The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

Dionysus was the ancient Greek divine hypostasis of eternal returning life. Like the other Greek gods and goddesses he represented a divine aspect of the originating (Arche, ἀρχή) divinity, Zeus, manifesting through the earth and nature as a tendrilled, seeking, pushing, growing, enlivening spirit responsible for the bringing forth of the divine logos into nature and humanity. His was perhaps the most important of the pan-Hellenic religious cults whose great age and far reach hints at origins in Europe and the Near East beyond the mythological horizon of the Bronze Age. His worship was part of an initiatory mystery cult which looked not to the stars and the skies for its mysteries, but into the earth. In turn, these chthonic mysteries provided the mythology by which the heavens and their constellations were to become decorated – as if reflected in an enormous transformative mirror:

“…Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended… ”

(The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus trans. Isaac Newton, 17thC)

Although the passage above cannot be textually dated earlier than the 7th CE, it deals with motifs common to mystery religions much older than Hermeticism and the philosophical Alchemy of the Arab word…

The Dionysian Mirror:

The mirror held a special place in the mythology of Dionysus, who was a god of death and rebirth. Dionysus was therefore known as the ‘twice-born’ god whose first incarnation (Dionysus-Zagreus) was destroyed and who was subsequently returned to life in an act which granted him divine redeeming powers, albeit with a ministry confined largely to the ‘sublunary’ realms. In the myth as recounted at a late period by Nonnus in his 4th/5thC CE Dionysiaca, the god was born to Persephone and fathered by Zeus in the form of a dragon. At far-seeing Hera’s bequest, he was enraptured by the Titans with a mirror in which he saw his reflected countenance: so distracted, they rended his body and scattered the parts. The great epic poet of late antiquity, Nonnus of Persepolis, related the myth as follows:

“… Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.

By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides [Zeus] shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titanes [Gaia the Earth] with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves set afire the neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros (the West Wind) the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges–even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks. Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land. Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth…” (Dionysiaca, Book 6, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse)

Reading from Nonnus’ exegesis of Dionysian cult secrets, Zeus intended the ‘Orphic’ Younger Dionysus (‘Zagreus’) to be his successor and heir in Olympos (the high ethereal realm) but his destruction condemned him to the infernal realms, albeit with leaping ambition for the heights of the ethereal gods. Zeus burns the earth and sends a flood in his rage against the Titans – this myth is evidently part of the ‘Titanomachy’ sequence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Titans and monsters, and the incarceration of these within the Chthonic Abyss…

Nonnus appears to imply that Zeus actually used the mirror to cause  the burning of Gaia, just as with the preceding sequence of the ‘image’ of Dionysus-Zagreus undergoing transfiguration at the moment of his demise, becoming at once Zeus, Kronos, a baby, a youth, a lion, a wild stallion, a serpent, a tiger and finally a sacrificial bull. It is somewhat akin to the breaking up of the mirror’s image, and the fluidity of this suggests that the mirror might even have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a watery or liquid nature in the Dionysian mysteries. The young god’s act of looking into the mirror is a first taste of death, in which its transformative potential is revealed as his image and body break apart and are dispersed. This has been interpreted as a process of undoing of the self experienced by initiates of the Dionysian mysteries. In Nonnus’ telling of the myth, Zeus burns and then floods the world in revenge for this act, setting the scene for renewal under a new refreshed order after the Titanomachy. Dionysus is reassembled and cared for on high mountain tops by the Nymphs. This myth resonates strongly with the Zoroastrian creation myth of the Bundahisihn in which all natural life emerges from the body of an ancient bull killed by beings of chaos.

Fresco from the 'Villa of Mysteries' at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in 'Dionysiaca'.

Fresco from the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in ‘Dionysiaca’.

Evidently, Nonnus’ account of the use of the mirror is based on an ancient myth as Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks – 2nd CE) commented on the use of the mirror in Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult, and it appears that the ‘Dionysian mirror’ was an important allegorical part of the cult. The appearance of numerous elaborately-decorated mirrors depicting mythological scenes in the graves of Etruscan nobles from the 6th-1stC BCE offers a fascinating yet poorly understood link to the mysterious role of the mirror in relation to the afterlife and its mysteries. Likewise, the shiny ‘Orphic’ gold tablets accompanying the dead in Romano-Greek tombs of the same period may hold a similar significance.

Dionysus, Semele and Apollo depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

Dionysus (with Thyrsus), Semele and Apollo (with Laurel branch) depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

A 4thC BCE 'Orphic' gold tablet. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription....

A 4thC BCE ‘Orphic’ gold tablet, typically buried with a dead initiate of the Dionysian mysteries. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription….

Although the mirror as an object is infrequently depicted in relation to Dionysian imagery in ancient Greek and Greco-Roman imagery, one must remember that almost every such image depicts a dish or vessel containing the ‘blood’ of the god – wine. The reflectivity of this dark liquid cannot be understated, and it would seem quite probable that this was in fact the true ‘mirror’ of the Dionysian mysteries.

The wide shallow drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the Dionysian mysteries: a maenad and a satyr.

The wide shallow Greek drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the mysteries: a Maenad and the Satyr. The Maenads represented the destructive or conflict-inducing higher human nature (after jealous Hera), and the Satyrs the chaotic-intrusive wild cthonic/animalistic nature (after the Titans, represented by Kronus/Saturn)…

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

Mirrors offer an apparently inverted reflection of the light reflecting on them. The most basic mirror for humankind is experienced in the smooth surface of water or liquids, which was mimicked in the polishing of stones and metals to create functional mirrors. From the most ancient times until the present, mirror-surfaces have been used in the mantic/divinatory arts for ‘seeing’ beyond the mundane. The imperfections in the reflection offer re-interpretations of the source image, so divinatory mirrors are often imperfect reflective surfaces: bowls of water, tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, blood from a sacrificial animal etc being good examples.

