Category Archives: Music

Ancient flying machines!

I’m telling stories about ancient technology at Gloucester History Festival on Saturday, and flying machines do come into it…

People have always wanted to fly. The stories of the gods and goddesses of the world imagine our earthbound chariots and horses into the air – think of Helios’s sun chariot, or Freya’s chariot pulled by cats. Bellophron rides Pegasus, a flying horse born of Poseidon and Medusa. The Egyptian god Horus was a falcon-god. In the Ramayana, gods and demons have vimanas, chariots powered by the air.

Daedalus and Bladud

The most famous story is, of course, that of Daedalus and Icarus. The great Greek inventor, trapped on Crete with his son, devised wings made of feathers, string and wax, and flew safely to Naples, where he dedicated his wings to Apollo – something we often forget when thinking of how Icarus fell to his death. There was nothing wrong with Daedalus’s wings! You just had to use them safely, as with any dangerous tool. Inspired by this, King Bladud of Britain, who had studied in Athens in his youth, built himself a pair of wings through his studies in necromancy (did he channel the spirit of Daedalus?) and flew from the temple of Apollo in London – but like Icarus, he fell, and died.

Alexander the Great

More successful early flights include that of Alexander the Great. In the Alexander Romance, which first appears about the 3rd century AD, Alexander has a number of strange adventures: he travels down to the bottom of the ocean in a diving bell; he defeats the barbarians of the north giants Gog and Magog, and, ahem, builds a wall[i] to keep them out; his sister is turned into a mermaid. But he also flies. His flying machine is fairly basic – he goes up in a glass-bottomed chariot drawn by griffins chasing either jewels or meat held perpetually out of their grasp. Alexander goes further than Daedalus or Bladud – he travels so far into space that he can see the whole world, likened to a coiled snake, satisfying his desire to see the ends of the earth – and not learning the lesson of Scipio Aemilianus, the destroyer of Carthage, from Cicero’s On the Republic. Scipio dreams of flight, and is shown ‘how small the earth appears in view of heaven’s own immensity’, thus learning humility and showing how the mind should kept on spiritual, not earthly matters.

Icarus … again?

The satirical writer Lucien took to the skies twice in his writing. Firstly, the well-known journey to the moon in his ‘True History’, in which the protagonists are shot into the air in their ship by a water spout. Less well-known is the story of Icaromenippus, who, like Daedalus, builds wings and flies to Mount Olympus – where he discovers that Zeus is planning to king all philosophers for being useless – or at least will get round to it after the long vacation! Menippus feasts with the gods (and in true Roman fashion, is placed with the least favoured gods on the bottom table…) and sneaks a taste of ambrosia and nectar, but is deprived of his wings and set back down on the earth again by Hermes.[ii]

Eilmer, a Wiltshire aviator!

Daedalus was also the inspiration to the first non-legendary flight in Britain, that of Eilmer of Malmesbury, the story of which features in my book, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Eilmer was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey, much later than all these classical fantasies, and was known to the writer of his story, William of Malmesbury. The story is told in his Deeds of the English Kings of 1125. Eilmer only died in 1066, and so there would have monks at the abbey who would have remembered Eilmer when William first joined the monastery as a boy in the late 11th century.

As a historian, William is surprisingly well-respected – one of my favourite accounts of his is of the witch of Berkeley, a rather fantastical tale, which he preambles with the following:

At the same time something similar occurred in England, not by divine miracle, but by infernal craft; which when I shall have related, the credit of the narrative will not be shaken, though the minds of the hearers should be incredulous; for I have heard it from a man of such character, who swore he had seen it, that I should blush to disbelieve.[iii]

This is careful distancing! So why not a flying monk? William states that he was inspired by reading a book on Daedalus, and was inspired to build a pair of wings. William also says that he flew for more than a furlong – more than 200 metres – before the twin problems of the wind and his own realisation of what he was doing caused him crash. Powered flight it isn’t – but nonetheless, Eilmer flew – find out more about him and his experiences with Halley’s Comet in my Wiltshire Folk Tales.

He was the first in Britain, only following three other accounts of tower jumping, one in China in the 1st century AD, one in the 6th, and one in Spain in the 9th. The first Chinese jumper glided 100 metres – so Eilmer’s glide was twice as long.  The Chinese seem to have experimented with man-carrying kites, as well, and possibly the Japanese, too.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that flight took off, as it were, first with balloons, and the rest was history!


A cat flew in 1648. The Italian inventor Tito Livio Burattini built a model winged ‘dragon volant’ … at least he knew the passenger would always land on their feet…[iv]

When researching Heron of Alexandria, however, I discovered the earlier inventor, Archytas, from Tarentum in southern Italy. Archytas created a flying creature – a pigeon, powered by steam! See the excellent Kotsanas Museum for more:



[i] Trump might well be inspired by Alexander, a fellow narcissist. It’s not just the wall – consider Alexander’s bouffant blond locks and, er, Trump’s…


[iii] William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England and the Modern History of William of Malmesbury (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1815), p. 264



1: John Peter Gowy The Flight of Icarus, 1635-7. The Prado, Madrid.

2. Illustration from Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, French, c. 1420, BL Royal 20 B XX

3. Eilmer copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2011


More video – Kevan performs The Ruin for upcoming Malmesbury Wessex Week show

On Friday 21 October, Chantelle and Kevan will be performing The Flight of the Sparrow,  at Malmesbury’s Wessex Week.

