The Daemon Prince: Some musings on Hermes-Mercury

The word ‘mercurial’, taken from the name of the Roman god Mercury and his eponymous liquid metal, generally means ‘volatile’ and ‘liable to change’. This descriptor is an apt expression of the god’s perceived nature as an ever-busy messenger between the divine and the mundane, the organising principle of trade and travel, inspiration for eloquence, dreams and communication, and a great crosser of boundaries. Known as Hermes to the Greeks (who seem to have donated him to the Romans), he was a god whose function these sage peoples also applied the term daimōn, which persisted in the Latin christian world in the word ‘demon’, coming to mean an evil angel who serves Satan in the mundane realms. Very broadly, a daimōn can be thought of as a penetrating principle of spirit entering into and acting on matter – a god-like being. In Plato’s dialogue known as The Symposium, the philosophers at a wine-drinking party discuss how, because of its great power, the principle of love (and hence, the goddess Aphrodite) is in fact a daimōn, for instance. Hermes and Aphrodite were credited in mythology with coupling to produce the androgynous god Hermaphroditus, venerated in the consumation of marriage as an expression of the combination of male and female sexuality.

Hermes: archetypal night-flying daimon, trickster-god, and herald of dreams.

Hermes: archetypal night-flying daimon, sneaky penetrator, trickster, and herald of dreams. Note the interlocking and distinctly sexual ‘love hearts’ at the bottom of this image from a 5thC BCE Attic red krater (Image courtesy,

In Greek,  ‘herma‘ means ‘pile of stones’, ‘prop’ or ‘boundary marker’, and this was the original form by which the god’s numinous presence was imagined in rural districts during and before the Greek ‘Archaic’ period, when gods were frequently depicted such by simple formless objects (such as the wooden ‘xoana’ images etc). The name ‘Hermes’ also resonates with the later Arabic word Emir, meaning ‘prince’ or ‘commander’ of a territory. From the classical period onwards (after the 7thC BCE) depictions of Greek gods increasingly became more figurative, and the word hermai came to be applied to those monuments associated with Hermes: often assuming the form of a simple square pillar surmounted with a carved head of the god, and exhibiting a phallus on the column at waist height. Greek traveller Pausanias, writing in the 2ndC CE, noted the god’s image might take the form of an erect male member mounted upon a pedestal. Such objects were popularly placed next to doorways and at boundaries in ancient Athens. In many ways they were similar to the older Egyptian depictions of the ithyphallic god Min.

To Classical and Hellenistic era Greeks, the square column represented order and stability (the god’s sacred number was four), and the phallus combined symbolism of both penetration and generation. Students of Greek paganism will recognise the phallic imagery as being shared by gods such as Dionysus, Priapus, and the Satyrs of the Dionysian retinue. Sâthe is another Greek word for ‘phallus’.

A 'Herma'

A ‘Herma’

Stela showing Egyptian god Min - an 'intact' version of Osiris in the land of the Living?

Stela showing Egyptian god Min – an ‘intact’ version of Osiris in the land of the Living?

As Greek religion evolved to incorporate eastern philosophies of essential monism, Hermes increasingly came to represent the divine aspects of the individual – an important factor in the development of christianity. An example of this is the syncretic god-concept of Hermes Trismegistos (‘Thrice-Great Hermes’) whose cult combined with that of Thoth  in Hellenistic Egypt, and who was recognised as a reputed originating author of written religious traditions in the Hellenistic Near East which seem to prefigure christianity in their content (‘Hermeticism’). Both Thoth and Hermes were patrons of written communication, and the Greeks saw the origins of many of their gods in those of ancient Egypt, and also to the converse.

In Roman culture, Hermes came to be identified with Mercury, whose name (and function) is associated with the word for trade – mercare. The god’s function as crosser of boundaries is also represented in the Indo-European languages’ use of variants of the word ‘mark‘, such as the Latin ‘margō‘, which means boundary or border. Trade is, after all, a formalised interface between individuals where both seek to benefit…

As human competitiveness knows no such boundaries, Mercury was also considered the god of magic, tricksters and thieves! In the 4thC CE, Christian writer Arnobius (Adversus Gentes 4.9.1) sneered at the Romans for worshipping their ‘Dii Lucrii’ (‘gods of profit’) of whom Mercury was an obvious case. Rome’s success came from copying the skill in trade of the Greeks and Phoenicians, who had colonised Italy before the city came to prominence. Mercury appears to have been a Greek introduction to Roman religion, with no obvious indigenous equivalent (except the original distinctly agrarian and rustic identity enjoyed by Mars/Quirinus) being known to current scholarship. Julius Caesar’s 1stC BCE comment (Comentarii de Bello Gallico) that the Gauls worshipped Mercury as their chief god was probably an off-hand comment that Gauls worshipped trade and  money – he had certainly managed to buy off the loyalties of many of them in pursuing his conquest of ‘barbarian Gaul. Likewise, the same might be said of Tacitus’ comment a hundred years later that Mercury was the chief god of the German peoples.

