Wayland Revisited: A Pan-European God?

The enigmatic fairy-smith ‘Wayland‘ is famed in the legends of the pagan north Europeans, particularly among the speakers of the Scandinavian and Germanic language groups. What is less understood is that his influence is far more widespread – from Ireland in the west, to Russia in the east, and down into the Balkans, whose old regional name almost invokes the god of smithcraft, goldsmithing, weapons and armour – a skill for which these regions (for example , Thracia) and the Eurasian Caucausus were famous for from at least the 5thC BCE. In this essay, I will try and explore and unfold the nature of this ancient pan-European (and Eurasian) conceptual mythological figure who seemed to have a foot in the worlds of both gods and men, and in so-doing unified peoples’ conceptions of their gods and their land. 

You can familiarise yourself with the ‘Lay of Volund’ here.

Germanic and Scandinavian Wayland:

The fairy-smith’s name has been encountered in a number of regional spelling-variants, including Wayland or Weyland (English) and Wêland (Old English), Völundr and Velent (Icelandic/Norse Poetic Edda and sagas), Wiolant (Old High German) and Gallant or Galans (France). In the medieval Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was spelled Guielandus.

His earliest most complete surviving legend is found in the Völundarkviða (‘Poem/Lay of Volund’) of the 13thC Icelandic ‘Poetic Edda’ texts, which were derived from older oral traditions transmitted through the Atlantic archipelago (mainly Britain and Ireland) from Scandinavia and the Baltic provinces – all then part of northern Europe’s most dynamic ocean trade route, connecting via the Volga and the Black Sea to Byzantium. In this telling he is described as a ‘prince of elves’ and ‘one of the elves’ skilled in crafting jewels, weapons and armour with magical qualities.

Wayland is recognisable from the tale of Völundarkviða on the on the images depicted on the 8thC ‘Franks Casket’, currently in the British Museum.

Wayland depicted on the front panel of the 8thC 'Franks Casket'.

The ‘Franks Casket’. The scene compares the heathen vision of Wayland (on the left) creating life from death with that of the Christian nativity. The two religious ideas were probably considered ‘one and the same’ to the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon peoples of the day.

The early 10thC Anglo-Saxon poem Deor (from the Exeter Book manuscript collection) refers to the details of the Völundarkviða story of Weland, also confirming this later telling was common in earlier Anglo-Saxon England. The fairy-smith is also mentioned (as ‘Weland’) in the 10thC  Old English epic poem, Beowulf, as the creator of the hero’s chest armour.

He appears as ‘Velent’ in a side-story to a 13thC Scandinavian retelling of the popular Germanic saga of the life of the Gothic hero-king Theoderic (Dietrich) the Great (Þiðrekssaga/Thidrekssaga). This is itself another version of the story in Völundarkviða albeit different in a number of minor details. For instance, it states that Wayland learned smithcraft under the tutelage of Mimer (possibly the same as Mimir, whose well is to be found among the cthonic roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil) and the dwarves. He presents himself at the court of the King, this time called Nithung, and kills the king’s blacksmith. For this, he is crippled by Nithung and enslaved.

In fact, Wayland is mentioned briefly in all manner of medieval north European texts as a creator of special jewels, weapons and armour. There are also locations throughout northern Europe named after him.

The ‘Celtic’ connection:

Perhaps the most fascinating and generally unrecognised mythological incarnation of Weland is from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ of Irish legends which were written down in Irish and Latin from the 7thC onwards, but emanated from older oral traditions. This is the smith-king Cuillean or ‘Guillean’ – creator of magical weapons and armour for Ulster kings and heroes, and namesake for the famous Irish hero Cuchullain. 19thC Irish mythographer Nicholas O’Kearney had this to say about him in the context of Ireland’s old gods:

“… Aine, or Aighne, as the name is sometimes written, was a being of
great note in the olden times, as may be seen from the evidences
which I shall adduce, and generally supposed to have been possessed
of extraordinary or supernatural powers, having an affinity to the at-
tributes of a Pagan deity. This Aine was the sister of Milucradh of
Sliabh Guillean, better known among the peasantry as the Cailleach
Biorar (i.e. the old woman who frequents the water) of Loch Dag-
ruadh, on that mountain, and daughter of Cuillean, or Guillean, from
whom the mountain is supposed to have derived its name. But
before any further notice is given of Aine, it is necessary to give a
short sketch of Guillean himself, in order to show his connexion with
the ancient mythology of Ireland, and lead to the inference that his
daughter, too, was connected with the Pagan worship of our ancestors.
Cuillean, or Guillean, himself was a very famous being that once re-
sided in the Isle of Man, and of so long-lived or mythic a nature, as
to be found living in all ages of Pagan history ; at all events he is re-
presented to have lived at the time when Conchubar Mac Nessa, after-
wards king of Ulster, was a young man, who possessed little pros-
pects of aggrandisement, except what he might win by his sword.
Conchubar, being of an ambitious and enterprising nature, consulted
the oracle of Clochor, and was informed that he should proceed to the
Isle of Man, and get Cuillean, or Guillean, a noted ceard, or worker
in iron, to make a sword, spear, and shield for him ; and that the
buadha (supernatural power) possessed by them would be instrumental
in gaining for him the sovereignty of Ulster… ” Nicholas O’Kearney, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 2, 1855 (p.32)

Although described in Irish legends as a blacksmith who creates magical weaponry, the connection between Cuillean and the germanic ‘Weland’ is not immediately apparent until you consider the tendency for the ‘Celtic’ languages of ‘lenition‘ (softening) or ‘fortition‘ (hardening) of initial and terminal consonantal sounds. I have discussed this connection previously here. This essentially means that ‘Cuillean’ was often pronounced ‘whallin’ or ‘wellin’ as occurs in the placenames associated with Cuillean in the Isle of Man, where his smithy was supposed in some Irish stories to have been located. In fact there are many more placenames in Ireland associated with Cuillean, although a bit of digging will probably find him in Scotland, Wales and England (where he is referred to as Wayland). If you employ a lenition of the primary consonant, and a fortition of the terminal consonant of the name ‘Cuillean’ you could phonetically pronounce it ‘Wolund‘. Probatum est!

It is of course possible that the character of Cuillean was introduced to the Irish poetic traditions during the Anglo-Saxon era, but this seems unlikely given that the Irish tales have little in common with the narrative of the 13thC Icelandic version of Völundarkviða, which we have fairly good reason to believe was the same myth known in 10thC England and was probably transmitted to Iceland via the ancient sea-routes between Norway, the Isle of Man and Dublin. Of course, this does not preclude the donation of the name of Weland to the myths of a legendary Irish blacksmith during this period of cultural interaction. Obviously, the most likely native character is Gobán Saor, an artificer-architect credited with building of many fabulous architectural structures, usually ecclesiastic. The word gobban actually means ‘blacksmith’, and the euhemerist Irish christians created a number of saints out of the character, known as ‘St Gobban’ or ‘Gobbanus’. As early christian churches were made of wood and stone rather than iron, the Gobán Saor remains a curious figure chosen to erect such structures…

It has also been suggested that the legendary Tuatha Dé Danaan blacksmith-hospitaller Goibniu is the same character, and he does indeed demonstrate the legendary attributes ascribed in the Germanic language legends to Wayland. The Gauls in the Roman period worshipped a god called Gobbanos as well as a hammer-wielding god known as Sucellus, although these may both be epithets of the same deity. The Romano-Britons appear to have incorporated the worship of Vulcan into native religious cults, and Scots and Hebridean folklore makes references to ‘Bolcan Smith’. Mad king Suibne (‘Sweeney’) of Irish folklore eventually settled in ‘Glenn Bolcain’. The ancient settlement of Govan, now a part of Glasgow’s metropolitan district, appears to be named after him and the official legends of their local saint,  Mungo (Kentigern) incorporate material from the Cuillean/Weland legends, as well as aspects of Greco-Roman legends of Hephaistos and Vulcan.

Of interest, Kentigern’s famous hagiography compiled by Jocelyn of Furness also borrows details of the tale of the flying wizard Merlin, also used by his friend and contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who latinised Wayland’s name as Guielandus.  Jocelyn used the flying wizard ‘Melinus’ as St Patrick’s adversary in the Isle of Man, redolent of King Suibne of Glen Bolcain, who also flew through the air. Lenition of ‘m’ to a ‘w’ sound is common in Gaelic (samhain = ‘sa-win’) so it can be seen how easily we go from ‘Melinus’ to ‘Welinus’. That crafty wizard – it would make sense for the name of the island where Geoffrey claimed King Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged – ‘Insula Avalonis’ – could have been derived from a corrupted form of the Gaelic ‘Hy Guiellean’ (pronounced close to ‘A Wulan’ – ‘Isle of Wayland’).

