Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

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

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

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

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

279BC and the ‘Sons of Tuireann’.

279BC marked the zenith of the Celtic ‘La Tene’ cultural period and the warlike seemingly pan-Celtic ‘Belgic’ religious-cultural movement which had rocked Europe to its core and provided Europe’s first verifiable highly mobile elite mercenary fighting forces. It was the year that combined Celtic (‘Gaulish’) armies, having began an invasion and settlement of the Balkans some years previously, surged down through Macedonia and northern Greece and sacked of the holy city of Delphi – home to the shrine of Apollo and the Pythean Oracle. It was ancient Greece’s most sacred (and wealthy) religious site and was internationally famous. Rumours of fantastical treasure hordes carried off from these conquests back into the Celtic world persisted for centuries afterwards (e.g. ‘The Gold of Tolosa’), and it is highly likely that the stunning victories became the stuff of legends and stories for an even longer period to come. A more interesting aspect of the episode is that it fundamentally changed opinions in the Greek and Roman worlds about Celtic power: The combination of 279BCE with the earlier 4thC BCE sack of Rome by another warlord called Brennus, and the various Punic Wars in which significant Celtic mercenary forces fought for Carthage, ultimately ensured that Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasts were determined to smash independent Celtic power and culture in its seats across western and northern Europe.

It has always intrigued me how tales of this stellar 3rdC BC event might have filtered back to Britain and (in particular) to Ireland, and influenced the medieval story traditions that have survived down to this day. An example I would like to share with you is a story known as Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann (‘The Tragedy of the Sons of Tuireann’), which was translated to English under the name ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’ by Eugene O’Curry and first published in ‘The Atlantis’ (Volume IV, 1863) alongside the equally important ‘Fate of the Children of Lir’.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the tale is of a late period (16th/17thC) and is written in Early Modern Irish. However, the story has some features of great antiquity to it, and the narrative is in the tradition of the ‘Mythological Cycle’ discussing the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann: an imaginative and magical period of prehistory. The tale seeks to illustrate the inevitabilty of how acts against gods will ultimately ensure the demise of the proud and vainglorious, and as such mirrors the typical tragedean approach of ancient Greek myths.

The Tragedy, Fate or Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann: 

First, take a look at the story, here at the Celtic Literature Collective website. O’Curry’s translation can be found here, with extra notes.

The story is essentially about a group of three warrior brothers: Brian (the leader), Iuchar and Iucharba . On account of a blood-feud, they kill Cian of the Tuatha De Danann, inviting the wrath of his son – the solar warrior and champion leader of the Tuatha De Danann knights: Lugh Lamhfada (‘Long Arm’).

Lugh sets an erec (compensation fee) that at first seems lenient, but it transpires that Lugh has tricked them, and the warriors must engage in a wild and violent chase across Europe and the Middle East in order to gain what turns out to be the magical treasures of foreign kings, treasures that Lugh will require in order to win the final Battle of Magh Tureadh against the Fomorians. Tuireann’s sons achieve their goal, but ultimately meet their demise in so doing, sealing Lugh’s revenge with blood.

Upon closer analysis, this story shares many features of that of the famous 3rdC BCE invasion of Greece and sacking of Delphi. This episode, which started out as a Celtic attempt to immitate the glory of Alexander of Macedonia, as well as being motivated by greed and envy of the unstable post-Alexandrian state of the Macedonian monarchy and northern Greek alliances. It culminated in an act of religious desecration, which (in the ancient world) whilst seeming daring would have had a number of ominous consequences. The repercussions against Celtic culture (and in particular druidic culture) which were to come would have been interpreted in the light of the these events, and no doubt affected the morality expressed in poetic arts. Even the legends of Sigurd among the Germanic peoples can be interpreted in this same context.

Lugh’s first task, is to have the sons of Tuirenn plunder the apples (of immortality) from the orchard of the Hesperides, which was in ancient times believed to lie at the furthest point to the east in the world-encircling sea (river) of Okeanos. To reach it, Brian and his brothers are forced to borrow Mannanan’s boat ‘Sguabatuinne’ (‘Wave Sweeper’). Once there they take the form of birds in order to steal the apples.

It is obviously a retelling from the myth of Hercules, but with a distinct Celtic twist: the theme of distant islands and birds feature heavily in other perhaps older Irish tales and poems dealing with the Otherworld, including the Legend of St Brendan, and ‘The Voyage of Bran’. It is believed that birds were the souls of the dead, or conducted the souls of the dead to the Celtic Otherworld.

