July has been an interesting month for Astronomers around the World. As the seventh month moves into the eighth month of August even social media and the blogosphere have been announcing that we are on the verge of a ‘close encounter with Mars’, as the Red Planet makes its way ‘closer to us now than at any time in the past 15 years’. Earlier in the month, in the build up to the ‘Blood Moon’ of last weekend, the scienceinfo.news website announced a ‘cosmic event that only happens every 35,000 years’. The event to which their article referred, which was to take place on July 27, involved a situation in which the planet Mars gave the impression of being ‘as big as the Moon’. Yet another interesting Astronomical phenomenon that has overshadowed a regular annual event in the July skies across the Northern Hemisphere: the evening appearance of the Constellation of Draco in the heavens.
From the point of view of the particular topic with which much of this blog is primarily concerned, the early Ecclesiastical History of Durham, and the primordial Northumbrian See that preceded the foundation of the Prince Bishopric, this is a particularly significant time of year: as far as the Borough of Crossgate in the City of Durham is concerned at any rate. The principal reason for this is that July 13th marks the Feast Day, in the Eastern religious calendar at least, of Crossgate’s patron Saint, St. Margaret of Antioch. Whilst in the West, the Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch takes place seven days later, on July 20th. Add to all this the additional fact that St. Margaret herself is associated in legend with the very Dragon with which the Constellation of Draco is itself inextricably linked, and it is not unsafe to draw the conclusion that the fixing of her Feast Day in both Eastern and Western Traditions alike may have something to do with the Dragon that features so prominently in her legend.
These facts only confirm what I myself have asserted elsewhere in some of my previous posts, that the Lives of the Saints provide us with a kind of ‘Da Vinci Code‘ of sign and symbol that, to those who have sufficient knowledge to understand it, appears to incorporate a whole range of mathematical, astronomical and scientific knowledge; hidden away from the uninitiated. Early Biblical sources, such as the Old Testament Book of Joshua, make direct reference to such astronomical phenomena as the first ever recorded Solar Eclipse. A fact that is now universally acknowledged by the Scientific community. This in itself provides a very plausible explanation as to why such Cosmic happenings have been viewed for centuries as the harbingers of Apocalyptic events. Something which is still a major feature of sensationalist reporting by the mainstream media across the Globe right down to the present day.
Indeed, in the build up to last weekend’s ‘Blood Moon Eclipse’, those who are accustomed to following current affairs, either on social media or across the World Wide Web, were bombarded with the usual pseudo-scientific predictions that religious leaders have been subjecting us to for centuries: whilst the real significance of these events, and how they relate specifically to the earliest religious writings and texts, was almost entirely missed. It is now universally acknowledged that the builders of the Great Pyramid were themselves possessed of extensive scientific, mathematical and astronomical knowledge. Knowledge which would eventually be passed down to the builders of our great churches and cathedrals. Much of this astronomical knowledge appears to have been linked to the observation of the Pole Star, which, at the time that the Pyramids were being built, around 2600 B.C., was Thuban, in the Constellation of Draco.
As is well known, the earliest Christian texts were written either in Aramaic, the Ancient Syriac dialect spoken by Jesus and his Disciples, or else in Greek. Combining this with the additional fact that that the internationally renowned archaeologist and filmmaker, Professor John Romer, has demonstrated extensively how early Eastern Christian iconography gradually developed out of the late religious art of the pagan Greek Classical World, and it is easy to see how and why many early Christian legends, particularly those of eastern provenance, would have incorporated hidden Astronomical references into their largely allegorical meanings. When something is just too ridiculous to be true, such as many episodes in the Saints’ Lives actually are, it is usually because the mythology that is there recounted has some sort of symbolic meaning completely unrelated to literal interpretation. As we shall now see, this may well have a bearing on the hagiographic sources relating to the life of yet another early Northumbrian Saint, that of St. Wilfred of York.
