The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…

 

 

 

The ‘warrior’ panel of the Gundestrup cauldron

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

This interior panel from the famous Gundestrup cauldron appears to show a line of seven mail-clad, shield and spear-wielding Celtic warriors advancing in a line from right to left towards a giant warrior who appears to be holding the body of another small warrior over a vessel of some sort. A dog or wolf appears to jump up at his feet. Proceeding from the giant along the upper row, are a line of four finely-arrayed horsemen with elite crested helmets, passing from left to right. Preceding them is a snake. The footsoldiers of the bottom row are followed by three carnyx (boar-headed celtic war-horn) players, whose horns reach up to face the cavalry riding back towards them, and the snake 'flies' above the horn chanters. Separating the rows of footmen and cavlry is a branch from which sprouts foliage or flowers. The metalwork around this is textured, suggesting an aura, a river or a footpath. The 'spears' of the footmen seem to connect with the trunk of the branch.

Symbolism interpreted:

The silver Gundestrup cauldron was probably a ritual deposit in water, pledged to the gods, as it was discovered in pieces in a Danish bog in 1891. Such deposits were an archaeological feature of Europe's 'Atlantic Bronze Age' which were influential upon the Celtic Iron Age cultures of north and central Europe. The organised style of the warriors, their mail suits and war trumpets seem date the cauldron between the 3rdC BCE and the 1stC CE during which time there were broad military and cultural interactions between Celtic tribes of Gaul and those of south and central Europe, explaining the artistic styles (and that of the armour) depicted on the cauldron: In fact, some design elements on the cauldron are so similar to those on objects found in the 'Letnica Hoard' (Bulgaria) to suggest a Gallo-Thracian origin for at least some of the panels. The cauldron shows aspects of both military and spiritual ideas of the afterlife which commentators typically associate with Celtic Iron Age culture.

Our 'warrior' panel shows some key features of a warfare-oriented view of reincarnation:

The footsoldiers:

These are 'ordinary' footsoldiers kitted uniformly for war with shields, spears and chainmail vests. There are seven armed men and three carnyx players. The last of the armed men carries no shield, and may be a youth, as he stands below the topmost 'sprout' of the tree-like design above their heads. They are clearly marching into battle, towards the dog/wolf and the giant figure with his cauldron, who appears to be placing one in or pulling one out of the cauldron. The soldiers are marching in the direction of the roots of the aforementioned tree design. Interestingly, it can be seen that their chainmail hauberks finish at the knee, below which they appear to wear hose and rawhide sandals on their feet, similar to those still in use in Ireland and the Isle of Man into the 19thC.

The giant warrior and his 'cauldron':

The giant warrior's cauldron or vessel appears to be a metaphor for some kind of rebirth promised to the valiant footsoldiers, as proceeding from it in the opposite direction to them are a line of mounted knights with fabulous helmets. The womb-like metaphor for the cauldron as a symbol for rebirth is found in the 'Second Branch' of the medieval Welsh epic tales known as Mabinogion in which the giant, Brân, owns a cauldron which revives the dead. In the case of the Gundestrup cauldron, two things appear to be emerging from this giant's cauldron – glorified warriors and a tree. This has echoes of the Yggdrasil tree mentioned in the 12thC Icelandic accounts of Scandinavian pagan legends: at the base of Yggdrasil were a number of wells from which the lives and fates of men flowed. At the base of the tree, gnawing animals and serpents were found: aspects of the ancient empirical idea of regeneration through putrefaction: these are also represented on the Gundestrup cauldron by the snake and the dog. The message of the panel is that the masculine god of the Otherworld (here portrayed also as a warrior, therefore a 'colleague) promises regeneration to those who glorify themselves in battle, and the new existence may have greater glory, represented by:

The four knights:

Proceeding from the apparent god and his cauldron are four mounted men (knights), remarkable for their elaborate crested helmets. The horses and more beautiful helmets mark them out as part of the warrior elite, and the implication of their appearance in the panel is that valiant footsoldiers might become so great – either through death or attainment. It is notable that there are only four knights, compared to the eight warriors going towards the cauldron (including the man held by the 'god'). Assuming that all of the soldiers on the lower row were looking forward to death in battle, then the panel suggests only four of these seem to have achieved a more glorious reincarnation! This again links to the Norse accounts of beliefs about death of warriors in battle which suggest that only half of the slain went with Odinn to Valhöll. Another interesting concordance.

