Mythological Event Horizons Part 1: Rome before 27BC

(This is the first in an occasional series of posts dealing with the use of mythology to revise history)

The emergence of powerful new cultures is often accompanied by the rise of powerful new religious narratives, with which leaders seek unify their domain under a spiritual foundation sympathetic and congruent to their regime. In times of crisis, this narrative may further evolve and gain accretions.

Establishing a mythological basis for a culture is an ancient technique designed to place that culture’s origins back in a place called ‘mythic time’ – in an unassailable period of timeless ‘fact’ lying somewhere beyond the horizon of verifiable history. This  mythology provides a justificatory provenance which supports the new order, but the phenomena is one which – after great periods of time – continually confounds enquirers seeking to untangle the truth behind the history of cultures and their mythological aspects.

In the case of the ancient city state of Rome, its different phases of cultural development (economic, military and religious) demanded establishment of and refinement of a popular founding myth. In so doing, its leaders were calling upon the traditions borrowed from the oldest and most glorious city states, of which Babylon (established circa 2800BCE) is a particular example. Largely following in the footsteps of Greek and Phoenician examples, Rome required a founder who existed in a time when men and gods walked the earth together – the mythical ‘bridging age’ of demigods, around which most legends evolved. Mere historical truths could be easily revised by fact, but in the popular imagination the divine was more unassailable.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine 'mother'.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine ‘mother’.

The Roman Kingdom and Republic:

With cultural change and revolution, comes a re-mythologizing of the past in the image of the present. As most of the histories of Rome’s past come to us from the late Republican era at the earliest, we are at a loss to determine fact from mythology and invention.

The Roman Republic was said by later histories to have commenced with the overthrow of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BCE. It is hard to say for sure if this founding event (albeit later trumpeted as such) actually occurred or if that king was indeed real. It may have been an historical invention by a culture struggling to trace its faltering early steps from ‘barbarity’ into the era’s idealised Hellenic models of power and polity.

Tribalism, chieftains and tyrants were a typical Greco-Roman shibboleth for the majority of Europeans whom they considered Barabarians – Celts, Thracians and those living north of the Danube and the Rhine who had not assumed the trappings of Hellenic and Middle Eastern cultures. We might add the class of ‘Romans’ to those whom Greeks considered also considered ‘barbarian’.

The distinction between social classes during the era of the Roman Republic was a typical dialectic split between the aristocratic dynasties of landed gentry (the ‘Patrician’ class) who typically traced their family pedigrees back into the city’s supposed and actual Regal Era, and the more ordinary ‘Plebians’ – families (gens) without historic aristocratic pedigree, but keen on building their own modern dynasties. It can be considered a typical Old Money/New Money dialectic – absolute power was held by neither, yet strived for by both. As such both groups had different needs in using mythology to bolster or establish their claims to rights and power.

Since the Roman Republic (which cam to an end in 27BCE) is the first era from which we have definite supporting history and archaeology, Rome’s Regal Age (Romulus, Numa, the Tarquinians etc) must therefore constitute its first mythological ‘event horizon’.

It was from this age that was generated the archetypal image of a ‘good king’, Numa Pompilius (said to have ruled 715 – 673 BC), who was so lauded by Rome’s first Patrician Emperors. Numa was said to have instituted peace, wealth, economic growth and the structure of Roman religion and its calendar of observances. By the Augustan era (after 27BCE) Numa therefore served as an idealised ‘historic’ founding father for Rome’s new aristocratic Imperium. The city’s ultimate supposed founder, the fratricidal Romulus, was more of a ‘mythic’ founder. This was the narrative later employed by Livy and his literary compatriots of that New Order.

The Second Punic War and further re-mythologizing:

Rome’s earliest autocthonus history that we know of is that of Quintus Fabius Pictor a soldier-statesman of the ancient patrician Gens Fabii who participated both militarily and diplomatically in the Roman Republic’s greatest crisis before the 1stC BCE: the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). This war was an attempted conquest of Rome by a combined force of Celts, Numidians and even some Italians, led by the Carthaginian Gens Barca dynasts Hasdrubal and his brother Hannibal.

