Saturday, March 19, 2022

Ancient Origins of English Inn Signs

The origins of English inn signs remain obscure, and the usual explanations, where there are any, have rarely, if ever, been tested. And yet here is a remarkable form of popular heraldry, full of strange beasts, legendary figures and quaint old lore. As the poet Edward Thomas put it, when he was describing a walk through the outskirts of nocturnal London, ‘the names of the inns were as rich as the titles of books in an old library’ (The Heart of England, 1906).

What Inn-Signs Tell! by Whittoney Block is listed in the bibliography to The Spotted Dog (1948), an enjoyably urbane book on the same subject by Reginald Turnor, which has attractive engravings by John Farleigh. The Block book was published by Imprimerie Mentonnaise in their Editions France Riviera. The British Library catalogue says it was published in 1929 and that Block was a pseudonym for Lady Caroline Ella Eve: no details of her appear. There is no other book listed under either name.

It is an enjoyably eccentric study of the subject. The opening chapter, ‘The Green Snake’, recounts how the author met an American tourist at an inn who wanted to know what the signs meant, and so she decided to investigate, in an open-top Panhard car, the Green Snake of the title. Inn names ‘were jotted down whilst passing through town after town and village after village’.

The book begins, however, by tracing the prehistoric origin of all signs (not just those for inns), first as pictures, then as pictographs, then as alphabetical letters. Then it discusses which are the oldest symbols, and argues these are the Ship (or Ark), Bull, Star, Half Moon, and then, radiating from these, the Bell, Peacock and Magpie: the argument for their precedence and succession is sometimes rather arcane.

The essence of the book is given in a single sentence early on: ‘The Inn-signs of England are the symbols adopted by an Eastern priesthood to teach the people their own particular faith.’ How did these images come to Britain? Well, says the book, rather breezily, ‘it may be strongly suspected that these hieroglyphics were conveyed to The Isles of the Setting Sun by the maritime people who first lived on the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf’ (p.79).

This is an interesting variation on a quite frequent esoteric idea that Phoenicians came to Britain trading in tin, though here applied to an even more ancient people. The derivation of inn signs from ancient symbols is also advanced in a later book, The Rising Sun: A Study of Inn Signs (1937) by H T Sherlock, though there the derivation is more specifically from the Egyptian mysteries: the Rising Sun sign is seen as a symbol of Osiris, and others are shown, often ingeniously, to be of a similar nature. The idea is that inns developed as stopping places for pilgrims (this much is conventional history), but in this case those on the mystical journey to the west (this is rather less conventional).

The reason that the origin of inn signs can be attributed to either Mesopotamian or Egyptian mystery cults, neither on the face if it exactly probable, is that they have been so little studied. The explanations given for many of the most popular signs, which have often continued unchallenged since an early Victorian study, are unconvincing. Amateur researchers are therefore free to go their own way, and they certainly do!  

I have been studying them on and off since my teens when, like the author of What Inn-Signs Tell!, I wrote down the name of every inn we saw on family car journeys. They are not always what they seem. I discuss the Saracen’s Head sign in Sphinxes and Obelisks (2021), and the Red Lion in Echtrai, Edition One (2022). I have been unable to resist them in fiction either, as in ‘Red Lion Rising’ (Supernatural Tales 40, 2019).

And indeed I do think there could be more to tell of, among other signs, the Black Lion, the White Hart, the Raven, and the Green Man. It sometimes seems as though inn signs are the symbols and the focus of some great alchemical experiment in the landscape of England. If only these majestic figures could be invoked at the right time and in the right order, then . . .

(Mark Valentine)

1 comment:

  1. That last graf seems like the background for a lost Charles Williams novel--or perhaps a future Mark Valentine story. Lovely and suggestive essay.