Ancient stories

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One of the things that have struck home over the past few years, wandering around the churches of Britain, is just how much we learn and understand from stories and images. The record held in these ancient places goes back over a thousand years, with artefacts much, much older preserved in many of them. And these are not random old buildings, but all aligned with a single tradition, a single faith, a single story that the builders, artisans and holders of the lore saw as paramount.

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Painted walls, carved stone and wood, stained glass… these were marvels of media that recounted the biblical story for all with eyes to see. At a time when books were hand-drawn and precious, the masses untutored, unable to read or follow the Latin of the service, these images were the key to understanding. In many churches there are older, pre-Christian artefacts. Were they a remnant of the desire to convert almost through stealth or a genuine acknowledgement of the sacredness of the older pagan faith? That is not impossible given Pope Gregory’s instructions to Mellitus in the 6th century Mission, “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.” The whole letter is revealing.

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It is fascinating to see how the emphasis of the story has evolved and shifted to suit the needs of the prevalent authorities, secular and religious, and how thought has been subtly directed. Many of the oldest churches, particularly in areas where Celtic Christianity was prevalent, seem to focus simply on a gentle faith not dissimilar to some of the older tales, and we can trace many of the early stories of the saints back to pre-Christian deities, adopted and absorbed into the new story. Then comes the hellfire and brimstone, later still the break from Rome followed by the Puritanical obliteration of imagery in many places. Yet another thread winds through as the local barons and lords endow churches in a display of political power and wealth, matched in kind but surpassed in magnificence by the lords of the Church with the great cathedrals and abbeys. No matter who ruled the land, it was easy to see where the balance of true power resided.

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Yet away from the seat of power was the guy in the street… the you and me… and in spite of a constant bombardment of imagery quietly shaping thought, behaviour and morality, mankind has always had both imagination and questions. There have always been those who do not conform and who, while paying lip service to social necessity, have walked their own inner path of interpretation and discovery. While entry to the clergy was for many a true dedication of service to their God, there must have been many too for whom it was more a career move at a time when such choices were limited. The stories of many minds are preserved in the old churches and not all seem to hold to what would have been the prescribed line.

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A language of symbolism evolved, one that would have been readily readable long ago but which we have lost the habit of reading in the same way we have lost the old languages. Yet it doesn’t take much to begin delving behind the appearances to the inner meaning, for symbols bypass the processes of the surface mind and speak to something deeper, a more archaic and instinctive level of understanding less coloured by the times in which we live. Many can be universally understood, some belong to a specific tradition… on the surface at least… but can be interpreted from the human perspective of emotions or from the viewpoint of the spiritual journey. While stories once widely known may have faded, and traditions are lost in the dust-covered recesses of history, it takes little to begin to glean the meaning behind them from the images that survive.

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Few of us now know the old legends of the pelican, for instance, but this common symbol can be readily understood in Christian terms simply by looking at the picture of the great bird restoring its young through her blood. Even traditional colours and geometrical shapes hold meaning, like the trifoliate leaves for the Trinity for example, and a little thought opens many possibilities to explore. Very quickly you begin to see that no part of the story written in images… or any story for that matter… stands alone, and there are many possible layers of meaning.

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What we read in these ancient symbols is less a reflection of the symbol itself than it is of the knowledge and understanding we bring to them and our openness to new ideas and interpretations. What the artist or the patron who commissioned any work intended should be encoded there may not be what we see… or not all that we see… as our own minds bring their own meaning. I have often wondered about some of the stranger symbols we have found whilst visiting these places to write The Initiate and its sequels… symbols that seem surreal or out of place within the churches. Maybe they were simply a bit of humour, or artistic licence… perhaps they hold the thoughts of another questioning mind touched across the centuries or maybe they were designed to be so surreal we would have to take notice and start thinking instead of blindly accepting.

