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 Fisher King: Belenos in the Arthurian tales?

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland receives a visit from three (Valkyrie) women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi and consider the court of the Fisher King...

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' (British Museum) depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland makes a cup for three ?Valkyrie-women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi: a ?weapon, a torch and a cup...

 

The Arthurian tales and fairy lays of the 12th-15thC centuries are curious amalgams of contemporary chivalric and courtly Christian culture with much older pagan themes, with which they seem to abound. Those that survive as an identifiable part of the medieval corpus (starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth) were written down between the 12th and 15th centuries, and formed a tradition that was added to, re-versified, modified and expanded. That they were based upon themes and characters from indigenous folk-traditions of the post-Roman, pre-Christian European world is certain, although they would form a very contemporary tradition in their time, and their allegories were equally at home in the fevered era of the crusades and chivalry as they would have been in the 1stC BC before Rome crashed militarily and culturally into the heady and otherworldly domains of the peoples who identified themselves with the term 'Belgae', and from among whom these legends appear to have grown in oral traditions. As in Ireland, the Christian imperative in Britain and northern Europe was to assail these potent bastions of bardic culture in which the spiritual and philosophical worldview of late Iron Age celts were encoded, and convert them to a literary or suitably contemporary oral-narrative form which suited Christian culture – especially in the warlike post-Roman, post-Carolingian world which had evolved from the 'Belgic' culture.

Although mentions of 'Arthur' (and his older variant names) exist before the 1100's, it is during the 12thC that a tradition of written tales begins to coalesce around him and a cast of recognisable supporting characters that takes shape as what we recognise as 'Arthurian' legends. The cultural crucible was stoked by the influence of Troubadour culture (possibly an extension or development of older celtic bardic traditions) from Occitania in the more Romanised south of France, and the militarised chivalric and pious culture in the north of France centred on Normandy, which had developed among settlements of lately-Christianised Danes (warlike post-Belgic pagans until the 10thC). The Troubadours' lyrical traditions of courtly love emphasised feminine power and mystery in an era in which this had long been suppressed, and although it probably did little to change womens' position in life it suited the era during which reformed monasticism was promoting increased veneration of Mary, mother of Jesus, and portraying her allegorically as a fountain of rejuvenation. The Lady of the Lake, the Lady of the Fountain and similar otherworldly females all appear in the Arthurian tales and fairy 'Lays' of this era, and seem to correspond to such contemporary 'Maryology' – a heady mix of pagan goddess veneration and Christian euhemerisation and appropriation of powerful indigenous narratives.

The authors and redactors of the medieval romances and lays in the Arthurian literary tradition wrote across a period spanning some 400 years, and almost wholly for a learned elite audience. Oral tradition would have been part of the cultural pillar supporting and uniting communities and reinforcing a sense of tribal identity and connection to traditional lands. In the Arthurian tales, this was invoked by the elites so as to reinforce their sense of shared-origin and common-purpose with their subjects. Such a connection was important in places like Britain which had seen successive waves of invasion and settlement by neighbouring peoples, most notably that of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans. As with all invading cultures, these appropriated and modified indigenous traditions to suit their claims to legitimacy, hence the style of Arthurian literature. As a result of this and active processes among the religious to 'euhemerise' and consign pagan ideas to a pseudo-historical or literary tradition, the old gods of Europe changed their faces and names as the traditions developed.


Timeline of significant 'Arthurian' literature (by no means complete!):

12thC: Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain, Life of Merlin, Prophecies of Merlin), Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Béroul, Wace, Thomas of Britain, Robert de Boron, Eilhart von Oberge, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven.

13thC: (Wolfram von Eschenbach) 'Parzifal', (Anon.) 'Lancelot-Grail cycle' (or 'Vulgate Cycle'), (Anon.) Post-Vulgate cycle.

14thC: The 'Welsh Romances' (assoc. with the Mabinogion)

 


The Fisher King:

The 'Fisher King' or 'Wounded King' from the grail series of Arthurian tales is perhaps one of the more intriguing of the otherworldly regal male characters of the traditions. His first explicit appearance is in Chrétien de Troyes' 'Perceval, the Story of the Grail' from the late 12thC, where he is the 'Grail King' of the land of Logres, keeper of a mystical lance and a grail (plate or bowl), not then identified with any form of holy Christian relic from the biblical 'Last Supper': that would come later – after the Third Crusade tried to reconquer the 'holy lands' far away in the Middle East, as well as the introduction of the principle of transubstantiation of the communion wine and host. Chretien's 'Perceval' is fragmentary and incomplete, but was sufficiently popular and valuable to have been recopied and added to by a number of subsequent authors in an attempt to 'round off' the narrative and make sense of it.

In Chretien's version, the young and inexperienced Perceval is invited to stay at the castle of a wounded and indolent fisherman-king, whose aged father (also wounded) shares the castle with him. At a banquet a mysterious procession enters bearing a number of mystical objects which are paraded in front of Perceval: a graal/grail (dish or vessel), a bleeding lance, and a candelabra (see the Franks' Casket panel above!). The performance and the meaning of it is lost on Chrétien's Perceval, who returns to Arthur's court where a prophetic/fatalistic 'loathly lady' (ie – the narrative representation of the pagan Cailleach) appears and explains that had he solved the mystery he would have healed the wounded king and his lands.

As Chretien offers no satisfactory conclusion in his own surviving work to the tale of Perceval, others expanded upon his themes – either through reference to an original oral narrative tradition or using their own creative skills – we cannot be certain which. An analogy of the tale with similar themes (although not referring directly to a 'grail' or 'Fisher King') occurs in the Middle Welsh tale Peredur son of Efrawg – a romance appended to the 'Mabinogion' tales. Robert de Boron's 12thC 'Joseph d'Arimathie' introduces the Christianised version of the Grail, placing the 'Bron the Rich Fisher' (ie – the Fisher King) as last in a line of Grail guardians originating with Joseph of Arimithea – supposed to have come to Britain with the Grail in which he was supposed to have collected Jesus' blood: This fitted the Crusader theme entirely!