The breaking of boundaries and interfaces is also a strong semantic associated with death and travelling to an afterlife, so Hermes and Mercury were ascribed the divine function of psychopomp – guiding departed souls to their allotted destination.  This resonates with the god’s mythological connection with acting as a herdsman, and Hermes was indeed venerated as a protector of flocks and herds – seemingly a more fundamental or primitive aspect of his rôle as guardian of wealth and trade. In the myth of Zeus’ love for Io, tranformed by Hera into a cow, he sends Hermes in the guise of a shepherd to slay the giant Argos Panoptes who watches over her, freeing her to wander the earth.

Throughout the whole body of the text of the ‘Homeric Hymn to Hermes‘ he is portrayed as a rustic god associated with the droving and abduction of cattle and other beasts. Indeed, when he was but a precocious babe in his mother’s arms in a cave high on rustic Mount Cyllene, his first act after birth was steal the cattle of his brother Apollo, and institute the bridge of sacrifice between man and the deathless gods by slaying them. In recompense to his brother, according to the ca. 6th/5thC BCE hymn, he creates Apollo’s mystical lyre from the shell of a tortoise and the horns of an ox.

As a drover of cattle or a drover of souls, he is a leading and conducting force, much in the way that Aphrodite is an inducing and seducing force. He was sometimes imagined and depicted as Hermes Kriophoros – ‘Hermes the Ram Carrier’ – in the manner of a shepherd, carrying the beast in his arms or on his shoulders. This imagery became popular in christianity, whose narrative of shepherding and flocks appears to borrow heavily from the mythology of Hermes. He is almost always depicted (either as Hermes or Mercury) wearing a sun-hat (petasos), this being the signifier of a rustic in Greco-Roman culture: wealth and prosperity of any society ultimately flows from the soil.

Hermes Kriophoros (late Roman copy of a Greek original)

Hermes Kriophoros (late Roman copy of a Greek original)

The Caduceus:

A statue of Hermes from (could you have guessed it?) the Vatican museum.

A statue of Hermes with his ‘Caduceus’, from (could you have guessed it?) the Vatican museum. Lots of phallic imagery, in spite of the attempts at censorship: Was Hermes eventually seen as the ‘acceptable’ face of Dionysos?

Traditional depictions of Hermes and Mercury usually show him wielding a staff or sceptre. From our understanding of his functions, it can be seen that this could easily represent the staff of the shepherd, the measuring stave or tally stick of a merchant, the wand of a magician, the rod of a scribe or the sceptre representing authority in interaction between people. Known as the ‘caduceus’, its depiction became more formalised as time progressed until it assumed the form we often associate with it: a rod around which two serpents are twined, surmounted by a ball, sometimes with wings attached. The serpents are a symbol of regeneration from the earth, of death and rebirth, and also have sexual connotations as well as being largely ‘hermaphrodite’ in appearance, at least from the point of view that they are difficult to sexually differentiate. The twined serpents imply the coupling of male and female, representing the daimonic universal motivating forces implicit with both Hermes and Aphrodite. The wings and serpents together represent the polar opposites – the cthonic earth upon which snakes are doomed to crawl, and the air or pneuma, which is the sky and home of the stars and spirit. This represents the ability of Hermes to link the divine and the mundane. He was the god of transaction in all its forms and the caduceus is a striking representation of this.

The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

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

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

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

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

The Dionysian Mirror:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

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

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

Death and the Chthonic realm:

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

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

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

Rebirth of Dionysus:

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

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

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

Mythological Event Horizons Part 1: Rome before 27BC

(This is the first in an occasional series of posts dealing with the use of mythology to revise history)

The emergence of powerful new cultures is often accompanied by the rise of powerful new religious narratives, with which leaders seek unify their domain under a spiritual foundation sympathetic and congruent to their regime. In times of crisis, this narrative may further evolve and gain accretions.

