[This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
The Purgatory of St. Patrick became the framework of
another series of tales, embodying the Celtic ideas concerning the other
life and its different states. Perhaps the profoundest instinct of the
Celtic peoples is their desire to penetrate the unknown. With the sea
before them, they wish to know what is to be found beyond it; they dream
of the Promised Land. In the face of the unknown that lies beyond the
tomb, they dream of that great journey which the pen of Dante has
Lough Derg a sacred lake originally - Purgatorial rites as christianized survivals of ancient Celtic rites - Purgatory as Fairyland - Purgatorial rites parallel to pagan initiation ceremonies - The Death and Resurrection Rite - Breton Pardons compared - Relation to Aengus Cult and Celtic cave-temples - Origin of Purgatorial doctrine pre-Christian - Celtic and Roman feasts of dead shaped Christian ones - Fundamental unity of Mythologies, Religions, and the Fairy-Faith.
THE best evidence offered by Christianity with direct bearing on the Fairy-Faith comes from what may be designated survivals of transformed paganism within the Church itself. Various pagan cults, which also came to be more or less christianized, have been considered under Paganism; and in this chapter we propose to examine the famous Purgatory of St. Patrick and the Christian rites in honour of the dead.
ST. PATRICK’S PURGATORY
In the south of County Donegal, in Ireland, amid treeless mountains and moorlands, lies Lough Derg or the Red Lake, containing an island which has long been famous throughout Christendom as the site of St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Even today more than in the Middle Ages it is the goal of thousands of pious pilgrims who repair thither to be purified of the accumulated sins of a lifetime. In this age of commercialism the picture is an interesting and a happy one, no matter what the changing voices of the many may have to say about it.
The following weird legends, which during the autumn of 1919 I found surviving among the Lough Derg peasantry, explain how the lough received its present name, and seem to indicate that long before Patrick’s time the lough was already considered a strange and mysterious place, apparently an Otherworld preserve. The first legend, based on two complementary versions, one from James Ryan, of Tamlach Townland, who is seventy-five years old, the other from Arthur Monaghan, a younger man, who lives about three miles from James Ryan, is as follows :-‘ In his flight from County Armagh, Finn Mac Coul took his mother on his shoulder, holding her by the legs, but so rapidly did he travel that on reaching the shores of the lake nothing remained of his mother save the two legs, and these he threw down there. Some time later, the Fenians, while searching for Finn, passed the same spot on the lake-shore, and Cinen Moul (?), who was of their number, upon seeing the shin-bones of Finn’s mother and a worm in one, said: “If that worm could get water enough it would come to something great.” “I’ll give it water enough,” said another of the followers, and at that he flung it into the lake (later called Finn Mac Coul’s lake). Immediately the worm turned into an enormous water-monster. This water-monster it was that St. Patrick had to fight and kill; and, as the struggle went on, the lake ran red with the blood of the water-monster, and so the lake came to be called Loch Derg (Red Lake).’ The second legend, composed of folk-opinions, was related by Patrick Monaghan, the caretaker of the Purgatory, as he was rowing me to Saints’ Island - the site of the original purgatorial cave; and this legend is even more important for us than the preceding one :- ‘ I have always been hearing it said that into this lough St. Patrick drove all the serpents from Ireland, and that with them he had here his final battle, gaining complete victory. The old men and women in this neighbourhood used to believe that Lough Derg was the last stronghold of the Druids in Ireland; and from what I have heard them say, I think the old legend means that this is where St. Patrick ended his fight with the Druids, and that the serpents represent the Druids or paganism.’
