The Icenii, ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’

2ndC CE Roman historian Cassius Dio famously mentions details of the ill-fated revolt of the Iceni and their allies against Nero’s legions in southern Britain during 60/61CE. His compendium ‘The Roman History’ may well have relied upon on first-hand accounts of the events of this episode, but Dio uses a certain creative licence regaling us with a rousing speech made by queen Boudica to her people before their battles. Indeed, it largely functions to portray Nero as a weak and effete figure of ridicule, but is of interest to religious historians, as he has the queen call upon a British goddess referred to as ‘Andraste’:

“…When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee…” (The Roman History, Boook 62 -trans. Bill Thayer)

Whoever Andraste was, she seems to have inspired the Britons with a confidence matched only by the fear which drove the Roman legions to eventually overcome them. Little else is known about Andraste save for this account. However, the reason for this might be because the ‘name’ given by Cassius Dio was a misunderstanding of ‘An Dras De’ – which is simply the Brythonic phrase meaning ‘The Tribal God’, ‘Dras’ being an old Welsh word meaning ‘kindred’. Consider the Irish god known as ‘An Dag De’ – the Dagda – a similar composite term is therefore possible.

Cassius Dio goes on to describe the rampage of revenge and humiliation wreaked upon the hapless Romans at Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London):

“… Having finished an appeal to her people of this general tenor, Buduica led her army against the Romans; for these chanced to be without a leader, inasmuch as Paulinus, their commander, had gone on an expedition to Mona, an island near Britain. This enabled her to sack and plunder two Roman cities, and, as I have said, to wreak indescribable slaughter. Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subjected to every known form of outrage. The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence… “

It is possible that ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’ were simply kennings for the same female divinity, but another possibility arises: that Cassius Dio got it wrong, and that ‘Andate’ was actually the male deity known in Ireland as ‘An Dagdae’ or ‘Eochaidh Ollathair. This is reasonably within the bounds of Celtic language pronunciation where consonantal sounds within words are readily dropped. Here is my reasoning:

An Dagda and the Morrigan in Cath Magh Turedh:

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

The Irish mythological cycle tale known as Cath Magh Turedh (possibly a composite of different tellings of an original) contains a number of mysterious, poorly elucidated ‘scenes’ featuring the Dagda.

Firstly, it mentions his ‘cauldron of plenty’. Next it mentions his role doing heavy work as a builder of the fortress of Bres of the Fomorians. He seems unusually trusting and a bit simple, and gives some of his vast meal portions away to a man who demands the best part each sitting, causing him to weaken. He forms a triplicity with Lugh and Ogma, and they go to ‘three gods of Danu’ (one of  whom is stated to be the Morrigan) who give weapons to Lugh. Dagda then has sexual intercourse with the Morrigan at a ford of the River Unshin in Connacht, an act of heiros-gamos ensuring the victory of the Tuatha De Dannan in the coming battle with the Fomorians. In another curious scene, with distinct parallels with to the Siege of Troy described in Homer’s Iliad, the Dagda enters the camp of the Fomorians to spy, seemingly in the guise of a horse. The Fomorians force him to eat a prodigious meal (again demonstrating his great equine appetite) so as to dull his wit.

The story continues (CELT version):

“…Then he went away from them to Tráigh Eabha. It was not easy for the warrior to move along on account of the size of his belly. His appearance was unsightly: he had a cape to the hollow of his elbows, and a grey-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump. He trailed behind him a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move, and its track was enough for the boundary ditch of a province. It is called ‘The Track of the Dagda’s Club’ for that reason. His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horse-hide with the hair outside. As he went along he saw a girl in front of him, a good-looking young woman with an excellent figure, her hair in beautiful tresses. The Dagda desired her, but he was impotent on account of his belly. The girl began to mock him, then she began wrestling with him. She hurled him so that he sank to the hollow of his rump in the ground.

He looked at her angrily and asked, ‘What business did you have, girl, heaving me out of my right way?’ ‘This business: to get you to carry me on your back to my father’s house.’ ‘Who is your father?’ he asked. ‘I am the daughter of Indech, son of Dé Domnann,’ she said. She fell upon him again and beat him hard, so that the furrow around him filled with the excrement from his belly; and she satirized him three times so that he would carry her upon his back. He said that it was a ges for him to carry anyone who would not call him by his name. ‘”What is your name?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn,’ he said. ‘That name is too much!’ she said. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn.’ ‘That is indeed not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn Brúach,’ he answered. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach,’ she said. ‘That is not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. Then he told her the whole thing. She replied immediately and said, ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
Get up, carry me away from here!’ ‘Do not mock me any more, girl,’ he said. ‘It will certainly be hard,’ she said. Then he moved out of the hole, after letting go the contents of his belly, and the girl had waited for that for a long time. He got up then, and took the girl on his back; and he put three stones in his belt. Each stone fell from it in turn—and it has been said that they were his testicles which fell from it. The girl jumped on him and struck him across the rump, and her curly pubic hair was revealed. Then the Dagda gained a mistress, and they made love. The mark remains at Beltraw Strand where they came together.

Then the girl said to him, ‘You will not go to the battle by any means.’ ‘Certainly I will go,’ said the Dagda. ‘You will not go,’ said the woman, ‘because I will be a stone at the mouth of every ford you will cross.’ ‘That will be true,’ said the Dagda, ‘but you will not keep me from it. I will tread heavily on every stone, and the trace of my heel will remain on every stone forever.’ ‘That will be true, but they will be turned over so that you may not see them. You will not go past me until I summon the sons of Tethra from the síd-mounds, because I will be a giant oak in every ford and in every pass you will cross.’ ‘I will indeed go past,’ said the Dagda, ‘and the mark of my axe will remain in every oak forever.’ …”

The scene is certainly saucy, but also weird – almost a retelling of the Dagda’s encounter with the Morrigan in an earlier passage, albeit with more salacious detail. The picture painted of the Dagda is a half-man, half-stallion: His horse-hide brogues, his great round belly, his large penis, his propensity to create lots of dung: all are heavily suggestive of this, as is one of his other names, Eochu Ollathair. The heiros-gamos with a feisty fighty female (similar to Fand in Serglige Con Chullain) is again used to precede a victory in battle. What is more, the marks of his hoof/foot upon rocks appears to be a reference to cup-marks, bullauns and petrosomatoglyphs of feet, common to the archaeology of the Atlantic world.

The suggestion that can be drawn from this is that victory was ensured by the sexual coupling of the Otherworld masculine god and the worldy goddess. Dagda represents, as the horse, the fertility, power and energy on offer from the Otherworld, albeit a force that was a bit simple. The Morrigan was the warrior aspect of the feminine triplicity – their combination would allow peace to be determined through warfare. Lugh (the battlefield hero of the Cath Maigh Tured) was the active warrior aspect of the masculine triplicity, and Ogmios was the wise thinking part.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

The horse seems so prevalent on Europe’s late Iron Age celtic coinage that it must have had special importance, beyond just being a copy of the coins of those Macedonian-Thracian leaders of the Hellenic world – the horse-loving ‘Phillip’ and, of course, the solar warrior-king, Alexander whose legend was celebrated among the proud warriors of the Celtic world. By invoking the Morrigan aspect of the triple-goddess (the tribal ancestor or sovereignty queen, who Cassius Dio called ‘Andraste’), Boudica set her on a course for her liason with the peace-lord of the Otherworld, a drama possibly acted out in the groves of ‘Andate’ by the seemingly victorious Britons, shortly before General Paulinus reappears bearing the ‘Gorgon’s Head’, taken on Anglesey…

 

Fairy Doctors, Sluagh Sidhe and Fianna

In the 5thC a crack commando unit was sent to purgatory by St Patrick for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade into the Gaeltacht underground. Today, still wanted by the church, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem – if no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire: The F-Team

The idea of a group of heroes who battle the monstrous, the fateful and the chaotic at the boundaries of safe everyday existence is a pervasive feature of European mythology, extending back for as long as stories have been recorded. In the Gaelic language zones, perhaps the most important representatives of this legendary theme are Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna.Through their battles (and romantic encounters) with the magical denizens of legend, and their willingness to lay down their lives and suffer to do this, they become heroes who benefit the people, and their stories are marked by an enduring fondness.

