The Wearing of Horns 2 – Ram’s horns

I’ve been experimenting with the idea of wearing horns as a way of connecting with different states of awareness, and activating different parts of the brain. In my last post about this, I looked at antlers; today it is the turn of the ram. If left alone, ram’s horns are not shed like antlers but the horns grow throughout the lifespan of the animal, and eventually they may form a full spiral. These are different from the horns of goats which usually grow backwards from the skull.

The idea of a horn that curls around your ears is an old one, and the natural spiral is one of the most obvious in nature to early mankind. Sheep are one of our earliest domesticated animals, and the ram is traditionally the undisputed leader of the flock. In a fight for supremacy, competing rams would butt heads in shows of strength, and to show dominancy over the flock.

My main interest in the ram’s horn is that the imaginary wearing of these horns is a way to encourage deep listening. The ram’s horn was possibly one of our earliest instruments, and there is also something haunting about the sound made by the blowing of a horn, the most basic of ways to amplify the human breath. It survives still as a call in hunting, where the simple hunting horn is still used as a signal to riders and hounds. Despite its limitations of tone, many different signals can be given with this instrument in the right hands.

14th Century hunting horn players. Reproduction from a book by the French hunter Gaston Phoebus (Febus) count of Foix (1331-1391), showing a group of hunting horn players. Picture from the SciencePhotoLibrary

Just ‘Google’ ram’s horn, and the sound of it is enough to awaken some deep recognition of the call.

The word for “horn” in French is “cor,” and in Italian “corno” originally meaning an animal’s horn, directly expressing the animal origins of the horn. The word survives in the word ‘cornet’ and in our designation in the orchestra of the ‘horn section’. The British still find echoes of this in the brass band, that most quintessential sound at rural fairs and fetes.

Ram’s horn (Wikipedia)

The ram’s horn has long been used as a way to summon people to meet. In the Basque Country there is an old practice of blowing the horn from five mountains once a year. These mountains are called the montes bocineros, or ‘hornblower mounts’. Up until the late 16th century the people were summoned to the General Council in the town of Guernica by the blowing of horns from the summits. Biblical ‘trumpets’ were probably ram’s horns and survive in the Hebrew shofar, the horn used in various ritual calls to prayer.

In Irish myth, the goddess Brigid, a member of the tribe the Tuatha de Danann and the daughter of The Dagda was the owner of Cirb — king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland — including the seven legendary magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These magical sheep were able to produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman and child in the world. So the ram and its horn was associated with plenty, both in the Irish myth and in other cornucopia myths. Many of these myths have the quality of infinity embedded in them – of the ‘never-ending’ ; never-ending food, never-ending riches.

Once a sound is begun, it keeps on reverberating, though it may now be inaudible to our limited ears. The waves of sound are continuing. A sound from long ago is still reverberating now. I have found this a helpful idea to sit with, as I stretch my hearing sense to listen during contemplation.

The ram’s horn signifies the hunt, the summons, the alertness and readiness of the sheep before it was domesticated. Put on the horns and heed the call.

Once Upon a Time – the Birds of Rhiannon

Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. These three legendary birds, traditionally ravens or blackbirds, are connected with Rhiannon the Queen of Dyfed who is thought to be a British horse goddess, in the Welsh mythology of The Mabinogion. Rhiannon herself possesses various magical powers, so one might expect her birds to be harbingers of her presence. Like all winged creatures the birds of Rhiannon evoke ideas of freedom from the tethers of the earth.

Timeshifters

The singing of the birds of Rhiannon also alters the passing of time – making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed. One of their other qualities is that when you hear them they can be remote but the song sounds close by, or they can sound near when they are far away, thus their song has the effect of distorting time and space, or perhaps it is vice-versa and the loss of time and space creates their song.  

In one of the stories, the chief giant Ysbaddaden sets Culhwch, our hero, a number of impossible tasks – tasks he must perform before he will bestow the gift of his daughter Olwen’s hand in marriage. One of these quests is to bring him the birds of Rhiannon, to soothe him with their magical song on the night before his death. For Ysbaddaden is doomed to die on his daughter’s wedding night and lose his kingship, so he hopes Culwhch will fail, that she might never marry, and he might live. The birds are retrieved, although the tale does not explain how. An earlier and fuller version of the tale may possibly have been lost. The birds seem to be associated with the transition time between the living and the dead, the inference being that you may hear them at this liminal time. The fact they have the power to wake the dead, or put the living to sleep speaks of their ability to draw attention to a person’s shift or change of state.

