Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Why are Skellig Michael, in Ireland, Saint Michael’s Mount, in England and the Mont Saint- Michel in France aligned? Why where these islands named after the same archangel? Is it the case that the alignment they form can be extended all the way to Jerusalem, taking in on the way other places dedicated to the same Archangel, such as the Sacra San Michele in the Italian Alps, Monte Sant'Angelo, as well as Delphi, in Greece - both Christian and pre-Christian sites. Who created this alignment? Does it serve a purpose? How old is it? How straight is it? The Michael alignment that travels across Europe from the Western coast of Ireland is well known, but still mysterious.
There are actually at least two known St Michael lines. The other one, which is much shorter, is said to run across the south of England between Land's End and Norfolk and directly connects places such as Glastonbury Tor, Burrow Mump, and Avebury, also skirting the vicinity of Saint Michael's Mount. In fact, it’s near Saint Michael’s Mount that the English and European Michael alignments meet. There's also a short alignment near the Mont Saint-Michel itself.
What is the nature of these alignments? Do they stand up to scrutiny? Starting with the North West leg, why link three tiny rocky islands? I'd like to find out as much as I can about them, how precise they are, how old the oldest places on them are, and what the Archangel Michael has to do with them.
Alfred Watkins was one of the first to come up with a theory that an ancient system of trackways connected landscape features and monuments in the distant past. I bought his book A Ley Hunter's Manual, A Guide To Early Tracks, a few years ago. He begins by saying:
"Suppose an old man whom we have known dies, and we want to give a description of the very first clothes he ever wore. We remember him in his suit of rusty black, and the previous one, years before, or faded brown. But this does not help. We saw hanging on a peg in the house in which he died an earlier coat, of old-fashioned grey, and when they emptied the drawers, they found the very clothes and brocaded waistcoat in which he was married. But all these are worthless as evidence of his first suit of baby clothes.
So with the Old Track. It is quite useless looking for existing fragments, however old, of roads which may remain from the first track, although, as we shall see, some bits may form useful indications of its site. The changes from early days have been so many in the matter of roads.
We must, therefore, clear our minds, not only of what we think we know of roads, even Roman ones, but of our surmises, and begin again."
Gone are the days when people had one outfit for years on end. Perhaps a better comparison today would be with a car, which might be replaced with about the same frequency people might have changed their suit of clothes a hundred years ago. The idea of a path being worn - either literally, by the treading of many feet, or put on like a jacket, is very evocative. Over the years, a path goes through many transformations, many jackets. The Native Americans say "Don't judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins”: to understand the person, we need to start walking, and by walking we hope to try to understand the path and how it came to be. All that is left of the ancient moccasins is their faint trace on the land.
But how does this work with a water pathway? Even over dry land, this track exists only on maps and Google Earth. What do we have to go on? It seems we're looking for the remnants of many different cultures from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, over an improbably huge area. A land line scattered not only with the bleached bones of pagan worship, but also with the majestic churches of a religion that took pride in dismantling the old temples. A stretch of Europe preserved in parts by the very people who destroyed almost everything pagan, a pre-Christian line christianised. Was the original idea religious, or scientific? How was an alignment on this scale engineered? What do we believe about medieval, ancient Greek, Roman or Celtic capabilities?
In his poem 'The Path', Edward Thomas writes:
'The path, winding like silver, trickles on, Bordered and even invaded by thinnest moss That tries to cover roots and crumbling chalk With gold, olive, and emerald, but in vain. The children wear it. They have flattened the bank On top, and silvered it between the moss With the current of their feet, year after year. '
Here again is the idea of a path being like clothes. If we cannot tread this path we can perhaps at least try it on, imagine it. But this does not mean that the alignment is purely a product of people's imaginations. There are definite hints of a past geometrical project.
Alfred Watkins is concerned with 'the marks that are left', the 'information in words and place-names', the 'very large number of physical marks and erections they left on the face of the earth' in order to 'reconstruct the old track'. These marks may be mounds, notches on the side of a mountain, large stones, islands, lakes, fords, camps, churches, even trees - be it in place names like 'Cold Oak', or the presence of Scotch Fir, which Watkins finds often 'on barrows, with no other of its species near', and which he calls 'The Tree of the Ancient Track'.
The fact that churches are included may seem intriguing, after all they are not so ancient. The engineering ingenuity at least seems to pre-date the Christian structures along many alignments. Yet the great disparity in age of the many structures, from Christian to neolithic, points to a continuity over many centuries, and the need for and ability to keep alive sacred lines across the landscape.
