Solar aspects of European gods: Kronos, Janus, Neptunus, Dionysus, Mars, Apollo and Manannan

In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, a profusion of small mobile island-based cultures and vigorous sea-borne trading nations coupled with the developing ‘city’ polities fostered a diversification of European pagan philosophies. In the eastern Mediterranean, these were dominated by the Greek and Phoenician cultures.

Contact with the religiously sophisticated ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations caused a continuous flow of ‘oriental’ cultural and religious ideas (including writing) into the west and the north.

These processes would inevitably lead to a fragmentation and sub-specialisation of the empirical principle of a ‘solar hypostasis god’ (and complimentary earth goddess) into multiple divinities, bearing (perhaps unsurprisingly) many different names. The persistence and re-integration of such divinities into the religious landscape of the dominant cultures of the Classical era Greeks and then the Hellenised Romans led to the demotion or promotion of these gods as part of a hierarchical ‘pantheon’, as well as a ‘familiarisation’, ‘temporalisation’ and ‘spacialisation’ of their existence in mythical traditions, based upon the apparent similarity/relation of one to the other, the age of their traditions and their location of origin. Thus the ‘Solar God’ archetype came to associated with a diverse set of gods, but most importantly: Kronos/Saturn, Poseidon/Neptunus, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mars, Apollo (worshipped by the Romans under his Greek name) and Janus (for whom there was no Greek alternative).

These identities seem to have often aggregated under a unified entity: ‘Zeus’ and ‘Jupiter’ (‘God’ and ‘Father God’) whom the mythological traditions tied up with the formal duties of ‘ruler’ of the others. He was a sky god – grandson (according to tradition) of the deified sky: Ouranus or Uranus. The mythological formality of the ‘ruler’ god, left little subtlety for expression of divine higher truths, and Zeus/Jupiter spent a mythological life doing what kings do: Lounging around, fornicating, making war, punishing miscreants and putting on spectacular displays of power and majesty. The cultic ‘mysteries’ were left to the subservient aspects of the ‘masculine’ solar divinity, who had developed many faces by the 1st millennium BC:

Kronos or Saturn:

Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of this god (borrowing from lost works of Nigidius) comes to us from the brilliant early 5thC CE pagan Greco-Roman author Macrobius Theodosius (‘Macrobius’), and his great work titled Saturnalia – one of the most significant late-classical treatises dealing with pagan mythology. It was written during a period when christianity was being actively incorporated over the shell of the receding pagan world of Rome’s great Empire, and it is possible that Macrobius himself was Christian, and wished to examine the underlying philosophical elements of paganism in order to unite the two in continuity. Of Kronos, he had this to say:

“… Κρóνος (Kronos) is the same as χρóνος (Khronos – time): for as much as the mythographers offer different versions of Saturn in their tales, the physical scientists (‘physici’ – philosophers) restore to him a certain likeness to the truth. They say that he cut off the genitals of his father, Heaven, and that when these were cast into the sea Venus was engendered, taking the name Aphrodite from the foam from which she was formed. They take this to mean that when chaos existed, time did not, since time is a fixed measurement computed from the rotation of the heavens. Hence Κρóνος, who I said was χρóνος, is thought to have been born from heaven (caelo) itself. Because the seeds for engendering all things after heaven flowed down from heaven, and because the elements that fill the world took their start from those seeds, when the world was complete in all its parts and members, the process of bringing forth seeds from heaven for the creation of the elements came to an end at a fxed moment in time, since a full complement of elements had by then been created. The capacity for engendering living things in an unbroken sequence of reproduction was transferred from water to Venus, so that all things would thenceforth come into being through the intercourse of male and female…” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 8.6-8.8, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

The castration of the sky (Ouranos/Uranus) by it’s titanic son, Kronos, is therefore the first act producing the male:female dipole upon which the god:goddess conception hinges. The ancients equated the stars of heaven with souls and these are portrayed in the Kronian myth as the seeds spilling from the castrated genitals of the sky into the oceans. Macrobius explains that the Roman word for Kronos, Saturn, is an epithet derived from a Greek word for the penis: σαθη (sathê), from which the Dionysian ‘satyrs’ are named. Charles Darwin’s greatest offence to protestant Victorian society was, it appears, simply to have suggested that the ancient Greek pagans had the right idea about evolution and sex after all! Unseemly!

Macrobius suggests that Kronos is a solar god on account of his genesis of the cycles of time – marked to us by the turning of the days, months and years, which underpin the cycles of fertility in the world. Kronos himself was therefore possibly supposed to represent the sun, representing the first star whose heat nourishes the life on earth. Indeed, his mythological devouring and regurgitation of his divine offspring (the Olympian gods) adds further credence to the destructive and life-giving aspects of the sun. The reason Kronos was not usually considered as an immanently-presiding god, was because his birth and creation of life fixes him at the start of time, where he is doomed to stay in myth and definition: cast on the far shores of Oceanus. As an originator god, Saturn was both the ancestral deity and provider of fertility, celebrated at the annual winter Saturnalia (Rome) or Kronia (Greece) with which Christianity collocated its nativity festival at the winter solstice, when the sun was deemed to be spending most of its time in the Otherworld. The otherworld was both the retreat of dead souls, and the source of returning fertility, which Macrobius noted was engendered on the world through water, into which the sun appears to plunge nightly from western coastal regions. The solar aspect of Kronos are therefore remarkable.


Janus (after whom the month of January gets its name) was one of the typically Roman gods, who we generally remember as being the one with two faces, ‘looking forwards and backwards in time’. Like with the Greek hearth goddess Hestia, it was customary to invoke Janus first at religious rites of other Roman gods. Macrobius has the following to say:

” … Some claim that Janus is shown to be the sun and has his two-fold nature because both heavenly doorways are in his power, as he opens the day by rising and closes it by setting; and further that when some god’s rite is being celebrated, he is called upon first so that he might open the way to the god to whom the sacrifice is being made, as though sending suppliants’ prayers on to the gods through his own gateways. Hence, too, his likeness is commonly represented keeping the number 300 in its right hand and 65 in its left, to indicate the measure of the year, which is the sun’s chief function… ” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 9.9-9.10, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

Macrobius is able to associate Janus with both Diana (the ‘lunar’ huntress whose brother was ‘solar’ Apollo, and who was known to the Greeks as both Artemis and Hecate, among other names) and Juno, wife of Jupiter and chief goddess (known to the Greeks as the scheming and jealous Hera, consort of Zeus). Indeed ‘Janus’ and ‘Juno’ have the appearance of a ‘matrimonial’ or ‘gender-twin’ god-pair similar to, for example Freyr and Freyja. Although Artemis/Diana is depicted as a ‘virgin’ goddess, this status is mystically equated with maximum sexual fertility potential, and Macrobius explains that Diana was considered a feminine part of the god, whose dual-nature is so apparent, arguing that ‘Diana’ is ‘Ianus’ with a super-added ‘D’. As the visible faces of the Roman and Greek gods were in reality fronts or ‘masks’ of their deeper mysteries, he may well be correct.

Janus was therefore a god of gateways and openings, as well as a somewhat daemonic entity, who – somewhat like Mercury or Hermes – carried messages from the mundane to the divine. The gates of the god’s temple were propped open in times of war, and the public reason for this was made into a story involving an early war between the Romans and the Sabines when Janus was said to have mysteriously opened Rome’s closed gate, and sent a torrent of boiling water at the Sabines from his temple, saving the city. Deeper reasons may link to the cult of the afterlife in which both Saturn and Janus played a part – the doors were probably opened to admit souls of dead warriors to the precincts of the god. The god’s statuary attributes (apart from his two faces) were the rod and the key, denoting measurement (?of lives, time, space) and the key (signifying the unlocking of thresholds). It was widely believed that worship of the god preceded the establishment of Rome itself, making Janus one of the rare and antique indigenous gods not borrowed from the Greeks. His cult is shrouded in a good deal of mystery, and his attributes seem to link him closely to Kronos/Saturn, who he may have been the original indigenous version of.


Mars and/or Quirinus were – like Janus – aspects of an indigenous Sabine-Etruscan-Latin deity whose veneration appears to have preceded the influence of the Greeks. His Greek counterpart, Ares, was not equivalent – Mars was more of a chthonic deity of abundance-through-strife, whereas Ares was a colder divinity representing violence. Implicit in the idea of Mars was symbolic struggle of nature, and the renewal offered by death. He was therefore closer in conception to Ares’ brother, Apollo, who was identical in practical respects to the Greek solar god, Helios: the sun burns, and the sun renews.

The custom of opening the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war seems to link him to the cult of Mars as a war-god. In fact, Janus was also known as Janus Quirinus suggesting a syncresis. Quirinus was also cited as the deified ancestor-founder of Rome: Romulus. The priest of Quirinus (the Flamen Quirinalis) presided over a number of ancient chthonic-ancestor cult practices, most important of which were the Larentalia (23rd December – associated with the Saturnalia, no less) the late-April celebration of vegetative growth of crops called Robigalia (Robigus was evidently a jealous chthonic ancestral spirit who craved the goodness of grain, and was credited with causing soot and ergot etc) and the Consualia Aestiva in August after harvest was gathered (in honor of Consus, guardian of grain stores). ‘Larentia‘ was a consort of ‘Romulus’ in Rome’s founding myths – she was the ‘Mater Larum’ or guardian of ancestral souls: again an incarnation of the Great Goddess, just as her consort (Quirinus) is the founding male part of the equation. The god Portunus was also worshipped as a protector of storehouses and gateways, indicating he was somehow related to both Quirinus and Janus.