The Fisher King is Belenos?

In truth, we know very little about the Celtic solar deity Belenos, so equating him with the Fisher King has its problems. However, the theme of death and rebirth underlies the Grail mystery, just as it did the religion of the ancient Europeans, and the Sun is the most explicit exemplar of the principle. The wounds of the Fisher King, and/or his father are expressions of human mortality, just as his 'healing' from the 'dolorous stroke' represents reincarnation.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted  knights.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted knights.

 

Other clues lie in the names given to the King: The anonymous 13thC authors of the 'Lancelot-Grail' cycle expanded upon the 'Grail' stories and added a couple of interesting name-details: the 'Fisher King', they say, was named 'Pelles' and the 'Wounded King' was called 'Pellehan' or 'Pellam'. Like the Slavic god Veles, the Lithuanian Velinas and the Germanic Weland, these names seem to contain elements of the older 'Belenos' (in this case through the other common Celtic/Indo-European language consonantal switch of the 'B' and 'P' sounds.) The slightly later 'Post-Vulgate Cycle' versions of the Grail tale (also by an un-named author) and Sir Thomas Mallory's 15thC 'Morte D'Arthur' refer to a 'Sir Balin' who was responsible for causing the wound of the Fisher King (the 'Dolorous Stroke') and hence the sickness of his land, using a lance – perhaps unsurprisingly in the Christianised legends identified with the 'Spear of Longinus', supposed to have been the one that pierced the side of 'Christ'. In Robert de Boron's late 12thC Grail epic 'Joseph d'Arimathie', the Fisher King (here called the 'Rich Fisher') is called Bron – a name which has caused some scholars to comment on the similarity with the character Bendigeidfran ('Bran the Blessed') from the Welsh Mabinogion. Bran is a giant who possesses a healing cauldron, and who is mortally injured by decapitation yet whose head continues to talk. Bran means 'raven' – a bird strongly associated with the souls of the dead and reincarnation in Celtic and Norse (ie – late Belgic culture) mythology.

Holy Wounds and Healing Vessels:

The 'Holy Wound' apparently suffered by the Fisher King characters in Grail mythology is used as an allegory for the poor state of their lands: why else would the King catch his own food? The 'bleeding lance' theme introduced into literature by Chretien represents an injured virility, something akin to the bleeding stag with a broken antler who had lost the season's rutting combat, but will endure with hope that the next year promises dominance of the herd. The mystery of the image invoked by Chretien revolves around the question of whether the lance runs with the blood of its adversary, or if it is the lance itself that bleeds? In a solar sense, the 'wounding' of the land comes with the onset of winter, during which the sun – like the Fisher King – seems enfeebled. This invokes the necessity of death to encourage life. Interestingly, the 12th/13thC Norse Prose Edda myth of Volundr (Weyland/Weland) claims that he is wounded and cannot walk – this is confirmed by the imagery of Weyland on the earlier 8thC Franks' Casket…

 

However, it was the grail itself which took greater precedence in the later tales: the receiver of the 'sacrificial' blood of the Christian narratives, for which the 'wounded king' was to become an important allegory. The 'ladies of the fountains' of earlier tales – explicit references to the pagan goddesses we see depicted upon ancient Celtic stelae – were to merge with the 'Marian' goddess-philosophies of the more pious Christian eras. This process was reaching its height in the 12thC when the Arthurian tales were being written down.

 

However, the Arthurian 'Fisher King' is portrayed as a king down on his luck and wounded who requires redemption and healing through questing knights who seek the Grail. This means that he is never a direct analogy for Jesus, who was generally portrayed as a triumphal and all-powerful redeemer during the medieval period. In fact, the 'Fisher King' seems more akin to Shakespeare's version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'King Leir/Lear' or perhaps the wild Merddyn (Merlin) or his Irish equivalent Suibhne: slightly unhinged, somehow wounded, and a bit less than divine. The famous late-classical British/Irish Christian leader Pelagius (4th-5thC CE) seems to have shared the same opinion about Christ and rejected the idea of 'original sin', but was rebutted by his continental colleagues who expunged his doctrine that Jesus himself was somehow human! Even the name Pelagius is itself evocative of Pel- or Bel-: Celtic Christians were arch employers of the mythology of their own indigenous religious background.

Triadic nature of the Fisher King:

The Fisher King (who lives with his aged father – also wounded) is actually part of a 'triad' if one includes the redeeming young knights such as Perceval, Lancelot or Galahad who unlock the secret of Grail and the Lance, and who heal the King's wounds. These themselves are reflexes of the character who wounds the Fisher King: another knight of Arthur's court called Sir Balin, whose name is a more explicit invocation of Belenos. Galahad is the grandson of the Wounded King in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, where Pelles (the younger Fisher King) contrives to have Lancelot bed his daughter Elaine. This technically ensures his eventual healing, again demonstrating the complex themes of continuity and reincarnation. The triadic divinities of the Atlantic Europeans often incorporate a 'father-son-virgin youth' or 'crone-mother-virgin youth' type of schema, and this is witnessed with the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

The character's important mystical nature, his association with death and renewal, his various names and triadic nature are all clues to his identity with the great solar god of the Otherworld. Manannan (son of Leir) is the same.

 

 

 

Serpents and dragons in Irish mythology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier...

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier…

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

The 'Tara Brooch' c.700AD.

The ‘Tara Brooch’ c.700AD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragons in the Celtic Iron Age?

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

Fairies at Beltane – friend or foe?

Continuing my Beltane theme, I aim in this post to examine the role ascribed in pre-modern folklore to fairies and witches during these festivities.

