Revisiting the ‘Celtic vs. Germanic’ question


Followers of the Atlantic Religion blog will possibly be aware that I have made allusions to my belief that the pagan faith-ideologies of ancient northern Europe stem from a common unified root-system buried in the mists of the Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological periods (roughly 4000-1000 BC). This underwent a protracted process of differentiation as a result of the trans-European religio-militarist cultures (Greek, Celtic, Roman) of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age periods (roughly 1000BC-400AD).

These complex influences have resulted in modern historians ascribing an artificial and arbitrary division of northern European paleo-religious culture into ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’. Reasons for this division as it stands today can be ascribed to the following factors:

(i) Linguistic differences between Germanic and Celtic cultures which caused Greco-Roman authors to categorise them as different.

(ii) Reliance upon limited and highly-biased contemporary (Greek and Roman) written source-materials on north European Iron-Age religion. Greco-Roman authors tended to split peoples up into ‘civilised’ peoples, worthy of understanding, and ‘barbarians’ – the unconquered fear-inducing rabble. The latter category, were only generally to be understood so far as they interfaced with civilised cultures, which between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD was limited to portraying their fierce unruliness in need of taming, and their unsophisticated inferiority requiring civilisation.

There is a pervasive fallacy – committed initially by the ancient Greeks and Romans and still prevalent today – that ‘barbarous’ culture is static, unchanging and timelessly primitive and lacking sophistication until exposed to ‘civilization’

(iii) Biased, incorrect or acontextual information provided in early to late medieval christian and ‘secular’ literature. A 3rd century Christian within the Roman empire was an edgy revolutionary in a new-order of portable enlightenment not tied to any mystery cult. To them establishment paganism was meaningless and archaic and easily dismissed! LIkewise, an 8th century Christian writing about contemporary Nordic pagan practices of which he is in horror is hardly going to be sympathetic, just as an 8th century Irish hagiographer is hardly going to treat a history of his religion’s triumph over that of the past with true sympathy to the ‘defeated’ religion.

(iv) Historical confirmation bias: The 13th century AD Eddas from Iceland were written by authors in a relatively newly-Christianized culture, for a contemporary audience versed in the popular and prevalent European ‘Romance’ literature, which dealt specifically with christianized pagan themes and heroic sagas. The same can be applied to Irish literature during the same period. These were later ‘recovered’ and popularised during the ‘Enlightenment’ period when European cultures (such as Denmark, Britain and Ireland) sought prestige in their own ancient pagan past as well as their own Christian present, and were treated officially as having historic as well as literary merit.

(v) There was a relatively early death of Iron Age ‘Celtic’ religious culture as it was largely subsumed into Greco-Roman civic, pagan and Christian cultures by the 5th century AD. In contrast, the Nordic and Baltic pagan cultures would continue to evolve for nearly another 1000 years before fading from common practice, with enclaves still identifiable in parts of Lithuania, Estonia etc as late as the 16th century, if not longer. This long gulf of time has left us struggling to see any similarity between 13th century Icelandic descriptions of pagan mythology with that offered about ‘Celtic’ religion in scanty reports of ancient Greeks and Romans a thousand years earlier. There has been a constructive tendency to use scanty intermediary evidence from Jordanes about Gothic religion, from Bede and contemporaries about Anglo-Saxon religion in the 7th century, and undetailed but supportive comments from Beowulf and Saxo Grammaticus etc, as well as more modern archaeological finds to support the narrative of the Eddas as representing an ancient ‘Germanic’ continuum, but this is no more reliable than Homer’s speculations about what was actually believed in Mycenaean Greece 1000 years before his writing of the Iliad. Stating that Germanic Europeans worshipped different gods in a different way to Celtic Europeans is about as useful and nonsensical as claiming ‘the Romans worshipped Jupiter, Mars, Minerva and Juno’! You have to qualify that with a time-period, and be more nuanced: ‘People of Rome in the 4th century BC followed the state-religion in worshipping Jupiter, Mars, Minerva and Juno’ would be more specific. It is quite possible that ‘Celts’ of the 3rd century BC were worshipping a raging, wise, possibly one-eyed warrior god as they conquered and looted the great oracle at Delphi. Dionysus, Belinus and Wotan have many similarities, save for their names.

(vi) Archaeology has tended to reinforce perceived differences between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ by relying upon the forgoing preconceptions based upon mythological and historical literature for its own interpretations, although modern thinking is beginning to change this situation. What is apparent however, is that increasing accrual of material evidence coupled with progressive sophistication in archaeological techniques is forcing us to re-examine historical interpretations. We know that peoples in Bronze Age Denmark were performing similar ‘religious’ behaviors to those of Bronze Age Ireland, Holland, Spain, France, Germany and Britain, and that these were connected somehow to material cultures seen in Mycenaean Greece. Many of the material and behavioral cultural indicators of religion – deliberate submersion of objects in water and other ‘votive’ and inhumation practices continued through into the era of the eventual Romanisation of most ‘Celtic’ lands, many of which come under the modern conception of ‘Germanic’ or ‘Nordic’. Why, for instance, was the archetypally-‘Celtic’ Gundestrup Cauldron discovered deliberately concealed in a Danish bog? Even ignoring the fact that its workmanship is typically Thracian – from the southern Balkans, modern Bulgaria – this tells of a more widespread shared belief-system.

Contemporary dissatisfaction with the portable religious franchises of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic thinking, and the deeply divisive, unsettling and damaging effects these have been having on the world of late, make the drive to rediscover the original indigenous European/Eurasian (Indo-European) philosophical and religious systems all that more pressing.


Loki, Lugh and Logos

Apologies to my followers for my absence of nearly a year! Much has happened in the world, and with the imminent demise of the European Union and the election of the anti-globalist, Donald Trump, as president of the United States of America, I have felt compelled to write a number of articles surrounding the subject of the Norse myth of the ‘day of judgement’, Ragnarok (which translates literally as ‘Twilight of the Powers’)…

Loki, also called Loke or Loptr, is perhaps the most enigmatic of the many characters populating the surviving pagan myths of the old Norse people, details of which are preserved largely in the surviving corpus of medieval literature known as the Eddas and Sagas. In some of these poems and tales Loki appears as an adventurer and a loyal and helpful companion to the gods, yet ultimately he seems to ‘turn bad’ and function as a murderous trouble-maker and rebel who challenges their authority. He taunts and angers the high gods in the poem Lokasenna and causes the death of Baldr – an act recounted in Snorri’s prose text Gylfaginning. For these acts he is punished horribly and cast out from their company, only to return to reek his vengeance on the day of Ragnarok  as recounted in the poem Völuspá.

As a character who defies the conventions of the elemental world and nature, Loki seems able to change his sex at will, and becomes the mother of Odin’s horse Sleipnir as well as father to many of the mighty beasts and monsters (often referred to by the term troll) against whom the gods struggle and eventually fall prey to, most notably the Midgard Serpent, Jörmungandr and the giant wolf, Fenrir. His status as a god or jötunn (giant) is never explicitly clear. Indeed, he often seems to assume whatever sex, form or shape suits his poetic or prosaic purpose as provocateur! He embodies unto himself, as is perhaps suggested in the origin of his name, the concept of Logos or ‘Reason’.

Of course, the existing written myths concerning Loki come from a Christian era and were written down by persons with an interest in incorporating their ancestors’ legends into this new intellectual continuum. It is quite possible that Loki is portrayed in these retold myths as analogous to the biblical and Christian idea of Satan or the Devil as tempter and confounder of humanity. However, another aspect of this metamorphic mythological personality is to function as a confounder of the heathen gods, and as such he may well have represented a kind of anti-hero to a 14thC Christian audience. Of all the gods and their virtues, be it the strength of Thor or the wisdom and guile of Odin, his is perhaps closest to the fallible human condition. It is usually his tongue which lands him in trouble, in turn convulsing him into some form of desperate action by which he hopes to make good again.

The poem Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”) is an explicit case where Loki takes centre-stage in criticising all of the gods during a feast to which he arrives uninvited. Among other choice insults, he somewhat piously criticises their sexual morality – particularly that of the female gods. This in itself marks his performance as potentially Christian in its intent, and certainly of interest to medieval church leaders who were keen to consolidate their power and reduce the risk of kin-strife within Irish and Norse dynasties, resulting from monarchs having many concubines and bastard children. For his transgressions, Loki is eventually bound to stones with the entrails of his son and forced to endure poison being dripped upon him – a scene somewhat redolent of both the crucifixion of Jesus and the punishment of Prometheus. In Gylfaginning, Snorri claims Loki is so punished for causing the death of Baldr – the theme of kin-slaying again. That the event of the binding of Loki appears to be displayed on a number of surviving viking-era syncretic memorial stone crosses from England, is telling of the sense that Loki’s function was viewed in some way as analagous to that of Christ. Indeed, at Ragnarok, the Völuspá tells us that Loki will escape these bonds and return at the head of the raging hosts of trollfolk and giants to overthrow the old gods – another theme with distinct parallels to the Christian belief in the apocalypse and second coming of Christ.