So what of the other four warriors – what might the panel say about these? We are left with two interesting possibilities:

The first is represented by the animals in the image: first of these are the cavalrymen's horses, which would bring the number of sentient beings up to eight in the top row. The other is the ravenous dog or wolf, who like the crows and carrion birds depicted elsewhere on the cauldron would be features of any battlefield. The folklore of hosts of the restless dead remaining in Atlantic Europe after the Iron Age seems to have relevance here: the Sluagh Sidhe of the Gaelic world, and the 'Wild Hunt' of the Germanic world in particular. It may be that the souls of the unglorified were believed to have been incarnated in the form of the animals who haunt battlefields and the margins of human habitation: the corvidae (crows), vultures, wolves, dogs and foxes. By consuming the flesh of the glorious and providing good deeds in the form of omens and warnings, they might find themselves given a better incarnation in the next life, as well as speeding the recovery of the battlefield etc.

The second possibility of reincarnation is represented by the tree – the ancient metaphor for human generations: 'root, branch and seed'. The panel's design with the tree apparently growing from it suggests the dead are fertilising the regrowth of future generations, perhaps implying the reincarnation of less worthy footsoldiers as humans, ready for another 'go' at attaining greater glory. My feeling, based on the residual folklore and traditions of Europe, is that the truth probably lies somewhere between these two suggestions. The transmigration of souls (described by Roman authors as a central tenet of Gallic/Celtic faith) might lead to a number of outcomes, based variously upon the achievements of individuals in this life: a glorious afterlife, reincarnation as a human, or even a cavalryman's horse, or as a restless ravening creature who plays an important role in the regeneration processes of nature, and who might offer auguries to the living. The calls of ravens and crows, the flight-patterns of birds and the calls and shouts of canines and horses, were all recorded as potential sources of augury in ancient Europe until at least the middle ages.

The snake and the Carnyxes:

The snake has been a symbol of reincarnation for a very long time, based upon their continuous unblinking stare, their shedding their skins, their love of chthonic lairs from which they emerge into daylight, and from their ancient philosophical (morphological) classification along with worms, larvae and maggots as part of natural putrefaction and regenerative processes of nature. The snake is also notable for the visceral, terrifying/transfixing ability it has over its prey, bringing us here to discuss the Carnyx, above which the snake is positioned in the panel. The was the war-trumpet par-excellence of the Celts, whose terrifying cacophonic honking seemed designed to evoke the enraged squeals and bellows of an attacking boar, stag or bull, augmenting the terrifying transfixing effect of soldiers' war-cries upon an enemy. The horn was apparently a potent weapon in itself, designed – like the gaze of the snake – to sap the morale of the enemy.

Summary:

This panel appears to show imagery promising soldiers reincarnation in battle. Their deaths are being 'inverted' into a renewed, more glorious life, and the cauldron and tree act as a central metaphor of regrowth from the well of life, with the dog and snake representing the earthly and allegorical forms of this natural process.

