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The fort at Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd, renowned for its story of the two dragons, was begun in the Iron Age, but was also occupied in the Roman and Early Medieval periods. Southwest of the fort is the pool of the story just cited, an artificial cistern excavated in either the 5th or 6th century A.D. to supply the hill-top with water.
I have shown before that the Emrys featured in the dragon story is not the historical character of that name found in other contexts in Gildas and Nennius. Instead, this Welsh name, derived from the Roman Ambrosius, the Divine or Immortal One, is a title for the god Lugh, who in Welsh tradition was Lord of Gwynedd.
According to Nennius s text (Historia Brittonum 40-42), the objects found when the pool is excavated are
The best interpretation of the text has the two worms inside the tent and the tent inside the two vessels, i.e. the vessels are found set together mouth to mouth. Thus the two vessels have to be separated before the tent can be revealed. The worms are wrapped in the tent.
Given that by Nenniuss time the word worm could denote also a snake or dragon, I happened to recall that great warriors or chieftains in Early Welsh tradition were referred to metaphorically as dragons. Such poetic usage is found as as far back as The Gododdin. Furthermore, the tent or cloth in which the two dragons are found wrapped bore an uncanny resemblance to the cloth used to wrap cremated remains prior to their being placed in a cinerary urn. This practice is recorded as far back as Homers time. From the Funeral of Hector in the ILIAD:
So spake he, and
they yoked oxen and mules to wagons,
Such cloth wrapped about cremated remains has actually been found in an archaeological context in Britain. And so, too, have cremation burials in which two urns were used to hold the remains - two urns that remind us immediately of the two vases of the Dinas Emrys story.
following passage is from _A Manual of Archaeology, as
exemplified in the burials of the Celtic, the Roman-British,
and the Anglo-Saxon Periods_, by Llewellynn Jewitt, F.S.A.
(London: Groombridge and Sons, 1870): INTERMENTS BY
to Tom Lane of the Society of Lincolnshire History and
This tells us that a burial similar to what was found at Dinas Emrys was actually excavated in England. But can we find a case of this kind of burial in Wales itself? Actually, yes, we can.
Parkes, ACR, of the School of History and Arcaheology,
Cardiff Unversity, informed me of just such a discovery:
Dr. Fairburn was kind enough to forward the following extract on this double-urn burial, published recently in Archaeology of Wales, the Council for British Archaeology Wales branch's annual publication, as well as an accompanying photo:
A Bronze Age cremation cemetery, Steynton, Pembrokeshire (site 513, SM 9111 0833) by Kelly Saunders and Alistair Barber
An in situ Bronze Age cremation urn and the broken remains of other funerary vessels with fragments of burnt bone were identified during archaeological monitoring of benching works. The site is on a north-facing slope just below the crest of a hill, at approximately 38m OD. Groundworks were halted and the spoil carefully searched for any further pottery. The in situ urn was carefully lifted within a soil block, during which two further adjacent urns were discovered. Subsequent ground reduction under archaeological supervision revealed that the cremations and several pits lay within the remains of an unknown ring ditch, which had not shown up on the geophysical survey of the area. All funerary remains were 100% excavated, whilst the ring ditch and all pits were 50% excavated.
The ring ditch was on average 1.2m wide and survived to a depth of up to 0.5m. It enclosed an area 12m in diameter (Fig. 12). If the ring ditch had enclosed a barrow or possessed an internal or external bank, no evidence had survived. The centre and the northern half of the ring ditch had been badly truncated and no cremations or other internal features survived.
