Diving at Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

The Nativity of Aion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The drowned god who came back to life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

The Christmas period in Europe is marked by some fairly bizarre and decidedly un-Christian traditions, although given that this has been a festive period long before christianity hit the scene these are perhaps unsurprising. Although sometimes savage and alien, they give an insight into the world of spiritual empiricism which formed ancient indigenous cultural and religious philosophies and practices. The fact that many of these traditions enjoy a plasticity and interchangeability of date and can run anywhere from Hallowe’en (31st October) through to Epiphany (6th January) demonstrates perhaps that they are first and foremost midwinter festivals, with roots seated deeply in the ancient pagan world and its beliefs about ancestors, cyclicity and divine manifestation.

The traditions generally involve people dressing up in wild, frightening or outlandish costumes and performing processions and plays in honour of the festive season and of mythologies connected with it. Here are a few examples:

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas...

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

The ‘Christian Santa’ is based upon St Nicholas of Myra – an early Christian saint from what is now modern Turkey. His festival is attached to the 6th December on the Gregorian calendar, yet by the Julian calendar it lies on the winter solstice. That he became a popular saint all over Europe is indicative of the ability of his traditions to supplant pagan ones, and in the Low Countries he became known as ‘Sintiklaas’, from which we get the name ‘Santa Claus’, and he had an elfen helper – Swarte Piet or Black Peter, who became a character accompanying St Nicholas in the religious festival processions typifying the festival in the Netherlands. The character is immediately identifiable as he has his face blackened. Those following my blog or knowledgeable in ancient Greek history and mythology will recall that the male satyroi celebrants of the midwinter Dionysia in Greece during the 1st millennium BC would blacken their faces with wine lees at the procession of the god’s epiphany, and this appears to be a continuation of such a practice. Like the Dionysian satyrs the purpose is entertainment and the bestowal of gifts. Piet and his boss generally arrive in their processions from a far off land, by boat – another link to Saturn and Poseidon, as well as to Dionysus.

Political extremists have recently made attempts to have Piet banned, claiming that he is an ethnic parody and denigrating the importance of the ancient tradition. The medieval conception of the man with a blackened face as a ‘blackamoor’ or ‘saracen’ always associates him with luck, and no negative ethnic connotations – a phenomenon recognised from across Europe where similar traditions occur. Perhaps the older origins of the face-blackening (the Dionysia of the ancient Greco-Roman world) have been overlooked, but in the very least the character is a positive celebration rather than having any negative connotations. The same might be said of our next winter character-performance:

Krampus:

December 5th (St Nick’s eve) and the first two weeks in December are associated with St Nicholas in Bavaria and Austria, and as in the Netherlands  the saint is accompanied in his processions by an outlandish sidekick, who is either his ‘helper’ or antithesis: Krampus.

A 'Krampus' character - devilish indeed! Half man, half beast - like the Greek satyrs

A ‘Krampus’ character – devilish indeed! Half man, half beast – like the Greek satyrs

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

Tradition holds that Krampus comes to punish the wicked (naughty children, in particular) and St Nicholas brings gifts for the good. It is a spectacle where children and the public in general get fun from a ‘scare’ from Krampus who brandishes chains, whips and bells and lears through his demonic and entirely terrifying mask. His northern German equivalent is Knecht Ruprecht – who plays a similar role but is of a much less terrifying persona, more human than beast, yet still with hints of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in both name and deed. Krampus seems almost identical to the related:

Perchten:

Perchtenlauf processions are held just after Christmas in the period up to and including Epiphany (6th January or ‘Twelfth Night’). They occur in Southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia (where Mother Perchta is known as Pehta Baba). Like the Krampus traditions of early December, they involve the dressing up as masked characters, generally divided by their appearance and behaviour into the Schönperchten (“beautiful Perchten”) who wear mild-faced masks topped with floral or decorative crowns, and the (arguably much more popular)Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchten”) who correspond in appearance and behaviour to Krampus and delight in causing a good ‘scare’.

The mask of a Percht - typically worn at epiphany festivities.

The mask of a Percht – typically worn at epiphany festivities.

Badalisk and Bosinada:

Hailing from the Val Camonica region of the Italian Alps is an ‘Epiphany’ tradition corresponding to those of the Perchten further north and east. It involves a person dressing up as a wild creature called the ‘Badalisc’ or ‘Badlisk’ (i.e. – Basilisk) who is ceremonially ‘captured’ out in the countryside by a band of masked characters who parade it in the village of Andrista where it is ‘made’ to recount a rhyme containing humorous gossip and predictions for the coming year etc in return for its ‘release’ back into the wild. The event is marked by popular celebration and feasting and is an annual crowd-pleaser. It may be a remnant part of a wider regional (e.g. – Milanese) tradition of public performance or publication of satirical or excoriating rhyming poetry known as Bosinada, which offered a kind of pre-Epiphany ‘purgation’ of community woes – what might be called a ‘roast’ by contemporary American comics. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that such midwinter satire traditions appear in the ancient cultures all over Europe, and ultimately relate to the Rural Dionysia of ancient Greek culture!

The 'Badalisc' of Andrista, Val Cammonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Badalisc’ of Andrista, Val Camonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Basilisk’ of Greek legend was, by its name, the ‘King of Snakes’ and represented the figurative primal serpent often encountered in ancient European mythology. The Camonica valley was a Celtic region up until it Latinised in the 1stC CE with Rome’s northward expansion.

Wren Hunts:

The tradition of capturing a wren at midwinter and parading it tied to a pole is peculiar to Atlantic Europe and has been recorded in Spain, France (at Carcassone – former stronghold of Catharism) and (in particular) in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The reason for this distribution is unclear, although it seemingly corresponds to historic sea-routes by which ancient cultural traits have been proven by archaeologists to have spread in this region.

'Wren Boys' procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

‘Wren Boys’ procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

The Irish ‘Wrenboys’ who lead the procession of the bird wear outlandish straw suits and masks, primitively evocative of the shaggy Perchten of Austria, although not quite so fearsome. In the Isle of Man, such costumes were not recorded, although outlandish garb of some sort was known – boys would wear black coats in the early 20th century.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the DIonysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the Dionysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

 

 

 

The winter Dionysia

The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.

The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.

The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.

The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the 'Phallophorai' enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the ‘Phallophorai’ enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh  may be behind this opinion.

Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.

Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:

The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.

The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.

It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:

“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”

Plutarch  observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.

Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…

The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.

This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.

Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.

A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.

