Dacian Celtic religion?

“…the Getae are the bravest of the Thracians and the most just. They believe they are immortal in the following sense: they think they do not die and that the one who dies joins Zalmoxis, a divine being; some call this same divine being Gebeleizis. Every four years, they send a messenger to Zalmoxis, who is chosen by chance. They ask him to tell Zalmoxis what they want on that occasion. The mission is performed in the following way: men standing there for that purpose hold three spears; other people take the one who is sent to Zalmoxis by his hands and feet and fling him in the air on the spears. If he dies pierced, they think that the divinity is going to help them; if he does not die, it is he who is accused and they declare that he is a bad person…” Herodotus (Greek, 5thC BCE) – Histories (Book 4) – trans. George Rawlinson (1910)

This curious comment on the Getae (one of a number of proposed ancestors of the Goths, who were from the Danube region, and were also known as 'Dacians') has a fascinating parallel with the later accounts of the Gauls of western Europe, who Julius Caesar claimed also believed in reincarnation and the immortality of souls, and also 'sent' people (it is presumed willingly) on special missions to the otherworld, based upon classical accounts and suggested by current archaeological theories of north European 'bog bodies'.

The name 'Zalmoxis' (sometimes written 'Salmosis') seems in this context to evoke the Indic word 'Moksha', which means 'emancipation', 'liberation' or 'release', in the context of ancient Hindu/Jain concepts of reincarnation. This in fact fits with the similarities shared between these doctrines and what we know of the ancient European Celtic doctrines!

The synonym 'Gebeleizis' is yet more interesting: scholars of Celtic and Indo-European languages might recognise that it possibly contains the word for 'horse'… 'Gebel' or 'Gabal'. Other theories suggest a possible link of the name to 'Cybele', the Anatolian 'Phrygian' goddess, known to her indigenous worshippers as 'Matar Kubileya'. This name itself might mean either 'Mother Cybele' or just possibly even ' Mother of Gebele(izis)'? The regions are so well-linked geographically and culturally that this must be considered, especially as there were Gauls settled in Galatia, further west. Another possible link is to Gaulish Belenos: Ge-Belei-Zi(o)s. The Welsh 'Harleian Genealogies' seem to refer to Belenos as 'Beli Mawr' , which fits with 'Belei'. Zios means 'god' in Proto-Indo-European. 'Ge' might be a reference to the primal Greek earth-goddess, although a compound god-goddess name like this would be unusual…

“… We have conquered even these Getai, the most warlike of all people that have ever existed, not only because of the strength in their bodies, but, also due to the teachings of Zalmoxis who is among their most hailed. He has told them that in their hearts they do not die, but change their location and, due to this, they go to their deaths happier than on any other journey… ” (Lactantius – a Christian author of the 3rdC CE – quoting a supposed speech of Trajan.)

These 'Getae' (from what is now modern Romania) were surely quite similar in their religious outlook and valour to the Gauls Caesar spoke of conquering some three centuries later. If Lactantius was reporting Trajan's words accurately, they held their reputation longer than the Gauls, as they were conquered by his armies during the early 2nd C CE, after which they largely followed similar models of Romanisation as their western cousins – their homelands eventually becoming known as 'Romania'…

 

Design elements of the insular ‘Celtic horse’ coins: Part 1

The 'Celtic Horse' seen on the 'primitivist' coins of the Iron Age often showed interesting design characteristics related to concentric circles and points. These became prominent elements of insular Celtic numismatic designs and rock art, such as that seen in Scotland among the 'Picts'. My design here is taken from a coin of the Dobunni (W. Britain).

The ‘Celtic Horse’ seen on the ‘primitivist’ coins of the Iron Age often showed interesting design characteristics related to concentric circles and points. These became prominent elements of insular Celtic coin designs and regional rock-art, such as that seen in Scotland among the ‘Picts’. The design here is taken from a  2000 year old coin of the Dobunni in my collection (W. Britain).

'Aberlemno 1' pictish stone (Angus, Scotland). The 'double disc' motif appears with the 'z-rod' and the mirror: symbols of rotational and reflectional symmetry. The serpent at the top demonstrates that this symbolism is expressive of the Atlantic otherworld beliefs...

