December 5th, 2011 | Published in Articles
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Part two of Stephen Grasso’s psychogeographic tour-de-force uncovers the pre-Christian mythologies of the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral, traces the global reach of St. Brigit though the syncretic religious practices of British indentured servants and African victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and disinters the ghosts of Londons past in the City of the Moon’s unquiet burial grounds.
Scrape beneath the surface of any urban landscape and you hear the distant echo. Drift the streets with no intent but to commune with the spirits of place, and another vision of the city gradually comes into focus. Bloody fingernails prize up concrete paving stones to reveal a richly textured fabric of living tissue. Teeming with life and variety, forgotten, flooding awareness in an oil slick of sense impressions.
In the earliest creation stories of London, Brutus the Trojan was caught in a storm on his voyages from Troy, and amid the wreckage of his ship was witness to a vision of the Goddess Diana, the virgin huntress of The Moon. Radiant on the waters like so many incarnations of Our Lady from the Stella Maris to the Virgin Caridad del Cobre, each appearing to those in distress at sea. Diana saved his life, and told him to build her a temple at the place where he struck land. He founded a city and dedicated it to her. Luan-Dun, the City of The Moon, and built her sacred temple upon the hill where St Paul’s Cathedral now stands.
Until as late as the 18th century a mysterious ritual was perpetuated in the Cathedral called the Blowing of the Stag. The head of a deer was carried on a processional route around the church and then placed on the high altar, while the Sheriffs and huntsmen of London’s great surrounding forests would sound their horns at the four quarters. A clandestine ritual for Diana the Huntress insinuated at the heart of the Church of England. During the overwhelming onslaught of bunting and commemorative dishware that was the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, the location of the service was hastily changed from the traditional venue of Westminster Abbey to the unconventional choice of St Pauls. All references to its prehistory as a Dianic temple excised from the tourist literature. Diana crowned on Diana’s Hill in some weird half-remembered magic.
All about the Cathedral grounds are statues depicting sculpted figures in various conditions of repose, swooning as if their wrought iron frames have been overcome by a vision of Our Lady. In the grounds towards the rear of the Cathedral is the site of St Paul’s Cross, commonly known as Pol’s stump, that is said to mark the summit of the old hill of Diana. For at least five centuries it was known as a place of public utterance, where the conscience of the nation could be spoken. To the south of the building, secluded but accessible to the public, is a garden laid out in the shape of the chapterhouse of the previous Gothic Cathedral that burned down and was supplanted by the current Wren building. The city is filled with these ghost places, commemorative gardens that trace out the shape of vanished structures, consumed by the Great Fire or crushed in the Blitz, the after-image of their magic burned into the landscape.
The mysteries of the city are never far from the surface, wallpapered over by concrete and glass construction, but when you look into the yawning crevices or scratch away at the right location, all the old spells are still in place. This negative image of London is the landscape of magic, and even if they built a shopping centre over it, the Hill of Diana would still abide and her children with long memories would still make their devotions under the Full Moon to their ancient mother. Madame La Luna, the old ancestor, grandmother of the devil.
London partakes of the nature of its mother. The Moon is both radiant and treacherous. Often obscured by cloud, it looms into view upon occasion offering a glimpse of the infinite. Moonlight and music and love and romance are all on offer, and we stare transfixed by the possibilities and potential. Moonstruck, our gaze is held by the promise of London, its cold hard paving slabs reflect the gold majesty of the Sun and we’re taken in by its glamour. The city is akin to a hall of mirrors, it offers all you can imagine, but its tableaus can be deceptive and distorted. Those conjurors who grasp the city’s slippery luminescent character can become adept at her enchantments. Shady bankers and politicians, TV producers, it girls and backstreet sorcerers alike have learned to work this old magic and cast their own spectacle upon Our Lady’s silver screen, but the Moon and its creatures are feral, and her talons may tear out the heart of those she finds lacking in subtlety.