Beltane (Bealtaine, Beltain, Bealtuinn, Boaldyn etc) was another period in the annual cycle of the Atlantic peoples when the spirit world was supposed to be closer to our own (another was Samhain/Sauin), and for this reason certain rituals and customs were observed in regard to these spirits.

The power of vegetative growth and movement of animals is potently evident during this festival and many of the Beltane rituals, as well as being a celebration of this fertility, were designed to sain and protect it from antagonistic forces. The three spiritual forces defined by folklore as posing a potential threat at Beltane were fairies, witches and the Evil Eye, although the second and third may be considered similar. These might prove harmful in different ways:

Protection from Fairies?

Fairies were considered a threat in that they were deemed to be jealous of human abundance (see my commentary on Robert Kirk’s essay for a discussion of this), easy to anger/offend by the ignorant and particularly pervasive at Beltane, as at the other Gaelic (cross-)’quarter days’. Kirk, writing in the late 17thC in the Scottish highlands, expressed the reason why people might fear fairies in a time of abundance with the following succinct explanation:

“…When we have plenty, they have scarcity, and on the contrarie…”

Thomist (after medieval philosopher Thomas of Aquino) views on spirits underpinned much of the theological worldview of Christian Europe after the 13thC. These defined the sins of envy (invidia) and pride (superbia) as spiritual and therefore the only ones incorporal spirits were capable of. This neatly encapsulated the Christian bibilical narrative of the ‘fall’ of proud satan, who envied god. The agents of evil in the Christian worldview were the demons who conducted the will of higher (or lower!) spiritual agents; As ‘fallen angels’ they shared the sins of ‘Lucifer’. This concordance with fairies is obvious, and folk-narratives often reinforce it by claiming fairies and elves to be ‘fallen angels’ in line with Christian doctrine.


 

Maintaining the ‘otherworld balance’ was a core aspect of traditional Gaelic and Atlantic European culture – modesty was the watchword for a happy life: Attain too much and the otherworld will take it; You would speak with guarded modesty about things you admire, and be cautious with praise lest it invites alarm that you might ‘attract’ forces from the otherworld… Such customs persist among the Gaels to this day, and in other traditional peoples such as the Scandinavians. The Swedes and Norwegians entertain the concept of lagom, for instance, which translates roughly as ‘modest sufficiency’ or ‘just enough’. The Danes have ‘hygge‘ – a term expressing the comfort of the ‘middle way’. Similar concepts pervade other Atlantic cultures.


 

Witches’ (persons practicing magic designed to steal/transfer vital force) appear to have been a human conception of the same idea. It is often unclear in Gaelic folklore if there is any specific distinction made between the two forces. Why was this so? The strong presence of the Cailleach/Fairy Queen in Gaelic folk-myths placed the personification of the ‘magical hag’ in a context of fairytales and allegory rather than immanent threat.This was coupled with the failure of a judicial witch-panic to take hold in any degree in Gaelic heartlands between the 16th and 18th centuries. Added to this, in the Gaelic world, the process of ‘bewitching’ was more likely to be seen as a passive process anyone might be capable of, on account of the prevalent belief that a jealous eye (an droch shùil) could abstract vigour and fertility from people, animals, property and land. This seen more as a human foible, rather than as an act of service to the devil, and in areas with a stronger conservative and traditional view of religion, the social opinion was that it was a spiritual crime, deserving a spiritual punishment. ‘Witchcraft’ – either by a jealous eye or by abstracting magic – was just another method people used to try and survive: It – like fairies – was a fact of life that informed the apotropaic customs associated with the liminal festivals of the Celtic year.


 

So… more properly, it is best to see Beltane as a time when it was considered prudent to protect oneself, one’s household and one’s possessions from abstracting forces.


 

I have mentioned that yellow flowers were said to have been scattered outside houses to protect against fairies at Beltane. However, the decoration of thresholds with specific plants also has other connotations – to distract a jealous eye or as a form of welcome to spirits.

This ‘diversionary’ strategy is a widespread tactic employed in dealing with the ‘evil eye’, as anyone who has looked at fishing boats or doorways in many Mediterranean countries, where symbols are used for this purpose. Floral decorations would be equally effective in the Gaelic conception of distracting the Evil Eye and therefore witchcraft. In fact, fairies being notoriously jealous creatures, the flowers may work upon them the same way, rather than acting as garlic does to vampires…

Roman era mosaic of a happy Lare protected from sharp and venomous things by the apotropaic Eye symbol

Roman era mosaic of a happy household spirit (Lare) protected from sharp and venomous things by the apotropaic Eye symbol

Flowers have the appearance of the eye, which would allow them to function in such a manner…

Welcoming fairies:

There is, however, yet another aspect to the flower-strewing customs that mark the Beltane season, which as I have previously commented, shares a kinship and plasticity with the festivities of Easter and Midsummer/St John’s day. The traditions of strewing greenery have a distinct air of welcoming to them also, particularly where (as in the Isle of Man) rushes and Yellow Flag Irises were sometimes strewn in doorways (See: ‘Manx Reminiscences’ John Clague). One late-19thC  Manx poet, Edward Faragher of Cregneish, expressed this positive opinion of the fairies as follows (From ‘Manx Notes and Queries’ by Charles Roeder, for whom Faragher acted as collector of local folklore):

The Fairy Queen—the old folk said—
Was going round on old May-night
When all mankind was gone to bed,
And in the flowers did delight.

She kindly blessed each little cot,
Where yellow flowers did appear:
If there were none – she blessed them not
But gave bad luck through all the year.

I still remember on May-day,
Those flowers scatter’d in Cregnaish,
But since the Queen is gone away
No flowers at the door we place.