These and similar legends, together with what we know about the purgatorial rites, lead us to believe that in pre-Christian times Finn Mac Coul’s Lake, later called Lough Derg, was venerated as sacred, and that the cave which then undoubtedly existed on Saints’ Island was used as a centre for the celebration of pagan mysteries similar in character to those supposed to have been celebrated in New Grange. Evidently, in the ordeals and ceremonies of the modern Christian Purgatory of St. Patrick, we see the survivals of such pagan initiatory rites. Just as the cults of stones, trees, fountains, lakes, and waters were absorbed by the new religion, so, it would seem, were all cults rendered in prehistoric times to Finn Mac Coul’s Lake and within the island cave. Though the present location of the Purgatory is not the original place of the old Celtic cults, there having been a transfer from Saints’ Island to Station Island, the present place of pilgrimage, where instead of the cave there is the ‘Prison Chapel’, the practices, though naturally much modified and corrupted, retain their primitive outlines. Patrick in his time ordered the observance of the following ceremonies by all penitents before their entrance into the original cave on Saints’ Island ; and for a long time they were strictly carried out :- ‘ The visitor must first go to the bishop of the diocese, declare to him that he came of his own free will, and request of him permission to make the pilgrimage. The bishop warned him against venturing any further in his design, and represented to him the perils of his undertaking; but if the pilgrim still remained steadfast in his purpose, he gave him a recommendatory letter to the prior of the island. The prior again tried to dissuade him from his design by the same arguments that had been previously urged by the bishop. If, however, the pilgrim still remained steadfast, he was taken into the church to spend there fifteen days in fasting and praying. After this the mass was celebrated, the holy communion administered to him and holy water sprinkled over him, and he was led in procession with reading of litanies to the entrance of the purgatory, where a third attempt was made to dissuade him from entering. If he still persisted, the prior allowed him to enter the cave, after he had received the benediction of the priests, and, in entering, he commended himself to their prayers, and made the sign of the cross on his forehead with his own hand. The prior then made fast the door, and opened it not again till the next morning, when, if the penitent were there, he was taken out and led with great joy to the church, and, after fifteen days’ watching and praying, was dismissed. If he was not found when the door was opened, it was understood that he had perished in his pilgrimage through purgatory; the door was closed again, and he was never afterwards mentioned’.
An enormous mass of literary and historical material was recorded during the mediaeval period, in various European vernaculars and in Latin, concerning St. Patrick’s Purgatory; and all of it testifies to the widespread influence of the rites which already then as now attracted thousands of pilgrims from all parts of Christendom. In the poem of Owayne Miles, which forms part of this material, we find a poetical description of the purgatorial initiatory rites quite comparable to Virgil’s account of Aeneas on his initiatory journey to Hades. The poem records how Sir Owain was locked in the cave, and how, after a short time, he began to penetrate its depths. He had but little light, and this by degrees disappeared, leaving him in total darkness. Then a strange twilight appeared. He went on to a hail and there met fifteen men clad in white and with heads shaven after the manner of ecclesiastics. One of them told Owain what things he would have to suffer in his pilgrimage, how unclean spirits would attack him, and by what means he could withstand them. Then the fifteen men left the knight alone, and soon all sorts of demons and ghosts and spirits surrounded him, and he was led on from one torture and trial to another by different companies of fiends. (In the original Latin legend there were four fields of punishment.) Finally Owain came to a magic bridge which appeared safe and wide, but when he reached the middle of it all the fiends and demons and unclean spirits raised so horrible a yell that he almost fell into the chasm below. He, however, reached the other shore, and the power of the devils ceased. Before him was a celestial city, and the perfumed air which was wafted from it was so ravishing that he forgot all his pains and sorrows. A procession came to Owain and, welcoming him, led him into the paradise where Adam and Eve dwelt before they had eaten the apple. Food was offered to the knight, and when he had eaten of it he had no desire to return to earth, but he was told that it was necessary to live out his natural life in the world and to leave his flesh and bones behind him before beginning the heavenly existence. So he began his return journey to the cave’s entrance by a short and pleasant way. He again passed the fifteen men clad in white, who revealed what things the future had in store for him; and reaching the door safely, waited there till morning. Then he was taken out, congratulated, and invited to remain with the priests for fifteen days.
Here we have clearly enough many of the essential features of the underworld: there is the mystic bridge which when crossed guarantees the traveller against evil spirits, just as in Ireland a peasant believes himself safe when fairies are pursuing him if he can only cross a bridge or stream. The celestial city is both like the Christian Heaven and the Sidhe world. The eating of angel food by Owain has an effect quite like that of eating food in Fairyland ; but Owain, by Christian influence, is sent back on earth to die ‘that death which the King of Heaven and Earth hath ordained,’ as Patrick said of the prince whom he saved from the Sidhe-folk. A curious story, in which King Arthur himself is made to visit St. Patrick’s Purgatory, published during the sixteenth century by a learned Frenchman, Stephanus Forcatulus, shows how real a relation there is between Purgatory and the Greek or Roman Hades. Arthur, it is said, leaving the light behind him, descended into the cave by a rough and steep road. ‘For they say that this cave is an entrance to the shades, or at least to purgatory, where poor sinners may get their offences washed out, and return again rejoicing to the light of day.’ But Forcatulus adds that ‘I have learnt from certain serious commentaries of Merlin, that Gawain, his master of horse, called Arthur back, and dissuaded him from examining further the horrid cave in which was heard the sound of falling water which emitted a sulphureous smell, and of voices lamenting as it were for the loss of their bodies ‘.
