The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

Dionysus was the ancient Greek divine hypostasis of eternal returning life. Like the other Greek gods and goddesses he represented a divine aspect of the originating (Arche, ἀρχή) divinity, Zeus, manifesting through the earth and nature as a tendrilled, seeking, pushing, growing, enlivening spirit responsible for the bringing forth of the divine logos into nature and humanity. His was perhaps the most important of the pan-Hellenic religious cults whose great age and far reach hints at origins in Europe and the Near East beyond the mythological horizon of the Bronze Age. His worship was part of an initiatory mystery cult which looked not to the stars and the skies for its mysteries, but into the earth. In turn, these chthonic mysteries provided the mythology by which the heavens and their constellations were to become decorated – as if reflected in an enormous transformative mirror:

“…Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended… ”

(The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus trans. Isaac Newton, 17thC)

Although the passage above cannot be textually dated earlier than the 7th CE, it deals with motifs common to mystery religions much older than Hermeticism and the philosophical Alchemy of the Arab word…

The Dionysian Mirror:

The mirror held a special place in the mythology of Dionysus, who was a god of death and rebirth. Dionysus was therefore known as the ‘twice-born’ god whose first incarnation (Dionysus-Zagreus) was destroyed and who was subsequently returned to life in an act which granted him divine redeeming powers, albeit with a ministry confined largely to the ‘sublunary’ realms. In the myth as recounted at a late period by Nonnus in his 4th/5thC CE Dionysiaca, the god was born to Persephone and fathered by Zeus in the form of a dragon. At far-seeing Hera’s bequest, he was enraptured by the Titans with a mirror in which he saw his reflected countenance: so distracted, they rended his body and scattered the parts. The great epic poet of late antiquity, Nonnus of Persepolis, related the myth as follows:

“… Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.

By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides [Zeus] shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titanes [Gaia the Earth] with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves set afire the neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros (the West Wind) the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges–even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks. Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land. Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth…” (Dionysiaca, Book 6, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse)

Reading from Nonnus’ exegesis of Dionysian cult secrets, Zeus intended the ‘Orphic’ Younger Dionysus (‘Zagreus’) to be his successor and heir in Olympos (the high ethereal realm) but his destruction condemned him to the infernal realms, albeit with leaping ambition for the heights of the ethereal gods. Zeus burns the earth and sends a flood in his rage against the Titans – this myth is evidently part of the ‘Titanomachy’ sequence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Titans and monsters, and the incarceration of these within the Chthonic Abyss…

Nonnus appears to imply that Zeus actually used the mirror to cause  the burning of Gaia, just as with the preceding sequence of the ‘image’ of Dionysus-Zagreus undergoing transfiguration at the moment of his demise, becoming at once Zeus, Kronos, a baby, a youth, a lion, a wild stallion, a serpent, a tiger and finally a sacrificial bull. It is somewhat akin to the breaking up of the mirror’s image, and the fluidity of this suggests that the mirror might even have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a watery or liquid nature in the Dionysian mysteries. The young god’s act of looking into the mirror is a first taste of death, in which its transformative potential is revealed as his image and body break apart and are dispersed. This has been interpreted as a process of undoing of the self experienced by initiates of the Dionysian mysteries. In Nonnus’ telling of the myth, Zeus burns and then floods the world in revenge for this act, setting the scene for renewal under a new refreshed order after the Titanomachy. Dionysus is reassembled and cared for on high mountain tops by the Nymphs. This myth resonates strongly with the Zoroastrian creation myth of the Bundahisihn in which all natural life emerges from the body of an ancient bull killed by beings of chaos.

Fresco from the 'Villa of Mysteries' at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in 'Dionysiaca'.

Fresco from the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in ‘Dionysiaca’.

Evidently, Nonnus’ account of the use of the mirror is based on an ancient myth as Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks – 2nd CE) commented on the use of the mirror in Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult, and it appears that the ‘Dionysian mirror’ was an important allegorical part of the cult. The appearance of numerous elaborately-decorated mirrors depicting mythological scenes in the graves of Etruscan nobles from the 6th-1stC BCE offers a fascinating yet poorly understood link to the mysterious role of the mirror in relation to the afterlife and its mysteries. Likewise, the shiny ‘Orphic’ gold tablets accompanying the dead in Romano-Greek tombs of the same period may hold a similar significance.

