Archive for January, 2014

The Dream of the Rood, edited by Michael Swanton, Manchester University Press, 1970


I keep coming across comments where people state their adversity to religious writing, specifically Christian. Some declare they cannot read an author because of his religious concerns, see Geoffrey Hill’s work. One commentator writing of a senior Buddhist called him ‘deluded’. I was appalled – here once again just slightly under the surface lurked Western cultural arrogance. And Christian writing? It would be like saying you could not read or appreciate anything earlier than mid 20th century writing. To lose any of that would be cultural suicide. And so I am making an effort to re-appreciate our religious history, the magnificent spaces of the psyche.

Note: none of my concerns are to do with the legitimacy of religion or religious belief. Those were and are facts of our cultural histories, and as such need to be treated fully. Religion has also afforded us with deep psychological insights, has cemented cultures over long periods of transition and change. Religious wars are usually cited as religion’s true heritage. Does anyone really think people would not have killed one another without religion?


The Cult of the Cross

In about 350 AD, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked upon the discovery of a cross. Prior to this the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, allegedly found the True Cross on a visit in 326 AD. There was a legend also that three crosses had been found, deep in the ground, together with iron nails, and also the plaque that had been placed above the head of Jesus. Fragments of this cross were sent out to different places across the Christian world.

These were legends, and yet were wholly accepted; the Western church of Anglo-Saxon England took on the legends, and Anglo-Saxon poem Elene relates the tale. There are also later prose homilies on the subject.

By the 7th century the cult of the cross had taken off. Bernicia/Northumberland proved to be a responsive centre. It was here near what is now known as Hexham that Heavenfield was established, the victory of Christianity over the last pagan rulers, as recorded by Bede in his history of the Church.

Out of possibly thousands there remain two magnificent stone crosses from the period, one at Bewcastle in Cumberland, and the other thirty miles away in Dumfriesshire, the Ruthwell Cross. Let us be clear about this thirty miles: at the time of construction of the crosses in the 7th century the region of both crosses was known as  Galloway, and formerly spoke a form of early Welsh.  The region became known as a conglomerate Anglo-Saxon area called Bernicia in the 7th century. As a united region Dumfriesshire shared a cultural heritage with Northumberland as far south as Newcastle.

The craftsmanship of both Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses is of a particularly high standard; it is accepted that both were carved by the same master craftsman’s team.


The Bewcastle Cross differs from the Ruthwell Cross in that though both are crosses with figurative reliefs, scenes from Christ’s life and death, and inscriptions, the Bewcastle inscriptions tend to be more commemorative.  Ruthwell Cross was originally 18ft high, tapered to the cross section. It also contains along its outer edges runic text. When this text was eventually translated it was discovered to be the text of a poem about the fate of the tree that became Christ’s cross. Only one other example of his text existed, on an 11th century cross fragment in Brussels. Text from the same source-poem.

The Ruthwell cross was dismembered as too Papist under the dissolution of the monasteries, and later the Commonwealth, and its parts embedded in the church floor, other parts left outside. Weathering and wearing became extensive over time.


In 1748 Guiseppe Bianchini of Verona transcribed extracts from texts he came across at the Cathedral of Vercelli in northern Italy. Some of this proved to be a fuller version of the texts found on the Ruthwell Cross. Further investigation brought out Anglo-Saxon texts stored at the cathedral. The Vercelli cathedral had been a staging post on the route to Rome, and travelled by all Western church officials. Upon closer examination these texts proved to be 12th century, in good condition, and containing a variety of matter. They also contained a full version of what is now known as the Anglo-Saxon alliterative poem, The Dream of the Rood.

The Ruthwell Cross and Brussels’ fragment contained excerpts from the central portion of The Dream of the Rood.


The poem is 155 lines in length, and is constructed in three sections: the first introduces the narrator, and his dream one night of the cross of the crucifixion. Part two begins (line 28) when the cross addresses the dreamer, and tells him its tale, from its being hewn down at the edge of a wood, to bearing the body and death of Jesus; then it was buried in the ground, and rediscovered and venerated by Christ’s followers. It ends with a demand that the dreamer tell the story. The last part returns to the sleeper (line 122), but is written in a different mode to the opening section; all there is veneration and glorification.

