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Celtic Saint and Goddess

Gareth Knight

In a remote and beautiful spot at the head of the Tanat Valley in north Wales, peaceful and unspoilt, is the church of St Melangell. It is set in a circular churchyard that was once a Bronze age burial site, ringed by ancient yew trees more than 2000 years old.

Melangell was an Irish princess who in the 7th century left her native land and came to Wales. She selected a spot at the end of this quiet valley to live as a hermit in quiet prayer and devotion to God until one day Brochwel, Prince of Powys, came galloping through on a hunt. He and his hounds were in pursuit of a hare which ran into the sacred place and took refuge under Melangell’s cloak.

When he saw that even the hunting hounds backed off from her presence the prince was so moved that he gave her the valley as a place of sanctuary and she became the abbess of a small religious community.

Her memory has been honoured here ever since, and Pennant Melangell a place of pilgrimage for centuries, visited by pilgrims of all nations and denominations. Here all find themselves welcome, in keeping with her care and compassion for all creatures, and of course she is also the patron saint of hares, and none are ever hunted here.

The Welsh have an appropriate play upon her name - which in their language means a thousand angels.

Mil engyl a Melangell, trechant lu fyddin y fall.

Melangell with a thousand angels triumphs over all evil powers.

Although an alternative reading for her name is "honey angel" which brings in much teaching about bees and the hive and the love/wisdom "that drips like honey from the honeycomb that is hidden in the cleft of the rock."

Bearing this in mind, along with the magic circle of this most ancient sacred site, and her act of protecting that most magical of creatures – the hare – we can be justified in seeking for deeper significance in the figure of Melangell beyond that of a Celtic saint. Like St Bridget, or Bride, she has a presence that extends throughout the whole range of Christian and pagan spirituality. She is indeed an embodiment of universal and unconditional love unfettered by any creed.

We can imagine her seated within the centre of this sacred circle of ancient yew trees, on this bronze age site, with her capacious cloak that shelters a hunted hare, at the meeting place of four ways. These four ways come from each of the cardinal points, from east and west and south and north, and what they signify we may discover from traditional ballad lore.

And in particular, from the Scottish border country, the tale of True Thomas and his meeting with the Faery Queen. Thomas was, like Melangell, an historical character, although of rather later days, active in the 14th rather than the 7th century.

The ballad tells how Thomas was lying, no doubt in a state of vision, in the vicinity of the Eildon Hills – associated with legends of the sleeping Merlin and also of King Arthur and his knights. As he lay under a hawthorn tree by the bank of the river he heard a faint tinkling of bells and saw coming toward him a lady of great beauty, clad in green and riding a milk white steed. Much impressed he leaped up and swept off his cap thinking that this could be no less than the Queen of Heaven. But she quickly put him to rights, telling him that she was but the Queen of Fair Elf-land.

Moreover, that if he dallied with her she would have him body and soul in Faeryland for the space of seven years. Thomas was undeterred by this and kissed the Queen upon the lips, whereupon she lifted him up behind her on her horse and galloped off with him swifter than the wind.

For forty days and forty nights they rode a strange journey, where there was neither sun nor moon, and the horse was up to its knees in blood, accompanied by the roaring of the sea. To those acquainted with faery lore this signifies an interior journey, in part into the body and bloodstream of Thomas himself, but more objectively into the inner Earth, which is lit by inner stars rather than the sun and moon, and where the blood is that of human ancestors going back to the beginning of time in all the passions and pains of human progress. At the end of which journey Thomas and the Elf Queen come to another tree – laden with fruit in a garden.

It appears much like the forbidden Tree in the Garden of Eden that brought so much trouble to Adam and Eve. Insofar that the fruits of this Tree are the primal powers of creation, it would indeed have been perilous for him to have seized them, as the Queen of Faery is not slow to inform him.

