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.

 

Sabazios – the ‘other’ Thracian god.

The Thracian/Phrygian god Sabazios is well-attested in ancient Europe, but little – if any – mythology is known about him, not in the least because Thrace (modern Bulgaria) was not a literate culture before its Hellenisation, Romanisation and later Christianisation. Another fact might be because his worship (where it is attested outside of Thrace) appears to have been part of a ‘mystery cult’ where mythology was imparted as secrets to initiates and was not – in common with the greater part of the more ancient Greek, Italic, Celtic and Pontic/Phrygian traditions – part of a common orally-transmitted mythical corpus of knowledge.

We know that the cult of Sabazios was popular in late archaic and Classical Greece, and that it was later to spread throughout the Roman empire. We also know that it showed a good deal of syncretism with the cult of Dionysus/Bacchus, and that two were sometimes considered to be the same god, albeit that the connection of Dionysus/Bacchus to wine was more explicit among the Greeks and Romans while the cult of Sabazios appears to have emphasized the fertility aspects common to the two.

Dionysus/Bacchus and Sabazios were both gods whose cultic worship and festivals typically surrounded the event of the ‘arrival’ (epiphany) of the god and his band of animalistic male and wild human female attendants among the people, associated with ritual cries announcing the god’s coming. In fact, in the Attic cult of Dionysus (practiced at Athens and Delphi) the ‘Bacchic cries’ to the god and his retinue, according to the great 4thC BCE Athenian statesman-author Demosthenes (in his book ‘The Crown’), appear to refer to a ‘foreign’ Sabazios as well as the Phrygian consort-god Attis, suggesting that the cult was considered as something ‘other’ or ‘alien’, at least to men like Demosthenes, who was seeking to denigrate an opponent when he said:

“… On attaining manhood you abetted your mother in her initiations and the other rituals, and read aloud from the cultic writings …You rubbed the fat-cheeked snakes and swung them above your head, crying Euoi saboi and hues attes, attes hues… ”

The cry was called ‘Sabasmos‘ according to the 10thC CE Byzantine encylopedia known as the Suda, which stated (perhaps echoing earlier observations by Clement of Alexandria) that the cults of Sabazios, Bacchus and Dionysus were effectively the same.

Demosthenes’ ancient account refers to a cult of women that involved the carrying of snakes as part of its rituals. Another important part of the ritual or cult was intoxication: the placing of a krater of wine was a part of the ritual of arrival demonstrated on ancient Greek illustrations. The ritual ecstasy of the female band of celebrant-priestesses known as the Maenads who accompanied the god may have been due to factors other than alcohol-intoxication, however. Foremost among these were the group hysteria of the event, heightened by dance and chanting, but perhaps another important factor in the excitement was blood – from the ritual slaughter of an animal or animals, said in some accounts to have been ritually (and primally) rended physically apart by the Maenads in sacrifice to the god. All of these events typically preceded the showpiece ‘arrival’ of the god’s image and his accompanying band of Maenads and disguised male performers dressed as animals, satyrs etc. This would have been followed by feasting and jollity, after which the Dionysia were typified (in the Greek world, at least) by the production of great plays and dramas – a hallmark of Attic culture, from which we have the plays of Aristophanes and other greats of classical drama.

The 'Vix Krater' - an equisite Greek bronze krater buried in the grave of a Gaulish noblewoman c.500BCE. Elaborate kraters were a central symbol of Dionysiac and Sabazian cult worship.

The ‘Vix Krater’ – an exquisite Greek bronze krater buried in the grave of a Gaulish noblewoman c.500BCE. Elaborate kraters were a central symbol of Dionysiac and Sabazian cult worship.

The Thracian and Phrygian (ie – Anatolian) Sabazios emerged from a slightly different religious tradition, but appears to a have merged successfully with the Greek and Roman traditions of Dionysus-Bacchus. In fact, the Dionysiac religion in the Greek cultural world has (rightly or wrongly) generally been considered somewhat ‘different’ to the Olympian traditions, being considered much more of a ‘barbaric’ form of ‘mystery cult’ and generally felt to be somewhat alien and exotic – under the influence of more eastern traditions. This may be a typically ‘Hellenic’ view, however: Greeks of this era (5thC BCE > early Common Era) had a tendency to deride their own ‘primitive’ past and consign such aspects of their indigenous cultural history to the ‘barbaric’ world of Thrace, Phrygia and (of course) the ‘Celts’. The explosion of Hellenic influence and the rise of the Roman Republic on its coat-tails exposed the Greco-Roman world to a plethora of exotic influences, the most favourable of which they found in the Near East. For this reason, these cultures began to ‘orientalise’ and absorb the religious cultures of Thrace and Phrygia, which after the 3rdC BCE were a melting pot also incorporating Celtic and Eastern beliefs. The official acceptance of the Phrygian cults of Attis and the Magna Mater, Cybele, were a prime example of this process, but the older mystery-cults of Orphism and Sabazios-Dionysus had a longer history of influence, which along with the chthonic mystery cult at Eleusis and on the island of Samothrace were testament to the diverse interactions occurring in European paganism. The exoticism and potential for disorder of the Bacchic rites in Rome were accompanied during the late Roman Republic by no small degree of official anxiety, perhaps due to the fact that the state exercised little control over such matters. The adoption of Phrygian Cybele into the official cult of Rome marked the end of the second Punic War, and was perhaps a useful buffer against the more chaotic but no less exotic Bacchanalia. It was following this that the Romans increasingly appear to have shown an interest in the cult of Sabazios (Rome had a temple of ‘Jupiter Sabazios’), which perhaps offered a more conservative aspect of the Dionysiac-Bacchic cult. Rome’s ambitions by the 3rdC BCE lay in the East and her strategy of expansion was achieved as much through cultural incorporation and franchise as by military might.

