Etruscan religion in the Italic Iron Age

The Etruscan civilisation which dominated northern Italy until the rise of the Roman republic was responsible for contributing significant additions to the religion of one of the great military and cultural powers of the ancient world. It grew out of the 'Villanovan culture', which was itself an ethnic and cultural offshoot of the proto-'celtic' Urnfield Culture of north/central Europe during the Bronze Age. During the 7thC BCE, like other nations and ethnic groups in the Mediterranean region, it came under increasing cultural influence of the Greeks who were expanding their colonies westward via coastal trade and conquest.


Although borrowing aspects of Greek-style immanent polytheist religion and adopting parts of the Olympic pantheon after the 7thC BCE, the Etruscan religious system maintained aspects of its older religious outlook, which by the time of the Roman Republic became identified in particular with a focus on Augury and Haruspicy – the reading of signs from nature and deriving prophecy from the behaviour (and entrails) of animals, and from natural phenomena such as lightning. The Romans referred to this (and the written texts upon which Romans based their augurial practices) as the Etrusca Disciplina, whose precepts became an important part of their religious life.

This particular aspect of Etruscan faith was indeed important: Etruscans were famed for their dedication to religion and required a professional technical priesthood trained in the disciplines of astronomy, natural philosophy (scientia), meteorology, zoology and the gods themselves. In this manner, they appear to have had similarities to the religious specialists among the Gauls and Britons, known to Greeks and Romans as Druids. Like the druids, the Etruscan priesthood were trained in colleges, the most notable late classical example being that opened by the Emperor Claudius in 1stC CE. The powerful influence of this religious system caused it to become the founding model for what would become Roman religious culture, and it therefore unsurprising that Etruscan religion appears to have had a fairly extensive pantheon of gods, albeit that Etruscan culture was formed from autonomous city states, each with their own interpretation of religious practices. These gods seem to have represented a system of immanent polytheism in which all natural phenomena were ascribed a divinity to represent them. However, the Etruscan religious system had three principal gods, named Tinia, Juni and Cel (later supplanted my Menrva). Tinia or Tin was the chief god, Juni his feminine counterpart, and Cel was the 'Earth Mother', perhaps responsible for the subterranean realms (her name evoking tombs and caves – cella). These seem to have evolved into the Roman 'Capitoline Triad' of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Under the influence of Greek and other Italic gods, the number of these diversified. However, the art of Augury and Haruspicy was apparently the principle feature of the religion by which the gods' wills were interpreted – Etruscans were natural philosophers par excellence.

Another feature of Etruscan religion which is notable is the fact that it was, by tradition, a revealed faith. The story of this was recounted in 44BCE by Roman author Cicero (De divinatione Book 2; 50-51.23):

“…It is said that, once upon a time, in the countryside of Tarquinii, while the earth was being plowed, a rather deep furrow was dug and suddenly Tages sprang forth and spoke to the man plowing. Now this Tages, according to the books of the Etruscans, is said to have had the appearance of a child, but the wisdom of an elder. When the rustic had gaped at his appearance and had raised a great cry in astonishment, a crowd gathered in a short time, all Etruria assembled at that place. Then he said many things to his numerous listeners, who received all of his words and entrusted them to writing. His whole address was about what is comprised by the discipline of soothsaying (haruspicinae disciplina). Later, as new things were learned and made to refer to those same principles, the discipline grew. We received these things from (the Etruscans) themselves, they preserve these writings, they hold them (as) the source for the discipline…” (Translation: Loeb Classical Library edition)

This tradition has several interesting aspects: Tages was obviously no earthly prophet, but was born from the furrow in a field in a rustic district. This would make him a child of the Etruscan goddess Cel, but also portrays the origins of Etruscan religion as being very indigenous and tied to the ancestral lands of their people. Cicero's account has the peasant gaping in incomprehending wonder while the educated 'townies' write the tiny prophet's words down, suggesting that Etruscan religion was based upon (now lost) canonical texts. Of course, this tale has all the hallmarks of a rustic religion sophisticated by the urbanisation of power in the Italic peninsula during the Iron Age, a process influenced and accelerated by the wealth of the land and commerce with the Greek and Anatolian states. Tarquinii/Tarquinia, founded by the legendary king Tarchon was one of the homelands of Etruscan culture, and therefore 'Tages' (Tarchies – the Etruscan language had no 'g' sound) may well be related as a demoted founder-god.

