31 August 2020

Special Guest Post by Steven A. McKay, Author of The Northern Throne (Warrior Druid of Britain Book 3)


New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Northern Britain, AD431, Spring.
Bellicus the Druid and his friend Duro, a former Roman centurion, have already suffered a great deal in recent years but, for them, things are about to get even worse.

Spirituality in Roman Britain

My latest novel, The Northern Throne, is the third of my Warrior Druid of Britain books and, for this one, I wanted to continue bringing out a little more of the religious or spiritual aspects of fifth century Britain. Obviously there’s not much, well nothing actually, written down by the druids themselves about how they conducted their rituals or even what they believed about the gods and goddesses they followed at the time. In terms of writings all we really have are some accounts from Romans like Julius Caesar which are probably, at best, exaggerated accounts designed to cast a bad light on their enemies. 

Aside from his famous claim that the Britons built great wicker men to burn enemies in, Caesar also said that the druids could ban men and women from attending sacrifices. This was apparently the greatest punishment people could suffer, being classed as “impious wretches” who were shunned in case their mere presence brought misfortune to others! This gives us some indication of how seriously people took the druids’ power, although, as I say, it’s not certain how accurate these claims are, given their source (a man showing the civilised Romans how backward their enemies were), but there’s other chroniclers and archaeological finds that we can draw some conclusions from, or at least use to fire our imaginations.

A Druids' Ceremony (National Galleries of Scotland)

Clearly, it’s been difficult to research things during lockdown if you like to get out and see places for yourself, but to be honest, I get most of my ideas from books and websites anyway. One of the most interesting sources for me this time around was Sacred Britannia by Miranda Aldhouse-Green. I do not write a novel to force a history lesson upon my readers, but I do enjoy throwing in interesting little facts about my period and the characters populating it, and Sacred Britannia was really useful for that. Often, I don’t even directly use the things I learn from my research, but it all goes into my head and allows me to almost become a part of the tale I’m telling. 

For example, did you know that sinister tin masks were found at the Roman healing shrine in Bath? Just imagine being part of a night-time ritual within a torchlit shrine, where the priests are wearing grim metal masks and animals are sacrificed so the priests can cut out their entrails for the purposes of fortune telling. As a writer, something like that doesn’t even need to be described in much detail – it conjures an incredibly atmospheric, evocative image within a reader’s imagination when described in just the plainest terms! 

Roman Baths Photo by Wanda Marcussen (Creative Commons)

Or what about the famous old idea of white-robed druids climbing a tree to cut down the mistletoe growing there? It was said by Pliny the Elder to be a golden sickle they used but was most likely made from bronze and shaped like a crescent probably to mirror the shape of the rising moon. The druids’ white robes and berries of the mistletoe were probably also to emphasise the moon’s importance within the ritual. Again, this entire scene is so vivid and colourful and draws a reader right in without the author having to embellish it overmuch. 

Roman Britain also had underground sanctuaries dedicated to Mithras, a God who was often worshipped by legionary officers such as Duro, my centurion in The Northern Throne. Underground chambers, lit only by oil-lamps, torches and candles – you can almost smell them burning, right? It’s so easy to understand why the people of these times found such places and ceremonies so powerful.

Of course, in those days people spent a lot of time in the dark, since even torches didn’t give off that much light compared to modern means of illumination. Yet, despite that, going into a small, darkened area was still seen as something to be apprehensive about and it’s easy to understand why – who knows what might be lurking in the gloom, be it human or supernatural. 

Some fears have never changed over the ├Žons! This is probably why the followers of Mithras would, as part of their initiatory tests, be confined within a cramped pit, which was then covered by a flagstone lid. This would likely have strained the physical and mental limits of even the strongest Roman officer and I wonder if it was supposed to represent the death of the old, uninitiated self being reborn out of the grave into the arms of his waiting brothers, transformed and enlightened into the cult of Mithras. 

