‘Root, branch and seed’ – Ancestral tree-analogies in Europe’s pagan past

Europe’s ancient pagan religions had their origins buried deep in a pervasive natural philosophy whose origins can be traced far into the pre-historic archaeological record to the cultures of the Bronze Age and Neolithic periods. This philosophy was one of death, the afterlife, regeneration and links with the ancestors. Not only does it employ the analogies of life-giving springs of water, regenerating serpents and the firmament of putrefaction from which life re-emerges, but also the active growth and re-growth of plants and trees in nature, particularly the nourishing agricultural crops and wild foliage sustaining man and the animals he relied upon. For this reason, the symbolism of the branch and the ear of corn was of particular importance to Europe’s ancient pagan cultures – Celtic, Thracian, Greek and Roman.

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Note the branch between the warriors - the flowers look like Henbane. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The ‘celtic warrior’ panel from the interior of the Gundestrup cauldron. Note the branch between the warriors. The ‘flowers’ look like Henbane – herb of the dead. Photo: Malene Thyssen

Hercules and the confronts Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (Roman Hispania)

Hercules confronts Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (mosaic from Roman Hispania)

Corn ears on a coin of Cunobellinus (Catuvellauni/Trinovantes) 1stC AD.

Corn ear on a coin of Cunobellinos (Catuvellauni/Trinovantes) 1stC AD. It is possible that Cunobellinos was an initiate of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps part of the scheme of Caesar Augustus to ‘Romanise’ the wild pagan elites of north Europe.

The branch is a particular symbol found on the 'Anted Rig' British celtic gold staters.

The branch is a particular symbol found on the ‘Anted Rig’ British celtic gold staters. Like those of Cunobellinos, they were minted during a time of crisis in the Celtic world, when tribal unity was of utmost importance.

The analogy of the tree is of particular importance, and sacred groves were of great importance to all of Europe’s pagan religions – be they Celtic, Greek, Germanic, Thracian or Roman. Sacred trees remained important to the cosmologies of Europe’s longest-surviving pagan traditions (for instance, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states) far into the middle ages.

Trees were symbolically  important for the following reasons:

They represented the ‘reflected’ symmetry between the mundane and spirit worlds. The roots below the earth are a reflection of the branches in the air above. The tree was therefore a link between the supra-terranean world and the mysterious chthonic realms into which living matter decayed and from which life seemed to eternally regenerate. ‘As above, so below’, so the saying goes. The idea of the ‘family tree’ depicts the analogy of ancestors and generations. The roots of the ‘family tree’ were the ancestors, the trunk the living patriarchs and matriarchs,  and the branches and fruits the future life and continuity of the family. Trees are analogous with rivers in many ways. The tree’s branching nature shares a very distinct similarity with the patterns exerted upon our landscapes by rivers. The winding nature of great rivers is also analogous to the shape of the snake, and rivers, trees and snakes are distinct in the symbolism of the Otherworld and its flow of interaction with the ‘world of the living’. Trees and plants rely very strongly upon sources of water, and are also prone to being struck by that other great ‘branching’ phenomenon of nature: lightning. Nourished by water welling up from the earth, and destroyed by lighting branching down from the sky – it  is no surprise that the tree is such a potent symbol of the forces connecting the heavens and the earth… Trees are the longest-lived organisms. Trees outlive almost any other species, and are therefore entrusted with the positive faculties of age: wisdom, perseverance and constancy. Trees might witness events spanning the lives of successive generations of humans. They protect and shelter, we build our homes and conveyances from them – they are a source of strength and protection to us. The physical nature of wood changes little after its death. Apart from ceasing to produce leaves and new growth, wood maintains its structural properties much better than other living organisms once it is dead. Well-treated wood lasts millennia, in fact. This property gives it a special place in human consciousness and imagination. The tree represents monarchy. The stout trunk and roots are the cohesive force of monarchy itself, with the topmost branch representing the king or queen and the lesser branches the subjects.

