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Sorcery and witchcraft abounded much in the parish of Wick, and sorcerers banished out of Orkney lurk there.
— Wick’s Parish records, 1698

Ashley with the carved artefact.

This 300 year old sentence confirmed that I had indeed discovered a rare artefact from Scotland's Wiccan heritage. A magical carved stone imbued with supernatural power. But first, lets look closer at the remote location the artefact was discovered so you can put this discovery in the correct historical context.

In the parish of Bower in Caithness, in the Highland region of Scotland, about four miles south of Castletown is a standing stone known as The Stone Lud. Located at the intersection of three ancient routes Stone Lud is one of the highest and most impressive of the remaining standing stones in the county, measuring 8’ 6” high, 3’ 8” broad and 1’9” thick. A second stone, similar in size, is prostrate about 96 feet to the SSE of Stone Lud, and this stone is encircled by a distinctive oval grass enclosure measuring 16’ 5” long by 13’ 1” broad. About 23 feet north-west of Stone Lud are the remains of a stone burial cairn measuring 26 feet in diameter and 1 foot in height. 

Stone Lud is perched on the edge of a ridge in open moorland and it is visible from several miles distant. It was identified on the first Ordinance Survey maps of Caithness as a ‘Navigational Marker’ and in the seventeenth century it was used as a territorial boundary separating the adjoining estates of Bowermadden and Tister. Although this lonely menhir now fails to attract more than a handful of tourists each year, around five thousand years ago, it was a sentinel located at an important intersection at the heart of a productive farming landscape. 

Stone Lud is located at Grid Ref: ND222617. Or: 58.536398N, 3.339692W.

Before sunrise on the summer solstice in 2002, I ventured to Stone Lud and set up my equipment to photograph the solar event. Inspecting the surrounding area, about fifty feet to the west of Stone Lud a patch of whin bushes surrounded by dozens of molehills caught my eye. Molehills sometimes contain microliths (flint tools) from bygone ages. Crawling on my hands and knees along the edge of the thorn bushes my eyes were drawn to a symmetrical shape protruding from the roots of the bush.

I brushed away the topsoil and gently rocked it from side to side, and it began to move, slightly at first. And after wiping away the mud and roots three distinct letters incised within a rectangle were discovered - LUD. On the flip side a second set of incised letters spelled the word – ELSGOD.

 

The stone tablet is very smooth along both edges and the stone appears to have been sawn because the edges are highly polished with vertical scoring. The stone has significant signs of weathering on both faces, but the edges of the letters are sharp.

All over the ancient world, right up to modern times, people inscribed, painted and erected carefully carved stones and wooden panels to commemorate special people and events. Collectively known as 'stele’ they were often used at funeral ceremonies where they were inscribed or painted with the names or titles of the deceased. Technically, gravestones with epitaphs are stele, but they are never referred to as such. In the early medieval era stele were used as territorial markers to delineate land ownership and sometimes to commemorate military victories.

Why did someone go to the bother of making this highly obscure object to bury or abandon it in a remote field in Caithness, at considerable distance from modern human habitation? To answer these questions we must first gain a better understanding of the original purpose of Stone Lud and this story begins around five thousand years ago when Caithness was first inhabited by Neolithic farmers.


Neolithic Caithness

Around 4000 BCE, waves of incoming Neolithic tribes brought the first domesticated animals, seeds and agricultural systems to Northern Scotland. At this time the nomadic hunter-gatherer-fishers in northern Scotland adopted farming as a way of life and settled at one location all year round. This was way more than a lifestyle change, it was a complete paradigm shift causing great upheaval in peoples religious beliefs and cosmological outlook.

Successful farming requires knowing where the sun rises and sets on the horizon at different times of the year. With this knowledge one can accurately predict when to plant seeds, harvest crops and breed animals. The dawn of farming brought about the spiritualisation of the sun, and key dates in the solar cycle; summer and winter solstices, spring and autumnal equinoxes were ritualised. The supernatural attributes of traditional hunting gods were merged with agrarian deities which were worshiped at key stages in the farming calendar with community celebrations and festivals.

Having made farming and food preservation techniques more efficient around 3200 BCE, Neolithic tribes in Caithness and Orkney diverted human resources towards building immense standing stone structures and burial cairns on rises in areas where agriculture was most prolific. All over the ancient world the tops of the highest mountains and hills within tribal territories were considered sacred. Every day the sun and moon were watched rising from and setting into hills and mountains and they became perceived as gates to the underworld, or earthly residences of the gods. A good example of this is seen in ancient Greece where the gods were believed to have resided atop Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the country. Where the landscape was seen to touch, or unite, with the sky Neolithic star watchers once conducted complex agrarian rituals centred upon ancestor worship and the continued fertility of animals, people, rivers, seas and fields. 

