Saturday, February 03, 2007

The eternal graveyard.

Very often, modern religious buildings are constructed on the sites of ancient Pagan ‘holy places’. There have been many suggested reasons for this. Perhaps the most frequently heard reason is that the invading religion sought to prove its authority over the old by taking over the holy place. Since the new religion’s building wasn’t smashed by the Pagan gods, the new priests have visible proof that their new religion is the more powerful.

It would seem impressive to the existing population that their old gods have been so easily subjugated, so they convert to the new religion. That’s the theory.

Of course, many places of worship are not built on such places. The population of the world in, for example, pre-Christian times was much smaller than today. There are few of these pagan places left to build on, and people now live in areas where nobody lived before.

The UK is a small place so there are a lot of examples of churches built on Pagan holy ground. Often, the Pagan stones were used in the construction of the new church, sometimes broken, sometimes whole. Many of these have been recovered and replaced at their original sites, or as near to those sites as archaeology can determine and practicality allows.

The churchyard I visited today is one such place. There is no longer a church building at the site, it is now simply a graveyard and is still in use, since it’s not yet full.

In the 12th century there was a motte-and-bailey fortification at the site. That’s basically a wooden fort on top of a mound of earth. There was a church on the site from mediaeval times and there was still a church on the site in 1745, which is as far as I have been able to trace it. It’s long gone, but I don’t know when it was demolished. The oldest ‘modern’ gravestone I found there was dated 1818, although there are many so worn that I can’t see the dates.

Like this one: -

The church moved into the town, which had grown about half a mile from the site of this original habitation. There are now at least three churches of note in the town, of different denominations.

When the mediaeval church was demolished, four Pictish stones were found to have been used in its construction. These are 1500 years old and are thought to be clan markers for grave cairns. The cairns might have been destroyed by the construction of the church or the fort, or they might have been destroyed long before that. So the place started as a graveyard, became a churchyard, then a fort-with-church, then a churchyard, and now it’s a graveyard again. Some things are just meant to be, it seems.

The stones are in various states of repair, and photographing them depends a lot on the direction of the sun. Some are easier to see in the morning, some in the afternoon. The correct angle of sunlight helps to reveal their engravings. I photographed these just after noon. I’ll try to get back there one morning to see if I can improve the images on those in shade.

There’s a handy information board nearby with drawings of the engravings. I’ve cut-and-pasted the drawings and included them with the photos.

Some are very faded, but they might show better with the morning sun.

This has been a place to bury the dead for the last 1500 years, at least. It was, most likely, a holy place to the first people who lived here. So why did they let the Christian missionaries build a church on it?

I don’t think they let them do it. I think they helped them do it.

It’s hard to believe a couple of missionaries could build a church on a village’s holy ground. Building a stone structure is hard work, especially if the locals see you as heretics and put some effort not only into trying to stop you, but into trying to kill you. The missionaries must have had the help of the local people.

Therefore, the locals converted first, then built the church, rather than the other way around.

So why did they build it on their Pagan holy ground? Surely there were a few who did not convert. Then, as now, there will have been many who pay lip service to religion but don’t actually care about it too much. There will have been atheists too. There will also have been fundamentalists, who would have declared that if these people want to build a church, they should build it somewhere else.

The converts wanted the church on that site. The lip-service converts would weigh in with them. The atheists wouldn’t care, but in the climate of the times an atheist was a dangerous thing to be, so they’d have to choose one side or the other.

The original religion practised its rituals in the open air. In sun, rain or snow. The Christians said it was okay to have a roof. So all the atheists, and the entire lip-service group, would likely have sided with the Christians. Even some of the fundamentalists would have wavered. So the Christians won, and the church was built.

Why on the Pagan holy site? To assert the new religion over the old?

People in those times had to be practical. They had none of the luxuries we have today. To build elsewhere meant either losing some farmland or building a long way off. Neither was sensible.

I think they built on those sites for no other reason than because it was a convenient place to go for worship.


I did have my infrared filter with me, and although it was the middle of the day and certainly didn't feel haunted, I did pick up one oddity. I'll have to try to debunk it myself first, naturally, but if I can't I'll put it here.

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