Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Folklore, Myths and Legends of Lake Gormire

Gormire Lake North Yorkshire

Nestling in a dense wooded bowl at the base of Sutton Bank, North Yorkshire - 'one of the most spectacular inland cliffs anywhere in Britain;' and in the midst of an ancient landscape, steeped in folklore, myth and legend, lies the mysterious and brooding Gormire Lake, a beautiful natural body of water.

Also known as White Mere, Lake Gormire or simply Gormire, it was formed over 20,000 years ago from the great glacial melt waters of the last ice age and is one of only four natural lakes in Yorkshire.

Gormire Lake North Yorkshire
Gormire Lake North Yorkshire

Surrounded by dense woodland and with its strange beguiling beauty, inky-dark, and completely calm water, Lake Gormire has inspired numerous myths and legends over the years. One myth claims it is bottomless, perhaps inspired by its dark and calm waters which lie untroubled by any visible water flowing in or out of the lake. (The modern theory is that Gormire is fed by an underground spring and possibly drains through limestone channels below.) 

Perhaps in the past they suspected something of these subterranean channels as there are two pieces of similar folklore that hint at them:

A Goose, a Witch, Earthquakes, and a Race with the Devil: Folklore of Gormire

A witch called Abigail Craister, who normally dwelt in a cave on Black Hambleton, is said to have escaped her pursuers by leaping from Whitestone Cliff into the deep waters of Gormire Lake below. She then emerged sometime later from a sinkhole about nine miles away. To this day she is still thought to haunt the Lake (for some unknown reason) and can oft be seen riding her broomstick over nearby Kilburn.

A very similar piece of folklore involves a goose who flew into the lake and promptly vanished, to reemerge twelve miles away, and completely featherless, at Kirbymoorside.

Incidentally, and to continue the bird theme, Wikipedia translates the name Gormire as 'flithy swamp,' which is both unromantic and would not induce anyone to want to visit. I much prefer an earlier interpretation from Whellan's 1859 'History and Topography of the City Of York and the North Riding of Yorkshire: Vol II' (they did so love short snappy book titles in the 19th c.!) which states the etymology as deriving from the "gor or moor cock, a wild fowl peculiar to these northern parts." Even if this were incorrect, it feels better, as Gormire is a haven for many different wild birds.

Ducks and swan Gormire Lake North Yorkshire
Ducks & a swan brave sudden teleportation, earthquakes, or more on Gormire 

Whellan's topography also mentions an incident on the 17th March 1755 when many people reported loud and strange noises from Whitestone Cliff, including:

"a tremendous roaring, like the explosion of many cannons, proceeding from the cliff.." two local men then witnessed a piece of rock 4-5 yards wide, fly off from the top of the crag, and then "...a few hours afterward a part of the same rock, 15 yards in thickness, 30 high and from 60 to 70 in breadth, was torn off and hurled into the valley, with a report like the eruption of a volcano. The cause of this alarming phenomena, which was mistaken for an earthquake, was the lodgment of a large quantity of snow and rain in a cavity of the rock, which rent in pieces the solid stone and produced those frightful convulsions, to the no small terror of the villagers."

Perhaps it was incidences like this that led to yet another piece of local legend:

"The village oracles relate that this awful abyss [Gormire Lake] was produced by a tremendous earthquake, which ingulphed a populous town and its secure inhabitants, in a moment of unexpected calamity, leaving behind it a body of waters unfathomable and bottomless. From the same espectable authority, it is asserted, that the tops of houses, and the desolate chimneys are sometimes visible to the astonished eyes of the stranger, when embarked on its mysterious surface...." - Alfred E. Hargrove 1843

From some angles Lake Gormire does have an almost apocalyptic feel, looking a little like the flooded caldera of some ancient (mini) volcano.

Gormire Lake North Yorkshire
Gormire Lake North Yorkshire

Gormire Lake North Yorkshire
Gormire Lake North Yorkshire

One of the best stories surrounding Lake Gormire, however, is related to why Whitestone Cliff is also known as White Mare Cliff, why you might sometimes hear the ghostly thundering of hooves, and why the dark and bottomless Lake is believed by some to be an entrance to hell...

This account is taken from a poem by the Rev. Richard Abbay who tells the story 'with great force, and in most racy verse,' in Rev Thomas Parkinson's collected works of 1889.