‘Aberlemno 1’ pictish stone (Angus, Scotland). The ‘double disc’ motif appears with the ‘z-rod’ and the mirror: symbols of rotational and reflectional symmetry. The serpent at the top demonstrates that this symbolism is expressive of the Atlantic otherworld beliefs…

Note the rotational symmetry seen in the horse-design of this coin! Wiltshire ?Dobunni 1stC BCE.

Note the rotational symmetry seen in the horse-design of this coin! Wiltshire ?Dobunni 1stC BCE. Photo: (c) 2014 http://www.celticcoins.com – Chris Rudd

The ‘warrior’ panel of the Gundestrup cauldron

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

This interior panel from the famous Gundestrup cauldron appears to show a line of seven mail-clad, shield and spear-wielding Celtic warriors advancing in a line from right to left towards a giant warrior who appears to be holding the body of another small warrior over a vessel of some sort. A dog or wolf appears to jump up at his feet. Proceeding from the giant along the upper row, are a line of four finely-arrayed horsemen with elite crested helmets, passing from left to right. Preceding them is a snake. The footsoldiers of the bottom row are followed by three carnyx (boar-headed celtic war-horn) players, whose horns reach up to face the cavalry riding back towards them, and the snake 'flies' above the horn chanters. Separating the rows of footmen and cavlry is a branch from which sprouts foliage or flowers. The metalwork around this is textured, suggesting an aura, a river or a footpath. The 'spears' of the footmen seem to connect with the trunk of the branch.

Symbolism interpreted:

The silver Gundestrup cauldron was probably a ritual deposit in water, pledged to the gods, as it was discovered in pieces in a Danish bog in 1891. Such deposits were an archaeological feature of Europe's 'Atlantic Bronze Age' which were influential upon the Celtic Iron Age cultures of north and central Europe. The organised style of the warriors, their mail suits and war trumpets seem date the cauldron between the 3rdC BCE and the 1stC CE during which time there were broad military and cultural interactions between Celtic tribes of Gaul and those of south and central Europe, explaining the artistic styles (and that of the armour) depicted on the cauldron: In fact, some design elements on the cauldron are so similar to those on objects found in the 'Letnica Hoard' (Bulgaria) to suggest a Gallo-Thracian origin for at least some of the panels. The cauldron shows aspects of both military and spiritual ideas of the afterlife which commentators typically associate with Celtic Iron Age culture.

Our 'warrior' panel shows some key features of a warfare-oriented view of reincarnation:

The footsoldiers:

These are 'ordinary' footsoldiers kitted uniformly for war with shields, spears and chainmail vests. There are seven armed men and three carnyx players. The last of the armed men carries no shield, and may be a youth, as he stands below the topmost 'sprout' of the tree-like design above their heads. They are clearly marching into battle, towards the dog/wolf and the giant figure with his cauldron, who appears to be placing one in or pulling one out of the cauldron. The soldiers are marching in the direction of the roots of the aforementioned tree design. Interestingly, it can be seen that their chainmail hauberks finish at the knee, below which they appear to wear hose and rawhide sandals on their feet, similar to those still in use in Ireland and the Isle of Man into the 19thC.

The giant warrior and his 'cauldron':

The giant warrior's cauldron or vessel appears to be a metaphor for some kind of rebirth promised to the valiant footsoldiers, as proceeding from it in the opposite direction to them are a line of mounted knights with fabulous helmets. The womb-like metaphor for the cauldron as a symbol for rebirth is found in the 'Second Branch' of the medieval Welsh epic tales known as Mabinogion in which the giant, Brân, owns a cauldron which revives the dead. In the case of the Gundestrup cauldron, two things appear to be emerging from this giant's cauldron – glorified warriors and a tree. This has echoes of the Yggdrasil tree mentioned in the 12thC Icelandic accounts of Scandinavian pagan legends: at the base of Yggdrasil were a number of wells from which the lives and fates of men flowed. At the base of the tree, gnawing animals and serpents were found: aspects of the ancient empirical idea of regeneration through putrefaction: these are also represented on the Gundestrup cauldron by the snake and the dog. The message of the panel is that the masculine god of the Otherworld (here portrayed also as a warrior, therefore a 'colleague) promises regeneration to those who glorify themselves in battle, and the new existence may have greater glory, represented by:

