Similarities in Greco-Roman and Gaelic myth

Although the mythology of the material and intellectual cultures we know as 'Greco-Roman' is Europe's oldest inscribed tradition, that of Ireland and the 'insular Celts' must come next, albeit the written form of it is from a much later date. In particular, it often excels and exceeds the Greek material by its apparent strangeness and stylised 'otherness', yet as a source of pagan myth it needs – like the Norse sagas and Edda texts – to be treated very carefully as it is told by christians, unlike the Greek and Roman material which comes from pagans.

Nonetheless, the Christians did not have much in the way of myth to call their own, except for the 'Old Testament' materials and the early saints' lives, many of which were based on pagan tales, in their style and often in their narrative content: These were essential to pad out its own religious narratives and replace (or at least displace) the contents of the potent oral-transmission culture with a literature-based alternative.

It is worth noting a number of things about southern-European pagan religious culture, however, before framing a debate of paganism vs christianity in terms of oral transmission culture vs. literary culture: Firstly, it is worth remembering that – since the advent of the Hellenistic era in the 5thC BCE – that literary culture became an important stalwart of Greco-Roman societies, and seems to have become a primary mode by which people came to understand their religion. There were certainly traditional aspects to the culture to a late period, but by the advent of christianity, this was being displaced. The role of the priesthood and attendants in many of the most important temples was generally fulfilled as a fixed term civil office by the worthies of Greek and Roman society, so – unlike the traditional and esoteric forms of learning that Gaul (and Britain's) professional priesthood had to undergo, these offices were losing their mystery. Mystery remained the province of cult-centres such as Eleusis, Delphi and the island of Samothrace, and the discourse-communities of the Philosophers – the Neo-Platonists, Hermeticists and Gnostics who thrived in the late-classical world after the advent of Christianity and who pre-figured its rise. It is telling that classical paganism's most complete and (in scope) extensive theogonic text – the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Persepolis in Egypt – was written by an author whose output later included a commentary on the christian Gospel of John. To understand this is to understand where the impetus for Christianisation was focussed in the less-literate climes of northwest Europe, such as Ireland, in the 5th/6thC CE.

Whereas some of our oldest surviving literature from the pagan world is religious, this aspect of the genre was in mortal decline in parallel to the rise in interest in philosophy and the 'mysteries' from the advent of the Hellenic period. By placing literacy in the hands of a few – a trained elite (after the model perhaps of the barbarian, Egyptian and Eastern peoples) – christianity would place itself at the heart of the new models of kingship appearing in the 'barbarian' world following the collapse of the Roman franchise in the west.

There are many similarities between the written medieval Irish myths and Greek legends. The reasons for this might be fourfold:

1. That the Irish believed in a shared widely-known and ancient cosmic worldview, populated with similar characters and themes to those of ancient Greece and southern Europe, and the Christian authors recorded this from traditional orally-transmitted narratives.

2. That literate monks used Greek and Roman (or Romano-British) myths to flesh out a written Irish narrative which did not otherwise exist – a kind of 'new age' eclecticism.

3. That Irish and Greek myths developed separately, yet shared similarities determined by (a) the culture and traditions/techniques of storytelling and (b) empirical reactions to natural phenomena.

4. A synthesis of points 1-3.

Obviously, the most likely answer is point 4 – we simply do not have enough evidence to support points 1-3 independently, but we have good evidence that all of them have been contributing explanations. I shall now present a number of Irish myths/mythic characters and their apparent Greco-Roman counterparts and let you decide for yourselves:

Cú Chulainn:

The archetypal indefatigable warrior super-hero of the 'Ulster Cycle' stories – Cú Chulainn – seems to have a particular similarity to Herakles or Hercules: He is the son of a god, associated with blacksmith-craftsmen (Cullain). Cullain seems to relate to the Greek 'earth-born' proto-blacksmiths known as the (Idaean) Dactyls, of whom Herakles was sometimes considered one. was a supreme warrior, a lover of goddesses (Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir) and his nemesis is a goddess (the Morrigan). He is a performer of fantastic tricks and sporting feats, yet forever tied to the whims of his king and his gods. He lives fast and dies young – a true aspect of the Celtic warrior ideal. is also a 'king's champion' warrior archetype – a dog on a leash, as befits his name. He sometimes comes across as bombastic, brash, sometimes clumsy and insensitive – a bit of a lummox at times, and then at others, clever and dextrous, and light on his feet. Like Herakles, he travels to far-off islands and does battle with the weird as well as the mundane, performing 'feats' along the way.

One way in which Cú Chullain differs from Herakles is that Herakles was a folk-hero responsible for taming and conquering the wild and chaotic forces for the good of humanity. In the 'Ulster Cycle', Cú Chullain typically acts on behalf of the interests of his liege lord – like the other famous Greek warrior-strongman Achilles. This perhaps reflects the fact that these Irish legends (like their later French and British 'Arthurian' traditions) were often designed for telling at the courts of elite rulers, and therefore suited the value-system of this milieu. In folk-myths, Fionn and Cú Chullain often take on much more gigantic proportions and attributes.