‘Mars Quirinus’ was the god’s epithet in times of peace, and ‘Mars Gradivas’ in times of war, at least in Republican times when he used to be part of the early ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. This was why the principle Flamens (high priests) of the state religion were the Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis. The ‘Triad’ (based on an older Celtic-style triune deity) eventually changed to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno – reflecting, perhaps, Greek religious tastes.


Poseidon is considered to have been the prime deity of the Mycenaean civilisation from which classical Greek civilisation developed. Neptune was his Roman counterpart, an Italic god of not just the sea but lakes and rivers, who was generally conflated with Greek Poseidon by the 4thC BCE. As the ‘brother’ of Zeus he ruled over the earth and the waters which flowed on and through it. Their other brother, Hades, ruled the cthonic underworld, and Zeus was master of the sky and heavens. This in itself a ‘solar’ triform god hypostasis.

As well as being associated with the waters (and their sculpting force upon the land, believed to include earthquakes) Poseidon/Neptune was the main god associated with horses, both legendary and mundane. These animals were strongly associated with solar mythology, and the sun was depicted as being conveyed in a four-horse quadriga chariot. Waves are figuratively depicted as white horses. The celtic peoples believed the horse would carry you to the otherworld, and their late Iron Age coinage uses the image of the horse and the sun more than any other symbolism.

The Roman god Portunus (mentioned above) was also related to Neptune, in that he was appealed to in order to ensure naval victory, and was a god of ports, harbours and gateways. The sea or water represented a ‘crossing over’ to ancient minds – the sun disappeared into it, and death was assured to those who stayed submerged in it. There might possibly be an older (possibly even non-italic) shared origin for Portunus and Neptune, and they share names with similar sounds. The Irish mythological character Nechtain (mentioned in Dindsenchas as husband of Bóand) might be a celtic version of Neptune (with the P<>Q/K sound transfer) – his magical well in his palace of Síd Nechtain was the mystical source of the River Boyne (Bóand). Other linguistic aspects of note that link the name to horses and water are the ‘Neck’ spirits of north European folklore, otherwise known as ‘water horses’ or ‘kelpies’.


The epiphanic Dionysus was an important solar god who represented the aspect of sun-driven vegetative growth and in particular, the ecstasy-inducing produce of the vine. He was a central figure of a number of important mystery cults, and was known to the Romans under one of his other names – Bakkhos or Bacchus. His cult may have originated further north in Europe or the Near East, and in Thrace he was known as Sabazios, and shared aspects of Apollo. In fact, at Delphi in Greece (Hellas) he sat in for Apollo once a year when the sun god was deemed to be taking a holiday among the noble barbarians of Hyperborea, somewhere beyond the river Eridanus, site of an infamous mythological accident suffered by the chariot of Helios, whose son Phaeton took it on an ill-starred joyride. Like the sun, Dionysus was portrayed as coming from the east, leading some to posit that he had eastern origins, but this is not necessarily the case. The cult of Dionysos was not just an orgiastic celebration of fertility, but a mystical expression of the connection between death and new life. Aspects of it were borrowed into the mythology of christianity – for instance, the motif of death and rebirth comes from the mythology of Dionysus, particularly in the Orphic mysteries. Unlike the ‘hero’ gods of Greek, Roman and Thracian religion who were depicted armed with weapons, Dionysus flourished the thyrsus – a stave topped with a pine cone, deliberately suggestive of the phallus. His mythical retinue consisted of ‘wise Silenus’, the ithyphallic Satyrs and the crazed retinue of the female maenads.

Dionysus was not just a god, but a ‘prophet’ through whom the mysteries of life and death could be addressed periodically. He was somewhat unobtainable, except through throwing oneself into the wild aspects of his rites. Temples dedicated to him were a late feature of the Roman empire, and in Greece his most significant structures were his open air theatres.


The ‘purest’ or most overt solar god was Apollo, who might be thought of as the youthful god of new dawn. Often cultically portrayed with a bow, arrows and lyre (perhaps signifying the rays of the rising sun), he was also depicted with his chthonic adversary, the serpent Python, which his mythology describes him slaying. This Apollonian myth is also echoed in the myths of semi-mortal Herakles/Hercules who meets the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides, while seeking the golden apples of immortality. The symbolism was the conquest of death, and it is easy to see the parallels with Dionysus. Along with the Thracian Sabazios, Hercules, Apollo and Dionysus appear to have resonated with the Celts much more than other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, and influenced their imagery and religious practices during the syncretic eras between the 3rdC BCE and 3rdC CE.  Unlike Dionysus, Apollo’s was generally seen as a more stable and providential presence. His widespread presence in syncretic-era Celtic shrines attests to the importance of the solar godhead in these cultures.

A note on Hades/Pluto:

Hiding in the shady realms of the Greco-Roman underworld of the dead, it is hard to consider Hades as a ‘solar’ deity, yet the darkness – an inverted state of the sun’s light is itself an aspect of that light. It is therefore important to consider Hades a part of the ‘solar’ god-hypostasis. Indeed, to the Greeks he was part of the triform Olympian brotherhood of Zeus-Poseidon-Hades who ruled over the earth’s aspects: Zeus had the skies and heavens, Poseidon the earth and waters, and Hades the underworld realms.

The Atlantic solar god:

In Irish mythology, the ‘sea’ god Manannán mac Lir shows all of the characteristics of a sun-god. From his ‘epiphanic’ arrivals bearing gifts and challenges in tales such as Echtra Cormaic maic Airt (‘The Deeds of Cormac, son of Art’) to his mysterious psychopompic departures to the Otherworld in the poem Immram Brain maic Febail (‘Voyage of Bran, son of Febhal’), he typifies the solar archetypes which informed the worship of Europe’s ancient solar god-hypostasis. To the Atlantic Celts, the sun’s visible disappearance far away into the great western ocean maintained an implied marine aspect to their sun-god, who being born again every morning in the east, was also god of the Otherworld. Manannán seems to incorporate multiple aspects of the Mediterranean deities under one guise – Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and Apollo in particular. It is likely that Manannán was an elegant expression of (were it not for the Goddess) monotheistic godhood behind Ireland’s apparently rapid transit from paganism to being at the cutting edge of the medieval Christian world.

Of course, ‘Manannán’ was only one name or epithet for the solar god among the Irish celts. and the character appears under other guises across Europe. In fact Manannán’s character in his Irish legends is explicitly that of a shape-shifter and master of disguise. His wizardly abilities identify him with similar god-like characters such as Merlin and Wodan/Odin, as I have discussed previously. To the warlike Iron Age celts he was best-known as ‘Belenos‘ – the god to whom warriors pledged their lives in battle, and who promised them reincarnation. Under the epithet ‘Cernunnos‘, he was depicted as a fighting fertility god, with imagery redolent of the battling, rutting beast. Called ‘Esus‘ he was cultified as the branch-cutting god – another warlike image symbolic of killing, typical to the La Téne age, and a possible link to the Norse ‘Aesir’. Called ‘Teutates’ or ‘Andraste’ he was signified as a tribal ancestor-originator. As ‘Taranis‘, he was the energising regenerator whose ‘wheel’ image was an overt symbol of the sun which promised regeneration to come. Under christianity he became represented as the warrior-angel St Michael, Christianised as ‘Malo‘, ‘Mel’ or a multitude of other saints, and demonised as any number of legendary pseudo-historic evil kings, giants, goblins and devils. Due to the weaving of Roman paganism into continental and British celtic cultures, he was deeply buried in layers of syncretism, of which christianity was the most recent incarnation. Whatever guise the god took, he kept his most complete and fascinating literary and mythological identity in Ireland’s Manannán: the Atlantic otherworld solar god.

Concordance of Belenos, Manannan, Merlin and Wodan.

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

Germans and Slavs ‘were’ Celts:

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

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

So what about Ireland and Scotland?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merlin and Wodin:

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

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

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


Serpents and dragons in Irish mythology

“… No country in Europe is so associated with the Serpent as Ireland, and none has so many myths and legends connected with the same… “ Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions – James Bonwick, 1894.

Dragons and great serpents are common themes in the mythology of countries across the world, but their roles and meaning appear to differ depending upon the region concerned. In ancient Europe, serpents (the precursors of the more oriental ‘dragons’) were connected to the chthonic otherworld and underworld, and hence to ideas of decay – the earthy beginnings from which new life grows and the diseases and poisons which caused things to return to that state (i.e. – that process called ‘putrefaction’). They were linked to meres and marshes whose mass of rotting vegetation and sourness was a metaphor for death itself. That such marshy areas were filled with tiny worms, eels and wriggling creatures must have proved evidence that the serpentine and the decaying were linked – just as maggots appear to colonise rotting flesh and intestinal worms fill the excrement of most living creatures. This earth, the dung of animals and all manner of rotting vegetation – be it from the sea or the land – was a potent source of chthonic fertility and regeneration, and therefore wealth: a characteristic resplendent in mythological dragons.

