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Hallowe’en, Oidhche Shamhna and Romanisation

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By David Rosser-Owen

(Written at the approach of Hallowe’en in October 2010)

The British Isles – all of it, not simply the “Celtic Fringe” – is a profoundly Celtic culture; something that imbues and interpenetrates just about everything within them and that comes from these islands. This is a continuing spiritual dynamic, and is still working. It is, thus, at work now “celticising” whatever has immigrated and settled itself here.

It is profoundly wrong, therefore, that this is downplayed for the sake of perpetuating and furthering the claims of an anachronistic Christian orthodoxy that derives from south European and Mediterranean paganism.

The role of television and the film industry in this should not be underestimated. They have an impact beyond simply those who give their outpourings a credulous authority, in that they mould people’s ideas about how something happened by supplying them with a ready-made visual narrative that intrudes, overlays, and corrupts knowledge that may even have been gained from primary sources.

This is particularly pernicious with the young, who are increasingly, and at a rate unknown to previous generations of youth, taking their knowledge of things from television and the internet without further investigation. Studies have shown that even when they have learned that a thing (which has been acquired from those media) is wrong, the media still have that overlaying pull on that knowledge and its manisfestation.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, indoctrination or brainwashing at work. Whether this is intentional or merely the accidental effect of these media needs investigating by someone competent to do so.

On Saturday night, 9 October 2010, by mistake I watched bits of the BBC1 TV series “Merlin”; something that I had promised myself I wouldn’t do after having sat through several episodes previously with mounting annoyance.

There are several scholarly works on Myrddin (Merlin), 5th-6th Century Britain, and the Arthurian Cycle, in particular The Quest for Merlin and The Coming of the King by Count Nikolai Tolstoy and Adam Ardrey’s Finding Merlin: The Truth behind the Legend which come to slightly different conclusions but nevertheless fairly comprehensively deal with the historical environment and the Celtic mythology.

None of this seems to have had any effect on the authors of the TV screenplays and the producers of the series, which don’t even have too much of a connection with the cycle told by Chrestien de Troyes to the Poitiers court of Duke Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Champagne and which gave rise to the usual picture people have about Arthur, Camelot, and the various figures cited.

This accidental Saturday night experience set me thinking, though.

Myrddin’s antagonist, according to Tolstoy, was my ancestor Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde who was a (Celtic) Christian as was the contemporary figure St Mungo of obscure origin. All the mythology surrounding Mungo comes from the highly coloured and self-serving Roman Catholic hagiography authored by Jocelin of Furness in the late 12th Century. The Wikipedia entry is fairly typical of the sort of thing that passes for authority:

“Saint Mungo is the commonly used name for Saint Kentigern (also known as Cantigernus (Latin) or Cyndeyrn Garthwys (Welsh)). He was the late 6th century apostle of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde in modern Scotland, and patron saint and founder of the city of Glasgow…

In Wales and the southern Brythonic regions of modern England, this saint is known by his birth and baptismal name: commonly Kentigern, more correctly Cyndeyrn. The name means ‘chief prince’. The epithet ‘Garthwys’ is of unknown meaning. In Scotland and the Northern Brythonic areas of modern England, he is called by his pet name of Mungo, derived from Brythonic munghu, meaning ‘dear one’…

The ‘Life of Saint Mungo’ was written by the monastic hagiographer, Jocelin of Furness, in about 1185. Jocelin states that he rewrote the ‘life’ from an earlier Glasgow legend and an old Gaelic document…

Mungo’s mother, Thenaw, also known as St. Thaney, was the daughter of the Brythonic king, Lleuddun (Latin, Leudonus), who ruled in the Haddington region of what is now Scotland, probably the Kingdom of Gododdin in the Old North. She became pregnant, after being seduced by Owain mab Urien according to the British Library manuscript. Her furious father had her thrown from the heights of Traprain Law. Surviving, she was then abandoned in a coracle in which she drifted across the River Forth to Culross in Fife. There Mungo was born.

Mungo was brought up by Saint Serf who was ministering to the Picts in that area. It was Serf who gave him his popular pet-name. At the age of twenty-five, Mungo began his missionary labours on the Clyde, on the site of modern Glasgow. Christianity had been introduced to the region by Saint Ninian and his followers welcomed the saint and procured his consecration by an Irish bishop…”

And much more in the same vein, all deriving from Jocelin’s work.

There is no evidence, other than the propaganda of the Church of Rome that any of these figures was a Roman Catholic and, given what else we know of the area and the chronology, it is highly unlikely they were anything but Celtic Christians: a belief system that was fundamentally at variance with the Church of Rome, that predated it by some three centuries, and which had a theological and liturgical connection to Coptic and Gnostic Egypt.