The Battle of Maige Tuired:

This is the 'showdown' scene of the Irish mythological cycle stories in which the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians are pitted against one another for supremacy of Ireland. The Fomoire are usually described as a race of sea giants in Irish mythology, and the Manx word Foawr (from 'Fomor') means 'Giant'. They seem similar to the aquatic Titans of Greek myth and the Cath Maige Tuired is like an Irish version of the Greek Titanomachy – the battle and overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian Gods, with whom the TDD share a certain similarity. Similar legends exist from Norse myth – the primal giants here are the Frost Giants: Titans at -40 Celsius! Of course, the bizarre cannibalistic and incestuous Greek narratives of the Titans are absent from the CMT and the 'Book of Invasions' stories which present more of a heroic pseudo-historical dynastic struggle. Tolkein borrowed heavily from the imagery of the battles of Maige Tuired in constructing his battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

Giants and primordial helpers:

The landscape of Atlantic Europe – particularly those regions where Greco-Roman and later christian culture was slow to assert itself – is riddled with ancient mythology of primordial giants who supposedly played some important roles in determining the shape of the landscape – mountains, fjords, rivers, lakes, plains and great rocks. The same was true of the mythology of the Archaic period and Bronze Age of southern Europe – in particular the mythologies of ancient Greece, but we can discount these as playing a late originating role in the folklore of northern and northwestern legends due to the lack of impact of these material and cultural civilisations in these zones.

The Greek giants and Titans were 'Earth-Born' (Gygas – after Ge/Gaia, the personified Earth). The pagan Norse word used for giants in the middle ages was Gygr – existing into the more modern periods in the Scots Gyre and Faroese Gyro. The Manx equivalent of the Scots Brownie, Uirisk and Grogach legend was the Phynnodderee, 'Dooiney Oie' ('Night Man') or Glashtin – a being considered gigantic, primitive, coarse and animalistic in appearance who helped householders and warmed himself by the hearth at night when humans slept. His local legends seem, curiously, to conflate him with both Fionn mac Cumhaill and even Cú Chullain and, when not explicitly named, with the activities ascribed elsewhere in the Atlantic world to other giants – specified or unspecified. This is a representation of the archetypal earth-born ancestor, and is a particularly important and wide-ranging link between northern and southern pagan mythology which appears to have a commonality stretching way back into the Bronze Age. Herakles was also an aspect of this.

The Otherworld:

Both Greek and Irish myths portray the Otherworld as a location reachable by a westward journey over the great ocean. The legendary Greek islands of Elysium, the Hesperides/Erytheia and Ogygia, and the 'Islands of the Blessed' or 'Fortunate Isles' have their Irish equivalents in the many names of Gaelic mythology's magical western islands which were also considered the resort of departed souls: Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Tír na mBeo, Tír Tairngire, Tír fo Thuinn, Ildathach , Hy Brasil, Tech Duinn and Emain Ablach. These places are sometimes explicitly islands, sometimes under the sea, sometimes of a hybrid type that emerges (and just as soon disappears) from the sea.

Like in the Greek legends, the otherworld is also represented as a chthonic realm – beneath the earth. Like the Greeks, the Irish seem to have believed that the rivers of the world joined a 'world river', and that it re-manifested from the otherworld by piercing back though the earth as springs of water. Like the Greeks and Latins of southern Europe, and their fellow Bronze Age and Iron Age era 'Celtic' peoples further north and west they considered springs of water to be important and holy – no doubt for this reason. Sidhe mounds or Fairy Hills were the traditional 'home' of Irish (and to a lesser extent, Manx and Scottish fairies). They were sometimes considered to be the sources of rivers returning from the otherworld. Mountains and artificial mounds had similar associations in Ireland. In a flat landscape, a mound is something akin to an island – a consideration when addressing the 'otherworld inversion' belief that permeates Atlantic European folklore.

An interesting aspect of the Greco-Roman myth is how there seems to be a plasticity in portraying the otherworld 'places' (Elysium, for example) as both meadows or gardens and simultaneously as islands bordering Okeanos. This same conflation appears to represented quite strongly in the old Irish story 'The Voyage of Bran mac Febail' where he is conveyed to the otherworld islands over a sea which gradually appears to become a meadow.

Mermaids and Sirens:

The idea of female (and male) entities who lured men to stay with them in the watery or otherworld realms are common to both Greek and Gaelic myths. The 'Sirens' occur in Greek myths such as Homer's Odyssey and the Argonautica ('Jason/Iason and the Argonauts'). They were sometimes depicted as half-bird, half-female inhabiting islands surrounded by huge rocks and high cliffs, luring sailors to their deaths on the treacherous shores with their beautiful songs. Calypso, the daughter of Atlas on Ogygia also fits the enchanting-island maiden archetype, and although was not considered one of the Sirenai, seems part of the same mythos. Even the Gorgons tempted brave Perseus to their realm, and from his 'killing' of Medusa there was a magical birth (of Pegasus and Chrysaor).

In Atlantic Celtic mythology, this function was the province of alluring beautiful mermaids – usually half-human, half-fish in their conception but sometimes 'seal people' (e.g. – Selkies). The Isle of Man's version of the Cailleach – Caillagh y Groamagh was supposed to fly in from the sea in the form of a bird at Imbolc/La'a Bride, and she may be another aspect of the beautiful fairy maiden called 'Tehi-Tegi' who in Manx legends lures men into the sea or a river to drown them, before flying away in the form of a wren (sometimes a bat!). The Gaelic (Irish/Gallovidian) Merrow was sometimes known as Suire which sounds very much like a version of 'Siren' although this may be in reference to known Greek myths, and this type of mermaid was associated with a feather hat or cape. Crofton Croker's 'Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland' is worth reading for a summary on the Merrows.

Harpies and Sidhe Gaoithe:

There was an explicit belief in former times in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man that sudden gusts of wind were caused by the actions of spirits and fairies. Indeed, this was a feature of the demonology of medieval Christian Europe, and may well link back to the ancient Greek beliefs that the Harpies were responsible for the same. They were depicted (again) as half-woman, half bird or as winged female entities and were personifications of storm-winds. The Cailleach Bheara of the Scottish Highlands and Islands had a similar association, and was sometimes considered a female-avian who flapped her wings to make the winter storms. In the Isle of Man, the (not uncommon) tornados were sometimes supposed to be caused by a fairy known as Yn Gilley Vooar ny Gheay – 'Big Boy O' the Wind'.

