There’s a certain ‘presence’ about kindness. Like the spiritual – or, more likely, as a part of it – the act of unexpected kindness drops into our lives like a messenger from the ‘Gods’.
So it was with our visit to the ancient church of Lythe in the middle of the Friday afternoon of the Keys of Heaven workshop. The village of Lythe lies just north of Whitby and marks the the beginning of the towering cliffs which run northwards as far as Saltburn. Within this landscape, Lythe church is set on its own hill and has commanding views all the way to Whitby Abbey in the distance.
The church at Lythe is dedicated to St Oswald – the elder (deceased) brother of the man who was King of Northumbria at the time of the Synod of Whitby (AD 664); an event central to the storytelling basis of our weekend.
Northumbria was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and it was King Oswiu (later Oswald) who presided over the fateful synod which resulted in the death of the Celtic Church in England.
St Oswald’s church is also a museum of what was found on the site – mainly Viking burial stones. The hoard of Viking burial stones was only discovered when the ‘modern’ church of St Oswald’s was extensively restored in 1819 and then again in 1890.
The most famous of the exhibits – and the one you first encounter on entering the church – is the ‘hogback stone’ shown below, which bears the ‘Gingerbread man’ carving. The word ‘hogback’ is misleading – the curved stones represent a large Scandinavian house – the spiritual home to which the deceased Viking would have wished to return…
The museum takes up the whole of the west end of the church. It was a group project, funded with the help of Heritage Lottery and Nortrail funding. A selection of the stones is on permanent (no-charge) display and was opened by the Marquis of Normanby in 2008.
The work took several decades and was led by local historian John Secker, whose detailed work on the Viking funereal relics became its basis. Until recently, it was assumed that the site was solely a Viking burial ground. This was based on its proximity to the sea – a traditional Viking criterion for such a sacred settlement – and the fact that all most of the stone artefacts were of a type known to be of Viking burial origin (10th-12th century).
After further work, a few of the pieces were dated to the 8th century. This suggested that there may have been an earlier Celtic religious building here – high on its own hill, and within clear, if distant sight of the Abbey on the other side of Whitby, then known as Streoneshalh. If so, then Lythe may have played a far more active role in the religious events of of the 7th century than previously thought…
Readers of similar age to me, who remember the Stephen Donaldson novels based on the character ‘Tomas Covenant the Unbeliever‘ may recall the exiled giants and their sad ‘Grieve’. The history of myth shows that people of either conquest or perceived greatness were often depicted as ‘giants’. In the case of the Vikings, there appears to be surprising evidence of their level of homesickness…
Conquerors may not return home in glory, they may find themselves trapped in a new future, having put down roots that bind them far from the home they once had.
Myths may teach that only in death is that reconciled… The image below speaks louder than any words I could write. The idea of ‘house and home’ is one of the deepest sentiments we know. The mystic is constantly challenged to make the entire experienced world his or her home. There lies a powerful alchemy…
I went internet searching for a hogback stone as it would have looked to cap the ‘body’ section of a grave and came across this blog (and picture above) entitled ‘The Viking Hogback Stone of Luss, Loch Lomond, Scotland’.
A close-up of the Lythe church’s largest hogback stone reveals the ‘Gingerbread Man’. This figure appears to show a human figure being devoured by two beasts. But the outlines of arms and the beast’s mouth are the same dovetailed lines and it could also depict the process of giving birth (by mouth) to a higher form of life, wisdom or simply consciousness. Space here does not permit a deeper examination, but Stuart’s recent blogs touch on this in more detail.
A similar image exists on a hogback (see below) from Sockburn, County Durham. In that representation the figure has only one hand in the mouth of the creature. It is believed that the Sockburn scene represents the Viking god Tyr who had one hand bitten off by the wolf Fenrir.
The Lythe figure, however, has both hands in the mouths of the beasts, and the scene may depict the Norse legend of wolves devouring Odin, the ruler, at Ragnarock, which is the Viking end of the world…
We could only smile, ruefully, at the potential comparison with modern politics on both sides of the Atlantic… The hands were the first basis of number and order, as well as the wielders of weapons. As such, they have often been used to depict the concept of balanced intelligence. The animal mouth may be its opposite: base hunger?
There are many other exhibits in St Oswald’s church. The montage below shows some of them. The set also includes two photos of the ‘Green man’ – a recurring icon in the history of Britain. Sue Vincent’s recent blog discusses some of these in detail.
Mention needs to be made of the striking stone coffin that sits among the pews in the main body of St Oswalds.
The medieval sandstone coffin was restored in 2007 by York Archaeological Trust laboratories. The coffin was air-dried before cleaning and re-assembly of the three broken pieces using steel dowels and conservation-grade adhesives. The image below, taken at the St Oswald’s museum, shows its original state before restoration. Looking at this, we can glimpse the work the local team have carried out over generations to provide a vehicle for the understanding and retention of the deep history of this part of North Yorkshire.
The museum at St Oswald’s is an astonishing piece of our history, but I want to finish this blog with another of that day’s aspects – one that was invisibly present throughout the weekend and which is related to the title of this post: the synchronicity of kindness.
The man in the photo above (taken with permission,) with the kind eyes, is John Secker – the historian mentioned in the introduction. John is also one of the churchwardens of St Oswald’s Church. Two weeks before the workshop, while I was mentally ‘building’ the possible stages of our Keys of Heaven weekend, I left a message on his answerphone asking if we could visit the church and, if possible, whether we could gain access to the locked crypt.
I wouldn’t have known about the crypt at St Oswalds but for Sue, who, with Stuart, had called in at the end of one of their writing trips. It was locked then, too.
Wonderfully, John Secker returned my call and said he would come down to the church at 14:45 on the Friday afternoon of our visit to open the crypt door and allow us to descend to what is essentially a shelved storeroom for the artefacts not used in the main exhibits.
On the journey across to Whitby, John called my mobile to say that, sadly, he would not be able to be there for our arrival, but wished us well in our visit to the church’s main features. I thanked him for his efforts and said I understood the personal commitment that had prevented the crypt visit he had originally proffered.
At 14.45 on the Friday, I was standing in the church when I realised I was alone…. the others had seen all that was available on the ground floor and gone outside to study the external views. To my complete surprise, an internal door opened and there stood a man, smiling. It was John Secker… He had carved out a few minutes to come and unlock the door to the crypt for us. Looking at this mystically, we had to be there at the time promised… and he had to make an extraordinary effort to reach ‘down’ to us. When those two conditions were met, the linking of the known and the (as yet) unknown were married together.
My companions returned and we descended the stone steps to the crypt. John had never met us – all he had were the two phone calls – yet he made a heroic effort to make it happen for our band of ‘pilgrims’ in the footsteps of St Cedd.
There was to be another, similar act of kindness at the end of our weekend; but I will leave that for the final post, when that same band of pilgrims were, almost literally, blown off the North York Moors and down into the gentle arms of Lastingham’s magical church and mysterious wells…
The following morning would bring our pivotal visit to Whitby… and the site of the synod where Bishop Cedd was expected to manage a meeting of minds that would destroy everything that had made him what he was….
©Stephen Tanham 2020
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.