 

Warband culture and the Celtic Iron Age

The dynamic stylistic and cultural impact of ‘celtic’ civilisation on Europe during the Iron Age was driven initially by trade among peoples with geocultural commonality as well as the emerging Greek and Phoenecian mercantile powers, and later by the highly mobile warfare practised by many of its peoples, which often led to permanent migration. A cultural shift at the advent of what became known as the La Tène period, from the 5thC BCE, saw a change in the habits of central Europe’s celtic peoples. It was marked by an increase of burials indicating a higher status of warrior elites and a change in attitudes towards warfare, and with this came a new excitingly fluid and dynamic style of decorative art that most of us today recognise as ‘typically celtic’. Use of iron swords, chainmail armour and better fighting horses all marked this shift from the former ‘Halstatt‘ styled cultures seen before the 5thC BCE. The La Tène period also marked that when Mediterranean people started to write things down about the Celts…

Although existing largely as loose tribal federations, from the 5thC these would occasionally organise en masse into highly organised war parties or armies, such as that led by Brennus of the Senones (Alpine Gaul) against Rome in the 4thC BCE. These would cause no end of trouble to the Roman Republic’s northern borders and interests.

The most notable of these massed military movements, however, was the invasions of a Gallic tribal confederacy through the Balkans in the 3rdC BCE, led by characters such as Bolgius, Brennus and Acichorius. It was directed at the unstable kingdom of Alexander’s recently dead successor Lysimachus, which included Macedonia, Thrace, Greece and Anatolia. The gains for those Gauls who invested their time and effort into this adventure were manifold – some returned home with plunder, some took land for themselves and settled in ethnic communities, some were paid off to desist from their attacks, and some found service as mercenaries in Macedonian empire’s internal disputes, of which there were many. Many, including Brennus, died: this was also acceptable outcome to Gauls, believers as they were in reincarnation, as having acquitted themselves in glorious battle, they could earn themselves better fortune in their next life.

The impact of such a well-organised campaign against an enemy with such an impressive empire would have sent cultural shockwaves through the Celtic world, and would have important implications. Rumours of vast wealth plundered from the 279BCE assault of Delphi in Greece became attached to the Tectosages tribe, based at what is now Toulouse. There was an explosion in the issue of coins throughout the Celtic world initially copying the style of those of Lysimachus, but which would eventually transform and incorporate indigenous designs with mysterious meanings, and a totemic power invoking military success. New tribes and confederations formed (eg – the Scordisci and the ‘Volcae’ – perhaps from Bolgius’ faction) and settled the Balkans, Thrace and Carpathia, and at least as far east as Anatolia (Galatians) as  well as returning to the more western Gallic heartlands.

How the waves of migration and invasion culminating in the invasion of Greece in 279 affected or interacted with Celtic religious ideology is hinted at in the coinage of the period which followed in its stead: This combined the image of the world’s most famous campaigning military leader with designs hinting at a complex view of spirituality, astronomy, the afterlife and reincarnation.

This organised mobile ‘warband culture’ of continental Celtic tribes was reflected to varying degrees among the Celtic peoples of the ‘Atlantic fringe’. Many of these were  coastal seafaring peoples and islanders perhaps not so much inclined towards such grand expeditions of conquest, and more likely engaged in commerce as a source of livelihood. The insular Celts were possibly something of an ‘old nobility’, slower to take up the manners and trappings of continental ‘La Tène’ culture. It is possible that they were religiously more conservative too with Britain and Ireland remaining to history as the last outposts of the Druid religion following the Romanisation of Celtic culture and religion from the 1stC BC…

 

 

The Icenii, ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Dagda and the Morrigan in Cath Magh Turedh:

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

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

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

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

The story continues (CELT version):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

L’Ankou – Gaelic parallels with the Breton death-spirit

‘Ankou’ is the personification of death’s assistant (a psychopomp) from Breton folklore, and a figure which reached greater prominence here than in any other of the modern ‘Celtic’ nations. It was noted by folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz in his 1911 book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, that L’Ankou and The Dead appeared to provide the equivalent role to the Aes Sidhe of Gaelic folklore – a parallel which provides us with some interesting questions as to the nature of Celtic spirit-beliefs:

“… Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors…”

(The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; Pub. Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911; p.218)

He goes on to note ‘Every parish in the uncorrupted parts of Brittany has its own Ankou, who is the last man to die in the parish during the year‘. Wentz’s source, the respected Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, wrote a book about Ankou, called La Légende de la Mort () and had this to say about it:

The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk. (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).