His renegade activities, mixed parentage and adventures bring to mind Ireland’s Lugh Lámhfhada with whom Loki bears a close resemblance in name as well as certain mythological attributes. Lugh was, in Irish mythology, the leader of the ‘fairy cavalcade’, much as Loki leads the great charge from Jötunheim at Ragnarok. The names of Loki and Lugh appear to derive from a common Prot-Indo-European linguistic root: leuk, meaning ‘flashing light’, being the root of the Latin words lucis (actual light) and lux (spiritual light) and the Old Norse worse logi (fire) as well as the Greek word for ‘white’ or ‘bright’. The Hurrian/Luwian (Anatolian) god Aplu, and his Greek and Etruscan counterparts: Apollo and Apulu respectively also contain the -lo/-lu designator. Loki certainly rages like an untameable fire in the Norse narratives, and it is notable that he leads the army of giants out of Muspelheim (land of the fire-giants) during the Raganrok event. Like the Hurrian Aplu and Greek Apollo, Loki’s actions cause panic, dismay and dis-ease. Where Apollo was believed to have used his mighty arrows to inflict disease, Loki fashions the misteltoe spear or arrow with which Hermod poisons/kills Baldr, whereas Lugh Lámhfhada was a caster of spears. There appears, at least superficially, to be a link. Both Lugh and Loki are tricksters, much like Apollo’s brother Hermes, and both certainly charge around on quests in a similar manner to the wing-heeled Greek god of mischief and errands. Hermes and Thoth (egyptian god of language and writing) were often worshipped together as equals in Hellenistic era Egypt, and among the early proto-christian sects of Gnostics and Hermetics, bringing us back to the concept of ‘Logos’ which these syncretic religions developed as a key concept.


The essence of this early christian thinking about λογος or Logos and the concept of light is expressed succinctly in the opening passages of the Christian Gospel of John (KJV):

1 In the beginning was the Word (λογος, Logos), and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

The concept John is embodying with the Koine Greek word λογος, translated in the KJV Bible as ‘Word’ is more than just the idea of ‘word-as-thing’, but instead closer to ‘word-as-meaning’ or ‘reason’. To Zeno of Citium (3rdC BC) and the Stoic school of philosophy, Logos embodied the divine animating principle or reason behind nature and existence, to which man should strive to conform his thoughts and deeds in order to live a life sublime. This is the sense in which John employed the term, except that his divine order was expressed through a monist deity whose Logos had manifested itself in a man: Jesus Christ. His comparison of the divine logos to divine light was not in itself a new concept, being derived from oriental ideas which filtered in earnest into the Greek continuum through Asia Minor (particularly Lydia and Ionia) with the expansion of the Achaemenid empire during the 6th century BC. Plato of Athens wrote about this specifically, connecting the idea of light to that of the soul (which gave sentience), to reason and to thought. Of all the Greek gods, these concepts became embodied in the solar god Apollo, who himself had origins – apparently known to Homer – in Asia Minor, predating the Achaemenids, where he was known to the Hurrians as Aplu and in ancient Mesopotamia as Nergal. These were solar gods of death and disease.

So, to recap: The meanings in Loki’s name encapsulates both the concepts of fire, and pure idea. The ancient philosophies of light and the mind held that thought was a form of divine light and was pure reason itself. Elemental fire is as chaotic and uncontrollable as a cavalcade of fire giants and trollkin rushing from Muspelheim at Ragnarok….


Wayland Revisited: A Pan-European God?

The enigmatic fairy-smith ‘Wayland‘ is famed in the legends of the pagan north Europeans, particularly among the speakers of the Scandinavian and Germanic language groups. What is less understood is that his influence is far more widespread – from Ireland in the west, to Russia in the east, and down into the Balkans, whose old regional name almost invokes the god of smithcraft, goldsmithing, weapons and armour – a skill for which these regions (for example , Thracia) and the Eurasian Caucausus were famous for from at least the 5thC BCE. In this essay, I will try and explore and unfold the nature of this ancient pan-European (and Eurasian) conceptual mythological figure who seemed to have a foot in the worlds of both gods and men, and in so-doing unified peoples’ conceptions of their gods and their land. 

You can familiarise yourself with the ‘Lay of Volund’ here.

Germanic and Scandinavian Wayland:

The fairy-smith’s name has been encountered in a number of regional spelling-variants, including Wayland or Weyland (English) and Wêland (Old English), Völundr and Velent (Icelandic/Norse Poetic Edda and sagas), Wiolant (Old High German) and Gallant or Galans (France). In the medieval Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was spelled Guielandus.

His earliest most complete surviving legend is found in the Völundarkviða (‘Poem/Lay of Volund’) of the 13thC Icelandic ‘Poetic Edda’ texts, which were derived from older oral traditions transmitted through the Atlantic archipelago (mainly Britain and Ireland) from Scandinavia and the Baltic provinces – all then part of northern Europe’s most dynamic ocean trade route, connecting via the Volga and the Black Sea to Byzantium. In this telling he is described as a ‘prince of elves’ and ‘one of the elves’ skilled in crafting jewels, weapons and armour with magical qualities.

Wayland is recognisable from the tale of Völundarkviða on the on the images depicted on the 8thC ‘Franks Casket’, currently in the British Museum.

Wayland depicted on the front panel of the 8thC 'Franks Casket'.

The ‘Franks Casket’. The scene compares the heathen vision of Wayland (on the left) creating life from death with that of the Christian nativity. The two religious ideas were probably considered ‘one and the same’ to the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon peoples of the day.

The early 10thC Anglo-Saxon poem Deor (from the Exeter Book manuscript collection) refers to the details of the Völundarkviða story of Weland, also confirming this later telling was common in earlier Anglo-Saxon England. The fairy-smith is also mentioned (as ‘Weland’) in the 10thC  Old English epic poem, Beowulf, as the creator of the hero’s chest armour.

He appears as ‘Velent’ in a side-story to a 13thC Scandinavian retelling of the popular Germanic saga of the life of the Gothic hero-king Theoderic (Dietrich) the Great (Þiðrekssaga/Thidrekssaga). This is itself another version of the story in Völundarkviða albeit different in a number of minor details. For instance, it states that Wayland learned smithcraft under the tutelage of Mimer (possibly the same as Mimir, whose well is to be found among the cthonic roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil) and the dwarves. He presents himself at the court of the King, this time called Nithung, and kills the king’s blacksmith. For this, he is crippled by Nithung and enslaved.

In fact, Wayland is mentioned briefly in all manner of medieval north European texts as a creator of special jewels, weapons and armour. There are also locations throughout northern Europe named after him.

The ‘Celtic’ connection:

Perhaps the most fascinating and generally unrecognised mythological incarnation of Weland is from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ of Irish legends which were written down in Irish and Latin from the 7thC onwards, but emanated from older oral traditions. This is the smith-king Cuillean or ‘Guillean’ – creator of magical weapons and armour for Ulster kings and heroes, and namesake for the famous Irish hero Cuchullain. 19thC Irish mythographer Nicholas O’Kearney had this to say about him in the context of Ireland’s old gods:

“… Aine, or Aighne, as the name is sometimes written, was a being of
great note in the olden times, as may be seen from the evidences
which I shall adduce, and generally supposed to have been possessed
of extraordinary or supernatural powers, having an affinity to the at-
tributes of a Pagan deity. This Aine was the sister of Milucradh of
Sliabh Guillean, better known among the peasantry as the Cailleach
Biorar (i.e. the old woman who frequents the water) of Loch Dag-
ruadh, on that mountain, and daughter of Cuillean, or Guillean, from
whom the mountain is supposed to have derived its name. But
before any further notice is given of Aine, it is necessary to give a
short sketch of Guillean himself, in order to show his connexion with
the ancient mythology of Ireland, and lead to the inference that his
daughter, too, was connected with the Pagan worship of our ancestors.
Cuillean, or Guillean, himself was a very famous being that once re-
sided in the Isle of Man, and of so long-lived or mythic a nature, as
to be found living in all ages of Pagan history ; at all events he is re-
presented to have lived at the time when Conchubar Mac Nessa, after-
wards king of Ulster, was a young man, who possessed little pros-
pects of aggrandisement, except what he might win by his sword.
Conchubar, being of an ambitious and enterprising nature, consulted
the oracle of Clochor, and was informed that he should proceed to the
Isle of Man, and get Cuillean, or Guillean, a noted ceard, or worker
in iron, to make a sword, spear, and shield for him ; and that the
buadha (supernatural power) possessed by them would be instrumental
in gaining for him the sovereignty of Ulster… ” Nicholas O’Kearney, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 2, 1855 (p.32)

Although described in Irish legends as a blacksmith who creates magical weaponry, the connection between Cuillean and the germanic ‘Weland’ is not immediately apparent until you consider the tendency for the ‘Celtic’ languages of ‘lenition‘ (softening) or ‘fortition‘ (hardening) of initial and terminal consonantal sounds. I have discussed this connection previously here. This essentially means that ‘Cuillean’ was often pronounced ‘whallin’ or ‘wellin’ as occurs in the placenames associated with Cuillean in the Isle of Man, where his smithy was supposed in some Irish stories to have been located. In fact there are many more placenames in Ireland associated with Cuillean, although a bit of digging will probably find him in Scotland, Wales and England (where he is referred to as Wayland). If you employ a lenition of the primary consonant, and a fortition of the terminal consonant of the name ‘Cuillean’ you could phonetically pronounce it ‘Wolund‘. Probatum est!

It is of course possible that the character of Cuillean was introduced to the Irish poetic traditions during the Anglo-Saxon era, but this seems unlikely given that the Irish tales have little in common with the narrative of the 13thC Icelandic version of Völundarkviða, which we have fairly good reason to believe was the same myth known in 10thC England and was probably transmitted to Iceland via the ancient sea-routes between Norway, the Isle of Man and Dublin. Of course, this does not preclude the donation of the name of Weland to the myths of a legendary Irish blacksmith during this period of cultural interaction. Obviously, the most likely native character is Gobán Saor, an artificer-architect credited with building of many fabulous architectural structures, usually ecclesiastic. The word gobban actually means ‘blacksmith’, and the euhemerist Irish christians created a number of saints out of the character, known as ‘St Gobban’ or ‘Gobbanus’. As early christian churches were made of wood and stone rather than iron, the Gobán Saor remains a curious figure chosen to erect such structures…

It has also been suggested that the legendary Tuatha Dé Danaan blacksmith-hospitaller Goibniu is the same character, and he does indeed demonstrate the legendary attributes ascribed in the Germanic language legends to Wayland. The Gauls in the Roman period worshipped a god called Gobbanos as well as a hammer-wielding god known as Sucellus, although these may both be epithets of the same deity. The Romano-Britons appear to have incorporated the worship of Vulcan into native religious cults, and Scots and Hebridean folklore makes references to ‘Bolcan Smith’. Mad king Suibne (‘Sweeney’) of Irish folklore eventually settled in ‘Glenn Bolcain’. The ancient settlement of Govan, now a part of Glasgow’s metropolitan district, appears to be named after him and the official legends of their local saint,  Mungo (Kentigern) incorporate material from the Cuillean/Weland legends, as well as aspects of Greco-Roman legends of Hephaistos and Vulcan.

