Epona and the cult of the Danubian Horsemen

The Getae (Dacians) and other peoples of the Danube basin developed a fascinating religious cult some time between the 1st and 3rdC CE whose imagery seems to have been a syncresis of the worship of Epona and that of the ‘Thracian Hero’ or Sabazios. The reason we know about it is from a collection of small lead plaques and occasional stone stelae  depicting cult images. After Trajan conquered the Dacians at the start of the 2ndC CE, his admiration for them as a military fighting force and organised society led to a rapid assimilation of them into the Empire and offered Dacian warriors and nobility an opportunity to serve with honour in the Roman army – particularly the cavalry. Dacians, Dalmatians, Moesians, Sarmatians and their Thracian cousins and neighbours had a great equestrian tradition and became key recruits to Rome’s elite mounted fighting forces. As such their native religious cults often appear to have involved the horse – in particular the mounted ‘Thracian Hero’ and the more northerly ‘Danubian Horsemen’ imagery come to mind. There was also the ‘celtic’ goddess Epona, whose idea and imagery was popular not only in the Balkans and down the Danube, but among the ‘Germanic’ peoples who existed along and around the river Rhine in Germania, and even in Gaul and Rome itself.

The phenomenon referred to as the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult is perhaps of greatest interest, as appears to show elements of syncretism uniting the more western or Celtic ‘Epona’ cult and the more eastern Thracian ‘Horseman’ cult. The lead plaques which are the most common source of the Danubian imagery are typically quite small – they’d fit in the palm of your hand – and were obviously devotional objects of some kind.

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

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

Apart from the central goddess and her two (or four) horses – an image familiar from the Epona cult – they typically show aspects of the chthonic imagery associated with the Thracian/Phrygian deity Sabazios, and Delphic Apollo: namely the serpent or dragon. The dragon was an important and iconic aspect of Dacian symbolism, as evidenced by their legendary ‘Draco’ banners as depicted on Trajan’s column in Rome. The other essential piece of imagery associated with the cult is the sacrificial fish which appears in the image above in three forms: under the hooves of one of the horses, on the ‘altar’ surrounded by three women, and upon a sacral tripod.

Epona with two horses - note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

Epona with four horses – note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

The usual appellation of  ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult actually removes the real central figure from the religion, which is actually the seated goddess. Whereas the ‘Thracian Horseman’ images usually represent the solitary hero on his horse vanquishing a boar or similar beast, here there are two riders – somewhat akin to the Greek Dioskoroi, the famed equestrian brothers of ancient Greek religion, one of whom was mortal and one of whom was divine. Such imagery is an important aspect of the ‘divine hero’ cults which drove societies in this age: it was important that humans could aspire to the divine through identity (tribal or spiritual) with such ideas. Although Hercules was a popular image in this age, his non-equestrian nature would not have appealed so much to warriors of the Danubian region…

By the ‘Dioskorian’ interpretation of this imagery, the goddess seated between the two horsemen would have been seen as an intercessor between the divine and the mortal and therefore a goddess of death and war. The Dioskouroi – Kastor/Castor and Polydeukes/Pollux themselves represented the combination of immortal with mortal – a fact as important to their cult as their association with horses. By common European norms of the day, the owners and riders of horses held a superior cultural and social status – a feature which has endured down to the modern day. The goddess who controls horses was therefore the goddess with power over human society’s elites – perhaps explaining the importance of ‘Epona’. The ‘fertility’ aspect of Epona has often been commented on – perhaps on account of this cultural power-relationship of humans with horses. The imagery of serpents associated with the Sabazios and Danubian cults reflects the power of decay to promote fertility – an aspect reflecting the ideas of kingship and ambition which lead to wars, which in turn led to death and regeneration in Europe’s ancient societies.

Writing in the 1stC BCE, Diodorus of Sicily had this to say about the Celts of Atlantic Europe (which if he is borrowing from Herodotus :

 “…The Keltoi  who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskoroi above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean…” Library of History 4. 56. 4 (trans. Oldfather)

This may explain the fish in the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult imagery – the Dioskouroi were also favourites among Greek and Roman fishermen and mariners, and the Danube basin was famously associated with fisheries and river trade as well as its cavalry traditions, and the river was well-stocked with fish in ancient times, including the freshwater Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho) which can grow to a huge size – as big as a man! The giant fish being trampled by the hooves of the leftmost rider on the ‘Danubian’ plaque may well be one of these. It seems a good fisherman’s alternative to the ‘Thracian Horseman’, typically portrayed trampling his porcine or leonine prey.

So why Epona and what does she signify?