Just what Cuillean was doing in the Isle of Man was anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was sojourning with Manannan, that other great traveller between the worlds and donator of arms and armour…. The deeper you dig, the more intriguing the link becomes!

The Greco-Roman connection:

Greco-Roman culture had a very important influence upon many indigenous north European legends and traditions. Not only was this culture partially-transmitted and deliberately syncretised into the zones of Roman occupation in north Europe, but continued to be used among the literate latin scholars of the early christian church whose literary understanding of paganism was largely based upon Greek and Roman mythology. Given the persistence of much older written and artistic depictions of these gods from mediterranean Europe, it is easy to assume that the Europeans (late-comers as they were to the idea of writing and iconic imagery) borrowed from the southern traditions, but this is not necessarily the case! Many of the Greek and Roman gods and myths are equally likely to have diffused down from northern Europe during the Bronze Age.

One good example of a striking similarity between the legend of Wayland and that of Hephaistos (know to the Romans as Vulcan, and to the Etruscans as Sethlans or Velchanus) is that (apart from being blacksmiths) they are both imagined as being somehow deformed or disabled. In Weland’s case, he is hamstrung by his captors, and in the case of the Greek god, he is said variously to have been born lame, or is injured when he is thrown down from Olympos by Zeus, when he tries to defend his mother Hera (the motif which appears in the 12thC hagiography of St Kentigern). It is of note that in both cases, the crippling precludes re-admission to the world of the divine.

Both Weland and Hephaistos supply legendary heroes and gods with their weapons, armour and tools. Both are wily and cunning and trick and ensnare their adversaries. Both are exiled from their divine right, only to return in triumph. In some Greek myths, the god is liberated from his earthly exile and returned to heaven by Dionysos who places him astride an ass and leads him back to Olympos.


Attic vase painting ca. 5thC BCE. Crippled Hephaistos is led back to his mother Hera on Olympos by the god Dionysos, riding on an ass. Aficionados of Iron Age Celtic coins will recognise the ‘horse’ motif as significant. The myths of the Dioskoroi and Bellerophon also appear related. Note the similarity of the tongs to the ‘caduceus’ of Hermes…

Unlike Hephaistos however, Weland is more of an action-character and a warrior, but he also strides between the human and the spirit worlds. The Volundr Saga and the various known carvings of the Wayland legend on Anglo-Saxon and Viking age artifacts also focus upon his escape from the world of men either with a magical flying machine, upon a giant bird, or with a valkyrie. The ‘flight’ of Hephaistos, by comparison, is through the liberating agency of Dionysus, a famous loosener of the bonds between the earthly and the divine. Both represent a ‘shamanistic’ type of journey of self-discovery, implicit in the perfection of a craftsman. Freemasons take note!

The other Greek deity who travelled between the worlds and had the legendary attribution of being something of a trickster was of course Hermes, who also shared the affections of Aphrodite (and who didn’t?). Aphrodite (emotional love) herself was almost a counter-image of Athena (virgin intellect), and if Athena is the feminine principle of the uncreated idea, Hephaistos was the active principle of a creator. The complex interplay of their principles can nearly drive you mad!

Etruscan Velchans:

Also known as Sethlans, Velchans was the Etruscan progenitor of Roman Vulcan. Little is known about him, although it is likely he merged with Vulcan at some point, so what can be said of Vulcan might apply originally to Velchans. According to later Roman authors commenting upon the substratum of Etrurian religious culture important at the heart of Republican era Roman religion, he was both a god of fire (Vitruvius 1stC, BC) and lightning (Servius, 4thC CE). The Etruscan haruspices or diviners were keen observers of natural phenomena, and lightning was one of the most important and potent of these.

Bellerophon and the Dioskouroi:

Legendary ancient Greek hero, the mortal but ingenious Bellerephon (rider of Pegasus and slayer of the Chimera) is associated with a legend in which he attempts to fly to Mount Olympos on the winged horse Pegasus. Zeus sends a gadfly to bite Pegasus who unseats its rider who tumbles down into a thorn bush and lives out the rest of his earthly existence blind and crippled until Zeus decides to deify him. It will be noted that the constellation ‘Pegasus’ appears to be a falling horse, given its inverted appearance – yet another hint that many myths are star-myths related to the seasonal cycles. Yet again we see the heroic smith-god motif of a fall from grace, injury, and finally divine elevation

In the 10thC Byzantine stela on the Veroli Casket, he is apparently depicted as one of the twin equestrian heroes – the ‘Dioskoroi’, Castor and Polydeukes:

Veroli Casket - This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskuri.

Veroli Casket – This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskoroi. Note the cherub holding the ring or crown of divinity over the head of Bellerophon/Polydeukes

Bellerophon and Polydeukes represent the semi-divine gifted human, an assignation also common to Weland. The Dioskoroi were said to be children of the swan-maiden Leda, just as Weland was the wife of a swan-maiden (a valkyrie).

The Dioskouroi (literally ‘youth-gods’) seem to have been connected to the youthful cthonic deities of the Samothracian mysteries and those at Lemnos. These were the Kabeiroi, who share similarities with other Hellenised regional youthful groups of hero-deities, such as the Idaean DactylsKouretes and Corybantes. They all ultimately seem connected to the worship of a Great Mother Goddess. The Idaean Dactyls – like the Kabeiroi – were considered masters of smithcraft.

Although Bellerophon (whose cult originates in Corinth) is never explicitly linked to any of these youthful gods by ancient writers, it is evident that he fits their category of semi-divine culture hero. Such heroes are always (so the tales tell us) in need of a steed, weapons and armour in order to complete their quests, and the character of the smith is the enabler in all of these, and with time becomes conflated with the hero. The smith shoes the horses and forges the weapons.

Where the myths of Bellerophon and Pegasus have a striking similarity to those from the Celtic provinces whose saints’ legends (including those of St Patrick, Satan, St Maughold and St Milburga among others) sometimes have the the motif that their leaping horse creates springs of water when its hooves strike the soil. In ancient Greek myth, the hooves of Pegasus create the Hippocrene Well when they strike the rock of Mount Helikon.

Ericthonios of Athens:

Another character arising from the ancestor/hero-cult aspects of ancient Greek mythology is the Athenian progenitor Ericthonius. He was supposed to have had an autocthonous birth when smith-god Hephaistos spilled his semen upon the earth, during a failed attempt to rape Athena. This infers that Hephaistos had intercourse with Gaia and created the primary ancestor of Athenians. This appears to be why Athena (Minerva to the Romans) – a goddess of the mechanical creative arts – can be thought of as the divine reflex of Hephaistos’ earthly manifestation. Athena’s legendary creation was from the head of Zeus, indicating her (virgin) capacity of representing pure mind and technical creativity. Hephaistos represented the manifest earthly power behind that divine will – the passive spirit operating through active physical activity.

Ericthonios was also associated strongly with horses and the creative arts – he is said to have taught the yoking of horses, the smelting of silver, and to have invented the quadriga chariot, as well as teaching the art of ploughing. This makes him a local variant on the Korybantes/Kouretes/Dactyls traditions. He is represented among the constellations by the ‘charioteer’ constellation, Auriga, which (along with Perseus and Aries) lies west of Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus and Aquarius on the celestial ecliptic path. Other horse-related constellations in this vicinity of the sky include Equuleus and Saggitarius. Capricornus lies between both of these. Taurus is also near. The theme of heroes, monsters, horses and grazing horned animals among these constellations fits the ‘semantic field’ of the semi-divine ancestral hero myths very strongly: every city was built upon the achievements of rustic ancestors who wrought all of their needs from nature…

Weland, Donar and Thor – Baltic and Slavic connections:

(Note: For the most explicit descriptions of Baltic and Slavic gods, the reader might wish to study the works of Mireja Gimbutas and Algirdas Greimas)

The medieval Nordic/Icelandic ‘Eddaic’ legends of Thor (equivalent of the older Germanic god Donar or Thunor – literally ‘thunder’) are an interesting mythological combination of the European ‘lightning-wielding sky god’ archetype and the more typical European legendary heroes such as Perseus, Herakles and Cuchullain. His weapon or tool of choice is the hammer, with which he shatters his enemies and the earth itself – he never (at least in the Icelandic myths) plays the role of the blacksmith, which is interesting, and possibly a late revisioning of Thunor or Donar’s original function as a cthonic agricultural deity, much like Roman Mars.

