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August HuntVisit August Hunt's website: The Quest for Arthur's Grave

  August Hunt, (1960), published his first short stories in his high school newspaper, THE WILDCAT WIRES. These were followed by stories and poems in THE PHOENIX literary magazine of Clark Community College, where he received a writing scholarship. Transferring to THE EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE in Olympia, WA, he continued to publish pieces in local publications and was awarded the Edith K. Draham literary prize. A few years after graduating in 1985 with a degree in Celtic and Germanic Studies, he published "The Road of the Sun: Travels of the Zodiac Twins in Near Eastern and European Myth". Magazine contributions include a cover article on the ancient Sinaguan culture of the American Southwest for Arizona Highways. His first novel, "Doomstone", and the anthology "From Within the Mist" are being offered by Double Dragon (ebook and paperback). August, a member of the International Arthurian Society, North American Branch, has most recently had his book "Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur" accepted for publication by Hayloft Publishing. Now being written are "The Cloak of Caswallon", the first in a series of Arthurian novels that will go under the general heading of "The Thirteen Treasures of Britain", and a work of Celtic Reconstructionism called "The Secrets of Avalon: A Dialogue with Merlin". 

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Two Vessels, a Tent and Two Worms:
A Dark Age Discovery at Dinas Emrys?

August Hunt

Vortigern Studies

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

  1. duo vasa, “two vessels”
  2. tentorium, “tent”
  3. duo vermes, unus albus et alter rufus, “two worms, one white and the other red”

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 Nennius’s 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 Homer’s time. From the “Funeral of Hector” in the ILIAD:

“So spake he, and they yoked oxen and mules to wagons,
and speedily thereafter gathered together before the city.
For nine days' space they brought in measureless store of wood,
but when the tenth dawn arose,
giving light unto mortals, then bare they forth bold Hector,
shedding tears the while,
and on the topmost pyre they laid the dead man and cast fire thereon.
But soon as early dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered,
then gathered the folk about the pyre of glorious Hector.
And when they were assembled and met together,
first they quenched with flaming wine all the pyre,
so far as the fire's might had come upon it,
and thereafter his brethren and his comrades gathered the white bones, mourning,
and big tears flowed ever down their cheeks.
The bones they took and in a golden urn,
covering them over with soft purple robes,
and quickly laid the urn in a hollow grave,
and covered it over with great close-set stones.
Then with speed heaped they the mound…”

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. 

The 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 CREMATION. 35:
"In some urns discovered in Cambridgeshire, at Muttilow Hill, the Hon. R. C. Neville found that the calcined bones had been collected and wrapped in cloth before being placed in the urns. The contents of one of the urns he describes as "burnt human bones enveloped in a cloth, which, on looking into the vessel, gave them the appearance of being viewed through a yellow gauze veil, but which upon being touched dissolved into fine powder."* The urns were all inverted. A somewhat peculiar feature of urn burial was discovered at Broughton, in Lincolnshire where the urn containing the burnt bones was placed upright on the surface of the ground, and another urn, made to fit the mouth, inverted into it to form a cover. In instances where the ashes of the dead have been collected from the funeral pyre, and laid in a skin or cloth before interment, the bone or bronze pins with which the "bundle" was fastened still remain, although, of course, the cloth itself has long since perished.”

According to Tom Lane of the Society of Lincolnshire History and Archaeology:
The site is that at Broughton Common near Scunthorpe. Jeffrey May (1976) talks about it in Prehistoric Lincolnshire. The barrow in question is No. 3 in a cemetery of 8 barrows.
On p. 75 May describes a finely decorated tripartite urn... upright... with a smaller urn inverted over it. The cremation urn contained a rough flint flake and a bronze implement, thought at the time to be an arrowhead but considered by May to be probably a razor. The urns are described as related to the collared urns from the central and southern Pennines and from north east Yorkshire. May notes that the use of smaller vessels as covers in the manner of barrow 3 is also
found in the Pennine burials. The razor has also been found with other collared urns related to the Pennines series but also in earlier Bronze Age burials in Wessex and widely on the continent.
They are dated roughly to c. 1800 BC.