Watkins writes: 'There is satisfactory evidence in Bede and other authorities, that although at the earliest coming of Christianity pagan-sites were banned, there came a time in Augustine's work when this policy was reversed, and orders came from Rome to build churches on the old "pagan" sites, that is the mark-stones or mounds of the ley-men. This seems to have been the policy with earlier religions, for the word "pagan" indicates "country" sites, and the Romans in their occupation of Britain not only adopted the old mark-sites for their altars but dedicated them to their local out-of-door gods.
Thus at Michaelchurch (near Ross-on-Wye) there was dug up in the west-end of the church the only inscribed altar we have in the country, and it is dedicated thus: "To the god of the three ways Bellicus gave this altar".'
Alfred Watkins wasn't by any means the first to be fascinated by the imprint of ancient people on the landscape. There had been John Dee in the 16th century, William Black and G. H. Piper in 19th century, Xavier Guichard in France, William Pidgeon in the States, and, around the same time as Watkins, in the 1920s, Norman Lockyer. Since then, many researchers have contributed to the field, perhaps the most important of whom was John Michell.
John Michell, who wrote the introduction to my edition of The Ley Hunter's Manual, was able to popularise Watkins's ideas, which had largely been forgotten, and spark a whole new interest in alignments and energies. In this introduction, he writes about 'folklore traditions all over the world which attribute strange magical qualities to ancient sites and paths between them', and 'springs of energy at stone circles and other centres of ancient ritual', adding a mystical dimension to the old paths.
Personally, I'm not sure what to make of energies and dragon lines, I don't really understand them, yet alone feel them. Still, many people do. Perhaps no matter how long I try and walk in the ancient moccasins, I will never get that side of it. But I still find the idea of these places with strange magical qualities and springs of energy very appealing.
In his book The View Over Atlantis, John Michell writes:
' A sentiment which frequently occurs, particularly, it seems, to English poets and mystics, alludes to some intangible mystery concealed within the landscape, an aesthetic law which ever defies formation. Some have attempted to frame this law in poetry, others in works of science and philosophy. Yet we still do not know why it is that certain spots on the earth's surface are by general agreement more inspiring than others or how it happens that these very places so often coincide with the centres of prehistoric sanctity. '
The book is about sacred geometry, hills as centres of astronomical observation, whole systems of alignments 'closely related to aspects of the sun, moon and stars', and 'dragon paths'.
'The places where Druids of the old religion invoked the power of the serpent were occupied by the new church. The former practices became a mere seasonal ritual in which the head of a prominent local family played the hereditary role of dragon-killer, the dragon itself degenerated into a grotesque pagan monster. St Michael and St George stood guard over the old dragon hills, first as heirs to the former mercurial deities, later as their adversaries.'
I find the pull of the old gods and mythical beasts in the new religion, Christianity, fascinating. I suppose there must have been a time when the dragon and the serpent were worshipped, perhaps not as long ago as we might think. Partly because of the stories that surround St Michael (and St George) and partly because of the alignment of the three tiny rocky islands named after Michael, in Kerry, Cornwall and Normandy, I want to look at these Michael places more closely. And of course, the link is not just with Michael but Apollo and Artemis too. Below is the sort of map you will find online if you look up 'Michael axis'.
The longer, European Michael line was actually discovered on the other side of Europe by two French brothers looking at Greek temples. In the 1950s, Jean Richer published a book called Géographie Sacrée du Monde Grec. In it, he asks himself why certain temples and oracles are placed as they are, often in inaccessible places. In a dream, a statue of Apollo shows him an alignment between Delphi and Athens, which can be extended to Delos and Rhodes, linking many sites connected with Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Jean's brother Lucien extends this line both ways and discovers other sites along it, from Skellig Michael in Ireland, to Saint Michael's Mount, Mont Saint-Michel, Sacra San Michele, Monte Sant'Angelo, the various Greek temples just mentioned, all the way to Mount Carmel in Israel. So it seems there is something in common between these sites, perhaps some earlier god or goddess, a link with the sun and the moon.
The shorter line connects places which also would have been important in the pre-Christian world, such as Glastonbury Tor and Burrow Mump. It also seems linked to the shape of Southern England.
