Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Skellig Michael, Saint Michael’s Mount and Mont Saint-Michel: three small rocky tidal islands with similar names, off the coasts of three different countries, a few hundred miles apart.
The Michael axis: Skellig to Mount Carmel
The distance between Skellig Michael and Mount Carmel is 2,622.82 miles. That's a very long way for an alignment. Some might say it's too long to be considered as a product of human endeavour, that no culture has ever had the technology to achieve such a feat over such a distance.
Personally, I am curious, I prefer not to dismiss the possibility of its existence as improbable and refuse to look at all.
But there's another problem, apart from the fact that technological requirements needed fall short of what we think we know about our ancestors: if you draw a line linking Skellig Michael and Mount Carmel on Google Earth, it bypasses all the places said to be on the alignment. Why is that?
The alignment is very definitely curved on the ground, and only looks straight on a map. This is the first mystery about the line: why does it curve, how great and consistent is its curvature? Why does it look straight on a map? Why does the curvature of the line seem to match exactly the distortion of the Mercator projection?
The Skellig Michael - Jerusalem line is said to be linked to the path of the sun. How, I can't say - yet. Along the Greek sections of the alignment, there are temples to Apollo, the sun deity, and his twin sister Artemis, a moon deity. The northern section of the alignment is defined by a monotheistic religion, so it cannot be the case that a sun or moon deity has any bearing on its mystery. Or can it?
How does the orientation of the line compare to the direction of the rising sun at certain times of the year? What's the azimuth of this line? A better question would in fact be: what are the azimuths for the various parts of the line, from one point to the next? Azimuth comes from the Arabic word for direction, and it's the angle between the North (azimuth 0°) and wherever you want to go or draw a line towards, horizontally. This is measured clockwise, or sunwise, from the North, so for example due East is 90°, South 180°, and West 270°.
Because of the curved nature of the line, there is no single azimuth that defines the Michael alignment. Here are some of the places that are accepted as part of the line, with the azimuths from one to the next, starting at the North-West, as well as the azimuth to each one from Skellig Michael.
Skellig Michael to Saint Michael's Mount is 115.42°, Skellig to Mont Saint Michel is 114.95°, Skellig to Sacra San Michele is 112.42° and Skellig to Monte San Angelo is 108.76°, Skellig to Corfu, Artemis temple, 108.04°, Skellig to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is 106.99°, and Skellig to the place of Apollo and Artemis's birth on the island of Delos is 105.66°, Skellig to Rhodes (centre of the island) 104.61°, Skellig to Mount Carmel 102.00°.
You can see the curvature in the line in these figures: the azimuths, as measured from Skellig Michael, decrease the further South - West you go.
One researcher includes the city of Lyon on the line, where a huge statue of the Archangel Michael overlooks the city. Skellig to Lyon's Basilica of Fourvière is azimuth 114.72°.
Others include Bourges, Perugia, Athens.
The individual sections of the alignment have these azimuths: Skellig to Saint Michael's Mount is 115.42°, then Saint Michael's Mount to the Mont Saint-Michel is 118.33°, Mont Saint-Michel to Le Mans Cathedral (Place Saint-Michel) 118.21°, Mont Saint-Michel to Lyon Fourvière 121.38°, Mont Saint Michel to Sacra di San Michele 117.01°, distance Mount Carmel to Skellig 2,622.91 miles
Some places along the line are much further away than others. Does the azimuth change according to how far away the next place on the axis is? I don't think so. What's the ratio between distance in miles between points on the axis and the azimuth of the various sections of the line?
On the first leg, between Skellig Michael and Saint Michael's Mount, the distance is 424.95 miles, and the azimuth 115.42°, so there seems to be a ratio of 0.27. (115.42 / 424.95 = 0.2716)
On the second leg, between Saint Michael's Mount and the Mont Saint-Michel, the distance is 206.14 miles, and the azimuth is 118.32°, so a ratio of 0.5739.
Then it's Mont Saint-Michel to Le Mans Cathedral, 89.92 miles, azimuth 118.22 ° so 1.31472. Then Le Mans to Lyon Fourvière, 268.29 miles, 123.71°, so 0.4611.
Lyon to Sacra San Michele is 130.90 miles, 109.68°, so 1.1935. Or if you want to skip Le Mans and Lyon and go straight from the Mont Saint-Michel to Sacra San Michele in Italy, then the distance is 485.05 miles, azimuth 117.02°, ratio 0.2413.
Sacra San Michele to Monte Sant' Angelo 492.21 miles, 115.44°, ratio 0.2345.
