One of the striking features of rural France is the number of crosses (i.e. without a depiction of Christ) and crucifixes (a cross with a depiction of Christ) that can be found at many crossroads and at entries to villages and towns. One such cross was recently replaced on the outskirts of the Le Chatelier hamlet in the South Touraine (see left and below).
It is easy, perhaps, to think of these crosses purely in terms of their being physical statements of Christian belief errected and maintained by local communities, but, with a little reflection, a rather different story emerges.
The cross symbol lies deep in the human psyche. It features in numerous belief systems of pre-Christian Mediterranean civilisations. From at least the Bronze Age (c1300–700 BC), and especially amongst the Gauls, the symbol of a cross was used as part of their worship of the sun and was reproduced on many of their artefacts. The cross was used by Celts (who are associated with the Bronze Age) as a protection against witchcraft, ghosts and vampires as well as providing protection to cattle against evil spirits.
The wooden cross is also associated with ancient tree worship in Europe including the religious practice of cutting crosses on the stumps of felled trees so that the spirit of the tree continues to live. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a long belief in The Tree of Life and this has often been associated with and depicted by the Cross.
The cross symbol was frequently used to depict the intersection between this world and the next.
Today, it is widely understood that Christ was probably not crucified upon a cross of two cross-pieces of wood but was executed upon a wooden stake. So the theory is that the ‘cross symbol’ was assimilated into Christianity from existing pagan belief systems but had, in fact, played no part in the early church.
When Christianity became established in France and across Europe it embraced many pagan symbols as well as the attributes of different pagan gods. Early Christian churches were frequently built upon ancient pagan religious sites ~ this could have also involved the replacement of pagan crosses with those of a more Christian bent. Thus the cross symbol became associated with Christianity and Christ became represented as being crucified upon a cross consisting of two intersecting pieces of wood.
Finally, crosses at crossroads were traditionally used in France as way-markers and/or as sacred places for use by travellers and locals alike and these crosses were Christianised (e.g. through ceremonial blessings) by the early Catholic Church.
Which all brings me back to the large cross which was recently replaced on the outskirts of Le Chatelier. For such a small hamlet the wooden cross at Le Chatelier is of huge proportions. The planning, energy and expense expended in its erection shows just how deep is the power and the tradition of the cross symbol. The fact that it is on the boundary of the hamlet suggests, to me at least, that it is there to ward off evil spirits ~ the evil eye ~ and to ensure the success and fertility of the community of humans, beasts and crops alike.