July 22nd – The Festival of the Penrath Hill Woman

It’s a way down to the south, where the hills gently undulate, that you can go see the Penrath Hill Woman. She’s naked, hunched over, carrying a sack over one shoulder, a tall pilgrim’s stave in the other. She’s cut out of the turf, a geoglyph in grass and the chalk of the hillside. Despite the simple nature of the depiction – she is made of little more than an outline – you still get the distinct impression that she is struggling with whatever she’s carrying.

Because of the repeated re-cutting of the hill figure, an act which will form the central part of today’s festival, it is difficult to tell when she was first cut into the hillside. The earliest textual reference we have for her is from the early 13th century, a court record from the trial of Semval Aiesache, who was accused and then convicted of stealing several sheep from a Buentoilliçan farmer’s field and ‘taykinge theye wullen lyfestocke to the rewyned vylage in the shayde af thy Pennryth Gyante Hagge.’ The ‘ruined village’ referred to here still sits beneath Penrath Hill, though it would no longer provide shelter for a fugitive sheep rustler; the walls are now little more than stones laid out in rows.

The fact that the small collection of buildings beneath the Woman was already ruined in the early 13th century shows us that presumably the geoglyph was also old by that point, assuming that it was made by the folk who once lived in the valley. Of course, the Woman could be far older still, if we instead consider that the village could have been build around her, rather than having created her; there is nothing to suggest that the truth lies one way or the other.

The last archaeological survey into the town was conducted in 1867, and was generally considered to be an unmitigated disaster. The dig was directed by self-described ‘antiquarian’ Hadean Quaternary, whose approach was somewhat unscientific, paying no attention to the position of buried artefacts, or to the depth at which they were buried. Quaternary’s theory was that the site had been built as a site of worship, made in the preserved footprint of some ancient giant, the last of those which some mythologies claim ruled the earth in a bygone age. The Woman, he said, was a depiction of this final giant.

Besides the obvious scientific implausibility of his theory, there is little evidence, besides a few artefacts which were doctored and misinterpreted to fit the story Quaternary wanted to tell, which suggest that it was anything but fanciful nonsense. Modern supporters of Quaternary point out that the valley in which the village is situated does bear some resemblance to an enormous footprint, yet this observation is based upon ‘geological surveys’ completed by the frankly fraudulent antiquarian himself, and do not stand up to scrutiny.

Because of the way in which that original dig was conducted, the site has been avoided by modern archaeologists, as there are worries that any evidence or artefacts found would not easily lead to any conclusions, because the soil was so disturbed. However, recently a team from the Union of Archaeologists, Ground Historians and Affiliated Workers has proposed a new dig looking into the site, after it was observed that some of the smaller buildings (termed ‘peasants’ huts’ by Quaternary) were not excavated, the antiquarian feeling that they would have nothing of value buried within.

The hillside upon which the Woman is situated faces towards the City, and can be seen from some of the higher towers and hills on a clear day. Folk have been travelling out there for many years, but there are surprisingly few theories as to who created it and why. Quaternary could well have based his own theory on the popular folk myth that the Woman was a giant killed by Queen Gylfan, an early Buentoilliçan monarch about whom little is known but her diminutive size and general ferociousness. When she felled the giant after a wrestling competition which she inexplicably won, she apparently ordered that its outline was cut into the hillside so that her exploits would not be forgotten. Whilst this story is clearly just that, there are those who say that the Woman may have been cut into the hillside as a hyperbolic commemoration of a battle between Gylfan and a naturally large opponent, and that the sack which she carries could have once have depicted the Queen, attempting to strangle the giant.

This theory seems to suggest that the grass-cut image has been changed over time, a fact which must be true to some extent, given how often it has been cut. The fact that the court document from Aiesache’s trial refers to the Woman as a ‘hag,’ but that the modern image seems to depict a youthful woman, suggests that some ‘wizening’ lines may have been lost over time, or that it may have been deliberately changed in response to some event, or even due to the artistic tastes of the time. Nowadays the emphasis is upon conservation when re-cutting the chalk lines, but in times past it may have instead seemed more of a malleable, artistic endeavor.

The fact that it is the Chastise Church who lead a contingent of Buentoillitants out to the hillside today to cut the turf, alongside the pilgrim’s staff which the Woman carries, may point to an alternate explanation, that perhaps this is some forgotten saint or instruction of in which direction pilgrimages should take place. There are those who believe the figure may be a strange depiction of Saint Yedvam, who gained Attunement from the hallucinogenic mushrooms she foraged, but the chronology doesn’t seem to match up. It seems more likely that the reason behind the Church’s involvement is instead down to the passion for preservation of one priest becoming tradition upon their death.

The conservationists will meet at the Church of Saint Osslaw at down today before they set out. Upon arrival, some will wait for the priest to say a few consecratory words, whilst others will simply get to work, hewing off those tendrils and patches of grass which have the audacity to grow across the (presumably) ancient monument. Hopefully she will not morph further from her original shape today, so that future generations can continue to wonder at the mystery she represents.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of 300 Houses of Cards
  • The Sand Worm Festival
  • The Day of the Lessened Strain