Tag Archives: Iona

Lindisfarne

An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.

Bad History.

I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s very very wrong…

I was recently introduced to a woeful show, ‘Legend Quest’, which appears on a channel called ‘SyFy’, a series purporting to be based in such factual disciplines as history and archaeology. Let’s cut to the chase; it isn’t. This programme is little less than a shallow pool of supposition coupled with annoying camera-work; logic and reason take a back seat as history and archaeology are abused in some bizarre effort to capitalise on Dan Brown’s gimmick of dressing fact with fantasy. Part of the problem might be in that the channel is not what one would call a reputable source of documentary broadcasts, and aside from that, can’t spell ( the contraction derives from Science-Fiction, where have those ys come from? And since when do sci-fi and fantasy belong to the same genre? How can the incomparable Philip K. Dick be dragged on to the same spectrum as George R. R. Martin?). This programme, with its annoying premise blurring fact and fiction, wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t portrayed as a documentary, a factual presentation set in the real world, if we weren’t led to believe that it offers us history, the very meaning of which is not fiction, not fantasy, just facts interpreted logically and reasonably.

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia (Image via Wikipedia)

Identity Theft.

Let’s take a look at some of the mysteries this series claims to have resolved. In the first episode we are treated to a new twist on the legend of the Ark of the Covenant, and a Scotsman doing his best impersonation of Indiana Jones. He heads off with his crew to Ethiopia, which is a good start because the Ethiopian Church claims that they actually have the Ark under guard in Axum. Is this where the show takes us? No. We are instead brought to Lalibela, the second-most holy site in Ethiopia. Here, because the churches are carved out of rock, a feat which the presenter decides the people of the region incapable of, in the shape of crosses, we are told that the structures were cut out by the Templars (did I mention the presenter is a member of the modern Knights Templar?). Wow. I mean, what arrogance to suggest that the Ethiopians could not carve these churches, that they must have had help from more skillful Europeans. And what a leap it is to ‘confirm’ this theory with the moronic deduction that since the churches are in the shape on an equal-armed cross, the symbol of the Templars, they must have been built by that Crusading Order. It must be pointed out that this symbol was the accepted cross of the Orthodox Church for centuries before the Templars appeared on the scene. So, at best, this programme might have suggested that the Ark was in Lalibela for a while before being brought to Axum, and that is all that they could reasonably say. But no, that’s not conspiratorial enough for our intrepid host; the Templars took it from Ethiopia first to Tuscany, and then to the Cathedral of Chartres, which lies near Paris. Because that makes perfect sense.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

The leap to Tuscany is drawn from an image of a double-headed eagle on the walls of the church in Lalibela; this is a common symbol in the Near East, used by, among others, the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks, the Armenians, and the Hitties. I should make it clear that list covers several millennia of use before the Templars ever dreamed of heading off to foreign deserts to kill people for believing in a different interpretation of the same deity. But, what the hell, the presenter decides it must be a Templar symbol. He even meets a Grand Master of the Order who tells him clearly that one must distinguish between the myth and the history of the Templar. A delightfully veiled “cop the hell on”. And then the subject of the conversation leaps to Chartres Cathedral, which makes me want to see the uncut version as the interview we are shown is cut in a curious fashion. At Chartres the presenter finds a carving of the Ark which he takes to be evidence of the Ark’s presence. Yeah, because medieval Christian Churches don’t often have religious imagery from the Bible plastered all over their walls, columns, floors, windows, or every available surface. A scarred slab is ‘discovered’ in the middle of the cathedral, which the team decide must hide the Ark, not even for a moment pausing to ask anyone for the history of the site or architectural details. This slab may have been an entrance to a crypt, the site of an old altar, or any number of things other than a hole in which the Ark was hidden. The line of reasoning is as convincing as a wet sheet of paper is strong. Or, in other terms, slightly more convincing that homeopathy, but only slightly.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland (Image via Wikipedia)

A Sword and a Stone.