Hercules himself (as well as Pythian Apollo) was depicted on 1stC BC coins minted by Celtic tribes from the great army who settled in the Balkans, these being imitations of Greek Thasos tetradrachms:

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo - the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo – the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

It seems that the very act of going east towards the rising sun to seek the apples of immortality was an ideological theme which would have appealed greatly to the Gaulish warriors of Brennus’ army, seeking glorious immortality through heroic acts. In the 1st centuries BC and CE, Roman authors commented upon the fanatical aspects of Gaulish religion (said to have arisen in Britain) and that warriors were motivated to bravery by a belief in future reincarnation. Hercules’ defeat of the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides seems to be an alternate version of the Delphic myth of Apollo slaying Python. In our Irish tale, the leader of the adventurers is called ‘Brian’, very similar to the name Bran, and also to Brennus. All three means Raven in Celtic languages – the archetypal bird of war, and perhaps a symbol of reincarnating warriors.

After the Hesperides, the next significant target for the sons of Tuireann is the court of the Greek king, ‘Tuis’ (possibly a celticization of ‘Attis’). This seems suspiciously close to the raid on Delphi, particularly as they demand the king’s magical healing pig skin which brings men back to life. Tuis refuses but offers instead to give them as much gold as will fit on the skin, to which they acquiesce, only to whip the skin out from under the king’s nose in the treasury, kill the king and make off. The Gaulish army of 279BC famously killed the Macedonian King, Ptolemy Keraunos, before Brennus’ faction made for Delphi. Apollo (the god of Delphi) was famously a god of healing, and a need for healing is a theme which crops up again and again in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann.

Next, the brothers go to Persia to obtain the king’s magically potent spear, killing the Persian king into the bargain. This may be a reference to the elements of Brennus’ army who settled in Anatolia and became known as Galatians. They were notorious as making their living as a mercenary fighting force among the Seleucid Kingdoms and were deployed across the middle east, perhaps as far as Persia, in fighting their wars. Another interpretation could be of the spear representing the Gaulish defeat of the Macedonian kingdom, which had in turn defeated the Achaemenid Empire (represented in the Irish tale by the ‘King of Persia’).

After Persia, they go to the King of Sicily (Siguil) posing as mercenaries in order to relieve him of his chariot and team of horses. This seems to be a reference to the Pyrrhic war, which coincided with and continued after the sack of Delphi. It involved the Carthaginians and Greeks fighting over Sicily, and although we cannot be certain that Celtic mercenaries were involved in this conflict, we know that they played a major role in the Second Punic War. Another Delphi-related detail is that one of its treasures was reported to be a large golden image of a god (probably Helios) riding a chariot.

From there, the heroes go to the kingdom of’ ‘Coloman Orda’, which O’Curry translates as ‘Pillars of Gold’. The location of this is less certain, but the Lugh demands the heroes relieve the king of this place of his nine magical regenerating pigs. I would suggest that the kingdom of the Pillars of Gold, well stocked with endless pigs suggests the Iberian peninsula. Iberian and Southern Gaulish support for Carthage was a significant factor in Hannibal’s campaign during the Second Punic War, the Celts of the city of Gades (modern Cadiz) having been ancient trading partners and cultural exchangees of the Phoenicians. The pigs are recognisably similar to the magic pigs owned by Manannan Mac Lir.

The final tasks involve plundering in colder climes among places less easily identified. Ioruaidh – ‘the cold country’ – furnishes them with a hunting dog, and the congregation of women occupying the island of Inis Cenn-fhinne donate a cooking spit. Finally they give three shouts upon a hill in Lochlann (a fjord in Norway?) in order to complete Lugh’s quest, though are grievously wounded by the hill’s guardians. Upon returning to Ireland they die, sealing Lugh’s revenge. These last three tasks imply a diminution in the difficulty faced and a retreat into a colder world, where their adventures finally finish with the Sons of Tuirenn dying merely for standing upon a hill and shouting, maybe just an echo from towering Mount Parnassos and its mighty shrine to the gods. Of all their earlier victories over kings, it seems that the story seeks to trace an almost ignominious end for the warriors…

The story resonates with themes from the late Celtic iron age, tracing the descent of this golden age from the glory and immortality of the attacks on Delphi, the apparent ill-luck and kin-strife of its aftermath leading through the ill-advised mercenary alliances of the Punic Wars and finally to the destruction of independent Celtic power by the conquests of Spain, Gaul, and Britain by the Romans. These events marked the final retreat of independent Celtic power in to the far northern and northwestern climes of Europe. The story of Brennus and that of the Sons of Tuirenn are (like that of Alexander the Great) a warning against vainglory, and the corruption of men by power and money. They are an evocation of the ancient pagan European concept that no manner of power and glory will make you immune from the implacable wrath of the gods when ill-treated.