Dionysus, Semele and Apollo depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

Dionysus (with Thyrsus), Semele and Apollo (with Laurel branch) depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

A 4thC BCE 'Orphic' gold tablet. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription....

A 4thC BCE ‘Orphic’ gold tablet, typically buried with a dead initiate of the Dionysian mysteries. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription….

Although the mirror as an object is infrequently depicted in relation to Dionysian imagery in ancient Greek and Greco-Roman imagery, one must remember that almost every such image depicts a dish or vessel containing the ‘blood’ of the god – wine. The reflectivity of this dark liquid cannot be understated, and it would seem quite probable that this was in fact the true ‘mirror’ of the Dionysian mysteries.

The wide shallow drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the Dionysian mysteries: a maenad and a satyr.

The wide shallow Greek drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the mysteries: a Maenad and the Satyr. The Maenads represented the destructive or conflict-inducing higher human nature (after jealous Hera), and the Satyrs the chaotic-intrusive wild cthonic/animalistic nature (after the Titans, represented by Kronus/Saturn)…

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

Mirrors offer an apparently inverted reflection of the light reflecting on them. The most basic mirror for humankind is experienced in the smooth surface of water or liquids, which was mimicked in the polishing of stones and metals to create functional mirrors. From the most ancient times until the present, mirror-surfaces have been used in the mantic/divinatory arts for ‘seeing’ beyond the mundane. The imperfections in the reflection offer re-interpretations of the source image, so divinatory mirrors are often imperfect reflective surfaces: bowls of water, tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, blood from a sacrificial animal etc being good examples.

There are a number of ancient superstitions about the dead and mirrors or reflections. The reversal of mirrors in the presence of the dead is one of these, linked to old European superstitions about the (un)dead having no reflection or shadow. Robert Kirk’s description of the beliefs about the dead and seers of spirits in 17thC Scottish Highlands (recorded in  ‘Secret Commonwealth‘) says that the dead/departed spirits occupied a world which was an inversion or reflection of our own. This belief about the Otherworld appears on cursory inspection to have no connection to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans who are usually supposed to have believed that their dead to occupied the misty dank and dark recesses under the earth, or – if lucky – some far off fields beyond a river. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated, and bound up in the pagan religious mysteries…

Death and the Chthonic realm:

“… For were it not Dionysus to whom they institute a procession and sing songs in honor of the pudenda, it would be the most shameful action. But Dionysus, in whose honor they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same…” (Fragment of Heraclitus (5th BC), quoted by Clement of Alexandria 2nd CE)

The mythology and philosophy of the ancient world depicted the earth both as the source of life and decay, and the representation of elemental solidity – an antithesis of the most ethereal elements of fire and light. As the dead rotted away into the earth, leaving their stony bones as evidence, it is logical that it became associated with death, coldness and decay and thus a logical abode of the dead. Liquids poured upon the earth flowed and trickled downwards into its cavities, hence libations were the form of sacrifice appropriate to the chthonic deities and spirits. Death, entropy, chaos and disease were seen as originating or having their allotted place within the chthonic realm in Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, the theogonies of 1st BCE Greek religion claimed that the Titans and monsters were consigned to Tartaros (in the traditions referred to as Titanomachy and Gigantomachy), which was said to be a void or boundless deep cavity below even the earth itself. As the forces of divine order occupied the heavenly position, so the forces of chaos and divine disorder occupied a similar state in a reflected state of opposition to that conceived of as ‘above’. Both states were seen as essential to create the balance of our ‘middle’ earth (i.e. – the ‘elemental’ or ‘sub-lunary’ world). In the light of this interpretation, it is better to think of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead occupying the ‘lower’ world for the initial part of their journey. The shady world of Hades can be thought of as merely an official ‘cover story’ for a more complicated belief system which involved the eternal soul’s travel to and from the extremities of the chaotic and the divine. Crossing into the chthonic/underground realm was a point of reflective transformation: where life became death, and ideas were reversed – as if in a ‘mirror’ state. The final ‘mirror’ of this state was the waters which sat in the earth’s deepest recesses into which they flowed, and from which they mysteriously returned…

Of course, we come across this mythologically in the subterranean pools, lakes and rivers which the heroes and gods who visit and return from Hades invariably encounter. These liminal waters also occur in the legends of heroes who visit far-off islands and encounter the monstrous, Tartarean creatures sired by the Titans: Medusa, the Graeae, the snake of the Garden of the Hesperides etc. This theme is common to the myths of the Celtic and German worlds of northern Europe and was in evidence at the time the Roman world encroached on these from the 4th BCE onwards….