There are a number of ancient superstitions about the dead and mirrors or reflections. The reversal of mirrors in the presence of the dead is one of these, linked to old European superstitions about the (un)dead having no reflection or shadow. Robert Kirk’s description of the beliefs about the dead and seers of spirits in 17thC Scottish Highlands (recorded in  ‘Secret Commonwealth‘) says that the dead/departed spirits occupied a world which was an inversion or reflection of our own. This belief about the Otherworld appears on cursory inspection to have no connection to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans who are usually supposed to have believed that their dead to occupied the misty dank and dark recesses under the earth, or – if lucky – some far off fields beyond a river. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated, and bound up in the pagan religious mysteries…

Death and the Chthonic realm:

“… For were it not Dionysus to whom they institute a procession and sing songs in honor of the pudenda, it would be the most shameful action. But Dionysus, in whose honor they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same…” (Fragment of Heraclitus (5th BC), quoted by Clement of Alexandria 2nd CE)

The mythology and philosophy of the ancient world depicted the earth both as the source of life and decay, and the representation of elemental solidity – an antithesis of the most ethereal elements of fire and light. As the dead rotted away into the earth, leaving their stony bones as evidence, it is logical that it became associated with death, coldness and decay and thus a logical abode of the dead. Liquids poured upon the earth flowed and trickled downwards into its cavities, hence libations were the form of sacrifice appropriate to the chthonic deities and spirits. Death, entropy, chaos and disease were seen as originating or having their allotted place within the chthonic realm in Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, the theogonies of 1st BCE Greek religion claimed that the Titans and monsters were consigned to Tartaros (in the traditions referred to as Titanomachy and Gigantomachy), which was said to be a void or boundless deep cavity below even the earth itself. As the forces of divine order occupied the heavenly position, so the forces of chaos and divine disorder occupied a similar state in a reflected state of opposition to that conceived of as ‘above’. Both states were seen as essential to create the balance of our ‘middle’ earth (i.e. – the ‘elemental’ or ‘sub-lunary’ world). In the light of this interpretation, it is better to think of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead occupying the ‘lower’ world for the initial part of their journey. The shady world of Hades can be thought of as merely an official ‘cover story’ for a more complicated belief system which involved the eternal soul’s travel to and from the extremities of the chaotic and the divine. Crossing into the chthonic/underground realm was a point of reflective transformation: where life became death, and ideas were reversed – as if in a ‘mirror’ state. The final ‘mirror’ of this state was the waters which sat in the earth’s deepest recesses into which they flowed, and from which they mysteriously returned…

Of course, we come across this mythologically in the subterranean pools, lakes and rivers which the heroes and gods who visit and return from Hades invariably encounter. These liminal waters also occur in the legends of heroes who visit far-off islands and encounter the monstrous, Tartarean creatures sired by the Titans: Medusa, the Graeae, the snake of the Garden of the Hesperides etc. This theme is common to the myths of the Celtic and German worlds of northern Europe and was in evidence at the time the Roman world encroached on these from the 4th BCE onwards….

Rebirth of Dionysus:

Some of the ‘Orphic’ myths of Dionysus have him re-assembled by Rhea after his dismemberment, after which he is fostered by the mountain nymphs – probably during the great flood sent by Zeus to cleanse the world after he took revenge upon the Titans. It is thus also very similar to the aquatic myth of Osiris and Isis from Egypt. Dionysus, like the waters and their mountain springs, streams and rivers, represented the root and branch of returning life. Like the mystery of the returning waters, he embodied the mysteries of returning nature…

The ‘underworld’ as an inversion of the ‘overworld’:

The pit of chaos or Tartaros, lying beyond the deeps of the earth and sea was the ancient Greek idea of ‘antimatter’, in opposition to the celestial light and order of the heavens. Of the sublunary world, the elements of water and earth partook of a greater part of the nature of this chaos, including the Titans, giants and monstrous beings. Likewise, air and fire partook of the more luminous properties of the higher nature of things in the heavens, including the gods. The ‘interface’ between these two aspects of perceived reality was a very liminal place in which ideas became inverted, and opposites found unity. The ‘underworld’ of Greco-Roman mythology should not be seen as a lower realm from which souls struggle up incrementally in order to return to the light, but as an exact mirror and equally valid version of the ‘celestial’ world. In other words: Zeus is Hades inverted, Poseidon is the synthesis of both. Dionysus was therefore, like Hermes and Apollon, a Daimon who unified these god-themes and manifested them in the mundane world.

Greek Argonaut mythology and its Indo-European themes

The eastern extent of ancient Greece’s mythical imagining must surely lie within the Kingdom of Colchis on the western coast of the Black Sea, now modern Georgia. This was depicted in the famous mythic hero-tale of Jason and the Argonauts, whose most famous literary rendering was in the poem Argonautica of Apollonios of Rhodes from the 3rdC BCE, itself borrowing somewhat from Homer’s Odyssey, and older traditions.

The 'Douris Cup' from the Vatican museum. Jason is devoured/regurgitated by the snake in the sanctuary of Ares ...

The ‘Douris Cup’ from the Vatican museum. Jason is devoured/regurgitated by the serpent in the sanctuary of Ares. The fleece hangs upon a mystical tree in the background … It appears more like the Scandinavian myth of Thor or Beowulf’s serpentine battles than the depiction given by Apollonius’ Argonautica.

“… And they two by the pathway came to the sacred grove, seeking the huge oak tree on which was hung the fleece, like to a cloud that blushes red with the fiery beams of the rising sun. But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful wise; and all round the long banks of the river echoed and the boundless grove. Those heard it who dwelt in the Colchian land very far from Titanian Aea, near the outfall of Lycus, the river which parts from loud-roaring Araxes and blends his sacred stream with Phasis, and they twain flow on together in one and pour their waters into the Caucasian Sea. And through fear young mothers awoke, and round their new-born babes, who were sleeping in their arms, threw their hands in agony, for the small limbs started at that hiss. And as when above a pile of smouldering wood countless eddies of smoke roll up mingled with soot, and one ever springs up quickly after another, rising aloft from beneath in wavering wreaths; so at that time did that monster roll his countless coils covered with hard dry scales. And as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster; and she cried to the queen of the underworld, the night-wanderer, to be propitious to her enterprise. And Aeson’s son followed in fear, but the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea; but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song; and all around the potent scent of the charm cast sleep; and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down; and far behind through the wood with its many trees were those countless coils stretched out…” Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (3rdC bC) trans. R.C. Seaton.