The Danubian ‘Epona’ is depicted making contact with the horses of the two mounted heros, and occupies the central upper part of the plaques’ imagery associated by the usual interpretation with the spiritual or otherworld realms.  In the plaque depicted above, under the arch (which depicts the vault of the heavens) is another figure who appears to be driving a quadriga chariot yoked to four horses and with the rays of the sun coming from his head – evidently this is Helios-Apollo. Other similar plaques depict Sol and Luna (or Helios-Apollo and Artemis-Hecate-Selene, interchangeably Sabazios and Bendis) in the same position. This syncretic imagery seems to have been shared with the late classical Sabazios and Mithras cults of Thracia and Phrygia which subsequently spread throughout the Roman empire. For the solar and lunar gods to be depicted above ‘Epona’ suggests to me that the events in the drama of her mysteries in this cult happened at the gateway to the otherworld, and places this ‘Epona’ as a receiver of the dead. Not a ‘goddess of horses’… She may have been viewed as this by Romans who absorbed Epona’s cult (see: Juvenal, Satires VIII), but they also popularised the Dioscuri as gods of horses! This was evidently a mystery cult whose outward façade hid higher truths.

Some of the Danubian plaques depict Epona interacting with the horses while simultaneously cutting/sacrificing the fish on a tripod altar, sometimes a pedestal altar. Others, like the one above in particular, leave this to a trio of apparently female figures. The image in fact looks like a depiction of Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ around their cauldron, although it may be a pedestal altar. This may be a depiction of a cult practice, but it might equally portray the typically Celtic ‘triple’ aspect of the divinity above, which imagery seems often to have been borrowed by the Greeks and Romans. The left-most figure is dumpy and matronly, the right-most seems lithe and young, the one in the middle is difficult to age unfortunately, but I shouldn’t be surprised if she was supposed to be a crone

Frau Holle

In the mythology of the people of Hesse in Germany, perhaps the most well-known character is that of ‘Frau Holle’. Exposed to the world at large in the writings of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century, she has remained an important and intriguing cornerstone of German folk mythology, and is generally considered to represent a demoted form of the great European goddess of old. That she appears to share such similarities to ‘An Cailleach’ of Gaelic folklore is all the more interesting given the supposed divide between the ideas of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ mythology.

‘Frau Holle’ was in fact only one of her many names – the version common in Hesse and Thuringia, from where many of her traditions are recorded. Throughout the northern German and Scandinavian regions she went by a number of other epithets, including ‘Holda’ and ‘Frau Gode’. In the southern regions of Germany she was often known as ‘Perchta’, ‘Berchta’ or ‘Bertha’. As befits the protean Great Goddess of old Europe, the names exhibit a degree of plasticity, having been preserved in oral traditions beyond the era when ‘she’ was officially accepted as a deity. However, in the face of modernisation and the rejection of old customs during the 19thC, we owe her existence in thought and memory today largely to Willhelm Grimm and his tale ‘Frau Holle – Gold Mary and Pitch Mary’, first recounted to him by a Hessian woman called Dortchen Wild on 29th September 1811. The following is the revised 1857 version of this tale:

A widow had two daughters, the one was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. She greatly favored the ugly, lazy girl, because she was her own daughter. And the other one had to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house.

Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, next to the highway, and spin so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the reel was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well, to wash it off, but it dropped out of her hand and fell in. She cried, ran to her stepmother, and told her of the mishap. She scolded her so sharply, and was so merciless that she said, “Since you have let the reel fall in, you must fetch it out again.”

Then the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified, she jumped into the well to get the reel. She lost her senses. And when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She walked across this meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.” So she stepped up to it, and with a baker’s peel took everything out, one loaf after the other.

After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. “Shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.” cried the tree. So she shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining apples. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a pile, and then continued on her way.

Finally she came to a small house. An old woman was peering out from inside. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, and she wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, “Don’t be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you do my housework in an orderly fashion, it will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world. I am Frau Holle.”

Because the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Frau Holle’s satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and boiled or roast meat every day.

Now after she had been with Frau Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off here than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, “I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people.”

Frau Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself.” With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.

The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. “This is yours because you have been so industrious,” said Frau Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the reel which had fallen into the well.

With that the gate was closed and the girl found herself above on earth, not far from her mother’s house. And as she entered the yard the rooster, sitting on the well, cried:

Cock-a-doodle-doo,
Our golden girl is here anew.

Then she went inside to her mother, and as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for the other, the ugly and lazy daughter. She made her go and sit by the well and spin. And to make her reel bloody, the lazy girl pricked her fingers and shoved her hand into a thorn bush. Then she threw the reel into the well, and jumped in herself.

Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.”

But the lazy girl answered, “As if I would want to get all dirty,” and walked away.

Soon she came to the apple tree. It cried out, “Oh, shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.”

But she answered, “Oh yes, one could fall on my head,” and with that she walked on.

When she came to Frau Holle’s house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Frau Holle, when she said something to her, because she was thinking about all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she already began to be lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn’t even want to get up in the morning. She did not make the bed for Frau Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Frau Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her of her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted, for she thought that she would now get the rain of gold.

Frau Holle led her too to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.

