There is no better way to begin open a research article that claims to have ‘identified’ the origins of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster than with the words of the famous Scottish author Arthur Conan Doyle whose great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes said; “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
The new observations presented herein began to formulate after I wrote a news article for ‘Ancient Origins’ on 22nd April this year in which I reviewed the findings of a research paper published in the scientific journal “Earth Sciences History” . Palaeontologist Darren Naish of the University of Southampton and Researcher Charles Paxton of the University of St Andrews propose that “The legend of the Loch Ness Monster, and sightings of many other long-necked sea monsters, might all have been influenced by Georgian fossil hunters after the first dinosaurs were discovered.”
Having examined “More than 1500 genuine monster sightings (excluding hoaxes), going back to 1801” the two scientists point out that after British fossil hunter William Buckland first discovered dinosaur fossils in 1819 “Reports of sea serpents , which until then had tended towards the serpentine, began to describe the monster as more and more resembling a Mesozoic marine reptile like a plesiosaur or a mosasaur.”
While this research paper accounted for the increase in sightings of a long necked plesiosaur type creatures ‘after’ the discovery of dinosaur bones, suggesting people projected their imaginations onto inanimate objects floating in the loch, it failed to explain the nature of the “serpentine” form reported in the loch prior to 1819. This is what I set out to determine and my investigation began with the earliest recording of the great water beast of Loch Ness.
QUESTING THE WATER BEASTS ANCIENT ORIGINS
The earliest existent recording of a creature dwelling in Scotland’s Loch Ness appears in ‘Life of St. Columba’; a 7th century monastic text written by Adomnán of Iona, which you can read online “here” on the Fordam University website. A paragraph is curiously titled: Concerning a certain water beast driven away by the power of the blessed man's prayer, dated to August 22nd AD 565, in which the legendary Irish Saint Columba was traveling along Loch Ness towards Inverness where he aimed to win the Pictish King Bridei’s blessing to convert the Picts to Christianity. According to Adomnán, while one of the saints companions swam in the River Ness:
The water beast swam up to the surface, and with gaping mouth and with great roaring rushed towards the man swimming in the middle of the stream. While all that were there, barbarians and even the brothers, were struck down with extreme terror, the blessed man, who was watching, raised his holy hand and drew the saving sign of the cross in the empty air; and then, invoking the name of God, he commanded the savage beast, and said: You will go no further. Do not touch the man; turn back speedily. Then, hearing this command of the saint, the beast, as if pulled back with ropes, fled terrified in swift retreat.
- Life of St. Columba by Adomnán of Iona.
Columba famously sent the water beast back to the depths of Loch ness and firmly into the deepest levels of Scotland’s folkloric systems. Over the last 1450 years Adomnán’s water beast has emerged in modern culture as a water monster which today many folk associate with a surviving dinosaur. Might this transformation have resulted from our transition into a wholly material world where ideas, concepts and abstract thoughts are visualized with words, pictures, graphics and films? In contrast, in 6th and 7th century Scotland 99.9% of people were illiterate and folk traditions were passed through carefully structured stories and songs, by word of mouth, which rather than giving complicit facts like movies do, they offered thought impressions to listeners which created space for the individual imagination to color the outlines of any given given story.
Considering this difference in psychologies my search for the ‘origins’ of this enduring cryptozoological mystery did not begin with looking at dinosaur bones in a museum, but by reading the work of Jean-Michel Picard who recently retired from the University College Dublin after a commendable career in the fields of Cultural History and Historical Linguistics. In Dr. Picard’s 1982 paper ‘The Purpose Of Adomnán's Vita Columbae’ it is written that Adomnán’s book “Presents Columba comparably to a hero in Gaelic mythology” and that the stories were grouped “thematically rather than chronologically.”
Therefore, putting aside the modern idea that a surviving dinosaur inhabits Loch Ness, what might a “water beast” have represented thematically to a 7th century Celtic Christian author? Water beasts certainly featured heavily in their arts, crafts and holy illustrations, for example…
Turning the next key in this unfolding mystery requires refraining from reading Adomnán‘s text literally, for he and all other Celtic Christian authors used a sometimes obscure language of the imagination built around subliminal suggestion, motif and allegory. Among the classic archetypes of mythology found in stories around the world a popular literary device known to mythologists was - Chaoskampf - a German term for “struggle against chaos” which was commonly used in early Christian mythology depicting cultural heroes slaying “chaos monsters”. It was reassuring to find symbolic chaos monsters were most often depicted in mythology and arts as giant water beasts, serpents and dragons.
To better understand the cultural greater meaning of the chaos monster archetype we might turn to the work of American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell who in his 1949 book ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ illustrated the job of the dragon slayer in mythology:
The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form - all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.