The first and last parts are only roughly of equal length, whilst the central section is substantially longer.

Michael Swanton in his Introduction to his book on, (original text, and translation of the Dream of the Rood) draws our attention to the opening and middle sections, and how they accord with Latin and, as we see in the Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon riddle-forms. The first is a ‘I see this, what is it?’ type, the other a ‘What am I?’ type. The answer to each has major repercussions. He writes of ‘(… )the popular type of (… ) riddle in which an enigmatic object is made to describe itself in oblique terms.’ Also, ‘The riddle genre seems to have been particularly popular in the seventh and eighth centuries.’ He also notes that there are Latin cross-riddles from 716 at Jarrow-Wearmouth. Several Exeter Book riddles, LIV ‘Battering Ram’, and LXXII ‘Spear’ follow the same life-history pattern as the cross of part two.

The text of the Dream of the Rood in Anglo-Saxon or translation was not publically available until the 19th century.


The questions now become: 1 – is the 12th century Vercelli version an expanded version of the 7th century cross-cult poem?

2 – Were the runic excerpts added later than the time of carving and erection of the Ruthwell Cross?

1 – Parts one and two are most definitely of a piece, composed together. Some commentators have found the last part of the poem ‘cruder’ than the foregoing. Indeed, the last part does rely a lot on expostulations of religiosity (‘almighty God’) rather than what we might term the examinations of faith of the foregoing. But then the last part is the culminative part, the expression of faith, after faith has been planted and established in the fore parts.

2 – The runes used were not the Futharc Scandinavian runes of later Viking settlers, but more of the type used in Britain previous to this.

Structurally there are a number of significant parallelings throughout the poem. Lines 12 and 82 repeat their phrasings to the letter. The centre/heart of the poem is Christ’s death upon the cross. This event transforms the cross’ self-identification as wood/tree, to that of venerated object, adorned in gold and silver. The transformative medium is the blood of Jesus on the cross as Jesus’ spirit left his body. The cross identifies with Jesus at several points, because the nails that pierced the flesh of the man also pierced the wood of the cross. They are both mocked together, and both are buried in the ground; both also are retrieved from their place of burial: Jesus in assuming his Christ role, and the cross by being dug up and venerated by followers.

The central section, as we can detect here in the transformative identity of wood/tree and cross, has a chiasmic character. At two points does the cross speak of being hewn down, firstly as a tree in the wood, and latterly as the cross on the hill. We see the tree growing at the edge of a wood, and the cross in stark company on the hill. It is upright in both places, and also felled in both places. What happens in between is the crucifixion, the joining of man and tree, and the veneration of spirit and cross. The ambiguities inherent in these positions are readily recognised in the text. Throughout the tree addresses itself as wood, that is a speaking tree, as a symbol, and later as a venerated symbol – venerated because it was present, indeed the vehicle, of the death of Jesus. Jesus’ blood is at one point termed sweat of the tree, and as the weeping of the tree.

There is of course an overall chiasmus: the two narrator parts 1 and 3 are changed by the central part, 2. In 1 the narrator addresses the reader/audience. He tells of a dream he had. This in itself is one narration encapsulated within another: addressing the audience, and describing the dream.

Do we find a similar construction in part 3? There is a two-part construction to part 3: the first part immediately after the cross has finished its address continues the theme of the cross and its role in the religion.  The latter part (line 131 onward) builds up to a vision of Christ’s entrance into heaven. As the central part, the cross’ recital states, Christ’s ascension will be followed by his appearance back on the earth on doomsday to judge the populace. It can be read then as a reiteration/paralleling.

The central section forms its own chiasmus, beginning with the tree being felled and stripped, and ending with it being resurrected as the follower’s cross/rood, and adorned. The two instances of Jesus climbing upon the tree in vigour, and being taken both in death parallel each other. There are also several instances where the tree says it’ durst not’ bend or break no matter what terrors it is to be a part of. The only time it does bend is the figurative one of letting down the body. The tree could have saved the crucifying man and killed his tormentors, but ‘durst not’ ie because it was part of a larger purpose/story that would result in the saving of all mankind.