Gods and Robbers: Robin Hood

Undoubtedly the most globally famous of Britain and Ireland’s legendary bandits is the much vaunted Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest. His popularity has much to do with his wide-ranging status as a champion of the disenfranchised, freedom-fighter against oppressors, self-sufficient inhabitant of the marginal wilds, egalitarian redistributor of wealth and adventurer whose legend resonates with a timeless, placeless audience. Of all the mythological outlaws of note, his has most often been linked to the euhemerisation of the land’s oral traditions of older pagan gods, trampled under the march of quill and parchment from the early middle ages. As most people know a few stories about him, in this post I am going to refrain from discussing plots which have little relevance to the underlying meaning.

In truth, evidence about the origins of the myth of ‘Robin Hood’ is somewhat sketchy, and this in itself is complicated by the apparent transformations of the tale in art, song, story and dramatic performance right down to the most modern times. The story seems always to have suited various contemporary propagandistic political and revisionist narratives which have retold it in order to magnify their own contemporary causes through appropriation of the story. More recently, for instance, it has been used to serve both cold-war communist and multiculturalist dogmas. However, the underlying narrative is one of the establishment of justice and economic stability, essentially crystalized in the following framework-myth:

A outlaw man with claims to leadership of the common people (i.e. – national husbandry) is expelled from his community when it comes under the yoke of a wrongful order which is unjust and economically unfair. He goes to live in the wilds where he learns skills that allow him both to survive without recourse to common society and to become a master of his new kingdom – nature itself. The hero gradually makes increasingly bold forays against the invasive new order, and sweeps back into the social spotlight where he dazzles and tricks his way through the obstacles thrown in his path, eventually regaining his rightful position within his society as a trusted hero and leader.

What’s in a name?

The earliest versions of the myths preserved in (15thC) medieval ballads demonstrate Robin more as a commoner, omitting claims of royalty which have been suggested to have come as later additions made possible by the increasing social mobility engendered in phases following both the Black Death and subsequent peasants’ revolts, and then from the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and the redistribution of land following the fractions of the Protestant Reformation and various wars and revolutions this engendered. The oldest medieval tales often focus more on ‘Lytel Johne’ as the main protagonist, with ‘Robin’ often seeming a touch otherworldly, and therefore (from John’s frustrated perspective), somewhat erratic and untameable. The relationship seems somewhat akin to that between humans and the mythological ‘fairies’ known as ‘Robin Goodfellow’, ‘Brownie’, ‘Phynnodderee’ or ‘Hobthrust’ of folk legends. The name ‘Robin’ is derived from the Latin word for the sanguine colour (red) – ruber. ‘Robin’ is synonymous with the name ‘Robert’, which has a phonetic similarity to the English word ‘robber’, implying a thief and outlaw.

‘Robin Goodfellow’ is the English fairy who is supposed to help with domestic husbandry, and therefore a version of the ancestral household deity once so common in European religions of the Iron Age and earlier. The name is obviously very similar to ‘Robin Hood’, and this brings us to an examination of the ‘Hood’ part of the name: The Old English words ‘Hode’ or ‘Wode’ (they are interchangeable) do not mean ‘hood’ or ‘wood’, but instead refer to ‘wildness’ or ‘madness’, and are therefore related to the name of the Germanic deity ‘Wodan’ or ‘Odin’, not to mention the Germanic fairies referred to as ‘Hodekin’ who may somehow be related. The modern English word ‘Mad’ is a version of the same, ‘M’ and ‘W’ being interchangeable in many Indo-European languages, both Celtic and Germanic. ‘Robin Hood’ therefore probably means ‘Wild Red One’, although ‘Robin God-fellow’ might be another interpretation. The name ‘Robin Artisson’ is given for the spirit associated with Alice Ketil (Kyteler) – an aristocratic (Hiberno-Norman-Norse) woman who was tried by the Bishop of Ossory for heretical pravity, use of magic and consorting (sexually) with a demon at Kilkenny in the early 14thC. The Annales Hiberniae have this to say on the matter:

