I can’t remember when I first became aware of him: my inspiration, my protector, my angel. Not just any old angel, either. One of the high heidyins, as they say in Scotland. Michael the Archangel has threaded his way through my life in various subtle or quirky ways. One of my secondary schools was called St Michael’s and I’ve lived in a village with a church which bears his name for many years. All kinds of churches and other holy places are named after Michael and there’s some evidence that the early church was invoking a protective – albeit somewhat combative – power, in opposition to an older force that was perceived to inhabit certain places and landscapes. And as a writer for whom a sense of place is very important indeed, I find this idea fascinating.
Predictably, Michael (that’s him on the left, looking supercilious, as well he might) has also found his way into my fiction – most notably in The Curiosity Cabinet. When I was researching the historical background to this novel, I was intrigued to find that the Celts celebrated Michaelmas (the Feast of St Michael on 29th September) with horse racing, usually bareback. On the evening before, it was permissible to ‘borrow’ a horse from your neighbour, for using in the races, as long as you gave it back later. It was a day for giving and receiving love tokens too and women made special cakes, or ‘struans’: a rich egg batter cooked in layers, flavoured with blueberries and blackberries – and which they would give to their sweethearts. All of this fed into the historical sections of the novel and gave me the background to a major turning point between two of the characters. When Henrietta asks Manus McNeill what the people are singing, he tells her that they are singing old songs to the blessed Michael the Archangel whose sword is keen to smite and his arm strong to save; a bonnie fighter indeed. He is our warrior of the sea, the protector of boats and boatmen everywhere, as well as of all horses and horsemen.
Michael is the protector of soldiers and the sick and suffering as well. Intriguingly, the old Michaelmas festival fell on October 10th or 11th and the tradition – which still survives, at least in this part of the world - was that blackberries should not be picked after this date. According to old beliefs, Satan was banished from heaven on this day after battling it out with Michael, and losing. He fell into a blackberry bush and cursed the bramble berries – as who wouldn’t?
The name of Michael is translated as ‘who is like to God?’ not in the sense of him being ‘like to God’ but – curiously – in the sense of nobody being quite like God. He’s called ‘saint’ only in the sense of being ‘holy’ and is pretty well evoked – I reckon – by John Travolta in the movie that bears his name: warm, loving, powerful, protective, compassionate - but fond of a good battle too.
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
All this, a bonnie fighter - and a muse too!
Thank you, Catherine.
Catherine Czerkawska writes atmospheric historical novels. Her website can be found at http://www.wordarts.co.uk/
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