Rebirth of Dionysus:

Some of the ‘Orphic’ myths of Dionysus have him re-assembled by Rhea after his dismemberment, after which he is fostered by the mountain nymphs – probably during the great flood sent by Zeus to cleanse the world after he took revenge upon the Titans. It is thus also very similar to the aquatic myth of Osiris and Isis from Egypt. Dionysus, like the waters and their mountain springs, streams and rivers, represented the root and branch of returning life. Like the mystery of the returning waters, he embodied the mysteries of returning nature…

The ‘underworld’ as an inversion of the ‘overworld’:

The pit of chaos or Tartaros, lying beyond the deeps of the earth and sea was the ancient Greek idea of ‘antimatter’, in opposition to the celestial light and order of the heavens. Of the sublunary world, the elements of water and earth partook of a greater part of the nature of this chaos, including the Titans, giants and monstrous beings. Likewise, air and fire partook of the more luminous properties of the higher nature of things in the heavens, including the gods. The ‘interface’ between these two aspects of perceived reality was a very liminal place in which ideas became inverted, and opposites found unity. The ‘underworld’ of Greco-Roman mythology should not be seen as a lower realm from which souls struggle up incrementally in order to return to the light, but as an exact mirror and equally valid version of the ‘celestial’ world. In other words: Zeus is Hades inverted, Poseidon is the synthesis of both. Dionysus was therefore, like Hermes and Apollon, a Daimon who unified these god-themes and manifested them in the mundane world.

279BC and the ‘Sons of Tuireann’.

279BC marked the zenith of the Celtic ‘La Tene’ cultural period and the warlike seemingly pan-Celtic ‘Belgic’ religious-cultural movement which had rocked Europe to its core and provided Europe’s first verifiable highly mobile elite mercenary fighting forces. It was the year that combined Celtic (‘Gaulish’) armies, having began an invasion and settlement of the Balkans some years previously, surged down through Macedonia and northern Greece and sacked of the holy city of Delphi – home to the shrine of Apollo and the Pythean Oracle. It was ancient Greece’s most sacred (and wealthy) religious site and was internationally famous. Rumours of fantastical treasure hordes carried off from these conquests back into the Celtic world persisted for centuries afterwards (e.g. ‘The Gold of Tolosa’), and it is highly likely that the stunning victories became the stuff of legends and stories for an even longer period to come. A more interesting aspect of the episode is that it fundamentally changed opinions in the Greek and Roman worlds about Celtic power: The combination of 279BCE with the earlier 4thC BCE sack of Rome by another warlord called Brennus, and the various Punic Wars in which significant Celtic mercenary forces fought for Carthage, ultimately ensured that Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasts were determined to smash independent Celtic power and culture in its seats across western and northern Europe.

It has always intrigued me how tales of this stellar 3rdC BC event might have filtered back to Britain and (in particular) to Ireland, and influenced the medieval story traditions that have survived down to this day. An example I would like to share with you is a story known as Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann (‘The Tragedy of the Sons of Tuireann’), which was translated to English under the name ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’ by Eugene O’Curry and first published in ‘The Atlantis’ (Volume IV, 1863) alongside the equally important ‘Fate of the Children of Lir’.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the tale is of a late period (16th/17thC) and is written in Early Modern Irish. However, the story has some features of great antiquity to it, and the narrative is in the tradition of the ‘Mythological Cycle’ discussing the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann: an imaginative and magical period of prehistory. The tale seeks to illustrate the inevitabilty of how acts against gods will ultimately ensure the demise of the proud and vainglorious, and as such mirrors the typical tragedean approach of ancient Greek myths.

The Tragedy, Fate or Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann: 

First, take a look at the story, here at the Celtic Literature Collective website. O’Curry’s translation can be found here, with extra notes.

The story is essentially about a group of three warrior brothers: Brian (the leader), Iuchar and Iucharba . On account of a blood-feud, they kill Cian of the Tuatha De Danann, inviting the wrath of his son – the solar warrior and champion leader of the Tuatha De Danann knights: Lugh Lamhfada (‘Long Arm’).

