What is Terminalia?
Terminalia is the ancient Roman festival honouring Terminus, god of boundaries. In times past, he was represented by a simple stone marker. There are no myths or statues of Terminus, showing his great and possibly primal age – when we find gods like this, they tend to represent immutable natural law. They are not anything but themselves and what they represent. On occasion he was twinned with Jupiter, as Jupiter Terminalis, but as with Sulis Minerva at Bath, this appears to have happened when a new god is synthesised with a much older one.
As far as we can tell, allowing for calendar drift and some scholarly interpretation, Terminus was honoured annually on February 23 – markers were libated with wine and honey, sacrifices were made and the stones were often garlanded with flowers.
Since 2011 the global psychogeographical walking event Terminalia Festival has operated as a collective of events exploring place. Since 2019 I have joined my local walking tribes, Radical Stroud and Walking The Land in celebration. This year, the Covid year, we have all walked today in solitude or in pairs.
This year I had a yearning to explore boundaries of self and the landscape, to see if I could ‘let it in’. We have such a concept of ourselves as sovereign, largely impenetrable firmly contained within our bag of skin where ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ is so obvious as to be unconscious to most. And yet, we are constantly, intimately connected to each other and the outside in a fundamental and deeply intimate way. There is a constant flow and exchange through and with us and the world – through the air we inhale and the carbon dioxide we exhale, the food we eat and digest. All the things we sense that directly influence and affect our nervous systems, animating us, causing synapses to fire, chemical reactions to cascade, pupils to dilate, mouths to salivate – the list is endless. The idea that we are somehow separate is a nonsense.
I also wanted to return to the longbarrows, and sit on that edge of on/under the earth and the present and the past. I walked with Jon and dog Millie, who kept dog Fen in order – and as is not uncommon, the walk had a mind of it’s own and threw up unexpected considerations and synchronicities.
We started on Coaley Peak, and the walk from Nymphsfield Longbarrow to Hetty Peglars Tump was in itself a small study in boundaries, criss-crossing the road, and jumping walls into fields and following desire paths along hedgerow to avoid it. We spent time lying in the body-shaped hollows atop the tump, sheltered somewhat from the wind.
The wind today was odd – very high, but unpredicted by weather forecasters. From the hollow, the sound of it pushing the beeches on the field boundary around was insistent and loud, though strangely quiet where we lay. I turned my mind to my breath, felt the air moving in me, swelling my chest and quickening my heartbeat. Wind currents, like ocean ones, are influenced by huge planetary forces – while we experience the effects locally, they are vast, global phenomena caused by the friction created between the atmosphere and the earth’s surface. The currents so created then curve to follow the earth’s rotational path due to the wonderfully named Coriolis Effect. I feel it blowing through me , making me feel insubstantial, airy, liable to float away.
Fen honours the wind through her powers of speech, barking incessantly and annoyingly at Millie – the airwaves carrying her voice into my ears, alongside the sounds of our sporadic conversation, the distant rumble of an occasional car. I feel elementally slightly imbalanced, earth and air are very present, water and fire less so. Water and fire are my natural home – earth and air I find somewhat slimy, swamp-like, the realm of mists and miasma and marshlights, and it feels discordant to feel this so high up.
We head into the barrow chambers, and instantly the noise is muffled and the air is still, in sharp contrast to outside. We in turn are becalmed, quiet, tranquil. The dogs roam in and out, and I am reminded of the legends that tell of dogs of guardians of the dead and of thresholds, mythic guard dogs, holding boundaries firm and protected. The old Tibetan hounds guarded in pairs – a small noisy dog to alert the household, and a huge mastiff to inflict damage on intruders. Millie is only huge in comparison to Fen, but still, there are echoes.
There Is a slow, quiet but constant drip of water in the chambers and the roof is wet to the touch droplets of not-quite subterranean moisture slowly collecting and falling. I brush my hand along the rough stone to collect some and lick it dripping from the end of my fingers. It tastes clean but distinctly of mud – there is no aquifer here for it to filter through, it comes straight from the earth covering the roof and forges tiny paths through the smallest cracks and gaps between the stone slabs. And so I have a second permeation – firstly air, this time water.
Coming out of the barrow – and we haven’t been there that long – the weather has changed considerably. It is noticeably darker, and I’ve clearly paid the wind too much thought as it has picked up even more, making the walking uncomfortable. We decide to go lower out of the wind, and head off track to drop down sharply to join the Cotswold Way, talking of hitherto-unknown mutual acquaintances, of the past, of chaos magick, as we go, and so carried by our conversation we approach Uley Bury – a huge, 32 acre Iron age settlement set high on the edge of the hill. We go widdershins around it for now, and head downwards once more, through an equestrian centre to Downham Hill. We had a sightline on this from Coaley Peak, and Jon mentioned that he had long wanted to ascend it but never had so it became the ideal end point of our walk.
As we wander along the settlement I munch on a few early plants – a nettle, narrow leafed plantain – and consider the process of ingesting; taking the nutrients from the soil and sunlight and water and air into myself through this one small plant. Eating as an alchemical process, transforming this leaf into fuel, cellular building blocks, water and dung. I wonder what my cells see in its cells.
It becomes apparent that Downham Hill is perfect for the day. Crowned by an avenue of beech and sycamore, in the 18th century, it was home to a smallpox isolation hospital, and it feels synchronous to be here, unplanned and unexpected in these deadly viral times. So this place was literally ‘beyond the pale’; set safely outside of village boundaries to limit contagion from a dreadful, disfiguring, agonising and often fatal disease.
We find a hollowed out tree root – it reminds Jon of the holed stones such as Men An Tol that people would pass babies through, and so we decide to pass ourselves through it. I hold a thought of then and now, and the root marking the boundary between the two, and I look forward to mask-free times when we can gather and touch and go places once more. We sit for lunch, in the roots of a huge tree, and spot as we set to leave a geocache box. I leave a snail shell; Jon a small coin.
It is without a doubt a ‘thin’ place, yet reassuringly solid, and we look forward to coming back.
It is time to return, and we head back via the Bury. The bridleway back up is deeply muddied, churned up by hooves and paws and boots, and coupled with the still rising wind it makes for a challenging and tiring hike. I don’t like this wind. It is now roaring, incessant and sounds hostile, as if staking a territorial claim. The trees are shouting at us as we slip and slide our way up the path, Fen gets her own boundaries mixed up and ends up momentarily on the wrong side of a fence, and I am relieved and weirdly emotional when leave the Holloway and reach easier, and quieter ground. I am not sure why the wind feels less intense on top, in the open. And then realise I have been mistaking sound for sensation, and the noise was so strong as to feel like a physical force, and now I am out of the trees it’s power has lessened.
Once we are back at the cars, the wind is so strong that little Fen is having to tack into the wind like a plucky little dinghy to keep her footing, and we humans are both stopped in our tracks by its force.
Once at home, it is time to carry out my personal Terminalia ritual. Three years ago on my first Terminalia walk, I consecrated my own Terminus stone. As close as I could get to the original Roman ritual, I libated it with local honey, wine, ashes from our hearth and in lieu of a sacrificial ram, I buried the jawbone of a lamb which I’d found on that day’s walk underneath it. Since then, I have reconsecrated it each year on the 23 February. I also take water from our spring and bless the boundaries of our land (ie garden), with a prayer to Terminus based on permeable boundaries:
that all good be allowed to pass in, and all bad be kept out