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In this blog series, we’ll be exploring various Christian holidays and festivals and their alleged pagan origins hearkening back to medieval Europe. We will primarily be reviewing the arguments presented by French author Philippe Walter in the book Christian Mythology: Revelations of Pagan Origins, which argues that Christianity was not a purely Western invention, but an imported religion that had to assimilate the preexisting customs and beliefs in the regions it conquered—primarily Celtic. According to Walter, major dates in the Christian calendar coincide with important dates in the Celtic calendar (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasad), offering insight into ideas related to the collective unconscious. The church established policies to convert the locals by integrating their temples and rituals into the Christian faith, as evidenced by Pope Gregory the Great’s letter to Saint Augustine of Canterbury, which states:

“We wish you to inform him that we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God. And because they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of dedication or the festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there. On such occasions they might well construct shelters of boughs for themselves around the churches that were once temples and celebrate the solemnity with devout feasting.”

Bede. History of the English Church and People. Edited and translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1990.

Walter further explores the meaning of myth and how it is defined by its relationship to ritual and memory, positing myth as the language of a civilization that inscribes itself into the two fundamental contexts of time and space. In the Christian West, myth is inseparable from a sacred time and space, which the Christian Church rearranged by transforming megalithic stones into stone altars, ancient sacred fountains into baptismal fonts, and forest trees into pillars and columns of a stone nave.

Carnival and Celtic Mythology

According to the author, mythology is typically enmeshed within a calendar that structures sacred celebrations and commemorations. Hence, Carnival mythology’s tight integration with medieval mythology is no exception to this custom. The Council of Nicaea marked the Christian liturgical calendar with the incorporation of lunar rhythms and spring equinox into the Easter commemoration. Thus, Christianity fortified the timing of Christian holidays with European pagan calendrical cycles, emphasizing the importance of the mythology within the calendar. Walter further discusses the great dates on the Carnival calendar in detail, examining the medieval rites, commemorations, and myths linked to each period. Consequently, the Golden Legend reveals a remarkable sedimentation of pre-Christian mythical motifs, specifically Celtic mythology.

Further on in the book, Walter proposes that myth must be examined through the lens of the names it carries and the calendar that structures it, allowing us to untangle the myths and beliefs of the pre-Christian world and reconstruct the pagan beliefs attached to it. During the Middle Ages, various versions of the word “carnival,” such as carnelevale, carnelevamine, and carnelevale, all seemed interchangeable and referred to the same subject matter in different forms. Despite consulting various etymological dictionaries, Walter demonstrates that the entry often leads to uncertain etymology, artificial explanations, and belated verifications that reveal a certain lexicology ignorant of both anthropology and the history of religions. He then theorizes that clerics toying with these variations were seeking to extract the presumed etymology of the word, a common practice during this period to make words and names speak in a way that conformed to the teachings of the church (Cf. “doublespeak“). The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville shows how words were manipulated during the Middle Ages to make them say what someone wanted to convey, which led to the phenomenon of pseudo-etymology surrounding the word carnival morphing into carnelevale. These variations on the word carnival indicate a form of superstition typical of primitive mentalities, where naming a deity could be dangerous as it gave them a potentially harmful power over humans and the world, so they were disguised to render them inoffensive and thus permit their use.

September 29—Saint Michael’s Day

The book actually begins its discussion of the holidays with November 1, Samhain. But since we’re in the month of September and the autumn equinox is around the corner at the time of this writing, we’ll cover the next upcoming holiday discussed in the book, Saint Michael’s Day—which occurs on September 29, very near the timing of the equinox. In the past, Saint Michael’s Day was celebrated much like Carnival. Over time, the pagan mythology and rituals surrounding this date have become obscured. However, various historical accounts suggest that Saint Michael’s Day was once as important a ritualistic day as any other during the year. In the past, there were New Year’s Eve-like celebrations on the night of September 29, and in the Germanic world, libations were always part of the day’s festivities. The natural rhythm of the forty days leading up to Saint Michael’s Day is connected to the folklore calendar, where the emergence of bears, or the Wild Man, happens, and Michael’s name happens to be emblematic of the bear in Russia.

