Sunday, February 26, 2012

the holy clay

Some earlier posts discussed the use of themes taken from myths, and the mythical characters, as archetypal elements for the writing of contemporary fiction.

This installment concerns a holy clay, lifted from the grave of a reputed saint buried in an ancient, ruined monastery of St. Colmcille on Tory Island, about a mile off the north coast of Ireland.  The story of the saint is part of the folklore of the island, and a few of the anecdotes are collected in "Stories from Tory Island,” by Dorothy H. Therman, 1989:

The cliffs along the north coast are penetrated deeply by inlets, or clefts (scoilteanna).  To the east of the lighthouse, not far  from the graveyard (of a shipwrecked crew of the HMS Wasp, another story altogether) is Scoilt an Mhuiriseain.  Onto its stony beach, in the time of St Colmcille, there drifted a boat carrying seven people.  Dr. Edward Maguire quotes Manus O'Donnell, the sixteenth century author of "The Life of St. Columba":  'The fame of his [St. Colmcille's] wisdom, his knowledge, his faith, his piety, had gone forth throughout the entire world, and the holy children of the King of India had conceived love for him on account of the rumours ... there were six sons (of them) and one sister.'  The children set sail in search of him and were not heard from for a long time, until they finally reached the northwest coast of Tory.  'And on their coming to land, they died in consequence of the fatigue of the sea and of the ocean.'  They were brought across the island and buried together at a place on the edge of what is now West Town, where the foundations of one of St Colmcille's little chapels are still visible.  But for three mornings in a row, the body of the woman was found lying on top of the grave, so she was buried separately and from then on rested peacefully.
Alfred McFarland, who visited Tory in 1849 and wrote "Hours in Vacation" (Dublin, 1853) believed that the seven were Scandinavian royalty; Mr. T. J. Westropp stated in the "Antiquarian Handbook Series" in 1905 that they were Hollanders. Dan Rodgers of Tory Island says the islanders thought the woman might have been a saint.  And it is from the grave site of the 'saint' that the eldest of the Duggan clan retains the perogative given to him by St. Colmcille to lift 'holy clay', which has the power not only to banish rats, but to protect fishermen from the dangers of the sea. (Rat control was a life and death matter for farmers needing to protect food storage cribs over the long winters).

A bit of the holy clay was lifted for the writer one night by the eldest of the Duggan clan living on the island at the time of my two weeks visit there. I still have the clay among my totems, and am as intrigued by the legend now as I was then. I prefer the legend of siblings from India. It has the elements of a Joseph Campbell myth, from his "The Hero With A Thousand Faces," (3rd ed. 1973). Campbell uses myths taken from cultures around the world, describing a hero's quest for some gift or boon for his people. The quest usually involves a perceived call, often supernatural, a series of trials while on the quest, attainment of the sought-after boon, and a return to the Hero's people.

In a short discourse on the Hero as Saint, Campbell relates how St. Thomas Aquinas reaches a boon of mystical spiritual revelation as he neared the end of writing his major opus of Roman Catholic doctrine, Summa Theologica, put down his pen to leave the last chapters to be completed by another hand, and died soon after, in his forty-ninth year. In his case, St. Thomas, unlike, say, the Bodhisattva, does not return to his people, but has: 
"stepped away from the realm of forms, into which the incarnation descends ... the realm of the manifest profile of The Great Face. Once the hidden profile has been discovered, myth is the penultimate, silence the ultimate, word."

Did the princess of India and her brothers receive a mystical spiritual revelation like that of St. Thomas upon reaching landfall after the perilous sea voyage? Or did their journey and its fateful conclusion have other meaning? There seems a lot of creative energy available to a writer in the pondering of old myths like this one.

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