The Etruscan priest-seers are usually represented in Etruscan and Roman art as holding a stave or 'crook' known as a Lituus. This is sometimes depicted as a trumpet very similar to a Gaulish 'Carnyx' – straight with a curved tip. The lituus stave became the model for the Christian bishop's crozier, but its original form is mysterious. It may possibly have been a tool for assisting in the mapping or measurement of the night sky.

Roman Emperors were proud of their Etruscan heritage. This coin depicts the ritual artifacts of an Augur, including the Etruscan 'lituus'. Similar depictions also include a basin instead of the jug, suggesting the use of liquid 'mirrors' in the scrying process...

Roman Emperors were proud of their Etruscan heritage. This coin depicts the ritual artifacts of an Augur, including the Etruscan 'lituus'. Similar depictions also include a basin instead of the jug, suggesting the use of liquid 'mirrors' in the scrying process...

Etruscan cosmology appears to have been quite concerned about the importance of boundaries and divisions in the proper order of things. This probably represented a technical aspect of the need to assign signs and portents based upon where in nature they occurred. For this reason, Roman authors tell us that Etruscan religious teachings state that the gods were ascribed to 16 separate regions in the heavens, and that there were 8 (or 12) great eras of Etruscan history (seculae) the last of which was contemporary to them. The established limits and barriers which organised the Etruscan city-states and the rich agricultural land upon which their civilisation thrived were also of key importance. An account of the Etruscan 'Prophecy of Vegoia' preserved in a Roman treatise on land management known as ‘Corpus agrimensorum Romanorum’ (preserved in a 6thC mss collection) says this about the importance of physical land barriers:

“… Know that the sea was separated from the sky. But when Jupiter claimed the land of Aetruria for himself, he established and ordered that the fields be measured and the croplands delimited. Knowing the greed of men and their lust for land, he wanted everything proper concerning boundaries. And at some time, around the end of the eighth saeculum, someone will violate them on account of greed by means of evil trickery and will touch them and move them [….]. But whoever shall have touched and moved them, increasing his own property and diminishing that of another, on account of his crime he will be damned by the gods. If slaves should do it, there will be a change for the worse in status. But if the deed is sone with the master's consent, very quickly the master will be uprooted and all of his family will perish. The ones who move [the boundaries] will be afflicted by the worst diseases and wounds, and they will feel a weakness in their limbs. Then also the earth will be moved by storms and whirlwinds with frequent destruction, crops will often be injured and will be knocked down by rain and hail, they will perish in the summer heat, they will be felled by mildew. There will be much dissension among people. Know that these things will be done when such crimes are committed. Wherefore be not false or double-tongued. Keep this teaching in your heart…” (Translation quoted from 'The Religion of the Etruscans' Ed. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Erika Simon; Pub. University of Texas Press 2009)

The Romans obviously took this heart as their annual festivals of the Liminalia and Robigalia seemed designed to celebrate the spirit of this traditional Etruscan prophecy. Vegoia was a female divinity similar to Tages who was quoted in the lost texts of the Etrusca Disciplina. Presumably this prophecy was originally a part of the corpus!

Another important aspect of the Etruscan religion which was followed by Roman religion was the belief in spirits of the dead travelling to and occupying a 'cthonic' or underground location. The cultus of the gods who looked after such realms in Mediterranean pagan cultures were actually deeply rooted to the source of their wealth and success (in both trade and warfare): organised agriculture. This is because of the cycle of death being strongly linked in nature to that of renewal: that which decays fertilises new growth. The ancient domestic ancestral cults linked the presence of the spirits of the departed ancestors with success in the temporal world.

Similar ideas were held by the Greeks and the Celts or barbarians of the 'Atlantic' north. However, one must be careful in how one interprets the idea of the spirits of the dead living in an 'underground' realm: Evidence from all of these cultures seems to suggest that this realm also had a reflected parallel existence to our own, and was also connected to the visible heavens and the concept of the far islands and shores of the world-river, called Okeanos by the Greeks…


Terror and Beauty from the far shores…

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the north?

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the European north?

