The winter Dionysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of Christmas Day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

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

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

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

Perihelion and lengthening days:

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

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

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

 

 

 

 

The days of Kronos and Saturn

The familiar traditions associated with the celebration of ‘Christmas’ or the ‘Festival of the Nativity of Jesus Christ’ throughout northern Europe are far from Christian in their origin, and many of them are a direct continuation of the festivities of the Saturnalia of ancient Roman culture, which are in turn related to the equivalent ‘Kronia’ of ancient Greek culture. Both of these were introduced to Europe’s barbarian north with the diffusion of these cultures – a process beginning in the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE and culminating with the Roman conquests. Even well into the Christian era, ancient aspects of the seasonal celebration derived from the pagan era continued to be introduced between nations – the ‘Christmas tree’ (an ancient symbol of family) being an example. The essence of the Kronia and Saturnalia was a celebration of a supposed ‘golden age’ of humanity, ruled over by the titan god Kronos, who was known to the Romans as Saturn (probably meaning ‘Fertiliser’, after the Greek word Sathe). In this age, humans were said to have been virtuous and egalitarian – a state which degenerated once Kronos/Saturn was overthrown by Zeus/Jupiter who established the ‘pantheon’ of twelve Olympians to rule over the heavens and the earth. The Attic Greek Kronia was celebrated at ancient Athens around midsummer and was a festivity shared between freemen, slaves, servants and masters in honour of Kronos and the ideals of the Golden Age, and usually involved a ceremonial aspect of (albeit limited) social role-reversal at which the masters sometimes served their servants at a feast, and servants or employees sometimes took on the identity of masters for the celebration. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held at midwinter – from the 17th December – and after a similar fashion. With time the festivity was extended to a week or more. It was a time of freedom from work, giving of gifts, the playing of games (dice, knucklebones, board-games etc), giving to the poor and feasting and high-living – a very public celebration enjoyed across all social strata, bringing them (for a short period at least) closer together. It seems, therefore, very similar to modern festivities such as Christmas and Hannukah where similar customs still prevail. Anyone who has sat down to a family midwinter banquet wearing a Christmas paper crown and maybe spun a Hannukah dreidel or two is continuing a European tradition over 2000 years old!

The Hannukah Dreidel is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

The Hannukah ‘Dreidel ‘is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

Saturnalia (and Kronia) was typically a festival of reversals, the custom of masters serving their servants or slaves being a typical example of this which persisted down to the modern era. Those familiar with my discussions of the ancient ‘Otherworld’ philosophy of Atlantic European cultures (particularly the ‘Celts’) will immediately recognise this as a related theme: the Otherworld was an inversion of our own peopled by the spirits of the departed looking for reincarnation once more in our realm. Where we had plenty they had little and hungered for what we possessed. By treating these spirits with respect and gifts, we might deter their hunger for our material gains. Saturnalia was a method for ceremonially redressing the imbalance implicit in human nature and satiating the needy forces which might, through jealousy (the old ‘evil eye’ concept,) detract from well-being.

“…Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table…” Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.24.22–23 (4thC CE) – trans. by Robert Kaster, Loeb Classical Library.

In ancient Rome, the celebration coincided with the Larentalia – typically observed on December 23rd – a celebration of the Lares or familial ancestral/domestic spirits, and the elder Roman goddess Acca Larentia – the Mater Larum and supposed mother of legendary twins Romulus (Mars-Quirinus) and Remus. These were characters underpinning Rome’s famous founding myths and therefore the whole ‘dark season’ was a memorial of a distant idea of humanity’s foundation and founding sparks in the dark and distant past. The mythology of Saturn is intrinsically linked to that of the far bounds of time and space where he was supposed by the ancients to have been confined in the legendary overthrow of the Titans by the Olympians. His is the dark and misty realm at the bounds of what we now call space-time, usually depicted by the European ancients as at the furthest reaches of the encircling world-river Okeanos which bordered the heavens and Elysium, and stood above Tartarus – a perilous place full of ancient monstrous beings of legend that only the bravest mythical heroes might travel to in their sacred quests. These monsters were always portrayed as children of the offspring of Kronos/Saturn – the ‘Kronides’. The dark season was a time when the departed might be closer and should be paid respect. This darkness was – as I have discussed elsewhere in this blog – a source of refertilisation to the world, and the source for returning life to the ancient Europeans who believed expressly in reincarnation, like their cultural ancestors in Asia. The return of an ancient deposed god to engender equality and celebration among humans is an irrevocable part of these seasonal celebrations which appear to defy time itself, and the continuous shifts in human culture and religion in Europe. In itself it suggests a temporary dissatisfaction with the status quo: ‘Christmas’ remains a resolutely pagan affair.