Colchis and Magic:

Mythical Colchis was the home of King Aeëtes, in some traditions a Greek mortal sired by a Titan and a nymph. His beguiling and magically-skilled daughter, Medea, agrees to help the hero Jason to win the Golden Fleece of the magical ram Chrysomallus, guarded by a fierce dragon who Jason slays. In some of the traditions, the sorceress Circe (also a character from Homer’s Odyssey) is the sister of Aeëtes.

Colchis represented the extent of the Greeks’ nautical explorations in the East, being reached by traversing the Hellespont/Dardanelles into the Black Sea before turning east across the coast of Pontus. Ionian Milesians had formed a colony there c.7thC BC. In mythology, it provided a convenient and familiar far shore on which Greeks might interact with eastern exoticism and magic. The towering Caucasus mountains north of Colchis were the torture-ground of the mysterious Titan, Prometheus, chained to a mountain by Zeus for the crime of stealing fire for humanity. It was a ‘fantasy land’ of giants, dragons, fair magical maidens, and fabulous treasures – the perfect Indo-European mythological setting.

The Argonautica’s story-tradition illustrates that the Greeks considered the ‘Caucasian’ peoples of this region as relatives of the Iranian tribe of the Medes. ‘Medea’, daughter of Aeëtes is portrayed as an ancestress of the West-Iranian Medes, a fact her ‘magical’ inclinations seem an attempt to reinforce. Aeetes’ parents were portrayed in myths (i.e – Odyssey) as the deified sun, Helios, and the Okeanid nymph, Perseis. His brother was Perses, and they were both portrayed as wizard-kings.

Themes of destruction, warfare and violence:

The Titan Perses (‘Destroyer’) was said in Hesiod’s theogony to have wedded Asteria (‘Starry One’) and fathered Hekate (‘the night-wanderer’), whom the Argonaut myths relate as a goddess served by Medea and/or Circe. The ‘Perseid’ names (including that of the other epic hero Perseus) have a convenient linguistic similarity to that of the nations of Persians, whose lands bordered Colchis and Armenia. For Greeks of the (Hellenistic) era of Apollonius of Rhodes, the connection between Persians and destruction would have still been a painful and fairly recent memory of the Greco-Persian Wars. The Caucasus however, is also the scene of the Persian myths of the world’s destructive creation, as I shall go on to examine!

The Scythians of the Caucasus also enjoyed a reputation for warfare (and ferocity), and were something of a historic byword for the practice of war. One must not forget that the Caucasus and Asia Minor was a historic homeland of metalcraft and weapon-crafting, as well as horsemanship. To the mythographers of the Jason legends, it is perhaps unsurprising that the god Ares (in whose grove the fleece resides) is referenced so overtly – after all it was in his sacred fields and precincts that Jason was to fight the magical bronze bulls and defeat the dragon to obtain the fleece. We shouldn’t be surprised either that the smith-god Hephaistos is also linked to the region: it was he who taught the fatal Prometheus the qualities and secrets of fire, and manufactured the fierce bronze bulls of Aeëtes (the Khalkotauroi) with whom Jason is required to yoke and plough the sacred field of Ares, and sow the teeth of the Hydra, creating and army of ‘earthborn men’ who will attack him.

Bulls and the Argonaut myth:

“…And close by garden vines covered with green foliage were in full bloom, lifted high in air. And beneath them ran four fountains, ever-flowing, which Hephaestus had delved out. One was gushing with milk, one with wine, while the third flowed with fragrant oil; and the fourth ran with water, which grew warm at the setting of the Pleiads, and in turn at their rising bubbled forth from the hollow rock, cold as crystal. Such then were the wondrous works that the craftsman-god Hephaestus had fashioned in the palace of Cytaean Aeetes. And he wrought for him bulls with feet of bronze, and their mouths were of bronze, and from them they breathed out a terrible flame of fire; moreover he forged a plough of unbending adamant, all in one piece, in payment of thanks to Helios, who had taken the god up in his chariot when faint from the Phlegraean fight…”

The Bull is a constant motif of Indo-European religious imagery. The ancient Persian creation legend related in the Zoroastrian Bundahisihn, tells that the modern generations of humankind and all plants and animals were created from the body of the Celestial Ox, Goshorun, who dies in the first assault upon creation by the contrary spirit who opposes the omniscient creator-god Ahuramazda/Ormahzd. The Ox in the myth belongs the prototypical ‘first man’ Gayomard who is portrayed as the primal ‘king of the mountains’ (the Caucasus mountains) in some myths and folklore – something of a Hercules-like figure. Aeëtes and his Khalkotauroi in the Argonaut myths certainly appear to offer a model for or of the prototypic Indo-Iranian king.

The connection in Greek myth of the Colchian legends with bulls does not stop here, however. The god Helios, father of Aeetes, is also father of Pasiphae, whose legend depicts her conceiving the Minotaur of Crete (‘Asterion’) by having sexual intercourse with a cosmic white bull. This makes Aeetes and Pasiphae mythological brother and sister, and links the Cretan-Minoan and wider Asia-Minor mythos with its prominent bull-imagery, with the upland ‘middle earth’ of the Caucasus and Colchis.

The other important sacred cow of Greek myth who connects definitely with Argonautic ideas is Io – a priestess of Hera from the Argolid (homeland of Jason) transformed into a cow by Zeus, so that he could mate with her. Jealous Hera sets the titan Argus Panoptes to look over her, but Zeus encourages his son Hermes to kill Argus enabling pregnant Io to escape. In an Argolid tale echoing the Ionian myth of Leto, Hera then sends a gadfly to harass Io so that she must wonder from place to place without rest. She finally gives birth in Egypt to . The theme of sacred cow + watcher/shepherd + pursuit + generation of races of men is strongly reflected in the Bundahishin myth of the Persians, which has its origin-territories set in the Caucasus. This is made more explicit by Aeschylus (4th BCE) whose play Prometheus Bound, includes Io in the plot and has her visiting and conversing with the chained Titan, who prophecies of her wandering and eventual lodging in Egypt.

