Saint Michael—The Celtic Connection

Nū iċ onsundran þē secȝan wille                                           Now that we're alone I can explain
[......] trēocyn iċ tūdre āwēox The secret meaning of this stave. I was once a child.
in mec æld[a .... .....] sceal But now one of the sons of men, living far from here,
ellor londes setta[n ........]c Sends me on errands over the salt-streams,
5 sealte strēamas [.......]sse. Commands me to carry a cunningly carved letter.
Ful oft iċ on bātes [.... ......] ȝesōhte, At my master's command I have often crossed the sea,
þǣr mec mondryhten mīn [onsende Sailed in the ship's hold to strange destinations.
o]fer hēah hafu; eom nū hēr cumen And this time I have come especially
on ċēolþele, ond nū cunnan scealt To sow assurance in your mind
10 hū þū ymb mōdlufun mīnes frēan on hyȝe hycȝe. About my lord's great love of you.

For Ronald Blythe, the opening lines of the old English poem, The Husband's Message (which he quotes in Kevin Crossley-Holland's translation[1]) epitomize the effect of Celtic Christianity upon western European faith, literacy, and culture as the wandering Celtic saints spread their light over the dark period following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. ‘Bede's account of Irish scholarship pouring across the sea like the most precious of cargoes on their way to eager ports is one of Christianity's most thrilling passages. A subsequent accretion of folk-tales refuses to obscure the brilliant reality of Patrick, Columbanus, Fursa, Columba, Aidan, Cuthbert, Cedd and his brothers, and many more,’ Blythe says,[2] and he quotes Helen Waddell: ‘Iona did for England what the Roman Augustine failed to do.’[3] Striding over the machair to the lonely cadence of the Atlantic breakers laving the seashores of Europe's furthest fringe, these oceanic evangelists spread a message of hope, asceticism, spiritual discipline, music, poetry, and literacy as they marched into the annals of the history of western civilisation. Wearing the breastplate of St Paul, they were protected on their own lonely, divine peregrinations by their archangel, St Michael. Cunliffe introduces the Celts thus:

The Celts were the inhabitants of Europe in the pre-Roman period, occupying a vast territory stretching from the Pyrenees to the Rhine and from Ireland to Romania. They were barbarian in the classical sense of the word, energetic, quick-tempered, and ‘war-mad’; but their craftsmen created a brilliant art style and by the first century BC a truly urban society had begun to develop in many areas. It was against these people that the Roman armies moved in the first centuries BC and AD, leaving only a Celtic fringe in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany to survive unconquered. When the Roman world collapsed in the fifth century AD, the Celts once more emerged from the obscurity of their windswept Atlantic regions. Populations moved from Ireland to Britain and from Cornwall to Brittany, while individuals—chiefly monks—carried the ideals of Irish monasticism deep into Europe.[4]

In this admirable summary, Barry Cunliffe establishes the context for study of the veneration of the Archangel Michael in the Celtic lands—Le Puy(s)-en-Velay in the Auvergne, Mont-Saint-Michel in Brittany, St Michael's Mount and St Michael's Way in Cornwall, Glastonbury, Scotland, and Ireland.

The Celts were well known to Classical writers such as Ephorus, Avienus, Hecataeus of Miletus, Arostotle, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Polybius, Lucretius, Julius Caesar, Diodorus Siculus, Livy, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Cornelius Tacitus. From the earliest Classical accounts, ‘by about 600 B.C. most of western Europe from Austria to the Atlantic was occupied by tribes who were sufficiently similar to be thought of as culturally one people and who probably referred to themselves by a name which when translated into Greek sounded like Keltoi.’[5] The Greeks called these people Keltoi or Galatai while to the Romans they were Galli or Celtae, all terms meaning ‘barbarian.’[6] Cunliffe notes, ‘The word Celts may have been the name of a particularly powerful tribe or even of a ruling household, or it may have been a generic term by which the disparate groups of central and western Europe distinguished themselves from their more distant neighbours.’[7]

After the Late Bronze Age ‘Urnfield’ culture in central Europe following 1200 BC, archaeologists differentiate two early, Iron Age Celtic cultures, the Hallstatt and La Tène. The Hallstatt culture is named after the site of Georg Ramsauer's excavations of 1846-62 on the banks of Lake Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut region of Austria and is dated from the seventh to the fifth centuries BC; the La Tène culture was discovered by archaeologists from Zurich at La Tène on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and lasted from the fifth century until the period of Roman dominance. The Celts' hillforts and oppida ‘are to be seen spreading in a broad arc from Yugoslavia to the north of Scotland; the museums of Europe store thousands of objects recovered from the excavation of graves and of settlement sites or dredged from rivers and bogs; while many of our great cities, including Budapest, Paris, Belgrade, stand on Celtic foundations.’[8]

The greatest unifying factor among the Celts is one of language. Philologists tell us that these peoples spoke dialects of a single Ur-Celtic language, which was of Indo-European origin and belonged to the kentum rather than the satem tradition (the shibboleth is the word for ‘one hundred’). Further, it is generally maintained that Celtic was closely related to the Italic group of languages,[9] so the early Italo-Celtic unity meant (and still means) that the Celtic languages have firmer ties with Latin and the Romance languages derived therefrom than with any other kentum tongues such as the North, East, or West Germanic branches of the family with which the speakers of Celtic came most in contact. Apart from drunken excesses on March 17, pipe bands, tartans invented by Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria, highland games, ceilidhs, and other abominations that nevertheless attest to the Celts' love of music, sport, and colour, the enduring witness of the importance of the Celts to present-day western European culture lies in our common literacy and in the surviving Celtic languages of Gaelic, Irish (Erse), Welsh, Manx, and Breton.[10] There is a lilting music to Celtic speech not found in other tongues of the earth; Gaels don't speak—they sing.

Around 400 BC Celts descended on the valley of the Po, Tuscany, and Etruria, greatly reducing the power of the Etruscans but maintaining initially cordial relations with the fledgling Roman Empire. In his Early History of Rome, relying heavily on earlier sources and especially the lost writings of Posidonius, Livy records that the Romans sought to support the Etruscans and then found Rome itself besieged for seven months, at the end of which the city had to pay Brennus and his Celts 1,000 pounds of gold. The picture changed dramatically in the first century BC when Julius Caesar in his campaigns in Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul famously noted in his De Bello Gallico I. 1, ‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,’ and proceeded to conquer all three parts in turn. Relying, like Livy, on Posidonius, the Greek Strabo in his Geographica offered the following explanation:

The whole race, which is now called Gallic or Galatic, is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle, but otherwise straightforward and not of evil character. And so when they are stirred up they assemble in their bands for battle, quite openly and without forethought, so that they are easily handled by those who desire to outwit them; for at any time or place and on whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage.[11]

Sadly, the Celts found their once-proud empire, which had once extended westwards from the Black Sea and the Crimea to the Atlantic seaboard, rolled up from under them like a carpet, and they found themselves driven to the fringes of the European continent where they have resided ever since, with the exception of those who have emigrated in modern times to such new Celtic areas as Cape Breton Island, the USA, and Patagonia.

The Roman rape of Europe and the contiguous parts of Africa and Asia to support and satisfy the burgeoning population of the capital led to such ecological tragedies as the transformation of jungle to desert in the Sahara and to the invasion of the British Isles. Cornwall was rich in tin mines, so Julius Caesar made two reconnaissance sorties there in 55 and 54 BC and the Roman conquest proper lasted from AD 43-410. The peoples whom the Romans subdued were Celtic Britons, not Picts. These original inhabitants of the British Isles, the ‘painted people,’ remain an enigma, for they have left no literature for posterity, only archaeological artefacts and place and personal names. The Venerable Bede reports that the Picts came from Scythia, and some scholars maintain that the Picts spoke a Brythonic Celtic language; the evidence is slight and scanty, however, and the verdict has to be a Scottish ‘not proven.’

Celtic immigrants from the Continent had come to Pictish Britain in two main waves, the Goidelic and the Brythonic Celts, and so strong was the unifying force of language that the tribes and their tongues have the same names in modern parlance.