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

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

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

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

Processions and ritual begging:

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

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

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

Martin the warrior:

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

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

Association with horses:

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

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

Association with birds:

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

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

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

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

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

Solar aspects of European gods: Kronos, Janus, Neptunus, Dionysus, Mars, Apollo and Manannan

In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, a profusion of small mobile island-based cultures and vigorous sea-borne trading nations coupled with the developing ‘city’ polities fostered a diversification of European pagan philosophies. In the eastern Mediterranean, these were dominated by the Greek and Phoenician cultures.

Contact with the religiously sophisticated ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations caused a continuous flow of ‘oriental’ cultural and religious ideas (including writing) into the west and the north.

These processes would inevitably lead to a fragmentation and sub-specialisation of the empirical principle of a ‘solar hypostasis god’ (and complimentary earth goddess) into multiple divinities, bearing (perhaps unsurprisingly) many different names. The persistence and re-integration of such divinities into the religious landscape of the dominant cultures of the Classical era Greeks and then the Hellenised Romans led to the demotion or promotion of these gods as part of a hierarchical ‘pantheon’, as well as a ‘familiarisation’, ‘temporalisation’ and ‘spacialisation’ of their existence in mythical traditions, based upon the apparent similarity/relation of one to the other, the age of their traditions and their location of origin. Thus the ‘Solar God’ archetype came to associated with a diverse set of gods, but most importantly: Kronos/Saturn, Poseidon/Neptunus, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mars, Apollo (worshipped by the Romans under his Greek name) and Janus (for whom there was no Greek alternative).

These identities seem to have often aggregated under a unified entity: ‘Zeus’ and ‘Jupiter’ (‘God’ and ‘Father God’) whom the mythological traditions tied up with the formal duties of ‘ruler’ of the others. He was a sky god – grandson (according to tradition) of the deified sky: Ouranus or Uranus. The mythological formality of the ‘ruler’ god, left little subtlety for expression of divine higher truths, and Zeus/Jupiter spent a mythological life doing what kings do: Lounging around, fornicating, making war, punishing miscreants and putting on spectacular displays of power and majesty. The cultic ‘mysteries’ were left to the subservient aspects of the ‘masculine’ solar divinity, who had developed many faces by the 1st millennium BC:

Kronos or Saturn:

Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of this god (borrowing from lost works of Nigidius) comes to us from the brilliant early 5thC CE pagan Greco-Roman author Macrobius Theodosius (‘Macrobius’), and his great work titled Saturnalia – one of the most significant late-classical treatises dealing with pagan mythology. It was written during a period when christianity was being actively incorporated over the shell of the receding pagan world of Rome’s great Empire, and it is possible that Macrobius himself was Christian, and wished to examine the underlying philosophical elements of paganism in order to unite the two in continuity. Of Kronos, he had this to say:

“… Κρóνος (Kronos) is the same as χρóνος (Khronos – time): for as much as the mythographers offer different versions of Saturn in their tales, the physical scientists (‘physici’ – philosophers) restore to him a certain likeness to the truth. They say that he cut off the genitals of his father, Heaven, and that when these were cast into the sea Venus was engendered, taking the name Aphrodite from the foam from which she was formed. They take this to mean that when chaos existed, time did not, since time is a fixed measurement computed from the rotation of the heavens. Hence Κρóνος, who I said was χρóνος, is thought to have been born from heaven (caelo) itself. Because the seeds for engendering all things after heaven flowed down from heaven, and because the elements that fill the world took their start from those seeds, when the world was complete in all its parts and members, the process of bringing forth seeds from heaven for the creation of the elements came to an end at a fxed moment in time, since a full complement of elements had by then been created. The capacity for engendering living things in an unbroken sequence of reproduction was transferred from water to Venus, so that all things would thenceforth come into being through the intercourse of male and female…” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 8.6-8.8, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

The castration of the sky (Ouranos/Uranus) by it’s titanic son, Kronos, is therefore the first act producing the male:female dipole upon which the god:goddess conception hinges. The ancients equated the stars of heaven with souls and these are portrayed in the Kronian myth as the seeds spilling from the castrated genitals of the sky into the oceans. Macrobius explains that the Roman word for Kronos, Saturn, is an epithet derived from a Greek word for the penis: σαθη (sathê), from which the Dionysian ‘satyrs’ are named. Charles Darwin’s greatest offence to protestant Victorian society was, it appears, simply to have suggested that the ancient Greek pagans had the right idea about evolution and sex after all! Unseemly!