The four knights:

Proceeding from the apparent god and his cauldron are four mounted men (knights), remarkable for their elaborate crested helmets. The horses and more beautiful helmets mark them out as part of the warrior elite, and the implication of their appearance in the panel is that valiant footsoldiers might become so great – either through death or attainment. It is notable that there are only four knights, compared to the eight warriors going towards the cauldron (including the man held by the 'god'). Assuming that all of the soldiers on the lower row were looking forward to death in battle, then the panel suggests only four of these seem to have achieved a more glorious reincarnation! This again links to the Norse accounts of beliefs about death of warriors in battle which suggest that only half of the slain went with Odinn to Valhöll. Another interesting concordance.

So what of the other four warriors – what might the panel say about these? We are left with two interesting possibilities:

The first is represented by the animals in the image: first of these are the cavalrymen's horses, which would bring the number of sentient beings up to eight in the top row. The other is the ravenous dog or wolf, who like the crows and carrion birds depicted elsewhere on the cauldron would be features of any battlefield. The folklore of hosts of the restless dead remaining in Atlantic Europe after the Iron Age seems to have relevance here: the Sluagh Sidhe of the Gaelic world, and the 'Wild Hunt' of the Germanic world in particular. It may be that the souls of the unglorified were believed to have been incarnated in the form of the animals who haunt battlefields and the margins of human habitation: the corvidae (crows), vultures, wolves, dogs and foxes. By consuming the flesh of the glorious and providing good deeds in the form of omens and warnings, they might find themselves given a better incarnation in the next life, as well as speeding the recovery of the battlefield etc.

The second possibility of reincarnation is represented by the tree – the ancient metaphor for human generations: 'root, branch and seed'. The panel's design with the tree apparently growing from it suggests the dead are fertilising the regrowth of future generations, perhaps implying the reincarnation of less worthy footsoldiers as humans, ready for another 'go' at attaining greater glory. My feeling, based on the residual folklore and traditions of Europe, is that the truth probably lies somewhere between these two suggestions. The transmigration of souls (described by Roman authors as a central tenet of Gallic/Celtic faith) might lead to a number of outcomes, based variously upon the achievements of individuals in this life: a glorious afterlife, reincarnation as a human, or even a cavalryman's horse, or as a restless ravening creature who plays an important role in the regeneration processes of nature, and who might offer auguries to the living. The calls of ravens and crows, the flight-patterns of birds and the calls and shouts of canines and horses, were all recorded as potential sources of augury in ancient Europe until at least the middle ages.

The snake and the Carnyxes:

The snake has been a symbol of reincarnation for a very long time, based upon their continuous unblinking stare, their shedding their skins, their love of chthonic lairs from which they emerge into daylight, and from their ancient philosophical (morphological) classification along with worms, larvae and maggots as part of natural putrefaction and regenerative processes of nature. The snake is also notable for the visceral, terrifying/transfixing ability it has over its prey, bringing us here to discuss the Carnyx, above which the snake is positioned in the panel. The was the war-trumpet par-excellence of the Celts, whose terrifying cacophonic honking seemed designed to evoke the enraged squeals and bellows of an attacking boar, stag or bull, augmenting the terrifying transfixing effect of soldiers' war-cries upon an enemy. The horn was apparently a potent weapon in itself, designed – like the gaze of the snake – to sap the morale of the enemy.

Summary:

This panel appears to show imagery promising soldiers reincarnation in battle. Their deaths are being 'inverted' into a renewed, more glorious life, and the cauldron and tree act as a central metaphor of regrowth from the well of life, with the dog and snake representing the earthly and allegorical forms of this natural process.