The first Celtic immigrants to the Pictish British Isles were the Goidelic or Q Celts. It is postulated that they arrived sometime between 2000 and 1200 BC and spoke a Celtic language now differentiated from Italic. Just as the ‘barbarians’ took their name from their being non-Athenian foreigners to the people of Attica, the Goidelic Celts derive their name from a later Irish expansion into Pictish Britain that led to the Welsh calling the Irish arrivals gwyddel, ‘savages,’ from which come geídil and goidel.[12] In turn, the Welsh derive their name from Germanic Walha, Old English wealh, ‘a foreigner,’ whence also the -well element of the name ‘Cornwall.’ Goidelic or Q Celtic gave rise to Irish, Manx, and Scots Gaelic, of which Irish has to its credit the largest body of literature of any Celtic language from the sixth century to modern times; after the Classical languages Greek and Latin, Irish is the third oldest literary language in Europe, and in connection with the veneration of St Michael it is the Irish literary links that are strongest. The earliest Irish language manuscripts contain Scriptural glosses of the beginning of the sixth century if not earlier, and have been dispersed by Irish missionaries to the monasteries they founded in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy. While The Book of Kells in Trinity College, Dublin, is the epitome of early Irish book production, Ireland can also boast of The Book of Armaugh, The Irish Liber Hymnorum, The Stowe Missal, the Leabhar na h-Uidhre (The Book of the Dun Cow), and The Book of Leinster from the early and mediaeval periods.[13] The earliest Scots Gaelic literature includes the Elegy for St Columba by Dallan Forgaill (c. 677) and In Praise of St Columba by Beccan mac Luigdech of Rum (c. 677).

The second wave of Celtic invaders of the British Isles were the Brythonic or P Celts whose language gave rise to Cumbric, Welsh, and Cornish in the British Isles and on the Continent to Breton in Brittany or ‘Little Britain.’ It should be noted that P Celtic also had a branch on the Continent known as Gaulish and which survived in Galatian, but that Breton was not Gaulish but Brythonic. The shibboleth distinguishing Q and P Celtic is the word for ‘head.’ In Goidelic, ‘head’ is ceann, as in names like Kinloch, ‘at the head of the lake,’ Kincade, Kinnaird, Kinnear, Kinross, or Canmore, ‘big head’ (Malcolm III of Scotland, bane of Macbeth, or the town near Banff, Alberta named by Donald Smith of the CPR after King Malcolm). In Brythonic, ‘head’ is pin or pen, as in ‘Tre-, Pol-, and Pen- spell the Cornish men,’ as in names like Pengelley, Penhaligon, Penrose, or the supposed last native speaker of Cornish, the Mousehole resident Dolly Pentreath (died 1777). Cornish is extinct, but Welsh continues to enjoy a thriving literature; after the Classical languages and Irish, Welsh is the fourth oldest literary language in Europe, supporting early and mediaeval texts from Aneirin's The Gododdin and Taliesin's The Battle of Gwen Ystrad (both sixth-century and known to have been composed in Scotland) to the Historia Regum Britanniae of Sieffre o Fynwy (Geoffrey of Monmouth) in 1138 and The Mabinogion in the fourteenth-century ‘Red Book of Hergest’ in Jesus College, Oxford, a collection of tales belonging to the twelfth century or very much earlier and from the remote pagan, Celtic past of the Welsh.

To summarize:

This term [Celts] is derived from many different sources. The Breton word ‘Celte’ is derived from the Latin term ‘Celta’ (plural form is ‘Celtae’) and the Greek word ‘Keltoi.’ The word ‘Celt’ refers to several groups who lived in central and western Europe and can be broken down into two categories: Brythonic Celts and Goidelic Celts. The Brythonic Celts were made up of the Welsh (or Cymru), Bretons and Cornish who lived in Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. The Goidelic Celts were made up of the Irish and Scots (or Gaels) and Manx who lived in Ireland (Eiru), Highland Scotland (Alba or Caledonia), and the Isle of Man. Those who lived in Lowland Scotland were typically a mixture of Gael, Britons, Saxons, and other ethnic groups.[14]

The Celtic languages are easier to sort out than the peoples speaking them, for there was considerable movement from place to place as tribes sought greener pastures, more Lebensraum for burgeoning populations, slaves and plunder, safety from marauders, or opportunities for religious worship and literacy. To oversimplify grossly, one can say that the Goidelic immigration forced the Picts northwards, then the Brythonic immigration drove the Goidelic Celts to the fringe areas of modern Scotland and Ireland; the Roman conquest displaced the Brythonic Celts, moving them to a new fringe area of Wales and Cornwall or subjugating them in situ to form the Romano-British. The invasions by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes starting in the early fifth century AD[15] continued the Roman process, but a resurgence of British fortunes culminating in the victory at Mount Badon[16] reversed the process until the Germanic victories of the late sixth century[17]—and laid the foundation of later Arthurian legend.

In general, it is in no way safe to conclude that the Celts restricted their activities to those areas of the British Isles where their present-day descendants are located:

Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus. The territory north of this was largely inhabited by the Picts, although a portion of it was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. The Isle of Man was originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually it became Gaelic territory. Meanwhile, Ireland is generally believed to have been entirely Gaelic throughout this period.[18]

This means that the southern areas of what is now Scotland were under Brythonic control, and that much of the earliest Welsh literature was composed there. Alistair Moffat's detailed study of the toponomy of the area demonstrates clearly that the language there was P-Celtic, and postulates therefore that the old county of Roxburgh was the centre of King Arthur's activities and that the lost city of Roxburgh itself was Camelot. Sir Walter Scott's famous view looks over the River Tweed and the Eildon Hills towards Abbotsford and the heart of the county of Roxburgh. The Eildon Hills are where Thomas the Rhymer passed into the land of faery to be immortalized by Scott among the old Scots ballads in his Border Minstrelsy and by Hollywood in Brigadoon. If Moffat is correct, Roxburgh's Eildon Hills were King Arthur's base, as witness the Hawick Horse with its ancient P-Celtic town motto, Teribus Ye Teriodin, Tir Y Bas, Y Tir Y Odin [‘The Land of Death, and the Land of Odin’], and the annual Common Riding in many a Border town as Arthur's knights still ride through Scott country.[19]

At the height of their power in Britain by AD 84, the Romans had control of that Clyde-Forth isthmus where they constructed the Antonine Wall. Later, some Brythonic refugees from Anglo-Saxon supremacy sought refuge on the Continent in Armorica or ‘Little Britain,’ now Brittany, and hence Arthurian scholars' talk of ‘Matter of Britain.’ Celtic memories being long, Breton knights formed one third of William the Conqueror's forces at Senlac Hill near Hastings in 1066, hundreds of years later. Other Brythonic refugees ended up in Wales, the south-western peninsula of Cornwall, and the Pennine areas of the north west in their kingdoms of Rheged and Dumnonia, leaving most of the former Brythonic territory in Anglo-Saxon hands by c. 1000.

Another example of the ever-changing tribal picture is afforded by the story of the foundation of Scotland from Ireland. According to the Táin Bó Cúailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’] from the Ulster Cycle, just after AD 300 Ulster's status declined and the Uí Néill of Mide took control of much of Connaught and most of Ulster:

The people of Ulster were pushed to a small coastal strip bordering the Irish Sea. The kingdom changed its name to Dál Riata. Yet eventually Dál Riata fell under the rule and influence of the Uí Néill. This family, not content with the boundary presented by the sea, launched colonies across the Irish Sea into then Pictish Britain. Thus was Scotland founded, for it was these Uí Néill that the Romans called Scotti, not the original Picts. Indeed, it was this Irish Expansion which led to Christianity in Scotland in 563 AD. St Columba, the patron saint of Scotland, was a member of a powerful family in Dál Riata and in order to keep his ties in Ireland he settled on an island that was close to both Scotland and Ireland, Iona. Of course, even more bizarre is the fact that St Patrick, the man responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland in the first place, was from Wales.[20]

The advent of Christianity to the Celtic lands did nothing to ameliorate the volatile tribal arrangements and, indeed, exacerbated the situation. Just as Celtic tribe could fall on Celtic tribe in internecine strife, Christian group could now fall on Christian group, as Geoffrey Ashe illustrates:

By the River Clyde the regional chief Ceredig (in Latin, Coroticus) ruled independently from a stronghold on the rock of Dumbarton, the ‘Fort of the Britons.’ During the 450s a crew of his warriors had crossed the sea and fallen on an assembly of Irish, including newly baptized converts of St Patrick. They massacred some and carried others away as slaves. For the converts it was discouraging; their assailants were nominally Christians. Patrick wrote a letter of protest and then another, of which a copy has survived, giving Ceredig an unsavory immortality. These Britons of the far North had seceded into a barbarism of their own, counterraiding against the Irish. The Britons of the far South, in Armorica, were beginning to build a mini-Britain across the Channel. Their children were incipient Bretons, as the Saxons' children were incipient English, though with them also the term was still unborn.[21]

There was Christianity in Munster before the arrival of St Patrick, and there was cosmopolitan literary education there in the fourth and fifth centuries, but with Patrick came the idea of itinerant proselytization for the glory of God, and the sixth and seventh centuries were the great age of the Celtic saints. Celtic saints wandered afield in Ireland, Scotland, and England while their missionary disciples carried the Word all over western Europe. If Christ was to be the yeast causing the dough to ferment, such, too, were the members of his Celtic Church, and his peregrini pro amore Dei regarded their wanderings as ‘white martyrdom,’ a bloodless departing from a beloved patria that would lead under God's guidance to a new and heavenly patria. Just as the Celts had wandered over the face of Europe before settling in the Celtic fringe, so, too, did their beliefs demand wandering both physical and spiritual, both outward and inward. People wandered, ideas wandered, manuscripts and texts wandered, and sometime, somewhere, out of the Celtic mists arose the text in praise of St Michael, which is found recorded in the margins of Corpus 41.