Monte Sant' Angelo to Corfu, Artemis Temple, 253.69 miles, azimuth 123.64° , ratio 0.4874
Corfu, Artemis Temple to Temple of Apollo at Delphi, 159.12 miles, 118.46 °, ratio 0.7445
Temple of Apollo at Delphi to Delos, House of Inopo, 168.75 miles, 115.56° , ratio 0.6848
Delos to Rhodes (highest point on the island, Ruins of the Temple of Zeus Attavyrios) 165.46 miles, azimuth 118.99°, ratio 0.7191
Rhodes to Mount Carmel 474.29 miles, 118.46°, ratio 0.2498.
The various distances all seem very different. A ratio in the vicinity of 0.24 does come up a couple of times, but other than that there seems to be no link between the distance between points on the line and the azimuth between them. I think what this suggests is that line exists in and of itself, perhaps according to a particular set of geodectic or astronomical considerations, and that the temples and churches along it have been placed there after the line was drawn, perhaps according to local considerations such as altitude or proximity to the sea. Of course, there is also the possibility that some of them were placed at specific distances from each other.
From Skellig to Mount Carmel, there does not seem to be any pattern in the ratios between distance and azimuth or the distances themselves. The only pattern that stands out at this point is the curve of the line, and with each leg of the line, an increase of the azimuth from place to place, going South. The two greatest azimuth figures are from Le Mans to Fourvière, and from Monte Sant' Angelo to Corfu - in fact, of these four places, only Monte Sant' Angelo is accepted by most researchers as definitely being part of the alignment. All the other sections seem to have azimuths between 115° and 119°.
What about sun rise from these places, does the azimuth of sun rise at, say, the summer solstice, match the azimuth of the line at that particular point? And maybe moon rise / set?
There are many questions to be asked, and many places to explore. I will focus first on the North West section, I suppose because that's closest to where I live.
Ireland was once known as the land of saints and scholars, famed for its books and its monks, who went around the known world setting up ever more monastic cells. These monasteries of the Celtic Church were full of vitality and energy, and owed very little to Rome.
'The most spectacular and best preserved is, of course, the monastery on Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry, with its group of five absolutely intact huts and its two oratories. With the exception of a later chapel, the buildings are all of dry stone, and covered by various methods of corbelling. the huts are round or square outside, and square inside; in some of the corners are marked to the top of the vault, which has, inside a pyramidal appearance, whilst outside of the roof is domeshaped (...); in others, the corners are only marked in the lower parts of the walls and the inside as well as the outside of the roof is domeshaped. The final part of the covering is done by a very large slab, or a hole is left at the top, as an outlet for the smoke; in one case, the hole is cut in the middle of the large slab which covers the centre of the dome.
The oratories are rectangular in plan, and the two gables as well as the side walls slope inwards from the bottom, but the sloping is much more marked in the side walls which eventually meet in a long straight roof-top; the final covering is done by a series of horizontal slabs plainly visible from inside but concealed by some small stones outside. '
'Early Irish Monasteries, Boat-shaped Oratories and Beehive Huts', by Francoise Henry, in Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society © 1948, Vol. 11, No. 4.
Skellig Michael, or Sceilg Mhichíl in Irish ('sceillec' meaning steep area of rock) is the pointy tip of a mountain peaking through the Atlantic Ocean, battered by winds and spray. It's only seven miles from the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, but it is a world away. There are in fact two Skellig rocks, the smaller of them is the home of thousands of puffins, and completely inaccessible. Here, you are in the wild west of Europe. It's much easier being a bird or a seal than a human.
Only a couple of other islands, the Blaskets, also off the Kerry coast, are closer to Newfoundland. Blaskets and Skelligs were inhabited once, but whatever the reasons once might have been to consider them as a home have vanished, and it now seems incredible any one could have survived on them for years at a time. Today, mostly, we try to alleviate suffering and eradicate poverty. The people who lived on Skellig were part of a mindset in which poverty and suffering were to be embraced.
Now nature has taken these places back, and thrives, thanks to the steepness of the rock and the almost constant gales.
The highest point on Skellig Michael, known as the Spit, is 714 feet (218 m) above sea level. There is almost no part of the rock which is horizontal, from every aspect it seems to jut upwards. Because of their isolation, wide varieties of flora and fauna, many of which are unusual to Ireland's mainland, have developed on the Skelligs. There is evidence of pre-Christian habitation in a megalithic stone wall, as well as an Early Christian monastery, with a church dedicated to Saint Michael, and beehive huts, or clocháns. In fact, many of the islands off this part of Kerry have churches on them, and some have clocháns to, such as Church Island.
A clochán is a dry-stone hut with a corbelled roof, found only in the South West of Ireland.
'Although the precise date of the first Irish clochans (dry stone huts built in the corbelled method) is unknown, dry stone corbelling is undoubtedly a building technique of high antiquity in Ireland (e.g. the main chamber of the passage grave at New Grange) and certainly by the early Christian period clochans were being widely used as human residences. From the numerous surviving corbelled stone buildings a tentative reconstruction of developments in their basic style can be made. This may run from the elementary circular clochan whose interior plan conforms to the shape of the external wall through the circular cloghan with rectangular interior to elongated clochans with rectangular interiors (e.g. clochan na carraige on Inishmore, Aran Islands) and eventually, to rectangular structures with ridged roofs of stone as exemplified in Gallarus oratory on the Dingle peninsula.'
