Fasting Against God in Medieval Ireland August 23, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Beachcombing begins today with a reference to the medieval Irish belief – winningly surviving in parts of the Irish countryside to this day – that St Patrick not God would judge the Irish on the day of judgement. This makes for pretty awful theology, not least because St Patrick was expected to overlook some of the pecadillos of the Irish. But, as the Irish scholar Daniel Binchy noted a generation ago (1983), the legend gives a fascinating glimpse into early Gaelic beliefs.
The story recorded in the Tripartite Life of St Patrick claims that the saint went to Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. There he climbed to the top, sat down and told a passing angel that he would not leave the mountain ‘till I am dead or until all my requests are granted’.
So Patrick stayed on the Croagh with much badness of mind, without drink and without food from Shrove Saturday to Easter Saturday.
The reference to Patrick having ‘badness of mind’ (the Irish idiom seems worth keeping) and the saint’s fasting are key to understanding the bargaining process now underway.
Fasting is typically a religious act; an individual deprives themselves of food to concentrate the mind better on God. However, in ancient Ireland, fasting was not only religious. It also had another purpose. The ancient Irish law books, of which several survive, explain that a person could fast against a man who had injured him in some way and who was of a higher social rank.
The wronged individual went to the wrong-doers house and sat outside from dawn to dusk refusing to eat. By so doing he brought bad luck or ‘pollution’ to his opponent. The one fasted against then had two options. He could either admit his wrong and redress it – the fasting would stop and social harmony would be restored. Or he could counter fast to ward off the curse.
It is an extraordinary custom. Not least because it can be paralleled in ancient, medieval and, indeed, modern India and probably dates back to early Indo-European beliefs, beliefs that have survived at the two ends of the Indo-European continuum.
St Patrick was refusing to eat or drink ‘with badness of mind’ on Croaghpatrick. He was fasting against someone who was higher than him in the order of things – God, sitting outside God’s house (heaven). And he was fasting because he felt that he had been wronged – he had not had his wishes granted.
At this point Beachcombing has a question. Where would he have to sit to fast against Google?
Now at the end of these forty days and forty nights the mountain swarmed with black birds so that you could not tell sky apart from earth. Patrick sang ‘malicious’ psalms at them. But the birds did not leave him. After he got angrier and he struck his bell so that all the Irish heard its chime… Then Patrick wept until his face and his tunic were soaked through… At last the angel came and cleaned his tunic and brought white birds around the Croagh and they sang sweet tunes to him.
In this passage Patrick is being tested. The black birds are an evil force that he drives away only with difficulty: the white birds, the mercy of God, a reward after he has resisted torment. God, we learn, has, faced with His servant’s fasting, given way and the angel offers Patrick concessions. The malicious psalms Beachcombing will return to another day.
‘You’ said the angel ‘may bring as many souls out of Hell as will fill the distance your eyes reach over the sea.’ ‘That is not enough for me’ said Patrick ‘for my eyes do not reach far over the sea.
So the angel ups the offer. He promises that Patrick may rescue as many souls as will fit into the space that Patrick can see not just over the sea but over the land as well. However, Patrick is still not happy.
‘Isn’t there anything else that He will give me beside that?’ ‘There is’ said the angel’ He will give you seven people to take out of Hell every Saturday until Doomsday. ‘No’ said Patrick ‘if He does me this favour then make it twelve.’ ‘Very well, you will have them’ said the angel, ‘but now leave this mountain’. ‘I will not go’ said Patrick… ‘isn’t there anything else that will be given to me?’
The bargaining continues. Patrick gains several more concessions. God, through the angel, guarantees that the English will never invade Ireland – (Patrick should have tried asking Bobby Sands about this), that those who sing Patrick’s hymn will be saved from torture, and, the promise that has already been mentioned; namely that when the end of the world comes Patrick, not God, will judge the Irish.
The last is especially difficult and God hesitates, but after ‘all creatures visible and invisible, including the twelve apostles, begged Him’ it too is granted.
At this point Patrick sensibly leaves the mountain top.
Any other fasting against stories from non-Irish sources? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com