The role of Lugh in the story:

Lugh Lamhfada appears to be invested in the tale with the attributes and authority of a god, namely Manannan Mac Lir – Lord of the Otherworld. This is expressed by the simple motif of Lugh bearing the arms, armour, steed and legendary boat of the god, and through which he projects his power as chief hero, knight and leader of the cavalry of the Tuatha De Danann. As a youthful representative of Manannan’s otherworld power, Lugh seems here in many ways to embody the power of Apollo, whose shrine was desecrated in 279BC. This role was fulfilled by Thunor/Thor in Germanic paganism, and the name Tuirenn now appears to resonate a little with these, as well as the Gaulish god Taranis. How these might be linguistically linked to a word for thunder (Torran), for a disembodied soul (Taran), or the indo-european rootword from which we get ‘tyrant’ is open to conjecture…

An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:

The manuscripts of this story date at their earliest to the 16th/17thC, a period when Ireland had been subjected to invasion and settlement by the protestant Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England and Scotland, who were determined to destroy independent Gaelic power and culture, which remained conservatively Roman Catholic in its outlook. In their bids to withstand the invasion, Irish Earls were send out emmisaries across Europe in order to muster support for what would ultimately – like in the story – prove to be a doomed cause. The result was what is known as the ‘Flight of The Earls’. Although probably based on much older traditions, the themes  certainly had a contemporary resonance when they were written down in the form we have them today.

Irish literature and storytelling has always retained a mythical ability to address contemporary issues, a feature which is as much a testament to the subtlety of its timeless themes as to the frequent need of Irish people to express their ideas in a form disguised from the depredations of censorship and misunderstanding by church or state.

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

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

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

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

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

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

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

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

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

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

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

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish connection:

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

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit

See my related articles here and here.

The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.

It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.

To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.

As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish  Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!

Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.

Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:

 “Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?

Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.

How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.

Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.

Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.

In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male  triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).

Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies  of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.

The healer and the poetess:

Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.

In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.

The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.

The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.

 

Diving at Epiphany

Bulgarian men 'diving for the cross' at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Bulgarian men ‘diving for the cross’ at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

In Orthodox christianity, the ancient tradition of the Sanctification of the Waters at the festival of Epiphany (5th and 6th of January) is marked throughout the world by the popular custom of ‘diving for the cross’. The festival itself celebrates not just the ‘Theophany’ of Jesus to the gentiles but in particular among Orthodox Christians, his adult baptism by John the Baptist/the holy spirit (depending on which gospel tradition you go by).

Cross-diving usually follows the Epiphany mass and involves the priest casting a crucifix into a body of water, this being the cue for a crowd of eager young men to dive in, competing to retrieve it. It obviously echoes the baptismal theme of the Christian myth, but is there more to this tradition that predates Christianity?

As previously mentioned, there are many features which Christianity has borrowed from paganism for the festivities spanning from the winter solstice to Epiphany: the festivals of Saturnalia and the Dionysia being key donor traditions. Dionysia is the closest model for Epiphany, being the annual festival of the epiphany or theophany of Dionysus to the people. In western christianity, it is also remembered in the seemingly Dionysian celebration of the ‘Miracle at Cana’ at which Jesus supposedly turns water into wine. Diving into water, however is not a particular tradition of the Dionysia.

The Nativity of Aion:

We must look into the early 1st millennium Hellenistic world, and to Alexandria in Egypt to get more of a clue as to the origins of baptism at Epiphany. Christianity evolved in the Levant and Egypt among a seething sea of syncretistic pagan ideas, which under the influence of reductionist neoplatonic philosophy began to be intellectualised, combined and refined. At multi-ethnic Alexandria in the 1st-4th centuries CE, one of the chief gods worshipped among the Hellenised Egyptians was ‘Aion’ or ‘Aeon’ – seemingly a syncretistic youthful version of Kronos, compounded with Osiris, Dionysus and Apollo, and whose nativity festival was held on the 6th of January. The Alexandrian mythos claimed he was born to the virgin goddess Kore (also known as Persephone) on the night of 5th/6th of January. In gnosticism, Aion became the name or title of the series of historically repeating godhoods, one of whom was believed to be Jesus by some gnostics. The idea of the chain of prophets leading to the Messiah was of course originally a Judaic idea, and seems to be the root of the gnostic Aions. Aion, however, was originally a pagan idea:

Aion holding the 'wheel of the year' on a Roman mosaic.