The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of Christmas Day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

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

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

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

Perihelion and lengthening days:

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

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

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

 

 

 

 

Weland, the Swan Children and The Knight of the Swan

Emerging from the mythic and symbolic courtly story traditions of  12th century Europe, a popular and mysterious set of tales were told of children transformed into swans one of whom grows up to become the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’, or ‘Knight of the Swan’ – a questing knight who is conveyed in a boat drawn by a mysterious Swan which feeds him and guides him to his unknown destinations.

The earliest written  rescension of  the origin tale of the knight and his swan-kin comes from the late 12thC text ‘Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus‘, by the monk Jean de Hauteseille. This was a latin version of a popular eastern story tradition known as ‘The Seven Wise Masters’, possibly acquired through contact with the Muslim empires. The birth of the swan children and the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’ tales merged with the Chansons de Geste traditions dealing with Godfrey de Bouillon, first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and popular icon of the First Crusade. These portrayed Godfrey as an ancestor of the Swan Knight, Elias, who had originally gained the Duchy of Bouillon after a swan arrived with a boat which conveyed him from his island home to protect the beleaguered Duchess of Bouillon, who then offered he hand in marriage. Further life was given to the legend in Wolfram Von Eschenbach‘s 13thC Arthurian epic, Parzifal, and versions of the story were retold into the 16thC (for example, Robert Copland’s English translation of the French versions in 1512).

Story of the Swan Children:

The essence of the Dolopathos account of the genesis of the swan-children is this: A knight wanders into a mysterious forest while hunting a white stag, where he discovers a mysterious woman by natural spring (an otherworld woman). They fall for each other and make love, and the knight takes her back to his castle where she eventually gives birth to seven children with gold chains around their necks. The knight’s mother is jealous and orders the children to be swapped in the birthing chamber for a litter of puppies, and has a servant take the children to the forest to kill them, where he decides to simply abandon them. The knight is angry that his wife gave birth to puppies and condemns her to buried up to the neck in the earth for seven years. However, the knight then finds that the children are alive and living in the forest and sends a servant to retrieve them. The servant finds the seven children – six boys and one girl – at a lake in the forest. The boys have taken off their gold chains and are swimming on the lake in the form of swans, while their sister – still in human form (wearing her chain) guards their chains. The servant decides to steal the chains and makes off with his loot to have them melted down by a goldsmith. The girl goes back to the castle to seek bread with which to feed her brothers who are now trapped in swan form, and eventually meets her father who has her tell the tale of what happened. The knight retrieves the chains and the boys can regain their human forms, except for one whose chain was broken by the goldsmith. He goes on to serve (or becomes – the source is unclear) the mysterious hero, the Knight of the Swan.

The story of the swan children is a curious bit of imagery, resonating strongly with the pagan mythical story traditions of Ireland (The Children of Lir, The Sickbed of Cuchullain). These feature birds (explicitly swans in the case of Lir’s children) who are bound with chains. However, the motif occurs in not just Irish and French legendary traditions – in the Norse Icelandic Völundarkviða (Poetic Edda), Völundr (Weland) and his two brothers meet and make love to swan-maidens (Valkyries) bathing  in a lake in the forest while hunting. The implication in the genesis story of the Swan Knight is that the ‘Lady of the Fountain’ is herself of an avian aspect, much like Manannan’s wife, Fand, in the Serglige Con Culainn, in which she briefly becomes Cuchullain’s lover and tormentor. The Norse goddess Freyja was attributed with a ‘feather cape’ in the Eddas, and as receiver of ‘half of the slain’ she may herself have been a or the Valkyrie. The greatest similarity with the Knight of the Swan entrée, however, is the Irish tale Clann Lir (‘Children of Lir’): It shares many features with minor differences – in the Irish tale, there are four children (three boys, one girl). Their mother dies and their stepmother is jealous of them and orders a servant to kill them. However, the servant refuses and the stepmother transforms the children into swans by magic. The swans are connected to each other by silver chains. They wander the earth for 900 years until (depending on the version) their deaths are caused when their chains are broken off by a marauder causing them to immediately age and die, or when they hear the tolling of a church bell or are blessed by a priest.

The tale of children turned into birds is actually a widespread folktale motif (Grimm collected a ‘Six Swans’ tale from Germany) and therefore has an Aarne-Thompson classification of type 451. However, the theme of the chains is not so frequent. Obviously, these stories are widely divergent, but what is the underlying significance?

About the Swan Knight himself:

The Knight of the Swan is named variously as Helias or Helyas in the French traditions, and as Loherangrin in Wolfram’s Parzifal. ‘Helias’ sounds a bit like the Greek name for the sun – Helios. Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s character Loherangrin has  the -angrin suffix, somewhat redolent of the Irish words an grian – the sun! As Wolfram was borrowing from Celtic story traditions, this interpretation is theoretically possible. However, there is another perhaps more likely explanation for Helyas/Helias, this being that it derives from a Celtic word for swan, which in Irish is eala. Nevertheless, the links between Weland and the Celtic solar god, Belenos, that I have discussed elsewhere may add weight to the identity of Helias with Helios.

In the Romance of Godfrey de Bouillon, Helias is born to King Oriant of Illefort (‘Strong Isle’), the introductory part of the tale being a rescension of the Swan Children tale. As the Knight of the Swan he is conveyed overseas on his quest by a swan which tows him in a small boat. The swan looks after the knight, who trusts it to take him where his bravery is needed, and where he might find his fortune, a wife and good honour in combat. This applies to both Helias and Loherengrin. The knight is under a tabu or geas that he must not reveal his name to those he meets, and when he breaks it, the swan carries him off. Other Arthurian heroes trot around on horses, but the Chevalier au Cygne stands aside as a water-bourne character. The ‘magic isle’ motif was common to the Celtic tales of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard – for instance, the Breton ‘Isle of Lok’ comes to mind. Perhaps this is the origin of the ‘Loher-‘ prefic of Loherangrin?

The stories are full of themes of captivity – a feature all too familiar to men of the crusader age, whose favoured saint became the chain-loosening St Leonard. The captivity of form in the case of the children, the captivity of knightly obligation, and the captivity of the geas or tabu. The swan – a white bird – is also an otherworldly creature with a propensity for migration and sitting on water, itself one of the gateways to the otherworld. The chains of the swan-children are like an unbreakable link with the otherworld and simultaneously evocative of the art of smithcraft, itself often equated with magic, itself a form of ‘binding’ of unseen powers. This brings us back to the question – already touched on – of the legendary (sometime captive) smith, Weland, known in Ireland as Cuillean…

Link to Weland and Cuillean:

The Poetic Edda’s ‘Lay of Weland’ (Völundarkviða) starts with Völundr (Weland – a prince of elves) and his brothers coming across three swan-maidens bathing in a lake, who they take as lovers. Swans being migratory, the girls eventually take off and Völundr’s brothers go with them leaving him alone. Like Manawydan in the Mabinogion, he takes up the life of a craftsman, which causes him to be kidnapped by King Niðhad who wishes to exploit his metalworking skills and has his hamstrings cut so he cannot run away. He extracts a terrible revenge by killing the king’s sons and making their bones into jewels which he gives the unwitting king and his queen, raping their daughter causing her to become pregnant with his child – presumably the inheritor of  Niðhad’s kingdom. Völundr then flees by flying away through the air. This brutal tale is in itself a warning not to abuse the help on offer from the otherworld’s denizens, and as such contains the same themes as the Arthurian legends and fairy romances of continental Europe during the same period.

