‘Erdathe’ – The Atlantic religion’s ‘day of judgement’?

The 7thC Patrician biographer Tírechán is a valuable source for some details of the Atlantic religion in Ireland. His work – known as the Collecteana occurs in the Book of Armagh – MS52 of Trinity College Dublin. One of the mysterious Irish words he left in his Latin hagiography of the saint is the word 'erdathe' which Tírechán claims was the term used by Irish pagans for their equivalent to the 'day of reckoning of the Lord'. It can be found in the last paragraph of Folio 10r…

12 (1) Perrexitque ad ciuitatem Temro ad Logairium filium Neill iterum, quia apud illum foedus pepigit, ut non occideretur in regno illius; sed non potuit credere, dicens:(2) “nam Neel pater meus non siniuit mihi credere, sed ut sepeliar in cacuminibus Temro quasi uiris consistentibus in bello” (quia utuntur gentiles in sepulcris armati prumptis armis) “facie ad faciem usque ad diem erdathe” (apud magos, id est iudicii diem Domini) “ego filius Neill et filius Dúnlinge Immaistin in campo Liphi pro duritate odiui ut est hoc”.12 (1) And he proceeded again to the city of Tara to Loíguire son of Níall, because he made a pact with him that he should not be killed within his realm; but (Loíguire) could not accept the faith, saying:(2) 'My father Níall did not allow me to accept the faith, but bade me to be buried on the ridges of Tara, I son of Níall and the sons of Dúnlang in Maistiu in Mag Liphi, face to face (with each other) in the manner of men at war' (for the pagans, armed in their tombs, have their weapons ready) until the day of erdathe (as the magi call it, that is, the day of the Lord's judgement), because of such fierceness of our (mutual) hatred.'

So… what is erdathe? There are two problems in determining the answer to this question: Firstly, is this really the word in the original text (written in 9thC insular minuscule text)? Secondly, the lack in standards for orthography from such early written Irish would make the word (whatever it is) a difficult one to find a more modern equivalent for…

Let's take a look at the first problem. Here is a facsimile of the word as written in paragraph 12 (Folio 10r) of the actual manuscript:


For those not accustomed to 9thC insular miniscule scripts, the initial e or a and the following r are compound or ligated and the 'r' part shows the typical dependant leg of the 'long r'. Third letter is 'd', fourth 'a', fifth 't' (capitalised in style), sixth 'h' and final a definite 'e': a/e-r-d-a-t-h-e. So: this is definitely the correct word, but the first letter might be an 'a'. You might also note the four dots above the d, a, t and 'e' where the scribe rested his nib while considering how to write the Irish word – one he was unfamiliar with and which has no other attestations in this form of spelling. This hesitancy on his part might also have given the indeterminate a/e at the start of the word. This leaves us to examine the second problem – that of meaning:

In addressing the second problem, it is necessary to take a phonetic approach and cast a wide net to see how this word relates to later Gaelic words:


The words ard and ath(e) appear to compound the word ardathe/erdathe. This offers us a straightforward translation, for 'ard' = 'height', 'high' or 'elevated'. However, the 'athe' part (-ath is not a usual suffix in the Irish language) is slightly more problematic, unless of course it is a pure compound word, in which case áth, meaning a 'ford' or an 'open space or hollow between two objects' (eDIL) seems a likely offering. The áth is a typical place for combats to occur in narrative tales such as those of the Ulster Cycle, and in particular the Táin Bó Cúailnge… this implies a liminal place where 'crossing-over' (death) might occur, as well as being a place typical for the territorial combats of rutting stags on river plains etc. It therefore shows a link of sorts to the word cath- which suffixes terms to do with battle or defence (e.g. Conn Cétchathach – Conn of the Hundred Battles); Bear in mind that the 'd' of 'erd' or 'ard' would possibly lenit a following hard consonant to give '-ath'. Other words that would fit this schema might include 'rath' and 'math'. The use of ath- as a prefix also implies an act of repetition. 'Athair' of course means 'father' – a term used to mean 'god' by Christians ('Pater noster…')

