Friday, October 18, 2013

Spirit Bundles and Anglo-Saxon Graves

I was struck by this description of burial customs in eastern England during the pagan Anglo-Saxon period, from Robin Fleming's Britain after Rome:
The women who were accorded grave goods in the sixth and seventh centuries were often laid to rest with mysterious collections of objects that were neither beautiful nor practical. Sometimes women wore these thing in little bags around their necks: at other times, they carried them  in bags hung on their belts. These bag collections have off little jumbles of artefacts that to our eyes appear both curious and impractical. A typical one was recovered from a woman's grave at Purwell Farm, Cassington, in Oxfordshire. It contained a bronze strap-end that was at least a hundred years old when the woman was buried; two boar's teeth, one pierced; a fragment of glass and a collection of circular things: a bronze ring threaded with a loop of bronze wire; three discs, one bone, one iron and one lead; a disc-headed bronze rivet; an iron ring and a rolled up length of iron wire. Many other bags contained the same assortment of ancient odds and ends -- animal teeth, bits of glass and ringed objects -- but they also often included cowrie shells, scavenged Roman coins, fossilized sea urchins and the knuckle bones of sheep. These bags may have once held organic material as well: there are hints of seeds and herbs, bits of cloth and thread.
To me this seems eerily like the medicine bundles of  North American Indians. These are of two  kinds, large bundles that are sacred to whole tribes and are maintained by chiefs or tribal medicine men, and personal bundles made and cared for by a single person. Personal bundles were and still are central to the spirituality of many Indians -- in fact as tribal unity and shared worship have weakened in modern times, their importance has increased. What they contain and how the objects are chosen varies from place to place and person to person, but they often strike outsiders as random assortments of interesting small objects:
It is usually a collection of various items that might include seeds, pine conifer cones, grass, animal teeth or claws, horse hair, rocks, tobacco, beads, arrowheads, bones, even human remains or carved items or anything else of relatively small size that possesses spiritual value to the bundle's owner.
Is how wikipedia puts it. It is important to realize that to the person who assembles the bundle the objects are anything but random. In some tribes the objects are connected to the bundler's vision quest; in others they are chosen to represent the balance of forces in the universe, and every object representing one force must be matched with one representing the opposing force. Even the material of the bag was carefully chosen. In the northeast, shamans usually had bundles made of otter skin; these Indians thought of the land of the dead as a deep, watery place, and since otters pass back and forth between water and land, they were held to be animal shamans.

Archaeologists have recovered many possible medicine bundles from Indian graves. Most of the possible medicine bag objects in the archaeological literature are animal bones and teeth, especially those of bears, otters, and eagles, or unusual stones. The picture at the top of the post is an early seventeenth-century medicine bundle found in New Mexico; it contains bird-bone flutes, quartz crystals, other minerals, shell earrings, and an iron awl acquired from Europeans. Sometimes piles of pebbles are also interpreted as medicine bundles, especially when the burial is in soil that generally contains few or no rocks. These pebbles are often of the colors that figure prominently in Indian religion, especially white, black and red. Stones of all three sacred colors were recovered from a thousand-year-old burial on Lake Erie, the so-called Long Point Shaman. One surviving set of instructions for making a medicine bundle, from an Onondaga elder, says that every bundle should contain a white pebble.

Since Indian medicine bundles are, when interpreted properly, wonderful windows into the spiritual understanding of their makers, I wonder what could be learned by applying similar logic to the grave good of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon women.

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