Prometheus, Hephaistos and Mount Elbrus:

“…As the evil spirit rushed in, the earth shook, and the substance of mountains was created in the earth. First, Mount Alburz arose; afterwards, the other ranges of mountains of the middle of the earth; for as Alburz grew forth all the mountains remained in motion, for they have all grown forth from the root of Alburz…” Bundahishin, Chapter 8.

Mount Elbrus - the Omphalos of Indo-European myth. Photo: Jialiang Gao

Mount Elbrus – the Omphalos of Indo-European myth. Photo: Jialiang Gao

Mount Elbrus (Alburz) is the massive volcanic peak towering over the western Caucasus range to the north of Colchis. In Greek myth, this was the place where Zeus chained Prometheus to have his liver daily torn out. For the Persians, it was the mythical mountain from which all others grew in the creation of the earth. The forge of Hephaistos (where Prometheus learned the secrets of fire) was believed to be either here or in Etna by the Greeks. Again we can see the convergence of aspects of Greek and Indo-Iranian mythology in the ‘Indo-European’ corridor: The nidus of metalworking, smith-gods, creative fire and mountain kings is a mytheme which extended from India to Iron Age Ireland, and continued in the myths of the Scandinavians until they christianised in the middle ages of the ‘Common Era’. Add to this the importance in Indo-European mythology to the birth of fresh water on mountain peaks and its downhill progress to the ocean, and the importance of Colchis and the Caucasus to the Greeks becomes clearer. ‘Olympus’ and the Omphalos of ‘Delphi’ seem like mere Pelasgian transfers of an older Caucasian creation myth, which the Argonautic mythology maintained a distinct connection to…

These considerations also transfer directly into the Irish mythology of the Tain Bo Culainge, which I will go on to discuss in another article…


Mythological Event Horizons Part 2: The Greco-Persian Wars

The ascendancy of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty in the 6thC BC and the subsequent Greco-Persian wars provides another ‘event horizon’ which impacts deeply upon our abilities to make a clear analysis of Europe’s ancient pagan history. The reason this so is not because Persian armies eventually reached Europe (they invaded the Balkans and Greece) but because of the negative and dismissive reaction it fostered in Greek opinion towards Persian and Mesopotamian ideas and civilisation from the 6th BC onwards. In view of the dark turns of current affairs in the Middle East involving campaigns of savage aggression towards the modern remnants of ancient Persian and Mesopotamian civilisation (focussed on Kurds, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Shia muslims and Iranians as well as actual archaeological sites), I thought it a noble cause worth examining.

Ancient Mesopotamian and Persian civilisations have rightly been placed as the cradle of civilisation, credited with creating the first cities, the first writing, and leading the world in technologies of agriculture, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. These innovations were supported by and developed alongside a pervasive cosmological and religious philosophy which has made these civilisations a byword for mystery and ancient wisdom, from a  long before the time Europeans could claim any such plaudits for their own religious, cultural and intellectual achievements.

Our story involving the Greeks starts with the collapse of the Indo-European Hatusa (Hittite) Empire of Asia Minor at the close of the 2nd millennium BC. This was a period of increasing colonisation and influence by Ionian and Aeolian peoples and culture (possibly those whom the Egyptians called the ‘Sea Peoples’) spreading from the east coast of Greece and from the region around the Gulf of Corinth (Homer’s Achaea) and out through the archipelagos of the Aegean. Their cultural influence spread and established itself in what would become known as the Troas, Lydia and Caria along the west coast of Asia Minor. By the 6th BC these cultures had grown powerful and wealthy through trade and industry and would have developed close mercantile and cultural ties to the Persian (Mede), Semitic (Phoenician) and Mesopotamian (Assyria and Babylonia) cultures of the Near East.

An example of their cultural affinity to easterners is illustrated by the fact that mainland Greeks frequently characterised the Ionians by their ‘long robes’ – a style influenced by a succession of pre-Hellenic Anatolian cultures including the civilisation of the Hatti or ‘Hittites’, the Lydians, the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia and the Indo-Iranian Medes. The Phrygians – like the Celts – wore breeches.

“… Many are your temples and wooded groves, and all peaks and towering bluffs of lofty mountains and rivers flowing to the sea are dear to you, Phoebus, yet in Delos do you most delight your heart; for there the long robed Ionians gather in your honor with their children and shy wives…” Homeric Hymn to Apollo, c.522BC.

The collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the 7th and 6thC BC was a catalyst for growth and expansion of those nations it had formerly held in check. The empire of the Indo-Iranian Medes (Media) expanded to occupy eastern Asia Minor, Scythia (as far as the Caucasus) and northern Mesopotamia (Syria). In Eastern Anatolia, the Ionic-Anatolian kingdom of Lydia gradually expanded its power and influence until it controlled most of western Asia minor and began to push eastwards against the Medes. Lydia’s proverbially wealthy king, Croesus, became politically and economically powerful due to his empire’s innovations in trade and industry (particularly cloth making, dyeing and metallurgy) and the development of gold coinage as an exchange medium.

The Lydians were particularly friendly with Ionian Greeks (who claimed to be descendants of the solar God Apollo), and in 560BC, says Herodotus, Croesus came to the oracle of Delphi, bestowing it with great wealth. In simultaneously demonstrating his affinity to the Greeks and to Apollo, Croesus was no doubt looking for support to push his empire eastwards against Median ruler Astyages.

By the time he had crossed into the Median lands in 547BC, Atyages had been deposed by the western Persian leader Cyrus, who defeated Croesus and used his treasury to fund his efforts establishing the new Persian Empire, which by 540BC had conquered or formed treaties with the coastal Ionians. Cyrus was an enlightened man who no doubt valued the Ionic values of statesmanship and philosophy, and preferred to work with the Ionians against the Lydians and their neighbours. For starters, they had ships and naval experience that he and his son would call upon, as they built and consolidated their Empire. Having secured Lydia, Cyrus’ had the finances needed to conquer Babylon in 539BC. He died in 530BC campaigning against the Scythians of central Asia and was replaced by his reputedly mentally unstable son, Cambyses II, who took Egypt in 525BC before his death followed by the succession of Darius in 522BC, during which there was a period of instability and fracture at the Empire’s roots.

