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  • Britain as Island of the Dead March 31, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    *** dedicated to Pam***

    Here come Beach’s third and final extract from Procopius’ mad writings on Brittia (aka Britain): something that gets even crazier than Scotland without oxygen. The ‘men of this place’ in the following extract refers to a group of sailors from the coast of Gaul [France] who are let off their taxes for the service of taking souls from the continent to our mysterious Brittia! Readers will remember the long tradition that the other world is to the west: and here Britain (sorry Brittia) seems to have taken on the role.

    The men of this place say that the conduct of souls is laid upon them in turn. So the men who on the following night must go to do this work relieving others in the service, as soon as darkness comes on, retire to their own houses and sleep awaiting him who is to assemble them for the enterprise. And at a late hour of the night that are conscious of a knocking at their doors and they hear an indistinct voice calling them together for their task. And they with no hesitation rise from their beds and walk to the shore, not understanding what necessity leads them to do this, but compelled nevertheless. There they see skiffs in readiness  with no man at all in them, not their own skiffs, however, but a different kind, in which they embark and lay hold of the oars. And they are aware the boats are burdened with a large number of passengers and are wet by the waves to the edge of the planks and the oarlocks, having not so much as one finger’s breadth above the water; they themselves, however, see no one, but after rowing a single hour they put in at Brittia. And yet when they make the voyage in their own skiffs, not using sails but rowing, they with difficulty make this passage in a night and a day. Then when they have reached the island and have been relieved of their burden, they depart with all speed, their boats now becoming suddenly light and rising above the waves, for the sink no further in the water than the keel itself. And they for their part, neither see any man either sitting in the boat with them or departing from the boat, but they say that they hear a kind of voice from the island which seems to make announcement to those who take the souls in charge as each name is called of the passengers who have come over with them, telling over the positions of honour which they formerly held and calling out their fathers’ names with their own. And if women also happen to be among those who have been ferried over, they utter the names of the men to whom they were married in life. This, then, is what the men of this country say takes place. But I shall return to the previous narrative.

    Procopius’ ‘this… is what the men of this country say takes place’ is his attempt at sniffiness: he also dismisses the tale as mythology though worrying about the apparent quality of his (undescribed) source. It would be interesting to understand what lay at the bottom of this myth because it is a bloody strange one. Beach’s best guess was that the island of Thanet (now part of Kent) was called in Procopius’ time something like Tanatos that looks suspiciously like ‘death’ in Greek. From there an imaginative East Roman could have sculpted this story: perhaps… Any other suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com BTW Beach thought that Tanatos was his idea, but he sees that that old blunderbuss Nora Chadwick had stumbled on it a few decades ago. Nora it should be said was wrong about almost everything…


