Saturday was the first new moon after the winter solstice: in the Roman calendar, it was the first calends of the year, sacred to Janus. It was a religious festival probably celebrated officially in Eskdalemuir about 1900 years ago, at the fort built where the Rae Burn meets the River Esk.
If I were a reconstructionist Pagan, living where I do, based on the past of this land, I’d have a host of Pagan religious traditions to reconstruct from: not only those of the Romans, but of the Brythonic tribes and the Picts who lived here before them (as little as we really know about who they were what they did here), and the Romano-Celtic culture which followed them.
Even among ‘the Romans’ there was huge religious diversity, as soldiers were recruited from across the Empire – from Syria to Gaul, and from Egypt to Germania. (Not so far away from here, in northern Cumbria, is a temple to Mithras.) I’m a little fuzzy on the era of history between the Romans and the Normans, but I might even be able to justifiably reconstruct a Nordic path, if the Danes ever got this far west.
It’s the same across this island, encompassing England, Wales and Scotland. We are a land which, in the 12,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, has seen an ebb and flow of peoples from all around the world – starting long, long before the British Empire was even a gleam in the eye of the East India Company.
There were often human conflicts as new peoples arrived and made their home here, but the land itself took them in, each the same, and made them part of itself. It’s a reality I attempted to capture in a poem I wrote several years ago:
…and my view tilts, a vertigo
of generations, footstep upon footstep,
massing under the empty hills. I feel
their grief for those who breathe, that
we are not yet married to the land, joined
in union with the loam, communion
with the layers thick of lives
and deaths gone before…
When I connect to this land, this specific land of Eskdale, its soil, its past, and its human ancestors, whose lives shaped it and whose bones still lie, layered somewhere down there, I aim to connect not with a mythic, misty past made up of ‘the Celts’ or other such imaginary peoples, but with the real layers of life of which the land is made: the human lives which belonged to this land before me, in all their amazing diversity.
This is not because I am trying to do things the way they did: I am not, after all, a reconstructionist. If I were to pick one past religious tradition which has been practised here to follow, there are so many that it would be an arbitrary choice. And even were I to select the past tradition that I considered to be most about connection with the land, I do not seek to connect with the land as it was then, but the land at it is now.
And all of those past human lives, along with the lives of tree and rock, horse and dog, buzzard and vole, cattle and barley with which they were interwoven, are still part of this land. They are not only the past, in history and imagination, but also the present, not (only) as spirit presences, but in the very soil and landscape itself.
My footsteps on these hills are mirrored by their footsteps under them.
It feels tender and new, being woven into the pattern of time, and of life within this land: like being broken open and held close, like being stripped bare and given strength, all together, all at once.