 

Warband culture and the Celtic Iron Age

The dynamic stylistic and cultural impact of ‘celtic’ civilisation on Europe during the Iron Age was driven initially by trade among peoples with geocultural commonality as well as the emerging Greek and Phoenecian mercantile powers, and later by the highly mobile warfare practised by many of its peoples, which often led to permanent migration. A cultural shift at the advent of what became known as the La Tène period, from the 5thC BCE, saw a change in the habits of central Europe’s celtic peoples. It was marked by an increase of burials indicating a higher status of warrior elites and a change in attitudes towards warfare, and with this came a new excitingly fluid and dynamic style of decorative art that most of us today recognise as ‘typically celtic’. Use of iron swords, chainmail armour and better fighting horses all marked this shift from the former ‘Halstatt‘ styled cultures seen before the 5thC BCE. The La Tène period also marked that when Mediterranean people started to write things down about the Celts…

Although existing largely as loose tribal federations, from the 5thC these would occasionally organise en masse into highly organised war parties or armies, such as that led by Brennus of the Senones (Alpine Gaul) against Rome in the 4thC BCE. These would cause no end of trouble to the Roman Republic’s northern borders and interests.

The most notable of these massed military movements, however, was the invasions of a Gallic tribal confederacy through the Balkans in the 3rdC BCE, led by characters such as Bolgius, Brennus and Acichorius. It was directed at the unstable kingdom of Alexander’s recently dead successor Lysimachus, which included Macedonia, Thrace, Greece and Anatolia. The gains for those Gauls who invested their time and effort into this adventure were manifold – some returned home with plunder, some took land for themselves and settled in ethnic communities, some were paid off to desist from their attacks, and some found service as mercenaries in Macedonian empire’s internal disputes, of which there were many. Many, including Brennus, died: this was also acceptable outcome to Gauls, believers as they were in reincarnation, as having acquitted themselves in glorious battle, they could earn themselves better fortune in their next life.

The impact of such a well-organised campaign against an enemy with such an impressive empire would have sent cultural shockwaves through the Celtic world, and would have important implications. Rumours of vast wealth plundered from the 279BCE assault of Delphi in Greece became attached to the Tectosages tribe, based at what is now Toulouse. There was an explosion in the issue of coins throughout the Celtic world initially copying the style of those of Lysimachus, but which would eventually transform and incorporate indigenous designs with mysterious meanings, and a totemic power invoking military success. New tribes and confederations formed (eg – the Scordisci and the ‘Volcae’ – perhaps from Bolgius’ faction) and settled the Balkans, Thrace and Carpathia, and at least as far east as Anatolia (Galatians) as  well as returning to the more western Gallic heartlands.

How the waves of migration and invasion culminating in the invasion of Greece in 279 affected or interacted with Celtic religious ideology is hinted at in the coinage of the period which followed in its stead: This combined the image of the world’s most famous campaigning military leader with designs hinting at a complex view of spirituality, astronomy, the afterlife and reincarnation.

This organised mobile ‘warband culture’ of continental Celtic tribes was reflected to varying degrees among the Celtic peoples of the ‘Atlantic fringe’. Many of these were  coastal seafaring peoples and islanders perhaps not so much inclined towards such grand expeditions of conquest, and more likely engaged in commerce as a source of livelihood. The insular Celts were possibly something of an ‘old nobility’, slower to take up the manners and trappings of continental ‘La Tène’ culture. It is possible that they were religiously more conservative too with Britain and Ireland remaining to history as the last outposts of the Druid religion following the Romanisation of Celtic culture and religion from the 1stC BC…

 

 

The Icenii, ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’

2ndC CE Roman historian Cassius Dio famously mentions details of the ill-fated revolt of the Iceni and their allies against Nero’s legions in southern Britain during 60/61CE. His compendium ‘The Roman History’ may well have relied upon on first-hand accounts of the events of this episode, but Dio uses a certain creative licence regaling us with a rousing speech made by queen Boudica to her people before their battles. Indeed, it largely functions to portray Nero as a weak and effete figure of ridicule, but is of interest to religious historians, as he has the queen call upon a British goddess referred to as ‘Andraste’:

“…When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee…” (The Roman History, Boook 62 -trans. Bill Thayer)

Whoever Andraste was, she seems to have inspired the Britons with a confidence matched only by the fear which drove the Roman legions to eventually overcome them. Little else is known about Andraste save for this account. However, the reason for this might be because the ‘name’ given by Cassius Dio was a misunderstanding of ‘An Dras De’ – which is simply the Brythonic phrase meaning ‘The Tribal God’, ‘Dras’ being an old Welsh word meaning ‘kindred’. Consider the Irish god known as ‘An Dag De’ – the Dagda – a similar composite term is therefore possible.

