Friday, June 6, 2014

Landscapes and Legends: Iona and Heredom

Eilean Idhe (Iona)
The question of how Freemasonry as we know it today came into being stumps Masons as much as it does non-Masons. Until recently, we had mostly volumes  which contained almost as much speculation and wishful thinking as fact. That 19th century scholarship had its limitations is nobody's fault. With the exception of the more dogmatic author's they did the best they could with what they had. If we do not welcome what contemporary academics have to offer however, that will be nobody's fault but our own. 

A well honed aversion to fact is actually a problem freemasons share with a large part of our population today; a preference for myth and legend over documented fact.  It's difficult to deal with modern research that overturns treasured myths about the foundation of an institution with which one has a deep, heartfelt connection. However, when that institution is dedicated to seeking light, by which we mean, or should mean, both knowledge and understanding, then we have an obligation to look our fond delusions in the eye and banish them. 

Sìdh Chailleann (Schiehallion)
Sometimes, however, we have nothing really solid with which to replace our myths. At that point, we need to embrace the poetic and visionary of our traditions while acknowledging the limits of our sight. Facts sometimes get blurred in the mists of ages past.

Scotland is the original home of what we understand to be modern Freemasonry. We are blessed with a number of documents concerning real Freemasonry in Scotland before 1717. However, modern Freemasonry contains in it's foundational myths, material which we are unable to verify. It also contains legends, which are grounded in the understandings of the time at which our existing institutions were created. These understandings are further complicated by the literature written about them since. I am not referring to 21st century scholarship, but that of the 18th and 19th centuries in particular. One such institution is the Royal Order of Scotland.

This post does not intend to question either the value or intentions of that august order which has existed since at least 1741. Rather, it seeks to raise some points, and mostly, speak about some myths concerning the origins of Freemasonry in Scotland. Unfortunately, I do not have many answers to the questions concerning the original sources of Freemasonry in Scotland. There are a few clarifications that can be made, and they also leave open many more questions. 

I hold little hope that some of these myths may be confirmed as fact. My motive stems from an abiding interest in Freemasonry, and also the history of Scotland and the Gaelic world. If it is possible to raise a few points and in the process, inspire some curiosity to look anew at these issues, and get those interested in them to introduce some newer scholarship into Masonic discussions, then that would be wonderful. There may be some out there able to bring new insight to the subject.

A real problem in looking at Masonic writing on this subject is that it is inevitably in English. 19th century Masonic literature suffers from a dearth of accurate knowledge about Gaelic culture. Inevitably, when it lacked sound information, the impulse then was to fill in the gaps with uniformed speculation.

Scota, the Egyptian-Irish Queen
Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, in seeking to flesh out the origins of Freemasonry in Scotland turned his sights on a group called the Culdees (>Gaelic, Céili Dé) Earlier Medieval legends, which may have some some basis in fact, associated the Early Irish with Egypt, though perhaps not as they suggest. The Céili Dé may have had monastic connections with early Egyptian Christianity. A legend speaks of an Egyptian Queen, Scota, who travelled to Ireland. The Medieval Story He asserted, with no real documentation to confirm such a claim that "in A.D. 546 St. Columba, an ordained Culdee Priest founded with a college or fraternity of Operative Masons, an abbey at Derry Ireland. Seventeen years later in 563 he with 12 Brethren called the Apostles of Ireland, founded a monastery at the Isle of Iona in Scotland." He then went on to state that the Royal Order of Scotland (ROS) maintained was its descendant and Freemasonry as we know it today from the Grand Lodge of England descended from the Royal Order of Scotland.  In one grand leap of imagination he claimed a direct link between the early Irish Christian church and modern Freemasonry.  He then informed us that the two patron saints of the Culdees were Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Divine. 

Myth makers go on to link Heredom with both the mountain of Schiehallion  (Sìdh Chailleann) which lies at the approximate geographic center of Scotland, as well as Iona, with the birth of Scottish Freemasonry. While it makes wonderful legend, mysterious and romantic, there is alas, no documentation to confirm it. The lack of documentation, combined with a healthy dose of Templar legend is alluring. 

As much as I would love to place the origins of modern Freemasonry on Iona, or at Schiehallion, Gaelic language traditions are remarkably silent. While Gaelic remained the predominant language among the community on Iona, throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, they retained relatively few traditions concerning Saint Columbkille, the original founder of Iona's monastery, and virtually none concerning Freemasonry. 

None of these inconvenient truths refute the Scottish origins of modern Freemasonry. Nor do they prove that there is no connection between Iona (or Schiehallion) and Freemasonry. They simply mean we do not have the evidence. The obvious connection was the documentable association of Iona with the royal institutions of Scotland. The fact that Iona is identified as a holy place long before Christianity adds both romance and credibility to its possible influence. Before it was known as the center for St. Combkille, it was known, among other names such as Ì nam ban bòidheach (the isle of beautiful women) and Inis nan Druidhneach (The Druid's Island). The Norse name for Iona,  Hiōe means Island of the den of the fox. Strabo called it Eo, which suggests an association with the Yew tree, sacred to the Druids.

Monastary At Iona
The monastery of Iona, founded c. 563 played a significant role in the Christianization of the Picts in the late 6th century and of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 635. It became a major center of learning, and its scriptorium produced highly influential documents, including quite likely, the original texts of the Iona Chronicle, the source for the early Irish annals. The monastery is often associated with the distinctive practices and traditions known as Celtic Christianity.

The ancient burial ground, called  Rèilig Odhrain (Oran's cemetery), contains the 12th century chapel of Naomh Odhrán ( St. Oran, Columba's uncle), contains a number of medieval graves. The abbey graveyard contains the graves of many early Scottish Kings, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France. Iona became the burial site for the kings of Dál Riata and their successors.  In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded. The documented burials there include:

Cináed mac Ailpín, king of the Picts (also known today as "Kenneth I of Scotland")
Domnall mac Causantín, alternatively "king of the Picts" or "king of Alba" (Donald II)
Máel Coluim mac Domnaill, king of Scotland (Malcolm I)
Donnchad mac Crínáin, king of Scotland (Duncan I)
Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, king of Scotland (MacBeth)
Domnall mac Donnchada, king of Scotland (Domnall Bán or Donald III)

So, while it is necessary to recognize that the Masonic literature concerning these matters is unquestionably legend rather than fact, that does not mean that the truth is not enshrined in these stories. The proofs are lost in the mists of time. Denying they hold the truth is as much a folly as holding these myths without question. If someone would only seek more light. As the old folks in my youth said when they saw someone working, Báil ó Dhía air an obair (God bless the work)...

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