Midwinter Keening and Carols of death and rebirth
Here, in the northern hemisphere, we’re in the darkest part of the year, awaiting the light. Over the millennia of human experience, this has become a metaphor for many things in many faiths: the old man or crone sliding into death to be reborn as the child of light, the battle between oak and holly, and of course death and rebirth.
This close connection between death and rebirth is perhaps something that is difficult for us modern humans to appreciate, especially here in the west where we have a long spiritual dissociation with the concept of reincarnation. Nevertheless, the mythology and early poetry of the British Isles hints that our ancestors had a sense that the soul journeyed on, in a different form perhaps, but certainly death was not the end of the story.
Our Neolithic forefathers and mothers were the first farmers of these Isles, and the Winter Solstice seems to have been a very important festival. Evidence from feasting sites such as Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and Llanmaes in south Wales show that from the Neolithic through to the Bronze age, the Winter Solstice was a time of great gatherings and feasting, possibly more so than any other time of the year, and that people attended these feasts from far and wide. In the case of Durrington walls, pigs from as far as Orkney (according to the isotropic minerals found in their bones) were slaughtered and consumed. We can perhaps imagine then, that representatives from tribes across the length and breadth of these Isles gathered there to meet, feast, renew bonds, make trading alliances, conduct ceremonies and sing or chant the sun back into the sky at Winter Solstice, to welcome the birth of light and renewed fertility of the land.
Some of the great burial chambers and monuments our Neolithic tomb builders left across our landscape are aligned to the sunrise on winter solstice dawn, among them Maeshowe in the Orkneys and most famously Newgrange in Ireland. At these burial chambers, the dawning sun of the winter solstice enters down a passageway into the belly of the burial chamber, illuminating the space that would have held the bones of the tomb builders’ tribe, perhaps metaphorically offering them rebirth from the womb-tomb of the earth at this point of the year.
Interestingly, only certain people were placed in these tombs, and there seems to be little rational that archaeologists can decipher as to who was selected and why. In the main, the skeletal remains found within these burial chambers are both male and female, young and old, and this only serves to add to the puzzle. Neither do they seem to belong only to the higher echelons of Neolithic society, nor be chosen because they died in battle.
I like to think that they considered the bodies of their dead like seeds, planting them within a tomb that, after all, would have looked like a pregnant earth belly jutting up from the earth. After all, the Neolithic people were bound the earth and the cycles of nature in a way we cannot appreciate today. The success or failure of their crops and animals was life or death. Surely this would have had a bearing upon their spiritual beliefs and practices. Seeds germinate deep in the earth, sometimes in what seems to be the dead of winter. These early farmers would have witnesses that life miraculously emerges from the dead of winter.
I can't help wondering whether just as they would have chosen the best seeds for crops needed to sustain their families to plant in the earth, whether that might have extended that concept to the selection of their dead, selecting those who had talents or skills (midwifery, animal husbandry, healing, fighting) that needed to be brought through and nurtured in the tribe once more, and planting them in the womb-tombs of their burial chambers.
Some Archaeologists have suggested that these Neolithic burial chambers might well have been used as places for ritual conception as well as to house the dead. On nearby Anglesey, the beautiful passage tomb of Bryncelli Ddu has at its centre a smooth pillar of bluechrist, a metamorphic rock, some 2m high with a rounded head. It has been suggested that this represent a phallus, signifying the tomb as a place of fertility as much
as death. Just as seeds were placed on the altar at the heart of Newgrange for the midwinter sunrise to bless and fertilise them before planting, it is possible that couples were sent into these tombs to procreate, with the hope of germinating a child-seed that might take on the essence or soul of one of the selected ancestors, and bring their skills, knowledge and talents back to the tribe.
Morbid and perhaps lacking in romance, though it may seem to our modern sensibilities, I don’t think that making love among the honoured dead and the spirits of the tribe’s ancestors would have been taboo as it might seem to us today. Death was not final. The cycle of the year showed our Neolithic forefathers and mothers that. It is us that have lost a sense of death as transformation, it is our modern society that has distanced us from the gift and grace of proximity to the death of our loved ones, that which honours it as a rite of passage to another state, rather than a termination of life and annihilation of the spirit.
Just as I was thinking about this piece, Sharon Blackie posted her latest podcast. It is a lively and deeply interesting conversation with Irish singer and academic Mary McLaughlin about the funeral traditions of Ireland, and in particular, the sacred act of ‘keening’ the deceased. This is a form of ritual singing and wailing that was led by an experienced woman to enable the close family to move through the process of deep grief towards renewal and to send the spirit of the deceased onwards. We have lost that tradition here in Wales and in England, but I can’t help feeling that it was part and parcel of our death rites once too, and possibly as ancient as the ceremonies of our Neolithic ancestors. The podcast is well worth a listen – click here
At this point of the year, we are in the deepest point of death. But it is time for the Keening for the passing of life to cease so that we can move towards a song of renewal. It’s time to sing the light back into our world, to celebrate the renewal of life, the passing through death to rebirth, and to watch for the signs both in the natural world and nurture the light within ourselves as we husband that which we want to tend and grow in this coming year.