“…. Ricardus Ledered, episcopus Ossoriensis, citavit Aliciam Ketil, ut se purgaret de heretica pravitate; quae magiae convicta est, nam certo comprobatum est, quendam demonem incubum (nomine Robin Artisson) concubuisse cum ea…”

Accusations and suspicions of heretical paganism seemed to stick to the more recently Christianised Norse-Hibernian elites of the Irish Sea region during the middle ages. The name ‘Artisson’ is a Norse version of the Irish ‘Mac Airt’, meaning ‘Son of the Bear’. This would imply that ‘Robin Artisson’, like Robin Hood was a creature of the wild woods, or maybe even a real man somehow associated with ongoing practices and beliefs in Norman Ireland of the Norse Berserker cult of Odin … perhaps ‘Robin Wode’ would be another name for the same character.

Madness and divinity are close bedfellows! The concept of madness appears to have had a different connotation in ancient times – ‘wildness’ seems more of an appropriate interpretation: close to the state of beasts and the turbulence of the untamed. I have already previously talked about the connections between the Celtic god Belenos, madness, prophecy and battle-fury and the seed of the herb, Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger/Albus), which was anciently (and still is) called ‘Beleno’. Another connection with madness-inducing plants is alluded to by the name of the Roman god Robigus, who seems more pertinent to this discussion of ‘Robin Wode’: Robigus was one of the rustic (and therefore indigenous, non-oriental/non-Greek) gods worshipped by the Italic Iron Age peoples and on during the Roman Empire. He was the god venerated for the protection of crops from rust disease, much of which was caused by the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) which was a famous cause (along with contamination with the Darnel grass, Lolium temulentum) of madness among those who ingested contaminated grain. Robigo/Robigus was probably related to the chthonic-military Italic god, Mars-Quirinus, whose colour is red (like that of his planet). The Robigalia was celebrated by the Flamen Quirinalis on April 25 (close to Beltain) with the sacrifice of a dog, in order to prevent crop disease. Mars is the most active planet on the ecliptic path – dancing and looping like the merry pranks of Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood, and any number of legendary equivalents…

Profuse wildness of growth and references to the colour red appears in a number of British plant-names: for instance, we have Herb Robert/’Red Robin’ (the prolific Geranium Robertianum – replete with red stems and pink flowers) and the equally prolific but decidedly un-red ‘Robin-Run-Over-The-Hedge’ (Glechoma Hederacea). There is also ‘Ragged Robin’ – Lychnis flos-cuculi – another pink flower, a lover of acid soils and boglands. The notable north European bird species, Erithacus rubecula the European Robinis perhaps of greater significance in indigenous traditions. An old English rhyme states ‘The Robin and the Wren are God’s two holy men’, and the old Manx wren-hunt ballad or rhyme refers to ‘Robbin the Bobbin’ as the instigator of the wren hunt itself – the wren being the incarnation of the Manx pagan goddess of olden times – Tehi-Tegi, the ‘Fair Chooser’ of the dead… The robin bird, unlike others, is famously inquisitive of human activity, and is sometimes known as ‘the gardener’s friend’. It – like the fairy ‘Robin Goodfellow’ has a semi-wild sympathy with the human race…





Gods and Robbers: Caher Roe

Southeast Ireland claims its own version of the medieval ‘Robin Hood’-styled mythical outlaw-god in the guise of a character known as ‘Caher Roe’. The name literally means the ‘Red Outlaw’ or ‘Red War-Chieftain’ (Irish, Cathair Ruadh – the ‘-th-‘ and ‘-dh’ sounds are aspirated/softened), depending on how one interprets the term ‘Cathair’. He is largely known to us in modernity through Máire MacNeill’s revelatory and seminal 1962 book ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’, in which the author collated many local traditions from across Ireland pertaining to the important hilltop Lughnasa celebrations at the start of harvest. ‘Caher Roe’s Den’ was one such site that MacNeill discusses in relation to this pagan festival of ripened summer fruits and red-tinged moons. The ‘Den’ is (like that of the Welsh ‘Twm Siôn Cati’) a rocky hillside outcrop with a supposedly blocked-up cave on Blackstairs mountain in the Blackstairs range of southern Leinster on the Wexford-Carlow border:

“…A most interesting story is told of Caher Roe’s Den. The country-people identify the Caher Roe who gave his name to it with Cathaoir na gCapall, a young man of the O’Dempsey family of Clanmaliere in Laix. His family forfeited their lands in the seventeenth century and Cathaoir turned rapparee and controlled a widespread organisation for stealing the horses of the new planter gentry, hiding them, disguising them, selling them at distant fairs, and getting money too by ‘finding’ lost animals. His organisation had ramifications through a large part of the country and specially in the lands through which the Barrow flowed. The country-people were sympathetic to him and enjoyed the stories of his adventures and ruses. He was, however, finally brought to trial and hanged at Maryboro in August 1735. Local tradition says that the Den on the slope of Blackstairs was one of his hiding-places, that its precipitate passage leads down into caverns where treasure is hidden, but few have been foolhardy enough to seek it and the entrance has been blocked upto prevent the mountain sheep from falling down into it. It is in Caher Roe’s memory, people say, that the ‘Mountain Patron’ is held. The following story* is told:

One day, when Caher was returning to his Den he met a girl with a pitcher of water. He asked her for a drink and as she was handing it to him, he caught her by the armand pulled her up on his horse. Her loud screams attracted the neighbours. They came around with sticks and pitchforks and succeeded in rescuing the young girl. They followed him to his Den on the mountain top where, after discharging his pistol to them, he sprang headforward into his Den and was not heard of for years afterwards…” ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’ by Máire MacNeill (2nd reprint, Pub. Dundalgan Press, Dublin 2008) pp.226-227 – *the source of the story is UCD Folklore Commission MS 890, pp.498-499.

Needless to say, the tale of Cathaoir na gCapall is treated by MacNeill as apocryphal, as she phrases it as told by ‘the country people’, and the identity of Charles Dempsey with a real ‘Caher Roe’ seems engineered to fit the legend of the Lughnasa site, which is evidently too well-known and visible a site at which to hide, and which is definitely not suitable for stabling horses. She rightly observes that the profile of the folktale she relates is unsympathetic to a man who would otherwise be seen as a folk-hero at any time in Ireland’s history, and the somewhat demonic Caher of this tale seems very much like ‘red-bloody’ Sawney Bean of Gallovidian legend, not mention the wider legends of the ‘fairy horse(man) ‘who abducts people away into rivers and underground caverns… Caher Roe – like Twm and Sawney – appears to be an image of this older legend, transformed in successive oral traditions to suit the religious, social and political changes of the day. Interestingly, 1735 is a date which corresponds with Britain’s passing of  its seminal final ‘Witchcraft Act’ (9 Geo. II c. 5) which was designed to strangle superstition by making it illegal to profess magical beliefs or to accuse others of them. This law was part of a broader protestant ‘enlightenment’ agenda, which had identified superstition with ‘backward’ Celtic cultures and ‘Popery’…

The ‘other’ Caher – Cathair Mór:

Ancient Irish power liked – in the same way as other medieval European dynasties – to link itself to a mythical ancestral past. As such, it sponsored the creation of books which told the stories of these supposed ancestors in order to establish its claim to majesty and rights over the land. One such ancestor was ‘Cathair Mór’ – a legendary High King of Ireland from the pseudo-historical traditions, from whom Leinster clans claimed to descend. He was succeeded in the historical traditions (Lebor Gabála Érenn) by Conn Cétchathach, who evidently shares the ‘Cathair’ title within his own cognomen and was son of Fedlimid Rechtmar, and therefore possibly Cathair’s brother. It is possible that this ‘Caher’ was closer to the legendary root from which the tales of ‘Caher Roe’ evolved.