Weland’s Wilkinasaga tradition (occurring in the Romance of Dietrich von Bern/Thidrekksaga) depicts him as the son of a character called Wade – a giant who fathers him with a mermaid (haffru). It is essentially the same tale of enslavement by the king and description of Volund’s terrible revenge and escape using wings to fly away. His Gaelic equivalent/counterpart, Cuillean, is – as has been previously suggested – identified with the sea-god, Manannan. This would make Wade and Lir coterminous, and it is evident from the continental traditions of the Knight of the Swan (Helias) that his father was the ruler of an Island and that the knight’s father – like Wade – conceived him with a fairy woman linked to water. The 12thC hagiography of St Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness has him visit the Isle of Man and defeat a flying wizard called Melinus, who I have suggested sounds like Manannan and Merlin compounded. Given the link between Manannan, Cuillean and therefore Weland, this flying aspect adds another level of intrigue.

The depiction of Weland/Volundr in the saga and German romances of Dietrich von Bern of him escaping by flying on wings seems somehow to evoke the swan children. His ability to propel himself over water in a hollowed out tree is another theme from the Dietrich saga which evokes the Knight of the Swan’s self-propelling boat, and also brings to mind the legend of Sceaf and Scylding alluded to in Anglo-Saxon mythic texts and poems.

The word ‘water’ has a linguistic link to the name of Weland’s father – ‘Wade’. This can be seen in the Polish word for water, which is wody and the Russian is the same – voda, from which ‘vodka’ is derived. ‘Wading’ is walking through water and it is even possible that ‘Wotan’ could be linked to water. The Welsh name for Manannan, ‘Manawydan’, might also by the same reckoning contain linguistic connotations of Wade. Even the eponymous relater of the Anglo-Saxon Widsith (Exeter Book ca.10thC CE) might have a relation – being so far-travelled and apparently present (Taliesin-like) at different points in history not possible for a mortal human.

Water was definitely the route by which souls and life in general was believed to transit from the Otherworld. The general belief appears to have been that souls left this world in an aerial form – as birds. It is therefore no surprise that migratory water birds such as swans would come to represent the Otherworld’s intermediary animals par-excellence.

Footnote: The Greeks – Even the ancient Greeks had a myth of the ‘Swan Maidens’ coded into the pre-Olympian mythology of their own traditions. These were the three Graeae daughters of the primal sea-god Phorcys, who appear in the myth of Perseus. They live on an island at the reaches of the world-ocean, Okeanos, (figuratively) in the ‘realm of Kronos’ on the far shores of time, close to the Otherworld itself. Far from being bathing beauties in the Perseus myth, they are aged crones who share one eye between them. They are sisters to the Gorgons, who are also counted among the Phorcydes – monstrous children of the sea, whose numbers include Scylla and Charybdis, Ladon and the Hyda among othersI suppose they were more than capable of transforming themselves into ravishing beauties, as most of the Atlantic ‘woman by the water’ deity archetypes seem to have this ability…

 

 

 

The woman who sat by the sea…

Buried deep within the mythical consciousness of Atlantic Europe is a very particular piece of imagery of a female sat waiting at the water’s edge. In its most common guise, it corresponds to the many stories of Mermaids and Merrows, often apparently found sitting on rocks at the seashore looking for human lovers. For inland-focussed cultures, these became characters such as the Melusine, the slavic Rusalkas, and the medieval ‘Arthurian’ Lake-Ladies and Fountain Maids. Even Frau Holle/Frau Gode has this attribute in some German tales, and consequently also the related Gaelic Cailleach, the Hispanic Moura, the Breton Gro’ach, and the WelshGwrach. She is depicted in stories either as the passive focus of an otherworldly encounter by a questing human protagonist, or as – in the case of the needy mermaid – a seeker of solace in the human world who waits for her catch. Either way, she is often depicted as a shape-shifting divinity who seeks a human lover, and has the power to bestow wealth and privilege, although often with an obligation and a moral sting in the tale.

Of all the places in Europe, the Isle of Man perhaps is perhaps the place where we find the greatest evidence linking mermaid-myths with the celtic goddess of the waters:

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

Isle of Man mermaid mythology:

The Isle of Man probably had a greater number of mermaid stories and traditions in its past that many places its size and larger. Particular traditions also occur in the other parish districts, with the following being recounted to George Waldron in the early 18thC (A Description of the Isle of Man, 1731) :

“… A very beautiful mermaid, say they, became so much enamour’d of a young man who used to tend his sheep on these rocks, that she would frequently come and sit down by him, bring him pieces of coral, fine pearls, and what were yet greater curiosities, and of infinitely more value, had they fallen into the hands of a person who knew their worth, shells of various forms and figures, and so glorious in their colour and shine that they even dazzled the eye that looked upon them. Her presents were accompanied with smiles, Battings on the cheek, and all the harks of a most sincere and tender passion; but one day throwing her arms more than ordinarily eager about him, he began to be frighted that she had a design to draw him into the sea, and struggled till he disengaged himself, and then ran a good many paces from her; which behaviour she resented so highly, it seems, that she took up a stone, and after throwing it at him, glided into her more proper element, and was never seen on land again. But the poor youth, tho’ but slightly hit with the stone, felt from that moment so excessive a pain in his bowels, that the cry was never out of his mouth for seven days, at the end of which he died …” (‘An account of the Isle of Man’, 1735)

In this, the amorous sea-maiden bestows gifts upon her human lover until spurned, then throws a stone at him causing him to become chronically ill (seemingly a version of the belief that fairies inflict disease with missiles or darts). Such motifs are found in mermaid myths everywhere, and the same themes occur around the Morrigan in Irish legends.

