Thursday 23 July 2020

A kind of haunting - by Sue Purkiss

At the beginning of lockdown, I moved my writing class online, as I've mentioned before. The last session this term will be on Thursday. I've set a task each week on a blog set up for the purpose, Let's Write, and have done the tasks myself too. I've really enjoyed doing something different each week, and thought for this week's post I'd put up one of them.

I can't actually remember what the task was that week, but what I wrote about was the Egtved Girl, a girl from the distant past. I've been fascinated by prehistory since visiting a cave in France called Pech Merle a few years ago, and seeing those intensely evocative handprints from, unbelievably, 29,000 years ago.

I saw the Egtved Girl in Copenhagen Museum more recently. She was buried a mere 3370 years ago, carefully placed in an oaken coffin and buried in a barrow. She was discovered near the the beginning of the 20th century and brought to the museum; here's a replica of the chic little costume she was wearing - a mini-skirt and cropped top, and a beautifully wrought belt.

Like the handprints, the Egtved Girl has haunted me ever since. Perhaps writing this piece will have resolved that: I feel she needs to be remembered. Maybe this will be enough. (But to be honest, I doubt it.)

The Egtved Girl

Many intriguing things were buried with the Egtved Girl - but the most touching, the one that lingers in my mind, was a yarrow flower, which someone had laid in the grave before it was closed. Someone, I guess, who cared about her very much.

It was the kind of day when the cold winds of winter are just a half-forgotten dream: a day to feel the sun soft on your skin, the gentle breeze riffling through your hair – through her hair, gold and silky, dancing round her dear face like a halo.

            But she wasn’t there. Not any more. All that life, all that loveliness – gone. Snuffed out over the space of a few days. A week ago, she had taken part in the ceremonies at the summer solstice. She had danced as only she could dance. Lithe and graceful – as if she were made of air, not a creature of earth like the rest of them. When it began to rain, she laughed, and shook her hair till the raindrops flew out like glittering jewels, and still she danced. Even when the thunder came, and lightening slashed the heavens, she would not stop: even though people cried out in fear and concern for her – even though he had begged her to. It was as if she were possessed by some wild spirit. And then the sky had truly opened and rain had fallen in gleaming daggers, until at last she had sunk to the ground, shivering, and he had rushed to her with a cloak to warm her, and carried her into her father’s hut, and the wise-woman had brought a warm drink infused with herbs and bound with spells.

            But none of it worked. She hadn’t stopped shivering. Her skin – her lovely, golden skin – had grown hot to the touch. She had tossed and turned, and cried out at visions only she could see. Her spirit had gone wandering, and it had never returned.

            Because she was the chief’s daughter and a priestess, they had cut down a great oak for her to lie in, and filled it with gifts she would take with her on her final journey to the spirit world. They had dressed her again in her dancing clothes, the short corded skirt that whirled when she danced, the top that showed her fine, taut midriff. And she wore the ceremonial belt of her rank, with the great circular buckle engraved with spirals.

            The dance goes on, the wise-woman told him, seeing his grief. She goes on.

            But it wasn’t true – or if it was, it was no comfort. He didn’t want her to be in some distant spirit world. He wanted her here, beside him, now. They'd had plans, dreams. In her short life, she had already travelled far. Together, they would have travelled further, made new stories together.

            He caught the salty tang of the sea. It was a silky blue line in the distance.

            The people were gathered round her oak bed. He climbed the mound to see her one last time. The crowd parted to let him through. There she lay, as if she were just asleep. He bent and picked a flower: creamy yarrow, its leaves delicately feathered. It was a medicinal plant, meant to cure ills. It hadn’t worked for her. Still, it shared a little of her beauty. He placed it tenderly beside her. Then he walked away without looking back. He would go to the coast and join a trading ship. He would travel away from this wind-raked northern outpost, and he would not return. But he would not leave this land behind. It would stay safe in his heart.

            As would she.


Penny Dolan said...

Love the inspiration of the yarrow, Sue, and how that costume looked when she was in the middle of her dance too.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Penny.

Lynne Benton said...

Beautiful, Sue!

Jane said...


Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Jane and Lynne.

Elspeth Scott said...

Beautiful! But you made me cry.

Steve Gladwin said...

That was truly wonderful, Sue.

Odette said...

Beautiful. thank you!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much, Steve and Odette!

Ann Turnbull said...

This is fascinating, Sue. I'm so envious that you've actually seen the Evgted girl! She is described in great detail in a book, The Mound People by P V Glob, 1970. (My copy has completely fallen apart - not nearly as well preserved as the girl.)

Ann Turnbull said...

This is fascinating, Sue. I read about the Egvted girl years ago in a book called The Mound People by P V Glob, which goes into great detail about her. It's very haunting.