Monday, 25 February 2013

Was the Swineherd of Stow a Druid?

Upon the north-west spire of Lincoln Cathedral stands a stone character, blowing into a horn. He is known as the Swineherd of Stow, and there's a tale about how he offered his life-long savings, a hornful of silver coins, to help build the cathedral. This tale was made into a poem by Thomas Cooper in 1846, and is reproduced at the bottom of this post.

Beyond this sketchy legend, nothing is known about the swineherd. Yet Stow itself is somewhat better known. It's a village to the northwest of Lincoln, with a minster that is more like a cathedral than a village church. The earliest part of the minster dates back to Saxon times, but the site is likely to have been hallowed ground for much longer than that. "Stow" is of Old English etymology, meaning "sacred meeting place", and is likely to have been held sacred in pre-Christian times. There are two underwater rivers that cross underneath the church. Also, there was an annual fair held there, (not to be confused with the Midsummer fair in the south of county at Stowe Green Hill) a likely relic from pre-Christian times. Clearly, Stow was an important sacred site in pre-Christian times, when the druids walked the land.

stow - Old English - (holy) place (of assembly) eg Stow-on-the-Wold, Padstow, Bristol, Stowmarket
(from )

The word stow invariably means a 'holy place' and is found throughout England.
(from )

But what is the connection between a swineherd and the druids? Well, druids were commonly referred to as "swineherds" in myth (ref ), in much the same way that Christian religious leaders are known as shepherds. The horn that the swineherd blows could perhaps even be a carnyx, a cross between a bugle and a didgeridoo, that often carried the bronze head of boar as an amplification bell, and was used in both war and ceremony.

And what of the swineherd's offering, his hornful of silver coins to help in the cathedral's construction? At the time the cathedral was being built, Stow minster was still the most important place of worship in the area, and is often called the "mother church" to the cathedral. Silver is in Indo-European tradition symbolic of otherworldliness, the moon and the old ways. The Druid of Stow offering this powerful symbol would demonstrate the blessing of the pagan gods in the inauguration of the cathedral. The Lincolnshire folk at this time would still have depended on the old gods of fertility to survive a rural, farming existence, and their religion would likely have been a blend of ancient and Christian lore, in much the same way that Christianity merged with the local panoplies of gods in Central and South America.

A lot of ifs and a lot of maybes, but there's a thread that runs right through the supposition that the Swineherd of Stow was a druid, offering a symbolic blessing and a bridge from the old centre of worship to the new one.

The Swineherd of Stow

I sing of a swineherd in Lindsey so bold
Who tendeth his flock in the wide forest fold
He sheareth no wool from his snouted sheep
He soweth no corn and none he doth reap
Yet the swineherd no lack of good living doth know
Come jollily trowl
The brown round bowl
Like the jovial swineherd of Stow

He hedgeth no meadows to fatten his swine
He renteth no joist for his snorting kine
They rove through the forest and browse on the mast
Yet he lifteth his horn and bloweth a blast
And they come at his call blow he high blow he low
Come jollily trowl
The brown round bowl
And drink to the swineherd of Stow

He shunneth the heat mong the fern stalks green
Or dreameth of elves neath the forest treen

He wrappeth him up when the oak leaves sere
And the ripe acorns fall at the wane o the year
And he tippleth at Yule by the log's cheery glow
Come jollily trowl
The brown round bowl
And pledge the bold swineherd of Stow

The bishop he passeth the swineherd in scorn
Yet to mass wends the swineherd at Candlemas morn
And he offereth his horn at our Lady's hymn
With bright silver pennies filled up to the brim
Saith the bishop A very good fellow I trow
Come jollily trowl
The brown round bowl
And honour the swineherd of Stow

And now the brave swineherd in stone ye may spy
Holding his horn on the Minster so high
But the swineherd he laugheth and cracketh his joke
With his pig boys that vittle beneath the old oak
Saying Had I no pennies they d make me no show
Come jollily trowl
The brown round bowl
And laugh with the swineherd of Stow

So merrily the chorus rose
For every guest chimed in
That had the dead been there to doze
They had surely waked with the din
So the rustics said while their brains were mellow
And all called the swineherd a jolly good fellow

Come hearty Snell said the Baron good
What sayest thou more of the merry greenwood

I remember no lay of the forest now
Said Snell with a glance at three maids in a row
Belike I could whimper a love lorn ditty
If Tib Doll and Bell would listen with pity

Then chaunt us thy love song cried Baron and guests
And Snell looking shrewd obeyed their behests

by Thomas Cooper (Chartist) 1846

Drawing by David Vale

Monday, 11 February 2013

Stalwort: a lost folk name for fly agaric?

The fly agaric is such an iconic mushroom, instantly recognisable, with a long relationship with the human race. Yet we have no English folkname for it. I propose that stalwart is a forgotten folkname for fly agaric.

The word "stalwart" is of largely unknown etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary has:

stalwart (adj.)
late 14c., Scottish variant of Old English stælwierðe "good, serviceable," probably a contracted compound of staðol "foundation, support" (from P.Gmc. *stathlaz, from PIE root *sta- "to stand, set down, make or be firm;" see stet) + wierðe "good, excellent, worthy" (see worth). Another theory traces the first element of stælwierðe to Old English stæl "place," from P.Gmc. *stælaz.

It is clearly made up of two different parts, "stal" and "wart".