Like the Welsh aristocracy who battled the English between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Irish Kings of Leinster were also similarly concerned, so it is entirely possible that legends of Caher Roe – like those of Twm Sion Cati extend back to at least the same era, and probably have older mythic roots in the sovereignty-bestowing gods of the pagan age – the ‘sleeping heroes’, supposed to return in times of great need. The O’Kavanagh/Cavanagh (or MacMurrough-Cavanagh) were famous kings of Leinster during the high middle-ages, notable for their ability to withstand or politically handle/acculturate the Anglo-Norman invaders, and to maintain a degree of independence for their region right up until the assaults on indigenous Gaelic culture consequent upon the Tudor invasions of the 16thC. ‘Cavanagh’ are named after St Caomhan (Kevin) of Glendalough – a saint whose legend is linked to the female deity euhemerised as ‘Cathaleen’ or ‘Caitlínn’ in the saint’s mythology – an incarnation of the celtic sovereignty-goddess (otherwise ‘fairy queen’) of whom I have written a fair amount…


‘Caher Roe’ appears to be linked to the legends of a number of similar legendary outlaw-figures from the British and Irish islands. These seem to have a curious affinity to the colour red, to inhabit caves associated with heights, and to have a connection to or claim to the sovereignty of the land. They are either heroic or demonic, depending on the political and polemical needs of the era of their tales’ telling…

Gods and Robbers: ‘Twm Siôn Cati’

The Welsh answer to England’s ‘Robin Hood’ legend is that of ‘Twm Siôn Cati’ (pron. ‘Toum Shon Catti’), whose legend has in modern times been popularly located (like that of Scotland’s Sawney Bean and Ireland’s Caher Roe) in the fractious 16th century during the period of unrest following the Protestant Reformation. Modern authors have attempted to give historicity to the character, giving him an air of political legitimacy, not in the least because – unlike Sawney – Twm was a ‘good fellow’.

A ‘historical’ Twm?

The usual modern tale told of the euhemerised ‘historical Twm’  is that he was born Thomas Jones, illegitimate son of Catherine ‘Cati’ Jones of Tregaron and the more regally connected Siôn ap Dafydd ap Madog ap Hywel ‘Moetheu’ (?Matthew) of Porth-y-Ffin (also described as ‘John Wynne of Gwydir’ in some texts), circa 1530. Why this has come to be so often-repeated is solely due to the desire to fix ‘Twm’ with a provenance, either (as in the case of Robin Hood) out of civic pride or to suit the romantic prejudices of authors with theories on the subject, of which there have been a not inconsiderable number. The modern tale seemingly derives from ‘The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti’ by patriotic Welsh romanticist-antiquarian T J Llewelyn Prichard (Pub. Cox, Aberystwyth 1828) and has been enlarged upon to form the current ‘tourist’ myth. However, like with ‘Sawney Bean’ its origins as historical are in dispute: For instance, a play ‘Twm Shon Catty, or, The Welsh Rob Roy’ reviewed in the 1823 edition of the ‘The Drama‘ magazine places Twm as a knight and lord during the reign of Henry IV (d.1413). Evidently, the desire to establish provenance in the confused political landscape following the reformation was again to blame for the metamorphosis of the popular narrative. Thomas Pennant noted in his ‘A Tour in Wales, 1770’ (Vol.2 p.137) that the legend of outlawry associated with the seat of the influential 16thC Wynnes of Gwydir was ascribed to an earlier character, Hoel ap Evan ap Rhys Gethin. The historic Thomas Jones (Hoel’s later ancestor) does not get a mention by Pennant, who evidently had access to Welsh pedigrees when writing this work, again pushing the legend back over the medieval ‘event horizon’ and therefore into the world of legendary historical fantasy where kingship was believed derived either from god, or the blessings of fairies, or both, and sleeping saviours would return to fight the usurpers of the land. This was, of course, the world of the early 15thC and the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr against English hegemony – a time when Welsh monarchs and gentry became ‘outlaws’ and ‘bandits’ in English polemic tradition. Curiously, the legendary exploits of Twm and Owain seem similar.