River Nymphs and Sea Nymphs:

Perhaps subjoined to the mermaid legends, it is notable that the Greeks and the Irish personified their rivers with female spirits or entities. Evidence of this comes from the Dindseanchas legends and those of the so-called 'landscape-sovereignty' goddesses, otherwise referred to as Bean Sidhe, no doubt because river-drainage areas in mountainous landscapes tend to map and define territories. Greco-Roman mythology venerated such female water deities, and this tendency was also found in the European celtic world in the late Iron Age (although much of our evidence here comes after the period of Romanisation). Again, the 'Cailleach' personification from folklore seems to combine many of these functions (Harpies, Sirens, Nymphs etc) into the form of this single protean Titaness. Likewise, the Moura Encantada of the Iberian peninsula and the Marie Morgane of Brittany as well as the 'Lady of the Fountain' (or lake) of Arthurian lays and romances.

Summary:

It is apparent that ancient European paganism was a universal system of philosophy and 'science' illustrated through traditions of the arts: story, poetry, song, pictures, dances and drama. Every possible phenomenon seems to have been addressed by assigning mythology to it, and the boundary between the spiritual and the secular did not really exist – instead there was a continuum. The southern European civilisations emerging from the Bronze Age with a more oriental perspective, eventually coming to consider themselves 'better' and more 'enlightened' than their 'barbarian' cousins (and ancestors) in northeastern and northwest Europe, and due to warfare and incursions of these 'barbarians' between the 5thc BCE and the 1stC CE (and beyond), and due also to the dependence on written knowledge, a perception derived that their religious and spiritual beliefs were 'different', when in fact they had a shared root.

 

Terror and Beauty from the far shores…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgons:

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

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

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

Chrysaor, Kallirhoe and Geryon:

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

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

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

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

The Hesperides:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato – spiritual philosophy

Medieval accounts of the Cosmos such as that given by the character Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’ are based upon much older pagan philosophies:

“…I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more, when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence…” Empedocles of Acragas/Agrigentum (Sicily) – 5thC BCE (From: ‘Fragments’ of the Strasbourg Papyrus)

Empedocles was one of the ‘Pre-Socratic’ (Pre-Hellenic) philosophers of the ancient Greek world – a group of individuals including Pythagoras of Samos (attributed to the 6thC BCE, but possibly even legendary) about whom we know little except of what was reported much later. In the case of Empedocles, we are lucky as some of his contemporary writings survive. Empedocles is credited with developing the cosmogenic theory of the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) which her referred to as ‘roots’ of matter, and which was to dominate the worldview of the ancient European, North African and Middle-Eastern peoples right through to the 17th century. Whether or not he was the true originator remains to be seen, but he became an icon of this to the Greeks. His surviving fragmentary works were – like those of Homer and Hesiod – written in a poetic verse, suggesting a possible connection to an oral transmission tradition. He was as much concerned with spiritualism and religion as what we moderns would think of as ‘philosophy’ – to the ancients there was no difference. As a Sicilian Greek, he would have had access to and interest in the ‘Celtic’ peoples and their philosopher-priests. His belief in transmigration of the soul was supposedly shared by/derived from Pythagoras and was common to the Orphic/Eleusinian mysteries, as well as by the Atlantic Europeans. The Greeks would never admit that they derived anything or shared a common heritage with the ‘Barbarian’ world, of course!

The Cosmogony attributed to Empedocles was used by Plato of Athens some 100 years later during the era of the Hellenic expansion. His famous dialogue ‘Timaeus’ discussed the structure of reality and history of creation, framed within Plato’s theories of geometry and number, itself derived from ideas of Pythagoras. Here he discusses the relationship between the elements (stoichaea):

“…Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer…” Plato – Dialogue of Timaeus (4thC BCE, Athens)

You will note that Plato talks of the ‘creator’ or ‘God’ as a single force (you’d need to check the Greek original, though!) – surprisingly like the idea of God to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamist faith it would seem. This might seem strange, until one realises that to Plato and the philosophers of this age this was a natural part of polytheismthe plural ‘gods’ were a description of the important functions and continuum of time and space between the philosophical absolute ‘Monad’ and the dissolution of chaos. This was quantum physics for the mind! To worship the Monad was as senseless as worshipping pure chaos.

In the following passage from Timaeus, he explains how the stars and souls are one, expressing a great deal of the same theory as Empedocles, no doubt one of his formative sources. He tells how – as well as the universe being a huge soul ‘framework’ in itself, the souls of beings (gods and mortals) were made by combining them with aspects of the elements:

“…and once more into the cup in which he (ed: the Creator) had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all,-no one should suffer a disadvantage at his hands; they were to be sown in the instruments of time severally adapted to them, and to come forth the most religious of animals; and as human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man. Now, when they should be implanted in bodies by necessity, and be always gaining or losing some part of their bodily substance, then in the first place it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions; in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state. Having given all these laws to his creatures, that he might be guiltless of future evil in any of them, the creator sowed some of them in the earth, and some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time; and when he had sown them he committed to the younger gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies, and desired them to furnish what was still lacking to the human soul, and having made all the suitable additions, to rule over them, and to pilot the mortal animal in the best and wisest manner which they could, and avert from him all but self-inflicted evils…”

    Although seeming mysogynistic to modern readers, Plato’s opinions about unworthy souls being reincarnated first in the body of a woman, and next in that of a ?beast have to be judged, firstly by the standards of his culture and age, and secondarily by considering the otherworld inversion principle I have made previous references to in terms of ancient spirit beliefs. For instance, the ancient Gaelic belief in hereditary healing and protective charms always had contrasexual inheritance as its core mode of transmission. Plato’s audience at his seminars were privileged Athenian males.

