Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”
We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

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Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

Museum_of_Sousse_-_Mosaics_2_detail
A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

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A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

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Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)

References

Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html

A Brief Introduction to the Vague World of Ritual: From the Past to the Present

 

Screenshot_2018-10-03 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

The term “ritual” has a bit of a reputation among archaeologists. Well, less of a “reputation” and more of a “running joke”, if I’m being honest…one of the first things I learned as an undergraduate taking an “Intro to Archaeology” class was that “ritual” is what archaeologists write when they don’t know what’s happening at a site.

And, to be honest, that makes sense. How do we even define the word “ritual”? Let’s take a look at some examples:

Colin Renfrew (1985) identified the “Four Aspects of Ritual Practice” as:

  1. An attention-focused activity that can be seen in the physical record
  2. A liminal zone that can be correlated with the remaining material
  3. A focus on transcendence and symbol in the material record
  4. Archaeological evidence for participation or offerings

Peter Tompkins (2009), on the other hand, highlights the main elements used for “ritualization” to further define “ritual”:

  1. Temporality – Experiencing time differently
  2. Spatiality – Restricting space
  3. Fragmentation – Relationships between parts and whole
  4. Distance and Scale – Enlargement and minimization for emphasis
  5. Value and Substance – Setting “ritual” importance
  6. Food and Cuisine – Associated with and used to designate “ritual acts”

More recently, Ronald Hutton (2013) adds that ritual, as well as religion, can be differentiated from other acts due to the need for imaginative processes, arguing that finding evidence of early ritual will correlate to the oldest instances of the development of an imagination and symbolic behaviour.

To round these definitions off, Joanna Bruck (1999) provides her perceived definition of “ritual” in her critique of its use in archaeology, arguing that the discipline sees it as something “non-functional” and “impractical”, mutually exclusive from functionality.

In some respects, there are some commonalities in these definitions – for most, ritual is something associated with more abstract, often spiritual concepts that can be differentiated in some sense from what we consider “normative”. Except…that’s a bit problematic as well. After all, what’s “normal” then? This has led to some archaeologists, such as Joanna Bruck (1999) to consider these dualities – “sacred”, “profane”…are these always separated?

This has been discussed specifically with regards to prehistoric rituals in Europe, where “ritual” and “domestic” contexts have been found intermingled at sites. Tompkins (2009) theorises that by drawing from the domestic sphere, rituals allowed prehistoric people to gain new insights and new experiences from their everyday life. Bruck (1999) further argues that perhaps the need to differentiate between “ritual” and “non-ritual” is simply born from the bias of Post-Enlightenment rationalism, and that we should accept that they can co-exist simultaneously in prehistoric life.

Unfortunately, we may never truly agree on what “ritual” is. Based on textual and ethnographic evidence, rituals in the past would most likely utilise tools and offerings that wouldn’t leave behind much of a trace within the archaeological record (Wait 1985), rendering the act as “archaeologically invisible” (Bruck 1999). Ultimately, we will never really have material evidence to base a definitive definition of ritual on – of course, it would be impossible to have one anyway, as ritual will be variable by culture!

So, as we return to modern day paganism, we find that many practitioners of alternative spiritualities will often say that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016). Its a common phrase, promoting a popular concept among modern spiritual communities that one should infuse reverence for the divine into all aspects of everyday life. So perhaps future archaeologists will actually be able to call most things “ritual” and not be joking? Who knows. That’s the beauty of abstract concepts like “ritual” – they’re always changing with the times. And so will our interpretations of them.

References

Bruck, J. (1999) Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology. 2(3). pp. 313-344.

Hutton, R. (2013) Pagan Britain. Yale University Press.

Renfrew, C. (1985) The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi. British School of Archaeology at Athens.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Tompkins, P. (2009) Domesticity by Default: Ritual, Ritualization, and Cave Use in the Neolithic Aegean. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 28(2). pp. 125-153.

Wait, G.A. (1985) Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series 149.

