Sunday, January 27, 2008

More Fun and Games with St. Helen’s Chi Rho Cross

Some time ago (actually it was last week) we posted an article concerning the potential Romano/Celtic origins of St. Helen’s in Churchtown (the parish church of Garstang and Catterall) in which we featured the following photograph by Martyn King:

Unfortunately, on that occasion, we were a bit pushed for space and didn’t get much chance to elaborate on the history of the chi-rho itself. So we thought that now might be an ideal time to do just that.
In many respects the chi-rho could be classified as the first ‘Christian Cross’, although, in truth, it’s ‘X’ and ‘P’ motif can be traced back much further. Before it became Christianised, for example, the chi-rho was the symbol of Chronos, the God of time. The ‘P’ symbol, as a separate entity, was the Pagan symbol for Mitheras, the Sun God, and likewise the ‘P’, when portrayed individually, was the symbol of ‘Sol’, the Roman sun god.
All of this ties in neatly, of course, with the fact that Constantine (credited with designing and establishing the Chi Rho as a Christian symbol) was, in reality, a worshipper of Mitheras himself, and not a Christian at all. The fact that ‘X’ and ‘P’ also represent the first two letters of ‘Christos’ in Greek, goes some way towards explaining why Constantine adopted the design to bridge the gap between the two religions.
However, getting back to the chi-rho cross at St. Helen’s, it has been noted that the letters ‘R’ and ‘B’ straddle either side of what, for want of a better word, is the cross’s ‘stem’. This has led many local historians to the erroneous conclusion that the carved slab is in fact a mediaeval gravestone belonging to somebody whose Christian name began with ‘R’ and whose surname began with ‘B’. By classifying it as such, not only is the chi-rho cross’s true history and meaning lost, but it also devalues the carving to the status of a piece of relatively modern frippery.
In reality, the ‘R’ and ‘B’ letters aren’t…er….well…they just aren’t.
Take a look at the photograph below. It shows a chi-rho cross that’s incorporated into a mosaic in a Roman villa at Lullingstone, Kent.

Within the design are two symbols, a capital ‘A’ and a capital ‘W’. Again, these aren’t exactly what they seem, and far from being Roman letters they are, in fact, Greek, the ‘A’ being ‘Alpha’ and the ‘W’ being ‘Omega’. This refers to Christ’s declaration in the gospels (the compilation and establishment of which Constantine himself was responsible for) of: “I am the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end.”
The crossover between Pagan symbolism and Christian symbolism in the complete chi-rho motif, we can therefore assume, was deliberately designed to appeal to both Pagans and Christians alike.
Certainly the right-hand symbol on the St. Helen’s chi-rho cross is the symbol for Omega, and an early version of it at that; later, mediaeval versions of Omega being the simpler, ‘Kilroy was Here’ style of symbol we associate with ‘Omega’ today. What do you, you don’t know what ‘Kilroy was Here’ is…well, take a gander at the drawing below. The modern Omega symbol is the one on the right.

However, the ‘R’ on the left-hand side of St. Helen’s chi-rho cross clearly isn’t an ‘A’. Again, though, in some of the earliest known chi-rho carvings that appear on rock faces and such like, the ‘Alpha’ symbol is portrayed as a capital ‘P’ (as in the symbol for Mitheras) with an extended diagonal foot…which is basically what we’re looking at here. Scholars are still arguing about why this is the case, but bickering aside the fact remains that the ‘Alpha’ symbol is often represented as a stylised ‘R’ in early chi-rho carvings.
So…to summarise…this isn’t a gravestone inscribed to Roger Banister, or Robbie Burns or even Rhythm and Blues, as purported by some local historians, but the inscription is unquestionably the ‘Alpha and Omega’ symbols, as used extensively in early chi-rhos, doing what you’d expect them to do, straddling the cross shaft itself. (It might still be a gravestone, of course, but one dating back to the third or fourth century rather than some comparatively recent mediaeval carving.)
Right…now that we’ve got that sorted out it might be worthwhile saying something of Constantine’s (and, indeed Christianity’s) connection to Mithraism.The photograph below shows a bass relief of Mithra having a set to with a bull.