Aion holding the ‘wheel of the year’ on a Roman mosaic.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403CE) wrote in his book Panarion:

“… Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day. This day the Greeks, I mean the Idolaters, celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December, a feast called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians. For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ (a thirtieth of an hour being added to each day), as the wise Ephraim among the Syrians bore witness by this inspired passage in his commentaries, where he says: ‘ The advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was thus appointed: His birth according to the flesh, then his perfect incarnation among men, which is called Epiphany, at a distance of thirteen days from the increase of the light; for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’

How many other things in the past and present support and bear witness to this proposition, I mean the Resurrection birth of Christ!  Indeed, the leaders of the idol-cults, filled with wiles to deceive the idol-worshippers who believe in them, in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany, so that they whose hopes are in error may not seek the truth.  For instance, at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter, with the seal of a cross made in gold on its forehead, and on either hand two other similar seals, and on both knees two others, all five seals being similarly made in gold. And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: ‘To-day at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.’

In the city of Petra also – the metropolis of Arabia which is called Edom in the Scriptures – the same is done, and they sing the praises of the Virgin in the Arab tongue, calling her in Arabic Chaamou, that is, Maiden, and the Virgin, and him who is born from her Dusares, that is, Alone-begotten of the Lord.  This also takes place in the city of Elousa on the same night just as at Petra and at Alexandria … “

Unfortunately Epiphanius was none the wiser as to what happened in the crypt of the Koreion, and it is for us to speculate that it may have involved some form of immersion in water. This ancient Alexandrian celebration of nativity and epiphany on the 5th/6th January survives still in the most ancient Christian denomination – the Armenian Church. The prime divinity among the pre-Christian Armenians was the Persian goddess Anahit (Anahita) who was analogous to the Hellenistic ‘Kore’ and therefore to Isis. She was also linked to Ishtar, Aphrodite and Artemis. Anahita was a mountain goddess representing waters – a theme of some importance in the pagan world.

The drowned god who came back to life:

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

The myth of Isis and Osiris is at the core of ancient Egyptian mythology, and became influential throughout the Roman Empire from the 1stC BCE, when Isis became one of the favourite goddesses of what I call the ‘syncretic era’. The myth of the death by drowning and the resurrection of her brother and lover Osiris is intimately tied up with water. The reborn Osiris – like Phrygian Cybele’s consort, Attis – was summoned from death by the goddess and the new era (Horus) conceived by an act of mystical intercourse. The descent of the statue of Kore into the basement of the temple at the Hellenistic ?gnostic nativity festival of Aion was obviously designed to reflect the Egyptian myth, and also its Eleusinian and Dionysian counterparts. Indeed, examination of this myth demonstrates that it was a theme with vast and far-reaching provenance in ancient paganism.

So … the mysteries of Epiphany are tied up in the many older pagan legends of a dying and reborn god. There is much more that I could say about this topic which involves the Celts of Atlantic Europe, but I will save this for another post for now, except to quote from Florus’ Epitome of Roman History which suggest that the cross-diving tradition may have an older provenance in Bulgaria…

”  … After the Macedonians (heaven save the mark) the Thracians, former tributaries of the Macedonians, rebelled and, not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters. Throughout the period of their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to the gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mothers’ wombs by torture. The cruellest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci, and to their strength was added cunning as well; their haunts among the woods and mountains harmonized well with their fierce temper… ” Lucius Annaeus Florus – The Epitome of Roman History (Trans. E.S. Forster)

Aubrey Beardsley's beautiful depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of 'Dame Du Lac'. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.

Aubrey Beardsley’s evocative bookplate depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of the ‘Dame Du Lac’. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.

 

 

 

 

Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

The number twelve has a strange significance in the reckoning of time:

There are twelve solar months, corresponding roughly to twelve zodiacal houses along the sun’s ecliptic path. In the Christian myth, Christ is followed by 12 apostles.

