculptures with Phalloi which survived the destruction wrought by Victorian explorers who broke them off statues as a matter of public decency, are now being brought out of private collections and displayed in our museums.
I think the time is indeed ripe for people to consider and appreciate the beauty, spiritual history, cultural significance, and potency of The Phallus, and to understand it anew – and in a modern context.
Having ‘contextualised’ the broader debate, we need also to spell out a bit of the ‘background’ of discussion around The Phallus. It must be recalled – though it is perhaps impossible for any modern eye to see through the eyes of the pre-moderns, that, as far as we can understand it, pre-modern sexuality – the ancient form of gender flexibility – had none of the Victorian embarrassment or prudery around sex, sexuality and nudity of modern times. Sex was much more openly a part of our lives, much more vibrant and present, absent the shame and discounting that is habitual in this day and age: it was front and centre: I would say, as it should be. This was true not just for family life, but for those engaging in same-sex relations too.
Although in Europe the purging of the ‘pagan’ religions by the Inquisition was so complete that there remain scant – if any – remnants of how things were before the imposition of the notion of ‘Sin’, elsewhere in the world it is clear that such prudery is far from typical of the human condition.
As Stephen Murray asserts, Islam replaced pagan religions across the Middle Eastern region that included “sacred sexually receptive – often gender-variant – functionaries” (Murray & Roscoe 1997:24) – and Roscoe argues that the ‘eunuchs’ who ran the vast bureaucracies and harems of the Empires of the ancient Middle East may not even have been castrated: the translation of their title as ‘eunuch’ is laden with the historical overlay of 19th century English commentary. It is closer to the truth that these functionaries were simply not a dynastic threat to their rulers – uninterested in procreation – and in any case where castration was in evidence it is clear that it was also reserved in many cases only for the very highest ranks of such functionaries. Societies in the Middle East, then, included families and single men and women. The latter were more normally gathered in segregated groupings, either in temples or colleges. But not always. Nor were the male heads of the families always exclusive to their wives, or to what we would today call ‘heterosexual’ behavior outside of their marriages. According to Herodotus, even wives would spend time in the Temple of Aphrodite at least once in their lives, to be visited by a Temple devotee, to whom they would grant their favours.
Roscoe tells us more, too, about same-sex behavior in ancient times. “The category of status-differentiated homosexuality, includes not only paederastia, relations between adult men and youths such as flourished at Athens, but all relations between individuals socially defined as male in which one partner is of higher status than the other.” Status-differentiated homosexuality, then – familiar in English public schools like Eton between sixth formers and their younger ‘fags’ (Bullough and Bullough 1979) – is universally based on “a distinction between the inserting (high status) role and the penetrated (low status) role in sexual intercourse.” The more institutionalised, status-differentiated homosexualities appear “to have been more limited to the Mediterranean basin and areas of southwest Asia influenced by Greek and Roman culture” (Murray & Roscoe 1997:56). Third-gender roles, meanwhile, it seems, were common throughout the region, including, “state third-gender roles, in which gender difference was linked to specific positions in state and civic institutions, and folk third-gender roles, exemplified by the devotees of popular goddess cults,” such as Cybele, common to all the ancient cultures in all the regions that Muslims eventually contacted (Murray & Roscoe 1997:56), and indeed throughout the Roman Empire, including many altars to Cybele in Britain. That these third-gender roles so prevalent in the pre-Islamic Middle East and North Africa, and absorbed into pre-Modern Islamic culture, continued not only into the 19th century but – in some places – to the present day, is evidenced by the discovery, during the war in Afghanistan, by American troops, of institutionalised pederasty in the Pashtun areas of the Af-Pak border region (Wijngaarden & Rani 2011).
Sexuality and gender, then, as we have understood it in the West, in recent decades, is in fact far more complex, contextual, and dependent on local/regional mores than we are often led to believe. Historically it has had many and various setups, according to time, place, and context. Until very recently – with the medicalisation of sex in the 19th century – it has always been subject to spiritual understanding, but only very recently subject to both medical and spiritual censure.
