Stories From Crosses, by John Clark

Stories From Crosses

The 1000 year old Maen Achwyfan, Whitford, is a 3m. tall slab Celtic cross at a meeting place close to six Bronze Age burials. One holds many skeletons some with arrows through the skull. Curiously, the cross bears two Viking images. A warrior framed by Celtic design and Odin’s mythical 8-legged horse Sleipnir is tucked away low on one side. The Celtic and Viking sculptors worked together. Perhaps other crosses had such links.

My research highlighted Gosforth, Cumbria with a slender 4.4m. churchyard pillar covered in images of pagan Viking myths headed with a Christian cross. Lichen growth severely limited photographic access and demanded imaginative photoshopping. Across Viking Northumbria Christian teachers applied Bible stories to such illustrations and achieved widespread conversion.

Prior to visiting, an online search is essential to knowing what surprising detail to look for. Check the helpful old engravings.

Inside the church a Viking stone plaque sculpture found in the grounds depicts the pagan myth of Thor “fishing” for the malign sea serpent. Similarly, in Kirkby Stephen a stone illustrates the chained Loki.

On then to Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, where the 5.2m. indoor cross bears Runic inscriptions which I thought may be a Viking link. However, runes are an alphabet of sounds for ease of carving stone and wood, not a language. Individual letters vary with use in many Northern countries over almost 2000 years.  Several sounds are missing. The runes here are Anglo-Saxon and so are the deeply cut and more advanced sculptures. Plants and animals are beautifully sculpted and figures are recognisable as, among others, Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  Another story came much later. In 1640 the Church of Scotland condemned the cross to destruction as idolatrous. In 1820 the components were largely recovered and reassembled but the missing top received a contemporary replacement.