The legendary Twm:

The flesh of Twm’s legendary narrative portrays him – like Robin Hood – as a nobleman or popular yeoman-class commoner being consigned to outlawry by malice, misfortune or turn of politics. His outlawry, although  overtly criminal, is tacitly for the common good, and his clever japes, tricks and skillful demonstrations of feats keep him one step ahead of both death and the law. Like in the other ‘outlaw’ myths he inhabits a cave in the wilderness with a female partner where he conducts his heroics (or crimes) until eventually re-entering society to claim his deserved rewards. He therefore fits the character of the ‘legendary wildman’ whose guise in British and Irish folklore frequently crosses over with that of giants in a number of legends (for example, Wade and his wife from Eskdale in North Yorkshire, the Cailleach and her husband from Scotland, Mann and Ireland).

Twm’s supposed cave (‘Ystafell Twm Siôn Cati’) is a popular haunt of tourists seeking after his legend, and is to be found on Dinas Hill on the RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas Reserve, near Ystradffin in upper Carmarthenshire, not far from Llandovery. The hill and cave overlooks the confluence of the rivers Towy (Tywi) and Pysgotwr, so in the Atlantic system of paganism before the Christian era, would undoubtedly have had great significance, the River Towy being one of the largest in Wales, being full of the protean and migratory Sea Trout and draining into Carmarthen bay.

Twm's 'cave'? I've been there - its more like a grotto than a cave...  Image ©Paul Edwards 2011, http://www.aspectsofwales.co.uk/Twmsioncaticave.htm

Twm’s ‘cave’? I’ve been there – its more like a grotto than a cave…
Image ©Paul Edwards 2011, http://www.aspectsofwales.co.uk/Twmsioncaticave.htm

Ystradffin and its environs are connected to the Marian cult which supplanted paganism in the middle ages, and the nearby hilltop church of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn (St Mary on the Hill) bears witness to this. This was a region once deemed important enough by the Romans to have built a road and fort there, perhaps marking it as an older hotspot of banditry than the medieval and early-modern ‘Twm’ legends give credit for. It was, after all, the frontier with the last part of southern Britain to have maintained an indigenous Celtic social structure and religion, making it a breeding ground for early Christianity.

This brings us to the name, ‘Twm Siôn Cati’. Obviously it is reasonable to suggest it is an indigenous mode of naming common to the Celtic world and its love of genealogies and foreshortened nick-names – ‘Tom, son of John and Catherine. Let’s analyse the name:


The name ‘Twm’ (Tom) is a Christian name of a legendary early acolyte and proselyte of the Hebrew sage Jesus of Nazareth – Thomas the Twin. Coincidentally Thomas shares his feast day (6th Novemeber) with the Welsh saint Illtyd (Illtud) who was credited with founding one of the first and most vital Christian schools at Llanilltud Fawr (Lantwit Major) during the 6th century. This school has been linked to many of the early Christian missionaries of Britain and Ireland during the sub-Roman period, including Patrick. Thomas the missionary served as a popular saint by which to name children. He is most venerated in Southeast Asia for this reason, and is referred to as the ‘Apostle of the Indians’.


The element Siôn, Sion or Shon is usually supposed to represent the Welsh version of the name ‘John’. However, the phonetic ‘shon’ might also relate to Celtic words for ‘old’ – Welsh=(S)hen, Manx=Shenn, Irish=Sean. It also lies in the phonetic scope of celtic words for ‘blessed’ – Irish= séant, Manx=sheaynt,


Although linked in modern legends to a woman called ‘Catherine’ the name ‘Cati’ has a much more interesting past with distinct links in the insular celtic folklore and legends with both rebel-bandits (Scots/Gaelic: Cathair, giving the Irish bandit-name Caher Roe) and a bevy of mysterious magical females going by the name of Caitlin, Cathaleen etc who gave their names to a number of places, not the least of which is Enniskillen, where Caitlin is believed to have once have been a pagan goddess with a sanctuary on the island there. ‘Cathaleen’ is the the female temptress overcome in legends about St Kevin of Glendalough on a lakeside crag (for more information on her, see my other posts on the matter).

This interpretation might imply that legendary Old Twm, the helpful outlaw, was originally believed to have been the son of ‘Cati’, the ‘sitting one’ who presided over ancient shrines on crags overlooking water…