Tinneas Sidhe: Afflictions from the Fairy Realm.

One of the central doctrines of the Gaelic ‘fairy faith’ (Irish: creideamh sidhe/sí, Manx: credjue shee) was the belief that the ‘Good People’ could cause illness and disease. Although such a belief is well documented, the mechanics of it have rarely been explored in any great detail, although followers of my blog may have been able to gain a passing insight.

An 'Elfshot' or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky charm.

An ‘Elfshot’ or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky amulet.

The concept of Tinneas Sidhe (in Manx, Chingys Shee) or ‘Fairy Disease’ was a common across the Gaelic realms, and representative examples of its different aspects have been recorded at different times from Ireland as well as Scotland, Mann and Britain. William Camden’s late Elizabethan nationalistic masterwork ‘Britannia’ contained the following observation on Irish superstition from an English schoolmaster at Limerick called John Good, whose account he dates to 1566:

They think, the women have peculiar charms for all evils, shar’d and distributed among them; and therefore they apply to them according to their several AilingsThey begin and conclude their Inchantments with a Pater-noster and Ave-Maria. When any one gets a fall, he springs up, and turning about three times to the right, digs a hole in the ground with his knife or sword, and cuts out a turf; for they imagin there is a spirit in the earthIn case he grow sick in two or three days after, they send one of their Women skill’d in that way, to the place, where she says, I call thee P. from the east, west, south and north, from the groves, the woods, the rivers, the fens, from the fairies, red, black, white, &c. And after some short ejaculations, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the disease Esane (which they imagin is inflicted by the Fairies,) and whispers in his ear another short prayer, and a Paternoster; after which, she puts coals into a pot of clear water, and then passes a better judgment upon the distemper, than all the Physicians.

The exact nature of ‘Esane’ remains mysterious to this day, sounding suspiciously like the term given for a cure, rather than a disease. However, Good’s account in Camden was partly mirrored by another, written some 300 years later: That of William Wilde (father of Oscar). He researched, wrote and lectured about the folklore of the different parts of pre-famine Ireland, a subject which became more popular in the late 18thC when many of the beliefs in the old ways were rapidly spiralling away. His wife, Lady Francesca Wilde used her husband’s observations and notes in her book ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland’ (1887), in a chapter headed ‘The Fairy Doctor’:

The Fairy Doctor

IF a healthy child suddenly droops and withers, that child is fairy-struck, and a fairy doctor must be at once called in. Young girls also, who fall into rapid decline, are said to be fairy-struck; for they are wanted in Fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die. The other malign influences that act fatally on life are the Wind and the Evil Eye. The evil power of the Wind is called a fairy-blast; while, of one suffering from the Evil Eye, they say he has been “overlooked.” The fairy doctor must pronounce from which of these three causes the patient is suffering. The fairy-stroke, or the fairy-blast, or the Evil Eye; but he must take no money for the opinion given. He is paid in some other way; by free gracious offerings in gratitude for help given. A person who visited a great fairy doctor for advice, thus describes the process of cure at the interview:- “The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’ This is to ascertain from which of these three evils you suffer. He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. Ali the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle. But what the words of the prayer are no one knows, they are kept as solemn mysteries, and have been handed down from father to son through many generations, from the most ancient times. The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground; and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown. If none of the three sticks sink in the water, then he uses herbs as a cure. Vervain, eyebright, and yarrow are favourite remedies, and all have powerful properties known to the adept; but the words and prayers he utters over them are kept secret, and whether they are good or bad, or addressed to Deity or to a demon, none but himself can tell.” These are the visible mysteries of the fairy doctor while working out his charms and incantations. But other fairy doctors only perform the mysteries in private, and allow no one to see their mode of operation or witness the act of prayer. If a potion is made up of herbs it must be paid for in silver; but charms and incantations are never paid for, or they would lose their power. A present, however, may be accepted as an offering of gratitude…

Although this account is particular to one individual from the South of Ireland, the concepts of the the ‘Fairy Stroke’, ‘Fairy Blast’ and ‘Evil Eye’ were more universal within the Gaelic world, and indeed further afield.