F.H.A. Aalen, 'Clochans as transhumance dwellings in the Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry', The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland © 1964
The author goes on to add that because these structures have been built for so long it is very difficult to date them.
The best way to discover the island without actually visiting it is, second perhaps only to YouTube footage of tourists to 'Star Wars Island', is this book: The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael by Walter Horn, Jenny White Marshall and Grellan D. Rourke.
You can read it online: https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft1d5nb0gb;chunk.id=0;doc.view=print
It's absolutely fantastic, full of photos and sketches. The book is the result of fieldwork on Skellig Michael, or as they call it, an 'archaeological adventure', undertaken in the summer of 1986.
The authors introduce Skellig in this way:
''We had thought of the hermitages and monasteries of Meteora as the climax, the ne plus ultra, of monastic withdrawal until we came to work on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. In the course of investigating the island, we were startled to discover the architectural remains of a hermitage five hundred years older than the earliest hermitage of Meteora. On Skellig Michael, an island at the western edge of the European land mass—at the time the monastery was founded, the western edge of the Christian world—was a hermitage even more awesome than Meteora (Fig. 5): seven hundred feet above the sea, clinging to the narrow ledges of an austere pinnacle, the Skellig Michael hermitage is a visual wonder and a marvelous feat of construction.'
'No other monastery in Ireland was built on such difficult terrain; Skellig Michael is absolutely unique in this respect. '
'Constructing the platforms and terraces of the hermitage was an exceptionally dangerous undertaking. The manipulation of heavy slabs of stone into position as a secure base for retaining walls was an arduous and formidable task, particularly on the oratory terrace. Stout ropes to secure the laboring monks would have been necessary on the perilous slopes. The work must have proceeded at a slow pace and would have required nerves of steel. The monks' achievement is a mark of their great determination, skill, and spiritual zeal.'
'During the seventh century monastic paruchiae were becoming increasingly important and common. But the earlier Egyptian ideals of ascetic simplicity and austerity were not forgotten, and monasteries continued to support and encourage ascetics. It was not unusual for the founders of monasteries to spend some time as hermits, either early in life or upon the approach of old age. The great scholastic monastery of Bangor still consciously looked to the model of Egyptian monachism and felt itself the direct spiritual descendant of Egypt. The Antiphonary of Bangor , written between 680 and 691, makes some nineteen references to Egypt; the attitude embodied in them is summed up perfectly in one of the quatrains:
A House full of Delights Built on Rock A veritable vine Transmitted from Egypt.
Domus deliciis plena Super petram constructa Necon vinea vera Ex Aegypto transducta.'
Skellig Michael is a really remote place. It's only possible to land a boat there in fair weather. How anyone managed to live there I have no idea. Either they were really brave and single-minded, or things on the mainland were even worse. If there were marauding attackers going around, it might have been a place of refuge. Or maybe the main reason the monks were there was because they considered this rock special, sacred perhaps.
Saint Anthony, who withdrew into the desert, is thought to have been the inspiration for the many Irish monks who sought out remote places to live. The sea was their desert. Monasteries were founded on hundreds of islands, all over Ireland and the British Isles.
After St. Michael's appearance on Monte Gargano in Italy in 492 and on Mont-Saint-Michael in France in 708, many churches located on mountains, hills and artificial mounds were dedicated to Michael. I thought that there had been no apparitions of the archangel in Ireland. I'd never heard of any, not in connection with Saint Patrick stories, not in connection with Skellig Michael tourism websites, or in any books I'd come across. It was only while reading through all the texts on Skellig Michael that I could find that I discovered that this was not the case. Not only had the archangel Michael appeared in Ireland, but he had appeared on Skellig, and to none other than Saint Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland. Patrick is famous for banishing snakes from Ireland, and in that respect, there is already a clear link between him and the dragon slayer that is Michael. What I was surprised to find was that Patrick had actually had a vision of this dragon slayer, that he wasn't just an Irish version of the same reptile killing / banishing figure, without the wings and the good looks, but that the two had actually met. In Ireland, various rocks and mountains are named after or dedicated to Saint Patrick, such as Croagh Patrick and Patrick's bed, and the rock of Cashel, as well as holy wells, including one at Tara, and another near Clonmel in Tipperary. There's also a Patrickstown hill in the Loughcrew area, with a few cairns on it, with a sundial decorated stone, very similar to one found at Knowth.