We’ve already mentioned the ‘P’ in the chi-rho cross was the symbol for Mitheras, the sun god, but we haven’t mentioned yet that Mithraism originated in Persia about 400 BC. It soon spread as far as Britain, and, in the early centuries of Christianity, was actually the most widespread religion in the world.
Now, this is where some of our more…shall we say ‘fervent’…Christian readers might get a bit upset. You see, bearing in mind that Mithraism was established four centuries before the birth of Christ, there aren’t half a lot of similarities between the two. Mithraists, for example, believed in the trinity. Baptisms were common, using the sign of the cross on converts’ foreheads. Sunday was the day of worship. The chief festivals were what Christians would now call Christmas and Easter, and Mithra himself was apparently born in a cave, to a virgin, on December the 25th, and died, during ‘Easter’, on a cross. Mithra was also considered to be the saviour of the world, and that his death had occurred to save everybody else on the planet and secure them an eternal afterlife.
All of this, 400 years before Jesus was even born.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Let’s not forget that Constantine himself was a Mithraist, and was responsible for the Christian leaders of his day compiling the definitive version of the gospels. The word ‘plagiarism’ springs to mind, and that, sounding like a bit of an oxymoron, is: “The gospel truth, governor.”
Taking all of this into account, it’s easy to see how Pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs, as was the case with Keeills and early ‘Celtic Churches’, could be so easily combined.
But enough of that…it’s not our job to go around debunking other people’s beliefs. (Well…it could just be a massive coincidence, couldn’t it? Possibly a miracle, if you’re that way inclined.) Suffice it to say that the chi-rho cross at St. Helen’s marries the correct Pagan and Christian symbolism together that you’d expect from a church dedicated to Constantine’s mother. And, because of the style of the motifs, the cross itself was obviously carved at a very early period. (A similarly carved chi-rho cross, in Wales, actually bears a Latin inscription on it dedicated to somebody with a Romano/Celtic name…which, once again, confirms the age of these things.)
Considering the scarcity of such chi-rho carvings in Britain, it would probably be a good idea if the church authorities shifted the cross indoors out of the Wyre’s slightly inclement weather.
Or, at the very least, they ought to update their church guide before St. Helen’s real history is lost forever.


Ozfemme said...

I'm all for upsetting the christians. It's nigh time they were taken down a peg or two...

Brian Hughes said...


It's about time they stopped plagiarising older religions while condemning them at the same time. Not that the church burns the witches whose religion they stole in the first place any more, of course. The modern equivalent, I suppose, would be like plagiarising Harry Potter and then dragging J. K. Rowling through court for being evil and having her set alight.

Actually, I can see the appeal in that.

JahTeh said...

I knew it, Harry bashing again.

And we weren't witches, we were the wise ones, the knowers and healers.

I've said it before, man invented religion because he didn't have enough faith to believe in a higher power without instructions.

Even the word verification sounds like a spell. *croaks and hops away*

Brian Hughes said...


Call 'em witches, wise women, culdees or druids...they're all basically various evolutionary stages of what amounts to much the same thing. That was the good thing about druids and culdees...they had women priests. In fact, the progression ran: father, daughter, son, daughter, etc. each generation passing on its mystic incantations to the next.

There were, however, such things as Dark Witches, who only used their powers for evil. It's in the Malieus Malificarum (yes, believe it or not, the book actually does exist)otherwise known as the witch finder general's handbook. White witches, it appears, were okay...which goes against the Hammer House of Horror films a bit, I must admit. And then there were the Archer Wizards...obviously no relation of Jeffrey. But the less said about them the better.

JahTeh said...

Ah, yes, the Dark Witches. They're still around and I was directed to one of their internet sites. It said not to venture there unless you really meant to do dark deeds. I have enough trouble doing good ones.

Brian Hughes said...

Dark deeds, by their very nature, are much more fun...especially if they involve spooking Yvette Fielding.