Funeral rites in Ancient Scotland

The various methods of consecrating a person’s mortal passing from one stage of being to the next represent different stages of our history and also of how our folk’s perception of the significance of life and death has changed over time. From the earliest Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon practises of burying individual corpses, to the communal tombs of the Neolithic and the introduction of cremation in the Bronze Age, our folk continue to have different approaches to funerary rites. Today, most folk are still being buried in concrete individual or family tombs, of which the methods of embalming to ensure a delay in decay can be described as mass, environmentally unsustainable mummification that is taking up space at an alarming rate. Cremation is a widely practised alternative to this, but its sacred meaning has become obscured and so open-air cremations are no longer legal in this country (unless you’re a Hindu, apparently). However, as more folk become aware of this issue, we are starting to turn towards burials where corpses are simply placed into cardboard coffins, and are allowed to decompose in the soil of our land; some even plant a tree on the burial site, visually expressing the threefold cycle of life, death and rebirth in a way that is in harmony with Nature’s rhythms.

The grave is the oldest method of burial (at least, from what we can tell within the limited scope of archaeology) practised by our ancestors. It is likely that most folk were given a funeral by their family while a shaman would have used their abilities to protect the dead on their journey to the underworld with certain spells. They painted the corpse with red ochre and adorned them with bone necklaces, for which the reason was probably also protective. The cult of agriculture brought with it new ideas about how to treat a dead person. The bodies of the ancestors could be found in different places; they could be buried together in a long barrow with those of previous generations to strengthen the collective memory of the tribe, or they could have been buried underneath the houses of their descendants, so as to protect their families as household spirits. Their corpses may also have been placed out in the open on the tribal border to be eaten by wolves and ravens, in a similar way to some Zoroastrian and Buddhist funerary practices. This may have been done to utilize the power of the ancestors to protect the tribe from ‘utgard’ (outside forces), which suggests that at this time, the dead were considered to have spent their afterlife watching over the living.

Unfortunately, our Neolithic ancestors also suffered from overpopulation and there is evidence that as folk began to outstrip the sources of available farmland (which required the felling of forests), their burial practices changed. In the Bronze Age, new methods adopted from the steppe peoples, such as individual burial mounds and cremation, merged with the old communal burials and the meanings of the rites changed. Whereas before, the assumption was that the spirit of the deceased would protect the tribe, now communal cremation was used as a way of purifying the souls of the dead, so that they could move on to the next life free from spiritual pollution. However, each person was given their own stone grave, with a handful of ashes from a group cremation representing that person (as it required much more wood to burn corpses individually). Most folk were cremated, but others were given burials, adorned with their possessions (usually weapons, jewellery, tools and magical objects) and their burial site was marked with a mound; some were even buried with a boat.

These folk would have been considered notably noble in life, and so their spirit would have been seen as ascending to the heavens (Valhalla) for sacrificing oneself in battle or being a vitally important member of their community, and since their souls were considered to be purified by their actions, they were not usually cremated. It was not only warriors who were buried in this way, but also magicians such as the ‘Deal Warrior’ (1st Century BC) in Kent, who is thought to have been a druid because of his surgeons’ tools and bronze crown. He is called the Deal ‘warrior’ because he was buried with a sword; however, it seems to be forgotten by most archaeologists that swords can always be used not only as weapons, but as ritual tools, giving further credence to the idea that he was a magician rather than a warrior.

By the Iron Age, these methods continued to be practised; however, as burial mounds gradually fell out of use in Scotland, burials became more like those of the cremated, made of stones and topped with a capstone. The fact that the dead continued to be buried with their possessions allows us some fascinating glimpses of the weapons and other personal objects that were used by folk in heathen times back to the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, with the arrival of Christianity, the dead were no longer buried with their possessions and cremation was discouraged. Graves marked with Christian symbol stones and, later on, family tombs became the norm for hundreds of years, before cremation was reintroduced following the rise of secularism in the late 19th Century. However, open-air cremation was still seen as socially unacceptable, and was made illegal in Britain after an eccentric druid enthusiast in Wales tried to cremate his dead son in this way, which horrified the locals.

The fact that this is still the case for White Britons is a violation of our customary rights and should be available as an option for anybody that wishes to be cremated in this way. That our society is willing to make special allowances for foreigners while denying us the same shows how much we have been taught to forget our Aryan ancestors’ ways and continue to degrade our native culture. How we help our loved ones pass through to whichever afterlife they are destined for depends on our values as a society and how we wish to experience rebirth (or remain ignorant of it). It is important that we treat our ancestors in a way where they remain a part of us so that we may remember them, having a family tomb or a gravestone to visit is as effective as having a cremation urn in the sitting room. Burial mounds and ancestor shrines were always places where, in heathen times, folk would perform fainings (libation or food offerings) to continue interacting with their ancestors and gain good luck from practising devotion. We can also have such a relationship with our ancestors through the same sorts of practises as we realize the continuous connexion through past generations, and that we are a result of their efforts and struggles so that their heritage might live on. In heathen times, the dead were particularly revered on Winter Nights (Halloween) and Yule (Christmas), and their spirits were invited to join in the celebrations. A good working relationship with one’s ancestors can help you find your way in life and realize your potential by remembering who they were and what they have passed down to you.

Wulf Willelmson

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