It was the style of the Church of Rome to eradicate or anathematise local saints, and where that was impossible to absorb them and rewrite them. Perhaps the classic example is St Patrick. As more of the ‘alternative’ biography of this Brythonic saint emerged, it was so at variance with the Catholic one that now we are unsure whether there may not have been two saints of that name (or description – patricius simply means ‘patrician’ in Latin) working in Ireland. As with Patrick, so with Columba, St David, and the rest including Mungo.

As an example of the dodginess – even speciousness – of the authority of scholarly claims take the statement, “Saint Mungo is the commonly used name for Saint Kentigern (also known as Cantigernus (Latin) or Cyndeyrn Garthwys (Welsh))… In Wales and the southern Brythonic regions of modern England, this saint is known by his birth and baptismal name: commonly Kentigern, more correctly Cyndeyrn. The name means ‘chief prince’. The epithet ‘Garthwys’ is of unknown meaning. In Scotland and the Northern Brythonic areas of modern England, he is called by his pet name of Mungo, derived from Brythonic munghu, meaning ‘dear one’”.

Both ‘kentigern’ and ‘mungo’ are descriptions or nicknames not proper names, and ‘cantigernus’ is simply the latinised form of the former. The word ‘munghu’ doesn’t look Brythonic, but it might be.

However, the claim “his birth and baptismal name: commonly Kentigern, more correctly Cyndeyrn” is sheer nonsense. ‘Cyndeyrn’ is the Strathclyde Welsh rendering of the word we know as ‘Kentigern’ which is, simply, the Old Irish Cen Tigerna (modern Gaelic, Ceann Thighearna) “head lord/ruler/prince”. The word ‘Garthwys’ is more likely to conceal the birth name.

What is interesting is the fact that Cen Tigerna is Goidelic, not Latin, Brythonic, or Pictish, and may therefore indicate that Mungo received his Christian education not among the Picts of Fíb (which was the epicentre of the Church of Rome’s activities to take over Celtic Scotland) but either in Ireland or, more likely, further up the coast in Dal Riada whose ruling dynasties were intermarried with the Haels of Strathclyde and, like them, were Celtic Christians.

The capital of Strathclyde was at Dunbarton Rock (Dún Bretan, modern Dùn Bretainn) a bit to the north of modern Glasgow – the river port where St Mungo established his abbey, presumably on land gifted by the king of Strathclyde. It’s likely that the place already had a settlement and trading point.

There was a column in a newspaper written earlier this year that claimed that Christianity was brought to Britain by St Augustine of Canterbury in 595 AD when Pope Gregory I sent him to proselytize the Saxons of Kent. This is a common misconception. Although there were Roman Christians in the east of the country left over from the Empire, St Augustine began the conversion of the Saxons settled in the east of England, not the Celts of the west and it seems to have come as an unpleasant shock to the Roman missionaries when they met Christian communities the further west they went, but which were the wrong kind of Christian.

The chronicler (and Roman Christian) Gildas, clearly upset by the awareness, wrote in De Excidio Britonum (“The Ruination of Britain”) around 540 AD, …donec Arriana perfidia, arox ceu anguis, transmarina nobis evomens venena… ac sic quasi via facta trans oceanum omnes omnino bestiae ferae mortiferum cuiuslibet haereseos virus horrido ore vibrantes… (“until the Arian treason, like a savage snake, vomited its foreign poison upon us… and as though there were a set route across the ocean there came every kind of wild beast, brandishing in their horrid mouths the death-dealing venom of every heresy…” [12:3]).

There actually was, in fact, a via facta trans oceanum (a set route across the ocean). The Celts of the west of the British Isles had an established sea-borne trade with Egypt, the Levant, and the North African littoral that pre-dated the Claudian Invasion in the mid 1st Century AD, as has been established by Professor Emrys Bowen among others, and they were well informed of developments in those parts of the world.

Gildas himself admits, rather grudgingly, this provenance of Celtic Christianity.

Interea glaciali frigore rigenti insulae et velut longiore terrarum secessu soli visibili non proximae verus ille non de firmamento solum temporali sed de summa etiam caelorum arce tempora cuncta excedente universo orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens, tempore, ut scimus, summo Tiberii Caesaris, quo absque ullo impedimento eius propagabatur religio comminata senatu nolente a principe morte delatoribus militum eiusdem, radios suos primum indulget, id est sua praecepta, Christus (“Meanwhile, to an island numb with chill ice and far removed, as in a remote nook of the world, from the visible sun, Christ made a present of his rays – that is, his precepts – Christ the true sun, which shows its dazzling brilliance to the entire earth, not from the temporal firmament merely, but from the highest citadel of heaven, that goes beyond all time. This happened first, as we know, in the last years of the emperor Tiberius, at a time when Christ’s religion was being propagated without hindrance: for, against the wishes of the senate, the emperor threatened the death penalty for informers against the soldiers of God” [8]).

