Regular readers and attendees will know that the Roman Empire beyond its frontiers, particularly in (although by no means limited too) the lands surrounding Roman Britain, is a subject which members of CANI have delved into. We have already had talks, articles and blogs on Roman interaction with Ireland, Scotland, and Japan.
This time it is the turn of the Isle of Mann, which had a long history of habitation before appearing in the surviving written record.
An island from the end of the Ice Age in Britain, the earliest identified inhabitants were hunter-gatherers and fishermen of the Mesolithic period, who were capable of rudimentary flint and bone tool-making. The Neolithic period saw such development in tools, pottery and farming that the island saw its own megalithic builders, with Cashtal yn Ard, Meayll Circle, King Orry’s Grave and the Ballaharra Stones all providing examples. Even on such a small island, Mann even developed its own culture distinct from these builders with the Ronaldsway culture uncovered at the site of what is now the Isle of Mann Airport.
While difficult to prove, it is probably by the Iron Age that Mann was inhabited by Brythonic tribesmen from mainland Britain, who brought their own building techniques and tendencies – hill top and promontory forts and wooden framed roundhouses.
Mediterranean knowledge of Britain predates the Greek advances through the adventuring of Carthaginians such as Himilco (cf. Pliny the Elder, NH II.67; Avienus, Ora Maritima). However, it is unknown if that knowledge extended to the existence of the Isle of Mann. It does have some deposits of iron ore and lead, but these may have been in limited enough quantities to not attract the attention away from the tin mines of Cornwall, which were to such extent that by the mid-fifth century BC, Herodotus was referring to the British Isles as Cassiterides – the ‘islands of tin’ (Herodotus III.115.1-2; cf. Diodorus Siculus V.22), a name still being used by the first century BC (Strabo III.5.11).
At the very least, the Romans learned of the island through their initial military forays to Britain in 55-54BC as Julius Caesar wrote of how there was “an island which is called Mona” between Ireland, Gaul and Britain (Caesar, BG V.13).
However, despite nearly four centuries of Roman control of Britain, surprisingly little Roman material has been found on Mann so far. Indeed, even though there are records of the circumnavigation of Britain by Agricola’s fleet (Tacitus, Agr. 38), Roman naval patrols in British waters into the late fourth century (Vegetius, Mil. IV.37) and reports of Roman involvement with the even more remote Orkneys as early as the Claudian invasion (Pomponius Mela III.49-54; Eutropius VII.13.2-3; Jerome, Chronicle 2061; Orosius I.2.78), it is difficult to tell if the Romans ever made a formal annexation of or official landing on the island.
It had been speculated that there was a Roman fort or camp on the site of what is now Kirk Maughold Church, but there has never been any Roman finds within that area and it is now thought that the square enclosure at Maughold was originally a seventy century monastery. A Roman amphora was also discovered at South Barrule, the highest hill in the south of Mann, which was topped by a fort. This could be evidence of a Roman presence on the island, but as it is a find largely in isolation, it is more likely to be the result of trade.
Another potential Roman site on Mann is the small rock shelter found at Trae Coon on the south end of the island. Mid-20th century excavations found not only a significant congregation of shells, burnt wood and animal bones but also the remains of an adult male. The accompanying wood has been carbon dated to c.70, a generation after the initial Claudian invasion of Britain and during the period before and after the Boudican revolt which saw the legions driving into Wales and northern England. The proposed circumnavigation of Britain by the fleet of Agricola (Tacitus, Agr. 38) demonstrates that the Roman fleet was active in the Irish Sea, which could play into the possibility that these remains were those of a shipwrecked Roman sailor. However, there was plenty of other traffic in the Irish Sea which was not of specifically Roman origin and it goes beyond the available evidence to determine that the Trae Coon shelter was built by a Roman.
More easily transported Roman material evidence comes in the form of coins and given that Ireland was not beyond Rome’s numismatic reach, it would be unsurprising to find similar deposits in Mann too. However, while there have been Roman coins found on Mann, they are small in number – just seven in total – and appear in isolation.
|Emperor||Date||Type||Find Site||Find Date|
|Tiberius||14-37||bronze, Alexandria||Glen Auldyn quarry|
|Trajan||98-117||denarius||Scouts’ Glen, Onchan||1942|
|Antoninus Pius||138-161||Douglas beach|
|Constans||337-350||bronze||Noble’s Hospital, Douglas||1951|
While these seem like slim pickings, there are some points of interest. Not only were they from a wide time period between the reigns of Tiberius I (AD14-37) and Constans I (337-350), they were also spread quite widely around the north, east and south of the island. This suggests a prolonged and possibly extensive engagement between the Isle of Mann and Roman Britain due to its position on routes of trade through the Irish Sea.
The lack of any Roman building on Mann would suggest that the legions did not visit the island at any stage, while the hoards of coins or hacksilver may downplay the idea of Roman diplomatic contact with the inhabitants of Mann. Perhaps the inhabitants of the island were in no need of gentle persuasion, military or monetary, to behave within the Roman orbit. This does not preclude Romano-British mercantile shipping arriving in the ports of Mann, with the even such a limited amount of coins indicating at least some connection between the Isle of Mann and the traffic passing through the Irish Sea.
Irish Christian Mann
Even with the seemingly continued presence of Roman forces in Britain and its surrounding waters well into the late fourth century, there was a growing threat to Roman holdings in the British Isles from surrounding tribes. And the Irish Sea and Roman navy proved not to be enough of a deterrent. While the Scotti/Irish are infrequently named as the actual culprits, the primary sources hint at Irish raids from the late third through to the early fifth century. Constantius Chlorus, Constantine and Constans may have faced Irish raiders (Pan. Lat. 9(5); Eusebius VC 1.25.1, 2; Laterculus Veronensis 13.2.4; Ammianus XX.1.1), while Ammianus describes the “savage tribes of Scotti” (Ammianus XX.1.1) joining the Picts in attacking Britain in 360 and 367 (Ammianus XXVII.8; XXVIII.3; XXX.7.9-10). While local legend and court propaganda have infected the post-Ammian record, Magnus Maximus and Stilicho may have faced Irish raiders, who penetrated into Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall and along the south coast of Britain (Prosper Tiro, Chronicon Gratiani IV; Claudian, III cons. Hon. 52-58; IV cons. Hon. 24-33; In Eutrop. I.391-393; cons. Stil. 3.247-255; Ridgeway (1924) 123ff and Mattingly, Pearce and Kendrick (1937), 42 on Niall ‘of the Nine Hostages’).
These repeated raids may have had consequences for the Isle of Mann, including perhaps being the explanation for the presence of coins of Maximian and Constans on the island; however, it is what these raids developed into which had the greatest impact of them all. In Wales and Cornwall, late fourth/early fifth century Irish raids were giving way to more permanent settlements, bringing with them significant Irish influence on local archaeology, linguistics, etymology and literature: the Lleyn Peninsula in northern Wales takes its name from the Laigin of Leinster, while Dyfed is perhaps derived from the Munster Déisi (Byrne (1973) 134-136; Coplestone-Crow (1981-1982) 11-12 on Laigin/Lleyn Peninsula; Smyth (1982); Rance (2001) 252 n.58 on Irish settlement in Dyfed). Something similar was happening on the Isle of Mann too. In looking at “the island of Mevania… [and its] tolerably fertile soil,” (Orosius I.2.81-82) Orosius mentions that by the time of his writing in 417, it was inhabited by the Scotti. This suggests that such Irish raiders had landed on Mann in sufficient numbers to overthrow any Roman control or Roman-leaning leadership which had prevailed there.
The arrival of the Scotti initiated the ‘Gaelicisation’ of the Isle of Mann, with the most prominent result being the alteration of the island’s language. This is evidenced by ogham inscriptions (the presence of which alone hints at the influence of Irish tribes) being found on Mann containing Primitive Irish, such as the Ballaqueenee Stone in the Manx Museum, which has two DOVAIDONA MAQI DROATA – “Of Dovaido, son of Droata” and BIVAIDONAS MAQI MUCOI CUNAVA[LI] – “Of Bivaidonas, son of the tribe Cunava[li].”