Cassius Dio goes on to describe the rampage of revenge and humiliation wreaked upon the hapless Romans at Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London):

“… Having finished an appeal to her people of this general tenor, Buduica led her army against the Romans; for these chanced to be without a leader, inasmuch as Paulinus, their commander, had gone on an expedition to Mona, an island near Britain. This enabled her to sack and plunder two Roman cities, and, as I have said, to wreak indescribable slaughter. Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subjected to every known form of outrage. The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence… “

It is possible that ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’ were simply kennings for the same female divinity, but another possibility arises: that Cassius Dio got it wrong, and that ‘Andate’ was actually the male deity known in Ireland as ‘An Dagdae’ or ‘Eochaidh Ollathair. This is reasonably within the bounds of Celtic language pronunciation where consonantal sounds within words are readily dropped. Here is my reasoning:

An Dagda and the Morrigan in Cath Magh Turedh:

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

The Irish mythological cycle tale known as Cath Magh Turedh (possibly a composite of different tellings of an original) contains a number of mysterious, poorly elucidated ‘scenes’ featuring the Dagda.

Firstly, it mentions his ‘cauldron of plenty’. Next it mentions his role doing heavy work as a builder of the fortress of Bres of the Fomorians. He seems unusually trusting and a bit simple, and gives some of his vast meal portions away to a man who demands the best part each sitting, causing him to weaken. He forms a triplicity with Lugh and Ogma, and they go to ‘three gods of Danu’ (one of  whom is stated to be the Morrigan) who give weapons to Lugh. Dagda then has sexual intercourse with the Morrigan at a ford of the River Unshin in Connacht, an act of heiros-gamos ensuring the victory of the Tuatha De Dannan in the coming battle with the Fomorians. In another curious scene, with distinct parallels with to the Siege of Troy described in Homer’s Iliad, the Dagda enters the camp of the Fomorians to spy, seemingly in the guise of a horse. The Fomorians force him to eat a prodigious meal (again demonstrating his great equine appetite) so as to dull his wit.

The story continues (CELT version):

“…Then he went away from them to Tráigh Eabha. It was not easy for the warrior to move along on account of the size of his belly. His appearance was unsightly: he had a cape to the hollow of his elbows, and a grey-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump. He trailed behind him a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move, and its track was enough for the boundary ditch of a province. It is called ‘The Track of the Dagda’s Club’ for that reason. His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horse-hide with the hair outside. As he went along he saw a girl in front of him, a good-looking young woman with an excellent figure, her hair in beautiful tresses. The Dagda desired her, but he was impotent on account of his belly. The girl began to mock him, then she began wrestling with him. She hurled him so that he sank to the hollow of his rump in the ground.

He looked at her angrily and asked, ‘What business did you have, girl, heaving me out of my right way?’ ‘This business: to get you to carry me on your back to my father’s house.’ ‘Who is your father?’ he asked. ‘I am the daughter of Indech, son of Dé Domnann,’ she said. She fell upon him again and beat him hard, so that the furrow around him filled with the excrement from his belly; and she satirized him three times so that he would carry her upon his back. He said that it was a ges for him to carry anyone who would not call him by his name. ‘”What is your name?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn,’ he said. ‘That name is too much!’ she said. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn.’ ‘That is indeed not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn Brúach,’ he answered. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach,’ she said. ‘That is not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. Then he told her the whole thing. She replied immediately and said, ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
Get up, carry me away from here!’ ‘Do not mock me any more, girl,’ he said. ‘It will certainly be hard,’ she said. Then he moved out of the hole, after letting go the contents of his belly, and the girl had waited for that for a long time. He got up then, and took the girl on his back; and he put three stones in his belt. Each stone fell from it in turn—and it has been said that they were his testicles which fell from it. The girl jumped on him and struck him across the rump, and her curly pubic hair was revealed. Then the Dagda gained a mistress, and they made love. The mark remains at Beltraw Strand where they came together.