Manx: (definitions from Juan Kelly's Dictionary – Manx Society Vol.13)

The Manx language is a treasure trove for those looking for more ancient forms of Irish, having remained in a purely spoken form until the 17th century, and having enjoyed a level of cultural stability that Ireland could not, and which in turn preserved many aspects of Atlantic religious folklore that was otherwise lost. Literature has a habit of informing the 'correct' pronunciation and flow of ideas in a culture… The best guess of 'erdathe' in Manx is seen in the two forms of the expression for 'high', 'elevated' or 'exalted' – based on the rootword ard:

“Ardaght, ardys, s. height, eminence” – the round 'a' takes on a hollow 'e' sound to make the adjectival:

“Yrjey, a. high, eminent; also promoted, advanced.” – the Manx terminal -ey is pronounced '-ya' or '-yu'. The equivalent of 'ardaght' would by 'yrjaght'. In fact 'erdathe' might be pronounced in exactly this fashion with flat vowels: “er-jer-he”! These are effectively Anglophone ways of writing Irish words, after all…

Sanas Chormaic (Cormac's Glossary):

Another more intriguing and perhaps more likely possibility is a word given by the famous Cormac of Cashel in his 'glossary' of the 10thC. This word (from page 5) is Audacht which Cormac translates as

'a dying testimony' ; ie uath-fecht, ie – when one sets out on a journey (fecht) of (the) grave (uath), ie – of death

(Whitley Stokes' edition of John O'Donovan's translation)

The online Electronic DIL provides a number of variants such as édoct and aidacht. These are used to refer specifically to a 'bequest', 'legacy' or 'testament'. Cormac's etymology may be somewhat fanciful, of course. What kind of legacy/bequest could this be? The death of an individual means their earthly possessions default to the living. It might also be considered as a bequest of the self to future posterity in another incarnation.

So … Tírechán's 'erdathe' or 'ardathe' refers either to a state to do with the heights or something elevated, perhaps to a 'crossing-over' or liminal place leading into another cycle of regeneration and reincarnation, perhaps a testament or bequest of some sort, possibly of oneself to future posterity. His assertion that it was equivalent to a 'day of judgement' may just reflect a christian interpretation of what may well be a different form of the afterlife…


Naomh Pádraig – commentary on the hagiographies Part 1

There is some controversy about who the ‘real’ Patrick was: Although traditionally credited with the Christianisation of Ireland, we know that an important Roman Gaul called Palladius (also known by the ‘power name’ Patricius) was a church leader (Archdeacon and/or Bishop) in Ireland during the early 5th century before the conventional ‘Patrick’, as were a number of other British and continental churchmen. Britain (and Ireland) had remained under the influence of a strain of christianity called Pelagianism deemed heretical by the continental church as it denied original sin and the need for infant baptism. Palladius was probably one of the people given the task of bringing the Irish and British into conformity. Pelagius was an Atlantic European whose Christian doctrines were probably influenced by syncresis with Atlantic paganism, and whose mission and philosophy sought to influence the heart of Christian doctrine and the  Mediterranean church hierarchy during the 4th century. Even in the 2nd century, there was a theologian and bishop of Lyons (Lugudunum) called Ireneus which might well mean ‘Irishman’. Remember – the Druids were an intellectual collegium of northern Europe who were said to have partaken of the study of a number of non-native philosophies, of which christianity was only an interesting new development!

No – Patrick (ca. late 5thC) was NOT the first to bring Christianity to the Irish, but left his name to represent this process in posterity. His prominence appears to emerge with the creation of a political historical ‘event horizon’ formed by the saturation of Christian culture and the apparent establishment of Christianised sacral kingship during the 6th-7th centuries. The earliest Irish hagiography that survives today is that of St Brigit of Kildare, which somewhat surprisingly makes no mention of him. 