This infiltration of Primitive Irish shifted the language of the Isle of Mann from the Brythonic branch of Insular Celtic, which eventually spawned Welsh, Cornish and Breton to the Goidelic/Gaelic branch. The later development of this Primitive Irish first into Old Irish and then Middle Irish, with varying influences from Latin, Norse and English produced the Manx language.
Irish involvement in the Late Roman era Isle of Mann may also be seen in the Christianisation of the island supposedly in the mid/late fifth century. This was largely attributed to two disciples of St Patrick, Romulus and Conindrus, and a former Irish prince/freebooter called Maughold. The latter had reputedly attempted to embarrass Patrick only to be either banished to the seas as a penance, washing up on the shore of Mann or intentionally taking himself to the island to avoid temptation after having accepted baptism from Patrick.
Maughold made a strong impression amongst the inhabitants of Mann for not only was he chosen to succeed Romulus and Conindrus as bishop of the island, he would become its patron saint, with several places on Mann named after him – Maughold parish, St. Maughold’s Well, St. Maughold’s Chair and Maughold Head. However, this Patrician inspired conversion may be much more reflective of tradition than of how and indeed when the Christianisation of Mann actually occurred. The building of many of the earliest small chapels on the island has been dated to the second half of the sixth century.
Such potential for the shifting of the Christianisation of Mann to the period 550-600 could connect it to two further potential waves of Scotti/Irish involvement with the island. In 577-578, the Annals of Ulster record Báetán mac Cairill, king of Ulster, leading a successful expedition to subdue Mann; however, when Báetán died in 581, the island is said to have fallen into the hands of his rival, the king of Dál Riata, Áedán mac Gabráin (there is some suggestion that Báetán instead attacked and subdued the south coast of the Firth of Forth, called Manau Gododdin, rather than the Isle of Mann).
The Venerable Bede (HE II.8-9) records Edwin, king of the Northumbrians (616-c.633), taking control of the Mevanian Islands, a collective terms which may include both Mann and Anglesey. In saying that that Edwin lifted the island from Britons, Bede may be recording that Mann had been lost by the Dál Riata before the 620s. Any Northumbrian rule may not have lasted long for they were seemingly ousted from Lancashire sometime in the mid-seventh century – perhaps after the defeat and death of Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in c.633, the defeat and death of his successor Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641/642 or on the division of Northumbria between the sons of Oswiu in 670. That said, the destructive raid of Ecgfrið of Northumbria on the east coast of Ireland in 684, which brought much destruction from Dublin to Drogheda may have involved either using any retained Northumbrian influence on Mann or re-establishing it briefly on the way.
Mona or Mona: The Name of Mann (and Anglesey?)
The potential misidentifying of the ‘Manau’ target of Báetán’s 577-578 campaign highlights a problem with the Isle of Mann in the historical record – from the very earliest appearance of the island in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (V.13), Mann frequently shared similar and sometimes even the same name as Anglesey – Mona. Pliny the Elder (NH IV.30) appears to be refer to Anglesey as Mona and the Isle of Man as Monapia, while Tacitus (Agr. 14, 18) also refers to Anglesey as Mona. In his Geographia (II.1), Claudius Ptolemy records both a Monœda island and a Mona island off the eastern coast of Ireland. It is the former which appears to refer to Mann, while the latter refers to Anglesey.
The form used by Orosius I.2.81-82 – Mevania – was also used by Bede, HE II.8-9 as a collective descriptor for the islands of Mann and Anglesey when recording their occupation by the Northumbrians during the reign of Edwin (616-c.633). This shows that the linking together of Mann and Anglesey first recorded by Caesar may have remained in use for over six centuries.
The seventh century Ravenna Cosmography records Manavi, a slight change which could be the result of some knowledge of Mann, with its recognition as a ‘mountain in the sea’ being joined by the Latin word avis, due to the presence of many different birds on the Calf of Mann island (so many that it is now a bird sanctuary), although this may be complicating matters unnecessarily.
Caesar is unlikely to have simply made up names for Mann and Anglesey (islands which, of course, he himself got nowhere near on either of his forays to Britain) and was therefore relying on locals, who were either providing information directly to him or through various intermediaries. Mona could be Caesar’s attempt to transliterate the names given to him, using a Latin word familiar to him, suggesting that Mann and Anglesey were known by names which sounded like ‘mona‘ to the Roman ear or meant (or was described to him as) something similar like ‘hill’ or ‘mountain.’ The topography of Mann could be connected to such ‘mountainous’ depictions and naming as it essentially two large hills separated by a valley, so it could be described as a ‘mountain in the sea.’
Could the similarity in recorded names for Mann and Anglesey not only represent their relative similarity in size and geography but also some existing cultural and linguistic links? Along with Manau Gododdin in what is now Lothian in Scotland, they appear to have had Brythonic inhabitants, increasing the possibility of shared etymological origins.
That said, the Gaelic, Welsh, Pictish and Latin names for Mann – moncrdh, mynydd, monadh, and mons respectively (there is also the Norse Mön, but it is uncertain if this is cognate with ‘Mann’ as the Norse used the same root word for cairns) – all seem to have similar linguistic roots, suggesting that the basis of ‘Mann’ was perhaps from an older linguistic branch than Brythonic, such as Insular Celtic or more umbrella Celtic.
Thomas Wilson, Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man (1663-1755), suggested that Mann derived from the Saxon mang, meaning ‘among’ and reflecting on the position of the island in-between Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England; however, this would discount all of the names recorded for Mann that pre-date the Saxon invasions of England…
Such pre-existing links between the two Monas could have seen Mann become a haven for Druids after the sacks of Anglesey in 60 by Suetonius Paulinus and in 77 by Agricola (Tacitus, Ann. XIV.29-33; Agr. 18). However, the vehemence with which the Romans attacked the Druids suggests that if it was known that any had escaped to Mann, the legions would likely not have been far behind in the course of, if not Paulinus’ conquest of Anglesey which was interrupted by Boudica’s revolt, surely Agricola’s wide-ranging campaigning after his sack of Anglesey in 77.
There is also similarity with the Brythonic/Gaelic sea god, Manannán, who once ruled Mann, which seems to be an obvious connection, with both having links to the water; however, this does not prove if the island is named after him or he is named after the island. The suffix nán might suggest an endearing diminutive, with Manannán meaning something like ‘little man of Mann’ or ‘Mannling’, but this is not definitive.
Etymological connections for the name Mona/Mann may also exist in the west coast of Ireland, where according to Ptolemy’s Geographia (II.1) there lived a tribe called the Manapii (or a town called Manapia). This is very close in form to the Monapia or Monabia Pliny records for the name of the Isle of Mann (NH IV.30). Could the island have taken its name from the Manapii tribe, who inhabited a tract of land on the east coast of Ireland in Ptolemy’s time? This tribal name meant ‘hill-men,’ but whether they had any connection with Man it is impossible to say.
It is possible that truth of the matter lies somewhere in amongst much of this speculation. The watery connection to Manannán, Caesar using a word he was familiar with to record the ‘mountains in the sea’ described to him for both Mann and Anglesey and even Lord Bishop Wilson’s reasoning for positing a Saxon origin may not completely off the mark with the same core sound within the Insular Celtic languages being used in and around the Irish Sea. Perhaps ‘Mann’ encapsulates some notion of water being nearby.
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While in the East, a great blaze of light in the sky could be a hopeful sign of the rise of a powerful leader, the Greco-Romans dreaded comets as portents of doom, war or the overthrow of a ruler.
When recording much of the previous ‘knowledge’ of comets in his Natural Questions, including the likes of Aristotle who believed they came from the Earth, Seneca highlights a lot of their historic negative receptions, even when he is attempting to be scientific, while Pliny the Elder records certain comets as “a very terrible portent” (Pliny, NH II.22; Seneca, Natural Questions VII). This was so prevalent that the English word ‘disaster’ comes from the Latin for ‘dire star’, referring to a comet.
