A pilgrim walking the Camino, or Way of St. James. Image Source: Tailored Spain.
If you want to know why tax season is in spring and its subsequent meaning for May, read on. As Catholic pilgrims prepare now for Pentecost on 15 May 2016, the blog returns to France's Chartres cathedral to note how places which attract pilgrims become centres of spirituality and memory. Pilgrimage routes have endured worldwide for thousands of years. One famous European route is the Spanish Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. In 2014, 200,000 people undertook that journey, and the road is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. 'Walking the Camino' is a huge event, even for atheists. For the faithful and secular alike, it is a modern walking holiday, attracting its share of business and crime.
In 2012, The Guardian asked why atheists participated in old Christian pilgrimages. Image Source: Guardian.
When atheists go on pilgrimages, one might ask if something else, indelible in human nature, may be at work. Over millennia, the outer form of society evolves: religions transform beyond recognition; new peoples - completely different cultures - inhabit a sacred place and its environs; the economy, politics, and languages change. Regardless, there are certain locations in the world which are regarded as holy. No matter what faith people claim to believe, no matter what is happening, people keep going back to these places; and they follow the same roads to get to them.
Chartres. Image Source: Arte y Arquitectura.
In so doing, they preserve a continuous memory beneath history; and they nurse an inner compulsion beneath faith. New Advent claims that pilgrimages arose as tribes migrated. In traditional societies, people become more superstitious in marginal geographic areas, where there is a transition from one type of landscape to another. If the tribe encountered difficulties, they sent their most adventurous members back to their original 'spiritual home' to plead for help from old deities:
This may be why modern pilgrims carry national flags and other cultural insignia as they make their way to a holy place, to indicate to the whole group how far their 'tribe' has scattered."The idea of a pilgrimage has been traced back by some (Littledale in "Encycl. Brit.", 1885, XIX, 90; "New Internat. Encyc.", New York, 1910, XVI, 20, etc.) to the primitive notion of local deities, that is, that the divine beings who controlled the movements of men and nature could exercise that control only over certain definite forces or within set boundaries. Thus the river gods had no power over those who kept away from the river, nor could the wind deities exercise any influence over those who lived in deserts or clearings or on the bare mountain-side. Similarly there were gods of the hills and gods of the plains who could only work out their designs, could only favour or destroy men within their own locality ... . Hence, when some man belonging to a mountain tribe found himself in the plain and was in need of divine help, he made a pilgrimage back again to the hills to petition it from his gods. It is therefore the broken tribesmen who originate pilgrimages."
Images Sources: Regina Blog, Orbis Catholicus Travel, Andrew Cusack, Ecclesia Dei Society of New Zealand.
The theory about pre-Christian migrants returning to their spiritual 'home base' seems logical. The more perplexing idea is that people would continuously believe for thousands of years that gods 'live' in certain places on earth, or that particular locations are invested with divine power. In France, Chartres is one of those places. According to some, its pull goes back to the Stone Age, when it was only a mound in la Beauce, "the granary of France," between the Seine and Loire river valleys. It is true that since the Middle Palaeolithic period, the region has been cultivated as one of France's most agriculturally rich areas, a treasured preserve long before it became the domain of powerful counts and French kings.
This 2009 view inside the roof-space of the cathedral shows its iron girder structure (the charpente de fer). Image Source: Stuart London via Wiki.
The official Catholic position is that people in the Middle Ages only imagined the notion that Chartres has been holy for time immemorial. There were five previous medieval cathedrals built on the same site. The Danes burnt down the first one down in 858 CE. Wiki provides an unfootnoted assessment that, prior to the construction of the Gothic cathedral and its acquisition of its most important relic, the supposed tunic of the Virgin Mary, Chartres was not the holy centre in the way it later became. This conventional Catholic view maintains that the same spot inspired rituals and attracted pilgrims before Christian times, but only to prophesy the arrival of Christianity:
Contrary to the Catholic position, older roots are indicated. In the pre-Christian period, prior to the arrival of the Romans from 121 BCE, France (then known as Gaul or Gallia) was Celtic. The sixth book of the Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War; published between 58 and 49 BCE) by Julius Caesar examines the Chartres area during the Roman conquest. The Romans encountered two Celtic ruling classes in Gaul: an aristocratic knightly class, and the Druids, the class of priests, healers, and judges. Caesar confirmed that the Druids gathered annually by pilgrimage for sacred and judicial activities. Their legal and religious 'parliament' was held in the territory of the Carnutes, the powerful Gallic tribe that dominated the area around Chartres. Caesar wrote:"Even before the Gothic cathedral was built, Chartres was a place of pilgrimage, albeit on a much smaller scale. During the Merovingian and early Carolingian eras, the main focus of devotion for pilgrims was a well (now located in the north side of Fulbert's crypt), known as the Puits des Saints-Forts, or the 'Well of the Strong Saints', into which it was believed the bodies of various local Early-Christian martyrs (including Saints Piat, Cheron, Modesta and Potentianus) had been tossed. The widespread belief that the cathedral was also the site of a pre-Christian druidical sect who worshipped a 'Virgin who will give birth' is purely a late-medieval invention.In c. 876 the cathedral acquired the Sancta Camisa, believed to be the tunic worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary at the time of Christ's birth. According to legend, the relic was given to the cathedral by Charlemagne who received it as a gift from Emperor Constantine VI during a crusade to Jerusalem, however this legend was pure fiction (Charlemagne never went to the Holy Land) – probably invented in the 11th century to authenticate some relics at the Abbey of St Denis. In fact, the relic was a gift to the cathedral from Charles the Bald and there is no evidence for its being an important object of pilgrimage prior to the 12th century. By the end of the 12th century however, the church had become one of the most important popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe."