Establishing a mythological basis for a culture is an ancient technique designed to place that culture’s origins back in a place called ‘mythic time’ – in an unassailable period of timeless ‘fact’ lying somewhere beyond the horizon of verifiable history. This  mythology provides a justificatory provenance which supports the new order, but the phenomena is one which – after great periods of time – continually confounds enquirers seeking to untangle the truth behind the history of cultures and their mythological aspects.

In the case of the ancient city state of Rome, its different phases of cultural development (economic, military and religious) demanded establishment of and refinement of a popular founding myth. In so doing, its leaders were calling upon the traditions borrowed from the oldest and most glorious city states, of which Babylon (established circa 2800BCE) is a particular example. Largely following in the footsteps of Greek and Phoenician examples, Rome required a founder who existed in a time when men and gods walked the earth together – the mythical ‘bridging age’ of demigods, around which most legends evolved. Mere historical truths could be easily revised by fact, but in the popular imagination the divine was more unassailable.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine 'mother'.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine ‘mother’.

The Roman Kingdom and Republic:

With cultural change and revolution, comes a re-mythologizing of the past in the image of the present. As most of the histories of Rome’s past come to us from the late Republican era at the earliest, we are at a loss to determine fact from mythology and invention.

The Roman Republic was said by later histories to have commenced with the overthrow of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BCE. It is hard to say for sure if this founding event (albeit later trumpeted as such) actually occurred or if that king was indeed real. It may have been an historical invention by a culture struggling to trace its faltering early steps from ‘barbarity’ into the era’s idealised Hellenic models of power and polity.

Tribalism, chieftains and tyrants were a typical Greco-Roman shibboleth for the majority of Europeans whom they considered Barabarians – Celts, Thracians and those living north of the Danube and the Rhine who had not assumed the trappings of Hellenic and Middle Eastern cultures. We might add the class of ‘Romans’ to those whom Greeks considered also considered ‘barbarian’.

The distinction between social classes during the era of the Roman Republic was a typical dialectic split between the aristocratic dynasties of landed gentry (the ‘Patrician’ class) who typically traced their family pedigrees back into the city’s supposed and actual Regal Era, and the more ordinary ‘Plebians’ – families (gens) without historic aristocratic pedigree, but keen on building their own modern dynasties. It can be considered a typical Old Money/New Money dialectic – absolute power was held by neither, yet strived for by both. As such both groups had different needs in using mythology to bolster or establish their claims to rights and power.

Since the Roman Republic (which cam to an end in 27BCE) is the first era from which we have definite supporting history and archaeology, Rome’s Regal Age (Romulus, Numa, the Tarquinians etc) must therefore constitute its first mythological ‘event horizon’.

It was from this age that was generated the archetypal image of a ‘good king’, Numa Pompilius (said to have ruled 715 – 673 BC), who was so lauded by Rome’s first Patrician Emperors. Numa was said to have instituted peace, wealth, economic growth and the structure of Roman religion and its calendar of observances. By the Augustan era (after 27BCE) Numa therefore served as an idealised ‘historic’ founding father for Rome’s new aristocratic Imperium. The city’s ultimate supposed founder, the fratricidal Romulus, was more of a ‘mythic’ founder. This was the narrative later employed by Livy and his literary compatriots of that New Order.

The Second Punic War and further re-mythologizing:

Rome’s earliest autocthonus history that we know of is that of Quintus Fabius Pictor a soldier-statesman of the ancient patrician Gens Fabii who participated both militarily and diplomatically in the Roman Republic’s greatest crisis before the 1stC BCE: the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). This war was an attempted conquest of Rome by a combined force of Celts, Numidians and even some Italians, led by the Carthaginian Gens Barca dynasts Hasdrubal and his brother Hannibal.

Fabius’ lost history of Rome was later cited by Livy (Ab Urbe Condita Librii) as the source for its founding myth of Romulus and Remus, as heirs of Aeneas of Troy, and the line of pre-Republic kings who ruled after them. It was written in Greek and would have served as a brilliant piece of contemporary propaganda designed to garner support for Rome from among the Greek world (itself no lover of the Celts) in the wake of the Punic crisis, through citing a common Greco-Roman origin.

This supposed ethno-cultural connection with the Greeks was very popular in the more deeply Hellenised patrician classes, many of whom spoke Greek and studied Greek culture as a high cultural ideal. The stories of Aeneas, the kings of Alba Longa, Romulus and Numa, were however, not necessarily a Roman idea: the Grecophile Fabius had borrowed the story of Rome’s earliest kings from an earlier Greek historian: Diocles of Peparethus, whose lost works included histories of the Persian Empire, the significance of which becomes more important as we delve further into the myth of Romulus. It stands as a good example of how mythology, posing as history, can respond to a state of crisis.

