Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

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

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

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

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

Divine triads and the two faces of Roman Mars.

(For context, I advise you to also look at my post: ‘Gods of war and agriculture’)

Rome’s ancient god Mars represents a curious religious dialectic: On the one hand, he is perhaps best known as a god of war, and on the other he has an older more mysterious incarnation as a god of agriculture and earth’s riches. He remained one the most popular gods of the state religion up until its conversion to christianity.

” … Mars enim cum saevit Gradivus dicitur, cum tranquillus est Quirinus … “

” … When furious, Mars is called Gradivus, when peaceful he is Quirinus …”

Maurus Servius Honoratus – Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil (early 5thC CE) 

This dual nature was illustrated by the Romans in the god’s twin symbols of the shield (the passive or protective) and the spear (the active), represented in his (astrological) symbol, comprising of a circle and an arrow:

In Livy’s great 1stC BCE/CE euhemerist (for which we might read ‘fictive’) account of Rome’s history and founding myth (Ab Urbe Condita), the culture-hero twins Romulus and Remus were said to have been born to a mother called Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of the rightful king of the legendary founder-kingdom of Alba Longa who supposedly sired the twins with the god Mars, while being forced to serve as Vestal Virgin by the usurper, Amulius. Rhea Silvia’s identity seems to very consciously evoke the great mother-goddess of Greek myth – Rhea – whose name appears to be a metathesis of that of the other arch-goddess: Hera. In the theme-story probably borrowed into that of Rome’s legendary founding twins, Rhea gives birth to Zeus while hiding in a cave on Crete’s Mount Ida, lest her consort Kronos find and devour him. Likewise, Livy says that Romulus and Remus were rescued from destruction by the jealous Amulius who throws the twins into the Tiber, only to be thwarted when they wash ashore and are rescued by a she-wolf. A similar Greek/Cretan myth dealing parturative peril tells of the birth of Dionysus to Demeter/Persephone under similar circumstances. The other myth of that god’s birth to Semele also has the same elements, although both portray Dionysus as being destroyed and reborn. These share elements with the older Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis, the death and dismemberment of Osiris, his reconstruction and the birth of Heru/Horus. The narrative seems to be a continuity of the idea of life coming from death – an idea at the heart of ancient paganism, one pertinent to understanding Mars. The ‘two faces’ of Mars: Mars-Gradivas and Mars-Quirinus as mentioned by the Christian author Servius, seem to have been united to Old Jupiter in the original ‘Archaic Triad’ of Rome’s principle gods: Jupiter, Mara and Quirinus. This ‘Archaic Triad’ supposedly had its own triad of Flamines Maiores said to have been appointed by legendary king, Numa Pompilus, who was supposed to have ruled in the 8th/7thC BCE. However, it was supposedly supplanted by Hellenised Etruscan influence – either of the Tarquinian kings, just before the dawn of the Roman Republic in the 6thC BCE or by a more gradual process of adoption of state cults from conquered cities. Livy, for instance, states that Juno was adopted when Rome conquered Etruscan Veii in 396BCE, although such a statement does not preclude her already being a god to whom the Romans gave Cult. This ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, copied the Etruscan triad of Tinia, Uni and Menerva, respectively. Mars was replaced with the similarly spear and shield-wielding goddess, Minerva, known to the Greeks as Athena – a principle protectoress (as Athena Polias/Pallas) of the city-state in the archaic and classical eras – Athens, in particular. Juno (Hera to the Greeks) was also a feminine representation of a vengeful force who in mythology often attempts to protect (with varying degrees of success) the bonds of her marriage to Jupiter/Zeus. Both female replacements for Mars and Quirinus represent feminine aspects of the male gods. It was noted by Macrobius in his 5thC CE book Saturnalia – that Juno was (etymologically) a female counterpart of Janus, another uniquely Latin god who was depicted with two faces. As god of beginnings and endings, he also played an important role in warfare, it being a custom (according to Plutarch and others) to keep the doors of his temple open in times of war. Janus is an interesting god to introduce to the narrative of ‘two-headed’ Mars: In the time of Augustus this god was actually referred to (by Festus and Livy) as ‘Janus-Quirinus’, implying some kind of link to Rome’s ‘Cthonic Mars’. In the case of Livy (History I.32.6-14), Janus Quirinus was supposedly invoked in the act of formally declaring war. Livy’s account of the words are probably a fanciful concoction of his own typically grandiose style, but the details still count:

“Hear thou, Jupiter, and thou, Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye terrestrial gods, and ye infernal gods, hear! I call you to witness this people – naming whatever people it is – are unjust and do not render just reparation. But regarding these matters, we will consult the elders of our fatherland, how we may aquire our due.”

In other words: ‘I’m going to go home and tell my dad, and then you’ll be sorry!’

This and the custom of opening the temple doors equates Janus resolutely to the Archaic triad of Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus under a military aspect. Why, then did Rome adopt the Capitoline triad in its place? It certainly was not averse to war – indeed, the doors of the temple of Janus were probably more often open than closed! The key to understanding the answer to this question is to be found by looking at the females behind the Capitoline triad.

Minerva was the feminine counterpart to Mars in his role as war-god, and was depicted with the same attributes: the spear and shield. However, she was also the goddess of intellect and wisdom – those crucial characteristics which avert war or guide it to its successful conclusion. It is perhaps the fundamental incompatibility between Roman Mars (who was also a chthonic agriculture-fertility deity) and the Greek conception of the war-god – Ares – who represented simply the idea of aggression and violence, devoid of the regenerative qualities implicit in Mars. Minerva herself was a ‘virgin’ goddess – an idea which did not necessarily imply chastity (in the sense so lauded by early Christians), but rather maximum fertile potential.

Juno (Uni to the Etruscans, and Hera to the Greeks) represented the maternal protective force – jealous and fiercely protective, much like the wolf who adopted Romulus and Remus as her ‘pups’ in the old Roman foundation myth. She was the ‘Capitoline’ replacement for Quirinus, who is sometimes portrayed as a deification of Romulus, Mars – like Minerva – being the younger more active version of the god. Jupiter is Juno’s husband in conventional mythology, and Jupiter was the principle god to which warfare was dedicated. Greek and Roman legends are full of the conflict with Hera/Juno caused by Zeus/Jupiter’s constant seeking for mistresses by which conceive the other gods and demi-gods who people Mediterranean myth. In these, her jealousy seeks to protect the older order – their own union. She is thus a more mature aspect of Minerva, her daughter. In Greek and Etruscan myth, she is the nurse-maid of the ‘culture-hero’ Hercules/Herakles (who bears her Greek name), allowing him access to Olympus as a divine – much like the later myth of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, allowing them to found Rome. Again, we can see how syncresis with Greek myths informed a change in the focus of Roman religion. Greeks tended to see their Roman cousins as closer to barbarians, and Romans were typically conscious of this in attempting to follow Greek religion.

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

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

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

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

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

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

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

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

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

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

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

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish connection:

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

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

See my related articles here and here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

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

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

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

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

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

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

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

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

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

The healer and the poetess:

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

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

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

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

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

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

 

Diving at Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

The Nativity of Aion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The drowned god who came back to life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The winter Dionysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’…