The hammer is, of course, one of the symbolic indicators of smithcraft, the other being the tongs. Instead of tongs, of course, the medieval Nordic Thor possesses a pair of impervious gauntlets and typically achieves his mythological victories through great strength and devil-may-care bravery rather than outright cunning. Nevertheless, these attributes certainly appear to bring Thor directly into Weland’s semantic field, necessitating an examination of how they relate to the other North European air/fire and cthonic/water gods – the Prussian Occopirmus*/Perkons and Pekols/Pushkayts, the Slavic Perun, Veles and Svarog, Lithuanian Perkunas and Velnias, and the Finnish *Ukko (Perkele) and Ilmarinen.

In the middle ages until its acquisition by the Ottomans in 1453, Constantinople was a magnet of power and wealth that attracted north Europeans to its shores to trade and seek their fortune. Consequently, trade and influence networks extended from the Black Sea upwards into the ‘viking’ territories of the Slavs, Rus, Balts and Scandinavians. Looking at it another way, the ‘Viking Empire’ stretched from Iceland in the west to Byzantium in the East! Many of these peoples remained nominally pagan and only partly christian (or jewish) until a very late period: the Kievan Russ (Varangians) and their cousins the Scandinavians officially converted under their leaders in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Baltic peoples began to convert during a later more indeterminate period leading up to and following the fall of Constantinople, when the influence of Orthodox christianity moved north and west consequent upon Islam’s accession to its seat of power. As a result, there are a number of contemporary written sources and later folklore records of the actual pagan religions of Lesser Russia, Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which were still being practised until relatively recently.

It is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are many similarities between the Nordic, Baltic and Slavic gods, and these – touching on the aforementioned tentative link between Donar/Thunor/Thor and Weland – can help us untangle the meaning behind the enigmatic legendary blacksmith god of the Europeans.

In the east, Perun and Veles (also called Volos) were two closely-linked gods in the Slavic pantheon, notably that of the Kievan Rus until the 10thC and these survived in the guise of the gods Perkunas and Velnias among the Lithuanians until a much later date. These better-attested Baltic counterparts were known by a number of regional names – as Perkele (Ukko) and Ilmarinen in Finland, as Perkele and Pekkols in Prussia, and also as Perkons (Latvia, Estonia). Perkunas and his variants represented the sky (elemental air and fire), whereas Velnias and his variants represented the earth (elemental earth and water). Their various legends point towards an interplay between the two states: the earth and the heavens, or the mundane and the divine. Reconstruction of the underlying theology of these gods, it must be noted, depends upon collecting together details recorded over a period of time spanning almost 1000 years from sources in various different regions.

Perun/Perkunas is a thunder-god. Like Donar/Thor he is associated with wielding a hammer or axe akin to a thunderbolt. He also (like Thor) has been portrayed as either being accompanied by a goat, riding upon a goat, or riding in a chariot pulled by a goat or goats. Devotees of Donar/Thor wore similar hammer/axe amulets to those of Perun/Perkunas. They obviously have a common cultural root.

Thor's hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Thor’s hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Slavic 'axe amulet' c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Slavic ‘axe amulet’ c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Contemporary gold casting of 'Crosh Bollan' amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse, which bears a striking similarity to 'Thor's Hammer' and the 'Slavic Axe'.

Contemporary gold casting of ‘Crosh Bollan’ amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse fish, which bears a striking similarity to ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and the ‘Slavic Axe’. The Isle of Man was once a medieval viking kingdom and was once a principle stop-over destination on the ancient sea trade-routes from the Baltic and Scandinavia.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe. Did it originally come from the Black Sea trade routes with the north?

It should become obvious that Wayland is an intermediary partaker of the qualities of the sky god and the terrestrial-god. In his myth he is confined on earth for a period, but longs for the sky, into which he leaps at the opportunity to escape. Perkunas seemingly represents ‘Sky Wayland’.

Perkunas: why an axe and not a hammer?

Whereas the hammer is archetypally the tool of a blacksmith or stonemason, the axe is the tool of the woodsman and the builder of wooden houses – particularly in the arboreal climes of the Baltic and Russian provinces where wooden houses have predominated, being warmer in harsh winters. Such buildings were ever at the mercy of fire, particularly that occasioned by great tree-splitting bolts of lightning. For these reasons, Perkunas is associated with an axe – he creates by dividing.

Velnias/Velinas as the ‘divine smith’:

Velnias (and his Slavic equivalent), on the other hand, has a terrestrial or subterranean association. It should be fairly clear that similarity with the Scandinavian ‘Velent’ or ‘Volund’ versions of the name of Wayland. In the ancient ‘elemental’ system of thought, Velnias represented Earth and Water – the cthonic and earth-bound forces and the dead. Perkunas represented Air and Fire – they are complimentary to one another. Velnias represents ‘Terrestrial Wayland’ who creates by forging – hammering things together.

The core aspects of the european smith-god legends – be they of Wayland or Hephaistos – represent him as the higher creative fire bound on earth. In Wayland’s tale, he and his two brothers (all elves) fall in love with three valkyries (swan-maidens), and when the swans leave them (the winter migration) Wayland becomes bereft and is captured and enslaved to the human king Nithhad where he is forced to create treasures for him. Weland does as he is bidden but in revenge kills the king’s two sons and makes their bones and teeth into jewels – a gruesome fulfillment of a promise by giving a gift that while of exquisite beauty and value is at once one of utter destruction. Further to this Wayland fulfils a ‘triple-revenge’ by raping and impregnating the king’s daughter, ensuring that the king’s sole inheritor will be of Weland’s divine seed. Upon extracting his revenge, he escapes into the sky on the back of a magical bird (the returning swan?) or in the other version on a flying machine which he himself created, thus re-entering the spiritual realm of air and fire that is the province of the alfar or elves. The allegory is one of winter and the return of vegetation from rot and decay. Weland is the ‘secret smith’ reforging nature within the earth ready for it to re-emerge in springtime. He is a killer AND a giver of life – a perfect archetype of the ‘cthonic’.

Lithuanians in the post-christianised period use the word ‘Velnias’ or ‘Velinas’ to indicate the christian devil, a fact attested in some of the earliest dictionaries translating the Lithuanian language, and it is still the devil’s name in this country. The related word veles (plural) indicated the souls of the dead, who were his ward just as Slavic Volos was described as the god of terrestrial flocks. Velnias rôle in Lithuanian mythology and folklore is as an underworld god – of earth and rivers – who contested with Perkunas, god of fire and sky.

Greimas (in ‘Of Gods and Men’) relates a number of late Lithuanian folklore-tales that he believes link the Devil (‘Velnias’) with an archetypal mythological blacksmith  referred to as Kalevelis or Kalvelis  a combination of the Lithuanian word for ‘blacksmith’ and ‘-velis’. Although there are no written references to a god called ‘Kalevelis’, an insertion in a 13thC Slavic manuscript translation of the 6thC Byzantine Malala Chronicle contains an early account of the names of Lithuania’s principle pagan gods. The insertion mentions a god called Teliavelis who forged the sun (Saulė) and threw her into the sky. The 13thC Volyn chronicle also mentions Teliavelis as a god secretly worshipped by a Lithuanian king supposed to have converted to christianity. Neither chronicles name Velnias as a god, although Perkunas is mentioned in the Malala chronicle’s marginalia.

On closer analysis, Teliavelis appears to be the same god as Velnias, lord of the souls of the dead (veles): The prefix ‘Telia-‘ may be related to the latin word for ‘the earth’ – tellus. It might also be related to the Greek word telios (which linguists believe to be a metathesis from an original PIE word kʷelios – remember the Irish ‘Cuillean’?), referring to an end-point, summation, result or termination. The suffix ‘-velis’ appears to relate to the terrestrial god Velnias. Linguistically, this implies an interface where the earthy/watery lower world of Velnias meets the firey/airy upper world of Perkunas. Both prefix and suffix agree with fortive and lenitive metathesis (sound change) seen in Wayland’s various European names.

Linguistic implications of a ‘fallen’ god?