During the late second/early first century BC, the Romans will have been forgiven for thinking that their predilection for fear of comets was completely justified. The comets of 135BC, 119BC and 87BC came at a time when the eastern Mediterranean was awash with prophecies of trouble for the Roman state (Sanford (1937), 437-439, 446; Holland (2003), 31-58; Buitenwerf (2003) on Sibylline Oracles), prophecies which seemed to be coming true – external problems abound with Spaniards, Numidians, Germans, pirates and the comet-swathed Mithridates, while internally political instability had brought about increasing bloodshed with the Gracchi, Saturninus, the Social War and the burgeoning war between Marians and Sullans. The Messianic figure to bring down the great tyrant of the age promised by such comets may have seemed just around the corner to many a Roman and Asian…
There were so many prophecies proclaiming seemingly anti-Roman aims and included comets in some way that it could almost be queried whether the Romans were scared of what they thought the comet meant in terms of portents or what it might mean to many of its provincials and hostile neighbours, particularly given the Messianic, tyrant-slaying empire-overthrowing claims amongst the peoples of Asia Minor and the Middle East. Greeks and possibly even some Italians choosing to see these comets in a more positive, revolutionary way could have dire consequences for Rome and her empire.
Into this mire came another celestial intervention during a confrontation at Ortyrae between the forces of Mithridates (under the command of a one-eyed Roman rebel Marcus Varius) and the army of Lucullus in 73BC. As the two armies were about to collide, a meteor struck the ground between them, causing both armies to retreat from the battlefield. While Mithridates already had over sixty years of positive comet propaganda behind him in appealing to divine protection, Lucullus will have been struggling largely against the flow of Roman reception of comets and meteorites to have the positive spin of being saved from a battle he did not want due to being thoroughly out-numbered through divine meteor intervention accepted at home; however, the circumstances of the Ortyrae meteorite may have helped him greatly (Mayor (2009), 267-270; Plutarch, Lucullus VIII.5-7; Stothers (2007); D’Orazio (2007); Keaveney (1992), 77 “Both sides, recognising an evil omen, withdrew”; Strabo XII.5.3 on Cybele’s meteorite; Mitchell (1995), II.20).
Meteors were associated with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, a goddess who had gained a significant following in Rome over the previous decades due to her intercession on Rome’s behalf during the Second Punic War. With the battle with Hannibal reaching its crescendo, the Sibylline Books warned that the great Carthaginian general would only be defeated if Cybele’s sacred black stone meteorite kept at Pessinus in central Anatolia was brought to Italy (similar meteorite veneration continues to this day in the guise of the Kaaba in Islam).
The Romans followed this advice and with great pomp and ceremony the black stone was brought to Rome in 204BC. Scipio Africanus’ subsequent decisive victory over Hannibal at Zama in 202BC saw Cybele worship became popular amongst the Romans, leading to a gradual overturning of the traditional Roman fear of meteors and comets. The Romans did not forget this intervention with the great general Marius making a pilgrimage to its site in 98BC, while Sulla had received encouragement from a visitation by Cybele in a dream.
While the likes of Seneca and Pliny would continue to list the poor portents of many comets, before the first century BC was out, Rome would embrace the potential positives of such wandering starts, although it may have taken a dictatorial/imperial hand to guide them.
According to Suetonius, as celebrations for the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris of 44BC were getting underway, “a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88). This bright, day-light comet was initially thought to have appeared in September, this has recently been reused to July, which just so happens to be the month of Julius Caesar, who had just been assassinated on the Ides of March.
Due to the fortuitous timing and no doubt some ‘encouragement’ from the Caesarian party, this astronomical visitor became known as the Sidus Iulium (‘Julian Star’) or Caesaris astrum (‘Star of Caesar’) and became increasingly identified as “the soul of Caesar” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88), ready to ascend to the heavens once his deification was acclaimed on 1 January 42BC.
Such seeming manipulation of names, dates and meaning of ‘Caesar’s Comet’ raises the suspicion as to whether the star/comet appeared at all or was the total invention of Augustan propaganda (Gurval (1997); Marsden in Ramsey and Licht (1997); Pandey (2013)). However, much like with scepticism over the comets of Mithridates, the records from Han China do suggest that there was a comet in the skies of the summer of 44BC, although perhaps in mid-May to mid-June rather than late July. Whether it existed or not, the Sidus Iulium became a potent propaganda tool over the two decades as Augustus established his power and then established his own links to Aeneas and Venus through Caesar.
It must also be noted that what became known as ‘Caesar’s Comet’ was not always considered to be such. It appeared on coins before 44BC was out but as a tailless ‘Star of Caesar’ rather than a comet. Perhaps as further evidence of the infiltration of eastern positivity towards comets, this Sidus Iulium gradually grew a tail to become a comet and also a depiction of Caesar’s divinity (Gurval (1997)).
While Virgil’s “never did fearsome comets so often blaze” seems to link comets to death rather than Caesar’s divinity (Virgil, Georgic I.487-488), this transformation appears to have been complete by the dedication of the Temple of Divus Iulius in 29BC for at the back of the temple a huge image of Caesar was erected with a flaming comet fixed to its forehead, leading the temple also being called the ‘Temple of the Comet Star’ (Pliny, NH II.93-94; Ovid, Meta. XV.840, cf. 745-842).
Again much like with Mithridates, Augustus must have been happy with the timing of the return of Halley’s Comet in 10BC, as it just happened to coincide with the massive funeral games the emperor staged that year in honour of his great friend and general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who had died in 12BC.
The seeming transformation of the ‘Julian Star/Star of Caesar’ into ‘Caesar’s Comet’ is similar to the development of the reception of perhaps the most famous comet in the ancient world… after the comets that signalled the coming of Mithridates and the heavenly ascent of Julius Caesar, there was the wandering star juxtaposed into the birth story of Jesus of Nazareth. Much like what is supposed for the Red Comet, this ‘Star of Bethlehem’ acted as the herald for a new King, a guide and a symbol of a Messianic arrival. This association of the celestial guide of the Wise Men with a comet has a long history, with C.R. Nicholl’s 2015 work The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem being just the latest (Rosenberg (1972) Brown (1975); (1993); Cullen (1979); Hughes (1979); Humphreys (1992); Paffenroth (1993); Jenkins (2004)).
Even more maligned emperors like Nero had numerous celestial visitors to use for their propaganda and political ends. The death of Claudius and Nero’s accession to the throne in 54 was greeted with bright tailed comet, while in 64, the emperor used the appearance of a comet to have numerous senators he disliked executed. However, in 66, when Nero’s regime was beginning to crumble, his popularity replaced with growing opposition, Halley’s Comet returned to the skies.
Perhaps the Jews took this appearance as a sign to overthrow the tyranny of the Romans, breaking out in revolt in the summer of 66, while many Romans may have welcomed the old prophecies of comets bringing about the downfall of tyrants…
Within a decade, during his fifth consulship of 76, the future emperor Titus, the man who had put down said Jewish revolt, wrote a poem about a javelin-type comet, which Pliny the Elder considered to be famous (Pliny, NH II.22).
Down to Modern Times
Even with the seeming embrace of comets by much of the world, these wandering stars continued to provoke a range of response throughout the medieval period. Halley’s Comet appears above Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry, seemingly as a hint of subsequent events during the Norman Conquest (with the benefit of hindsight).
The record of the First Crusade is also littered with instances of cometary sightings in connection with significant events, for good and ill. Comets and meteors had been taken as God’s blessing for Pope Urban’s call of what became the Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A meteor shower visible at Constantinople was seen as a predictor of the arrival of the Frankish ‘locusts’. The Turkish camp of Kerbogha besieging the Crusaders in Antioch was seen to be hit by a meteor on 14 June 1098.
In various parts of Europe, it was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, birth defects and even the Black Death, with Pope Callixtus III excommunicating the comet in 1456 as an “instrument of the devil.” Its 1835-1836 return was claimed to have caused a large fire in New York, a massacre of Boers by the Zulu in South Africa and the siege of the Alamo.