Lugh sets an erec (compensation fee) that at first seems lenient, but it transpires that Lugh has tricked them, and the warriors must engage in a wild and violent chase across Europe and the Middle East in order to gain what turns out to be the magical treasures of foreign kings, treasures that Lugh will require in order to win the final Battle of Magh Tureadh against the Fomorians. Tuireann’s sons achieve their goal, but ultimately meet their demise in so doing, sealing Lugh’s revenge with blood.

Upon closer analysis, this story shares many features of that of the famous 3rdC BCE invasion of Greece and sacking of Delphi. This episode, which started out as a Celtic attempt to immitate the glory of Alexander of Macedonia, as well as being motivated by greed and envy of the unstable post-Alexandrian state of the Macedonian monarchy and northern Greek alliances. It culminated in an act of religious desecration, which (in the ancient world) whilst seeming daring would have had a number of ominous consequences. The repercussions against Celtic culture (and in particular druidic culture) which were to come would have been interpreted in the light of the these events, and no doubt affected the morality expressed in poetic arts. Even the legends of Sigurd among the Germanic peoples can be interpreted in this same context.

Lugh’s first task, is to have the sons of Tuirenn plunder the apples (of immortality) from the orchard of the Hesperides, which was in ancient times believed to lie at the furthest point to the east in the world-encircling sea (river) of Okeanos. To reach it, Brian and his brothers are forced to borrow Mannanan’s boat ‘Sguabatuinne’ (‘Wave Sweeper’). Once there they take the form of birds in order to steal the apples.

It is obviously a retelling from the myth of Hercules, but with a distinct Celtic twist: the theme of distant islands and birds feature heavily in other perhaps older Irish tales and poems dealing with the Otherworld, including the Legend of St Brendan, and ‘The Voyage of Bran’. It is believed that birds were the souls of the dead, or conducted the souls of the dead to the Celtic Otherworld.

Hercules himself (as well as Pythian Apollo) was depicted on 1stC BC coins minted by Celtic tribes from the great army who settled in the Balkans, these being imitations of Greek Thasos tetradrachms:

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo - the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo – the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

It seems that the very act of going east towards the rising sun to seek the apples of immortality was an ideological theme which would have appealed greatly to the Gaulish warriors of Brennus’ army, seeking glorious immortality through heroic acts. In the 1st centuries BC and CE, Roman authors commented upon the fanatical aspects of Gaulish religion (said to have arisen in Britain) and that warriors were motivated to bravery by a belief in future reincarnation. Hercules’ defeat of the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides seems to be an alternate version of the Delphic myth of Apollo slaying Python. In our Irish tale, the leader of the adventurers is called ‘Brian’, very similar to the name Bran, and also to Brennus. All three means Raven in Celtic languages – the archetypal bird of war, and perhaps a symbol of reincarnating warriors.

After the Hesperides, the next significant target for the sons of Tuireann is the court of the Greek king, ‘Tuis’ (possibly a celticization of ‘Attis’). This seems suspiciously close to the raid on Delphi, particularly as they demand the king’s magical healing pig skin which brings men back to life. Tuis refuses but offers instead to give them as much gold as will fit on the skin, to which they acquiesce, only to whip the skin out from under the king’s nose in the treasury, kill the king and make off. The Gaulish army of 279BC famously killed the Macedonian King, Ptolemy Keraunos, before Brennus’ faction made for Delphi. Apollo (the god of Delphi) was famously a god of healing, and a need for healing is a theme which crops up again and again in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann.

Next, the brothers go to Persia to obtain the king’s magically potent spear, killing the Persian king into the bargain. This may be a reference to the elements of Brennus’ army who settled in Anatolia and became known as Galatians. They were notorious as making their living as a mercenary fighting force among the Seleucid Kingdoms and were deployed across the middle east, perhaps as far as Persia, in fighting their wars. Another interpretation could be of the spear representing the Gaulish defeat of the Macedonian kingdom, which had in turn defeated the Achaemenid Empire (represented in the Irish tale by the ‘King of Persia’).