Of interest, Kentigern’s famous hagiography compiled by Jocelyn of Furness also borrows details of the tale of the flying wizard Merlin, also used by his friend and contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who latinised Wayland’s name as Guielandus.  Jocelyn used the flying wizard ‘Melinus’ as St Patrick’s adversary in the Isle of Man, redolent of King Suibne of Glen Bolcain, who also flew through the air. Lenition of ‘m’ to a ‘w’ sound is common in Gaelic (samhain = ‘sa-win’) so it can be seen how easily we go from ‘Melinus’ to ‘Welinus’. That crafty wizard – it would make sense for the name of the island where Geoffrey claimed King Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged – ‘Insula Avalonis’ – could have been derived from a corrupted form of the Gaelic ‘Hy Guiellean’ (pronounced close to ‘A Wulan’ – ‘Isle of Wayland’).

Just what Cuillean was doing in the Isle of Man was anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was sojourning with Manannan, that other great traveller between the worlds and donator of arms and armour…. The deeper you dig, the more intriguing the link becomes!

The Greco-Roman connection:

Greco-Roman culture had a very important influence upon many indigenous north European legends and traditions. Not only was this culture partially-transmitted and deliberately syncretised into the zones of Roman occupation in north Europe, but continued to be used among the literate latin scholars of the early christian church whose literary understanding of paganism was largely based upon Greek and Roman mythology. Given the persistence of much older written and artistic depictions of these gods from mediterranean Europe, it is easy to assume that the Europeans (late-comers as they were to the idea of writing and iconic imagery) borrowed from the southern traditions, but this is not necessarily the case! Many of the Greek and Roman gods and myths are equally likely to have diffused down from northern Europe during the Bronze Age.

One good example of a striking similarity between the legend of Wayland and that of Hephaistos (know to the Romans as Vulcan, and to the Etruscans as Sethlans or Velchanus) is that (apart from being blacksmiths) they are both imagined as being somehow deformed or disabled. In Weland’s case, he is hamstrung by his captors, and in the case of the Greek god, he is said variously to have been born lame, or is injured when he is thrown down from Olympos by Zeus, when he tries to defend his mother Hera (the motif which appears in the 12thC hagiography of St Kentigern). It is of note that in both cases, the crippling precludes re-admission to the world of the divine.

Both Weland and Hephaistos supply legendary heroes and gods with their weapons, armour and tools. Both are wily and cunning and trick and ensnare their adversaries. Both are exiled from their divine right, only to return in triumph. In some Greek myths, the god is liberated from his earthly exile and returned to heaven by Dionysos who places him astride an ass and leads him back to Olympos.


Attic vase painting ca. 5thC BCE. Crippled Hephaistos is led back to his mother Hera on Olympos by the god Dionysos, riding on an ass. Aficionados of Iron Age Celtic coins will recognise the ‘horse’ motif as significant. The myths of the Dioskoroi and Bellerophon also appear related. Note the similarity of the tongs to the ‘caduceus’ of Hermes…

Unlike Hephaistos however, Weland is more of an action-character and a warrior, but he also strides between the human and the spirit worlds. The Volundr Saga and the various known carvings of the Wayland legend on Anglo-Saxon and Viking age artifacts also focus upon his escape from the world of men either with a magical flying machine, upon a giant bird, or with a valkyrie. The ‘flight’ of Hephaistos, by comparison, is through the liberating agency of Dionysus, a famous loosener of the bonds between the earthly and the divine. Both represent a ‘shamanistic’ type of journey of self-discovery, implicit in the perfection of a craftsman. Freemasons take note!

The other Greek deity who travelled between the worlds and had the legendary attribution of being something of a trickster was of course Hermes, who also shared the affections of Aphrodite (and who didn’t?). Aphrodite (emotional love) herself was almost a counter-image of Athena (virgin intellect), and if Athena is the feminine principle of the uncreated idea, Hephaistos was the active principle of a creator. The complex interplay of their principles can nearly drive you mad!

Etruscan Velchans:

Also known as Sethlans, Velchans was the Etruscan progenitor of Roman Vulcan. Little is known about him, although it is likely he merged with Vulcan at some point, so what can be said of Vulcan might apply originally to Velchans. According to later Roman authors commenting upon the substratum of Etrurian religious culture important at the heart of Republican era Roman religion, he was both a god of fire (Vitruvius 1stC, BC) and lightning (Servius, 4thC CE). The Etruscan haruspices or diviners were keen observers of natural phenomena, and lightning was one of the most important and potent of these.

Bellerophon and the Dioskouroi:

Legendary ancient Greek hero, the mortal but ingenious Bellerephon (rider of Pegasus and slayer of the Chimera) is associated with a legend in which he attempts to fly to Mount Olympos on the winged horse Pegasus. Zeus sends a gadfly to bite Pegasus who unseats its rider who tumbles down into a thorn bush and lives out the rest of his earthly existence blind and crippled until Zeus decides to deify him. It will be noted that the constellation ‘Pegasus’ appears to be a falling horse, given its inverted appearance – yet another hint that many myths are star-myths related to the seasonal cycles. Yet again we see the heroic smith-god motif of a fall from grace, injury, and finally divine elevation

In the 10thC Byzantine stela on the Veroli Casket, he is apparently depicted as one of the twin equestrian heroes – the ‘Dioskoroi’, Castor and Polydeukes:

Veroli Casket - This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskuri.

Veroli Casket – This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskoroi. Note the cherub holding the ring or crown of divinity over the head of Bellerophon/Polydeukes

Bellerophon and Polydeukes represent the semi-divine gifted human, an assignation also common to Weland. The Dioskoroi were said to be children of the swan-maiden Leda, just as Weland was the wife of a swan-maiden (a valkyrie).

The Dioskouroi (literally ‘youth-gods’) seem to have been connected to the youthful cthonic deities of the Samothracian mysteries and those at Lemnos. These were the Kabeiroi, who share similarities with other Hellenised regional youthful groups of hero-deities, such as the Idaean DactylsKouretes and Corybantes. They all ultimately seem connected to the worship of a Great Mother Goddess. The Idaean Dactyls – like the Kabeiroi – were considered masters of smithcraft.

Although Bellerophon (whose cult originates in Corinth) is never explicitly linked to any of these youthful gods by ancient writers, it is evident that he fits their category of semi-divine culture hero. Such heroes are always (so the tales tell us) in need of a steed, weapons and armour in order to complete their quests, and the character of the smith is the enabler in all of these, and with time becomes conflated with the hero. The smith shoes the horses and forges the weapons.

Where the myths of Bellerophon and Pegasus have a striking similarity to those from the Celtic provinces whose saints’ legends (including those of St Patrick, Satan, St Maughold and St Milburga among others) sometimes have the the motif that their leaping horse creates springs of water when its hooves strike the soil. In ancient Greek myth, the hooves of Pegasus create the Hippocrene Well when they strike the rock of Mount Helikon.

Ericthonios of Athens:

Another character arising from the ancestor/hero-cult aspects of ancient Greek mythology is the Athenian progenitor Ericthonius. He was supposed to have had an autocthonous birth when smith-god Hephaistos spilled his semen upon the earth, during a failed attempt to rape Athena. This infers that Hephaistos had intercourse with Gaia and created the primary ancestor of Athenians. This appears to be why Athena (Minerva to the Romans) – a goddess of the mechanical creative arts – can be thought of as the divine reflex of Hephaistos’ earthly manifestation. Athena’s legendary creation was from the head of Zeus, indicating her (virgin) capacity of representing pure mind and technical creativity. Hephaistos represented the manifest earthly power behind that divine will – the passive spirit operating through active physical activity.

Ericthonios was also associated strongly with horses and the creative arts – he is said to have taught the yoking of horses, the smelting of silver, and to have invented the quadriga chariot, as well as teaching the art of ploughing. This makes him a local variant on the Korybantes/Kouretes/Dactyls traditions. He is represented among the constellations by the ‘charioteer’ constellation, Auriga, which (along with Perseus and Aries) lies west of Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus and Aquarius on the celestial ecliptic path. Other horse-related constellations in this vicinity of the sky include Equuleus and Saggitarius. Capricornus lies between both of these. Taurus is also near. The theme of heroes, monsters, horses and grazing horned animals among these constellations fits the ‘semantic field’ of the semi-divine ancestral hero myths very strongly: every city was built upon the achievements of rustic ancestors who wrought all of their needs from nature…

Weland, Donar and Thor – Baltic and Slavic connections:

(Note: For the most explicit descriptions of Baltic and Slavic gods, the reader might wish to study the works of Mireja Gimbutas and Algirdas Greimas)

The medieval Nordic/Icelandic ‘Eddaic’ legends of Thor (equivalent of the older Germanic god Donar or Thunor – literally ‘thunder’) are an interesting mythological combination of the European ‘lightning-wielding sky god’ archetype and the more typical European legendary heroes such as Perseus, Herakles and Cuchullain. His weapon or tool of choice is the hammer, with which he shatters his enemies and the earth itself – he never (at least in the Icelandic myths) plays the role of the blacksmith, which is interesting, and possibly a late revisioning of Thunor or Donar’s original function as a cthonic agricultural deity, much like Roman Mars.