There is something of the tragic and self-sacrificial in the legend of Wayland, a theme echoed by many other mythical heroes and gods connected with his semantic field. Within the corpus of Norse mythology, the other great tragic sacrificial character is that of Baldr, who was accidentally killed by one of his kin who threw a mistletoe dart at him, believing he was impervious to it.

‘Baldr’ is associated with the ‘Phol’ and ‘Wodan’ (a version of the mysterious Eddaic god-triad Odin, Vili and Ve?) in one of the famous 9th//10thC Merseburg Incantations, discovered in a manuscript in the collection of the cathedral chapter of Meresburg in 1841.

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 mended.

(Translation: Benjamin W. Fortson.)

The relationship between Phol and Baldr is partly ambiguous, but appear to be co-identified in the charm. And who, indeed, is the mysterious ‘Volla’? The B>V>Ph lenition of the initial consonant of his name demonstrates the potential connection to Volund/Weland. He is a mythological figure embodying sacrifice. The name also appears cognate with the Old Norse word for the dead (or ‘fallen’) – val or vol, seen in the name of the otherworld destination, valhalla. In Lithuanian, the spirits of the dead are known by the similar word: veles. Also similar are the Nordic words for mountain, fjall or fjell, and the English words ‘fell’ (hill) and ‘fall’, as in ‘fall down’. This brings us back again into the semantic field of ‘celtic’ spirit and creation myths, where hills were considered to be the start of many things, and the seat of fairies or ancestors. Such hills and mountains were also believed by ancient Scandinavians to be the habitations of dwarves or dark elves whose ability in smithcraft was said to have been unparalleled. Folklore often ascribed the creation of hills and mountains to the dropping or casting of great rocks by giant mythological figures, or the trampling of mythical horses ridden by giants.

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

A coin of the Gaulish/Belgic Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse was ubiquitous to coins of the Iron Age ‘celtic’ peoples. Baldr’s horse?   The Nikkr? The steed of Hephaistos, even?

The ancient European peoples practised mound-inhumation from the middle stone-age onwards, and there is a famous example of one such neolithic-era mound in England known to this day as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’. The idea that the dead sacrifice themselves so that their souls might be reforged to generate more life seems to have underpinned ancient European belief, and this idea is embodied wholly within the story of Volund or Wayland.

Other linguistic aspects – ‘Will to Power’?:

The suffixes of the names Weland and Volund could also be derived from a common Proto-Indo-European root of the latin verbs meaning ‘to fly‘ and ‘to strive or want‘ – namely volare and volo respectively. The latter gives us the Germanic word ‘will’ (vili in the Scandinavian languages). They are connected by a sense of longing and energy with intent – both ideas encapsulated in the germanic versions of the smith’s legend: In the first case (flying), it is illustrated by his association with swan-maidens (valkyries), and his eventual flight to escape King Niðhad. In the second case, Wayland is very much essentially a man who strives – in his desperate love for his swan-maiden consort, in his work forging vast numbers of items of great beauty and function, in his desire to punish and eventually in his will to be free. He is a transcendental figure who flies his earthly bonds in order to obtain his will of liberation from a terrestrial state. Wayland therefore expresses Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of ‘Will to Power’, and this is the essence of his potency as a legendary character not just among the Germanic peoples but of all of those indigenous peoples who have weathered the challenges of existing in northern Europe and western Eurasia over thousands of years.




Vishnu and Manannan

Interesting parallels can be drawn between the ancient Vedic (Indian) myths concerning the god Vishnu and the traditional (albeit bizarre) conception in the Isle of Man that the main Atlantic solar god Manannan had three legs, a fact reflected in the small island nation’s ancient flag:

The 'Three Legs of Mann'

The ‘Three Legs of Mann’

The imagery of the flag is widely agreed by celticists to be related to the ‘triskelion’ motif common in Atlantic and northern-European art from the late Bronze Age onwards, and to be a  solar symbol, related to the ancient lucky (for some) ‘swastika’ design.

Folklore collected in the Isle of Man by Charles Roeder, Edward Faragher, Sophia Morrison and colleagues in the late 19thC contained references to Manannan as a three-legged giant. This was an era when ancient mythology was considered very important to contemporary ideas of nationhood, and the study of folklore was a widespread pastime throughout Europe. The following excerpts were published in Volume 3 of a publication called Yn Lioar Manninagh (‘The Manx Book’) produced by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in the 1890’s:

” In olden times, long gone, there was a giant with three legs (‘dooiney three cassyn’) who lived in the Island; At last, when he could keep it no longer, it is said he rolled out like a wheel at Jurby Point, and then he disappeared and went out into the tide, and I heard this 60 years ago, when I was a little boy. “

” My next door neighbour was telling me his father went to Spanish Head one morning, at an early hour, some few years ago, and he saw a headless man toward the perpendicular cliff, some-thing in form of the three legs, rolling like a wheel on his feet and hands, and rolled over the cliff, which was full of sea-birds at the time, but the sea-birds did not appear to see anything, or they had all been on the wing in a moment, for if a small stone is thrown down the cliff the birds are flying and screaming in a thrice.”

” Manannan was a magician that governed the Island for many years, often hiding himself in a silver mist on the top of some high mountain, and as he could see strange ships who came to plunder the Island, he would get into the shape of the three legs, and roll down from the mountain top as fast as the wind, to where the strange vessels were anchored, and invent something to frighten them away.”

” There was a fleet of Norwegian ships came to Peel Bay, and the three-legged fellow came rolling to Peel, and it was about low tide in the harbour, with a small stream of fresh running out to sea. So he made little boats of the flaggers (AR: Iris) by the river side, a good number of them, and put them in the stream. Now, when the little fleet came out of the harbour, he caused them to appear like great ships of war, and the enemies fleet on the bay were in a great panic, and hoisted sails, as fast as possible, and cut their cables, and got away from the Island.”

Apparently, such ideas – if we are to believe the mid-19thC Irish antiquary John O’Donovan – were not just confined to the Isle of Man. In his notes to the translation of the 10thC Irish text known as Sanais Chormaic (known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’), published by Whitley Stokes in 1868, he wrote the following against the entry on Manannán Mac Lír:

“… He was the son of Allot, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann chieftains. He was otherwise called Orbsen, whence Loch Orbsen, now Lough Corrib. He is still vividly remembered in the mountainous district of Derry and Donegal, and is said to have an enchanted castle in Lough Foyle. According to the traditions in the Isle of Man and the Eastern counties of Leinster, this first man of Man rolled on three legs like a wheel through the mist…”

The ‘Three Legs’ myths about Manannan’s rolling or striding are also perhaps mirrored in the many myths from Irish and British folklore about great leaps made by the titanic denizens of ancient legends, including but not limited to: The Devil, the Cailleach, St. Patrick, St. Patrick’s horse, Fionn mac Cumhaill and any number of other giants and supernatural beings. Take, for instance, the case of the tales of ‘7 League Boots’ popularised in literary accounts of fairy tales in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All of these variants have a widespread provenance in popular folklore, and are not limited to insular Europe alone, but occur across the continent and further afield.

It is in that ‘further field’ that we leap almost three millenia to find the hymns of the ancient Indian/Hindu Rig Veda texts (dated by scholars to the period spanning 1500-1200 BCE). These detail the role of the god Vishnu (the indo-european rootword ‘Vis-‘ implies ‘penetrating/pervading’), whose three great strides spatially delineate the universe, and whose incarnations and transformations delineate the eras of time itself – the ‘Yugas’:

Rig Veda Mandala 1, Hymn 154 – the ‘Vishnu Suktam’ (Trans. ?Griffiths):
1. I WILL declare the mighty deeds of Visnu, of him who measured out the earthly regions,
Who propped the highest place of congregation, thrice setting down his footstep, widely striding.
2. For this his mighty deed is Visnu lauded, like some wild beast, dread, prowling, mountain-roaming;
He within whose three wide-extended paces all living creatures have their habitation.
3. Let the hymn lift itself as strength to Visnu, the Bull far-striding, dwelling on the mountains,
Him who alone with triple step hath measured this common dwelling-place, long, far extended.
4. Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them,
Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures.
5. May I attain to that his well-loved mansion where men devoted to the Gods are happy.
For there springs, close akin to the Wide-Strider, the well of meath* (AR: Soma – the holy visionary sacrament, called Haoma by Zoroastrians) in Visnu’s highest footstep.
6. Fain would we go unto your dwelling-places where there are many-horned and nimble oxen,
For mightily, there, shineth down upon us the widely-striding Bull’s sublimest mansion.


