Originally published March 2012
Since it is March was looking into writing something about Irish saints this month, but wanted to cover someone other than St Patrick. In the intertubes I ran across Saint Adomnán of Iona (627/8 – 704). In his time he became one of the most powerful clerics in Ireland and is probably best know for being the author of the “Vita Columbae” the main source of information about the life of Saint Columba. But he is also know as the creator the “Cáin Adomnáin” (Law of Adomnán) also known as the “Lex Innocentium” (Law of Innocents).
The exact text of the Law of Adomnán has not survived, but descriptions of it and how the saint accomplished the changes are in an 8th century story of Adomnán. The law offered sanctions against the killing of women, children, clerics, clerical students and peasants on clerical lands; against rape, against impugning the chastity of a noblewoman, and prohibited women from having to take part in warfare. It also seems to have offered them some protection from the seizing of property over unpaid debts. Many of these things were already crimes, either under the common Irish laws, or under the Cáin Phátraic (Law of Saint Patrick), but with lesser penalties. Adomnán’s initiative, however, appears to be one of the first systematic attempts to lessen the savagery of warfare among Christians.
Trials and tribulations he suffered to promulgate these changes are part of the reason he is treated as a saint. Adamnan and his mother, Ronnat, were traveling in the northeast of Ireland when they came across the aftermath of a battle. Many dead women were among the fallen, including a decapitated nursing mother. At his mother’s request, Adomnán replaces the head on the body and with his priest’s cross returns her to life. She turns out to be the daughter of the King of Briefne and the wife of the King of Tara, and she puts an injunction upon Adomnán not to eat or drink until he has “freed the women of the western world.” Ronnat then gives her son two magical objects, a chain to put around his neck and a piece of flint to hold in his cheek. (presumably to keep him from needing to eat or drink.)
In an effort to the gain help of God he stood in the water of Loch Swilly for eight months until he was nearly dead, but his request was apparently insufficient to move heaven to free the women of Ireland. When his mother blames him for his failure, he asks her to “change his torture.” So “she buried him in a stone chest… so that worms devoured the root of his tongue, so that the slime of his head broke forth through his ears.” After eight months his chest was buried elsewhere and “at the end of four years God’s angels came from heaven to converse with him. And Adomnán was lifted out of his stone chest.” The angel tells Adomnán that his prayer has been answered, but as soon as the law was proclaimed (in about AD 697) a group of local kings took arms against Adomnán. He went into battle with nothing but his saint’s bell and cursed the kings until they agree to guarantee a list of privileges for women. The story ends with what it claims is the “lex innocentium” itself from the speech of the angel to Adomnán.
An interesting point made in an article I found about Adomnán is that it may not be merely a tale of the sufferings of a Christian saint. It also seems to reflect classic aspects from shamanistic tales that survive in many cultures. The content of these almost always includes one or more of the follow themes: dismemberment of the shaman’s body, followed by his reassembly and resurrection; ascent to the sky and dialogue with the gods or spirits, and various revelations, both religious and shamanic. The shaman returns from his ordeal with vastly increased powers. These traditions also often include a female supernatural figure who assists the shaman (Adomnán’s Mother?).
Thus, the story of Adomnán’s law is not only interesting for it’s legal content, but may also be an interesting example of the history of a real Christian cleric blended with the pre-Christian shamanistic oral traditions of Ireland.