J.R.R.Tolkein 'Conversation with Smaug' (1937)

J.R.R.Tolkein ‘Conversation with Smaug’ (1937)

This ploutic (from ‘Ploutos’ or Hades: Greek god of chthonic wealth) treasure-guarding aspect of serpents and dragons is a feature of the north European mythologies, such as the legends of Sigurd/Siegfried and the Norse peoples. However, the monstrous serpents faced by mythological  ancient Greek heroes such as Hercules, Jason and Perseus also guarded treasures: The serpent Ladon, for example, was the guardian of the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides – on an island far to the west, near the setting sun and the realms of Cronos at the limits of Okeanos.

In medieval Irish mythology, such a class of beasts (where actually identifiable as dragons or great worms at all) were more often associated with tales of monstrous peril involving saints and heroes, and were (unsurprisingly) associated with the marshy aquatic realm. Usually referred to by the terns ‘piast’ or ‘péist’ – a ‘pest’ or ‘beast’ – they were often used in christian narratives of the middle ages as dangerous legendary personifications of the Old Order – linked strongly to its religious beliefs connecting water with the underworld or otherworld. Such an example is given in the Middle Irish tales of Acallam na Senórach in which the ancient hero Caeilte supposedly recounts the deeds of the Fianna to St Patrick, and explains that it was once their prerogative to rid the land of serpents and dragons… The narrative of the tale seeks to link such exploits of serpent-expelling with that typically Patrician art:

“…Eochaid Lethderg, King of Leinster, enquired of Caeilte: ‘What cause had Finn and the Fianna that, out of every other monster ye banished out of Ireland, they killed not the reptile we have in the glen of Ros Enaigh?’ Caeilte replied:Their reason was that the creature is the fourth part of Mesgedhra‘s brain, which the earth swallowed there and converted into a monstrous worm.’ …” (Translation: Standish Hayes O’Grady)

Mesgedhra’s brain features in the Ulster Cycle: he was an older king of Leinster killed by Ulster’s hero, Conall Cernach, and his brain was taken and calcined in lime as a gruesome war-trophy (heads were preserved in the Celtic Iron Age as trophies of enemies, although here it may be a bardic narrative allegory). Later, the brain was stolen and used as a weapon by the Connachta warrior Cet mac Mágach, who employed it as a sling-shot against Ulster king Conchobar mac Nessa. This left Conchobar with the brain-stone buried in his head, and it eventually exploded when the wounded Conchobar became angry and (presumably – the mythology is lost) a great worm must have escaped from his cranium… The terrible worm which the Fianna were fain to battle in the Acallam therefore represented a reincarnation of Mesgedhra through the cthonic realms. In the tale, this represented an ancestral blood-feud which the Fianna were loath to disturb. This itself demonstrates a figurative aspect of dragons as an analogy for warfare and vengeance, replete with great danger as well as the chance for enrichment, and potential long-term consequences.

There were in fact many other dragons associated with the tales of Fionn as well as a number of other Irish christian culture-heroes…

In the embattled times following the Flight of the Earls in the early 17thC, Fionn mac Cumhaill was a popular embodiment of the aspirations of Irish Gaeldom: A collection of Fenian lays known as Duanaire Finn was compiled at Louvain (Belgium) in the early 17thC by Aodh Ó Dochartaigh at the behest of exiled Gaelic magnate, Captain Somhairle Mac Domhnaill: A grandson of the renowned northern Gaelic dynast ‘Sorley Boy’, he was fighting the Catholic cause in the continental 30 years war). His wish was evidently to preserve the Fenian traditions among the fading bastions of independent Gaelic culture and power. Of particular interest are his descriptions in the poetic lay known as ‘The Pursuit of Sliabh Druim’ of the dragon-slaying antics of the Fianna:

This tale starts with a description of the Fianna at peace, doing what they love best when not at war: slaughtering game animals. Sliabh Druim provides the scene of their greatest hunting triumph (a veritable ecological disaster) but on progressing on to Lough Cuan, they are accosted by a great péist who announces that he has come from Greece to fight Fionn and his band. Fionn dispatches him, by way of an introduction to a bardic celebration of his history of péist-slaying antics, which in itself reads like a catalogue of Ireland’s loughs, bogs and rivers as it accounts for his slaying of dragons living in Loughs Neagh, Cuillean, Erne, Eiach, Lein, Righ, Sileann, Foyle, Eamhuir, Meilge, Sera, Mask, Laeghaire and Lurgan, as well as river serpents on the Shannon and the Bann, and in a number of glens. It appears that most of Ireland’s waterways and loughs were once well-populated with the reptilian kind, as well as dreadful ‘phantoms’ and ‘cats’ until Fionn had his way with them.

A tympanum from Cormac's Chapel at the Rock of Cashel depicts a Centaur shooting a peist with arrows... Fionn and a dragon?

A tympanum from Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel depicts a Centaur shooting a peist with arrows… Fionn and a dragon?

Indeed, if we look at many of the legends regarding those later culture heroes – the saints of early chrsitian Ireland – we come across a number of significant encounters with ‘beasts’: The Cathach of Inniscathaigh was defeated by St Sennan, and the Bruckee was supposedly defeated at Rath Blatmaic in Co. Clare by St MacCreehy. St Caomhin (Kevin) was supposed to have defeated a beast who lived at Glendalough. The 6thC Saint Patrick, was – like the earlier Fianna – also apocryphally famous for casting ‘snakes’ out of Ireland. Such beasts were often implied to be female in Christian tales: The hagiography of St Senán – Amra Senáin – from the Leaba Brecc manuscript (RIA MS 23 P 16), is quite explicit about the Cathach’s sex. Such tales seem designed to identify beasts, serpents or dragons with the true indigenous religion they were replacing. These saints appear, therefore, to have subsumed the role of Fionn as dragon-slayers!

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier...

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier…

In christian-era art, the dragon was a recurring theme: The beautiful 13thC Crozier of Cashel (manufactured in or near Limoges, France) depicts an act of serpent-battling, and the hook of the crozier itself depicts a great snake. Another great jewel of medieval Ireland – the Tara Brooch – is decorated with a pin in the shape of tiny serpent, which appears to gnaw upon the jewel’s main body. In spite of the apparent absence of the species Serpentae among Ireland’s native fauna, the ‘serpent’ was, from early times, a well-known symbol in Ireland, as elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Why should this be so?

The 'Tara Brooch' c.700AD.

The ‘Tara Brooch’ c.700AD.

Morphologically, the connection of péists to rivers is easily explained by the serpentine appearance of such streams of water, but Ireland’s interest with serpents doesn’t stop there. In fact, it wasn’t just snakes which might be considered in the class of ‘serpents’ to the ancient mind: Eels, earthworms and any number of wriggling larval creatures and amphibians gave the Irish a ready supply. However, the lack of exemplary reptiles often led to cats, boars, badgers etc taking on the traditional role of the monstrous adversary-guardian for the purposes of mythological tales.

"Why are Herons so-called? Easy to say: They are 'Heros' who kill serpents..." The Greek word for Hero is 'Heron'...

“Why are Herons so-called? Easy to say: They are ‘Heros’ who kill serpents…” The Greek word for Hero is ‘Heron’…

The origin the English word ‘reptile’ is from the ancient Greek class-designator herpeta (sing. herpeton), meaning ‘crawling or creeping animals’. The Latin word ‘serpo‘ (from which we get ‘serpent’) means the same. The study of reptiles and amphibians is thus known by the modern term ‘herpetology’. The ancient class herpeta or serpenta does not necessarily refer only to reptiles and amphibians, but any animal which had a close association with the ground. More specifically, the idea of a ‘serpent’ developed an empirical class-association with worms, maggots, larvae and even ‘serpentine’ fish such as eels – referred to generically by the Latin word vermis, from which the English ‘worm’ is derived. This concordance is indicated by the ancient association between snakes and the power of putrefaction, disease, and gnawing: It is the reason why rats, lice, cockroaches, caterpillars and mice might all be referred to as ‘vermin’. It the reason why ‘wyrm’ was a synonym for dragons as well as snakes in Old English and the Germanic languages, and why gnawing cutaneous fungal infections are still referred to by the English word ‘ringworm’.

The typical ‘péist’ of Irish hagiography – when attributed a sex – was more often than not female. The word péist is usually translated as ‘worm, beast, monster’ (O’Brien), and its variants are peist, piast and biast/biasd – generally employed in the spirit of the ancient Greek and Roman usages: for instance, the Otter was calledbiasd dubhor ‘biasd donn’ in reference to its snaky shape, movement and colour.

The Irish word péist derives from the Latin bestia, meaning ‘beast’. It also connects to the Latin word pestis, meaning either disease, plague, destruction, ruin or death! Other Latin synonyms for ‘beasts’ include ‘Belluae‘ (large fierce animals – possibly after the manner of bulls and stags) and ‘Ferae‘ (large fierce predatory animals). Belluae seems to evoke the idea of war (Bellum), perhaps because armies moved, ate, fought and crapped like a huge animal, and draconine banners and standards were a feature of warfare since ancient times – particularly among the Celtic tribes of SE Europe during the late Iron Age period. The boar replaced the dragon among the NW celts of the same period.