After Persia, they go to the King of Sicily (Siguil) posing as mercenaries in order to relieve him of his chariot and team of horses. This seems to be a reference to the Pyrrhic war, which coincided with and continued after the sack of Delphi. It involved the Carthaginians and Greeks fighting over Sicily, and although we cannot be certain that Celtic mercenaries were involved in this conflict, we know that they played a major role in the Second Punic War. Another Delphi-related detail is that one of its treasures was reported to be a large golden image of a god (probably Helios) riding a chariot.

From there, the heroes go to the kingdom of’ ‘Coloman Orda’, which O’Curry translates as ‘Pillars of Gold’. The location of this is less certain, but the Lugh demands the heroes relieve the king of this place of his nine magical regenerating pigs. I would suggest that the kingdom of the Pillars of Gold, well stocked with endless pigs suggests the Iberian peninsula. Iberian and Southern Gaulish support for Carthage was a significant factor in Hannibal’s campaign during the Second Punic War, the Celts of the city of Gades (modern Cadiz) having been ancient trading partners and cultural exchangees of the Phoenicians. The pigs are recognisably similar to the magic pigs owned by Manannan Mac Lir.

The final tasks involve plundering in colder climes among places less easily identified. Ioruaidh – ‘the cold country’ – furnishes them with a hunting dog, and the congregation of women occupying the island of Inis Cenn-fhinne donate a cooking spit. Finally they give three shouts upon a hill in Lochlann (a fjord in Norway?) in order to complete Lugh’s quest, though are grievously wounded by the hill’s guardians. Upon returning to Ireland they die, sealing Lugh’s revenge. These last three tasks imply a diminution in the difficulty faced and a retreat into a colder world, where their adventures finally finish with the Sons of Tuirenn dying merely for standing upon a hill and shouting, maybe just an echo from towering Mount Parnassos and its mighty shrine to the gods. Of all their earlier victories over kings, it seems that the story seeks to trace an almost ignominious end for the warriors…

The story resonates with themes from the late Celtic iron age, tracing the descent of this golden age from the glory and immortality of the attacks on Delphi, the apparent ill-luck and kin-strife of its aftermath leading through the ill-advised mercenary alliances of the Punic Wars and finally to the destruction of independent Celtic power by the conquests of Spain, Gaul, and Britain by the Romans. These events marked the final retreat of independent Celtic power in to the far northern and northwestern climes of Europe. The story of Brennus and that of the Sons of Tuirenn are (like that of Alexander the Great) a warning against vainglory, and the corruption of men by power and money. They are an evocation of the ancient pagan European concept that no manner of power and glory will make you immune from the implacable wrath of the gods when ill-treated.

The role of Lugh in the story:

Lugh Lamhfada appears to be invested in the tale with the attributes and authority of a god, namely Manannan Mac Lir – Lord of the Otherworld. This is expressed by the simple motif of Lugh bearing the arms, armour, steed and legendary boat of the god, and through which he projects his power as chief hero, knight and leader of the cavalry of the Tuatha De Danann. As a youthful representative of Manannan’s otherworld power, Lugh seems here in many ways to embody the power of Apollo, whose shrine was desecrated in 279BC. This role was fulfilled by Thunor/Thor in Germanic paganism, and the name Tuirenn now appears to resonate a little with these, as well as the Gaulish god Taranis. How these might be linguistically linked to a word for thunder (Torran), for a disembodied soul (Taran), or the indo-european rootword from which we get ‘tyrant’ is open to conjecture…

An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:

The manuscripts of this story date at their earliest to the 16th/17thC, a period when Ireland had been subjected to invasion and settlement by the protestant Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England and Scotland, who were determined to destroy independent Gaelic power and culture, which remained conservatively Roman Catholic in its outlook. In their bids to withstand the invasion, Irish Earls were send out emmisaries across Europe in order to muster support for what would ultimately – like in the story – prove to be a doomed cause. The result was what is known as the ‘Flight of The Earls’. Although probably based on much older traditions, the themes  certainly had a contemporary resonance when they were written down in the form we have them today.

Irish literature and storytelling has always retained a mythical ability to address contemporary issues, a feature which is as much a testament to the subtlety of its timeless themes as to the frequent need of Irish people to express their ideas in a form disguised from the depredations of censorship and misunderstanding by church or state.