It’s a show of monarchs, mortality and morality in tale and song. Kevan and Chantelle explore the lives of Saxon kings, queens and saints in this enchanting ‘scop’ show for adults. With clarsach, percussion, Anglo-Saxon riddles, poetry and songs of the mead-hall, the duo will illuminate the time of Athelstan.

Here’s a wee taster of Kevan performing the great Anglo Saxon poem The Ruin, said to be about the ruins of Roman Bath:

Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder – videos!

Those lovely folks in Inkubus Sukkubus recorded the whole show on 9 September 2016 and are releasing videos on You Tube! Here are a selection – watch this space for more as they come up.

Kirsty starts the whole thing by telling The Deerhurst Dragon:

Ronald Hutton introduces the band in his own inimitable style:

And here’s one of my all-time favourite songs, the Witch of Berkeley:

Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder in Gloucester

1-iksu-pic-by-mick-robertsOn Friday night I had an absolute blast! I had the privilege to take part in an amazing show, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder with the incomparable Inkubus Sukkubus, as their storyteller. This was part of Gloucester History Festival – so it was great to introduce a bit of folklore to all that ‘real’ history. We were telling the histories we all want to believe are true! The stories that are true at gut level … the kind of stories that make you nervous when you go are out into the darkness at night … and in some places, during the day as well. And though I might have been the official storyteller, Candia, Tony and the band were telling tales too … tales that ranged from local folk tales like the Witch of Berkeley (one of my absolute faves in song and story!), to witchlore to, er, activities on a certain local landmark to personal tales to touch the heart.

Inkubus Sukkubus have recently released a new album, Barrow Wake, an acoustic album full of the dark tales of Gloucestershire – and beyond (there’s an allusion to my original part of the world with Hopkin’s Man, Matthew Hopkins, the foul Witchfinder General, denizen of Essex and my native Suffolk. I’m so proud. Sigh.) It’s a great listen – sample it here, and then you know what to do!


So, they decided to play a gig in their home city as part of the History Fest, and donate the proceeds to the lovely folk at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust who manage the Barrow Wake nature reserve. They wanted local stories to go alongside the music, so they approached Anthony and me. Candia McKormack, the lead singer of the band, also happens to have her pulse on the county – she works for Cotswold Life, and as a pagan, a nature lover and a folklore aficionado, she knew about Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales and our follow up, the Ghost Tales book. Anthony’s away right now, on a research trip for his new novel, in the South Pacific (poor thing!), so it was me. I offered a selection and Candia and Tony selected.

Two of the stories I was expecting – the Deerhurst Dragon and the Fairy Horn – but the third, the Seventh Bride, was a surprise. I was really pleased to do the Deerhurst Dragon in particular. Dragons can be seen as representative of all large predators, and our reaction to them – fear and the urge to destroy – we see even with what scraps of large mammal life we have left in Britain, such as foxes and those goalpost moving badgers. Several people came up to me afterwards to say how affected by the story they’d been – exactly what you want. It breaks my heart, too. But I also love that story because it taps into my old love – Anglo Saxon architectural sculpture. Deerhurst has some of the most intriguing in the country. Fitting for a medieval themed history festival, though a little early. The actual beast heads there are probably 9th century, and thus very rare. Nearly as rare as dragons, these days… The Fairy Horn, set in the heart of the Forest, is a classic fairies’ revenge story, and encourages you to show respect for the forces beyond your ken … like nature, like the spirit realm. The third story is a Gloucestershire Bluebeard tale, a fable to encourage young girls not to trust strangers, something we still sadly feel we must do to this day, but this tale also shows how powerful you can be in extremis – and has an unexpected long barrow with unusual and grisly inhabitants too. Dark tales…

The Inkies music was incredible – I was captivated from beginning to end. I didn’t want it to end. Candia and the band had invited fiddler Nick Gibbs from Folklaw and cellist Abigail Blackman to play with them, and I loved the acoustic sound they created together. Particular favourites were Woman to Hare (and the cat, don’t forget the cat!), the Witch of Berkeley, the title song Barrow Wake (tho’ it makes me smile when I think about the lovers in question!), and the beautiful song about the love spell that made me think, moist-eyed, about my far away love. Go to the Inkubus Sukkubus facebook page to see some clips from the night – I hope to pop some up here soon, too. I’d love to see this combination again – and in fact Candia is going to be guesting at the upcoming Folklaw gig at the Sub Rooms in Stroud 24 September. I shall be there!

20160909_195320-cropAnd all of this in the most amazing venue, Gloucester Blackfriars. Hard to believe the difference in the site from when I worked in Gloucester 10 or so years ago. I worked in the Docks, a bare hop (not even a skip and a jump) away, and although I knew it was there, of course I never went in. Now it’s a fantastic venue, perfect for storytelling and music. So atmospheric … the courtyard magical with little lights and the sound of the superb Gwilym Davies on pipe and tabor ushering in the guests with music, and the thrill of being in the building with all its layers – the great fireplace hanging above us as we performed, that strange combination of church and home. A friend and I were wondering what ghosts marched above our heads, pacing out an afterlife on lost floors… The Inkies had made it beautiful, too, and I particularly loved the film of the Forest with fairies playing above me – what could have been more fitting for the Fairy Horn?

Image credits:

  1. Me in full flow at Blackfriars, Friday 9 September 2016. Picture © Mick Roberts
  2. Inkubus Sukkubus at Blackfriars, Friday 9 September 2016. Picture © Jack ‘Pyromancer’ Howard
  3. Gwilym Davies piping in the hordes! Picture © Kirsty Hartsiotis