From the John Nicolson Collection. Nicolson (1843-1934) was a Caithness farmer with a talent for painting and sculpture as well as a deep interest in local history.

Worship of sun and moon deities was widespread in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe and the largest standing stones and standing stone circles in Scotland were centres of sun worship. The largest standing stone structures dated to around 3000 BCE were often aligned to significant solar and lunar events on key dates in the agricultural calendar. Not always, but often, pairs and rows of standing stones were aligned to significant solar events. Details of the alignment measured between Stone Lud and the prostrate stone were published by Leslie J. Myatt in The Standing Stones of Caithness, 2003. In his own words "322 degrees, from the fallen stone to the still standing stone (Lud). When erect the second is supposed to have been behind the first as seen from the direction of the summer solstice sunset."

The symbolic imagery used to represent the sun and moon varied widely from place to place and in Europe, under Roman influence, the Sun god was most often symbolised by a stag, or by a pair of bovine horns meeting at their tips. 

The first farmers in Caithness around played chess with nature and their prolonged survival depended on the apparently magical process of fertilisation. Caithness was one of the most heavily populated farming areas in Britain between 4000 BCE and 1000 CE and the suns influence in the creation of humans, animals, crops and seeds was of the greatest importance in these northern landscapes. 

Neolithic tribes in Caithness, on the fringes of both Celtic and Roman influence in Britain continued to worship an older version of the Sun god - a fertile male warrior, rather than a fertile horned-god. Therefore sun worship in Caithness was intricately intertwined with worship of the phallus. Stone Lud is symbolic of a phallus penetrating and fertilising the surrounding wheat fields and it’s carefully chosen location at the highest point of the landscape adds to its dominating male presence. It is not hard to visualise the farmers gathering around the stone on special dates in the calendar sharing beliefs about life, death, and the cyclical nature of agrarian time, all of which were represented by the standing stone. It would have served as an axel in their cosmology. 

At one time, both Stone Lud and the fallen stone beside it were central features in Neolithic and later Iron Age farming rituals, and three thousand years later the stones became backdrops for the performance of late medieval and Victorian witchcraft, as will become evident. 


THE WORD LUD

The origins and development of the word LUD is very difficult to determine with any sort of confidence but over the last three centuries historians and storytellers have presented a range of interesting theories. J.T. Calder, in his Traditional History of Caithness claimed: "There can be no doubt, however, that it is [Stone Lud] a sepulchral monument commemorative of some great man. The doctrine of Odin commanded it as a sacred duty to erect stones of this description in memory of the brave." 

Ljot Thorfinnsson, the tenth century Viking Jarl of Orkney.

Calder based his assertion on a local tradition that Stone Lud was erected as the grave marker of Ljot/Liot/Lud Thorfinnsson, a tenth century Viking Jarl of Norse Orkney, son of Thofinn Skull-Splitter - a powerful Norse Sea Lord. Norse Sagas from the middle of the tenth century record a fateful story of sibling rivalry where two brothers, Liot and Skulk Thorfinson battled for rulership of the earldom of Caithness.

After two fierce battles Liot finally won, but died from a wound sustained in battle and was buried at this location. Contrary to this, most archeologists believe that Stone Lud was erected in the Neolithic period somewhere between six and four thousand years ago. 

Victorian historians generally believed the word Lud was a corruption of the name Ludd/Lot/Loth - the name of a legendary King. In this case, like in all cases of national identity, it comes as little surprise that Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish legends all claim ownership of the semi-legendary King Lot (Leudonus). Scottish stories describe King Lot as the ruler of Lothian, Orkney and Norway and he is featured in Celtic Arthurian legend as the husband of King Arthur's sister Anna (or Morgause) and father of Sir Gawain. Believed to have been based at Traprain Law to the southeast of Edinburgh he was said to be the grandfather of Saint Kentigern (St Mungo) the legendary founder of Glasgow who allegedly baptised the Druid Merlin, at Stobo Kirk near Peebles.

Statue of King Lud and his two sons at the Guild Church of St Dunstan, Fleet Street, London.

In twelfth century England, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain in which Ludd is described as an iron-age King who reigned in pre-Roman Britain. This Ludd was the eldest son of King Heli and is said to have rebuilt the city that King Brutus had founded and named New Troy. Ludd renamed the city Caerlud - City of Lud, which became corrupted to Caerlundein, which the Romans called Londinium - modern day London. When this King Ludd died he was buried at Ludgate in central London. 

In the twelfth century Welsh text The Tale of Lludd and Llefelys which was included in the Mabinogion collection, Lludd had a brother named Llefelys who was king of France (Gaul) while Lludd ruled in Britain. During Lludd's reign three great plagues ravaged Britain which he overcame with guidance from his wise brother. One of the plagues was a dogfight between two dragons, one red and the other white, which allegedly took place in the sky above the precise centre of England – modern day Oxford.