What is Old is New Again: Altars, Today and Yesterday

 

If you peruse a few Paganism for Beginners-type books, you’ll find that nearly all of them start with the act of assembling one’s altar. This isn’t surprising – altars are arguably, in some form or another, a ubiquitous element across religious and spiritual practices. It is a centre for activity, a focal point for one’s devotional exercises…in short, the altar may be one of the most important physical features of a religion or spiritual path.

A quick glance at the Instagram #altar hashtag reveals that most altars consist of small, dedicated spaces in the practitioner’s home. However, those who have easy access to natural space may also create an altar space hidden within the landscape; given that many neo-pagan and spiritual practices emphasise the need to reconnect with nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that many practitioners consider this an ideal to strive towards.

A more recent phenomenon within neo-pagan circles of today is the creating of hidden or minimalist altars; this comes as a response to a variety of issues, including smaller living spaces and the need for hiding one’s practice from others. For the latter case, digital altars have also become popular (McSherry 2010). By utilising social media networks that encourage collating images and posts from around the Internet (for example, Tumblr or Pinterest), an altar can be creating in the digital space, easily hidden from others.

Components of the average, modern day altar (read: not based on any particular, non-neo-pagan religion or pantheon) seem to take inspiration from popular practices such as Gardnerian Wicca, which in turn arguably appropriates from many other religious practices (Sylvan 2016). Ritual tools such as the athame, the pentacle, and the chalice are usually on hand, often consecrated with oil or water prior to use (future blog posts will discuss each of these tools individually). Again, there is also an emphasis on nature worship in many of these spiritual practices, so altars may often have representations for each of the four elements (i.e. candle for fire, incense for air, a seashell for water, and a plant for earth). Additional altar items will often depend on the particular focus of one’s practice – many neo-pagans associate with particular pantheons, which may in turn dictate how they adorn their altars, for example.

So, how could we look at the modern day altar through a more archaeological lens? In some ways, this can be problematic – the use of the word “ritual” has been contested and debated amongst archaeologists for years, and probably requires its own post to fully discuss. But, if we consider the altar as a place of ritual, this requires that we consider the entire space as well in our archaeological investigation. Moser and Feldman (2014) have discussed ritual as a “performance” that cannot be studied without spatial context included.

In Wicca, for example, the acts of “Casting the Circle” and “Calling the Corners” are important components to ritual – this refers to the act of either physically or metaphorically creating a sacred space to perform one’s ritual, and then calling in the four “corners” (North, South, East, and West), sometimes along with reciting the four elements, although this varies amongst practitioners (Sylvan 2016). Given the emphasis on creating one’s sacred space, you could understand why spatial context is important for discussing an altar. As previously discussed, many modern altars are created in specific rooms or natural landscapes – this echoes a recurring theme found in ritual archaeology, where sacred spaces play with this dichotomy of built/natural places (Dematte 2014). It also provides a clue as to what the focus of the practice was on – a modern day altar created overlooking an ocean, for example, could indicate that the practitioner considers themselves a “sea witch”, or someone who worships a particular sea deity. Further clues could be discovered by the materials found within the altar space, but it is the spatial components that provide much of the background information (Williamson 2014).

But what about altars that are found amongst the everyday? Those that are found tucked in between bookshelves, or hidden in closets, or found in digital form only? Spatial context is still important, but now we move onto practicality – what is feasible? What will work within the individual context? For many, including modern witches that keep their practice secular (non-religious), ritual and practicality are one and the same. A ritual (or a spell) is performed in order to achieve a particular outcome, so it would make sense that certain altars may be placed where that practicality makes most sense; for example, there are many instances of altars made with the intention of focus or prosperity that are then placed in an office or similar working environment. Some modern practitioners of witchcraft may specialise in a particular kind of magic, so their altar may make more sense in a particular room; kitchen witchery, for example, would obviously require an altar in the kitchen.

