We could have chosen to visit Chysauster, that being the biggest and best preserved of the ancient settlements in the area, but that very fact means it is more likely to be full of people… and it was the lives of our ancestors, rather than those of our modern siblings that drew us. Carn Euny, on the other hand, although it is only a few miles from St Just, is about as far off the beaten track as you could wish. Narrow Cornish lanes lead to even narrower lanes… and finally onto tracks that look as if few vehicles ever use them, and even fewer should. Perfect. So, to a litany of ‘are we there yet’ and ‘we’re in the middle of nowhere again’, we headed in search of mystery.
By the time we actually were in the middle of nowhere, we knew there could have been no more perfect site to choose, nor any more beautiful location for an ancient settlement. We left the car at the hamlet of Brane and entered a wormhole that would take us back in time, many thousands of years, to the hearts of our distant kin.
The site had lain hidden until it was rediscovered by tin prospectors in the early nineteenth century. It was partially excavated at the time, though most of the subsequent excavations took place after 1960. There is a farmhouse and a well nearby, and the ruins of an eighteenth century cottage within the compound, made of stones robbed from more ancient homes…and it was these we had come to see.
The land at Carn Euny has known Man since the early Neolithic era, though no visible trace of this period now survives. Excavations have shown that the first permanent timber houses were built around 2200 years ago, but they were not the earliest constructions on the site. There was already a subterranean mystery, built in stone, in the heart of the earth.
The next major work took place around a hundred years later, when stone homes were constructed. Some were individual huts, but for the most part they formed part of a dwelling, where a cluster of homes and buildings shared walls and gathered around a central and enclosed courtyard. These courtyard houses are only found in this one small part of Cornwall. It is the remains of this village that can be seen today…at least on the surface.
The community thrived, planting fields and raising livestock in the fields they created nearby. They may also have been engaged in the quest for tin and other ores mined in the area since the earliest times, as they lived within the shadow of Caer Bran hillfort, a huge and important earthwork not half a mile away, that may have been a place where these precious metals, the foundation of a magical new age of metalworking, were stored and protected.
Caer Bran means the ‘fortress of the Raven’, and Brane, where we had parked, comes from Bosvran ‘the house of Bran’. Given our associations with the Raven over the past few years, you might have thought we had done our research first, but no… Carn Euny was a side trip; we were supposed to be visiting sites on the Michael Line and knew nothing about this site or the area at all, except for the presence of that one subterranean mystery. It is only as I research to write that the pieces fall into place and another of those odd synchronicties comes to light. Not that it would be the only one at Carn Euny…
The theory is that this refers to Bran the Blessed, Lord of the Island of the Mighty… who has figured in our work right from the outset. He it was who continued to speak for decades after his head was severed…and it is his head that lies beneath the White Hill… the site of the Tower of London… protecting the land from invaders.
Bran appears in the Mabinogion, and is linked to the Grail of Arthurian legend through the motif of the Fisher King who lived at Castle Corbenic… and ‘corben’ is an old French word for ‘crow’. The links between northern France and Cornwall are ancient; they share many roots and legends and much of a common history.
We had been on the trail of Bran even before we realised it, had written him into our earliest book, The Initiate, reconvened the Assembly of the Wondrous Head during Leaf and Flame, walked the mound at Harlech where a castle now stands upon a site of ancient sanctity and written the story of the Clan of the Raven for the Feathered Seer. And that is without all the Templar stuff that keeps cropping up… bearing in mind that the Templars were accused of ‘worshipping a severed head’.
It is well known that the Celtic peoples collected heads as trophies in battle. There is a practical reason for this… a head is a recognisable thing, where a hand or foot, for example, could belong to anyone. Diodorus Siculus, in his first century Bibliotheca historica wrote about the custom, though it must be remembered that ‘spin’ and propaganda existed in ancient Greece and Rome, just as it does in the modern world, the custom itself is well enough documented:
“They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold.”
Scholar Paul Jacobsthal wrote that “amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.” The many representations of heads in Celtic art would tend to support Jacobsthal’s contention, and the legends would seem to back him too.
It makes me wonder. Just what was the connection between the Templars and the Celts? Celtic Christianity was ‘outlawed’ in Britain after the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Ionian perspective…a more nature-based way of living and worshipping, that harked back to the ancient pre-Christian beliefs, was discarded in favour of Roman Christianity. Were the Templars, in defiance of the ruling of the Church in Rome, worshipping with a Celtic rite? It is an interesting possibility and would be a thread that brought together the fragments learned in all our years of wandering.
Sometimes I regret not doing the research first…not often, but sometimes. In this case, had we known, we might have climbed Caer Bran, which is said to be a sanctuary from evil spirits and a place where you may find the Pobel Vean… the Little People. Or we might have found Mên Scryfa, the standing stone a few hundred yards away from Men-an-Tol, carved with an inscription that translates as ‘royal raven son of famous leader’ that is said to mark the place where the ‘royal raven’ fell in battle…and be of his exact height. But then again, if we had done the research first, we would never have gone to Carn Euny in the first place… we would have been chasing an itinerary and missed so much of what the days offered as gifts.
As it was, we wandered through the ancient village, glimpsing the ghosts of earlier times amongst the stones and wildflowers, lost in a ‘middle of nowhere’ that was actually a house of the raven. We traced the buildings and rooms, built in our imaginations the thatched roofs and heard the laughter of forgotten children as they played amongst the goats and hearthfires. We waited in the green silence until we almost had the place to ourselves… and then we went underground…