Tuesday, August 30, 2011

20 AVIOTH (3): the stillborn infants

Many miraculous Madonna statues were found in a Hawthorn. The tree is also called May Thorn or May tree, because it blossoms around May 1, the Celtic festival of Beltane. May Day has very deep roots, even in the prehistoric past, and is a purely pre-Christian festival. In Christianity, May became Mary’s month. Mary replaced the ancient life giving Earth Goddess. May 1 was the resurrection of nature after her death in winter, the beginning of summer,  and the Hawthorn’s white flowers reflect  this return of life. It is in this sense that we should understand the symbolism of the Hawthorn in many legends.

The most important miracle at Avioth was the resurrection of stillborn infants, the time needed to get baptized. If not baptized, their soul couldn’t go to heaven. This ‘rule’ was an ‘invention’ of the Church Fathers like St. Augustine, based on a dubious interpretation of a text in the bible. The Madonna performing this miracle brings to mind goddesses like Isis, Cybele, Kali and Hella, who were goddesses of the underworld among other things (the word ‘hell’ is derived from Hella). The miracle of Avioth echoes the descent in the underworld and the rebirth, found in many pre-Christian myths and esoteric teachings.
Not all stillborn babies came back to life of course. Jean Delhotel describes 22 eye witnessed ‘resurrection’ miracles between 1642 and 1668; another author, Jacquemin, 122 between 1656 and 1673. As early as 1557, these rituals were forbidden by the bishop of Langres. The synod held at Lyon in 1557 condemned the practice as ‘superstitious’. Both without success: women continued to bring their stillborn babies to Avioth, and the priests continued to baptize them if signs of life were detected. Eventually, in 1786, the bishop of Trier forbade the priests to baptize stillborn babies there on penalty of suspension. But baptisms in secret can’t be excluded.
Modern ‘miracles’:
(The Sun, March 3, 2011): A baby girl who was born dead miraculously survived after doctors froze her for three days. Stillborn Ella Anderson bled to death in the womb. She was revived 25 minutes after her birth, but she had suffered oxygen starvation and medics feared she could still die or be left with crippling brain damage. They whisked her to Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, where a pioneering cooling technique was used. It works by slowing down the metabolism of the brain, enabling it to repair itself. After 72 hours her body heat was slowly raised by half a degree at a time. After 11 days she was allowed home, and nine months later Ella has amazed doctors with her progress.
(Sky News HD): A stillborn baby that "came back to life" after spending hours in a refrigerator at a hospital morgue has died. The little girl was delivered 23 weeks into her mother's pregnancy, weighing only 610 grams. Faiza Magdoub had arrived at the Western Galilee hospital in Nahariya, Israel, complaining of severe pains and haemorrhage. Discovering that the baby had no pulse, doctors were forced to abort her mother's pregnancy.The palm-sized infant was pronounced dead before being taken to the morgue, where she spent at least five hours in the refrigerated storage unit. But when Faiza asked to see her child one last time before burial, she noticed her move. "We unwrapped her and felt she was moving," said the 26-year-old. "We didn't believe it at first. Then she began holding my mother's hand, and then we saw her open her mouth." The baby's father Ali Majdub continued: "When I came to the morgue to collect her, her body was wrapped up. Then my wife asked to see her again. When I got there, we realized she was moving." The child was being cared for at the hospital's neo-natal intensive care unit - but the hospital later announced that she had died.
(Express, August 27, 2010): A premature baby declared dead by doctors was brought back to life by his mother’s caresses and whispered words of love. Jamie Ogg was born nearly three months early with his twin sister Emily and weighed just 2.2lb. Emily was alive. But doctors at the birth told his parents that Jamie had died after they had spent 20 minutes battling to get him breathing. Then the “miracle” happened. As the grieving couple, Kate and David, cuddled their “lost” son, saying their fond goodbyes, he started showing signs of life. After two hours of cuddles and kissing he then began to breath regularly and was given drops of breast milk from his mother’s finger.
What to think about Avioth’s ‘resurrection’ miracles? The above examples show that the life force in beings is indeed very strong. And that doctors can make mistakes when declaring someone dead. A miracle is often thought of as a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature by divine intervention. If the above ‘modern’ examples would have happened in a religious context, they would have been ‘genuine’ miracles. It’s easy to dismiss all the witnesses at Avioth as superstitious. As far as I’m concerned, things happened there which could be interpreted as ‘signs of life’. It certainly shows that the ‘humble common people’ had more faith than the church officials.

