The Celtic Dioskoroi

As the vernal equinox and green Patrick’s day approaches, I thought it appropriate to comment on the spiritual connotations of one of the season’s visible zodiac constellations: Gemini is visible at the zenith of the ecliptic path directly above Sirius as the sun sets on that day… This is, in mythology, a celestial symbol of the legendary ‘twins’ whose bright stars ‘Castor’ and ‘Pollux’ (Greek: Polydeukes) define the asterism, otherwise known as the ‘Dioscuri’/’Dioskouroi’. These ‘lucky’ brother were usually depicted throughout the Greek and Roman world as horsemen, and were strongly associated in tradition with the protection of mariners.

1stC BCE Greek author Diodorus, writing in the Hellenic province of Sicily made the following comment about the Atlantic Celts (presumably those in the Iberian and Gaulish coasts about whom he knew a fair amount): (‘Library of History’ 4. 56. 4  trans. Oldfather)

“The Keltoi who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskoroi above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean.”

Of course, we must treat this as we would Caesar’s comment on the worship of ‘Dis Pater’ and ‘Mercury’ – a case of interpretation over that ‘barbarian event-horizon’ which Greeks and Romans (perhaps wilfully) were unable to reconcile with their own worldview. The Celts did not actually venerate ‘Castor and Pollux’ as the same twin demi-gods from Diodorus’ classical world, yet there appears to be a similarity of tradition. The famous ‘twins’ were seen as protecting patrons for Greek and Roman seafarers, as illustrated by their role in the Greek epic tale, Argonautica. However, Diodorus is clearly referring to an ancient indigenous tradition of the Celts involving this constellation.

“Coming from the ocean”

Examining Atlantic Celtic mythology, we can see that there are a good number of traditions of spiritual beings (apart from the obvious figure of Manannan) or saints emerging from the sea, and which could possibly associated with the significance of the Dioskouroi constellation.

In Gallicia we have the christian-era legends associated with Finesterre and Santiago de Compostela (an area strongly associated with local Moura legends) – those of St James or a another character – a horseman – emerging from the sea covered in scallop shells (which have since been the symbol of this pilgrimage).

In Brittany there are the legends of King Gradlon whose horse can gallop on the sea, not to mention his oceanic daughter known as Dahut or Ahes who goes into the sea. The medieval Breton Lais of Graedlent (anon) and Lanval (Marie de France) is also about Gradlon – after falling in love with a fairy the hero is carried into a deep river to fairyland where he lives awaiting a return.

In the Isle of Man, it is a magical female Cailleach – the Caillagh y Groamagh who emerges from the sea at Imbolc (or around the vernal equinox), and back in Brittany she was known as the Groac’h Ahes. Her other Manx incarnation was as ‘Tegi-Tegi’ the beautiful sorceress with the white horse who carries men down into the watery realm to death before transforming into a wren or bat and flying to the heavens. Her horse transforms into a dolphin and swims away.

Celtic saints such as Colmán mac Luacháin, Malo, Brendan, Kentigern, Patrick and Maughold to name a few have similar features appended to their individual legends. That of Colmán mac Luacháin is interesting as the Anglo-Norman era ‘discovery’ of his relics at Lann was dated as March 22 (the spring equinox) in the Annals of Ulster.

Diodorus’ asseertion that the Atlantic Keltoi believed in the ‘Dioskoroi’ as gods, is a statement of equivalency. He is almost certainly referring to the legends of aquatic horsemen involved in Celtic otherworld beliefs.

If we re-examine the original Greek myths of Castor and Polydeukes we can see that they were a ‘split pair’ – one with a celestial provenance (Polydeukes was a son of Zeus) and the other (Castor) merely human. Polydeukes demanded of Zeus that he could be reunited with his mortal brother in death, and Zeus arranged for them to share themselves between Hades and Olympus. This raises the distinct possibility that Gemini was a symbol of the mirrored otherworld co-existence of people, gods and spirits which I have discussed elsewhere.

Their significance at an equinoctial point in the year would be an expression of the balance they represent – hence spending alternating days in Hades and Olympus. The Twins were honoured with a ritual known as the Theoxenios – the setting of a feast for them as guests: much like the former Celtic folk-traditions of leaving food and drink for the ‘fairies’ at night.

The half-human, half-divine equation is also a regular feature of Gaelic legendary lore, explaining man’s relationship to skill and knowledge and with the Otherworld: Characters such as ‘Brownie’ and ‘Gruagach’ (Scotland), ‘Phynnodderee’ (Isle of Man) are portrayed as partaking equally of the human and fairy worlds, as do the semi-divine legendary heroes Cuchaullain and Fionn mac Cumhail of medieval romances. Irish kingship was believed bestowed by a figurative ‘heiros-gamos’ with the fairy world, and the Leanán Sidhe figure was a divine muse of poets. The ‘twins’ are also figurative of tradition – the passage of knowledge from one person (or one world) to the next… For instance, the first codified written law tracts of Ireland came with the advent of Christianity in Ireland:

The Senchus of the men of Erin: What has preserved it? The joint memory of two seniors – the tradition from one ear to another, the composition of poets, the addition from the law of the letter (and) strength from the law of nature, for these are the three rocks by which the judgments of the world are supported. (From: Ancient Laws of Ireland (Senchus Mor) trans. John O’Donovan)

The twin stars in Gemini are exalted in the sky at sunset on the vernal equinox… Winter – the season for storytelling and passing of survival knowledge – is over and the land is again pierced with new life…


Scholars seemed to have remained intrigued by similarities between Irish and ancient Greek mythology since the advent of Irish literature in the early medieval period, down to the modern day: The monastic writers of the medieval periods, the brilliant Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (who titled his 17thC history of Ireland Ogygia after Homer and Plutarch’s mystic isle) to the eccentric Charles Vallancey in the 18thC, and the eccentric and brilliant James Joyce of the 20th – all have been able to draw parallels.

