Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon

Five strangers. Five secrets. No refuge. No turning back.

“In the aftermath of 1066, a Norman army marches through the North of England: burning, killing and laying waste to everything in its path. The Harrowing has begun. As towns and villages fall to the invaders, five travellers fleeing the slaughter are forced to band together for survival. Refugees in their own country, they journey through the wasteland, hoping to find sanctuary with the last stand of the Saxon rebellion. But are they fleeing the Normans or their own troubles?

Priest, Lady, Servant, Warrior, Minstrel: each has their own story; each their own sin. As enemies past and present close in, their prior deeds catch up with them and they discover there is no sanctuary from fate…”

I’ve just finished reading “The Harrowing” by Wiltshire-born author James Aitcheson, a book  that I was inspired to read when I saw a write-up of it in a booklet publicising the recent 950th anniversary events for Chepstow Castle – construction of which began in 1067, the year after the Norman invasion under William The Conqueror. A change from the usual crime thrillers that I tend to gravitate towards then.

The narrative follows a group of five people who, for one reason or another, are heading north to Hagustaldesham (now Hexham) even as the Normans are laying waste to the large swathes of the country during the brutal “harrying of the north” of 1069/70 in which they seek to consolidate their power and quash the rebellion headed by Edgar Ætheling.

First we meet Tova, a young maidservant who is fleeing her home with her Lady, Merewyn. We do not know, at least not yet, why they are desperate to get away.

James Aitcheson

Before long they come across a warrior, Beorn, who saves them from certain death at the hands of a group of Normans, and a little later on the trio stumble across a priest named Guthred. The quintet is completed when wandering poet Oslac joins the group as they travel through seven wintry days and nights across a country ravaged by war.

Whilst the majority of the tale is told through Tova’s eyes, as they rest at night each has a tale to tell the others – some more willingly than others. The individual characters’ stories fill in a lot of background information, not just about themselves, but also about the rebellion and the response of the Normans – which seems to have been something or a scorched earth policy, destroying everything and everyone in their path with utter ruthlessness.

I did find at times the telling of their stories to be filled with a lot of unlikely detail, and the pace of the story drops a little as a result, but recognise that this was the author’s way of giving the reader the information needed to fully understand the story as well as to begin to appreciate just what a devastating period of time it was. This is achieved without our band of travellers having much contact with the Normans at all, meaning that a lot of the violence etc. is done “off camera” as it were. That does not make it any less horrifying, however!

Aitcheson spent the better part of a decade, by his own reckoning, studying and learning about the Anglo-Saxon period of history, including the Norman Conquest, and this particular book (his fourth novel) was three years in the making. That level of research shines through in the detail contained within and the excellent way in which the author transports the reader to a dark period in this country’s history.

This isn’t an pleasant story to digest, so if you’re after happy endings this is the wrong place to look, but for a fascinating look at the consequences of war (and an illustration that there really is no glory to be found) for all concerned – the guilty and the innocent – this is a very good read…

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The Dark Hereafter

winterfylleth-the-dark-hereafter

winterfyllethI have talked briefly about Manchester-based black metal band Winterfylleth before, when they were the opening act at Behemoth’s 2014 show at the O2 Academy in Birmingham. At that time I mentioned that the band’s name is taken from the Old English for “Winter Full Moon”. Other sources have stated the word to represent an ancient heathen festival to welcome the first full moon of winter, and others still that it simply means “October”. The band’s own stance on this, taken from their official website, states that it “represents the first full moon in October as well as the Anglo-Saxon festival of the arrival of winter.”

Winterfylleth - The Ghost Of Heritage (2008)
Winterfylleth – The Ghost Of Heritage (2008)

Lyrically the group strive to portray “tales of England’s archaic history, re-counting major events, battles, the spiritual outlook of the people and the way they lived and even draw inspiration from certain sites and scenery that grace the countryside of England and have played an integral part in England’s history.”

Winterfylleth - The Mercian Sphere (2010)
Winterfylleth – The Mercian Sphere (2010)

This intent has led to accusations of racism in the past and the band describing themselves as English Heritage Black Metal is bound to draw comparisons with other bands who celebrate the ancient heritage of their particular countries. Inevitably this national pride is often viewed as national socialism, or simply put, Nazism – particularly during turbulent times such as those we find ourselves in these days with such fierce debate around subjects such as multiculturalism and migration where folk talking of their country’s history are often perceived as anti-everywhere-else.

Winterfylleth - The Threnody Of Triumph (2012)
Winterfylleth – The Threnody Of Triumph (2012)

I am not overly concerned with the personal views of the members of bands that I listen to, and take the view that the lyrics form a part of the whole package – just as plot elements of films and books do – and that I don’t have to agree with or endorse any such views to appreciate the music on offer, as touched upon when talking about Shining’s latest album “XI : Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, Ends”. That said, I do not personally feel that writing and singing about the history and landscapes of your homeland should be considered as racism and that too often these days political correctness does more harm than good.

