Satan in Northern Ireland

Dennis Wheatley (1897–1977),  British military intelligence operative and author of occult-horror novels, is supposed to have left the “strategic military deception” trade after World War II, but his spirit evidently lived on.

According to a recent article in The Guardian newspaper, during “the Troubles” — the period of conflict between versions of the Irish Republican Army and their Unionist [loyalist] opponents that peaked during the late 1960s and 1970s — British intelligence operatives tried to create a “Satanic panic” that would hinder all the so-called paramilitary groups.

Many Irish nationalists were strong Catholics, while many Unionists were followers of the “Free Presbyterian” minister/politician Ian Paisley. Both were likely to accept the idea of Wheatley-style Satanists among them:

The head of the army’s “black operations” in Northern Ireland, Captain Colin Wallace [said] that they deliberately stoked up a satanic panic from 1972 to 1974, even placing black candles and upside-down crucifixes in derelict buildings in some of Belfast’s war zones.

Then, army press officers leaked stories to newspapers about black masses and satanic rituals taking place from republican Ardoyne in north Belfast to the loyalist-dominated east of the city.

If nothing else, it kept gullible teenagers off the street late at night, maybe.

Doggerland, a Professor of Esotericism, and the Passing of a Priestess of Isis

¶ That  Doggerland existed is not news (do you expect breaking archeology news in the Daily Mail?) but here are some cool images of this lost land. I am still waiting for someone to create an authentic Pagan tradition based there.

¶ Ethan Doyle White interviews a Norwegian scholar of Paganism and esotericism, Egil Asprem. Asprem credits role-playing games, among other things, for his ending up as a professor of esotericism at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

¶ Philip Carr-Gomm reports on the passing yesterday of Olivia Robertson, founder of the Fellowship of Isis.

M. and I visited her (and became members, of course) in 1978 when honeymooning in Ireland.  At that time the household of Clonegal Castle (a Jacobean great house) in Co. Carlow, consisted chiefly of her, her brother Derry, and her brother’s wife, Poppy, whose role seemed to be the “voice of normality” while Olivia and Durry (a retired Anglican clergyman) planned for the future of Goddess-worship — all while living in a mostly unheated and crumbling 17th-century manor.

Once while walking down the drive after a visit with a member of Stewart and Janet Farrar’s coven, the covener, who was English, turned to us and said in amazement, “One reads about people like that.”

And now that is all that we will be able to do.

Ring-Dancing Monkeys and Black Death Rubbish

At Got Medieval, Carl Pyrdrum re-debunks the persistent, authentic-sounding story that the nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosies” has anything whatsoever to do with the Black Death of the 1340s.

It does not.

As any good English plague survivor********** could tell you, the plague was caused by sin and best warded off by extreme piety and making sure your humours were in balance.***********

His version includes dancing monkeys, a feral cat, and Lancelot.

Here on the banks of Hardscrabble Creek, which is starting to rise as the snows are melting, we are fairly suspicious of authentic-sounding stories about surviving medieval practices. See also St. Patrick and the “snakes” who were not Druids.

Someone is Stealing the Saints’ Parts of Europe

Of Ireland, at least, where a rash of thefts of saintly body parts has the police baffled.

The only thing creepier is imaging who might be buying them from the thieves, if the dean’s hypothesis is correct:

The latest in a series of such thefts involved the removal of the preserved heart of St. Laurence O’Toole, Dublin’s 12th-century patron saint, from the city’s historic Christ Church Cathedral. As there was no sign of forced entry to the cathedral itself, the dean of Christ Church, Dermot Dunne, initially believed the thief had probably hidden in the building when it closed on Friday evening, taken the artifact overnight and simply walked out the next morning.

“Maybe someone stole it to order; it certainly seems plausible,” Dean Dunne said Monday in an interview at Christ Church. “Or maybe a religious fanatic wants the relic and paid somebody to steal it.”

I know that (alleged) bits of Gautama Buddha are preserved in South Asia, but no one goes into keeping body parts like Catholic and Orthodox Christians. It’s all quite magickal.

The custom was well-advanced by the mid-fourth century, as Julian, the last Pagan emperor, was quite grossed out by it and often referred to Christian churches as charnel houses.

Aside from the Egyptians, most Pagan cultures of his day considered corpses to be polluting, full of miasma, and something to be gotten rid of — burned, buried, or sealed away in a sarcophagus (a word that literally means “flesh-eater,” since they were usually carved from limestone). And even the Egyptians did not stack mummies in their temples.