Avioth, The Devil and Green Man by Night (photos Anne Brown)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The text in italics is an excerpt from the book “Twilight of the Celtic Gods” (David Clarke/Andy Roberts, Blanford, ISBN 0-7137-2522-2). They are the testimony of an anonymous person from the region of Yorkshire, UK, describing the pagan customs there, still practiced when he was a young boy.

I come from an old tradition, a very old tradition if the learning passed down through our families is to be believed, a way of understanding the world which transcends, yet encompasses the mundanity of much of life. It’s really a way of looking at the universe which includes human beings as a fundamental part of the whole process. Notice that I say tradition rather than religion, because I suppose that’s what it is. We don’t really worship, in essence because we ourselves are part of the very thing we would have to worship, and so instead we revere, and stand in awe of, the powers that create and sustain us and the world …

Paganism sees the deity as immanent, while religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a transcendent deity. Indeed, according to Christian theology the only transcendent, almighty God, who cannot be approached or seen in essence or being, becomes only immanent in Jesus or through the Church. Islam also sees Allah as transcendent, separated from creation. In both religions the deity is male, hence paternalistic and mysogenic.

They’re both based on belief. Without belief, the Bible, the Gospels and the Koran are nothing more than a collection of pseudo-historical stories, from an exoteric point of view that is. But since both Christianity and Islam claim that their holy books are dealing with historical facts, they exclude an esoteric interpretation. Both are also highly proselytic, often using force and violence, while Paganism isn’t. Belief isn’t necessary in Paganism, because ‘We don’t really worship, in essence because we ourselves are part of the very thing we would have to worship’. The presence of the deity is a tangible fact.

Paganism is also holistic because it sees humans and nature as an integrated part of the deity. In Christianity and Islam, nature is some sort of playground for mankind. They have to respect it as God’s creation, but they’re the masters. Many of our environmental problems are indirectly caused by this Christian notion that God gave this earth to humans for their use and specifically directed humans to exercise dominion over the earth and all of its life forms. What we in the West have inherited from the great philosophers and  theologians of the past is a split in our reality that alienates us from ourselves and our environment. We are convinced that we are self-contained entities, living in little boxes, divided from the rest of the universe.

Paganism acknowledges the spiritual value of nature and the oneness, the interdependency of everything. Our ancestors rarely made representations of their deities. The whole universe was the deity. Often they marked special places, where the life giving forces were strongly felt, with a carved stone, not always recognizable as such to outsiders. A simple stone, marked with a V, symbolizing the vulva, represented the mother deity for example. After the Roman occupation and Christianisation, statues became more common.   


Friday, August 12, 2011

18 AVIOTH (2): the Black Madonna (continuation of post 2: Avioth, a little cathedral in the fields)

The name Avioth seems derived from 'aqua', water, and by extension means ‘humid place’.  And indeed, there are rivers and a lot of springs  nearby.
Some authors think it means “place of Avius”, which is plausible too, because of the Gallo-Roman remains excavated there.
Others think it comes from “a vita” (to life), referring to the miracle of the stillborn babies brought back to life there (see further). 

The statue of Notre Dame d'Avioth dates from around 1100 AD (carbon-14 dated), and was originally black-dark brown, which makes her a 'Black Madonna'. This was testified by Jean Delhotel, priest at  Avioth, in his book “Bref Recueil de l'Etat de l'Eglise Notre-Dame d'Avioth” written  in 1668. The statue was polychromized somewhere during the 18th century. The Christ she’s carrying is from a later date.

