Wayland Revisited: A Pan-European God?

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

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

Germanic and Scandinavian Wayland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Celtic’ connection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greco-Roman connection:

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

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

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

HephaistosAss

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

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

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

Etruscan Velchans:

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

Bellerophon and the Dioskouroi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ericthonios of Athens:

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

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

Weland, Donar and Thor – Baltic and Slavic connections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe.

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

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

Perkunas: why an axe and not a hammer?

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

Velnias/Velinas as the ‘divine smith’:

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

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

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

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

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

Linguistic implications of a ‘fallen’ god?

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

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

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be mended.

(Translation: Benjamin W. Fortson.)

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

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

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

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

Other linguistic aspects – ‘Will to Power’?:

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

 

 

 

Vishnu and Manannan

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

The 'Three Legs of Mann'

The ‘Three Legs of Mann’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magical swineherds of Irish mythology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contest of the Two Swineherds:

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

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

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

Collectio Canonum Hibernensis

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

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

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

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

So why the connection between swineherds and magic?

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

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

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

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

The connection between Druids and Swineherds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

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

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

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

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

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

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

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’… 

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

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

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

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

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

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

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

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

Krampus:

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

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

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

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

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

Perchten:

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

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

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

Badalisk and Bosinada:

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

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

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

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

Wren Hunts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The pagan roots of St Martin’s day – 11th November

A German statue of St Martin donating his cloak to the poor man.

A German statue of St Martin donating his cloak to the poor man.

In my previous post I discussed the significance of Armistice Day falling on the 11th of November, which is also St Martin’s day: St Martin of Tours (d.397 CE) was a ‘military’ saint of the early Christian church who evangelised northern Gaul, and who is celebrated as one of the more important ‘local’ saints in northern Europe, along with characters such as St Patrick. St Martin’s day falls on the ‘old’ (Julian calendar) All Saints’ Day (‘Hallowe’en’) and is therefore linked to the celebrations of the Celtish quarter-day festival knownamong the Gaels as Samhain, and which is observed in reverence to the souls of the dead.

Processions and ritual begging:

St Martin’s day (and St Martin’s Eve) customs perhaps unsurprisingly share similarities with those of Hallowe’en: In Germany, for instance, the Gripschen or Heischebrauch customs of children going from door to door begging gifts of food, sweets etc in return for songs (Martinsleid) is associated with St Martin’s day (Martinstag). In Germany – as elsewhere in Europe – this custom was also associated with the medieval ‘souling‘ traditions observed variously on All Hallows day (1st November) or All Hallows Eve (31st October) as well as All Souls’ day (2nd November). In ‘souling’ people would go door to door offering prayers for the dead in return for the gift of ‘soul cakes’. This seems to have evolved into the modern Hallowe’en ‘trick or treat’ custom, but was a feature of other festivals of the ‘winter quarter’, such as the Christmastide ‘wassailing’ and ‘guising’ tradition parties of ancient European tradition. Ritual begging was therefore an ancient and important cultural custom, and the idea of receiving divine favour in return for bestowing hospitality on the poor and needy was a key element to religious observances of the Christian and pre-Christian eras (for example, the Roman and Greek festivals of Saturnalia and Kronia).

The most popular legend of St Martin is that of him dividing his soldier’s cloak to share it with a freezing beggar (who was then revealed to him in a vision to have been Christ personified), hence the association of Martin’s festival with begging traditions. In modern Germany and other north European countries, children take part in lantern processions on St Martin’s eve and these are usually led by a man dressed as the saint – often depicted as a Roman soldier with a large cape on horseback. These processions culminate in the St Martin’s bonfires, at which people eat traditional foods and drinks (such as gluwein). Similar festivities in modern Britain occur on 5th November (divested of any Catholic trappings, and often with pyromaniac Protestant iconoclasms). In Ireland bonfire celebrations were formerly held at Samhain. It is evident that they are all based on an older seasonal tradition which has diversified with time and changes to the political and religious landscape.

The spirits of the dead were, before and after the advent of christianity, associated with a hunger for the warmth and fecundity of our world. The act of appeasing the needy and hungry can be thought of in technical terms as assuaging this ‘pull’ from the otherworld which might threaten our imminent ‘crossing over’ to join the dead.