In stark opposition to the Grecophile attitudes of patricians such as Fabius was the brooding, brilliant, energetic and deeply conservative Marcus Porcius Cato (‘Cato the Elder’). Cato was from a well-established plebeian gens of wealthy agriculturalists, who was outspoken against the ingress of Greek, Phoenician or more oriental cultures. To him has been credited the first Latin history of Rome (perhaps written in opposition to Fabius’ patrician-oriented Greek language history of Rome), which survives only in fragments quoted by later writers. Cato rose to the highest public offices and strove throughout his life to act as a ballast of traditional Roman values, and felt no shame in wearing the Greek label of ‘barbarian’. You can imagine his horror with the perceived degeneracy of the recently imported festivities of the Bacchanalia at Rome, especially in light of threat from Carthage. His apoplexy must have been acute when the patricians of the senate took the advice of the (Greek) Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Oracle and decided to bring a foreign god into Rome’s official pantheon in response to the Hannibalic War:

Magna Mater – and the introduction of Greek mystery cults:

A more overt consequence of the second Punic War upon Roman state religion was its importation of the worship of Magna Mater/Cybele from Phrygia in Magna Graecia, which was not just the donation of a goddess and her cult, but actually involved the translocation of its principle idol and priesthood from Mount Ida in the Troad (the district in which ancient Troy was supposedly located). The Greeks equated Cybele with Rhea (associated with the similarly-named Mount Ida in Crete), and the name of the legendary mother of Romulus and Remus from the Roman histories – Rhea Silvia – seems simply to be a Romanised metathesis of ‘Rhea Cyvele‘. This suggests the possibility that the history of Fabius and the introduction of Magna Mater were possibly part of a concerted conscious effort of state cultural and religious propaganda.

As it happened, Cato’s political rival Scipio, was victorious over Hannibal and occupied Carthage after a series of decisive and stunning military engagements in Hispania and in North Africa, making these into Roman provinces. Soon after, Rome was to conquer the Achaean league and take Greece itself – its religious and social makeup would be forever changed, much to Cato’s dismay.

Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire:

The late Roman Republican era culminated in the city’s stunning territorial expansion, driven by the twin threats of incursion of the Celts from the north and the sequelae of the opportunity caused by the fractious instability of the eastern military Empire founded by Alexander the Great. This opportunity culminated in both stunning conquests (Caesar’s taking of Gaul and Pompey’s campaigns in Africa and the Middle East) and Rome’s next great period of crisis in which militarised internal factionalism and power struggles threatened the root and stability Rome’s establishment. It was a period of chaos, civil war and a controversial de facto regicide in the case of Julius Caesar.

The man who eventually established peace and a new era of stability was Octavian, who became Rome’s first Emperor – Caesar Augustus – in 27BCE, founding a dynastic line of subsequent emperors.

   The ‘Augustan Period’ (27BCE-14CE) marked another important milestone in Rome’s deliberate efforts at significant cultural re-invention and re-mythologizing. There was an explosion in the expression of ideas about Rome’s past in literature, almost certainly engineered by Augustus himself. Of these, the works of Livy with his new history of Rome: Ab Urbe Condita Librii, and the epic poetic equivalent represented by Vergil’s Aeneid served to concrete the past in the image of Octavian’s new order. Both borrowed from newly translated Latin versions of Fabius’ History. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses provided the Greek world with ample evidence of Rome’s superior abilities in the poetic and mythological arts.

Vergil, Ovid and Livy’s works spanned a dialectic between popular culture (the mythology and poetics of the Aeneid) and serious historical scholarship (Livy) and were runaway hits that succeeded in promoting the new Empire’s ideals. As usual a certain amount of licence was taken with facts in order to portray a seemingly cogent, continuous and ordered rise from Rome’s noble but humble origins in the 8thC BCE to the greatness of Augustan Rome, which in the era cited for its founding myth was probably no more than a small and insignificant village on the Tiber. The reality of Rome’s growth was probably very different and more chaotic than historians of the Empire would have us believe.