Rig Veda: Mandala 7, Hymn 100 (trans. ? Griffiths):

1 NE’ER doth the man repent, who, seeking profit, bringeth his gift to the far-striding Viṣṇu.

He who adoreth him with all his spirit winneth himself so great a benefactor.

2 Thou, Viṣṇu, constant in thy courses, gavest good-will to all men, and a hymn that lasteth,

That thou mightst move us to abundant comfort of very splendid wealth with store of horses.

3 Three times strode forth this God in all his grandeur over this earth bright with a hundred splendours. 

Foremost be Viṣṇu, stronger than the strongest: for glorious is his name who lives for ever.

4 Over this earth with mighty step strode Viṣṇu, ready to give it for a home to Manu. 

In him the humble people trust for safety: he, nobly born, hath made them spacious dwellings…

Vishnu is known in one of his incarnations by the name Vamana, also referred to by the epithet Trivikrama: ‘Three world strider’, because his three strides took in the seven heavens (Svarga), the underworlds (Patala) and the middle world of nature (i.e. the Earth). The name  ‘Vamana’ certainly appears resonant with that of Atlantic Europe’s Manannán! You might also note from Hymn 7.100 above, he bestowed the earth upon a character called Manu. Manu is of course, as the name suggests, the mythical ‘Proto-Man‘ of Hindu myth – the same function occupied by Manannan in Manx mythology. As the Hindus believe in reincarnation, it is unsurprising to learn that their mythology deals with many incarnations of Manu. The early Irish manuscript references to Manannan (Cormac etc) also hint at a number of ‘incarnations’ of the god, whose various names the euhemerist christian clerics were eager to record in order to support their propaganda that pagan gods were nothing but deified ancestral heroes. Vishnu, as the primary Vedic god, is represented as the animating spirit of men through his incarnation/’avatar’, Manu, just as Manannan is the same for the Manx people…

Like Vishnu and his wordly incarnations, Manannan provided a similar link between the mundane, subterranean and heavenly worlds of Irish mythology. He had a foot in each. As well as providing a link to an idealized past, he functions – like Vishnu- as a warrior-protector in the less-than-ideal present, referred to in Hindu parlance as the Kali Yuga or ‘Epoch of Kali’. Fans of Atlantic mythology might recognise our own ‘Western Kali’ in this name – the fractious and destructive goddess referred to as ‘An Cailleach‘!

…. But that, as they say, is for another story.

NB – Re: *’Meath’. This is the old Indo-European word related to the ancient intoxicating honey drink ‘Mead’. It appears to be a word cognate with the name of Ireland’s famous fairy Queen Medb (‘Maeve’) of Connacht, from the Ulster Cycle of tales, as well as being echoed in the fairy lord, Midir/Mider of Brí Leith (a key player in the Old Irish mythological reincarnation tale known as ‘The Wooing of Etain‘). Of interest, Māyā is one of the names of Vishnu’s wife in Hindu/Vedic mythology, and is also another name of the goddess Lakshmi. In Greek mythology, Maia is the mother of the travelling/leaping/world-crossing god, Hermes

The magical swineherds of Irish mythology.

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, to mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan – Pharsalia 1stC AD

Wild and semi-wild pigs played an important part in the rural economies and philosophies of the peoples of the Atlantic Iron Age. Europe (including Ireland) was once extensively forested, and the Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) roamed and thrived in this environment. It was from these that most local varieties of domestic pig were bred, but domestic pigs only began to diverge seriously in appearance from their wild cousins during the course of the 18thC when foreign conquest and trade and the acceleration of agricultural breeding programmes introduced new external genetic traits. The Irish ‘Greyhound Pigs’ and Manx ‘Purrs’ (which had largely died out by the early 19thC) were such throwbacks to the Wild Boar, whose long snouts, long legs and hairy bodies were ideally suited to a semi-wild existence of foraging. Indeed, these formed the majority of wild pigs in Ireland and Mann, which were commonly found before the agricultural reforms of the late 18thC.

“… In the mountains they have also a small breed of swine called purrs or wild swine; not that they are ferae natura or wild, for every man knows his own; but because they are bred and live continually in the mountains without coming to their houses, and both these and the wild sheep are counted incomparable meat…” (Account of the Isle of Man by Bishop Thomas Wilson – from the 1722 edition of William Camden’s Britannia produced by Edmund Gibson, Lambeth.)

The same form of swine-husbandry was still prevalent in Ireland during this period, in continuity with methods extending right back into prehistory. As well as allowing the ‘fat of the land’ to infuse the pigs, turning them away in herds allowed the more domestic breeds to mate with the population of wilder varieties, which in turn encouraged genetic diversity and disease-hardiness. The appearance of these semi-wild Irish pigs was evidently not to the taste of Gerald of Wales who visited Ireland (as a high church official) in the wake of the armies of the Angevin king Henry II’s conquest of  Ireland during the 1180’s:

“… in no part of the world have I seen such abundance of boars and forest hogs. They are, however, small, misshapen, wary, no less degenerated by their ferocity and venomousness than by the formation of their bodies… ” Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’ or Gerald de Barri).

These hogs, so vital to the supply of invading armies, were the ward of Ireland’s swineherds (muccoi/mucced/muiceadh) who looked after them in the forests. By this period (and especially with the ingress of Norman feudal culture), the memory of the importance of the office of swineherd was largely set in the pre-conversion era before the 5th/6thC, as evinced by the number of tales in which these colourful characters featured. At this time swineherds were evidently powerful and influential men.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

The earliest encounter between christianity and swineherds is recorded in Muirchú moccu Machtheni‘s account of the christianisation of Ireland in his ‘Life of Patrick’ from the 7thC CE:

” …He and those who were with him in the boat landed at Inber Sláne, hid their small craft, and went a short distance inland in order to rest there. They were found by the swineherd of a man who was good by nature, although a pagan, whose name was Díchu. He lived in the place where there is now the barn named after Patrick. The swineherd, thinking they were thieves or robbers, went to tell his master Díchu (about them), and led him upon them unawares. Díchu had come with intent to kill them, but when he saw the face of holy Patrick the Lord changed his mind for the better, and Patrick preached the faith to him, and there and then he believed Patrick—the first man to do so—and the holy man stayed with him for a few days… ” (trans. L. Bieler)

Here, the swineherd is the first point of human contact between Patrick’s mission and an Irish pagan. Patrick goes on to convert the swineherd’s master, Dichu, who becomes the first Irish saint, and is sometimes characterised as the swineherd in some medieval martyrologies. Muirchú’s preamble to Patrick’s arrival contains a passage proclaiming that the druids of the King of Tara prophesied Patrick’s coming and the apparent downfall of paganism:

…In the days when this took place there was in those parts a great king, a fierce pagan, an emperor of non-Romans, with his royal seat at Tara, which was then the capital of the realm of the Irish, by name Loíguire son of Níall, a scion of the family that held the kingship of almost the entire island. He had around him sages and druids, fortune-tellers and sorcerers, and the inventors of every evil craft, who, according to the custom of paganism and idolatry, were able to know and foresee everything before it happened. There were two of these whom he preferred above all the others, whose names are these: Lothroch, also called Lochru, and Lucet Máel, also called Ronal; and these two, by their magical art, prophesied frequently that a foreign way of life was about to come to them, a kingdom, as it were, with an unheard-of and burdensome teaching, brought from afar over the seas, enjoined by few, received by many; it would be honoured by all, would overthrow kingdoms, kill the kings who offered resistance, seduce the crowds, destroy all their gods, banish all the works of their craft, and reign for ever. They also described the man who was to bring this way of life and to win them for it, and they prophesied about him in the following words, in the form, as it were, of a poem, which these men often recited, and especially during the two or three years immediately before the coming of Patrick. These are the words of the poem— not very intelligible, owing to the peculiarity of their language:

“… There shall arrive Shaven-Head,
with his stick bent in the head,
from his house with a hole in its head
he will chant impiety
from his table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer ‘Be it thus, be it thus’ …”

In our own language all this can be expressed more clearly. ‘When all this happens’ (the druids would say) ‘our kingdom, which is a pagan one, will fall.’ And so it happened afterwards: when Patrick came the worship of idols was abolished and the catholic Christian faith spread over our whole country…

This theme of prefiguration through the prophecies and visions of magicians seems to thread through the writings of Ireland’s early christians. Ireland’s curiously smooth transit from paganism to christianity obviously involved very little change to the social order, with hereditary religious functionaries likely continuing their traditional familial or clan vocations within the new framework. That swineherds  were considered holders of visionary and magical powers is highly interesting. Was there a connection between this office and druidism or religious hierophancy?