Then the lazy girl went home, entirely covered with pitch. As soon as the rooster on the well saw her, he cried out:

Cock-a-doodle-doo,
Our dirty girl is here anew.

And the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.

The tale exhibits certain key traits that equate Frau Holle with the old European goddess: Firstly, Frau Holle’s world is reached through water into which a bloody spinning reel is dropped. She lives in a beautiful meadow or garden, where her work appears to be baking bread and growing apples. These are, as it happens, the ‘bounty’ depicted on Roman era statues of the goddess known as ‘Nehalennia’ from Zeeland in the Low Countries. She has the power to reward respect and hard work with worldly wealth, and to punish idleness in equal measure. Other traditions about her were subsequently collected and written down, inspired by the recently-recovered Icelandic Edda literature which opened peoples’ eyes to the Old Gods of the Scandinavians and Germans. People were eager to trace a link between folktales and childrens’ rhymes with these, and Frau Holle/Holda became a representative case of a recovered goddess, taken to task by the other Grimm, Jacob, in his seminal work Deutsche Mytholgie (1835).

Grimm found Holda/Perchta strongly associated with the female art of spinning, firmly connected with the traditions of Yuletide and 12th night, the rider of a wagon who was engaged to do work for farmers. She was ascribed a golden bucket from which rivers of water fell as she climbed hills. Holda/Perchta was also associated with the care of unbaptized souls (i.e. – children who died before baptism), and was portrayed as a leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ usually associated with Woden himself. This led Grimm to make the equation of Holle/Perchta with Frigg and Freyja. She certainly fitted the type of the kind of chthonic fertility goddess we see depicted on Roman era shrines to the Matres/Matronae and Nehalennia, however Grimm had little to say about an identity between Nehalennia and Holda, who I suggest are the same. The name ‘Halen’ is derived by removing the celtic definite article Ne- and the terminal -ia. ‘Hollen’ was another of Holda’s names – associating her with the ‘Tree of the Dead’, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra).

Early references:

The earliest reference to Holda by name appears to come from the pen of a 13thC Cistercian monk, known only to us as Rudolph, who noted the following custom:

“In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regina celi quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet.”

“On the night of Christ’s nativity, they set the table in honour of the queen of heaven, commonly known as Holda”

This fits with Grimm’s observations about an association with Yuletide. The Cistercians of the 13thC were hell-bent on correcting any slippages back into heathenism, and were perhaps the greatest promoters of the cult of the Virgin Mary, who was their patron saint. The term ‘queen of heaven’ was applied to her in particular. Contemporary Cistercian authors such as Jocelyn of Furness appear to have gone out of their way to re-forge many old pagan narratives into Christian ones, as can be seen in his Life of St Kentigern. They were up against the popular courtly tales of Arthur & Co, which were almost explicit in their dealing with the goddess, as well as opposing religious sects such as the Cathars of the Pays d’Oc and Italy. In spite of adding an overlay of ‘Mariology’ to medieval Europe’s mythology, they failed to expel the memory and stories of ‘Holda’. Of particular interest to this reference by Rudolph is that the Anglo-Saxon author Bede (‘De Temporum Ratione’ – 8thC) recorded that the heathens celebrated an observance called Mōdraniht on Christmas eve: This means ‘Mothers Night’.

 

Nehalennia – the ‘Cailleach’ of Zeeland?

In 1645, storms ravaging Domberg in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland uncovered the remains of a significant Roman-era temple sacred to the hitherto unknown goddesss Nehalennia, whose name and image was inscribed on multiple dedicatory altar-stelae. The temple is believed to have served traders at a port who would have had commerce with Gaul and Britain, and also contained dedications to Neptune, Mercury, Hercules and Jupiter, although those to the goddess were by far the most numerous. Her image depicts her wearing a tunic, shoulder mantle and cloak. Her feet are booted and she is almost always accompanied by a small, friendly-looking dog. In common with the many German images of the Matres she is usually (but not always) seated and bears a basket, patera or cornucopia loaded with fruit, suggesting she was considered benevolent.

Nehalennia

Nehalennia

 

Although a local goddess, her imagery – like much of that from between the 1st and 4thC CE is obviously culturally Romanised. Her association with fruitfulness and the dog (which appears to be of the Greyhound type) would place her somewhere between the huntress-goddess <Diana-Artemis> and the fertility goddess <Ceres-Demeter>. Her boots and shoulder-mantle render her redolent of the Roman god Mercury, who (as a god of trade, and conductor of souls to the Otherworld) was depicted wearing travelling-wear. Most Roman(ised) goddesses were depicted in sandles. The overall impression is a goddess of fruitfulness, trade and travel – a fact emphasised by a number of images which depict her standing with her foot on the prow of a ship.