It is a tale of jealousy, trickery, revenge, and the devil:

It is told that 'once upon a time' there lived an Abbot of nearby Rievaux Abbey, who was more devoted to secular things than to his sacred work. Among his greatest treasures was a beautiful white, Arab mare, of great beauty and swiftness: 

"In a stall at the back of the Abbey there stood
A mare of the purest of Arab blood,
Bought from a distant land and given
By a knight to the abbot to aid him to heaven..."

However, this mare was also secretly coveted by by the local knight of Helmsley, Sir Harry de Scriven, described by Rev. Abbay:

"Sir Harry came of old Yorkshire stock.
The rarest chip of a rare old block;
The huntingest squire
In the huntingest shire
His nerve never failed, his limbs would not tire;
A rollicking son of a rollicking sire."

Walking path on Sutton Bank North Yorkshire
Path on Sutton Bank North Yorkshire

One autumn evening, when Sir Harry was returning from the chase, he called into an inn on the plain of Black Hambleton for respite, and there he came across the Abbot, whom he joined. After sometime of eating and drinking way too much, Sir Harry hit upon an idea and claimed that he had a message for the Abbot that he had only just remembered to deliver, concerning a local yeoman farmer who was sore ill and in need of the Abbot to call and pray for him before it was too late. Sir Harry suggested that the Abbot use his horse, Nightwind, as he was stronger and faster than the white mare, and would better weather the storm that was brewing. The Abbot was quite drunk by now, didn't perceive anything untoward, and agreed. 

Sir Harry also offered to accompany him part of the journey on the white mare, to show him the way. However, as they set off into the teeth of the storm, their rivalry overcame them and they began to race. 

"Then they mounted in haste, and the frolic begun;
The mare, like her rider, was full of the fun,
She capered and danced
Curvetted and pranced,
And thought to herself, "There's a race to be run."
With a touch of the spur and jerk of the rein,
Sir Harry and she tore over the plain;"

Unfortunately, Nightwind began to pull ahead and Sir Harry became desperate, thrashing the white mare for all he was worth, and forgetting the terrain around him. Suddenly, and far too late for his drink-sodden reflexes, he saw the cliff edge just before him. 

"...that terrible spot where Hambleton Heath
Breaks off in a cliff to the valley beneath;
Eight hundred feet sheer by plummet-line sounded,
And nought but some heather the precipice bounded.
'Tis a terrible cliff, e'en the stoutest grow pale,
As they stand on the brink and look down the vale.

To the edge of this cliff race blindly the pair;
Too late ! they are over ! they gallop in air !"

However, as poor Sir Harry, and the white mare, plummet to their deaths on the sharp rocks below, Sir Harry hears a chilling laugh and looks above him to see:

"Far over his head old Nightwind was flying;
And a long pointed tail o'er his haunches was flowing;
Two horns on the head of the abbot were growing;
And his feet cleft in twin in the stirrups were showing;
And a very harsh voice in jubilant tones
Cried, "Sir Harry de Scriven, beware of the stones,
But a novice, like you must expect broken bones;
If you must play a trick,
Don't try on old Nick
I'll see you below when I visit the sick."

This was the last thing Sir Harry ever saw, as he and the white mare dashed onto the sharp and unforgiving rocks. Meanwhile the horned and laughing Abbot and Nightwind flew on into Gormire, sending up clouds of steam, the waters of the lake "once sparkling and bright, To the blackness of ink were changed in that night."

Whitestone or White Mare Cliff
Whitestone or White Mare Cliff

The Rev Abbay also asserts that "the cliff where the white mare met such disaster Was bleached suddenly white as the lawn of her master." (it's perhaps weathered to a slightly more off-white now!

It is said that on dark nights you can still sometimes see the ghost of Sir Harry and the white mare falling over White Mare Cliff, and then melting into thin air.....

A fearsome and cautionary tale indeed!  

Other Nearby Points Of Interest

The landscape around Gormire has been settled for many thousands of years, with lots of local history, myth and legend.

Above Gormire, lies the very welcoming Sutton Bank Visitor Centre, with lots of information on the local history, natural history, walks and cycle paths.

Within easy access lie the Kilburn White Horse hill figure, as well as a viewpoint for the 'finest view in England,' according to the writer, James Herriot: an amazing panorama of Northern England.

