Tuesday 5 October 2021

Merlin, the Celts and Albion's native Christianity

It seems possible that Christianity came very early to Britain, shortly after the ascension of Christ, and probably to Glastonbury; at the time of the native Celtic Britons. 

Perhaps because of this, and for many centuries, there was historically very little conflict in the British Isles (and no recorded conflict at all in Ireland) between Celtic paganism and the new Christianity.

This had a lasting effect. Because the new Christians were not persecuted by pagans, when Christians became dominant they did not persecute the pagans but assimilated them. Churches were deliberately built on the pagan sacred sites. 

And the old pagan deities were downgraded rather than suppressed; to be named among ancient kings, mythic heroes, or even being transformed to saints.  

Also Britain was the centre of druidism, the place where continental Celts sent their druids for a very prolonged and difficult education - presumably in colleges of some kind; all this knowledge being memorized and never written (although there was perhaps a written language at the time, using ogham letters)

Druids were leaders of the Celts; with, apparently, a wide-ranging role including ritual, scholarship, divination, healing and warfare. They conducted sacrifices, including human. And these druidic pagans were exceptional in the known world for their strong belief in a personal afterlife - an afterlife in which Men retained their individual identities. 

That this belief in an afterlife was strong is evidenced by Julius Caesar, who gave it as the reason for the exceptional courage in battle of the Britons; that it involved retained personal identity may be inferred from the Ancient Briton's practice of guaranteeing loans (IOUs) to be paid-off in this afterlife. 

Both of these imply that the Celts knew a lot about the afterlife - in that they had apparently rather exact expectations of what it would be like. 

The Celtic expectation of eternal life contrasted with the Greco-Roman and Jewish belief in a afterlife as merely depersonalized ghosts in Hades/ Sheol. The Greco-Romans apparently interpreted the Celtic belief as reincarnation - like the Pythagoreans - but it was more likely a belief in Paradise: Men living eternally in an ideal kind of society and situation (on a magical island to the west, for instance).  

This means that when a pagan Celt converted to Christianity and a belief in Heaven it was qualitatively different from the situation for a Roman or Jew. The Roman or Jew expected annihilation of the self - while the Celt expected preservation of the self. 

Therefore, for the Roman or Jew Christianity Heaven offered a qualitative transformation of the self, whereas for the Celt it was more like a quantitative enhancement - a divinization - of the self.

I would speculate that this difference in pre-conversion expectations may have led to a difference after conversion. The Greco-Roman or Jew perhaps focused on the new fact of eternal life - and was therefor almost exclusively concerned with salvation. While the Celt would have been more impressed by the enhancement of the self towards becoming a god: a 'Son of God', much like the ascended Jesus - and therefore more focused on theosis - on working to become 'more divine' during mortal life. 

At any rate, mainstream Roman/ Western Christianity was rather vague (and indeed uncertain) as to the details of the afterlife; at least until the Mormon revelations from 1830, which began to provide a much more detailed description - and expectations. 

But I would guess that the Celtic Christians would have had similarly detailed expectations of Heaven, inherited from their pagan predecessors. 

In terms of its organization, Celtic Christianity resembled Eastern Orthodoxy much more than Roman Christianity. Whereas the Roman church was dominated by Bishops and Priests; Orthodoxy is spiritually dominated by Abbots and Monks - and with semi-autonomous hermits inhabiting remote 'desert' regions and performing heroic acts of asceticism (fasts, vigils, prayer), often at the summit of holiness. 

But Celtic Christianity was substantially cut off from Constantinople, as well as Rome; and developed along the native lines established very early. These included a great emphasis on mysticism (communion with God) and miracles, with most of the Saints being wonder-workers (most famously Cuthbert).

Although normal in Eastern Orthodoxy, given the pagan assimilation this mysticism may also link up with druidic initiation, which went through many rigorous levels and aiming at spiritual powers that were regarded as magical. 

In particular; it may be that the folk heroes of the British may be traced back to those ancient Celtic Gods, assimilating into Christianity. According to the work of Geoffrey Ashe (e.g. Avalonian Quest); Arthur may have derived by many steps from the original primordial titan that was assumed (in the oldest chronicles) to be the ruler of England when it was invaded by Men originally from Troy. This character reappears as the giant Albion in William Blake's prophecies. 