Thracian/Phrygian Sabazios:

Having mentioned the apparent syncretism of Sabazios with Dionysus during the Hellenic era, it is worth noting the indigenous Thracian and Phrygian aspects of the cult to draw a distinction. As this was (on the whole) a mystery cult and was not written about by indigenous authors, we only have limited epigraphic and artistic (sculptural) evidence to call upon, and most of this during the period of Roman influence following the 2nC BCE. The most common Phrygian and Thracian imagery associated with Sabazios are stone stelae depicting him as a horseman – not a feature seen in Dionysian imagery, except where we see the god’s accomplice Silenus mounted on an Ass. The ‘Thracian Horseman’ is depicted as active and young, and usually shown wearing a billowing cloak and armed with a lance. His image is usually accompanied by some adversarial animals: most often a snake twined around a tree, and sometimes by lions and other wild beasts. Apart from his mount and his weapon, the imagery correlates strongly with that often seen with the archetypal Greek mythical Hero, Hercules. The serpent-slaying hero-role is also seen with Greek Apollo, and it appears that the syncretism between these characters as well as the Centaur Chiron and the god Hermes was a strong feature stamped upon Thracian and Phrygian religion, as well as that of the Celts whose ideas had mingled with theirs during the ‘La Téne’ cultural period. Indeed, when the Romans invaded the Balkans and pushed for Anatolia they were met by combined Thracian, Dacian and ‘Celtic’ forces, whose cavalry was a remarkable and obviously elite part of their fighting style and source of much success until Rome finally defeated and incorporated them into their own armies. The regional prowess of cavalry warfare was at its greatest with the Macedonian Hero-King Alexander, whose father bore the name ‘Phillip’ (‘lover of horses’) and whose cavalry swept aside all opposition in his great surge of conquest during the 4th and 3rdC’s BCE. This was perhaps the spiritual origin of Europe’s medieval mounted warrior elites, and the image of the mounted Thracian Sabazios was used for that of Christianity’s interloper ‘St. George’:

A typical 'Thracian Horseman' image of Sabazios

A typical ‘Thracian Horseman’ image of Sabazios, here hunting a boar – yet another ‘fanged’ chthonic creature representing plenty and growth. The board was a particularly ‘celtic’ image, whereas the serpent was more ‘Greek’ or ‘Eastern’…

The Thracian Horseman image obviously relates to a hero-god, and the name ‘Thracian Heros’ is also applied to the icon-image, one of which is inscribed to ‘Heros Karabazmos’, which name incorporates the ‘-baz-‘ of ‘Sabazios’. To the Thracians, Phrygians and Celts (who used the horse imagery extensively in their otherworldly coins after the 4thC BCE) the ‘Heros’ character represented fertility through the closeness of death: similar to the ancient Etruscan/Roman Mars as well as the all-popular Hercules. In fact, it is worth comparing the iconography of Hercules with that of the Thracian Heros:

Armed Hercules confronts the Serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (Roman Hispania)

Armed Hercules confronts the Serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (Roman Hispania)

And now, here’s the Thracian ‘Heros’ to compare. Note the ‘phallic Herma’ to the right of the tree – these were a feature of Dionysiac and Sabazian worship:

Thracian_Horseman_Histria_Museum

The mythology regarding the ‘horseman’ must have incorporated much of that common to the Herculaean and Apollonian myths as well as the Dionysian aspects of Sabazios. not to mention the martial aspects of gods such as Mars. The icon of the galloping helpful horseman ‘coming from’ the underworld where it has been victorious over the serpents and demons incorporates all of these in a more simplified and much more fundamental and portable manner.

Chiron the hunter - teacher of Greek heros. Are him and Sabazios one and the same? Perhaps the Minotaur too?

Chiron the hunter – teacher of Greek heros. Are him and Sabazios one and the same? Perhaps the Minotaur too?

The coins of Celtic tribes in the Balkans such as the Scordisci and Bastarnae demonstrate a syncretic incorporation of such imagery in their appropriations and modification of Greek designs, and this propagated throughout the Celtic world as far as Britain by the 1stC CE. Often the warlike rider is female in the Celtic numismatic images – particularly so during times of conflict with Rome. It finally seems to have been mollified into the form of the benign ‘Epona’ by the early common era when Rome had broken the fanatical and wizardly backbone of wild Celtic culture:

Cuddly mother Epona - the original Celtic form would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original Celtic form would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Sabazios in Rome:

As previously mentioned, the cult of the Thracian-Phrygian god Sabazios met with some degree of popularity in the Roman Empire. Apart from a few religious stelae, the most prominent artefacts from the cult are the bronze-alloy votive ‘hands’ discovered in places such as Herculaneum and even as far north as modern Belgium. These hands are know as the ‘Hand of Sabazios’, and generally display a gesture which appears to have been adopted by the early Christian church, and is still used by priests in blessings to this day. Here are some examples:

Hand of Sabazios (British Museum)

Hand of Sabazios (British Museum)

The hands take a variety of forms, with some common elements:

1. Most depict the fingers in the gesture shown in the image.

2. All have a pine-cone (or possibly even a hop-flower) either balanced upon the thumb or grasped between thumb and forefinger. In a few cases, these appears to be more explicitly depicted as the Orphic Egg, in one case holding the image of the Thracian Heros with his horse, lance and serpent adversary within. Although Thrace was a beer-drinking culture, hops were not known to have been used as a beer additive until after the medieval period.