But Thomas did not seek to pluck the fruit for himself, but sought to offer it in an act of service, gratitude and dedication. By this selfless act he not only saves himself from perdition but causes the transformation of the Faery Queen, who now reveals that she is bearing the sacramental food of bread and wine. The human and the faery share this meal, after which she is able to show Thomas further mysteries of the pattern of creation.

This she does by indicating three ways that now lie before them.

One is "a narrow road beset with thorns and briars, which is the road of righteousness, though after it but few enquires."

Another is "a broad bright road that is the path of wickedness though some call it the road to heaven." Although this is perhaps rather a harsh verdict imposed by the laconic phrasing of ballad lore. It seems to be more the road of human kind in general, with its mixture of good and bad and bright and painful experience.

Whilst the third is "the road to fair Elfland."

It is indeed this road that they now follow to a third tree, a rowan or mountain ash, in Faeryland, where Thomas stays for seven years before returning with the gift of prophecy.

But there is of course a fourth road, which is the one that Thomas was on originally. That is to say his visionary initiatory journey along Huntley bank to meet the inner powers represented by the Faery Queen.

We can transpose these four roads to the sacred circle or tenemos of Melangell.

We may thus see Melangell, the epitome of love and compassion for all beings, in the centre of her sacred space to which all four ways lead in an archetypal magical pattern.

That which runs to the centre from the south is that of the heavenly road of all angels and the heavenly spheres.

That which runs to the centre from the north is that of the faery powers of the inner earth.

That which runs to the centre from the west is that of the incarnatory experience, past, present and future, of all humanity.

And that which runs to the centre from the east is that of the initiatory wisdom tradition in all its multi-dimensional aspects.

Using a somewhat outmoded but still quite useful convention of Ray colours we might conceive of the heavenly powers of the south as the Purple Ray; the faery powers of the north as the Green Ray; the hermetic powers of the east as the Blue Ray, and the general human powers of the west as the Orange Ray – flanked within itself by the Red and Yellow – instinct and intellect.

But within the centre, to which they all lead, is the great mediating power of Melangell, whom we can approach from any direction in sure promise of unconditional love.

As one initiate with a particular dedication to Melangell has phrased it:

Come to me and be loved, for what you are, what you do and where you are right now.

Come to me and be loved, for who you were, what you did and where you were before this time.

Come to me and be loved, for who you will be, what you will do and where you will be after this time.

Come to me and be loved, for who you one day will become, and what your destiny calls for.

Come to me and be cloaked in Love.

This is a prayer and invitation that resonates in the nearby church with the figure in bronze of the Christ with arms outstretched in love towards the whole Creation. In Melangell, who would have regarded herself as "in Christ" as well as having "Christ within her", her own loving mediation transcends any religious divide.

Indeed, in Melangell herself we have a representation of the great Goddess. She, according to so stalwart a Christian as the venerable Bede, whose presence represented the fecundity of the land. Who was known by the Anglo-Saxon name of Eostre from which the Christian festival of Easter is derived. A Goddess not only representative of growth but of enlightenment of the soul by experience of birth, death and resurrection.

She is protectress of the hare, that mad animal associated with the Moon, forbidden as food for Celtic tribes according to Caesar, and which according to tradition was once a bird. When changed to its present form by Ostara, goddess of Spring, it was allowed to keep its aerial swiftness and once a year even to lay eggs – with which the festival of Easter is celebrated.

There is indeed a great deal of practical wisdom and inner experience to be gleaned from the vision of Melangell at the junction of the four ways. It resonates with what R J Stewart has evocatively described as the Well of Roses that bloom red and white at the sacred centre; with the basic Rosicrucian symbol of the rose upon an equal armed cross; with the Christian devotion to the Sacred Heart; and ultimately with the Central Stillness at the heart of the Cosmos, as defined in The Cosmic Doctrine, the ultimate source of Life and Love and Light and Law.

All contained within the capacious cloak of the loving, living Melangell.


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  Page last updated October 2009