PURGATORIAL AND INITIATORY RITES
Judging from the above data and from the great mass of similar data available, the religious rites connected with St. Patrick’s Purgatory are to be anthropologically interpreted in the light of what is known about ancient and modern initiatory ceremonies, similarly conducted. As has already been stated, the original Purgatory which was in a cave on Saints’ Island is to-day typified by ‘Prison Chapel’ on Station Island; and in this ‘Prison Chapel’, as formerly in the cave, pilgrims, after having fasted and performed the necessary preparatory penances, are required to pass the night. Among the Greeks, neophytes seeking initiation, after similar preparation, entered the cave-shrine recently discovered at Eleusis, the site of the Great Mysteries, and therein, in the sanctum sanctorum, entered into communion with the god and goddess of the lower world; whereas in the original Purgatory Sir Owain and Arthur are described as having come into contact with the Hades-world and its beings. In the state cult at Acharaca, Greece, there was another cavern-temple in which initiations were conducted.’ The oracle of Zeus Trophonius was situated in a subterranean chamber, into which, after various preparatory rites, including the invocation of Agamedes, neophytes descended to receive in a very mysterious manner the divine revelations which were afterwards interpreted for them. So awe-inspiring were the descent into the cave and the sights therein seen that it was popularly believed that no one who visited the cave ever smiled again; and persons of grave and serious aspect were proverbially said to have been in the cave of Trophonius.
The worship of Mithras, the Persian god of created light and all earthly wisdom, who in time became identified with the sun, was conducted in natural and artificial caves found in every part of the Roman Empire where his cult flourished until superseded by Christianity; and in these caves very elaborate initiations of seven degrees were carried out. The cave itself signified the lower world, into which during the ordeals of initiation the neophyte was supposed to enter while out of the physical body, that the soul might be purged by many trials. In Mexico the cavern of Chalchatongo led to the plains of paradise, evidently through initiations; and Mictlan, a subterranean temple, similarly led to the Aztec land of the dead.
Among the most widespread and characteristic features of contemporary primitive races we find highly developed mysteries (puberty institutions) of the same essential character as these ancient mysteries. They are to uncivilized youth what the Greek Mysteries were to Greek youth, and what colleges and universities are to the youth of Europe and America, though perhaps more successful than these last as places of moral and religious instruction. These mysteries vary from tribe to tribe, though in almost all of them there is what corresponds to the Death Rite in Freemasonry; that is to say, there is either a symbolical presentation of death in a sacred drama - as there was among the Greeks in their complete initiatory rites-or a state of actual trance imposed upon each neophyte by the priestly initiators. The sanctum sanctorum of these primitive mysteries is sometimes in a natural or artificial cavern (as was the rule with respect to the Ancient Mysteries and St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Saints’ Island) ; sometimes in a structure specially prepared to exclude the light; or else the neophytes are symbolically or literally buried in an underground place to be resurrected greatly purified and strengthened. And the mystic purification at the sea-shore and spiritual re-birth sought in the cave at Eleusis by the highly cultured Athenians and their fellow Greeks, or among other cultured and uncultured ancient and modern peoples through some corresponding initiation ceremony, find their parallel in the purification and spiritual re-birth still sought in the Christian Purgatory, now ‘Prison Chapel’, and in the lake waters, amid the solitude of sacred Lough Derg, Ireland, by thousands of earnest pilgrims from all parts of the world.
