Feature Articles – Mont St Michel: Gateway to the Otherworld
Seen as one of the wonders of the world, Mont St Michel has a history that stretches back much further than the apparition of the archangel Michael to a local bishop. Legends and archaeology show that this tidal island has been seen as a gateway to another dimension, the land of the dead, for thousands of years.
by Philip Coppens
Mont St Michel is a marvel, just off the Normandy coast of France. A small tidal island rises out of the bay, crowned by a glorious abbey, itself surmounted by a majestic spire crowned with the golden statue of the Archangel Michael. The standard history of Mont St Michel starts in 708 AD, when Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, was visited by the Archangel Michael. The leader of the Army of Angels told him that the bishop should build a sanctuary on the island of Mont-Tombe, in honour of the archangel. Aubert, it seems, was not impressed. The archangel returned twice, even had to drill a hole in the bishop’s cranium with his pointed finger before the good man understood the urgency of Michael’s request. Aubert left to what is now Mont St Michel, to do as he had been instructed by divine command. When he arrived, he knew that the precise location where he was to build his sanctuary would be indicated by the presence of a bull that had been stolen and was hidden on the island. He found the animal at the top of the mount and there he built his church, eighty metres above sea-level.
It was not the last intervention of the archangel, for when Aubert was praying for a source of fresh water on the island, it is said that Michael appeared to him again and showed him a spring on the north side of the mount, which should not only be used for drinking, but also to heal the ill. The fount, still visible but now run dry, supplied the island with fresh water until the cisterns of the abbey were built some centuries later.
Below the extraordinary abbey that more than half a million tourists visit each year, resides an old church. However, Notre-Dame-sous-Terre (Our Lady Below Ground) can only be visited on guided walks and is a Pre-Romanesque church from the 10th century. During archaeological work carried out by Y.M. Froidevaux here, he found a wall of large irregular blocks of dressed stone. Froidevaux realised that this wall is most likely the only remains of the original sanctuary built by Bishop Aubert.
In 708, there was only one other sanctuary dedicated to Michael in Western Europe. Though his worship can be traced back in the East to the 4th century, in the West, his first sanctuary was at Monte Gargano, in Southern Italy, dating back to 492, following an apparition of the archangel. The chapel built by Aubert was actually a replica of the shrine at Monte Gargano, which is a cavern sanctuary. As no cave could be found on Mont-Tombe (the rock is made of hard granite in which caves do not form), Aubert erected a grotto from the available stones he could father. He also despatched two clerics to Italy to search for relics. They returned with a scrap of red cloth said to have been left by the archangel on the altar of Monte Gargano, and a fragment of a marble stone on which St Michael was said to have stood. The bond between Monte Gargano and Mont St Michel has remained ever since, for on May 8, or the nearest Sunday, when the archangel’s appearance is celebrated in Italy, numerous pilgrims also come to Mont St Michel.
From 708 onwards, the fame of Mont St Michel began to rise, aided by the natural beauty in which the sanctuary sits. The abbey itself is a unique building, as it is constrained by the pyramidal shape of the mount, which meant that the entire structure wraps itself around the hard granite rock. The church stands on crypts that create a platform that was specifically designed to take the weight of a church that is an imposing eighty metres long. In 1022, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, offered funds for the construction of the present church, but the main problem faced by the architects in the new construction was technical, as nowhere on the cone of the granite of the mount was there a level surface large enough for the construction of a building this size. The whole north side of the complex collapsed barely twenty years after being finished and had to be rebuilt at the beginning of the 12th century. Eventually, however, the architects got it right and what rises today from the top of the mount is truly a wonder. In the 10th century, the Benedictines settled in the abbey, while the village grew up below the walls of the abbey; by the 14th century, the buildings had reached the foot of the rock. Pilgrims came by the thousands; they regarded the island as a representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth, an image of Paradise. In medieval times, apart from fighting and defeating the dragon, St Michael was also the one who led away the dead and put their souls in the balance on the day of the Last Judgment. It is why he is often depicted with a sword and scales.
The first known pilgrim to the Mont was a Frankish monk named Bernard who, on his way back from a journey to Rome and Monte Gargano, arrived around 867-8. From the 11th century onwards, the pilgrimages grew in fame as there were numerous stories of miraculous happenings. A number of French kings made pilgrimages, beginning with Saint Louis, in 1256 and 1264, as well as Philip III the Bold, Philip IV the Fair and others, including King Francis I, who made two, in 1518 and 1532. The last French king to come to the mount was Charles IX in 1562.
Of special interest amongst the pilgrims were the “pastoureaux”, shepherds, who began to trek to the rock. Whether nobles or peasants, they all converged on the mount along roads which came to be known as “paths to paradise”. The final crossing of the bay was, however, sometimes not without danger. Apart from the rare but nevertheless often lethal quicksand, many were also surprised by the speed of the tides.