Wentz drew parallels with the Gaelic beliefs in people ‘taken’ to fairyland, but unfortunately did not establish much else by the way of concordance with this supposedly ‘Brythonic’, and in terms of surviving folklore, specifically Breton belief. It is therefore my aim here to demonstrate that Ankou did indeed have its Gaelic equivalents, whose memory became lost due to the influence of christianity and the 19thC romantic movement:

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany.

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany. Note the ‘elf-arrow’ it appears to wield!

Ankou in the Isle of Man and Scotland:

The Manx – a nation whose linguistic and cultural roots lie firmly in the ‘Gaelic’ world – maintained an independent tradition which corresponds closely with that of L’Ankou. However, in examining this it is first necessary to go ‘back’ to Brittany and examine the word ‘Ankou’ itself:

The standard English definition or translation usually given for the Breton word ‘Ankou’ is ‘the agony’, originally proposed in a ‘pirated’ (uncredited) 1860 English translation (Breton Legends – Pub. London 1860, Burns and Lambert) of the folklore collected and published in French by Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué – a noted Breton dictionarian and philologist. ‘An-‘ is the definite article, and ‘-Kou’ is usually (in English translations) supposed to mean ‘agony’. However, this etymology is speculative at best, as the ‘kou’ suffix as a sound can have a number of meanings within the scope of the historical linguistics of the celtic languages. Indeed, the 1821 Breton-French dictionary of Jean-François-Marie-Maurice-Agatha Le Gonidec tellingly uses the word Kouer to mean ‘peasant’, of which more presently.

Fockleyr Manninagh as Baarlagh – the 1863 dictionary (based partly upon an earlier manuscript of John Kelly from the late 18thC) published by the Manx Society contains the following interesting entry:

Keimagh s. pl. -ee, A spirit which is supposed to haunt and guard the churchyard stiles.

Also, the word Cughtagh:

Cughtagh s. pl. cughteeA fairy, a sprite, a spirit of the houghs* …

*AR: Hough in this context refers to a rough, rocky place or a cliff 

Both entries are followed by the interesting usage example ‘Ny keimee as ny cughtee’ of which the authors say no more, but which appears to be a reference to a popular Manx charm for stopping blood, a version of which can be found in William Harrison’s ‘Mona Miscellany’ (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. Isle of Man, 1869).

The idea of the last deceased watching over the graveyard appears to have been common to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – Donald MacPherson called it the Faire Chloidh in his book ‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and Original Poems; with Notes on the superstitions of the Highlanders &c’ (Pub. Thomas and George Underwood, London 1824), p.202:

FAIRE CHLOIDH, (THE GRAVE WATCH.)

It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred, to stand sentry at the grave-yard gate, from sun-set until the crowing of the cock, every night, until regularly relieved. This, sometimes, in thinly inhabited parts of the country, happened to be a tedious and severe duty ; and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends, sometimes, much uneasiness.

The Manx ‘Keimagh’ and ‘Cughtagh’ spirits share a link of sorts to the grave, vagrancy, caves or shelters: This can be seen from the fact that the Manx wordcughhas connotations of dirt, filth and dung, and a link between this and the cave, mound or hole-dwelling spirit is also found in the word Cughlin, meaning a vagrant’s doss-hole or a mean filthy shelter, another Manx word for which is Kemmyrk. Recall that the Breton word Kouer, means ‘peasant’ and consider the restless vagrant properties ascribed to the spirits of the dead and a few ideas might start to form about the origins and meaning behind these archaic terms and the ‘Ankou’ itself.

The Manx word Keim or Keym (from which Keimagh is derived) is the same as the Irish céim, meaning ‘step’ in the same sense as it occurs in English – as a verb and a noun. The stile at old churchyard gates was often a slab of stone which those entering the church precinct would be required step over (and scrape your shoes on) in order to enter hallowed ground. It is common for the ‘m’ sound in Celtic languages to transform into a ‘w’ in pronunciation meaning that a ‘keimagh’ might easily become a ‘keiwagh’. By the same laws of linguistics, -gh-, -ch-, and -th- will lose any pretensions to consonantal pronunciation when occuring inside words.

