Sep 29, 2010

Ancient Books

I've commented a lot on this blog about the ancient Celtic books and how rare and valuable they are. But the topic is on my mind again since I've just completed a novel I'm calling WORDS. A book, of course, is involved and it causes a lot of havoc. Some ancient people believed books were magical, powerful, and could bring fortune.

It's hard to fathom that in today's society. Sure, we like books, but we wouldn't go to war over one. We can just make a copy (legally or illegally.)

While writing WORDS I was influenced by the Book of Durrow, an ancient manuscript thought to have been created around 680 AD. This book is considered as the earliest of the magnificently decorated Gospels created by Irish hands.

In the 17th century a man named Conal Mac Geoghegan of Lismoyne recorded in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, "I have seen myself part of that book which is at Durrow in the Kings County in the custody of an ignorant man. When sickness came upon cattle, for their remedy put water on the book and suffered it to the rest there a while and saw also cattle return thereby to their former or pristine state and the book to receive no loss." A man dunked the ancient book into a cattle trough! According to The Ancient Books of Ireland by Michael Slavin, The Book of Durrow does show signs of water damage and "a hole in the top right-hand corner of the leaves indicates that they could have been suspended by a thong in the 'cure' process." In my story, the same thing happens.

These books were treasured not only for the scriptures they contained, but also for the incredible works of arts on the calfskin pages. In addition, some of the ancient books contained genealogies and other information that helped establish the rights of a kingdom. Copies were rare, and that's understandable when you consider that only a small percentage of people (monks) could read or write.

The fact that some of these manuscripts survive is a wonder, maybe even a miracle. The Book of Durrow resides today in the library at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Sep 27, 2010

Searching for God

From Celtic Wisdom:

St. Columban expressed the belief that in order for God to answer prayer, one has to search God out. He said, "He must yet be besought by us, often besought; ever must we cling to God, to the deep, vast, hidden, lofty, and almighty God." The following prayer illustrates the searching, the longing to find the path to God:

Jesu, from to-day
Guide us on our way.
So shall we, no moment wasting,
Follow Thee with holy hasting,
Led by Thy dear Hand
To the Blessed land.

From the Celtic Psaltery by Alfred Perceval Graves

The ancient Irish Christians were searching for a closer relationship with God, to find out who He really was and what He desired for them. Do we have any different motives today?

Sep 24, 2010

Summer is Gone

Summer is Gone
Ancient Irish poem translated by Kuno Meyer

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, summer is gone.

Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.

Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone--
The wild-goose has raised his wonted cry.

Cold has caught the wings of birds;
Season of ice--these are my tidings.

Sep 20, 2010

The Owl

Continuing on with the theme of birds and Celtic symbolism, it will surprise no one to know that the owl represents wisdom. This bird was a guide in the underworld and could help one discern whether or not someone was being honest.

Remember the owl character in Winnie the Pooh? Owl is the wisest one in the 100 Acre Woods. He drank tea in the afternoon and Winnie the Pooh, a bear with very little brain, often consulted Owl.

I would never suggest that animals be anything other than what they are. But I do think we can study them to learn lessons about life. That's all though. I wouldn't attach spiritual meaning to them, although the ancient Celtic pagans would have. Here's an interesting site called The Wise Old Owl. At the end the site's owner relates this warning:
Romans 1:22-23, "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles."

Sep 17, 2010


I think birds are fascinating creatures, and apparently the ancient Celts did as well. That's why I've included the symbolism of a raven in a novel I'm currently working on.

To the ancient Celts, the raven was a bird of war, a bad omen, even demonic. The Irish druids used the raven for prophecy and tried to interpret the sound of their cries. Try your hand it if you'd like with the video below.

I don't know if I agree completely with the ancient Celts, but I do believe that God can use anything to send a message. Still, all that He has made (and he made these birds) is good. I do like the subtle symbolism, though. Stop, listen, and see what the natural world might reveal to you.

Sep 15, 2010

Hair and the Celts

I knew that hair and good grooming were important to the ancient Celtic people, but I discovered a few things recently that I didn't know.