Some Ionians, such as the colonies Samos of Miletus, became – for almost 50 years – trusted allies, power-brokers and advisors of the Persians and maintained a degree of independence that colonies such as Ephesus and Colophon could not. Likewise the Dorian colony of Halicarnassus on the Carian coast to the south of Ionia served a similar special purpose to the Persians. Under Cambyses successor, Darius I, the Empire stretched from Thrace to the Indus valley.

So, having consolidated their empire, was the scene really set for the invasion of Greece? Let’s just ‘stop the tape’ for a minute and discuss a few issues and clear up a few misconceptions about the Persians and the Greeks.

Poster for the 2007 movie '300: Birth of an Empire'. Those scary Persians!

Poster for the 2014 movie ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, directed by Noam Murro. Those scary Persians!

Anyone who has seen the movies ‘300’ and ‘300: Birth of an Empire’ (based on the Frank Miller comics) will know that the Achaemenid empire was a brutal, tyrannical, sexually debauched, scary and ill-disciplined alien horde, right? They must also know that when these apes swept into Greece they had their backsides kicked by a bunch of noble, well-oiled, disciplined man-loving hoplites, who then united to make Greece a glorious democracy as well?

This certainly fits with the ‘barbarian’ image of the Persians that the ancient Greeks came to entertain of them. Curious to the movie industry, charged as it is with the ideological politics of its impresarios and wealthy financiers, the story of the ‘300’ films and their imagery also appears to have functioned on an explicit allegorical level related the modern middle eastern conflict, presenting the Persians (whose army in the film are made consciously to look like Arabs) as some kind of dark twisted enemy of ‘Grecian’ light.

The demonisation of Xerxes in '300' fitted a very modern narrative. Were the opinions of the ancient Greeks to blame?

The magical ‘demonisation’ of Xerxes in the ‘300’ movie franchises fitted a very modern narrative. Were the opinions of the ancient Greeks ultimately to blame?

Of course, the ‘300’ franchise was really just a brutal fantasy, based partly on the memoirs of Herodotus and partly on the prejudices of the 21st century. In reality, the Achaemenids were far from how they were depicted in these films. For starters, Cyrus the Great had established his empire promoting a policy of tolerance and respect for the religions and administrative structures of the countries he invaded, ensuring that rebellion was relatively rare, and his territories easier to govern. When George Bush Jr invaded Babylon, he himself might have taken a leaf out of Cyrus’ book, but instead chose (deliberately it would seem) to set the nation of Iraq on a path to factionalism and chaos. Cyrus famously liberated the Jews of Babylon and helped them (re)build the temple at Jerusalem. Xenophon of Athens (a student of Socrates) declared of him in the 4th BC:

“… And those who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while his subjects themselves respected Cyrus as their ‘Father’…” (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, trans. Bohn)

Indeed, it appears that Cyrus was not considered a great threat to Greek interests. His successor and son Cambyses II likewise showed no particular interest and even allied with the Ionian and Dorian Greeks in his conquest of Egypt, even exploiting the Greeks’ good relations with the Egyptians during this period. Cambyses died in 522BC, supposedly by his own hand, although an assassination by his successor Darius (also implicated in the killing of Cyrus’ other son Bardiya) has been proposed as likely. Whatever the truth, Darius’ accession to the imperial throne was certainly marked by a period of dissatisfaction and unrest, and the Emperor was obliged to exercise harshness in putting down revolts across the Empire. This included the assassination of Samian tyrant Polycrates by the satrap of Lydia, Oroetus, at Sardis, which was then followed by the final conquest of the island, and a hurried exit or ejection for Pythagoras and other likely agitators of the Ionic cause.

In 499BC an open rebellion broke out among the Ionian city-states of Asia Minor, led by Miletus and backed by a military force from Athens. This pushed inland and sacked Sardis in 498 in an act which appears in the wider context of revolt within Darius’ Empire to be more an act of challenge and aggression by Athens than one in support of the interests of Ionia or Lydia. The scene was therefore set for Darius and his successor Xerxes to take punitive action against the Athenians as well as to try and take advantage of the Greek tendency to infighting.

Democracy – far from being the noble ideal of the ‘300’ films and modern political polemic – was used as a weapon imposed by Darius on the Ionian states: he saw it as a tool by which to weaken resistance – an enabler of empires. Think about this for a minute, in the light of modern world politics!

Although the combined power of the (nearly) united Greeks eventually and famously defeated Xerxes’ huge invading army, Greek opinion of Persian culture (and Athenian opinion in particular) was never to recover, and would spark a chain of developments which ultimately lie behind a change in the course of religion in Europe and the Near East, with a focus increasingly based upon human power.

Greek opinion of Persians after the War:

One of the earliest accounts of Athenian Greek jingoism (or at least tragedian schadenfreude) following the defeat of Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis in 479BC is  playwright Aeschylus’ The Persians, which was performed at the City Dionysia in spring of 472BC. The play deals with the return and despair of Xerxes to Persia, and is essentially a chance for the Greeks to wallow in the glory of their victory, and to portray the vanity of working against the will of the gods. Aeschylus’ words – the delight of his Athenian audiences – were later to ring hollow with the internicene chaos of Hellenic civil wars which closed the 6thC:

“…Ah, what a boundless sea of woe hath burst on Persia, and the whole barbaric race…”

Of course, not all Greeks opposed Xerxes’ invasion – the Carians under Queen Artemisia and the Ionians and Aeolians provided critical naval support. This may be why Herodotus of Halicarnassus was more or less sympathetic to the Persian cause in his account of the war. The Dorians of the Peloponnese (Sparta and Argos, for instance) were later sponsored by the Persians in the Peloponnesian Wars which occupied the closing third of the 5th BC. Athens was not popular with everyone.