Faragher’s reference to a ‘grace and favour’ visit by the Fairy Queen on May Eve has few other direct corroborations in Manx folklore, however. Certainly, the island’s Fairy King, Manannan, was (and is still) celebrated at midsummer (the Germanic Walpurgisnacht) and welcomed with green rushes and sprigs of Artemesia vulgaris (Mugwort, Bollan Bane, Bollan-Feaill-Eoin), but as with much of the post-Christian world, the feminine seems to have been suppressed, or at least to have followed the Island’s tendency to amonarchial feudal republicanism.

Nevertheless, the association of Beltane Eve with potential visitations by potent females (human or fairy, royal or otherwise) was a consistent feature of concern in folklore, also a feature of Imbolc/Candlemass/St Brigit’s Eve and Samhain/Hallowe’en/Holllantide/Sauin/Hop-tu-naa. 

A good example of the May greenery persisting as a ‘welcoming’ rather than apotropaic tradition is seen in the relaxed and joyous collecting and parading of May-crowns/May-bushes and the well-dressing and rush-bearing ceremonies that were once in evidence across the north-western counties of England – many similar to those found in the Gaelic world, it would seem. These seem distinctly redolent of the happy customs once seen at the Lughnasa/Luanys/Lammas festivity harvest-homes. The happy and optimistic nature of Beltane seems to preclude it as a time of fearful apotropaic activity, although it was certainly considered a time of vulnerability. The same can be said about the birth of a new child, when extra care is taken…

 

The meanings of Beltane

Following on from my last thematic post, I wish to discuss some of the deeper meanings behind the festival of Beltane, known in Irish as Bealtaine, and Manx as Boaldyn. I have employed the English spelling 'Beltane' when talking in the general sense, simply because this is the language I use.

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

It really is an old festival, proceeding from times when religion was generated from the landscape, seasons, survival and memories – not from books. The empirical observations of nature's great mechanism assigned particular periods where change was apparent a specific importance, and Beltane was one of these.

It represents the surge of trees into full leaf, the arching and dividing of shoots to form branched plants, and the appearance of swarms of insects. Climatically it is warm and wet – the ideal generative conditions for nature to surge into full life. The response to this growth is visible in the behaviour and migrations of wild animals, and reflected in the procedures of transhumance when it is safe to move animals to upland pastures. It is perhaps not surprising that the groups of stars or constellations in which the sun is noted to travel during this period have ancient names which correspond closely to agricultural animals – Aries (the ram), Taurus (the bull), the Pleiades (plovers) and mysterious Cetus (see my earlier post about Iron Age coins). None of these will be visible in daytime in the sun's glare (except perhaps Taurus and the Pleiades just after sunset), and are hidden below the horizon at night! Boötes ('The Herdsman' -home of the bright star Arcturus) and Virgo ('The Young Woman' whose brightest star is Spica which represents a fertilised ear of corn) are visible rising on the ecliptic path to the southeast as the sun sets on Beltane eve, however… The 'meaning' of these constellations appears to have been assigned on the basis of the seasonal events they attend.

Irish Bealtaine customs:

According to William Robert Wilde, (Irish Popular Superstitions, Pub. McGlashan, Dublin 1852) the pre-famine celebration and customs of the Lá Buidhe Bealtaine included the following:

1. Bealtaine bonfires: Usually lit on May eve. He says that the embers would sometimes be taken away to peoples homes to light their own fires, and the ashes considered lucky and curative. Wilde records the burning of horse skulls and animal bones on the fires, as well as the May bush.

2. The May Bush: A decorated uprooted bush or small tree which was carried around ceremonially by youthful celebrants. It was burned on the bonfire.

3. He describes stories of parties of young character-actors similar to those of the Manx 'Summer Queen' and her troop.

4. May Flowers: Like in the Isle of Man, the Bearnan Bealtaine or Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) was a principle apotropaic Mayflower. Any other yellow wildflowers would be used to decorate houses and doorways etc.

5. Household superstitions: Wilde describes a superstition that it was unlucky to give fire or milk from the house at Bealtaine. He associates this with making the household vulnerable to fairies. Curiously, this superstition applies to Easter in the Isle of Man.

6. Spring wells and dew: A number of superstitions existed about the power held in the dew of May morning. Going to a person's land and skimming the dew was considered an attempt to transfer/steal its productivity. The same applies to skimming someone's well or spring. Conversely, wells were resorted to for ablutions and drinking first thing on May morning, and girls would also try and wash themselves in the dew of May morning.

7. May balls: Aside from dances and frolics, Bealtaine was also sometimes associated with spherical balls: One of these was a large football, kicked about as part of a May 'wide-game', and another was a custom of carrying a decorated ball suspended from a pole.

The book was a misty-eyed look back at pre-famine Ireland, and it is evident from its tone that Wilde perceived the famine to have caused a cultural collapse of traditional customs. He was correct, of course, and the latter half of the 19thC was marked by a rise in the power and influence of the Roman Catholic church which sought to fill the void of the decimated culture with its own cultural 'produce'.

Apart from the aspects of fun attached to former Bealtaine celebrations, it is worth examining in more detail the meanings of the customs Wilde and others have described.

Primrose_IMG_1803_2009_04 copy (1)

Water, trees and fertility:

The similitude between water and the plant life that relies upon it to survive permeated the empirical (i.e. – pagan) philosophies of Atlantic Europe. The physical patterns traced by the branches, stems and roots plants are similar to the shapes of river deltas. Plants 'spring' up from the ground in the season named in honour of this – just like water has a similar tendency to gush forth. The 'flood' of greenery at Beltane is analogous to the floods of rivers and the ocean tides. It was anciently believed that dew was created by the moon whose cold light was supposed to create moisture. Furthermore it was believed that its disappearance from the leaves of plants as the morning progressed constituted a 'drinking in' of its goodness. Grass and its dew, spring-wells, and the flow of milk from cattle were considered analogous parts of the same systematic (spiritual) process of conveying life and goodness.

Moisture along with heat were considered the pre-requisites for generating life.