The hammer is, of course, one of the symbolic indicators of smithcraft, the other being the tongs. Instead of tongs, of course, the medieval Nordic Thor possesses a pair of impervious gauntlets and typically achieves his mythological victories through great strength and devil-may-care bravery rather than outright cunning. Nevertheless, these attributes certainly appear to bring Thor directly into Weland’s semantic field, necessitating an examination of how they relate to the other North European air/fire and cthonic/water gods – the Prussian Occopirmus*/Perkons and Pekols/Pushkayts, the Slavic Perun, Veles and Svarog, Lithuanian Perkunas and Velnias, and the Finnish *Ukko (Perkele) and Ilmarinen.

In the middle ages until its acquisition by the Ottomans in 1453, Constantinople was a magnet of power and wealth that attracted north Europeans to its shores to trade and seek their fortune. Consequently, trade and influence networks extended from the Black Sea upwards into the ‘viking’ territories of the Slavs, Rus, Balts and Scandinavians. Looking at it another way, the ‘Viking Empire’ stretched from Iceland in the west to Byzantium in the East! Many of these peoples remained nominally pagan and only partly christian (or jewish) until a very late period: the Kievan Russ (Varangians) and their cousins the Scandinavians officially converted under their leaders in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Baltic peoples began to convert during a later more indeterminate period leading up to and following the fall of Constantinople, when the influence of Orthodox christianity moved north and west consequent upon Islam’s accession to its seat of power. As a result, there are a number of contemporary written sources and later folklore records of the actual pagan religions of Lesser Russia, Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which were still being practised until relatively recently.

It is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are many similarities between the Nordic, Baltic and Slavic gods, and these – touching on the aforementioned tentative link between Donar/Thunor/Thor and Weland – can help us untangle the meaning behind the enigmatic legendary blacksmith god of the Europeans.

In the east, Perun and Veles (also called Volos) were two closely-linked gods in the Slavic pantheon, notably that of the Kievan Rus until the 10thC and these survived in the guise of the gods Perkunas and Velnias among the Lithuanians until a much later date. These better-attested Baltic counterparts were known by a number of regional names – as Perkele (Ukko) and Ilmarinen in Finland, as Perkele and Pekkols in Prussia, and also as Perkons (Latvia, Estonia). Perkunas and his variants represented the sky (elemental air and fire), whereas Velnias and his variants represented the earth (elemental earth and water). Their various legends point towards an interplay between the two states: the earth and the heavens, or the mundane and the divine. Reconstruction of the underlying theology of these gods, it must be noted, depends upon collecting together details recorded over a period of time spanning almost 1000 years from sources in various different regions.

Perun/Perkunas is a thunder-god. Like Donar/Thor he is associated with wielding a hammer or axe akin to a thunderbolt. He also (like Thor) has been portrayed as either being accompanied by a goat, riding upon a goat, or riding in a chariot pulled by a goat or goats. Devotees of Donar/Thor wore similar hammer/axe amulets to those of Perun/Perkunas. They obviously have a common cultural root.

Thor's hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Thor’s hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Slavic 'axe amulet' c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Slavic ‘axe amulet’ c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Contemporary gold casting of 'Crosh Bollan' amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse, which bears a striking similarity to 'Thor's Hammer' and the 'Slavic Axe'.

Contemporary gold casting of ‘Crosh Bollan’ amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse fish, which bears a striking similarity to ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and the ‘Slavic Axe’. The Isle of Man was once a medieval viking kingdom and was once a principle stop-over destination on the ancient sea trade-routes from the Baltic and Scandinavia.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe. Did it originally come from the Black Sea trade routes with the north?

It should become obvious that Wayland is an intermediary partaker of the qualities of the sky god and the terrestrial-god. In his myth he is confined on earth for a period, but longs for the sky, into which he leaps at the opportunity to escape. Perkunas seemingly represents ‘Sky Wayland’.

Perkunas: why an axe and not a hammer?

Whereas the hammer is archetypally the tool of a blacksmith or stonemason, the axe is the tool of the woodsman and the builder of wooden houses – particularly in the arboreal climes of the Baltic and Russian provinces where wooden houses have predominated, being warmer in harsh winters. Such buildings were ever at the mercy of fire, particularly that occasioned by great tree-splitting bolts of lightning. For these reasons, Perkunas is associated with an axe – he creates by dividing.

Velnias/Velinas as the ‘divine smith’:

Velnias (and his Slavic equivalent), on the other hand, has a terrestrial or subterranean association. It should be fairly clear that similarity with the Scandinavian ‘Velent’ or ‘Volund’ versions of the name of Wayland. In the ancient ‘elemental’ system of thought, Velnias represented Earth and Water – the cthonic and earth-bound forces and the dead. Perkunas represented Air and Fire – they are complimentary to one another. Velnias represents ‘Terrestrial Wayland’ who creates by forging – hammering things together.

The core aspects of the european smith-god legends – be they of Wayland or Hephaistos – represent him as the higher creative fire bound on earth. In Wayland’s tale, he and his two brothers (all elves) fall in love with three valkyries (swan-maidens), and when the swans leave them (the winter migration) Wayland becomes bereft and is captured and enslaved to the human king Nithhad where he is forced to create treasures for him. Weland does as he is bidden but in revenge kills the king’s two sons and makes their bones and teeth into jewels – a gruesome fulfillment of a promise by giving a gift that while of exquisite beauty and value is at once one of utter destruction. Further to this Wayland fulfils a ‘triple-revenge’ by raping and impregnating the king’s daughter, ensuring that the king’s sole inheritor will be of Weland’s divine seed. Upon extracting his revenge, he escapes into the sky on the back of a magical bird (the returning swan?) or in the other version on a flying machine which he himself created, thus re-entering the spiritual realm of air and fire that is the province of the alfar or elves. The allegory is one of winter and the return of vegetation from rot and decay. Weland is the ‘secret smith’ reforging nature within the earth ready for it to re-emerge in springtime. He is a killer AND a giver of life – a perfect archetype of the ‘cthonic’.

Lithuanians in the post-christianised period use the word ‘Velnias’ or ‘Velinas’ to indicate the christian devil, a fact attested in some of the earliest dictionaries translating the Lithuanian language, and it is still the devil’s name in this country. The related word veles (plural) indicated the souls of the dead, who were his ward just as Slavic Volos was described as the god of terrestrial flocks. Velnias rôle in Lithuanian mythology and folklore is as an underworld god – of earth and rivers – who contested with Perkunas, god of fire and sky.

Greimas (in ‘Of Gods and Men’) relates a number of late Lithuanian folklore-tales that he believes link the Devil (‘Velnias’) with an archetypal mythological blacksmith  referred to as Kalevelis or Kalvelis  a combination of the Lithuanian word for ‘blacksmith’ and ‘-velis’. Although there are no written references to a god called ‘Kalevelis’, an insertion in a 13thC Slavic manuscript translation of the 6thC Byzantine Malala Chronicle contains an early account of the names of Lithuania’s principle pagan gods. The insertion mentions a god called Teliavelis who forged the sun (Saulė) and threw her into the sky. The 13thC Volyn chronicle also mentions Teliavelis as a god secretly worshipped by a Lithuanian king supposed to have converted to christianity. Neither chronicles name Velnias as a god, although Perkunas is mentioned in the Malala chronicle’s marginalia.

On closer analysis, Teliavelis appears to be the same god as Velnias, lord of the souls of the dead (veles): The prefix ‘Telia-‘ may be related to the latin word for ‘the earth’ – tellus. It might also be related to the Greek word telios (which linguists believe to be a metathesis from an original PIE word kʷelios – remember the Irish ‘Cuillean’?), referring to an end-point, summation, result or termination. The suffix ‘-velis’ appears to relate to the terrestrial god Velnias. Linguistically, this implies an interface where the earthy/watery lower world of Velnias meets the firey/airy upper world of Perkunas. Both prefix and suffix agree with fortive and lenitive metathesis (sound change) seen in Wayland’s various European names.

Linguistic implications of a ‘fallen’ god?

There is something of the tragic and self-sacrificial in the legend of Wayland, a theme echoed by many other mythical heroes and gods connected with his semantic field. Within the corpus of Norse mythology, the other great tragic sacrificial character is that of Baldr, who was accidentally killed by one of his kin who threw a mistletoe dart at him, believing he was impervious to it.

‘Baldr’ is associated with the ‘Phol’ and ‘Wodan’ (a version of the mysterious Eddaic god-triad Odin, Vili and Ve?) in one of the famous 9th//10thC Merseburg Incantations, discovered in a manuscript in the collection of the cathedral chapter of Meresburg in 1841.

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be mended.

(Translation: Benjamin W. Fortson.)

The relationship between Phol and Baldr is partly ambiguous, but appear to be co-identified in the charm. And who, indeed, is the mysterious ‘Volla’? The B>V>Ph lenition of the initial consonant of his name demonstrates the potential connection to Volund/Weland. He is a mythological figure embodying sacrifice. The name also appears cognate with the Old Norse word for the dead (or ‘fallen’) – val or vol, seen in the name of the otherworld destination, valhalla. In Lithuanian, the spirits of the dead are known by the similar word: veles. Also similar are the Nordic words for mountain, fjall or fjell, and the English words ‘fell’ (hill) and ‘fall’, as in ‘fall down’. This brings us back again into the semantic field of ‘celtic’ spirit and creation myths, where hills were considered to be the start of many things, and the seat of fairies or ancestors. Such hills and mountains were also believed by ancient Scandinavians to be the habitations of dwarves or dark elves whose ability in smithcraft was said to have been unparalleled. Folklore often ascribed the creation of hills and mountains to the dropping or casting of great rocks by giant mythological figures, or the trampling of mythical horses ridden by giants.