To the ancient peoples of Europe, the realm of the dead and of heaven lay deep in the west on the path of the setting sun. This exceeded the bounds of the known world of the Mediterranean and was presumed to lie beyond the extent of the Titanic Atlantic Ocean, believed to represent the extent of the 'world river', Okeanos. Plato (Athens, 4thC BCE) describes the mysterious point where earth and heaven meet in his 'last words of Socrates' dialogue known as Phaedo (trans. Benjamin Jowett) :

“…Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell inthe region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles,along the borders of the sea, are just like ants or frogs about amarsh-pool, and inhabit a small portion only, and that many others dwell inmany like places. For I should say that in all parts of the earththere are hollows of various forms and sizes, into which the water andthe mist and the air collect; and that the true earth is pure and inthe pure heaven, in which also are the stars-that is the heavenwhich is commonly spoken of as the ether, of which this is but thesediment collecting in the hollows of the earth…”

His description of the 'frogs' and the pond is an echo of contemporary Athenian playwright Aristophanes' famous Dionysiac play of the c.405 BCE known as 'The Frogs' when the god Dionysus crosses the river Styx to visit Hades, and rather than being regaled by the shades of the departed from within the water, he is annoyed by a chorus of frogs. The connection between water, and the seemingly grotesques yet miraculous aspects of both death and rebirth was not lost in the ancient European worldview, of which the Greeks were to create the earliest written sophistication:

One of our oldest written sources on ancient Greek mythology, Hesiod ('Theogony'), says that the most archetypal race of Greek monsters, the Gorgons, lived on an island at the furthest extent of the western ocean, supposedly near the island of the Hesperides. This puts them in the realm of Cronos (Saturn) at the far shores of the world-river Okeanos, near Homer's famous island of Ogygia from the Oddyssey. Ogygia in Homer was domicile of the titan Atlas (also called Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, whose charms almost took Oddyseus away from the land of the living. The name Ogygia (Hy Gyges?) is based upon the greek word gygas, meaning 'born of Ge (Gaia/Ge – the Earth)', often interpreted as 'Giants' (Gigantes) and possibly linked with the name Gorgós (dreadful)…

Accordingly, the Titans of greek myth were viewed as primordial, earth-born giant in stature and monstrously alien. They were supposedly banished in a succession war with their children, the Olympian gods, and the various Greek theogonies suggest these marginal realms were at the farthest reaches of the 'time before memory' of oral-culture mythology – on the shores of the world river Okeanos at the edge of the heavens.

The relation ship between the chthonic underworld of Hades and Tartarus is based upon the fact that the oceans are the deepest places, and the Atlantic far more so that the Mediterranean. The beings of this realm partook of the primal, cthonic 'elements' of Water and Earth. Even the Hebrew Book of Genesis (first compiled 5thC BCE) borrowed this conception…

The children of the Titans were often monstrous, for example: Python, Scylla, Medusa, Charybdis, Cereberus, Ekhidna, the Hydra, Chimera, Geryon, Cetus and the Graeae. Sometimes they were beautiful too, like the titaness Calypso, and Pegasus and Krysaor who were the children born of the neck of Medusa. The mysterious realm of the oceans, has always delivered both beauty and terror to mankind!

Although encountered in Greek mythology in various parts of the Mediterranean, it was not, however, it was not from this comparatively mild 'frogpond' that these creatures and Old Gods derived, but the mighty Atlantic, beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' or the Straights of Gilbraltar, at the extremes of Okeanos in the Atlantic west. During the era of the Roman expansion into northern Europe, the misty, cold and terrifying reaches of the British Isles, Ireland and the North Sea might well have been at the very brink of this terrifying alien realm… to the ancient world, if you wished to get to Ogygyia and the Hesperides, you went to the furthest navigable islands (Britain and Ireland), and then just went a little further!