The Fairy Blast: The English word ‘blast’, meaning a ‘gust of wind’, was equivalent to the the Gaelic gaoithe, and the ‘fairy blast’ was referred to as ‘sidhe gaoithe‘ or perhaps ‘gaoithe sidhe‘ in Ireland, a term which was once often applied specifically to tornados and dust-devils, which were once believed potent visible manifestations of this force. The connection between spirits and winds is an ancient one: for starters, the Latin word for ‘soul’, anima, also carried the meaning of ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’ and ‘life’. Common technical understanding of spirits was that they were invisible and made of a very rarified substance akin to light itself. Because of this subtle nature, they were only usually able to move very light things, such as the air, and it was common for the medieval mind to attribute sudden unexpected gusts of wind to the provenance of demons or spirits. In fact, modern ghost beliefs still continue this tradition.

Why were gusts of wind associated with disease?

Ireland and Britain are lashed by seasonal winds and storms that are usually fairly predictable on the calendar. These events (more typically at the onset of winter) coincide with a change in the patterns of disease, such as an increase in infectious diseases of the respiratory tract. Wind can itself be a terrible and violent force, and is to be feared for this alone. The ancient ‘elemental’ and corresponding ‘humoral’ doctrines of disease saw health and vitality as being in a state of ‘heat’ and ‘moisture’, whereas the wind was ‘cold’ and ‘dry’, and could therefore be considered contrary to health. The mythological Cailleach Bheur of Scotland personified these energies, as did the Sluagh Sidhe – a turbulent aerial host of roaming spirits who were sometimes held responsible for the effects of the Fairy Blast. In the Anglo-Manx dialect of the 19thC the word ‘blass’ (blast) was used to denote a skin lesion – a spot, boil, lump or rash. The English word ‘blister’ derives from ‘blast’ (a German word), indicating that gusts of wind must have been associated with wind from Anglo-Saxon times or earlier. The suggestion is that external diseases were considered a form of buffeting or abrasion from a force without. Interestingly, in Manx skin rashes were also called ‘Chenney Jee‘ (Irish: Tinneas Dia, ‘God’s Fire’ – Ignis Sacer) as it was commonly believed in ancient and medieval times that the gods or god would burn the wicked with ethereal fire, which of course is also the substance from which spirits and divinities were conceived as being composed of. Of course the Irish/Gaelic word for disease – tinneas – is derived directly form that which means ‘fire’ (teine), illustrating that an ancient concept linked disease to the unseen spiritual fire. 

A good crop of Ireland's prime 'fairy herb' - Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as 'Luss Mor' or 'Foxglove'.

A good crop of Ireland’s prime ‘fairy herb’ – Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as ‘Luss Mor’ or ‘Foxglove’, it was used in ‘cures’ to defeat fairy influence. Notoriously it was occasionally fed to ‘changeling’ children, causing their death.

In the Old Testament Bible Book of Leviticus (likely a product of Babylonian Judaean exiles under the influence of Mazdaism), these cutaneous diseases are referred to by the generic term ‘leprosies’, commonly misconceived of as what we now sometimes call ‘Hansen’s Disease’. In the Middle Ages, the Christian church and society was obsessed with ‘leprosy’ in the biblical context, which was the idea of disease caused by divine agency – outwardly visible marks of divine disfavour. Of course, to country people in the Gaelic world these disease-inflicting agencies were fairies, and the church devised an interpretation that that fairies were elements of the angelic host who had been cast out of paradise in the christian narrative of ‘Lucifer’ and his ‘fall from heaven’. Again, from Lady Wilde’s book:

The Fairies as Fallen Angels

THE islanders, like all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals. As a rule, the people look on fire as the great preservative against witchcraft, for the devil has no power except in the dark. So they put a live coal under the churn, and they wave a lighted wisp of straw above the cow’s head if the beast seems sickly. But as to the pigs, they take no trouble, for they say the devil has no longer any power over them now. When they light a candle they cross themselves, because the evil spirits are then clearing out of the house in fear of the light. Fire and Holy Water they hold to be sacred, and are powerful; and the best safeguard against all things evil, and the surest test in case of suspected witchcraft.

That this concept was once common across Europe (from Russia to Iceland), indicates that it was an official church doctrine to equate fairies and elves with the fallen angels of the biblical narrative’s interpretation. The legend of the Fall popularly ascribed elemental stations to the angels when they lodged in the various parts of the ‘Elemental’ mundane world. The spirits who occupied the air evidently became the ‘Sidhe Gaoithe’. The gradual onset of skin lesions can fit logically with the mode of action of wind which frequently starts gently and increases gradually. Sometimes, mysterious bruises appearing upon the limbs were ascribed to ‘fairy pinches‘, and in the Isle of Man it was once a customary belief that improper piety to the Good People by not leaving them a bowl of fresh water at night would invite these particular skin blemishes. However, the sudden onset of illness was attributed to what is known as the ‘Fairy Stroke’.