The Edict of Milan of AD 312 opened the door to Roman toleration of Christianity, and the next hundred years saw the spread of Roman Christianity's religious concepts and practices into the Celtic fringe. Columba, Patrick, and Ninian spearheaded the conversion of the pagan Celts, and the sixth and seventh centuries gave birth to the great age of the Celtic saints. The conversion of the Celts to Christianity was largely peaceful and carried out by the process of transmutation by which existing pagan holy days, holy places, and holy symbology were taken over and applied to the new deity. Christianity itself consists of a series of such transmutations; Jesus was born in Nazareth, not the popular Bethlehem Ephrathah of a late prophecy by Micah of Moresheth (Micah 5.2), and during lambing-time in March, yet Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, at the start of the old New Year on the pagan winter solstice holy day of sol invictus. Celtic Christianity was therefore a relatively peaceful accommodation of Christianity to a different set of pagan beliefs and observances than those encountered by Roman Christianity, and Celtic saints and missionaries could travel in safety. Celtic Christianity was influenced by Byzantine, Eastern Roman practices, hence arose differences from the Roman Church in such matters as tonsure, monasticism, asceticism, baptism, rites of episcopal confirmation, and the dating of Easter which had to be settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Despite the setback at Whitby, the Celtic Church continued to lead Dark Age Europe in the preservation of literacy and the production of manuscripts in an era of pagan destruction wrought by Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Gepids, Huns, Vikings. Sir Kenneth Clark opens his Civilisation: A Personal View with a chapter entitled ‘The Skin of our Teeth’ under which rubric he journeys from Byzantine Ravenna to the Scottish Hebrides and from Viking Norway to Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen to chronicle the six centuries following the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. Clark seeks to demonstrate to what extent Western civilisation in general and Christianity in especial survived thanks to the dedication of Celtic saints and scholars labouring to preserve literacy and education in the remote Celtic fringe while the sorry remnants of the former Roman Empire yielded to the onslaught of the barbarian destroyers. It is notable that he seizes on one of the sites dedicated to St Michael:

Looking back from the great civilisations of 12th-century France or 17th-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for a long time—almost a hundred years—western Christianity survived by clinging on to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.[22]

This view is not held universally, however. Here, for instance, is the contrary impression given by Philip Freeman:

The world ended in AD 410—on August 24 to be precise. That was the day Alaric and his band of Germanic Visigoths entered the city of Rome, sacking and looting the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known. For over five hundred years, Rome had ruled the world from Spain to Syria and north to the land of the Celts. The fall of the city sent a shudder through the Mediterranean lands, but in Roman Britain no one even noticed.... In the late sixth century, only a hundred years after Patrick's death, Christianity was well enough established in Ireland that many clergy felt the need to spread the gospel to even more distant areas. Others wanted to carry Irish forms of monastic life nearer the centre of the Christian world. These pilgrims for Christ saw their voluntary exile from the shores of Ireland as a living martyrdom just as did those monks who perched themselves on the wave-pounded islets in the vast Atlantic.... The Irish did not save civilization—it had never been lost. The vibrant monasteries and learned nobility of western Europe, not to mention the entire eastern Roman Empire, would have laughed at the notion that the Irish were rescuing them from barbarism. They respected the learning of the Irish as they would the scholarship of any worthy visitors, but the Gauls and Italians had only to pull Virgil or Cicero from their shelves if they wanted to drink from the fountain of classical wisdom. What the Irish who settled in Europe were known and admired for was their careful scholarship and fierce dedication to the rigours of monastic life.[23]

Another warning note is sounded by Alan Macquarrie, who maintains that ‘the very tidy picture of Christianity being taken into Ireland and then being brought back into Scotland from Ireland by disciples of St Patrick is very satisfying but far too simple to represent what really happened.’ Indeed, Macquarrie maintains, the very term ‘Celtic Church’ must be employed with care:

If you told people who were alive in the 6th and 7th centuries they were part of some sort of ‘Celtic’ church, they wouldn't have understood what you were talking about. They would have seen themselves as part of the universal church and, although the authority of the papacy in Rome was very loose in this period, they would still have been vaguely aware of it and would have respected it. They wouldn't have seen themselves as having any difference of jurisdiction, obedience or of doctrine. There were some divergent practices which were ironed out during the course of the 7th century, things like the controversy over establishing the date of Easter. There is nothing particularly ‘Celtic’ about that, simply a group of peripheral barbarians, late converts to Christianity, who assimilated some practices which were outdated and took a little time to be weaned away from them. No evidence of any doctrinal shift emerges. In fact, if you compare the conversion of the Celtic peoples with that of other peripheral barbarians such as the Germans—who were wildly heretical—the people of the British Isles look models of orthodoxy.[24]

Despite such controversies, there can be no gainsaying certain laudable and lasting features of Celtic Christianity—sanctity, learning, stewardship, ecology, science, poetry, art, and mission—which remain a perpetual legacy to the present day. And of that legacy the veneration of the Archangel Michael is a part.

Celtic (or British) Christianity flowered particularly in Ireland; though Wales, Scotland, and the other Celtic lands shared the experience, Ireland remains the principal focus of study. One reason is that Ireland was unaffected by the Roman period of occupation of Britain and, following the disintegration of the Western Empire, by Germanic raiders until the Viking and Norman periods of much later centuries; as a consequence, the western seaboard of England, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, the Isle of Man, and Scotland north of the Antonine Wall were open to Irish wanderings and influence. Cunliffe points out that ‘The Irish Church evolved in relative isolation, cut off from the great Christian centres of mainland Europe. The western sea routes, however, remained open, linking the countries surrounding the Irish Sea with the Mediterranean world; ...alongside luxuries came the knowledge of the monastic life which had developed so intensely in Egypt. All along the Atlantic seaboard monastic life took root: in Spain, Aquitaine, western Britain, and Ireland.’[25] And Nora Chadwick talks of Ireland's being a light from the west which has ‘never been surpassed and perhaps been equalled only by the ascetics of the eastern deserts.’[26]

Bamford and Marsh quote the sixth-century Gildas: ‘These islands received the beams of light...in the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, in whose time this religion was propagated without impediment or death.’ They note that Tiberius died in AD 37, and that Eusebius does not contradict this extremely early date. ‘By AD 199 Tertullian, listing the many peoples to whom the religion of Christ has come, can include “the places of the Britons, which are inaccessible to the Romans.”’[27] So it was not the Romans who brought Christianity to the British Celts. ‘The Gauls already had a bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons, of the line of St John, and one may assume much interchange between Gaul and Britain; ...in 314, at the Council of Arles, there were three British signatories, bishops, which already indicates a sizeable flock.’[28] Bamford and Marsh trace Celtic monasticism through St Patrick's early wanderings and youthful escape from Ireland to Gaul:

Where the ship landed is a moot point. It was either Britain or Gaul. If it was Gaul, then a history is reconstructible for Patrick which is attractive because it puts him into contact with the various streams of Christian life in Europe at that time—particularly the beginnings of monasticism. St Martin had established Ligugé in 360; Cassian, St Victor around 400; and St Honoratus Lerins, where in fact Patrick is supposed to have gone, at about the same time. These latter, and one could also add St Ninian, at Candida Casa in Scotland, brought the Egyptian ideal, ‘the light from the east,’ to the west. And since the Celtic Church in so many ways reflects and echoes Egypt and Palestine, it is tempting to see St Patrick at Lerins, that ‘earthly paradise,’ perched like so many Irish monasteries on a small island in the sea.[29]

And when in 432 Patrick returned to Ireland to be its second Bishop (after Palladius), part of his brief was to deal with the Pelagian heresy:

Ireland would probably have come up immediately in this connection. Pelagius, after all, was Morgan, a Welshman; he was the first [British] Christian to write a book, his Commentary on Romans; and the Irish always provided, as did the Orthodox east, something of a refuge for Pelagianism in its semi-Pelagian form. This is not to say that the Irish were Pelagians; they were in many ways Augustinian. However, they would have agreed with Pelagius that, ‘since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.’ But they would not have agreed that human free will could accomplish perfection unaided, or that there was no such thing as original, inherited sin. As with the Eastern Church, the Irish believed in a healthy interdependence of nature and grace.[30]