On comets in general, a 15th century poem claimed that they brought “fever, illness, pestilence and death, difficult times, shortages and times of great famine,” which would be an apt description of the consequences for the locals upon the appearance of the Conquistadores in Central and South America. Indeed, Inca and Aztec astrologers saw comets as signs of divine wrath, with one reputedly appearing in the days before the conquest of the former by Francisco Pizarro.
The 16th century French physician, Ambroise Pare, thought a comet of 1528 “was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror that some died of fear and others fell sick. It appeared to be of extreme length, and was the color of blood.”
It was not all negative. By the 17th century, European winemakers claimed that comets caused higher temperatures and therefore aided their grape production and taste, while Napoleon connected some of his early military victories to the appearance of comets.
As science progressed into the 20th century, the old adage of ‘a little knowledge being a dangerous thing’ came into play. In 1910, “comet pills” and “comet insurance” appeared on the market and some Americans felt the need to board up their houses due to the supposed threat of poisonous cyanide gas as Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet.
One might think that as the 20th century progressed that fear of comets was to be confined to Hollywood story lines, but forms of ‘comet fever’ still survive into more modern times. When Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the skies in 1997, it was taken to be a cover for the apocalyptic appearance of ‘Nibiru/Planet X’ or the pre-emptor of an alien space ship, which a group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in order to be beamed aboard.
Comets inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different ancient societies and even to this day, they continue to fascinate, astound and even frighten for the same core reason – they are something out of the ordinary in a sky which is almost always predictable.
Even the polar opposite receptions of comets have their own modern versions. While Greeks and Romans may have seen divine warning of an impending disaster, modern viewers of Halley or Hale-Bopp could be all too aware of that apocalyptic threat posed by such (not-so) Near Earth Objects.
And on the other hand, the eastern views of great positive, even Messianic change to come in the wake of a comet also have their modern theoretical backing in their bringing of the essential Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to Earth in order for life to emerge.
Whether by luck or design, G.R.R. Martin and the creators of Game of Thrones captured this ambiguity perfectly in their words and scenes on paper and screen. The Red Comet is a “harbinger of change,” but what that change is depends on your perspective – victory for your enemies or yourself; the arrival of ice zombies or the dragons/Messiah seemingly sent to defeat them; new life or death.
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It was this writer’s great good fortune to enter the Neolithic passage tomb of Newgrange and some of its surrounding environs and accompanying museum.
Along with nearby Knowth, Dowth and other mounds, standing stones, henges and prehistoric enclosures, Newgrange makes up the Brú na Bóinne – ‘Palace of the Boyne’ – UNESCO World Heritage site in Co. Meath (one of only three on the entire island of Ireland).
Constructed in c.3200BC, the passage tomb of Newgrange is older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. There is no firm consensus about what the site was used for, but it appears more ritual or religious than anything else, particularly with the presence of three alcoves at the head of the passage.
Newgrange was not always the striking site it is now or was upon its completion. Perhaps by the Late Neolithic period – c. 2000BC, the site had fallen into decay with nature starting to cover over the site. That said, it must have retained some ritual significance as seen with deposits of various types through the Iron Age, including the Roman deposits discussed below, and even some deposits that can only have some from the medieval period, such as the remains of rabbits, which only arrived in Ireland in the 13th century.
Despite any such continuation of local reverence, it is possible that the passage tomb had been almost completely subsumed by the local landscape by the medieval period with cattle grazing on top of the mound. That same field was also subsumed by the lands of the Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont and later the lands of the earls of Drogheda.
The passage tomb was not revealed again until Charles Campbell, who held a 99 year lease on the land from the Countess of Drogheda, ordered workmen to dig into the mound to retrieve some stone. Recognising that he had found something more than just a pile of stones, Campbell allowed a parade of antiquarians to investigate the site, many of whom refused to believe that it had been built by local prehistoric peoples. This led to suggestions of Egyptian, Indian or Phoenician involvement in its construction.
Despite this recognition of the importance of the site, it was left largely open until the late 19th century, leading to vandalism and theft. Conservation efforts began in 1890, but the definitive (although not without some controversy over the restoration) archaeological survey by Professor Michael O’Kelly did not being until 1962.
Squeezing through the 19 metre narrow passage with 200,000 tonnes of graduated stone and kerbstones above and around, trying not to smash your head against the ceiling or rub too much against the sides, you do not get the impression of going up-hill. However, by the time you enter the main tomb with its three alcoves and striking layered ceiling, complete with a 40 tonne capstone, your feet are now level with the top of the entrance. While initially this just seems like a way to place the alcove tombs in a ceremonially higher position, it will be seen below that there was much more to this elevation.
Walking around the acre-sized mound (85 metres wide, 13.5 metres high), we were struck by not only the 97 enormous kerbstones ringing the mound and the satellite tomb, which turned out to be a ‘folly’ tomb made up of stone culled from Newgrange itself in a form of 19th century antiquarian vandalism, but also the large semi-circular bank surrounding half of the mound.
Perhaps showing a lack of archaeological knowledge, it was speculated in my group that it might have been part of an attempt to make the mound appear in the same spiral shape prevalent around Newgrange. We found that it was instead comprised of cairn materials which had slipped from the mound, essentially burying the kerbstones. During the restoration of the Newgrange site, it was decided to retain the cairn slip semi-circular mound, only uncovering the kerbstones which it had obscured from view.
The survival of such a seemingly rudimentary structure which used no form of cement (gaps between the major stones were filled in with other stone) is in itself astounding but even more so is that fact that the central passage tomb has remained completely water tight over the millennia since the capstone was put in place.
Not only are many of the stones used to construct Newgrange of a vast size and number, they are also not exactly from the nearby hills. The quartz and granite used at the site came from up to 70 miles away in Wicklow and Dundalk. And this was almost certainly at a time before the advent of the wheel in Ireland and domesticated beasts of burden (and most probably all of Europe too), so the likelihood is that the stones were floated along the Boyne, rolled on felled trees and muscled into position through ramps and good, old-fashioned manpower.
It is not only the architectural prowess which is so eye-opening, but also the artistic techniques of the Stone Age farmers who built this monument. Many of the stones in and around Newgrange are engraved with various Neolithic patterns. Indeed, the Boyne Valley as a whole contains a significant proportion of Europe’s Neolithic art.
One of the more prominent art techniques around Newgrange and most prominently displayed on the vast Entrance Stone are the triskele-like patterns. Whilst this type of triskele is seemingly unique to Newgrange, the triskele itself was widely used and has been looked at in a previous blog with regards to another Irish find – the Bann Disc.
There has been plenty of speculation as to what this preponderance of triskele spirals could mean beyond decoration – are they some for of map? The layout of the stars? A language or even drug-induced hallucinations?
Newgrange and the Winter Solstice
If the art and architecture were not awe-inspiring enough, Newgrange had one more astronomical secret for those charged with unearthing it. The onsite museum (as well as providing plenty of opportunity to buy plenty of Irish-theme merchandise and extremely appetising food) tells the story of how Professor Michael O’Kelly, principal excavating archaeologist from 1962-1975, came to uncover one of Newgrange’s hidden mysteries and quite possibly one of its main reasons for being where it is – its alignment with the sun of the winter solstice.
Professor O’Kelly and his team had heard of local traditions surrounding the solstice and even Newgrange’s use of it for ritual purposes, but it was not until the winter of 1967 that the professor saw what was in all likelihood the reason for the elevation of the alcove tombs to the level of the entrance…
“At 8:58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess.” Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, 21st December 1969
It turns out that the whole Newgrange mound was oriented with the winter solstice in mind so that the light of the sun on the shortest day – 21 December – would shine through the passage into the alcove at the head of the tomb. The exact reasoning for this is unknown – general sun worship, celebrating the turning of the season, allowing the cremated remains in the passage tomb to ‘see’ the sun or partake in solstice?
