St Columba may have been the founder of Iona, but he (apparently) had some rather odd views, including the need to banish women and cows from the island. He said—”Where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief.” Like far too many men of God, his antipathy toward women was ridiculous. It wasn’t the fault of women, it was the fault of men who obviously could not be guaranteed to keep their base urges under control. But, blame the women. It’s easier. And keep them out of the Church, so you can keep blaming them for everything. Pathetic.
But I digress. St Columba’s views on women are not why I am writing this article, rather it is something else he apparently did. Today, while I was passing the time waiting for an appointment, I browsed through the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions by Edwin and Mona A Radford, and came across the following passage, which, rather strangely, comes under the heading of Christening!
“…St Columba, founder of Iona, buried one of his monks alive under the foundations of the new Abbey. It is true that reports state that the monk, Oran, consented to die. That, at least, is how O’Donnell attempts to gloss over the story in his Lives of the Saints. There is little doubt, however, that the ambitious Colomba meant the foundations of the Abbey to stand, and immolated the monk…”
“…Baring-Gould finds an origin in the period, in heathen times, when every house, castle and bridge had provision made to give each its presiding, protective spirit. This may, and possibly did, grow out of the earlier pagan idea of a sacrifice associated with the beginning of every work of importance. Thus the sacrifice was buried under the foundations…”
“…It may be that this explains ghost-haunted houses—the protective spirit of the sacrifice on its patrols…”
“…When, in 1885, Helsworthy parish church was restored, the south-west angle of the wall was taken down. In it, embedded in mortar and stone was the skeleton of a man who had obviously been buried, hurriedly, alive. There was no sign of an orthodox tomb…”
Holsworthy Parish Church, Devon
So, St Colomba and the builders of Helsworthy (which I think must be Holsworthy in Devon) parish church appear to have thought nothing of burying someone alive in order to protect a building. This does not seem very Christian. In fact, it is a shocking practice. Yes, yes, in times gone by things were different, but murder is murder, no matter how you dress it up, and I wonder if St Columba, that holy man of God, would have been so keen if he were expected to be the victim? I’d hazard not. He would have had too much of God’s work to do, right?
Columba lived in the 6th century, but Holsworthy church dates from the mid-13th century, well within the medieval period. Were human sacrifices still being made at that time? And for a church? If so, how long did the practice continue? And if it applied to important building works, e.g. churches, castles and bridges, how many human remains might yet be found beneath such foundations?
Depending upon whether or not one believes in ghosts and hauntings, is it really possible that many of our great buildings and ancient bridges are built upon sacrificial victims? Were the medieval ruling classes still so superstitious that they could set aside their Christian beliefs and keep quiet so that some poor so-and-so could be buried alive? Or was it something the more gullible builders did on the quiet? I cannot, for example, envisage Richard III sanctioning a human sacrifice before the building of the chapel for the dead of Towton!
And what of the supposed ghost of Middleham Castle? People like to think it is Richard, wandering his old home again…but what if it isn’t Richard at all? What if it’s a victim of human sacrifice who was robbed of his life when the castle was first built, to ensure the castle’s security and longevity and to protect the place forever more?
There are other churches, other castles and other bridges…and other ghosts?
Old London Bridge was supposedly built on human sacrifice