The earliest accounts of St Patrick are found preserved in the 9thC Book of Armagh (Ard Macha or Armagh layed claim to be Patrick’s founding church) and include works seemingly written by the actual saint himself as well as two significant 7thC hagiographies. The two original works are two latin letters known as the ‘Confession‘ and the ‘Epistle to Coroticus’: The first is a justificatory account written in the first person of his life and principles. The other is addressed to a military leader or king called Coroticus  (a Romano-British name), complaining about the slaughter and enslavement of some of Patrick’s white-clad Irish missionaries.

The Confessio contains to magical exploits or much in the way of Christianised pagan themes, but is replete with accounts of visions and the saint’s interpretation of providences. It seems to suggest that Ireland was completely subjugated to christianity by the time of Patrick writing it towards the end of his life, although in reality it is more a description of his mission’s popularity among the nobility and their slaves (many of whom were Christians from Britannia). It neither mentions magi or druids or says anything about native Irish religion save for a reference to ‘idola et inmunda’, usually translated as ‘idols and unclean things’ but which might also be read literally as ‘spirit images and worldly things’ – a good appraisal of the Atlantic religion in my opinion. The Latin ‘idola’ is the same as the Greek word ‘eidola’, meaning ‘spirit image’ – it came to represent physical statuary images in the later classical period as christianity increasingly defined these in terms of their material rather than spiritual value. The word munda means ‘refined’, ‘subtle’ or ‘delicate’ (properties synonymous with spirit, and possibly fire and air in the elemental doctrine of the ancients) so inmunda is the opposite. Remember that Christianity was a purificatory religion that rejected worldly things in favour of its ‘higher’ intellectual religious interpretations… Paganism looked to the world to extrapolate its visions.

Hagiographies of the 7thC:

After these the next texts dealing with his life are hagiographical and therefore of a style including miracles and fantastical accounts. These come from the 7th century – a considerable period after the time of his supposed ministry – and are by two quite different authors. The first is by Muirchú moccu Machtheni and is called Vita sancti Patricii or ‘Life of Patrick’. This work (which exists in several fragmentary copies surviving from different eras) credits Patrick with the conversion of Ireland, as well as name-checking Cogitosus of Kildare (author of the earlier Vitae Sanctae Brigitae) as the author’s spiritual ‘father’, perhaps implying that Muirchú was following his hagiographical lead. This also suggests that Brigitine monasticism may have preceded Patrician monasticism in Ireland, as Cogitosus made no mention of Patrick at all – something which would be surprising if he held such precedence throughout Ireland in the late 5th and early 6th centuries during Brigit’s supposed lifetime! Muirchú’s work is marked by its employing Cogitosus’ style of fantastical miracles, but in particular (perhaps befitting the saint’s gender) these are achieved in acts of magical combat mano a mano with a series of Druids. It is written with a distinct Northern bias, and makes particular mention of Armagh. It dismisses the mission of Palladius as irrelevant.

By contrast, the other 7thC ‘hagiography’ of Patrick from the Book of Armagh – the Collecteana of the Bishop Tírechán – is a much more diverse affair, that spends more time dealing with Patrick’s supposed missions outside of the North and deals more with his conversions of Ireland’s western and southern monarchs as well as the Kinf of Tara.  Tírechán spends more time discussing Patrick’s acquisition of specific pagan locations and conversion of these and their pagan celebrations or traditions to Christian alternatives. The Collecteana contains somewhat more detail of paganism than the Vita. For instance, in the famous passage where the saint and his party are met at a pagan holy well by two princesses who had gone there to make their ablutions or devotions:


(1) Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well, (2) and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire, fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well.(3) And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were men of the sid (the word used in the original latin text!) or earth-gods or a phantom; (4) and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’ (5) The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys? (7) Give us an account of him; how shall he be seen, how is he loved, how is he found, is he found in youth, in old age?’