Here is the key to understanding and appreciating Celtic Christianity—a healthy interdependence of nature and grace. Robin Flower explains:

It was not only that these scribes and anchorites lived by the destiny of their dedication in an environment of wood and sea; it was because they brought into that environment an eye washed miraculously clear by continuous spiritual exercise that they, first in Europe, had that strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity.[31]

There is a sense in which this vision of Christianity, this combination of saintliness and ecology, always was in Ireland, that fair land of saints and scholars, rendering arid the discussions of the ‘date’ of the coming of the Christian faith to the Celtic lands. Bamford and Marsh note:

In the sixth century, the great Welsh bard Taliesin claimed: ‘Christ, the Word from the beginning, was from the beginning our Teacher, and we never lost his teaching. Christianity was in Asia a new thing; but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines.’ There, perfectly posed, is the quandary. We do not know when or how Christianity first arrived at those westernmost reaches. It seems always to have been there. Legend tells us, for instance, that Irish sages attended the events on Golgotha ‘in the spirit’ and felt, by what means we cannot tell, ‘the groans and travails of creation cease.’ Yeats notes a similar story in which on the day of the Crucifixion King Conchubar and Bucrach the Leinster Druid are sitting together. Conchubar notices ‘the unusual changes of the creation and the eclipse of the sun and the moon at its full’; he asks the Druid the cause of these signs, and Bucrach replies, ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is now being crucified by the Jews’; .... Christ's death and resurrection was thus seen as a healing mediation, a balm, that made possible once again the original dream of paradise, the reconciliation of humanity and nature in God. It is in this sense that Christianity, as the true end for which creation was intended, was always in Ireland and that to seek its historical beginning there is vain. Another legend bears this out. It is said that when Lucifer tempted our forebears in paradise, the earth was already in existence, awaiting, as it were, the exile. But in this earth, the legend goes on, Ireland was already different: it was not just another part of earth, but rather that part of earth that paradise, before the Fall, had made its own. Paradise, that is, created for itself an image on earth before Lucifer ever entered into it; and that image was Ireland. No wonder then that paradise, or First Nature, was said to be more easily discerned there.[32]

While this may at first glance seem to smack of pantheism, anthroposophy, or Gnosticism, it is really nothing of the kind; it is sui generis, a healthy interdependence of nature and grace.

This healthy interdependence of nature and grace manifests itself in the three orders of Irish saints distinguished in the ninth- or tenth-century Catalogus Sanctorum, namely St Patrick, the saints who founded the great monasteries, and ‘those who dwell in desert places and live on herbs, water, and alms and have nothing of their own.’ Cunliffe continues:

The soil of Ireland, fertilized by St Patrick's mission, provided a sympathetic environment for Mediterranean monasticism to take root; ... The life of the hermit, the ascetic who renounced everything, was a style of Christian behaviour learned ultimately from Egypt via Spain and Gaul, but it became widespread in the Celtic west; .... Such men, in their quest of penance through exile, fuelled the missionary movement which spread knowledge of the Celtic Church across the face of western Europe.[33]

Ronald Blythe's explanation of the ascetic and monastic function of the desert cannot be bettered:

Deserts are now often regarded as ecological errors requiring correction. It is a view of them which would have astonished the early Church, for which they were the ultimate places for hearing the voice of God. The desert flower, spiritually speaking, was the hardest to pluck but the prize of all prizes. It thrived in silence and it was this special silence of the wilderness which drew men to it, not its hardships and inhospitality. They, however rough, were mere traveller's difficulties as he, the created one, pressed on until, exactly how it was impossible to say for there was no language for such a union, merged with his Creator. People went to deserts because they were voids into which God spoke. Silence, too, is ultimate prayer and those who sought it in deserts felt that they were breathing in and exhaling prayer, that they were nearest to the physical aspect of this world which provided a suitable dwelling for its Maker. ‘The silence of the mind is the true religious mind,’ said Krishnamurti, ‘and the silence of the gods is the silence of the earth. The meditative mind flows in this silence, and love is the way of this mind.’ The tradition of deserts being where the divine voice can be listened to is among the most ancient and world-encompassing. Both the Judaic and Christian faiths were struck, as it were, in desert sand, and eremitism, or desert-dwelling, was the way of life of Christ's own cousin John. The eremite, (h)ermite or hermit, was a solitary person who attempted to develop his spiritual nature until, like a spacecraft, it escaped the pull of this earth and took off on a journey to God which transcended description.[34]

Emulating St Anthony and St Simeon Stylites the Elder, the eremites sought a local equivalent of the desert and for the burning sands of Egypt substituted the lonely, rain-drenched seashores of Europe's remotest fringe, the majestic and snow-capped mountains of Eire and Dalriada, or the dizzying rocky heights of islets in the Atlantic such as Skellig Michael. The romantic pastoral and sea imagery of Celtic monasticism and peregrination, the green martyrdom, and the white martyrdom must not be allowed to overshadow in our modern minds the loneliness, the dedication, and, above all, the extreme discomfort of the mortification of the Celtic flesh. For instance, in his Life of Cuthbert, Bede describes St Cuthbert in the middle of the night praying while up to his neck in the sea among birds and beasts, gulls, seals, otters, and eagles, while St Patrick in all weathers trudged on his solitary but divine way through the wild scenery of Sligo, Armagh, and Antrim. Cedd at Bradwell ploughed his way through the freezing salt marshes in search of the sounds of the seashore, for Celtic prayer sounds thin without sea-cadence. There was scriptural precedence in the Old Testament fear of the sea and its monsters, in Christ's choosing Galilean fishermen for his disciples, in St Paul's terrible Mediterranean voyage to Rome, so the Celtic holy men welcomed the bitter cold of the waves and gales of their northerly clime, their Celtic desert. And monsters? Certainly the Celtic saints knew monsters and demons! One has only to think of Adomnán of Iona's description of St Columba's encounters with demons and monsters; St Columba more than once stills the stormy waters of the ocean, chases off a great whale between Iona and Tiree, drives out a demon from a milk pail, destroys a wild boar, clears Iona of reptiles, and on his way to meet with Bridei, King of Fortriu, in his fastness at Inverness, has the first recorded encounter with the Loch Ness monster.[35] There is also the legend of St Patrick's banishing the monster Caoránach, ‘the mother of the Devil,’ to Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, a St Michael-like act on the part of the Celtic St Patrick.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation

of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

It is a critical commonplace to cite as the supreme example of the healthy interdependence of nature and grace at the very foundation of Celtic Christianity the morning song of praise and invocation known as The Deer's Cry or St Patrick's Breastplate, the Lorica or Fáeth Fiada of St Patrick, with its great invocation of the Trinity pervading all creation. There follows then a simple and moving canticle to the sun and the moon:

I arise today

Through strength of heaven

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendour of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

There are echoes in this litany of earlier, pagan sun-worship, echoes that would have allowed Patrick to convert the sun-worshipping King Loíguire and his Druids; yet these echoes strengthen rather than diminish the power of Patrick's great litany and its peroration:

Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me.[36]

This version of the text is used by Esther de Waal who quotes Alexander Carmichael's suggestion that the Carmina Gadelica should be seen as part of the wider Celtic tradition, the tradition of The Lorica of St Patrick and many similar (if simpler) expressions of the Celtic vision of God and of the world of his creating. ‘The foundation stone of such an outlook is simply that this is God's world, that creation is good, and that material things reflect their creator. Perhaps because they were converted to Christianity very early the Irish received the Gospel at a time when the church was sure that the goodness of God healed and restored the whole of creation; .... Everything that surrounds an eighth-century Irish hermit writing in his hut in the woods, each colour and sound speak to him of Christ; .... Here is a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” in the familiar words of Gerard Manley Hopkins.’[37]

Just how widespread and long-lasting the Celtic vision of Deity immanent in nature and every aspect of daily pastoral life can be seen in another famous Canticle of the Sun, the Canticum Fratris Solis or Laudes Creatorum of St Francis of Assisi. This litany to Brother Sun and Sister Moon is pure St Patrick, as is the description in the Fioretti of St Francis preaching to his sisters the birds. He was born and lived his life in the old Celtic stronghold of Tuscany; his mother, Pica Bourlemont, came from Celtic Provence; his father renamed him ‘Francesco’ because of his taste for things French; he lived a life of poverty and asceticism in the mountains of Umbria; he confronted a monster in the wolf of Gubbio; and in 1213 Count Orlando di Chiusi granted him the mountain of La Verna in the Tuscan Apennines as a retreat for prayer. St Francis was, in short, a Celtic saint born eight or nine hundred years too late!