In fact, the tides at Mont St Michel are Europe’s highest tides – in the world, only the Bay of Fundy in Canada has higher ones – and can reach fifteen metres during the spring tides, when the forces of the sun, moon and earth are most powerfully interacting with each other. The actual rate of the tide here is 62 metres per minute. At the spring tide, the low tide is actually 18 kilometres from Mont St Michel.
Intriguingly, it is unclear when Mont St Michel became an island. Some argue that the event coincided with the visit of Aubert, while others put it earlier, or later. Many point towards March of 709 AD, when an earthquake is believed to have changed the outline of the coast of Normandy dramatically. The coastline may have moved by about thirty kilometres inland, submerging several villages. But when precisely the mount became an island, there is simply no way of knowing at present. What is known, is that as early as the 11th century, there were attempts to transform the fertile muddy sand of the bay into arable land. Today, environmental groups petition the French government to remove the causeway, so that at high tide, the mount becomes a true island, but it is unlikely that their calls will be answered. The standard history of the mount therefore begins in 708, but it is known that a few Christian hermits settled on the rock in the 6th century and built two sanctuaries, one dedicated to the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, the other to Saint Symphorien, a young martyr from Autun.
Today, the village church is dedicated to St Peter and sits on the main street leading up towards the abbey. The church was erected in the 15th and 16th century, but is known to have replaced an older sanctuary, which some believe may predate the introduction of the cult of St Michael on the island. Is this the site of one of the two chapels, dedicated either to Stephen or Symphorien?
What brought these early Christians to the rock? Was it peace and tranquillity, or was it because another cult had be supplanted? For today, there is evidence of the cult of Black Madonnas still present inside the abbey, suggesting that the roots of worship of “the rock” are for more interesting than standard history depicts.
A first indication to the answer to the mystery of Mont St Michel can be found nearby. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the inhabitants of Pleine-Fougères, a village ten miles from Mont-St-Michel, had the custom that when one of the villagers died, their coffin was taken to a local hill overlooking the bay. There, the coffin was turned, for a few moments only, to the direction of the mount, before burying the deceased. For the villagers, Mont St Michel was said be linked with the passage of the soul to the otherworld.
That connection is clearly also apparent in Christian iconography, where it is the Archangel Michael who took the dead to the Afterworld and weighed their soul. But nowhere in the Christian tradition is Michael linked with conical mounds or islands, even though – almost wherever we turn in Europe – we find his sanctuaries located on these conical mounds, or see his cult on such islands.
The answer to that question can be found in the old Celtic traditions, which preceded Christianity in these regions. And when it comes to Mont St Michel, that tradition said that around November 1, the dead gathered around the rock, transforming the island into the Island of the Dead. And thus, the notion that this island provided a gateway to the otherworld is not native to Christianity, but was clearly already in place in Celtic times.
This could also explain the name of the island. Originally, Mont St Michel was called Mont-Tombe, from the latin “tumba”, meaning both “mound” and “tomb”. One can argue whether a strong Celtic tradition was still practiced in the 8th century and whether this was one of the primary reasons why Michael and/or Aubert felt that the rock had to come under Christian control.
This pre-Christian period comes with its own body of folklore, focusing on the giant Gargantua – a name similar to Monte Gargano, where Michael’s first sanctuary was built. It is said that it was the giant Gargantua who created the three hills of Mont St Michel, Tombelaine and Mont-Dol when he dropped his shoe. It is also said that he sometimes sat on top of the cathedral of Avranches, with one foot on Tombelaine, the other on Mont St Michel. Mont-Dol and Tombelaine are two granite outcrops, the former sitting along the coastline, while the latter is an island that can be seen north of Mont St Michel.
Tombelaine has a much broader base than Mont St Michel, but rises only forty metres above sea level. Tombelaine served as a retreat for the monks of Mont St Michel, whenever they were in need or desire of tranquillity. In the 11th century, Robert de Tombelaine and Anastase le Vénitien spent several years meditating on the island. A century later, Abbot Bernard du Bec had a priory erected on it. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and became the focus of a small pilgrimage. Little else happened until the 17th century, when the enigmatic Minister of Finance for Louis XIV, Nicholas Fouquet, acquired it.
In Roman times, Mont-Dol was consecrated to the Roman deity Taranis, the Gaul equivalent of the Roman Jupiter. Maybe not coincidentally, he was often depicted striking down a monster that was part giant, part serpent. The monster was named Baligan and forever after tradition had it that the devil was often seated on Mont-Dol.
Mont-Dol could therefore be seen as the rock linked with hell, darkness, while Mont St Michel was clearly linked with heaven, an association strengthened when we known that it was once sacred to Belenus, the god of light.
