St. Kentigern – a christianised pagan tale?

Kentigern, often known as Mungo, was a saint of the early medieval Christian church who was supposed to have lived in the 6th century and to have been responsible for christianising the ancient Cumbric British Kingdom of Strathclyde, now a part of Scotland.

The region of Strathclyde forms the southern gateway to the Scottish Highlands, and is formed by the plains and foothills surrounding the great River Clyde which discharges into the Irish Sea, and was therefore an important region in the historic interplay between the various cultures of this region during the first millennium, including the peoples of the Scottic Dalriada provinces, Gallovidians, Picts, Cumbrians and peoples of Rheged and later the Anglians and Norse settlers. Its capital city of Glasgu (Glasgow) was supposedly founded by Mungo.

Most of what we know of him is dependent upon the hagiographic writing of the great 12thC Cistercian Abbott, Jocelyn of Furness, who was instrumental in assisting with the mission of the continental (Norman) church to establish dominance and the episcopal system in the northwest Atlantic provinces and who translated Gaelic hagiographical traditions into latinate ones to suit the new ‘Anglo’-Norman world. Jocelyn provided new saints’ lives for Patrick (who supposedly originated in Strathclyde) as well as Mungo/Kentigern. His patrons for the work on Patrick were John de Courcy, and probably also his ally – the King of Mann and the Isles, Godred Olafsson whose sister Auffrica had married de Courcy, and who had assisted in the Norman lord’s conquest of Ulster and the subsequent consolidation of Ireland’s religious power under a post-Gregorian reformed episcopacy. For the work on Kentigern, his sponsor was the Norman Abbott Jocelyn of Melrose who was also Bishop of Glasgow, Strathclyde’s principle town.

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern starts with an apology for the problems he encounters in interpreting the various gaelic language traditions of the saint he a had gathered in order to flesh out a text already being developed by the bishop of Glasgow. The stories he gathered were mainly from Strathclyde and from St Asaph’s in Wales: all important ports, along with Furness, in the Irish Sea region. Many of these tales he implies were improper and contained too many elements of heathenism, ‘contrary to certain doctrine and catholic faith’ to use the narrators own words. In fact, it is fairly clear from reading the Furness monk’s work that there is plenty of pagan material still within it, as well as much promoting the other seats of the new continental religious power and spirit of the Gregorian Reforms of church probity and religious rigor that underpinned the Cistercian worldview of the 12th and 13th centuries. His aim was obviously to rid the tale of aspects of what he perceived as syncretic heathenism in the Gaelic forms of Kentigern’s life so as ‘to season with Roman salt what had been ploughed by barbarians’.

Before I embark upon my commentary of the pagan aspects of this legendary text, I urge readers to take a look at a recent translation of the work by Cynthia Whiddon Green.

The first aspect I’d like to examine is the ‘origin story’: This is one of a fallen and rejected heathen woman Thaneu – fallen both in Jocelyn’s medieval Christian moral sense and fallen also in the physical sense that she was apparently thrown off a cliff at the top of Traprain Law in Lothian. The tale mirrors the biblical narrative of the Cistercians’ favourite ‘mother goddess’ – Mary,  with Mungo’s mother pregnant through an illicit extra-marital union with a nebulous and unspecified paternal donor. For such a ‘crime’ her father, the King of Lothian, has her thrown off a crag on Dumpelder (Traprain Law) but she is carried softly down to the ground, as if by wings. She is then cast adrift in the ocean in a coracle – her fate dependent upon the spirit of the seas. It so happens she drifts ashore near to an early Christian centre of learning run by St Servanus/Serf, and she builds a fire for herself on the shore and gives birth to a boy – Mungo – before being discovered by the monks.

Those astute in the folklore originating from Atlantic paganism will recognise that these motifs are to be found in many of the ‘syncretic’ literary and folktales that survive from Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc. Conception by spirits of magical children, the leapss and falls of giants, the casting adrift of sacred children and female personages who come ashore to figuratively give birth. The narrative is one based in the seasonal drama, and passage of the sun across the sky.  The female character (Thanue) is the Earth Goddess and the male (Mungo) represents the Sun/Son – in the story, the Sun is born out of the land in the east and travels west towards the Atlantic ocean into Strathclyde. The theme of a magical character washing ashore occurs in the Isle of Man’s Caillagh y Groamagh legend attached to Bridget’s day or Imbolc as it is sometimes known. The same theme is used in the Bethu Brigdhe hagiography of Bridget which mentions the bandit-turned-saint Machaldus (Maughold) being cast into the sea and washing up in the Isle of Man. Thanue is therefore a character replacing Bride-Aine, but what of her son?

The fact that Mungo enters his floruit (recorded life) from the sea and spends an awful lot of time in water and controlling water during the rest of his hagiography is highly suggested of the solar deity motif, identifying him with reasonable certainty as a hypostasis for the shining god Manannan who strides so actually godlike among the lesser characters of many of the euhemerist legends of medieval Irish literature and later folk tradition.  Even his name seems to refer to ‘Man’ in the form of ‘Mun’, just like Mongan mac Fiachna in the Irish Manannan legends. Mungo = Manannan.

Christian narratives did their best to replace the dualist Atlantic god and goddess with a masculine counterpart, particularly after the Brigitine church period, so Mungo subsumes the roles of both in the rest of the Vita. Here is a list of some of the features of Jocelyn’s tale which illustrate the pagan legends he was trying to weave in:

1. He emerges from the sea and has power over the waters.

2. He has the power to resurrect (e.g. – the little ‘red bird’ of St Serf – either a Robin or a Wren).

3. He has a magical branch (hazel or holly – the gaelic names can be confused) with which he keeps Serf’s eternal holy flames burning.

4. He resurrects a man who describes being conveyed back from the afterlife by a man of shining fiery light.

5. He conveys the dead to their resting place (the bullock cart is an interesting celestial motif)

7. Like the Cailleach of highland legend, while living as a ‘Culdee’ he exerts control over flocks of deer and wolves, who he treats like cattle, and hitches to his plough.

8. He spends an inordinate amount of time dousing himself in water and radiating holy light. When others are asleep he is awake praying – the Otherworld Inversion.

9. He disappears from the world in winter to fast. His food is the underground parts of dormant plants.

10. He sleeps in a stone sarcophagus and wears goat skins. There are a number of references to paganism in medieval and later literature which attest to ‘saints’ or spirits living in stone sarcophagi covered in water. Brownie/Phynnodderee/Glastig was a hairy half-human.

11. He is associated with a magical white boar, a special ram, and bullocks.

12. He finds a ring in the belly of a salmon. This motif also occurs in a number of traditional ‘fairy tales’ and medieval irish otherworld literature. For example, the Irish legend of Macaldus, the English fairy tale ‘The Fish and the Ring’ and the Irish Tain Bo Fraich. The Salmon returning is a motif of the returning year and the ring also – the goddess name Aine signifies a ring as well.

There are quite a few more referenes which emerge upon careful study of Jocelyn’s work, but these are the most important! Read the text and see what you think…

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