A good example of this theme, with obvious references to Muirchú’s prefigurative testimonies can be found in the 14thC Leabhar-na g-Ceart/Lebor na Cert, or ‘Book of Rights’ detailing the dues of the ancient kings of Cashel. It commences with fragments of an older story of the founding of Cashel (Senchas Fagbála Caisil – found in another manuscript: Dublin, Trinity College, H.3.17: V, pp. 768–73) as prophesied by the swineherds of two local magnates, whose language dates them between the 8th and 10th centuries. Here is Myles Dillon’s translation of the Lebor na Cert version, taken from CELT:

“… In the time of Corc son of Lugaid two swineherds happened to frequent that hill for a period of three months, masting their swine, for it was a ridge of forest. The names of the swineherds were Durdru, swineherd of the king of Éle, and Cularán, swineherd of the king of Múscraige. And they beheld a form as bright as the sun with a voice as sweet as the lute, blessing the hill and the place, and prophesying Patrick. And it said:

A good man shall reign
over lofty and venerable Cashel
in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Virgin
with the grace of the Holy Ghost.
A bishop stately and benign,
sage of all the world in judgement,
will fill Ireland of the angels with people of every rank
with many canonical orders in the service of gentle Christ.

That form was Patrick’s angel Victor prophesying Patrick, and proclaiming that the dignity and primacy of Ireland would be always in that place. Accordingly that is Patrick’s sanctuary and the principal stronghold of the king of Ireland. And the rent and service of the men of Ireland is due to the king of that place always, namely to the king of Cashel through the blessing of Patrick son of Calpurnius… ” (Trans. Myles Dillon)

Of course, the period of three months refers to the period between Lughnasadh and Samhain when the acorn and nut crops were lying on the forest floor and when visionary experiences might be available to errant and bored woodsmen through the use of certain drugs then available from the plant and fungal world. The name Durdru seems almost to be a metathesis of the word ‘Druid’ or variant of the old Irish word ‘Draoi‘ (magician), making the link between swineherds and magic that much more intriguing. The Senchas Fagbála Caisil text goes further in making this identification, also giving the name as ‘Druidriu’ and stating that he proclaimed the first king of Cashel (after the manner of a christian bishop), and his descendants – the Uí Druidrenn – maintained this hereditary right under the Eóganachta Kings of Cashel who ruled Munster between the 6th and 10th centuries. Cashel was, of course, one of the foremost centres of christian power in early medieval Ireland – the tale seems almost to boast of a continuity between druidism and the portable faith, which spread by associating itself with the courts of monarchs.

The theme of swineherds as magicians is part of the narrative associated with perhaps the most famous and celebrated of the Irish epic tales of the middle ages, namely the Táin Bó Cúailnge or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley‘. It exists in parts in several important manuscripts – the Lebor na hUidre (‘Book of the Dun Cow’ created at the Abbey of Clonmacnoise in the 12thC), the Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (‘Yellow Book of Lecan’ from the 14thC) and as fragments and side-tales in the 12thC Book of Leinster. The 12thC saw a flourishing in northern European literature and story-telling relating to the former pagan era, ensuring that further copies of original written variants were reproduced and survive to this day. This may have been a factor of the ingress of continental courtly culture and its interaction with the bardic traditions of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Although the linguistic style of the 12thC copies of the Táin are identifiable with 8th/9thC Irish, the subject matter is set in the pre-christian Iron Age, containing a number of motifs identifiable across Europe’s Pre-Roman cultures of the 1st millenium BCE, so it is generally believed to originate in this period. Chariot warfare, magical bulls and fairy queens all make an appearance alongside the brave celtic warriors who contest on liminal river banks and sacred hilltops like so many rutting stags. The prize of the battles is the fertility of the land, embodied in the form of the two bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach, whose genesis is dealt with in a tale peripheral to the main story, known as De Chophur in dá Mucado – ‘Contest of the Two Swineherds’ – found in the aforementioned Book of Leinster.

Contest of the Two Swineherds:

Similar to the visionary swineherds of the Lebor na Cert and Senchas Fagbála Caisil texts, the two contesting ‘swineherds’ in the origin-story are actually two powerful magicians, whose job is to guard the flocks of semi-wild swine of two great lords when they are annually sent out to ‘pasture’ and fatten on the nut-crops of Ireland’s wild forests. The story revolves around their attempts to outdo one another in feats of magic, resulting in their successive transformations into combatting birds, sea-creatures, stags, men-at-arms, as two spirits (scáth) and finally worms which slither into the source-rivers of their masters’ territories where they are consumed by cows who become pregnant with the two bulls, who represent the final incarnation of the magicians. The pagan themes in this are striking.

These two bulls come to represent the goal for the warring parties of the Táin Bó (‘cattle-raid’): Conchobar Mac Nessa and Medb and Aillil of Connacht. The tale’s narratives are of the contests of men and women – consciously mirroring the territorial rutting of the animal kingdom. The subtext of having the magicians reincarnate as bulls in De Chophur in dá Mucado might be a medieval christian attempt to suggest that the pagan spirit lay at the heart of the inter-tribal warfare which appeared to be Ireland and the continental Celtic Iron Ages’s perennial curse, albeit that the pagan theme of regeneration through death was not entirely alien to christian doctrine…

As swineherds, these two wizards or druids represent the conduit between mankind and the ‘fat of the land’ – that on the backs of their hogs, who are fattened freely in the wilds. That the two start out sharing their masters’ forests to indulge each another’s pigs contains a message of unity, that is destroyed when they are set against each other in contests which ultimately create the two bulls, who become totemic prizes driving human (or Tuatha Dé Danann) folly. This was ultimately the folly which broke the back of Iron Age Celtic culture, after all…

Collectio Canonum Hibernensis

The ecclesiastical manuscript collection known as Collectio Canonum Hibernensis (dating from the 8thC CE) contains among its collection of continental and insular church statutes some interesting comments about the origins of customs in the Celtic church. One of the more fascinating of these claims that the ear-to-ear frontal tonsure of the early ‘Celtic’ church was copied from that worn by the swineherd of St Patrick’s (eventually converted) adversary Lóegaire mac Néill, King of Tara. In a note erroneously attributed to Gildas, the text says:

“…XI. THE ROMANS SAY: The tradition is that the tonsure of the British took its origin from Simon Magus, whose tonsure reached only from ear to ear, following the very excellence of the tonsure of sorcerers, by which only the fore part of the forehead was wont to be covered. But that the first originator of this tonsure in Ireland was a swine-herd of King Loegaire mac Neill, is made evident by the word of Patrick. From him nearly all the Irish assumed this tonsure…” (translation from Latin by Hugh Williams, 1899)

The Saxon church’s ‘Roman’ opinion that followers of Simon Magus originated the Celtic style of tonsure is directly compared here to the Irish account that Loegaire’s swineherd wore this tonsure, and was therefore probably considered a magician or sorceror. No extant hagiography of Patrick survives to confirm the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis comment, although Patrick is said by Muirchú to have worked as a swineherd himself after being enslaved in Ireland during his early life. In the 12thC hagiography of Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness (designed for the Anglo-Norman conquerors, and their Hiberno-Norse cousins in the Isle of Man), the Isle of Man was won from the pagan magician ‘Melinus’ who pretended to fly into the air after the manner of Simon Magus. Patrick evidently enjoyed visionary experiences from guiding spirits while in his captive rôle as a swineherd, albeit that the swineherd appears to have been something of an elite vocation in ancient Irish society, causing us to question Patrick’s original true vocation:

“… An angel used to come to him regularly on the seventh day of every week, and as one man talks to another so Patrick enjoyed the angel’s conversation. Even when, at the age of sixteen, Patrick had fallen into captivity and spent six years in servitude, the angel came thirty times to meet him, and he enjoyed the angel’s counsels and their conversations before he went from Ireland to the Latins. He used to pray a hundred times during the day, and a hundred times during the night. One day, when tending swine, he lost them and the angel came to him and showed him where the swine were. One day after the same angel had talked to him about many things he placed his foot on the rock of Scirit opposite Slíab and ascended in his presence, and the footprint of the angel can be seen in the rock to the present day…” (trans. L. Bieler)

So why the connection between swineherds and magic?