West towards Fleet Street is Ludgate Hill, and a crossroads that marks one of the seven gates to the city. Like something out of Revelation, London has seven old gates. The gatehouses long torn down, the site of several gates are marked by a crossroads that traces the intersection of their entrance way and the course of the Roman wall that demarcated the original settlement. Any magician with half a clue knows that any crossroads functions as an entry point still, and with the right connections, can unlock the city gates and gain entrance to the mythic spaces of the city. Each gateway is ruled by its own specific powers and opens onto a different variant of London.
Ludgate is solar in nature and ruled by Old King Lud, a monarch and protector of London who ruled around 60BC and from whom, according to one etymology, the name of London may be derived. Originally known as Trinovantum, or New Troy after Brutus the Trojan, King Lud renamed the City Caer Lud, or Lud’s Town. A pub called The Old King Lud used to stand on Ludgate Hill, now closed down and converted into a chain restaurant, its facade still bears incongruous effigies of the forgotten king crowning its windows. Statues of Old King Lud and his two sons, commissioned by King Henry III to adorn the old Lud-Gate that still stood during his reign, now reside in the church yard of St Dunstans in the West on Fleet Street. Just another London eviction. Standing sentry in the bell tower of the church are carven effigies of Gog and Magog, the giants of London, armed with clubs that strike the hour.
From Ludgate you can see the distinctive tiered steeple of St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and the inspiration for the shape of the modern wedding cake. A site of continuous worship since at least the 6th century when a Saxon church dedicated to St Brigit of Kildare occupied the spot. St Brigit, or St Bride, was the daughter of an Irish pagan chieftain and a Pictish Christian slave who had been baptised by St Patrick. She is thought to have lived between 453 and 524, and has the appellation “Mary of the Gael”, due to her popularity in Ireland. Her feast day is 1 February, which in Irish mythology falls on the cross-quarter day of Imbolc, halfway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. In Christianity, the time of Imbolc is celebrated as Candlemass, and its mystery is that of light in the darkness of winter.
The cult of St Brigit, while centered around a historic Christian personage, seems to partake heavily from the much older veneration of the Irish pagan goddess Brigid, of the Tuatha De Danaan. She was the daughter of the Dagda, the father god of the pantheon, and her name means “bright one” or “exalted one”. The worship of Brigid extended beyond Ireland to the British Isles as a whole, and she was particularly popular in Scotland. Her English form is Brigantia, or Britannia, who appears on the modern 50 pence coin. Brigid is the fire of the forge, the fire of the hearth and the fire of inspiration, and is associated with the time of Imbolc.
St Brigit, in her role as patron of poets and blacksmiths, seems to enshrine some of this ancestral mystery in Christian guise. One of her legends describes a sacred, perpetually burning flame at her chapel in Kildare that was tended by 19 nuns. Sacred healing wells are also frequently dedicated to both Brigid and St Brigit, and one such well exists at the site of St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. It can no longer be seen or accessed from the present church, but the sound of its waters can sometimes be heard from the crypt.
Brigid, through the enduring cult of St Brigit, appears to have travelled to the New World in the hearts of Irish, Scottish and English indentured servants. These were working class people who had essentially sold their freedom to a landowner in return for passage to the Caribbean. Mostly young men dreaming of an escape from the grinding poverty of their lives at home and harbouring dreams of getting rich quick in the New World, once they had worked off their period of service. These indentured servants enjoyed better conditions than the enslaved Africans they worked alongside. They were allowed to own possessions and had some recourse to the local magistrate if they were treated with cruelty, but until their period of bondage was served they were considered property. It wasn’t unheard of for unscrupulous landowners to insist that indentured servants obtained certain goods and tools in order to perform their work, once they got to the islands, items that required the indenture being extended by a number of additional years in order to cover the incurred costs.