The passage is replete with references to themes that Tírechán considered essentially pagan – of particular interest is the motif of the well (a spring) which recurs again and again in Irish hagiographies as a place of pagan worship, to be converted to Irish Christian use. Next the use of the word Irish word sid in this Latin text, and its use in contradistinction to the deorum terrenorum (earth gods) and fantassiam (‘phantoms’ or ‘images in the mind’). In fact, Tírechán used a number of native words dealing with pagan things, where no Latin equivalent would suffice. For instance, the word erdathe is described as the pagan name for the ‘day of judgement’, and the druid’s tonsure is called airbacc giunnae.

Discussion of some of the magical acts attributed to Patrick in Tírechán and Muirchú:

General note: Muirchú (M) and Tírechán (T) use the term magus – ‘druid’ is an invention/insertion of later writers and translators.

The M hagiography is explicitly designed to show Patrick to be equivalent to and greater than the magi (druids) at the court of the King of Tara. It even gives credence to the prophetic powers of these magi by having them accurately foretell the coming of Patrick and Christianity before being defeated by the saint, and either being killed or converted. This is a vehicle expressing some form of continuity from druids to monks and priests. The Hill of Tara appears to have been a spiritual omphalos for Ireland, and M tells of the sacred fires first lit there to be propagated to the rest of Ireland – somewhat akin to the teine-éiginn mentioned by Martin Martin and other Celtic-region  folklore observers between the 17th and 19th centuries. This is why M choses it as Patrick’s primary destination for spreading his ‘spiritual fire’. It is likely that the event was Beltain rather than Easter. The Hill of Uisneach was also associated with Beltain fires. M’s account makes Patrick’s showdown with the Tara druids seem like the showdown between the wizards Gandalf and Saruman in Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ epic –  bodies are levitated into the air and dashed to pieces, the sun is blotted out, snow and fog is summoned, and armies are scattered with the twitch of a finger! M wishes to portray a definitive victory over the magi (druids)… The style parallels that of Cogitosus, from whom M admits to have taken his lead. Whereas Cogitosus’ Vita and the Bethu Brigte tries to make Brigit the symbol of the ‘new flame’ of Ireland, the Patrician hagiographers of the 7thC – M in particular – try to assert Patrick’s replacing the pagan fire-kindling festivals (Beltain) and instituting his own Christian Easter fire. Easter or Pascha is/was the most important Christian festival.

The T hagiography is somewhat more reserved, also mentions the assembly at Tailtiu as a place Patrick attended in his combat with the druids – associated (according to the ‘Book of Invasions’/LGE) with Lughnasadh (a harvest-fruition festival) rather than Beltain. Both the Tara and Tailtiu assemblies that T’s Patrick attends are at Easter – Christianity was unable to relate to the cross-quarter-day festivals of the Atlantic peoples! T takes the story of Patrick throughout Ireland, giving a blow-by-blow account of how pagan sites were converted to Christian usage. He even combats birds on what later became the pilgrimage site of Croagh Patrick (‘Cruachán Aigli’) in Co. Mayo in the west – a theme for resisting the principle of ancestral-souls-as-birds, associated with hilltops in the Atlantic religion.  Legends about both Brigit and Kevin also refer to birds, as do those about Brendan and other Irish saints: the association of birds with the dead was an important part of the pagan faith! An anonymous 7thC Irish monastic author (known to scholars as Augustinus Hibernicus) even wrote of this belief in an essay on biblical miracles called De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae:

An unknown Irish author of the early 7th century who wrote a tract known as De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae

In this work, the monkish author makes the following statement about ?local magi when discussing evolution (yes – in the 7th century!): He says that to suggest that one species might actually turn into another (there was a belief in the possibility of interspecies metamorphosis until quite late in the middle ages) was to give assent to:

`… et ridiculosis magorum fabulationibus dicentium in avium substantia majores suos saecula pervolasse, assensum praestare videbimur’ (PL 35.2164).

`… the ridiculous myths of the magicians who say that their ancestors flew through the ages in the form of birds’.

‘Augustine’ was a philosopher-theologian with an excellent grasp on classical latin for a monk of the period. As there are no precedents in Roman, Egyptian or Greek paganism, we have to assume he was talking about the Irish magi – otherwise known as the ‘Druids’!


