view of distant headland and sea, isle of Wight

Ancient Mysteries

An investigation into some strange stories from the Middle Ages

ancient and modern: stone circle and skyscrapers

A modern-day quest

If you have ever stood in the middle of an English forest and felt that the trees know something that you don't, then this quest is for you. Perhaps there was an ancient Bronze Age barrow nearby, an old burial mound containing the cremated remains of someone who may once have thought just like you and who died nearly four thousand years ago. Or perhaps you live on the other side of the world from Britain and feel the same way sometimes in the pine woods or the mountains; a sense of wishing to peel back the perplexing Christianity that has puzzled you since you were an adolescent and to rediscover a truth that may once have lain at the very heart of Christianity. A magic which seems to hide itself near the banks of a woodland lake or at the end of a hard climb, but never in the harsh echoes and soft carpeted aisles of a church.

Perhaps the landscape of the British Isles remembers an ancient belief; a belief that existed before the birth of Christianity and Islam. But what was that belief? It must be that well over fifteen hundred years of Christianity have eradicated it completely - right? Can we really try to cast a line across waters muddied by nearly two millennia and reel in a doctrine that British and Gallic druids of the first century BC forbade even to be written down? A belief that was guarded with absolute secrecy and spoken of as 'the mysteries' by ancient Athenians in the fifth century BC? Can we try to reconstruct a system of religious belief whose core values may once, in the European Bronze Age, have stretched from Sicily to Sweden, from Britain to the Balkans? Where can we possibly begin to look?'

In ancient Athens a festival was held every year in celebration of the god Dionysus. The raison d'ĂȘtre underlying this festival may have been understood fully only by those who had been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, or the mysteries of Dionysus. Its initiates were sworn to secrecy, in the same way that British druids in oak groves on the banks of the River Thames only twelve hundred miles from Eleusis were reluctant to make their core understandings explicit. Pythagoreans in Italy were inclined not to explain their beliefs. But miraculously, clues to the nature of this lingering belief system may exist to this day, in the most unexpected places. The mythology of Ireland and Wales, of course, and stories that look back to pagan times in the medieval literature of Iceland. But less expectedly, perhaps, in medieval Christian writings and hagiography. Archaeology. The plays of ancient Athenian dramatists. Hints given by classical authors; more than hints, possibly, as you will see. And then there are the really unexpected places: the medieval Arthurian literature of England, Wales and France. Breton lais. Medieval romance in general.

Hannah Scot was burned alive by the Christian Church in 1509 for reading medieval 'Romans' in her step-father's library and guessing at the truth. A student in a druid College fifteen hundred years before Hannah's birth might have spent up to twenty years in such intensive study, memorising hundreds of tales, allegories and figurative adventures and epics in order to facilitate her understanding.

Could some of these stories still exist?

Some strange medieval stories

Hannah thought they did. She copied dozens of works of medieval literature and legend over the course of about thirty years, at the end of the fifteenth century, in the clear belief that many of these stories betray an antique creed. The six existing manuscripts of her transcriptions contain nothing that is not found in other British medieval manuscripts surviving today in libraries across the United Kingdom, and indeed across the world. But until now, not all of these tales, legends and other works of medieval literature were available in Modern English or retold for the general reader in unabridged form. They deserve to be. And now they are. So you can judge for yourself.

Explore the motifs

To help you judge, two young researchers, Miranda Braithwaite and Quintin Rees-Edwards, have completed a project designed to highlight a small number of literary motifs as they richochet down the ages in a variety of cultural forms, culminating in these strange stories in Middle English that Hannah was so intrigued by. These motifs resonate down through pre-Christian European mythologies and legends, artistry and artifacts, and reappear once again in the surprisingly bizarre stories that were obviously popular to a broad section of the population of medieval England. They have even found ripples extending into the works of English poets like Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser and William Blake. Quintin and Miranda have taken some mysterious motifs and focussed their research into seeking them out wherever they can find them, over three thousand years of European cultural expression.

As they have explored these motifs, one in particular has struck them by its sheer ubiquity; so much so that they have split it into four parts, any two or three of which are represented to varying degrees everywhere they have looked, be it in Arthurian legend, Irish mythology, Ancient Greek philosophy or Homeric epic. And this has given them an idea for their own analogy. For this motif is endemic within the whole genre of medieval romance, and it can be traced back, they believe, through Welsh and Scandinavian mythology to the drama and mythology of ancient Greece, where it is clearly used as a metaphor for something else. That motif is disguise, the concealment of identity, the exchange of identity or the hiding of a person's origins. Some instances of disguise or the concealment of identity in medieval romance are so unbelieveable as to be ludicrous. As if you wouldn't recognise your best friend when you met him again ten years later, or after a few months spent in a forest. As if your wife wouldn't recognise you after a year or two away! It is the deep significance of these very strange but common plot elements that seems to be crying out for an explanation, and that they have sought to explain.

So they have created their own analogy; at least, with Quintin's encouragement (he has studied geology). The literary motifs are like metro tunnels snaking their way through the sediments beneath a city; sediments that lie on top of one another, older lying beneath younger, Arthurian legend resting upon Welsh mythology which in turn rests upon ancient European religion but all derived from the same uplands, eroded from the same motherlode, and containing enough of the motifs to betray a shared nature. As you go along these metro tunnels and explore the motifs, following your own unique path, you will come to appreciate this similarity.

antirrhinum as as bullseye

Awake Albion, awake! and let us awake up together…
So spoke London, immortal Guardian!

William Blake, artist, poet, engraver, 1757–1827.

castle at the top of a wooded slope

Huge round barrow on the Mendips

Freshwater Bay, England