   In spite of his apparent misogyny, he was steadfastly devoted to the principles of Sensation (resulting, he believed, from the conflict between matter and spirit and the soul) and Love as the highest faculties motivating humanity. These, to him and his devotees of future generations, were represented in the Goddesses Athena (Strife) and Aphrodite (Love).

The views of Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato were to have a profound influence upon religious philosophy in the Hellenic and Roman empires, inspiring new generations of philosophers who flourished from the 3rdC BCE to the 4thC CE. The philosophical origins of christianity may in fact be based upon them – albeit with a one-sided doctrine of ‘Love thy Neighbour’ and the denial of the sensationalist aspect…. 

 

The Celtic Sun God

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan –Pharsalia 1stC AD

Lucan’s famous account attempts, in a few lines, to sum up the whole religious worldview of the defeated Gauls – one which he portrays as once savage and dangerous. He names four gods – Teutates, Hesus and Taranis, and very interestingly ‘Diana, goddess of the north’. It is perhaps surprising that he fails to mention by name the two particular gods who seem from epigraphic, numismatic, literary and historical evidence to have been very prominent in religious landscape of the Celts: Bel(enos) and Lug.

Julius Caesar, instigator of the ‘glorious’ events recounted in the Pharsalia, claimed that Mercury was the Gauls’ chief god:

“…They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions…” (De Bello Gallico, Book 6)

Secondarily he mentions that they also worshipped Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. ‘Teutatis’, ‘Esus’ and ‘Taranis’ are the names Lucan gives for Caesar’s interpretatio romanum of ‘Apollo’, ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ but in Pharsalia, he substitutes ‘Minerva’ with ‘Diana’. Given that he was writing almost 100 years after Caesar’s Gaulish conquest, it is fair to say that he may have had better information, but it is clear from the tone of Pharsalia that Lucan considered continental Celtic culture (except, of course, for the poetic arts) to already have been largely smashed and replaced by the Romans. So what of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’ mentioned by Caesar? On this he seems – on the face of things – to be silent, but analysis reveals a more interesting aspect:

It is fairly self-evident from Pharsalia, that Lucan has used Caesar as his source, albeit updated with the names of the indigenous gods. Lucan’s version, however, commences not with a mention of Mercury but with the allusions to the overly-proud barbarians and their fiery flowing locks of hair. Pride, as they say, comes before a fall – and perhaps the greatest and well-known example of this for the people of the ancient Roman world was the story of Alexander of Macedonia – whose ambition so famously over-reached his ability to outlive his conquests. The Celts were well aware of Alexander – they used his image on almost all of their coins.

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

So, what is the connection between Celts, Roman Mercury and Alexander? Caesar’s statement about the ‘many images’ of Mercury is interesting when one considers the most prevalent images created by the Celts were not apparently statuary idols, but coins. To the Romans and Greeks, Mercury (Hermes) was the god of trade, crafts and was generally seen as what Plato might have termed a Daemone or spiritual intermediary between man and the gods. He was also the god of poets such as Lucan perhaps being the reason Lucan does him honour with a form of circumlocution when repeating Caesar’s account of Celtic religion. Mercury was also the psychopomp who conveyed the souls of the dead on their mystical journey – something which was of core interest to Celtic religion, and upon which Lucan remarks. He was usually depicted wearing a winged traveller’s sun-hat or petasus and with winged shoes. It is therefore not inconceivable that the similarity between the ‘horned Alexander’ iconography of the coins and the images of Mercury common in the Greek and Roman world led to Caesar’s assertion that the Gauls venerated Mercury as their chief god. Indeed, on the Gallo-Roman ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’ from Lutetia (modern Paris) on the Seine, the horned figure ‘Cernunnos’ occurs. Note that his horns are adorned with rings – possibly symbolic of the older form of Celtic money before coins became popular:

Horned figure from the 'Pillar of the Boatmen', named 'Cernunnos'.

Horned figure from the ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’, named ‘Cernunnos’.

‘Cernunnos’ is a name obviously derived from the Celtic name for ‘Soldier’ (Cern), and he appears to be wearing a helmet with stags antlers on it: The image of the stag with adorned antlers is specifically associated with therut’ during which combats occur over mating rights, typically at territorial boundaries such as on plains near river crossings (such as with the battles in the Irish epic tale Tain bo Culainge). In a warrior-pastoralist culture the link between battles and fecundity is explicit in this image. In the same way, the branch is a symbol of fecundity for more arable-agrarian societies, and was widely used in Greek and Roman iconography. In fact, the antlers combine both images on account of their shape.  Wings for that matter are also branched, as are bolts of lightning and rivers. The Pillar des Nautes is awash with Roman-Celtic syncretism.

So – the god of wealth and fertility whom Caesar likened to Mercury and had ‘many images’ made of him was represented using the traditional image of Alexander with a cornucopia attached to his head. Lucan’s triple-set of names: Teutates, Hesus and Taranis (and their ‘blood-stained’ altars) may well all be a ‘triple aspect’ of the one he leaves un-named, teasing us with his palpable circumlocution of the underlying divinity he must have realised was represented. Lucan was a clever lad, and the gods (no doubt Mercury himself) were to receive him into Elysium at a young age – a ‘rock and roll’ life and death.

But what about ‘Belenos’? Or, for that matter, ‘Lugus’? What even of the ancestor-god Caesar remarked upon as being called (or like) Dis Pater…. Might they all be one and the same?

In terms of likeness to Mercury, it is Lug(us) who has usually been given this honour, and for whom there have been parallels found in the mythology of the ‘surviving’ Celtic language cultures of Wales (Lleu) and Ireland (Lugh), both of which associate with crafts. Lug (like Belenos) appears in placenames and inscriptions from all across the Atlantic European world, and into the reaches of the Danube river basin.