Fire and continuity:

The May fires and hearth-customs were another important part of the fertility/continuity philosophy of Beltane. The custom of creating frictional fires such as the Tein-eigin, particularly when the sun is transiting across the virile spring constellations of Taurus and Aries is an interesting evocation of sexual intercourse. The 'eternal flame' once apparently common to early Celtic Christian monasteries was an aspect of something pagan, and the hearth-kindling traditions and beliefs about ancestors (fairies) and their relation to the hearth are important features of the Atlantic Religion. The hearth is the heart of a household, and a witness to generations of occupants. Open air hearths (e.g. – the Fulachtai Fiadh) were a feature of pagan ceremonials, there being good evidence for this from archaeology and literature. These represented the 'tribal hearth' and had significance to Bealtaine in Ireland, in particular at places like Tara (where Muirchu says Patrick extinguished the sacred fire at 'Easter' time) and at Uisneach. These fires, used to rekindle the fires of the tribe were a powerful unifying force in ancient Gaelic culture, and the ability to host them was the province of kings or high-kings whose 'spark' (married to the 'wood' of the feminine earth) was the inspiration and generation of the Tuatha. Perhaps the 'May Bush' was figurative for the sovereignty goddess, and its burning a form of heiros gamos?

Confusion with Midsummer?

There are a number of independent written accounts from the 19thC which suggest that Midsummer fires in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man were also called 'Beltane' or 'Beltein' fires. The original entry in Sanas Chormaic describes two fires, usually interpreted to mean twin fires, between which cattle were driven. This was said to have been the case in the Isle of Man by William Harrison in his 'Mona Miscellany' (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. 1869), althougn he could have been quoting the authority of O'Flaherty. However, the entry may be a reference to two early summer fires, held individually on 31st April and at midsummer.

The original texts in the various copies of Sanas Chormaic do not give a date for the festivity, which was glossed in by O'Donovan on the basis of an apparently continuous tradition centred on the 1st of May. It might be that midsummer fires were a christianised form of Beltane which became conflated later on, but midsummer bonfires were a pretty certain pagan activity as well.

Fertile Bridget:

The astronomical event of sunset at Beltane eve sees the constellation Virgo rising in the southeastern horizon. She is preceded by the roaring fiery Lion that is Leo who is bathed in the warmth of the setting sun (assuming you don't live in the Isle of Man where it is probably raining!). Those familiar with the Norse and Germanic mythologies will know that Freyja was the goddess of love among the Scandinavians, and was depicted in Icelandic mythology as having a chariot drawn by cats (Snorra Edda, 'Gylfaginning').This is evidently a reference to these two constellations, and the association of Beltain with love and fertility must somehow be related to Freyja. St Bridget is associated not with Beltane, but with Imbolc (1st February), but the year is young in February and 'Saint' Bridget was a virgin according to the myths of her desexualised religion. So what is the relationship between the Norse Freyja and the Gaelic conception of the year as a woman? Those familiar with my writings might recall I have previously commented upon the similarity between the names of Bridget and Freyja: This is most evident in the Manx versions of Bride's name: Breeshey and Vreeshey, pronounced 'Breesha' or 'Vreesha', even 'Braysha' or 'Vraysha'….

Etymologies of 'Beltane':

Conventional interpretation divides the wordsound into two parts: 'Bel-' and '-tane'. The oldest written forms were beiltine and biltine (Sanas Chormaic).

The prefix has been variously described as a reference to a god called 'Bel' (a popular idea in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries), the word for 'mouth' or 'opening' (bealach), 'health' (beatha), prosperity (bail), food (bia/bea), fold/enclosure (baile/balla) and tree (bile). The Manx version 'Boal' has aspects of bovine animals (boa) and bowls (bol-). The suffix '-tane' is usually related to fire (teine) but might also relate to territory or a district (tain – derivation being 'tanistry' and the Germanic word 'thegn' or 'thane'), a cattle-herd or drove or war spoils (táin)or even water (tain). The Manx pronounce the suffix '-thane', but other regional pronunciations vary the 't' sound from hard 't' to 'tch'. As all have accrued meaning that can be freely related to folklore about Beltane it is hard to come to a firm conclusion.

'Fires of Bel' and 'Cattle Fires' are both etymologies that have been suggested in the past, as is 'opening to fire' (from 'bealach' and 'teine' – meaning the hot months of summer). It might also mean 'Cattle-drove of Bel', 'Enclosure of Land' or perhaps more likely: 'Health/Prosperity of Land', or 'Tree Fire' both of which seem to fit the more fundamental aspects of the celebration.

 

Otherworld streams and rivers in Norse mythology

I have previously discussed how the ancient Greeks and Irish believed that all rivers flowed eventually to the otherworld where they then took a mysterious course before returning to our own. The Irish medieval ‘Dindsenchas’ texts refer to this belief in regard to a number of mythologically and geographically important rivers such as the Shannon and the Boyne.

The much older classical Greco-Roman texts refer to Okeanos – the world-river composed of all the world’s waters – at whose furthest reaches the heavens begin and where there are islands such as Elysium, Erytheia/Hesperides, Ogygia etc peopled by Titans, monsters and the shades and souls of the dead. The Greek Orphic mysteries (another expression of the core pagan faith of the ancient Mediterranean world) were concerned with the transition of souls to and from this far-off watery/spiritual realm, and it appears that Irish myths entertained similar beliefs.

What about the myths of the Norse peoples of the middle ages, who were among Europe’s longest-surviving pagan cultures? Putting aside for now the various Germanic folklore elements which preserved much of the Atlantic metempsychosis myths in the form of fairy lore, I wish to focus on the Icelandic Edda mythology, recorded and written down during the Christian era in Iceland during the 13th century.