This puts us in the interesting position of being forced to examine another similarly named spirit from the Gaelic world – Scotland’s An Ciuthach (pronounced ‘Kewach’), a being mentioned as a hairy spirit haunting caves in Volume 3 of John F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (p.55), in a folk-tale based on the story of the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Graine by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

The Gaelic word ‘cuthach’, means ‘mad’ or ‘raging’ and fits with the portrayal of a marginal ‘wild-man’ who lives underground, and also with the Manx words ‘cugh’ and ‘cughlin’, associated with the filthy ‘Merlinesque’ state of the wild divine, a familiar sight in medieval Ireland, Britain and France where holy men often lived in a state of wild squalor. It should be obvious by now that the Breton word ‘Ankou’ had distinct similarities with the Gaelic ‘An Ciuth’ or ‘An Cuth’, ‘kou’ meaning a state of frantic restlessness, rather than ‘agony’. This fits the etymology of the Breton word for peasant: Kouer – a class of person living in mean conditions and continually working to survive.

The Irish Dullahán and the Gruagachs:

The ‘Dullahán’is the Irish legendary personification of death, usually represented as a skeletal headless horseman. The name possibly signifies ‘black one’ or ‘gloomy one’ (Dubhlachán?), probably on account of the lividity of the dead, and his appearance in popular tradition was to foretoken death. His earliest literary mention is in the writings of Charles Vallancey (‘Prospectus of a Dictionary of the language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish’, Pub. Graisberry & Campbell, Dublin, 1802), who recounts that the Irish peasantry would be in fear of hearing the Dullahan or ‘Wullahan’ dragging his chains through the streets at night. Like the Ankou, it was often associated with a horse or coach and horses.


The Ankou is therefore quite possibly the ‘Wild Hunter’ who leads the Sluagh Sidhe! Was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, really originally Finn-Mac-‘Kou’-al? 

The ‘wild man’ archetype has much to say about where we developed from, and about the processes by which nature is regenerated from its own ‘putrefaction’.


There are important relationships in empirical human culture between dirt, ordure and decayed matter and the regeneration of new life. To live ‘wild’ is to live in comfort with this kind of state. Such symbolism no doubt informs the apparent associations between death, the spirit world and reincarnation that underpin the ancient European beliefs. The idea anciently used to express this was termed putrefaction, and important doctrine of the natural philosophy of Europeans until the scientific age introduced new paradigms.

The British and Irish age of Romanticism started in earnest during the ‘Enlightenment’ era of the late 17th and 18thC with the researches and writings of Roderick O’Flaherty, John Toland, Edward Llhuyd, and James MacPherson, and it continued with the emergence of renewed interest in the pagan past seen in the writings of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), and in the fading customs, beliefs and lifestyles of the defeated Highland peoples documented for popular consumption by authors such as Walter Scott. Romanticism provided a vision of indigenous pagan beliefs still remaining among the peasantry, albeit in a form designed for the tastes and prejudices of educated and wealthy elites. Wavering paradoxically between apparent veneration of quaint rustic traditions and a visceral disgust of its ‘gloomy’ and ‘unenlightened’ superstitions, Romanticism would unfortunately often prove the undoing of much of what it fawned over: by swelling interest in ‘old-fashioned’ customs it ultimately encouraged the aspirational rural poor to resent becoming ‘quaint’ objects of fascination for the middle classes seeking relief from industrialised realities. By the late 1800s many Gaelic speakers had consequently rejected their traditional culture and sought to emulate modernity.

A romanticised view of what the rural poor ought to believe therefore eventually trickled down to influence their ideas: The traditions characterised as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’ and ‘unseemly’ – usually dealing with aspects of death, sex and disease – would become increasingly displaced. 