But the idea of this mega-alignment is crazy. This is no longer an old straight track, no longer a path for walking, but a gigantic stretch of land and sea, something to consider only on a map. It's not even completely straight - either on a map or on Google Earth. The impossibility of treading it is perhaps matched by the impossibility of its being: surely the temples, churches and cathedrals along this crazy pencil skid between Kerry and the Middle East can't have been placed there deliberately. No-one in the prehistoric world was technologically adept enough to survey and map the world accurately. Besides, why would you bother building places all along a great big line like that?
We like to think that in the distant past, our ancestors were inferior to us. We laugh at their silly ideas of hygiene and medicine, we cringe at their savagery, their laws and punishments, we look down on their beliefs about how the world works, on their customs and religions. After all, today we have cars and hospitals, cinemas and human rights, chocolate and toothpaste, quantum theory and space missions, books and the world wide web.
The more you try and understand our ancestors, even from a few hundred years ago, the harder it seems. The strangeness of certain ideals of justice and truth and the forces at play in the universe, or even in the human body, are hopelessly intangible to most of us now. Look how comical this picture of the devil is, being crushed by the Archangel Michael. It's a painting from the late 15th century Spain, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It doesn't make you laugh though, the scene is just so weird it makes you stare in disbelief. The look on Saint Michael's face is one of quiet resolve and moral weight. The devil on the other hand seems to be teasing him, even pulling the point of the spear into his lower lip with his own hand. They both seem to sense the futility of this battle between good and evil which will go on as long as there are stars in the sky. The creature on the ground is a grotesque mish-mash of faces, snakes, lizards and insects, with legs made of dog heads and a withered black bird with feet like human hands. the angel's shield is unusual, like a globe complete with equator and meridian; perhaps it represents the earth, perhaps the heavens. Along the lance held by the angel, the shape of a coiled snake is echoed in the edge of the shield and the golden handle of a sword just peeping from behind him, as if the snake had only just changed allegiance and wriggled down to join the devil. This almost-there snake is also coiled round the angel's lance in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry painting.
Are these the remnants of an Apollo like figure, with his snake? In the 15th century, did people make the connection between the archangel Michael and a snake bearing pagan god? The Renaissance is of course famous for being the time when the writings and art of the Ancient Greeks and Romans re-entered European consciousness. How this was made to fit in with permitted teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is a fascinating question. They believed in the Christian world, in one god and in the devil, in the powers of saint and angels. How did they marry that with their knowledge of ancient religions and philosophy? Renaissance Italy was also very much influenced by the Chinese, especially their technology and navigational skills. Long before that, European civilisation came into contact with the Middle East, especially during the crusades. And of course the Romans dominated large areas of Europe. All over the Christian world, pre-Christian beliefs and traditions lingered on in some shape or form for many centuries. The way pre-Christian landscape features were either destroyed or re-used by the Christians, and how European religious art and architecture were influenced by mysterious teachings from beyond the Christian world says as much, if not more, than the written theology that has survived from the Middle Ages. Perhaps principles withheld from the common people were celebrated and used in the many churches and cathedrals they built. So potentially, understanding the Michael alignment could shed light on how Europe was ruled by the Catholic Church.
How was the transfer of ownership of these of the ideals and principles that must inevitably have come with these lines, in order to understand them, integrated into Christian belief? Is there any mention of them in Christian texts? How are we to reconcile these principles, whatever they are, with the many denunciations of non-Christian thought, and the violence that went with it?
When we consider the alignments of temples and abbeys, churches and cathedrals, and the legacy of the polytheistic religions that have been channelled through Christianity, we can also ask how far back in time these traditions of sacred places along certain lines actually go?
So little of the distant past has come down to us. So much of what we know comes from trying to reverse engineer the arrow heads, the brooches, the stone circles and the pyramids, to try and understand lost technologies and the concerns of those who produced the items and places that have survived. Technological and artistic progress can’t always have been continuous. Just look at the sort of churches that exist now: quite often, the modern ones are far less beautiful and technologically impressive than the Gothic ones and the Renaissance ones. And compare the paintings in the Altamira caves to whatever is in your nearest art gallery. Perhaps already a very long time ago, humans were capable of great things. If today we stumble upon artefacts from the distant past, be they ancient systems of measurement that show the world was mapped and measured before Columbus, or places on antique maps which weren’t actually discovered till after the map was made, or stories inspired by the motion of constellations during the year that have come down to us in various forms, what should we make of these long forgotten abilities and sensibilities?
