I am beginning to feel the pull of Samhain. It is not here yet, but its themes are drawing my attention. One of these is the remembrance of ancestors.
A recent post by poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers (1) has prompted me to look again at Barry Cunliffe’s work, and the book I have to hand is Facing the Ocean (2). It is about early human history in Atlantic maritime Europe. including Britain and Ireland. One of its threads concerns living with the ocean. Another, related to the first, looks at communication by sea at a time when land travel was difficult. I will follow up these threads in future posts. In the meantime, Cunliffe’s sense of the interaction between nature and culture is shown in the extract below.
“To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience. We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be. Wonder is tempered with reassurance: it is an end, but we are content that the cycle will reproduce itself the sun will reappear. The sea below creates different, more conflicting, emotions. True, there is the comfortable inevitability of the tides, but there is also an unpredictability of mood, the sea constantly changing, sometimes erupting in crescendos of brute force destroying and remoulding the land and claiming human life. The sea is a balance of opposites. It gives and takes. It can destroy quickly and build new; it sustains life and it can kill. Small wonder that through time communities have sought to explain these forces in terms of myth and have attempted to gain some puny influence over them through propitiation.
“Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the legends and folk traditions of Brittany. In the howl of the wind can be heard the screams and laments of those drowned at sea, and much of human life – birth and the gender of the newborn and death – was believed to be conditioned by the tides. Below a thin veneer of Christianity lie beliefs deeply rooted in time. A century ago, in the parish of Ploulec’h on the north Breton coast, the first Sunday in May saw the people in procession climb to La Croix du Salut – an isolated landmark that could be seen from far out to sea offering assurance of the approach to a safe haven. Here the sailing community gave thanks for their safe returns before descending to the chapel of Notre-Dame across the bay on the headland of Le Yaudet. In the church today, fine model sailing ships hanging from the roof beams are among the more evocative offerings made to the Virgin by grateful mariners. The deep underlying awe of the ocean is poignantly expressed by the Breton poem
War vor peb ankenn
War vor peb peden
(Sur la mer toute angoisse, sur mer toute priere
At sea all is anguish, all is prayer).”
(2) Barry Cunliffe Facing the Ocean: The *Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 Oxford: the University Press, 2001
*NOTE: I wish the subtitle had specified ‘eastern Atlantic’, since every corner of the Americas has been populated for periods ranging from 12,000-24,000 years. The western Atlantic coastal people amongst them are not my focus, but in a post about ancestors I don’t want them to be implicitly erased.