Understanding stories about the Celtic Saints

Christianity's super-heroes

Christianity’s super-heroes

‘Hagiography’ is the form of literature dealing with accounts of the lives of saints, specifically Christian saints. The word ‘Saint’ comes from the latin word ‘Sancte’ meaning ‘Holy’, and ‘holy’ is defined by the standard entry in the OED as:

‘dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred:’

The English word ‘holy’ is derived from the Germanic languages: In Old English, it is hālig and in German heilig. This has connotations of ‘whole’ and the words ‘hale’ and ‘health’ are related. We might consider the English use of the word to refer to the wholeness of the spiritual world linked to the material world – a ‘holy’ person being akin to what the Greeks would call a ‘philosopher’ who understands how God(s) influences the mundane, by virtue of a higher knowledge. The Romans characterised the holy men of the pagan Britons, Gauls, Germans etc as ‘philosophers’ so it is perhaps unsurprising that their Christianised descendants would continue with the Germanic epithet denoting a ‘wholeness’.

Naomh Pádraig - the 'Shining Daddy'

Naomh Pádraig – the ‘Shining Daddy’

The Gaelic equivalent word was Naomh – pronounced ‘Neev’ if you are Irish or Scots and ‘Noo’ if you were Manx (who converted the ‘m’ to a ‘w’ sound rather than a ‘v’). This appears to have originated from the word noíb and to have mutated through naem(h) to naomh (source: eDIL online = Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language- níam(h). The ocean-going currachs of Ireland’s west coast are called naomhóg – presumably because they might carry you to those fabled lustrous western isles where the sun sets: the pagan Atlantic equivalent of heaven, or possibly some far-flung monastery! ‘Saint Patrick’ would be Naomh PadraigThe Old Irish word for heaven was Nem curiously close to the word for ‘poison’: neim(h) – a paradox which is understandable when you consider the otherworld-inversion principle by which a place (death) to which life flowed and from which it would again be reborn!

Right – enough of the philology and linguistics and back to the topic:

When discussing the ‘Celtic’ saints, I am referring to the traditions of Christianity’s ‘holy heroes’ originating in Northern Hispania, late sub-Roman Gaul, Brittany, Cornwall, the West and Northwest of Britain, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, the Hebrides and the Orkneys. There are a vast number of them and not all have official recognition by the Vatican.

They assumed special ‘superhero’ names, as it was the custom of monks to relinquish their birth names and take on a name with specific holy meaning. Some of these names may even have been designed to reflect pagan names or traditions in order to Christianise them in the Theodosius II tradition. This may have been particularly true of the ‘ahistoric’ saints – heroes who existed only in storytelling traditions.

Stories about the ‘Celtic’ saints have existed in written form and in oral folklore, and the written stories (known as ‘hagiographies’ or ‘lives’). The earliest accounts would have relied upon the collection of oral testimonies as very few of these persons (where they actually existed at all) left surviving identifiable personal writings, let alone autobiographies. The ‘peri-christianisation’ hagiographies relate largely to saints of the 5th-7th centuries,  a period often formerly referred to by historians as the ‘dark ages’ on account of the paucity of surviving written evidence we have from it – many early accounts are copies from much later on.  It didn’t help that the ‘Black Gentiles’ (Vikings) freely burnt many of the early Christian records in a futile attempt to stamp out the spiritual ‘invaders’ who had overturned paganism. Many of these lost works probably contained significant details of paganism, now largely lost.

The ‘magical’ aspects of hagiography reach their greatest and most fantastical heights in medieval Irish texts. However, it is always worth considering how important the use of allegory was in early Christian expression, so apparently magical occurrences need not be taken literally: For instance, the ‘miracle’ of giving ‘sight’ or ‘light’ to the ‘blind’ is an allegory for conversion to the Christian faith. Magicians ‘rising’ into the air before being discomposed by a saint may be an allegory for the inevitable result of haughty pride. A ‘mute’ being given the power of speech is the conversion of a person who then becomes a preacher. A ‘leper’ is someone who – after the Old Testament sense – is a ‘sinner’ suffering in some worldly way as a result, and their ‘healing’ is the committal of penance or confession of faith.

