Tag Archives: God

Saint Brigit, Jedi Master.

Bridget (given name)

The 'safe' version of Saint Brigit of Kildare (Image via Wikipedia)

The saint we all know and love.

Like any good scholar when confronted with new evidence, I must correct an earlier statement: Saint Brigit was probably a historical figure, but this cannot be proven to any convincing degree. After a certain fashion, however, the physical existence of Brigit is not really very important; what is significant is the enduring power and influence of this figure. A symbol of charity, harmony with nature, and general humility, Brigit is a humble saint, we are taught, in contrast to the arrogant nobleman Colum Cille, or the pagan-punching Patrick. She is a synthesis of Christian and pagan ideals, embodying the feminine, in tune with nature, doing God’s work, helping the poor, curing the sick, milking cows more often then they should be milked, making puddles of water magically appear, making ducks swim in different directions, taming foxes, and oh my god is anyone else bored yet? She is the dullest saint ever. At least, that’s what I was led to believe when I was growing up, a belief which lasted until about a year ago. And then I studied the earliest texts about her, three ‘Lives of Brigit’ from the seventh to the ninth century, from the very dawn of Christian Ireland. And I learned something new; I learned that Brigit was awesome.

They didn’t teach us this in school…

Brigit has huge volumes of miracles to her credit, most of which are, in fairness, bland. And for some strange reason, these tedious miracles are her most famous deeds. For those who wish to delve deeper into the story of this saint, a treat lies in store; tales of death and murder, of curiously practical kings, magically disappearing f0etuses, and gore. A surprising amount of gore. Not ‘Evil Dead’ levels of gore, but close enough; this was the Middle Ages after all, and these are religious texts, and however amazing the Irish saints were, there wasn’t one who held a candle to Ash… Anyway. Here follows a brief selection of Brigit’s more exciting and interesting miracles.

The Tale of the The Clever King.

Once upon a time Brigit’s father, Dubthach, asked her to go to the king of the Laigin (roughly modern-day Leinster) to ask that he be given permanent ownership of a sword that he had only been allowed to borrow. On her way to the king, Brigit is met by a servant who begs her to secure his release from the service of the king. When she asks the king for these things, he is curious as to what Brigit can offer in return. Swords weren’t cheap. Humans were though, especially the male kind. Anyway, Brigit promises to give the king the most amazing gifts her God has on offer: eternal life and that his descendent will be kings forever. The king is a practical man, and responds that he has no need for a  life he cannot see, and that he has no concern for those who succeed him, he wishes only that he has a long life, and that he will be eternally victorious in battle. Brigit says “Fair enough”, grants these gifts, and the king concedes to her request. The next time that he was about to enter into battle, the king tells his men to pray to the saint. Brigit appears on the battlefield before them, and they successfully rout the enemy. And by ‘rout’ I mean ‘probably killed so many of them that the living were so terrified of dying that they ran away’. The king won thirty battles, waged nine victorious campaigns in Britain, and was offered rewards by many other kings to fight on their side as he was invincible. Upon his death, the Uí Néill, the eternal enemies of his family, decide to collect all their warriors together with the intention of wreaking revenge on the Laigin. As this huge force gathers, the Laigin become desperate; one of them suggests that maybe the gift of victory is still present in the dead king. So they lash his body to a chariot and ride into a desperate attack against a superior force. And they win. They tie a dead man to a chariot, the enemy are defeated, and the Laigin praise Brigit. I think it was more a case of the Uí Néill were utterly freaked out by an opposing force that was willing to be led into battle by a dead man.

Visions of Death.

