Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Ring and The Axe

It is, without doubt, one of the most chilling moments of Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.

Beyond, all was shadow, but as Marcus moved forward with the light, past the midnight offering, the shadows drew back, and he saw that they were standing in a vast circular chamber, the stone walls of which ran up out of the candle-light and seemed to bend together high overhead into some kind of dome....

The place was empty, and its emptiness seemed to add a hundredfold to its menace. Marcus did not know what he had expected to find here, but he had not expected to find nothing—nothing at all, save that at the exact centre of the floor lay a great ring of what appeared to be white jadite, a foot or more across, and a superbly shaped axehead of the same material, arranged so that one corner of the blade very slightly overlapped the ring.

That was all.

Esca's hand was on his arm, and his voice whispering urgently into his ear: 'It is strong magic. Do not touch it!' (Sutcliff 176-7)

Strong magic indeed.

The year is circa 125 CE. Ex-centurion Marcus Aquila and his friend Esca Mac Cunoval have secretly entered (for reasons that I won't go into here) into the highest holy place of the Seal People on what is now the coast of Scotland.

And this, at the throbbing heart of the magic of the tribe, is what they find: the Ring and the Axe.

I grew up reading the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992), and I still re-read them regularly. Confined to a wheelchair for most of her life as the result of a childhood illness, Sutcliff read voraciously in the history and archaeology of the period that she loved best, Roman Britain, the setting for most of her novels. She also knew her Murray, Gardner, and Lethbridge, and her understanding of the Old Religions was profound. She is one of the reasons why I'm pagan today; I pour to her memory every Samhain.

The mysterious Ring and Axe of the Seal People's holy place is drawn from an actual discovery. Precisely these were found, slightly overlapped, when the great mound was excavated at Mané-er-Hroek near Locmariaquer in Brittany in 1863 (Burl 149).

What do they represent, and why would they lie at the very heart of the life of the tribe?

In matters such as these, touching on the Greater Mysteries, to say too much can sometimes amount to profanation.

But this much let me say: those who know the mystery of Blade and Cup, or Cauldron and Spear, will readily understand.


Aubrey Burl, Megalithic Brittany: A Guide to Over 350 Ancient Sites and Monuments (1985). Thames and Hudson.

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth (1954). Oxford University Press.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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