What struck me as interesting about the aforementioned story of Aleisoun Pearsoun (put to death for witchcraft in Fife in 1588) was that her ‘story’ of how she acquired her powers seems to mirror and include aspects of that of the legendary Fianna:

1. She – like Fionn – joins a fairy band who take her on a wild adventure.

2. She ‘marries’ (has a sexual initiation) with a fairy she meets in the wilds. Fionn’s paramour was a woman in the form of a deer who he catches when hunting. Their magical son (poetry) is Oisin (‘Little Deer’).

3. She is tested with great adversity by the Otherworld denizens, who make her ill, but is given magical weapons with which to combat them.

4. She overcomes and returns with knowledge of its secrets, and becomes a warrior against the perils of the Otherworld (disease).

In fact, hers is not a dissimilar story to that of traditional Gaelic folk-healer characters such as Biddy Early (Ireland 19thC) and elsewhere besides. It is a feature pertinent to stories of ‘shamans’ and ‘medicine men’ etc from around the pre-modernised world.

The Fianna and the Sluagh Sidhe:

The fact that the ‘wild band’ or ‘fairy cavalcade’ in Gaelic folk-belief would have had something to do with Fionn and the Fianna often seems implicit, but it is quite rare to see this connection made explicitly in pre-20thC folklore accounts. Aleisoun Pearsoun’s fairy-band were apparently capable of both mirth and malice, which is a possibly a fair description of the legendary antics of the warlike Fianna. Nonetheless, apart from her kindred spirits who protect her, the cavalcade seem mostly harmful, and it is in understanding how to deal with this harm that she understands how to cure diseases. For this reason, we must turn our attention to the chaotic harmful fairy cavalcade, referred to in folklore as the Sluagh Sidhe or Sluagh Sith/Slieu Shee.

‘Sluagh Sidhe’ translates literally as ‘Fairy Host’ or ‘Fairy Army’. Robert Kirk (c.1690) provided one of the earliest accounts of the belief in these fairy hosts:

“… Moreover, this Life of ours being called a Warfair, and God’s saying that at last there will be no Peace to the Wicked, our bussie and silent Companions also being called Siths, or People at Rest and Quiet, in respect of us; and withall many Ghosts appearing to Men that want this Second Sight, in the very Shapes, and speaking the same Language, they did when incorporate and alive with us; a Matter that is of ane old imprescriptible Tradition, (our Highlanders making still a Distinction betwixt Sluagh Saoghalta and Sluagh Sith, averring that the Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged;)… “

As can be seen, Kirk gave two forms supernatural ‘Sluagh’, An Sluagh Saoghalta meaning, literally, ‘The Temporal/Earthly Host’. Kirk himself offers no translation to explain what he calls ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ (‘Slooa Sheelta’) and uses the term only once. The implication from his fairy narrative is that one host is ‘spiritual’ and the other ‘of the mundane world’, probably meaning those ‘left behind’ due to sinfulness during their lives and more prone to the brutish acts that characterised a difficult existence. So far as I have been able to find out, there are few other references to ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ from recorded folklore, it being more of a term used in Gaelic christian literature, so let us focus on the Sluagh Sidhe/Sith, a term which probably encompasses both ideas:

Source: Popular tales of the West Highlands, orally collected, Vol. 3 – John Francis Campbell, Pub: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862; pp.340-341

“….A doctor told this anecdote—

“Do you see that kind of shoulder on the hill? Well, a man told me that he was walking along there with another who used to “go with the fairies,” and he said to him—

“‘ I know that they are coming for me this night. If they come, I must go with them; and I shall see them come, and the first that come will make a bow to me, and pass on; and so I shall know that they are going to take me with them.’

“‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we had not gone far when the man called out, ‘Tha iad so air tighin.’ These are come. I see a number of ‘ sluagh’ the people; and now they are making bows to me. And now they are gone.’ And then he was quiet for a while. Then he began again; and at last he began to cry out to hold him, or that he would be off.

“Well,” said the doctor, “the man was a bold fellow, and he held on by the other, and he began to run, and leap, and at last (as the man told me) he was fairly lifted up by the ‘sluagh,’ and taken away from him, and he found him about a couple of miles further on, laid on the ground. He told him that they had carried him through the air, and dropped him there. And,” said the doctor, “that is a story that was told me as a fact, a very short time ago, by the man whom I was attending.”

Not far off I was told this in a house full of people, all of whom knew the story, and seemed to believe it implicitly.”

This account was corroborated by Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, pp.3301-331) – as usual, my emphases:

Sluagh – ‘Hosts’, the spirit world – the ‘hosts’ are the spirits of mortals who have died. The people have many curious stories on this subject. According to one informant, the spirits fly about “n’an sgrioslaich mhor, a sios agusa suas air uachdar an domhain mar na truidean’ – ‘In great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions’. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any make heaven until satisfaction is made for the sins on earth. In bad nights, the hosts shelter themselves, ‘ fo gath chuiseaga bheaga ruadha agus bhua-ghallan bheaga bhuidhe’ ‘behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks’. They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing, against one another. After a battle, as I was told in Barra, their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, the blood of the hosts is the beautiful red ‘crotal’ of the rocks, melted by frost.

Crotal_Blood

These spirits used to kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle, with their unerring venemous darts. They commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative.

It was these men of earth who slew and maimed at the bidding of their spirit-masters, who in return ill-treated them in a most pitiless manner. ‘Bhiodh iad ’gan loireadh agus ’gan loineadh agus ’gan luidreadh anus gach lod, lud agus lon’–They would be rolling and dragging and trouncing them in mud and mire and pools. ‘There is less faith now, and people see less, for seeing is of faith. God grant to thee and to me, my dear, the faith of the great Son of the lovely Mary.’ This is the substance of a graphic account of the ‘sluagh,’ given me in Uist by a bright old woman, endowed with many natural gifts and possessed of much old lore. There are men to whom the spirits are partial, and who have been carried off by them more than once. A man in Benbecula was taken up several times. His friends assured me that night became a terror to this man, and that ultimately he would on no account cross the threshold after dusk. He died, they said, from the extreme exhaustion consequent on these excursions. When the spirits flew past his house, the man would wince as if undergoing a great mental struggle, and fighting against forces unseen of those around him. A man in Lismore suffered under precisely similar conditions. More than once he disappeared mysteriously from the midst of his companions, and as mysteriously reappeared utterly exhausted and prostrate. He was under vows not to reveal what had occurred on these aerial travels.

I took down several stories of persons who went with the ‘hosts.’ Here is one of the stories of the ‘hosts’ summarised:–The beautiful daughter of a king of France was taken up by the ‘hosts,’ and carried about in the air, over lands and seas, continents and islands, till they came to the little island of Heistamal, behind Creagorry, in Benbecula, where they laid her down in such an injured state that she died from the hard treatment; not, however, till she had told about the lands to which she had been carried, and of the great hardships she had endured while travelling through space. The people of the island buried the princess where she was found.

The ‘sluagh’ are supposed to come from the west; and therefore, when a person is dying, the door and the windows on the west side of the house are secured to keep out the malicious spirits. In Ross-shire, the door and windows of a house in which a person is dying are opened, in order that the liberated soul may escape to heaven. In Killtarlity, when children are being brought into the world, locks of chests and of doors are opened, this being supposed, according to traditional belief, to facilitate childbirth.

These Hebridean and Highland accounts concur with records of similar beliefs from Ireland and the Isle of Man. The Sluagh Sidhe were dangerous, vengeful and often angry – they were represented (as Aleisoun Pearsoun was informed) by gusts of wind which marked their passing. These fairy ‘blasts’ might burn your skin with ignis sacer or boils or other visible cutaneous conditions. They strike you with fairy darts rendering you sick, or paralysed down one side (a ‘stroke’, the name still used in medicine today). They might also carry you away in a state of delirium to a place you had no intention of being – you would be ‘taken‘ by them, sometimes into their own fairy world!

The Sluagh Sidhe/Sith were – like the Fianna of ancient Ireland – bands of souls who roamed the world outside of the laws of settled everyday life. They were dangerous and liminal, yet potentially helpful and – in the fairy faith discussed by Kirk and other commentators – could redeem themselves, sometimes by sharing the knowledge of how to ‘heal’ the harm they cause, and from there could pass to a different place – in the west, beyond the sunset.