Then the girl said to him, ‘You will not go to the battle by any means.’ ‘Certainly I will go,’ said the Dagda. ‘You will not go,’ said the woman, ‘because I will be a stone at the mouth of every ford you will cross.’ ‘That will be true,’ said the Dagda, ‘but you will not keep me from it. I will tread heavily on every stone, and the trace of my heel will remain on every stone forever.’ ‘That will be true, but they will be turned over so that you may not see them. You will not go past me until I summon the sons of Tethra from the síd-mounds, because I will be a giant oak in every ford and in every pass you will cross.’ ‘I will indeed go past,’ said the Dagda, ‘and the mark of my axe will remain in every oak forever.’ …”

The scene is certainly saucy, but also weird – almost a retelling of the Dagda’s encounter with the Morrigan in an earlier passage, albeit with more salacious detail. The picture painted of the Dagda is a half-man, half-stallion: His horse-hide brogues, his great round belly, his large penis, his propensity to create lots of dung: all are heavily suggestive of this, as is one of his other names, Eochu Ollathair. The heiros-gamos with a feisty fighty female (similar to Fand in Serglige Con Chullain) is again used to precede a victory in battle. What is more, the marks of his hoof/foot upon rocks appears to be a reference to cup-marks, bullauns and petrosomatoglyphs of feet, common to the archaeology of the Atlantic world.

The suggestion that can be drawn from this is that victory was ensured by the sexual coupling of the Otherworld masculine god and the worldy goddess. Dagda represents, as the horse, the fertility, power and energy on offer from the Otherworld, albeit a force that was a bit simple. The Morrigan was the warrior aspect of the feminine triplicity – their combination would allow peace to be determined through warfare. Lugh (the battlefield hero of the Cath Maigh Tured) was the active warrior aspect of the masculine triplicity, and Ogmios was the wise thinking part.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

The horse seems so prevalent on Europe’s late Iron Age celtic coinage that it must have had special importance, beyond just being a copy of the coins of those Macedonian-Thracian leaders of the Hellenic world – the horse-loving ‘Phillip’ and, of course, the solar warrior-king, Alexander whose legend was celebrated among the proud warriors of the Celtic world. By invoking the Morrigan aspect of the triple-goddess (the tribal ancestor or sovereignty queen, who Cassius Dio called ‘Andraste’), Boudica set her on a course for her liason with the peace-lord of the Otherworld, a drama possibly acted out in the groves of ‘Andate’ by the seemingly victorious Britons, shortly before General Paulinus reappears bearing the ‘Gorgon’s Head’, taken on Anglesey…

 

L’Ankou – Gaelic parallels with the Breton death-spirit

‘Ankou’ is the personification of death’s assistant (a psychopomp) from Breton folklore, and a figure which reached greater prominence here than in any other of the modern ‘Celtic’ nations. It was noted by folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz in his 1911 book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, that L’Ankou and The Dead appeared to provide the equivalent role to the Aes Sidhe of Gaelic folklore – a parallel which provides us with some interesting questions as to the nature of Celtic spirit-beliefs:

“… Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors…”

(The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; Pub. Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911; p.218)

He goes on to note ‘Every parish in the uncorrupted parts of Brittany has its own Ankou, who is the last man to die in the parish during the year‘. Wentz’s source, the respected Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, wrote a book about Ankou, called La Légende de la Mort () and had this to say about it:

The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk. (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).

Wentz drew parallels with the Gaelic beliefs in people ‘taken’ to fairyland, but unfortunately did not establish much else by the way of concordance with this supposedly ‘Brythonic’, and in terms of surviving folklore, specifically Breton belief. It is therefore my aim here to demonstrate that Ankou did indeed have its Gaelic equivalents, whose memory became lost due to the influence of christianity and the 19thC romantic movement:

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany.

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany. Note the ‘elf-arrow’ it appears to wield!

Ankou in the Isle of Man and Scotland:

The Manx – a nation whose linguistic and cultural roots lie firmly in the ‘Gaelic’ world – maintained an independent tradition which corresponds closely with that of L’Ankou. However, in examining this it is first necessary to go ‘back’ to Brittany and examine the word ‘Ankou’ itself:

The standard English definition or translation usually given for the Breton word ‘Ankou’ is ‘the agony’, originally proposed in a ‘pirated’ (uncredited) 1860 English translation (Breton Legends – Pub. London 1860, Burns and Lambert) of the folklore collected and published in French by Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué – a noted Breton dictionarian and philologist. ‘An-‘ is the definite article, and ‘-Kou’ is usually (in English translations) supposed to mean ‘agony’. However, this etymology is speculative at best, as the ‘kou’ suffix as a sound can have a number of meanings within the scope of the historical linguistics of the celtic languages. Indeed, the 1821 Breton-French dictionary of Jean-François-Marie-Maurice-Agatha Le Gonidec tellingly uses the word Kouer to mean ‘peasant’, of which more presently.

