Nick Mayhew-Smith delved deep into the use of nudity for ancient ritual for his latest book, The Naked Hermit, which is featured on BBC One this spring
Laying bare my soul on the summit of a sacred mountain one glorious summer evening has to rank among the most memorable and moving of all my many naked adventures in the great outdoors. I sat in a state of primal innocence on the warm boulders of an Iron Age hillfort and watched the sun slowly sank into the haze of the Irish Sea. It felt like I was at one with nature like never before, the afterglow of the sunset warming my bare body as the landscape around me drifted towards a moonlit sleep.
I had climbed this sacred mountain in Pembrokeshire naked that afternoon, carrying only the barest of necessities to make it through the night. Clothes, needless to say for me as a lifelong naturist, were not on my list of essentials. Even sandals had been buried deep in my rucksack as I felt moved to embrace this blessed wilderness without anything getting in the way.
The mountain is called Carningli, the ‘Rock of Angels’ in Welsh, and has been considered sacred for centuries, ever since the 6th century Saint Brynach ascended it and spent the night conversing with the angels he encountered on the summit. Spending the night up there to commune with whatever heavenly beings might be found today is not exactly an ongoing tradition, with or without clothes. But I found it the most uplifting and spiritual of encounters, and it was based on genuine ancient ritual.
Many naturists describe the feeling of being naked outdoors, in nature, as some sort of spiritual experience. Surprising as it may sound, this sort of devotional outdoor nudity is actually a forgotten practice in mainstream religion, including the early Christian/Pagan crossover period in Celtic Britain.
In terms of sacred mountains, if you know your Old Testament you might remember that God himself instructed Moses on Mount Sinai to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. As a naturist I find that a deeply intriguing, a divine preference for bare skin over artificial footwear. Scrolling forwards into the early Christian era, history records that an early hermit once lived entirely naked for 50 years on the flanks of that same holy mountain. For a brief period he was celebrated by the early church, held up as a holy man for his single-minded dedication to a life devoid of any distractions.
His life story was recorded in the early 5th century by a writer named Sulpicius Severus. This unnamed pioneering nudist granted just one interview during his life, and was asked why he spent so much time alone. He replied that it was impossible to meet angels unless you removed yourself from human company – rejecting not just other people but all the other trappings of civilisation and community too, clothes included.
These days it would be difficult to imagine anyone being celebrated as holy for devoting their life to naked solitude, particularly not on Mount Sinai given that it now sits in southern Egypt. But in earlier times there was an honoured place for devotional nudity within the church, albeit in very specific circumstances, and mostly in absolute solitude.
If naturists ever want to find historical, moral and spiritual precedent for going naked outdoors, in other words, there is a story I am working hard to tell. It certainly demonstrates that what we do is part of a continuum of practice and belief dating back to the dawn of recorded history. Some of it may have been forgotten or deliberately edited out, but it is entirely authentic and the written records are very clear.
And so it was in memory of this naked hermit of desert tradition that I ascended Britain’s rather smaller and greener version of Mount Sinai to see what would happen. This was one of many deep encounters I had during a recent major research project into wilderness spirituality, a project which involved a PhD, a book and most recently a BBC One television sequence, due to be broadcast some time around Easter 2020. This topic has become something of a passion of mine.
In Britain, it must be said, there is no record of any hermit living naked for an extended period of time outdoors, on a mountain or anywhere else. But there is one other early ritual that involved nudity, a practice that might be called ‘sacred bathing’. In this a holy man or woman would go down to the river or the sea, undress completely, and enter the water in order to say their prayers or sing their psalms. It is certainly a tradition that resonates with a lot of naturists I know, as well as people interested in Celtic Christian or Pagan spirituality.
In all there are around 50 examples from antiquity of devout Christians performing such a bathing ritual, of which 39 took place in Britain and Ireland. Nude bathing has a long and noble history even in our chilly waters. Nearly but not all of the bathers were either described or assumed to be naked, and indeed there is an early medieval illustration of one of Britain’s most important early bishops, St Cuthbert, bathing in the sea at Coldingham. There would no doubt be a lot of manufactured outrage today if anyone tried to depict a saint’s bare bottom in a devotional work of art, but there he is in an ancient historical document demonstrating a rather happier attitude towards the fullness of humanity.
And it was in St Cuthbert’s footsteps I followed on my journey, bathing at his bay in Coldingham and also in Derwentwater in the Lake District, where we made our BBC One film. The saint’s best friend St Herbert used to imitate St Cuthbert’s holy life in every detail, and lived in a hut on an island, no doubt stripping to enter this lake in humble simplicity to give thanks for the beauty of creation. The BBC presenter who accompanied me on our modern-day visit did agree to enter the waters with me, although his bosses instructed him to wear a bathing costume. From the depths of a Cumbrian lake to the summit of a Welsh mountain, our land is rich in tales of people connecting to nature in ways that can inspire us today.
I’ve no idea what others will make of this project to revive and recreate some of these older practices, but if it strikes a chord with naturists today there are dozens of examples I have recorded in my book. Taking yourself deep into the wilderness, away from the noise and distraction of everyday life, has proved just as intense, memorable and uplifting today as the hermits and pilgrims found of old.
I have yet to see a more heavenly sight than the one greeting me on the summit of Carningli, as I arrived hot, panting and with feet bleeding from the brambles and rocks of my path. Coming over the summit the land lay glowing in a haze of purples, greens and blues before me as I heaved my rucksack on to the ground. All at once a flock of butterflies rose from the ancient rocks and flitted about me, wings ablaze with the colours of a midsummer sunset, a simple beauty that still moves me to this day. I had found St Brynach’s angels.
• Nick’s latest book The Naked Hermit: A Journey to the Heart of Celtic Britain is published by SPCK Publishing, May 2019.