Macrobius suggests that Kronos is a solar god on account of his genesis of the cycles of time – marked to us by the turning of the days, months and years, which underpin the cycles of fertility in the world. Kronos himself was therefore possibly supposed to represent the sun, representing the first star whose heat nourishes the life on earth. Indeed, his mythological devouring and regurgitation of his divine offspring (the Olympian gods) adds further credence to the destructive and life-giving aspects of the sun. The reason Kronos was not usually considered as an immanently-presiding god, was because his birth and creation of life fixes him at the start of time, where he is doomed to stay in myth and definition: cast on the far shores of Oceanus. As an originator god, Saturn was both the ancestral deity and provider of fertility, celebrated at the annual winter Saturnalia (Rome) or Kronia (Greece) with which Christianity collocated its nativity festival at the winter solstice, when the sun was deemed to be spending most of its time in the Otherworld. The otherworld was both the retreat of dead souls, and the source of returning fertility, which Macrobius noted was engendered on the world through water, into which the sun appears to plunge nightly from western coastal regions. The solar aspect of Kronos are therefore remarkable.

Janus/Ianus:

Janus (after whom the month of January gets its name) was one of the typically Roman gods, who we generally remember as being the one with two faces, ‘looking forwards and backwards in time’. Like with the Greek hearth goddess Hestia, it was customary to invoke Janus first at religious rites of other Roman gods. Macrobius has the following to say:

” … Some claim that Janus is shown to be the sun and has his two-fold nature because both heavenly doorways are in his power, as he opens the day by rising and closes it by setting; and further that when some god’s rite is being celebrated, he is called upon first so that he might open the way to the god to whom the sacrifice is being made, as though sending suppliants’ prayers on to the gods through his own gateways. Hence, too, his likeness is commonly represented keeping the number 300 in its right hand and 65 in its left, to indicate the measure of the year, which is the sun’s chief function… ” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 9.9-9.10, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

Macrobius is able to associate Janus with both Diana (the ‘lunar’ huntress whose brother was ‘solar’ Apollo, and who was known to the Greeks as both Artemis and Hecate, among other names) and Juno, wife of Jupiter and chief goddess (known to the Greeks as the scheming and jealous Hera, consort of Zeus). Indeed ‘Janus’ and ‘Juno’ have the appearance of a ‘matrimonial’ or ‘gender-twin’ god-pair similar to, for example Freyr and Freyja. Although Artemis/Diana is depicted as a ‘virgin’ goddess, this status is mystically equated with maximum sexual fertility potential, and Macrobius explains that Diana was considered a feminine part of the god, whose dual-nature is so apparent, arguing that ‘Diana’ is ‘Ianus’ with a super-added ‘D’. As the visible faces of the Roman and Greek gods were in reality fronts or ‘masks’ of their deeper mysteries, he may well be correct.

Janus was therefore a god of gateways and openings, as well as a somewhat daemonic entity, who – somewhat like Mercury or Hermes – carried messages from the mundane to the divine. The gates of the god’s temple were propped open in times of war, and the public reason for this was made into a story involving an early war between the Romans and the Sabines when Janus was said to have mysteriously opened Rome’s closed gate, and sent a torrent of boiling water at the Sabines from his temple, saving the city. Deeper reasons may link to the cult of the afterlife in which both Saturn and Janus played a part – the doors were probably opened to admit souls of dead warriors to the precincts of the god. The god’s statuary attributes (apart from his two faces) were the rod and the key, denoting measurement (?of lives, time, space) and the key (signifying the unlocking of thresholds). It was widely believed that worship of the god preceded the establishment of Rome itself, making Janus one of the rare and antique indigenous gods not borrowed from the Greeks. His cult is shrouded in a good deal of mystery, and his attributes seem to link him closely to Kronos/Saturn, who he may have been the original indigenous version of.