Care needs to be taken in approaching the subject as it was, after all,  a hallmark of medieval and early modern Renaissance learning to draw parallels with Europe’s classical ‘golden age’.  National histories and mythologies from across Europe have therefore attracted similar comparisons at one time or another. Nevertheless, the Irish mythological landscape bears perhaps the closest resemblance in its content and complexity to that of ancient Greece. The Greek mythology served to illustrate an understanding of the universe by assigning spiritual entities to all of its functions, and in this regard is similar to every other ‘pagan’ system of learning which coded knowledge into an elaborate prosaic, artistic, poetic, dramatic repository of tradition, supported by dialectic traditions.

Fionn mac Cumhaill recurs as one of the key popular figures and vehicles of the ancient Irish traditions. I would like to discuss similarities in function shared by Fionn and his legendary Greek counterpart, Dionysus.

Dionysus (Bacchus) was revered in Europe’s Eastern Mediterranean provinces since the Bronze Age. Although most often characterised as a god of wine and intoxication, a wider reading of his cultural function reveals that he was equally associated with the convocations and group-efforts of human beings. Whether it be feasting or revels, hunting or adventure expeditions, war-bands, public theatre or the large-scale religious rituals and the mystery cults – Dionysus was often the key spiritual figure. His position as an ‘outsider’ to the Olympian tradition (which possibly post-dated him) was incorporated easily into the diversifying and expanding world of the Greek archaic and Hellenic ages. Many of his traditions were supposed to have been related by the poet Orpheus, and it is apparent that we have a number of links here to Ireland’s Fionn legends.

Fionn, like Dionysus, was a troop-leader whose tales are usually related in traditions by his poet-son Oisín or another of his followers. In his legends he feasts, hunts, fights and travels, and – like his counterpart Cuchullain – is often fractious, destructive, sometimes somewhat simple and erratic. Some of the traditions about him (e.g. – ‘Compert Mongan’) deal with his death and reincarnation – similar to Dionysus in the Orphic mysteries. Fionn is also ascribed a semi-divine parentage in some traditions. Dionysus’ Orphic name, Zagreus,  is interpreted as meaning ‘hunter’ or ‘capturer’ – perhaps alluding to his underworld/psychopomp functions in the Dionysiac mysteries.

Fionn, as leader of the Fianna can therefore be seen to serve a similar narrative function to Dionysus. His connection to the Sluagh of disincarnate souls has never been made explicit in Gaelic (Atlantic) literature, but a connection between the Fianna and the ‘Fairy Host’ is implicit in regional folklore. Finally, the Isle of Man’s Phynnodderee – a mythological half-man, half-beast who helps householders – shares Fionn’s name and attributes in many Manx folk traditions, which otherwise reference a giant called ‘Finn MacCool’.

The last (but by no means the least) connection to Dionysus/Bacchus is that ‘Fion’ is the Irish word for wine!


Plutarch’s account of Cronus worship in the Atlantic north

Here is an important part of a chapter from the Moralia of the 1st/2ndC CE Greek philosopher Plutarch, in which his narrators discuss a fascinating tradition of the worship of Cronus on an island somewhere off or in the archipelagos of northwest Europe. They then go on to digress on the  Orphic mysteries…

From: ‘Concerning the Face  Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon’

26 …Almost before I had finished, Sulla broke in. “Hold on, Lamprias,” he said, “and put to the wicket of your discourse lest you unwittingly run the myth aground, as it were, and confound my drama, which has a different setting and a different disposition. Well, I am but the actor of the piece, but first I shall say that its author began for our sake — if there be no objection — with a quotation from Homer:

An isle, Ogygia, lies far out at sea,

a run of five days off from Britain as you sail westward; and three other islands equally distant from it and from one another lie out from it in the general direction of the summer sunset. In one of these, according to the tale told by the natives, Cronus is confined by Zeus, and the antique Briareus, holding watch and ward over those islands and the sea that they call the Cronian main, has been settled close beside him. The great mainland, by which the great ocean is encircled, while not so far from the other islands, is about five thousand stades from Ogygia, the voyage being made by oar, for the main is slow to traverse and muddy as a result of the multitude of streams. The streams are discharged by the great land-mass and produce alluvial deposits, thus giving density and earthiness to the sea, which has been thought actually to be congealed. On the coast of the mainland Greeks dwell about a gulf which is not smaller than the Maeotis and the mouth of the Caspian sea. These people consider and call themselves continentals and the inhabitants of this land islanders because the sea flows around it on all sides; and they believe that with the peoples of Cronus there mingled at a later time those who arrived in the train of Heracles and were left behind by him and that these latter so to speak rekindled again to a strong, high flame the Hellenic spark there which was already being quenched and overcome by the tongue, the laws, and the manners of the barbarians. Therefore Heracles has the highest honours and Cronos the second. Now when at intervals of thirty years the star of Cronus, which we call ‘Splendent’ but they, our author said, call ‘Night-watchman,’ enters the sign of the Bull, they, having spent a long time in preparation for the sacrifice and the expedition, choose by lot and send forth a sufficient number of envoys in a correspondingly sufficient number of ships, putting aboard a large retinue and the provisions necessary for men who are going to cross so much sea by oar and live such a long time in a foreign land. Now when they have put to sea the several voyagers meet with various fortunes as one might expect; but those who survive the voyage first put in at the outlying islands, which are inhabited by Greeks, and see the sun pass out of sight for less than an hour over a period of thirty days, — and this is night, though it has a darkness that is slight and twilight glimmering from the west. There they spend ninety days regarded with honour and friendliness as holy men and so addressed, and then winds carry them across to their appointed goal. Nor do any others inhabit it but themselves and those who have been dispatched before them, for, while those who have served the god together for the stint of thirty years are allowed to sail off home, most of them usually choose to settle in the spot, some out of habit and others because without toil or trouble they have all things in abundance while they constantly employ their time in sacrifices and celebrations or with various discourse and philosophy, for the nature of the island is marvellous as is the softness of the circumambient air. Some when they intend to sail away are even hindered by the divinity which presents itself to them as to intimates and friends not in dreams only or by means of omens, but many also come upon the visions and the voices of spirits manifest. For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold — the sleep that Zeus has contrived like a bond for him —, and birds flying in over the summit of the rock bring ambrosia to him, and all the island is suffused with fragrance scattered from the rock as from a fountain; and those spirits mentioned before tend and serve Cronus, having been his comrades what time he ruled as king over gods and men. Many things they do foretell of themselves, for they are oracular; but the prophecies that are greatest and of the greatest matters they come down and report as dreams of Cronus, for all that Zeus premeditates Cronus sees in his dreams and the titanic affections and motions of his soul make him rigidly tense until sleep restores his repose once more and the royal and divine element is all by itself, pure and unalloyed. Here then the stranger was conveyed, as he said, and while he served the god became at his leisure acquainted with astronomy, in which he made as much progress as one can by practising geometry, and with the rest of philosophy by dealing with so much of it as is possible for the natural philosopher. Since he had a strange desire and longing to observe the Great Island (for so, it seems, they call our part of the world), when the thirty years had elapsed, the relief-party having arrived from home, he saluted his friends and sailed away, lightly equipped for the rest but carrying a large viaticum in golden beakers. Well, all his experiences and all the men whom he visited, encountering sacred writings and being initiated in all rites — to recount all this as he reported it to us, relating it thoroughly and in detail, is not a task for a single day; but listen to so much as is pertinent to the present discussion. He spent a great deal of time in Carthage inasmuch as Cronus receives great honour in our country, and he discovered certain sacred parchments that had been secretly spirited off to safety when the earlier city was being destroyed and had lain unnoticed in the ground for a long time. Among the visible gods he said that one should especially honour the moon, and so he kept exhorting me to do, inasmuch as she is sovereign over life and death, bordering as she does upon the meads of Hades.

27 When I expressed surprise at this and asked for a clearer account, he said: ‘Many assertions about the gods, Sulla, are current among the Greeks, but not all tom are right. So, for example, although they give the right names to Demeter and Cora, they are wrong in believing that both are together in the same region. The fact is that the former is in the region of earth and is sovereign over terrestrial things, and the latter is in the moon and mistress of lunar things. She has been called both Cora and Phersephonê, the latter as being a bearer of light and Cora because that is what we call the part of the eye in which is reflected the likeness of him who looks into it as the light of the sun is seen in the moon. The tales told of the wandering and the quest of these goddesses Econtain the truth <spoken covertly>, for they long for each other when they are apart and they often embrace in the shadow. The statement concerning Cora that now she is in the light of heaven and now in darkness and night is not false but has given rise to error in the computation of the time, for not throughout six months but every six months we see her being wrapped in shadow by the earth as it were by her mother, and infrequently we see this happen to her at intervals of five months, for she cannot abandon Hades since she is the boundary of Hades, as Homer too has rather well put it in veiled terms:

But to Elysium’s plain, the bourne of earth.

Where the range of the earth’s shadow ends, this he set as the term and boundary of the earth. To this point rises no one who is evil or unclean, but the good are conveyed thither after death and there continue to lead a life most easy to be sure though not blesséd or divine until their second death.

28 And what is this, Sulla? Do not ask about these things, for I am going to give a full explanation myself. Most people rightly hold man to be composite but wrongly hold him to be composed of only two parts. The reason is that they suppose mind to be somehow part of soul, thus erring no less than those who believe soul to be part of body, for in the same degree as soul is superior to body so is mind better and more divine than soul. The result of soul and body commingled is the irrational or the affective factor, whereas of mind and soul the conjunction produces reason; and of these the former is source of pleasure and pain, the latter of virtue and vice. In the composition of these three factors earth furnishes the body, the moon the soul, and the sun furnishes mind to man for the purpose of his generation even as it furnishes light to the moon herself. As to the death we die, one death reduces man from three factors to two and another reduces him from two to one; and the former takes place in the earth that belongs to Demeter (wherefore “to make an end” is called “to render one’s life to her” and Athenians used in olden times to call the dead “Demetrians”), the latter in the moon that belongs to Phersephonê, and associated with the former is Hermes the terrestrial, with the latter Hermes the celestial.While the goddess here dissociates the soul from the body swiftly and violently, Phersephonê gently and by slow degrees detaches the mind from the soul and has therefore been called “single-born” because the best part of man is “born single” when separated off by her. Each of the two separations naturally occurs in this fashion: All soul, whether without mind or with it, when it has issued from the body is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an equal time. Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls must in the gentlest part of the air, which they call “the meads of Hades,” pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollutions contracted from the body as from an evil odour. Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savour joy most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement. For many, even as they are in the act of clinging to the moon, she thrusts off and sweeps away; and some of those souls too that are on the moon they see turning upside down as if sinking again into the deep. Those that have got up, however, and have found a firm footing first go about like victors crowned with wreaths of feathers called wreaths of steadfastness, because in life they had made the irrational or affective element of the soul orderly and tolerably tractable to reason; secondly, in appearance resembling a ray of light but in respect of their nature, which in the upper region is buoyant as it is here in ours, resembling the ether about the moon, they get from it both tension and strength as edged instruments get a temper, for what laxness and diffuseness they still have is strengthened and becomes firm and translucent. In consequence they are nourished by any exhalation that reaches them, and Heraclitus was right in saying: “Souls employ the sense of smell in Hades.”