Did you know that someone with dark hair symbolizes some kind of terrestrial strength? I have no idea what that means, but it certainly sparks the imagination.

Someone with blond hair was thought to have a close connection with God. Maybe subconsciously that is why in my novel, Brigid of Ireland, I chose to give Brigid blond hair. Lots of people have thought of her as a redhead (including the illustrator who had to change his first draft of the cover.)

Redheaded people are thought to possess magical abilities. In the Book of Kells, Jesus and some of the disciples are depicted as blonds with red beards.

I have blogged before about tonsures and the fact that the Irish monks wore theirs more like the druids' rather than like the western monks'. I blogged recently about the synod at Whitby in 664 and how that forced Celtic Christianity into some conformity. The tonsure was part of that and eventually the Irish monks adopted the Roman tonsure, which is said to represent the crown of thorns.

Both men and women wore their hair braided and sometimes curled, with gold balls tied at the ends. I'm not sure I understand where this obsession with hair came from, but now I know I can blame my own worry over bad hair on my ancestors!

Sep 13, 2010

What's A Crosier?

Simply put, a crosier is a staff used by bishops and abbots. The Irish crosier was a little different than those used in mainland Europe. From Ask About Ireland:
"...crafted in Ireland from the eight or ninth century up until the end of the twelfth century. The origins of the Irish-crosier, like its continental counterpart, lie in the shepherd's crook. Both abbots and bishops carried them as insignia of their office and they signify the pastoral care of the congregation. However, Irish-crosiers demonstrate a divergence from the main tradition of crosiers in the Western Church. The significant difference is the distinctive shape of the head, which curves in a crook shape with the addition of a short pendant drop at its extremity. This is in contrast to the volute or simple walking stick shape of contemporary English and Continental examples."

The picture above on the left is The Kells Cosier, which is held at the British Museum. It has been altered over the centuries. It is made of yew wood encased in bronze.

There are many stories about the saints working miracles with their crosiers. St. Maedoc supposedly halted an invading army by using his crosier to draw a line around himself and his people and their cattle that the army was unable to cross. One man tried, as the story goes, and instantly dropped dead. It was believed that these crosiers were given directly from God. Such a gift was so valuable that there were penalties for stealing them that were even more severe than what was imposed for stealing a gospel book.

The most famous Irish crosier was the Staff of Jesus, said to have been given to St. Patrick.

Sep 10, 2010

St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Sept. 9

Born in Connacht, Ireland, c. 516; died at Clonmacnoise, c. 556. Saint
Ciaran is one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland.

Okay, I'm a day late and a dollar short. Sorry about that. But I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to recognize one of the most interesting ancient Irish saints.

"...the founder of Clonmacnoise, an important monastic centre. As a student he is said to have been so generous that he gave away his only book to new arrivals at the monastery in Clonard and did not complete his own studies on time because of it. He is one of the few famous monks without a royal heritage. His father was a tradesman, possibly a carpenter or a chariot-maker. He was often told that because of his common background his sacrifice to a life of devotion was not as significant as that of others who had given up a royal inheritance. Once, when he visited St. Enda on Aran, he had a vision of a great tree growing in the middle of Ireland with branches spreading to all four corners of the land. Enda believed that this meant that Ciaran would be that tree of great influence, and he was, in a matter [manner] of speaking, by founding Clonmacnoise."

Previous related blog post: The Celtic Tree

Sep 8, 2010

The Gathering That Wounded Celtic Christianity

Whitby is a seaside community on the northeast coast of England. In ancient times this was in the kingdom of Northumbria and the king, Oswy, celebrated Easter the Celtic way. His wife, however, was of the Roman tradition. This caused them to fast, both from food and marital relations, at different times. It was a personal inconvenience for the king that ended up having major ramifications for the Celtic Christians. A meeting was held at the monastery of St. Hilda to decide the matter.

The Celtic tradition was defended by a bishop named Colman who claimed that the tradition of Columcille had been handed down by the apostle John. The Romans, on the other hand, looked to St. Peter as their church father. Jesus said that he would build his church on the rock, his name for Peter. In addition, the fact that Paul had preached in Rome gave the Romans, in their view, the authority to correctly interpret this matter. Bede, the great scribe who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, said that the Roman faction (voiced by Wilfrid) also noted that the rest of the Christian world celebrated Easter at the same time and it was only the British, Picts, and Irishwho after all lived on the most farthest islands in the ocean (read the most uncivilized) who celebrated Easter according to the Jewish calendar.