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Whatever the case, we have found without doubt that there are more stories written in these ancient buildings than the laity would have ever seen or understood and few today do more than marvel at their beauty or antiquity. Yet the stories follow common themes, and the closer you look the more obvious it becomes that there is little difference except detail in these stories, through time and space mankind asks the same questions, seeks the same understanding, we simply do so from different starting points and in different clothes. Not just in our little churches, but in the ancient temples the world over, in fairytales and rhymes, in the stones and the very land itself, stories wait to unfold their mysteries, their revelations and their complex simplicity to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

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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.

Going west – the painted church

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It is difficult for our modern eyes to imagine the colour that would once have been present within our oldest churches. The carved and decorated facades, often covered with statuary, would have been brightly painted. Walls that we are used to seeing in mellow stone and whitewash, touched by the ochre ghosts of medieval paintings, would once have gleamed in the flickering candlelight as the frescos borrowed life from the flames and processed through the shadowed aisles.

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It is in the great cathedrals that we can still get a glimpse of the light and colour that provided such a contrast to the homespun world when dyes were expensive luxuries reserved only for the wealthy. At St Davids, a high, painted lantern still crowns the arches of the Crossing, drawing the eye ever upwards to the heavens.

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Delicate traceries of contrasting stone mark the vaulted ceilings of the chapels, punctuated by highly coloured shields and bosses displaying designs both armorial and symbolic. In the 13th century Lady Chapel at the Easternmost end of the cathedral, I saw a symbol I recognised, the three hares who share their ears.Each hare has two ears…yet only three ears are depicted.

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In Christian terms, it symbolises the Trinity, though it has older and other meanings that include and transcend the artificial barriers that we erect between our various cultures and religions. It is a symbol I frequently wear, reminding me of a much-loved friend whose physical presence is far across the ocean yet who is never far from my heart. Other bosses in the little chapel show the Dragon, the symbol of Wales as well as demonic creatures apparently devouring the unholy or perhaps just those who are tempted.

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Today our churches are comparatively pallid affairs with colour used sparingly, mainly in stained glass and textiles. There is still a sense of awe inspired by the scale and beauty with which you are greeted when you walk through their doors. In the older places though, with their vast proportions, lofty, lighted vaults and rich decoration, you can see how they must have appeared to those who visited them.

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To the lords and princes, the vast, ornate space would have spoken of power, both temporal and divine. From the ordinary folk, the overwhelming presence of that power must have evoked automatic obedience. To the pious, the beauty and craftsmanship would have seemed a fitting externalisation of faith made manifest in an attempt to echo the glory their inner hearts could see, while to some it must have seemed as if they were afforded a glimpse of a fragment of Heaven itself.

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There is much colour remaining at St Davids, from the painted ceilings to the stonework, from the fragmentary frescos to the gilded reredos behind the High Altar and the stained glass that punctuates the clear.

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Yet for me, it is the smaller details that may well pass unnoticed that, in bypassing the sense of majesty, truly capture something of the long history of the people who have passed through the portals of this ancient church. It is the traces of polished colour on the memorial brasses, like those on the tomb of Edmund Tudor, that speak of the touch of reverent hands or overzealous cleaning…

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It is the intricate rendering of Celtic designs whose symbolic meanings are probably far more potent than we now know but which speak to the inner mind in a language of geometry that seems to bypass logic and reach straight for the wordless understanding of the heart…

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Undoubtedly for me, it was the painted birds I was shown that bring the majesty down to human proportions. Such a simple painting, two magpies and an owl, hidden behind the arch of the carved stone screen of the pulpitum. Few would know it was there… few may notice it today, yet the birds seemed to bring something of the natural world into the unnatural magnificence of the cathedral.

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They reminded me instantly of another church… this one, just a tiny, single cell building that stands on a site held sacred since prehistory. It is the place where many of our adventures began and its peace and simplicity hold a very special corner of my heart. On the walls there too, an owl and a flock of birds were painted half a millennium ago in the simple ochres of the time. There, St Francis stretches out his hand to them, speaking to his fellow creatures with love… and, within the vast interior of the cathedral, it is the little painted birds that remind me that Love is the central tenet of the Christian religion, so often lost beneath the politics and power-play of man’s ambition.

St Francis and the birds, All Saints, Little Kimble.
St Cecilia, St Francis and the birds, All Saints, Little Kimble.