Like his contemporary, St. Cuthbert (634-687), Wilfred (633-709) is renowned for his tireless devotion to the interests of the Northumbrian Church. Among his greatest achievements was the conversion of the Pagan South Saxons of what is now Sussex on the South Coast of England. In an earlier post, we looked at some of the legendary connections between certain parts of Sussex, where Wilfred may well have been active during the course of his great evangelical mission to the South Saxons, and a cycle of mythologies in which the archetype of the Dragon plays a pivotal role. Perhaps then it is no coincidence that St. Wilfred’s Feast Day, 12 October, falls at a time when the so-called ‘Draconids‘, a meteor shower that appears to originate from the Constellation of Draco, has just passed through the visible portion of the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere.
Interestingly enough, St. Wilfrid is not the only early Christian Missionary seemingly linked to the Northumbrian Church whose mission appears to have taken him into a domain previously lorded over by dragons. St. Serf, who, according to legend evangelized much of what is now Perth and Kinross during the sixth century A.D., appears to have had a mythical confrontation with a dragon of his very own; this time at Dunning in the old Celtic Mormaership, or Earldom, of Strathearn. Like the legend of St. Margaret, many aspects of St. Serf’s legend seem too strange and curious to be true. One story, that he was the son of Eliud, King of Canaan, and his wife Alphia, an apparent daughter of a King of Arabia, seems somewhat far-fetched until one realizes that the earliest Christian artifacts that have come down to us seem to be suggestive of Christianity having been introduced into Britain, in what is now Northern England at least, by early Syrian converts with links to the Roman Army.
In an earlier post, we looked at the connections between St. Patrick’s Family and the Roman Army, in the light of surviving Roman military inscriptions. These appear to link a number of individuals, connected with the Roman garrison on Hadrian’s Wall, with the city of Palmyra in what is now Syria. In view of this, it is perhaps significant that some scholars have conjectured that ‘Arbeia’, the name given by the Romans to their fort at South Shields, is in some way derived from the Aramaic word for the Arabs (Arbaya) of what was at that time Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. If so, it would appear that the legends relating to St. Serf’s parentage may not be so far-fetched after all. Interestingly enough, St. Serf is also linked in legend to the ancient church at Simonburn Village near Hexham in County Northumberland. Itself just a stone’s throw from the very section of Hadrian’s Wall where some of the previously referred to inscriptions, connected with the self-same Syriac element within the Roman Army in my earlier post, are known to have originated.
Although the present Church of St. Mungo at Simonburn appears to be of thirteenth-century origin, there is evidence of worship on the site going considerably further back. This includes a so-called ‘Hoggs Back‘ tombstone, believed to be of a particular type of Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries of the current era, as well as what are alleged by the compilers of the Megalithic Portal website to be pieces of Anglian or Roman chamfered impost moulding in the east wall of the porch. Perhaps, in view of what we have also noted elsewhere in my text, it is also significant that the so-called ‘Dark Sky Discovery Observatory‘ is located at nearby Battlesteads; just a short distance up the road. The additional fact that St. Serf’s feast day also falls in the month of July is also well worth noting into the bargain.
So what are we to make of these legends and how should we interpret them? As we have already noted, in former times the Pole Star was located in what is generally referred to as the Constellation of Draconis. Then, during the First Millennium BC, thanks to a phenomenon generally referred to as ‘The Procession of the Equinoxes’, the star presently known as ‘Kochab’, or Beta Ursae Minoris, became the brightest star closest to the Celestial Pole. However, due to the fact that Beta Ursae Minoris was never close enough to be taken as marking the exact location of the Pole, the closest true successor to Thuban in the Constellation of Draco was Polaris, in the Constellation of Ursa Minor. The fact that all of these legends appear to have originated at a time when the exact location of the Celestial Pole was in a state of obvious transit, and at a time when the religious and political state of the then known world was going through a serious amount of upheaval, may explain at least some of the more curious aspects of these clearly related mythologies. The reason why the Pole Star would have been so important to so many early Christian missionaries would have been that in an age before the compass or GPS the stars held the key to successful navigation, whether by sea or over land; something we are likely to look at again in a future post.