Wilfrid (a priest who spent most of his life trying to prove that Britains fully embraced the ways of the church in Rome and were not Celts) went on to explain that if the apostle John used the Jewish calendar it was so as to not offend the new Christians who had Jewish heritage. Surely, he contended, the practice was outdated.

The Celts would not have used a calendar developed by the Romans when the Romans had never been their rulers. They looked to history to date their observance of Easter. Admittedly, this seems like a minor point to debate. One can only believe that the true question was one of control and power. In the minds of the people who lived at that time, this debate was crucial. The Celts did not believe they were wrong, and the Roman world believed non-compliance meant these people were not true Christians.

The question of spiritual authority was the ultimate matter debated in this synod. Colman, when questioned by the king, admitted that Jesus had given Peter the keys to heaven as described in this passage in the Book of Matthew: “’And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’" When Colman was asked if Jesus had given St. Columcille, the founder of Iona and the spiritual father to all of Britain’s Celtic Christians, equal authority, Colman had to admit he had not.

Oswy ruled in favor of Peter and the Roman tradition because, he is believed to have said, Peter minded the gates to Heaven. King Oswy feared offending the saint would mean he would not be let in. Whatever the reason for the ruling, the result was that all the Celtic churches had to abide by the style of Christianity that was Roman. This was the Christianity that Pope Gregory I (“The Great”) had earlier sent Augustine to Kent to enforce.

Most scholars of the Celtic way believe this event served to end the strictly Celtic way of observing Christianity, at least in mass practice. The Celts held to their beliefs, however, and certain doctrines were not a part of their thinking, such as original sin.

I'm aware that not everyone will agree with what I've written. At least one editor has said that I've thrown Augustine under the bus. I'd love to hear what you think!

Sep 6, 2010

A Celtic Labor Day

Examples of Celtic labor from the Book of Kells Exhibit, Washington-Centerville Library

Although Labor Day is an American holiday, it still makes me think about the Celtic people. The Carmina Gadelica* is filled with prayers and songs for times of labor. There is a whole section devoted to labor. The people took God with them wherever they went and included Him in whatever they were doing.

God, bless Thou Thyself my reaping.
Each ridge, and plain, and field,
Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,
Each ear and handful on the sheaf.
Each ear and handful on the sheaf.*

I often ask myself if I do this. I think the very fact that I have to ask means I don't, or I don't nearly enough take God with me in my everyday tasks. Many Christians have a time of devotion or quiet prayer, and when I do this myself, I find myself often questioning whether I'm sticking God into 15 minutes a day and leaving Him out of the rest.

The Celtic people clearly had a different mindset. There was no separating God from the world. God is not only in the world, He is life, the very reason the world exists.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. ~John 1: 3-5 NIV

I AM smooring the fire
As the Son of Mary would smoor;
Blest be the house, blest be the fire,
Blest be the people all.*

I have blogged about the Carmina Gadelica many times before (see this search) and probably will again. It's a wonderful collection that illuminates the spiritual belief of the ancient Celtic people.

I will give thanks to the King of grace
For the growing crops of the ground,
He will give food to ourselves and to the flocks
According as He disposeth to us.*

Sep 3, 2010

Féth Fíada

Féth Fíada, or the druid's fog, is thought to be an enchantment. The fog conceals someone, makes them invisible, and fog can truly do that anyway, right?

I found a passage from a book called An Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political by Edward Wakefield, written in 1812. Wakefield describes the fog in Ireland:

There are two kinds of mist or fog in Ireland, one of which is constant and uniform, filling the whole air in such a manner as to impede the view, and continuing in the same state till it vanishes, either by rising into the atmosphere or falling to the earth. This kind is commonly followed by rain.