This was written down as the result of a desire among some learned Christian Icelanders to preserve as much as possible of the ancient culturally-important ‘portable’ oral mythology which had followed them on their difficult emigration from the ‘viking’ homelands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark as well as Britain and Ireland. They survive in the form of a number of traditional pagan ‘theogonies’ (descriptions of the gods) detailing the construction of the universe and discussing how the dynamic interplay of spiritual forces cause time to unfold and its cycles repeat – an ancient version of what modern astrophysicists are currently trying (with more or less success) to achieve!

The Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius is the source of the important metrical verse accounts known as the Poetic (or ‘Elder’) Edda, containing the most important pieces of preserved pagan Viking theogony. These are as explicitly about actual gods as the Greek myths, in contrast to many Irish tales which are sometimes not so easy to derive a ‘pantheon’ from. They detail the cosmology of how the comprehended universe was arranged, how the world was formed and (perhaps) how the world ends and is reborn. As such, they share many similarities with ancient Greek and NW European ‘Atlantic’ myths, in particular the belief about the role of springs, streams, rivers and the journey to and from the Otherworld.

The most informative of the Poetic Edda narratives about these themes is the cryptic ‘Seer-woman’s Prophecy’, otherwise known as Völuspá. In some ways it is of a similar genre to the prophetic utterings found in a fragmented state in Atlantic Celtic folktales about the character known as Cailleach: A seeress narrates the theogony of the Norse gods from creation to ‘Ragnarok’ when the gods die. Within this narrative the seeress details the first creation of the giants and gods and the earth/sun/moon etc from the waters; she then says the gods and giants made subterranean men (dvergr – dwarfs) who then produced two supra-terrestrial trees – Ash and Elm – from which the gods made men. Then came the creation of the great ash tree Yggdrasil upon which (figuratively) the creation of the world ‘above-ground’, up to the heavens, rested…

An Ash I know stands, Yggdrasil by name, a high tree, drenched with bright white mud; from there come the dews that drop in the dales, it always stands green over Destiny’s well.

From there come maidens, knowing much, three from the lake that stands under the tree: ‘Destiny’ they called one, ‘Becoming’ the second – they carved on wood tablets – ‘Shall-be’ the third; laws they laid down, lives they chose for the children of mankind, the fates of men.

This famous passage describes the immortal ‘Norns’ who were possibly the same three giantesses who came to disturb the peace of the Aesir (apparently to mate with them) and create the dwarfs, who then helped create the sprouts of the word-tree (Ask and Embla) into which the gods infused life. The poetic Edda is vague or deliberately cryptic as to the exact points but, the picture emerges of a life-giving stream of humanity, reflected in the form of a great tree which grew from the subterranean world (of the dvergr) and which rises to the heavens. This feeds from the ‘lake’ of the Norns at the base of the tree, and it appears that the Norns ‘weave’ the wood of the tree from the water – an idea rooted (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the similarity of trees and plant-life with the branching nature of streams and rivers across the landscape. The Ash tree’s bark has the colour of clay, and has many similarities to water in its shape, form and mode of growth: its ‘raining’ seeds, and the blue-tinged flames that lick around its wood when it burns.

A ‘euhemerised’ version of the poetic Edda myths was produced in the late 13th/early 14thC by the great Icelandic scholar and politician Snorri Sturlusson, and (because it was told in prose form) became known as the Prose Edda. Although purporting that the ‘Gods’ were actually just deified real historic persons and the visions conjured of the spiritual world were illusions and hallucinations, it went on to add increased detail to the poetic Edda narratives which (because of their nature) are likely to be based on traditions that the Christian Snorri understood were important to keep. After all, paganism needed to be understood if it was to stay suppressed – a lesson perhaps learned from the experiences of the Irish… Snorri is obviously reasonably well-versed in certain Greek myths which were of interest to the European Christian euhemerist narratives – Troy, the Golden Age, etc, and weaves them into his narrative. He quotes from the poetic Edda and some Skaldic verses throughout, although he sometimes plays free and loose with the sequencing of the information – possibly to obfuscate the pagan themes from understanding. Snorri elaborates a great deal upon the Yggdrasil in part 15 of his Prose Edda narrative known as Gylfaginning. After going into great detail about the creation of the world, the gods, men and dwarves he tackles the great tree:

Then Gangleri said, ‘Where is the central or holy place place of the gods?’ High answered, ‘It is at the ash Yggdrasil. There each day the gods hold their courts.’… ‘The ash is the largest and the best of all trees. Its branches spread themselves over all the world, and it stands over the sky. Three roots support the tree and they are spread very far apart. One is among the Aesir. A second is among the Frost Giants where Ginnungagap once was. The third reaches down to Niflheim, and under this root is the weel Hvergelmir; but Nidhogg [Hateful Stikrer] gnaws at this root from below. ‘Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence are hidden there, and Mimir is the name of the well’s owner. He is full of wisodom because he drinks of the well from Gjallarhorn. All-Father went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge…’ ‘…The third root of the ash is in heaven, and under that root is the very holy well called the Well of Urd. There the gods have their place of judgement. Every day the Aesir ride up over Bifrost, which is also called Asbru [Bridge of the Aesir]… ‘…A handsome hall stands under the ash besides the well. Out of this hall come three maidens, who are called Urd [Fate], Verdandi [Becoming] and Skuld [Obligation]. These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them the norns. There are yet more norns, those who come to each person at birth to decide the length of one’s life, and these are related to the gods. Others are descended from the elves, and a third group comes from the dwarves…’

These passages relate each root of the tree to a nourishing source of water – a well. These lie within three realms: that of primal chaos (the giants), that of the Aesir (gods) and that of the mortals who are open to fate (men) and under the destiny of the ‘Norns’ (who remained un-named in the original Völuspá).