3. All have a serpent or basilisk (serpent with a cock’s comb: lit. ‘king of serpents’) representing the chthonic ideal. Other ‘serpentae’ or ‘herpetae’ such as frogs, turtles and lizards frequently accompany this.

4. Most depict a mother lying with her child on the wrist part of the design. This may be an allusion to Ariadne, wife of Dionysus in the Cretan-Greek version of the myth. The birth and rebirth of ‘Dionysus’ were central parts of the Orphic mystery-legend, and Orphism was ascribec by the Greeks to Thrace.

5. Most depict the Dionysian Krater and bowls or cups.

6. Most depict a ram’s head, sometimes that of a bull, upon which the god places his foot in depictions. This is redolent of the sacrifice of animals at the Dionysia.

7. Many depict a miniature figure of Sabazios himself as a bearded man sat against the extended index and middle finger of the hand. He is sometimes crowned with lunar ‘horns’.

Other iconcography commonly associated with these hands include: The Caduceus or wand of the god Hermes/Mercury (think of the serpent on the tree in the Thracian Heros images), a set of scales, a perched eagle, vines and sometimes ritual objects such as a sacrificial knife and a lituus (ceremonial wand). One example of the hand has a bracelet to which human and animal penises are attached by chains! These hands were believed to have been mounted upon poles at ceremonies

Apart from the hands, the cult of Jupiter-Sabazios is also represented on a few ancient stelae recovered from the Roman world. Here is one particularly fine example from Roman Illyria (modern Albania) depicting what appears to be the Phrygian gods Cybele and Attis – maybe even Selene and Endymion or Artemis and Apollo – (who actually hold a pole with a hand on it!), as well as ploutic father Sabazios himself, as well as the usual icons found on the hands and ‘Thracian Heros’ stelae:

sabazios

The overwhelming fertility aspects of the cult are well-demonstrated, and the warlike aspects of the Thracian god have been removed. Even Mercury appears at the base of the serpent-tree to grant his blessing! Observant readers might begin to see how Julius Caesar’s comments about ‘Dis Pater’ being worshipped by the Gauls point to a more ancient and once-widespread cult which emerged from Bronze Age Europe and had influence from far Britain and Ireland right through to the Near East. Just a peak over the common ‘barbarian’ yet mythologically sophisticated event-horizon of our ancient ancestors….

Gebeleizis or Beleizis? Belenos among the Dacians

In one of the earliest accounts of Eastern Europe’s old gods, Herodotus (Histories Book IV, Chapters 93–96 – 5thC BCE) tells us that the Eastern, Danubian tribes of the Getae (also later known to the Romans as the Dacians – inhabiting what is now modern Romania), believed in reincarnation and worshipped a god called Zalmoxis or Salmoxis. Most standard translations into English come from manuscripts in which he appears to state that some of the Getae also called Zalmoxis by the name Gebeleizis’. For example:

93the Getae are the bravest of the Thracians and the most just. 94. They believe they are immortal in the following sense: they think they do not die and that the one who dies joins Zalmoxis, a divine being; some call this same divine being Gebeleizis. Every four years, they send a messenger to Zalmoxis, who is chosen by chance. They ask him to tell Zalmoxis what they want on that occasion. The mission is performed in the following way: men standing there for that purpose hold three spears; other people take the one who is sent to Zalmoxis by his hands and feet and fling him in the air on the spears. If he dies pierced, they think that the divinity is going to help them; if he does not die, it is he who is accused and they declare that he is a bad person. And, after he has been charged, they send another one. The messenger is told the requests while he is still alive. The same Thracians, on other occasions, when he thunders and lightens, shoot with arrows up in the air against the sky and menace the divinity because they think there is no god other than their own…

The alternative name for their chief afterlife-god given by Herodotus is supposed to be ‘Gebeleizis’, and it appears this way in most of the surviving manuscripts of the Histories, which were originally written in Greek. However, my attention was recently drawn to an opinion expressed by the late Prof Rhys Carpenter in his essay The Cult of the Sleeping Bear (1946), that the original word used by Herodotus was ‘Beleizis’ – the ‘ge-‘ being an ‘italicising’ part of the preceding word. In the most complete and earliest source manuscripts (known as A and B to Herodotus scholars) the ‘Ge’ is apparently absent! This opens up a whole new spectrum of possibilities: It is generally accepted that the use of ‘-zis’ in ther terminus of the name is just the Indo-European word for ‘god’, as seen in the words ‘Zeus’ and ‘Deus’. This means that (assuming both Rhys Carpenter and Herodotus were correct) that the god Thracian god Zalmoxis was known to some of the 5thC BCE Getae as ‘Belei’ or ‘Beli’ – in other words, Belenos! This would make it one of the earliest references to the god whose name was adopted by the European Celtic peoples later calling themselves ‘Belgae’.