Evidence for Belenos’ prominence is shown by tribal or kin-group designations such as ‘Belgae‘, and personal names such as that of British King Cunobellin(us) (1stC AD).   In the early medieval ‘Harleian Genealogies’ (British Library Harleian MS 3859) of the Kings of west Britain (Wales) and the ‘Henn Ogled’ (Old North – Southern Scotland down to Lancashire), ‘Beli’ and his wife ‘Anna’ are named as the ultimate ancestors of King Owen of Gwynedd. Anna is even said (like Brighid in Ireland) to be a relative of the Virgin Mary – further proof of attempts at early christianising attempts at syncresis with biblical narratives:

“…Beli magni filius, et Anna, mater eius, quam dicunt esse consobrina Mariae uirginis, matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi. …”

With the Romanisation of the barbarian Celtic cultures, the worship of Bel/Belenos would become submerged in the cult of Apollo, demonstrating that Bel/Belenos was an overtly solar deity.

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of 'Minerva Aquae Sulis' at Bath displayed this magnificent head of 'Manannan'. Note the 'solar' rays of the hair and the 'watery' appearance of the beard...

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of ‘Minerva Aquae Sulis’ at Bath displayed this magnificent head of  ‘Apollo  Grannus’. Note the ‘solar’ rays of the hair and the ‘watery’ appearance of the beard…

The association of Apollo Grannus with Mars at various spa shrines in the Romano-Celtic world maintains the martial link of the Celts’ beloved warrior/sun-god icon, Alexander, whose conquests (and failure) had inspired the Celtic invasion of the Balkans, Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and Phrygia in the 3rdC BCE. At some of these, the ‘Celtic’ Mars is also sometimes depicted in attire we would more associate with Mercury, demonstrating a syncresis between the two Roman gods in the Celtic mindset:

A 'Celtic Mars' - note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

A ‘Celtic Mars’ – note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

Some depictions even show Mars with wings – perhaps a convenient spiritual representation of what the Celts desired: Death in glorious battle and an ‘autopsychopompic’ flight to the Otherworld.

A 'winged Mars'. Cunobelinus had a winged figure on some his 1stC CE coins.

A ‘winged Mars’ – A winged figure is also seen on some Celtic 1stC BCE/CE coins. The horse depicted is also sometimes winged.

The conjecture I should like to raise again is this:

That the Atlantic Europeans before the Romans had a principally duotheistic religion comprising of a god and a goddess who each had a ‘triple’ identity. The imposition of Roman culture and then the overlay of Christianity created a ‘Celtic Pantheon’ which in truth never really existed. ‘Lugh’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Teutates’, ‘Esus’, ‘Taranis’ were all epithets of the same solar deity who conducted the souls of the dead in their Otherworld destinations. His companion ‘Diana’ (De Áine) had similar multiple-epithets and was associated with the worldy creation and manifestation.

“You can lead a horse to water…”

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany.

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany. In the coins of this tribe, the female rider is usually armed.

…When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream…. George Waldron – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ 1731 – legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’.

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

The image of the horse is a striking symbol on Celtic coins of the late European Iron Age, all the more so when depicted ridden by a naked warrior woman, as was the case during times of war with the encroaching Roman empire – both in central-eastern and north-western Europe. The question is – what was the importance of the horse to this culture, such that it was depicted on almost all of its various tribes’ coinage? We know from the writings of the Romans that the Atlantic/western Celtic peoples’ main religious doctrines were based around the principle of reincarnation. However, after subjugating and then ‘Romanising’ them, there is little more said about their beliefs as they seemed no longer to be relevant. The Celtic religious system seemingly incorporated into the Roman pantheon but in a marginal way that gave no precedence over Rome’s greater gods: Statues and stelae of a horse-goddess ‘Epona’ seems to have been one popular expression of native religion, but the original context is not understood. The Batavians (Belgic celts) who built the 3rdC CE temple of the well-goddess ‘Coventina’ at Hadrian’s Wall in England were a cavalry unit – surely a shrine to Epona would have had greater precedence if there was an actual ‘horse goddess’? Perhaps to the Batavians, the well-goddess was the same person as the ‘horse goddess’! To understand this imagery of the divine female and the horse we need to examine how she was represented both before, and after Romanisation. Surviving images of Epona from Romanised Celtic shrines generally portray her as a gentle beneficient figure, conveying pateras of food and cornucopias. When contrasted with the coin imagery of the pre-conquest tribes however, and it immediately becomes clear that there is a clear distinction in imagery: In these, she is a fierce naked horsewoman-warrior, armed for the job of butchering Romans! Of course, once conquered, the Romans put an end to these images and the coins stopped being minted. The cult of ‘Epona’ was therefore probably a deliberate attempt to corrupt an important core tenet. She went from this:

More coins from the Redones tribe

More coins from the Redones tribe

To this…

Cuddly mother Epona - the original would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original would have brought your head on a plate, not food!