29 First they behold the moon as she is in herself: her magnitude and beauty and nature, which is not simple and unmixed but a blend as it were of star and earth. Just as the earth has become soft by having been mixed with breath and moisture and as blood gives rise to sense-perception in the flesh with which it is commingled, so the moon, they say, because it has been permeated through and through by ether is at once animated and fertile and at the same time has the proportion of lightness to heaviness in equipoise. In fact it is in this way too, they say, that the universe itself has entirely escaped local motion, because it has been constructed out of the things that naturally move upwards and those that naturally move downwards. This was also the conception of Xenocrates who, taking his start from Plato, seems to have reached it by a kind of superhuman reasoning. Plato is the one who declared that each of the stars as well was constructed of earth and fire bound together in a proportion by means of the two intermediate natures, for nothing, as he said, attains perceptibility that does not contain an admixture of earth and light; but Xenocrates says that the stars and the sun are composed of fire and the first density, the moon of the second density and air that is proper to her, and the earth of water and air and the third kind of density and that in general neither density all by itself nor subtility is receptive of soul. So much for the moon’s substance. As to her breadth or magnitude, it is not what the geometers say but many times greater. She measures off the earth’s shadow with few of her own magnitudes not because it is small but she more ardently hastens her motion in order that she may quickly pass through the gloomy place bearing away the souls of the good which cry out and urge her one because when they are in the shadow they no longer catch the sound of the harmony of heaven. At the same time too with wails and cries the souls of the chastised then approach through the shadow from below. That is why most people have the custom of beating brasses during eclipses and of raising a din and clatter against the souls, which are frightened off also by the so‑called face when they get near it, for it has a grim and horrible aspect. It is no such thing, however; but just as our earth contains gulfs that are deep and extensive, one here pouring in towards us through the Pillars of Heracles and outside the Caspian and the Red Sea with its gulfs, so those features are depths and hollows of the moon. The largest of them is called “Hecatê’s Recess,” where the souls suffer and exact penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become Spirits; and the two long ones are called “the Gates”, for through them pass the souls now to the side of the moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces earth. The side of the moon towards heaven is named “Elysian plain,” the hither side “House of counter-terrestrial Phersephonê.”

30 Yet not forever do the Spirits tarry upon the moon; they descend hither to take charge of oracles, they attend and participate in the highest of the mystic rituals, they act as warders against misdeeds and chastisers of them, and they flash forth as saviour a manifest in war and on the sea. For any act that they perform in these matters not fairly but inspired by wrath or for an unjust end or out of envy they are penalized, for they are cast out upon earth again confined in human bodies. To the former class of better Spirits the attendants of Cronos said that they belong themselves as did aforetime the Idaean Dactyls in Crete and the Corybants in Phrygia as well as the Boeotian Trophoniads in Udora and thousands of others in many parts of the world whose rites, honours, and titles persist but whose powers tended to another place as they achieved the ultimate alteration. They achieve it, some sooner and some later, once the mind has been separated from the soul. It is separated by love for the image in the sun through which shines forth manifest the desirable and fair and divine and blessed towards which all nature in one way or another yearns, for it must be out of love for the sun that the moon herself goes her rounds and gets into conjunction with him in her yearning to receive from him what is most fructifying. The substance of the soul is left upon the moon and retains certain vestiges and dreams of life as it were; it is this that you must properly take to be the subject of the statement

Soul like a dream has taken wing and sped,

for it is not straightway nor once it has been released from the body that it reaches this state but later when, divorced from the mind, it is deserted and alone. Above all else that Homer said his words concerning those in Hades appear to have been divinely inspired.

Thereafter marked I mighty Heracles — His shade; but he is with the deathless god. . .

