The Celtic Cross: A History

I’ve been spending a lot of time here on the blog giving you a detailed look at life in England in the 7th century, from the various classes that make up that society, to the literature they produced, and to important places such as Bamburgh.

Lately I’ve been focussing mainly on one section of that society, that being the Anglo-Saxons. But of course there were other groups of people living on the British Isles at that time, one of the biggest being the Celts.

I’ve touched on their society here and there, mainly in explaining how the Celtic Christianity of the native Britons differed from the Roman Christianity brought to England by Augustine in 597 AD. But I thought I should spend some time here delving into their culture a little bit more deeply.

Much of it is similar to the Anglo-Saxons. Both were warrior cultures, for example. But just as there are some significant differences in how they practiced their religion, there were significant differences in other aspects of their culture as well.

I will explore some of those societal differences in future posts. But to start with,  I wanted to look a little more closely at one of the symbols of the Celtic Church. The Celtic Cross, with its distinctive circle encompassing the cross-beams, has become an iconic representation of Celtic Christianity, and as such, I wanted to give you some background on how this cross became to be used by the Celtic Christians.

Deep breath. There are a whole lot of rabbit trails that one can go merrily along when studying this subject. I am going to give you just a brief overview, but if you are interested I encourage you to do some research yourself.

One of the legends about this unique style of cross was that Saint Patrick combined the Christian cross with the sun cross, a pagan symbol, in order to make Christianity more appealing to the pagan Britons. This theory also surmises that putting the cross on top of the symbol was a way for Patrick to show the superiority of Christ over the pagan sun-god.

The sun cross is a circle divided into four quadrants, and this symbol has been found in religious objects from Bronze Age Europe (and in many other times and cultures as well). In the European context, it is speculated that this symbol represents the wheel of the chariot of the sun god.

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The Fahan Mura Slab is an early form of Irish Celtic Cross. Initially they were merely incised upon a stone slab, and then they got a little more intricate. You can see how the carving here is more bas-relief. This eventually resulted in the free-standing stone crosses that became so prolific across Ireland. Even now, after many centuries of wear and sometimes deliberate destruction, there are at least a couple hundred crosses in various states of repair still standing across Ireland, and there are more in Scotland, Wales and Northumbria.

I think this explanation of the origin of the Celtic cross might be stretching things a bit. First of all, it seems to be a little too speculative. There is a lot of uncertainty about what that “sun cross” really represents, so right there we are treading in murky waters.  I do believe that St. Patrick  presented the new faith using language and symbols (and places) that were familiar to the pagan Celts of Ireland, but to definitively say that he “invented” the Celtic cross in order to aid him in this seems a bit of a stretch.

But I don’t discount that theory completely. I’m not a historian, so there may be compelling evidence out there that I don’t know about which would show me wrong. But until I know of it, I’ll stick with my gut feeling on that.

What I think might be more plausible are a couple of other theories I’ve come across. One being that the circle on the Celtic cross originated from an even earlier symbol of Christianity, the chi-ro. 

Let’s back up a bit. The cross was not the preferred symbol of the early Christians. To them, who lived in the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death. They used other symbols, which are another very fascinating rabbit trail to go down, but I’ll stick to the main point here.

One of those early symbols was the Chi-Ro, which was a stylized combination of the first two Greek letters of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ  – Christos, or “Christ”.

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The Chi-Ro

The Emperor Constantine, after his conversion to Christianity, made his new faith the official state religion in the fourth century, and he was the one who popularized the chi-ro. Christians began to show this symbol with a laurel wreath superimposed on top, to symbolize the resurrection of Christ as the victory over death (the laurel wreath being worn by Emperors and awarded to victors in the Games).

So you can see how this idea of having a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro) with a circle on top could explain a Celtic Cross, once the cross became a popular symbol of the faith (which happened after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the end of public crucifixions).

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A chi-ro carved into the rock in the  catacombs at San Callisto, Rome. One of my favourite memories of Rome is going into the catacombs and seeing the evidence of the early Christians there. They used the catacombs as hiding places from the Roman authorities during the time of persecution in the early years after Christ. Image by Dnalor_1 on Wikicommons

Another theory is a much more practical one. It postulates that the stone crosses were modelled after the earlier, wooden ones, which may have had cross beams supporting the horizontal beams of the cross for strength and stability. The stone carvers wanted to have the same support when making the heavy stone crosses, and so used the stone circle for that end.

It’s impossible to know for sure. Likely there is some truth to all of these theories. But no matter the origins of this unique style of cross, by the seventh century large, intricately carved stone crosses began to become a regular feature of the landscape in Anglo-Saxon England and across what later became known and Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Irish monks who established monasteries began to erect them both at their monasteries and churches but also in public squares. They became teaching tools, with the elaborate carvings a visual representation of important Biblical characters and events.

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This close up shows another feature of many of the Celtic Crosses – that of the notched arms where the two beams meet. Some speculate that this also hearkens back to the original, wooden crosses, which could have been notched right there to allow for the two pieces to be lashed together with a rope. Image from pxhere

They are beautiful to look at now, but would have been even more spectacular to see then, because they originally were painted in bright colours, to draw the eye and attract those who saw them. In a future post I want to examine one of these crosses in more detail, to give you an idea of the intricate work with profound theological significance that adorn them.

The faithful Christians who built them made them to last, and they have certainly done that. But I’m sure even they would be astonished to know that some two thousand years later their work is still on display for all to see and admire, in many cases in the very spots, or very close to it, that they themselves erected them.

 

 

The Carmina Gadelica

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.

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Alexander Carmichael by William Skeoch Cumming – Public Domain, wikicommons

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.

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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.

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Included in the Carmina are these lovely Celtic illustrations, done by Alexander Carmichael’s wife, Mary Frances Macbean. They were adapted from medieval insular manuscripts and stone carvings. This entry is entitled “Thanksgiving”, and the first line is “Thanks to thee, O God, that I have risen today, To the rising of this life itself…”

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.