Originally, the site of Avioth was not inhabited. There were only thorn bushes/trees (probably maythorn, hawthorn) on a little hill, with a spring at the foot of the hill and the crossroads of minor (Gallo-)Roman roads where the river Thonne and the brook of Breux merge (see map).
During excavations in 1880, a small building was unearthed not far from the church, containing a stone statue representing a sitting goddess, not unlike the Celtic (Gallo-Roman) mother goddesses of the region. This could indicate a pagan origin of the cult at Avioth, but can't be proved of course.

The legend of Avioth tells us that on a deserted little hill, a Madonna statue was found by shepherds in a blosseming hawthorn tree close to a spring. The statue was transported to the Saint Brice church, back then the parish church of the region, but it returned at night to the place where it was found. This is a widespread legend when 'found' statues and Black Madonnas are concerned. It seems to indicate a conflict between the people and the church authorities about the cult place, or it shows that the clergy tried in vain to destroy an existing cult place, unauthorised by the church. 

Above all, Avioth was a shrine of temporary respite, the Madonna's main miracle there. Stillborn babies were laid on a stone in front of the statue, and the Madonna brought them back to life for the lapse of time needed in order to confer baptism before final death.
As an eye witness described it: “the movement of the veins in the members would return, their blood turned from the color black to red, and bloodletting or a hot sweat occured”. Jean Delhotel described numerous miracles like this during the 17th century when he was pastor there, and he sounds very convincing, in other words he really believed they came back to life.

The stone in front of the statue

Blosseming Hawthorn

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

17 LOCRONAN (5): the Sacred Quadrilateral

During a sacred circuit like the Troménie, the spiritual content of the landscape is temporarily raised to a higher level. Each station serves to heighten the awareness of archetypal spiritual qualities (a difficult explanation for something really simple). The outer landscape becomes interiorized.
At Locronan, the procession mimics the seasonal progression of the year in terms of birth, death, renewal and fertility. It's also a representation of the life cycle. The Celts were thinking in natural cycles. Space and time formed a unity. Christianity and Islam have a linear time concept (from creation to last judgement), and this has destroyed the image of man as a part of nature, by placing him 'outside' nature. And they're both 'paternalistic religions'. Saint Columba, the great Irish missionary monk, once banned all the cows and women from the island of Iona which he justified by the misogynistic saying: “Where there is a cow, there is a woman, and where there is a woman, there is mischief”.


This stone was found in 1991 on the Locronan hill during excavations. You can clearly see the engraved quadrilateral on it. It's an evidence that people were aware of the quadrilateral in the landscape.

The landscape around Locronan is very contrasted: a hill in the South, and a deep, marshy valley in the North, with a plateau in between. The town ('Eglise St-Ronan' on the map) is situated between the top of the hill and the lowest part of the valley. The quadrilateral is divided in two by an ancient pre-Roman trackway, a so called corpse road, used to carry corpses to the cemetery. The place where the diagonals cross is called 'Le Menec, the place of the stones'. There must have been megaliths there in the past.

The remaining 'megalith' on the circuit, and the disappeared but testified ones, are an indication that the origin of this 'procession' could date from before the time of the Celts.
The two main stations are 4 (Saint Anne) and 10 (Saint Ronan), the Earth Goddess and the Sun God. Or simply: the earth and the sun, and their interaction, which produces life.
This is evidenced by the fact that seen from station 10, the sun sets above station 4 on May 1 and August 1, while seen from station 4, the sun rises above station 10 on November 1 and February 1, in other words: the main Celtic festivals.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

16 LOCRONAN (4): the Troménie

When standing in front of the church at Locronan, there’s a deep valley at the left, and a steep hill at the right, with the church on a plateau in the middle (150m above sea level). The lowest point of the valley (68m above sea level) coincides with station 4 of the Troménie (Saint Anne) while the top of the hill (285m above sea level) coincides with station 10, where a chapel dedicated to Saint Ronan is located (the ‘place of the horn’). We already see the symbolism: winter-summer, left-right, low-high, female-male, mother-father, water-fire, wet-dry, earth-sky, moon-sun, dark-light, Earth Goddess-Sun God, the complementary polarities.

