Our Indigenous Culture
Humans probably first arrived in Britain around 800,000 BC. These early inhabitants had to cope with extreme environmental changes and they left Britain at least seven times when conditions became too bad. Continual human occupation began about 10,000 BC as humans returned to Britain following a very cold period.
Rising sea levels, cut Britain off from continental Europe for the last time around 6500 BC. During this period, known as the mesolithic (middle stone age) the lifestyle that our ancestors led was known as hunter-gatherer. Although the people have very often been portrayed as ‘primitive’, they were definitely not.
Mesolithic people followed a complex pattern of seasonal occupation, or in some cases permanent occupation, with associated land and food source management where conditions allowed it. The better description for this lifestyle is pastoralist.
They made an amazing array of different hunting tools, from polished stone axes & adzes to tiny microliths for fixing onto harpoons and spears. At archaeological sites evidence has been found that demonstrates that they led a rich, complex life, closely entwined with the natural world and in close connection with the land. Beads made from stone and amber suggest personal adornment, and the antlered frontlets found at Star Carr are indicative of shamanic practices.
Farming began in Britain around 4,500 BC and the control of local resources by individual groups slowly took over, leading to a more settled way of life. However the close connection with the land and the natural world would have remained.
Our culture was created out of this world, our relationships with the land, our spiritual practices and lore and gramarye were embedded into our DNA memory for inbetween 10,000 and 800,000 years.
Animist, Shaman, Wise-Woman, Cunning-Man
Nothing stays the same forever, things evolve. Through cross-channel connections and trade; new burial rites, people, objects and technology were introduced into Britain. Including the skill of copper and gold metal working. This did not fundamentally change our ancestors lifestyle, rather it assimilated new ideas into the culture.
Bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tools. People started to bury their dead beneath earth mounds known as barrows, often with a beaker alongside the body; which became known as the ‘beaker package’. When iron working techniques arrived, iron replace Bronze for making tools but bronze was still used for jewellery.
The way of life remained pretty much the same; essentially rural with most people living in small villages and farmsteads with communities run by an individuals or small groups. With a diversification of technologies comes the need for people to specialise. One Shaman no longer fits all requirements.
So different specialities arose. There were people with knowledge of the plants, herbs, healing and midwifery that today we refer to ‘wise-women or cunning men’. Crafts people with abilities to make baskets or weave or carve wood and alchemists; those who could take a natural substance and turn it into another such as blacksmiths. This created a range of specialists who each held part of the knowledge of the tribe. By this time there was also a caste of religious leaders called Druids.
Things started to change with the invasion of the Romans and the introduction of towns. Although even then there were still enormous swathes of the country that continued life as before. The biggest change came with the Anglo-Saxon invasions, this changed our language and created the concept of England (Angle-land). The wide-scale adoption of christianity which followed totally changed our world view.
The Old Ways
The Old Ways are Animistic (perceiving all things as having a life-force) and, on the whole, polytheistic (a belief in multiple deities). They recognise that we are an integral part of the natural world.
The Old Ways didn’t die out but the practitioners slowly went into hiding after Christianity arrived (during some periods it was absolutely essential).
It has only been around 1500 years (give or take a few) since Christianity established itself enough to have a total grip on most of the British Isles. Although that grip was always more tenuous in the rural areas. It is the more rural areas where the customs and practices of The Old Ways remained strongest and where there is still a strong body of them today. They are still hiding; in the customs & practices, the folk stories & song of this land.
One of the oldest deities that we have is ‘Elen of the Ways‘. Elen is a female antlered goddess of Sovereignty (of the land) and guardian of the ancient trackways of Britain. This is a role that hearkens back to her very beginnings with our Palaeolithic Ancestors; the female antlered deity. It is only Reindeer where the females also have antlers.
The antlered frontlets found at Star Carr are a link to the Shamanic practices of our ancestors during this period. These were tools that would enable the Shaman to become one with deer; to obtain knowledge for the benefit of the whole tribe.
Over the aeons of time Elen has worn many masks, each one appropriate for the age. She still lives on in Wales in the form of three trackways that bear her name ‘Sarn Helen’ (Helen being the Christianised form of Elen).
So it is with the Old Ways, whilst their substance does not change they also do not remain static – they cloak themselves appropriately for the times in which they are living. This also applies to the practice of Shamanism, everything evolves. We are not trying to re-create a carbon copy of our ancestors practices, we cannot, their exact procedures have disappeared in the mists of time. This does not mean that we have lost the knowledge; it just means that it has adapted as it has travelled through time and now wears clothing appropriate to the times in which we are living.
To become practitioners of The Old Ways we are therefore spared the requirement of going back to living in caves & hunting and gathering as our sole way of providing for ourselves.
To discover other aspects of the Old Ways do have a look at some of the other pages in this section.