Winterfylleth - The Divination Of Antiquity (2014)
Winterfylleth – The Divination Of Antiquity (2014)

Anyway, enough rambling – what’s the new record like, I hear you ask? Well, “The Dark Hereafter” is Winterfylleth’s fifth studio album and follows on from 2014’s offering “The Divination Of Antiquity”. The first thing to note is that whilst previous albums have nine or ten tracks and clocked in at around an hour, this one contains only five tracks and has a duration of just over 40 minutes.

Ulver - Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr I 5 Capitler (1995)
Ulver – Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr I 5 Capitler (1995)

Of those five tracks one, “Led Astray In The Forest Dark”, is a translated-into-English cover of a track first recorded under the title “Capitel I: I Troldskog Faren Vild” by Norwegian band Ulver back in 1995 on their debut album “Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr I 5 Capitler”. Ulver are one of the band’s primarily influences, along with acts such as Enslaved and Slavic black metal bands like Drudkh. The album artwork is also clearly influenced by the Ulver debut.

Chris Naughton
Chris Naughton

Another track, “Pariah’s Path”, appeared as a bonus track on the aforementioned “The Divination Of Antiquity”. This suggests that, even though band leader Chris Naughton reckons that they are about two albums further down the line in terms of writing they were perhaps a little short of inspiration when preparing for “The Dark Hereafter”?

Simon Lucas
Simon Lucas

Whether or not that is the case I do think it’s fair to say that this is another really good record from one of the shining lights of today’s black metal scene. It may not be black metal in the traditional corpse paint and Satanism sense, but there seems to be a definite shift in appreciation for history and nature in recent years and Winterfylleth’s music fits in with this perfectly.

Nick Wallwork
Nick Wallwork

This isn’t “summery” music. The soundscapes here compliment the colder and bleaker seasons and suggest the majesty and beauty of the beautiful lands in which we live. Beauty may seem like an odd choice of word for such harsh and brutal music but the elements of folk music (though there is less of that than on the previous albums) together with clean and choral vocals that form part of the sound help to give a broader feel to proceedings. I also think it’s perfectly possible to appreciate the beauty in our landscapes during the coldest and wettest times of year so see no issue with doing the same with the aural representation on this album.

Dan Capp
Dan Capp

Of the remaining tracks it is without doubt “Green Cathedral” that is the highlight and centrepiece of the whole record. Not only due to its length (using up 13 of the 40 minute total) but also due to the sheer expansiveness of the song. Apparently influenced by author Ben Myers who wrote “The Green Cathedral is a place, a series of places, a philosophy, a feeling, a mind-set, a movement, a lack of movement, a meditation. Many meditations. It is walking and running, sitting and seeing…” this is surely the group encouraging us to get out and reconnect with nature – or at very least imagine that we are doing so whilst immersing ourselves in the music (best experienced through headphones). A truly excellent piece of music.

Mark Deeks
Mark Deeks

Winterfylleth these days features founding members Naughton (vocals / guitars) and Simon Lucas (drums / vocals) joined by long serving bassist Nick Wallwork, new boy guitarist Dan Capp (who also does the artwork) and keyboard player Mark Deeks. Though the overall sonic template hasn’t altered much since day one for this distinctive outfit I do feel that each release has shown some progression and development from the previous one, and “The Dark Hereafter” is no exception.

Winterfylleth
Winterfylleth In 2015

Although if you discount the inclusion of “Pariah’s Path” it is essentially only really three new songs and a cover this is still a really worthwhile addition to the band’s catalogue. The title track and “Ensigns Of Victory” are good, if typical, Winterfylleth tunes, but the best of the record is without doubt the aforementioned “Green Cathedral” and the really great version of “Led Astray In The Forest Dark”. Well worth exploring as the winter draws in…winterfylleth-btm

“The Dark Hereafter” tracklist:

1. The Dark Hereafter / 2. Pariah’s Path / 3. Ensigns Of Victory / 4. Green Cathedral / 5. Led Astray In The Forest Dark

Christmas Or The Winter Solstice?

Some folk may be aware that in recent years I have moved away from my Christian upbringing and become more interested in the natural world around me and developed an interest in esotericism, the occult and paganism. With the annual celebration that is Christmas almost upon us, I thought it was a perfect time to have a look at the origins of this particular Christian festival.