In another episode the presenter somehow conflates the legends of the Stone of Destiny with the Stone of Scone. Leaving aside whether or not (just so you know, not) these are the same object, the line of reasoning is again deeply flawed. First we are introduced to a real historian who has studied the Stone of Scone at Edinburgh Castle, and who essentially scoffs at the presenter’s crazy theory. Then we are treated to the crew’s obvious surprise at not being allowed to go in and film in the museum, with the not so subtle hint that the ‘establishment’ is trying to hide something. Really? What kind of professional TV crew, documentary or not, thinks that they can just walk on into a museum without asking for permission in advance? The whole scenario is clearly staged. Later, at Iona (I really do not know how they got to Iona, it makes no sense at all) they wander around the grounds, and move furniture and rugs without ever consulting anyone. There’s even a point where one of the crew asks if it is okay if they move things and the presenter replies, yeah if you do it with respect. What on earth does that mean? I have the sneaking suspicion they didn’t ask for permission this time, and just went ahead and filmed, which would explain why they are always running about breathlessly… They ‘discover’ a stone under the floor of a small room; for a hiding-place it’s not very clever if it can be found after two minutes of searching. And even then, all they find is a fairly plain stone slab which could be a headstone, since it has a cross inscribed on it; they have no, I repeat, no evidence to even suggest, let alone prove, that this is the true Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny, which apparently sits atop Tara in any case. Also, at one point the presenter states that Iona was founded by Scottish colonists, when it was in fact founded by Colum Cille of the Ui Neill of Ireland, and became a missionary base for Irish monks.

As for the episode concerning Excalibur, well, that’s easy. There was no King Arthur to have a sword, he’s just a myth, so there is no physical sword to be discovered; problem solved. Yet somehow we are given a twenty-minute romp through this man’s personal delusional version of history. I have no idea why the presenter thinks King Richard had Excalibur, that is a truly baffling leap, and how he came to the conclusion that Richard had to buy an army from Tancred in Sicily, when he in fact invaded it to secure the release of his sister from Tancred, has me stumped. And, predictably, the Templars are involved.

A web of lies.

Whoever wrote and researched this series would seem to have a similar obscene relationship with the truth as the Vatican, flirting with it, and touching it in a way that can only be described as uncomfortable. Leaps of ill-conceived logic are made frequently, religious art and icons are misinterpreted, and the process of historical and archaeological research, deduction, and reasoning are grossly misunderstood. I cannot believe that this claims to be reality, though it does belong on the SyFy channel, but only as a compliment to Warehouse 13, and with a clear indication that it is fictional.

This programme is painfully misleading, and its website is confusing. At the very beginning of the programme the presenter states:

“My name is Ashley Cowie. I’m an author and archaeologist explorer specializing in ancient symbols and mysterious legends. I’ve spent years studying some of the world’s most fascinating relics. Now I’m on the hunt to find where they are. Some would hope that these secrets remain hidden but I’ll leave no stone unturned to uncover the truth in my…”Legend Quest”.”

Firstly, what kind of archaeologist would put “author” first? Secondly, as a proclaimed archaeologist, it is suspicious that he has studied relics (a word I am reliably told a real archaeologist would never use) that he has never seen, or that nobody else has; that’s just not how archaeology works. Archaeologists go out and find things, and then study them, that’s the bloody point. Also, he never mentions what qualifies him as an archaeologist.