The previously undisturbed southern part of the ring ditch contained 12 cremations but no inhumation burials, and the site therefore appears to be an enclosed cremation cemetery. One cremation burial appeared to have been deposited in a bag, long since perished, while ten were contained within single urns inverted in individual pits only slightly larger than each vessel. All of the urns within the southern half of the ring ditch were supported with crepe bandages as they were excavated, and were then block-lifted with their contents intact. Provisional identification suggests that all of the vessels are Collared Urns, decorated with short line slashed motifs, and with whipped cord and continuous impressed cord designs. At least three urns are of tripartite form, with decoration on the inner part of the rim and below the collar on the outside of the vessel, and may date to as early as 2200 BC. The final burial was notable for having one urn set upright within a pit and a second urn inverted directly over it (Fig. 13). The lower vessel is 'shouldered' with an inset upright rim, thickened and bevelled internally, and has decoration in the form of rows of circular impressions to the neck and shoulder, continuing over the internal bevel and with a single line of twisted cord at the shoulder. The unusual form and placement might suggest that this urn was made specifically for the burial. The upper vessel is a conventional Collared Urn.
All of the urns are currently undergoing micro-excavation and consolidation at Cardiff University's Conservation Department. The five vessels excavated to date have each produced quantities of cremated human bone, but no grave goods.
Adam Gwilt, Curator of the Bronze & Iron Age Collections, Department of Archaeology & Numismatics, The National Museum Wales, was able to shed more light on this particular style of cremation burial.
I can confirm that such urn burials, with one vessel as a cover over another do occur ocasionally. These urns are called Collared Urns and belong to the Early Bronze Age dating, usually between 1900-1600BC. The recent Milford Haven discovery is one of this type of burial.
In other instances, two urns may be buried side by side with a burial, others may have one or two accessory vessels accompanying or within an urn.
The best reference I have found for an overview is I.H. Longworth (1984) Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0 521 08596 9. Page 49 has a listing of these unusual funerary practices, which mentions your Broughton example. To quote from this page:
AND MULTIPLE INTERMENTS OF COLLARED URNS AND VESSELS
Inverted as cover over, or within, urn
Dr. Nina Steele, Historic Environment Record Archaeologist, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, sent my query on such burials to Frances Lynch, an eminent locally-based archaeologist with a rather encyclopaedic knowledge of prehistory. Ms. Lynch responded to say that she could not think of any Gwynedd examples of one urn being used as an exact cover for another, but that there are south Welsh examples of one urn being covered by another, presumably as an extra protection, and that this would normally be a smallish one upright and the other turned upside down over it.
She thinks that there is at least one Pembrokeshire example published by Fox, and she was aware of new work on the gas pipeline cutting through Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire which had just found another example at Steynton, Pembrokeshire, that could be considered mouth to mouth.
Ms. Lynch is of the opinion that the mouth to mouth practice would be more simply a chance of size, not of special construction as it is very difficult to control the exact diameter of pots (they tend to shrink on firing). She notes that there is also an instance of one urn being crookedly crowned with the broken rim of another, although she is unable to remember the name of the site.
it would appear that urns covered with others ceramic
vessels were not solely of Bronze Age provenance. To
quote from the following experts on this fact:
Paul Robinson, Curator, Wiltshire HeritageMuseum:
Alison Taylor, Institute of Field Archaeologists, SHES,
University of Reading:
Catherine M. Hills. Cambridge University:
~ Jacqueline I. McKinley,
Senior Project Officer, Wessex Archaeology:
In May 2007 Apollo
Magazine, Carlos A. Picon (in his article The
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Two Roman Sculptures, New
It is difficult to determine whether vases of this type were made as cinerary urns to hold ashes or as purely decorative objects unless their find spot is known, or they preserve a funerary inscription or a panel prepared for a painted funerary inscription. One such cinerary vase, said to come from a tomb in Leptis Magna, has a Latin inscription incised below the rim. The closest parallel to our piece, the aforementioned Berlin vessel on loan to Potsdam, was surely intended as a cinerary urn, since it has a blank panel for an inscription. Certainly it is entirely possible that Roman workshops produced these marble vases for both funerary and decorative use. Be that as it may, the motif of entwined serpents is entirely appropriate for a funerary vase. Linked with the earth, snakes were associated with chthonian powers and the Greeks and Romans regarded them as guardians of sacred places, houses and tombs. They appear often in the funerary arts of classical antiquity.