A Man of Death: Sláine Mac Roth (by Simon Bisley)

The king of Tara, Conall, approaches Brigit for a blessing to aid him in killing his enemies. He wants her divine help to kill people, he clearly hasn’t understood the carpenter’s message. He and his companions are wearing sinister amulets, and are compelled to complete this murderous deed. Brigit blesses them, praying that they are neither harmed nor do harm. The men continue on to the lands of the Cruthin (north-eastern Ireland), burn a fort, and apparently slaughter many people, before returning home with the heads of their enemies, covered in gore and blood, to a joyous welcome. I’d like to point out that the text specifically refers to ‘gore’. Gore. That means ‘bits of people’, not just blood. This wasn’t some simple sword through the heart, these guys went ‘American Psycho’ on their enemies. Or at least they thought they did… The next morning they awake and find no heads at their feet, and no gore or blood on their weapons and clothes. Conall dispatches emissaries to the fort, who report back that the people still live. Conall and his men lay down their amulets, obviously freaked out by this mind-trick, and Brigit promises that she will protect him from all danger from that point onward. This boon comes in quite handy when Conall invades another territory, where he inflicts a great slaughter, before taking rest at an abandoned fort. His companions fear a reprisal, but Conall places his faith in Brigit. That night his enemies send spies to investigate the fort, but they see only clerics examining books, not warriors with the heads of their enemies at their feet, so the vengeance-seeking army heads off on its merry way. Learning of this, Conall gave thanks to Brigit and God. It would appear that Brigit’s only objection to Conall’s invasions of rival territories was that he did so under some pagan symbol, the sinister amulets. Once he accepted Brigit’s God he is free to attack his enemies without fear of harm. I’m not sure why, but that doesn’t sound very Christian of her. But what I find most amazing is how Brigit made the men hallucinate hacking other people to bits. It’s a good thing they didn’t meet Colum Cille; the people who didn’t do as he said tended to become very dead very quickly.

Execution Interrupted.

Brigit travels to a certain king in the Midlands to secure the release of a man from prison, but the king refuses, stating that the man will be executed that very day. Brigit manages to convince the king to stay the execution for one more day, but some of the king’s company, guessing that the saint has a trick up her sleeve, plan to kill him that very night. The prisoner has a vision of Brigit while he sleeps, which tells him to call out the saint’s name repeatedly while he is being dragged to his death, and, when the chain is removed from his neck, to turn to the right where he will see her waiting in a doorway. Once again, an illusory death occurs; the men think that they hack (hack, not cut cleanly, hack with repeated blows through flesh and sinew and bone and… well… gore) the man’s head off, but he had in fact escaped with Brigit. The following day no head or gore was to be seen, and when Brigit asked the king to free the man, he realised what she had accomplished, and he said “Absolutely”. Let’s face it, if Brigit could make you believe that you had just seen a man beheaded, she could make you believe anything, and you wouldn’t mess with somebody like that. She could easily convince you that, no, those are not the droids you are looking for…

More Wicked Men, and, surprise surprise, more gore.

While on one of her many travels, Brigit once again runs into a group of men wearing diabolical amulets intent on murder who also request her blessing. She asks that in return for her blessing that they lift a heavy load for her; they agree to do this,  so long as she holds their amulets while they bear the load, as the they are forbidden to let the amulets fall to the ground. The saint makes the sign of the cross over the amulets while they work, and then the men go on their way, with the aim of killing a certain man. They find this fortunate man, and are led to believe that they behead him, but he is left unharmed. Once they realise what Brigit has done they abandon their amulets. In another tale, Brigit, yet again, meets nine very wicked men in “a peculiar guise required by a godless and diabolical superstition” who plan to commit murder and bloodshed before the end of the following month. Brigit implores the men to abandon their sinful ways. The men refuse her, and continue on their wicked task, yet, through another illusion miracle, the men are led to believe that they (quite brutally) kill their objective, when he in fact goes unscathed. Once these would-be murders realise what has transpired they are converted to Christians and live happily ever after. Or suffer from post-traumatic stress. The text isn’t clear on the issue, but they believed that they hacked a man to bits, and then found out that they hadn’t, I know I’d be pretty stressed. And I’d probably be questioning the very nature of reality…

Now you see it, now you Don’t.