Before the War – Ionian philosophers and the influence of Persia and Mesopotamia:

The period both immediately before and after the Persian conquest of Lydia and Ionia had been one during which the Ionians experienced a flowering of religious philosophy, almost certainly under the influence of their eastern neighbours and eventual conquerors.  The colony at Miletus was a particularly influential case in point, being home to the philosophical school of Thales (born c.624BC) and his successors Anaximander (born c. 611BC), Anaximenes and then Anaxagoras. Further to this, Miletus’ main Ionian sparring partner, the island of Samos, could (under the rule of Persian ally, Polykrates) boast of Pythagoras (born c.570BC) and his school. Out in the Cycladic gulf south of Delos, was the famous Pherekydes (born c.584BC) on the island of Syros, who is known to have corresponded with Thales. Coming slightly later we have Xenophanes of Colophon (born c.570BC) , and Herakleitos of Ephesus (born c.535BC). These are credited as formulating the doctrines underpinning the Classical Era philosophy and cosmology expressed by Plato and his successors, often termed the ‘fathers’ of western philosophy. The Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras (died c.428BC) was credited with bringing philosophy to Athens, but how far could the ideas of the ‘pre-socratics’ be truly be considered ‘western’? I would argue ‘not many’:

Persian and Assyrian religion:

Unlike the Greeks, the Persians (according to Herodotus) did not idolise their gods or god with imagery. Their’s was a religion that seemed to mirror divine principles, founded in the supreme divinity Ahura Mazda, a god of ethereal light and goodness who challenged the forces of evil or chaos. Ahura Mazda, appears to be a Persian development of the ancient Assyrian and Hurrian sky god – Ashura or Assura – in whose name the kingdoms were theophorically titled. They are part of an continuum, tied up with the ancient mythology of ancient Sumer and Akkad, and to Egypt further to the south. The innovation in the time of the Persian Empire appears to have been a vigorous refining of the Assyrian and Persian religion into what would become known as Zoroastrianism, possibly evolving during the reign of Darius.

As such, compared to the often confusing imagery supporting the Greek pantheon of gods it was philosophically attractive, especially to those who wished to promote an empire whose leader was personified as the logos or divine utterance of Ahura Mazda. Ahura/Ashura was no doubt the archetype upon which the Phrygian ‘Attis’ was based. He would have been the god of the Hittites (‘Hatusa’). The love of the Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian colonists of Asia Minor (not to mention king Croesus of Lydia) for the god Apollo was no doubt heavily influenced by this ancient Indo-Iranian divinity who celebrated intellect and the mind.

Here are a selection of comparisons between Persian and East Semitic religion and the philosophies of the Ionian pre-socratics.

Principle of the waters as ‘first cause’:

Attributed by Aristotle to Thales of Miletos in his Metaphysics is the concept of water as the ‘first principle’ of creation, eternal and itself uncreated. The Aeolian rhapsode-theologian, Hesiod (8th/7thC BC), attributed the first cause to ‘chaos’.

Pherekydes of Syros shared this viewpoint – his primal triad: Chronus (‘eternal time’), Zas (Zeus – the creative expression of ethereal light or pure water) and Chthonie (the feminine receiving principle equated with Anahita, Persian divinity of the salty waters) was very congruent with Persian and Babylonian religion. ‘Zas’ is probably a Hellenisation of ‘Ashura’ or ‘Ahura’, accomplished by the addition of the prefixal ‘Z’.

Herakleitos opined: “…For it is death to souls to become water, and death to water to become earth. But water comes from earth; and from water, soul…”, and: “…it is pleasure to souls to become moist…”, to which he qualified: “…The dry soul is the wisest and best…”

He saw water as a lower more primal form of development transcended by fire – that holy principle of the Persians. The Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian mythology placed the waters at the root of creation, and fire with the heavens and the divine – long before the Greeks became interested in the idea.

Strife as an life-giving factor for the universe:

Herakleitos said: “…Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…”. This is an expression of

The Mazdean (Persian, Zurvan, Zoroastrian) concept was that life came about because of a necessity for conflict of opposites.

The Universal Soul and the circle:

Herakleitos said: “…You will not find the boundaries of soul by travelling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it…”

Thales was said by Aristotle to have proclaimed that “…all things are full of gods…”

Again, the Persian and Mesopotamian philosophies attributed a connecting divine fire to the root of all existence in pure water – the mystical transformation through annihilation, and the Greeks were evidently borrowing this idea. The circle was a prominent part of the winged symbol used to represent the divine emanation in Babylonian and Persian symbolism. Likewise the mysterious cycle of the waters from mountain to river to sea, back to mountain. This geometry was at the heart of Persian and Babylonian thought.

The mixed elements of water and earth imply destruction:

Xenophanes is quoted as saying: “…All things are earth and water that are come into being and grow…”. This was an expression of the Persian/Mesopotamian idea of the creative aspect of salty fluids, including the sea which was made of fresh water and the land mingled:

Hippolytus, quoting Theophrastus said: “… Xenophanes said that a mixture of the earth with the sea is taking place, and that it is being gradually dissolved by the moisture. He says that he has the following proofs of this. Shells are found in midland districts and on hills, and he says in the quarries at Syracuse has been found the imprint of a fish and of seaweed … These, he says, were produced when all things were formerly mud, and the outlines were dried in the mud…”

Pherekydes claimed that the generative act of Zeus (Zas) was bestowing a wedding blanket upon Chthonie made of earth and water, thus causing her to be fertile.

The legends of Enki (pure waters) and Tiamat (salt water of the abyss) expressed the same in Babylonian/Assyrian culture.

The Athenian ‘aftermath’ of eastern philosophy:

Considering the immense similarities between Ionian ‘Pre-Socratic’ and much more ancient Persian and Mesopotamian philosophies, we must presume that the Athenian schools of the lineage of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were simply trying to put a Hellenic spin on ideas that were not originally their own, but part of a much older pagan mythology of the ancient Indo-Europeans, which epitomised morality in its emphasis of virtues of goodness over evil: a ‘rationality’ that Greeks might find it hard to identify with ease in their own 1st millennium BC religion. Theirs was an ‘event horizon’ imposed by the victors of warfare and cultural dominance which denied the old and remodelled it in their own image.