Along with The Deer's Cry there ranks as an epitome of the Celtic embrace of nature as holy the story of St Patrick's conversion of the daughters of the High King of Tara in Connaught. Patrick converts the daughters of the High King by the same sort of transmutation used by St Paul in Acts 17 atop the rocky Areopagus in Athens to convert the Epicureans and Stoics to worship of ‘The Unknown God’ whose altar was already in place. The girls asked the identity of the New God, and where he dwelt, and Patrick supposedly replied thus:

Our God is the God of all men, the God of Heaven and Earth, of sea and river, of sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and the lowly valley, the God above Heaven, the God in Heaven, the God under Heaven; He has his dwelling round Heaven and Earth and sea and all that in them is. He inspires all, he quickens all, he dominates all, he sustains all. He lights the light of the sun; he furnishes the light of the light; he has put springs in the dry land and has set stars to minister to the greater lights....[38]

Through such simple belief in a healthy interdependence of nature and grace, the Celtic ascetic in his lonely abode and the Celtic wanderers on the white martyrdom of the consuetudo peregrinandi could find balm for their souls and access to the divine harmony of mystical union with Deity.

When Horace opened book III of his Carmina with the words Exegi monumentum aere perennius and began the concluding ode Non omnis moriar, he was thinking of the lasting power of his verse and his poetic reputation, but his words could with great justification be held to apply to the wonderful manuscripts produced in the Celtic monasteries. Monks laboured long and lovingly in their scriptoria to copy and illuminate manuscripts of great beauty to the glory of God—The Cathach of St Columba, The Ambrosiana Orosius, The Book of Durrow, The Durham Gospels, The Echternach Gospels, The Book of Kells, The Book of Durrow, The Lindisfarne Gospels, The Lichfield Gospels, The Book of Leinster, The Book of Deer, to name but a few. The monks wrote in both Latin and the vernacular, and produced charters, gospels, homilies, saints' lives, verses, chronicles, monastic rules, and pagan or semi-pagan charms, lays, and legends. The manuscripts were beautifully decorated or ‘illuminated’ with inks made from natural pigments, and the decorations ranged from simple rubrication and the embellishment of majuscules with interlace patterns to zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs. Most beautiful of all are the vast ‘carpet pages’ of The Lindisfarne Gospels[39] and the Book of Kells[40] in the contemplation of whose illuminations and interlocking interlace designs a beholder can lose all sense of self and the workaday world to enter the mystic domain of the everlasting and find peace with Deity.

From the efforts of such eremites and missionaries there grew the great stone monasteries the like of Bangor, Clonfert, Lismore, Conmacnoise, and Inishmore—no wattle huts, these, but buildings that stand to this day, with counterpart Celtic foundations throughout western Europe. Oratories, churches, dormitories, tall circular towers sprang up at the great monastic centres, and, above all, the High Crosses of the ninth and tenth centuries. As a symbol and embodiment of permanence, stone has been the medium of choice from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, from Stonehenge, Amesbury, Trajan's column, the Tristan Stone at Tintagel, Pictish standing stones, Skara Brae, Newgrange (Co. Meath), Carrowmore (Co. Sligo), megalithic tombs, neolithic dolmens, cromlechs, quoits, and Hunebeds to the great age of the Celtic foundations and their High Crosses. From the earliest crosses like the Ahenny cross, which show their origin in wooden and metalwork, there developed the distinctive design of the Celtic cross and the tradition of their bearing rectangular panels depicting scenes from the Bible, the so-called Scripture Crosses like those to be found at Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, and Monasterboice. An example well known to Anglo-Saxonists is the Scripture Cross at Ruthwell, in Dumfriesshire, on which is carved a partial and early version of The Dream of the Rood.

The symbolism of stone in worship is incredibly ancient. Prehistoric Newgrange was built c. 3300-2900 BC, and at over 5,000 years old antedates the Great Pyramid of Giza by over 500 years and the Stonehenge trilithons by 1,000 years or thereabouts. For Christians, the motif is most significant in Matthew 16: 18, of course:

et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The Peter-Πετρος-Cephas pun works in many languages. But the Bible has an earlier stone of significance, the pillow in Bethel on which Jacob rested his head while he dreamt of a stairway resting on the earth and reaching to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28: 11-12).[41] Variously known as Jacob's Pillow Stone, Saxum fatale, the Stone of Destiny, the Coronation Stone, the Tanist Stone, the Stone of Scone, Lia Fáil (Irish), and Lia(th) Fàil (Scots Gaelic), the 336 lb./152 kg. oblong chunk of red sandstone in Edinburgh Castle is supposed to have come from Bethel to Ireland, to the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, to serve as the coronation stone of the High Kings of the early Dál Riata Celts; it was supposedly so used until c. AD 500. The Dál Riata Gaels allegedly then took the Lia Fáil to Caledonia, to Scone,[42] while another legend maintains St Columba used it as a travelling altar. The Kings of Scots[43] from Kenneth MacAlpin (c. 847) onwards were crowned on the Liath Fàil until its removal to England by Edward I in 1296. This known history renders less credible yet another legend, which maintains that in return for Irish help at Bannockburn in 1314 Robert Bruce gave a piece of the stone to Cormac McCarthy of Munster, who installed it in Blarney Castle. The Stone of Destiny has been used for coronations in Westminster Abbey on a continuous basis, but it was taken to Edinburgh Castle in 1996 where it awaits its next duty in Westminster Abbey.[44]

The Lia Fáil in Celtic mythology is one of the four hallows or legendary treasures of Ireland, the others being the Claíomh Solais, the Spear of Lugh, and the Cauldron of Dagda. According to the mediaeval Irish Lebor Gabala Erenn, also known as The Book of Invasions, a semi-divine race, the Tuatha Dé Danann originating from Greece, journeyed to the ‘Northern Isles’ (which Geoffrey Keating postulates to be Norway) and acquired many skills and magic in the four cities of Fáilias, Goirias, Murias, and Findias. They then went to the north of Scotland bearing a hallow from each city:

The four cities in which they dwelled were named Failias, Goirias, Findias, and Murias. From Failias came the Lia Fáil, which cried out whenever a true King of Ireland stepped upon it. From Goiras came the Spear of Lug— whoever carried it won every battle in which he fought. From Findias came the Sword of Nuada—once it was drawn from its scabbard no one could resist it, and all died that it touched because of its venom. From Murias came the Cauldron of the Dagda—no company came from it unsatisfied. There were four sages in those four cities: Morfessa who was in Fáilias, Esras in Goiras, Uscias in Findias, Semias in Murias. These four taught the Tuatha wisdom and knowledge.[45]

John Matthews points out that ‘A whole new landscape of sacred objects is opened up—each in its own place, each guarded by a wise and knowledgeable being. Not only is there another cauldron—belonging to the great father-god Dagda—but also the spear of the hero Lug, the sword of Nuada—more godlike beings from Irish myth—and the Lia Fáil, a stone that cries out when a true Irish king steps upon it; .... The spear is associated with air, the sword with fire, the cauldron with water, and the stone with earth—thus constituting the four elements. Between them, they can give and take life, offer endless amounts of food, and distinguish a true king from a false one. Indeed, they account for all the essential aspects of the sacred vessel. Henceforward, as the stories of the Grail begin to assume the form with which we are most familiar, the vessel itself is almost always accompanied by three other hallows—a sword, a spear, and a stone. These objects are first brought together here in the mythology of ancient Ireland.’[46] The story of the Holy Grail begins long before Christianity, in the Krater, the vast mixing-bowl of the gods, and is associated in Celtic mythology with the spear, the sword, and the stone. These motifs appear not only in the Celtic veneration of St Michael but also in the Celtic legends of the Matter of Britain having to do with the Celtic ruler, King Arthur. Whatever else he may (or may not) have been, Arthur is definitely Celtic. Indeed, as Joseph Campbell explains, Arthur was originally a Celtic deity:

Already in the period of Roman Europe, Arthur, Artehe, was revered as a god. He's originally a Celtic god, and the place where we find him revered is in the Pyrenees. The name Artus, Arthur, is related to Artemis, Arcturus, and all those are related to the deity, the bear. The bear is the oldest worshipped deity in the world. And in this part of the world, we have bear shrines going back to Neanderthal times, perhaps 100,000 B.C.[47]

Therefore, when Merlin puts the sword in the Lia Fáil stone, he is applying an ancient Celtic kingship test in order to enthrone Arthur and, by extension, the Knights Templar of the Round Table, who will ride out from Camelot in search of the spear and the Grail.

