Monday 29 August 2011

The Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in Ireland

August 29 is the feast of the Decollation or Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. This feast had a particular significance for the people of Ireland and was once anticipated with a great deal of trepidation. For it was feared that this country would be subject to a punishment of apocalyptic proportions thanks to the belief of our ancestors that an Irish druid had volunteered to act as Saint John's executioner. This would be just another of those strange but harmless Irish legends if it weren't for the fact that in the year 1096 they really did think that the day of reckoning had arrived. Below I will summarize the main details of the extraordinary traditions surrounding this feast, drawn from a number of posts made in 2009 on my own blog.

The feast of the Beheading of Saint John is marked on the early ninth-century Irish calendar, The Martyrology of Oengus, and begins innocuously enough with this stanza:

29. Announce the suffering of John the Baptist,
a world with piety,
with nine virginal hundreds,
on Elijah's ascension

but the accompanying commentary, added by later anonymous authors, sounds a very different note - one of apocalyptic terror involving something called the Besom (or Broom) of Fanait and an all-consuming fiery dragon:

In vengeance for the killing of John comes the Besom out of Fanait to expurgate Ireland at the end of the world, as Aileran of the Wisdom foretold, and Colum cille, i.e. at terce precisely will come the Besom out of Fanait, ut dixit Colum cille:
" Like the grazing of two horses in a yoke will be the diligence with which it will cleanse Erin."

Of the Besom Aileran said:
"Two alehouses shall be in one garth side by side. He who shall go out of one house into the other will find no one before him alive in the house he will enter, and no one alive in the house from which he will go. Such will be the swiftness with which the Besom shall go out of Fanait."

Riagail said:
"Three days and three nights and a year will this plague be in Ireland. When a boat on Loch Rudraigi shall be clearly seen from the door of the refectory, then comes the Besom out of Fanait."

A Tuesday in spring, now, is the day of the week on which the Besom will come in vengeance for John's passion, as Moling said:

On John's festival will come the onslaught, which will search Ireland from the south-east,
a fierce dragon that will burn every one it can, without communion, without sacrifice, etc.'

Thus we can see that in these prophecies attributed to various Irish saints it appears that some vaguely-defined punishment, likened to a broom sweeping all before it and supposedly originating from the beautiful Fanad peninsula of County Donegal, will cut down its victims with terrifying speed. The nature of the 'Besom of Fanait' is not entirely clear and nor is its relationship to the fiery dragon, originating in the south-west, which will consume people unshriven. I suppose it is possible that the fiery dragon is a metaphor for the types of deadly plague which swept Ireland at various times, indeed one of the quoted prophets, Saint Aileran the Wise, was himself a victim of the plague known as the Buidhe Chonaill which devastated Ireland in the seventh century. On the other hand the image of fire is firmly associated with apocalyptic events. Some of the other prophecies not quoted above also talk about another similarly ill-defined scourge known as the Roth Ramhach, the Rowing, or Oar Wheel.

This tradition was further added to in the 10th-century Irish Life of Saint Adamnan. Although this saint is best known today as the author of the Life of Saint Columba of Iona, after his death his name was associated with an apocalyptic text, Fís Adamnáin, The Vision of Adamnan. He was thus drawn into the list of Irish saints associated with prophecies concerning the feast of Saint John's beheading, as this extract from the copy preserved in the Leabhar Breac and translated by Professor Eugene O'Curry demonstrates:

"The vision which Adamnan—a man filled with the Holy Spirit—saw, that is, the angel of the Lord spoke these His [that is, the Lord's] words to him:
"Woe! woe! woe! to the men of Erinn's Isle who transgress the commands of the Lord. Woe! to the kings and princes who do not direct the truth, and who love both iniquity and rapine. Woe! to the prostitutes and the sinners, who shall be burned like hay and straw, by a fire ignited in the bissextile and intercalary year, and in the end of the cycle. And it is on the [festival of the] beheading of John the Baptist, on the sixth day of the week, that this plague will come, in that year, if [the people] by devout penitence do not prevent it as the people of Nineveh have done".

We can see that the prophecy of Adamnan has raised another aspect to the apocalyptic events on this feastday, first in its mention of 'the bissextile and intercalary year' and secondly in the possibility that disaster could be averted by 'devout penitence'. Both of these factors actually played out in the real world of late 11th-century Ireland in what is known as 'the panic of 1096'. For then it truly seemed that the conditions were in place for the fulfilment of the prophecies on August 29 of that year. Let's start with the calendar requirements of which there seem to have been four:

1. The Feast of Saint John's beheading had to fall on a Friday
2. It had to fall within a bissextile year, that is a leap year
3. It had to fall in a year with an embolism, that is a year with an extra lunar month
4. It had to occur in a year which stood at the end of a chronological cycle