  • "Wart" could easily be a corruption of "wort", the old English word for "plant" - seen, for example, in St John's wort. Stalwart was often spelt "stalwort" historically.
  • "Stal" could easily be a shortening of the old Germanic word for mushroom, surviving into Dutch, for example, as "paddenstoel". Although this sounds more like toadstool than mushroom, it is a generic word for fungi with a hat and a stem. This word actually has the same etymology as the stal above - meaning a foundation, support. It is also the origin of the word "steel".

The word "stalwart" is usually used to describe a warrior or a hero, someone who stands strong. This perhaps suggests a connection with ancient fighting forces. It is widely believed that Viking berserkers - and perhaps other warriors, notably Celts - made use of the fly agaric in battle. Therefore a fighter would be considered "stalwart" because they had partaken of the stal wort, the mushroom plant.

Having performed a little archaeological experimentation regarding this, I would posit that the warriors would cover their skin in fly agaric juice, and probably take a bite also. Strength and stamina are increased, and fear dissipates. There is a feeling of immortality. All these are qualities likely to make a warrior stand firm and fight for glory in battle.

Thus the berserker is shielded by the mushroom, which he also takes a bite from. Perhaps this is what the Isle of Lewis chesspiece berserker here is telling us as he bites his shield.

Pictorial extract from An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language: Volume 2 By John Jamieson, Edinburgh University Press 1808.

Within the Saxon Chronicles there is the word "staelwort", with a meaning of "to carry away clandestinely". It is likely that any fly agaric mushroom sect would - like those written about by Wasson and Allegro - have secret means of obtaining the mushrooms, carrying them away in a process known only to initiates, and probably subject to much ritual.

Indeed, Wiktionary has "stæl" as meaning "theft", akin to the Old English "stalu", all from the same Indo-Germanic root. This is suggestive of another very interesting possibility, that "stalwart" could be "the stolen plant".

Part of the mythology of the Vedic soma is that the plant be stolen from its guardians. Theodora, from A. A. Macdonell, Vedic Mythology (Strassburg, 1897), explains:

The first soma is supposed to have been stolen from its guardian demon by an eagle, this soma-bringing eagle of Indra being comparable with the nectar-bringing eagle of Zeus, and with the eagle which, as a metamorphosis of Odin, carried off the mead.

In summary, if stalwart is a lost folkname for fly agaric, it is of Germanic/Scandinavian origin, arriving in Britain with Saxon and/or Viking settlers, and could mean:

  • mushroom plant
  • strength plant
  • foundation/support plant
  • secretly-carried-away plant
  • the stolen plant
and could even provide another clue that perhaps fly agaric does equate with the Soma of the Rig Veda, and is indicative of an ancient entheogenic practice surviving in Indo-European Britain and Ireland. Such is investigated in PL Wilson's excellent Ploughing the Clouds: The Search for Irish soma.

It is, of course, possible that more than one of these meanings could also apply, in a play on words, for example, "the stolen plant that makes strong", even providing "foundation" for a whole culture.

Bouncing Rubbery Balls in Ancient Britain

This is an experiment to see whether a rubbery bouncing ball can be made of comfrey root (boneset). If it works, it shows that the simple technology of bouncing rubbery balls would have been available to western civilisations before the conquest of South America, and subsequent western discovery of true rubber.

Comfrey (also known as knitbone and boneset) is a large leafy plant (see illustration) that favours wet places such as riverbanks and ditches. It's native to Europe, and widespread in the British Isles. The whole plant has been used medicinally since ancient times. The root is still used to speed up the healing of broken bones, and is believed to be one of the plants used by Indian bone setters.

The peeled comfrey roots (see photo) resemble bones. The structure of the root is highly mucilaginous.


1. The roots were washed and peeled.
2. The roots were finely grated.
3. The roots were pounded with a pestle and mortar.
4. The pounded root material was placed in a spherical mold (7cm diameter) and left to set for three weeks.
5. A leathery cover was made for the ball, in the style of an Irish sliotar or American baseball.
6. The ball was thrown against a wall to determine its bounciness.


1. The mucilaginous root material set well. It was found that in a warm or sunny location the material would swell and force open the spherical mold. It was therefore kept in a cool, well ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
2. The ball weighs 164g (between 5 and 6 ounces).
3. The ball bounces really well. It's not as bouncy as a ball made out of rubber, but it's a well bouncing ball.
4. The comfrey root has kept its shape perfectly so far, and not broken up inside the leathery cover.


1. Comfrey root is an excellent material for making a bouncing ball.
2. Ancient peoples would have had everything they needed to make a bouncing ball out of comfrey root.
3. The ball greatly resembles the sliotar, used in the ancient Irish game of hurling. These are currently made of cork, but were made of various different materials historically. There's no record of them being made of comfrey root, but rather rope, horsehair, wood and even hollow bronze.
4. Experiments are needed to compare the comfrey root ball with a modern sliotar (currently made of cork in a leather cover). There were experiments with rubber sliotars in the early 2000s, but rubber was found to be too bouncy. Perhaps the comfrey root ball, with less bounciness, might prove perfect. The comfrey root ball is of a similar size (7cm diameter) to a sliotar, and only slightly heavier (164g compared with 110-120g). Before modern improvements, the sliotar weighed around 200g.
5. Perhaps refinements to the process could create an even bouncier ball.