Superstition in the Dark Ages

It’s Friday the 13thAlthough we have left a lot of our superstitions behind in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still many people who will not be travelling today (or doing all sorts of other things), simply because of the date.

Which got me to thinking: would the people of 7th Century Britain be superstitious about this day, too? And if not, why not? What might they have been superstitious about that we are not?

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First of all, let’s start with a definition. Google the word and you will find a couple of definitions:

  • excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.
  • a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

I have written before about how differently people in 7th century Britain saw the world, compared to us. For them there was no separation between the religious and the secular. Everything related to God (or the gods) and everything you saw, especially in nature, had a deeper meaning beyond itself. It’s very hard for us to enter into this mindset, almost impossible, but not completely. It means turning off your rational, scientific brain, which is hard for us to do. But seeing as there are plenty of superstitions that still survive today, including the one about Friday the 13th, it’s not impossible for us, it seems!

So in one sense, the 7th century people of Britain were superstitious about everything. But it is interesting to dig into the research and find out some specific things that they may or may not have been superstitious about. Here’s just a few for you to ponder on this Friday the 13th:

Friday the 13th – funnily enough, although the people of 7th century had plenty of superstitions, this particular one was not one of them.  People became superstitious about this day as being one in which bad things might happen because it combined two things that people were superstitious about: Fridays in general, and the number thirteen. In Christian history Friday was seen as a day in which bad things happen because Christ was crucified on a Friday (paradoxically called Good Friday, because of the results of that crucifixion was salvation being made available to all, which is a Good Thing). The number thirteen was an unlucky number because there were thirteen people at the Last Supper (Jesus, plus the 12 disciples, and the “13th man” is generally said to be Judas). However, it seems that neither of these superstitions were evident before the 13th century. So, our seventh century friends were not too concerned about Friday the 13th. And realistically speaking, they weren’t too concerned about what the exact date was in general. Calendars were more for monks (or the pagan priests) than for ordinary people. The monks kept track of the feast days and the high holy days of the year, especially Easter. In the pagan world, the Druids and the pagan Saxon priests would certainly pay attention to, and track, the Solstices. But having to know the exact date of other, ordinary days, were not too important to the general population.

Black cats – this one is a little more tricky, but in general, in the 7th century in Britain, black cats would not have been seen as unlucky, or as witches’ companions or consorts of the devil. Those ideas again come from a later time period, specifically from the time the Pilgrims arrived in America in the 17th century. Therefore the idea of the black cat being unlucky is far more prevalent in America than in European folklore. In many parts of Britain, black cats were seen as bringing good luck rather than bad (in other words people still had superstitious beliefs about them, but not in a negative sense). The Celts, including the Scots and the Irish, did have a legend surrounding the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe, which was a fairy that shape-shifted into a black cat with a white patch on its chest. This cat was feared because they believed it would steal the soul of a recently dead person before the gods (or God, in the Christian era) could claim it, so they would have special distractions during the wake to keep the cat away before burial, such as leaping and wrestling, catnip, and forbidding fires in the room the body was laid (as we all know cats are attracted to warmth).

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Doyle based this famous Holmes story on the legends of the black dogs common in Britain

Black dogs – the black dog is a much more fearsome being in British folklore than the black cat ever was. Stories of large, black dogs, often with blazing red eyes, are common throughout the British Isles, and more common there than anywhere else. They are often seen as being harbingers of death or even directly harmful to those unlucky enough to encounter one. Due to its prevalence in the British culture stretching back just about as       far as we can track, superstitions about black dogs would definitely have been part of 7th century life.

Knocking on wood (or touching wood) – this is another superstition which goes back a long way. Both the Celts and the Saxons saw trees as sacred objects, and the practicing of knocking or touching wood after good fortune could have been a way to rouse the spirit of the tree to protect someone so that their luck wouldn’t turn, or to scare away evil spirits which might come around seeking to reverse your good fortune. Add to this the reverence for the cross of Christ and you can see why this particular phrase and action got so embedded in western culture that it has survived even to this day. However….there are some researchers that scoff at this explanation and trace the practice back to a 19th- century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood”, which was a type of tag where a player was “safe” if they touched some piece of wood or tree. So I’ll let you decide on that one!