Fabius’ lost history of Rome was later cited by Livy (Ab Urbe Condita Librii) as the source for its founding myth of Romulus and Remus, as heirs of Aeneas of Troy, and the line of pre-Republic kings who ruled after them. It was written in Greek and would have served as a brilliant piece of contemporary propaganda designed to garner support for Rome from among the Greek world (itself no lover of the Celts) in the wake of the Punic crisis, through citing a common Greco-Roman origin.

This supposed ethno-cultural connection with the Greeks was very popular in the more deeply Hellenised patrician classes, many of whom spoke Greek and studied Greek culture as a high cultural ideal. The stories of Aeneas, the kings of Alba Longa, Romulus and Numa, were however, not necessarily a Roman idea: the Grecophile Fabius had borrowed the story of Rome’s earliest kings from an earlier Greek historian: Diocles of Peparethus, whose lost works included histories of the Persian Empire, the significance of which becomes more important as we delve further into the myth of Romulus. It stands as a good example of how mythology, posing as history, can respond to a state of crisis.

In stark opposition to the Grecophile attitudes of patricians such as Fabius was the brooding, brilliant, energetic and deeply conservative Marcus Porcius Cato (‘Cato the Elder’). Cato was from a well-established plebeian gens of wealthy agriculturalists, who was outspoken against the ingress of Greek, Phoenician or more oriental cultures. To him has been credited the first Latin history of Rome (perhaps written in opposition to Fabius’ patrician-oriented Greek language history of Rome), which survives only in fragments quoted by later writers. Cato rose to the highest public offices and strove throughout his life to act as a ballast of traditional Roman values, and felt no shame in wearing the Greek label of ‘barbarian’. You can imagine his horror with the perceived degeneracy of the recently imported festivities of the Bacchanalia at Rome, especially in light of threat from Carthage. His apoplexy must have been acute when the patricians of the senate took the advice of the (Greek) Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Oracle and decided to bring a foreign god into Rome’s official pantheon in response to the Hannibalic War:

Magna Mater – and the introduction of Greek mystery cults:

A more overt consequence of the second Punic War upon Roman state religion was its importation of the worship of Magna Mater/Cybele from Phrygia in Magna Graecia, which was not just the donation of a goddess and her cult, but actually involved the translocation of its principle idol and priesthood from Mount Ida in the Troad (the district in which ancient Troy was supposedly located). The Greeks equated Cybele with Rhea (associated with the similarly-named Mount Ida in Crete), and the name of the legendary mother of Romulus and Remus from the Roman histories – Rhea Silvia – seems simply to be a Romanised metathesis of ‘Rhea Cyvele‘. This suggests the possibility that the history of Fabius and the introduction of Magna Mater were possibly part of a concerted conscious effort of state cultural and religious propaganda.

As it happened, Cato’s political rival Scipio, was victorious over Hannibal and occupied Carthage after a series of decisive and stunning military engagements in Hispania and in North Africa, making these into Roman provinces. Soon after, Rome was to conquer the Achaean league and take Greece itself – its religious and social makeup would be forever changed, much to Cato’s dismay.

Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire:

The late Roman Republican era culminated in the city’s stunning territorial expansion, driven by the twin threats of incursion of the Celts from the north and the sequelae of the opportunity caused by the fractious instability of the eastern military Empire founded by Alexander the Great. This opportunity culminated in both stunning conquests (Caesar’s taking of Gaul and Pompey’s campaigns in Africa and the Middle East) and Rome’s next great period of crisis in which militarised internal factionalism and power struggles threatened the root and stability Rome’s establishment. It was a period of chaos, civil war and a controversial de facto regicide in the case of Julius Caesar.

The man who eventually established peace and a new era of stability was Octavian, who became Rome’s first Emperor – Caesar Augustus – in 27BCE, founding a dynastic line of subsequent emperors.

   The ‘Augustan Period’ (27BCE-14CE) marked another important milestone in Rome’s deliberate efforts at significant cultural re-invention and re-mythologizing. There was an explosion in the expression of ideas about Rome’s past in literature, almost certainly engineered by Augustus himself. Of these, the works of Livy with his new history of Rome: Ab Urbe Condita Librii, and the epic poetic equivalent represented by Vergil’s Aeneid served to concrete the past in the image of Octavian’s new order. Both borrowed from newly translated Latin versions of Fabius’ History. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses provided the Greek world with ample evidence of Rome’s superior abilities in the poetic and mythological arts.