In mythology, the monstrous is often depicted as a trial to be overcome by a hero (or 'initiate'). In northern Europe, the aquatic 'loathly lady' traditions of the Melusine, the tale of how Conn Cétchathach gained the High Kingship of Ireland, and Chaucer's 15thC 'Wife of Bath's Tale' are examples of such a tradition. In Greek myth, the story of Perseus and Medusa might be seen as a version of the same principle:


The most famous monsters of the Greek and Roman world were arguably the three snake-haired Gorgons, who were said to be the daughters of Phorcys (a hypostasis subordinate to Poseidon). These were also the sisters of another divine female triad of Greek myth, the Graeae – the grey, aged and withered, one-eyed Cailleach-like Okeanid nymphs said in some myths to guard the approaches to the Hesperides, Ogygia etc and (redolent of the Norse Valkyries and the Irish Children of Lir) to have part of the form of swans. In the myth of Perseus, the hero is dispatched on an apparent suicide mission by evil King Polydectes to kill and gain the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone. Polydectes fully expected the young hero to die in the task, so that he might marry Perseus' mother, but he survives his 'initiation' and triumphs from it. The Gods Athena, Hades, Zeus and Hermes donate magical weapons and aids for the task, setting Perseus on a perilous course to success. He tricks the Graeae at the approaches, and enters the grey and misty realms to stalk his prey… Upon decapitating Medusa, the magical horse Pegasus is born from her neck – a bizarre conception, fit only for these distant and magical realms of the Titans. Perseus rides the flying horse, saves the maiden Andromeda from being devoured by the sea monster Cetus and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

The characters of the Perseus-Medusa mythology all occupy a portion of the heavens as a group of related constellations named after the characters: Pegasus, Cetus, Perseus, Andromeda, in close proximity to the other 'aquatic' constellations of the zodiac – Pisces, Aquarius and curious Capricorn. This group contains two particular stars which express the curious behaviour of having a cyclical variable intensity, namely the 'blinking' eye of Medusa: Algol (period repeats every 2 days) – seen in the constellation of Perseus, and the longer-period Mira Ceti on the neck of Cetus, whose period is 11 months. Both these stars appear to 'come and go', a feature which must have had particular implications to ancient peoples who believed a star was a perfected heavenly soul. Mythology was sometimes designed to record information about the skies!

By 'killing' Medusa on the far western shores of Okeanos, Perseus immediately helps her 'give birth' to his conveyor back from the Otherworld (Pegasus – whose feet create springs of water on land), and mysterious Chrysaor – the 'golden blade' suggesting agriculture: both aspects of continuity in a culture which believed in reincarnation. By 'kissing' the 'loathly lady', the beauty of regeneration might occur…

Chrysaor, Kallirhoe and Geryon:

Two miraculous children were born at the moment of Medusa's beheading: The winged horse Pegasus ('Creator of Pegai (springs)'?), and the golden boy Chrysaor ('Golden Blade'). Pegasus became the companion and steed of the warrior-hero Perseus, but the mysterious Chrysaor was credited only (so far as we know) with the paternity of another monstrous being: the giant three-bodied cowherd Geryon on whom the legendary strongman-warrior Heracles/Hercules was supposed to have conducted his Tain or cattle-raid. Pegasus and Chrysaor have distinct echoes of the Atlantic Europe's 'fairy helpers' – the 'fairy horse' and the 'brownie'.

Geryon was supposedly born to his father of the Okeanid nymph Kallirhoe who occupied the island of Erytheia, and was said by some later classical authors (Diodorus) have also lived on the mountainous slopes of Atlantic Iberia. Like the tripliform Celtic deities, he was supposed to have been a giant with three bodies.

“From Medusa, daughter of Gorgon, and Neptunus [Poseidon], were born Chrysaor and horse Pegasus; from Chrysaor and Callirhoe, three-formed Geryon.”Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 151 (2ndC CE) – Trans. Grant.

His home was the far-west 'red island' of Erytheia in the mystical Hesperides (equivalent by name and association with the 'Arthurian' Avalon, and Irish Emain Abhlach), no doubt the reason his cattle also had coats the colour of the setting sun – the predominant colour of the flowers in Atlantic Europe after the Summer Equinox and also, notably, the colour of the running blood of the dead… He was once allegedly defeated by Hercules, who stole his cows. The constellations Orion (the 'stick-waver') and Boötes (the 'cowherd') might even be considered cosmic aspects of the legend behind Geryon, on account of the location of his myth – at the boundary of the Otherworld… the heavens near to that great nourishing sky-river, the Milky Way. The 'cattle' of Geryon are a motif for the spirits of the dead, like Aristophanes 'Frogs' and 'Birds' and Hercules taking of them is an expression of the role of the psychopompic gods: Manannan, Dionysus, Hermes/Mercury etc.