But the history of Mont St Michel goes even further back in time, to the megalithic civilisation which has left such powerful remains just south of the Mont, in Brittany. It is said that at the very top of the mound, there was a dolmen whose remains were visible until the 8th century. Other accounts suggest it were “only” two standing stones and a sacred enclosure, maybe like the earthen ditch that surrounds some stone circles. Tombelaine This suggests that Aubert was maybe inspired by the presence of a pagan temple to implant the cult of Michael. It also means that the Christian hermits who had inhabited the island from the 6th century onwards, seem to have left the pagan temple intact, and maybe even allowed the pagan worship to be practiced there, in peace. It might explain why they were eventually evicted from the island and replaced by the far stricter Benedictines.
The presence of the bull when Aubert came to the island, however, may hold further clues. Monte Gargano is known to have once held a temple dedicated to the god Mithras. It was in the cave of this temple that a bull was normally sacrificed, but one bull was said to have been saved from death, an event linked with apparition of the archangel Michael in this very cave. Excavations and a report made by Maxime Brou dating from 1611 argue for the presence of bones in the sacred enclosure on top of Mont St Michel. He draws the conclusion that the cult of Mithras was actively practiced there. And one can therefore wonder whether the bull that was stolen and found by Aubert in 708 was not brought to the rock, because he was going to be ritually slaughtered in a Mithraic ceremony… Aubert trying to stop this pagan worship.
The sacred enclosure is also mentioned in a text from 750 AD, which speaks of a huge stone and a “tomb” – in fact, in folklore, dolmen were often seen as the tombs of giants, and some dolmen to this day carry the name of “Giant’s Grave”. This might explain the stories of Gargantua. The text from 750 AD, however, focuses on a huge stone, named “Liafail”, which was said to cry out at night for water and which was hence the subject of a number of pagan rituals. The document relates that in 480, St Pair (Paternus) and St Scubilion had the task to destroy the “stations” that led their way up the mount and ended in the “chamber” of the giant. It is said that the hermits were too weak and exhausted to complete their task and it might explain why Aubert himself had a go at the local pagan cult again in 708 AD – this time successfully. Equally, as we know that the pagan cult involved a sacred fount – from which water was drawn to execute the rituals – one has to wonder whether the fount that St Aubert “found” was that very one. Indeed, the document says that Aubert found the sacred stone – the Liafail – and hid some of it in a secret location, so as to stop its worship.
Finally, the text states that the two hermits did settle on the mount, which would mean that a Christian presence on the island not only dates back to the 6th century, but even the 5th century. There is evidence to suggest that Mont St Michel in megalithic times was part of a larger whole. Standing stones like that at Ille-et-Vilaine are placed on elevated positions. Even though they are 25 km away, there is a direct line of sight to Mont St Michel. There is also folklore around the mount and other megalithic remains. At Pleslin, a megalithic alignment is said to have been that of fairies that transported stones to the mount, but left the stones at Pleslin once they were told the hill’s construction was completed. All of this suggests that the reputation of Mont St Michel as an island of the dead already existed in megalithic times and that it has always been perceived as a gateway to the otherworld. Indeed, it is after all an island that sets west of the mainland and such islands were almost always associated with the dead.
But what about the presence of a number of Black Madonnas on the mount – up to the time of the French Revolution? Where they came from, is unknown. But they are definitely linked with Nicholas Fouquet. The Superintendant of Finance of the Sun King Louis XIV had acquired Tombelaine and made infrequent visits. Fouquet was turning the island into a stronghold, in evidence by a series of excavations, traces of which could still be seen in 1825. But the work carried out on the island specifically involved drilling two deep holes, going below the water level. One might assume that Fouquet was drilling for potable water, but maybe there was more?
During one visit to the island, a storm rose up out of nowhere, surprising Fouquet and confining him to the island until the storm laid due, as no ship could be sent to take him and his friends back to Mont St Michel, where Fouquet alsohad a house. However, the following morning, with the storm still raging, Fouquet and some of his friends emerged from their home on the mount. How had that happened? Could it be that there was, somehow, an underground tunnel that connected both islands?
Then, in 1661, Fouquet ordered that the shafts of Tombelaine filled and to completely refurbish the crypts in and near Notre-Dame-sous-Terre. It was Fouquet who transferred the Black Madonna from this sanctuary to another crypt. In fact, he went as far as to completely fill in this primitive sanctuary, a situation that lasted until 1962, when Froidevaux began his archaeological research here.
And so it is clear that pilgrims and the dead have been coming to Mont St Michel for millennia before Aubert decided to convert it into a sanctuary dedicated to Michael. But in so doing, he left most of the original pagan cult intact, and merely wrapped the island with a Christian lining. That lining of rocks, however, is one of the most marvellous sights any human can behold and is indeed what heaven on earth should look like.