The functions of hagiography can be summed up as follows:

The ‘unbroken’ continuation of Apostolic authority:

As far as the church as a corporate entity was concerned a saint was a person who displayed divine apostolic holiness, inherited through a direct chain of authority deriving from the ‘commission’ the biblical Jesus passed on to his first disciples, to whom he supposedly gave the same holy powers of healing and converting. The Nicene Creed established a doctrine of Jesus as equivalent to God, rather than just a prophet, thus the chain of disciples following on were believed to display signs of this divine gift. Apostolic sanctity was therefore confirmed by providing evidence of miracles performed by the saint both during their life and after their death. As there is no objective way of proving this, the process depended upon oral and written testimony of persons considered suitably holy and trustworthy, and for this reason the science or art of hagiology and hagiography developed. This allowed a special status to be posthumously granted to the founders of religious institutions and dynasties who served the political and ideological ends of the church. By the sixth century, it may have been apparent that in contemporary time people were not being ‘actually’ raised from the ‘dead’ or cured of ‘blindness’ or ‘leprosy’, but a belief in this power was very strong, and ordinary people were willing to accept stories of what appears to have been the figurative ‘otherworld’ healing in a more literal sense: ‘death’ was paganism, ‘blindness’ was recusancy, and ‘leprosy’ was sin – the marks left upon the body by imperfect living and faith.

Hagiographies boosted the claims of Abbeys:

Early medieval abbeys served several purposes: On one level they were communities designed to reinforce the message of christianity by acting as an exemplary focal point of the religion and source of Christian learning. In early medieval Ireland, they also offered an alternative for young freemen to joining the cultural institution of the Fian, where they would learn traditional hunting, social and fighting skills before re-entering Irish society in their majority. By implication, they might also have had the option to join the hedge-schools of the pagan philosophical/religious scholars referred to in tales as the Draoi otherwise translated as ‘druids’, although by the time of the writing of early law tracts during the Christian period, this had been supplanted by the system of Abbeys. Either which way, Abbeys would provide a form of economic relief and education and – like other courtly institutions – allow the forming of alliances outside of the usual tribal sphere and the chance to interact with others from outside of the tribe. They offered education and opportunities for travel and adventure to young men, and to young women they relieved their parents of the burden of marriage dowries (often cattle); In fact, due to the marriage system referred to as lánamnas comthinchuir (?’marriage of equals’) it also relieved the bridegroom’s family of the burden of donation of land equal in value to the dowry to a bride’s family: celibate monks and nuns were economically independent of their families, yet would still be able to interact and take part in family life and politics. They would bring power and influence without economic outlay, and in a time of polygamous marriages (7th/8thC) could offer a buffer against successional disputes among siblings and step-siblings.

So … Abbeys could bring, stability, new contacts, peace and prosperity. To support them further, keeping and maintaining an official memory of their founders would have been essential to their establishment and power. As they expanded their influence to ‘daughter’ houses, the influence of the patron saint and his/her stories would expand to a wider geographical area and fix the importance of the parent house in the emerging Christian kingdoms of the early medieval period. This would ensure the wider propagation of the hagiography, which would support central canonisation through the Vatican.

Hagiographies boosted the claims of secular powers:

Hagiography gave historicity and power to the claims of the secular leaders who were responsible for introducing and promoting christianity in their districts, or of offering overt material support to an institution in their territories.