This passage by Herodotus (dealing with the incursion upon ‘Scythia’ and Greece by the Persian Empire) has stimulated quite a lot of interest, as little is known about the actual religions of the East European peoples before Romanisation and Christianisation. The peoples of Eastern Europe were generally identified by Greeks such as Herodotus as ‘barbarians’ or more specifically as ‘Thracians’ (the most numerous culture, and that bordering Greece/Macedonia directly). By the 4th/3rdC BCE, however, Thrace, Dacia (northern Thrace) and Illyria had become a contributing part of the cultural movement which we identify further west as ‘Celtic’, albeit with an ‘Eastern’ slant: Celticists and archaeologists might, for example, recognise the significance of both the belief in reincarnation (mentioned by Julius Caesar 400 years later) and the sacrificial ritual of sending a man to the Otherworld through death, to which the Iron Age phenomenon of ‘bog bodies’ (found in northern and western Europe) seem also to attest.

The question now turns to the Thracian Salmoxis of whom Herodotus had more to say (trans. Godley):

…I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontus, that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave in Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus; then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own country. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people, but this Salmoxis knew Ionian ways and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian; for he had consorted with Greeks, and moreover with one of the greatest Greek teachers, Pythagoras; Therefore he made a hall, where he entertained and fed the leaders among his countrymen, and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead; then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him…

The text – following on from his account of the Getae and (Ge)Beleizis – appears to give Salmoxis a ‘euhemerized’ slant, even portraying him as a pupil of Pythagoras. This, however, must be examined from the perspective that Herodotus was a Greek (and therefore thought the Greeks to be the true originators of all philosophical doctrines worth their salt) and Pythagoras was legendary for his doctrine of metempsychosis. For the same reason, it was later supposed that Gaulish druids must also have had commerce with Pythagoras. The most important feature of the account (no doubt a garbled understanding of the true Thracian doctrines) is the association of Salmoxis with an underworld feast-hall for the dead and a periodicity of 4 years. The story is even somewhat similar to the later tales in the Christian bible about Jesus’ last supper and his resurrection. The Norse Valhalla also springs to mind, as do the fairy tales of the British and Irish Isles where people are entertained in great underground halls by the wise Fair Folk…

Another consideration for ‘Gebelezius’ is that the name incorporates the Celtic word for the horse – variously written as ‘Gebel’, ‘Cabbyl’, or ‘Capal’ and in a number of other ways. The word ‘Cavalier’ is derived from this Indo-European root-word.

 

Concordance of Belenos, Manannan, Merlin and Wodan.

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

Germans and Slavs ‘were’ Celts:

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

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

So what about Ireland and Scotland?

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

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

Belenos:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merlin and Wodin:

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

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

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

 

Apollo and the Hyperboreans

“…Of the fairest glories that mortals may attain, to him is given to sail to the furthest bound. Yet neither ship nor marching feet may find the wondrous way to the gatherings of the Hyperborean people.Yet was it with these that Perseus the warrior chief once feasted, entering their homes, and chanced upon their sacrifices unto the god, those famous offerings of hecatombs of asses; for in their banquets and rich praise Apollon greatly delights, and laughs to see the rampant lewdness of those brutish beasts. Nor is the Mousa (Muse) a stranger to their life, but on all sides the feet of maidens dancing, the full tones of the lyre and pealing flutes are all astir; with leaves of gleaming laurel bound upon their hair, they throng with happy hearts to join the revel. Illness and wasting old age visit not this hallowed race, but far from toil and battle they dwell secure from fate’s remorseless vengeance…”Pindar: Pythian Ode 10. 27 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)

Once a year, Apollo – the solar son and youthful aspect of Zeus – was believed by the Greeks to leave Hellas and go far to the north to visit a place they called Hyperborea. Like the departure of Persephone/Kore, this probably represented the darkest month, and at Delphi, Pythian Apollo’s oracle closed down for this period, the god being believed absent and away travelling.

Remains of the temple of Apollo at Delphi - note the passing resemblance to northern European (ie - Hyperborean) 'stone circles'...

Remains of the temple of Apollo at Delphi – note the passing resemblance to northern European (ie – Hyperborean) ‘stone circles’…

This land of Hyperborea was believed by the ancient Greeks to lie for all intents and purposes due north on the far shores of world-encircling Okeanos, so it was therefore a place where strange and ancient things might be discovered and glimpses of purer and holier ancient ways of life might be had. By the same association it lay in closer proximity to the aether or spiritual world among which the dead and the divine spirits dwelled. In some Greek legends (e.g. – Perseus) it was a place you had to pass through in order to reach the most remote spacially and temporally remote ‘Cronian’ regions, the lands of giants, gorgons and harpies, far away in the time before memory, after the world had just begun. As pretty much all peoples north of Macedonia were referred to as ‘barbarians’ by the ancient Greeks, it is fair to say that far alien Hyperborea sometimes functioned as a narrative form for an ‘acceptable’ face of barbarism: Like Plato’s Atlantis and Plutarch and Homer’s Ogygia, it provided a hypostasis of man’s universal exotic barbarian past, portrayed as living by higher philosophical ideals more akin to an idealised theocratic Athenian society. Contrast this with the often violent reality of interactions with ‘barbarians’ closer to home: Hyperboreans were an ancient form of ‘noble savages’.