While many chose to sell themselves into servitude for whatever reason, not all were there of their own free will, with many Scottish and Irish “indentured servants” simply being prisoners of war captured by Cromwell during his raids and forcibly packed off to the Caribbean to be worked to death. During the 17th century it is thought that between 33-50% of indentured servants in the Caribbean died before they were freed, broken on the same wheel of greed and privilege as their African counterparts. Crammed into the same physical space and set to labour in the same fields as the expendable property of the same landowners, communication inevitably took place.
The Lwa of Haitian Vodou, Mamman Brigitte, the wife of Baron Samedi, is thought by some to be a New World form of Brigid or St Brigit contributed to the melting pot of Vodou litany by these displaced devotees of the Irish Saint. A creole praise song tells us “Mamman Brigitte, she comes from Angleterre.” It’s a curious anomaly, given that Haiti was a French colony, and there is no reason why spiritually-inclined indentured servants from the British Isles would have been present in sufficient numbers to contribute a deity to the pantheon of Vodou.
Perhaps the most likely source of the syncretism may be within the Mawon or Maroon camps. The Maroons were runaway slaves who escaped their predicament and formed close-knit communities in the wilderness. Many joined the surviving Taino settlements, and found common cause with the remaining indigenous occupants of the land who had narrowly escaped the earlier Spanish efforts at genocide. Certain elements of Vodou that do not appear to derive from African sources are assumed to have preserved aspects of Taino belief and ritual. Many of the Maroons took to piracy, and it is here that they may have had the most interaction with escaped indentured servants from the British Isles who had carved out a new career as pirates of the Caribbean.
The Maroon communities were a stronghold for the then-formative Haitian Vodou. Francois Mackandal, the one-armed Vodou priest and expert poisoner who instigated a reign of terror against slave-owners in the 1750s; and Dutty Boukman, the Jamaican-born Vodou priest who presided over the ceremony of Bois-Caiman that instigated the Haitian revolution, both emerged from the Maroon settlements. Fundamentalist nutjobs and paranoid racists alike have tried to portray the Bois-Caiman ceremony as a “pact with the devil”, but if your devil fights against slavery and oppression, it raises some uncomfortable questions about what exactly it is that you are worshipping as a god.
In her role as Our Lady of the Cemetery, Mme Brigitte continues her role as the light in the darkness, albeit in a different context. Her marriage to Baron Samedi recalls something of the story of Hades and Persephone, the Spring goddess who dwells in the land of the dead for half of the year. This union of Mme Brigitte and the Baron, and their role within Vodou as rulers of the dead, is perhaps suggestive of some strange political marriage between the African and Native American ancestors, and the ancestors of the common classes of the British Isles – the dead who laboured for centuries under the heel of the same old ruling classes that instigated the transatlantic slave trade.
The historical St Brigit herself grew up within a slave economy, and Brigit and her mother are described as being the “property” of the chieftan that fathered her. Slavery was endemic throughout the British Isles from the time of the Roman occupation, and was gradually modified into the condition of serfdom that continued until the late 16th century. While in significant decline since the Peasants’Rebellion of 1381, the last remaining serfs in England were freed by Elizabeth I in 1574. Complex social factors had led to the obsolescence of serfdom, so that by this point in time, Elizabeth’s remaining bondmen were an anachronism. However, the development of new sea-faring and navigation technologies during her reign – which permitted Atlantic travel on a scale never before viable – opened up new opportunities for the wealthy to outsource enforced labour to another unfortunate group overseas when social circumstances were no longer conducive for continuing the practice at home. It’s perhaps then not such an anomaly that Brigid, beloved ancestral goddess of the land, should find a place in the pantheon of Vodou. Her children are those rebel dead who themselves suffered under tyrannical landowners and predatory lords of the manor for countless generations. There is a shared imperative among the dead. Vodou speaks to the human spirit and transcends the boundaries of race and culture, which is why it has always been so horrifying to those who profit from keeping us divided and at odds with one another.