From Professor Julian D. Richards of the University of York, author of _The Significance of Form and Decoration of Anglo-Saxon Cremation Urns_ (Oxford: BAR British Series 166, 1987), comes the following on the so-called wyrm or serpentine dragon device found on some Anglo-Saxon cremation urns.
The suggestion that certain decorative schemes on Anglo-Saxon cremation vessels evoke the dragon protecting the treasure mound (cf. Beowulf) goes back to the Caistor by Norwich report (Myres and Green 1973: Soc of Antiquaries Research report 30) and incised decoration urn 1539 from Caistor by Norwich. This is discussed further in J N L Myres Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Pottery of the Pagan Period CUP 1977. The analogy is then extended to various S shaped stamps with segmented 'bodies' which are used in decorative schemes on several urns. I attach an example from an urn from Cleatham, where the wyrm form is labeled B:
According to H.R. Ellis
Davidson (_Gods and Myths of Northern Europe_, Pelican
Books, 1964, p. 161):
The most famous example of a man who became a dragon to guard a hoard of gold is Fafnir of the _Volsunga Saga_.
But if the Dinas Emrys dragons were, in fact, actually merely a couple of dead chieftains accidentally unearthed during the Dark Age excavation of a pool, why did they come to be viewed as symbolic of the Britons and the Saxons?
My first clue as to an answer for this question was found in the writings of Sozomen, who records the unusual unearthing of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah.
Chapter XVII.-Discovery of the Relics of Zechariah the Prophet, and of Stephen the Proto-Martyr:
I Shall first speak of the relics of the prophet. Caphar-Zechariah is a village of the territory of Eleutheropolis, a city of Palestine. The land of this district was cultivated by Calemerus, a serf; he was well disposed to the owner, but hard, discontented, and unjust towards his neighboring peasants. Although he possessed these defects of character, the prophet stood by him in a dream, and manifested himself; pointing out a particular garden, he said to him, "Go, dig in that garden at the distance of two cubits from the hedge of the garden by the road leading to the city of Bitheribis. You will there find two coffins, the inner one of wood, the other of lead. Beside the coffins you will see a glass vessel full of water, and two serpents of moderate size, but tame, and perfectly innoxious, so that they seem to be used to being handled."
Now none of the hagiographers I contacted could explain the significance of these two tame snakes, much less the vessel of water. To me Sozomens account seemed startingly similar to the Dinas Emrys burial with its vases (= urns), pool and two snakes. And it was the tameness of these two snakes of the Sozomen story that caused me to remember reading years ago about the concept of the Roman genius.
Here is the entry on Genius by Harry Thurston Peck from Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898:
GENIUS (creator, begetter, from gigno). The Italian peoples regarded the Genius as a higher power which creates and maintains life, assists at the begetting and birth of every individual man, determines his character, tries to influence his destiny for good, accompanies him through life as his tutelary spirit, and lives on in the Lares after his death. As a creative principle, the Genius is attached, strictly speaking, to the male sex only. In the case of women his place is taken by Iuno, the personification of woman's life. Thus, in a house inhabited by a man and his wife, a Genius and a Iuno are worshipped together. But in common parlance, it was usual to speak of the Genius of a house, and to this Genius the marriage bed (lectus genialis) was sacred. A man's birthday was naturally the holiday of his attendant Genius, to whom he offered incense, wine, garlands, cakes, everything, in short, but bloody sacrifices, and in whose honour he gave himself up to pleasure and enjoyment; for the Genius wishes a man to have pleasure in the life that he has given him. Hence the Romans spoke of enjoying one's self as indulging one's Genius, and of renunciation as spiting him ( Hor. Carm.iii. 17Hor. Carm., 14; Pers.iv. 27). Men swore by their Genius as by their higher self, and by the Genius of persons whom they loved and honoured. The philosophers originated the idea of a man having two Genii, a good and a bad one; but in the popular belief the notion of the Genius was that of a good and beneficent being. Families, societies, cities, and peoples had their Genius as well as individuals. The Genius of the Roman people (Genius Publicus or Genius Populi Romani) stood in the Forum, represented in the form of a bearded]man crowned with a diadem, a cornucopia in his right hand, and a sceptre in his left. An annual sacrifice was offered to him on the 9th of October. Under the Empire the Genius of Augustus, the founder of the Empire, and of the reigning emperor, were publicly worshipped at the same time. Localities also, such as open spaces, streets, baths, and theatres, had their own Genii (Inscr. Orell. 343, 1697). These were usually represented under the form of snakes; and hence the common habit of keeping tame snakes.