"These [Druids] assemble at a fixed period of the year in a consecrated place in the territories of the Carnutes, which is reckoned the central region of the whole of Gaul."If this "consecrated place" was the present location of Chartres, then that implies that even before Roman times, Chartres was the spiritual heart of France. Caesar found it interesting that the Druids had brought legal practices from Celtic Britannia. In line with that tradition, derived from earlier Celtic battles in the Mediterranean, when the Druids acted as judges, they wrote down their legal cases and records in Greek. But they considered it illegal to write down their religious and sacred knowledge, and passed that on through memorization and oral tradition.
Map of Gaul, 1st century CE, showing the Carnutes' tribal territory around the Loire River. Image Source: Wiki.
Based on ruins in Ireland, Wales and western Britain, there is some indication that the Druids communicated religious knowledge using sign language, possibly as early as the 1st century CE. One medieval source, the Book of Ballymote, describes an old Celtic alphabet for this sign language, Ogham (more precisely known as Beith-Luis-Nin), in which each forked-branch letter, or rune, represented a different tree and corresponding deity, associated with various supernatural powers and times of year.
These are the basic letters of the Old Gaelic or Proto-Celtic Ogham alphabet in the Goidelic family of Insular Celtic and Brittonic languages. The Brittonic languages include Breton, still spoken in Brittany, France. The runes could easily be spelled out in sign language, using fingers against the side of the nose, arm or shin. Each rune represented a tree or plant and its deified mystical powers. Image Source: Cladagh Design.
As a result of this non-written practice, little is known of Celtic polytheism in Western Europe, but it coexisted with Roman paganism for centuries before the arrival of Christianity. Both faiths were different from contemporary Germanic religions. There is a disputed argument that when Christianity finally penetrated the Roman-conquered Celtic lands, conversion gave rise to two different branches of Celtic Christianity and Roman Catholic Christianity. Chartres cathedral shows how those two branches of Christianity are synthesized.
Henri-Paul Motte (1846-1922), Druids Cutting the Mistletoe on the Sixth Day of the Moon (France, c.1900). Image Source: Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries.
Gothic architects designed cathedrals like Chartres to mimic the appearance of ancient forest groves where Druids once performed pagan rites. Image Source: Sharon Weaver.
The Chartres pilgrimage focuses on Christ's mother, to whom the cathedral is dedicated; this is "the Virgin Mary's seat on earth." Chartres is a Rome or Jerusalem for the female aspect of Christianity. Pilgrims go there to honour Mary and the Holy Spirit by celebrating Pentecost, a spring festival. For this and other reasons, Neo-Druids and neo-pagans believe that Chartres attracted pilgrims long before it was a centre of Christian worship. The interior architecture of the cathedral, with its incredible vaults and stained-glass windows, resembles great trees lining sun-dappled forest clearings where, once, Druids held their rituals.
Chartres Cathedral exterior and interior (19 January 2014). Video Source: Youtube.
UNESCO film on the cathedral. Video Source: Youtube.
To find more of that pre-Christian history, you have to leave the roof and descend into the basement. Chartres' legends recall pagan worship of a female deity that resided in a holy well, cavern, or spring, beneath the cathedral's crypt or in the vicinity. In 1901, an archaeological dig attempted to find the original well; the 'Druidic grotto,' as it was called, was rumoured to be inhabited by a naiad, the "ancient site of Notre Dame Sous Terre, or Our Underground Lady." According to Labyrinth Designers, pre-existing Druidic structures attracted pilgrims into the Middle Ages; but by the 16th century those Druidic vestiges had been filled in, walled up, destroyed, or buried, three metres beneath the floor of the present crypt. More information comes from Les Puits des Saints Forts et les Cryptes de la Cathédrale de Chartres (Wells of Powerful Saints and the Crypts of Chartres Cathedral, by Eugène Lefèvre Pontalis, published in Caen in 1904); it is available online here (see pp. 3, 7-8). The existing well in the crypt, dating from 1902, has a foundation that sits almost 9.5 metres deeper than the water level of the town's Eure River.