Pope Gregory I
Pope Gregory I

Looking more generally to begin with, there’s little doubt that paganism influenced early Christianity as the Roman Catholic church implemented a system of “Interpretatio Christiana” during the time of Pope Gregory I, whereby the church adopted pre-existing pagan rituals and declared that they were now undertaken in honour of the Christian god. Indeed, there is a school of thought that says the Catholic church used syncretism to incorporate and blend elements of pagan religions and practices into its own belief system and associated practices.

Woden
Woden

Christianity began to spread into Anglo-Saxon England from the late 6th century, steadily replacing their paganism, a belief system that allowed for many gods rather than the Christian approach of a single god. As well as adopting native pagan practices, the Christian church also used many existing sacred pagan sites to build their own places of worship.

Turning to Christmas, then, where can we find its origins? Let’s take a look at some of the things that we associate with it this time of year…

Druids With Trees
Druids With Trees

Christmas tree – trees were sacred in many pre-Christian traditions. In Celtic and Germanic paganism the oak tree was particularly revered. Evergreen trees, garlands and wreaths were symbolic of eternal life and elements of tree worship survived the Christianisation process.

Odin With Speipnir
Odin With Speipnir

Santa Claus – originally a different figure to that known as Father Christmas, Santa’s appearance owes something to the Norse god Odin – the hooded, cloaked figure with a big white beard who rode through the northern sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

Yuletide – this is a term used in connection with the Christmas period and comes from a pre-Christian festival held over twelve days from 21 December. Jölfuðr, one of the many names given to the aforementioned Odin (Woden to the old Anglo-Saxons), means Yule father. Obviously the yule log comes from this too.

Druids Collecting Mistletoe
Druids Collecting Mistletoe

Mistletoe – the druids had a ceremony in which they used mistletoe to aid fertility and vitality and this seems to have led to its incorporation into Christmas decorations as something for lovers to kiss beneath.

Saturn
Saturn

Holly – again this dates from druid times, when it was worn in a wreath upon the head, being connected with the winter solstice. In pre-Christian Roman times it was associated with the sun god Saturn. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, which ran from 17-23 December, was in honour of this deity.

Saturnalia
Saturnalia

Candles – during Saturnalia candles were used extensively as a symbol of the search for knowledge and truth. The festival led up to “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (the birthday of the unconquerable sun) on 25 December. It’s worth noting that present giving, drinking, feasting, singing in the streets and general debauchery were essential parts of Saturnalia.

As we can see, there are a fair few elements of the Christian Christmas that have no origin in Christianity at all. Even the date of Christmas Day itself as the birthday of the “son of god” seems to have been appropriated from the birth of the “new sun” of the pagan winter solstice.

Mithras
Mithras

It was also the birthday of Mithras, another ancient deity worshipped in the Roman empire. Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that Christmas was banned by the Puritans in the 17th century because of its pagan origins.

For many people today who are embracing modern paganism or druidry, this time of year is a celebration of the winter solstice. Advent (again, pre-dating its Christian connotations) is a time to prepare for the coming of the light. The new sun. From this point on the days will get longer and the earth will get warmer again.

A Pagan Santa?
A Pagan Santa?

Damh The Bard, a pagan musician and practising druid, wrote a great piece on the question of Christmas vs. Solstice, here, and what he has to say makes a lot of sense to me. I personally feel that the season lost its charm some time ago. Maybe that’s partly the result of growing older, but is I think also a reaction to how materialistic and commercialised the whole thing has become.

Ultimately, whether you celebrate this season in honour of a “sun god”, or in honour of the “son of god” (and maybe that’s just a different spin on the same thing anyway?!), it’s surely better to celebrate it honestly in accordance with your beliefs, with the best of intentions and to enjoy the time with family and friends ahead of the coming year, that’s what I’m fully intending to do…

Winter Solstice At Stonehenge
Winter Solstice At Stonehenge

Curse Of The Cwelled

c5dzShQInspired in part by the fact that yesterday was St. George’s Day, but also due to my music listening this week veering towards the extreme end of the metal spectrum, I have been listening again to Winterfylleth‘s “The Divination Of Antiquity” and Wodensthrone‘s “Curse”, both of whom celebrate the history of this country along ancient and pagan lines. In addition, I have been checking out the new album from Forefather, “Curse Of The Cwelled”.

Forefather
Forefather

Hailing from Surrey, Forefather were created in 1997 by brothers Wulfstan (lead vocals, guitars, bass) and Athelstan (guitar, bass, keyboards and backing vocals), both taking their names from prominent Anglo-Saxon figures.

As Forefather they have six previously released albums from 1999’s “Deep Into Time” through to “Last Of The Line” in 2011. Taking their inspiration musically from the likes of Iron Maiden and Burzum, Forefather’s lyrical inspiration largely comes from the Anglo-Saxon era of English history. Like many bands of their ilk, Forefather are often accused of racism for their celebration of English heritage – an accusation that we seem to do well in this country, arguably much more so than in countries where groups celebrate their own heritage, such as Scandinavian bands?