In his preface to the history of the age of the Roman kings, Livy sums up the spirit of his Imperial benefactor’s ambition:

” … the fates, I suppose, demanded the founding of this great city, and the first establishment of an empire, which is now, in power, next to the immortal gods … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii – Book 1)

The earliest part of the book is probably entirely mythological, and is thought to be based on Fabius (3rdC BCE) who based his work on Diocles (4th/3rdC BCE). Both of these works are lost. Livy’s account places the founding of Rome as part of the dynastic succession struggles of the Kings of Alba Longa – said to be heirs and successors of Aeneas of Troy, who settled with his people in Italy, after that Homeric idealised prototype city-state‘s fall.

Livy was using a legendary motif common to the founding of many great city dynasties – birth (rebirth) from water: This is also seen in the legends of Sargon of Akkad (originating in Bronze Age Babylonia), which would have been known to Diocles of Peperethus, who studied the Persian Empire which inherited Babylon until it was taken by Alexander in 331BCE. A founding myth of Babylon includes the following details, taken from a Babylonian inscription:

” … Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I. My mother was a <virgin priestess>, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains. In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates, my mother, the <virgin priestess>, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth. She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener. In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king, and for forty-five years I held kingly sway… ” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, 1914 – translation of an inscription supposedly dated to the period of the founding of Babylon c.2800. Rank uses the term ‘Vestal’ for my insertion: <virgin priestess>)

This theme of the aquatic rebirth of a city-empire’s founder-hero appears to have been copied into the myth of Moses, which seems likely to have originated among the Judaean immigrants of Persian-ruled Babylonia during the Iron Age. These were to return and rule their own great city-state or kingdom with their new monotheist religion as vassals of Persians and then the Macedonian Empire of Alexander. It was then probably borrowed (‘probatum est’) into Livy’s 1stC BCE Roman history in his myth of Romulus and Remus, which goes as follows:

” … The Vestal (AR: Rhea Silvia) being deflowered by force, brought forth twins, and declared that the father of her doubtful offspring was Mars; either because she really thought so, or in hopes of extenuating the guilt of her transgression by imputing it to the act of a deity. But neither gods nor men screened her or her children from the King’s cruelty: the priestess was loaded with chains, and cast into prison, and the children were ordered to be thrown into the stream of the river. It happened providentially that the Tiber, overflowing its banks, formed itself into stagnant pools in such a manner, as that the regular channel was every where inaccessible, and those who carried the infants supposed that they would be drowned in any water, however still. Wherefore, as if thereby fulfilling the King’s order, they exposed the boys in the nearest pool, where now stands the Ruminal fig-tree, which, it is said, was formerly called Romular. Those places were at that time wild deserts. A story prevails that the retiring flood having left on dry ground the trough, hitherto floating, in which they had been exposed, a thirsty she-wolf from the neighbouring mountains, directed her course to the cries of the children, and, stooping, presented her dugs to the infants, showing so much gentleness, that the keeper of the King’s herds found her licking the boys with her tongue; and that this shepherd, whose name was Faustulus, carried them home to his wife Laurentia to be nursed. Some there are who think that this Laurentia, from her having been a prostitute, was, by the shepherds, called Lupa; and to this circumstance they ascribe the origin of this fabulous tale. Thus born, and thus educated, as soon as years supplied them with strength, they led not an inactive life at the stables, or among the cattle, but traversed the neighbouring forests in hunting. Hence acquiring vigour, both of body and mind, they soon began not only to withstand the wild beasts, but to attack robbers loaded with booty. The spoil thus acquired they divided with the shepherds; and, in company with these, the number of their young associates continually increasing, they carried on both their business, and their sports … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii. trans. George Baker)

Livy’s famous account seems very close to the myth of Sargon, used in the founding myths of the city-state of Babylon and its later clutch of Persian-Judaean whelps and their story of Moses. The twins seem very similar to the mythical Greek twins, Kastor and Polydeukes (Interpretatio Romanum: Castor and Pollux), one of whom was mortal, the other divine. The story is also echoed in the Hebrew story of Cain and Abel.

In his narrative on Romulus and Remus Livy is reflecting the importance of Kastor and Polydeukes in the myths of the Hellenic world. These were mythical sportsmen, and the games that marked the Roman festival of Lupercalia (linked to the wolf mythology of Romulus and Remus) were perhaps a reflection of an Arcadian and Attic Greek tradition attached to myths of Kastor and his brother, and involving a unifying festival of competitive sports: the Olympic games. The appropriation of Greek culture was of particular importance to Romans after the Battle of Corinth in 146BCE, which marked Rome’s effective conquest of Hellas (some might say it was more the other way around, culturally). Rome filled the footsteps of Magna Graecia and her Empire. This was no surprise: after all – Roman culture was in fact Greco-Roman culture…

Divine triads and the two faces of Roman Mars.