There are traditionally twelve ‘hours’ of daylight, as reckoned by sun-dials, and hence we derive our twenty four hours of daylight and night which comprise our unit of one solar ‘day’. This is known as ‘apparent solar time’, as compared to the clock-time we tend to keep in modern times, known as ‘mean solar time’.

There is a difference of roughly twelve days between the old ‘Julian’ and newer ‘Gregorian’ calendric systems in use in Europe and Asia Minor. These changes were instituted to prevent the celebration of Easter (calculated based on the Jewish Lunar calendar) from creeping further away from the Spring Equinox into summer.

There are twelve days marking the traditional European and Eastern ‘Christmas’ or ‘Yule’ festive midwinter period… These were sometimes each looked upon as representing a separate month of the solar year in many pre-modern European cultures. Yuletide began at the winter solstice (approx. 22nd December) and finished on the 3rd January, whereas Christmastide was from 25th December to 6th January (Epiphany).

Origins of Christmas Day:

The establishment of the date of the Nativity festival on the 25th December in Christianity was not in fact formally agreed upon for hundreds of years after the era of Jesus’ supposed life and death. In the late pagan Roman Empire, the 25th day of December was celebrated as Natalis Invicti – the rebirth of the deified ‘Unconquerable Sun’ – Sol Invictus. Although introduced as a late Imperial Cult under Aurelian in 274CE (250 years or so after the death of Jesus) the cult of Sol Invictus was probably in response to the profusion of mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire which employed the iconography of a youthful solar male god, seemingly derived from the older depictions of older gods such as Apollo, Adonis and Attis. Adonis, etymologically at least, appears to have a Semitic origin (compare Adonai – ‘Lord’). These had their origins in the principles of Solar godhood attached to the great ‘static’ or ‘official’ mystery cults of the 1st millennium BCE: Those of Delian Apollo, Apollo at DelphiEleusis, Samothrace and the mysteries of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia, among others. Such cults generally relied upon visitation of geographical loci – fixed cult sites – and the participation in initiatory ritual for the purposes of either receiving oracles, healing or higher knowledge. They themselves may have developed from popular extensions of the originally more closely-guarded inner mystery ritual traditions surrounding the elite classes of kings and religious hierophants of the earlier ‘palatial’ cultures (Minoan and Mycenaean), themselves copying the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, which are the oldest for which we have evidence, and were in continuity until at least the start of the 1st millennium CE.

Wars with Carthage and the great movements of the ‘barbarian’ Celts during Rome’s Late Republican Era (c.3rdC BCE) led to the importation of ‘foreign’ mystery religions such as that of Cybele and her ecstatic priests into Rome during the late Punic wars. Another popular ecstatic religious mystery cult was that of the Bacchanalia (Dionysia) from Greece. The Celtic fanaticism towards the solar god Apollo (whom they knew as Belenos) caused them to actually invade Greece and sack Delphi in 179BCE! These events, along with Rome’s increasing expansion and cultural interaction led to the surge in popularity of mystery religions in general during the late Republican era, such that by the 1stC CE  Roman Emperors were themselves visiting Eleusis and Samothrace to become initiates. These cults purported to explain the secrets of the sun, the moon, the planets and stars and the deepest mysteries of nature, death and regeneration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the life-giving Sun was a key part of this, and became part of a new ‘elementalism’ and drive towards simplification and ‘portability’ of mythology.

As the Roman and Greek cultural polities expanded and prospered, initiatory mystery religions became less an indulgence of the elites, and also less attached to fixed geographical locations, developing into a plethora of mobile ideological ‘franchises’ enjoyed by more ordinary persons. These almost certainly plagiarised the secrets and mythological frameworks of the older ‘official’ mysteries whose (often wealthy) initiates and suppliants were supposed to keep their secrets on pain of death or spiritual torment, and such mysteries were gradually bought out into the open and discussed and theorised over. This process was aided by the diffusion of literacy and the spread of and development of the ideas of the ‘Philosophers ‘of classical and Hellenistic era ‘Magna Graecia’ who sought to analyse the constancies and truths behind ancient orally-transmitted mythology.

A good example of such reductionist processes at their apotheosis are the ‘Hermetic’ and ‘Gnostic’ cults in Hellenized Asia Minor, Middle East and North Africa, of which Christianity was to emerge as an early branch within the fractious and millenarianist Hasmonean-era Jewish world with its significant diaspora. These employed Pythagorean, Platonic and Epicurean reductionist theories and a discourse involving the principles of the soul as a form of undying light in their prophetic religious narratives, barely hiding such ideas behind the character narratives of older mythologies.

