Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology


Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.


Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.


A history of archaeological theory in 7 acts


Pssst. This is actually Part I of my review of Gordon White’s Star.Ships. (Don’t worry, no spoilers.) It was starting to look like my review would be very long, so I decided to break this part out. Anyway, it’s not technically a review per se. What follows is:

  • One archaeologist’s quickie review/opinions of archaeological theory and practice. It’s longish, but not technical.
  • A former insider’s view, but not an exhaustive one. I speak here in terms of general trends within Anglo-American archaeology. (For historical and economic reasons, English is the hegemonic language-of-record for archaeology, but there are regional differences that I’m not fully versed in.)
  • Possibly of interest as background/context for those reading Star.Ships. I am still reading it, but I find that it frequently motivates me to reflect on changes in archaeological theory, and how we got to where we are now, in terms of what we think we know, what information is canonical, and what is “anomalous”. I find myself thinking of what a non-materialist archaeology might look like, for example. The point of the book is to correct misapprehensions about the past which are there in part due to the fossilization of academic thought; my point with this summary is to give a former insider’s view of how the current (mis)apprehensions developed.

Act I

In the beginning there were antiquarians. They read a lot of (Classical) history and collected artifacts–and usually lots of pretty rocks, fossils, bird eggs, two-headed fetal pigs, and other curiosities of natural history.

There were some pretty remarkable ruins still visible on the landscape. Some of them, like Hadrian’s Wall, were known from historical records. Others, like Stonehenge, were mysteries and warranted further investigation.

Generally speaking, explanations came from either Roman texts or the Bible. If a ruin was big, and it wasn’t Roman, then almost by necessity it had to have been built by lost tribes of Israel or one of Noah’s sons.

At the same time, European countries were vigorously imperial, which was bringing Europeans into contact with very different cultures and people who looked very different. Racism was born, and so were the first stirrings that would one day become anthropology.

Act II

Antiquarians started to notice that artifacts and ruins didn’t necessarily match the received wisdom or historical texts about the past. There were civilizations where there shouldn’t be (i.e., where brown people lived), for example. Some started being more methodical when digging holes looking for artifacts.

Romanticism was all the rage. Wealthy young men went to the Mediterranean for a “Grand Tour” to sigh over the crumbling splendors of civilizations past, and stole the nicer bits for souvenirs.

A number of well-known antiquarians were Freemasons, then Druid revivalists, and instead of lost tribes of Israel, they credited the Druids with anomalous ancient ruins. There was an element of nationalism here–now, finally, Britain and France could lay claim to an indigenous civilization that, while obviously not as grand as Rome, was still pretty cool, and perhaps in possession of Lost Wisdom.


The scientific method was all the rage. If you were independently wealthy you could round up some young peasants and go destroy some poor farmer’s field looking for booty artifacts. The better digs actually employed painters to make illustrations of remains in situ.

Archaeology, geology, historical linguistics, and palaeontology diverged as separate fields of inquiry. (In the Anglophone world, especially in the US, archaeology aligned with anthropology, the study of all things human.) Now instead of just keeping your finds in cabinets in your house, though, you donated them to museums for the public betterment. Scholars were busy classifying everything into typologies: eras, cultures, language groups, and so on. They particularly liked tripartite schemes, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, or Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic.

It was clear from all the artifacts and ruins that had been found that there had been great changes over time, only a small portion of which was recorded by history. This correlated with the evidence for gradual change found by the geologists and palaeontologists, and even–galling though it was for some–with the theory of natural selection as posited by Charles Darwin. The Bible began to look not so credible as an explanatory framework.

Observed cultural changes were usually put down to migrations. After all, historical accounts were full of invading Gauls, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Mongols, Angles and Saxons, you name it. Also, as imperialism and global trade put Europeans almost everywhere on earth, I imagine the idea of migration and invasion as catalysts for change seemed rather natural.

In a reaction against the racism and ethnocentrism of previous eras, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) proposed the “stage” theory of human cultural development: all societies, left to their own devices, passed through stages of Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. This was a corrective insofar as it reminded the imperial powers they once were savages too, and tried to make them feel a little guilty for derailing the civilizational processes of the assorted brown-skinned societies whose heads they were busily measuring with calipers in between all the murdering and enslaving.