Saint Patrick also is remembered at the Hill of Slane, for lighting and then putting out the pascal fire, and converting the king, Laoire, who was impressed by his magical abilities. He is also the reason behind the naming of Lough Derg, which means red lake: this is where he killed a huge serpent, spilling its blood into the water. There is a clear connection to be made between Saint Patrick and the Archangel Michael: they both fight reptiles and they both have high places or rocks dedicated to or associated with them.
The account of Saint Patrick is contained in a 13th century German Manuscript, from an monastery founded by an Irish monk. I have looked and looked for a transcript of this text online, to get beyond the second-hand accounts of this story, but I cannot find it anywhere, which is strange, considering the fuss that is made of Saint Patrick every March, all over the world. If you do an online search for 'Saint Patrick and Saint Michael', the story doesn't come up, so it seems surprisingly obscure. So instead, here is a reference to the story related by a researcher, from a report on this website:
The report is entitled 'SKELLIG MICHAEL, CO. KERRY: THE MONASTERY AND SOUTH PEAK Archaeological stratigraphic report: excavations 1986–2010', by Edward Bourke, Alan R. Hayden, Ann Lynch. It's in fact a great introduction to Skellig Michael, well written with great photos. Here is a (fairly lengthy) section from the text:
'A more interesting reference to the site [Skellig Michael] occurs in the Libellus de fundacione ecclesie Consecrati Petri, commonly referred to as the Regensburger Schottenlegende. This is a mid-thirteenth-century Latin text giving an account of the foundation of the Irish Benedictine monasteries in Germany, at Weih Sankt Peter and St James in Regensburg, St James in Würzburg and St Nicholas in Memmingen. The text appears to have been composed at Ratisbon by an Irish monk, potentially originally from Kerry (Breatnach 1977–8, 58). The initial section of the text offers an account of the career of St Patrick which includes a version of Patrick’s expulsion of the demons from Ireland, featuring an intervention by St Michael that occurs on a rock off the coast of Ireland. This rock (according to the text) is known as ‘Silex Sancti Michaelis’ as a result. The text then includes a detailed description of the rock, its setting and various miraculous tales concerning the site (ibid., 59). One of these miracles is identical to that described by Giraldus Cambrensis. Breatnach (1977–8) has argued that this section of the Libellus functions much like dindsenchas (and may have been intended as such), providing a rationale and origin-tale for Skellig Michael and possibly for another prominent local landmark, the Saint’s Road, which leads to the summit of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula. The text also points to a well-established tradition of pilgrimage to the site by the thirteenth century; the abbey at Ballinskelligs is likely to have provided a useful base for pilgrimage to the island. It may well be that the development of Skellig Michael as a place of pilgrimage provided impetus for the establishment of the Augustinian abbey on the mainland, to provide a controlled ‘gateway’ to the island.
Breatnach (1977–8) has argued that this section of the Libellus functions much like dindsenchas (and may have been intended as such), providing a rationale and origin-tale for Skellig Michael and possibly for another prominent local landmark, the Saint’s Road, which leads to the summit of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula. The text also points to a well-established tradition of pilgrimage to the site by the thirteenth century; the abbey at Ballinskelligs is likely to have provided a useful base for pilgrimage to the island. It may well be that the development of Skellig Michael as a place of pilgrimage provided impetus for the establishment of the Augustinian abbey on the mainland, to provide a controlled ‘gateway’ to the island. Breatnach (1977–8) has argued that this section of the Libellus functions much like dindsenchas (and may have been intended as such), providing a rationale and origin-tale for Skellig Michael and possibly for another prominent local landmark, the Saint’s Road, which leads to the summit of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula. The text also points to a well-established tradition of pilgrimage to the site by the thirteenth century; the abbey at Ballinskelligs is likely to have provided a useful base for pilgrimage to the island. It may well be that the development of Skellig Michael as a place of pilgrimage provided impetus for the establishment of the Augustinian abbey on the mainland, to provide a controlled ‘gateway’ to the island.'
Saint Patrick active as a missionary in Ireland during the 5th century. The story of Saint Patrick banishing the snakes and having the vision of the Archangel Michael is 13th century. That's a difference of six centuries.
Exactly why these Irish monks chose to settle in Germany, and those specific places in Germany, is an interesting question. Just out of interest, I marked these German monasteries of Irish origin on Google Earth. They form an interesting pattern.
It's difficult to know when the rock was inhabited. The megalithic stone wall points to a possible presence thousands of years ago. The church of Saint Michael is 10th or early 11th century.
The island is referred to in Irish texts much earlier than that though, and there may have been a monastery there for centuries before the existing church was built. Was it a place of refuge for Christians, safe from the mainland? Was it a place for hermits to live in isolation? Was there a settlement? When was the name of the archangel Michael associated with the rock?
One of the earliest references to the Skelligs dates to the 8th century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded in the Martyrology of Tallaght, a compilation of saints from the Roman calendar, written between 797–808 CE. Was Suibhni a hermit or the abbot of a monastic community?
