Drawing a dark veil…

“Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus, 6thC, on the conversion of Britain.

***

You have to admit, Pope Gregory was sneaky. The mission to bring the blessed isles of Britain into the Christian fold was not to be accomplished so much by conversion as subversion. To ‘convert’ means to turn in a new direction, to subvert means to destroy from below… and that, is pretty much, the definition of sneaky.

The instructions to the missionaries were clear… take and use the old sacred places for the new worship. The letter was quite detailed in how this should be done, but basically it meant allowing the people to celebrate the same festivals, in the way they had always done, and in the same places. The only difference wa that, while they were doing so, the clergy of the Church could gradually add a Christian gloss to the festivities. Many of the old gods were adopted as Christian saints and their stories rewritten accordingly, magical places were rendered ‘officially’ sacred by appropriating them for Christian myth and the symbolism of ancient festivals was reallocated to the Christian story.

Gregory was right. The people were soon turned to the new religion.

They may have neither noticed nor cared; when you worship God made manifest in Nature, the names and stories of the gods matter less than natural and cosmic force they represent… and Britain already had a long history of accepting ‘foreign’ gods into the pantheon. The new Jesus-god was little different from many who had come and gone before, after all. Miraculous births abound in religious history, across the globe and throughout the ages. Gods who walk the earth as men are not uncommon, nor are the gods who come to teach. Saviour gods and sacrificed gods were ten a penny, and Jesus was not the first to be hung upon a tree.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Gregory must have been well aware of this ready acceptance of new gods into the pagan fold. Throw in a few incentives…and eternal life isn’t bad for starters… add a dash of hellfire and brimstone to put the fear of God into the laggards, put learning, healing, economic and political power into the hands of the priests, and he was right; within a generation or two, the conversion was pretty much complete. The old gods faded into myth and their altars were forgotten…or repurposed.

But, let’s be honest, Gregory was not exactly the first to bring Britain to Christianity, whatever his letter might suggest. The process had been going on for quite some time. There were already Christians in Britain before the Romans left in 410AD. The very earliest missionaries, according to the legends, had arrived much earlier than that, when Joseph of Arimathea had come to Glastonbury, bringing with him relics of Jesus’ life and mission, and founding the first Christian oratory there. Joseph, according to the Bible, was the man who asked Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the Cross… so, if the legends are true, then Christianity came to these shores within a few years of the Crucifixion.

Celtic Christianity, which carried a greater love and respect for the natural world, was already firmly entrenched in these isles before Gregory wrote to Mellitus. The last pagan warrior-king was Penda of Mercia…and he died in 655AD. So it was not so much Christianity that Gregory wanted to bring to the land, but Roman Christianity. be that as it may, after the Synod of Whitby in 664, Britain was officially under the sway of the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual landscape was confined to the churches and chapels.

For those who seek a greater understanding of our spiritual past, Britain is particularly rich in archaeological remains dating back thousands of years. There are over a thousand stone circles, innumerable barrows and many other ancient monuments to baffle, intrigue and illuminate the seeker. Sacred sites continue to document the evolution of belief throughout the Roman Occupation, then you hit what was known as the Dark Ages (until political correctness renamed it the Early Medieval period) and nothing much remains except the imported Norse and Saxon gods and the earliest beginnings of the Church. The lines between them blur as the one blends with the other and our original spiritual story sinks further into myth… and the seeker is left with the task of unpicking the resulting tangle.

Unfortunately for Pope Gregory, his directive had an unexpected result. By building his churches on sites of a far more ancient sanctity than the sanction of Christianity, many of those sites were preserved. We not only know where they were, they are still there.

There are barrows in churchyards, ancient yews, once held sacred, still cast their shadows on holy ground, sacred springs run beneath foundations and local saints with strange names and even stranger stories leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.

And follow them we do, finding mysteries and motes of ancient light as we delve into the origins of belief. Why do we search? What can such ancient beliefs offer us, and how do they relate to the modern world? You have only to look at the political evolution of ‘official’ faith to see how murky the waters can be and how the minds and hearts of a nation can be quietly subverted.

But somewhere beyond all the chicanery, beyond dogma, beyond all organised religion, when we reconnect to our ancestors, we touch a time when the questions we still ask today were first being explored. Their world was simpler… everything was either sacred or magical, or both. There were spirits in stone and tree, there was healing in the waters. Everything was seen as connected. Animals, even the hunted, were held in reverence and the green and growing land was the body of a goddess. Nature was the self-expression of divinity and mankind no more than a part of that expression. With humankind seemingly determined to despoil and destroy our home, I believe that perspective to be more than relevant today.

21 thoughts on “Drawing a dark veil…

  1. I’ve just awakened from a two day sleep following my Richard’s surgery. It isn’t so much tiredness as the need to dream special dreams full of symbolism and hope and healing. When I become overwhelmed, this is how I handle it. I go to bed and sleep like the dead, dreaming that I can do things that perhaps I once could do like skating really well and even doing lifting of a leg and holding it up while I skate on, spinning, etc. Or perhaps I fly, not with wings, but I can just put my arms down at my sides, or perhaps put them out in front of me like Superman, and suddenly I am able to take off and fly through the sky. It is a wonderful feeling and I can overcome a lot of overwhelming situations even though I am fully conscious and aware that they exist. The mind is a curious and incredible thing if we give it a chance.