One particularly grisly custom of the Gaul’s and Britons’ was the act of decapitating vanquished foes and taking their heads as trophies. Embalmed in cedar oil and preserved in a chest, they’d be brought out to show visitors like some interesting souvenir from a holiday! Human heads were believed to be full of power and many carved stone examples – sinister in aspect to my mind – have been found all over Europe as well as real skulls which had been used for some ritual whose significance can now only be speculated upon. 

All these little scenes are what makes history so compelling for us – they come alive in one’s mind and, when used in historical fiction, make a story that much richer and entertaining which is, after all, the ultimate aim of my novels. Check them out and see if you agree!   


EXTRACT FROM THE NORTHERN THRONE

As they neared Dunnottar they saw only one entrance – a long, narrow path leading down before sloping steeply up towards a wooden gatehouse. The natural walls of the fortress towered above the pathway and, most disturbingly, wooden stakes had been hammered into the ground at regular intervals. These bore the decapitated heads of the Picts’ enemies – some were merely sun-bleached skulls, having been in place for a long time, but others were fresher and still had rotting flesh left on them. A carrion crow was perched atop one such head and, when it noticed their approach it took a last hasty peck at a piece of scalp before flying off with an outraged shriek.

“I don’t like the look of that at all,” Cretta growled, and a number of the men, in full agreement with Sigarr’s second-in-command, cursed when they realised how vulnerable they would be if they were to walk to the gate along this eldritch path and seek entry.

“They won’t just fill us with arrows,” the jarl laughed as if their fears were baseless, although he felt as fretful as any of the grumbling warband. “Not until they know who we are, what we want, and, more importantly to them, how many of us there are.”

“Don’t tell them there’s only one shipload of us,” Wig advised. “Let them think we have a whole fleet behind us.”

“Thank you for that insight, Wise One,” Sigarr replied sarcastically. “I would never have thought of that myself.”

“Idiot,” Cretta said, shaking his head in disgust at Wig before addressing his jarl. “Unfortunately for us though, they might already know we have only a single ship.”

“Perhaps,” Sigarr agreed as they reached the narrow curving path that rose upwards towards the fortress. “But we’re not looking for a fight, and we’re no threat to these people so I’d like to think the universal rules of hospitality will keep us alive. Now.” He halted and waited a moment, with Cretta by his side, until the men formed up into two ranks of five. “There’s no point in us all wandering down there. I’ll go with Cretta and Eata to speak to them. Drest is probably waiting at the gatehouse to greet us. You men just wait here.”

“What if they…What if something happens to you?” a grizzled warrior with a large gut asked. 

“You’re not likely to scale the walls in order to avenge us, are you, Egil?” the jarl said with a wry smile. “So, if there’s trouble and we’re cut down or taken captive, you all return to the ship and carry the news back to Garrianum, all right? Good. May Woden protect us then.”

“Woden protect you,” Egil repeated, with others muttering their own blessings, and Sigarr gave a last reassuring nod before turning away and striding along the sloping path towards Dunnottar, Cretta and Eata following behind.

Buy The Northern Throne HERE. And if you’d like “The Rescue”, a FREE Forest Lord short story sign up for my email list HERE.

Steven A. McKay

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About the Author

Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. He says, 'I enjoyed studying history – well, the interesting bits, not so much what they taught us in school. I decided to write my Forest Lord series after seeing a house called “Sherwood” when I was out at work one day. I’d been thinking about maybe writing a novel but couldn’t come up with a subject or a hero so, to see that house, well…It felt like a message from the gods and my rebooted Robin Hood was born. My current Warrior Druid of Britain series was similarly inspired, although this time it was the 80’s TV show “Knightmare”, and their version of Merlin that got my ideas flowing. Of course, the bearded old wizard had been done to death in fiction, so I decided to make my hero a giant young warrior-druid living in post-Roman Britain and he’s been a great character to write. I was once in a heavy metal band although I tend to just play guitar in my study these days. I’m sure the neighbours absolutely love me.' Find out more at his website https://stevenamckay.com/ and find him on Twitter @SA_McKay.

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