Tiberius was Emperor from 14 AD until 37 AD, when he was murdered by the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Naevius Cordus Sertorius Macro. Christ’s Temptation in the Wildernees, typically used as the beginning of his mission, is conventionally dated at 30 AD, and the Crucifiction as 33 AD. Thus by Gildas’s chronology the Precepts of Christ arrived in the British Isles while he was still teaching in Palestine, or in the four year window between 33 and 37 AD. Tertullian of Carthage, 2nd Century AD commentator and originator of the word trinitas (Trinity), seemingly agrees with this.

The inference to be drawn is that the Christianity followed by the Celts of the West of the Islands was the pristine message.

Thus, when the Mediterranean Roman world was grafting Mithraism and Isisism onto the teachings of Christ that appeared in its definitive form at Nicaea in 325 AD and reached its culmination in the doctrines of the Church of Rome, the pure message was still preserved in the Eileanan Àigh (the Blessed Isles, as they were known to the ancients), and this state continued until some time after Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Hercules and defeated the Romanising Visigothic king Rodrigo at the Battle of the Transductine Promontories in 711 AD.

What sort of theology this was we can guess at from the invective constantly levelled at Celtic Christianity by the Church of Rome, which called it “hebraizing”, “nazarean”, “ebionite”, as well as the usual “arian” and “pelagian”. It would appear that the final demise of this Christianity was with the conquest in the mid-to-late-700s of the High Kingdom of Dal Riada by the Romanised Picts of Fortrenn. When Dal Riada was reborn under Kenneth mac Alpine of obscure origins in the 800s in the Kingdom of the Scots and Picts it too was effectively Romanised.

Nevertheless Celtic ideas and beliefs persisted, and do to this day, all over the islands, to the extent that the Benedictine monk, Dom Louis Gougaud OSB, could write in his seminal work Les chrétientés celtiques (The Celtic Christianities) in 1911 that Pelagianism was in effect the national heresy of the Britons: an observation that is still true.

The Church of Rome tried very hard to stamp these things out, but ironically most success was achieved by the Puritans of Cromwell’s era whose “Mission from God” was to purify the church from Romishness. Rome’s activities didn’t prevent the emergence of Lollardy under John Wyclif in the 14th Century, which effectively made much of Britain protestant some 200 years before King Henry VIII’s break with the Lateran, and which boosted the protestant movement in Europe with the Lollard convert Jan Hus and the Hussites who followed him.

Practically all Celtic beliefs to do with the Unseen have suffered from corrupt write-ups, mostly originating from biased works of Roman monks and later clerics, which the ruling dynasties after the Norman Conquest were quite happy to foster.

The British Civil Wars of the 17th Century ushered in a period of fundamentalist religious bigotry that wasn’t confined to the Puritans. This tragic period produced the notorious Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General (a kind of chief mutawwa), under whose campaigns many people accused of witchcraft were executed. Hopkins is thought to have put more than 300 women to death – more, in fact, that had been executed in the previous century. This Puritan passtime got exported to British North America with the emigrants of their sect.

This obsession can be seen in the screenplays to do with Merlin. The eponymus was probably a druid, and a person of knowledge, enlightenment, and healing. He has now become a wizard or sorcerer, and a purveyor of witchcraft, devilry, and evil.

And it can be seen most clearly in the event that happens at the end of October, and in preparation for which the shops and supermarkets are already laying in pumpkins and various items of clothing familiar from the movies. This is Hallowe’en.

The word itself is a corruption of All Hallows Eve – the night before All Hallows’ Day – ‘hallows’ meaning ‘saints’; hence its alternative name of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on 1st November, that precedes All Souls’ Day on 2 November. It was a blatant hijacking of a Celtic festival and its recruitment to serve the interests of the Christianity of the Church of Rome.

The triskele of the Arms of the Isle of Mannin represents the three connected realms of This World, the Next World, and the World of the Unseen, also called the Other World. The Celts were constantly aware of the proximity of this Other World, and its inhabitants. They had various names for that place, one of which (the sìth, pronounced ‘shee’, which means ‘peace’, ‘reconciliation’, or ‘spiritual’) is quite familiar through a loan word. This is banshee, which in its Gaelic original (ban-sìth) means, according to Edward Dwelly, “Female fairy. It was believed by the Highlanders of old that the wailings of this being were frequently heard before the death of a chieftain. She seldom made an appearance, but when she did, it was in a green mantle with disheveled hair”.