Interestingly, the name for the fungal skin disease ‘ringworm‘ in Middle Irish was ‘frigde’ and in Old Irish ‘frigit’, and in late spoken Manx it was ‘chennney jee‘ (‘teine dé‘, god’s fire – ignis sacer – possibly the dragon’s breath) which by a Joycean ‘commodius vicus of recirculation‘ brings us back to the word and concept of the dragon or the péist, and by a number of associations, to our chthonic mother-goddess, Brigit – she of the sacred flame and the hearth…

The connection between the hearth and the earth is an old one: For starters, the English words are both etymologically linked. It is a place where earth’s produce is burned or prepared to eat – committing it to the recycling forces of nature for another turn. Anciently (and up until fairly recently in many parts of Gaeldom), the domestic hearth was a pit in the ground, so it is no wonder that the hearth and the chthonic otherworld are linked! The hearth fire was a place associated with the spirits of ancestors, and therefore with what became known from the middle-ages as ‘elves’ or ‘fairies’. Dragons attributed with the ability of breathing fire were no doubt a part of this chthonic mythology…

Dragons in the Celtic Iron Age?

There is in fact no evidence to definitively confirm that Celtic peoples of the European Iron Age believed in ‘dragons’. The popular imagination is certainly fired by archaeologists’ descriptions of the ‘dragon scabbards’ (a term popularised by Megaw & Megaw) of the elite Celtic warriors who were so instrumental in warfare during the Hellenistic and late Roman Republican periods. These all have the appearance of serpents or snakes – hardly the chimerical hybrid-forms of ‘dragons’ as we know them, with their aquiline talons, equine heads and wings. Celtic ‘La Tene’ art certainly added a ‘serpentine’ twist to its depiction of all animals, but there are no examples ‘dragons’ in the medieval sense! It is generally accepted that these were later introductions by the migrating warlike Steppes cultures whose peoples and influences flowed into the eastern European parts of the late Roman Empire – Scyhtians, Alans and Huns being examples of such groups. ‘Dragons’ were actually not a ‘Celtic’ phenomenon, but were certainly an influential narrative vehicle used in dealing with pagan themes during Europe’s Christian literary era in the middle-ages. The Viking Edda texts bear witness to this…

Celtic Belenos and Balto-Slavic Veles

There is a certain difficulty encountered in equating ‘Celtic’ with ‘Slavic’ gods, particularly because the two ethno-cultural denominations are largely historically and archaeologically independent. A similar problem – perhaps more political – arises from the distinction between ‘Balts’ and ‘Slavs’. Some of the interpretation of the paleology and ethnology of the lands of the peoples who today call themselves ‘Balts‘ and ‘Slavs’ is still coloured by 19th and 20thC academic work beset with ideological political bias framed through artificial ethno-nationalist constructs. These were largely designed to support a federalised atheist communist Empire whose western borders desired such a buttress against western European identity. Nonetheless, in the era of the European Iron-Age, there was much more in common and the cultures and religious practices of peoples of this region would have been less determinately ‘Slavic’ or even ‘Germanic’ as the terms would be understood today…

Perun and Veles - aspects of the 'Thracian Horseman' and 'Phrygian Sabazios'?

Croatian depiction of ?Perun and Veles – it demonstrates aspects of the ‘Thracian Horseman’ and ‘Phrygian Sabazios’

Although the pagan mythology of the Slavs is known to us from relatively late (medieval) accounts congruent with some of the pagan Scandinavian cultures, it contains a number of important characters for whom there is reasonable evidence to posit a link to western Europe’s older system of deities. The 12thC ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus mentions Volos and Perun as the principle gods worshipped by Slavs and Russ before their late conversion during the Viking era:

“…Thus tsars Leo and Alexander made peace with Oleg. After agreeing upon the tribute, they bound themselves by mutual oaths. The tsars kissed the cross, while Oleg and his men took oaths in accordance with Russian law, swearing by their weapons and by their god Perun as well as by Volos, the god of cattle…” (trans. Samuel Cross)

The same Oleg is recorded as visiting sorcerors – the word for which is given as Volkhi. These tell him that he must abandon his favourite horse as it will cause his death, which he assents to and turns it to pasture. The story given is that he then goes to visit it and is told it died, and on visiting its bones a snake emerges from its skull and bites him, causing his death… The relationship between Volkhi, the Scandinavian Volva and the god Volos might be worth mulling over!

Another reference in the Chronicle to Volos and Perun (again in relation to oaths) is a record of a treaty and oath given by the pagan prince Svyatoslav of allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

Interestingly, Cross translates ‘may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe’ implying the original sense was a singular god with two aspects: Perun and Volos. In fact, later folklore frequently conflates attributes of the two, suggesting this sense may be true.

Baltic Veles:

Marija Gimbutas examined the surviving 19thC Lithuanian and Latvian folklore attached to the spirits of the dead, who were there referred to as vėlės and to whom was attached a ‘leader’ known as Vélnias, Vélinas, or Véls – also used as a synonym for ‘devil’. In fact, an early dictionary of Lithuanian written by an ecclesiastic (Dictionarium Trium Linguarum by Konstanty Szyrwid, 1629) equates Velnias with ‘Piktis‘, another Baltic god-name associated with the ‘devil’, also known as ‘Pikùlas‘, ‘Peckols’ (Prussia) and ‘Patollo‘. These might be an example of the curious and widespread ‘Puck‘ hypostasis, possibly associated with local versions of Perun-Pirkons. The folkloric Vélnias was – like Odin/Wotan – one-eyed and led the troops of vėlės across the skies, causing storms and whirlwinds. He – like Veles – was also linked to herds. The vėlės themselves were – like Gaelic fairies – seen to troop between cemeteries and along their own special ‘paths’. Vélinas was explicitly a god of the hosts of the dead. Gimbutas notes the prevalence of placenames incorporating the name Vélnias that relate to bogs, pools, rivers, fields and forest clearings, suggesting the importance of such places to the local Otherworld mythology.

‘Velchanos’ in Crete:

The ancient Cretan/Minoan god Velchanos has been suggested as the origin for the Roman ‘Vulcan’. The Veles-Perun hypostasis mentioned in the Primary Chronicle of the Kievan Rus seems like it could link to this, particularly if the Weland link is correct. In Crete, he was also known as Zeus-Velchanos. The Latin words for thunderbolt, fulmen and fulgur, seem to have close etymological links to the Vul- prefix of the name Vulcan.

‘Vayl’ in the Isle of Man:

Vaayl‘ or ‘Vael occurs commonly in the Isle of Man (situated between Britain and Ireland) as a local word for ‘Michael’ (the thunder-voiced military archangel, leader of the heavenly hosts). For instance, there is a pagan burial mound referred to as ‘Carn Vael’, situated near the coastal village of Kirk Michael (Keeill Vaayl) – home to some of the syncretic Christian-pagan-era stone crosses and monuments. It is entirely possible that this name was introduced by Baltic settlers in the Viking Age, although convention usually holds to majority being Norwegians. A custom common to Lithuania, Latvia and the Isle of Man was the rolling down hills of burning wheels at Beltain or Midsummer (Manx source: Harold ‘Dusty’ Miller ‘It’s a Fact’). I have discussed the connection between St Michael the Archangel and Belenos elsewhere…

Etymological concordances:

The most obvious etymological link to the Celtic god Belenos is the ‘V’ of ‘Volos’ – a letter seemingly interchangeable with ‘B’ in the ‘Indo-European’ languages. This would suggest Bolos or Beles as a reasonable pronunciation variant of the Slavic divinity. Other versions of the name seem also to appear to in the 9th/10thC CE Old High German ‘Second Meresburg Incantation’:

“… Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza. Du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit. Thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister; Thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister; Thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda: Sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki: Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, Lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin! … ““… Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods, and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained. So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it. And Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it. And Wodan conjured it, as well he could: Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain, so joint-sprain: Bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints, so may they be glued! … “

The names ‘Phol‘ and ‘Volla‘ (uolla, rhymed with uuolla = ‘well’) have sufficient similarity to be considered potentially related. Indeed, the English word for a young horse – ‘foal‘ – has in this context interesting connotations for the Iron Age Celtic coins’ equine/solar imagery, combined with the military sun-child head of Alexander they apparently used to represent Belenos. Going deeper into etymology, the Latin word for a lightly-armoured cavalry skirmisher (a notable form of Celto-Roman auxillary fighter) was Veles, no doubt having a link to the Roman word for warfare: Bellum. The horsemanship of the Dacians (Getae), Thracians, Macedonians and Anatolian peoples was legendary in ancient Europe. In fact, the religious iconography of the Thracian and Phrygian peoples was notable for their depiction of the dragon-slaying horseman figure who would later become incorporated in the image of St George the Dragonslayer, popular among the Slavs.

Another etymological and mythological link between Veles and the ancient ‘Germanic’ world is that to the ‘magical smith’, Weland/Wolund/Wayland/Volundr, who featured prominently in the folklore and legends common to a good number of ethnogeographical pagan cultures in ancient northern Europe. I have discussed the link between Volund, and ‘Vili’ of the Odinnic hypostasis in the Icelandic Eddas, and believe it is worth considering Slavic Veles in the same light.