Geographic origins of Nehalennia:

One of the question most often asked of her is whether she was of a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Germanic’ origin. This question itself is somewhat complicated by the issue of if there is actually a cultural distinction to made between either, as this was originally a distinction made by Romans on the basis of (i) language and (ii) conquerability! Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Zeeland lies on the Rhine estuary, and that Nehalennia is known to have been depicted as a triple-goddess making her almost indistinguishable from the more common Roman-Era images of the three Matres found in Germany and France. The Matres or Matronae were typically depicted as seated and bearing pateras and cornucopias as well as sheaves of corn etc. A further shrine with altar stones dedicated to the goddess existed near Colijnsplaat in Zeeland, where a large number of altars and statues were dredged out of the Scheldt, the original Roman settlement of Ganuenta having been lost to the sea. A couple of examples of her shrines were also found as far away as Deutz – now part of Cologne, which was a major Roman civitas on the Rhine in Germania Inferior and therefore on the trade route connecting out to Zeeland and the low countries.

Analysis of the theonym:

The name of the goddess has also attracted quite a lot of speculation. As with many names transcribed and transliterated into Roman inscriptions of this era, a degree of caution is required, as the population using the name would have been largely illiterate, so the inscriptional custom of the name may not have been an accurate interpretation. Once inscribed once, it is likely to have been copied and fixed in this form. As occurs in, for example ‘Andraste’, the ‘Ne-‘ of ‘Nehalennia’ sounds like the definite article (‘the’) of the Celtic languages. In Irish and Scots Gaelic, for example, this might be ‘an’ or ‘na’. Manx is ‘yn’ and ‘ny’ respectively. This leaves us with the suffix ‘-halennia’. The terminal ‘-ia’ is typical of a Romanised goddess (‘Dia’), leaving the word ‘-halenn-‘.  My suggestion is that this is an aspirated from of ‘Callen’ – a name familiar to followers of the ubiquitous Cailleach goddess-name of the Irish and British Isles. Modern Irish ‘Caillín’ means ‘girl’ – the word is evocative of that definitive female garment of ancient times: the veil or mantlea notable feature of Nehalennia’s statuary appearance. The Irish town of Enniskillen – another trading centre on a river – is named after a pagan goddess whose name appears the same as that behind the name ‘Nehalennia’! ‘Halenn’ may therefore also be an aspirated version of the name which could also be written as ‘Cathlin’ or ‘Ceithlin’, and the seated-goddess aspect of her would fit with the Indo-European word ‘cath’, from which that sapient sitting beast, the cat, gets its name… I’d quite like to know just how old the name Colijnsplaat is for that matter – comments welcome as to if ‘Colijn’ is a version of the name of our goddess!

Aside from Celtic considerations of the name, it may also contain the name of a very German divinity, namely ‘Frau Holle’, who answers in almost every way to the description of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’. Also known as Holda, Hulda, Huldra as well as Gode, Perchta, etc, she is a common theme in the mythology of Germany and Scandinavia. This name is also linked to that of the Norse otherworld goddess Hel, and it is worth considering that the German word for what is in English called ‘Hell’ is Hölle. The Frau Holle of folktales is generally depicted as a friendly but potentially spiteful aged matron who might be encountered deep in the woods or living on mountains. Like the Cailleach, she is deemed mythically responsible for weather phenomena such as snow, a creatrix of rivers, herder of wildlife (clouds were sometimes referred to as ‘Frau Holle’s lambs’) etc. Like the Cailleach, she possesses a magical veil or coverlet (an analogy of seasonal fertility if you think about). She – like the Cailleach – has also known to have been associated in tales with dogs. It is possible then, that ‘Nehallennia’ might equally be a version of ‘Holle’ – perhaps a ‘Frau Hallen’? As I have said before, the ‘German’ peoples were ‘Celtic’ anyway…

Nehalennia’s Dog:

The dog has an interesting symbolism in relation to both the Otherworld domain and human utility. Dogs are creatures who have followed human settlement for many an age, and have entered into a domestic relationship which is at times uneasy, as they are potentially dangerous. In fact, wolves – long portrayed as an archetype for man’s fearsome bestial adversaries are simply one end of the spectrum of ‘dog’. Wild dogs are features of the liminal boundaries of human habitations and roadways, and for this reason they have a ‘liminal’ aspect ideal for the portrayal of death and the otherworld. Death is feared, yet death is fruitful. A dog can be ‘man’s best friend’ or his incessant enemy. A dog can help the hunter, but the hunter can also be hunted by the wolf. The dog in mythology represents as essence of the dual nature of technologies – to help or to hinder – and was adopted in ancient Greek mythology as a companion of the <Artemis-Selene-Hekate> hypostasis of the mystery cults. The dog was also a symbol and companion of Apollo’s ‘son’ (or aspect), Aesculapias, god of healing. The dog therefore portrayed hunting (or harvest), death and regeneration. Its place at Nehalennia’s feet, along with baskets of apples on the stealae and statues recovered from the Netherlands seems to suggest that she represented cthonic wealth and was therefore also an otherworld goddess.