Nuada the High King: Comix Painting, Jim Fitzpartick, Illustrations Paintings.

In Charles Squire’s 1912 book Celtic Myths and Legends he describes Lud/Lot as a late incarnation of a British god featured in medieval Welsh legends as Lludd Llaw Eraint (Lludd Silver Hand). Lludd was cognate with the Irish Nuada, a king of the mystical half human-half god tribe the Tuatha De Danann, and the Brittonic god Nodens. Armed with an invincible sword, one of the four great treasures of the mystical Tuatha De Danann, he was said to rule over healing, water, ocean, fishing, the Sun, sailing, childbirth, dogs, youth, beauty, spears, slings, smiths, carpenters, harpers, poets, historians, sorcerers, writing, magick, warfare, incantations.

With so many variations of the character/concept of the word Lud, and with Lud having such varied personality traits from one place to another it is virtually impossible to establish if a Lud ever physically existed. In both Pagan and Christian Britain, King Lud was regarded as a brave leader of men and a Chieftain God and he/it was bolted onto the psyche of the people who used the word/concept.  Although archaeologists and historians have differing opinions on the origins of the word Lud, all agree that the word or concept was central in sun worship ceremonies and agricultural rituals. It is safe to assume that almost every word that has been written about King Lud is metaphorical for the sun and its properties. Accepting the word LUD represents the male Sun god, might the word ELSGOD represent LUD’s feminine cosmic counterpart? Possibly a lunar goddess?


THE WORD ELSGOD

Carved into rock at the opening of a cave in southern France, circa 19,000 BC, with her large breast, stomach and wide hips this Palaeolithic Goddess holds a horn marked with the lunar months.

Dated to 16'000 BCE, carved stone goddess figurines discovered in a cave in southern France hold lunar calendars telling us that the correlation between the female monthly menstrual cycle, and the monthly birth and death of the moon were noticed at a very early stage of human development.

In ancient times the female capacity to create and nurture life was regarded as the perfect metaphor for the creation of all life and specifically, wheat seeds.

While the sun, stag and phallus symbolised male fertile aspects and principles in the farming world, the moon was associated to the reproductive capacity of females. Areas within agricultural landscapes which were abundant with life supporting resources such as fresh water springs and groves, fish filled rivers and rounded hilltops were associated to female deities/goddess.

She was symbolic of the three stages of life; birth, life and death and in Norse and Celtic mythology and legends goddesses were frequently tripled. Having three dimensions, in Scottish and Irish folk traditions the moon goddess represented the three ages of women: maiden, mother and crone, which were then associated to changes in the cycle of seasons, tides and crops.

Celtic goddesses were fundamentally concerned with fertility and maternity and their triple aspect represented the life cycle of the earth and of women. Matriarchs in the Celtic pantheon of gods are: Danu, goddess of mother earth, Marian and moon-goddess Mari. In Irish folklore the Morrigan was one of three war goddesses who influenced battles with sorcery and magic. Possessing marked sexual characteristics and having the ability to shape-change into animals, triple goddess appeared one moment as a beautiful young woman and the next as a withered hag. In Irish myths the Celtic goddess of the underworld was a triple goddess named Ceridwen who was depicted with a cauldron representing a womb and rebirth, in both people and nature. 

“Odin and the Prophetess” by Emil Doepler (1910).

When Christianity first took hold in Scotland in the sixth century, rather than replacing existing religious belief structures, they were integrated into the new monotheistic system. Christianity ideologically separated and categorised women by demonising ageing and sexuality.

The maiden and mother aspects of the pagan triple goddess were preserved in the Virgin Mary while the crone was slung into the realm of witchcraft and magic. By the twentieth century various pagan religions had been resurrected in Witchcraft and other esoteric systems which married religious concepts with magic, divination and art.

In Norse and Celtic religions there were two groups of deities. General deities were known in all areas and these gods and goddesses were invoked for luck, protection, healing and honour. Local deities were spirits who controlled particular landscape features like hills, mountains, trees, groves, glens and rivers and their names were secular from place to place, sometimes changing greatly over short distances.

In early Roman mythology she was known as the goddess 'Trivia' (the three ways). Occult rituals in late medieval Europe involving the moon goddess included placing images, charms and statues of the goddess at crossroads, where three roads meet. The stone charms, statues and figurines most often took the form of a three bodied female and sometimes-triangular stones were used to represent her triple faceted personality. Stone Lud's prostate partner is triangular in appearance and the pair is located precisely at the intersection of three ancient routes. These observations suggest ELSGOD is the local name of a local moon goddess.