Photo by Natalia Yakovleva on Unsplash

Three Birds, Seven Years

The birds of Rhiannon are also mentioned in the second branch of the Mabinogion, in the tale of Branwen. After the war against the Irish, the fatally wounded British king orders his seven surviving men to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London to bury it as a form of national protection. Are the tower ravens that still protect the Tower of London, a reminder of the protective birds of Rhiannon?

Before setting off, the seven survivors feast at Harlech for seven enchanted years, (seven often being the number of enchantment) whilst they are serenaded by the three birds of Rhiannon. Although Rhiannon’s name is not given it is likely that the three birds in this passage are the same as the ones described in Culhwch and Olwen story.

“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.’

Birdsong

The sound of birdsong is ancient, and speaks to us without language. I am reminded of the birds of Rhiannon whenever I hear the song of the blackbird in my garden. To hear the birds of Rhiannon you have to be in a place where you are free to really listen.

The birds from the trees upon the hill

announce, as they will and have since

they began to sing, the new millennia.

~

For what is new is only old tempered

by wind of changing circumstance.

~

Cry Jubilee unheard: the Lord shall

hear your song and speak it to the

wind. The birds will sing it then as now.

Standing Stone

This is Mayburgh Henge.

It survives as a single standing stone within a circular depression, around which is an impressive bank made of river pebbles culled from the nearby river. When you see the scale of the embankment, you realise just how much effort has gone into dragging that tonnage of river pebbles to the site. The site dates to the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Bronze Age, which makes it about 4,500 years old.

Aerial view via English Heritage

No one knows exactly what this site was for. We can only look and imagine. But from historical records we know there were more standing stones here, and that the site was built near a spring and the confluence of the rivers Eamont and Lowther.

Map of 1769

The single remaining stone is like a spindle at the centre – and the large depression forms a navel in the landscape, which curves in towards the site on all sides. The stone is taller than a man, and is exactly at the centre of the circular boundary.

It is single, embedded in the earth, yet pointing up to the sky.

The stars have turned around this axis over millennia.

It occurs to me that this is like the thoughts that are always circling around us, ready to take root.

The thoughts don’t belong to us, though sometimes we mistake them for ours. But we can let them pass, just the way this standing stone lets the turning of the stars pass. Lifespan after lifespan, it has been a witness to the ever-changing sky.

One of the attractions of this standing stone is its aloneness, its stillness and its silence.

The stone cannot speak.

Yet it stands for something.

Working with the Abstract

Nowadays people often favour working with the complexity and variety of nature, rather than the simplicity of the abstract, but in our work we need both.

Mind strives for simplicity. It transforms our complex experience into simpler but perhaps less tangible mental images, thoughts and feelings.

At its deeper levels, beyond the rational and verbal levels, mind works with symbols and archetypes. Rich with meaning and significance, these archetypes are in some sense the pillars of mind, the building blocks of meaning.

Beyond even this, the mind works with the pure abstract – with number and pattern.

One way of working with the abstract is what we now call sacred geometry. Some of the oldest examples of this activity are the 5000-year-old stone balls found in Scotland.

Stone balls, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (via Wikimedia)

Hundreds of carved stone spheres, roughly three inches in diameter have been found over the years in Scotland. Many form regular polyhedra, and some depict platonic solids, long before the Greeks wrote about them. As to the purpose of the stone balls – no one knows. Perhaps they were used as weights, as dice for oracles, in ball games, or just as ‘prestige objects’. Or maybe the Neolithic people used them as objects of contemplation.

Stone ball from Towie in Aberdeenshire, dated from 3200–2500 BC. (via Wikimedia).

I have a replica of the Towie stone. It has four large knobs on it, each decorated with a different pattern. It forms a tetradedron – a triangular-based pyramid.

All of the stone balls are of a size to fit comfortably in the hands. I sit in the dark with the replica, feeling the shape with my fingertips. After a while it warms from my body heat. I sense the fine patterns of decoration. There is nothing to say about it, except that something in me responds to its shape. I wonder if our ancestors made a similar use of the stone.