There are two instances of the use of the term ‘speech-bearers’ for men, lines 3 and 98. It is an important  term: the tree instructs the dreamer to tell the tale of its experiences and fate. This poem is that instruction made manifest. We must also remember the importance of telling and speech for the majority of the audience of the time. And here we see another ambiguity: the Ruthwell Cross carried the excerpts of the poem in runes, written form. This would emphasise the purpose of the cross as a teaching device.

Also inherent in this phrase in the notion of the ‘witness’ of Christ: the tree is the obvious example, but to be a believer, devout, one must be witness to Christ, to declare oneself. The latter half of the poem is concerned with this, particularly the narrator’s part in part 3. In part 1 he confessed himself a sinner and unworthy of the vision, in part 3 he was witness to Christ’s entry into heaven – he had been ‘saved’ by the vision and dream of the rood. The speech the ‘speech-bearers’ bear, of course, is the Word of God.

This poem, in effect, is designed as vehicle for redemption: whoever reads it with diligence and attention becomes a witness, and so saved. The recitation of the poem, then, must have been important: the real time of recitation having a liturgical function. Was it to be a part of the Easter service?

’The Metamorphosis of Baubo’, by Winifred Milius Lubell, Vanderrbilt University Press, 1994



Baubo is one of the most mysterious characters of the ancient middle east. Her story has been found in Sumerian, Egyptian and Archaic Greek. There are also indications of a similar tale from Japan.

Her story is best shown in with the story of Greek Demeter, goddess of fecundity and nature. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter Persephone. She had been abducted by the god of the Underworld, Hades. Demeter withdrew from the world. Nature died, rivers dried up, nothing would grow. She had withdrawn into herself in distress. To draw her out ‘priestesses’ arranged a party, event, that was raucous and colourful. There was much music, dancing… but nothing could seem to reach her. Then Baubo, an older serving woman, approached. Along with ribald jokes and stories she ended up with baring the lower half of her body to Demeter. Demeter laughed, and with that returned to the world. She kept Baubo with her, as a true restorer of balance and perspective.

What was going on?

There are statues of Baubo, pottery paintings, of this displaying the pubic region. Some statues show a face instead of the stomach. Here we have perhaps a clue.

Demeter’s distress was in losing her daughter, but this also, like an equation, implied the seizure and abduction by Hades. All Baubo stories centre around women withdrawn from men due to some aggressive male act.

The ribald jokes, a crucial part of the Baubo mysteries, were most probably aimed at the stupidity of  male myths of sexual prowess, at their arrogance and supposed superiority. Those were hugely male centred cultures. Women’s roles were relegated and tightly circumscribed.

This has other implications – in those cultures the display of a naked female figure, especially of an older woman, wife, grandmother was considered hugely shameful. There are big suggestions here of ideas of male ‘ownership’, ‘property’ etc of property not to be shared with others. We see here issues of status and identity within cultures, off lack of status, or status that was lesser, or different.

That the women’s rites would play on the male world’s deepest fears of female power and openness, would only seem natural.

I suggest that when the older servant woman Baubo bared herself to Demeter, the folds of her post-partum, post-menopause belly she manipulated to suggest a grotesque face; a face with a bushy pubic beard.

A hugely potent and complex image: how better to mock the pretensions of men then with this gesture: Here is what they lust for; see how ridiculous they are!

The women shared the knowledge of menstrual and physiological processes, they bore the burden that was more cumbersome and physiologically vulnerable, than sexually attractive.

And the narrative of men as mother’s babies, that here is where the ‘great lords of the world’ started off, as puling helpless and fecal beings.

Demeter’s distress was offset by the huge potency of this caricature; she was shocked out her grief, a shock that was primed, prepared for, by the direction of ribald jokes and humour. After this the order and balance was restored to the world.

The mystery of Baubo was at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The ‘face’ became connected with the Gorgon mask, due to the dynamic of the exposure that it contained. It was a face not be looked upon, for fear of great reprisal.