In fact the self of each of us is not anger or fear or desire just as it is not bits of flesh or fluids either but is that which we reason and understand; and the soul receives the impression of its shape through being moulded by the mind and moulding in turn and enfolding the body on all sides, so that, even if it be separated from either one for a long time, since it preserves the likeness and the imprint it is correctly called an image. Of these, as has been said, the moon is the element, for they are resolved into it as the bodies of the dead are resolved into earth. This happens quickly to the temperate souls who had been fond of a leisurely, unmeddlesome, and philosophical life, for abandoned by the mind and no longer exercising the passions for anything they quickly wither away. Of the ambitious and the active, the irascible and those who are enamoured of the body, however, some pass their time as it were in sleep with the memories of their lives for dreams as did the soul of Endymion; but, when they are excited by restlessness and emotion and drawn away from the moon to another birth, she forbids them <to sink towards earth> and keeps conjuring them back and binding them with charms, for it is no slight, quiet, or harmonious business when with the affective faculty apart from reason they seize upon a body. Creatures like Tityus and Typho and the Python that with insolence and violence occupied Delphi and confounded the oracle belonged to this class of souls, void of reason and subject to the affective element gone astray through delusion; but even these in time the moon took back to herself and reduced to order. Then when the sun with his vital force has again sowed mind in her she receives it and produces new souls, and earth in the third place furnishes body. In fact, the earth gives nothing in giving back after death all that she takes for generation, and the sun takes nothing but takes back the mind that he gives, whereas the moon both takes and gives and joins together and divides asunder in virtue of her different powers, of which the one that joins together is called Ilithyia and that which divides asunder Artemis. Of the three Fates too Atropos enthroned in the sun initiates generation, Clotho in motion on the moon mingles and binds together, and finally upon the earth Lachesis too puts her hand to the task, she who has the largest share in chance. For the inanimate is itself powerless and susceptible to alien agents, and the mind is impassable and sovereign; but the soul is a mixed and intermediate thing, even as the moon has been created by god a compound and blend of the things above and below and therefore stands to the sun in the relation of earth to moon.’

This,” said Sulla, “I heard the stranger relate; and he had the account, as he said himself, from the chamberlains and servitors of Cronus. You and your companions, Lamprias, may make what you will of the tale.”

These passages detail an Atlantic cult of ‘Cronus’ whose initiates spend 30 years in service – the same period Caesar quoted for the druids. They also perform peregrinations from their central territory, where Cronus is believed interred in a cavern in the earth. Plutarch states this place to be Ogygia – an island supposed in Greek myth to have been inhabited by Atlas (Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, who imprisoned Oddyseus for 7 years – a period of time typical to Irish fairy abduction myths written in the middle ages. Irish myths sometimes portray the magical islands associated with Manannan in such a way – including the Isle of Man.  The name ‘Ogygia’ is connected to the Gyges or ‘giants’ of whom the Titans seem to be the main class in Greek myth. The names of Okeanos and Ogyges have been linked, and Plutarch’s account seems to back up this identity, perhaps conflating Cronus, Okeanos and Atlas/Atlantis under the same identity…

The text also discusses the flight of souls to the moon, which Plutarch describes as being near to Hades in the context of this chapter. Surely he is not describing a purely Greek myth? To the Greeks Hades’ realm is a chthonic underworld place, sitting above the pit of Tartarus…


Cronos, Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries and spirit-traditions of ancient Europe

In Greek poet Hesiod’s c.7thC BCE account of the ‘time before memory’ in the early days of creation, Cronus was the Titan ‘god’ of the ‘Golden Age’ – an idealised period after creation when a perfect race of men existed, and all was bountiful with no work or conflict nescessary:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven.  And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils.  When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.  They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But after earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received…

Source: Hesiod ‘Works and Days’ trans H.G. Evelyn White 1912.

The myth goes on to relate the subsequent four creations of humans down to Hesiod’s ‘modern’ day (c.7thC BCE, the ‘Age of Iron’), portraying each successive race of mankind as progressively debased and further from the godly ideals. The other races who came after the Golden are the Silver, the Bronze, and penultimately and somewhat curiously – the Race of Demi-Gods: people who were great enough to enjoy a deified status or to have a half-divine parentage. To these, he assigns an eternal existence in the Blessed Isles:

But to the others father Zeus the son of Kronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed (Nesoi Makarôn) along the shore of deep swirling Okeanos, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.”

It appears that Hesiod has made a distinction between the more ancient Golden Race and the Demigods who preceded the Men of Iron, yet the description of their existence and their ruler -Kronos/Cronos – is more or less identical, suggesting Hesiod sought to somehow change the tradition. This may well relate to Hesiod’s wish to promote the Olympian cult of Zeus which must have displaced that of Cronos, as described in his poetic narratives – Theogony and Works and Days. It is quite possible that Cronos represented a more primitive occidental god that the Greeks identified with the barbarian peoples to their north and west, and for this reason Hesiod and his contemporaries demoted him into exile on an Island far to the west…

Hesiod’s account of the race of the Golden Age is interesting in that these ‘ancestors’ who live on as helper-spirits (the original greek word is Daimôn) seem very similar to what Atlantic Europeans in the 2nd millennium CE referred to as fairies or elves in their own mythology. They certainly have aspects that we encounter in the denizens of much later ‘Celtic’ tales of the glorious otherworld – beauty, abundance, prosperity and peace.

Plato (4thC BCE) in his Socratic dialogue known as Cratylus discusses the belief that the eternal souls of virtuous humans become Daimones or Daemones (helper spirits – not the ‘evil spirits’ which Christianity later created from them) and refers to Hesiod’s Golden Race to make his point. His 4thC BCE Athenians agree that the eternal souls of virtuous men in their own time might achieve the same – not just those of the ancient mythical race of men. In Timaeus Plato expounded a common belief that souls were made of aither and the stars could be conceived of as souls of the departed (which is why demigods were placed in the sky as constellations). He has this to say of the Creator of the Universe:

….And once more into the cup in which he had previously  mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements,  and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure  as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made  it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star…

He based much of this story on Hesiod, who he references in Cratylus. He goes on to discuss reincarnation:

He who lived well during his appointed time was  to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed  and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being,  he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some  brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution  of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason  the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and  air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better  state.

