We are all in the busy last days before Christmas, so I will not intrude with many words, but I wanted to give you this beautiful Celtic blessing, in appreciation for your faithful support of my feeble offerings here this past year. May God bless you and yours this Christmas with the great Light of love that the Christ Child brings with Him.
In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.
Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.
This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult. As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.
The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?
For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.
For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.
There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.
The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.
The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil, birds that sing psalms, magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days, a huge sleeping whale they mistake for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it, gryphons, crystal pillars floating in the ocean, giants tossing fireballs, sea creatures, and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.
It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.
Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey. There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.
It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.
Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!
Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com
As you all likely know, St. Patrick’s day was celebrated yesterday, so I thought it would be appropriate to delve into his story on the blog today.
St. Patrick was an important person in the history of Ireland, and many know the legends surrounding him – that he brought the Christian faith to Ireland, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, that he explained the Trinity to the people using the three-leaf clover.
But his story involves so much more than these legends, and it is actually a fascinating one which includes a small glimpse into the world of the British Isles in the 5th century.
First, a word about dates. There is nothing conclusive to fix the year of Patrick’s birth or death, so scholars disagree about when exactly he lived, other than that he lived during the latter part of the 5th century.
Interestingly, Patrick himself wrote a memoir of sorts, called the Confessio in Latin, meaning “Confession”. It begins,
My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon, his father was Potius, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.
There are several things to note in this remarkable introduction. First of all, Patrick was not Irish. There are debates about where exactly Bannavem Taburniae is, but most agree it is a Romano-Christian settlement in Britain. His father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest. Despite his disclaimer that he is a “simple country person” it seems that his family was probably a higher class family, by these references to his lineage.
We learn from this, secondly, that there was an established church in Britain, that continued even after the Roman troops were recalled away from Britain in 383 AD to defend the Empire on the continent from the barbarian hordes, never to return. During the Saxon invasions in the mid 5th century this Romano-British church (and the society it thrived in) was gradually eroded, replaced by the Germanic polytheism of the invaders. But the church was not completely destroyed, it was pushed out to the fringes in the west and north and continued to flourish among the Celts who were never really conquered by the Romans nor the Saxons, and it is during this period of relative isolation that the Celtic Church and it’s slightly different practices from Roman Christianity began to develop.
But back to Patrick. As the Roman troops left, lawlessness began to seize the island. Legend says the British warlord, Vortigern, invited some Saxon troops as mercenaries to help keep the peace, a plan that backfired as they liked what they saw and invited many more of their compatriots, triggering the Saxon invasions. And indeed, in the beginning of Patrick’s Confession we see an illustration of the lawlessness that was rampant at the time. The Irish swoop down on the unprotected Roman settlements and carry away many into slavery, 16 year old Patrick amongst them.
There are many other fascinating tidbits of Patrick’s life to be found in the Confession, including how this slave to the Irish eventually escapes and yet later decides to come back to be a missionary amongst them, but I will save that for perhaps another time.
Today I wanted to share with you one of the legacies of St. Patrick that is not often celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day, and that is the lorica (deer’s cry) or Breastplate prayer. There is a whole legend about why Patrick wrote this prayer which space doesn’t permit me to go into here, but if you are intrigued go look it up!
Now, it is possible that this prayer does not originate from St. Patrick himself. Like just about everything that might originate from this time period, it is difficult to say if Patrick himself penned it. There seems to be some agreement that the prayer actually originates from the 8th century, not the 5th. But wherever it comes from, it is a beautiful prayer that once again is a small window into the worldview of the Celtic Christians from so long ago.
Here is the prayer. It is long, so bear with me. I would encourage you to read it slowly, and let the phrases sink in. I will have a few comments at the end.
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.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.
I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
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.
There is much in here that relates both to the pre-Christian beliefs as well as the Celtic Christian worldview. It is in the style of a Druidic incantation, which of course would make sense as the Druids were powerful at the time of Patrick’s mission to Ireland. And you see in there the Celtic Christian’s love of creation (which also relates to their Druidic traditions), with the references to the sun, moon, lightning, wind, etc. And as I mentioned in a previous post, the repetitive phrases you see here are classically Celtic in style.
I also love the glimpse into the world of the author, whether it be Patrick or someone else. Surrounded by pagans, heretics, idolaters, false prophets, poisons, devils, spells of witches and wizards, and even his inward temptations, he seeks God’s protection.