A Fairy Doctor was a specialist who understood these modes of harm caused by these Fairy Hosts. He or she also understood the ‘principle of inversion’ which governed how we and the otherworld interacted together, and was able to intervene or advise in redressing this balance.

Otherworld streams and rivers in Norse mythology

I have previously discussed how the ancient Greeks and Irish believed that all rivers flowed eventually to the otherworld where they then took a mysterious course before returning to our own. The Irish medieval ‘Dindsenchas’ texts refer to this belief in regard to a number of mythologically and geographically important rivers such as the Shannon and the Boyne.

The much older classical Greco-Roman texts refer to Okeanos – the world-river composed of all the world’s waters – at whose furthest reaches the heavens begin and where there are islands such as Elysium, Erytheia/Hesperides, Ogygia etc peopled by Titans, monsters and the shades and souls of the dead. The Greek Orphic mysteries (another expression of the core pagan faith of the ancient Mediterranean world) were concerned with the transition of souls to and from this far-off watery/spiritual realm, and it appears that Irish myths entertained similar beliefs.

What about the myths of the Norse peoples of the middle ages, who were among Europe’s longest-surviving pagan cultures? Putting aside for now the various Germanic folklore elements which preserved much of the Atlantic metempsychosis myths in the form of fairy lore, I wish to focus on the Icelandic Edda mythology, recorded and written down during the Christian era in Iceland during the 13th century.

This was written down as the result of a desire among some learned Christian Icelanders to preserve as much as possible of the ancient culturally-important ‘portable’ oral mythology which had followed them on their difficult emigration from the ‘viking’ homelands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark as well as Britain and Ireland. They survive in the form of a number of traditional pagan ‘theogonies’ (descriptions of the gods) detailing the construction of the universe and discussing how the dynamic interplay of spiritual forces cause time to unfold and its cycles repeat – an ancient version of what modern astrophysicists are currently trying (with more or less success) to achieve!

The Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius is the source of the important metrical verse accounts known as the Poetic (or ‘Elder’) Edda, containing the most important pieces of preserved pagan Viking theogony. These are as explicitly about actual gods as the Greek myths, in contrast to many Irish tales which are sometimes not so easy to derive a ‘pantheon’ from. They detail the cosmology of how the comprehended universe was arranged, how the world was formed and (perhaps) how the world ends and is reborn. As such, they share many similarities with ancient Greek and NW European ‘Atlantic’ myths, in particular the belief about the role of springs, streams, rivers and the journey to and from the Otherworld.

The most informative of the Poetic Edda narratives about these themes is the cryptic ‘Seer-woman’s Prophecy’, otherwise known as Völuspá. In some ways it is of a similar genre to the prophetic utterings found in a fragmented state in Atlantic Celtic folktales about the character known as Cailleach: A seeress narrates the theogony of the Norse gods from creation to ‘Ragnarok’ when the gods die. Within this narrative the seeress details the first creation of the giants and gods and the earth/sun/moon etc from the waters; she then says the gods and giants made subterranean men (dvergr – dwarfs) who then produced two supra-terrestrial trees – Ash and Elm – from which the gods made men. Then came the creation of the great ash tree Yggdrasil upon which (figuratively) the creation of the world ‘above-ground’, up to the heavens, rested…

An Ash I know stands, Yggdrasil by name, a high tree, drenched with bright white mud; from there come the dews that drop in the dales, it always stands green over Destiny’s well.

From there come maidens, knowing much, three from the lake that stands under the tree: ‘Destiny’ they called one, ‘Becoming’ the second – they carved on wood tablets – ‘Shall-be’ the third; laws they laid down, lives they chose for the children of mankind, the fates of men.

This famous passage describes the immortal ‘Norns’ who were possibly the same three giantesses who came to disturb the peace of the Aesir (apparently to mate with them) and create the dwarfs, who then helped create the sprouts of the word-tree (Ask and Embla) into which the gods infused life. The poetic Edda is vague or deliberately cryptic as to the exact points but, the picture emerges of a life-giving stream of humanity, reflected in the form of a great tree which grew from the subterranean world (of the dvergr) and which rises to the heavens. This feeds from the ‘lake’ of the Norns at the base of the tree, and it appears that the Norns ‘weave’ the wood of the tree from the water – an idea rooted (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the similarity of trees and plant-life with the branching nature of streams and rivers across the landscape. The Ash tree’s bark has the colour of clay, and has many similarities to water in its shape, form and mode of growth: its ‘raining’ seeds, and the blue-tinged flames that lick around its wood when it burns.

A ‘euhemerised’ version of the poetic Edda myths was produced in the late 13th/early 14thC by the great Icelandic scholar and politician Snorri Sturlusson, and (because it was told in prose form) became known as the Prose Edda. Although purporting that the ‘Gods’ were actually just deified real historic persons and the visions conjured of the spiritual world were illusions and hallucinations, it went on to add increased detail to the poetic Edda narratives which (because of their nature) are likely to be based on traditions that the Christian Snorri understood were important to keep. After all, paganism needed to be understood if it was to stay suppressed – a lesson perhaps learned from the experiences of the Irish… Snorri is obviously reasonably well-versed in certain Greek myths which were of interest to the European Christian euhemerist narratives – Troy, the Golden Age, etc, and weaves them into his narrative. He quotes from the poetic Edda and some Skaldic verses throughout, although he sometimes plays free and loose with the sequencing of the information – possibly to obfuscate the pagan themes from understanding. Snorri elaborates a great deal upon the Yggdrasil in part 15 of his Prose Edda narrative known as Gylfaginning. After going into great detail about the creation of the world, the gods, men and dwarves he tackles the great tree:

Then Gangleri said, ‘Where is the central or holy place place of the gods?’ High answered, ‘It is at the ash Yggdrasil. There each day the gods hold their courts.’… ‘The ash is the largest and the best of all trees. Its branches spread themselves over all the world, and it stands over the sky. Three roots support the tree and they are spread very far apart. One is among the Aesir. A second is among the Frost Giants where Ginnungagap once was. The third reaches down to Niflheim, and under this root is the weel Hvergelmir; but Nidhogg [Hateful Stikrer] gnaws at this root from below. ‘Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence are hidden there, and Mimir is the name of the well’s owner. He is full of wisodom because he drinks of the well from Gjallarhorn. All-Father went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge…’ ‘…The third root of the ash is in heaven, and under that root is the very holy well called the Well of Urd. There the gods have their place of judgement. Every day the Aesir ride up over Bifrost, which is also called Asbru [Bridge of the Aesir]… ‘…A handsome hall stands under the ash besides the well. Out of this hall come three maidens, who are called Urd [Fate], Verdandi [Becoming] and Skuld [Obligation]. These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them the norns. There are yet more norns, those who come to each person at birth to decide the length of one’s life, and these are related to the gods. Others are descended from the elves, and a third group comes from the dwarves…’

These passages relate each root of the tree to a nourishing source of water – a well. These lie within three realms: that of primal chaos (the giants), that of the Aesir (gods) and that of the mortals who are open to fate (men) and under the destiny of the ‘Norns’ (who remained un-named in the original Völuspá).

Note: Although widely accepted as a ‘map’ of the ‘spiritual world’ of the pagan Scandinavians, the Gylfaginning text should perhaps be seen as Snorri’s attempt to reconcile some kind of ordered state upon a corpus of pagan folk-knowledge with diverse origins and traditions some 300 years into the Scandinavian Christian era. His textual ‘map’ of the ‘worlds’ and description of lists of gods, dwarves, elves and giants is probably his own interpretation and should not be accepted as canonical in understanding Norse paganism.

Later in the Gylfaginning, Snorri introduces us to Valhöll (Valhalla) – the mighty hall of the fallen warriors. He describes this as a hall of repose and reconciliation in the otherworld where warriors can still enjoy their sport (fighting) but as immortals, who can feast and enjoy each others’ company after doing battle. Snorri sites the hall (which belongs to Odin) in Asgard (‘Aesir Home’) although his poetic Edda source (one of which is Grimnismal) is less certain of the arrangement of the worlds.