Fockleyr Manninagh as Baarlagh – the 1863 dictionary (based partly upon an earlier manuscript of John Kelly from the late 18thC) published by the Manx Society contains the following interesting entry:

Keimagh s. pl. -ee, A spirit which is supposed to haunt and guard the churchyard stiles.

Also, the word Cughtagh:

Cughtagh s. pl. cughteeA fairy, a sprite, a spirit of the houghs* …

*AR: Hough in this context refers to a rough, rocky place or a cliff 

Both entries are followed by the interesting usage example ‘Ny keimee as ny cughtee’ of which the authors say no more, but which appears to be a reference to a popular Manx charm for stopping blood, a version of which can be found in William Harrison’s ‘Mona Miscellany’ (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. Isle of Man, 1869).

The idea of the last deceased watching over the graveyard appears to have been common to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – Donald MacPherson called it the Faire Chloidh in his book ‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and Original Poems; with Notes on the superstitions of the Highlanders &c’ (Pub. Thomas and George Underwood, London 1824), p.202:

FAIRE CHLOIDH, (THE GRAVE WATCH.)

It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred, to stand sentry at the grave-yard gate, from sun-set until the crowing of the cock, every night, until regularly relieved. This, sometimes, in thinly inhabited parts of the country, happened to be a tedious and severe duty ; and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends, sometimes, much uneasiness.

The Manx ‘Keimagh’ and ‘Cughtagh’ spirits share a link of sorts to the grave, vagrancy, caves or shelters: This can be seen from the fact that the Manx wordcughhas connotations of dirt, filth and dung, and a link between this and the cave, mound or hole-dwelling spirit is also found in the word Cughlin, meaning a vagrant’s doss-hole or a mean filthy shelter, another Manx word for which is Kemmyrk. Recall that the Breton word Kouer, means ‘peasant’ and consider the restless vagrant properties ascribed to the spirits of the dead and a few ideas might start to form about the origins and meaning behind these archaic terms and the ‘Ankou’ itself.

The Manx word Keim or Keym (from which Keimagh is derived) is the same as the Irish céim, meaning ‘step’ in the same sense as it occurs in English – as a verb and a noun. The stile at old churchyard gates was often a slab of stone which those entering the church precinct would be required step over (and scrape your shoes on) in order to enter hallowed ground. It is common for the ‘m’ sound in Celtic languages to transform into a ‘w’ in pronunciation meaning that a ‘keimagh’ might easily become a ‘keiwagh’. By the same laws of linguistics, -gh-, -ch-, and -th- will lose any pretensions to consonantal pronunciation when occuring inside words.

This puts us in the interesting position of being forced to examine another similarly named spirit from the Gaelic world – Scotland’s An Ciuthach (pronounced ‘Kewach’), a being mentioned as a hairy spirit haunting caves in Volume 3 of John F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (p.55), in a folk-tale based on the story of the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Graine by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

The Gaelic word ‘cuthach’, means ‘mad’ or ‘raging’ and fits with the portrayal of a marginal ‘wild-man’ who lives underground, and also with the Manx words ‘cugh’ and ‘cughlin’, associated with the filthy ‘Merlinesque’ state of the wild divine, a familiar sight in medieval Ireland, Britain and France where holy men often lived in a state of wild squalor. It should be obvious by now that the Breton word ‘Ankou’ had distinct similarities with the Gaelic ‘An Ciuth’ or ‘An Cuth’, ‘kou’ meaning a state of frantic restlessness, rather than ‘agony’. This fits the etymology of the Breton word for peasant: Kouer – a class of person living in mean conditions and continually working to survive.

