Questing for Ancient Ritual

Questing for Ancient Ritual


A writer of historical fiction shares how she uncovered 2,000-year-old rituals that are still relevant today.

My new novel, Daughter of Black Lake, is set in the northern misty boglands of Iron Age Britain. The bog dwellers settled at Black Lake in the story live and breathe their daily and seasonal rituals. They mark the advent of each season with a festival and incessantly pay tribute to four gods: Protector, who keeps them from harm; War Master, who guides them in battle; Begetter, who created them; and above all, Mother Earth, who provides.

At the slightest provocation, the bog dwellers stoop to bended knee, touch their lips and then the earth, muttering, “Blessings of Mother Earth.” They bury loaves in the fields at seedtime and slay laying hens and ewes to ensure bountiful harvests. Their lives are steadied by the practices that give some sort of pattern to their chronically unpredictable, often harsh world.

Researching the rituals of the Iron Age Britons was no easy task. The written historical record is lacking: The Britons did not have the written word 2,000 years ago, and while the Romans did, as adversaries and subjugators of the Britons, we must take their commentary with a grain of salt. There is the archaeological record—useful, in many cases. For instance, we know from the artifacts discovered at the sites of ancient springs and bogs that the pagan Britons made a habit of pitching what was precious (e.g., an ornate sword) or aspirational (e.g, a stone etched with an apparently healthy eye) into watery places—sacred places that offered a way to honor or beseech the gods.

The archeological record, though, can be frustrating too. The experts are often in disagreement.

To create the rituals that bring to life the Iron Age world at Black Lake, I used a combination of the facts as we know them and the conjecture of the archeologists and anthropologists who best know the era. I delved into the British Isles’ mythology, too, and also its bygone and continuing rituals.

I read about millennia-old festivals and how they lie beneath so many of our modern traditions. For instance, the pagan celebration of Imbolc, where the goddess Brigid was thought to visit, bestowing protection on homes and livestock, is the precursor of Saint Brigid’s Day, still celebrated in Ireland to mark the advent of spring. And we see the pagan celebration of Samhain, held to honor the dead on a night when the otherworld was thought to be within reach, reflected in our Halloween traditions.

The connections between the ancient and the modern got me thinking about possible pagan underpinnings to other modern-day practices. Some of my most joyful moments researching came when I made what seemed like just such a connection: Surely, the pagan practice of pitching a precious possession into a watery place to draw a god’s favor is connected to our present-day penchant for tossing coins into fountains to draw good luck. And isn’t it possible that our tradition of carrying a bride over the threshold on her wedding night stemmed from a pagan bride’s (possibly feigned) reluctance as she was hauled to the marital bed?

As I read about our pagan ancestors’ predilection for warding off menace by displaying the skulls of their slain enemies, it seemed entirely plausible I’d come upon the precursor to the jack-o-lantern. Might our ancestors have lit those skulls from within on Samhain, much like we do ghoulishly carved pumpkins on our own spookiest of nights?

While our own lives often appear unpredictable (even more so during a pandemic), it must have felt doubly so to our ancestors. Perhaps they craved ritual. Perhaps they innately understood that by following the rules and behaving in a prescribed way, they would bring a measure of harmony and peace to their days. Perhaps they needed those small moments where they engaged with the divine, where they were reminded of and reassured by the sacred orientation of their lives.

If Black Lake’s bog dwellers were transported to the modern day, they would recognize much in our traditions. But they would surely see, too, all we that have lost by doing without extensive rituals.

Keep reading: “Gratitude Ritual for the New Moon.”

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