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

A coin of the Gaulish/Belgic Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse was ubiquitous to coins of the Iron Age ‘celtic’ peoples. Baldr’s horse?   The Nikkr? The steed of Hephaistos, even?

The ancient European peoples practised mound-inhumation from the middle stone-age onwards, and there is a famous example of one such neolithic-era mound in England known to this day as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’. The idea that the dead sacrifice themselves so that their souls might be reforged to generate more life seems to have underpinned ancient European belief, and this idea is embodied wholly within the story of Volund or Wayland.

Other linguistic aspects – ‘Will to Power’?:

The suffixes of the names Weland and Volund could also be derived from a common Proto-Indo-European root of the latin verbs meaning ‘to fly‘ and ‘to strive or want‘ – namely volare and volo respectively. The latter gives us the Germanic word ‘will’ (vili in the Scandinavian languages). They are connected by a sense of longing and energy with intent – both ideas encapsulated in the germanic versions of the smith’s legend: In the first case (flying), it is illustrated by his association with swan-maidens (valkyries), and his eventual flight to escape King Niðhad. In the second case, Wayland is very much essentially a man who strives – in his desperate love for his swan-maiden consort, in his work forging vast numbers of items of great beauty and function, in his desire to punish and eventually in his will to be free. He is a transcendental figure who flies his earthly bonds in order to obtain his will of liberation from a terrestrial state. Wayland therefore expresses Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of ‘Will to Power’, and this is the essence of his potency as a legendary character not just among the Germanic peoples but of all of those indigenous peoples who have weathered the challenges of existing in northern Europe and western Eurasia over thousands of years.




Parallels in Indo-European religion: Sidhe and Siddha

Scholars of ancient European and Eurasian paganism and linguistics have, since the 17thC, increasingly looked eastwards for parallels and connections between its surviving worldview, language and mythology, and that of the Indo-Aryan peoples of the Caucasus, the Near East, Persia and northern India, with whom Europeans share a common linguistic and cultural root (the ‘Indo-European’ languages and cultures). This common root can be traced to migrations of people and ideas occurring in at least the 2nd millenium BCE during prehistory, although continuing cultural commerce between east and west over the centuries will have certainly reinforced certain aspects.

One of the more mysterious and seldom-discussed aspects of these links is the proposed conceptual and linguistic connection appearing to exist between the important ancient Rigvedic, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu use of the Sanskrit word-concept Siddha’, with that of the Gaelic religious and cultural tradition of the Sidhe, found in the furthest reaches of Europe’s western shores during the 1st and 2nd  millennia CE.

The ancient Sanskrit word Siddha refers to an enlightened individual who has attained a higher spiritual state of being, having divested of many worldly things which encumber the soul. Siddha is expressed in its most ethereal and radical form within the religious system of Jainism (perhaps the oldest world religion still extant) which ascribes these Siddha a wholly spiritual form without a physical body, based on their ability to overcome the wordly things. Scholars of Irish, Scots and Manx Gaelic mythology will recognise this as a state of being usually ascribed to the ‘Sidhe’ people (Sith, Sí, Shee, Sighe), otherwise often called ‘fairies’, or (in the medieval Irish literary tradition) the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Sanskrit siddha were said to have achieved siddhi – the highest pinnacle of spiritual achievement, attainment or accomplishment – with skills considered miraculous or magical attained through their rejection of worldy things in order to seek closeness to absolute divinity. In Buddhism and Hinduism in general, the related term Sādhanā (from which we derive the common Indian word for holy man – sadhu) refers to the practices aimed at achieving this divine pinnacle.

The related word Sattva (found in the Buddhist term Bhodisattva, an enlightened one) appears to come from the same root. Sattva is the harmonious, pure uniting principle expressed through the rejection of worldly things, and is one of the three ‘Guna’ or ‘threads of being’ of Hindu belief. The other two are the state of rajas, embodying the passionate, active and confused state of being, and that of tamas, embodying darkness, cold, and resistance to growth which we can all express at times in our destructive nature. To be sattvik in Hinduism is to have conquered and rejected rajas and tamas to have the state suitable to become a siddha in the ‘higher world’. Tamas, on the other hand is the energy of what in western paganism would be called ‘the underworld’ – our heavy ‘anchor’ in the cycles of being and rebirth implicit in eastern (and ancient European) belief.  Rajas represents the ‘middle world’ of ordinary struggle and passion between the lower and higher states.

The religious histories of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism are full of hagiographies and worship or veneration centred upon those spiritual heroes who have attained the state of Siddha: The wondering Rishis and Muni Keśin mentioned in the Rigveda, the perfected Jina or Arihant siddhas of Jain tradition who live in the highest pure spiritual realm of Siddhashila, the  eighty four Mahasiddhas of Buddhist fame, and the Siddhar traditions recorded on the famous palm leaf manuscripts of Tamil Nadu. One of the most famous Rishis of all in these religious traditions of famous sages was ‘Siddhartha Guatama’, otherwise known as the Buddha.

These were the ‘saints’ of these eastern religions, and the christian ‘saints’ of European, Caucasian and Near Eastern medieval monotheism would also come to take on similar characteristics and abilities (amounting to those of the eastern Siddhi), albeit based upon indigenous local traditions. Indeed, followers of this blog will probably have gathered that I have been suggesting that these christian saints were often given the identities of pagan spirits, gods or Sidhe in order to provide provenance and a sense of continuity.

It might be apparent that Siddhas represent the spiritual ‘culture heroes’ of the eastern religions in question. So what about Ireland’s ‘Sidhe‘?

Well, the earliest reference to this canon of spiritual beings comes from the Hymn of Fiacc, recorded in medieval manuscripts whose form of Old Irish is said to date them to between the 7th and 8thC CE. Fiacc was supposed to have been one of Patrick’s original 5thC CE apostles and the manuscript tradition comes from within the saint’s earliest establishments, so it can be considered of reasonable provenance. It states that, before the official coming of Christ to Ireland in the 5thC CE, the Irish worshipped beings called Síde:

…for tūaith Hérenn bái temel 

tūatha adortais síde…

“…On the people of Erin there was darkness;

The Tuatha adored the Side; …”

(You may be interested to know that Saint Fiacc is honoured on the 12th of October in the Irish Catholic tradition.)

The Irish term ‘Sidhe’ (‘Shee’ or ‘Shee-the’) or it’s alternative Scots form ‘Sith’ (used by 17thC author Robert Kirk), and even its Manx form ‘Shee’, have survived down into more modern times associated with meanings congruent either with fairies, their speculative habitations (small hills or ‘sidhe mounds’), or their status, which in the case of the dead, meant a state of peace’ entirely congruent with the dis-attachment to worldly things upon which the eastern definition of Siddha seems to depend. 

The Gaelic Sidhe were believed to be providential spirits who interacted with the human world but enjoyed a purely spiritual existence. They were sometimes seen as forebears – forerunners whose skill had ensured the wellbeing of the contemporary peoples. Like the Siddhas they were venerated as those who were spiritually ‘perfect’ and were believed – as ancestral spirits – to look after the needs of their subsequent relatives, hence the ‘hearth cult’ and ‘fairy faith’.

The connections – both linguistic and cultural – seem too overt to ignore without further study.  The continuity and complexity of very ancient living traditions are admittedly difficult to reconcile with those whose persistence has been masked by more dramatic religious and cultural changes over two millennia, yet ours is now the age in which this might happen. Maybe Tibet and Ireland are the eastern and western-most world-niches in which a huge common movement of  humanity has set the most diverse aspects of its philosophy?

Serpents and dragons in British folklore

It is perhaps unsurprising that Britain can lay claim to a number of ‘worm’ or ‘dragon’ legends, given its lands have been settled at various times by peoples to whom the imagery of such creatures has had deep symbolic meaning, not only to the Britons, Gauls and Irish of the Bronze and Iron Ages, but also of the ‘Romanised’ continentals and Germanic peoples who mixed with them, reinforcing and modifying the indigenous ideas of that locality. Through further contact with the East via Byzantium and the Crusades, new style and detail became added to indigenous stories which changed how people imagined these creatures looked and behaved.

The folktales and legends of old Britain were, before the 17thC era when state Protestantism began to encourage widespread literacy, transmitted orally largely in the form of either stories or ballads. Many of those in song form survive because they were published from the late 1600s onward in the form of ‘broadsheet-‘ or ‘broadside-ballads’ – popular songs whose lyrics were printed in the early newspapers.

Dragons or Serpents?

What we think of today as a dragon – a quadrupedal,winged, fire-breathing giant lizard – is in fact a ‘cultural chimera’ created by the fusion of Oriental and Occidental myths. It began to appear principally in the middle ages under the influence of Byzantine contact with the east.

The word ‘dragon’ is originally Greek: The word δράκων (drákōn) means ‘gazer’, and was applied to monstrous serpentine (and usually aquatic) creatures. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, such fantastical ‘chimeric’ beasts were created by the Titans, in the distant ‘Kronian Age’ before the Olympian gods, and typically dwelled in the mysterious places at the far reach of the world-river ‘Okeanos’ – a metaphor for the most distant place a mortal could travel. They also appear as adversaries for both gods and heroes, again typically in far-off lands: Colchis, Libya, etc. Ancient Greek dragons were exotic, monstrous and liminal. They represented the cosmic forces of destruction and chaos – necessary parts of the natural order, continually attacking new growth and life.  To the ancient Egyptians, the giant serpent Apep (Apophis) embodied the same aspect of cosmic chaos, being the challenger to the personified luminary, Ra, at the far and mysterious extent of the sun’s travels ‘beyond the horizons’ in the underworld. His depiction as the Ouroboros serpent (devouring its own tail) went on to influence the symbolism of the mysticism in the Greco-Roman world. The ‘barbarian’ Celts of Europe’s Bronze and Iron Ages were also fond of the imagery of serpents, which pervaded their art and stylization. Contrary to popular beliefs, dragon imagery as we would understand it is not readily identifiable from the artistic record of these peoples before they ‘took the king’s sestertius’ and Romanised.

