Mountain Mothers: Cybele, the Sybils and the Cailleach

Another great ‘oriental’ influence upon the development of Roman state religion (apart from the Etruscan contribution) during the 1st millennium BCE was the ‘importation’ of the cultic oracular ‘Sybilline Books’ which were consulted in order to assist the state with important decisions. The acquisition of these works was originally ascribed to the legendary (Etruscan) last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, some time in the 6thC BCE, and after the development of the Republic they were kept in the possession of the Senate, and were used to assist decisions and determine possible outcomes. The collection was undoubtedly curated, researched and added to with reference to the various important Apollonian oracles across the eastern mediterranean region, including those at Cumae, Dodona, Delphi, and the Anatolian sites near to the supposed site of Troy* on the Hellespont, from which the original books were supposed to have originated. Although now lost (and at various times in their history, destroyed and recovered) we know that these books contained details of prophetic visions and utterances originating in the cultic goddess-oracles of the archaic world whose female seers were known as the Sybils.

The originating Sybil was supposed, as mentioned, to have been the Hellespontine Sybil who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Gergis in the NW Anatolian *Troad region, and were supposedly received upon Mount Ida nearby. From here, the works were copied and passed to other sibylline oracles, first Erythraea and then eventually to the Greek colony at Cumae, near Naples and from here, apparently to Rome at the advent of the founding of the Republic. The Cumaean Sibyl was an important character in Virgil’s Aeneiad, establishing an oriental Trojan provenance for the Romans’ ancestors, allowing them to incorporate the trappings of Greek civilisation and religion. In the story, she guides the Trojan Aeneas to Hades to meet with his father who blesses his future endeavours as founder of the Roman peoples. The Sibylline Books were therefore possibly a bolster to Roman pseudo-history, providing a religio-political bridge to the intellectual power and influence of the Greek near east. The Etruscan religious books were probably of a more nativist slant, and therefore less capable of such a trans-national religious vision fitting Rome’s future ambitions…

The books were consulted in times of great need, and from deductions made from these ritual interpretative readings, further developments to Rome’s increasingly complicated religious scene often resulted. Of particular interest was the suggestion during the Second Punic wars (205-204BCE) that the Roman state adopt the worship of the Greco-Phrygian goddess Cybele (Kubilya) from the ancient mid-Anatolian highland town of Pessinus (an area settled by Gaulish tribes in the 3rdC BCE) where she had a principle cult-centre, possibly since the 2nd millenium BCE. A small black stone idol (possibly the remains of a meteorite) was removed and taken to Rome where it was introduced as the goddess with much ceremony, and – bizarrely – it appears that the stone was displayed in a cavity in her new statue where the face should have been!… Cybele was linked to the Troad ‘Mount Ida’ by the Roman epithet Magna Mater Idaea, linking to the old Greek myths of the hiding of infant Zeus from Cronus in a mountain cave, either by Gaia or Rhea (both aspects of the ancient European female divine force), although the ‘mute-faced’ Roman depiction evokes an apparent reference to the mute Mater Larum. The names ‘Sybil’ and ‘Cybele’ also share a distinct similarity, and were used interchangeably, identifying chthonic priestesses with the great goddess…

The 1stC BCE Roman Epicurean poet-philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus described a procession of the goddess and her priesthood in book 2 of his De rerum natura in which he refers to the ‘silent blessing’ of the goddess as well as certain ceremonials related to it and the Greek myth of the hiding of the god-child Zeus. In this he makes a profound statement regarding the place of Magna Mater in pagan religion (translation John Selby Watson, 1890):

The old and learned poets of the Greeks sung that she, in
her seat on her chariot, drives two lions yoked together ; sig-
nifying that the vast earth hangs in the open space of the air,
and that one earth cannot stand upon another earth. They
added the lions, because any offspring, however wild, ought to
be softened, when influenced by the good offices of parents.
And they surrounded the top of her head with a mural crown,
because the earth, fortified in lofty places, sustains cities ; dis-
tinguished with which decoration the image of the divine
mother is borne, spreading terror, through the wide world.
Her various nations, according to the ancient practice of their
worship, call the Idaean mother, and assign her bands of
Phrygians as attendants, because they say that from those
parts corn first began to be produced, and thence was diffused
over the globe of the earth. They assign to her also the
Galli ; because they wish to intimate that those, who have
violated the sacred-respect due to their mother, and have been
found ungrateful to their fathers, are to be thought unworthy
to bring living offspring into the realms of light. Distended
drums, and hollow cymbals, resound in their hands around the
goddess ; and their horns threaten with a hoarse noise, while
the hollow pipe excites their minds with Phrygian notes.
And they carry weapons outstretched before them, as signs
of violent rage, which may alarm with terror the undutiful
minds and impious hearts of the crowd, struck with the power
of the goddess.

As soon, therefore, as, riding through great cities, she,
being dumb, bestows a silent blessing on mortals, they strew
the whole course of the road with brass and silver, enriching
her with munificent contributions ; while they diffuse a shower
of roses, overshadowing the mother and her troop of attend-
ants. Here the armed band, whom the Greeks call by the
name of Phrygian Curetes, dance round vigorously with ropes,
and leap about to their tune, streaming with blood. Shaking
the terrible crests on their heads as they nod, they represent
the Dictaean Curetes, who are formerly said, in Crete, to have
concealed that famous infant-cry of Jupiter, when the armed
youths, in a swift dance around the child, struck, in tune,
their brazen shields with their brazen spears, lest Saturn,
having got possession of him, should devour him, and cause
an eternal wound in the heart of his mother. Either for this
reason, therefore, armed men accompany the great mother ;
or else because the priests thus signify that the goddess ad-
monishes men to be willing to defend the land of their country
with arms and valour, and to prepare themselves to be a pro-
tection and honour to their parents.

These parents, though celebrated as being fitly and excel-
lently contrived, are yet far removed from sound reason. For
the whole race of the gods must necessarily, of itself, enjoy
its immortal existence in the most profound tranquillity, far
removed and separated from our affairs; since, being free from
all pain, exempt from all dangers, powerful itself in its own
resources, and wanting nothing of us, it is neither propitiated
by services from the good, nor affected with anger against
the bad.

The earth, indeed, is at all times void of sense, but, because
it contains the primary elements of many things, it brings
forth many productions, in many ways, into the light of the
sun. If any one, then, shall resolve to call the sea Neptune,
and corn Ceres, and chooses rather to abuse the name of Bac-
chus, than to utter the proper appellation of wine ; let us
concede that such a one may pronounce the orb of the earth
to be the mother of the gods, provided that it still be allowed
to remain its real self…

The ‘silent’ aspect of Cybele’s public face may well have been because the sibylline priestesses ‘spoke’ with the voice of Apollo. The divine music of the Kuretes was supposed to be an ‘analogy’ to the voice of the crying god Zeus/Jupiter, masking its sound from Cronus/Saturn in the ancient creation myths. Ovid’s description of Jupiter cutting out the tongue of the Mater Larum evokes this too… a curious syncresis of ideas and traditions.

The introduction of the cult of Magna Mater was hardly a novelty to the wider Roman and Greek world, the Greeks having celebrated Phrygian Cybele for a number of centuries before her official adoption in Rome. In fact, the Phrygians were not even the originators of this particular Aegaean goddess-hypostasis, as the cult of Rhea at Mount Ida on Crete undoubtedly had origins back in the Minoan era. Furthermore, the important temple complex and mystery cult on the Thracian island of Samothrace in the northern Aegaean carried on its own veneration of a similar goddess with similar iconography and mythology, but known originally as Axiérosand apparently associated with a male consort and a pair of divine  sons. It absorbed aspects of the worship of Demeter and Dionysus and the chthonic mysteries of the Greeks. The Roman cult acted to reinforce an older indigenous mythical religious tradition as well as establish a ‘spiritual corridor’ to the supposed ancestral Trojan homelands of the Greeks and Romans in the Hellespont.

So, what of the Cailleach?

Surviving thousands of miles away and thousands of years in time from the homelands and heartlands of the Anatolian mother-goddess, the tradition of the prophetic ‘Great Mother’ appears to have continued in the ‘Gaelic fringe’ of northwest Britain and Ireland – an area never conquered or settled by the pagan Roman empire. She does this in the form of an aged female character known as the ‘Cailleach’, ‘Calliagh’ or ‘Caillagh’, who is associated from the southwest tip of Ireland up into the far highlands of Scotland with mountains, nature, the weather and the power of prophecy. There are so many fragmentary myths and landscape features associated with her in these regions that it is apparent that she held a supra-regional importance from ancient times, well before the coming of christianity. These legends often associate her with the seasonal cycles, and the creation of features of the landscape, as well as guardianship over the flocks of beasts, natural springs and rivers. She is sometimes described as the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, sometimes portrayed as an ultimate ancestress, ruling the world since the ‘time before memory’. Like the black rock representing the face of the statue of Magna Mater in Rome, she is even occasionally described as having a black or blue face (even the ‘Black Annis’ legend from Leicestershire in England has this feature). One of her names in the Isle of Man – ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ – even implies a state of mute silence, ‘Groamagh translating as the English word ‘sullen’, which itself is related to ‘silent’ (Kelly’s Manx Dictionary).  The Manx ‘Caillagh’ was a traditional utterer of prophecies, the substance of which were kept as oral traditions, as they were in the Ireland and Scotland. Further connection to the ancient Cybele cult of Rome and the Aegean might also be found in the curious Manx folksong which talked about a bull-stealing witch who is sought among the mountains, where she hides behind stone doors, As y lhiack er e kione –  ‘with a stone on her head’… (if you follow the link, you will note I have corrected WW Gill’s translation.)

It is not my intention to digress on the totality of Cailleach legends in order to prove a link, but needless to say, the evidence of an ancient Earth-Goddess in the British and Irish Isles is compelling, and shows more than a few similarities with Lucretius’ fearsome mute Earth divinity…

 

tbc!

European paleo-religion: Mater Larum, Holda and Huldra

Ancient Italic religion before christianity is often associated with the hierarchical and immanent-polytheist Olympian model of gods introduced with the economic, cultural and military expansion of the Greek states during the first half of the 1st millenium BCE. This followed closely with the increasing focus of power and settlement upon towns and cities, and a new emphasis upon commoditisation which would reach its zenith with the growth of Rome and its famous Republic, and fall apart after 400 years of Empire. However, the religion of ancient Rome had its roots in a more simplified, animistic and rural spirit and ancestor-based religion common to much larger swathes of Europe extending far into the north and back into the 2nd millenium BCE and beyond…

The traces of this more ancient animistic faith are seen clearly in the form of the disincarnate spirits known as Lares, Manes and Lemures (otherwise Lases, Genii, Daimones, Nymphs, Naiades, etc) whose immanence permeated all households, roads, boundaries, buildings, natural springs, lakes, trees and groves, rocks and bushes in the minds of everyday people. With the growth of powerful city-states, these spirits underwent various phases of promotion, demotion, conflation, renaming and reinvention and added to the already bloating pantheon of divine and semi-divine legendary personages and deified humans that would eventually mark the ultimate collapse of paganism in the face of the stripped, portable and reductionist literal religious philosophies flowing back from the Hellenised Near East. However, the belief in immanent spirits and ancestral gods seemingly refused to die even though the major gods fell away, leaving Europe with rich parallel traditions of animism in the form of folklore about fairies, elves, ghosts, mysterious wild females and man-beasts which persisted alongside monotheism until modern times.

In the literate and artistically creative milieu of the Italic peninsula of the archaic and classical periods, we are lucky to have literary, epigraphic and depictional evidence relating to these animistic beliefs, and in particular to the disincarnate spirits known as Lares or Lases who were at the core of the ancient domestic religion, based in the independent, subsistence tribal cultures of the past. These, like the more modern European ‘fairies’, developed various synonyms and identities based upon their status in relation to individual families, tribes, ethnic groups, places and shifts in power and cultural influence. As regional versions of them amalgamated some became demoted in status, while others grew in stature, this process becoming anchored in the power of the Roman Republic. This produced, from a number of anciently more important divinities, an Olympian hierarchy (important to expression of state power) with a subservient ‘rustic’ pantheon of lesser spirits.

A Lare was what we might call a genius locus – a spirit with a specific haunt. In the ancient world, a spirit was an incorporeal living creature made of what the Greeks called aither or aether, which could be known only by the mind. Gods were deemed the same, and therefore gods and spirits were a philosophical system for describing the mechanisms by which the corporeal elements were excited into life and motion. In Mediterranean immanent polytheism, it was therefore possible for all phenomena to have a god or spirit attached to them. In Roman culture, the Larvae and Lemures were restless and dangerous forms of Lares, whereas Lares themselves were usually spirits in a state of helpful and benevolent equilibrium with mankind. They were ancestral spirits of humans, also known as Dii Penates or Manes, who maintained a presence among the haunts of the living: a form of collective memory, representing the skill and knowledge of ancestors, passed down among the living. Households had shrines to them, and these must have evolved into tribal group-expressions as Lares also had communal shrines encountered in rural and urban districts, at crossroads and along highways. They also had formal worship as part of the greater state-religion, of which more shortly. Festivities associated with these immanent ancestral spirits included the famous Saturnalia and associated Compitalia, the Liminalia, Feralia, Ambarvalia and Lemuria, as well as other rustic celebrations such as the Robigalia. These aspects of the tutelary and protective ancestral genius locus seem to underpin some of the agrarian Etruscan legends I have commented on in other posts. This aspect of italic paleo-religion may have been preserved in Roman culture in the form of the ancient priestly collegia known as the Fratre Arvales (Arval Bretheren) as well as the Augurs and Haruspices. The Arvals held solemn annual rites designed to sanctify agricultural production, ensuring the feeding of city dwellers and thus ultimately the wealth and power of state. This was a chthonic cult appealing to the earthly forces, among whom the dead traditionally resided: a connection to the ancient paleo-religion with its emphasis on death and regeneration. This was such an important tradition that during the period of the Roman Empire, the Emperor himself was always one of the 12 Arval priests, the others being selected patricians who held their office for life. As these priests were not trained specialists like the Augurs, their temple preserved inscriptions of aides-memoires of some of their ritual chants, from which we know the following (Old Latin) ‘Carmen Arvale’ :

Enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate

neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe!

This invocation of the Lares (using the archaic form ‘Lases’), Mars/Marmor and the ‘Semunis’ (fertility spirits?) in an important ritual to sanctify agricultural production (90%+ of provincial Roman citizens were agronomists) shines a fascinating light upon older Roman religion. You might ask, for instance: ‘Why Mars? Surely he was a war god?’… Well, for the Romans, Mars was as much a protector and stabiliser during the Republican and early Imperial eras, as he was a symbol for aggressive conquest (during the expansionist era of the Empire). Militarised Romans tended to associate the virile masculine element with warfare rather than that traditionally associated with aspects of nature and animal husbandry during the springtime (Mars’ month is known to us as ‘March’). For the Celts, this symbolism of the fertile war-god was illustrated in the form of the rutting stag or bull with adorned horns, such as is illustrated by the god ‘Cernunnos’ on the French ‘Pillar des Nautes’ and the medieval Irish accounts of the ‘Tain Bo Culainge’ with its ‘rutting’ warriors in their riverside showdowns etc.

The Arvals’ main cult of devotion was to the goddess called Dia or Dea Dia – apparently a female version of the masculine god-principle Dio (Zeus, Jupiter = Dio Pater), otherwise identified with Juno, and also known as Mater Larum – ‘Mother of the Lares’. Juno was, of course, Mars’ mother in Roman myth, so it is no wonder that the Arvals invoked him along with the Lares. This would make Juno (as ‘Mater Larum’) akin to the later Gaelic conception of the ‘Fairy Queen’, as the hypostasis corresponds so closely with later Celtic conceptions of fairies. However, this similarity with later folklore from the historically ‘non-Romanised’ north European world does not stop with the Irish and British Atlantic fringe, but that of the Scandinavians and Germans too:

The evidence for this link comes through a tale told by a single surviving Roman source – the great poet and mythographer, Ovid (1stC BCE/CE), who told a tale about the Mater Larum in his account of Roman festivals known as Fasti. He uses her synonym Lara, claiming her to have been a Naiad (water/spring/river) nymph conducted by Mercury to the gates of the underworld for the sin of betraying Zeus’ love secrets to Juno (of whom she appears to be a ‘hypostasis’). Jupiter apparently orders her tongue cut out as punishment, but Mercury falls in love with her and has intercourse en route to the chthonic realm, where she gives birth to twins (of unspecified gender) – the first Lares. Consequent to her punishment, she became known as Muta or Dea Tacita – the ‘silent goddess’ of the dead. The ‘silence’ is that of the grave – that great keeper of secrets – and her children are hidden in the secret recesses and crevices of liminal places: hearths, crossroads, storerooms (Penates) and so forth.

This account by Ovid of ‘silent’ Lara and her concealed children is curiously similar to the legends which persisted in the (unromanised) German and Scandinavian worlds of a female character known by various names: Holda, Hulder/Huldra, Holle, Hylde. She was the mother of the elves who (in Icelandic and Norwegian Christian tradition) hid her children from God, ashamed by their earthy dirty appearance… The following Christianised account is taken from ‘Icelandic Legends’ by Jón Arnason, (translated by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnusson) Pub: London, R. Bentley, 1864, pp.19-22:

‘The Genesis of the Hid-Folk’: Once upon a time, God Almighty came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him with joy, and showed him every- thing they had in the house. They also brought their children to him, to show him, and these He found promising and full of hope. Then He asked Eve whether she had no other children than these whom she now showed him. She said ” None.” But it so happened that she had not finished washing them all, and, being ashamed to let God see them dirty, had hidden the unwashed ones. This God knew well, and said therefore to her, ” What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” These unwashed children became forthwith invisible, and took up their abode in mounds, and hills, and rocks. From these are the elves descended, but we men from those of Eve’s children whom she had openly and frankly shown to God. And it is only by the will and desire of the elves themselves that men can ever see them.

The English word ‘Hidden’ translates directly to Hylde/Huld etc in the Germanic tongues. It is immediately apparent that the folklore is immediately comparable to Ovid’s Roman account. It is possible that the ‘Romanised’ Germanic tribes may have introduced this myth into the streams of Scandinavian folklore over the subsequent centuries, but it would be hard to justify, given the obvious religious independence of these regions at the advent of the Christian Roman Empire. What is more likely is that the ancestral cult of the ancient Europeans was widespread and influenced the Italic peoples before the Etruscan and Roman cultures developed and flourished. It is possible that the two important ‘prophetic’ and ‘revelatory’ Etruscan ancestor-divinities, Vegoia and Tages, were the ‘children’ of Lara: Etruscan ‘Mars’ was called ‘Laran’ 😉

The ‘sacred twins’ conceived in a grove between a god and lesser divinity are a continuous theme of Greco-Roman religion: The mythological founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus were supposedly begat by Mars upon Rhea Silvia (said to be a sexually-errant Vestal virgin, but whose name evokes a Dryadic Titaness). Rhea Silvia cast the boys adrift on the Tiber but they were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf (the wolf was Mars’ animal), before being fostered by a woman with the name Acca Larentia, otherwise known as Dea Dia! Castor and Pollux/Polydeukes likewise had a similar furtive beginning when their mother Leda was accosted by a god (Zeus) disguised as a swan, and they seem to be connected – along with Romulus and Remus – to the origin-tale of the ancestral Lares as mentioned by Ovid. This suggests an amalgam of various versions of an older myth with aspects also seen in Irish and Scandinavian mythology. Another example would be the hiding by Gaia (Earth) of young Zeus from his devouring father, Cronus, on Rhea’s sacred Cretan mountain: Mount Ida – perhaps one of the older root-myths of the others…

Another aspect of the ‘Mater Larum’ that needs to be addressed in the form of the fascinating goddess known to the Greeks as Hestia, and to the Italics/Latins as Vesta: She was the virgin sovereign goddess of the domestic hearth, and therefore a candidate to be associated with the ancient domestic cult of the Lares. We know this because Cicero tells us the following (De Natura Deorum 2. 27 (trans. Rackham) – 1stC BCE) :

“…The name Vesta comes from the Greeks, for she is the goddess whom they call Hestia. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess, because she is the guardian of the innermost things. Closely related to this function are the Penates or household gods…”

Her cult was associated (as was that of the virgin Bridget at Kildare in Ireland in the 12thC) with the celebration of a hearth with an ‘eternal flame‘. This links quite closely to the Gaelic ideas of fairies/ancestors and the hearth in places like the Isle of Man which persisted down to the 19th/20thC CE. The ‘Getae’ (the Celtic Dacians, ancestors of the Romanians) conquered by Trajan in the 2ndC CE were said by Diodorus Siculus (1stC BCE) to worship ‘Hestia’. Ovid describes Vesta as the third sister of a triad including Juno (Hera) and Ceres (Demeter), implying that she actually represents the fire-cored Earth itself, hence her round domed temple in Rome which suggested the form of the globe of the planet. This copied the form of the Prytaneum at Athens, and was reflected in the design of the Pantheon. He further states that there were no statues of her at her temple – she being represented solely by the eternal flame kept burning there, tended by her famous virgin priestesses. Of interest to Gaelic folklore, is that Hestia or Vesta’s fire was re-kindled with a ritual of friction (an evocation of sexual intercourse) between two pieces of wood, similar to that apparently used for the May/Beltain bonfires (see elsewhere on the blog)… Herein lies a mystery about the ‘virginity’ of Vesta: Far from being a ‘chaste’ force, she is actually a representation of the full sexual potential of the feminine – the flames being a worldly allegory of unconquerable lust and fertile intent. The tales of ‘rape’ and ‘indiscretion’ concerning the genesis of the three sets of ‘divine twins’ at the core of popular Greco-Roman (and Irish, Welsh, Breton and Scaninavian) religious myths are simply an expression of the inevitable transgression of this ‘pure’ state of lust which characterises inevitable natural forces. Vesta or Hestia was therefore also the original ‘Mater Larum’, and actually one of the most fundamental and important goddess-aspects!

Etruscan religion in the Italic Iron Age

The Etruscan civilisation which dominated northern Italy until the rise of the Roman republic was responsible for contributing significant additions to the religion of one of the great military and cultural powers of the ancient world. It grew out of the 'Villanovan culture', which was itself an ethnic and cultural offshoot of the proto-'celtic' Urnfield Culture of north/central Europe during the Bronze Age. During the 7thC BCE, like other nations and ethnic groups in the Mediterranean region, it came under increasing cultural influence of the Greeks who were expanding their colonies westward via coastal trade and conquest.

640px-Etruscan_civilization_map

Although borrowing aspects of Greek-style immanent polytheist religion and adopting parts of the Olympic pantheon after the 7thC BCE, the Etruscan religious system maintained aspects of its older religious outlook, which by the time of the Roman Republic became identified in particular with a focus on Augury and Haruspicy – the reading of signs from nature and deriving prophecy from the behaviour (and entrails) of animals, and from natural phenomena such as lightning. The Romans referred to this (and the written texts upon which Romans based their augurial practices) as the Etrusca Disciplina, whose precepts became an important part of their religious life.

This particular aspect of Etruscan faith was indeed important: Etruscans were famed for their dedication to religion and required a professional technical priesthood trained in the disciplines of astronomy, natural philosophy (scientia), meteorology, zoology and the gods themselves. In this manner, they appear to have had similarities to the religious specialists among the Gauls and Britons, known to Greeks and Romans as Druids. Like the druids, the Etruscan priesthood were trained in colleges, the most notable late classical example being that opened by the Emperor Claudius in 1stC CE. The powerful influence of this religious system caused it to become the founding model for what would become Roman religious culture, and it therefore unsurprising that Etruscan religion appears to have had a fairly extensive pantheon of gods, albeit that Etruscan culture was formed from autonomous city states, each with their own interpretation of religious practices. These gods seem to have represented a system of immanent polytheism in which all natural phenomena were ascribed a divinity to represent them. However, the Etruscan religious system had three principal gods, named Tinia, Juni and Cel (later supplanted my Menrva). Tinia or Tin was the chief god, Juni his feminine counterpart, and Cel was the 'Earth Mother', perhaps responsible for the subterranean realms (her name evoking tombs and caves – cella). These seem to have evolved into the Roman 'Capitoline Triad' of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Under the influence of Greek and other Italic gods, the number of these diversified. However, the art of Augury and Haruspicy was apparently the principle feature of the religion by which the gods' wills were interpreted – Etruscans were natural philosophers par excellence.

Another feature of Etruscan religion which is notable is the fact that it was, by tradition, a revealed faith. The story of this was recounted in 44BCE by Roman author Cicero (De divinatione Book 2; 50-51.23):

“…It is said that, once upon a time, in the countryside of Tarquinii, while the earth was being plowed, a rather deep furrow was dug and suddenly Tages sprang forth and spoke to the man plowing. Now this Tages, according to the books of the Etruscans, is said to have had the appearance of a child, but the wisdom of an elder. When the rustic had gaped at his appearance and had raised a great cry in astonishment, a crowd gathered in a short time, all Etruria assembled at that place. Then he said many things to his numerous listeners, who received all of his words and entrusted them to writing. His whole address was about what is comprised by the discipline of soothsaying (haruspicinae disciplina). Later, as new things were learned and made to refer to those same principles, the discipline grew. We received these things from (the Etruscans) themselves, they preserve these writings, they hold them (as) the source for the discipline…” (Translation: Loeb Classical Library edition)

This tradition has several interesting aspects: Tages was obviously no earthly prophet, but was born from the furrow in a field in a rustic district. This would make him a child of the Etruscan goddess Cel, but also portrays the origins of Etruscan religion as being very indigenous and tied to the ancestral lands of their people. Cicero's account has the peasant gaping in incomprehending wonder while the educated 'townies' write the tiny prophet's words down, suggesting that Etruscan religion was based upon (now lost) canonical texts. Of course, this tale has all the hallmarks of a rustic religion sophisticated by the urbanisation of power in the Italic peninsula during the Iron Age, a process influenced and accelerated by the wealth of the land and commerce with the Greek and Anatolian states. Tarquinii/Tarquinia, founded by the legendary king Tarchon was one of the homelands of Etruscan culture, and therefore 'Tages' (Tarchies – the Etruscan language had no 'g' sound) may well be related as a demoted founder-god.

The Etruscan priest-seers are usually represented in Etruscan and Roman art as holding a stave or 'crook' known as a Lituus. This is sometimes depicted as a trumpet very similar to a Gaulish 'Carnyx' – straight with a curved tip. The lituus stave became the model for the Christian bishop's crozier, but its original form is mysterious. It may possibly have been a tool for assisting in the mapping or measurement of the night sky.

Roman Emperors were proud of their Etruscan heritage. This coin depicts the ritual artifacts of an Augur, including the Etruscan 'lituus'. Similar depictions also include a basin instead of the jug, suggesting the use of liquid 'mirrors' in the scrying process...

Roman Emperors were proud of their Etruscan heritage. This coin depicts the ritual artifacts of an Augur, including the Etruscan 'lituus'. Similar depictions also include a basin instead of the jug, suggesting the use of liquid 'mirrors' in the scrying process...

Etruscan cosmology appears to have been quite concerned about the importance of boundaries and divisions in the proper order of things. This probably represented a technical aspect of the need to assign signs and portents based upon where in nature they occurred. For this reason, Roman authors tell us that Etruscan religious teachings state that the gods were ascribed to 16 separate regions in the heavens, and that there were 8 (or 12) great eras of Etruscan history (seculae) the last of which was contemporary to them. The established limits and barriers which organised the Etruscan city-states and the rich agricultural land upon which their civilisation thrived were also of key importance. An account of the Etruscan 'Prophecy of Vegoia' preserved in a Roman treatise on land management known as ‘Corpus agrimensorum Romanorum’ (preserved in a 6thC mss collection) says this about the importance of physical land barriers:

“… Know that the sea was separated from the sky. But when Jupiter claimed the land of Aetruria for himself, he established and ordered that the fields be measured and the croplands delimited. Knowing the greed of men and their lust for land, he wanted everything proper concerning boundaries. And at some time, around the end of the eighth saeculum, someone will violate them on account of greed by means of evil trickery and will touch them and move them [….]. But whoever shall have touched and moved them, increasing his own property and diminishing that of another, on account of his crime he will be damned by the gods. If slaves should do it, there will be a change for the worse in status. But if the deed is sone with the master's consent, very quickly the master will be uprooted and all of his family will perish. The ones who move [the boundaries] will be afflicted by the worst diseases and wounds, and they will feel a weakness in their limbs. Then also the earth will be moved by storms and whirlwinds with frequent destruction, crops will often be injured and will be knocked down by rain and hail, they will perish in the summer heat, they will be felled by mildew. There will be much dissension among people. Know that these things will be done when such crimes are committed. Wherefore be not false or double-tongued. Keep this teaching in your heart…” (Translation quoted from 'The Religion of the Etruscans' Ed. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Erika Simon; Pub. University of Texas Press 2009)

The Romans obviously took this heart as their annual festivals of the Liminalia and Robigalia seemed designed to celebrate the spirit of this traditional Etruscan prophecy. Vegoia was a female divinity similar to Tages who was quoted in the lost texts of the Etrusca Disciplina. Presumably this prophecy was originally a part of the corpus!

Another important aspect of the Etruscan religion which was followed by Roman religion was the belief in spirits of the dead travelling to and occupying a 'cthonic' or underground location. The cultus of the gods who looked after such realms in Mediterranean pagan cultures were actually deeply rooted to the source of their wealth and success (in both trade and warfare): organised agriculture. This is because of the cycle of death being strongly linked in nature to that of renewal: that which decays fertilises new growth. The ancient domestic ancestral cults linked the presence of the spirits of the departed ancestors with success in the temporal world.

Similar ideas were held by the Greeks and the Celts or barbarians of the 'Atlantic' north. However, one must be careful in how one interprets the idea of the spirits of the dead living in an 'underground' realm: Evidence from all of these cultures seems to suggest that this realm also had a reflected parallel existence to our own, and was also connected to the visible heavens and the concept of the far islands and shores of the world-river, called Okeanos by the Greeks…

 

The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…