    So here I am and I read and reread this absolutely beautiful writing, which has to be one of my all-time favorites thus far. I have seen this happen in so many cultures – the recasting of a site and the people into a new religious belief system using all the old sites, the old customs and celebrations, and how it is an evolving way of believing anew. Christianity today does not tell us that we will be reborn exactly, but it definitely shows rebirth of the Christ figure, and it does tell us that people will be in heaven after death, which, although it is not the same as rebirth, I think a lot of Christians likely view it the same way.

    As always, reading through the article, I always stop and look up every reference to a thing, a place, or a name so that I can understand the meanings of it all, especially since I have never been in this country and honestly, other than what I learned in school, which doesn’t count for anything, I really don’t know. I am very serious about my study in The Silent Eye. It is not about achieving more than anyone else, or about getting a good grade, or any of those things. I have always been this way if I really love learning something. I want to look up every word and to know what it means. I either want to incorporate it into my beliefs, or if I don’t, I equally want to know so that I am not just claiming I don’t care for it. In this case, I really love what I am learning every single day.

    Having been in Mexico and New Mexico, I have seen how all of the Indian traditions have been changed and incorporated into Catholicism. One Christmas in a small church in Santa Fe, as we sat through much of the night on adobe pews, at 3 AM the Indians of one of the pueblos from the town or near the town danced in slowly and it felt as though the church could have come down at any minute, shaking with the vibrations as it was. And they danced in the center until the priest came forward to the pew, bestowing a blessing on them. And then when the blessing was over, they danced out into the night. Catholicism is the religion of most of the Southwest, and the Indians have readily accepted it, for they live on doing their various dances and celebrations of the year, they continue to farm as they once did, and they still live in their pueblos, and they still wear much of the clothing and do things as they have for hundreds of years. They have evolved, but in a way that they can still accept. And as you noted, so many sites and artifacts, etc. still exist and are preserved because of this.

    Thank you for this article. I really LOVE it and many of these I go back and read and reread because there is so much more beneath the surface.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Anne. There is so much going on all around us that we forget we are the living archaeology of the future. Many of the traditions we see, or see diappearing, will be noted in history books as yet unwritten. Studying the past helps us to shape thepresent and, therefore, the future.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is so right, Sue. Yes, and we are also living in the history of the future too like a cycle or a ring. Fascinating stuff! I really love it even more now.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. The Yew, which is mentioned I think within this article, and the barrows, were two of the words I looked up. The Yew is such a giant with regard to trees, for it is a sacred tree that represents birth and rebirth. They are very old like our Sequoias here in the U.S., and there were apparently more of them before the ice age. Many tools and weapons were made from them, and believe it or not, every part of the Yew is poisonous. They often grew on blind springs, another term I had never heard of and had to look up. In all the references, there was only one to blind springs, and when I clicked on it to read more, it was not even found, so all I know truly is what I found as the intro to the site. Apparently blind springs are vertical, and go downward on several levels. This is what I interpreted. The Yews do grow in Asia, and other countries and in North America as well, but from what I can tell, they do not have the same sacred meaning as they do in England and surrounding areas. Because they are often in church yards, they might have been there before the churches were built.

    If you want to read more about this incredible tree, this is the site: http://whitedragon.org.uk/articles/yew.htm. There is so much of interest I cannot believe all of this wonderful information relates to just one tree.

    Once again, thank you kindly for this magnificent article. It took me on a fantastic journey and I am happy that I went along. I don’t know that the things I have taken the time to look up have an relationship to those things we are learning, but for me, they increased my knowledge overall, and that is always a value.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you for this very welcome reminder. I have not done so much reading in a long time, and it is fulfilling my passion, but passion can definitely blind us in that quest for understanding. Thank you for the reference too. It really does make my journey in my studies more meaningful. I just have to discipline myself to think more related to the understanding aspect, but I think that will hopefully come in time as time goes on.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. How exciting to see that there is a group that knows where all of the Yew trees are and is actively protecting them. I have read that the Yew tree wood, though poisonous, is a beautiful wood of several colors in the interior, and would be beautiful for making sacred items, but I am glad that the more important things are considered sacred, and that is protecting them from destruction. I loved the photos I saw of the trees. They appear to be magical and the stuff of which wonderful myths and fairy stories come from; they are absolutely magnificent! I keep going back over the story of Gilgamesh and how Enkidu killed the Bull of Heaven and then chopped down the huge cedar tree. And then he too died after his fight with Mumbaba. There is a reason that all the trees were and are sacred. We have so much to learn and understand from them, as we do from all the things of this earth we are part of.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. True words, Sue. I get so angry when the Roman church obliterated the old ways, but as you put seen from the perspective of building their churches on older sacred ground, they were preserved. A bonus I believe. xxx

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