Such explicit intellectualism was not to everyone’s taste, of course, and other more semiotic forms of mystery cults based upon ritual, myth and symbolism served the needs of those with more traditional (less orientalised) tastes. Orphism was perhaps the oldest and best-established of these traditions – possibly the ‘granddaddy’ of them all, with its origins in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE at least. Its initiates sought to ‘purify’ themselves in order to achieve a better afterlife. Mithraism was certainly the most popular of the newer cults, spreading from Asia Minor into the most northern and western extents of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. Similar popular mystery religions centred around the Thracian god Sabazios (a regional relative of Dionysus) and European syncretic cults involving the Celtic gods, such as that of the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ involving Epona in Eastern and northern Europe, and a profusion of others more poorly understood due to paucity of material evidence. These all had the common trait of emphasising the position of the characters of ‘Sol’ and ‘Luna’ in their iconography – almost as a ‘badge’ of their ‘mystery’ status.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the 'Danubian Horsemen' and their central goddess... seemingly a version of Epona.

A plaque depicting the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ and their central goddess (Epona): Sol Invictus rides his quadriga at the top of the image, which deals with the imagery of the cult’s mysteries.

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted to Christianity and took the Empire with him. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus.

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus – a vision of where things were heading?

The deified sun was conflated in this era with the older Greek  god Apollo, whose identity was favoured by the Romanised Celtic peoples from the Danube basin to the Atlantic northwest of Europe, in their own syncretic cults. Such cults throughout the Empire had displaced those of the older Capitoline and Olympian Roman and Greek deities among the general populations, although these still had a civic role to play.

Perhaps the most important, popular and long-running cult of the elder Greek gods was that of Dionysus, whose oldest festival – the Rural Dionysia – coincided with the period of the winter solstice whose Greek month was named in honour of the ancient sea god: Poseidonia. This was a festival of dressing up in the guise of the retinue of the god: men as satyrs or silenoi and women as maenads. It was also, significantly, a festival of the epiphany of Dionysus to mankind, which celebrated the god’s transubstantiation of water into wine and the mysteries of budding nature: themes obviously borrowed into later christianity. At Delphi, there was a tradition that Apollo left to live among the Hyperboreans during the month when Dionysus manifested among the people at this festival, at which there was much singing of popular songs by all classes in Greek society – a tradition surviving in the modern European Christmas singing festivities.

After the third century CE the rise of iconoclastic, literate, literalised and intellectualised religious tendencies in the Hellenized Eastern Empire and North Africa was increasingly to eclipse the western traditions of mysterious figurative mythology, which had been at the cornerstone of European religion for millennia. Apollo, Sol, Belenos, Attis, Dionysus and Adonis became ‘Logos’ – replaced by an intellectual man-god who claimed to be ‘the light of the world’, promising – in return for an oath of allegiance – ‘regeneration’ after death into a divine afterlife, safe from the confusion of life. The perfect model of benevolent Imperial power in fact…

Early Christian writers attest to the disagreement between the supposed Nativity day – one for which there is obviously no precedent in the ‘gospel’ traditions, yet which – as the temporal power of the Christian religion grew – became more important to establish, in order that the ‘church’ might exert leadership over the people and displace the pagan festivities.

The earliest Christian authors from whom we have records and quotations make no reference to a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Origen of Alexandria (245CE) and Arnobius (303CE) both scorn the idea that holy men should have their birthdays celebrated, and imply that this is a practice of sinners.

The earliest reference  from Rome itself to a Nativity festival for Christ held on the 25th of December (the festival of the Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun) is in a document produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus in 354CE (‘The Calendar of Philocalus’), of which only copies survive. However, there is evidence that the main focus of the Empire in the East at Constantinople was celebrating the nativity on 6th of January at this time, and it would not be until the advent of the 5th century that the 25th of December would hold sway across all of the main Christian patriarchies (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria), in the drive for Orthodoxy which followed the establishment of the religion as a state Imperial cult, as well as the religion followed by Christianised kings who established themselves in the ruins of Rome’s collapsed western Empire in Atlantic Europe.
It is interesting why the arguments often veered between dating the nativity on the 6th of January (still favoured by the Armenian Church) or the 25th of December: Other recorded early traditions even put the nativity closer to the summer solstice, although these were roundly dismissed in favour of the midwinter dating, corresponding to the solar rebirth festivals of paganism. One must remember that early Christianity was spread across the vast Roman Empire, and was well established at centres such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Antioch before the pagan system was rejected by the Emperors. There was no formal agreement as to the structure of festivities, except where there was literal evidence from scriptures.