‘The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!’ (St Patrick, Confessio, ?late 5thC)

They were, after all, allying themselves to the international power of the Church and its secular ‘Holy’ Empire (Rome and Byzantium). In Ireland, the Saints of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ waves of historical Christianisation were almost invariably (except for Patrick) the close relatives of the secular leaders. Given the dynastic and tribal nature of early medieval society in Ireland and its allied cultural territories, power with provenance was generated by sponsoring abbeys and the expensive task of writing books which effectively ‘fixed’ a version of history in the official schema. As the orature of pagan learning and power was supplanted by the written word, so there was a shift of authority to the literary medium (albeit probably still supervised by the traditional keepers of law, lore and history who had converted and learned to write under church supervision). There is good evidence that early hagiographies were often rewritten to suit the claim of successive dynasties, and this process may be repeated a number of times across the centuries. This is why hagiographies do not make good historical sources.

Hagiographies were designed to give a Christian face to a pagan narrative:

Being a religion founded on the hegemonic leanings of some far-off desert tribes coupled to a lot of figurative Greek philosophy, Christianity had little to tell people of Atlantic Europe about how their world worked. Where it did work was in the circles of secular leaders who admired hegemonic power, and in the spiritually-bereft, consumerised multi-cultural wastelands of the collapsed western Roman Empire, where a longing for healing and future glory amidst an apparent landscape beset with disease, decay and barbarity inspired people to take up their leaders’ new religion. In such an atmosphere of cognitive dissonance, people will latch on to anything with the appearance of a cohesive paradigm and christianity was just that. The decay of paganism had started earlier with Romanisation, and the process had started earlier within the Roman culture due to ambitious over-assimilation of some very carefully crafted religious philosophies of the ‘Golden’ or ‘Bronze Age’.

The Byzantine Roman Emperor Theodosius II enacted laws in 439AD establishing Christianity as the state religion, and stipulating how paganism was to be officially replaced – by converting its holy sites and festivals to Christian purpose. The expense and cultural resistance to destroying all of these and starting afresh was too great to do otherwise. Armed with this principle, missionaries took up the spirit of this and sought to perfect it in the furthest reaches of Rome’s former western empire.

Culturally, such ‘barbarian’ regions were based on a tribal model, although with Christianisation came the concept of hegemonic Kingship which was to progressively erode this. These tribal cultures were illiterate, agricultural and warlike, and therefore had a rich and highly sophisticated narrative tradition dealing with survival skills, interpretation of the natural environment, and the tales of heroes and genealogies of tribal leaders. To fit into this culture, it became necessary to fit Christians into this form of narrative: Historical stories of why the tribe was successful and why their environment was formed the way it was could be replaced by tales of saints! These could either be invented or embellished upon the memories of  real persons who acted in the christianising process. By forming a literary tradition, the oral culture could be influenced by a more persistent and less evolutionary (and therefore potentially devolutionarypropaganda. Christianity was, after all, a wholly consumerist religion! For this reason, the hagiographies of Celtic saints are some of the most fantastical and amusing of any in the Christian world, far outstripping the New Testament antics of their Apostolic anticedents, including Jesus himself!

Hagiographies as repositories of Pagan knowledge:

When the Viking invaders began their religious war against the Christians centres of Britain, Ireland and northern France in the 8th century, they sought out and destroyed many of the books held by the great Abbeys. The unfortunate consequence of this ultimately futile gesture is that we may have lost many of the only contemporary records of pagan beliefs, recorded in christianised form within hagiographic stories or actual written accounts kept for technical reasons. A few survive today, and it is from these that we have been trying so hard to unravel the mysterious jigsaw of these sleeping mysteries and knowledge of our ancestors. If you wish to find this knowledge in medieval hagiographies, then you need to have some understanding of a number of types of knowledge: An understanding of Christian stories and doctrines – to see what is not Christian; An understanding of the cultures from which the hagiographies derived – including monastic, secular and contemporary narrative styles and traditions. Finally, you will need to look at the non-Christian folklore of these cultures, surviving into more modern times, including legends, fairy tales and cultural beliefs – both Christian and otherwise. Added to this, it is worth mentioning that:

Paganism itself was an empirical reaction of a pre-literate culture to the science and philosophy of the natural world, expressed in the arts of story, song, performance and practice.