A late 19thC Manchester-based German ethnographer, Karl Roeder, was fascinated with the Isle of Man and produced a series of folklore-related articles in Manx newspapers which were eventually published in a book, ‘Manx Notes and Queries’. He collected a great deal of folkloric material in the island including a number of mermaid traditions among which was this one from the southernmost tip of the Island, where a sound separates the main island from its ‘Calf’:

“….Between Bow Veg and Glen Wither, on the coast north the Sound, is a place called Lhiondaig Pohllinag, or the Mermaid’s Green, or Garden, and the tradition is that the mermaids haunted it and sported about, basking themselves there… “

It is obvious from his description that mermaids were not just considered singular apparitions in the Isle of Man, but members of a tribe. The unusual Manx word ‘Pohllinag‘ means something like ‘sinker’ or possibly ‘pool-dweller’ (I believe it must be a fishermen’s term) and occurs in Archibald Cregeen’s ‘A Dictionary of the Manks Language’ (Pub. Quiggin, Douglas 1835) where he says it is more properly applied to a merman, albeit also in use for mermaids. John Kelly’s earlier Manx dictionary (late 18thC, but unpublished until after Cregeen’s) also gives the even more intriguing term ‘Muiraghan’ for mermaid, which readers might recognise to be a version of the Irish Morrigan – that otherworldly femme fatale encountered by Irish legendary heroes at river crossings! Cregeen and Kelly also both give the altogether more common Manx term used for the mermaid: Ben varrey (Ir. Bean Mara – ‘sea woman’).

The fairy washerwoman:

Another aspect to the celtic mermaid mythology that links with that of the Morrigan/Badb is that of the fairy washer-woman. This archetypal water-spirit is to be found in legend near to streams and rivers, performing her ablutions – sometimes viewed as a vision of death to come, particularly if washing a shroud or armour. The Isle of Man (perhaps unsurprisingly) had its fair stock of these as well, although by the 19th century it appears that mythology had separated mermaids and the ‘Ben Niee‘ (Ir. bean nighe) into two different classes. The fairy washerwoman in the Manx peoples’ imagination haunted the banks of inland streams, was often dressed in red, carried a candle and – like every good Caillagh – wielded a sladdan, which in this case was turned to the duty of beating the washing. W.W. Gill (Third Manx Scrapbook, Pub. Arrowsmith, London 1963) says that a vision of this spirit did not necessarily foretoken death – his early 20thC respondent believed it could signify a change in the weather…

“… The fairy-washerwoman of Maughold haunted a crossing-place on the Struan-ny-Niee named Boayl-ny-Niee, ” Place of the Washing,” …. A local man, R. L., calls this spectral laundress a Liannanshee, and says she held a lighted candle in one hand while she beat the clothes, or whatever it was she had, with her sladhan held in the other. A still older native of the district, K–, whose father actually saw her, and was not frightened at all, says she was “a lil red woman, and used to have a candle stuck in the bank beside her” (which was more sensible and convenient than holding it). In both versions she came out of the river, and to see her was a sure sign of dirty weather at hand, but of nothing worse. (I enquired carefully about that.) The Washer may not have been thought to be always the same personage, or a party of fairies may sometimes have been seen, for I have heard the Boayl-ny-Niee casually alluded to as “the place where the fairies washed their clothes”. But I could meet with no more than the two accounts just given.In other places in the Island it was always in parties that they did their washing. There was a flat stone, not now discoverable with certainty, in the Rhenab river a little way below where the lodge now stands, and at this the fairies were both heard and seen at night and early in the morning, washing clothes.At the side of the Gretch river in Lonan, in a spot called “the Fairy Ground”, the fairies used to be seen washing their babies. These solicitous mothers, like the Maughold laundresses, always wore red costumes.Three other fairy washing-places, which have been mentioned in print but are not included in any volume of folk-lore, may be added here. At a river-crossing in Glen Rushen the fairies soaked, beat, and shook out their garments, and hung them on the gorse-bushes to dry. One article, a beautifully-made cap which was too small for the smallest child in the glen, was brought home by a man who saw it being put on a bush ; but his mother made him take it back, “for fear the fairies would be afther it, an’ there wouldn’ be res’ in the house on the night ” (Lioar Manninagh, iv. p.161). Again, at an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard “beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream”. In another glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry (Chambers’ Journal, 1855). Similar sights may have given its name to “Glen Nee-a-nee” in Kirk Bride, thus spelt in Quarrie’s verses. The name probably contains the same word as Boayl-ny-Niee, where the sound would be better represented by ” N’yee.”From washerwomen, either human or spectral, comes the name of the river and of the places on its banks : the Stream of the Washing and the Place of the Washing, and Chibber-ny-Niee, the Well of the Washing, at its source. Near this is a small bridge under which, traditionally, women performed ritual ablutions in order to qualify as witches. The river-name may have travelled up its course from the Place …”

The water horse and the goddess:

The other dangerous or ominous spirit associated with rivers and streams in the Isle of Man (and indeed, throughout Europe) is the water horse or Cabbyl Ushtey, also known as the Glashan or Glashtyn (‘grey-green one’). This creature was supposed to be able to steal you away down into the depths of the waters to drown, probably after taking you on a wild night-time ride about the countryside. Known elsewhere as the Nikker, Kelpie, Nixie and Bäckahästen this pan-European myth is of ancient origin, and is a remnant of the Atlantic religion’s mythological narrative of death and the transit of the soul to the Otherworld. The water horse and the various waterside humanoid spirits are often interchangeable in folklore and mythology – possibly on account of this Atlantic belief – and this is no better illustrated and preserved than in another Manx legend, that of ‘Tehi-Tegi‘, here recounted by George Waldron in his 1731 book ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’, p.75:

‘He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.’

The legend recurs in a number of recorded tellings, although Waldron’s description of Tehi-Tegi transforming into a ‘bat’ is a misinterpretation – she turns into a wren, hence the wren-hunting traditions of the Christianised celtic world. The narrative is one of a demonised goddess, who once caused men to err, and for which they paid with their souls. The magnificent horse ridden by Tehi-Tegi is evidently the same as the Cabbyl Ushtey, the Kelpie and his continental cousins. Hannah Anne Bullock (History of the Isle of Man, Pub. Longman, London 1819) gives the more usual story (from Ch.19):

But one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy, and woe be to the individual birds of this species, who shew themselves on this fatal day to the active enemies of the race: they are pure sued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed, without mercy, and their feathers preserved with religious care, it being an article of belief, that every one of the relics gathered in this laudable pursuit, is an effectual preservative from shipwreck for one year; and that fisherman would be considered as extremely foolhardy, who should enter upon his occupation without such a safeguard.