Pagan Rome’s Empire and the Hellenized cultures it was enveloping generally exercised a policy of syncretism and acceptance of diversity, whereas the new literature-based Abrahamic monotheism was based upon inclusion/exclusion determined by active profession of faith and the purificatory symbolic act of baptism. Before its imposition as state religion within the Empire, Christianity was a religion of the faithful that need pay no heed to incorporating pagan ideas. As a state religion though, compromises were necessary and the religion ‘swallowed the blue pill’ in order to incorporate more peacefully with humanity and establish itself at the centre of power. Hence the use of the day of the Nativity of Sol Invictus as the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

The indecision between the significance of nativity and epiphany perhaps recognised the importance to Christians of ‘spiritual’ birth or ‘revelation of the godhead’ to the people over the material act of parturition, which after all involved vaginas, body fluids and loco-feminis – ideas considered ‘spiritually unclean’ and somewhat repulsive to patristic religions, and Abrahamic ones in particular. The ‘Epiphany’ represented the cultic dedication of the Christ child to humanity, in the form of his supposed unveiling to the ‘Magi’ in the nativity story. It was a retelling of the Greek myths of the hiding of the infant Zeus from his father Kronos who sought to destroy him, and the visiting of various divine beings to the cave which sheltered him.

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

Another festival prior to Epiphany celebrated Christ’s initial dedication to the jealous tribal god of Judaea – Yahweh – whose introduction by the post-exilic elites of Judah to the polytheistic semitic world marked a watershed in the eventual decline in the religious diversity of the ancient world of the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Yahweh demanded absolute obedience from birth, including the marking by genital mutilation of male children, and the circumcision of Jesus was celebrated on the 1st of January, the first day of the first month of a new solar year. This – in Jewish custom – is supposed to occur within 8 days of birth, and is usually accompanied by the child’s naming, so prefigures the development of ‘Logos’ (in the words of John: ‘…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…’ ) and the inevitable Epiphany. There are older precedents for it: in particular, the sacrifice of genitalia by a youthful solar deity was a religious theme not uncommon to more ancient mythologies: The Greeks told the story of the Titan proto-god Kronos (associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival) castrating his child-slaying father Ouranos (the personified sky) with a sickle to spare the children Ouranos had created, and the Phrygians told the myth of their male solar-God Attis castrating himself in a similarly fertile mystic self-sacrifice to the Earth goddess, Cybele. Perhaps the Greek myth of Apollon (Apollo) killing the great Python of Delphi has similar mystic origins, as do the ithyphallic Dionysian, Hermetic and Orphic traditions also popular at the time of the inception of Christianity.

Perihelion and lengthening days:

The period between 1st and 6th of January marks a time when the sun begins to show a definite change in elevation in the sky and days are perceptibly longer. This is also currently the time when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit – the ‘Perihelion’ – when the planet’s southern hemisphere scorches and the northern is tilted into the depths of its winter.

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

This midwinter solstice period also corresponded roughly to the sixth month of the ancient Greek calendar: Poseidonia. Poseidon was one of the oldest Greek gods, being mentioned before the inception of the Olympians in the Linear B texts surviving from the Mycenaean era of the 2nd millennium BCE. He corresponds in this sense to the ‘elder’ god Kronos, who was father of Zeus in Hesiod’s archaic-era ‘Theogony’, and who was ruler of the Golden Age typically celebrated in Rome’s winter solstice celebration: Saturnalia.  The Kronides – monstrous children of Kronos who pepper Greek myths – are the typical adversaries of ancient Greek heroes venturing to the far reaches of the encircling world-river, Okeanos, and Kronos-Poseidon corresponds incredibly closely to the ancient Gaelic Solar-Oceanic god-character Manannán in this regard. As god of the afterlife he was a perfect hypostasis of the Solar Jesus, introduced so successfully and so early among the non-Romanised pagan Gael of the Atlantic West….

