He was right, I couldn’t believe it. A whopping great Pictish Cross slab right opposite the door… and looking so fresh you wouldn’t believe it. Four letter words chased through my mind in lieu of superlatives, along with wondering why they had wasted my schooling with a year studying the history of tarmac when I could have been studying stuff like this.
The thing stands man-height, is carved of old red sandstone and is said to date to around the tenth century. The front shows a cross… not just any cross, mind you… the symbolism of square and circle will need some thinking about in that context. Again there are twin birds and twin figures, robed and holding what appear to be books. And that, with the interlaced carving, would have been enough.
But the back is carved too with what the information available calls ‘indeterminate figures’… though I have to say that there seem to be an awful lot of legs on that bottom creature… as many, say, as Sleipnir, the eight-legged steed of Odin. Which begs the question of who the other figures might be and will no doubt send us delving into the myths once more. And you then have to wonder about the two birds on the front of the cross… the doves of the Holy Spirit… or Hugin and Munin, the Ravens of Odin?
The official line is that we have King David battling the lion… which is how the St Andrews sarcophagus is interpreted… The mounted figure they posit to be Goliath and the eight-legged creature is supposed to be two creatures, ‘one half hidden’… which doesn’t seem to sit right with the way these things are usually carved. Or it could be an eight-legged steed after all, and ‘King David’ perhaps Odin battling Fenrir… but then, I’m no archaeologist … just intrigued.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first stone we have seen ancient crosses where symbols and stories of the old gods and the new were shown together. We have explored this in the Doomsday books. Perhaps such stones drew a parallel between the sacred stories of both traditions? Maybe they were used to teach or to show that the new came not to oust the old gods to but illuminate them? It is a possibility. And one with some basis in the historical record.
The Venerable Bede recorded in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a copy of the letter written in AD601 which Pope Gregory sent to Abbot Mellitus, who was part of the papal mission to Britain. The instructions were clear… not to overthrow but to gently replace the indigenous faith:
“…that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures…”
You just never know what you are going to stumble over if you keep your eyes open… and there was still enough in this quiet church to keep us occupied for a while. We hadn’t even started on the rest of the stones… and the windows were just glorious…