St George and the Dragon:

The prototype for many British ‘dragon’ tales must surely lie in the Romance literature era, during which time popular and courtly culture in northern Europe was dominated by a strong tradition of storytelling, the most notable of which were the Arthurian cycle of tales. One of the most popular books of that era was the religiously-themed ‘Legenda Aurea’ (‘Golden Legends’) compiled by James (Jacob) of Voraigne c.1260CE. It was a collection of the tales of Christendom’s most popular religious heroes – the Saints – drawn from regions as far as Byzantium and beyond in the east to Ireland in the far west. Among these was contained an account of the legend of St George and the Dragon, originating apparently from Cappadocia (modern Turkey) and Georgia, albeit with obvious influences from the ‘Thracian Hero’ statuary traditions of the late-Roman era Balkans and Asia Minor.

Like many of the famous British dragon tales, the Legenda Aurea account of George has him battling a serpent which has emerged from a lake. True to ‘Romance’ literary form, he saves a fair damsel from the dragon. Here is an excerpt from the 15thC English version as printed by William Caxton):

“… S. George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. On a time he came in to the province of Libya, to a city which is said Silene. And by this city was a stagne or a pond like a sea, wherein was a dragon which envenomed all the country. And on a time the people were assembled for to slay him, and when they saw him they fled. And when he came nigh the city he venomed the people with his breath, and therefore the people of the city gave to him every day two sheep for to feed him, because he should do no harm to the people, and when the sheep failed there was taken a man and a sheep. Then was an ordinance made in the town that there should be taken the children and young people of them of the town by lot, and every each one as it fell, were he gentle or poor, should be delivered when the lot fell on him or her. So it happed that many of them of the town were then delivered, insomuch that the lot fell upon the king’s daughter, whereof the king was sorry, and said unto the people: For the love of the gods take gold and silver and all that I have, and let me have my daughter. They said: How sir! ye have made and ordained the law, and our children be now dead, and ye would do the contrary. Your daughter shall be given, or else we shall burn you and your house.

When the king saw he might no more do, he began to weep, and said to his daughter: Now shall I never see thine espousals. Then returned he to the people and demanded eight days’ respite, and they granted it to him. And when the eight days were passed they came to him and said: Thou seest that the city perisheth: Then did the king do array his daughter like as she should be wedded, and embraced her, kissed her and gave her hls benediction, and after, led her to the place where the dragon was.

When she was there S. George passed by, and when he saw the lady he demanded the lady what she made there and she said: Go ye your way fair young man, that ye perish not also. Then said he: Tell to me what have ye and why weep ye, and doubt ye of nothing. When she saw that he would know, she said to him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then said S. George: Fair daughter, doubt ye no thing hereof for I shall help thee in the name of Jesu Christ. She said: For God’s sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for ye may not deliver me. Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair. Then she led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: Alas! alas! we shall be all dead. Then S. George said to them: Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesu Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon. Then the king was baptized and all his people, and S. George slew the dragon and smote off his head, and commanded that he should be thrown in the fields, and they took four carts with oxen that drew him out of the city.

Then were there well fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children, and the king did do make a church there of our Lady and of S. George, in the which yet sourdeth a fountain of living water, which healeth sick people that drink thereof… “

The adoption of George as a national saint famed for slaying a dragon all but ensured the popularity of this mythical genre in England, leading to a slew of local versions of the tale – all generally loaded with the same allegorical intent.

When Geoffrey of Monmouth penned his ‘Prophecy of Merlin’ as part of his 12thC ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ he depicted the ancient British king Vortigern as witness to a battle between a red and a white dragon, said to represent the Britons and the Saxons respectively. The dragon from then onwards also became a national symbol to the Britons, and for this very reason the red dragon is the symbol depicted upon the Welsh national flag.

I will now discuss a few of the more famous English dragon tales:

The Lambton Worm:

This famous tale from the north of England in the vicinity of the River Wear is still an immensely popular part of local tradition. It generally tells of a young squire of Lambton who goes fishing one Sunday and is rewarded by catching a slimy wriggling thing which he tosses into a well near the river (a wishing-well later referred to as the ‘Worm Well’) thinking it no fit fish. In time this ‘worm’ grew into a mighty and fearsome beast which terrorised the neighbourhood and stole the milk and cattle of the country people. Grown to manhood, the squire returns from the crusades to find his father’s lands laid waste by the creature. He seeks the sage advice of an old witch who counsels him how he might best defeat the beast whose existence he is responsible for. He eventually confronts the beast in a heroic struggle and defeats it, casting its body back into the river Wear. Although similar to the St George myth, it contains elements of indigenous British beliefs about rivers and holy wells that were important to our Celtic ancestors.

The Sockburn Worm:

Another famous northern English dragon-slaying myth is that of the Sockburn Worm or Sockburn Wyvern of County Durham. The word ‘wyvern’ derives from the French guivre – meaning an asp, adder or wyrm. We know of this worm because of a legend attached to a medieval sword known as the Conyers Falchion, traditionally presented to each new Bishop of Durham when he takes up his position. This (actually a 12th/13thC blade) was supposed to have been used to slay the worm by the eponymous Conyers, for which favour he was supposedly granted his lands some time in the 11thC. A note on this tradition remains in a 17thC manuscript of the Conyers’ pedigree in the possession of the British museum.

“Sr Jo Conyers of Storkburn Knt who slew ye monstrous venoms and poysons wiverns Ask or worme which overthrew and Devour’d many people in fight, for the scent of poyson was soo strong, that no person was able to abide it, yet he by the providence of god overthrew it and lyes buried at Storkburn before the Conquest, but before he did enterprise it (having but one sonne) he went to the Church in compleat armour and offered up his sonne to the holy ghost, which monument is yet to see, and the place where the serpent lay is called Graystone.” British Museum MS Harleian No. 2118, folio 39. Early 17thC

It is surmised that local lad Lewis Carroll immortalised the Sockburn Worm as his fantastical and savage ‘Jabberwocky’. The sword now lives at Durham Cathedral. The Bishop of Durham enjoyed near-kingly power and a military reputation during the period of the myth’s protagonist – he was responsible for keeping the dragon of Scots power under control, sometimes even serving the same purpose to the Scots against the English when circumstance suited him.

The Worm of Linton:

Just further north in the Scottish borders we find the story of the Worm of Linton – a dragon who lived in a den on the local hill, supposed to have been defeated by a knight called de Somerville who plunged a burning lump of peat into its maw on the end of his iron lance. The writhings and death-throes of the dragon were said to have caused the unusual undulations in the ground of the surrounding countryside. Like the Lambton worm just across the border, the dragon’s den is said to be in the type of place once held as sacred by the pre-christian peoples of Britain.

The Laidley Worm:

The tragic tale of a princess transformed into a dragon by an evil witch, only to be saved by the kiss of a handsome prince is the basis for the the legend of the ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heughs’, sometimes known as the ‘The Laidly Worm of Banborough’ or ‘Bamburgh’. This tale is another preserved, so it was said, from folklore in a ballad first published in 1771 (within 10 years of MacPherson’s famous renderings of the legends of ‘Ossian’). It was attributed in Hutchinson’s 1778 guide to Northumberland to an ‘old mountain bard’ called Duncan Frasier, said to have lived on Cheviot (Scotland/Northumberland borders) in 1270, from whom it was ‘discovered’ from ‘an antient manuscript’ by its supposed ‘collector’, cited as the Rev. Robert Lambe.  As it appears related to the ballads of the ‘Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea’ and ‘Kemp Owyne’, collected by Child in his book of songs, it is likely that Lambe’s claim was probably dubious – an attempt at personal aggrandisement from popular local tradition in the light of MacPherson’s dubious fame. These creatures (mackerel and serpent) both evoke the idea of ‘gazer’ expressed by the ancient Greek word ‘drákōn’.

“… ‘I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.
‘For she has made me the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o the tree,
An my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.
‘An every Saturday at noon
The machrel comes to me,
An she takes my laily head
An lays it on her knee,
She kaims it wi a siller kaim,
An washes’t in the sea.
‘Seven knights hae I slain,
Sin I lay at the fit of the tree,
An ye war na my ain father,
The eight ane ye should be.’ … “

The term ‘Laily’ is understood to mean ‘loathly’. The theme of transformative humans, disguising their majesty behind monstrous identities was common in the stories of the ancient world, and a particular theme seen in the traditions of Ireland and Britain until late in the middle ages, when Chaucer employed it in his ‘Wife of Bath’s tale’.

The Dragon of Unsworth:

The northern county of Lancashire claims a dragon legend in that associated with the settlement of Unsworth, now a part of Greater Manchester. The surviving incarnation of the legend states that Sir Thomas Unsworth – lord of that particular manse – slew a dragon that had been terrorising his neighbourhood by firing a dagger from his gun into the soft spot on its throat. This selfsame dagger was supposed to have been used to carve an old wooden table once (as late as the 19thC) in the possession of the family at Unsworth House, which had a number of dragons inscribed upon it.

