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King of Mysteries
Early Irish Religious Writings

Temenos Acadamy Review, 3, Spring 2000
[Reviewed with: A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland, by John Carey, Celtic Studies Publications]
'Rather more than four hundred years ago, St Columba met (on the shore of Lough Foyle, near present-day Derry) a mysterious youth who had come, as he said, 'from lands of strange things, from lands of familiar things,' to ask Columba about 'the spot on which died, the spot on which were horn, knowledge and ignorance'. Columba countered with a question of his own: 'Whose was it formerly, this lough which we see?' And the youth answered: ‘I know that, it was yellow, it was flowery, it was green, it was hilly; it was rich in liquor, and strewn rushes, and silver, and chariots. I have grazed it when I was a stag; I have swum it when I was a salmon, when I was a seal; I have run upon it when I was a wolf; I have gone around it when I was a human. I have landed there under three sails: the yellow sail which bears, the green sail which drowns, the red sail under which flesh was conceived....' This remarkable conversation, a dialogue between a Christian saint and a visitor from the Otherworld of Faerie, each in search of what the other has to teach, typifies the world presented in John Carey's two books: marvellous books in the full sense of the words. For in the early middle ages, Ireland was, perhaps uniquely, a place where Christianity and the older traditions which we think of as pagan found an accommodation. Whilst in England Alcuin of York was reminding one of his bishops that he should be listening to sermons rather than the songs of pagan harpers in the refectory, and that the heroes of the old tales were burning in hell. Irish clergy were, at least on occasion, cautiously exploring the idea that the immortal folk - the Tuatha Dé or old gods of Ireland - might perhaps be unfallen descendants of Adam, or angels who, not actively fighting for God, had none the less refused to share Satan's sin and were biding their time on earth.

The generosity of spirit and imaginative openness of early Christian Ireland, and the extraordinary richness of what one can only call the mythologies which it produced, are opened to the general reader and the scholar with commensurate wisdom and eloquence in these two books, which (though published more than a year apart) together form an ideal introduction to the subject.

A Single Ray of the Sun gives revised texts of three lectures given at the Temenos Academy in 1998. Accessible and beautifully-written, the first essay, 'The Baptism of the Gods', explores the imaginative relationship between early Irish Christianity, the old gods and the Druid knowledge which the new religion was displacing. The second, The Ecology of Miracles', examines the theme of the natural, of a care for the living continuity of the earth, its processes and its beings, in early Irish views of miracles, which were seen as enhancing and restoring, rather than disrupting, the processes of created nature. This perspective continues into the third essay, The Resurrection of the World', which shows that, at least in the eyes of two Christian thinkers of very different schools (one of them the Duns Scotus' who so inspired Hopkins) 'Christ's incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection extended the gift of immortality not just to our own species, but to the entire cosmos - and this because we, and the cosmos, are portions and versions of one another.'

Readers of this entrancing book, whose scholarship is so lightly carried, will surely be inspired to embark upon the larger and more demanding King of Mysteries, in which Dr Carey presents annotated translations, often with portions of the texts in the original languages, of the writings which underlie the patterns sketched in A Single Ray of the Sun.

There are lyrical poems like the celebration of Saint Brigit, who 'did not love the world: I she perched in it like a bird on a cliff, which combine lyricism with a sharp delicacy of phrasing. Many of the texts, however, hover near the borderline (if there is such a thing) between religion and magic. There are prayers for protection, such as 'Patrick's Breastplate' which, according to the scribe, 'will protect [one] ... against demons and men and vices, ...against every poison and jealousy; it will guard him against sudden death; it will be a breastplate for his soul after death.' There are texts like In Tenga Bithnua ('The Ever-New Tongue', an account of the creation of the world and God's relation to it), whose radiant cosmic visions are punctuated by long, cryptic but harmonious utterances in an 'angelic language', the Ever-New Tongue itself, recalling the mysterious dharanis or garlands of syllables which appear similarly in the Chinese Mahayana sutras which likewise embody a vast cosmic vision.

Many passages of fascinating beauty in these texts will have an appearance of unexpected familiarity to those familiar with the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures of India and the Far East. There is, for example,

The tree Alab in the islands of Sab: its appearance is likened to the form of a man. The blossom which it brings forth quells every plague and every poison. Its fragrance and the scent of its blossoms encompass a journey of six summer days, before one reaches it. The seeds of its fruit are precious stones. It quells anger and jealousy in every heart which its juice traverses. Whether such similarities Pike the striking parallels between the practices and beliefs of the Druids as recorded in these texts, and those of the Tibetan masters even today) are the result of some distant link of transmission or rather of the universal nature of mankind's spiritual discoveries, is either an unanswerable question or a topic for further research, depending on one's inclinations.

In either case, Dr Carey has provided both an eloquent introduction and a rich source book for an important and inspiring area of spiritual investigation. His learning, linguistic skills and generous humanity make him a fitting companion for the monks, hermits and otherworldly immortals whose words he presents. Transmitting this material to new readers, he is himself unobtrusively helping to renew a sacred vision. As he concludes in his Preface to A Single Ray of the Sun, 'These speculations are, I believe, a part of the inheritance of all Christians, and of all humanity.' Anyone interested in the poetic and the visionary, Christian or otherwise, should read these books. GREVEL LINDOP

'Il volume contiene un raccolta di testi prodotti in Irlanda all’interno delle prime comunità  cristiane, scelti in base alla popolarità che ebbero all’epoca della composizione. Scope dell’autore è mostrare il carattere ibrido della tradizione letteraria irlandese, constantement  al centro di una polarità tra eredità pagana e rinnovamento cristiano, elemento nativo ed elemento forestiero, vecchio e nuovo. I testi sono ben distribuiti in quattro sezioni tematiche dedicate rispettivament a ‘Creatore e Creazione’,  ‘Lavvento della fede’, ‘I santi’, ‘La vita devota’ e ‘Il tempo finale’. Nonostante l’authore precisi che il volume è destinato alla lettura di un publico non specialista e rimandi chi volesse approfondire lo studio dei testi alle note bibliografiche finali, tuttavista bisogna rimarcare la mancanza di omogeneità nell’edizione dei testi. Per alcuni infatti è data solo la traduzione inglese (On the miracles, Saltair na Rann, In tenga bithnua, Pseudo-historical prologue, Broccán’s Hymn, Aipgitir Chrábaid, Stories of Céili Dé), senza testo a fronte, il che può andare bene per I non specialisti, che però potrebbero retendere lo stesso trattamento per altri testi, di cui invece è presente la versione originale (Altus prosator, Two loricae, Audite omnes amantes, Félire Oengusso, Fis Adomnáin), che impedisce tra l’altro una lettura scorrevole a causa del fatto che non è posta a frone della traduzione, ma vi è inframmezzata. D’altro canto chi fosse interessato ad approfondire la materia troverà  nelle nore posposte dall’autore un valido indirizzo bibliografico, lacunoso però per quanto riguarda ad esempio le segnature dei manoscrittie, che sono evocati nella quasi totalità dei casi solo con il ‘nome di battaglia’, indubbiamente noto agli esperti del settore, ma non cero al lettore che si avvicina per la prima volta agli studi celtici.

Silvia Noncentini, STVDI MEDIEVALI.

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