Putrefaction as an essential cultural idea behind abundance and regeneration among rural peoples was probably finally defeated when people stopped putting shit on their crops and used chemicals in its place… This was the era of mass-slaughter and industrial warfare, which reached its first full and horrific manifestation in the First World War.

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? 

Terror and Beauty from the far shores…

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the north?

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the European north?

To the ancient peoples of Europe, the realm of the dead and of heaven lay deep in the west on the path of the setting sun. This exceeded the bounds of the known world of the Mediterranean and was presumed to lie beyond the extent of the Titanic Atlantic Ocean, believed to represent the extent of the 'world river', Okeanos. Plato (Athens, 4thC BCE) describes the mysterious point where earth and heaven meet in his 'last words of Socrates' dialogue known as Phaedo (trans. Benjamin Jowett) :

“…Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell inthe region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles,along the borders of the sea, are just like ants or frogs about amarsh-pool, and inhabit a small portion only, and that many others dwell inmany like places. For I should say that in all parts of the earththere are hollows of various forms and sizes, into which the water andthe mist and the air collect; and that the true earth is pure and inthe pure heaven, in which also are the stars-that is the heavenwhich is commonly spoken of as the ether, of which this is but thesediment collecting in the hollows of the earth…”

His description of the 'frogs' and the pond is an echo of contemporary Athenian playwright Aristophanes' famous Dionysiac play of the c.405 BCE known as 'The Frogs' when the god Dionysus crosses the river Styx to visit Hades, and rather than being regaled by the shades of the departed from within the water, he is annoyed by a chorus of frogs. The connection between water, and the seemingly grotesques yet miraculous aspects of both death and rebirth was not lost in the ancient European worldview, of which the Greeks were to create the earliest written sophistication:

One of our oldest written sources on ancient Greek mythology, Hesiod ('Theogony'), says that the most archetypal race of Greek monsters, the Gorgons, lived on an island at the furthest extent of the western ocean, supposedly near the island of the Hesperides. This puts them in the realm of Cronos (Saturn) at the far shores of the world-river Okeanos, near Homer's famous island of Ogygia from the Oddyssey. Ogygia in Homer was domicile of the titan Atlas (also called Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, whose charms almost took Oddyseus away from the land of the living. The name Ogygia (Hy Gyges?) is based upon the greek word gygas, meaning 'born of Ge (Gaia/Ge – the Earth)', often interpreted as 'Giants' (Gigantes) and possibly linked with the name Gorgós (dreadful)…

Accordingly, the Titans of greek myth were viewed as primordial, earth-born giant in stature and monstrously alien. They were supposedly banished in a succession war with their children, the Olympian gods, and the various Greek theogonies suggest these marginal realms were at the farthest reaches of the 'time before memory' of oral-culture mythology – on the shores of the world river Okeanos at the edge of the heavens.

The relation ship between the chthonic underworld of Hades and Tartarus is based upon the fact that the oceans are the deepest places, and the Atlantic far more so that the Mediterranean. The beings of this realm partook of the primal, cthonic 'elements' of Water and Earth. Even the Hebrew Book of Genesis (first compiled 5thC BCE) borrowed this conception…

The children of the Titans were often monstrous, for example: Python, Scylla, Medusa, Charybdis, Cereberus, Ekhidna, the Hydra, Chimera, Geryon, Cetus and the Graeae. Sometimes they were beautiful too, like the titaness Calypso, and Pegasus and Krysaor who were the children born of the neck of Medusa. The mysterious realm of the oceans, has always delivered both beauty and terror to mankind!

Although encountered in Greek mythology in various parts of the Mediterranean, it was not, however, it was not from this comparatively mild 'frogpond' that these creatures and Old Gods derived, but the mighty Atlantic, beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' or the Straights of Gilbraltar, at the extremes of Okeanos in the Atlantic west. During the era of the Roman expansion into northern Europe, the misty, cold and terrifying reaches of the British Isles, Ireland and the North Sea might well have been at the very brink of this terrifying alien realm… to the ancient world, if you wished to get to Ogygyia and the Hesperides, you went to the furthest navigable islands (Britain and Ireland), and then just went a little further!