The era of the early Celtic christian church crosses over with that of the decay of the late Roman Empire and its western authority, which was in turn coupled to the resurgence of indigenous cultural movements within the Romanised portions of the northwest European Celtic polities. One of these in particular was that of the Armorican Bagaudae or Bacaudae of late Roman Gaul – rebellious rural insurgents who challenged the power of Imperial Rome, and who provided a cause for which 5thC christian bishop (and mentor of Patrick), Germanus of Auxerre, was able to leverage social, political and (no doubt) cultural influence. To the elements of Gaulish society opposed to Roman power, this ‘grass-roots’ movement (so far as we can tell from our biased Roman sources) might have resonated somewhat with the marginal swineherds and Déisi tribes of Ireland, from the point of view of her continentally-oriented evangelists.

The ‘swineherd’ of ancient Ireland was more akin to a more modern cowboy of America’s ‘wild west’, tasked with driving herds of pigs from domestic corrals for fattening on the ‘mast’ crop of acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts in the forests which used to cover Ireland. As well as guarding these flocks, they served (as in the tale of the arrival of Patrick’s mission) as guardians and representatives of local lords at the peripheries of their territories. Swineherds were also engaged with hunting and retrieving these pigs at the end of the masting season before the swine-slaughtering periods which were around the time of Samhain in Autumn, and in late springtime leading up to Beltain. Swineherds were therefore important guardians of a region’s wealth and territorial integrity – significant heroes with great animal-hunting and trapping skills, who worked close to the liminal and magical zone of interface with the natural world. The idea of men turned away for a period into the wilds as hunter-warriors, living by the primal laws of nature is in every way evocative of the ancient and popular narrative tradition of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of Fianna

The position of ‘swineherd’ was therefore one combining the skills of both herding, hunting and trapping and was therefore far from a lowly job, but one of extreme skill, bravery and dexterity. Culturally during the European Iron Age and well into the medieval period, the boar-hunt was one of the highest acheivements of hunting skill and bravery, as these creatures were the epitome of tenacity, strength and savagery when cornered. The swineherd was, in this context, a prime embodiment of the protector-provider hero-archetype, versed in the magical mysteries of nature.

The boar was an iconic cult animal of the Celtic tribes of Europe: As well as seeking in the cthonic realms of earth for their food, wild pigs fed and fattened on the crops of trees, which were also potent archetypal symbols of ancestral continuity and the forces of natural regeneration. Conceptually, trees were also linked to the branching nature of springs, streams, and rivers, and – to the Celts at least – notions of the regenerating and returning Otherworld realm. The appearance of boars and serpents in the art of the Celtic Iron Age hints at the cthonic mysteries – both are ‘fanged’ and hunt upon the surface and in the recesses of the earth. Both shun human contact but can be deadly when cornered. Both represented the forces of regeneration inherent in the earth’s mysteries.

The connection between Druids and Swineherds:

Reading between the lines of Ireland’s early christian stories and more secular traditions such as the Táin, it is apparent that the ‘swineherd’ may in fact be a literary codification of the Atlantic tradition’s druids. Such an identity works on many levels:

(i) Judaeo-Christian distaste for swine as ‘unclean’.

(ii) Swine-herding was prevalent over shepherding in the Irish agricultural traditions. The use of the ‘shepherd’ archetype as applied to christian missionaries must therefore, in Ireland’s case, be subverted into a similar ‘local’ archetype. Due to the biblical negativity towards swine, this metaphor never really connected with the later christian mission. The ‘event horizon’ of Patrick necessarily erases any heretical or syncretic forms of christianity existing in Ireland before his ministry, the ‘Brigitine’ church, being one example of this, another being Pelagianism: ‘Gentile’ or ‘Paganus’ were terms used by metropolitan early christians of the Roman world to describe the rural peoples who chose the Old Religions. The idea of pagan religious leaders living with their herds of ‘little pigs’ out in the wilds was almost the ideal metaphor for Ireland itself, living as it did outside of the Romanised world of late antiquity.

(iii) Swineherds are identified with magicians and both of these are identified with pagan barbarian kings. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the swineherd-magicians become identities of the earth’s fertility (and, to give a christian subtext to matters), with conflict and unstability. The early christian monk and author Gildas (De Excidio Brittonum) portrays the violence, conflict and instability of his age (5thC CE) as being mediated by pagans, perhaps as instruments of god’s wrath for the improper piety of christians! In contrast to this turmoil, the christianisation of Ireland under Patrick is portrayed as being a smooth transition untouched by the anxieties besetting Britain which experienced the settlement and invasions of the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes with considerably less ease. In Ireland, the ‘swineherds’ of the peripheries became the ‘shepherds’ working out of the seats of royal power, establishing abbeys in towns as well as far-away dysarts.

(iv) St Patrick was a swineherd in his early life in Ireland, his coming is prophesied by magicians and the first pagan he meets upon returning to Ireland is a swineherd. His ‘guardian angel’ Victor is first met when he is in Ireland working as a swineherd. Victoria was the Roman goddess of victory and overcoming death, popular in the late Empire even after the advent of christianity. She was cognate with Bellona, a war-goddess possibly influenced by or related to the Celtic war-god Belenos. The boar, savage in its own defence, was also an archetype of overcoming death among the Celtic peoples. A druid called Milúch moccu Bóin (his former captor) is the first man Patrick goes to seek out and convert upon his arrival in Ireland, according to Muirchú’s 7thC account of his ministry. Some of Patrick’s earliest successors had names invoking the memory of the wild magician-swineherds: Mochae, Mochtae and Mochua, for example…

So those ‘swineherds’ may well have just been druids – Ireland’s alternative to the ‘good shepherds’ of middle eastern and continental christianity. It appears that in order to survive the change in power which came, under christianity, to rest in kings rather than gods, that they chose (in Ireland) to become the ministers of a new religious hegemony. The focus of religious power shifted from the wilds – hilltops, forests and sacred springs, where the liminal ‘other’ was sought and mysteries expressed – into the heart of habitation. Druids and their herds of ‘little pigs’ munching upon the acorns of holy trees and drinking from sacred springs, became Abbotts and their monks feeding from another authority – that of the written word, and power not from nature, but from the world of men…

Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

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

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

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

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

Dionysus was the ancient Greek divine hypostasis of eternal returning life. Like the other Greek gods and goddesses he represented a divine aspect of the originating (Arche, ἀρχή) divinity, Zeus, manifesting through the earth and nature as a tendrilled, seeking, pushing, growing, enlivening spirit responsible for the bringing forth of the divine logos into nature and humanity. His was perhaps the most important of the pan-Hellenic religious cults whose great age and far reach hints at origins in Europe and the Near East beyond the mythological horizon of the Bronze Age. His worship was part of an initiatory mystery cult which looked not to the stars and the skies for its mysteries, but into the earth. In turn, these chthonic mysteries provided the mythology by which the heavens and their constellations were to become decorated – as if reflected in an enormous transformative mirror:

“…Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended… ”

(The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus trans. Isaac Newton, 17thC)

Although the passage above cannot be textually dated earlier than the 7th CE, it deals with motifs common to mystery religions much older than Hermeticism and the philosophical Alchemy of the Arab word…

The Dionysian Mirror:

The mirror held a special place in the mythology of Dionysus, who was a god of death and rebirth. Dionysus was therefore known as the ‘twice-born’ god whose first incarnation (Dionysus-Zagreus) was destroyed and who was subsequently returned to life in an act which granted him divine redeeming powers, albeit with a ministry confined largely to the ‘sublunary’ realms. In the myth as recounted at a late period by Nonnus in his 4th/5thC CE Dionysiaca, the god was born to Persephone and fathered by Zeus in the form of a dragon. At far-seeing Hera’s bequest, he was enraptured by the Titans with a mirror in which he saw his reflected countenance: so distracted, they rended his body and scattered the parts. The great epic poet of late antiquity, Nonnus of Persepolis, related the myth as follows:

“… Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.