In the Breton Pardons, as in the purgatorial rites, we seem to see the survivals of very ancient Celtic Mysteries strikingly like the Mysteries of Eleusis. The greatest of the Pardons, the Pardon of St. Anne d’Auray, will serve as a basis for comparison; and while in some respects it has had a recent and definitely historical origin (or revival), this origin seems on the evidence of archaeology to have been a restoration, an expansion, and chiefly a Christianization of prehistoric rites then already partly fallen into decay. Such rites remained latent in the folk-memory, and were originally celebrated in honour of the sacred fountain, and probably also of Isis and the child, whose terra-cotta image was ploughed up in a neighbouring field by the famous peasant Nicolas, and naturally regarded by him and all who saw it as of St. Anne and the Holy Child. Thus, in the Pardon of St. Anne d’Auray, which extends over three days, there is a torch-light procession at night under ecclesiastical sanction; as in the Ceres Mysteries, wherein the neophytes with torches kindled sought all night long for Proserpine. There are purification rites, not especially under ecclesiastical sanction, at the holy fountain now dedicated to St. Anne, like the purification rites of the Eleusinian worshippers at the sea-shore and their visit to a holy well. There are mystery plays, recently instituted, as in Greek initiation ceremonies; sacred processions, led by priests, bearing the image of St. Anne and other images, comparable to Greek sacred processions in which the god Iacchos was borne on the way to Eleusis. The all-night services in the dimly-lighted church of St. Anne, with the special masses in honour of the Christian saints and for the dead, are parallel to the midnight ceremonies of the Greeks in their caves of initiation and to the libations to the gods and to the spirits of the departed at Greek initiations. Finally, in the Greek mysteries there seems to have been some sort of expository sermon or exhortation to the assembled neophytes quite comparable to the special appeal made to the faithful Catholics assembled in the magnificent church of St. Anne d’Auray by the bishops and high ecclesiastics of Brittany. (For these Classical parallels compare Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, iii, passim.)
There is a correspondence between this conclusion and what was said about the initiatory aspects of the Aengus Cult; and should we try to connect the Purgatory with some particular sun-cult of a character parallel to that of the Aengus Cult we should probably have to name Lug, the great Irish sun-god, because of the significant fact that the purgatorial rites on Station Island come to an end on the Festival of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the 15th of August, a date which apparently coincides sufficiently to represent, as it probably does, the ancient August Lugnasadh, the 1st of August, a day sacred to the sun-god Lug, as the name indicates.
If we are to class together the original Purgatory, New Grange, Gavrinis, and other Celtic underground places, as centres of the highest religious practices in the past, we should expect to discover that many similar structures or natural caverns existed in pagan Ireland, as indeed we find they did. Thus in different Irish manuscripts various caves are mentioned, and most of them, so far as they can be localized, are traditionally places of supernatural marvels, and often (as in the case of the last one enumerated, the Cave of Cruachan) are directly related to the under-world. Another of these caves is described as being under a church, which circumstance suggests that the church was dedicated over an underground place originally sacred to pagan worship, and, as we may safely assume, to pagan mysteries.
The curious custom among early Irish Christians, of retiring for a time to a cave, seems to show the lasting into historical times of the pagan cave-ritual now surviving at Lough Derg only. The custom seems to have been common among the saints of Britain and of Scotland ; and in Stokes’s Tripartite Life of Patrick (p. 242) there is a very significant reference to it. In the Mabinogion story of Kulhwch and Olwen there seems to be another traditional echo of the times when caves were used for religious rites or worship, in the author’s reference to the cave of the witch Orddu as being ‘on the confines of Hell’. A cave was thus popularly supposed to lead to Hades or an underworld of fairies, demons, and spirits; again just as in St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Purely Celtic instances of this kind might be greatly multiplied.
PAGAN ORIGIN OF PURGATORIAL DOCTRINE
The metrical romance of Orfeo and Herodys in Ritson’s Collection of Metrical Romances illustrates how in Britain (and Britain - even England - is more Celtic than Saxon) the Grecian Hell or Hades was looked on as identical with the Celtic Fairyland. This is quite unusual; and for us is highly significant. It shows that in Britain, at the time the romance was written, there was no essential difference between the underworld of fairies and the underworld of shades. Pluto’s realm and the realm where fairy kings and fairy queens held high revelry were the same. The difference is this: Hades was an Egyptian and in turn a Greek conception, while Fairyland was a Celtic conception; they differ as the imagination at work on a philosophical doctrine differs among the three peoples, and not otherwise. And, as Wright has shown, the origin of Purgatory in the Roman Church is very obscure. As to the location of Purgatory, Roman theology confesses it has nothing certain to say.2 The natural conclusion, as we suggested in our study of Re-birth, would seem to be that the Irish doctrine of the Otherworid in all its aspects, but especially as the underground world of the Sidhe or fairy-folk, was combined with the pagan GraecoRoman doctrine of Hades in St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and hence gave rise to the modern Christian doctrine of Purgatory.