Altars found within what we may call a “domestic” sphere also brings into mind another archaeological debate: should we consider the sacred and the profane as separated? Or can these spheres be one and the same? Many sects of neo-paganism, as well as Wiccan and witchcraft practices, would argue that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016); from the way one stirs their coffee to the way they dress for the day, there is a possibility to place purpose behind every action. Again, there may also be a “practicality” factor at play here: as we live in a period of late capitalism, where many work longer hours (and/or multiple jobs!) with less pay, maybe there is a need for making everything ritual. When you lack the time for spirituality, you make do – perhaps by combing your spiritual practices with your secular ones.

The altar is simultaneously both a simple and complex concept to understand and discuss: on one hand, it simply represents a place of ritual and spiritual focus. On the other hand, there are many complex factors that are at play: is it a consecrated and/or removed place from the everyday and profane? Or is it an immersed experience that reflects the idea that everything is sacred? Is it an altar of practicality and functionality, where ritual tools are stored and used? Or is it more meditative, with items to allow for focused mediation and prayer? Or both? Perhaps these considerations can be applied to current archaeological debates regarding past religions and rituals – maybe things are more complex (or more simple?) than we all thought?

References

Dematte, P. (2014) Itinerant Creeds: the Chinese Northern Frontier. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.

McSherry, L. (2010) Cyber Altars: Using New Technology in Traditional Ways. Llewellyn’s 2010 Witches’ Companion: An Almanac for Everyday Living. Llewellyn Publications. (p. 72-78)

Moser, C. and Feldman, C. (2014) Introduction. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Williamson, C. (2014) Power of Place: Ruler, Landscape, and Ritual Space at the Sanctuaries of Labraunda and Mamurt Kale in Asia Minor. Locating the Sacred: Theoretical Approaches to the Emplacement of Religion. Oxbow Books.

#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

My current PhD research is focused on looking at animals in ritual, so I’ll be making short blog posts examining the different ways animals are seen in cosmological contexts as part of my own contribution to the #FolkloreThursday feed on Twitter. 

Wood Pigeon
A wood pigeon skull with its ulna – note the notches on the ulna, where feathers would attach.

In my recent work with mixed assemblages involved in funerary rites, I’ve come across many bird bones. At this preliminary stage in my research, it appears that butchered birds may have been incorporated into rites performed at this site.

But why birds? What’s so special about them?

Birds, barring a few examples, have the unique ability to fly. To those in the past, this was probably acknowledged as an act emblematic of supernatural power, the ability to move from the heavens to the earth with ease. Birds were considered divine messengers, whose appearance could indicate an omen from the gods and goddesses above (Green 1992).

Shamans in various communities have been noted to adopt aspects of the bird in their work and appearance; this displays their power of “flying” from one world to the next (Eliade 1964).

Throughout later prehistoric Europe, birds continued to have an association with the mystical and the magical. Birds such as ravens and crows have been known to “talk”, which ultimately associated them with divination and prophecy (Serjeantson and Morris 2011). Birds of prey and scavenging birds were most likely incorporated into funerary rites involving excarnation, or the defleshing of a body – this, in turn, led to an association of these birds with death (Harding 2016). Wild birds appear to have been hunted, but not necessarily eaten – perhaps these birds were participants in ritualistic hunting?

Helmut of Ciumesti
This helmet from Ciumesti is an example of co-opting the bird of prey as a means of showcasing an almost otherworldly fierceness

These beliefs have been observed in various artefacts from the later prehistoric – this includes Iron Age art depicting wings, drinking vessels decorated with waterbirds, and even weaponry and armour using bird motifs (Green 1992).

Of course, these aren’t the only instances of the magical properties of birds – we see this in various myths across cultures, from Odin’s ravens to Athena’s owl. Birds continue to be associated with the magical to this day…what would Harry Potter be without Hedwig, after all?

Bird Ulna
A comparison of different birds and their ulna bones – (top to bottom) herring gull, eider duck, and magpie. Again, note the notches for feathers!

References

Eliade, M. (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ectasy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge.

Harding, D. W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Serjeantson, D. and Morris, J. (2011) Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30 (1), 85-107.