In 1585, St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, was the location for the wedding of Eleanor and Ananias Dare, who would go on to be the parents of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parentage to be born in the Americas. The Dare’s were members of the Roanoke colony, in what is now North Carolina, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh under charter from Elizabeth I. The initial wave of colonists had not endeared themselves to the indigenous population by ransacking one of their villages and burning the tribal chief at the stake, in retaliation for a perceived slight over a missing silver cup. So the 117 settlers who arrived in the next wave, including the Dare family, found themselves in a precarious position.
John White, the governor of the colony and grandfather of the new born Virginia Dare, was sent back to England to seek help in supporting the colony. However, due to the ongoing English war with Spain, he was unable to return to the Americas for three years. When he landed he found no trace of the colony or any signs of a struggle. All the buildings had been dismantled and taken away, and the only clue to the mystery was the cryptic word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. There are many legends about what became of the vanished colony of Roanoke, the principal hypothesis being that they were absorbed into one of the local Native American tribes such as the Chowanoc or the Hatteras or most probably the Croatan. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there were accounts of anomalous grey-eyed and Welsh-speaking Native Americans in the area, or tribespeople who claimed that some of their ancestors were white.
On Sunday 29th December, 1940, during one of the worst incendiary raids of WWII, St Bride’s was gutted by flame. Only its distinctive spire remained intact, but the bombing unearthed the buried foundations of the church and revealed evidence of the previous seven churches that had stood at the site, adding almost a thousand years to its known history. Today, fragments of brick from these old structures are arranged into piles in the crypt of the church, in a way that seems to curiously recall the piles of stones constructed in the cemeteries of Haiti and New Orleans as altars for Mme Brigitte.
Trace the ghost of the Roman Wall eastwards and it erupts into physical manifestation, its brickwork unveiled by falling German bombs. Lost fragments of ancient London excavated by shell and shrapnel. The site of the Cripplegate obliterated during the war and replaced with the concrete wasteland of the Barbican complex. Knock on the Cripplegate and it opens to the dead. Maimed ghosts and mutilated souls endlessly follow the thread of coloured lines painted on the ground, an inadvertent spirit trap that amps up the toxicity of the brutalist estate. The chasm of London Wall cuts through the haunted desolation and its disembodied traffic settles at Moorgate, a medieval gateway that was not a part of the original Roman edifice. Moorgate is the backdoor of the city, an escape hatch for a quick getaway or a secret entrance by which undesirables may slip in unnoticed to carry out their shady deeds.
The Moorfields were one of the last remaining areas of open land around the City of London. The now-subterranean Walbrook River bubbled up from the Moorfields and flowed towards the Thames, giving the area its marshy liquid character. After the Great Fire of 1666, those made destitute and impoverished by the blaze settled within the Moorfields on the outskirts of the city, and the area became known as a haunt of prostitutes, outlaws and deviants. Today it houses some of the shabbier office spaces of the financial district, cheap rents off the beaten track. Efforts at regeneration have never quite stuck, and the few conspicuous chrome towers built during the boom by enthusiastic speculators remain half-empty, shunned and unloved. When it comes to its Stews and Rookeries, the City has a long memory. Dreary concrete rules, and the iron steps of Moorgate tube are weathered by the heavy footfall of generations bred to open letters, answer phones and enter numbers in the new feudalism of financial services serfdom.
Moorgate maintains its position as the borderland, and in these liminal spaces magic can be seized. In the short stretch between the crossroads of London Wall and Ropemaker Street, there are three layers of boundary. The ghost trace of the original city wall, the jaunty silver gargoyles that mark out the territory of the Corporation of London, and the shadowy “Ring of Steel” – a cordon of security and surveillance fortifications that encircle the city, narrowed roads, concrete barriers, checkpoints, sentry boxes and a sprawling network of CCTV coverage. Which is the real wall? Where does London begin and end, and whose measurements should we trust? The space between these shifting palisades belongs to no-one, and it’s in these flickering territories that the mirror between worlds is at its thinnest.
