It’s easy to look at a country as a landmass populated by one indigenous people. Easy, but wrong. A perfect example of the error of this assumption would be Cornwall, seemingly an English county, on England’s south coast; but ask any Cornish person and they will tell you they’re not English at all, but Celtic. This may seem a little confusing – the term Celtic has usually associated the people of Brittany, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; not England, and definitely not the people from just one English county. This simple fact raises questions about the whole issue of national identity, and whether in fact we should instead be thinking in terms of international traditions that have crossed oceans and spanned generations in order to shape local and individual identities.
A little research into the term “Celt” reveals that it is not even a British term, but comes instead from a Greek word, “Keltoi”, which was the name given to a tribe from the south of France in the Iron Age. So does this mean French people could be Celts too? There would appear to be definite similarities, especially when you consider the obvious aesthetic ones between the small island known as St Michael’s Mount, just off the coast of Cornwall, and the larger Mont St-Michel, just off the Normandy coast in North-Western France. The two look almost the same and both have monasteries at their pinnacles. Could it, in fact, be a Celtic tradition that connects the two? Research reveals some fascinating findings.
The similarities between the two islands are, in fact, deliberate. When William of Normandy set off for England in 1066 to stake his claim on the English throne, he did so with the support of the monastery at Mont St-Michel. After he defeated King Harold in battle and became the King of England, he gave the island off Cornwall as a gift to the monks at Mont St-Michel as a means of thanks for their support. A priory was built on top of the island’s rocks, based on the French monastery, and the Cornish island became known thereafter as “St Michael’s Mount”.
So that would explain the link between the two islands. But Celtic history predates Christianity, which raises a question. Could a Celtic link be found with Mont St-Michel, or had it only ever been a Christian stronghold? Research reveals that the first Christian settlers had arrived at Mont St-Michel in the 6th Century A.D., two hermits who built two sanctuaries on the island. It is thought that this was an attempt to still the Celtic mythology and traditions that surrounded the island, which at this time was known as “Mont-Tombe” – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this translates as “Mount Tomb”! The reason for this is a Celtic ritual of which the Mont was the center. The Celtic people thought of the Mont as a passageway between the living world and the afterlife, and that around November 1st every year the souls of the dead would gather around the Mont. This belief had inspired the tradition practiced at that time, where every time a coffin was taken to be buried in a nearby village that overlooked the Mont, it would first be taken to a point by the bay and turned to face the Mont before being buried, in order that the occupant’s soul could be carried into the afterlife. It is thought that when the Christians settled on the Mont, this is why they named it after Saint Michael, as it was believed that it has he who carried the souls of the dead into the next world. This allowed the Christian tradition to usurp the Celtic one – or perhaps perpetuate it!
History can never tell us the whole story. There were probably many other Celtic traditions and rituals based around the fascinating place that is Mont St-Michel. But there can be no doubt that its history is deeply rooted in Celtic tradition, and it is gladdening to think that a monolith so rich in tradition and folklore is still standing for us to enjoy today.