To wrap up, I thought I’d leave you with something from Bald’s Leechbook, which is a medical text that comes to us from the Early Medieval period. In a previous post I explained that this is a compilation of many remedies for all sorts of injuries and diseases, most of which comes from the medical knowledge handed down from the Greeks and Romans. But there is one section which contains a lot of strange and wonderful “cures”, many of which are very superstitious sounding indeed.

Here’s an example:

Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.

Ok. First of all, what exactly is “elf-disease”? The Anglo-Saxons believed in elves, and that they interfered with humanity with often malevolent results. Sudden pains in the body were seen as being the result of elf-shot; in other words, that an elf has shot you with an arrow. So conditions such as arthritis or even growing pains could have been explained that way. There are remedies for being elf-shot in the Leechbook. So, perhaps elf-disease is something similar? Who knows?

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Some historians believe that finding obsidian arrow heads (like this one, made into a necklace) left behind from the ancient people who populated the British Isles was the origin of the idea of “elf-shot”. Photo from wikicommons

I suppose that is exactly the point. While the medical practitioners of the day knew quite a bit about wounds, infections, broken bones, and things like childbirth, etc, they didn’t know about germs and what might cause something like cholera or even the plague. So some vague sickness that had no obvious external cause would have been a mystery to them. So, elf-disease was as good as an explanation as any, right?

All the rigmarole about the plants and the masses and the prayers and the holy water speaks to the desperation of the patient and the physician alike to “do something” to fix someone when they are ill. According to the Christian faith, we are called to pray for those who are sick, and in some instances anoint with oil. The other practices detailed above were definitely not mentioned in Scripture. So where did they come from?

Somehow simply praying for someone doesn’t seem enough, especially if you contrast that with the magical charms and rituals that the pagan culture around you would have been using when faced with mysterious illnesses. So to avoid the people turning to those more pagan remedies, the monks and other Christian healers would have felt much more comfortable with adding these more Christian practices to their healing repertoires when simply praying for someone didn’t seem as spectacular in comparison.

We all know the power of the placebo…and while that connection would not have been immediately understood by the healers of the time they may have seen times when these types of “cures” actually worked, either through the patient believing they were going to work or just simply the body fighting off whatever was ailing it, and so these practices became worthy of inclusion in the Leechbook.

Superstition? Yes, of course. But you can understand where they come from, when you live in a world where terrifying things happen that have no logical cause that they could see.

I hope you have a great day today, Friday the 13th and all! I’d wish you good luck, but that would be superstitious….

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St. Brigid of Kildare

There are some really interesting women whose names come down to us through history from the Dark Ages, and Brigid is one of them. Born in 451 AD in the north of Ireland, in County Lough, she,  along with Patrick and Columba, is one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is also known as Brigit or Bride (pronounced more like breed than bride).

As is the case with many of the people whose stories come to us from this period, caveats abound in the recounting of their stories, and in Brigid’s case, there are more caveats than most.

The biggest caveat is that there is some controversy as to whether she even existed at all. She shares a name with an important goddess of the Celtic pagans who lived in what is now known as Ireland. This goddess was associated with healing, smith-craft, and fertility; some of these are also associated with St. Brigid, in terms of the miracles attributed to her. Some suggest that the Celtic god Brigid was Christianized into the Saint we know as Brigid. It is true that the Christian church did appropriate pagan sites for their churches, and superimposed their own religious festivals on top of the existing pagan ones. So it is possible that some of that has gone on in the stories that come down to us about Brigid.

However, I tend to think that she was a real person, and although some of her story might be mixed up with the pagan god Brigid I am going to proceed under the assumption that she did, indeed, exist.