Another example of this from the Baltic Lithuanians (one of the last European peoples to become officially Christianised in the 14/15thc CE) is the god or divinity called Teliavelis who was recorded in folklore as a ‘blacksmith god’, possibly identical with Vélinas. He has been compared to the Finnic Kalevala god-hero Ilmarinen,and can be linked to the Slavic smith-god referred to as Svarog in the 15thC CE Hypatian Codex. This collection of monkish ephemera claims that Svarog was father of Dažbog (‘giving god’) or the sun – the two are usually thought of as separate. However, the Serbian folklore variant Dabog or Dajbog is sometimes known as Hromi Daba (‘Lame Daba’) and depicted as a distinctly chthonic/demonic character similar to Veles/Velnias, called ‘Shepherd of Wolves’. Lameness (an inability to walk upon the earth) is a trait common to European smith-gods.


Aside from the links to St George (from the ‘Thracian Horseman’), it is widely believed that Slavic Volos/Veles was used as the model for an early Christian saint, popular in the Orthodox Christian community, called Vlas, otherwise Blaise, or Vlasius. St Vlas (whose feast day is 12th February). He is popular in eastern Europe from Macedonia up to Russia, in which regions he has been associated with protection of cattle, in accordance with the Primary Chronicle account. Linda Ivanits (‘Russian Folk Belief’ Pub: Sharpe, New York 1989) notes the tradition of hanging icons of Vlas in cow biers.

like duality seems to explain the Slavic veneration along with George and Vlas all the more. To this observation must be added another: Given the tendency of Indo-European languages to ‘aspirate’ initial consonants, it is also interesting to note how ‘Veles’ can quite easily become a solar ‘Heles‘, implied in the Greek words ‘Helios‘ (a name held by Apollo, also called Phoebus) and, of course the country: ‘Hellas’. The fact that many mountaintop sanctuaries to the Greek god Helios (i.e. – the deified sun) later became dedicated to ‘St. Elias’ (‘the thunderer’), a Christianisation of the monotheism-promoting, Baal-denigrating Hebrew prophet Elijah, invoked by observant Jews at the advent of Sunday in the Havdalah ritual terminating the Shabbat. The Macedonian town with the theophoric name Veles is the site of one such shrine, but there are others. The connection with the sun, thunder and lightning suggests that Perun/Perkunas/Taranis was another aspect of the Veles/Vélinas/Belenos, both of whom took up places in Christianity as modified saints and the devil himself.

This old Serbian Dodola/Dodole (rainmaking) song illustrates the Elijah-Perun link:

Da zarosi sitna rosa,
oj dudula mili Bože!
Oj lija daj Bože daj!
Oj Ilija moj Perune!
Daj Bože daj, daj Ilija daj!
Let fine dew drizzle,
oh dudula dear God!
Oh Elijah give us, God, give!
Oh Elijah, my Perun/Thunder!
Give us, God, give, give, Elijah, give!

Dodola/Dodole was supposed to be Perun’s wife. She is sometimes viewed as a Slavic rain-goddess. The antagonism between Perun and Veles revolved around Perun’s wife being stolen – remember that all rivers were once believed to flow to the otherworld, and the connection between Velnias and water in Lithuania 😉 Elijah functions here quite obviously as the ‘bridging’ function, representing Helios (who travels daily to the underworld in his rotations)…


– Volos, Veles and Velnias were associated with both the Underworld (realm of the dead) and with herds and hosts, including the hosts of the dead. In the Baltic, Velnias was associated with bogs and pools of water – classic Celtic routes into the Otherworld.

– Veles was closely linked to the ‘thunder god’ Perun (Perkunas or Perkons in the Baltic states) who was a ‘polar antithesis’ of him, possibly representing the forces ‘above’: sky, lightning, the up-thrust of trees, particularly the Quercus or Oak (Try switching the ‘Q’ for ‘P’ after the insular celtic style…). The two were represented in a state of mutual antagonism in some Slavic mythology.

– Veles/Volos may be related to the Germanic smith-god Weland/Volundr. The 9thC second Meresburg charm relates to horses and mentions ‘Phol’ and ‘Volla’. ‘Teliavelis‘ was the name of a Baltic smith-god, and the Slavs had ‘Svarog’ in the same role. A possible association with horses is that smith-gods tended to be crippled, and hence would have used horses to move about. The concept of reincarnation is engendered in the art of smithcraft – a secret fiery re-forging in the otherworld.

– The etymological leap from Vel to Bel is so slight that it would be remiss not to consider a link to Belenos: himself possibly a chthonic war-god, similar to Roman Mars. Likewise the link between Vel and Hel (which would be an aspirated pronunciation of ‘Vel’).

St Latiaran of Cullen (Cuillinn)

Cullen or Cullin is a small village about four miles south of the Kerry border, near the town of Millstreet in the old Barony of Dulhallow, Co. Cork. It is home to an old ‘holy well’ dedicated to an Irish female saint known as ‘Latiaran’ or ‘Laitiaran’ (sometimes spelled ‘Lateerin’ in older english books), also known as ‘Laserian’. This last version has an interesting concordance with another supposed early male saint, associated with smithily-named St Gobban of Leighlin (Co. Carlow): This was his brother ‘St Molaise’ (St Molashog), also known as ‘St Laserian’. Whether hearking from Cullen or the bosom of Gobban, all of these saints have a curious set of accretions to do with blacksmiths. Latiaran herself is stranger still as she (and her sisters) do not seem to have an official place in Ireland’s various historic calendars of saints, and have all the trappings of Christianised aspects of a/the feminine triple-deity. 

The popular story about Laitiaran of Cullen, recorded by travellers there in the early 19thC was that the saint once lived in the village, from where she would regularly travel across the old bog-causeways to visit her two holy sisters. Such was her piety, she refused to keep her hearth-fire burning in continuity (a pagan custom/superstition), but would instead go daily to the blacksmith’s forge in the village to get a ‘seed’ for the fire, which she carried home in her apron or cloak, and which miraculously did not burn it. However, one day, she let her sanctity slip a little when the blacksmith complemented her on her shapely legs or feet, and a lapse into vanity caused her to take a peek and see if he was indeed right. The ember burned through her apron and singed her ankle, the result being that she cursed the smith, to the effect that ‘there never was a blacksmith in Cullin thereafter’.

This is yet another striking example of the christianisation of an important part of the original Gaelic pagan mythos. The name, Cuillin, is that of the legendary blacksmith from whom Cuchullain was named, and with whom I have suggested a strong etymological and legendary link to the Germanic character Weland/Wayland. The imposition of a female saint into such a tale involving this character is also seen at Slieve Gullion in Armagh. You might recall the the pagan Brighid was associated with ‘smithcraft’. But what more about ‘Lateerin’?

She is one of three regional sister-saints : Laiser, Inghean Buidhe and Latiaran, sometimes also given as Craobh/Crobh Dearg, Latiaran, and Gobnait. Assuming craobh dearg is the original meaning, ‘red branch’ – something the local legends of Cullen would disapprove of! Gobnait’s name is redolent of gobban (blacksmith), and her feast day in the Martyrology of Oengus is 11th February (Imbolc). This is really fascinating. The mystery deepens when we realise that Latiarin’s pattern day was/is held at the well on July 25th, or the nearest Sunday (or both!) corresponding to the pagan festival of Lughnasa, as detailed in Maire MacNeil‘s amazing book, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’. The pattern of Ingean (or ‘Ineen’) Bhuidhe was (unsurprisingly) celebrated near the start of May at the local settlement at ‘Bull Ridge’ of Dromtariff, while that at the well of Cill Lasaer (who presumably is identical with Gobnait) was at the ‘start of spring’ (early February, Imbolc), and was held at Boherbue (Bóthar Buí = Yellow Road).  

The anglophone part of her name, ‘-teer-‘, appears to be from the Gaelic word saor/tsaoir, meaning ‘smith’ or ‘craftsman’, and ‘teerin’ could therefore quite conceivably signify the ‘smith’s daughter’. Laitiaran is the modern Irish orthographic spelling, which perhaps belies the name’s true origins as an attempt to obfuscate a piece of important Irish pagan lore… Astute readers might recognise that the names ‘Lasaer’ /’Lasair’ and ‘Lateer’ are pretty much the same, derived from the prefix ‘La-‘ and the Irish word for blacksmith – saor . Bui, is also a name of the Cailleach Bera in the famous ‘Lament’ poem, not to mention part of the name of Boherbue/Boherboy nearby.

This intrigued MacNeil deeply, although she did not make the linguistic association of ‘Latiaran’ with blacksmiths. She did however notice the possible connection between the triad of divine females and the passage from the Book of Leinster which describes Badb, Macha and Anand, from the last of whom it says the nearby Paps of Anu were named… She also wondered if the nearby Lughnasa hill of Taur might have been the lost ‘Tara’ of Munster, Teamhair Luachra. This theory is especially intriguing given the fire-kindling, Bealtaine associations of the other Royal Teamhair.

What are the other local links with blacksmiths and fire?

