Friday, August 19, 2011

Hocus pocus

Writing yesterday about the "alphabet stone" at Kilmakedar prompts me to make note of the fact that antiquities are thicker on the ground on the Dingle Peninsula than any other place I know of, almost certainly any other place of comparable size in northern Europe. Back in the mid-1980s, the antiquities of the peninsula were cataloged by a team of archeologists. The result is a thick illustrated book with several thousand entries: shell middens, pre-bog field systems, megalithic tombs, stone alignments and standing stones, rock art, cairns, ring-barrows, inland and coastal promontory forts, ring forts, souterrains (underground chambers), ogham stones, early ecclesiastical sites, holy wells, castles. Within a five minute walk of our house are artifacts spanning thousands of years of human history -- from a hilltop megalithic tomb to the ruins of a medieval castle. An afternoon walk is like a visit to a museum.

It is instructive to live with so much history, spanning so many thousands of years. The central lesson, I suppose, is humility, the recognition that our own beliefs and prejudices are conditioned by when and where we are born. No doubt the builders of the iron-age ring fort I can see from my window were as certain of the truth of their religion as were the medieval Christians who built the castle inside the ring.

Scientific knowledge clearly advances, as is evidenced by our greater material prosperity, longevity, and technologies. Religion, by contrast, remains caught up in magical thinking and supposed revelation. The builders of the ring fort and the castle, separated by millennia, were equally convinced of their power to influence the gods by rite and supplication. The Roman Catholic religion of my youth was no less magical than the faith of iron-age druids.

And yet, we live with a sense of mystery, a sense of the precariousness of existence; all of that we have in common with our stone-age ancestors. Empirical knowledge advances; mystery endures. The trick is to know the difference between mystery and magic.