The original account of the excavations appeared as Trollope, A., 1851, 'Account of the Examination of Tumuli at Broughton,Lincolnshire' Arch J 8 (1851), pp. 341-51. 

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.

Phil Parkes, ACR, of the School of History and Arcaheology, Cardiff Unversity, informed me of just such a discovery:
“We recently worked on a Bronze Age burial exactly as you describe below. The burial consisted of, two urns, placed 'mouth to mouth' so as to give a closed container, in which were the cremated remains of one or more bodies.
The site was near Milford Haven, SW Wales, and was excavated as part of a project to run a gas pipeline through Wales. The site was excavated by Cotswold Archaeology and the post-excavation work is currently ongoing

Mr. Parkes advised me to get in touch with Neil Fairburn, Archaeology Project Manager, Milford Haven to Brecon Pipeline, NACAP Land & Marine JV on behalf of National Grid, to learn more about this remarkable double-urn burial. Dr. Fairburn promptly contacted me confirming the nature of these objects:
“They were located upright on top of one another, mouth to mouth. They have not been radiocarbon dated yet to confirm a Bronze Age date, but typologically the vessels and site are Bronze Age. Only one vessel was a collared urn with bird bone impression decoration. We think there may be the cremated remains of five individuals inside the pot, without accompanying grave goods.”

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.

Unusual Deposition of Cremated Remains from Unknown Ring Bar Near Milford Haven (photo courtesy Neil Fairburn).

Unusual Deposition of Cremated Remains from Unknown Ring Bar Near Milford Haven (photo courtesy Neil Fairburn).

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:

On sixty occasions more than one Collared Urn or Vessel has been interred in the grave… on thirteen, perhaps sixteen the urn has had a second Collared Vessel placed either within or over it as a cover…

Inverted as cover over, or within, urn

  • Henbury, Cheshire
  • Madron, Cornwall.
  • Durham.
  • Broughton, Humberside.
  • Lancaster, Lans.
  • Ancaster, Lincs.
  • Bacton, Norfolk.
  • Ford, Northumb.
  • Wykeham, N. Yorks.
  • Bradfield, S. Yorks.
  • Sheffield, S. Yorks.
  • Todmordern, W. Yorks.
  • Applegarth and Sibbaldbie, Dumfries and Galloway.
  • Llanboidy, Dyfed.
  • Rhoscrowther, Dyfed.

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.

However, 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:
Roman cremations l know are often housed in a large pot with a smaller one on top.”

~ Dr Paul Robinson, Curator, Wiltshire HeritageMuseum:
In terms of urns that are covered with other inverted urns, there were certainly Roman ones (first and second century AD). However, I think there are quite a few Bronze Age and Anglo-Saxon examples as well.”

~ Alison Taylor, Institute of Field Archaeologists, SHES, University of Reading:
I agree it is not at all clear what date these burials were. As you  know, cremation in pots took place at different times in prehistory, the early Roman period, and  Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon cremations don’t usually have second inverted  pots as a lid, though they do sometimes have  pottery lids (cf. the ones I have published from Spong Hill , in East Anglian Archaeology reports, e.g. nos. 34, 67). On the continent I think I have seen Iron Age cremations with lids which look like inverted bowls."

Dr. Catherine M. Hills. Cambridge University:
Vessels included as grave goods rather than functioning as an urn to contain cremated bone are relatively common in most periods of the use of the rite, though they take different forms at different times, including, mostly in the AS period, two seperate vessels being used bury the remains of one individual in a single grave. From what I can see here you are querying the use of a vessel as a ceramic cover or lid to an urned burial? It is probable that most if not all urned burials were originally lidded in some way; most will have used organic materials; flat stones have also been found as covers (esp. Bronze Age). Ceramic covers, either a vessel inserted into the rim of the urn, or more commonly as a dish form of vessel inverted over the rim, are common in the Romano-British period, and in the Iron Age. There is also some evidence - famously the 'Spong Man' - for ceramic covers, sometimes specially designed - in the Anglo-Saxon period.”

~ Jacqueline I. McKinley, Senior Project Officer, Wessex Archaeology:
"There is another component of cremation burial which needs to be considered in the context of the Dinas Emrys story, as it relates directly to serpent imagery found as an artistic and religious motif on both Roman and Anglo-Saxon cinerary urns." 