 The old Barony of Duhallow in northern Cork contains the aforementioned villages of Boherbue and Cullen, but is also notable for some of its other placenames such as Banteer, whose name contains an overt suggestion of ‘Female Smith’ (‘Bean tSaor’). In fact, County Cork itself has a fair share of legends regarding a famous hallowed Blacksmith-Builder-Craftsman, the Gobban Saor.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting a fairy woman at a fountain:

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

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

The ‘Wizard-King’:

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

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

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

The ‘Grail’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Gaelic Polytheism? (Opening a can of worms)

It has become conventional to believe that the Gaels practised a polytheistic form of religion which was partly subsumed or wholly supplanted by Christianity at the coming of St Patrick. However, there are a number of problems with such an interpretation that I would like to address.

Firstly, the contemporary sources we have about actual pagan practises in Ireland are almost non-existent, and most of what we know was written long after the establishment of the new religion. The massive efforts to convert the 4thC Roman Empire from fragmenting polytheism to ‘one-over-all’, top-down theocratic rule started with Emperor Constantine I and his immediate successors. This relied upon propaganda and arguments produced by Christian scholars and apologists operating within the polytheist Mediterranean regions of the empire over the preceding 200 years, and which functioned as a model, a ‘manual’ and a ‘road map’ for propagating Roman christianity across the reaches of its contracting Empire and – in the case of Ireland, way beyond. The spread of Christianity was achieved not by proselytizing rhetoric, but by the conversion and alliance of the church with tribal leaders and their elite inner circles. Once this was complete, the worldview of these rulers’ subjects needed to be changed by coercion, propaganda and cultural revisionism. Bearing in mind that we know that early Irish Christian missionaries travelled to the continent and to Rome to receive their instruction, we must consider how the euhemerist ‘continental’ model for replacing polytheism (operating in earnest from the time of the Emperor Theodosius onwards) influenced their reinvention of the pagan past in order to swing people to christianity. The implication that the Tuatha Dé Danann (as opposed to the síd) were believed in as gods should therefore be viewed with suspicion: The ‘Tuatha’ begin to appear in middle-medieval literature presented variously as former gods, ancestors and historic personages (albeit with a very otherworldly countenance) – much in the same way that continental Christians portrayed pagan gods as deified historic humans in order to demote them. They may well have been created as part of a ‘continental schema’ for imposing Christianity.

Secondly, the conversion of Ireland apparently occurred with surprising ease in a country that had showed little signs of being culturally Romanised. This begs the interpretation that the new religion was therefore possibly not such a titanic shift in worldview as it appeared to have been on the continent. In fact it could even have been considered a ‘paradigm-shift’ or evolution of a system to which it had certain similarities, rather than a wholesale replacement of a complicated pantheon. It certainly ‘hit the floor running’, allowing the Irish to lead with confidence in the christianisation and re-christianisation of the rest of northern Europe. If there had been a hugely ‘other’ and complex polytheistic religion in operation this might not have been so easy, especially as Ireland (so far as we know) didn’t have a religious system that – like that at the heart of the Roman empire – underwent an ‘intellectual gravitational collapse’ after absorbing too many external beliefs. Irish legends in the medieval corpus of texts frequently allude to the pagan Irish prefiguring the coming of christianity, a feature I am not aware of from other cultures.

Thirdly, there is little evidence from folk-tales and traditions supporting the theory of the Tuatha Dé Danann being the former gods. The interpretation of a passage in the presumed 5th-6thC ‘Hymn of Fiacc’ (considered to be an early primary source) may account for this:

On the land of Erin there was darkness;
The Tuatha (Peoples) adored the síd;
They believed not
In the true Deity of the true Trinity.

What exactly the síd are or were is complicated and has no satisfactory resolution from the study of  medieval literature alone. The name was later used for burial and ceremonial mounds, fairy mansions and for the fairies themselves. The TDD were ascribed síd-mounds as homes in the later written myths.

Story traditions from Ireland, Scotland and Mann, often focus on An Cailleach, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Manannan and various other giants and spirits who take on some spectacular and god-like properties in mythological accounts. These are joined by legends of their Christian successors – the saints with their often fantastical and god-like properties. Although there is ample archaeological evidence of supra-regional worldview homogeneity since the Neolithic era, the placenames with pagan origin do not back up the theory that the Tuatha Dé Danann were the gods of the Gael. Where we do have surviving traditions of gods, the most notable is Manannán mac Lir who even today is known to Manx people as ‘their’ god. Medieval literary references to the mysterious gods or idols Crom Cruach or Cenn Croithi (both sounding like epithets rather than proper names) and later folkloric ones to Crom Dubh seem to have little relevance to the literary Tuatha Dé Danann traditions, which monks and/or Christian filidh seemed to use in their suspiciously euhemerist historical revision of paganism. These names (Crom Cruach etc) are linked to assemblies at land-loci: particular plains/fields, or hilltop locations.

SO… if there is a chance that the Gaels were not polytheists, then what were they? The resolution of this question necessarily takes us back to understanding what paganism in general was, and the following is my own personal definition:

Paganism is an allegorical system of spiritual and material philosophy informing the art of survival in a given environment, expressed and transmitted through the mnemonic and dialectic mediums of story, song, aphorism, art and dramatic performance.

If Caesar’s Gallic and British Druids were matched by the magi of the Irish, then  philosophy might be the core value at the heart of the religion, an opinion expressed by the writer on philosophers Diogenes Laertius closer to the time of Ireland’s Christian epiphany. Philosophy was to the ancient world what ‘science’ is to the modern: a technical system that described the universe in both material and allegorical/spiritual terms. Philosophy sought to delineate the indescribable, and the arts provided a non-didactic ‘fuzzy’ medium with which higher truths could be defined without the inevitable destruction that occurs with explicitness. The written word tends to ‘fix’ concepts that are otherwise plastic and ever-changing, thus limiting its conceptual usefulness in establishing doctrines. The Mediterranean approach was to assign a god or spirit to these phenomena and to make statuary images of them which expressed this nature. They also tended to write about them. Both processes produced fixed images of ‘gods’ and created the polytheistic pantheon we know so well. However, the pre-Roman Atlantic Europeans apparently shunned this approach. Their devotion was to images and wordly things (‘idola* et inmunda’) according to Patrick himself (Confessio). (*The definition of ‘idola’ being debateable, as it is a latin usage of a greek word ‘eidola’ meaning ‘image’ orapparition‘ and not necessarily meaning ‘idol’ as in ‘statue or graven image’.)

We have to somehow reconcile the folkloric remainders of what appears to be original practical aspects of Gaelic or Atlantic paganism (with its strong traditions about fairies and their leaders, second sight and the ‘evil eye’) with the literary accounts of the middle ages and evidence from archaeology, place names etc. Analysis of the propaganda techniques used to replace the traditions of the old system has revealed a veritable smorgasbord of euhemerisation, demotion, transformation, canonisation/sanctification and demonization permeating the Christian-era literature and folklore of Europe, making a recovery of the reality of the old pagan system through literature and folklore a difficult but always rewarding task.

Returning to my second point above – the apparent rapidity of conversion – it is worth lingering over the prefigurative literature which alludes to some form of continuity between the pagan and christian systems: The hagiographic legends of Patrick from the Book of Armagh and middle Irish tales such as Altrom Tige Dá Medar (from the Book of Fermoy) state that the way was laid for christianity when the druids prophesised a new order before Patrick arrived, or – in the case of ATDM, Manannán himself is the prophet! Charles MacQuarrie (‘The Waves of Manannan’) makes the case for this god as a pagan exemplar of the Bible’s Yahweh/Jehovah, albeit with a perhaps milder and more sympathetic and less judgemental disposition!

In the Isle of Man, where Manannán is still portrayed as a former king and ancestor as well as an actual current popular god we can see how this process reached its important and unfinished conclusion.

So why choose this overlord of the blessed Isles as the ‘next best’ as an exemplar to the christian god? In Altrom Tige Dá Medar he is cast as overlord of the Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) whose orders they unquestioningly follow. In spite of this, it is actually quite difficult to include him as a member of the TDD, as he seems to stand apart from them in so many ways. That he should have been chosen for such an explicit euhemerisation in Cormac’s glossary and on the Isle of Man suggests a prominence and equivalence that goes beyond that of the TDD. That a belief in him as lord of the fairy otherworld persisted in folk tradition, along with the strong otherworld ‘fairy’ and ‘second sight’ beliefs I have discussed previously, and the recurring theme of a landscape-associated ‘fairy queen’ suggests that these may well have been core parts of Gaelic paganism.

In the Isle of Man, Manannán is ascribed an immanent presence on the summit of the mountain known as South Barrule, where an ancient hilltop enclosure (‘Cashtal Manannan‘) filled with circular stone ‘beds’ or ‘hut circles’ used to be employed by trysting couples at the festival of Luanys (Lunása – 1st August) as a site for proving love, lust and fertility. The mists which frequently crown the mountain as well as shrouding the whole Island are commonly referred to by most locals as ‘Manannan’s Cloak’. It is somewhat surprising then, that there are comparatively few other places in the Isle of Man named after the god, unless you accept that the whole island itself is eponymous with him.