 

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

That the sea-voyage to Britain was particularly hazardous on account of weather and its notoriously difficult shorelines no doubt also supports the assertion that Nehalennia was a death-goddess. The pagan mindset with its belief in reincarnation had no problems equating death and fertility, as death was part of nature’s cycle of regeneration. The Greek goddess Demeter (known to the Romans as Ceres), seems to have a similar aspect, from which the tale of Hades’ abduction of her ‘daughter’ aspect Persephone/Kore derives. This tale underpinned most of the mythology of the mystery cults of ancient Europe: Eleusis, Samothrace, Orphism and the Dionysian-Sabazian mysteries. In the myths, Demeter is accompanied to the underworld by Hekate. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the approach to Hades.

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task - leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c) Theoi.com

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task – leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c) Theoi.com

And finally…

On the subject of the Zeeland shoreline and its importance to trade in ancient (and modern) Europe, it is worth remembering that this is probably the vicinity mentioned by the early Byzantine historian Procopius (6thC CE) where there was a legend of the dead departing by boat for the isle of Brittia.

“They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger’s breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour’s time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands’ names.”

There can be no doubt that this is a description of a mystical rather than actual voyage to the Atlantic Otherworld, and was based on accounts heard in Constantinople from Low Countries emissaries. I think it just adds a further frisson of interest to the mystery of this otherworld goddess whose shrines dotted the shorelines in ancient times, and were eventually (perhaps fittingly) taken by the sea…

 

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.

501px-Cybele_Getty_Villa_57_AA_19

The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.

Serpents and dragons in Irish mythology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier...

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier…

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

The 'Tara Brooch' c.700AD.

The ‘Tara Brooch’ c.700AD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragons in the Celtic Iron Age?

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

Mountain Mothers: Cybele, the Sybils and the Cailleach

Another great ‘oriental’ influence upon the development of Roman state religion (apart from the Etruscan contribution) during the 1st millennium BCE was the ‘importation’ of the cultic oracular ‘Sybilline Books’ which were consulted in order to assist the state with important decisions. The acquisition of these works was originally ascribed to the legendary (Etruscan) last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, some time in the 6thC BCE, and after the development of the Republic they were kept in the possession of the Senate, and were used to assist decisions and determine possible outcomes. The collection was undoubtedly curated, researched and added to with reference to the various important Apollonian oracles across the eastern mediterranean region, including those at Cumae, Dodona, Delphi, and the Anatolian sites near to the supposed site of Troy* on the Hellespont, from which the original books were supposed to have originated. Although now lost (and at various times in their history, destroyed and recovered) we know that these books contained details of prophetic visions and utterances originating in the cultic goddess-oracles of the archaic world whose female seers were known as the Sybils.

The originating Sybil was supposed, as mentioned, to have been the Hellespontine Sybil who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Gergis in the NW Anatolian *Troad region, and were supposedly received upon Mount Ida nearby. From here, the works were copied and passed to other sibylline oracles, first Erythraea and then eventually to the Greek colony at Cumae, near Naples and from here, apparently to Rome at the advent of the founding of the Republic. The Cumaean Sibyl was an important character in Virgil’s Aeneiad, establishing an oriental Trojan provenance for the Romans’ ancestors, allowing them to incorporate the trappings of Greek civilisation and religion. In the story, she guides the Trojan Aeneas to Hades to meet with his father who blesses his future endeavours as founder of the Roman peoples. The Sibylline Books were therefore possibly a bolster to Roman pseudo-history, providing a religio-political bridge to the intellectual power and influence of the Greek near east. The Etruscan religious books were probably of a more nativist slant, and therefore less capable of such a trans-national religious vision fitting Rome’s future ambitions…

The books were consulted in times of great need, and from deductions made from these ritual interpretative readings, further developments to Rome’s increasingly complicated religious scene often resulted. Of particular interest was the suggestion during the Second Punic wars (205-204BCE) that the Roman state adopt the worship of the Greco-Phrygian goddess Cybele (Kubilya) from the ancient mid-Anatolian highland town of Pessinus (an area settled by Gaulish tribes in the 3rdC BCE) where she had a principle cult-centre, possibly since the 2nd millenium BCE. A small black stone idol (possibly the remains of a meteorite) was removed and taken to Rome where it was introduced as the goddess with much ceremony, and – bizarrely – it appears that the stone was displayed in a cavity in her new statue where the face should have been!… Cybele was linked to the Troad ‘Mount Ida’ by the Roman epithet Magna Mater Idaea, linking to the old Greek myths of the hiding of infant Zeus from Cronus in a mountain cave, either by Gaia or Rhea (both aspects of the ancient European female divine force), although the ‘mute-faced’ Roman depiction evokes an apparent reference to the mute Mater Larum. The names ‘Sybil’ and ‘Cybele’ also share a distinct similarity, and were used interchangeably, identifying chthonic priestesses with the great goddess…