When you consider the fact that humans, the most advanced and dominant species on the planet, have been around in their present form for tens of thousands of years, perhaps it's not so crazy to believe there were intelligent people twenty, fifty thousand, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago - artists, engineers, thinkers. What survives of their cultures is pure speculation, but ideas of their grandeur should not be dismissed as fanciful. Just think of the Altamira paintings. How we interpret artefacts and religious traditions that have come down to us depends on the paradigms we accept as true, before such items are even considered. So it is worth looking at such relics of the past purely in order to ascertain what these paradigms are today, and whether they are worth preserving.
By examining the reasons why we accept or refuse to accept that people in the distant past were at times technologically advanced can at the very least teach us something about ourselves – and self knowledge is supposed to be one of the most worthwhile things to pursue. In fact, ‘know thyself’ is the motto of one of the places on the longer Michael line: the temple at Delphi. So perhaps, by examining the Michael lines in a little detail, we can arrive at some sort of conclusion about ourselves.
Ok, so there's no prehistoric tube of toothpaste, no prehistoric airport or train line. The strata of the Neolithic aren't exactly bursting with finds. There may be very good geological reasons for that – floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, changing coastlines, etc. So how can we consider the places built thousands of years ago as part of a very long tradition, older than the present structures themselves? There's not that much to go on - but which is the more destructive force, when it comes to grappling with remnants of the distant past: the humidity that rots away organic materials that lie in the ground, or the lack of humility that prevents us from considering our ancestors as worthy of admiration?
It reminds me of a scene I saw in a newsagent’s in Spain last summer. I was taking my time deciding on a magazine, when I noticed an elderly Englishman walk in, wearing khaki shorts, and socks with his sandals. He went straight up to the till, and started to speak to the owner, a very nice Spanish lady, in English. ‘Hello – Do – You - Have - The – London – Evening – Standard?’ He spoke very slowly and very loudly. He never once tried a word of Spanish, but he had such a nice way about him, it was impossible to be cross with him. The owner, who must have been able to understand a little English, was completely taken aback by this man, who seemed to believe that because she was a foreigner, she was slightly dim-witted and hard of hearing. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the Evening Standard, and the man walked off, thanking her profusely despite her not having been able to help, which left her feeling even more bewildered. Is it with this sort of well-meaning condescension that we approach the problem of our ancestors?
Did humans evolve over tens of thousands of years without ever once needing or using the mental attributes that had set them apart from other species? How did they evolve to be so clever if cleverness had not been central to their culture and their whole being? How did their most precious asset, their brains, come to exist, if these brains were never actually needed to anything like their full capacity?
Some of the most interesting insights into the distant past, and the most insightful criticism of the way prehistory is understood and taught has come from engineers, such as Christopher Dunne, Robin Heath, Christopher Knight, Robert Bauval, Robin Heath and Alexander Thom.
In 1970, during a television program, Alexander Thom said that he felt that the people who designed and built the megalithic structures that survive today in Western Europe and the Mediterranean were his superiors. It’s a good program, and worth watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WafRqdOQK30
Why is it that some engineers today say that we have neither the capability nor the need to produce buildings such as the Great Pyramid? Why are academics often highly dismissive of people who suggest that in some ways we are less capable technologically than some cultures from the distant past? I think it is worth examining this spirit of the refusal to self-examine.
There is something to be gained, in that respect, from listening to people who have been dismissed as worthless by the academic establishment. And even the wackiest thinkers can have something of value to be passed on, you don’t have to refuse to listen just because you don’t believe in ley lines or aliens.
Can we consider the distances and orientations of these places to each other, to the sun, stars and to the poles as significant? Can we consider the units of measurement extrapolated from these places as artefacts from the past?
Yes, the Michael lines are impossible paths: impossible to walk, impossible to believe in because of their great antiquity and their enormous scale, impossible because of what we think we know about the technological capabilities of centuries ago, about as impossible as time travel. That's the reason they are so appealing.
Perhaps in order to re-connect with the pre-Christian world, we should embrace whatever it is that the Christians tried so hard to eradicate, the dragons, the snakes, the sun and moon, the female principle (but not the human sacrifices). For a long time, pagan and Christian traditions seemed to co-exist. I saw an instance of this at Monasterboice, in County Louth, recently, where there is a huge Celtic cross next to one of Ireland’s famous round towers. The cross is huge, 5.2 meters high, and is absolutely covered in biblical carvings, on all sides. On the underside of each arm of the cross there are two entwined snakes, connected in such a way as to create three circles, with what could be a head protruding from each one, perhaps the triple goddess Brid, or three-headed Lugh. Also on this cross - according to the explanatory panel beside it - is a depiction of the Archangel Michael, holding scales, though it is very hard to make out after a thousand years of rain have eaten away at the carvings. In fact, it’s strange, serendipitous even, how the best preserved engravings on that cross were the pagan bits, the parts tucked away to the underside, those snakes I just mentioned. Are they connected to the dragon that the Archangel Michael tries to kill?