Saint Michael of Peril and Mont-Saint-Michel

Mont-Saint-Michel is an iconic site of the west that is closely associated with Saint Michael. Because of this, it became an important sacred Christian site with pagan memory still visible beneath its Christian patina. During the Middle Ages, it was a mythological Mecca that had earned the name Saint Michael of Peril. The Golden Legend, which tells the fundamental story of Saint Michael’s appearance on Mount Gargan in Naples in 390 AD, earned Mont-Saint-Michel its status as a sacred Christian site. The tale involves one man’s discovery of a sacred site after his bull strayed from his other beasts in the area. When the bull was shot with an arrow, it turned back to hit the person who shot it, which perplexed the townspeople. They sought help from the bishop who then ordered fast and prayer. After three days, Saint Michael the Archangel appeared and revealed the sacredness of the place, and he declared himself as the keeper of the site. These elements became part of medieval Christian mythology and contributed to Saint Michael’s veneration as a powerful protector and spiritual figure.

Hermes and the Bull Legend

The legend of the bull as the discoverer of Mont-Saint-Michel, also known as “Gargan,” is an ancient tale rooted in both pagan and Christian mythology. According to historical records, the earliest mention of this legend can be found in The Homilies of the Venerable Bede, dating back to the seventh century. However, it was not until the 10th century, as Flodoard recounts, that it became a more widely recognized Christian myth surrounding the discovery of the “Mount of Gargan.” Interestingly, the tale seems to have originated from a pagan myth featuring a sacred bull, which was then adapted and incorporated into Christian traditions. The Montoise legend positions the bull in the role of Hermes, who led people to the holy site of Saint Michael. This, in turn, enables him to lead souls to the “holy light” and is reflected in a prayer from the Mass for the Dead, which asserts that “Saint Michael the standard-bearer” will lead them into this light. The famous folklorist Pierre Saintyves believed that Saint Michael had succeeded the ancient Graeco-Egyptian Hermes/Roman Mercury, which underlines this mythical lineage. To further emphasize this connection, the toponym “Saint-Michel-Mont-Mercure” combines the names of the two psychopomp deities traditionally honored there.

Saint Michael’s Mount also has connections to ancient folklore, such as Beroul’s Romance of Tristan, which tells of a hermit who lives in Morrois Forest, guiding Isolde to King Mark after her flight from his court. In the book, the hermit travels to Saint Michael’s mount in Cornwall to buy clothing, revealing that Saint Michael’s mount was known as Orgin’s Mountain, the Ogre’s Mountain. Ogrin resides in the Morrois Forest to help Isolde return to King Mark after running away from his court. Ogrin represents a Wild Man and appears as an ogre avatar, who always possesses immense treasures. In this myth, Ogrin knows that mythical wealth is stored on a mountain to be used whenever needed. Saint Michael’s Mount is often referred to as the Ogre’s Mountain, and the Anglo-Norman saga recalls the ogre-like figure who haunts the mountain. According to the Aurthurian legends, King Arthur confronts and kills a terrible giant who had been a thief and rapist of women.

Christian Birth of Mont-Saint-Michel Compared to Pagan Myths

Continuing on, Walter shows that local legends throughout Europe recount accidental discoveries of a Virgin Mary statue by an animal, specifically a bovine. These pagan sites were later replaced by Christian sites that were considered sacred. In reality, these naive works present an anthology of pagan myths varnished over by a Christian veneer. For example, the pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady of Font Romean in Odeillo originated from a pious bull legend. Our Lady of Romigier in Manosque was discovered after two steers pulling a plow refused to move past a thornbush. Upon digging the ground, they found a statue of the Virgin in a white marble sarcophagus. The bull plays the role of a fairy animal initiated into the secrets of the tutelary deities of the site, the metamorphosis of a god, the pagan and divine ogre whose magical powers he appears to incorporate.

The Arrow Motif and Celtic Myths

The Celtic myth features the motif of an arrow shot at an animal that mysteriously turns back towards the archer. In Marie de France’s twelfth-century lay, Guigemar, a renowned hunter, shoots an arrow at a white doe in the bushes. After it touches the animal, the arrow, as if enchanted, turns back to the person who shot it. The bull of Mont-Saint-Michel is considered a divine bull, an animal fairy compared to other mysterious bulls of Celtic origin, discovered by chance or unearthed in archaeological digs. A bronze statue of a three-horned bull discovered in Avrigney dating from Gallo-Roman times demonstrates the importance of the bull among the divine figures of the Celtic religion. The importance of the bull as a divine figure in Celtic religious beliefs and practices speaks to a heritage going back to the sacred cows of Hinduism, and can be attributed to their common Indo-European heritage.