The spirituality of sex, then, with ‘hierodules’ – religious functionaries (and devotees performing once-in-a-lifetime service) whose function was to have sexual relations with temple visitors – both male and female, and for both male and female, according to mood, the deity, or need, is something quite widespread, and ancient. So, we can move (at last!) to direct consideration of the pillar at the centre of this post.
The Sacred Phallus
First-off, it is a global phenomenon. By this I mean that it is likely something as old as humanity itself, to see in the image of the erect penis a symbol of much that is important to us. Until the advent of modern science – spermatozoa were not discovered until the late 17th century – it is likely, even, that little was understood concerning ovulation, and indeed Greek writers such as Aeschylus and Galen suggested that human beings emerged from the ‘seed’ within semen, and that the womb was merely the place where it grew before emerging as a baby. That such anatomical ignorance helped to impart some of the significance that semen, and the Phallus, had for people, should not, now, in more enlightened times, lead us to dismiss that significance altogether. The seed remains the bearer of half the genetic material, and the spark that sets things going in the egg that it finds. There are some assertions that the drinking of semen in religious rites is very ancient, and was even still being practiced in early Christian mystery sects. The importance of the Phallus, therefore, for ancient peoples – even during gynocentric times – cannot be overstated.
Neolithic peoples, aside from the many goddess figurines many of us will be more familiar with, also left behind many phalli in the archaeological record – the world over.
As the (less than academic) books of Alain Danielou And the highly academic work of Asko Parpola both assert, the ancient Indian deity Shiva, whose story Danielou traces back to the Indus Valley civilisation (3300BCE) – whose Phallus forms the central pillar of the world and whose semen spawned the universe – can be considered a cultural ‘original’ for a host of later, regional variations, gradually moving westward through the Middle East, as the Lord of the Animals, into Europe, where his story and role in local pantheons is found under the name of Dionysus (and of course his son, Priapus), Bacchus, and Cernunnos.
These ‘horned’ or ‘horny’ deities, whose Phalli represent Creativity, Life, Power and Inspiration, have so much in common, according to Danielou, that their local and regional variations are almost merely accents, rather than dialects, of an original Shivaic tongue. Certainly the main image we know of Cernunnos – from the Gundestrup cauldron – set beside the Indus Valley civilization depiction of (proto-) Shiva, seem to suggest that they contain many identifiably common themes.
Danielou asserts that (Greek) Dionysus and (Roman) Bacchus are closely linked to the (Indian) Shiva story. Such linkages are a common theme going back many centuries. Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus both believed the Greek Gods derived ultimately from the Egyptian pantheon. There are interesting arguments that it was in fact the phallic rituals that they all have in common that form the principal link.
Indeed the focus in this post is not to suggest such correlations, many of which may have simply been the result of syncretism in ancient times, but upon this common theme of the Sacred Phallus, and its prevalence across the ancient world. Beyond the more obvious Greek and Roman fascination with the Phallus, there is of course Egypt’s Pamyles, the Priapic God whose (Spring Equinox? see comments below) festival, the Pamylia – the ancient Egyptian phallophoria – were a celebration of his fostering of the child Osiris, one of the five all-important intercalated days between each 360day year (see Plutarch’s account, and the mention in Theodor Kock’s Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta (vol2) p289). Small Horus child statuettes with hugely exaggerated phalluses are found in their thousands along the sacred waterways where this festival (among others) took place, deposited in the waters as votive offerings to the fertility of the Nile inundation. Better known still, perhaps, is Egypt’s God Min, whose ithyphallic likeness appears frequently on the walls and pillars of the temples at Luxor, and who presided over the coronation ceremonies of New Kingdom Pharoahs who may have been expected to ejaculate as part of the ceremony – thus ensuring the annual flooding of the Nile.
Aside, too, from the Gundestrup cauldron, there is also the assertions of J.G. Frazer concerning the use the Druids of Old Europe had for Mistletoe: for them the white berries represented the semen of the Gods – according to Frazer, anyway – suggesting a common thread with sacred phallic practice elsewhere. There is the extraordinary work in Papua New Guinea of Gilbert Herdt on the Sambia male initiations – where boys drink the semen of the older boys and men of the tribe as part of their education: the semen is what makes them into men. In North America, there were the Native American berdache or Two-Spirit people, and, according to James Neill, cave-paintings of palaeolithic shamans with erect penises, dancing among the game animals. In South America, the Moche in particular represented the Phallus in their ceramics.