Getting to see this annual event has become the focus of a lottery in the Boyne Valley museum, with twenty people chosen to stand in the passage tomb at the appointed time to be greeted by the approaching beam of light (weather permitting) – over 32,000 attempted to win that privilege. While inside the passage tomb, non-solstice visitors are given a taster of what they beam of light might look like creeping through the otherwise perennial darkness.
Such an astronomical alignment encouraged similar investigations at Knowth and Dowth, with the latter having a similar winter solstice alignment as Newgrange and the former being aligned with the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Clearly, these Stone Age farmers who had no domesticated animals or the wheel were well-advanced in knowledge of the astronomical events of their world.
Roman Material at Newgrange
As this is a classical blog, it would be remiss of me to not mention the finds of Roman material at the site. A significant collection of rings, brooches, torcs and gold, silver and base coins were found near the entrance and at the larger of the stone circle surrounding Newgrange.
The coins depict emperors ranging from the late first century to the late fourth century. A catalogue of these coins was collated by R.A.G. Carson of the British Museum for the Royal Irish Academy in 1977, running to some 25 coins including two now lost from the 1842 finds recorded by Conyngham (1844).
Postumus (Gallic emperor, 260-269)
Maximian (286-305, 306-308, 310)
Constantine I (306-337)
Constantine II (337-340)
Valentinian I (364-375)
Theodosius I (379-395)
Of all the 20 coins from which a mint mark can be ascertained, the majority (11) come from the imperial mint at Trier, now in Germany. The three earliest coins of Domitian were all made in Rome, along with another of Probus. The remaining coins came from the mints at Cologne, Amiens, Milan and London.
In the very least this demonstrates some interaction between the Roman and Irish worlds and that Roman items were considered valuable enough to dedication to whatever rituals or gods were held sacred on the site of Newgrange during or after the fourth century.
Bateson, D. ‘Roman material from Ireland: a reconsideration’, in PIRA 73 (1973) 21-97
Carson, R.A.G. and O’Kelly, Claire ‘A Catalogue of the Roman Coins from Newgrange, Co. Meath and Notes on the Coins and Related Finds,’ PIRA 77 (1977) 35-55
Conyngham, A. ‘Description of some gold ornaments recently found in Ireland,’ Archalogia 30 (1844) 137
O’Kelly, M.J. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London (1982)
The mixed reactions to the Red Comet recorded in A Clash of Kings and the concordant early episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones (see HERE) reflect similar ambiguous responses in history to such astronomical phenomena.
“All ancient cultures with historical records, western and eastern, looked at any new apparition in the sky, such as a comet, with apprehension. The average person in ancient times knew the heavens much better than we do today, and something changing day to day in the sky was alarming to them.”
(Schwarz (1997), https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/news59.html)
In ancient cultures, their sudden appearance was considered to a sign from the gods. And because they disturbed the harmony of the starry sky, they were soon deemed to be a bad omen (http://deepimpact.umd.edu/science/comets-cultures.html).
The great work of ancient Babylonian mythological literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, described the arrival of a comet in almost apocalyptic terms of fire, brimstone and flood, although there has been some other views on Gilgamesh and his relations with comets and astronomical (http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/gilgamesh-and-enkidu-as-orion-and-a-meteor). The ancient Yakut legends from Mongolia spoke in similar terms, calling comets “the daughter of the devil,” who was to be accompanied by storms, freezing temperatures and general destruction.
Some Jewish sources, such as Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, a Jew living in Spain, suggested that the Great Flood had been caused by two stars being thrown at the Earth by God (http://discovermagazine.com/2007/nov/did-a-comet-cause-the-great-flood).
The Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’, c.300BC
For all their record keeping, seen in the Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’ from c.300BC above, many Chinese also regarded comets as “vile stars.”
As well might be imagined, looking at how ancient peoples received comets would require an extensive academic work. However, focusing on one specific period – that covered by the reign of Mithridates VI of Pontus (135-66BC) and the last century of the Roman Republic can cover much of the different beliefs surrounding comets in eastern and western culture (Mayor (2009), 27-33 provides much of the basis of this piece)
The career and propaganda of Mithridates Vl can demonstrate much of the Middle Eastern view of comets. Even his very name paid tribute to Mithras, the Iranian sun god, whose birth was accompanied by “a great fire or light from the heavens.” (Mayor (2009), 27)
While already a dynastic name, the reputed circumstances of his birth could point to why Mithridates’ parents chose that name for him. According to the Roman historian Justin, “in the year that Mithradates was begotten, and again when he first began to rule, comets blazed forth with such splendor that the whole sky seemed to be on fire” (Justin 37.2). A second such comet appeared in 119BC, which just so happened to be the year Mithridates ascended to the Pontic throne.
The type of comet to appear in 135BC and 119BC also played in the hands of the Pontic king. Their curved tail allowed for identification as a bladed weapon, much like how Gendry considered the Red Comet to be a ‘Red Sword.’ Furthermore, to the peoples of the east, the curved comets reminded them of a very specific blade: “the sickle-shaped harpe, the Persian scimitar, the signature weapon of Mithra himself” (Mayor (2009), 32).
Various Roman, Jewish and Biblical sources also record instances of such sword-like comets – Pliny, NH II.22.89 called them ‘daggers’; Josephus, BJ VI.5.3 recorded “a star, resembling a sword;” while 1 Chronicles 21.16 and Revelation 1.16 seemingly refer to comets.
There were further mythological connections to be made through the association of the harpe with Perseus. While best known as a hero of Greek mythology, the character of Perseus was much influenced by Iranian culture, including his use of the harpe, most famously used to behead the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa. Mithridates made use of this by depicting Perseus and his harpe on Pontic coins (Højte (2009); McGing (1986), 35, 94).
The Perseus/Medusa myth had the added layer of the involvement of the winged horse Pegasus, who was foaled by the blood of the beheaded Gorgon. Much like Perseus, while most famous for being part of Greek mythology, the winged steed had its origins in the Middle East, where Mithras’ sacred animal was the horse, providing Mithridates with yet more divine providence for his comet-blessed birth and coronation as it has been suggested that the comets of 135BC and 119BC appeared in the constellation of Pegasus (Ramsey (1999), 218-228; Widengren (1959), 244; McGing (1986), 85, 94-95 on Pegasus also appearing on Pontic coins).
Mithridates could really not have asked for a better propaganda boon for his life and reign for “according to well-known prophecies, a bright new light in the sky would announce the coming of a savior-king, a messiah or great leader who would triumph over enemies.” (Mayor (2009), 27)
It may be the immediate supposition of the sceptic to think of these two comets as inventions of the court of Mithridates to increase his own prestige, particularly when they represented such positive Messianic heralds in eastern tradition. However, not only is the account of Justin ultimately derived from a potential eye-witness, through Pompeius Trogus, other sources also recount the presence of comets in the skies of 135BC and 119BC. For example, Seneca, Natural Questions 7.15 records that “there appeared a comet which was small at first [then] spread . . . its vast extent equalled the size of the Milky Way,”
Astronomers of Han China kept detailed records of astronomical events and for 135BC and 119BC, they list comets of what they call the ‘war banner’ type, giving descriptions very similar to that of Justin. That the Han soothsayers proclaimed that such ‘war banner’ comets predicted massacres, terrible wars, and the rise of a great conqueror also fit in with the propaganda and indeed the reality of the reign of Mithridates VI (Loewe (1980); Ramsey (1999), 198-199, 200 n.9, 206 n.30). European astronomers also seem to have recognized the reality of the two comets of 135BC and 119BC as early as 1783 (Fotheringham (1919), 166).
Mithridates was so proud of his connection to these comets that he had them depicted on his small denomination coins, so the common people of his empire could see how his birth had been so well-omened (Arslan (2007), 73-76). The Armenian king Tigranes II was also minting coins depicting a comet around the same time perhaps as a public declaration of his alliance with his father-in-law Mithridates.