The Irish Dullahán and the Gruagachs:

The ‘Dullahán’is the Irish legendary personification of death, usually represented as a skeletal headless horseman. The name possibly signifies ‘black one’ or ‘gloomy one’ (Dubhlachán?), probably on account of the lividity of the dead, and his appearance in popular tradition was to foretoken death. His earliest literary mention is in the writings of Charles Vallancey (‘Prospectus of a Dictionary of the language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish’, Pub. Graisberry & Campbell, Dublin, 1802), who recounts that the Irish peasantry would be in fear of hearing the Dullahan or ‘Wullahan’ dragging his chains through the streets at night. Like the Ankou, it was often associated with a horse or coach and horses.


The Ankou is therefore quite possibly the ‘Wild Hunter’ who leads the Sluagh Sidhe! Was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, really originally Finn-Mac-‘Kou’-al? 

The ‘wild man’ archetype has much to say about where we developed from, and about the processes by which nature is regenerated from its own ‘putrefaction’.


There are important relationships in empirical human culture between dirt, ordure and decayed matter and the regeneration of new life. To live ‘wild’ is to live in comfort with this kind of state. Such symbolism no doubt informs the apparent associations between death, the spirit world and reincarnation that underpin the ancient European beliefs. The idea anciently used to express this was termed putrefaction, and important doctrine of the natural philosophy of Europeans until the scientific age introduced new paradigms.

The British and Irish age of Romanticism started in earnest during the ‘Enlightenment’ era of the late 17th and 18thC with the researches and writings of Roderick O’Flaherty, John Toland, Edward Llhuyd, and James MacPherson, and it continued with the emergence of renewed interest in the pagan past seen in the writings of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), and in the fading customs, beliefs and lifestyles of the defeated Highland peoples documented for popular consumption by authors such as Walter Scott. Romanticism provided a vision of indigenous pagan beliefs still remaining among the peasantry, albeit in a form designed for the tastes and prejudices of educated and wealthy elites. Wavering paradoxically between apparent veneration of quaint rustic traditions and a visceral disgust of its ‘gloomy’ and ‘unenlightened’ superstitions, Romanticism would unfortunately often prove the undoing of much of what it fawned over: by swelling interest in ‘old-fashioned’ customs it ultimately encouraged the aspirational rural poor to resent becoming ‘quaint’ objects of fascination for the middle classes seeking relief from industrialised realities. By the late 1800s many Gaelic speakers had consequently rejected their traditional culture and sought to emulate modernity.

A romanticised view of what the rural poor ought to believe therefore eventually trickled down to influence their ideas: The traditions characterised as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’ and ‘unseemly’ – usually dealing with aspects of death, sex and disease – would become increasingly displaced. 

Putrefaction as an essential cultural idea behind abundance and regeneration among rural peoples was probably finally defeated when people stopped putting shit on their crops and used chemicals in its place… This was the era of mass-slaughter and industrial warfare, which reached its first full and horrific manifestation in the First World War.

A religion flowing in the blood and the landscape

Readers of my blog may have realised that I make repeated references to how ancient paganism evolved in situ in Europe and eventually deteriorated under the influence of a ‘globalist’ model of secular power promoted by the Greek and Roman Empires. It was supplanted by a ‘portable’ religion with no bearing whatsoever on the land and ancestry of its indigenous European converts, progressively divorcing them from the traditional and deep ties to the environment from which their bloodlines arose, and which informed all of their skill and wisdom.

In Ireland (unconquered by Roman power) the advent of Christianity was surprisingly enthusiastic, yet paradoxically (when compared to other Romanised regions) it made a particular effort to keep memories in writing and tradition of the important pre-Christian beliefs, so important were these to the identity of the people in their place. In fact, it gave them such confidence that they were able to play a leading role in christianising the rest of northern Europe, still reeling from the confusion of Greco-Roman religious culture!

The Atlantic pagan religion was a poetic and artistic narrative, informed by the seasons and their features, the stars and their mathematically exact processions across the skies in relation to these, and the wisdom of survival in the geo-cultural climes of Atlantic Europe. Its moral philosophy promoted modesty and environmental awareness, based as it was on the principles of reincarnation and a powerful Otherworld that reacted against our actions in this life. This was passed in oral culture from generation to generation, perfected and finessed with each retelling, until it represented a pure spiritual narrative of life in this part of the world! The portable middle-eastern religions had nothing of this, and sought to destroy it, replacing it with an ethos promoting the worship of temporal tribal power and worldly materialism over the natural laws of the land.