Mars/Quirinus:

Mars and/or Quirinus were – like Janus – aspects of an indigenous Sabine-Etruscan-Latin deity whose veneration appears to have preceded the influence of the Greeks. His Greek counterpart, Ares, was not equivalent – Mars was more of a chthonic deity of abundance-through-strife, whereas Ares was a colder divinity representing violence. Implicit in the idea of Mars was symbolic struggle of nature, and the renewal offered by death. He was therefore closer in conception to Ares’ brother, Apollo, who was identical in practical respects to the Greek solar god, Helios: the sun burns, and the sun renews.

The custom of opening the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war seems to link him to the cult of Mars as a war-god. In fact, Janus was also known as Janus Quirinus suggesting a syncresis. Quirinus was also cited as the deified ancestor-founder of Rome: Romulus. The priest of Quirinus (the Flamen Quirinalis) presided over a number of ancient chthonic-ancestor cult practices, most important of which were the Larentalia (23rd December – associated with the Saturnalia, no less) the late-April celebration of vegetative growth of crops called Robigalia (Robigus was evidently a jealous chthonic ancestral spirit who craved the goodness of grain, and was credited with causing soot and ergot etc) and the Consualia Aestiva in August after harvest was gathered (in honor of Consus, guardian of grain stores). ‘Larentia‘ was a consort of ‘Romulus’ in Rome’s founding myths – she was the ‘Mater Larum’ or guardian of ancestral souls: again an incarnation of the Great Goddess, just as her consort (Quirinus) is the founding male part of the equation. The god Portunus was also worshipped as a protector of storehouses and gateways, indicating he was somehow related to both Quirinus and Janus.

‘Mars Quirinus’ was the god’s epithet in times of peace, and ‘Mars Gradivas’ in times of war, at least in Republican times when he used to be part of the early ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. This was why the principle Flamens (high priests) of the state religion were the Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis. The ‘Triad’ (based on an older Celtic-style triune deity) eventually changed to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno – reflecting, perhaps, Greek religious tastes.

Poseidon/Neptune:

Poseidon is considered to have been the prime deity of the Mycenaean civilisation from which classical Greek civilisation developed. Neptune was his Roman counterpart, an Italic god of not just the sea but lakes and rivers, who was generally conflated with Greek Poseidon by the 4thC BCE. As the ‘brother’ of Zeus he ruled over the earth and the waters which flowed on and through it. Their other brother, Hades, ruled the cthonic underworld, and Zeus was master of the sky and heavens. This in itself a ‘solar’ triform god hypostasis.

As well as being associated with the waters (and their sculpting force upon the land, believed to include earthquakes) Poseidon/Neptune was the main god associated with horses, both legendary and mundane. These animals were strongly associated with solar mythology, and the sun was depicted as being conveyed in a four-horse quadriga chariot. Waves are figuratively depicted as white horses. The celtic peoples believed the horse would carry you to the otherworld, and their late Iron Age coinage uses the image of the horse and the sun more than any other symbolism.

The Roman god Portunus (mentioned above) was also related to Neptune, in that he was appealed to in order to ensure naval victory, and was a god of ports, harbours and gateways. The sea or water represented a ‘crossing over’ to ancient minds – the sun disappeared into it, and death was assured to those who stayed submerged in it. There might possibly be an older (possibly even non-italic) shared origin for Portunus and Neptune, and they share names with similar sounds. The Irish mythological character Nechtain (mentioned in Dindsenchas as husband of Bóand) might be a celtic version of Neptune (with the P<>Q/K sound transfer) – his magical well in his palace of Síd Nechtain was the mystical source of the River Boyne (Bóand). Other linguistic aspects of note that link the name to horses and water are the ‘Neck’ spirits of north European folklore, otherwise known as ‘water horses’ or ‘kelpies’.

Dionysus/Bacchus:

The epiphanic Dionysus was an important solar god who represented the aspect of sun-driven vegetative growth and in particular, the ecstasy-inducing produce of the vine. He was a central figure of a number of important mystery cults, and was known to the Romans under one of his other names – Bakkhos or Bacchus. His cult may have originated further north in Europe or the Near East, and in Thrace he was known as Sabazios, and shared aspects of Apollo. In fact, at Delphi in Greece (Hellas) he sat in for Apollo once a year when the sun god was deemed to be taking a holiday among the noble barbarians of Hyperborea, somewhere beyond the river Eridanus, site of an infamous mythological accident suffered by the chariot of Helios, whose son Phaeton took it on an ill-starred joyride. Like the sun, Dionysus was portrayed as coming from the east, leading some to posit that he had eastern origins, but this is not necessarily the case. The cult of Dionysos was not just an orgiastic celebration of fertility, but a mystical expression of the connection between death and new life. Aspects of it were borrowed into the mythology of christianity – for instance, the motif of death and rebirth comes from the mythology of Dionysus, particularly in the Orphic mysteries. Unlike the ‘hero’ gods of Greek, Roman and Thracian religion who were depicted armed with weapons, Dionysus flourished the thyrsus – a stave topped with a pine cone, deliberately suggestive of the phallus. His mythical retinue consisted of ‘wise Silenus’, the ithyphallic Satyrs and the crazed retinue of the female maenads.