Vergil, Ovid and Livy’s works spanned a dialectic between popular culture (the mythology and poetics of the Aeneid) and serious historical scholarship (Livy) and were runaway hits that succeeded in promoting the new Empire’s ideals. As usual a certain amount of licence was taken with facts in order to portray a seemingly cogent, continuous and ordered rise from Rome’s noble but humble origins in the 8thC BCE to the greatness of Augustan Rome, which in the era cited for its founding myth was probably no more than a small and insignificant village on the Tiber. The reality of Rome’s growth was probably very different and more chaotic than historians of the Empire would have us believe.

In his preface to the history of the age of the Roman kings, Livy sums up the spirit of his Imperial benefactor’s ambition:

” … the fates, I suppose, demanded the founding of this great city, and the first establishment of an empire, which is now, in power, next to the immortal gods … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii – Book 1)

The earliest part of the book is probably entirely mythological, and is thought to be based on Fabius (3rdC BCE) who based his work on Diocles (4th/3rdC BCE). Both of these works are lost. Livy’s account places the founding of Rome as part of the dynastic succession struggles of the Kings of Alba Longa – said to be heirs and successors of Aeneas of Troy, who settled with his people in Italy, after that Homeric idealised prototype city-state‘s fall.

Livy was using a legendary motif common to the founding of many great city dynasties – birth (rebirth) from water: This is also seen in the legends of Sargon of Akkad (originating in Bronze Age Babylonia), which would have been known to Diocles of Peperethus, who studied the Persian Empire which inherited Babylon until it was taken by Alexander in 331BCE. A founding myth of Babylon includes the following details, taken from a Babylonian inscription:

” … Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I. My mother was a <virgin priestess>, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains. In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates, my mother, the <virgin priestess>, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth. She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener. In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king, and for forty-five years I held kingly sway… ” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, 1914 – translation of an inscription supposedly dated to the period of the founding of Babylon c.2800. Rank uses the term ‘Vestal’ for my insertion: <virgin priestess>)

This theme of the aquatic rebirth of a city-empire’s founder-hero appears to have been copied into the myth of Moses, which seems likely to have originated among the Judaean immigrants of Persian-ruled Babylonia during the Iron Age. These were to return and rule their own great city-state or kingdom with their new monotheist religion as vassals of Persians and then the Macedonian Empire of Alexander. It was then probably borrowed (‘probatum est’) into Livy’s 1stC BCE Roman history in his myth of Romulus and Remus, which goes as follows:

” … The Vestal (AR: Rhea Silvia) being deflowered by force, brought forth twins, and declared that the father of her doubtful offspring was Mars; either because she really thought so, or in hopes of extenuating the guilt of her transgression by imputing it to the act of a deity. But neither gods nor men screened her or her children from the King’s cruelty: the priestess was loaded with chains, and cast into prison, and the children were ordered to be thrown into the stream of the river. It happened providentially that the Tiber, overflowing its banks, formed itself into stagnant pools in such a manner, as that the regular channel was every where inaccessible, and those who carried the infants supposed that they would be drowned in any water, however still. Wherefore, as if thereby fulfilling the King’s order, they exposed the boys in the nearest pool, where now stands the Ruminal fig-tree, which, it is said, was formerly called Romular. Those places were at that time wild deserts. A story prevails that the retiring flood having left on dry ground the trough, hitherto floating, in which they had been exposed, a thirsty she-wolf from the neighbouring mountains, directed her course to the cries of the children, and, stooping, presented her dugs to the infants, showing so much gentleness, that the keeper of the King’s herds found her licking the boys with her tongue; and that this shepherd, whose name was Faustulus, carried them home to his wife Laurentia to be nursed. Some there are who think that this Laurentia, from her having been a prostitute, was, by the shepherds, called Lupa; and to this circumstance they ascribe the origin of this fabulous tale. Thus born, and thus educated, as soon as years supplied them with strength, they led not an inactive life at the stables, or among the cattle, but traversed the neighbouring forests in hunting. Hence acquiring vigour, both of body and mind, they soon began not only to withstand the wild beasts, but to attack robbers loaded with booty. The spoil thus acquired they divided with the shepherds; and, in company with these, the number of their young associates continually increasing, they carried on both their business, and their sports … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii. trans. George Baker)

Livy’s famous account seems very close to the myth of Sargon, used in the founding myths of the city-state of Babylon and its later clutch of Persian-Judaean whelps and their story of Moses. The twins seem very similar to the mythical Greek twins, Kastor and Polydeukes (Interpretatio Romanum: Castor and Pollux), one of whom was mortal, the other divine. The story is also echoed in the Hebrew story of Cain and Abel.