If a virgin had become pregnant, Brigit had a neat trick which would ensure that the girl was “restored to health”. The early Irish seem to have had an odd notion of what the term  ‘health’ implied, since this basically meant that “Brigit made the foetus go away”. The saint blessed a woman who had become pregnant, and she is “healed” such that her pregnancy disappears, and she is restored to virginity. No harm, no foul, no baby. I know it’s not technically an abortion, but it kinda is an abortion. Brigit, a widely venerated Christian saint, was clearly pro-choice. Which is probably why the Church doesn’t broadcast this story on her holy day…

Which Brings us to the heart of the matter…

Are you wondering yet why you have never heard of these amazing tales, but know Brigit only as some kind of innocent and chaste Mary of the Irish? Most saints led very interesting lives, full of sex and violence, and deeds that would seem to be at odds with the Christian message of many of today’s Churches. The Catholic Church appears to glide over some of the rougher edges of its saints, popularising a Photoshop-perfect version, and disseminating either bland sanitised saints, or lamentably propagandised ones, for public consumption. The  historical figure is lost in the myth; the majesty of a tiger cannot be grasped as it paces, neutered, behind bars, it must be seen in context, though this can be dangerous (Brigit may have created illusions of gore, but a tiger will reduce you to gore). It is vital that we seek out the sources of belief, understand them in the context of the society which produced them, and then question the application and interpretation of these texts in the modern world. It is only then that we can see how the memory and deeds of these unwitting figures are abused to an undeserved end.


The three Lives of Brigit from this period are the 7th century ‘Vita Brigitae‘ by Cogitosus,  the anonymous 8th century ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae‘, and the anonymous 9th century Old-Irish ‘Bethu Brigte‘. Translations of these texts may be difficult to find if you don’t have access to an academic library, but here are the references:

Bethu Brigte, Ó hAodha, D. (ed. and trans.) (Dublin, 1978).

Cogitosus, Life of Saint Brigit, in S. Connolly and J.-M. Picard (trans.), ‘Cogitosus’s “Life of St Brigit” Content and Value’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), pp.11-27.

Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae, in Connolly, S. (trans.), ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 119 (1989), pp. 5-49.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with Realising That There is No God.

When I was young I loved reading about the myths and legends of other peoples; I still do. I was enthralled by the pantheons of the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Norse, Irish, Aztec, Egyptians, and pretty much whoever else I could find. I did prefer the European ones, as the gods they believed in were mostly human. Snake gods and monkey gods were fun, but, even in my youth, I found them a bit unbelievable. The gods of the Europeans were clearly kings and queens, warriors and heroes, concepts I could grasp much more easily, and, with the limited understanding of history a child has, might in some fashion be based on real people and events. But, I was told, they were all myths, all made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the world as we now do. Whoever told me that really shouldn’t have…

In my mind, the gods of the Greeks were just as true as the god of the Christians; they each had complicated histories, heroes and monsters, heaven and hell. In my mind, it was simply that one religion had replaced the other in a contest of popularity, aided by men with pointy bits of steel. I never understood why one was relegated to fantasy while the other was regarded as reality. I was told it was because Hercules and Achilles were not real people, but Jesus and Moses were actual historical figures who lived and breathed, and wandered around a lot. I put aside the myths and became more interested in the Bible because its stories were real, apparently. ‘Why then are there no dinosaurs in the Bible; if it’s true they should be in there somewhere?’ The answer I received was adequate; the old parts of the Bible are made up because when people started writing it they hadn’t discovered dinosaurs yet, and they didn’t know how life began, but the stories are still important. Which appeased me somewhat at the time; I could see how the Bible began like any good polytheist myth, but then, as time moved on it became more real; Greeks, Persians, and Romans started popping up and having wars and such, the places mentioned could be easily found on a map, and people were still fighting in the region, which made the newer bits of the book far more true in my mind.