The 1stC BCE Roman author Virgil was of the same opinion, being heavily influenced by Pythagorean, Platonic and Orphic doctrines which often went hand-in-hand in his day, as they were intimately concerned with the passage of the soul in former and future lives as well as the current. In this regard they were not much different to what Caesar said the Atlantic peoples of northwest Europe believed in. One of Roman society’s most popular celebrations was the Saturnalia which terminated at the Winter Solstice and celebrated the abundance of the Golden Age ruled over by Saturn (Rome’s name for Cronos), in the lead-up to the returning year. This was a festival of what I have referred to as ‘Otherworld Inversions‘ – masters would serve slaves, and the slaves could rest, for example.

So … what was Orphism and how does it relate to Cronos?

The Orphic faith has been identified from writings dated from at least the 4thC BCE onwards, though its origins are unknown and it may be partly evolved from a much older belief system – namely the Dionysian and Eleusinian mysteries with which they share much of their narrative structure. Orphism had definitely attained a consolidated (literary) existence at the advent of the Hellenic period and became one of the most influential mystery cults of the classical world, staying in existence until the late classical period. The surviving evidence for it is fragmentary and comes from literature (e.g. – the ‘Dereveni papyrus’, writings of the Neo-Platonist philosophers), art and inscriptions.

The key knowledge of the mysteries was said to have been gained by the proto-poet Orpheus in a visit to (and return from) Hades – the afterlife, which is the key aspect of the mysteries. The background story relied upon what are termed the ‘Orphic Theogonies’ (creation myths of the universe and the gods) which ultimately explained the creation of mankind the passage of the eternal soul through various states or cycles of reincarnation before it reached perfection.

The reincarnation beliefs of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries revolved around a shared dramatisation of the reincarnation of the year: The abduction of Kore (Persephone), daughter of Demeter (Rhea) by Hades, and her eventual release on the condition that she returned annually to his underworld. Zeus’ son and heir by Persephone (his daughter!) is the first incarnation of the god Dionysus – sometimes referred to in Orphism as ‘Zagreus’ and identified with Egyptian Osiris. Orphism attempted to weld aspects of older (Mycaenean and Barbarian/Thracian) religion and the high philosophies of Egyptian religion to the Olympian pantheon. In the Orphic theogonies, the young Dionysus-Zagreus is given the throne of Olympus by his father. Rhea inflames the Titans with anger at this and they dismember him after the manner of Osiris before consuming most of his body (Rhea keeps the heart). As punishment Zeus burns the Titans with lightning, turning them (and their meal) to ash and soot from which humans are created – their souls formed from the spiritual essence of Dionysus and their bodies from the soot and ash of the Titans’ bodies.

This is somewhat different from Hesiod’s ages of men, and perhaps explains the importance attained by the Cult of Dionysus or Bacchus in later antiquity: Celebrants of the cult sought to liberate themselves from their bodily limitations and experience the divine in a state of ecstasy. The Orphic and Eleusinian initiates appear to have believed that the soul passed through a number of bodies in order to purify itself from the envy and pride of the Titans of whom Cronus was the exiled leader. Dionysus represented a liminal figure whose death and rebirth (from the heart saved by Rhea) meant that he trod between the ordered realm of the Olympian gods and that of the Titans (who represented chaos, and primal forces), to whom the Olympians were ultimately subject to, in spite of their apparent besting and mastery of them in legend. Zeus and his colleagues were not omnipotent in Greek theology – they were prone to human foibles and subject to the forces of higher powers such as Fate and Chaos, as much as they were beholden to the structure of the elements and aither…

It is apparent that the theologies about Cronus, the origins of humanity, the transmigrations of the soul, and the link of this to the seasonal drama of the returning year was part of a more ancient European and Middle-Eastern religious system. Their existence is paralleled in the fairy beliefs of the Atlantic Europeans, and in the folklore of the Cailleach, Manannan,  Mag Mell and the Land of Youth, all of which are at the heart of the survivals of the Atlantic Religion in folk culture of northwest Europe.


Bronze Age roots of European Paganism

A deep and insoluble question that dogs the history of paganism in northern Europe before the advent of Greek and Roman expansion and christianity is that which asks about its structure and theology. Was it generally polytheist – believing in a host of different gods each with individual functions? If so, did it follow a similar system to the southern European religions? …. Or was its focus dualist – having god and goddess figures representing the perceived universal polarities? What if the dualist interpretation is the root of the polytheist, even?

Romans such as Julius Caesar (1stC BC De Bello Gallico) wrote that the ‘barbarian’ Gauls worshipped similar gods to them, but scholars consider such accounts as undetailed and lacking useful context. The fact that some Gauls in the south appear to have become quite Hellenized by the time of Caesar’s wars demonstrates the complicating factors at play. From the accounts we can see there are some apparent differences in theology and organisation between Gaulish/British and Roman official religion: Foremost was the system or college of learned druids at the apex of these societies, and also the reported emphasis on reincarnation, and the ideas about human ‘sacrifice’ that these appeared to engender:

They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods

In the same book (De Bello Gallico Book 6 ch.21) Caesar claimed that the German peoples of the 1stC BC:

” … rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report…”

Coupled to his assertion that the Germans had no Druids, Caesar was possibly making a declaration of their apparent primitivism and lack of philosophical gods and ideals. Surely no Roman would stoop to this? Caesar had his eyes on conquest…