Campbell’s description of the hidden function of the mythological dragon slayer perfectly reflects the AD 565 Loch Ness incident; “As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon”, describing Columba crossing Scotland to Inverness through the dangerous lands of the Picts. Looking closer at the dragon slayers of early Christian mythology saints George, Philip the Apostle and St. Michael the Archangel all slew serpents; symbolic their lower animalistic natures and each was archetypal of Jesus defeating the enemies of God: Satan, sin and death; just like Columba defeated a chaos monster by “drawing the saving sign of the cross in the empty [Godless] air.”
SAINT COLUMBA: CHAOS MONSTER SLAYER OF LOCH NESS
Returning to Adomnán’s AD 565 reference to a water beast, we can safely assume that in such a short piece of prose every single word fought for space on the page and that the author carefully referenced Columba defeating the beast with the “saving sign of the cross” and not with a prayer or angelic assistance like in other stories. This suggests Adomnán described Columba “thematically” and deliberately as an archetypal Christian serpent slayer, a postulation that solidifies when one considers another archetype of mythology most often associated with dragon slayer prey.
Since ancient times the Dweller on the Threshold archetype has been used by religious writers and esoteric philosophers to represent the anti-self, the synthetic self, the conglomerate of the self-created ego. These psychological beasts are confronted by spiritual aspirants at early stages of their progression into higher-planes or realms of universal understanding and this concept was defined by Dr. Carl Gustav Jung in his 1938 ‘Psychology and Religion: West and East’ as the Shadow Archetype. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, "And the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is". The Shadow is part connected with one’s more primitive animal instincts which according to Jung are “Superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.”
Diving deeper into literary applications of the Dweller on the Threshold archetype in religious, esoteric and occult texts is akin to illustrating the story of Columba and the water beast that was suggested by Adomnán in the space between his every line. Thus, when reading this next section, bear in mind the saint’s quest to not only reach enlightenment, but to hands-on evangelize the pagan Picts of a land known today Scotland.
English writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1842 book ‘Zanoni‘ described the Dweller on the Threshold as an “Elemental monster of mysterious form, appearing before the neophyte just as he is about to enter the mysterious land.” Max Heindel, the 19th century Danish American Christian occultist said the “Dweller on the Threshold must be confronted by every aspirant, usually at an early stage of his progress into the unseen worlds”. Furthermore, in the 1877 book ‘Isis Unveiled’ by Madame Blavatsky, one of the most controversial esoteric and occult figures of the 19th century, the “Dweller on the Threshold is a menacing figure that is described by a number of esoteric teachers.”
More recently, the third play of Austrian scientist and thinker Rudolf Steiner’s 1912 tetralogy of Mystery Dramas is called ‘The Guardian of the Threshold‘‘where the appearance of ‘the Guardian’ is associated with Lucifer and Ahriman. In pop-cultural, Van Morrison refers to himself as a “Dweller on the Threshold” in the song of that same name on the album ‘Beautiful Vision’ and the term also appeared on the hit-television show ‘Twin Peaks’ in the context of the Black and White Lodges which feature in the metaphysical backstory of the series.
Returning to early Christianity, when a sleeping dweller or serpent is awakened by the presence of Christian power the soul is challenged with slaying the ill-conceived beast, created through the uncontrolled application of free will or thought. Thus, was Adomnán’s AD 565 water beast a creative literary device bringing together the Serpent Slayer and Dweller on the Threshold archetypes to represent Columba first overcoming his innermost fears, or shadows, then defeating the perceived dark forces of the Highland Picts; those serpent worshiping pagans led by their mystical over lords, the druids, who like serpents dwelled in holes in earth across Loch Ness?
Supporting this notion, in purely temporal terms, the loch itself can be interpreted as a psycho-geographical threshold marking an ancient line of spiritual resistance towards Columba’s attempts at converting the Picts to Christianity.
Suspecting that the Loch Ness water beast might have originated as an ancient application of the Dweller on the Threshold archetype of mythology it was time to test my theory before going public for I was being haunted by my very own Shadow; what if I was projecting my ego into my research and subsequently finding only evidence that supported by predetermined headline? I quickly killed that serpent for in this instance evidence of my proposed mythological schemata bringing together two archetypes of mythology, the ‘Dweller and the Slayer’, is to be found within the system itself; evident in Adomnan’s closing lines in his paragraph about the AD 565 event at Loch Ness:
Then seeing that the beast had withdrawn… the brothers with great amazement glorified God in the blessed man. And also the pagan barbarians who were there at the time, impelled by the magnitude of this miracle that they themselves had seen, magnified the God of the Christians.
The reference to “pagan barbarians magnifying the God of the Christians” is a clear reference to Columba overcoming the conceptual pagan Pictish beast of chaos with Godly power just like all those Christian serpent slayers, evangelizers, that held aloft the sword of God before him. And the Loch Ness monster, it appears, was Adomnan’s stylization of the Canaanite Lotan defeated by the god Hadad and its later conception as Leviathan in the Biblical Book of Job that was allegorical for the enemies of Babylon, just like the Loch Ness water beast archetype corresponds with the Picts of loch Ness being enemies of Columba’s Godly utopia.