To the hall is ascribed a very important pair of animals, said to dwell upon its roof and feed from a great tree called ‘Laerad‘, which seems (given the presence of the dead in the hall) to be a version or part of Yggdrasil. Although Snorri does not make this connection with Yggdrasil explicit in his prose Edda, it is more certain in the poetic Edda which places Laerad somewhere above the roots of Yggdrasil. From the tree, the goat Heiðrún feeds and her milk is the mead drunk by the heroes in Valhöll . Also up on the roof (think of it as a turf roof extending down to the ground if you want to be authentic) there is the stag named Eikþyrnir (Eikthyrnir) who too feeds upon the foliage of the great tree, and from whose antlers drips a dew which falls downwards and collects in the deepest chthonic pool of  Hvergelmir from which Yggdrasil is nourished, and from which (the poetic Edda says) all rivers arise.

The prose Edda contains other descriptions of munching stags wandering among the branches of Yggdrasil, in part 16 of Gylfaginning. Although Snorri doesn’t comment on dew coming from their antlers, he does refer to the nourishing dew supposed to drip down from the tree’s branches as described in the Voluspa. Hvergelmir was supposed in the poetic and prose Eddas to be the pool of serpents (which in ancient mythology share the winding characteristics of rivers). Níðhöggr (‘Malice Striker’) was the serpent who occupied this deepest region, and who may have been cognate with Thor’s great foe (in fishing and at Ragnarok) – the world-serpent, Jörmungandr. By the ancient reckoning ‘serpents’ included the whole class of earth-loving burrowing animals and might include earth and mud-worms, insects and larvae and even stinging insects: not just snakes. They were linked to the idea of gnawing and decay in disease, and the stings of serpents (venoms or poisons) were often blamed (figuratively or as exemplars) for diseases – mundane or magical. The dwarves or dvergr of Norse myth were sometimes characterised as serpents or worms who first burrowed in the dead body of the Earth-Giant Mimir – dead corpses were believed to generate worms by the old reckoning. The same for pools of water, in which insect larvae seem to ‘appear’ by magic. For this reason dwarves and dragons have their strange correlation in Norse mythology – none moreso than Sigurd’s opponent Fafnir who is described as both dwarf and dragon.

Conclusion:

It is evident that the Edda’s descriptions of the world tree are an important depiction of the flow of creation to and from the Otherworld. The identity of water and wood is very explicit, and the strong connection in old European pagan lore between the tree (and hence rivers) and the generations (and regenerations) of humanity is explicit. The connection with serpents, death and regenesis is also a part of this deep mythology. The connection between mead (the milk of Heiðrún) and poetry is common in the ancient northern and north-western European world. Here, in the case of Valhalla, it signifies the satisfaction given to ancestors by the telling of lays and poems in their honour – a key aspect of the Atlantic religion’s ancestor-cult. The stag Eikþyrnir fulfils the mystical recirculation of water, no doubt the reason that the pursuit of white stags so often presage the encounters between brave knights and fairy-women at fountains in the forest-pursuits of medieval lays and Arthurian Romances. The mystical process explains why northern Europe’s ancient pagans typically venerated trees in the richly-wooded forests of central northwest Europe, and perhaps why trees played a subservient role to ‘fairy hills’ in the relatively tree-denuded extents of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Then again… what would an Irish ‘fairy hill’ be without its attendant spring and its thorn tree? 

Similarities in Greco-Roman and Gaelic myth

Although the mythology of the material and intellectual cultures we know as 'Greco-Roman' is Europe's oldest inscribed tradition, that of Ireland and the 'insular Celts' must come next, albeit the written form of it is from a much later date. In particular, it often excels and exceeds the Greek material by its apparent strangeness and stylised 'otherness', yet as a source of pagan myth it needs – like the Norse sagas and Edda texts – to be treated very carefully as it is told by christians, unlike the Greek and Roman material which comes from pagans.

Nonetheless, the Christians did not have much in the way of myth to call their own, except for the 'Old Testament' materials and the early saints' lives, many of which were based on pagan tales, in their style and often in their narrative content: These were essential to pad out its own religious narratives and replace (or at least displace) the contents of the potent oral-transmission culture with a literature-based alternative.

It is worth noting a number of things about southern-European pagan religious culture, however, before framing a debate of paganism vs christianity in terms of oral transmission culture vs. literary culture: Firstly, it is worth remembering that – since the advent of the Hellenistic era in the 5thC BCE – that literary culture became an important stalwart of Greco-Roman societies, and seems to have become a primary mode by which people came to understand their religion. There were certainly traditional aspects to the culture to a late period, but by the advent of christianity, this was being displaced. The role of the priesthood and attendants in many of the most important temples was generally fulfilled as a fixed term civil office by the worthies of Greek and Roman society, so – unlike the traditional and esoteric forms of learning that Gaul (and Britain's) professional priesthood had to undergo, these offices were losing their mystery. Mystery remained the province of cult-centres such as Eleusis, Delphi and the island of Samothrace, and the discourse-communities of the Philosophers – the Neo-Platonists, Hermeticists and Gnostics who thrived in the late-classical world after the advent of Christianity and who pre-figured its rise. It is telling that classical paganism's most complete and (in scope) extensive theogonic text – the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Persepolis in Egypt – was written by an author whose output later included a commentary on the christian Gospel of John. To understand this is to understand where the impetus for Christianisation was focussed in the less-literate climes of northwest Europe, such as Ireland, in the 5th/6thC CE.

Whereas some of our oldest surviving literature from the pagan world is religious, this aspect of the genre was in mortal decline in parallel to the rise in interest in philosophy and the 'mysteries' from the advent of the Hellenic period. By placing literacy in the hands of a few – a trained elite (after the model perhaps of the barbarian, Egyptian and Eastern peoples) – christianity would place itself at the heart of the new models of kingship appearing in the 'barbarian' world following the collapse of the Roman franchise in the west.

There are many similarities between the written medieval Irish myths and Greek legends. The reasons for this might be fourfold:

1. That the Irish believed in a shared widely-known and ancient cosmic worldview, populated with similar characters and themes to those of ancient Greece and southern Europe, and the Christian authors recorded this from traditional orally-transmitted narratives.

2. That literate monks used Greek and Roman (or Romano-British) myths to flesh out a written Irish narrative which did not otherwise exist – a kind of 'new age' eclecticism.

3. That Irish and Greek myths developed separately, yet shared similarities determined by (a) the culture and traditions/techniques of storytelling and (b) empirical reactions to natural phenomena.

4. A synthesis of points 1-3.

Obviously, the most likely answer is point 4 – we simply do not have enough evidence to support points 1-3 independently, but we have good evidence that all of them have been contributing explanations. I shall now present a number of Irish myths/mythic characters and their apparent Greco-Roman counterparts and let you decide for yourselves:

Cú Chulainn:

The archetypal indefatigable warrior super-hero of the 'Ulster Cycle' stories – Cú Chulainn – seems to have a particular similarity to Herakles or Hercules: He is the son of a god, associated with blacksmith-craftsmen (Cullain). Cullain seems to relate to the Greek 'earth-born' proto-blacksmiths known as the (Idaean) Dactyls, of whom Herakles was sometimes considered one. was a supreme warrior, a lover of goddesses (Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir) and his nemesis is a goddess (the Morrigan). He is a performer of fantastic tricks and sporting feats, yet forever tied to the whims of his king and his gods. He lives fast and dies young – a true aspect of the Celtic warrior ideal. is also a 'king's champion' warrior archetype – a dog on a leash, as befits his name. He sometimes comes across as bombastic, brash, sometimes clumsy and insensitive – a bit of a lummox at times, and then at others, clever and dextrous, and light on his feet. Like Herakles, he travels to far-off islands and does battle with the weird as well as the mundane, performing 'feats' along the way.

One way in which Cú Chullain differs from Herakles is that Herakles was a folk-hero responsible for taming and conquering the wild and chaotic forces for the good of humanity. In the 'Ulster Cycle', Cú Chullain typically acts on behalf of the interests of his liege lord – like the other famous Greek warrior-strongman Achilles. This perhaps reflects the fact that these Irish legends (like their later French and British 'Arthurian' traditions) were often designed for telling at the courts of elite rulers, and therefore suited the value-system of this milieu. In folk-myths, Fionn and Cú Chullain often take on much more gigantic proportions and attributes.

