The Cosmic Dimension

Opposite: The cosmic axis, according to Welsh bardic tradition. At the lowest level is Annwn. Above this is middle earth, Abred, with the eight directions and the central omphalos stone or cross. Overlying Abred is Gwynvyd, the heavenly 'White Land'. Finally, above that is Ccugant, the ineffable realm of deity. Behind are the underlying patterns of manred.

According to the Welsh spiritual tradition, the underworld is called Annwn, the middle world Abred, and the upper world Gwynvyd. A Welsh bardic text called V Tri Chyjlwr (The Three States) tells us: 'According to the three principal qualities of man shall be his migration in Abred; from laziness and mental blindness he shall fall to Annwn; from dissolute wantonness he shall traverse the circle of Abred, according to his necessity; and from his love for goodness he will ascend to the circle of Gwynvyd.' This idea is broadly in accord with the three Christian worlds of Hell, Earth and Heaven, though bardic tradition infers many journeys within the system through re-incarnation. These three worlds represent spiritual progress: 'The three states of living beings: Annwn, from which comes the beginning; Abred, in which knowledge increases, and hence goodness; and Gwynvyd, in which is the plenitude of goodness, knowledge, truth and endless life.'

Although the underworld is conceived as a place of the dead, it is not so much the infernal burning place of devilish torture of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. Rather it resembles the Greek Hades as the gloomy abode of insubstantial shadows. Thus, itis called variously affati, the land invisible, affwys, the abyss, and annwyti or atmwfti, the not-world. According to a bardic question-and-answer fragment, recorded in Barddas: 'Question. In what place is Annwyn? Answer. Where there is the least possible of animation and life, and the greatest of death, without other condition/ Thus, the soil of the graveyard, in which the cross stands, is truly Annwn. Many high crosses are set on steps or a four-square pyramidal base, both of which are representations of the archetypal world mountain, inside which is the realm of the dead. The stepped bases or perrons recall the much more ancient step-pyramids and ziggurats of Egypt and Babylon whose terraces led upwards to a summit platform upon which the image of divinity was set. Powerful examples of stepped cross-bases exist at Llantwit Major and St David's in Wales, at Kildalton on Islay and Clackmannan in Scotland. Pagan forerunners of these cross-bases exist in Ireland at Mullaghmast in County Kildare and at Killycluggan in County Cavan. Classic examples of the four-square pyramidal cross-base exist in Ireland at Ahenny, Castledermot and Monasterboice, while an intermediate form of stepped base supports St Martin's Cross on lona. Their raised bases recall the earlier grave-mounds which were literally the abodes of the dead from which rose the axial memorial stone that pointed towards the heavens. According to Celtic folklore, these mounds are places where sensitive people can commune with the spirits of the departed. In his 1703 book Gweledigaetlieu y Bardd Cwsc, Ellis Wynne describes three visions of this world, death and Hell, where the sleeping bard sees a vision of the dead, the Children of Annwn, dancing upon the churchyard mound. Celtic lore such as these reminds us that such mounds are not only places of burial but also places of vision, where one may glimpse the spirits of the otherworld.

Above the basal 'mound', the cosmic axis of the cross rises from the underworld into this world of living mortals, Abred. The axis leads ever upwards from middle earth to the heavenly uppcrworld, called in

The stepped bases or 1perrons' recall the much more ancient step-pyramids and ziggurats of Egypt and Babylon whose terraces led upwards to a summit platform upon which the image of divinity was set.

the bardic tradition The Circle of Gwynvyd, the 'White Land'. This is the bright realm represented as the wheel-cross, emblem of the sun above the earth as the symbol of the sky god, upon which the Christ is manifest. According to Breton beliefs, the cross of Christ is envisaged as a ladder from earth to heaven, down which God came to earth. By means of this divine ladder to heaven, human souls are enabled to climb to paradise. From the sixteenth century, when Breton priests began to re-consecrate prehistoric megaliths, it was customary to carve them with the symbols of the passion of Christ, which include a ladder.

Although crosses often end with the upper arm of the wheel-head, the most highly developed among them are topped by a little house which in bardic cosmology represents the heavenly throne or mansion of God, Ceugant. The most striking example is on top of Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice. The capstone of the cross from Tihilly in County Offaly, preserved at University College in Dublin, is also house-shaped, as were probably the missing capstones of the crosses at Cloonfad and Duleek. The existing cross-top houses closely resemble known portable reliquaries, the small, highly decorated boxes in which holy relics, whether the bones of a saint, his book or some other sacred item, were kept. The Annals of Ulster tell of how the relics of Conlaed were placed in a shrine made of gold and silver, which coincides with the dating of Irish house-shrines from the eighth or ninth century. The Annals of Clonniacnois record that in 1129 among the relics stolen from the monastic altar was a reliquary in the form of a model of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, which in Judaeo-Christian tradition was the reflection of the heavenly mansion of God on Earth. The Book of Kells shows us the Irish idea of what the Jerusalem Temple looked like. It is depicted in a representation of the Temptation of Christ by the Devil. Christ is on the ridge of a steeply gabled roof which is covered with tiles or shingles and adorned with serpents'-head finials. The temple walls are similarly adorned with scales or ornamented panels.

A number of these jewelled miniature houses have come down to us through the centuries because of the excellent Celtic custom that relics are preserved by hereditary keepers. Among the finest arc the Monymusk Reliquary in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the Emly Shrine. Dating from the year 800, the latter is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Others, taken as booty by Viking raiders, and later buried with their new owners, re-emerged from archaeological excavations in recent times. The museums at Copenhagen and Trondhcim house notable examples.

They arc all eloquent testimony to the exquisite artistry and craftsmanship of their makers.