Note: Although widely accepted as a ‘map’ of the ‘spiritual world’ of the pagan Scandinavians, the Gylfaginning text should perhaps be seen as Snorri’s attempt to reconcile some kind of ordered state upon a corpus of pagan folk-knowledge with diverse origins and traditions some 300 years into the Scandinavian Christian era. His textual ‘map’ of the ‘worlds’ and description of lists of gods, dwarves, elves and giants is probably his own interpretation and should not be accepted as canonical in understanding Norse paganism.

Later in the Gylfaginning, Snorri introduces us to Valhöll (Valhalla) – the mighty hall of the fallen warriors. He describes this as a hall of repose and reconciliation in the otherworld where warriors can still enjoy their sport (fighting) but as immortals, who can feast and enjoy each others’ company after doing battle. Snorri sites the hall (which belongs to Odin) in Asgard (‘Aesir Home’) although his poetic Edda source (one of which is Grimnismal) is less certain of the arrangement of the worlds.

To the hall is ascribed a very important pair of animals, said to dwell upon its roof and feed from a great tree called ‘Laerad‘, which seems (given the presence of the dead in the hall) to be a version or part of Yggdrasil. Although Snorri does not make this connection with Yggdrasil explicit in his prose Edda, it is more certain in the poetic Edda which places Laerad somewhere above the roots of Yggdrasil. From the tree, the goat Heiðrún feeds and her milk is the mead drunk by the heroes in Valhöll . Also up on the roof (think of it as a turf roof extending down to the ground if you want to be authentic) there is the stag named Eikþyrnir (Eikthyrnir) who too feeds upon the foliage of the great tree, and from whose antlers drips a dew which falls downwards and collects in the deepest chthonic pool of  Hvergelmir from which Yggdrasil is nourished, and from which (the poetic Edda says) all rivers arise.

The prose Edda contains other descriptions of munching stags wandering among the branches of Yggdrasil, in part 16 of Gylfaginning. Although Snorri doesn’t comment on dew coming from their antlers, he does refer to the nourishing dew supposed to drip down from the tree’s branches as described in the Voluspa. Hvergelmir was supposed in the poetic and prose Eddas to be the pool of serpents (which in ancient mythology share the winding characteristics of rivers). Níðhöggr (‘Malice Striker’) was the serpent who occupied this deepest region, and who may have been cognate with Thor’s great foe (in fishing and at Ragnarok) – the world-serpent, Jörmungandr. By the ancient reckoning ‘serpents’ included the whole class of earth-loving burrowing animals and might include earth and mud-worms, insects and larvae and even stinging insects: not just snakes. They were linked to the idea of gnawing and decay in disease, and the stings of serpents (venoms or poisons) were often blamed (figuratively or as exemplars) for diseases – mundane or magical. The dwarves or dvergr of Norse myth were sometimes characterised as serpents or worms who first burrowed in the dead body of the Earth-Giant Mimir – dead corpses were believed to generate worms by the old reckoning. The same for pools of water, in which insect larvae seem to ‘appear’ by magic. For this reason dwarves and dragons have their strange correlation in Norse mythology – none moreso than Sigurd’s opponent Fafnir who is described as both dwarf and dragon.

Conclusion:

It is evident that the Edda’s descriptions of the world tree are an important depiction of the flow of creation to and from the Otherworld. The identity of water and wood is very explicit, and the strong connection in old European pagan lore between the tree (and hence rivers) and the generations (and regenerations) of humanity is explicit. The connection with serpents, death and regenesis is also a part of this deep mythology. The connection between mead (the milk of Heiðrún) and poetry is common in the ancient northern and north-western European world. Here, in the case of Valhalla, it signifies the satisfaction given to ancestors by the telling of lays and poems in their honour – a key aspect of the Atlantic religion’s ancestor-cult. The stag Eikþyrnir fulfils the mystical recirculation of water, no doubt the reason that the pursuit of white stags so often presage the encounters between brave knights and fairy-women at fountains in the forest-pursuits of medieval lays and Arthurian Romances. The mystical process explains why northern Europe’s ancient pagans typically venerated trees in the richly-wooded forests of central northwest Europe, and perhaps why trees played a subservient role to ‘fairy hills’ in the relatively tree-denuded extents of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Then again… what would an Irish ‘fairy hill’ be without its attendant spring and its thorn tree? 

Norse Sea-Giants in more detail…

Giants and monsters have a special connection to the sea in Norse mythology – just like the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. They represent the unconquerable and titanic forces of nature. As characters in stories, their great size can be considered an expression of the large shadows cast by distant things with the low sun behind them – as happens as it passes into the ocean on the western horizon of the Atlantic. The main characters in these tales of oceanic titans are Thor, Loki and Aegir:

Thor wrestling the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

Thor with Hymir wrestling Loki’s son – the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

The 13thC CE, Icelandic christian scholar Snorri Sturluson wrote a mythological ‘theogonic’ dialogue on poetry called Skáldskaparmál (“language of poetry”) in which the primal sea-giant Ægir, also known as Gymir (a version of ‘Hymir’) or Hlér, discusses kennings and mythology with the Æsir god, Bragi, after the style of the poetic Edda composition Alvissmal. That Snorri chose these two as characters in the dialogue is interesting, moreso because of they seem to represent the two ‘Platonic’ aspects of what to the ancients was knowable – the first: nature and the elements (Ægir), understandable through sense, and the second: the gods and spiritual things – knowable through the mind, and therefore the province of poetry and philosophy (Bragi). In Alvissmal, it is a wise earth deity – a dwarf/dvergar called Alviss (‘All-Wise’) who instructs Thor on poetic kennings. In Skáldskaparmál, however, it is the ‘sea’ (Aegir) talking…

Aegir is also the host of the feast at the centre of the important poetic Edda story Lokasenna (Codex Regius): This is the tale of a feast of the gods and elves, hosted by Aegir, whose hospitality (and his ale and mead) is considered sacrosanct to the gods, who become angry when troublesome giant/god Loki starts drunkenly abusing the guests. This episode assures Loki’s imprisonment and Promethean-Orphic torture by the gods (he must endure the poison dripping from the fangs of a serpent ) until the showdown of Ragnarok. Aegir’s legendary cauldron or brewing pan seems to provide a link between the elements and the mind, and Lokasenna (the ultimate drunken social meltdown) provides an amusing view of how leisure and strife were never far away from each other in the Viking world. The poetic Edda version from the Codex Regius says Aegir was also called Gymir, and ‘Hymir’ is the giant with mighty caudron/brewing-pan who is Thor’s host and companion when he goes fishing for the giant Midgard Serpent in the poetic Edda tale of Hymiskviða (Codex Regius). Hymir, Gymir and Aegir are probably the same mythological sea-giant.

