This thread on straightness brings to mind some ramblings of mine that were
published for a 'popular' readership in 1994. I'll share these farily
welter-weight musings with the list in case it prompts someone to think more
rigorously about the validity (or otherwise!!!) of my musings.
In various mythologies from around the world, the 'Otherworld' is depicted
as being exactly the opposite of life on Earth. Daytime here is night-time
there, and other such dualisms. This, I consider, is the significant clue.
Try to put yourself into a pre-technological society. Exact straight lines
are so rare as probably to be non-existent. Try to think of any natural
forms which are exactly straight. One which is persuasive is rays of
sunlight bursting from behind a cloud - a transient and itself almost
Otherworldy experience. Furthermore, in the Neolithic mind the sun and
death were closely linked. Even if this seems an unusual association to the
modern mind, archaeoastronomy convincingly demonstrates such links, of which
the famous shaft of light on the midwinter sunrise at Newgrange is an early
and dramatic example.
Other examples of straightness in early societies seem only to be based on
man-made artifacts - a thin thread drawn tight, the flight of an arrow or
the shaft of a spear. But each of these has Otherworldy overtones. The
Three Fates - or the Norns, or Wyrd - measure the span of a human life in
thread which is then cut off. The supernatural flight of an arrow arises in
various legends - where the landing place becomes, say, the site of a grave,
as with Robin Hood. In anthropological literature, shamanic-style healing
rituals also involve arrows. And a spear - even a simple shaft with a
fire-hardened wooden tip - is also a weapon which would be most commonly
used for dispatching hunted animals, or human adversaries in battle, to the
Otherworld. Indeed, the spear was the very symbol of manhood; the Old
English word for a free man translates as 'spearhand'.
The living world, indeed mankind's world before machinery, is made up of
curves. In any worldview where the Otherworld is the contrary of this
world, then straightness would be inherently Otherworldy. Almost
inevitably, travelling to the Otherworlds - either after death or during
'shamanic' experiences - would be in a straight line.
Apart from the practical reason that a straight line is the shortest
distance, we can see that the Roman predilection for creating a network of
straight paved roads would also have 'spiritual overtones' which we are now
blind to. Seeing cohorts of strangely-dressed soldiers, speaking a strange
language, walking along straight roads, would have 'Otherworldly'
connotations, just in the same way that the arrival of the Spanish explorer
Cortez fitted in with indigenous beliefs about the appearance of their gods.
Likewise, over 500 years after the Roman roads were abandoned by their
makers, they were known as the 'Royal roads' and anyone travelling on them
had the protection of the king. With just a little supposition, it would
seem that in pre-Conquest England it was important for the king to be seen
to be travelling in straight lines as he made peripatetic progress around
his kingdom. We even retain some of this notion with Pall Mall aligning
impressively on Buckingham Palace.
The idea of straightness as Otherworldly is strongly supported by the
folklore of labyrinths, which are frequently run in order to trap evil
spirits (who, it is confidently stated, can only travel in straight lines).
The Rösaring 'dead road' at Uppland, Sweden ends at burial mounds and a
labyrinth. Speculatively, could the labyrinthine patterns carved outside
neolithic chamber tombs such as Newgrange and Bryn Celli Ddu also serve a
similar function? Certainly, scrambled threads were a common content for
witch bottles buried (until recent times) with the intention of trapping
The idea of the Otherworld being diametrically opposed to normal life seems
to recur 'spontaneously' in unconnected cultures around the world.
Similarly the dualism between straightness/death/evil-spirts and
curvilinearity/life-spirit seems to arise equally naturally. Is it any
surprise that the conjoining of the two can be recognised in cultures from
the Neolithic to the Medieval?
Bob Trubshaw [log in to unmask]
<www.indigogroup.co.uk> Opens Doors to the Unexpected