Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Servant to the wheel

Mug Roith is a shady character who slips across centuries of Irish prehistory. He is called "Servant to the Wheel," and the wheel itself is a bit of a mystery. By some accounts, it was a flying machine -- an oared wheel -- rather like a modern helicopter. Druid sorcerers like Mug Roith and Simon Magus were generally accounted the magical ability to fly, a skill later taken up by Christian saints like Joseph of Cupertino, who used to bang about the chapel like a trapped sparrow.

It seems more likely that the oared wheel of druidic lore, to which Mug Roith was servant, was the Sun, the chief deity in Europe in preChristian times. The endless wheeling of the diurnal and annual solar cycles established the rhythms of life; if one were going to choose any single aspect of the natural world as a divinity, the Sun was an obvious choice. All around us here in Ireland there are preChristian stone circles and alignments that manifestly mark the solar peregrinations. On the hill above our house is what remains of a burial chamber whose axis points like a arrow to the place on the horizon where the Sun rises on the equinox. Whatever pagan chieftain was buried there no doubt hoped to rise again with the turning of the wheel.

The parish church here is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who has quite a following in this part of Ireland, and whose martyred body is said to have washed up on our beach in a barrel. How the saint's corpse made it from the Mediterranean to West Kerry is no less a miracle, I suppose, than a oared flying machine. Catherine too is associated with a wheel. She was martyred on a spiked wheel, a Roman instrument of torture, and that Sun-sign is still part of the semipagan rites that preserve her memory (if she existed at all). It is perhaps not surprising that her veneration is so popular in the formerly druidic countries of the north.

One thing I love about the Catholicism of my youth is the way the canonical hours of the day and the annual liturgies evoke and preserve a consciousness of the solar rhythms. Catholic Christianity, especially, is a highly sublimated solar religion. Christmas, Easter, earth, air, fire and water, bread, wine, wax and incense, the Eucharist displayed in a blazing solar monstrance. What a lusciously sensual faith! Strip away the overlay of supernatralism, and even I might choose to be an acolyte to the wheel.