Manchester Museum is about to give a party for the return of the Lindow Man otherwise known as Pete Marsh. (See Lindow Man on this website.)
For those who know not of what I speak – Pete Marsh is a well-preserved Iron Age corpse discovered on Friday 1st August 1984 by a peat cutter on Lindow Moss, near Manchester. Pete is currently displayed in the London’s British Museum. The history and possible provenance of this body is told in two notable books (The Life and Death of a Druid Prince by Anne Ross and Don Robins and The Bog People by P V Glob). Lindow Moss is just a stone’s throw form Alderley Edge, one of the legendary resting places of King Arthur and his knights and a place much beloved of local Pagans (see Maxine Sanders’ recent biography, Fire Child).
The return of Lindow Man to his former stamping ground coincides with a widespread reappraisal of the manner in which museums curate human remains and indeed all their religious artifacts and assemblages. Like many museums, Manchester is undergoing a radical rethink about how these should be presented to public. Part of this is about trying to accommodate changes in the way the public wish to engage with their collections. This also coincides with a noticeable growth in a Pagan sensibility. It’s some of these issues that I will try to explore in the following short article.
As a member of HAD’s Council, I’m quite happy to self identify as a Pagan although I know that for many the term can be a problem. This might surprise some who know me as a senior member of the Golden Dawn Occult Society and indeed as a long standing Hermetic magician obsessed with, amongst other things, Ancient Egypt. But for me the term ‘Pagan’ originates in the world of classical Egyptian magick. The best way to define ‘Paganism’ is by reference to a pre-Abrahamic Egyptian religion – but that’s another story!
Over the last few years HAD’s focus group of ‘Pagan theologians’ has successfully lobbied, along with others, for museums to adopt a less reductionist and more respectful approach to their ‘wonderful things’. One of the upshots of this was the idea that those with a mind for it, could, in an unobtrusive way, make small, appropriate offerings to the illustrious ancestor on the other side of the glass case. With this in mind I posted a request to my local Pagan e-list to see if I could elicit some ideas on the mechanics of how this could be done. The first response reminded how controversial such concepts can be, even amongst Pagans.
Also immediately someone said that the only thing we should be doing is placing an offering box so that more money could be raised for the museum’s work. It was a disappointing reaction from my own community – to say the least. After all it’s not as if museums are not already going to be asking for money. It’s almost as if Pagans have so internalized their marginal status they find it hard to even imagine what they would do if they were given the chance. It’s the whole ‘fear of freedom’ thing or is it ‘fear of flying’.
But there again as Marx said (Karl that is, not Groucho) – money is the ultimate fetish object. And my own proposal regarding the mechanics would be some sort of great pot or cauldron, filled with water, into which people could, if they were so minded, drop those talismanic coins, and indeed other small metallic objects. This is what I mean by the mechanics of ritual – the museum requires something that is manageable. And indeed any pagan temple of the past would have had some sort of delineation in the kinds of offerings people could make – hence the standard offering in an ancient Egyptian temple, was a loaf of bread, some beer or some linen.
In the absence of guidance one ends up with the ‘trash altars’ seen at St Necktan’s glen in Cornwall. Visitors are obviously moved and motivated by the number of previous offerings to make their own dedication. But because they are not expecting to do so, they are stuck with what they have in their knapsack – which often turns out to be trash. This could be a problem in a museum.
Hence one needs to address the issue of the mechanics of offerings. Pagans, with a growing knowledge of their own history, do have some relevant information, something that might actually be useful. So for example my offering cauldron is not just manageable, it does also have resonance with the object – by reason of offering into water; Lindow man was also an offering into water – and indeed offerings of valuables into water is part of the Iron Age context. Furthermore, a coin is a fetish for us and also a fetish for many Iron Age people. The whole also has a resonance with the whole wishing well thing, which may interest the lay punter at the shrine. You don’t have to agree, but I hope you will see my drift and come up with your own solutions.
Some may already be shouting (I hope so) saying but what about the ordinary punter – why should they be made to do this!? Well, no one is being made to do anything – it’s just an option, hopefully subtle and unobtrusive. But there again, I suspect that even the accidental pilgrim to a museum, or sacred site, enjoys being there with the more obviously committed tourist. There is room for both the tourist and the pilgrim, as much today as in the Classical world. I suspect that many prized objects in museums were the ancient equivalent of that tacky ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat. The ancients probably were also known to say ‘Oh no, not another one of those!’
Recently I went to a Pagan handfasting at the Rollright Stones on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border. The normal visitors who came in were smiling not frowning, enjoying the opportunity to see Pagans being pagan.
My offering cauldron is just an example, just to give you an idea of what it’s about, this mechanics of ritual thing. Call it experimental archaeology if it makes it easier. I’m hoping others will have more ideas about how this can be done in an inclusive and interesting manner. For example, what about that cauldron, how does it look, should it be an existing artifact from the storage rooms or could local artists and craftsman be enlisted to come up with designs? Hold on there – could it be that we Pagans might actually have projects that could draw others into creativity – I think so.
Which all made me think about museums and what are they for? I work and study in Oxford, and once a year I give a tour of its ‘Hermetic’ campus. The central area around the Bodleian library is laid out on Hermetic principles. What is now the bijou science museum was once the house Christopher Wren designed for the magus Elias Ashmole. In recent renovations they unearthed the original alchemical laboratory in the basement and a name for the collection as King Solomon’s House. The original meaning of ‘museum’ is as a ‘house of the muses’. The name ‘Solomon’s House’ derives from Sir Francis Bacon’s book ‘The New Atlantis’. In origin a museum is a collection of people and things arranged to inspire and invoke memories Culture is memory, is it not?
Elias Ashmole went on that basis for the collection that forms one of Europe’s first new museums since ancient (pagan) times – the eponymous Ashmolean museum in Oxford.
Society and academics have spent a great deal of time disenchanting things such as museums. They have been so successful in this that all of us need reminding of what these institutions and indeed enterprises were originally for. Take for example Egyptology, set in motion by renaissance Hermeticism and Egyptomania of the Romantic period, it has become a fairly dry discipline emptied if its original magick. It’s a good of example of throwing out the baby with the bath water!
So I guess I’m arguing for a small reintroduction of enchantment to museums; it’s not something that was never there and it may well be something that saves the institutions from becoming just another branch of the entertainment industry, ‘a café with a fine museum attached’. None of this need detract from the subterranean academic work that goes on behind the scenes – it’s all about inclusively not excluding any view. It’s just that we Pagans set the whole in motions, and it just might be that we have ‘mummy truths to tell, whereat the living mock; Thought not for sober ear, For maybe all that hear/ Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.’
Editorial Note : This article was posted before the Lindow Man display opened at the Manchester Museum. Beside his display case, the museum have in the event provided a see-through box for offerings, with an opening at the top large enough to post through coin and other small items. It is hoped that this will inspire visitors to make offerings to Lindow Man and the ancestors in general. Money will not be taken by the museum for its own funds, but will be given as a donation to a charity decided upon by consultation. Such consultation will also make decisions as to what is done with any other offerings placed into the box during the year of the exhibition.