I should point out that the nation in which I grew up was almost exclusively Catholic, the schools were run by the Church, and the Church had a dominant role in society (things have change somewhat since then, but the Church still wields a great deal of power). A priest used to come to my primary school on a regular basis and quiz us; we learned loads of prayers (which I have long since forgotten), parables from the Bible, and all kinds of other nonsense. I vaguely remember being afraid at my First Confession that I wouldn’t remember all the prayers and curious incantations, which would lead to the priest getting angry at me, and then I’d have to say lots and lots of prayers. I don’t recall ever being afraid of god, just of priests; they were weird and always smelled funny (I later figured out the smell to be incense and sweat). I remember that when we were supposed to say our prayers silently I used to think about other things, and wondered if the other kids were doing the same. I’ve often wondered how many people actually pray when they bow their heads in silence.

By the time Confirmation came around (another of Catholicism’s strange rites of passage) I had serious doubts about the whole Bible thing. Not god so much, I was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt. I had become very interested in physics and history, and these disciplines, while not questioning Christianity outright, were certainly showing me an alternative perspective. Reading about evolution or the Big Bang, no mention of god was made, just of natural selection and elementary particles. Mathematically defined forces had drawn the universe, not some benign deity, and natural selection had led, quite randomly, to the improbable existence of us. Where was god in all of this? I was told all things happen “by his hand”, or some such platitude, but that was not satisfactory. Science didn’t seem to need god to explain the universe, so why did religion? And why was it made so empty? I had begun to notice some small inconsistencies in the Bible too; history books on Egypt never mentioned the flight of the Jews, the kingdom of David, which was a mighty and powerful kingdom in the Bible, was barely a blip in the history of the Near East, and Jesus was hardly noticed by the Romans until Christians started becoming a nuisance long after he died. You’d think that these great empires, and all their historians and annalists, would have noticed these apparently important people and events. The Bible was looking more and more like a myth, and not a very good one at that (also, I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ around this time, and if one man could invent such a detailed world, well, it made me think that whoever wrote the Bible just wasn’t trying that hard). The history of the Church was also troublesome; its issues with Copernicus and Galileo, its oppression of reform, its stranglehold on education. This was looking more and more like an organisation that wanted confine the mind rather than liberate it. And who would want to be a part of that? I had not yet given up on the god thing though.

By the time I began secondary I was left with what, I learned later, is called deism. I reckoned that there might well be a god, but that it was beyond us, outside the universe, outside of understanding. So physics and history didn’t apply. I also thought that Jesus was probably a real guy, but more along the lines of Gandhi, a moral leader, rather than the son of god, and that Christianity, on the whole, was no more or less valid than any other mythology from the ancient world. I had move away from Christianity in general, and had begun to investigate Eastern faiths. I imagine many teenagers do this in some fashion or other. I became quite interested in Zen as it didn’t appear to require a belief in the divine; it was rather more an exploration of the self, and it had a far more positive attitude towards this self than Catholicism. Religion never really came up in this stage of the education system in my school; the one teacher who cared was generally regarded by students as an idiot; even other teachers seemed to shy away from her when she began talk of god and Jesus in her life. I had stopped going to Church, or rather being cajoled into going by my mother, except on special occasions (funerals, weddings, Christmas), so religion was having less and less of a real impact on my life, and I was becoming less and less interested in it. I was thoroughly agnostic. And one day something weird happened; some of my classmates and I happened to talking about something religious at lunchtime, and one of the girls in the class looked utterly baffled. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t believe in god, and neither did her parents; she was never expected to believe. To me, this was a revelation. I had never thought of it that way; I had remained agnostic because I thought that I should believe in some kind of divine order, I hadn’t realised that simply not believing was an option available to me. Dispensing with deism, which was not difficult as it is the vaguest possible avenue of belief, in an instant I was intellectually free of this god character and the mass delusion.