The other consists of clouds of foggy vapours, scattered about, with clear spaces between them. These clouds are often strongly agitated, and sometimes driven about with great velocity. This species of fog arises, not only on the sea coast, but also in the interior of the country upon mountains, and often terminates in one general mist.

Mist carries with it a sense of mystery. Whether or not enchantment was involved, the foggy weather in Ireland was probably used to advantage. I'm reminded of the fog that concealed the American troops during the Revolutionary War in Brooklyn.

On August 28, severe rain storms prevented any fighting between Washington and Howe. Both sides stayed in place. Also, because of the high winds, Howe was unable to move his warships behind Washington's position.

On August 29, during the evening, Washington called a council-of-war to consult on the proper measures to be taken. It was determined that moving across the river was the only way to escape. Washington ordered that all boats that could be found to be gathered up. The plan was to use the boats to ferry his troops across the river to safety. This way, they could escape the British trap and withdraw undetected from Brooklyn Heights. A heavy rain and fog kept the patriot escape from being seen from Howe. Heavy winds continued to keep the British ships from advancing to Washington's position.

The withdrawal started soon after it was dark from two points, the upper and lower ferries, on the East River. The intention of evacuating the island had been so prudently concealed from the troops that they did not know where they were going. The field artillery, tents, baggage, and about 9,000 men were conveyed over East River, more than a mile wide, in less than 13 hours. Being only 600 yards away, Howe and the British army had no knowledge of the Patriot withdrawal that was proceeding.

On August 30, around 6:00 A.M., the last of the Patriots left the shore of Long island. The withdrawal had worked without the british finding out.

At 11:00 A.M., the heavy winds finally died down enough for the British warships to begin to move upriver.

At 11:30 A.M., the fog lifted. Howe ordered his troops to advance and take the Patriot works. When they arrived, they discovered that the Patriots were nowhere to be seen. Howe realized that he had let Washington and the Patriots slip through his grasp. The British warships were finally able to move upriver, just a few hours too late to stop the Patriots. If Howe could have captured Washington and his troops, this would have effectively ended the war.

So, the Féth Fíada was carried on in colonial America, it seems!

Sep 2, 2010


The definition of confession from
acknowledgment; avowal; admission: a confession ofincompetence.
acknowledgment or disclosure of sin or sinfulness, esp. to apriest to obtain absolution.
something that is confessed.
a formal, usually written, acknowledgment of guilt by aperson accused of a crime.
Also called confession of faith. a formal profession of beliefand acceptance of doctrines, as before being admitted tochurch membership.
the tomb of a martyr or confessor or the altar or shrineconnected with it.

Christians know that confession is essential to the faith to reconcile one's self to God.
The early church recognized the need for confession--baptism alone does not keep a person from sinning--therefore the practice of confession and penance was begun. This confession took place publicly, and was often handled severely. However, like they did with most everything else, the Irish Christians came up with their own system, probably modeled on the practices of the Egyptian monks. Confession was private, and the confessor was a unique spiritual guide known as an anamcara, or soul friend. This practice, although likely initiated by the monks, spread to the Irish priests and bishops, and also to the European continent.

Confession was viewed as good for the soul. By the 8th century or so, the confessors were the church clergy, but before that anyone could be a confessor to anyone else, even GASP! women. Actually, in ancient Ireland it would not have been unusual to have women in such roles. It would have been perfectly normal, and as I've pointed out many times, St. Brigid is a wonderful example.

Confession became the practice of the Catholic Church, largely because of the initial practice by the early Irish Christians. Protestants practice confession also, but it is not stressed. I think it is still good for the soul, and necessary still for reconciliation with God.

Here's a prayer we've been using in my weekly prayer group. It's a modern update of an existing prayer of confession.

Prayer of Confession

Almighty and merciful God,

We have strayed from you like sheep.

We have followed our own desires

And offended you by not following your way.

We have failed to do what we should,

And we have done things we shouldn’t.

Have mercy on us, O God.

Grant grace to those who confess.

Restore those who are remorseful,

According to your promise through Jesus.

For his sake grant us mercy

So that we may hereafter live a life pleasing to you

And give you all the glory.

-Silent confession-

We have assurance that God is faithful and just and cleanses us from all sin.

Thanks be to God.