To the right of the Moorgate crossroads is the birthplace of John Keats, the lodging house where the sensory flush of English Romanticism drew its infant breath. To the left is Bedlam, the second location for the notorious Bethlehem Hospital. The original Bedlam was constructed in 1247 at the location now occupied by Liverpool St Station, and relocated to the Moorfields in 1675. Patients were manacled and chained to the walls, brutalised by their captors, beaten, degraded and frequently locked away for life. For the cost of a penny, gloaters could take a tour of the cells and laugh at the freaks. Today, following another relocation, the centuries of misery and suffering that took place at the asylum are commemorated with a blue plaque above a branch of Pret-a-manger. City workers unwittingly sup their skinny Bedlam-mochas and bite into Bedlam breakfast croissants, oblivious to the history of cruelty that pervades the psychic fabric of the site.
Just north of the crossroads is Bunhill Fields, originally a Saxon burial ground, its modern name is a corruption of its historic appellation “The Bone Hill”. In the mid-16th century, more than a thousand cartloads of human bones were removed from the overcrowded charnel house of St Paul’s Cathedral and deposited at the site – a thin layer of soil spread over the fragmented remains to form a new gruesome point of elevation in the landscape. A century later, the site was used as a mass burial ground for victims of the plague, and later became a popular cemetery for dissenters and religious non-conformists. William Blake and his wife Catherine are interred upon the Bone Hill, their exact resting place is lost, but there is a memorial stone in the boneyard. Barely recognised for his work during his lifetime, the shrine now overflows with flowers, potted plants, and coins in small denominations. Devotional offerings left regularly at the well-tended grave by admirers of Blake’s visionary magic.
Yet perhaps the most striking element of the Bone Hill are its trees. Avenues of tall, spindly London Planes that claw at the sky like bony tendrils, mighty oaks and sycamores with roots that run deep through the ancient hill of bones, and sparsely scattered willows that seem to bend and weep for the departed like daughters of Our Lady of the Cemetery. It is a true bone orchard, under the patronage of Gran Bwa, who rules the island below the sea where the dead reside. At dusk, after libations of black coffee have been poured to the earth, it is as if the trees themselves are possessed by the ancestors. Great branches vivified by the wind, stark presences made of twisted bark, creaking figures of wood silhouetted against the night sky. The London dead make their voices heard to the living and speak of older cities subtly embedded behind the pulse and charge of our familiar streets.
Step south of the Moorgate crossroads and you enter the City proper. Trace the course of the buried Walbrook as she floods invisibly towards the Thames and you can almost feel her coursing beneath your feet, the true lifeblood of the city. London’s undine, shackled underground and all but forgotten like her imprisoned sisters. The daughters of the Thames, sunk under concrete and tarmac, wiped from the life of the city like victims of a Mafia hit. The Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Efra, the Ravensbourne. Brutalised mermaids buried alive, scorned and clapped in iron. But blessed water is an irresistible force, and though it may be bound and culverted, where there is a river, it will always remain. Press your ear close to certain grills and grates in the city and you can hear the siren song of the Walbrook. A bitter, plaintive lament echoing upwards from the gloomy sewers of her rotten dungeon. Seductive, beckoning, the rhythm of her waters entices any who can hear it to her embrace. At the sound of her voice, it is hard not to stop in your tracks, try to kick up the curb, rip up the streets to free the nymph cast in concrete.
Article by Stephen Grasso
A printed version of this article – distilled into potent shot glass form – appears in The Wanton Green, a collection of essays on the magic of place, edited by Gordon Maclellan and Susan Cross, and published by Mandrake of Oxford. All author royalties have been donated to Honouring the Ancient Dead, a British network organisation that advocates respect for ancient pagan human remains and related artefacts.