Mythologist Dr Martin Shaw came back to faith after a night vigil and a supernatural experience of Christ


My father is a preacher and my brother is a pastor, so, Christian faith has been in the oxygen. But my dad would often tell me fairy tales or talk about folklore and, without the pressure to believe, my imagination felt more liberated. By the time I got to 17, in the high drama of the charismatic movement in the early 80s, I thought: I need a major hiatus from this. I didn’t realise that would last till I was almost 50. 

I was used to great stories from the Bible, but my mum and dad never regarded myth as the enemy. They were in the camp of Tolkien or Lewis and, within reason, all sorts of worlds were open. 

When I hit my 20s, I had long disconnected from any notion of formal religion. While going through a painful divorce and the beginnings of depression, I remembered the myths I loved as a child. I went back and did my apprenticeship to those stories, but in a much more scholarly manner. I did a PhD  in Myth and ended up leading courses at Stanford University in California. 

When I was about 23, I was a musician signed to Warner Brothers and I ended up going on something called a wilderness vigil. In Snowdonia, Wales, there is a mountain called Cader Idris. Folklore says that if you spend a night up there alone, you come down mad, dead or a poet; you decide. I went up for four days and nights without food. Rather unexpectedly, I did receive a sort of profound insight and message. I crawled back down the hill, gave up my career as a musician and lived in a tent for four years. What happened was so powerful, I needed time to absorb it. 

Catholic philosopher John Moriarty said that Christianity needs to rediscover its “bush soul”. It is undomesticated; there’s nothing reassuring about Jesus. That’s why I stayed away from him for so long. But I had a profound experience in nature, and the only language that did justice to what happened was myth and story. 

A reawakening

About five years ago, I visited a local forest for 101 days. It was early January. On the final night, I found myself saying: “If there’s anything at all for me to realise at this point, it would be a good moment.” I looked up. It was a very deep, dark sky, but I suddenly became aware of what looked like a star, growing rapidly. It was multicoloured and seemed to be heading in my direction. It expanded out and I realised it was going to land. 

For an egotistical middle-aged man, it has been astonishingly beautiful and difficult to go down this road

About ten feet to my right, utterly silently, this beautiful, painted arrow landed in the darkness. I remember thinking: This is like something out of the Old Testament. In the morning, as I was closing my eyes in bed, I suddenly saw in front of me nine words: “Inhabit the time and genesis of your original home.” 

Immediately after, lockdown happened, which gave me the best part of the year to contemplate what had happened. Somehow, I kept at bay the notion that it was Christ. I intellectualised it in all sorts of ways. But then I started to dream, in which very clear messages were conveyed. Incrementally, I realised that this was not some distant sky god speaking to me but the one who was actually nearer to me than my own breath.

Paying the price

Friends were appalled at my conversion, because they felt I had taken on the colonial religion that devastated our culture. That’s been agony for me. People have lost interest in what I write. But, when I read the Gospel of Mark, Yeshua doesn’t spend a lot of time checking out your insurance policies before he tells you to come with him. 

I feel like I’m in the middle of a spiritual audit that I have no control over. And he’s going into all sorts of rooms I don’t want him to look at. That requires proper, profound surrender. For a big, egotistical, middle-aged man, it has been astonishingly beautiful and difficult to go down this road. 

After I was baptised, I thought: I need to find a church, so I went to a local Anglican church and tried the Catholics and the Baptists – they were all very nice, but I didn’t need warm and fuzzy, I needed to grow and stretch. I ended up at a tiny Orthodox church. I was brought into a service where you stand for the best part of two hours. The priest didn’t ask how I was feeling or bring me a doughnut. But it felt, for the first time in my life, that I was having not a transactional experience of Christianity, but a transformational one.  

Martin Shaw was speaking to Justin Brierley. Watch their conversation in full

For more on Martin’s writing and the Westcountry School of Myth see