Monday, August 18, 2014

Going Down

I guess it's easy to take most everything for granted, but I enjoy looking for, and being surprised to find out, where things come from, or even the origin of names of things.  Hickman County, Kentucky, for an odd example, where my brother- and sister-in-law live, is named after a young Army officer who met an early end on the frontier; but digging deeper you can find that the surname originally meant "Richard's man," in that "hick" or some variant of it was a nickname for Richard.  What if you could find out who this Richard was, and when and where?  But that's probably going a little far.

Literary scholarship and history often consisted of hunches, apparent similarities, or guesses before discoveries, archaeology and other sciences gave hypotheses a firmer, more factual foundation.  We still haven't figured out about Shakespeare or the origin of the Etruscans or the Basques, but someone is still looking into it.  While we may never find any more written or recorded evidence about the real Bard, DNA is an astonishing tool for finding out where peoples came from and moved on to.  Another example:  I knew there was a significant area of Romania populated by Germans brought there for their faming and mechanical skills, and recently found out I'm related to them.  This particular descendant of migrants is probably fortunate to be in New Cumberland rather than there, but that's the luck of the draw.

If you think of what inspired the writers of timeless classics, it's often the Bible or the legacy of the ancient world rediscovered during the Renaissance.  Take the Divine Comedy.  We're aware that the ancient Greeks believed, and expressed in their myth and writing, in a descent of the dead into a dismal underground.  This was woven into Christian doctrine, like so many other pagan tales, and came to be regaded as unquestionable, revealed truth.  Since Dante had completed all of this work he was going to by his death in 1321, very early in the Renaissance, that would seem to be it.  The story's origins may not have such a clear line, though.

One of the few things we know about the Druids and religion of the ancient Celts, other than it being based on nature, is that they saw the universe as comprised of three circles:  heaven, purgatory, and hell.  When the first Christian missionaries entered Ireland, Wales and Brittany at the end of the Roman Empire, they could not dislodge these beliefs and so incorporated them.  Somehow they did manage to remove women and nature from any status in the equation over time, despite both being supreme in the native culture.  The churchmen of Ireland and the rest of the Celtic fringe were both educated and fearless travelers, and took their own hybrid version of Catholicism all over the European continent (even to uninhabited Iceland before the Danes!), especially to the centers such as Rome and the early universities.  So, the definitive and detailed work on heaven, hell and purgatory, by an Italian poet, may well have inserted Celtic myth/religion into Christianity permanently.

Entering St. Patrick's Purgatory

The was a real, physical Purgatory on an island in Lough (lake) Derg, County Donegal, Ireland, by a monastery that was active and occupied from the fifth century to the seventeenth.   It was a small cave, or pit, said to be only about six steps deep, and closed off by a heavy locked door.  Probably from ancient times it was feared to be the mouth of hell, after its orignal purpose as a storage pit or sweat lodge for cleansing and purging was long forgotten.  The legend is that St. Patrick, irritated that those he was preaching to wanted some proofs, gave permission for his doubters to enter in the purgatory pit to stay there overnight (for a total of 24 hours), and report back what they experienced.  And it not only wasn't just a cramped, damp stay, it was horrifying and made believers out of those who returned.  Not all did, they say; some were hopeless sinners and went right on to hell.

Many pilgrims followed, from the Isles and the continent, but the first written accounts are from the early 12th century.  One bad character, the Knight Owain, was either sent or got permission from his bishop to sample purgatory there, and his account (actually written by monk Henry of Saltrey) from around 1150 was translated into French and was popular over Europe.

There came there devils on every side,
Wicked ghosts, I wote*, from Hell,
So many that no tongue might tell:
They filled the house in two rows;
Some grenned** on him and some made moans.

So related our reformed knight, after a preparation of two weeks of fasting, praying and sleep deprivation, which was the standard procedure.  No wonder he saw visions.


Station Island, Lough Derg, today.  The bell tower over Purgatory is on the grassy area to the left.

The cave was closed in 1632 by the English government, and is today covered by a bell tower, but the pilgrimages continue -- 8,000 people in 2011 alone.

So from storage pit, to sweat lodge, to place to be feared, to saintly legend, to literary work, and finally to dogma, we have the origin story of the idea of Purgatory. 

All the horrors thou wilt not get to know
Which Hell's inmates suffer.
Pleasant sins end in painful penalties:
Pain ever follows pleasure.

*   = I have seen
** = (?)


1 comment:

  1. Only you could go from Hickman Co. to Purgatory.