   Perhaps more interesting are the sneaky profusion of ancient place-names here in this special place that allude to a character of Gaelic folklore with a much more typically immanent presence and connection with the creation and husbandry of the landscape – the Cailleach (Manx: Caillagh) and her various incarnations and epithets as the Fairy Queen. From the hill of ‘Cronk y Berry’ (Eng: Hillberry, Ir: Cnoc Bheara) to the promontory of Gob ny Cally in Maughold and the ancient farm estate of Ballacallin in German the island is peppered with places whose names evoke the giant magical female characters also found in Irish and Scots as well as Welsh mythology, albeit often in ancient and corrupted forms: ‘Chibbyr Unya’ (Aine’s Well), the parish of Santan (‘Saint Anne’ = ‘Seatainne’), ‘Lhing Berrey Dhone’ (‘Pool of Ox-Bheara’, Maughold – there is an ancient Manx folksong about an Ox-stealing ‘witch’, in which it appears that the word Donn has been corrupted. She butchered the Ox in this pool by tradition). There is a ‘Caillagh’s (‘Nun’s’) Chair’ coastal feature on the MArine Drive side of Douglas Head, quite close to a mysterious cliff-cave (now bricked up). The ancient originally Brigitine nunnery of Douglas Priory lies in the shadow of the hill – a continuation of the goddess worship in a pagan guise… Another cave known as ‘Lag Eevl’ (after the Irish Fairy Queen, Aoibheal) in Kirk German, and the hill facing Cronk y Berry known as ‘Cronk y Vill’ or ‘Honey Hill’ have a similar provenance. Add to this the similarly-named hills of ‘Ardwhallin’ (pron. ‘Ardcwhullin’) and the mount of Slieu Whallian (‘Slieve Chullain’) which sits above the Tynwald assembly site and you soon get the idea that Manannan’s presence as an immanent former deity of the island might need to be challenged! The Caillagh was believed to be the Sibyl of the Island and was remembered in recorded folk traditions as late of the 20thC as the source of many prophecies, including one prefiguring the TT Races (which charge deosil around the Island’s central spine of hills). Manannan’s Cloak may once (from the profusion of places named after her) have been the ‘Veil of the Cailleach’…

All this has left me considering if the Gaelic pagan religion was in fact effectively dualistic and ancestor-based? My conclusion is that Manannán was the masculine (solar) polarity who presided over the spiritual Otherworld and the future, terminally and cyclically estranged from the Cailleach who was the elemental ancestress-Creatrix whose body is the earth/elements itself, renewed in the annual cycle. Manannán is a Sun god, NOT a Sea god! There is much circumstantial evidence to support this proposition – in fact, so much more than supports a polytheist interpretation that I find it hard to place a pantheon, except as a philosophical ‘exploding’ of the interactions of these two fundamental characters of Gaelic (and Brythonic) traditions (after the model of Plato’s Timaeus, which I will post on soon). From the Second Sight and Otherworld traditions explained by Robert Kirk, Martin Martin etc to the ancestral-creation myths involving the Cailleach and fairy queen(s) of Ireland and the various half-human wild spirits such as Brownie, Fionn, Phynodderee and Cuchullain, all point towards a binary interpretative system that does not in any way efface with a Tuatha Dé Danann ‘pantheon’.

Bronze Age roots of European Paganism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Kentigern – a christianised pagan tale?

Kentigern, often known as Mungo, was a saint of the early medieval Christian church who was supposed to have lived in the 6th century and to have been responsible for christianising the ancient Cumbric British Kingdom of Strathclyde, now a part of Scotland.

The region of Strathclyde forms the southern gateway to the Scottish Highlands, and is formed by the plains and foothills surrounding the great River Clyde which discharges into the Irish Sea, and was therefore an important region in the historic interplay between the various cultures of this region during the first millennium, including the peoples of the Scottic Dalriada provinces, Gallovidians, Picts, Cumbrians and peoples of Rheged and later the Anglians and Norse settlers. Its capital city of Glasgu (Glasgow) was supposedly founded by Mungo.

Most of what we know of him is dependent upon the hagiographic writing of the great 12thC Cistercian Abbott, Jocelyn of Furness, who was instrumental in assisting with the mission of the continental (Norman) church to establish dominance and the episcopal system in the northwest Atlantic provinces and who translated Gaelic hagiographical traditions into latinate ones to suit the new ‘Anglo’-Norman world. Jocelyn provided new saints’ lives for Patrick (who supposedly originated in Strathclyde) as well as Mungo/Kentigern. His patrons for the work on Patrick were John de Courcy, and probably also his ally – the King of Mann and the Isles, Godred Olafsson whose sister Auffrica had married de Courcy, and who had assisted in the Norman lord’s conquest of Ulster and the subsequent consolidation of Ireland’s religious power under a post-Gregorian reformed episcopacy. For the work on Kentigern, his sponsor was the Norman Abbott Jocelyn of Melrose who was also Bishop of Glasgow, Strathclyde’s principle town.

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern starts with an apology for the problems he encounters in interpreting the various gaelic language traditions of the saint he a had gathered in order to flesh out a text already being developed by the bishop of Glasgow. The stories he gathered were mainly from Strathclyde and from St Asaph’s in Wales: all important ports, along with Furness, in the Irish Sea region. Many of these tales he implies were improper and contained too many elements of heathenism, ‘contrary to certain doctrine and catholic faith’ to use the narrators own words. In fact, it is fairly clear from reading the Furness monk’s work that there is plenty of pagan material still within it, as well as much promoting the other seats of the new continental religious power and spirit of the Gregorian Reforms of church probity and religious rigor that underpinned the Cistercian worldview of the 12th and 13th centuries. His aim was obviously to rid the tale of aspects of what he perceived as syncretic heathenism in the Gaelic forms of Kentigern’s life so as ‘to season with Roman salt what had been ploughed by barbarians’.

Before I embark upon my commentary of the pagan aspects of this legendary text, I urge readers to take a look at a recent translation of the work by Cynthia Whiddon Green.

The first aspect I’d like to examine is the ‘origin story’: This is one of a fallen and rejected heathen woman Thaneu – fallen both in Jocelyn’s medieval Christian moral sense and fallen also in the physical sense that she was apparently thrown off a cliff at the top of Traprain Law in Lothian. The tale mirrors the biblical narrative of the Cistercians’ favourite ‘mother goddess’ – Mary,  with Mungo’s mother pregnant through an illicit extra-marital union with a nebulous and unspecified paternal donor. For such a ‘crime’ her father, the King of Lothian, has her thrown off a crag on Dumpelder (Traprain Law) but she is carried softly down to the ground, as if by wings. She is then cast adrift in the ocean in a coracle – her fate dependent upon the spirit of the seas. It so happens she drifts ashore near to an early Christian centre of learning run by St Servanus/Serf, and she builds a fire for herself on the shore and gives birth to a boy – Mungo – before being discovered by the monks.

Those astute in the folklore originating from Atlantic paganism will recognise that these motifs are to be found in many of the ‘syncretic’ literary and folktales that survive from Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc. Conception by spirits of magical children, the leapss and falls of giants, the casting adrift of sacred children and female personages who come ashore to figuratively give birth. The narrative is one based in the seasonal drama, and passage of the sun across the sky.  The female character (Thanue) is the Earth Goddess and the male (Mungo) represents the Sun/Son – in the story, the Sun is born out of the land in the east and travels west towards the Atlantic ocean into Strathclyde. The theme of a magical character washing ashore occurs in the Isle of Man’s Caillagh y Groamagh legend attached to Bridget’s day or Imbolc as it is sometimes known. The same theme is used in the Bethu Brigdhe hagiography of Bridget which mentions the bandit-turned-saint Machaldus (Maughold) being cast into the sea and washing up in the Isle of Man. Thanue is therefore a character replacing Bride-Aine, but what of her son?

The fact that Mungo enters his floruit (recorded life) from the sea and spends an awful lot of time in water and controlling water during the rest of his hagiography is highly suggested of the solar deity motif, identifying him with reasonable certainty as a hypostasis for the shining god Manannan who strides so actually godlike among the lesser characters of many of the euhemerist legends of medieval Irish literature and later folk tradition.  Even his name seems to refer to ‘Man’ in the form of ‘Mun’, just like Mongan mac Fiachna in the Irish Manannan legends. Mungo = Manannan.

Christian narratives did their best to replace the dualist Atlantic god and goddess with a masculine counterpart, particularly after the Brigitine church period, so Mungo subsumes the roles of both in the rest of the Vita. Here is a list of some of the features of Jocelyn’s tale which illustrate the pagan legends he was trying to weave in:

1. He emerges from the sea and has power over the waters.

2. He has the power to resurrect (e.g. – the little ‘red bird’ of St Serf – either a Robin or a Wren).

3. He has a magical branch (hazel or holly – the gaelic names can be confused) with which he keeps Serf’s eternal holy flames burning.

4. He resurrects a man who describes being conveyed back from the afterlife by a man of shining fiery light.

5. He conveys the dead to their resting place (the bullock cart is an interesting celestial motif)

7. Like the Cailleach of highland legend, while living as a ‘Culdee’ he exerts control over flocks of deer and wolves, who he treats like cattle, and hitches to his plough.

8. He spends an inordinate amount of time dousing himself in water and radiating holy light. When others are asleep he is awake praying – the Otherworld Inversion.