My Problem with Your God 6 – The Afterlife

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Image via Wikipedia

I find the whole notion of an afterlife puzzling. We live, and then we die.  Unless, of course, you believe in magic and fairytales, in which case, we might either get a second chance at things, some kind of reward, or even punishment. I do understand the appeal of an ‘afterlife’; it would be nice if all the good deeds we had done in life, great and small, were recognised by some all-knowing judge who smiled upon us benevolently, gave us a pat on the back, said “well done, here, you deserve some bliss”. And, of course, the corollary, that all bad people, and those who had done us wrong in life, are punished. I mean, it’s only fair, right? Life isn’t fair, but the afterlife is? Is that the way it works?

As I understand it, this ‘God’ fellow is the ultimate arbiter of who gets in to the exclusive club known as ‘Heaven’, or of who gets to go on a jolly journey to ‘Hell’. You have to ask then, what are the requirements of entry? I mean, aside from the whole Ten Commandments nonsense, the abstaining from some of the more fun aspects of life, and the general belief in the delusion of a sky-god and his zombie son. If you believe in a heaven you must believe you have a pretty good chance of getting in, otherwise what’s the point? So, are you a paragon of virtue, or the lowest common denominator? Would you join a club that would let someone like you in? I imagine most people who pray weekly in the relevant temple of their faith believe that they will go to heaven; do you think that they all qualify? Do they live up to your rigorous standards? Because everyone can’t get in, that’s part of they system. By the simple fact of not believing in your peculiar delusion the vast majority of people are excluded from your faith’s vision of heaven. And that’s not just those living now; think about all the people who lived and died before some semi-literate desert nomad invented your faith. The vast majority of everyone ever will not go to your heaven, and I reckon quite a good deal of them are better than you. I don’t mean that as a slight against your character, but you are up against the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who are the foundation of Western science, reason, and civilisation), the genius who came up with oral rehydration therapy (which saves millions of children dying from diarrhea  every year), and Norman Borlaug (the guy who saves millions of lives every year by designing better types of wheat). How do you compare? How many civilisations have you defined? How many millions of lives have you saved? Surely, by virtue of their astounding accomplishments, they get to go to Heaven, right? Would you give up your place to someone more worthy? Maybe God would overlook the “believe in me” red-tape, it’s all part of the plan, right?

The whole “God’s plan” thing is worrying too. People who die in accidents, of God-Pythondisease, or other such tragedies, are, in the words of clerics, taken before their time, it’s all part of God’s plan. Plus, as an added bonus, they get to go to heaven directly, because of the suffering and whatnot that they had to endure.That’s nice, comforting. It’s not really a random accident that could happen to any one at any time because Nature and the Universe are our best friends and they would never do anything to hurt us. It might even be that, if the human race is ever wiped out by a gamma ray burst from a star billions of light-years away that died billions of years before God was even invented, some religious person’s last thought will be, “it’s all part of the Plan”. The problem with ‘The Plan’ is very simple; if it’s all part of God’s plan, and you get to go to heaven for playing your little role in the plan, doesn’t everyone get to go to heaven? “Well”, you might be saying to yourself, “that certainly solves the exclusivity problem mentioned above”. Yes, it does, but it also means everyone gets in. Everyone. Including Hitler (yeah, I went there). If you believe in ‘The Plan’, you have to accept that everything is part of it, and that every player is doing God’s Will. And God is Good (I’ve been told this quite often, but remain unconvinced, especially by the use of the copula), so everything he does is good, therefore the plan is good. So bad things might happen for a good reason. If this is so, anyone who did anything evil was really just an instrument of God, and so can’t be blamed for their actions, and if they cannot be blamed, they are free from sin, and get to go to Heaven. Even Stalin. If you believe in ‘The Plan’ you kinda have to accept that you will be sharing Heaven with murderers, rapists, dictators, pedophiles (the Catholic Church lets them in already), and all kinds of other nefarious folk, like the CEOs of banks, boy-bands, and anyone who ever appeared on reality TV.