Waldron’s translator for his version of the tale (Manx was the predominant spoken language in the 1720’s) evidently conflated the ‘titmouse’ and the ‘flittermouse’ – the former being an English synonym for the wren, goldcrest or firecrest, and the latter being the bat. Either which way, the tale is an important concretion of lost myth which sheds more light on mysterious ancient Celtic symbolism, as well as offering some insight into the symbolism on the mysterious Pictish pteroglyphs of the early middle ages. The transformative aspects of horse > sea creature is evocative of the passages in the Irish ‘Voyage of Bran‘ when Manannan leads the protagonist across the ocean to the otherworld and the horses seem to become fish.

The old woman who sat by the sea:

The Tehi-Tegi legend and the tradition of wren-hunting – like the Manx mermaid traditions – tended to locate around the fishing communities of the southern and western parts of the Isle of Man. Further investigation of the folklore of this region of the island uncovers a number of other variants on the mytheme. In particular, another name emerges for the aquatic female – ‘Yoan Mooir’ or ‘Joan Mere’, whose eponymous ‘house’ and mysterious ‘well’ could once be found near the cave-riddled sea cliffs between Port St Mary and the islet at the southern tip of Mann, known as the ‘Calf’. Manxmen used to use to personify the sea as ‘Joan Gorrym’ (‘Blue-Green Joan’) and ‘Joan Mooir’ is evidently the same personage. Her ‘house’ was actually a natural freshwater spring at the place known as the ‘Chasms’ close to the sea-shore, which flooded with saltwater at high tide. It may now be lost under rock slides, but such sea-side natural springs (as well as natural springs discharging directly into main waterways) may well have once been holy sites to pagans. A local example which has survived time somewhat better is Chibber Catreeney (‘St Catherine’s Well’) on the seafront in the town of Port Erin a couple of miles away from Joan Mere’s well. ‘Catherine’ is interchangeable with ‘Caithlin‘ – a name I have previously mentioned in relation to the names of the goddess from Ireland, and who appears as an aquatic female temptress-adversary (‘Cathaleen’) in the legend of St Caomhin (Kevin) at Glendalough. She also appears as the ‘Cathach’ beast defeated by St Senan of Iniscathy/Scattery in another christianising hagiographic myth, and elsewhere the town of Enniskillen is named after her sacred island on the river there.

In the Isle of Man, the well on the beach in Port Erin was associated with a fair at which a curious ritual used to be carried out, somewhat redolent of the Tehi-Tegi wren myth and customs: A hen was killed, and given a solemn burial complete with funeral dirges, its tail feathers being saved for luck. ‘He’s plucked the hen’s tail’ would be said of a drunkard, in honour of the festive nature of the former St Catherine’s day celebrations. Perhaps the term ‘cocktail’ even has some relation to this? The ‘Cath-‘ suffix in this divine name associated with the aquatic female is redolent of the Greek word ‘Kathe’ meaning ‘seat’, from which the words ‘cat’ (a sitting beast) and ‘cathedral’ (a bishop’s seat) derive, and which is also seen in the Irish word for a ‘fort’: cathair conventionally linked to the word for battle: ‘cath’ (eg – ‘Cath Maigh Tueredh’, the ‘Battle of Moytura’). Explorers of the ancient pagan sites of Ireland and Britain will be familiar with the profusion of sites referred to as ‘chairs’ or ‘seats’ in relation to saints and other mythical personages – this here is a clue! In particular, it appears that the gaelic goddesses sat next to water…

On the western Manx coast is the Baaie Mooar (Great Bay) with its Niarbyl rocks and the former fishing-settlement of Dalby. Apart from once being a good local source of mermaid traditions,this former fishing community also laid claim to a local tradition of a mysterious Old Woman, described by Caesar Cashin in an article for Mannin magazine (Volume 5, 1915), where he explores the Dalby coastal scenery and recounts its legends:

“…But the morning is growing on, so let us continue our walk along the cliffs to the south. First we come to a little cave called Ooig ny Meill, which has three entrances facing south, west, and east. Leading to the west entrance is a little patch of white sand, the only white sand on this coast, and once when a boy I saw on it tiny footprints, no bigger than my thumb, the marks of little clogs they were, going into the cave and round the rock in the middle of it. The rock is about two feet high and it was said that the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill—the Old Woman of Meill Cave, often sat on it with her face to the west. I think that she must have died, or shifted to some other cave, as she has not been seen for years…”

The image of an old woman sitting on a rock in a cave looking towards the sunset in the west is potent with the resonance of the Atlantic religious myth of the earth goddess estranged from her sun-god lover!

Cashin also mentions another cave – one of the more famous fairy caves on the Island – the ‘Ooig ny Seyir‘ (‘Cave of the Crafter’) in which the fairies were latterly believed to be heard making barrels for their salt-herring. Followers of my writing might recognise the possible connection here with Bridget – ‘goddess of smithcraft’ and the Romano-Celtic goddess name ‘Sirona‘. In fact, there are other legends which link the Island to Ireland’s tradition of a legendary magical smith, and otherworldly women who haunt the sea-shore and who provides weapons for mythological heroes:

Tiobal, Princess of the Ocean – daughter of Gullinus/Lir:

In her delightful book ‘Manx Fairy Tales’ (Pub. Nutt, London, 1911), Sophia Morrison recounts a more lyrical version of an ancient Irish tradition, first translated and published by Nicholas O’Kearney in the 1852-3 Proceedings of the Kilkenny and Southeast of Ireland Archaeological Society (Vol.2 , p.34), derived from an interlineal gloss in a 12thC Irish manuscript tale known as An T’ochtar Gaedhal (‘The Eight Irishmen’).

“… Gullinus quidem Пοσειδων fuit, nam Lir Ibernicum aut Phoenicum nomen Neptuni, et idem quod mare; ideo Guillinus fuit alterum nomen pro Lir, deo maris ut Tobal maris dea fuit. Nam illa Concubaro Mac Nessa, postea regi Ulthoniae, apparuit sub specie mulieris pulcherissimae, cum in Manniam jussu oraculu cui nomen Cloch-όir – i.e. saxum solis – quod isto tempore celebrerissimum fuit his partibus, adebat ad Gullinum quendam uti daret buadha druidica clypeo et armis ejus. Gullinus imaginem Tiobal in clypeum finxit, et buadha multa invincibilaque habebat, secundum aucthores vetheres Ibernicos .. ”