The Bavarian knight Wolfram von Eschenbach, in his Parzival of c. 1300-1310, goes further—he identifies the stone and the Grail as a marvellous lapsit exillis kept under guard in the Grail Castle atop Munsalvaesche, the Mountain of Salvation:

It is well known to me how that many a warrior, valiant and strong of hand, dwells at Munsalvaesche to guard the Graal. These at all times ride forth and hazard their lives in combat. Be the end defeat or victory, these knights, these templars, make atonement both ways for sin.... They are nourished by a stone most precious: its name is lapsit exillis. By the power of that stone the phoenix, lighting upon it, is burnt to ashes; but the ashes then quicken it back to life, when, with bright new wings, it springs from the pyre revived and beautified...Such power comes from the stone that flesh and bones are made young by it. Its other name is the Graal.[48]

For Wolfram, the Grail is a stone of strange and mighty properties that fell from heaven. Some writers identify the mysterious (in all senses of the word) stone as a meteorite, others think it is the lapis philosophorum of the alchemists; Matthews draws attention to a statue on the front of Chartres Cathedral that shows the Biblical priest-king Melchizadek holding a chalice in which is set a circular stone. Melchizadek is seen as prefiguring Christ in offering bread and wine as a sacrament: the sacrament itself represents the communion of God and man, and the Grail he holds is a symbol of that divine feast. The stone represents the mysterious substance that extends life, the lapis philosophorum, or the lapsit exillis.[49]

But to others the lapsit exillis is corrupt Latin, which should read lapis lapsus ex caelis, a stone fallen from Heaven during the struggle between Lucifer and the good angels, and which has the power to attract the highest and best in men. For this interpretation Wolfram names his source as Kyot of Provence, who followed an Eastern source, the Islamic teacher Flegitanis, expert in stellar motions and the war in Heaven. According to Flegitanis, Lucifer, the ‘Light Carrier,’ was not yet associated with the Devil and was the hero of the war with God. He wore a huge emerald in his crown, and that emerald, either during the warfare or Lucifer's fall from Heaven, came loose and fell to the earth to become the Grail. In his interpretation of Wolfram, Campbell picks up the idea of the Grail as the Philosophers' Stone,[50] and ties it firmly to the fascinating Lucifer connection:

We don't know who [Kyot] was, but he had supposedly been in Spain, where he got the story from a Moorish alchemist. So there are alchemical themes in this story. His version of the Grail is a stone vessel, which was brought down from heaven. Now what he's doing is imitating the Muslim Kaaba, the stone at Mecca that was brought down from heaven.

The Grail was brought down from heaven by the neutral angels. There's the key. Lucifer, the proudest of the angels, was asked to bow before man as God's highest creation. Formerly God had said, ‘Bow only to me.’ Now He changes the rules and says, ‘Bow to man.’ Lucifer would not bow. The Christian interpretation is that it was pride that kept him from bowing: Lucifer would not bow to man. The Shi'ite Muslim interpretation is that it was love of God: Lucifer couldn't bring himself to bow to anybody but God. So Satan in hell is God's truest worshiper. They say that the great pain of hell is not fire or physical torment, but the loss, forever, of the sight of your beloved, which is God. And what supports Satan in hell? His memory of the voice of his beloved when his beloved said, ‘Be gone.’ This is the Shi'ite version of Lucifer's Fall.

Anyway, there was this war in heaven, and there were some angels who sided with God and others who sided with Lucifer—the pair of opposites. The metaphysical mystery is to go past all opposites. Where you have opposites of good and evil, you are simply in the field of ethics. Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden when they knew the difference between good and evil. Nature knows nothing of that. The neutral angels were neither on God's side nor on Lucifer's side; and Wolfram interprets the name of Parzival as perce a val, the one piercing through the middle of the valley, going between the pair of opposites. This is heresy. We're in the realm of Gnostic traditions right away.[51]

When we thus are concerned with Eastern source material, stones, mountain-tops, the communion of the Grail, swords, the war in Heaven, and Lucifer, the Celtic vision of the Archangel Michael cannot be far from our minds.

Bamford and Marsh recount a tale in which St Patrick emulates the behaviour of the desert eremites or of Christ when tempted in the wilderness by retreating to the summit of the mountain Cruachan Aigle (now Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo) on Saturday of Whitsuntide:

And for forty days and forty nights Patrick fasted in that place, having four stones about him and a stone under him, even as Moses fasted on Mount Sinai when the Law was delivered unto him. For they, Moses and Patrick, were alike in many ways. To both God spoke out of the fire. Six score years was the age of them both. Each was a leader of people. And the burial-place of each is uncertain.

It is interesting that the homilists connect St Patrick rather with Moses than with Christ in this stony wilderness experience, and significant that it takes place atop a mountain.[52]

Mountains figure prominently at the mighty ganglia of the story of Christianity—Mount Zion, the hill in Jerusalem on which Solomon's temple is built; Mount Sinai where Moses receives the Law from God; and Mount Horeb where Elijah has his revelation of the God who is not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, but in the still small voice. The psalmist says in Psalm 121, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,’ and, in Psalm 87, ‘His foundation is in the holy mountains.’ In the New Testament, there is the mountain on which Jesus is tempted; the mount from which the world's greatest sermon is preached; Olivet; and Calvary. And in the passage from Matthew 16 cited above the Church is founded at Caesarea Philippi, beneath the shadow of snow-capped Mount Hermon, in one of the most romantic and holy places in the ancient world, a place surrounded by the memories of the ancient gods of Canaan, a place where men worshipped the gods of Greece, a place around which the memories of the history of Israel gathered, a place where the eye cannot miss the white splendour of the temple where people worship the majesty of Imperial Rome, against the backcloth of the world's religions, the world's history, and the world's power. Six days after his self-disclosure at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to Mount Hermon, and is transfigured before them. The very act of going up onto Mount Hermon is the act of drawing near to God. As Jesus prays atop the holy mountain, the other world intersects with ours as the divine comes down to the human, as the eternal touches the temporal and mortal. And that other world is the ultimate reality, not this one. No wonder that St Michael, ‘Quis ut Deus,’ has his shrines on lofty peaks; no wonder the Celts worshipped on hills and mountains; no wonder that Patrick confronts his devils on Cruachan Aigle and begs and prays in terms apt for the lips of the Archangel Michael:

Saith Patrick, ‘On the day that the twelve thrones shall be on the Mount, when the four rivers of fire shall be around the mountain, and the three households shall be there, to wit, the household of Heaven and the household of Earth and the household of Hell, let me myself be judge over the men of Ireland on that day’.... Saith the angel, ‘All creatures, visible and invisible, including the twelve apostles, besought the Lord, and they have obtained. The Lord said, “There hath not come, and there will not come, after the apostles, a man more admirable, were it not for his hardness.” What thou hast prayed for, thou shalt have. Strike thy bell and fall on thy knees, and there will be a consecration of the folk of Ireland, both living and dead.’[53]

The spirit of the Archangel Michael permeates discussion of the world of the Celts—shrines such as Skellig Michael on precipitous mountain-tops in the cold and wet Celtic desert; early connections with the ancient Eastern world; guardianship of Tuscany, Provence, Normandy, and Cornwall; safe-keeping of wanderers and hermits; motifs of spear, sword, and stone; waging of the war in Heaven and the downfall of Lucifer; the communion of the Grail. St Galgano's sword in the stone on Montesiepi links St Michael to Celtic Tuscany, to Celtic Arthurian legend, and to the Holy Grail, whose shrine is on the Mountain of Salvation, Munsalvaesche, while in the Corpus 41 text [9] links him to King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, to the Ark of the Covenant (the Old Testament vision of the Grail, with which it shares many attributes), and to the ship of Solomon:

In Malory and elsewhere, there are numerous references to the ship of Solomon, the mysterious vessel that carries the questing knights or even the Grail itself to and from the everyday world into the timeless, dimensionless place of the sacred.[54]

The Celtic view of St Michael tends to make him more approachable than the warrior archangel and combatant of Lucifer/Satan, and, even though St Michael was excarnate and non-corporeal, various feathers, swords, and footprints were ‘found’ in ancient Ireland. Apocryphal legendary tradition nevertheless links the archangelic serpent-slayer to St Patrick. Modern Ireland has no snakes, nor ever did have in the post-glacial period when Ireland had become an island separated by water and cold from the mainland of Britain and the Continent of Europe;[55] the absence of snakes in Ireland was noted c. AD 200 by the Roman geographer Solinius. Yet St Patrick is credited in pious legends and credulous Anglo-Norman biographies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with ridding Eireann of serpents. His action is usually taken as a metaphor for his bringing Christianity to Ireland, driving out the pagan religion(s), destroying the serpent symbolism of the Druids (as witness coins minted in Gaul), vanquishing beliefs such as Pelagianism, and so forth, the serpent having been a symbol of evil since the Garden of Eden. The first mention of the legend is found in the ninth-century Book of Armagh or Codex Ar(d)machanus, Dublin, Trinity College MS. 52, which is otherwise known as The Canon of St Patrick; it used to be believed it belonged to St Patrick himself and was in part his autograph, but it is now accepted as the work of the scribe Ferdomnach of Armagh in 807 or 808. The manuscript contains two seventh-century Lives of the saint by Muirchú Maccu Machteni and Tírechán, the earliest surviving versions of St Patrick's Confessio and Epistola, the Liber Angueli in which an angel grants Patrick primatial rights of Armagh, the Gospels, etc.[56] Bamford and Marsh offer a similar account adapted from the Tripartite Life of Patrick and the Lebar Brecc homily on St Patrick.[57]

