Sa­cred sites in­spire Celtic con­nec­tion

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Staying In - Fiona Purdon

Vis­its to his­toric sa­cred sites in Bri­tain sparked a pas­sion for an­cient mythol­ogy in first-time au­thor Ilka Tampke.

As Tampke stood on the windswept hill of Glas­ton­bury Tor in south­west Eng­land — a sym­bolic land­mark of an­cient Celtic mythol­ogy — she felt a pow­er­ful con­nec­tion.

That was 21 years ago when Tampke, then in her early 20s, was back­pack­ing around Eng­land. She vis­ited many sa­cred sites, in­clud­ing nearby Stone­henge, and the places awak­ened in the Aus­tralian writer a thirst for knowl­edge about the Celtic cul­ture of an­cient Bri­tain.

“Glas­ton­bury Tor is a hill which rises up over the flat land­scape of Som­er­set. It’s got the rem­nants of an early me­dieval stone tower, but it also has a very an­cient and long his­tory with Celtic mythol­ogy,’’ she says.

“I climbed up there in the mid­dle of win­ter, when it was very misty, and I was very touched by the place.

“There is a real deep spir­i­tu­al­ity in the land­scape that be­longs to an an­cient in­dige­nous tra­di­tion ... it felt like part of my spir­i­tual an­ces­try and part of my her­itage.’’

Five years ago, Tampke acted on her pas­sion for Celtic cul­ture and be­gan writ­ing a work of fic­tion set in Som­er­set on the eve of the Ro­man in­va­sion in 43AD. It was part of a pro­fes­sional writ­ing and edit­ing course at Mel­bourne’s RMIT Uni­ver­sity.

In­cred­i­bly, the first scene Tampke wrote — about her hero­ine, Ailia, be­ing found and adopted by the cook­mother to a pow­er­ful tribal Queen — be­came the open­ing chap­ter for her de­but novel, Skin: The Song Of The Ken­dra.

“Ailia was right there from the start,’’ says Tampke, a mother of two who lives at Wood­end, 70km north­west of Mel­bourne. “I wanted to write about a cu­ri­ous and in­tel­li­gent woman. She’s a char­ac­ter who is search­ing for her place and fam­ily and where she be­longs.

“I wanted to write a story about a char­ac­ter who doesn’t re­alise her power ... she has a great­ness she needs to dis­cover.”

Tampke says she was in­spired by real Celtic queens such as Boudica and Car­ti­man­dua, both pow­er­ful politi­cians, war­riors and rulers of Iron Age Bri­tain.

Tampke stud­ied aca­demic ar­chae­ol­ogy re­ports and read ex­ten­sively on Druid, Celtic and Pa­gan schol­ar­ship. From her re­search into tribal and do­mes­tic struc­tures, she de­vel­oped an an­cient be­lief sys­tem based on the skin of nat­u­ral crea­tures.

Be­cause Ailia is aban­doned at birth, she is lowly ranked, with no “skin’’, and is for­bid­den to marry. She is left out of tribal cer­e­monies, and not per­mit­ted an ed­u­ca­tion.

One of Skin’s fans is Fran­cis Pryor, a Bri­tish ar­chae­ol­o­gist on Tony Robin­son’s hit TV se­ries Time Team. Tampke con­tacted Pryor af­ter read­ing the aca­demic’s books on Bronze and Iron Age Bri­tain.

“Fran­cis and I met up and he gen­er­ously read my manuscript and gave me some per­ti­nent tips,’’ she says. “I was in­spired by the Iron Age Celts’ great rev­er­ence for do­mes­tic and wild an­i­mals, and for nat­u­ral places, and I cre­ated a fic­tional spir­i­tual be­lief struc­ture based on this and Fran­cis likes it.

“The Celts val­ued learn­ing and ed­u­ca­tion, and women were com­par­a­tively lib­er­ated and rea­son­ably em­pow­ered.

“It was Fran­cis Pryor’s books that re­ally spoke to me and touched me. He’s es­pe­cially imag­i­na­tive about how peo­ple thought and lived in those times.’’

Tampke set her novel at Caer Cad — the old lin­guis­tic ti­tle for Cad­bury Cas­tle — a deeply spir­i­tual and beau­ti­ful place in Som­er­set and the site of a fa­mous battle won by the Ro­mans.

“Be­cause it was an im­por­tant tribal cen­tre, I wanted to set my story around the wet land of Som­er­set, a spir­i­tual place of pil­grim­age,’’ says Tampke.

“It is also the site many peo­ple link with King Arthur and Camelot. I wanted to see how Bri­tons dealt with the mas­sive cul­tural up­heaval of the Ro­man in­va­sion, and to look at the real his­tor­i­cal free­dom fighters.’’

As Ailia finds she has a spir­i­tual call­ing to be­come a war­rior leader, she also draws the at­ten­tion of two men — the ruth­less tribal el­der Ruther, who is po­lit­i­cally aligned with the in­vad­ing Ro­mans, and the mys­ti­cal Taliesin, who has a strong soul­ful con­nec­tion with Ailia.

Tampke is thrilled that her novel will be pub­lished in Bri­tain, the US, Ger­many and Swe­den.

She scored her pub­lish­ing deal when an ex­cerpt from Skin, an en­trant for the Glen­fern Fel­low­ship 2012, was no­ticed by a judge who was a book edi­tor. SKIN: THE SONG OF THE KEN­DRA Text, $29.99

Ilka Tampke (main) and her book Skin.

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