They knew that these beings existed “in phase” with this world of forms, but they didn’t entirely trust them. In fact, throughout their mythologies, and which found its way into the mediaeval fairy tales, the fairies are not portrayed as nice beings. But they could be bought off, or persuaded to go away and leave one alone, by baubles or pretty objects or items of food and drink (especially sweetmeats) or by beating them at a challenge (at which they’ll cheat). There is an odd story from the southern Hebrides called the Tale of the Balieveolan Glassrig that demonstrates these quite well, in which the hero (Sealbhach mac Shealbhaich or Selbach McKelvie) defeats the glassrig by beating her at the stamina needed to row from Gleann Sunndach (Glensanda) to Lios Mór (Lismore).

They knew also that there were certain places and certain times when the veil between that world and this was very thin, and even had breaches in it that formed gateways; and some of these, worryingly, were permanent. Their tales are full of cautions about passing through these, as time there for us is not the same as time here for them.

Such crossover points were typically where there was no clear division between the land and the water, or the land and the air (such as the tops of mountains), or of course the sea and the air, and certain votive sites. These included standing stones, clan or tribal religious centres, omphaloi, burial grounds. Also the equivalent times of day (first and last light, noon, midnight) and certain times of the year that became identified with the four quarter-days (each half of the Celtic year was itself halved), especially the eve of these: the Celtic day began at sunset of the day before, thus the eve preceded the day.

“The Celts honored the opposing balance of intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. The Celtic year was divided into two seasons: the light and the dark, celebrating the light at Beltane on May 1st and the dark at Samhain on November 1st. Therefore, the Feast of Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, since it marked the beginning of a new dark-light cycle. The Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness to light because they understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Therefore, the Celtic year began with the season of An Geamhradh, the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar, the Celtic harvest. The Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth. Since dusk is the beginning of the Celtic day, Samhain begins at dusk on October 31. Samhain marks the beginning of An Geamhradh as well as the New Year.” []

It is heartening to find that one of the best and most appreciative sources on Celtic Spirituality which I quoted from above, is run by a Christian church – the Episcopalian parish church of All Saints at Brookline, Massachusetts. Having been brought up a Scots Presbyterian (with Free Kirk tendencies), and thus a slightly jaundiced opinion of Piskies, this is refreshing. And goes a long way to restoring what was lost through centuries of papist reworking and rewriting.

Samhainn, or Samhuinn, comes from the phrase sam fhuinn, ‘end of summer’. The All Saints’ author doesn’t elucidate, understandably, as it’s unclear how the spirits of one’s ancestors pass through the Other World from the Land of Youth (or the Land Beyond the Ninth Wave), but the Celts believed that they are always around one and communication takes place between them and onself.

“Whereas Beltane was welcomed in the summer light with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of Samhain was at night. Oidhche Shamhna, the Eve of Samhain, was the most important part of the celebration. Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The focus of each village’s festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. (Our word bonfire comes from these “bone fires.”) Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire. Many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come…

The gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, as at all the turning points of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that Oidhche Shamhna was a very holy time, when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were broken and the dead could return to the places where they had lived. Many rituals of Oidhche Shamhna involved providing hospitality for dead ancestors: Celts put out food and drink for the dead with great ceremony, and left their windows, doors, and gates unlocked to give the dead free passage into their homes. Bobbing for apples, another traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach [Emain Aballach], “Paradise of Apples,” where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality. Swarms of spirits poured into our world on November Eve, but not all of these spirits were friendly. Celts carved the images of spirit-guardians onto turnips and set these “jack o’lanterns” before their doors to keep out unwelcome visitors from the Otherworld.”

It’s by no means certain that the Celts were polytheists. They certainly saw manifestations of the divine in many places and things, and gave them appropriate names of which there seems to be a confusing proliferation, but these were avatars – “windows to the face of God” (uinneagan na ghnùis Dhé) – so the statement above (“the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain”) is misleading, and probably wrong. What the author should have said, and which would have accorded with Celtic beliefs, is that the veil between the Spirit World and This World grew thin, or was lifted, at Oidhche Shamhna. And then all this has come down to us through the filter of Celtic Christianity whose divines were often also druids – so what the Church of Rome was reworking had already been “Christianised”.

So, this is the context (when beset with all that stuff in the supermarkets, or the kiddies wanting to do their “trick or treat” business) from which it all comes. It has nothing to do with witchcraft, evil spirits, paganism (as usually understood),… or, of course, American commercialism.

© D Rosser-Owen 2010, 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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