The last time I thought about saints’ relics was a couple of years ago when a priest was giving me and some colleagues a tour of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.

We had walked around into the apse, and while a certain Italian Catholic lawyer (scholars of new religions will know who I mean) dropped to his knees in adoration of the Sacrament, I was studying two reliquaries holding (alleged) bone fragments of Mary Magdalene.

Each one had a tiny bone fragment smaller than the nail of my little finger, encased in a glass capsule that was in turn decorated and encircled with gold. These inner cases, smaller than a lipstick tube, were then held in a larger, glass-walled box affixed to a wall. At least I remember there being two small capsules, although this website page speaks of one (larger?) reliquary.

There are more relics in the altar.

Irreverently, all that I could think of was some monk long ago sitting at a chopping block with a big knife or cleaver.

Behind him is the abbot, telling someone, “Brother Anthony’s knife skills are superb. You should watch him dice an onion or cut up a chicken. We will have plenty of relics to distribute to the faithful this way, and they will show their gratitude with generous gifts.”

Meanwhile, what are they doing with the heart of St. Laurence O’Toole?

Visiting Buddhist Ireland

Melinda Rothouse, Austin, Texas-based writer on religion and performance, visits a Buddhist retreat  in the west of Ireland.

In its former life, before being purchased by [the Buddhist organization], the building served as the courthouse where many of the IRA trials of the 1970’s and 80’s took place. He spoke of cells where IRA members were once held, under maximum security, while awaiting their trials.  These same cells are now dormitories and meditation rooms—talk about poetic justice.

She briefly surveys the Irish religious scene. In case you were wondering,

And what of the ancient Celtic/Pagan tradition that’s so identified with Ireland in cultural imaginings?  Sure, you catch glimpses and hear whispers, especially in the odd women’s retreat advert promising a reawakening of feminine power and sexuality, but it’s not really a living, viable practice as far as I was able to observe. . . . Well, as in America, people are looking for an alternative way to connect with the spiritual without all the cultural and historical baggage of Christianity.  Yoga studios and Buddhist meditation centers are popping up all over Ireland, as a brief Google search will reveal.

Given the fact that the Irish economy is down the tubes right now, “an emphasis on simplicity, quietude (certainly not always observed), communal living, recycling and composting, meditation and study” might just fit well with economic realities. And since the Celtic Tiger lived only twenty years or so (some say less), the older folks remember how to do without.

And as Rothouse rightly observes, “religious traditions are crossing borders as quickly as any commodity.”

Quick Review: ‘Pagan Metal’

M. and I watched Pagan Metal: A Documentary (dir. Bill Zebub, 2009) Saturday night. It was flaccid. We gave up on it midway through. (Netflix has it.)

What we saw was primarily rambling interviews with members of three bands: Alan Averill of Primordial (Ireland), and musicians from Korpiklaani and Finntroll, both Finnish groups.

From these we gathered that what makes this latest subdivision of heavy metal music “Pagan” is that it incorporates (sometimes) folk tunes and folk instruments, although the interviewer seemed uninterested in discussing instrumentation or in discussing any folkish origins of the music in any detail.  (A menber of Korpiklaani is quoted on Wikipedia as saying that they play “old people’s music with heavy metal guitars.”)

The term “Pagan metal” was also left unexamined as to any religious or political connotations that it might carry.

A person might think that a metal band augmented with a skin drum or bagpipes and some fur on the stage costumes was therefore performing “Pagan metal.”

Nor did Pagan Metal function well as a concert film, as much of it as we saw, as it provided only brief clips of live performances without much context.

This video is only for hardcore fans who want everything about Primordial, for instance.

Slavery, Vikings, and Charlemagne

Here is a little bit of synchronicity in my historical reading. I am not sure if it “proves” anything, other than the fact that it is difficult to sort people into “good guys” and “bad guys.”

1. At the library, I recently picked up The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies, ed. Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick.

I wanted to look for some material on agriculture—the adoption of the three-field system, wheeled plows, etc.—but I was sucked into a chapter entitled, “Strong Rulers—Weak Economy? Rome, the Carolingians and the Archaeology of Slavery in the First Millennium AD” by a German scholar, Joachim Henning.

Here are two figures that I have lifted from his work:

As I used to tell my students when we talked about American religion and slavery, the Roman empire back in Jesus’ time ran on slavery the way that our civilization runs on petroleum. (And Jesus had nothing to say about it.)