New Advent contends that the original well was a focus of Druidic worship. The site was marked by a statue of a black female water spirit (the underground water source) with her baby (the spring that became a river and fed the surrounding agricultural land). All of this was disliked by the Romans, who killed two birds with one stone, and suppressed the earliest Christian converts by throwing their bodies into the Druids' well:
The bones of Christian martyrs, tossed into the Chartres' well, sanctified a place already considered sacred under earlier systems of worship. Margot Fassier, in The Virgin of Chartres: Making History through Liturgy and the Arts (2010), confirms (here) that this pre-Christian history was not just a medieval fantasy."The substructure of the present cathedral encloses a well and a vault around which cluster traditions of the origin of the church. The early Christians of the place, it was said, found here an altar surmounted by a statue representing a woman seated with her child upon her knees — both the altar and statue, Virgini paritur, had been erected by the Druids. About the year 67 Saints Altinus and Eodaldus, sent from Sens by Saints Savinianus and Potentianus, built a church over this grotto, where, during the persecution the virgin Modesta, daughter of the governor, Quirinus, was martyred, and her body flung into the well. Whatever may be held as to the time in which Saints Savinianus and Protentianus lived, it would seem that the foundation of the primitive church of Chartres, all that now can be seen, was laid in the days of Constantius Chlorus (beginning of the fourth century)."
There is a chapel in the crypt dedicated to Notre-Dame de Sous-Terre, Our Lady Underground, or Our Mother Underground. The existing chapel once had black statues of the Madonna and Child in the crypt:
Today's pilgrims encounter a modern replica of the Black Madonna and Child. An obviously fabricated Catholic story recasts the Druids as Christian prophets, and maintains that they foresaw the coming of Christ and of Roman Catholicism, and sculpted their black underground mother and infant effigies prior to the birth of the Virgin Mary. There are other Black Madonnas in Europe, suggesting that more than one cathedral was built over earlier Druidic centres of worship."Notre Dame de Sous-Terre (Our Lady of Under the Earth) once held a very ancient statue of the Virgin Mary, famously described by the celebrated art historian Pintard in 1681:'The Virgin sits on a chair, her Son sits on her knees and He gives the sign of blessing with His right hand. In His left hand He holds an orb. He is bare-headed and His hair is quite short. He wears a close-fitting robe girdled with a belt. His face, hands and feet are bare and they are of a shining grey-ebony colour.The Virgin is dressed in an antique mantle in the shape of a chasuble. Her face is oval, of perfect construction, and of the same shining black colour. Her crown is very plain, only the top being decorated with flowers and small leaves. Her chair is one foot wide with four parts hallowed out at the back and carved. The statue is twenty-nine inches tall.'Tragically, during the Reign of Terror which followed the French Revolution of 1789, the statue was desecrated and then burnt, although most of Chartres cathedral was left relatively unharmed."
The Druids may have believed that underground springs and rivers were sources of miraculous creation, places where death transformed into life. The black-mother-under-the-earth may have been analogous to Persephone, wife of the god of the underworld, and goddess who determined the turn of the seasons, essential in an agricultural heartland. The Celtic god who taught the Druids to measure time, Dis, corresponded to Persephone's husband, Pluto or Hades. Caesar claimed that the Gauls counted time in terms of nights, not days, implying an early use of a 24-hour-clock. Time, creation, and planted seeds started in the darkness underground, and counted forward and upward into the light:
In other words, agriculture in this rich part of France depended on precise time-keeping, invested with sacred power, and originating in specific places, such as an enchanted spring, the origin of life, and a place where time began."All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night."
Thus, although some Catholic authorities declare the Chartres pilgrimage to be "the most important annual event in the Catholic Church today," perhaps it is the underworld beneath the cathedral that draws the pilgrims as they depart from Notre-Dame de Paris three days before Pentecost. For more on Chartres' basement chapel, see the 1988 NYT article, Seeing the Light of Chartres.
When pilgrims travel, they ritualistically count time. And they travel to places where time was considered to begin, in powerful locations where humans interacted with their environment. Even today, the annual pilgrimage to this sacred well commemorates the arrival of spring. Notice that the pilgrimage follows spring's tax season, a tally of the people in a community who survived the winter from the previous year. Secular authorities make an annual material accounting - sometimes with a census alongside taxation - of winter's survivors in their communities. The survivors are then asked to pay their remaining post-winter surpluses to their governments. You pay a tax to your secular ruler every spring to confirm you are still alive on this earth and still participating in your society.
This is followed in May by a spiritual reckoning, to wipe the slate clean and start anew with a fertility ritual, so that people start producing next year's children, agricultural goods, crafts, and other surpluses. The Chartres pilgrimage involves pleas for wealth and abundance, to get through next winter and the tax season that follows. The Chartres ceremony hints at ritual agricultural time-keeping, the point at which the yearly clock resets, and the faithful begin counting the productive days of their lives. This is a natural, agricultural, economical conception of time, removed from its astronomical context, and it confirms the ebb and flow of life's mysteries.
Pilgrims in the cathedral's labyrinth. Image Source: FHL Global Ministries.
Pilgrims departing from Chartres after the Pentecost service (24 May 2015). Video Source: Youtube.