The ‘Tehi-Tegi’ legend from the Isle of Man is perhaps the most overt survival (maybe matched by some Cliodhna legends of Ireland) of the ‘death-dealing horsewoman’ that the Iron Age celts were so enamoured of, but the principle has survived in many other forms. Most notable of these are the folktales of the fairy horse who kills people that try and ride it by jumping into water. Be it the Neck, Nykyr, Nixies or Rhinemaidens of the German and Scandinavian legends or the Kelpie of the Scots myths: all are related the same belief – a woman who conducts the dead to a realm under water. When we examine the fairy lays of the middle ages (Lai de Graelent, Lai de Lanval) we can see that the beautiful ‘fairy woman’ ends up conducting the tragic hero to a deathless realm through water. No wonder so many early Christian saints such as Kentigern spent their days mortifying themselves in water! The Germanic words used for the water-horse-spirit generally revolve around the word-root ‘nik-‘ – from a presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) neigw which means ‘wash’ – from which the Irish have nigh and in folklore the fairy washerwoman, the Bean nighe. The most famous portrayal of a Bean nighe in medieval Irish literature is that of the Morrigan washing bloody armour at a ford in the death tale of Cuchullain – part of the Ulster cycle. The Scots word ‘Kelpie’ is an allusion to what is also known in the gaelic world as ‘wrack’ (seaweed) which is also the Brythonic word for ‘hag’ – Gwrach or Groac’h. Martin Martin recovered a tale of Hebridean islanders in the 17thC sacrificing to a sea-god called ‘Shony’ (‘Old One’) in order to receive wrack from the sea to spread on their crops as manure. So there you have it – the military horsewoman on the Celtic coins is the Slachdan-weilding Cailleach – the Morrigan herself: The water woman of the fairy realm – otherwise known as the realm of the dead. The question now remaining to be answered is how does the horse fit in with the general reincarnation/otherworld myth? You might recall from my last post that I remarked upon the profusion of apparently astronomical imagery that accompanied the horse depicted on Celtic coins from before the Roman subjugation. Apart from the sun and the moon and obvious star-shaped figures, there are frequently dot-and-line figures with an uncanny similarity to what astronomers refer to as ‘asterisms’. The horse itself is also very stylised in its appearance, and the logical place to start in understanding the importance of the horse is to turn our eyes to the sky: The most well-known equine asterism is the great constellation of Pegasus which sits next to the Milky Way. We immediately have here an interesting combination: The Milky Way arches across the sky like a great shining white river – nowadays difficult to see clearly due to light pollution, and the great leaping horse in conjunction with this is a remarkable metaphor of the Kelpie, Nixie and Tehi-Tegi legends. However, in terms of Greek mythology, Pegasus represents the horse as a benign force, but with a very aquatic pedigree – his father is Poseidon, his mother Medusa, he is a friend of the Muses and created a magical well for them with his hooves. He is also a conveyor of heroes into the spirit realm. Already sounding like many Celtic myths, isn’t it? The Muses of course represented the ‘fairy-woman’ function of inspiring poets, keeping memory and promoting knowledge to humanity… The other less-benign and more overtly aquatic asterism that sits close to Pegasus on the other (‘southern’) side of the ecliptic path is that of Cetus variably described as a sea monster or whale. In Greek mythology Cetus/Ketos was sent by Poseidon to devour the sacrificially-chained Andromeda, and was killed by the Pegasus-riding hero Perseus who showed it the head of Medusa. Ketos in fact means any large aquatic beast, in the same way that the  old Germanic languages used variants of ‘neck’ to mean the same: nicor was the Old English term used for a water beast or a hippopotamus*, and the Old High German word nihhus was used for ‘crocodile’. As a ‘*water horse’ is what we are interested in, the constellation of Cetus seems like it is worth considering further: The constellation Cetus lies in such close proximity to the ecliptic path (the road travelled by the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky, marked by the 12 zodiacal constellations) that it seems that it should be considered a 13th ‘intercalary’ member of the zodiac. Its proximity to the asterism of Pisces is intimate enough that they can be considered in the same ‘house’. Cetus is in close proximity to the other ‘watery’ constellations: Aquarius and Capricorn (the fish-goat), the ‘river’ Eridanus and the dolphin Delphinus.

Cetus in relation to Pisces - picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Cetus in relation to Pisces – picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Now we know that the celtic high-priests were reputed to be philosophers and diviners of the heavens, so we might conjecture that celtic coins portrayed astronomical imagery. Having been puzzled by the potential relationship between the horse depicted on those famously beautiful Iron Age coins and that of Pegasus, I initially overlooked one of the motifs that accompanied it – that of the ‘tented net’ depicted on the Celtic Parisii coins. Looking eastward of Pegasus we come immediately to Pisces and Cetus – and the symbolism of the coins is made immediately clear – the horse is not a depiction of Pegasus – it is in fact Cetus, the ‘water horse’, with the net being Pisces! If this interpretation is correct, then a lost celtic star-myth has been recovered, together suggesting some potential original celtic names for their asterisms: ‘the water horse’ and ‘the net’!

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

Compare the stylised horse’s body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

So… is there anything special about Cetus? As it turns out , there is – a star on the beast’s ‘neck’ known to us today as Mira Ceti: ‘Mira’ as in ‘mirabilis’ on account of this star’s seemingly miraculous appearance and disappearance from the constellation! It is actually a binary star whose conjunctions and occlusions are responsible for this effect, causing it to reach a maximum brightness every 332 days (approximately 11 months) when it is definitely visible (unless the sun is transitting near it if it falls in early springtime) and invisible to the naked-eye astronomer during its minima. Although there are no definite references to this phenomena in ancient Babylonian or Greek texts, an excavation of a 3rdC BCE Boii temple complex at Libenece in the Czech Republic contains sighting post allignments which possibly correspond to a viewing of Cetus, and (concludes the author of this astronomy paper), Mira Ceti in particular. The other star which famously exhibits this quality of variable intensity is ‘nearby’ in the constellation Perseus – Algol, the gorgon’s eye – whose period of dimming is much more regular – every 2.867 days, to be precise. The coming and going of a star might have been a metaphor for the coming and going of the year – of the sun. The cycles of ‘coming and going’ appear to have been a fundamental theme for the religious viewpoint of metempsychosis, and hence a great deal of attention would have been paid to the natural phenomena in which this was shown: These were – the cycles of the sun, the moon, the seasons and the tides. The principle that the heavens represented the world of spirits pervaded the ancient mindset, and the use of mythology to explain the heavens and their phenomena was a key part of this understanding. The image of the horse and the chariot convey mythological implications of the mysteries of the sun – the Greek legend of Phaethon, son of Helios/Apollo, who took his dad’s sports chariot for a spin with disastrous consequences attests to this. Most of ancient mythology was quite possibly designed to explain the cycles of nature in relation to the cycle of events witnessed in both the sky and on Earth and in the oceans – something which became lost in the Christian age…

