Monday, November 05, 2012

Inside The Book of Kells

I hope I never cease to be impressed by the wonders of synchronicity. I've often said it's when we're truly "in the flow" that things find their way to our doorstep. This weekend, the arrival of this stunning edition of The Book of Kells on my writing desk was no exception, and it offered some enchanted affirmation for me that I'm on the right path with Book #2. The Celts are an elusive people, and my research on them for the novel I'm working on at times seems insurmountable. This, dear friends, is exactly why I was so thrilled when my awesome husband Eric came across this book and thought of me.

The Book of Kells, which most agree was produced around 800 AD in Ireland, is a resplendently illustrated version of the Gospels, the original of which is now kept at Trinity College in Dublin. One of Ireland's National Treasures, it's one of the most beautiful of all the illuminated manuscripts that date the Middle Ages. What makes it fascinating (and so incredibly useful) to me, is the glimpse that it also provides us into the Celtic culture of a lost era. Turn the pages and you'll see beasts that look more far-Eastern than Celtic, severed heads that cap letters, snakes that resemble the legend of the Viking/Norse Mithras serpent, fire breathing monsters and more.  

Bernard Meehan's coffee-table-sized tome (Thames & Hudson, $95.00)
Those of you who read Faery Tale will remember that the history and religious practices of the pagan Celts was an oral tradition. The Druids, religious leaders of the pre-Christian Celts, believed the word was sacred and contained great power. Vestiges of this can be found in the folk beliefs that have risen up surrounding faeries, oddly enough - it is believed that if you ever meet a member of the Fae, they would never deign give you their real name! (Think of the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin"...) To possess their name is to possess power over their spirit. This story has recorded what was a genuine cultural belief of the humans living in ancient eras.

For the Druids and the ancient Celts, to consign their religious practices, massive knowledge of the natural world and cultural secrets to paper was to risk losing everything should they be conquered by another nation. This of course, eventually happened anyway. And now all we have to provide us with information about the more mystical side of their nature are the burials we find, remnants of epic poetry, and of course, their art.
Jesus and his virgin mother, likely known in the Celtic world as Brigid.
 The Book of Kells
What excites me about it is the fact that The Book of Kells also serves as one of the only living documents that can provide us with a visceral and incredibly unique glimpse into the minds of the Celtic people at that time. We know very little about the state of Celtic life post Roman occupation throughout the British Isles, which is precisely the time period I'm writing about. The Celts themselves wrote nothing down, so I'm nothing short of grateful for the studious Celtic Christian monks who dedicated their lives to the writings of history, such as they heard it, and gave us this incredible work of faith/art. The book is filled with animistic representations that offer tantalizing glimpses of the Celtic people's close connection to the natural world. Dogs, lions, peacocks, cats, eagles, cows and more fill the pages, the Apostles themselves are even represented as winged creatures (see second caption below).   

Prior to its adoption in this text
the Stag was a common symbol found in the pagan Celtic world.

Early Celtic-Christian Symbolism:
Luke represented by a calf and John represented by an eagle, as found in The Book of Kells
And of course, it wasn't created in a vacuum. Early Christians converting the Celts needed to construct a religion that didn't exist too far outside the confines of Celtic belief in order to achieve success with conversion. Things had to be made relatable. (Thus we find innumerable translations of pagan deities into the Christian Celtic world view: the goddess Brigid became Brigid, Virgin Mother of Jesus, etc.) The stag, peacock and other creatures that must have held great meaning to the Celts, were all given roles to play in the stories of the gospels via illustration. Most importantly, the monks working on the Book of Kells were using the artistic styles of the time. Thus we can get a truly exhilarating peek into the imaginations and mystical symbolic imagery that held value to the culture as a whole, not just the Christian peoples of the time. Celtic Christianity was rife with requisitioned pagan symbolism. We can learn a great deal about the forgotten world of the pagan Celts by studying the symbolism recorded in this 9th century text.

The value of this particular edition is exponentially increased by it's author, too. Bernard Meehan is Head of Research Collections at Trinity in Dublin and has been studying the Book of Kells for over 30 years. His written insights on the symbolism and history of the book are among the best and most informed one could hope for.

You'd better believe I'll be using this book to build the religious world of the Celtic people you'll be meeting in book 2.

I have a feeling I'm going to need a magnifying glass.

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