(For context, I advise you to also look at my post: ‘Gods of war and agriculture’)

Rome’s ancient god Mars represents a curious religious dialectic: On the one hand, he is perhaps best known as a god of war, and on the other he has an older more mysterious incarnation as a god of agriculture and earth’s riches. He remained one the most popular gods of the state religion up until its conversion to christianity.

” … Mars enim cum saevit Gradivus dicitur, cum tranquillus est Quirinus … “

” … When furious, Mars is called Gradivus, when peaceful he is Quirinus …”

Maurus Servius Honoratus – Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil (early 5thC CE) 

This dual nature was illustrated by the Romans in the god’s twin symbols of the shield (the passive or protective) and the spear (the active), represented in his (astrological) symbol, comprising of a circle and an arrow:

In Livy’s great 1stC BCE/CE euhemerist (for which we might read ‘fictive’) account of Rome’s history and founding myth (Ab Urbe Condita), the culture-hero twins Romulus and Remus were said to have been born to a mother called Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of the rightful king of the legendary founder-kingdom of Alba Longa who supposedly sired the twins with the god Mars, while being forced to serve as Vestal Virgin by the usurper, Amulius. Rhea Silvia’s identity seems to very consciously evoke the great mother-goddess of Greek myth – Rhea – whose name appears to be a metathesis of that of the other arch-goddess: Hera. In the theme-story probably borrowed into that of Rome’s legendary founding twins, Rhea gives birth to Zeus while hiding in a cave on Crete’s Mount Ida, lest her consort Kronos find and devour him. Likewise, Livy says that Romulus and Remus were rescued from destruction by the jealous Amulius who throws the twins into the Tiber, only to be thwarted when they wash ashore and are rescued by a she-wolf. A similar Greek/Cretan myth dealing parturative peril tells of the birth of Dionysus to Demeter/Persephone under similar circumstances. The other myth of that god’s birth to Semele also has the same elements, although both portray Dionysus as being destroyed and reborn. These share elements with the older Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis, the death and dismemberment of Osiris, his reconstruction and the birth of Heru/Horus. The narrative seems to be a continuity of the idea of life coming from death – an idea at the heart of ancient paganism, one pertinent to understanding Mars. The ‘two faces’ of Mars: Mars-Gradivas and Mars-Quirinus as mentioned by the Christian author Servius, seem to have been united to Old Jupiter in the original ‘Archaic Triad’ of Rome’s principle gods: Jupiter, Mara and Quirinus. This ‘Archaic Triad’ supposedly had its own triad of Flamines Maiores said to have been appointed by legendary king, Numa Pompilus, who was supposed to have ruled in the 8th/7thC BCE. However, it was supposedly supplanted by Hellenised Etruscan influence – either of the Tarquinian kings, just before the dawn of the Roman Republic in the 6thC BCE or by a more gradual process of adoption of state cults from conquered cities. Livy, for instance, states that Juno was adopted when Rome conquered Etruscan Veii in 396BCE, although such a statement does not preclude her already being a god to whom the Romans gave Cult. This ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, copied the Etruscan triad of Tinia, Uni and Menerva, respectively. Mars was replaced with the similarly spear and shield-wielding goddess, Minerva, known to the Greeks as Athena – a principle protectoress (as Athena Polias/Pallas) of the city-state in the archaic and classical eras – Athens, in particular. Juno (Hera to the Greeks) was also a feminine representation of a vengeful force who in mythology often attempts to protect (with varying degrees of success) the bonds of her marriage to Jupiter/Zeus. Both female replacements for Mars and Quirinus represent feminine aspects of the male gods. It was noted by Macrobius in his 5thC CE book Saturnalia – that Juno was (etymologically) a female counterpart of Janus, another uniquely Latin god who was depicted with two faces. As god of beginnings and endings, he also played an important role in warfare, it being a custom (according to Plutarch and others) to keep the doors of his temple open in times of war. Janus is an interesting god to introduce to the narrative of ‘two-headed’ Mars: In the time of Augustus this god was actually referred to (by Festus and Livy) as ‘Janus-Quirinus’, implying some kind of link to Rome’s ‘Cthonic Mars’. In the case of Livy (History I.32.6-14), Janus Quirinus was supposedly invoked in the act of formally declaring war. Livy’s account of the words are probably a fanciful concoction of his own typically grandiose style, but the details still count:

“Hear thou, Jupiter, and thou, Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye terrestrial gods, and ye infernal gods, hear! I call you to witness this people – naming whatever people it is – are unjust and do not render just reparation. But regarding these matters, we will consult the elders of our fatherland, how we may aquire our due.”