The main details of her life come to us from a few sources, mainly hagiographies*. The earliest of which was written around 625 AD, about a hundred years after Brigid died in 525 AD, by St. Broccan Cloen (said to be the nephew of St. Patrick).  Another was penned in the 8th century by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare. There are a couple of others, referred to in a forward added to Cloen’s biography, by an Irish bishop in the 8th century.

It is worth noting, on the question of whether or not Brigid was a real person, that scholars have found eleven people mentioned in her biographies who are independently verified in other sources. So that lends a little veracity to the story of her life included in her biographies.

Brigid, by all accounts, was born a slave. She was the daughter of the Pict Brocca, a Christian, who was the servant to Brigid’s father, Dubthach, a pagan chieftain of county Leinster. It seems that Dubthach’s wife was not too impressed when Brocca became pregnant, and forced him to sell her (and her unborn child) to a druid. There are various stories of miracles surrounding Brigid as a child, including that she was unable to eat the food provided by the druid (because of its unclean nature, one presumes) and a white cow with red ears appeared to provide for her (in milk and cheese) instead.

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St. Brigid’s Cross. Tradition says that she was tending to a pagan chieftain (perhaps her father) on his deathbed, and she picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving them into a cross in order to explain the Christian gospel to him. He was so enamoured of her words he accepted the faith and was baptized before he died. Traditionally, every year on the eve of her feast day (Feb. 1) Irish Catholics will weave a cross and put it up on the inside of their house, over the door. Image from Blarney.com

She was returned to her father at around the age of ten as a household servant, and impressed all by her acts of charity. However her father wasn’t too pleased, as being a servant Brigid had no property to speak of, and so the items she gave away to the poor were in fact his. The final straw came when he got fed up and tried to sell her (or in some stories, marry her) to the king of Leinster and while they were negotiating the deal, Brigid tried to give away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a leper. The king recognized Brigid’s holiness and persuaded her father to grant her freedom, that she might become a nun.

Around 480 AD, when Brigid was around thirty, she built an oratory (place of prayer) at  Kildare. This name is Anglicized from the Celtic, Cill Dara, “church of the oak”. This is because the it was established on the site of an older, Celtic druidic shrine, which featured a large oak tree, sacred to the Celts.

It’s fascinating to see the intersection of pagan and Christian beliefs, and how the  Celtic Christians attempted to not just eradicate the old ways, but to fold them into the new beliefs. It seems that along with the sacred oak, pagan women would tend to an eternal flame at this site, the goddess Brigid being associated with smith craft, which took fire, of course.

Brigid the Abbess did not quench this flame, but instead had a group of her young nuns tend it, after being consecrated to Christ, one assumes (some stories say this started after her death, in honour of her). Amazingly, this flame was kept burning until the 1200s, when it was put out by the Archbishop of Dublin, due to his fears that it fostered superstition.

The small oratory soon expanded. The Celtic Christians were unique in that they allowed for women and men to serve in monasteries together (although in separate buildings) and the monastery at Kildare was the first of these in Ireland, presided over by Brigid as Abbess, who appointed the hermit Conleth to co-rule with her (and presumably take care of the monks). Kildare thus became the first organized centre of spirituality for women in Ireland.

Kildare quickly became an important centre for religion and learning, which drew students not only from Ireland but from all across Europe. Brigid is credited with founding a school of metal-working and art on the site, and although the illuminated manuscript produced there, known as the Book of Kildare, disappeared during the Reformation (grrr) by all accounts it was exceedingly beautiful. The church itself was also said to be very beautiful and lavishly decorated with embroidered tapestries and pictures, and featuring elaborately carved windows and doors.

Brigid did not just rest on her laurels at Kildare, however. She travelled extensively through Ireland, founding many churches. It is said that she had a great friendship with St. Patrick, who was her contemporary.