Slavery requires chains and shackles, lest the slaves wander away. Figure 2.1 is a map of archaeological sites (farms, villas, plantations) containing shackles.

The second figure graphs shackle finds over time in Gaul (France, roughly). They rise during the Roman times, then plunge during the Merovingian dynasty, during the so-called Dark Ages.

But then shackle finds—and hence presumably slavery—rise during the Carologian dynasty. Its founder, Charles Martel (ca. 688-741), stopped the Islamic expansion into Europe. His grandson Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is a huge figure in medieval western European history, but his actions included the slaughter of more than 4,000 Saxons who resisted conversion to Christianity.

There was a European slave trade in Pagan, polytheistic Roman times—and it continued into Christian times, up through the 1400s, at least—and then it was time for Columbus!

2. Meanwhile, a British historian suggests that Viking raids on Europe might have been payback for Charlemagne’s forced-conversion program. (Via the Covenant of the Goddess NPIO blog.)

But before you annoint the Vikings as the pro-Pagan “good guys,” remember that they were in the slave trade too, particularly in what is now Ireland and Russia.

As some people say about their relationships on Facebook, “It’s complicated.”

The Mists of Avalon and Its Antithesis

I recently re-read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for the first time in years, in order to cite it in a paper.

Now I am reading its antithesis, Simon Young’s A.D. 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland.

Based on the fiction of a geographer in Constantinople writing a guide to the “Dark Isles” based on contemporary reports and present-day archaeology, Young’s sixth century agrees very little with Bradley’s except, perhaps, on the importance of Tintagel.

If Tintagel is a work of Nature’s art, then man has, however, botched its decorations. The British Celts who live there are not great builders….The king’s court is a timber shack, something approximating in size and finish to one of our royal stables.

You want all-wise Druids at the close of Pagan Ireland?

But even in their reduced state, these old men–the young with spiritual gifts turn to the Church–have a certain notoriety. Instantly recognizable for their curious cloaks and their shaved heads–each has a short tuft over the forehead–they walk from place to place officiating over oaths and sacrifices (it is better not to ask of which sort).

Young admits that the story of the last Temple of Bacchus in Britain is “necessarily speculative,” but does offer sources for it, as for all his information.

Young’s book is a useful corrective to the “matter of Britain’s” multiple re-tellings–the last time I checked, library databases listed more than 900 works under the category of “King Arthur-Fiction.”

Gallimaufry is not a Irish Word.

¶ Dude, it’s like this secret Irish slang, you dig? So don’t be a twerp–glom onto this.

On the other hand, be careful of enthusiastic folk etymologists with a pocket dictionary and an agenda. It could just be a gimmick.

Time and Mind is a new journal of postprocessual archaeology: “The journal features scholarly work addressing cognitive aspects of cross-related disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology and psychology that can shape our understanding of archaeological sites, landscapes and pre-modern worldviews.”

¶ Blogging will be light for the next few days. I have to ride the big silver snake to Southern California and the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. Berg should have a booth there–maybe I can find the journal.

So many bloggers go to events and post pictures of exhibitor booths and shots of happy people in hotel bars. I will try to avoid that — unless I get something really good.

I will be checking out the possibility of freelance work too, which adds an extra urgency to the trip.

Where are the Irish-speakers–in Ireland?

Now and again among North American Pagans, I run into an earnest student of Gaelic.

When M. and I honeymooned in Ireland (back when the Celtic Tiger was still a kitten), I learned to puzzle out the signage and to go through the door marked “Fir.”

But outside of Co. Kerry, I never heard Irish Gaelic spoken conversationally. I did see posters from the Ministry of Something urging people to speak it. The very fact that these posters existed was probably a sign that they were not.

A fluent Irish-speaker recently decided to put his fellow citizens to the test, and the results were not hopeful.

In Killarney, I stood outside a bank promising passers-by huge sums of money if they helped me rob it, but again no one understood.

A century and a half at least have passed since Irish was the common language. Despite the compulsory schooling, I suspect that it is sliding into the antiquarian category. The goddess Bridget will be summoned in English.

Perhaps there is a parallel with the Gaelscoileanna (Irish-language schools) to something I recently heard in Canada. A friend in British Columbia said that she was sending her son to a special bilingual (French/English) school, not because he needed the French so much as because the normal English-language schools were so full of immigrants with poor English skills that the teaching was slower and dumbed-down. I wonder if the Irish parents likewise see these schools as better overall and that is why they choose them.