Monday, November 21, 2011

Bending The Boyne - Women & Prehistory

Bending the Boyne - a novel of ancient Ireland by J.S. Dunn:

"2200 BCE: Changes rocking the Continent reach Eire with the dawning Bronze Age. Well before any Celts, marauders invade the island seeking copper and gold. The young astronomer Boann and the enigmatic Cian need all their wits and courage to save their people and their great Boyne mounds, when long bronze knives challenge the peaceful native starwatchers. Tensions on Eire between new and old cultures and between Boann, Elcmar, and her son Aengus, ultimately explode. What emerges from the rubble of battle are the legends of Ireland’s beginnings in a totally new light.

Larger than myth, this tale echoes with medieval texts, and cult heroes modern and ancient. By the final temporal twist, factual prehistory is bending into images of leprechauns who guard Eire’s gold for eternity. As ever, the victors will spin the myths."

Women, Sex & Prehistory - J.S. Dunn gives us the background to this exciting new novel:
"We’re going to focus on the Atlantic Bronze Age at four thousand years ago, around 2200 BCE.

One piece of the puzzle in constructing Bending The Boyne was, How did that early culture view women? Boann, the female protagonist, comes from the earliest myths where she appears briefly in a tangled story.

The written record for the Atlantic Bronze Age (the area from Iberian coasts up through the Isles) is limited. Teasing out any meaning from the transcribed oral history has its perils. It is the oldest mythology of western Europe. Irish/Welsh/Gaulish oral tales were written down much later by cold, hungry monks whose own sexuality probably had limited expression. The original tales are not short on sexual imagery and clearly got censored in places.

The monks also applied a layer of Greco-Roman sensibilities. Greco-Roman gods were immortals lolling in the clouds, divine beings who meddle in human affairs. In contrast, the beings in early Irish/Welsh/Gaulish myth are archetypes, they are real persons who struggle, sweat, eat and drink, fornicate, and die as mortals. The monks couldn’t resist tampering with that vivid “pagan” imagery to suit later beliefs.

“...they made the sun stand still to the end of nine months / strange the tale...” from the Dindshenchas text. Boann’s son Aengus is born at winter solstice and symbolizes the astronomy practiced at the mounds. One version says Elcmar fathered Aengus, another improbably says the Dagda fathered her son and hid that liason by stopping the sun for nine months. This may be the first bit of Who’s Your Daddy gossip about a celebrity, Boann. Confusion about Aengus’ birth leads to tragedy.

It may be that Boann’s original oral tale told of the solstice standstill but monks scrambled that, trying to write it down like Homeric tales of divine gods.

Not only is Boann portrayed as a hussy to whom notions of paternity mean little, another fragment says that she violates a cultural rule at the well of Wisdom. As a result, the well’s waters flood east to the ocean, forming the river Boyne---and killing Boann. That seems harsh and smacks of misogyny, but no more than Eve’s punishment in the Old Testament. It may be that monks inserted this moralistic outcome for Boann, or, that the original version said that Boann’s indiscretion led to her punishment.  

Whose perspective of Boann and women at 2200 BCE does her tale reflect, the indigenous Boyne astronomy culture or that of armed newcomers, the warriors looking for gold? Burial practices changed at this time, implying that the Boyne society began to stratify. High status goods, copper and bronze daggers and gold jewelry, appear in some male burials but very seldom with female burials.

Yet Boann symbolizes the Milky Way, a celestial being of great importance. It seems unlikely her starwatching culture, pastoral farmers and herders, viewed her fertility as deserving of punishment. In Bending The Boyne, she is given prominence as an astronomer and is not drowned for acquiring wisdom!

In associating Boann with the Milky Way and Aengus with solstice, the myths emphasize the importance of astronomy to her Boyne culture. Before the Pyramids and Stonehenge, her people built impressive passage mounds, a calendar in their landscape for sun, moon, and stars. The great mounds may themselves express the natives’ veneration of fertility (the female mound) and the sun’s generative power (phallic) and a balance between the genders.

For more reading, see generally The Prehistory of Sex, Timothy Taylor (Bantam, 1996), and of course, Bending The Boyne.

Thanks to Melisende for the blog invite!" 

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