Like the other British dragon stories alluded to, the story attaches the slaying of a dragon to the provenance of some aristocratic family and their self-proclaimed right to rule. The same can be said of Yorkshire’s equivalent tale:

‘The Dragon of Wantley’:

Set among the Wharncliffe (‘Wantley’ or ‘Wortley’) Crags and Moors near Sheffield in South Yorkshire, this legend involved a dragon who would fly out regularly from its den in a cave (still called the ‘Dragon’s Den’) at the crags near Wortley Hall to a spring-well in the district. This dragon, according to the traditions, was eventually slain by a local hero, More of More Hall, the local magnate and presumed fore-runner of the incumbents at Wortley Hall (Wortley-Montagu of smallpox inoculation fame).


A late 17thC ‘Broadside Ballad‘ from Sheffield later recorded by Francis Child (of ‘Child Ballads’ fame) in the 19thC introduces the dragon and the spring well he was said to frequent:

…In Yorkshire, near fair Rotherham,

     the Place I know [it] well:

Some two or three Miles, or thereabouts,

     I vow, I cannot tell;

But there is a Hedge, just on the Hill Edge,

     and Matthews House hard by it:

Oh! there and then was this Dragons Den,

     you could not chuse but spy it.

Some say this Dragon was a Witch;

     some say he was a Devil:

For from his Nose a Smoke arose,

     and with it burning Snivel;

Which he cast off, when he did cough,

     into a Well that stands by;

Which made it look just like a Brook

     running with burning Brandy…

The hero, Moore of Moore Hall, ambushes the dragon by hiding in its favourite drinking well cloaked in spiked armour. When the dragon comes to drink he leaps out and combat ensues. The hero, wearing spiked shoes, finishes off the dragon with a kick:

At length the hard Earth began for to quake,

     the Dragon gave him such a Knock:

Which made him to reel, and straight he thought

     to lift him as high as a Rock,

And then let him fall: But Moore of Moore-hall,

     like a valiant Son of Mars:

As he came like a Lout, so he turnd him about,

     and hit him a Kick on the Arse.

Oh, quoth the Dragon, with a deep Sigh,

     and turnd six Times together;

Sobbing and tearing, cursing and swearing,

     out of his Throat of Leather;

Moore of Moore-hall, O thou Rascal,

     would I had seen thee never:

With the Thing at thy Foot thou hast prickd my Arse-gut,

     and I am undone for ever.

The ballads and stories of the Dragon were almost as famous locally as those of Robin Hood, whose earliest surviving (15thC) exemplars such as A Gest of Robyn Hode localise Robin to areas such as Barnsdale and Loxley in South Yorkshire. In the 18thC the story of the Dragon of Wantley was very well known and was even turned into a popular Burlesque Opera.

The ballad/tale’s popularity exemplified (as in the case of the aforementioned Robin Hood) how local politics and social intrigue could be served by the appropriation of ancient legendary motifs as allegories for more modern woes. They secretly lambasted local politicians and people of power. Dragons or big ugly beasts could be used in popular oral culture as representations of disease or greed, or to characterise human opponents.

Dragons also represent the dark reaches of where we have come from – the sources of humanity’s allegorical river, for which the snake has often been used as a metaphor. That rivers arise in lakes, pools or in caves or spring wells up on mountain sides has made such sites the classical typical den of the legendary dragons of myth.

The Daemon Prince: Some musings on Hermes-Mercury

The word ‘mercurial’, taken from the name of the Roman god Mercury and his eponymous liquid metal, generally means ‘volatile’ and ‘liable to change’. This descriptor is an apt expression of the god’s perceived nature as an ever-busy messenger between the divine and the mundane, the organising principle of trade and travel, inspiration for eloquence, dreams and communication, and a great crosser of boundaries. Known as Hermes to the Greeks (who seem to have donated him to the Romans), he was a god whose function these sage peoples also applied the term daimōn, which persisted in the Latin christian world in the word ‘demon’, coming to mean an evil angel who serves Satan in the mundane realms. Very broadly, a daimōn can be thought of as a penetrating principle of spirit entering into and acting on matter – a god-like being. In Plato’s dialogue known as The Symposium, the philosophers at a wine-drinking party discuss how, because of its great power, the principle of love (and hence, the goddess Aphrodite) is in fact a daimōn, for instance. Hermes and Aphrodite were credited in mythology with coupling to produce the androgynous god Hermaphroditus, venerated in the consumation of marriage as an expression of the combination of male and female sexuality.

Hermes: archetypal night-flying daimon, trickster-god, and herald of dreams.

Hermes: archetypal night-flying daimon, sneaky penetrator, trickster, and herald of dreams. Note the interlocking and distinctly sexual ‘love hearts’ at the bottom of this image from a 5thC BCE Attic red krater (Image courtesy,

In Greek,  ‘herma‘ means ‘pile of stones’, ‘prop’ or ‘boundary marker’, and this was the original form by which the god’s numinous presence was imagined in rural districts during and before the Greek ‘Archaic’ period, when gods were frequently depicted such by simple formless objects (such as the wooden ‘xoana’ images etc). The name ‘Hermes’ also resonates with the later Arabic word Emir, meaning ‘prince’ or ‘commander’ of a territory. From the classical period onwards (after the 7thC BCE) depictions of Greek gods increasingly became more figurative, and the word hermai came to be applied to those monuments associated with Hermes: often assuming the form of a simple square pillar surmounted with a carved head of the god, and exhibiting a phallus on the column at waist height. Greek traveller Pausanias, writing in the 2ndC CE, noted the god’s image might take the form of an erect male member mounted upon a pedestal. Such objects were popularly placed next to doorways and at boundaries in ancient Athens. In many ways they were similar to the older Egyptian depictions of the ithyphallic god Min.

To Classical and Hellenistic era Greeks, the square column represented order and stability (the god’s sacred number was four), and the phallus combined symbolism of both penetration and generation. Students of Greek paganism will recognise the phallic imagery as being shared by gods such as Dionysus, Priapus, and the Satyrs of the Dionysian retinue. Sâthe is another Greek word for ‘phallus’.

A 'Herma'

A ‘Herma’

Stela showing Egyptian god Min - an 'intact' version of Osiris in the land of the Living?

Stela showing Egyptian god Min – an ‘intact’ version of Osiris in the land of the Living?

As Greek religion evolved to incorporate eastern philosophies of essential monism, Hermes increasingly came to represent the divine aspects of the individual – an important factor in the development of christianity. An example of this is the syncretic god-concept of Hermes Trismegistos (‘Thrice-Great Hermes’) whose cult combined with that of Thoth  in Hellenistic Egypt, and who was recognised as a reputed originating author of written religious traditions in the Hellenistic Near East which seem to prefigure christianity in their content (‘Hermeticism’). Both Thoth and Hermes were patrons of written communication, and the Greeks saw the origins of many of their gods in those of ancient Egypt, and also to the converse.

In Roman culture, Hermes came to be identified with Mercury, whose name (and function) is associated with the word for trade – mercare. The god’s function as crosser of boundaries is also represented in the Indo-European languages’ use of variants of the word ‘mark‘, such as the Latin ‘margō‘, which means boundary or border. Trade is, after all, a formalised interface between individuals where both seek to benefit…

As human competitiveness knows no such boundaries, Mercury was also considered the god of magic, tricksters and thieves! In the 4thC CE, Christian writer Arnobius (Adversus Gentes 4.9.1) sneered at the Romans for worshipping their ‘Dii Lucrii’ (‘gods of profit’) of whom Mercury was an obvious case. Rome’s success came from copying the skill in trade of the Greeks and Phoenicians, who had colonised Italy before the city came to prominence. Mercury appears to have been a Greek introduction to Roman religion, with no obvious indigenous equivalent (except the original distinctly agrarian and rustic identity enjoyed by Mars/Quirinus) being known to current scholarship. Julius Caesar’s 1stC BCE comment (Comentarii de Bello Gallico) that the Gauls worshipped Mercury as their chief god was probably an off-hand comment that Gauls worshipped trade and  money – he had certainly managed to buy off the loyalties of many of them in pursuing his conquest of ‘barbarian Gaul. Likewise, the same might be said of Tacitus’ comment a hundred years later that Mercury was the chief god of the German peoples.

The breaking of boundaries and interfaces is also a strong semantic associated with death and travelling to an afterlife, so Hermes and Mercury were ascribed the divine function of psychopomp – guiding departed souls to their allotted destination.  This resonates with the god’s mythological connection with acting as a herdsman, and Hermes was indeed venerated as a protector of flocks and herds – seemingly a more fundamental or primitive aspect of his rôle as guardian of wealth and trade. In the myth of Zeus’ love for Io, tranformed by Hera into a cow, he sends Hermes in the guise of a shepherd to slay the giant Argos Panoptes who watches over her, freeing her to wander the earth.

Throughout the whole body of the text of the ‘Homeric Hymn to Hermes‘ he is portrayed as a rustic god associated with the droving and abduction of cattle and other beasts. Indeed, when he was but a precocious babe in his mother’s arms in a cave high on rustic Mount Cyllene, his first act after birth was steal the cattle of his brother Apollo, and institute the bridge of sacrifice between man and the deathless gods by slaying them. In recompense to his brother, according to the ca. 6th/5thC BCE hymn, he creates Apollo’s mystical lyre from the shell of a tortoise and the horns of an ox.

As a drover of cattle or a drover of souls, he is a leading and conducting force, much in the way that Aphrodite is an inducing and seducing force. He was sometimes imagined and depicted as Hermes Kriophoros – ‘Hermes the Ram Carrier’ – in the manner of a shepherd, carrying the beast in his arms or on his shoulders. This imagery became popular in christianity, whose narrative of shepherding and flocks appears to borrow heavily from the mythology of Hermes. He is almost always depicted (either as Hermes or Mercury) wearing a sun-hat (petasos), this being the signifier of a rustic in Greco-Roman culture: wealth and prosperity of any society ultimately flows from the soil.