St Patrick, contending with the angel Victor after the fashion of Jacob wrestling with God, ascends a mountain on the coast near Westport in Co. Mayo known previously as Cruachan Aigle and now as Croagh Patrick on Saturday of Whitsuntide. He fasts in a stony Celtic desert for forty days and forty nights after the manner of Moses and Christ while he is tempted to descend the uncomfortable mountain-peak. Assailed by black birds and poisonous serpents, Patrick defends himself with a bell granted him by God, and ends up throwing the bell at the snakes, who retreat from Ireland. (‘The Black Bell of Saint Patrick’ is on display in the National Museum of Ireland.) Among the motifs of fasting, desert, stones, temptation, and Michael-like contention with serpents one notes the action is on a conical mountain-top. This 2,500-foot Irish Sinai used to be known as ‘Eagle Mountain’ and was the site of a great harvest festival in honour of a pagan god Lug or one called Crom Dubh, ‘The Dark Stooped One.’ When the name of Patrick was imposed on the mount c. 800, the saint's deed was obviously taken to be one of Christianization of an ancient pagan festival, and pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick today take place on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July.

A later version of the story has Patrick standing on a hill in Co. Kerry driving the serpents with a wooden staff into a bottomless pool in the Kerry Hills whence only the Last Trump will release them, or driving them into the sea and away from Eireann forever with the help of St Michael, not Victor. The St Michael connection becomes most explicit in another version when the scene shifts from Croagh Patrick to Skellig Michael:

It is interesting to reflect on the identity of St Michael, the patron saint of Skellig. St Michael, almost always shown killing a ‘dragon’ with a sword, is the Christian saint that carried the souls of the worthy to heaven. Scholars have commented on the similarity between the Celtic notion of the ‘Isles of the Blessed’ where the spirits of deceased persons journeyed to the otherworld and Skellig's later dedication to St Michael. In this regard it is important to mention that a 13th century German source claims that Skellig was the final location of the battle between St Patrick and the venomous snakes and devils that plagued Ireland. With the aid of St Michael, the ‘dragon slayer’ (dragons equal snakes in ancient mythologies), we have a clear indication of old folk memories about the suppression of the pagan ways by the new religion of Christianity.[58]

The logic is obvious and inescapable; if one is fighting serpents atop a precipitous mountain, let that crag be sacred to St Michael and invoke the aid of the greatest devil-fighter of eternity, Michael Militant, as he is seen in the Carmina Gadelica:

O Michael Militant,                                           Spread thy wing
            Thou king of the angels,             Over sea and land,
Shield thy people East and west,
            With the power of thy sword. And shield us from the foe.[59]
Thou Michael the victorious,                                           I make my circuit
I make my circuit under thy shield, In the fellowship of my saint,
Thou Michael of the white steed, On the machair, on the meadow,
And of the bright brilliant blades, On the cold heathery hill;
Conqueror of the dragon, Though I should travel ocean
Be thou at my back, And the hard globe of the world
Thou ranger of the heavens, No harm can e'er befall me
Thou warrior of the King of all, 'Neath the shelter of thy shield;
            O Michael the victorious,             O Michael the victorious,
            My pride and my guide,             Jewel of my heart,
            O Michael the victorious,             O Michael the victorious,
            The glory of mine eye.             God's shepherd thou art.
Be the sacred Three of Glory
Aye at peace with me,
With my horses, with my cattle,
With my woolly sheep in flocks.
With the crops growing in the field
Or ripening in the sheaf,
On the machair, on the moor,
In cole, in heap, or stack.
            Every thing on high or low,
Every furnishing and flock,
Belong to the holy Triune of glory,
And to Michael the victorious.[60]

Esther de Waal shows how, for the Celts, the Archangel Michael was a household or workplace companion and protector. ‘Th[e] awareness of being surrounded by heavenly forces, which began at dawn, continued throughout the day until it was time for sleep. Then they could commend the hours of darkness to God, knowing that saints and angels were here too.

I lie down to-night

With fair Mary and with her Son,

With pure-white Michael,

And with Bride beneath her mantle.[61]

The saints and angels are never remote.

I see angels on clouds

Coming with speech and friendship to us.[62]

The saints are equally familiar. Perhaps because they were down through legend to be able to combine miraculous powers with human foibles, Celtic saints were felt to be more approachable.’[63] So the archangel is invoked for the consecration of seed on Michaelmas (de Waal, p. 51), reaping (53), sheep shearing, and the protection of the flock against evil dogs, foxes, wolves, bears, and birds of prey (56), driving cows and watching over them as they nibble, chew, and munch (57), a prayer of the teats (78), milking cows (82), a chant for even warping (85), an Ash Eve quern blessing of food, drink, and song by Michael, the chief of glancing glaves (90), night prayers for the protection of the soul by the red-white Michael (97, 98), consecration of sleep (100), birth, death, and protection of the soul (117), peace to the soul from the white Michael (118), a death blessing (125), the battle of death (126), journeys (147), protection (160), a rune of the well (192), the cross of the saints and the angels (195), protection from enemies by Michael of the angels (204), and prayers of good wishes (238, 242). De Waal details the observance of Michaelmas in ancient Scotland:

The feast of St Michael, celebrated on 29 September, used to be the most popular and imposing of the year. A cake (‘struan’) was baked made of all the cereals grown on the farm during the year and a lamb killed, representing the fruits of the flocks. Great rituals accompanied the making of the struan. They were made for each individual member of the family or household, uniform in size but irregular in form: three cornered, symbolic of the Trinity, five symbolic of the Trinity with Mary and Joseph added, seven for the mysteries, nine for the archangels, or round as the symbol of eternity. On the morning of the feast everyone went to mass taking their struan to be blessed by the priest and the service became the occasion of thanksgiving for the fruits of the fields and the flocks. Later in the day a procession, on horseback if possible (it was permissible to ‘appropriate’ a horse for the day), would circuit the burying ground, a great crowd starting from the east and following the course of the sun, the people in a column after the priests, singing the song of Michael victorious whose sword is keen to smite and whose arm is strong to save. The day ended with games and races, and with a ball in the evening. But by Alexander Carmichael's time all this had become obsolete. The devotion to St Michael however continued, and not least the concern with his duty of conveying the souls of the good to heaven after the soul has parted from the body and has been weighed.[64]

So all of the Celtic invocations ultimately come to rest in the individual soul's final battle:

Jesus, Thou Son of Mary, I call on Thy name,

And on the name of John the apostle beloved,

And on the names of all the saints in the red domain,

To shield me in the battle to come,

To shield me in the battle to come.


When the mouth shall be closed,

When the eye shall be shut,

When the breath shall cease to rattle,

When the heart shall cease to throb,

When the heart shall cease to throb.


When the Judge shall take the throne,

And when the cause is fully pleaded,

O Jesu, Son of Mary, shield Thou my soul,

O Michael fair, acknowledge my departure.

O Jesu, Son of Mary, shield Thou my soul!
O Michael fair, receive my departure![65]

Since this chapter on Celtic Christianity opened with The Husband's Message, it is fitting to conclude with the Corpus 41 text's praise of St Michael couched in similarly evocative words as we envision those Celtic peregrini pro amore Dei trudging over the machair in all weathers to live as hermits or establish great monastic centres of learning or to take the Word of God to all the Western World:

[22]

Þis is se halʓa heahenʓel Sanctus Michæl ⁊ se æðela noƿend ⁊ se ʓleaƿa frumlida ⁊ se þancƿirðesta stiʓend, se ðe his scip ʓefelleð ⁊ mid heofonlicum ƿælum hit ʓefylleð, þæt is ðonne, mid þam halʓum saulum; ⁊ mid ðy ƿryʓelse ðære ʓod-cundan ʓefillnesse ofer þæs sæs yðe he hit ʓelædeð, þæt is ðanne, ofer ðisses middanʓeardes frecennesse, ⁊ þa haleʓan saula ʓelædeð to þære yðe ðæs heofoncundan lifes.