Stonehenge. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Getty

Stonehenge. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Getty

The solar god Apollo was deemed (as with many of his kind) to have a place of resort far away which he retreated to in winter, as befits the seasonal drama of. Such a belief demonstrates that the cult of Apollon engendered a seperate mythos to the agrarian-chthonic drama of Demeter-Hades-Persephone-Dionysus. Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 4. 32 – 36 : 4thC BCE) explains the connection between Hyperborea and Hellas (more specifically the island of Delos, said to be Apollo’s birthplace):

“… Concerning the Hyperborean people, neither the Skythians nor any other inhabitants of these lands tell us anything, except perhaps the Issedones. And, I think, even they say nothing; for if they did, then the Scythians, too, would have told, just as they tell of the one-eyed men. But Hesiod speaks of Hyperboreans, and Homer too in his poem The Epigonoi, if that is truly the work of Homer.But the Delians [from Delos] say much more about them than any others do. They say that offerings wrapped in straw are brought from the Hyperboreans to Skythia; when these have passed Skythia, each nation in turn receives them from its neighbors until they are carried to the Adriatic sea, which is the most westerly limit of their journey; from there, they are brought on to the south, the people of Dodona [an important Zeus/Apollonian oracle] being the first Greeks to receive them. From Dodona they come down to the Melian gulf, and are carried across to Euboia, and one city sends them on to another until they come to Karystos; after this, Andros is left out of their journey, for Karystians carry them to Tenos, and Tenians to Delos. Thus (they say) these offerings come to Delos. But on the first journey, the Hyperboreans sent two maidens bearing the offerings, to whom the Delians give the names Hyperokhe and Laodike, and five men of their people with them as escort for safe conduct, those who are now called Perpherees and greatly honored at Delos. But when those whom they sent never returned, they took it amiss that they should be condemned always to be sending people and not getting them back, and so they carry the offerings, wrapped in straw, to their borders, and tell their neighbours to send them on from their own country to the next; and the offerings, it is said, come by this conveyance to Delos. I can say of my own knowledge that there is a custom like these offerings; namely, that when the Thrakian and Paionian women sacrifice to the Royal Artemis, they have straw with them while they sacrifice.I know that they do this. The Delian girls and boys cut their hair in honor of these Hyperborean maidens, who died at Delos; the girls before their marriage cut off a tress and lay it on the tomb, wound around a spindle (this tomb is at the foot of an olive-tree, on the left hand of the entrance of the temple of Artemis); the Delian boys twine some of their hair around a green stalk, and lay it on the tomb likewise.In this way, then, these maidens are honored by the inhabitants of Delos. These same Delians relate that two virgins, Arge and Opis, came from the Hyperboreans by way of the aforesaid peoples to Delos earlier than Hyperokhe and Laodike; these latter came to bring to Eileithyia [i.e. Artemis] the tribute which they had agreed to pay for easing child-bearing; but Arge and Opis, they say, came with the gods themselves [i.e. Apollon and Artemis], and received honors of their own from the Delians. For the women collected gifts for them, calling upon their names in the hymn made for them by Olen of Lykia; it was from Delos that the islanders and Ionians learned to sing hymns to Opis and Arge, calling upon their names and collecting gifts (this Olen, after coming from Lycia, also made the other and ancient hymns that are sung at Delos). Furthermore, they say that when the thighbones are burnt in sacrifice on the altar, the ashes are all cast on the burial-place of Opis and Arge, behind the temple of Artemis, looking east, nearest the refectory of the people of Keos.I have said this much of the Hyperboreans, and let it suffice; for I do not tell the story of that Abaris, alleged to be a Hyperborean, who carried the arrow over the whole world, fasting all the while. But if there are men beyond the north wind (Boreas), then there are others beyond the south. And I laugh to see how many have before now drawn maps of the world, not one of them reasonably; for they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the Okeanos river, and Asia and Europe of a like extent. For myself, I will in a few words indicate the extent of the two, and how each should be drawn… “

*Film buffs may recall a retelling of the story of Alexander the Great called ‘The Man who would be King’ starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, set in the British Raj. Connery’s sergeant-major carries a golden arrow as his stick of office…

Connery, Alexander or Abaris?

Connery, Alexander or Abaris?

Callimachus (3rdC BCE) takes up the description of this relationship with Delos’ idealised state:

“… Thou [Delos] art famed as the most holy of islands, nurse of Apollon’s youth. On thee treads not Enyo nor Haides nor the horses of Ares; but every year tithes of first-fruits are sent to thee : to thee all cities lead up choirs, both those cities which have cast their lots toward the East and those toward the West and those in the South, and the Hyperboreans (peoples which have their homes above the northern shore), a very long-lived race. These first bring thee cornstalks and holy sheaves of corn-ears, which the Pelasgians of Dodona [i.e. the famous oracle of Zeus] . . . first receive, as these offerings enter their country from afar. Next they come to the Holy town and mountains of the Malian land; and thence they sail across to the goodly Lelantian plain of the Abantes [i.e. the island of Euboia]; and then not long is the voyage from Euboia, since thy havens are nigh thereto. The first to bring thee these offerings from the fair-haired Arimaspoi were Oupis and Loxo and happy Hekaerge, daughters of Boreas, and those who then were the best of the young men. And they returned no home again, but a happy fate was theirs, and they shall never be without their glory. Verily the girls of Delos, when the sweet-sounded marriage hymn affrights the maidens’ quarters, bring offerings of their maiden hair to the maidens, while the boys offer to the young men the first harvest of the down upon their cheeks… ” Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 275 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.)