The associated website has some curious fictions of its own. We are informed that “In 2002, Ashley was elected into the “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” the oldest and most exclusive historical society in Europe.  Founded by Royal appointment in 1732, this society currently holds only 3000 fellows.” (http://www.syfy.com/legendquest/team/ashley_cowie). This is really weird, and I mean really. Firstly, why is “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland” surrounded by quotation marks? Is it not a reference to the real society, just one made up to make this guy look good? “Madness”, I hear you say, “You, dear author, have been infected by the conspiracy nonsense of this prattling man!” And you might be right, dear reader. But let me take you to secondly, which is that  “The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783.” (http://www.socantscot.org/content.asp?Page=251&Menu=237). The date on the SyFy website contradicts what the Society’s own website says, and the SyFy site is completely wrong in stating that the presenter is a member if the oldest historical society in Europe, it’s not even the oldest in Britain. His books don’t appear in their list of publications, but they do have a book on the Stone of Scone which contradicts what he argues. Something is very very wrong. On top of this the website biography states that the presenter is a historian, not an archaeologist as he claims in his introduction on the show. Furthermore, no reference is made to where, or to what degree, he was educated in either field. Is anyone else thinking that the fiction isn’t just contained to the programme itself?

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

If it’s supposed to be fantasy fair enough, but “Legend Quest” should be clearly labelled as such; lies like these can be dangerous, I might smack someone if I heard them rattle this nonsense off to a group of friends at a party. But seriously, if people are led to believe that what this man is doing is real history and archaeology it devalues those fields and builds a deeply misleading image of them in the minds of the viewers. His crazy conspiracies are given an element of credence by the documentary style of the programme, which might lead people to believe that what he says is true, when it is categorically not. He’s not within an ass’s roar of the truth.

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is what gives madmen power, it erodes the confidence people have in critical analysis and academic research, it allows the implausible to be dressed as the probable. A lie repeated confidently is believed true, and facts which offer truth are ignored. This is a seemingly more frequent occurrence in our TV shows, and the words of our elected officials; it’s all part of the same problem. Nobody takes the time to really think and reason things out, possibly because we are not taught this skill at school, but also due to the very fact that the people and programmes we have been inculcated to trust are using this trust against us to achieve their own ends.

Or maybe I’m just a cynic…

It seems I am not alone in doubt the legitimacy of this programme – http://tv.yahoo.com/news/syfy-channel-fabricates-footage-area-51-legend-quest-212600449.html .

Of Saints and Scholars

Saint Patrick

Almost everything commonly known about this man is a lie. Saint PatrickHis legend is possibly one of the most successful fabrications of all time, up there with Santa Claus and the paper-clip. The only real evidence for his existence are two documents which he wrote; a letter to a man who had captured some of Patrick’s flock, and his Confession. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, do battle with druids or decree that we celebrate his holy day by staggering around trying to find a parade at 3am. He wasn’t even Irish. He was in fact two men; Patrick and Palladius. The latter was subsumed into the myth of the former and forgotten over time, even though he was the first bishop of the Irish. The Church of Armagh decided that they needed a superhero and chose Patrick as the man for them and used his legends to enhance their own position in Ireland above that of all the other rival churches, such as Iona and Kildare. All in the name of fortune and glory. Patrick went from being a monk with no real authority to a clerical Dirty Harry, beating non-believers senseless. At a time when Ireland had several contenders for patron saint Patrick won because he kicked druid arse, had a pointy hat, and the best propaganda machine in the country, and so was way cooler than Brigit, Brendan, or Columba.

Saint Brigit

Performed some strange miracles, and at least one immaculate abortion. And probably never made a cross out of reeds as she probably wasn’t real. Probably.

Saint Columba, a.k.a. Colum Cille

Descending as he did from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Columbathe man who nicked Patrick from his homeland, Columba seems to have been destined to be a holy troublemaker. And he was. He copied a book. … … Which caused a huge battle in which many men died, and so he went to exile (by choice or by order is not entirely clear). The Irish clearly took their books really seriously. Anyway, Columba ended up on Iona, and then found himself embroiled in the politics, and the conversion, of the lands which were to become Scotland (at this point the ‘Scots’ were still Irish). His federation of monasteries was hugely successful, and produced such amazing works like the Book Of Kells. What is possibly cooler is that his foundation gave rise to a man known as Adomnán, who wrote a law banning violence against women, children, and clerics during times of conflict. This was essentially a medieval Geneva Convention signed by Irish, Pictish, and Dál Riada kings, and other such important folk. Whether or not it worked, Adomnán was the Man; saints often run around preaching peace, he actually went and did something about it.