The Hesperides:

The mythical garden of the Hesperides lay somewhere in the mythological west – either beyond the Atlas mountains and Libya (home of the setting winter sun) or further out beyond the Atlantic ocean at 'Okeanos' far shore' (summer sunset), depending on the accounts. It was the site of goddess Hera's magical apple tree, whose golden fruit imparted divine knowledge (or chaos and warfare when placed in the hands of Eris!), and the three nymphs known as the 'Hesperides' were its guardians. It features in the myths of Perseus (the nymphs tell him where to find Medusa) and of Heracles (who steals the apples). These nymphs were supposed by some sources to be the daughters of Hesperus – personification of the 'evening star' (Venus) known as 'Hesperus' to the Greeks ('Vesper' to the Romans). Venus, being close to the sun, and relatively close to Earth often appears in the sun's train ('evening star') or vanguard ('morning star') as it traverses the ecliptic path. The Greeks, of course, named the planet Venus after Plato's muse Aphrodite.

Not trusting the Hesperides with her precious apples, Hera (a notoriously jealous sort of person) is supposed to have set the dragon Ladon to guard it, and he coils around the base of the apple tree's trunk. This is somewhat redolent of the Norse myth of the Midgard serpent coiled around the world tree, and the constellation Draco was said by Hyginus ancient account of the constellations to represent Ladon.

The exact 'identity' of the 'Island of the Hesperides' itself is somewhat mysterious – is it Ogygia or Erytheia? Or somewhere else, even? Erytheia is sometimes given as the name of one of the Hesperides, so this may link to Geryon and his herd of red cows. Conceptually, of course, this does not matter – the 'island' has no corporal existence, but an important spiritual one. The apples were a bridal gift of Gaia (the Earth) to Hera. The Irish and British also had a legend of an 'Isle of Apples' – Avalon and Emain Abhlach.

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?...

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?... The imagery is somewhat phallic!

The location of the Titans and their monstrous offspring at the far reach of Okeanos in ancient European mythology made them occupy the liminal 'crossing place' between the mundane world and the heavens. It is a place simultaneously distant in both space and time, ruled over by its Titan king, Cronus, whose 'star' (the planet Saturn) takes so long to traverse its ponderous path (as if an old Boddagh of a man) when compared to our nearer planets. If this 'crossing place' seemed distant and somehow unobtainable except through an extreme journey and a trial of nerve, the spiritual realm of the heavens on the other side was paradoxically immanent and of the 'here and now'. The meaning of this 'crossing over' point and a belief that the traffic here was bidirectional became a feature of the ancient initiatory mystery cults of Eleusis and the 'Orphic' mysteries and was a key part of the mythology of the barbarians of Atlantic Europe, preserved in their own rich traditions…


Bridget, Croghan Hill and the Bog of Allen

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill ('Cruachan Bri Eile') in the background

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill (‘Cruachan Bri Eile’) in the background

“Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well,  and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire (Ed: Mac Néill), fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well. And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were sidhe men or earth-gods or a phantom; and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’  The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys?’….”

The quote comes from the Book of Armagh and was originally written in the 7th/8thC by the Bishop Tírechán as part of his collected apocrypha about Patrick, collected from across Ireland in his time and before. The Hill of ‘Cruachu’ mentioned here (usually interpreted as being at Rathcrogan in Connaught) might actually have been the magnificent and significant hill of Cruachan Bri Eile/Ele (‘Hill/Rock of Bri Eile’) or Croghan Hill in Offaly in Leinster, which had distinct fairy associations:

Patrick's Well on Croghan Hill - The original Clebach?

Patrick’s Well on Croghan Hill – The original Clebach?

The hill of Bri Eile is referred to explicitly in the fairy-narratives of The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn from the manuscript Laud 610 (folio: 118Rb-121Va), believed to date from the 12thC: In this, after learning poetry through the mystical medium of the Salmon of Knowledge with the druid Finnecas (who lived on the Boyne, Fionn travels to defeat the notorious fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile…

“…. Finn went to Cethern, the son of Fintan, further to learn poetry with him. At that time there was a very beautiful maiden in Bri Ele, that is to say, in the fairy knoll of Bri Ele, and the name of that maiden was Ele. The men of Ireland were at feud about that maiden. One man after another went to woo her. Every year on Samain the wooing used to take place; for the fairy-mounds of Ireland were always open about Samain; for on Samain nothing could ever be hidden in the fairy-mounds. To each man that went to woo her this used to happen: one of his people was slain….” (Boyhood deeds of Fion mac Cumhaill – trans. Cross and Slover 1936)

'Old Croghan Man' - A self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. 'The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn' state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain... Either she or the Bord na Móna were certainly fierce to him!