She died at Kildare in 525 AD. Tradition says she died on February 1st, which became her feast day. That may or may not be true, I’m a little suspicious about that. Simply because February 1st is also Imbolc, the pagan festival celebrating spring. Possibly this is one of those times when the Church added a Saint to a pagan festival to Christianize it.

No matter what the actual date was, it is said that as she lay dying, she was given the last rites by a priest named Ninnidh, and  that afterwards, he encased his hand in metal, so as to never again touch anything with the hand that had touched Brigid, becoming known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand.” The patron saint of all those who swear never to wash their hands again after touching someone famous, I suppose!

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This is the cathedral at Kildare today, a restoration of the medieval buildings destroyed during the Reformation. Brigid’s original buildings would of course been made out of wood, or wattle and daub. Image from Wikipedia

Brigid’s remains were interred at the altar of Kildare, with a costly tomb adorned with jewels and precious stones raised over her. But due to the Viking raids, her relics were taken from there and re-buried in the tomb of Patrick and Columba, which shows the high esteem the people of Ireland had for her. Today, she is known as the “Mary of the Gaels.”

There is a prayer purported to be Brigid’s, which I really like. It’s impossible to say whether or not this does actually come from her, but nevertheless it gives you an idea of either her own perspective or how she was seen by others:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.

I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.**
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.

From Brigid or not, this definitely belongs to the Early Middle Ages, however. The last couple lines comes straight from the mead hall, evoking the scene of the warriors drinking and celebrating after a battle, with the ale flowing liberally. So if that is how an earthly king’s victories is celebrated, how much more should we celebrate the victories of the King of Kings? With a lake of beer, of course, and drinking throughout eternity!

The Celts had a culture in which there was considerable equality between men and  women, and where women were involved in positions of power, even so far as to going to battle and being judges and Queens. It was a much more matriarchal society than those which came from the Greek and Roman tradition. So it’s not surprising that the Celtic Christians incorporated this into their church structures, allowing for double monasteries, and powerful women church leaders like Brigid and Hild of Whitby.

Brigid, by all accounts, was a strong but humble leader, generous and hard-working, devoted to God. She left an indelible impression on Irish society which remains to this day.


* A hagiography is a biography of a saint. In the rest of this post I will use the word “biography”, as it is the more familiar one. But that word gives us the modern connotation of objectivity. A hagiography most certainly was not.  Generally they were not written with an eye for exact historical details, but rather to extol the virtues of that particular saint, who likely was the founder the monastery to which the author belonged. In other words, you have to take these with a grain of salt. There was a lot of “my saint is better than your saint” involved. They are similar to the stories of the kings and other important people that come down to us from this era and earlier ones, except these try to extol spiritual strength, not worldly.  It was more about proving that your “guy” (or gal) was the best – the strongest, the most heroic, the most virtuous, the most whatever. It’s not to say that these don’t have any nuggets of historical truth in them, though. You just have to sift through some of the flowery details to find them. 🙂

**The three Marys appear in Scripture and in church tradition, referring to the three Marys at the crucifixion and/or the three Marys at the resurrection.  Mary was a common name at the time, and so in Scripture you find Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Madgelene; Mary of Bethany; Mary, mother of James the Less; Mary of Cleopas; Mary, mother of John Mark; and Mary of Rome. Some of these may be the same person.

Featured image is from St. Brigid’s Parish, Gisbourne, and is an icon of Brigid. I like that she is holding the flame!

A Celtic Christmas Blessing

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.

May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within. 
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire, 
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it. 
And may light shine out of the two eyes of you, 
like a candle set in the window of a house, 
bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.
And may the blessing of the rain be on you, 
may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines, 
and sometimes a star. 
And may the blessing of the earth be on you, 
soft under your feet as you pass along the roads, 
soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day; 
and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it. 
May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to God. 
And now may the Lord bless you, and bless you kindly.

Amen.

Merry Christmas, everyone!