But on another level, Columba’s slaying of a beast is allegorical for his own personal development and enlightenment which eventually led to his Canonization and in a non-cynical but factual way I should probably mention that slaying unChristian serpents never in any way, ever, hurt a claimant petitioning for sainthood! (note appropriate use of exclamation mark.)
THE IRISH SERPENT SLAYERS TAKING OF PICTLAND
Having slain the Dweller on the Threshold on Loch Ness in Scotland, Columba was now in line with his Irish Christian forefather, Saint Patrick, who had recently ridded that pagan territory of all its serpents. Enlightened with the Godly power bestowed upon all serpent slayers Columba arrived at the Pictish king Bridei’s hillfort at Inverness where he was refused entry. But summoning even more Godly magic the saint “burst open” the doors of the king’s hall and after a series of magical battles with the king’s druid he was finally granted permission to evangelize the Picts of Loch Ness.
In psychological terms, Columba had overcome his personal terrors which must have occurred upon leaving the familiarities of Christianized Ireland as a “Pilgrim of Christ” and venturing into wild and unknown lands across the seas. Having undertaken another archetype of mythology, which Joseph Campbell defined as “The Heroes Journey”, the voyager awakened his higher consciousness, but we must always bear in mind that these romantic notions often soften hard history. By this I mean, in real life, Columba took his life in his hands even approaching King Bride and he must have displayed outstanding negotiating skills promising some serious political and spiritual rewards. He successfully aligned forces with the king Bridei at Inverness, and while he never converted the king himself, the timeworn pagan paradigm worldview began to collapse and the rule of the Druids was cast to the depths of the deepest recess in the land - Loch Ness. Essentially, Columba slew the greatest two serpents of them all - King Bridei and his chief Druid Broichan - representative of the land and the religion of the Pictish people.
Thus, having slain the three conceptual chaos monsters of Loch Ness; the Pictish armies, their Druid priests and finally King Bridei at Inverness, Columba, the Christian champion went on to convert the greater part of the Picts in what is today Scotland, to a new way of thinking called Christianity, which systematically converted the Gods of the old religion into the devils of the new.
Cosmologically, paganism corresponds with the serpent for it was seen emerging from holes in the Earth, the very opposite from a soul descending from Heaven as is portrayed in Christian theology. Adomnán’s careful use of the Dweller on the Threshold and Serpent Slayer archetypes, at this precise stage of Columba’s life story, serves as hard documentary evidence of the early mechanics of Christianization which slowly overhauled the mythologies and religious beliefs of the Pictish people. The success of the new ‘one God’ system, with its new taxes, first required ‘purifying’ existent religious beliefs and this was achieved and maintained with a persistent and constant dilution of Pictish traditions and ancestral heritage.
It is within Adomnán’s attempts to demonize Pictish traditions that the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster was set in stone and maybe this is why after 1454 years only a hand full of blurry photographs and videos exist, yet the beast continues to stir at the very deepest aspects of my Scottish mind. I was undoubtedly programmed to ‘see’ Nessie as a child surrounded by adults who all held a space for its organic existence, and ever since, the thought of a deep-dwelling ancient dinosaur has demanded significant mental space. Now, it appears, that is actually where the beast of Loch Ness has been hiding all this time; in the archetypes of the human imaginarium, which are so powerful that some of us swear that we ‘might have seen something’, while others ‘know that they saw something.’
Adomnán? Well, only he can say “I made them all see something.”
SCOTTISH HISTORIAN, WRITER AND FILMMAKER EXPLORING THE ARCHETYPES OF WORLD MYTHOLOGY, LEGENDS, FOLKLORE AND FAIRY TALES.
Dweller on the Threshold Literary References
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1842 book Zanoni described “The Dweller on the Threshold” as an “Elemental monster of mysterious form, appearing before the neophyte just as he is about to enter the mysterious land.”
Max Heindel, the 19th century Danish American Christian occultist said the “Dweller on the Threshold must be confronted by every aspirant, usually at an early stage of his progress into the unseen worlds.”
The third play of Rudolf Steiner’s 1912, tetralogy of Mystery Dramas is called “The Guardian of the Threshold” where the appearance of the Guardian is associated with Lucifer and Ahriman.
Van Morrison refers to himself as a "Dweller on the Threshold" in the song of that name on the album Beautiful Vision.
The term "Dweller on the Threshold" appeared on the hit-television show ‘Twin Peaks’ in the context of the Black and White Lodges which play a central role in the metaphysical backstory of the series.
According to Eusebio Urban in 1888 the “Guardian of the Threshold” is a spectral figure and is the abstract of the debit and credit book of the individual. "It is the combined evil influence that is the result of the wicked thoughts and acts of the age in which any one may live, and it assumes to each student a definite shape at each appearance, being always either of one sort or changing each time.”
In Madame Blavatsky’s 1877 Isis Unveiled she calls the “Dweller on the Threshold” “A menacing figure that is described by a number of esoteric teachers.”
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