In a text from the 8th or 9th century, Duagh, King of West Munster, is said to have ‘fled to Scellecc’ after an episode of conflict between the Kings of Munster and the Kings of Cashel.
In the Annals of Inisfallen, section AI824.3, a Viking raid on Skellig is mentioned, and someone called Étgal is taken: 'Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Étgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger on their hands.'
The death of Etgall of the Scellig is also mentioned in the Annals of Ulster in the year 823 or 824.
Étgal's abduction and death is also mentioned in another book, the War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill , and is followed by another reference to a foreign attack between 824 and 850:
'There came a fleet from Luimnech in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inishfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor, and they killed Rudgaile, son of Selbach, the anchorite. It was he whom the angel set loose twice, and the foreigners bound him twice each time.'
'Tanic longes o Luimniuch i ndescert nhErend, cor inriset Sceleg Michil, ocus Inis Fathlind, ocus Disirt Donnain, ocus Cluain mor; co ro marbsat Rudgaile mac Trebthaidhi, ocus Cormac mac Selbaig anchora. Is desside ra hoslaic angel po di, ocus poscenglaitis na Gaill cac nuairi' (War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill , ed. Todd, 1867, 228–29).
After Saint Patrick's vision, (in the 13th century German text) this is the first mention, I think, of the angel in connection with the island, and presumably this is the archangel Michael.
The island was definitely already dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel sometime before 1044, when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ was recorded.
In the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, there are two mentions of the rock: "Age of Christ, 950. Blathmhac of Sgeillic died"; the second, which reads "The Age of Christ, 1044. Aedh of Sgelic-Mhichil".
And this last event is also mentioned in section AI1044.7 of the Annals of Isnishfallen:
'Aed Sceilic, the noble priest, the celibate, and the chief of the Gaedil in piety, rested in Christ.'
A couple of things stand out from these mentions in the various chronicles. The first is that Skellig is considered worthy of mention, even though it is a tiny remote place. The chronicles are full of mentions of the death of such and such, usually a king, thrown in with very short accounts of raids by 'foreigners' or very harsh winters or dry summers which affected the cattle badly. These are all important events, worth recording. And in amongst these is the death of someone connected to Skellig. Why is it considered important?
What does it mean to be the 'chief of the Gaedil in piety'? Is Aed Sceilic a spritual leader? Why, then, is he based on Skellig? Is Skellig a sort of Mount Kailash of Ireland?
A second thing is that in these early chronicles, the name Michael, or Michael, is barely ever mentioned. The rock is referred to simply as Scellec.
A lengthy footnote in The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael, by Walter Horn, Jenny White Marshall and Grellan D. Rourke mentions an interesting detail in the chronology of the name of the rock:
'Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters , ed. and trans. O'Donovan, 1851, 2: 667, 845. The entry for 1044 in the Annals of Inisfallen , ed.
MacAirt , 1977, reads simply: "Aed Sceilic, the noble priest, the celibate, and the chief of the Gaedhil in piety, rested in Christ" (209). Evidently the name Michael was still not universally used. The name Skellig Michael was used in two ninth-century entries in the War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill (Cogadhh Gaedhel re Gallaibh ), written down in the early twelfth century. However, there is a strong connection between the first thirty-five chapters of this document and the Annals of Ulster , which is based upon a common source. "This is presumably because the compiler was using some version of the Chronicle of Ireland, the source which lies behind all the annals and which the Annals of Ulster preserves much more fully" (Hughes 1972, 290–95). We conclude that since no ninth-century entries in the other annals refer to the name Michael, its use in the War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill is due to twelfth-century scribal emendation. See also Roe (1976) for similar reasoning on the date of the use of the name Michael. We are indebted to Michael Herity for bringing this article to our attention.'
So it is not impossible that the name came with the French - that the connection thus made with Saint Michael's Mount and the Mont Saint-Michel may have been Augustinian or Norman, centuries after Patrick's vision. This hints at the possibility of the Augustin or Normans inventing or appropriating a sacred connection between Skellig, Saint Michael's Mount and the Mont Saint-Michel. It could be that the cult of Michael was revitalised by religious orders from France. What saint was worshipped at Skellig before Michael is an open question.
If Skellig was an important place in Irish religious life, as the Annals seem to hint at, then what deity was worshipped there before Christianity, and was it the same that was worshipped at Saint Michael's Mount and the Mont Saint-Michel? Of course, it's impossible to know.
Apart from the tradition of anchorites, there's another link with Egypt: the ring-cross. In an appendix to the book, ' On the Origin of the Celtic Cross: A New Interpretation', Walter Horn writes:
'Unquestionably, both the widespread popularity of ring crosses and their monumentalization into the great high crosses are uniquely Irish phenomena. But it cannot be said with the same assurance that the conversion of the simple ring cross into the developed ring cross is an autochthonous Irish development.