Aegir was said to be one of three sons of the giant-ancestor Fornjótr (described as an ancient king of the magical north),the other two being Logi (fire) and Kári (wind).  Fornjótr might in literally mean ‘First Giant’. The compounding of his watery son’s name with ‘-gir’ is redolent of the word ‘Gyr’ (eg – Gygr) and theirefore of the Greek words Gigantes and Gygas, representing the larger than life ancestral deities of ancient Greek myth. Ægir might even be a Norse version of and the sea-giant Geryon, who had three bodies. This association with the elements (water in Aegir’s case) comes from the Skáldskaparmál kennings of the primal elemental forces:

“…How should the wind be periphrased? Thus: call it son of Fornjót, Brother of the Sea and of Fire, Scathe or Ruin or Hound or Wolf of the Wood or of the Sail or of the Rigging…”

The only classical element missing from the ÆgirKáriLogi triad is earth (jörð), usually represented in Norse myth and kennings as the eponymous giantess Jörð – ‘wife of Odin’. The Earth is feminine – like in the Greek Gaia/Ge. It is obvious from both ancient Greek and Norse mythology that the ‘giants’ bear names with suffixes which connect them intimately with ‘mother earth’: Gigantes (‘Born of Gaia/Ge’) and Jötnar (‘Born of Jörð’).

Aegir’s other name or kenning is given as Hlér, which seems incredibly close to the Irish/Welsh/Manx name for the sea: Lir/Ller/Lear of whom the legendary Sea God Manannán/Manawydan was the son. In the most important 14thC Icelandic manuscript collection, Flateyjarbók, the following is said of Aegir/Hlér and his family:

“…There was a man called Fornjót. He had three sons; one was Hlér, another Logi, the third Kári; he ruled over winds, but Logi over fire, Hlér over the seas…”

The connection between Logi and the Norse ‘god’ figure Loki is uncertain. The names certainly seem similar, and Loki is definitely one of the Jötnar, being portrayed in the Edda myths as something of an uncontrollable ambiguous shape-shifter as well as a father (or even a mother) of monsters and magical horses. One might even compare him to the role of the Gorgons in Greek myth – a frightful challenge to be overcome by initiates into the mysteries of life, death and the otherworld. Logi represents fire – perhaps one of the most untameable and dangerous, yet useful ‘elements’ – and Loki represents a similar aspect of chaos in his oppositional and inductive roles in the Eddas. He, in fact, comes across as a character the Christian (and Muslim) narrative would assign to their ‘evil god’ – Satan – otherwise known as God’s right-hand man in the Hebrew Book of Job.

Another ‘giant’ of note in Norse myth who is tied closely to Aegir and Loki in surviving narratives is the god Þórr (Thor), whose name seems to be cognate with the word Thurs (þurs) which is another Germanic word for a giant/titan. In the Icelandic mythologies recorded in the Christian era from orally-transmitted traditional pagan poetic and story traditions, Thor is associated with great strength and battles with giants and monsters using his great hammer Mjölnir which represents both a weapon and a tool. His traditional role in Germanic societies is as a protector and battler with the elements akin to the Greek Herakles (a fact not lost on the 1stC CE Roman author and historian Tacitus), and he seems to have an agricultural/fertility aspect on account of this. This connects him to the folk-legends of similarly enthusiastic (but not too bright) ‘helpful fairies’ – Brownies, Glaistigean, Phynnodderee, the hammer-wielding Leprechauns and the ‘Hobthrust‘ of northern England…

The poetic Edda composition called Hymiskviða is a tale of Thor being sent by Aegir to fetch a giant brewing-pan or cauldron from Hymir – the giant who lives ‘at the edge of Heaven’. Hymir is said to be Aegir’s father, and Aegir also goes by the name Gymir, of which ‘Hymir’ is an aspirated pronunciation. Thor ends up going on a perilous fishing expedition with Hymir, during which Odin’s son manages to land the Midgard Serpent, Loki’s son Jörmungandr who encircles the Earth biting his tailHymir considers it very bad news when Thor bashes the serpent over the head before letting it slide (presumably lifeless) back under the waves… It can be seen here that the same consistent association occurs between oceanic Titans and sea monsters in medieval pagan Norse myths.  The outcome of the story is that Thor obtains the brewing pan that will make the ‘poisonous’ ale or mead that spurs Loki to sow discord among the gods in Lokasenna. The killing of Jörmungandr and the breakdown of order with Loki and the giants/monsters presages the Ragnarok… This imagery appears upon a number of incised stones of the Viking era (including Cumbria and the Isle of Man, as well as in Scandinavia), providing corroborative evidence of its importance in Scandinavian-influenced Atlantic mythology.

There is much to be identified between the Norse myths and the Irish and Welsh. For instance, the theme of sea-giants and a ‘fatal feast’ featuring a caudron that determines the world’s outcome is seen in the Welsh Mabinogion tales, and the Irish tales ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ (Fled Bricrenn) and ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (Togail Bruidne Derga) among others. They appear to be different figurative ‘branches’ of the same ancient tree whose roots are nourished by ‘world-river’,