Irish holy objects show a repetition of house shapes ranging from those large enough for a human being to enter to those small enough to hold in one hand. This repeating hierarchy is a classic instance of the Celtic concept of self-similarity. According to this hierarchical system, the unseen universal Mansion of God is the largest, within that the church, then the reliquary-tomb and finally, within it, the metal reliquary itself.

Several surviving ancient Irish churches show the prototype for the house-shrines. The pilgrimage church on St MacDara's Island in County Galway is one of the best examples, having been restored recently with its original roof-ornament of Y-shaped gable finials. The church at Killinaboy in County Clare bears a cross on its west end that recalls the reliquary of the True Cross once kept inside. Inside some churches were reliquary-tombs whose form reflected the churches in which they stood. Extant examples are the reliquary-tombs at Banagher in County Londonderry, Saul in County Down, Clones in County Monaghan and the Skull House at Cooley in County Donegal. They are all in the form of houses of the dead, the so-called 'mortuary houses'. The Clones mortuary house, which probably contained relics of St Tighernach, has gable finials, once stood inside a church, now destroyed. Inside such stone shrines, smaller wooden or metal ones may have been deposited. The small metal Lough Erne Shrine, actually demonstrates the principle of self-similarity by containing a small shrine within a larger one of the same form. The practice of carving a representation of the crucifixion upon a cross, where Christ is shown on another cross, is yet another instance of Celtic self-similarity.

Because, according to Christian cosmology, the souls of those who die blameless go to live in the heavenly house at the apex of the cosmos, the houses on top of Celtic crosses are an expression of this belief. It is not just a Christian concept, however, for it exists also in Nordic cosmology, where the house of the dead symbolizes the great hall of Odin, Valhalla. The flowering of the Irish high cross came after contact with the Pagan cosmology of the Northmen, for the house of the dead was an important element in Germanic and Norse belief. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler, Bede, recounts that the memorial of St Chad, who died in the year 670, was made of wood in the shape of a gabled house. Also, the two known wooden coffins of seventh-century Archbishops of Canterbury were also both in the form of the house of the dead: one had a hipped roof with a convex section, and the other had a high-pitched gabled roof.

The Anglo-Saxon Hedda Stone in Peterborough Cathedral is a more durable example of the Canterbury wooden coffins, being in the form of a carved stone house-tomb 1.5 m (5 ft) in length. It has a roof sculpted with birds, beasts and interlace, while the walls below arc arcaded with figures standing in each niche or doorway. These doors with guardian figures recall the Norse accounts of the many doorways of Valhalla. According to The Edda, from the 540 doors of the Allfathcr's hall come the dead, in the shape of the Einhcijar, Odin's heroes, to fight against the powers of evil and destruction. Unfortunately, a few years ago, during building works in the cathedral, the Hedda stone was handled carelessly and damaged by having parts broken off it. The cast in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows the condition of the stone before this incident. Another important surviving house-shrine tomb is the Kentish Fordwich stone, which is believed to have originated in Canterbury. About the same length as the Hedda Stone, it is in the form of a building with a slightly curving pitched roof, carved with 'beaver-tail' tiles, and with walls sculpted as an arcade in the Romanesque manner.

In parts of England and southern Scotland are a number of recumbent stone grave-markers known by the generic term of 'hogsback tombstones'. Associated mainly with areas of Norse settlement, they are made in the form of a Scandinavian house of the time, generally boat-shaped with flattened ends like a Cambridge punt. Although it is possible that they recall ship-burials, their form is primarily the 'house of the dead'. The form of these houses of the dead is taken from the Nordic timber-framed houses whose frame structure was based upon the cruck principle rather than the box-frame. Hogsbacks are a direct development of the pagan omphalos-shaped bauta-stones that were erected on grave-mounds. These houses are depicted as having a tiled roof, whose ridge is sometimes the spine of a dragon or a serpent, resembling the coffins of the Alamanni, which were carved from tree-trunks. Beneath the roof are the walls, which in some cases bear interlace patterns, and in others, warriors. There is a Nordic folk tradition that the walls of the house of the dead were woven from snakes, and its form also resembles the wickerwork coffins used in former times in some areas. A hogsback, formerly at the old Anglian royal place of Repton in Derbyshire, had spiralling serpents carved on its walls. Unfortunately, it was broken up early in the nineteenth century.

A hogsback in Durham Cathedral Library has its ends protected by bears with bands around their muzzles, grasping and supporting the roof-ridge of the house. Almost identical houses of the dead are kept in the church at Brompton in North Yorkshire, where there were once ten such examples. Similar bear-stones are known from Lowther in Cumbria and Heysham in Lancashire. A fragment of hogsback from the Hospitium at York shows that its sides were composed of carved interlace and scrollwork, over which was a representation of a shingled roof. The churchyard at Penrith in Cumbria contains four such tiled-roof stones, and there are similar ones at Deerness in Orkney and St Boniface's churchyard on Papa Westray. A stone of this type from Falstone in Northumberland has a double inscription in Anglo-Saxon and runic letters on the walls, which are scribed into parallel lines like wooden boards. Other fine examples exist at Sockburn in County Durham and Govan in Glasgow. One of the Govan stones is in the form of a beast, where the roof-tiles are interpreted as scales, while another has a serpent as the roof-ridge, with the tile-pattern appearing as many small doors, recalling those of Valhalla. It is clear from all of these British instances that both the Celtic reliquaries and the Nordic houses of the dead are part of the same tradition as the houses carved on top of the Irish high crosses.

Celtic Carved Stones
A 'house of the dead' memorial stone with inscriptions from Falstone, Northumberland, England.
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