But the heart of the prayer is the “Christ with me” section. Here you see a person who seeks to be surrounded by Christ, to see Jesus in every eye that looks at him, who implores Christ to be with him coming and going. This sense of the nearness of God, who permeates all, is also a classically pre-Enlightenment worldview. After the Enlightenment people tended to think of God being “up there”, in heaven. This way of looking at life as exemplified in the prayer is a very different one.
This is a morning prayer – “I arise today” – meant to be prayed in the morning as the person wakes up and faces the day ahead. Not a bad way to start the day, in my opinion!
So here’s to St. Patrick and his legacy of faith, missionary zeal, and devotion to Christ. He left a great impression on the society of his time, so much so that even all these centuries later we are still talking about him. That, if nothing else, tells me he must have been a most remarkable man.
Featured image: Statue of St. Patrick near Saul, by Albert Bridge, on geograp.ie
One of the delights of writing historical fiction is the fun of trying to get a clear picture in your head of the culture and customs of the time you are writing about as well as the hard facts of what happened and when. Research, in other words. One of the best ways to do this is to read some material written during the time that you are interested in. It really helps you to get a flavour of what the people sounded like and what they thought about the issues of the day.
This is great advice in general to all historical fiction writers, but I quickly learned that the time and place I chose to write about had little of this source material to study. The only surviving literary works from Northumbria in the 7th century comes, in the main, from the monasteries. There is correspondence of a sort between monasteries, but mainly concerned with religious matters of one sort or another. There are works such as Bede’s, and other educational treatises on religious, scientific, or philosophic matters; or others detailing the lives of Kings and Saints, but nothing in the way of material written by ordinary people cataloguing their ordinary lives. The people outside of the monasteries, were, for the most part, illiterate, and so trying to understand the ordinary person’s life in Britain in the 7th century can be somewhat of a challenge.
But the fact that they were illiterate society didn’t mean they lacked knowledge, or even education, of a sort. News was passed orally, along with the traditional stories and poems of the culture. In the Celtic areas of Britain this oral emphasis dovetailed nicely with the Druidic emphasis on the importance of oral knowledge. The people in those areas were used to mesmerizing long pieces of information, whether it be the latest news from Rome or a charm to cure sickness. All these in turn were passed along from one generation to another, and that practice continued even to the nineteenth century.
In the middle of the 1800s, a Scottish exciseman named Alexander Carmichael (a tax man, for lack of a better word), began to realize that many of the oral charms, prayers, songs, and customs of the Scottish Celts were beginning to be lost, and he began to collect them as he travelled throughout Scotland, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, in the course of his work. He eventually published two volumes in 1900, entitled Carmina Gadelica (Songs of the Gaels) but the work was not done and his family and others continued to publish continuing volumes until the last one, which was published in 1971.
There has been some controversy about the Carmina, accusations that Carmichael edited the original material so thoroughly the historical value was lost. The 19th century society in which he was doing his work had little positive opinion of the Scottish Gaels, seeing them as boorish backwater barbarians, for the most part. It is possible that part of the reason Carmichael wrote the Carmina Gadelica was to counteract this prevailing view. And so, in it you will find statements like this:
During his visit to us, Mr Campbell expressed to my wife and to myself his admiration of these and other men with whom we had come in contact. He said that in no other race had he observed so many noble traits and high qualities as in the unlettered, untravelled, unspoiled Highlander.
Okay, a little over the top, right? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and so I don’t treat Carmichael’s work as entirely historically factual but nor do I dismiss it’s contribution to the understanding of the culture and oral history of the Celts. The entire collection is now online, and scholars are now able to examine in detail Carmichael’s notebooks (written in his native Gaelic). Study continues on this important body of work, and I’m sure more revelations will be forthcoming.
All that aside, however, the Carmina is fascinating reading. Many of the entries are presented without comment, but my favourite ones are the ones in which Carmichael added a note about who he got the prayer or charm from, or other background information about the entry, such as this one, which is the opening entry in the first volume:
Old people in the Isles sing this or some other short hymn before prayer. Sometimes the hymn and the prayer are intoned in low tremulous unmeasured cadences like the moving and moaning, the soughing and the sighing, of the ever-murmuring sea on their own wild shores.
They generally retire to a closet, to an outhouse, to the lee of a knoll, or to the shelter of a dell, that they may not be seen nor heard of men. I have known men and women of eighty, ninety, and a hundred years of age continue the practice of their lives in going from one to two miles to the seashore to join their voices with the voicing, of the waves and their praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea.