In his narrative on Romulus and Remus Livy is reflecting the importance of Kastor and Polydeukes in the myths of the Hellenic world. These were mythical sportsmen, and the games that marked the Roman festival of Lupercalia (linked to the wolf mythology of Romulus and Remus) were perhaps a reflection of an Arcadian and Attic Greek tradition attached to myths of Kastor and his brother, and involving a unifying festival of competitive sports: the Olympic games. The appropriation of Greek culture was of particular importance to Romans after the Battle of Corinth in 146BCE, which marked Rome’s effective conquest of Hellas (some might say it was more the other way around, culturally). Rome filled the footsteps of Magna Graecia and her Empire. This was no surprise: after all – Roman culture was in fact Greco-Roman culture…

Divine triads and the two faces of Roman Mars.

(For context, I advise you to also look at my post: ‘Gods of war and agriculture’)

Rome’s ancient god Mars represents a curious religious dialectic: On the one hand, he is perhaps best known as a god of war, and on the other he has an older more mysterious incarnation as a god of agriculture and earth’s riches. He remained one the most popular gods of the state religion up until its conversion to christianity.

” … Mars enim cum saevit Gradivus dicitur, cum tranquillus est Quirinus … “

” … When furious, Mars is called Gradivus, when peaceful he is Quirinus …”

Maurus Servius Honoratus – Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil (early 5thC CE) 

This dual nature was illustrated by the Romans in the god’s twin symbols of the shield (the passive or protective) and the spear (the active), represented in his (astrological) symbol, comprising of a circle and an arrow:

In Livy’s great 1stC BCE/CE euhemerist (for which we might read ‘fictive’) account of Rome’s history and founding myth (Ab Urbe Condita), the culture-hero twins Romulus and Remus were said to have been born to a mother called Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of the rightful king of the legendary founder-kingdom of Alba Longa who supposedly sired the twins with the god Mars, while being forced to serve as Vestal Virgin by the usurper, Amulius. Rhea Silvia’s identity seems to very consciously evoke the great mother-goddess of Greek myth – Rhea – whose name appears to be a metathesis of that of the other arch-goddess: Hera. In the theme-story probably borrowed into that of Rome’s legendary founding twins, Rhea gives birth to Zeus while hiding in a cave on Crete’s Mount Ida, lest her consort Kronos find and devour him. Likewise, Livy says that Romulus and Remus were rescued from destruction by the jealous Amulius who throws the twins into the Tiber, only to be thwarted when they wash ashore and are rescued by a she-wolf. A similar Greek/Cretan myth dealing parturative peril tells of the birth of Dionysus to Demeter/Persephone under similar circumstances. The other myth of that god’s birth to Semele also has the same elements, although both portray Dionysus as being destroyed and reborn. These share elements with the older Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis, the death and dismemberment of Osiris, his reconstruction and the birth of Heru/Horus. The narrative seems to be a continuity of the idea of life coming from death – an idea at the heart of ancient paganism, one pertinent to understanding Mars. The ‘two faces’ of Mars: Mars-Gradivas and Mars-Quirinus as mentioned by the Christian author Servius, seem to have been united to Old Jupiter in the original ‘Archaic Triad’ of Rome’s principle gods: Jupiter, Mara and Quirinus. This ‘Archaic Triad’ supposedly had its own triad of Flamines Maiores said to have been appointed by legendary king, Numa Pompilus, who was supposed to have ruled in the 8th/7thC BCE. However, it was supposedly supplanted by Hellenised Etruscan influence – either of the Tarquinian kings, just before the dawn of the Roman Republic in the 6thC BCE or by a more gradual process of adoption of state cults from conquered cities. Livy, for instance, states that Juno was adopted when Rome conquered Etruscan Veii in 396BCE, although such a statement does not preclude her already being a god to whom the Romans gave Cult. This ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, copied the Etruscan triad of Tinia, Uni and Menerva, respectively. Mars was replaced with the similarly spear and shield-wielding goddess, Minerva, known to the Greeks as Athena – a principle protectoress (as Athena Polias/Pallas) of the city-state in the archaic and classical eras – Athens, in particular. Juno (Hera to the Greeks) was also a feminine representation of a vengeful force who in mythology often attempts to protect (with varying degrees of success) the bonds of her marriage to Jupiter/Zeus. Both female replacements for Mars and Quirinus represent feminine aspects of the male gods. It was noted by Macrobius in his 5thC CE book Saturnalia – that Juno was (etymologically) a female counterpart of Janus, another uniquely Latin god who was depicted with two faces. As god of beginnings and endings, he also played an important role in warfare, it being a custom (according to Plutarch and others) to keep the doors of his temple open in times of war. Janus is an interesting god to introduce to the narrative of ‘two-headed’ Mars: In the time of Augustus this god was actually referred to (by Festus and Livy) as ‘Janus-Quirinus’, implying some kind of link to Rome’s ‘Cthonic Mars’. In the case of Livy (History I.32.6-14), Janus Quirinus was supposedly invoked in the act of formally declaring war. Livy’s account of the words are probably a fanciful concoction of his own typically grandiose style, but the details still count:

“Hear thou, Jupiter, and thou, Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye terrestrial gods, and ye infernal gods, hear! I call you to witness this people – naming whatever people it is – are unjust and do not render just reparation. But regarding these matters, we will consult the elders of our fatherland, how we may aquire our due.”

In other words: ‘I’m going to go home and tell my dad, and then you’ll be sorry!’

This and the custom of opening the temple doors equates Janus resolutely to the Archaic triad of Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus under a military aspect. Why, then did Rome adopt the Capitoline triad in its place? It certainly was not averse to war – indeed, the doors of the temple of Janus were probably more often open than closed! The key to understanding the answer to this question is to be found by looking at the females behind the Capitoline triad.

Minerva was the feminine counterpart to Mars in his role as war-god, and was depicted with the same attributes: the spear and shield. However, she was also the goddess of intellect and wisdom – those crucial characteristics which avert war or guide it to its successful conclusion. It is perhaps the fundamental incompatibility between Roman Mars (who was also a chthonic agriculture-fertility deity) and the Greek conception of the war-god – Ares – who represented simply the idea of aggression and violence, devoid of the regenerative qualities implicit in Mars. Minerva herself was a ‘virgin’ goddess – an idea which did not necessarily imply chastity (in the sense so lauded by early Christians), but rather maximum fertile potential.

Juno (Uni to the Etruscans, and Hera to the Greeks) represented the maternal protective force – jealous and fiercely protective, much like the wolf who adopted Romulus and Remus as her ‘pups’ in the old Roman foundation myth. She was the ‘Capitoline’ replacement for Quirinus, who is sometimes portrayed as a deification of Romulus, Mars – like Minerva – being the younger more active version of the god. Jupiter is Juno’s husband in conventional mythology, and Jupiter was the principle god to which warfare was dedicated. Greek and Roman legends are full of the conflict with Hera/Juno caused by Zeus/Jupiter’s constant seeking for mistresses by which conceive the other gods and demi-gods who people Mediterranean myth. In these, her jealousy seeks to protect the older order – their own union. She is thus a more mature aspect of Minerva, her daughter. In Greek and Etruscan myth, she is the nurse-maid of the ‘culture-hero’ Hercules/Herakles (who bears her Greek name), allowing him access to Olympus as a divine – much like the later myth of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, allowing them to found Rome. Again, we can see how syncresis with Greek myths informed a change in the focus of Roman religion. Greeks tended to see their Roman cousins as closer to barbarians, and Romans were typically conscious of this in attempting to follow Greek religion.

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.

Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.

Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.

Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.

The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.

The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.

Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.

Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.

The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”

The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.

Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.

Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine.  Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.

Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer  solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…

Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.

The Irish connection:

Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.

Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.

Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…







The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit

See my related articles here and here.

The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.

It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.

To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.

As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish  Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!

Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.

Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:

 “Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?

Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.

How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.

Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.

Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.

In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male  triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).

Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies  of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.

The healer and the poetess:

Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.

In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.

The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.

The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.