Saturday, February 24, 2018

Saintly Saturday: St. Cumine the White

Today is the Feast of St. Cumine the White, abbot of Iona. Not much is known of this monastic saint. He was the seventh abbot of Iona, the monastic community on one of the Hebrides — a series of islands off the west coast of Scotland. He was nephew to Segenius who was the fifth abbot of Iona.

During his tenure, he visited Ireland about A.D. 661, the Synod of Whitby took place, which declared that Northumbria would follow the practices of Rome when it came to tonsuring and the calculation of when to celebrate Easter, and the Book of Durrow was completed.

The Book of Durrow is the oldest extant insular illuminated gospel, over a century older than the Book of Kells. While there is much academic debate over where this text was created, one of the contenders is the Iona of St. Cumine.

He also wrote the Life of St. Colum Cille.

He died in A.D. 665 after being abbot for 8 years.

The opening verses of
the Gospel of St. Mark
from the Book of Durrow

Despite the fact the St. Cumine’s hagiography is so thin on details, I find it so inspiring that I am actually going to have to limit myself. I could wax poetic on how the moniker “the White” sounds very Tolkien or how awesome something similar to the Synod of Whitby would be as background noise for a campaign.

Rather, I want to focus on the Book of Durrow and the power of language. In Scripture, words have immense creative power. God creates by speaking: “Let there be light.” God also asked Adam to be a co-creator with him by allowing Adam to name all the animals. When Moses asked for God’s name at the burning bush, it was an audacious act, so God gave him a name that cannot be contained by language: I AM — a sentence that is both complete and yet incomplete (I am….righteous, merciful, love, etc.). Several people throughout the Old and New Testament are renamed by God:

  • Abram becomes Abraham
  • Jacob becomes Israel
  • Saul becomes Paul
  • Simon becomes Peter

In addition, different languages bring different aspects to revelation. For example, in Genesis 3:15 God tells the serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.
This particular translation reflects the Greek version of this verse, because it differs from both the Hebrew and the Latin. The “he” and “his” in the second half of the verse appear as “it” and "its” in Hebrew and “her” and “her” in Latin. All three are correct:

  • The Hebrew reflects the eternal enmity between humanity and the devil.
  • The Latin is a prophecy of the Virgin Mary.
  • The Greek is a prophecy of Christ.

This all inspires me to re-skin the Vancian magic of D&D with two additional ideas in mind:

The retro-clone Delving Deeper has clerics memorize spells the same way magic-users do and I have always wanted the spell Read Magic to be something far more important than merely a spell every magic-user has because it uselessly is a prerequisite for writing spells into a spell book.

In this re-skinning, the difference between “divine” magic and “arcane” magic is not the source of the magic, but rather the language. In the same way that the Hebrew, Latin and Greek bring out different aspects of Genesis 3:15, the language used to do magic brings out a different “type” of magic. Arcane magic uses a complex language that is both difficult to learn and results in powerful magics. Its practitioners spend so much time learning the language that they don’t have the time to train with armor or most weapons. Divine magic uses a far more intuitive language that, while easier to master, does not produce the powerful magics the arcane language can. As a consequence divine magic practitioners do have the time to train with armor and (some) weapons. One could even extend this out to other various spell-casters like druids and illusionists.

Since the mechanism of all magic is the same — language written in spell books — this gives us the opportunity to give Read Magic a really interesting twist. Rather than simply being a spell that every magic-user has and is the mechanism for writing spells down in a spell book, it is a spell that can allow a practitioner of one type of magic to memorize a spell from another language — another spell list.

Due to the fact that this spell is being memorized via a spell rather than by actually knowing the language, the spell takes a spell slot one level higher than normal. For example, if a magic-user wanted to memorize Cure Light Wounds it would count as a 2nd level spell.

This, in part, explains why certain spells that appear on more than one list are different levels depending on the caster. For example, Hold Person is a 2nd level cleric spell but a 3rd level magic-user spell. In other words, this spell was originally in the language of divine magic, but was well known enough by arcane users to be translated into the arcane language — as a 3rd level spell.

Thus, Read Magic becomes a really important spell that every one will want rather than the spell that simply takes up space and no one bothers to ever memorize.

This re-skinning also offers all kinds of interesting possibilities in terms of how magic interacts with a campaign world. Rather than having different schools of arcane magic-users, the different schools teach different languages and therefore result in different classes. Each type of magic might bring with it a different culture. One could go so far as to have entire nation-states based upon a different type of language and thus a different type of magic.

Thus, a wizard with the name and moniker Cumine the White might be a magic-user, a cleric, a druid or an illusionist depending on the language he uses to study magic.


Nova Scotia Dream said...

I was just thinking of our very old priest, who for decades was an excorcist at a mental institution; he told us the power of the various old languages had special power over demons.
I wish I had asked so much more, he is gone now, but was reticent to speak of such things anyways.
Very cool.

Scott Anderson said...

Frank Mentzer said that in his cosmogony, magic comes from the energy within the metaphysical boundaries between dimensions. Clerical magic comes from the vertices, and arcane magic comes from the faces.

I wonder if that's not similar to your idea about languages.

On a theological note, can you tell me if there were any Christian parts of England or the British Isles which were not following Rome during the 11th century?

Black Vulmea said...

I can't begin to tell you how much I look forward to these posts.

FrDave said...

That's a more complex question than you probably realize because "Rome" meant something different in the 7th century than it did in the 11th. Orthodox Christians in England remember King Harold (the guy who lost at the Battle of Hastings) as the last Orthodox monarch of England. The form of "Roman" Christianity that the Normans imported was heavily influenced by Carolingian theology, which had deviated significantly from the Rome of the 7th century. Following the Norman Conquest, clergy in Wales tried to argue that the proper seat of the Archbishop should be in Wales (through the line of St. David of Wales) and not in Canterbury. So, from the perspective of there being areas that were resisting Norman influence on the Church, Wales was certainly chomping at the bit.

Scott Anderson said...

Father Dave, this dainty morsel is more filling than you can possibly know. Thank you! How excellent!