The Battle of Maige Tuired:

This is the 'showdown' scene of the Irish mythological cycle stories in which the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians are pitted against one another for supremacy of Ireland. The Fomoire are usually described as a race of sea giants in Irish mythology, and the Manx word Foawr (from 'Fomor') means 'Giant'. They seem similar to the aquatic Titans of Greek myth and the Cath Maige Tuired is like an Irish version of the Greek Titanomachy – the battle and overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian Gods, with whom the TDD share a certain similarity. Similar legends exist from Norse myth – the primal giants here are the Frost Giants: Titans at -40 Celsius! Of course, the bizarre cannibalistic and incestuous Greek narratives of the Titans are absent from the CMT and the 'Book of Invasions' stories which present more of a heroic pseudo-historical dynastic struggle. Tolkein borrowed heavily from the imagery of the battles of Maige Tuired in constructing his battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

Giants and primordial helpers:

The landscape of Atlantic Europe – particularly those regions where Greco-Roman and later christian culture was slow to assert itself – is riddled with ancient mythology of primordial giants who supposedly played some important roles in determining the shape of the landscape – mountains, fjords, rivers, lakes, plains and great rocks. The same was true of the mythology of the Archaic period and Bronze Age of southern Europe – in particular the mythologies of ancient Greece, but we can discount these as playing a late originating role in the folklore of northern and northwestern legends due to the lack of impact of these material and cultural civilisations in these zones.

The Greek giants and Titans were 'Earth-Born' (Gygas – after Ge/Gaia, the personified Earth). The pagan Norse word used for giants in the middle ages was Gygr – existing into the more modern periods in the Scots Gyre and Faroese Gyro. The Manx equivalent of the Scots Brownie, Uirisk and Grogach legend was the Phynnodderee, 'Dooiney Oie' ('Night Man') or Glashtin – a being considered gigantic, primitive, coarse and animalistic in appearance who helped householders and warmed himself by the hearth at night when humans slept. His local legends seem, curiously, to conflate him with both Fionn mac Cumhaill and even Cú Chullain and, when not explicitly named, with the activities ascribed elsewhere in the Atlantic world to other giants – specified or unspecified. This is a representation of the archetypal earth-born ancestor, and is a particularly important and wide-ranging link between northern and southern pagan mythology which appears to have a commonality stretching way back into the Bronze Age. Herakles was also an aspect of this.

The Otherworld:

Both Greek and Irish myths portray the Otherworld as a location reachable by a westward journey over the great ocean. The legendary Greek islands of Elysium, the Hesperides/Erytheia and Ogygia, and the 'Islands of the Blessed' or 'Fortunate Isles' have their Irish equivalents in the many names of Gaelic mythology's magical western islands which were also considered the resort of departed souls: Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Tír na mBeo, Tír Tairngire, Tír fo Thuinn, Ildathach , Hy Brasil, Tech Duinn and Emain Ablach. These places are sometimes explicitly islands, sometimes under the sea, sometimes of a hybrid type that emerges (and just as soon disappears) from the sea.

Like in the Greek legends, the otherworld is also represented as a chthonic realm – beneath the earth. Like the Greeks, the Irish seem to have believed that the rivers of the world joined a 'world river', and that it re-manifested from the otherworld by piercing back though the earth as springs of water. Like the Greeks and Latins of southern Europe, and their fellow Bronze Age and Iron Age era 'Celtic' peoples further north and west they considered springs of water to be important and holy – no doubt for this reason. Sidhe mounds or Fairy Hills were the traditional 'home' of Irish (and to a lesser extent, Manx and Scottish fairies). They were sometimes considered to be the sources of rivers returning from the otherworld. Mountains and artificial mounds had similar associations in Ireland. In a flat landscape, a mound is something akin to an island – a consideration when addressing the 'otherworld inversion' belief that permeates Atlantic European folklore.

An interesting aspect of the Greco-Roman myth is how there seems to be a plasticity in portraying the otherworld 'places' (Elysium, for example) as both meadows or gardens and simultaneously as islands bordering Okeanos. This same conflation appears to represented quite strongly in the old Irish story 'The Voyage of Bran mac Febail' where he is conveyed to the otherworld islands over a sea which gradually appears to become a meadow.

Mermaids and Sirens:

The idea of female (and male) entities who lured men to stay with them in the watery or otherworld realms are common to both Greek and Gaelic myths. The 'Sirens' occur in Greek myths such as Homer's Odyssey and the Argonautica ('Jason/Iason and the Argonauts'). They were sometimes depicted as half-bird, half-female inhabiting islands surrounded by huge rocks and high cliffs, luring sailors to their deaths on the treacherous shores with their beautiful songs. Calypso, the daughter of Atlas on Ogygia also fits the enchanting-island maiden archetype, and although was not considered one of the Sirenai, seems part of the same mythos. Even the Gorgons tempted brave Perseus to their realm, and from his 'killing' of Medusa there was a magical birth (of Pegasus and Chrysaor).

In Atlantic Celtic mythology, this function was the province of alluring beautiful mermaids – usually half-human, half-fish in their conception but sometimes 'seal people' (e.g. – Selkies). The Isle of Man's version of the Cailleach – Caillagh y Groamagh was supposed to fly in from the sea in the form of a bird at Imbolc/La'a Bride, and she may be another aspect of the beautiful fairy maiden called 'Tehi-Tegi' who in Manx legends lures men into the sea or a river to drown them, before flying away in the form of a wren (sometimes a bat!). The Gaelic (Irish/Gallovidian) Merrow was sometimes known as Suire which sounds very much like a version of 'Siren' although this may be in reference to known Greek myths, and this type of mermaid was associated with a feather hat or cape. Crofton Croker's 'Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland' is worth reading for a summary on the Merrows.

Harpies and Sidhe Gaoithe:

There was an explicit belief in former times in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man that sudden gusts of wind were caused by the actions of spirits and fairies. Indeed, this was a feature of the demonology of medieval Christian Europe, and may well link back to the ancient Greek beliefs that the Harpies were responsible for the same. They were depicted (again) as half-woman, half bird or as winged female entities and were personifications of storm-winds. The Cailleach Bheara of the Scottish Highlands and Islands had a similar association, and was sometimes considered a female-avian who flapped her wings to make the winter storms. In the Isle of Man, the (not uncommon) tornados were sometimes supposed to be caused by a fairy known as Yn Gilley Vooar ny Gheay – 'Big Boy O' the Wind'.

River Nymphs and Sea Nymphs:

Perhaps subjoined to the mermaid legends, it is notable that the Greeks and the Irish personified their rivers with female spirits or entities. Evidence of this comes from the Dindseanchas legends and those of the so-called 'landscape-sovereignty' goddesses, otherwise referred to as Bean Sidhe, no doubt because river-drainage areas in mountainous landscapes tend to map and define territories. Greco-Roman mythology venerated such female water deities, and this tendency was also found in the European celtic world in the late Iron Age (although much of our evidence here comes after the period of Romanisation). Again, the 'Cailleach' personification from folklore seems to combine many of these functions (Harpies, Sirens, Nymphs etc) into the form of this single protean Titaness. Likewise, the Moura Encantada of the Iberian peninsula and the Marie Morgane of Brittany as well as the 'Lady of the Fountain' (or lake) of Arthurian lays and romances.

Summary:

It is apparent that ancient European paganism was a universal system of philosophy and 'science' illustrated through traditions of the arts: story, poetry, song, pictures, dances and drama. Every possible phenomenon seems to have been addressed by assigning mythology to it, and the boundary between the spiritual and the secular did not really exist – instead there was a continuum. The southern European civilisations emerging from the Bronze Age with a more oriental perspective, eventually coming to consider themselves 'better' and more 'enlightened' than their 'barbarian' cousins (and ancestors) in northeastern and northwest Europe, and due to warfare and incursions of these 'barbarians' between the 5thc BCE and the 1stC CE (and beyond), and due also to the dependence on written knowledge, a perception derived that their religious and spiritual beliefs were 'different', when in fact they had a shared root.

