The Salmon And The Eagle And A Different Way

I’ve always been interested in the beginnings of things, those pinnacles of history when one thing slowly, gradually, becomes something else. These are times of upheaval, of great change, but also of new ideas and beliefs that seemingly spring up from the ether of… well who knows from where they come.

As far as Saints go, St. Cuthbert is probably one of my favourites, not that I’m a saint follower, but hey, I love history and recently watched one of Tony Robinson’s Walking Through History, where he takes Cuthberts Way.

My interest in St. Cuthbert was peaked in part because he was a peacemaker, a bridge builder, of a sort. As well, he told stories, and stories were told of him, of his life and words, miracles and beliefs, and at a time in English history that is still rather dark, and that we know little about.

Born in East Lothian in the mid-630’s AD at the height of the Dark Ages, between when the Roman’s left England in the early 400s and the Norman’s invaded in 1066, and in waltzes the Anglo-Saxons.

Being a loose affiliation of tribes from northern Germany and environs, they brought with them their pagan traditions, and with accoutrements of Yule and trees bedecked etc, the whole one God thing got more or less pushed out of England.

This was a time between, between Englands more divided past, of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms pushing up against the native Brits, and the united England under its first real monarch, King Egbert, in the early years of the 9th century.

“…the royal house of Wessex, who became the kings of England, made a point of devotion to Cuthbert, which also gave a useful political message, as they came from opposite ends of the united English kingdom. Cuthbert was “a figure of reconciliation and a rallying point for the reformed identity of Northumbria and England” after the absorption of the Danish populations into Anglo-Saxon society…” [according to the 8th-century historian Bede]


So, let’s just say that back in the early years of the 7th century it was not all smooth sailing if one was pushing the whole one god thang, and Cuthbert had a tough audience, spreading the ideas he had picked up from some passing monks from Iona (who had picked up their beliefs from Irish Monks).

Now Irish Christianity, on the other hand, had held fast and not been influenced by the Roman version, and the Roman’s never conquered Ireland as they did England, and thus the Emerald Isle had not been as influenced by the Church of Rome, having their own ideas about Christianity that didn’t quite square.

Cross of St Cuthbert

What is often referred to today as Irish Celtic Christianity, had a much more earthy tone, more overtures to the pagan faith that had preceded it, which Cuthbert found far more attractive than the uppity urbanized elitist Rome; some wealthy faraway papacy dictating to the edge of the known world was still a bit of a hard sell, to be sure.

In Cuthberts time the giant Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria spread its influence all the way to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, down into the Northern parts of England, and this was his focus.

Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been bounced around, but for the most part was not by any means the ‘state’ religion, and existed more or less at the fringes in the British Ises.

..even the names of some of the days of the week are derived from the names of Anglo-Saxon gods. Tuesday is Tiws day, Wednesday is the day of Woden or Odin, chief of the gods and taker of the dead, Thursday is Thors day and Friday could be the day of either Frigga (wife of Woden and goddess of love) or Freya (goddess of fertility).

Religion In The Anglo Saxon Period

Out there spreading the word of God, preaching the gospel, across the pagan lands of Northumbria, but the beliefs he presented were in many ways familiar. Cuthbert was raised and educated himself in Celtic traditions, so this more Celtic Christian path to Christ suited him, as well as those he was striving to convert, they identified with it far more than the elitist version peddled by far off Rome.

Now, I am not in any way advocating conversion, as I am more agnostic or perhaps animistic when it comes to these matters, yet I do find his life and style, his hermits life in the wilds of England, of birds and trees and sacred groves, I find that sort of Christianity, those beliefs, I find them very mystical, mysterious, and engages my imagination.

Cuthbert’s protection and gentle admonition of birds and sea creatures is derived from the Celtic tradition, which was also highly influential in the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels, almost contemporary with the death of Cuthbert.

Cuthbert’s affinity with nature continues today through his association with Eider ducks, known in Northumberland as Cuddy’s ducks, as a colony nests on the Farne Islands, where Cuthbert had his hermitage.

Miracles and ducks: Who was St Cuthbert?

Stories of rustic textiles, and rough wool threads of meaning, of Salmon fish and Yew trees, of myths and legends and sacred wells Cuthbert knew from his childhood, woven together with stories of a simple man seeking something different from what his people believed. Born of a virgin, with supernatural powers, these were characters he encountered in remote places, to which the polytheistic Anglo-Saxons were familiar.

The saints, the nuns, the monks and such, are really how different from the gods, the cup-bearers, wise elder, the druid?

But, of course, Rome wanted its pound of flesh, its hooks into every nook and cranny of the known world, to spread THEIR Christianity, holding sway on how everyone prayed, and to whom, and why, to dictate from on high what the words of god meant.

Yet, those Anglo-Saxons still resisted the yoke of that elitist church in Rome.

In the last decades of the 600s, in the years after his death, the worn pathways he’d tread on his various missions to spread the words of his God, lit up with stories of his miraculous deeds and all the tales of his wisdom and his piety, his empathy.

A miniature in the British Library Yates Thomson MS 26, Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert, depicting the miracle where an eagle delivers a fish to Cuthbert on the river Teviot

One such story tells of him and a young acolyte at the side of the river bank and an Eagle swoops down and grabs a Salmon from the current, and drops it at Cuthberts feet. The acolyte goes to grab it and Cuthbert stops him, and takes the Salmon and cuts it in half with the knife at his belt, keeping half for them and throws the other back to the Eagle.

Many of the stories told of his life have that same message, of the interdependence of all life, of the soul and spirit in all things, all creatures of God. This was a more pagan ideal, far removed from the pomp and ceremony of the Church of Rome sweeping its mantel across Europe at the time, merely 300 years after the first Roman Emperor, Constantine, embraced Christianity in 313 AD.

However, by no means did the world just wake up the next day and become Christian, and even 300 years later England had thrown off that mantel with the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, and so Cuthberts task was a rather daunting feat.

These stories of him were spread across the land by his followers, these stories of people, places and things they knew, understood, and cherished too.

I think underneath the christian and one true god part of St. Cuthberts popularity in the early centuries, the draw for those he converted, for even the administrations and local leaders, was the way in which the message healed divisions inherent in times of change. A message that I guess you could say took the middle way – not a compromise, but rather learning how to tell the stories a different way, a more familiar way.

A miniature in the British Library Yates Thomson MS 26, Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert, depicting the miracle where sea-creatures tend to Cuthbert’s feet before a watching cleric

Cuthberts style respected peoples own ideas, and offered a different point of view than the one the Papacy in Rome was preaching.

Which, now here’s my point, much like taking scientific climate information, taking current political truths that some factions (ahem) seem to be duped into believing is fake news, take those divisions and present them a different way, a way that seems more familiar, is not a bad idea.

Well, and not brash and crass, but encouraging, hopeful, familiar.

I mean, a whole generation of young people are coming up the pipe that are not into this seriously cruel and mean GOP they see locking up children and evading the law, gerrymandering voter districts to suit their own ends, cheating, lying, and cronyism and corruption – more divisions will ensue.

The GOP is stacked the Court decks with as many conservative justices they could shove in, but it won’t be enough to save them.

Someone’s gotta figure out how to explain to the brainwashed loyalists that the gig is up, and you know there will be those who fight er’tooth and nail, till their dying breath.

So, what about that middle way?

New narratives, fresh stories like those of Salmon and Eagle, new messages that speak to something familiar, something shared, something understood collectively. Continue looking forward, whilst not forgetting those lessons and traditions of the past, like St. Cuthbert, is not a bad way to begin.

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