Awe Ox

In John Boorman’s film Excalibur, there’s a wonderful scene where the wizard Merlin is talking in a woodland vale with Morgana, the enchantress, about magic and the times they live in. At one point, he tells her:

“The days of our kind are numberèd. The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It’s the way of things. Yes… it’s a time for men, and their ways.”

This melancholy observation came to mind a day or so ago when I learned that Derek Gow, the Devon farmer who keeps a herd of Heck cattle or aurochs on his farm, had been driven to destroy around half of the animals because they were so incredibly aggressive, actively trying to kill him and his staff whenever they could. While I think it’s sad that the animals in question had to be slaughtered on account of the characteristics that had been bred back into them, I’ve worked with livestock myself on many occasions over the years and I’ve had at least my share of encounters with cattle, dogs and horses that would have maimed or killed me if they’d had the chance, so I’m not critical of Mr Gow’s decision.

However, the forerunners of “The Devil’s Own Satanic Herd” in Devon were undoubtedly far bigger and even more ferocious beasts. We know from excavations at Blick’s Mead and at Stonehenge itself that our remote ancestors regularly encountered these terrifying animals that must have seemed to have been the embodiment of some wanton force of nature. I have no doubt at all that the ancient British aurochs played a significant part in shaping one or more aspects of the landscape around Stonehenge, so in an ideal world, I’d like to have seen their descendants return to be physically and dynamically present once in some part of the countryside within site of the ruins, but I accept that this will never happen.

Instead, the Stonehenge landscape is dominated not by the desire of our ancestors to construct wonderful things, nor is it invigorated by the elements or by ferocious, marauding creatures of flesh and blood like wolves, bears or aurochs. There may be some truth to the belief held by certain Druids and pagans in ley lines and the like, yet the powers that currently hold sway at Stonehenge are equally invisible but far more potent, in the nebulous form of finances, petitions and permissions.

“Yes… it’s a time for men, and their ways.”

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