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

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

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

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

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

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

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

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

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

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

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

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish connection:

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

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The winter Dionysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of Christmas Day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

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

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

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

Perihelion and lengthening days:

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

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

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

 

 

 

 

Gods and Robbers: ‘Twm Siôn Cati’

The Welsh answer to England’s ‘Robin Hood’ legend is that of ‘Twm Siôn Cati’ (pron. ‘Toum Shon Catti’), whose legend has in modern times been popularly located (like that of Scotland’s Sawney Bean and Ireland’s Caher Roe) in the fractious 16th century during the period of unrest following the Protestant Reformation. Modern authors have attempted to give historicity to the character, giving him an air of political legitimacy, not in the least because – unlike Sawney – Twm was a ‘good fellow’.

A ‘historical’ Twm?

The usual modern tale told of the euhemerised ‘historical Twm’  is that he was born Thomas Jones, illegitimate son of Catherine ‘Cati’ Jones of Tregaron and the more regally connected Siôn ap Dafydd ap Madog ap Hywel ‘Moetheu’ (?Matthew) of Porth-y-Ffin (also described as ‘John Wynne of Gwydir’ in some texts), circa 1530. Why this has come to be so often-repeated is solely due to the desire to fix ‘Twm’ with a provenance, either (as in the case of Robin Hood) out of civic pride or to suit the romantic prejudices of authors with theories on the subject, of which there have been a not inconsiderable number. The modern tale seemingly derives from ‘The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti’ by patriotic Welsh romanticist-antiquarian T J Llewelyn Prichard (Pub. Cox, Aberystwyth 1828) and has been enlarged upon to form the current ‘tourist’ myth. However, like with ‘Sawney Bean’ its origins as historical are in dispute: For instance, a play ‘Twm Shon Catty, or, The Welsh Rob Roy’ reviewed in the 1823 edition of the ‘The Drama‘ magazine places Twm as a knight and lord during the reign of Henry IV (d.1413). Evidently, the desire to establish provenance in the confused political landscape following the reformation was again to blame for the metamorphosis of the popular narrative. Thomas Pennant noted in his ‘A Tour in Wales, 1770’ (Vol.2 p.137) that the legend of outlawry associated with the seat of the influential 16thC Wynnes of Gwydir was ascribed to an earlier character, Hoel ap Evan ap Rhys Gethin. The historic Thomas Jones (Hoel’s later ancestor) does not get a mention by Pennant, who evidently had access to Welsh pedigrees when writing this work, again pushing the legend back over the medieval ‘event horizon’ and therefore into the world of legendary historical fantasy where kingship was believed derived either from god, or the blessings of fairies, or both, and sleeping saviours would return to fight the usurpers of the land. This was, of course, the world of the early 15thC and the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr against English hegemony – a time when Welsh monarchs and gentry became ‘outlaws’ and ‘bandits’ in English polemic tradition. Curiously, the legendary exploits of Twm and Owain seem similar.

The legendary Twm:

The flesh of Twm’s legendary narrative portrays him – like Robin Hood – as a nobleman or popular yeoman-class commoner being consigned to outlawry by malice, misfortune or turn of politics. His outlawry, although  overtly criminal, is tacitly for the common good, and his clever japes, tricks and skillful demonstrations of feats keep him one step ahead of both death and the law. Like in the other ‘outlaw’ myths he inhabits a cave in the wilderness with a female partner where he conducts his heroics (or crimes) until eventually re-entering society to claim his deserved rewards. He therefore fits the character of the ‘legendary wildman’ whose guise in British and Irish folklore frequently crosses over with that of giants in a number of legends (for example, Wade and his wife from Eskdale in North Yorkshire, the Cailleach and her husband from Scotland, Mann and Ireland).

Twm’s supposed cave (‘Ystafell Twm Siôn Cati’) is a popular haunt of tourists seeking after his legend, and is to be found on Dinas Hill on the RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas Reserve, near Ystradffin in upper Carmarthenshire, not far from Llandovery. The hill and cave overlooks the confluence of the rivers Towy (Tywi) and Pysgotwr, so in the Atlantic system of paganism before the Christian era, would undoubtedly have had great significance, the River Towy being one of the largest in Wales, being full of the protean and migratory Sea Trout and draining into Carmarthen bay.