In May 2007 Apollo Magazine, Carlos A. Picon (in his article ‘The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Two Roman Sculptures, New Acquisitions) wrote:
A significant number of Roman footed marble vases with strigilated decoration on the body are known today. Strigilated stone vases with entwined snake handles, however, are much more rare. The closest parallel to our piece is a vessel on permanent loan from the Berlin Museums to the Marmorpalais in Potsdam. On this vessel the lid and most of the serpents except for their horizontal tails are modern restorations, but the remains of the head of one serpent on the rim makes clear that the handle design was the same. This vase is so similar in size and design to our piece that it could come from the same workshop. It is worth mentioning that both vessels bear comparable hard incrustations or burial deposits. The handles of another pertinent marble vase in Venice are somewhat different, as water is seemingly represented flowing beneath the serpents. Both the Berlin and Venice vases have been dated to the 2nd century AD. An earlier funerary urn formerly in the collection of the Waiters Art Gallery in Baltimore combines entwined snake handles with figured decoration carved in relief.  The snake handles on our vase are presented in a far more dramatic way, with thicker bodies, more intricate knotting, and a greater use of dark and light effects. The bravura carving of the Metropolitan's recent acquisition seems appropriate for a work of the late 2nd century AD. Another possible indication of chronology is the treatment of the strigilated surface of our vase, with deeply articulated channels similar to those on cylindrical ash urns dated to the Antonine period.

Roman cinerary urn with snake handles (photo courtesy Melissa Corsini)

Roman cinerary urn with snake handles (photo courtesy Melissa Corsini).

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”:

An urn from Cleatham, where the wyrm form is labeled “B”.

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):
“Both in England and Scandinavia the dragon came to be regarded as the guardian of the grave mound, watching over its treasures. Sometimes it is implied that he is to be identified with the dead man buried in the mound, and in some of the late legendary sagas it is said that a man after death became a dragon and guarded the treasure which he had taken into the howe with him.”

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 Sozomen’s 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:

In 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).
Originally there was only one Lar, in the Imperial period they always form a pair. In Pompeii and Herculaneum the two Lares Familiares are depicted as dancing youths, wreathed, wearing a tunica, holding a rhyton and patera or situla.
In between the Lares Familiares the Genius is usually found sacrificing at an altar. He was a deity under whose protection the paterfamilias resided. The Genius of the materfamilias was calle Juno. In Pompeii and Herculaneum the Genius is depicted as a togatus, capite velato, holding for example a cornucopiae and patera. It is not known how the Juno was depicted.
A male and a female snake - the male one with comb and beard -, have often been painted in the shrines of Campania. These are Genii Loci, protectors of the place

In his “Lararium – Household Religion”, Peter Connor says:
“… the representation of a snake, also considered to be a guardian spirit or genius loci. The regular pattern was for a pair of antithetically posed snakes to be painted on the wall beneath the lararium-niche, their heads reared over a religious emblem (an altar, for example) set between them. "

Marble Relief of Two Genii Loci, Piccolo Mercato.

Marble Relief of Two Genii Loci, Piccolo Mercato.

Professor Thomas Froelich, in discussing his book _Lararien- und Fassadenbilder in den vesuvstadten Untersuchungen zur ‘volkstumlichen’ pompejanischen Malerei_ (Mainz: Zabern, 1991), thinks:
“…the snakes represented in the paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum are of some kind of good spirits of the place that may have been called genii loci and are not representations of the genius familiaris or other personal genii. In doing so, I accept the interpretation given by G.K. Boyce in 1942 (American Journal of Acaheology 46, p. 13ss).”

Amanda Ravlick, a graduate student at Florida State University whose thesis topic concerns the genius loci as serpents, agrees with Froelich’s assessment, saying that:
“… there are clues in the textual and archaeological record that lead me to believe that yes, the genius loci in the Roman world in the 1st century AD was represented as a serpent when an artistic expression was called for.  I do not agree with those who believe the snake was the representation of the genius of a man - I think this is a confusion of the passage in the Aeneid (which is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle!), and doesn't take into account any more information than just that simple line of V.85.  Additionally, when we see serpents on the household shrines in Pompeii, those serpents are often shown in the presence of the genius of the head of a household, who is shown as a man - so it seems redundant to interpret the serpent as another expression of the genius of the head of household.  Also, you'll find (if you dig very hard, as this is buried in minor footnotes of general works) that the interpretation of the male/female serpents as genius/juno no longer has much favor in the scholarly world.  It's a bit of an old theory, though no new ones have come in to replace it.” 