It appears from these early accounts that the ‘Hyperboreans’ sent gifts of their ‘first fruits’ (apparently as or within bundles of corn/straw – the accounts vary) to Apollo’s supposed birthplace – the once-floating, formerly mobile island of Delos. This practice was going on as late as the 2ndC CE, according to Pausanias. They also state that two archery-oriented maidens accompanied the archery-oriented Artemis and Apollo to Delos when their mother Leto came pregnant fro Hyperborea: Opis (‘aim’) and Argis (‘distance’) – the Hyperboreiai. Furthermore he mentions the arrow-carrying prophet Abaris the Hyperborean: a holy man from a far-off land who preaches the word of Apollo. The arrow represented accuracy, reach and distance, yet must also have been a symbol of the northeastern steppes tribes (collectively referred to as Scythians, it seems) who were famous throughout the ancient world for their skills in archery and horsemanship. The arrow and the stalk of corn have certain morphological similarities too.

In spite of Herodotus and others’ proposed location of Hyperborea to the northeast above the Black Sea steppes, other authors such as Apollonius of Rhodes (‘Argonautica’, 3rdC BCE) suggest a more conventionally ‘Celtic’ location to the west. Here, he writes of the Argonauts’ return voyage via the lower reaches of the Hyperborean river, ‘Eridanos’:

“… Far on sped Argo under sail, and entered deep into the stream of Eridanos; where once, smitten on the breast by the blazing bolt, Phaethon half-consumed fell from the chariot of Helios into the opening of that deep lake; and even now it belcheth up heavy steam clouds from the smouldering wound. And no bird spreading its light wings can cross that water; but in mid-course it plunges into the flame, fluttering. And all around the maidens, the daughters of Helios, enclosed in tall poplars, wretchedly wail a piteous plaint; and from their eyes they shed on the ground bright drops of amber. These are dried by the sun upon the sand; but whenever the waters of the dark lake flow over the strand before the blast of the wailing wind, then they roll on in a mass into Eridanos with swelling tide. But the Keltoi (Celts) have attached this story to them, that these are the tears of Leto’s son, Apollon, that are borne along by the eddies, the countless tears that he shed aforetime when he came to the sacred race of the Hyperboreans and left shining heaven at the chiding of his father [Zeus], being in wrath concerning his son [Asklepios] whom divine Koronis bare in bright Lakereia at the mouth of Amyros. And such is the story told among these men. But no desire for food or drink seized the heroes nor were their thoughts turned to joy. But they were sorely afflicted all day, heavy and faint at heart, with the noisome stench, hard to endure, which the streams of Eridanos sent forth from Phaethon still burning; and at night they heard the piercing lament of the Heliades (daughters of Helios), wailing with shrill voice; and, as they lamented, their tears were borne on the water like drops of oil.Thence they entered the deep stream of Rhodanos [the Rhone] which flows into Eridanos; and where they meet there is a roar of mingling waters. Now that river, rising from the ends of the earth, where are the portals and mansions of Nyx (Night), on one side bursts forth upon the beach of Okeanos, at another pours into the Ionian sea, and on the third through seven mouths sends its stream to the Sardinian sea and its limitless bay. And from Rhodanos they entered stormy lakes, which spread throughout the Keltic mainland of wondrous size; and there they would have met with an inglorious calamity; for a certain branch of the river was bearing them towards a gulf of Okeanos…. “

This passage should pique the interest of scholars of Apollonian myths, as it contains distinct allusions suggesting a link between the legend of Helios’ son Phaethon (etymologically similar to ‘Python’) whose stolen sun-chariot appears to have crashed into a lake, suggested here to lie in the NW reaches of Europe, in which case it must be a reference to either Iceland or a peat bogland on the Atlantic fringe. The noxious vapours and oily waters (of cthonic-solar putrefaction) flow into ‘Eridanus’ and hence south closer to the ‘known’ world. Apollonius uses it to represent a challenge to the brave Argonauts, yet mentions the legend of the river’s nature was given by the Celts! The Stygian vapours of the rotting Python, slain by Apollo, were of course supposed to be the vapours emitted from the Omphalos at Delphi and inhaled by the Pythian oracle. See my articles on serpents and norse myth for an in-depth look at their symbolic link to rivers and regeneration – needless to say, Greek was an Indo-European language, in which the ‘P’ and ‘K’ sounds often switch: Pthon and Cthon link to this earthy putrefied origin. The river Eridanus therefore seems to be somewhat Stygian in aspect! It is interesting to speculate if the quadriga statue from Delphi was supposed to be a representation of this or simply of a racing quadriga. Phaethon may be

The Greeks certainly used the name Eridanus for the River Po, now in northern Italy and once the interface between Etruscan and Celtic tribes (such as the Boii). However, its mythical entity was connected with Hyperborea. This perhaps illustrates how the ‘barbarian horizon’ influenced Hellenic Greek thinking… Ptolemy (2nd C CE Greek geographer and astronomer) discussed the constellation of Eridanos (near to Cetus, Orion and other mythologically interesting groups associated with the Atlantic mythology): this suggests that it was a ‘sky-river’ befitting the astral ‘reality’ of northern Hyperborea. There are other mythological indications that this was the case:

For instance, Nonnos’ Dionysiaca 23. 380 ff (4thC CE) has the god Dionysos boast:

“I will drag down from heaven the fiery Eridanos whose course is among the stars, and bring him back to a new home in the Celtic land: he shall be water again, and the sky shall be bare of the river of fire.”