This is the holy archangel St Michael the glorious ship-master, the skillful pilot and the most renowned sailor, who fills his ship and fills it with heavenly dead, that is, with holy souls; and under the veil of divine fulfilment he guides it over the waves of the ocean, that is, through the dangers of this earthly world, and leads the holy souls to the sea of the heavenly life.


NotesEdit

  1. Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans., Bruce Mitchell, ed. The Battle of Maldon and other Old English Poems. (London: Macmillan & Co.; New York: St Martin's Press, 1965), pp. 44 ff.
  2. Ronald Blythe. Divine Landscapes, op. cit., p. 41.
  3. Helen Waddell. The Wandering Scholars. (Constable, 1952 edition).
  4. Barry Cunliffe. The Celtic World. (New York: St Martin's Press), p. 7.
  5. Cunliffe. The Celtic World, p. 8.
  6. The original meaning of the Greek βάρβαρος was simply ‘non-Athenian,’ in speech and appearance, and therefore, the Athenians being clean-shaven after the Macedonian conquest, ‘bearded.’ Semantic shift has led through Latin barbarus to later, more pejorative signification.
  7. The Celtic World, p. 15.
  8. The Celtic World. p. 20.
  9. The more recent alternate view holds that the Italo-Celtic relationship is not so much etymological as cultural due to contact and trade between the two groups in northern Italy in the early centuries of the Christian era.
  10. The Celtic tongue(s) of Galicia died out 1,000 years ago, Cumbric in 1200, and now Cornish is extinct. Happily, there is a resurgence of the other Celtic languages in the schools and the broadcast media, fuelled only in part by nationalist movements.
  11. Quoted in Cunliffe. The Celtic World. p. 28, from B Tierney, trans. ‘The Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius: Translation of the Texts by Athenaeus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Caesar.’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 60 (1960), pp. 247 ff.
  12. http:/www.ibiblio.org/gaelic/celts.html.
  13. http:/home.newadvent.org/cathen/08116a.htm.
  14. See ‘Celts.’ http://www.celticgrounds.com/chapters/appendix/anct_peoples.htm
  15. The traditional date of 449 taken from Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica is a little late, and a date such as 428 meets more with the approval of modern scholarship.
  16. The site of the Battle of Mons Badonicus is unknown, and estimates of its date extend from in or before 491 to in or after 510. Taliesin names Arthur as the Romano-British leader, but recent scholars suggest Ambrosius Aurelianus. The leader of the South Saxons was probably Aelle of Sussex.
  17. For example, Cutha/Cuthwulf's victory at Biedcanford in 571 or that of Ceawlin and his son Cuthwin at Deorham/Dyrham in 577.
  18. Wikipedia. s.v. ‘Britons.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brython.
  19. Alistair Moffat. Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), p. 17.
  20. http://www.ibiblio.org/gaelic/celts.html.
  21. Geoffrey Ashe. The Discovery of King Arthur. (London: Guild Publishing, 1985), p. 51.
  22. Sir Kenneth Clark. ‘The Skin of our Teeth.’ Civilisation: A Personal View. (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).
  23. Philip Freeman. St Patrick of Ireland. (New York & London: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. xi, 158, 159; italics editorial.
  24. Alan Macquarrie. The Saints of Scotland: Essays in Scottish Church History, AD 450-1093. (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1997). See further Raymond Grant and Tara Gale, review of Martin McNamara, The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 165 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd., 2000) in Review of Biblical Literature (August 2003)http://bookreviews.org/pdf/801_3789.pdf.
  25. Cunliffe. The Celtic World. p. 174.
  26. Nora Chadwick. The Age of the Saints in the Celtic Church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 2.
  27. Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh. Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1987), p. 13.
  28. Bamford and Marsh, pp. 13, 14.
  29. Bamford and Marsh, p. 16.
  30. Bamford and Marsh, p. 17.
  31. Robin Flower. The Irish Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947), p. 42, quoted by Bamford and Marsh. Celtic Christianity, p. 22.
  32. Bamford and Marsh. Celtic Christianity, pp. 11, 13. Quotations are from Isobel Wyatt. ‘Goddess into Saint.’ The Golden Blade. (1963); and WB Yeats. Collected Poems. (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p. 450.
  33. Cunliffe. The Celtic World. pp 175, 176.
  34. Blythe. Divine Landscapes, p. 195.
  35. See William Reeves, ed. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874), 2 vols. The encounter in the River Ness, not the Loch, is in II, xxviii.
  36. Kuno Meyer, trans. Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry. (London: Constable, 1911).
  37. Esther de Waal, ed. The Celtic Vision: Prayers and Blessings from the Outer Hebrides. Selections from the Carmina Gadelica Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by Alexander Carmichael (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 1988, repr. 1990, 1992) pp. 6, 7.
  38. Quoted in Bamford and Marsh. Celtic Christianity, p. 19 from HJ Massingham. The Tree of Life. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1943), p. 37.
  39. MS London, British Library, Cotton Nero D. iv, written at Lindisfarne in honour of St Cuthbert by Eadfrid c. 700, the Gospels in Latin with interlinear Old English gloss by Aldred, who names Ethelwold as the illuminator. See Janet Backhouse. The Lindisfarne Gospels. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981, repr. Oxford and London: Phaidon Press, 1981, 1987, 1991, 1993, 1994).
  40. Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I. (58). This illuminated MS of the Gospels dates from c. 800, and graces the Long Room in the Old Library of Trinity College, Dublin. It is known in Irish as Leabhar Cheanannais, and also sometimes known as the Book of Columba. See Bernard Meehan. The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994) and Carl Nordenfalk. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting: Book Illumination in the British Isles 600–800. (New York: George Braziller, 1977).
  41. A fine stone representation of Jacob's dream adorns the exterior of the west front of Bath Abbey, in memory of a vision in 1495 of Oliver King, Bishop of Exeter, upon his translation to the see of Bath and Wells.
  42. At Scone Palace, near Perth, may be seen the original Boot Hill, where Scots lords and ladies scraped the mud off their boots before entering the coronation chapel.
  43. This usage should be noted in passing—one talks of Kings and Queens of the land of England but of Kings and Queens of the people of the Scots (e.g., Mary, Queen of Scots). The present King of Scots, Francis II, is Duke of Bavaria.
  44. One need not be detained here by tales of the substitution of a replica for the original Stone of Destiny in olden times or in the 1950s.
  45. RS Macalister. Lebor Gabala Erenn. (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1941), quoted in John Matthews. The Grail: A Secret History. (New York: Barron's, 2006), p. 42.
  46. Matthews. The Grail, p. 43.
  47. Joseph Campbell. Transformations of Myth Through Time. (New York & London: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 223.
  48. From Richard Barber. The Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology. (UK: Dorset Press, 1979), pp. 104-105.
  49. Matthews. The Grail, p. 126.
  50. Campbell. Transformations, p. 259.
  51. Campbell. Transformations, pp. 246-247.
  52. Bamford and Marsh. Celtic Christianity, p. 55. The text is composite, adapted from the Tripartite Life of Patrick and the Lebar Brecc homily on St Patrick.
  53. Bamford and Marsh. Celtic Christianity, pp. 57, 58. Text adapted from the Tripartite Life of Patrick and the Lebar Brecc homily on St Patrick.
  54. Matthews. The Grail, p. 102.
  55. George Johnson. On Science. http://txtwriter.com/onscience/Articles/patsnakes.html.
  56. See Ludwig Bieler, ed. and trans. The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10 (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979).
  57. Bamford and Marsh. Celtic Christianity, pp. 54-58.
  58. ‘Sacred Sites: Skellig Michael.’ http://www.sacredsites.com/europe/ireland/skellig_michael.html
  59. de Waal. The Celtic Vision, p. 202, from Carmichael, III, 145-7.
  60. de Waal. The Celtic Vision, pp. 205-206, from Carmichael, I, 209-211.
  61. From Carmichael, I, 81.
  62. From Carmichael, I, 13-9.
  63. de Waal. The Celtic Vision, p. 9.
  64. de Waal. The Celtic Vision, p. 190.
  65. de Waal. The Celtic Vision, p. 126, from Carmichael, I, 113.

BibliographyEdit

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Bamford, Christopher, and William Parker Marsh. Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1987).

Barber, Richard, ed. and trans. The Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology. (UK: Dorset Press, 1979).

Bieler, Ludwig, ed. and trans. The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979).

Blythe, Ronald. Divine Landscapes, op. cit.

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Flower, Robin. The Irish Tradition. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947).

Freeman, Philip. St Patrick of Ireland. (New York & London: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

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