Dionysus was not just a god, but a ‘prophet’ through whom the mysteries of life and death could be addressed periodically. He was somewhat unobtainable, except through throwing oneself into the wild aspects of his rites. Temples dedicated to him were a late feature of the Roman empire, and in Greece his most significant structures were his open air theatres.

Apollo:

The ‘purest’ or most overt solar god was Apollo, who might be thought of as the youthful god of new dawn. Often cultically portrayed with a bow, arrows and lyre (perhaps signifying the rays of the rising sun), he was also depicted with his chthonic adversary, the serpent Python, which his mythology describes him slaying. This Apollonian myth is also echoed in the myths of semi-mortal Herakles/Hercules who meets the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides, while seeking the golden apples of immortality. The symbolism was the conquest of death, and it is easy to see the parallels with Dionysus. Along with the Thracian Sabazios, Hercules, Apollo and Dionysus appear to have resonated with the Celts much more than other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, and influenced their imagery and religious practices during the syncretic eras between the 3rdC BCE and 3rdC CE.  Unlike Dionysus, Apollo’s was generally seen as a more stable and providential presence. His widespread presence in syncretic-era Celtic shrines attests to the importance of the solar godhead in these cultures.

A note on Hades/Pluto:

Hiding in the shady realms of the Greco-Roman underworld of the dead, it is hard to consider Hades as a ‘solar’ deity, yet the darkness – an inverted state of the sun’s light is itself an aspect of that light. It is therefore important to consider Hades a part of the ‘solar’ god-hypostasis. Indeed, to the Greeks he was part of the triform Olympian brotherhood of Zeus-Poseidon-Hades who ruled over the earth’s aspects: Zeus had the skies and heavens, Poseidon the earth and waters, and Hades the underworld realms.

The Atlantic solar god:

In Irish mythology, the ‘sea’ god Manannán mac Lir shows all of the characteristics of a sun-god. From his ‘epiphanic’ arrivals bearing gifts and challenges in tales such as Echtra Cormaic maic Airt (‘The Deeds of Cormac, son of Art’) to his mysterious psychopompic departures to the Otherworld in the poem Immram Brain maic Febail (‘Voyage of Bran, son of Febhal’), he typifies the solar archetypes which informed the worship of Europe’s ancient solar god-hypostasis. To the Atlantic Celts, the sun’s visible disappearance far away into the great western ocean maintained an implied marine aspect to their sun-god, who being born again every morning in the east, was also god of the Otherworld. Manannán seems to incorporate multiple aspects of the Mediterranean deities under one guise – Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and Apollo in particular. It is likely that Manannán was an elegant expression of (were it not for the Goddess) monotheistic godhood behind Ireland’s apparently rapid transit from paganism to being at the cutting edge of the medieval Christian world.

Of course, ‘Manannán’ was only one name or epithet for the solar god among the Irish celts. and the character appears under other guises across Europe. In fact Manannán’s character in his Irish legends is explicitly that of a shape-shifter and master of disguise. His wizardly abilities identify him with similar god-like characters such as Merlin and Wodan/Odin, as I have discussed previously. To the warlike Iron Age celts he was best-known as ‘Belenos‘ – the god to whom warriors pledged their lives in battle, and who promised them reincarnation. Under the epithet ‘Cernunnos‘, he was depicted as a fighting fertility god, with imagery redolent of the battling, rutting beast. Called ‘Esus‘ he was cultified as the branch-cutting god – another warlike image symbolic of killing, typical to the La Téne age, and a possible link to the Norse ‘Aesir’. Called ‘Teutates’ or ‘Andraste’ he was signified as a tribal ancestor-originator. As ‘Taranis‘, he was the energising regenerator whose ‘wheel’ image was an overt symbol of the sun which promised regeneration to come. Under christianity he became represented as the warrior-angel St Michael, Christianised as ‘Malo‘, ‘Mel’ or a multitude of other saints, and demonised as any number of legendary pseudo-historic evil kings, giants, goblins and devils. Due to the weaving of Roman paganism into continental and British celtic cultures, he was deeply buried in layers of syncretism, of which christianity was the most recent incarnation. Whatever guise the god took, he kept his most complete and fascinating literary and mythological identity in Ireland’s Manannán: the Atlantic otherworld solar god.

