In a previous post, I argued that the little corner of the world where I currently live was probably home to a mostly-forgotten holyist; Silyn Sant.
Hopefully I covered the key pieces of evidence before, but suffice it to say that they were: Cultural (the high prevalence of Sulien; Silyn; Silin; Silian terminology used in Welsh landscapes), Folkloric (local traditions about the life of Silyn Sant who lived in these parts), and Historic (archaeological discoveries dating back to the 5th-6th centuries).
As you know, we ran into some murky waters when we considered another, more famous early Christian saint, Giles the Hermit. Later historians preferred the idea that our eccentric Silyn Sant was in fact Giles by another name. I’ve been thinking about these two god-botherers, and the fact that their hagiographies are so achingly similar. One tantalizing possibility is that: if Saint Giles was 7th-8th Century, and the Silbandus Stone of Silyn Sant was 5th-6th – then perhaps Saint Giles borrowed/recreated this hagiography from an older Welsh myth-cycle?
A brief retelling of both saint’s lives would go something like this…
The Hermit & The Hind
There was once a person who took to the woods and the wilds, in a far corner of the land. They eschewed gold, treasures, and fame. Their teachers were the birds, and the changing skies. They gained wisdom from the slower voices of trees and brooks.
One day, a local chieftain was hunting a wild doe. So wrapped up in his desire, the chieftain couldn’t see that he had traveled far beyond his normal hunting parks. He saw a movement between the trees, and fired his bow–
But the shot didn’t hit the doe, but the body of one who had been shielding it.
Although wounded, the hermit of the woods did not die. Instead, their flesh became whole once again, as if the very forest itself protected them.
Immediately the chieftain saw his error, and fell to the ground to beg forgiveness. Some places in this world were not the province of kings and chiefs and their pursuits. Some places were governed by a different power.
The Shape of Stories
My day [ed. and night!] job is the wrangling of words into less-than-appalling shapes. I spent a lot of time reading, and thinking, about the shape of stories. It’s easy to spot how certain rhythms reappear, again and again. We can think about Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, based on Jung’s work on the Archetypal Hero – which has become a cornerstone of how we mold narrative fiction.
There are certain conflicts which we as humans are always going to face. There will always be the dragon, and there will always be an evil king that needs deposing. And sometimes you have to walk away from society to be able to turn around and reassess who you are and what you need, as Ralph Waldo Emerson opined:
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
What is so interesting to me is that the stories of both Saint Giles and Silyn Sant are clearly the same myth. We can even add – as close narrative sisters, perhaps – Saint Melangell, or Sir Peredur in the Arthurian cycle (even a sideways nod to Gawain and the Green Knight if we’re so willing). In that sense then, we might suggest that this proto-myth of the wild hermit of the woods is a story-form that has been haunting Northern Europe for a long time.
A Jungian understanding might explain this repeated formula: That we, as beings who call ourselves civilized and civilizing (read: occupied and occupying for the post-colonialists out there) need a notion of the wild, of the not-us, of the feral edge where our laws, customs, posturing and expectations fail.
Indeed, the ‘civilized’ being is really only one weave in a much greater fabric.
The Forgotten Acre
The ‘wild’ that we’re talking about is a problematic term – itself a product of colonial thinking: When cities expanding and the land was enclosed, everything that didn’t have a deed or writ attached to it became the Other; the Terra Incognita, AKA the wild. It is no wonder why world maps from the Middle Ages could bear the monikers ‘Here Be Dragons’ to indicate any territory they knew nothing about – and why that colonial ignorance was replicated as late as the 18thC and beyond – with the Americas or Oceania being ‘wild and savage places’ despite having intelligent habitation for tens of thousands of years.
Perhaps one of the key messages of this wilding myth is that there is another order out there, another way of being in the forgotten places.
I recently had the opportunity to go to a community-involvement meeting thingy for the precinct of Silyn Sant. [ed. I judge meetings based on their cake ratio. This one was therefore excellent] There is the hopeful possibility that the chapel of Silyn Sant/Saint Sulien – long since closed by the Church in Wales – will be given to the community for a peppercorn rent! The local community (many of whom have family interred at the chapel site) have already developed plans to rejuvenate the chapel, turning it into a community hall. I can imagine coffee mornings, film screenings, seed-swaps and a community-run shop; workshop space and more.
One of the things that was particularly pleasing given my interest in this forgotten saint, was the idea that St Sulien’s Chapel could become a part of the Peaceful Places Project, as well as a site along the Cistercian Way – a pilgrim’s route that runs right up through the middle of Cymru.