Symbolism on Celtic coins

The mysterious symbolism of the horse pervades the artwork of the coins of the Iron Age Celtic peoples of Atlantic Europe. From the Thracian Celts of the Balkan region, to the tribes of Britain, Gaul and Hispania – all produced coins which depicted a strange and compelling set of images, perhaps providing a clue to the supra-regional religion of the peoples classified by the Greeks and Romans as the ‘barbarians’.

A Celtic coin of the Iron Age depicts a woman riding a horse. Note the apparent astronomical designs!

Celtic (Scordisci) coin from the Balkans depicting a woman riding a horse (?2ndC BCE). Note the apparent astronomical designs!

The history of coinage among the Celtic peoples lies in their economic links to the ancient Greek world – in particular through southern Gaul, Macedonia and Thracia at the height of Hellenic influence, and the Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors. For this reason, the design of celtic coins was afterwards strongly influenced by the format of the Macedonian/Greek ones, some of which depicted the horned head of ‘Alexander’, sometimes Apollo, Hercules or Zeus on one side….

Depiction of Alexander (with horn) on a greek coin of the 3rdC BCE

Depiction of Alexander (with horns) on a greek coin of the 3rdC BCE

Due to trade links with celtic tribes through southern Gaul (from 6thC BCE) and trade and warfare with the Illyrian, Pannonian, Dacian, Thracian and eastern Celtic peoples as well as marauding incursions of western Gauls , the indigenous style of coinage developed in the 4thC BCE generally copied the Macedonian and Greek format and typically showed a depiction of ‘Alexander’ on one side – an icon which would become increasingly stylised:

Coin of the Parisii c.4th-1stC BCE. Note the depiction of the charioteer - an image associated with the 'Dioskoroi' in Greek myth.

Coin of the Parisii ca. 1stC BCE. Note the depiction of the martial charioteer – apparently female, in the role of a ‘Badbh Catha’, seemingly trampling an ‘angel’ into the dust….

Trinovantes, Britain, 1stC BCE - what happened to Alexander's head?

Trinovantes, Britain, 1stC BCE – what happened to Alexander’s head?

The celts seem to have taken the symbolism of the Greek coins further than the original format… to recap, here is a typical Greek tetradrachm from the 3rdC BCE:

Phillip II of Macedon

Tetradrachm of Phillip II of Macedon – note the ‘Dioskouros’ on the obverse face… one of the famous Hellenic horseman-deities who would have been so popular in the ancient Balkans and steppes north of the Black Sea.

Ostensibly starting with a picture of Alexander’s father Phillip II the coins of the era of Alexander gloried in the imagery of the head of the conquering hero, and evolved between depictions of humans (Philip, Alexander) and gods (Apollo, Zeus, Herakles) depending on how successful and grandiose the ruler who minted them felt himself. In the fragmented succession period that followed Alexander’s death, depicting a god was often a safer bet than advertising your discombobulated head…. The totemic value of the Mercurial ‘Alexander’ among the peoples of Europe’s highly mobile barbarian warrior culture (in the La Tene period) cannot be underestimated, and it is perhaps unsurprising that they would copy the coins of the world’s most astounding military leader, whose legend had elevated him to a godlike status. Vast numbers of Celtic warriors had poured across and down through the Balkans in the 3rd century, culminating with an assault on Delphi itself, and many would afterwards find employment within the Seleucid Empire on account of their warrior prowess, just as ‘Viking’ warriors would in the Byzantine Roman Empire during the 8th-11th centuries.

Belgic tribes like the Parisii (northern France) and their cousins among the Icenii, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni (eastern Britain) produced a great deal of the most interesting and beautiful coins which elaborated on and converted the Greek template designs to meet their own system of material and religious values. In the 3rd-1stC BCE their increasing power was no doubt bought about by trade (and pillage) with the Greek and increasingly powerful Roman worlds, which demanded or received coinage.

We can tell that these tribes were powerful and influential due to the fact that they modified the design of their coins away from the Greek, demonstrating to the world their own culture and beliefs. They obviously understood the symbolism of the greek coins, but were to express their own through some significant changes and additions.

The coins of the Parisii (who occupied the region along the Seine) were typified by placing a star symbol under the front hooves of the horse, which was constructed of a circular arrangement of 6 (sometimes 5) dots. The other interesting feature of their coins was the ‘net’ design in the shape of a ‘tented inverted triangle’ above the serpentine horse, which usually faces left and is riderless. The Parisii further modified the coin template by feminising the head on the obverse side. Tree branch designs often decorate either side. There are no ‘sun wheels’ as seen in many British coins.

Alexander has become a woman on this Parisii coin!

Alexander has become a woman on this Parisii coin!

Across the water in Britain, their cousins the Trinovantes must have watched in dismay, as well as interest as the Parisii and the rest of Gaul succumbed to Julius Caesar and his Roman legions in 52BC. They were another great and wealthy tribe, who – along with their neighbours the Icenii and Catuvellauni – stood to become increasingly wealthy from contact (and alliance) with Rome. Their coins from this period demonstrate a more definite split from the Greek designs of the western European celts – perhaps showing more in common with their central European cousins who also excelled in stylising, perhaps when they too felt the pressure of Roman encroachment.