In the year 1096, the first three of these conditions were met, scholar Benjamin Hudson who has studied this particular episode suggests that the fourth may not have been felt to be so important. What undoubtedly would have added to the sense of panic in Ireland in this year was the appearance in late 1095 of a devastating plague which cut down rich and poor alike. Among its victims were various Irish princes and the bishops of Armagh and Dublin. The plague raged from August 1095 to May of 1096 and may have concentrated the mind on the prophecies. The Irish annals support the idea that this year was no ordinary one and was referenced to the traditions surrounding Saint John's feast with the Annals of Tigernach, for example, referring to 1096 as 'the year of the festival of John'. They also record, however, how disaster was averted by recourse to the type of 'devout penitence' advocated in the Vision of Adamnan, itself drawing on the biblical story of the averting of the wrath of God from the city of Nineveh. The Annals of the Four Masters record for the year 1096:

The festival of John fell on Friday this year; the men of Ireland were seized with great fear in consequence, and the resolution adopted by the clergy of Ireland, with the successor of Patrick at their head, to protect them against the pestilence which had been predicted to them at a remote period, was, to command all in general to observe abstinence, from Wednesday till Sunday, every month, and to fast on one meal every day till the end of a year, except on Sundays, solemnities, and great festivals; and they also made alms and many offerings to God; and many lands were granted to churches and clergymen by kings and chieftains; and the men of Ireland were saved for that time from the fire of vengeance.

Having thus seen the very real terror that existed in Ireland around the festival of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, we may conclude by having a look at where the root cause of all the trouble lay. It may seem incredible now but our ancestors appear to have taken seriously the notion that an Irishman, a druid whom tradition names as Mag Roth or Mog Ruith, travelled with his daughter to the east where he literally became a sorcerer's apprentice under the tutelage of Simon Magus. Although Simon Magus is only briefly mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (8:9-24) he became the focus of an extensive apocryphal tradition in medieval Europe, including Ireland. In our version the pair end up at the court of King Herod on that fateful night when Salome dances and demands her reward, but finding none of his own people willing to execute the Forerunner and Baptist of Our Lord, the Irishman Mag Roth volunteers to wield the sword. And he thus laid Ireland and its people open to the possibility of vengeance on the anniversary of this hateful deed.

It's a curious tale, isn't it? Whilst it illustrates the dangers of apocalyptic speculations there is also a positive message in observing how the Irish people, including the elite, sought to avert disaster in the year 1096 by embracing repentance.

If you are interested in reading further on this topic I have explored some of the sources in more detail in a series of posts on my own blog which will also supply fuller references:

1. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and the Irish, a general introduction.

2. Decoding the Prophecies of Saint John, an examination of the texts by Professor O'Curry.

3. 1096 and all that, a summary of the work of Benjamin Hudson on the panic of 1096.

4. The Executioner of John the Baptist, a poem on Mag Roth from a Scottish manuscript.

The beautiful bronze pictured above is by iconographer Aleksandras Aleksejevas whose work was featured in an online exhibition in 2009.


Anthony S. Layne said...

Marvelous post, Brigit! As with all apocryphal tales, you end up wondering if there isn't a kernel of truth underneath the chaff of the later accretions.

Brigit said...

I think this particular one is 100% apocryphal but I've always enjoyed the way our tradition has inserted Irish people anachronistically into biblical events . We have for example St Brigid acting as a midwife at the birth of Christ or Ireland rather than Egypt acting as the place of refuge for the Holy Family. My personal favourite though has to be the story of King Conchobar Mac Nessa who rallied his men to set sail for Jerusalem to try and prevent Our Lord's crucifixion. On hearing that he was too late he fell down dead in a fit of apoplexy!

Anthony S. Layne said...

I almost made a comment along those lines the first time: that the Irish fell so much in love with the Gospel story that they had to be a part of it, even if in a tangential and slightly inglorious way. However, I didn't want to come off presumptuous, or sound like the typical romantic Irish-American. You have a better grasp of the tales and traditions to make such a judgment.

Rathlin Child said...

Great one B! I'm working back on your posts and what I'm loving is that there is something for me in these ancient stories, even if its a bit of a of a scéal.

Phographic Mementos said...

This isn't much different from the tradition that Longinus came from Lanciano (the town of the Eucharistic miracle that changed its name to honour its most famous son). I don't think anybody questions that tradition. It is a pious and decent tradition that can bring us closer to God without any risk of scandal. Since nobody else that I know of claims the executioner of St. John why not an Irish druid? There is often more truth in traditions than in the scientific speculations that pass for respectable theories.

Quis ut Deus said...

I also think that the treasures hidden in our folklore and mythology are riches to be rediscovered in our own time. Thats down to Brigid and others like her who do the hard work of research and presentation. This blog enriches the world and the soul.