“… Gullinus was indeed Poseidon, for Lir is the Irish or Phoenician name of Neptune, and the same as the sea; so Gullinus was the other name for Lir, the god of the sea, just as Tiobal was the goddess of the sea. For she appeared to Conchobar Mac Nessa, afterwards King of Ulster, in the form of a very beautiful woman, when by the decree of the oracle, whose name was clochuir, i.e., the stone of the sun, which at the time was very celebrated in these parts, he was going to Man, to a certain Gullinus, in order that he might give him druidical buadha for his shield and arms. Gullinus fashioned the image of Tiobal on his shield, and it had many buadha, according to the old Irish authors …”

The Latin author is obviously keen to address some actual Irish/Manx pagan traditions using his classical learning, and explicitly states that ‘Gullinus’ (i.e. – Cuillin, Gullion, Whallin etc) resided in the Isle of Man and was one and the same as the sea-god, Lir. Manx tradition, of course identifies this character with Manannan, ‘Son of Lir’, who functions in Irish myths as a donator of magical weapons and as lord of the Otherworld. The legend resonates with the imagery of Greek goddess Athena’s shield – the aegis – depicting the head of the monstrous island-goddess and daughter of the ancient Greek sea-god Phorcys: namely, the gorgon Medusa.

Strangely, Irish mythology contains other allusions to mysterious females found wondering the liminal Manx shorelines by adventurers. Tiobal (Tiobhal/’Teeval’) appears (all be it under a different name) in a version of this myth recounted in the 9thC Irish text, Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) This is the story of Prull (an old Irish word meaning’greatly/excessively’) – in which it is not Conchobar who quests to the Isle of Man in search of mysterious buadha from its shoreline denizens, but a party of the legendary Chief Ollamh of Ireland, Senchán Torpeist (who is possibly a legendary model for the Christian mythological ‘hero’ St Senan). In the tale, the Ollamh leaves Ireland with his retinue of 50 bards to visit the Isle of Man, and on his arrival it appears that he meets no less than the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill, or at least someone entirely like her…

(Translation and glosses by Whitley Stokes/John O’Donovan)

“… They afterwards reach Mann and leave their fleet on land. As they were on the strand, they saw the old woman (sentuinne) grey-haired, feeble, on the rock. Sentuinne i.e. an old woman [i. Cailleach], ut poeta dixit:

An old woman and old priest,

A grave-broom is their withered beard,

Provided they do not serve God’s Son,

And do not give their first fruits.

Thus was the old woman [Cailleach] on the strand, cutting sea-weed and other sea-produce. Signs of rank (were) her feet and hands, but there was not goodly raiment on her. She had the ghastliness [?] of famine. A pity was this, for she was the poetess, daughter of Ua Dulsaine of Muscraige Liac Thuill in the country of the Hi-Fhidgenti, who had gone on a circuit of Ireland and Scotland until all her people had died. Then the ceard (smith/craftsman!), her brother, son of Ua Dulsaine, was seeking her throughout Ireland, but found her not. …”

The narrative unfolds as one of the ‘loathly lady’ – a crone who is secretly a radiantly beautiful and divine personage. The implication is that the woman is one of the ancient survivors of the first race – a theme which weaves through Irish legends (Book of Invasions, Children of Lir etc). She challenges the poets to a lyrical contest by challenging them to complete verses, but none can best her save for an ugly youth who Senchan had only allowed along as an afterthought. The Cailleach recognises his abilities and Senchan returns to Ireland where the youth then assumes his own true radiant form – as another member of the lost race of Ua Dulsaine – another transformation from ugliness into beauty. ‘Ua Dulsaine’ (Dulsaine = Satire) seems also to be a play on the word ‘Dulse’ – and edible seaweed that has been a traditional staple of Irish seaside communities for millennia, so ‘Ua Dulsaine’ appears to be another reference to the solar sea-god: Lir, Manannan or Cuillin. The ‘sentuinne’ is therefore Tiobal in disguise – the bardic poetics are sheer genius! Senchan was supposed to have lived in the time of King Guaire Aidhne who in the Sanas Cormaic tale, sent him on the quest to find the children of ‘inspiration’ – children who were, in fact, Ireland’s old gods.

Caillagh y Groamagh:

The legend of the ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ is another Manx Cailleach tradition which ties the old-woman to the shoreline. Usually translated as ”Old Woman of the Gloom’, the linguistically astute might recognise that the Manx word ‘groamagh’ (pronounced with a m>w lenition as ‘gro-ach’) is the same as the name of legendary seaside female spirit in the Breton legends, the Gro’ach. This is also a metathesis of the Welsh word for ‘hag’, which is gwrach (as in ‘Gwrach y Rhybin’). Gloomy and old she might be, but in the Manx legend she was important enough to have a day named after her – ‘Caillagh y Groamgh’s Day’ which strangely enough coincides with St Bridget’s day, Imbolc, the 1st or 12th of February (depending on how you determine it).

“… Caillagh-ny-groamagh, the gloomy or sulky witch, was said to have been an Irish witch who had been thrown into the sea by the people in Ireland with the intention of drowning her. However, being a witch, she declined to be drowned, and floated easily until she came to the Isle of Man, where she landed on the morning of February 12th. It was a fine, bright day, and she set to work to gather “brasnags”—sticks to light a fire, by which she was able to dry herself. The spring that year was a wet one. It is said that every 12th February morning she still goes out to gather brasnags to make a fire by which to dry herself; that if it be fine up to noon, and she succeeds in doing so, then a wet spring will follow. But, if the morning be wet and she cannot get dry, then the spring will be a dry one …” (Yn Lioar Manninagh, Volume 1 p.223, Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1889)

Not only was she associated with collecting sticks on the beach early in February (a pastime which might also be observed among the early-nesting ravens during this period!) but she had a piece of headland named after her in Maughold: Gob ny Callee. Maughold was the legendary Manx saint who, curiously, also arrived in the Isle of Man after being cast adrift from Ireland. He was reputed to have found the key to his fetters inside a fish – a pescatological phenomenon also displayed by Pictish/Dalriada saint Kentigern (Mungo) whose mother was reputed in his hagiography (by Jocelyn of Furness, some-time Manx Abbot of Rushen Abbey) to have been cast adrift and discovered by monks on the beach as she grubbed around looking for sticks to light a fire next to which she could give birth to the saint. The story of how Mungo’s mother (note: Mungo = a codifed version of Manannan) came to be in the water was that she fell (was pushed) from a cliff – which happens by coincidence to be another property displayed by the Manx Caillagh y Groamagh. W.W. Gill explained this in relation to the folklore about a land-feature in Ballagilbert Glen in the south of the Isle of Man (‘A Manx Scrapbook’, Pub. Arrowsmith, London, 1929 ):

