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.

 

 

 

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Screwtape Letters

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Martin Luther (the opening quote of The Screwtape Letters). 

The Screwtape Letters was originally written as a weekly series in the Anglican periodical, The Guardian, between May and November of 1941. It was compiled into a book and published in 1942.

As the title suggests, the book is a series of letters, written by a Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his hapless nephew and Junior Tempter, Wormwood. Wormwood has been given charge of a man (known only as “the Patient”) and Screwtape writes Wormwood with advice as how best to tempt the man and ensure his damnation. The book presents only Screwtape’s letters, the reader understands Wormwood’s replies and questions from what Screwtape writes.

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

That is, in a nutshell, what the book is about, but, oh, what a book this is. That short summary does it no justice. Like with so many of Lewis’ books, I finished it with  awe at his skill and with a heart full of things to ponder. This is a satirical book, and is certainly very funny at times. Through Screwtape, we see the devils in all their horrid, austere, and selfish greed. Everything is turned upside down in this world. God is called the Enemy, and Hell is portrayed as a huge bureaucracy, with the devils in descending (ascending) levels of importance, culminating in “Our Father Below.” Screwtape is in turn condescending, imperious, demanding, and servile towards his nephew. In one particularly funny passage, his fury at Wormwood’s bungling causes him to inadvertently turn into a giant centipede, and the rest of that letter is finished as a dictation to another devil-scribe, as Screwtape is no longer able to write himself. Hah.

These articles were originally written during WWII, and that conflict appears tangentially as a background to Wormwood’s work in tempting the Patient. There isn’t much “story” here, although in the letters we see the Patient’s first steps into faith, his participation in some war-time duties, his involvement with a group of friends whom Screwtape calls “thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father’s house”, and his relationship with a deeply spiritual woman (“not only a Christian but such a Christian–a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute.”).

But the “story” isn’t really the point. The book is basically a treatise on Christian living, in its upside-down, wryly funny way. In fact, the broad strokes of the Patient’s life allows us to see ourselves in his shoes, as I am sure Lewis intended. The Patient is basically Everyman, and as such we learn a lot from the advice Screwtape gives his nephew on temptation.

Lewis tackles many topics in this book, including:

  • the use of propaganda in turning the Patient from the truth – “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
  • how the Patient’s “idea” of the Church can undermine his faith when he sees the reality of the ordinary people who actually ARE the Church, with all their weaknesses and foibles (“Provided that any of those neighbours [at church] sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”)
  • how day-to-day relationships are the real battleground of faith (“Keep in close touch with our colleague Glubnose who is in charge of the mother, and build up between you in that house a good settled habit of mutual annoyance; daily pinpricks.”)
  • prayer (“In avoiding this situation – the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose.”)
  • the up and down nature of faith (“He [God] wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”)
  • how anxiety over the future can undermine faith (“[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”)
  • the different causes of laughter – Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy, and why each should be either avoided or cultivated in the quest to guide the Patient to Hell. Flippancy is the best, for “It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

There is much more, I took those topics from the first quarter of the book. I hope some of the quotes  wet your whistle for reading all of it.

As I finished the book I was struck by a couple of things. One, I was once again amazed by how Lewis can write so perceptively about the Christian faith. This whole area of temptation can be difficult to write about – the  idea of writing some kind of treatise on what a temptation is and what it isn’t, and how to avoid or resist a temptation, makes me cringe.  You risk coming across as some kind of spiritual know-it-all, high up on a mountaintop above all the other ordinary people. What kind of credibility does any of us have in writing about how to successfully resist temptation?  Basically, you would be writing about failure. And who wants to write about that?

But by putting the topic into the mouth of the devil who is doing the tempting, Lewis manages to write about temptation in a deeply meaningful way, providing us with much rich spiritual contemplation as he does so. It’s a brilliant idea, executed with skill.

Secondly, as I thought about it, it seems to me that these essays would have been very hard to write. To write in the point of view of a devil would have been a nasty exercise all in itself, even if it is meant to be satirical. But there’s an even greater difficulty to overcome. The reason why these letters are so startling and thought-provoking is that they strike so very close to home. Lewis is speaking from personal experience here as he describes the various temptations; we know that because we recognize ourself so easily in the Patient. This willingness of Lewis to explore his own nature and bring up to the light what he found is essential for any good work of art – and it’s so hard to do.

Lewis himself swore he would not do another Screwtape letter once he finished, and he kept to that until 1959, when he published an article in The Saturday Evening Post, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is a treatise on trends in public education. Shades of The Abolition of Man, perhaps? I’m not sure, I didn’t get a chance to re-read it this time, but I will do so this year and review that essay in another post.

In the meantime, as much as I would like to ponder the truths found in The Screwtape Letters a little longer, I’m off to begin the next book in my series. This month I am tackling The Problem of Pain, another one of Lewis’ most popular books. I hope to have it done by the end of August, so I can keep to my schedule of posting an installment of this series at the end of each month.

I leave you with a final quote to ponder, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood of the advisability of a long life for his Patient. It comes towards the end of the book, and it is a perfect example of how the book can be chilling, humourous, and thought-provoking, all at once:

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently He wants some–but only a very few–of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.”

 


 For more reading on Lewis and Screwtape, check out this interesting post on the inspiration for Screwtape, found over at the Pilgrim in Narnia’s blog:

http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2014/01/15/conception/

It’s a Monk’s Life

Religion is what you do with your solitude.”  – Archbishop William Temple

The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.

The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.

Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand – in particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.

There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.

It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.

Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all 150 Psalms plus a Gospel, this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their 4x daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.

In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.

But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hilda, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds and music rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?

I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.

“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.

This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr