Gods and Robbers: Sawney Bean

‘Gods and Robbers’ – an introduction:

I shall begin this ‘Atlantic Religion miniseries’ by just recapping on some of the mythologising phenomena that have influenced formerly pagan stories and woven them into the christianised narrative framework in Europe.

A number of different polemic and propaganda techniques appear to have been employed in the medieval Christian church’s efforts to incorporate and subsume the many and deeply-rooted European pagan narrative traditions which, even by the 12thC, were apparently deemed sufficient threat to undermine the establishment of the Christian religion and its vast power structures in Europe. The violence and outright warfare of Charlemagne’s 8thC conquest and forced conversion of pagan Saxon tribes, and of the Albigensian and Northern crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries was on the more extreme end of this spectrum, however. The church and its propaganda operatives generally relied more on polemical traditions, largely developed by the early ‘church fathers’ and used by northern missionaries such as Germanus of Auxerre, Ninian, Palladius, Augustine of Britain, and Patrick during the 5thC sub-Roman/early medieval period.

The main methods used for ‘handling’ pagan traditions can be summarised as follows:

1. Demonisation and ‘Monsterisation’: Perhaps the earliest and most basic technique, based on the theories set out by the earliest Christian authors and ‘church fathers’ that all pagan gods were in fact Satan’s evil demons who had been deceiving humanity for centuries. This would have been most prone to causing conflict among the target populations of missionaries as it equated their gods with ‘evil’. A more gradual process of ‘monsterising’ was also employed, which generally de-emphasised the ‘demonic’, and promoted the pagan characters as ‘monstrous’ (and technically then within the extremes of the natural order).

2. Euhemerisation or ‘humanisation’: Slightly more sympathetic and less likely to meet with violent opposition, this techniques was based upon the tendency of pagan nations and cities to deify their ancestors and pseudo-ancestors. It therefore became a ‘softer’ early Christian polemical doctrine to teach pagans that their gods were in fact originally human ancestors who they had formerly simply worshipped  in ‘error’. By this, they ‘humanised’ rather than ‘dehumanised’ pagans and their traditions, and were able to maintain the more deep-seated affections of ancestor-veneration in a Christian context. The gods therefore simply became part of the historical tradition: For this reason, the official genealogies of fervently-Christian 10th and 11thC Anglo-Saxon kings (written down for them by Christian scribes) were therefore able to firmly claim their proto-ancestor as Wodan without any bother! Likewise, the medieval Welsh Hareliean Genealogies did the same with the pagan gods of the ancient Britons. European peoples would give up their gods before they rescinded their ties to their ancestors, so deep was this spiritual link to the past.

3. Demotion and Diminution: The significance of pagan characters from narrative traditions could be demoted while still maintaining their presence in local Christianised traditions. Gods could become more humanised in their legendary forms and abilities, they could be given human parents. Goddesses became ‘fairies’ and ‘mermaids’, or just old ladies living deep in the woods.

4. Sanctification: The pagan characters of myth were often worthy and moral, generous and helpful and it was often more fruitful to portray them under the guise of a Christian ‘saint’, thus maintaining the important moral aspects of pagan tradition which were impossible to attack with demonization or demotion. It also allowed the pagan cultic sites to be employed under the ‘Theodosian’ system of usage-conversion.

5. Marginalisation: This was the siting of pagan mythical characters and traditions outside of the centre of the communities they formerly occupied. It might involve a relocation in both time and/or space, and was often coupled to the processes of humanisation, diminution and demonization.

These techniques inevitably became a part of popular tradition-making, devolved from ecclesiastical influence. The latter process (marginalisation) appears in part to be responsible for the creation of a number of popular ‘Outlaw’ legends throughout the British and Irish islands whose origins seem to be lost deep in the mists of the medieval period, and whose persistence perhaps owes itself to their deeper and more ancient mythical provenance:


The popular notoriety and stories of the legendary Scottish cannibal-bandit ‘Sawney Bean’ still generates horror, revulsion and tourist dollars in his native homeland. The story goes that ‘Sawney’ (which is a Scots colloquialism of the name ‘Alexander’) ran away from his honest parents, joining forces with an equally evil-minded woman to live a life of crime and hideous cannibalism. They supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane on the Ayr/Galloway coast, on the Firth of Clyde, and had many children who they inculcated into their nefarious ways, sending the clan out to raid, steal and abduct and murder locals, whom they took back to their cave and cannibalised. They were evil in every way: an epitome of horror – robbery, murder, incest and rape were, as it were, their ‘bread and butter’. However, the legend goes that they were captured and taken to Edinburgh where they were tried at the behest of the King of Scotland before being mutilated and burned to death as punishment for their crimes.

'Sawney Bean' and his clan sit down to supper

‘Sawney Bean’ and his clan sit down to supper

Although the story is dressed up in an air of official historicity, an examination of evidence pertaining to it uncovers many levels of polemical intrigue with elements spanning from the medieval era down to the 18th century, and smacks strongly of the legendary, being difficult to locate to any one period in time. Sawney Bean and his tribe have been described as active in either the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries during the reign of the Stuart kings – it varies somewhat, depending on the telling. His name is sometimes given as ‘Donald Bane’ or ‘Donald Bean’ (‘Fair Donald’) – coincidentally the name of a Gallovidian monarch of the 11th century, linked to MacBeth and Mael Columb. Modern understanding of the tradition has been largely informed by popular interest during the 18thC in the broadsheet press and its often sensationalised reportage of macarbre and bloody crimes and judicial executions. Publications such as London’s popular Newgate Calendar and its derivatives became responsible for an explosion of this subgenre, causing publishers to look past the here and now and take in an interest in historical (and romanticisied) tales of gruesome murderers with which to further scandalise and amuse their readership. Consequently, there was a popular explosion of interest in the Scots legend of the Sawney Bean and his exploits, complete with popular ballads and performances based on the tradition. On account of this, the legend tended to become fixed to a time and to a geographical location in the public consciousness, even though its true provenance was somewhere indeterminate, ‘over the horizon of history’ – perhaps in the otherworld. The 1780 edition of Part 1 of the Calendar covered the years until 1740 and regaled its readers with details of famous murderers on a case-by-case basis. The inclusion of the legendary Sawney alongside more avowedly historic and contemporary characters must perhaps be viewed in the light of the prejudices projected against the Highland Scots and Irish following the Wars of Religion and Jacobite Rebellions. It derived from a number of earlier chapbooks, but as I cannot find prints of these to transcribe, I’ve included the Calendar version here (for a more detailed account of the printed origins see here):


An incredible Monster who, with his Wife, lived by Murder and
Cannibalism in a Cave. Executed at Leith with his whole Family in
the Reign of James I

THE following account, though as well attested as any historical
fact can be, is almost incredible; for the monstrous and
unparalleled barbarities that it relates; there being nothing that
we ever heard of, with the same degree of certainty, that may be
compared with it, or that shews how far a brutal temper, untamed by
education, may carry a man in such glaring and horrible colours.

Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight or
nine miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, some time in the reign
of Queen Elizabeth, whilst King James I governed only in Scotland.
His parents worked at hedging and ditching for their livelihood, and
brought up their son to the same occupation. He got his daily bread
in his youth by these means, but being very much prone to idleness,
and not caring for being confined to any honest employment, he left
his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the
country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.
These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the
shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of twenty-
five years without going into any city, town, or village.

In this time they had a great number of children and grandchildren,
whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of
humanity or civil society. They never kept any company, but among
themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing; being,
moreover, so very cruel, that they never robbed anyone whom they did
not murder.   By this bloody method, and their living so retiredly
from the world, they continued such a long time undiscovered, there
being nobody able to guess how the people were lost that went by the
place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed and murdered any
man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den,
where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled
limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance. And,
notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had
superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time
they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had
murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody
habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several
parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the
beholders, and others who heard of it.  Persons who had gone about
their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands that it caused
a general outcry in the country round about, no man knowing what was
become of his friend or relation, if they were once seen by these
merciless cannibals.   All the people in the adjacent parts were at
last alarmed at such a common loss of their neighbours and
acquaintance; for there was no travelling in safety near the den of
these wretches. This occasioned the sending frequent spies into
these parts, many of whom never returned again, and those who did,
after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these
melancholy matters happened. Several honest travellers were taken up
on suspicion, and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances; several
innocent innkeepers were executed for no other reason than that
persons who had been thus lost were known to have lain at their
houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them
and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a
discovery. Thus an illplaced justice was executed with the greatest
severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent atrocious
deeds; so that not a few innkeepers, who lived on the Western Road
of Scotland, left off their business, for fear of being made
examples, and followed other employments. This on the other hand
occasioned many great inconveniences to travellers, who were now in
great distress for accommodation for themselves and their horses
when they were disposed to refresh themselves and their horses, or
put up for lodging at night. In a word, the whole country was almost
depopulated.   Still the King’s subjects were missing as much as
before; so that it was the admiration of the whole kingdom how such
villainies could be carried on and the perpetrators not discovered.
A great many had been executed, and not one of them all made any
confession at the gallows, but stood to it at the last that they
were perfectly innocent of the crimes for which they suffered. When
the magistrates found all was in vain, they left off these rigorous
proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence for the bringing to
light the authors of these unparalleled barbarities, when it should
seem proper to the Divine wisdom.

Sawney’s family was at last grown very large, and every branch of
it, as soon as able, assisted in perpetrating their wicked deeds,
which they still followed with impunity.

Sometimes they would attack four, five or six foot
men together, but never more than two if they were on horseback.
They were, moreover, so careful that not one whom they set upon
should escape, that an ambuscade was placed on every side to secure
them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so
happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How was
it possible they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever
saw anybody else afterwards? The place where they inhabited was
quite solitary and lonesome; and when the tide came up, the water
went for near two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation,
which reached almost a mile underground; so that when people, who
had been sent armed to search all the places about had passed by the
mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not
supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of
perpetual horror and darkness.   The number of the people these
savages destroyed was never exactly known, but it was generally
computed that in the twenty-five years they continued their
butcheries they had washed their hands in the blood of a thousand,
at least, men, women and children. The manner how they were at last
discovered was as follows.   A man and his wife behind him on the
same horse coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the
ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a most
furious manner. The man, to save himself as well as he could, fought
very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them
down, by main force of his horse. In the conflict the poor woman
fell from behind him, and was instantly murdered before her
husband’s face; for the female cannibals cut her throat and fell to
sucking her blood with as great a gust as if it had been wine. This
done, they ripped up her belly and pulled out all her entrails. Such
a dreadful spectacle made the man make the more obstinate
resistance, as expecting the same fate if he fell into their hands.
It pleased Providence, while he was engaged, that twenty or thirty
from the same fair came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean
and his bloodthirsty clan withdrew, and made the best of their way
through a thick wood to their den.   This man, who was the first
that had ever fallen in their way and came off alive, told the whole
company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of
his wife, whom the murderers had dragged to some distance, but had
not time to carry her entirely off. They were all struck with
stupefaction and amazement at what he related, took him with them to
Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who
immediately sent to the King concerning it.   In about three or four
days after, his Majesty himself in person, with a body of about four
hundred men, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was
acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they
might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious
to all the western parts of the kingdom.   The man who had been
attacked was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of
bloodhounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards
their putting an entire end to these cruelties.   No sign of any
habitation was to be found for a long time, and even when they came
to the wretches’ cave they took no notice of it, but were going to
pursue their search along the seashore, the tide being then out. But
some of the bloodhounds luckily entered this Cimmerian den, and
instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so
that the King, with his attendants, came back, and looked into it.
They could not yet tell how to conceive that anything human could be
concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness. Never the
less, as the bloodhounds increased their noise, went farther in, and
refused to come back again, they began to imagine there was some
reason more than ordinary. Torches were now immediately sent for,
and a great many men ventured in through the most intricate turnings
and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from
all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters.   Now the
whole body, or as many of them as could, went in, and were all so
shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into
the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and
children were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs
lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with
watches, rings, swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes,
both linen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things,
which they had taken from those whom they had murdered, were thrown
together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den.
Sawney’s family at this time, besides him, consisted of his wife,
eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen
granddaughters, who were all begotten in incest.   These were all
seized and pinioned by his Majesty’s order in the first place; then
they took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands;
afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they found, they
returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners, all the country, as they
passed along, flocking to see this cursed tribe. When they were come
to their journey’s end, the wretches were all committed to the
Tolbooth, from whence they were the next day conducted under a
strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any
process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even
professed enemies to mankind. The men had their privy-members cut
off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from
their bodies; by which amputations they bled to death in some hours.
The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators
of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt
to death in three several fires. They all in general died without
the least signs of repentance; but continued, to the very last gasp
of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all
around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to
such well merited punishments …”

As it happens, there are no formal records extant of such a trial, which would surely have left its impression given that the monarch, James VI/I, seemingly took great interest in the judicial processes and personally attended a number of public trials. It would appear that the dating given in the Calendar was one of convenience, perhaps designed to suit the political atmosphere and prejudices of the late 18thC. Galloway itself was – during the early 18thC – a hub of the somewhat politicised Irish Sea running trade, and French privateer frigates were given safe haven in the Western Isles during the 7 Years War during the 1750’s and 60’s, so there was good reason why such a negative character might have been depicted hiding out in caves on the Galloway coast.

The cave of Sawney and his clan is most commonly located to Bennane Head, Ayrshire, formerly being in the lands of the distinctly Gaelic Kennedy clan who had ruled over the Carrick district since at least the time of Robert the Bruce. It is certainly capable of housing a group of bandits, but does not fit the description in the Newgate Calendar tale, which forms the basis for modern recollections of the tale in Scotland. It is not in a place which would have been sufficiently remote in ancient times. The cave has sufficient early 16thC provenance and importance to appear on a 1450 writ asserting the rights of Johne Kennedy to the lands at:

“…Bennane and Dalwegene with the Manor Place and Cave of the same togidder with the office of Seargandrye of the said Earledome Carrick and that upon the said Henrye Kennedy his resignation which lands and office he had held hereditarily from James II, dated at Aire febr 13 1450 …” (See: History of the counties of Ayr and Wigton, Volume 2 p.95, by James Paterson; Pub. James Stillie, Edinburgh 1864)

They cave is on a small bay, and could have served use as a warehouse, boathouse or even a defensive shelter, hence its inclusion in the above writ. James Paterson described the remains of a masonry bulwark wall at the head of the cave that was ancient in the 1860’s as well as remains of buildings. The Kennedy clan were eventually caught up in the religious chaos and in-fighting following the Protestant reformation, and the murderous intrigues and regional instabilities between Kennedy and his neighbours only hastened the willingness of the Stuart monarchy to finally begin to break independent Clan economic, military and religious power in the region – power which they had originally fostered.  It is perhaps no surprise that Sawney’s scandalous legend would have been located within these lands for this reason, but the history of banditry, piracy and ‘out groups’ in the West Lowlands has an even older provenance beyond the history of the Pictish and Dalriada kingdoms.

So… what of Sawney Bean in all of this? Evidently, to have inhabited the Bennane (Benand) cave he would have had to have done so with the blessing of the local Kennedy lairds, to whom the cave was evidently important. This makes the legend of a real outlaw unlikely, unless he was one of the Kennedy’s himself. Some regional clans certainly practiced piracy and smuggling down to the 18thC (some might argue they were no more pirates and smugglers than the King’s navy and trade fleets). Cannibalism? It seems like too lurid a detail to be true and almost certainly originates in Scottish polemical propaganda of the intrigue-riddled Shakespearean/Renaissance Age, rather than English efforts at Scots-bashing in the 18th century. ‘Makar’ poet, William Dunbar (Dumbar), might surely have made reference to the legend of Sawney Bean had it been current and associated with the Kennedys as a whole, when flyting his insults at the bard Walter Kennedy, younger brother of the 2nd Lord, John Kennedy of Dunure, in ca. 1503. This famous performance – known as The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie was apparently performed in the court of James IV in Edinburgh at the start of the 16thC and makes no reference to cannibalistic crooks, but yet for this is perhaps one of the most delightful pieces of insult-poetry committed to writing during the Renaissance! It was preserved in the Bannatyne Manuscript. Dunbar’s approbations of Kennedy (a clergyman, as befits his ‘second son’ status) are colourful to say the least, twice referring to the priest as ‘cuntbitten’ among a barrage of similar lurid insults.  None the less, Dunbar’s derision at no point makes any reference to his clan’s supposedly cannibalistic tenants, suggesting that if they were historic and associated with Bennane, then they likely came later in the 16thC after Kennedy’s death in 1507. However, this seems highly unlikely to be the case, given the lack of corroborative evidence for what would have been a well-recorded and sensationalised case in its day. Dunbar’s taunts at Kennedy were largely based on his appearance and ‘uncouth’ Gaelic mannerisms, including not a few imputations of paganism. Given the general lack of evidence to back up their existence, the clan of ‘Sawney Bean’ must therefore be considered legendary or mythological. This in turn leaves us with the possibility that more mysterious seeds may have populated the tale…

Was pagan mythology behind the ‘Sawney Bean’ myth?

The association of seaside caves with the mythology of the old Atlantic Religion seems to be a definite subtext in the folklore of the region. Nearly all such caves of any significance in the British and Irish Isles (not to mention Brittany and beyond) have enjoyed a connection to either saints or devils: Such a dichotomy of attribution is in itself highly suggestive of Christian polemic attempting to convert pagan legends into a form congruent with the ‘new order’. Galloway has, further south, a cave near Whithorn that was said to have been used by St Ninian and is still celebrated in association with the saint who is said to have bought christianity to this region at a very early time from Rome.

St Ninian's Cave: No mermaids here - please move along!

St Ninian’s Cave: No mermaids here – please move along!

Sea caves or caves near rivers are more often than not associated with pagan myths. The creation of caves is often related to underground rivers or springs, to which many (especially in limestone areas) owe their existence. They also represented a baser more ancient form of living – a place of resort in times of peril, and the habitation of those outside of the bounds of law and society. This made them the focus of many christianising legends designed to demote pagan ideas.

Sawney or Samhain?

The name ‘Sawney’ is usually believed to be a version of ‘Sandy’ and therefore a colloquialisation of the name ‘Alexander’. However, the name derives ultimately from the west coast of lowland Scotland, which was a predominantly Gaelic-speaking region until the 17th/18thC. This means that it is worth taking a gaelic linguistic approach to the name ‘Sawney Bean’, which contains obvious Gaelic elements (‘Bean’=’Bane’=white/fair). The first part of the name ‘Sawney’ is closest to the Gaelic festival name ‘Samhain’ (pron. ‘Saw-en’). Samhain was the festival of the dead when the souls of the departed (the Sluagh Sidhe) were near at hand, waiting to be carried off to the otherworld. The cave associated with Sawney Bean is located at a place containing aspects of his name – the Bennane‘ – also a gaelic name. ‘Ben’ is, of course, the gaelic word translating as ‘female’ (mna is ‘woman’) and is also applied to the names of mountains. You might recall from my previous posts that there is an association with mysterious aquatic female spirits with headlands and foreshores, not to mention caves all across the Atlantic world from Spain to the Slavic lands. The frightening popular figure of the ‘Halloween Witch’ is perhaps the greatest demonic archetype associated with Hallowe’en/Samhain – this originally referred to a single magical female character, not ‘witches’ in general (which were probably an innovation of the 16th/17thC witch panics). In the Isle of Man, she was called ‘Jinny the Witch’ (‘Yinny’ = Aine) and she was probably also the sorceress of Manx legend known as ‘Tehi-Tegi’ who stole the souls of men and took them into the sea, before transforming into a mystical bird – the wren. Samhain was the period when fertility had been ‘stolen’ away from the world, and the Sawney Bean was also famous for abducting souls and death. Both him and the ‘Samhain Witch’ therefore take on an equally monstrous aspect whose terrifying legends draw them closer together in the legendary consciousness… so much so that Sawney’s wife takes such a role in his legend. Of further linguistic interest, Sawney was sometimes referred to as

Written legends or traditions about ‘Sawney Bean’ are somewhat hard to come by. Most traditions available to study in literature (late 18th and 19thC) seem to have arisen from the Newgate Calendar versions of the tale, which influenced the growth of the tale in popular culture down to modern times. 19thC English author, the wealthy and well-connected politician/lawyer/novelist Robert Plumer-Ward included Sawney Bean in a romantic short story called ‘St Lawrence’ which was printed in many of the literary magazines in the early-mid part of the century. The tale is set in the fictional ‘Castle Campbell’ in Kintyre, in which the laird is forced to tell his visitors of the tale of Sawney Bean after his guests enquire why his servants are nervous of a coming storm. The laird intimates that it was a tradition of the clan is that Sawney’s soul periodically returned to cause severe storms, and that he was a supernatural personage. It is unclear if Ward was simply using literary license or quoting a tradition he had discovered through research – he was a well-connected individual who almost certainly was entertained in Scottish castles with similar stories. Here is a passage which sums up Ward’s use of Sawney in his tale:

“…’Scotland would not be Scotland,’ returned Mr Campbell, ‘if some such appendage had not been added to the tale. In truth, the whole neighbourhood believed that the storm which had closed the sea entrance had been the express work of Providence, for it never happened before. Sawney believed it too and the farmer who took him, being a Campbell who had emigrated to the north of Ireland from this place, he swore as he was led to execution that he would visit it every twenty years, and bring destruction upon all of the name’… “

The implication is that ‘Sawney’ was a spirit who haunted certain members of the widespread clan of Campbell – one of the oldest Gaelic clans, who famously claim ancestry with the tragic Fenian hero Diarmuid O’Duibne, whose legend claims he hid out in a cave with his lover (and wife of Fionn), Grainne, before dying fighting a fierce wild boar. In the Isle of Man one of the names for a mythological fairy-pig was ‘Arkan Sonney’ (Uirceann Sonney) – another hint at the older aspect of ‘Sawney’.

Summary: Sawney Bean was the name of a legendary Gaelic Scottish cannibal-outlaw supposed to have lived with his wife and family hidden in a cave on the Galloway coast. His existence has no historical veracity but his demonization myths were applied politically, both by the Scots (against the Gaelic Scots) and later by the English, to whom he provided a Scottish ‘bogeyman’ figure for the troubled Jacobite era. The name ‘Sawney’ means ‘Alexander’, and was a popular form of the name during the 18thC. However, in the gaelic tongues, ‘Sawn’ could quite reasonably be the word ‘Samhain’ – a name for the festival of the dead, associated with a latterly monstrous magical female character in the Irish sea region. This character is known variously as ‘The Witch’, ‘Cailleach’, ‘Tehi-Tegi’, ‘Jinny’, ‘Ouna/Ona/Una’, ‘Aine’ and ‘Shoney’. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to wonder if ‘Sawney Bean’ has something to do with a demonised, demoted, euhemerised and marginalised aspect of the legend of the Celtic Great Goddess…

Weland, the Swan Children and The Knight of the Swan

Emerging from the mythic and symbolic courtly story traditions of  12th century Europe, a popular and mysterious set of tales were told of children transformed into swans one of whom grows up to become the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’, or ‘Knight of the Swan’ – a questing knight who is conveyed in a boat drawn by a mysterious Swan which feeds him and guides him to his unknown destinations.

The earliest written  rescension of  the origin tale of the knight and his swan-kin comes from the late 12thC text ‘Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus‘, by the monk Jean de Hauteseille. This was a latin version of a popular eastern story tradition known as ‘The Seven Wise Masters’, possibly acquired through contact with the Muslim empires. The birth of the swan children and the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’ tales merged with the Chansons de Geste traditions dealing with Godfrey de Bouillon, first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and popular icon of the First Crusade. These portrayed Godfrey as an ancestor of the Swan Knight, Elias, who had originally gained the Duchy of Bouillon after a swan arrived with a boat which conveyed him from his island home to protect the beleaguered Duchess of Bouillon, who then offered he hand in marriage. Further life was given to the legend in Wolfram Von Eschenbach‘s 13thC Arthurian epic, Parzifal, and versions of the story were retold into the 16thC (for example, Robert Copland’s English translation of the French versions in 1512).

Story of the Swan Children:

The essence of the Dolopathos account of the genesis of the swan-children is this: A knight wanders into a mysterious forest while hunting a white stag, where he discovers a mysterious woman by natural spring (an otherworld woman). They fall for each other and make love, and the knight takes her back to his castle where she eventually gives birth to seven children with gold chains around their necks. The knight’s mother is jealous and orders the children to be swapped in the birthing chamber for a litter of puppies, and has a servant take the children to the forest to kill them, where he decides to simply abandon them. The knight is angry that his wife gave birth to puppies and condemns her to buried up to the neck in the earth for seven years. However, the knight then finds that the children are alive and living in the forest and sends a servant to retrieve them. The servant finds the seven children – six boys and one girl – at a lake in the forest. The boys have taken off their gold chains and are swimming on the lake in the form of swans, while their sister – still in human form (wearing her chain) guards their chains. The servant decides to steal the chains and makes off with his loot to have them melted down by a goldsmith. The girl goes back to the castle to seek bread with which to feed her brothers who are now trapped in swan form, and eventually meets her father who has her tell the tale of what happened. The knight retrieves the chains and the boys can regain their human forms, except for one whose chain was broken by the goldsmith. He goes on to serve (or becomes – the source is unclear) the mysterious hero, the Knight of the Swan.

The story of the swan children is a curious bit of imagery, resonating strongly with the pagan mythical story traditions of Ireland (The Children of Lir, The Sickbed of Cuchullain). These feature birds (explicitly swans in the case of Lir’s children) who are bound with chains. However, the motif occurs in not just Irish and French legendary traditions – in the Norse Icelandic Völundarkviða (Poetic Edda), Völundr (Weland) and his two brothers meet and make love to swan-maidens (Valkyries) bathing  in a lake in the forest while hunting. The implication in the genesis story of the Swan Knight is that the ‘Lady of the Fountain’ is herself of an avian aspect, much like Manannan’s wife, Fand, in the Serglige Con Culainn, in which she briefly becomes Cuchullain’s lover and tormentor. The Norse goddess Freyja was attributed with a ‘feather cape’ in the Eddas, and as receiver of ‘half of the slain’ she may herself have been a or the Valkyrie. The greatest similarity with the Knight of the Swan entrée, however, is the Irish tale Clann Lir (‘Children of Lir’): It shares many features with minor differences – in the Irish tale, there are four children (three boys, one girl). Their mother dies and their stepmother is jealous of them and orders a servant to kill them. However, the servant refuses and the stepmother transforms the children into swans by magic. The swans are connected to each other by silver chains. They wander the earth for 900 years until (depending on the version) their deaths are caused when their chains are broken off by a marauder causing them to immediately age and die, or when they hear the tolling of a church bell or are blessed by a priest.

The tale of children turned into birds is actually a widespread folktale motif (Grimm collected a ‘Six Swans’ tale from Germany) and therefore has an Aarne-Thompson classification of type 451. However, the theme of the chains is not so frequent. Obviously, these stories are widely divergent, but what is the underlying significance?

About the Swan Knight himself:

The Knight of the Swan is named variously as Helias or Helyas in the French traditions, and as Loherangrin in Wolfram’s Parzifal. ‘Helias’ sounds a bit like the Greek name for the sun – Helios. Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s character Loherangrin has  the -angrin suffix, somewhat redolent of the Irish words an grian – the sun! As Wolfram was borrowing from Celtic story traditions, this interpretation is theoretically possible. However, there is another perhaps more likely explanation for Helyas/Helias, this being that it derives from a Celtic word for swan, which in Irish is eala. Nevertheless, the links between Weland and the Celtic solar god, Belenos, that I have discussed elsewhere may add weight to the identity of Helias with Helios.

In the Romance of Godfrey de Bouillon, Helias is born to King Oriant of Illefort (‘Strong Isle’), the introductory part of the tale being a rescension of the Swan Children tale. As the Knight of the Swan he is conveyed overseas on his quest by a swan which tows him in a small boat. The swan looks after the knight, who trusts it to take him where his bravery is needed, and where he might find his fortune, a wife and good honour in combat. This applies to both Helias and Loherengrin. The knight is under a tabu or geas that he must not reveal his name to those he meets, and when he breaks it, the swan carries him off. Other Arthurian heroes trot around on horses, but the Chevalier au Cygne stands aside as a water-bourne character. The ‘magic isle’ motif was common to the Celtic tales of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard – for instance, the Breton ‘Isle of Lok’ comes to mind. Perhaps this is the origin of the ‘Loher-‘ prefic of Loherangrin?

The stories are full of themes of captivity – a feature all too familiar to men of the crusader age, whose favoured saint became the chain-loosening St Leonard. The captivity of form in the case of the children, the captivity of knightly obligation, and the captivity of the geas or tabu. The swan – a white bird – is also an otherworldly creature with a propensity for migration and sitting on water, itself one of the gateways to the otherworld. The chains of the swan-children are like an unbreakable link with the otherworld and simultaneously evocative of the art of smithcraft, itself often equated with magic, itself a form of ‘binding’ of unseen powers. This brings us back to the question – already touched on – of the legendary (sometime captive) smith, Weland, known in Ireland as Cuillean…

Link to Weland and Cuillean:

The Poetic Edda’s ‘Lay of Weland’ (Völundarkviða) starts with Völundr (Weland – a prince of elves) and his brothers coming across three swan-maidens bathing in a lake, who they take as lovers. Swans being migratory, the girls eventually take off and Völundr’s brothers go with them leaving him alone. Like Manawydan in the Mabinogion, he takes up the life of a craftsman, which causes him to be kidnapped by King Niðhad who wishes to exploit his metalworking skills and has his hamstrings cut so he cannot run away. He extracts a terrible revenge by killing the king’s sons and making their bones into jewels which he gives the unwitting king and his queen, raping their daughter causing her to become pregnant with his child – presumably the inheritor of  Niðhad’s kingdom. Völundr then flees by flying away through the air. This brutal tale is in itself a warning not to abuse the help on offer from the otherworld’s denizens, and as such contains the same themes as the Arthurian legends and fairy romances of continental Europe during the same period.

Weland’s Wilkinasaga tradition (occurring in the Romance of Dietrich von Bern/Thidrekksaga) depicts him as the son of a character called Wade – a giant who fathers him with a mermaid (haffru). It is essentially the same tale of enslavement by the king and description of Volund’s terrible revenge and escape using wings to fly away. His Gaelic equivalent/counterpart, Cuillean, is – as has been previously suggested – identified with the sea-god, Manannan. This would make Wade and Lir coterminous, and it is evident from the continental traditions of the Knight of the Swan (Helias) that his father was the ruler of an Island and that the knight’s father – like Wade – conceived him with a fairy woman linked to water. The 12thC hagiography of St Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness has him visit the Isle of Man and defeat a flying wizard called Melinus, who I have suggested sounds like Manannan and Merlin compounded. Given the link between Manannan, Cuillean and therefore Weland, this flying aspect adds another level of intrigue.

The depiction of Weland/Volundr in the saga and German romances of Dietrich von Bern of him escaping by flying on wings seems somehow to evoke the swan children. His ability to propel himself over water in a hollowed out tree is another theme from the Dietrich saga which evokes the Knight of the Swan’s self-propelling boat, and also brings to mind the legend of Sceaf and Scylding alluded to in Anglo-Saxon mythic texts and poems.

The word ‘water’ has a linguistic link to the name of Weland’s father – ‘Wade’. This can be seen in the Polish word for water, which is wody and the Russian is the same – voda, from which ‘vodka’ is derived. ‘Wading’ is walking through water and it is even possible that ‘Wotan’ could be linked to water. The Welsh name for Manannan, ‘Manawydan’, might also by the same reckoning contain linguistic connotations of Wade. Even the eponymous relater of the Anglo-Saxon Widsith (Exeter Book ca.10thC CE) might have a relation – being so far-travelled and apparently present (Taliesin-like) at different points in history not possible for a mortal human.

Water was definitely the route by which souls and life in general was believed to transit from the Otherworld. The general belief appears to have been that souls left this world in an aerial form – as birds. It is therefore no surprise that migratory water birds such as swans would come to represent the Otherworld’s intermediary animals par-excellence.

Footnote: The Greeks – Even the ancient Greeks had a myth of the ‘Swan Maidens’ coded into the pre-Olympian mythology of their own traditions. These were the three Graeae daughters of the primal sea-god Phorcys, who appear in the myth of Perseus. They live on an island at the reaches of the world-ocean, Okeanos, (figuratively) in the ‘realm of Kronos’ on the far shores of time, close to the Otherworld itself. Far from being bathing beauties in the Perseus myth, they are aged crones who share one eye between them. They are sisters to the Gorgons, who are also counted among the Phorcydes – monstrous children of the sea, whose numbers include Scylla and Charybdis, Ladon and the Hyda among othersI suppose they were more than capable of transforming themselves into ravishing beauties, as most of the Atlantic ‘woman by the water’ deity archetypes seem to have this ability…




The woman who sat by the sea…

Buried deep within the mythical consciousness of Atlantic Europe is a very particular piece of imagery of a female sat waiting at the water’s edge. In its most common guise, it corresponds to the many stories of Mermaids and Merrows, often apparently found sitting on rocks at the seashore looking for human lovers. For inland-focussed cultures, these became characters such as the Melusine, the slavic Rusalkas, and the medieval ‘Arthurian’ Lake-Ladies and Fountain Maids. Even Frau Holle/Frau Gode has this attribute in some German tales, and consequently also the related Gaelic Cailleach, the Hispanic Moura, the Breton Gro’ach, and the WelshGwrach. She is depicted in stories either as the passive focus of an otherworldly encounter by a questing human protagonist, or as – in the case of the needy mermaid – a seeker of solace in the human world who waits for her catch. Either way, she is often depicted as a shape-shifting divinity who seeks a human lover, and has the power to bestow wealth and privilege, although often with an obligation and a moral sting in the tale.

Of all the places in Europe, the Isle of Man perhaps is perhaps the place where we find the greatest evidence linking mermaid-myths with the celtic goddess of the waters:

Themes of seduction and the sea are an ancient part of pagan metaphor

Isle of Man mermaid mythology:

The Isle of Man probably had a greater number of mermaid stories and traditions in its past that many places its size and larger. Particular traditions also occur in the other parish districts, with the following being recounted to George Waldron in the early 18thC (A Description of the Isle of Man, 1731) :

“… A very beautiful mermaid, say they, became so much enamour’d of a young man who used to tend his sheep on these rocks, that she would frequently come and sit down by him, bring him pieces of coral, fine pearls, and what were yet greater curiosities, and of infinitely more value, had they fallen into the hands of a person who knew their worth, shells of various forms and figures, and so glorious in their colour and shine that they even dazzled the eye that looked upon them. Her presents were accompanied with smiles, Battings on the cheek, and all the harks of a most sincere and tender passion; but one day throwing her arms more than ordinarily eager about him, he began to be frighted that she had a design to draw him into the sea, and struggled till he disengaged himself, and then ran a good many paces from her; which behaviour she resented so highly, it seems, that she took up a stone, and after throwing it at him, glided into her more proper element, and was never seen on land again. But the poor youth, tho’ but slightly hit with the stone, felt from that moment so excessive a pain in his bowels, that the cry was never out of his mouth for seven days, at the end of which he died …” (‘An account of the Isle of Man’, 1735)

In this, the amorous sea-maiden bestows gifts upon her human lover until spurned, then throws a stone at him causing him to become chronically ill (seemingly a version of the belief that fairies inflict disease with missiles or darts). Such motifs are found in mermaid myths everywhere, and the same themes occur around the Morrigan in Irish legends.

A late 19thC Manchester-based German ethnographer, Karl Roeder, was fascinated with the Isle of Man and produced a series of folklore-related articles in Manx newspapers which were eventually published in a book, ‘Manx Notes and Queries’. He collected a great deal of folkloric material in the island including a number of mermaid traditions among which was this one from the southernmost tip of the Island, where a sound separates the main island from its ‘Calf’:

“….Between Bow Veg and Glen Wither, on the coast north the Sound, is a place called Lhiondaig Pohllinag, or the Mermaid’s Green, or Garden, and the tradition is that the mermaids haunted it and sported about, basking themselves there… “

It is obvious from his description that mermaids were not just considered singular apparitions in the Isle of Man, but members of a tribe. The unusual Manx word ‘Pohllinag‘ means something like ‘sinker’ or possibly ‘pool-dweller’ (I believe it must be a fishermen’s term) and occurs in Archibald Cregeen’s ‘A Dictionary of the Manks Language’ (Pub. Quiggin, Douglas 1835) where he says it is more properly applied to a merman, albeit also in use for mermaids. John Kelly’s earlier Manx dictionary (late 18thC, but unpublished until after Cregeen’s) also gives the even more intriguing term ‘Muiraghan’ for mermaid, which readers might recognise to be a version of the Irish Morrigan – that otherworldly femme fatale encountered by Irish legendary heroes at river crossings! Cregeen and Kelly also both give the altogether more common Manx term used for the mermaid: Ben varrey (Ir. Bean Mara – ‘sea woman’).

The fairy washerwoman:

Another aspect to the celtic mermaid mythology that links with that of the Morrigan/Badb is that of the fairy washer-woman. This archetypal water-spirit is to be found in legend near to streams and rivers, performing her ablutions – sometimes viewed as a vision of death to come, particularly if washing a shroud or armour. The Isle of Man (perhaps unsurprisingly) had its fair stock of these as well, although by the 19th century it appears that mythology had separated mermaids and the ‘Ben Niee‘ (Ir. bean nighe) into two different classes. The fairy washerwoman in the Manx peoples’ imagination haunted the banks of inland streams, was often dressed in red, carried a candle and – like every good Caillagh – wielded a sladdan, which in this case was turned to the duty of beating the washing. W.W. Gill (Third Manx Scrapbook, Pub. Arrowsmith, London 1963) says that a vision of this spirit did not necessarily foretoken death – his early 20thC respondent believed it could signify a change in the weather…

“… The fairy-washerwoman of Maughold haunted a crossing-place on the Struan-ny-Niee named Boayl-ny-Niee, ” Place of the Washing,” …. A local man, R. L., calls this spectral laundress a Liannanshee, and says she held a lighted candle in one hand while she beat the clothes, or whatever it was she had, with her sladhan held in the other. A still older native of the district, K–, whose father actually saw her, and was not frightened at all, says she was “a lil red woman, and used to have a candle stuck in the bank beside her” (which was more sensible and convenient than holding it). In both versions she came out of the river, and to see her was a sure sign of dirty weather at hand, but of nothing worse. (I enquired carefully about that.) The Washer may not have been thought to be always the same personage, or a party of fairies may sometimes have been seen, for I have heard the Boayl-ny-Niee casually alluded to as “the place where the fairies washed their clothes”. But I could meet with no more than the two accounts just given.In other places in the Island it was always in parties that they did their washing. There was a flat stone, not now discoverable with certainty, in the Rhenab river a little way below where the lodge now stands, and at this the fairies were both heard and seen at night and early in the morning, washing clothes.At the side of the Gretch river in Lonan, in a spot called “the Fairy Ground”, the fairies used to be seen washing their babies. These solicitous mothers, like the Maughold laundresses, always wore red costumes.Three other fairy washing-places, which have been mentioned in print but are not included in any volume of folk-lore, may be added here. At a river-crossing in Glen Rushen the fairies soaked, beat, and shook out their garments, and hung them on the gorse-bushes to dry. One article, a beautifully-made cap which was too small for the smallest child in the glen, was brought home by a man who saw it being put on a bush ; but his mother made him take it back, “for fear the fairies would be afther it, an’ there wouldn’ be res’ in the house on the night ” (Lioar Manninagh, iv. p.161). Again, at an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard “beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream”. In another glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry (Chambers’ Journal, 1855). Similar sights may have given its name to “Glen Nee-a-nee” in Kirk Bride, thus spelt in Quarrie’s verses. The name probably contains the same word as Boayl-ny-Niee, where the sound would be better represented by ” N’yee.”From washerwomen, either human or spectral, comes the name of the river and of the places on its banks : the Stream of the Washing and the Place of the Washing, and Chibber-ny-Niee, the Well of the Washing, at its source. Near this is a small bridge under which, traditionally, women performed ritual ablutions in order to qualify as witches. The river-name may have travelled up its course from the Place …”

The water horse and the goddess:

The other dangerous or ominous spirit associated with rivers and streams in the Isle of Man (and indeed, throughout Europe) is the water horse or Cabbyl Ushtey, also known as the Glashan or Glashtyn (‘grey-green one’). This creature was supposed to be able to steal you away down into the depths of the waters to drown, probably after taking you on a wild night-time ride about the countryside. Known elsewhere as the Nikker, Kelpie, Nixie and Bäckahästen this pan-European myth is of ancient origin, and is a remnant of the Atlantic religion’s mythological narrative of death and the transit of the soul to the Otherworld. The water horse and the various waterside humanoid spirits are often interchangeable in folklore and mythology – possibly on account of this Atlantic belief – and this is no better illustrated and preserved than in another Manx legend, that of ‘Tehi-Tegi‘, here recounted by George Waldron in his 1731 book ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’, p.75:

‘He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.’

The legend recurs in a number of recorded tellings, although Waldron’s description of Tehi-Tegi transforming into a ‘bat’ is a misinterpretation – she turns into a wren, hence the wren-hunting traditions of the Christianised celtic world. The narrative is one of a demonised goddess, who once caused men to err, and for which they paid with their souls. The magnificent horse ridden by Tehi-Tegi is evidently the same as the Cabbyl Ushtey, the Kelpie and his continental cousins. Hannah Anne Bullock (History of the Isle of Man, Pub. Longman, London 1819) gives the more usual story (from Ch.19):

But one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy, and woe be to the individual birds of this species, who shew themselves on this fatal day to the active enemies of the race: they are pure sued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed, without mercy, and their feathers preserved with religious care, it being an article of belief, that every one of the relics gathered in this laudable pursuit, is an effectual preservative from shipwreck for one year; and that fisherman would be considered as extremely foolhardy, who should enter upon his occupation without such a safeguard.

Waldron’s translator for his version of the tale (Manx was the predominant spoken language in the 1720’s) evidently conflated the ‘titmouse’ and the ‘flittermouse’ – the former being an English synonym for the wren, goldcrest or firecrest, and the latter being the bat. Either which way, the tale is an important concretion of lost myth which sheds more light on mysterious ancient Celtic symbolism, as well as offering some insight into the symbolism on the mysterious Pictish pteroglyphs of the early middle ages. The transformative aspects of horse > sea creature is evocative of the passages in the Irish ‘Voyage of Bran‘ when Manannan leads the protagonist across the ocean to the otherworld and the horses seem to become fish.

The old woman who sat by the sea:

The Tehi-Tegi legend and the tradition of wren-hunting – like the Manx mermaid traditions – tended to locate around the fishing communities of the southern and western parts of the Isle of Man. Further investigation of the folklore of this region of the island uncovers a number of other variants on the mytheme. In particular, another name emerges for the aquatic female – ‘Yoan Mooir’ or ‘Joan Mere’, whose eponymous ‘house’ and mysterious ‘well’ could once be found near the cave-riddled sea cliffs between Port St Mary and the islet at the southern tip of Mann, known as the ‘Calf’. Manxmen used to use to personify the sea as ‘Joan Gorrym’ (‘Blue-Green Joan’) and ‘Joan Mooir’ is evidently the same personage. Her ‘house’ was actually a natural freshwater spring at the place known as the ‘Chasms’ close to the sea-shore, which flooded with saltwater at high tide. It may now be lost under rock slides, but such sea-side natural springs (as well as natural springs discharging directly into main waterways) may well have once been holy sites to pagans. A local example which has survived time somewhat better is Chibber Catreeney (‘St Catherine’s Well’) on the seafront in the town of Port Erin a couple of miles away from Joan Mere’s well. ‘Catherine’ is interchangeable with ‘Caithlin‘ – a name I have previously mentioned in relation to the names of the goddess from Ireland, and who appears as an aquatic female temptress-adversary (‘Cathaleen’) in the legend of St Caomhin (Kevin) at Glendalough. She also appears as the ‘Cathach’ beast defeated by St Senan of Iniscathy/Scattery in another christianising hagiographic myth, and elsewhere the town of Enniskillen is named after her sacred island on the river there.

In the Isle of Man, the well on the beach in Port Erin was associated with a fair at which a curious ritual used to be carried out, somewhat redolent of the Tehi-Tegi wren myth and customs: A hen was killed, and given a solemn burial complete with funeral dirges, its tail feathers being saved for luck. ‘He’s plucked the hen’s tail’ would be said of a drunkard, in honour of the festive nature of the former St Catherine’s day celebrations. Perhaps the term ‘cocktail’ even has some relation to this? The ‘Cath-‘ suffix in this divine name associated with the aquatic female is redolent of the Greek word ‘Kathe’ meaning ‘seat’, from which the words ‘cat’ (a sitting beast) and ‘cathedral’ (a bishop’s seat) derive, and which is also seen in the Irish word for a ‘fort’: cathair conventionally linked to the word for battle: ‘cath’ (eg – ‘Cath Maigh Tueredh’, the ‘Battle of Moytura’). Explorers of the ancient pagan sites of Ireland and Britain will be familiar with the profusion of sites referred to as ‘chairs’ or ‘seats’ in relation to saints and other mythical personages – this here is a clue! In particular, it appears that the gaelic goddesses sat next to water…

On the western Manx coast is the Baaie Mooar (Great Bay) with its Niarbyl rocks and the former fishing-settlement of Dalby. Apart from once being a good local source of mermaid traditions,this former fishing community also laid claim to a local tradition of a mysterious Old Woman, described by Caesar Cashin in an article for Mannin magazine (Volume 5, 1915), where he explores the Dalby coastal scenery and recounts its legends:

“…But the morning is growing on, so let us continue our walk along the cliffs to the south. First we come to a little cave called Ooig ny Meill, which has three entrances facing south, west, and east. Leading to the west entrance is a little patch of white sand, the only white sand on this coast, and once when a boy I saw on it tiny footprints, no bigger than my thumb, the marks of little clogs they were, going into the cave and round the rock in the middle of it. The rock is about two feet high and it was said that the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill—the Old Woman of Meill Cave, often sat on it with her face to the west. I think that she must have died, or shifted to some other cave, as she has not been seen for years…”

The image of an old woman sitting on a rock in a cave looking towards the sunset in the west is potent with the resonance of the Atlantic religious myth of the earth goddess estranged from her sun-god lover!

Cashin also mentions another cave – one of the more famous fairy caves on the Island – the ‘Ooig ny Seyir‘ (‘Cave of the Crafter’) in which the fairies were latterly believed to be heard making barrels for their salt-herring. Followers of my writing might recognise the possible connection here with Bridget – ‘goddess of smithcraft’ and the Romano-Celtic goddess name ‘Sirona‘. In fact, there are other legends which link the Island to Ireland’s tradition of a legendary magical smith, and otherworldly women who haunt the sea-shore and who provides weapons for mythological heroes:

Tiobal, Princess of the Ocean – daughter of Gullinus/Lir:

In her delightful book ‘Manx Fairy Tales’ (Pub. Nutt, London, 1911), Sophia Morrison recounts a more lyrical version of an ancient Irish tradition, first translated and published by Nicholas O’Kearney in the 1852-3 Proceedings of the Kilkenny and Southeast of Ireland Archaeological Society (Vol.2 , p.34), derived from an interlineal gloss in a 12thC Irish manuscript tale known as An T’ochtar Gaedhal (‘The Eight Irishmen’).

“… Gullinus quidem Пοσειδων fuit, nam Lir Ibernicum aut Phoenicum nomen Neptuni, et idem quod mare; ideo Guillinus fuit alterum nomen pro Lir, deo maris ut Tobal maris dea fuit. Nam illa Concubaro Mac Nessa, postea regi Ulthoniae, apparuit sub specie mulieris pulcherissimae, cum in Manniam jussu oraculu cui nomen Cloch-όir – i.e. saxum solis – quod isto tempore celebrerissimum fuit his partibus, adebat ad Gullinum quendam uti daret buadha druidica clypeo et armis ejus. Gullinus imaginem Tiobal in clypeum finxit, et buadha multa invincibilaque habebat, secundum aucthores vetheres Ibernicos .. ”

“… Gullinus was indeed Poseidon, for Lir is the Irish or Phoenician name of Neptune, and the same as the sea; so Gullinus was the other name for Lir, the god of the sea, just as Tiobal was the goddess of the sea. For she appeared to Conchobar Mac Nessa, afterwards King of Ulster, in the form of a very beautiful woman, when by the decree of the oracle, whose name was clochuir, i.e., the stone of the sun, which at the time was very celebrated in these parts, he was going to Man, to a certain Gullinus, in order that he might give him druidical buadha for his shield and arms. Gullinus fashioned the image of Tiobal on his shield, and it had many buadha, according to the old Irish authors …”

The Latin author is obviously keen to address some actual Irish/Manx pagan traditions using his classical learning, and explicitly states that ‘Gullinus’ (i.e. – Cuillin, Gullion, Whallin etc) resided in the Isle of Man and was one and the same as the sea-god, Lir. Manx tradition, of course identifies this character with Manannan, ‘Son of Lir’, who functions in Irish myths as a donator of magical weapons and as lord of the Otherworld. The legend resonates with the imagery of Greek goddess Athena’s shield – the aegis – depicting the head of the monstrous island-goddess and daughter of the ancient Greek sea-god Phorcys: namely, the gorgon Medusa.

Strangely, Irish mythology contains other allusions to mysterious females found wondering the liminal Manx shorelines by adventurers. Tiobal (Tiobhal/’Teeval’) appears (all be it under a different name) in a version of this myth recounted in the 9thC Irish text, Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) This is the story of Prull (an old Irish word meaning’greatly/excessively’) – in which it is not Conchobar who quests to the Isle of Man in search of mysterious buadha from its shoreline denizens, but a party of the legendary Chief Ollamh of Ireland, Senchán Torpeist (who is possibly a legendary model for the Christian mythological ‘hero’ St Senan). In the tale, the Ollamh leaves Ireland with his retinue of 50 bards to visit the Isle of Man, and on his arrival it appears that he meets no less than the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill, or at least someone entirely like her…

(Translation and glosses by Whitley Stokes/John O’Donovan)

“… They afterwards reach Mann and leave their fleet on land. As they were on the strand, they saw the old woman (sentuinne) grey-haired, feeble, on the rock. Sentuinne i.e. an old woman [i. Cailleach], ut poeta dixit:

An old woman and old priest,

A grave-broom is their withered beard,

Provided they do not serve God’s Son,

And do not give their first fruits.

Thus was the old woman [Cailleach] on the strand, cutting sea-weed and other sea-produce. Signs of rank (were) her feet and hands, but there was not goodly raiment on her. She had the ghastliness [?] of famine. A pity was this, for she was the poetess, daughter of Ua Dulsaine of Muscraige Liac Thuill in the country of the Hi-Fhidgenti, who had gone on a circuit of Ireland and Scotland until all her people had died. Then the ceard (smith/craftsman!), her brother, son of Ua Dulsaine, was seeking her throughout Ireland, but found her not. …”

The narrative unfolds as one of the ‘loathly lady’ – a crone who is secretly a radiantly beautiful and divine personage. The implication is that the woman is one of the ancient survivors of the first race – a theme which weaves through Irish legends (Book of Invasions, Children of Lir etc). She challenges the poets to a lyrical contest by challenging them to complete verses, but none can best her save for an ugly youth who Senchan had only allowed along as an afterthought. The Cailleach recognises his abilities and Senchan returns to Ireland where the youth then assumes his own true radiant form – as another member of the lost race of Ua Dulsaine – another transformation from ugliness into beauty. ‘Ua Dulsaine’ (Dulsaine = Satire) seems also to be a play on the word ‘Dulse’ – and edible seaweed that has been a traditional staple of Irish seaside communities for millennia, so ‘Ua Dulsaine’ appears to be another reference to the solar sea-god: Lir, Manannan or Cuillin. The ‘sentuinne’ is therefore Tiobal in disguise – the bardic poetics are sheer genius! Senchan was supposed to have lived in the time of King Guaire Aidhne who in the Sanas Cormaic tale, sent him on the quest to find the children of ‘inspiration’ – children who were, in fact, Ireland’s old gods.

Caillagh y Groamagh:

The legend of the ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ is another Manx Cailleach tradition which ties the old-woman to the shoreline. Usually translated as ”Old Woman of the Gloom’, the linguistically astute might recognise that the Manx word ‘groamagh’ (pronounced with a m>w lenition as ‘gro-ach’) is the same as the name of legendary seaside female spirit in the Breton legends, the Gro’ach. This is also a metathesis of the Welsh word for ‘hag’, which is gwrach (as in ‘Gwrach y Rhybin’). Gloomy and old she might be, but in the Manx legend she was important enough to have a day named after her – ‘Caillagh y Groamgh’s Day’ which strangely enough coincides with St Bridget’s day, Imbolc, the 1st or 12th of February (depending on how you determine it).

“… Caillagh-ny-groamagh, the gloomy or sulky witch, was said to have been an Irish witch who had been thrown into the sea by the people in Ireland with the intention of drowning her. However, being a witch, she declined to be drowned, and floated easily until she came to the Isle of Man, where she landed on the morning of February 12th. It was a fine, bright day, and she set to work to gather “brasnags”—sticks to light a fire, by which she was able to dry herself. The spring that year was a wet one. It is said that every 12th February morning she still goes out to gather brasnags to make a fire by which to dry herself; that if it be fine up to noon, and she succeeds in doing so, then a wet spring will follow. But, if the morning be wet and she cannot get dry, then the spring will be a dry one …” (Yn Lioar Manninagh, Volume 1 p.223, Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1889)

Not only was she associated with collecting sticks on the beach early in February (a pastime which might also be observed among the early-nesting ravens during this period!) but she had a piece of headland named after her in Maughold: Gob ny Callee. Maughold was the legendary Manx saint who, curiously, also arrived in the Isle of Man after being cast adrift from Ireland. He was reputed to have found the key to his fetters inside a fish – a pescatological phenomenon also displayed by Pictish/Dalriada saint Kentigern (Mungo) whose mother was reputed in his hagiography (by Jocelyn of Furness, some-time Manx Abbot of Rushen Abbey) to have been cast adrift and discovered by monks on the beach as she grubbed around looking for sticks to light a fire next to which she could give birth to the saint. The story of how Mungo’s mother (note: Mungo = a codifed version of Manannan) came to be in the water was that she fell (was pushed) from a cliff – which happens by coincidence to be another property displayed by the Manx Caillagh y Groamagh. W.W. Gill explained this in relation to the folklore about a land-feature in Ballagilbert Glen in the south of the Isle of Man (‘A Manx Scrapbook’, Pub. Arrowsmith, London, 1929 ):

“… This wide, green, shallow valley, always pleasant in summer with flowing waters and unpleasant with standing waters in winter, secluded and now nearly depopulated, has retained a few place-names and scraps of lore attaching to them which deserve to be rescued. In the lane leading to Ballagilbert farmhouse on the East side of the Glen lurked a moddey dhoo (Ed: ‘black dog’ spirit), headless like that at Hango (Ed: near Castletown). Near the top of the valley is a small depression called Caillagh ny Groamagh, (“Old Woman of the Gloominess”,) into which cavity she fell – or which she scooped out by falling – when trying to step from the top of Barrule to the top of Cronk yn Irree Lhaa. The impression of her heels and her thoin are said to be distinctly visible in the soil. A similar anecdote is told of the more serious fall, resulting in a broken neck and burial, of a Caillagh or Hag who came from the North to perform a series of jumps from height to height among the Lough Crew hills in Meath. Apart from this mishap to the Manx Caillagh, she is well known for her influence over the weather, as related in Folk-lore of I.O.M. and elsewhere; in Scotland she is the actual personification of bad weather. As accounts of the Caillagh my Groamagh vary somewhat, I will include here what I have learned of her in Patrick, which at least contains one detail I believe to be fresh and is certainly striking. First, however, it should be said that her alternative name, ” Fai’ag,” is merely a pronunciation of Faihtag-the exact spelling is optional, as with so many Manx words-meaning prediction or prophecy. Another Hag or Witch, the Caillagh ny Gueshag, is, in so far as these shadowy abstractions can be classified, much the same personage. Taken as one, they seem to combine the characteristics of the Scottish Caillagh ny Bheur (sic), familiar to students of Highland, and especially Argyllshire, folk-lore, and the Irish Cailleach Bera or Bheartha, who, it may be surmised, are sisters of the Teutonic goddess-giantess Berchta or Bertha and entered Britain with the Norse via Scotland. As inghin Ghuillinn, daughter of Cuillin, she was related to the Celtic equivalent of Volundr or Weyland the Smith, who is also known in Man, and she had a house of stone on Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh and other places …”

Identity of Gullin/Cuillin with Manannan:

In relation to the connection between Manannan and Cuillean, there is another Manx tradition, handed down verbally until it was written in the 16thC states that the people of the island annually paid tribute to the god with bundles of rushes, a practice which is still echoed in the rush-strewing upon the processional way at the annual Tynwald ceremony still held by local officials at the manmade ceremonial hill at St John’s in the shadow of Cuillin’s mountain: Slieu Whallian (the local version of ‘Slieve Gullion’). Here is part of Joseph Train’s rough literal translation of the old manuscript which was written in Manx:

If you would listen to my story,

I will pronounce my chant

As best I can;

I will, with my mouth,

Give you notice of the enchanted Island.

Who he was that had it first,

And then what happened to him;

And how St. Patrick brought in Christianity,

And how it came to Stanley.

Little Mannanan was son of Leirr,

He was the first that ever had it;

But as I can best conceive,

He himself was a heathen.

It was not with his sword he kept it,

Neither with arrows or bow,

But when he would see ships saving,

He would cover it round with a fog.

He would set a man, standing on a hill,

Appear as if he were a hundred ;

And thus did wild Mannanan protect That Island with all its booty.

The rent each landholder paid to him was,

A bunch of coarse meadow grass yearly,

And that, as their yearly tax,

They paid to him each midsummer eve.

Some would carry the grass up

To the great mountain up at Barrool;

Others would leave the grass below,

With Mannanan’s self, above Keamool.

The ‘Manx Traditionary Ballad’ serves as a reminder to the Isle of Man’s persistent attachment to paganism which caused it to protect and preserve so many of the ideas lost to history elsewhere. Train translates rushes (the ancient Gaelic symbol of hospitality) as ‘coarse meadow grass’. Tynwald Day is in fact old midsummer day – reckoned on the Julian calendar, and now falling 13 days after the date of current midsummer day. ‘Keamool’ means ‘stepped hill’, and is a reference to the Tynwald mound:

The Tynwald Hill in St John's, Isle of Man. Slieu Whallian is the mountain in the background - it is the terminal peak on the ridge descending from South Barrule, which is cited in Manx legend as home of the god Manannan.


Connections with ancient Greek mythology:

The earliest European literary citations of aquatic feminine divinities come from the legendary corpus of ancient Greek literature. These were basically inscribed versions of a vast plastic oral tradition, often with many regional variations. In Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 700BC) he talks of Keto – daughter of the personified earth, Gaia, and her son Pontus – the sea. Keto (whose name is usually translated as ‘sea beast’) was the mother of the famous monsters who peopled the far shores of Okeanos in Greek myth – Scylla, the Graeae, Ladon (the dragon from the tree in the garden of the Hesperides) and the Gorgons among them. This makes her the primal oceanic mother of the older Greek gods. She may somehow be related to the sea monster (and constellation) known as Cetus, whom the legendary hero Perseus defeated in order to save princess Andromeda. This makes the ‘old woman of the sea’ a fundamental pagan religious archetype, linked to the chthonic and creative aspects of the serpentine and monstrous beasts of the underworld and the vast ocean.

The Sirenes or Seirenes (described in Homer’s 7thC BCE epic, the Oddyssey) were another category of challenging oceanic island-dwelling females, who perhaps give us the oldest literary mythological attestation of what we would recognise as ‘mermaids’. Rather than being half-fish, however, they (like the Gaelic goddess in her land-based form) partook of the nature of birds. Their beautiful song supposedly drew men to them, and lulled them into a trance, and and they would die of hunger among their flowery meadows . In the legend of Odysseus, they throw themselves off cliffs into the sea and die when Odysseus and his crew pass by their island, apparently unaffected by their magical song. Their name offers a tantalising linguistic link to the shoreline smith-legends of the medieval Gaelic world, as the Gaelic word tSaoire means ‘smith’, a word perhaps related to the sparks which are such a feature of metal-working: ‘Sirom’ was a Gaulish word for ‘star’ (compare Latin sidus). The Sirenoi – as inhabitors of far-off ocean shores – may well owe their literary existence to some well-travelled Greeks, to whom the Atlantic archipelago was as close as they feared get to the edge of the world and the islands of the Gorgons, the Graeae and the Hesperides, where (so the legend goes) ‘here be dragons’…


Solar aspects of European gods: Kronos, Janus, Neptunus, Dionysus, Mars, Apollo and Manannan

In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, a profusion of small mobile island-based cultures and vigorous sea-borne trading nations coupled with the developing ‘city’ polities fostered a diversification of European pagan philosophies. In the eastern Mediterranean, these were dominated by the Greek and Phoenician cultures.

Contact with the religiously sophisticated ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations caused a continuous flow of ‘oriental’ cultural and religious ideas (including writing) into the west and the north.

These processes would inevitably lead to a fragmentation and sub-specialisation of the empirical principle of a ‘solar hypostasis god’ (and complimentary earth goddess) into multiple divinities, bearing (perhaps unsurprisingly) many different names. The persistence and re-integration of such divinities into the religious landscape of the dominant cultures of the Classical era Greeks and then the Hellenised Romans led to the demotion or promotion of these gods as part of a hierarchical ‘pantheon’, as well as a ‘familiarisation’, ‘temporalisation’ and ‘spacialisation’ of their existence in mythical traditions, based upon the apparent similarity/relation of one to the other, the age of their traditions and their location of origin. Thus the ‘Solar God’ archetype came to associated with a diverse set of gods, but most importantly: Kronos/Saturn, Poseidon/Neptunus, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mars, Apollo (worshipped by the Romans under his Greek name) and Janus (for whom there was no Greek alternative).

These identities seem to have often aggregated under a unified entity: ‘Zeus’ and ‘Jupiter’ (‘God’ and ‘Father God’) whom the mythological traditions tied up with the formal duties of ‘ruler’ of the others. He was a sky god – grandson (according to tradition) of the deified sky: Ouranus or Uranus. The mythological formality of the ‘ruler’ god, left little subtlety for expression of divine higher truths, and Zeus/Jupiter spent a mythological life doing what kings do: Lounging around, fornicating, making war, punishing miscreants and putting on spectacular displays of power and majesty. The cultic ‘mysteries’ were left to the subservient aspects of the ‘masculine’ solar divinity, who had developed many faces by the 1st millennium BC:

Kronos or Saturn:

Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of this god (borrowing from lost works of Nigidius) comes to us from the brilliant early 5thC CE pagan Greco-Roman author Macrobius Theodosius (‘Macrobius’), and his great work titled Saturnalia – one of the most significant late-classical treatises dealing with pagan mythology. It was written during a period when christianity was being actively incorporated over the shell of the receding pagan world of Rome’s great Empire, and it is possible that Macrobius himself was Christian, and wished to examine the underlying philosophical elements of paganism in order to unite the two in continuity. Of Kronos, he had this to say:

“… Κρóνος (Kronos) is the same as χρóνος (Khronos – time): for as much as the mythographers offer different versions of Saturn in their tales, the physical scientists (‘physici’ – philosophers) restore to him a certain likeness to the truth. They say that he cut off the genitals of his father, Heaven, and that when these were cast into the sea Venus was engendered, taking the name Aphrodite from the foam from which she was formed. They take this to mean that when chaos existed, time did not, since time is a fixed measurement computed from the rotation of the heavens. Hence Κρóνος, who I said was χρóνος, is thought to have been born from heaven (caelo) itself. Because the seeds for engendering all things after heaven flowed down from heaven, and because the elements that fill the world took their start from those seeds, when the world was complete in all its parts and members, the process of bringing forth seeds from heaven for the creation of the elements came to an end at a fxed moment in time, since a full complement of elements had by then been created. The capacity for engendering living things in an unbroken sequence of reproduction was transferred from water to Venus, so that all things would thenceforth come into being through the intercourse of male and female…” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 8.6-8.8, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

The castration of the sky (Ouranos/Uranus) by it’s titanic son, Kronos, is therefore the first act producing the male:female dipole upon which the god:goddess conception hinges. The ancients equated the stars of heaven with souls and these are portrayed in the Kronian myth as the seeds spilling from the castrated genitals of the sky into the oceans. Macrobius explains that the Roman word for Kronos, Saturn, is an epithet derived from a Greek word for the penis: σαθη (sathê), from which the Dionysian ‘satyrs’ are named. Charles Darwin’s greatest offence to protestant Victorian society was, it appears, simply to have suggested that the ancient Greek pagans had the right idea about evolution and sex after all! Unseemly!

Macrobius suggests that Kronos is a solar god on account of his genesis of the cycles of time – marked to us by the turning of the days, months and years, which underpin the cycles of fertility in the world. Kronos himself was therefore possibly supposed to represent the sun, representing the first star whose heat nourishes the life on earth. Indeed, his mythological devouring and regurgitation of his divine offspring (the Olympian gods) adds further credence to the destructive and life-giving aspects of the sun. The reason Kronos was not usually considered as an immanently-presiding god, was because his birth and creation of life fixes him at the start of time, where he is doomed to stay in myth and definition: cast on the far shores of Oceanus. As an originator god, Saturn was both the ancestral deity and provider of fertility, celebrated at the annual winter Saturnalia (Rome) or Kronia (Greece) with which Christianity collocated its nativity festival at the winter solstice, when the sun was deemed to be spending most of its time in the Otherworld. The otherworld was both the retreat of dead souls, and the source of returning fertility, which Macrobius noted was engendered on the world through water, into which the sun appears to plunge nightly from western coastal regions. The solar aspect of Kronos are therefore remarkable.


Janus (after whom the month of January gets its name) was one of the typically Roman gods, who we generally remember as being the one with two faces, ‘looking forwards and backwards in time’. Like with the Greek hearth goddess Hestia, it was customary to invoke Janus first at religious rites of other Roman gods. Macrobius has the following to say:

” … Some claim that Janus is shown to be the sun and has his two-fold nature because both heavenly doorways are in his power, as he opens the day by rising and closes it by setting; and further that when some god’s rite is being celebrated, he is called upon first so that he might open the way to the god to whom the sacrifice is being made, as though sending suppliants’ prayers on to the gods through his own gateways. Hence, too, his likeness is commonly represented keeping the number 300 in its right hand and 65 in its left, to indicate the measure of the year, which is the sun’s chief function… ” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 9.9-9.10, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

Macrobius is able to associate Janus with both Diana (the ‘lunar’ huntress whose brother was ‘solar’ Apollo, and who was known to the Greeks as both Artemis and Hecate, among other names) and Juno, wife of Jupiter and chief goddess (known to the Greeks as the scheming and jealous Hera, consort of Zeus). Indeed ‘Janus’ and ‘Juno’ have the appearance of a ‘matrimonial’ or ‘gender-twin’ god-pair similar to, for example Freyr and Freyja. Although Artemis/Diana is depicted as a ‘virgin’ goddess, this status is mystically equated with maximum sexual fertility potential, and Macrobius explains that Diana was considered a feminine part of the god, whose dual-nature is so apparent, arguing that ‘Diana’ is ‘Ianus’ with a super-added ‘D’. As the visible faces of the Roman and Greek gods were in reality fronts or ‘masks’ of their deeper mysteries, he may well be correct.

Janus was therefore a god of gateways and openings, as well as a somewhat daemonic entity, who – somewhat like Mercury or Hermes – carried messages from the mundane to the divine. The gates of the god’s temple were propped open in times of war, and the public reason for this was made into a story involving an early war between the Romans and the Sabines when Janus was said to have mysteriously opened Rome’s closed gate, and sent a torrent of boiling water at the Sabines from his temple, saving the city. Deeper reasons may link to the cult of the afterlife in which both Saturn and Janus played a part – the doors were probably opened to admit souls of dead warriors to the precincts of the god. The god’s statuary attributes (apart from his two faces) were the rod and the key, denoting measurement (?of lives, time, space) and the key (signifying the unlocking of thresholds). It was widely believed that worship of the god preceded the establishment of Rome itself, making Janus one of the rare and antique indigenous gods not borrowed from the Greeks. His cult is shrouded in a good deal of mystery, and his attributes seem to link him closely to Kronos/Saturn, who he may have been the original indigenous version of.


Mars and/or Quirinus were – like Janus – aspects of an indigenous Sabine-Etruscan-Latin deity whose veneration appears to have preceded the influence of the Greeks. His Greek counterpart, Ares, was not equivalent – Mars was more of a chthonic deity of abundance-through-strife, whereas Ares was a colder divinity representing violence. Implicit in the idea of Mars was symbolic struggle of nature, and the renewal offered by death. He was therefore closer in conception to Ares’ brother, Apollo, who was identical in practical respects to the Greek solar god, Helios: the sun burns, and the sun renews.

The custom of opening the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war seems to link him to the cult of Mars as a war-god. In fact, Janus was also known as Janus Quirinus suggesting a syncresis. Quirinus was also cited as the deified ancestor-founder of Rome: Romulus. The priest of Quirinus (the Flamen Quirinalis) presided over a number of ancient chthonic-ancestor cult practices, most important of which were the Larentalia (23rd December – associated with the Saturnalia, no less) the late-April celebration of vegetative growth of crops called Robigalia (Robigus was evidently a jealous chthonic ancestral spirit who craved the goodness of grain, and was credited with causing soot and ergot etc) and the Consualia Aestiva in August after harvest was gathered (in honor of Consus, guardian of grain stores). ‘Larentia‘ was a consort of ‘Romulus’ in Rome’s founding myths – she was the ‘Mater Larum’ or guardian of ancestral souls: again an incarnation of the Great Goddess, just as her consort (Quirinus) is the founding male part of the equation. The god Portunus was also worshipped as a protector of storehouses and gateways, indicating he was somehow related to both Quirinus and Janus.

‘Mars Quirinus’ was the god’s epithet in times of peace, and ‘Mars Gradivas’ in times of war, at least in Republican times when he used to be part of the early ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. This was why the principle Flamens (high priests) of the state religion were the Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis. The ‘Triad’ (based on an older Celtic-style triune deity) eventually changed to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno – reflecting, perhaps, Greek religious tastes.


Poseidon is considered to have been the prime deity of the Mycenaean civilisation from which classical Greek civilisation developed. Neptune was his Roman counterpart, an Italic god of not just the sea but lakes and rivers, who was generally conflated with Greek Poseidon by the 4thC BCE. As the ‘brother’ of Zeus he ruled over the earth and the waters which flowed on and through it. Their other brother, Hades, ruled the cthonic underworld, and Zeus was master of the sky and heavens. This in itself a ‘solar’ triform god hypostasis.

As well as being associated with the waters (and their sculpting force upon the land, believed to include earthquakes) Poseidon/Neptune was the main god associated with horses, both legendary and mundane. These animals were strongly associated with solar mythology, and the sun was depicted as being conveyed in a four-horse quadriga chariot. Waves are figuratively depicted as white horses. The celtic peoples believed the horse would carry you to the otherworld, and their late Iron Age coinage uses the image of the horse and the sun more than any other symbolism.

The Roman god Portunus (mentioned above) was also related to Neptune, in that he was appealed to in order to ensure naval victory, and was a god of ports, harbours and gateways. The sea or water represented a ‘crossing over’ to ancient minds – the sun disappeared into it, and death was assured to those who stayed submerged in it. There might possibly be an older (possibly even non-italic) shared origin for Portunus and Neptune, and they share names with similar sounds. The Irish mythological character Nechtain (mentioned in Dindsenchas as husband of Bóand) might be a celtic version of Neptune (with the P<>Q/K sound transfer) – his magical well in his palace of Síd Nechtain was the mystical source of the River Boyne (Bóand). Other linguistic aspects of note that link the name to horses and water are the ‘Neck’ spirits of north European folklore, otherwise known as ‘water horses’ or ‘kelpies’.


The epiphanic Dionysus was an important solar god who represented the aspect of sun-driven vegetative growth and in particular, the ecstasy-inducing produce of the vine. He was a central figure of a number of important mystery cults, and was known to the Romans under one of his other names – Bakkhos or Bacchus. His cult may have originated further north in Europe or the Near East, and in Thrace he was known as Sabazios, and shared aspects of Apollo. In fact, at Delphi in Greece (Hellas) he sat in for Apollo once a year when the sun god was deemed to be taking a holiday among the noble barbarians of Hyperborea, somewhere beyond the river Eridanus, site of an infamous mythological accident suffered by the chariot of Helios, whose son Phaeton took it on an ill-starred joyride. Like the sun, Dionysus was portrayed as coming from the east, leading some to posit that he had eastern origins, but this is not necessarily the case. The cult of Dionysos was not just an orgiastic celebration of fertility, but a mystical expression of the connection between death and new life. Aspects of it were borrowed into the mythology of christianity – for instance, the motif of death and rebirth comes from the mythology of Dionysus, particularly in the Orphic mysteries. Unlike the ‘hero’ gods of Greek, Roman and Thracian religion who were depicted armed with weapons, Dionysus flourished the thyrsus – a stave topped with a pine cone, deliberately suggestive of the phallus. His mythical retinue consisted of ‘wise Silenus’, the ithyphallic Satyrs and the crazed retinue of the female maenads.

Dionysus was not just a god, but a ‘prophet’ through whom the mysteries of life and death could be addressed periodically. He was somewhat unobtainable, except through throwing oneself into the wild aspects of his rites. Temples dedicated to him were a late feature of the Roman empire, and in Greece his most significant structures were his open air theatres.


The ‘purest’ or most overt solar god was Apollo, who might be thought of as the youthful god of new dawn. Often cultically portrayed with a bow, arrows and lyre (perhaps signifying the rays of the rising sun), he was also depicted with his chthonic adversary, the serpent Python, which his mythology describes him slaying. This Apollonian myth is also echoed in the myths of semi-mortal Herakles/Hercules who meets the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides, while seeking the golden apples of immortality. The symbolism was the conquest of death, and it is easy to see the parallels with Dionysus. Along with the Thracian Sabazios, Hercules, Apollo and Dionysus appear to have resonated with the Celts much more than other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, and influenced their imagery and religious practices during the syncretic eras between the 3rdC BCE and 3rdC CE.  Unlike Dionysus, Apollo’s was generally seen as a more stable and providential presence. His widespread presence in syncretic-era Celtic shrines attests to the importance of the solar godhead in these cultures.

A note on Hades/Pluto:

Hiding in the shady realms of the Greco-Roman underworld of the dead, it is hard to consider Hades as a ‘solar’ deity, yet the darkness – an inverted state of the sun’s light is itself an aspect of that light. It is therefore important to consider Hades a part of the ‘solar’ god-hypostasis. Indeed, to the Greeks he was part of the triform Olympian brotherhood of Zeus-Poseidon-Hades who ruled over the earth’s aspects: Zeus had the skies and heavens, Poseidon the earth and waters, and Hades the underworld realms.

The Atlantic solar god:

In Irish mythology, the ‘sea’ god Manannán mac Lir shows all of the characteristics of a sun-god. From his ‘epiphanic’ arrivals bearing gifts and challenges in tales such as Echtra Cormaic maic Airt (‘The Deeds of Cormac, son of Art’) to his mysterious psychopompic departures to the Otherworld in the poem Immram Brain maic Febail (‘Voyage of Bran, son of Febhal’), he typifies the solar archetypes which informed the worship of Europe’s ancient solar god-hypostasis. To the Atlantic Celts, the sun’s visible disappearance far away into the great western ocean maintained an implied marine aspect to their sun-god, who being born again every morning in the east, was also god of the Otherworld. Manannán seems to incorporate multiple aspects of the Mediterranean deities under one guise – Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and Apollo in particular. It is likely that Manannán was an elegant expression of (were it not for the Goddess) monotheistic godhood behind Ireland’s apparently rapid transit from paganism to being at the cutting edge of the medieval Christian world.

Of course, ‘Manannán’ was only one name or epithet for the solar god among the Irish celts. and the character appears under other guises across Europe. In fact Manannán’s character in his Irish legends is explicitly that of a shape-shifter and master of disguise. His wizardly abilities identify him with similar god-like characters such as Merlin and Wodan/Odin, as I have discussed previously. To the warlike Iron Age celts he was best-known as ‘Belenos‘ – the god to whom warriors pledged their lives in battle, and who promised them reincarnation. Under the epithet ‘Cernunnos‘, he was depicted as a fighting fertility god, with imagery redolent of the battling, rutting beast. Called ‘Esus‘ he was cultified as the branch-cutting god – another warlike image symbolic of killing, typical to the La Téne age, and a possible link to the Norse ‘Aesir’. Called ‘Teutates’ or ‘Andraste’ he was signified as a tribal ancestor-originator. As ‘Taranis‘, he was the energising regenerator whose ‘wheel’ image was an overt symbol of the sun which promised regeneration to come. Under christianity he became represented as the warrior-angel St Michael, Christianised as ‘Malo‘, ‘Mel’ or a multitude of other saints, and demonised as any number of legendary pseudo-historic evil kings, giants, goblins and devils. Due to the weaving of Roman paganism into continental and British celtic cultures, he was deeply buried in layers of syncretism, of which christianity was the most recent incarnation. Whatever guise the god took, he kept his most complete and fascinating literary and mythological identity in Ireland’s Manannán: the Atlantic otherworld solar god.