CONTRIBUTING RESEARCH

Countless interpretations of the word LUD have been presented over the last three centuries and most historians have something to say about the words origins. However, since my discovery of the stele the name ELSGOD has had most experts lost for words. In 2014 I put the name out to my social media and research network and generated several good quality observations by professional scientists and independent researchers.

  • Eleni Paschou: researched the origins of the name ELSGOD and concluded:

"This isn't a Celtic or Nordic name - not even a German one. The name Elsgod is similar to Asgard, the realm of Aesir, gods of Norse Mythology, where Odin is the king god (Valhalla is also in Asgard.) You won't find a single reference to Elsgod in any ancient mythology. It could be a neologism though, recently created...".


  • Jade Saelee: commented:

 "it could be a variant of Elsegood since in Old English, the "o" can be pronounced long like in 'good' or short as in 'god'; and 'Else' meaning 'noble'. Elsegood could be a derivative of the Danish name Elsegaarde. 


  • Eamon Feron: suggests the name Elsgod might be derived from the old English name Elsegood. 

"Although recorded erratically in many parts of England, this unusual surname seems to originate in East Anglia, and specifically the Bury St. Edmunds region of Suffolk. The surname was originally an Olde English pre 7th Century baptismal name, but may also have been residential, and derive from some now "lost" medieval village called Aedelgod or Aelfgod, after a former owner. However, this is conjecture, as no such village has been definitely identified. The name translates as "good noble" or "good elf", and its survival through the Norman period after 1066, was probably because the "fen country" was for many years very remote and often untouched by events.


  • Amy Ariela Butler: researched family names in Scotland and England and discovered:

"A Thomas Elsgod recorded in nineteenth century Parish registry death records in Staffordshire. This is an extremely rare surname and at the time of writing no further records of this name have been discovered".


  • Jeremiah Bubba Allen: helped research into the name Elsgood in relation to King Arthur and his research suggested the name is related to King Arthur's burial ceremony.

  • Nathalie Pelletier:

"in connection with Arthurian legends "els god", could mean that whoever carved it was equating King Lud to God since after his death, Lud was seemingly elevated to the status of a deity?


CONCLUSIONS

The stele was most probably a votive charm, talisman or ritualistic offering to the mythical King Lud - the Sun. It was probably used within a ritual, either by witches or another pagan esoteric belief system. Caithness has staged a wide variety of religious hierarchies ranging from God fearing Norse Bishops to Pictish Shamans. Witchcraft rituals in late medieval Scotland differed from place to place but they were all greatly influenced by the supernatural beliefs and traditions of the Celtic high priests, the Druids, and elements of the Roman pantheon. However, practitioners of witchcraft in Caithness were influenced by a powerful fourth factor - Norse magic. 

A depiction of Oðinn riding on his horse Sleipnir from the Tjängvide image stone. Within Norse paganism, Oðinn was the deity primarily associated with Seiðr.

In Caithness, Norse mythology as read in the Icelandic Eddas, was blended with late medieval witchcraft and practitioners honoured the gods of the Nordic pantheon. Mythologies, heroes and legends stress value in honour, honesty, courage and commitment to family and friends. Seiðr (sometimes anglicised as seidr or seith) is an Old Norse term for a specific type of Norse sorcery developed in the Late Scandinavian Iron Age. Its origins are unknown and following the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia it was driven underground. Between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries many witchcraft trials were recorded in Presbytery records in Caithness and the presence of Norse pagan witchcraft is found evident in Wick’s Parish records dated 1698;

"The Presbytery being informed that sorcery and witchcraft abounded much in the parish of Wick, and that sorcerers banished out of Orkney lurked there, recommend seriously to the heritors and magistrates to banish all such out of the town.”

The practice of Norse pagan rituals resurged in the 1970s when many new groups formed in America, Iceland, Scandinavia. Over the last three decades Norse cosmology has attracted tens of thousands of practitioners and Asatru (old Norse word meaning Troth (loyalty) to the Gods) has become the quickest growing religion in Northern Europe, North America and Iceland. Its practitioners follow a belief system incorporating the esoteric aspects of the Norse gods Odin and Thor and the movement is nothing less than the complete revival of the ancient Norse Pagan religion.

It is quite possible that a witch, or a coven of witches, performed a Norse pagan ritual at Stone Lud and buried the stele as an offering to Jarl Liot - the powerful Viking warlord who Is said to have transcended to the status of deity from this location. Another theme common in all modern systems of witchcraft is spell work. It might be the case that the stele's creator fell out of favour with a local farmer and attempted to anchor a spell to curse the wheat fields. Conversely, maybe a superstitious farmer carved the stele to enhance the fertility of the surrounding fields, and to ward off witches. What is for sure, is that whomever took the time to carve this stele and to take it to Stone Lud, and leave it there for time immemorial, regarded this location as a very sacred place imbued with supernatural properties.