Hermes Kriophoros (late Roman copy of a Greek original)

Hermes Kriophoros (late Roman copy of a Greek original)

The Caduceus:

A statue of Hermes from (could you have guessed it?) the Vatican museum.

A statue of Hermes with his ‘Caduceus’, from (could you have guessed it?) the Vatican museum. Lots of phallic imagery, in spite of the attempts at censorship: Was Hermes eventually seen as the ‘acceptable’ face of Dionysos?

Traditional depictions of Hermes and Mercury usually show him wielding a staff or sceptre. From our understanding of his functions, it can be seen that this could easily represent the staff of the shepherd, the measuring stave or tally stick of a merchant, the wand of a magician, the rod of a scribe or the sceptre representing authority in interaction between people. Known as the ‘caduceus’, its depiction became more formalised as time progressed until it assumed the form we often associate with it: a rod around which two serpents are twined, surmounted by a ball, sometimes with wings attached. The serpents are a symbol of regeneration from the earth, of death and rebirth, and also have sexual connotations as well as being largely ‘hermaphrodite’ in appearance, at least from the point of view that they are difficult to sexually differentiate. The twined serpents imply the coupling of male and female, representing the daimonic universal motivating forces implicit with both Hermes and Aphrodite. The wings and serpents together represent the polar opposites – the cthonic earth upon which snakes are doomed to crawl, and the air or pneuma, which is the sky and home of the stars and spirit. This represents the ability of Hermes to link the divine and the mundane. He was the god of transaction in all its forms and the caduceus is a striking representation of this.

Vishnu and Manannan

Interesting parallels can be drawn between the ancient Vedic (Indian) myths concerning the god Vishnu and the traditional (albeit bizarre) conception in the Isle of Man that the main Atlantic solar god Manannan had three legs, a fact reflected in the small island nation’s ancient flag:

The 'Three Legs of Mann'

The ‘Three Legs of Mann’

The imagery of the flag is widely agreed by celticists to be related to the ‘triskelion’ motif common in Atlantic and northern-European art from the late Bronze Age onwards, and to be a  solar symbol, related to the ancient lucky (for some) ‘swastika’ design.

Folklore collected in the Isle of Man by Charles Roeder, Edward Faragher, Sophia Morrison and colleagues in the late 19thC contained references to Manannan as a three-legged giant. This was an era when ancient mythology was considered very important to contemporary ideas of nationhood, and the study of folklore was a widespread pastime throughout Europe. The following excerpts were published in Volume 3 of a publication called Yn Lioar Manninagh (‘The Manx Book’) produced by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in the 1890’s:

” In olden times, long gone, there was a giant with three legs (‘dooiney three cassyn’) who lived in the Island; At last, when he could keep it no longer, it is said he rolled out like a wheel at Jurby Point, and then he disappeared and went out into the tide, and I heard this 60 years ago, when I was a little boy. “

” My next door neighbour was telling me his father went to Spanish Head one morning, at an early hour, some few years ago, and he saw a headless man toward the perpendicular cliff, some-thing in form of the three legs, rolling like a wheel on his feet and hands, and rolled over the cliff, which was full of sea-birds at the time, but the sea-birds did not appear to see anything, or they had all been on the wing in a moment, for if a small stone is thrown down the cliff the birds are flying and screaming in a thrice.”

” Manannan was a magician that governed the Island for many years, often hiding himself in a silver mist on the top of some high mountain, and as he could see strange ships who came to plunder the Island, he would get into the shape of the three legs, and roll down from the mountain top as fast as the wind, to where the strange vessels were anchored, and invent something to frighten them away.”

” There was a fleet of Norwegian ships came to Peel Bay, and the three-legged fellow came rolling to Peel, and it was about low tide in the harbour, with a small stream of fresh running out to sea. So he made little boats of the flaggers (AR: Iris) by the river side, a good number of them, and put them in the stream. Now, when the little fleet came out of the harbour, he caused them to appear like great ships of war, and the enemies fleet on the bay were in a great panic, and hoisted sails, as fast as possible, and cut their cables, and got away from the Island.”

Apparently, such ideas – if we are to believe the mid-19thC Irish antiquary John O’Donovan – were not just confined to the Isle of Man. In his notes to the translation of the 10thC Irish text known as Sanais Chormaic (known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’), published by Whitley Stokes in 1868, he wrote the following against the entry on Manannán Mac Lír:

“… He was the son of Allot, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann chieftains. He was otherwise called Orbsen, whence Loch Orbsen, now Lough Corrib. He is still vividly remembered in the mountainous district of Derry and Donegal, and is said to have an enchanted castle in Lough Foyle. According to the traditions in the Isle of Man and the Eastern counties of Leinster, this first man of Man rolled on three legs like a wheel through the mist…”

The ‘Three Legs’ myths about Manannan’s rolling or striding are also perhaps mirrored in the many myths from Irish and British folklore about great leaps made by the titanic denizens of ancient legends, including but not limited to: The Devil, the Cailleach, St. Patrick, St. Patrick’s horse, Fionn mac Cumhaill and any number of other giants and supernatural beings. Take, for instance, the case of the tales of ‘7 League Boots’ popularised in literary accounts of fairy tales in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All of these variants have a widespread provenance in popular folklore, and are not limited to insular Europe alone, but occur across the continent and further afield.

It is in that ‘further field’ that we leap almost three millenia to find the hymns of the ancient Indian/Hindu Rig Veda texts (dated by scholars to the period spanning 1500-1200 BCE). These detail the role of the god Vishnu (the indo-european rootword ‘Vis-‘ implies ‘penetrating/pervading’), whose three great strides spatially delineate the universe, and whose incarnations and transformations delineate the eras of time itself – the ‘Yugas’:

Rig Veda Mandala 1, Hymn 154 – the ‘Vishnu Suktam’ (Trans. ?Griffiths):
1. I WILL declare the mighty deeds of Visnu, of him who measured out the earthly regions,
Who propped the highest place of congregation, thrice setting down his footstep, widely striding.
2. For this his mighty deed is Visnu lauded, like some wild beast, dread, prowling, mountain-roaming;
He within whose three wide-extended paces all living creatures have their habitation.
3. Let the hymn lift itself as strength to Visnu, the Bull far-striding, dwelling on the mountains,
Him who alone with triple step hath measured this common dwelling-place, long, far extended.
4. Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them,
Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures.
5. May I attain to that his well-loved mansion where men devoted to the Gods are happy.
For there springs, close akin to the Wide-Strider, the well of meath* (AR: Soma – the holy visionary sacrament, called Haoma by Zoroastrians) in Visnu’s highest footstep.
6. Fain would we go unto your dwelling-places where there are many-horned and nimble oxen,
For mightily, there, shineth down upon us the widely-striding Bull’s sublimest mansion.


Rig Veda: Mandala 7, Hymn 100 (trans. ? Griffiths):

1 NE’ER doth the man repent, who, seeking profit, bringeth his gift to the far-striding Viṣṇu.

He who adoreth him with all his spirit winneth himself so great a benefactor.

2 Thou, Viṣṇu, constant in thy courses, gavest good-will to all men, and a hymn that lasteth,

That thou mightst move us to abundant comfort of very splendid wealth with store of horses.

3 Three times strode forth this God in all his grandeur over this earth bright with a hundred splendours. 

Foremost be Viṣṇu, stronger than the strongest: for glorious is his name who lives for ever.

4 Over this earth with mighty step strode Viṣṇu, ready to give it for a home to Manu. 

In him the humble people trust for safety: he, nobly born, hath made them spacious dwellings…

Vishnu is known in one of his incarnations by the name Vamana, also referred to by the epithet Trivikrama: ‘Three world strider’, because his three strides took in the seven heavens (Svarga), the underworlds (Patala) and the middle world of nature (i.e. the Earth). The name  ‘Vamana’ certainly appears resonant with that of Atlantic Europe’s Manannán! You might also note from Hymn 7.100 above, he bestowed the earth upon a character called Manu. Manu is of course, as the name suggests, the mythical ‘Proto-Man‘ of Hindu myth – the same function occupied by Manannan in Manx mythology. As the Hindus believe in reincarnation, it is unsurprising to learn that their mythology deals with many incarnations of Manu. The early Irish manuscript references to Manannan (Cormac etc) also hint at a number of ‘incarnations’ of the god, whose various names the euhemerist christian clerics were eager to record in order to support their propaganda that pagan gods were nothing but deified ancestral heroes. Vishnu, as the primary Vedic god, is represented as the animating spirit of men through his incarnation/’avatar’, Manu, just as Manannan is the same for the Manx people…

Like Vishnu and his wordly incarnations, Manannan provided a similar link between the mundane, subterranean and heavenly worlds of Irish mythology. He had a foot in each. As well as providing a link to an idealized past, he functions – like Vishnu- as a warrior-protector in the less-than-ideal present, referred to in Hindu parlance as the Kali Yuga or ‘Epoch of Kali’. Fans of Atlantic mythology might recognise our own ‘Western Kali’ in this name – the fractious and destructive goddess referred to as ‘An Cailleach‘!

…. But that, as they say, is for another story.

NB – Re: *’Meath’. This is the old Indo-European word related to the ancient intoxicating honey drink ‘Mead’. It appears to be a word cognate with the name of Ireland’s famous fairy Queen Medb (‘Maeve’) of Connacht, from the Ulster Cycle of tales, as well as being echoed in the fairy lord, Midir/Mider of Brí Leith (a key player in the Old Irish mythological reincarnation tale known as ‘The Wooing of Etain‘). Of interest, Māyā is one of the names of Vishnu’s wife in Hindu/Vedic mythology, and is also another name of the goddess Lakshmi. In Greek mythology, Maia is the mother of the travelling/leaping/world-crossing god, Hermes