Isn’t that lovely? He was a native Gaelic speaker, and you can hear the poetry and rhythm of that language coming through in his comments, written originally in Gaelic, but the translation is provided on the online document. The prayer (which apparently was a prayer-before-the-prayer!) that follows was this:
I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need,
Love towards God,
The affection of God,
The smile of God,
The wisdom of God,
The grace of God,
The fear of God,
And the will of God
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven;
Each shade and light,
Each day and night,
Each time in kindness,
Give Thou us Thy Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but reading this brings me a lovely, peaceful feeling. It’s the kind of prayer that you have to say slowly, to savour the words and the images it evokes.
I also love the details which Carmichael gives of the specific person he got the charm or prayer from, as in this case:
This poem was taken down in 1866 from Mary Macrae, Harris. She came from Kintail when young, with Alexander Macrae, whose mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of Macleod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at the leisure and carolled at her work like ‘Forsgag Moire,’ Our Lady’s lark, above her.
The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing, dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae’s old-world ways were abjured and condemned….But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own ‘port-a-bail’, mouth music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available.
This is the prayer she gave Carmichael:
GOD with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without Him,
Nor one ray without Him.
Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.
God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
For ever and for evermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen.
These repetitive sentences are classically Celtic in style. Also classically Celtic is the emphasis on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The symbol of “three” was a powerful one in pagan Celtic times; the legend of St. Patrick explaining the Trinity by showing the people a three-leaved clover is possibly closer to the truth than not.
One of the things you realize immediately when reading the Carmina is how encompassing faith was to the Celtic Christians. They spoke a prayer for everything they did – waking, sleeping, kindling the fire in the morning, smooring the fire at night, walking, milking the cows, shearing the sheep, etc. Their minds and hearts were continually God-ward. For example, here is Carmichael’s entry on the Loom Blessing, along with the first part of the prayer itself:
In the Outer Isles women generally do the weaving, while in the Inner Isles and on the mainland it is usually done by men. In Ulst, when the woman stops weaving on Saturday night she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’, and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom. And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart.
BLESS, O Chief of generous chiefs,
My loom and everything a-near me,
Bless me in my every action,
Make Thou me safe while I live.
From every brownie and fairy woman,
From every evil wish and sorrow,
Help me, O Thou helping Being,
As long as I shall be in the land of the living.
In name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.
It’s hard for us, with our Enlightenment-soaked worldview, to imagine this world, where it was as natural to pray over every part of one’s day as it was to breathe.
Equally fascinating are the charms, incantations and customs that Carmichael recorded that surely had their roots far in the pagan past. For example, here is the explanation of the “Augury of Mary” (in Gaelic, Frith Mhoire):
The ‘frith,’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the ‘frithir,’ augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions.
There are pagan hints in all of this – the first Monday of the quarter, immediately before sunrise, bare feet and head – all of these details would have had a specific meaning to the pagan Celts, which were combined by the Celtic Christians into their faith to give it the unique flavour that coloured these people’s lives.
It is all fascinating stuff. I’m so glad Carmichael took the time to record these tidbits of history before they were gone forever. It’s a small window into a long-distant past, in which we can get a glimpse of these people who lived so very long ago.
I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it? Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?
It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to modern-day rationality. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the mindset of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.
At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?
The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.
So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?
Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.
First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.
This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.
After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!
Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.
Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.
The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.
To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long, my mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.
But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.
Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge
Note: There’s been some new followers to the blog lately (thank you!) and seeing as I am off celebrating thirty years of marriage to my wonderful hubby this week, I thought it might be a good time to repost one of my earlier posts. Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be back with something new next week!
Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places that distance is even smaller – Celtic proverb.
The ancient Celts had a concept of Thin Places, where the veil between the worlds was easily crossed. The Celtic Christians, whose practice of the faith was a delightful mixture of earthy and mystical, eagerly co-opted this idea of their pagan forefathers into one of their own. The Thin Places, in their reckoning, were places where earth and heaven were particularly close together, where the sacred and the mundane were juxtaposed, where one could as likely encounter the King of Heaven striding across a misty dew-soaked field as a roe deer.
The Hill of Tara in Ireland, Glastonbury Tor in England, and St. David’s in Wales are some of those places, sacred to the ancient Celts and ones which became holy to the Celtic Christians as well. All were known as Thin Places before the advent of Christianity in Britain, and after.
What is it about these places that the Celts found compelling? Natural beauty, to be sure, was a factor, but there seems to have been something else that set them apart. Something that awakened the longing that C.S. Lewis described so well many centuries later:
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” (Till We Have Faces).