So. Let’s agree that ‘The Plan’ notion is fundamentally flawed, and that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. I’ll give you, the believer, the benefit of doubt; you are a good and ethical person who happens to wholeheartedly believe in a worryingly transparent fantasy. According to your rules, you get to go to ‘Heaven’ when you die. While there you meet all your dead relatives, friends, and the other cool kids who got passed the bouncer, because they also abided by the rules. After a while of hanging out with the angles and their dull music you wonder where all the good music is. It’s in hell. Ah well, you still have bliss on tap. You look around and your best friend Timmy isn’t among the saved. You ask why and find out he went to hell because he didn’t believe in God. So. Your friend burns for all eternity. While you get bliss. That would really ruin my buzz, if I were you in heaven (but I wouldn’t be in heaven, because it’s not real). Knowing that perfectly decent people suffer for no other reason than they don’t believe in your brand of hysteria would really tarnish the whole good vibe thing that Heaven had going on. How could you (after-)live with yourself? Unless God wipes your memory, which is deceitful, or you are a cruel soulless person, in which case you have to wonder how you got to heaven in the first place, and what kind of sycophant are you? Sorry, that last bit is unfair, believers are not sycophants, that’s the clergy. Believers are chattel.

Orthodox icon of St Edward the Martyr

You get to hang out with people like this forever... Image via Wikipedia

But the problem really is that you already agreed to abandon ‘The Plan’. If God doesn’t run the show, what’s the point of having a God? Okay, fair enough, you can make the case for human agency, but this removes God from being a loving, caring blah blah blah, to a remote and uncaring arbiter who decides what is good and what is evil. Why is he uncaring; well, if he cared he wouldn’t let bad things happen, would he? So, God is a judge; there is no right of appeal, no other avenue open to you. He makes the rules, he enforces them, and he is the king of heaven. I’m sorry, but that’s a dictator. And dictators exist to be overthrown by popular revolt. The Democratic Republic of Heaven would be a nice thing. It’s almost a pity that there is no God to overthrow, or no Heaven to liberate. Anyway, we’ve given up ‘The Plan’, and God is just a judge. Heaven is an exclusive club of pretty much all the most boring people ever. Sure, there are some good ones in there, but let’s face it, hermits, martyrs, the chaste, and the pure can’t really have many interesting anecdotes to pass the time with. And you will have a lot of time to pass, an eternity in fact. I know it’s an old joke, but all the fun people will be in hell, along with all the evil ones, the not-so-bad-but-didn’t-make-the-cut ones, and the actually-wonderful-people-who-didn’t-believe. Which makes heaven seem really unfair and boring.

Centaur & a Lapith in battle

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

It wouldn’t be so bad if religion had just left heaven as an unknowable state of being. They had to go and make it a place, a thing, a kingdom with walls and subjects, of eternal peace, and limited imagination. And that’s just stupid. Even so, an unknowable heaven is only slightly less redundant. You could say “but, you admit, it’s unknowable, you don’t know that it doesn’t exist, you can’t prove its non-existence”. You got me there, that’s a humdinger. I also can’t prove the non-existence of basilisks and centaurs, but just because we can’t prove something magical doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it does. I’ll wait here until you bring me evidence of an afterlife; evidence, mind you, not the collected ramblings desert nomads and delusional parasites, feverish hallucinations, or other such deceptions .

You didn’t exist for millions of years before just recently, and you will cease to exist again quite soon. Enjoy a moral life while you can, because you won’t get a second chance; you’ll just be dead, forever.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam

Temporal Inconsistency.

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth.

I loathe historical anachronism, I really do. My disdain for it rivals that of my hatred for the pseudo-Celtic intellectual defecations which litter the shelves of many a high-street bookshop. It drives me up the wall. My particular disgruntlement concerning anachronism is based around the imposition of values. Sure, I often use modern examples to explain past events, use modern phrases to elucidate ancient concepts, and current events as mirrors to the past, but in a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, if not cynical, fashion. This isn’t academic scholarship, and I would hope that those (very few) who read these little works appreciated the tone and aims of my efforts, but I do my best to refrain from outright anachronism. I do not impose my values on others (though I reserve the right to not approve their inane comments on my tiny corner of the Internet), and I endeavour to not impose my values on the past.