Gargan—The Celtic Kaiju Demiurge

Walter explains that the legend of Mont-Saint-Michel mentions a herdsman named Gargan, who in turn is related to the Rabelaisian figure and a mythical giant celebrated in Gargantuan chronicles. The name Gargan is also found in the twelfth-century romance Florimont, written by Aymon de Varennes, in the variation Garganeus, thus corroborating the existence of the name Gargan in this time period and confirming a nexus between various mythological figures in different stories. According to Celtic mythology, Gargan was considered a demiurge who possessed the ability to create and shape the earth, and was believed to have created pilgrimage routes, mountains, and chasms by walking and stomping on the earth. It was also believed that he could dig fords by drinking from streams and create rivers by urinating. In Florimont, Garganeus is described as a giant monster possessing the head of a leopard, the body of a flying guivre, and the appearance of a snake or a fish. The Gallo-Roman column discovered in Merten further links Gargan to the anguipede, a fish-tailed deity evident in ancient statuary, who was said to have fought the Roman Jupiter. The same cavalier depicted in the Gallo-Roman column simultaneously evokes the theme of the infernal ride or Mesnie Hellequin that features a ghost rider dashing through the air with an army of shades, while the anguipede is reminiscent of different flying monsters in Arthurian legends and the folklore of the Rogations. The half-human, half-animal fairy was an avatar of the giant, who had features borrowed from birds, snakes, and fish, endowing the figure with a divine nature. Moreover, the many place-names containing the name Gargan also attest to the certain mythological continuity between the ancient Celtic and Christian worlds of the Middle Ages, reinforcing the notion of the continuity of myth transmitted primarily by names.

While true that Saint Michael of Peril may be a lesser-known saint, his association with Mont-Saint-Michel and the legend of Gargan demonstrates the significance of Christianity’s varnishing of orthodoxy over pagan beliefs. The continuity of myth transmitted through names reinforces the notion of the Christian universe in the Middle Ages, underscoring the importance of understanding the Graeco-Roman and Celtic heritage of these myths. By acknowledging their pagan origins and under-recognized Celtic heritage, we gain a deeper appreciation of the archetypal figures and kaiju-like monsters that pervade these early traditions. Whether we celebrate holidays with religious ceremonies or secular festivities, we do so in the context of millennia of myth, ritual, and religious syncretism. Further, is all of this just evidence of the evolution of religion as purely the product of human invention, or is it possible to speculate on the idea that there may be a mystical force that unifies the central ideas of all religions, and that the evolution and syncretism of religious and spiritual ideas throughout human history may be a manifestation of this invisible force? This force could be seen as guiding humanity’s understanding of divinity and spirituality, inspiring people to search for deeper connections to these aspects of existence. Could this be part of the collective unconscious theorized by Dr. Carl Jung? Hence, in varnishing over the pagan myths and legends, the Christianizing monks and clerics inadvertently preserved their core beliefs and rituals, though not in wholesale form. As religions have developed and changed throughout history, they have also influenced and been influenced by other spiritual practices, creating a web of interconnected beliefs and traditions, and this continual evolving and blending of ideas suggests that there could be a fundamental truth or essence at the heart of all mystical belief and spiritual practice, one that is continually being sought after and expressed in new ways over time. After all, almost all belief systems have a ritual calendar and their holidays all seem to synchronize with the same times and seasons, albeit with some variations, revolving around the lunar cycles, solstices, and equinoxes. Dates, times, and places never change. Only names, labels, myths, and spiritual models do.

  • Gaignebet, C. (1991). Maçonnerie et antimaçonnisme: de l’énigme à la dénonciation [Freemasonry and anti-Masonry: from the enigma to the denunciation]. L’AGE D’HOMME. In Politica Hermetica (Vol. 4, pp. 17). ISBN 2-8251-0146-X and 9782825101469.
  • Walter, P. (2014). Christian Mythology: Revelations of Pagan Origins [Paperback]. Inner Traditions. ISBN-10: 1620553686.

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