The 1stC BCE Roman Epicurean poet-philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus described a procession of the goddess and her priesthood in book 2 of his De rerum natura in which he refers to the ‘silent blessing’ of the goddess as well as certain ceremonials related to it and the Greek myth of the hiding of the god-child Zeus. In this he makes a profound statement regarding the place of Magna Mater in pagan religion (translation John Selby Watson, 1890):

The old and learned poets of the Greeks sung that she, in
her seat on her chariot, drives two lions yoked together ; sig-
nifying that the vast earth hangs in the open space of the air,
and that one earth cannot stand upon another earth. They
added the lions, because any offspring, however wild, ought to
be softened, when influenced by the good offices of parents.
And they surrounded the top of her head with a mural crown,
because the earth, fortified in lofty places, sustains cities ; dis-
tinguished with which decoration the image of the divine
mother is borne, spreading terror, through the wide world.
Her various nations, according to the ancient practice of their
worship, call the Idaean mother, and assign her bands of
Phrygians as attendants, because they say that from those
parts corn first began to be produced, and thence was diffused
over the globe of the earth. They assign to her also the
Galli ; because they wish to intimate that those, who have
violated the sacred-respect due to their mother, and have been
found ungrateful to their fathers, are to be thought unworthy
to bring living offspring into the realms of light. Distended
drums, and hollow cymbals, resound in their hands around the
goddess ; and their horns threaten with a hoarse noise, while
the hollow pipe excites their minds with Phrygian notes.
And they carry weapons outstretched before them, as signs
of violent rage, which may alarm with terror the undutiful
minds and impious hearts of the crowd, struck with the power
of the goddess.

As soon, therefore, as, riding through great cities, she,
being dumb, bestows a silent blessing on mortals, they strew
the whole course of the road with brass and silver, enriching
her with munificent contributions ; while they diffuse a shower
of roses, overshadowing the mother and her troop of attend-
ants. Here the armed band, whom the Greeks call by the
name of Phrygian Curetes, dance round vigorously with ropes,
and leap about to their tune, streaming with blood. Shaking
the terrible crests on their heads as they nod, they represent
the Dictaean Curetes, who are formerly said, in Crete, to have
concealed that famous infant-cry of Jupiter, when the armed
youths, in a swift dance around the child, struck, in tune,
their brazen shields with their brazen spears, lest Saturn,
having got possession of him, should devour him, and cause
an eternal wound in the heart of his mother. Either for this
reason, therefore, armed men accompany the great mother ;
or else because the priests thus signify that the goddess ad-
monishes men to be willing to defend the land of their country
with arms and valour, and to prepare themselves to be a pro-
tection and honour to their parents.

These parents, though celebrated as being fitly and excel-
lently contrived, are yet far removed from sound reason. For
the whole race of the gods must necessarily, of itself, enjoy
its immortal existence in the most profound tranquillity, far
removed and separated from our affairs; since, being free from
all pain, exempt from all dangers, powerful itself in its own
resources, and wanting nothing of us, it is neither propitiated
by services from the good, nor affected with anger against
the bad.

The earth, indeed, is at all times void of sense, but, because
it contains the primary elements of many things, it brings
forth many productions, in many ways, into the light of the
sun. If any one, then, shall resolve to call the sea Neptune,
and corn Ceres, and chooses rather to abuse the name of Bac-
chus, than to utter the proper appellation of wine ; let us
concede that such a one may pronounce the orb of the earth
to be the mother of the gods, provided that it still be allowed
to remain its real self…

The ‘silent’ aspect of Cybele’s public face may well have been because the sibylline priestesses ‘spoke’ with the voice of Apollo. The divine music of the Kuretes was supposed to be an ‘analogy’ to the voice of the crying god Zeus/Jupiter, masking its sound from Cronus/Saturn in the ancient creation myths. Ovid’s description of Jupiter cutting out the tongue of the Mater Larum evokes this too… a curious syncresis of ideas and traditions.

The introduction of the cult of Magna Mater was hardly a novelty to the wider Roman and Greek world, the Greeks having celebrated Phrygian Cybele for a number of centuries before her official adoption in Rome. In fact, the Phrygians were not even the originators of this particular Aegaean goddess-hypostasis, as the cult of Rhea at Mount Ida on Crete undoubtedly had origins back in the Minoan era. Furthermore, the important temple complex and mystery cult on the Thracian island of Samothrace in the northern Aegaean carried on its own veneration of a similar goddess with similar iconography and mythology, but known originally as Axiérosand apparently associated with a male consort and a pair of divine  sons. It absorbed aspects of the worship of Demeter and Dionysus and the chthonic mysteries of the Greeks. The Roman cult acted to reinforce an older indigenous mythical religious tradition as well as establish a ‘spiritual corridor’ to the supposed ancestral Trojan homelands of the Greeks and Romans in the Hellespont.