Above are some photos I took at Monasterboice showing the two coiled snakes, to the left, and Saint Michael holding scales on the right, with the explanatory panel in the middle (which makes no mention of the snakes).
We could even hold up the dragon or the snake as the champion, or at least the mascot, of the resurgence of interest in the pre-Christian and pre-historic worlds. Not, of course, as a symbol of evil or any Manichean moral take on the world, but as a symbol of what the pre-Christians held as sacred – however mysterious that may be.
The French writer Michel de Montaigne wrote about his namesake:
“I would as readily, in case of need, burn one candle to Saint Michael and another to the dragon”
(The autobiography of Michel de Montaigne, translated Marvin Lowenthal, page 251)
Montaigne’s words might inspire us here to burn two candles also, one to established history and prehistory, the other to non-establishment thinking, to curiosity, to trying to understand our cultural heritage in new ways. Established or not, these are all interpretations, none of them immune to scrutiny. It seems the vast majority of academic pre-historians and archaeologists have been dismissive at best of certain attempts to question accepted beliefs on the technological capabilities of pre-historic people. Like Saint Michael, they have tried to run a sharp sword through the whole thing.
Who is the Archangel Michael?
In the Book of Revelation, Michael defeats Satan. It’s as a result of this that Satan is thrown down to Earth.
Here is an extract:
'The Woman and the Dragon
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. 7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. 11 They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. 12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” 13 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. '
And this is Chapter 10 of the Book of Daniel:
'1 In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a thing was revealed unto Daniel, whose name was called Belteshazzar; and the thing was true, even a great warfare: and he understood the thing, and had understanding of the vision.
2 In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three whole weeks.
3 I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine into my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.
4 And in the four and twentieth day of the first month, as I was by the side of the great river, which is Hiddekel,
5 I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with pure gold of Uphaz:
6 his body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as flaming torches, and his arms and his feet like unto burnished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude.
7 And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; for the men that were with me saw not the vision; but a great quaking fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves.
8 So I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me; for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength.
9 Yet heard I the voice of his words; and when I heard the voice of his words, then was I fallen into a deep sleep on my face, with my face toward the ground.
10 And, behold, a hand touched me, which set me upon my knees and upon the palms of my hands.
11 And he said unto me, O Daniel, thou man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak unto thee, and stand upright; for unto thee am I now sent. And when he had spoken this word unto me, I stood trembling.
12 Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel; for from the first day that thou didst set thy heart to understand, and to humble thyself before thy God, thy words were heard: and I am come for thy words' sake.
13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days; but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me: and I remained there with the kings of Persia.
14 Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days; for the vision is yet for [many] days:
15 and when he had spoken unto me according to these words, I set my face toward the ground, and was dumb.
16 And, behold, one in the likeness of the sons of men touched my lips: then I opened my mouth, and spake and said unto him that stood before me, O my lord, by reason of the vision my sorrows are turned upon me, and I retain no strength.
17 For how can the servant of this my lord talk with this my lord? for as for me, straightway there remained no strength in me, neither was there breath left in me.
18 Then there touched me again one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me.
19 And he said, O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong. And when he spake unto me, I was strengthened, and said, Let my lord speak; for thou hast strengthened me.
20 Then said he, Knowest thou wherefore I am come unto thee? and now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia: and when I go forth, lo, the prince of Greece shall come.
21 But I will tell thee that which is inscribed in the writing of truth: and there is none that holdeth with me against these, but Michael your prince. '
And this is Chapter 12:
'1 And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince who standeth for the children of thy people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.
2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
3 And they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.
4 But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
5 Then I, Daniel, looked, and, behold, there stood other two, the one on the brink of the river on this side, and the other on the brink of the river on that side.
6 And one said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?
7 And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and a half; and when they have made an end of breaking in pieces the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished.
8 And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my lord, what shall be the issue of these things?
9 And he said, Go thy way, Daniel; for the words are shut up and sealed till the time of the end.
10 Many shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be refined; but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand; but they that are wise shall understand.
11 And from the time that the continual [burnt-offering] shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand and two hundred and ninety days.