 

 

 

 

The days of Kronos and Saturn

The familiar traditions associated with the celebration of ‘Christmas’ or the ‘Festival of the Nativity of Jesus Christ’ throughout northern Europe are far from Christian in their origin, and many of them are a direct continuation of the festivities of the Saturnalia of ancient Roman culture, which are in turn related to the equivalent ‘Kronia’ of ancient Greek culture. Both of these were introduced to Europe’s barbarian north with the diffusion of these cultures – a process beginning in the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE and culminating with the Roman conquests. Even well into the Christian era, ancient aspects of the seasonal celebration derived from the pagan era continued to be introduced between nations – the ‘Christmas tree’ (an ancient symbol of family) being an example. The essence of the Kronia and Saturnalia was a celebration of a supposed ‘golden age’ of humanity, ruled over by the titan god Kronos, who was known to the Romans as Saturn (probably meaning ‘Fertiliser’, after the Greek word Sathe). In this age, humans were said to have been virtuous and egalitarian – a state which degenerated once Kronos/Saturn was overthrown by Zeus/Jupiter who established the ‘pantheon’ of twelve Olympians to rule over the heavens and the earth. The Attic Greek Kronia was celebrated at ancient Athens around midsummer and was a festivity shared between freemen, slaves, servants and masters in honour of Kronos and the ideals of the Golden Age, and usually involved a ceremonial aspect of (albeit limited) social role-reversal at which the masters sometimes served their servants at a feast, and servants or employees sometimes took on the identity of masters for the celebration. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held at midwinter – from the 17th December – and after a similar fashion. With time the festivity was extended to a week or more. It was a time of freedom from work, giving of gifts, the playing of games (dice, knucklebones, board-games etc), giving to the poor and feasting and high-living – a very public celebration enjoyed across all social strata, bringing them (for a short period at least) closer together. It seems, therefore, very similar to modern festivities such as Christmas and Hannukah where similar customs still prevail. Anyone who has sat down to a family midwinter banquet wearing a Christmas paper crown and maybe spun a Hannukah dreidel or two is continuing a European tradition over 2000 years old!

The Hannukah Dreidel is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

The Hannukah ‘Dreidel ‘is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

Saturnalia (and Kronia) was typically a festival of reversals, the custom of masters serving their servants or slaves being a typical example of this which persisted down to the modern era. Those familiar with my discussions of the ancient ‘Otherworld’ philosophy of Atlantic European cultures (particularly the ‘Celts’) will immediately recognise this as a related theme: the Otherworld was an inversion of our own peopled by the spirits of the departed looking for reincarnation once more in our realm. Where we had plenty they had little and hungered for what we possessed. By treating these spirits with respect and gifts, we might deter their hunger for our material gains. Saturnalia was a method for ceremonially redressing the imbalance implicit in human nature and satiating the needy forces which might, through jealousy (the old ‘evil eye’ concept,) detract from well-being.

“…Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table…” Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.24.22–23 (4thC CE) – trans. by Robert Kaster, Loeb Classical Library.

In ancient Rome, the celebration coincided with the Larentalia – typically observed on December 23rd – a celebration of the Lares or familial ancestral/domestic spirits, and the elder Roman goddess Acca Larentia – the Mater Larum and supposed mother of legendary twins Romulus (Mars-Quirinus) and Remus. These were characters underpinning Rome’s famous founding myths and therefore the whole ‘dark season’ was a memorial of a distant idea of humanity’s foundation and founding sparks in the dark and distant past. The mythology of Saturn is intrinsically linked to that of the far bounds of time and space where he was supposed by the ancients to have been confined in the legendary overthrow of the Titans by the Olympians. His is the dark and misty realm at the bounds of what we now call space-time, usually depicted by the European ancients as at the furthest reaches of the encircling world-river Okeanos which bordered the heavens and Elysium, and stood above Tartarus – a perilous place full of ancient monstrous beings of legend that only the bravest mythical heroes might travel to in their sacred quests. These monsters were always portrayed as children of the offspring of Kronos/Saturn – the ‘Kronides’. The dark season was a time when the departed might be closer and should be paid respect. This darkness was – as I have discussed elsewhere in this blog – a source of refertilisation to the world, and the source for returning life to the ancient Europeans who believed expressly in reincarnation, like their cultural ancestors in Asia. The return of an ancient deposed god to engender equality and celebration among humans is an irrevocable part of these seasonal celebrations which appear to defy time itself, and the continuous shifts in human culture and religion in Europe. In itself it suggests a temporary dissatisfaction with the status quo: ‘Christmas’ remains a resolutely pagan affair.