Saint Columbanus

This man is possibly the pinnacle of medieval Irish religiosity. Not content with preaching in Ireland, having become adept at such things as Latin and computus (don’t ask, trust me, it’s really hard), he set off to preach and educate the people of the most backward and ignorant place he could think of; France. When he got there his piety and scholarly-ness impressed everyone, and his monasteries were so popular they were opening faster than Starbucks franchises. Pretty soon however he was annoying the local bishops, since he didn’t recognise their authority, and thought that they were pretty bad at their jobs. So he sent a letter to the Pope saying so. And told the Pope that he was wrong about the date of Easter. Nobody tells the Pope that he’s wrong about anything. Ever. Especially not some braggart from the edge of the known world. And in better Latin too! By this time Columbanus had moved on, indeed he moved around a lot, setting up monasteries like there was no tomorrow, because there may not have been for him since he had a unique talent for annoying powerful people who had a fondness for running pointy bits of steel through troublesome clerics. The monasteries he founded became some of the most influential and celebrated centres of learning in medieval Europe, playing a key role in the Carolingian renevatio, themselves spawning an endless tide of missionaries and scholars inspired by their founding father. An Irishman abroad, headstrong, confident and never asking for directions, nothing but death could stop him. Which it did.

Medieval Ireland in 5 words

The medieval Irish were brilliant.

Medieval Ireland in 500 words

I imagine you’d want to know why they were brilliant. Well, for a start theyRound tower had a unique legal system. Where Europeans were ruled by the whims of their lords and kings who could proclaim laws whenever they so wished, the Irish were governed by a fixed legal code which kings themselves had to abide by. It took Europe ages to catch up with this great idea. They had lawyers but no prisons. The guilty had to pay fines to or work for the plaintiff, or were exiled if the crime was really harsh. No hanging from a jib or quartering. It was thoroughly civilised. Mostly. The medieval Irish were very fond of fighting, but no more so than their continental counterparts. Cattle raids, land disputes, and dynastic rivalries led to frequent battles where alliances could shift rapidly. But every king abided by the same laws, and spoke the same language, and worshipped the Catholic Church. Of course, since they were Irish, they couldn’t worship the same exact church as the Europeans did, that would be too easy. They came up with their own version of Catholicism which differed not on faith, but on strange things like how to cut your hair, and the date of Easter. Easter had to be calculated with a bunch of strange sums, and the medieval Irish thought their sums were way better than anyone else’s. And so was their Latin. While European bishops fought, often physically, over the claims of their diocese, Irish abbots and monastic foundations, who also fought a lot, managed to encourage a level of learning unknown to Europe. The medieval Irish had better Latin and Greek, and were more deeply versed in the Bible than their European equivalents and so were revered as missionaries and scholars. Their version of Catholicism was largely dominant in Ireland, Scotland and England until the synod of Whitby, when the king decided to change to the Roman Church because his son was going to rebel against him. And he wanted to have sex with his wife. No really, that may have been an issue. She followed the Roman Easter and he adhered to the Irish one. That’s two Lents! And they didn’t give up sweets for Lent, they gave up everything. And they probably didn’t get a break in the middle for St Patrick’s Day! So he switched, and eventually so did everyone else because it was much easier in the long run. Except for a bunch of English monks who settled in Mayo. Irish culture was admired greatly in Scotland and Northern England, so much so that they learned how to write from the Irish, copied their style and wore their clothes. Their kings had Irish advisors, as did the kings of the Franks, because they were the smartest guys around. And then the Vikings came and made life rather difficult for a while, and just when things got better the Normans came. And later again, the English. And we all know how that turned out.