Martin the warrior:

The legend of Martin of Tours given us by Sulpicius Severus (4th/5thC CE) says that he was originally a Danubian noble serving in a Roman cavalry outfit who, through a process of divine revelation, transitions from a physical form of warfare to the spiritual one of the Christian narrative. This in itself is illustrative of the ‘spiritual rebirth’ through which followers of his religion defined themselves – then and now. This confusion of death and life was typical of the ancient pagan European worldview about warfare and death, a view which was personified by Martin’s namesake – the Roman god Mars who (unlike his Greek counterpart Ares) represented chthonic wealth as well as war. That Martinmas comes at time when it is traditional in Europe to make a celebration of agricultural fertility and full winter stores is therefore intriguing.

In the skies, the season is marked by the prominence of the great winter ‘warrior’ (or ‘hunter’) constellation of Orion – imagined as a man holding high a sword and shield. Another interpretation might be a herdsman – cattle were generally moved from pasture into their winter stalls by Martinmas, and the ‘campaigning season’ for warfare was over. The warrior-hunter-herdsman constellation being displayed in the heavens might possibly have been viewed as an indicator that such activities on earth should cease. In Germany another old tradition used to be of herdsmen giving a ritual bundle of branches (the Martinsgerte – ‘Martin’s Switch’) to the farmer at Martinmas, which would be used the next Whitsuntide (Beltain) to drive the cattle to their summer pastures. This may represent the fact that herding was seasonal hired work, and in many places St Martin’s Day was a traditional holiday for herdsmen, who also identified with St George. Whatever the case, wands or switches crop up in many European winter folk-traditions and performances from before the modern age.

Association with horses:

Martin was said to have been of Illyrian birth – from the ‘Danubian’ provinces of the late Roman empire. Eastern Europe and Germania provided many of the elite cavalry units of the Roman army, and from the late 3rd century military men from these regions came to dominate the upper echelons of the Roman military hierarchy, even providing Emperors. This rise of the ‘Equites’ would in turn syncretise with the military traditions of the western Celtic tribes and eventually give rise to the European ‘knights’ of the middle ages. Martin bestrode both such worlds and his iconography demonstrates this. In the Gallo-Roman world he came to evangelise, as well as the Celticised Danubian provinces of the late Empire the cult of Epona – supposedly a Celtic horse-goddess – was prevalent, especially among military elites. This appears to have had a special Danubian flavour added to it in Eastern Europe, where her cult was linked to that of the ancient Greco-Roman Dioskoroi – the twin brothers who were expert horsemen, and whose legend suggested one was human and the other divine. It is possible that Martin’s father was aware of or even participated in such a cult, as he was said not to have been Christian. Mystery cults – particularly that of Mithras – were prevalent among the late Imperial military.

Martin’s figurative rejection of his military calling as one of the Equites (as told by Sulpicius Severus) can be interpreted as a rejection of the figurative cultural importance of the horse among his chosen flock, whose coins before the Roman conquest almost universally depicted the image of the horse along with a multitude of spiritually significant symbols. Severus tells a number of stories of Martin destroying the sacred groves and temples of Gaulish pagans, so the narrative of his hagiography needed to account for this. Tours was a ‘Belgic’ part of Gaul, strongly influenced by the military-spiritual late Iron Age cultural movement which appears to have stimulated the Celtic expansion of the ‘La Téne’ era of the second half of the 1st millennium BCE.

Association with birds:

Apart from the ritualised begging and celebrations of altruism, there is another old custom associated with St Martin’s day, involving birds. This is represented in Germany by the eating of a goose (the Martinsgans) at a special meal in honour of the saint, although duck is the more favoured bird in modern times. The reason given for this custom is based on the hagiography left by Martin’s contemporary, Sulpicius Severus, who declared the saint’s modesty as one of his virtues, illustrating it by the tale that Martin hid in a goose-shed when the crowds at Tours wished to elevate him to the rank of Bishop. The geese proclaimed his presence and he was forced to accept the honour.

Irrespective of the hagiographic legends, it was traditional at this time of the ancient subsistence agriculture cycle of Europe  to slaughter geese and pigs (both of which could be salted down to be preserved for the winter). In German ethno-linguistic regions the Schlachtfest (‘Slaughter Festival’) usually coincided with Martinmas. The tradition of animal slaughter at this period might explain the former custom in parts of Ireland of the Martinmas cockerel, which used to be slaughtered on St Martin’s Eve by bleeding. Sometimes a goose was used. The custom survived well into the 20thC – blood from the bird was dripped at the boundaries, corners and portals of the homestead or farmstead in order to procure luck (or protection from the saint) for the coming year. The bird was then eaten at a special meal (meat was only ever an occasional luxury in former times). This bird-slaughtering tradition evolved into the American settlers’ ‘Thanksgiving’ festival, celebrated on the third Thursday of November. All-Hallows or Martinmas were also traditional festivals at which tithes were traditionally paid to churches, and when servants were hired or released from service, sometimes a time when rents were paid. The ‘functional’ aspects of such festivals were sometimes displaced to Michaelmas – and although not practised on Martinmas, the tradition of a goose-feast at Michaelmas (29th September) was observed in Britain. when rents and tithes were often expected. Perhaps variations in the harvest-period between regions have informed this plasticity.