In mythology, the monstrous is often depicted as a trial to be overcome by a hero (or 'initiate'). In northern Europe, the aquatic 'loathly lady' traditions of the Melusine, the tale of how Conn Cétchathach gained the High Kingship of Ireland, and Chaucer's 15thC 'Wife of Bath's Tale' are examples of such a tradition. In Greek myth, the story of Perseus and Medusa might be seen as a version of the same principle:

Gorgons:

The most famous monsters of the Greek and Roman world were arguably the three snake-haired Gorgons, who were said to be the daughters of Phorcys (a hypostasis subordinate to Poseidon). These were also the sisters of another divine female triad of Greek myth, the Graeae – the grey, aged and withered, one-eyed Cailleach-like Okeanid nymphs said in some myths to guard the approaches to the Hesperides, Ogygia etc and (redolent of the Norse Valkyries and the Irish Children of Lir) to have part of the form of swans. In the myth of Perseus, the hero is dispatched on an apparent suicide mission by evil King Polydectes to kill and gain the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone. Polydectes fully expected the young hero to die in the task, so that he might marry Perseus' mother, but he survives his 'initiation' and triumphs from it. The Gods Athena, Hades, Zeus and Hermes donate magical weapons and aids for the task, setting Perseus on a perilous course to success. He tricks the Graeae at the approaches, and enters the grey and misty realms to stalk his prey… Upon decapitating Medusa, the magical horse Pegasus is born from her neck – a bizarre conception, fit only for these distant and magical realms of the Titans. Perseus rides the flying horse, saves the maiden Andromeda from being devoured by the sea monster Cetus and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

The characters of the Perseus-Medusa mythology all occupy a portion of the heavens as a group of related constellations named after the characters: Pegasus, Cetus, Perseus, Andromeda, in close proximity to the other 'aquatic' constellations of the zodiac – Pisces, Aquarius and curious Capricorn. This group contains two particular stars which express the curious behaviour of having a cyclical variable intensity, namely the 'blinking' eye of Medusa: Algol (period repeats every 2 days) – seen in the constellation of Perseus, and the longer-period Mira Ceti on the neck of Cetus, whose period is 11 months. Both these stars appear to 'come and go', a feature which must have had particular implications to ancient peoples who believed a star was a perfected heavenly soul. Mythology was sometimes designed to record information about the skies!

By 'killing' Medusa on the far western shores of Okeanos, Perseus immediately helps her 'give birth' to his conveyor back from the Otherworld (Pegasus – whose feet create springs of water on land), and mysterious Chrysaor – the 'golden blade' suggesting agriculture: both aspects of continuity in a culture which believed in reincarnation. By 'kissing' the 'loathly lady', the beauty of regeneration might occur…

Chrysaor, Kallirhoe and Geryon:

Two miraculous children were born at the moment of Medusa's beheading: The winged horse Pegasus ('Creator of Pegai (springs)'?), and the golden boy Chrysaor ('Golden Blade'). Pegasus became the companion and steed of the warrior-hero Perseus, but the mysterious Chrysaor was credited only (so far as we know) with the paternity of another monstrous being: the giant three-bodied cowherd Geryon on whom the legendary strongman-warrior Heracles/Hercules was supposed to have conducted his Tain or cattle-raid. Pegasus and Chrysaor have distinct echoes of the Atlantic Europe's 'fairy helpers' – the 'fairy horse' and the 'brownie'.

Geryon was supposedly born to his father of the Okeanid nymph Kallirhoe who occupied the island of Erytheia, and was said by some later classical authors (Diodorus) have also lived on the mountainous slopes of Atlantic Iberia. Like the tripliform Celtic deities, he was supposed to have been a giant with three bodies.