The Trinovantes coins show a number of variations on the theme from the Parisii. Firstly – like other British coins, they do not show the ‘net’ design above the horse, instead favouring a sun symbol (usually depicted as a wheel) and/or a branch. Like the Parisii coins, the ‘star’ symbol also often occurs under the horse’s front feet, but this seems an inconsistent feature – usually depicted as a circle surrounding a point. The horse, branch and sun symbols are more realistic and less stylised, either demonstrating the fact that they were more advanced artisans or perhaps due to the fact these coins are generally from a later date. Of greater interest is the fact that they do away with the head on the obverse side and replace it with symbolic images:

Coin of Addedomaros of the Trinovantes (1stC BCE) - note the reflected, stylised head of corn

Coin of Addedomaros of the Trinovantes (1stC BCE) – note the reflected heads of corn. These have stylistic echoes of Alexander’s headband or horn…

The corn/barley design was probably another borrowing from Greek coinage, but here it might also (during the 1stC BCE/1stC CE) represent the Trinovantes advertising their commercial wares to the Romans and other tribes of Britain: Beer and grains. Their territories were fertile and they had good access to the sea to supply those made hungry by war and famine, over the horizon in the brewing storm of the Roman conquest. Dropping the head of the famous Greek emperor might have represented an act of diplomacy in the face of Caesar’s threatened invasion. Note also the branch under the horse’s feet…

A more explicit depiction of corn, this time barley (similar to the Greek style) appears on another later coin (Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni in the 1stC CE), but as we shall see it appears to have had a symbolism to the Trinovantes which went beyond mere trade:

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni 1stC AD

To any well-connected and spiritually educated person of the Mediterranean world in the 1stC BCE – 1stC CE, the symbolism of the ear of corn was likely understood as a reference to the Rites of Eleusis held near Athens, and the veneration of Demeter – known to the Romans as ‘Ceres’. That it appears on the coins of Cunobelinus might be a reference to this cult – it is not implausible that he himself was an initiate in what was something akin to the Freemasonic Lodge of Europe’s elite! The rites were a mystery cult dramatizing the story of the annual cycle and the return of Kore (Persephone) from Hades. Caesar’s assertion that Celts such as Cunobelinus believed in reincarnation as instructed by the druids means that they would have had a spiritual sympathy with these rites, whose origins link to the Orphic beliefs originating somewhere in the lower Danube in the late Bronze Age, and hence possibly deriving from the indigenous belief system of the north Europeans. The tie-in between heads of corn and reincarnation is therefore obvious – especially at a time when Druidism and Celtic/Atlantic religion was under great threat.

Let us look at some of the designs replacing the head of Alexander on other Trinovantes coins during this period:

Coin of Adeddomaros - the allusion to heads of corn is not so strong, and the opposed crescent symbol is more obvious, as is the branch under the horse.

Coin of Adeddomaros – the allusion to heads of corn is gone, and the opposed crescent symbol is more obvious, as is the branch under the horse’s feet.

One cannot help but be overcome with a feeling that the reflective symmetry and structure of the design on the obverse side to the horse is telling us something – much like the pictograms on the early medieval stone stelae of the Scottish celts or ‘Picts’. The same design occurs in other coins of the same period (immediately pre-conquest when druidism had decamped to Britain, and before the Britons began to Romanise).

Iceni coins demonstrating the opposed crescent design, redolent of Pictish symbol stones

Iceni coins demonstrating the opposed crescent design, redolent of Pictish symbol stones

The 'Anarevitos' coin - noted the mounted rider and cross-symbol

The ‘Anarevitos’ coin – noted the mounted rider and cross-symbol

After druidism had retreated to Britain, its coins demonstrated a change. Here the complex symbol on the 'heads' side is matched by the woman riding the horse on the 'tales' side.

The cross-like symbol with its opposed crescents and solar discs seems to prefigure the ‘celtic cross’ by at least 500 years, and is rich in the symbolism of the annual cycle. The four ‘quarter days’ seem to be represented by the branches (or corn heads) forming the limbs of the cross, and joined to the solar symbols still used in astrology today: a circle with the spot in the middle. Between these are the solstices and equinoxes represented by torcs, rings or lunulae and ‘tented triangles’. In the centre of the cross lie the mysterious apposed lunar crescents – symbol of the months.

The woman riding (side-saddle) on the horse is an innovation that we also see in the Balkan/Danube region (see the first picture above) but here it possibly also gains a martial significance – a people, a goddess and a whole religious way of life readying for war… A small serpentine figure occurs where the ‘star’ often appears – another feature seen in celtic coins from central Europe. Was this symbology copied in an effort to invoke the military success of the central European celts against Macedonia, Greece and then Rome?

Another Belgic tribe who settled in Britain were the Atrebates and their coinage seems to demonstrate similar iconography to that of the Trinovantes and their neighbours.

Note the horse with overhead sun apparently trampling a loose wheel.

Note the horse with overhead sun apparently trampling a loose wheel. The pattern on the left is mysterious indeed!

The composition of the imagery may vary in detail, but the obverse side to the horse shows consistent features, seen also in the coins of other tribes, such as the Iceni, Trinovantes, Durotriges etc: separate torcs, linked torcs (the ‘yoke’), crescent-moons, spots, serpentines, ‘corn ears’, branches or wreaths, linear lines, rings and what looks like leaf-shoots. All of these sometimes appearing like a Miróesque deconstruction of the image of Alexander.

More detail on an Atrebates coin

More detail on an Atrebates coin – is that a cockerel on the left? The symbolism is perhaps richer and more mysterious than any Greek or Roman coins…  These coins provided inspiration for 20thC artists such as Miro and Picasso!

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.