Written annals surviving from the middle ages and early modern periods tend to employ the arrival of St Patrick as an historical ‘event horizon’ for the establishment of a Christian civitas of history and law in Ireland. Given that literacy followed hand-in-glove with christianity and that – until a very late period – the literate were generally the Christian elite, it follows that our interpretation of the cultural and historical veracity of such sources must be cautious at best.
One example comes from the Annals of Ulster, which commence with two important events: the coming of Patrick during the reign of Emperor Theodosius in 433, followed (after a few entries dealing with O’Neill primacy) by a statement against the year 438 : “The Senchas Már was written”. These events stamp the conversion of Irish religion and law into a form with written primacy – an ‘event’ important to the annalists, as it marks the transition of power from pre-Roman learned memorisers (the Druids, Brehons and Bards) to the Romanised literary system of power and precedent, controlled by the church. This was the selfsame church who had positioned itself at the side of the new model of kingship and land-dominance it had created, replacing the tribal systems of Iron Age Europe which had latterly been destabilised by mass-migration under the Roman Imperium.
Although monkish annals like to fix events on a historical timeline as fait accompli, it is wrong to take them at face value: Ireland probably did not wholly christianise with the coming of Patrick, and it is likely that christianity (perhaps in a form deemed too heretical to admit to) was present there long before Patrick, and that paganism survived for a fairly long time after him. Likewise, the statement in the Annals of Ulster about the codification of Breast Law (the memorised legal traditions of the traditional Brehon judges) into the Senchas Már text has little evidence to suggest a fundamental change occurred in Irish and Gaelic legal culture: We know for a fact that when the Isle of Man (which was culturally and linguistically closest to Ulster) ceded to the rule of the English Stanley potentates in 1405, its laws were still memorised ‘Breast Laws’ kept by oral tradition, in spite of the presence of a significant contingent of clergy and a number of Abbeys from an early period. The commissioning and writing of annals has been shown to serve a purpose of establishing a ‘historical’ argument for the primacy of the secular and religious sponsors of the work. Through the processes of continuous editing and re-copying Annals might evolve a stable and progressive timeline leading to the present, and such a work could be used to settle political disputes in favour of the sponsors – the church in particular.
Of the literature produced in Ireland by Christian scribes, Annals are perhaps the driest and most functional. Other popular forms of literature (other than copies of the gospels and the bible) produced in Ireland’s monasteries included hagiographies (stories of saints’ lives) and the transcriptions of various forms of oral culture knowledge, including laws and secular or pagan stories, which – typical to the artistic/poetic mode typifying oral culture – functioned as a synthesis of history, entertainment and education. Knowledge of the treasure trove of tradition of a pre-literate oral-culture society allowed the literate Christians to challenge the power structure of paganism and effectively replace it with their own model. In Ireland, which was probably ethnically and territorially more conservative (having not partaken to any large degree of the Pax Romana before the collapse of the western empire) this was a necessary method of Christianisation – almost unique in Europe until the pagan Scandinavians became introduced to the same principals. Elsewhere, migration was the cultural upsetter allowing Christianisation to proceed replacing as it did.
The vast majority of ‘Bardic’ knowledge pertaining to pagan religion would have been displaced and indelibly altered when it was transformed into its literary Christian context. The processes for achieving this were convoluted and evolved over a period of time, presumably between the 5th and 10th centuries. Simply banning paganism was impossible, as it pervaded every aspect of the peoples’ worldview and lives, and provided all of the signposts and models to explain the universe. Christianity and Judaism held no models explaining the movement of stars, the meaning of tides and seasons, the reasons why certain plants were useful; they held no history of the Atlantic peoples – simply those of dusty desert tyrants and the ancestors of other races in far-off lands.
The essential doctrines of christianity that would be impressed upon the pagans were that their gods and spirits were in fact devils, opposed to a single ‘true’ god from the middle east whose existence these devils had formerly kept people in ignorance. What is more, this god had created a son here on earth (but a long way from Ireland) who had been put to death in payment for the evil deeds and ignorance of humanity. By accepting this imported ‘truth’ it was supposed that adherents would find favour with this one God and earn a place in an eternal afterlife. This must have been so alien to the Irish that they must have laughed out loud in disbelief when confronted by the early continental and Mediterranean proselytes. Unlike in Britannia and Europe, the collapse of the pagan Roman empire was no argument in favour of christianity to the Irish, as they had not integrated the Roman belief system into their culture and had a perfectly functional religious model of their own.
When christianity did start to make inroads into the lives of pagans was when it started targeting and in fact creating an emerging new model of kingship that was propagated throughout post-Roman Europe. The religion ignored the people and their innate philosophies and targeted their leaders and lawmakers, beginning a drawn-out process of trickle-down acceptance backed up by the threat of power. By necessity, this subtle process would pursue a policy of replacement: like-for-like. It would also gradually subvert and alter the conception and memories of the true nature of paganism, using the following techniques:
1. Creating in stories a ‘pantheon’ of pagan gods similar to the Roman and Greek model, thus allowing the rhetorical methods of continental christianity to be applied. These ‘gods’ were given a history and context that implied they were euhemerised people from history falsely worshipped as a result of encouragement by demons.
2. Combining pagan stories elaborating the reality and functions of the deities into those of local saints. Pagan creation stories for landscape features, plants, animals and features of nature had their attributions transferred to saints.
3. Creating pseudo-historical accounts of the past history of Ireland that gave a middle-eastern or oriental provenance to the Irish.
4. Replacing the empirical human doctrine of ancestral spirits and reincarnation of souls with fairy-beliefs, producing an extra-doctrinal category of spirits ambivalent in their nature between Christianity’s angels and demons.
The model worked so well in Ireland, that Irish clerics and their ideas became vital to the christianising efforts of the rulers of the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks, as well as of the Scandinavians from the 9th century onwards.
So … the Irish mythological cycles, the Welsh ‘Mabinogion’, the Scandinavian ‘Edda’ legends and the other famous mythologies of the ancient north Europeans are products of a concerted campaign of cultural subversion by Christians seeking to obfuscate the true nature of paganism as it once existed in these regions. This process was started by the pagan Romans who sought to replace the worldview of those they conquered with one sympathetic to theirs.