CHRISTIAN RITES IN HONOUR OF THE DEPARTED
We may now readily pass from an examination of worldwide rites concerned with death and re-birth, which are based on an ancient sun-cult, to an examination of their shadows in the theology of Christianity, where they are commonly known as the rites in honour of the departed. It seems to be clear at the outset that the Christian Fte in Commemoration of the Dead, according to its history, is an adaptation from paganism; and with so many Irish ecclesiastics, or else their disciples, educated in the Celtic monasteries of Britain and Ireland, having influence in the Church during the early centuries, there is a strong probability that the Feast of Samain had something to do with shaping the modern feast, as we have suggested in the preceding chapter; for both feasts originally fell on the first of November. Roman Catholic writers record that it was St. Odilon, Abbot of Cluny, who instituted in 998 in all his congregations the Fte in Commemoration of the Dead, and fixed its anniversary on the first of November; and that this fte was quickly adopted by all the churches of the East. To-day in the Roman Church both the first and second of November are holy days devoted to those who have passed out of this life. The first day, the Fte of All the Saints (La Toussaint), is said to have originated thus: the Roman Pantheon - Pantheon meaning the residence of all the gods - was dedicated to Jupiter the Avenger, and when Christianity triumphed the pagan images were overthrown, and there was thereupon originally established, in place of the cult of all the gods, the Fte of all the Saints. Why La Toussaint should have become a feast of the dead would be difficult to say unless we admit the ancient Celtic feast of the dead as having amalgamated with it. This we believe is what took place; for if the Fte in Commemoration of the Dead was, as some authorities hold, established by St. Odion to fall on the first of November, in direct accord with Samain or Halloween, then at some later period it was displaced by La Toussaint, for now it is celebrated on the second of November.
Likewise prayers and masses for the dead, which annually receive emphasis on the first two days of November, seem to have had their origin in pre-Christian cults. According to Mosheim, in his Histoire ecclesiastique, the usage of celebrating the Sacrament at the tombs of martyrs and at funerals was introduced during the fourth century; and from this; usage the masses for the saints and for the dead originated in the eighth century. Prior to the fourth century we find the newly converted Christians in all parts of Celtic Europe, and-in many countries non-Celtic, still rendering a cult to ancestral spirits, making food offerings at the tombs of heroes, and strictly observing the very ancient November feast, or its equivalent, in honour of the dead and fairies. Then, very gradually, in the course of four centuries, the character of the Christian cults and feasts of the saints and of the dead seems to have been determined. The following citation will serve to illustrate the nature of Irish Christian rites in honour of the dead :- In the Lebar Brecc we read: ‘There is nothing which one does on behalf of the soul of him who has died that doth not help it, both prayer on knees, and abstinence, and singing requiems, and frequent blessings. Sons are bound to do penance for their deceased parents. A full year, now, was Maed—c of Ferns, with his whole community, on water and bread, after loosing from hell the soul of Brandub son of Echaid.’
According to St. Augustine, the souls of the dead are solaced by the piety of their living friends when this expresses itself through sacrifice made by the Church ; St. Ephrem commanded his friends not to forget him after death, but to give proofs of their charity in offering for the repose of his soul alms, prayers, and sacrifices, especially on the thirtieth day ; Constantine the Great wished to be interred under the Church of the Apostles in order that his soul might be benefited by the prayers offered to the saints, by the mystic sacrifice, and by the holy communion. Such prayers and sacrifices for the dead were offered by the Church sometimes during thirty and even forty days, those offered on the third, the seventh, and the thirtieth days being the most solemn. The history of the venerable Bede, the letters of St. Boniface, and of St. Lul prove that even in the ancient Anglican church prayers were offered up for the souls of the dead ; and a council of bishops held at Canterbury in 816 ordered that immediately after the death of a bishop there shall be made for him prayers and alms. At Oxford, in 1437, All Souls college was founded, chiefly as a place in which to offer prayers on behalf of the souls of all those who were killed in the French wars of the fifteenth century.
As seems to be evident from this and the two preceding chapters, all these fetes, rites, or observances of Christianity have a relation more or less direct to paganism, and thus to ancient Celtic cults and sacrifice offered to the dead, to spirits, and to the Tuatha De Danann or Fairies. And the same set of ideas which operated among the Celts to create their Fairy-Mythology - ideas arising out of a belief in or knowledge of the one universal Realm of Spirit and its various orders of invisible inhabitants - gave the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Teutons, the Mexicans, the Peruvians, and all nations their respective mythologies and religions; and we moderns are literally ‘the heirs of all the ages’.
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