“… This wide, green, shallow valley, always pleasant in summer with flowing waters and unpleasant with standing waters in winter, secluded and now nearly depopulated, has retained a few place-names and scraps of lore attaching to them which deserve to be rescued. In the lane leading to Ballagilbert farmhouse on the East side of the Glen lurked a moddey dhoo (Ed: ‘black dog’ spirit), headless like that at Hango (Ed: near Castletown). Near the top of the valley is a small depression called Caillagh ny Groamagh, (“Old Woman of the Gloominess”,) into which cavity she fell – or which she scooped out by falling – when trying to step from the top of Barrule to the top of Cronk yn Irree Lhaa. The impression of her heels and her thoin are said to be distinctly visible in the soil. A similar anecdote is told of the more serious fall, resulting in a broken neck and burial, of a Caillagh or Hag who came from the North to perform a series of jumps from height to height among the Lough Crew hills in Meath. Apart from this mishap to the Manx Caillagh, she is well known for her influence over the weather, as related in Folk-lore of I.O.M. and elsewhere; in Scotland she is the actual personification of bad weather. As accounts of the Caillagh my Groamagh vary somewhat, I will include here what I have learned of her in Patrick, which at least contains one detail I believe to be fresh and is certainly striking. First, however, it should be said that her alternative name, ” Fai’ag,” is merely a pronunciation of Faihtag-the exact spelling is optional, as with so many Manx words-meaning prediction or prophecy. Another Hag or Witch, the Caillagh ny Gueshag, is, in so far as these shadowy abstractions can be classified, much the same personage. Taken as one, they seem to combine the characteristics of the Scottish Caillagh ny Bheur (sic), familiar to students of Highland, and especially Argyllshire, folk-lore, and the Irish Cailleach Bera or Bheartha, who, it may be surmised, are sisters of the Teutonic goddess-giantess Berchta or Bertha and entered Britain with the Norse via Scotland. As inghin Ghuillinn, daughter of Cuillin, she was related to the Celtic equivalent of Volundr or Weyland the Smith, who is also known in Man, and she had a house of stone on Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh and other places …”

Identity of Gullin/Cuillin with Manannan:

In relation to the connection between Manannan and Cuillean, there is another Manx tradition, handed down verbally until it was written in the 16thC states that the people of the island annually paid tribute to the god with bundles of rushes, a practice which is still echoed in the rush-strewing upon the processional way at the annual Tynwald ceremony still held by local officials at the manmade ceremonial hill at St John’s in the shadow of Cuillin’s mountain: Slieu Whallian (the local version of ‘Slieve Gullion’). Here is part of Joseph Train’s rough literal translation of the old manuscript which was written in Manx:

If you would listen to my story,

I will pronounce my chant

As best I can;

I will, with my mouth,

Give you notice of the enchanted Island.

Who he was that had it first,

And then what happened to him;

And how St. Patrick brought in Christianity,

And how it came to Stanley.

Little Mannanan was son of Leirr,

He was the first that ever had it;

But as I can best conceive,

He himself was a heathen.

It was not with his sword he kept it,

Neither with arrows or bow,

But when he would see ships saving,

He would cover it round with a fog.

He would set a man, standing on a hill,

Appear as if he were a hundred ;

And thus did wild Mannanan protect That Island with all its booty.

The rent each landholder paid to him was,

A bunch of coarse meadow grass yearly,

And that, as their yearly tax,

They paid to him each midsummer eve.

Some would carry the grass up

To the great mountain up at Barrool;

Others would leave the grass below,

With Mannanan’s self, above Keamool.

The ‘Manx Traditionary Ballad’ serves as a reminder to the Isle of Man’s persistent attachment to paganism which caused it to protect and preserve so many of the ideas lost to history elsewhere. Train translates rushes (the ancient Gaelic symbol of hospitality) as ‘coarse meadow grass’. Tynwald Day is in fact old midsummer day – reckoned on the Julian calendar, and now falling 13 days after the date of current midsummer day. ‘Keamool’ means ‘stepped hill’, and is a reference to the Tynwald mound:

The Tynwald Hill in St John's, Isle of Man. Slieu Whallian is the mountain in the background - it is the terminal peak on the ridge descending from South Barrule, which is cited in Manx legend as home of the god Manannan.

 

Connections with ancient Greek mythology:

The earliest European literary citations of aquatic feminine divinities come from the legendary corpus of ancient Greek literature. These were basically inscribed versions of a vast plastic oral tradition, often with many regional variations. In Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 700BC) he talks of Keto – daughter of the personified earth, Gaia, and her son Pontus – the sea. Keto (whose name is usually translated as ‘sea beast’) was the mother of the famous monsters who peopled the far shores of Okeanos in Greek myth – Scylla, the Graeae, Ladon (the dragon from the tree in the garden of the Hesperides) and the Gorgons among them. This makes her the primal oceanic mother of the older Greek gods. She may somehow be related to the sea monster (and constellation) known as Cetus, whom the legendary hero Perseus defeated in order to save princess Andromeda. This makes the ‘old woman of the sea’ a fundamental pagan religious archetype, linked to the chthonic and creative aspects of the serpentine and monstrous beasts of the underworld and the vast ocean.

The Sirenes or Seirenes (described in Homer’s 7thC BCE epic, the Oddyssey) were another category of challenging oceanic island-dwelling females, who perhaps give us the oldest literary mythological attestation of what we would recognise as ‘mermaids’. Rather than being half-fish, however, they (like the Gaelic goddess in her land-based form) partook of the nature of birds. Their beautiful song supposedly drew men to them, and lulled them into a trance, and and they would die of hunger among their flowery meadows . In the legend of Odysseus, they throw themselves off cliffs into the sea and die when Odysseus and his crew pass by their island, apparently unaffected by their magical song. Their name offers a tantalising linguistic link to the shoreline smith-legends of the medieval Gaelic world, as the Gaelic word tSaoire means ‘smith’, a word perhaps related to the sparks which are such a feature of metal-working: ‘Sirom’ was a Gaulish word for ‘star’ (compare Latin sidus). The Sirenoi – as inhabitors of far-off ocean shores – may well owe their literary existence to some well-travelled Greeks, to whom the Atlantic archipelago was as close as they feared get to the edge of the world and the islands of the Gorgons, the Graeae and the Hesperides, where (so the legend goes) ‘here be dragons’…

 

Sabazios and the Phrygian moon-god ‘Men’

Note the 'lunar' crest - you can it is Sabazios because he has his foot on a bull... Just like in Mithraism

Note the ‘lunar’ crest – you can it is Sabazios because he has his foot on a bull… Just like in Mithraism

 

 

Sabazios was obviously a god of some prominence in ancient Thracian religion. To the syncretising Greeks and Romans of the Hellenistic age and late antiquity he came to be seen as equivalent to Dionysus – even considered to be an aspect of Dionysus which played an important role in the ‘Orphic’ mysteries, which were among the more important and influential of the classical age.