This no doubt reflects the old Greek association of Eridanus with the Po River, but yet again frames the legends which place Hyperborea beyond that geographical AND cultural, religiously potent and mysterious northern horizon, from beyond which geese and swans were noted to migrate in the ancient world. The swan in Europe and Eurasia is a bird strongly associated with legend, and indeed makes an appearance in the Greek mythos of Apollo’s Hyperborean servants, the Boreades – sons and daughters of the north wind (Boreas):

“… The race of the Hyperboreans and the honours there paid to Apollon are sung of by poets and are celebrated by historians, among whom is Hekataios, not of Miletos but of Abdera [Greek philosopher C4th B.C.] . . . This god has as priests the sons of Boreas (North Wind) and Khione (Snow), three in number, brothers by birth, and six cubits in height. So when at the customary time they perform the established ritual of the aforesaid god there swoop down from what are called the Rhipaion mountains swans in clouds, past numbering, and after they have circled round the temple as though they were purifying it by their flight, they descend into the precinct of the temple, an area of immense size and of surpassing beauty. Now whenever the singers sing their hymns to the god and the harpers accompany the chorus with their harmonious music, thereupon the swans also with one accord join in the chant and never once do they sing a discordant note or out of tune, but as though they had been given the key by the conductor they chant in unison with the natives who are skilled in the sacred melodies. Then when the hymn is finished the aforesaid winged choristers, so to call them, after their customary service in honour of the god and after singing and celebrating his praises all through the day, depart… ” Aelian, On Animals 11. 1 (2ndC CE)

It is worth remembering that in the myth of Perseus, the Graeae were three wyrd sisters who shared one eye and were tricked by Perseus in order to locate Medusa – they were sometimes portrayed as half-swan. Apollo’s mythological mother Leto has a name similar to Leda – the mortal woman bedded by Zeus in the form of a swan, father Castor and Polydeukes (Pollux) – the Dioskoroi or twins of ‘Gemini’. Callimachus’ hymn to Apollo refers to the swans – sacred to the Muses – who circled over his birth on Delos singing their hymns:

Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 248 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
“…With music the swans, the gods’ own minstrels, left Maionian Paktolos and circled seven times round Delos, and sang over the bed of child-birth [i.e. of Apollon], the Mousai’s birds, most musical of all birds that fly. Hence that child in after days strung the lyre with just so many strings–seven strings, since seven times the swans sang over the pangs of birth. No eight time sang they : ere that the child leapt forth.”

The legend of Phaethon has a number of versions in which his friend Cygnus/Cycnus turns himself into a swan and plunges into Eridanus in grief for his death. The mournful tone of their song, the whistling noise of their wings, the association with the north and hence the far reaches of Okeanos and the otherworld made swans potent creatures in ancient European myths, as the tale of the Children of Lir from Ireland, and the descriptions of Valkyries as swan maidens from the Norse Edda myths suggest. Apollo’s annual migration to his beloved Hyperborea must have been a parallel metaphor to the migrations of the beautiful white birds…

 

Celtic Belenos and Balto-Slavic Veles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltic Veles:

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

‘Velchanos’ in Crete:

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

‘Vayl’ in the Isle of Man:

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

Etymological concordances:

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity:

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

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

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

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

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

IN SUMMARY:

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

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

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

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

The ‘warrior’ panel of the Gundestrup cauldron

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

This interior panel from the famous Gundestrup cauldron appears to show a line of seven mail-clad, shield and spear-wielding Celtic warriors advancing in a line from right to left towards a giant warrior who appears to be holding the body of another small warrior over a vessel of some sort. A dog or wolf appears to jump up at his feet. Proceeding from the giant along the upper row, are a line of four finely-arrayed horsemen with elite crested helmets, passing from left to right. Preceding them is a snake. The footsoldiers of the bottom row are followed by three carnyx (boar-headed celtic war-horn) players, whose horns reach up to face the cavalry riding back towards them, and the snake 'flies' above the horn chanters. Separating the rows of footmen and cavlry is a branch from which sprouts foliage or flowers. The metalwork around this is textured, suggesting an aura, a river or a footpath. The 'spears' of the footmen seem to connect with the trunk of the branch.

Symbolism interpreted:

The silver Gundestrup cauldron was probably a ritual deposit in water, pledged to the gods, as it was discovered in pieces in a Danish bog in 1891. Such deposits were an archaeological feature of Europe's 'Atlantic Bronze Age' which were influential upon the Celtic Iron Age cultures of north and central Europe. The organised style of the warriors, their mail suits and war trumpets seem date the cauldron between the 3rdC BCE and the 1stC CE during which time there were broad military and cultural interactions between Celtic tribes of Gaul and those of south and central Europe, explaining the artistic styles (and that of the armour) depicted on the cauldron: In fact, some design elements on the cauldron are so similar to those on objects found in the 'Letnica Hoard' (Bulgaria) to suggest a Gallo-Thracian origin for at least some of the panels. The cauldron shows aspects of both military and spiritual ideas of the afterlife which commentators typically associate with Celtic Iron Age culture.