So, what of the Cailleach?

Surviving thousands of miles away and thousands of years in time from the homelands and heartlands of the Anatolian mother-goddess, the tradition of the prophetic ‘Great Mother’ appears to have continued in the ‘Gaelic fringe’ of northwest Britain and Ireland – an area never conquered or settled by the pagan Roman empire. She does this in the form of an aged female character known as the ‘Cailleach’, ‘Calliagh’ or ‘Caillagh’, who is associated from the southwest tip of Ireland up into the far highlands of Scotland with mountains, nature, the weather and the power of prophecy. There are so many fragmentary myths and landscape features associated with her in these regions that it is apparent that she held a supra-regional importance from ancient times, well before the coming of christianity. These legends often associate her with the seasonal cycles, and the creation of features of the landscape, as well as guardianship over the flocks of beasts, natural springs and rivers. She is sometimes described as the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, sometimes portrayed as an ultimate ancestress, ruling the world since the ‘time before memory’. Like the black rock representing the face of the statue of Magna Mater in Rome, she is even occasionally described as having a black or blue face (even the ‘Black Annis’ legend from Leicestershire in England has this feature). One of her names in the Isle of Man – ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ – even implies a state of mute silence, ‘Groamagh translating as the English word ‘sullen’, which itself is related to ‘silent’ (Kelly’s Manx Dictionary).  The Manx ‘Caillagh’ was a traditional utterer of prophecies, the substance of which were kept as oral traditions, as they were in the Ireland and Scotland. Further connection to the ancient Cybele cult of Rome and the Aegean might also be found in the curious Manx folksong which talked about a bull-stealing witch who is sought among the mountains, where she hides behind stone doors, As y lhiack er e kione –  ‘with a stone on her head’… (if you follow the link, you will note I have corrected WW Gill’s translation.)

It is not my intention to digress on the totality of Cailleach legends in order to prove a link, but needless to say, the evidence of an ancient Earth-Goddess in the British and Irish Isles is compelling, and shows more than a few similarities with Lucretius’ fearsome mute Earth divinity…

 

tbc!

The Icenii, ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’

2ndC CE Roman historian Cassius Dio famously mentions details of the ill-fated revolt of the Iceni and their allies against Nero’s legions in southern Britain during 60/61CE. His compendium ‘The Roman History’ may well have relied upon on first-hand accounts of the events of this episode, but Dio uses a certain creative licence regaling us with a rousing speech made by queen Boudica to her people before their battles. Indeed, it largely functions to portray Nero as a weak and effete figure of ridicule, but is of interest to religious historians, as he has the queen call upon a British goddess referred to as ‘Andraste’:

“…When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee…” (The Roman History, Boook 62 -trans. Bill Thayer)

Whoever Andraste was, she seems to have inspired the Britons with a confidence matched only by the fear which drove the Roman legions to eventually overcome them. Little else is known about Andraste save for this account. However, the reason for this might be because the ‘name’ given by Cassius Dio was a misunderstanding of ‘An Dras De’ – which is simply the Brythonic phrase meaning ‘The Tribal God’, ‘Dras’ being an old Welsh word meaning ‘kindred’. Consider the Irish god known as ‘An Dag De’ – the Dagda – a similar composite term is therefore possible.

Cassius Dio goes on to describe the rampage of revenge and humiliation wreaked upon the hapless Romans at Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London):

“… Having finished an appeal to her people of this general tenor, Buduica led her army against the Romans; for these chanced to be without a leader, inasmuch as Paulinus, their commander, had gone on an expedition to Mona, an island near Britain. This enabled her to sack and plunder two Roman cities, and, as I have said, to wreak indescribable slaughter. Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subjected to every known form of outrage. The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence… “

It is possible that ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’ were simply kennings for the same female divinity, but another possibility arises: that Cassius Dio got it wrong, and that ‘Andate’ was actually the male deity known in Ireland as ‘An Dagdae’ or ‘Eochaidh Ollathair. This is reasonably within the bounds of Celtic language pronunciation where consonantal sounds within words are readily dropped. Here is my reasoning:

An Dagda and the Morrigan in Cath Magh Turedh:

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

The Irish mythological cycle tale known as Cath Magh Turedh (possibly a composite of different tellings of an original) contains a number of mysterious, poorly elucidated ‘scenes’ featuring the Dagda.

Firstly, it mentions his ‘cauldron of plenty’. Next it mentions his role doing heavy work as a builder of the fortress of Bres of the Fomorians. He seems unusually trusting and a bit simple, and gives some of his vast meal portions away to a man who demands the best part each sitting, causing him to weaken. He forms a triplicity with Lugh and Ogma, and they go to ‘three gods of Danu’ (one of  whom is stated to be the Morrigan) who give weapons to Lugh. Dagda then has sexual intercourse with the Morrigan at a ford of the River Unshin in Connacht, an act of heiros-gamos ensuring the victory of the Tuatha De Dannan in the coming battle with the Fomorians. In another curious scene, with distinct parallels with to the Siege of Troy described in Homer’s Iliad, the Dagda enters the camp of the Fomorians to spy, seemingly in the guise of a horse. The Fomorians force him to eat a prodigious meal (again demonstrating his great equine appetite) so as to dull his wit.