It would, therefore, make a great deal of sense to view the tame snakes of the Sozomen story as genii loci, that is, spirit protectors of the place where the prophet had been buried.
J.Th. Bakker (_Living and Working with the Gods. Studies of Evidence for Private Religion and its Material Environment in the City of Ostia_, Amsterdam, 1994) discusses the genius in more detail:
the Campanian houses and commercial premises deities are
often documented, usually the well-known combination of
the Lares Familiares, Genius of the paterfamilias, Genii
Loci, and Di Penates, gods well documented in antique
literature and inscriptions. The Lares Familiares
protected all inhabitants of a house, including the
slaves. As a matter of fact Lar or Lares could even mean
"house" from the first century BC onwards. This
cult is encountered in relation to the major events in
the life of the family (such as births, weddings, deaths,
the departure for a journey and returning home), but also
in everyday life (of food fallen to the ground it is said:
In mensa utique id reponi adolerique ad Larem piatio est).
In his Lararium
Household Religion, Peter Connor says:
Thomas Froelich, in discussing his book _Lararien- und
Fassadenbilder in den vesuvstadten Untersuchungen zur
volkstumlichen pompejanischen Malerei_ (Mainz:
Zabern, 1991), thinks:
Ravlick, a graduate student at Florida State University
whose thesis topic concerns the genius loci as serpents,
agrees with Froelichs assessment, saying that:
Examples of Lararia with Two Snakes.
The passage in Virgils _Aeneid_ which Ms. Pavlich alluded to above should be quoted in full:
then advanc'd amidst the train,
~ Book V of Virgils Aeneid, the Dryden Translation. Ive highlighted the critical lines, which are properly translated, according to Professor Charles Murgia, Department of Classics, University of California, Berkeley, as follows:
Hoc magis inceptos genitori instaurat
Famulus is literally a servant, continues Professor Murgia, but here it seems to be used in the technical sense of a "familiar" for magical rites, like the black cat of a witch. Honores means "honors," but in this context could be translated sacrifices. Indeed, one of the Lewis and Short Dictionary entry definitions for famulus: is a demon attendant.
When I asked Nancy de
Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics
at Florida State University about any possible connection
between the genius as snake and the spirit of a dead man,
CONCLUSION: THE TWO DRAGONS AT OXFORD
In the Welsh tale Lludd and Llevelys, we are told that the dragons were transferred from Oxford (in Welsh, Rhydychen) to Dinas Emrys. According to this tale, Oxford is the exact center of the island of Britain.
I had been mystified in the past as to why Oxford has been chosen as the traditional place of origin for the two dragons. But given the later Welsh confusion as evinced especially in Geoffrey of Monmouths History of the Kings of Britain of Dinas Emrys for the Amesbury at Stonehenge, I think I can account for this odd story element.
Within Oxfordshire is found Ambrosden, in Old English, Ambresdone, supposedly Ambres Hill. This place-name, in my opinion, was quite naturally associated with the place-name Dinas Emrys or the hill-fort of Ambrosius in Gwynedd, as Emrys/Ambrosius had itself wrongly been identified with Ambres-. According to English place-name experts, Ambre may represent an otherwise unattested Old English personal name. The same component is found in Ambresbyrig, the Old English form of modern Amesbury. However, there is the strong possibility Ambres- actually designates something other than a personal name.
There is an Old English amber, the genitive singular of which is ambres. This word means a vessel with one handle, a tankard, pitcher, pail, cask, and is thought to be a descendent of a borrowing into Germanic as *ambr-ia or *aimbr-ia of a Latinization of the Greek word amphoreus, an amphora, jar, urn. According to place-name expert Professor Richard Coates of The University of West England, a solution [for the etymology of Ambresbyrig] involving ambres/vessel is not formally impossible.