Our 'warrior' panel shows some key features of a warfare-oriented view of reincarnation:

The footsoldiers:

These are 'ordinary' footsoldiers kitted uniformly for war with shields, spears and chainmail vests. There are seven armed men and three carnyx players. The last of the armed men carries no shield, and may be a youth, as he stands below the topmost 'sprout' of the tree-like design above their heads. They are clearly marching into battle, towards the dog/wolf and the giant figure with his cauldron, who appears to be placing one in or pulling one out of the cauldron. The soldiers are marching in the direction of the roots of the aforementioned tree design. Interestingly, it can be seen that their chainmail hauberks finish at the knee, below which they appear to wear hose and rawhide sandals on their feet, similar to those still in use in Ireland and the Isle of Man into the 19thC.

The giant warrior and his 'cauldron':

The giant warrior's cauldron or vessel appears to be a metaphor for some kind of rebirth promised to the valiant footsoldiers, as proceeding from it in the opposite direction to them are a line of mounted knights with fabulous helmets. The womb-like metaphor for the cauldron as a symbol for rebirth is found in the 'Second Branch' of the medieval Welsh epic tales known as Mabinogion in which the giant, Brân, owns a cauldron which revives the dead. In the case of the Gundestrup cauldron, two things appear to be emerging from this giant's cauldron – glorified warriors and a tree. This has echoes of the Yggdrasil tree mentioned in the 12thC Icelandic accounts of Scandinavian pagan legends: at the base of Yggdrasil were a number of wells from which the lives and fates of men flowed. At the base of the tree, gnawing animals and serpents were found: aspects of the ancient empirical idea of regeneration through putrefaction: these are also represented on the Gundestrup cauldron by the snake and the dog. The message of the panel is that the masculine god of the Otherworld (here portrayed also as a warrior, therefore a 'colleague) promises regeneration to those who glorify themselves in battle, and the new existence may have greater glory, represented by:

The four knights:

Proceeding from the apparent god and his cauldron are four mounted men (knights), remarkable for their elaborate crested helmets. The horses and more beautiful helmets mark them out as part of the warrior elite, and the implication of their appearance in the panel is that valiant footsoldiers might become so great – either through death or attainment. It is notable that there are only four knights, compared to the eight warriors going towards the cauldron (including the man held by the 'god'). Assuming that all of the soldiers on the lower row were looking forward to death in battle, then the panel suggests only four of these seem to have achieved a more glorious reincarnation! This again links to the Norse accounts of beliefs about death of warriors in battle which suggest that only half of the slain went with Odinn to Valhöll. Another interesting concordance.

So what of the other four warriors – what might the panel say about these? We are left with two interesting possibilities:

The first is represented by the animals in the image: first of these are the cavalrymen's horses, which would bring the number of sentient beings up to eight in the top row. The other is the ravenous dog or wolf, who like the crows and carrion birds depicted elsewhere on the cauldron would be features of any battlefield. The folklore of hosts of the restless dead remaining in Atlantic Europe after the Iron Age seems to have relevance here: the Sluagh Sidhe of the Gaelic world, and the 'Wild Hunt' of the Germanic world in particular. It may be that the souls of the unglorified were believed to have been incarnated in the form of the animals who haunt battlefields and the margins of human habitation: the corvidae (crows), vultures, wolves, dogs and foxes. By consuming the flesh of the glorious and providing good deeds in the form of omens and warnings, they might find themselves given a better incarnation in the next life, as well as speeding the recovery of the battlefield etc.

The second possibility of reincarnation is represented by the tree – the ancient metaphor for human generations: 'root, branch and seed'. The panel's design with the tree apparently growing from it suggests the dead are fertilising the regrowth of future generations, perhaps implying the reincarnation of less worthy footsoldiers as humans, ready for another 'go' at attaining greater glory. My feeling, based on the residual folklore and traditions of Europe, is that the truth probably lies somewhere between these two suggestions. The transmigration of souls (described by Roman authors as a central tenet of Gallic/Celtic faith) might lead to a number of outcomes, based variously upon the achievements of individuals in this life: a glorious afterlife, reincarnation as a human, or even a cavalryman's horse, or as a restless ravening creature who plays an important role in the regeneration processes of nature, and who might offer auguries to the living. The calls of ravens and crows, the flight-patterns of birds and the calls and shouts of canines and horses, were all recorded as potential sources of augury in ancient Europe until at least the middle ages.

The snake and the Carnyxes:

The snake has been a symbol of reincarnation for a very long time, based upon their continuous unblinking stare, their shedding their skins, their love of chthonic lairs from which they emerge into daylight, and from their ancient philosophical (morphological) classification along with worms, larvae and maggots as part of natural putrefaction and regenerative processes of nature. The snake is also notable for the visceral, terrifying/transfixing ability it has over its prey, bringing us here to discuss the Carnyx, above which the snake is positioned in the panel. The was the war-trumpet par-excellence of the Celts, whose terrifying cacophonic honking seemed designed to evoke the enraged squeals and bellows of an attacking boar, stag or bull, augmenting the terrifying transfixing effect of soldiers' war-cries upon an enemy. The horn was apparently a potent weapon in itself, designed – like the gaze of the snake – to sap the morale of the enemy.

Summary:

This panel appears to show imagery promising soldiers reincarnation in battle. Their deaths are being 'inverted' into a renewed, more glorious life, and the cauldron and tree act as a central metaphor of regrowth from the well of life, with the dog and snake representing the earthly and allegorical forms of this natural process.