The Fairy Stroke and Evil Eye:

A striking or blow by the fairies (or unspecified spirits) was deemed responsible for a number of afflictions which might sometimes also be classed as ‘Tinneas Sidhe’: A sudden sharp pain, seizure or paralysis was likely caused by a ‘stroke’ or blow from an invisible being. The term even persists in the English language for describing the effects of a cerebral infarction or haemorrhage! The idea of being ‘Buailte‘ (‘struck’), is actually quite a complicated subject which combines with that of the Evil Eye, the Fairy Blast, and the concept of being ‘Elf-Shot’.

A belief that fairies and elves cast darts at people to harm them was fairly widespread, especially in Scotalnd and (hence) Northern Ireland, and was reinforced by the presence of curious and beautiful Neolithic-era stone arrowheads that are not occasionally discovered in the landscape, and have long been a subject of curious speculation. Lady Wilde’s description of girls being considered ‘fairy struck’ when they pined away for a supposed fairy lover who desired them owes more, it seems, to the concept of the ‘Evil Eye’ or ‘Jealous Eye’, or to the concept of fairies ‘taking’ people, changelings etc. The mysterious plasticity of this belief in ‘striking’ is best approached by trying to understand the ancient beliefs about light, vision, intellect, the soul and spirits. I have attempted to explain the concept in this article here. See here also. As ‘striking unknown’ and the ‘bad eye’ were also attributes often popularly ascribed to humans practising magic or witchcraft, is somewhat complicated by Robert Kirk’s famous and detailed 17thC account of fairy traditions in the Scottish Highlanders who believed that living people were accompanied by a ‘spirit double’ who is one of the fairies, or as he calls them – Sith:

…THEY (Ed: fairies) are clearly seen by these Men of the SECOND SIGHT to eat at Funeralls & Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not teast Meat at these Meittings, lest they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer (Ed: Bier) or Coffin with the Corps among the midle-earth Men (Ed: people of our world) to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element; as there be Fishes sometimes at Sea resembling Monks of late Order in all their Hoods and Dresses; so as the Roman invention of good and bad Dæmons, and guardian Angells particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant Mistake, sprung only from this Originall. They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which assume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, seem to have some Pleasure, (at least to asswage from Pain or Melancholy,) by frisking and capering like Satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earnestly required, these Companions make themselves knowne and familiar to Men; other wise, being in a different State and Element, they nather can nor will easily converse with them…

Kirk’s account is perhaps the most technical and in-depth of the system behind the fairy belief that we have, written down as it was at the behest of his friends excitedly discussing the emerging scientific revolution among London’s coffee shops and salons. His account is interesting as it emphasises that the Sith or fairies sicken by stealing away the quintessence of earthly objects, beasts and people. He mentions that the Sith strike and pierce, but merely as a means for extracting what they are after:

…They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life, such as Aquavitæ (moderately taken) is among Liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts…

Of course, the Evil Eye was also responsible for causing transference of quintessence and the Manx called this stolen substance ‘Tarra’, ‘Tharroo’ or ‘Tharrey’. They referred to the condition of being afflicted with the Evil Eye ‘yn aarcheoid‘, and employed a number of charms and rituals in order to recover lost Tarra caused by this state. Manx accounts of the effect of the evil eye and fairies, like many Gaelic fairy tales from elsewhere are frequently accompanied by the victim experiencing a sudden sharp pain. This is illustrated in ‘Ned Quayle’s Story Of The Fairy Pig’ from Sophia Morrison’s ‘Manx Fairy Tales’:

…WHEN I was a little boy, we lived over by Sloc. One day, when I was six years old, my mother and my grandmother went up the mountain to make hay and I was left by myself. It was getting rather late, and they had not come back, so I was frightened, and started off up the mountain to try and find them. I had not gone far when I saw running before me a little snow-white pig. At first I thought it was some neighbour’s pig and I tried to catch it, but it ran from me and I ran after it. As it went I saw that it was not like an ordinary pig-its tail was feathery and spread out like a fan, and it had long lapping ears that swept the ling. Now and again it turned its head and looked at me, and its eyes were burning like fire. We went higher and higher up the mountain, and all of a sudden I found myself at the edge of a steep brow and was all but over. I turned just in time, and ran as hard as I could go down the mountain and the pig after me. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that it was jumping over the big stones and rocks on the mountain side as if they had been butts of ling. I thought it would catch me; it was close behind me when I ran in at our garden gate, but I was just in time, and I slammed the door upon it. I told my mother and my grandmother what had happened, and my grandmother said it was a Fairy Pig. I was not like myself that night ; I could not eat any supper, and I went soon to my bed ; I could not sleep, but lay tossing about; and was burning hot. After a time my mother opened the door to see if I was asleep, and when she looked at me, HER EYES WERE LIKE THE PIG’S EYES. I felt a sharp pain go through my right leg like a stab. After that the pain never left me; it was so bad that I could not bear to be touched, and I could eat nothing. I grew worse and worse, and after some days my father said he would take me to a Charmer at Castletown. They lifted me in the sheet, four men taking the four corners, and carried me to a cart. Never, will I forget the shaking and jolting I had in that cart. When we got to Castletown I was more dead than alive. The Charmer lived in Arbory Street and they took me to his house. When he saw me he said that they must all go away and leave me alone with him, so my father and my mother went to wait for me at The George. The Charmer carried me to a room upstairs and sent his wife away, and laid me on the floor and locked the door. Then he took down a big book and placed it on the floor beside me. He opened it at the picture of a little plant-I can see the plant to this day-and he pointed with his left hand to the picture, and with his right hand he made the sign of the cross on my leg, where the stab went through me, and said: ‘ Ta mee skeaylley yn guin shoh ayns en.nym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrryd Noo, Ned Quayle. My she guin, ayns ennym y Chiarn, ta mee skealley eh ass yn eill, ass ny fehyn, as ass ny craueyn,’ which means in English-I spread this fairy shot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Ned Quayle. If it is a fairy shot, in the name of the Lord, I spread it out of the flesh, out of the sinews, and out of the bones. That minute the pain left me. I felt very hungry, and the Charmer’s wife set me at a table and gave me dinner. The Charmer went to fetch my father and my mother, and when they came in I was eating like two. The Charmer told my mother I must not go on the mountain alone between the lights again. The pain never came back. I have been sound from that day to this, but I have the mark on my leg where the stab went through as clear as glass to the bone…

The word ‘archeoid’ is suffixed by the Manx Gaelic word ‘-keoi’ (Scots Gaelic  = cuthaich), which means ‘disturbed state of mind’, ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’. It was cured by herb magic and through performing certain rituals. This brings us to another manner in which fairies could sicken people:

‘Taking’:

Another pathological power believed exercised by fairies was their ability to sicken or delude the mind, causing their victim to go running off (or be ‘carried off’) in a wild fugue or frenzy, to become lost and disorientated. The above tale of wild pursuit by a fairy pig and a state of delirium occasioned by the pig’s gaze in fact embody the synthesis of ‘taking’, the ‘fairy stroke’ and the ‘evil eye’ all together. Being ‘abducted’ by fairies and placed in a state of confusion is one of the commonest motifs in Gaelic fairy stories. It represents the victim somehow having the entrance to the fairy world ‘pierced’ so that he or she might enter its strange dimensions. To return whole from this realm was dependent upon a number of frequently encountered stipulations, such not eating the fairies food, or taking their wine; Not setting foot on their lawns or meadows is a common caution in Ireland’s medieval fairy tales. Not looking back or conversing with spirits is also a common theme, which has obvious provenance identifiable in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, such as the tales of Orpheus and Euridice. Fairy ‘taking’ was often ascribed to a ‘fairy horse’ (such as the Kelpie or Nikker) whom the victim rashly decided to try and ride, and fairies were blamed for riding domestic horses at night so that their owners found them exhausted by the morning time. Likewise, humans ‘ridden’ by the fairies would meet the morning dazed and exhausted. The sickening, weakening or befuddling effect of fairies was often ascribed to setting foot upon one of their precincts. Raths, meadows, fairy circles (mushroom rings) and other ‘sidheogue‘ or ‘sidheach’ places had the power to inflict these states. The ‘hungry grass’ or féar gortachwas said to be a patch of grass which had the power to make you suddenly hungry and weak. It was etymologically and conceptually linked to a hunger-spirit called the Fear Gorta (‘hungry man’), a concept recognisably related to the hungry abstracting concept of Fairies desiring the wealth of this world in order to strike a balance with the otherworld (read Kirk and my own commentaries on the Gaelic Otherworld.) In fact, delirium and states of mental confusion are not in themselves uncommon. The elderly are particularly prone to them, as are those who consume too much alcohol for a prolonged period of time. In medieval times, there were further perils faced by the Gaelic peoples which may have influenced their beliefs about mystical and confusing encounters with the Sidhe/Sith/Shee peoples: For starters, famine could cause states of starvation resulting in hallucinations. When food was plentiful, there was the ever-attendant risk of grain crop contamination with the hallucinogenic Ergot fungus (Claviceps Purpurea) as well as the weed-grass known as Darnel (Lolium Temulentum), whose seeds were equally hallucinogenic and could be easily confused for barley. Both of these were known to cause sharp bodily pains as part of their side effects. Darnel also caused trembling and dull vision. Sudden shocks can induce a condition called ‘Transient Global Amnesia’ which seems to be triggered by blood being forced upwards into the neck when people either fall or experience a sudden stressful event, causing a period of memory loss and bewilderment often lasting hours…