In other words: ‘I’m going to go home and tell my dad, and then you’ll be sorry!’

This and the custom of opening the temple doors equates Janus resolutely to the Archaic triad of Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus under a military aspect. Why, then did Rome adopt the Capitoline triad in its place? It certainly was not averse to war – indeed, the doors of the temple of Janus were probably more often open than closed! The key to understanding the answer to this question is to be found by looking at the females behind the Capitoline triad.

Minerva was the feminine counterpart to Mars in his role as war-god, and was depicted with the same attributes: the spear and shield. However, she was also the goddess of intellect and wisdom – those crucial characteristics which avert war or guide it to its successful conclusion. It is perhaps the fundamental incompatibility between Roman Mars (who was also a chthonic agriculture-fertility deity) and the Greek conception of the war-god – Ares – who represented simply the idea of aggression and violence, devoid of the regenerative qualities implicit in Mars. Minerva herself was a ‘virgin’ goddess – an idea which did not necessarily imply chastity (in the sense so lauded by early Christians), but rather maximum fertile potential.

Juno (Uni to the Etruscans, and Hera to the Greeks) represented the maternal protective force – jealous and fiercely protective, much like the wolf who adopted Romulus and Remus as her ‘pups’ in the old Roman foundation myth. She was the ‘Capitoline’ replacement for Quirinus, who is sometimes portrayed as a deification of Romulus, Mars – like Minerva – being the younger more active version of the god. Jupiter is Juno’s husband in conventional mythology, and Jupiter was the principle god to which warfare was dedicated. Greek and Roman legends are full of the conflict with Hera/Juno caused by Zeus/Jupiter’s constant seeking for mistresses by which conceive the other gods and demi-gods who people Mediterranean myth. In these, her jealousy seeks to protect the older order – their own union. She is thus a more mature aspect of Minerva, her daughter. In Greek and Etruscan myth, she is the nurse-maid of the ‘culture-hero’ Hercules/Herakles (who bears her Greek name), allowing him access to Olympus as a divine – much like the later myth of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, allowing them to found Rome. Again, we can see how syncresis with Greek myths informed a change in the focus of Roman religion. Greeks tended to see their Roman cousins as closer to barbarians, and Romans were typically conscious of this in attempting to follow Greek religion.

The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit

See my related articles here and here.

The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.

It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.

To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.

As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish  Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!

Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.

Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:

 “Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?

Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.

How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.

Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.

Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.

In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male  triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).

Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies  of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.

The healer and the poetess:

Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.

In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.

The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.

The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.


Diving at Epiphany

Bulgarian men 'diving for the cross' at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Bulgarian men ‘diving for the cross’ at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

In Orthodox christianity, the ancient tradition of the Sanctification of the Waters at the festival of Epiphany (5th and 6th of January) is marked throughout the world by the popular custom of ‘diving for the cross’. The festival itself celebrates not just the ‘Theophany’ of Jesus to the gentiles but in particular among Orthodox Christians, his adult baptism by John the Baptist/the holy spirit (depending on which gospel tradition you go by).

Cross-diving usually follows the Epiphany mass and involves the priest casting a crucifix into a body of water, this being the cue for a crowd of eager young men to dive in, competing to retrieve it. It obviously echoes the baptismal theme of the Christian myth, but is there more to this tradition that predates Christianity?

As previously mentioned, there are many features which Christianity has borrowed from paganism for the festivities spanning from the winter solstice to Epiphany: the festivals of Saturnalia and the Dionysia being key donor traditions. Dionysia is the closest model for Epiphany, being the annual festival of the epiphany or theophany of Dionysus to the people. In western christianity, it is also remembered in the seemingly Dionysian celebration of the ‘Miracle at Cana’ at which Jesus supposedly turns water into wine. Diving into water, however is not a particular tradition of the Dionysia.