And at Chucuito in Peru there is this enigmatic Aymara/Inca temple:
So to find the Sacred Phallus in Ancient Greece is indeed not at all surprising. There are both antecedents that can be cited as origins for its presence, and plenty of evidence that the Sacred Phallus has been the focus of cultural and spiritual attention in all parts of the world.
The Phallus in Ancient Greece
The Phallus in Greece is evident from the 7th millennium BC at least.
In the Classical period, once the Bronze Age was well under way, still the stone statuary honoured the Phallus – as testified by one of the most famous statues on Delos, for example:
The Satyrs of the period are renowned, of course, for their ithyphallic representation, along with the Sileni and Priapus, and of course Pan:
Hermes was one of the Greek Pantheon – a son of Zeus – who was thought of as the one who leads souls to the other world and can restore them to Earth, feeding them with the power they need. He was the God of boundaries and their transgression, the protector of tombs, the “patron of magicians”. At road junctions and at street corners one would often find a ‘Herm’ – an ithyphallic statue of the God, Phallus proudly erect – to mark the transition from place to place.
In Thessaly, his cult had particular importance, uniquely so in Greece: on grave markers a Herm is represented accompanied with an invocation to Hermes Chthonios. In this manner, the deceased is identified with the God and coexists with him in the actual monument. The grave marker was sometimes simply a large stone Phallus.
According to Danielou, it was in honor of Dionysus that Greek villages organized Phallophoria festivals in spring: phalloi were carried in ritual procession. Kerenyi tells us that the revealing of a phallus in a basket figured as a central element of mystery cult initiation.
Nor was the sacred phallus in spiritual contexts the only manifestation of 6th and 5th century B.C. penis art. On one Greek island at least – Astypalaia – archaeologists have found “some of the world’s earliest erotic graffiti.”
Is it all gone? Suppressed by modern patriarchal religions? No. Here and there, there are strange relics, hangovers, echoes. The Sambia people are probably still around, though Herdt disguised their name and location, and there is debate around their practices, and whether they constitute abuse.
Less controversially, there’s a Penis Cafe in Sicily, a Phallus Museum in Iceland, a Penis Park in South Korea, and two annual Phallus Festivals in Japan. Also, though frowned upon by the Orthodox Church, even in Greece, there are echoes of this ancient past… In Tyrnavos, a small village near the capital of Thessaly, Larissa, an echo of this ancient practice lives on – perhaps even related to the more Roman Liberalia, at this time of year. There is no evidence that the Tyrnavos festival is older than the late 19th century. But its heritage is clear, and the Phallophoria takes place on the Christian festival of ‘Clean Monday’ every Spring.
In the next blog post, I will describe my experience, as I arrive and wander around the Phallophoria of Tyrnavos, 14th March 2016.
NOTE: This post developed into the later chapter by myself and co-author Caroline Ruddell:
Kreps, D. and Ruddell, C., (2022) The Phallus: Power and Vulnerability. In: Meredith Jones and Evelyn Callahan, Performing the Penis: Phalluses in 21st Century Cultures London: Routledge doi:10.4324/9781003108481-2
Kerenyi, Carl. (1976) Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Kertbeny, Karl-Maria (1869) Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and Its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation. Leipzig: Serbe’s Verlag http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2008/05/06/1942 (Viewed 9-2-2012)
Murray, S & Roscoe, W (1997) Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature New York: New York University Press
Neill, J. (2009) The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, Jefferson Caroina: McFarland
Ryan, C., & Jetha, C. (2010) Sex at Dawn HarperTorch
Sergent, B (1984) Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Boston, MA: Beacon Books.
Wijngaarden, J & Rani, B (2011): Male adolescent concubinage in Peshawar, Northwestern Pakistan, Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, 13:9, 1061-1072