The Giant and the Sun – Going off at a tangent

Every workshop needs a place to start, and with companions arriving from as far apart as Cumbria, London and America, you need to meet somewhere that is easily found. We knew full well that if we converged on the village pub and started talking we would never have time to visit the place we had come to see, but instead of meeting at one of the most intriguing places, where mystery, history and legend come together, we decided to meet at the church.

Old churches are interesting places. They provide not only a window on the social history of an area, but a snapshot of the growth of their community. You can get a real feel for a place by visiting these little churches that have grown with their congregation over the centuries, and often they reveal glimpses of a far distant past, much more ancient than Christianity.

The setting we have chosen for our meeting is rather idyllic, especially when the flowers and trees are in bloom. There are birds everywhere… a good many corvids…  and a magnificent yew tree that casts shadows over the churchyard… a perfect place to meet old friends and new.

The church of St Thomas à Becket serves the little village of South Cadbury in Somerset and it is built on the slopes of the ancient hillfort. There is no way of knowing when the first church was built here, but it was probably Saxon, as by the time the village was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, there was already a priest and a church of some importance.

The first recorded vicar was Peter de Burg in 1265. Curiously, this means Peter ‘of the hill’ or ‘of the castle’… a wholly appropriate name, given the situation of his benefice. The church is dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 and canonised two years later. Inside the church there is a medieval wall painting, showing a red-headed bishop, tucked away in one of the old window embrasures, which may be a depiction of the saint.

The current building dates largely from the 13th and 15th centuries, with the arcade and tower arch being built around 1280 and with all the inevitable Victorian renovations and additions. The Tower was added in the 14th century and is protected by some rather curious creatures.

The air is cool inside and has that faint aroma of damp stone, beeswax, fading flowers and forgotten incense that seems to typify these village churches. Overhead the ceiling arches white, supported by blue-painted beams and gilded figures holding heraldic shields. The freshness of the gold and blue are doubtless modern, but the vaulted ceiling has sheltered the congregation for five hundred years.

The font, sadly, is more modern… no more than a hundred and fifty years old. There is no trace of an older font in or around the church. Many of these little places have fonts that go back to the original buildings, where generation upon generation have been baptised and I find it a little sad to see that link broken.

The pulpit too is Victorian, but here you begin to see traces of the older layout of the church. Beside the pulpit is an odd little alcove. Looking closer, we could see the curve of an old staircase, long since gone. This was the stairway that led to the rood loft, the gallery above the rood screen that once separated the chancel and altar from the congregation. After the Reformation, these screens, surmounted by the Rood, a depiction of the Crucifixion, were removed, demolished, whitewashed or cut down, both to remove the ‘abused images’… images and carvings that were thought to smack of superstition and idolatry… and to remove the separation between the altar and the people. In many old churches, though, the staircase to the rood loft still survives, appearing to lead to a doorway to nowhere.

Older features also include the remnants of a medieval piscina, the basin in the wall into which holy water was poured after the service, that its sacred properties should not leave the church walls or fall into the hands of unscrupulous practitioners of ‘witchcraft’.

The squint,  or hagioscope, still remains too. These odd-looking ‘tunnels’ are always angled through the internal walls that separate side chapels from the chancel and were made to allow worshippers in the side chapels to see the rasing of the Host during Mass. It should be remembered that all of our oldest churches were Catholic until the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke with Rome. The Anglican Church is simpler in the forms of its worship…but not so very different in essence.

I have to wonder if, in fact, the essence of religious belief or personal faith has ever been very different. The vision we weave of the creation of all things may differ and shift over the ages, as do the names, faces and stories of our gods, teachers and saviours, but we have always sought a point of origin, an ultimate destination and a pathway between.

Because the quest and its questions are universal, quite often the symbols and iconography of one paradigm can illuminate those of another. Symbols are not literal depictions, even though they may at first appear to be so. In spiritual terms, a symbol speaks to the heart rather than to the mind, pointing us towards ideas that cannot be transmitted as knowledge, but which must be intuited and understood rather than known.

Over the course of the weekend we would be working with a symbol and looking at the patterns in the landscape from ancient to historical times. Setting the known aside, we would attempt to feel our way forward… sometimes picking out anomalies and seeing what they suggested, sometimes finding the parallels between ancient and modern thought and seeing whether we could apply that to harmonise our own lives.