Ancient connections between the Greeks and Indo-Persian peoples:

Many Greek myths are set deep within the Indo-European world. The most striking of these is the most ancient tales of Phrixus and of Iason/Jason and the Argonauts and their adventures in the Scythian kingdom of Colchis/Aia in the Caucasus. The recovery of the ‘golden fleece’ from the sanctuary of Ares (god of violent destruction), guarded by a dragon and beguiled by a lovely sorceress is an exploration of the heart of Indo-Aryan myth. Likewise, the oriental arrival of Dionysus follows in the footsteps of a people whose sacraments of intoxication (called Haoma in the Zoroastrian Avesta and Soma in the Rigveda) and may have underpinned the mysteries of ancient cults and oracles at Eleusis and Delphi.

  Placing ancient mystical ideas in the mouths and written words of philosophers, and of prophets and emperors, rather than in the mouths of poets and Magi, created a direct and legalistic expression of the divine, which was to fundamentally change religion.

It combined to form a religious and temporal model of authority which seeks today to destroy and enslave the ancient pagan seeds of tolerance and diversity which gave birth to mankind and her greatest achievements.

279BC and the ‘Sons of Tuireann’.

279BC marked the zenith of the Celtic ‘La Tene’ cultural period and the warlike seemingly pan-Celtic ‘Belgic’ religious-cultural movement which had rocked Europe to its core and provided Europe’s first verifiable highly mobile elite mercenary fighting forces. It was the year that combined Celtic (‘Gaulish’) armies, having began an invasion and settlement of the Balkans some years previously, surged down through Macedonia and northern Greece and sacked of the holy city of Delphi – home to the shrine of Apollo and the Pythean Oracle. It was ancient Greece’s most sacred (and wealthy) religious site and was internationally famous. Rumours of fantastical treasure hordes carried off from these conquests back into the Celtic world persisted for centuries afterwards (e.g. ‘The Gold of Tolosa’), and it is highly likely that the stunning victories became the stuff of legends and stories for an even longer period to come. A more interesting aspect of the episode is that it fundamentally changed opinions in the Greek and Roman worlds about Celtic power: The combination of 279BCE with the earlier 4thC BCE sack of Rome by another warlord called Brennus, and the various Punic Wars in which significant Celtic mercenary forces fought for Carthage, ultimately ensured that Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasts were determined to smash independent Celtic power and culture in its seats across western and northern Europe.

It has always intrigued me how tales of this stellar 3rdC BC event might have filtered back to Britain and (in particular) to Ireland, and influenced the medieval story traditions that have survived down to this day. An example I would like to share with you is a story known as Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann (‘The Tragedy of the Sons of Tuireann’), which was translated to English under the name ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’ by Eugene O’Curry and first published in ‘The Atlantis’ (Volume IV, 1863) alongside the equally important ‘Fate of the Children of Lir’.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the tale is of a late period (16th/17thC) and is written in Early Modern Irish. However, the story has some features of great antiquity to it, and the narrative is in the tradition of the ‘Mythological Cycle’ discussing the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann: an imaginative and magical period of prehistory. The tale seeks to illustrate the inevitabilty of how acts against gods will ultimately ensure the demise of the proud and vainglorious, and as such mirrors the typical tragedean approach of ancient Greek myths.

The Tragedy, Fate or Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann: 

First, take a look at the story, here at the Celtic Literature Collective website. O’Curry’s translation can be found here, with extra notes.

The story is essentially about a group of three warrior brothers: Brian (the leader), Iuchar and Iucharba . On account of a blood-feud, they kill Cian of the Tuatha De Danann, inviting the wrath of his son – the solar warrior and champion leader of the Tuatha De Danann knights: Lugh Lamhfada (‘Long Arm’).

Lugh sets an erec (compensation fee) that at first seems lenient, but it transpires that Lugh has tricked them, and the warriors must engage in a wild and violent chase across Europe and the Middle East in order to gain what turns out to be the magical treasures of foreign kings, treasures that Lugh will require in order to win the final Battle of Magh Tureadh against the Fomorians. Tuireann’s sons achieve their goal, but ultimately meet their demise in so doing, sealing Lugh’s revenge with blood.

Upon closer analysis, this story shares many features of that of the famous 3rdC BCE invasion of Greece and sacking of Delphi. This episode, which started out as a Celtic attempt to immitate the glory of Alexander of Macedonia, as well as being motivated by greed and envy of the unstable post-Alexandrian state of the Macedonian monarchy and northern Greek alliances. It culminated in an act of religious desecration, which (in the ancient world) whilst seeming daring would have had a number of ominous consequences. The repercussions against Celtic culture (and in particular druidic culture) which were to come would have been interpreted in the light of the these events, and no doubt affected the morality expressed in poetic arts. Even the legends of Sigurd among the Germanic peoples can be interpreted in this same context.

Lugh’s first task, is to have the sons of Tuirenn plunder the apples (of immortality) from the orchard of the Hesperides, which was in ancient times believed to lie at the furthest point to the east in the world-encircling sea (river) of Okeanos. To reach it, Brian and his brothers are forced to borrow Mannanan’s boat ‘Sguabatuinne’ (‘Wave Sweeper’). Once there they take the form of birds in order to steal the apples.

It is obviously a retelling from the myth of Hercules, but with a distinct Celtic twist: the theme of distant islands and birds feature heavily in other perhaps older Irish tales and poems dealing with the Otherworld, including the Legend of St Brendan, and ‘The Voyage of Bran’. It is believed that birds were the souls of the dead, or conducted the souls of the dead to the Celtic Otherworld.