 

Mogh Ruith – mercenary Druid warrior

Of all of the accounts of magical battles fought in the hallowed mythology of Ireland, one of the most impressive occurs in an early written story from the Book of Lismore known variously as ‘The Siege of Druim Damhgaire’ (Druim Damhgaire = ‘Ridge of the Ox-?bellow’) or using its modern Co. Limerick name: the ‘Siege of Knocklong’, and the main player is the wizard known variously as Mug Ruith or Mogh Roith (Ruith/roith = ‘Wheel’!). It was called by 19thC scholar and Celticist Eugene O’Curry the

‘…most important story full of information on topography manners customs and Druidism…’ (‘Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History’)

Mogh Ruith seems in many ways similar to the character of Manannan (the shapeshifting magician) or his Otherworld Lord equivalents – Lugh the active warrior, Donn Lord of the Dead, etc. He was said to come from Dairbre (Valentia) Island off Co. Kerry, so like the Cailleach Beara he is a powerful Munster favourite.

In the ‘Siege of Druim Damhgaire’, the mythical wolf-fostered King, Cormac mac Airt ua Cuinn, inheritor of the fairy-gifted court of Tara, decides to invade Munster and camp at Druim Damhgaire in order to exact tribute. His druids set about strangling the watercourses and drying the lakes of Munster causing much alarm, so Mogh Ruith is summoned to dislodge him. His price is high, but it is worth it:

He storms onto the battlefield in his glorious chariot pulled by magical oxen and, clothed in a hornless bull-hide and wearing a feathered hat (looking no doubt something like a Celtic version of Mercury, you may note) proceeds to perform feats that would make both Gandalf and St Patrick run for cover!  His powers, we are told by the Book of Lismore, come by dint of his oriental tutor – one Simon Magus, famous flying adversary of St Peter in Rome, who also appears to taught the Manx wizard Melinus to fly in Jocelyn’s 12thC Vita Patricii!  It seems like Mogh – like Manannan had a wanderlust that took him to the East, for in other Irish literary accounts he is even responsible for beheading John the Baptist… Mythologists might note that going to (and coming from) the East is a very solar motif.

Mogh’s first magical act of the battle is to free up the water supplies by tossing a magical spear into the ground; he then orders magical fires of Rowan wood to be made which chase across the landscape towards his enemies.  He summons giant eels or serpents, he creates dogs to kill Cormac’s druidesses who assume the guise of magic sheep (a theme also seen in the tales of Mongan mac Fiachna). After this he blows from his mouth a roiling black cloud which descends down upon Cormac’s army as a rain of blood which rushes as far as Tara! Next up are Cormac’s druids who he turns to stone with another magical breath. Cormac, unsurprisingly, concedes defeat and Munster prevails!

The aspects of magical displayed in the narrative show Mogh commanding every one of the classical elements to use as weapons: water, fire, air and earth. It is the kind of omnipotence and mysterious power we’d normally expect from a tribal god rather than a druid professor or bishop, and is certainly one of the most fantastical display of all-out magical mastery that has survived in early Irish literature.

The story represents a powerful tale of Munster sovereignty over the depredations of the Connachta and the Ui Niall. When looked upon in the context of legendary warrior tales, it is also special in that the warrior is magical, like Cuchullain, Fionn, Manannán mac Lir and the Norse Odinn, and their British counterpart Merlin. The wider story-tradition of a wizard-prophet-warrior, was the inspiration for Geoffrey of Monmouth and other ‘Arthurian’ writers (‘Vita Merlini’, the French ‘Vulgate Cycle’) not to mention religious writers such as Jocelyn of Furness during the 12th-15th centuries, but from what we can tell Ireland’s wonder tales are some of the oldest written accounts of these.

 

Fountains, maidens, vessels, crusty wizard-kings, knight-errants and horses

Romano-British stela of the triple-goddess 'Coventina'. Note the vases and the bunch of corn...

Romano-British stela of the triple-goddess ‘Coventina’. Note the vases and the bunch of corn…

The ‘romance’ story traditions, poetry and literature of northern Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries represented a renaissance of interest in the mythology of the pagan era among the secular elites of the English, Normans, French and Germans. This itself seems to have paralleled the renaissance in classical literature and learning during the same period, propelled from the Islamic world, and perhaps by the formal schism of the eastern and western christian patriarchies in the 11th century.

Their heady imagery of bold beautiful knights, mysterious and equally beautiful otherworldly maidens, and complex coded allusions to what christianity disapproved of – sex, violence and paganism – made them a sure-fire hit among the courtly elites. In spite of their apparently un-christian themes, the weavers of these tales were acutely aware of when not to overstep the mark, lest they face accusations of the capital crime of heresy! By investing their main and supporting characters with strong christian values of love, piety, chastity and truth, they were able to send them deep into story realms with mysterious pagan themes underpinning the narrative. Christianity was always triumphant in the end, and moral virtue came out on top: It is important to realise that these authors were often writing for a world where paganism was not such a distant memory (the Normans, for example and their Scandinavian cousins) so reading a pagan rather than a christian bias into their tales would be ill-advised. After all, christianisation had already followed a syncretic path in much of Europe since the Theodosian edicts of the 5thC. That the heartland of this revival in poetry, prose and song tradition was the Aquitanian courts of the Languedoc in southern France (home of the Troubadours) is interesting, since these soon became the heart of a strange dualistic/duotheistic interpretation of christianity known as Catharism, later destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade.

So what are the themes and in which stories in particular are they found?

Meeting a fairy woman at a fountain:

The ‘Lai de Graelent’, the Lai de Lanval (Marie de France 12thC), Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion’ (Chretien de Troyes 12thC), the Irish tale ‘Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) and the Fenian lay known as Toraíocht Sliabh Cuilinn or Laoi Na Seilge,as well as
Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (Yellow Book of Lecan) and others
 all tackle this popular theme. In them, the hero follows a magical white stag or boar (part of the ‘fairy herd’) into a far-off place where he meets a mysterious and fatal woman at a spring, lake or river. She promises him the gifts of the otherworld but imposes a geas upon him which ties him ultimately to the otherworld.

   The otherworld is explicitly reached through water in all of these, as is the Isle of Avalon in the seminal Arthurian works of Geoffrey of Monmouth who, with his literary companions-at-arms Jocelyn of FurnessWalter Map and Gerald of Wales, really got the ball rolling of the ‘second stage’ of trying to put ancient Atlantic legends into a christian ‘historical’ narrative – the first being the Irish and continental hagiographies of the 6th-10th centuries, whose traditions were badly damaged in the Viking raids of the 8th-9th centuries.

The ‘Wizard-King’:

Perhaps the most mysterious otherworldly rulers of medieval story traditions are those we identify with the ‘wizard-king’ archetype. In Ireland, Manannan is the arch-example of this, but in the ‘Lancelot-Grail Cycle’ legends of Britain and France, the Fisher King (Perceval) and Merlin represent the same. Another aspect of the otherworld-lord is the ‘Old King’ of which Gradlon, Arthur, Geoffrey’s King Leir and even Fionn mac Cumhall (Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Grainne) function as examples – a projection of the otherworld wizard-king upon the decaying mundane existence. Geoffrey’s Merlin and Jocelyn’s Melinus (his version of Mannannan who Patrick supposedly defeats on the Isle of Man) both provide an attempt at ‘bookending’ the role of the otherworld master of pagan tradition in a (pseudo) historical context, much in the same way that the Arthurian legends’ handling of the Lady of the Lake and the ‘sorceress’ Morgane do.

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of 'Minerva Aquae Sulis' at Bath displayed this magnificent head of 'Manannan'. Note the 'solar' rays of the hair and the 'watery' appearance of the beard...

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of ‘Minerva Aquae Sulis’ at Bath displayed this magnificent head of ‘Manannan’. Note the ‘solar’ rays of the hair and the ‘watery’ appearance of the beard… Minerva was a female god 😉

The ‘Grail’:

Tales such as Yvain and Perceval, Ireland’s Tochmarc Étaíne, the Dagda’s magic cauldron in the story Cath Maige Tuired as well as the continental legends of the bath-loving Melusine, and the middle-Welsh tales of the  Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the legend of Cerridwen and the Birth of Taliesin all feature a magical cauldron, dish or cup.  This always seems to represent the powers of regeneration – a metaphor for the womb in many ways.

A 'Sheela na Gig' - compare her to the images of 'Coventina' from the Romano-British stelae...