Signpost to the finest view in England, Sutton Bank, Yorkshire
You're can't fail to want to follow the sign....

From this viewpoint you can also see the large and impressive Iron Age Promontory hillfort of Roulston Scar just nearby. The largest of its kind in the north of England, and also one of the biggest in Britain, it was built around 400 BC. It covers an area of approximately 60 acres, and was defended by a perimeter 1.3 miles long.

Roulston Scar and Hood Hill North Yorkshire
Just part of the 'finest view:' Roulston Scar (left) and Hood Hill (right)

Roulston Scar cliff North Yorkshire
The cliff below Roulston Scar - the plateau is now a glider airfield

Just below it, legend tells of a narrow fissure part-way down the rock face, leading into a cave called the Devil's Parlour. Climb down at midnight, offer up an incantation whilst wolking around in a circle three times and 'owd Nick' himself will appear to you!

Just opposite Roulston Scar is the distinctive Hood Hill. Thickly forested now, there are the remains of a motte and bailey castle on the summit. Built in 1086 by a henchman of William the Conqueror: Robert de Stuteville.

Hood Hill North Yorkshire
Hood Hill 

Somewhere on the hill is also a stone dropped by the devil when he was flying over. Angry that he had dropped it, he fly down and stood on the stone, leaving his footprint behind, where it remains to this day...

Visiting Lake Gormire

As mentioned above, the visitor centre at Sutton Bank has lots of information on local walks. When we visited, we choose a longer walk that started in the Kilburn White Horse car park, ascended to the excellent path at the top of Sutton Bank and then down to the lake through the beautiful Garbutt Woods, where we managed to get lost for quite some time, whilst also battling heavy rain.

Inside Garbutt Wood, North Yorkshire
Inside Garbutt Wood

The lake itself is beautiful, and tranquil. Very popular with wild swimmers, it feels like a haven from the outside world, although it is also possible to understand how the many myths have developed, as it has a distinct 'otherworld' quality.

Gormire Lake, North Yorkshire
Gormire Lake, North Yorkshire

I spent a certain amount of time there imagining the relationship that the Iron Age inhabitants of Roulston Scar might have had with Gormire. It seems very likely to me that it would have been important to them, perhaps a place of sanctity and ritual, and, perhaps a place where sacrificial items were deposited in the water, as the Iron Age peoples were wont to do. 

Gormire Lake, North Yorkshire
Gormire Lake, North Yorkshire

Following this line of thought further, I got quite excited and started to fantasize about buying the lake and learning underwater archaeology. I'm afraid to say, that this then developed into a major Howard-Carter-Tutankhamun-esque fantasy where I was retrieving wheel-barrow loads of gold on a daily basis...

Gormire Lake, North Yorkshire
Gormire Lake: a timeless quality

I have since done a little research to see if anything has ever been found there, but have not found any information. If any one knows more about any discoveries here, please let me know. It would seem to be an obvious site for depositing ritual items.

The whole area is well worth a visit, whether walking, cycling, in the car, or wild swimming...just keep a weather eye out for Old Nick....

Thanks for reading


Justbod Team

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Sources and Further Information:


A brief description of public interest in the county of York, within twenty-six miles of the city : by Alfred E. Hargrove 1843
History and Topography of the City of York and The North Riding of Yorkshire Vol II : by T. Whellan and Co. 1857
Yorkshire legends and traditions, as told by her ancient chroniclers, her poets and journalists : by Rev. Thomas Parkinson 1889
Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire 1890
Folklore of Yorkshire : by Kai Roberts 2013
Sutton Bank Public Information Boards and Leaflets


Gormire Lake - Wikipedia
Sutton Bank Visitor Centre
Kilburn White Horse - Justbod Post
Sutton Bank and Roulston Scar - Wikipedia
Roulston Scar - Historic England
Hood Hill Castle - Historic England
Hood Hill Stone - Northern Antiquarian

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Norse Berserkers - myth or reality?

Vendel era bronze plate discovered in Öland,
Viking Berserkers were said to be fierce, wild, frenzied fighters, pumped-up with uncontrollable blood-lust and fighting in an animalistic, trance-like fury, impervious to all attacks, but did these fabled warriors ever actually exist...? 