Changelings: wasting-diseases, famine and being ‘taken away’:

Obviously, the attrition of jealous fairy-folk was often blamed for the wasting and fading of vitality associated with particular diseases, a fact often noted by observers such as William Robert Wilde during Ireland’s famine era. In Ireland, the term ‘Cnaoidh’ (‘Cnai’) was used to describe the effects of marasmus (whole body wasting due to dietary energy-deficiency) common to that period. Other widespread endemic diseases such as Tuberculosis and Rickets could also cause such states, as would conditions such as cancer. The power of the Otherworld (expressed so potently by Kirk) to take away life and vitality from those considered vulnerable: ‘Changelings‘ were not just infants, but could also be older children, even adults.

The folklore of the ‘changeling’ was a very ancient and common feature of fairy-beliefs up until the 19thC. It was noted that apparently healthy and flourishing children might all of a sudden become sickly and gradually dwindle away. Such beliefs were common before modern medical sciences began to understand and deal with many of the causes of infant and child mortality, particularly malnutrition (which often also affected the minds and judgement of parents) as well as infectious diseases, diabetes and cancers. Formerly, it was believed that the suddenly ‘different’ child was replaced by a fairy child, while the latterly vigorous youngster was taken to continue thriving in the fairy realm.

Summary: The fairies of Atlantic Europe were believed capable of causing disease, either by the mode of removing nutritional vitality and quintessence through their hunger for the goodness of the living, or through physical attacks by searing magical fiery (or chilling) winds, or by dispensing ‘projectiles’ causing sudden ‘attacks’ of disease. They also possessed the power to abduct and control people – making them ‘wild’ or mad.

Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.

and

“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

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

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

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

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

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

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

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

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

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

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

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish connection:

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

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gods and Robbers: Robin Hood

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

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

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

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Gods and Robbers: ‘Twm Siôn Cati’

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

A ‘historical’ Twm?

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

The legendary Twm:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twm:

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

‘Siôn’:

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

‘Cati’:

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

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

 

 

 

 

Concordance of Belenos, Manannan, Merlin and Wodan.

Those who follow my blog will know that I have already discussed the linguistic relationship between the Late Iron Age Celtic god, Belenos, and the Slavic, Baltic and North European divinities known from medieval times at least as Veles, Weland/Volundr, Phol, Vili and Velnias. Due to the dynamism and migration of Celtic peoples and culture from the 4thC BCE, Celtic religion (particularly that of the ‘Belgic’ cultural movement) was to stamp its impact from the Black Sea to the westernmost reaches of Iberia and Ireland, taking with it a renewed and potent militarised (possibly fanatical) vision of its gods and philosophies. So why did a separate ‘German’ and ‘Slavic’ identity develop?

Germans and Slavs ‘were’ Celts:

By the advent of the western expansion of the ‘germanic’ Goths and other eastern ‘barbarians’ in the 4thC CE, the remains of the Celtic ‘world’ had been pushed away outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire – into Ireland and Scotland. The tribes referred to by Julius Caesar in the 1stC BCE as Germani had – through the lens of Roman ideation – been somehow defined as ‘different’ to the Celtic peoples, an opinion generally considered to be forged by their cultural and geographic impenetrability and indomitability rather than from any hard evidence of actual difference. By the time of the Gothic migration era (4th-5thC CE) and the collapse of the western Roman Empire there was no longer any concept of Europeans as ‘Celts’. Increasing religious diversification following Romanisation, and then the religious concordance and intolerance emerging under christianity had overwhelmed the spiritual cultural model of Europeans, replacing it with a power-franchise focussed on the East.