It has been speculated that the comet on Tigranes’ coin was meant to be Halley’s Comet (Gurzadyan and Vardanyan (2004)); however, this appears unlikely. The comet on the Armenian coins has a curved tail, linking it to the ‘war banner’ comets of 135 and 119BC, rather than the always straight-tailed Halley’s Comet.
That said, if Mithridates needed any more politico-religious capital out of comets, the most famous comet of them did make an appearance in the skies of 87BC, mere months after Mithridates’ orchestration of a massacre of Romans in Asia Minor in 88BC. This serendipitous timing allowed the Pontic and Armenian kings to present this latest wandering star as proof of divine favour for their anti-Roman actions.
Such was the political climate and their desperation to escape the ever-tightening grip of Rome, the Athenians seem to have been willing to accept, perhaps against their own negative predilections, the positive signs attributed to the appearance of Halley’s Comet given the successes of Mithridates in Asia Minor and Greece. With that, they elected the philosopher Aristion as their leader on a pro-Mithridates platform.
Such willingness to accept the positive spin on comets by the Athenians may represent another aspect to Mithridates’ propaganda. While his kingdom may have had significant eastern influences, Mithridates will have understood that many of his Hellenised people may have viewed comets in a negative way. The distribution of his coins may therefore have been part of winning hearts and minds by promoting the positive aspects of Middle Eastern views on comets.
The indigenous populations of Anatolia, Armenia, Media, Syria, Scythia, and other lands of the old Persian Empire interpreted comets as signs of hope, not grounds for despair. Even the more apocalyptic Zoroastrian scriptures of the third century BC such as the Bahman Yasht, envisioned an avenging saviour-prince who would be born under a shooting star: this prince would drive foreign tyrants out of Asia (Bahman Yasht III.13-15). Such prophecies were increasingly prominent around the time of Mithridates’ birth in Egyptian and Jewish literature.
For the Greeks who were increasingly rankling under their ‘liberation’ by the Romans, such promises must have seemed welcome and mind-altering when it came to comets. None of this seemed to bode well for Rome, although as will be seen in the final part of this blog, the Romans themselves were seemingly in the process of changing their view of comets.
As they streak across the sky, striking awe into onlookers, it is easy to forget that such comets could, with just a few degrees difference in angle, be harbingers of the ultimate doom to life on this planet. Such apocalyptic notions are not just the fodder for Hollywood movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon or Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Hammer of the Gods.
We need only look up at the moon to see the damage which can be done by such celestial cannonballs. The surface of the Earth itself is spotted with craterous bullet-holes, some which are considered to have caused extinction level events.
But as much as such comets could be the bringers of apocalyptic doom and have been in the past, they could also be the harbingers of a new dawn. The PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) world hypothesis suggests that such comets may have brought some of the vital ingredients of the primordial soup to Earth – Arthur C. Clarke’s essay ‘Toilets of the Gods’ is perhaps the most famous iteration of this theory.
This dual nature of bringers of extinction and of the building blocks of life is played out in the reception of the Red Comet in both the literary and televisual versions of Game of Thrones.
Red Comet, by Franz Miklis. © Fantasy Flight Games©
The sheer number of different names that this celestial interloper is recorded by – Red Comet, Red Messenger, Bleeding Star, Mormont’s Torch, King Joffrey’s comet, Red Sword, Sword that Slays the Season, Dragon’s Tail, burning brand, Father’s scourge and Harbinger – demonstrates the varied nature of its reception amongst the various characters and groups across Westeros and Essos. And even this list of names does not cover all of the ideas about the Red Comet.
Bright enough to be seen during the day, many considered the Red Comet to be some kind of sign or messenger, with those in the streets of King’s Landing and in the Riverlands specifically calling the comet the ‘Red Messenger,’ (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I; ch.7, Catelyn I; cf. ch.11, Theon I), although there was little agreement on not only what the comet was to be called but also what that message was.
To Old Nan (who was blind but claimed to be able to smell the comet), it signals the coming of dragons (ACOK, prol.), rather accurately as it turns out, given the events surrounding the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo in the grasslands of the Lhazareen. This thought is echoed in S02E01 “The North Remembers” of the TV show, where the words of Old Nan are put in the mouth of the wildling woman Osha.
Unsurprisingly, given her own experiences, Daenerys Targaryen muses that the comet was “Bloodred; fire red; the dragon’s tail,” (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X), clearly associating it not only with her dragons but the cause and even red-dragoned sigil of House Targaryen. In the streets of King’s Landing, perhaps reflecting that city’s memory of actual dragons, the people refer to it as the ‘Dragon’s Tail’, as do some of the servants encountered by Sansa Stark (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Ser Arys Oakheart counters this by pointing out that it is Joffrey Baratheon who sits on the dragon’s throne (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, the red priestess Melisandre tells Selyse Florent that the comet is dragonsbreath (ACOK, prol.)
Drogo’s Funeral Pyre Kim Pope©
Despite this connection to Daenerys, her dragons and her quest to claim the Iron Throne, it is another Dothraki, Jhogo, who is first recorded chronologically seeing the shierak qiya: ‘Bleeding Star’ in the Dothraki language (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). Interestingly, he sees it before Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. It is used as a symbol to light the pyre on fire, as it is believed the brighter the star, the fiercer a man burned in life, a reflection of the great Khal that the Dothraki and indeed Daenerys has lost in the demise of Drogo (and perhaps even of Rhaego, Drogo and Daenerys’ unborn son).
This link to the demise of a great man may also be seen in mentions of the comet in relation to the death of Eddard Stark. Maester Luwin of Winterfell studied the comet through his Myrish lens tube on the morning when a raven brings the news of Eddard’s execution (AGOT, ch.66, Bran VII), which is the first mention of the comet in A Game of Thrones, although the sighting by Jhogo takes place earlier in the timeline of events. The comet makes Arya Stark remember the blood on Ice, her father’s greatsword, which she had seen used to execute him (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Some, like Greatjon Umber look upon the comet as a red flag of vengeance for Ned (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre also sees the comet cast in the role of a sign or guide. Daenerys uses its presence to light said pyre (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X) and given how positively that guidance went, she again takes it as a sign to venture into the waterless Red Waste, claiming that “the gods have sent it to show me the way” (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). That she could command her small khalasar to follow her in such a dangerous journey, even against the mutterings of the old men who saw the comet as ill-omened, demonstrates the respect and awe now felt for Daenerys given her survival of the funeral pyre and status as ‘Mother of Dragons.’ It may also have been a recognition that there was little else they could do due to the presence of other marauding khalasars in the vicinity, highlighted in the TV show by the murder of Rakharo when on a scouting mission, or evidence of a genuine belief in the shierak qiya as a guide to better things, which it could be argued it did given the improving of Daenerys’ position through crossing the Red Waste to Qarth. This idea of the comet being a guide for Daenerys is reiterated by the Undying Ones of Qarth, who claimed to have sent the comet to bring Dani to them (ACOK, ch.48, Daenerys IV).
This guiding hand symbolism may also be present for the men of the Night’s Watch currently employed in the Great Ranging beyond the Wall calling the comet ‘Mormont’s Torch’ after their Lord Commander (ACOK, ch.6, Jon I; ch.23, Jon III), possibly an allusion to the need for light against the coming dark.
Melisandre and Marco_Caradonna’s Prince Who Was Promised
Through its fiery colour, heavenly position and sword-like look, the Red Comet was also closely associated with the prophecies surrounding the worship of the Lord of Light, R’hllor. Maester Aemon recalls how Prince Aegon was conceived under the light of a comet at King’s Landing, leading Rhaegar to believe that his son was the ‘prince that was promised.’ Aemon later began to think that Daenerys was the promised hero (AFFC, ch.35, Samwell IV), and she too claimed that the comet was the herald of her coming. (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I)
In Westeros, it is Melisandre who suggests that the comet was acting as a herald, specifically for Stannis Baratheon, who she saw as the ‘prince that was promised’ to stand in the name of R’hllor against the Great Other, something echoed by his wife Selyse (ASOS, ch.63, Davos VI; Chapter 78, Samwell V; ADWD, ch.54, Cersei I).