Hercules himself (as well as Pythian Apollo) was depicted on 1stC BC coins minted by Celtic tribes from the great army who settled in the Balkans, these being imitations of Greek Thasos tetradrachms:

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo - the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo – the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

It seems that the very act of going east towards the rising sun to seek the apples of immortality was an ideological theme which would have appealed greatly to the Gaulish warriors of Brennus’ army, seeking glorious immortality through heroic acts. In the 1st centuries BC and CE, Roman authors commented upon the fanatical aspects of Gaulish religion (said to have arisen in Britain) and that warriors were motivated to bravery by a belief in future reincarnation. Hercules’ defeat of the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides seems to be an alternate version of the Delphic myth of Apollo slaying Python. In our Irish tale, the leader of the adventurers is called ‘Brian’, very similar to the name Bran, and also to Brennus. All three means Raven in Celtic languages – the archetypal bird of war, and perhaps a symbol of reincarnating warriors.

After the Hesperides, the next significant target for the sons of Tuireann is the court of the Greek king, ‘Tuis’ (possibly a celticization of ‘Attis’). This seems suspiciously close to the raid on Delphi, particularly as they demand the king’s magical healing pig skin which brings men back to life. Tuis refuses but offers instead to give them as much gold as will fit on the skin, to which they acquiesce, only to whip the skin out from under the king’s nose in the treasury, kill the king and make off. The Gaulish army of 279BC famously killed the Macedonian King, Ptolemy Keraunos, before Brennus’ faction made for Delphi. Apollo (the god of Delphi) was famously a god of healing, and a need for healing is a theme which crops up again and again in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann.

Next, the brothers go to Persia to obtain the king’s magically potent spear, killing the Persian king into the bargain. This may be a reference to the elements of Brennus’ army who settled in Anatolia and became known as Galatians. They were notorious as making their living as a mercenary fighting force among the Seleucid Kingdoms and were deployed across the middle east, perhaps as far as Persia, in fighting their wars. Another interpretation could be of the spear representing the Gaulish defeat of the Macedonian kingdom, which had in turn defeated the Achaemenid Empire (represented in the Irish tale by the ‘King of Persia’).

After Persia, they go to the King of Sicily (Siguil) posing as mercenaries in order to relieve him of his chariot and team of horses. This seems to be a reference to the Pyrrhic war, which coincided with and continued after the sack of Delphi. It involved the Carthaginians and Greeks fighting over Sicily, and although we cannot be certain that Celtic mercenaries were involved in this conflict, we know that they played a major role in the Second Punic War. Another Delphi-related detail is that one of its treasures was reported to be a large golden image of a god (probably Helios) riding a chariot.

From there, the heroes go to the kingdom of’ ‘Coloman Orda’, which O’Curry translates as ‘Pillars of Gold’. The location of this is less certain, but the Lugh demands the heroes relieve the king of this place of his nine magical regenerating pigs. I would suggest that the kingdom of the Pillars of Gold, well stocked with endless pigs suggests the Iberian peninsula. Iberian and Southern Gaulish support for Carthage was a significant factor in Hannibal’s campaign during the Second Punic War, the Celts of the city of Gades (modern Cadiz) having been ancient trading partners and cultural exchangees of the Phoenicians. The pigs are recognisably similar to the magic pigs owned by Manannan Mac Lir.

The final tasks involve plundering in colder climes among places less easily identified. Ioruaidh – ‘the cold country’ – furnishes them with a hunting dog, and the congregation of women occupying the island of Inis Cenn-fhinne donate a cooking spit. Finally they give three shouts upon a hill in Lochlann (a fjord in Norway?) in order to complete Lugh’s quest, though are grievously wounded by the hill’s guardians. Upon returning to Ireland they die, sealing Lugh’s revenge. These last three tasks imply a diminution in the difficulty faced and a retreat into a colder world, where their adventures finally finish with the Sons of Tuirenn dying merely for standing upon a hill and shouting, maybe just an echo from towering Mount Parnassos and its mighty shrine to the gods. Of all their earlier victories over kings, it seems that the story seeks to trace an almost ignominious end for the warriors…

The story resonates with themes from the late Celtic iron age, tracing the descent of this golden age from the glory and immortality of the attacks on Delphi, the apparent ill-luck and kin-strife of its aftermath leading through the ill-advised mercenary alliances of the Punic Wars and finally to the destruction of independent Celtic power by the conquests of Spain, Gaul, and Britain by the Romans. These events marked the final retreat of independent Celtic power in to the far northern and northwestern climes of Europe. The story of Brennus and that of the Sons of Tuirenn are (like that of Alexander the Great) a warning against vainglory, and the corruption of men by power and money. They are an evocation of the ancient pagan European concept that no manner of power and glory will make you immune from the implacable wrath of the gods when ill-treated.

The role of Lugh in the story:

Lugh Lamhfada appears to be invested in the tale with the attributes and authority of a god, namely Manannan Mac Lir – Lord of the Otherworld. This is expressed by the simple motif of Lugh bearing the arms, armour, steed and legendary boat of the god, and through which he projects his power as chief hero, knight and leader of the cavalry of the Tuatha De Danann. As a youthful representative of Manannan’s otherworld power, Lugh seems here in many ways to embody the power of Apollo, whose shrine was desecrated in 279BC. This role was fulfilled by Thunor/Thor in Germanic paganism, and the name Tuirenn now appears to resonate a little with these, as well as the Gaulish god Taranis. How these might be linguistically linked to a word for thunder (Torran), for a disembodied soul (Taran), or the indo-european rootword from which we get ‘tyrant’ is open to conjecture…

An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:

The manuscripts of this story date at their earliest to the 16th/17thC, a period when Ireland had been subjected to invasion and settlement by the protestant Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England and Scotland, who were determined to destroy independent Gaelic power and culture, which remained conservatively Roman Catholic in its outlook. In their bids to withstand the invasion, Irish Earls were send out emmisaries across Europe in order to muster support for what would ultimately – like in the story – prove to be a doomed cause. The result was what is known as the ‘Flight of The Earls’. Although probably based on much older traditions, the themes  certainly had a contemporary resonance when they were written down in the form we have them today.

Irish literature and storytelling has always retained a mythical ability to address contemporary issues, a feature which is as much a testament to the subtlety of its timeless themes as to the frequent need of Irish people to express their ideas in a form disguised from the depredations of censorship and misunderstanding by church or state.