For Example.

I have often heard and seen people balk at the more bloody exploits of the Romans, TV documentaries refer to Imperial conquests as cruel and vicious, and read comparisons of modern American exploits in the Middle East to the grand designs of those pesky centurions from Latinum. Yes, by modern standards the Romans were savage in conquest, cruel in victory, and bloodthirsty in celebration, but, by their standards, that was an exemplary mode of living. A human life was, essentially, worth less; birth and death rates were very high, slavery was ubiquitous, execution was used as a form of military discipline, diseases could strike down the healthy just as easily as the weak, and any number of random events could end a person’s life prematurely, which itself was, more often than not, limited to forty or fifty years. Yes, by modern standards, what the Romans did to large swathes of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East was ethnic cleansing or genocide, but to them, it was business as usual. This may seem callous on my part, to readily dismiss the conquest, execution, and enslavement of tens of thousands, if not millions of people, but, while I do find it reprehensible on a moral level, we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. That was the way the world worked in those days; the Persians, Egyptians, and any other empire you care to mention did the same whenever they conquered a new territory, and don’t think that this was just a pagan eccentricity; there are several lengthy passages in the Bible where the Israelites annihilate several other peoples during the various expansions of their kingdom (under Joshua, and several of his successor judges, an under the kings Saul and David), but that was okay because ‘god said so’. The belief in implausible fantasies has allowed the commission of many fetid acts and gruesome deeds, the results, and repercussions, of which litter history, and are still apparent in the world today.

A Carpenter’s Bias.

Sometimes when I raise this issue, I must suffer the bland retort that Christianity changed all this, what with its Bee Gee charismatics, and general hippy ethos of make love not war. Yes, the early Christians were more keen on spilling their own blood than that of others, but once they realised that Jesus was not coming back, along with the fact that the Romans got on-board with the whole ‘Son of God’ thing, and that there was money to be made, the tune promptly changed. Christ was introduced to many converts by the point of a sword, or, later, the barrel of a gun, and, more recently, and in arguably a more cruel fashion, as a condition of receiving aid and charity. Christians were, and continue to be, just as good at ethnic cleansing and genocide as the pagan Romans (and I think we all know that to be a horribly true fact), and the capturing, selling, and owning of slaves by good and loving Christians only ended relatively recently in the West (though one could easily construct an argument illustrating the West’s economic enslavement of the much of the rest of the world). Society seems to have rather quickly forgotten how near atrocity is to our peaceful lives, such that we can feel safe in passing moral judgment on the past.

All too Human.

Humanism, not Christianity, is what changed the moral standards of the West. The value of a human life was found to be in life, not in the illusory everlasting nonsense of an ‘afterlife’. The drive to end slavery came not from faith (though it did eventually jump on the bandwagon) but from reason, and the greatest atrocities of our times were committed by religious or cultish autocrats. Our moral standards are a recent convention, and as such we can judge the recent past by our standards; we can be baffled by the horrors that man inflicted upon man in any age, but we only have the right to judge those who have lived since the Enlightenment (to varying degrees). It is equivalent to calling Ancient Egyptians idiots for not comprehending atomic theory, or mocking the Aztecs for not inventing the transistor.  The Roman economy was based on conquest and slavery, and their entertainment would make Abu Ghraib seem positively pleasant. The Vikings’ idea of a good time was getting drunk, eating lots, and rape and pillage, and the same was true of many Medieval peoples. These were vile deeds, but they were also vile times; a judgment on the past, admittedly, but someone like you or I, or the vast majority of people, would number among the dead, enslaved, or raped in such a world. But yet we cannot, in academic honesty, judge people who lived before Rousseau, Kant, or Paine, before the rise of Reason, before Enlightenment. They lived in a time of abject faith and mundane cruelty; if anything, they should be pitied.

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.

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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).