Sunday, October 07, 2007

Celtic Saints

In ages of darkness, it's said, they came

the saints, from Ireland and Wales:
Brioc and Suliac,Malo and Ronan,

Ilan and Gildas, Jacut and Jaoua,

and great St Pol de Leon, Paul Aurelian,
in currachs, in skin boats through Dorigen's cruel rocks,

into the bays and abers.

Their world was one of serpents and monsters

they banished, wild bulls subdued, wolves

made to do the work of the donkeys they'd eaten,
and donkeys turned back to front to mend their stubborn ways;
of obstinate wild pigs made tame and tasty,
and salmon who swallowed magic tokens, or which were endlessly renewed
as food fit for a saintly appetite; of severed heads

and springs that sprang from them, ...

...dastardly pirates and robber barons,
sweet blameless children slain or maimed, (a foot of brass and silver hand one had),

and Conomor, Bluebeard the wife-killer,

whose story does not want to die.

Their roles and archetypes fused and were confounded
with spirits and sorcerers, beings of sea and soil and rock,

consolidated in a thousand years, or more or less,

to what was needed by the powers or the people of this time or that.

Their faces lichenous, their chapels and cathedrals
become granite cliffs again;
homes for ferns, daisies, wallflowers and valerian;

raised from the earth and sainted,
they return to earth once more.


( Thanks to Tom for the first photo, which he took. The material is largely from Coop Breizh's translation of O.-L. Aubert's 'Celtic Legends of Brittany'. The pictures were taken at Traon Chapel near Plouguernau, St Jaoua's Chapel in Plouvien, St Pol de Leon Cathedral, and other sites in Finistere.)


leslee said...

Wow. This is wonderful, both photos and words. And I want to go there!

Anonymous said...

As Leslee said! Double wow!

Unknown said...

These images, and the words, leave me speechless with wonder, breathless.

Zhoen said...

Gorgeous. Thank you.

meggie said...

Time erodes all.

robinstarfish said...

You are the best historical tour guide ever. Wonderful.

Granny J said...

You took me to a different, ancient world. Thank you.

julie said...

Marvelous. Thanks, Lucy!

herhimnbryn said...

Thankyou L. I wanted to be there.

Marly Youmans said...

Enjoyed this vicarious wandering, though I wanted to know dates. Finistere. Such a beautiful name.

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

The saints who founded Brittany mostly came and went between the countries of the Celtic fringes in the 5th and 6th centuries. It's suggested that Brittany's indigenous inhabitants had largely fled inland to escape the depredations of the Franks and other Nordic raiders, leaving the coastal areas open for resettlement.

Some at least of the saints were real, though mostly the documentation that exists is mediaeval, that of Paul Aurelian/Pol de Leon, and St Samson being exceptions. However, the tales about them are often very tall, and seem to contain elements which indicate pre-Christian Celtic origins: dragons, magical salmon etc. Conomor seems to be the earliest version of Bluebeard.

They gave their names to hermitages, settlements, parishes, towns and cities, which they still carry, though the archaeological record and knowledge of the historical fact is slight. The churches and chapels and statuary in the pictures are mediaeval or later,there is little remaining from the 'Dark Ages', an exception is St Gal's church at Langast, near here, which I'll get on to another time. But the saints were dear to people, and their cult seems to have maintained a continuity. They were often attributed their own healing powers - the chapels usually situated beside springs and fountains-, and they were also politically useful when there was a need to assert Breton identity and stress the regions otherness from the rest of France, as well as being a popular subject of interest for 19th and 20th century romantic antiquarians and folklore enthusiasts, of whom one must always be wary!