The design on the Coptic textile in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts compels us to conclude that the shape of the developed ring cross as well as the custom of carrying crosses fashioned in this manner in religious processions was influenced by new stimuli from Egypt that reached the Celtic territories of Ireland and England in the eighth century.'
In the thirteenth century, the island was abandoned by the monastic community, which settled on the mainland. This may have been due to climate change, the weather becoming colder, and the winds fiercer. The ice cap in the North was growing.
The harshness of the weather was not however toned down by comfort or warmth within the monasteries. By the 9th century, the Benedictine order had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, except for Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, where the Celtic observance, which was perhaps even more strict, still prevailed for another century or two. By the 11th century, the Celtic Church had lost its independence from Rome. In fact, by the 13th century, many indigenous Irish monasteries were abandoned, and new Norman ones created, sometimes just a few miles away. This happened for example just North of Dublin, where the ancient monastery of Monasterboice, which had housed thousands, and is famous still for its round tower and massive Celtic crosses, was put out of business for good by the new Norman monastery of Mellifont, not far away.
The 11th century saw a surge in the confidence of the individual, and as a result, of new ideas. Pierre Abelard was a champion debater in 12th century Paris. Thomas Becket studied in Paris, Bologna and Auxerre. Many contradictory beliefs were debated by the foremost thinkers of the Christian world. It was during this time, in contrast to the sharpness of ascetic ideals, that other forms of ideal monastic life were also being adopted, in which it was ok to take pleasure in the beauty of nature, of art and of music. This was particularly true of the Cluniac houses.
The first Crusade to Jerusalem would happen in 1095. Soon after, the cult of the Virgin, and the ideals of courtly love and courtesy would take over the medieval world, perhaps both originating in the Near East. Inspired by a love of courtesy, Francis of Assisi would re-invent himself as a lover of poverty, refusing ever to be in the company of someone poorer than himself. The cult of suffering that had drawn religious heroes to remote places like Skellig in the first centuries of Christianity was now rechannelled through the secular world, and redeployed in the worship of the female principle: to suffer was to do a lady, or Our Lady, a service. The first Gothic Cathedrals were built in the 12th century, almost all dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Conversely, at this very time, the Church was reinventing itself as a banking power, and many of Saint Francis's followers were put to death as heretics. The centre of the Christian world had moved far away from places like Skellig and the life of perpetual hardship that places like this offered. In the end, the followers of Saint Francis were allowed to continue their work within the framework of the Church but the age of the anchorite was over. Though places like Skellig Michael still lingered on as a place of pilgrimage, the main energies of the Church had shifted away from the ascetic ideals towards making money and gaining ever more power. Also top of the list of priorities was making life for non-Christians, as well as for many Christians too, as hard as possible, and as short as possible. This was the age of hatred, of burning women at the stake, so many that in some villages there was not a women left alive. It was a time for putting entire towns to the sword or the flame for heresy. It was a time when the pope wielded a powerful army, and would use it to gain territories or to punish competitors in trade. It was a time when the inquisition flourished. It was a time when people thought nothing of traveling to far away places on crusades, to Jerusalem and to Spain, and killing huge numbers of Muslims. It was a time when the persecution against the Jews was at its height, and many massacres happened, from England to Spain, France, Germany and beyond.
Skellig Michael remains as a reminder of what the Early Christian world aspired to.
Saint Michael's Mount
The appeal of these Michael Mounts seems rooted in water: mysterious rocky places that seem to jut out skywards from the sea, refuges of the imagination. And yet, not so long ago, these islands were mountains on dry land.
In his Survey of Cornwall (1602) Richard Carew writes:
“The encroaching Sea hath rauined from it, the whole Countrie of Lionnesse, together with diuers other parcels of no little circuite: and that such a Lionnesse there was, these proofs are yet remaining. The space between the lands end, and the Iles of Scilley, being about thirtie mile, to this day retaineth that name, in Cornish Lethowsow, and carrieth continually an equall depth of fortie or sixtie fathom (a thing not vsual in the Seas proper Dominion) saue that about the midway, there lieth a Rocke, which at low water discourerth his head. They terme it the Gulfe, suiting thereby the other name of Scilla. Fishermen also casting their hookes thereabouts, haue drawn vp peeces of doors and windowes. Moreouer, the ancient name of Michaels Mount, was Caraclowse in Cowse, in English, The hoare Rocke in the Wood: which now is at eurie floud incompassed by the Sea, and yet at some low ebbes, rootes of mighties trees are discryed in the sands about it. The like ouerflowing hath happened in Plymouth Hauen, and diuers other places.”
And further in the book, he writes:
“The best of those turfes (for all sorts serue not) are fetched about two miles Eastwards of St Michaels Mount, where at low water they cast aside the sand, and dig them vp: they are full of rootes of trees, and on some of them nuts haue been found, which confirmeth my former assertion of the seas intrusion.”