Sirona – another syncretic guise of the Celtic ‘Great Goddess’

Sirona was another mask worn by the Roman-era Celtic (ie – Atlantic) ‘Great Goddess’. We know of her name because of epigraphic evidence found associated with statues of her image, often at 2ndC CE religious sites associated with springs of water. Her name ought properly be written tSirona (as would be the  case in modern Irish) as the initial vowel sound of her name is the celtic languages’ dentalised ‘s’, pronounced something like ‘ts-‘ and because of this the name was sometimes written Đirona or Thirona.

The most significant areas of her cult stretched from the east of France, and eastward to the waters of the upper Danube in southern Germany, Austria and Hungary. She seems to have been affiliated with hot springs, and was consequently found linked to a solar male god such as Apollo-Borvo or Apollo-Grannus, and both were associated with healing. The name of Sirona is found as far west as Brittany (Amorica) but has not yet been found in Britain – the Britons named their syncretic deity at the great springs in Bath Sulis-Minerva.

Because of the ages-old association of mineral-rich hot springs with healing, Sirona’s imagery borrows from the Apollonian family of Greek gods and goddesses, in particular that of Hygeia, daughter of Apollo’s medical son Aesculapias. The syncretic-era statues of Sirona often show her twined with a snake after the manner of her Greek counterpart. Remember, the Celtic peoples of Europe were not late-comers to Greek philosophical, religious and cultural influence: they had at least 600 years of exposure to Greek religion before the era of their conquest and assimilation by the Romans. The Romans also relied upon Greek religious philosophy to underpin their own version of it, and Apollo was perhaps the most influential of Greek gods.

 

The Sirona statue from the temple discovered at Hochscheid, Moselle, Germany. Note the snake coiled on her arm, eating from a patera of three eggs.

Modern replica of the Sirona statue from the temple discovered at Hochscheid, Moselle, Germany. Note the snake coiled on her arm, eating from a patera of three eggs.

The iconography of Sirona tended to depict her as a young woman wearing a long gown (sometimes she was half-naked) with a diadem on her head. A snake was often coiled around her right arm, and she sometimes held a patera containing three eggs in her other hand. The snake in the Hochscheid example appears to be either guarding or interested in eating the eggs, and the combination of these two together is redolent of the ‘Orphic Egg’ of the ancient Thracian/Greek mysteries. Other features of her imagery indicate further references to the chthonic mystery cults, including ears of corn, associated with Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Linguistic aspects of Sirona’s name:

It has been speculated based upon linguistic evidence that Sirona was a ‘star’ goddess. The ancient Transalpine Gaulish word for ‘star’ was ‘sirom‘, related to the Latin word ‘Sidus‘ (from which we get the word ‘Sidereal’). For the Greeks the word was ‘Aster’. The initial ‘tS’ sound of Sirona was a metathesis to ‘sT-‘. ‘Sirona’ could therefore have derived from ‘Sterona’. To derive the Greek ‘Asteria’ (the name of Hecate’s Titaness mother), the word is preceded by the Celtic ‘definite article’ (‘the’), which was pronounced ‘a’, giving ‘Asteria’ or ‘Asterona’. The diadem on the head of the Hochscheid statue is usually cited as support for this theory of naming. However, modern Gaelic orthography may have preserved some early Celtic language conventions: In particular the ‘tS’ and ‘sT’ metathesis. This makes us, by necessity, examine another word which may relate to the name of Sirona, and has been linked to Bridget – Ireland’s goddess of smithcraft: This is the Gaelic word ‘tSaoir’, which means ‘craftsman’ or ‘smith’, and which is demonstrated in Gaelic family names such as ‘MacTeer’ or ‘Teare’, and the Irish mythological name of the ‘Gobban tSaor’. These, of course, relate to Bridget ‘Goddess of Smithcraft’… So ‘Sirona’ might have nothing to do with stars and more to do with the mysteries of nature’s secret re-forging, as suggested by her snake and eggs and veneration at sacred springs.  

 

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.

501px-Cybele_Getty_Villa_57_AA_19

The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.