By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides [Zeus] shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titanes [Gaia the Earth] with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves set afire the neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros (the West Wind) the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges–even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks. Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land. Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth…” (Dionysiaca, Book 6, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse)

Reading from Nonnus’ exegesis of Dionysian cult secrets, Zeus intended the ‘Orphic’ Younger Dionysus (‘Zagreus’) to be his successor and heir in Olympos (the high ethereal realm) but his destruction condemned him to the infernal realms, albeit with leaping ambition for the heights of the ethereal gods. Zeus burns the earth and sends a flood in his rage against the Titans – this myth is evidently part of the ‘Titanomachy’ sequence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Titans and monsters, and the incarceration of these within the Chthonic Abyss…

Nonnus appears to imply that Zeus actually used the mirror to cause  the burning of Gaia, just as with the preceding sequence of the ‘image’ of Dionysus-Zagreus undergoing transfiguration at the moment of his demise, becoming at once Zeus, Kronos, a baby, a youth, a lion, a wild stallion, a serpent, a tiger and finally a sacrificial bull. It is somewhat akin to the breaking up of the mirror’s image, and the fluidity of this suggests that the mirror might even have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a watery or liquid nature in the Dionysian mysteries. The young god’s act of looking into the mirror is a first taste of death, in which its transformative potential is revealed as his image and body break apart and are dispersed. This has been interpreted as a process of undoing of the self experienced by initiates of the Dionysian mysteries. In Nonnus’ telling of the myth, Zeus burns and then floods the world in revenge for this act, setting the scene for renewal under a new refreshed order after the Titanomachy. Dionysus is reassembled and cared for on high mountain tops by the Nymphs. This myth resonates strongly with the Zoroastrian creation myth of the Bundahisihn in which all natural life emerges from the body of an ancient bull killed by beings of chaos.

Fresco from the 'Villa of Mysteries' at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in 'Dionysiaca'.

Fresco from the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in ‘Dionysiaca’.

Evidently, Nonnus’ account of the use of the mirror is based on an ancient myth as Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks – 2nd CE) commented on the use of the mirror in Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult, and it appears that the ‘Dionysian mirror’ was an important allegorical part of the cult. The appearance of numerous elaborately-decorated mirrors depicting mythological scenes in the graves of Etruscan nobles from the 6th-1stC BCE offers a fascinating yet poorly understood link to the mysterious role of the mirror in relation to the afterlife and its mysteries. Likewise, the shiny ‘Orphic’ gold tablets accompanying the dead in Romano-Greek tombs of the same period may hold a similar significance.

Dionysus, Semele and Apollo depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

Dionysus (with Thyrsus), Semele and Apollo (with Laurel branch) depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

A 4thC BCE 'Orphic' gold tablet. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription....

A 4thC BCE ‘Orphic’ gold tablet, typically buried with a dead initiate of the Dionysian mysteries. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription….

Although the mirror as an object is infrequently depicted in relation to Dionysian imagery in ancient Greek and Greco-Roman imagery, one must remember that almost every such image depicts a dish or vessel containing the ‘blood’ of the god – wine. The reflectivity of this dark liquid cannot be understated, and it would seem quite probable that this was in fact the true ‘mirror’ of the Dionysian mysteries.

The wide shallow drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the Dionysian mysteries: a maenad and a satyr.

The wide shallow Greek drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the mysteries: a Maenad and the Satyr. The Maenads represented the destructive or conflict-inducing higher human nature (after jealous Hera), and the Satyrs the chaotic-intrusive wild cthonic/animalistic nature (after the Titans, represented by Kronus/Saturn)…

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

Mirrors offer an apparently inverted reflection of the light reflecting on them. The most basic mirror for humankind is experienced in the smooth surface of water or liquids, which was mimicked in the polishing of stones and metals to create functional mirrors. From the most ancient times until the present, mirror-surfaces have been used in the mantic/divinatory arts for ‘seeing’ beyond the mundane. The imperfections in the reflection offer re-interpretations of the source image, so divinatory mirrors are often imperfect reflective surfaces: bowls of water, tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, blood from a sacrificial animal etc being good examples.

There are a number of ancient superstitions about the dead and mirrors or reflections. The reversal of mirrors in the presence of the dead is one of these, linked to old European superstitions about the (un)dead having no reflection or shadow. Robert Kirk’s description of the beliefs about the dead and seers of spirits in 17thC Scottish Highlands (recorded in  ‘Secret Commonwealth‘) says that the dead/departed spirits occupied a world which was an inversion or reflection of our own. This belief about the Otherworld appears on cursory inspection to have no connection to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans who are usually supposed to have believed that their dead to occupied the misty dank and dark recesses under the earth, or – if lucky – some far off fields beyond a river. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated, and bound up in the pagan religious mysteries…

Death and the Chthonic realm:

“… For were it not Dionysus to whom they institute a procession and sing songs in honor of the pudenda, it would be the most shameful action. But Dionysus, in whose honor they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same…” (Fragment of Heraclitus (5th BC), quoted by Clement of Alexandria 2nd CE)

The mythology and philosophy of the ancient world depicted the earth both as the source of life and decay, and the representation of elemental solidity – an antithesis of the most ethereal elements of fire and light. As the dead rotted away into the earth, leaving their stony bones as evidence, it is logical that it became associated with death, coldness and decay and thus a logical abode of the dead. Liquids poured upon the earth flowed and trickled downwards into its cavities, hence libations were the form of sacrifice appropriate to the chthonic deities and spirits. Death, entropy, chaos and disease were seen as originating or having their allotted place within the chthonic realm in Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, the theogonies of 1st BCE Greek religion claimed that the Titans and monsters were consigned to Tartaros (in the traditions referred to as Titanomachy and Gigantomachy), which was said to be a void or boundless deep cavity below even the earth itself. As the forces of divine order occupied the heavenly position, so the forces of chaos and divine disorder occupied a similar state in a reflected state of opposition to that conceived of as ‘above’. Both states were seen as essential to create the balance of our ‘middle’ earth (i.e. – the ‘elemental’ or ‘sub-lunary’ world). In the light of this interpretation, it is better to think of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead occupying the ‘lower’ world for the initial part of their journey. The shady world of Hades can be thought of as merely an official ‘cover story’ for a more complicated belief system which involved the eternal soul’s travel to and from the extremities of the chaotic and the divine. Crossing into the chthonic/underground realm was a point of reflective transformation: where life became death, and ideas were reversed – as if in a ‘mirror’ state. The final ‘mirror’ of this state was the waters which sat in the earth’s deepest recesses into which they flowed, and from which they mysteriously returned…

Of course, we come across this mythologically in the subterranean pools, lakes and rivers which the heroes and gods who visit and return from Hades invariably encounter. These liminal waters also occur in the legends of heroes who visit far-off islands and encounter the monstrous, Tartarean creatures sired by the Titans: Medusa, the Graeae, the snake of the Garden of the Hesperides etc. This theme is common to the myths of the Celtic and German worlds of northern Europe and was in evidence at the time the Roman world encroached on these from the 4th BCE onwards….

Rebirth of Dionysus:

Some of the ‘Orphic’ myths of Dionysus have him re-assembled by Rhea after his dismemberment, after which he is fostered by the mountain nymphs – probably during the great flood sent by Zeus to cleanse the world after he took revenge upon the Titans. It is thus also very similar to the aquatic myth of Osiris and Isis from Egypt. Dionysus, like the waters and their mountain springs, streams and rivers, represented the root and branch of returning life. Like the mystery of the returning waters, he embodied the mysteries of returning nature…

The ‘underworld’ as an inversion of the ‘overworld’:

The pit of chaos or Tartaros, lying beyond the deeps of the earth and sea was the ancient Greek idea of ‘antimatter’, in opposition to the celestial light and order of the heavens. Of the sublunary world, the elements of water and earth partook of a greater part of the nature of this chaos, including the Titans, giants and monstrous beings. Likewise, air and fire partook of the more luminous properties of the higher nature of things in the heavens, including the gods. The ‘interface’ between these two aspects of perceived reality was a very liminal place in which ideas became inverted, and opposites found unity. The ‘underworld’ of Greco-Roman mythology should not be seen as a lower realm from which souls struggle up incrementally in order to return to the light, but as an exact mirror and equally valid version of the ‘celestial’ world. In other words: Zeus is Hades inverted, Poseidon is the synthesis of both. Dionysus was therefore, like Hermes and Apollon, a Daimon who unified these god-themes and manifested them in the mundane world.

279BC and the ‘Sons of Tuireann’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of Lugh in the story:

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

An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:

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

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

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

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

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

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

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

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

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

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

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

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

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

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish connection:

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

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

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

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

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