However Caesar’s life was curtailed by jealous forces, and when his successor Augustus commissioned Vergil to write the Aeneid about Rome’s supposed cultural origins at Troy, Caesar’s comment on reincarnation (seemingly a barbaric tenet) has its waters somewhat muddied by Book 6 which depicts Aeneas’ visit to Hades to his father, Anchises. During this he is instructed how purified souls drink the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe before crossing into reincarnation. This crossing is sometimes associated with entering Elysium – a place Homer placed on the banks of the world-encircling river, Okeanos, and which Hesiod referred to as the Blessed Isles, watched over by the Titan god Cronus (Saturn to the Romans). This is not actually that unusual as Pythagoras had a well-documented belief in metempsychosis that – along with the writings of Plato (Timaeus) and with the Greek mystery cults – had a popular following among the intellectual elites of the Roman Empire, Vergil and Ovid being particular examples. Here is that part of the Aenied:

[723] Meanwhile, in a retired vale, Aeneas sees a sequestered grove and rustling forest thickets, and the river Lethe drifting past those peaceful homes. About it hovered peoples and tribes unnumbered; even as when, in the meadows, in cloudless summertime, bees light on many-hued blossoms and stream round lustrous lilies and all the fields murmur with the humming. Aeneas is startled by the sudden sight and, knowing not, asks the cause – what is that river yonder, and who are the men thronging the banks in such a host? Then said father Anchises: “Spirits they are, to whom second bodies are owed by Fate, and at the water of Lethe’s stream they drink the soothing draught and long forgetfulness. These in truth I have long yearned to tell and show you to your face, yea, to count this, my children’s seed, that so you may rejoice with me the more at finding Italy.” “But, father, must we think that any souls pass aloft from here to the world above and return a second time to bodily fetters? What mad longing for life possesses their sorry hearts?” “I will surely tell you, my son, and keep you not in doubt,” Anchises replies and reveals each truth in order.

[724] “First, know that heaven and earth and the watery plains the moon’s bright sphere and Titan’s star, a spirit within sustains; in all the limbs mind moves the mass and mingles with the mighty frame. Thence springs the races of man and beast, the life of winged creatures, and the monsters that ocean bears beneath his marble surface. Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those seeds of life, so far as harmful bodies clog them not, or earthly limbs and frames born but to die. Hence their fears and desires, their griefs and joys; nor do they discern the heavenly light, penned as they are in the gloom of their dark dungeon. Still more! When life’s last ray has fled, the wretches are not entirely freed from all evil and all the plagues of the body; and it needs must be that many a taint, long ingrained, should in wondrous wise become deeply rooted in their being. Therefore are they schooled with punishments, and pay penance for bygone sins. Some are hung stretched out to the empty winds; from others the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out by fire till length of days, when time’s cycle is complete, has removed the inbred taint and leaves unsoiled the ethereal sense and pure flame of spirit: each of us undergoes his own purgatory. Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons in vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body.”

In truth, the Greek and Roman spiritual worldviews were a composite of oral traditions woven into the dialectic transmissive mediums of art, poetry, song and theatre. Although deriding ‘barbarian’ religion, the ‘occult’ practices of the mystery religions of Orphism, Mithraism etc allowed Romans to stay in touch with the primitive fundamentals of paganism. In this manner they mirrored what Caesar had seen among the Atlantic peoples and their druidic religious system. The difference with the Roman system of priests of the ‘Olympian’ gods was that they were often simply members of the patrician and aristocratic classes, acting out pietous civic duties. As such we have little evidence that they formed a primary collegium – it was more often a secondary role. The core and perhaps oldest Roman religious cult was that of the household – of the genius, the gens, the lares and manes – representative of the ancestral cults of traditional European societies. These are some of the ‘peoples’ Aeneas sees in Virgil’s vision of Elysium and Hades.

The peoples who the Greeks and Romans interfaced with and conquered generally took on their ways, and they ways of the conquered were fitted in to their cultures (albeit in a demoted form). As the Mediterranean cultures expanded their influence and merged during the progress of the 1st millennium BC, so the Pantheon became a reality. During the process, the figurative realities of poets and philosophers became increasingly concreted by power, religious celebrity and literature.

Rome’s active policy of the plantation of (not just ethnic Roman) migrants among conquered cultures, coupled to the introduction of vigorous consumerism successfully displaced native traditions and imposed Roman worldviews and practices in a relatively short period of time. The fact that we know so little about the paganism of the Atlantic Europeans is because the process was so successful that there was no need to make a detailed religious assessment as the machine of Empire marched sandle-shod across Europe. The final leverage from paganism to christianity was an easy step after Rome’s political multiculturalism ensured the breakdown and replacement of indigenous religious cultures.

Even before the advent of christianity, much derision was heaped upon this overly-complex, often contradictory mass of deities and interpretative ‘mystery cults’ began to become more common. Jewish theologians struggling to establish their model of post-exilic monotheist orthodoxy and theocratic rule in Judaea had been revolting against the cultural aspects of Seleucid Hellenization. This culminated in the Roman occupation of Judaea and within a hundred years, the cataclysmic fracturing of that nation whose emergent monotheist faith began to subdivide all over again. It would eventually partition into three parts during the subsequent displacement and migration of its peoples across the middle east and Mediterranean basin and beyond in the following 600 years.