Beyond the prophecies of the Lord of Light, Theon records the men of Riverrun seeing “the Red Comet is a herald of a new age. A messenger from the gods” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Varys reports how the people in the streets of King’s Landing “say it comes as a herald before a king” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), with the royal court sycophantically proclaiming it as “King Joffrey’s comet,” something echoed by Ser Arys Oakheart, who sees it as the herald of Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, which Sansa doubts as the comet is red, a Lannister colour while Joffrey is supposed to be a Baratheon… the audience, reader and a select few know why the comet is not gold…(ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I)
Ser Oakheart, perhaps demonstrating his own sycophancy or willingness to believe propaganda, also tells Sansa that the comet means that King Joffrey “will triumph over his enemies” (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). The comet being a harbinger of victory is a common enough idea in Westeros, although there is plenty of hand-wringing as to whether that victory will be for your or your enemies.
Even some non-regal but self-centred persons, like Theon Greyjoy, could think that the comet was a sign for them personally (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), but this question of ‘whose victory?’ is seen most clearly in the musings of Catelyn Stark, who mentions how the men of Winterfell see the comet as an omen of the victory of Robb Stark, and that her brother Edmure Tully, viewing the comet as a fish with a long tail and the red being the mud red colour of the river, sees future triumph for his family and himself. Being more pessimistic in the wake of her husband’s execution and the seeming loss of her daughters, Catelyn sees the comet’s colour as reminiscent of Lannister red crimson.
Brynden Tully dismisses these musings, claiming that the Red Comet is neither Lannister crimson not Tully red, but that of blood: a sign of the horrors about to unfold. Not deterred from her pessimism, Catelyn wonders whose blood that might be (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
The Blackfish is not the only one to identify the Red Comet as a sign of war and bloodshed, with several speaking in almost Targaryen terms of ‘fire and blood.’ Aeron Greyjoy tells Theon that it is an invitation from the Drowned God for the Ironborn to go on the warpath once more (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Maester Cressen thought the comet was “the colour of blood and flame and sunsets” (ACOK, prol.), while Osha warns Bran that it means “blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I). In King’s Landing, Varys refers to how the people in the streets say the comet warns of “fire and blood to follow” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), which could be laced with foreboding of his own Targaryen leanings as well as some of the lower classes in the capital.
There are also some references to the panoply of war in the shape of the comet. Gendry calls the comet the ‘Red Sword,’ through his own background as a blacksmith and how he sees it as a “blade still red-hot from the forge,” while this conversation reminds Arya remember the blood on Ice, Eddard Stark’s greatsword, after the execution of her father (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Aeron Greyjoy also sees the comet as the burning brand the Ironborn used to carry and as a call to go to war with “fire and sword” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), while amongst the Faith of the Seven, it is known as the “sword that slays the season” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), highlighting not only the weapon shape of the comet but also the recent arrival of a white raven signalling the end of summer.
Similar supernatural links to the comet may be seen Maester Luwin’s recording of how the direwolves, Shaggydog and Summer, were howling at the comet. He thought that they were mistaking it for the moon (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), although the ability of the direwolves to seemingly sense danger (see the Red Wedding) and their seeming connection to the more mysterious goings on in Westeros may connect their howling to the reawakening of magic, dragons and the Others which coincided with the passing of the Red Comet.
Varys recounts to Tyrion how “the comet has brought forth all manner of queer priests, preachers, and prophets… [to] foretell doom and destruction to anyone who stops to listen” (ACOK, ch.8, Tyrion II), something which Tyrion himself then experiences while returning to the Red Keep, pointedly after having met with the Guildhall of Alchemists regarding his proposed use of wildfire in the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater.
This particular prophet describes the Red Comet as a sign of an approaching cleansing sent by the Father:
“Corruption! There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge! We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all … but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low! When the boar did open him, a great stench rose to heaven and a thousand snakes slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting! There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK, ch.20, Tyrion V)
While his shouts of “Fire!” are shouted down with derision, as with many other opinions on the significance of the Red Comet, this prophet is hardly to be considered incorrect. The War of the Five Kings was about to arrive on the doorstep of King’s Landing in the form of Stannis Baratheon, famine and pestilence cannot be far behind and there are also the looming threats of the Ironborn raids, Daenerys’ dragons and Dothraki, the arrival of the Faith Militant, Cersei’s destructions of the Sept of Baelor in the TV show and whatever there is to come with the fulfilling of the Stark’s words – Winter is Coming.
It is also worth noting that in the midst of what might be considered a significant amount of superstition regarding the meaning behind the Red Comet, there is also something approaching the actual truth in the conversation between Maester Cressen and Shireen Baratheon. He informs her that “the thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes” (ACOK, prol.).
In the next two blog entries, we will look at how these numerous reactions to the appearance of a comet in the fictional world of Game of Thrones reflects the similarly wide variety of receptions of such celestial interlopers in ancient history.
When I left high school a few years ago having studied Latin and Classical Civilisation to A level and progressed into University to study Primary Education, I made a promise to myself that I would teach Classics to children in whatever way I could. But more importantly, I would try to stoke the same passion and excitement for the subject in the children I would teach as my own teachers had in me. On my second block placement with Stranmillis University College in Whitehouse Primary School, Principal Frazer Bailie (whom I would like to thank immeasurably for allowing me into his school and having the chance to bring Classics with me) very kindly gave me permission to host a Classics club for Key Stage 2 children every Tuesday afternoon for five weeks. Suffice to say the Classicist in me was elated.
I should explain that I am a student primary school teacher and so the idea of running an entire club from start to finish is a bit intimidating, even with previous experience of working with children in extra-curricular activities. So as I sat down to plan my five week scheme of work I thought “how do I make this relevant?” Because that’s the key in teaching, isn’t it? Make it relevant, make it fun and the learning will follow. At the time I realised that chances are, the children I would be teaching would have never had any formal experience in learning Classics and so it was up to me to make sure they formed a love for it.
In my training at Stranmillis we are told to make topics as cross-curricular as possible, meaning you can teach Music through Literacy or Numeracy through World Around Us (History, Geography and Science and Technology) topics. I am of the opinion that Classics is the perfect cross-curricular topic and so that is how I set out in planning my club – not only was it going to be fun, it was going to be as enriching as possible.
Five weeks, five lessons and a whole lot of Classics to cram into my short timeslot but I was determined to make the most out of my time in Whitehouse. Week One started with a brief introduction to Classics. An exploration, if you will, of the topic as well as the beginnings of Latin. Over twenty Key Stage 2 children involved in the club seemed enthralled that their first taste of Latin was casting Harry Potter spells – certainly a deviation from the routine Numeracy and Literacy! This not only captured their attention straight off, it meant that even from the very start of their Classical education, they were expanding upon their vocabulary (a statutory requirement in the Northern Ireland National Curriculum). “Expecto Patronum!” shouted eagerly throughout the halls of Whitehouse Primary School quickly turned into a discussion of what a patron was and how the word ‘expect’ comes from the Latin verb expecto.
Moving on to the first few pages of the Cambridge Latin Course (Book I), the children got a taste of some of the first stages in learning Latin when they reach post-primary. With some background to Pompeii and an interesting family, the children once again were able to explore the Latin language. They especially enjoyed the flash card pop quiz at the end with the all important Haribo on offer should they get a new vocabulary word correct.
The Classics Club was off to a roaring start, with some new children joining the following week, having heard of the fun had already in the early stages. Week Two proved a challenge to plan. Do I follow the Cambridge Latin course for the next four weeks or do I vary what parts of Classics the children should experience? I decided for the time being, to move through some more of the Cambridge Latin course so that the children could begin to formulate simple sentences in Latin. And so we moved to Roman houses. Some background and context started us off, generating a comparison of Ancient Roman houses and houses today and so another way in which Classics can be used as a stimulus for the Northern Ireland National Curriculum. The young classicists then moved to learning the Latin names for Roman rooms using flash cards (and an exaggerated Italian accent!). Using an A1 poster of a cross-section of a Pompeian Villa and some laminated character and word cards, the children solidified their knowledge of Latin words and phrases. If I said “Caecilius est in horto” they would have to place Caecilius on the correct place on the board. A competition began, sweets were given out and the next generation of classicists began to see that Classics really was worth learning (hopefully because of more than just the promise of sweets!).