Symbolism is a natural means of communication. Before the majority could read or write, images bypassed the need for literacy and enabled abstract ideas to be shared. We have lost the habit of working with symbols… or we think we have. We all recognise road signs and trademarks. We look at a word and know the sound, the meaning, and all its emotional connections and implications… yet a written word consists of letters… each letter a symbol in its own right. It takes very little to start reading more from an image than it appears to show… we just need to look beyond logic and ask the question.

Why, for example, are there only men in the depiction of the Ascension behind the altar, while only women are present at the Crucifixion on the carved reredos below it? Traditionally, it was the disciples who witnessed the Ascension… although there is a biblical reference that suggests that Mary may also have been present. On the other hand, the bible mentions a number of men attending the Crucifixion.

Is this no more than coincidence or artistic licence? Quite probably… but treat it as a symbol and ask the question and it sparks a chain of intuitive ideas and possibilities. Legends, folklore, myths and stories can be approached in the same way… and will yield more than they seem to hold on the surface. It is not a question of right or wrong answers… sometimes there are no answers, only more questions. And sometimes the answers we find cannot be framed in words. It doesn’t matter. What matters is allowing yourself to step off the treadmill of habit to see and feel your world from a new angle… and we were going to be doing a fair bit of that over the course of the weekend…


The Giant and the Sun: Patterns in the landscape was the Silent Eye summer workshop weekend. These informal events are held several times every year and are open to all. You do not have to be a member to join us as we wander the rich landscape of Britain, visiting ancient, sacred and intriguing places. We seek out myth and mystery, exploring what the land and its stories can teach us about our own daily lives and our place in the intricate tapestry of human Being.

After each event, we publish an account of the places we have visited and share a little of what we have discussed during the course of the weekend to give a taste of what we do.

If you would like to join us for a wander through the mysteries and history of Britain, please visit our Events page.

11 thoughts on “The Giant and the Sun – Going off at a tangent

  1. Yes, it is easy to get caught up in symbolism as we did with words, and overlook the way we can learn to intuit meanings spiritually instead of intellectually. I have something to look forward to for sure.

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  2. It is fascinating to follow the breadcrumb trail of symbolism, and these days, we have the internet at our fingertips, with a whole world of knowledge there to reserch. But true symbols are best understood within the inner silence of a still mind and open heart.

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  3. An interesting post, Sue, and as always, accented with wonderful photos. It’s curious that you broke words down into various alphabetic symbols while I look at a word as a symbol. Life has been and continues to be crazy and I’ve missed you. I’ll try to stop by more often. Love and hugs.

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    1. Symbols are everywhere… and whether we look at them whole, in parts, or as amalgamations, we seldom realise that we are just reading meaning from images.
      Missed you too, Michelle… but I know just what you mean 🙂 Hugs xx

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      1. One thing I am learning (slowly but surely) here is that sometimes the simplest of things have so much depth in them for us to learn from and as you are noting, we are just reading meaning from images. I remember when I was thinking there were signposts along my way that were giving me lessons. As I think back on that, I am the one who gave them meaning for me that perhaps I needed at that time. Interesting way to look at it.

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        1. Yes, reading meaning into the things that surround us is an interesting one to look at. It is easy to attribute them all to some supernatural power, but that both is, and is not the case. ‘Super’-natural just means, in this sense, over and above the ordinary way we look at things. If objects, creatures and occurences can bring something buried within us to the surface mind, where we can use it to gain reassurance, insight or encouragement, then that meaning is coming from within. But that does not mean the universe isn’t giving a helping hand too 🙂

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          1. Such good and welcome wisdom, Sue. This course is giving me opportunities to think about things I could not have begun to imagine. I am grateful it is coming to me when it is. My country, the United States, is going through so much instability right now that it feels as though we are all walking on jello. And I don’t want to think in that manner, so I am extremely grateful for this course. We will get through it in much the same manner as our ancestors through the hundreds and thousands of years – perhaps having to live through still another war. We can look back and see that it is nothing new, and I wonder if mankind will ever learn from history. Perhaps not, but this course has brought a kind of foundation in my thinking that as I have noted, I could not have imagined. I think now I am able to look at things more philosophically, and should the time come when these needs of mankind become reality, I should find peace at the core of my soul and accept that which is. Somewhere, sometime, there will be another grain of sand, another seed . . .

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            1. Whatever the moment brings, whether it be apparently good or labelled as evil, can still be turned to a greater good, if we are prepared to take action and work towards it. The responsibility for the future, our own and that of the world around us, lies squaely in our own hands. But the world will move forward regardless …

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