Twm's 'cave'? I've been there - its more like a grotto than a cave...  Image ©Paul Edwards 2011, http://www.aspectsofwales.co.uk/Twmsioncaticave.htm

Twm’s ‘cave’? I’ve been there – its more like a grotto than a cave…
Image ©Paul Edwards 2011, http://www.aspectsofwales.co.uk/Twmsioncaticave.htm

Ystradffin and its environs are connected to the Marian cult which supplanted paganism in the middle ages, and the nearby hilltop church of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn (St Mary on the Hill) bears witness to this. This was a region once deemed important enough by the Romans to have built a road and fort there, perhaps marking it as an older hotspot of banditry than the medieval and early-modern ‘Twm’ legends give credit for. It was, after all, the frontier with the last part of southern Britain to have maintained an indigenous Celtic social structure and religion, making it a breeding ground for early Christianity.

This brings us to the name, ‘Twm Siôn Cati’. Obviously it is reasonable to suggest it is an indigenous mode of naming common to the Celtic world and its love of genealogies and foreshortened nick-names – ‘Tom, son of John and Catherine. Let’s analyse the name:

Twm:

The name ‘Twm’ (Tom) is a Christian name of a legendary early acolyte and proselyte of the Hebrew sage Jesus of Nazareth – Thomas the Twin. Coincidentally Thomas shares his feast day (6th Novemeber) with the Welsh saint Illtyd (Illtud) who was credited with founding one of the first and most vital Christian schools at Llanilltud Fawr (Lantwit Major) during the 6th century. This school has been linked to many of the early Christian missionaries of Britain and Ireland during the sub-Roman period, including Patrick. Thomas the missionary served as a popular saint by which to name children. He is most venerated in Southeast Asia for this reason, and is referred to as the ‘Apostle of the Indians’.

‘Siôn’:

The element Siôn, Sion or Shon is usually supposed to represent the Welsh version of the name ‘John’. However, the phonetic ‘shon’ might also relate to Celtic words for ‘old’ – Welsh=(S)hen, Manx=Shenn, Irish=Sean. It also lies in the phonetic scope of celtic words for ‘blessed’ – Irish= séant, Manx=sheaynt,

‘Cati’:

Although linked in modern legends to a woman called ‘Catherine’ the name ‘Cati’ has a much more interesting past with distinct links in the insular celtic folklore and legends with both rebel-bandits (Scots/Gaelic: Cathair, giving the Irish bandit-name Caher Roe) and a bevy of mysterious magical females going by the name of Caitlin, Cathaleen etc who gave their names to a number of places, not the least of which is Enniskillen, where Caitlin is believed to have once have been a pagan goddess with a sanctuary on the island there. ‘Cathaleen’ is the the female temptress overcome in legends about St Kevin of Glendalough on a lakeside crag (for more information on her, see my other posts on the matter).

This interpretation might imply that legendary Old Twm, the helpful outlaw, was originally believed to have been the son of ‘Cati’, the ‘sitting one’ who presided over ancient shrines on crags overlooking water…

 

 

 

 

The woman who sat by the sea…

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

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

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

Isle of Man mermaid mythology:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fairy washerwoman:

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

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

The water horse and the goddess:

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

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

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

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

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

The old woman who sat by the sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An old woman and old priest,

A grave-broom is their withered beard,

Provided they do not serve God’s Son,

And do not give their first fruits.

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

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

Caillagh y Groamagh:

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

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

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

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

Identity of Gullin/Cuillin with Manannan:

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

If you would listen to my story,

I will pronounce my chant

As best I can;

I will, with my mouth,

Give you notice of the enchanted Island.

Who he was that had it first,

And then what happened to him;

And how St. Patrick brought in Christianity,

And how it came to Stanley.

Little Mannanan was son of Leirr,

He was the first that ever had it;

But as I can best conceive,

He himself was a heathen.

It was not with his sword he kept it,

Neither with arrows or bow,

But when he would see ships saving,

He would cover it round with a fog.

He would set a man, standing on a hill,

Appear as if he were a hundred ;

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

The rent each landholder paid to him was,

A bunch of coarse meadow grass yearly,

And that, as their yearly tax,

They paid to him each midsummer eve.

Some would carry the grass up

To the great mountain up at Barrool;

Others would leave the grass below,

With Mannanan’s self, above Keamool.

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

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

 

Connections with ancient Greek mythology:

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

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