Merlin (originally Myrddin) may go back even further, to an even more ancient God who ruled the island of Britain originally. Merlin was originally a place-name for a fortress - but became a personal name. The first recorded name for Britain can be translated as Merlin’s Precinct, or enclosure. The Merlin of literature could have been derived from this ancient god. 

By Geoffrey Ashe's account in Merlin: the prophet and his history; the Merlin that we know from literature seems to be derived from a title, role or nature of a person - probably one with prophetic and magical abilities, due a relationship with the ancient god - perhaps as a reincarnation or by divine inspiration.

This led to the the first two known historical Merlins - Ambrosius/ Emrys, the Welsh magician prophet Merlin who mostly contributed to the Arthurian mythos via Geoffrey of Monmouth's History; and Lailoken the later mad prophet Scottish Merlin - who is represented in Geoffrey's later Merlin poem, and who features in the stories of the Scottish Saint Kentigern/ Mungo (the first Bishop of Glasgow, and a missionary of major historical importance). 

Another 'Merlin' may have been the Welsh bard Taliesin, author of the oldest surviving native poetry; he is recorded as a companion of Lailoken-Merlin, by Geoffrey.    

The Merlin of literature (and his descendants among many other wizards) exerts a continued - perhaps increasing - fascination in Britain (and the Anglosphere more generally). This may have spiritual significance, as some kind of folk-memory of the Celtic Merlin god, via the historical-and-legendary Merlins of the Dark Ages - as assimilated and transformed by the unique nature of Celtic Christianity. 

It may even be that - to the Romantic Christian imagination - Merlin is a Celtic name for the archangel of Albion: the angelic being who has been responsible for that ancient and indomitable spiritual reality which underlies modern 'Britain'. 


Mikep said...

Hello Bruce, I wonder if you are familiar with the ideas of Gunner Heinsohn and if so what you think of them. If there is anything in his theory it would cast the so called dark ages and the early church in Britain in a very different light.

William Wildblood said...

That was a great summing up of all the themes that make up Celtic Christianity. Thanks Bruce. One of the important features of it that I most appreciate is the strong sense of the divine immanence in creation which comes right down to the English love of landscape.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William. Thanks. I was aware, when writing this, of your idea that the archangel of Albion might be Michael - https://meetingthemasters.blogspot.com/2020/07/st-michael-and-dragon-that-is-satan.html - but, on consideration, I now suppose that Michael has a wider reach in Western Europe, across several nations at least; or perhaps the whole world.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mikep - No, I don't know anything about Gunner Heinsohn.

cae said...

I really enjoyed reading this post - it gave me the same 'lifting of spirit' feeling that the "Albion Awakening" blog posts did...

Somewhere years ago, I read either a story or article in which there was an intriguing description of Druid human sacrifice. I'm sorry my memory is a bit vague, but the gist is this:

When there was a dire need for the 'tribe' to communicate something to Heaven (the gods), the priest would ask for a volunteer, and this person would be given the message and go thru ritual sacrifice (killed quickly, humanely) - with the expectation that he would reach the afterlife and deliver the message.

I don't know if that is historically accurate, but it seems to go along with what you wrote about Celtic belief in personal 'survival' in a 'heavenly' afterlife.

Bruce Charlton said...

@cae - 'lifting of spirit' That was my own feeling about this matter. I find Merlin a very inspiring character to read and think about.

Well, that theory of humane human sacrifice doesn't go well with burning people in wicker men!- which is mentioned by Julius Caesar (and some other gruesome methods were recorded). But, in general, there seem to be many reasons for human sacrifice in different societies - and different kinds of sacrifice (probably including voluntary).

The Romans were apparently very against human sacrifice - and yet they were very pleased to kill people in the Coliseum for entertainment of various kinds - which is probably worse, because trivial and salacious.

No Longer Reading said...

Interesting post.

I had not thought about how Christianity manifests differently in different cultures due to their views of the afterlife, but it makes sense. So then Christianity values not only personal individuality, but the individuality of cultures as well.

This goes well with William Wildblood's recent post (https://meetingthemasters.blogspot.com/2021/10/the-universality-of-christ.html).