Monday, January 14, 2008

Ghosts on a lazy Sunday afternoon



Lazy Sunday afternoons sometimes lead to idly watching odd programmes on the Television. For as long as I can remember there has been a community hymn singing show called Songs of Praise. Not the sort of programme I would normally watch but the programme also focuses on local communities and yesterday the programme came from Orkney. Now I have a long standing love affair with the sacred landscape of Orkney and so I watched the programme hoping to see a little of those beautiful islands.

During the programme the presenters went to Isbister Cairn, sometimes called, The Tomb of the Eagles. Outside the Cairn there was a discussion about the coming of Christianity to Orkney. Sometimes statements can be breathtaking like:

We have no idea just when Christianity first came to Orkney but we can imagine how the people must have felt when they were rescued from the darkness of their lives.

I just cannot begin to express how misleading this is. To begin with there is a huge span of time between the building of the Isbister Cairn and the first stirrings of Christianity on Orkney. The cairn was constructed around 3000 bce so there is a gap of some 3,500 years - almost twice as long as Christianity has existed. There is simply no connection between the people who built the cairn and the people who encountered the first Christian missionaries other than their common humanity.

More importantly there is plenty of evidence to show that life on Neolithic Orkney was good and probably much better than for most of the time Christianity has held sway.

Orkney is a treasure house of Neolithic sacred landscape. The people who built the many stone circles and cairns were clearly well fed, well housed, highly skilled and had both the time and the energy to give to ritual.

The hymns for Songs of Praise were sung in St. Magnus' Cathedral, a beautiful stone built ritual building. No one would call this Cathedral a tomb even though it is full of memorials to the dead, intimations of death and even the bones of St. Magnus himself. No, for all this the cathedral is a place for the living. My guess is that the many stone cairns of Orkney were also places for the living, for festival and ritual, and for being at one with the ancestors, for seeking their guidance and protection in a very similar way to which Christians ask for the guidance and protection of the saints, who though dead are seen to be very much alive. To put it simply there is nothing new under the Orkney sky, cairn and cathedral fit the same human need.

Today we have our own darkness, exploitation, war, torture, inequality, hierarchy... need I go on.

Comparing our own society, modelled on patriarchal faith, with that of Neolithic Orkney does not show us up at all well. Just who is living in darkness.

The Neolithic village of Skara Brae was continually inhabited for over 600 years. In all that time no one seems to have seen any need to build any fortifications. In all that time no one seems to have seen any need to proclaim his or her status by building a bigger house. Indeed all the houses were built and then rebuilt to the same spacious plan. This was a nurturing, highly  stable community that probably only ended with the later emergence of a ruling male elite that ultimately led to the darkness of our own society.

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3 Comments:

Blogger LiviaIndica said...

What a lovely post. You're quite right in that neolithic peoples were not the savage and barbaric people later historians would have us believe. They were, in my opinion, sometimes much more advanced than the Christianity-dominated dark ages.

22:30  
Anonymous A Viewer said...

'We have no idea just when Christianity first came to Orkney but we can imagine how the people must have felt when they were rescued from the darkness of their lives.

I just cannot begin to express how misleading this is. To begin with there is a huge span of time between the building of the Isbister Cairn and the first stirrings of Christianity on Orkney. The cairn was constructed around 3000 bce so there is a gap of some 3,500 years - almost twice as long as Christianity has existed. There is simply no connection between the people who built the cairn and the people who encountered the first Christian missionaries other than their common humanity.'

If you listen you will hear that what was actually said in the programme was
'We don't know when Christianity came to Orkney, but the importance of the individual... and the sense of being loved must have been so wonderful to people who had not lived in that kind of society before.'

Which is not really what you have quoted at all.

Nor did the programme in any way imply, as you have stated, that there is a connection between the people who built the cairn and the people who encountered the first Christian missionaries.

It really is extraordinary how people will not allow what they see and hear to distort their own prejudice.....

20:36  
Blogger Paul said...

Hi Liviaundica and thanks for dropping by :)

Hi viewer. It is true that all writing will to some extent reflect the prejudice and stereotypes of the writer. I think this is especially true of something as personal as a journal. We all have our own prejudices and stereotypes that help us make sense of the world. They also say something about where we are in our understanding at the moment. But a journal like this also allows those prejudices to be examined and challenged which can only be a good thing. Thank you.

10:38  

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