A ‘Sheela na Gig’ – compare her to the images of ‘Coventina’ from the Romano-British stelae…

The vision of the bleeding lance from Perceval is the flipside of this ‘genital’ imagery, perhaps demoted in the Christian context due to its phallic nature, but of no lesser importance than the grail in the original telling by Chretien de Troyes. This represents the piercing aspect of new life, coming through from the otherworld – an allusion made concrete in the character of ‘Sir Bors’ whose name contains the Gaelic rootword for both ‘piercing’ things and springs of water.

The 'Ballafreer phallus', Braddan, Isle of Man - known locally as the 'White Lady'!

The ‘Ballafreer phallus’, Braddan, Isle of Man – known locally as the ‘White Lady’!

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.

 

 

Careless lake ladies and mermaids – flood myths in Celtic folklore

“…There is a lake in Ulster of vast size, being thirty miles long and fifteen broad, from which a very beautiful river, called the Banna, flows into the Northern ocean. The fisher-men in this lake make more frequent complaints of the quantity of fish inclosed in their nets and breaking them than of the want of fish. In our time a fish was caught here which had not come up from the sea, but was taken descending the lake, and was in shape very like a salmon, but it was so large that it could neither be dragged out or conveyed whole, and therefore was carried through the province cut in pieces. It is reported that this lake had its origin in an extraordinary calamity. The land now covered by the lake was inhabited from the most ancient times by a tribe sunk in vice, and more especially incorrigibly addicted to the sin of carnal intercourse with beasts more than any other people of Ireland. Now there was a common proverb in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying all the population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she heard crying at a spot not far from the spring, where she had left him.

But the voice of the people is the voice of God ; and on her way back, she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake, as if the Author of nature judged the land which had been witness to such unnatural bestialities against the order of nature to be unfit for the habitation of men, either then or thereafter.

A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact, that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers, which, according to the custom of the country, are slender and lofty, and moreover round ; and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through those parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe.

…..

It must, however, be observed that the river before mentioned (the Bann), which now flows out of the lake in full stream, had its source in the aforesaid spring from the time of Bartholanus, who lived soon after the flood, when it was fed also by other rivulets, and took its course through the same district, but with a far less volume of water, and it was one of the nine principal rivers of Ireland…” (Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales (12thC) – trans. Thomas Forester; From: ‘The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis’ – Pub. George Bell & Sons, London 1905)

Gerald’s tale comes from his famous account of Ireland, produced in support of the Anglo-Norman invasion of the island, and designed to support the imposition of continental christianity on this ‘barbarous’ and ‘uncivilised’ people. His sources were the monastic annals and texts of the great abbeys of Ireland. The contemporary secular literary milieu was one enchanted with the ‘Lady of the Lake’ and ‘Morgane le Fee’ and any one of a number of similar fairy themes which defined the ‘Arthurian’ Romance litereature of the 12th and 13th centuries. The following sums up one of his likely sources – from the legends of St Comgall about his apparent conversion and sanctification of a mermaid called Liban, afterwards St. Muirgen!:

“… According to a wild legend in Lebor na h-Uidri, this Liban was the daughter of Eochaidh, from whom Loch Eathach, or Lough Neagh, was named, and who was drowned in its eruption [A. D. 90], together with all his children, except his daughter Liban, and his sons Conaing and Curnan. Liban, was preserved from the waters of Lough n-Eachach for a full year, in her grianan, [palace] under the lake. After this, at her own desire, she was changed into a salmon, and continued to traverse the seas till the time of St. Comhgall of Bangor. It happened that St. Comhgall dispatched Beoan, son of Innli, of Teach-Dabeoc, to Rome, on a message to Pope Gregory [Pope, A. D. 599-604], to receive order and rule. When the crew of Beoan’s currach were at sea, they heard the celebration of angels beneath the boat. Liban, thereupon, addressed them, and stated that she had been 300 years under the sea, adding that she would proceed westward and meet Beoan, that day twelvemonths, at Inbher-Ollarbha [Larne], whither the saints of Dalaradia, with Comhgall, were to resort. Beoan, on his return, related what had occurred, and, at the stated time, the nets were set, and Liban was caught in the net of Fergus of Miliuc; upon which she was brought to land, and crowds came to witness the sight, among whom was the Chief of Ui Conaing. The right to her being disputed by Comhgall, in whose territory,-and Fergus, in whose net,-and Beoan, in promise to whom,-she was taken, they prayed for a heavenly decision; and the next day two wild oxen came down from Carn-Airend; and on their being yoked to the chariot, on which she was placed, they bore her to Teach-Dabeoc, where she was baptized by Comhgall, with the name Muirgen i.e. Born of the sea, or Muirgeilt i.e. traverser of the sea. Another name for her was Fuinchi…” (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, vol.1 – John O’Donovan, ed. and trans.,(Dublin, 1856), p.201.)

This version of the Lough Neagh tale is slightly different as it tells that the father (Eochaid – possibly a reference to the literary figure known as ‘An Dagda’) and tribe of the magical woman are drowned, but that she remained in the form of a salmon in the sea until the coming of St. Comhgall some 300 years later. . There is good evidence from the variety of traditions encountered in Ireland that much hagiography was a deliberate revision of core pagan myths and doctrines. As with many conversion-era themes from Ireland, Liban (like Eithne/Aine in Altram Tigh da Medar) becomes a Christian and is not demonised and defeated, in distinction to the Breton legend of Gradlon and his daughter Ahes (the ‘Groac’h’ or ‘Mari Morgane’). Interestingly, Liban appears as the whip-frenzied companion/double of Manannan’s wife Fand in the ‘Wasting Sickness of Cuchullain’ from the Ulster Cycle. The same legends interested noted Celticist Professor John Rhys at the turn of the 20thC, who recorded some interesting parallel tales which showed the lake-lady/mermaid legend was not just local to Lough Neagh, or for that matter, Ireland or Brittany:

“…David Jones, of Trefriw, in the Conway Valley, was a publisher and poet who wrote between 1750 and 1780. This is his story: ‘In 1735 I had a conversation with a man concerning Tegid Lake. He had heard from old people that near the middle of it there was a well opposite Llangower, and the well was called Tfynnon Gywer, ” Gower’s Well,” and at that time the town was round about the well. It was obligatory to place a lid on the well every night. (It seems that in those days somebody was aware that unless this was done it would prove the destruction of the town.) But one night it was forgotten, and by the morning, behold the town had subsided and the lake became three miles long and one mile wide. They say, moreover, that on clear days some people see the chimneys of the houses.’…”

“…Before I have done with the Irish instances I must append one in the form it was told me in the summer of 1894: I was in Meath and went to see the remarkable chambered cairns on the hill known as Sliabh na Caillighe, ‘the Hag’s Mountain,’ near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. I had as my guide a young shepherd whom I picked up on the way. He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns. As to the cairn on the hill point known as Belrath, that is called the Chair Cairn from a big stone placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round. But usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed. The hag appears to have been Cailleach Bhéara, or Caillech Bérre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare,’ that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork. Now the view from the Hag’s Mountain is very extensive, and I asked the shepherd to point out some places in the distance. Among other things we could see Lough Ramor, which he called the Virginia Water, and more to the west he identified Lough Sheelin, about which he had the following legend to tell:–A long, long time ago there was no lake there, but only a well with a flagstone kept over it, and everybody would put the flag back after taking water out of the well. But one day a woman who fetched water from it forgot to replace the stone, and the water burst forth in pursuit of the luckless woman, who fled as hard as she could before the angry flood. She continued until she had run about seven miles-the estimated length of the lake at the present day. Now at this point a man, who was busily mowing hay in the field through which she was running, saw what was happening and mowed the woman down with his scythe, whereupon the water advanced no further…” (John Rhys – Celtic Folklore – Welsh and Manx Volume 2; Ch.6; Pub. Oxford University Press 1901)

As well as Wales and Ireland, this story involving the Cailleach was widespread in the west of Scotland too, as the following account from the late 18thC shows:

“…On a high part of that ridge of hills which seperates Stralachlan from Glendarnel, there is a very large stone, remarkable for its situation. There is a descent from it on every fide. The prospect from it is very extensive. It is called Cailleach-Vear or Vera. In the dark ages of superstition, it was personified, and said to have a considerable property in cattle. Cailleach Vear makes a conspicuous figure in the marvellous tales of the country people, over great part of the West Highlands. Her residence was said to be on the highest mountains; that she could step with ease, and in a moment, from one district to another; when offended, that she caused a flood to come from the mountains, which destroyed the corns, and laid the low grounds under water; that one of these floods was the origin of Lochow, in Lorn, of Locheck, in this parish, and of many other lakes; that the people paid her a superstitious veneration, and were under dreadful apprehensions of her anger…” (The Statistical Account of Scotland: Drawn Up from the Communications of the Ministers of the Different Parishes; Ed. John Sinclair; Pub. W. Creech, 1792; pp. 559-560)

The same story is borrowed and elaborated on by a later author in the following account of Loch Awe from the 19thC following on from the surge in interest in Highland legends generated by Walter Scott:

“…The Highlanders of Argyleshire possess a curious tradition regarding the origin of Lochawe, which has furnished a topic in one of the wild songs of Ossian. The circumstance is connected with the existence and death of a supernatural being, called by the country people Calliach Bhere, ” the old woman.” She is represented as having been a kind of female genie whose residence was on the highest mountains. It is said that she could step with ease and in a moment from one district to another; when offended, that she could cause the floods to descend from the mountains, and lay the whole of the low ground perpetually under water. Her race is described as having lived for an immemorial period near the summit of the vast mountain of Cruachan, and to have possessed a multitude of herds in the vale at its foot. Calliach Bhere was the last of her line, and, like that of her ancestors, her existence was blended with a fatal fountain which lay in the side of her native mountain, and had been committed to the charge of her family since its first existence. It was their duty at evening to cover the well with a large flat stone, and at morning to remove it again. This ceremony was to be performed before the setting and rising of the sun, that his last beam might not die upon the waters, and that his first ray should illuminate their bosom. If this care was neglected a fearful and untold doom was denounced to be the punishment of the omission. When the father of Calliach Bhere died, he committed the office to his daughter, and declared to her, in a solemn charge, the duty and the fatality of the sacred spring. For many years the Military woman attended it without intermission;

But on one unlucky evening, spent with the fatigues of the chase and the ascent of the mountain, she sat down to rest beside the fountain, and wait for the setting of the sun, and falling asleep did not awake until next morning. When she arose she looked abroad from the hill; the vale had vanished beneath her, and a wide and immeasurable sheet of water was all which met her sight. The neglected well had overflowed while she slept; the glen was changed into a lake; the hills into islets; and her people and her cattle had perished in the deluge. The Calliach took but one look over the ruin which she had caused: the spell which bound her existence was loosened with the waters, and she sunk and expired beside the spring. From that day the waters remained upon the vale, and formed the lake which was afterwards called Loch Awe…” (The Gazetteer of Scotland, Volume 1 By Robert Chambers, William Chambers ; Pub: Andrew Jack, Edinburgh, 1844; p.63)

The legend tells that the Cailleach disappeared into the spring – a figurative form of death shared with the Dindshenchas legends of Sinand and Boann as well as many of the others. The theme of the Cailleach and the flood was discovered in the Isle of Mull:

“…In the olden times, on the Headland of Mull, there lived a woman whom the people called Cailleach Bheur. She didn’t hail from the people of this world, since we are told that Cailleach Bheur was a yound girl when Adam and Eve were still enjoying the pleasures of the Garden of Eden. She tells us, in her own words, ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass.’ Let that be, as it may, and far be from us to doubt it, but it seems that Cailleach Bheurr evaded death in a way that no one was ever able to do, before or since…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:AM/35.8 Mull)

“…Now there was only one place where Cailleach Bheurr watered her cattle-herd when she was away from Mull itself. This was a well halfway along the road she took to the headland of Kintyre. I don’t remember what its name was but, indeed, there was such a well there. And there was a great stone lid on the well and as soon as she arrived there in the morning, she would lift off the great stone so that the herd could get a drink at a time when they were thirsty. But if she didn’t place the great stone lid back on the well before the sun went down, the water would flow out of it and flood the whole world. It would pour out of this well and cover the whole world with a flood…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:SA 1953/49/B5)

These accounts also add a tradition that the Cailleach would evade death by bathing in a magic Loch every 100 years. Of particular interest is that the quote ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass’ is mirrored in a folktale quoted in the following 18thC Irish account, discussing regional geology and geography around Lough Foyle:

“….There is a Rock on the side of the Mountain called the Poor Woman (in Irish, Calliagh Veerboght) who tells us when she was a Maid the Place where she stands was once Corn ground and Lough Foyl so narrow that a Lamb could skip from Magilligan Point to Green Castle which is now two Sea Miles distant and the Fairy that lived on the Tuns Banks (AR: Tonn Banks – The fairy referred to is revealed in other stories to be no less than Manannan!) that lye at the Mouth of Logh foyle (mostly formed I believe by what was worn away of this Shore) having a Carpet stole from him by one of this Parish, cursed it and threaten’d that every Year the Breadth of the Carpet should be swept away from the Land till all should be swept away. We may at least gather from such as these that in antient times this Place was losing and not gaining…” (“Miscellaneous letters on several subjects in philosophy and astronomy” – By Robert Innes to the Bishop of Cashel – William Nicolson; Pub.S. Birt, London 1732;p.5 – Letter 1)

The legends of the Cailleach and her relationship to water and herds of cows or deer seem to have been very consistent between Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Even in the 12thC Breton Lai de Graelent where she appears as a fountain-fairy in the woods, there are similar associations – the knight (like Fionn in the Irish ‘Pursuit of Slieve Gullion’) chases the white deer and finds her waiting at a spring in the woods. The lore is perhaps best summed up in this  excerpted 19thC translation of the Scottish highland ballad – Cailleach Bein y Vreich:

“Weird, weird, wife! with the long grey locks, she follows her fleet-foot stags, Noisily moving through splintered rocks, And crashing the grisly crags.

Tall wife! with the long grey hose, in haste the rough stony beach she walks; But dulse or seaweed she will not taste, nor yet the green kail stalks.

“And I will not let my herds of deer, my bonny red deer go down; I will not let them down to the shore, to feed on the sea-shells brown.

O better they live in the corrie’s recess, Or on mountain top to dwell, And feed by my side on the green green cress, That grows by the lofty well.”

“Broad Bein-y-Vreich is grisly and drear, but wherever my feet have been, the well-springs start for my darling deer, And the grass grows tender and green.

“And there high up on the calm nights clear, Beside the lofty spring, They come to my call, and I milk them there, And a weird wild song I sing.”

(Excerpt from translation of the old highland song Cailleach Bein a Vreich by John Campbell Shairp, from ‘Kilmahoe: a Highland pastoral with other poems’; Pub. Macmillan & Co, London 1864; pp.138-139)

The middle irish tale Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) recounts the legend of the boyhood of Niall (of the Nine Hostages) – son of Eochaid Mugmedon by Cairenn. It explains the origin of Ui Neill kingship. The theme is of how Niall came to be bestowed with the sovereignty of Ireland by a fairy queen at a well.  The five sons of Eochaid are sent to fosterage and then (at their appointed time) join their Fianna to gain life experience in adventure. While hunting in the woods, they realise they must find water and each in turn goes to a well to draw water, where they encounter a loathsome hag who guards it. Her condition for allowing them to draw water is that they bestow a ‘kiss’ upon her (i.e. – that they have sex with her). The first four sons (whose mother is Mongfind) refuse her, but Niall – last to go – accepts eagerly, else they all die of thirst. The hag immediately transforms into the most gorgeous young woman and announces that she is the Sovereignty of Ireland, which she bestows upon him in an act of Heiros Gamos. He returns to his father who recognizes him as the new High King.

Those familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will know that his ‘Tale of the Wife of Bath’ is a facsimile of this same tale, which also occurs in various other forms in the ‘Romance’ fairy tales of the ‘Arthurian’ corpus between the 12th and 15th centuries.

When we consider the ‘Moura’ fairytales from the Iberian Peninsula, the fairytales of Brittany and France, and those of the rest of northern Europe (which I have not discussed), these all point towards an important, pervasive and powerful pagan mythology which was possibly common to all of these regions and was tied to water and the great ocean.

 

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.