The more pro-Hellenic ‘Christian’ faction of Judean monotheism would find itself increasingly leading the intellectual (and political) arguments against paganism as the empire of Rome fractured under the strain of the cultures it had absorbed. Christian polemicists such as Cyprian and Augustine of Hippo were to argue that pagan gods were nothing but deified ancestors and leaders, and that the various spirits, daemones, lares and genii that populated the pagan spiritual world were in fact evil: a simplistic but effective argument that suited an intensely confusing, doubt-ridden and stressful period in European history. This approach to Mediterranean polytheism was to influence the tone of subsequent Christian interpretation of paganism, no matter what its actual true form was.

During and after the establishment of christianity in their country, Irish monks began to compile a similar Christian narrative tradition to deal with their own land’s pagan gods and ancestor-traditions, following the template laid by the ‘Augustinian’ polemical style of the ‘New Empire of Light’. The Irish invented their own highly stylised euhemerist Christian literature to match and exceed these: it would consign paganism to the same fate as on the continent, and paint its divinities into a pseudo-history of failed invaders and tyrannical warlike and venal rulers. In the same manner, christian Scandinavians of the 12th and 13th centuries would produce saga traditions which portrayed their (more recently) former gods in a similar manner: multiple, hierarchical, euhemerised, amoral and modelled largely after the deposed ‘Olympian’ gods of the Mediterranean.

The widespread use of euhemerist interpretation, the control of literacy by Christian elites and the difficulties inherent in expressing aspects of oral traditions using the fixed literary medium means that there is little good historical evidence about what pagan North Europeans believed.

The answer to the difficult question about northern pagan identity and belief lies in a fundamental understanding of what ‘paganism’ actually is and was. The state-sponsored religious cults of the Mediterranean classical age were designed to reflect the temporal power of the civilisations promoting them, and as these temporal powers grew so did their religions, the spiritual system reflecting the temporal one in its hierarchy and complexity after the manner of the older religions of ancient Egypt and the ‘Fertile Crescent’. Christianity simply followed in these footsteps.

In fact, the popular religion of country peoples and tribal groups under the classical empires was quite different to that of those involved in expansionism and regional overlordship. It was much simpler and reflected the necessities of the worldview of those who subsisted with the land, and left fewer relics in art, masonry and literature. To metropolitan elites, these simpler versions of religion were considered barbarism and tended to be derided, or to be absorbed into the popular spectacles of the fast-moving, ever-changing mainstream metropolitan cultures. The adornments and trappings of paganism that survived in the archaeological remains to the current day are generally elite interpretations of this core spiritual root.

The core basis of the Greek mythos (derived largely from Hesiod and Homer) is that there were 3 phases of overlord gods: Ouranos, Cronus then Zeus. Ouranos was the sky, who coupled with the Gaia, the Earth. Her offspring were the Titans who deposed Ouranos, and led by Cronus (who famously castrated his father) ruled over the ‘Golden Age’ (which was something akin to Elysium – showing the conflation of historical time with contemporary ‘place’ in the ancient worldview). Cronus then fathered Zeus who in turn deposed him, and the rest – as they say – is ‘history’ (in other words, where the bard Homer picks up the tale). Similar tales of one order replacing the other are echoed much later in the Scandinavian saga literature of the 12th/13thC, which records some original epic verse and stories of their late pagan era. The similarities are interesting.

The Olympian Gods were the third order, but their inception and promotion of their respective cults is very much linked in history to the growth and expansion of powerful kingdoms and city states during the late Greek Bronze Age. During this age (that of Homer and Hesiod – creators  of ‘historic’ epic verse for a new order), the idea of a ‘civilisation’ that was better than that of its ‘barbarian’ origins was born. The second and first order of Greek gods seem to be of the elemental order that existed much further afield than the Mediterranean, and which persisted in the folklore of the Atlantic peoples down to the modern day. Cronos, as Lord of the Golden Age and Elysium/The Blessed Isles  becomes functionally identical with the British & Irish Isles’ own god – Manannan. Greek writer Plutarch even stated explicitly that Cronus was worshipped in an actual Island called Ogygia believed to lie west from Britain. To Homer (in the Oddysey), this ?mythical isle was home to Calypso and her father Atlas/Atlantis. Add in the mythology about Leto mother of Apollo, the river Lethe, and Leda and things become distinctly more interesting. These again, are so curiously similar to Irish and Manx legends that they are either the cause or derived from a common mythos…


Themes of seduction and the sea are an ancient part of pagan metaphor

Themes of seduction, death and the sea are an ancient part of pagan metaphor

“…Pay attention to what I am about to tell you – heaven itself, indeed, will  recall it to your recollection. First you will come to the Sirens who enchant  all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears  the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him  home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with  the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones  lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass  these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may  hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men  to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast,  and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have  the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you,  then they must bind you faster…”

Circe to Oddyseus in Homer’s “Odyssey”

The Céide Fields

The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, Eire

The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, Eire

Emerging from under the blanket bogs of Co. Mayo in Ireland, the Céide Fields represent one of the earliest sites with evidence of organised human agriculture and have been dated as nearly 6000 years old – from before the introduction of metalworking. As well as the remains of stone houses and field walls, the site is associated with the typical megalithic religious and funerary structures found throughout Atlantic Europe from this period – evidence of a particular regional culture with its own philosophy and way of life that was shared. Paleobotanical evidence points to this barren boggy landscape having once been much warmer and covered in pine forest. Other areas in Mayo and the wider ancient province of Connaught contain similar remains.