In the Isle of Man the custom of slaughtering a fowl was formerly celebrated on St Catherine’s day (25th November – a closer analogue of Thanksgiving) when a female hen suffered its fate, and was committed to a ‘solemn’ burial (perhaps made less solemn by the inebriated state of the celebrants) as part of the festivities of the tiny island nation’s St Catherine’s fairs. The meaning of the Manx ‘St Catherine’s Hen’ and its ritual slaughter and burial at a public fair is obscure – it could be anything from a pagan survival to a modern form of anti-clericalism or anti-Catholicism. What is similar, however, is the better-known bird-killing ritual involving the slaughter of a wren on the same island on the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day), suggesting a pre-Christian avian tradition. In avowedly Catholic Ireland this custom also occurred and in both countries (Mannin and Ireland) there were legends suggesting the wren was the personification of a powerful female fairy, leaving us to conclude that the ritual slaughter of a bird during the winter quarter had some religious significance in the ancient Atlantic world.

Returning to St Martin (and the 11th of November), it is worth commenting on some other bird-related associations. Not in the least is the use of the name ‘Martin’ for a class of bird of the family Hirundinidae, including the Swallows, House Martins, Sand Martins etc. These are migratory birds who appear in Europe during the late spring-time, and are usually departed to their over-wintering locations by the 11th of November. Anciently it was believed that, rather than migrating, they in fact slept over winter at the bottom of ponds and rivers. This belief may be based upon the observation of these species regularly skimming down over water in order to drink while ‘on the wing’.  By the same estimation, flocks of migratory plovers coming in to roost and feed on estuarine mudflats often appear to be ‘diving’ into the water. In ancient Rhodes (so the 2ndC CE Greek poet Athenaeus tell us) were beggars known as the Chelidonistai (‘Swallow Men’) who would come around in early springtime with the arrival of the swallows and sing traditional songs in order to earn alms. He mentions another class known to him (Coronistai) who carried a dead crow or raven and also solicited alms through a song. Obviously, there is a parallel with the Christianised medieval traditions of ritualised begging, so important to the Christian narrative. These were celebrated in Swabia (Upper Bavaria) at Whitsuntide (the closest Christian festival to Beltain) by the ‘Waterbird Men’, who performed songs for alms. Frazer (‘The Golden Bough’) quotes various German authors saying how these as also going into the forests to gather oak branches and other greenery, as well as sometimes diving into water, or throwing straw effigies of a large bird into water. In medieval times a wooden bird was displayed in Bavarian churches at Whitsun, evidently to depict Jesus, but possibly part of a Christianised tradition of the pagans. Like the Manx and Irish ‘Wren Boys’ these Whitsuntide parties of young men dressed in white, and wore red sashes. Just which ‘water bird’ species (if any) was intended is unclear – it may be that the placing of the bird in water was the origin of the name. Beltain is 6 months from Samhain – at the other side of winter – and St Martin also enjoyed a more ancient midsummer feast (Martinus aestivus, 4th July). The ‘Martin’s Bird’ (Martinsvögel) in Germany might also refer to an old tradition of a bird-shaped harvest sheaf (possibly even the one once cast into the water at Whitsuntide in Swabia), and is also the name sometimes given to other bird species such as the Black or Greater Spotted Woodpecker, the goose or even the Ladybird (also associated in German legend with Frau Holle).

The symbolism of migratory birds seems ideals for expressing the cycles of death and rebirth. These are best represented in European legends by species such as the Martins and Swifts, the Geese and Swans, and aquatic species such as the Plovers. St Martin was credited with bringing Christianity (which promised renewal not in this world but another one) to much of the notoriously militant, formerly barbarian Romanised cultures of north Europe. His name and military aspect seem like a fitting identity for someone who converted the Gauls from their vestiges of druidism, which taught that the soul flies from the body after death and is renewed in a far-off place before returning again in a new incarnation. Such empirical and spiritual symbolism pervades the legends and folklore of  Celtish and related European cultures, and survives the Christian era – testament to the power of the old and mysterious worldview.