12 Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days
13 But go thou thy way till the end be; for thou shalt rest, and shalt stand in thy lot, at the end of the days. '
In St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, an archangel, perhaps Michael, is described as the voice of the Lord, in connection with the dead rising.
'For the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ, shall rise first. '(1 Thessalonians 4:15)
Michael is a key figure in Christian and Jewish traditions alike, and features in the Quran too. For some reason, churches, cathedrals, monasteries and basilicas built in his name are often linked to hill tops and mountains. So, who is the archangel Michael? What is this dragon he is always pictured slaying? In Hebrew, Michael means ‘who is like god’, pronounced in Hebrew “Meh-khi-ayl”. So Michael is neither a god nor a human. He’s both fighter and healer, saint and angel, a mysterious entity. His contradictory nature is reflected in the frequent discord between some of the people he is believed to protect: Jewish, Catholic, German, French - weird, when you think that historically, the French and the Germans have had a good few pretty awful wars, and Jews have been persecuted for centuries by Catholics (and by the French and the Germans).
In Jewish and Christian traditions, the archangel Michael is seen as standing to the right of the throne of God, or even to be the right hand of God. You can see in the golden icon here that Michael has his right hand up in a greeting or a blessing, as if to reassure. I can't help but be reminded of the strange hand carved above the entwined snakes on the huge Celtic cross at Monasterboice I mentioned earlier.
It is either a right hand with palm facing away from us, or a left hand, palm towards us, I can't make it out. It seems to be protective and has a halo behind it, as if it were an angel's hand. Another unusual feature of the icon is that it's not just the halo that is made of gold but the face and arms too, the clothes, the wings, the mace, it's as if the artist was trying to depict him as a sun beam. What happens to the gods of polytheistic traditions when monotheism is imposed? The gods often continue to be venerated, but in altered forms. The Irish goddess Brid became Saint Brigid, and her feast day, the 1st of February, is mid-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and the start of spring in Ireland still today. The connection with pre-Christian concerns about solstices and equinoxes remains.
The figure of Michael is probably very old. The earliest known mention of him (or should I say it? angels have no gender) is in the book of Daniel, but the figure could be much older still. Curiously, the figure of the Archangel Michael, and of course Saint Michael, are always depicted as male. And yet in every nativity play I have ever been to, the angels are always played by girls – I have never yet seen a boy be an angel, though I have seen girls be shepherds and inn-keepers. I’ll refer to Michael as a male, simply because Michael is a boy’s name.
In some paintings, Michael slays a character that is straight out of Revelation, not a dragon actually but a black character, horned and tailed, Satan. In others, it is a dragon, a reptile that has something in common with dragon myths from China to South America via Northern Europe. Sometimes it is just a snake.
Often, the archangel is depicted holding a pair of scales, as on the cross at Monasterboice I mentioned earlier for example.
Another essential bit of kit is the sword, or sometimes the lance – though at Monasterboice he doesn’t carry weapons. Sometimes he is armed like a knight, and cuts an elegant figure, with a boyish face and shoulder length hair, like a teen pin-up. His lance or sword always seems to point to the bottom right , and generally pierces the snake or dragon or devil's mouth. This seems to be the convention, together with actually standing on the beast. How he can do this while balancing a pair of scales I don't know.
It's amazing how similar in design all the full-length depictions of Michael are, the lance or sword pointing the same way, strong vertical lines, the creature being struck in the same place. Sometimes the scales are represented, sometimes not, but otherwise it seems to be interpretations of the same basic shape and idea. The weighing scales provide a link with psychopomps from other religions, the weighers of souls and guides to the afterlife such as Anubis in the ancient Egyptian religion, Charon and Hermes in Ancient Greece, Mercury in Ancient Rome. In the picture below, Anubis is in a very similar pose as Michael in the Monasterboice cross, opposite the over-sized scales.
Sometimes his arms and legs seem to be made of sunbeams, and light radiates from him, as in this depiction in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. I find this interesting in this context, as it connects him to the sun, and to earlier sun-god traditions. Even his face is orange and red, and all around him are flecks of gold against the deep blue sky. Also, if you look closely, he carries a staff, and you can just make out the tail of a snake coiled up it.
The Archangel Michael was perhaps worshipped as a god once, or as a powerful spirit.
All these pictures and the alignment of temples and pagan sites with various places named after Michael point to commonalities between the Archangel and ancient gods, connected with sun worship, snakes, and the weighing of the souls of the dead.
So what can that tell us about the Michael lines, which are said to be linked to the path of the sun, and connect the world to the West, where the dead are said to travel to?