To the Celtic Christians that longing seemed especially poignant in the Thin Places. The lay of the hills or the misty seascape lodged in their hearts like an arrow, piercing through their everyday concerns and bringing them face to face with Heaven.
I knew I had to have some Thin Places for my characters to stumble across in my historical fantasy trilogy, which is set in Northumbria, 642 AD. It was fun to imagine what function they might have in the books, how my characters would react to them. After all, how does it feel to stumble across one of these places? And would it feel different to a 7th century monk as opposed to a 21st century man?
It’s tempting to think of these places in a pagan sense, as the ancient Celts did, to imagine that the landscape itself is what is eliciting the transcendent effect. In the Christian teachings, though, the Creation is a signpost to the Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The Celtic Christians saw the Thin Places as ones where that glory was particularly accessible. As St. Columbanus (6th century Irish monk) said, “Understand created things if you want to understand the Creator.”
I have tried to infuse this understanding of the Thin Places into my books, which has challenged me to have eyes that see, to look for the evidence of God in all the natural beauty of the Creation. Is there something of God that I can learn from a tree? The breaking waves on the shore? When I start to slow down and notice, I can see that even the steadfast devotion of my dog carries hints of that greater love that never fails us.
This whole idea of Thin Places is just one of those fascinating details that make historical fiction so much fun to read, and to write. I love discovering these little treasures that not only enrich my story world, but my own as well.
photo credit: “Here Sleep Deer” by Stuart Williams, CC via Flickr
Your thoughts? Have you ever encountered a Thin Place? If so, why do you think so? Is there any place for this concept in our understanding of the world today?
“Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
– J.R.R. Tolkein
Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them. These are the Tolkein elves,for the most part, which is not surprising, as his LOTR saga was based on Norse mythology.
The Celts elves were different; usually smaller creatures, living in barrows or in the Otherworld. Brownies, goblins, and sprites and the like were the Celtic “others”, the human-like creatures who lived alongside humans, generally causing some mischief of a greater or lesser fashion. But there were other elf-like creatures among the British Celts, too. The Irish had the aes sidhe, the Welsh, the tylwylth teg. Again, they were not seen to be particularly helpful to mankind, and one had to be careful not to be cursed or tricked by them. After the onset of Christianity, the stories of elves (which comes from the Saxon word ælf) took another twist. They were described as some of the angels who sided with neither Lucifer nor God during Lucifer’s great rebellion, and so were cast down by God not to hell, but to earth. No longer angels, but not demons either; something in-between. And again, because of this ambivalent nature, encounters with them were frought with danger – they were just as likely to curse you as to bless you.
Other non-European civilizations had elf-like beings in their mythologies. One could make an argument that the Arabic jinn could be their equivalent of our elf; a tricksy human-like creature with whom of whom you must be wary, especially when you make bargains with them. Aladdin’s “genie” is of this ilk – the word “genie” is the Anglicized form of jinni. In Latin America we find the duende, a goblin-type creature who either lures people into the woods or helps lost people out of the woods, depending on which tale you hear. In Japan you find the yokai, who can appear in human form, and again, are either malevolent or beneficent.
Interesting, isn’t it, that every culture seems to have stories about these kinds of creatures, the “others” who are like us, but not like us. And in every case they are untrustworthy beings at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
I think the universality of these stories is one reason why elves are so popular in fantasy books and films. Every culture has a mythology which includes these types of beings, and seeing them come to life in a well-told story brings a delicious shiver of familiarity down our spines.
Another reason, from the author’s point of view, is that they are quite fun to write. Anytime you can get a character who is sly, slippery and not to be trusted, you can find all kinds of good story lines. Add a little magic, and the writer has some great elements to make his or her story much more interesting.
The downside is that elves nowadays are seen as a trope – a tired old element of fantasy stories that no one wants to read about any more. Kinda like the grumpy dwarves, the shimmering unicorns, the magician with the pointy hat. Boring. I mean, how can there be anything new to write about in stories of elves?
So, as a writer, you either have to present the tried and true elf in your story and make the story so good that people love to read it anyway, (which is really the goal whether you have elves or any other trope in it or not, but even more so if you do!) or you have to think of a different way to use them in your story.
It’s a fun challenge. I have tried to do that in my books, to come up with a slightly different explanation for the origins of these creatures, to think of a plausible reason for why elf-legends can be found in every culture.
If you want a little teaser….check out “A Sign” , which is a chapter of Wilding, my first book in my Traveller’s Path series. This chapter is the introduction of my main antagonist for the first book, a Pictish nobleman named Nectan, who also happens to be the King of the Seelie Fey…..