In the early church there were many sacred books and stories. Their idea of scripture was more robust and diverse than the bible we have today. As the bible began to be canonized (which means it was agreed upon and nothing new could be added) there were many popular and profound texts which didn’t make it into the canon but which were still very important to many Christians. These texts we call apocrypha or deutero-canonical depending on the context.
The early Celtic church had a great love for apocrypha and there were many books of scripture which they read that most people don’t know about today. In fact, it is likely that there are more apocryphal texts written in the Irish language than in any other vernacular European language and even many Latin apocrypha survived thanks to Celtic scribes.
In this article I want to discuss one of these Irish apocryphal texts titled The power of Women which is likely based of off 1 Esdras 3:1-4:32. The Irish reworking of that text was written in the 9th century and isn’t exactly the same as the one it was modeled off of. This story has its source in the Greek Orthodox tradition and the book of 1 Esdras is still part of their scriptures today. In many ways, Celtic Christianity was as much Greek as it was Latin in terms of what sources they read and how they viewed the world and the human condition. Even though it was located at the western most part of Europe the Eastern tradition had a profound hold in the Celtic lands.
This story was likely brought into the Celtic tradition because it resonated with the Celtic understanding that women have a spiritual power all their own and can be just as holy as men. This can be seen in the primacy and importance of Brigid and Mary as religious figures and spiritual helpers. It can also be seen in the teachings of Pelagius who explicitly taught that women have equal opportunity for holiness as men and was ridiculed by his opponents for teaching women. There are many accounts of holy women in the Celtic tradition and we know that Brigid started a long tradition of communal monastic settlements where these women could gather to pray, learn, teach, and heal.
This short tale looks a lot like a modern dad joke and maybe that’s part of why I love it. It is a sacred text which provides insight into life and it is also a comedic jab at the patriarchy and it’s arrogance. It starts with that classic opening: a rabbi, a priest, and a pastor walk into a bar. Except that it’s written in a different time so instead it uses: a Roman, a Greek, and a Jew at a king’s feast.
In the Irish retelling the scene is set with a king and his friends getting drunk at a party with several untrustworthy people around. The king wants to pass out and so he gets his three friends to keep watch while he sleeps. The friends talk about how lucky they are to be so blessed by God and notice that their “senses are in a state of well being with one exception.” Their feet were pleased to be stretched out on the couch (touch), their hands were busy bringing food to their mouths (taste), they were delighting in watching the food be prepared (sight), the delicious aroma of the food filled the room (smell), but their ears had nothing to please them with (hearing). So they decided to remedy that situation and strike up a conversation.
This emphasis on each of the five senses specifically is one of the additions the medieval scribes made that are not found in the original from the book of Esdras. The senses play a very important role in Celtic spirituality and the desire to have something pleasing for each sense is a holistic way of including the full breadth of the human experience. I talked about Hildegard and how she describes the senses as the bridge between the body and the soul in another article. She talks about how the senses and what is presented to them has a profound impact on our will. You can read that article HERE.
The ability of our senses to have profound impacts on our souls can also be seen in the way Merlin had his madness cured by hearing songs of home and family being played on the harp. You’ve probably experienced something similar in your own life. The way a certain food smells reminds you of being home with your grandma and you can almost see her smile in your mind, or a song that you haven’t heard in years suddenly throws you back and you can feel the hurt of a break up that’s associated with it. Our body and our soul are interconnected and our senses are that which connects them. But I digress. The way these drunken soldiers decided to fill their hearing with something meaningful was to have a debate about what is the most powerful thing in the world.
The Roman soldier suggested that wine was the most powerful thing in the world. He argued that wine can sedate an entire army and that carelessness of being drunk has influenced great wars and changed history. The Greek soldier thought that wasn’t a bad suggestion but that more powerful than wine was the king, because without him there would be no wine at the party anyway. He said that kings are stronger than all other men and that humans are more worthy than all the rest of creation, so the king must be pretty powerful. The Jewish soldier only said in reply, “Well those were good suggestions but it seems to me that the power of women is the greatest. And it would not be surprising if this is what you remember tomorrow.”
In the morning when they were evaluating their answers they told the king their thoughts. People around them were chiming in and saying that wine is stronger or kings are stronger but no one made any comments about women, so the queen spoke up and said, “Is it then the case that I have no power?” She then proceeded to slap the king upside the head and sent his crown flying across the room.
People were astonished and everyone started shouting that she should be put to death. The king looked across at her, they locked eyes, and they both started smiling. The king declared that she should not be harmed in any way. Then he said, “the power of a woman is greater than all others. For on her brow is her companion spirit, so that she is beyond blame in all she does.”
This raucous scene of drinking, teasing, and a sassy Queen is an excellent example of Celtic story. These kinds of sacred jokes are something we could use a lot more of in our time. Not only does it make fun of the literal patriarchy (that’s what a king is – a patriarch) but it also models a healthy and loving relationship of shared power and mutual affection. The king had no problem saying that women are the most powerful because their relationship was one of mutual respect and a just a little bit of healthy teasing.
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