The Troménie is being prepared inside the church, more specifically at the tomb of Saint Ronan, where certain rituals are held, like going three times around the tomb, the same direction as the Troménie, a clockwise circumambulation.
The first station, a chapel with fountain, is dedicated to Saint Eutrope, a ‘healing’ saint, where the pilgrims drink some water from the fountain, which has been purified by the relic of the saint. This station coincides with November 1, the Irish Samhain, when the Druids cut the mistletoe, the plant who heals everything, to make a healing potion.

Further West, we reach the second station, called “the Eternal Father”, and the third one, dedicated to Saint Germain.
Then the road turns N-W, and descends, to reach the lowest point of the valley, where the fourth station (with spring), dedicated to Saint Anne, and representing February 1, the Irish Imbolc, is located. When standing at station 4, the sun rises exactly above station 10 (the top of the hill) on the first of February!

Ana, 'The Abundant One', was an earth-, mother- and fertility goddess, ‘mother nature’. After station 4 the road turns N-E.
Station 4 and 5 are the only ‘female’ stations, respectively dedicated to Saint Anne and Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle (Our Lady of the Good News). The terrain there is very marshy, and the pilgrims have to cross a little stream on an improvised bridge.
Station 6 is dedicated to Saint Milliau, a semi-legendary saint, often depicted holding his decapitated head in his hands.

The seventh station, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, represents May 1, for the Celts the symbolic moment in time when the dark winter season changes into the light summer season. The first chapter of the gospel of Saint John talks about ‘the light shining in the dark’… The Christian feast of ‘the light shining in the dark’ is situated around the real winter solstice, Christmas, with the feast of Saint John the Evangelist on December 27, when the days really start to lengthen. So he is a good candidate to christianize a pagan ‘feast of the light’.
From station 7 the road turns S-E. The eight station shows us Saint Gwénolé, a ‘fertility saint’, while the ninth station is dedicated to Saint Ouen, who fought paganism in the region around Rouen.
After station 9, the road becomes steeper, and the pilgrim has to do a difficult climb before reaching station 10 at the top of the hill.There used to be a menhir, but it was destroyed about fifty years ago. The station is dedicated to Saint Ronan.
The Celtic sun god Lugh, ‘the shining one’, was revered on hilltops. His feast was on August 1, the Irish Lughnasa, the harvest feast. When standing on top of the hill, one sees the sun go down above station 4 in the valley (Ana) on August 1.
So Lugh is a good candidate for this station.
But it could also have been Belenos. Belenos, the Sun God, and his feast was on May 1, Beltane. He was venerated on hill tops, just like Lugh, the ‘Harvest God’.
And just like Belenos, Saint Ronan is called in a church hymn ‘the light (Christianity) shining in the dark (Paganism)’. Seen from station 10, the sun goes down above station 4 (Ana) both on May1(Beltane) and August 1 (Lughnasa). The symbolism can’t be clearer!

Station 11 shows us Saint Telo, the saint riding a deer. There’s a resemblance with Cernunnos, ‘the horned one’, also a fertility god.
Station 12 is indicated by the Keben cross, the place where she disappeared into the earth.

Cernunnos and Saint Telo

From there on the road goes down again, and passes 'Saint Ronan's Chair', also called 'la Jument de Pierre'. It's an enormous granite block, about 13m in diameter.
Women used to sit on it after a circumambulation. Clearly a fertility stone.
Totally ignored by the passing priests, it's still one of the most important stops for the pilgrims.
Further down we reach the church again.