Of course, this still left a good deal of non-Romanised regions without Christian influence. Although ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Scotland were evangelised early on (5th-6thC CE) northern Europe (Germania, Scandinavia, the Baltic and Russia) was much later in coming to the table – holding out in places until at least the 14thC CE. It is from these that we find the apparent ‘Belenos’ concordances in the names of some of their important divinities, as preserved in medieval literature and later folklore. These cultures (pagan Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Slavic Russ) certainly maintained a warlike ‘Belgic’ outlook – at least from the point of view of Christian observers, particularly those at the commencement of the ‘Viking’ raids (which commenced with a particular anti-Christian focus) in the 8thC CE. However, by this period, languages and the names of the divinities had evolved away from their ‘Celtic’ (let’s call them ‘Atlantic’) origins so as to make ‘Germanic’, ‘Slavic’ and ‘Celtic’ mutually exclusive cultural ideas for scholars by the modern era. Political and ethnic federalism and nationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries further demanded separate origins for these cultures.

So what about Ireland and Scotland?

Christian evangelisation of the (by modern standards) ‘typical’ Celtic regions of Ireland and Scotland probably began in at least the 4thC CE, although it is conventionally dated to the late 5thC by later literary sources – the era when ‘Patrick’ is supposed to have convinced all of Ireland’s kings to submit to Christianity. Ireland (and her eastern colonies) subsequently became early medieval Europe’s most important and vibrant intellectual powerhouse for christian religious scholarship and reinterpretation of pagan mythology. She was to send her acolytes into the former Belgic heartlands of Britannia (colonised by pagan Anglo-Saxons) and Francia – the territory of the Gallo-Germanic Franks – to assist with local efforts to impose Christianity, be it by propaganda or the sword.

This process (already discussed in some detail in the blog) meant that Ireland’s pagan mythology (written by Christians) is difficult to interpret at face value, although it is common for many to accept  it (albeit unwisely) as canonical. We know that ‘Belgic’ culture (the impetus behind the 279 BCE attack on Delphi) made it to Ireland – the stories of boastful hero-warriors such as Cuchullain and Finn, and the La Téne style of insular art seem to attest to this. Indeed, the magically and militarily powerful ‘magi’ or druids referred to in medieval accounts of the conversion period are another possible feature of this culture. We suspect that IrishTuatha Dé Danaan characters such as Lugh, Nuada and Ogma were local versions of Gaulish divinities Lugus, Nodens and Ogmios, yet we have no evidence of worship or any idea of their importance from placenames. Indeed, you are more likely to come across places named after the female ‘Cailleach’ or masculine ‘Cuillean’ than any of these continental characters.  Insular and continental evidence of actual religious beliefs and practices among the Celts is – although widespread – largely influenced by Romanisation and difficult to interpret, as we do not know for sure which names were from independent divinities and which were synonyms for individuals. These doubts add validity to following an inductive approach based on place-names, folklore and mythology (including Christian hagiography).

Belenos:

The reason I am taking ‘Belenos’ (Belinus) as an exemplary divinity to examine in the Gaelic context is because of his aspects as a solar god which places him at the highest apex of equivalent Indo-European dedications. He was an important enough divinity that the most important Belgic British tribe of the 1stC BCE-1stC CE – the southeastern Catuvellauni – appear to have been named after him, as were their leaders such as Cassivellaunus and Cunobelinus(‘Wolf/Hound of Bellinus’). Cassivellaunus was referred to as ‘Caswallon’ in medieval Welsh triads, and called ‘son of Beli Mawr (‘Great Beli’). Similarly theophoric names occur in the great warband of 279BCE – part of which was led by a leader called ‘Bolgios’. This attacked through the Balakans into Macedonia before part of it headed to the vastly important shrine of Pythian Apollo at Delphi, and others headed to settle Galatia in Anatolia. The Celts had a special attachment to Apollo, whose name appears to show a similar Indo-European root: A-pollo <> A-bollo. Apollo was a solar renewer as well as a hunter and warrior, and the Greek myths linked him to the mythical ‘Hyperboreans’ – the barbarians of the north who lived close to the monstrous zone, and Okeanos, the world-river. The depiction of Apollo on Greek coins of the Alexandrian age became an important influence upon the imagery depicted on the post-279 ‘Celtic age’ coins of Europe until the Roman conquests.