Now, if Ambresbyrig does not mean the Fort of [a person named] Ambre, but instead Vessel-Fort, then it could well be that the original site of the Dinas Emrys story was Vespasians Camp, the hill-fort at Amesbury. According to the Wiltshire County Councils page on Amesbury, Vespasians Camp was built c. 500 B.C. Helena Cave- Penney, Assistant Archaeologist, Community Services Department, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, has informed me that There are two barrows known within Vespasians Camp. English Heritages Pastscape lists these bowl barrows as of Bronze Age date, i.e. they predate the construction of the fort itself. Pond barrows do exist in the vicinity for example, on Amesbury Down hill and at the Lake Down cemetery at Wilsford. Pond barrows get their name from the artificial shallow depression that is surrounded by a bank. This depression can fill with water, leaving the impression of a circular pool. Cremation burials have been found in pond barrows.
But more importantly, Aynslie Hanna has
recently called my attention to the results of new
excavations at Vespasian's Camp (see http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/classical-studies/amesbury/index.shtml). As it turns out, we now
have evidence of a sacred spring at the bottom of the
fort. In the words of archaeologist David Jacques,
who was in charge of the excavation:
Could the Dinas Emrys story be but a relocation of an event that actually occurred at Amesbury? This must remain a distinct possibility.
The Notitia Dignitatum seems to depict the shield device of the Segontium military garrison stationed in the Roman fort of Caernarvon not far from Dinas Emrys as two crossed snakes. I have put forward the idea in an earlier article that these two crossed snakes of theSeguntienses should perhaps be related to the two snakes atop the shield of the infancy story of Hercules, primarily on the basis of the deo Her(culi) Saegon dedication found on a marble slab at Roman Silchester.
The Hercules story is enlightening. Alcmene placed her twin sons, Hercules and Iphicles, under a lamb coverlet atop a broad bronze shield. At midnight, Hera sent two serpents to the house of Amphitryon, the father of Hercules. They were to destroy Hercules. But the young hero strangled both snakes, one in each hand. However, an alternate version of the tale insists the snakes were harmless and were placed in the cradle by Amphitryon himself.
This second version of the story is doubtless closer to the truth: an iconographic image of the infant Hercules holding two tame snakes, the genii loci of the House of Amphitryon, was misread at some point as the heros killing of the said reptiles. The Greeks did have the agatho-daimôn or agathos daimôn, the good spirit, and Pindar speaks of a genethlios daimôn, which some have interpreted to be exactly the equivalent of the Roman Genius. However, Amanda Pavlick has cautioned me that:
agathos daimon is a creature we know almost nothing
about - there are no texts that explain what he was or
how he was represented artistically. The artistic
representations we have that perhaps are this creature
show him as a man, not a serpent.
Still, we might imagine such guardian serpent spirits being adopted by the Seguntienses, whose tutelary deity was a Celtic deity named Segontios, identified with the Roman Hercules. If the dragon-chieftains of Dinas Emrys had come to be confused with the Herculean genii loci of the Seguntienses, this would have facilitated the evolution of the dragons into the genius of the British people and the genius of the Saxon people.
But whatever the origin of the serpents of Dinas Emrys, it seems fairly clear that the notion the one represented the British people and the other the Saxons was a recent development in the story. When we are told in _Lludd and Llevelys_ that the two serpents were placed in a vat and then in a stone chest, which was buried at Dinas Emrys, and that As long as they are within that strong place no plague will come to Britain, obviously the two serpents are being portrayed as protective spirits of the place, i.e. as genii loci. It is not only difficult, but indeed impossible, to reconcile this notion of two protective serpents with the later view that one dragon was a good being, while the other stood for a non-native enemy.
Two Vessels, a Tent and Two Worms: A Dark Age Discovery at Dinas Emrys? is Copyright © 2008, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: August Hunt
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