Germanic Berserkers

Most of us are familiar with the word berserk, meaning 'out of control with anger or excitment, frenzied or wild.' Deriving from the Old Norse noun berserkr, meaning an ancient warrior who fought with unconrolled ferocity, there are two possible interpretations of the word: either a combination of bjorn (bear) and serkr (coat,) or berr (bare/without armour) and sekr.
"Odin's men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were as strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang."-Snorri Sturluson: Ynglinga Saga
The primary sources for Berserkers, or berserks are the Norse Sagas and poems, which also contain decriptions of the Ulfhednar, or wolf-coats. These were both groups of elite warriors, heavily associated with the God Odin, and seeming to live lives that crossed borders between supernatural 'otherworlds,' and reality. Almost indestructable in battle, they exhibited animal-like behaviour, howling and barking, frothing at the mouth and attacking their enemies with terrifying ferocity.

Vendel era Torslanda helmet plates from Ôland, Sweden
Vendel era Torslanda helmet plates from Ôland, Sweden (public domain)

It is quite possible that these northern warrior traditions originated in prehistory, deriving from 'sympathetic,' shamanic hunting magic, where the practise of imitating and 'becoming' animals, through dance, ritual, trance and drug-use, was used to aid hunting success. These practises developed rich ideas of shape-shifting and sympathetic-magic in order to take-on the attributes of particular animals, which, it seems quite logical to assume, would continue when people began to fight, and hunt, other people.

'The Sorcerer' cave painting c.13000BC Cave of the Trois-Frères, Ariège, France
'The Sorcerer' cave painting c.13000BC
Cave of the Trois-Frères, Ariège, France

Sketch of Breuil's Drawing (Public Domain)

On Trajan's column in Rome, which depicts his conquest of Dacia in 101-106 AD, there are scenes showing Germani auxiliaries, a few of which are wearing bearhoods and wolfhoods, however, the next known reference to this type of warrior is not until 872 AD in a description of the battle of Hafrsfjord:
"I'll ask you of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields." - skaldic Poem by Thóbiörn Hornklofi
The 'tasters of blood,' in the first line, is a reference to the ravens of the battlefield, who feasted on the dead, (more of this later.)

Also mentioned in Norse Mythology are boar-warriors who fought battles using a wedge-shaped formation or 'Svinfvlking' (boar's-head,) with two champions making up the rani, (snout.) The boar was another animal featuring heavily in Anglo-Saxon art, and it seems that the svinfvlking warriors were, just like their brethren the Berserkers and Ulfhednar, using aspects of their 'totem' animal as a foundation for their martial arts and tactics.

A great many disparate ancient societies created animal cults, many of which also contained warrior elements and could well have developed in similar ways to the Germanic cults. (The bearskin caps worn by the Royal Life Guards and Queen's Guards are a modern day survival of similar associations.) However, the colourful sagas and poems of Norse Mythology have painted such wonderful and evocative pictures of these wild, mad Berserkr warriors, ensuring that they have carried through to our modern age, and we continue to be fascinated, repulsed and sometimes thrilled by a behaviour that seems so utterly primeval and disturbing to our modern outlook.
"...Then the king ordered his berserks, the men called Wolfskins forward. No iron could hurt them, and when they charged nothing could withstand them...[one of them] began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield uo to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman..." - Grettir's Saga
All this talk of biting shields brings me neatly to the next section.... 

The Lewis Chessmen

A fascinating find, and undoubtably one of the most iconic archealogical discoveries ever in Scotland, the background to the creation, history and discovery of the Lewis Chessmen is a story all in itself, and many elements are still hotly debated.Possibly originating in Trondheim, (the Outer Hebrides was ruled by Norway at this time,) there were 78 chess pieces discovered in the Hoard, most of which are now in the British Museum, and the remainder in the National Museum of Scotland. (If you have time, I would thoroughly recommend reading more about the Lewis Chessmen and their story. The British Museum produce a fascinating booklet on them.) 
Lewis Chessmen photo by Andrew Dunn CC BY-SA 2.0
Some of the Kings & Queens of the Lewis Chessmen
photo by Andrew Dunn CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia

And what, might you ask, does this have to do with Berserkers? Amongst the chess pieces discovered, were twelve warders, or rooks. They are represented as foot soldiers, and each carries a shield. All, except one, have helmets and three of them are biting the top of their shields in the most disturbing way. This puzzled the early handlers of the chess pieces, and was solved by Sir Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of the Manuscripts at the British Museum, who worked to acquire most of the pieces for the museum. He had a keen interest in board games and, crucially, an expert knowledge of the Norse Sagas, which led him to the conclusion that these were representations of Berserkers. He published his findings in an 1853 article in Archaeologica, quoting the extract from Snorri Sturluson above. 