The Nativity of Aion:

We must look into the early 1st millennium Hellenistic world, and to Alexandria in Egypt to get more of a clue as to the origins of baptism at Epiphany. Christianity evolved in the Levant and Egypt among a seething sea of syncretistic pagan ideas, which under the influence of reductionist neoplatonic philosophy began to be intellectualised, combined and refined. At multi-ethnic Alexandria in the 1st-4th centuries CE, one of the chief gods worshipped among the Hellenised Egyptians was ‘Aion’ or ‘Aeon’ – seemingly a syncretistic youthful version of Kronos, compounded with Osiris, Dionysus and Apollo, and whose nativity festival was held on the 6th of January. The Alexandrian mythos claimed he was born to the virgin goddess Kore (also known as Persephone) on the night of 5th/6th of January. In gnosticism, Aion became the name or title of the series of historically repeating godhoods, one of whom was believed to be Jesus by some gnostics. The idea of the chain of prophets leading to the Messiah was of course originally a Judaic idea, and seems to be the root of the gnostic Aions. Aion, however, was originally a pagan idea:

Aion holding the 'wheel of the year' on a Roman mosaic.

Aion holding the ‘wheel of the year’ on a Roman mosaic.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403CE) wrote in his book Panarion:

“… Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day. This day the Greeks, I mean the Idolaters, celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December, a feast called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians. For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ (a thirtieth of an hour being added to each day), as the wise Ephraim among the Syrians bore witness by this inspired passage in his commentaries, where he says: ‘ The advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was thus appointed: His birth according to the flesh, then his perfect incarnation among men, which is called Epiphany, at a distance of thirteen days from the increase of the light; for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’

How many other things in the past and present support and bear witness to this proposition, I mean the Resurrection birth of Christ!  Indeed, the leaders of the idol-cults, filled with wiles to deceive the idol-worshippers who believe in them, in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany, so that they whose hopes are in error may not seek the truth.  For instance, at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter, with the seal of a cross made in gold on its forehead, and on either hand two other similar seals, and on both knees two others, all five seals being similarly made in gold. And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: ‘To-day at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.’

In the city of Petra also – the metropolis of Arabia which is called Edom in the Scriptures – the same is done, and they sing the praises of the Virgin in the Arab tongue, calling her in Arabic Chaamou, that is, Maiden, and the Virgin, and him who is born from her Dusares, that is, Alone-begotten of the Lord.  This also takes place in the city of Elousa on the same night just as at Petra and at Alexandria … “

Unfortunately Epiphanius was none the wiser as to what happened in the crypt of the Koreion, and it is for us to speculate that it may have involved some form of immersion in water. This ancient Alexandrian celebration of nativity and epiphany on the 5th/6th January survives still in the most ancient Christian denomination – the Armenian Church. The prime divinity among the pre-Christian Armenians was the Persian goddess Anahit (Anahita) who was analogous to the Hellenistic ‘Kore’ and therefore to Isis. She was also linked to Ishtar, Aphrodite and Artemis. Anahita was a mountain goddess representing waters – a theme of some importance in the pagan world.

The drowned god who came back to life:

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

The myth of Isis and Osiris is at the core of ancient Egyptian mythology, and became influential throughout the Roman Empire from the 1stC BCE, when Isis became one of the favourite goddesses of what I call the ‘syncretic era’. The myth of the death by drowning and the resurrection of her brother and lover Osiris is intimately tied up with water. The reborn Osiris – like Phrygian Cybele’s consort, Attis – was summoned from death by the goddess and the new era (Horus) conceived by an act of mystical intercourse. The descent of the statue of Kore into the basement of the temple at the Hellenistic ?gnostic nativity festival of Aion was obviously designed to reflect the Egyptian myth, and also its Eleusinian and Dionysian counterparts. Indeed, examination of this myth demonstrates that it was a theme with vast and far-reaching provenance in ancient paganism.

So … the mysteries of Epiphany are tied up in the many older pagan legends of a dying and reborn god. There is much more that I could say about this topic which involves the Celts of Atlantic Europe, but I will save this for another post for now, except to quote from Florus’ Epitome of Roman History which suggest that the cross-diving tradition may have an older provenance in Bulgaria…

”  … After the Macedonians (heaven save the mark) the Thracians, former tributaries of the Macedonians, rebelled and, not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters. Throughout the period of their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to the gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mothers’ wombs by torture. The cruellest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci, and to their strength was added cunning as well; their haunts among the woods and mountains harmonized well with their fierce temper… ” Lucius Annaeus Florus – The Epitome of Roman History (Trans. E.S. Forster)

Aubrey Beardsley's beautiful depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of 'Dame Du Lac'. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.

Aubrey Beardsley’s evocative bookplate depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of the ‘Dame Du Lac’. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.





Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

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

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

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

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

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

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

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


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

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

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

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

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


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

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

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

Badalisk and Bosinada:

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

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

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

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

Wren Hunts:

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

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

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

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

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

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