The Fear of God.

Fear and Trembling.

Most historical events are often explained as being politically, economically, and even sexually motivated rather than resorting to divine intervention, as that is hard to prove, since it never happens. Sometimes though, the fear of god is a very real thing, even if god isn’t, and can lend an interesting twist on events. The fear of god, an anxiety in the minds of people over a belief of a delusion of everlasting punishment, can lead to very real consequences, one of which may have been a turning point in the history of the British Isles.

Pistols at Dawn.

Late 7th century Britain and Ireland were home to an interesting dispute, one which has been described as a more spiritual and all round groovy ‘Celtic’ Christianity in conflict with the evil and domineering Roman Christianity. To begin, there was no Celtic Church. The Insular practices were good and catholic, doctrinally speaking, but the organisational structure was somewhat different, and its adherents also had a different way of calculating Easter, but so did everyone in those days. There were several versions of calculating  Easter making the rounds since the 4th century, or earlier, due to the vague dating of the death of a certain carpenter. Sometimes the variance between the Insular calendar and the Victorian or Dionysian calendars was not unbearable, but every once in a while there was a considerable difference. This bubbling conflict was all brought to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The synod found in favour of Rome, which led to the decline of the Insular practices.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England.

Image via Wikipedia

The Breath of God. Only the penitent man will pass.

One of the major contributing factors to the final decision was the influence of Oswiu, king of Northumbria. Northumbria had been converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries, and so followed the Insular practices. One of the more fun reasons put forward for the king’s switching of sides is that he had completed his ritual penance and wanted to perform his manly duties with his lady wife, but could not as she followed the Roman way of doing things, and so was still being pure and chaste for Lent.  There may also have been more nefarious reasons behind the change; one of Oswiu’s sons, Alhfrith, had an eye on the crown, which, since Oswiu was still alive, he could only get his hands on by removing it from his father’s head, which would have probably necessitated the removal of his father’s head from his shoulders. Alhfrith may have been supported by the Roman faction, and he mysteriously disappeared after the synod. So, our first option is that  a randy king decided the fate of the synod, and ultimately the fate of the souls of all the inhabitants of the archipelago. Our second option is that royal backstabbing and familial murder resolved the conflict between the Churches…

Solar Eclipse 1 (26 jan 2009)

Image by a_seph via Flickr

The Word of God. Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.

There might be a Carlsberg option. Recent (which is a relative term in history) research suggests that the fear of god may have been a major contributing factor to the final decision. A celestial event occurred which may have convinced many that the Insular Church did not hold favour with god. By wonderful coincidence, there was a total solar eclipse around the time of the Insular celebration  that year, the track of which left all of Northumbria, southern Scotland, northern Ireland (the adherents to the Insular system), and most importantly, Iona, home of the  Insular faction, in darkness. The south of Ireland and England, and especially York, core of the Roman faction, enjoyed Easter on a nice sunny day (it may have been raining, but the point stands) . The light of god, the very word of god was hidden from the followers of the Insular Easter. This was clearly a sign from on high that the non-Roman system had displeased the powers that be, and that all the people of the islands should follow in the footsteps of Rome.

The Path of God. Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.

Consequently, the leap was made, and Oswiu told all his subjects to change accordingly. Most complied, and the Roman methods of practice spread throughout the north of Britain and Ireland. A certain number of English clerics refused to join the crowd, left England, and set up shop in the west of Ireland, in a place called ‘Maigh Eo’ (plain of the yew tree), or Mayo. But for the rest of the people of the islands, this event has been trumpeted as an  important leap of faith; for the first time they were focused on Rome and Europe, and, in turn, were the focus of Rome. It has been argued by modern spiritualists and ‘Celtic Christians’ that this was a decided shift away from local ‘organic’ faith to international organised religion, the first step to globalisation. Which is nonsense; the Irish Churches had always deferred to Rome on matters of doctrine, and agreed that, basically, the Pope was in charge. And the islands were already ‘globalised’; how else would lapis lazuli from Afghanistan , or red and yellow ochre from the Mediterranean, end up in Ireland, aside from the fact that the Anglo-Saxons themselves traded with the continent, as had the Romano-British before the invasion? The change from Insular to Roman Christianity was actually rather civilised, considering that conversion from one form of Christianity to another often required bloodshed, and a good deal of it. This lack of violence was probably due to the very fact that faith was not in question, simply practice, and while it may have been impossible for the Cathars to renounce their version of Christianity, it seems that it was relatively easy for the Irish, Scots, British, and English to change the date of Easter.

The curious may find the complete evidence for the solar eclipse theory in McCarthy and Breen, ‘Astronomical Observations in the Irish Annals and their Motivation’, Peritia vol.11 (1997).

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3 responses to “The Fear of God.

  1. I don’t see any mention of the pre-“easter”, Eostre (Goddess: roots and origins of the name), nor the passover connection, both of which pre-date the Christian mythology. Could mention Ostern, many of which were celebrated long before the adaptation.

    • I did not mention pre-christian concepts of Easter as they did not fall within the limits of the topic I was inclined to discuss; I simply wished to write about a singular event, which did exist, as you rightly point out, on a continuum of connected religious incongruities, concerning the difficulty the medieval Western Church had with the dating of the single most important celebration in its calendar, due to the discrepancy between the lunar and solar cycles. I found it amusing that a religious controversy, the resolution of which is more often than not popularly ascribed to the libido of Oswiu, may have actually been influenced by what was perceived as ‘divine intervention’, which is, humorously, rare in such debates. Such arguments were more frequently resolved with expressions of material power, money, or violence. To that end, the discussion of the origins of Easter, its pagan and Jewish elements, and the ‘spin’ Christians put on it, would have been a lengthy digression with very little relevance to the case under examination. The circumstances of Easter may, however, find itself as a full post in the future, rather than a passing excursion lost within this particular issue.

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