Act IV

Things continued apace until the era of the World Wars (WWII in particular). By midcentury, the Bible was right out and Science-with-a-capital-S was in. Science had just given the world chemical fertilizers, nerve gas, and the A-bomb so obviously was the pinnacle of human achievement. Archaeologists could rely on radiocarbon for precision dating, even.

In true scientistic fashion, archaeology became about finding out “what really happened”. It was still entirely historical in the sense that it was about establishing chronological sequences, but it was anthropological insofar as it looked for evidence of how humans interacted with each other and with their environment. There was also increasing interest in what ordinary people did (e.g., as revealed through trash piles) rather than grand narratives about the great and the good.

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was a Marxist and materialist who was very instrumental in formalizing archaeology’s nascent material bent. He mostly rejected the three-part stage theory developed by Morgan, but, being a Marxist, he did very much believe in the notion of cultural evolution. His big contributions were (1) to systematize, in explicitly material terms, the characteristics of categories such as “civilization” or “Neolithic”–in other words, he defined what these terms would mean as archaeological categories. And to a great extent, his criteria are still being used, because they are now efficient and convenient. (2) He attributed cultural change to purely material causes. And (3) while not rejecting migrations entirely, he argued for change due to other factors. I can’t help but think this was in part a reaction to the fact that a number of countries in Europe and Asia had literally just been invaded, and were feeling the sting. Also, the Nazis had revealed the dark underbelly of archaeology and anthropology.

Chief among these “other factors” was diffusion, which is basically just a fancy word meaning that objects and ideas can move without migrations, e.g., through trade. If you live in the West and own a Korean smart phone, that’s an example of diffusion. However, while it’s not technically part of the definition of diffusion, an underlying assumption was often that objects and ideas go from “more advanced” to “less advanced” cultures.

“Historical particularism” was very popular as a theoretical framework, basically rejecting the idea of human universals and attributing cultures’ specific features to their specific environments, prior histories, and internal dynamics. “Cultural-historical” archaeology has probably had more longevity, worldwide, than any other mode. It is constantly mobilized in the creation of both national identities and nationalistic propaganda. I would say it is the most popular form of archaeology for the general public, too, who mostly what to know “what really happened” for a given time and place. Chronology and treasure are the bedrock of archaeology.

Act V

In the US (which is what I’m familiar with), the 1960s saw the rise of hard-core scientism with the “New Archaeology” a.k.a., “processual” archaeology. (Processual because it focused on processes, you see.) Archaeologists were desperate to make it clear to all and sundry that archaeology was a (social) science, dammit, not humanities! When I say science I mean physics. It’s pretty absurd–nothing humans do is similar to what, say, atoms do; but it was the Atomic Age, after all. It was also the Cold War. No one knew what the hell was going on archaeologically in Russia or China, except that it was undoubtedly bad, and Marxism was very out of fashion as a theoretical framework. (It continues to flourish in Japan, and of course in China.) New Archaeologists desperately wanted universal rules that would explain human behavior, and if a proposed mechanism wasn’t general it was regarded as irrelevant.

On the positive side, American archaeologists developed extremely methodical and precise excavation technique which is, in my opinion, unequaled in other countries. They also developed the concept of “interaction spheres”, where it was observed that, in contrast to the assumption that ideas and objects diffused from “center” to “periphery”, interaction forms complex webs and things move in all directions. On the negative, the theoretical became incredibly mechanistic, materialistic, and and deterministic. Consensus opinion swung even harder away from migration as an explanation for change, and the attempts to put everything down to independent invention got silly.

Act VI

Beginning in the late ’80s we had “post-processual” archaeology, which was a straight-up reaction to the excesses of the now-not-so-new New Archaeology. Things got very postmodern, but also very philosophical, and therein lay the big contribution of this period. French philosophers like Foucault, Latour, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu were wildly popular. Archaeologists (and anthropologists) really began to question the epistemology of anthropology and of academia in general. Instead of just asking, “How do we know these people did X?” they started asking “How do we know anything at all?” Unfortunately, they did so with the worst kind of jargon you have ever seen. Anthropological texts became completely opaque, difficult even for insiders to understand. The attitude seemed to be that if it was clear, it was not worth publication (let alone a tenured professorship).

Popular topics of inquiry were “habitus” (borrowed from Bourdieu) and “agency”. Some archaeologists even considered whether artifacts have their own agency, although not, sadly, in the animistic sense. Instead of looking at cultures as collections of mechanistic “processes”, archaeologists became increasingly focused on the individual. Which is interesting, and a bit futile, since individuals’ concerns and acts are rarely visible in the archaeological record. Interpretation was focused on the hyper-local, in contrast to the universalism of the previous period; and interpretations were explicitly identified/confessed as such.

Archaeology remained “methodologically atheist” and materialist, but more attention was paid to people’s experiences, perceptions, and feelings. The processual archaeologists and the cultural historians laughed and laughed.


You will have noticed that during the 20th century, theoretical fashions started changing much more quickly in archaeology. Well, of course that parallels the rapidly changing fashions everywhere else. We seem to have settled into a series of reactionary swings of a roughly 20-year pendulum. Each new generation rejects the models of the previous one, but because the shifts are so rapid, the supporters of the previous theoretical framework are still around to heckle the young upstarts.

We are currently (since the ’00s) in a very scientistic mood, where more archaeology is done in labs than in the field. About the only kind of research that can get funding is research that involves some kind of physics or chemistry–isotopic analysis, X-ray fluorescence, genetics, microprobe assays, 3D scanning and printing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these techniques, and they have revealed new kinds of information we couldn’t get at before. For one thing, isotopic and genetic analyses have put migration back on the table in a big way. Cultural changes (such as the Bell Beaker phenomenon) that were first put down to migrations, then to competitive elite status displays across interaction spheres, are now turning out to have actually been related to migrations. Mathematical shape analyses of bones have revealed evolutionary differences that we previously had to pretend didn’t exist because they couldn’t be quantified.

Unfortunately, the theoretical, anthropological questions that used to motivate such analyses are getting to be scarcer than hen’s teeth. I feel that the current moment in archaeology has borrowed the worst traits of the two previous eras: the super-scientistic, materialistic bent of processual archaeology that naturalizes and legitimizes certain interpretations of the data; and the hyper-locality of the post-processual era that is so laser focused as to be virtually irrelevant to anyone who is not a specialist in the time, place, and individuals under investigation.

In our current anti-intellectual climate, ain’t nobody gonna get no funding for a project that ultimately seeks to investigate what it means to be a human, and what the human experience has been through time. Funding agencies want sexy results that will make the New York Times and National Geographic and in turn bring in even more money. This usually means either discovery of treasure (rich tombs with lots of gold, King Tut-style); something that claims to turn everything you ever knew about X upside-down (ancient Caucasian-looking mummies found in China); or discovery of a new civilization or fossil human ancestor (the latter isn’t even archaeology). You would think that would at least make for some exciting, Indiana Jones-style research, but that’s not the stuff that makes for tenured professorships: When I was briefly on the academic job market (before my mom getting sick saved me), it seemed like all the job listings were for people who would do some kind of lab-based sciency analysis of pottery and work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yawn. (Even so there are too many applicants for those positions.) Meanwhile the journals were full of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of this or that cemetery which noted that X% of the people interred were migrants from Wherever, but never bothered to tell us why we would give a shit and why it was worth grinding up some irreplaceable ancient teeth and spending tens of thousands of dollars to find that out. In the worst cases it’s just fill-in-the-blanks culture-history.

In conclusion

If you’ve read this far, it’s probably pretty obvious (if it wasn’t already) how and why archaeologists end up painting themselves into interpretive corners. To use Gordon’s analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga where, if you pull just one little log out, the entire edifice comes crashing down. And ultimately, it wouldn’t just be the edifice of archaeology, or even anthropology. All of academia could come down with it.