Saturday, February 21, 2009

Badgers and barrows

A badger entrance on East Kennet Long barrow

A tale; Once many thousands of years ago a great barrow was raised by men over their dead, nature grew its flowers and trees over the barrow, birds came and went, the little bones of their deaths adding to the fertility of the soil. Foxes, badgers and deer sheltered in the shade of its trees and bushes. All around the great downs stretched, softly rounded, giving semblance of the goddess that may once have been worshipped a long time ago.
But we are not concerned with the affairs of man, for they are soon over, it is the barrow, decaying gently over the years, the purple of violets and pale primroses in the spring, that would have grown on this mound under the shade of the trees . In the hot summer months, the scarlet poppies, the pale blue, butterfly blue of the cranesbill, the white ox eyed daisy would be seen in the fields around, and the sweet smells of crushed thyme on the path, the yellow of ladies bedstraw as it laced its way through the wheat, would perfum the air on hot afternoons.
Flowers drifting through the seasons, then their lives spent, seed would fall to the ground, and the cycle would go on. Nature moving through time.
Many years ago, badgers moved into the barrow, this was a slow process, for badgers are territorial and home-loving and take many generations to build their small clans. They must create a great burrow deep in the earth, warm and dry with the roots of the trees hanging from the earthen ceilings. Their bedding would be the soft dry hay of the meadows, arranged in a soft comfortable pad for daytime sleeping. Coming out at night to hunt, they would raid the nearby farms, rustling through the gardens of the sleeping village below the hill on which they lived. Drink from the clear flowing river that wound its way past the church and the manor house.
Denizens of the night we may call them, these black and white creatures, low-bellied they scuffle along in the dark intent on hunting for food, in the damp rainy season it would be worms pulled from the ground. When the earth was hard baked from the summer sun, then they would raid the farmers barn, perhaps taking a chicken or two, or if they were quick enough a baby rabbit from the burrows on the hill.
As the generations of badgers grew in the mound, they would expand the tunnels deeper into the barrow, going down beneath the soft dark earth, through the layers of white chalk till eventually they came to stone. Now badgers are strong creatures, and if you look outside their entrances you will see the small stones dragged out of their setts. But for our badgers in the mound these stones were enormous, like the walls of the houses in the village below.
They would eventually dig round the stones, finding themselves in a small stone cave, unvisited for thousands of years, a sepulchral space, bones would be scattered on the floor. Luckily for the badgers they would be indifferent to such a find, bones are just bones, the last remnant of a living creature. We humans on the other hand, would be given to excited speculation, a reverence for our past ancestors that would make an animal look with complete astonishment at such foolishness.
But stop are'nt we more intelligent than the dumb brain of our black and white friends, we have a right surely to know everything that there is about the world. Inquisitive and curious we pry and turn over any new find that passes our way, and so we acquire learning, though where it gets us goodness knows. I could make up a story about the humans that once raised this great mound, their hunting and growing of crops. Children born and dying in a time when illness was little understood, look over the hill there are more mounds and settlements around. The soft murmur of voices, the lowing of cattle, a tree is being cut down and the sound of its snap on the air travels down time. The sun is up in the sky and all is well in the world, but these people are gone and all that remains are the spirits of the mind.
The wind can be cold up on the downs, past spirits can haunt the air, rustling grass bending softly beneath an unseen footstep, the wind through the trees plays a different seasonal music as it bends the leaves to and fro. Just for a moment though, imagine the great entrance of stones to the mound, the forecourt on which the people will be gathered to perform some ceremony, an animal slaughtered maybe, the human dead picked clean of its flesh by the black carrion crows that wheel in the sky, now the bones must be laid solemnly in the dark cave with reverence. This will be the duty of the shaman, he will be attired in some form of dress (you must imagine this yourself) a decorated stone mace raised to the sky he will chant in a strange language. The smell of the woodsmoke, embers crackling and spitting on the fire, and up in the sky a great moon shine down illuminating the scene - the barrow's function is suddenly understood........

The great bulk of East kennet long barrow hidden beneath trees
Note; There are many different burial practices in other parts of the world, and one is the Tibetan Sky burial. Now this is far to gruesome to write about but in the Buddhist faith, when a person dies his body becomes an empty shell. Tibet is a high country mountainous with great plateaus, well above the tree line so that timber is scarce. Soil is also scant on top of this mountainous region, so that burial of the dead is difficult. So the monks take the body to a high sacred ledge or ground near a chorten and get rid of the corpse through a ceremony called Jhator - 'which means giving alms to the birds'..
Why I mention this is because there is a certain similarity between the Tibetan method and excarnation which is believed what happened in prehistoric Britain, the empty husk or shell of the body no longer housing the soul is disposed of. Which of course brings one round as to how the neolithic people may have thought of the 'inner being', was it represented in the bones of the dead, or was there another layer to their beliefs.


  1. Fascinating post - I love West Kennet but hadn't realised that there is a badger sett there - must look for it on my next visit.

  2. Rowan its East Kennet long barrow ;) the badgers live in, could'nt be doing with all those people traipsing up to WKLB, give them a headached apart from anything else..


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