    7 apr 2012:  First up is wade: This link yields a long discussion of Celtic death beliefs. At page makers p.341, p.342 and p.343, the Procopius tale is discussed. While it doesn’t suggest an explanation, it indicates that this a local Breton coast belief.’ Then Invisible on the same lines: From The Fate of the Dead, A Study in Folk Eschatology in the West Country after the Reformation, Theo Brown, in Chapter VII “Entrances to the Other World” (pp 63-64)  “On the continent, it seems possible that Britain itself was the Land of the Dead. In parts of Germany the Wild Hunt was called die Engelske Jagd, and, according to Hardwick [Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, Manchester, 1872, p. 177], the name of England was used to denote the realm to which the dead had gone. One cannot tell to what extent such notions may have been derived from Procopius, who wrote early in the sixth century A.D. that souls were conveyed in boats from Gaul to Britain on certain nights, and Souvêtre found that Breton fisherman around the Ile de St Gildas (off Port-Blanc, near Treguier on the Channel coast) remembered a similar tradition. [Emile Souvêtre: Les Derniers Bretons, 2nd edn, 1836, vol. I, pp. 37-8] Sébillot heard that on the sabbath, a boat would appear on the beach. There was no one aboard, but a voice would cry:’Embarque, allons en Galloway!’ Then the boat would slip off, so filled with invisible passengers, it seemed almost ready to sink.” [Paul Sébillot: Legendes locales de la Haute Bretagne, Nantes, 1899, I, ix.] Invisible also included a long but pertinent bit from Kipling: I wonder if Kipling knew his Procopius; this passage about the Dymchurch Flit from Puck of Pook’s Hillis very reminiscent, although perhaps any ferrying of invisible beings story would ring the same changes. ‘Now there was a poor widow at Dymchurch under the Wall, which, lacking man or property, she had the more time for feeling; and she come to feel there was a Trouble outside her doorstep bigger an’ heavier than aught she’d ever carried over it. She had two sons—one born blind, and t’other struck dumb through fallin’ off the Wall when he was liddle. They was men grown, but not wage-earnin’, an’ she worked for ’em, keepin’ bees and answerin’ Questions.’ ‘What sort of questions?’ said Dan. ‘Like where lost things might be found, an’ what to put about a crooked baby’s neck, an’ how to join parted sweethearts. She felt the Trouble on the Marsh same as eels feel thunder. She was a wise woman.’ ‘My woman was won’erful weather-tender, too,’ said Hobden. ‘I’ve seen her brish sparks like off an anvil out of her hair in thunderstorms. But she never laid out to answer Questions.’ ‘This woman was a Seeker like, an’ Seekers they sometimes find. One night, while she lay abed, hot an’ aching, there come a Dream an’ tapped at her window, and “Widow Whitgift,” it said, “Widow Whitgift!” ‘First, by the wings an’ the whistling, she [pg 245]thought it was peewits, but last she arose an’ dressed herself, an’ opened her door to the Marsh, an’ she felt the Trouble an’ the Groaning all about her, strong as fever an’ ague, an’ she calls: “What is it? Oh, what is it?” ‘Then ’twas all like the frogs in the diks peeping: then ’twas all like the reeds in the diks clipclapping; an’ then the great Tide-wave rummelled along the Wall, an’ she couldn’t hear proper. ‘Three times she called, an’ three times the Tide-wave did her down. But she catched the quiet between, an’ she cries out, “What is the Trouble on the Marsh that’s been lying down with my heart an’ arising with my body this month gone?” She felt a liddle hand lay hold on her gown-hem, an’ she stooped to the pull o’ that liddle hand.’ Tom Shoesmith spread his huge fist before the fire and smiled at it. ‘“Will the sea drown the Marsh?” she says. She was a Marsh-woman first an’ foremost. “No,” says the liddle voice. “Sleep sound for all o’ that.” ‘“Is the Plague comin’ to the Marsh?” she says. Them was all the ills she knowed. ‘“No. Sleep sound for all o’ that,” says Robin. ‘She turned about, half mindful to go in, but the liddle voices grieved that shrill an’ sorrowful she turns back, an’ she cries: “If it is not a Trouble of Flesh an’ Blood, what can I do?” ‘The Pharisees cried out upon her from [pg 246]all round to fetch them a boat to sail to France, an’ come back no more. ‘“There’s a boat on the Wall,” she says, “but I can’t push it down to the sea, nor sail it when ’tis there.” ‘“Lend us your sons,” says all the Pharisees. “Give ’em Leave an’ Good-will to sail it for us, Mother—O Mother!” ‘“One’s dumb, an’ t’other’s blind,” she says. “But all the dearer me for that; and you’ll lose them in the big sea.” The voices justabout pierced through her. An’ there was children’s voices too. She stood out all she could, but she couldn’t rightly stand against that. So she says: “If you can draw my sons for your job, I’ll not hinder ’em. You can’t ask no more of a Mother.” ‘She saw them liddle green lights dance an’ cross till she was dizzy; she heard them liddle feet patterin’ by the thousand; she heard cruel Canterbury Bells ringing to Bulverhithe, an’ she heard the great Tide-wave ranging along the Wall. That was while the Pharisees was workin’ a Dream to wake her two sons asleep: an’ while she bit on her fingers she saw them two she’d bore come out an’ pass her with never a word. She followed ’em, cryin’ pitiful, to the old boat on the Wall, an’ that they took an’ runned down to the Sea. ‘When they’d stepped mast an’ sail the blind son speaks up: “Mother, we’re waitin’ your Leave an’ Good-will to take Them over.”’ Tom Shoesmith threw back his head and half shut his eyes. ‘Eh, me!’ he said. ‘She was a fine, valiant woman, the Widow Whitgift. She stood twistin’ the ends of her long hair over her fingers, an’ she shook like a poplar, makin’ up her mind. The Pharisees all about they hushed their children from cryin’ an’ they waited dumb-still. She was all their dependence. ’Thout her Leave an’ Goodwill they could not pass; for she was the Mother. So she shook like a asp-tree makin’ up her mind. ’Last she drives the word past her teeth, an’ “Go!” she says. “Go with my Leave an’ Goodwill.” ‘Then I saw—then, they say, she had to brace back same as if she was wadin’ in tide-water; for the Pharisees justabout flowed past her—down the beach to the boat, I dunnamany of ’em—with their wives an’ children an’ valooables, all escapin’ out of cruel Old England. Silver you could hear clinkin’, an’ liddle bundles hove down dunt on the bottom-boards, an’ passels o’ liddle swords an’ shield’s raklin’, an’ liddle fingers an’ toes scratchin’ on the boatside to board her when the two sons pushed her off. That boat she sunk lower an’ lower, but all the Widow could see in it was her boys movin’ hampered-like to get at the tackle. Up sail they did, an’ away they went, deep as a Rye barge, away into the off-shore mistes, an’ the Widow Whitgift she sat down and eased her grief till mornin’ light.’ ‘I never heard she was all alone,’ said Hobden. ‘I remember now. The one called Robin he stayed with her, they tell. She was all too grievious to listen to his promises.’ ‘Ah! She should ha’ made her bargain beforehand. I allus told my woman so!’ Hobden cried. ‘No. She loaned her sons for a pure love-loan, bein’ as she sensed the Trouble on the Marshes, an’ was simple good-willing to ease it.’ Tom laughed softly. ‘She done that. Yes, she done that! From Hithe to Bulverthithe, fretty man an’ petty maid, ailin’ woman an’ wailin’ child, they took the advantage of the change in the thin airs just about as soon as the Pharisees flitted. Folks come out fresh an’ shining all over the Marsh like snails after wet. An’ that while the Widow Whitgift sat grievin’ on the Wall. She might have beleft us—she might have trusted her sons would be sent back! She fussed, no bounds, when their boat come in after three days.’ ‘And, of course, the sons were both quite cured?’ said Una. ‘No-o. That would have been out o’ Nature. She got ’em back as she sent ’em. The blind man he hadn’t seen naught of anything, an’ the dumb man nature-ally, he couldn’t say aught of what he’d seen. I reckon that was why the Pharisees pitched on ’em for the ferrying job.’ Thanks Invisible and Wade