Examples of Lararia with Two Snakes.

Examples of Lararia with Two Snakes.

Examples of Lararia with Two Snakes.

Examples of Lararia with Two Snakes.

The passage in Virgil’s _Aeneid_ which Ms. Pavlich alluded to above should be quoted in full:

Aeneas then advanc'd amidst the train,
By thousands follow'd thro' the flow'ry plain,
To great Anchises' tomb; which when he found,
He pour'd to Bacchus, on the hallow'd ground,
Two bowls of sparkling wine, of milk two more,
And two (from offer'd bulls) of purple gore,
With roses then the sepulcher he strow'd
And thus his father's ghost bespoke aloud:
"Hail, O ye holy manes! hail again,
Paternal ashes, now review'd in vain!
The gods permitted not, that you, with me,
Should reach the promis'd shores of Italy,
Or Tiber's flood, what flood soe'er it be."
Scarce had he finish'd, when, with speckled pride,
A serpent from the tomb began to glide;
His hugy bulk on sev'n high volumes roll'd;
Blue was his breadth of back, but streak'd with scaly gold:
Thus riding on his curls, he seem'd to pass
A rolling fire along, and singe the grass.
More various colors thro' his body run,
Than Iris when her bow imbibes the sun.
Betwixt the rising altars, and around,
The sacred monster shot along the ground;
With harmless play amidst the bowls he pass'd,
And with his lolling tongue assay'd the taste:
Thus fed with holy food, the wondrous guest
Within the hollow tomb retir'd to rest.
The pious prince, surpris'd at what he view'd,
The fun'ral honors with more zeal renew'd,
Doubtful if this place's genius were,
Or guardian of his father's sepulcher.
Five sheep, according to the rites, he slew;
As many swine, and steers of sable hue;
New gen'rous wine he from the goblets pour'd.
And call'd his father's ghost, from hell restor'd.

~ Book V of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Dryden Translation. I’ve 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 honores,
All the more he renews the honors that he had begun for his father,

incertus, geniumne loci famulumne parentis
uncertain whether he should think that it was the genius of the place or his father's familiar (literally, “servant”)

“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, she replied:
“I think I found a reference that covers well the various sides of your question.  See that wonderful book by R.B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate,  Cambridge, 1951, pp. 202-213, on the liquid "stuff" (the marrow of the spine and the cerebrum) that is the vitality of a human being and also the material of the psyche. This material turns into a serpent at death.  See esp. p. 207, where he describes how the Phoenix dies on its nest and from the bones and marrow comes a worm! On pp. 131-138, Onians discusses how the Genius is equivalent to the psyche, and is the vital part of a human being that is there from birth and survives the death of the individual. So the whole circle of Genius, psyche and serpent fits together.  He cites various parallels. So the serpent of Anchises, as the manifestation of his marrow, is both Genius and psyche. And it seems very likely that your duo vasa with the dragons are indeed cinerary urns.”


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 Monmouth’s “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 ‘Ambre’s 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 Vespasian’s Camp, the hill-fort at Amesbury. According to the Wiltshire County Council’s page on Amesbury, Vespasian’s 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 Vespasian’s Camp.” English Heritage’s 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:
"...the spring is an undiscovered part of the later Stonehenge ritual landscape, as well as being a potentially important place for ritual in the later Romano-British period... The site’s position, equidistant between Stonehenge and Durrington Walls and in the middle of a U bend on the River Avon places it in a pivotal position in the landscape during the prehistoric periods, and the discovery of the mid Bronze Age blade, and the curse, adds to our sense that the spring might have been a place associated with worship of some type for an extremely long time indeed."

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 hero’s 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:

“The 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.
The Roman genius does *not* equal the Greek daimon. They are similar concepts, to be sure, but we cannot say they were the same

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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