Although common to western Europe and Britain, the remains of ‘Belenos’ are much harder to identify in Gaelic Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In the 12thC CE, the learned Cistercian abbot and noted hagiographer, Jocelyn of Furness, was commissioned to write a number of hagiographies critical to establishing the primacy of the continental Roman Catholic church over the insular churches, which other contemporary commentators such as Gerald of Wales had implied kept some heathen  or backward usages. Jocelyn was commissioned by Anglo-Norman lord John De Courcy to produce a new hagiography of St Patrick to coincide with the new Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Perhaps as a favour to De Courcy’s friend, ally and brother-in-law King Rognvaldr of the Isle of Man, Jocelyn included traditions from the island of Patrick’s supposed visit there and defeat its ruling wizard, who he calls Melinus.

“… Returning to Hibernia, he touched at the islands of the sea, one whereof, Eubonia–that is, Mannia–at that time subject unto Britain, he by his miracles and by his preaching converted unto Christ.  And among his miracles very conspicuous was this: a certain evil-doer named Melinus, like Simon the magician, asserting himself to be a god, and attempting the air with a diabolical flight, at the prayers of the saint fell headlong, and was dashed in pieces, and so perished …” (Translation from: ‘The Most Ancient Lives of St Patrick, Including the Life by Jocelin, Hitherto Unpublished in America, and His Extant Writings’ by James O’Leary; Pub. New York, 1880 P.J. Kenedy)

Melinus – by the conventions and mutations of Indo-European languages – is also pronouncable as ‘Welinus’ and therefore can become ‘Velinus’, from where we return to the name of the god, ‘Belinus’. Interestingly, the (later) Manx traditions about their pagan wizard-god refer to him as Manannan – the insular Celtic sea-god, although George Waldron (‘An Account of the Isle of Man’, 1734) says it was ‘Merlin’, which itself is very close to Melinus, while invoking the sometimes-mad wizard of the Arthurian romances gaining courtly popularity among northern Europe’s elites during Jocelyn’s era. In fact, Jocelyn’s is not the first reference to this character, whose appearance in Hiberno-Norse era Manx tradition is interesting given the Weland and Velnias traditions of the Scando-Baltic countries from which Mann’s 9thC onwards Viking visitors haled.

The name actually occurs in a couple of earlier Irish traditions linked to Christianisation: the first is the ‘Bishop Mel’ who was supposed to have invested St Brigit with her veil (‘veil’ derives from Latin velum). The other is the pagan robber-prince Mac Caille who Patrick banishes to the Isle of Man, and who eventually becomes the island’s patron saint, Maughold, who seems to have had trouble replacing Manannan in the popular mindset of the Manx people, even down to this modern day. In one of the early medieval Irish lives of Brigit, it is Mac Caille rather than Mel who gives Brigit her veil (the Greek word for which is Calyx, hence ‘Caille’). It looks like the christianisers played fast and loose with language in order to establish their order!

To compound further this mystery, I wish to return to the Norse-Germanic ‘Weland’ who I have previously noted to be identical with the Irish mythological Cuillean. A Manx legend based on the Ulster Cycle stories (and published in Ireland during the 19thC) said that ‘Cullan the Smith’ resided in the Isle of Man and was resorted to by Conchobar Mac Nessa for magic weapons. This suggested he – like Weland – was considered a blacksmith or artificer. If Weland originates in Belenos (as I have suggested) then this makes the names Cuchullain and Cunobelinos identical, as the Irish warrior-hero was named after Cuillean’s hound, who he kills (Ulster Cycle). The Manx mountain of Slieu Whallian is named after him (the ‘K’ sound is lenited), as are a number of mythologically important hills in Scotland and Ireland. In Mann, this hill stands next to the site of the ancient Tynwald hill at St John’s – the site where Manannan was supposed by a 16thC ballad to have been offered green rushes at the annual Tynwald ceremony.

Manannan himself can confidently be described as ‘Lord of the Otherworld’ in Irish mythology, and his eponymously-named islanders would agree with this. He is also portrayed in an immanent manner, rather than as a distant god, and this suggests that he must have been a manifestation of a solar god like Belenos. Like Cuillean or Weland he is a donator of weapons, and as befits a combined solar and otherworld god, his wonderings in the East and travels to the west are features of his mythology. Another important aspect of an otherworld god who travels to and from the world of the dead (reincarnates) is the idea of prophecy and delirium that underpins the oracular beliefs of the ancient world – such as the addled Pythoness who pronounced Apollo’s oracles at Delphi. The properties of amnesia and delirium are common themes of visionary ecstatic states caused by herbs such as Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger), whose name in a number of European dialects seems to evoke Belenos: Bilsen (German), Pilsen (Czech), Beleno (Spanish). Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica – Book 4, 1stC CE) called it Herba Apollinaris, and said that the Gauls called it ‘Belenuntia’ or ‘Bilinuntias’: Perhaps this was in the Delphic wine which drove the troops of Brennus mad during their assault on the site of the famous Oracle, as he also calls it ‘Pythonion’ . This brings us to two ‘raging mad’ mythological figures of Europe’s ancient world:

Merlin and Wodin:

In the Germanic languages (Old High German and Old English) the name Wodin, Wotan or Wodan means ‘raging, mad one’. In the 11thC CE, Adam of Bremen described the god thus:  “Wodan, id est furor. ‘Raging’ was therefore an epithet of the highest god, who became known to the later medieval Scandinavians as ‘Odin’ and was (perhaps appropriately) their god of battle and of the dead. The madness implied in the name: ‘Wod’ is also applied to another character of medieval legend – the magician-sage-warrior Merlin recalled by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Arthurian romances he helped inspire. Geoffrey’s Merlin was both a prince and a madman who fled into the wilderness in a crazed fugue before his sanity was recovered. The story therefore shares elements of the tale of Odin, who is hinted in the Icelandic Edda stories to have undergone a similar tribulation as some kind of holy rite in order to receive higher knowledge. An Irish tale – of the mad king ‘Suibne Geilt’ – also has certain aspects of Geoffrey’s Merlin tale (‘Vita Merlinii’) and the battle-rages of the Ulster Cycle’s Cuchullain have something of the Odinnic Norse ‘berserker’ about them. But how does ‘Merlin’ link etymologically with Wodin or Wodan?

The Welsh name of ‘Merlin’ is Myrddin – pronounced ‘Merthin’. As ‘M’ sounds can become softened/interchanged to a ‘W’ or ‘V’ in Gaelic and other Indo-European language pronunciations (for a prime example, consider the Latin: Jupiter<>Jovis<>Jouis<>Jouuis) it is perfectly possible to see how ‘Myrddin’ and ‘Wodin’ can have concordance! Another aspect of the Merlin<>Manannan paradox suggested in Jocelyn of Furness’ Vita Patricii and later folklore emerges when we consider the Welsh equivalent of Manannan Mac Lir – Manawydan fab Llyr of the medieval Mabinogion tales. This incorporates the name -Wydan in it, which also seems close enough to ‘Wodan’ to suggest a possible concordance between Belinus, Melinus, Merlin, Manannan and Manawydan, not to mention Weland and Cuillean… Furthermore, the other middle-Welsh legendary character, Gwydion son of Dôn, has a similar name (the ‘G’ is silent).

After the establishment of literacy in Atlantic Europe, which itself followed in the traditions of Christianity, the plasticity of word-sounds became subservient to the orthodoxy and orthography of this tradition, explaining the plethora of different versions of the same name which epigraphy and literature gave to us. Some of these appeared so different that they were considered different…

 

Design elements of the insular ‘Celtic horse’ coins: Part 1

The 'Celtic Horse' seen on the 'primitivist' coins of the Iron Age often showed interesting design characteristics related to concentric circles and points. These became prominent elements of insular Celtic numismatic designs and rock art, such as that seen in Scotland among the 'Picts'. My design here is taken from a coin of the Dobunni (W. Britain).

The ‘Celtic Horse’ seen on the ‘primitivist’ coins of the Iron Age often showed interesting design characteristics related to concentric circles and points. These became prominent elements of insular Celtic coin designs and regional rock-art, such as that seen in Scotland among the ‘Picts’. The design here is taken from a  2000 year old coin of the Dobunni in my collection (W. Britain).

'Aberlemno 1' pictish stone (Angus, Scotland). The 'double disc' motif appears with the 'z-rod' and the mirror: symbols of rotational and reflectional symmetry. The serpent at the top demonstrates that this symbolism is expressive of the Atlantic otherworld beliefs...

‘Aberlemno 1’ pictish stone (Angus, Scotland). The ‘double disc’ motif appears with the ‘z-rod’ and the mirror: symbols of rotational and reflectional symmetry. The serpent at the top demonstrates that this symbolism is expressive of the Atlantic otherworld beliefs…

Note the rotational symmetry seen in the horse-design of this coin! Wiltshire ?Dobunni 1stC BCE.

Note the rotational symmetry seen in the horse-design of this coin! Wiltshire ?Dobunni 1stC BCE. Photo: (c) 2014 http://www.celticcoins.com – Chris Rudd