‘Old Croghan Man’ – A possibly self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain… Either she or the Bord na Móna certainly appear to have been fierce to him!

The association of this ancient bog-island with the mystical (and aquatic) is supported in some of the medieval Dindshenchas onomastic texts. Certain of these associate Cruachan Bri Eile with the source of the River Shannon, said to arise in a magical pool there (‘Rennes’ Prose Dindshenchas trans. Whitley Stokes):


Sinend daughter of Lodan Lucharglan son of Ler, out of Tír Tairngire (“Land of Promise, Fairyland”) went to Connla’s Well which is under the sea, to behold it. That is a well at which are the hazels and inspirations (?) of wisdom, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit, and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the salmon chew the fruit, and the juice of the nuts is apparent on their purple bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth and turn there again.

Now Sinend went to seek the inspiration, for she wanted nothing save only wisdom. She went with the stream till she reached Linn Mná Feile “the Pool of the Modest Woman”, that is, Brí Ele — and she went ahead on her journey, but the well left its place, and she followed it to the banks of the river Tarr-cáin “Fair-back”. After this it overwhelmed her, so that her back (tarr) went upwards, and when she had come to the land on this side (of the Shannon) she tasted death. Whence Sinann and Linn Mná Féile and Tarr-cain.

The implication of this is a connection between the Otherworld and the hill of Bri Eile through water. Connla’s Well is the same donor of Hazlenuts to the same Salmon of Wisdom eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mentioned above. The lore of the Dindsenchas is that she fell and died after emerging from the Otherworld, becoming the River Shannon. In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ (Book of Leinster) Sinand is also described as a ‘daughter of Mongan’ (who might be interpreted as an incarnation of Manannan in the texts appended to ‘The Voyage of Bran’) and donates a magical stone to Fionn. In another eponymous verse, the poet recounts of Sinand that:

Lind Mna Feile, (I speak truly),
is the name of the pool where she was drowned:
this is its proper title inherited from her
if that be the true tale to tell.

This suggests that, in conjunction with the other legends, Sinand and Eile and even Bridget might be one and the same, and we might also interpret ‘Feile’ to be a literary fixation of the indigenous local tribal name ‘Failghe‘. Add local traditions about Aine into the mix and things certainly get more interesting! Are these all the same?

In the Ulster Cycle tales, ‘Eile’ was the ‘other’ daughter of legendary High King Eochaid Feidlech, whose more famous offspring was the fairy Queen Medb of Connaught, who features prominently in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Medb was associated with another Cruachan – Rathcroghan in Roscommon – which has similar pagan connotations. Both Cruachans were the site of significant pre-Christian cemeteries, making their connection with the Otherworld strong.

Come to think of it, ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ seem to derive from a similar root too: In the middle-Irish tale Acallam na Senórach (‘The Colloquy of the Ancients‘), Aillen or Áillen mac Midhna of Sídh Finnachaidh (also the sídh of Lir) is the fairy whose fiery breath burns Tara each year until defeated by Fionn, confirming the link to the Cruachan Bri Eile and the name ‘Allen’. The ‘Hill of Allen’ in Kildare is also associated with Fionn, who was supposed to live there. The Slieve Bloom mountains are the other Fenian location of note – all lying on the periphery of this great midland bog or Eirenn…

Examining the etymology of ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ and considering the association with beautiful fairy women and St Bridget, it is fairly obvious that the derivation in álainn – ‘beautiful’. This makes ‘Cruachan Bri Eile’ mean ‘Rock of the Beautiful Brighde’.

Another place in the locality with goddess/fairy legends is ‘Cluain Aine’ (actual location uncertain), said by John O’Donovan in his edition of the ‘Four Masters’ to be near Croghan Hill. He translates ‘Cluain’ as ‘lawn, meadow or bog island’. Aine (‘Awnya’) is, of course, a name of the goddess encountered both in medieval legends and in placenames across Ireland.