It’s not clear when exactly the sea did intrude and make the mount an island – Richard Carew says nuts and tree roots were being found under water in 1602, but Wikipedia says 1700 BC was the time around which the hazel wood went under.
I've drawn a line in red on this map to show where the European Michael alignment would have been several thousand years ago. It's interesting to look on these maps and see that only a short while ago in geological terms the whole northern part of the European Michael axis was on dry land, apart from river crossings. It's also very clear on this National Geographic map, which I can't reproduce here: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/maps/doggerland/
So maybe a walk along this line wouldn't have been as hard as you might expect ... well, a good few thousand years ago at least. Sixteen thousand, it seems. Maybe the axis existed even then.
Saint Michael’s Mount is much smaller than its Norman counterpart, only 57 acres (the Mont Saint-Michel over four times the size), and is perhaps a little less famous, and less fabulous architecturally. But the two mounts have a lot in common. In fact, the Cornish mount was given to the religious order of the Mont Saint- Michel in the 11th century, and was attached to the order till the early XVth century. It’s not clear why the Cornish mount was deemed suitable for pairing with the Norman one by the religious order in charge of the Mont Saint-Michel – was there already a known link, some knowledge of the Michael line? Monastic buildings were built in both places by the Normans, and pilgrims visited.
The Cornish name for Saint Michael’s Mount, Karrek Loos yn Koos, meaning "hoar rock in woodland", has nothing to do with the archangel, which makes you wonder if the link to the Archangel Michael was French in origin. But it was an Irish monk who first set up a monastic community there. Unlike the Norman Christians, the early Celtic Church had no allegiance to Rome. Perhaps knowledge from pre-Christian times in Ireland had been passed on to these early Irish monks, possibly to do with a veneration of landscape, and a network of holy places.
There's a legend of a giant named Cormoran who lived on the mount and terrorised the locals. A boy called Jack from Marazion managed to kill him one moon-lit night.
The Mont Saint-Michel
'Le Mont Saint-Michel, c'est d'abord une très belle histoire d'amour. On y célèbre en effet les noces perpetuelles du Ciel et de le Terre, de le Terre et de la Mer, de la Mer de du Ciel. Et comme dans toutes les belles histoires d'amour, cela ne va pas sans violence, sans orage, sans souffle de vent, sans lumière derrière les brumes profondes qui se glissent entre monts et grandes grèves pour signifier que l'heure est venue d'accomplir de mystérieuses et silencieuses liturgies.'
'The Mont Saint-Michel is first of all a beautiful love story. Here, a perpetual wedding between Sky and Earth, Earth and Sea, Sea and Sky is celebrated. And as with all beautiful love stories, it can't happen without violence, without storms, without wind blowing, without light from behind the mists that slip in between the hills and the long strands to show that the time has come to perform mysterious and silent liturgies.' (My translation)
Jean Markale opens his book, 'Le Mont Saint-Michel et l'énigme du dragon' with these words.
The Mont Saint-Michel is certainly the most famous of the Michael mounts. It is named after the archangel because a local bishop had a vision of Michael instructing them to build a monastery there.
The obvious drawback to dedicating a church to an archangel is that it’s hard to come by relics: fragments of an angel’s bone, hair, cape, or sword, some sort of material proof of their existence, they are understandably hard to come by. The problem waas that churches and monasteries depended to a large extent on revenue from pilgrims, and relics were crucial in attracting people, especially to out of the way places like islands. Perhaps researchers into the distant past are faced with a similar predicament: without physical evidence of measuring instruments and tools, it’s hard to back up theory. Fortunately, a penury of angel bones, spears, arrows, swords (or compasses, maps, alidades, concave glass lenses, and rulers) can be overcome by examining the traces these things left behind, much as a creature might have left traces of itself in the mud millions of years ago. Evidence of an ancient creature is in its fossil, just as evidence of sophisticated measuring systems and techniques is in the pyramids and Stonehenge.
What the monks at the Mont-Saint-Michel did was to offer to pilgrims the sight of the skull of one of their forebears, who they believed had been touched by the hand of the archangel Michael: the skull had a large hole on the side. Perhaps this was done in good faith, the hole was perfectly natural, perhaps caused by a tumour. In any case, a thousand years ago, people had a different sense of evidence than ours, though they were passionate about the truth, perhaps more so than us. We’re perhaps more interested in facts, which are not the same as truths. It worked, and the monastery at the Mont Saint-Michel did well.
It’s depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s also mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, and in Robert Wace’s Roman de Brut, both twelfth century poets. (In fact Wace is linked to Bayeux, as he was canon there sometime before 1169.) They’re the only books that I can think of, apart from travel guides, that mention both Stonehenge and the Mont Saint-Michel, though not in connection with each other. Both places are linked to giants and King Arthur in these books. They’re not much read today, partly because people are put off by old books about magic and courtesy and chivalry – strange, in a world where Star Wars and Harry Potter have made their mark.
