As the ancient Celtic people embraced Christianity certain elements of their culture blended with the new way which they were living. In pre-Christian Celtic culture the bards were and essential part of society. Much more than simply entertainers, these poets were keepers of history and wisdom. In an oral tradition and culture a class of society dedicated to the preservation of knowledge was extremely important. As monasteries, with their scribes and books, slowly became the repositories of knowledge the art of the bards was incorporated into their work rather than being thrown away.
Poetry was such an essential part of what it meant to be Celtic that it survived right up until the present, which can be seen in the many Celtic poets still expressing their spiritual nature in mystical verse. Many of the early Irish monastic rules were actually written in meter and rhyme. Poetry was also included in illuminated manuscripts alongside scriptures, works of science and philosophy, and other important texts. One of the most famous of these poems was written down in the Reichenau Primer which was a scribal notebook that included some glossaries of Greek words, notes on the Aeneid, and teachings about angels, astronomy, and other things. The poem is called Pangur Bán and is a very personal reflection on the scribe’s cat, named Pangur Bán, and how his task of catching mice is similar to the work of a scribe.
This beautiful poem not only shows the way in which the role of bard and scribe became intertwined but it also shows the distinctly Celtic love of nature and ability to see one’s place in the natural world by relating on a personal level to the other creatures which God has made. Here’s the poem, translated into English.
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he set his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I:
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice everyday has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
There is so much profound commentary in this quaint seeming little poem. Firstly, it talks about both the similarities and differences of humans from the other creatures. The scribe notes that there is not much difference between his work “turning darkness into light” (which one can assume means gaining wisdom from the scriptures) and Pangur Bán’s work of catching mice. Both have their tasks which they must complete, both must work diligently to become masters at their trade, both find great pleasure in what they do. Yet, there is something substantially different between hunting mice and changing darkness into light.
This is a really important piece of Christian teaching which we have mostly lost in our modern world. The story of Adam and Eve is all about this and it is something I discuss in this video taken from our virtual retreat. This is also something Eriugena talks about in the Periphyseon as well. He talks about how we have a dual nature (kinda like Jesus). We cannot deny that we are animals in many ways and yet in some fashion we have more in common with angels. Eriugena taught that humans are the most blessed of all creatures specifically because we embody the blessing of animal being and the blessing of angelic being. Here’s a quote from Eriugena about that:
“Whoever examines carefully the the remarkable and altogether ineffable creation of nature itself will clearly find that the same man is a species in the genus of animals and yet subsists above every species in the genus of animal. Hence one can correctly speak of him both affirmatively and negatively saying “Man is an animal; man is not an animal”…The part in which man is an animal belongs to the outer man; but that by which he surpasses other animals including himself, insofar as he is an animal, fittingly receives the designation of inner man.”
This dual nature is described by Eriugena as our inner and outer self. The outer self being the animal and the inner self being the angelic. This does not mean that only our bodies are animal because we share with animals our basic impulses and instincts. We share things like affection, sexuality, anger, fear, basic reasoning, and many other qualities with the animals. Modern science (which Eriugena would have had no concept of being in the 9th century) has shown that many of these things truly are physical. Our brain chemistry affects our emotions and things like hormones are major factors in sexuality and even general character. It’s pretty impressive that Eriugena named that in the early middle ages.
So then, what is left for the inner self? What part of us is like the angels if even our emotions and basic thoughts are animal? This is our spiritual element, it is an ability to turn darkness into light. It is what gives us the power to do science and philosophy and poetry. These are uniquely human things, at least in the animal world, but they are the full existence of the angels. Our spiritual nature is that which desires to be illuminated by the Christ. It is that part of us which questions our animal instincts. The other animals do not question whether they should steal or kill, they simply live as they are without any desire to acquire virtue. It is this sacred desire for virtue and wisdom which is our inner self.
So, dear sisters and brothers, if you truly wish to understand yourself, you will come to know both your inner and outer self – both your animal and angelic natures. Because, as Eriugena goes on to say, we are not two souls fighting for supremacy, but rather one soul which is ineffably fully animal and fully spiritual. To be a whole and healthy person means to come to peace with all aspects of ourselves. We must see ourselves in Pangur Bán and in the nameless scribe. We must know the goodness of both our inner and outer self. So do not be afraid of your animal nature, but neither shy away from the task of turning darkness into light.
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