Wulfstan
Wulfstan

New album “Curse Of The Cwelled” (cwelled apparently being an alternative archaic spelling of the word quelled) carries on the band’s mixture of black / pagan / folk tinged metal, though are more melodic and accessible than many black metal bands.

A few thoughts on some of the songs contained on this album then, and what I believe to be the inspiration behind them…

The opening track “Havoc On Holy Island” starts with monastic chanting and sounds of the sea and goes on to tell of the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793 CE and is a mid-paced number, featuring strong melodies in the guitar lines, and instantly draws the listener in.

Viking invaders are again the source of the more furious sounding “By My Lord I Will Lie” – this time referring to the Battle Of Maldon in 991 CE.

Athelstan
Athelstan

The atmospheric title track concerns itself with the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 and the band’s belief that things began to deteriorate from then and includes some Old English narration taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the modern translation of which states “They built castles all across the land, and oppressed the wretched people, and afterwards it grew ever worse. May the end be good, when God wills”.

The effects of the aftermath of the black death on farm labourers and the like leading to the subsequent Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 CE forms the basis of “Rustics To Remain”, and closing track “The River-Maid’s Farewell” is a catchy instrumental number with a strong mediaeval feel.

Considering that Forefather are a two-man band who handle all the music and vocals this is a work of great accomplishment all round. This isn’t a genre, or lyrical area, that will appeal to all but for fans of the aforementioned Winterfylleth etc. this is well worth checking out.

a135a4d4643ea74b96c27deab7daf1a1“Curse Of The Cwelled” tracklist:

1. Havoc On Holy Island / 2. The Anvil / 3. By My Lord I Will Lie / 4. Fire Of Baited Blood / 5. Curse Of The Cwelled / 6. Awakened Hate / 7. Painted With Blood / 8. Rustics To Remain / 9. Edge Of Oblivion / 10. Master Of Fate / 11. The River-Maid’s Farewell

The Oak…

Oak Tree
Oak Tree

So, as I begin this journey, it seems appropriate to begin with an explanation for the title “In The Shadow Of The Oak”…

About a decade or so ago, my parents moved away from city life to a much more rural location in Devon. On a trip to visit them there, I can recall having a conversation with my Mum, during which she asked me if I could ever see myself living somewhere like that. My reply was a definite no. As far as I was concerned the countryside was quiet, dull, and lacking in facilities and entertainment.

Well, fast forward a few years, and I find myself making the concious decision to move away from city life, both personally and professionally, relocating our home to the Forest of Dean, and now living in a lovely rural area in a very old cottage.

Forest of Dean
Forest of Dean

In addition I have been further developing my interest in the natural world, history and pre-Christian religions. It is these things, together with the area in which we live that have inspired that title of this site.

The oak tree is the national tree of England, and has been important throughout history, not least with regard to religion.

It is generally accepted that England as we know it first started to take shape during Anglo-Saxon times. At that point in history, the population was made up of a mixture of indigenous Romano-Britons and Germanic tribes who had migrated from Continental Europe.

Prior to the Christianisation of England in the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans with a polytheistic faith, worshipping many deities.

The most popular god appears to have been Woden, counterpart of the Norse god Odin. Woden was said to have been the leader of the Wild Hunt, as well as a healer.

The second most widespread god was Thunor, whose Norse counterpart is Thor, a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength and the protection of the common man.

Thunor
Thunor

In this period of history the oak tree was regarded as the Tree of Life, as it’s deep roots penetrate the Underworld and it’s branches reach high into the sky.

We also believe it is likely that the oak tree was sacred to the Druids, who have always been associated with sacred groves and particularly oak forests.

More specifically, the Forest of Dean is home to the largest stock of mature oak in the country. This is in part due to the English naval hero, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson.

Vice Admiral Lord Nelson
Vice Admiral Lord Nelson

Lord Nelson visited the Forest in 1802 looking for shipbuilding timber and became concerned by the diminishing stocks of oak.

As a result, thirty million acorns were planted, although by the time they were sufficiently grown, shipbuilding had moved on to use iron and steel.

Our home lies surrounded in all directions by trees, and not far from here is the site of the Newland Oak.

Newland OakThis remarkable tree is known to have been in place for at least two hundred years, and was recorded as being 46ft in girth before the elements took their toll in the 1950s and 1960s. It is estimated that the tree was around one thousand years old, and has been succeeded by a new oak grown from a cutting of the original that was almost 23ft high and over 2ft in girth when measured in 2000.

It is, therefore, fitting that I offer my thoughts and musings from the idyllic setting that I have found in the Shadow of the Oak.