It is suggested that a memory of the Baubo figure is to be found in the image of the Sheela-na-Gig. Those enigmatic and mostly crudely constructed images of a leering female figure opening an enormous vulva to the spectator (‘male gaze’) are probably half-remembered, barely understood Baubo images. They are for righting imbalances in the world. Now mostly found on churches in Britain and Ireland, they seem relegated by Church Fathers to suggest to celibate monks the Babylonian whorishness of female temptation, and all other such temptations of the flesh.


Celibacy. What can be more unnatural, imbalanced?

And yet for some it remains a preferred state, as it always has done. We do well to cherish the preferred celibates as our ‘peculiars’, that is, ones who can live as we can not. They can have important input; they can restore a sense of proportion to a world out of kilter.

We saw in Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ the withdrawal of women from men, and the men’s subsequent hopelessness and inadequacy. Brief enforced celibacy to aright the world.

The women withdraw from the men, and the men learned to behave. Do the men learn anything deeper than the need to behave better, treat their women better?

Their women were ‘protected’ by ethical and moral strictures: the naked, exposed female was a deeply unsettling image, dangerous, and hugely ‘shameful’. Was it ‘shame’? Or was there a form of taboo there that we have no name for? Is the narrative saying that it is better to honour women’s role by protecting their physical status? That also implies that the status quo can only be maintained by being flexible.

There are so many myths of Greek male gods seducing mortal women. The implication is of fantasy outlets for strictly circumscribed behavioral practices.

The book cites the Greek use of the word for ‘ashamed’, Aideomai. It can also mean to stand in awe of, or of reverence of, ‘…and was an adjective frequently used for women that meant deserving of respect’ (page 105). As a neutral noun it was used mainly of the genitals, especially the pudenda.

Lubell’s book gives an example of the classical Greek portrayal of male genitals: heroes and Gods always have small, boyish genitals. It is the stock comic figures who have outsize ones. Genitals, we see here, are ridiculous; the hero/God would be disfigured by proper size. Sex was down-played – except for the few occasions when satyrs frolicked, herms were decked erect (another Japanese parallel?), and bacchantes, maenads and bassarids ran wild.

As I write this I can see the cover of a copy of ‘The Odyssey’. It shows a carved relief of Odysseus; he is shown as a middle-aged to older man with a young man’s thinly clothed body. This is a common image of Greek male portraiture: the vanity of the aged male. Gods can never age, but wisdom must be portrayed somehow! As for heroes – their strength and heroic attributes are always shown this way. Codes and short-hand.

Lubell’s book cites a fairly recent event in the Philippines. Dam building was on the cards for a region of a tribal area. The tribal people objected, but were over-ruled in law; and the project went ahead. On the day the workmen arrived in the territory, the tribal women alone confronted them. The stripped off their clothes; the workmen were ashamed to look upon the naked women. The women attacked and seized the men, stripped them naked and threw their clothes away. The men hid in the forest ashamed of their own nakedness, until night fall then made their way home. They dare not go there again.

This huge burden of shame on seeing the naked female body does seem to have nearly universal. Rainforest and aboriginal cultures are the few without it. It is also suggested Inuit cultures were more relaxed here also.

It is this weight of shame that was put in place to protect women, though. We can still detect this taboo in our own societies: the use of the pornographic image gains its power from taboo-breaking. The Femen campaign of baring their bodies gains its power from taboo-breaking. Naturisms’ biggest  wrench is for women participants. To break a taboo was like smashing an atom, the release of energy stored in the image protected, was immense.

From hajib-wearing, to always fully clothed in many layers, despite the heat, shows up how cultures have sought to the protect woman from the male’s lack of self control. The reasons become lost, forgotten over time, and new justifications are proffered, sometimes wholly wayward and ridiculous. All depict the attitudes of their times, attitudes to male-female relations, that is.

Male lack of self control.

Enforced celibacy is an authoritarian nightmare of physical restraint; celibacy must be chosen by the participant. Our culture belittles the maiden aunt, the spinster, finds repellent the never-married elderly man. All are treated with condescension. Where the chaste, celibate life has been chosen, the choice and unique experience of the person need to be valued.

And taboo-breaking must be controlled, contained, or it loses its energy. We are here all the time circling that other potent Greek image, that of Catharsis.

One major point all taboo-breakers miss, and it is an essential point, is that of laughter, humour.