For the past year I have been working on a series of pieces based on the ritual burials of animals.
This series explores the way we as humans share an ancient history of ritually honouring animals in life and death, and invites the viewer to consider how the sacred place those animals once held has now changed. In the transient nature of life and death, there are clues all around us of the importance and significance certain animals have – in the names of plants, in the folklore and mythology of global cultures.
Inspired by ancient Celtic burial rites, the composition of each piece suggests a burial ground where the spirit of each animal is ritually honoured with sacred plants, symbols and runes.
Our ancient ancestors believed in reincarnation. Although specific funeral rites varied throughout Europe and indeed the globe, one common thread is that the human remains were being prepared for another world, where they would be infused with spirit and live again. Early on in this project I visited the British Museum and saw examples of ‘grave goods’ – objects of personal and spiritual significance placed in the grave or burned, believed to travel with the soul to the next life.
Many tribes or clans were believed to be descended from animals. We know of ‘Cat People’ in Scotland, and ‘Wolf Tribes’ in Ireland. Some families were even said to have descended from animals; at least six families in Scotland and Ireland were thought to share ancestry with the seal. In our early tribal culture, most had their animal totems – Sheep and Raven people in Sutherland, Horse people of Kintyre. In Switzerland they have discovered altars to the Bear more than 70,000 years old. Ceremonial headdresses made of antlers over 10,000 years old were found in Yorkshire.
Our ancestors chose to be buried with their animals, as guides or companions. Although hunting was commonplace, every part of the animal was used – even its excretions for healing rituals. The hunt itself was considered sacred, and the Goddess was asked for permission before daring to take the life of any creature. Animals held a role in our ancestors’ society far beyond anything we recognise now.
This series specifically looks at ten animals, all native to the British Isles at some point and all with special cultural or religious significance to pagan communities. Despite the sometimes literally God-like status some of these animals once held, many are now either endangered or lost entirely from the UK. In fact, of these 10, only 2 have populations defined as ‘stable’. Certainly it is true that every single one of these creatures faces persecution in some way.
The Arctic Hare was the original Hare of Britain, later replaced by the Brown Hare, probably brought by the Romans from central Europe. The Brown Hare is the only game species without a closed season when hunting is prohibited. Numbers have declined more than 80% in the last 100 years, a trend that continues.
There are 18 species of bats in Britain, all endangered and protected by law, and at least 12 species worldwide are now extinct.
Although frogs are numerous, their numbers have declined by in the UK by 75% in the last century due to habitat change and destruction. There are only 2 species of toad left in Britain, the Natterjack Toad is one of the top ten most threatened species of the UK.
Wolves were hunted out of existence in Britain in the18th century, the last one thought to have been killed in Scotland in 1743.
The Bear cult is one of the most ancient on Earth. It lived in Scotland until the 11th Century.
Otters are a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan although it is the only species of this series whose numbers are confirmed to be on the incline in England.
Deer are not threatened in the UK, although this is undoubtedly due to huge numbers being owned and managed as a game species, on private estates and country parks, rather than being a ‘wild’ animal.
The Wildcat is critically endangered. In Britain since the Iron Age, and still existing in Scotland, its numbers could be as few as 400.
The Fox is the only species in this series both truly wild, and with a population considered stable, despite still being hunted and considered vermin throughout the world.
Finally the Barn Owl’s numbers have declined severely in the last few decades, with as few as 4000 breeding pairs remaining in the UK. They have coexisted with man since prehistoric times but a loss of habitat and change in traditional farming practices has put them on the critical list.
When I began this project, it came from my lifelong love for folklore and ancient mythology and a desire to explore this. However, researching each of these animal’s stories, learning of their magic, their power, and in many cases of their centuries of persecution borne out of human fear, I discovered I was personally marking each animal, ritualising my grief too. Even the process of embroidery can often be a meditative one. The in and out of the thread, the inhale and exhale. As I come to the project’s completion I feel both a sense of catharsis, and a strong desire to continue sharing the stories of species we have lost, species we are losing.
Who was it who first decided to name the harebell? What were the circumstances? Were they enjoying the golden late spring, watching the wild Hares boxing and dubbed the first flower they saw? Has a harebell ever been placed on a Hare’s grave? Has a great Bear’s body ever worn a crown of oak leaves?
Do we know when it was, or who our ancestors were when they first became aware of species disappearing? Or the moment when they – when we – first decided to stop ritually marking the death of animals?
Katie Tume is an embroidery artist from Brighton, East Sussex. Born in 1980, she is a fifth-generation needleworker who first learned her craft at her mother’s knee. She attended the Surrey Institute of Art and Design as a Fashion and Illustration student, but is largely self-taught in hand embroidery techniques. She completed her first formal training in 2015 at The Royal School of Needlework in Coloured Metal Threadwork. You can read about her fictional muse Mother Eagle here, in a short story she wrote about her. Katie’s work is influenced by folklore, mythology, pagan societies and the old Gods.
Find Katie on Instagram: @mother_eagle_embroidery_art