Aves Druidum

by Dennis on September 12, 2011

Some year ago, I read Professor John North’s superb book entitled Stonehenge, Neolithic Man and the Cosmos. It contained many things of great interest, but I was particularly struck by his observation that our ancestors may have regarded the stars as their ancestors, or spirits of the dead. Such a concept makes sense to me for a wide variety of reasons, while it also chimes with one of the questions posed by Professor Timothy Darvill when he was contemplating the bluestones from the Preseli Hills….”Are these a rockbound equivalent of the stars of the night sky, a Milky Way trapped in stone?”

Numerous archaeologists have suggested that the bluestones at Stonehenge somehow represented the dead ancestors of the men and women who put these stones in place, but all this and more will be familiar subject matter to regular visitors to this site, as I’ve written about it all at great length in numerous posts over the years.

Phantoms most certainly walk in daylight and have been recorded as having done so for millennia; for example, in Book III of Lucan’s Pharsalia, lines 477 – 481, there’s a memorable passage describing a Druid grove in Massillia, containing the following lines:

Men flee the spot
Nor dare to worship near: and e’en the priest
Or when bright Phoebus holds the height, or when
Dark night controls the heavens, in anxious dread
Draws near the grove and fears to find its lord.

Similar events were recorded as precursors to Boadicea’s rebellion, while Psalm 91, verses 5 and 6 allude to evil forces being abroad by daylight. Nonetheless, the spirits of the dead are mostly of thought of as wandering by night, so it is not difficult to understand how tiny, flickering points of light in the black void of the night sky could have been viewed by our ancestors as spirits of the long departed. By the same token, it is easy for me to look at the while flecks in bluestone and to see there a representation of the night sky, which in turn suggests that the bluestone itself somehow embodies spirits or souls of the dead, perceived as stars against a backdrop of the sky.

I’ve also written at length here about my belief that the Romans used Stonehenge as a place of divination in general and as a place to practise augury in particular. With all this in mind, it occurred to me some years ago that the ancient priests who officiated at ceremonies at Stonehenge might well have had a great interest in starlings, principally on account of the remarkable speckled plumage of this bird.

The feathers resemble stars against a background of the night sky, which is presumably where these creatures got their name from, so it seemed to me that the Druids in particular, on account of their recorded fascination with the night sky and the heavenly bodies it contained, might have seen starlings as embodiments or representations of the dead. Other related thoughts occurred to me, but this proposed post was just one of many that I’ve put together over the years and I simply never got around to writing it up properly.

A few weeks ago, however, I was idly browsing through Christopher Chippindale’s excellent Stonehenge Complete, when I came upon a striking passage on page 71, where the author chides John Aubrey for making arguments about Stonehenge that contain distractions, while he points out that the supporting evidence for a Druid Stonehenge is “slight and dotty”. As part of his case, he presents the following quote from Aubrey, speaking of the stares [starlings] that nested in the gaps between the sarsen uprights and lintels:

“[They] did put me in mind, that in Wales, they do call Stares Adar y Drudwy, sc: Aves Druidum, and in the singular number Aderin y Drudwy, sc: Avis Druidum. The Druids might make these holes purposely for the birds to nest in. They are loquacious birds and Pliny lib: Hist. Nat. tells us of a stare that could speak Greeke’.

I was astonished by this, not least because Caesar recorded that the ancient Druids wrote using Greek letters, but I’ve decided to leave it at that. There was a time when I would have written between 5,000 and 10,000 words in a post such as this, looking into the capabilities of corvids, the speaking abilities of starlings, the phenomenon of psychopomps, ancient descriptions of birds as harbingers and secret messengers, my own experiences of living and spectral creatures, Odin’s ravens and much else besides, but I will leave it to anyone who feels inclined to investigate these matters for themselves to send in contributions and insights that they believe might be of interest to others here.

In brief, I find myself less and less interested in reading what most archaeologists or authorities on the Druids have to say, but more and more interested in studying those realms that are almost completely neglected or ignored by what I can only call The Establishment. As just one example, I was mesmerised by the link sent to me recently by Dr Robin Melrose, dealing with the origin of ancient names of islands around Britain, but there are many other equally profitable avenues of enquiry to pursue; as for why this course appeals to me, I can’t improve on this quote from Kenneth C Davies:

“I don’t see that as an either/or… The world is cynical — with good reason. But it is also amazing, and I find joy in the ‘digging’ and in seeing that ‘glimpse of truth for which you’ve forgotten to ask,’ as Joseph Conrad once wrote. The great part is that we can have fun doing it. And that’s what I am about. Being on the road to getting smarter and enjoying the trip.”

Starling photograph courtesy of Mark Robinson.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Melrose September 13, 2011 at 7:42 am

Hi Dennis,

I realise these aren’t starlings, but the skeletons of 35 eagles have been found in a Neolithic chambered cairn at Isbister on South Ronaldsay. Eagles are obviously important in Celtic mythology – e.g. in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, Lleu is transformed into an eagle when Gronw ‘kills’ him. Various birds were also found in a pit at the Romano-British temple at Jordan Hill, Weymouth – these may have included starlings, but the reports I’ve read differ on what the birds were (I suppose it’s not always easy to tell).

Dennis September 14, 2011 at 2:33 am

While I remember, CC also writes: Aubrey’s Druids were keen on birds: possibly they ‘did converse with Eagles, and could understand their language’.

JohnWitts September 14, 2011 at 5:42 am

I have seen Celtic religion divided into five broad categories of which animism is one along with sky, earth (mother), water and the otherworld. Certainly the belief in transmigration of the soul into animals is clearly hinted at in the story of Math son of Mathowny referenced by Robin.

JohnWitts September 15, 2011 at 6:49 am

This may illustrate one of many Celtic tradtions continued in the present day.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/isleofman/content/articles/2005/12/07/hunting_the_wren_feature.shtml

Wrens were regarded as prophetic by the Celts.

Dennis September 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm

It interests me that wrens were compared with eagles, after a fashion, especially in light of what Dr Robin Melrose had to say about the skeletons of eagles being found in a chambered cairn. It also interests me that they belong to the genus Troglodytidae, or cave dwellers, particularly in light of what Pomponius Mela wrote about Druids holding their meetings in a cave or specus, something I’ve written about at great length elsewhere on Eternal Idol.

JohnWitts September 17, 2011 at 6:37 am
Dennis September 17, 2011 at 11:00 pm

A very interesting link, John, so thank you for that. By another cosmic coincidence, here’s a very interesting BBC feature on talkative wild birds, which naturally makes me wonder about how such events would have come about and been perceived in ancient times.

Jonathan September 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm

If North is correct, perhaps our ancestors believed that they had had some hand in the sending of selected ancestors to become the stars that watch over those left behind in the reincarnation cycle?

JohnWitts September 19, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I found this essay very interesting: http://www.lablit.com/article/341

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