For Week Three, the Classics Club took a flight from Ancient Rome to Ancient Greece and rolled up their sleeves, ready for what I had in store. So far I had managed to link Classics to Literacy, Drama and World Around Us in the Northern Ireland Primary Curriculum but now it was time for some Music. And what better way to do this than to learn to rap the Ancient Greek alphabet? Through the above YouTube video, the children were soon able to rap the alphabet on their own, knew where our current alphabet came and even managed to write out all the Greek letters. This was, out of all the sessions we had together, the most fun for children and teacher alike. It allowed us to let go of our inhibitions and learn a song we could impress our friends with later. I’ll forever cherish the memory of walking twenty children out to the front gates to meet their parents while they sang the Ancient Greek alphabet.
Week Four continued in Ancient Greece with drama and theatre. Incorporating Art and Design and Drama into one lesson was no small task but the children delighted in the great variety Classics was providing them, decorating Greek tragedy masks and trying on togas and stolas. It was certainly quite difference from their normal school day activities!
Week Five finished up the Classics Club with a return to Ancient Rome, specifically its dinning table. If time and culinary skill were on my side I might have served a banquet of Dormice, Flamingo Tongues and Garum but alas, it was just a selection of peach juice and iced buns on offer. I sat down and discussed with them the dramatic food and parties hosted by Caligula (a P.C. version!) and took the opportunity to answer questions on Classics at post-primary level, with many students taking a keen interest in the possibility of continuing the subject. Perhaps this was an indication on the success of the Classics Club.
All in all, through my wonderful experience at Whitehouse Primary School, Classics can not only be brought into minds and hearts of primary school children in a meaningful way, it can also be linked to the Northern Ireland Primary Curriculum through a variety of class subjects; however, the most important thing is the joy that Classics brought the children I was able to teach. Their engagement and excitement at each new topic gave me hope that there is a future in Classical education in Northern Ireland and reminded me of just how important it is that this versatile subject is considered to be relevant to the children of today.
Those of you who have been following CANI since the earliest days of its 2014 reincarnation, you will know that the hoard of Roman silver found at Ballinrees near Coleraine in Northern Ireland and the circumstances of its deposit there have been the subjects of several pieces involving CANI members: the inaugural talk, a guest lecture for the Coleraine Historical Society and a published article for Classics Ireland.
Given the weight of focus on this Coleraine find in CANI pieces, you might be forgiven for viewing it as an isolated product of raiding, trading and/or political payments. However, the Coleraine Hoard is not the only silver find in Ireland – there is its ‘sister’ hoard at Balline, Co. Limerick from a similar period and at least two documented coin hoards of Quigg and McKinlay from the North Coast, nor is it part of a solely Irish phenomenon with Britain being the site of numerous late Roman hoards of various size, including the enormous Hoxne Hoard and the smaller, earlier but no less intriguing Falkirk Hoard.
Recent finds such as the Echt Hoard near Limburg in the Netherlands, on top of a whole lot of others, show that it is not even a specifically British or Irish phenomenon.
But it those finds from outside Roman territory on the British Isles and made up purely of silver like Coleraine and Balline that are the interest of this piece. Specifically it is the over 20kgs of silver of various sizes and shapes which make up what is known as the Traprain Law Hoard.
Unlike the Ballinrees find, the site of the hole in the ground in East Lothian from which this hoard of silver was plucked has a more straightforward explanation. The sheer fact that this Scottish hoard was found five years into an extensive nine-year excavation immediately suggests that archaeologists knew that there was something to be looked for on the hill called Traprain Law, about four miles east of Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland.
This 221m hill had a long history of human usage before it became the resting place of a large hoard of Roman silver. By the middle of the second millennium BC, it was a site of burial and by the first millennium BC, there is evidence of occupation and even defences.
This has seen Traprain Law classed as an Iron Age oppidum, and one of significant size for northern Britain, covering up to forty acres. This has helped fuel speculation about the exact nature of the ‘settlement’ on Traprain Law. Was it purely a religious burial site? Did it development into a permanent town? Was it a seasonal meeting place for the Votadini or was it a defensive hill fort, only retreated to in the face of Roman or Scotti invasion? It would later be used as a beacon site, to warn of English invasion. Perhaps it was all of these at various times.
Traprain Law’s archaeology suggests an occupation by the Votadini tribe, perhaps even as their principal settlement (called Curia by Ptolemy, Geo. II.3.7), between the 40s and the late second century, perhaps influenced by the arrival of the Romans in Britain and their subsequent withdrawal from the Antonine Wall. After a gap of a generation or two, the hill was again occupied from the 220s through the middle of the fifth century. The final abandoning of Traprain Law by the Votadini tribe and their proto-kingdom of Gododdin may coincide with the moving of their capital to Din Eidyn, the site of Edinburgh Castle.
Being a potential ‘capital’ for the Votadini or other Caledonian/Pictish tribes bordering the Roman Empire made Traprain Law a magnet for Roman material gathered through any number of means – raid, trade, religious devotion or diplomatic contact. Similar arguments over origins are made for the Balline and Coleraine Hoards, but with Traprain Law, its position on the Roman frontier and the existence of supposed diplomatic connections may see more decisive support for that collection of silver being a payment to a local chieftain to keep the peace or provide soldiers for the Roman army.
The archaeological dig which unearthed the Traprain Law Hoard began in 1914 under the leadership of Alexander Ormiston Curle. It was not until 1919 that pieces of silver plate started to emerge, along with drinking vessels, spoons, items marked with Christian symbols, remnants of a Roman officer’s uniform and various crushed and hacked up pieces of silver, some of which, despite their messy shape and size, were cut down to a specific weight, marking them as bullion. Some of the items were of high enough quality as to bring about suggestions of origins in some of the workshops in some of the major Roman cities of the Mediterranean.
For all the silver in the Traprain Law Hoard, there were only five Roman coins, in contrast to the 1,483 found in Ballinrees. The Traprain coins are also considerably clipped, but there is enough detail on them to aide their identification and therefore the dating of the hoard. The emperors depicted on the coins are Valens, Arcadius and Honorius, which puts the very earliest date in the last years of the fourth century but more likely the hoard comes from the first quarter of the fifth century.
Coin of Julian from Coleraine Hoard in the British Museum collection (1856, 1205.8)
The Traprain Law Hoard underwent some restoration where appropriate and was sent to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where it was CANI‘s good fortune to see it last month.
For more information and pictures on the Traprain Law hoard, go to https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/traprain-law-treasure/
Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator of Iron Age and Roman collections at National Museums Scotland, has also given talks and presentations on the Hoard.
Bland, R.F., Moorhead, T.S.N., and Walton, P., ‘Finds of late Roman silver coins from Britain: the contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme’ in F. Hunter, and K. Painter (eds.), Late Roman Silver: The Traprain treasure in context, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2013), 117-166
Crawford, P.T. ‘The Coleraine Hoard and Romano-Irish Relations in Late Antiquity,’ Classics Ireland 21-22 (2017) 41-118
Curle, A.O., The Treasure of Traprain: A Scottish Hoard of Silver Plate, (Glasgow: Maclehose, Jackson and Co, 1923).
Hunter, F. and Painter, K. (eds.), Late Roman Silver: The Traprain treasure in context, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2013)
Feachem, R.W. ‘The Fortifications on Traprain Law,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 89 (1955-6), 284-289
Ridgeway, W., ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages in Connexion with the Treasures of Traprain Law and Ballinrees, and the destruction of Wroxeter, Chester, Caerleon and Caerwent’ JRS 14 (1924), 123-126