Offa’s Curse

In 1867 the English writer Matthew Arnold expressed a series of powerfully pertinent observations about the original people of England, our forebears. He proclaimed that just because there is no trace of their original culture after the Roman and Saxon invasions it does not mean that as a people they have never existed, or that their memory and legacy does not impact upon us today.

Indeed conquerors make their own history but the vanquished are forced to suffer in silence. There are no documents in existence that suggest genocide occurred, or that the native inhabitants were forced into exile. Many survived the invasion, remained in the country and absorbed the language and customs of the invaders, but others clung to older traditions.

One of the most important traditions was what Arnold defined as our “natural magic”. He celebrated our ancestors “passionate, turbulent, indomitable reaction against the despotism of fact”. The Romans may have brought a semblance of sophistication to a country which to them seemed savage and barbarous, but the conquered peoples found a greater meaning in their past existence.

Although it was a harsh existence dominated by chaos it was believed that it was destiny, and entirely a consequence of the whims of the supernatural deities. Many of our superstitions derive from that mysterious period of our history and continue to emanate in our culture. Most superstition stems from ancient folklore.

The folklore that surrounds pagan figures like witches is very old. Evidence suggests that it dates back to the Neolithic era. The distinctive spiral patterns carved on burial sites suggest that there were spells invoked to secure a good afterlife for the departed.

Concepts like lucky or cursed animals are also very ancient, but still hold sway in our modern times. This is evident by fears about giant black dogs roaming the countryside, or the superfluity of natterjack toads.

When anything unexplained or mysterious happens, there is still a temptation to delve into this fantastical realm to assuage our fears. Imagination is very powerful, it can challenge conventions but when all rationality dissolves civilisation will perish.

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