In Wace’s Roman de Brut, Helen, the niece of a certain duke Hoel, has been abducted by a cruel giant and taken to the Mont Saint-Michel. Bedevere, one of King Arthur’s knights, rows out to a smaller island beside it, to check there and see if he can save her. On the summit, he finds an old lady beside a fire and ‘a new-digged grave’.
‘The knight drew near this fire, with the sword yet naked in his hand. Lying beside the grave he found an old woman, with rent raiment and streaming hair, lamenting her wretched case. She bewailed also the fate of Helen, making great dole and sorrow, with many shrill cries. ‘
It’s too late to save Helen, the giant has killed her, but Bedevere returns to King Arthur with the story, and they set off to kill the giant on the ‘higher of the hills’, the actual Mont Saint-Michel.
When they get there, in fact, Arthur goes it alone, and creeps up on the giant, ready to attack.
‘But the giant spied his adversary, and all amarvelled leapt lightly on his feet. He raised the club above his shoulder, albeit so heavy that no two peasants of the country could lift it from the ground. Arthur saw the giant afoot, and the blow about to fall. He gripped his sword, dressing the buckler high to guard his head. The giant struck with all his strength upon the shield, so that the mountain rang like an anvil.’
The battle is fierce.
‘The giant ran blindly about, groping with his hands, for his eyes were full of blood, and he knew not white from black. Sometimes Arthur was before him, sometimes behind, but never in his grip; till at the end, the king smote him so fiercely with Excalibur that the blade clove to his brain and he fell. He cried with pain, and the noise of his fall and of this exceeding bitter cry was as fetters of iron tormented by the storm’.
Finally, Helen is mourned by all, and a chapel dedicated to Our Lady built on the small island, ‘that men call Helen’s tomb to this very day’. ‘Although this fair chapel was raised above the grave of this piteous lady, and is yet hight Tombelaine, none gives a thought to the damsel after whom it is named.’
(Extracts taken from Eugene Mason’s translation, University of Toronto Press, 1996, p 83 - 86)
The tiny island beside the Mont Saint-Michel really is called Tombelaine to this day. You can see it in the picture of the Archangel from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, in the background, just below the dragon's tail, with a church clearly visible on it. Incidentally, another explanation for this tiny island's name is that it was dedicated to the Celtic god Bellenus, linked to Apollo.
The story of Helen and the giant is beautifully told - the battle scenes are as good as Bernard Cornwell’s, and the sad note at the end is very touching. It shows the link between the female and male principles, which comes up in almost all places dedicated to Michael. There are churches dedicated to Mary and to Michael at Glastonbury for example, or the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, in Lyon where a huge statue of the Archangel overlooks the city from the rooftop. Also, the story is of value as it shows one way in which the Mont-Saint-Michel lived in people’s imaginations in the twelfth century: it was part of the legend of King Arthur, not just a place of religious apparitions and worship.
Geoffrey and Wace also both mention the story of Stonehenge, how the stones came from Kildare, how they had healing properties and for that reason were fought over and taken to England, with Merlin’s help, magically making them light enough to lift.
‘They took the stones and carrying them to the ships, bestowed them thereon. Afterwards the mariners hoisted their sails, and set out for Britain. When they were safely come to their own land, they bore the stones to Ambresbury, and placed them on the mountain near by the burying ground. The king rode to Ambresbury to keep the Feast of Pentecost.’
(Roman de Brut, Wace, page 29.)
No-one today believes that the stones really did come from Kildare, but the connection to Kildare is interesting, as it’s the home of Saint Brigid, who may also be the goddess Brid. Brid may in fact be seen as a pagan version of worship of the female principle, perhaps even a pagan counterpart to Mary.
Also, the feast of Pentecost gets a mention here, in the quotation from Wace, in relation to Stonehenge, and it’s of note simply because Pentecost is the 49th day after Easter Sunday, or seven weeks after, and the numbers 49 and 7 are of interest.
As far as I know, King Arthur and giants are the only connection in any book between Stonehenge and the Mont Saint-Michel: Arthur kills giants, and is involved in the construction Stonehenge. Perhaps that’s reason enough to discredit the idea of a link between Stonehenge and the Mont Saint-Michel right now. No mention is made elsewhere of any connection between the Mont Saint-Michel, Saint Michael’s Mount and Stonehenge, other than the English Michael line running north of Stonehenge, through Avebury.
So then why are the Mont Saint-Michel and Saint Michael's Mount exactly the same distance from Stonehenge? And why do these three places form a 6:6:7 triangle? And how, exactly, are they connected to the movement of the moon and the sun as well as to each other?