The story continues (CELT version):

“…Then he went away from them to Tráigh Eabha. It was not easy for the warrior to move along on account of the size of his belly. His appearance was unsightly: he had a cape to the hollow of his elbows, and a grey-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump. He trailed behind him a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move, and its track was enough for the boundary ditch of a province. It is called ‘The Track of the Dagda’s Club’ for that reason. His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horse-hide with the hair outside. As he went along he saw a girl in front of him, a good-looking young woman with an excellent figure, her hair in beautiful tresses. The Dagda desired her, but he was impotent on account of his belly. The girl began to mock him, then she began wrestling with him. She hurled him so that he sank to the hollow of his rump in the ground.

He looked at her angrily and asked, ‘What business did you have, girl, heaving me out of my right way?’ ‘This business: to get you to carry me on your back to my father’s house.’ ‘Who is your father?’ he asked. ‘I am the daughter of Indech, son of Dé Domnann,’ she said. She fell upon him again and beat him hard, so that the furrow around him filled with the excrement from his belly; and she satirized him three times so that he would carry her upon his back. He said that it was a ges for him to carry anyone who would not call him by his name. ‘”What is your name?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn,’ he said. ‘That name is too much!’ she said. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn.’ ‘That is indeed not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn Brúach,’ he answered. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach,’ she said. ‘That is not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. Then he told her the whole thing. She replied immediately and said, ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
Get up, carry me away from here!’ ‘Do not mock me any more, girl,’ he said. ‘It will certainly be hard,’ she said. Then he moved out of the hole, after letting go the contents of his belly, and the girl had waited for that for a long time. He got up then, and took the girl on his back; and he put three stones in his belt. Each stone fell from it in turn—and it has been said that they were his testicles which fell from it. The girl jumped on him and struck him across the rump, and her curly pubic hair was revealed. Then the Dagda gained a mistress, and they made love. The mark remains at Beltraw Strand where they came together.

Then the girl said to him, ‘You will not go to the battle by any means.’ ‘Certainly I will go,’ said the Dagda. ‘You will not go,’ said the woman, ‘because I will be a stone at the mouth of every ford you will cross.’ ‘That will be true,’ said the Dagda, ‘but you will not keep me from it. I will tread heavily on every stone, and the trace of my heel will remain on every stone forever.’ ‘That will be true, but they will be turned over so that you may not see them. You will not go past me until I summon the sons of Tethra from the síd-mounds, because I will be a giant oak in every ford and in every pass you will cross.’ ‘I will indeed go past,’ said the Dagda, ‘and the mark of my axe will remain in every oak forever.’ …”

The scene is certainly saucy, but also weird – almost a retelling of the Dagda’s encounter with the Morrigan in an earlier passage, albeit with more salacious detail. The picture painted of the Dagda is a half-man, half-stallion: His horse-hide brogues, his great round belly, his large penis, his propensity to create lots of dung: all are heavily suggestive of this, as is one of his other names, Eochu Ollathair. The heiros-gamos with a feisty fighty female (similar to Fand in Serglige Con Chullain) is again used to precede a victory in battle. What is more, the marks of his hoof/foot upon rocks appears to be a reference to cup-marks, bullauns and petrosomatoglyphs of feet, common to the archaeology of the Atlantic world.

The suggestion that can be drawn from this is that victory was ensured by the sexual coupling of the Otherworld masculine god and the worldy goddess. Dagda represents, as the horse, the fertility, power and energy on offer from the Otherworld, albeit a force that was a bit simple. The Morrigan was the warrior aspect of the feminine triplicity – their combination would allow peace to be determined through warfare. Lugh (the battlefield hero of the Cath Maigh Tured) was the active warrior aspect of the masculine triplicity, and Ogmios was the wise thinking part.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

The horse seems so prevalent on Europe’s late Iron Age celtic coinage that it must have had special importance, beyond just being a copy of the coins of those Macedonian-Thracian leaders of the Hellenic world – the horse-loving ‘Phillip’ and, of course, the solar warrior-king, Alexander whose legend was celebrated among the proud warriors of the Celtic world. By invoking the Morrigan aspect of the triple-goddess (the tribal ancestor or sovereignty queen, who Cassius Dio called ‘Andraste’), Boudica set her on a course for her liason with the peace-lord of the Otherworld, a drama possibly acted out in the groves of ‘Andate’ by the seemingly victorious Britons, shortly before General Paulinus reappears bearing the ‘Gorgon’s Head’, taken on Anglesey…