'Connla's Well'

‘Connla’s Well’

The local tradition of Bridget being associated with Bri/Brig Eile is used in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists (17thC):

“S. Maccalleus Episcopus magnus, cujus eccelesia est in Cruachan Brig Eile in regione Ifalgiae, et qui posuit velum candidum supra caput S. Brigidae

Saint MacCaille the great Bishop, whose church was at Cruachan Brig Eile in the district of the Hy Falgae (Offaly), placed the white veil on the head of Saint Bridget”

This may be based upon the following from the Bethu Brighde hagiography of the 8thC:

…On a certain day she goes with seven virgins to take the veil to a foundation on the side of Cróchán of Bri Éile, where she thought that Mel the bishop dwelt. There she greets two virgins, Tol and Etol , who dwelt there. They said: ‘The bishop is not here, but in the churches of Mag Taulach.’ While saying this they behold a youth called Mac Caille, a pupil of Mel the bishop. They asked him to lead them to the bishop. He said: ‘The way is trackless, with marshes, deserts, bogs and pools.’ The saint said: ‘Extricate us [from our difficulty].’ As they proceeded on their way, he could see afterwards a straight bridge there

The hill and its environs was once the stronghold of the powerful ruling Ua Conchobhair Failghe (“O’Connor Faly”), the most significant sept of the Leinster Uí Failghe, from which tribe modern Offaly derives its name.  This seat was at Daingean (Daingean Ua bhFáilghe – formerly Phillipstown) and was a regional capital until the start of the plantations and Flight of the Earls saw its importance decline.

The former power of the historic native rulers is illustrated by annalistic references to the Battle of ‘Tochar Cruacháin Brí Eile’ between the English and the men of Ua Fáilghe, and which took place in 1385 (Source: Annals of the Four Masters). The O’Connor Fáilghe were victorious, destroying and routing the English contingent. The name ‘Tochar’ (causeway) shows that there was an ancient bog trackway here (perhaps the one mentioned in Bethu Brighde), and it must have ‘come ashore’ at the hill or near O’Connor’s castle at Old Croghan village and connected outwards to other destinations. Cruachan Bri Eile was obviously once a powerful and strategic island fortress as well as a religious centre. Archaeological evidence of its importance goes back over thousands of years.

Saint Bridget was said to have come from among these peoples, so it is no surprise that hagiographers describe this as a site where she ‘received the veil’. Another site (of equal pagan importance) also lays claim to this, however: The Hill of Uisneach, visible from Croghan across the sprawling boglands of Allen:

“Mag Teloch, where holy Brigit received the veil from the hands of Mac Caille in Uisnech in Meath.” (Tírechán, Book of Armagh)

‘Teloch’ or ‘Tulach’ means a causeway – many used to criss-cross the boglands in ancient times and there was certainly one at Cruachan Bri Eile. Whatever place you believe the supposed ‘event’ may have happened (and it depends on the tribal loyalties of the writers), you can be certain that it occurred at some place associated with the goddess of the pagan past! The words Brig and Bri seem to link to St Bridget/Brighde, supposedly ‘given the veil’ at Cruachan Bri Eile by a saint whose name sounds suspiciously like a modified form of ‘Cailleach’, and who crops up later associated with the Isle of Man – the other ‘Hy Falga’.

There was once a church dedicated to Bishop MacCaille (said to be a nephew of Patrick) on the slopes of Croghan Hill, the remains of which are still visible on the eastern slopes. The Calendar of Cashel noted that his festival was celebrated there on the 25th of April – somewhat close to Beltain just as the surrounding bog and its pools were being pierced by flowers and new summer growth! The same day was celebrated in the Isle of Man at St Maughold’s Well on an elevated headland over the sea. The well once emptied into a stone coffin-shaped structure in which the ‘saint’ was said to sleep (like Sinand in the Linn Mná Feile at Bri Eile) and Maire MacNeil commented on the Manx Lhunasa celebrations once held there.

Morgan Le Fay and the enchanter Merlin. Even wizards were prone to the charms of the Goddess...

Patrick-MacCaille and Bridget-Eile-Aine?

Other interesting placenames attached to the hill in the medieval Dindsenchas are Magh Dairbhreach and Druim Dairbhreach (‘Plain of the Oaks’ and ‘Ridge of the Oaks’), also on the east side of the hill.

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

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.