Lewis Berserker By Nachosan CC BY-SA 3.0
Lewis Berserker - National Museum Scotland
By Nachosan CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

"It is the specific act of biting the shield that communicates their frenzy and places Madden's recognition of the gesture beyond a doubt." - British Museum.

By Rob Roy (Flickr: Beserker, Lewis Chessmen, British Museum) [CC BY 2.0
Warders by Rob Roy (Flickr: Beserker) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia

Although we may view many of the Lewis chess pieces today as humorous, they were almost certainly not conceived as such, but were more likely styled to embody heroic ideals.

The Making of 'Berserker' from Justbod

I have always loved, and been fascinated by the Lewis Chessman Berserker ever since I made a cast copy of a complete Lewis Chess set as a child, and fell in love with all the pieces, but particularly the enigmatic Berserker. Since then, I have seen examples of him reproduced many times, in many different ways, and I wanted to create my own unique interpretation.

Berserker section by Justbod

My initial vision was of a Berserker framed in a doorway, surrounded by swirling birds and beasts, possibly symbolic of his mental state, possibly creators of it...

Norse warriors, and particularly Berserkers, were heavily associated with Odin, and looked to Odin to give them aggression and courage in battle. Odin is often represented with his two ravens called Huginn "thought," and Muninn "memory." Ravens have always had strong associations both with the supernatural, and with battle, and battlefields.  I decided that I wanted to include ravens within my piece.

Plate from Vendel era helmet interpreted as Odin
Plate from Vendel era helmet interpreted as Odin
accompanied by his two ravens (Public Domain)

Odin also had two wolves, Geri and Freki, another animalistic association with my envisoned piece, and its subject. 

The initial idea of my Berserker communing with ravens, a vision of them whispering in his ears, perhaps helping to build in him the battle frenzy (or, alternatively, as a torment,) was also inspired by various similar Germanic motifs of animals appearing to whisper in a warrior's ears.

Torslunda helmet plate from Öland, Sweden
Torslunda helmet plate from Öland, Sweden
(Public Domain)

Many years ago I created a relief carving of a long, sinuous paved passageway, with multiple doorways and openings along the sides. The carving was in elm burr wood that was only three quarters of an inch thick. I really enjoyed the challenges of perspective within the piece, and wanted to create an element of this within the Berserker.

The doorway became a classic Gothic arch, opening into a paved corridor, with the Berserker just behind the opening. Initial experiments with my 'swirling beasts,' showed them to be a little impractical with the other elements (I'm determined to bring them back in some future piece,) so I settled on two stylised Ravens as part of the opening itself, and two wolf-type creatures at the base of the doorway.

Stylised raven by Justbod

Although I hadn't consciously planned it, I was pleased that the 'checkerboard' patterning of the paving pays homage to the Berserkers origin as a chess piece.  

My original sculpture is now reproduced in cold-cast bronze or aluminium, cast by hand and set within a custom-made oak plaque, shaped and profiled to increase the idea of a doorway framing the Berserker. He is currently available from our 'Warriors' page on the main website. 

Viking Berserker Wall Plaque by Justbod

Each process in the creation of every Berserker, is undertaken by me, by hand.

Berserker links us back in time to the shape-shifting and sympathetic-magic of our prehistoric ancestors, through the Berserkers of Norse society and Mythology, to the idealised and characterful Lewis Chessmen of the Outer Hebrides.

Thank you for reading


Justbod Team

Unique Handcrafted Gifts in Wood
~ inspired by a love of history and nature ~ 

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Sources and Further Information:


Vendal and Dark Age Ornamental Design by Igor D. Górewicz
The Lewis Chessmen (British Museum Objects in Focus) by James Robinson
Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard by Chris Fern and George Speake
Viking Art by James Graham-Campbell