“From Medusa, daughter of Gorgon, and Neptunus [Poseidon], were born Chrysaor and horse Pegasus; from Chrysaor and Callirhoe, three-formed Geryon.”Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 151 (2ndC CE) – Trans. Grant.

His home was the far-west 'red island' of Erytheia in the mystical Hesperides (equivalent by name and association with the 'Arthurian' Avalon, and Irish Emain Abhlach), no doubt the reason his cattle also had coats the colour of the setting sun – the predominant colour of the flowers in Atlantic Europe after the Summer Equinox and also, notably, the colour of the running blood of the dead… He was once allegedly defeated by Hercules, who stole his cows. The constellations Orion (the 'stick-waver') and Boötes (the 'cowherd') might even be considered cosmic aspects of the legend behind Geryon, on account of the location of his myth – at the boundary of the Otherworld… the heavens near to that great nourishing sky-river, the Milky Way. The 'cattle' of Geryon are a motif for the spirits of the dead, like Aristophanes 'Frogs' and 'Birds' and Hercules taking of them is an expression of the role of the psychopompic gods: Manannan, Dionysus, Hermes/Mercury etc.

The Hesperides:

The mythical garden of the Hesperides lay somewhere in the mythological west – either beyond the Atlas mountains and Libya (home of the setting winter sun) or further out beyond the Atlantic ocean at 'Okeanos' far shore' (summer sunset), depending on the accounts. It was the site of goddess Hera's magical apple tree, whose golden fruit imparted divine knowledge (or chaos and warfare when placed in the hands of Eris!), and the three nymphs known as the 'Hesperides' were its guardians. It features in the myths of Perseus (the nymphs tell him where to find Medusa) and of Heracles (who steals the apples). These nymphs were supposed by some sources to be the daughters of Hesperus – personification of the 'evening star' (Venus) known as 'Hesperus' to the Greeks ('Vesper' to the Romans). Venus, being close to the sun, and relatively close to Earth often appears in the sun's train ('evening star') or vanguard ('morning star') as it traverses the ecliptic path. The Greeks, of course, named the planet Venus after Plato's muse Aphrodite.

Not trusting the Hesperides with her precious apples, Hera (a notoriously jealous sort of person) is supposed to have set the dragon Ladon to guard it, and he coils around the base of the apple tree's trunk. This is somewhat redolent of the Norse myth of the Midgard serpent coiled around the world tree, and the constellation Draco was said by Hyginus ancient account of the constellations to represent Ladon.

The exact 'identity' of the 'Island of the Hesperides' itself is somewhat mysterious – is it Ogygia or Erytheia? Or somewhere else, even? Erytheia is sometimes given as the name of one of the Hesperides, so this may link to Geryon and his herd of red cows. Conceptually, of course, this does not matter – the 'island' has no corporal existence, but an important spiritual one. The apples were a bridal gift of Gaia (the Earth) to Hera. The Irish and British also had a legend of an 'Isle of Apples' – Avalon and Emain Abhlach.

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?...

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?... The imagery is somewhat phallic!

The location of the Titans and their monstrous offspring at the far reach of Okeanos in ancient European mythology made them occupy the liminal 'crossing place' between the mundane world and the heavens. It is a place simultaneously distant in both space and time, ruled over by its Titan king, Cronus, whose 'star' (the planet Saturn) takes so long to traverse its ponderous path (as if an old Boddagh of a man) when compared to our nearer planets. If this 'crossing place' seemed distant and somehow unobtainable except through an extreme journey and a trial of nerve, the spiritual realm of the heavens on the other side was paradoxically immanent and of the 'here and now'. The meaning of this 'crossing over' point and a belief that the traffic here was bidirectional became a feature of the ancient initiatory mystery cults of Eleusis and the 'Orphic' mysteries and was a key part of the mythology of the barbarians of Atlantic Europe, preserved in their own rich traditions…