9. He disappears from the world in winter to fast. His food is the underground parts of dormant plants.

10. He sleeps in a stone sarcophagus and wears goat skins. There are a number of references to paganism in medieval and later literature which attest to ‘saints’ or spirits living in stone sarcophagi covered in water. Brownie/Phynnodderee/Glastig was a hairy half-human.

11. He is associated with a magical white boar, a special ram, and bullocks.

12. He finds a ring in the belly of a salmon. This motif also occurs in a number of traditional ‘fairy tales’ and medieval irish otherworld literature. For example, the Irish legend of Macaldus, the English fairy tale ‘The Fish and the Ring’ and the Irish Tain Bo Fraich. The Salmon returning is a motif of the returning year and the ring also – the goddess name Aine signifies a ring as well.

There are quite a few more referenes which emerge upon careful study of Jocelyn’s work, but these are the most important! Read the text and see what you think…

Otherworld themes in “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne”

The Middle-Irish prose tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (‘The Dream-vision of MacConglinne’) is supposed – by the style of its language and themes – to have been composed and written in the late 11th or early 12th century. Two versions of it have survived to the modern day – one (‘B’ recenscion) in the 15thC manuscript collection known as An Leabhar Breac (‘The Speckled Book’ – RIA MS 1230) and the other in the manuscript TCD MS 1337 (‘H’ recescion).

You can read a translation of it here.

Set during the 8th century, it is styled in the form of a somewhat satirical prose-tale interspersed with poetic verses, and revolves around the power of a ‘dream vision’ (Aislinge) to sway the fate of the hero of the plot – a scholastic Armagh monk by the name of Aniér Mac Conglinne, saving his life and saving the kingdoms of the South of Ireland by exorcising their High King, Cathal mac Finguine of a ‘Lon Cráis’ (sometimes translated perhaps erroneously as ‘demon of gluttony’) that had taken up residence in him.

The story contains a number of highly amusing and incisive aspects to its narrative. The first introduces the humourous, energetic, ever-fasting and hungry monastic hero-adventurer whose destiny is to save King Cathal and his subjects from their greedy and sinful ways. So eager and restless is he in his mission that he runs from Armagh to Cork in the space of a day or so. Upon arriving at the monastic hostel in Cork he finds their Benedictine christian values of hospitality severely wanting and sets about causing an annoyance to advertise this fact. This mortally upsets the monks who report his activities and (worse) his biting satires to Abbott Manchín who demands his arrest and has him tortured and prepared for execution. MacConglinne goes willingly to his fate, seeking to demonstrate his piety to the monks by way of example. This part of the tale is obviously an exemplar of the popular spirit of the late 11th and early 12th century ‘Gregorian Reforms’ of church probity and the monastic orders. which led to the explosion of new and disciplined monastic institutions. The character of MacConglinne – being a monk from Armagh who wears a white habit – is obviously designed to represent a forerunner of Malachy of Armagh who promoted the reformed Cistercian Order during the era of the tale’s apparent authorship. This allows him to hold no punches in castigating the lazy, fat, greedy and cruel monks of Cork and refer to them as ‘shit-hounds’ among other choice and amusing epithets!

The most amazing and amusing aspect of the tale comes when the starved MacConglinne is tied to a pillar-stone to await his execution and in delirious depths of his abject suffering and hunger, he is visited by an angel or spirit who grants him a vision of a land made of and peopled by food!

The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
New butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house. (Trans. Kuno Meyer, 1892)

When the abbott arrives to see him executed the next day, MacConglinne relates his vision and the abbott and monks have second thoughts and refer him to King Cathal, believing that he may be tasked by god into casting out the King’s Lon Cráis. This ‘demon’ has made the King into a man who only takes food from his vassals and never distributes it, giving him an insatiable hunger.

MacConglinne dons the garb of a poet-juggler and arrives at the court of a local petty-king whom Cathal is visiting. He impresses his way in with his antics and satires and gains an audience with the king and promises to cure him, after relating his vision of a land of food. The king is so impressed by his abilities and religious piety that he begins tossing him apples (having given food to no man for many years) which the hero gladly eats, and this obviously causes MacConglinne’s powers to sally forth even further! He convinces the whole court (including Cathal) to fast overnight, and in the morning has Cathal bound with ropes and orders the most sumptuous foods be prepared which he then taunts him with while reciting a tale he himself has composed which embellishes upon the themes of his vision.

His new tale involves him being approached by a Scál (usually interpreted as a ‘phantom’, but in Irish tales always referring to an otherworld being who tests and/or instructs a hero). The scál sees he is sick with hunger and disease (or ‘original sin’) and instructs him to find (in the land of food) a magical healer or ‘fairy doctor’, known in Middle Irish as a fáthliaig (an archaic term meaning ‘vision-healer’ which survived into 19thC Manx Gaelic in the word fallog’). In MacConglinne’s telling, the fáthliaig advises him that he is sick, evoking a description of him suffering from a spiritual (and physical) inversion of King Cathal’s own predicament (which also reflected the poor traditional values of hospitatlity the monk had found in the South). This is typical of shamanic practice – the figurative/spiritual assumption of the sufferer’s disease by the healer in a dream-vision in order to combat it:

‘‘Pray for me!’ said I to him.’

‘‘In the name of cheese!’ said he to me. ‘Evil is the limp look of thy face,’ said the Wizard Doctor. ‘Alas! it is the look of disease. Thy hands are yellow, thy lips are spotted, thine eyes are grey. Thy sinews have relaxed, they have risen over thy eyes and over thy flesh, and over thy joints and nails. The three women have attacked thee, scarcity and death and famine, with sharp beaks of hunger. An eye that sains not has regarded thee.

The fáthliaig‘s prescription is, again, humorous – MacConGlinne must eat the finest foods, and be tended to by a beautiful woman while reclining upon soft animal skins in front of a roaring fire!  There follows a recitation of the delightful foods he must be fed which so inflames the ‘Lon Cráis’ in Cathal’s throat that it jumps out and hides under a cauldron in the fireplace, at which point after MacConglinne offers thanks to God and Brigit!

So… what is a Lon Cráis? There are repeated references in Gaelic folklore to a creature – often a type of lizard or newt – which can enter the mouths and throats of the unwary and cause a great unsatiated hunger or thirst. In Gaelic Scotland, Robert Kirk (17thC) spoke of possession by the spirit of a ‘great eater’. This was explicitly called the Lon Craois during the 19th century (see JG Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.2 p.366), and in Ulster and the Isle of Man the English term for it was ‘Man-Creeper’. In both cases the cure was to tempt it out with delicious food (as with Cathal) or to eat salt and lie near a well with your mouth open (Isle of Man). In both cases it appears that the condition refers to Diabetes Mellitus, where the blood is rick with sugar but the body’s cells cannot take it in. This results in dehydration, great hunger and thirst. Kuno Meyer (1892) preferred to translate the Lon as a ‘demon’, which in the context of the characters of the narrative and their beliefs seems a correct choice, even though he knew of the Scots Gaelic term. The term does not translate literally as ‘demon’ –Lon may be the otherwise attested word Lionn, which is the Irish word for ‘humor’, meaning one of the four classical/medieval humors of the body, and an imbalance of these was believed to be the mode through which disease (and moral failings) was supposed to operate. The OI/MI word Cráes means gluttony or hunger – the latter being invoked as ‘three women’ (an implicit Cailleach reference) by the vision’s seer-leech.


The ideas of food and gluttony are explicit themes around which this whole tale revolves. The implication is that the Monk of Armagh (MacConglinne, representing both Patrick and the hegemony of Continental christianity under Malachy and the Gregorian reforms) is spiritually proper in his fasting and starvation and that having plenty of physical food and not sharing it with the poor is a form of spiritual starvation. This is another ‘Otherworld Inversion’ similar to many pervading the spirituality of the Gaels or Atlantic peoples and which were deeply influential upon early European Christians. The Lon Cráis was an ‘otherworld’ force which transformed gluttony into hunger, and MacConglinne evokes an ‘otherworld’ vision of the world of this ‘creature’ (a world of food) in which he meets a ‘fairy doctor’ or ‘seer-leech’ who details his cure by having the hero invoke an inversion of Cathals’s disease upon himself so as to defeat the spirit by evocation and provocation. By causing the spirit to escape under the pressure of his bardic or poetic genius, he fulfils his original ambition to exceed his monastic limitations, and the cure is ultimately based in Atlantic otherworld doctrines, and not purely Christian:

It is clear from this text that the hero’s poetic creation of a world and narrative made of food is the force which expels the hungry spirit, not the Christian god who (along with Brigit) gets the credit at the conclusion.

As with all Middle Irish texts and stories, this tale is beset with contradictions between a pagan and a Christian narrative. The explicit connection between fasting and spiritual purity is made in the ancient Hebrew stories collected in the 5th and 4th centuries BC into the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually grew, and is common to many other ancient faiths. What is interesting is how the Atlantic/Gaelic view of the Otherworld and its interaction ‘through a mirror’ with ours influenced the Christian aspects of this narrative by providing a more rational idea of spiritual balance, largely lost from continental christianity in the cultural confusion of the post-Roman period….