An intriguing feature of the devotional ‘Sabazios hands’ (invariably in Europe)from the later Roman Empire is that the god is sometimes depicted wearing ‘lunar horns’ of the type often seen with Roman and Greek statuary of Diana and Artemis. It occurred to me that Sabazios might somehow be related to another masculine lunar god of late antique Asia Minor, who was known as ‘Men‘. Men’s cult was venerated not just in ancient Phrygia (Roman Anatolia) but his influence  extended (through the Greek connection) into the city states of northern Hellas.

   Men was (like many Lunar deities) depicted with what appear to be lunar ‘horns’ emerging from his shoulders, and often with his foot upon a ram’s or bull’s head, echoing the imagery of both Sabazios, the ‘Thracian Hero’ and Mithraism:

The god 'Men' - a Lunar Sabazios? Note the Bacchic 'Thyrsus' wand topped with a pine-cone: also a symbol of Phrygian god Attis.

The god ‘Men’ – a Lunar Sabazios? Note the Bacchic ‘Thyrsus’ wand and the pine-cone held in the god’s hand: this was also a symbol of the Phrygian god Attis, consort of the Great Goddess, Cybele.

Men was apparently a god of the months – the lunar cycles, associated in folklore with human fertility and the menstrual cycle. He was depicted as in the traditions of Apollo, the ‘Thracian Heros‘ and Attis as youthful and androgynous, but his appearance in the Roman-era stelae are certainly less military than the Thracian horseman image. Given the depiction of him with very similar iconography as Sabazios, it would appear that he was possibly one and the same god – perhaps a ‘young Sabazios’, or a ‘son of Sabazios’? Indeed, as Sabazios and Zeus/Jupiter became conflated in the Roman sphere, it is very likely that Men represented a dependent ‘aspect’ of the god. Suggestions that he was somehow Persian or Mesopotamian in origin need to be reconciled with these similarities with the Thracian Sabazios-Dionysus hypostasis…

Other mythological characters who share similarities are Endymion (the lover of the Moon – Selene, also known by the similar name ‘Mene’), and Phrygian Attis, consort of the Great Goddess, Cybele. Endymion’s name certainly appears to incorporate a version of the name of Men with this suffix portion: -mion. His mythology may have been borrowed into Greek stories from that of Men in Asia Minor. Like Attis, Endymion’s active role as the lover of an important goddess (Selene) is placed in a suspended state: Whereas Attis castrates himself in a (Dionysiac) frenzy, Endymion is famous for being in an eternal sleep so that the moon might preserve and admire his beauty, and make love to him. Attis was likewise depicted as fresh-faced. Although Endymion was never (that I know) associated with the pine tree and pine cones, Attis – like Sabazios and Men – certainly was. The evergreen and erect pine which cloaks mediterranean mountain sides had an important phallic meaning to these seemingly related religious mystery cults.

 A Moon God for a Moon Goddess?

Having mentioned the Hellenic goddess-titaness Selene – personification of the moon – it is worth examining other aspects of her from the pre-Christian era regional mythology of the eastern Mediterranean. Selene (also called Mene by e.g. Nonnos in his ‘Dionysiaca’) was also identified with Hecate, as well as the virgin huntress-goddess Artemis/Diana (Sabazios is usually portrayed as a hunter rather than a warrior!). Due to the proliferation of mythological traditions and the tussles for cultural hegemony that population movements tend to engender it is likely that all of these were variants of the same ‘star-myths’, used as explanatory vehicles for the mysteries of nature’s great (and largely occult) mechanisms. The ambivalent male sexuality of the god Attis and the priesthood of the Galli who celebrated Cybele seem to find a kinship with the Phrygian god Men, whose depiction above typifies the Eunuchoid appearance more usually seen in depictions of Attis. However, the moon-shouldered god is shown with the military attributes of Sabazios, at least in terms of the ‘vanquished beast’ and the thyrsus-spear. Another thing worth considering is if the depiction really shows ‘lunar horns’ at all – it could possibly represent the god carrying a Thracian pelta shield or a pair of curved Thracian sica swords on his back. The horns might even be phalli – a well-known attribute of Dionysian cult.

Depiction of Thracian warrior with crescentic 'Pelta' shield.

Depiction of Thracian warrior with crescentic ‘Pelta’ shield.

It is likely that ‘Men’ was a more androgynous aspect the Great Goddess, who was herself often seen as cognate with Rhea, Artemis, Selene and Diana – even Hekate. Sabazios was also in some myths portrayed as both the son and lover of the Great Goddess, otherwise known as Cybele.

Mithraic stela from the Louvre - note the imagery of the moon and the wands wielded by the celebrants, as well as the 'Phrygian' clothing.

Mithraic stela from the Louvre – note the imagery of the moon and the wands wielded by the celebrants, as well as the ‘Phrygian’ clothing.

Medean and Persian Mythology: Vohu Manah

The Zoroastrian mythology (‘Avesta’) states that Vohu Manah (‘Good Mind’) was the spirit who introduced the prophet to the supreme being or Logos, known as Ahura Mazda (‘Light of Wisdom’). The Indo-European word for ‘mind’ is echoed in the name of ‘Men’: consider the Latin word mens. Vohu Manah was associated with the care of flocks of cattle – a similar attribute seen in the mythology of Greek Apollo (and Hermes) – Men’s cult image illustrated above shares aspects of this interpretation.

A form of Zoroastrianism was the religion of the non-Greek peoples of Asia Minor during the Assyrian and Persian Empires during the first half of the 1st millennium BCE. Like the Dionysian/Sabazian and Eleusinian cults of the ancient Hellenes (not to mention the practices of the Delphic Oracle), this religion also involved the imbibing of an intoxicating sacrament, known in this case as ‘Haoma‘: A curious link to the moon, the mind and ecstatic mystery religions…

Baal-hamon:

Baal-hamon was the principle god of the Phoenician peoples of Carthage. Apart from the connection between the words ‘Men’ and ‘Hamon’ (and, of course, Manah) another feature linking him with Men was his epithet: Ba’al Qarnaim – ‘Lord of Two Horns’. This seems very close (in turn) to the similarly-named horned Egyptian god, Amun/Ammon. Baal-hamon was related to the Ram, the symbol of this Egyptian deity. The Romans and Greeks equated Ba’al Hamon with Saturn/Kronos.